Quick hits (April 2007)

It’s April in Jackson, which means it’s jogging time. Every other day, I get home from work around 5:15pm, change into sneakers and shorts, grab the iPod, and head for Parham Bridges Park. I walk/jog five or six miles, slugging back water and letting Sleater-Kinney carry my legs forward. (Okay, okay, it’s still more “walk” than “jog,” but it gets the heart rate going and the legs toned, so I think it’s for the good.) I get home around 7pm, in need of a shower and dinner. By the time all this gets done, the choice comes down to this: 1. Absorb some culture, and thus go to bed around 11:30pm, or 2. do the dishes, iron tomorrow’s clothes, and go to sleep at a reasonable hour. Right now, it’s about half and half.

So, while I’m exercising the body more, I’m exercising the mind a little less. Sort of. Maybe it’s just that I’m taxing the brain in a particularly challenging way.

Two years ago, I bought By Brakhage, a 2-DVD collection of Stan Brakhage’s movies, on eBay. The set features 26 of the experimental filmmaker’s most “famous” works from the 1950s to the year before his death in 2003, ranging from minute-long shorts to the hourlong Dog Star Man. He’s arguably the most celebrated avant-garde filmmaker that America has produced, though it’s worth noting that being called the most famous experimental moviemaker in America is like being the world’s most well-known skeeball champion.

In any case, I’ve unsystematically worked my way through By Brakhage since 2004, enjoying some, rolling my eyes at others, and being perplexed by almost all of them. Last month, I pledged to myself that, every time I watched a movie on DVD, I’d watch a Brakhage short beforehand. It would be like the cartoon before the main feature—a palate cleanser.

So, that’s what I’m doing with my art-observance these days. I might have more to say about the whole collection after I get done, and once I finish his book, Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker (which is even denser than his movies). For now, though, here’s the rest of what I’ve been experiencing lately. Welcome to the April 2007 edition of Quick Hits…

Blue in the Face (1995), directed by Wayne Wang: There should be an award for movies that waste this much talent. The movie features, in various improvised scenarios revolving around a Brooklyn cigar shop, the following: Harvey Keitel, Michael J. Fox, Giancarlo Esposito, Roseanne, Mira Sorvino, Lily Tomlin, Jim Jarmusch, Lou Reed, RuPaul, and apparently anyone else who dropped by the set. It’s written (sorta) by Paul Auster. Something should be here. Whereas Smoke is overly formal, with interlocking plots that catch just-so, this companion is looser than a porn star. Through newsreel footage, documentary interviews, and improvised scenarios in and around Auggie Wren’s (Keitel’s) smoke shop, the movie tries to capture the borough in all its diversity and complexity. From technical and narrative standpoints, Blue in the Face is more ambitious and experimental than Smoke. It’s a character study, where Brooklyn is the main character. But Wayne Wang’s stateliness and Auster’s lackluster situations don’t allow room for the actors to breathe, so the improvs and casual nature feel forced. It should be a kick to see Fox nag Esposito about his sex life, with the questions getting more and more uncomfortable, but it’s flat. Tomlin ponders Belgian waffles to no effect. Mel Gorham sings “Fever” to herself in the mirror, and she’s voluptuous and tempestuous enough to pull it off, but the scene’s neither erotic nor funny. Several writers cry in their beer about the departed Brooklyn Dodgers. Even RuPaul choreographing an impromptu block party’s dance sequence can’t save this. Only Reed and Jarmusch—oddly, two non-actors—have weight. Reed rambles elegantly about why he loves/hates New York. Jarmusch has his final cigarette with Keitel, and muses about the role of smoking in his life and in the movies. He’s so effortlessly cool that the movie relaxes during his scenes. (I enjoyed these scenes more than I’ve liked any of Jarmusch’s films.) The whole thing’s still not particularly funny here but it’s at least fascinating for once. D

Smoke (1994), directed by Wayne Wang: The actors—Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Harold Perrineau, Jr., Forest Whittaker, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, and others—are sharp enough to make Smoke feel less stilted than it is. The stories of various characters interweave, sometimes in ways that the characters themselves never understand, and Brooklyn is presented vibrantly. The color palette nears sepia tones in its austerity and reverence for the borough, and the pace uncurls about as fast as, well, thick smoke. The movie resonates, however, less than it should. Wang’s style (a distinct lack of closeups, fairly static camerawork, slow editing scheme) and Paul Auster’s brittle, precise dialogue are distancing. It’s rare that we’re not aware that the actors are acting—there’s a lot of significant pauses in the line readings; the gestures are a little too practiced. Only William Hurt truly comes across as naturalistic. He exudes warmth and care, but it’s clear too that he carries more emotional weight than any man should, and his quickness to exasperation feels earned. Hurt’s performance isn’t loose—there’s not much that’s loose in Smoke—but the character’s rigidity comes from his attempt to keep enormous pain at bay. He’s the most straitlaced person in the movie but he’s the least mannered. The plot tics build up to an incredibly careful structure—everything, and I mean everything resolves neatly—but one’s a little arid. It’s like we’re being forced to acknowledge how significant Smoke’s themes are, instead of being led to feel them for ourselves. B

Nathan Coulter (1960, revised 2002) by Wendell Berry: A taut, fragmented coming-of-age tale of a Kentucky farmboy, Nathan Coulter is the first of Berry’s fictions set in his imagined Port William, Kentucky. It’s a place as well-conceived and character-rich as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, but without the racial tensions or the Modernist experiments. Berry’s prose style—a mix of plainspoken simplicity and opaque lyricism—is dry and witty. In carefully chosen, meandering vignettes, Berry shows Nathan progress from a boy to a young man, showing how he learns about sex, family trauma, alcoholism, farming, fishing, and the other big aspects of life. Sometimes, Nathan himself seems to be merely the straw through which we suck in the experience of those around him, but he gradually becomes an interesting character in his own right. Most of the families, terrain, and moral concerns that will absorb Berry for the next half-century come through this novella. As such, it’s a terrific introduction to a great community and a great writer. A-

The Playhouse (1927), dir. Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline: Buster makes mayhem on- and offstage at a vaudeville revue. In a bravura dream sequence that opens the 20-minute short, he manages to make three, four, or five versions of himself appear onscreen—doing unsynchronized motions, in different costumes—simultaneously, and it’s totally convincing. The two-reeler was created in 1927, so it’s not like he had CGI, advanced effects, or Rick Baker’s makeup design at his disposal. I’ve got no clue how he pulled it off (Can any Keaton fans or film technicians help me out here?). Like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Keaton’s movies use the same essential premise for each, but they each feel fresh and hilarious. The Playhouse makes Eddie Murphy’s bloated multiple performances in The Nutty Professor, Norbit, and Coming to America look amateurish by comparison. Unbelievable. A+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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