Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Monday, December 30, 2013

My most popular Letterboxd capsules of 2013

So I'm barely writing reviews this year: they're now the least-trafficked, least paid-for component of "film writing," a crisis/topic for another, angrier day. (In all probability, it'd be easier to get someone to pay me to write a "think piece" about why paid criticism is the least valued component of this market than to get someone to pay me to write reviews; critics are now barely-paid grist for reconsiderations of largely faulty misinterpretations of what they wrote. Whatever.)

But I've gotten into the habit for years now of writing capsules for everything I see and don't get to review, which these days is pretty much every movie it'd be desirable to be On The Record about. Rather than trust my own scanty wits to determine which of these pieces will be passed down to posterity, why not let the readers of Letterboxd (where all this stuff is now going up; RIP, Geocities film logs full of terrible writing and now locked up for life in the musty vault of my hard drive) determine what I wrote that was decent this year?

1) Zero Dark Thirty
2) Frances Ha
3) The Canyons
4) To The Wonder
5) Gravity
6) Amour
7) Like Someone In Love
8) Computer Chess [round 2]
9) The Counselor
10) Museum Hours

Monday, May 20, 2013

Alexey Balabanov on Cargo 200, 2008

Just learned of the death of one of my favorite contemporary directors, Alexey Balabanov. No time to get into a full appreciation right now, but I'm reposting my 2008 interview with him about Cargo 200 that disappeared from the internet when the archives of an older incarnation of Spout blog went down.

"In every country there are decent people and there are freaks." — Alexey Balabanov, 2007

When did you first come up with the idea for Cargo 200?
I came up with the idea for Cargo 200 a long time ago, after the film River [a 2002 project about a 19th-century leper colony left unfinished after actress Tuiara Svinoboeva died in a road accident during production]. I traveled a lot around the country in 1984-86. I know Siberia and the far north well, and this is based on true things that happened. The only thing I made up when the corpse of the dead soldier is thrown into bed with the girl. In reality, when I served in the army from 1981-83, the boxes with dead soldiers from Afghanistan disappeared all the time. And where they ended up, no one knows. Those kind of discotheques were everywhere then, I went to them. At that time, there were limitations on vodka, so everyone bought imitation vodka.

A lot of American reviews said the movie's set in 1984 in reference to Orwell's book.
No. That's not correct. The truth is, Gorbachev is a thief. There was a famous cotton scandal in Uzbekistan in 1983. Everything that happened connected back clearly to Moscow, and it was all terrifying. And Gorbachev was then the Minister of Agriculture. That's the whole story. I had 1984 in mind, because this was the last year under Chernenko. After that began changes in the country, right after his death [in 1985].

The two boys who walk off together at the end are going to become oligarchs, right?
Yes yes yes, these are the people who will start businesses in the future. These are the beginnings of capitalism, and then these people became oligarchs. I don't love capitalism. I don't love communism either. I like it when people are honest and decent. Oligarchs are for the most part not decent people because their capital is stolen. The communists, they're simply terrible people.

Does your film belong to the chernukha genre [a series of films popular during perestroika depicting Soviet life as unpleasantly as possible]?
In the first place, this is a film without genre. I insist on this. I don't like chernukha or horror movies. This is a film without genres that absolutely reflects the position of our history in 1984. In the second place, many people don't like this film, many people like it. For example, Andrei Zernov the famous director said "We all wanted to make such a film, but we didn't have enough courage. But Balabanov made it." It was very pleasant for me to hear his words. It seems to me that this film is honest, truthful and good. There's no chernukha. In any case, the worst kind of movie is those they say nothing, when people instantly forget if when they watch it.

Did the ban on anyone under 21 seeing it cause you any problems?
Honestly, this is a formality. In reality they let everyone in. For example, I took my children to this movie. I'm not worried about showing it to them: my youngest is 13, my oldest 19. They go to the movie and they're let in.

I read you were planning to work with Willem Defoe at one point.
I became friends with Willem Defoe at Telluride. He really liked [2002's] War. We walked around and talked. I told him about my idea for a film called The American. When I wrote it, I sent it to him. He read it and said it was very good, but he didn't see himself in this role. I badgered him about it for a long time, but he refused. Afterwards we began looking for an American actor and settled on Michael Biehn. We began filming with Biehn in New York, and he was great. Then we moved to Northern Siberia, and he began to drink vodka heavily. We filmed there for three days, then moved to Irkutsk. There all hell broke loose. He drank himself into a stupor. I refused to continue filming, and winter was already passing. He returned to Los Angeles and promised to return the money. He didn't return anything. We filed a lawsuit in 2003.

Is the lawsuit over?
Of course not. We lost our money and that's it.

How do you feel about the current state of the Russian film industry?
It's not very good. Government support has fallen because of the world financial crisis. Has my film Morphia shown up there yet?

No, it's the first time I've heard of it.
You're calling me from New York?

Well, then you can easily find it at Brighton Beach.

Pirated copies?
Of course. You can find it online easily. It came out right after the premiere. Bad quality, but now there's a better one. You can find it at Brighton for sure. Morphia is based on the early writings of Mikhail Bulgakov. This was the first screenplay by Sergei Bodrov Jr., who's sadly dead now.

Do you think people misunderstand Cargo 200 when you show it outside Russia?
I don't know. I think that 1917, the revolution, everyone understands what that means. All this happens at every step to this day. They kill every day. They show it to us on television every day, and it's getting worse and worse.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How to issue fiery negative rhetoric on the internet

This is mostly an exercise in writing something outside of my usual fare to loosen my brain up. If you read me, you know I have a fair amount of experience at being negative, throwing down pissy gauntlets and so on. I was chatting with Kevin B. Lee while he was working on his Argo takedown and thinking about adjusting the tone, so I figured it wouldn't hurt anyone if I codified some general guidelines I've slowly established for myself. I've violated them in the past and may yet again, or even in the body of this post; nonetheless. These guidelines are specifically for people conducting arguments about The Cinema online in the form of blog posts, point-counterpoints and so on, but they might be applicable in general.

Think about your positive argument first
Contrary to what the massively insecure and angry think, criticism isn't fundamentally, primarily or even largely a negative practice; it's analysis and contextualization. Inevitably, though, there'll come a time when something so wrongheaded pops up you feel the need to drop some verbal napalm. You don't need to include some kind of positive resolution at the end of your piece (indeed, doing so might — depending on what you're writing — just be the kind of hackneyed SAT essay "proper essay construction" fit only for, well, SAT essays). But you do need to be clear on why you're so fired-up; the answer, generally, is that whatever it is you're arguing against infuriates you because there's a better alternative: a better movie, a better argument for or against something, a better perspective, whatever. Once you know what you're implicitly or explicitly arguing for, it'll be easier to systematically demolish your targets.

Optional: Write fast and in the heat of the moment
There aren't any solid rules for How To Write — methods, times, sustained concentration — and anyone who tells you there are is just trying to mandate what works for them as perfect because it took them forever to figure out how best to work. However, I've found that when something just really ticks me off, it's best to sit down and get it all out of my system. Fast drafting retains your passion and allows you to barrel past all of the hemming and hawing that can clutter up a first draft. But this may not work for everyone.

Don't go ad hominem
This should probably go without saying, but apparently it doesn't. There are many reasons not to go ad hominem, such as a) it implies your argument isn't strong enough to rest on its own merits b) it leads you to make unflattering characterizations that may not be accurate c) it makes you a dick and life is hard enough d) you probably have mutual acquaintances or friends with the person you're attacking, which will make entering certain rooms tense e) you're potentially burning yourself professionally. A person may be an idiot online, but anyone you feel strongly enough about to attack is probably someone you have some kind of respect for, no matter how begrudgingly. And seriously, life is hard enough.

Minimize the apologetics
You're making an argument. You believe in it. Don't spend 13 paragraphs qualifying your argument or presenting devil's advocate statements against yourself. You know how annoying it is when someone apologizes to you orally at such length that they're not apologizing at all, just trying to get out of trouble? Perhaps you've been that person yourself. Don't be that person in print, which is even more tedious. Succinctly present your respect for the person you're attacking and get on with it.

Name who you're attacking
There are quite a few writers I love and respect otherwise who do this thing where they issue a half-assed formulation ("some people inexplicably believe" or some such) which allows them to attack without attacking. I guess the idea is to avoid personal conflicts (which works unless the person you're attacking reads your piece and gets offended nonetheless) and to not mess up someone's Google. The latter is creditable, but ultimately this kind of pussyfooting is annoying: if the reader doesn't know who you're referring to (which is eminently possible), they'll feel vaguely annoyed and spend hours googling the things you've paraphrased for the express purpose of being un-Googleable.

Link to the person you're attacking
This is basic courtesy both to the reader (who deserves a chance to independently evaluate the thing you're attacking in its original context) and to the person you're attacking (because at least they can get some traffic out of this). This is why asshole conservative websites like Breitbart.com only link to other asshole conservative websites (like "Newsbusters" which come the fuck on): they want to deny traffic to someone while attacking them, i.e. garner non-reciprocal attention. This is rude.

Be civil and email the person you're attacking
This is not a "writing" step, but it's a good idea. There's a good chance that the person whose argument you're going after may not even be someone who you have much in common with POV-wise. But they're a fellow writer, which is a hard profession, and unless they're the worst person in the entire world, you probably don't wish ill upon them. Remember, too, that a certain amount of online conflict is WWE: posturing for attention, fighting without ill will. We're all in it together. E.g.: I do not have the same taste as Dan Kois, to put it mildly, but I emailed him to let him know I'd be attacking him, and he was a total mensch about it, even linked back to me in a follow-up New York Times piece. Unless you exist in an echo chamber solely comprised of the like-minded, it behooves you (both personally and professionally) to accept that you'll be interacting regularly with people who are too low-/high-brow for your taste. That means you won't agree on much, but that's no reason to write them off in toto. If someone or their argument gets under your skin enough to go to the trouble of writing against them, that must mean you feel there's something there worth responding to at length. Otherwise you'd just go on Twitter and be a dick about it. So knock it off and give them a heads-up.

Don't be Kevin Smith
In the movie Chasing Amy, incredibly truthful moments are defused by really lame jokes, just to make sure no one gets too uncomfortable. When you're going negative, resist the temptation to. Write like this? Because like you're like a funny and decent and cool person? And like you don't know what you're saying and you feel insecure and WELP oh no brb? You're going negative and you believe in what you're saying; don't leaven what you're saying with the stupid stylistic tics of momentary internet trends. Have the guts to pursue your argument without the usual JUST JOKING I'M NOT JOKING JUST JOKING JKLOL scaffolding.

Be entertaining
Invective is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment. Don't keep stopping to make jokes, but try to entertain. It leavens the anger.

Do it once, then move on with your life
Assemble all your points into one blast. You may forget something when you're writing it. That's OK, you can qualify and adduce in the comments. Don't go on and on forever in multiple dispatches about it. That's tiresome.

Bonus optional variant: Secret Cambodian bombings
Sometimes, in this life, you run into people who slander you and are just complete fucking dickheads. They make things up about you and don't care about anything. There is no reasoning with such people, and it's really better not to even try to do anything about them. But if you must, unqualified, hyperbolic invective is acceptable. Be careful though: make sure you know exactly what you're writing and that it's correct before you do it. There are no second takes on the internet, and there's always someone with a longer memory than you. Be careful out there.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My 10 Most-Listened To Songs of 2012

As some of you may have gathered, writing about music is (sometimes) how I blow off steam. Music itself being an aide-memoire, I try to do some kind of wrap-up at year's end. This year's project is to annotate the 15 songs I listened to most in 2012, as measured by Last.fm. This ensures I can't lie about what I was listening to.

1. Sleigh Bells, "End Of The Line" The band Sleigh Bells most resembles (conceptually, anyway) are my dimly remembered high school faves Snake River Conspiracy (most notable for an incredibly literal cover of "How Soon Is Now?," in which actual birds chirp when said sound is mentioned): dominant producer auteur male, token female industrial chanteuse who's integral to the project. "End Of The Line" is probably one of the most hyperbolic songs about the end of a relationship in recent years, complete with teenage lyrics ("CAN YOU HEAR ME? CAN YOU SEE ME?") It's Melancholia in song form, a black dog depressive damnation with epic drums, a syrupy embrace of depression and guilt, with massive drums and a manic pixie dream girl sighing. I love it.

2. Metric, "Long To Live" My girlfriend lives across the street from Brooklyn's Prospect Park, which has bands all summer. When Metric came, we stood outside and listened (it's more than loud enough to be immersive). As I flipped out a bit, the g/f bemusedly observed "You're a teenage girl." She was completely correct: the Twilight series had to exist to allow Metric to write a theme song to a vampire romance for self-consciously gloomy tween girls.

Metric's one of the few bands I feel self-conscious about liking (Sleigh Bells, with their large contingent of haters, are still more putatively respectable). This is mostly Emily Haines' fault: her father, Paul Haines, is apparently a respected Canadian poet (so Wikipedia and Emily tell me; I wouldn't know), and she takes her words/angst QUITE SERIOUSLY. In "Long To Live," Haines' nightmare vision of a world imploding is...picturing herself in "a room with no makeup." (The horror!) But it's a great song, with a thumping drumbeat from Metric's incredibly professional rhythm section (live, they rock like resigned LA session players, professionally bloodless and distanced from their own effects), riffing off Howard Shore's score to exciting effect.

3. Menomena, "Pique" You all know (or should, jeez) R. Kelly's "Real Talk." So how's this for real talk? "I'm a failure/cursed with male genitalia/a parasitic fuck/with no clue as to what men do/impossible to love (x4)." Menomena are a pretty great band and have been for some time now: they're classically "indie rock" (i.e., they're a band heavy on guitars and bass, resistant to overproduction, writing songs slightly trickier than they need to be). They've hinted at the darker parts of the generic male psyche before (as on "Five Little Rooms," with its bachelor party and a hooker for every man). In "Pique," they connect their sexual/personal unavailability/upbringing with their upbringing: specifically, guitarist/saxophonist Justin Harris' mom, with whom he he has a complicated relationship, to say the least ("You brought me into the shitshow without a penny or a plan"). I don't have a confessional bone in my body, but let's just say I get this song.

4. Stars, "The Theory Of Relativity" Stars should be past their sell-by date: even at the peak moment of 2005's Set Yourself On Fire, they were behind the curve. But they still have some good songs in them, and this is one of them, a rueful admission of their aging potential irrelevance ("It can't be '93, sadly, though I wish it could forever/You call it luck, I call it tragedy"). Time passes, and the partying instinct is slowed by the body ("One more ovation please for the dude who sold us Ecstasy/he's building homes down in the new third world"). It's the usual Stars boy-girl duet, with a wistfulness that doesn't seem forced. This is what aging with musical dignity sounds like.

5. Saint Etienne, "Finisterre" "Use a bank? I'd rather die." I can't remember in what order I've listened to Saint Etienne's albums, which makes me vaguely sad, but they're for sure one of my favorite bands. This year, last.fm tells me I listened to them more than anyone else (675 scrobbles to Sleigh Bells' 292), and "Finisterre" must have been my last first-time stop in their discography. It's a fabulous album overall. "Finisterre" is hauntological urban spelunking, whose lyrics make sense to anyone living in a big city where real estate turnover is constant ("Finisterre/Tear it down and start again," with a nice nod to Orange Juice as well). The album's cover points to a darker meaning, but Sarah Cracknell's grateful embrace of urban anonymity ("I love the feeling of being slightly lost") strikes a melancholy chord. Also: "Imagine the 19th century never happened. Just a straight line from Beau Brummel to Bauhaus."

I guess I should mention that Saint Etienne is one of two bands I saw live this year (aside from my friend Gryphon's terrific project Phone Tag). They played a tight 75 minutes: Cracknell preened adorably with her boa and sparkly dress, while Dolly Mixture's Debsey Wykes sang modest back-up and the two men lurked in the background, manipulating nobs with Pete Tong headphones on. The set was all upbeat tracks, allowing Saint Etienne to pretend they're a light pop band rather than one of the more melancholy curatorial critics' projects around. It was underwhelming and exhilarating simultaneously.

6. "You Lost Me," Sleigh Bells More melancholy; I mope a lot, whatever. "I don't want you to see me this way, but I'm ready to die."

7. "Instigator," M.O.P. I have no idea why this song came back with such a vengeance this year; I've known it for years. But it's on a playlist I keep called "MOTIVATION," composed entirely of aggressive hip-hop. This is such a socially irresponsible number, calling for more violence in the rap world. ("BLAST THAT MOTHERFUCKER/DAMN THAT MOTHERFUCKER/GET AT THAT MOTHERFUCKER"). My id is happy.

8. "I Don't Like" Chief Keef ft. Lil Reese The things which Chief Keef doesn't like seem pretty universal ("a fart," "thirsty bitches"). Chief Keef''s taken a lot of heat for his various misdeeds and incitements to violence. His apologists claim that he's a victim of the system, numbed to the carnage he calls for, while his critics claim he's just making money off of needless street violence. I don't have anything responsible to say or nuanced to say (that part of my brain is focused on Django Unchained); this is the sound of pure, crass negativity, at deafening, repetitive volume. DON'T LIKE. DON'T LIKE. (Facebook "like.")

9. ABBA, "My Love, My Life This is the year I first listened to ABBA consciously (Arrival, specifically) and boy are they terrific. It's a great album, but this song stood out because a) it's not a single, and that contrarian side of my personality dies hard b) IT'S SO SAD. (A pattern may be emerging here.) I especially love the gramatically correct but unidiomatic second-language English, whose frustrated politeness hints at roiling turmoil underneath. "I know I don't possess you, so go away God bless you."

10. Sleigh Bells, "Crush"

What's weird is I hate all the elements normally: the cheerleader chanting, monotonous handclapping, the teen girl gleefulness ("I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU/I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU"). But sometimes joy comes in unexpected packages.