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Can't Stop the Movies

Mid-week Maya: Introduction and Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Maya Introduction

The films of Maya Deren are widely available online and I will post links when possible.  Here is a link for Meshes of the Afternoon.

Maya IntroductionSomething occurred to me when I was halfway through my series on Stan Brakhage. He was a prolific experimental filmmaker, but certainly not the only one, and his roots had to stem from somewhere. So my digging around led me to an excellent resource in the UbuWeb database, and looking at some of the samples triggered my interest in Maya Deren.

Deren already has a fascinating background to me because of my interest in exilic and diasporic films. For those unfamiliar with the term, movies created by a person who either left or was forcibly removed from their country of origin and attempts to connect with similar people in a new environment. Iranian films are one of the most robust environments in America for this, with the recent A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a stirring example.

In Deren’s case, she was born to a Ukranian-Jewish family, emigrated early in her life to America, and attained her education in France and Massachusetts. When people come from that kind of background their films tend to be disjointed and non-localized in the sense that they take place in environments which are entirely foreign even if they are the creator’s home. Considering the America of the early 20th century was not kind to foreigners, and certainly not welcoming to Jews, I wondered what kind of effect this would have on her films. So, since her films are readily available online I decided she would be the subject of my next director series, and I tracked down her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon.


As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Out into the waves

Experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas assembled over thirty years of footage to create an ode to his city, his family, and his life.  This is As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.

Out into the wavesIf I sat you down and asked you to create a motion picture about your life, what would you do? There’s the typical biopic response of creating a narrative which takes the audience through a cradle to grave structure of the subject’s life. The less common take on the biographical film is to focus on a defining moment in someone’s life. The least common, and most rewarding, is to take that life and deal with it in the abstract. Very few films attempt this last category because it’s seemingly impossible to determine what the core “essence” of someone is, let alone artistically abstract it.

This is what makes As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (from this point on As I Was Moving) such a remarkable experience. It is a radically experimental as a film which runs just a shade over five hours in length and consists entirely of energetic, messy, and heavily altered footage. But it is also as surprisingly conventional, leading the audience down an emotional memory lane constructed entirely from footage taken from home videos.

Picking one accomplishment over the others in As I Was Moving is difficult enough, but if I had to settle on one it would be that director Jonas Mekas created the kind of film I found insufferable when Stan Brakhage tried. Brakhage’s home movie experiments were navel-gazing to their core and puttered about with bad poetry and typically uninspired experiments. But Mekas attains a weird momentum throughout As I Was Moving because he never allows the shot to stay in one place for very long, yet still stays within a quickly established visual theme before moving to the next location.


It Follows (2015)

The target is clear - the pursuit less so

Jay thought she had met a nice guy who treated her to a wonderful night.  But after they have sex he drugs her and she wakes up in a wheelchair.  Her "nice guy" passed on a curse which can only be transmitted through sex and makes her the target of a creature who never tires and will not stop until she is dead.  David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed It Follows starring Maika Monroe.

The target is clear - the pursuit less soIn recent years we’ve seen a surge of nostalgia coast over different forms of media. Musicians are putting out albums on vinyl again, video games eschew modern advances in digital modeling to return to pixels, and an increasing number of movies are mining our childhoods for the next big thing. If I were to look at It Follows from an entirely cynical perspective of nostalgia pandering then I would have to call it one of the worst movies of 2015. Writer / director David Robert Mitchell has such an open appreciation of early slasher films like Halloween it becomes hard to watch his sophomore feature-film without thinking of previous high points of the genre.

But what Mitchell does is much harder than simple emulation of old horror tropes. He repurposed them for a generation who is more psychologically and technologically savvy. The evil can’t be explained away with a doctor, reasoned with by a scared teenager, or fought with new weapons. There’s no point to figure out whatever “It” is, because once you’re infected by the disease you will die in time, all you have to do is wait your turn.

This inevitability is what also separates It Follows from other horror films. Too often horror returns to the well of sex and punishes those who indulge themselves before the proper time (marriage, more or less). But sex is how we all got here, and we all go out the same. Consider the rules of the creature as explained in It Follows, the curse can be passed on by having sex with someone, but all the creature does is move on down the list to the last person you had sex with. This doesn’t speak well of hookup culture or a monogamous relationship, as once one partner is dead the next would be soon to follow.


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The literally-oozing-with-evil Immortan Joe rules the post-apocalyptic colony of Citadel with his army of War Boys. When his own trusted warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) helps five women escape sexual slavery and imprisonment, Joe and his army pursue them across the Wasteland. A strong cast of supporting female characters led by Theron often takes center stage over Max (a mostly mute Tom Hardy), which makes for a refreshingly new entry into the franchise focused more on reworking the genre than rehashing the successes of The Road Warrior—though make no mistake, Mad Max: Fury Road is still totally insane.

Mad Max: Fury RoadKyle Like Banner

A kind of consensus has emerged by now that Mad Max: Fury Road will have a place among the best, if not the most elaborate, chase movies ever made, and that's deserved. But to label it as such is too mundane—it obscures all of the other things that it also manages to be. This is a gleeful, grotesque carnival of a movie. It works as an aesthetic spectacle that elevates conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre to a level of pop art, and then packs this visual framework with more details and nuances in passing than most movie worlds manage to contain as their sole points of focus. It's hard to talk about in any way that's not hyperbolic, because the whole movie is hyperbole—it seems director George Miller held onto a growing set of ideas for 30 years and then let them explode unrestricted onto the screen all at once. Several hours after leaving the theatre, I feel like I'm 13 years old again—I'm sorry, excuse me for a moment.

Whether you're familiar with the franchise or not, the story is simple enough you can jump on board for the first time at this installment. “My world is fire and blood,” says Max (Tom Hardy) in the voiceover that starts the film—but it may just as well be oil and water, the only two things that still have any currency in the post-apocalyptic Wasteland the characters inhabit. Almost immediately, Max is taken captive by a group of War Boys commanded by Immortan Joe, a half-mechanical monstrosity covered in sores who breathes through a respirator mask emblazoned with teeth.

Immortan Joe controls the Citadel—the only piece of land in sight with access to fresh water and vegetation—a kind of primitive city where he imprisons women as “breeders” and turns his many sons into War Boys. (“Boys” is apt here, correctly implying a kind of permanent adolescence.) The War Boys are 20-something young men shaved bald with white (possibly painted) skin, all of whom seem to experience profound ADHD. They have “half-lives” as delirious, glory-hungry warriors before being turned into “blood bags,” used to pump fresh blood into other War Boys before and during battles. No one ever explains why the War Boys need constant infusions of new blood—I imagine Joe made a decree one day and everyone just went with it.


Spike Lee: Inside Man (2006)

Do you know who did this

A team of bank robbers, led by the enigmatic Dalton Russell, executes their plan in broad daylight with no clear avenue for escape.  Detective Keith Frazier arrives on the scene to make sense of Russell's seemingly suicidal plan.  But in the background, events are into motion to make sure both Russell and Frazier leave with their goals achieved and the truth buried.  Spike Lee directs Inside Man from a screenplay written by Russell Gewirtz and stars Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

Do you know who did thisThe first time I saw Inside Man it was probably about a year after it was released in theaters, and I didn't give it the credit it was due—I remember being generally unimpressed, not particularly surprised with the twist at the end, and feeling pretty flat throughout. So it was nice watching it this time around being able to walk back on some of those initial impressions. The movie is still kind of flat for me, but there's enough interest in the performances and the moments that work to subvert our expectations of the genre that it's definitely worth the viewing time.

The way it plays with genre is the most interesting to me, even if it doesn't always register these moments as outwardly and with as much punch as it could have—the burden of making a bank heist movie where the heist isn't meant to be pulled off is that you have to embed the suspense elsewhere, and I don't think Spike Lee is always successful here. I almost wonder if casting Clive Owen—who brings such a presence to his unnamed, mostly masked character—worked against the movie unintentionally. I think Owen's great, but the real suspense of Inside Man is watching Denzel Washington's Detective Frazier put together what's really going on with the “robbery,” and by drawing the audience's focus so strongly to both men it deflates Frazier's eventual discovery a little—we're still waiting for a reveal from Owen's character, and when we get it it's purely about the “how” of the heist, which we've already moved on from.

That said, this is still a really capable heist movie and it was interesting to see Spike put his stamp on something that fits the formalism of a more traditional commercial Hollywood film. There aren't a ton of really specific Spike moments here—we get double dolly shot, and New York factors in as a character itself—but he's definitely got a presence in how certain story beats are emphasized and delivered, if not as strongly in the visuals this time around.‏