Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Music of Chance (dir. Philip Haas, 1993)

"When I was driving, nothing could hurt me anymore."
"Then you met me."
"And then I met you."

-Jim Nashe and Jack Pozzi in The Music of Chance

As the title suggests, chance in life plays so often like music, having a melody and it's own distinct rhythm. It can be a lush and symphonic presence, with fast, aggressive tempos and overwhelming crescendos. Oftentimes it is slow and monotonous, leaving you to wonder where all the years and opportunities have gone. But it is always there, a constant. Keep your eyes open and your head on straight, The Music of Chance warns us, before chance thrusts you into a situation of unthinkable absurdity, created entirely of your own making and at the same time completely out of your hands.

The film begins as we follow Jim Nashe (Many Patinkin), driving through a scenic stretch of an unnamed state. He passes Jack Pozzi (James Spader) on the side of the road. Pozzi is beaten, bruised, and caked with dry blood. Nashe offers him a ride. Pozzi, a card shark, was in a poker game and cleaning up, before thieves robbed everyone and left him broke. Too bad, he tells Nashe, he had a scheduled poker game in a few days with a couple of clueless, rich businessmen. It was a guranteed major pay day. He needs at least 10 grand to sit down in the game, and after thinking it over, Nashe decides he's going to back Pozzi with the last bit of money he has to his name. It's a compelling start to this seemingly straight story, providing intentional ambiguity in Patinkin's character. Why does he have almost 100,000 miles on his car if he bought it brand new less than a year ago? What does he do exactly? Why is he so anxious to give Pozzi (a less than savory character in both appearance and attitude) his trust and money?

The pair arrive at the mansion of the two businessmen for the game. They are Mr. Flower (Charles During) and Mr. Stone (Joel Grey, appearing as sinister as ever). They hit the lottery years ago and through big business are making more money than they ever dreamed. Pozzi and Nashe take a tour of their opulent estate, and here is where things start getting a little weird. They are introduced to a large scale model occupying a single room, referred to as The City of the World. "Everything in it happens at once" explains Stone. Contained within the model are little figures of Flower and Stone at different points and landscapes in their lives, existing at the same time. The City of the World also has a few other creepy touches, such as a prison where all of the prisoner figures have smiles on their faces and "can't wait to be rehabilitated". They explain a space cleared on the portion of the model representing their current property for a wall they aspire to build, or rather a monument in the shape of a wall. "A wall of 10,000 stones" Stone himself says through a creepy self-referential gaze. It is an eerie scene, and well establishes the mood of unpredictability that will ripple throughout the rest of the story.

And then the poker game begins. "We took lessons" Stone proudly proclaims, and it shows. The pair clean out Pozzi and Nashe for everything they have and more. Before we know it, they are stuck in way over their heads, owing an ammount they can't possibly pay off. Flower refuses to take credit from the pair, and a quick brainstorming session ensues. With no money or possessions, how can they possibly settle the debt? "There's always the wall" says Stone, "Someone has to build it."

To say anything more would be doing a disservice to this film, which has a remarkably refreshing impact stemming from it's wholly unpredictable plot developments and character revelations. It's just not everyday you come across a movie where you truly have no idea what's coming next, and it is out of this quality that The Music of Chance takes on a kind of hectic ebb and flow that, despite (or maybe even because of) the absurdity, gives it the feeling of life itself. And make no mistake about it, the plot is absurd. You could argue perfectly reasonably that there is no one in their right mind who would endure the impossible situation that Nashe and Pozzi find themselves in. And yet the film hits the right note time and again because at its heart it's not really interested in the circumstances. It's interested in its characters and how they handle themselves admist the chaos and ever evolving conditions. In the world of The Music of Chance, there is no destiny, no kismet. Only people and chance occurences. Random roadside meets and the turn of a card. And when it rains, it pours.

Director Philip Haas and his wife adapted their screenplay from a novel by Paul Auster which remains unread by me. The great crime perpetrated against The Music of Chance is that it has, to this day, never received a DVD release in America, and thus until it does so will remain unseen by all except the few who have the means to purchase and watch the UK disc or those lucky enough to catch an ultra-rare once in a blue moon cable broadcast. This is one of the great, unsung films of the 1990's, a work of deranged affirmation that certainly deserves to be seen by many. Cross your fingers that one day this gem will receive a proper release.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Phantom of Liberty (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1974)

"Madrid was filled with the stench of -pardon my language - food. It was indecent. "

- Le professeur des gendarmes, "The Phantom of Liberty"

A professor and his wife arrive for a gathering at a friends house. We think they are preparing to have a meal. Instead they all drop trow, have a seat on the toilets mounted around the table in place of chairs, and begin to converse and tell stories as they go about their natural business. A few pick up magazines to browse through. A little girl tells her mother she's hungry and the mother scolds her for her bad manners. The professor stands, pulls up his pants and excuses himself from the table, discreetly asking the maid for the location of the dining room. There he finds a chicken dinner, a bottle of wine and complete privacy. This is just one possible example of the horrifying potential of evolving morals and customs, according to the professor in probably the most famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, the surrealistic masterwork by legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"The idea came to us to make a film which would...go from one story to another story, but leaving a story when apparently it becomes interesting". So speaks screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere on an exclusive interview for the Criterion DVD release of Phantom. Indeed this is a concept that consistently flows throughout the movie. We are introduced to a character, follow them for a bit until they are ostensibly drawn into one crazy situation after another, only to abandon that character for another in a flash, right as the action seems to be approaching a crescendo. If it sounds familiar to you, Richard Linklater also employed a similar style in his 1991 cult hit Slacker, a film I admire but have found to wear a little thinner upon each of my three viewings. It is a premise that in lesser hands could have easily felt manipulative and unnecessary, however for the most part The Phantom of Liberty feels throughout the duration of its 105 minute running time both fresh and inspired, in the style of its execution as well as the ideas that pour out of it. This is a movie of an astonishing creative vision that none other than Bunuel himself could have made.

And now I must be completely honest. I was underwhelmed the first time I watched this movie. I saw it one tired night during the peak of a week long Bunuel marathon I recently and proudly endured, and my initial reaction was that while it had moments of genius (which is to be expected from anything with Bunuel's name on it), much of it felt dull and ponderous. A tired journey with no seeming destination or point. As I noted, I was exhausted during this viewing and ended up probably mentally checking out by the midway point. However I was anxious to give it another chance, as parts of it had lodged themselves in my brain and stayed with me. Particularly my absolute favorite sequence in the film, involving Bunuel regular Julien Bertheau (the priest with a green thumb in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), playing a man who may or may not be a police commissioner, who on the day of the fourth anniversary of his beloved sister's death receives a telephone call in a lonesome bar from someone claiming to be her. The voice on the phone knows intimate details that no one else could possibly know, and Bertheau is compelled to follow directions leading him to his family's vault in the local cemetery. It is a masterfully directed and hauntingly comic sequence, even if the payoff is purposefully enigmatic.

During my second viewing I found myself quickly enveloped by the hypnotic, deliberate pacing of the film. Parts that had initially bored me now seemed rich with subtle detail and surrealist touches, such as the sequence where a little girl apparently becomes missing at her school, prompting her parents to race there in a panic. In fact the girl is in school and in her desk in plain sight like normal, but that doesn't stop her parents and teacher from conducting a full-on police driven investigation, with the adults occasionally shushing the young girl, who pleads with them, not unreasonably, that she is in fact right there and perfectly fine. This situation is typically Bunuelian, and ripe with comedic moments that had been completely lost on me during my initial, hopeless viewing.

Nevertheless there were moments that still did not work for me this second time around. An extended scene, set at an inn which occupies the most time any location is given during the film, between a nephew and his aunt apparently engaged in an incestual relationship is overlong and comes across as a bit gratuitous, bringing the pace of the film to a quick halt. The part where a sniper kills numerous people from the top of a building, is arrested and sentenced to death, only to be met by photographers and people asking for his autograph on his way out of the courtroom still feels overt and way too easy for Bunuel. However these did not deter my enjoyment of the film, rather this time they simply felt like a few minor, off color brushstrokes on an amazing canvas painting.

So after all of this, what does the film mean? Along with the title, the first scene provides a clue: set in 1808, Spanish soldiers arrive to liberate the city of Toledo. When a handful of the inhabitants refuse liberation, they are lined up and executed, shouting "Down with freedom!" before the triggers are pulled. Bunuel seems to be asking us if alongside everything wonderful coming with liberty, do we likewise lose something? It is a difficult question, one that doesn't have an easy or even tangible answer, but an interesting one to ponder nonetheless as we fall under the spell of Bunuel's meticulously woven work of art.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Noroit (une vengeance) (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1976)

"It is the Judas of the hours, wherein.
Honest salvation is betray'd to sin."

- Thomas Middleton, "The Revenger's Tragedy"
as spoken in "Noroit"

See if you can follow this. In the early 1970's, Frenc
h filmmaker Jacques Rivette conceptualized a four film project to be titled "Scenes de la vie parallele" ("Scenes from A Parallel Life"). Each film was going to revolve around a battle between two goddesses, one of the moon and one of the sun over a special diamond that had the ability to both take away and give mortality. Each of the four movies was to be fashioned after a particular genre, those being a love story, noir, pirate revenge tale and musical. In that order. Because of a nervous breakdown suffered by Rivette, and a subsequent abandonment of the project, only two of them were filmed and released. The first, released in 1976, was Duelle (une quarantaine), the film noir, which was chronologically the second part in the series. The second and only other movie in the project to be produced in it's intended vision was Noroit (une vengeance), the pirate film. Also released in 1976, it was to be the third installment of the doomed-to-be incompleted project.

A quick browse through my top 25 list should reveal the high esteem in which I hold Rivette as a filmmaker, and Duelle is indeed one of his richest accomplishments. An intoxicating, mystical air breathes in every frame of the film, apparently leading up to a promisingly epic battle between the two goddesses which in fact never ends up taking place. Finally getting a copy of Noroit recently, I was obviously excited to watch it. Could it induce in me the same breathless wave of awe Duelle had done as I watched it for the first time, and then once again over a single weekend?

In a word, the answer would be no. At least not u
pon an initial viewing. That is not to say that the film isn't brimming with magical moments. If anything, Rivette's charmingly bullheaded refusal to play by anything resembling the rules of a traditional narrative structure are at a peak here, and it works in creating many isolated moments of beauty that stand outside of any attempts at moving the "story" along. In fact, Noroit is the most beautifully photographed Rivette work I've seen to date, often punctuated with small, silent moments of the swaying sea against the backdrops of lush green hills while people wait silently in the shadows for mysterious meetings involving secret agendas the viewer is never completely let in on.

The story, to the extent that there is one, invo
lves Morag (Geraldine Chaplin), the victim of a mostly-female pirate gang who apparently inhabit their own colony, and her attempt to exact revenge against them. Specifically, their sinister leader Giula (played by Bernadette Lafont, so wonderful as Sarah in Rivette's towering masterpiece Out 1: Noli me tangere) who is mostly a quiet, sulking presence throughout the film, only displaying at the rarest of moments (mostly involving bloodshed) a wicked and menacing cheer. One or both of these characters may be goddesses and have possession of a certain powerful stone, but unlike Duelle, Noroit is content to play oblique cat and mouse games with identities, only revealing it's true fantasy core in the final act.

I must mention my favorite aspect of the film, w
hich would be the music. Or rather, the way in which Rivette has decided to soundtrack his film. In both Duelle and Noroit, Rivette has chosen the method of having the music scoring any given moment to be played by actual musicians appearing in the scene, always lurking around the periphery of the frame. In Duelle, you would occasionally hear the haunting, jazzy piano improvisation of Jean Weiner, and if you looked hard, sure enough there he would be in the background of the frame, hunched over his piano playing away. In Noroit oftentimes a scene will be playing out to the tune of a trio of stringed instruments and a flute, only to have the camera finally pan to a section of the room where the men will be huddled in a corner or off to the side, either looking away or passively watching the scene unfold just as the viewer is. It is a startling effect at first. One would think this could take you out of the film, or perhaps make it hard to concentrate. Strangely enough it transcends this notion and ends up being a stroke of inspiration, with the troubadors seeming at times to play the role of Greek Chorus, giving the material an almost mythical quality. Their constant yet disconnected presence is one of the films most potent touches.

So all of this is to say that I was visually captivated by Noroit from beginning to end. And yet it missed a beat for me. The rhythm was a bit off. It lacked the playful charm of Rivette's masterpiece Celine & Julie Go Boating, the magnitude of Out 1 and the aesthetic perfection of Duelle. Something felt out of place, and it will almost assuredly take at least another viewing to put my finger on exactly why. Nevertheless it is a worthy companion piece to Duelle and fascinating in it's own right. One can only use their imagination as to how the entire "Scenes de la vie parallele" series would have panned out had it been completed. Luckily using your imagination is something you almost certainly will have no problem with after viewing any single Rivette film.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Top 25 List

The Blue Vial is my attempt to keep an online journal of the films I watch, and to revisit the films I love (or have otherwise strong opinions of). In the interest of fairness to any potential readers, I would like to share what currently stands as my top 25 all time films.

Film lists are tricky things. They can serve as documentation for some, forever solidifying any given film into its rightful numerical place in the heart of its author. I've known some people to spend five minutes drawing up a list of their favorite films and spend years referencing it in any relevant conversation. "You haven't seen The Last Picture Show? Why that is my seventh favorite film of all time..." etc.

My list would in fact be the very opposite of that. A litmus test if you will. Fluid. It is often changing, re-arranging and very much has an "out with the old in with the new" type mentality. That is not to say that I simply cast aside my love for any of these films in favor of a newfound treasure or that I operate under any kind of "Flavor of the Month" modus operandi.

Rather, the world of film is simply that rich and voluminous. Just when you think you have it all figured out (if you are in fact that arrogant), a Jacques Rivette movie will fall into your lap and completely change the way you view the potential of cinema. You will watch something by Chris Marker and question the nature of films themselves...are they simply fabricated memories? Your brain and imagination will be stretched a thousand different ways by a thousand different filmmakers, all with something just a little bit different (or in some cases MUCH different) to offer.

And so needless to say, the following 25 films are of monumental importance to me. They either had a profound effect on me cerebrally or emotionally to the extent that I've no choice but to include them on this list. However none of these, save the top 2 or 3 (and even those are subject to change) are set in stone. This is simply a starter guide to the type of material you should expect to see me discuss on this blog. So with all of that said:

The List:


Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)

The absolute pinnacle of Lynch's wonderfully bizarre career, both creatively and aesthetically. Never has a film intrigued and arrested me on virtually every human level possible quite like this one. Lynch's masterpiece is all at once a murder mystery, an identity crisis, a scathing indictment of Tinsletown and a surrealistic nightmare. Or maybe it's none of those. The Club Silencio sequence is the most hypnotizing and gut wrenching I've perhaps ever seen in my life. An absolutely perfect film.


Celine & Julie Go Boating (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1974)

If there were ever a movie that Mulholland Drive owed a debt of gratitude, it's Jacque Rivette's mesmerizing 1974 adventure/ghost story/fairy tale hybrid Celine & Julie Go Boating. With a running time of over three hours and an intentionally irrelevant narrative structure, it may seem like a daunting task. However those with the wherewithal to make it through the occasionally meandering and confounding first half will, in the second, be treated to some of the most magical and wondrous images and ideas that have been captured by a filmmaker. Equal parts Alice in Wonderland and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you will have a smile for hours on end after you experience Rivette's mystical construction.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1972)

Bunuel's surrealistic skewering of the French upper class follows six charachters who are constantly trying to sit down and enjoy a meal, but for one reason or another can never quite get the food on the table or that bite in their mouths. Bunuel's direction is as masterful as ever as he deftly balances playful vibes and haunting moods in equal measure. There is an incredible fluidity to the "story" and the patchwork of tricks and tones on display here keep the film amazingly fresh. I could watch this repeatedly and never tire of it. Bunuel's masterpiece.


Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati, 1967)

A staggering achievement of set and sound design. Visually, the most diabolically complex and meticulous yet satisfying movie I've ever seen. Make sure to view it on as large a screen as possible, as each frame is overstuffed with sight and sound gags. One of those films you could watch a thousand times and pick out something new every viewing. It truly blows my mind the amount of effort that had to have went into making something like this a reality.


Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978)

The most gorgeous film ever shot. Simple as that. You could take any single shot from Days of Heaven, frame it, and hang it in a gallery. Your mouth will drop time after time watching this at the sheer poetic beauty of the images presented. Malick is a legendary filmmaker and each of his movies are materpieces in their own right, but this has been and most likely will always be my favorite.


Claire's Knee
(Eric Rohmer, 1971)

There is no substitute for class, and Eric Rohmer has it to spare. The plot is simple enough: Boy likes girl, boy wants to touch girl's knee. In fact he becomes consumed with touching her knee. The fact that he is much older and never comes close to appearing as a pervert is a testament to the tact and grace of Rohmer, one of the greatest of all the French New Wave directors, and here he has created perhaps the most lighthearted and insightful fetish film of all time.


Sans Soleil
(dir. Chris Marker, 1982)

One of the more enigmatic films you will ever see, Marker takes documentary footage shot from various countries and splices it together, draping them over a voice over narrative involving a woman receiving letters from her unseen travelling friend. More a meditation on memory and how imagery and our capacity for retention play crucial roles in not only our day to day lives, but in our very views of the world than an attempt to tell a story, it remains a fascinating, frustrating and endlessly complex work.


Cemetery Man aka Dellamorte Dellamore (dir. Michele Soavi, 1995)

If David Lynch, Shakespeare and George A. Romero had a kid and he made a zombie film, it would probably look something like this. Cemetery Man follows Francisco Dellamorte as he works in a cemetery where every seventh day after a body is buried, it comes back to life, leaving him to dispatch of it a second time. The mixture of gore and philosophical musings are exciting to watch, you just don't see films like this well.......ever. As the story gets crazier and crazier, it reaches something of a mad purity before leaving us with probably the greatest head scratcher ending ever


Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James, 1994)

Documentary (famously snubbed at the Oscars) following two inner city youths with loads of talent and NBA aspirations over the course of four years. Goes to prove the saying that real life is infinitely more fascinating than fiction, as this story takes the type of turns, both cruel and uplifting, that you just can't write. The subjects involved here are so engrossing that when the film ends, despite it being almost three hours you just don't want it to end. You want to continue following these kids to see how their lives will turn out, or if they will turn out at all, which is perhaps the highest possible compliment you could pay a movie like this.


Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983)

A masterfully directed, nightmarishly seductive parable from Canadian Cronenberg about the potential of the television medium and losing control of your own flesh. Particularly prescient considering the current state of reality tv in america, videodrome starts at breakneck pace and doesn't look back, pulling no punches until its hauntingly transcendent (literally) ending. Cronenberg continues to be one of the most exciting living American filmmakers, and this film is as good an initiation as any into his terrifying universe. One of the quintessential modern horror masterpieces.

The Best of the Rest:

11) The Decalogue (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)

12) The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961)

13) Safe (dir. Todd Haynes, 1995)

14) Out 1: Noli me tangere (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1971)

15) The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin, 1971)

16) Eyes Wide Shut (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

17) au Hasard Balthazar (dir. Robert Bresson, 1966)

18) Predator (dir. John McTiernan, 1987)

19) Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

20) Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)

21) Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch, 2006)

22) Kiss Me Deadly (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1955)

23) Boogie Nights (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

24) Duelle (une quarantaine) (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1976)

25) Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)