Tuesday, November 29, 2011

lost art, found art

Before my screening of The Artist, there was both a Samsung cell phone commercial which laid out its advantages over the latest iPhone (there's a slightly bigger screen! the memory is just as good... if not better!) and a short doc on the changing nature of Wall Street: on-the-floor traders could soon be obsolete, replaced by computers.  In the new (and mostly silent) throwback picture by Michel Hazanavicius (his Oss 117 films are spoofy spy pic throwbacks) , George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is an arrogant, thriving silent film star who walks in step with a cute little Jack Russell terrier (Uggie).  By accident, he meets an up-and-coming actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).  As she becomes a huge star for the talkies, Valentin's career quickly declines.

The dapper, Gene Kelly-ish Dujardin fully and smoothly embodies his role as the debonair Valentin.  It's the sort of mesmerizing stunt that seems effortless in its perfection.  His performance, like the script (by the director), has a healthy dose of wit, even as we watch Valentin's spiral into despair (there is literally a shot of him drowning in quicksand).  The movie's climatic moment winks at melodrama.  Exquisite and zippy, but also a bit melancholy, Bejo's (the wife of the director... which could explain why she's so lovingly photographed) Peppy is a perfect foil to Dujardin's Valentin.  She's a bit contemporary looking as well, which adds to the movie's visual tension.  The fine supporting cast includes James Cromwell as Valentin's overlooked assistant, Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin's salty, neglected aging wife (in a platinum blonde wig), and John Goodman as a gruff producer intent on cashing into the latest trend.

Like films of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the plot of The Artist isn't complicated and often, it's predictable.   The picture itself though is deceptively simple.  It's both a homage to and a parody, in a way, to those slight movies of that Hollywood heydey. It's also a movie rooted in modern anxiety, haunted by the bygone.  The inventive photography by Guillaume Schiffman is done in a cool, never overly sumptuous but more ghostly black and white.  The picture isn't really a silent one as it is aided by an almost unbearably gorgeous score by Ludovic Bource.  Alternating between waltz, slinky slapstick, and majestic romanticism, and even suddenly veering into a fitting use of a cue from Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo (one of the most lush, woozy slivers of music in cinematic history), Bource infuses the film with spirit and energy with what must have been a daunting task. The Artist can be a bit meta (references abound, besides those from silent cinema, most notably a dash of Citizen Kane), but the Fellini-esque bravado of the story moves along to a toe-tapper of a finale, exquisitely choreographed without CGI and excessive edits.  The Artist is a testament to the silliness, kitschiness, and importance of technological and aesthetic change; soon enough the gadgets people are lining up for outside will be just as worthless to the world at large as Valentin's auctioned possessions. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, November 28, 2011

a weak week with marilyn

In the summer of 1956, 23-year old Colin Clark (freckly, fresh-faced Eddie Redmayne) worked as an assistant on the tumultuous set of Laurence Oliver's (Kenneth Branagh) picture The Prince and the Showgirl (the title of which ends up being fitting for Clark's story).  While everyone else coddled and berated its star Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) for her tardiness and inconsistency, Clark developed a unique friendship with her and briefly won her affection.

If only My Week With Marilyn was as bold and interesting as its leading performance and its subject matter.  The script, penned by Adrian Hodges (who wrote Tom & Viv, another uneven biopic), sledgehammers too much and goes for gooey first love tropes (Clark is repeatedly warned by stern men not to get too involved).  We are informed of the plot before the opening credits and are treated to banal narration within the bookends. Ominous, loud flashbulbs appear relentlessly, as they do in most generic movies about movie stars.  The dialogue is simply not comedic enough for the froth fest it aspires to be.  Perhaps mirroring Monroe in distress, the score, by Conrad Pope, behaves like the film--often ill-fitting and awkward, going from peppy and jazzy to tony and serious. Because much isn't cooked up overall, the scenes backed by Nat King Cole tunes feel as dramatically listless as perfume ads.

Director Simon Curtis, a Masterpiece Theater vet, assembles a strong, familiar British cast (Branagh, Judi Dench, and young Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame among them).  Appropriately, Williams is the odd girl out.  Few young actors of recent cinema have been able to display fragility and vulnerability as well as her.  In Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine, her characters wallow and fret over their men until they reach breaking points.  What works here is that Williams is an actress playing a risky part of an actress playing a risky part.  What doesn't work is the film around her.  Perhaps Clark is too flat, too smitten and too innocent (his slight, 23-year old musings feel like those of a 16-year old) to be the film's protagonist.  The film is simply a flavorless, Harvey Weinstein bon bon when Monroe isn't around.  Watson, as a movie costume gal with a crush on Clark, endures a throwaway part.  A few of the supporting cast have their moments though.  It's fun to watche Branagh quote Shakespeare, even if his film performances, as it is here, are often too broad. And Dench does what she does best in a minuscule role as Sybil Thorndike.  Julia Ormond's Vivien Leigh, who played Monroe's part onstage to great acclaim, talks incessantly about aging and in one oddly placed scene, rails against and praises Monroe in a fit of jealousy.  Mostly tedious, the movie comes to life in its rare, darkly funny moments: Monroe opens a Windsor Castle doll house, stares longingly at the figures, and remarks, "There's me, there's you and there's our child." **

-Jeffery Berg

A photo with her then husband, Arthur Miller, from the Parkside House in the year the film was set.

And some writing from Monroe, which can be found in the book Fragments.

my love sleeps besides me--
in the faint light--I see his manly jaw
give way--and the mouth of his
boyhood returns
with a softness softer
its sensitiveness trembling
in stillness
his eyes must have look out
wonderously from the cave of the little
boy--when the things he did not understand--
he forgot
but will he look like this when he is dead
oh unbearable fact inevitable
yet sooner would I rather his love die
than/or him?

Friday, November 25, 2011

night before thanksgiving

Here's a poem by Raymond Luczak.

He has a lovely collection of poems out entitled Road Work Ahead.  You can purchase it here.

Night Before Thanksgiving

New York has fallen into a lazy-susan-eyed sleep.
As I saunter west from St. Mark's Place to my home,
I think of you arriving by car in Ohio.

Right now you must be laughing and carrying on
with your sisters, while you and mother cook in her home.
Am I somewhere in your mind out there in Ohio?

Out here by the lonely piers on Hudson River,
the winds lull me into a make-believe home.
Tonight I cast a net for dreams of you in Ohio.

I am blessed: there are so many leaping in the air.
Your eyes, hands, thighs trawl me rivers home.
I long to shimmer in your arms in Ohio.

When I finally fall asleep, I climb the tallest tree
over there.  You are a breathtaking river called home,
reflecting the prism of autumn beyond Ohio.

-Raymond Luczak

Friday, November 18, 2011


As someone who endured adolescent gender struggles, I admired the way director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies) handles the material in Tomboya sweetly observed coming-of-age tale. 10-year old Laure (Zoé Héran) moves with her father, young sister, and expecting mother to a new apartment.  Laure pretends to be a boy named Mikael while out playing with peers and  attracting the affection of a young neighbor neighbor, Lisa (Jeanne Disson).

The film is very tender and not as tragic as cinematic stories of this nature usually are.  It's also deceptively simple.  It must have been no easy task to direct these young actors as well as Sciamma does. Malonn Lévana endearingly plays Laure's younger sister and delivers some of the film's funniest moments.  Despite her off-the-cuff silliness, there is something inherently wise in her character's defense of Laure / Mikael and the way, as an actor, she's able to emotionally communicate it.  Héran's portrayal is very vivid, almost uncomfortably so.  Sciamma delicately shows the interaction of children as brilliantly naturalistic as François Truffaut did in Small Change and the ways in which the worlds that children create somewhat mirror the competitiveness, anxiety and insecurities of adults.  Once Laure's mother interrupts Laure's fantasy of being Mikael, the film moves into uneasy territory. The freedom Laure felt (expressed in the resplendent opening shot) is abruptly crushed.  It gets better, in a way, yes, but in the adult world, things also get more complicated. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, November 11, 2011

in 'cool limbo': an interview with michael montlack

There's a lot to love about Michael Montlack's debut collection of poems, Cool Limbo.  Fresh, funny, and moving, Montlack's poems trace the complexity of gay relationships and gender while paying exquisite homage to the heroines of his youth from Stevie Nicks to his irreverent and brassy sisters.

I asked Michael a few questions about writing and Cool Limbo.

The book is split in two sections, Girls, Girls, Girls and Boys, Boys, Boys. Did it take some time to realize this was the only way to arrange the poems?

MM: Yes, I had arranged the poems in a few ways before seeing the boy / girl structure, which immediately made sense, keeping in line with some of the gender themes in the book and providing a simple and fun structure. Worked out to be balanced with the number of poems / pages too. Maybe having a twin sister is a factor in the decision as well.

I have to say this is one of the most enjoyable books of poetry I've read in a while. There's an interesting stance that many of the poems take. Sometimes I was reminded of the way stand-up comics tell a tale, incorporating dialogue, while sharing blunt and funny descriptions of themselves and those around them. Are you inspired at all by comedians?

YES! I love comedy: movies, stand-up, SNL, ... Especially women in comedy. Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Judy Gold, Kristen Wiig, Amy Sedaris ("Strangers with Candy"), "Absolutely Fabulous," "French & Saunders". I know they impact me and my work in terms of tone, storytelling and portraiture. The poet Edward Field once remarked at a reading how wisdom is often best imparted through comedy and noted that tradition in Judaism as an example. He also mentioned how light verse was unfairly disregarded or deemed less important than other poetic styles. But I agree that comedy is a powerful vehicle for conveying serious, even political and social, ideas. Not to mention, it's just fun. So I aim for it in my work, even my somber pieces.

Many of the poems in the first half are about your sisters. How do they react to your work?

MM: My twin sister Michele does not mind the spotlight at all. She thrives on it. She's been asking me for years to write a book about her. She enjoys the occasional poem I come up with but thinks she deserves an entire book. I'm tempted.  My older sister Pam was the model for the 'stoner chick' babysitter on the cover and is featured in the title poem "Cool Limbo." More reserved than Michele, she was startled to see herself in the image but had a sense of humor about it. I'm lucky to have inspiring and easy-going sisters.

"Vanity Smurf" is funny, satirically brilliant ("... males in Peter Berlin hip-huggers / were too busy skipping to strut, and where if a man / sought to eat you, it meant in that night's meager stew."). How did this poem come about?

MM: Glad you liked "Vanity Smurf" and his 'Peter Berlin hip-huggers.' That was a hoot to write. The poem came about when I thought about cartoons from the past and how some animators were bold and brave enough to include flamboyantly queer characters in those closeted times. Snagglepuss and Peppermint Patty, for example. And Vanity Smurf, who I thought was the perfect icon to take on the topic of clones, how young gay men (and women) often can feel pressured to adopt the style deemed appropriate for them by the gay community and / or straight world. See, even saying the topic like that sounds dull to me, but Vanity made it much more interesting and entertaining. And allowed me to take on the sameness of suburbia too.

One motif in the book is aging. I admit I shed a little tear reading the bittersweet closer "On Turning 40." I also found "My Father Was a Jewish Mechanic" particularly moving ("... he'd surely get a kick / to hear I wound up in a 15th Street studio / where I hole myself in on the weekends / to write about these things..."). Can you talk about the journey you think the collection takes?

MM: I think like a lot of first books, this collection examines the personal--my journey through childhood, family, coming out, and relationships. But I hope the book does it in my own way, using a lot of portraiture, humor and pop culture icons (The Golden Girls, Hello Kitty, Liz Taylor, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Stevie Nicks, even porn stars) to help tell the story, making it more dimensional than my own narrative and taking on societal concerns. I am interested in aging, yes, what it means for women and men, and gay men too, but am more interested in what it could mean and maybe should mean. The book moves in a chronological arc for sure, and does so twice, once in the Girls, Girls, Girls section and then in the Boys, Boys, Boys section. My love of storytelling can be seen in that. But there are surprises along the way, some detours (like "Babysitting on Mescaline" or "Lounge-adelic") which continue the story in unusual modes. In addition to aging, the book also aims to move from suburban to city life, the world of women to the world of men, oppressed ghostliness to the realized self.

Who are some of the poets whose work you first fell in love with? Do you think they had any particular effect on these poems?

MM: I fell in love with Elizabeth Bishop first, like many poets did. She showed me how to tell a story through details. How to create a voice that is present.  I fell in love with Gertrude Stein, her audacity, irony and experimentation. I speak through her in a couple poems. And even write as Gertrude speaking about Bishop.

Edward Field's work too, for being so courageous and honest. For his ability to dare through humor.  I can only wish that my work adopted any of the brilliance of those writers.

What are you working on now?

MM: My projects now involve writing fiction and acting as an editor. Divining Divas, the poetry follow-up to the essay anthology My Diva which I edited in 2009, is in production and due out February 2012. I also finished a novel and will be working to get that out.

I know that you are a big Stevie Nicks fan. And there's a nice ode to her in the collection. What is your favorite Stevie Nicks era?

MM: I suppose I like Stevie's Mirage era best. The videos then ... "Gypsy" and "Hold Me" were so beautiful and mysterious. She was otherworldly. Still is. Her new song "Moonlight" captures that well.

One a scale from one to four stars, how many stars do you give your day?

MM: Four. I'm talking about my favorite things: Poetry, Gertrude Stein, Stevie Nicks ... And it's autumn in NYC.

Purchase Cool Limbo here.

And check out lovely reviews by Lonely Christopher and Angelo Nikolopoulos.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

martha marcy may marlene

I remember reading Helter Skelter as a teenager and sleeping with the light on.  The murders committed were horrific but so was Charles Manson's ability to manipulate the minds of his followers. Set "somewhere in the Catskills," the cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene is a group of marginalized teens under the quietly sinister rule of Patrick (John Hawkes).  Sean Durkin's mesmerizing film (with an unfortunate title, almost humorously clunky), astonishingly self-assured for a debut feature, is like a good Joyce Carol Oates tale: rich, ambiguous and unsettling.

After escaping the cult, young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is taken by her estranged sister (though it isn't exactly certain if they are sisters or not, as it is vaguely implied in the film) Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to her and her husband Ted 's (Hugh Dancy) summer home in Connecticut.  Lucy and Ted are a Manhattan-based bourgeoisie couple trying to conceive, wholly unprepared for Martha's entrance into their quiet existence. The movie is a slowly paced but unrelenting dance between two different lives: the harrowing experiences of Marcy May in rural New York and rattled Martha in a massive glass house on a placid Connecticut lake, piecing together her traumas.

Instead of dwelling in plot mechanics, Durkin offers a Bergman-esque (I recently viewed Hour of the Wolf and was sort of reminded of it stylistically) attention to character and contrast. Moving within the different, but similar, natural environments of Martha's world, the outstanding and evocative cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes reflects the picaresque but ominous landscapes and vacation houses (some of which Patrick's cult invade for obscure reasons).  Durkin has noted that Martha is "trying to figure out the trauma she's been through.  I wanted to be true to that and never wanted to think beyond.... this film was driven by this character and these experiences."  Sometimes this close study of Martha's fractured psyche may be trying for the viewer.  We don't find out much about Patrick except the glimpses Martha has of him in flashback (often she's told, as Patrick cozies up to other female members, that it's not polite to stare).  An acoustic guitar song called "Marcy's Song," reminiscent of Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy" song and scene from Nashville, is objectifying ("she's just a picture") and creepily seductive.  The moment is a highlight of another fine performance from Hawkes.  Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the famed twins, who have their own, tabloid cult-like following) is mesmerizing in the lead and gives the film its emotional complexity.  Olsen displays Martha's traces of happiness in the cult and a damaged, callow state at her sister's.  Photographed often with shadows around her face, she's a magnetic, but not overpowering, presence.

In a sense the film is about two women from a fragmented family, who have taken different paths in eschewing loneliness and establishing a new family.  Seemingly content in a somewhat cold, not very affectionate, marriage and an almost painfully-quiet existence, Paulson's Lucy grapples with both the studied perfection of her life and taking care of her wounded, sometimes hurtful, sister.  Smartly Durkin doesn't make Lucy icily unbearable, instead there's a deep sympathy for her.  In a way, she emerges as the film's unlikely heroine, even as Durkin chooses, in a tense final moment of the film, to suggest that Martha can never be saved. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

call it what you want

New video for Foster the People's "Call It What You Want."  One of my favorite singles of the year.