Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Cowberry, Year Zero

God, you’re beautiful!
- Orlando the Magician

The Cowberry Filmflam zygote never went away. It has been sitting here under glass waiting for me and whichever of you out there might join me here to intervene in its development – the experiment it constitutes. Of course the blog began as an exercise to help keep my craft honed, to comment on the image culture (which I believed somebody would eventually pay me something like a living wage to do), and especially to eat up time during my first period of fledgling sobriety, when I was living in California, and did not have full-time employment. This was between 2009 and 2010, when most of the material here was synthesized in my desert lab. My last entry, some time later, was offered-up almost exactly two years ago, focused on love and the work of Philippe Garrel. Its fatalism made it perhaps an ideal endpoint. But hark! New beginnings! They seize us from time to time. I think all my future writing on cinema will in one way or another focus on love and desire. Desire is the simplest of all concepts, even if deploying it the way I must risks rendering me a vitalist, a tag from the discursive embarrassment of which Deleuze and Guattari were careful to concept-sculpt themselves free. I am not a philosopher. I have perhaps no audience. Far less, for me, is at stake. Love. Love seemed recently like the most complicated concept of all, until I realized it was not a single concept, but a category of concepts that play out. Here we find ourselves at the new beginning. Love was simple at the end of 2012. And it was a death sentence. I see love and reside in love differently in the glorious borrowed time, pure “gravy,” pace sober Raymond Carver, in which I now find myself. This is an ode to new beginnings, written at the end of the first full sober year (my first since 2010) of a life. And this new beginning has seized me. I am child of it. The confluence of forces, not a deity, I shall henceforth, as a Spinozist, refer to as God, gave all of this to me. I earned nothing. I was owed nothing. The gift I have received (the primary evidence of which was the cessation in November of 2013, inexplicable and unexpected, of the baffling compulsion to fend off the present-at-hand by drinking myself to death (or whatever-the-fuck-else it took)), was a senseless and perfect gift that has left me here with hope and faith, concepts to which I had hitherto paid only lip service. And I can now reside in a way that is effortless. This new world to which I have been granted unfettered access is opened to me by virtue of the deployment of a number of spiritual principals, all streaming out from the openings afforded by the first, which is acceptance. As a student of Nietzsche it was never going to be natural for me to arrive at acceptance. Affirmation, sure, but acceptance? It all comes down to the fact that I can still act my forces without being beholden to the necessity of favorable outcomes, and whilst affirming powerful forces which would hitherto have displeased me greatly. Respectful wonder has become the antidote to displeasure. And there is still displeasure of a sort. I believe it is time for the adults amongst us to shed the judge and begin to admit that even the things that appall us the most on the sociopolitical or psychosexual spectrums are matters of taste above all else. Every judgment is a declaration of taste and should be understood as such. This blog will continue to be a catalogue of impressions and preferences. Which brings us to this. What I am writer-hatching right now. I want to write about the cinema of 2014, as is the thing to do as the digits spins over into the new calendar calibration. Everybody does it. It is fun. (I have already made my Top Twenty Films of 2014 list available elsewhere.) The great critic Raymond Durgnat  put it perfectly: “A ten best list is so obviously an idiotic proposition that there’s no harm in playing the game.” If we are going to measure durations in relationship to cultural production, why not pick a calendar date and go by years? Who gets hurt? So this ungainly effusion of impressions is indeed going to end with brief (?) extemporization on the ten films that made this particular aesthete with his predisposed preferential peccadilloes most swoon during the year. The year. What a fucking year! I was transformed, or rather reborn, granted. But this journey was decorously amplified by a profuse offering of cinematographic glories laid out like a trail of seraphic breadcrumbs. My two favorite films, Stray Dogs and Camille Claudel 1915, are absolutely on my list of Twenty Favorite Films Since Fucking Edison. The Cowberry International Film Festival, for which I took time off from the homeless shelter where I work full time, was the best I have ever attended (four of my Top Ten screened there, and I see A LOT of movies), after last year’s worst-lineup-ever. It is amusing: this, the best CIFF I have ever attended, began less than auspiciously with a screening of the unspeakably risible shot-in-Alberta The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (by the unparalleled-in-risibility Jean-Pierre Jeunet), in two dimensions as opposed to the three for which it was intended, at the lush Jubilee Auditorium; it was preceded by a confrontational cowboy comedian who yelled at the audience for not finding him amusing, whilst trying, and repeatedly failing, to do tricks with a rope, followed by a number of monotone-fawning deer-in-the-headlights uncharismatic politicians. For times like these one can only be greatly relieved to have left ones Winchester at home, lest one find oneself in the clink in extremis. But tremendous riches were forthcoming. When I found out, weeks earlier, that I was going to get to see the Godard, I nearly wept – any misgivings about turning my will and my life over to God were finally put to rest. Clearly, after all the receipts were to be collected and parsed, this was going to be my years. Just how good a year was it? Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Winter Sleep didn’t even make my Top Twenty. Can you even begin to conceive the profusion this indicates? About Boyhood, clearly the most discussed-by-the-cognoscenti-and-basically-everyone-else movie of the year: it is a curious almost-conceptual-art beast, and perilously close to something of a missed opportunity. So much was made of its elasticity and exploration of what it is like to live in time. I found too often that it was tonally discombobulated (by virtue, doubtlessly, of its unwieldy scope, its love-comes-in-spurts production, and the fact that it was made by Richard Linklater, who generally has a pretty cavalier attitude to form and tone, admittedly often winningly), irksomely beholden to linearity (in contravention of this exploration-of-the-autonomy-of-moments the film is purported to present), and eager to hit every obvious peripheral-avenue get-it-out-of-the-way cliché of growing up messy. There are the people, however, who make it sing. Ellar Coltrane’s embodiment of a becoming in its gauntening faciality and the druggy-isolated adolescent moving-to-the-outside-as-to-the-inside ego-effloresce is obviously remarkable. But what Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are doing, or rather finding, is so much more satiating and nutritious. Seeing Dad find himself as a human being as Ethan Hawke finds himself as a one-who-embodies is one of the most edifying gifts cinema has given me this year. And it is a gift that takes twelve years to wrap. There is one other film not in my Top Ten (but in my Top Twenty) upon which I would very much like to comment: Birdman. My relationship with it is very much personal and the film has raised the ire of people I respect, causing my to feel that a few words must be expended. That Monte Hellman and Nick Pinkerton don’t like it is sufficient food for thought. But that my best friend, Paul Solomon, hates it is significant. It was he who first, in measured respect, implored me to see it, before that measured respect morphed into outright hostility. That he loves technological innovation André Bazin-style but hates ego and hates Michael Keaton (the two of them doubtlessly for similar reasons) may just explain the whole thing. I need to defend it because its particular delineation of a kind of ego-plus-ego-suffused-id-as-equals-psychosis formula speaks to me and my experience (and because no other mainstream films are deploying what can only be the conscious influence of late-period Resnais). This may be the great film about the version of myself who no longer exists. The performer, the dilettante, the exasperated and exasperating crazy person who wanted to be as big as Beyoncé and could or would brook no absence of adulation without going into apocalyptic tailspin. The holy monster. When I had my first psychotic collapse in 2008 I very much believed that the world was converging on me in celebrity exultation and that I was possessed of superpowers. I was bringing plains out of the sky with my wristwatch and bringing skyscrapers down with my mind. Camera crews and government agencies were in hot pursuit. I was, in short, Michael Keaton’s Riggan in my synecdoche Manhattan. Regrettably there were sequels. I am no longer that person. He is dead or something like it. And Birdman moves me. Greatly. The last shot, however, made me fiercely upset (as did the similar last shots of 2011’s Take Shelter, a film I despised) until I had some time to sit on it, and it too became moving. The last big question related to my experience of cinema in 2014: how can I love Henri Bergson so much but so unequivocally abhor Interstellar, the secular-humanist Left Behind, and its library of time? Worthy of exploration. You will excuse me if I refrain from exploring it. Much better to luxuriate in the ten films stacked below, in my personal library of time. (And as for libraries of time: the one shown us by James Benning was far-better-shown than the one shown us by Frederick Wiseman.)

10. La danza de la realidad 

A new Jodorowsky, in defiance of all reasonable expectations. But this! Nobody saw anything like this coming, even though it seems so obvious. I am no faddish germinal mystic, so don't go there. La danza de la realidad is the real deal, by pretty much any standard I could imagine myself imposing, although it should be noted that “good taste” is not a standard I can imagine myself imposing. If everything comes down to love and desire, then it should come as no surprise that Fando y Lis, Jodorowsky’s debut feature, holds a very special place for me in the whole history of these things being broadly encapsulated, as Fando y Lis doesn’t really have any pressing ancillary interests, subject-wise, and because it is a superlative work of art. I love the films Jodorowsky has made between Fando y Lis and La danza de la realidad, but they are admittedly pretty silly as well as being attractive to what strikes me as a kind of idiot. If Jodorowsky came to cinema with a set of devises picked up in France (from André Breton and company, from Marcel Marceau and company), with La danza he has finally tapped into the Latin American literary and cinematic traditions that are his birthright. This is, above all, a movie about publicly private history in the Latin American tradition, with its magical spells and its celebration of a small, heroic politics of resistance (often secular martyrdom). Finally there is the tenderness. So much of what was great in cinema this year was about tenderness. Here Jodorowsky is showing tenderness for his father (played by his own son, Brontis), forgiving him and living his pain (the State-Beyond-Nation was the real Father all along, and the blood-father was ultimately a brother-in-hurt), as well as tenderness for himself (the most beautiful moments finding Jodorowsky himself showing up to comfort the boy playing him as a child). I saw Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992) for the first time this year. It is no small thing that I find Jodorowsky’s to be far the greater movie. I guess La danza is a little clunky, as earnest things often are. But so, so touching. And (gasp) sweet.    

9. Les salauds

You have to be an extremely accomplished artist for something as amazing as Les salauds to come off minor, but there you have it. And Claire Denis is more than accomplished. Generally, during the years since S'en fout la mort (1990), she strikes me as having been the best thing going in cinema in terms of singular-masterpieces-unsurpassaed-by-contempraries regularity, and I am not alone. Les salauds, as many have said, seems to be her ode to film noir. In a way, yes. It certainly has the best film noir title in cinema since her Trouble Every Day, my favorite of hers and one of my favorite films ever, which was more of a Val Lewton horror movie (about love and desire, bien sûr) than it was a noir. Whatever. If Boyhood and La danza de la realidad were formally and tonally kinda all-over-the-map, Denis is, as far as I am aware, the most svelte impressionist working in any medium. Her montage is peerless. Hitchcock and Bresson territory, but her own thing. It bears repeating: peerless. Les salauds is, like so many of her films, fixated on a dialogic relationship between tenderness and cruelty (cruelty in Denis usually involving violence, extreme or not, and once again, here, troublingly, as in Trouble Every Day, violence visited to horrific effect upon the vagina). Characters in her movies often offer tenderness and cruelty in a single gesture or set of gestures (there is a love scene here between Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni that is tender, barely contained, and monstrous, like the best sex; it is one of the best scenes of coupling I have seen). The majority of the tenderness here comes, of course, from the rendering. Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard feather dust light and bodies (here working with digital for the first time). They are the most haptic team in cinema. They are a team. You add in the music of Stuart Staples and Tindersticks and you arrive at the holy trinity of contemporary cinema. The one thing that is new here, as far as recent Denis is concerned, is the outright frontal interrogation of patriarchy, an interrogation which is even itself tender. Denis is not totally hostile towards patriarchy. Part of its mandate, after all, is to protect wives, children, family. The object of desire, however, does not get off so lucky. There is the shame and disillusion after the orgasm. When patriarchy has been carried off into libidinous depths by chasing its passions down the rabbit hole, only to reemerge into light of day having blown its load, the stained other, as reminder of the depths, must be eradicated, renounced, made to bear the burden of responsibility. Women and black men have been those traditionally victimized by the power-politics of desire in Denis. Here it all comes down on women and Vincent Lindon. But Denis doesn’t traffic in victims. These are some strong, dignified motherfucking people!

8. Welcome to New York

If Abel Ferrara didn’t exist, cinema would have had to invent Abel Ferrara, and so it is with Welcome to New York, whose name invokes for us the city up into the gutters of which the Gods of Cinema couldn’t help but puke him. It is a true wonder that anybody so profaned by substances and general lasciviousness manages to get movies financed and then actually, bafflingly, shows up occasionally on the set to conduct proceedings. His debauched DVD commentaries are amongst the most hilarious and horrifying treasures on the market, and you may get fall-on-your-face fucked-up just from contact. But here he is. This is the guy who brought us The Blackout (1997) and New Rose Hotel (1998); one of the great, and probably the most underappreciated, back-to-back grand slams in the history of American cinema. With Welcome to New York he is firing a slightly different weapon of similar caliber. This is the more well-loved Ferrara of corrupted New York power and debauch, and he hasn’t done that particular schtick better, accompanied as he is by lumbering, ursine interloper Gérard Depardieu, no stranger himself to torment and excess. This is a movie about a long party and the concomitant fall-out. It is about late capitalism on the brink, and the orgy of consumption required to sustain (and maybe justify) it. If you don’t need sociopolitical insight in your life, however, you will be afforded plenty of opportunity in the early going to ogle the ample T&A and wonderful stuff such as men of stature licking champagne and ice-cream off doubtlessly-expensive strumpets. With Ferrara’s best films you always feel like parts are missing and that somebody at some point, drunk, left the screenplay in the back of a cab, which sometimes happens here in the final third, and which always adds to the sense of excitement, because he makes not knowing where you are or where you are going delightful. But there is some meat, here, on the narrative bone. Welcome to New York, detailing as it does Gérard Depardieu’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn stand-in Devereaux’s fall from well-accoutremented grace after he sexually assaults an unsuspecting black hotel cleaning lady during another grunting moment of grumpy sexual pique, leads to a pretty wonderful Paul Greengrass movie about Gérard Depardieu (or Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Devereaux or whatever) getting arrested in New York, and terminates in a dyspeptic Bergmanesque domestic kammerspiel (with Jacqueline Bisset as Liv Ullmann as Hillary Clinton), which is at one point interrupted by a glaringly on-point soliloquy betwixt towers of shimmering glass. This is our world. So if any of this appeals to you, and if, like myself, sickening stuff does not sicken you in the least, you will relish this gem. I was especially happy to see our beloved mayor present when the movie was projected as part of the Cowberry International Film Festival’s Headliners series! One qualifier: although Ferrara did make two movies this year, I am pretty happy I only saw one, as I am pretty sure I can handle only one.

 7. P'tit Quinquin

Bruno Dumont shows up here for the first of two times. He is one of our finest concocters of cinema-stuffs, and these two movies are both superior to any he has hitherto executed. Quinquin is a movie that winks at those of us who know his pre-2013-14 best, 1999’s Humanité (famously causing a horrified movie community to plotz when David Cronenberg’s jury gave it a couple awards at Cannes), and are aware of what a Dumont crime-type-movie set in the region of Northern France near Calais, from where Dumont himself hails, is supposed to devastate us like. Again we have the … “cognitively challenged” hayseed police detective (here impossibly odd non-actor actor-genius Bernard Pruvost, whose destabilizing array of ticks and haughty insouciance will have him burrowed in my mind for life, especially if he never appears, as he likely will not, in another movie), investigating (if you can call it that) horrific crimes of a serial nature (this time revolving around murdered folks apparently stuffed up the asses of cows). In this case, however, we are immediately thrust into something hilarious which is too deeply piercing, too straight-facedly reverent, to be farce … but is hilarious. It’s a comedy. A comedy miniseries for French TV. Which I can still not wrap my head around, having seen it projected in a large theater with the ol’ Scope ratio of 2.35/1. I cannot currently imagine it being watched any other way. Well, I suppose I can. I simply do not care to, as the prospect saddens me. Dumont does the grand comic set-piece, the throwaway gag, and the giggly refrain like an old pro. This is not the film of a serious-as-fuck philosopher-turned-moviemaker (Dumont is, after all, a genuine philosopher-turned-moviemaker) slumming in the land of suspect conviviality, but rather what seems on the face of it, if you were not privy to context, the grand statement of a comedy legend – a Jacques Tati, if you will, for our times. If this is a curveball, it is a curveball thrown by somebody who has been secretly studying the pitch his whole life. Quinquin is huge. It is a really big movie. Long, yes, but full. So it is like TV in that sense. But better than TV. It is a movie about something like a community-in-search-of-community. Watching it is like getting to know the ins and outs of a place and its people with all the boring stuff removed, as if all you get is the heightened sense of discovery and the growing sense of where exactly you stand in relationship to what, geographically. Quinquin himself, and his devilish army of miscreant, shit-disturbing friends, are all boys (plus one little girl, a real heartbreaker). Watching P’tit Quinquin is like being a little boy on a mischievous adventure somewhere old that shines new. You are discovering, upending, getting your coveralls good and messy. If I ever make, in some parallel reality, a movie, I now have a better idea how that might look: I want to make it big, I want to make it funny, obviously I want non-actors, and I want to make it in the communities near my deceased grandparents’ farm.   

6. Ida

We are now into goosebump territory. Only one of the remaining films didn’t give me goosebumps (which is the next one, Computer Chess, pretty much a pure brain-movie). Usually goosebumps involve something that hits an emotional pressure-point, is suddenly and unexpectedly profound (and profound for being profound in the way it is profound), or simply moves me with its grace. Not a lot of movies give me goosebumps just by virtue of sheer beauty. Ida gave me sheer-beauty goosebumps. I think. Sheer beauty is often, it should be noted, actually a kind of profundity. It is the image. But that is deceptive. It is not just the frame and the mise-en-scène. Lots to be said about the frame. Much has already been said. Black and white, 1.33/1 Academy Ratio, and lots of empty (?) space above the actors. Incredible, unprecedented use of the frame. And let’s not go saying that the beauty of the movie is in the montage. It is not. It is in the shot. I have gone in hopes of retroactively chasing the dragon of the high I got in the theater watching Ida by looking at stills from the movie, however, and the stills just don’t cut it. Then what is it? It is the image + movement + duration, of course. It is the splendor of the shot. Units of being-becoming. There is a kind of pure, unadulterated Lumière-school movie-pleasure available to viewers of Ida. The narrative context is important, but only so important. This is basically a movie about a young woman named Anna raised in a Polish convent after WWII who, before she can become a nun, is sent to connect with her aunt Wanda, a caustic seen-it-all one-time-Stalinworld-state-prosecutor, whilst consequently connecting with her (surprise!) Jewish roots (Holocaust!). Yup. This could have been a very awful, very typical “important” Easter European arthouse snore-fest. But just because the arguably hackneyed (and certainly loaded) subject matter might have been poorly handled does not invalidate its incorporation into the Idaverse. Because God and thus a certain kind of forgiveness are necessary, the serenity of the film is part of a powerful lesson as regards how to operate in this world, dwarfed as we are (like the characters in the frame) by the mystery and enormity of unseen God-work. Having written that last sentence, I think (or rather am certain) I love Ida even more. Not merely, it would seem, sheer beauty. Profundity! I always recognize you eventually!

5. Computer Chess

I could have seen Computer Chess at the 2013 Cowberry Underground Film Festival, which would have landed it at number two or three (or four?) on the 2013 Best Of list, but I was working nights back then and had to beg off. So fucking shoot me. Now I seen it. It gets to be included here because the requirements (which I have not yet specified) are this: the movie had to be made in the last year or two, basically, I had to see it this year, one way or another, and it had to play for the first time on a screen in some movie theater somewhere anytime during 2014. We need rules, lest anarchy. Computer Chess is a high-concept gambit that besieges its sedentary concept wildly from all angles with an array of crepuscular arrows. It has thousands of agents digging different tunnels out of the concept at the same time. What this movie is nominally doing is obvious. How it is about to go on doing it in the next couple minutes, or even seconds, when you are first watching, is impossible to read. What is it nominally doing? Computer Chess is a faux-documentary-until-it-isn’t-anymore about a couple groups of computer programmers facing their respective programs off against one another in a computer chess tournament. It takes place in a non-descript Anywhere U.S.A. hotel, generally in the non-descript conference room, where the tournament goes down, takes place at the beginning of the 1980s, and is shot in black and white (except when it occasionally isn’t) on the grade of analogue video that would have been available during the not-so-far-gone era it depicts. It’s a hell of a concept, but this a movie that is, thankfully, way more than pure concept, as I hope I have already made decorously clear. It is a lo-fi movie (indie rock parlance being entirely appropriate here), written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, one of the purported fathers of “mumblecore” (he also studied under Chantal Akerman!). Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) was the first film I remember receiving the mumblecore tag. Mumblecore films were (are?) a category of films made by people in their twenties that featured lots of people in their twenties, usually unlucky in love, talking a great deal, often, apparently (or so it was purported),  not quite audibly. “Mumblecore” is a mean and stupid pejorative that I actually kinda love (but if mumbling is the quintessence of mumblecore, does that mean Themroc (1973) was mumblecore? I thought it was “post-’68”!). Funny Ha Ha was great. Shit, I was in my twenties, unlucky in love, and couldn’t shut the fuck up. Every subsequent Bujalski film leading up to Computer Chess did the exact same thing to diminishing returns, Woody Allen-style. But! Computer Chess! Somebody I read compared Computer Chess to the work of conspiracy-science berserkoid faceless-Groucho-Marx-masked guru (and maybe my hero) Thomas Pynchon. It’s apt. Because: entropy. Even when our computer toys were slow, heavy, refrigerator-sized, obdurate cocksuckers, they were a machinery of chaos, destratification, and communication-breakdown. Hence all the movies inside this premise-heavy movie. Everything in Computer Chess is spinning out of orbit into disorder, from the personal (everyone still unlucky in love) to the cosmic. Yeah, like us. Forever. Never gets old.

4. The Immigrant

The fact that there were three films better than The Immigrant this year is simply fucking insane! But let’s not vamp. Not everybody is going to unreservedly fawn over The Immigrant. I respect many in this world who have seen it already and emphatically do not. Is it something they are missing? Is it, as I want to believe, some sad-making cynicism they bring to the table? It is clearly the film amongst my ten that the most people have seen. It is also the film amongst them that most demands to be seen by more people, as it is unequivocally engineered for everybody who goes to good mainstream movies. Some decades ago we would have called The Immigrant a Hollywood movie. And it would have been. A big studio would have bankrolled it, everybody would have seen it, and it would have won a passel of awards. (Admittedly it would never have ended up this naked, pure, and heartshredding.) It is crazy-making to me that we live in a world in which James Gray’s latest would have to be considered an indie. Shudder. But nostalgia is for a dotage the specifics regarding the arrival of which, and whether that ever happens, is up to us. I am happy to have this thing now. Beyond that, I would suggest that if any big American movie with stars in it made this year belongs to no specific historical moment (approaches, then, a quantum universality), it is The Immigrant. It does feels vaguely, if you ask me, from the past, and not just because it is a period piece (we are swimming in those – most of them belonging, insistently, to our calcified now). The fact remains that it is completely possible that they never quite made movies for mass audiences (even if only theoretical ones) that were this amazing. On the surface it has the historical, dressed-to-the-nines operatic magnificence of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). But opera is the key influence, not Leone. What The Immigrant offers at its heart is the stuff of Hollywood melodrama, because it is a Hollywood melodrama, as they don’t exactly make them anymore: a painful delineation of the way desire is corrupted and deformed by the social. Displaced Europeans used to make them after the war. Douglas Sirk made all the best ones that weren’t Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a bunch in Germany later, partially in tribute to Sirk, setting many of them in the past (usually not my favorite of his, mind you), and it is maybe those films with which The Immigrant has the most in common (though it surpasses any of the historical Fassbinders save Veronika Voss (1982) and, of course, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which essentially has no equivalents of any kind). The opening of The Immigrant also invokes the beginning of Kafka’s Amerika, with the shit-show arrival in New York of the hapless immigrant aboard a ship. The film welcomes us to New York in the early 1920s by showing us what its protagonist also gets to see: The Statue of Liberty, with her back turned. When Ewa Cybulska, played by the awe-inspiring Marion Cotillard, who can apparently speak Polish, later becomes part of a coterie of women paraded on stage by impresario Bruno Weiss to audience members there to chose which one they want to pay Bruno money to fuck, dressed as exotic exemplars from around the world, she is first dolled-up as a mute Lady Liberty herself, her makeup running with the tears. At first I thought that Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno was the movie’s weak spot, until it dawned on me that Bruno himself is not comfortable being himself, and is not comfortable doing what he is doing (pimps, like whores, do what they do to survive). Bruno is in actual discomfort. I now see it as Bruno, not Phoenix, failing to play the part well. Things are further complicated (to devastating effect) by Jeremy Renner’s Orlando the Magician, the brother Bruno hates, who shows up as a potential savior, but turns out to be the most awful menace in history. When I first saw the film, the moment where Orlando picks innocent Ewa out of the audience, sidles up to her and gushes into here ear “God, you’re beautiful,” I got them goosebumps good. Upon watching the movie in the same theater a second time, knowing how desire is being hijacked here, knowing that this is the apex of a kind of entrapment to which the movie pitilessly subjects Ewa, I got them goosebumps tenfold.

3. Adieu au langage

JLG 3D. A movie whose mere existence, then, pretty much assured its inclusion in this countdown-to-what-end? Adieu could have featured shots of a man posed on the toilet like Rodin’s The Thinker accompanied by a soundtrack of exaggerated cartoon flatulence, and still made it here … oh wait … that happens … twice. Alas. I may have previously averred that Claire Denis is our A #1 impressionist. Not exactly true. Unfortunately for her, Godard is still alive. Extremely, dauntingly alive. The last Godard film I saw on the big screen during its original run (three times in three days, if I recall correctly) was Éloge de l'amour (2001). Adieu is, for me, the best Godard since Éloge de l'amour, halfway through which he dove off into the deep end of digitality, because of its similar advancement in terms of the visual field (though this one dwarfs that one, obviously) and because of its similar return to a pretty sober-distilled entanglement with human coupling. I am pretty certain it was Colin MacCabe who first got us in to the habit of calling Godard a kind of poet. Which is true. Every artists is a kind of poet. And every poet had his brushstrokes. And every brushstroke is a living musicality. That’s impressionism for you. But Godard does use language the way a poet uses language, attempting to say things that cannot quite be said, as simply as possible. And you have to keep saying a lot of stuff, taking a lot of stabs, coming at it from all angles, to get there. Hence what Godard does with language, the thing to which he will never be done saying goodbye, even when he is done being extremely, dauntingly alive, his work still sounding and showing. As is well known at this point, everything that comes out of a character’s mouth (are their “characters” in Godard anymore?), or is delivered by voiceover, in Godard, has, over time, become entirely made up of text that has been taken from elsewhere. Academia is a lonely, drudgery-machine sometimes, and many a dedicated academe from here to eternity will spend the remainder of his or her life locked in the catacombs tracking every citation. Which might be pleasurable, occasionally (I remember how giddy my friend Clifford was when we were young and he realized mid-scene that Alpha 60 was cribbing from Borges). Why does Godard do this? He is not just a poet. He is a kind of curator-poet (or has become one, slowly). Let’s leave it at this: Godard is a profundity machine, taking in and expelling profundity at a perilously accelerated rate. That is how he comes at things. As said before, what he ends up coming at in Adieu are couples. Two couples. And a dog. Godard and his partner (they are a couple) Anne-Marie Miéville’s dog, Roxy Miéville. You show a couple struggling, as they all are (a couple is a potential solution to a problem that itself becomes a problem for which there is no solution), and then you show a dog. Something profound becomes evident. Codependency makes a couple unhealthy and unhappy. Codependency makes a dog happy (the voice-over tells us, quoting somebody, that a dog is the only creature that loves you more than it loves itself). But the film shows us something other than what it tells us. It shows the ecstasy of the dog on its own, Switzerland-style. Godard is telling us, more succinctly, if poetically, than I recall having ever been told: your happiness is up to you and God. When I told my sister that the movie was about how it’s hard to be a couple and easy to be a dog, she said something hilarious, pretending that what I had said was supposed to be Godard-style complex-profound: “so what your saying,” she pretended to try to figure out, “is that it’s hard to be two dogs?” Also important to remember: getting to see what Godard does with the simple magic of three visual dimensions and the two cameras required to achieve them is a perfectly good reason to justify having stuck it out to experience 2014.

2. Camille Claudel 1915

The second movie by Bruno Dumont included here. And love. Here it is, that category of concepts. Love, concept one: love loved before God. At the skirt of this love shall all other loves get prostrate. No other love shall prevail if this primary love falters. Not long ago when I was looking for the perfect axiom that would encapsulate the love-and-desire question, one happened to lightning-bolt me seemingly out of nowhere: desire is the transcendental, love is supplication followed by surrender. Desire is the transcendental, sure. Foucault was kind of going there, in a way that was not very useful to me, but Deleuze and Guattari were certainly going there in a way that big time was. I already addressed the trap of vitalism; the kind of viltalism that says things like: all things are merely desire coursing. Deleuze and Guattari were too sophisticated to be allowed to say anything like that. Deleuze and Guattari couldn’t find room to postulate a desire that existed before the social got enmeshed with it. I have no problem doing that. That’s my deal. I’ll go right back to Heraclitus and call his “flux” my “desire.” Aristotle told us that love makes the world go ‘round. I don’t agree. I think desire makes the world go ‘round. Desire is all coursings. Human desire is fundamentally about senses and feelings and drives and their coursings. Love is a category of concepts related to comportment surrounding human desire and the mechanics of its application (how it is directed, cultivated, sacrificed). Love of God is about how we comport our desire in relation to the whole of creation opened up before us. Supplication or surrender, or supplication followed by surrender, are about reaching out to the forces that prevail over us, essentially praying, and then finally surrendering to all of creation creating creation however it sees fit, creating us and with us as it thereby sees fit. Before Camille Claudel 1915 there were two great movies about this love, movies that were almost exclusively about this particular facet of spirituality: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) and, far more so, Robert Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (1962). The supplication of Joan of Arc, praying to God from a place of social imprisonment, followed by her surrender, in the form of ecstatic acceptance of God’s will despite extraordinary anguish and physical pain. Bresson’s film is, to me, vastly the superior of the two. Bresson offers sober meditation, serenity, and elegant austerity where Dryer gave us psychosexual pyrotechnics and unbridled intensity. The power of the Dreyer is almost all transposed upon the face of actress Maria Falconetti, invoking, as she does, the ecstasy of Saint Teresa as much as she does the historical Joan. Falconetti’s eyes are the epitome of God-love. Part of what is so radical about the movie, especially for 1928, is that Joan’s love of God is very much married to a kind of eruptive sexuality. The eyes are ablaze with it, her writhing subsumed by it. Dumont has found in Camille Claudel, the sculptor turned asylum inmate, his personal Joan. Like Bresson’s, Dumont’s vision is austere, measured, close to the historical record (less so, of course, than the Bresson, which pulled the dialogue from the court transcripts), and reduced to an elemental elegance. However, in the pleading, anguished eyes of Juliette Binoche, Dumont presents us with some of the cinema’s greatest images of supplication. Juliette Binoche praying in Camille Claudel 1915, an image of which is used for the poster and much of the movie’s promotional material, is of a power that is simply tectonic. Whether there is any God there at all, or a God capable of altering course by virtue of the power of a prayer, is immaterial and part of the point. Each moment Camille begs in desperation to be released from our world of social prisons, in this case the very real asylum to which she has been relegated by virtue of behavior (or mere existence as Rodin’s lover and possibly his better as an artist) disruptive to the phallogocentric self-regard of patriarchy, is ultimately a moment where a submission occurs, a surrender, the threshold of an acceptance. Supplication, then, to be followed by surrender. If the asylum = a prison = the social = our earthbound world, the film brings us to accept the world of prisons also, as must Camille. The other great love the film explicates is that demonstrated by the caretakers. The nuns who care for the mentally disabled patients (rendered, controversially, by people with real disabilities, as are the nuns their by real nurses) demonstrate another, very social love, one embodied by sacrifice and not-always-gentle rituals of care. Ultimately Camille and her trying-his-best-to-remain-pious brother Paul have to surrender to Camille’s imprisonment. The movie itself stands at the threshold of an acceptance. As soon as acceptance starts to take hold, the movie finds a zone of serenity that has been pooling … and tapers off … instead of exactly ending. Camille will never be free. We will never be free. It is okay. Nothing like a burning at the stake intervenes here as a final test. Dumont has been saying in interviews for quite some time that the cinema must take the place of religion, replicating what religion has to offer without being bound to what has died. I see how he has been trying to do that since the beginning. Hadewijch (2009) was the commencement of a new resilience in this regard. With Camille Claudel 1915 he has brought us to the church for which we have been in search.

1. Stray Dogs

With Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang has given me one of the greatest gifts of my life, and it is the kind of gift I have long lived for. I have long admired him. I always look forward to seeing his work. I was not expecting him to nearly destroy my world with something almost unspeakably magnificent. If you were to ask me in the late 1990s which of the two then-very-chic main movers of the Taiwanese film renaissance would make my favorite film of 2014, between Tsai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I would have gambled on Hou in a heartbeat. I would have been wrong. When Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) floored me the way it did, saying goodbye to the 20th Century as beautifully as it did, that was already a pretty great gift. That is the kind of gift I live for: the surpassing by an extraordinary measure of expectations that were already highish. Goodbye, Dragon Inn aside, I was certainly not expecting Tsai to provide me with the most powerful motion picture experience I have ever had in a commercial movie theater (!). That’s a hell of a gift. I think Stray Dogs, first off, may be the movie, for me, that finally, once and for all, closes the gulf between East and West. The movie, situated in Taipei, is the first Asian film that resolutely strikes me as being about the exact world I live in, over here in Western Canada. Which is a big deal, though maybe it merely signifies that I have been blocked, deluded, projecting otherness shit on Asia, and not really paying attention. But Tsai hasn’t closed the gulf. Late capitalism, dislocation, and alienation have. Alienation is the primary agent of modernism in the arts, I guess, and is old hat. What Tsai is showing us about dislocation is right now. This is the era of dislocation. Social dislocation, ontological dislocation, spiritual dislocation. Tsai presents all of these things in a special language of formal dislocation. The movie spends a lot of time with the social before it explodes into the ontology and spirituality of dislocation. The gulf between East and West has been replaced by a tragic gulf between each of us, and ultimately between the self and itself. I think we all know this. But we haven’t quite seen it. Not so stark. Not like this. Stray Dogs is nominally a story about a father (Tsai’s go-to, Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children squatting in a gutted, abandoned building and surviving in utter indignity. There is a mural. It serves as a gnomic pictorial elsewhere. There is no ground in this world. There are nowheres, in no way linked. I don’t even feel like this movie takes place in anything it any longer makes sense to call a “city.” The squat might as well be a space station. A woman enters the picture. She is played by multiple women. I could not find my feet in Stray Dogs. I felt like I was nowhere. The humor is so without hope it makes you want to cry (but how useless, here, to cry). But is funny. There is an absurd scene of sexual displacement in which Lee devours the cabbage head of a doll with whom he miserably cavorts. It’s savage and silly and kinda exasperating. I was nowhere. Then these final two shots. Two long takes of extraordinary length, the first of which was the most powerful thing I had ever seen in a commercial movie theater until … the cut. The cut between the second last shot and the last shot. Nothing like what happened to me at that moment has ever quite happened to me. It is the most hopeless and beautiful thing maybe ever. It was very cold in the Plaza Theatre where Calgary Cinematheque projected the movie. I felt like I was in an abandoned space station nowhere, exposed to the elements. I walked to me car, sober and soaring. I have not felt so high after a movie since watching the VHS of Je vous salue, Marie (1985) on a shitty tube at my friend Ryan’s in Ottawa under the influence of psilocybin more than a decade ago. If there was any doubt before the screening that 2014 was the greatest year of my life, the doubt had been resolutely dispelled. Such it was. The greatest year. A gift. Gravy. Amo, amas, amat.


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