January 26, 2010

Army Of Shadows

A film not afraid to wear its reticence on its sleeve: telegraphic, understated, laconic, minimalist, episodic, precisely elided; violence by implication. Melville makes the most of blue and green colour casts and varying saturation to coat so much with a sense of dread mirroring the fogs and washed-out light. The camerawork feels like a big budget film (steady, assured, occasional jolts, zooms, blacks), but with a sort of dirty realism that transcends itself in a minimalist impressionism (visually and narratively). Hats and tunnels (aircraft, train carriages, underpasses, jail and hospital corridors), symbols and geometry, wall textures (tiles, cell walls, London buildings); this film stays in my mind for weeks afterwards….


November 25, 2009


"Amped up, antic and crackling with chemical intensity, [Nicolas Cage's] performance moved movie critic Roger Ebert to observe: 'Cage is as good as anyone since Klaus Kinski at portraying a man whose head is exploding.'" — from a recent LA Times news item on "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans".

Well, yes. Like Kinski himself, Cage is another of those actors (or overactors) you watch in order to watch the actor — Nicolas Cage (or, rather, "Nicolas Cage") in this case — rather than the character they're playing. Or rather, in my case, don't watch — I find both Kinski and Cage generally unwatchable in all their showy look-at-me intensity and hamminess. They're performers, not actors; and the performance is so often about their performance itself. It's all about (say) watching James Dean playing James Dean playing yourself (were you an American of a certain age), for example, or Nicolas Cage playing yet another variant of Nicolas Cage playing another twitchy quirky mannered variant of "Nicolas Cage". Tilda Swinton does the same in a rather different context. I doubt I'll be watching this version of Bad Lieutenant any time soon.

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November 09, 2009

Mahler and Glass

I finally get to see Hitchcock's Vertigo (in the restored version on DVD) … and now I can make sense of la Jetée and Sans Soleil (sorry, in-joke).

But I'm puzzled by the critical responses to this film (or what I know of them): this slightly-garish, overheated, implausibly-plotted, over-acted creaking sprawl of a film is surely quite a lot of fun, but to me it felt more like watching an extended soap than a top 100 movie. At least this is one film where San Francisco isn't a character so much as just a backdrop (to this long-time Bay Area resident it feels like a home movie; it's funny how little has changed in the City over the years, except how white everyone is in a film about a city that even then was all over the map color-wise, and how strangely easy it is for Jimmy Stewart to park his car in parts of the city historically choked with parked cars).

The real pleasure for me was the score, which sounded like a tonally-conservative Mahler crossed occasionally with sprinkles of Glass; a joy to hear loud. Otherwise, I found myself counting The Simpsons references and wondering about the possibilities of a subdued form of Camp.

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August 07, 2009


"Sunshine": a badly-acted mess of a movie, not so much a homage as a series of pastiches, a film you feel you should be playing with a Playstation, a series of visual cliches from the visually-limited world of the music video. Disappointing, mesmerising.


July 16, 2008

The Smartest Guys In The Room

A (true) story: about a dozen or so years ago, as the result of a company takeover, I worked for a large company that had bought out the much smaller company (a typical high tech startup) that I'd been a part of, and as a result I'd been granted quite a lot of stock options in the larger company (as happens here, usually — as in this case — as a sort of deferred salary). Enough to buy the better part of a house, cash (even in San Francisco!), at the price the larger company paid — but only if the larger company's stock price held, or at least didn't lose too much of its value, for a few years. There was no reason to think there'd be any real problems, as the larger company's financials seemed pretty plausible, and the auditors and banks had all signed off on the books, etc., and senior management at the larger company seemed to be doing well; and the tech economy was years from the dotcom meltdown (not that we knew that at the time, of course). Few of us in the smaller company much liked the larger company's top management; if nothing else, they lacked the sort of refinement and technical nous that our own upper management was known for, and in comparison to our management's general verbal and mental flair, their management seemed to have trouble holding their own against anyone who used words of more than one syllable. But we all stood to earn a fair bit of money from the deal, and we really didn't spend too much time worrying about it all.

Then one day I was in a meeting with a Larger Company Senior Management Type where he was explaining to us engineering rubes why this quarter's financial results were not what had been forecast, and why, consequently, the stock price was slowly declining on a daily basis (but still not at a worrisome level). Our European guys, he said, had screwed up — they'd forgotten to factor in the Easter holidays and we hadn't been able to make the revenue forecasts because of the unexpected days off. I was incredulous. I asked whether they really expected us to believe that crap? Like almost any Briton or European, I would never forget Easter was coming up — it's our major holiday, dammit. It's like an American waking up one day and realising he or she forgot Thanksgiving. Lame. He straight-facedly insisted that that was the real reason, and that there wasn't any bigger thing going on. Easter isn't any sort of holiday here in the US at all, so it probably sounded plausible to the US engineers, and for the next few weeks we just muttered about idiot managers and left it at that (I was, in fact, semi-officially censured for publicly doubting upper management's competence). It seemed like a temporary stuff-up, probably caused by incompetence at the top level, but nothing endemic.

But we got more and more of these odd little excuses and financial hiccups over the next few months, none of them quite adding up, and none of them really raising a red flag on its own, but all of them increasingly fishy. Some of us were also uneasy because the stock price was declining along with the hiccups, but even with the decline, we still stood to get a fair bit of money. We couldn't actually sell our stock for a while in any case, because most of us were barred by contract from doing so until at least a year after the buyout.

And then one day it was over: the stock plummeted to near nothing as the massive fraud behind the Larger Company's last few years worth of sales was revealed. The lucky survivors from the smaller company (myself included) simply ended up with nothing; the unlucky ones ended up with huge tax bills for paper "profits" they'd never see (sure, they got that tax back a year later, but they typically had to borrow literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the immediate bill). Almost all of us lost all the many years' worth of deferred salaries or direct investments the options and stock represented to us Smaller Company workers. The resulting litigation dragged on for years (for a while I was in the weird situation of working for a company that I was, as part of a then-unprecedented class action, suing), and I think I managed to get a few cents on the dollar from the settlement. Enough, especially by the time it was all over, to maybe buy a doghouse for cash in San Francisco (not that I have a dog, but it's the thought that counts). Five years of work and savings down the drain. Such is life, I guess, in the high tech world. Easy come, easy go.

Many years later, the CEO was finally convicted, and sent to jail for a little while. He's out now, and — incredibly — earning money back in the industry. He didn't lose it all; he came out just fine, by the looks of things, or at least compared to most of the rest of us. It turns out he had form, if you know what I mean. To my knowledge, none of the banks or auditors or oversight committees, etc., ever admitted to dropping the ball, let alone to incompetence or responsibility in any form (par for the course, of course).

Whenever we survivors from the smaller company get together (as many of us do, at an annual BBQ) we ruefully and rather bitterly talk about how we always seem to be working at the cutting edge — in this case, working for the Enron-ahead-of-its-time. I lost pretty much all my putative savings in that one; I still think of all the what-if's and might-have-been's; it's one of the central facts of my financial life, and has helped directly and indirectly determine the shape of the past decade for me.

* * *

A few years later, along with a lot of other Californians, I endured the power cuts and outages (such a lovely word; a bunch of us also coined the word "innage" as a result) that plagued California after its pioneering power industry deregulation and privatisation. The deregulation debacle ensured that while tens of millions of us lost power semi-randomly, a few companies and individuals made, well, tens of millions. Or even billions. Most of us at the time chalked the problems up to political incompetence (the whole process was a spectacularly stupid idea incompetently legislated and implemented, but sold to the public with the usual enthusiastic boosterism, those smooth, well-practiced half-truths and outright lies that seemed to dominate that era), mixed with the undeniable fact that Californians are basically clueless about limited resources, and use electricity like it's going out of fashion, even when to do so is either counter-productive or even suicidal. So it was actually quite plausible that we'd brought it all on ourselves and that we'd just have to grit our teeth and muddle through for a few years until it all sorted itself out (how very British).

What most of us didn't know then was that a large company not a lot of people had heard of at the time called Enron was — along with a bunch of witting and unwitting co-conspirators — actively manipulating the power supply and resulting prices in ways that the new deregulation regime made easy, or even encouraged. A lot of the brownouts and blackouts were actually the side effect of, or the catalyst for, blackmail done in the name of deregulation, and we Californians were basically just pawns, hostages, or collateral damage in the larger game.

At the time, any attempt to get behind the scenes and discover whether there was any sort of collusion or manipulation by suppliers and distributors nearly always met with official derision or worse. Well, we know better now. The whole episode, and Enron itself, is even one of the main reasons we have a high-profile Governator rather than the more typical gray bureaucrat we had at the time. We still face the fallout from the deregulation debacle in our daily lives here, whether we know it (or think about it) or not.

* * *

So for one reason or another, Enron's been a part of my life for quite a while.

And finally, a few years even further down the road, I finally get to see "The Smartest Guys In The Room" on DVD. It explains a lot. Or, more accurately, it illustrates a lot, a lot that's close to my heart, anyway. Yes, I already knew almost all that was in the film — all the facts and figures and overall narratives, anyway — but it's great to see it so well depicted and articulately explained.

The film's probably an acquired taste: it's visually mannered, with a lot of semi-ironic sandwiched visuals (extreme sports, reflections, etc.), visual cliches that highlight the cliches and ordinariness of so much of the story with a sort of meticulous off-handedness about the way the visuals work together. It's got a good soundtrack: cooly appropriate, a sort of dumb greek chorus of Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Manson, Glass, etc., aural motifs or icons, and the movie itself is so often literally and figuratively about face (and reflections and surfaces and movement in front of subjects), a story about people, human nature (self-delusion, why ask why?), shamelessness, victims, self-pity, arrogance, surreal denial, not money as such. The depressing message is that so many of the people who made money more or less got away with it; complicity pays, collusion pays — but I guess I already knew that. From personal experience, of course.

(Part of Flix).

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May 19, 2008

The Battle Of Algiers

What better time to watch a film about an occupying Western power that uses torture and brutal hypocrisy in the service of civilisation and democracy? The first time I saw "The Battle Of Algiers" was as some sort of tenth-generation samizdat copy in the same City University film course that got me to see la Jetée. It seemed more remote then, something to be studied as a self-conscious artefact of the 60's or of self-important European Cinema, like some sort of cross between a French gangster movie and half-forgotten black-and-white TV newscast footage of the Vietnam war from my childhood. Now it also seems more like a humane and generous attempt to show the human face of dehumanisation, to show in simple terms the deadly and deadening complexities of occupation, terrorism, "authenticity", and resistance.

Will there ever be an equivalent for Iraq? Probably not — whatever you might say about the FLN and the pieds-noir, there was a strong strain of Western influence and history underpinning the FLN, and a basic level of (wrong-headed) understanding of Algeria in the pieds-noir that few Americans are likely to be capable of in Iraq (there just isn't the shared history, for one).

(There was one jarring scene in the film where Colonel Mathieu off-handedly comments on how he'd like Sartre even less as an enemy (or something similar) — did the old windbag ever have that sort of influence?)

(Part of Flix).

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March 19, 2008

A Trip To The DVD Store

The local Borders had "Blackadder III" in the Documentary section this evening; Koyaanisqatsi, Man Of Flowers, and Anton Corbijn's collected video works were lurking in the "Foreign Language" section (Koyaanisqatsi is at least plausible, I guess); and a new reissue of Battleship Potemkin sat in the "Comedy" section.

Easy targets, for sure; the really striking thing, though, is that they actually had those DVDs.

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March 11, 2008

Point Blank

"Point Blank": another of those "why haven't I seen this before?" films, a sort of Californian Get Carter (or, more accurately, the other way around, given that it pre-dates the original Get Carter by several years), a relentless LA / San Francisco noir played out in a series of colour- and texture-coded tableaux, doubletakes, prefigurings, repeated motifs (scenes, faces, backdrops, mirrors, bodies, stances, gestures, actions, screens, blinds, curtains, beds, sounds, phrases) echoing across time and place, the laconic Lee Marvin (apparently deeply involved in a lot more than just the acting in this film), the beautiful dark subtly-lit catacombs of Alcatraz, used to give the last scenes a feel of being played out on a stage (without being stagey), brazen ambiguities and little shaded mysteries hanging out in plain sight. With the exception of the music soundtrack and the almost total whiteness of the cast, this is a film that's aged well: it doesn't feel like a film of its time so much as a film about its time (so much so that some of the most authentic period bits set in LA almost looked fake to me, way too true to be real).

(Part of Flix).

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August 22, 2007

Ciné, ma verité

Chris Marker's Sans Soleil: an exquisite flowing piece of (or about? who knows…?) exquisite orientalisms (in the broader Saidian sense), beautiful cliches, the sort of thing that always says infinitely more about the observer than the observed, that feels more like a travelogue of a filmaking era than of memory, place, and culture (it's always fascinating to see what fascinated someone like Marker 25 years ago), a melange of signs of signs, a thoughtfully-constructed cabinet of curiosities of curiosities. Like La Jetée, the effect's hypnotic, but this time it's difficult to escape the feeling that you're watching a filmmaker at work at making you watch a filmmaker at work, striving for significance with a studied and sometime sardonic off-handedness that tries to hide or efface the portentousness always lurking on the surface. All of which makes it sound as though I disliked the film, but it's stayed with me for weeks, mostly as a complex impression, a set of tones and colours, a pleasurable flow of little misdirections….

(Part of Flix).

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March 19, 2007

Topsy Turvy

Mike Leigh's "Topsy Turvy": watching a late 20th century take on a late nineteenth century take on early 19th century Japan… (but The Mikado’s not about Japan any more than Apocalypse Now is about Vietnam, is it?). "The Commitments" for grownups. The beautiful rich complex coloured art deco backgrounds of so many scenes, not a beige wall in sight (reminds me of the way American Beauty works visually in internal scenes, all colourfields and planes of texture — wood, walls, lights, drapes, tables…). Imperious fun. A fluent riot of subtleties, good-natured, good-hearted, rich in language and reference. As always, Sullivan’s music gloriously tuneful, supple, lithe, anachronistic, totally tonal, light-footed; Sullivan himself anarchic, fun, cheerful, smiling eyes; Gilbert’s gruff lugubriousness can’t quite suppress a sense of surrealness and humour (watching Gilbert watching Japan in the London expo, those sad distant eyes lighting up a little)… As always with Leigh’s films, the chorus and supporting cast keep catching the eye — the accents, the off-kilter faces, the usual Leigh ensemble work. Endless good-natured humour, Victorian commonsense, camaraderie… "Maude: Never bear a humorous baby". "The more I see of men the more I like dogs". "I don’t know quite how to take praise. It makes my eyes red."

(Part of Flix).


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