The Real Body

One thing that should become clear as you read this blog is I’ve watched a lot of Sion Sono! (I think the total is up to 29 now.) And the reason is that he continues to surprise and delight me, as he does again here in 2000’s Utsushimi (The Real Body). 

Though filled with energy and creativity from the first frame, this one may require a bit of concentration at first. Sono’s juggling a lot here: a very personal poetry of longing and fulfillment, images of waiting and emptiness, and documentary glimpses into the daily work of four artists – a butoh dancer, a photographer, a fashion designer, and a filmmaker (himself, of course). All the pieces are interesting on their own, but the whole is much more than an intriguing mash-up. It circles around on itself, while the repeated poetry, images, and ideas chime together in an ode to the concept of fulfillment, whether it’s through art, or work, or love.

It’s hard to explain, but eventually the film-in-progress (a comic proto-Love Exposure about youth and desperation) starts to take over, with all the other elements fitting in (or at least touching) at various points. It’s quite amazing. It’s also fun to see so many of his later obsessions show up already here: plucky schoolgirls, running, gratuitous gore, erections. And don’t turn it off too soon! After the insane climax, the poetry continues during the credits, wrapping up his themes with beauty and pathos and joy. I love this one so much!

Note: If anyone with any influence over its distribution ever reads this post, please, please, please make a Region 1 version available! I would love to buy this movie, so I don’t have to rewatch it on YouTube.

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Pierrot le fou

I finally watched Pierrot le fou. I have to say it’s a perfect example of its genre, the manic-pixie metafiction-slapstick-romance-caper (haha). And, at first I was entranced by its energy and color and music. I saw echoes (reverse echoes?) of Fassbinder, especially of Lola, and felt like I’d discovered the long lost first-half of My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days. But, while it’s fun to see a film which has so directly influenced my favorites (and Pierrot is highly entertaining aside from that), my initial enthusiasm waned a bit. The craziness began to seem forced, the love fake.

Of course, it’s supposed to! Underneath the romantic music and sunshine, Jean-Luc Godard’s characters are delusional and treacherous; his interest appears to be anarchy, not love. So, it became clear as I watched that My Nights is no sequel, but a complete re-write – with enthusiasm instead of apathy, anger instead of anarchy, and (despite the ending) love instead of death. Everything in Zulawski’s film, no matter how distancing on the surface, serves the doomed romance. Godard, on the other hand, aligns all the postmodern tricks in opposition to characterization and emotional weight. If My Nights is Angry OptimismPierrot is Whimsical Despair.

I Am Not Your Negro

I’ve been a big fan James Baldwin since I read Sonny’s Blues in 12th grade English. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is a novel I’ve reread many times. He’s one of my favorite authors—no, one of my favorite people, ever. So, it’s high praise when I say I sense the same kind of student-fan in Raoul Peck as I watch his Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. This is an extremely timely film, exposing an unfinished work of Baldwin’s to a broader audience, many of whom were probably unaware of his importance.

And it’s very effective! Of course, a big part of that is just knowing when to get out of the way; if you have Baldwin’s words, you’re already ahead. Peck then adds context with some terrific interview footage as well. Credit to Samuel Jackson: there’s really no dissonance as we jump between Baldwin’s actual voice and Jackson’s reading. I admire Peck’s restraint at times when others would be tempted to aim for the rafters. There’s no need here. Baldwin is the the most persuasive of persuaders, and the more who read (and hear) him, the better!

Women of 2016

I watched American Honey as part of a project to see as many women directed films as I could from 2016 (going by US release dates). Obviously the Arnold is my favorite, and a lot has been written about some other heavy hitters that year: Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. But I want to use this post to highlight three little-known films that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

I stumbled into Standing Tall on an obscure list somewhere online. I’d seen Emmanuelle Bercot’s uneven On My Way, so I didn’t expect greatness, but this took me completely by surprise! It hits hard in the first scene, as a child listens to words he’ll never forget, words that will shape his whole life. From that point on, I watched with bated breath, as several adults in the French juvenile social services try to help him change the course of his life. It’s touching, but never sentimental. Bercot directs this like a thriller, like a documentary, like a love story – by turns muscular and sensitive. 

The Fits is a lovely little movie. (I only wish it were longer!) Director Anna Rose Holmer brings a piercing simplicity to a young girl’s small world: a world filled with her older brother, her own body, and such yearning (for belonging, for growing up). The mystery is built of a child’s misunderstanding, half-heard things, and intense feelings of loyalty and desire, all playing out on this very talented young actress’s wistful face. And the music is terrific – avant-garde, eerie, yet seemingly made up of the sounds of her daily life. So good!

I really enjoyed Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi. Shah Rukh Khan makes an adorable eccentric psychologist, and Alia Bhatt is ridiculously watchable as his patient, whether throwing a tantrum or falling asleep. (Being extremely beautiful helps, of course, haha!) The psychology may be a bit movie-simple, but the process felt right. And I liked the way Shinde pays tribute to the musical with story elements (filming a video, dating a musician, one big montage) while sticking to a more indie style. Anyway, I guess I should seek out her English Vinglish.

American Honey

I’ve been a fan of Andrea Arnold since her intense feature debut Red Road. I thought Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights were interesting, though flawed – but American Honey is something absolutely new and special. From its surprising origins in a New York Times article about a traveling magazine sales force, to the captivating first-time actress Sasha Lane, this is a visceral, perfect film. I can’t say enough about the masterful way Arnold puts us into that bus, a window away from the long road, and right into its passengers’ messy lives. The film itself is overloaded, hyper-real, stylized just enough to to emphasize the angst and neediness of its young subjects.

With a crew of non-actors and a building sense of danger, this could so easily have been miserablism, too dark to take. Arnold keeps it just this side, letting it bounce from place to place, dark but resilient as the kids themselves; letting her heroine rebound, catch her breath, start again. It’s a long ride, but so worth it!

Resonance

As I was writing the previous post, I noticed some similarities between recent favorites Against the Day and The Tulse Luper Suitcases. They’re both playful, raunchy, semi-historical escapades drawing heavily on the idea of childlike imagination. Both toy with corrupting their genre origins, but a certain innocence (of stubborn hope and decency) remains. Both start in a disappointingly corrupt American West, then zigzag around an even more corrupt Europe in the shadow of a World War. Both wind up as heartfelt meditations on the horrors of warfare, placing their slender hopes in a few individuals in the face of man’s terrible inhumanity. And they both belong on my ‘Angry Optimism‘ list. 

Obviously, Pynchon and Greenaway have taken metafiction to great heights within their respective arts. I think they belong together in other ways, are part of the same conversation or movement. But what is this movement called, other than James Wood’s hostile term, ‘hysterical realism’? This seems like something I should come back to at some point. At the moment I’m just happy to have noticed the connections and resonance as two of my favorite artists deal with the hyperbolic absurdity that was the 20th century.

Book review: Against the Day

Wow, this book is an amazing, epic piece of art! The last Pynchon I read (Gravity’s Rainbow) rarely “clicked” for me, but Against the Day did, on every page. So funny and cynical and sweet and thrilling! Yes, it’s long and densely plotted, but don’t be deterred; for Pynchon, this is super accessible. It’s so effortlessly engaging that I found myself reading chapters ahead because my eye would be caught by something wherever it first fell open. Unlike GR and Mason & Dixon, this one seems uncharacteristically concerned with meeting the Reader at a somewhat attainable level. I’m no math whiz, but there were enough clues in the text for me to sort of keep up with the geometry stuff. (Likewise, history, geology, photography, etc.) That is, I’m sure I still missed a lot of jokes, but, Verne is an easier reference than Rilke, for example, and I never felt lost. 

For the first time, Pynchon reminded me of Steve Erickson (though the comparison really goes the other way, I guess). But, the allusive, lyrical sweep of the narrative often hits the same emotional key as Erickson at his best. And the reviewers who said he didn’t develop his characters must have been skimming. Sure, there are cartoons here, but he develops relationships, whole families, countries for heaven’s sake, as if they’re people he’s known and loved all his life. In one of my favorite developments, someone who’s a throw-away joke in one chapter reappears hundreds of pages later to become a fully fleshed-out, heart-breaking main character. 

Which reminds me: Pynchon is oddly romantic in this (not excluding much of the porn-worthy sex). His heroes are ethical anarchists, quite careful about collateral damage. And the characters all pair off, sometimes comically, always perfectly. Weird, huh? Though, since he’s riffing on genre fiction (Jules Verne…H. P. Lovecraft…Tom Swift…Upton Sinclair) he may have some historically-relevant bodice rippers in mind, also.

Anyway, it’s a mournful nostalgic tour de force!

Excerpt He had brought with him a dime novel, one of the Chums of Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth, and for a while each night he sat in the firelight and read to himself but soon found he was reading out loud to his father’s corpse, like a bedtime story, something to ease Webb’s passage into the dreamland of his death.

Reef had had the book for years. He’d come across it, already dog-eared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood, while languishing in the county lockup at Socorro, New Mexico, on a charge of running a game of chance without a license. The cover showed an athletic young man (it seemed to be the fearless Lindsay Noseworth) hanging off a ballast line of an ascending airship of futuristic design, trading shots with a bestially rendered gang of Eskimos below. Reef began to read, and soon, whatever “soon” meant, became aware that he was reading in the dark, lights-out having occurred sometime, near as he could tell, between the North Cape and Franz-Josef Land. As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read and, reluctantly, having marked his place, turned in for the night without considering any of this too odd. For the next couple of days he enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole. Cellmates came and went, the Sheriff looked in from time to time, perplexed.

At odd moments, now, he found himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship. As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for him, even pass on to Reef wise advice, though he might not always be able to make sense of it. And sometimes in the sky, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar. Never lasting more than a couple of watch ticks, but persistent. “It’s them, Pa,” he nodded back over his shoulder. “They’re watching us, all right. And tonight I’ll read you some more of that story. You’ll see.”

Riding out of Cortez in the morning, he checked the high end of the sleeping Ute and saw cloud on the peak. “Be rainin later in the day, Pa.”

“Is that Reef” Where am I? Reef, I don’t know where the hell I am—”

“Steady Pa. We’re outside of Cortez, headin up to Telluride, be there pretty soon—”

“No, That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes. . . .”

“It’s O.K.”

“Hell it is.”