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Tumultuous sea out the window
My interest in Almodovar is rather muted. He doesn't excel in any of the ways of presenting the world that really matter to me but he does several things more than well, so every so often I visit. There is the desire to submerge ourselves in fiction, lose ourselves to self in order to wake to a fabric that extends from self. That's Talk to Her for me.
But like Woody Allen or the Coens, he has consistently worked for so long on the same motifs that coming to him is also a matter of is he particularly inspired that day. I'm pleased to say he is.
In the individual pieces of cinematic craft, this is not particularly exceptional. If you're heavily inclined to how story resolves drama, you will see here something that simply trails off near the end. The symbolic motifs greet us upfront; a deer in slow-motion, tumultuous sea out the window. His bright reds on walls and the like are not something I can get excited about, in this or any film.
But he is inspired today on the fundamental matter of self passing through self. He manages to do this with just a few strands of narrative. There is the young woman who was on her way to all life ahead of her that night on the train, who finds herself yanked by unexpected passion. There is the house of passion in the small fishing village, eerily explored with Hitchcock hues. And there is bewildering loss as she wanders away a widowed mother.
Above all I love here the sense of transition. Almodovar does so well - his actress helps - in spinning narrative to explore tragedy. He says enough about the jittery urge for adventure as a story we throw ourselves in so that we can infer more fleeting illusion around the crushing melodrama about life breaking down. She's not just this grieving woman that another film, say, in the realist format would have simply followed around Madrid; we're privy to all this richness of her young self having set off in search. Things couldn't have only worked this way for her, it's important to see; but sometimes they do, sometimes setting out for open sea means finding yourself marooned on an island, nothing right or wrong.
And Almodovar is ineluctably Spanish, meaning Catholic; so communion with the fleeting, transcendent stuff must take place firmly within ritual, in his case (just like Ruiz before) fiction. The whole is narrated by an author writing the story down as she waits in her apartment, shifting us forward and back. It speaks about the imaginative mind being burdened by the narratives of memory. For Almodovar, there is merit in the effort. Had she not stayed behind to write, she would have missed the letter. Even more pertinently for me, there is a bedridden mother (a mirrored woman) who is allowed to languish in her room, written off as an invalid. But when her daughter comes to visit, the recognition nourishes her back to her feet.
No arriving without going out
This is one to bask in its air for a while, one of several films about transition in life that I've seen in the last few days. It does not ask particularly difficult questions, about love or otherwise. Being able to inhabit transition is still one of the most illuminating uses of our time however. Going out the door, arriving at the last bend of the road before our destination; these are the stuff that make life the awe-inspiring journey it is, worth experiencing.
The double perspective we are offered here is on one hand a quarrelsome world of need and anxiety, a bit cold, with boys pressuring the young woman for her affections, trying to pin her down to a life. Eventually it's revealed to be a much more cruel place, its machinery extending far afield. A private detective with them all this time and having set up his filming operation right next door to the lovers' room.
But there's also the world of going out the door in jittery search; the world of tentative lovers getting to pull back the covers of self from each other. This is a world where taking images (the young one is a budding photographer) doesn't come with a narrative of what they can be used to prove or exact from someone (a trial about custody is looming), they are not 'taken' from, they are shared back in the open for what they signify; people having come close for the occasion.
Seeing is central here, the story is after all in Anna Karenina's lineage (a preeminent story where seeing gives rise to the world of urge). We've just described two different kinds of it; one seeing that is strident and anxious with need, another where the gaze is open and jittery with anticipation.
The gaze of the film itself is soft and languid. It felt like a more robust Wong Kar Wai. There is a marvelous tone poem the filmmaker squeezes in early, reminiscent of Kar Wai's going through tunnels. How exciting to consider that what would have been experimental film in the 1950s, now is part of the common fabric of perceiving. The whole production also deserves a mention; bringing the era alive must have been such painstaking work. They do it, creating a 1950s world that envelops while avoiding the stifling impulse to see 'period' in purely sumptuous terms of a rosy past. I left the film with a sense of Roonie's character as a young student discovering life just like someone would now.
But there is also a third seeing that I would remiss in failing to mention. See, there is going out the door, and there is arriving on the last bend of the road, maybe the one before last. There is discovery and there is how to move forward from it. It's what we have in the final shot. Is she there to say goodbye the way they both deserve? There to announce she's there?
As with the whole, it's not something we've not seen before but I like the things that we are called to inhabit here.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
The house is already swirling
What is horror? Objects move of their own, we have the premonition that something is outside the door. Walls throb with presence. The same mechanism props up scary stories around a campfire and funhouses the world over. Maybe it speaks about powerful animal urge or a desire to enliven a world that is chasing spirits out. But it comes back to walking into a room expecting it to come alive.
Here we have it all quite clearly in a family of storytellers who stage an experience of the beyond for their paying customers inside their house. There are stage props, actors, a narrative of making contact. Fiction but it leads to shivers of actual experience, in this case closure for family members. How is horror, emotions, and self unlike it?
The story is they end up making real contact except it takes them a while to know it. Now it's this unseen narrator who is staging an experience of the beyond around them. The house acquires capricious life of its own, the real thing this time. There is the requisite backstory of course about heinous evil committed in that house long ago, the usual ghastly premonitions.
They acquit themselves well overall, I'm on board. The whole film as a funhouse of course, with some of the same atmosphere of murky oppression as we find in Insidious and that whole slew of seance films but two key differences that set it aside.
One is the attempt for genuine emotion in being visited by a departed father. Insidious-like films tend to use this trope that strikes me as particularly mean-spirited: the loved one we thought we were making contact with had been a demon in disguise all along.
The second is about choreographing expectation. The time comes for the actual show, this is where the possessed start flailing about and now obvious evil ricochets around the house. The usual priest visits with grave news about arcane evil in their midst all this time, there is talk of Vatican experts who deal with this kind of thing. Great, now we'll have to wait for the usual exorcism to be set up.
Except no sooner are we out of the room than someone is thrown to hang. The house is already swirling around us.
The Gift (2000)
Her body floating on the trees
Sam Raimi is an interesting dude. A few things I appreciate here.
I like that it isn't the type of story that simply piles on deceit; we have an emotional center from which to see. The story is about a woman, widowed mother of three, who hasn't come to terms with the loss of her husband. Maybe deep inside she feels she should have done more to keep him from going to work that day, that she squandered her gift of vision.
She's a fortune teller, a caring soul genuinely trying to help neighbors with their emotional turmoil, but we get the sense that she has allowed hers (and her kids') to go unaddressed. When her eldest (who has school trouble and is distant owing to the loss) takes the bold step of coming to her room to ask about their father, she sends him back to bed; so completely unlike her, denying both him and her the same comfort of clarity that she freely offers to others. This moment is pivotal to what this is. There's anger bubbling inside that clouds her intuition about emotional turmoil in her own home.
The horror film proper is about this anger unfurling outside. There is an abusive redneck who victimizes his girlfriend. Another woman who goes around her fiancee's back, betraying love, is found murdered. Flashes of premonition abound.
More could have been done to draw out connections. Although the premise is powerful, a bit too much of the film is spent in turning a plot. But that's my own preference for a cinema that wanders visually through context. It doesn't stop me from appreciating that, horrible murder, garish visions and the like, they all point back to a human being trying to cope with suffering, unsure about what's coming.
It would be nothing without Cate Blanchette of course. She soars, here near the start of her career. It might be simply that I've gone without the company of a great actor for some time; it felt like one of the most resonant works I've seen in a long time. The way she hesitates before easing in, her fragile poise guarded with grace.
The tendency is to celebrate actors within confines of an 'acting craft' that echoes its origins in theater. The type of roles that Oscars and sundry awards are given to tends to solidify this view. How revealing that Gena Rowlands was only Oscar acknowledged once and for a 'mentally ill' role. It keeps us from seeing them as makers in their own right, giving rise to a whole landscape of urge. Were we to be in Cate's presence, we would be in the presence of a master.
One last thing that brings me back to Raimi. We think of classic Hollywood as something that forever went away with its generation of stars. But it survives as a way of positing. Jaws is a Capra town being whimsically toyed with by an unseen beast. This one here, in the way we are eased into a world, in the placement of the camera, in the narrative light, is very much in the language of classic Hollywood.
Sam Raimi is an interesting dude. Come to think of it, I lament that he didn't create his own world to explore the way Lynch has, or his buddies the Coens.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
For cinema of this era I go to Pabst for ecstatic hovering out of self, the self that finds itself at the mercy of narratives; a true master that filmmakers like Lynch are still tapping into the potential of what he showed. Sternberg gives me feverish exaggeration of the same, a kind of grotesque sculpting in emotional air. Pabst seeks to transcend the constraints imposed by fictitious reality on self, Sternberg gives into the anguish they create. Lang turns these same constraints into monumental machinery that strike awe, but his way is much less interesting overall I think.
And then there's this other maker who made the leap from Germany to Hollywood. Yet another way of dealing with fictitious reality here. With Lubitsch I come for the joyous dismantling of expectation; the constraints of fictions, our expectation that story plays out a certain way, are marvelously upended, opening us up to paradox and surprise. Here fictions are fanciful guises we put on to push each other, the constraints are opportunities for improvisation. There's this famed thing people call the Lubitsch 'touch', often in vague terms of exaltation, as any synonym for mastery. It's a specific thing he masters; spontaneous illogicality.
You'll see a great demonstration in just the opening sequence here. It's one I'll keep with me when needing to discuss Lubitsch.
A man lies unconscious in a dark empty apartment at night; something sinister has happened. Now cut to a man and woman meeting in another place. They're both royalty we find out, baron and countess. She had to sneak in there to meet him, improper mischief is implied, a desire to conceal. Soon we understand that neither is who we thought they were and the place where they meet is right next door to the unconscious man.
It's a small masterstroke in pushing back horizon with just a few gestures. Like when the man gets up angry at having been found out, locks the door, draws the curtains; we imagine violence is coming. But they sit right back to eat, kindred souls delighted in each other's brilliant boldness of play-acting.
The rest of the film flows by with much the same play-acting. We see a woman being set up to be conned, a rich Parisienne who scoffs at the men who desire her but falls for his suave charm. He insinuates himself into her home and begins controlling a story, fictitious reality. The suave charm of the film lies in seeing him, ever the cunning narrator, con his way out of difficult situations that might expose him while the noose tightens around him.
Eventual unmaskings come with a certain largesse of heart that can only come by the hand of a filmmaker who sees fictitious reality as one large stage play and revels in the illusoriness of it all. It beats sulking into a corner, taking the caprices of human behavior to heart.
So no hard feelings on her part at having been set up with fictitious romance. She shoos them out like mischievous kids. In turn he regrets that he couldn't split himself in two and leave one self behind to live a life with her. Herbert Marshall has more ruthless eyes than needed to convey longing here (or perhaps the point is that he cannot resist feigning to the end); but he's superb as wily narrator.
But how about this notion as well. His girlfriend partner in crime has been in on the con all along, disguised as secretary in the same house. Had she not caved in to jealousy at the last moment, they would have pulled their plot clean off. It's this outpour of impulsive self that destroys the fiction and allows us to have the generous letting go of.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Here we have another film about the flustering of identity, the storytelling we weave as we try to pursuit our desire, the turbulence of that pursuit. The same thing in a screwball context that underpins so many musicals of the era and of course the early steps that film noir was taking.
Here's what transpires here. She's trying to seduce him, initially for just money on board a cruiser returning from South America. He's a bookish loner, aloof to the advances of other women, preferring his book, which is a way of hinting that here's someone who prefers the world with the clarity that stories provide it rather than as it is, a bit disheveled.
So she trips him, quite literally, and he falls over. On a moonlit deck he professes deep love. Now it's her turn to be swept up. Having perhaps been so guileless to her tricks but so earnest in feeling at the same time, she falls for him. She shields him from her card-cheating companions.
We are as vulnerable, as susceptible to the clarity that cuts through the stories we tell about ourselves, revealing us to be not quite who we thought, as our best attempts to avoid that clarity. Having done her utmost to seduce him, to weave fiction, real feelings pour through.
But now look. He's handed a manila envelope containing a captioned photograph announcing her as a well known crook; another story, complete with images this time, that trips him and destroys that clarity. She protests that people will sometimes do things. Flustered by the betrayal he goes away.
A third story brings them together, again spinning fiction. She has gotten herself invited to his fathers' home in Connecticut, in disguise supposedly as the niece of a neighbor (himself a crook in disguise). She shows up there in resplendent beauty, immediately he's taken aback. In a part you'll simply have to swallow, he becomes convinced that she's not really the same person. The filmmaker juggles this bit well though; another story is dished out to him about twins separated at birth.
As well mannered, bright visitor from England he falls for her all over again, whom he had just spurned as a crook, although she is the same person. It's fun to watch with a lot of slapstick shenanigans and really a lot of the film is. Trying to get close to her over dinner, now the world conspires to make a fool of him.
And then we shift again. Her payback is another story she innocently begins to blurt, about a dozen different sex partners before him. He is indignant, so easily flummoxed again by life that is not quite as he thought it should play out. We have quite clearly the foolishness of this narrator taking shape as the film around him.
The film does not look to make a big deal about how, being so susceptible to stories we have in our heads about how life should be, so rigidly fixated on the idea that self is this solid, immutable, once-for-all thing, which of course goes against everything our senses report to us, that we miss out on the marvelously transient romp of persisting with the ride.
But using this bookish, naively romantic guy who keeps moving away from his heart's desire only to find himself chasing her in another guise, it may be this very romp. It's not quite a masterpiece but come to it for a bit of funny clarity some day.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Half-finished retail space
By now you know this is the second in a row of collapsed artefacts by this studio. The sole reason they exist is that they woke up one day to realize their rivals had built a mall across town that was hoovering up all demand. So belatedly they rushed to built their very own but built haphazardly and by skimping on planning. On opening day, you note lights that don't work, wires still hanging from ceilings, ladders left behind by the construction crew, the place still half- finished.
This is even less of a finished film than the one before. For long swathes it feels as if we're simply watching what could be salvaged at the last moment, what they had to go forward with after they couldn't tinker any longer. Still their choice for a narrative engine makes it far more watchable. This is the 'group band together for a common mission' format that goes back to Seven Samurai. There's a lesson here on narrative dynamics.
The blueprint itself establishes forward momentum. We get the requisite scenes of introducing each one along with their oddball skills; it sets up the anticipation of seeing them in action together. The added irony is that they're bad guys who have to reluctantly do good. The rest is a bunch of action scenes en route to facing this month's super villain who threatens all life on earth.
The only other thing I found interesting was Harley Quinn, this particular version of her anyway. She's the only one who manages to intrigue. Not this Marilyn Mansion version of the Joker, no, who is all tacky rockstar and no embodiment of whimsical chaos in the gears of the world like Ledger's.
I'd like to think that someone in company meetings raised the idea of a William Friedkin-style love film about the two of them going on a spree of havoc first but was overruled by impatient bosses. They were apparently in a bit of a rush to give us another Joel Schumacher debacle.
Reflects corporate need
This was probably never going to be a very good idea to begin with. Having a vs film with these two be a watchable version of itself must be a nightmare of logistics of story and world. By now you know they failed, bitterly so.
You probably knew the moment they announced Affleck. It was the strangest piece of news, the kind I would expect to read in an Onion parody. I remember wincing at the time. Someone like Depp who has actual acting chops wouldn't do either so it's not acting ability. It's because actors are embedded into contexts of how we've known them, how they've been defined by prior work. Sometimes that's why you cast them, hoping to mine that context.
So when he's your choice and no one in the room bats an eye, it's the kind of creative choice that to me presages a certain way of doing things in that room. It told me that executives in charge thought any known face would do or he was the best they could land on short notice. It told me they had no idea what they had in Nolan's Batman. They weren't going to extend that world or work with Nolan's blueprint of prolonged anticipation. It promised a Joel Schumacher style debacle.
It's really as bad as this. You're going to read more acerbic barbs in other comments. I'll just rest with the observation that it has all the marks of a film where company employees sat through meetings trying to come up with a film for no other reason than the company decided it must have this particular product to sell. No one is particularly in charge of overall vision or has some particular creative interest in bringing it to life. Everyone is an employee who simply has to deliver by Friday on the company memos of Monday. Affleck will do. All they probably had in front of them was a timetable of when they had to launch.
What actually happened is their arch rivals beat them to something that proved lucrative, opening up market possibility they were late in noting, so they're now rushing a product to market to avoid falling behind. It's as simple as this and the sole reason this whole filmic world exists. It's the cinematic equivalent of Microsoft realizing they've been squeezed out of the new ecosystem of mobile connectivity and trying to quickly patch their own together, throwing around mountains of money to make up for lost time.
They tried to squeeze a bunch of things in here at the same time as patching together the platform; reintroducing Batman and his world, the story arch the title promises, an Avengers of sorts with joined heroes trying to avert doom while also setting up an Avengers proper for down the road. They bungled it up so bad that Wonder Woman was squeezed in here as introduction while her own film proper was a year away. But that's how rushed they must have been.
I even hunted down for the longer version. No dice. I do happen to think of Snyder as a dull mind; Michael Bay with simply different lists of movie and music favorites. But I don't think him to be this incompetent. This is the work of management.
You'll see the circumstances of its making in the fabric of the film itself. It feels as if different segments have been carted into place upon completion while other departments are still working on theirs; the assumption being that when everyone's finished, the result will be a film.
Everything we come across has potential to enlighten. Watch this to see the result of trying to substitute creative concentration with committee work, how something looks when born out of need rather than immersion. They should have had the patience to sit this round out. Me-too-ism is the path to gaffe.
The Secret Life of Pets (2016)
Pelts, no secret life
I saw this together with the latest from Pixar. Both are animated, feature talking animals making crazy getaways and trying to retrieve loved ones, so you might think they're going to be somewhat in the same ballpark. How significantly lesser can one be? Let's see.
Pixar begin with small, memorable pockets of world that they expand, pulling back to reveal larger vistas. The effort is to have the narrative expansion in as much visually flowing ways. There is thoughtful engineering to this flowing; sequences have been choreographed and given room to unfold. There is an element of discovery. Characters retain a certain human gravity in their wants.
These guys just plop us here and there. The place is an unimaginative New York, simply digitized, poorly discovered. The unveiling of the larger world leaves us with an animal mob in the sewers plotting revenge. Sequences, ostensibly the very same chase scenes, are choppy and without any flow. We just bump on a bunch of things on our way out. Characters are sketchy, one is a wimp, the other is a bully, then we change them around to be caring. The hawk as villainous predator then our hero's girlfriend tells him they could be friends, so as of right now he wants to help.
We're talking levels of difference between Singin' in the Rain and an SNL skit that features song and dance.
And do you ever get the impression some movies simply have lame personality? I find this usually in how characters are presented, in the change of heart they have, in how they pursue what is deemed important. Oddly I never seem to notice the opposite in movies that engage me. Even when I disagree with what I'm being presented with by Noe or Trier but I'm being engaged by a view of the world, not a personality. It seems a certain kind of bad movie reduces the exchange to how things rub me, not having been conceived to do anything else. Well, this is one.
It makes little difference that this was festooned with Oscars this year. I would have come to it regardless for its promise of a youthful look into back streets that we don't get to see very often. I would have come to it eager, for the same reason I've been to Killer of Sheep and Shadows before.
It would be about young people, young black people in Miami. It promised both hardship and discovery as movies about youth ought to. Any opportunity to inhabit a time and place, explore the horizon that life acquires for people that could be ourselves, is invaluable to me, exhilarating. It counts as education of the highest order for me, the visual and intuitive kind.
It does take place in those streets, Miami here but you can imagine it goes on the same way across America. It does offer hardship and discovery; one centered on broken family, the other on sexual awakening. It has a lyrical camera, some marvelous music. Viewers looking for a film that castigates social ills by looking for who's to blame will be disappointed. It's not the vehement kind of film, the Spike Lee kind. We're better off for it. Anger is a meaningless waste of energy, its grown up versions are cynicism and bitterness, not awakening.
In spite of best intentions however a movie must stand or fall with the awakening of gaze it permits. We see not particularly far here; not farther than the cycle of becoming his drug dealer mentor because it's the only decent man he knew in childhood. The filmmaker has plucked a few broad threads and unspooled across time until pain and irony are revealed. An abusive addict mother who years later regrets it. The sexual relationship becomes a handjob by the beach and the awkwardness of meeting again years later. I find overall that it streamlines to a Lifetime movie hook; can we begrudge him becoming who he does?
I do think we're all richer when people reflect on their own worlds from within those worlds. But when faced with a film like this I also find myself hankering for more filmmakers like Cassavetes, black or otherwise. Real souls who will not settle for things being so or in some other way, who can send us back home with none of the comfy words we try to explain with. It's a noble attempt here but I urge you to know Killer of Sheep at some point.
Finding Dory (2016)
No walls in the ocean
I've never been into animation and my comments probably reflect it. Not for any silly quibbles about real cinema versus not, kiddie versus adult; it's simply that the real world that threads itself around us is too marvelous and fantastical, too full of myriad possible worlds to envision, to forego the opportunity. Okay, but this leaves me free to observe these few things here.
It really has taken a quantum leap the last decade in trying to replicate our world after that business with dead eyes was over. Is there anything more extraordinary than texture and light falling a certain way? An audience of Disney's time would have been baffled by what kind of reality this film shows.
The most fantastical quality of reality is that I can open the door and go wherever. The thinking mind will hold me back nine times out of ten, but the fact that our lives play out against the possibility is behind any life worth being lived. Spontaneity. It lies at the bottom of all the other structures we observe around us and at the bottom of almost every great film I know of.
Pixar's main structure in building world - and what sets them apart from previous studios - is finding a small corner of our own world to animate, say toys in the attic, we can then have the delight of secret lives right under our feet. The more ordinary and familiar this corner is, the more often we can imagine passing through it, the better. It's the difference between Toy Story and Cars. It lets them filter in the following way; the larger surrounding human world retains its quality of callous indifference as we think of it ourselves, our gaze is directed to the magical world-within where fragile beings have to struggle with predicaments like ours.
The primary thing to note in tandem with this is how the rest has been engineered around spontaneous expression. Pixar are something of a master in how things flow, how walls can be moved around to facilitate experience. It's all about turbulent motion that zig zags over barriers; through ocean streams, a bird flying us overhead, through tubes inside the marine park, hijacking a truck. Things magically work out, even when our heroes don't land in the right place, they do.
And you'll see this in the story about a narrator who continuously forgets, has no plan about how she's going to accomplish what she wants other than the urge to find her parents, but makes her way by rubbing against limits of where she finds herself, spontaneously opening ways.
Tied to the same place
With Burton I usually pass through with some curiosity without being engaged more. He lauds the sticky-sweet qualities of imagination and nostalgia, gives us struggles of light versus dark; I find myself drawn to filmmakers who cultivate the transience and non-attachment that reconcile opposites in their films. He pumps warm emotional tap water, I would rather be taken to springs in the deep forest.
He offers storytelling as retreat to a purer place than the callous world out there, fantasy will often do that. I perceive storytelling as a tool - one of the most important - for untying knots, knots created by our attachment to things making story-sense a certain way only, it's where so much of our troubles begin, so that our whole world becomes a purer place, purer because we can roam with an unfettered mind.
It comes down to the larger view of how we make sense of the world and our place within it, as both viewers surrounded by narratives and narrators of our own. But I happen to share enough common ground about the value of storytelling, the same one that brings me to Raoul Ruiz on the farther end, so I make it a point to visit now and then.
This is his most poignant since Big Fish and driven by a similar story of uncovering emotive truth in the ramblings of an old storyteller's fantasy. It has some of his most exciting fabrics of world since Ed Wood, particularly the beginning in sunny Florida where mysterious nightmare lurks after sundown outside the suburban home of an old man who is anxiously peering through blinds, later the Blackpool funpark by the sea in the end with a mischievous fight against evil right under the noses of an unsuspecting audience.
So it has enough going for it to make me, who was never a fan but am always rooting for anyone who tries to stir the illusory world to awaken the sense of horizon, regret he has wasted precious time and energy being in charge of Hollywood projects that have as much to do with the art of imagining as decorating Walmart for Christmas. It means he has missed the opportunity to go off on his own to delve with quiet and single-minded passion into what interests him above all. Ed Wood best exemplifies this and is what the film was actually about, someone who is free to play and work with the fabrics of illusion.
Watching this I am reminded of Wes Anderson, someone who also became known for his peculiar inflection, the way colors and symmetries hang, but finally realized he was simply wasting it on skits that amuse. These days he's busy exploring ways to make language fluid and spontaneous, untying knots that stand in the way. He's finally giving us marvelous journeys about escaping bounds because he began by escaping his. I was never a fan before, now fully embrace him.
I have Burton grouped with Peter Jackson and Tarantino as filmmakers who at some point gave up on this journey.
Queen of the Desert (2015)
Pilgrim, Jalāl ad-Dīn's tomb contains no body
Important to acknowledge at the outset that Herzog is not a young man. He's the same age as Scorsese and note how long it's been since Scorsese settled on being an illustrator, a lifetime. Herzog as recently as a few years ago was still venturing out in search.
Having said that, it's hard to fathom this was made by the same man who gave us Stroszek and Fitzcarraldo. In those, the place was real. The protagonists were actual lost souls, not actors feigning. The journey was about actually going where we did to tug for transcendence.
He has a female lead this time, the very first time if I'm not mistaken. He has been hobnobbing with Hollywood people for a decade, perhaps the question was put to him, perhaps he thought he had been remiss himself all this time. No matter, like so many of his characters, he gives us someone who yearns to venture outside maps, explore hazardous edges of the world.
But he has everything else be conventional and streamlined this go round. Actors stay actors whether they're playing Turkish gendarmes or Druze rebels. Oriental music swells over sand dunes like you would expect from any other film. He filmed in Morocco sets standing in for the Middle East.
So yes, atypical for Herzog, a letdown, not one of his high marks. Others fret in comments about Herzog not getting the trivia right, right to left writing and such. What's really the trouble for me is that it dulls the edge of dangerous discovery that set him apart. We're in the Lawrence of Arabia timeline anyway and the film is cut from that Hollywood cloth. We're always more or less safely ensconced.
The film has been so gracelessly attacked in reviews however it makes me want to take a step back. All or some of this would have been obvious to him while preparing anyway, so the question is, what got him out of bed and across the ocean to make this?
No answer is going to be particularly lucid I feel or avoid sounding like excuse. Maybe he couldn't resist the opportunity of going on cinematic adventure, knowing he has only a few more left. It does have the feel of those tail-end films by aging filmmakers who were past their prime but still mounting epics in the 60s.
Maybe he would explain that we're seeing through the narrator's eyes, the world as Persian poem on evanescent love, arrested love as a deeper kind of love. Ridley Scott was briefly considered to direct, no doubt there would be sweeps of battle. Something he couldn't do and Herzog does, in a strange coup, is that it's a very sweet film about yearning.
I would like to rest here. I wouldn't trust the film to be stating too much but for what it's worth; here's a Herzog tract that swaps feverish ego in the pursuit of futile escape from the confines of the world with a heart that submits to the world being confined thus and so and this doesn't stop it from journeying freely.
Islamic poets make a big deal of this, acquiescing to be simply a vessel for luminous mystery. Maybe re-read on that Rumi than get it here.
One last word. Herzog's work is done really. His journey has been vast but is coming to a close. Rather than pounce on him for a film like this, take from his legacy. Don't be a tourist of being, a sherpa of other peoples' reality. We're living in interesting times that require courageous clarity.
And I write this after finding out that IMDb have decided to close down their message boards. It has been a decade for me, more for others. I'm not one for goodbyes, but maybe this one time. Something by way of farewell to people we won't be seeing each other in some time.
Friends, visiting the Mausoleum of Poets in Tabriz wouldn't make you one, not visiting wouldn't stop you. There comes a day when you are called to the back door, going out, you will never be seen again. Learn how to move towards, how to move away, there's no other art. A tree is useful for someone who comes to chop it for firewood or turn it into furniture. May you come to rest in the shade of having less use for things that don't make the heart grow fond :)
Stand high in the base of your mountain
Shackleton's third and last journey to the Pole in this documentary. We avoid talking heads and instead immerse ourselves in the arduous experience of traversing icy wastes. It has all the staples of polar exploits as have seeped into the popular imagination; valiant human endeavor, pitilessly harsh nature that cares none for our feeble attempts to cross it, scenes of increasing despair and privation, endured nonetheless with stoic composure.
They were the moon landings of their time. Crews setting out with lofty aims of expanding the map of human knowledge, broadening horizons. What captivated audiences back home was either more prosaic or more poetic; will they make it alive, human bravery in an alien cosmos, the attending mystery of venturing in uncharted territory.
One part of the film comprises actual footage of the expedition shot by a cameraman who was among the crew, really exciting (silent film) footage of the ship being crunched by the ice, desperately futile attempts to haul it out, playing with their trusted dogs, their makeshift camps as they have to go out on foot. The second part shows modern enactments, presumably captures views like they would have stumbled through, whether or not the very same locales. It's actually South Georgia later. But how different the visual regions when charged with knowledge that we're actually seeing into things as they happened.
I remember being enthralled as a kid by a book on polar misadventures. It was about an earlier expedition - the Discovery - but very much the same grimly claustrophobic experience. (What I couldn't know as a kid was that so much of my book's power came from the notion that these were things that actually happened.) It was the kind of story that makes you freeze simply to read, glad for home.
I have a quite different response these days than simply being aghast at what a cold universe it is out there.
See, these people ventured full of dreams. They were broken just as they were starting, shipwrecked in the early stages. Can you imagine the kind of disappointment that shakes you to your core? To know your dreams are quashed, your expedition is a complete failure. The same tortuous effort you expected to muster in the course of making history will now have to be spent just making it back alive.
So, you expected life to go one way, it went another. What now? Now dust yourself off and come back to us with a story of making a full return from the edge.
Herzog is one of few I trust to snap my eye open with just an image, he's done it a few times by this point. When he won't, he will still intrigue, invite me to swims unknown. He has powerful intuitions, will venture where the ground trembles with disorder and once there is spontaneous enough to let it climb up through the soles of the feet.
It's a German kind of duende that colors his world; the urge or passion a singer cannot quite put to words and responds to with song. I may disagree with him on conclusions of that duende about the cosmos and the futility of endeavor, but I trust him as explorer and soul.
He's in Antarctica here, another desolate landscape outside of maps that beckons in a most primal way. It's where Scotts and Shackletons wrecked themselves, and why. He enters as as anyone else might these days; by plane, one more sleepy traveler among dozens.
If you know a bit about him, you will observe a few things.
He is pleased to find McMurdo base looking like a drab construction site with machinery tearing up the ground, confirming his views of a fundamentally wretched humanity that fouls the earth. He is as pleased to find a forklift operator on the scene who very poetically describes his presence there as a desire to fall off the edge of the world. It's why Herzog has been in most places.
He is enormously pleased to find that all Antarctica newcomers must be drilled on white-out conditions by wearing buckets on their heads and stumbling after each other while tethered to a rope. You can almost feel his exhilaration when they have to reach a certain point in this state but find themselves in a jumble in the opposite direction.
He includes a tidbit about researchers studying seals, extracting milk from the mothers while claiming they want to be able to study the animals in their natural state. It mirrors Herzog's own endeavor of perturbing to extract truth about it. He tickles us with these researchers; the milk is being collected for studies on weight-loss.
He has the researchers lay down with their ear pressed to the ice, harking for calls of seals from below that sound like Pink Floyd (which are artificially edited on top of the scene). There is a whole world down there that ebbs and calls. It's the world Herzog has sought to portray.
An oceanologist had previously explained that the Antarctica - standing for a broader cosmos - is not a big, inert slab of ice as thought in Shackleton's time but an organic entity that is rippling out change. He mentions icebergs the size of Texas that will one day head north, saying this with a mad glint in the eye.
He finds an entry into that world below via divers. He gives us fluorescent jellyfish undulating in eerie blue silence. This world is constant struggle, one of the divers confirms. The link is made to a precarious humanity, perched on the outer layer of unfriendly chaos, this time via sci-fi movies.
So far we haven't had ecstatic truth of the kind which he favors. He finds it in a disoriented penguin that heads inland towards certain death all by himself.
I have still only described parts, there is more to see. It points altogether to a certain cosmology.
Yes, he has constructed on the way, intruded upon the subject, made it a point to include the bits we have while omitting others. You can imagine that he has sifted through a lot of otherwise unexciting footage. He has staged most of what you'll see. You can tell how well he has (or not) by noting that he first encountered the lone, intrepid penguin and then went back to set it up by filming the exchange where he asks the penguin researcher about insanity among penguins. It couldn't have taken place the other way.
I would disagree in parts, or with the temerity of the physicist who explains on camera about neutrinos as coming from another dimension. It's up to us anyway to choose how to perceive ourselves and our struggle, the universe neither cares nor doesn't. It simply provides the building blocks and vistas.
But he's a trusted explorer with good intuitions and here's why. This isn't the natural world of Koyannisqatsi, fundamentally pure and being imbalanced by us. Herzog finds a world with disorder and transience built right in, and welcomes the fact. He's more spiritual than he would admit.
Melodie der Welt (1929)
There is no fathoming our modern world for me outside the invention of the camera, this newfound ability to take up the world in terms of timeflow and shuffle it in reflection. It is the world standing on the precipice of modernity that silent cinema uncovers after all, looking a little damp and sunless from the centuries, but also a little startled and excited as it prepares to make the leap and finds all around it wondrous tools for that leap, automobiles, trains and cinemas.
The impulse would have been simple for silent makers, simple but no less exciting for that. All these things waiting to be documented as if for a first time. It was so in that Leeds film about traffic some thirty years before and so it is here. Ships, streets, structures, activities from the bustle of the modern city to native dances, the film is a travelogue that celebrates the swirl of being able to now have views of all these things in the same space. Among them now are sounds; the film is offered as the first German sound film. They were making so called 'city symphonies' at around this time; the filmmaker behind this being responsible for one of the very best I know. We would call this a world symphony.
All told, it isn't particularly worthwhile other than as a cachet of images from the time when our gaze was beginning to go global. The impulse for this type of film hasn't gone away of course but rather undergone a shift. This mode, more evidently symphonic, continues in films like Koyannisqatsi only the modern world is presented there in the cautionary light of having strayed too far and contrasted with the sanctity of the natural order. The modern lunge is here celebrated with wide-eyed eagerness. Still the eye is as rather dull as it would later be in Koyannisqatsi. Contrasts between old and new, far and close.
Because after all the camera is a marker of modernity in another sense as well. It's not simply that far and close could be shuffled now, past and present, it's that the whole unraveling of appearances - all this motion in every direction of perception - being facilitated by the modern surge forward, reveals a narrative eye with the ability to leap and surge itself, an eye that gives rise to world.
This is what more erudite filmmakers of the time, in Paris and Moscow, were busy exploring, the mechanisms that control that surge of the eye. I would rather pick up the thread there. The vital distinction is between the camera as device that records and as soul that surges through to animate. Such efforts were running parallel to a good deal of modern thinking about how the world is put together; I'd like to imagine, somewhat wistfully, that an alert mind of the time would have been as stimulated by news from Solvay as by the dreamlike uncertainty of Menilmontant.
Salut les Cubains (1971)
Visiting friends, the heart grows fond
I had saved this for a time when I might want to vicariously visit Cuba. Fidel Castro passed away last week so it felt like an occasion on which to look back and reflect. The place is seductive and the guide would not be just anyone. Chris Marker had been there two years before but Varda is second to none in my book.
Agnes is reflecting on her own right here. It's not meant to be a chronicle of anything, much less paean of revolution, but a sketchbook of impressions, glimpses on the road. She had been there and came back with still images which she edits in a playful way. The revolution does loom central of course, in the campaigns to literate peasants and the collective dances of gathering sugarcane, the frescoes and images of heroes, but seen through Varda's eyes, Cuba is a place that above all sways in rhythms and music that well up from inside of it, from generosity of heart. It is collective joy that Varda graces us with and salutes.
It's in the music, the religious dances and masks, the sugarcane work, the women's bodies, such evocative women that even Varda pauses to admire. It's no less in the gallery of gruesome photos from the war, exhibits of pride. Another segment admires soldiers on horseback as movie figures from westerns, ironically admiring the capacity of image to support our own imprints of meaning, able to bridge odd divides. Fidel as the Gary Cooper of the revolution, the narrator muses.
It all turns around form, image, dances of recollection from these, the transient and impromptu. It all points to how the image is pliant, a field where memories and narratives intersect. Some of these she has just improvised for us.
I don't leave feeling like I'm much the wiser about Cuba or revolution, which is okay, I'm fine without being wise in that sense. I leave feeling like I have briefly swayed in the breeze of being able to touch without smudging, partake without taking, know without knowing. More important this.
Permeations from below
At the time, this was just another tangled web of political murk to me, one of many it seems when it comes to dipping in the Middle East. Now that I saw it again I note it as a more interesting failure in itself and more interesting than assorted war films on Iraq.
It's let down I feel by two specific choices in the fabric. One was the choice to use the language of the CIA thriller to tell their story. It seems to be an established filter of seeing Americans in the Middle East. But in this case only serves to divert attention to Bourne thrills that won't come, it's not that kind of film really, so registers as muddled. Viewers sometimes wonder about bad directing, I would offer this as example.
The other, no less crucial, is that they put too much in. You can imagine how in TV form the same story would have been a first season's worth. That is where they probably would have pitched it these days. We'd be free to trace longer spans of threads, inhabiting and fleshing characters, stakes and conundrums. It's all been condensed to two hours here so we end up having to jump around story lines, landing here and there for moments that, given the time constraint, all have to forward the longer arc, which creates the real trouble. It has no room to breathe and winds up feeling mechanical.
Both choices force a shallow clarity that works against what this is. Too bad. If you see this, know that it's about no shady deal in particular but shadiness in general. About no specific manipulation by secret agencies but the agency of manipulation itself and how its toxic effect permeates the larger fabric to frazzle lives.
There's a fine metaphor in the film about exactly this. The world of politics as a lavish cocktail party going on in the rich Saudi mansion. Unbeknownst to the oblivious clinking of glasses above, a light has just short-circuited inside the pool where children are about to play.
Marvel has repeatedly toyed with ways to riff on their overblown antics. They had Ant Man last year where he shrunk and all that and the all important fight to save the world took place among toys. They had Tony Stark in the last Iron Man as screwy actor struggling with superhero machinery that blew up in his face. The first Thor of course, with the savior hero washing down in 'real life' from his astral world above and shown to be a big jock.
That's what they do here, a superhero narrator plowing his way through the superhero plot while commenting on the absurdity of tropes. It's mostly matter of engineering gags from that point. He's hideous looking, rides to the big showdown in a taxi. He has only 12 bullets, misses a few times in close range then gets a miraculous shot. He's only incidentally fighting against evil and would rather chew his own hand out of a bear trap than join the goody-two-shoe X-Men. He's basically this snarky dude who was plopped inside a Marvel movie and is fighting his way out of being a superhero (but meanwhile enjoys the mischief possible with playing the part).
Far from novel but they decided to keep the kids out this time so we have a bit of personality, a stoner imagination. His flatmate slash sidekick is an old lady and they get to toke together. Unlike an Avengers Walmart, you don't get the sense that it's corporate wash aimed at everyone and no one in particular.
My favorite bit was probably the relationship with the girlfriend. Love as unabashedly chasing each other outside norms. It's not as easy to seduce that twinkle in the eye out of actors as it looks.
One more attempt by a spy film to capture something of the machinations that move our modern world, the contradictions at the heart of it that keep it dissembled and ambiguous. It's why I seek these things out, apart of course from the thrill of secret lives and manipulable narratives. We can feel our own lives to have a kind of secret agency, well some days we might, it's what in older times people identified as fate.
Bond and sundry capers give us a world powered by duplicitous forces but an action hero plows through it. Everything eventually makes clear and simple sense, good and evil kept on different tabs. The narrative threads plucked from the motives of characters are childlike; world domination and averting it.
This is a step up from that. We're told that this cranky old agent of 30 years may be working for the other side. The film is a portrait of this man at the center of duplicitous narratives, a narrator used to tweaking truth. Over the course of things we come to understand that a man has his reasons, reasons that go beyond simple right and wrong are are entangled with a whole self. We understand the disillusionment to be woven with the place he worked.
It's touted as a mature look overall, above silly histrionics. But it's still a portrait and feels, like all portraits, the result of something posed for. It's a romanticized portrayal to boot, compared to the real person, serving us the tacit archetype of the stern American patriarch who glares and snarls and is set in his ragged ways that the world has no more use for. Cooper is great but I miss the abstract swim of a more pervasive uncertainty, a work that doesn't just prop up and define a type.
And I spent some time last summer, boring time, with a CIA paper on counter intelligence from Reagan's day, originally released as a series of internal memos and later compiled in a book. Written in the bureaucratic language of university psychology, it was aimed to instruct square military types like the guy Cooper plays here, with their old boy attitude of knowing best because they've been around, on the difficulties of making sense and precisely how observation is perturbed by the viewer.
It was a boring read that zapped vital ideas of their seductiveness and another instance of how state agencies guiding the lives of millions often work from outmoded blueprints. You'll see the latest iteration of this in the Iraqi failure. But the real insight for me was that an all powerful agency tasked with making (and constructing) sense had to be instructed as recently as yesteryear on how it's a multitudinous thing. The original impetus for the paper incidentally was a high ranking KGB defector and the tangled narrative web of whether or not he was a double agent.
And all of this cuts for me at the heart of how we make sense as viewers in both life and the cinema. Our dogged insistence to make clear sense, to fit people into types and fashion stories in dramatically neat archs about what motivates them, papers over a fundamentally uncertain world where self will heave and elude in turbulent ways.
L'homme à la valise (1983)
If you ever wondered how comedy at the hands of Akerman would look like, it's right here. It's the gentle kind that might make the edges of a smile curve upwards, not the kind that will elicit guffaws of course. It goes without saying.
It is in fact a twist on the kind of movie she usually makes, about a woman who waits and frets as walls of self cave in, here rendered for amusement. A woman returns to her apartment to find a friend she had allowed to stay is still there. She wants him gone now so she can have peace of mind but she's too reticent to make a scene.
It's Chantal herself on screen playing a filmmaker working on a script, so another way for her to tell us about solitary life she probably knows well and bugs her. It has the tone of intimate quiet I like about her, the sense of diary and fecund waiting; a tone she shares with other women filmmakers I like like Varda and Kawase.
Unable to concentrate on her writing, she begins plotting on her typewriter about ways to avoid him, like how early to wake up to have finished breakfast before he comes in, writing the movie we watch in fact.
Another notion. She eavesdrops on a phonecall he makes and looks slightly piqued to realize it's to another girl they know. Is this all about her finding ways to not express feelings she would like to?
When he finally goes, the loneliness of the empty flat offers no solace, the opposite. We see her set up a camera that feeds back images of the building outside, the withering function of memory, of the self inhabiting images that anticipate instead of facing the real thing.
What we see is a self who continuously moves about a house, doing everything except moving out of its own way of expressing itself truly. The movement is funneled into a story about the self- inflicted woes of having to do so of course; it's a comedy about being fettered in this way.
But the point remains, one that links back to Jeanne Dielman. Is life kind of hopeless that way, vague, opaque, to be tacitly accepted as disheartening? It's where I part ways with her, although I accept her whole as a genuine person, a gentle soul speaking about real things. I think she only really managed to rise above the fog in Meetings of Anna.
Here she offers a small gesture. She writes again the morning after; okay. But how truly to move out of our own self when that's all that stands in the way of expressing ourselves? I'm reminded here of one of my most cherished Buddhist koans that speaks about the guest and the empty house.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
Films are direct embodiments of what they are, we need only take an honest look. Some viewers have held this one up as important debate that brings attention to cruel double-binds of war, others have decried it as one-sided propaganda. But what do the mechanics of how it has been put together reveal?
We have viewers watching a movie that poses a grave moral conundrum unfold across screens, top military brass and politicians in various rooms as they contemplate a drone strike. If they decide to strike, innocents will die. If they don't, suicide bomb vests are being prepared inside the house, innocents will die soon after. We are viewers watching viewers watch a morality play about what to do.
It is a morality play; the particulars all simplified to make obvious the specific moral response. The setting has been simplified for the same narrative economy as every play, a jihadist hiding house surveyed from the sky. The innocents who stand to die are reduced down to a single little girl, who we have seen before as cute and loved by her parents. The desired reaction is reduced to the drone operator shedding tears over a magnified image of the little girl as he fights orders to kill.
What to make of all this, those of us who would rather confront ugly, complicated realities anyway? Would there be a movie at all if it was a gangly, ugly twentysomething or a middle- aged street vendor we had to mull over? Having bureaucrats obligingly swap opposing points of view, is there something to actually contemplate in all this?
There is no debate here. It's the kind of debate we would be having in the scenario with having to decide to push the red button that kills a hundred people or the one that kills two hundred. We have simply arrived too late, given the controls too late. We should be asking, how did it come down to where these two are our only options, or are they?
Look, film has the power to purify and bring to light, but where are you going to point? You have the opportunity to hover over the world, swoop from above to magnify and project back to screens all over the world. And it's a complete waste when there's nothing more to take back home beyond a mere somnolence, beyond a flimsy sense of 'humanity'. Spielberg has made a career out of this, choosing to find just those historic moments when the world is tearing itself up, often war, never trying to find the moral impasse where it lurks next to us and doesn't make itself obvious, in mundane reality, then lazily uses the world at its most cruel and senseless to bludgeon the viewer with how cruel it all is. It's a cynical thing.
The moments that test or betray humanity do not begin with having to decide what button to press. They begin on a mundane day with two people talking.
They committed to a simple choice here to create the funhouse in which horror is going to play out for our delectation. The distraught victim who is all alone in the remote cottage is a deaf mute. A killer is skulking the perimeter and has all night to toy with her, prolonging the thrill of watching and teasing through windows that mirrors our own experience of having come to see. It shows viewers who slip in and out of sight, one and then a second viewer vying for control of this intermediate space, having to make imaginative choices.
It's a potent scenario, one that was long coming perhaps. They keep it fairly safe overall, trying to avoid off notes more than imaginatively extending, making me wish for an energy like Hooper's. But the house is spacious, affording funhouse games of anticipated surprise. Knowing no one will be coming and agony must be suffered in silence helps to envelop. They secured a woman with a strong presence to anchor emotional torment. The killer isn't the usual hulking crazy but a next door creep who came out to play and probably has a 9 to 5 life somewhere close.
Toute une nuit (1982)
The night as blank canvas where people trace impulsive paths with their bodies, Chantal has twice before captivated me with something like this. She is a gentle soul, gentle in the distance from which she views, alert to the hum of transience. Once more she gives us yearning in faint orbits.
It's pure listless summer night this one, one of the most atmospheric works I've found. Life for her is woven from breath and space, the moment that fleets before we can hold onto. She captures marvelous moments here; my favorites show a little girl rushing down the stairs and out the house as lovers embrace in the street, a young couple eloping in the night from a veranda door.
She begins to lose me when it's about no life in particular. Jeanne Dielman and Anna's Meetings were embodied in a woman who wonders and waits as she makes her way. Here we follow a dozen people through a hot summer night in the city. They come and go from places, wait for someone, pursue or leave each other in the street. Utterances are few, we infer from glances and bodies. Embrace or the urge to escape from embrace that has grown tired is the recurring pattern.
It's even more abstract and sensory than before. Purely on a moment- by-moment basis it's marvelous work. But sprawling as we do, not knowing these people as more than figures going to and from, it becomes choreographed performance, a study of form rather than journey that cuts through it. Most likely this was the specific intention. It brought to mind Pina Bausch and her dances of impulse painting itself with bodies. I see that she would make a film on Pina soon after.
It's a very tender balance anyway. You want - as Ozu did early on - to sift through the clamor of life to find those moments that lay bare the heart that minds, the body that is kept awake at nights, but I would rather have it reflected back in a way that tethers me to sleepless nights I've known, as a consciousness that inhabits a world that surrounds, which is how we know the world. It always comes back to having this one body, and to land in brief moments of different lives, the tethers grow lax and it moves to an omniscient view, a formal visit.
But this is Chantal choreographing sketches on life as all this merry-go-round, viewers who are interested in form will have a ball.
Nothing But the Truth (2008)
I saw this for a night of kicking back with spy movie machinations where a narrator finds himself hapless in the face of secret agencies, the overlap of manipulable stories controlled from afar. It's exactly this; a narrator has just unveiled a story of intrigue, a newspaper story that is expected to shake the system to its core, inspire self- examination. She's willing to go to prison to uphold principles of revealing truth, jeopardize family.
Those were the Bush years. The film disguises Iraq for Venezuela and 9/11 for an assassination attempt on the president as pretext for invasion, but the gist is the same; higher-ups lied to people, fabricated a story to odious ends abroad, willing to suppress freedom for security at home.
We're meant to see how the system isn't shook and blithely goes on, how every tool is used to break her in the name of security. She comes out on the other end having protected her source, upheld principle, but at huge personal cost to no change. It's meant to be a bleak look.
But it's all marred for my taste by the fact that it never rises above obvious movie-isms like having her husband strike an affair so we'll have added micro drama about choices. This isn't about what might happen of course, but what you decide did in the course of creating persons and giving rise to world. A marriage can be frayed without having it come down to he found someone else. It's the difference between plucking clean synthetic sounds on a computer and going out to to find them.