Foolproof and Incapable of Error: Christopher Nolan’s 70mm Unrestoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey

If any excuse were necessary to rewatch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a new print projected in a proper theater would certainly be it.

To mark the film’s 50th anniversary, Warner Bros. commissioned filmmaker and Kubrick aficionado Christopher Nolan to create a set of new 70mm prints. Nolan’s team located an intact 70mm preservation print, and strove to reproduce its inherent color and picture quality without digital effects. In theory, this new version of the film would be closer to what original audiences saw in 1968, intrinsically more authentic than any subsequent prints, broadcasts, or home entertainment releases — all of which were multiple generations removed (more details in this interesting Ars Technica piece).

Perhaps wary of historical revisionism, Nolan has described the result as “unrestored”. Why coin a marketing buzzword, for surely, if a new print struck from the best available elements is not a restoration, then what is? A colleague of mine suggested a better way of describing it: “not remastered”.

If Nolan’s goal was to recreate the authentic analog celluloid experience, warts and all, then I suppose it would have to be judged a success. The particular print I saw (at New York City’s Village East Cinema in May 2018) had likely already been screened numerous times. It was rife with dust and scratches throughout, with a distracting jitter during most of the Dawn of Man sequence, and inexcusable vertical scratches throughout the entire Beyond the Infinite chapter. This print certainly had greater contrast and depth of color than any version I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t complain if digital technology were employed to ameliorate some of this distracting damage.

Film Comment states the Nolan version was “struck from the original camera negative of the earliest screening version of a film that later underwent panicky last-minute edits”. It’s true enough that the film was not initially well-received upon its 1968 premiere, and Kubrick made judicious cuts of up to 19 minutes of footage. But Film Comment seems to imply that the Nolan version includes cut material. I’ve seen this movie at least 10 times (including the 2011 blu-ray), and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t know well.

Thanks to articles like Film Comment’s, and the “unrestoration” marketing, I experienced a double disappointment. I even briefly wondered if the Village East Cinema had screened an existing print of the film. But I should have known not to expect a mythical longer cut, or blu-ray-like visual perfection. But the brilliant film itself transcends all this.

Foolproof and incapable of error. A masterpiece.

Just Passing Through: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is, on its own terms, perfect. As such, it exposes the silly practice of rating films in numbers of stars, even if this particular blog is merely one movie lover’s journal of personal reactions, and not pretending to be objective criticism. So please interpret these five stars as meaning that I was utterly moved by Wendy and Lucy.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young drifter from Indiana heading nowhere in particular. Her home is a battered car, shared only with her beloved dog Lucy. She’s worryingly skinny, with an unexplained bandaged ankle. She keeps a running ledger in her journal, tracking the rapid decline of the life savings strapped to her waist. We don’t know why Wendy is on her own – whether she’s running from something or someone, or if she’s simply searching for a job. She calls her sister and brother-in-law in Indiana, but they evidently have problems of their own and quickly dismiss her. The poor, miserable girl never smiles, but often quietly hums a tune to herself.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

One night, Wendy meets a group of young drifters by a bonfire. Icky (musician Will Oldham – a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) mentions an Alaskan fishery that pays well and provides housing. This is good enough for Wendy, and provides her with a destination. But she experiences a disastrous day while passing through Portland (or in terms of her ledger, as least, the most cripplingly expensive). In short order, her car breaks down, she’s caught shoplifting, loses Lucy, and is very nearly assaulted.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

The security guard of the neighborhood Walgreens (Walter Dalton) becomes a genuine friend, whose greatest aid may simply be just talking with her. They briefly bond over the shared miseries of those that fall between the tracks: you can’t get a job without an address or a phone number, and you can’t get an address or a phone number without a job. People like her are always “just passing through.” He gives her $7, a gift he hides from his family, clearly a sacrifice for him.

Wendy and Lucy is spare and economical at only 75 minutes long, but it is heartbreaking and devastating. In some ways, Wendy is better off than the group of drifters she meets at the beginning of the film; she has a car, meager savings, and some discipline. But the number of steps it would take for her to become like them is few, and may happen in only a single day. One can only hope that Icky is right, and that Wendy will find some livelihood in Alaska.

Brad Bird Steals His Own Movie in Pixar’s The Incredibles

Like writer/director Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, The Incredibles is a virtually perfect movie. Bird’s astonishing one-two punch for Pixar builds on the animation studio’s reputation for deep emotional resonance already earned by Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo and later reconfirmed by Wall-E. But Bird’s films add a welcome maturity that proves the medium of animation can be, at its best, truly for all ages.

Although packed with action, spectacle, and chase sequences, it’s difficult to imagine how little kids would react to such a relatively dark movie. Note the middle-aged anxiety, marital strife, and surprisingly high body count (granted, most deaths happen offscreen, but only just!). I can easily imagine most kids tuning out during the many long dramatic sequences obviously pitched at adults. Just to name one scene that might be hard for youngsters to grasp: Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man who doesn’t want to be saved. Guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait asked her two little boy cousins what they liked best about their movie. They relate most to the character Dash, and probably selectively ignore the bits they can’t yet understand. So perhaps I’m underestimating how well the movie works on multiple levels.

Even the voice casting is so perfect, it’s impossible to imagine any others in their place. Craig T. Nelson is as perfectly suited to Mr. Incredible’s middle-aged anxieties as Tim Allen was to Buzz Lightyear’s innocent bluster in the Toy Story films. I could go on to praise every single other voice actor, but special mention must go to Holly Hunter as sassy spitfire Elastigirl, Sarah Vowell’s perfect expression of teen anxieties as (shrinking) Violet, and Brad Bird’s gut-bustingly hilarious impression of Hollywood fashion legend Edith Head as the superhero costume designer Edna Mode.

If forced to find one thing to critique, I would point to the relatively minor details of the characters’ hair. On the DVD bonus features, the Pixar animators and software engineers brag about the technologies they invented to simulate realistic hair, but none of the virtual coifs sit well upon the deliberately stylized cartoony faces. The characters have cute little dimples instead of hairy nostrils and waxy ear canals, so why give them such photorealistic hair?

All life’s a play in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

Whether it actually is or not, Synecdoche, New York has the feel of a very, very personal work of art. I know next to nothing about writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s personal life, and don’t even necessarily feel like I do now. Then again, few people do know Kaufman, as he has famously managed to sidestep much publicity despite perpetrating a successful screenwriting career in an industry in which the cult of personality applies to everyone.

Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as director, after a string of playful yet brainy screenplays. The best antecedents I can name would be the surreal satires of Lindsay Anderson (like O Lucky Man!) and the Postmodern deconstruction of Tom Stoppard (especially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which wreaks hilarious havok with no less a holy relic than Hamlet). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (underrated! see it!), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and one of our favorites, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both pure pleasures to watch, but Adaptation showed the darker side of Kaufman’s brilliance. As I understood the film, the very life itself of screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage) slowly becomes the violent, sexed-up Hollywood melodrama he loathes to write. To describe Synecdoche, New York in shorthand, it’s as if the cynical, challenging narrative nature of Adaptation were crossed with the deep emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Here’s a theory to explain Hazel’s enigmatic burning house: could it be an allusion to the Talking Heads song “Love -> Building on Fire”? I’m being serious here…

But what it’s actually “about” would take a lot of analysis to figure out, and my single viewing is not enough to unpack it (assuming my IQ would be up to the task anyway). Like Adaptation, it’s actually a little frustrating to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audience is constantly being challenged. I have to admit that I don’t fully “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no single key to unlocking any one meaning of the film. I’m giving it the full five-star Dork Report rating because I have enormous respect for any such uncompromising, challenging, affecting, and frustrating work of art in cinema. That it was produced as a major motion picture starring numerous famous faces and released in multiplexes nationally alongside the more typical fare Saw V and High School Musical 3 is nothing less than a miracle, and gives one hope for the future of the film industry. At least four people walked out of the screening I attended, some during an uncomfortable nude scene featuring Emily Watson (not uncomfortable in that she isn’t beautiful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utterly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weirdly moving last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have precedent in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which also suggested the voice of God towards his supplicant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).

The closest thing I’ve seen to Synecdoche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Björk’s Bachelorette (Jonze Gondry is a longtime collaborator of Kaufman’s, and co-produced Synecdoche, New York). (UPDATE: corrections thanks to commenter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite directors!) Less a pop music promo than a short film that stands on its own merits, Bachelorette recounts the tale of a young country girl who writes her autobiography and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her publisher. A hit, her book spawns a theatrical adaptation, in which a young country girl writes her autobiography, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her publisher. A hit, it too spawns a theatrical play. You get the idea: the tale is infinitely recursive. But each copy is a copy within a copy, each more distorted, flimsy, and sad than its source material. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) collapse in upon themselves. Her life basically ends at the point she finishes her autobiography and looks only backwards instead of living for the future. Watch the video here:

Synecdoche, New York is a pun on the New York city Schenectady (the location of Caden’s original theater company) and the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for example, “The White House said today…” as used by newscasters rather than specifying the administration, or even more specifically, the Press Secretary). Theater director Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) divorces him and moves to Germany with their daughter and Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (this is Keener’s second sexually ambiguous role in a Kaufman film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden worries for the rest of his life that Maria is a better replacement for himself as husband and father.

Caden wins a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Manhattan and craft an epic play housed in a disused theater illogically large enough to hold a scale model of New York City as his set. Outside, the real Manhattan descends into chaos and warfare. At one point, the characters leave the theater and walk past mysterious civil rights atrocities such as clown-costume-clad soldiers herding citizens onto armored busses at gunpoint.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New York
Hope Davis, as the shrinkest with the mostest, offers to shrink Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head

Caden’s canvas is infinite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his story as he goes along. The play is in perpetual rehearsal for decades, and remains forever untitled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase popular in college literature classes, but it truly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find meaning for the traumatic events in his life, and to rationalize his decisions, he casts actors to play himself and the significant people in his life. Like memories being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giving direction to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emotional safety of knowing that it’s all just playacting.

Soon, he takes even another step back, and casts another set of actors to play the first. Reality itself begins to break down as in Björk’s Bachelorette, also featuring a play within a play within a play, cast with several pairs of other actors playing herself and her lover as their affair, and entire world, disintegrates. A similar theme of copies and doubles also figures into Adaptation: writer “Charlie” may or may not have an identical twin brother, shamelessly able to make the kinds of compromises necessary for success in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do himself. Is it significant, as Kaufman moves from writer to writer/director, that the central character of Adaptation is a writer, and that of Synecdoche, New York is a director?

Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York
A scene from Synecdoche, New York, starring Samantha Morton as Hazel, Emily Watson as Tammy as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, and Tom Noonan as Sammy as Caden. Got that?

Caden is beset throughout with a host of mystery illnesses that forever threaten to kill him but never carry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seeming slip of the tongue and asks why he killed himself, and later, one of his doppelgängers (Tom Noonan) commits suicide.

The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dispassionate director watches from a distance as others do the dirty work of living his life for him, such as conduct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Samantha Morton), and Tammy (Emily Watson), that he may not have the emotional strength or sexual potency to do himself. Caden eventually replaces himself and takes the simpler, less demanding role of one of the most fleetingly minor background figures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, following the script and direction from someone else, an invisible external force… God? He essentially abdicates responsibility for his own life, and dies on cue.

Seven Samurai protect others to save themselves in Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is awesome and perfect, and this most recent viewing has affirmed its place among this blogger’s all-time favorites. It’s a big movie, by which I mean it makes the best use of its generous running time with just the right amount of everything: romance, comedy, drama, suspense, and action. Nearly half the film is taken up by a massive, expertly choreographed battle rivaling anything put to film by famous Western directors of violent spectacle like Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg. Long as it is, it’s about 15 minutes shorter than Gone With the Wind but twice as epic, twice as substantial, twice as… well, twice as good.

It is, in some ways, a simple tale broadly told. A rice farming village in 16th century Japan is under constant siege by a band of parasitic bandits that abduct its young women and regularly steal most of its annual yield. With no government or military to protect them, the villagers pool their meager resources to hire seven ronin (masterless samurai reduced to surviving hand-to-mouth as mercenaries) to fight on their behalf. The archetypal characters seem simplistic on the surface: villains to boo and heroes to cheer. In case the viewer have any doubt as to who the bad guy is, the chief bandit wears a black eyepatch, for crying out loud! Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the supremely capable and wise leader of the samurai, essentially lays down a universal definition of “hero” with his recruitment call: “There’s a tough battle ahead, leading to neither money nor rank. Will you join us?”

Seven Samurai
You messed with the wrong ronin

And yet, many subtleties gradually unfold. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is one of the great pleasures of the movie, but also one of its greatest mysteries. He’s clownish and childishly impulsive, yet passionately moral. He’s a commoner masquerading as a samurai, his only certification being his ridiculously long sword (presumably the liberated former possession of a very tall samurai). Kambei, whom in another life could have been a good shrink, correctly deduces Kikuchiyo’s motivations for having attached himself to the venture; he himself is a peasant farmer with pretensions for more. He directly identifies with the farmers’ plight, yet his deep-seated class insecurities fuel his a love-hate relationship with them. As an essay by Kenneth Turan in the Criterion Collection edition booklet points out, medieval Japan was a fiercely delineated caste society, and the fact that a former farmer might presume to call himself a samurai is a huge transgression. For a very different, more subdued dramatic performance by Mifune, see Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

As we learn more about Kikuchiyo, we likewise slowly get a more and more complex portrait of the villagers. They are no doubt the victims of a serious crime. Yet they whine all the way and mythologize themselves as helpless, saintly, victimized salt of the earth that must resort to hiring disgraced samurai to protect them. But they harbor a dark secret; they have robbed many fallen samurai of their armor and weapons over the years Their veritable armory of pilfered gear of war is useless to them, and yet they shamefully hide it from the samurai protecting them (even though it would bolster their coming war). The seven samurai are deeply offended, and yet nevertheless do the right thing and defend the village. But the gulf between the two classes, samurai and farmer, is reaffirmed.

Seven Samurai
He’s a wild and crazy samurai

Seven Samurai is in the company of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, and Vertigo, a special class of film so famously influential that even first-time viewers may very well feel they’ve seen it before. Just to name a few of Seven Samurai’s first-generation offspring: The Magnificent Seven is an unapologetic transposition of the original from feudal Japan to the American West. The Dirty Dozen and Ocean’s Eleven both borrow the trope of recruiting a gang of misfits one-by-one, whom in concert become capable of strengths impossible as individuals. Another American-produced remake is scheduled for release in 2009, this time set in modern-day Thailand.

The 2006 Criterion Collection edition is a required library item, not one to merely rent. A magnificent restoration of the film itself is accompanied by a beautifully designed sleeve and booklet. A surprising amount of damage remains in the long battle sequence in the second half of the film, but Criterion’s reputation for quality ensures that these are almost certainly the best available materials. Perhaps these reels were more frequently subjected to torture over the years by scholars?

Why you need to read the booklet:

  • Kenneth Turan on the full year of production it took to make the film, mirroring the time that passes in the movie. On a practical level, the extended production allows for greater realism like Kambei’s hair realistically growing back after shaving his head in the beginning (the topknot is a prized symbol of the samurai; not just a fashion but a requirement of their caste). But also on a thematic level, one year = the farming cycle of life: planting through harvest.
  • Peter Cowie on the mutual admiration society between Kurosawa (a fan of the Hollywood Western) and John Ford.
  • Philip Kemp on 16th Century Japan. The feudal society had little distinction between ronin and bandits.
  • Peggy Chiao on Kurosawa’s influences. Kurosawa was a Marxist in his 20s, but later mellowed. His older brother turned him on to Dostoyevsky, but committed suicide.
  • Alain Silver on Kurosawa’s staging and composition.
  • Stuart Galbraith IV on the historical context of the contemporary Japanese cinema, which was flourishing at the time.
  • Appreciations by directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.
  • Toshiro Mifune’s quite funny and entertaining reminiscences. Mifune claims he devised his character, as nothing had been written yet when he was cast.

Supplemental features on the bonus discs:

  • “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” – an almost excessively hagiographic biography, but with several amusing anecdotes. Shooting all year meant continuing through February’s freezing mud, while Mifune was almost naked. Kurosawa dutifully stood in the mud with his cast and crew, and was literally frostbitten.
  • “Seven Samurai: Origins & Influences” – “The Story of the 47 Ronin” was a popular puppet theater tale for hundreds of years, and was adapted into films several times a year in early Japanese cinema. One of those observations that sounds obvious in retrospect, but needs to be pointed out by somebody: Ronin (pronounced by some as “roh-ee-nin”) stories are more popular than samurai stories because they are inherently more dramatically interesting.
  • “My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa” – a long interview by fellow director Nagisa Oshima.

Must read: the Criterion Contraption review by Matthew Dessem

At the Worst of Times, the Worst of Us: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is, simply, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Repeat viewings never fail to overwhelm me with some of the strongest gut-level emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. I can only talk about it in superlatives: it’s a near-religious experience. One of the movies that makes me love movies.

Children of Men is set in a near-future dystopia, two decades after the last human birth. The sci-fi premise of mass infertility has only become more terrifyingly plausible in recent years, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of globally contagious diseases like SARS and Zika. A few lines of dialogue allude to a flu pandemic, but the screenplay wisely doesn’t get lost in the weeds over the origins of the crisis.

Clive Owens and P.D. James in Children of Men
Clive Owens and author P.D. James in Children of Men

Even the best science fiction sometimes can’t avoid fanciful pseudo-science that tends not to date well (q.v. the notorious “enhance” scene in Blade Runner). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and while other reproductive technologies like cloning and artificial insemination aren’t mentioned, we can assume all avenues have failed. It’s evidence of great restraint and respect for the audience’s intelligence that the origin remains unexplained. It’s beside the point.

So by the time the film opens, the harsh fact that the human race is doomed to slowly die out is a given, and has reduced the world’s societies into chaos. Great Britain remains nominally functional, but only under the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda glimpsed throughout, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is mere survival worth the price?

Children of Men
European refugees seeking asylum in the fascistic United Kingdom

Immigrants flood the only country with some semblance of stability, fleeing unspecified atrocities abroad. All we learn of the United States is of a vague catastrophe in New York City alarmingly referred to only as “it.” Immigrants are demonized as “fugis” (for “fugitives,” perhaps punning on the derogatory British slang “paki” for any and all Middle Easterners) and penned in ghettos and concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. I doubt it’s incidental that several of the fugitive voices we hear are German, causing one to wonder just what exactly may have happened in Germany, and if it may have been something we have seen before in living human memory. My German is non-existent, but if I’m not mistaken, we overhear one captive German woman bitterly complain to her guard for being locked up in a detention cell with black people. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature; at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.

It’s not usually a good sign for a movie to have five credited screenwriters, but these do extraordinary job of adapting the original novel by P.D. James (who, according to IMDB, has an uncredited cameo in the café bombed in the opening moments of the film). I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the movie is “better” than its source material, but it is certainly more visceral and emotionally affecting to a post 9/11 audience. As an adaptation, the many changes are justified and benefit the translation to a different medium and time. Most significantly, the chronology is condensed from months to days, and the relatively polite insurrectionist group The Five Fish has become a full-fledged terrorist organization called simply The Fish.

Danny Huston in Children of Men
Danny Huston as the guardian of the Ark of the Arts in Children of Men. Among the artistic achievements of humanity selected for eternal preservation: Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig

Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, without the life of wealthy ease his novel counterpart enjoys. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his initial motivation to collaborate with The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England as in the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. The Ark is a pointless quest to archive the world’s great works of art, including everything from Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, to Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig. King Crimson’s dramatic Mellotron dirge “In the Court of the Crimson King” fittingly accompanies Theo as he visits Nigel, passing into a walled city that separates the privileged elite from the working masses outside. Naomi Klein predicts the future dominance of such places in Cuarón’s short documentary “The Possibility of Hope”, apprehensive of the very near and very real future of countries closing themselves off to refugees.

Julianne Moore in Children of Men
Julianne Moore as Julian in Children of Men: “What do the police know about justice?”

Several mind-bendingly impossible tracking shots grace the film, so fluid and justified by the action that the mind barely registers a lack of cutting. There is an incredible level of detail in the art direction, but as Cuarón declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Technology has barely progressed in the decades since humanity began dying out. What’s the point of innovation in fashion, automobiles, and consumer electronics when the human race is doomed to extinction? Eerie sights include fields of burning cattle corpses (possibly due to mad cow disease, or more likely the simple fact that the agriculture system has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer healthy young people every day.

Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen in Children of Men
Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen in the ruins of a school

Children of Men may be a punishingly bleak vision of the future, but there is hope to be had. Theo is a broken man resolved to a slow death, both his own and of his species. But there is something special within him; his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) trusts him over everyone else to do the right thing when presented with a gift of hope: the first human child in two decades. Even animals are drawn to him, including dogs, kittens, and deer. His friend Jasper (Michael Caine) praises the Hindu Peace Mantra, which also appears as an epigram after the credits (over the sound of children playing), and bears repeating here:

Shantih Shantih Shantih


Must view: Daily Film Dose’s Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema, including Children of Men.

Must view: a reel of fake adverts made for the film by Foreign Office Design (via Kottke.org)

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater, Times Square, New York City, August 16, 2008

King Crimson is my favorite band.

There, I said it. The more music and films I’m exposed to, the more pointless it seems to pick favorites. (Isn’t it kind of absurd to say that King Crimson is “better” than, say, The Mahavishnu Orchestra? While I’m on this parenthetical tangent, has anybody else ever noticed the similarities between John McLaughlin’s jazz fusion group and the 1972-74 “Larks Tongues” incarnation of King Crimson?) Time and again on this blog, I feel silly enough trying to condense my opinions about movies and music into a five-star rating template, and now even more so that I’ve seen Crimson blow the top off my scale (just like the back cover to the album Red). So, yes, they’ve earned a rare 5-star review, an honor I hope the Crims appreciate (yes, I’m kidding).

I absolutely enjoyed Thursday’s show at The Nokia Theatre in Times Square, New York City, as I hope was clear from my review. I wasn’t there on Friday, but Saturday night was something else altogether; an extraordinary performance that rivalled the best of Crimson that I’ve heard on record, be it live (for me, maybe B’Boom – Live in Argentina) or studio (that would be Thrak – I invite readers to counter-argue in the comments below). So much so that my reluctance to play favorites is temporarily on hold; King Crimson is finally, officially, My Favorite Band.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater, Times Square, New York City, August 16, 2008
Bending the “No Photography” rule, Part II

So who’s going to give credence to the biased opinions of an acolyte predisposed to positively rave about his musical heroes? In defense, I certainly don’t think they can do no wrong; I am prepared to declare their 1971 album Lizard almost unlistenable. But I hope that I can convey some of what made last night’s show an order of magnitude “better” than Thursday. The band was incredibly tight, hopefully putting to rest fans’ often-expressed fears that they have been a bit sloppy across this tour (a gripe I indulged in myself in my Thursday review). The crowd seemed more appreciatively rowdy and keyed-up than before; indeed the overall energy level was high. Perhaps it was just my different vantage point (slightly further back, and almost perfectly centered), but even the venue’s sound quality seemed better; I didn’t have the impression that Fripp and Belew were fighting to find the few audible frequencies left untrammeled by Harrison, Mastelotto, and Levin. The video cameras were turned off this time, being something of a tradeoff. On one hand, the flat panel TV screens scattered about the venue on Thursday had made it possible to see all sorts of details invisible to the nosebleed seats, but on the other hand, the glowing screens were distracting intrusions to my peripheral vision. But more likely, the band probably objected to the intrusion upon their concentration and performance.

The show began with a real treat not part of Thursday’s New York debut; when I walked in at about 7:30, Robert Fripp was already on stage performing Soundscapes. For the uninitiated, Soundscaping is Fripp’s term for the ambient, looping class of his solo work, originally christened (tongue-in-cheek) Frippertronics during his original 1970s collaborations with Brian Eno. When I saw Fripp live with The League of Crafty Guitarists at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in November 2007, it was clear from the general audience chatter around me that some were unaware that Fripp ever played anything other than burning, shredding rock guitar. So I wasn’t sure how much of this audience would be open to this avenue of Fripp’s work, but there was enough applause at the end of each piece to indicate that people were listening and appreciative. It helped that these particular Soundscapes were of the more beautiful and melodic variety, as opposed to the dissonant and nightmarish sort heard on the album Radiophonics. It was a rather low-key opener, certainly in comparison to the supremely fun California Guitar Trio that toured with Crimson in 1995.

For this blogger’s ears, the highlight of the evening was a shocking new arrangement of Sleepless. It was a wild, more ominously threatening reinterpretation of the slightly poppy original. Mastelotto and Harrison kicked it off with some utterly insane dumming (which I mean as a compliment), soon joined by Levin rocking the famous bassline to roaring approval from the crowd. Levin used his famous invention the funk fingers instead of the original slapping technique I’ve seen on the live DVD Neil and Jack and Me. Does anyone know if he also used the funk fingers for it in the 1990s, as heard on the live album B’Boom? It seems they had long since dropped the song from the setlist by the time I saw them in Philadelphia.

I’ve got to devote a least a paragraph to Mastelotto’s shout-outs to his predecessors. During Neurotica, he resurrected a sample of the little electronic “tink!” sound Bill Bruford scattered all over the 1982 album Beat. Frankly, I find the omnipresent high-pitched “tink” sound makes Beat very annoying to listen to, but I nevertheless involuntarily laughed and clapped in appreciation when I noticed the sample last night. He also busted out some very Jamie Muir-esque sound effects to add a little extra sonic color to The Talking Drum / Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II one-two punch. I also really loved the electronica drum sounds he added to the (relatively) quiet bits in Indiscipline. Who could have guessed, but it was exactly what the song needed.

I mentioned in my review of the Thursday show that I consider Level Five to be among Crimson’s most “difficult” pieces for the audience to listen to, and judging by the furiously flying fingers, also obviously so for the band to play. But while I’m still trying to find my way into the song as a listener, it clearly went over like gangbusters, earning one of the most appreciative ovations of the night. If nothing else, hundreds of jaws dropped at the insanely rapid runs shared by Fripp & Levin. That kind of playing just isn’t human.

King Crimson live at The Nokia Theater, Times Square, New York City, August 16, 2008
Worse seat, better sound?

Which reminds me of another thought I’ve always had about King Crimson. Needless to say, most members have been known as among the best-ever practitioners of their instruments. Fans often gush about how difficult the parts are, as if how speedily fingers move is directly proportionate to how “good” the music is. But I’d like to propose here that that is to miss the point. The high level of musicianship in Crimson is not the goal, but rather a prerequisite to be able to play whatever is required, be it one note or a thousand. I’d argue that some of Fripp’s best playing is actually slower than what he is physically capable of, when unleashed at maximum velocity. If that’s what fans of technique looking for, might I direct you to Level Five or the 900 MPH solo to Sartori in Tangier. But to my ears, Fripp’s most affecting playing is in the gut-wrenchingly emotional solo in the Sylvian/Fripp song Wave and the slow-motion underwater solo in the Robert Fripp String Quintet piece Blue.

Further evidence the band was more energetic and connected: during the drum duet (as yet untitled?) at the beginning of the first encore, Levin elicited a some laughs by theatrically drumming along on the top of his amp with his funk fingers. Harrison & Mastelotto’s duet was infectious enough to get Belew’s head bobbing, and, shock of all shocks, I could see even the top of Fripp’s head rocking to the beat.

Anyone following the reviews being posted on DGMLive will be aware that Fripp does not join the band in coming to the front of the stage at the end of each show, instead standing off in the shadows. He very pointedly chooses to applaud his four bandmates, at once showing his appreciation for them and directing the audience’s attention to the players. To indulge in a little armchair psychoanalysis, perhaps he wants to avoid fans’ worship or rebuke, and instead direct the audience’s positive energy towards the band.

I’d like to close with two anecdotes, past and present. A minor but amusing incident from Thursday’s show I forgot to include in my review was an early cameo appearance by Adrian Belew. Long before showtime, Belew entered the venue through the crowd, mounted the stage and walked across into the wings, all the while toting his dry cleaning over his shoulder. When the audience noticed him and applauded, he hammed it up a little bit, pretending to sheepishly tip-toe across the stage. True story. Don’t venues have trapdoors and secret passages for the performers to sneak in and out? Perhaps he got accidentally locked out, and maybe Fripp’s ongoing comic book saga blog will tell us the full tale of how Belew was accidentally beamed outside the Crim mothership on an extraplanetary away mission to the space station dry cleaners.

And also, one telling moment I still recall from a Projekct Two show in 1999 at Irving Plaza, New York. Fripp had been typically focussed on his playing throughout, seemingly outwardly unemotional, until one moment between pieces when he sprung to life, turned to Belew and Trey Gunn and announced “Guys, I want to rock out!” He then turned to face the audience for the first time and repeated “I want to rock out, you guys!” And they did.

Joseph Arthur live at Bowery Ballroom, New York, 2006

I hope to post my reactions soon (the five stars should give a hint as to the general tone), but in the meantime, here’s some coverage of the show on the web: The Tripwire’s review features excellent photographs by Erin Chandler. Billboard also reviews the show and posts a video of Joseph’s duet with Michael Stipe on "In the Sun."

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain

AmélieOne of my favorite films of all time. It’s just such a movie, you know? The same is true of virtually all of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films; I have such fond memories of seeing Delicatessen on a crappy 16mm print at college, City of Lost Children at the Cambridge Film Festival, and Amélie and A Very Long Engagement at the Paris Theater in New York City. We won’t mention Alien Resurrection, OK?

Although a big hit in France, my understanding is that there was something of a backlash against it, due in part to its literally candy-colored portrayal of a storybook Montemartre far removed from reality. Also, a reviewer in Sight & Sound (a film journal whose opinion I nearly always respect, if not always agree with) utterly slammed the film, apparently personally offended by the sexual politics. But I find Amélie so delightful, inventive, and so full of feeling that I can confidently state anybody that hates this movie just hates movies, period.

2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen at New York’s Ziegfeld theater

One of the best movies ever made, on one of the biggest screens in New York. What could be better?

It’s taken me many years and many viewings to realize that the movie is actually very, very funny. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, coming right on the heels Dr. Strangelove, but the sombre serious air about the film disguised some of the comedy to my young mind watching the movie every year uncut on a Philadelphia VHF channel. Just a few of the many huge “jokes” packed into the film: the entire human condition condensed as chimp pantomime, fantastic visions of the future punctured by hilariously closed-minded humans more interested in sandwiches, and the most naked human emotions shown on screen coming from apes and computers as opposed to supposedly evolved humans.

2001 On the web: Kubrick 2001 presents an elaborate, though sometimes silly, animated explication. Then there’s The Underview, in valiant opposition to the scheming dedamned’s autoguard, helpfully including the complete Zero Gravity Toilet instructions.