Thursday, September 16, 2010

The View From Home 13: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

(‬Cinema Guild‭)
Standard list price:‭ ‬$29.95
Release date:‭ ‬Aug.‭ ‬31

For a filmmaker of Agnes Varda’s renown,‭ ‬it’s important to note how few features she has made over her‭ ‬40-plus-year career.‭ ‬She boasts‭ ‬47‭ ‬directorial credits on the Internet Movie Database,‭ ‬yet most cineastes who haven’t spelunked into the deepest depths of the French New Wave know her mainly for four features:‭ ‬Cleo From‭ ‬5‭ ‬to‭ ‬7,‭ ‬Vagabond,‭ ‬The Gleaners and I and‭ ‬The Beaches of Agnes.‭ ‬She’s been a lot more productive than this slim CV entails,‭ ‬but because she’s worked so often in the commercially unviable world of short films‭ – ‬or on equally hard-to-distribute features of an hour in length‭ – ‬her work has been neglected.

Perhaps recognizing this,‭ ‬Varda in‭ ‬2004‭ ‬released‭ ‬Cinevardaphoto,‭ ‬a triptych of short films from throughout her career,‭ ‬repackaged as a three-part,‭ ‬feature-length meditation on photography.‭ ‬Newly released on DVD,‭ ‬it’s a fascinating experiment from one of the cinema’s most uncompromising alchemists,‭ ‬dancing effortlessly in the chasms between fiction and reality,‭ ‬narrative and documentary,‭ ‬stillness and motion.

The film starts with her‭ ‬2004‭ ‬movie‭ ‬Ydessa,‭ ‬The Bears and Etc.,‭ ‬a‭ ‬42-minute documentary about Ydessa Hendeles,‭ ‬a Canadian artist whose massive‭ “‬Teddy Bear Project‭” ‬debuted in Munich in‭ ‬2003.‭ ‬Over the span of a decade,‭ ‬Hendeles amassed hundreds of black-and-white images of people with teddy bears,‭ ‬culled from family photo albums,‭ ‬then organized thematically or pictorially,‭ ‬individually framed and hung in a gallery space on every wall,‭ ‬floor to ceiling.

Like Varda herself in this series of films,‭ ‬Hendeles constructs narratives out of still pictures,‭ ‬creating elegiac time capsules for a vanished age,‭ ‬and whose oppressive totality is both moving and unsettling.‭ ‬The child of Holocaust survivors,‭ ‬Hendeles doesn’t let spectators of her art forget this,‭ ‬coloring the ostensible innocence of her subject matter with a second room,‭ ‬bare except for a kneeling sculpture of Adolf Hitler.‭ ‬The fact that teddy bears can be so provocative and disturbing is a triumph of artistic reinterpretation,‭ ‬and Varda realizes this and much more in a probing,‭ ‬fascinating look at artistic process,‭ ‬judgment and temperament.‭ ‬Varda’s films are always forthrightly personal,‭ ‬and you get the feeling she recognizes in Hendeles a kindred spirit.

The second film in this triptych,‭ ‬the shorter‭ ‬Ulysses,‭ ‬again captures a nether world between fiction and reality,‭ ‬while adding an ephemerally powerful subtext:‭ ‬Who has a claim on memory‭? ‬If an image is taken but completely forgotten by its subject,‭ ‬who owns the emotions attached‭? ‬Again and again Varda returns,‭ ‬with relentless obsession,‭ ‬to a photo she took in the‭ ‬1950s of a nude boy and a man on a beach near a dying goat.‭ ‬The boy,‭ ‬now an adult with a family,‭ ‬has no recollection of the image,‭ ‬but Varda revitalizes it.‭ ‬More than that,‭ ‬she ruminates,‭ ‬deconstructs and reconstructs the photo from every angle imaginable until it becomes more than the sum of its parts.

The final film in this installment,‭ ‬Salut La Cubans,‭ ‬is a photographic essay,‭ ‬with narration,‭ ‬on the Cuban Revolution.‭ ‬While the other two movies in‭ ‬Cinevardaphoto suggest life from stillness,‭ ‬this time Varda‭ ‬creates life on the screen by animating her shots in a flipbook style.‭ ‬Stills becoming moving images,‭ ‬rhythmically repeated to a musical soundtrack.

Cinevardaphoto is a beguiling survey film that delineates exactly Varda’s place in the film-history canon:‭ ‬born of restless New Wave chutzpah only to transcend its affectations and go her own way.‭ ‬The Cinema Guild DVD release is more than just these three shorts,‭ ‬offering an additional six shorts and a critical video survey,‭ ‬totaling some three hours of combined viewing.‭ ‬Of the six bonus shorts,‭ ‬a couple of them are downright dull,‭ ‬but the most interesting is probably‭ ‬1975‭’‬s‭ ‬Response de Femmes,‭ ‬an‭ ‬8-minute compendium of feminist arguments spoken by a handful of diverse women against a vacant backdrop.‭ ‬Some of it is dated,‭ ‬but other concerns are as relevant as ever,‭ ‬from the misogynistically desirous mother-whore duality to body-image issues perpetuated by a penis-placating consumer culture.

It doesn’t get much weirder than‭ ‬1984‭’‬s‭ ‬Seven Rooms,‭ ‬Kitchen and Bath,‭ ‬a‭ ‬28-minute semi-narrative experiment in time,‭ ‬space and aging shot during an exhibition titled‭ “‬Alive and Artificial‭” ‬at a hospice in Avignon.‭ ‬Inserting actors into a capacious building occupied by animatronic models and spending as much time on the spatial architecture of the location than on anything resembling a coherent narrative,‭ ‬the short is compellingly watchable despite its inscrutability.‭ ‬And it links Varda to Chantal Akerman,‭ ‬another rebellious female director who would follow her trailblazing lead.

The Exploding Girl‭ (‬Oscilloscope Laboratories‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$27.49
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬7

In the opening shot‭ ‬of‭ ‬The Exploding Girl,‭ ‬lead character Ivy is obscured by a window,‭ ‬asleep in a car while‭ ‬trees blur by in the window‭’‬s reflection.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a telling preamble,‭ ‬for Ivy remains an obscure character to the very end,‭ ‬her character defined almost solely by her epilepsy‭ (‬hence,‭ ‬perhaps,‭ ‬the film‭’‬s otherwise enigmatic title‭)‬.‭ ‬The American debut of writer-director Bradley Rust Gray‭ (‬whose only other feature is the‭ ‬2003‭ ‬Icelandic film‭ ‬Salt‭) ‬follows the‭ ‬20-year-old Ivy on her spring break sojourn from college,‭ ‬where she returns home and reacquaints herself with‭ ‬longtime platonic friend Al‭ (‬Mark Rendell‭)‬.‭ ‬Her boyfriend,‭ ‬meanwhile,‭ ‬is back at college and can barely be bothered to pick up her phone calls.‭ ‬Nothing much happens,‭ ‬and Ivy is an occasionally frustrating cipher whose emotional canvas remains unpainted.‭ ‬But I admire the film‭’‬s photographic naturalism,‭ ‬its dogged resistance toward the traditional grammar of film entertainment and its seemingly unscripted dialogue.‭ ‬Maybe‭ ‬The Exploding Girl is nothing more than a lo-fi,‭ ‬mumblecore variant on the classic teen-movie formula of the girl who should be‭ ‬courting‭ ‬the best friend who cares about her but is tethered to a jerk who doesn‭’‬t.‭ ‬But it meanders through this formula lithely and pleasantly.

Grey‭’‬s Anatomy:‭ ‬The Complete Sixth Season‭ (‬ABC Studios‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$38.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬14

Is it uncool of me to love‭ ‬Grey‭’‬s Anatomy‭? ‬Isn‭’‬t it kind of,‭ ‬like,‭ ‬a chick show‭? ‬And didn‭’‬t it jump the shark a couple seasons ago‭? ‬Malarkey to all.‭ ‬I will concede that its sixth season was far from perfect.‭ ‬The Valentine‭’‬s Day episode was unforgivably maudlin,‭ ‬and I lost a modicum of respect for the writers when they went the route of the dreaded flashback episode,‭ ‬progressing nothing in the characters‭’‬ stories and instead hashing over irrelevant drama‭ ‬from their pasts.‭ ‬But the sixth season included two of the best episodes in the show‭’‬s history.‭ ‬One is the genuinely tear-inducing Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year‭’‬s episode in which Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) confronted her cruel father‭ over his lack‭ ‬of acceptance of her divorce.‭ ‬The other,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬is the staggering finale,‭ ‬in which a shooter invades the hospital,‭ ‬killing a few doctors and putting other‭’‬s lives in grave danger.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a more riveting‭ ‬80‭ ‬minutes than almost any movie I‭’‬ve ever seen.

Boogie Woogie‭ (‬IFC‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬14
SLP:‭ ‬$17.99‭
‬ ‭
‬On the heels of recent theatrical releases such as‭ ‬(untitled‭)‬ and‭ ‬Exit Through the Gift Shop,‭ ‬Duncan Ward‭’‬s‭ ‬Boogie Woogie is the latest savage indictment of the superficial modern art world,‭ ‬devouring‭ ‬its shallow,‭ ‬reprehensible subjects as hungrily and callously as those fish feasted on nubile spring break flesh in‭ ‬Piranha‭ ‬3D.‭ ‬But unlike those other modern art films,‭ ‬Boogie Woogie forgets to make us laugh,‭ ‬failing to realize that a proper satire lampoons its subject with subtle wit,‭ ‬not mere vitriol.‭ ‬Adapted from Danny Moynihan‭’‬s acrid novel,‭ ‬there isn‭’‬t a single likable,‭ ‬relatable character in Ward‭’‬s ensemble of archetypes,‭ ‬from unctuous gallerist Art Spindle‭ (‬Danny Huston‭) ‬to haughty collectors Bob and Jean‭ (‬Stellan Skarsgard and Gillian Anderson‭) ‬to pompous avant-garde artist Joe‭ (‬Jack Huston‭) ‬to cash-strapped collector Alfred‭ (‬Christopher Lee‭)‬,‭ ‬whose ultra-rare,‭ ‬titular painting attracts the film‭’‬s art-world carnivores like vultures to a carcass.‭ ‬Treating its audience with as much contempt as its characters,‭ ‬there‭’‬s nothing of value in this screeching screed aside from the juvenile observation that beyond all the pretentious posturing of modern art,‭ ‬everybody just wants to get laid with as many people,‭ ‬and in as many‭ ‬positions,‭ ‬as possible.‭ ‬But it‭’‬s hard to take even this message credibly‭ ‬when Ward‭’‬s direction is as lecherous‭ ‬as his characters‭’‬ philandering‭ ‬libidos.‭ ‬Amanda Seyfried‭’‬s sole purpose in the picture appears to be the exhibition of her ass,‭ ‬which is revealed in one crassly titillating angle after another.‭ ‬I thought modern-art porn went out with Warhol‭?

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