Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Once Again

by Jason Pyles

Forgive this semi-personal indulgence, but I was also a swooning and brooding singer-songwriter … once. And I guess I still am. This was my second viewing of “Once,” and once again it stirred those feelings within me.

When I experience Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who are simply cast as “Guy” and “Girl” in the credits, even though I swear I can hear him call her “Irseth”) putting together their duet of “Falling Slowly” in the music store, I cry every time. It literally moves me to tears.

Sorry, but “Once” not only hits all the right notes, it also strikes a chord — and is, therefore, required viewing for musicians, particularly songwriters.

With its documentary-like veracity, “Once” captures the world of aspiring musicians, a claim I can make for having lived in said world.

From the way the film illustrates the initial awkwardness and uncomfortable business aspects of the studio; to the way musicians have to compliment other musicians’ songs graciously but credibly; to the way a musician has to play that transparent game of false modesty and require mild begging before performing a song — which is exactly what the musician wants all along, more than anything; “Once” accurately captures these peculiarities associated with musicianship.

Also, when Glen writes “Lies” while drawing inspiration from old home-video footage of his ex-girlfriend, I could relate: I once wrote a song conjuring my muse with that same method.

And how about this oddly familiar exchange:
Street musician referring to Glen’s music: Is it any good?
Markéta: It’s great!
Glen: … Is it?

Yep, that’s exactly how we musicians are — in constant need of reassurance and validation.

Oh, and best of all, when she sneaks away in the studio and plays piano in the dark for Glen, Markéta performs a song she wrote called “The Hill,” a song written for her husband that he didn’t like. Glen dismisses him as an idiot. Indeed. But I can top her story:

Once I wrote a song for my girlfriend (not my wife) who had a terrible family life at home. It was a tender, “I’ll save you”-type song. When I finished playing it for her, she asked in a whiny, frustrated voice, “Why don’t you ever write any songs about how pretty I am?”

The opening sequence of “Once” could stand alone as an award-winning short film. Yes, award-winning. Those brief moments reveal to us just about everything we need to know about Glen: He’s a “streetlife serenader” who’s not only a passionate musician, he’s also a good guy.

And the scene where Markéta wanders the streets with the portable DVD player, “writing” the lyrics to “If You Want Me,” has an unmistakable music-video flavor a la Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

“Once” is so good, it almost makes me want to return to that struggle of trying to make it as a professional musician — almost. Even so, I’m sure part of me loves this film so much because it makes me grateful I tried. Nothing would be worse than always wondering what would have happened had I not given it a shot.

Monday, October 20, 2008

One Last Note About "Jean de Florette"

by Jason Pyles

Apparently, I've become a one-man band when it comes to writing on this blog. Oh well. I'll keep the torch lit in case anybody wants to jump back on in the future. And no, that wasn't written in a martyr's tone.

What I love most about "Jean de Florette" is its capacity to illustrate through the medium of cinema the insatiable tendency toward selfishness that humans possess. In fact, I can't think of any other film that is so effectively and potently relentless in demonstrating that despicable, shameful human characteristic that seduces us all.

To me, that was the film's greatest feat. Wow, what a movie!

To This Blog's Documentary Filmmakers

by Jason Pyles

I have an unofficial recommendation for the documentary filmmakers that contribute to this blog: You should watch “My Kid Could Paint That” (2007), if you haven’t already seen it.

You’ve no doubt heard about it. “My Kid Could Paint That” is about a 4-year-old girl named Marla who begins to receive international recognition and acclaim in the art world for her contemporary, abstract oil paintings … but seeds of doubt are soon sewn as to the little artist’s authenticity and abilities.

I suggest checking out this movie because it qualifies as an unusual film in the documentary genre. Amir Bar-Lev, the filmmaker, shows up in the film a lot more than just as a “camera-placer.” He can be heard speaking to his subjects, speaking directly to us — giving his opinions. He can also be seen in the film, and consequently, he appears in the cast credits.

Perhaps that’s not too unusual, considering that documentaries have come to be defined with vast leeway, though there are many purists that would vehemently disagree.

But what makes this film interesting — especially to Andrew and Josh, the co-directors of the untitled CleanFlicks documentary — is how a “situation” luckily unfolds while the camera is running. Indeed, the best documentaries capture this kind of serendipity.

In “This Divided State” (2005), Steven Greenstreet told my Cinema Studies class that he decided to start filming Michael Moore’s visit to Utah Valley State College and a much bigger controversy erupted than he expected. Greenstreet said Kay Anderson made the film a real story. (I know some of you also worked on that film, part of this background is for those who haven’t heard about it.)

Then, with the CleanFlicks documentary, it appeared that the battle between Hollywood and CleanFlicks was the whole story, but ironically, when Daniel Thompson (a prominent champion of edited films) was said to be using his edited movies store, “Flix Club,” as a front for “a pornography studio” — and he and his business partner, Isaac Lifferth, were convicted this past summer (with varying sentences) of having sexual relations with two 14-year-old girls, well, another story burst open before the filmmakers’ cameras.

[Full Disclosure Note: Interestingly, for those who don’t know, I was the in-house movie critic for Flix Club, the very store, and I wrote movie reviews about the edited movies. ( Here is the address: Oh, and the name of the last film I reviewed there is somewhat humorous.) I didn’t know about those other "dealings," bien sur, but I still — and always will — consider Daniel to be a friend of mine. Everybody makes mistakes; some are just worse than others.]

Anyway, much like Andrew and Josh, filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev grew to know and like the family that he had been shooting for so long, and when the controversy starts to unravel, he lets us know that he’s torn over it. So what is so noteworthy about “My Kid Could Paint That” is how the filmmaker must begrudgingly ride the train and let it take him where it’s going, even though he’s reluctant about what his camera will discover.

But also much like Andrew and Josh, Bar-Lev bravely proceeds forward, as a good documentarist should. Props to Andrew, Josh and Amir.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Now THIS Is Drama! --- or --- Why You Should Watch "Jean de Florette"

by Jason Pyles

At the risk of seeming indecisive, I think we’ll go back to the two-weeks-per-film schedule. It appears that everyone is extremely busy (including me), so I’m hoping this might enable more people to watch the bi-weekly films, add posts and perhaps leave comments. I’ve also decided to make my posts shorter, in hopes that someone might read them.

“Jean de Florette” (1986) is an exceptional example of drama. Like most young males, I typically don’t love dramas, but this French film could convert even the shallowest action-flick junkie. On the Internet Movie Database, a Canadian named Jerome Morrow commented on “Jean de Florette” by writing, “Many producers spend a lifetime trying to make one of these … and never really come close.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Is it a masterpiece? Maybe, but I’d say not, since it’s a film I’ll probably only watch once, despite its greatness. In short, if the film’s cover photo, title and premise made you decide to pass on watching this movie, I strongly encourage you to reconsider.

Though “Jean de Florette” is a drama that tells a simplistic story, it has unsettling, simultaneous undertones of humor and horror. Without question, it’s an unpredictable movie with some alarming surprises.

I had no doubt that Mr. Torben Bernhard would dazzle me with his film choice, but in selecting this one, I think he’s outdone himself.

As a point of interest, “Jean de Florette” is the movie Torben chose, but it has a sequel called “Manon of the Spring” (also 1986), that I suspect is usually considered inseparable and part of the whole. In fact, the Netflix version includes the latter on the flipside of the DVD, probably because it’s technically Part II. The first was released in the U.S. in August 1987, and the sequel was released that December.

Yes, “Jean de Florette” ends most intriguingly in and of itself, but anybody who watches the first movie will insist on seeing what happens next. And though Part II is the lesser of the two films, overall, they’re both worth the nearly four hours of your time. Oh, and the first film’s MPAA rating would be PG, but the second film has one instance of female nudity, which I guess would clock in at PG-13 these days.

I’m going to conclude this post here, without discussing much of the film(s) directly, in hopes that this serves as motivation for you to check it out. I will probably write more later, but I’d like to see if anyone else has anything to say about it this week. You’ll be a better film lover for watching it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Regarding "Rashomon"

by Jason Pyles

There are some things you only have to do once:

a.) touch fire

b.) drink V8

c.) eat Grape Nuts

d.) go to Disneyworld

e.) watch “Rashomon”

I enjoyed “Rashomon” the first two times I saw it, but the third time wasn’t a charm for me. To be fair, I had to break it up and watch it in four sittings because of late-night weariness; I didn’t want to sleep through any of it. I still took notes as carefully as I ever have while watching a movie. But I’m probably OK with not watching “Rashomon” again for at least several years.

At the risk of opening an old can of worms, I invite somebody — anybody — to explain to me exactly why “Rashomon” is widely considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. I mean, it’s good — maybe even very good, but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. That classification is so controversial and subjective among those in this group, you can just explain why it’s so revered and forget the term masterpiece.

Maybe the point is that we’re all liars (at some point and to some degree), and we can’t even be honest with ourselves. The latter half of the preceding sentence is a recurring theme in “Rashomon.” And really, it’s profoundly true. For the most part, we really can’t be honest with ourselves, so that’s a great assertion for the film to make, because it’s an accurate observation about one peculiar aspect of the human condition.

Also prevalent is the priest’s inner crisis about losing faith in humanity. This is a popular, almost cliché sentiment that we hear weekly, if not daily. People say things like, “Well, with the way the world is today, you never can tell. Nothing surprises me anymore.” And yet, we are surrounded by imperfect, dagger-stealing but ultimately good-hearted baby-adopting people like the wood cutter. A minority of the population is sociopathic, so their colorfulness gets all the attention, eclipsing the goodness of the majority. Think about it, our two presidential candidates have, no doubt, accomplished a number of great things, but if there were 10 proud moments in their careers, we hear about the one where they stumbled, the one where they voted the wrong way and supported the wrong bill at the wrong time.

And I suppose “Rashomon” does justice to the mystery that is perception. We all have a slightly different perspective from one another. Looking into the subjectivity of individual perception is an interest topic for the cinema to explore. You know how it is … ask 10 witnesses about what happened in a traffic accident and get 10 varying versions. There’s an assistant prosecuting attorney in Ohio County, W.Va. named Joseph Barki. When he gives his closing arguments to the jury, he’ll often suggest that the slight variation in the testimonies of his witnesses is actually much more credible than if all the witnesses’ stories were identical. He tells them, we’d have to be suspicious if all their stories matched perfectly. And I think, for the most part, that’s true, because it just doesn’t happen.

There are more observations about human tendencies illustrated in “Rashomon,” and perhaps the effective demonstration of all these phenomena is what earns the film its high praise. Having acknowledged such noteworthy portrayals in the three preceding paragraphs, I will proceed with my critique.

It is brilliant for Kurosawa to clearly differentiate the flashback, testimonial scenes from the present baffled discussion through the use of the torrential downpour at the Rashomon temple. Nice. But how can such filmmaking insight yield and crumble to the over-dramatic, confused anguish of the men having the discussion? “I just don’t understand. I just don’t understand,” the wood cutter laments. And then there’s the priest whose faith in humanity hangs by a thread. They delude themselves into near hysteria right before our eyes with each time we come back to them. But then, I guess people actually do that in real life. I would have just preferred if the men discussed the event because it was interesting, and not because it was ruining their entire lives.

Next, let’s look at each of the accounts briefly:

Tajomaru, the notorious bandit: He saw the girl. He tricked the husband and bound him. He rapes the girl, then he tries to win her heart, asking her to follow him. She says one of the men must die. The bandit cuts the husband free. They fight. The bandit kills the man. The girl runs away.

The woman: The woman’s story starts with the bound husband. She says she was raped. The bandit departs. The husband is angry at her. She has a dagger pointed toward her husband. She faints, and then I’ve never been clear on what she suggested happened next? Did she faint and fall into her husband’s chest, killing him with the knife? That’s what I understood her to say. She claims she also tried to kill herself.

The dead man speaks through a medium: He said he was suffering in a dark hell because after the bandit raped his wife and won her heart, she wanted to go with Tajomaru under one condition: The bandit had to kill her husband. The bandit saw she was a psycho and asked the husband if he wanted her killed. She runs away and the bandit chases her. He returns hours later and sets the man free. The bandit departs. The husband kills himself.

The wood cutter’s account: He saw the husband tied up. He saw the rape then the bandit begging and pleading with her to marry him — or else. She wanted the two men to fight it out to decide which one she would follow. The husband didn’t want her any longer and told his wife to kill herself. The bandit was walking away when the two men got into an argument. The woman turned completely nuts and ridiculed both men, instigating their duel. The bandit kills the man.

Now, if you look at their accounts, while trying to account for their motivation to lie or tell the truth, it really doesn’t make sense. The bandit admitted to raping the woman and killing the man. What else did he have to lie about? Why would the woman admit to accidentally stabbing her husband? The dead man/medium story is not believable for more than the obvious reasons: The bandit doesn’t scratch himself as he is wont to do in the other accounts, and that idiot bandit would never be responsible enough to return after several hours to cut the man free.

Interestingly, one could pick out a story where each person’s actions didn’t add up, but the woman’s actions don’t make sense in any of their stories. Maybe she was hooking up with the wood cutter? But seriously, we never learn what really happened. The point is, the actual truth is probably somewhere intermingled between all the accounts. That’s probably what Kurosawa was trying to show us. Even so, we can’t make sense out of the characters’ motivations.

And, there again, maybe Kurosawa was depicting that we can’t explain or account for human motivation. No, we can’t understand what people do and why they do it. Maybe “Rashomon” is a masterpiece after all … and when comparing it to a paltry modern-day variation of the same idea, like “Vantage Point,” it definitely qualifies as such.

Ebert Agrees

by Jason Pyles

On Sept. 4, I submitted a quick little post suggesting that Sarah Palin reminded me of Frances McDormand's character Marge Gunderson from "Fargo" (1996), a film we've previoulsy discussed at length, including the passive-aggressive phenomenon that is "Minnesota Nice."

Well, I always feel good about myself when I'm in alignment with Roger Ebert (notwithstanding his views on "The Village"). He has a blog called "Roger Ebert's Journal," and on his Oct. 3 post he wrote the following after her debate with Biden:

When [Palin] was on familiar ground, she perked up, winked at the audience two or three times, and settled with relief into the folksiness that reminds me strangely of the characters in "Fargo."
Palin is best in that persona. You want to smile with her and wink back. But who did she resemble more? Marge Gunderson, whose peppy pleasantries masked a remorseless policewoman's logic? Or Jerry Lundegaard, who knew he didn't have the car on his lot, but smiled when he said, "M'am, I been cooperatin' with ya here."

Monday, October 6, 2008

I Haven't Forgotten "Rashomon"

Jason's comments on "Rashomon" are forthcoming ... Apparently, it is a busy season for us all.