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Vagabond (1985)
Appearances: self, 18 February 2015

A large group of films I'm drawn to are about suffering, in Buddhism one of the three marks, because on the other side of it is redemption from it, which is transcendence. Most films deal with it; my simple definition of drama is obstacles on the path to redemption from them, it's nothing more. But few do it well, few give us insight of the internal mechanisms that create it.

So this is the paradigm that Varda as I'm discovering has evolved through her career, or one of them, looking into the possibility of a meaningful life, a happy one, and the things that obstruct it. The story here is that a vagrant girl is discovered dead one morning in a ditch, the film follows the last few days in her life. This is for us to see someone who suffers, perhaps understand something of what drives that suffering.

Immediately it stands out how this French countryside is a far cry from the idyllic reverie of Le Bonheur, this one is full of joyless provincial roads with unadorned concrete strewn about. How in the same beat this mirrors the young girl; instead of a swanlike innocence crying out to be saved we see a tomboy with a cold shell that bellies anger, hard to like, erratic, unwilling to be taken in.

The more eloquent French title meaning "without you and law" perhaps points to these two kinds of absence. A world left to seed and grow callous, with a lot of law perhaps but little of it that takes care of life. And a life we live in that world that we are responsible for, that forgets to be mindful of itself and lets itself slip through the fingers, the girl's withering no less her own fault. It is for us to see both these things in effect. No need for backstory because what gives rise to a broken life is exactly what we see in the girl and those around her, indifference and selfishness.

Varda is musing here as much as analyzing; musing is a way of sketching until you arrive at shape after all. The film is a piece of her own inquisitiveness that she sends out in search of conflicts that give rise to broken lives, her own soul as this girl. Ultimately it seems to point at no way through this and only charts the landscape. We don't get to see how these obstructions that move behind the self are impermanent and subject to change.

Near the end however there's a stunning scene as actual in-sight of this tormented soul tossed about by things she can't understand in a maddening world - the girl after so much wandering stumbles about in a daze through the streets of a village where some local carnival is taking place, suddenly finds herself chased and terrified by masked figures covered in blood.

I was wrong after all perhaps and it's all here in this scene, the frightening apparitions that she can't understand, the swirl of confusion and fear that send her running. But the appearances are not what her mind thinks they are, the figures are play-acting, the blood (that someone is seen washing near the start) is not real. In Buddhism all these obstructions are illusory in just this way, empty.

Yes, it's all here.

Bypassing opposites, 10 February 2015

This is funny and touching, about a rich disabled man in his château and his rowdy new caretaker from the projects. But where we'd expect pity and self-pity, we get one man hanging out with another, teasing like he would any friend, sharing a spliff. The real compassion of friendship as antidote. Instead of treating an incapacity, nurturing a capacity. Not just dutifully picking up and massaging a broken body that can't be made whole again, but doing these for a mind that can.

The film is rife with pairs of dual opposites - rich and poor, cultured and not, genuine and not, mind and body, etiquette and humor, duty and bond, thinking and doing. Simple, stacking opposites so that the modern mind stuck behind a facade of disappointing conventions from how to treat a patient to courting love will be freed by messy, spontaneous action. It recasts Zorba where the overthinking intellectual learns a deeper wisdom from his employee's unfettered love for life.

No less wistful in the end about redemption than a lachrymose Oscar film on the subject, neat as inspirational films go, whole - but this is deeper about a response to suffering and view that looks past it rather than just shedding beautiful tears before a deadend wall, I always welcome the former.

And how's this for a French postcolonial view? The white and black French in stereotyped symbiosis of mutual dependence, the first as a gentle intellect perched ontop of a dessicated body, surrounded with artifice and etiquette that fail to sooth, the latter injecting him with goofy new vigor for life. But of course to be stuck behind this intellectual cynicism that sees master and servant, to dismiss the film on grounds such as these, would be only more of that ailing Western mind in desperate need to be invigorated with a film just like this.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Photographs of life, 7 February 2015

The first thing I appreciate here is that Varda went out with a camera and filmed her own neighborhood, looked for insight right outside her door. How richer would be the cachet of images that convey our history if more filmmakers were alert to their surroundings?

She finds an ordinary life of course; visits middle-aged bakers, butchers, perfume sellers in their shops, observes the coming and going. There are no young people interviewed, so this emerges as the chronicle of a generation, Varda's own; the generation who were kids or teenagers during WWII and came to the big city right after from some village in the countryside. The street is Rue Dageurre, after the pioneer of early photography. It's photographs of life that we get. Our reward is that ordinary insight of photographs.

The best photographs are spontaneous, offering a sense that lingers. The sense here is bittersweetness that the journey has come to a stop there in that street, that this is a last station. They recount stories of how they fell in love with a fondness as if stirring the young lover they were. Asked about dreams they see, most dream that they're back in the shops they run during the day, a few dream about romance. The saddest of these neighbors is the old wife of the perfume seller who absently sits around the shop all day, not fully there in mind. The most poignant thing, in the evenings she's seized by some inexplicable urge to go out as if something calls for her, some journey ahead. She never ventures past the door.

This sense so placidly evoked lingered with me all day and the next; how we're caught between a life we build and the urge to step out the door in the evenings, the soul calls for both, both require mindful cultivation; going out in search of pleasure must be only the unmindful way to do it, the artless way. Varda it seems strove to make herself a gift of that life that is mindfully present, cultivate it; a film like this is the seed. She lives in that same street, is the same age, but pushes herself to go out with just a camera.

The film is a small gesture of affectionate presence, closeness. Sad, and not. Its place may not be in a list of lifechanging works. But it can deepen you the same way a small gesture like stroking a loved one's hair deepens love.

(Ideally you'll see this after Varda's Le Bonheur, one of the most masterful films I know, the couple there could be among the ones here, grown to be 50 together in the same home; consider this an addendum. The same question emerges, is this happiness? What is this mind that wonders?)

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Los Angeles Plays Itself, 3 February 2015

A bizarre young man, jobless in LA, drifts towards 'nightcrawling', chasing after true crime with a camera that he can sell footage of to news stations; there's lots of frantic driving through neon night in search of suffering, life where it's broken by dumb accident, fires, carwrecks, home invasion; along the way we have those evocative moods around LA, up and down canyons, that I love.

But this isn't about the pursuit of truth in that suffering; he progressively intrudes upon reality, moves a body to where it will photograph against a LA horizon, rearranges life to yield a more horrifying truth until of course the sardonic conclusion. So it's not about confronting horrible reality out there; a murder of Latinos is worth nothing the man is told, it happens everyday, no one wants to hear. It's about using life as fiction, something people can talk about in the morning around the water-cooler.

The satire is that doing even this ruthlessly enough lets you climb the ladder, buy the fancy car etc. Okay.

So the first-time maker acquits himself well, the observation cuts at the modern void with regards to how we're swallowed up by images: "news" isn't news unless it spells out disaster. I'm with this so long as it shows a desensitized modern world drifting in the night towards images; but only their outer form. His footage (merely form, bloodied bodies) mirrors the protagonist's mind, a sociopath only concerned with the outer form life can take, about success. Suggesting meanwhile the broader malaise that makes viewers tune in; people are addicted to dwell in suffering, misery, apparent meaninglessness around us.

I can never muster much excitement about satire though, not Network, not Firemen's Ball or Fight Club, so I leave that part to be enjoyed by others. I can like this only up to a point, up to when it expects of me to be appalled at being secretly titillated at how much the protagonist can get away with; the same carwreck fascination that is behind Fight Club (thankfully without the twist). Past that point I find it feeds the same void and lack of center, making me wonder if unfurling stylized swathes of LA night isn't much the same thing as moving that dead body to where it will photograph better. Is it?

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Making the point, 2 February 2015

The story behind this is one of those tragedies that remind of how stupidly inane are the machinery that turn politics, this one about how the CIA funded a counterrevolution abroad by laundering drug money on its own soil from drugs sold to its own people. Past a certain point the outrage is numbed by how unsurprising ploys like these have come to be, in the US and elsewhere of course, so the question is how can you revitalize newspaper headlines in a way they jolt now?

Which is to ask how can we go past story and show the thing in a way that it can enlighten? Argo was a joke; this is better. But the focus is all on just getting the story out there so there's not much thought in the presentation; a poor structure. Some sloppy filmmaking, the kind of which is a lot of coverage slapped together with another rocking montage now and then to speed us along. No surprise to see a TV director at the helm. It doesn't help that when the journalist starts losing it it happens with yelling and smashing fists through windows; histrionics that take the light off the system and how genuinely hard it can be to distinguish a real story from not in a world of shady agencies and conspiracy nuts.

Normally I would just say it's mediocre as a film. Sobering by the end but anything more than a story we flip through and put down again? Not the way it's made so maybe the best this can be is an illustrated placeholder for us to go and read up on the actual thing and draw conclusions.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Entangled iconography, 27 January 2015

kay so life is floating with shards of narrative, image, roles, history; obvious stuff that we all use to define self. There's nothing you can pick that doesn't entangle with threads going deeper, everything interdependent. The difference between lesser films and great is the first pick from the surface and arrange neatly into pleasant shape, diversions; great ones from deep within and disentangle the cluster, reveal our place.

This is muddled as one review here says because it drags out threads from a corner of its own world, it falls on us to familiarize ourselves or not. Dated too, perhaps, because they're political threads we've left behind in their mess as no longer relevant and holding answers, so focus on the effort of revealing a tapestry.

See here. A mountain bandit, last of his kind, and the bounty hunter hired to kill him, the place is a windswept plateau in a remote area of the Andes. But this is only the tip of the thread plucked from a popular folk legend in Brazil about bandits, as outlaws often are the subject of.

Now see what the filmmaker pulls out beneath this, the bandit preaching to a poor mob about jailing the jailers and feeding the hungry, against oppression. It was I think Bakhunin who said brigands were the first true revolutionaries, outside confines. A revolutionary then, but in this context the subject of myth, of popular belief in a tradition of heroism.

More entangling of iconography ahead. Instead of giving us a virtuous hero the way Soviets portrayed their Red Army officers and peasant heroes in the 1920s, he gives us a seething blowhard who proves to be below the heroic circumstances, as so often they do, fraying the symbol with life. No path is cut through oppression and yet it is his failure that inspires by revealing the extent of oppression.

There's a lot of theatric writhing in all this, dissonant dances, cacophony, this is Rocha's way of fraying everything as he drags it out of pageantry to have life; not as special as Pasolini, similar aim. There's of course a corrupt mayor who has the town in a stranglehold with his stooges, another symbol of oppression this time, but not probed beyond its cruelty.

No the real character who will have to brood over his place in a world and system where symbols prove to be small is the bounty- hunter, more reflection here. Rocha always questions, reflects in order to. But again how brilliantly he pushes out from the fabric images and iconography that question. The dead body is propped up on a tree as an icon anyway even if the actual person proved below the circumstances. The revolution does take place in the small village, the yoke of tyranny is overthrown, but what shape does it take? Rocha dips his hands in myth again and pulls out a whimsical western shootout with our hero shooting down dozens of henchmen, another iconic image, another narrative of popular belief.

So a more esoteric subject whereas Pasolini and Herzog strive for cosmic miracle, but as profound and similar in the transformative tangle of reality and myth.

I want to summarize Rocha here as I conclude my journey through his work with this. His main thrust is always political, not much interesting to me in itself. Ideals are rigid, mere devices on paper, hopeful signposts that turn rebirth into scholasticism. Rocha knows this, incessantly challenges both left and right, attacks the complacent views. Alert mind that uses politics to question politics, to question image, narrative, belief. So our worldviews are apart in particulars, he entangles the neatly arranged fictions, I'm looking into our ability to float free of fictions; but I'm glad to know him and always impressed by his ardor when our paths cross.

Images of African air, 22 January 2015

An African film here about youth, about the thirst to escape from a place that parches it and the bike ride through dirt roads out to sea where a ship sails for Europe. But I want to avoid merely a museum visit or an aesthetic token from a faraway place, I want the heart that pounds behind appearances and gives rise to their breeze of color. What heart here?

First are the things he says about the home that is left behind. Symbolic cows being led to slaughter and cut to the young lead riding his motorbike with cow horns on the wheel. A stolen chest, supposedly full of money to pay for a DeGaulle statue but it contains a corpse.

These are the things he knows exactly what he wants to say about. They're also the least interesting to watch for me. The young lead being wrestled by leftist students intercut with cows being wrestled before the slaughter. The precious bike stolen by a savage white man and left broken while he's extracted with merely a broken leg. Not without nuance; a campy caricature of a rich gay but he can pick up a phone and get the police commissioner. But some of it is as didactic as we make fun of Hollywood.

More tantalizing is the journey through these to outrun them, even more so once you realize this is the same journey the filmmaker himself made from that same port. A yearning for freedom, but the desired freedom is a life of material comforts in Europe. Meanwhile the girl meekly tugs along behind her childish man. There's a sense that she quietly yearns for more; but she also looks pleased in the (stolen) pink suit and red hat. I like films where youth is embraced with its folly, this is one.

But also a deeper heart, things which the filmmaker doesn't know how to express clearly but vaguely feels stirring. There are a few of these where the surface of the film is rippled by some hidden vortix that seems to rage in the deep, like when the girl thinks he has drowned. If the journey is Godard, this is Pasolini. This might be part of what some reviews note as sloppy technique. True. This is a man still trying to fathom how images can surround a feel.

So this is it here, a journey where as these two lovers flee, they get caught up in situations that tear from them images of who they are and what their surrounding world is like, images the air takes along which become the film. In the end one self is left behind, the one who has not outrun this world.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Boddhisatva, 22 January 2015

This is that rare thing, a blockbuster that does more than just deafen with noise of its machinery. More on that in a bit. But I'm also amazed at how well it deploys that machinery, I want to quickly note this deployment that shows we are at the hands of excellent practitioners.

It's set in the near future, about warring alien invaders, but the template is from the past; a WWII movie about landing to France and the final battle that blows back towards freedom, a simple choice that made a difference in immersion from Star Trek stuff.

Setting it in the future allows for wider room in the story. They chose time travel, normally cumbersome when it mechanically props a story, but here fresh because it's about loosening up limits of it. This way we escape the war movie trapping where we know that the hero must dodge every bullet and survive to the end, here he dies again and again, some funny deaths in place of heroics; seriousness goes, expectation goes, it all becomes more fluid.

And Tom Cruise is marvelously casted, just brilliant use of him that helps so much usher us in. He's cleverly made to be at first the preening jerk that he grates everyone as, cowardly trying to avoid battle, instead of right off the bat the noble action hero he would normally portray. He's laughed off, fails, fate as cosmic joke, and in this way slowly emerges redeemed in the great crucible of war so that when he becomes the hero it feels earned and right.

This is all near perfect engagement to my mind, devices but so very well employed. The first is the draw-in, the other two ways of throwing the crank we'd like to; Cruise not a hero, thwarted heroics. Okay, now forget about aliens, gadgets, a war to save Earth.

The point behind it of course is the usual, redemption, but consider this with more depth. A man who would not assume his place in life, cast down there anyway but now stripped of his precious self, no longer above others. Interested viewers can observe the karmic underpinning of being reborn an endless number of lives, the successive round as Buddhist samsara, a cycle of delusion. That aspect of Buddhism which observes how present and future life is dictated by past action is the easiest to illustrate, so we see it often; Groundhog Day is the most known.

The more he pushes against the narrative, the harder it becomes, but just going along doesn't help either, he gets killed every time. No he will have to improvise a new self in the flow, this is sparked by a woman he meets and tells him to find her when he wakes up again.

So along the way there's another shift, even more powerful than all the others; during the drive to Lyons we suddenly notice that he's been further down the story than we have; suddenly it's a countless number of lives he has spent with her improvising a path, now they know each other as deeply as we can imagine. It's this easy (or hard) to deepen, you don't need eloquent speech. No device as intelligent as this in all the Marvel and Nolan bigs; but now one where gears part to create empty space.

It all builds up to a last mission of course, one last chance to get it right except this time they can both die.

The filmmaker delivers the expected climax, doing it well. But also delivers something else. She kisses him for the first time, having known him for only a day, trusting it is more. He watches her go away, having spent with her an eternity.

He comes back of course at the start of the first day, now redeemed, except no one knows he did it, it's her image on the wall. He goes to see her one last time, a first time for her, but now he knows her as more than image in a story (an image he made famous as part of the publicity narrative that inspires at the start of the film).

She greets him, now her superior, with the same defiant tone as ever. Will he stay or go? Is it a first day in this affair, last, is it even one? It's all in Cruise's baffled laugh, both the first day and last. Marvelous; but something you'll deepen with love as deep as you've known or can imagine, the pieces perfectly arranged for you to. My first thought was that there must be no better film about love last year, unless it's Malick.

Something to meditate upon.

Huey (1968)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Being present, 19 January 2015

I've been deeply impressed by earlier work by Varda; when this happens with me the filmmaker's whole journey becomes a lifelong project. I have several of these running, open-ended affairs with creative, alert souls who I know I can always turn to for a far- reaching view.

This is a small snapshot, but no less part of the journey. It's among a few political films she did at the same time as Godard and others, with Vietnam booming in the distance.

It's a look at a rally party of the Black Panthers at the time of Huey Newton's trial for the murder of a policeman, but there's nothing more they can offer Varda's camera than sloganeering and Varda had no more time to devote into it, perhaps not the inclination to probe more and inquire. Possibly she was interested in no more than this glimpse in passing.

It says something that she was there of course, yet she also makes it a point to ask some of the rapt faces if they know Huey didn't do it; they don't, but they're fervent just the same, it's all part of a war being waged on them, Huey is a prisoner of that war, he must go free, or else.

There's a much more sobering history prior to and as we move away from that day, based on what little I know; the obsession with territory and tribal law, and on the other hand police abuse and a youthful life without prospects that would turn Southcentral LA into worse than Beirut, but you have to remind yourself that this is all simmering behind the ideology and parades, the image barely able to contain a life that would soon spill from it.

Politics are thin, but maybe it is all here anyway for you to deepen? Politics aside, the glimpse is worthwhile. It's a day in that life, that place, that furor about injustice.

John Wick (2014)
1 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
On the job, 18 January 2015

This is wholly forgettable, typical action and revenge, style as merely style.

The only way I can think of to describe it is this. An aging star or other has his agent fish around in the market for a script where he will have to look pained in spots, heroic in others. Liam Neeson seems to do this yearly. Denzel found a new franchise last year. Statham makes his living this way. There are probably any number of identical scripts floating around at any given time that fit the criteria, one is picked from an agency's hat or because it slightly stands out.

Someone is brought around to direct, a crew is assembled. Along the way a few spots open up for known actors to get a paycheck in return for a few minutes of screen time, a few of them here. Work is done, perhaps a hundred people go home with money to make mortgage, from set dressers to McShane. If decent enough, it makes up its money with some profit, viewers get their money's worth of gunplay.

There's nothing wrong with this, work is work, it's how anything gets done; it's that this particular one never convinces as anything other than what I just described, people dragging themselves out of bed to go to work, and this line of work has spoiled us to expect so much more than people simply doing it. When Dafoe talks with Reeves at a funeral within the first few minutes, that's not a conversation between characters who immerse themselves in the significance of some story, it's one actor standing where he was told to and repeating lines after the other has finished doing so.

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