Sunday, September 28, 2014

Some documentaries

Sight & Sound released a poll of the all-time best documentaries this summer so I decide to fill in some of the gaps.  (The poll is here but a warning that the website for this is poorly designed.)

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker 1982) - I first saw this about 20-25 years ago and didn't think much of it so I watched the Criterion DVD earlier this year.  If anything it's less impressive.  The biggest surprise over time is that I now see that this is mondo film - I don't mean similar to one I mean it's exactly a mondo film.  There's the same disconnected flow of scenes, the focus on oddities and strange behavior from outside the filmmaker's culture, the faux philosophical narration to tie that together.  The only difference is that Sans Soleil is lower on the sex and violence than most mondo films.  But even if that's mistaken Sans Soleil remains a tedious film and the annoying thing is that it's the type of film that I should love.  There is sometimes an interesting play between narration and image but for the most part it's far too slight and generally almost laughable.

D'est (Chantal Akerman 1993) - This film is a series of extended takes by roadways or public spaces alternated with occasional portraiture shots mostly of women inside apartments, all done in what appears to be Russia.  (There is no identifying text or voiceover and I deliberately didn't research the film.)  In other words basically a structuralist film and if it's labelled as documentary that's probably more for marketing reasons.  Maybe it's an attempt to document daily life but apart from a few shots of field work and cooking there's almost nothing of that.  If anything the film documents the connections between daily life - driving, waiting for a bus, walking, sitting.  I don't know how much this could be considered a comment on the state of Russia (didn't research but I did see the Netflix comments) because basically the same film could have been made in Detroit.  Though this sounds a bit negative I do think this is a strong film despite being wayward and somewhat unfocused.  Overall it reminds me of James Benning's 1982 Him and Me complete with an unedited musical performance towards the end (though I consider the Benning film a much stronger one).

Primary (Robert Drew 1960) - A landmark in the development of verite this still frequently maintains interest as a kind of road movie long after the politics have gone.  (Though perhaps not too much - the farmer's issues briefly mentioned are still far from settled.)  The two surprises are that it's not what I would consider pure verite since there's some narration and a few instances of blatant use of non-diegetic music as commentary.  The other is that Humphrey comes off more personable than Kennedy which I'm not sure was the intention.  That the film often has dull spots is more that we're half a century down the line but nevertheless dull spots they remain.

Man on Wire (James Marsh 2008) - This is also only partly a documentary and not in a productive sense (as say with Close-Up).  Much of the film is recreations of a wirewalker's successful attempt to cross between the WTC towers but unlike with a TV doc about, say, Bunker Hill where the recreations are obvious the attempt here was to duplicate that era.  So even where there are some genuine photos from the actual event they're merged with the fiction.  And this story is clearly fictionalized since the filmmakers rely far too much on the wirewalker's animated and polished account.  For instance he claims when he was 17 he visited the dentist and saw plans for the yet-to-be-constructed WTC in a magazine which he then ripped out and left the office.  We're treated to scenes of that event both in the office and riding his bike afterwards.  Did this happen?  Seems quite unlikely since the wirewalker is clearly not a reliable source and here he's telling a well-worn story that's a bit too dubious.  Even apart from that fiction-issue the bigger problem is that the bulk of the film concerns the mechanics of the stunt presented in much incredibly boring detail.  It's also odd to me when some of the talking heads refer to wirewalking as beautiful.  I'm willing to grant that there are plenty of things I don't quite get but probably do have value (baseball let's say) and maybe this is just another.  But really it seems like a category error of some kind, like saying pouring water into a glass is beautiful.  It's not whether that action is or is not beautiful, it's that the concept of beauty simply can not apply to it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book sale

I've missed the AAUW book sale the past three or four years but made it this time.  The haul was

Malcom Cowley - After the Genteel Tradition
Kingsolver - The Poisonwood Bible
Brooks - The Flowering of New England
Oates - The Whirlwind of War
The Best of Sholom Aleichem
Brecht - Seven Plays
Donald Harington - Let Us Build a City
Flannery O'Connor - The Habit of Being
Rose Macaulay - Pleasure of Ruins
Chubb - Dante and His World

There was an interesting book about the Pre-Raphelites but it was a QPB edition so I passed.  Also a collection of French wartime writings and another about 19c realists but I realized even for $1 I'd never read those.  There was a Modern Library edition of Life of Johnson but I didn't need another and couldn't think of anybody else who would want it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My new blog Discoveries & Oddities from the Digital Library

http://discoveriesandoddities.blogspot.com/


Coming soon

pirate stories
a month of Halloween
lurid 18th century chapbooks
a fantastic illustrated 1840s guide to Asian entomology
1920s guide to US for Jewish immigrants
French revolutionary satire
early design books
imagist poets
more kook literature

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russell x2

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell 2012) – Mystifying why this is so well-regarded since it’s a routine romantic comedy, not roughly but exactly.  Not a revisionist romantic comedy or one that infuses the genre with new emotion or whatever critical blurbspeak you might prefer but one that’s absolutely by the rules and absolutely with nothing to say.  Even a film like 27 Dresses shows more imagination and life but that’s not even a particularly good film.  I checked out the first couple of pages of the novel and that has a wry, self-aware tone that’s completely missing from the film (or at least the novel appears that way from only a couple of pages – for all I know it’s even more bland).  Bradley Cooper’s talents run towards farce so he can acquit himself passably in the Hangover films but here seems like he’s just starting to struggle in the deeper end.  Jennifer Lawrence is today’s Kim Novak but has yet to encounter a Hitchcock who knows how to make her essential hollowness the focus of a film. I guess if you're a De Niro completeist this might be worth checking off that box.


American Hustle (David O. Russell 2013) – A watered down Mamet tale of con artists and their schemes undone by a script that veers from blunt drama to an overly pat crowdpleasing ending.  The entire first 30 minutes or so are pointless prologue – as a character study there’s no real character and as part of the story it’s literally useless.  Trim all that out and it would make no difference to the film. Russell again proves to be no director of actors.  Amy Adams seems to understand the Mamet angle and uses that direct, uninflected tone he prefers.  (Since her character isn’t based on a historical person then her costume is more the result of a male director but when the camera starts moving to follow her backside the whole thing becomes creepy.)  Bradley Cooper seems lost and Jennifer Lawrence apparently thought she was in a Saturday Night Live skit.  The horribly miscast Christian Bale does manage to make some impression as do some of the supporting cast like Jeremy Renner.  De Niro appears in a bit of stunt casting that just underlines how little substance there is to the film but by that point it's clear that we won't be getting anything better so might as well toss in any half-baked idea that pops up.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Food books x2

David Sax - The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue (2014)

This is a journalist’s book, mainly a slapped-together collection of articles related in some way to food trends.  Sax did the research, interviews and pulled that together into stories but there’s nothing to synthesize them and barely even a connection among them.  For instance he opens with a chapter about the cupcake trend, locating the start at a bakery in New York that accidentally became a hotspot then the NYC-based media picked up the story, fed each other’s interest and that spilled out to the rest of the country.  It’s a familiar story and seems likely to be true but that familiarity and nothing new means that the story feels a tad dubious. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that this started in LA or Minneapolis but NYC gets the credit because that’s where the journalists are.  More importantly the chapter doesn’t get into why this became a trend – after all not everything pushed by NYC media hits the rest of the country.  Sax does offer the idea that cupcakes appeal to people because it reminds them of childhood, something that makes sense, is easy to believe and is obviously wrong.  That he doesn’t see how his stories are just more gloss means the book becomes mainly one to be mined for stray bits of info and background.  I didn’t realize for instance that one reason bacon started appearing on fast food menus is because they began to overcook them from fear of lawsuits and consequently needed a flavor boost.  The book has bits like this but tends to lose sight of its purpose.  When he gets to food trucks for example Sax spends most of the chapter on their legal battles which is interesting (well ok it’s not at all interesting but let’s just say it is) without getting to the point of why something that can offer only convenience and the probability of inferior food became trendy.  The Tastemakers is a book that touches on various trends offering little of substance about them.

Michael Pollan - Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)


Pollan had the idea to explore what he considers the four approaches to food preparation – heat, liquid, baking and fermentation.  Like the Sax book he’s done the research and in this case even gone out to do this first-hand.  And like the Sax book he doesn’t really bother to pull together the material.  Though it feels like a stronger editor could have helped, for all I know the book was even more a mess and the editor did make it somewhat readable.  Let’s just give Pollan his basic idea however unlikely or even silly it might be.  (Tying these approaches to the classic four elements?  Really?  You know that’s a European thing that won’t explain other cultures right?)  The bigger problem is that going hands-on meant he only uses historical information in scattered bits though he certainly gets more substantive material than Sax apparently even thought to do.  With this ready then he gives us a lopsided book that jumps from watered down academics to overly detailed descriptions of baking.  When talking about barbeque he even spends pages on the biography of one cook for no real point.  That’s what an editor or Pollan himself should have done – cut the book by about half.  Trimmed and focused this might have been something worth reading.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Library visit

Over a month since last post which is not unusual so a catch-up.  One of the perks of my job is access to a top-notch academic library - sometimes I almost think that's more important than the paycheck.  (Almost.)  I always have a bunch of stuff on my list but generally go until my bag is full which meant I never got to the numerous Shakespeare books I'd hoped to read before the birthday events last month.

Tonight's haul:

The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire
Somoza - The Athenian Murders
Bevington - Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages
Boethius - Consolation of Philosophy (Norton Critical Edition)
Sherwood Anderson - Complete Stories
Crispin - The Moving Toyshop
Woolf - Collected Essays Volume One (the 60s edition that's arranged thematically which is what I'm interested in - not the 80s also-four-volume edition that's chronological which seems like a snooze)
Baudelaire - The Painter of Modern Life (original edition that you can actually read - the current Phaidon is on such cheap and thin paper that it's a blur)
Calasso - La Folie Baudelaire
O'Grady - And Man Created God
Gravett - Comics Art

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Viewing

Class Relations (Jean-Marie Straub & Danielle Huillet 1984) - Critics seem distracted by that title and make claims for the film's politics that just can't be supported by watching it.  The depth of Straub/Huillet's thinking is that bosses can be mean and though that sounds like I'm joking it really is almost an exact description of the force and resonance of their analysis.  Well maybe that's overstating it since there is no analysis and actually very little that could be considered political.  I'd guess they were aiming for a Brechtian approach by having actors recite dialogue with little inflection or facial reaction, with off-center framing and with leisurely if not downright eccentric pacing.  At times this might be mildly interesting - many shots of a speaking actor are done in profile but occasionally the camera is positioned just a tad back so that a sliver more of their face isn't visible.  The overall effect isn't to generate thought (or appreciation of the images which they probably consider irrelevant though the cinematography is top-notch) but instead to make the viewer wonder how they were able to finance such a ridiculous film.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor 2013) - The first film was slight but somewhat amusing - Ebert correctly pegged it as a kids movie.  This is just a misfire with a somewhat unclear plot laden with Star Wars-derived effects, some decades after that would have been a good idea.  The flying battle shots and particularly the blaster sound effects almost could have been lifted from the Lucas film.  The biggest problem though is that the lead roles were given to two impossibly leaden actors.  Hemsworth has always been a kind of modern Victor Mature though in The Avengers Whedon at least knew how to use that to underline the character's not-of-this-world origins (and if nothing else that film didn't need more big personalities in it).  But Portman?  I thought she just might be having a bad patch but then realized I've never seen her do a good job in anything.  A quick check of her filmography confirmed it - no matter what her reputation she's wooden and ineffective.  In this film the leads' inabilities are thrown into relief when they're set aside Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings and even Chris O'Dowd.  Christopher Eccleston is unfortunately buried under a mask but imagine what he could have done.  With any luck this will either be the last Thor film or they'll turn to the Simonson stories for the next one.

Monsters University (Dan Scanlon 2013) - Has it really been a dozen years since the original?  This turns out to be an unnecessary follow-up in every way.  There wasn't anything left from the first film that needed resolving and University seriously could have used a story editor.  The set-up just flops around from event to event, mainly feeling designed to impart life lessons on courage, friendship and sticking up for yourself.  (And I suppose to emphasize being clever though that really can't be taught.)  As these animated kids films go it's at least watchable but Pixar's glory days now seem behind it.  And what is their problem with women?  This time there are two token women teams and a headmistress (why not call her the president like real universities do?) but it just points out how much a boys club Pixar has always been, at least on screen.

Uranium Boom (William Castle 1956) - A surprisingly effective b-movie about a couple of guys fighting over mining and a woman - the story is fairly complex for a 67-minute running time.  In an odd way a kind of critique on greed in the vein of Citizen Kane (Castle had worked on The Lady from Shanghai) or more closely Ulmer's Ruthless.  Castle shows efficient story-telling skills and if not much else then that's at least enough - this is a glimpse just before he discovered gimmick marketing and made his real name.