The House


Shifted Images

[Editor's Note: This article is being cross-published at The Nibbler.]

"The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible." Umberto Eco

From a Spiegel magazine interview:

Q: You include a nice list by the French philosopher Roland Barthes in your new book, The Vertigo of Lists. He lists the things he loves and the things he doesn't love. He loves salad, cinnamon, cheese and spices. He doesn't love bikers, women in long pants, geraniums, strawberries and the harpsichord. What about you?
Eco: I would be a fool to answer that; it would mean pinning myself down. I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot.

Here are the films with images that shifted around most in my mind throughout the aughts. Not the best or worst, but the most enduring:

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TAGS: a history of violence, around a small mountain, bamboozled, frontier of dawn, la france, marie antoinette, mr. warmth: the don rickles project, the fog of war, the lady and the duke, the story of marie and julien


The Blind Side

The Blind Side, which has reportedly made close to 200 million dollars, is based on a true story (the operative word is "based," of course). If its makers were accused of racism, surely they would be surprised and defensive; maybe they didn't notice that underneath the inspirational basis of their narrative is a fixation with the idea of sex between the lily-white, condescending caretaker played by Sandra Bullock and Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) her black "gentle giant" charge. It's a ghastly but revealing movie, not least for one scene with Adriane Lenox, a stage actress who won a Tony as the mother in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. Cast as Michael's errant, drug-addicted mother, Lenox takes her role, which amounts to only a few lines of dialogue, and fills it out with such delicate, shamed emotion that it's hard not to resent the director for insistently cutting back to Our Star, the ever-bland Bullock, who listens in such an oblivious, absent way to Lenox's heartfelt attempts to communicate that I was reminded of Lana Turner inanely marveling at the fact that her long-time maid Annie (Juanita Moore) has friends in Imitation of Life (1959). Fifty years later, we're still stuck with movie star white supremacy, smiling vacantly for untold millions of dollars, while exciting black actors and black characters continue to lead lives on the outskirts of films when they would be so much more vital at their center.

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TAGS: billy crudup, christian bale, doubt, imitation of life, johnny depp, michael mann, public enemies, sandra bullock, the blind side


The End of Time, Part One

With "The End of Time," the Doctor Who careers of two giants of the show—star David Tennant and head writer and executive producer Russell T Davies—reach their conclusion. With only Part One so far broadcast, we are not even halfway through the story—the second episode is significantly longer—so this can only be a preliminary assessment. But already it looks to be the most ambitious story Doctor Who has ever told.

As ever with a Davies season finale (I know there hasn't been an actual season this year, but the principle's the same), this isn't the place to look if you want a small-scale, tight-knit, self-contained story. Davies can do that when he wants to (see "Midnight"), but here he's looking to pick up threads going all the way back to the beginning of the revived series in 2005 and create an epic. Along the way, there's a certain amount of expediency evident in the plotting. There's some bad comedy. There are irrelevant celebrity cameos. But there's also heartfelt character work, some great performances, and a cliffhanger which turns everything seen so far on its head and left me avid to see what happens next.

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TAGS: bernard cribbins, catherine tate, David Harewood, david tennant, doctor who, john simm, june whitfield, recap, russell t davies, the end of time, tracy ifeachor


These Beauties

The flicks below are the best things I got out to see in multiplexes and arthouses in 2009. That leaves out Wild Grass, the kooky Alain Resnais comedy I fell in love with at this year's New York Film Festival. Also excluded are the gunfights in Public Enemies; nude, pale Paz de la Huerta straddling brown, blue-suited Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control; the rolling box of Quaker Oats in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; the local color in 50 Cent's Before I Self-Destruct; the dewy, palpitating bathroom scale and human flesh in the beginning of Antichrist—all perfect fragments of movies that I simply did not dig overall.

It was an exhausted-feeling year. The new movies I came across generally seemed plum tuckered out, slumming through the end of a decade increasingly hostile to simple movie pleasures.

Except for these beauties:

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TAGS: 35 shots of rum, alien, bad lieutenant: port of call new orleans, broken embraces, bullets over brownsville, drag me to hell, flooding with love for the kid, inglourious basterds, serbis, tetro


What makes Rob Marshall's Nine so peculiarly bad is its sheer self-congratulation. We're incessantly told how important, how fascinating the director Guido Contini must be, and we as viewers are expected to take this on faith, but never once does Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) do or say anything even remotely intriguing. The movie has no real subject; it's proudly about nothing. Not the arid nothingness of a Van Sant movie, but a boring sort of Condé Nast nothingness. If the real-life Federico Fellini had been as dull and as mopey as his fictional counterpart Contini, no one would have ever staged a Broadway musical [loosely] inspired by the autobiographical 8-1/2 in the first place, which means we could have been spared this present debacle that masquerades as entertainment.

Day-Lewis gamely tries to personify a song-and-dance man, yet his integrity as a performer works against him in a Rob Marshall movie. When Day-Lewis, in his first solo number, climbs the spiraling soundstage staircase that rises into the dark, it ought to be an iconic moment, but there's magic neither in Marshall's airless staging nor in his unimaginative camera work.

But back to that nothingness:

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TAGS: broken embraces, chicago, daniel day-lewis, date hudson, josé luis gómez, judi dench, marion cotillard, nicole kidman, nine, pedro almodóvar, penélope cruz, rob marshall, rodrigo prieto, Sophia Loren


A Christmas Carol

The phenomenon of the holiday makes it necessary for practically everyone to get into the spirit of things. Spin the globe, drop your finger, pick a holiday from where it lands, and that's what happens. That's why it's a holiday, not a personal day. On the one hand, this can be seen as a social necessity. Part of your acceptance in a social group or subgroup depends on your ability to play a role not only in day-to-day business, but also in rituals. Commemoration, observation, celebration—these are all rituals of a sort. For a little less than a third of the human race, Christmas is the largest and most concentrated matrix of rituals. A few key images tell the story: Decorations appear in advance of the two major holidays that precede Christmas. Theme music besieges the airwaves. Homes and trees are adorned with lights. Government offices, too. These days—at least in my neck of the woods, where Christian and non-Christian faiths share a large and more or less nonviolent space, where pretty much every possible reaction to Christmas is okay—you can celebrate it, piously or non-piously, you can hate it, or you can attempt to ignore it. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in London, in the middle of the nineteenth century, some ways of thinking about the holiday are okay, and some are not.

Which brings us to Ebenezer Scrooge, easily the best known anti-social in Western literature. He's also a miser, and Charles Dickens was shrewd enough to dovetail his money-hoarding with his misanthropy, instead of stacking the character with unlikable, yet unrelated, characteristics. As Dickens saw it, Christmas was a prominent, cultural fixture, but, politically speaking, it was also an impotent one. Social injustice was defined as the poor treatment of labor, a policy of zero tolerance to debtors, and brutal indifference toward the less fortunate. The character who personified this would not simply hate mankind, he would also hold its purse strings. The character arc of A Christmas Carol traces Ebenezer Scrooge's evolution from a very bad man to a very good one, the engine of his moral reeducation operated by no one other than the story's author. (You cannot otherwise explain the employment of spirits and surreal, malleable environments.)

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TAGS: a christmas carol, jim carrey, robert zemeckis


The Treasure of Tih Minh

Tih Minh

Canons form based on availability. This is notoriously true for literature, where translation helps determine who gets to read what, and when—just think of the fervor with which the American literary establishment has greeted W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño novels over the past 20 years once their work has been translated, well after the authors' books were celebrated back home in their original languages. But lack of access also haunts cinema studies, often for equally transnational reasons. Many movies don't cross the pond. Foreign cinema currently accounts for less than five percent of all movies released theatrically in America, so the problem is especially true now. It's also true for repertory—DVD can only account for so much. Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French crime director whose 1969 French Resistance film Army of Shadows received its stateside theatrical premiere a few years ago and was acclaimed by many critics as the best release of 2006, is a recent discovery for most American cinephiles. The Portuguese Pedro Costa, who may be the world's greatest filmmaker age 50 or younger, is a discovery-in-progress. Louis Feuillade (pronounced "Foy-yad"), the brilliant French silent film director without whom Surrealism might never have flourished, has barely been discovered at all.

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TAGS: army of shadows, beyond the pleasure principle, civilization and its discontents, irma vep, jaccuse, jeanne rollette, judex, juve vs. fantomas, les vampires, louis feuillade, midnight movies, the birth of a nation, the dark knight, tih minh


Doctor Who

David Tennant's long goodbye to Doctor Who enters its final stretch with "The Waters of Mars," an outstanding episode which takes a very traditional Doctor Who setting and plot, and adds some extremely un-traditional elements to it. The last episode back in April, the insubstantial "Planet of the Dead," was even more disappointing than it might otherwise have been due to standing in place of an entire 13-episode series, as the show took time off to make the transition to a new production team (and a new Doctor) for next year. It had nothing to do with the overall arc of the series, apart from some clumsy foreshadowing jammed in at the end ("He will knock four times..."). However, "The Waters of Mars" gets things firmly back on track, taking the Doctor's character to places he's never been before and giving a sense of rushing headlong towards a final reckoning.

The setting is a near-future Mars base, a central dome with various subsidiaries around it (bio-dome, medical dome, shuttle pad, etc.). This sort of environment is familiar to fans of the classic series, which produced many stories where a small group of characters is trapped in an isolated place and picked off one by one by some alien menace. Often, as here, they would feature a multinational cast of characters, most of whom are quick sketches rather than fully three-dimensional. The exception in this case is their leader, Adelaide Brooke, superbly played by Lindsay Duncan.

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TAGS: alan ruscoe, aleksandar mikic, chook sibtain, cosima shaw, david tennant, doctor who, Gemma Chan, Lindsay Duncan, michael goldsmith, peter o'brien, phil ford, recap, russell t davies, sharon duncan-brewster, the waters of mars


Robin Wood (1931 - 2009)

Robin Wood

The influential, much beloved critic Robin Wood—author of Hitchcock's Films and Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, among other titles—passed away yesterday. I only have a passing familiarity with his work, mainly his years-separated "reintroductions" to Hitchcock's Films, which deal with the breakup of his marriage and his coming out as gay. But I can't tell you how often I've re-read those passages, fascinated and moved by the dovetailing of the personal, political and critical. He's a model to aspire to (and to mimic at one's peril), and I fully intend on making his body of work a priority catch-up. Currently, there appears to be a lack of reportage on Wood's death (this will change soon, I hope). For the moment, here's Glenn Kenny, who shares a few choice Wood passages, and Robert Cashill. I'd also like to direct everyone to a personal favorite: Wood's Film Comment essay on Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo, which called my attention to a very worthy and wonderful film. Please share links, thoughts and remembrances in the comments section.

Update: David Hudson rounds up the growing number of tributes to Wood at the Auteurs Daily.

Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door.

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TAGS: r.i.p., robin wood


The Limits of Control

My ten favorite (and one not-so-favorite) films of 2009 are now live at Time Out New York. As with my best of the decade list, I've reprinted the titles below with links to pieces that I've written on them or to other articles that I'm particularly fond of. Go through to Time Out, though, if you want to read my brief blurbs on each selection, as well as the lists from my colleagues David Fear and Joshua Rothkopf.

Ten for 2009:

1. The Limits of Control
2. Night and Day
3. California Dreamin'
4. Two Lovers
5. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
6. Lorna's Silence
7. Public Enemies
8. A Christmas Carol
9. The Box
10. Inglourious Basterds

One not

1. A Single Man

Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door.

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TAGS: a christmas carol, a single man, california dreamin’, inglourious basterds, my son my son what have ye done, night and day, public enemies, the box, the limits of control, two lovers







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