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June 23, 2005

the Duck Mafia Expands (?)

I've been working on a pet project for a while and now the infrasctructure's finally done (HTML, CSS were foreign to me before this, so be kind!). Without further ado, I proudly present:

Cinema Quack


Note: Fiction writing is coming slowly, but well.

June 04, 2005

Breaking a Take

The blog's going on hiatus for a while.

Although I haven't been updating often, and writing short reviews doesn't require too much time, I'm trying to shed as many small commitments as possible in order to focus my time on writing fiction. Watching films, writing about them and doing about ten other things online is fun, but it's also a good excuse not to do much at all. The internet is a notorious time waster, and I'm notoriously lazy. That's a bad combination.

After my adventures in the writing and [hopefully] publishing worlds settle down, I will be back. But, for now, I'm leaving the pond.

Quack Corleone

May 19, 2005

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie


3.0 / 4.0

Often regarded as Luis Bunuel’s masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a manically random, though consistently sleek, surrealistic satire of the upper class. And though the film’s message, that rich people are unfulfilled (always being disrupted before they can begin the meal that is central to each loosely connected scene in the film) hypocrites (who dirty their hands in murder, corruption, drugs, affairs and drunkenness while attesting to their own purity) gets tiresome after it’s stated time after time by the writer-director, the film’s style is as fresh and wonderfully madcap as ever.

Dreams and dreams within dreams invade the narrative, minor characters halt everything (including the cavalry!) to recount their dreams, ghosts and terrorist assassins and dead police officers mix fantasy with reality, and punctuating it all are shots of the main characters walking purposelessly through the middle of nowhere. Individual scenes sometimes have regular conflicts (a young boy murders the man pretending to be his father after being told by the ghost of his dead mother that it is her last wish) or discernible meanings (one dream sequence, for example, sees the main troupe of characters invited to a dinner party only to discover themselves on a theatre stage instead of in a house), but what the hell does it mean as a whole?

I haven’t the slightest clue, and that’s probably how Bunuel meant it. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is therefore fun but slight and an overrated work by the director whose other films (such as Belle de Jour) are just as inventive and carry significantly more meaning and weight.

May 17, 2005

Quack Produced!

A script of mine has been made into a film!

Student filmmaker Richie Filippi (Utopian Productions) of Hofstra University directed the short (called Un-Undead) which is about a future Earth populated by civilized zombies who live in constant fear of scavenging, barbaric humans. It's a rather horrific comedy.

If it tickles your fancy, both the film and script are available online:

Read Un-Undead

Watch Un-Undead

In addition, the film recently screened at the Hofstra Film Club's Spring Film Festival and was warmly received by a crowd of over 400 people.

May 16, 2005

Melinda and Melinda


1.0 / 4.0

Woody Allen’s slump continues with Melinda and Melinda, an amateurish novelty film that tries to prove the close relationship between tragedy and comedy. Made up of a frame and two narratives (one comic and one tragic) joined by a main character you want to bitch slap, it makes one wonder what happened to the filmmaker behind Crimes and Misdemeanours and Hannah and Her Sisters and if he’s ever going to come back.

Beginning with the first scene, the film disrupts any potential rhythm through terrible editing that culminates in a dissolve to a restaurant conversation that sounds like an aging Allen talking to himself. The artificial tone remains and the cast is never natural or convincing while exchanging titbits about classical music, theatre and small, candlelit restaurants. Annie Hall and Mickey Sachs would avoid these characters and Michael Caine and Diane Keaton could act circles around the actors playing them.

In the end, neither the comedy is comic enough (with the notable exception of Will Ferrell’s antics) nor tragedy tragic enough (with affairs, murders, and mental asylums kept unexplainably off screen) to equate the two as anything other than mundane. It doesn’t help that everything in the film is a rehash of other, better Allen films. The only notion Melinda and Melinda truly proves is that comedy and tragedy can both suck.

May 12, 2005

Interview: James Longley

The simply titled documentary Gaza Strip premiered in the United States in August of 2002, about a year and a half before the sudden surge in popularity of documentary films, and especially of politically themed documentary films, brought on by the War on Terror, War on Iraq, and American presidential election. The work of filmmaker James Longley, who financed, directed, edited, and co-shot the film, it is a raw glimpse into the lives of the 1,300,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip that is as topical now, with Israeli vows of withdrawal from the area, as it was upon its release. Recommended to fans of documentary cinema for its style and to those interested in its subject for its value as a document.

After watching the film, I contacted James Longley and sent him a list of various questions and observations I had about his film. Graciously and promptly, he replied. The following is our exchange, compiled from several emails:

(I am italicized and Mr. Longley is bolded)

Unlike many of the “documentaries” made since the recent popularity of Michael Moore’s activist film, your film actually documents.

My film was made before the Michael Moore film you are probably talking about. "Gaza Strip" was finished in spring 2002 and shot in 2001.

Unlike Moore, you neither appear in your own film nor project your own opinions onto it.

Well -- except that I chose to make a film about that particular subject, which is the most significant way to project your opinion about anything. Just by making a documentary about the Gaza Strip you are already taking a big political step, particularly if you also choose to document only the Palestinians and leave out the supposedly obligatory Israeli viewpoint. (This is weird, don't you think, that films about Palestinians are criticized for leaving out the Israelis, while films about Israelis are never criticized for leaving out the Palestinians ...)

Personally, I don't think that the documentary form is any less subjective than fiction film -- only in documentary you are filming things that are actually happening without your having to write a script or pay actors. But in the end, if the film is going to be at all comprehensible to audiences, you are collecting images and words to tell a story. It's just one story out of millions, and the way you tell it is up to you -- so documentary is a totally subjective form, really. However, I also don't think that fact prevents documentaries from providing a real sense of the world, of objective reality, of truth and all that. It's just that none of those things can be expressed in a truly objective way by people.

Although you choose what is seen and in what order, the people you interview say what they think and you do not manipulate the viewer’s opinion of them through music or mise-en-scene.

I actually am manipulating the viewer, like any filmmaker. It can't be helped. I did make music and put it in the film -- it's everywhere. I took fragments of Bach and Shostakovitch and the sound of people talking, etc -- and warped them into ambient sound beds that are strewn everywhere in the film. When an Israeli IDF jeep appears in one scene, for example, we hear a tortured version of a Bach aria that sounds like a cross between Humphrey Bogart barfing black tar and several monkeys being killed at once. But it's all done in such a way that few people actually notice.

The viewer is free to see what you show and come away with their own thoughts.

That's true enough.

Would the inclusion of an Israeli-Jewish point of view (as many critics suggest) actually make your film more propagandist, as it would offer an inaccurate portrayal of the Gaza Strip?

Maybe. But I guess my point in leaving out the Israelis was that the Palestinians are a valid subject for documentary film by themselves, without an opposing Israeli narrative thrown in to contradict them.

As long as you accept that all films are basically subjective constructions, then you are also forced to admit that filmmakers who insist on having "both sides" of an argument are just as subjective in their construction of the argument that they are pretending to document objectively. So why bother? I wanted to make a film about the Palestinians because I knew less about them -- so that's what I did. I don't believe any of this nonsense about objectivity in media.

Throughout the film, your camera lingers on faces. However, I noticed that as the film progressed you included fewer shots of smiling faces and more shots of serious, or frightened ones. Was this intentional?

Not really -- the film is mostly chronological, and it so happened that the situation grew worse as I was documenting it, so the people became more serious.

I enjoyed your film when it remained true to a naturalistic, unobtrusive style. For example, when you added effects and toyed with editing to mimic a feeling of fear and panic, I felt it caused the film to feel more artificial.

I probably agree with you in retrospect -- but at the time I wanted to
experiment with the medium -- and I just left it in. I think there isn't enough experimentation with the documentary form, though I like a well-made classical style verite film as much as the next guy.

On the topic of artificiality, during many of your interviews with Palestinian children, and in specific with one boy during the scene on the beach, it seemed apparent that they were saying lines and expressing ideas that had they had been taught by their parents or elders. That boy, after finishing his speech, ran off, laughing, to resume playing as if oblivious to what he had just said.

I disagree with you here. The beach was full of people -- and there was a guy standing behind the camera as I finished that interview who said something to the kid that made him laugh. I don't think he was repeating anything his parents told him -- although who knows? I think he said what he thought -- but he was also kind of excited to be filmed by someone in public. If you spend much time in the Gaza Strip you realize that most of the kids there are pretty much like that one -- they're surrounded by an impossible situation -- but they're still just kids and usually they act like it.

I also noticed that many of the younger Palestinians appeared more knowledgeable and better educated than those who were older. For example, the young woman whom you interviewed in a tent and Mohammed Hejazi seemed to have a better, and more logical, grasp on their situation than the woman who told the story about the bulldozers. I saw this as a sign of hope for the future.

This was not something intentional -- it's just a matter of chance who you get to interview and how well they can talk in front of a camera. There are plenty of sharp old people in the Gaza Strip, but I just happen to think that young people are more interesting to follow -- since they have more energy, move around more, and care less that you are filming them. Mohammed Hejazi had a great way of speaking that I think really makes the film -- but I recorded a lot more material of him than actually made the final version. I cut out all kinds of digressions and boring stories, recitations of film plots and the like. Of course, I also cut out a lot of material I wish I could have kept.

Many of the people who watch your film, including me, don’t have any idea where the places you mention in your film are. There is a map of filming locations on the film’s website, but did you consider putting a map in the film?

Yes -- I realize that -- but on the DVD version there's a map, also, for reference -- and I just hate to insert things like maps into a verite film. I mean, what does it matter, really, whether a particular scene is taking place in Khan Yunis or Rafah? It's all the Gaza Strip, in the end, and it doesn'talter the point of the material in any way.

One of the things that struck me the most about your film is the calm way in which people, and most of all children, react to gunfire. I recall several shots of children running for cover and laughing.

Yes -- they are used to being shot at. It's something normal if you live in the Gaza Strip, so they get used to it and learn how to deal with it -- otherwise they'd go crazy.

Whenever the Palestinian rock throwers appeared in your film I was reminded of the platitude, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Did you have this saying in mind when you were editing the film? Do you think it applies?

No -- not exactly. The Gaza Strip isn't a glass house. It's a big open-air prison camp. It makes very little difference whether the Palestinian kids throw stones or not -- so why not? They are not behaving as people in a glass house; they are behaving as people who have nothing left to lose.

I had the “glass house” idea after the scene in which the Palestinian woman recalls her experience with the Israeli bulldozers, not after the rock thrower scene. Since the woman was angry at the destruction of her home and the threat to her own life, I assumed that she did have something to lose. Because the rock thrower scene is before the bulldozer scene, I probably made the connection that one led to the other. Bulldozers being bigger rocks.

I suppose -- but in fact one has nothing to do with the other except in symbolic terms. The fact is that the Israelis bulldoze Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip in order to expand "security areas" around checkpoints and settlements, and the Rafah border zone, etc. -- The bulldozings are very much pre-planned events designed to conform to expanding Israeli settlements and road construction, and not the result of rock-throwing at all. Now that the Israelis plan to evacuate all the Gaza settlements, of course, it would seem that the bulldozing of all those homes serves no ultimate purpose anyway, even from the Israeli point of view. Except, perhaps, that it puts pressure on the Palestinian population and weakens their resolve -- or so an Israeli Army spokesperson once explained it to me in Tel Aviv. But so it goes.

Gaza Strip is available on DVD, and James Longley is currently working on a new documentary film about Iraq.

April 28, 2005

What Dreams May Come


1.5 / 4.0

I passed up the chance to see Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come when it came out in theatres because, at the time, I disliked Robin Williams and thought the trailer looked like the stuff of weepy, overwrought melodrama. However, my views on Williams have since changed, and after seeing Ward’s earlier effort Map of the Human Heart listed alongside Jacques Tati’s Playtime on the programme of Roger Ebert’s latest Overlooked Film Festival, I decided to give the film a chance. My enthusiasm was further bolstered by an article on Ebert’s spiffy new website in which the renowned (though ever more lenient) critic calls Vincent Ward “a true visionary” and What Dreams May Come “a grievously overlooked” film. For a film geek, I was pretty pumped.

The story of What Dreams May Come, once it actually kicks in about halfway through the film, is set mostly in Heaven and follows the adventures of Chris Nielsen (as played by Williams in one of those roles that reached its peak shortly after this film, in the dreadful Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar) as he tries to find his wife (Annabella Sciorra), who has ended up somewhere in Hell. All the smart dead people tell Chris that it’s too dangerous to go traipsing around in the Devil’s half of the afterlife, thus raising the stakes and making it “so” much more heroic when he eventually does anyway. Conveniently, the rest of Nielsen’s family (a son, a daughter who I thought was a son, and a dog) is dead too, so they’re around periodically, giving advice and waxing on about spiritual and philosophical issues. It all creates a fabulous atmosphere of laughable gloom, doom and hope that Williams captures well by making his eyes wide and watery and spouting lines such as “Boy, I screwed up. I'm in dog Heaven,” after finding his dog, and “I found you in hell. Don't you think I could find you in Jersey!” after finding his wife. Thankfully, some of the serious themes addressed by screenwriter Ron Bass are expressed so damn badly (“Sometimes, when you lose, you win.”) that they make the forced, corny lines sound a whole lot better.

In the film’s defence, the special effects are pretty and evocative of many famous works of art. Hieronymous Bosch is an obvious inspiration, for example. And there are many more that anyone interested in painting will have fun picking out. Some of the images are quite beautiful (until Ward violently cuts away from them to one of countless close ups of Robin Williams’ face) and imaginative film copies of classic works. In this respect, What Dreams May Come is to art historians and art history students what Sin City is to comic books nerds.

Perhaps needless to say, I was disappointed with What Dreams May Come. I was keen on liking it, but quickly realized that it was not only far from being the overlooked gem Ebert deemed, but also close to being what my gut reaction had told me to expect, all those years ago. The ending of this film is as manipulative a doozy as you’re likely to find on any given shelf of a video store (and I do mean even if it shares a wall with a Shyamalan flick). And the whole thing tastes strongly of soap. On the whole, the weird tension between Bass’ Hollywood-esque script and Ward’s quasi-arthouse manifestation of it make sure the film fits in neither category (your choice as to which is Heaven and which is Hell) and instead push it into some place in Purgatory where bad films with noble intentions and interesting ideas (like the overall premise of this film) go away until people like Roger Ebert bring them up and naive filmgoers like me get suckered into watching them.