Zones of Bliss

I hope that the idea of guilty pleasure is dying. Not only is the term a copout, it puts up a wall between us and what Joseph Campbell might call our bliss (though I wouldn't be the first to misinterpret his famous statement, so forgive me, eh?). Our enjoyment of art leads us down a path toward better understanding our needs and desires (or anyway, it can if we let it), things we may not otherwise have learned to articulate. I think placing something under the banner of 'guilty pleasures' unintentionally obfuscates clues to the kind of art we find most meaningful or more accurately the properties, shapes, sizes, colours and places that we want to see more of. Recently the brilliant critic Aaron Cutler defined something for me that retuned my antennae, so to speak. He told me a simple difference between poetry and prose: Negative space on the page. The second he said it, so much about the films, music, books and paintings I loved came into focus and I think I understood a little more about who I am as both a hyperactive consumer and a person. Cinematic space that makes you feel at ease tells you a lot about the kind of environment that makes you the most comfortable, which may end up helping you decide where you want to live and in what conditions. Or maybe that's just me? The 'blank space on the page' has come to mean a lot to me in the last few months. More and more I see films and feel as though I've been waiting to discover them all my life, namely František Vláčil's Marketa Lazarová, John M. Stahl's Leave Her To Heaven, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell and perhaps most profoundly Kristina Buožyte's Vanishing Waves, which spends a lot of time and energy inventing dream spaces for its characters to inhabit unperturbed by earthly concerns. Every new material and surface the dreamers conjure is a clue to who they are. Each sunrise or sunset a pretty big indicator of how and where they like to spend their time. We make the same choice everytime we put a DVD or Blu-Ray on. I can't go to the humid South Pacific and take a boatride down river to a sun-coated, foliage-enshrouded manse, so instead I watch Wake of the Red Witch, Apocalypse Now Redux and Donavan's Reef

Everyone's preferred zones are different, naturally, which is why the best critics rarely agree on anything. I've learned about myself that many of my favourite films are also home to the environs I'd like to mentally vacation in. Last summer I went to Film Forum's essential 35mm screening of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventurra with the express aim of nodding off before the two lead characters meet each other to start searching for their mutual friend, when the plot changes gears entirely. I've seen L'Avventura more than a dozen times and knew exactly what I wanted from this particular screening: to wake up in the middle of the film. I felt as if I'd been living in the movie's vacant Italian landscape for days. There are few pleasures as rare, and those satisfactions are permanent. Just as I can always search for images of Edward Hopper paintings or listen to Fleetwood Mac's Pious Bird of Good Fortune, anytime of the day or night, I can drink in the technicolor silence of Leave Her To Heaven, drift around James Mason's house in the cold night air of North By Northwest or walk the delectable beaches of M. Hulot's Holiday. There are several movies that posses this stillness, the ability to display a setting and create a mood that fits it like a glove. They're not just works of art, they're places. They needn't even be good movies if they do it, so long as they capture the timeless signposts of the era and frame faces and objects properly. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes that cover the last two films of misanthropic auteur Coleman Francis, Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba (Originally titled Night Train to Mundo Fine), for instance, may be terribly made, horribly bleak visions of this country, but they don't lie about the desert, the cars, the pug faces of men, the depression plainly evident in every look and halting line reading. Mike and the bots commentary make it feel like home (it helps that I grew up with these episodes). I've learned that when a film hits that part of my brain and creates a place I'd love to live in I can become willfully blind to its faults. Or rather, they stop mattering. They're subsumed into the idealized viewing experience and I can't imagine any one part being removed. On Tour, Contempt, Inception, Pandora & The Flying Dutchman, The Lady With The Little Dog, Tabu, Johnny Guitar, The Red Shoes, L'Eclisse, The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey and many, many more allow me to become weightless and live a few feet above the ground of beautifully alien landscapes, the kind only cinematographers can create. 

Those last three examples are important because their influence has become a hallmark of a few of my new favourite films. The chain of events starts with L'eclisse, which abandons the characters for the final scene in favor of gorgeously off-kilter street scenes and lifeless architecture. The audience is denied closure and forced to recognize the hopelessness of the narrative, meanwhile Antonioni chases his fascinations down abandoned alleyways, following Joseph Campbell's advice. Knowing how rarely major directors halted their narratives for an experimental flourish that consumes the story makes it no less gripping a divergence after the sixth, tenth or fortieth viewing. It's one of cinema's great endings and the ripples were immediately apparent. The following year Henri-Georges Clouzot began planning a movie called L'enfer that would make extensive use of experimental photography, but he had to scrap it. The techniques he researched would resurface in his final film, 1968's Women in Chains. With a quarter of the film left to go our heroine is in a crash that puts her in a coma and has a colourful nightmare filled with beautiful, geometric abstraction. In the meantime Hiroshi Teshigahara had experimenting with similar endings to his films The Face of Another and Man Without A Map, visions of apocalypse courtesy of bizarre juxtapositions, the music of Toru Takemitsu, over-exposures and vacant architecture seemingly on loan from Antonioni. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a major event film from one of the most popular American artists, surrenders its plot to a pre-Laser Floyd freakout. Soon stunning tricksy photography begins warping narratives in progress, as in Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, as filled with perfectly symmetrical compositions as it is mind-altered scenarios and off-colour philosophy and myth-making. Saul Bass' Phase IV films the-endtimes-by-insect with graphic precision, beginning and ending with unnerving suggestion and jagged electronic music. The most obvious thing that unites these films is that they could only work as movies and take full advantage of what a camera can do, and incorporating a full range of poetry, painting and music besides to augment their artistry.
Fast forward a few decades; Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem feels under attack from the gods of John Boorman's Zardoz and ends in a heavy trip from witch burnings to Ken Russell to black metal. Ben Wheatley's A Field In England slowly lets madness creep over it until it finally grabs a handful of mushrooms and bakes under the heat of a black planet while the film regurgitates itself under the influence of strobing effects. At the 45 minute mark Ari Folman's The Congress ditches the 3D world for a splashy cartoon indebted to Ralph Bakshi and allows literally anything to happen to its dogged lead. Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess has its share of hallucinations, not to mention a deadpan leap into colour film for three hysterical minutes at the end of act 2. Last but not least, Jonathan Glazer returned to cinema after a decade with Under The Skin. Glazer has been one of my favourite directors since I was a kid. I loved his music videos back when their was a place on television that ran them, then realized he was the same guy behind Sexy Beast. His follow-up was the textural delight Birth, which I've maintained since the day I saw it is one of the great films of the modern era. That was 2004 after which he made nary a peep but at last the sleeper has awakened with his boldest dare yet. Depending on your point of view, its biggest selling point or its biggest gamble is its myriad reference points. Cinephiles have picked up on them because they're impossible to ignore, but the casual moviegoer interested in a movie about aliens? 

We open on a melding of forms that looks very similar to the eclipse that opens Phase IV, which we see is the creation of a human skin, specifically an eye, as Scarlett Johansson's alien lifeform - Monica Vitti in Mick Jagger's Performance hair  practices human diction beneath the unyielding score by Mica Levi (which often sounds like Jon Brion and John Cale adapting the theme from Gilbert Gunn's The Cosmic Monster). As if the Phase IV connection weren't clear enough, we then get a close-up of that film's nemesis: an ant on Johansson's fingertips. Though it looks like it's ready for a close-up at the start of Ingmar Bergman's Persona. And just like the creatures in Bass's psychodrama, its intelligence is an extraterrestrial gift. All throughout I was reminded throughout of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Women in Chains, Luis Buñuel, Nic Roeg and Eadweard Muybridge, John Carpenter's The Thing, The Face of Another and Glazer's own work as a music video director. Crucially none of these influences ever got in the way or subordinated the purity of Glazer's vision. I'm as suspicious of the term 'pure cinema' as I am 'guilty pleasure' but there is a kind of purity in Glazer's direction. It could only be attempted in a film, and only by someone who was probing the outer reaches of the medium's capability, possessing some of Johansson's curiousity about what it's capable of. It may occasionally name drop, but it never feels remotely close to second hand. Knowing that Glazer had taken the time to offer an old-fashioned out-of-plot experience immediately put Under The Skin in my good graces. Practically achieved synesthesia. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin, quite obviously, pointed their camera directly into lights, producing visions in the midst of a dramatic arc. That's worth a lot to me. 
The main body text is Scarlet Johansson's interactions with unsuspecting Scotsmen, playing The Vanishing with a big van on teeming high traffic areas (concealing our director, probably, looking at the hidden cameras he's placed all around his lead). Like The Tree of Life, the film's acting feels like the product of practiced naturalism put to the test, and has cosmic motives on its mind. Unlike Terrence Malick's masterpiece, however, its focus is rather more unclean, like a thirsty flea on the back of religious art, biting its thumb at divine creation. Johansson's improvised interactions, captured in murky digital, have the purposeful aimlessness of Pedro Costa's documentaries. Like the addicts of Fontainhas, Johansson and her mostly willing captives sit and talk in darkness, unaware of their own power, fueled by the urge to do evil, deafening industrial humming often just out of earshot. The van is unsafe, filled with mystery and the fear of the game ending. Johansson drives away as often as her potential partners walk away, just as full of fear as they are. Her purpose beyond, as we learn, collecting bodies for some twisted, incomprehensible harvest, is to create a zone of constructed mutual fantasy. She must make the men believe in her as a real woman who has taken an interest in them. The space only becomes solidified and false when she enters the mirror-smooth room where the men are collected in a pool of predatory liquid. But by then it is too late. "Why come here?" She asks a tourist of the beautiful rocky vista she's located him in. "Because it's nowhere." Which is certainly true of the sleek studio where she ends her seductions. What causes her to break out of her cycle is when one man doesn't buy into the fiction she has prepared. It takes all of her wiles to get him to submit, and because of his perception of himself. He has a condition that makes him resemble Joseph Merrick and views Johansson's pick-up as the ruse it is, even if he ultimately can't say no. When it's over she looks at herself (after having stared into a face different from her usual subjects) and wonders what it is about her skin that coaxed these men into her company. How many were reluctant? How many couldn't say no? Is it their fault? Reflection turns to empathy and the mission is over and done with, though thankfully the film is not. She can no longer look at human life objectively. Nor can Glazer maintain his distance from her. His camera begins sympathizing with her crises of identity and conscience, and the tricks he used to give us insight into the mechanics of alien existence (which look a lot like some of the imagined spaces and cosmic orgies of Teshigahara, Kubrick and Clouzot) give way to a softer digital embrace, displaying neither the sheen of the draining room nor the Costa-ist roughness of the claustrophobic cruising scenes. The high and low are forced to meet in the middle just as Johansson sheds her solipsistic view of humans. Glazer cares more for her than he has any of his heroes, but in a thematic rhyme with Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, cruelty runs deeper than any of us can reasonably counter. Lose the distance you keep from your fellow man and they'll quickly attack. 

I loved Under The Skin, but it is such a peculiar, specific vision of what cinema can do and be, that it was destined to polarize and has with gusto. Under The Skin, it turns out, is one of those films I love so much that I'm blind to its faults. Neil Young, a friend and one hell of a critic, hated the ending after greatly enjoying the set-up, and it's hard to argue that the shift from the alien pick-ups to the search for meaning at the end is jarring to say the least. Dan Sallitt, someone I look up to hugely, confessed to hating it but even he found Glazer's direction impossible to write off. David Cairns, who I love like a father, very reasonably points out that Glazer's aim, to show earth through the eyes of an alien, isn't really what winds up on the table. And Richard Brody, in whose direction myself and any half-way smart young film writer genuflects, wrote a perfectly reasoned and typically great pan that I cannot find much fault in. Yet even as I recognize that their opinions aren't wrong (and I don't mean in a diplomatic sense either; I think their charges stick) I can't help but love it all the same. It exists perfectly to me, and I felt compelled to simply exist in the state of suspended animation it reserves for willing viewers, in the blank space between lines. Between its spiky, Duchamp-inspired abstraction, and softer, Romantic portrait of innocence I found something like bliss. 

"Two Swords" and "The Lion and The Rose"

Fox on the first two episodes of Season 4 of Game of Thrones. 

"Two Swords"

I really liked this premiere. It actually might be my favorite of the series because unlike every other Game of Thrones premiere, "Two Swords" took its time. The writers didn't rush us around trying to catch us up with everyone. In fact they actually seem to have done the opposite. The episode's closing scene with Arya and The Hound sat at around ten minutes which makes it one of the longest scenes in the show's run. And it was completely awesome.

The only other comment I can think to make for this premiere was the awesome bookending they did with the opening and closing scenes in relation to the episode's title. The cold open tied us to a chair and made us watch as Tywin Lannister melted down Ned Stark's great sword "Ice" into two smaller blades. One he delivered to Jaime, the other we still don't know who the desired recipient is.

But while we watch that happen we're reminded that The Lannisters have pretty much taken over Westeros whether we like it or not. The Starks have been all but sidelined and the ones are still alive and kicking are up to their eyeballs in other people's terror and have to do everything they can to stay alive.

But with the final scene comes the other side of the story. Arya reclaims Needle. And in that moment the title has a whole new meaning. Yes the Lannisters have all the power. But the Starks aren't going to be forgotten. Ice was melted down but Needle is still very much a weapon to fear and now that it has found its way back into its master's hands the evildoers of Westeros may yet have something to fear. Valar Morghulis. All men must die.

"The Lion and The Rose"

I can only reinforce what I said about the writers taking their time with the pacing of the fourth season. The wedding sequence which of course is the main point of this episode took up over half its running time which is unheard of in television, let alone GoT. But George RR Martin actually penned the "Lion and the Rose" and I think it's his best screenplay for the series to date (and that's saying a lot considering he wrote "Blackwater" which features some of the show's best dialogue despite focusing so heavily on the titular battle.)

I actually went back and skimmed over that sequence in the book A Storm of Swords and though all the major beats are there, Martin does an awesome job of either adding in or adapting what's already there really well for the medium. I'm sure that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss get final say before anything goes to press but the dude may be a better television writer than he is a novelist.

It's also incredibly thrilling to be watching a GoT season based on the back half of one of the source novels. A Storm of Swords reads more like a standalone epic than a classic fantasy novel and clocking in at over 1000 pages it provides a roller coaster ride of climactic moments sprinkled throughout the story.

So far we've been able to accurately rely on episode 9 of each season of GoT being the "oh shit" episode of the season but with "The Lion and the Rose" the first of what I think will be many wrenches was thrown into our plans. It's hard to not run to wikipedia and look into who's writing and directing specific episodes as that usually decides just what kind of treatment we're all in for. It's the best.

Always something there to remind me...

Auteurism is a lot of things; shorthand, a roadmap, a way to spot the fetishes and particularities of an artist's worldview and dig in. But it's also among the quickest way to let a film into your heart. We watch films and love them and start to spot things about the men and women behind the camera that appeal to us, some shared taste or experience. We're far more likely to want to like films made by artists who we think we know or understand and get excited for what happens next. It gives their career a narrative and I, for one, quite like those. A lot of careers can look like geiger counter readings, moving from highs to lows with no rhyme or reason. Not for nothing do critics not have a lot of time for journeymen like Marc Forster or Andrew Davis because they don't seem compelled to say anything about themselves when they drop in and out of genres. For a recent example, look at Noam Murro, director of 300: Rise of an Empire, or 302 as I've been calling it. What can you tell about the Israeli director of Smart People, a snobs vs. slobs quirkfest starring Ellen Page as a young republican, who then waits 6 years before unleashing a sequel to one of the most tonally incoherent films ever made, whose defining feature is its tidal wave of robust, airbrushed abs? I quite enjoyed the titanically stupid 302 (Eva Green's performance is a gift to fans of the outsized), though, I must admit, probably not because of anything Murro thought he was bringing to the project. Maybe it's better that way. If I'd liked Smart People, maybe I'd have felt let down by the fact that 302 has absolutely Nothing in common with it. That keen sting of disappointment can only come when you think you know someone who hasn't taken his coat off yet. 

This week I was finally able to see Gareth Evans' The Raid 2, the much-anticipated sequel to his (literal) smash hit The Raid: Redemption. When it was announced that Evans would be making a sequel, I heard many variations on this joke: "I hope there's some actual filmmaking in the next one." I didn't find it more than passingly funny at the time because I rather enjoyed The Raid: Redemption and wanted to see what these young Indo-Welshmen could get up to with a little more money. I liked the image of a couple of punks with a little money remaking their favourite movies with some homespun tricks that no one else in the world would have dreamt up - in this case the Silat martial arts that the stars/choreographers have mastered. You could argue that Evans' chops as an action director come from stealing whole chapters from the Assault on Precinct 13 playbook, but when our hero, Iko Uwais, begins taking on all-comers in elastic hand-to-hand combat all concerns about technique go right out the window for a good portion of the audience. I could see who was kicking who in the face and loved every second of it and that was all that mattered. When he produced the best of four segments in V/H/S/2 I thought for sure his talents must be only getting stronger. I stand by "Safe Haven" and The Raid: Redemption as singularly thrilling experiences, even now, in the shadow of what came next. 

The Raid 2 does make good on the promise of The Raid: Redemption in many ways, but it also proved all of Evans' critics right. For the first hour, The Raid 2 was a little heartbreaking. The fighting lacked the intensity of the first film and the actors seemed like they were trying not to hurt each other because they were. The downside to practiced, real fighting is that the actors have to take it easy on each other and for the duration of the opening prison scenes, it shows. Worse, they've added a higher quotient of gore to make up for it, nudity in one bafflingly bum note, and the camera at times seems like it too was trying to get in on the frenzied action, ducking blows rather than presenting a coherent view of what the hell we're meant to care about in the fray. None of this helps the film, and at worst they feel like pandering to teenagers. Then the plot kicks in. Iko Uwais' character goes missing for long stretches and the movie wants to be about stuff. Put simply, Evans' Johnny To impression isn't anywhere near as good as his John Carpenter. The men who play our chief heavies look far too young to possess anything but comic book villainy, especially given that one of them is never seen without his sunglasses, cane and leather gloves, like an ultraviolent version of Unbreakable's Mr. Glass. The plot, such as it is, is rote and Evans knows it. It's an excuse to get to the ass kickings, which is what he clearly enjoys directing. The camera's jittery impatience between beatdowns gets old fast; we're all waiting for the fight choreography yet the plot refuses to budge. New elements are introduced, more characters we will never properly know, a cascade of deaths that are mere windowdressing yet are delivered with an unattractive cruelty. And then there's the changes in Uwais himself, which he have no choice but to notice. Part of what made him such a lovable presence the first time was his diminutive stature, his cute, boyish looks, and the fact that everyone underestimates him. In The Raid 2 Uwais has bulked up considerably to tackle the more demanding stunts he and Evans have written. He's no longer the underdog and I found liking him much more of an uphill battle than it should have been considering how effortlessly he grabbed my sympathy in The Raid: Redemption. His confidence is unnattractive and Evans doesn't give him a challenge worthy of his skill for the first hour and change. Uwais' abandoning his family to go deep cover stopped looking heroic and I finally understood why people don't like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When the narrative ditches him for what feels like an hour, not only did I forget to like him, I forgot he was in the movie.

It was during these stretches of actionlessness that I realized that what The Raid 2 most resembles is the film I thought Nic Winding Refn's Only God Forgives was going to be based soley on the trailers. The ornate wallpaper, the slow dolly shots, the wierdly lackluster kickboxing, the perfunctory cops-and-robbers plot. This was everything I thought Only God Forgives was supposed to be, but it also wanted for Refn's best tendencies as a director. It lacked purpose and Refn can cover a lack of purpose better than almost anyone. I was relearning a lesson in expectations. Turns out the movie I wanted from Only God Forgives probably wouldn't have been much better then what we wound up with. Eventually The Raid 2 found its footing and delivers a spellbinding final hour but by then I had already begun to question what I'd seen in Evans in the first place. Even if he and Uwais delivered one of the greatest martial arts sequences I've ever seen, did I want to support someone who so enjoyed the spectacle of a man callously cutting the throats of five men with a thin box cutter? I was having allegiance dissonance induced flashbacks to the day the trailer for Your Highness dropped. Before Your Highness David Gordon Green was a budding genius and arthouse staple with one daffy black mark on his resume, the stoner action film Pineapple Express. After a winning streak that had produced modern classics and worthwhile experiments George Washington, All The Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, had Green cashed in all his chips and forgotten how to direct? Pineapple Express had its fair share of laughs but precious little of its raison-d'être (laidback charm, a few goofy unscripted moments) felt like Green. Then came Your Highness, a film most critics judge more harshly than the works of Leni Riefenstahl, which haphazardly fuses weed-soaked bro humour with the tropes of a sword-and-sorcery film. The results weren't pretty and in all but cinematography felt even further away from what I'd come to associate with the name David Gordon Green. When the ads for Green's The Sitter started playing multiplexes I can't have been alone in screaming "Game Over!" like Bill Paxton in Aliens. What in the good goddamn had happened? When Claire Denis experiments and the results are bilious headscratchers like Trouble Every Day and Bastards, those at least feel honest and of a piece with her other work. Green seemed to have traded his trademark rhythm and lustrous naturalism for a bigger house and though he may have believed in the three studio comedies he directed from 2008-2011 every bit as much as his early tragedies, they sent a distressing message to the little guys who wanted to make movies like George Washington. This is what artists have to do. Get used to it. 

As Mark Kermode frequently points out, being disappointed in our artists comes from a place of love. The Sitter and Your Highness wouldn't seem quite so distressing if they hadn't come from someone who'd been hailed as the next Terrence Malick. Perhaps Green himself sensed that something wasn't right because in 2013 he premiered two different films, both set in Texas. Prince Avalanche contains a little of the boys-club antics of his time in Hollywood, but it's quite clear that Green was literally returning to his roots. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play a kind of forest fire clean-up crew, traveling and marking miles and miles of road and bickering all the way. But of course they slowly wear each other down and become friends, as the film too lets go of its earthly trappings and returns to nature. The film ends in the kind of spiritual montage that used to characterize Green's films, basking in the warm glow of the wilderness and its boundless empathy for human beings and their small, neverending worries. The film explodes into a flurry of fleeting, rhapsodic images of friendship, signaling the end of Green's flirtation with the wrong kind of callousness, and his reunion with the randomness of the human condition. That kind of awful logic he knows well. Joe hit film festivals what felt like a few weeks after Prince Avalanche, and the reviews confirmed what I had been hoping: It was a David Gordon Green film, as I wanted to understand that term. 

Joe is my kind of movie. To call it old fashioned isn't quite right because Green's style is very much of the moment, but this is as close as we can get to Lolly Madonna XXX or The Winds of Autumn without resorting to grammatical anachronisms. Nicolas Cage, in one of his finest performances, even recalls perennial hillbilly character actor Ed Lauter at times. I can almost hear Roger Ebert saying that no good movies are depressing  as we're introduced to our young hero and his abusive alcoholic dad, both of whom will have their lives changed by the angry Cage character who gives the movie its name and soul. Green's rhythm had returned, as had his utter clarity, his astounding imagery, his way of mixing the real and artificial, most perfectly embodied by the faces that haunt Joe, like the late Gary Poulter. Poulter, apparently a homeless man who'd never acted before, gives one of the greatest performances of this or any year. By all accounts Poulter was a man who'd lived every bit as much as his character and could find the man's unknowable soul and crack it wide open without ever letting us see him act. When Poulter hits his son, played by the great Tye Sheridan, it's as hard as any blow in The Raid 2 because his character should be wired to love his son but doesn't appear to love anything. Equally as mesmerizing are the men who work in Cage's tree-poisoning crew, especially his foreman who sounds like he could sing like Rufus Thomas or Otis Redding given the chance. And then there's Ronnie Gene Blevins who plays Cage's cowardly but terrifying nemesis Willie-Russell, giving my favourite performance in a movie filled with great ones. He looks like Richard Lynch in The Seven-Ups crossed with George A. Romero favourite Joe Pilato, and his performance is perfectly judged. Blevins is stupendous and belongs in the early 70s, breathing life into heavies the way Lynch, Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, Joe Spinell, Warren Oates and Al Lettieri used to. And who knows? Maybe I'd have been denied these rare pleasures if I hadn't already subscribed to Green's narrative from chapter 1 and decided to finish the book no matter what. Gareth Evans is at a crossroads right now and his story could turn out any number of ways, I just hope he proves as great a talent as I think he is. It's in there somewhere, like it always was in Green, it's just up to him what he chooses to embrace.

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Tina Hassannia

Tina Hassannia
Instead of using the earthy, colorful atmosphere of the museum as an antidote to the brightly lit and sterile hospital scenes, Cohen sticks steadfastly to his thesis and asks us to look more closely at the rhythmic heart monitor and the quiet sounds of IV fluids dropping into its container. Like everything else in the film, they too possess a beauty worth noting.

Contributed to: Slant Magazine, Little White Lies, Movie Mezzanine, Keyframe, Grolsch Film Works, Maisonneuve, The Globe and Mail, Reverse Shot, Guernica, cléo, In Review Online, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Spectrum Culture.

Noted champion of: You've Got Mail & Nora Ephron, Abbas Kiarostami, Sohrab Shahid Saless, the Coen Brothers, Errol Morris, Spring Breakers, Whit Stillman.

Influences: Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Foster Wallace, Siegfried Kracauer, Sasha Frere-Jones, Manohla Dargis, David Kehr, Pauline Kael, Hamid Naficy, Molly Haskell, Richard Brody, Fernando F. Croce, Adam Nayman. 

Born in Tehran and raised in Ottawa, Tina Hassannia (April 12, 1984-) has a unique perspective to say the least. Her first piece of criticism was a review of the Arcade Fire album Funeral in the Fulcrum, the student publication at the University of Ottawa. "I was interested in aesthetics in adolescence and attended an arts high school, but other than one savvy drama teacher my influences were mostly music magazines, Pitchfork and XPress, Ottawa's arts weekly. In university I decided to try writing for my campus newspaper and eventually worked my way up to Arts & Culture Editor. After university, I covered music, theatre and comedy for the XPress, but around this time I started to get bored of arts journalism, or as I liked to call it, fluff journalism. I found new cinephile friends who excelled at analyzing music and movies in an earnest, cerebral fashion that I found both intimidating and stimulating. With their suggestion, I took Film Studies at Carleton University. It's perhaps a tad strange that I turned to a medium that was less familiar to me (compared to music and theatre), but film academia was exactly the kind of critical foundation I needed to sharpen my writing skills. I started reviewing movies for In Review Online in 2011 and became more active the next year with my contributions to Spectrum Culture and Not Coming." 

Hassannia's integration of technique and global context is stunning, treating films as more than merely works of art, bad or good. Hassannia has done a lot of incredible work on the films of the Iranian directors like Asghar Farhadi, on whom she's written a book, and Abbas Kiarostami and founding, a site dedicated to Iranian film. On top of being one of the most accomplished and deeply felt cinematic wellsprings, it's also among the most vital because each statement carries the weight of crisis and torment. From her review of Jafar Panahi's Closed CurtainJafar Panahi's harsh sentence from Iranian authorities—his house arrest, restrictions on filmmaking and travel, and communicating with media—have forced the filmmaker to contemplate not only the intellectual struggle that accompanies tyrannical artistic censorship, but its combined psychological and emotional manifestations. Which is a good way of looking at her criticism; a combination of intellectual/aesthetic concerns harmonizing with psychological and emotional ones. She places everything in sociopolitical context, knowing that surefooted ideology gives the purely cinematic merits of a film more weight. She never resorts to hyperbole or easy classification, keeping a respectful distance to preserve the film's achievement, rather than its 'importance.' A sense of history and the notion that we write it with every work of art runs through her work like a main circuit cable, to coin a phrase, and she reads as part essayist/historian in the most exciting fashion. Whether she's talking about Palme d'Or contenders or Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, she writes with formal assurance and accessibility, possessing a clear-eyed view of where art could take us not just as viewers, but as the people who shape the future. 

On The Past

For those Iranians living abroad, the fight for a unified identity remains just as fraught. In some places, like the popular independent media centers in Los Angeles (“Tehrangeles”), one can see a forged Iranian-American identity that has unified the secular, upper-middle-class Iranians who made a mass exodus from their homeland following the revolution. But otherwise, if one looks to the cinematic output as a source of confirmation, the Persian diaspora—based mostly in North America and Europe—suffers from a lack of cohesiveness. Although a handful of Iranian artists have established themselves outside of the country, to date, the creative output of arthouse filmmakers has not helped to forge a united voice or provide an alternative identity for diasporic Iranians. This is not to suggest that their role lies in pioneering such an identity. But their encompassing reach and personal experiences abroad, which many have internalized into their work, present them with opportunities and an audience to articulate the Persian diasporic experience that others don’t have.  To begin answering the question about the cultural identity of The Past, it’s helpful to consider Farhadi’s own goals in creating the film. The director spent two years abroad researching and working on the story. Though initially guided by the cultural differences between Iranians and Europeans in the beginning of his research, Farhadi became increasingly inspired by their similarities. The Past does not contribute to a collective voice for the Iranian community abroad—at least not directly. Though the film details the experience of an Iranian man who once lived in Europe, the story is not focused on his diasporic perspective like with other films in that vein, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Yet in a roundabout way, the film does seem to offer something unique and also entirely essential for the Persian diaspora: the normalization of an Iranian protagonist in a Western film.

On 12 Years A Slave
Using his signature visual composition and deafening sound design, McQueen portrays the harrowing realism of Northrup's experience and the complicated relationships between master and slave, master and master, slave and slave, and so on. The film's most fascinating scenes explore the phenomenon of favoritism and the use of language in defining the scarce rights and dignities of African-American slaves, like the black mistress who tries to sell a younger female slave on the benefits of being her master's concubine. With her nose looking down at the serfs around her, the mistress smugly tells the young woman she could easily come to "manage them all" if she got into her master's good graces. Such characters say and do horrendous things, but the film isn't trying to make some blanket criticism against the different strategies used by American slaves; instead it shows that a complete void and desperation for humane treatment changes people into justifying their actions.

On Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
The independence and tenacity of Ghidorah’s female characters mark the film’s most fascinating elements, particularly noticeable in lead character Naoko, a journalist who beats her colleagues to the scoop in finding the Venusian, whose predictions are one by one coming true. Naoko is the series’ first real heroine, with a resilient independence that has her unbound by relationships to male characters (including her overprotective brother). In fact, she dismisses her family’s insistence that her friend, a professor studying the Ghidorah meteorite, is also her boyfriend. He is simply an acquaintance that can help her land a story, as she values her own career above else. Indeed, her open-mindedness leads her to ask the right questions to the Venusian and the Shobijin fairies that help to uncover the truth about Ghidorah. This particular scene, set in a hotel room – intended to establish exposition about the invincibility of the three-headed monster – is an integral, pivotal point in the narrative. It’s interesting that despite the convenient grouping of the female characters in these closed quarters, the Communist spies sent to assassinate the Princess and who have been stalking the hotel room, are treated like distractions in scenes such as this one (easily tricked by the Shobijin fairies) rather than operating like the James Bond-like villains they so clearly imitate.

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Adam Cook

Adam Cook
The cinema is, for me, a means of engaging with the world, coming to terms with it, and figuring out how to live within it.

Contributed to: Mubi Notebook, Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Filmmaker Magazine, Cineaste, La Furia Umana, Indiewire, Cléo, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Grolsch Film Works, Fandor, De Filmkrant, Senses of Cinema. 

Known for: MUBI Notebook, Cinema Scope, image-centric criticism.

Influences: David Bordwell, Serge Daney, Jonathan Rosenbaum, "the best critics right now are Kent Jones, Dennis Lim, R. Emmet Sweeney, and Daniel Kasman."

Noted Champion Of: Classical Hollywood ("Ford Ford Ford Ford"), James Gray, Johnnie To, reappraising Scorsese, "vulgar auteurism."

Born in Vancouver, BC, Adam Cook's (July 24th, 1989-) first language is film. Reading him is to open a travel guide to worlds most of us only ever dream of visiting. "As an only child, my obsessive movie-watching began very young as a familial substitute. It wasn't until my late teens that this unhealthy amount of viewing became anything productive. I had considered writing on movies as early as elementary school, but I finally put pen to paper at the tail end of high school when I started a blog. It wasn't long before I was writing for my university paper, and not long after that that i started pitching around and finding myself published in the outlets I was myself a dedicated reader of like the MUBI Notebook and Cinema Scope. Having a foot in the door at the Vancouver International Film Festival and MUBI (not as a critic, but an editor, and now a programmer) didn't hurt. I love writing about movies, and I hope I always can. But I always never want it to be all that I do. I mean, it's impossible to make a living from, of course, but not because of that. I get restless. I also don't want to force my writing. Programming is more rewarding. And I love working for MUBI."

At 24 as of this writing, Cook has a perspective and list of critical achievements many lifers would tip their hats to. And because he has a ton of editorial/creative freedom at the Notebook, he's been able to craft crticism his way, much of it integrating visual reference points. "It's interesting. We try to intellectualize cinema, but without that intuitive, emotional connection, what's the point of watching a movie? I definitely come at things from a visual angle. Cinema that ennobles cinema is at least more immediately impressive. I love movies of so many different kinds though, I don't think I could ever define my taste. I think I need to sense something human and honest behind the lens though. I think that's most important." His only rule is that he'll never back down from championing a film he loves, and is always willing to be proven wrong about a film he didn't. A negative Adam Cook review is a rare thing indeed. The heart-warming start to one of his capsules: "The first film in competition to stand out as fiercely unique is Denis Côté's Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, though the word spreading around Potsdamer Platz after its premiere was not one of bountiful praise, but let's ignore that." 

Cook brings a gonzo narrative to a lot of his writing. He invites readers into his circumstances of viewing, offers a shared mindset, rather than a simple relaying of an outcome. If his relationship to film is emotional and visual, then he seeks to welcome others into his consumption via the same means, his evocative prose allowing us at once into his world and that of the film. Cook's role as a programmer as well as his festival schedule have given him a new appreciation of what's paramount to good cinema. Cook seeks out rare, unusual and lasting pleasures, films and artists that break ground or raise the dead in new, honest ways. In his powerfully humane words, cinema is, quite literally, a matter of life or death. On Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi's second film from under house arrest: "When the film touches on suicide, it becomes almost uncomfortably naked, and the notion that Panahi could "give up" is a disheartening one. But how could he? He's still a man with a movie camera, no matter what any authorities may think." The prose is empathetic and open. The familiarity of the first sentence suggests that he's writing a letter (and much of his writing has this kind of intimacy), and the rhetorical question further closes the gap between author, artist and reader/viewer. It's a human concern, not merely a cinematic one; film and life are one and the same. Cook knows the lines have been blurred between film, criticism, and everything that doesn't fall under that banner, and his writing often takes the form of a galvanizing search for a new language to describe it. If cinema is a place, Cook is an environmentalist, an ecstatic conservationist. The final sentence exposes his optimism, his willingness to believe that everything negatively affecting the creation and pursuit of good art can be changed for the better.

On watching Ken Jacobs:
As I assume is the case with most cinephiles—even the most well-viewed veterans—there always seems to be something to catch up on before a festival. A filmmaker has a new film premiering and a recommendation leads to a cram session of sorts in the days leading up to the festival, and even in that most undesired of all viewing spaces: the seat on the airplane. It is in this first unofficial screening room that my own programming began with a viewing of Ken Jacobs's Seeking the Monkey King (2011). Embarrassingly neglected in my viewing history, I was eager (and also obligated) to acquaint myself with the renowned avant-gardist before seeing his new feature-length The Guests (hopefully a subject of a future Berlinale dispatch). What ensued was one of the most memorable, and trippy, watches in my cinephile career. As those in my row slept beside me, I grew nervous of prompting an epileptic fit as an elderly woman across the aisle turned her head towards my MacBook on which Jacobs's twisting tinfoil masterpiece of anger and frustration pulsated with alternately blue and gold light, emanating (projecting?) a noticeable flashing in our darkened corner of the fuselage.  (This prompted me to pause the film and dim my screen whenever a flight attendant neared). This process of "seeking," a journey through this phantasmagorical shifting of dreamlike, chasmic space, is, I think, where the festival began for me. The opening selection of my personal Berlinale.

On On Death Row
Having once described all the characters in his films as somehow part of one family, I was afforded the opportunity at the Locarno Film Festival to ask about this idea and how the inmates on death row fit in. Herzog cited everyone from Woodcarver Steiner, Aguirre and onward as somehow being linked—though he advised me to be careful on "riding this donkey to its death". It isn't their similarities as people, however, that connect them, but their proximity to the abyss which darkly masks them in the same shadow. It is in these figures, somehow closer to the edge of existence than most, that Herzog finds a uniting humanness, qualities that articulate the core of being, while also allowing the specificity of every character to register on screen, complex, and fascinating in their existential solitude. 

On Computer Chess
One of cinema's great virtues is to take us into environments, settings, and contexts that we'd otherwise never explore. Sure, there are films like Lincoln that put monumental moments in history under the limelight, but the tiniest pockets of American mythology can be just as interesting. Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess finds such a tiny pocket, taking place mostly in a small hotel conference room and is about a group of computer chess nerds who face off their beloved chess programs in a tournament to determine the best designer. Exploiting his PortaPak-style aesthetics for comically expressive means, Bujalski creates an absurd mini-universe on the outskirts of computer culture's early days. However, for all its silliness, the philosophical questions at the film's core, mockingly presented though they may be, carry a real weight. If computers that could barely compete with humans set off alarms about artificial intelligence and the implications of its potential then, the film by implication magnifies the scale as it is now, in which technology's rapid progress is hardly accountable, maybe even unfathomable. Bujalski shows us a time not so far in our past that is easy to laugh at because it is so difficult to laugh at where we are now.

"Welcome to Hell"

The legacy of the HM Prison Pentridge in Victoria, Australia is one of torment. In the 70s and 80s, things got so bad that the government had to step in and investigate the complaints of violent treatment from the staff, but that just made things worse. From the notoriously fierce guards, tellingly nicknamed "The Bash," to the creation of the Jika Jika solitary ward, every development was one more piece of bloody puzzle leading to the prison being shut down and bulldozed in the 90s. But not before it was immortalized in two different Australian independent productions, linked by more than ellipses in their titles. John Hillcoat, later director of The Proposition, The Road and Lawless, fired the first shot with Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, a dystopian dramatization of a prison's increasing hostility to its inmates, scored, co-written and starring in a minor but terrifying role Nick Cave. The management of a fictional prison want federal money to build a new, more severe facility, but need justification. So begins a campaign of oppression, winding up prisoners to induce violent behavior in order to prompt reprisals and keeping guards miserable and in the dark to make them more prone to take out their frustrations on the prisoners. Where does it end? Though based on a novel and framed as a piece of sci-fi, it stings like the truth. Hillcoat's film leaps through time, skipping to new lows like a hardcore kid skipping tracks on a Jesus Lizard album, dank corridors bridging the gap between the horrendous fiction and reality. Several narrators, some unreliable, tell the story of the growing harshness which comes across the prison like a heatwave. Hillcoat's camera is still as can be, moving only when the point of view changes from predator to prey, finding his inmates half in shadow and filth, unable to recognize themselves under conditions that start bad and get worse. They're the poisoned blood of a body losing a fight to infection. When Cave's appearance kicks off the final act, his bone-shaking rasp and preacher's cadence like the voice of cruelty itself, it's the final straw. The community on either side of the bars disintegrates. Cave appears like a bigot poltergeist and both the tired inmates and increasingly stressed guards finally know that their fates are out of their hand. Though as always, fate has the last laugh. 

Alkinos Tsilimidos' Everynight....everynight came next, and is based on a play detailing the circumstances of one Christopher Dale Flannery, a real inmate, and his stay in the maximum security H Division of the HM Prison. The HM and its horrific conditions flipped a switch in Flannery's brain and after his release he became a famous hitman dubbed Mr. Rent-a-Kill. Tsilimidos' film tries to determine what went on that forced the government to intercede on behalf of prisoners and what Flannery experienced that turned him from a petty crook into a murderer and spares no detail. Opening with the sound of nails being pounded by a hammer, the first lines are spoken by a guard who could scarcely look more like a buzzard. "On the Cross, Bryant. Get on the fucking cross, Bryant." So begins a suitably biblical regiment of torture, as Flannery's stand-in undergoes one humiliation after another including a beating and rape on his first night. Tsilimidos keeps his camera (in grainy black & white) inches from his the faces of his subjects, mocking Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, whirling around the dank prison like a drunken angel, or maybe just a lost bird. The body is broken and violated and the spirit cut to ribbons as degradations mount. Like the Irish prisoners of Hunger, the men of Everynight rail and scream against their captors, violence always on the tips of every finger and tongue. They find strength in not giving the guards what they want, resigning from their system one at a time. Both films can only guess what really went on in Australia's prisons, but they have a visceral understanding of systemic malevolence. Their dueling depictions of the annihilation of the individual feel like institutional passion plays. 

These films (along with Romper Stomper) represented the changing of the guard in Australian cinema. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the line between commercial and artistic cinema was drawn in steel, but it started to melt in the 90s. The grammar of the grindhouse and the arthouse mixed like blood and skag. Ghosts  looks like it was shot on the set of a bad action movie and appears to have been a model for Philip Brophy's clinically icky Bodymelt, giving one the impression that antiestablishment art didn't yet have a place in the mainstream and had to linger in the marshy, disreputable dark until they could be claimed. Crassness and violence would eventually define important movies as much as it had marked the underground cinema of the first decade of the new wave. From the needle of these early experiments dribbled the first hint that the country could come to terms with its ugliest traumas through its art. Soon the makers of The Tracker, Chopper, Wolf Creek, Samson & Delilah, Van Dieman's Land Snowtown would dip their brushes in the same blood and start painting their own masterpieces.

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: A.A. Dowd

A.A. Dowd
When school and church fail him, the pictures are always there; the local movie house becomes his sanctuary—a substitute chapel and classroom, where enlightenment and education are transmitted directly from the screen to his seat in the balcony. For Bud (and, by extension, [Terence] Davies), cinema is more than escape. It’s a lens through which to see the world. Dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles, for whom personal and filmic history sometimes entwine, can surely relate.

Contributed to: Film Monthly, In Review Online, Time Out Chicago, The A.V. Club

Noted champion of: Claire Denis, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Joachim Trier, Wong Kar-Wai, Bruce Baillie, Saul Levine, Béla Tarr, Spike Jonze, John Cassavetes, Jacques Tati, Tsai Ming-liang, the Farrelly brothers.

Influences: "I had a college film criticism course at Michigan State University that introduced me to everyone from Sarris and Kael to Farber and Rosenbaum. It was definitely a formative educational experience, but if I’m being honest, my exposure to criticism reaches back further—to a childhood spent pouring over Roger Ebert collections and those helpful capsule video guides. (Terror On Tape, by James O'Neill, was very useful for a young horror buff.) And I’ve been reading Entertainment Weekly since I was 9-years-old; while I don’t necessary share Owen Gleiberman’s critical sensibilities, I still aspire to his way with words. Few contemporary critics have as fluid and inviting a style."

Andrew Alexander Dowd, Alex to his friends, was born January 7, 1984 in Oxnard, California. He spent most of his childhood in Lansing, Michigan and wrote his earliest reviews ("pithy capsules for new releases, often several weeks after they’d opened") for his high school news paper. At Columbia College Chicago he began studying and writing criticism regularly. His first professional gig was at a website called Film Monthly, but came into his own as a staff critic at In Review Online, under then-editor Sam C. Mac. "I owe a huge debt to Sam C. Mac, who not only believed in my talent before anyone else really did but also gave me a laptop when my computer was stolen. For real." He wrote for the Time Out Chicago until the print edition was put out to pasture, at which point he took over as film editor of The A.V. Club, taking over for Scott Tobias. It's here that he's let his creativity run wild. An auteurist with an accessible style, Dowd's been mapping out film history for readers, one article at a time. His reviews, long and short, act as pocket biographies of the men and women who've brought them to life. His reviews are well-rounded narratives, allowing neophytes an entryway into something as complicated as the career of Pedro Costa or the ins and outs of the Cannes Film Festival, which he covers in his indispensable feature Palme Thursday. His Ebert-esque everyman's affability and unpretentiousness ("I’d much rather watch Die Hard or Beetlejuice or Who Framed Roger Rabbit than the 1988 Palme winner, Pelle The Conqueror.") make him the ideal critic to lead The A.V. Club's film department, which has always backed up its bold, smartass humour with intelligence and an achingly personal relationship with pop culture. He's also without question the current critic I'd recommend to anyone looking to get into film or film criticism.

On Groundhog Day
Two decades on, Groundhog Day feels timeless, partially because its sole backdrop, Punxsutawney, is a town largely untouched by pop-culture trends. But for all the universal points the film has to make about people’s capacity for change, it also works marvelously as a rebuke to the prevailing sarcasm of its era. To that end, who better than Murray, one of the most sardonic voices in comedy, to go through a metaphysical attitude adjustment? The actor slowly peels away Phil’s defense mechanisms, until the ironic distance he puts between himself and the world has shrank away into nothingness. No wonder Murray turned to drama and seriocomic indies a few years later. As a comedian, where could he go from a movie that trotted out all of his best tricks and then denounced them in the name of enlightenment? Like Phil, Murray had to move forward after Groundhog Day.

On The Wolf of Wall Street

At three hours, The Wolf Of Wall Street is Scorsese’s longest movie (barely edging out Casino). It’s also his crassest, his loudest, maybe his funniest—an aggressively broad satire of American ambition, the full meal to which Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Bling Ring were merely appetizers. Such reckless indulgence provides the director his own excuse to indulge, and Wolf pushes his showboating stylistic tics and love for loutish behavior to the edge of their acceptable limits. But there’s a cracked logic, a genius almost, to the film’s amped-up irreverence. Maybe laughter isn’t just the best medicine, but the only sensible response to this much brazen amorality. From Travis Bickle to Jake La Motta to the Italian and Irish gangsters of his crime epics, Scorsese has always been hooked on bad boys. And Belfort, the founder of shady brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, may be the baddest of them all. No, he never murders anyone (though he comes close at least once), but in his ruthless consumption—his endless need for more fixes, more women, more everything—he may be the most unscrupulous character Marty’s ever built a movie around. 

On 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days
It’s context, ultimately, that lends 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days its full, cathartic power. Like most of the films lumped together into the Romanian New Wave, this one tangentially concerns the reign of Ceauşescu, a long-gone tyrant whose influence is still being felt in contemporary Romania. Crucially, Mungiu hasn’t just set his film during the waning years of the leader’s rule, right before he was ousted from office and executed by the people. He’s also made his heroine a university student. Either literally or symbolically, that aligns her with the demonstrators—many of them students—who helped fan the flames of dissent in 1989, when Ceauşescu sealed his own fate by ordering security forces to fire on unarmed civilians. When Marinca turns, in that final look to the camera, is there more than just weariness scrawled across her face? Is that the spark of revolution dancing in her eyes? By looking at the movie through the lens of history, its day from hell becomes the straw that broke the dictator’s back. Improbably, in this gauntlet of misery, a glimmer of hope emerges—and a gripping film becomes a great one.

His small heart grew three sizes that day.

In honor of the release of a new film by (and yet another on) Alejandro Jodorwsky, here's some refigured thoughts on the few films he made that didn't become cult successes:

Of Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky's two final films before his twenty year hiatus, Santa Sangre is more obviously the work of its director. The Rainbow Thief, its comparatively mawkish companion piece, represents a very different side of the master I can't resist. Back in the 70s and between pre-production phases of his failed Dune adaptation (a documentary on which is just hitting theatres), Jodorowsky directed Tusk, a heartfelt and completely forgotten adventure film that played like Au Hazard Balthasar by way of Alexander Korda. It had nothing of its auteur's caustic surrealism, which probably killed it. In point of fact, it's downright sentimental. Before Tusk, the only clue that Jodorowsky had time for heart-string tugging was  in a half-second's aside in El Topo when the gunslinger cheers up his dwarf lover after they're forced to make love for some gunslingers' entertainment. Tusk could have played to kids if it weren't shot entirely in extreme wide angles that destroy any sense of its human characters (The film's refusal to shoot close-ups or low-angles, coupled with the fact that it's only ever been on blurry VHS means that for money I couldn't tell you what the lead actress looks like). They're tiny figures in a huge landscape, the titular elephant the film's only real hero. Tusk tells the story of a strong-willed French girl born and raised in India. To her controlling father's chagrin, she falls in love with Indian culture, spends time talking to and even touching the Indian serving staff on their huge estate, and befriends an elephant who shares her birthday. When her father has to let a charismatic hunter claim the elephant for the maharaja, she and her father have a falling out and she sets off in search of her companion.  The story isn’t revolutionary and it was the first of Jodorowsky’s features to be based on someone else’s writing which made him kill all his darlings and for once deliver something resembling a conventional narrative. Like late Kurosawa and some of Sidney Lumet’s commercial work, Jodorowsky spends a lot of time admiring the scenery from the cheap seats. Perhaps it was his way of not fully surrendering to so touching a narrative. Whatever his reasoning, it became quite clear that there were two Jodorowskys, and they were at war. And from the sounds of things, with La Danza de la Realidad, his return to cinema after all these years, he's only just gotten them to inhabit the same body.

Santa Sangre returned to the well that he dug for Fando Y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, but with a different, furious rhythm to guide it. If El Topo is a waltz with a host of lunatics, Santa Sangre is an eye-scorching samba, painted bodies writhing satanically under the light of a moon (or a whorehouse). The Rainbow Thief by contrast is an unabashed heart-string tugger, even if its filtered through a little abstraction (long sections pass without dialogue, the side characters never get names or functions beyond providing bite-sized whimsy, character motivations are hardly worthy of the name) and perhaps that's why its maker disowned it. But I give him more credit than he gives himself. The Rainbow Thief follows an eccentric aristocrat who decides to retreat into the sewers instead of collect his inheritance. A crafty crook is his only contact with the world above. It may have little of El Topo's cult love but how could your heart not melt for The Rainbow Thief? How can you not love a film that allows Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif to share the screen for only the third time after Lawrence of Arabia and Night of the Generals? How can you not love a film that worships the maligned and forgotten in ways that anticipate The Fisher King and doesn't make you suffer Robin Williams? How can you not love a film in which Christopher Lee plays not only a sympathetic character for once, but a lovable, billionaire whore monger on his death bed? How can you not a love a film that brings a dog back from the dead? Answered my own question, haven't I? It does rather overflow with good cheer (Jodorowsky never half-asses anything) and its saccharine myth-making could sweeten espresso. As with all of his films, it's an all-or-nothing proposition, but if you're in the mood to be enchanted, there are few films that feel quite so splendidly like live-action cartoons. Jodorowsky might not want to own up to having a heart, but the evidence is overwhelming and I respect the man all the more for taking a chance on showing it to us. For a long time it looked like he wasn't ever going to get to make another film (any director whose stylistic sensibility closely resembles a peyote hallucination is no friend to producers) and I'm glad as anything that I get to go to a movie theatre and buy a ticket for the new film by Alejandro Jodorowsky. All the same, if he'd gone out on The Rainbow Thief, I think I could have lived with that.

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Kevin B. Lee

Kevin B. Lee
How to look at a movie isn’t something to take for granted. There are as many ways to look at a movie as there are stars in outer space. So we have to ask ourselves: which ways of looking are the ones we want to lead us as we make our way through this infinite universe of images?
Known for: pioneering the short-form video essay. Shedding light on non-canonical Chinese cinema.

Contributed to: Senses of Cinema, Chicago Reader, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, Slant, The House Next Door, Moving Image Source, The Auteurs/Mubi, Time Out New York, Fandor, Time Out Chicago, Cine-File, IndieWire, Press Play, Roger, Shooting Down Pictures, Sight & Sound, Slate, The New York Times.

Noted Champion of: In The City of Sylvia, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Kate Lyn Sheil, Wang Bing. 

Influences: Harun Farocki ("always looking for new ways to see"), Theodor Adorno ("ferocity of skepticism, especially of cinema"), Walter Benjamin ("transformative vision"), Siegfried Kracauer ("curiosity in mass culture"), Jonathan Rosenbaum ("cinephilia with conscience"), Nicole Brenez ("championing the margins and marginalized"), Manny Farber ("dramatist of restless thought"), Roger Ebert ("populism with smarts and decency"), David Bordwell ("consummate science"), Tom Gunning ("at home in the unknowable"), Chris Marker ("seductive subjectivity"), Serge Daney ("that voice, so clear and purposeful"), Dennis Lim ("master surveyor of the scene"), Matt Zoller Seitz ("pure charisma"), Catherine Grant ("information empowerment"), Ed Gonzalez ("relentless DIY work ethic"), Keith Uhlich and Dan Sallitt ("fearless embrace of personal passions"), Mike D'Angelo and Michael Sicinski ("living termite critics"), The Otolith Group / Kodwo Eshun ("if only for the way he talks"), John Gianvito ("spiritual light"), Slavoj Zizek ("Everything is NOT awesome; Everything Is Ideology"), Thom Andersen ("Essay Plays Cinema"), Guy Debord ("he gave us the spectacles to properly see our society").

One of a few biographies you can find on Kevin B. Lee (January 21st 1975-) begins: A highly regarded producer of critical video essays, Kevin B. Lee blurs the line between filmmaker and film critic. Which would sum it up neatly except that his personality lights his critical work from within like a thousand flood lights. From his earliest piece, a biography of Jia Zhangke for Senses of Cinema, his predilections are clear. A healthy suspicion of canonical logic (his take down of Argo for Slate, at the height of its popularity, is among his most read pieces), a dialogue with critics laced with humility, and the fearless forging of a new path. After a list of everyone Jia's been compared to and the critics who made the comparisons, he quickly shifts gears: 

While these impressive points of reference may lend a feeling of familiarity to those unacquainted with Jia’s films, what risks getting lost in the translation is the glorious strangeness of Jia’s aesthetic. It’s worth making this point because the strangeness of the world is itself a central theme of Jia’s films. It’s a strangeness that descends on his characters and impedes their ability to cope with changes which may be as imperceptible as the shifting trends in music and fashion over months and years, or as sudden and calamitous as a factory explosion. 

He pays tribute, then drills deeper into the issue than he feels anyone else has gone. Perhaps that's why he was uniquely qualified to help popularize and lay out the stylistic foundations for the video essay form, as we know it today. His thorough and thoughtful analysis, on documentary and the question of cinematic reality especially, has allowed him contribute to an almost unprecedented list of highly esteemed outlets including most recently The New York Times. He continues writing criticism to this day, as always his finger on the ever-quicking pulse of the artform and its champions, and it's just as incisive as his video work, but Lee's contributions are of paramount importance to the flourishing of internet criticism. Short form video essays are something only possible in the age of the internet, and they're a great example of the ways in which modern critics can dig deeper into texts than was ever possible in the past. Lee has looked at the unique prowess of certain directors, such as when he charted the evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson in five choice steadicam shots or when he and Matt Zoller Seitz took apart the obsessions that fuel the films of Oliver Stone, as well as the stylistic development of the TV show The Wire. Lee became an unwilling culture warrior when Youtube deleted all of his content in 2009, including clips and full essays on films, citing copyright infringement. In his article on the injustice, Seitz had this to say on Lee's work: Kevin's trailblazing example inspired me to give up print journalism last year and concentrate on filmmaking, and make video essays—criticism with moving pictures—a key part of my new life. High praise and proof that Lee had indeed changed the way many of us relate to and review movies. 

Lee's criticism on the history of Chinese cinema is of particular interest to anyone interested in world cinema. In tackling a largely unheralded Canon, Lee humbly admits his amateur status (unnecessarily, as he's twice the authority most American critics are) and shines a light onto both contemporary and classical work. His work at dGenerate films, a non-theatrical distribution company, further illustrates his commitment to giving a voice to the best unknown Chinese filmmakers. Below is his essay comprised of clips from 50 major films from the start of the artform to 2011. 

For the Moving Image Source, an essay on six contemporary Chinese films:

And finally, among my personal favourites on this subject, his two-part A Revolution on Screen, concerning films made between 1949-1966, a crucial time for the shifting national and cultural identity:

A good entryway into his work on modern independent film from his position as founding editor at Fandor's blog (he also served as editor-in-chief for the video/blog haven Press Play from 2012-2013), this piece on Kate Lyn Sheil's performance in Amy Seimitz' scorching two-hander Sun Don't Shine. It's wonderful not only as an example of granting attention to a work in need of a greater audience, but also it's tuned to Lee's frequency as a critic. The moments that speak loudest to him are often completely silent, and his amazing command of film technique has allowed him to bring those haunting moments to the attention of an audience hungry for new perspectives on art. 

True Detective: "After You've Gone"

“Time has its way with us all.” is the Marty Hart line that opens “After You’ve Gone”, True Detective’s penultimate episode. And what a line it is. It says so much about the ride this season has taken us on so far. I can’t really fathom experiencing so much from only seven episodes of this series. The show’s ability to jump back and forth in time is put to shame only by its total control of whether or not it wants those time jumps to confuse the audience. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s really pure magic as screenwriting and even though I know I’ve been sucking up to Mr. Pizzolatto for the last seven weeks I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

The scene that opens this episode has Marty and Rust quickly explaining where they’ve been for the last decade or so since they’ve seen each other. It’s the first time True Detective goes out of its way to explain events that happen off camera in any kind of detail. Generally we just get a cryptic hint. And what we learn from all of this is that Rust travelled to the farthest reaches to escape this case and is brought back because of what he calls a “debt”. We actually get to see a great role reversal in this episode. All season long I’ve found myself 100% on Rust’s side. No matter what ridiculous shit he was spouting I still knew deep down that when it came to police work he was doing what he was doing because he was right. But for the first time all season I really can’t be sure that his “sprawl”, his web of connected clues isn’t just what Marty calls “conjecture”.

The timeline of this episode occurs after all the interviews we’ve grown so familiar with. So it’s very strange to hear Marty and Maggie (who’s seems to have married someone with money) referencing the interviews like they just happened. But what does Pizzolatto do now that his framing vehicle is gone? He creates another one. The bulk of the episode revolves around Marty and Rust sitting in a storage unit that Rust has filled with objects pertaining to his “sprawl”. The episode jumps to and from this scene to fill in other details but the main story lives in this storage unit.

I touched on it in my review of “Who Goes There” but this episode really lays out how these two men operate. They are both defined by their work. They glaze over the last decade because they weren’t working. Their personal lives meant little to them because there wasn’t a work life to offset it. I’m happy to see this side of these two men return since there really isn’t much time left to define these fellas. “After You’ve Gone” breaks the HBO standard of a raucous penultimate episode that leads into a finale where they deal with the fallout. Instead we get a slow but steady episode where we have to play catch up with a large amount of new information tied to this now almost twenty-year-old case. And knowing for sure that next season this story will not continue presents a very new aspect to watching television that really raises the stakes on next week’s finale.

Some of the stuff that let the air out of my balloon last week finally decided to show up with just a few minutes left in the episode. My roving obsession with Carcosa, masks, and the King in Yellow was finally given some payoff this week. First, when Rust and Marty question a suspect’s former employee the former decides to show her some sketches of the stick sculptures that have haunted their investigation all along. Upon seeing them she begins to spout babble about Carcosa and my obsession was immediately reignited. I imagine this sort of break brings on similar feelings in real detectives. At a few points throughout the episode we learn about the Tuttle family’s affinity for mask-wearing ceremonies and once again we return to Robert W. Chambers' writing.

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

—The King in Yellow: Act I, Scene 2

This scene is performed almost exactly when Rust and Marty question a hospitalized witness and having it echo now in the series final hours sends chills up my spine. And in the last shot of “After You’ve Gone”, after the two cops who were interrogating Rust and Marty throughout the season leave a man with a very specific skin condition (the 'green eared spaghetti monster') we see that he’s been mowing a large patch of grass in a circle. A flat circle.

And just like that, almost effortlessly, True Detective has trapped me again in my own obsession with finding an answer to all of this. So finally, with only fifty eight some odd minutes left in this story we’re given two men who no longer have any official ties to the law acting as law enforcers. They owe the dead a debt that they firmly believe and no matter what they’re going to see to see it through. They simply are incapable of anything else.

True Detective “Form and Void”

The finale of True Detective, reviewed by Tucker 'Fox' Johnson

Rust: “You’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky and everything.”
Marty: “How’s that?”
Rust: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me the light’s winnin’.”

And so concludes the first season of True Detective. To a passerby this dialogue exchange wouldn’t seem like anything special but when those words come both at the end of one of the most nihilistic series on record and out of the mouth of a man who spent the series’ eight episodes despising every collective breath that humanity took, well, it’s a big deal. 

There are plenty of weighty themes to talk about in “Form and Void” but I want to start with Nic Pizzolatto’s approach to the season’s final moments. Unlike most of the cop shows I’ve seen (and it’s pretty hard to even consider this in the same league as most of them) a huge twist wasn’t thrust into the finale. In fact Pizzolatto threw the killer right in our face at the end of last week’s episode “After You’ve Gone” and in so doing quelled the riot that was internet theorization. Everyone and their mother had their ideas about every aspect of True Detective, the Yellow King most of all. I imagine this always happens with good mystery television (I guess it really doesn’t even have to be good) but what I really appreciate here is even though he had no real control over the audience’s self appointed Easter egg hunt between episodes he did have control over what we did and didn’t know for sure. Most of the season he chose to sprinkle the facts on us but it was almost as if he foresaw what we’d all be doing and reigned us all back in and his actions speak louder than the narrative. He tells us flat out who to be afraid of before we even get to the finale because the identity of the killer isn’t the point that Pizzolatto is trying to make. Errol William Childress could really be anyone. That said, he’s an absolutely terrifying screen presence and Glenn Fleshler deserves all the credit in the universe for showing up this late in the game and still casting such a heavy shadow with his performance. But this man who’s been yearning to be the King in Yellow for so long, who’s taken calculated steps to not being discovered, who’s mastered the art of hiding in plain sight is finally brought down because he painted a house once in 1994. And just when you thought you couldn’t throw your hands up any higher at the situation we learn he painted the house green, not yellow.

That’s where True Detective sets itself apart from other cop drama. The final clues aren’t found and put together because the dutiful detective finally looks at them from the right angle. Not at all. Instead the discovery is made because of a completely random connection brought on by a just as circumstantial frame of mind. And it’s perfect. This is the kind of idea that this series has been building toward since its beginning. Human beings are imperfect creatures that have found themselves in a universe where they constantly face a near perfect enemy: Darkness. So when we finally make the right connection, when we finally discover the killer’s identity, when we finally take them down we see it as a victory against the very cosmos. We spurn the skies because that is where our creator lives and we have to remind him that no matter what his intentions he’s allowed true evil to seep through onto our plane and humanity, not God, fought it off. True Detective strikes me as a series that wants to show how people are constantly trying to prove to their makers that they’re worth the gift of existence. It’s really the most human emotion there is. We want to be worth something. Like Marty we want to be desired by those we care about and though we make mistakes we’ll still fight tooth and nail to retain that desire. Like Errol Childress we want to fight for our place in the shuffle. We push our father’s aside (or lock them up) to make sure that we’re given our time to prove ourselves worthy of power and existence. Every character on the show can be applied to this template except for one: Rust Cohle. Rust doesn’t care what he’s worth. His sole mission in life is to prove the creator wrong. He wants to rub God’s face in the fact that nature and humanity have allowed for atrocities to occur and who in their right mind would allow such horror to exist? He’s not even out to stop the madness. He just wants to make sure that everyone knows it’s there, lurking in the shadows, a horrific inevitability. But then that is why “Form and Void’s” final lines are so beautiful. Rust finally stopped the evil he’d been fighting against for two decades. He finally won his battle with the cosmos and only after doing so does he realize that maybe it isn’t a losing battle after all. In the climactic moments of Rust’s chase through Childress’ Carcosa he looks up into the sky and has a vision of a cluster of stars in the shape of a spiral. “This will all happen again” it says. But in that same defeatist statement hides another, “Now is the chance to do something about it”.

True Detective has spent plenty of its air time focusing on dualities so of course it ends with them too. Time is a flat circle, easily repeated. So of course we’re taken back through all of the outdoor set pieces of this season though now from the vantage point of a helicopter shot gliding cleanly over all. Carcosa is an enormous spider web in the darkness yet when defeat for its king finally comes it does so in a wide-open room with a view of the sun and sky. The cosmos takes on the shape of a spiral yet in the season’s final shot we look upon a starry night sky that seems so much clearer. The stars are positioned randomly in the sky with no real pattern to buy into or obsess over. And as if to strengthen Rust’s closing words the shot is given a long exposure and the full brightness of the stars becomes more and more apparent. Yet Rust’s final line isn’t that we’ve won, it’s that we’re winning. The battle of light and dark is never ending and so of course the winner will change hands. It’s just up to those on the side of light to keep battling the dark no matter the odds or frankly, the outcome.

It’s been lovely watching this season and writing about it. Only because I listened to it while writing this final article do I want to close with the refrain from the song “Black River Killer” by Blitzen Trapper. It just seemed too fitting to pass up:

So you make no mistake
I know just what it takes
To pull a mans soul back from heavens gates
I’ve been wandering in the dark about as long as sin
But they say it’s never too late to start again
Oh when, oh when
Will the spirit come a-callin' for my soul to send
Oh when, oh when
Will the keys to the kingdom be mine again?