Dogtown and Z-Boys

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Stacy Peralta
viewed: 01/24/03

Dogtown and Z-Boys is a surprisingly cool documentary about the rise of modern skateboarding in and around Venice, CA during the 1970’s. Directed by Stacy Peralta, one of the subjects of Dogtown, the film offers intimate detail and suggests a strong social context for the birth of this suburban underground scene and its development.

It’s an interesting though obscure history, one that isn’t really all that old. But in light of the mass culture popularity of the X-Games and extreme sports in general, it’s interesting to see the “invention” of some of these forms. There is a sense of self-egrandizement that accompanies this film, such as treating the first time that Tony Alva caught air while pool skating as though it was the discovery of plutonium,…though for these guys, whose world is wholly comprised of skateboarding, the invention may well have been just that explosive. This highly subjective slant is part of the film’s character and charm. Narrated by Sean Penn as well as via interviews with all of the main skateboarders in their present stage of early middle age, the film is very much a document of their vision and their interpretation of events.

Peralta situates the birth of the skate culture in the fiscal, societal, and political malaise of the period and at times even suggests a social criticism embodied in the activity. While this might truly portray the subjective sensation and attitude that was the boredom-laced tinderbox of their youth, they do seem to share some marginilization that inspired the punk music scene around the same time. However, they don’t become chagrined to see the underground culture of their invention and youth co-opted and turned into a product of mass culture, which might call into question some of their “political” reads.

The time period of the 1970’s is evoked quite colorfully, perhaps in its largely incidental reference.

All in all, it was fun movie to watch and interesting piece of cultural historical minutiae.

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me if You Can (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 01/18/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

Spielberg’s biopic of Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s life as a con artist extrordinaire is poppy, entertaining Hollywood fare, quite enjoyable to be honest.

The film reminded me somewhat of Ted Demme’s Blow (2001), another biographical film set in a similar period, also following an idealized hero whose greatest achievements were outside of the law. The parallels are interesting in that both Blow‘s George Jung and Catch Me If You Can‘s Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s drives are inspired by the failures of their fathers as “legitimate” American small business owners. They both maintain strong emotional connections to their fathers throughout the periods of each characters’ personal infamy, never being “judged” by them while being somehow ostracized by their mothers and by contemporary society at large.

Both characters are also ultimately captured and jailed by the society which they have operated outside of, and for both films their “outsider” qualities (excelling in illegal activities) are celebrated largely and their ultimate incarceration is viewed sympathetically. In this sense, both films critique the mainstream American culture of the period as unhip, bland, and conformist and almost advocate the exploits of their protagonists.

Demme portrayed Jung as almost a classic American capitalist, whose only major problem was that his industry was illegal. Spielberg portrays Frank Abagnale, Jr. as an opportunist who manages to subvert existing systems, in some ways showing what a sham that they are. Spielberg’s critiques are not harsh, though, as he tries to humanize the representatives of the society to which Frank is opposed, namely in the figure of Carl Hanratty.

Hanratty is as square as they come. As played by Tom Hanks, he almost resembles the Joe Friday character played by Dan Akyroyd in Dragnet (1987) (another Tom Hanks film), which lampooned the ultimate square Jack Webb. These cultural cross-connections may be tenuous, but they struck me. In many Hollywood films, the FBI agent is represented by bland, suited figures, often characterless or even “evil.” Hanratty has these bland characteristics but is also shown as sympathetic by his side-story of his divorce.

The world of the FBI, if seen mainly in their fluorescent-lit, box-like offices, represents the ultimate of conformity. It is ultimately to this world that Frank must submit himself, the ultimate punishment not being 10+ years of solitary confinement, but rather the loss of individuality and confinement within the social structure that he once made look so foolish. There is clearly a point in the film when Spielberg seems to indicate this pessimistic end for his outlaw hero.

However, ultimately, Spielberg seems to indicate that his acceptance of this life is not such a bad thing. Frank successfully applies his criminal skills to his career as an fraud consultant, and as a results lives happily ever after. The film flirts with the endorsement of a relatively subversive message only to subvert itself and uphold the society that it would seem to wish to critique.

Demme’s Jung receives no such redemption and arguably never “learns his lesson.” His last shot at redemption is upended and he is sent to prison to age and die, though the audience, I believe is meant to sympathize with this, not necessarily to agree 100% with society’s justice.

The Clash: Westway to the World

The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) DVD cover

(2000) dir. Don Letts
viewed: 01/17/03

This DVD was loaned to me by a friend at work shortly after Joe Strummer’s death. I had never heard of the film and had a hard time much information on it. I don’t know if the film ever had a proper theatrical run, though I see that it played at our local Artist’s Television Access theater in the Mission, which is why I think that it’s beginning to ring a bell.

Anyway, it was directed by Don Letts, who was a friend and follower of The Clash (as well as a member of Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’ post-Clash combo) from their earliest days. Most of the older live footage, if not all of it, was shot by Letts. A good portion of this archival material has a rough charm at best and muddy almost “bootleg” quality, a reasonable portion of which was gleaned from another Letts’ Clash documentary (included on the DVD) titled The Clash on Broadway, a film shot during a 16-day run of shows in New York City in 1981. As a document, it’s quite exciting to see the energy of the band playing in their heyday, though the quality of the sound compromises that power considerably.

The latter day interviews with the individual band members are interwoven roughly (almost clunkily), and are used to narrate the story from first-hand recollections. Strummer, clearly the intellectual of the group, offers the most profound insights and seems the strongest voice of both the group and the narrative.

I found myself comparing this film to Julien Temple’s brilliant documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, which was also released in 2000. Temple similarly had known the band in their day and had maintained a friendship with the band members, which allowed him to evoke excellent interviews from them. Temple’s film had a broader vision and a surer hand directing and editing, and as a result was an excellent film, interesting both socially and historically.

The Clash: Westway to the World is not on par with Temple’s film, though still an interesting comparison piece. A fan, or someone particularly interested in The Clash, would probably get more out of it than not. So, I enjoyed it, despite not being overly impressed with the production.

Derrida

Derrida (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Kofman
viewed: 01/13/03 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Having spent a semester of my life in a seminar on Jacques Derrida in graduate school in Cinema Studies, I felt some sense of obligation beyond my general interest to get out to see this documentary film about one of the most influential thinkers of our day. I would love to tell you that I have a good grasp on Derrida’s major ideas and philosophical tenets…but I tend to find myself lost often in reading his writings and only somewhat more situated in the studies class and seminars.

This film does manage to make Derrida more accessible, I think. It doesn’t probe too deeply into any of his more challenging theories (or his theories’ critics), which is probably part of why it felt more accessible. Derrida is charismatic and intensely sharp, and to see and hear the man himself in some more mundane domestic settings as well as speaking to students or interviewers manages to make him and his ideas more approachable. Derrida consistently questions the film process’ ability to “document” him in actuality (an impossibility, he would say), noting frequently the artifice that attempts to show the “naturality” of a scene, for instance.

The filmmakers followed Derrida for four years, over three continents, in the making of their film, which has a shoddy, almost non-professional charm (and the weaknesses that you would expect in such a production). The filmmakers sound like idiots at times asking him questions that he rephrases or deflects unless they are rephrased, but none worse than the BBC interviewer who asks him what he thinks about Seinfeld.

The opening of the film focuses on Derrida’s thoughts on biography, which the film utilizes as a constantly self-aware process that ekes out some interesting points, and ends with a section on the Derrida archive that was established at UC Irvine in the late 1990’s, about which Derrida wrote considerably (and which the film quotes). The film attempts to “deconstruct” itself and its subject as much as possible, addressing these issues at the forefront as much as it can.

For all its faults and shortcomings, I kind of wish that I had seen this film or something like it, even just a taped interview with Derrida, back when I studied his work. I think it offers some in-roads to him and his thought that could make the reading of his work more easy to immerse oneself in. Maybe this is even in tune with some of his notions of the oral over the written word? Maybe I just can’t get my head around it.

Either way, I enjoyed the Derrida though I thought it wasn’t such a great film.

The Good Girl

The Good Girl (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Miguel Arteta
viewed: 01/19/03

The Good Girl is a moderately weak comic drama featuring actress Jennifer Anniston as something supposedly “other” than “Jennifer Anniston,” something more of a “character.” So, in this film Anniston plays Justine, who, from her vague drawl and working class universe, is meant to represent something quite different from the characters that Anniston is more commonly known for portraying.

The film is set largely in the world of a discount store, and all of the characters seem to emanate from a lower tier of small town suburbia, located right next to the trailer park. The film’s depiction of place seemed condescending and the characters all reeked of stereotypes, the loveable but none-too-bright underclass. The film’s narrative became a little darker than I expected, and I think that the viewer was meant to connect more with Anniston’s character than I did. As a result, I didn’t know how to read the film too clearly.

In voiceover, Anniston’s character, Justine, narrates the events of the film, and though the viewer is meant to sympathize with her to some degree, director Miguel Arteta seems to keep some distance from her too, enough to allow the audience to laugh “at her” rather than purely to sympathize “with her.” I would say that the film has an almost schizophrenic approach to its main characters. I never got a clean read on Justine or Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), whether they were sympathetic or just plain “dumb.” And when Justine’s actions late in the film seem to turn sinister, I really felt confused.

The film has some pretty funny parts to it, but I didn’t really think that as a whole it was very good movie. And clearly, I didn’t seem to understand some of its intended significance.

Lovely and Amazing

Lovely and Amazing (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Nicole Holofcener
viewed: 01/11/03

Has film studies finally designated the “chick flick” as a genre? I mean, outside of the melodrama or other genres that have been classified as “women’s films” (I attempt to ask this question without inflecting them as much as possible) can it be classified as genre? Not that I am trying to start logging all of the necessary pieces to describe such a style or genre…I must admit that I do not see too many flicks that would fall into this speculative catergory anyway. Actually, if I had realized that this film was so aptly classified as such, I might have thought twice about renting it. but that is me…fulfilling a male stereotype.

Lovely and Amazing follows three sisters and their mother through a series of comic traumas that occur, pivoting around their mother’s botched plastic surgery experience. Its black comedy largely and it willingly roams into some “uncomfortable” themes. The characters largely are neurotic and verge heavily at times on the unlikeable, though I am not sure how unlikeable they are meant to be versus how unlikeable they seem.

The youngest sister, Annie (Raven Goodwin), is an eight-year-old adopted child, who, unlike the rest of the family, is African American. Director Nicole Holofcener posits Annie, who is somewhat overweight and quite a bit sassy, as potentially the only one of the family who is not completely neurotic.

The film is quite funny at points, and fairly all over the place covering so many characters and their multitudes of issues. In the end, I don’t know what Holofcener really thinks of her characters. They all suffer some major undoing based on their actions, which vary from a somewhat self-serving selflessness to a sympathetic statutory rape. Holofcener seems to undercut her characters’ sympathetic qualities, perhaps rendering them merely “pathetic”(?) It almost seems intentional, though its hard to say. Either way, the film’s characters’ love/hate relationship with themselves is thus passed on to the viewer…this viewer in particular.

And that ambivalence is directed also to the film itself. My sense is that at some level, that was the anticipated response, but who knows?

Eleanor liked it better than me, though I think she would agree about most of the rest of what I said.

Jesus’ Son

Jesus’ Son (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Alison Maclean
viewed: 01/08/03

I suppose with a title like Jesus’ Son, I shouldn’t have been overly surprised by a certain Christian subtext that this film contained, a subtext that wasn’t buried too deeply below the surface, at that. It didn’t strike me as overly pedantic or anything, but it actually has made me ponder really what this film is communicating and regarding its title as a potential site of signification,…but I am not too certain.

The story is narrated in partially broken flashbacks by a young man, who is often referred to as “Fuckhead” due to his knack for screwing things up, and follows him through his mishap-ridden life. Though it’s never explicitly indicated, it might not be too outrageous to assume that the title of the film refers to him in some way.

At different points in the film, Billy Crudup, who is very endearing as “Fuckhead,” discusses death with Jehovah’s Witnesses, gets splashed with holy water by Catholics as he leaves an abortion clinic, and develops a voyeuristic relationship with a gospel-singing Mennonite woman. The latter of these incidents has a somewhat transformative effect on him and is a site of a somewhat “magical” incident. Throughout the film, his character seems tuned into some sort of Christian spirituality, but out of touch with how to access it, much as he is out of touch with his ability to keep his life from falling apart.

Though the film’s tone tends toward a sort of sweet melancholy, it’s hardly pessimistic. This might also be tied to the film’s religious themes. In many ways, I think that the film’s meaning is intended to be fairly open for interpretation, which is maybe why its hard to get a specific read on it. Ultimately, the film does seem to pivot on “Fuckhead”‘s redemption and transformation by some type of religious epiphany. Though it is a less dogmatic, almost uninflected sort of spiritual experience, it does seem clearly a Christian (though perhaps non-denominational) one, since it is the main “spirituality” represented in the film.

The film is quite funny at many points and enjoyable. It’s a good American independent film, in my opinion. It might be an interesting companion piece/point-of-contrast with Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998) in its good-hearted, misguided sort of protagonist or Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) for its milieu.

Ratcatcher

Ratcatcher (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Lynne Ramsay
viewed: 01/06/03

Funny thing about the best movies that I have seen that I try to write about. Often I sit to write about them and find myself almost completely dumb, speechless.

That can’t bode well for writing about film now, can it?

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s first feature film, Ratcatcher left me almost exactly so dumbstruck. A description of it truly does it no justice, as it is in many ways incomparable. In short, it is a film about a boy, living in the Glasgow slums in the 1970’s with his family. The actors are largely non-professionals, which adds to the film an aspect of realism, by which I mean its kinship with such styles as Italian neo-realism, etc. It’s a stark portrait, in which I found myself constantly dreading the looming disaster, which might be enough to put off a viewer that wasn’t up for a film that might be termed a “downer.”

The cinematography is stunning. Ramsay has a background in still photography, which shows itself in long lingering close-ups of the faces of her characters and in the evocation of “place” in gritty establishing shots. It’s amazing the way that the film shifts into more surreal states while remaining almost entirely in the “real” world, eventually evoking a dreary but affecting dream of some sort, elevated almost.

See? I really don’t know what to say about this film, which I think is probably one of the best films that I have seen in years and as interesting as any that I have seen in that time.

The film’s images have filled my head all day. The final shot of the canal, the image of the cornfield through the window of the new housing development, the bathing scene. I hesitate to give any plot points away because I enjoyed the blindness of knowing the film’s next moves.

Highly recommended viewing.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Jill Sprecher
viewed: 12/29/02

Non-linear narratives seem to be in vogue with American “independent” filmmakers. It is interesting to watch the pieces of a story, or in this case stories, fall together in the culmination of the non-chronological narrative. I guess that it functions the way that more interesting, well-constructed classically “linear” stories do, in that a sense of closure is ultimately sought and captured in the end. In writer/director Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, the narrative is not totally non-chronological. Scenes are played out of three or four main stories with their individual chronologyies intact, but the sequences that intersect each story show that these narratives are not meant to have transpired concurrently.

Sprecher fragments the narratives of her four main stories by breaking them into “thirteen conversations,” roughly “about one thing,” which I believe to be “happiness.” But in this fragmented world, most of the characters do not experience this “one thing” about which they talk so much. Beatrice (Cleo DuVall) the one character most apparantly “in touch” with her own happiness, which she has seemingly achieved thanks to a religious epiphany, receives much abuse and struggles to maintain her beliefs. Beatrice seems to be the most clearly sympathetic character, the only one who doesn’t perform an act of immorality, but it seemed unclear what the film’s attitude was toward her religious experience and therefore the world view that she represents.

Ultimately, I think that a lot of the material here is meant to be fairly open-ended. So I do not know. It is, however, a strong film, one worth seeing, if you might be interested.

Final Destination

Final Destination (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. James Wong
viewed: 12/27/02

Final Destination is not in the greatest class of horror films (which might not surprise anyone). I say this because, in my opinion, the best horror films are usually genuinely frightening or unsettling, they get under one’s skin and truly effect the psyche. This film lacks that sort of visceral impact almost entirely, but is still quite a fun Hollywood teen horror flick, perhaps a reasonably high rank in a class somewhat below the truly significant films of the genre.

Just before take-off on a flight to Paris, a teenager has a vision of the plane exploding and rants and raves until he and several others are removed from the flight. His vision comes true and then he and the others who “cheated death” are then hunted by death(?), getting killed one by one in a clever variation on the motifs of the genre.

The genre, arguably, might be classified as the “teen slasher film,” in which a group of teenagers is killed one by one in various forms of mutilation. In fact, one of the characteristics of this genre (or sub-genre) is the inventiveness of the various “deaths,” which in a more typical representative of the genre, Friday the 13th (1980) for example, death is meted out by some natural or supernatural embodiment of death. By embodying death, in representing it physically, films of this genre must ultimately attribute some significance behind what the figure represents. When in the case of Friday the 13th, the killer is ultimately revealed to be a vengeful mother (and then in many later sequels her super-powered son from beyond the grave), a backstory and definition evolves, grounding the fears into something concrete, though still highly representational.

In Final Destination, death is merely death, represented by an occasional reflected dark cloud, if at all. It is a force, acting on the real world (even though it acts with an almost Rube Goldberg-type of machination). Death is never referred to as “evil,” it is merely relentless and ubiquitous. This foregrounds the dilemma and the discourse of the film, an obsessive fear of death and the inescapability of fate.

If anything, the film’s greatest short-coming might be its utter lack of emotional connection. The characters are so unaffected by the deaths of others (selfishly and unanalytically preoccupied with their own deaths) that opportunities for some more poetic reflection are totally tossed aside. The film is much more light-hearted in that sense, though in a completely morbid light-heartedness. It plays with these ideas with a humorous level of detatchment, keeping the story moving as it goes. It works well, but fails to bear emotional significance.

I really enjoyed it. I had seen it once before on cable. I bought a copy of it on DVD, which should be a reasonable testament to how much I enjoyed it, especially since I have bought so few.