Criterion Fridays – Close-Up

Close-Up (1990, dir. Abbas Kiraostami)

In America, its not uncommon to see a film “based on a true story”. The audience has come to expect that while names and events are real, screenwriters have “punched up” the script with dramatic tropes and formulas designed to add drama to what they see as dull, uninteresting reality. On the opposite end of things, you have documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans where the reality of the situation is so horrific and dramatic we have to wonder how much is exaggerated and manipulated by the director. In Abbas Kiraostami’s film Close-Up he takes an approach to the “based on a real story” movie that is some sort of amalgamation of narrative film and documentary. This is one of few times I have watched a film unable to figure out what was reality and was staged.

The film revolves around the case of Ali Sabzian, a man posing as Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and receiving the good will and shelter of the a family in Tehran as a result. The films opens with an obviously staged scene, the reporter, who first published the story that brought it Kiraostami’s attention, is traveling with police via taxi to the family’s home to witness the arrest of Sabzian. From there the film becomes a patchwork of the actual video footage of Sabzian’s trial and re-enactments of the events. The re-enactments actually feature the real people involved, including Sabzian. The reason this could happen is, that Sabzian never stole from the family he stayed with and the crime was non-violent. By the end of the film, we learn what Sabzian’s motivation was and see the family show great sympathy for him in court.

While most films about real crimes attempt to illuminate and make the mystery something that can be understood, Close-Up works to confuse things and make Sabzian a harder and harder character to pin down. What it becomes is a meditation on why someone not involved in the Arts would feel such a strong connection to someone who made their living off of cinema. Sabzian lives with his mother in the wake of divorce. His wife took one child, his mother raises the other. He works in a dead end job as a printer, and Sabzian claims that in director Makhmalbaf’s work he finds his own suffering put into words he cannot explain. Sabzian is an incredibly sympathetic figure, but even he confuses us because he talks about how he feels drawn to be an actor, that the idea of losing himself in a character is appealing. So, is the Sabzian speaking court truly his honest self, or another persona he has taken on?

This was not going to be the film Kiraostami was supposed to make at the time. However, after reading about the story in the paper he became obsessed with it and couldn’t sleep. So he contacted the parties involved and began making the film. As much as he wants to capture reality on film, he unabashedly manipulates certain scenes. When Sabzian is released from jail at the end of the film, he meets the real Makhmalbaf there are “audio difficulties” with the microphone equipment. Kiraostami has admitted freely after the fact that the audio problems was a manufacturing of him out of respect for the conversation between the two men, but instead of simply saying he was doing this, he made it another layer in the reality and fiction of the film. This is definitely a film that challenges the perceptions of the audience and will make them constantly question the reality or artifice of each and every scene.

Hypothetical Film Festival – Unreliable Narrators

There’s a very interesting plot device called the Unreliable Narrator, wherein the point of view you are getting the story from comes from a person who is possibly skewing the facts in their favor, creating a story that is not quite true. Here’s some films that use that idea to great effect.

Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Rashomon was the introduction of Kurosawa and post-war Japanese cinema to the world. The framing of the story was unlike anything that had really been seen in cinema, but had roots in older literature, particularly Shakespeare (whose works would be a major influence on Kurosawa throughout his career). A woodcutter and priest are seeking shelter in the husk of an old building while it storms outside. A passerby enters and they explain a strange murder of a samurai and the court case in which his wife, the bandit being accused, and the spirit of the samurai himself all testify. Through the three differing viewpoints we get three different pictures, with the added framing of these figures telling us the story. It’s a like a hedge maze of narrative.

Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)
The elderly composer Salieri tries to kill himself but is stopped. Later he is visited by a young priest and the old man tells the tale of his rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and how Salieri believes he killed the virtuoso. Salieri of course frames himself as pious and obedient, devoted to tradtion. Amadeus is seen a lewd and bawdy figure. Salieri sees his craft as a gift from God and cannot comprehend how someone as heathen and ribald as Amadeus was given a gift that far surpasses his own. The question we must ask is, how honest is this portrayal of the composer, and is this Salieri’s attempt to justify his hand in Amadeus’ death?

Memento (2001, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Both the film that introduced us to director Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight) and what presents probably the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Leonard is a man without the ability to form new memories. This was the result of a break-in at his home years prior that also resulted in the death of his wife. Now Leonard is on a hunt for the man responsible. Because of his lack of new memory he has tattooed key facts about the assailant on his body. Beyond that, he carries a Polaroid camera where ever he goes, photographing acquaintances and scribbling notes about them on the pictures. But what does Leonard really know? As we experience time in the same way Leonard does, we will ask lots of questions and when the disturbing conclusion comes about we will be left questioning Leonard himself.

Spider (2002, dir. David Cronenberg)
Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) has just been released from a mental asylum. The reason why he was there in the first place is not revealed at first, instead we follow him to the work home he has been assigned to in an attempt to transition back into society. He immediately draws the ire of the housekeeper and befriends housemate Terrence (John Neville). Mixed into his day to day life are nightmarish flashbacks to his childhood, focusing on his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) and his beaten down mother (. The story of their tumultuous relationship is what forms Dennis and ultimately drives him to the asylum. The reason behind his nickname, Spider, is tied directly to this childhood incident. But then you must ask yourself, how reliable are the childhood flashbacks of a psychopath?

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)
The film is told from the perspective of Elvis Presley (played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell), or it could be mechanic Sebastian Haff. Presley explains that he traded places with Haff in the 1970s to get away from the business, and for some reason the staff of his nursing home doesn’t believe him. Also living in this home is a black man who claims to be President Kennedy (Ossie Davis), explaining that he was dyed black and abandoned in the nursing home after the assassination attempt. Terrorizing the elderly at night in this home is an ancient Egyptian mummy who, for some reason, has taken on the garb of a cowboy. The two men, unable to get the staff on their side, take matters into their own hands and battle the mummy. But what if they are simply just two crazy people?

State of the Blog – First Half of 2010

So I have been running the blog since November 2009, longer than I have kept any of these things going before, so that’s impressive for me. The blog has garnered over 600 visits since the start of the year ranging from all over the U.S. to Europe and Asia. There’s some interesting things I have coming up on the blog, that I think you’ll enjoy.

– Dropping Jolly Good Thursdays and going to alternate between Hypothetical Film Festivals and It Should Be A Movie. ISBAM will focus mostly on comics at first, and present a property which I have read or encountered that would make a good film.

– I will be coming to the end of my focus on Brian De Palma in July, so be on the lookout for the next poll on my next director. Right now, I am pretty sure Samuel Fuller and Werner Herzog will be two of the choices, so if you wanted to find out a little bit about them before the poll is put up, go ahead.

– I have been researching some incredible looking films for Wild Card Tuesdays, mostly independent or overlooked pictures from the last decade, with some older films thrown in along the way. In July, I’ll be looking at The Dinner Game (which has been remade into the upcoming Dinner for Schmucks) as well as the Peter Sellers’ picture The World of Henry Orient.

– DocuMondays are also kicking into high gear with some very dynamic films. Monday I’ll be reviewing Prodigal Sons, a film that got a lot of attention a few months ago. Will be focusing my attention a lot more personality driven docus as well (Zizek!, Beaches of Agnes, Stevie) so keep a look out for those.

– As you’ve probably noticed, in June Fridays became focused on films from the Criterion library. That is definitely going to provide a lot of material for years to come, and is finally getting me to sit down and watch those films on my list. This Friday, I’ll be reviewing Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close Up, just released on DVD last week. In addition to that I will be looking at some films by Sidney Lumet, Powell and Pressburger, as well as sampling some directors I have never experienced before.

– In upcoming months I’ll be presenting some themes: For July it is Character Actor month, August will look at my favorite Director/Actor pairings, September will be Hispanic Cinema Month, October will be a month full of just horror films, and in November I’ll be looking at my favorite films based on books.

Hope you stay with the blog for the next half of 2010. I encourage you to leave your comments and feedback. I’m always interested to know what the readers think.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #06 – June 2010

My Top 40 Favorite Film Moments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma
Casualties of War
Bonfire of the Vanities
Carlito’s Way (Movie of the Month)
Snake Eyes


We Live in Public
Dogtown and the Z Boys
Art and Copy

Wild Card Tuesdays
Someone’s Knocking at the Door
Bad Lieutenant 2
Three Days of the Condor
True Stories

Newbie Wednesdays
Mystery Team
Get Him to the Greek
I Love You Phillip Morris
Toy Story 3

Jolly Good Thursdays
Five Minutes of Heaven

Criterion Fridays
Knife on the Water
The Loves of a Blonde

Next Month:
Jolly Good Thursdays alternates between Hypothetical Film Festivals and It Should Be A Movie!
Character Actor Month!
We come to the end of Brian DePalma’s films!
Vote for the next Director in Focus!

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 8

35) The Wedding of Kermit and Piggy (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984, dir. Frank Oz)

It will never be a canonical great moment in cinema, but for me as a little kid it was the perfect ending to the Muppet film trilogy. You get an insanely large cast of characters, including those from just around the block on Sesame Street. Also, Piggy’s laugh when Kermit asks about Gonzo still cracks me up.

36) Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971, dir. Mel Stuart)

Gene Wilder in the 1970s is always perfection. And this song works perfectly to introduce us to the inner working of the fantastical chocolate factory.

37) You’re Shit (Happiness, 1998, dir. Todd Solondz)

One of the most funny and depressing movie openings ever.

38) Chance Enters The World (Being There, 1980, dir. Hal Ashby)

In Peter Sellers’ final performance he gave us the best film of his career. The mentally challenged Chance is forced to leave the brownstone for which he gardened after the owner dies. It’s implied Chance was the owner’s illegitimate son, and he never left the house in his life. This scene is gorgeous piece of comedy following Chance on his first day out.

39) Sardine? (The ‘Burbs, 1988, dir. Joe Dante)

This film was watched endlessly in my house as a child, and I think it is still one Tom Hanks’ best comedies and criminally underrated. This is the perfect scene of awkwardness as the characters meet the neighbors they suspect are serial killers

40) Starchild (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The most hopeful film ending of all time!

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 7

31) Dancing Chicken (Strosek, 1977, dir. Werner Herzog)

The final scene of a very odd film about Germans coming to live and work in rural America. Don’t ask questions, just experience.

32) I Knew These People (Paris, Texas, 1984, dir. Wim Wenders)

This is a slow burning film, but when it hits it emotional peak (this scene) it devastates you. Harry Dean Stanton has never been better, and Nastassja Kinski is perfection. One of the most over looked films of the 1980s. If you haven’t, find this and watch it!

Wild Card Tuesdays – True Stories

True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)
Starring David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

I remember making long trips in the car as a child and feeling a sense of excitement as we pulled onto off ramps, stopping a strange gas stations and towns on our way. The journey and these stops always held much more interest to me than the destination it seems. I can distinctly remember driving through the Smoky Mountains and drinking Faygo Root Beet, a brand I had not had before. True Stories felt, for me, like stopping in of those little towns along the way and staying a bit longer than usual. Virgil, Texas is however a byproduct of the strange mind of David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads. Things are quite off from the real world, but that just makes it all that more interesting.

Byrne is the nameless narrator, decked out in stereotypical Texan gear: Ten gallon hat, western wear, cowboy boots, and driving around a cherry red Cadillac. He delivers exposition with a very monotone demeanor, explaining the underlying psychological aspects of urbanization creeping into Virgil. Among the cast are John Goodman as Louis, a man so desperate to find a mate he has a marquee outside his home reading “Wife Wanted”, Swoosie Kurtz as Miss Rollings, a rich woman so lazy she never leaves her bed, and Spalding Gray as Earl, a man who has not spoken to his wife in 15 years but still seems to have a happy life at home. The stories are all leading towards a town-wide celebration taking place on stage being constructed in the wilderness. The Narrator visits with the characters who seem to have a familiarity with him, and various Talking Heads songs are re purposed to expand upon characters’ motivations.

I’ve always enjoyed when musicians set out to make films. They are rarely huge hits and usually end up as cult classic movies. I knew going into this one that Byrne has a very unique sensibility, which I had seen in videos of his concerts, and in particular the Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense. That sensibility is translated here into a film that is more like a quirky short story collection than anything overly cinematic. And it totally works. Certain songs, like “Dream Organizer”, so perfectly work for the character they are attached to that you have to wonder if this was the character Byrne had in mind when he originally wrote the song. The cinematography is also top notch, I think a lot of that coming from Byrne’s background in art school. The composition of many shots are not what we expect, leaving tons of negative space, and making for something that could be a framed photo on its own.

It’s also interesting to see some actors before they made it big, and one whom I never thought of as a traditional film actor. Spalding Gray was a quite a surprise to see, as I only knew him through his monologues (you should all check out Swimming to Cambodia). He does a decent enough job, though comes off a little stiff. Goodman and Kurtz are definitely the best of the bunch, each hamming it up in a way that totally works with the atmosphere Byrne has created. Jo Harvey Allen was also a standout as a perpetually lying woman who takes credit for “writing half of Billie Jean” as well as being JFK’s lover in Texas, whom he met with before the assassination. The film is definitely a fun, quirky picture that can be incredibly refreshing compared to most Hollywood films.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 6

26) I See Now (City Light, 1931, dir. Charlie Chaplin)

City Lights is so simple and perfect. This final scene showcases the fact that, while Chaplin is remembered as a great comedian, he also could tell a story of great emotional depth.

27) Who’s The Commanding Officer? (Apocalypse Now, 1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

This is the scene in the film that truly sums up the insanity of war for me. It is the last American outpost in Vietnam and it is a waking nightmare.

DocuMondays – Art and Copy

Art and Copy (2009, dir. Doug Pray)

It’s everywhere. You experience it almost every hour of the day, and it is usually while you are in a passive state. It persists and nags at your brain without you ever realizing it, but when you see it done exceptionally well you sit up and make note. Advertising is a modern psychological virus. The majority of it is terrible, which makes sense when you think about how much of it there is. As the film states, we experience 5,000 advertisements a day in multiple mediums. When it is done well, we slip out of passivity, sit up, and make note. What’s interesting is the best advertising either sets an atmosphere without every directly referencing the product, or is completely direct about the product and the emotion that goes along with it. This documentary interviews the pioneers of modern advertising from the mid-1960s to the 1980s.

The documentary is structured in a very clean way. Each section of the film is divided with a scene without dialogue and statistics on advertising placed over scenes of urban meditation. The first section of the film talks about the environment the featured advertisers came into. We’ve all seen ads from the 1950s which have an air of a false stereotypical salesman’s pitch. With the young turks that took over in the 1960s, they began to create provocative ads that didn’t necessarily give the viewer information on the product, but evoked curiosity and emotion in them. The Volkswagen Beetle ads of the late 60s were a major breakthrough in American advertising, where the quirkiness of the product was acknowledged. Very straightforward taglines were used instead of just making the logo swallow up the space.

It was the firm Doyle Dane Bernach that brought us the Beetle ads, and the shockingly harsh (for its time) American Tourister luggage ad, as well as the hyper arty Braniff airline campaign and finally the I (Heart) NY image. Mary Wells, the Peggy of her time, was an incredibly inventive and creative copy editor who took her background in theatrics and applied it to advertising. The sense of drama in commercials is something that sticks with us today (think Budweiser frogs, Taster’s Choice soap opera). At the time these ideas were presented, the good old boy network in charge were confounded and even the clients were often times frightened at the possibility of risking their brand on such ideas.

The documentary focuses a lot on the divide between the business side and the creative side, particularly how in the old paradigm, the accounts people were over creative. In the 1960s, this was subverted with the creative types either becoming more aggressive or striking out on their own. The East Coast was also the mecca of advertising so no one was noticing when the West Coast firms began rolling out revolutionary campaigns. It was one of these firms that got the Apple Computers contract and brought up the “1984” Superbowl ad, introducing the Mac to us through a Ridley Scott directed ad. You never see the Mac once. This firm still holds the Apple account and came up with “Think Different” in the 1990s and the current silhouette iPod campaign.

The final segment of the film deals with the ethical responsibilities of the advertiser, in specifics how it ties to politics. They feature the Morning in America Regan ads from 1984 that are unlike anything out today, and epitomize the way an incumbent can run and win again. Some of the interviewees agree that the ads works, but from an ethical perspective they find it misleading because of the facts it ignored. Hal Riney, the man behind the Morning in America ad confesses that his habit of going purely emotional in his ads goes back to a childhood where affection was held back from him. In the majority of his work images of the Rockwell America is evoked in a cleverly deceptive way. If you are at all interested in media and the way humanity’s decisions can be shifted by the creative this would be a very insightful film to digest.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 5

21) I’m Easy (Nashville, 1975, dir. Robert Altman)

In this ensemble cast film, Altman had his actors write and perform their own songs. Keith Carradine plays the third member of a country folk trio who is a bit of a lothario. The women gathered in the Exit/In all believe the song is written for them, when in reality its for Lily Tomlin’s character a gospel singer and married mother of two who has been having an affair with the singer. The way the camera works in conjuction with the actors’ faces is beautiful.

22)You’ve Got Me? Who’s Got You? (Superman: The Movie, 1979, dir. Richard Donner)

Its by no means the greatest film ever made, but it holds a sentimental place in my heart. And this moment, where Superman makes his public debut is just wonderful. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it doesn’t need to be grim n’ gritty or “badass”. It’s just a perfect superhero moment. And I must admit, I’ve used the flying statistic line many times.