Sunday, March 14, 2010

Two Zero Zero X: Favorite Films of the Decade Pt. 5 — 2004



Previous installments: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003...

The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2004

10. Jandek on Corwood (dir. Chad Freidrichs)

A documentary about Jandek first has the task of explaining to most of the audience what a Jandek is. So: Jandek is a name under which an anonymous musician releases music through independent record label Corwood Industries. Corwood exists only to release Jandek records, and likely consists of no more than a P.O. box in Houston. Except for once or twice, there have been new Jandek records every year since 1978, sometimes as many as five. The musician does not do interviews. There is not an official website, and if you want Jandek records, you need to write for a catalog. The musician's name has been "discovered," but it is rude to talk about that, and it will tell you nothing. No one knows anything else, except that it doesn't sound much like other musics. Jandek records are not as harrowing or weird as they are often made out to be in print. There are more boring, less boring, and more avant-garde records in existence. If you want to know what Jandek "sounds like," you will need to hear Jandek.

For many of those who have heard a Jandek album, a documentary will have to justify its own the subject matter as something more than a curiosity. It must be admitted that Jandek frequently finds placement on Worst Music of All Time lists. It must be admitted that the audience is going to get an earful of a lot of Jandek songs.

For that sliver of the species that owns and enjoys multiple Jandek recordings, the question will likely be how sympathetic Jandek on Corwood is to the musician's work.

How does one make a documentary, then, when there is no footage of the subject? Well, there is no footage of the Civil War either, but there are plenty of primary sources and secondary tellings of the narrative to draw from. Not really so with Jandek. The Jandek Story may be pieced together from scant evidence, but most of that story will be reiteration of the primary fact: we don't know anything about Jandek.

Or don’t we? Don't we know a lot about Jandek? More, even, than those musicians who subject themselves to constant interview, rock rag criticism, tabloid news scrutiny, autobiography, and public statement? We have more than 60 albums of often excruciatingly intimate music — most commonly just a man and a guitar, some with other musicians, a few entirely a cappella — and their covers (might be, seem to be, probably are?) candid snapshots from the artist's home, haunts and travels. Though Corwood is a one-man information blackout, it is not as if mass media outlets "want" him, and as easy as it is to say he keeps the audience out, we could also say he lets us in all the way. In a sense there is nothing to say about Jandek. What, after all, for all their exposure do you "know" about Mick Jagger or Kanye West or Miley Cyrus?

Jandek on Corwood embraces this paradox, allows rock critics, record geeks, music historians, fans, and non-fans to explain the scant facts. Some think the Representative from Corwood is just a guy who makes music, some think he is cagey and calculating, some conclude he is a sociopath. Some indicate the musician is talentless, terrible, bizarre, but some say the work is unaffected, pure, honest. Some think the records are difficult and rewarding, some think difficult and scary or not-rewarding. Most grasp for an explanation of why the musician remains anonymous, and possibilities include that he is a recluse, mental deficient, man in hiding or regular guy who doesn't want to be bugged, but all commentators force a framework on his anonymity. The Residents, another great American musical enigma, make anonymity and mask-play part of their artistic mission statement, but Corwood is mute on the subject. Straight out of the gate, the talking heads plunge into speculation and interpretation, explanation and excuse-making, and it the effect is clear: any time we talk about art, we fit it with multiple ideological frames. Commentators try to discuss Jandek records as outsider art, jazz, rock music, folk, art rock, death blues, and et cetera, ad infinitum, but each generic shift imposes something on the argument that Corwood Industries has not said. Why bother to explain that Jandek does not act like a rock star, when the musician is not a rock star?

No, the musician does not do interviews... except, in long long ago 1985, it turns out he did. One. And you will hear some of it in Jandek on Corwood, a climax or pay-off or reward of sorts. All 50 minutes of the telephone recording are available on the DVD. Turns out the Representative from Corwood gives pretty good interview. The only vital, argument-shifting revelation is that he does, indeed, tune his instruments, so they sound the way they sound on purpose. He doesn't sound crazy, but who knows?

The interviewees are well selected, some smart and helpful (including Dr. Demento), some gloriously clueless as they fuzz together fact and speculation (Douglas Wolk, while generally condescending about the music, seems concerned by every album-closing track that the musician will kill himself). On the soundtrack, an excellent assemblage of Jandek songs offers support, denial, rebuttal, or obfuscation. To fill out the visual field, some stark Jandek-ian imagery of cold forests, empty houses, desolate landscapes, and some dubious, silly, loaded still lifes of antique lightbulbs, a blood-covered brain and the musician's blank face superimposed on the moon. Missteps aside, Jandek on Corwood is wisely silent about its own purpose. It does not exactly aim to solve the mystery of Jandek, but by the end may have done that very thing. Maybe there is no mystery here at all. What more, exactly, do we want to know about Jandek? Why? Maybe what we have here is not a film about Jandek so much as a music documentary with an absent center, a negative space study of identity projection in the critical process, of audiences' relationship with art and expectations of artists, of tastemaking and cultural hierarchy. Jandek on Corwood is mum on many topics, but on the subject of music criticism, it is illuminating.


9. A Dirty Shame (dir., scr. John Waters)

With only a tiny bit of entirely unerotic nudity, less violence than a Tom and Jerry cartoon and substantially less fecal matter than Trainspoting, A Dirty Shame was awarded an NC-17 rating based, it would seem, entirely on ceaselessly graphic naughty dialogue ("pervasive language" they call it). That, and its mind is defiantly, dreamily in the gutter at all times. The rundown: sex-negative convenience store employee Sylvia Stickles suffers a concussion and turns into a rampaging sex maniac, and under the leadership of sex addict guru Ray-Ray Perkins embarks on acts of carnal terrorism against her repressed Baltimore neighborhood. As Sylvia, Tracey Ullman cranks up dowdiness to Fellinian levels in the first act, and, as post-concussion slattern, transforms into the female hormone infused creature from Gremlins 2. Johnny Knoxville plays Ray-Ray as an anthropomorphized tongue and struts in a grimy mechanic's uniform like it were a rhinestoned Elvis jumpsuit. John Waters has developed much surer technical footing as a filmmaker since his most notorious films, particularly in the practical jobs of shooting and framing his gags for legibility and impact. A Dirty Shame, besides being his naughtiest film since Desperate Living, revives some of the avant-garde spirit of his earliest work. The Kuchar/Anger-era underground-film-style montages accompanying the plot's many head traumas and a deep, silly surrealist streak recall Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. The film is both Waters' most polished product and, despite CGI effects and a David Hasselhoff cameo, his most formally experimental film in three decades.

Three common complaints upon release were that A Dirty Shame is not funny (can't help you there), and/or irrelevant; that the culture had caught up with John Waters' brand of boundary-leaping humor in general and in particular his latest picture was inconsequential in this age of tolerance and permissiveness. These things were not true in 2004, and looking back from 2010, A Dirty Shame looks not only relevant but also prescient. In the interim, the nation has resumed its shrill debate about gay marriage, while youth culture has stopped just short of making a fad of collecting Precious Moments ceramics. When the heartthrobs embraced by pubescent girls are homeschoolers who brag that chastity is an act of nonconformist rebellion and teenagers (and, I understand, their moms) swoon to a Mormon abstinence fantasy disguised as vampire romance, the country's crotches are in serious trouble. The principle tactic of A Dirty Shame is to speak loudly, frankly, constantly about sex acts, until it both stops making us titter and just maybe starts being sweet.

The main course is a cornucopia of unusual, non-genital oriented fetishes, the special obsessions of Ray-Ray's followers. In real life, even those with a well-browsed copy of The Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices are bound to occasionally bump into some rare breed of paraphilia that causes head scratching and brow furrowing. Waters long ago told the story of his mother weeping after seeing Mondo Trasho that "there's no such thing!" as shrimping. Well, there certainly is, and A Dirty Shame eventually evolves (devolves?) into characters simply gleefully shouting lists of weird things people can do with their bodies, as Ray-Ray struggles to discover an all new, never before performed sex act, on a planet where it's all been done before. Somewhere in the catalogue of perversion, most of us are going to recognize ourselves, or at the very least realize that yeah, we've Done That: lumped in with the Roman showers and mysophilia are old fashioned exhibitionism and interest in big boobs. Indeed, a perfect union is formed between breast man Fat Fuck Frank and Sylvia's daughter Clarice — Selma Blair with mammaries like full-grown conjoined twins and an deep love for indecent exposure. At the very center of the story, and perhaps the most mundane of all, Sylvia's specialty is as a "cunnilingus bottom." By equating all personal sexual expression and allowing everyone to talk about it, all threat, exoticness and shock eventually dissipate. We're all equally harmless, ridiculous, disgusting and wonderful; we can't help it, so we might as well be happy.

In public American political discourse about any issue tangentially related to issues of sexuality, even the open-minded liberal voice tends to agree to shut up about the filthy details. No one likes to say it, but the mental image of anal sex was one of the things clogging the brains of California voters who passed Proposition 8 and undid the state's right to same-sex marriage. In such debates (which are often so barely civilized that "debate" is putting it politely) over tolerance, it may seem like wisdom or logic to offer something like "do what thou wilt, as long as I don't have to see it." With its only caveat that people not hurt one another (well, without consent), A Dirty Shame offers a different, far more life-affirming battle cry: "Let's go sexin'!"

Fifteen-year-olds are not supposed to watch A Dirty Shame . Perhaps the adults-only rating will provide some motivation, as I sincerely hope they seek it out anyway.


8. Hellboy (dir., scr. Guillermo del Toro)

The hook is that when it comes to those X-Files that require more extermination than investigation, no one would be better suited to the task than a tamed menagerie of X-File subjects. Guillermo del Toro adapts Mike Mignola's clean, angular comics with visual emphasis on detailed dinge and clutter, and with considerably lower budget than contemporary Marvel and DC films creates an imaginative universe of vaster, crazier scope than its cash-gorged cousins. As a fantasy picture, Hellboy zooms from Lovecraftian unnameable transdimensional horror to steampunk WWII alternate history to occult-flavored superhero action in the Ghost Rider/The Demon/Swamp Thing vein, as a displaced infant demon grows up on Earth and is conscripted into monster-fighting for the government. The focus, however, is sweet and humanist, and Hellboy's story is a nature vs. nurture parable in which our massively ugly beast of a hero struggles with his circumstances to realize his potential with the help of patient parenting, earned friendship and the love of a good pyrokineticist.

Ron Perlman's performance as the reluctant hero who looks like walking fire truck would be a wonder even if he weren't emoting from inside a metric ton of latex. Surly, sensitive, uncouth and sarcastic, Perlman plays the working stiff demon as a teenage Tom Waits trapped in the Incredible Hulk's body. Through the process of combating ancient space-gods, foiling the resurrected Rasputin, waking the dead to ask for directions (and whatever other crazy shit we're forgetting), the bear-shaped red demon with a gun the size of a table lamp finds the spiritual link between grumpy film noir detectives and depressed, lovesick teenagers the world over. Hint: it's not just trench coats.


7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, scr. Charlie Kaufman)

Set in orangey halogen haze and pre-dawn watered-down Paynes Grey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is very interested in capturing several kinds of scruffy, hard to wrangle light. It shares this quality with 2004's overwrought, formally hypnotic Collateral. Where Mann's movie is flattened, sheeny and icy, Gondry's bleary, nervous and morose. It's set largely in its sad-sack protagonist's brain, after all, and his seasonal affective disorder seeps into everyone else's reality. So we watch nebbish Joel and insane creep Clementine fall in love, which is the outline of many great romantic comedies, including the finest ever made, which is Bringing Up Baby. The po-mo tweak is that we see it in backwards chronology, the Kaufman-concept is that we're seeing it that way because our man Joel is drugged and prone a-bed, having his memory of the romance erased courtesy of brain-alteration firm Lacuna, Inc. Got that? The plot is, as always with Kaufman, less convoluted in practice than in summary, and no weirder than the hooks for Twilight Zone episodes or a Ray Bradbury story.

And like those forbearers, Eternal Sunshine's secret is confidence in the strength of that hook that allows it to freely focus on lyrical mundanity. Designed and executed for maximum raggedy handmade feel, Gondry would go on to push his love for lo-fi handicraft further and further, with diminishing magic. Here the balance is about right— if less delirious than his panicking/rapturous videos for Björk— and suggests the human mindscape is full of thumbprints and rough draft placeholders, that dreams are shot handheld.

It is a picture that seems to deeply move many people, though it is more schematic and cerebral (duh) than soulful. These things are subjective, naturally, but the experience of losing love and need for closure on a relationship feels a lot more like Kill Bill than Gondry and Kaufman's reflective reminisce; the romantic recollection on display is suspiciously bloodless, non-carnal and passionless. Perhaps Eternal Sunshine is not so useful about love, and simple about memory (I suspect memory works like an associative network, every detail supporting every other; to remove Clementine is to remove the concept of the letter C) to get at one core idea about our wrong-headed fantasy of making life perfect. By the end/beginning of the story, several willful amnesiacs find that they are bound by nature to make the same mistakes again... which may suggest they are not mistakes. And Joel realizes that the worst thing that ever happened to him was inexorably bound up in the best thing he ever experienced. Which, if you recall, is the same epiphany lurking at the end of Bringing Up Baby.


6. A Very Long Engagement (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, scr. Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Sébastien Japrisot)

Like a running gag about a mail carrier's bicycle wheel scattering a gravel driveway, A Very Long Engagement blasts out in all directions and the arc of the individual details determines the shape of the spray-pattern.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet belongs to that Mad Scientist school of filmmaking staffed by shaggy-brained nutjobs like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Joe Dante; their approach is to throw every wild idea they can come up with into the cauldron, stir it to a roiling boil and toss in a kitchen sink or two for good measure. One of the director's favorite motifs is elaborate chain-reaction sequences in which accident, coincidence, cause and effect bounce off one another until, say, a stray teardrop causes a shipwreck. Other examples of this sort of cartoon causality lesson may spring to mind — the Final Destination series or the X-Files episode "The Goldberg Variations" — but they tend to be indicators that the natural order has been violated or is asserting itself with an unusual strength. For Jeunet, it is a Rube Goldberg Universe everywhere, all the time.

As eccentric waif Mathilde investigates the fate of her fiancé, Manech, lost in the chaos of the French / German trench line of WWI, and last seen thrown into No Man's Land to be executed. Mathilde meets a dozen persons who bumped tangents against the events of Manech's apparent execution, but the story changes and changes, and no event, seen from any single perspective, tells the whole tale. A summary of A Very Long Engagement may sound like a wartime romance Rasohmon, but the film is not about subjective truth, unverifiability and uncertainty. Instead it is one of Jeunet's lunatic contraption sequences writ large, the fate of five soldiers found guilty of self-mutilation is rendered a mystery largely because the players ricochet through events with such speed that a full picture is not possible.

Like the same year’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (dogfighting somewhere in this list’s 15-20 range), Engagement is digitally massaged, sculpted and painted with aggressive, nostalgic unreality. Last seen spraying frosting and sprinkles all over a Paris neighborhood, Jeunet aims for the cold contrasty blur of vintage battlefield photography and sepia haze of antique postcards. If Amélie smacked of artificial prettification, Engagement is more fascinating for rendering its Fated Romance as scatterbrained grotesquerie and its Wartime Adventure tall tale as Bill-Mauldin-at-Termite-Terrace cartoon.


5. 2046 (dir., scr. Wong Kar-wai)

A numeric title. An angsty ladies man artist reminisces and waxes romantic about the women who have passed through his life. An obliquely autobiographical (or maybe not?) navel-gaze pile-up of vignettes rhyme and reflect off each other until introspection blooms out the other side as universal extrospection. Meanwhile, the artist’s mysterious, metaphor-bearing science fiction epic haunts the fringes. 2046 may be Wong Kar-wai’s sequel to, expansion and meditation on In the Mood for Love, but it is also a curious companion piece to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2.

Sexed out and fatalistic, 2046 does not continue In the Mood for Love so much as reenact it in retrograde. Where In the Mood feels like the sustained misery/rapture of dwelling on every microsecond of a lost romance, 2046 tells the equally pitiful/beautiful tale of what one does with the body while the brain is locked in the Fugue of One Great Lost Love. So Chow, having lost Su, spends forever chasing down her ghost in every possible way except chasing her down. And really, when you’re this drunk on the memory of a girl and self-pity already, all there is left to do is mix the teardrop and nostalgia cocktail little stronger. Here’s to the future, where everyone dreams of the one that got away.


4. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (dir. Adam McKay, scr. McKay, Will Ferrell)

Several gentlemen gifted with the ability to improvise specific and memorable non sequiturs and moronic interjections band together to play the dumbest men alive, with no regard to ego or accessibility. Swerving wildly between '70s So Cal verisimilitude and anything-goes absurdism, Anchorman does several things other contemporary American star vehicle comedies do not. It works its planned gags and free-form dumbbell ejaculations around a plot that is simple but not quite assembly line issue, and proceeds to freely shatter, sidetrack or undermine its reality. The two favorite plot poles of the genre are that the lead must grow up or man up or vulnerable up to win a girl, and/or the farm/orphanage/family business must be rescued. Anchorman plants them in specific time and place, culture and character, namely that is a boy's club San Diegeo local television newsroom in the 1970s, threatened by the invasion of a female anchor. There is a formula at work here, but the film works and toys with it, rather than lazily assuming it will do its job without being tended.

Rowdy, cretinous boys club comedy from the Stooges to Animal House to Old School does tend to find embrace by the rowdy boys clubs of the world. Anchorman may not be an exception, but that presumed target audience is directly in its comedic sites. As a satire of low-impact local news, small-market celebrity delusion and post-'60s gender politic shifts, Anchorman is more silly and soft-hearted than scathing, but as an indictment of the white American male moron, this thing carries a trident into battle.


3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, scr. Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)

Alfonso Cuarón's ode to inclement weather of all stripes is rendered in inky blacks, pale glowing whites and a thousand shades of green. The Harry Potter novels are, among other things, mystery stories, but few of the film adaptations seem aware of this, and Prisoner of Azkaban is the only one that really flies. Azkaban is also about bigger mysteries, with substantially fewer clues: the lifelong tail-chase of pursuing idealized father figures, the fallibility of adult role models, the propagandistic machinations behind all Official Stories, the relativistic limits of justice systems. It is, then, largely about questioning authority, and the creeping doubt that seeps in during early adolescence. As the Potter saga is about growing up, these themes open wider and wider through J.K. Rowling's stories. After Azkaban, they will largely be shut out of the films in favor of spectacle, and no Potter director but Cuarón has shared Rowling's dorky/eccentric sense of humor, knack for densely layered throwaway detail, or sensitivity to the too-vivid emotions of young adults.

Paced to swing between youthful exuberance and mopey droop, the film is springy, fresh, supple and sticky as a sapling. Harry's journey is about growing up, with scope, perception and complications broadening along the way, but this is also all about mortality, a cycle with strange birth/death knots at the beginning and end, and the first and last stories center on deadly hunts for immortality-granting relics. The balance Cuarón, Kloves, cast and crew must strike is between hormone-jazzed and haunted, fun and impending, inevitable doom. It is a tale full of paradoxes, deceiving appearances and subverted expectations, where untamable beasts —hippogriff to werewolf to notorious mass-murderer — exhibit the finest of qualities, a haunted house contains no ghosts, and the most inspired monsters are Major Depressive Disorder made literal jailors. So it is only appropriate that in a $130 million film, Cuarón and cinematographer Michael Seresin conspire to make the first indelible image little more than a lightbulb faintly illuminating a tented bedsheet, inside out, a giddily on-the-nose gag about a teenager handling his wand under the covers. Before the title even appears, the film is a little crazier, smarter and more alive with poetic invention than any kid's film in recent memory. Though this is the last moment before bodies really begin piling up, Azkaban is the spookiest, maddest, most sophisticated Harry Potter movie, and quite possibly the most grown-up four-quad fantasy blockbuster of the decade.


2. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (dir. Wes Anderson, scr. Anderson, Noah Baumbach)

Increasingly threadbare received wisdom has it that Wes Anderson’s heavily mannered filmmaking form and micromanaged art direction suck all the air out of his pictures, leaving us to stare at glass-eyed taxidermy figures posed against depthless habitat murals. This hardly accounts for their kinetic invention, ample creative elbow-room, principled composition, bursts of frightening ecstatic energy or the seething, palpitating emotions in the stories, threatening to boil over at any moment. An uncharitable critic might hazard that the easy line is toed due to some resentment, disbelief or misunderstanding of the picture-making chops on display. As Anderson can afford more precise planning and control, no modern live-action director demonstrates such intelligent and rigorous grasp of compositional and color theory; every harmonious shot exercises balance of the field, arrangement of contrasts, visual rhythm, organization and negative space. Anderson stages and shoots like a trained painter, or, closer to home, like a skilled cartoonist, and his peers in this regard are John Ford, Frank Tashlin, Jacques Tati and Douglas Sirk. Rather than manifesting some onscreen form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it may be that we are looking at one of the last of a breed of filmmakers who understand the rules and rigors of classical image structure.

Equally important, it may be time to stop imposing the psyches of his characters upon the filmmaker. In a noble tradition spanning Citizen Kane, to The Collector, to Jeanne Dielman, at their centers, Anderson’s films have been about a string of control freaks. Some regimented neurotics, some out-of-control showoffs thrown into identity crisis when confronted with the deeper troubles caused by that same tendency to master, control and domineer. Even more traumatic will be the showdown with nature, the gods, death, and infinity. So burnout oceanographic documentarian Steve Zissou — “a showboat and a little bit of a prick” by his own late admission — sets out on probable suicide mission to locate the possibly nonexistent leopard shark that ate his friend. Though hanging at the end of his own rope, Zissou scrambles to puppeteer every friend, family-and-or-crew member that he hasn’t alienated, and several that he already has. Amidst the clear-line grace and soothing pastel seas of the images, is a carefully observed deadpan portrait of a man determined to drive his legend into the jaws of destruction, and drag as many basically-good people with him as possible.

After losing a son he has built in his image, demolishing his career, becoming an international criminal, and effectively hitting bottom, Zissou plunges deeper. Out-of-body and into the abyss, he dives by submarine and locates the improbable, impossible golden, glowing shark. As he stares in awe, helpless and grateful, Steve Zissou can only murmur in ironic self-centered wonder “I wonder if it remembers me,” but his small voice in the ocean’s womb indicates he knows the answer.

No Steve. Infinity does not remember you. And all this, the big pain and the small camaraderie, even when on the crest of the wave, even when a washed-up old man prone at the bottom of the stairs, all of this? This is an adventure.


1. Kill Bill (Vol. 2) (dir., scr. Quentin Tarantino)

For those confused about where the soul of Quentin Tarantino’s films dwell, or searching for a sign that the writer-director is a human being, here is a tip: Kill Bill puts every movie about your most emotionally damaging breakup to shame. Tarantino knows a secret or two. Genre fiction is a romper room where we deal with true-life drama in inflated, colorful, fantastical form. Master assassin and charming windbag Bill gives a hint as to how to read the film, when he subjects his ex-GF to comparative lit lecture on Superman comics and The Bride's identity crisis.

It is a crisis on infinite 42nd Streets, and Kill Bill Vol. 2 is famously heavy on Leone pastiche, but that is really the easy part. It also interrupts its major Spaghetti Western sequence with a dead-on Fulci evocation, replete with eyeballs-in-peril close-ups. This in turn is disrupted by a full Shaw Bros. mini-movie, and in the pivotal chapter at the heart of this tale — that's "The Cruel Tutelage of Pei Mei", for those keeping score — Tarantino does not just name-drop Clan/Fist of the White Lotus but imports the legendary vicious monk intact from his own movies. "Cruel Tutelage" is a story of discipline, learning, and skill acquisition. The filmmaking strategy is to recreate, with meticulous precision, every haphazard crash zoom, heightened performance and stylized, unrealistic makeup design of a 1960s/70s era kung fu picture. Most modern wuxia seeks to elevate or dignify the material by smoothing over eccentricities of regional birth, budget and market — indeed to make Best Picture Nominee material out of folklore, pulp and exploitation material. Kill Bill suggests an opposite belief, that part of the appeal, value, magic of, say, a Shaw Brothers Studio martial arts movie is/was/forever-shall-be in its very form. That there is more to a genre picture than fight choreography or horses or capes or fedoras. That technique and style are the elements lost to time — not stories but the way stories are told.

This story is coiled and packed, like a novelty can of springing snakes marked "Peanut Brittle!," but with peanut brittle at the bottom, too. Though casual culture critics are fond of saying so, superhero comics are not, generally speaking, about white hats vs. black hats. This has not been the case for the better part of a century. Instead, should one pick up a random superhero book, one finds a vast, encyclopedic cosmology, a dense history of alliances, conflicts, romances and relationship networks, all variegated and convoluted. Kill Bill's corkscrewing chronology is arranged for maximum payoff of delayed information delivery. "The Cruel Tutelage of Pei Mei", for ideal example, is positioned to prolong the film's most agonizing suspense sequence, gradually become so absorbing as to make us forget the no-win situation of The Bride's live burial, and finally provide a solution as the timeline slithers back into place. It is also the thematic pivot-point at the center of The Bride's journey. Heading underground, into the deepest pocket of the tale, The Bride is stripped of the very last remaining pieces of her identity: having lost all else and become revenge embodied, she has her mission taken away through symbolic death, and is buried without her name. Maybe even worse than that, the girl loses her cool.

And then where are we? Why, it appears to be a funky period kung fu movie, and the heroine last seen six feet deep now has to climb the temple stairs. When she is ready to reclaim her mission, her name, her life, her self, the effect is that she has been reinvigorated and inspired by that same kung fu movie. Beginning with a lump-in-throat selection from Morricone's The Mercinary score, ending with a visual quotation from De Palma, the rebirth of The Bride is a fine candidate for most deeply moving scene in the Tarantino canon. Cradled in this careful nest of associations, the moment boils down to its close ups of Uma Thurman's face, as she lies on her back, suffocating to death in the ground, her big features caked with sweat and dirt, hair splayed, cavernous nostrils flared, wide mouth set with resolve, and serene determination lighting her narrowed eyes. In this hellish moment, it is a scene about a superhuman badass regaining her cool.

As Bill deconstructs Superman by way of Jules Feiffer to illustrate a point about his ex's behavior, he is also demonstrating the functions of fantasy fiction in our lives. So should you find yourself across the table from an old lover, and maybe pouring a stiff drink while one of you winces from a needle of truth serum, whether you relate to the masochistic murdering bastard, or the terrific person who can be a real cunt, consider that the scenes of Beatrix and Bill's final meetings capture and convey that epic human macro/micro-cosm like no naturalistic, realistic, non-exploitation-movie drama ever could.

A curious glimpse of a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon near the end Kill Bill proffers this wisdom: "Do you have a magpie in your home? If you do, you are most fortunate. The magpie is the most charming bird in all the world... treat him gently. Treat him kindly. And always remember: the magpie deserves your respect."

A magpie, maybe. A mockingbird, perhaps. A show-off, for certain. If film history has taught us anything, it is that everyone loves a show-off. In battle with Quentin Tarantino, everyone else's so-called kung fu — is really — quite pathetic.

19 comments:

James Callahan said...

Awesome list! Well worth the wait. Your top five is pretty much perfect. Great to see love for Anderson's under-appreciated 'Life Aquatic,' as well as 'Anchorman,' which has certainly gotten better after multiple viewings.

Just out of curiosity, what was your take on Shaun of the Dead? That was a 2004 release that I admired when it first came out, but have come to love more and more as each year goes by. It would probably be in my top five.

William B said...

Oddly, I watched a lot of current-release movies in 2004, more than much of the decade, and yet I've barely seen any of these. Fortunately the three I've seen--Azkaban, Eternal Sunshine, and Kill Bill--are wondrous. (Though I definitely have to watch Azkaban again; I hadn't read the books yet when I saw it the first time, because I'm always years behind on these things. The other two I've seen a half-dozen times apiece.) As you say in the Eternal Sunshine review, experience is subjective: I happened to see this movie when I was in a teen-angst funk and its portrayal of love (overflowing to me with passion, and physicality if not carnality) shocked me out of it, reassuring me that anxious sad sack introverts like Joel (me) might have a chance at something fleeting and painful but real. Regardless--wonderful writeups and you've done some of my favourite movies of the decade justice (as ever).

Oh and James, I second the Shaun of the Dead admiration.

Aram said...

Damn, 2004 was a really good year for movies.

I cannot tell you how happy it made me to see Hellboy on your list. While I wouldn't attempt to claim it as the best comic book adaptation ever made, I will declare it to be my favorite. Even though everyone thinks I'm joking when I say Ron Perlman should have gotten an Academy Award for his performance. And the "proper way to light a cigar" scene with Jeffrey Tambor's backhanded apology? Words fail. Not to mention the entire thesis I could write on the benefits of using practical effects instead of CG, but I'll spare you the tedium.

Azkaban is the only Harry Potter movie I have ever watched more than once and Alfonso Cuaron is the only director that has really gotten Rowling's universe. (Finally, Hogwarts looks like a for real school and not like a movie set!) It wouldn't make #3 on my list, but it's easily the best of the HP movies, no question.

FUN FACT: I took a girl on a date to see The Life Aquatic. She didn't like it. I never called her back after that.

Bryce Wilson said...

I think you might have outdone yourself. Particularly on the Azkaban, Life Aquatic and especially Kill Bill Vol. 2 review which literally made me hang my head in shame.

Your kung fu is indeed the stronger sir.

Chris Stangl said...

James —
I imagine I like SHAUN OF THE DEAD as much as the next guy, assuming the next guy likes the ten listed movies a little more. I also haven't anything particularly fresh or unique to say about SHAUN, but it is spot-on and funny as a Slacker's Progress parable and has a lot of what I believe they call "heart." In the tradition of horror comedy it is a deft celebratory deconstruction and sits comfortably with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. They share a goofy, sunny sense of humor, even if Bud and Lou remain kings of that particular hill.

The sub-sub-sub-genre of zombie black comedies is actually pretty lively and populated, and let's face it: DAWN OF THE DEAD itself is an extraordinarily bitter comedy. I am interested in SHAUN's parallels with DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, which ten years earlier set Generation X malaise and romantic anxiety against a dark-humored zombie backdrop. Both films end with two male friends side by side, but they are philosophical and emotional opposites. SHAUN, of course, is jollier by a country mile.

These list-making games are always a little arbitrary, so hey, put SHAUN at #11. I hinted at some of the other absent friends and, the contenders that were thiiis close include THE LADYKILLERS and HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. I did think long and hard about what to do with flawed and flummoxing objects of fascination SKY CAPTAIN, COLLATERAL, NIGHT WATCH and sort-of-objectionable Objectivist parable THE INCREDIBLES. All so engrossing, all so messed-up.

Chris Stangl said...

William —
ETERNAL SUNSHINE is certainly caught up in its own head (and with Kaufman the figurative is literal and vice versa), and its portraits, projections and insights into relationships are tinted by Joel's point of view. So, fair enough, it will likely hit closer to home for Joel Types than Clementine Types. I could not find a relevant way to squeeze it in, but ETERNAL SUNSHINE is also key in the decade's preoccupation with unstable identity, the horrors of memory alteration and the mirage of history; it runs through the work of everyone from Kaufman to Chris Nolan (MEMENTO, but the Bat pictures, too), Todd Haynes (I'M NOT THERE) to Joss Whedon (BUFFY Season 6, ANGEL Season 4, climaxing as the entire premise of DOLLHOUSE).

Chris Stangl said...

Aram — When I was drawing up a 10 Faves list in 2004 I recall citing How to Light a Cigar as the best male bonding scene of the year. It still probably is, as a moment anyway, though SHAUN OF THE DEAD has a whole movie to play with a bromance under genre fantasy duress.

Insofar as ranking such things is meaningful or useful, HELLBOY was probably my favorite comics adaptation until IRON MAN... with a slew of qualifications. Dropping all genre qualifications makes the field impossibly wide, as films from OLDBOY to A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, DONDI to GHOST WORLD, and a host of anime are, of course, comics adaptations. So: of the current crop of adaptations of superhero comics from major American publishers, it is my favorite up until IRON MAN. If we're hair-splitting, assume HELLBOY is a superhero book and Dark Horse is at least a mini-major. These things are cyclical and don’t really end or begin, but I'd place the end the prior cycle somewhere around SPAWN (1997), the current wave making tentative splashes with BLADE (1998) and swelling up in earnest with X-MEN (2000). I expect that the post-IRON MAN Marvel Studios films represent the kickstart of a new cycle, but time will tell. Of All Time? My favorite superhero films are DANGER: DIABOLIK, BARBARELLA (both 1968, "superheroes" of their own sort), BATMAN (1966), the 1944 CAPTAIN AMERICA serial, the Fleischer Superman cartoons and the SAILOR MOON feature films. Not in that order, or maybe in that order.

Chris Stangl said...

Bryce — Much appreciated. Feel no shame though, as I am still quite possibly the laziest man on the entire Internet.

Aram said...

Oh, I'd totally forgotten about Danger: Diabolik's comic book origins!

Good call, Mr. Stangl.

Jordan said...

"to Joss Whedon (BUFFY Season 6, ANGEL Season 4, climaxing as the entire premise of DOLLHOUSE)"

Oh, do go on, you.

Chris Stangl said...

¬Jordan ¬—
Well, all I particularly meant was that those are three Whedon stories that all involve the ethics of monkeying with peoples’ memories. They are increasingly sophisticated but also increasingly panicked about memory alteration. It is the last straw during that BtVS story and incites the Willow / Tara breakup, and it is obviously the central concern of DOLLHOUSE (and I’m not sure where you are with ANGEL, so, I guess, retroactively apply a vague spoiler alert). I believe these are not Message shows but stories first and philosophical explorations second, but they all roughly take the position that changing someone’s memories without their consent is approximately on moral par with murder, sexual violence, and attempting to bring about the end of the world.

Jordan said...

We are up to "Shiny Happy People" at the end of season 4. I think I know what you may be referring to with Angel...though in regards to Cordelia, it almost seems like the AUDIENCE'S memories are getting hijacked.

Chris Stangl said...

Well, Jordan... I am just going to stay quiet on that topic until everyone in the world has finished watching ANGEL season 4.

Jordan said...

Finished Angel season 4 JUST NOW.


OH. I SEE WHAT YOU MEAN. OH.

(also...yes!!)

William B said...

SPOILERY FOR WHEDON SHOWS: The stance ANGEL takes in season five is a little ambivalent in surface presentation, but I think it's fairly reasonable to assume we can say that what Angel does to his son and his friends (and, um, an entire family) is Very Bad, associated directly with signing on to Evil Incorporated. It also ties in with the continuing sense of parallels between Buffy and Angel's stories, where Angel bends the universe to send away his son and Buffy has the universe bent to accept a sister--Buffy is accepting, nurturing, forming families, whereas Angel invariably destroys them.

JORDAN: The best explanation for the Cordelia story, incidentally, is that Jasmine represents many of Cordelia's qualities taken to an unnatural extreme--Cordelia even in season 2 of Buffy was advocating a separate set of rules for Buffy from being the slayer, and has always seen herself as Queen C. Her moral evolution has been impressive but very little has actually humbled her in thinking that she is better than other people, and that's what allows her to be manipulated by Skip telling her fantasies about her deserving to be a higher power. S4 Cordelia and Jasmine represent this elitism as well.

CHRIS: Was the reference to attempting to end the world to Willow or to DOLLHOUSE? Because I can see both. I do think that the BUFFY generally treats Willow's memory wipe on Tara as being less of a big deal than her flaying of Warren and attempt to destroy the world (and the less-mentioned killing of Rack), because in season seven even in her conversation with Tara (by proxy) the mind-wipe is not discussed. This is understandable, because, well, killing people and trying to end the world are pretty serious. It is still a bit of a shame, because while I think the Dark Willow episodes did a good job of pointing out the lie to the notion that Willow had gotten "better" by merely stopping magic rather than acknowledging the moral lines she trespassed, there's still some responsibility that the addiction mislead fudged. (My stance on season six is that Willow's story holds together if you assume that the addiction theory was a red herring, admittedly set on by Rack having actual drug-like magic, perpetuated by Willow and the rest of the Scoobies to maintain Willow's victimhood and avoid dealing with the real issues. In this reading, season seven mostly deals with the real issues, albeit clumsily.)

Chris Stangl said...

William —
Good and potential endless talking points all; this is the stuff that keeps me up at night of course.

I wasn't just referencing Dark Willow's final freakout or Rossum Corp.'s tech gone haywire but any weekly, engineered apocalypse, from the Harvest to, say, what went down on Miranda in SERENITY. Ultimately Mutant Enemy doesn’t make allegories of moral instruction, so it is not entirely accurate of me to draw up a list of Hierarchy of Sins. I do find it a little funny that theoretical fantasy problem of memory alteration ranks so high on the list of transgressions, but each series in turn has expanded and complicated the concept, drawing clearer parallels to real-world ethical issues.

Considering the shifting metaphor and story function aids in unloading the reasons this sin gains gravity across the shows. On BtVS, Willow is being self-centered and using her shining talents to cover a sense of inadequacy; among her underlying Issues is inability to cope head-on with pain (apply directly to the forehead!). The memory alteration is essentially Willow "lying" to Tara, a betrayal that echoes a personal trauma to which Willow ought to be more sensitive. It is a slightly weighted instance of Willow being a shitty girlfriend. Angel is in his usual inescapable loop, damned if he does, damned if he don't; his (understandable) martyr complex manifests again, and again he's blind to the fact that he doesn't have to shoulder the weight alone, and he cheats others out of shots at redemption by pursuing his own. FIREFLY doesn't traffic in "false memory", but brainwashing and mind control are issues, which is the crux of DOLLHOUSE. By the time we've arrived at those places, we're deep into critical social theory and the underlying concern is how society constructs and molds identity. The would-be happy ending of DOLLHOUSE is a chilly triumph, of course; the invisible Matrix is forever solidly in place.

Jordan said...

Only kind of related, but the alliance trying to "help" the citizens of Miranda by forcing them to be happy, calm, complacent, rather than dealing with...life, pain, everything (and leading to explosively violent and out of control creatures), is something I am only just now connecting to Whedon and his themes and Buffy season 6.

Also the word verification for posting this is "gulitate"

William B said...

Chris - I like conversations that move from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Mutant Enemy shows--two of my favourite things!--and I agree that spending too much energy rating sins in the Whedonverse is not a good use of time. Each character has their own moral failings which for them could represent the end of the world in some way or another. Sometimes thinking of vampires and demons a lesser creatures is racist (Xander in "Entropy," or Minear's "That Old Gang of Mine," which he admittedly disowned) and sometimes it's just common sense, after all.

I do think that with Willow, the date rape metaphor is a bit closer to the surface than I'd like for the show to portray it as basically a really bad lie--"Once More With Feeling" makes a big point of their having sex the day afterwards, after all, and while I disagree with value judgments that state that having sex with Tara post-memory wipe is much worse than the memory wipe itself it does help clarify the real-world parallels that maybe weren't fully examined. (That, and there's the parallel with Warren and Katrina and the cerebral dampener, which, while more explicitly connected to Buffy and Spike's crazy shenanigans, also connects with Willow and makes her confrontation with him and accusation of him, including conjuring Katrina, more resonant.) But I suppose Tara has her own agency and it's consistent with her character to give Willow a second shot, even if while there's a part of me swooning a part of me is screaming "Don't do it!" and not just because I know she'll end up on the ouchy end of the bullet.

I like the notion of Angel's search for redemption ruining the opportunities for those around him. This is of course true of Connor but also of Wesley (SPOILERS JORDAN), who goes right back to early season three pining for Fred uneasily mixing with season four ruthlessness.

I'm particularly looking to hear more of your thoughts on "Epitaph Two," because the full intent of the last few episodes of season two are not at all clear to me. I like the false-happy ending idea, though it is liable to give me nightmares.

JORDAN: Yes, Whedon (like Kaufman in Eternal Sunshine, come to think of it) emphasizes the necessity of taking the bad with the good. While often derided as cheesy, perhaps understandably, the final moments of "Grave" strike me as genuine and moving because they follow characters grappling with a real understanding of misery and their dark side. And the fact that, like with the Reavers, push down your own dark side for long enough it WILL emerge, possibly in an alley outside a police station, or on a bathroom floor, or when you see your ex you've just abandoned screwing a vampire, or if a bullet comes flying through the window....

CHRIS: Speaking of Serenity...how's 2005 coming along? (Not that we'll necessarily see it, but, well, I'm pretty curious.)

Jordan said...

My roommate called the end of "Grave" "the cheesiest thing I've ever seen."

I loved it. It really affects me, and grows more touching the more I watch it (it's been 3 or 4 times now.) It's no easy task to turn what happened during season 6 (and even season 5) around and pull out some optimism again. But it's such a simple point...Life is awful, but if you're with people you love, then it's a little less awful. And that little less awful is why you stick around.

That may be a glass is half empty approach, I'm aware...But what especially destroys me is that when Willow's hair turns back to red, and she's crying harder than ever, it's not just the Xander moment...She's mourning Tara for the first time, for real. I can't watch it without tearing up a bit.

And thank you for the spoiler warning, I covered the screen with my hand. I'm kind of sad the televised Buffy-verse is so close to ending for me, so we're taking Angel season 5 kind of slow right now.