Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hold Back the Dawn: Well Worth Seeing Even if it Means Sitting Next to That Guy with the Backpack Eating Soup

As Film Forum's well-timed summer swashbuckler series draws nigh, the merits of the concluding Billy Wilder retrospective are easy to miss -- after all, is there a director this side of the "master of suspense" who is less in need of revival than Mr. Wilder? Besides, I can think of no theatre that I find less pleasant -- save perhaps Brooklyn's Pavilion with its nacho cheese-encrusted upholstery -- than the Film Forum, which somehow manages to attract the single most ill-mannered bevy of unlikable losers that one has ever witnessed, in any one place. If you want to know what happened to that guy in your class who combined a 105 i.q., know-it-all attitude and a serious misanthropic streak, he's wearing his backpack to $5 movies (with his $50 membership) at the Film Forum where he eats soup and curses at the couple behind him for daring to whisper during the coming attractions of movies he's already seen 15 times. But heaven knows he loves to see movies on the big screen... in part because his cable was turned off in 1995 after his checking account finally ran dry without the infusion of bi-annual Stafford Loans. Plus, who likes to spend time in an unfurnished, Stuyvesant Town high-rise without air conditioning and only pickles and miracle whip in the fridge? God knows that an ump-teenth screening of Sunset Boulevard sure beats the alternative; and if you have to shout at that pretty-enough undergrad Spanish major from Northern New Jersey seated two rows back, then so be it -- she shouldn't be there anyway if she just wants to talk to her date about that chemically-unbalanced roommate of her's.

So yes, the prospect of another Wilder retro. in light of these specifics didn't exactly set my heart a flutter -- that is, until I saw two words under a couple of the titles: Mitchell Leisen. To those who are not in the know, Mr. Leisen remains one of the least appreciated directors of Hollywood's golden age, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his collaborations with such acclaimed screenwriters as Preston Sturges and the team of Wilder and Charles Brackett, which of course accounts for its inclusion in the series. While of course it must be admitted that Leisen's career cannot approach Wilder's five decades of relevance in particular, there can and should be no disputing his aesthetic inventiveness and the protean engagement of generic categories that the works showcase. Leisen is no mere placeholder for his more famous screenwriters, as they learned the directorial trade. Rather he is a classical artist, whose peak deserves to be remembered among the glories of Hollywood's greatest age.

That peak, spanning approximately five years between 1937 and 1942, includes both of the films featured in the FF program, 1939's Midnight and 1941's Hold Back the Dawn, which despite being the recipient of six Academy award nominations including best actress (Olivia de Havilland), best screenplay and even best picture, remains unavailable on home video and as a consequence, largely forgotten. Even Midnight lacks the following it deserves as one of the finest romantic comedies of that form's superlative moment; suffice it to say that it is not yet available on DVD, even if one could reasonably argue that it is superior to Wilder and Brackett's other great collaboration of 1939, Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka. (That these two films are both exceedingly funny makes their oversight even more inexplicable.)

Thankfully then there are art houses that cater to the permanently unemployable, as were it not for the Film Fourm Wilder series, I may not have had the manifest pleasure of seeing my third Leisen film Tuesday night, the aforesaid Hold Back the Dawn. For starters let me concur with that year's Academy voters in their nominations of Leisen's film in the acting, writing and best picture categories: all were undoubtedly deserved, starting with Ms. de Havilland's vivid portrayal of semi-dowdy school mistress Emmy Brown, who is seduced by Charles Boyer's Georges Iscovescu during a 4th of July elementary school trip to a Mexican border town which she chaperones. Miss Brown proves easy work for the Continental, who only hours before had learned of a loophole in getting the American visa that he and so many others had coveted: marrying a Yankee. Former mistress Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) supplies him not only with the strategy, but with the ring as well.

With the holiday over and the bus fixed -- Brown and her school children are forced to spend the night in Iscovescu's hotel lobby after one of the parts mysteriously goes missing -- the new Mrs. Iscovescu crosses back over the border, anticipating a reunion with her gentleman husband in the allotted four weeks. Parenthetically, the misbehavior of the students against a disgruntled mechanic who sadistically desires one young man's punishment, even offering to do it himself, provides the film with some of its grimmest humor -- one suspects that there is far more Wilder/Brackett here than the film's romantic helmer. In the meantime, Iscovescu recommences his affair with the vampish Dixon before being interrupted first by a border official that seems to make the border community his home away from home, and then by the unexpected, early return of his new bride.

Without giving up too much of the film's wildly uncoiling plot, it almost doesn't need to be mentioned that Iscovescu will have something of change of heart concerning the new Mrs. Iscovescu. Yet, it bares mentioning in the context of the film's analysis, at this moment at least, for the style that Leisen brings to sequences wherein the couple are forced together in the nation's less accessible hinterlands. There is, for instance, something virtually Eisensteinian in the director's compositions of both cactus-framed dirt roads, and more spectacularly, a Mexican church that is filled with hundreds of lit candles for a sacramental affirmation of marriage. (Eisensteinian in that it almost prefigures that director's depiction of Ivan the Terrible's coronation in the film by that same name.)

Then there is the subsequent scene in which Mr. Iscovescu, partially succumbing to a sudden, uncharacteristic guilt, decides that it is better if he doesn't consummate their marriage. After faking a shoulder injury, we see him spying on the de Havilland character sleeping in the back seat of the caravan. Gazing at her through the rearview window, Leisen distills the gentleman's desire into her rising and falling bosom. It is indeed in brief moments and relatively understated gestures like this that Mr. Leisen shows himself to be a director with startling visual flamboyance.

Not that there is anything small about Leisen's visual imagination. Take, for instance, the car chase that Iscovescu provokes near the end of the picture. Here, in radiant black-and-white photography, Leisen not only summons the visceral excitement of the sequence, which he does quite effectively, but he moreover explicates the process by which, against all odds, Iscovescu escapes from his police/immigration pursuers. We see how he turns off his lights, slips behind billboards, etc. to get to his love. Similarly, in the earlier sleeping scene, Iscovescu not only fakes his injury, or tells the Mrs. of his pretend infirmity, but we see him stage the feigned accident, again offering a case for a believable outcome to an improbable scenario.

By this juncture, Leisen has fully succeeded in involving his spectators in a picture where ultimately much is at stake -- at least in my case, I was hoping that Iscovescu and his wife would live happily ever after, however cruel and undeserving the former might be. Without saying too much more about the film's plot trajectory, suffice it to say that happiness seems quite unlikely by the time the narrative devolves into said car chase.

As to the ending, anyone knowledgeable of Leisen's ouevre may suspect a happy ending (ala Midnight and Remember the Night) whereas the same conclusion in Wilder's body of work (think Double Indemnity, 1944) is far less certain. Significantly, then, it should be noted that Hold Back the Dawn manipulates a structuring device wherein Iscovescu recounts the tale to a director whom he once met during his days as a continental socialite. That the director is played by Leisen is of no minor importance, as is the fact that he is directing Veroica Lake and Brian Donlevy, whom he actually made I Wanted Wings with that same year (1941). In effect, the film proper could almost be said to have two endings, a Wilder/Brackett and Leisen one, were one to judge their competing temperaments. Regardless, the Wilder and Brackett penned flashback structure (which of course the former employed to famous effect in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard [1950]) can at least be said to represent a way around classical Hollywood codes of the time.

Friday, July 14, 2006

More Than Meets the Eyes

Given my recent move from an increasingly sketchy block in the Bowery -- think of that -- to the outer-reaches of brownstone Park Slope, a switch of allegiances was in order from Central Park's Summer Stage to Prospect Park's equivalent, Celebrate Brooklyn. Good thing the former decided to go in a strangely anachronistic first-wave Lilith Fair direction this summer, while Celebrate Brooklyn's highlights centered upon a more palatable series of silent movie screenings, accompanied by big-name instrumental outfits, such as last night's teaming of indie demiurges Yo La Tengo and the underwater films of French auteur de science Jean Painlevé.

With Yo La Tengo being for me the more known quantity (though I will admit that my interest in them is relatively minor) Painlevé would be the true wild card in the evening's entertainment. Suffice it to say that sea creatures delivered swimmingly though the three-piece looked like they had found their born vocation: scoring crustacean films. Before I speak further to the source of the films' relative quality, let me say of the performance that Yo La Tengo recommended themselves both for their admirable dexterity in inventing scores that seemed perfectly attuned to the animal life depicted in each of the unique shorts as well as for the compositions' success in propelling the loose narratives, and also for their execution of the individual pieces, which never once impeded upon the patient biological poems. Yo La Tengo weren't the stars here, as much as they deserved to be.

No, the sea horses, the baby jellyfish and octopi took center stage last night, showing that Painlevé's shorts have lost little fascination since they were first screened nearly eighty years ago. Ultimately, the same factor that made them extraordinary then still make them extraordinary today: they show us a real world that we wouldn't otherwise see. Indeed, it is here that one might imagine these films as exemplars of an Epsteinian view of cinema's vocation -- they improve our perception of the real world. Not only, in fact, does Painlevé greatly magnify his often invisible to the naked eye subjects, but he slows down the stock to lay bare their mechanics. In this way, one can see cinema's potential for artistry, not in transforming reality into something different or even in showcasing it unmodified, but rather in dissecting it through the tools at the filmmaker's disposal. Again, Painlevé's corpus allows us to see what we could not ordinarily see. They stand as an ontological definition of the cinema in their own right, now decades behind its time theoretically, but still with the power to awe in their capacity to capture the invisible beauty of the real world.

Which leads me to another recent screening which now strikes me for its similar purpose: Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Like the Painlevé corpus, A Scanner Darkly proceeds according to a desire to improve upon optical limitations -- in this case, the external world versus an internal one. From the opening sequence, Linklater highlights an interest in representing the drug-addled subjectivity of his characters. Using roto-scope technology, which effectively translates live-action filmmaking into animation (which he famously introduced in 2001's Waking Life) Linklater externalizes the drug-fueled hallucinations -- the archetypal crawling insects -- that open the narrative. From here, the selected technology, which of course possesses a ready-made link to its subjective content, is best utilized in visualizing Dick's own extra-realistic creations -- as with the suits that continually remake their form, selecting from millions of separate details of bodily appearance.

As far as its capacity to illuminate, however, Linklater's film remains subject to the limitations of his and source author Philip K. Dick's perspectives on the topic. If A Scanner Darkly is supposed to be a critique of the drug wars as some critics have suggested, the paranoia of the film's narrative would seem to unhinge any reasonable negative criticism of said policy. If, as seems more narratively justified, A Scanner Darkly is a memoriam to those friends of the creators' who suffered the unjust rewards of addiction, then one wonders what function A Scanner Darkly ultimately serves: what does the film help us to understand; what makes it persuasive of anything, other than the dangers brought about by drug use, which we are nevertheless reminded are somehow unfair? Of course, one could rejoined that the Painlevé films offer little more purpose than to see, which is about what A Scanner Darkly does as well. Then again, what the shorts provide is a glimpse at something true, and more than that, something beautiful; they are sustained, asetheticized conveyances of a reality that our eyes do not allow us to see.

This is not to say that A Scanner Darkly is absent of any merit: particularly of note is Robert Downey Jr.'s appropriately "animated" performance. Even Keanu Reeves seems to have found his ideal performative venue -- the cartoon junkie everyman. Yet the film's self-indulgent lamenting, to mention nothing of the supremely uninteresting quality of its characters and their lives, makes A Scanner Darkly far from a pleasant affair. Unfortunately it offers neither depth of insight or beauty to mitigate against that first strike.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Steamboat 'Round the Bend: John Ford's Classic (Rediscovered) Mid-Western

As the story goes, in 1950, during a heated debate of the Director's Guild of America, John Ford stood up and introduced himself in the following manner: "My name is John Ford, I direct Westerns." Ever since, this avatar of the Western genre has born the epitaph in the same way that Hitchcock has the title of "master of suspense" -- as a slightly derisive, although not entirely incorrect signifier of their primary contribution as a film artist. Of course, Ford did work outside of the Western genre on occasion, producing works that rivaled, when they didn't equal the best films he made in his signature genre (such confirmed classics as The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man all come to mind). Still, Ford has and undoubtedly will remain the leading formulator of the American national myth in the genre best-suited to the subject.

Indeed, it is significant that Ford's subject was largely consubstantial with the Western genre itself when one considers his legacy outside the immediate contours of this famed category. There are, for instance, the three films he made with legendary Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers in the mid-1930s -- Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935) -- each of which showcases the pair's overlapping interest in Americana, though again from a position outside the Western genre (though, for the sake of full disclosure, let me add that I have yet to see the first of these three and am relying upon secondary sources). In part, the difference between these films and those of his western corpus are their settings: New England, the rural South of the late 19th century and the Mississippi Delta respectively. Nevertheless, as is evinced by the third of these films, Steamboat 'Round the Bend, which will be released on DVD July 25th as part of the Will Rogers Collection, Vol. 1, even the director's non-western subjects allow Ford the space to parse the myth that he was instrumental in creating -- the foundation of an American civilization.

To be sure, Steamboat 'Round the Bend represents a near complete grafting of the Fordian western onto the setting of the Mississippi delta; liberally, the mid-west. First, there is the mega-theme of the creation and persistence of civilization in a hostile environment, which has since been ascribed the generalization of the garden-desert dichotomy. Here, Ford opposes the riverboat people, exemplified by Will Rogers' Doctor John and his nephew Duke (John McGuire), and the so-called "Swamp Trash," one of whom Duke slays in response to their mistreatment of a young beauty from their ranks, a Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley). While it is agreed that Duke acted with justification, Dr. John nonetheless prevails upon him to turn himself in, thereby upholding the rule of law in the midst of the lawlessness of the swamps. That Dr. John and Duke conclude in this fashion demonstrates their deep faith in the institutions of civilization, even as it might mean that the latter will be hung due to the absence of the killing's one witness, and the one man who might exonerate Duke -- the New Moses, one of the River's self-styled new prophets.

Meanwhile, the Swamp Trash, looking for Fleety Belle, arrive determined to exercise their mob rule against the girl and her supposed corrupter. At this point, Dr. John intervenes, claiming that the pair are married and are therefore above their recriminations. While initially this isn't the case, Duke and Fleety Belle do eventually tie the knot in a courthouse ceremony, which Ford invests with a sacramental significance -- the large group of mostly fugitive witnesses turn away from the newly married couple, respecting the intimacy of their marital union as they hold each other in their make-shift prison chapel. It is, in the parlance of Andrew Sarris, a moment of pure chivalry, prefiguring that wonderful moment in The Searchers (1956) where the Reverend diverts his gaze as Ethan Edwards' sister-in-law studies her relation's military uniform. In gestures like these, Ford's worldview seems to become unassailably virtuous.

This is not to say, however, that Steamboat 'Round the Bend is without humor. It is, as a matter of fact, a film whose comedy touches on the grotesque, particularly when a mobile wax museum becomes kiln for Dr. John's racing steamship, and subsequently when Duke is granted his last request of seeing the completion of the steamboat race which, unbenounced to him, his uncle has entered in order to reach the governor before the hanging can take place. Once the steamboat rounds the bend, the hangman rushes to get the job done with a perversely good natured-efficiency and conviviality.

Buffeting these events, particularly on the boat, are the alternately manic and committed performances of Stepin Fetchit and Berton Churchill -- New Moses in the flesh -- respectively, to say nothing of the more mild-mannered witticisms of Rogers. (As to Fetchit's performance specifically, suffice it to say that it hardly holds up to the scrutiny of contemporary political-correctness, which of course says less about the quality of the film that it does the mores of the past and the present.) As with many Hollywood films of this moment, it is sustained by its brilliant supporting players -- Irvin S. Cobb as Captain Eli is another notable. Similarly, Steamboat 'Round the Bend also features a series of well-lit interiors, especially on the steamship, that remind us once again that Gregg Toland did not invent depth-of-field. Moreover, in the more global, early sound cinema sense, Ford's film demonstrates a fascination with curios, whether it is the traveling wax museum that Dr. John & co. manipulate to impress a rather close-minded community of Confederates -- before tossing it in the fire -- the saw that Duke plays in jail (here's your singing cowboy) or the revivals that take place up and down the Mighty Mississippi.

Speaking of religion, Steamboat 'Round the Bend also manifests a specifically Fordian view on the subject that is not always so clear in the director's work. Taking the director's final film, 7 Women (1966) as a template -- assuming that he has sympathy at least for Anne Bancroft's irreligious doctor -- one might surmise that while the director is not himself religious in his orientation, he does allow that there are some with this view who nevertheless can be considered good -- yes there is something vaguely ridiculous and mocking to figures like the New Moses, who Ford compares expressly to the spirits' peddling Dr. John, who medicates the people with an elixir he calls Pocahontas in a manner comparable to the New Moses and his old-time religion; Ford opens the film, importantly, with these two salesmen. However, when called upon, New Moses does come through, and with a certain gusto that succeeds in making him sympathetic, if not endearing. If anything, Ford's view on the matter might be characterized as at once agnostic and also respectful of its function in producing the civilization that counteracts the lawless mentality of the desert… and the swamp.

Returning, indeed, to this over-arching division, if the swamp is in fact a place for anarchy, the river is a space where civilization counteracts this less ignoble tendency -- it is the settlement of Tombstone or the Edwards' homestead to the surrounding wilds. Here, a sort of para-civilization rules, exemplified by not only Dr. John's steamboat -- which importantly is piloted by the young Fleety Belle who has exchanged a tablecloth for an antebellum dress -- but also by the religious services, the communities that hug the thoroughfare, and even in the steamboat race that concludes the film: rivalries are resolved not through vigilante justice but in carefully-regulated contests that of course feature just as much cheating as a film of Steamboat 'Round the Bend's light comic tone allows.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

New Film: Linda Linda Linda & TCM's The Edge of Outside

Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda may be the first major post-1990s film by an under-30 Japanese filmmaker; at the very least it is the first to screen in the United States. Unfortunately for most, it still lacks American distribution, making it the sole purview, for now, of those lucky few within range of a festival intelligent enough to screen this thoroughly-winning work of pop film art (thank you to Grady Hendrix and the New York Asian Film Festival here in NYC). Certainly there are only a handful of films from the past year, at best, that can approach the visceral appeal of Yamashita's high school musical comedy.

Linda Linda Linda takes its name from Japanese post-punk outfit The Blue Hearts' signature single of the same name. In Yamashita's film, four high school girls prepare their version of the song for a high school festival (re: talent show) following a less than acrimonious split between the band's guitarist and one of its earlier members. Appropriately, Yamashita withholds the ultimate causes of the rift -- to the measure that causality isn't always clearest when one is considering teenage psychology -- thereby establishing a tone which might be best described as observational. In fact, his camera on occasion remains at a considerable distance from the girls, characteristically utilizing long takes that together connote a refusal to intervene in the film's subject matter.

Rather, Linda Linda Linda saves its manipulations for its spectators. Particularly, beyond the film's exceptional plying of audience involvement in the fate of the girls' performance, and to a lesser extent in their PG-rated love lives, Yamashita targets the film's adult viewership by reflexively counting their visceral stake in the film as confirmation of the picture's opening thesis: that one doesn't lose that aspect of personality which makes one a kid (or a teenager) when one grows up. In the film's concluding scene, Yamashita, in a bravura display of artistry, shows a series of locations at the school that had heretofore served as the film's principle location (a sort of Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets L'Eclisse ending, if you will). These locales, depicted in a sudden rain, along with the performance of a second Blue Hearts song, effectively communicate a once populated space that has since been deserted -- a visual description of all of our long past high school years'. Indeed, Linda Linda Linda draws us into this world, accordingly proving its thesis in the most lyrical of fashions.

Having said this, the appeal of Yamashita's film depends primarily upon its successful emulation of the pop music formula. Like the titular song, the film's payoff isn't immediate: in the case of the former, a lower tempo verse precedes the screeching chorus of "Linda Linda, Linda Linda Linda," whereas in the case of the film, Yamashita sustains a rather deliberate pace prior to the concluding festival performance. It's as if Yamashita manages to achieve the same effect in his filmmaking that The Blue Hearts succeeded in producing in the delayed gratification of their songwriting. (My companion in viewing the film, Lisa Broad, observed that the film is constructed in a popular manner which could be said to be opposed to avant pop, where expectations are expressly thwarted; here, the filmmakers give the viewers what they want, coming in for what amounts to be one epic, final repetition of the chorus -- the performance -- at the film's end. Or, to be a bit more profane, Linda Linda Linda's structure, like that of all rock-and-roll music, acts as a metaphor for the sexual act.)

However, Linda Linda Linda's merits are far from confined to the successful climax of the film's denouement. First, there is the film's pitch-perfect capture of life in high school, which in many ways seems to be more similar to its counterpart experience in the US than it is different. For instance, there is the film's knowing reproduction of the single-minded pursuit of extra-curricular's that in many ways over-shadows a majority of high schooler's experience of that time; there is the accompanying lack of sleep -- or sleep during school time -- that results from this added time strain; there are not only the cliched cliques, but also the members of cliques who have been orphaned in their final years, following the graduation of their fellow group members; etc.

And then there are the characters created by Yamashita and the film's fellow screenwriters, and brought to vivid life by the film's fine young Japanese and Korean actresses. Du-na Bae, who plays Korean exchange student Song, and who happens to be impulsively recruited to serve as the outfit's lead singer in spite of her less-than-expert handle on the Japanese language, particularly contributes to the film's immense appeal through a performance that seems to convey the physical nature of speech, and the locus of the struggle of assimulation in attempting to find and articulate the right words at the right time, whether in singing "Linda Linda Linda's" indelible verses or in communicating with her band mates or would-be suitors. Suffice it to say that in addition to everything else, Linda Linda Linda is a very funny film, which in no small part is to the credit of Bae's wonderful performance.

In closing, let me add that while Linda Linda Linda currently lacks distribution, there is a good possibility that this won't continue to be the case: if you've ever looked at my bio, you'll see that I work for a film distribution company, which just happens to release films like this one. Hopefully, my unnamed employers or some other like-minded independent/art house distributor will recognize the film's appeal and will, minimally, release it direct-to-video. (Let me just say that I've done my part at my place of employment.) Until that time, however, let me refer you here, where my recently-hitched pal Mike Lyon has an exceptional list of Asian cult websites where you might perhaps find Linda Linda Linda.

In the realm of the eminently seeable, Turner Classic Movies' is premiering its original documentary The Edge of Outside this evening at 8pm ET and will be re-running it at 11:30. While The Edge of Outside is itself mostly the same old, same old when it comes to offering insight into the careers of the maverick directors it profiles -- Peter Bogdanovich is one of the talking heads... enough said -- the accompanying film series more than makes up for whatever this original may wont. (Then again if you aren't familiar with the names Cassavetes, Fuller and Nick Ray, you may want to consider viewing the program.) I, for one, plan on catching Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952) which my friend R. Emmet Sweeney of Termite Art recently named the best film at this year's Film Forum B-Noir series -- placing it in the "sublime" category -- that I somehow managed to neglect entirely. For those readers who plan on tuning in this evening, TCM, between screenings of the doc, will be showing a couple Cassavetes masterpieces, Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974) that easily rate among the finest examples of "outsider" cinema that the US has ever produced.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Footnoting Goodbye, Dragon Inn & Cars

Last night, I had the opportunity to view Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) for a third time. Although I am ashamed to admit it, the first time I saw Tsai's film, I found it to be visually beautiful, however slight -- that is, lacking a substantial connection between its form and content -- as well as quite boring. My second viewing led me to dramatically revise my opinion: let me just say that I now feel that it is the best film of its year, which remains my judgment having now seen it for a third time. While I would change little of my formal analysis other than to say that the first lines of dialogue occur closer to 45:00 than to 1:00:00, an intervening viewing of Tsai's most recent film, 2005's epic misfire The Wayward Cloud, afforded me a new perspective on the subject of the earlier film's elegy: not only is it the movie palace that is memorialized in its final, depopulated throws, but so is it the end of the communal period of the arts that such public spaces represent: namely, modernism. Indeed, Tsai is himself noteworthy for coming to prominence with works that are unmistakably high modernist in both their ethos and also in their subject matter: Vive l'amour (1994) is the ultimate oriental Antonioni, whereas What Time is it There? (2001) wears its Truffaut debt -- right down to its Leaud cameo -- on both sleeves.

The Wayward Cloud, on the other hand, crosses over from the dead-pan of Tati to an anarchic nihilism hiding beneath the surface of a soft-core musical fantasy -- it is, in a word, postmodern. If ever there was a path leading back toward a common cinephilic culture, The Wayward Cloud is nowhere near it; it is the ultimate marginal art film. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, oppositely, revisits the aesthetic of the high European art film at the peak of its mid-60s celebrity. As an advocate of that movement, particularly when its positioned against its more recent counterpart, I have to hope that Tsai doesn't forever intend to work outside the aegis of modernism and that any apparent turning point will someday prove to be nothing more than an anomaly. Or maybe Tsai will show us a way forward.

While browsing one of my favorite industry blogs the other day, Anne Thompson's Risky Biz Blog, I noticed that my site was listed under her Hollywood blog roll (as opposed to the "Indiewood" sites, where I would assume that it might be a better fit). Never mind the strange categorization, I was just happy to see that Tativille was listed on a site with far more traffic than I could ever dream of. So I suppose it was with this newfound (and uninvited) commitment to Hollywood that I decided to see John Lasseter's Cars -- that, and my bandwagon support for Pixar's preeminence among studios, at least since I saw Brad Bird's superlative The Incredibles (2004) two winters ago. Suffice it to say that Cars fits squarely within Pixar's discursive project, with the same nostalgic emphasis as Lasseter's earlier work: think of Cars as a Nascar Toy Story from Buzz Lightyear's perspective. The Incredibles, to be sure, also trades on the idea that things used to be better, though in its case, Bird laments our self-esteem-obsessed and litigation-happy society's war on exceptionalism; for Cars, its the quainter view (not to use that word pejoratively) that something has been lost with the bi-passing of America's small towns along with the construction of the interstate system. It is communalist in the classically American sense of simple people and small town values.

Because of Cars' preference for Route 66 America, it does seem somewhat counterintuitive that it would be the bearer of the latest in animation technology: were it to have ambitions to equal the Goodbye, Dragon Inn's of the world, one can imagine the filmmakers' switching from computer-based to hand-drawn animation to match Lightning McQueen's integration into this earlier way of life. Then again, Pixar -- and Lasseter in particular -- seem intent on co-opting the values of the past for its new technology. Nevertheless, Cars should be regarded for what it is, not what it isn't... and what it is is a film that soars in its best moments (even if it also languishes for a large portion of Lightning's sojourn in Radiator Springs). In particular, Lasseter demonstrates his exceptional action direction in the racing sequences, where his positioning of the spectator in the middle of the speeding automobiles adeptly draws on the picture's animated form. Likewise, Lasseter, co-director Joe Ranft, and their animators deserve particular credit for bringing the inorganic to life, while maintaining a sense for their material nature. Also, has there been another so thoroughly Dixie feature-length cartoon from Disney since Song of the South (1946)?