Thursday, July 22, 2010

Curiosity Killed - An Image Gallery (Meme)

I will admit that I've been out of the blogger loop for a couple of weeks now, having been caught up in the kind of random endeavors and commitments that real life is known to throw at you from time to time. I've been doubling back and catching up on my blog perusal the last couple of days however, and have enjoyed an exciting meme that's been floating around. It seems the meme was started by MovieMan0283 from The Dancing Image, which was itself inspired by Stephen's Gallery of Images at his site Checking On My Sausages. The meme's rules are as follows:

1. Pick as many pictures as you want - but make them screen-captures. These need to be moments that speak to you that perhaps haven't been represented as stills before.

2. Pick a theme, any theme.

3. You MUST link to Stephen's original gallery and the gallery at The Dancing Image.

4. Tag five blogs.

This meme has put to good use the sharp eyes and creative edge that characterize so many excellent bloggers, and while making the rounds of my favorite sites, I noticed that, lo and behold, Hans at the wonderful Quiet Cool has tagged me to participate. I am always down for some screencap fun, and it was a treat to rack my brain for a spell and see what (if any) worthwhile contribution I could make to this chain.

While I admit that I'm a dog kinda guy, I've nevertheless always found a great mystery and beauty to cats. Their distinct physical features and piercing alertness have made them a ripe subject for cinematic expression of all sorts, even from the earliest days of the medium. Here I've presented six examples that depict these enigmatic creatures in separate, unique visions: as an exaggeratedly sinister and imminent threat from Stan Brakhage; as an abstract digitalization from Chris Marker; as a symbol of intoxicating, predatory romance from Apichatpong Weerasethakul; as a feral, threatened prisoner from Jacques Torneur; as a thoughtful, passive observer from Dusan Makavejev; and finally as an ominous, slinky shadow of impending doom from Edgar G. Ulmer.

The following five are now tagged:

Carson @ Are the Hills Going to March Off?

Shubhajit @ Cinemascope

James @ Out 1

Jeff @ Filmscreed

Andrew @ The Kinodrome

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Un homme qui dort (Georges Perec & Bernard Queysanne, 1974)

You are just a murky shadow, a hard kernel of indifference, a neutral gaze avoiding the gaze of others.

The title of Bernard Queysanne and Gerges Perec's 1974 haunting masterpiece, Un homme qui dort (based on Perec's novel of the same name), translates roughly to "A Man Asleep", and that is an accurate description of the sole character in this beautifully fractured tale of alienation and isolation. The character is a man 25 years of age (Jacques Speisser), living alone in a cramped, lonesome Parisian apartment. We never learn his name, and we never hear him utter even a single word of dialogue. We simply view him going about various chores and activities that seem to take on a ritualistic importance: making a cup of Nescafe, reading, brushing his teeth, playing solitaire, attempting to fall asleep, piling dirty laundry into a basin of murky water, avoiding contact with friends and family so that a pile of crumpled letters accumulate near his door, and on occasion, trudging outdoors for a trip to the cinema or the diner. The film's opening segments contrast this unnamed man indulging in these repetitive routines with exterior shots of inhabitants in the city systematically going through the motions of every day life, and it becomes quickly clear that we are observing a human all but completely removed from the rhythms of society, marching to the beat of his own drum. The only words spoken in the film are done so by a female voice-over, who reads strikingly poetic passages from Perec's novel that convey the various emotional turmoils and anxieties felt by the nameless protagonist, as the character continues to avoid all contact with family and friends, and interaction with society in general as he slips further and further into this solipsistic void.

Un homme qui dort
is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman, and the film more than once recalls the work of Alain Resnais; with its classy compositions and gliding camera and enigmatic voice-over, and especially with its use of high contrast black and white in the latter part of the film, which is used to further give the outdoor scenes an alien quality, so foreign does the nameless hero feel walking the streets of his very own block. It is also fascinating how the camera methodically pushes in and out on the man in moments of contemplation, as though he were a specimen of loneliness under some giant existential microscope, whose very existence is on the verge of dissipating at any moment. The music in the film is sparse but used effectively, alternating between a high-pitched ambient tone that crescendos arbitrarily without warning, and an urgent clicking gallop, punctuated by harsh bangs on a piano. This disconcerting and distressing soundtrack only heighten the overwhelming sense of angst and disquietude that accompany the continuous shots of the young man and his vacant, lifeless stare, as he embarks on one lonesome, meaningless endeavor after the next.

There is no traditional narrative here, no backstory, no indications as to what could have possibly gone wrong in this persons life, or if anything ever went wrong at all. There is only the shell of a man, withdrawn, cut-off, sitting around and waiting until there's nothing left to wait for. By the end of the movie, the character is indulging himself in various delusions and launching into venemous, misanthropic speeches comparing humans to monsters, before a final bleak voice-over seems to suggest that nothing has been learned here, and that the character may never find peace, may never find a compromise, a possible means of actually living his life, as opposed to sleepwalking through it, as long as he is giving himself to these conditions. Un homme qui dort is a powerful experience for anyone who's ever felt like cutting themselves off from the world completely, for anyone who's just wanted to totally disappear from everything. It's a terrifying yet beautiful glimpse into a sad, sick life not led, and a piercing call to arms against neutrality and indifference. To disappear from the world is not difficult; to disappear from yourself is an entirely different matter, and this is a film that recognizes that with a deep, aching conviction.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Plundering Barnes & Noble for Criterion

Don't forget to stop off at your local Barnes & Noble, where today they started the first of their bi-annual 50% off all Criterion standard & blu-ray discs. It's a hell of a bargain, one any ardent cinephile would be remiss to not take advantage of. The sale is both in-store and online, so if there's not a store located nearby, you can still get the offer through their site.

I've just come home from my own haul, which as you can see above, saw me walking away with Renoir's The Rules of the Game, Kiarostami's Close-Up, Antonioni's Red Desert, Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Soderbergh's Che, Fellini's 8 1/2 (which I've still for some ungodly reason yet to see, that will change soon), Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, Wajda's Danton, and the special edition of The Killers which contains both Siodmak's classic version as well as the '64 Don Siegel version. All of this for just under $200, and with a batch of gift cards I've been sitting on for some time, I laid out about $100 even cash for all of these. Just can't beat it. The sale runs through August 1 I believe, so there's plenty of time to act. This is a perfect opportunity for all film lovers to beef up their libraries, so take advantage while you can.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Spending the 4th of July with Phish

I had the great fortune of spending 4th of July weekend in lovely Alpharetta, Georgia with my favorite band Phish, who were performing two nights to a sold-out crowd at the beautiful (and new) Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. Phish has been my favorite band since high school, and their endlessly playful stage antics and amazing light show combined with their impeccable musicality and nose for dark and brilliant improvisation make for a live music experience like no other, so when I found out that they would be playing less than an hour from my home on this special weekend, I was obviously thrilled. Phish has been a touring machine for the better part of their career (1986 - current, minus a couple of multi-year breaks), but have only held two 4th of July concerts ever. Both events stand tall in the canon of legendary Phish performances, making the implications of missing these shows something I couldn't bring myself to fathom. After two smoking hot stops in Raleigh and Charlotte, we arrived in Alpharetta with endless excitement and anticipation, wondering what surprises Phish could possibly have in store for us.

The parking lot scene at a Phish show is an event all unto itself. Fans arrive in droves, ticket in hand and ticket-less alike, to mingle and commune and enjoy each others company for hours before any given show starts. Endless seas of vendors set up shop, selling everything from handmade jewelry and clothing and all kinds of food and beer, to stickers, trinkets, and pretty much any mind-altering substance you can think of. This area of the lot is affectionately referred to as "Shakedown", and acts as the primary source of income for those who devote the entirety of their time to travelling with Phish from stop to stop throughout entire tours, an endeavor which, despite my passion for the music, I've not yet had the bravura to take on. You meet all kinds of characters in the lot, and certainly there is a seedy and shady element present, the people only there for the never-ending party aspect of the experience. But I've also met some of the kindest, coolest people in my life at a Phish concert, people intensely passionate about the band and the music, people thriving with a special generosity of spirit and a kind of ceaseless energy towards life that is nothing short of contagious . I've been lucky to run across more of this type than the former in my years of attending Phish concerts, and feel fortunate to count some of them as true friends for life.

Funky Bitch Jewelry, a jewelry stand set up in the lot, named after a Son Seals song that Phish frequently covers:

And then there was this cat, offering up an old school three card monty shell game to everyone in the lot. Whether he was running a hustle or giving a legit gamble I have no idea, but people were getting a big kick out of it, and I saw multiple high-denomination bills being switched around in the roughly 5 minutes I spent watching:

For the first show, we had tickets seated in the pit right in front of the stage. I've never had spots that close before, and it was a hell of a night to have them. While the setlist itself wouldn't bowl over the hardcore Phish nerd (of which I'm one), who generally puts a premium on either the number of songs in any given set (lesser songs in a set generally means higher amounts of improvisation), or the rarity of the songs played (Phish has a catalog of hundreds of original and cover songs that they play live, many of which go years without being performed, resulting in shows where rarer song are played typically being given higher marks), the band clearly meant business and was there to play their asses off.

The first set saw such highlights as a particularly soaring version of "Bathtub Gin", a fan favorite and one of the band's biggest jam vehicles for close to two decades, and a blistering version of "Run Like An Antelope", a partially-composed rock anthem that closed the set in energetic and frantic fashion. The second set opened with an absolutely rocking cover of The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll", and found it's way into "Prince Caspian", the end of which saw perhaps the most inspired improvisation from the band over the weekend. This led into the highlight of the night, a pairing of two of the band's most wonderful songs back to back, "Tweezer" and "Slave to the Traffic Light". The Tweezer was a memorable version, arguably the strongest this year to date, alternating between bass driven funk and scorching guitar-led rock, and the Slave was a typically gorgeous version, culminating in a single blissful note held by guitarist Trey for close to a solid minute that seemed to send a wave of awe over the crowd. Despite it being a strong show - and it was, as good as any I saw last year - it left no indication of the insanity that was to occur the following night.

We had lawn seats for the second night, which was perfectly fine by me. You couldn't find a ticket in the lot, at least not one for under $250, so I was thankful to simply be there. The venue only holds 11,000 people, so there's really not a bad seat in the entire place, and it was nice to have a different vantage point for the festivities:

The excitement of everyone in attendance was palpable, and the band appropriately kicked things off in the first set with an acapella version of The Star Spangled Banner. The first surprise of the evening came a couple of songs later, with the appearance of "Col. Forbin's Ascent > Fly Famous Mocking Bird". Previously played only twice in the last decade, this duo of songs comes from frontman Trey Anastasio's college thesis, a prog-rock opera entitled "Gamehendge", and historically is a signifier of a special show. Being a Phish nerd, and never having thought I would actually get to see this combo performed live, I was ecstatic and knew we were in for something really special. Other highlights in the first set were a "My Friend, My Friend" that saw Trey in full on rock-star mode, an always welcomed "David Bowie", with its intricate compositions crisply nailed (although this one still stands in the shadows of the staggering version I saw in Knoxville last year), and a monumental version of "Jibboo" that closed the set and was accompanied by the most impressive light show of the weekend. An impressive set indeed, one that a Phish fan of any sort can be proud of having caught.

The second set was, in short, the craziest and most amazing set of live music I've ever seen. Phish made a statement opening up the set with three consecutive jamming titans back-to-back-to-back: Down With Disease > Piper > Ghost. Jaws were hitting the floor left and right, and with each version clocking in at around ten minutes, the audience was treated to a half hour of top-tier jamming. After a quick breather by way of the melancholy ballad "Waste", Phish then launched into one of their signature songs, "Mike's Song". Mike's Song (named after bass player Mike Gordon) generally comprises the first of a suite of three songs always played together, the other two being the instrumental "I Am Hydrogen" and the funky "Weekapaug Groove". Together the three songs comprise what is known by fans as "Mike's Groove". Tonight, however, Phish had something different in mind. Instead of launching into I Am Hydrogen at the end of Mike's as most expected, the gentle chords of another song entirely rang out: "Tela", another tune off Anastasio's Ganehendge. An extreme rarity in its own right, it was an inspired combination that had fans scratching their heads with delight, wondering what the band was up to.

As the final chords of Tela trailed off, the band launched into yet another epic rarity: "Harpua". Once a live concert staple, Harpua has been played only a handful of times in the previous decade, and once again the people in Alpharetta were treated to something special. Harpua is a multi-part epic that always follows the same basic structure, but every version is different as the middle portion is entirely comprised of a unique narrative, spoken by Anastasio, involving a boy named Jimmy and his cat Poster Nutbag, who is eventually eaten by the fat sweaty bulldog known as Harpua (I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Bear with me). In this particular version of Harpua, Trey tells how Jimmy is off in his room, neglecting his cat and rocking out to one of his favorite bands, "The only band other than Phish that won't bullshit you. And it sounds something like this..." The music stopped, and Phish immediately dropped into a cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name Of." It is an understatement when I say that I have never witnessed as much energy and experienced as much pure adrenaline as I did during those 5 and a half minutes. It was an absolutely incredible and surreal moment, the highlight of the weekend, and of my experiences seeing Phish live. If you've never seen 10,000+ hippies moshing like there's no tomorrow, take my word for it, it's something you won't easily forget. Take a look:

After the glorious cover - of which the implications of the song being played on this particular date was not lost on the audience - Harpua was finished in typically epic style, before the band finished up perhaps the most unique and memorable Mike's Groove ever with a soaring Weekapaug Groove. The band took the stage for one last encore, a ripping "First Tube", which turned the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater @ Alpharetta into a patriotic madhouse. People were waving American flags left and right, hundreds of people had sparklers lit, and a couple of brave souls even managed to sneak Roman Candles into the venue, and lit them off. It was a sight to behold.

In many ways I feel like I'm not doing justice to this fantastic weekend - one of the best I've experienced in my 25 years. I kind of banged this entire thing out stream-of-conscious style, and am still recuperating from the craziness, so I don't have the energy to go back and edit, but hopefully I've been able to at least somewhat adequately express the unique magic I experienced this weekend. Needless to say, Phish has taken away a lot of my time for movie watching lately, hence the lack of recent posts. Hopefully I'll get back to viewing soon and have something new up shortly.

I hope everyone's 4th of July was special, and everyone made it out safely!