2019 Reading Log

1. Augustus (1972, John Williams): 12/23/18-4/21/19 (on-off)
In a certain sense I don’t know if I’m entirely fit to form any coherent thoughts on this monumental work, considering my prolonged and very scattered engagement with it. But it seems fitting, in a certain way: it is a book of transience, looking backwards at memories only mostly remembered, even as those who bear witness to history pass before their time. The years pass, only highlighted truly by the denotations in the headings, and the voices thin one by one until the subject himself speaks, and his own voice is as distinguished yet as fundamentally poetic as the rest. A fitting final work, then, encompassing a life and a nation with unimaginable grace.

March 2019 Capsules

Transit
The central conceit, of an environment where the anachronistic elements are essential to the frissons of the whole endeavor, is brilliant, but even more impressive might be Petzold’s restraint and careful deployment. Transit never comes off as overbearing in this — or indeed any — regard: there are no intrusions of technologies that could not have been replicated in the 1940s. The effect is so much richer in this withholding; because the situation is so carefully etched and the stakes so closely tied to a specific time, one can very easily forget the present-tense trappings. But when a modern car trundles into view, or a soldier in an American uniform and an assault rifle stands guard, the effect is continually vivid and bracing, never unsurprising, but never *just* a reminder that what is past is present.

A telling sign, and just one of many moments that shows that Petzold completely understands what he’s accomplishing: Georg lights his cigarettes with matches, not a lighter.

Last Year at Marienbad (rewatch)
As much as any one of the elements in Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais understands the inherent uneasiness and ethereality of his constantly moving camera. It glides past people, emphasizing the spaces around the figures rather than the statuesque forms themselves. In many senses, the people are nigh indistinguishable from the background themselves, and yet to say that Resnais gives them no inner life would be wholly inaccurate. The snatches of conversation, the particular glances or looks that they have on their faces, suggests the possibility of infinite stories, even past the multiple manifestations of the central relationships. It is a limitless film, consisting of hallways and memories leading to everywhere and nowhere.

February 2019 Capsules

Céline and Julie Go Boating
Perhaps the most elegant metaphor for cinema ever devised, and crucially Céline and Julie Go Boating lacks a *visible* camera (which would localize its aesthetic concerns too thoroughly); Rivette’s supreme intelligence is such that theater and cinema, to an even greater extent than in his past films, mesh through his deftness of both staging and editing, as each new shot choice or repetition creates its own associations. Plus, what image of a moviegoer is more relatable than the two women staring slack-jawed at the screen, occasionally giggling or gasping in disbelief?

Blackhat [rewatch, first time director’s cut]
Impossible to state how much the inclusion of the ship denied harbor by the effect of the rising soy prices does to establish the world in which Blackhat moves: it is one set by nebulous rules and regulations, where the fate of innumerable people can be turned by the whims of a ghost in the machine.

Only a ghost can kill another ghost.

January 2019 Capsules

The Mother and the Whore
Will go into this much, much further on the podcast, but it’s so difficult to quantify why this film functions as perhaps the epitome of what the French New Wave birthed. Is it that it simply exemplifies the principles of the Nouvelle Vague and pushes them to their logical conclusion? Or is it that Jean Eustache is just more attuned to his characters, more deft at sifting through the inherent effects of prior political associations and affiliations on present relationships? The answer probably lies to some degree in both, but perhaps most important of all is that the Nouvelle Vague — in many ways like Gilberte — acts as a phantom that shadows The Mother and the Whore without necessarily tangibly affecting it. What is apparent is the film’s openness, manifested in forms that register in the narrative as both positive (the indelibly etched relations) and negative (the frankness, the frequent crassness). All of these are inherent to Alexandre, Veronika, and Marie as they exist as people (and, it must be inferred, Eustache and his real-life lovers), and that lack of filter, that willingness to confront the morass of humanity head-on, is what feels so shattering about this monumental work.

November 2018 Capsules

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
One of the most subtly yet immediately poignant moments in this masterwork comes midway through the film, when Jeanne is drinking coffee in a café. After she finishes and pays, she puts her elbow on the table and pauses, looking to her right with that placid yet fundamentally unreadable expression that she wears for nearly the entire film. It is the first — if not the last — time that the next step in her routine is not readily apparent to the audience, when she is given the chance to stop and ponder. Its brevity (it lasts less than twenty seconds) and its placement both within a larger shot and a larger sequence (she has just bought some yarn to continue knitting a sweater for her son) is emblematic of everything that this film accomplishes, everything that it evokes and embodies.

October 2018 Capsules

A Star Is Born
Yes, “The Man That Got Away” might be the greatest musical number ever committed to film, but one sequence seems to capture the spirit of this extravagant, devastating masterpiece even better: “Born in a Trunk.” (Complicating this of course is the fact that “Born in a Trunk” was filmed after Cukor had finished his involvement with the film, though this only strengthens its connections to the machinations of Hollywood.) The medley of songs from numerous genres indulges in all the abstraction and expressionism possible in the American film industry, lunging through vividly contrasting set after set, with the only connective tissue being Garland’s voice and physicality. It is blatantly, gloriously unclear whether this is some part of Vicki Lester’s star-making role or a mental projection of her thinking on her past life through said role – notably, the Academy ratio of the film-within-the-film expands to CinemaScope in the span of a cut. Comparisons to Gene Kelly’s repeated intonations of “dignity, always dignity” or even “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain are there, of course, but the lines between role, performer-in-a-role, and performer are even further blurred. And throughout, it is so clear that Vicki Lester is the real deal, that she must shine and diminish all around her. This is the film in less than 15 minutes; what makes it what is is the two and a half hours left: not one second is anything less than vital.

September 2018 Capsules

Hahaha
I can’t say if this technique is totally unprecedented in film, but Hong’s decision to render Hahaha‘s present-day scenes exclusively in black-and-white stills – à la the “previously ons” in Out 1, interestingly enough – and voiceover is at once a remarkably and counterintuitively lovely choice and so indicative of the general playfulness that marks his entire work. Though Moon-kyung says that he and Joong-sik stick to the pleasant parts of their scattered recollections, the film frequently goes down the thornier and more melancholic avenues that characterize Hong’s work, often within the same scene. In this light, and given the connotation that black-and-white and voiceover often have in more conventional films, the present almost function as the memories in this film, fragmented and constructed more out of sensations and glances than anything else. Though it will likely be the last time these friends meet for some time, it feels as if it is already passing into the recesses of their minds; what matters more is the small city of Tongyeong, and the people and places that inhabit it. A faintly ridiculous dream with a long gone admiral-hero, a piano piece, numerous scraps of poetry, the sensation of holding someone close: these are the good things in life.

2018 Reading Log

1. Stoner (1965, John Williams): 7/29-8/2

Difficult to accurately judge just how much this is colored by my absurd absence from reading for these past few years, but this is almost impossibly expansive and moving, covering such an expanse of time (almost cradle-to-grave) in both expanses and skips. Williams’s sense of conveying the almost compartmentalized nature of Stoner’s existence is so cannily divided into focusing on different characters and the events that transpire with them, and yet his approach can’t be reduced to as simple a statement as that. Characters are introduced and then reappear in a startling different context – Finch rather unexpectedly becomes perhaps the fifth most important character, Katharine is introduced in an almost curt manner – and throughout it is apparent that all involved in Stoner’s life are intertwined, perhaps in the most subconscious and buried ways. Stoner’s parents are (to the best of my recollection) not mentioned past the halfway point, and yet the indelible impression that their decaying, dirt-caked lives made on their son and the reader endures. And through it all, art is couched as both salvation and damnation, altering Stoner’s life (for better and worse) at every turn, defining his way of existence while ensuring its continued state of quiet desperation. Stoner is at once devastating and fulfilling, tracking the development and sustained intellect of a singular mindset, observing as it ebbs and flows according to the rhythms of a life that is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Nothing short of revelatory.

2. Tropic Moon (1933, Georges Simenon): 8/8-8/23

Perhaps the most destabilizing element of Tropic Moon is Simenon’s preference for plunging the reader in media res at the start of more or less every chapter, then doubling back to give some context (necessary or not). This happens with regularity, true, but it never fails to dole out a few jolts. Indeed, this tendency is emblematic of the whole book’s careful, more than a little horrifying approach, taking as a given its sweltering setting and organizing an examination of both milieu and intruder. What most stuns is that Timar’s (and Adèle’s, and Bouillox’s) character never truly changes past his first introduction; rather, he deepens and becomes more complex as the heat forces his character to evolve to the atmosphere – that is, until he can’t bear it anymore. He is no coaster; where others survive, he falls.

3. Invisible Cities (1972, Italo Calvino): 9/7; 11/26-12/22
Invoked Hong’s “infinite worlds possible” maxim when raving about this magnificent book, and the comparison isn’t entirely inapposite: there is a certain quality that Calvino evokes here, founded upon the notion that each of this cities could all be real or all be false, all projections of Marco Polo’s native Venice or Kublai Khan’s fantasies about his empire or some combination or non-combination of the two, and it’s entirely to his credit that nothing is resolved. Like the men at its center, there is neither resolution nor total denial, instead a complete state of odd, often beautiful contentment and continual discovery. Invisible Cities‘s final exhortation is as close to a definitive, concrete statement as the book comes, yet it explicitly prescribes searching — a continual, never totally completable task — as the solution, which Calvino does with endless variation and complexity, while laying out his ideas for all to see.

July 2018 Capsules

Ashes of Time [Original]
But first time with the original cut, which feels like another beast entirely; where the Redux felt as if from another world out of time, this feels rooted in a specific cultural and geographic context. What stay the same are the faces, the ruminations on memory and figures.

The Grandmaster (rewatch)
The key to The Grandmaster lies in the photos, in those moments where time comes to a total standstill. If, as Ip says, once a move – whether it be on a chessboard, in the flurry of fists, in the grand scheme of history – has been made, it cannot be taken back, then these act as the concrete points of delineation. Color fades to black-and-white, and though the participants may then leave, their trace cannot be erased. So it is with their destinies. Gong Er has no choice but to fight Ma San, her father must pass on the torch, Ip can never return to Foshan: they are defined as much by their actions, their lot in life, as by their skill in combat. All eventually reach this state of acceptance, where they become resigned to their fates; that Ip is the last one that remains vertical is no accident.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Perhaps most startling, among so many of the elemental parts that combine to form The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is Lau Kar-leung’s sense of editing, especially during the training sequences. Once Liu finishes the strength courses and moves into learning the forms of kung fu, Lau moves into almost an entirely different vein of conveying his narrative. Neither strictly montage (in the sequence definition) nor the entirely step-by-step mode in which the film had proceeded prior, the chambers flow into each other: hands into legs, legs into sword, sword into staff. These delineations are clear to the viewer, but Lau cuts so fluidly on movement that the viewer is constantly brought anew into another discipline. So it is with the rest of the film, so dedicated to laying out every step with clarity, and yet accomplishing it in a way that feels essential to not just Liu’s training, but the possibilities of the human form at large.