Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I've seen Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West about, oh, a dozen times now, most recently two days before my birthday in the company of nine friends who had never seen it before. Of those nine, five liked it and four were, well, not quite so enamored, likely turned off by its eccentric structure and length.

Anyone who's seen Son of a Seahorse can no doubt attest to that's picture peculiar structure and sense of time, and I'm not being pretentious when I say that our little character comedy was deeply influenced by Leone's film. Indeed, it's one of those films that changed my entire perspective on cinema, changed my conception of what films are and can be. Understand, I'm not saying that it was merely a good or even great film, but that I'm talking about something more galvanic: it fundamentally changed me as a human being, and I can only think of about a dozen or so films that have done that.

And because it's such an important film for me, and because its treatment of time, space, and story structure is something I find consistently astonishing, I sometimes forget that one of the other things that sets it apart from Leone's other westerns is that it is in many ways a feminist film.

This will surprise those who argue that spaghetti westerns are inherently misogynistic: But wait, they say, what about, oh, the aborted half-rape scene with Charles Bronson? What about the skeezy sex scene with Henry Fonda? What about the way she's forced into selling her home, the way in which she's completely dependent on and victimized by these men of violence? Cardinale's character is in many ways a pawn, bandied about and caught in the middle.

The film depicts a world in which women had few options and no power; isn't that, then, the very thing feminism seeks to correct? It registers with great empathy her desperation to stay alive; it shares in her frustrated impotence. The film, through her eyes, shows us what is terrible and frightening about violence. Compare this to Leone's earlier westerns. They might not make the always-named man-with-no-name a hero, but because he is, by dint of his sheer awesome bad-assery, the character to which our sympathies are most aligned, his violence isn't particularly scary.

Compare this with Bronson-- the closest thing to an Eastwood character the film has. The character has two moments of absolute brutality: the aforementioned stripping and almost-rape of Cardinale and the savage torture-- much tsk-tsk'd by Alex Cox in his, er, idiosyncratic spaghetti western book 1,000 Ways To Die-- of the dude in suspenders.

If the Eastwood characters of the Dollars trilogy had committed actions like these, it would have killed our sympathies for the character. He would cease to be a bad-ass and start to be a truly reprehensible monster (a slippery slope that I'm finding to be explored quite interestingly, by-the-by, in the PS3 game God of War III). And that would have killed those films. Not that, to be clear, I need or prefer the lollipop of likability in my protagonists, but because the Dollars films in particular (unlike the more meditative Once Upon a Time) are entertainments, dealing in delightful and exquisite surface pleasures first and substance second.

If Once Upon a Time in the West is more substantial, it's because our sympathies, our point-of-view, are most closely aligned with Cardinale. It's really her film, and we regard the men in it, from Fonda to Bronson, through her eyes; we view their violence through her eyes. Just as the male gaze is often present in films even when there isn't a male present to do the gazing, this female gaze-- terrified, trapped, bristling against her place in life and wanting better-- is present even in scenes, like the family massacre or the torture of the man in suspenders, when Cardinale is nowhere to be seen.

Cardinale's presence in the film is what allows the violence to hit us harder and deeper, and what allows us to experience a kind of emotional journey that Leone's earlier epic cartoons-- no matter how pleasurable and iconic those assured masterpieces are-- just weren't capable of.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Three Films By Kentucker Audley

I find it difficult to write about Kentucker Audley's films,
not because I have nothing to say,
but because I don't have words for it.

These slender sixty-minute features
feel strangely timeless,
languid and elliptical in the same breath,
making no points, but simply observing,
simply observing.

These three films are distinct:
Team Picture, a comedy,
Open Five, thick with Memphis,
Holy Land, as prickly as its "hero",
experimental and profane and smoking too much
and yet and yes, holy.

But all three also blend together.
But all three also are Audley's.

They remind me of the only poet worth a damn,
they remind me of William Carlos Williams
and his wheelbarrow of rain water
and his so sweet and so cold plums.

Concrete, brief, bold, naive, fresh, true:
image and sound, voice and body,
time and moment,
without addition
without imposition
yet also not without author:
the films are very much his,
the films are very much him.

For a filmmaker like myself
who analyzes and argues,
(and overanalyzes and overargues)
it's a magic trick I can't untangle
one I can't break down into wires and handkerchiefs
one I regard with burning envy.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

McNelly and Motlagh and Bears, Oh My!

Well, no bears, actually. Sorry.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly, whose first feature Blanc De Blanc I found so impressive, is trying to raise funding for his second, Up Country, via Kickstarter. I've always been kinda dubious when it comes to filmmakers asking strangers to donate money, but if ever I was going to chip in on one of these things, it'd be for McNelly's film: his first one is that good, and for an all-too-brief stretch of time he programmed an ambitious but poorly-attended series of independent films, Indies For Indies. This is a guy who's actually given back to the independent community that is so often so callously invoked by people trying to guilt you into funding their film. He's the real deal, and if you've got a few bucks to spare, you might want to consider chipping in.

Amir Motlagh, whose film whale was the subject of one of my early reviews, recently announced via twitter that his film is going to be available via IndieFlix starting June 22, on YouTube Rentals starting July 6, and then on Netflix later in the year. It's really exciting that his film, which is undeniably personal, idiosyncratic, and experimental, is going to be readily available to a wider audience. I highly recommend seeing it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


A.A. Dowd, a critic we respect as much for his biting prose as his discerning taste, wrote a review of Son of a Seahorse. And, to be sure, it ain't a rave; the notice is mixed with a definite lean towards the negative. And while of course we have a different opinion about the film's success or worth, we still really dug the review because he gets us, he understands where we're coming from, and it does give a prospective viewer a pretty good idea of what the film is like and whether or not they think they're going to dig it.

The Russells are [not] cut from any shape or variety of traditional Hollywood cloth. These two are loud and proud indie guerillas. They favor marathon takes and lengthy digressions, long shots and longer conversations. It's tempting to lump them into the mumblecore camp, except their sense of humor is somehow both drier and broader, with an affinity for garish caricatures and bizarro non-sequitors.


If Son of a Seahorse often seems like a different movie scene to scene, its saving grace is its uniting principle: that marriage is the most rewarding pain in the ass you'll ever willfully subject yourself to. It's hard not to have a certain affection for any film that deals with married life in a way that's neither cloying nor rigorously cynical. The Russells, husband and wife filmmakers with a word or two to share on the subject, invest their hit-or-miss comic enterprise with an endearing breadth of genuine feeling.

Read more here.

The new DVD will be coming soonish, double-pinkie-swear promise.