Ten and a Half More Movies: March 2014 to May 2014

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Tim's Vermeer at the Little, March 16: This is a documentary about a man named Tim Jenison who was interested in the photo-realistic paintings by Johannes Vermeer, and tried to devise a technique to replicate his technique. As a documentary, it's adequate and entertaining, but it's the subject that is most intriguing. I knew virtually nothing of the works of Vermeer coming in to this film, so I took it as fact what they said. Afterward I did a bit of research and found that Vermeer was neither as mysterious as the film implies, nor was his work — save for a couple specific examples — anomalously photo-realistic for the time period. In any case, The Music Lesson had certain qualities that Jenison found intriguing: how had Vermeer created such photo-realism 200 years before the invention of photography? He suspected a device, and set to building one. What he made (although I don't recall the film mentioning it) is a unique form of camera lucida (thanks to Jenn for knowing that!) which uses lenses and mirrors rather than a prism. With that, he succeeded in recreating The Music Lesson, and in doing so, reproduced a tiny flaw (the pattern on the virginal curves ever so slightly while its edges are drawn by straight-edge) that strongly implied the use of optics beyond the traditional camera lucida. I think this discovery is something that would be of interest to art historians and inventors alike.
  2. Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) at the Dryden, March 18: A young woman is in love with a man who gets enlisted in the Algerian war … loves are lost … loves are found. In all it's a well-worn story told in brilliant color.
  3. Here One Day in Hoyt Auditorium on the University of Rochester Campus, March 27: It's a documentary where Kathy Leichter revisits her mother Nina's suicide 16 years prior. The catalyst was the rediscovery of audio cassettes Nina recorded for many years; Kathy found them shortly after the suicide, but couldn't bear to listen to them at the time. As such, the use of the cassettes makes the event seem extraordinarily current in the lives of Kathy, her brother, and her father. It's a beautiful, moving, and insightful film that begins to bridge the gap between the thought process of a mentally-healthy person and one suffering from depression (or in this case, manic-depression a.k.a. bipolar disorder.) After the film, there was a panel discussion and one woman spoke about her daughter's depression. What resonated with me was how she saw suicide as a loss, but her daughter saw it as freedom — a concept that made me realize how much my culture mistakenly assumes everyone thinks alike in some way, and how that may be a central reason for the challenges of addressing mental illness.
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel at the Little, March 28: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together — Jenn and Chris being very excited about the new film by Wes Anderson; I didn't have strong expectations. The short is I thoroughly enjoyed it. It reminded me of the ensemble screwball comedies of the past (e.g. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) in which expected stars appear in a silly comedy. And this one is definitely silly and absurd.
  5. Pink Flamingos at the Dryden, April 2: I finally got around to seeing this after having been recommended many times over the years by different people. It's definitely a rough-around-the-edges kind of independent film, and also definitely delivers on being "an exercise in poor taste". I'm glad I finally saw it, in part to get the many references to it in a variety of media, but also because it's genuinely an entertaining movie. This version (from a re-release in 1997) included some (rather hilarious) outtakes and some commentary by filmmaker John Waters.
  6. Tectonics in Hubbell Auditorium at UofR, April 10: I saw this as part of OnFilm's "Earths" program (and stayed after for only four of 13 Lakes, mostly due to simple exhaustion/tiredness.) Tectonics was quite brilliant. In it, Peter Bo Rappmund filmed various locations along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border in-order from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. I went into it with a bit of trepidation as my prejudices of borders — and this one in particular — are that they are useless, harmful relics of xenophobic nationalism. As such, I began the film with negative feelings of frustration and anger. Rappmund's anti-temporal filmmaking techniques (where he looped sequences-of-images and time-lapse photography which created a timelessness, and used overlapped field-recordings to carry the chronological narrative) led me to experience the border as something intensely futile, intensely irrational, and intensely beautiful. It was disconcerting to me to see all this technology and effort dedicated to creating suffering. But by the end, I found myself at peace with all of it. One thing that helped was the timeless quality of the film which implied a longer-term view — that this silliness is all temporary. Rappmund was present at the screening to answer questions, but I was just glad to thank him personally for making the film.
  7. The Kentucky Fried Movie at the Dryden, April 16: I remember seeing this as a kid and finding its irreverent and ribald humor to be unequivocally hilarious. It's a movie consisting of short sketches which is still funny, although it's almost more interesting to watch it as a historical relic owing to the extremely dated scenarios. And I imagine anyone raised with access to YouTube will find the humor at best, ho-hum. Well, the Kung-Fu parody, "A Fistful of Yen" is still very funny and extremely clever.
  8. The Kodak Employee Variety Show (U.S. 1960, 90 min., 16mm) at the Dryden, April 22: Jenn and I went to the "Made in Rochester" series "Kodak" show at the Dryden to check out some of the rarities. We felt a bit slighted that it was a 90-minute film followed by 3 shorts: a far cry from "a number of test films and company home movies" as we were promised. Nonetheless, the first film was a recording of the 1960 Kodak Employee Variety Show — a presentation that appeared to be largely for the sales staff of the company. As a film, it was the worst musical I ever saw (har har); in large part, it was an insufferable company party like I remember from my corporate days. The productions were high-quality and weirdly yet unsurprisingly Kodak-centric. There seemed to be a lot of tongue-in-cheek jabs at the Russians and Communism, not long after the worst of Senator Joseph McCarthy's state-sponsored murders. But perhaps the best moment was a look in to the "distant future" of 1970 when, rather than a log book, salesmen (and yes, they were all men) would carry a device as small as a pack of matches to dictate expenses and take photos of where they were — an ironic premonition of digital photography. In all, I'm glad to have had a chance to have seen it, but didn't enjoy the process. (Although I did offer Jenn $50 if she could spot a black person, and we jokingly pointed out white people on-stage in shadow.) We snuck out during intermission and skipped the shorts.
  9. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert at the Dryden, April 23: I was glad to be able to finally see this — a ribald performance made legendary by tales told by high-school friends in the 1980's, right at the dawn of home-video. In general the comedy holds up today, particularly his insightful jabs at white culture. Pryor's artistry lets him talk about embarrassing personal situations without the shadow of making it into a therapy session that so often plagues other performers' anecdotes. It's wonderful to be able to remember Pryor at the top of his game like this.
  10. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe at the Dryden, May 6: The first of two short films by Les Blank, this one deals with, well, Werner Herzog eating his shoe. He made a bet with Erol Morris to complete his film, Gates of Heaven, which, obviously he did. The film gives Herzog the chance to talk about following through with commitments and about following your own passion. I've always enjoyed listening to him as he's got a unique articulate way of explaining his view of the world.
  11. (and ½) Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers also at the Dryden, May 6: The second half of the double-shorts program is Blank's film on the wonders of garlic. It's a fascinating sampler of off-center views in the late 1970's, and Blank's style (like the previous film) paces the documentaries exceedingly well, making them both a joy to watch.

Watching Melancholia at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) because I wanted to see either Melancholia or Take Shelter. A guy I know who works there suggested Melancholia since it would be shown less next week and probably close sooner than Take Shelter, so I did. It's directed by Lars von Trier and, although I'm kind of a film nut, a little research reveals this is probably the first film of his that I've actually seen.

Central to the story — at least in a way — is the newly discovered planet Melancholia which is introduced in a stylistic opening scene destroying the Earth. Then we rewind a while to find Justine about to be married to Michael which doesn't go all that well. In the second part, we focus on Justine's sister Claire and the fallout from the wedding disaster. Oh, and by now we're approaching the film's introduction — although none of the characters have any certainty whether Melancholia will hit the earth or not.

On the whole, the film drenches the audience in melancholy, qua depression. As someone who navigates those waters often enough, it was a familiar sight for sure. I'm reminded of a time when some friends and I decided to go to a "depression screening" at UofR. We each took a self-assessment then talked with some medical students who assessed our situation. Naturally we were all recommended for professional help (not surprising, as we're all artist/creative-types). My one friend told his student doctor something like, "I kind of like the bitter edge it gives life." I tend to agree: although things get pretty dark sometimes, it certainly gives me a different perspective on things.

Likewise for Justine who spends her last hours in a strange state of unhappy blissful confidence that indeed all things will end. It's a state that only the depressed truly know, and I guess it's kind of the pot-of-steel at the end of a desaturated rainbow.

So I found Melancholia to be peculiarly familiar. It was quickly apparent to me to just soak in it and let it soak in. And although I wasn't depressed at the time, I got a chance to see it from yet another angle.

Seeing Red Desert at the Dryden

I was feeling a bit depressed but I wanted to see Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) anyway so I walked out to George Eastman House (900 East Ave.)

The movie was extremely impressive. From the introduction, I gathered it was not intended so much as a condemnation of industrialized society, but rather a portrait of its beauty. It does so, however, by showing industrialization as boldly and plainly as possible. The protagonist — the wife of a high-level manager at a chemical plant — is set against this landscape as a way to demonstrate it. Her world is shifting beneath her, but the hard gray of industrialization stands sturdily.

I think most people naturally gravitate to her plight, and as such, see it as a rather bleak movie. Given my mood at the outset, I was ready to let it all wash over me in that way. But I also understand that the industrialized facets were just as central — and if you can believe that the man-made structures are the protagonist, the whole thing seems pretty uplifting.

When I left, I decided to just walk straight home. I was still in a funk, but was also affected by the film. I kept looking at the world in odd ways — looking at things that I would ordinarily ignore.

My mood got particularly bleak when I (walking home alone once again … as usual) decided that this was all there was; that my best years were behind me and solitude and ever-weighing loneliness was all I had to look forward to. From here on out, there would be no surprises and I'd just trudge through day-by-day, step-by-step.

All of a sudden, a cat raced past me, startling me. It ran ahead of me and plopped on the ground begging to be petted. I declined its advances, but it reminded me things aren't always the same.