Life. That’s my excuse (well, one of them, anyway) for not spending quite as much time at the movies this past year—either in the theater or via my Netflix subscription—as in 2006. Certainly the quality of the movies themselves weren’t at fault. While 2006 as a whole left me underwhelmed—this despite indelible films like Inland Empire, Three Times and Miami Vice—the fall movie season of 2007 turned out to be a particularly rich time for interesting, stimulating cinema.
Whether or not you ended up admiring films as diverse as No Country for Old Men, The Darjeeling Limited, I’m Not There, or There Will Be Blood, all those, and many others, were interesting works worth arguing over, especially when it came to trying to tie them all to a palpable post-9/11 contemporary unrest. At more than one point during the past few months, I’ve felt my mind reeling at the sheer amount of choices offered at local multiplexes and farther-away art houses (heck, in the last week of 2007, I ended up going to about five or six movies in the space of one week!).
Mostly, it was real life that intruded this year, sometimes frustratingly so. All the stresses that came with trying to balance classes while completing my senior thesis in the spring eventually flowed into a summer internship at the copy desk of The Wall Street Journal. Then, because I suddenly had to find a way to finish the last 6 credits of my journalism major at Rutgers, I decided to take a part-time job at the Journal’s monitor desk—proofreading, more or less—in order to get internship credit. I’m still working there—yes, even with Rupert Murdoch now at the helm of Dow Jones.
All that real-world responsibility—with inevitably much more to come in 2008 once I’ve finally graduated from Rutgers and begun figuring out what I passionately want to/realistically can do post-undergraduate education—necessarily took precious time away from the pitch-black of a movie theater or from my ever-lengthening Netflix queue (a laundry list of Ingmar Bergman/Michaelangelo Antonioni DVDs, for instance, remain yet to be seen—in commemoration, of course, of two of the big cinema giants to have fallen in 2007).
Something else, however, also happened this fall. Feeling that strictly focusing on movies at the expense of other art forms was no longer edifying, I started expanding my artistic boundaries a bit, going beyond movies and trying to expose myself to more works of literature and (mostly rock) music that I had neglected to explore up to this point in my life. If it is true that being a great film critic requires a good working knowledge of and curiosity for other arts, well, I admit with a bit of shame that I still have a loooooong way to go. But this year, I think I was able to take some agreeable baby steps.
Thus, to commemorate 2007, I’d like to reminisce over a few personal artistic discoveries I made this year that impacted me the strongest.
1. Talking Heads
My obsession with David Byrne & co., as so often happens with me, started with a movie—Jonathan Demme’s great Stop Making Sense. No matter how the music sounded or what they sang, simply seeing them perform so energetically and passionately was enough to excite me (watch David Byrne running around the stage and jolting as he lies on his back during “Life During Wartime,” for instance, as an example of what I mean). That was before I started actually paying attention to their music this year, which idiosyncratically mixed post-punk stylings with African polyrhythmic influences. Albums like More Songs About Buildings and Food and Remain in Light (probably their masterpiece) remain exhilarating and original even when it is sometimes difficult to decipher what the hell David Byrne is singing about. On the other hand, do you have to know why Byrne randomly shouts out “I’m so thin” in “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” in order to groove on its hypnotically repetitive, driving rhythms? Besides, this year I also listened to enough Bob Dylan to understand that sometimes it isn’t what’s being said, but how. (“How does it feel?” Dylan famously sang in “Like a Rolling Stone.”) On the other hand, when David Byrne sings about ordinary American life in “The Big Country” and then admits, in the chorus, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” the startling honesty of that line in a song that, up to its first utterance seemed like a clichéd idyll about country life, is what really inspired my admiration: these singers may be privileged, but at least they’re willing to admit it and scrutinize it through their oddball music.
Other memorable music discoveries in 2007:
• The rich eclecticism of both The Beatles and Elvis Costello (although my favorite Costello album so far is probably his most hard-rocking, This Year’s Model from 1978).
• The many fascinating musical phases of Bob Dylan (obfuscated this year under thickets of postmodern evasion in Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There).
• The pleasure of hearing Radiohead relax in their latest album, In Rainbows. Their pay-whatever-you-want-for-the-download scheme got all the media attention (I paid $5, for what it’s worth), but the real attraction was hearing a wonderful collection of songs from a band that seems to have decided, unlike with OK Computer or Kid A, that they have nothing to prove this time around. If their 2003 Hail to the Thief was sprawling and frosty (and, it must be said, more approachable a few listens later), In Rainbows was beautifully focused and warmly accessible.
• Joy Division: Ian Curtis sings pretty much entirely about alienation and depression, and I can’t say I’ve been feeling particularly alienated or depressed lately (at least, not to a massive extent). But there’s just something about his austere, stark-sounding music that makes his alienation sound convincing and almost beautiful without becoming one-note. Everyone makes a case for The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” as one of the great album closers; I’d say “Decades,” the deeply felt, oddly moving closing track of Joy Division’s second album, Closer, is right up there.
• Finally: when I lived in Queens during the first six years of my life, I remember listening to a reasonable amount of Asian pop music. This year I got in touch with some of those old memories (thanks, in many ways, to YouTube) as well as delving more deeply into the world of Canto- and Mandopop from the 1980s onward. Current obsession: the late Anita Mui, Hong Kong’s biggest star in the 1980s, whose powerful alto brings a touch of poignant emotional depth even to the fastest synth-laden dance tune. (As with many other Cantopop stars, she also made her name as in actress in films like Rouge, The Heroic Trio and a few films with Jackie Chan.)
2. On the Road
Because Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, I finally decided to sit down and read it for the first time—and I immediately fell in love with it. Its freedom of language, its embrace of America in all its various facets, the openness to life’s tumultuous ups and downs—for the length of time it took for me to finish reading On the Road, I found myself wishing to live a life like Kerouac’s and Dean Moriarty’s, at least in spirit. In parts of the jazzy narrative, though, even Kerouac recognizes his great friend Dean’s self-destructiveness, and this real-world honesty dazzled me even more than these free spirits’ various adventures. Still, for someone who feels like he hasn’t come anywhere close to experiencing life to its fullest, On the Road stands as a kind of spiritual inspiration. May I always live life to the fullest, even if I’m not, well, on the road. (The spirit of Kerouac’s novel, meanwhile, found a modern movie equivalent this year in Sean Penn’s flawed but heartfelt Into the Wild.)
Other memorable book discoveries in 2007:
• Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a brilliant meditation on truth and lies in art, as well as one of the more psychologically penetrating pieces of writing I’ve yet read. (I actually like Joe Wright’s film version, by the way, although it certainly isn’t a patch on such a thoroughly literary, densely detailed novel.)
• D. H. Lawrence’s notorious, fascinating exploration of male/female and class relationships, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
• The late Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The best anti-war art wasn’t in movie theaters this year, but remained in this dark absurdist classic.
3. Touch of Evil and Auteurism
As someone who has always been a “take things one film at a time” kind of guy, I’ve never readily subscribed to the auteur theory when considering the movies I watch. But maybe I’ve never really understood what those Cahiers du Cinéma upstarts in the 1950s meant. That is probably the only reason to explain why my first exposure to Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil on DVD shocked my system. Consider the elements of the plot in isolation—good cop, really bad cop, drugs, deceit, and Marlene Dietrich—and it sounds like standard-issue cop melodrama. But by pushing a baroque visual style to disorienting extremes, Welles transforms the clichés into something deeply personal and deeply unsettling—a startling vision (and I do mean vision) of a world gone morally haywire. I’ve always heard about the auteur theory—and that includes reading Andrew Sarris’s famous auteurist tome, The American Cinema—but I don’t think I’ve ever intuitively grasped it the way I did after seeing Touch of Evil. Anyone might have been able to make a movie with the crime elements of Touch of Evil, but few would have had the daring and visual imagination to make it like Welles.
This most recent movie year, come to think of it, was rife with auteur statements: from David Fincher laying bare his obsessive soul in Zodiac to Werner Herzog exploring male comradeship and patriotism under unforgiving Mother Nature in Rescue Dawn; from David Cronenberg grafting his obsessions about body and humanity onto a standard gangster melodrama in Eastern Promises to the Coens transcending the condescension of Blood Simple and Fargo to mine surprising soul and relentless formal rigor in yet another crime-gone-wrong drama with No Country for Old Men. Some of our most fascinating “cinema authors” were creating at near the tops of their respective games this year. (Oh yes, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which I hope to be seeing real soon…)
Other memorable DVD discoveries:
• Speaking of Herzog, I finally saw his Aguirre, The Wrath of God this year, and immediately the film’s dreamy style and its stark portrait of megalomania started to infect my own daydreams.
• Other “daydream movies” I discovered this year: Luchino Visconti’s Le notti bianche, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
• Jean-Luc Godard’s monumental eight-part video series Histoire(s) du cinema was released on DVD this year, and, as a Godard diehard, it was pretty much a given that I would splurge my hard-earned money on it. I’ve only seen it once all the way through, and while I’m not even close to grasping the full measure of Godard’s philosophical ruminations on movie love (like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, this one requires its own skeleton key), it’s still quite an amazing experience.
• Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, out in a new Criterion DVD this year. I bought it only because it was on sale at deepdiscount.com, but the film turns out to be a deeply cynical, dead-on exposé of the absurdity of media circuses. It’s still shockingly relevant today.
• James Cameron’s Aliens: people may focus on the human-birth subtext, but what about its critique of military-might machismo? Gung-ho Bill Paxton, for instance, eventually turns into a blubbering coward, while Sigourney Weaver’s motherly love and protection ends up saving the day—even if she is forced to don an automatic weapon and yell macho action-hero lines like “Get away from her, you bitch!” in order to do so. Did I mention the action scenes kick mighty ass? (Maybe the movie does eventually end up being what it purports to critique after all…)
• John Frankenheimer’s The Train (mostly on our Editor-in-chief’s recommendation; many thanks for that!), especially its final confrontation, which, in its sheer moral intelligence, immediately diminishes most Hollywood action climaxes as the bang-for-your-buck pandering they often are.
On a less serious note: 2007 was the year I finally took notice of the embarrassment of trivial and esoteric riches on YouTube. From amusing user videos and long-lost music videos/clips to obscure movie and television snippets and other random pieces of craziness, YouTube, for much of spring and summer 2007, was often a place for random exploration when I felt especially bored or lazy. Somehow, YouTube is just conducive to such dillydallying.
One of the more memorable discoveries: HappySlip is a Filipina woman named Christine who has become an internet celebrity on account of her self-made, lightly satirical YouTube videos. I don’t even remember how I came upon them—and the fact that she looked attractive is what drew me to her in the first place—but in fact, they are actually quite amusing and delightful. Many of the more memorable videos are mockeries of her relatives, and damned if they don’t remind me, in some ways, of my own. But they are affectionately satirized, not derisive in the least, as you can see in the YouTube award-winning video “Mixed Nuts.” She has also written and performed her own songs on occasion (like this one, an ode to Macs set to James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”).
You probably will never catch my oh-so-camera-ready face on YouTube. But I’ll certainly still be watching and aimlessly browsing in 2008.
Full circle. I finally converted to a Mac a few months ago and, thanks to a special offer through the Rutgers computer store, got an iPod nano for free (well, after a mail-in rebate). Like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard, I was previously a staunch Luddite regarding the mere idea of the iPod, vowing I would never be caught dead as one of those people, i.e. walking around in public with those little earbuds, listening to music while shutting out much of the outside world. Well, time to thoroughly eat my words: there was a stretch of time when I lost sleep just because I couldn’t let go of listening to my iPod at nights, and I’m still pretty addicted to the thing. Besides, I credit the acquisition of my new iPod with inspiring my current musical explorations—jut so I can have a wider variety of music to make for more interesting mixes with the Shuffle function. Only with the Shuffle function on my iPod will you be able to hear The Beatles and Talking Heads interweaving with Elvis Costello and Radiohead, with pinches of Anita Mui and other Asian pop songs thrown in.
• I’ve never been a voracious primetime-TV watcher, so I’m not one to take very many chances on new series. This past fall, though, I tuned into Pushing Daisies simply on the basis of the mostly rapturous reviews alone, and it’s turned out to be one of the most delightful television series I’ve seen in quite a while (which is probably not saying much in my case). I’m normally not one to be awed by rampant whimsy, and Pushing Daisies isn’t entirely free of the kind of gratuitous cutesy touches that I occasionally find annoying in, say, a Wes Anderson film. But, more often than not, moments of genuine sweetness and emotional truth arise out of even the most whimsical of situations and dialogue lines. In other words, it’s the tightrope-walking that makes the show fun to tune into every week. Ah, who am I kidding? It’s the rapturously charming Anna Friel, as the recently resurrected childhood sweetheart, who keeps me tuning in and swooning. (I’m a nerd, indulge me my nerdy fantasies.)
• Politics still ain’t my thing (although I try, despite my cynicism, to remain engaged), but this year, because of my Wall Street Journal job, I have had to read more about the political turmoil going on in Pakistan, Myanmar, and other areas in the world. In fact, it has come to the point that I’ve started to become more fascinated with what is going on in those areas than what’s going on here in the States. Those demonstrations brutally put down by the military government in Myanmar genuinely aroused a sense of frustration and empathy within me; same with the profound unrest currently brewing after the Benazir Bhutto assassination in Pakistan. Maybe one more step, and I’d be ready to join some kind of (peaceful) cause to try to bring democracy and freedom to those areas (since most U.S. troops seem preoccupied with bringing stability to Iraq anyway).
And, of course, the year in movies…
Others have remarked about how many movies in 2007, perhaps more than in previous years, reflected a post-9/11 skepticism bordering on cynicism about the possibility of reclaiming innocence, of returning to a more stable time. I’m not really one to look too hard for trends in a particular movie year, though, so none of the below list of 10 personal favorites necessarily center around any one particular topical mindset—at least, not too explicitly. These are just films that really engaged and fascinated me, whether tied into an awareness of some enveloping national malaise or not.
Here’s my working top 10, with of course a whole host of blind spots to account for (a drawback of not writing about film for a living and also living about an hour away from New York City), There Will Be Blood foremost among them. These are ten films I saw in 2007 that affected me the most; I recognize what’s artistically admirable in films like Zodiac, Sweeney Todd, Offside, or Away From Her, but I can’t say those films personally hit me the way these did, in widely divergent ways:
1. Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett
2. Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning
3. No Country for Old Men, Ethan & Joel Coen
4. Paprika, Satoshi Kon
5. Ratatouille, Brad Bird
6. Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino
7. No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson
8. Into the Wild, Sean Penn
9. The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
10. Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg
My many blind spots include Syndromes and a Century, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Private Fears in Public Places (the DVDs await), so I guess you all have an idea what I’m missing.
To paraphrase Tiny Tim: Happy New Year to all, and to all a good 2008!
Kenji Fujishima is a soon-to-be Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal’s monitor desk in South Brunswick, N.J., while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.