Paris, Je t’aime is an odd assortment of excellent short films, enjoyable short films, terrible short films, and a wonderful exemplar of both the vocative case and solastalgia. There isn’t much margin for error in a short film, and segments in Paris, Je t’aime are examples of the myriad things that can go wrong: poor execution of a good idea (Vampires in Paris, which fails to capture the innate sensuality and eroticism of both), good execution of terrible ideas (the one with the beauty supply salesman and the Asian beauty salon, that no matter how well filmed can’t escape its ludicrous plot), and overreliance on symbolism (the Willem Dafoe cowboy picture). Others suffer because they better resemble short prose forms, which do not require narrative, than short stories. These segments, while interesting in their own right and often beautifully conceived, seem incomplete. Though I’m not a student of the genre, I would be surprised if segments like the first, wherein a man meets a woman and they go for a ride in his car, would succeed in short film competitions. These films do not stand on their own as much as they contribute to the overall aesthetics of disjuncture and elegiac romanticism.

The best of the pieces are those by Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Tom Tykwer, and Alexander Payne. In each of the films, the director has distilled the essence of their filmmaking technique into 2-10 minutes. The languid cinematography in the Van Sant segment recalls his earlier films (especially Elephant) and touches upon many of his recurring themes (homoeroticism); the Coen Brothers’ segment is rife with black humour and sudden, random violence started by miscommunication and incomprehension, plus the appearance of Steve Buscemi; and Tykwer’s short film, like his breakout Run, Lola, Run is an exhilarating look at the ways modern filmmaking techniques (quick cuts, superfast montage, repetition) can serve story.

Payne’s film about a postal worker who visits Paris is the movie’s highlight. Like Election and About Schmidt, the movie explores the equally mundane, depressing, yet somehow fulfilling life of a solitary midwesterner. As in Schmidt, Payne realizes the full potential of voiceover as a mode of developing character. Our postal worker’s (excellent) rough French reveals her innermost thoughts, sometimes belying the images, sometimes working synergistically to come to a greater conclusion. At the same time, the piece shows Payne’s tremendous post-Schmidt growth. There’s no-longer any need to resort to the cheap laugh of absurd situations. Payne is now fully capable of realizing characters so rich that he can allow them to speak to him, he can let them be themselves, and the rest will take care of itself. His segment is the essence of his filmmaking, and the movie his career has been building up to. It’s no wonder Paris, je t’aime ends after Payne’s segment; after all, where can you go after you’ve realized the short film genre?

A Good Day

January 31, 2008

Sitting in class today I felt the dizzying effects of academia.  Uncovering the rhetorical structures within which we think and write, postmodern historicism, determinism this and “othering” that – I began to collapse under the weight of my own thoughts.  Is there any worth to what I do?  Is there any such thing as a stable identity?  Don’t be fooled by the illustrious degree after my name (the Doctorate of Hebrew Literature is part of the Jewish gentleman’s pedigree) – there is much self-doubt just below the surface.  Is knowledge pursued within this or that department or using this or that method even worthwhile?  Am I a fool for letting this even bother me?

Then this evening I went to go see a new play by David Ives called “New Jerusalem”.  It is about the excommunication of Baruch “Benedict” de Spinoza by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656.  Mr. Ives writes heady, witty plays that still manage to have charm and bring the emotions to bare.  Jeremy Strong played Spinoza as a dazzling, genuine young man whose love of God and the Truth were one and the same.  His performance was perfect.  This is a young actor to watch.  The archivist at the Salad is going to dig this little fragment up in a number of years in order that we can say: “You heard it here first.”

But perhaps most importantly I was convinced once again of the redemptive power of good theater.  Combining intellect, emotion, and instinct, all in the right proportion, was the antidote to a potentially depressing day.  Movies and books and all of the arts are about a lot of different things – I was surprised but happy to learn that sanity can be one of them.

Watching the State of the Union tonight last night, I realized just how arbitrary our units of measurement are. Why should the President address the country every year? Why should he do so with such pageantry? Now, when this last year is so insignificant, with this president appearing so bereft of ambition, is their any good reason that he should be given such a forum for his increasingly diminuted ideas? Especially when he has the right to interrupt all regularly scheduled programming whenever he sees fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense if he only addressed America immediately after an election? (Please, no one suggest the constitution as an answer.)

We spend a lot of time talking about this year‘s Best Picture, but one year is just as arbitrary a time-span when evaluating movies as it is with evaluating presidencies. Nothing points out this arbitrariness like foreign movies. With different release dates in different countries, it’s not uncommon to see some foreign movies nominated in different years. The most recent test case for this is The Lives of Others, which was nominated at the Bavarian Film Awards in 2005, the German Film Awards for 2006, last year’s Academy Awards, and this year’s BAFTAs (more on this great movie in a minute). In the art world, the best works are frequently displayed at a Biennale, (or Biennial if you refuse to inflect your English with loan words. Mon Dieu!) and other exhibitions are self contained and last only for short periods of time. The reason I bring this up is our bizarre appellation of some movies as “Art Movies.” While this mostly refers to their stylistics (often disparagingly), it begs the question, do these movies have a qualitative connection to art?

It goes without saying that, as a mass produced object, movies lack the uniqueness of art. As Geoffrey Hartman wrote in his autobiography modern movies also lack the eventness of art:

For all my adolescent years…the movies remained a special treat, a near-festive occasion like somone’s birthday…Now, every day, every hour, I can surf several channels as well as visit the big screen. The result is indifference to what used to be a magical occasion, a typical blunting toward the often frenetic realism of the medium, so that little of an early eagerness is left.

It is no great claim to say that movies exist on that boundary between “high” art and popular “low” culture. Or, that their very existence probably proves that there are no such categories.

I ask the question because The Diving Bell and the Butterfly insists. The movie’s cinematography and bravado editing demand that we consider the film as art. It consistently plays with questions of color, perception, and placement and the artist-director Julian Schnabel described the film by saying,

“It seems to me the issues that come up in this film are issues I’ve been thinking about my whole life — death, claustrophobia, the limits that are put on people, what seeing is, what unconsciousness is, observing observation,” he says. “How do you escape the ordinariness of your life and what does it mean to make art?” (source) Read the rest of this entry »

Electioneering for dummies

January 28, 2008

It has often been pointed out by me that elections are of the most terrible sort in this country. There is far too much talking and too little violence, even for one to whom the bread and butter of life is itself words. Hence, let us proceed now to consider what sort of ways in which a man may best go about and get himself elected to office.

I. . Jump in bed with the money and never get out.

II. Find a lot of people to stand around you. Preferably beautiful people. But make sure that they have sticks and knives and know how to use them.

III. Accuse your opponent of sexual crimes. With little boys. Then obliquely suggest that he makes love to his sister on a regular basis and offer thousands of witness. Treat this as actual public business, make the Senate ring with such cries!

IV. Occupy the polling places, squeeze out your opponents and chase down the other candidates with armed gangs.

V. Filibuster. Or check the omens again and again. Declare a religious crisis of state and compare yourself to the Scipiones

VI. Recast history at every turn. Let the polls ring with your virtues and compare yourself to a noble Demosthenes, or a Scipio, or a Camillus, or a Fabius Maximus, while your enemy is a vile bribed foreign traitor, debauched in his own depraved Eastern rites.

VII. Use your power and influence to the fullest extent. Every one who ever owes you anything, make him do everything he possibly can for you.

VIII. Bribe everyone. Even slaves and animals.

IX. And when it is all over and you are in power, abscond with public funds. Then get set up with some juicy little province, I was always partial to Syria and squeeze it like an olive, so you can do this all over again.

Devotees will appreciate the return of (ir)regular game reviews to Yesterday’s Salad, particularly of the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) variety.  For the moment, here is an interesting article about strategy games at Gamasutra.

As yours truly covered this subject in earlier articles, a caveat I have with the Gamasutra article (which bemoans the fact that “Real Time Strategy” games are more like “Real Time Tactics” games) is that there’s not that much “tactical” thinking in most of these games, either.  For the most part, these games (while fun) require you to build a larger force than your opponent, and just sort of crush them, with the only “tactics” being the obscene amount of micromanagement required.  A real tactical game would allow more strategies (e.g. hit and run, ambushes, etc.), a more detailed consideration of maneuvering (such as in the excellent Myth: The Fallen Lords), and allow for more robust orders (such as having different classes of units employ different strategies) which can themselves be automated.  Nevertheless, it’s

It’s not every day that the world discovers the new evil threat, the one poised to ruin civilization once and for all. Who could this specter hovering over the West be? you ask. Is it a restored Caliphate? High taxes? Perhaps those evil Vampire-Zombie hybrids from I Am Legend? The world seemed poised to live in the dark of these clandestine machinations. But, thankfully, some investigative muckraking by The New York Times has EXPOSED the sheer evil, and the pernicious, nefarious nature of Sushi has been laid bear for all to see!

I’m not belittling their findings. I’m quite sure that all Tuna, even sushi grade tuna, has high levels of Mercury. Such are the dangers of living in the modern industrial world. I’m just not sure why The Times keeps making such a big deal out of it. Not only did it make the front page, there was also an accompanying editorial. Then, after no one cared, the Times decided to publish an article about the fact that no one was paying any attention to their warnings. One would imagine that the silliness would have stopped there. Instead, the Grey Lady decided to turn this into an election issue, and asked the candidates their opinions about the Sushi conspiracy. Here’s the their justification for printing so many Sushi stories:

The stock market has gone through more gyrations than an Elvis impersonator. The governor and the mayor announced budget plans that are based on revenue assumptions that may be as flimsy as a striking screenwriter’s bank account. The death of Heath Ledger was, of course, sad and unsettling.But nothing rattled some New Yorkers more than the news that high levels of mercury were found in tuna sushi sold in Manhattan stores and restaurants. Sushi is such a staple here these days that it’s almost as if the entire city has declared war on fish.

Really? The economy isn’t a bigger concern right now? Heath Ledger’s death doesn’t occupy a more prominent place in the actualia? I’m speechless.

One can only hope that the Times gets back to reporting real news. But in the meantime, I’m wondering about the story behind the story. Has someone on their editorial board been stricken with Mercury poisoning? Is the Mad-Hatter running the show? If only the Post would get to the bottom of that story.