Qualities that control life

"The Limits of Control"
written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Imagination and paying attention, that's what controls life according to this film. I agree.

Getting the signs, being able to recognize them and to follow ones path seems to be the subject here. Will you be deaf and blind or will you read and hear? Many allies appear, each knowing only a part of the equation, hence the ultimate challenge of putting it all together is upon you. You the hero, you the audience, you the storyteller. Everyone got an equal chance.

Searching for clues, finding them and then empowering them with all the might we can provide, mostly through our imagination, is what we do in life, don’t we? Perhaps a lot of what we label as correct clues are just our arbitrary decisions, taken out of a thin air. Like leaving Madrid to go to Seville.

Our maps are self generating, so are our tasks. What’s best about this film is the humility of the storyteller. Surely he has designed his tale, otherwise it would be impossible to sustain a narrative yet it all feels as a genuine search. The Lone Man searches, the storyteller searches with him and so do we. There is a sense of being treated seriously, without the paternalistic “I’ve got a plot to unveil upon you” attitude.

This seems to be an honest approach to something that remains an enigma to the majority of us who are humble enough to know that they don’t know. That “something that remains an enigma” is called life. In its maze it is us who generate our own scenarios, our own surprises. elations, and the limits of self control.

What’s the story? No way it happens for real. Maybe it's a tale of a lonely janitor working in Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and fantasizing. Maybe of a hit man, or some other tough guy getting ready to “do something.” In such case the real story would begin when the film stock is literary broken at the end. The real life starts off screen. Yet without the imagination, that is the film, life would be flat, or plain impossible.

Inside the film, the impossible (the stylistic disappointment that is) happened in the fortress. Somehow the Bill Murry’s scene flattened everything into a cheap cartoon. It's not the question "how did he get there". It is rather the lack of intensity needed to make the impossible not only possible but absolutely necessary. This is the scene that really needed for Jarmusch to continue channeling David Lynch, as he brilliantly did earlier in the scene in a bar, where nothing happened and yet everything was pregnant with unrealized importance.

Still, with no disrespect to Jim Jarmusch, whom I like a lot, this is the best David Lynch film signed by somebody else.


Best movies of the decade. 2

"The Dark House"
written by Lukasz Kosmicki and Wojciech Smarzowski

directed by Smarzowski

“A mysterious follow up” to my list of 10 “film energy clusters” is going to change:

Initially, I did want to pull off a nepotist maneuver and announce a new “film energy cluster” emerging from Poland calling it “The Integration.” The said integration would cover aesthetic as well as political. Such 2009 polish produced films as “The Reverse”(Andrzej Bart writer, Borys Lankosz director), “My Flesh My Blood” (writers: Grazyna Trela, Marcin Wrona, director Marcin Wrona) and (my absolute favorite ) “The Dark House”, mix the past with the now on political and personal levels. Each does it differently, each movingly and effectively. A superb “My Flesh My Blood” is the least political of them. Watch out for these titles on the festival circuit.

At the end I decided not to name the Polish films as the eleventh energy cluster of the decade for two reasons. These great films are actually announcing what’s potentially on the horizon since some are only now being released. More importantly, I can’t turn the blind eye on what has been going on in Russia for the last decade. I just love “The Day Watch” and appreciate “Euphoria”, “Return”, “The Island” or “Tulpan” just to name a few titles. However since “Tulpan” is a polish co-production and is shot by Jolanta Dylewska let’s just put the Russians and the Poles together. It will take some more finagling to come up with the encompassing category since the Poles mostly attack the political while the Russians probe the existential dimension. So for now let’s just call it “the new Slavic energy.”


His own voice

"All the Ships at Sea"
written and directed by Dan Sallitt

The style, the temperament and the subject matter finally come together in “All the ships at sea” the latest (2002) by an independent American filmmaker Dan Sallitt. It is a pleasure to watch how its rhythmic narrative and elegant compositions support a serious, honest and measured meditation on faith, reason and heart.

The film describes a meeting between two sisters. Evelyn is a catholic theology university teacher. A younger Virginia has just been thrown out of a cult. The two mostly talk, yet it works due to its framing, pacing, delivery, seriousness and the overall restrained approach. Sallitt uses similar sparse fimmaking style in his two earlier features. Their themes deal with male-female circus of sex and relationships. “The Polly Perverse strikes again” (1985) warns against losing one’s true self to a career and normal life (“- You're doing wrong kind of drugs, - I am on reality, man.”) “The Honeymoon” (1998) begs to first fuck, then marry, not the other way around.

The fimmaking skills in probing human interactions pay off, even though the films are hard battles to win considering that their plots center around impotent, brooding fellows who manage to suck into their miserable existences interesting, usually neurotic women. Bad for the gals, good for the script. So so for the audiences. (With all honestly, I can't complain about those guys too much since prof. Lewinsky a certain philosopher who has already appeared twice in my recent fiction attempts ain't a James Bond type either.)

With its third feature Sallitt wisely disposes of a boring guy part (a priest who appears there is just a sidekick) and concentrates on women and their respective faiths. Sallitt allows characters of the two sisters try to understand each other, without being manipulated by the demands of an anecdote. As a result in “All The Ships at Sea” there are real people on the screen, not actors.

Clearly, Dan Sallitt has found his style. Or a theme. Or combined the two. In any rate such congruency is refreshing. Another cool thing about watching Dan Sallit's films is that one can see how over the years he has developed and improved his style and has finally arrived with a strong and convincing handwriting. “All the Ships at Sea” is meticulously crafted. I am particularly impressed by the rhythm and the visual elegance of this film.

The film's web site has a part where the director points out some of the visual references that he as a learned film aficionado sprinkled out throughout the film. I urge those who want to learn to check it out.


The world as a story

Levitating monks battle the devil
who tries to break their
world sustaining storytelling.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

Written by Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam

Directed by Terry Gilliam

To me one of the most alluring aspect of screenwriting is its connection to life seen as a story. In this respect investigating the craft of writing is a bit like pondering our existence – and vice versa. That's why writing is not trivial. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why screen writing today is such a popular trend.

One of the best scenes in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” deals head on with the subject of the world as story. The scene is a beautifully shot flashback to the first meeting between dr. Parnassus and the devil, Mr. Nick. Milleniums ago, a towering and fantastic cave/fortess/temple deep in (Himalaya?) mountains. Dr. Parnassus – as a lead monk – oversees a kick ass (most participants levitate) group meditation. Clearly they are engaged in a super important activity. Suddenly the wind blows and the devil, Mr. Nick appears:

What exactly do you do here?

We tell the eternal story.


Oh.... What's that?


The story that sustains the universe.

The story without which there is nothing.


Nothing? Really. Are you telling me

that if you stop telling this story...

that the universe ceases to exist?

(After Mr. Nick stops the story and freezes the monks, a bird shits on his head, and the bad spell is broken.)

A sign! A message! That bird was a messenger...
from distant places we know not of!
Other places! The point is, you're wrong!
And I'm wrong! It doesn't have to be us here!
(indicating monks)
Somewhere in the world, right now...
someone else is telling a story! A different story!
A saga.. a romance... a tale of an unforeseen death.
Tragic or comic.. it doesn’t matter.
It’s sustaining the universe!
That's why we're still here.


Best movies of the decade

Bitten by “the end of the decade in movies” craziness I am going to put my two cents in. Never mind that technically we still have a year to go, any excuse to talk movies is a good one.

I decided to create and rank “screen theme clusters”, stylistic events, trends that impressed, seduced, amazed, shocked or astounded me the most. The “clusters” are defined by any of the following: writing, directing, geographical origin or common themes. Each cluster represents tendency that advances or strengthens the way we use the medium. Most do not list all of the titles belonging there.

The ranking seeks commonalities and as such excludes many great singular films which I have not put (yet?) in a group context. For example “Training Day”, “The Wonder Boys”, “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

Here is the list:

1. Space as consciousness, memory and identity:

“Being John Malcovich”
“The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
(Charlie Kaufman)

2. Mystery of the visual, auditory and structural made visible:

“Mulholland Drive”
“Inland Empire”

3. Pacing the oppressive and the tragic, the Romanian style:

“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”
“The death of Mr. Lazarescu”
(Mungu, Puiu)

4. Fast and furious perception of action:

"The Bourne Trilogy"
(Lyman, Greengrass)

5. The explorations of terror:

"United 93"
(McQueen, Greengrass, Spielberg, Garrone)

6. The mosaic narrative connections:

"Amores Perros"
"21 Grams"
(Arraga, Inamitu)

7. Time moving in all directions:

(Noe, Nolan)

8. Metaphysics of the long shots:

“The Werckmeister Harmonies”
(Tarr, Van Sant)

9. Playful storytelling with imagination and heart:

"Finding Nemo"

10. Empathy, consistency and towering skills - Clint Eastwood:

"Mystic River"
"Million Dollar Baby"
"Gran Torino"

A mysterious follow up will be announced shortly. So stay tuned!


The filmmakers’ hell

"Drag Me to Hell", written by Sam and Ivan Raimi,
directed by Sam Raimi

In the filmmaker’s hell there are many rooms of various sizes, intensities and status. I have certainly assured myself a modest place in one of the least noticeable of them, but that’s not the subject of this entry.

This entry is concerned with Sam Raimi. I am afraid that with his “Drag me to hell” he might be possibly going there himself. That he would - very deservingly so - be treated there as a major celebrity would be to him a small consolation, I guess.

I suspect all filmmakers, after the screenings of their own lives run last frames, want to reside in some privileged sector of the afterlife, far removed from the unpleasantness of hell and the unbearable boredom of heaven (at least in its biblical version.) What would such “Filmmakers’ Hell” be is another story. Yes, this is a play on my “A Philosopher's Paradise,” which although liked by many (of the very few who actually saw it I must disclose in order not to end up in the wrong circle of hell), is one of the reasons I am definitely going to the filmmakers’ hell.

So why do I think Mr. Raimi might be heading the wrong way? Here are his possible sins:

A delicious Alison Lohman is 95% of the time on the screen and she is never seen naked. Not even a modest bathtub relaxing scene. Not a single change of blood soaked clothes, not a shower scene. That's a major transgression which by itself should assure any director of such a flick eternal hellfire.

If I were a cat or a goat appearing in this flick I would definitely sue. Not a single close up for any of them. A total lack of any character building there. (The argument that humans don't get that much either does not stand, animals in a horror flick are privileged). Here, the cat is too shyly dealt with, the goat's cool single action is thrown away. Only a fly gets some attention and perhaps some “personality development.” (Still not enough for me)

The loudness and the overall bravado of the film successfully hide its shortcomings. For example production design wise the office scenes (the bank and the boyfriend's campus office) are surprisingly devoid of verve. The absolutely captivating historical prologue sets such high expectations that the bank office scene that follows is a let down. Granted, to squeeze something interesting out of such a dull space is almost impossible, but that's Raimi directing. He is a great director, when he wants to be. The next scene in the parking garage proves it.

The script's flatness and predictability could be excused by the “B picture” ambition of the film, yet with such high directorial talent engaged this should have not happened.