Thursday, July 31, 2008

DJG / Five Random Films

The Mist * ½
Directed by: Frank Darabont / 2007

Roger Ebert has a book appropriately titled, "Your Movie Sucks!". File "The Mist" with fellow suck fests in Ebert's book. I had heard this Stephen King suspense novella film adaptation was bad. But, I had no idea it was THIS BAD. Had the film not taken itself as serious and perhaps gone the campy vein like Robert Rodriguez's brilliant 2007 zombie gore fest "Planet Terror" (1/2 of the “Grindhouse” duel-feature with Quentin Tarantino), then it could have been something special. Only a handful of King stories are turned into cinema gold, but the majority of movies based on his material equal BAD, yet stupid-awesome at best. "The Mist" certainly doesn't come without some cheap thrills, stupid laughs, terrible dialogue/acting, blood and silly CGI movie monsters that according to my cousin look like “Muppets on steroids”. However, the film exhausts itself within thirty minutes for this watcher instead of mist-ifying (har har). It would be better served up at the camp kooky cutter buffet and with Bruce Campbell behind the leading gun barrel and with an even lower budget. Another thing, "The Mist" boasts one of the worst endings ever...and not in a best-worst way either. And to top it off, it takes 2 hours and ten minutes to get to that horrible end. Still, no matter what, that ending is unforgettable and I bet Stephen King got some good laughs out of it and the entire film. Not to mention that he’s probably laughing all the way to the bank. It’s just two hours and ten minutes that I’m not getting back.


Dark City * * *
Directed by: Alex Proyas / 1998

Every now and again I try to revisit a film that didn't sit well with me the first time. Films are an interesting medium as they are very immediate. Moods, life placement and a variety of lenses can play a part in the impact that a film can have on the viewer. I was behind on "Dark City" the first time I saw it, and I felt then (back in 2002) that I would have enjoyed it more if I had seen it when it first came out back in the late ‘90s. I feel the same way now upon seeing it twice. "Dark City" is beautifully shot, but comes with one too many coats of industrial-goth and so much style that it lacks true substance for me. Which, coincidentally in this movie, the aliens who are controlling their own world of humans to figure us out, find out through their own defeat that it's not our brains that drive us but our hearts and souls. True, you need some brains…but, you get the picture. I feel that "Dark City" seems to lack the “heart and soul” ingredients as I found once again no care in the characters or their motives and was bored with the plot within thirty minutes. Though, big-bang-dang if the characters and their surroundings didn't have some style.


The Happening * * * ½
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan / 2008

It's official, I think it's finally happened. M. Night Shyamalan, you need to take a break from suspense, or directing for at least a little bit. You need to take a break from trying too hard to be mysterious and thought provoking. Maybe try tackling a different genre, as the suspense-horror market that you helped to revive ten years ago has become stale, saturated and manipulative. Though, despite my bites, I'm never completely disappointed with your work. Your “Happening” isn’t a BAD film, but not only does nothing really happen, I feel you are losing some touch behind the typewriter and camera. To some, I’m sure this *** ½ review is very generous, but I give it out only because you still make very enjoyable films that look nice and keep me glued and entertained. I can easily watch your films multiple times and still enjoy them and get something out of them. However, I feel that the only thing I happened to get out of "The Happening" is a dumbed-down M. Night film trying to poke at the current state of the national climate (terrorism / politics / environmental protections) disguised as a little bit smarter "Horor Porn" flick. You know, all those high-budget slasher pictures that keep pushing the ratings board and the box office numbers? I groaned when I saw T.V. advertising that boasted, "The first R-Rated film from M. Night Shyamalan." And I know there are meatier higher-up forces at work in the Hollywood system. But, M. Night, you are smarter than THIS movie shows. Now, I don't think any general director can be a FIVE STAR with each release, but you are depleting in ranks. You had me groaning and saying out loud, "Wow, that was REALLY dumb" during a few moments in "The Happening". Much of this movie could have been handled better and basically done without. There were certainly moments that had your M. Night stamp. But, for the most part it just felt like a good idea that didn't follow through and possibly would have worked better as a short similar to a “Twilight Zone” episode. I know the numbers game is something that must be played and I’m sure you were near the top of the box office because all the kids want to see some blood and chaos on the screen, but come on. Though, I do have to give you some credit as you still made a somewhat decent picture for what it is. Just please come back with something GREAT to reveal to me. I'll still go to the theatre to see your work every time. Just please don't try to dumb ME down.


White Chicks * * *
Directed by: Keenen Ivory Wayans / 2004

If the Coen Brothers are at the top of the brotherly film ladder, then I'm sure it would be easy to automatically put the Wayans Brothers near the bottom. Both teams boast a healthy pocket of dollars and nonsense, and the Coens certainly take top prize at the art fair. But, we must not be so quick to dismiss the Wayans Brothers talent too, as they take top honors at the (f)art fair, solid GOLD ones at that (Yep, I just said that). The Wayans are no dummies. Their pockets are deep and jingling all the way to the bank and financial backing to future cash cows even if their movies are stupid. I thoroughly enjoyed me some "White Chicks” as it was stupid-awesome. Who would have thought of having two black brothers dolling up in prosthetics as swinging, partying, bratty white chicks to protect their FBI jobs? Oh, the Wayans! CHA-WHITE-CHICKY-CHING! And the Wayans have one-up on the Coens, as I don’t think that Joel and Ethan would act out their fantasies on their own. “White Chicks” is exactly what it is, stupid-awesome fun!


Cowboy Bebop: The Movie * * * *
Directed by: Shinichiro Watanabe / 2001

Beautifully shot in animation, “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” is like a two hour episode of “Cowboy Bebop” the series. Which is a very enjoyable and short-lived late ‘90s animated show about a rag-tag team of likeable bounty hunters in a somewhat believable future of space and travel. It’s near the equivalent of Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino making creative babies together. It’s great stuff. The movie is too.


DJG / Three Random Films

Kinky Boots * * * ½

“Kinky Boots” is a nice, sweet and somewhat fresh little British film based on a true small town story charged on creativity, change, trust and social tolerance. It’s about a non-business-minded young man who inherits his late father’s struggling old-fashioned shoe factory. The key to his success is not only a loyal team of workers, but also a no-nonsense, savvy and personable business-minded transvestite who randomly comes into his life. Together they turn the left and the right, switching shoe gears to support each other’s walk and the walk of their workers, becoming competitors in a new brand of shoe fashion.


Frenzy * * * *
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock / 1972

There is an incredible single shot of simplicity about ¾ into “Frenzy” that just mesmerizes the heck out of me and kind of makes me want to be a cinematographer. I watched the scene twice and find it to sum up the brilliance to Alfred Hitchcock and his master play with the art of cinema and the mind of the viewer. At this moment in the film the viewer has already been introduced to the “Necktie Murderer”, as you watch him escorting the film’s leading lady to his apartment. He is helping her lay low for a bit as she is romantically connected to the man wrongfully convicted of London’s notorious serial killing. Ironically enough, the well-groomed, smooth-talking strangler is also a friend to the accused man on the run from the authorities. We follow the woman and the real killer arm-in-arm from his produce business around the corner and up two flights of apartment stairs. They leave us at the door, her saying something similar to, “Thank you for your generosity and giving a lady a place to stay.”, and he jokingly-sinisterly replying with, “You’re welcome and happen to be just my type.” At that, the door closes and we are walked backwards in complete silence down the stairs, through the hallway, out the door, down the front steps and out into the busy street of London. We pass in front of produce sack handlers and wheel cart carriers, all hauling the hand-picked selections that will fill our future dinner plates and guts’ desire. Produce sacks similar to the one that the woman’s body will eventually be stuffed into and discarded in on a potato truck, in a darkly humorous and outrageous scene to follow. But before that, the viewer walks with the camera and watches in horror, knowing what’s next as you see darkened windows of the upstairs apartment from the street level. Never actually seeing a crime being committed, you know that the woman whom you’ve gotten to know the entire film has just bowed out. You know that she will die a senseless death that you cannot do anything about, except watch and know in silence. The act of being squarely in plain view of something of this nature, watching and not helping, is a horrible thing in its own way, and Hitchcock makes us sit and suffer inside our own morals and inner-turmoil. It’s something that jars the senses and shouts wildly and wickedly beyond most any scene that many modern suspense and thriller directors could ever dream of (well, except the Coen Bros.) These Hitchcock seconds of silence not only push our life and law buttons and stretch the emotional immediacy of a master filmmaker’s grand canvas at work and play. These silent seconds are also a tribute to the life about to be lost on screen and the reality of the brutality that we as humans do and see to each other every day…even 36 years after this shot seen round the world. This camera capture is not just a brilliant reflection on the characters, storytelling and the viewer. This shot is not merely a masterpiece of moviemaking. To me, this long shot is Hitchcock bowing out of his take on film and life.


Transamerica * * ½
Directed by: Duncan Tucker / 2005

I’d like to give this one three stars for trying, but the more it stares at me, the more I just plain didn’t like this movie. It was completely underwhelming to me and I lacked any sort of care for the poorly written story and under-developed characters. It had hints at something great lying underneath, but pretty much was thorough in failing to convince anything to me. However, I do give some credit to Felicity Huffman for tackling a very unusual and challenging Oscar nominated role. I feel she was the only thing going for this film, though I must confess that I lacked care for her character about thirty minutes into it. Huffman plays a man who is on the verge of having a complete sex change operation but finds out that he-she has an unruly teenage son from his-her college past and goes on the road to find and help him. Through a laboring (for this watcher as well) and ridiculous road journey from New York City to Los Angeles, Father-Mother and son both end up teaching-and-trusting-and-mis-trusting-and-trusting each other in travel. It’s not the content matter that left a bad taste in my mouth (sex changes, nudity, drug use…shock value blah), rather the way that almost the entire movie was handled in the writing and directing departments. Or, perhaps I’m just getting so tired of the indie market right now? First off, the film felt like it was marketed completely wrong (at least to me?). I knew the basic idea of the movie, but my 2006 impressions of the trailer told me that it was going to be more of a suburbia-struggle-character study type of plot. Actually, I must confess that I think I just got “House-Wived” with clever-stupid marketing, but incredibly smart at the same time. Second, I thought the film would be more polished, and that usually doesn’t ruin something for me. I was disappointed that the more-so “indie” direction caused it to suffer in sincerity and instead relied on the typical cliché trappings of the indie market. The black humor wasn’t really that funny to me, the formulaic “quirky” characters annoyed and frustrated me with their over-blown caricatures and poor acting skills and I feel that there was some nudity that was completely unnecessary and stupid. Which, doesn’t completely destroy a film for me, I just feel that most directors need to be more subtle and original with their storytelling and learn to masterfully execute scenes and circumstances. To top it off, I feel that the idea of “the road trip” picture has finally exhausted itself and the last original and great movie in this genre is Alexander Payne’s five star storyteller “Sideways”. Nice idea, “Transamerica”, but you did close to nothing for me. The best thing that you did for me was spawn a brilliant piece of dialogue in last year’s fantastic film, “Knocked Up”. In fact, this line by Jason Segal inspired me to want to watch you. I shall try to paraphrase/clean it up a bit: “You know who’s hot? That Felicity Huffman. Ever since I saw “Transamerica” I can’t get her off of my mind!”.


DJG / Six Random Films

Regarding Henry * * * *

Directed by: Mike Nichols / 1991

This is a paint-by-numbers early ‘90s mainstream Oscar-pushing drama from Mike Nichols starring Harrison Ford as an arrogant money-grubbing lawyer who has a change of mind and heart after having to start life again and re-get-to-know his family and friends after a random gunshot wound. It’s solid and has a heart, but I wanted a lot more in the moviemaking department out of this one. Maybe it just feels a bit dated and manipulative in terms of moviemaking to me. Though, I could easily watch it again!? I’m stupid though. Regardless, I really enjoyed regarding Harrison Ford (Henry) in a childlike mind and his lack of care for real world hustle-bustle while deliberately knocking over glasses of orange juice, painting Ritz Crackers boxes in folk art style and spontaneously buying hotdogs and puppies. We should all regard and treat others and life like the new Henry. Henry for President 2008!


Harold & Kumar: Escape From Guantanamo Bay * * * 1/2
Directed by: Jon Hurwitz and Hay Schlossberg / 2008

It seems that in just the last six months the American movie ratings system has upped the “down of the anty-panty” on what is deemed tolerable within the frame of an R-Rated film. True, when Harold & Kumar went to White Castle, not a rock nor stone was over-turned without the most outrageous case of vulgarity and sordid twist in the tale of two guys on one unbelievably stupid-awesome quest to quench the munchies and tail. This new tale, taking place immediately after H & K crapped out 40 burgers and fries (among other things) seems to not only be a little less awesome and more stupid, but trying way too hard to scrape beneath the NC-17 mark. Crazy and likeable Harold & Kumar (oh, and Neil Patrick Harris, aka: NPH!) again seem to get into the most ridiculous situations, pre-DICK-aments and racial hoop-lah, though their escape from Guantanamo Bay and drive thru the deep American south and eventual fatty blaze in Amsterdam isn’t nearly as watchable nor as gut-bursting as their trip to White Castle. It’s certainly stupid-awesome fun, but at the expense of trying too hard to push it real good.


Clock Watchers * * * ½
Directed by: Jill Sprecher / 1997

“Clock Watchers” is a solid little '90s independent sleeper comedy starring Toni Colette, Parker Posey and Lisa Kudrow who play out the everyday office environment antics and wrestling with doing “hard time” in-between cubicled clock punches. After working in an office for two years now, stories told like this really hit home with the absurdity and sometimes bizarre and pointless world that it can be. All three actresses, particularly Parker Posey, brilliantly play to the lunacy of cubicle land and the idea that this working life doesn’t have to be permanent. This film would fit nicely in a two-pack with “Office Space”.


The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion * * * *
Directed by: Woody Allen / 2001

Solid production design and directing on this cute, little, 1930/40s-throwback, romantic-comedy-caper flick from Woody Allen starring Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd and Elizabeth Berkley. The film again finds a talky, sweet and clueless Woody Allen performance entangled in a plot trying to get out of trouble and trying to steal the girl who gives him trouble.


Au Revoir Les Enfants * * * * 1/2
Directed by: Louis Malle / 1987

Heart-tugging 1987 film about survival and friendship from writer-director Louis Malle. The story is true to one of his years at French boarding school during WWII when he befriended a Jewish boy illegal immigrant who was secretly protected as a student there. Though very solid filmmaking and touching, the film isn’t necessarily a must-see on a moviemaking level (at least to me), rather watch it on a cultural and educational one. Stories of this era are truly fascinating to me and I really have nothing to complain about my upbringing when the obstacles of past generations or even now generations are told through a camera for me to watch. Two things are for certain...1: I would never want to go to a boarding school, and 2: I would never want to go to a boarding school especially during WWII.


The Savages * * * *
Directed by: Tamara Jenkins / 2007

Bitter-sweet and quite honest story that I feel many people can relate to, yet find uncomfortable at the same time (in the vein of an Alexander Payne movie). It is about an adult brother and sister (brilliantly acted with friendly-sibling-rivalry by Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Laura Linney) who realize they need to grow up as they go through the ordeal of arranging a nursing home for their ailing father…a father who hasn’t had much to do with them before. The film is well put together and paced, though suffers to a few of the typical trappings of similar quirky family dramedies that tend to frustrate me in the independent film route. Still, this is one of the more solidly played films of 2007.


Monday, July 28, 2008

New Werner Herzog Film: "The Gymnast"

NEW WERNER HERZOG FILM: "THE GYMNAST" (2008, Wild Blue Yonder Productions)

(AP) Werner Herzog's latest project, a documentary entitled The Gymnast, finds him shooting super-8 footage at the Olympics in Beijing.

"I am fascinated by Olympic athletes because they realize their physical potential in a way that few of us ever can or will," says Herzog, his worn frame clad in a black leather jacket with a frayed wool collar. "I am no athlete, but I am going to compete in the Olympics this year on my own terms."

That's right. Herzog, no stranger to controversy or publicity, fully plans on entering the Olympic arena himself. The event? The pommel horse.

"My cinematographer Chris Doyle jokes that I am going to 'pummel' the pommel horse," Herzog says in his detached, German accent. Although he will not audition for admission to the games, Olympic officials have agreed to allow him to enter under certain conditions.

Wei Ling, Chief Medical Officer at the Olympics, has insisted that Herzog undergo a physical before entering the games. "I also have to undergo the same battery of drug and steroid tests as the other Olympic athletes. Do they really think I am going to test positive? I am Werner Herzog. This is enough."

Zhang Yimou, the famed Chinese film-maker who will be directing the opening ceremonies, plans to lend Herzog his cinematographer, acclaimed Aussie camera-man Christopher Doyle, for the shoot. Zhang's publicist said he was unavailable for comment at press time.

DJG's Movie Morning Monday / The Fisher King

The Fisher King * * * *
Directed by: Terry Gilliam / 1991

The visionary brew of Terry Gilliam’s mini-epic fantasy films is incredibly unique and after finally seeing “The Fisher King” I’d love to see him fuse his funhouse head to more dramas. Keeping the fantasy in the background, Gilliam leaves room for more heart, soul, love, truth, redemption and subtle storytelling. Though, he still brings to the table his trademark punch for dream-like genius and Holy Grail soul searching. The choice to cast Robin Williams as a homeless man on a quest for love with nightmare visions makes sense even if his first few scenes feel too obvious. But, just when you think Robin Williams is being too much like Robin Williams, he sheds his skin (and clothes too for that matter!) to give you a complex character to fully absorb in. In fact, the entire movie is another absorbing gem for Gilliam. I can't believe it took me so long to see it.


DJG's Weekend Watcher

Sydney White * * * 1/2
Directed by: Joe Nussbaum / 2007

Also known as "Sydney White and the Seven Dorks", this fun family film is a modern day tale of Snow White set on a college campus. It's a movie that I was a bit suspect to killing a Friday evening with, but found myself extreme enjoyment and good clean fun! Bubbly, straight-laced and baby-faced Amanda Bynes plays Sydney White, a college freshman rushing a Kappa sorority to follow in her late mother's footsteps. Raised by her construction working father, White is better with a hammer and a football than a hair brush and exfoliator. Bynes plays Sydney White in that young girl-next-door, Jennifer Aniston sort of way. She is good-natured, lovable and friendly to everyone she meets, including the head-female-dog-of-a sorority leader and student council president brat Rachel Witchburn (played to icy perfection by Sara Paxton). Witchburn boots and bans her from the sorority after White begins to take a liking for her ex-boyfriend Tyler Prince (Charmingly played by Matt Long). Hurt and humiliated, White ends up moving into a fire trap of a house with a group of extreme and over-exaggerated cases of socially-retarded dorks. It's an unlikely match of a cute girl with seven idiot weirdos, but they make it work and the dorks start to mingle with Tyler Prince's crowd. As competition for the hottest girl on campus and pending student government election gets everyone in major heat, Sydney White and the seven dorks help all walks of student to unite and realize that it's cool to not be cool!

Spellbound * * * *
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock / 1945

Something to watch for in "Spellbound" is Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant use of master artist Salvador Dali in a climactic dream sequence. Hitchcock employs his typical tricks, but the movie magic shines bright with Dali tacking on his surrealist thumb prints to this tale of psychoanalysis. The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Petersen who falls in love with fellow psychoanalyst Dr. Anthony Edwards (no, not of “E.R.” fame!). Gregory Peck plays a peculiar Dr. Edwards and ends up needing some therapy of his own.

The Shining * * * * *
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick / 1980

The acting trio of Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd as a family with a mad case of cabin fever in "The Shining" all work extremely well on individual and collaborative levels of performance of grand isolation. Though, it's the musical score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elking that takes my cake for best character and steals nearly every scene. It's piercing and chilling shrieks of haunt and terror raise my eye lashes time and time again. Mix the superb acting with the even better music and Stanley Kubrick's incredible knack for camera work, pacing and editing and you've got a masterpiece of horror on an impressive filmmaking scale. Very few Stephen King story originals turn into genius with moving pictures but Kubrick brings his own brand of brilliance to the script and pieces together a frighteningly delicious and mysterious movie still fresh after thirty years.

No Country For Old Men * * * * *
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen / 2007

The Coen brothers have generated an impressive, unique and creative canon of film over the last quarter of a century. While 1996's "Fargo" is possibly their masterpiece, last year’s Oscar Best Picture, "No Country for Old Men", is pretty darn close behind, yet stands a far distance ahead of their other work. Near-perfection frame-by-frame the film is a powerhouse thriller game of cat and mouse and one of the finer feats of filmmaking in recent years. I'm not sure if I'll read Cormac McCarthy's book that the film is based on, even though I'm a fan of his work. From what I understand the film is extremely faithful to it and I feel the Coen world and characters would be hard to get out of my head while reading. Though, the film ends up reading similar to a great book for me, with an eerie absence of music, engrossing characters and delicate handling of subtleties in dialogue and storytelling. Like some books, it's hard to put down and is extremely fluid. But, I can read this one in a little over two hours!

Pee-Wee's Playhouse: Vol. 1 * * * * *

Despite some of the controversy surrounding Paul Reubens, I still think that his Pee-Wee Herman is an American original and quite genius. Five seasons and 45 episodes of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” was a staple in not only my Saturday breakfast, but also in my personal vernacular. Mix that whacky with a pinch of “Ren & Stimpy”, “Star Wars” and Dr. Demento’s radio show (among many others), and the language of my formative years was pretty obtuse and no wonder I was the subject of repeated picked-on in high school. But, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Pee-Wee Herman has forever been engrained in my daily thinking and often translates to my own creative output. Visiting the Playhouse is like taking a hit of acid at Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. However, it’s not too far off from Rogers’ own puppet world of where imagination and education mix well. Pee-Wee just amps everything up to 11 and does a bit more screaming. I enjoy the Playhouse’s freshly creative sets, animations, odd friendships, google-eyed EVERYTHING, secret words, silly humor and absurdity even more as an adult. I think maybe because I’ve carried it for so many years in my head and own work? But, it’s the study of Reubens’ brilliantly odd and dark Pee-Wee Herman character that I can’t take my own google eyes off of. He certainly takes the ice cream soup prize and shares it with me. If you’ve never seen the show and are a fan of underlining dark, fun and very weird things, please do. This is mad creative genius to the core and even better to revisit in adulthood. I still get a little sad as the credits roll and composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s nostalgic and gorgeous tune carries me down the road with Pee-Wee and his scooter. But, at least on DVD I don’t have to wait until next Saturday!

Uncle Buck * * * 1/2
Directed by: John Hughes / 1989

Actor John Candy coated many a movie with his fun-loving, down-on-his-luck, nice guy vibes before his untimely passing in 1994. I can’t believe he’s been gone that long and I wish he was still around. I bet he would have really crafted and pushed his talents for similar roles that Bill Murray has been getting the past decade. “Uncle Buck”, isn’t one of my favorite movies of his, but it is certainly family fun as it goes for typical ‘80s gags, gut-busting on up to the heart. But it’s the sweet charm and pumping heart of Candy who spit shines nearly every scene and even keeps up the pace with the very young and likeable Macaulay Culkin.


Sunday, July 27, 2008



And this weekend's winner is...

"Head-On" *****

At my sister's recommendation I finally got around to seeing this German/Turkish epic love story (Yeah, it's a bit of a tough sell). It is the film equivalent of a knock-out punch delivered by a boxer whose fearlessness and clarity are peerless. The story is lucid and immediate, abrasive and real.

Like Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, however, its segments are punctuated by brief musical interludes by a group of Turkish musicians who frame the story and remind us that we are watching a film.

Danny would see this film and say something about it was like "eating a whole pizza" because it fills your mind's stomach rather than leaving you wanting like so much Hollywood filler. I would agree with his assessment, and I would highly recommend this explosive love story to you, dear film-goers.

This week's loser is...

Le Boucher (The Butcher) **

Le snooze.

A) While I like Michael Haneke's original Funny Games (I have not seen his shot-for-shot American remake) I was also put off by its gimmickry. The same is true of this film. Claude Chabrol, who wrote for the landmark French publication Cahiers du Cinema, directed this thing. He must have said to himself, "Hmm... Let's make a murder film where the woman falls in love with a man and finds out with the passage of time that he is a murderer. I will make the audience have tender feelings for a killer." Thanks, Claude, but no thanks. It's not that it's a bad idea. It's just that you're a little heavy-handed with it. It's a little obvious.

B) The film is an hour-and-a-half long. Forty-seven minutes into the film, something finally happened that made me say "Oh, that's kind of interesting." But like a sudden bout of bad gas after a Mexican meal, the storm of excitement blew over quickly and left only the stench of boredom in its wake.

C) The film looks bad. And while films can be heard, they are also made to be seen. So when a film looks bad in addition to being manipulative, boring, and slow, it's a bit hard to justify it also looking bad.

On the bright side, the parts that were interesting were interesting, and I can see how Chabrol's initial idea was innovative in its own right. I appreciate the attempt, but I want my 90 minutes back, Claude.

Margot at the Wedding ****

I may have underestimated Noah Baumbach. While Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic has a cult following of its own, it registered as only a mild earthquake on my film-reviewing Richter scale. While he only wrote the screenplay for Anderson, he directed The Squid and the Whale, which was solid enough, but also felt constipated to me. It felt pretentious even though the gravity of story came through loud and clear. I felt what the characters were feeling, but I also felt that the characters were largely unsympathetic cretins who were responsible for creating and perpetuating their own personal Hells. These were not characters I could love in spite of their faults -- I wanted to feed them to their faults.

Margot at the Wedding is an improvement in my book. The writing feels less pressured, less intentional, and more natural. The result is a film that is every bit as caustic as The Squid and the Whale, but less like a day with a clinically depressed family that has forgotten to take their Valium. It wisely steers clear of the dysfunctional-family dark-comedy indie-film and opts for something that feels more organic, more beautiful, but vicious at the same time. Mr. Baumbach, thanks for giving us something this good.

The Fisher King ****

Terry Gilliam must get headaches all the time with that huge imagination crammed in his 'noggin. I have yet to see Brazil, but it is on my Netflix queue now, all the more so because I have seen The Fisher King.

It is whimsical and heartrending and tender and imaginative like the best dreams and the worst nightmares, and it sort of feels like a mix of both. I hate summarizing plots in reviews, so I will simply say this: My girlfriend left her cellphone at my apartment Friday night before she went out for drinks with friends from work, and this was prime bachelor time for me. Because of this film I got in my car and drove her cellphone to her at the Eldridge Hotel bar because I knew she would be glad if I did so. It made me appreciate her more. Good films affect real life.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Beginning to See the Light: Signs of Transformation in P.T. Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love"

Beginning to the See the Light:

Signs of Transformation
in P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love

By Chad T. Johnston


The Velvet Underground’s debut LP, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), was shrouded in shadowy chic, its lyrical themes ranging from drug use (“Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin”) to sadomasochism (“Venus in Furs”) to death (“The Black Angel’s Death Song,” “European Son”), and its music often assaulting the listener with electric violin and brain-lacerating feedback. While The Beatles may have been alluding to drugs in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the Velvet Underground’s vocalist Lou Reed was singing explicitly about them: “Heroin/It’s my life/it’s my wife.”[i]

By the band’s third LP – a hushed, self-titled record released in 1969 – its music had become a vehicle for quasi-religious reflection, with Reed singing about Jesus and declaring, “I’m beginning to see the light.”[ii] Because these songs of enlightenment coexisted with darker pieces like “The Murder Mystery” and “After Hours,” the light that Reed sang about was probably more like a candle flickering in the dark than religious revelation or sunshine. Nevertheless, there is a sense of reverence on this record that is absent from the band’s debut. It seems that a subtle transformation has taken place – a light has been introduced to the darkness. It is worth mentioning that that Reed’s 1972 solo album, produced by David Bowie, was entitled Transformer. It is also worth noting that Reed has gone on to transform himself repeatedly during his career as a recording artist.

Transformation is part of the human story. The idea of a religious conversion experience in which a person “sees the light” and is transformed as a result is a popular story in American culture. It is no surprise then, that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), the protagonist in P.T. Anderson’s film Punch-Drunk Love (2002) “sees the light” and finds himself transformed. The expression “seeing the light” calls to mind the Biblical account of Saul’s conversion en route to Damascus chronicled in Acts 9: “As (Saul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’”[iii] This event was what transformed Saul into the Apostle Paul. Unlike this Biblical narrative, however, P.T. Anderson’s story is grounded in the experience of romantic love rather than religion, and he explores not only the signifying capabilities of light, but sound as well as he realizes Barry Egan’s transformation.

This essay will explore Barry’s transformation in Punch-Drunk Love in terms of paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs. Before exploring these concepts, however, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the film.

Film Overview

Punch-Drunk Love is, first and foremost, a testament to the transforming power of love. It tells the story of Barry Egan, a sad, self-employed salesman who sells toilet plungers and wears the same blue suit everyday. He is an eccentric, insecure, inept loner who lives in his own world, oblivious to “how other people are.”[iv] He has seven domineering sisters, all of whom are determined to force Barry out of his cloistered world. He does not welcome their intrusions, as he demonstrates when – in reaction to their taunts – he throws a tantrum at one of their houses, shattering three glass doors with three forceful blows. In addition to his problem with anger, he also lies chronically to hide the truth about his inner world, but his lies are clumsy and ineffective, like a child who tries to convince his mother that his room is clean when she knows he has merely hidden everything under his bed.

In his spare time he stockpiles massive quantities of chocolate pudding to take advantage of a marketing error that enables people who buy any ten Healthy Choice products to accumulate ridiculous amounts of frequent flyer miles. In one scene, Barry explains that he can purchase “…pudding at 25 cents a cup … in packages of four. But insanely the bar codes are on the individual cups.”[v]

In an attempt find an island of intimacy in his ocean of loneliness, Barry calls a phone sex hotline. Rather than finding the connection he is searching for, however, he is victimized by the phone service’s corrupt management. Barry’s loneliness ultimately finds its remedy in a woman named Lena (Emily Watson), who loves him in spite of – and maybe even because of – his awkwardness. He is transformed by her love. He no longer lies, for example, but instead confesses everything to her as if she is a priest. Additionally, when Lena goes to Hawaii for business, Barry follows her despite the fact that it is impossible for him to redeem his frequent flyer miles in time for his trip. Before Lena came along, Barry never would have had the impetus to defy convention and act with such bold abandon.

More significantly, before Lena comes into his life, when roughnecks from the phone sex hotline track him down and force him to withdraw money from his bank account, his resistance is laughable, as he is a bundle of nerves and neuroses. After Lena enters his life, however, when the same roughnecks return and inadvertently injure Lena when they slam into Barry’s car, he dispatches them in quick succession with a crowbar. He even drives from his home in Los Angeles to Provo, Utah to confront the hotline’s manager, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). With fire in his eyes, Barry boldly declares to Trumbell, “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”[vi] In this sequence, it is clear that Barry’s anger is no longer the anger of a child, but the anger of a man who will stop at nothing to protect his lover from harm. Trumbell backs down, and Barry and Lena – as the old cliché goes – live happily ever after.

Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Signs

The above summary is incomplete in the sense that it does not account for the influence of signs on the film’s narrative. In Punch-Drunk Love, these signs are instrumental in conveying the intimacies of Barry’s inner world to the audience. On that note, this essay focuses specifically on paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs because they seem well suited to explain how Barry’s story is conveyed in the film. At this juncture, an overview of paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs will be provided, followed by a discussion of the way these signs are used in Punch-Drunk Love.

First, paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs are defined by their relation to other signs. That is, the meaning of any paradigmatic or syntagmatic sign is defined connotatively by its relationship to other signs. In discussing paradigmatic connotation, James Monaco explains,
When our sense of the connotation of a specific shot depends on its having been chosen from a range of other possible shots, then we can say that this is, using the language of Semiology, a paradigmatic connotation. That is, the connotative sense we comprehend stems from the shot being compared, not necessarily consciously, with its unrealized companions in the paradigm, or general model, of this type of shot.[vii]

Monaco then discusses an example of a paradigmatic sign, explaining that a rose could be shot in many different ways, and each shot would convey different connotative meaning: “A low-angle shot of a rose, for example, conveys a sense that the flower is … dominant, overpowering, because we consciously or unconsciously compare it with say, an overhead shot of a rose, which would diminish it’s importance.”[viii]

While Monaco’s definition of paradigmatic signification seems to focus
primarily on comparing shot compositions, Christian Metz seems to suggest that there are multiple factors that might prompt comparison to other possible shots, writing, "For the 'pro-filmic' spectacles are themselves unlimited in number; the exact nature of lighting can be varied infinitely and by quantities that are nondiscrete; the same applies to the axial distance between the subject and the camera, to the camera angle, to the properties of the film and the focal length of the lens, and to the exact trajectory of camera movements. It suffices to vary one of these elements by a perceptible quantity to obtain another image."[ix]

Metz seems to suggest that the variables that factor into the creation of an image become problematic when comparing one image to another possible image. Thus, he asserts that “the paradigmatic category in film is condemned to remain partial and fragmentary, at least as long as one tries to isolate it on the level of the image.”[x] This essay’s approach to paradigmatic signs will resemble Monaco more than Metz, but it will draw from Metz’ list of variables that might factor into “(obtaining) another image.”

Gillian Rose explains that syntagmatic signs, on the other hand, “gain their meaning from the signs that … come before or after them in sequence in a moving image … Thus certain signs in a film may gain extra meaning because they have occurred in a previous scene.”[xi] In discussing syntagmatic connotation, James Monaco returns to his discussion of the rose, explaining that “the significance of the rose depends not on the shot compared with other potential shots, but rather on the shot compared with actual shots that precede or follow it.”[xii]

In discussing Punch-Drunk Love, three examples of paradigmatic signs and syntagmatic signs will be explored, and in that sequence. Because the film’s narrative emphasizes Barry’s viewpoint, it is worthwhile to explore paradigmatic connotation in the film that functions to establish Barry’s identity.

Paradigmatic Signs in Punch-Drunk Love

In order to make Barry’s transformation a reality, P.T. Anderson first establishes Barry’s life as it is before Lena’s influence affects it. The state of Barry’s interior world seems to be mirrored in the exterior world. That is, Barry’s environment is like a silent narrator that tells the audience things about Barry’s inner world.

The first shot of the film, for example, relies on paradigmatic connotation to establish Barry as a loner. It is a long shot of Barry working at a desk in the corner of an otherwise empty, dimly lit office that resembles a basement more than anything else. Anderson could have chosen to shoot a close-up of Barry, but instead he chose to use a long shot instead, emphasizing Barry’s isolation as well as the empty space in the room. The resulting shot conveys a sense of loneliness and emptiness. This connotation is partially the result of the dingy, lackluster appearance of the office itself, and partially the result of calculated shot composition.

In another scene, Barry is shopping for pudding at the grocery store. This is no typical shopping experience however, and Anderson emphasizes this through shots that call attention to the geometric aspects of the grocery store’s aesthetic. Using a wide-angle lens and bright white lighting, Anderson highlights the parallel lines created by row upon row of ceiling lights, as well as the blue diagonal lines that decorate the floor, and the parallel shelves that hold the store’s products. This is not a locally owned, neighborhood grocery store, nor is it Nicholas Mirzoeff’s vision of Wal-Mart, a “big-box store (that) reduces visual pleasure to a minimum.”[xiii] It is visually stimulating, an obsessive-compulsive dream of cleanliness and order. When Barry is shopping in the grocery store, the rigid geometry of the store is in some way transferred to his character. The shots Anderson uses connote structure, order, and cleanliness, and it just so happens that Barry refuses to venture outside of the structured, ordered, clean existence he has made for himself.

In the third and final scene discussed here, Barry calls the phone sex hotline from his apartment late at night. The walls of his apartment are white, and one generic, nondescript painting is centered on one of them. The lighting in the room is soft and dim. He sits at one end of a rectangular dining table, and the camera slowly pans to the left of him to reveal that the opposing seat at the dining table is empty. Additionally, a place has been set in front of this empty seat, complete with plate, drinking glass, and silverware.

It would seem that Anderson has chosen this shot because the viewer will inevitably compare it to other dinner table images. A full dinner table, for example, suggests family, life, and togetherness, while a dinner table occupied by only two people suggests romance and intimacy. This scene, then, connotes isolation and alienation simply by comparison to the other possible shots Anderson could have chosen from. The completely sterile appearance of the apartment only enhances this sense further. This is not an apartment where someone lives – it is merely an apartment where someone exists. The composition seems to force the viewer to wrestle with the shot, as it is claustrophobic and imbalanced; Barry is hemmed in between the table and the right frame of the screen, and the opposing empty chair makes the composition feel asymmetrical. It is as if Anderson wants to call the audience’s attention to this unusual setup.

On a side note, this scene is also a variation on filmic depictions of phone sex. Anderson could have chosen to depict Barry in a state of undress or in bed, but instead he chooses to seat Barry at a dinner table and dress him in a button-up shirt, formal pants, and a tie. During the conversation Barry engages in small talk, gets up from his chair, and walks around as if he is nervous. In this instance, mise-en-scène and dialog work together to suggest that Barry is ultimately calling the hotline for conversation rather than sexual arousal.

The above three scenes provide insight into Barry’s world through conscious or unconscious comparison with other possible images – other possible work environments, grocery stores, and dinner table experiences, to be precise. To understand Barry’s transformation, it is worthwhile to explore the role of certain syntagmatic signs in the film.
Syntagmatic Signs in Punch-Drunk Love

Although one could discuss any number of syntagmatic signs in Punch-Drunk Love, this section will specifically focus on the signs that suggest that Barry’s world is changing; that a transformation is occurring. In one of the first scenes in the film, multiple signs are introduced into the narrative that later become significant from a syntagmatic standpoint.

In this scene, it is morning and Barry arrives at work early. The streets are empty and everything is quiet in the vicinity of his office building. During an outdoor coffee break, however, his world is interrupted by three intrusions: First, as he stands by the road, drinking his coffee, a passing car suddenly veers out of control and violently crashes with no warning, jarring Barry out of his early morning stupor. Despite the horrific nature of this incident, the camera never returns to this vehicle. It seems to be nothing more than a visual non sequitur. Second, a beautiful, friendly woman in red (Lena) parks outside of his office building, asking if she can leave her car there for the auto service next door to repair. This would not be startling to most people, but to the socially inept Barry, it is every bit as jarring as the car crash he just witnessed. Immediately after this encounter, Barry runs into his office building and hides in the shadows behind a nearby doorframe as if he were a frightened child. Third, a truck pulls up in front of his office building and spontaneously deposits an old, beat-up harmonium onto the curb before disappearing as suddenly as it appeared. Barry cautiously picks up the harmonium and carries it into his office.

I see this scene as being significant in a discussion of syntagmatic signs for a few reasons. First, this sequence perfectly illustrates the idea that syntagmatic signs gain their meaning from “the signs that … come before or after them in sequence in a moving image.”[xiv] If these intrusions may, for the sake of this discussion, be considered signs, then each intrusion that punctuates this scene serves as context for interpreting the next successive intrusion.

For example, the anxiety that characterizes Barry’s introductory encounter with Lena is heightened by the car crash that immediately preceded it; it is as if this scene is borrowing anxiety from the car crash to enhance its impact. Furthermore, the car crash and Barry’s encounter with Lena make it all the more reasonable (and yet still surprising) for the harmonium to spontaneously appear without explanation. It is as if these three intrusions work together to open Barry’s insular world to the outside influences of surprise and serendipity, among other things. At the same time, they convey the anxiety that inevitably accompanies the introduction of these new possibilities.

This scene is also significant because it introduces elements into the film that function as syntagmatic signs: darkness and light, and sound (via the harmonium). Both of these elements are instrumental in communicating Barry’s transformation to the audience.

Anderson infuses darkness and light with syntagmatic significance in Punch-Drunk Love. Rose’s assertion that “certain signs in a film may gain extra meaning because they have occurred in a previous scene” is particularly significant here.[xv] Each time Anderson calls attention to darkness or light in the film, it is as if a code is being written that infuses darkness and light with meaning. This means that as the film progresses, darkness and light inevitably draw meaning from every preceding sequence in the film that employs them in some way. Syntax is at work here, as darkness and light are contextualized and defined by their uses in previous sequences.

The first notable use of light in the film, for example, comes in the form of a lens flare that flashes across the screen just before Barry meets Lena. Lens flares – particularly blue-tinted ones – punctuate the film from beginning to end. In some ways, they serve as reminders that the viewer should be attuned to the use of light in the film. They also add an almost transcendent quality to the film, as if they were visually representing love itself.

Shortly after the appearance of the first lens flare, when Barry hides in the shadows behind the doorframe, it initially seems insignificant. However, as the film progresses it becomes apparent that Barry is often depicted in dimly lit environments. When he calls the phone sex hotline, for example, he is calling from a dimly lit apartment. The last shot of this sequence is a direct shot of a bright table lamp, and the camera’s aperture is open wide enough that the lamplight is blinding. Although Barry’s attempt at connecting with another human through phone sex is an artificial, substitute form of interpersonal intimacy, it is enough to introduce light into Barry’s world in some way. Appropriately, this shot is short in duration, emphasizing the transient nature of this intimacy. Additionally, Barry is nowhere to be seen in this shot, as if this intimacy is disembodied in some way, not unlike the disembodied voice of the woman on the phone.

When Lena introduces light into Barry’s life, this light is qualitatively different than the light depicted in the scene above, although enough similarities exist to ensure that the instances are syntagmatically connected. For example, when Barry boards the plane to follow Lena to Hawaii, the end of the boarding tunnel is ablaze with blinding light. The blinding nature of this light syntagmatically relates it to the lamplight in the phone sex scene, although this light is more expansive and intense, suggesting a portal into another world as in a science-fiction film. As Barry walks through the tunnel he steps into the light, and his image is completely eclipsed by it as he passes through. This is not the disembodied intimacy of the phone sex scene. This is love. He is entering into an all-consuming intimacy that embraces him in his entirety. This scene gains additional meaning as an inversion of the scene in which Barry hides in the shadows after meeting Lena. Indeed, it is clear that Barry is transforming, as he no longer hides in the shadows, but exposes himself to the light instead.

When Barry reaches Hawaii, the sun is slowly setting. In an act of spontaneity, he calls Lena from a payphone on a street where a parade is passing through. When he first attempts to call Lena he reaches a wrong number. On the second attempt, however, she answers, and the phone booth’s light comes on simultaneously. It is as if the phone booth has become a conductor for Barry and Lena’s love.

Barry’s transformative journey out of darkness and into the light is echoed by changes in the film’s soundtrack. While image and sound are clearly different filmic elements, both can be used for syntagmatic signification. Furthermore, an essay about Punch-Drunk Love that did not explore the sonic dimension of the film would be incomplete.

First, it is useful to explore the nature of the music in this film. In discussing P.T. Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999), which was released three years prior to Punch-Drunk Love, Jane Dillman asserts that the music used in Magnolia “speaks to the condition of the character as opposed to working in counterpoint to the image.”[xvi] This approach is used in Punch-Drunk Love as well, as Anderson reinforces Barry’s character development with music.

The syntagmatic signification of the music in the film functions to communicate Barry’s transformation. For example, toward the beginning of the film, before he meets Lena, the soundtrack is amusical, primarily consisting of percussive rhythms and electronic blips and bleeps. The music seems to signify Barry’s interior state. As he becomes more nervous, the soundscape becomes increasingly littered with what can only be described as racket. For example, when one of his overbearing sisters enters his office to confront him, the sounds of a marching drumline threaten to eclipse character dialogue entirely.

When Lena enters Barry’s life, on the other hand, the soundtrack becomes musical. This is where syntax enters into the equation: The impact of this music is heightened by its relationship to the amusical soundtrack that accompanies Barry’s life prior to Lena’s influence. This music’s meaning is defined by the amusical racket that precedes it. Barry’s world has undergone a transformation. He has “seen the light,” and this change in music is part of what tells the audience of this conversion experience.

The connection between Barry and music is established when the harmonium appears immediately after he meets Lena. Through syntax, Lena and the harmonium also become related in some strange way. Immediately after Barry carries the harmonium to his office, he attempts to play it. This is the first time the audience hears the harmonium and, although it is a relatively abominable affair, there is a sense of broken musicality in Barry’s attempt. As Lena becomes more involved in his life, the plaintive music of the harmonium appears in the soundtrack with greater frequency until it becomes part of a larger, full-blown romantic score. Eventually, love’s whimsicality prevails as Shelley Duvall’s performance of “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) begins to serve as Barry and Lena’s love song. Barry is under love’s spell, and it is music that communicates this to the audience. Furthermore, it is the way this music contrasts with the amusical scores that precede it that enhances this experience.


The syntagmatic signs that communicate the story of Barry’s transformation from loser to lover – including the three intrusions , darkness and light, and sound – are fascinating in their own right. These signs, as well as the paradigmatic signs discussed earlier, also assist in advancing the film’s narrative. Indeed, when Barry Egan sees the light of love and is transformed, he opens up a whimsical world that is wonderful to explore.

[i] The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico, LP, Verve/MGM, V6-5008, ℗ & © Three Prong Music.
[ii] The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground, LP, MGM, SE 4617, ℗ & © Oakfield Avenue Music Ltd.
[iii] The Life Application Bible: New International Version (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1991), 1964.
[iv] “Smell of Blood,” Punch-Drunk Love, DVD, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2002; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2002).
[v] “Date Scene,” Punch-Drunk Love, DVD, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2002; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2002).
[vi] “That’s That,” Punch-Drunk Love, DVD, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2002; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2002).
[vii] James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 131.
[viii] Ibid., 131-132.
[ix] Christian Metz, “From Film Language: Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 72-73.
[x] Ibid., 73.
[xi] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies (London: SAGE Publications), 78.
[xii] James Monaco, How to Read a Film, 132.
[xiii] Nicolas Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2005), 44.
[xiv] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies, 78.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] J.C. Dillman, “Magnolia: Masquerading as Soap Opera,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33, no. 3 (2005): 142-150.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

DJG / Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques * * * * ½

Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot / 1954

The burden of an aggressive or emotionally draining companion’s weight can be terrible. One would assume that a love triangle would be even worse. Though, both probably don’t come close to the burden of a guilty conscience or anxiety that comes alongside the plot to take a life and follow through. And what’s worse is when the life you know you’ve just taken disappears, soul AND body!

Tension mounts with a story well-scripted in Henri-Geroges Clouzot’s fantastic murder mystery that is still just as creepy, peculiar and alarming today as I’m sure it was 54 years ago. Very Alfred Hitchcock to the core, it’s no wonder the rights to secure this French thriller were missed by Hitchcock by just a handful of hours. Something that makes the film work well and keeps the viewer second-guessing is the Hitchcock-like ploy of throwing random and non-essential ingredients in the mix. This creates a convoluted story soup to keep your mind off the main course that’s been stewing the entire time.


DJG / Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 6

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 6 * * * *

The constant beep of a smoke alarm awakens Larry David and his wife Cheryl in the night in the opening minutes of this solid season. Dealing with frustrating annoyances for Larry equals smashing them to bits with a baseball bat. Coincidentally enough, L.D. isn’t too far off from the smoke alarm annoyance himself as he has exhausted all of his friends and even his wife and they all come close to reaching for a bat themselves. In the wake of everything in the everyday walk, large or small that is a Larry code red crisis, he has harbored a family of hurricane victims to share his home with. They are a black family with the last name of Black (of course) and they somehow help L.D. to keep level-headed. Only Larry David can pull off the level of hilarity, tension and high-jinx that comes in season six of this brilliantly improved comedy whirlwind. The ending alone is almost on par to the question mark that is the entire series of LOST. It’s not surprising to me that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has made it this far, though I’m sure on paper it’s a sketchy mess. It wouldn’t work without the amazing improvisation and play of the actors, some playing more amped up version of themselves, such as Larry David and Ted Danson. However, the series is starting to feel like it’s running out of gas a bit. I feel that on a typical sitcom whenever a baby or an in-law moves onto the set, that means the show is winding down, same with The Blacks. Though, The Black family is fantastic, hilarious and fit well for a show that speaks loudly about the weird-normal incidents in life, I still feel at times season six tries extremely too hard to go over the top. Still, I love going over with it and watching everything get smashed to bits.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Cinemaddict's Fix/In the Realms of the Unreal


In the Realms of the Unreal


(2004, Dir. Jessica Yu) Unrated

By Chad T. Johnston

I am of the opinion that "weird" is a highly underrated commodity in this world, or at least in America. With this in mind, Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal reminds us of the value of the weird, as it is a documentary that chronicles the life of a janitor named Henry Darger.

"Why would I want to see a film about a janitor?" You ask.

Let me ask you a better question: Why wouldn't you want to see a film about a janitor who – despite being thoroughly reclusive and developmentally-delayed during his life – secretly wrote a 15,000+ page fantasy novel and painted hundreds of accompanying paintings during his decidedly weird life?

Darger's works were discovered when he was on his deathbed, and now they are celebrated in the public sphere. I mean, when Sufjan Stevens immortalizes you in song (“The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius” on The Avalanche LP), you know you've arrived. This man's life was clearly sad, but paradoxically joyful at the same time. He avoided human contact, apparently made several failed attempts to adopt children, attended mass several times a day, yet constantly wrestled with God, and only found fame upon his demise.

All the same, Henry Darger's life reminds me that those of us who are prone to wander in the weirdlerness of life do not need to arrive at any particular destination so much as we need to recognize the strange beauty of the worlds we occupy at the moment. The weirdlerness is a beautiful place. All we need to do is stop and smell the, uh, garbage.

The Cinemaddict's Fix/"Palindromes" and the Russian Formalists

Transformer: Exploring Todd Solondz’ Palindromes Through the Eyes of the Russian Formalists

By Chad T. Johnston


Todd Solondz first came to my attention when I discovered that he had enlisted the services of Belle and Sebastian, independent music’s celebrated circus of sulk from Scotland, to provide the soundtrack to his film Storytelling (2001). It was fated to be – the band is to Solondz as hand is to glove. The first song on the band’s third LP, The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998), entitled “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” features a protagonist that could easily be a character in one of Solondz’ films: “He had a stroke at the age of 24/It could have been a brilliant career/Selling lies to the boys with the old Dansettes/Pulling the wool, playing the fool, it's no wonder that he is dribbling spit tonight[i]The characters that populate the band’s songs, like the characters in Solondz’ films, are awkward and gawky, repellent and reticent. Indeed, while Solondz’ characters are fundamentally different from their Hollywood counterparts, it could argued that they occupy a specific type like the Russian Formalists used.

Solondz’ latest film, Palindromes (2004), uniquely uses typage and other formal elements to defamiliarize the story of the pregnant teenager, thereby revitalizing it and infusing it with new meaning. This essay will explore these elements – including defamiliarization, creative acting, and typage – through the eyes of the Russian Formalists, focusing in particular on the works of Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein.

Film Overview

Before applying the concepts of the Russian Formalists to Palindromes, however, I want to provide an overview of the film, but not a plot synopsis. I have chosen this modus operandi because the plot specifics of this film are best explored in the process of theoretical application. Additionally, a summary of the plot would be incomplete without first discussing the film’s tone, dominant themes, and surreal structure, as these elements all inform the development of the film’s narrative.

Palindromes is the fifth feature-film in Todd Solondz’ oeuvre, which includes Fear, Anxiety, and Depression (1989), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998), and Storytelling (2001). Tonally, it occupies the same uncomfortable space as his other films, all of which seem to emphasize the “dark” in dark comedy. Additionally, it is a loosely associated sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse, beginning with the funeral of Dawn Wiener, …Dollhouse’s teenage protagonist.

Immediately after the funeral we are introduced to the Dawn’s cousin Aviva, a young, animated black girl who radiates megawatts of childlike warmth and innocence. In a conversation that establishes the tonal trajectory of the film, Aviva calls for her mother (Ellen Barkin), crying “I don’t want to be like Dawn! I don’t want to be like her, or end up like her…”[ii] In order to comfort Aviva, her mother tells her how she differs from Dawn: “Your cousin was a troubled child … a middle child … Her parents didn’t love her the way your father and I love you … Maybe if she hadn’t grown obese, if she’d gone to a dermatologist … something.”[iii] These words are spoken with utmost seriousness, typical of the sort of sadistic satire that characterizes Solondz’ films. This comment is representative of the tone of the entire script, as Solondz has a flare for emotional alchemy, transforming horror into hilarity.

Next, Aviva confides in her mother (Ellen Barkin), “Missy told me after the funeral that Dawn was pregnant from a date-rape and … that’s the real reason she killed herself. She hated the idea of bringing another Dawn into the world. And then she said that I was just like Dawn.”[iv] Aviva goes on to exclaim, “If I were pregnant, I would never kill myself – that would be killing the baby!”[v] Finally, in a statement that reveals the heart of her character, she continues: “I want to have lots and lots of babies. As many babies as possible because, um, because that way I’ll always have someone to love.”[vi] During this conversation, her mother consoles her and lavishes affection on her. This sequence introduces most of the film’s main thematic elements: teenage pregnancy, abortion, and the familial dynamics that inevitably accompany such themes.

Within minutes of this sequence, something happens that is central to the development of the film. Suddenly Aviva, who was played in the previous scene by Emani Sledge, has inexplicably become a white 13-year-old played by Valerie Shusterov. In place of the animated, childlike demeanor of her predecessor, Aviva now has a flat vocal affect and a penchant for wearing “white trash” T-shirts that reveal her pudgy midriff. This is not simply a depiction of Aviva in the future. This is confirmed for the audience when, in the next chapter, she is played by Hannah Freiman, a gaunt girl with long, unkempt red hair that is awkwardly parted down the middle. The other characters in the film are completely oblivious to these changes, including Aviva’s parents who, by all accounts, should at least blink when their daughter goes from black to white overnight. Aviva is played by four more actresses as the film progresses.

These transitions would be more difficult to follow if the film were not divided into chapters. These chapters are designated by colorful title screens that resemble the pages of a baby scrapbook, decorated with icons of a baby’s dress and footprints, and surrounded by a lace border. Each chapter is named after a person, with his or her name written in cursive calligraphy in the midst of the aforementioned decorative flourishes. The chapters progress in the following sequence: “Dawn,” “Judah,” “Henry,” “Henrietta,” “Huckleberry,” “Mama Sunshine,” “Bob,” “Mark,” and “Aviva.” The closing credits of the film rely on the chapter titles to distinguish one version of Aviva from another (i.e. the first actress to play Aviva is referred to as Judah Aviva, the second as Henry Aviva, and so on). I bring this up because, in referring to Aviva in her various incarnations, I will use these distinctions myself when necessary.

On that note, when we reach the chapter entitled “Aviva,” something very strange happens: we encounter a reverse procession of all of the previous versions of Aviva in quick succession. The rationale for this can be found in the film’s title: the film itself and Aviva’s name are palindromes – words that are spelled the same backward and forward. In Palindromes, there are eight versions of Aviva in all. Mark Aviva (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the lone Aviva who appears in the film only once, as she is structurally the middle of the palindrome, with seven manifestations of Aviva on either side of her. After her appearance, the reverse procession begins with Bob Aviva, Mama Sunshine Aviva, Huckleberry Aviva, and so on until the film concludes with a monologue by Dawn Aviva, who appeared in the film first.

The Russian Formalists

In discussing the Russian Formalists, James Monaco explains that “Formalism marked the burgeoning cultural life – both literary and cinematic – in the Soviet Union” in the 1920s, and was characterized by a concern with “the importance of function as well as form in art.”[vii] Because of this fascination with function and form it was “more ‘scientific’” than contemporary movements like German expressionism.[viii]

Todd Solondz never met Lev Kuleshov or Sergei Eisenstein, but when I saw Palindromes I decided it might be interesting to look at the film through their eyes. Kuleshov in particular wanted to “locate the source of cinematographic impressibility” and proceeded to do so in a very scientific manner in a workshop that he helmed.[ix] In the end, he discovered that “the fundamental source of cinematographic impact upon the viewer … is montage, that is the alternation of shots.”[x] Eisenstein, influenced by the Formalist theatrical approach of Vsevolod Meyerhold, developed his own body of Formalist theory and a directed a number of extremely influential, innovative films. In the following section I am going to explore Palindromes through the eyes of these cinematic scientists, focusing specifically on the Formalist concepts of defamiliarization, creative acting, and typage.


J. Dudley Andrew explains that the Russian Formalists endorsed a “technique of art that relied on deviation. ‘Make the object strange!’ they cried.”[xi] Beneath the bells and whistles of sadism and structure, it could be said that Palindromes mines tired territory: pregnant teenager runs away from home, finds comfort in all the wrong places, news report at five. But it is these bells and whistles that Solondz uses to defamiliarize this story – to make it strange – emptying it of cliché and infusing it with vitality.

To my knowledge, Kuleshov and Eisenstein did not use the word “defamiliarization” in their writings, but it could be argued that they both used this technique in their films. From a narrative perspective, for example, Kuleshov’s comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of Bolsheviks (1924) embodies the Formalist notion that “all literary techniques which we regard as artistic (irony, humor, pathos, figures of speech) function as conscious distortions of reality.”[xii] It is these distortions – these deviations – that ultimately transform the familiar into something new. Although literary form and cinematic form are two different animals, the cinematic employment of humor relies on distortion much as its literary counterpart does.

James Monaco writes that “For Eisenstein it was necessary to destroy realism in order to approach reality.”[xiii] He transformed “photographed reality” into “a stock of raw material … for the filmmaker to rearrange as he saw fit,” and used that raw material to create dialectical montage.[xiv] For Eisenstein, this meant uniting one shot (thesis) with another (antithesis) to produce a third element (synthesis), the conceptual product of the two shots. For example, “the intercutting of the massacre of the workers with the slaughter of an ox at the end of Strike” uses the dialectical relation of two concepts to synthesize something new, enabling the audience to see the massacre not only as a human tragedy, but also as a tragedy in which humans are reduced to animals meeting their ends at the hands of a butcher.[xv] This process of transforming reality into something else, seems to correspond quite well with defamiliarization.

At this juncture I want to focus on the actual use of defamiliarization in Palindromes. In doing so I am going to focus on Solondz’ depiction of teenage pregnancy itself, the way he uses the genre of dark comedy, and the use of multiple actresses to play Aviva.

Solondz first defamiliarizes teenage pregnancy, directing our attention to the fact that Aviva wants to have a baby at age 13. In the chapter entitled “Judah,” Aviva meets a socially inept boy named Judah, the son of her parents’ friends. After conversing awhile they climb into bed together with awkward naïveté, enacting a teenage version of the children’s game of playing house. Aviva asks Judah, “Do you think about sex a lot? I never do. I just think about having a baby … they’re cute. I want one.”[xvi] In the half-bored, flat affect that characterizes Solondz-speak, Judah replies “Okay then, are you ready? … Here goes.”[xvii] From this paradoxically innocent yet perverse interlude, Aviva becomes pregnant. Her pregnancy is not the result of unchecked passions or date-rape as so many teenage pregnancies are; hers results from her desire to be a mother. The result of this approach is a story that steers clear of cliché and veers instead into uncharted territory.

Solondz also defamiliarizes abortion by couching it in the genre of dark comedy. As a genre, dark comedy relies heavily on formal distortion to achieve its purposes, transforming morbidity into merriment, death into delight, perversion into pleasure. Palindromes uses the genre of dark comedy as its playground, working out its blackest impulses in the sandbox of sadistic satire. For example, after discovering that Henry Aviva is pregnant, her mother pleads for her to get an abortion, asking her “What if it turns out deformed… if it’s missing a leg or an arm or a nose or an eye? If it’s brain-damaged or mentally retarded? … Your life is ruined forever … You end up on food stamps, alone.”[xviii] Although her mother’s logic is absurd, it is delivered with utmost seriousness, and Aviva responds accordingly, asserting in no uncertain terms that she wants to keep the baby. Eventually, her mother forces her to get an abortion against her will.

In the hands of another director, this could have easily become an occasion for anger, sadness, or saccharine sentimentality. In the hands of Solondz, however, this sequence feels like it has been culled from a strange dream. Aviva’s mother’s dialogue feels like parroted, parodied pro-choice propaganda. In tailoring the topic of abortion to fit the genre of dark comedy, Solondz is “(taking) an object or activity and (wrenching) it from the flow of life.”[xix] He is freeing abortion from the space it usually occupies in our minds and calling attention to it in a completely different way. The result is a renewed discomfort with abortion, as if the evening news, political campaigns, and courtrooms had never been saturated with it in the first place.

While Henry Aviva is at the hospital for her abortion, the viewer learns that during the process she began to hemorrhage, and a hysterectomy had to be performed. Now she can never have a baby of her own, although her parents curiously omit this information from their conversation with her after she awakens from surgery. Therefore, she continues to try to conceive a child. Henrietta Aviva runs away from home, hitchhiking with a mysterious trucker, an older, stone-faced man clad in flannel who claims his name is Joe. Later that night, he takes advantage of her in a hotel room, or rather, she takes advantage of his ability to impregnate her. Again, these events are strange deviations from the typical teenage pregnancy narrative. Yes, many pregnant teenagers run away from home. But how many teenagers have abortions only to run away from home so they can conceive a child again? Furthermore, Joe’s actions qualify him as a predatory pedophile, yet Aviva welcomes and appreciates his advances. In this instance, the narrative itself defamiliarizes the story of the pregnant teenager, and the teenage runaway as well.

Defamiliarization Through Kuleshov’s Concept of Creative Acting

Finally and most importantly, Solondz defamiliarizes the story of the pregnant teenager by using multiple actresses to play Aviva. From the perspective of Kuleshov, these transitions from actress to actress in Palindromes might be seen as the application of montage to the process of creative acting. In describing creative acting, Kuleshov writes of an instance in which he “shot a girl sitting before her mirror, painting her eyelashes and brows, putting on lipstick and slippers.”[xx] He continues, explaining that “By montage alone we were able to depict the girl, just as in nature, but in actuality she did not exist, because we shot the lips of one woman, the legs of another, the back of a third, and the eyes of a fourth. We spliced the pieces together in a predetermined relationship and created a totally new person.”[xxi]

In Kuleshov’s discussion of creative acting, this process is seamless, invisible to the audience. They would never suspect Kuleshov of being a filmic Dr. Frankenstein, carefully assembling the body parts of multiple actors to create one person. Solondz deviates from Kuleshov’s conception of creative acting at this juncture, however, as his technique is not only visible, but also intrusive. Because he uses multiple people to create a person rather than using multiple body parts to create the appearance of one, his technique is jarring for the audience. His approach here seems to invoke Eisenstein, who wrote, “What then characterizes montage and, consequently, its embryo, the shot? Collision. Conflict between two neighboring fragments. Conflict. Collision.”[xxii]

While Eisenstein’s vision of collision pertains to juxtaposed shots, the spirit of this idea seems to haunt the juxtaposition of actresses that play Aviva in the film. For example, when Solondz transforms from Dawn Aviva to Judah Aviva, the transition inevitably rattles the viewer. It is the first transformation in the film, so the viewer is left to wonder how a black girl could grow up to become a white girl, or how Solondz could have missed such an obvious casting error. The signification of the event is completely unclear, and remains so until Aviva has undergone multiple transformations. It is collision that shocks the viewer when she transforms, and it is collision that paradoxically enables the viewer to connect each new incarnation of Aviva to her predecessors. That is, the same sort of collision characterizes each transformation, conditioning the viewer to conceive of each Aviva in the film as similar in some sense – as belonging to a unified whole, as in Kuleshov’s concept of creative acting.

Nowhere in the film is this sense of collision more apparent than in the transition from Huckleberry Aviva to Mama Sunshine Aviva. This happens shortly after the Joe the Trucker abandons Henrietta Aviva after spending the night with her in a hotel room. Huckleberry Aviva enters the picture, wandering like a nomad toward some unspecified end, until she discovers a blue and white plastic boat in a stream and boards it, drifting downstream. Huckleberry Aviva is a thin, waiflike, vaguely translucent Caucasian who, unbeknownst to the audience, is played by a gender-bending boy named Will Denton.

It should be noted at this point that, ever since the entry of Judah Aviva, all incarnations of Aviva have worn the same sort of midriff-revealing crop top. After Huckleberry Aviva drifts out of the frame aboard her boat, we find that she has washed ashore on the streambed, reincarnated as Mama Sunshine Aviva, an obese black woman whose image alone is alarming when contrasted with Huckleberry Aviva. Her midriff-revealing T-shirt is the textile equivalent of a boa constrictor, squeezing her intently while her bulk fights back, threatening to the rend the shirt asunder. The contrast between Huckleberry Aviva and Mama Sunshine Aviva is shocking, and the resulting sense of collision is powerful.

At this point it is necessary to summarize the remainder of the plot, both for psychological closure and to provide context for exploring typage in Palindromes. Mama Sunshine Aviva has just entered the picture in all of her shocking glory, and only a few chapters of the film remain.

When Mama Sunshine Aviva is laying on the aforementioned streambed, exhausted, a gregarious boy named Peter Paul happens upon her and offers her a helping hand. Before she can blink an eye (or transform into anyone else, for that matter), she finds herself in the care of Mama Sunshine and her husband Bo, Christian fundamentalists who seem to have adopted a number of children with disabilities, or who are victims in some way. The Sunshine family welcomes her with open arms, even providing the exhausted Aviva with the services of the family physician, Doctor Dan. This band of outsiders have their own milquetoast musical group – the Christian, pro-life equivalent of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys. They invite Aviva to join them, and she reluctantly agrees.

All is well until she overhears a private conversation between Bo Sunshine, Doctor Dan and, of all people, Joe the Trucker, whose real name is apparently Earl. Bo gives Earl instructions to murder an abortion doctor, and Doctor Dan reveals to Bo and Earl that, while examining Aviva, he discovered that she was a “child whore.”[xxiii] In a panic, Aviva escapes with Earl, accompanying him on his mission to kill the abortion doctor. Using a rifle and scope, Earl aims at the doctor and ends up killing him and one of his young daughters on accident. This is a fascinating twist, as it challenges the notion that militant pro-life activists can ever achieve good through inherently evil means; the abortion doctor and his killer are now both guilty of killing children. The murder results in pandemonium, and Earl and Aviva hide from the police in a hotel room. Before Earl is shot and killed by the police, he reveals to Aviva that his name is actually Bob.[xxiv] At this point, Aviva returns home, and her parents celebrate the occasion with a party.

In the last chapter of the film, Aviva reunites with Judah (whose name is now Otto, a palindrome like her own name), having sex with him in a nearby forest. Throughout this final chapter, all of the actresses who have played Aviva in the film appear in reverse sequence. As Aviva and Judah have sex in the forest, for example, the camera alternates between Aviva’s face and Judah’s. Each time the film returns to Aviva, she is represented by a different actress. The film ends with Dawn Aviva delivering a monologue directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall.


One of the obvious questions that this closing sequence begs is “What are we to make of these strange looking actresses?” Once again, the Russian Formalists offer their voices to this exploration of Palindromes. When it came to selecting actors for film, Kuleshov and Eisenstein both emphasized the importance of selecting people who were suitable for the cinematic medium. In Art of the Cinema, Kuleshov explains that “film needs real material and not a pretense of reality – owing to this, it is not theater actors but ‘types’ who should act in film – that is, people who in themselves, as they were born, present some kind of interest for cinematic treatment.”[xxv] To Eisenstein, on the other hand, these “types” could be seen as “elements within the composition of the frame which acquire meaning only through montage.”[xxvi]

Solondz’ characters seem to be frozen in the perpetual awkwardness of adolescence, regardless of their age. He achieves this affect in part by relying on the selection of specific types of people. Upon studying the visages of the girls who play Aviva in Palindromes, for example, one could produce a long list of descriptive characteristics, including “frumpy,” “homely,” “unattractive,” etc. These girls are qualitatively different than the dime-a-dozen beauties that litter the screen in today’s Hollywood films.

When it comes to contemporary cinema, I would argue that beauty has become the norm rather than the exception, like an entire field of flowers wherein the beauty of each individual flower is made indistinct by the beauty of each surrounding flower. Solondz’ defamiliarizes woman in Palindromes, trading traditional typage for something entirely different, exchanging blonde bombshells for a bland brand of breeder.

The result of this defamiliarization is the restoration of female personhood from the reductionistic realm of fetishistic scopophilia. In her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey argued that “the woman displayed (in film) has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object within the auditorium.”[xxvii] In Palindromes, the women who play Aviva hardly qualify as “erotic objects.” This applies even to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who achieved fame by subjecting herself to erotic objectification in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). In Palindromes, Aviva’s flat affect is foregrounded and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s beauty is subjected to its effects, becoming little more than background. Her physical presence, then, is like wallpaper that looks pleasant enough but becomes aesthetically unremarkable because it adorns the walls of a fundamentally tacky room.

Kuleshov states that “a person with an ordinary, normal exterior, however good-looking he may be, is not needed in cinema.”[xxviii] I doubt he could have anticipated Solondz’ particular brand of typage, but he would not be able to accuse his characters of being ordinary or normal either.

Closing Thoughts/Implications of the Film

Now that I have applied the Russian Formalist concepts of defamiliarization, creative acting, and typage to Palindromes, I think it is worthwhile to explore a few thoughts I had as I wrote this essay that do not fit into any of the above categories. Mainly, I want to explore the meaning of the film, and how it achieves this meaning. I realize as I write this that I am treading on highly subjective ground. As such, I want to emphasize that the thoughts below are by no means definitive in sorting out the meaning of the film. They are merely representative of my own interpretations.

To explore the meaning of Palindromes, it may be useful to apply Eisenstein’s theory of intellectual montage, as it proposes that “montage (is) capable of expressing abstract ideas by creating conceptual relationships among shots of opposing content.”[xxix] Each time Aviva transforms into someone else, the juxtaposition of the two dissimilar girls prompts the viewer to attempt to generate an interpretation of the event. In the end, this series of transformations is subject to viewer interpretation, as Solondz never accounts for this phenomenon, either covertly or overtly. I think the closing montage, in which Aviva transforms multiple times during sex, represents a crystallization of the transformations that occur throughout the film, as this sequence is essentially a faster, reverse reiteration of them. As such, it serves as a reminder of the conceptual ground the film has covered up to that point, and it offers an opportunity for the viewer to ruminate about potential interpretations of the film.

I personally read the film as a statement about the complexities of human sexuality, the intensely divisive nature of abortion, and the familial and social tensions that threaten to impinge upon personal freedom in American society. I think Solondz is painting with a universal brush, transforming the story of one pregnant teenager into the story of many teenagers. As a result, teenage pregnancy and abortion are no longer abstractions; they have become concrete in the various forms of Aviva. Conservative fundamentalists (like Mama and Bo Sunshine) often discuss teenage pregnancy and abortion as issues that seem to exist independent of human beings, but Palindromes firmly anchors these issues in human subjectivity. It is easy to champion moral absolutes when only abstract concepts are at stake. When humanity enters the equation, it seems that Palindromes suggests other things need to be considered.

Again, in the hands of another director this film could have made numerous cliché statements about the issues it explores. However, Solondz revitalizes these issues with techniques that would make the Russian Formalists proud.

Related Forays Into Formalism

On that note, I want to provide a brief overview of two similar films that might be worth studying from the perspective of this essay. These two films are by no means the only films that use these techniques. Rather, they are simply the ones that came to mind in the process of assembling this study.

While Palindromes is extreme in its character transformations, Solondz is not the first director to violate audience expectations in this manner. In Luis Buñuel’s film That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) the actress (Carole Bouquet) who plays the protagonist, Conchita, is unexplainably replaced by another actress (Ángela Molina) mid-film. It should be noted, however, that this was not part of Buñuel’s initial plan. The actress who played Conchita during the first part of the film suddenly quit, and Buñuel simply decided to replace her and continue filming.

David Lynch’s film Lost Highway (1997) offers a variation on this technique when Fred Madision (Bill Pullman), “who has been sentenced to death for the murder of his ostensibly unfaithful wife, inexplicably transforms into another person in his prison cell.”[xxx] The person, in addition to being played by another actor (Balthazar Getty), has a completely different name as well – Peter Dayton. At the same time, Fred and Pete’s respective lovers are both played by the same actress (Patricia Arquette), but she is a completely different person when she is with each of them; when she is with Fred she is Renee, and when she is with Pete she is Alice. All of this happens without any explanation, and the film washes over the viewer with the sort of nightmarish, nebulous ebb and flow that Lynch would replicate later in Mulholland Drive (2001). The transposition and substitution of characters and actors inevitably prompts the sort of waking-dream associations that recall the end of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy awakens and finds herself surrounded by people she now associates with Kansas and Oz, exclaiming “You were there! Oh, and you were there!”

In both That Obscure Object of Desire and Lost Highway, it is possible to interpret what is happening not only in spite of, but because of the narrative distortions created by these breaches of character permanence. While the resulting interpretations may be highly subjective and vary from person to person, coherent interpretations are possible and even inevitable.


At the beginning of this essay, I wrote of Belle and Sebastian, the band Solondz commissioned to compose music for his fourth film, Storytelling. Despite the fact that the characters described in the band’s music could easy be in Solondz’ films, he only used a fraction of the songs the band wrote for the film, and the band ended up releasing the complete recordings from the Storytelling sessions later via Matador Records. I was initially perplexed by this, but as I thought about it more I realized that Belle and Sebastian temper their darkly comedic lyrics with deceptively happy music. In doing so, their characters are altered in some sense and no longer embody the “types” that occupy Solondz’ films. I could be completely wrong, but there is nothing wrong with hypothesizing. I think it is especially interesting in light of this essay’s discussion of the application of the Russian Formalists’ concepts of defamiliarization, creative acting, and typage to Palindromes.

[i] Belle and Sebastian, The Boy With the Arab Strap, compact disc, Matador/Jeepster, OLE 311-2, & © 1998 Jeepster Recordings.

[ii] “Dawn,” Palindromes, DVD, directed by Todd Solondz (2004; New York, NY: Wellspring, 2005).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 322.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on film: Writings by Kuleshov. ed. Ronald Levaco, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 45.

[x] Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film, 47-48.

[xi] J. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction, (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 81.

[xii] David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 82.

[xiii] James Monaco, How to Read a Film, 327.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] “Judah,” Palindromes, DVD, directed by Todd Solondz (2004; New York, NY: Wellspring, 2005).

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] “Henry,” Palindromes, DVD, directed by Todd Solondz (2004; New York, NY: Wellspring, 2005).

[xix] J. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories, 81.

[xx] Ibid., 52

[xxi] Ibid., 52.

[xxii] Sergei Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot [The Cinematographic Ideogram],” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21.

[xxiii] “Mama Sunshine,” Palindromes, DVD, directed by Todd Solondz (2004; New York, NY: Wellspring, 2005).

[xxiv] I find it interesting how Joe/Earl/Bob’s name changes multiple times, while Aviva’s body changes multiple times. An interesting area of future inquiry for this film would be its depiction of identity.

[xxv] Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film, 63-64.

[xxvi] David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 148.

[xxvii] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 838.

[xxviii] Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film, 64.

[xxix] David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 173.

[xxx] Marek Wieczorek, introduction to The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, by Slavoj Žižek (Seattle, WA: The Walter Chapin Center for the Humanities), ix.