Monday, January 01, 2007

Ryland Walker Knight: Swiss Cheese Masculinity


I think I saw fewer theatrically-released movies in 2006 than any year since middle school due to a busybody calendar and a general dissatisfaction with cinema-going for the first half of the year. The year started in New York, in bed, drinking tea and not champagne, hermitting myself with my girlfriend from the ugly party noise outside our Lower East Side hovel. Simply put: movies were expensive in New York and I didn’t go that often. When I did go, I usually found myself at Film Forum for a repertory screening. Along with what I think is the best movie I saw last year (that I didn’t know would count; more below) I saw some great reprisals, the best being The Fallen Idol & Charley Varrick. I also caught up on some 2005 blindspots thanks to Netflix that proved as essential as touted: Best of Youth made me happy to be alive; Mysterious Skin threw me over the couch and had its way with my heart; The White Diamond showed me there was beauty left in Werner Herzog’s oeuvre; and The Intruder took hold of my subconscious for the better part of the two weeks I had it at home.

I had some good days at the movies in New York, though, including the best double bill I’ve taken in all year: Inside Man followed by Dave Chappelle’s Block Party at the Loews 34th (the easiest place to hop movies in Manhattan). Back on the Gold Coast, both films make me nostalgic for my brief time in Manhattan (& yet briefer, Brooklyn) and the exalted feeling walking out of the theatre that night. The Antonioni retrospective at BAM was kick ass – I got to see not only Zabriskie Point (my favorite) but the uber-rare Chung Kuo Cina (for the doubtful, maybe the best evidence of his filmmaking brilliance) on their big upstairs screen. Tristram Shandy in an empty 19th Street theatre was still rip-roaring hilarious. The print was dreadful but The Conformist kicked our butts uptown at Symphony Space. Seeing A History of Violence from the front row at Village Cinemas made it more visceral but not any better than "simpleminded pulp violence" (Edelstein's got it zero'd).

One of my favorite New York movie-going moments (biggest bragging rights with a certain friend) was getting to see Danis Tanovic’s L’enfer (Hell), the second part in a trilogy planned by Krzystztof Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz (who is now a member of Polish Parliament). The first, Heaven, was directed by Tom Tykwer in 2002, the (possible) third, Nadzieja (Hope), is in post-production according to imdb, with a proposed 2007 release date. L’enfer wasn’t as good as Heaven thanks to Tanovic’s literal-mindedness (contrary to the poetry of Tykwer’s film that built on Kieslowski’s open-ended, cursive filmmaking), but both have very good screenplays full of the moral complexities the made the best Kieslowski films (Dekalog, Double Life of Veronique) soar; not to mention beautiful leading ladies (Heaven has Cate Blanchett, L’enfer has Emmanuelle Béart; both are excellent in their respective roles on top of their stunning luminosity). A close second was seeing Double Life at the Walter Reade. My girlfriend didn’t like Veronique that much, which was a blow, but it held up gorgeously for me.

But the ultimate will remain, for some time I’m sure, seeing The New World’s 150-minute cut December 26th, 2005 uptown and wanting to walk all the way home, bouncing as I was, so giddy. That’s a cheat, I know, but a crucial -- and honest -- one.

Then summer came and things pretty much went to shit. I actually dug the third Mission Impossible movie in spite of its obnoxious handheld camera thanks to a meta-movie comment on Tom Cruise’s entire career as Hollywood’s favorite whipping boy matinee idol (love the Born on the Fourth of July riff). But then one thing after another was unadulterated garbage: X3, The Break-Up, Pirates 2. I was ready for Superman Returns to be just as bloated and awful, but somehow it was kind of perfect in an AI kind of way (surprising in its shimmering proficiency and skeptical, humanistic heart). A Scanner Darkly blew my mind when I saw it – and boy was I down afterwards – but I haven’t felt like watching it again, so it’s slipped in my brain rank. Then came Miami Vice. While I didn’t really grasp what had hit deep inside me at first, Mann's movie stuck with me throughout my trip down the Grand Canyon, and it was all I could talk about during the fall.

The biggest surprise of the summer, though, had to be M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. I went in expecting to hate its guts after the abortion known as The Village (no amount of Judy Greer could save it) and a host of scathing “He’s-the-worst-narcissist-ever” reviews. I think Keith nailed it with his review on Slant, but I’ll offer a few words for the hell of it, despite seeing the picture just once back in August. First off, this is probably the best acting Paul Giamatti’s ever done. I know that will rankle some feathers, but his commitment helps render Cleveland Heep in three dimensions outside the typical Shyamalan one-note hero, much how Bruce Willis completely sold all of David Dunn’s crumbling façade and emboldened spirit in Unbreakable. With Giamatti’s performance as bedrock, the picture warrants M. Night casting himself as the tortured, misguided but ultimately essential writer character because he can act, too, believe it or not, and its meta context works brilliantly (even if he’s not really essential, just a very talented moviemaker). It’s a bold move, one that obviously ground many a critic’s gears, but it’s hardly different from Sofia Coppola’s misunderstood and underappreciated coup from a little later, Marie Antoinette; for me, they’d be a perfect double bill, with Marie playing first. I’d have to see Lady again to write any further about it so the last defense I can offer is Christopher Doyle and all he's worth because, c’mon, Night – did you really have to name the critic Mr. Farber?

The fall was brighter -- despite Seattle’s cloud cover -- both on the movie front and the home front. It’s too bad I had to leave everything behind, but school is calling. Most of my thoughts about the fall have been on my blog or here at The House (mostly in the comments) so I won’t recap it too much. Suffice it to say: I’m the luckiest guy…(not) on the Lower East Side.

* * *

Instead of a top ten list I offer a series of awards with brief comments. If you’d like to see my dash-off attempt at filling out a ballot for Dennis Lim’s poll (as if I were asked to submit one) you can click here. But for now I’m going to put my value judgments to work in something a little more hilarious, I hope.

The We Are Community, Hear Us Howl Award: (tie) Dave Chappelle’s Block Party & Volver. As I continue to expand my world beyond the bubble of solipsism, it's no wonder these films spoke to me. I grew up loving black culture and it still shines through despite my pale face. The race card is a tough one to play with any kind of poker face so Dave's wild enthusiasms and goofy good nature help bring the reality home. This film plumbs major depths, much like the Pedro picture, which I shouldn't be as attached to given I'm (1) not a woman, (2) not a gay man, (3) lusting after, not deifying, Penelope (and other beauties) with my gaze. Even if I didn't bust my hymen by stabbing my step-dad (reverse punctuation -- brilliant), I understand and empathize with these women and their survival plight. In a year so wholly dominated by swiss cheese masculinity it was great to see an entirely feminine movie where the men were hardly there. (My two favorite pictures of the year)

The You Can’t Front, You Can’t Fuck With It Award: Army of Shadows & Sátántangó. Nope, you can’t, can you? That’s right – absorb ’em, sponges. The Melville movie has to be the best movie I saw all year but I include it on my year-end ballot with dubious trepidation given its age. Yet the adage is true: better late than never.

The Termite Award: Miami Vice. No other film so thoroughly devoured itself and its surroundings. From the first smash-cut, form has kicked content in the back of the knee and thrown it face-first into the (dance-)floor, where the lucid dreamworld assault & fantasy battery never lets up. If it weren’t for the underbelly pastels, this would be just as bleak as the Melville picture. Maybe it still is? Regardless, it brings us to...

The He-Man Disillusionment Award: (three-way tie, listed in frequency of viewings) Miami Vice (5), The Departed (2), The Proposition (1). Time is luck; nihilism kills all and leaves no wake; if I had a brother this would be our favorite movie, flies and all. Being a man is rough, too, ladies.

The Worthy Failure Award: (tie) Marie Antoinette & Lady in the Water. See above.

The My Gawd, Oh Lawdy Award: Jackass: Number Two and Daniel Craig as James Bond. Borat can’t compete, and neither can any other man in the world (respectively).

The Sergei Urusevsky Award: Children of Men's dynamic duo, Emmanuel Lubezki & Alfonso Cuarón. Like the Russian master's filmography, Lubezki's work serves a sometimes dubious endeavor but the innovation & excitement are hard to ignore. Then you realize the virtuosity builds character while pushing your emotional buttons, and you understand why Cuarón is so talented. Plus, as Ed has said, he directed the fucking shit out of that siege.

The Auteur Award: Spike Lee’s double dip: Inside Man & When The Levees Broke. I’m a lifelong fan but this year made me swoon all over again; I'll never quit him. Even when he's way off base (She Hate Me) his chops and adrenaline-shot, graffiti burner movies always entertain in wild, unexpected fashions.

The Most Offensive Puerile Crap Award: Nacho Libre. Go away! Leave now -- and never come back! Or rather, come back, Jack Black, come back to where you once were king. Or rather, watch “The Eighth Blunder of the World” on the King Kong DVD and remember why we love him so. Nacho is just wrong: the antithesis of School of Rock on every level imaginable.

makin baby bulls

A few others I liked: Tristram Shandy (should be in my top ten but I botched that whole thing anyways so wtf-ever!), A Scanner Darkly, Superman Returns, Slither (a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead, though bloodier & gooier where Shaun was funnier), The Fountain (so goddamned earnest), Casino Royale (pure animal), Snakes on a Plane (Yeah, believe it: with a crowd, this movie’s the shit), Stick It (How does Jeff Bridges save (and elevate) this?), and Talledega Nights (playing with fire: better than Borat).

And finally, my blindspots: In order of anticipation from “I gotta get there” to the last few “who gives a shit” titles: INLAND EMPIRE, Idiocracy, Three Times, An Inconvenient Truth, Old Joy, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, The Aura, Iron Island, 4, Syndromes and a Century, Iraq in Fragments, The Wild Blue Yonder, L’Enfant, Battle in Heaven, Letters From Iwo Jima, Idlewild, Perfume, 51 Birch Street, The Descent, Apocalypto, A Prairie Home Companion, The Prestige, The Puffy Chair, Fast Food Nation, Brick, The History Boys, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Bubble, United 93, The Good German, The Good Shepard, Little Children, The Queen, Bobby, Blood Diamond, Last King of Scotland, Dreamgirls
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy and eagerly anticipating his return to UC Berkeley in 2007.


Blogger Jeff said...

Interesting about Nacho Libre being the antithesis of School of Rock; I agree completely, but topsy-turvy, because NL is the year's sweetest religious movie, and SoL is predictable mass-audience mush.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

I don't want to re-iterate the more eloquent Walter Chaw so all I can say is read the review I link to, it pretty much sums up how I feel about it. Despite any good intentions (which I feel are dubious, coming from a modern, Morman missionary) Hess created a hateful, racist movie that wastes Jack Black's do-anything-for-a-laugh generosity and apple pie spirit. I will admit, tho, that there were some laughs but too many idiot fart jokes and not enough of that tunneling psycho fat girl (the best idea that comes unhinged in parody by Hess' directorial choices on how he shot said fat girl, plainly emphasizing she's, well, fat and ugly).

9:01 AM  
Blogger Steven Boone said...

Ry, I love this from your Miami Vice review: "It just helps to have Michael Mann directing traffic and bullets. When the snipers tore that car to pieces you felt like your arm flew off, too, didn't you?"

That shot, and the seismic roar that erupted when Tubbs pinned a bad guy to the wall with a kill shot from the ground... stayed with me for days afterward. Those were real killings. It reminded me of the protagonists' deaths in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. The finality.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Thanks, Steve. Yeah, once I got out of the "man, this isn't a summer blockbuster..." mentality I realized, "oh shit, this isn't a summer blockbuster!" and the movie opened up for me. I wish I could watch it in a theatre again with the volume up to 11.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

also, i need a new synonym for "dubious" apparently...

11:35 AM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ryland, I saw the Inside Man/Block Party double feature too, only at a drive-in, by myself, with the cheap speakers in my minivan turned all the way up to 11. Talk about a movie (Block Party) reaching out and grabbing a most unlikely advocate! And I love your thoughts on Miami Vice too. Have you seen the unrated DVD yet?

3:12 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Yeah, Dennis, it's a waste of time, pretty much. The worst offense is right up front: there's no more smash-cut. The new first shot is good, no doubt, plenty evocative but it's the safe route into the movie and on a whole, it's a lot more literal and not as great. Plus, they use the nonpoint cover (of "In The Air Tonight") over the final shootout and that one just doesn't work. I'll email you the best cover around, if you like, by a really heavy band called godheadSilo. My cohort Mike Strenski showed it to me this fall and it's pretty much the best thing ever. Not really, but you know. Also, anybody else interested I can supply it for you as well...

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice insight. Just from my few visits throughout the year, my wallet is feeling the price of NY's theaters (they're worth it though, compared to the crap in my area...). Hell, here it isn't even on DVD yet and I've spent over $30 on Inland Empire (over $32 if you count my cup of David Lynch coffee).

Anyhow, love the screen cap, love the thoughts (glad some other people out there liked Lady in the Water), love the community. I've got nothin' but praise right now.

7:01 PM  
Blogger kenjfuj said...


I definitely feel ya about NY theaters' taking a big chunk out of one's wallet. I went to see Inland Empire myself last week, and yea, all told, I spent over $30 to go see it (not including food after the show, but including $11 I had to blow on a local cab ride after I took the wrong coach bus back. Not entirely my fault; not only was my bus driver ignorant of what my ticket said before telling me to go on the bus, but later on he tried to argue with me when I insisted that I told him exactly where I was headed, alleging I didn't say anything to him, and then having the gall to say, "Don't blame me for your problem"). Despite the hit on my wallet, definitely money well spent, I'd say! (I didn't get the David Lynch coffee, however.)

Usually I limit my trips to the city to see a movie, though---including art-house fare, if I can catch it somewhere in NJ (Princeton, preferably, where they have two fine art-house theaters) and thus not have to pay train or bus fare. Only, I guess, if I feel a genuinely great need to see a limited-release film or an art-house revival on a big screen (as I did in November when the Film Forum revived Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her for a few weeks---I'm a Godard enthusiast, so it was pretty much a given that I'd go) will I take the plunge. Hey, I'm a poor college student; perhaps you know how it is...

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see you've come around and are admitting Marie Antoinette's a failure, Ryland.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

You read my review, Sean, it's got lapses but it's still vibrant and worthy of anybody's time. I need to see it again, too, on top of LADY IN THE WATER so I can write my gauntlet essay on their values in the face of such staunch contrary opinions.

And Rob & Kenji: yes. I just might buy advance tix to an advance screening at the San Rafael Film Center where Lynch will be interviewed as well... but we'll see; I don't have a car and the Bay is much tougher than NYC without one.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, it has some good qualities. Hell, I'd watch Good Burger 4: Cole Slaughter if Kirsten Dunst was in it. But if you watch Marie Antoinette for a second time before seeing Three Times once, there will be violence.

11:40 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Don't worry. THREE TIMES is near the top of my list. And with Steve and Matt singing its praises, THE GOOD SHEPARD has sprung up from the bottom, despite its imposing length.

I also want to point anybody reading this to my second take on THE BLACK DAHLIA, which is imbeded in this post back at home on Vinyl. The short of it is I think it may reach "worthy failure" status with another viewing. But I'm not going to rush to watch it again. And I know even this second chance might inspire righteous ire from Sean. But hey, I got my dad to get me the used DVD from Netflix...

11:26 AM  

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