October 29, 2013

Direct Lou Reed moments

‘‘Venus in Furs’’, heard from different time zones in Last Days. ‘‘Satellite of Love’’ as genuine love song in Velvet Goldmine. The man himself as a legendary and unseen figure in Adventureland. Less legendary and seen in the Auster film, Blue in the Face. Berlin sequel in Berlin sequel (Faraway, So Close!). 

October 28, 2013

October 27, 2013

A series of restless farewells and all the things we gave up

The title of this entry suggests that Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film I’m Not There is partly a eulogy for the 1960s, an idea expressed in his excellent commentary track on the DVD. As is the extent to which it is a collection of quotations – about a man who is himself a collection of quotations, or at least shows himself to the world that way. “I don’t think there’s anything in the script that’s actually my own.” I like this movie more each time I see it and the experience is deepened by listening to Haynes – director as Dylan scholar and film historian – talk about it. These are the films he names, mostly as influences. Some are inevitable and some less so:

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
Dont Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967)
Eat the Document (DA Pennebaker, 1972)
8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Masculin Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)
Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)
Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1987)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)

October 26, 2013


Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). There are dying fathers who betrayed their families, paying with cancer. There are selfless caregivers, estranged adult children, child geniuses – one former and one present – there is endless emotional pain and there is unpredictable, expressive weather. Some characters are better conceived than others, and initially you wonder whether Anderson – just 28 when he made this – had more ambition and skill at this point than experience, and whether this shows, and whether the acting is too obviously acting, but there is an alert wisdom and sensitivity than wins you over. You also wonder how personal this is, what parts of which characters are parts of Anderson, in these tense relationship dynamics (see also: The Master, There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights).

October 23, 2013

Watching Stalker again

“The Zone is the very whiteness of the cinematic screen.” Slavoj Zizek, in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.

October 19, 2013

Documentary revelations

“If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” Thom Andersen, in Los Angeles Plays Itself.

October 18, 2013

Watching A Scanner Darkly again

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006). “Seven years from now. Anaheim, California.” That makes this 2013. The moment that always gets me is Philip K Dick’s roll call of “a list of people punished entirely too much for what they did”. Death, brain damage, psychosis and so on. His drug buddies. He put himself on that list, reprinted verbatim from the book.
Apart from all that, though, it’s a counter-culture comedy and a triumph of casting. Keanu Reeves as the agent and addict who ends up investigating himself – Philip K Dick’s mythologised or paranoid explanation of his own condition. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr as the drug users who seem to be living in his house. Winona Ryder as … did you know Ryder was Timothy Leary’s god-daughter and had a connection to the author that way? Animated, the actors seem more like themselves than ever.
In 2006, a couple of months after first seeing this, I talked to Linklater by phone (this interview). He was promoting Fast Food Nation but I managed to get a few minutes on A Scanner Darkly:
“The entire project happened in the post-9/11 environment and it was pretty clear that the writing was on the wall, the way that government uses a tragedy like that to really clamp down on its own population. Once you’re at war, you can get away with anything.”
Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly in 1977, long before there was any official war on drugs, let alone a war on terror, but “he saw the darker underpinnings of all corporate and government power”.
 It starts in hallucinated bug paranoia – Dazed and Confused stoner Rory Cochrane scratching under his skin – and ends in drug-damaged burn-out. Will you ever be able to see clearly again? The undercover agent’s “scramble suit” becomes an image of wider distrust and uncertain or blurred selves, just as the animation onto digital video throws a veil over reality that is impossible to penetrate (an advanced version of the much looser, psychedelic animation in the more hopeful Waking Life). The main settings are institutional interiors and the permanent half-light of a drug house. And despite it being both 1977 and 2013, it really has been 2006 all along: the people with contracts to clean up after the war are the same people who profited from starting it. 

October 16, 2013

They’ve shut down the water, they’ve stolen our teacher

Mr Pip (Andrew Adamson, 2012). Great acting, terrific locations, lovely shooting (thanks John Toon), interesting themes (and you Lloyd Jones) – it’s hard to recognise the film that so underwhelmed them in Toronto a year ago (see here and here) before it was apparently tightened up and made clearer. As in the Jones novel, Dickens’ Great Expectations is a totem but there’s more to it than simply the civilising value of education contrasted with a barbaric civil war or one girl’s personal development. This is also about whether the western novel can co-exist with other systems of knowledge, Christian and pre-Christian: note that Mr Watts’ first act as a teacher of local children and the last white man in the wild is to wipe a prayer from the blackboard but he goes on to join the village’s most visible and committed Christian in making a sacrifice that changes the story. It may be fair to say that the war is underplayed or less seen than heard (machete sound effects) but the most risky idea – Melanesian actors in Victorian costumes re-enacting Great Expectations in (among other places) a tropical Oamaru ­– comes off, believe it or not. You can pack nearly all of your post-colonial themes into that one bold image. The great acting we mentioned is by Hugh Laurie and teenage newcomer Xzannjah, largely. Also, in a movie that wants you to read, did you notice the Lloyd Jones product placement? (A copy of Choo Woo in a Queensland school library).

October 15, 2013


Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). The notion is that for decades, musician and distant audience were unaware of each other – he starved, they thought he was dead. It wasn’t quite like the myth, but Searching for Sugar Man is touchingly nostalgic for an era when such myths still had the time and space to be possible (see also: Salinger). Run this in a double bill with Only Lovers Left Alive: the reclusive musician in Detroits ruins.  

October 14, 2013

The 1970s

Lists. We all love lists. Personal lists of the top 10 films of the 1970s are being gathered online at places like here.

My own view:

1. Taxi Driver
2. Apocalypse Now
3. Stalker
4. Eraserhead
5. Chinatown
6. The Exorcist
7. Radio On
8. Badlands
9. Fata Morgana
10. The Godfather

October 9, 2013

Charismatic psychopath

Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000): Comedian Eric Bana plays the man dubbed (possibly by himself) “Australia’s most infamous living criminal” as a charismatic psychopath. The entertaining violence is like a dare, performed for our benefit: making a name for himself in Melbourne’s Pentridge prison, Mark “Chopper” Read kills another inmate, is betrayed and stabbed by a friend and stoically removes his own ear to get a transfer. Upon release, he assaults his girlfriend, shoots a drug dealer, kills another man and goes back inside. So it goes. By 2000, he had spent exactly half of his 46 years in prison and claims to have killed 19 people (an exaggeration, apparently). He had also published nine bestsellers with titles like How to Shoot Friends and Influence People and No Tears for a Tough Guy. So he’s a lovable rogue and he’s a psycho and a bullshit artist and there is something peculiarly Australian about the combination. He is the architect and main consumer of his own legend. (edited from original review published in 2000)

October 8, 2013

Valleys of dry bones

Illustrious Energy (Leon Narbey, 1987). Still a fascinating anomaly, 25 years later – 1980s New Zealand cinema that was serious, sensitive to history, entirely unmacho. Its subject is the long-repressed story of Chinese gold miners left behind in Otago after the goldrush: some are settling in, others are trying to find their way home. Life in these Otago valleys should be harsh and difficult but Narbey and co-writer Martin Edmond keep finding ways to make it look magical, even romantic. They treat these forgotten lives with real reverence. The thing has become nostalgic in other ways: these valleys of dry bones have been flooded since.

October 5, 2013


A Lonely Place to Die (Julian Gilbey, 2011). Part human hunting in the Scottish highlands, part disrupted Wicker Man festivities. Like fellow gun nut Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Gilbey enjoys sudden, brutal, unsentimental screen violence; unlike Wheatley, he does all that without a sense of humour.

October 4, 2013

Space is dark and it’s so endless

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013). This two-person space drama is vast, intimate, gripping and terrifying. And that was only in 2D. Planet Earth is blue, gold and black. The production design and effects execution is magnificent and the suspense is such that you hold your breath. You already knew that George Clooney is the man you want around in a crisis, even if you get Toy Story flashbacks (it also has two Barbarella moments and a compressed theory of evolution).

October 3, 2013

San Francisco

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013). Oddly over-rated and still a long way from remotely cinematic (thinking of Gordon Willis, Annie Hall and Manhattan). For all its loose relevance to the damage done by the global financial crisis, this is still predicated on a dated and snobbish view from the top of the social ladder downwards – from Allen’s upper-middle class social environment of affluence and casual entitlement (desperately longed for in the Ripley-ish Match Point and taken as the norm in the lazy, amiable Midnight in Paris) into the imagined proletarian wastelands where sub-literate jerks Allen has never met watch boxing and guzzle beer. Cate Blanchett as Jasmine/Blanche DuBois seems artificial and exaggerated in all but one, important scene, like a stage performance transplanted wholesale (which it more or less is). Yes, Andrew “Dice” Clay is a good idea but Peter Sarsgaard is a bad one.

October 1, 2013

General rule

Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010). Only three years old and already nostalgic (shooting on film, laying out newspaper pages). A little sketchy about his relationship with the New York Times (which co-produced) but therefore less congratulatory than promo piece Page One. And a fashion photographer is never a war photographer, whether he’s working streets or black-tie events. But regardless, this would make any list of films about photographers, for its simple attention to craft and process — not quite work, not quite art, but some third category. Could have done with fewer talking heads, though, but that’s a general rule. The secondary story — the slow disappearance of a loved idea of New York — is handled with subtlety.