Archive for ‘Film’

May 29, 2012

Salieri’s Confession

The LA Review of Books published an article May 14th called Envy, or, The Last Infirmity. It is by (a) Sven Birkerts and is a review/analysis/interpretation of the film Amadeus. The article is not bad. It’s a bit long, and essentially claims that the film is not so much a biopic of Mozart, as much as it is a study of envy. Says Birkerts: Who knew that envy had so many expressions, that it was such a great subject? And he goes on to make a good case for his viewing/reading of the film.

Now, I think that this is a decent reading of the film, and if that is how Birkerts sees the film, that’s his experience, and who am I to argue. Except that I have seen that film at least a dozen times and feel slightly protective of it. So I dare say, the film is not about envy. That is, there is no doubt that F. Murray Abraham’s character of Antonio Salieri is envious of the young Mozart, but this is not the central theme of the film.

[I have wanted to write about this film for so long, so if the tone strikes you as overly self-indulgent, it is because Birkerts’ article only provided the impetus for me to tell you what I think.]

The central theme of the film, as indicated by the title, Amadeus, is God’s love, or rather, its distribution. How and why does God love some of his human creations a little more than others? Remember, the whole film, the story of the film, the story Salieri tells, is told as a confession. (Or rather, as an anti-confession, but I’ll get to that.) The young priest comes to see him, and asks Salieri to offer him his confession. When Salieri refuses, the priest insists. Insulted at having to deal with a nobody, Salieri vainly asks, Do you know who I am? To which the priest gives the most diplomatic of answers All men are equal in God’s eyes. Oh, are they?! answers Salieri, at which point he turns his chair and decides to actually speak to the young priest. The confession begins.

The rest of the movie is dedicated to Salieri proving to the young priest (and the audience, for we are in the position of the priest not only because we are listening, but because Salieri’s tale will go from being the priest’s problem to being our problem) that something is not right with the view of a just God.

Why would God, asks Salieri, choose that dirty-minded little creature (as Salieri calls him), a silly little grasshopper, a buffoon (as Birkerts calls him) for his instrument, and not the illustrious Antonio Salieri? Make no mistake, it is God who places each of them in their roles. Mozart is almost explicitly talked about as God’s hand, simply writing down divine music. That scene when Constance comes to visit Salieri and shows him the originals of Mozart’s work is instructive. Salieri tells the priest (and us): I was staring through a cage of meticulous strokes at an absolute beauty. Absolute beauty? No prizes for guessing what theological concept this refers to.

Salieri’s life too, is (ehem, sorry) conducted by God. He tells us that as a young boy all he wanted was to create music. It is his merchant father who would have none of it. So Salieri prays to God. God obliges, Salieri tells us by producing a miracle, his father’s death, and removal of the main obstacle in young Antonio’s path. (The word miracle there is also a flag. The event is not called a coincidence, not a tragedy, but a miracle. An indication that Salieri’s offer to God has been accepted, and a covenant made.) And then from a mere nobody, Salieri rises to the highest position a musician can have in the known world, which is court composer to King Leopold, at his court in Vienna, the capital of music. Deal made, and from Salieri’s side, goods delivered.

Aye, but there’s the rub. Here, God reneges. Enter Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That it is this shrill, annoying, vulgar little brat that God chooses for his instrument, is, in Salieri’s words, not to be believed.

I again refer you to the fact that we, the audience are in the position of the (anti-)confessing priest. The reason the film is not about envy, is not that Salieri’s is not envious, but that his problem, the problem of why God would choose Wolfgang and not Antonio, is only Salieri’s problem. It is ours. I am not, we are not envious of Mozart. We couldn’t even begin to approach Mozart’s talent, there is nothing to be envious of on our part. And yet, the injustice (Salieri calls God unfair and unkind) is obvious. How cruel, how egotistical, of God to have created Salieri only to have someone who could properly admire his creation. What kind of God could do this, could be this way?

This is why at the end, before Salieri’s is taken through the hallways to bless mediocrities, we catch a glimpse of the priest, head in hands, crushed by Salieri’s story. The priest understood what Birkerts does not: the problem is not one of envy.

Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, is something that can be confessed to, and something that can be confessed. ‘Confessed to’ meaning to admit being envious. But to ‘confess’ envy is to ask of God to be forgiven for committing the sin. Salieri confesses to killing Mozart, in the sense that he acknowledges having done it. But he is not confessing the murder, in the sense that he wants absolution for it. In that sense Salieri’s confession is an accusal, an anti-confession.

PS I, on the other hand, am envious that Sven Birkerts got to publish his reading of the film in the LA Review of Books, while I am left by fate to peddle my own opinions on this silly blog.

March 29, 2012

Silent Confirmation

Some of my friends loved it, some were indifferent, but I liked it.

I tried coming up with something intelligent and coherent to say about L’Artiste, but couldn’t do so without giving away too much of the film. Instead, I’ll just say this. Since the time when sound and color came into cinema, there have been plenty of black and white films, eschewing color for effect. But to my knowledge, this is the only silent film outside the silent film era. That ought to be interesting enough for one to go see it, no?

December 4, 2011

Lock, Stock, and Why Structure Isn’t Everything

I was told once by a friend that if I were an abstract concept, I would be structure. This, apparently, because I go on about how important structure is in works of art. And it is.

A few days ago, just for fun, I watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels again. I had seen it when it came out in the late nineties, and have probably watched once since then. (I would like to mention that I went to see it with three really good buddies at the time, and we vowed to recreate the drinking scene two thirds of the way in. It has yet to happen, but I’m still hopeful.) What I remembered about it, even from the first viewing, was how good its structure was. By which I mean two things: everything is accounted for, and the timing is impeccable. (The timing of everything is what gives this film its ‘fun’ aspect, similar to Charlie Chaplin comedies.)

The very brief rundown of the structure goes something like this. There’s the four boys, Harry and Barry, Big and Little Chris, the Northern duo, Dog’s gang, the weed growing scientists, Rory’s gang, and Nick the Greek. Each group thinks at any given time that it has a single relationship with any of the other groups, and doesn’t realize how interconnected they all are. Pull on a string that connects any two groups and they are all affected. Not only that, but things that seem to happen out of nowhere in the beginning, such as Gloria being carried into the weed lair, the immolated man running out of a bar, the conversation Plank has with his boss Dog at the beginning, they all tie in and explain various aspects of how the action plays out. And each aspect, each connection between the groups, each development is necessary for the ending we get. It’s like a game of cat’s cradle, all the various overlapping and intersecting strings at once resolve into nothing. Just like that. That’s good structure.

So then, what is missing from the film? Well, women for one. I don’t mean to say that every film has to have a leading lady or anything like that, but the lack of women points to something. All the characters are caricatures. They are summed up in one sentence which we get at the beginning of the movie. What made good gangster films into excellent gangster films (Donnie Brasco, The Godfather), is that we saw these ruthless killers as human, not just there to propel the action. The psychology of the characters (and the viewers) is further stripped down due to the lack of any moral dilemma. Sixteen people die in this film, and everybody else, ruthless gangster or regular Joe, just brushes it off.

Now, I’ve had the soundtrack to this film since it came out. It’s a great playlist of songs. But whereas other films use music to broaden the theme, to add a dimension, to call into question what is going on visually, Lock Stock just reinforces what we already think about what is going on and fills in the gaps between perfectly stylized lines. It is as one dimensional as the monochrome lighting throughout the film. I know it is supposed to paint a picture of a grim, dog eat dog world, in which only the color of money counts, but since we already know that, the lighting is just along for the ride.

On the other hand, what a ride! It’s clever in its use of a messy plot, so that as soon as the viewer forgets about one of the groups, and you will, it surprises you by coming out of left field, usually baring a gun and threatening to kill everything in sight. And as I said, the timing and propulsion of the plot lead to that perfect resolution. Great structure, now if something were only hanging on it.

July 25, 2011

Gentlemen, Welcome to Fight Club

 – for the wuc, working for the Man.

Fight Club, or a metaphor for cinema at century’s end.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I was wrong about Fight Club. It’s a better movie than I remember. It is at least as good and entertaining as David Fincher’s other good work, Se7en. It holds together. Like The Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects, the second watching has to hold against the knowledge of the revelation towards the end, which changes everything in the first watching. And for Fightclub, it does.

But this is not where I tell you about Fightclub itself. This is more a proposition of interpretation. (The stuff Susan Sontag said never to do. Yeah, whatever.) Others are possible, but this reading is mine now, so indulge me for argument’s sake.

I was struck how self-referential the film was. Ed Norton is not just the main character(s), he is also the narrator of the film. He tells us that the scene the film begins with has a story, and then goes back to not one, but two different points in time to tell it. The entire film is in fact that story, the lead up to the opening scene. This and other points of narration kept giving me the impression that the film knew it was being watched, that it is a film.

And then there are those moments at the beginning where the narrator stops the action, looks straight at the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and says “Let me tell you a little bit about Tyler Durden.” Naturally, Tyler, at this point only Brad Pitt, joins in, and faces the camera/audience himself. And what do they talk about? They tell you something about movies, cinemas, editing, the susceptible audience, and the sneaky way movies function.

That’s just the thing (here). The sneaky movies. Not that Fightclub lacks anxiety about the modern world, or that it’s suspicious of mainstream success (i.e. white collar jobs and middle class life), or that it’s worried about contemporary (American) masculinity. But on top of all of that, there is the anxiety of cinema.

Fightclub came out in 1999. Cinema had been around for about a century and by then had gone through a few phases. (The biggest changing points are perhaps sound and color?) There had been a few new waves and dark moments, but by the mid nineties, its own history had (blissfuly, as in Francis Fukuyama’s wet dream) ended. Not that there wouldn’t be new filmmakers, but they would rise through the cookie cutter mold of the big Hollywood studios, and produce predictable, bland, formulaic stuff.

Enter Tyler Durden. He is going to save Ed Norton’s nameless, lame, starched stiff character from the Man. This is the perfect subversion from the inside. Just like Tyler Durden never physically hurts anyone (but himself), and all his actions are designed to open eyes, reveal a true(r) nature, force people to look at themselves, show the world to itself (its constituents) – so the film is not a real destructive force against cinema, but only a fierce reminder that we have fallen asleep as audiences.

Tyler Durden is the independent filmmaker who will blow up his life, destroy his body, sacrifice his sanity for the sake of opening up some space for new expression, and wresting artistic cinema from the Man. Nowhere is this more evident than when he threatens the Korean store clerk with death unless he follows his own dream of becoming a vet: violently he forces the man to confront his own dreams, to find a way to be what he really wants to be (instead of a cog in a machine). When the store clerk is released and running away, Tyler yells after him “run Forrest, run!” Oh American cinema, you could have been so much more than Forrest Gump.

The thing is, along with (say) Kevin Smith, Kevin Nolan and the Wachowski brothers (whose Matrix also came out in 1999), at least for a time, it might have worked.

July 1, 2011

The Clerkenwell Kid

The Retronaut posted some black and white photos of Clerkenwell, London. When Colin O’Brien was a child, in the 1950s, he had a window looking over an intersection that had a recurring traffic light problem.

The pictures reminded me (ok, not so much the picture as much as the idea of Clerkenwell from the past) of The Clerkenwell Kid, and this fantastic video somebody made for the song.

The band made an album as a soundtrack to a novel, the frontman, Stephen Coates blogs about London (under the name The Clerkenwell Kid!), and the music lends itself to great animation, like so and so.

Colin O’Brien‘s also has a great website, with more photos of Clerkenwell among many others.

June 25, 2011

Son of Man, on the Shore of Being

The final shot of The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, not counting the flicker of light that opens and closes the film, is a bridge spanning what looks like an immense body of water, reaching towards a blue green landscape, all set against a blue gray sky. The stability of the pillar on the near side and the majesty of the bridge itself are not at all out of place with the natural scene around it.

The shot of the bridge is representative of the entire film. Not only does it feature no actors, no lines, no words like a lot of the film, and not only does it appeal to the visual taste of the viewer in a purely cinematic sense, it also says something. It sounds bizarre to say that a screenshot in a film is supposed to say something (the screenshot is, after all the medium of film, much as words are to literature or shape is to sculpture). But so many films are solely focused on the actors saying their lines, propelling the plot forward, the screenshot takes backseat. (Although in action films, special effects let it sneak back in, but only in a supporting role.) Here, the screenshot takes center stage…so to speak.

What are we bridging? Well, at the very beginning of the film we are told (this time in a voiceover) that there are two kinds of lives. There is the natural life: selfish, focused on itself and perpetually unhappy; and there is the life of grace, which accepts that neither fortune nor misfortune are within its control, is focused on others, but can lead to happiness (I don’t want to say that it does, lest we introduce any guarantees that are not there).

But this is not a Woody Allen flick. We are not going to have a bunch of characters who exhibit various moral choices and see how those play out, as much as I like Woody Allen and those films. Malick’s problem is different. All of nature, the Universe, the Cosmos, everything outside of Man belongs to this first kind of life, it seems to me The Tree of Life is saying. The Universe is a strange and uncaring place. It is at once the place where we live, but the place that could wipe us out in a (cosmological) instant without batting an eye. God, if he’s out there, belongs to this world too. God is the God of the Universe, and our pleas that goodness be rewarded in kind, piety with righteousness, kindness with justice – fall on deaf ears.

However, there is a hitch in this metaphysics. (We’re not in an Albert Camus novel either, although I love those too.) As alien and hostile this whole world is to us, we are a tiny little budding leaf on a tree growing out of a ball of melted metal, and so part of that tree and that world. How come we even have this possibility of a life of grace, when the rest of the universe (including everything on the tree of life save us) belongs only to the life of nature?

Did I mention that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are in the movie? Yeah, well, that’s another thing about the film: the main character – it’s not either of them. It’s the boy, the young Jack, son of Brad Pitt’s character, who grows into Sean Penn. (There is a long and proud tradition of directors to whom actors are what Orson Welles called ‘talking props,’ and Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, both good actors in their own right elsewhere, fit neatly into that category here.) Young Jack, and of course, his brother. It’s odd to have him be the second lead, when he’s really not there. He dies at the very beginning of the film, only has a few words to say, and is largely a memory for Jack throughout.

As is boys’ wont, Jack belongs to the natural life. We watch him develop from cell structure to teenager. His behavior never quite crosses into wickedness, but he is full of mischief, in the way that a house pet will persist at something it was told not to do, or react to a perceived attack. We watch him continue down this path until we hear him whisper “I have lost them. How do I get them back?” Them is his family.

From there to where we meet Sean Penn, forty years on, is the long road of going towards the life of grace. We watch him walk with his wife through a desert landscape (where previously he was alone), walking through a doorframe made from wood and supported by rocks, on a terrain that resembles the Moon, and most significantly for me, we see him walk through a city plaza seeing the sky, birds and trees reflected in tall glass buildings. Which brings me back to the screenshots. The awesomeness of nature that is shown throughout most of the film yields more and more to man made structures towards the end. But they are shown in shots equally imposing and awe-inspiring as the previous natural phenomena. Although they are highly artificial, Malick sews them, like the bridge at the very end, seamlessly in the fabric of the Universe.

Paradoxically, as long as Man chooses the life of nature, he is cut of from it, demanding justice where there can be none; when he starts living the life grace, he is able to see himself as part and parcel of the Universe. Grace is the natural life of Man.


Clearly, this is a film that does not even pretend to appeal to wide audiences. Movie theaters must be feeling the heat from people who go into this one without knowing what they’re in for. Hence, a movie theater posted this warning.
(via Kafka on the Shore)

May 27, 2011


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May 19, 2011

Numbers and Links

I forget what I was looking up, but I recently found out about the Erdős number. Paul Erdős was in himself a fascinating figure: a mathematician who was prolific as he was eccentric. He never had a fixed residence and would travel from one colleague’s home to another, write a paper (or several) with them and then move on. Because of his enormous output and the collaborative aspect of his work, there is a large group of mathematicians and scientists who have worked with him. Hence the origin of the Erdős number.

Those who collaborated directly with Erdős are assigned the number 1. If one collaborated with someone who directly collaborated with Erdős, they get the number 2. The Erdős number counts how many steps away one is from collaboration with Paul Erdős.

The Kevin Bacon number follows the same principle, only for show biz. The Erdős number is older, but due to its geekiness is less well known.
Given that this blog is where high geekiness meets low geekiness, we are mostly concerned with a synthesis of these two. Namely, the Bacon-Erdős number.

Danica McKellar:

         – coauthored a science paper with professor as undergraduate; graduated summa cum laude from UCLA; went on to write three math books for kids of various ages (one of which was a New York Times bestseller); Erdős number is 4.

– started as a child star on the Wonder Years; still works in movies and TV, including eight episodes of West Wing; Bacon number is 2.
Erdős-Bacon number is 6.

Daniel Kleitman:
         – physicist and mathematician; got his PhD in physics, then met Erdős who asked him “Why are you only a physicist?”; coauthored at least six papers with Erdős; teaches applied mathematics at MIT. Erdős number is 1.

– math advisor and extra in Good Will Hunting; Bacon number is 2.
Erdős-Bacon number (lowest such) is 3.


More people with Erdős-Bacon numbers here. (Thanks to Cait for this.)

April 14, 2011

Anatomy of a Film

Otto Preminger made a terrible movie in 1959. It’s called Anatomy of a Murder. The plot has holes, the motivations of characters are non-existent, and it’s entirely too long. However, the photography in the film is beautiful, the acting is great and the music was composed by Duke Ellington.
The Duke even makes a cameo, playing four hands with Jimmy Stewart in one scene.

Jimmy Stewart plays a former district attorney who takes a case defending a man for murder. While the man is in prison, Jimmy has to deal with the man’s wife. This is her, interrupting Jimmy’s and Duke’s playing.

Played by Lee Remick, when Jimmy first meets her, she’s quite the seductress.

What you don’t see underneath those sunglasses is a black eye she got from a local bar owner who beat and raped her. Which is why her husband, a lieutenant in the army (played by Ben Gazzara), killed the man. So he’s on trial.

Jimmy has this man, Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) to help him out. He’s not so great with laying off the booze.

And he has big city attorney up against him. A real shark, Assistant State Attorney General, Claude Dancer, played by (who else?!) George C. Scott.

Jimmy turns Laura Manion from a temptress into a respectable looking housewife.

But can he save her from Dancer?

Or will she crack under interrogation and send her husband to prison?

Can you do it, Jimmy?!

March 14, 2011

Sub City New York

“It’s a short film – a visual poem – about that moment in New York when you emerge from the subway and find yourself in a new and sometimes unexpected world.”


For me, it was Satie’s music that clinched it.