Friday, May 29, 2009

Syllabus: Acknowledging the Camera


The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut)
Funny Games, 1997 version (Michael Henake)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears)
Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
Ferris Beuller's Day Off (John Hughes)
The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Once More With Feeling" (Joss Whedon)
Twin Peaks, a few scenes featuring Bob (David Lynch)
smatterings of commercials, news programs

Course Objectives:

What does it mean when a fictitious character looks at a real camera. Is it the same thing as looking at you. Who are you and why are you watching these films. Do you feel as though you're part of the conversation, part of the creation, part of the story. Are you implicated and by what. What's wrong with you and what's wrong with the world. Are you a thoughtless voyeur when you don't acknowledge the camera. How many times does one director get to use this technique. Is it funny for an actor to look into the camera. Why would a filmmaker find it necessary to address the action. Where is the beginning and end of fiction, of fantasy. Who controls the story. Is this technique stronger when it ends a film. Why do people in commercials talk like that; don't they know that no one speaks to me in that manner. Like a baby. Like an idiot. Why do newscasters speak with their eyebrows. Does blood splattering on the camera count as acknowledgement. Name a film to use as contrast.    

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Don't Be Nervous About the Stare-Down

For a long time I've been thinking about two films I watched close together, Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. What's interesting about watching these movies one after the other, among a plethora of reasons, is that they both end, and I hope I'm not spoiling this for you, with the main character looking back at the camera. I may be wrong, but I think it was Derrida who said something about cameras and interviews and how it's a mistake to pretend the camera isn't there. For whatever reason we all watch movies--film is a form of reading for me, people talking is like porn, porn is like porn--we viewers aren't really implicated. We learn, we change, we cry, but none of what's happening is our fault, is our dandruff in the fiction, because that perfectly imperfect world where the cat isn't jumping on the bed at inappropriate times or women walk around totally decked out in high heels and everyone smokes--that's just something that will be over, something we'll soon discuss.

But when a character looks at the camera, you're suddenly you and you're suddenly accountable for all of the ideas you've been viewing. At the end of The 400 Blows, Antione runs from juvie school, runs to the water, runs to where he can go no further, then he turns to look at the camera. The movie ends right at that moment, in that still, and we are confounded by the whole system of it all, how we treat children and teenagers, what it means to work and raise children, and what happens to mischief makers. The same questions recur--who is the conformist now, what do I do now, what is my part of the system, why does the system exist when I hate it--when Marcello looks back at the end of The Conformist. His look is long and becomes a Renior painting saturated with color. Everything has changed for Marcello, but he looks back anyway, at you, at the viewer, and says: You weren't judging me, were you?  

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gynecomasts, Presbyophiles, Sexoesthetic inverts, Auto-monosexualists

Every single window in this building is covered with insulation. What are they keeping from me?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Harbor Master's House

The streets turn rather wholesome a few blocks from my building. There are old-timey store fronts, sadly empty, and houses (I'm not kidding) with garages. The houses sit in the middle of industry, former and not, large brick warehouses, one of which is a recycling plant, and there is an electric generator that hurts my molars every time I walk by.

I pass these streets on my short walk to what the Mister and I nicknamed the Harbor Master's house. It's properly called the Commandant's House and a high-ranking naval officer (sounds so officially belly button) used to live there. The Harbor Master's house was privately owned by someone who also collected antique cars and these cars used to line the long drive-way leading up to the house. Every once in a while you can see kittens mewing between the tires. The house is gated and wrapped with friendly barbed wire, but it's still obvious that the house was really a ship that somehow lost its contract with the sea and unexpectedly found a resting place near my neighborhood. In the summertime, the windows are open and I always wonder who needed cooling off inside.

Six months or so ago, I heard that the house had been sold and may become an office building. When I arrived there yesterday, I was greeted with signs warning me that this was private property and such. Some workers were doing something on the roof. I guess this is the beginning of the end, the recycling of space. I don't know why I care, why it would bother me for the Harbor Master's house to not be a house anymore. All but one antique car is gone; maybe it won't start. 

Summer Hours, the new and incredibly beautiful film by Olivier Assayas, comes to mind. The recycling of space. What family argued over the Harbor Master's house? Who decided to sell it and why? In Assayas' film, three siblings deliberate what to do with their family home after their mother passes. A reminder: everything was someone's. You'll never walk by a chair or table in a museum without thinking of this film.

I'm sorry the photos aren't better. I didn't have a bike or anyone's shoulders to climb on to take a better picture. You'll come see the house before it's gone? We might get to see the man who drives an electric car and honks at everyone he passes. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Her Voice Is Stuck in My Head Again

While knitting on an airplane recently, I listened to Eilen Jewell's album, Letters from Sinners and Strangers. Before I knew it I finished my hat and the album was over, but I was still tapping my foot to her slinky bluesy rhythms. Her music sits nicely as a jazz/country/folk combination, as a younger and edgier, hip-swaying version of Nanci Griffith or Erin McKeown. They say Ms. Jewell is Boston-based and I'll have you know that there's nothing sexier than Yankees singin' country music. There is something, however, very unbeatably clean and too even (I'm thinking of Laura Cantrell as well), as though this type of country music--the cityish, the educated, the liberal and secular country music--is missing humidity. There's no fire under the ass damnation to fear or too many babies and dogs, but there's a lovely and sinister tone that's not afeared of a little ass wagging and bass slapping either. 

Yankee country music, especially the kind of Eilen Jewell's, harkens back to old country music without the old way of thinking. In her song, "Dusty Boxcar Wall," she won me over with a train song that is now my favorite lady written train song. Train songs have their own history of train-like harmonica, of Casey Jones and train car onomatopoeia, and skipping-town, wife-and-kids abandonment. Eilen Jewell expertly takes from this (you can't write no train song without ever hearing one) then adds the pepper when she says, "I'm gonna write you a letter on this dusty boxcar wall." This is the first lady train song that clearly says she's going to hop a train before her lover and her lover will know where she's been after she's gone. Ouch. Almost like tattooing your name on the woman you think your man will sleep with next. 

While listening to her this morning, I wondered if David Lynch knew about her guitar licks, if they were going to show up during a driving scene in his next film. She has a new album coming out and is just about touring everywhere except NYC, so let me know how she does when she comes your way.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fantasy Feature No. 4155

If you were a perfect person, smacking wouldn't bother you. Your Mister could stand next to you with chips and salsa and you would think on the weather or those bubbles that floated up from the sink and popped near your mouth. But you is you, ain't you? You hate the sound of smacking. Sometimes this prevents you from watching a movie in a movie theater. Remember Woman of the Year? Well, you'd remember more if someone hadn't been fiddling with candy wrappers then smacking on whatever popped out of them. You once saw a documentary of Emmett Till, who was brutally tortured and murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Emmett Till's mother wanted people to see how heinously her son had been beaten and refused to have a closed-casket funeral. When the filmmaker pauses for four horrible seconds on Emmet Till's mangled body, you heard a noise didn't you. It wasn't of someone crying, but of someone smacking on a mouth full of popcorn. Well, you're off to see a Rivette film now. People don't smack so much during foreign films because they have to concentrate on reading the subtitles. You like foreign films because you get to do your two favorite things at the same time.   

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Repeat: Grease 2 Is Not Without Merit

While waiting for the effects of my Advil PM to kick in on my red-eye flight back to New York last night, I watched Grease 2 without knitting or doing anything else. I haven't seen it since I was a kid and enjoyed the movie as an old lady. Here are some points I think you should consider:
  • Grease 2 is actually directed by a woman. How many of those can you name? Patricia Birch has also directed some of Cyndi Lauper's videos.
  • Song: "Let's Do It For Our Country," during which Louis DiMucci tries to score with Sharon Cooper in a nuclear fallout shelter. Something I recommend.
  • Weirdly working class, sort of ethnic names: Stephanie Zinone, Paulette & Delores Repchuck, Johnny Nogerelli, Louis DiMucci, Goose McKenzi, Davey Jaworski...
  • Johnny Nogerelli, leader of the T-Birds, swallows his cigarette rather than get caught smoking in school.
  • Funny how no one seems to notice that there is one English Foreign Exchange Student and one Mysterious Cool Rider with an English accent.
  • Cool teenagery moments: Stephanie Zinone bubble gum chewing, Michael Carrington slamming locker doors in frustration, goody-goody twins, Stephanie thinking "incestuous" is a big word, Sharon admits to wearing her mother's underwear. 
  • Song: "Prowling," which describes how the T-Birds pick up women at the grocery store.
  • If you wear the Pink Lady jacket, you have to date a T-Bird, but what if you don't like the T-Birds and what if there aren't enough to go around?
  • When Stephanie thinks that her cool rider has died, she sings a song during which she talks to him in biker heaven. This song wins the talent show.
  • Michael Carrington defeats a rival biker gang by leading them to jump over the pool of enchantment at his high school luau--a jump only he can make.
  • Song: "Cool Rider," during which I wonder, are high school students old enough to drive motorcycles?
  • Michael Carrington pays for his motorcycle by doing the T-Birds' homework.
  • Johnny Nogerelli, AKA Adrian Zmed, was also on T.J. Hooker and was part of a Brooklyn gang as Socks Palermo on the 1979 show, Flatbush.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dumplings and Trumpets: Lara Glenum

In a very remote place in Northern California, the old man and I are staying in a small house that is completely off-grid. To get there, we have to pass through three gates, two of which are on properties owned by local cattle farmers. The land between the first and second gates is owned by an organic dairy farmer and after my reading at Moe's in Berkeley Thursday night, the old man was driving, so I got out to open the gate. Usually when we arrive at the house late at night, the cows don't want to move away from our car because they are hungry or curious, but most of the time they skitter away if we flash the lights or talk to them. Well, as I was unlocking the gate I noticed one breathing very loudly and heavily and did not like it at all when I said, "Hello, pretty lady." It stomped its feet, something the other cows do, but this stomp was harder. Then it took a bit shit and stomped on that with its back feet. Then it filled me with some sort of grunting low growl and it made eye contact, something the cows never do. I was face to face with a bull.

How interesting that earlier that night, I'd joked with a Moe's employee about bullshit being ubiquitous in every language. Furthermore, I'd recently finished reading Lara Glenum's Maximum Gaga (drooling... stop... composure... why composure I can drool on myself if I want to) and was twisting my mind around "The Bully Machine." 

I never thought so long and hard about the word bully--aggression as aggression, as sexual aggression also. I can't think of anything more aggressive then a bull, an animal that has to stay away from the herd except when it is allowed to reproduce, but this is not in any gentle manner, right? The valiant old man took care of the gate while I was allowed to drive safely through, looking at the bull scraping its hooves as though he were ready to charge the rental car. Why would he do that? What was the bull trying to accomplish? Why didn't he like us? Why is this animal pumped with violence, aggression, and a general dislike of all things not cow vaginal?

In Lara Glenum's poem, at least one cow is mechanical (but isn't all this mechanical too, no matter how aggressive it is), the bull is a simulacrum and this set up, letting the bull in the gate to mate, a rarity in farmland within all of our lifetimes. But in the world of Maximum Gaga, there is a miraculating machine, a sex machine and something of a lactating space, a decoy Queen cow costume, and the mechanical cow, "was a body without organs," the emptiness of it all, the rape of it all, the evolution of it all of being made taken and taken thoroughly. The poem finishes with the line: "the balling was grand" and I can't help but think about the word bullying, how Lara Glenum makes me think of words in a grody new light. Bullying is awful and haunting to think about on the level of the animal with its undeniably huge balls and ache to destroy anything in its way. Yet this is Maximum Gaga, the land of Catatonia, where this balling is grand, gross for its mechanics, gross because it's titillating. 

Listen to "The Bully Machine" here:

Friday, May 8, 2009

My Home Is the Baron's Home

The Poetics of Space is something of a bible to me, no matter how obvious it is, no matter how materialistic it is, there's something that has to be said about great spaces.

A few years ago, the old man and I visited my childhood home in Belgium, as a way of commemorating the tenth anniversary of my sister's death. By the way, "childhood home" is a bit of a stretch because my family moved almost every two years while I was growing up. Anyway, our Belgian house is the one I think of when I think of home, when I think of rooms. While walking around the house, I was astonished at how exactly I remembered everything; it wasn't bigger or smaller. It was exactly how I knew it. Please come with me on a tour of my old house, which had been a gatehouse to the castle across the street. The castle has been turned into a museum and the Baron now lives in my former house. The caretaker of both properties still lives there and let us snoop around the house while no one was home. 

Side pond where the Baron's daughter was married:

Through this archway is a brick oven. If you are afraid of witches who eat children, you should stay away from this oven:

Closet in my old room:

My sister's old room. The walls used to be covered with Victorian wallpaper. We told our friends that someone in the gatehouse drew the pictures out of love for someone in the castle because the castle and moat resembled the wallpaper print. Have you ever swam in a moat? The lilly pads roots go all the way to the bottom and tickle your crotch when you swim by.

In a bedroom in the attic, my sister and I made a Barbie town from old moving boxes. Here are the creepy attic stairs:

Downstairs. I used to practice the piano a little to the right of that red-coated woman:

This is the set of the living room windows I used to read in. While there I also ate my afternoon snack of a glass of milk accompanied by a pickle.

Back of the house. As you can see, the right side has been modernized, but the left wing is basically the same. On the right lower level, there used to be a room that had a barbeque pit large enough for horses, but the room is now an office for the Baron. The right upstairs front room was completely sealed off when we lived there. I wonder what had been sealed in.

Not pictured: garage door handle of a hand holding a handle.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My Big Bunny Ate Your Little Bunny And Had a Great Burp About It

A late night drive into some serious Northern California fog brought along two encounters with the largest rabbits I've ever seen. They were so huge that I think they hid their newspapers and cigarettes when I saw them and I'm sure they refer to each other by name. They must've been someone's children at some point. I don't know what it is about large animals that makes me certain they speak English, but clearly they do. Whoever met a gargantuan rabbit, so large that it is no longer a bunny, that didn't know how to pass the time with great conversation? 

Have you read Watership Down? I think the rabbits I saw were bigger. They reminded me of the many still life paintings at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. These paintings have flowers,  wood tables, celery, bread, random dead birds with a drop of blood on them somewhere, rolled napkins, and always always dead rabbits. I don't think these paintings were big enough to feature the rabbits I saw up in cow country, somehow defeating the fog through celestial navigation on their way back to their Lab of Thinking Through All the Problems of the World. No one could possibly eat let alone paint rabbits this size because clearly they used to be kangaroos. By the way, if you're looking for the painting of Kim Novak from Vertigo, it was just a prop and is not anywhere in the museum. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fantasy Feature No. 15

You will always be understood. Every crisp you say is perfectly crispy. For instance, your theory of quatrains. Because you get quatrains. Quatrains are the result of what happens if there were more than two sexes. Really, what if there were more choices, more than two genders. Couplets aren't enough for you, for the workplace, for generators, for car seats. What if sexual differentiation were a more complicated thing and two created a third, a new third. This third wouldn't be sing-songy nor set to any sort of marching tune. It would not smell like the 16th Century. Three, eh? Yawning with gleeking. The species isn't yet complete. You can't have a utopia with three. Factions are far too lonely. Your three lines squeeze out yet another sex and when someone reads your poem written in quatrains, they have been rubbed with new genitalia. They have been covered with a new kind of jelly that will have to be brushed and washed out later. They think will this never end. They wonder where the new loud barking is coming from. They are barking. There is no basement with spiders overhead. They think this is like a handful of California grasses, without the sneezing or the fog-lifting.