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Tag: "film"

Face/Off

[ 28 ] September 25, 2014 |

I have been light on the blogging lately because of a week that has gone as the following:

Monday–teach, drive to brother in law’s house, watch Jets be the Jets and lose hilariously
Tuesday–visit Valley Forge, give lecture at Muhlenberg College, forced to ditch all my Lutheran jokes after finding out there are hardly any of my people there.
Wednesday–tour coal mine with Muhlenberg students. Buy chunks of coal for office decorations.
Thursday–eat ridiculous and amazing breakfast sandwich at Allentown’s indoor farmer’s market that includes not only eggs and bacon–but deep fried bacon! Drive to Providence in rain.
Friday–move to a new apartment.
Saturday–clean old apartment in the futile attempt to convince my landlord not to screw me on the deposit.

That was actually the short version that left out a bunch of stuff. So all I have to say right now is this: Face/Off was awesome. I should watch it again.

This is Korea

[ 17 ] September 2, 2014 |

Now that I finished my 2nd book manuscript in 3 months, I have time for a vacation. About 50 minutes in fact before I get to the 4000 things that must be done yesterday. So I spent it watching John Ford’s 1951 film This is Korea. This is the Korean War version of the World War II documentaries the military commissioned from leading film directions. While I don’t know if it quite matches the artistic glory of John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro, This is Korea is probably the best war documentary Ford made.

Ford pushed this project hard, convincing the government to allow him to make it. And he had to put together the editing, narration, voice work, sound, and concept. But the real heroes here are the war photographers, filming this absolutely jaw-dropping footage. I can’t easily find a number of U.S. military photographers who died in the war, but no doubt the number was significantly above zero, especially given that these guys were right on the front lines. Amazing.

Now, Ford does slightly simplify Korean history for American audiences. The film starts with him painting a Korea at rustic peace before the evil commies arrived. I mean, sure, there’s those 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation, but hey, let’s not let history get in the way of a pat narrative. And Ford never was too much into subtle imagery or messaging in his feature films, never mind a documentary made to get Americans on the home front to sacrifice for the cause–give blood or send care packages at the very least. But he was pretty bloody convincing to me in doing that. His soldiers’ lives are brutal. Terribly cold weather, dug in enemies, hills, a lack of clear progress. Throughout it all, the soldiers are brave. Not heroic. But just regular guys doing a job and doing it well and dying at it.

Well worth a viewing.

The Seafarers

[ 7 ] August 19, 2014 |

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 film The Seafarers, a promotional film he did for the Seafarers International Union. I couldn’t find an easily accessible copy at the time but have since alleviated that problem. Here it is, although not entirely safe for work given that seamen love pictures of topless women and evidently so does Kubrick.

Now, this is not the greatest film ever, nor does it really showcase Kubrick’s future talents, although the long, languorous shot of the food in the cafeteria is pretty great. Really, it’s more interesting as a window inside the mid-20th century labor movement. If you are looking for your leftist ideal of a labor movement, replete with socialism, cross-movement solidarity, etc., you never were going to find it in the SIU. It was formed as an AFL counter to Harry Bridges’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). What this union is about, as it states repeatedly, is security for workers. For most workers, this is the most important thing a union can offer and it, not radical social change, was at the core of labor’s appeal. This film was intended for use in convincing new members to sign up and it’s pretty effective in that, focusing on the concrete benefits for workers and their families and the internal democracy of the union.

Narrated by Don Hollenbeck of CBS News (imagine the reaction if Brian Williams or Wolf Blitzer narrated a union promotional film today!), this is just a really useful document for understanding American unionism at the peak of its power.

The Seafarers

[ 11 ] July 27, 2014 |

I was unaware that Stanley Kubrick had made a documentary about the Seafarers International Union in 1953. I have not seen it, but it is now available here, although I will have to wait until I am back in the U.S. to watch it.

Late Obituaries

[ 18 ] July 18, 2014 |

John Le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman as A Most Wanted Man comes close to its release date. I’m excited about it but it’s going to be hard to watch just because you know you are watching Hoffman’s last great performance (I know he’s in some Hunger Games movies yet to be released but the chances of me watching those are low so for me this is it).

Hardware Wars

[ 155 ] July 3, 2014 |

I mostly hate the whole Star Wars series and am generally disinterested in science fiction. But as a man of a certain generation, I have of course seen all the original Star Wars movies, for better and worse. So Hardware Wars, which I don’t doubt many of you have seen, was of moderate interest. I can’t exactly say this is good or even near the level of Spaceballs, which is a bad movie. But it might be the first Star Wars parody, which is something. Right?

Eli Wallach, RIP

[ 18 ] June 24, 2014 |

Tuco survived that walk through the desert, but he couldn’t live forever. Pretty close though. Eli Wallach has died at the age of 98.

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

[ 25 ] May 29, 2014 |

I turn my book into my editor in 36 hours. I am delirious. The only thing keeping me going is The Gay Shoe Clerk.

Ankle. Hot.

Cold War Film Course Bleg

[ 448 ] May 14, 2014 |

So I am teaching a short 4-week summer session course on Cold War Film. It only meets 10 times (4-hour sessions) so while the official course title is Recent America through Film, I’m concentrating on the Cold War since it’s not really possible to do a broader topic justice. And just because it says Recent America doesn’t mean I’m going to let something as silly as a course title stop me from showing foreign films as well. Plus we can’t understand the U.S. in the Cold War without understanding other nations as well.

I mention this because I am making them get a Netfilx account as part of their course “readings” and keep a film notebook on films they watch outside of class. What films would you show? We can think broadly here–either films that are really Cold War-themed in an obvious way or some film(s) from the era that aren’t political but some up an era.

The films I presently planning on using in class, subject to some change include parts of the Animated Soviet Propaganda set (paired with bad Cold War US propaganda from the Chamber of Commerce), Atomic Cafe, Salt of the Earth, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Am Cuba, The Battle of Algiers, Punishment Park, Red Dawn, and Goodbye Lenin (I think). I could also skip a post-Cold War film and go with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which has certain advantages.

So what should I put on the list of possible films for them to watch outside of class? I have lots of ideas, but I am sure I am forgetting things.

The Cost of Violating OSHA Regulations

[ 125 ] May 6, 2014 |

You violate OSHA regulations, you may become a superhero:

In “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a mild-mannered electrical engineer with an inferiority complex. That is, until he becomes Electro in one of the most blatant series of workplace safety-protocol violations ever committed to film.

He’s forced to stay behind after hours to fix a circuit. Without a buddy or spot — and thus not complying with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation 1910.120 — Max climbs to the top of a catwalk above several tanks of genetically modified electrical eels. He does so without the proper use of a standard harness, infringing OSHA fall-protection guidelines. He is unable to get another employee to shut off power, in blatant violation of rudimentary OSHA electrical guidelines. He balances on top of the catwalk railing and — without the use of standard work-issue insulted rubber gloves (see OSHA 1910.137(a)(1) for voltage-class requirements) — reconnects the cable. He then pushes the cable back into its slot, is severely shocked, falls a long distance into one of the eel tanks, is shocked by those eels and eventually becomes Electro.

This sequence of events — and essentially the entire plot of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ — could have been avoided if Max’s employer, Oscorp Industries, complied with even the most basic workplace health and safety standards.

You have been warned.

Logging in Idaho–U.S.A. (1926)

[ 35 ] April 21, 2014 |

Too busy to blog today (in fact, with a book due in 6 weeks, that may be a not infrequent occurrence for a bit). But not too busy to put up another British Pathe film, this time on another topic close to my heart: logging. Watching this footage, especially of the guys working on the log drive in the river, should remind us all what a horrifyingly dangerous profession logging was during these years.

Documentaries

[ 197 ] April 16, 2014 |

What are the best documentaries of all time? Sight and Sound is about to release a poll around this issue. Richard Brody has his choices, of which I’ve seen 2: Night and Fog, which belongs, and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen although I’m not sure one of the best.

I don’t know that I’m quite qualified to answer this question. There are a lot of bloody documentaries out there and I’ve seen a lot of them, but then a lot of really important ones I haven’t seen. I think it’s more interesting perhaps to think about what makes a good documentary. Brody’s take:

What these selections have in common is the idea of history, the construction of history cinematically, and the manifest personal involvement of the filmmakers in that construction. The ultimate subject of all great documentaries is the presence of the filmmaker at the events on view or under consideration—and when, as in Wiseman’s work, the filmmaker is subtracted, it’s a conspicuous subtraction, as if by way of an onscreen equation. The implication of the past in the present, the ongoing effect of the past in the present, is another crucial documentary idea—the contextualization of reported events by means of visual archeology and intellectual analysis, the unfurling of the filmmakers’ own thought process by way of that analysis. That’s the source of these ten movies’ vital, dynamic, and ongoing inspirations for other filmmakers, as well as for these filmmakers’ own later works. The past in the present, the future in the present—the essence of the great documentary is in the cinematic conception of time, the disjunction between the real time of filming and the times that it implies. Rule of thumb: the greater and more wondrous that disproportion, the greater the film.

I’m not as smart as Brody, so I’ll be a bit less lyrical. I like documentaries that throw you off kilter. That certainly can consist of the interplay between past and present as Brody says, but it doesn’t have to be. What I dislike about documentaries–and what annoys me about how people talk about interesting documentaries–is the idea that the tell the truth. So often, when I watch something like Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, which is about people struck by lightning and closes with the experimental guitarist Fred Frith telling his story of his strike with a 5 minute guitar improvisation, the commenters are angry because they just wanted to know SOME FACTS ABOUT LIGHTNING!!!! There’s the strong sense that documentaries serve as either how-to manuals of understanding the world or as crusading films exposing evil.

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I’m more sympathetic to the latter, but most of them aren’t very good films. I don’t necessarily want to know more about a topic when I come out of a documentary. I want to have my way of thinking about the world transformed. And sometimes this happens. Here’s 11 I think very highly of as I’m sitting here. Not definitive, even for me.

Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955). Maybe the best documentary ever. Even among Holocaust films there’s a lot of competition there, but that’s a very powerful film.

Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006). What is nature? Following the photographer Edward Burtynsky as he photographs Asian pollution, both artists involved challenge the viewer. It’s 2 stories, with Baichwal as important as Burtynsky. Wonderful for the intelligent Environmental Studies student interested in social justice. Plus anytime we can start a film with a 8 minute shot of row after row after row of Chinese factory workers doing the exact same thing, we are on the right path.

Grin Without a Cat (Marker, 1977). The best film about what the 60s represented and how they declined. No one played with the complexity of truth and memory more than Marker.

Louisiana Story (Flaherty, 1948). Probably my favorite of the older style of documentary that provides a lot of narration and a main character that may or may not have any real relation to how these people actually lived. But again, who cares about some arbitrary line of accuracy.

Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005). Speaking of the complexity of truth, I’ve had multiple people who did not know each other question whether Herzog was really telling anything resembling the truth here. Which is great. Timothy Treadwell is an anti-social weirdo with major problems. So is Werner Herzog. And it’s not like Herzog is even all that sympathetic. So there are two stories from two dislikable people going on at the same time. Entertaining and seriously makes the viewer question the relationship between people and the wild.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). I usually try to limit films to one per director on these lists, but Herzog tells an incredibly compelling story about life and art 10,000 years ago. The past and present merge in this beautiful film. I was completely compelled from start to end.

Louie Bluie (Zwigoff, 1985). Documentaries about musicians are usually somewhat entertaining but don’t often get to the point of being really compelling. Louie Bluie is an exception, about a very cranky and hilarious old man and his amazing musical and visual art (including his “found art” (a term I hate) pornographic alphabet book.) Astounding.

The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein, 1984). An exception to the political documentary problem of earnestness, as Epstein tells a story of movement just beginning to rise in American culture at a point where it is just beginning to go through its biggest crisis.

When the Levees Broke (Lee, 2006). Spike Lee’s finest film. Some complain that he gave credence to people who thought the government had blown up the levee to force black people to suffer the brunt of the disaster. Sure, that didn’t happen. However, it actually did happen in 1927. And given how horribly the government has treated African-Americans in New Orleans basically forever, those people had good reason to think that was possible. Again, documentaries aren’t about telling a single truth, whatever that even means in a case like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, 2008). The best autobiographical documentary I’ve seen. A great filmmaker making a film about a great filmmaker.

The Battle of San Pietro (Huston, 1945). Almost forgot about my favorite World War II film, where Huston spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of a minor battle in a necessary war. Made the military so uncomfortable that Mark Clark added an intro on the vital importance of this battle so the public wouldn’t get so upset by it.

Pretty recent set of films, but then we are living in the golden age of documentaries.

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