ebert review

This is perhaps the most eloquent film review I've ever had the pleasure of reading . . . Roger Ebert's 2008 review of Synecdoche, New York, which he named the best film of last decade. I didn't quite know what to make of the film when I first saw it, but after a return viewing thanks to this article, I now consider it a masterpiece, albeit one that I can't watch very often thanks to its ability to deeply depress me for days afterward. It's sad, yes, but also possibly the most accurate representation on film of how life seems to work. Anyway.

I think you have to see Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" twice. I watched it the first time and knew it was a great film and that I had not mastered it. The second time because I needed to. The third time because I will want to. It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely. A lot of people these days don't even go to a movie once. There are alternatives. It doesn't have to be the movies, but we must somehow dream. If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.

This is a film with the richness of great fiction. Like Suttree, the Cormac McCarthy novel I'm always mentioning, it's not that you have to return to understand it. It's that you have to return to realize how fine it really is. The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.

Wow, is that ever not a "money review." Why will people hurry along to what they expect to be trash, when they're afraid of a film they think may be good? The subject of "Synecdoche, New York" is nothing less than human life and how it works. Using a neurotic theater director from upstate New York, it encompasses every life and how it copes and fails. Think about it a little and, my god, it's about you. Whoever you are.

Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die. "Synecdoche, New York" follows a life that ages from about 40 to 80 on that scale. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director, with all of the hangups and self-pity, all the grandiosity and sniffles, all the arrogance and fear, typical of his job. In other words, he could be me. He could be you. The job, the name, the race, the gender, the environment, all change. The human remains pretty much the same.

Here is how it happens. We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain food, shelter, clothing, mates, comfort, a first folio of Shakespeare, model airplanes, American Girl dolls, a handful of rice, sex, solitude, a trip to Venice, Nikes, drinking water, plastic surgery, child care, dogs, medicine, education, cars, spiritual solace -- whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call "me," trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things.

In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree. We succumb to temptation -- but, oh, father, what else was I gonna do? I feel like hell. I repent. I'll do it again.

Hold that trajectory in mind and let it interact with age, discouragement, greater wisdom and more uncertainty. You will understand what "Synecdoche, New York" is trying to say about the life of Caden Cotard and the lives in his lives. Charlie Kaufman is one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium. David Mamet is another. That is not the same as a great writer (Faulkner, Pinter, Cocteau) who writes screenplays. Kaufman is writing in the upper reaches with Bergman. Now for the first time he directs.

It is obvious that he has only one subject, the mind, and only one plot, how the mind negotiates with reality, fantasy, hallucination, desire and dreams. "Being John Malkovich." "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." "Adaptation." "Human Nature." "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." What else are they about? He is working in plain view. In one film, people go inside the head of John Malkovich. In another, a writer has a twin who does what he cannot do. In another, a game show host is, or thinks he is, an international spy. In "Human Nature," a man whose childhood was shaped by domineering parents trains white mice to sit down at a tiny table and always employ the right silverware. Is behavior learned or enforced?

"Synecdoche, New York" is not a film about the theater, although it looks like one. A theater director is an ideal character for representing the role Kaufman thinks we all play. The magnificent sets, which stack independent rooms on top of one another, are the compartments we assign to our life's enterprises. The actors are the people in roles we cast from our point of view. Some of them play doubles assigned to do what there's not world enough and time for. They have a way of acting independently, in violation of instructions. They try to control their own projections. Meanwhile, the source of all this activity grows older and tired, sick and despairing. Is this real or a dream? The world is but a stage, and we are mere actors upon it. It's all a play. The play is real.

This has not been a conventional review. There is no need to name the characters, name the actors, assign adjectives to their acting. Look at who is in this cast. You know what I think of them. This film must not have seemed strange to them. It's what they do all day, especially waiting around for the director to make up his mind.


when the sidewalk ends review

A review for my second feature film, 2007's When the Sidewalk Ends. . .

This review marks my third review of a film by Joseph Larsen, an extremely interesting filmmaker who makes small, personal stories about different kind of journeys. Sort of. It's a weird way to describe it, but it's the best way I can. In "Tonight, We Stay Indoors", which is his latest flick but the first one I saw, it was the inner journey of a survivor. In "Cosmic Dissonance" (his first flick) it's a post-apocalyptic journey. In "When the Sidewalk Ends" (the second) it's about a man with a destination in mind but he begins to realize he might not get there, or maybe he just can't find the strength to take himself there. What exactly our man, Haskel, is looking for I can't tell you. There are some hints but the journey is the key here. The destination could be anything and it wouldn't change the film in almost any way.

Although "When the Sidewalk Ends" comes off as a bit more of a narrative story than the others, I think this is my least favorite of the three. It might be because of the movie, or it could possibly be that after having watched two movies similar in style before, a third was a bit too much. I love Joseph Larsen's way of telling a story, I find it very unique and inspiring to see what can be made with a little effort. But I have said this before - I would love to see another side of him, which I already knew going into it that "When the Sidewalk Ends" wouldn't offer. But then again, I could also like this one less because the journey and the character bringing us isn't as intriguing and mysterious to me. The lead character feels like a very average Joe and I couldn't find myself as interested in his story in the same way.

In the end though, I have to get back to what I have said before. Joseph Larsen makes movies in a way that almost no one does. His style is minimalistic, claustrophobic and philosophical on a very personal level. It brings us down to one person's life, at a certain period of their life, and just lets us observe. Not because it has something specific to show us, and not because it wants to tell us something, but because we're willing to be there. To make this sort of film is probably more brave than trying to make the most extreme shit out there, since this is most definitely something that only a few people will enjoy. An extreme movie can achieve notoriety even if its bad, but a movie simply about a man or woman going somewhere, with nearly no dialog? It takes a lot more to make, and a lot more to watch. Joseph Larsen's unapologetic filmmaking is to admire.

"When the Sidewalk Ends" takes you on a journey that you won't see the end of, as it takes a very realistic turn. Which means realizing that maybe the journey isn't worth taking. If you haven't watched a film by Joseph Larsen yet then I'm sure you can start anywhere in his filmography, but if you plan to watch it all then I think you should know that the films are very similar in certain styles.
(via Film Bizarro)


R.I.P. Nintendo Power

Word is out today that Nintendo Power will cease publication by the end of the year.

I recall renting NES and SNES games from the local 29 Supermarket on a fairly regular basis, which must have cost my parents a small fortune. Video games were my main past time as a child, after all, and I only owned copies of Super Mario Bros, Mega Man 3, and my older brother's copy of R.B.I. Baseball. He was more into sports, which my parents did their best to fit me into, but life had other plans.

Video game design was my first conscious desire as a career, long before literature and comics led to screenplays led to film led to whatever I'm doing now. I crafted Legend of Zelda castles out of Legos and kept notebooks full of game ideas and level layouts, which I miss the most out of all past belongings I have ever separated myself from. But I had no conception of what programming entailed, and was young and easily distracted enough to never learn. Again, life had other plans.

I wonder, these days, if it was the video games I was more enthralled by or just their articles in Nintendo Power. As Topless Robot points out, the issues were more satisfying than the games themselves much of the time, and it made games otherwise destined to be lost in time legendary by tossing them a cover like Metal Storm and Vice: Project Doom, or one of the monthly posters that were always plastered on my bedroom walls.

You can easily find NES emulators online, and games rarely hold up to what I remember reading about them. I've only held on to a scant few titles, but I have a whole bin of old Nintendo Power articles that I ripped out of their issues when I had to move to Minneapolis but didn't want to carry the extra weight. I still even have my first issue - May-June 1989, which came in a gray Nintendo Power trapper-keeper from Shopko. It's cut up to hell, but I can still make out the maps of Cobra Triangle and the original Ninja Turtles and the 1988 awards declaring Zelda II as game of the year over Super Mario Bros 2.

Their articles on titles such as Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and Earthbound - published before the games' releases - formed the basis of my own plagiarized fantasy world ideas that originally got me writing for pleasure and still float in the back of my head, waiting for the day to be polished up and finally completed in literature form (once hoped for in cinema form, before the realization of what it takes for epic fantasy films to exist).

There were a few select moments, years ago, when I realized video games were no longer for me. When the Nintendo 64 & Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time turned me off of 3D games and I subsequently cancelled my Nintendo Power subscription, or when I bought a bootleg NES system years later to rediscover my old favorites, only to realize they no longer held my attention. Reality colliding with nostalgia is always an awful experience, but I thought this particular chapter was dealt with and moved on from. I still hold onto Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, Mario 2, and a handful of others, and I still even put in a yearly play-through of Final Fantasy VI. But I don't consider this an important part of my life anymore. And this, more often than not, does not make me regretful.

But I owe a great deal of my imagination to Nintendo Power, so now, today, I am sad. Perhaps I should have been a video game designer. Perhaps I should have created something to grace your pages. Perhaps those were the plans that I should have made.

My apologies.



Walker Library

I have just been notified by the Hennepin County Library Catalog that the Walker Community Library, situated on the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon, will close its doors for renovation on September 22. The inevitability of this event has been in the back of my head since the plan was announced quite some time ago, but much like the Uptown Theatre renovation across the street, it never really struck me as something that would actually happen anytime in the near future.

I'm not quite sure if I have a deep affection for the library itself. The building, put up in 1981 after replacing the original site from 1911, went virtually ignored in my world for the first few years of living in the Uptown area, as it never had the collection I was looking for. This all changed with the advent of the online catalog - or rather, my discovery of it.

I believe it started with my yearning to keep up with comic books without spending money on what usually turned out to be not worth owning. The Walker's selection at the time left something to be desired (which is no longer the case, it's decently stacked over there these days), but the ability to ship titles from libraries from across the county was a tremendous boredom-saver. This discovery transitioned into other literary works, of course, and it rekindled my love of reading that I had lost after moving away from Wisconsin and the Marathon County Public Library in particular.

Now there was a library. While it had no online borrowing network, it sufficed plenty while I was living two blocks away and working third shift which offered me nothing but time to read and free day-old donuts. I breezed through their collection so fast, I can barely remember what books I conquered (which might not be a good thing, I suppose), but I do remember my pride and joy.

The hardcover, limited-edition Dark Carnival by Ray Bradbury. The collection of short stories, essentially a rough draft of October Country, was the first published book of Bradbury's in 1947 and this 2001 reprint remains one of the most beautiful books I've ever laid eyes on. I had already fallen in love with the author thanks to the library's copy of Death is a Lonely Business (first edition hardcover with the eyeballs on the cover), but this sealed the deal on him being one of my most cherished writers. I think I had a vague plan to steal it before I moved to Minneapolis, and I still kind of regret that never happening.

I knew those librarians well - well, not so much personally, but they were almost daily figures in my life at the time. And this is now how I feel about the Walker Library staff. Not a week goes by that I'm not delving deep into that underground, filling downtime at the movie theater with Scott Snyder's Batman or Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (the best works I've read all year).

I won't see them much anymore, for the time being at least, and that's kind of depressing. And now I must move on somewhere else, probably to the University of Minnesota's extensive library since I'll finally have access. As it happens, I'm returning to school this Fall to build towards Archive & Library Studies. Perhaps the Walker Library helped out on deciding that one.


Minouk Lim at the Walker

Video work from Korean artist Minouk Lim has been on display at the Walker Art Center since the end of May, but I suppose now is as good of time as ever to point out how it showcases the best film I've seen all year. The wonder in question is titled S.O.S. - Adoptive Dissensus, a three-channel video projection that's actually from 2009.

The film was originally a three-act guided boat tour that focused on three groups of people that were passed by on the water, all representing the the impact of rapid urban development. A political prisoner and student protesters are in the mix, but it's the two young lovers and their bullhorn darting across a small island to keep up with the boat that is the highlight. Intermingled with cityscapes lit by spotlight, the sweet simplicity of the couple's section is touching and refreshing in a year where I've been entertained by many but moved by . . . well, one (Nuri Bilge Ceylan's towering achievement Once Upon a Time in Anatolia).

This is not to say the rest of Lim's 'Heat of Shadows' exhibit isn't also worth a watch. There are two other video works, New Town Ghost and the highly unique Weight of Hands featuring a tour bus and thermal imaging, along with sculpture work that the exhibition booklet needed to explain to me, of which it succeeded admirably. But really, it's the two lovers that should draw you out to the Walker's Burnet Gallery by the time it leaves on September 2nd.

The quality of this work should come as no surprise, as the Walker has quite a track record in bringing fantastic video work from Asia to the Twin Cities. It was there years ago that I witnessed my favorite piece of video art, Cao Fei's Whose Utopia, and just last year they featured the great works of Zhao Liang.


the greatest

Months ago, after Roger Ebert posted his thoughts on the Greatest Films of All Time, I attempted to do the same. Upon completion, my mind was changed immediately. And now, Sight & Sound has produced their 2012 list of the best, with Vertigo overtaking Kane and Jeanne Dielman joyfully cracking the Top 35. This has prompted my second attempt.

And this is it.

1. Gojira
2. Fata Morgana
3. Lessons of Darkness
4. Wild Blue Yonder
5. Late Spring
6. Citizen Kane
7. Bambi
8. The Wizard of Oz
9. The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly
10. Gates of Heaven

I remember attempting a list like this once before, back in film school around 2005. Man with a Movie Camera was #1, because it represented 'pure cinema.' Other entrants were Pierrot Le Fou, Stalker, Talking Head, Goodbye Dragon Inn, and End of Evangelion. Things change. It will change again, I am sure. But for now . . .