Writing is hard

I'm being confronted with the fact that while I'm not bad at stringing sentences together, and my writing is even on occasion half-decent, when you get paid for it (however little) you need to be half-decent by habit, and on occasion spectacular.

So, in this self-improving mood - and also, not so secretly, fishing for infortmation about my handful of visitors, whose movements I track obsessively via sitemeter - I thought I'd ask: what do you think are the strong and weak points of this blog? What could be improved? What could you do without, and what would you like to see (more of)?

We live to serve, after all.

I am aware that most blogs need, and have, a niche. Nathanial loves actresses and lists, Dennis is great at in-depth articles and of course, his famous quizzes I feel too intimidated and ignorant to participate in, the Self-Styled Siren loves old movies, the Shamus subverts the whole blog medium by keeping no archives and changing template every other day, hiding himself in the shadows like a true P.I., and I could go on. What my niche should be is still a bit of a mystery, although I do feel I've been achieving a more consistent tone and style of late. All suggestions are welcome.

And while I'm dealing with blog matters, some household announcements: as you might have noticed, my blogroll has been updated. Some blogs on it had unfortunately met their untimely demise (cinemarati, in particular), others had changed URL's or even identity. Also in the right column, you'll find a link to an infrequently updated alphabetical list of reviews, and a link to my "Tumbling Log". I don't have a lot of links on my blog - I prefer to keep my entries restricted to my own thoughts - but I do of course regularly run across things I'd like to share. The tumbling log is kind of a scrapbook where you'll find few of my own thoughts, but many things I liked: quotes, videos, links to articles. Still planned is a revision of the out-of-date list of DVD's I own.

That's all folks. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Professione: Reporter aka The Passenger

"This first piece of the film in this desert is a man looking for something, and that's really enough of a story for Antonioni"

A confession: I love that there's such a thing as DVD commentaries, but I rarely take the time to listen to them. It feels to much like a purely analytic pursuit, in a way: of course I analyse movies also while I watch them but that does not mean I cannot be swept away and involved by them, but when you're listening to a commentary you're seeing a movie from a much bigger remove, with a layer of analysis between you and the film.

In retrospect, it's obvious that this would be an ideal way to see an Antonioni movie, who, as Nicholson points out on his wonderful commentary track "(films) at a dispassionate distance".

It's a commentary like all commentaries should be: it offers insight, funny anecdotes, but Nicholson's also not afraid of letting some of the scenes play out, even professing his hope at the end that he didn't distract too much from the movie. It's easy to forget sometimes that actors are also often film lovers. Nicholson is known mostly for his antics, but from this commentary speaks a profound love both for film and for Antonioni.

I already loved this film: it's meditative nature, the wit of the screenplay, and of course that fabulous long shot at the end. Despite Nicholson's explanation, I still don't understand how exactly they did it, but it doesn't matter. The excruciatingly slow zoom towards the bars and then out, watching everything going on in the courtyard, it so mesmerizing it makes you hold your breath, and for it alone the movie would be worth watching.

I'll stop now - for the new free-lance thing I landed I will be writing a 1000 word essay about this film and DVD, and I don't to have some fresh thoughts left. But I know I'll be thinking about this movie for the rest of the day, at the very least.


Say Anything

I've always been on the fence when it comes to Cameron Crowe. He has a true talent for writing believable characters and great dialogue, and a fantastic ear for music, but many of his films fail to convince me in the end. I think it's his inherent sentimentality that does him in, but this seems a strange accusation for a man who tries so hard to avoid typical Hollywood sentiment.

He creates indelible scenes: Jerry Maguire yelling "Show me the money!", Billy Crudup standing on the roof yelling "I am a Golden God", John Cusack holding his boombox playing "in your eyes" over his head... Even the exercise-machine suicide and the road trip in Elizabethtown are scenes that are memorable even if the film is now. But ultimately, to me, his films are often more a collection of nice moments than a good, coherent, film. I like his films, but I don't love them

Say Anything was the first exception to that rule. This movie is also not coherent, it kind of meanders, but for the first time it didn't bother me. I identified with these characters and their aimlessness. Lloyd's indecision about his future was painfully familiar, his reluctance to "sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career", and more than that, the resolution of his dilemma feels right: he decides that what he want to be is be with Diane. Because he's good at it. As for Diane, she truly is the center of this film. One of the things I really liked here is that her relationship with her father is just as fleshed out and important as the one with Lloyd, and I recognized much of my relationship with my father in it (though luckily, he's not under investigation by the IRS).

Most high school movies date fairly easily, but this one has not lost any relevance in the 18 years since its release, because it doesn't so much focus on what's "hip" at the time (clothing, language, even music) but on something more essential: where do we go from here? Fashions and lingo change, but that question still faces every graduating senior.

Of course, John Cusack's performance is crucial here. He is Lloyd Dobler: a thoroughly decent and even gallant but also fundamentally aimless guy. He's not perfect. But you can imagine just anyone falling for him: his nervous talking, his ridiculous trench coat, and of course his grand romantic gesture.

But what really makes this film better, in my opinion,, is the ambivalence of the ending. You want these two characters to make it together, but at the same time you doubt they will. The film doesn't end in a kiss or a laugh, but in tense expectation, with a plane taking off. the dialogue says it all:

DIANE: Nobody thought we'd do this. Nobody really thinks it's going to work, do they?
LLOYD: No. You just described every great success story.

Joan Cusack

After my rant on serious movies, I decided to treat myself to a night of thoroughly un-serious movies, a romantic comedy and a film starring Jack Black (don't worry, they weren't the same movie): Cameron Crowe's Say Anything and Richard Linklater's School of Rock. I do admit, they can stir a giddiness I seldom experience when watching serious movies, unless you count Bride of Frankenstein as "serious". I'll probably devote separate posts to them, in any case to the first one. But first:

Joan Cusack.

I can't ask "why doesn't she get more work?", because she actually works quite a bit: she's in two or three movies almost every year. But why doesn't she get bigger parts? Why is she always relegated to be the best friend, the sister, on occasion the girlfriend?

Joan Cusack is, and I'm not afraid to say it, one of the best comedic actresses working today. She's sometimes a little broad, almost veers towards the shrill sometimes, but I don't think she's ever played a one-dimensional character: there's always a deeper layer of hurt and vulnerability and/or of humor in her performances, there's a sense that these aren't just characters there to serve a purpose, but they're characters with a history and an interesting story of their own. That, and of course she's absolutely hilarious.

It's interesting, in both films, she's someone who's lost her sense of fun. In Say Anything, John Cusack (both her on- and off-screen brother) says to her: "You used to be warped and twisted and hilarious. And I mean that in the best way". She kind of wistfully replies: "I was hilarious once, wasn't I?". In School of Rock, she confesses to Jack Black "I wasn't always like this, you know. I wasn't always wound up this tight. There was a time when I was funny. I was fun. I was".

She is funny still, of course. So please, someone write a starring role for her. Something funny and poignant where she can show she can be more than just comic relief, something that will finally raise her status above just being "sister of".


Hany Abu-Assad

Zomergasten ("summer guests") is a strange show. It aspires both to show someone's "ideal TV night" and to interview them during three long hours face to face with an interviewer who is himself/herself also a public figure. This year, the interviewer is again Joris Luyendijk, and while I don't think he's that extrordinary most of the time, he was quite good tonight, interviewing Hany Abu-Assad, the director of the acclaimed "Paradise Now".

Abu-Assad is a Palestinian with the Israeli nationality who came to the Netherlands when he was 18 to study aircraft engineering. His TV-night? Many film fragments, but none of them from the town where he's now working, Hollywood: fragments from Once Upon a Time in the West, Rosetta, a Polish movie, two Egyption movies. Some TV fragments too: from documentaries (The BBC doc The Power of Nightmares) to news footage of Arafat.

Three hours is a long time, and as usual my thoughts wandered, but there were interesting points. Abu-Assad believes democracy has failed as a system, for instance (I personally agree with Churchill that democracy is a wretched system, but it's the best one we know), and he had some very interesting thoughts on the barrier between fact and fiction, in particular the trustworthiness of the documentary as a medium.

There was a controversy when it was found that Abu-Assad had staged a scene in his doc Ford Transit. He was unapologetic about it, because, he argued "this does happen", and furthermore it was not fiction since the camera was acknowledged. I think this argument is rather dodgy, but it does raise some interesting questions. We tend to see documentaries as a more objective form of film making than fiction, but this is of course nonsense: no doc is ever truly objective, even when the makers try, and fiction films can sometimes get closer to the true nature of something than any doc ever could. Still, there is this expectation viewers put on the medium, and it's always worth challenging those viewers, shocking us into being more critical spectators.

It was an interesting night, even if it was in a problematic format. Really getting to know someone in three hours, through their choices of fragments or their answers, is of course an illusion, but Abu-Assad's mind is an interesting one to get a glimpse of.

On watching "serious" films

Why is it, I wondered after a recent comment from my good friend Lani, that I watch so many "serious" films? And what is it that makes a film "serious"?

It's not a strange question. Many people around me don't understand why I watch all these films in black and white, all these films from directors whose names they don't even know. It's put all the more starkly into relief now with the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, two masters who showed that films were not just movies, that films nowadays are often little more.

I don't argue that every film needs to be high art. I fell in love with the medium of cinema precisely because it can be so much: it can be art, it can be a document, a critique, and it can also just be pure undiluted entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is that there is much less wiggle room in the film-as-entertainment genre, and that once you've seen quite a few, the rest often don't have many surprises.

There are exceptions, definitely: I greatly enjoyed Fast Times at Ridgemont High when I finally saw it, even if many of its elements have been imitated by so many other high school movies, and I had a blast with Ocean's 13, not so much because it surprised me but because it was so nimble and so light. But when weighing seeing the nth threequel of the summer(*) against watching one of the many classics I haven't seen yet, the latter almost always wins.

Many people nowadays seem scared of "serious" movies. The moniker already says it all: they imagine those films unapproachable, humorless and obscure. To me, however, many of these films are much more entertaining than watching robots blow each others to smithereens (my inner geek gets a thrill out of watching robots fight, but does it need to last 2.5 hours?).

Take Cronaca di un amore. It's sexy. It's a simply story with beautiful people and even more beautiful outfits. What's so intimidating about that? Plein Soleil is likewise a thriller without a boring moment. It's not an art film at all, but because it's in French and made before 1980, it gets labeled as "serious". Even the Seventh Seal, while it's conversations about the absence of God can be daunting, is also surprisingly funny.

I understand the hesitations all too well. I, too, had for example never seen an Ingmar Bergman seen because I imagined them stark and Scandinavian, depressing and dull. I don't feel like Antonioni, Fellini or -a more modern maker of art films- Gus van Sant every night. The themes they broach are often heavier, the ruminations they inspire are more complex, and the feelings they evoke are more ambiguous and lingering. But especially because these films get to you more, because they are more layered than your average Adam Sandler movie, they're much more rewarding to watch.

So every once in a while, get over that hurdle. Take a deep breat and jump. You won't regret it.

(*) I am very excited about Bourne 3 though.

Cronaca di un amore

As it turns out, Antonioni films are very hard to find. Blow-up and The Passenger are available, but I had those two already. I searched everywhere for La Notte, L'Avventura, and L'Eclisse, but all I could find was a Criterion edition of L'Eclisse, which was beautiful with all the extra's you'd expect, and, as is always the case with Criterion, ridiculously expensive.

My dad, sweet as he is, decided to break his resolution not to buy me any more DVD's one more time. It won't get here for a while, but when it does, I really hope I'll like it. Ah, but how can I not love an Antonioni classic starring my very latest crush, Alain Delon?

Meanwhile, Cronaca di un amore (7.50 at the Fame in Amsterdam). The ending is spoiled even on the DVD-box, but typically for an Antonioni movie, while the plot is important, its resolution is not: it's all about the path that leads there.

This could have been a straightforward noir story: the wife and her lover conspiring to kill the husband. It would be interesting to watch this film together with Double Indemnity and Ascenseur pour L'échafaud, saving Antonioni's film for the end. In the first film it's about the mechanics of the seduction and the murder, and about the guilt that follows. In the second film, the mechanics of the murder are still important, but they're only the beginning, and guilt is not a factor: the film is about the emotions on Jeanne Moreau's face as she wanders through Paris, not about whether her act was moral or not.

Cronaca di un amore
takes it even further: the mechanics of the murder are barely discussed, it's not even certain whether they have succeeded. It's about the push and pull between Paola (Lucia Bosé) and Guido (Massimo Girotti). They go from happy to miserable in a second, from fighting to kissing. One time it's Guido who hesitates, and Paola who convinces him to continue, the next it's the inverse. And just like the audience, they are on some level aware that this can never end well.

There's an interesting doubling, as a private investigator who looks into Paola's past discovers there was another "other" involved so many years ago, a girl this time, Paola's friend and Guido's fiance. She died under suspicious circumstances, but after she did, Paola and Guido didn't end up happily together, but disengaged, horrified.

I liked this movie a lot, but I didn't love it like I did Blow-up and the Passenger. Maybe this is because there is less ambiguity here: there are only a few options as to what happens in the end, but it's not a big mystery. Maybe it's because the film is visually much less inventive. Also, the film is really just about this couple, while you can read much more into the other films, as they're less focused, more broad in their themes.

In the end though, it offers some insight into Antonioni's evolution as a filmmaker. It was a nice snack. But I can't wait until I can digest L'Eclisse. And let us hope his death prompts more DVD releases.