Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Holiday

While Sean and I tour the Low Countries, the site will be on hold for a bit. Bad news is no movie reviews; good news is there is an early favorite for the next Beer of the Month.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Cronenberg Explained

I really didn't have the heart to tell RFC's other half about the lecture on David Cronenberg Wednesday night. Not just because Sean is a much bigger Cronenberg fan than I, but because it was one of the rare offerings at the Cinemateque Royal here in Brussels that was in English.

I'll start by saying I am in no position to argue the conclusions of Professor Ernest Mathijs, who is director of the Center for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia, and has been close to obsessed with Cronenberg films since he was 13. Apparently, his love affair began with seeing a poster for Scanners - exploding head and all - at his local video store and hasn't stopped since. In fact, not only have I not seen that movie, but I've never seen (or heard of?) a Cronenberg film until A History of Violence. So I'll cede to the authority on all points here and just offer a quick summary of what he said.

The lecture shared the title of his new book, The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero. Mathijs's main point is that while it may appear that Cronenberg has developed from a schlock and gore director into a serious filmmaker, the change is really in our culture and not in the man himself. The argument is that Cronenberg from his early days of experimental horror flicks up until his recent work has consistently repeated the same themes - a terrifying and fluid 'reality,' the prison of the body, and the struggle and failure to overcome one's own demons; it just so happens that the world has come to look more like a Cronenberg film over the last twenty years. What seemed absurd and fantastic in the early 80's seems very real now. Mathijs even cites one of Cronenberg's cinematographers as saying that the man doesn't make different films, "he just makes the same film over and over again" in a different package.

The second argument is that Cronenberg is a revolutionary filmmaker because his involvement in the film doesn't stop at the final print; even after a film's release, Mathjis argues, Cronenberg insists on making sure that audiences get what he is trying to do. Indeed, unlike many other directors of similar stature, Cronenberg almost never turns down interviews or opportunities to tell people what he is doing, whether it's to an audience at Cannes or Fangoria magazine. In fact, Mathijs began his study after Cronenberg replied to a hand written letter asking the director where he could read more about him. This insistence on controlling not only the product, but the reception as well, leads Mathijs to call Cronenberg the "Active Auteur." In our postmodern times, this should not be surprising, I guess, since the wall between production and reception of culture was torn down a long time ago in literary theory. What's interesting however, is that Barthes's mort de l'auteur also entailed the 'author' losing control of his product. Basically, the theory goes, the worth and meaning of a movie is whatever the audience says it is; an interesting paradox for someone as insistent on his vision as Cronenberg, but one Mathijs doesn't take up.

While these were both interesting ideas, and add a lot to the experience of seeing a Cronenberg film (we watched The Brood afterwards, which I'll review soon), I wish there had been a little more depth to the presentation itself. I won't go into all the details here - lord knows academics can struggle with the presentation side - but the talk itself was rambling, consisting mostly of PowerPoint slides and a few stills of the movies. For reasons I'm still not sure of, Mathijs showed virtually every appearance of a Cronenberg acting cameo as well as every instance of a car that appeared in his movies. He seemed particularly excited that in one movie, there were only two exteriors...and one had a car! I think he may have been rushed, and I'm sure the book itself has more coherence, but given how interesting the ideas were, I really would have liked to see more examples of the films themselves.*

*Possible copywrite issues I guess, but at least do something other than PowerPoint.

There were some cool moments and anecdotes, however, and I should pass them along (links to some of this stuff at the bottom):

- Mathijs did show two clips, the first Cronenberg's 2007 short film for a Cannes retrospective called At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World, which featured 3 minutes of the director agonizing over whether or not to put a bullet in his brain while two inane announcers described the event. The second, which added literally nothing to the argument, but was still pretty cool, was a deleted scene from the little-known Fast Company, a PG effort meant for the mainstresm, where the protagonist pours motor oil over two naked girls. Pretty cool not just because of the girls, but because it came from a director's commentary version where Cronenberg apparently had thought the shot was lost forever. In the lead-up, he is bemoaning the fact that there is this great scene with motor oil and nude women, but that it was cut and he could never find it. Just as he is complaining about losing the rights, we get a quick cut to two gorgeous girls, and the oil begins to flow.

- Mathjis revealed his top 3 Cronenberg films: 1) Videodrome ("the best movie ever, by anyone"), 2) Eastern Promises, and 3) The Fly.

- Cronenberg's first two experimental shorts from the late 60s, Transfer and From the Drain - of which only a few prints in the world remain - are now available on Youtube (Note: I couldn't find Transfer but he said it's out there).

- Belgians were one of the first audiences to take Cronenberg seriously. The story goes that Cronenberg had come to screen another film at the 1984 Belgian Fantastic Film Festival, and while there, showed a copy of Videodrome to a few of the organizers. The movie had a terrible distribution in the states (see below), but after the side screening, all the critics and Festival members demanded it be released in Belgium. At the time, other than his home Canada, Belgium was the most successful market for Cronenberg releases.

- One (of many) things that caused problems for Videodrome was that the audience test screening took place in Boston during a traffic strike. Cronenberg usually liked to test his films in Toronto, where he knew the audience, but he figured Boston would be fine, given that he could pack the house with college kids from Harvard, MIT, and Emerson. Unfortunately, the screening happened during the strike, so the students couldn't attend. As Mathijs tells it, desperate organizers literally had to pull people of the streets, including women with children and other good folks from the city. Suffice it to say, neither the Boston Brahmins nor the Universal studio executives who saw the report were impressed.

Most of this cool stuff happened after the talk proper, and I wish it had been off-the-cuff the entire time. Mathijs showed his love and knowledge of Cronenberg better in an informal setting, and the combination of passion and intelligence for the director makes you want to be a fan too. Just leave the PowerPoint at home.

(From the Drain Part 1)
(From the Drain Part 2)
(Mathijs's Book, not yet released)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm Not There

Dir. Todd Haynes

Viewed: From the Couch


I'm going to go on record here and say simply, I don't like Todd Haynes' films. Never have and, I'm pretty sure now, never will. In his most recent film, I'm Not There, he takes the life of Bob Dylan and separates it into five or six different characters that are meant to represent five or six different sides of the man -- different personae he's used during his career as arguably the most influential and groundbreaking singer/songwriter of all time. It's certainly a novel way to go about making a movie about Bob Dylan. Unfortunately it only manages to come off as a muddled experiment that does next to nothing to shed any light on a impenetrable and reclusive figure, and if I didn't already know better I'd come away from this film thinking the guy's somewhat of an ass. Basically, after spending 2+ hours rooting around in the head of Dylan we exit out the front door thinking, Wow, he sure is an impenetrable and reclusive figure, that guy.

One of the film's conceits is that as it jumps around from personality to personality we're also making stylistic jumps from black & white to mock-documentary to warm 70s tones to panoramic western, etc. This has been one of my problems with Todd Haynes pictures -- his films lack any personality. In a movie like his ode to 70s glam rock Velvet Goldmine, or Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, this style over substance technique can be excusable but to go from project to project where the most important aspect becomes how to most accurately ape the style, often shot for shot, of another director, it can get downright boring and drain any real emotion from the film. He's answering the question of what would have become of Gus Van Sant if he never let go of the instincts that got him to do his Pyscho remake. The other problem is that he tends to be brutally on-the-nose and blunt with every note where, especially in a movie about Dylan, he really shouldn't be.

The movie spends the bulk of it's time with Cate Blanchett as the alter-ego named Jude Quinn (don't ask me why). It's perhaps the most widely recognized Dylan persona -- from the period forever immortalized in the great documentary Don't Look Back -- all tea shades, big curly hair and cigarettes. These scenes are shot in black & white and has Haynes in Fellini mode, sometimes lifting scenes wholesale from 8 1/2. How cute. Certainly there can be parallels to be made between the director seeking refuge in 8 1/2 and Dylan circa 1965, but does getting so damn meta really bring us any closer to the subject matter? No, actually it completely separates us even further from making inroads to a character that is already telling us that we'll never get to know what's going on in their head. So what's the point? Look at what I can do while we spin our wheels?

For a movie that seems to be trying to break down the usual conventions of a bio-pic (which were wonderfully dealt with in the much more enjoyable Walk Hard, by the way) these sections of the movie with Jude Quinn do nothing but go down the checklist of important moments and even go so far as to shoehorn song titles into the dialog, adding to my list of groan inducing moments. The movie doesn't fare much better in this regard while in the Jack Rollins moments of the film either. Played by Christian Bale, Jack is supposed to represent the idealistic, working class, Time's Are A' Changing persona. This character is tied to these redundant talking head pseudo-documentary interviews with people in his life that state obvious sound bites that segue us into hopefully better scenes. Thankfully our moments with Jack are few and far between. I'm not sure how you go about draining the charisma from Christian Bale, but this movie manages to do that quite well.

The only use I could find for the Jack character is as a way to introduce us to the best part of the movie with Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark (and yes it is odd to see Ledger and Bale once again playing two sides of the same coin), representing the private life, the relationships, the Visions of Johanna persona. Not only does Ledger's great performance give us a break from the Dylan impersonations, but the scenes actually resonate, create some inroads and make Dylan actually seem like a human being. Robbie falls in love with a french artist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, an actress I enjoyed watching in The Science of Sleep and enjoyed even more here. She has a beautiful loneliness that is used well again here as her relationship with Robbie quickly moves from bliss to your typical rock star pitfalls -- long periods of separation, cheating with groupies and living under the scrutiny of the public eye. Add a bit of a misogynistic streak and the relationship is stretched to it's breaking point. Whenever the film returned to this couple my interest consistently returned. Ledger and Gainsbourg have great chemistry and even though their story is pretty much by the numbers it is a pleasure to watch them go about their business. Perhaps it's because there is little of the stylization that coats the other sections of the movie or perhaps it's because this is an aspect of our subject's life that isn't as widely known to a run of the mill Dylan fan but I found the boring, kitchen sink side of the story the most interesting.

The two more adventurous parts of the film have to do with Marcus Carl Franklin playing an 11 year old black vagabond troubadour character named Woody Guthrie and Richard Gere paying an aged Billy the Kid in exile. Both are pretty hit and miss in their efforts to convey Dylan's earliest inspired musical period in the Guthrie character and his imagination and desire for seclusion in Billy the Kid. The Guthrie scenes are effective despite Haynes continued desire to beat you over the head with every metaphor. They work when they do thanks to Franklin's surprising tenderness in the moments when he's confronted with reality. When his true past as a delinquent from the suburbs of Minnesota tries to catch up with him as he's playing for a living room full of enchanted upper crust and when a rural southern black family takes him in only to question his authenticity are two of the more memorable moments of the film. This Woody Guthrie character intersects with Billy the Kid in a later portion of the film (and in case you didn't realize what the moment represents, Haynes will of course take a moment to have a character spell it out for you) as Billy is forced to leave his cabin and finds out that a grizzled, wheelchair bound Pat Garrett is threatening to destroy his tiny old-west town to make way for the encroaching modern world. Gere gives a welcome, understated performance and the scenes have a gracefulness that's missing from the others even though like most of the threads in this movie, it ends up going absolutely nowhere.

I would have loved to seen a full movie of Bob Dylan as an old Billy the Kid trying to keep his community of misfits together. It's the kind of movie that befits Dylan, so I enjoyed the relatively small part this scenario played in the film. The kind of movie that does not befit Bob Dylan is a devoid of subtle (it's like they shot the audience with machine guns at the Newport Jazz Festival! "How does it feel? Rawr!") exercise in stylistic hopscotch like I'm Not There. It tries to build up the myth with one hand and take it down with the other. It's another movie that tries to have it both ways but unlike Funny Games it can't even succeed at one way. It is simply another one of these quasi-indie movies that can't look past the end of it's own nose. There's a good movie in there somewhere but it comes to you so in love with itself that you have to chisel through layers of useless artifice, applied so as to make itself look pretty but in the end makes it a needlessly heavy and dense mess.

Paddy, you're one of the biggest Dylan fans I know, what did you think of this one? After watching this mess I couldn't help but think of Masked & Anonymous; a much better, more enjoyable mess of a movie than this one that plays like you're watching an epic Dylan song. It's adventurous and captures the spirit of Dylan and isn't that the closest we should strive for? Do you think there's any use in even trying to make a movie about Bob Dylan?



I wouldn't say Masked & Anonymous is like watching an epic Dylan song (Sad-eyed Lady, Desolation Row, Highlands)- those tend to be immaculately structured and logical, and Masked was a really loose and uneven, if still enjoyable, picture. Maybe more like watching an extended outtake from Dylan and The Band rehearsing for the Basement Tapes sessions.

I'm going back a few months to when I saw I'm Not There, but I definitely enjoyed it. I'll try to explain why, even if it might be a bit hazy. Oddly, I really thought it did give you a sense of Dylan - I mean the guy is inscrutable, and any bio pic that tried a more conventional narrative may have been more enjoyable, but would have been pure fiction. It was pretty clear in interviews from the time that Haynes really didn't like Ray and Walk the Line because they were false, just simply false accounts of how people's lives work.* We may convince ourselves of some personal narrative that involves suffering, redemption, and music montages, but life is much more like the grab bag of random personae that we see in I'm Not There.

*Walk Hard may have laughed at the conventions of the genre, but certainly didn't suggest anything different. The best a spoof can do is make people roll their eyes the next few times they see a bio pic, until they eventually forget and go back to falling for the same thing.

One reason why I like Dylan so much is that he refuses the near-universal assumption that each of us are some single, unique person, with fixed ideas, tastes and a thing called a personality. I tend to think this idea of fixity is horseshit - that we are capable of constantly reinventing who we are and what we want, so long as we have the courage to abandon the very comfortable trappings of the unique personality (after all, what's easier than saying "that's not me.") Dylan's embraced the American ideal that you can make yourself into anyone (though most in the Horatio Alger story only do it once!) so I give Haynes credit for trying to get this concept into a biography, which tends to favor smooth transitions in life over abrupt changes. I guess you could argue that Dylan is just so complex that you shouldn't even bother with a movie on his life, but that's a cop out. It was a ballsy movie to make - to try and capture what cannot be captured - and I like that.

Like you, I had different opinions of each of the personae, but I actually disliked the Robbie Clark character the most (or maybe second most, but Bale's character was hardly on the screen). I don't really remember why I didn't like it, but I think it's telling that you like the part of the movie that most resembled the standard melodrama of bio pics. It was clearly the most familiar character - a boozing, out of control musician arguing with his wife, life on the road, - but also, for me, the most forgettable. Instead I liked the Gere scenes the most, followed by Jude (assuming it's a reference to the fact that he was famously called "Judas" on that tour). I can't really remember the Billy the Kid stuff, aside from the fact that it was just great to look out, somehow incredibly moving but with a light touch.

I'm not really sure why you are so hostile to the Jude scenes. Not only are they like Fellini's portrayals of celebrity, but they mirror Don't Look Back, which itself was almost more Felliniesque than Fellini himself! I thought that was an inspired idea, and the Fellini 'lens' was the best way to capture what was going on at the time. You're just not going to know "what was going on in Dylan's head"; to ask that of Haynes is just to repeat the same reporter's questions to Dylan that he parried away with laughs and non-sequitors in Don't Look Back. It's the cinematic equivalent of asking what the lyrics mean. Who cares what's in his head? Show me his world.

I'm Not There is far from a masterpiece, but I think it's the most honest cinematic take were likely to get on Dylan. It was a lot to take at one time, because it was simply such a new kind of movie. Sure some of the symbolism may have been too literal or obvious, but I bet there was a lot more that wasn't, and it was probably no more obvious than a good Dylan song, where you get a few of the references but are baffled by most. Maybe Dylan really is impervious to such an imperfect medium - you're certainly never going to get a better understanding of the guy than by listening to his music - but if the choices are to make a false conventional film, make no film, or make an odd and ambitious film, I'll choose the last every time.



I'll refrain from calling it a gimmick but like I said, I do think it is a novel and ambitious way to get at Dylan (though I'm not completely convinced that it could ever work), but it's so badly executed that any merits I would give for this grand design is lost in the way it's handled. The transitions are so clumsy and obvious, the imagery and dialog so excruciatingly force fed to the audience that I spent the majority of the movie uncomfortable in my seat and cringing more than anything else. I came away from this film with nothing new about the subject matter (and I'm no Dylan expert) except for what was covered in the conventional melodrama part. I enjoyed this part of the film not because of its conventional nature but that it was showing me a Dylan that I haven't seen before and it was giving me something that actually held my interest albeit ever so slightly (I certainly wouldn't want the whole movie to be like this). I really don't need to see Cate Blanchett shuffling around, whining in a Fellini world about being misunderstood. I'm not getting anything from it besides this cutesy movie connection. Why bother? It's one thing to point out the parallels of Don't Look Back to 8 1/2 but it's another to create the bastard child of the two for half a movie. The two movies work on their own for the very same reason they don't work in this context. Don't Look Back is perfectly not staged, 8 1/2 is overtly staged. I don't need to see scenes lifted directly from Don't Look Back and filtered through 8 1/2 or vice versa and then propagated with the most obvious imagery possible. That strikes me as a thematically lazy, on-the-nose stylistic exercise that exists mostly to say, Hey didja see what I just did there?, and only serves to distance me from the subject by suddenly being a movie within a movie within a movie. As does the fakey interviews and the poet character (his name is Arthur Rimbaud... poet? get it? eh?) popping in from time to time for the sole purpose to deliver some stock Dylanism to beat us over the head with like some pissed off greek chorus.

And trust me when I say the reasons for my dislike has little to do with the structure of the film -- this could have been pulled off well (though the more I think about it the more I doubt it). I'm all for breaking the conventional rules of every genre out there, but like I said, looking at the results, this movie still adheres to most of those rules, by going down the list of important moments and replicating those iconic images, more than it breaks any new ground. It's not nearly as abstract as one might think it is and this certainly isn't the first time a character has been deconstructed on film. Scene after scene, right on down the line, the movie presents us with some drama and then cues a Dylan song that best represents what sort of mode of Bob we're supposed to be watching in the scene. Again, blunt and no subtlety. There's nothing in this movie that is left for interpretation. Everything is so pinned down which is the most typical attribute of the bio-film.

Haynes does excel at putting us into a world -- he's got a fabulous art and costume department and cinematographer working with him. But maybe I've seen enough movies that take us to the tumultuous 1960s that I found nothing rewarding about this trip. If I never see another montage set to stock footage of 1960s protesters I think I'd be just fine. At the same time, Haynes seems interested in reinforcing the superficiality and a whole lot less interested in finding any truths or discovering anything that isn't obvious. If we're really supposed to look at this movie as not trying to peer into Dylan's head but rather the world around him, there's an infinite amount of better ways to achieve that goal than the stylized to the max, faux meaningfulness on display here.

I'm a firm supporter of ambitious messes. Last year I glowed about Southland Tales largely for it's unwavering gonzo ambition -- and what a mess that movie is. So I can appreciate what Haynes went for here. But there's no doubt in my mind that it's misguided from the get go and executed with little success. Honestly, if you met someone who has never seen one but wanted to watch a movie about Dylan, would you recommend this? And if this movie is designed for people already seeped in the Dylan mythos, and with all its wink wink nudge nudges it probably is intended to be taken this way, than why is it so superficial? I'm Not There could have gone 100% allegorical with Billy the Kid and black 11 year old Woody Guthrie and created a unique yet familiar world around them and I would have probably applauded that ambition even if it didn't completely hit the mark. But as it is, all we have is some good performances and some amusing eye candy strung together with only the slightest thought put towards the most important point: What is the point?

[Now for the much more, likable, entertaining, real version:]

[And just because I find it kind of fascinating...]

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Page From the Pull List - Local

Something I've been meaning to do is regularly shine a light on some of the fantastic comic books that are out there these days. I don't have the most extensive pull list. It's certainly not as time and money consuming as it was a few years ago. There's some superhero stuff sprinkled in there but for the most part I tend to lean towards the more grounded stories and stay committed to writers more than I stay committed to a particular title. So my plan here is to try and chime in, on a couple Wednesdays or Thursdays a month, about whatever book is currently rising to the top of the stack and I'll try to find a page that best represents what I like about that book.

Local is over and done with, which I suppose makes it an odd title to start off with (if you don't include the Hellboy post a short while back, which I don't). But a gorgeous hardcover collection of all 12 issues just came out a couple weeks ago from the wondrous Oni Press and for the three years that it took for those 12 issues to come out it was always the first thing I read when I got my new stack home.

Local is the story of Megan McKeenan as told by Brian Wood (who also pens the consistently amazing DMZ which I'll probably get to sooner than later) and drawn in beautiful black and white by Ryan Kelly. We first meet Megan in Portland, Oregon as she spends the last moments with her fucked up boyfriend, trying to decide if she's going to go into the pharmacy their parked in front of and attempt to get him drugs with his forged prescription. The last frame of that first issue has Megan proudly sitting at Union Station waiting for the next train to take her away. We don't know where she's going and it takes 12 issues and 12 different cities before we find out where she ends up. The focus on each new city adds another layer to get lost in. There's a certain ear to ear grin that you get on your face when you recognize a street corner or a bar that Megan might be walking by -- the attention to detail in every aspect of these issues is phenomenal.

It's a fascinating series and one of the deepest looks into a young woman finding her identity that I've ever read. It's hilarious and beautifully sad sometimes in the same issue and the same moment. One of my favorite things about it is that there's no narration. It takes a few issues before you even crack the surface of who Megan really is -- there's no inner commentary to tell you what she's thinking as she tries to reinvent herself, put up walls and break them down. It's a much more challenging way to try and get to know this young woman who's sometimes frustratingly naive and not always the most likable person. But it is, of course, the most rewarding.

Finding one page to best show off what I love about Local is no small task. There's no shortage of great great artwork accompanied by great writing but there's also two issues of Local that focus on two of the men in Megan's family. Her cousin Nicky and her brother Matthew, and these two issues practically steal the show away from Megan. Nicky is younger a high school teenage troublemaker, to put it mildly, and Matthew is simply Nicky grown up -- about ten years down the road. Nicky's issue is called "Troubled Youth" and Matthew's is called "Bar Crawl". I didn't draw these parallels at first, but now it seems so obvious and I'm a bit envious of people who might be picking this hardcover collection up now because they don't have to wait 2+ months between issues. But at the same time I doubt they're getting the signature bits that each of the individual issues had at the end where Wood and Kelly would offer up some commentary and, my favorite touch, a soundtrack of a half dozen songs to go along with the issue (kind of like a mix tape to go along with the ebb and flow of the story within each issue).

So I'll refrain from picking a scene from one of the non-Megan issues even though she plays a part in every issue in one way or another -- even the few that she doesn't "star" in. Picking a page to represent the series should feature Megan even though this one is from an issue that only has three pages of her. It's issue #3 where she's flown to Richmond, Virginia possibly just to meet her favorite band Theories and Defenses. The dialog on the page comes from an interview one of the band members is having with a local paper. Megan's just gotten the autograph she was after (even though she had to pay for it) and she's about to get a good dose of disillusionment. It's not the greatest moment of the series but it has all the ingredients that make Local the poignant book it is: it's taking an issue (music) and treating it with a surprising amount of depth, it's got humor and sadness, it has that great eye for detail both in the characters and the city (in this case Cary Street in Richmond) and it's got a great drawing of Megan (not Meggin).

[click to make big]

La Vallée close

Dir: Jean-Claude Rousseau
Viewed From: The Balcony

It is difficult to know how to talk about experimental film. Thinking about La vallee close, I couldn't help alternating between pretentious analysis on the one hand and vapid praise on the other. What I do know was that it was an amazing experience, so maybe I'll just offer a little description on what appears on screen, and a few immediate reactions.

La vallee close (The Enclosed Valley) is shot in Super-8 film, and lasts 143 minutes. There is no dialogue and almost all of the "action" appears to be natural, as if the camera was just set up and left to run, with no pans, zooms or motion at all. There are a few basic scenes, each of which is repeated throughout, though always slightly altered; tourists visiting a cave which appears to be the titular Valley; a man in a hotel room talking on the phone; shots of streams, mountains, etc.; a cafe along the river, and shots of the interior of a decaying apartment building. Though none of the people who appear on screen speak, there are two occasional monologues that are repeated (I think) word for word: the first, one side of a conversation in which a man is making plans for lunch and the second a series of lectures by a professor to (presumably) an elementary school class. The movie itself is divided into 13 "lessons," each with a title related to nature ("Mountains," "The Rain and the Clouds," "The Cardinal Directions," etc.), but I wasn't able to discern much of an overlap between each lesson and the subsequent scenes.

Needless to say, such a film doesn't work for everyone. Before entering, we were actually warned about the pace of the film and I am not exaggerating when I say that a good one-third to one-half of the audience walked out, some within minutes of the film's beginning, and others (inexplicably) minutes from the end. One set of deserters was a couple of teenage kids who clearly didn't get the warning, and who were munching on snacks and talking through the first ten minutes. I had thought about saying something, but I had not completely understood the 'warning' we received (it was in French) and thought that maybe talking and moving about were encouraged a la Einstein on the Beach. But no, soon a large man came over and told them to shut up and put away the food. Five minutes later they were gone.

My friend and I had arrived a few minutes late, and had the good fortune to enter the film during a two-minute shot of a black screen which turned out to be the valley itslef. After stumbling in complete darkness to our seats, the first light on the screen revealed that there were only about 30 people in the audience in a room that can seat a few hundred (yes, do the math and you can determine how many were left at the end). I would venture to say a near-empty theater is almost a necessity to see this movie, as it provides the opportunity to engage in all sorts on complicated seating positions without worrying about blocking a neighbor's view. While there are many scenes that completely captured my attention, I will admit to spending a good deal of the movie thinking about how I was sitting, and managed every cross-legged-foot-on-chair permutation imaginable.

But for the most part, I was really engaged in the images on screen, especially when I decided not to try to figure out their purpose. It's difficult at first, but just watching a bunch of tourists toss rocks into a river can be a pretty powerful cinematic experience given that you can shut your investigative brain down.* My enjoyment also may have been helped by the fact that the monologues were in French with no subtitles, and that I was able to experience them as ambient sound rather than communicative language. Initially I put a lot of brain power into translating it, but soon gave up. It was probably to my advantage, as whenever the talking started, there were small grumbles of discontent among the people who could actually understand the words.

*Just as turning off your rational brain is important to getting pleasure from some standard action pic, I would argue shutting down your "what's going on" brain is essential to most experimental film. Once you start asking this question, you can forget about enjoying the film.

The closest thing I've seen to La vallee close is the kind of film shown at modern and contemporary art museums. I'm not particularly interested in a lot of contemporary art, so if I find myself at an exhibition, I'll eventually lurch off into the corner where some black-and-white thing is being shown on a repeated loop. Almost universally, the stuff is great, but it's a frustrating environment to watch film - if you're with someone, they generally don't share your interest in the film and want to move to the next room; or there is some dead-eyed security guard standing two feet away; or there are just other annoying people in the room with you. Really, this stuff needs to be in a theater rather than cordoned off in an exhibition, where people spend twenty seconds looking at a piece meant to run for an hour. Therefore, I will admit, I can't really tell if La vallee close is great experimental film or if it was just a solid effort helped by the darkness and size of the theater experience.

But if I had to guess, I would say this is the real deal. One reason why it works so well is the Super-8 footage, which breaks up long shots into staccato bursts, where the picture will cut out quickly, followed by darkness, and then the same shot again. Sean probably knows how long a single shot of Super-8 can last, but it can't be long. The short clips, even if they are repeated, work better, and the frilly edges and grainy images are less demanding on the eye than high-resolution film stock. It may seem odd, but there really isn't much work to watching the film. The relatively short shots and rough composition mean you can stare at it for a long time without getting tired. There is also the additional (and unplanned) benefit that much of the film was shot in the late 80s, and so the tourist scenes provide some unintentional levity because of the shorts, t-shirts, and assorted mullets (not to mention the lounge singer doing a French-language "I Just Called To Say I Love You.") In all, there is really a lot of serious things to look at and ponder like the nature scenes and the burned-out building, but the relief of the goofball tourists breaks up these scenes perfectly.

At the end of the film, there is some sense that a narrative could be constructed, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort. We get some idea of who the other person on the phone was, and a better understanding of the relation between the building and the valley, but the film closes on an emotionally resonant note (it just feels right), and so logical closure is beside the point. Two hours and twenty minutes after you arrive, the lights go on and the last thing you want to do is think. Personally, I stood up and did a long stretch, and after looking around to see my fellow brave souls, realized I felt pretty damn good.

A few informed pieces on the director Rousseau (often described as Bressonian) by people that follow this kind of stuff: (Mostly French, but some English in the middle).