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2008: Lessons and Laughs and Leaps

What’s troubling about this picture of education (as remembering) is that it sounds like nothing new was built, that to learn is not to create.

2008: Lessons and Laughs and Leaps

A bizarre year full of bizarre films and worse turns outside the cinematheque, my 2008 saw our flux drift down into waste for far too long, with far too much fear, before our fall season reminded that we may find flight possible (again) as we recycle another calendar set and cabinet. Events and actions have a history before they happen—and accountability is tricky. “We must learn to act the play out,” Betsy says. But she does not say that many lessons take time to settle, to find purchase, to truly change a mind, however slight the transformation. Many of the lessons activated (set loose! into laughter!) by my summer-ending trip to Telluride, as a part of the film festival’s Student Symposium, were set up by those preceding depths spent solitary in front of blank digital pages, and perhaps too many books, as much as all those beers and dance parties and movies and drugs and friends that I found so hard to navigate (much less appreciate) earlier in the year.

What’s troubling about this picture of education (as remembering) is that it sounds like nothing new was built, that to learn is not to create. This premise is questionable, if not outright false. For, even if there remains an element of Plato’s great uncovering metaphor(s), my education has always borne the richest—to say the ripest—fruit through my often silly, easily histrionic, trial and error efforts. We may be designed to fail but we may also build monuments; we have, look around you. Life is a mutopia: we mould the world as it moulds us. It’s all a movement. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to find the strength to push back, but, now, here, I feel comfortable in my posture. It’s a gift. And I’m so grateful I could vomit.

One springtime lesson I was ready to accept and understand rather immediately came in the form of the Pedro Costa residence at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. His calm intelligence belies his passion, and while the heat of the theater made me drowsy during his Regent’s lecture, I was nevertheless rapt. I wrote four pages of notes. His interest in the image-as-document began a train of thought that continues its locomotion someplace inside (around) my brain (my spirit?). This newfound understanding of the image’s desire for The Real was, paradoxically (of course), part of why, a month or so later, I flipped for (and was genuinely moved by) that out-of-where? digipaint rocket of color, Speed Racer. There is no interest in The Real whatsoever; or, if there is, it’s about the joy of production, of making new realities. The image is animated, literally, by those colors and by those swipes and by those cardboard “performances” that work only in that they do not, that they are, by one boring evaluative light, “bad.”

But, frankly, I grate towards (potentially useless) anger reading simple evaluations such as “good” or “bad” at our now. For one, it’s hardly a novel thing to read, or write. For another, it’s reductive. Still more, why should I arrogate to that set of criteria? It’s rare, it seems, that we’re offered thoughtful arguments when some body (like a critic) is turned off. The impulse to shout comes from the dyspeptic gut, I find, and not from the grained and folded brain. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like to eat, and I trust my gut a lot of the time, but I’ve learned again and again to distrust not only my strongly adverse reactions but their opposite as well—those ebullient and often tearful wind ups—because, in all honesty, those are more often than not judgments of taste and not of value. To really get at value is forever the hardest thing for me; to navigate past those reactions into an enveloping posture of accountability.

It’s tough stuff! It’s way easier to say, well, Spritle and Chim Chim annoy the living excrement out of me—done. It’s easier to say, I see a lot of myself in every Amalric-Desplechin creation—yes! It’s hard to say, those idiots are Speed Racer’s bald-faced dummy chorus designed for kiddies’ projection as much as reflexive commentary. It’s hard to step back and say, Henri is a jerk and Desplechin is manic to the point of exhaustion. It should be obvious to say, we live with both and it’s best to simply (although it is never simple, or simply “easy” to) pay attention to the differences that make a difference as we move between polar perspectives. Again: that shit is tough. My desire to wrangle myself and remain accountable in my engagement-experience is why writing about something as massive as La Maman et la Putain has proved so hard for me: there is so much to bring to bear, to bank up in words, that to know where to begin is task alone. The trick, of course, is to just get going.

Thus, I have moved, once more, to New York City. There are plenty of reasons to be here beyond the cinema, like friendships and foods and private patios and beauty of all forms (Dionysian and Apollonian are, again, extremes to weave), but a great motivator does rest in my cinephilic pursuits. (We all know the weather isn’t a bonus.) Of course, I miss my friends and family back on the Gold Coast, and money weighs more here than Berkeley, but I trust I will make the time to pursue my aims and write my way forward. Because, well, here I am, ready for most things, eager to make it work and eat images all year round among all my cinephilic and otherwise (that is, more importantly) awesome friends. Thanks, comrades. I’m looking forward to all the fun to fly through and all the mistakes we can make and all the houses we can build. Get big.


The Let’s Touch It Award. On Dangerous Ground is a massive little film. It hardly “makes sense.” It is assuredly “bizarre.” It resists itself, it halves, it takes flight, it sees the world grubby and projected, a tower of hurt. But we’re in it! We can touch those boulders, that tree (inside) and we can reach across voids if we’re lucky enough and find a hand waiting with love. We can see with our fingers. It’s kind of like writing. Okay: it is writing. (Two Runners Up: Le cochon by Eustache is as “pure” a film as you will see and touch with your eyes; the same can be said for Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night no doubt.)

The You Gotta Be Kidding Me Award. Speed Racer. Glenn Kenny calls it “One of the most genuinely confounding films to come along in years.” I guess you can peg me a sucker for disjuncture. By a lot of lights, Speed Racer is a failure. But, and here comes that silly defense, those angles are skewed—willfully, it seems—to miss “the point” of the film (as if there is, ever, a “point” to “get”). For although its narrative leaps may confuse our senses, if you really pay attention there’s plenty more to be enjoyed herein. To begin, like a lot of people, I see it as a live action cartoon, which is a delicious paradox these wacky Wachowskis somehow pull off precisely because it has no claims on The Real. Animation is about creation: creating worlds instead of disclosing world. Whether you buy into this candy sensation is the crux of our conversation. ‘Cuz if you don’t, sister, I totally get why you might not dig on this delightful film maudit that seems designed to fail with its “audience”—whomever that was intended to be (I’m guessing the ADHD set) and whomever it may become (me?).

The I Need More Award. I’ll say it’s a tie. And they both come from a certain a-g perspective. The first I should like to mention is that super couple, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, whom I met through Pedro Costa’s handycam and along a railroad through Sicily. The second would have to be Bruce Conner, a late illumination in my movie year, but easily one of the brightest. This is the simplest award to bestow (write) because all it is, really, is declaration of an impulse: what others may call a compulsion and what I like to feel is a passion. (Lucky for me, there will be some Straub-Huillet on that big Walter Reade screen later this month: The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach on Friday, January 23rd and Moses and Aaron on Sunday, January 25th one time only at 2pm.

The Termite Award. A Christmas Tale. Making confetti out of life, this “expansive yet cozy” thing burrows fast and furious into itself, into its spaces, into its family and its families, and yet, somehow, builds some kind of cathedral out of its messy trail/s. —The tree is a house here and its branches lattice, punctuated by blossoms (often still images, which still move) sprouted from hurt as much as laughter. Also, an astoundingly literate (which is not to say literal) screenplay, which Desplechin matches with his use of fades and zooms and all forms of cinematic layering. It’s dense in here, but it’s also a breeze—a blast. (As I am tempted to make this about more films beyond the arbitrary set dictated by our calendars, I could just as easily have given this award to all the Desplechin films I’ve seen this fall. I also could have granted this title to a Costa film, like Vanda, or that Nick Ray blast of genius I can’t quit, either.)

The Sergei Urusevsky Award. It would be too easy to give it to Doyle for his Paranoid Park palate so I bestow this gift on Jia Zhang-Ke’s right hand man, Yu Likwai, who does things with his digital camera few can approach with emulsion. It isn’t about combing, or about clarity, as much as the images comb through that stark digital reproductive quality, but rather about a rich document open to the blur of reversals. The images of Still Life, bedraggled as they may wring, bleed light; movement comes not from the objects, nor from the frame, but from (rather simply) how those focus pulls seep and weep, how that fan locates “white” in a mess of “green” and “yellow,” how (let’s go there) the rust rusts. Plus: spaceships.

The You Hurt Me Award. Ne Touchez Pas La Hache, forever married to Guillaume’s premature and devastating death. Yes, Heath was a treasure, but Heath never felt heavy. There’s a real weight on and in Guillame. And it’s over. And that is terrifying. Oh, and that movie is about that, too. It’s a real one—a real doozy of one—one to hold onto real close—especially that final reel. My friend Cuyler invented a word (for us) in 2008: Wouch.

The Armor Award. The first film I watched in 2009, begun at 8am with a mild hangover, was The Wrestler. I’m sure my fatigue and general whirlwind dizziness played a part in my willingness to melt in silence hugging my laptop, but I am equally certain Aronofsky’s film is, well, straight up solid. Its interests in our daily armor (and how we shed it) are never literal, which is appreciated given the screenplay’s rather basic trajectory. While the Dardennes comparison may work, I am tired of that, and I think we can say, rather obviously, that if the frame is the world of this film, Randy’s final leap through and past it, into the beyond, is one of the most graceful and (yes, indeed) transcendent ends I’ve witnessed (or not) in a film all year. Talk about leaping. Like The Fountain, The Wrestler is sincere and heartfelt and, even only a week old in my brain, it is already appreciating and growing, to say bulking, in stature and significance.

The Trains Award should probably go to James Benning’s RR but it’s just a little too “perfect” to give me much more to think about past its sublime final shot. Which is why I go with the other obvious film-is-a-forging-track option, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. I enjoy how modest Reichardt’s films are, how they do exactly what they want, and leave spaces empty enough for us to find not ourselves but the world and its lack. An ardent political film that, through its affection, sidesteps naïve liberalism. Wendy may be foolhardy, in a moral sense, but who said we need beacons as our icons? It helps that Michelle Williams’ lovely face (not an outright cherub or angel, but certainly more than human) is haloed by her hair, however her Wendy is messy in all the right ways. What some may see as narrative tropes (the hum, the notebook, the dog, even), I like to see as affective gestures that flesh the film’s interest in how we fall off track, all too often and all too human, before we may find the courage to jump on again. The future is not set, and Wendy remains a passive thief, but this is America and it’s her right to form a pursuit, to follow her map, to find the west and, as we’re all trying, to make some fucking money.

The Auteur Award. I learned more from Pedro Costa than any single filmmaker in 2008. And it was all over one week! His brand or strand of cinema, which moves us into our digital century, helps activate all kinds of questions-conversations-excitements for my tired little brain. I cannot say more, really, beyond that, however, because I have not seen his films since last spring. They exist in the abstract, like concepts almost, that I can try to reach for and find purchase with but briefly, as with a big toe dipping to test, and I cannot wait to feel their wriggling again. I continually want to note, and tell the ones I love, that Ou git votre sourire enfoui made my young and timorous heart think that, yes, marriage is a viable form of life in this world. (I also learned a lot from Eustache and Hou Hsiao-hsien, both of whom I encountered post-Costa.)

The Perpetual Education Award. Happy-Go-Lucky. “Isn’t it just?” is a moral question. It just sounds flip coming from Poppy. Mike Leigh’s buoyant film isn’t just about pedagogy; it operates as pedagogy. With Sally Hawkins’ smile front and center, Leigh creates in Poppy a walking imperative. Some have called the film schematic. I like to think it’s just plain good. And, you know, it fits its title. Happy-go-lucky isn’t always happy. It’s more akin to the joyful affirmation Nietzsche desires of art (we look with equal love at the ugly as much as the lovely; beauty takes many forms) triangulated with Deleuze’s movement and De Certeau’s tactics as we navigate our ways in and through our world, and, if we have any fortune, it may bring us a smile. The camera lifts at the close for a reason. We seek flight—we seek our evolution!—as grounded as we remain.

The And Last Award. The New World: Extended Cut. But you coulda guessed that, right?

If you want a list, as many may, I offered one over at The Auteurs’ Notebook a lil while back. You may read that list, as well as some other words, by clicking here. Until we meet again, may your laughter be long and your tears come around a smile. Barf it out, sons. Kick your heels, gurls. Let’s dance our way into this world, this future. Three, two, one: liftoff.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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