May 27, 2015
[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]
In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.
In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”
Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.
It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.
I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.
Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.
Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)
Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.
How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?
Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.
So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.
21st Century baroque?
April 30, 2012
Remember, above all else, that tomorrow is International Workers’ Day.
Unless you’re a big property owning industrialist, tomorrow is meant for you.
May Day now will always remind of the big party in Kreuzberg and the scuffles in Berlin while I was there in 2010.
I will spend my May Day watching German films and contemplating their labor relations, not out of pretentiousness or facetiousness, but because it’s the end of the semester and it’s also my job.
Those of you who have work, may God bless your good fortune and grant you the strength to fight for the appreciation you deserve.
Those of you without work, may you pour out onto the streets to show the world you exist and deserve a living wage.
We all do. Every generation does.
June 17, 2010
After a day straining my eyes at the Bundesarchiv with microfiches detailing debates about film as a “kulturpolitisches Instrument,” it was nice to go to Potsdam and catch up with a friendly acquaintance.
Rainer Simon, one of the most prominent DEFA directors in the 1980s, invited me over to his art-bedecked apartment to talk shop and watch the World Cup.
While I hold much of our conversation in strict confidence, I can say he’s doing quite well: he was at a film festival in Guadalajara, and intends on re-visiting Mexico via Ecuador this fall if all goes right. He also foresees being in the U.S. for an extended stay in 2011, which may mean his films will be screened wherever he’s at. As a foreign director working in Mexico, he finds himself revisiting Sergei Eisenstein and his “failed” project ¡Que Viva México! (1931), which never does one harm to do.
At a certain point, the match between Brazil and North Korea began, such that we spent the next 90 minutes gaping at the television as the rare spectacle of the tightly coordinated North Korean defense pitted against the Brazilian powerhouse offense unfolded before our eyes. We naturally rooted for North Korea – Simon: “Ich stehe immer auf der Seite der Außenseiter.” – and were sad for their 2-1 loss. Nevertheless, we found it so poetic that they posed such a strong resistance for the first 65 minutes of the game that we forgot the renewed geopolitical dispute over the 38th Parallel N the country’s leaders have offered us in recent months. Then again, we are all captivated by immaculately kept soccer fields amidst a South Africa stricken by the horrific economic and social consequences of neoliberal capitalism. So it goes.
Lady Snowblood (dir. Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
The classic “child of vengeance story”: a woman’s family is killed by four evil people, so she murders one and bears a child for the express purpose of having the remaining three killed. Kill Bill (2004) extensively references this film, but let’s not dwell on that. Instead, our attention should be focused on the intense shock edits demonstrating the revenge-obsessed psychology of the protagonist (cf Lone Wolf and Cub), the simple-yet-effective fight choreography (cf Seven Samurai) and the different philosophical paradigms embodied by the antagonists (cf El Topo). A masterwork of generic excess.
Les Vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade, 1915)
I remember watching this French serial back at the University of Iowa in the summer of 2001 and wanted to see if it was as good as my memory of it. It is. Though the pacing of individual scenes runs against modern viewer expectation (i.e., we spend a long time watching actors walking all the way into buildings, across roofs, etc.), the mise-en-scène is still quite stunning, with multiple fields of action and a coherent delineation between them all.
June 11, 2010
(WordPress told me I should include more images to attract people to the blog. Since I have no ambition to get a digital camera or draw anything myself, I am content to assembling abstruse images from fragments on my hard-drive. Some call me strange… but now you’ve seen the creepy smile.)
Well, the one thing being abroad in Berlin-Potsdam has taught me is that I don’t really like to blog, but that I really like short academic projects. Over the past several weeks, I have written a 1,500 overview of the German adventure film for the World Cinema Directory, a short entry on the Jugendzeitschrift (youth magazine) in the 1950s for Henning Wrage’s 2011 post-war Germany publication and a finished draft of my article on Uwe Boll appearing in the next issue of kunsttexte.de. In addition, I have drafted new material for Mist-Robed Gate, as I’ve been promoted to co-author. Other than that, I have been steadily gathering material for my dissertation, publications in the fall, and for other assorted projects.
Three interesting things that have happened over the last 6 weeks to whet your curiosity:
* An Italian sitting across from me in the S-Bahn mentioned it was a sunny day and then broke into a three-minute full-body aria for my pleasure. Everyone applauded.
* I attended the Kreuzberg Freiluft Kino for the Eurovision contest and watched Lena Meyer-Landrut win for the first time for Germany since 1982. Never have I seen such an “ironic” crowd switch over to sincerity once it seemed like their favorite was to win.
* I met Tag Gallagher, the world’s John Ford expert and was given a dressing down about how Straub/Huillet films are actually meant to excite one’s emotions…
(Here are two from many I’ve enjoyed)
The Twilight Samurai (dir. Yoji Yamada, Japan 2002)
A marvelous movie – materialist and elegiac at the same time. A destitute samurai rises to one last mission before modernity overtakes him. It feels like a Jane Austen novel set in mid-19th Century Japan, which is more than a compliment.
Soul Kitchen (dir. Fatih Akin, Germany 2009)
While on the topic of good writing, I recommend Soul Kitchen to any who want to see a tightly scripted comedy with none of the false turns that lead most Hollywood films astray. Done in the proper farce tradition of Billy Wilder, Soul Kitchen tells the story of a Greek owner of a restaurant in Hamburg and his clashes with his own life. I haven’t laughed that hard in a while!
March 6, 2010
This week has been structured by two parallel visits with DEFA personalities involved in the creation of the studio’s genre films, namely: star Gojko Mitic (pictured at right) and cinematographer Otto Hanisch.
On Tuesday March 2, I attended Mitic’s reading/q&a at the Urania cinema near Nollendorfplatz. The event was in part blatant advertising for the recent DEFA-Stiftung fan book Gesichter der DEFA, and in part a kind of nostalgic service (in the religious sense) for the fans. I was easily the youngest person in the theater, for example, whereas most of the people present were likely from the target demographic of Mitic’s Indianerfilme in the 1960s and 70s: GDR children aged 6-16.
The Serbian star narrated his life for the audience, repeating interview material from the newspapers with almost knife-like precision. The man is a true professional. Nevertheless, the legend proved moving: the moderator confessed that he always wanted to become an Indian while he was growing up (whereas Mitic always wanted to be a sea captain) and Mitic claimed that he always stayed in the GDR out of the tremendous love his fans expressed for him. He continuously returned to the kind of “spiritual socialism” (socialist spiritualism?) expressed in his films, namely utopian thoughts of correcting injustice around the world through culture and combating the greed of capitalism by re-writing history. But the audience was truly moved. Mitic’s speeches were greeted by spontaneous applause, approving laughter and enthusiastic questions. After the lecture was over, the 70-year old actor was mobbed by 40 and 50 year-olds for autographs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mitic was perhaps the GDR’s only real star after all.
On Thursday, screenwriter Stefan Kolditz (Atkins, Burning Life) was so generous as to bring me to the Berlin apt. of Otto Hanisch, his father’s top cameraman. I had done my homework for the interview, so I knew that Hanisch was a WWII veteran who had survived a sinking submarine and had spent three years in Soviet gulags, before becoming a painter and a cinematographer under the GDR’s genre film directors. I knew he had apprenticed under UFA legends Bruno Mondi (Jud Süß, Das kalte Herz) and Robert Baberske (M, Der Untertan), and had to improvise a great deal to get the DEFA-Indianerfilm to “work” filmically in comparison with international westerns in the 60s. Frankly, I had no idea what he would be like.
It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon. Hanisch and his wife warmly greeted us and invited us to coffee and cake. “What do you want to talk about?” Hanisch asked me. I explained my interest in DEFA genre films and broke out the digital recorder. “Put that away,” he said. “And I’ll show you all my production materials for Spur des Falken and Signale.” Well, I couldn’t pass that deal up, so for the next 3 hours we pored over photos of stuntmen falling off horses and talked about his difficulties in getting the DEFA Indianerfilm genre off the ground, etc. Hanisch openly bore great respect for Gottfried Kolditz (okay, his son was present, but still…), always referring to him as “The Doctor,” and they clearly saw themselves as “Fachmänner” of a sort — expertly trained filmmakers who overcame grave difficulties to create some of the most popular genre entertainment in the GDR, despite little recognition for their work from the government. He complained of the “thin” scripts he received from Dr. Günter Karl, that they then had to convert into compelling stories on a limited budget. He detailed production difficulties in Georgia and Mongolia, but reminded us constantly that his encounters with film professionals from those countries were always cordial. “We all spoke the same language: film.” he remarked. Only interactions with politics and political ramifications in the Cold War seemed in hindsight to be challenges he could’ve done without. “But then at least we got to make films,” he said. “Not like today where it’s very difficult to get work outside of specific networks.” His point is well-taken, especially with what my colleagues at the HFF have said to this effect.
Both Mitic and Hanisch were seen as true experts at what they did, existing in some sphere outside of politics where all that matters is stunts performed and stunts recorded. Is the “stunt” necessarily an apolitical act? I’ll have to muse on this.
Chingachgook, the Great Snake (dir. Richard Groschopp, 1967)
The Last of the Mohicans, except with a happy socialist ending.
President (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1919)
A masterpiece of silent storytelling by Dreyer, following many of his usual motifs, namely persecution, guilt, and religion. A local judge seeks to do penitence for not marrying his childhood love because he promised his father he would not wed out of the nobility. Even though the improvised piano soundtrack was lacking this time around, there is little damage it could do to a gorgeous print of a compelling film.
The Scout (dir. Konrad Petzold, 1983)
Ever wanted to see a movie about Native American cowboys? Gojko Mitic plays one here: a Nez Perce sent to lead the white men and their horses astray. Shot in Mongolia, this was the film that nearly killed Gojko in a stampede and only made after its original director Gottfried Kolditz died while location scouting in Yugoslavia. No wonder this was the last DEFA Indianerfilm.
Come Drink with Me (dir. King Hu, 1966)
One of the early, pre-Bruce Lee kung fu films that left their mark on action-film posterity. A general’s daughter is sent disguised as a man to rescue her brother from evil bandits, only to be helped by a beggar-kung-fu-master along the way. The constellation of characters and narrative are simple, but effective.
February 28, 2010
Writers have blogs, but dissertation writers probably shouldn’t. I realize this after I woke up this morning and realized there’d been a week since the end of the Berlinale and I hadn’t so much as hinted at my experiences there. Too much other writing going on.
Since I probably have too much to describe anyhow, I will use the woefully insufficient writing device of bullet points to summarize.
During Days 3-10 of the Berlinale 2010, I…
* …attended three retrospective panels with film artists in attendance.
* …discovered an excellent bistro: Marcann’s.
* …helped the HFF and sehsüchte host the Filmhochschule Party at HBC.
* …began planning a DEFA conference.
* …found myself watching more Japanese films than German or American.
* …saw Katrin Saß, Sylvain Chomet and Hanna Schygulla in the flesh.
* …met Gojko Mitic, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günter Reisch, F.B. Habel, Stefan Haupt, Anton Kaes, Rainer Rother, Ralf Schenk, Günter Agde, Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus, Wolfgang Klaue, Karl Griep and Bernd Plattner. I leave this to be examined by DEFA scholars.
* …regularly got up at 6 a.m. to get my accreditation tickets at Potsdamer Platz.
* …was threatened with physical violence by an angry old woman who thought I had unfairly cut in front of her in the ticket line.
* …wrote eight pages of solid film theory for my dissertation (dork moment).
What films did I watch and what did I think of them? Scroll down to Fantasy.
Here’s some photographic evidence of my meeting DEFA director Günter Reisch:
The Illusionist (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Utterly brilliant. Read my thoughts here.
Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (dir. Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillét, 1968)
A history of Bach that preserves its own historicity. I must have seen this one about six or seven times. Yet I still have trouble ordering all the images in my head, but they look fantastic in 35mm.
The Law of Desire (dir. Pedro Almodòvar, 1987)
A tightly controlled meditation on the sensual possibilities of film and film-writing through melodrama. Anticipates Almodòvar’s entire career.
Red Sorghum (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1988)
A Chinese nationalist epic that starts off on the right foot and somehow ends on the far right foot…
Summer Wars (dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2009)
This is the must-see anime of the year: a look at cyberwarfare through the story of a shogun family in modern times. Reminds one of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), with perhaps a far less open ending.
Kyoto Story (dir. Yoji Yamada, 2010)
A declaration of love to Kyoto Uzumasa, site of the former film studios. A fictional love triangle is masterfully interwoven into the daily lives of real shopkeepers on a real street.
February 13, 2010
The Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale) is now underway, and I’m here to offer a brief report.
DAY ONE – Feb. 11, 2010
After meeting by chance a friend (Hilary Bown) on the way through Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, I shuffled by the sleeping ticket-hopefuls on the Ground Floor (where the festival tickets are to be had if you’re not accredited) to the accredited individuals line. This was about 8:30 a.m., which is important because the most optimal time to get in line to pick up the tickets is about 7:00. Fortunately, I only wished for a single Retrospective ticket (see short film review below) and got it fairly easily after about 20 min. in line. Then I boarded the train to Potsdam-Babelsberg, so as to work on my theory chapter for the dissertation.
Upon my arrival at the HFF, I noticed a few things were funny. One was that a ridiculously large crew of technicians had assembled tents and camera equipment next to the HFF entrance. The second was the giant atomic logo proclaiming the “Universität für Natur und Technik” hanging above the entrance. The third was the elaborate security desk set built inside, accompanied with a sudden increase in the number of “students” in the school in the form of extras. Having a lot of work on my plate, I ignored all of these things until I saw the name of the film on the back of the director and producer’s chairs: Unknown White Male. “Isn’t that the film they’re shooting with Liam Neeson?” I said to myself, remembering some U-Bahn “news” on a monitor. Then the film crew called the first take, and I saw none other than Liam Neeson round the corner. The whole HFF library stopped and gawked as they did several takes of him walking around the corner, surrounded by fake students. Then they moved to do interior shots, wherein Neeson is storming down the stairs of the HFF. We in the cafeteria had to “keep our voices down” during the shoot…
No actual Berlinale events were attended, but I imagined that they involved other celebrities as well. I’d already had my celebrity for the day, however.
DAY TWO – Feb. 12, 2010
Again, I stood with the accredited people, though this time at 7:00 a.m. There were a group of accredited HFF students there this time, so it was a more social experience than the previous occasion. The ticket for Lights of Asakusa was secured, and I returned home to eat a big breakfast with Kat before heading to Cinemaxx for our first film: Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Just before I left, I was notified through acquaintances that a Ph.D. student at Cornell University writing on Weimar cinema would be present at the screening – and so he was. We all burrowed our way past the filmmakers giving interviews and the jostling bodies of old filmmakers and movie-goers alike to get to our screening (short film review below). We then went out for coffee at our dear local Café Kleisther, and then spent the rest of the evening with pizza, conversation and bad movies.
So a cosmopolitan sort I am not, but I am seeing the festival!
BERLINALE (Retrospective) – Tales of Hoffmann (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951-52)
Alraune (dir. Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1952)
A fairy tale about the evils of artificial insemination: a mad scientist creates a woman from the semen of a hanged criminal and the womb of a prostitute. Angst and melodrama ensue as his resultant “daughter” Alraune (played by Hildegard Knef) proves irresistably attractive and fatal to all the men around her. Karlheinz Böhm plays Alraune’s repressed cousin and Erich von Stroheim the mad scientist. Edgy stuff for 1951?
Buffalo and the Indians (dir. Robert Altman, 1976)
A brilliant and definitively overlooked backstage drama posing as a western. All of Buffalo Bill’s arrogance vis-à-vis his own mythologization comes back to haunt him in the form of one man: his act Sitting Bull. Of all the Altman films I’ve seen, this one is probably the one with the clearest “take-away message” while still maintaining open narrative (“What did Sitting Bull want to ask Grover Cleveland?”)
Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
The first time I saw it in a room full of people. I didn’t laugh once.
The Number 23 (dir. Joel Schumacher, 2007)
A highly flawed thriller that nevertheless contains something I like: a family that sticks together in spite of the paranoid delusions of one of its members. What didn’t work were any of the flashback sequences in which Jim Carrey’s character Walter “imagines” himself into the book The Number 23.
Chaplin (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1991)
A combination of overt textual seriousness and terrible editing (including the overuse of, above all, the barn-door wipe) makes this possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. This was part of a spat of 1990s sentimental films (I’m thinking Forever Young) that couldn’t muster proper affective potential for the subject matter. Do not touch.
January 1, 2010
Happy First Day of 2010!
But first … December 2009!
Between December 6 (my last post) and December 22nd, I…
*… spent my second day at the Filmmuseum Potsdam, and feel the urge to continue to plumb the wonderful archives there again and again.
*… had an intensive two-day (Fri.-Sat.) Genre Analysis session run by Frau Claudia Töpper in which we media studies students pored over 500+ German reality TV shows to determine their shared characteristics. (I’ve been assigned the “living history” genre for next time)
*… saw a burlesque show called “Black Flamingo” at the infamous Wintergarten stage on Potsdamer Str. (Ask me about it in confidence.)
*… attended the media studies department Christmas Party at the HFF, which didn’t resemble American X-mas parties at all.
*… celebrated Christmas by giving gifts to each other in our apartment. Yay!
*… came down with a bad cold (from which I have yet to recover).
As many of you know, from December 22nd to December 26th, Kat and I were in Prague. Beforehand, we had heard that the city was one of the most beautiful in Europe, and one of the most affordable to boot. These rumors bespoke the truth: Prague is incredible-looking and quite cheap compared with most of the metropolises of Europe, not to mention relatively small and filled with friendly people. The gem of the Czech Republic certainly lives up to its reputation!
On the 22nd, we arrived on the train from Berlin and stowed our things in the hostel, Prague’s Heaven (near Vyshehrad). Ann, the woman working the desk that day, gave us some thorough directions in broken English and heaped good tea and good cheer upon us. We were starving after the long train journey, so we made a point of getting an awesome vegetarian meal at the Lehka Hlava restaurant just inside the Old Town and then wandered amidst the crowded Christmas markets on Old Town Square and Wenceslaus Square. Day 2 saw us visiting the Alphonse Mucha Museum (a short artistic feast) and the Museum of Communism (a one-sided, bitter depiction of the Cold War that goes so far as to blame Karl Marx for 100 million deaths…), taking a lunch break at the awesome and cheap Dhaba Beas Indian buffet near Tyn’s Church. A significant portion of the day was spent listening to the surprisingly awesome neo-medieval band Krless, whose album I’m inclined to purchase. The rest of our evening was spent in Lehka Hlava’s twin restaurant Maitrea with UMass sociology student Irene, who regularly celebrates Christmas in Prague, and her cousin Katharina. Day 3 (Christmas Eve) offered fewer such good restaurants for our sampling, so we snacked at the still-open Christmas markets, went on a boat ride on the Moldau (Vlatava) River (complete with a cacophonic tour recording accompanying us in six different languages), attended a Christmas concert held on the stairs of the National Museum, saw the Jewish quarter and drank coffee in the gorgeous Municipal House café. Christmas Eve dinner was at the Zahrada v Opere restaurant, where we had a “traditional” Czech dinner (we thought it was good, anyway). Day 4 (Christmas Day!) had us return to the Municipal House for breakfast and for a tour of its magnificent turn-of-the-century modern interior decoration (we got a free beer at the American bar in the basement, too). Then we undertook the intrepid task of visiting Prague Castle (Prasky Hrad), which turned out to be even more touristy than Old Town Square and all the rest could ever be. We managed to fight the hordes enough to see the inside of St. Vitus Cathedral (which was, we admit, pretty spectacular), but we found ourselves too overwhelmed to enter the castle itself and were content with eating greasy food at an ex-pat establishment. Thereafter, our journey brought us to the quiet splendor of the Bethlehem Church and to the electrical problems of the organ concert in Old Town Square. After watching the music stage compete with the giant Christmas tree for energy for an hour, we finally heard the concert and then warmed up in the elegant Slavia Café afterwards. Day 5 (Boxing Day) brought our trip to a close with breakfast at the Grand Café Orient, the cubist/futurist café near the train station, where we ran into Irene and Katharina again by chance!
December 29th was, as many people know, Kat’s and my second wedding anniversary. We definitely gave the day all the special attention it deserved: we spent the afternoon chatting with one of Emily Care Boss’ gamer friends in town – the ineffable Olle – went to the cinema, and then ate at a great Chinese restaurant across the street from the Chinese Embassy.
New Year’s Eve (last night?) proved as explosive as the other time (2003-2004) I celebrated the event in Germany. Let’s start with the crowds: we had neglected to go grocery shopping before Thursday, so we steeled ourselves against the throngs of people clearing the shelves into their carts. No different from the U.S. before a holiday, I’d say, except that many of the shoppers were cramming an additional item into their carts… fireworks! Snow fell on my head from a 5 story building, so I spent the rest of the afternoon bewildered. The evening found us in Another Country, where we read some sci-fi/fantasy books in preparation for the coming New Year’s fireworks storm. Alan compared his bookstore with a “bunker,” which was an apt description given the amount of explosives dodging we had to perform. At about 10:45 p.m., we ascended the hill and monument at the top of Viktoriapark, looking for prime real estate to watch the fireworks “blast” in the new year. By 11:30, we found ourselves overlooking a densely packed crowd and a continuous barrage of explosions. The numbers of both reached their zenith at midnight, when the whole city transformed into a skyline of smoky explosions. At 12:15, when the festivities had ebbed and I could feel my toes numbing, we decided to descend the snow-covered steps of Viktoriapark and discovered that one could only safely depart by sliding down the stairs. Well, you can imagine the denizens’ surprise below us as we careened into them from above, part of a shuffling, intoxicated international swarm. Walking through Viktoriapark was like a snowy war zone, with pitched battles of green and blue leaving behind scars and debris across the disturbed white blanket. In fact, all of Berlin became said war zone as people from all walks of life satiated their anarchic impulses through fiery implements.
And now it’s January 2010, and my dissertation needs writing. Any other resolutions necessary?
Ashes of Time Redux (dir. Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/UK 1994/2008)
A broker of swords-for-hire living at the edge of a desert stands at the crossroads of many stories of painful, human loss. An elliptically told wuxia film, completely captivating in its uniqueness as Wong Kar-Wai’s only attempt in the genre. Find the 35mm version of the film and be amazed.
Avatar (dir. James Cameron, US/UK/New Zealand 2009)
A disabled veteran becomes a blue cat-person and saves the same. Read my longer, contentious review.
The Big Mess (dir. Alexander Kluge, FRG 1971)
Some working-class people try to survive amidst corporate bureaucracy-dominated space politics in 2034. Kluge’s materialist politics fail to coherently gel with his humorous, abstract tale and thus produces a film exactly like its title suggests. This is one direction German sci-fi need not go again.
Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion, UK/Australia/New Zealand 2009)
A quiet love story between John Keats and Fanny, the daughter of his landlady. An excellent example of how one frames three characters within shots to produce dramatic tension, as well as of how a soundtrack supports understated actors. This one should win an Oscar, but it probably won’t.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (dir. Kenji Kamiyama, TV series, Japan 2002/2004)
A high-tech, cyberpunk cop show about the investigations of Section 9 into philosophically complicated cyber-scandals of the 21st Century. The series is primarily enjoyable because of its extremity: if it decides to spend an entire episode in what amounts to one dialogue scene, then by golly it’ll do it. Such boldness to break with TV formulas is only encountered within the rarest of shows.
Goodbye Uncle Tom (dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti, Italy 1971)
The story of American slavery, told tastelessly. Told as a shockumentary of reenacted historical events, the film nevertheless exploits countless cheap African actors to tell a story not necessarily worth telling: the filth and gore of the United States’ sordid slave trade is perhaps best read, and not voyeuristically re-created…
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (dir. David Yates, UK 2009)
Number 6 in the Harry Potter cycle. Thanks to Michael Chabon and Jim Broadbent, Yates had a movie here. Everything else from the Potter series (Quidditch, encounters with the fantastic, meaningful flirtation among the kids, etc.) appears somewhat subdued. I think Prisoner of Azkaban remains the best film of the series thus far.
Pope Joan (dir. Sönke Wortmann, Germany/UK/Italy/Spain 2009)
The fictional biopic of the female Pope. Surprisingly good as a candid description of medieval life, though a weak love story threatens to muck the whole thing up. John Goodman’s performance was so excessive that it may have permanently warped the second half of the film…
The Scar (book by China Miéville)
A linguist-in-exile, a mutilated convict, a plucky young sailor and crafty government agent are kidnapped by pirates on the Swollen Ocean and integrated into the floating city of Armada, which is in the midst of a vast, secret project. Miéville’s lush pirate epic proves perhaps his best work to date (though I still need to read Iron Council and The City and the City for final judgment) in terms of pacing and action. A more suspenseful-yet-richly-detailed sci-fi/fantasy book I’ve yet to encounter in the last several years. Read it.
Winnetou and His Friend Old Firehand (dir. Alfred Vohrer, FRG/Yugoslavia 1966)
Apache hero Winnetou and the “mountain man” Old Firehand team up to fight evil bandits and Mexicans trying to burn down a village. Oh, and it turns out that Old Firehand’s old French lover and bastard son are in the village too. Though this film was expensive and difficult to shoot, it turned out to be the dying gasp of the West German Winnetou film phenomenon. Watch this piece of trite garbage to find out why.
Winnetou and the Half-Blood Apanatschi (dir. Harald Philipp, Yugoslavia/FRG/Italy 1966)
An evil group of bandits relentlessly pursue Apanatschi and her friends (Winnetou and Old Shatterhand) to find a hidden gold seam. Contains more of Götz George’s patented “leaping attack,” and a fiery gun battle at the end.