Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Prisoner - "Many Happy Returns"

Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

Week by week, it's amusing to look back on where I thought future episodes might go. I certainly didn't expect "Many Happy Returns" to call the bluff of "The Chimes of Big Ben" or "A, B, and C" by all-out allowing Number Six to escape, allowing him to get all the way to London (!), and even to explain the Village to his superiors and launch an investigation into its whereabouts (!!). And this being a middle episode of The Prisoner (a category that I guess describes everything from 2 to 15), naturally that investigation leads right back to him being stranded on the island again - and we do at least learn this time that the Village is on an island. This is a great episode, maybe my favorite of the series so far. Not only is its narrative conceit bold - hilariously bold, even - it also has the courage to tell nearly half of its story without a single word of dialogue. It's sixteen minutes before we hear any speech at all. Twenty-two minutes in, Six speaks his first line of dialogue ("Where is this?"). Twenty-eight minutes through the episode (more than halfway) Six finally speaks to another person who understands him. As a result, we get pure visual storytelling for a substantial chunk of the episode; it's another feather in The Prisoner's cap as it finds new ways to expand on and play with its concept episode by episode.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Cinepoem: Rimbaud (video coming soon)

Early in January I finally caught up with my video backlog, but now I've fallen behind again. I still haven't posted the video essay for two weeks ago, Side by Side: The Asphalt Jungle/The Killing, and now I am also overdue for my latest Cinepoem video. As usual, I am using this post as a placeholder and will update it as soon as the Cinepoem video is ready so keep it bookmarked if you're curious (or just keep track of my YouTube/Vimeo channels). It will use a Rimbaud poem as its basis, probably Le Ceour Vole (The Stolen Heart). Apologies for the delays. Pretty soon I should be in a position/inclination to not only catch up but get ahead with my videowork so that even during lulls and/or distractions I have a sufficient backlog to work with.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Favorites - God's Country (#69)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. God's Country (1986/France/dir. Louis Malle) appeared at #69 on my original list.

What it is • In 1979, Louis Malle was on the road, crossing the American Midwest with a PBS production crew. Apparently the original object of his documentary was going to be a Minneapolis shopping mall but the irritating Muzak of the location drove him out into the countryside, where he stumbled across a town fair in a small farming community, Glencoe, Minnesota. Taken with the down-home charm, friendly nature, and cultural idiosyncrasies of the town, Malle decided to stay, recording interviews with bankers, cops, lawyers, clerks, retirees, lots of farmers, and at least one cow inseminator. The job descriptions only go so far, because what Malle really captures is humanity in all its manifestations. Some of his conversations subtly hint at deep emotion beneath the cordial, colloquial surface while others go so deep that we almost forget what we're watching, the backdrop of the specific time and place falling away completely (the most obvious example is the young woman who speaks about love, loneliness, sexuality, hypocrisy - and whose expressive face conveys even more emotion than her frank words). Malle was never able to cut this footage together as originally planned and then in the mid-1980s he returned to Glencoe to follow up with these folks. The last half-hour of the documentary has a more depressed feel than the rest of the film (which also contains melancholy stretches), emphasizing that the Reagan administration, for all its talk of "Morning in America," is actually hastening the downfall of the heartland. But even here, Malle and his subjects find hope and comfort. I only wish we could return now, thirty years later, to see how everyone (who remains) is doing. In ninety minutes, God's Country makes you feel like you know these people and the town they live in, and at the same time it keeps them slightly mysterious (much as you can know your neighbors for years, only to discover you were barely scratching the surface). The film offers us a perspective that is both a peek and a revelation.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Prisoner - "A, B, and C"

Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

"A, B, and C" is full of surprises and new directions. This in itself is - somewhat paradoxically - unsurprising, because I haven't encountered any "filler" episodes yet (and if I did, they were early enough in the order not to strike me as such). With every entry, The Prisoner seems to find a new way to twist its premise and discover new alcoves and corridors within its terrain, even as it uses elements introduced in other episodes. "The Chimes of Big Ben" cleverly allowed Number Six outside of the Village - to a point. "The Schizoid Man" forced Six to wrestle with his own identity, as the authorities manipulated his reality. "The General" used technology to dominate Six (and other Villagers), until his own ingenuity destroyed the power of the machine. "A, B, and C" incorporates all of these approaches, while also utilizing the "tell us why you defected" obsession of "Big Ben" and actually continuing with the same Number Two for the first time (Colin Gordon, who also appeared in last week's entry, "The General"). One twist is that Six isn't really outside of the Village, but simply experiencing computerized hallucinations in which Number Two and Number Fourteen (Sheila Allen) use avatars to prove that Two betrayed the Agency before resigning (or was planning to betray them afterwards?). Another twist is that Six is able to achieve his most dramatic, table-turning victory yet perhaps because escape is never even his goal, but also because Two is under such intense pressure to discover Six's secrets.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Meet Me at Sparkwood & 21

Two weeks ago I was graciously invited on the air by Em and Steve, of the incredibly thorough and engaging Twin Peaks podcast Sparkwood & 21 (if you haven't listened yet, check it out and if you think you've heard enough Twin Peaks podcasts, think again - this one is a keeper). One of their podcast's hallmarks is the lively back-and-forth between listeners and the hosts via "letters to the show." Having covered every episode, the film, and the major spin-off media, Steve and Em decided to interview all of their frequent feedbackers, including me. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more in-depth discussions (I can't wait!). As is the case when they are covering the series, they left no stone unturned: in an epic three-hour conversation (you might want to split this over several listens) we discussed the making of my video essays, my thoughts on Twin Peaks, favorite books/movies/directors/comics,  embarrassing beach experiences, and (why not?) Star Wars.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jacques Rivette, 1928 - 2016

Although I haven't written any obituaries in a while, as soon as I looked at my blogroll and saw, via Catherine Grant, that Jacques Rivette had passed away, I knew I had to say something...not about his death, but about his life and work. If nothing else, a belated "Thank you" was in order. The director's rich body of work has provided me with as much material for contemplation, enjoyment, and engagement as that of any other artist in the past twelve months, save perhaps Hideaki Anno or David Lynch (with whom he was deeply tied for me in 2015). I created several videos honoring his work (including my first-ever collaboration), watched eight of his films on the big screen at Lincoln Center, and covered these and more in a dozen reviews or essays (at least one of which has yet to be published). Just a few days ago I even stumbled across an unexpected American blu-ray edition of his masterpiece Out 1 (including his Spectre cut, unseen by me) which I'm sure I will begin exploring tonight.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Favorites - The Seventh Seal (#70)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Jaws (1957/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #70 on my original list.

What it is • Like a greatest (or grisliest) hits album of medieval Europe, The Seventh Seal crosses dewy meadows, dirty village squares, isolated churches, overgrown woodlands, and dank castle walls to touch upon the Crusades, the bubonic plague, traveling minstrel shows, self-flagellating penitents, religious visions of the Virgin, witches burned at the stake and a personified figure of Death who seems to have stepped down off an allegorical church painting. At the same time, the film is very modern, gazing out at the postwar world with its existential crises of fate, Cold War tensions, and specter of atomic destruction, and recognizing a correspondence with the distress of the Middle Ages. Cutting a particularly contemporary figure is Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), squire to the pained Antonious Block (Max von Sydow, sixty years shy of Star Wars, yet already weathered and weary). Jons speaks with an atheistic frankness and worldly cynicism that at times makes him feel like the film's conscience. But Ingmar Bergman - crafting what may remain his most iconic feature after a lengthy, prolific career - is careful not to allow any character to simply become his mouthpiece. Not only is each intellectual, spiritual or (mostly) emotional perspective allowed expression and contradiction, there is also a sense of fluid uncertainty guiding the movie's course. Perhaps that's the most remarkable thing about this movie, that such a finely- and carefully-crafted piece of work can allow itself the freedom to test various points of view, to try on many different forms of human experience, high and low, pleasant and painful, and refuse to settle on one didactic argument about the vastness of life. Then again, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this movie is that it takes the vastness of life as its subject in the first place, and is able to do it justice by focusing on a small medieval microcosm.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Prisoner - "The General"

Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

I'm trying to avoid too many conversations about The Prisoner until I complete the series (at which point I'm planning to devote about a month to weekly chats with the show's fans). However, I did mention "The General" recently with Bob Clark, who will be the conversants. He said that this was one of his favorite episodes and then made an interesting observation: "I really like the ones that aren't really about him trying to escape, but him essentially righting a wrong in the Village. Makes a great use of the setting, turning it into a place where any kind of crazy spy thing can happen." This is, I think, a useful distinction. Of course every episode I've seen so far incorporates Number Six's desire to flee the Village alongside some effort to understand and/or subvert the Village's rules. Nevertheless, there are strong variations in the emphasis. "The Chimes of Big Ben," for example was very thoroughly escape-driven, taking an extended close look at the mechanics of Six's elaborate plan (and the even more elaborate plan to deceive him). "Free for All" on the other hand was far more concerned with how the Village functions than how Six could get away from it - although both "Free for All" and "The Schizoid Man" put Six in a mostly reactive rather than proactive position. "The General" may be the most active Six has been in an episode not devoted his escape attempt.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Side by Side video: The Asphalt Jungle & The Killing (coming this week)

Sterling Hayden and his troubles with horses will be explored later this week, when I upload my third entry in the "Side by Side" video series, covering The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, two Hayden heist films from the fifties with subtly different styles and dramatically different sensibilities. Watch this space - I'll update with the YouTube and Vimeo videos as soon as they are available.

Meanwhile, check out the previous Side by Side videos & read my 2010 comparison piece upon which the video will be based.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Favorites - Jaws (#71)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Jaws (1975/USA/dir. Steven Spielberg) appeared at #71 on my original list.

What it is • The body of a young woman washes up on the beach; a little boy is butchered on a sunny day; a man is devoured in what should be a safe inlet while everyone else is distracted by a hoax down the beach. A new cop discovers that the tourist trade is more important than public safety; a knowledgeable oceanographer clashes with the ingrained ignorance of a small town; a physically and psychologically scarred veteran of war and seafaring is consumed by his obsession with bagging the fish of the century. Is this movie about a giant killer shark or is it about a group of men clashing with one another and challenging themselves? For much of its runtime, Jaws plays like a well-executed slice of seventies New Hollywood cinema. The dialogue overlaps and overflows while the camera captures the action with a documentary sense of realism (which doesn't mean handheld shakey-cam but rather patient, fascinated observation of domestic routine). When action and suspense arrive, they are handled with Hitchcockian suggestion rather than roller-coaster revelation, and the screenplay ensures that our focus is on the very adult relationships among the townspeople, colored by economic need, political maneuver, class jealousy, and personal history (you can't beat Quint's Indianapolis speech, penned by John Milius - unless you have the alternate take in which Robert Shaw was actually drunk, which Spielberg himself owns and occasionally shows to lucky visitors). Yet as the film draws toward its conclusion, we see more and more of the shark itself. Bloody death, final showdown, and the film's only explosion ensure a crowd-pleasing conclusion to the picture. We can witness the birth of the modern blockbuster onscreen as the film journeys from Altmanesque social drama to action-packed showdown with a fantastical creature.

Why I like it •

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Entering Twin Peaks: comment collection #1 (summer 2014)

Every month, I will be offering at least one post on Twin Peaks...up until Showtime re-airs the original series. Then I will post extensive coverage of each episode (mixing new reactions with my many older pieces) immediately after they air. Stay tuned.

This has been a busy week, with more posts than usual. I might as well use the opportunity to post every weekday - so today I'm sharing another Twin Peaks post. It takes a format I've used for film in general but not yet Twin Peaks itself: digging through my old comments on various forums and threads, where I first attempted to work my way through many different ideas.

Last summer, I actually began archiving comments and discussions that seemed worthwhile in one way or another (a good idea as some of these sites, including IMDb, delete old threads when they become inactive). Looking back I can see that much of the "grunt work," so to speak, for my Journey Through Twin Peaks series was conducted via this format (although there are also a lot of concepts or tangents never pursued in those videos). In May 2014, I had mostly completed the work for my upcoming David Lynch Month series of posts. I knew the blu-ray was coming out soon, including The Missing Pieces (ninety minutes of deleted scenes from Fire Walk With Me), and expected that would attract some of my attention but figured this event would be the conclusion of my recently-renewed Twin Peaks obsession, not the initiation of an even deeper phase. But by the time Lynch and Mark Frost announced the series' return on October 2, 2014 (an event that will be included in the next comments round-up, or even the one after that), I was deeper into the world than I'd ever been.

These mostly unedited comments are from different forums (or under different articles, which are linked), and occasionally may overlap although I tried to remove blatant redundancies. They are mostly concerned with the relationship of the series and the film - I began this period by seeing them as essentially different entities, with the film very much a pure subversion of the show, but ended it by realizing their essential links, thanks to The Missing Pieces. This collection concludes shortly after I'd seen the deleted scenes, as I grappled with how they fit into the larger saga. It's worth noting that I was trying out different ideas, exploring different options, and as such I would not necessarily stand by all the conclusions or speculations drawn below. In particular, I had no idea that the series would be returning and so my primary goal was determining the legacy of Twin Peaks as a complete entity.

Needless to say, there are major spoilers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Prisoner - "The Schizoid Man"

Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

Number Six really is Number Six, but they want him to think he is Number Twelve, supposedly in order to trick Number Six (who is actually Number Twelve, and who has been assigned to trick the real Number Six) but actually in order to confuse and break Number Six, the real Number Six that is. Got that? Actually the concept plays much smoother than it sounds: we're always pretty clear on which Number Six is really Number Six, with just the right dash of is-he-or-isn't-he thrown into the mix. This is partly achieved by the obvious method of giving real Number Six (fake Number Twelve) a black jacket, and real Number Twelve (fake Number Six) a white one. But it is also accomplished more subtly through McGoohan's performance, which is rather a masterstroke given how many levels it plays at once. Number Twelve (the fake Number...well, hopefully by this point you've got the hang of it) is almost too confident, brash, and authoritative. This makes him less sympathetic, for one thing, and clearly distinguishes him from the real Number Six, whose very human perplexity serves as a suitable audience surrogate. Such a gesture could seem a tad obvious unless we recall just how arrogant Six can be at times (for which he paid a price in "Checkmate" - one reason this episode order has worked well for me so far). In a way, this plays almost like Number Six being forced to confront his own dark side: the same overconfidence that can sometimes be his undoing is now turned on himself.