Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton (2006)

First time through you could be excused for thinking this sounds like background music at Starbucks. But Orton is truly protean, and here she is hitched up with the insanely brilliant Jim O’Rourke on the boards, and every song here rewards repeated listenings; they get weirder and deeper the more you listen. What I love best is the way songs just end when they’re done doing what they set out to do. That’s a hard skill for a poet to learn: When to eschew finishing in favor of ending.

I’ve loved Orton for more than a decade. I believe that if she had decided to promote herself harder, she could have been a superstar. She didn’t, and I think she’s probably stayed sane and happy as a result. I hear that she’s got a new one coming, at last, in 2012. I’m excited, but I haven’t minded waiting.

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Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog (2007)

In which the NSF flies Herzog to Antarctica so that he can ask a penguin researcher, “Does a penguin ever go insane when they have simply had it with the colony?” If you love Herzog, this will tickle you pink. Dour laconic condemnations of civilization, breathless Caspar David Friedrich-esque romantic ejaculations in the face of ineffable landscapes, a fascination with damaged and fragile characters that comes across as both exploitative and sympathetic at the same time (the scene with the traumatized man who “escaped” from something he can’t even talk about (East Germany?) and proudly shows Herzog the rucksack he has ready at all times, should he need to escape again, is without question my favorite moment in this film), and always, always, the magnetic attraction to oblivion. When Herzog talks about the dangers of diving under the ice, or how easy it is to get lost in a blizzard, or the way a penguin will sometimes become disoriented and start walking away from rather than toward the life-giving sea, you understand very clearly that he doesn’t dread these disasters; he longs for them.

Herzog continues to make fiction films, but more and more his best attention seems to be directed toward documentaries. (Which, after all, is the more interesting movie, Grizzly Man or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?) Might it be that for a mature artist, the claptrap of artifice begins to seem an impediment rather than an aid to the realization of one’s dramatic — and even aesthetic — goals? Discuss.

The Edge of Heaven, Fatih Akın (2007)

Watching this, I was thinking, what was that other terrific movie I saw that dealt with the interpenetration of Turkish and German cultures, and then I remembered it was Head-On, from 2004, and then I found that Akin directed that, too! This one’s a bit less visceral, but it’s just as affecting and intelligent. This is a young director to watch.

It’s too bad that Washington D.C. is so far away from Kabul. If the flight between them were as brief as the one between Hamburg and Istanbul, I think the world would be a different place. 

Ketchup

These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

Damages, Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler & Daniel Zelman (2007-)

This is one of the most claustrophobic and nasty pieces of television I’ve ever seen. There’s not a single likeable character, everyone is a lying and cheating power-mad narcissist out to stab everyone else in the back and then self-justify. Worst of all, no one even seems to enjoy the overripe fruits of their iniquitous labors. The show is completely humorless and profoundly amoral. Watching it makes me feel dirty and ashamed, but I’m halfway through it now.

Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone (2008)

Hoo! I let this sit in my queue way too long. When’s the last time you saw a Cosa Nostra picture that didn’t feature a laundry list of cliches? Garrone, working off the best-selling book by Roberto Saviano, tells five distinct, occasionally overlapping stories of life under the Camorra, from small-time neighborhood hoods with delusions of grandeur to multi-million Euro syndicates dedicated to the expedient (and illegal) disposition of industrial waste. There’s some blood, but the movie’s delightfully free of the kind of swagger and celebration of violence in American mafia movies. Most of the people involved are involved because they’re trapped, bored, scared, resigned, stupid, or some combination of these. Ironically, the scenes of hopelessness played out in the courtyards of the housing projects can’t help but remind me of turn of the century American tenements and the organized crime that blossomed there. Old world or new world, past or future, bathtub gin or pirated DVDs, desperate people will always do desperate things.