The Crimes and Misdemeanors of Beasts of the Southern Wild

   About an hour into Beasts of the Southern Wild, our woebegone child heroine dulcetly asks, "When can I be cohesive?"  At that moment, it occurred to me that this question was one that the film itself should have been asking, and probably was to some degree.  Its sin is that it fails to cohere in ways vital to it standing alone as the successful work people claim it to be.  I went together with my friend and cinematographer Aaron Hollander to see Beasts of the Southern Wild at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in the East Village.  To put our verdict right out there, we were overwhelmingly underwhelmed, which was particularly disappointing because the film had been ecstatically heralded as the arrival of an important new filmmaking talent.  Leaving the theater after a Q&A with the film's reasonably (and justifiably) self-satisfied director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, I flashed to Steve Martin's opening voice-over monologue from The Jerk: "I was born a poor black child.  I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin' down in Mississippi..."  If Beasts of the Southern Wild were even a marginally better film, I never would have even bothered to equate it in any way with The Jerk, but Zeitlin opens himself up to it.

   To me, Beasts of the Southern Wild just functions as an all-the-bells-and-whistles parody of itself, i.e. a lampoon of the type of obvious Sundance-ish films which the judges in Park City not just consume but eat whole and swallow without chewing.  And of course the critical establishment at large follows them in suit, as they so often do.  As Time Out New York critic Joshua Rothkopf slickly writes in his noncommittal so-so review of this obscenely over-praised little movie, "Bring your liberal pity."  Gradually, I was pleased to discover that I was not alone in finding the work mediocre.  bell hooks (the intentionally uncapitalized pen name of famous African-American social activist and feminist Gloria Jean Watkins) composed a lengthy diatribe blitzing the film as a moral outrage, in which she argues that the story actually expresses a conservative agenda that is dangerously disguised as a liberal one.  Her account of the film cries wolf a tad, but she does raise a valid point about the film's questionable perspective.  Joshua Rothkopf continues, "How can a movie so steeped in post-Katrina imagery eschew even the smallest comment about social responsibility?  Maybe that was deemed too earnest, a decision that makes zero sense when a twinkling score is ladled on like instant pathos."

   Firstly, the film's chief crime, above all else, was to remind me of an exponentially better film about youth living in a world of their own within larger and often dangerously bucolic environs: David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000).  But what Zeitlin's debut feature seems to accomplish most assuredly is the open and unabashed romanticization of extreme poverty, depicting the suffering of its poor unfortunates as unconditionally whimsical and play-like.  I can accept some level of whimsicality, but this "unconditional" element as well as the strained and almost oppressively imposed "hocus-pocus" treatment of the six-year-old Hushpuppy's generically mercurial point-of-view upset me upon further reflection of the film.  Looks like someone's been emulatin' a little too much Terence Malick!  In fact, Zeitlin stops just short of theft and stylistic coup d'etat when it comes to his Malick-swilling.  Every positive review I read seemed to take all this at face value.  However, whereas Malick's more selfless humanism would have elevated this material up a notch or three, Zeitlin recklessly makes light of misfortune in hideously back-patting ways that seem to too easily pass for poetic in today's market of spuriously precious and phony indie films, but deep down are totally wrong-headed...and really never given a moment's cogent thought beyond "people will swoon and think this such-and-such a thing is beauuuuuuutiful."  It is in this that Zeitlin reveals himself as a poseur, and that frustrated me supremely.

   If I were writing for a Yiddish-language rag, I would call claims of the film's "brilliant poeticism" a bunch of bubbe meise, which is a germane description because the whole film self-consciously dabbles in local New Orleans bubbe meise.  I find that my overuse of the word "twee" in film criticism is not merely out of my love of the word, but because it the condition of being twee is unfortunately epidemic in independent filmmaking, and has been for well over ten years now.  Whereas I find the movie's empty poetics somewhat repellent, six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis' performance remains the film's greatest asset.  She is simply stupendous in this role and was the only reason I felt compelled to stay with the film, despite her director's pretentious machinations.  I entered the theater wanting to be bowled over by it, and wowed by its impact at every turn.  Instead, Aaron and I basically turned to each other and shrugged.  The "urban sophisticate" couple in the row ahead of us looked at each other and politely groaned.

   Another filmmaker friend of mine observed that the whole film is "badly shot b-roll."  On that note, the flimsy camerawork, which is so jerkily handheld one gets the impression that the operator is multi-tasking, is just inexcusable.  Jerking around simple establishment shots does not make a movie edgier or artier.  I never want to make a film of my own where I have to subject myself to the prospect of uncles and aunts commenting on how clumsy the handheld camera is.  I am reminded of Roman Polanski's famous quotation: "All that shaky camera looks like the cameraman has Parkinson's disease, or maybe he's filming while masturbating."  I love handheld when it is done well (I have never faulted Lars Von Trier for his use of it, for one), and when it is executed with a certain measured bravado, but Beasts of the Southern Wild's cinematographer is needlessly Dramamine-inducing, and there seems to be no motivation for it.  The most astounding thing about the woeful Beasts of the Southern Wild camerawork: the cinematographer won a Sundance award for his work.  Go figure!

   All I can say is that I think Mr. Zeitlin lucked out big time.  Although the film certainly seemed to connect with many, I just definitely was not one of them -- and for the very life of me, I just cannot see the greatness that all those others see.  A kindred spirit for me exists in Examiner writer Bryan Way, whose article about the film's insane praise is a must-read.

   Post-Scriptum: When discussing the film with a friend who was equally disappointed with it, we both agreed that it is an apt film for which one could direct a response film, a la Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005), which duly responded to the excesses and distortions of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2004).  Regular Lovers presented Paris '68 as something more than a vacuously hip and self-satisfied commercial for youthful eroticism.  Barring Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke (2006), a stellar documentary, someone has yet to make a narrative fiction feature that deals both artfully and earnestly with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is not that film.  In fact, it's the exact opposite.  It's something like The Dreamers.

Spying Outside the Comfort Zones: In Favor and Defense of Hitchcock's Topaz

Coming soon:  An article about critics' most significant dissents with the critical tide (featuring Rex Reed and F.X. Feeney) -- hopefully in time for the re-release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate -- and a special guest article by Aaron Hollander examining the merits of the horror genre.  Stay tuned!

Historically, I have not written terribly much about Alfred Hitchcock.  I have not neglected him out of either distaste or obstinacy.  My lack of interest in writing about Hitchcock might very well be because he is among the most written about directors in the pantheon of filmmaking legends, with no less than Truffaut himself having published a now-classic book on his impressive canon.  And by a long shot, that ain't the only book on the man.  To top off the extensiveness of his literary and academic coverage, most likely every Tom, Dick and Harry walking down the street probably has some kind of working knowledge concerning the rotund and orotund Master of Suspense with the trademark profile whose drolly laconic verbal inflection spoke volumes about his notoriously macabre sense of humor.

My so-called "niche" in the world of film-writing is in the realm of cinephemera and estoterica; in other words, I traditionally write about the films and film artists I feel have unjustly not received enough coverage (or sometimes, even any coverage at all).  In a sense, it is the sometimes strenuous act of spilling whatever spotlight I can onto that which has wallowed in the darkness of unfair non-exposure and cruel obscurity.  I will often openly begrudge film retrospectives in venues which showcase films and filmmakers that have been ostensibly over-covered.  In my mind, how many "restored prints" of certain canonical films have we seen pass through our favorite revival houses?  Yes, the films I refer to may very well be great ones -- but have they now taken to restoring other restorations?  I would much rather that venues give other more neglected films a chance to live again, versus re-screening ad nauseam those fortunate works that are vocally (and justly) regarded as classics.

That said, it is still here that I am writing about one of my favorite Hitchcock films -- one of his most unpopular, and one of his least commercially/critically successful.  Even he believed it was something of a failure, most likely because the project was rushed into production (with an only half-finished Samuel Taylor script) and also because he could never get what he felt was a handle on the film in post-production.  It is also often commonly dismissed among erudite Hitchcock scholars as a belabored and needlessly elaborate experiment, no more and no less.  I have the suspicion that this dissent stems from the film stubbornly not conforming at all neatly with the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre.  It is the horse of a different color.  But what specifically do I like about Topaz?  For starters, I love seeing any director stepping out of his/her established comfort zones, let alone someone as admirably stiff-necked as Hitchcock was.  In Topaz, I see him stepping out of those zones at every turn.  It is like watching Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest step out of his humdrum advertising-executive comforts and into newly invented personas, having to learn to carry himself in other ways that do not bespeak comfort.  Hitchcock assumes another breed of director, with his spirit residing assuredly in key scenes and sequences, enough so that we know in the moment that he is winking at us, patting us on the head and saying, "I'm still here."  For many, the latter point concerning his more anonymous reign over the material is a complaint.  For anyone who is drawn in by the filmmaking process, it should be cause for intrigue.  Topaz's relative narrative and stylistic obliqueness, its overarching elegance, its Byzantine sliding-door storytelling with subplot bleeding into subplot, its curious and intriguing starlessness (it turned out to be the first Hitchcock cast in decades without a marketable lead for the U.S. market) and the clear and apparent fact that the project was a playground for a great filmmaker's freedom of experimentation, are all elements that I find exciting in the picture, as both a filmmaker and cinephile.  Perhaps most of all, however, I appreciate that it is the type of film that almost gets made to be misunderstood.

I openly attest that I find Hitchcock's Topaz (1969) to be a far better film than what I feel is his vastly overrated The Birds (1963), which has aged poorly and is today more horribly and horrifically dated than many period films of its ilk (although it is usually the first of his films people seem to remember).  Don't blast me yet in response to my dislike of The Birds.  Hang in there.  I explain and rationalize this half-cocked statement below.  Everyone with whom I have spoken about Topaz seems to have a decidedly ambivalent, sheepish or outright negative view of the picture...except for that occasional rare individual I encounter who agrees with me in thinking that it is one of Hitchcock's best and most misunderstood pictures, and, yes, a masterpiece.  The director of one of my favorite film festivals is one such admirer.  On the occasions I have claimed Topaz to be better than The Birds, however, I have been disparaged and openly mocked; this has happened again just recently.  However, it is Topaz's brilliant and measured technique which lives and breathes for me, rather than the flagrancy and the ham-fisted technique of that other film which everyone seems to appreciate much more.  Many may think me just a contrarian and even a philistine.  That is fine, and I don't mind that because, for one, I would much rather watch two European film industry heavyweights like Topaz's Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret perform over the likes of The Birds' Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren hemming and hawing over creature-attacks and second-rate soap opera any day of the week.  If that makes me a philistine, so be it.  Hedren in The Birds is no Kim Novak, folks.  Sure, Topaz's Frederick Stafford is probably not even Tippi Hedren, but I intend to explain why this works in the film's favor.

In the same breath, I understand both why Topaz tanked and why The Birds was a hit.  After all, subtlety never was a big seller of movie least in this hemisphere.  Watching a mob of hostile birds converge on a jungle gym behind a blonde damsel in distress (in an admittedly well executed scene) usually offers far more immediate thrills than untangling the ruefully tangled threads of international espionage and the inner workings of double-cross among spies.  Sure, Topaz is not perfect, nor is it truly 100% top-tier Hitchcock and nowhere near as good as his following film Frenzy (1972), yet it remains a favorite Hitchcock film that I would be drawn to watching over again more so than many of his others.

So, okay, we've got Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz.  Starring Frederick Stafford.  Uh, who?  Featuring Karen Dor, John Vernon and John Forsythe.  Um, who again?  And Roscoe Lee Browne.  Okay, him you might know.  Or maybe not.  In either case, one of the most hotly contested aspects of Topaz is its lack of a star, or a central actor with the charisma of a leading man or woman.  The biggest and most esteemed name actors in Topaz had impressive French film pedigree (namely Piccoli and Noiret), but this pedigree meant little or nothing to the American public in 1969.  The only thing they saw was Frederick Forsythe in a role that would normally be occupied by a Sean Connery or a Paul Newman.  Even the comparatively minor-league Anthony Perkins had scored a key success in William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion before stepping into the shoes of Norman Bates in Psycho.  Many critics have asserted that Forsythe is so bland in Topaz that he has, to quote Steve Martin in Bowfinger, the personality of a ZIP code in Kansas.  It it fitting perhaps that Stafford found his entrance into show business by simply being at the right place at the right time -- specifically, a hotel lobby in Thailand.  He was cast as Agent OSS 117 in an eponymous 1965 French espionage thriller in that hotel lobby.  Incidentally, another in a three-man line of markedly dry 1960's Hitchcock leading men, John Gavin, starred as the same Agent OSS 117 in 1968.  Other points of contention?  Well, you know, how about them process shots?  The process shots are, of course, par for the course when you consider that Hitch took many trips to the rear-projection stage for his end-of-career works, particularly his final film, Family Plot (1976), where the glaringly conspicuous nature of the process work is most unfortunate.  These particular shots, though, speak to a level of oddly affectionate artifice becoming of 1950's and early 60's studio-pressed genre products.

Addressing each "issue" respectively, Hitchcock made a profitable, prodigious and celebrated career of working with not just the best actors but the best stars.  James Stewart was never more the everyman than when he was given the opportunity to be in the Hitchcock films in which he is featured.  Topaz and Frenzy marked the first instances in his career where he was driven towards casting unknowns vs. stars.  A valid question would be "Why?"  I believe it boils down to how Hitchcock ends Topaz.  There exist three separate endings for the film, as Hitchcock was stumped as to how to draw the film to a close.  All three versions, however, are capped with a newspaper being flippantly discarded under Paris' Arc de Triomphe.  We see its headline just long enough before it is tossed aside indifferently, one might say dismissively.  I personally would use the word "dismissively".  Yesterday's news has been left idling as an errant, discarded item, and our characters have tortured themselves and each other over it, as intimated in the series of superimpositions over the headlines.  This ending amazingly is simultaneously cynical and anomalously humanist for Hitchcock.  How befitting it is then that Topaz is one of the extremely few entries in Hitchcock's canon to deal in a plot involving history and headline news, current or otherwise.  Topaz uses as its foundation the Cuban Missile Crisis, co-opting a near fatal international crisis from seven years before the film's production and using it as a story platform.  Granted, this "ripped from the headlines" aspect of Topaz is more novelist Leon Uris' doing than it is Hitchcock's, but it is nonetheless unusual for this director to tackle such topical historical material, the repercussions of the dramatic 1962 showdown between East and West still lingering and echoing at the time of the film's release.  Not since Notorious, of which Topaz is something of a direct narrative heir, did Hitchcock care to place any of his films within a specific historical context -- and Topaz is even more historically specific than Notorious.  Novelist Leon Uris' pedigree in epic material based in some manner of historical fact (think Exodus and Trinity) also opens Topaz up to being Hitchcock's lengthiest film at 143 minutes (at least in its current DVD version which, excluding a newly implemented ending, was his first exhibited cut).  The discarded newspaper headline at the very end of Topaz is a testament to Hitchcock's view of the constantly evolving nature of history itself as it relates to film and filmic incident.  Stafford, hence, becomes a guileless composite...a machine that enables history's small and moving parts to oscillate.  He is the Glorious Enabler who wishes to be a feeling entity (as exhibited in his love scenes with Karen Dor), but cannot really tear himself away from the mandatory moral compromise, which rears its ugly head with almost every character in Topaz.  The final tender billet doux from Stafford's murdered lover Karen Dor serves no real function other than to conceal some key incriminating pieces of microfilm.  An official top-secret item is shanghaied in a lover's parting gift, rendering the human sentiments presumably attached to the gift itself secondary, conditionally empty and, hence, pointless.  Also at this point, the unrequited affair to which we have just been privy is deliberately left on the side of the road, never to be heard of again in the film's multi-pronged narrative.  This is why Stafford's dry, blank, under-annunciated performance works in the film's favor, on a purely intellectual level.  Otto Preminger's final film, The Human Factor (1980), explores the very same notion of spy as second-class individual, with a protagonist who is similarly unrealized on a human level and deliberately another Glorious Enabler.

Before I continue, I wish to state that I do not mean the following simply as an excuse to trash The Birds.  I am, however, using my antipathy for that film's use of formal elements to juxtapose it with Topaz's formalist mastery, bearing in mind well-known Hitchcockian trademarks.  Granted, Topaz might consciously be a more "sophisticated" enterprise that, like the similarly underrated Marnie, works more on an intellectualized, overtly subconscious level than The Birds does, but I will nonetheless proceed along these lines.  I personally consider Hitchcock to be "slumming" with The Birds, but I can still analyze how the two films stack up against each other in terms of directorial voice.  I remember vividly watching a sequence from The Birds in a freshman introductory class at film school, many years ago now.  The instructor was illustrating what the term "eye-line" meant in the context of an actual film.  Specifically, he showed us the overstated sequence in which Tippi Hedren's comically frozen, terrified head and wide-open eyes follow a fire-line that travels along a stream of gasoline to the point where it finally explodes.  The class erupted in lion-like uproarious laughter and it took nearly a full two minutes to get everyone back on task.  Worst of all is that the sequence is so calculated and awkwardly self-conscious that it hits you over the head with the delicacy of a seagull ambush.  The utter camp of that scene did not stop the likes of Bordwell and Thompson lauding it as a sterling example of rhythmic cutting in their much-used textbook, despite the fact that its rigid metronomic rhythm is partly what makes it as laughable as it is.  In contrast to the stilted, posturing visuals of Hedren's terrified frozen mug, there is the exquisite opening sequence of Topaz, which involves a family in Copenhagen defecting to the West.  The kind of meticulous storyboarding Hitchcock adored all but undoes the above sequence in The Birds, but it works to build and establish delicate visual cues in Topaz.

Yes, the above sequence is indeed very apropos to use in teaching film students eye-line, in that it is perhaps the easiest to follow among any possible example.  But when I try to take it seriously as drama or as a suspense sequence, it's just painful.  To me, the greatest formal elements in cinema are somewhere in between invisible and appreciably conspicuous.  To me, this scene in The Birds borders on obnoxious.

The first shot of Topaz, following an opening title sequence set over footage of the Russian May Day Parade, is an elaborate crane and dolly track which packs in so much information, visual and otherwise, and sets up the story so well in one single shot that I am immediately left awed.  This is soon followed by a stunning sequence in a Danish glass factory/museum that knows just how delicate its level of tension should be.  It is here that Hitchcock's pronounced use of storyboarding formalism is brilliantly fine-tuned.  Hitchcock in pre-production and directing was famously like a military general like Patton or MacArthur, in that he painstakingly prepared for the nitty-gritty pyrotechnics of battle, leaving little to nothing to the winds of chance.  It is a visionary strategist's approach versus one of an artist who hedges bets concerning precision in favor of chaos theory.  With this in mind, Topaz is Hitchcock at his "military-precision best" since Psycho (1960) or at least Marnie (1964), because its plasticity lies in a comfortable place between invisible and conspicuous.  In the opening sequence, the daughter of the defectors, Tamara, is eluding the Russian agents on her family's tail.  It is simply how the screen-space is used, how silence is effectively exploited for impact, and how the subtle machinations of plot and story bespeak an ideology more than a great deal of his other films do.  In the way that Psycho is almost as fresh today as it was in 1960, Topaz is perhaps just as fresh.  It must me said that Topaz is a more markedly cerebral film than most of Hitchcock's other work.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Cuban scenes.  Even Topaz's detractors admit to the strength of the second-act stretch set in Cuba.  The scene that everyone seems to remember from the film is the dramatic death of Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), her purple dress splaying out onto the checkered floor like a pool of blood as she wilts and collapses with an eerie grace from her jilted lover's bullet.  The scene involving the tortured and starved informant whispering a deadly secret into John Vernon's ear also seems to elicit responses.  The greater crime in Topaz, however, is not cuckolding a lover, but cuckolding country, ideology and nationalism.  This, I am convinced, was at the heart of the film's disastrous test screenings, where audiences complained that it lacked character empathy and interest value.  This, to me, was the director's immediate objective.  The people in Topaz are instruments of institution, and of national and political credo, and their blood bleeds more for them than any human entanglements.  Critic and scholar Andrew Sarris implicitly alludes to this below when he mentions the "French lunch of doubt and suspicion."  No wonder audiences found it alienating.  But the film is much less mechanical and workmanlike than people give it credit for.  Certainly, it works more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, and is not out to entertain one's sympathies for the characters we are watching.  Even the infidelity of Dany Robin's character to her husband, Stafford, is dealt with in a cold, deliberately distancing way.

Willfully gone and out-of-sight are many of the Hithcockian earmarks, although the trademark Hitchcock cameo appearance remains one of my favorites among all the cameos.  In their place, you have a curious kind of irony.  Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris wrote upon the film's release in 1969, "If I prefer Topaz to Z, it is probably because I prefer irony to allegory, and paradoxes to polemics.  On the surface, Topaz would seem hopelessly old-fashioned, if not in bad taste.  But it is with [actors] Noiret and Piccoli that Hitchcock rises to his peak of passionate protocol as he captures, far beneath the surface of picayune Cold War politics, the cerebral irrationality of French manners and institutions.  To study Hitchcock's cutting and camera placement at a French lunch full of doubt and suspicion is to be instructed in the art of transcending a subject with a style.  Suddenly we are caught up short with mixed feelings in the grip of Hitchcock's irony.  Topaz is a haunting experience, both inspired and intelligent, convulsive and controlled, passionate and pessimistic.  At its best, it undercuts its own premises with unexpected glimpses of the most saving of all human graces: perversity and humor.  In an age when love is merchandised like soap, a little cultivated dislike seems refreshingly civilized."

The various plot threads in the film ricochet off of each other in Topaz, and Maurice Jarre's customarily idiosyncratic score accentuates this notion with his whimsically percussive music cues.  The release of Jarre's long unavailable score on disc is partly what sparked my action in putting this all down on paper, even though it had been a long time coming.  I received the soundtrack disc in the mail while working on another project up north, and a person with whom I was working casually and carelessly dismissed the film upon seeing I had received its music score.  I staunchly defended it and was thereafter lampooned.  To each their own, but I think the dismissal of Topaz is irresponsible and near-sighted.  A common complaint during the film's initial test screenings was, "Where is Hitchcock in this?"  Loading an espionage film with ornament and Hitchcockian stylistic flourishes in every scene and shot equally does not always a great film make, and Hitchcock was intelligent and masterly enough to know this.  The film's measured stylization is exquisite.  The general lack of chases and reportable incidents of the like is another complaint, but it is more than just about subtle human deceptions.  It is a biting portrait of the deceptions of the mechanical human(s), and succeeds in rendering Torn Curtain (1966) intellectually shallow in comparison, although most critics and scholars consider Torn Curtain in such a way anyway.  Along with Frenzy, I believe Topaz to be one of the Master's finest late-career pictures.  Give it another look if you've dismissed it, and stay focused.

My Belated Best (and Worst) Films of 2011 and 2010 Lists

So, as the title of this post suggests, this is admittedly kind of a late arrival.  This can be blamed on the fact that I was hard at work completing The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour throughout 2010 and 2011, and missed more new films than I normally would have.  I have since made up a large portion of the difference and am now somewhat ready to present my lists of the best (and worst) films of both 2011 and 2010.


2011 stands as an unusual year for me in that there was a great divide between the many ho-hum lacklusterpieces receiving acclaim and awards...and the films that were exponentially better and more worthy of the shower of praises that seemed to be inflexibly reserved for the more popular/populist work.  French import The Artist as Best Picture of 2011?  Mon Dieu!  What love potion was in the critics' and voters' cereal when they endorsed that film's check-off box?  Talk about a prescription for happy glasses!  The Artist, to me, was an admittedly charming and clever but also incredibly slight gimmick movie.  No more, no less.  Its finest and only true accomplishment: educating certain viewers as to the history of silent film.  So, with that said, I also found the rest of 2011 Academy Award nominations and winners to be a fantastic farce.  In a year that nominates Meryl Streep for the seventeenth time in her career and awards her for the third time for a functional and "workmanlike" but mediocre turn as Margaret Thatcher, but shamefully allows a star-making, gracefully tempered but emotionally naked no-holds-barred performance like Elizabeth Olsen's in Martha Marcy May Marlene squeak by with bupkus (not even a nomination), I am left with nothing but a bewildered and frustrated shrug.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that Oscar also honored the year's flat-out worst film, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a verifiable piece of excrement, with a Best Picture nomination.  Something's fishy here and it ain't the chickens in the Academy voting pool.  I can only believe there were bribes concerning that stink bomb's nomination.

In terms of my own choices for the year's best, I am almost compelled to dub 2011 as "The Year of the Cinematic Tone Poem."  Mood pieces seemed to far outweigh most other independent filmmaking efforts, and I cannot say that I mind.  Mood has become paramount for me in my own work these days, and I think my favorite films of 2011 had a great deal to do with that shift.  So, as it turns out, my 10-Best list might appear more "artsy-fartsy" and hoity-toity than usual.  Truth be told, however, 2011 is a year with which I was left mostly unimpressed with the mainstream output, although it should be noted that I do believe that 2012 is the best year in film since 1993.  So anyway, let's spark it.  Whereas looking at the year en toto left me slightly disillusioned, my choice for #1 left me exhilarated and filled with hope for the future of its young director and for filmmaking itself.

1. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) - U.S.A.
Pound for pound, moment for moment, everything about this film is emblazoned with the feeling that it is the most exciting, unsettling and emotionally resonant film of the year (and maybe of the last few years), and it is certainly the creme de la creme of the year's wealth of cinematic tone poems.  When any director pushes buttons as easily as Durkin does, let alone a debut feature director, it is a truly rare feat.  Considering what I have seen in this film, I will be among the first in line to see what Durkin has in store for us next.  I have recommended this film to nearly everyone I know who has asked me what worthy films have been made in the past five years.  The images (especially the underexposed and underwater ones) were often so powerfully potent and tantalizing to me that, at one point, I flashed to what I believe to be a pre-cognitive memory...and I am not exaggerating or attempting to aggrandize the film's impact.  Martha Marcy May Marlene (otherwise known as Mx4 among friends of mine) is never coy and the audience is never left out of the act of figuring out a puzzle that gradually reveals itself via a careful flashback structure, justifying the main character's unsettled psyche.  The only complaint I had, and a minor one at that, was that the characters played by Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson might have fit too neatly into the categorization of self-satisfied, upwardly mobile petit bourgeois shelterbugs.  I felt sometimes that this was perhaps too easy and convenient.  But the film still worked like a charm better than any other film of 2011, and if this is a harbinger of things to come for Elizabeth Olsen, we may have just seen a star get itself all born and ready to shine.  I should also recommend Durkin's partner Antonio Campos' film Afterschool (2008), which Durkin produced.

2. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick) - U.S.A.
What can I say about this film that has not already been said, and better?  For sheer scope, size and ambition, no other film in 2011 can compare to Malick's millenia-expansive tableau of life, death, family, the creation of the universe and what lies beyond.  Can you imagine trying to elevator-pitch this film?  I shudder to think.  I certainly left the theater in a euphoric blur, with a profound sense of hope for the future of the film form.  I am, however, issuing a caveat involving Terence Malick's follow-up efforts, especially his upcoming To the Wonder, the release date of which is looming.  I am not going to be as easy or as accepting of Malick's post-Tree of Life work if he continues along the path of abusing his customary and increasingly enervating formula involving an arrangement of spellbinding (but too often frustratingly oblique) images traced with fussy verbal poetics often related via whispered voice-over narration.  I personally think Malick is too talented to continue leaning on this same stylistic formula film after film.  Reports of To the Wonder's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival lead me to believe that his new opus is just business as usual for Malick.  The greatest filmmakers always knew how to step out of their comfort zones...and I seriously doubt that Malick has ever considered doing so heretofore.  The Tree of Life is a package.  It is a beautiful and well-adorned package, complete with Emmanuel Lubezki's exquisite images, but it is designed specifically to get us mere mortals mentally and emotionally floating beatifically on "the better angels of our nature".  It is the best kind of manipulation perhaps ever in the annals of film, although I could have done without the dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, which seemed functional only to cloud and mystify the proceedings more than necessary.  But, at heart, it is still masterful manipulation and, inasmuch as I focus on this idea of manipulation, Malick proves himself to be the arthouse equivalent of Spielberg.  The Tree of Life is that rare thing: an extraordinary work of art that crosses over to the mainstream.  But as we all know, a movie ain't just images, and Malick has to know that too.  All this doesn't take away from the fact that the film is still outstanding and unique among films, and far and away the best of the films actually nominated for 2011 Oscars.  An apropos wrap-up story for my write-up: When my brother recommended that my parents see the film back in Pittsburgh, they pretty much dismissed it as a sleep-inducing load of bull, and found it to have zero appeal.  Does Malick corner himself with his "high-fallutin'" method of filmmaking?  Is a film like The Tree of Life's goal to bring humankind together into a collective transcendent movie-going experience?  Should it really be as alienating to people as it clearly has throughout the world?  Who is really his audience?  Can they be identified in any systematic way?  All, I believe, are worthy questions considering what seems like Malick's original objective in making it.

3. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) - U.S.A.
I saw Margaret in its 187-minute extended cut and, throughout the length of a three-hour-plus character piece, I was glued to the screen.  Filmed in 2005 but not released until 2011, the film was caught up in a sticky post-production battle that echoed throughout the trades as well as the general film sphere.  Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker ultimately had a hand in the cut released to theaters.  For what it's worth, Margaret was well worth the wait.  Oh yes, the film is a mess, but all messes should look this appealing and make this much sense.  "Mess" is a term that is supposed to be understood as having a negative connotation regarding the arts.  I find it an admirable descriptor that intimates that a work strives for more than most others do, biting off more than it can chew, leaving the unchewed parts worthy of being abstract expressionist sculptures.  Overwrought metaphor, perhaps, but it is still how I feel.  We may never want to spend the afternoon with Anna Paquin's character in real life, but Lonergan effectively frames her as a figure within an expansive (and expansively urban) canvas.  Those of you who have read much of my writings are no doubt aware that I have been in a life-long love affair with New York on film, and have written several articles on the subject.  My interest starts waning around the outset of the Giuliani era (when Times Square started turning into Disneyland), with only sporadic New York films of the 90's and aughts tickling my jaded but hopeful potential for fascination.  Margaret is one of those rare films that uses New York locales in such a way that characterizes it as a film that could not have been made or shot anywhere else, at least from my perspective.  Its milieu of teenagers in a progressive public school, their selfish and career-driven parents, their natural view of divorce as the patina of normalcy, their deceivingly adult-seeming romantic entanglements, their carefree view of Manhattan as a safe place to playfully hound and distract bus drivers while behind the wheel...and then pursue the same bus driver's ruination on an oddly independent basis -- this all bespeaks a landscape that sometimes the camera outwardly favors over the human specimens on display.  Either the landscape is favored or other unrelated people in the scenery.  In a key scene, the camera begins from a wide shot and inches ever so gradually towards a restaurant booth where Paquin's character is seated with a male friend.  The audio we hear is not their conversation, but rather that of the two older women seated in the next booth.  There are oddly tantalizing choices made all over the place in this picture.  It may not completely coalesce one-hundred percent, but in some ways it does better by not merging its elements, leaving its threads not just dangling but dancing.
4. I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You (Marcelo Gomes, Karim Ainouz) - Brazil
This is by far the most obscure on this list.  Point blank: This Brazilian "journey film" is overwhelming.  I saw it at a one-off screening at New York's Anthology Film Archives and was blown away, particularly since I had entered a foggy period of editing my own "journey film" at the time I saw it.  The person who accompanied me felt similarly positive about this small masterpiece.  Its beautiful poetic simplicity, its courage in experimentation and its haunting and alluringly melancholic mood left a definite residue behind after leaving the theater.  Find a way to see it, if you can.  Since this film is certainly the most esoteric selection on this list, I will recount some story details.  From the Anthology Film Archives program guide: The film tells the story of a geologist who is sent on a fieldtrip to an isolated region in Brazil. The goal of his survey is to assess possible routes for a water canal from the region's only major river.  For those living on the canal's direct course, it means requisitions, departure and loss.  Many of the properties through which he passes will be flooded and many of the people and families will be relocated.  As the fieldtrip progresses, it becomes clear that the lead character shares something in common with the places he visits: emptiness, a sense of abandonment, and isolation. His geological research is slowly pervaded by a sensation of groundlessness, an incessant pining for his ex-wife, and a yearning to return home. But he presses ahead, continuing the trip in the hope that the voyage can somehow transmute his feelings.

5. Green (Sophia Takal) - U.S.A.
Sophia Takal's debut feature is yet another entry in the 2011 stock of artful cinematic tone poems.  This leisurely and ominous meditation and reflection on the nature of jealousy is a film that, in the hands of another young director, could have been just another callow and stagnantly hip entree in the modest pantheon of slightly more elastic Mumblecore genre-benders that evince a certain higher degree of film literacy.  Green nobly and admirably pushes beyond (transcends?) the niche to which it would otherwise too neatly resign itself.  It achieves something rather more unique.  It is a character piece where the muted spaces and environs breathe perhaps more than its often emotionally constricted human inhabitants (especially the quietly repressed young woman well-played by Kate Lyn Sheil).  Green's few opponents have leveled the charge that Takal uses a "lazy shorthand" and thus never really gets to the bottom of the complex emotions relating to jealousy that she attempts to illustrate, depict and gently probe.  That seems to me a shortsighted response.  The film is nothing if not a snapshot, a sketch, a Polaroid, of these irrational feelings...not an x-ray.  In this much, Takal rightly refuses to impose by holding up the magnifying glass to jealousy, and not out of either fear or ease.  The film is too plaintive to be fearful, and too fluent to be easy -- and there are too many intriguing ambiguities to suggest that much of anything is "lazy".  One leaves the theater feeling edgy and, weirdly enough, almost violated.  Takal admitted with a laugh at her Q&A that a person in a previous audience suggested that the film should end with a thriller-esque murder.  While the latter suggestion is not really the least bit viable, it is almost a valid and natural reaction considering the unsettled and unsettling way the film leaves us off.  It has a deft handle on crafting audience emotional response; it is immediate without being visceral, and wisely avoids injecting the material with unnecessary dramatic vitriol.  Among other elements, a droning soundtrack turns some otherwise simple scenes on their head.  That rigid and uneasy fade-out emotion really does fester.  Overall, Green does has some minor faults, most notably the often flagrant overuse of bleached out cut-in bursts of Sheil's character's plaguing sex-fantasy, but it remains a striking and resonant study with a lion's share of organic and largely unedited long-take shots to match its naturalistic performances.  Incidentally, I also loved a character's description of Nolan's The Dark Knight as cryptofascist...because I couldn't have put it any better or more succinctly myself.  As a footnote, kudos also to Takal's and collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine's previous 2010 feature Gabi on the Roof in July, which didn't make 2010's Ten Best, but is still a work of some merit.

6. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) - U.S.A. / France
Midnight in Paris is the damn nicest film since Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly hung up their dancing shoes.  And for my money, Owen Wilson is far and away the best "Woody avatar" in a not-so-illustrious line that includes Will Ferrell, Larry David, John Cusack and Jason Biggs.  As a quick aside, truth be told, I find Kenneth Branagh's Woody imitation in Celebrity kind of endearing in an enjoyably masochistic kind of way.  Midnight in Paris is ebullient and loaded with bonhomie, and you watch it somehow innately knowing that everyone working on the film, either as an actor or as a technician, is having a bona fide first-class time making the film -- even the notoriously anhedonic Woody would seem to us to be smiling behind the camera -- which only increases the enjoyment factor.  It is no doubt Woody would see this airy comic excursion as a light meal.  It certainly is one to savor.  In point of fact, it's a moveable feast.

7. Almayer's Folly (Chantal Akerman) - France / U.K. / Cambodia
Chantal Akerman is a class act in the international cinema scene.  Since her earliest essay films, especially her brilliant News from Home (1976), up to her most recent masterwork Almayer's Folly, she has continued to prove that she is one of the filmmakers still working who thinks the deepest about the medium of film, and adroitly considers how to render complex themes and ideas onscreen.  She is exceptional -- just no two ways about it.  "Liberally adapting" and updating Joseph Conrad's debut 1895 novel to the 1950's Malaysia, she has deliberately lensed the film in Cambodia.  In many ways, it reminds me of Noroit, a lesser known film by my favorite filmmaker Jacques Rivette, except that I admit Almayer's Folly is a more successful piece.  It just proves to me that my ongoing admiration for Akerman is well-founded, and I hope she keeps doing what she does.

8. Aurora (Cristi Piui) - Romania
This minimalist epic's U.S. premiere proved controversial.  Its most virulent Stateside critics argued that the 184-minute film is spartan and spare to the point of near non-existence.  They might have a point.  A few people I know who tried to watch it eventually lost their patience.  It is a simultaneously light and heavy text.  It is as if Cristi Piui was confronted with the challenge of making a narrative film as narratively minimalist as it could possibly be.  It may be minimalist, but it is never threadbare.  What makes this film sing is that its sober and deliberate camera is painstakingly subjective.  Its lack of ornament just becomes a fact of life as one gets fully immersed into the film as a result of it.  Aurora works on such a slow-burn aesthetic that you wonder not only what you have seen during the previous three hours, but also where you have been during all of it.

9. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) - U.S.A.
Ex video store clerk Alex Ross Perry is just my kind of artist.  Any filmmaker who can, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott aptly put it, "scramble my signals" is worthy of some form of praise.  In my book, a film scrambling signals is near gold-standard.  The Color Wheel, Perry's second feature, is the type of film that can take a description like "idiosyncratic" and make it seem like something to which to aspire.  Ostensibly, it is a road film (a subgenre that is admittedly a soft spot for me), but to categorize the film strictly in these terms would be to pigeonhole it.  Perry is the type of filmmaker who, on his first time out, says to himself, "I am going to make my own movie version of the notoriously unadaptable Pynchon novel Gravity's Rainbow" and winds up with a strange bird of a film like Impolex, which, sure, was not entirely successful but definitely had guts.  I am rewarding The Color Wheel for more than just guts.  Perry's sophomore effort is a marvel of ingenuity and originality, shot on 16mm black-and-white (another soft spot for me), slightly rough and ragged around the edges...making for solid nitty-gritty meat-and-potatoes down-and-dirty DIY filmmaking. 

10. Two Gates of Sleep (Alistair Banks Griffin) - U.S.A.
In the same tradition and mold as Aurora, this potent and powerful minimalist film is among the most artful "journey films" of the last few years.  First-time feature director Alistair Banks Griffin has cast Brady Corbet and David Call as two brothers who take a daring upstream trek to honor their mother's final request.  The widescreen images are gorgeous, the narrative is succinct and pointedly focused, and the performances are tempered and, eventually, quite powerful.

Runners-Up: Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown), Shame (Steve McQueen), A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Hugo (Martin Scorsese), Pina (Wim Wenders), Weekend (Andrew Haigh), Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynn Ramsey), The Interrupters (Steve James), Another Earth (Mike Cahill)

Still Need to See: The Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)

Most Overrated Films: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)
I write more about Ryan Gosling and Drive below.  My main problem with The Artist is its terminal quaintness.  I appreciated what the film seemed to be saying about the perils of artistic principle, but then it eschewed its audience's intellectual engagement for forays into melodramatic manipulation, and gratuitous cute-dog shots.  Do I think The Artist deserves its major awards?  In some ways, sure, but I would stop after giving it a special prize for moxie and enterprise.  But honestly, the film is just too cute and self-conscious for me to really take it seriously as one of the year's best movies.  I do like the two lead actors though.  I mean, I definitely bought Jean Dujardin as a 1920's matinee idol all the way.  The best thing the film did was to introduce audiences to other better silent films from its native (i.e. pre-1927) era.  The film consists of pale imitations of so many silent filmmakers, and I do not see the joy in the homage that everyone else sees.  It is, in turns, a pastiche of Keaton, King Vidor, Chaplin, Lloyd and Dorothy Arzner.  But I cannot perceive the pleasure that Hazanavicius should feel when he is spotlighting these silent and early cinema icons.  The Artist also commits the unpardonable sin of lifting Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score for almost its entire third act.  That was upsetting to me because it was a shameless steal and not a pastiche.

The Worst Films of 2011
1. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry) - Ahh, one of the rare films to score an F rating at the Onion AV Club, we meet again.  There is some consolation in knowing that a precious few took this one seriously.  As one critic aptly put it, "The film should have been called Extremely Labored & Incredibly Crass."  I would add the following: offensive, schmaltzy, nauseatingly calculated, soft in the head, pandering, sometimes grossly far-fetched, tragedy-milking, conscience-less, emotionally cardboard stuff-and-nonsense.  It is rare that a movie pisses me off just because of how moronic it is.  This was such a movie, because it gets made only because it expects itself to be accepted as Oscar-bait (and sadly succeeds), and hams up manufactured Hollywood emotion that dances cutesy and goo-goo-eyed down the rows of thousands of graves.  Oh yes, and get this: they hired the gallingly awful child actor Thomas Horn after seeing him as a contestant on "Kids Jeopardy".  His dubious origins are all too apparent when you catch many of his embarrassing acting moments in the movie.  Shame on those who made the film, shame on those who greenlit a script of its like, and shame on those who got it nominated for Oscars.  As Ebert put it, "You will not discover why it was thought that this story needed to be told. There must be a more plausible story to be told about a boy who lost his father on 9/11. This plot is contrivance and folderol. The mysterious key, the silent old man and the magical tambourine are the stuff of fairy tales, and the notion of a boy walking all over New York is so preposterous we're constantly aware of it as a storytelling device. The events of 9/11 have left indelible scars. They cannot be healed in such a simplistic way."  I should note, however, that Max Von Sydow's presence outclasses everything about this singularly wretched and disgusting piece of dreck.  Direction in this is handed to Stephen Daldry, who really needs to do years of penance with all due dispatch before returning to the director's chair.  "Jeopardy" indeed! "The worst film of 2011."  "What is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Alex?"  Pain from an event of mass hysteria and tragedy cannot be healed by the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark card that doesn't rhyme or cannot string a sentence together.  My oh my, it felt good getting all that out of my system!  Did you get how much I hated it?  Did ya?
2. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) - Et tu, Clinté?  I could not wait for this film to end.  The assumedly "progressive" Manhattan audience with whom I saw the movie could not stop laughing at those ineptly staged love scenes.  I do not blame them a bit.
3. Your Highness (David Gordon Green) - I watched about half of this when I was invited over to a friend's house for a group movie night.  I was repulsed by it.  Imagine my shock when I discovered that it had been directed by David Gordon Green.  Oh, the pain of a talent squandered!
4. Restless (Gus Van Sant) - You expect more from someone like Gus Van Sant than a weak and painfully twee "odd romance" that offers more than just a passing wink to Harold and Maude (including the unforgivably derivative feature that its main male character attends funerals as a favorite pastime).  Yes, if you have to steal, steal from the best...but as Judge Judy is fond of saying, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.

The Pleasant Diversion Award: The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Best Performances of the Year: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Anna Paquin (Margaret), Jeannie Berlin (Margaret), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene), John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Kate Lyn Sheil (Green), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Brit Marling (Another Earth), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Stanlislas Merhar (Almayer's Folly)

Best Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Best Screenwriting: Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

The Worst Serious Film I Didn't See: Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia) - The horror... The horror...  Did someone just one day say, "We should dress Glenn Close up as a dude and we'll sell tickets"?  Deluded.  I cannot even look at her in the film's trailer without cringing at how awkward and just plain creepy she looks.

A 2011 Fad That I Hope Dissipates: The casting of Ryan Gosling
I have had it in for Ryan Gosling's "style" for quite awhile now.  He spent most of Drive posing and looking pretty.  He spent the rest of his career posing and looking hard-boiled.  Gosling wants you to believe that he is tightly wound as an actor, with an intensity that he can only pray can equal the giants in the profession.  Everything about him, though, at least to me, is posing.  This extends beyond the way he plays roles in films, and to the role he plays off stage and screen.  Hailing from Canada, Gosling affects a faux Brooklyn accent.  When confronted on this front, he responded that it sounded cooler.  To me, this is what Gosling is largely about, especially when it comes to onscreen presence.  The man starred in four 2011 films.  One thing Oscar got right last year was not nominating him for any single one of them.  I hope casting him is a fancy that passes within the next few years.  Knowing Hollywood's perennial jones for a pretty face, I probably won't get my wish.


2010 is slightly more balanced and tempered with both independent and mainstream titles.  2011 was a great year for arthouse, but an awful one for the mainstream market.

1. Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a. Go Get Some Rosemary) (Joshua Safdie, Benny Safdie) - U.S.A.
This consummately emotional film feels so intensely personal and, I daresay, private that one cannot help but think that the filmmaker brothers behind it had no choice but to get it all out there by making it.  And yet, lo and behold, the Safdie Brothers' acclaimed roman-a-clef is not stigmatized by ever feeling like it is just a piece of therapy in film form.  Daddy Longlegs, which I first saw under its original title Go Get Some Rosemary, is richly felt filmmaking, the act of which is clearly guided by need and not by capriciousness.  You are virtually knocked back and bloody center by a fantastic blur of emotion.  After seeing it, one is left truly exhausted but undoubtedly better off for the experience.  This loud-and-proud handheld indie follows a reckless schlemeil of a divorced father (Ronald Bronstein of Frownland, named below as a runner-up) as he spends two weeks with his sons Sage and Frey.  At one point in the film, when Bronstein's two young sons awaken after being accidentally drugged, I felt myself choking up.  After more than an hour of almost shouting at the screen in protest over the onscreen father's ineptitude, I found myself celebrating with him, and developing interest and sympathy for his bracingly obnoxious character.  As the film's playfully tongue-in-cheek dedication states, "For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for the middle perspective, a lost past, lights on during the day time, lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments and our mother."  You had me at "something there," guys.

2. The Social Network (David Fincher) - U.S.A.
Ahh, nothing like a good old-fashioned swashbuckler film!  Too much has been written about this film already and I am not going to add very much, largely because I have nothing all that new to say.  This literate follow-up to Sidney Lumet's 1976 scorcher Network could have been more timely or released at any better moment in history.  Yes, it is a lot of young dudes, all male, behind computer screens and/or phones.  Yes, the film operates in a bubble.  Yes, it has a very docudrama-esque center.  What Fincher does, however, to exercise his authorial voice is to wisely exploit these ostensible drawbacks to mold it into something like a swashbuckler film.  Not even a corporate swashbuckler film, but something even rarer: a nerd swashbuckler film.

3. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski) - France / U.K. / U.S.A.
First of all, no one crafts atmosphere and formal mood as well as Polanski.  Secondly, who knew Pierce Brosnan could really...act.  I mean, yeah, I always liked him as James Bond, and he always lends a solid presence in many of his other films, but The Ghost Writer marks the first time where I am actually seeing him clearly making choices as an actor and not holding himself as a movie star.  The Ghost Writer is one of the most skillful thrillers in many a year, loving detailed and packed with nuance in every scene and nearly every shot.  I originally caught the film on a 15-hour airplane ride to India and then wound up watching it again on the way home.  When I arrived home, I bought the DVD and watched it again.  Polanski's conscious decision to shoot the entirety of the film on overcast days establishes an extremely effective mood, and reminded me of how one of my favorite films of all time, Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), did the same.  I was joyfully intoxicated by this film, and it is certainly my favorite Polanski film to come alone in some time.  The ashen-gray beaches and the dulled, colorless skies make this film's visuals sing.  Cameo turns by Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also grant welcome diversions as the onscreen mystery unfolds.

4. The King's Speech (Tom Hooper) - U.K.
As a person who grew up with a severe stutter (it used to take me over two minutes to get my name out as a kid) and retreated from the world during my teenage years as a result, The King's Speech was a watershed film for me and, yes, thousands of other people I know via organizations for people who stutter.  On that account alone, seeing this film was overpowering to me.  I cried at the climactic scene, out of sheer joy.  I too had been at such a culminating moment before regarding a speaking situation.  I may not be the most impartial judge when it comes to this film.  Colin Firth's acting awards and accolades for his role as King George VI are well-deserved.  He invested just the right amount of outward emotion, provided an ever-commanding screen presence and got the actual stutter just right.  It is a crowd-pleaser and a populist film, indeed...but a very, very smart one.

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) - U.S.A.
It is hard to care very much about a fiercely misanthropic pariah like Ben Stiller's Greenberg, the type of guy who provides a biting and unforgiving running commentary on the unwitting guy in a neighboring restaurant booth whose flamboyant gestures are irking him.  It is hard to found an entire film or novel around an unlikable central figure, let alone one that is a character study.  But writer-director Noah Baumbach, writer-star Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stiller don't just make you care, but take you all the way inside such a character in a way that is never hackneyed nor even predictable.  We grow to understand and even, weirdly enough, like Greenberg, a character that most would initially find repellant and alienating.  Greenberg is the very portrait of constipation arising from youth gone to pot.  He is an unapologetic layabout who has not the foggiest clue that he definitely has an axe to grind.  To me, Greenberg proves uncontestably that Ben Stiller is a popular comic actor capable of tremendous pathos and is more capable of building character than someone like Adam Sandler, whose dramatic turn in Reign Over Me I found horribly forced and whose performance in Punch-Drunk Love was only almost-there.  Providing able support is Greta Gerwig, whose character is equally charting the waters without a compass.  Gerwig is excellent in the role of Florence, helping to make Greenberg one of the great films of 2010...and perhaps the year's best character piece.  The climactic party scene, in which the savvy Greenberg rebukes the feckless "ADD and carpal tunnel" stupor of Generation Y with a healthy slug of wicked sarcasm, is a gem.  Kudos also to Harris Savides (R.I.P.) for his arresting camerawork.

6. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy) - U.S.A.
The nature of authorship is a difficult theme to make entertaining.  This (ersatz?) documentary takes more than a few unexpected turns and keeps you excited while traversing its crazy, winding road.  The Mr. Brainwash/Thierry character is both maddening and so absurdly entertaining that you find yourself pining for a six-pack, a joint and a copy of his misbegotten movie project Life Remote Control.

7. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes) - Portugal 
The official release date of this film was 2008.  That was the Portuguese release, however.  It premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2009 and received general American theatrical release in 2010, so I am of course counting it as a 2010 film.

8. Buried (Rodrigo Cortés) - Spain / U.S.A.
Far-fetched elements aside (a cellphone that gets clear-as-a-bell reception six feet under, for one), this claustrophobic thriller kept me glued to the screen for its entire length.  It probably would have anyway, by sheer virtue of its curiosity value.  The film is filmed entirely within a buried coffin and never once leaves the confines of this constricted space.  Can such a thing sustain a 90-minute film running time?  This is most likely the first question that one asks upon first hearing this concept.  Despite the admittedly unimpressive Ryan Reynolds' occasionally labored north-of-hysteria performance and his general lack of gravitas, this remains a prodigious and impressive example of filmmaking ingenuity.  I was amazed that it kept me engaged without even once leaving the coffin space.  Something needs to be said to underscore just how impressive that is.  It gives claustrophobia a premium in entertainment value.

9. Catfish (Ariel Schulman, Yaniv Schulman, Henry Joost) - U.S.A.
Real or not real...who cares?  Honestly.  Catfish does not lean on its purported based-on-truth claim for the appraisal of its ultimate worth.  This is not the same kind of animal as the similar hoax film I'm Still HereI'm Still Here never addresses anything thematic or otherwise beyond its standard one-joke premise that is under the impression that it examines the nature of celebrity.  Catfish, on the other hand, most certainly does address a worthy theme...and also manages to entertain and compel more than I'm Still Here ever did.  It is a rich theme: Internet and identity...or rather plural, identities.  No film has tackled it as well as Catfish has.

10. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle) - U.S.A. (tie)
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is another film that affirms one's faith in the magic of cinema.  This DIY musical shot on 16mm black-and-white is a delight, and the songs are certainly catchy.

10. Barney's Version (Richard Lewis) - Canada (tie)
I have a soft spot for Canadian-Jewish author Mordecai Richler and found that the film version of Barney's Version lived up to Richler's unique literary voice.  The miniseries adaptation of Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman (2008) also lived up to this tall task, and was the first work since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) to deliver Richler's original vision to the screen intact.  I wrote about Richler slightly more in-depth in my multi-part Canadian article, with a whole chapter devoted towards Jewish Canada.  Paul Giamatti carries the torch well in bringing another of Richler's vernisht male protagonists to life. 

Runners-Up: The Town (Ben Affleck), Frownland (Ronald Bronstein), Gabi on the Roof in July (Lawrence Michael Levine), Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus), Please Give (Nicole Holofcener), Open Five (Kentucker Audley), Cold Weather (Aaron Katz), Audrey the Trainwreck (Frank V. Ross), Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson), The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)

Still Need to See: Carlos (Olivier Assayas), Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu)

Most Overrated Films: Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham), The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky), The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
Concerning Lena Dunham, I hardly know where to even begin.  In my estimation, she has risen to become a verifiable pop culture phenomenon and a household name based on...I'm sorry, but oh so very little.  I personally believe it to be a mix of nepotism and the fickleness of the popular taste of our times.  The vision of Tiny Furniture is so limited to its posh, rich-bitch environs as to trumpet the filmmaker's all too obviously sheltered and privileged upbringing.  This is old hack, and is not a new criticism of Dunham.  There are some very good things in Tiny Furniture, her sophomore feature following her nearly unwatchable debut Creative Nonfiction (2008).  I found her obituary piece on Nora Ephron equally insufferable.  Jody Lee Lipes' elegant and effectively precise cinematography gives the film an edge over the average low-budget outing.  It is a sleek package all the way around in the visual department.  I just had an extremely difficult time caring for Dunham's overbearingly precious life in terms of her character in this film, and all of the other folks on display were equally overbearing.  There were some charming insights.  Reference to the film Christiane F. made me laugh, among other things.  But this film is just empty, empty, empty. 

The Worst Films of 2010
1. The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky) - I seem to be among the few who saw this film for what it was: an empty and overwrought bit of nonsense.  If Aronofsky's named had been taken off it, the film would have gotten the fanfare of a pair of tit-mice in a Belgian cheese factory.
2. Holy Rollers (Kevin Asch) - Poorly researched, predictably executed, full of laughable errors and egregious oversights.  Someone should have told the director or the set dressers that Jews do not pray out of tractates of the Talmud.
3. I'm Still Here (Casey Affleck) -A tired and boring one-joke premise that does not even know how to execute its limited ambitions.  My buddies and I turned it off after 45 minutes of it going nowhere. It's rare that I leave a film unfinished.
4. Miral (Julian Schnabel) -  If you are going to tackle something as weighty and momentous as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, you are going to have to do better than this.  A lot better.

Disappointments: Get Low (Aaron Schneider), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)

Best Screenwriting: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) - Sorkin's screenplay gives new meaning and cojones to the term "real crackerjack scripting."

Best Cinematography: Harris Savides (Greenberg)

The Worst Film I Didn't See: How Do You Know (James L. Brooks) - Do I need to see it?  I'm sure I can tell you everything about it without seeing a frame.  How do I know?  How do I not know?  James L. Brooks, you go from Terms of Endearment to this?

The Pleasant Diversion Award: The Trotsky (Jacob Tierney) - A fun and pleasant little Rushmore-esque coming-of-age comedy from Canada.

Best Performances of the Year: Colin Firth (The King's Speech), Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs), Ben Stiller (Greenberg), Pierce Brosnan (The Ghost Writer), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

A 2010 Fad That I Hope Dissipates: Dramas centered around the cyberworld
What more could a filmmaker say about the Holocaust after films like Schindler's List?  Likewise, how much more could one say about the cutthroat cyberworld beyond The Social Network and Catfish?  In other words, it has been done well, so why do it again just to do it, to pluck peoples' strings.

Download and View The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour on Fandor!

As of September, my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour is now available to download on the video-on-demand site Fandor.  You can access and download the film here.  It is featured on that site with many much-talked-about recent films such as Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse, Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues and many others.  For the cost of a Fandor subscription, you can see my film and all these others for just $10/month (and you also have the option of a two-week free trial).  Please note that proceeds go directly back into the filmmakers' pockets.

Filmmaker Rob Nilsson, winner of the 1978 Cannes Film Festival Camera d'Or and the 1987 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, says of the film, "The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour is a no-budget, do-it-yourself excursion to India, from a very talented filmmaker of considerable enterprise and admirable aplomb. Actor William Cully Allen is heartbreaking in the role and has a very dynamic face -- there is a piquant, tragic quality there that makes one understand and gravitate towards him and his mission. The beautiful cinematography and the compelling story guarantee a 'gravity tour' to the East that you won’t regret taking."

In other news, I am editing to finally complete a feature-length project that I shot as far back as 2006 and 2007.  It is a stylized portrait of the short life and long death of writer Klaus Mann, son of Nobel author Thomas Mann, set in modern-day Philadelphia.  In 2007, I left behind an aborted, unfinished 62-minute cut with no ending and only half a second act cobbled together.  I returned only recently to investigate if there was enough material to finish the project.  The project is titled Sophisticated Acquaintance, which intimates that the main character is a loner, an intellectual and willfully a friend of no one.  It is also a reference to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past when the narrator refers to Swann as a "sophisticated acquaintance" and is later deprived of his mother's goodnight kiss because of Swann's presence in the family house (as the film is, among other things, about a strained familial relationship).  There were certainly some embarrassing and pretentious moments in the original cut to prove that I have grown (I hope at least) as a filmmaker in the last five or six years, and I am putting the pieces together with a new awareness of what works and what does not.  The leading pretension was the original title, Umlaut: The Klaus Mann Project.  Thus far, it's been a very fascinating process, and one that has certainly made me look back and reflect on where I was then in terms of strengths and weaknesses...and where I am now.

I am still working on Teschlock's Whale, the Rivette-inspired "reinvented recut" of The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour in whatever spare time I have.  We will soon resume the shooting of the Sag Harbor yacht-set thriller One Corner Surfacing by first taking care of interiors in winter (although the project takes place in summer).  I will also be shooting the tentatively titled The Close Facsimile with co-director Deniz Demirer in San Francisco in January.  I am also working on a book detailing the fascinating life and career of marginalized director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C, The Entity), expanding the earlier profile piece published on this blog with the help of the man himself.  One Corner Surfacing is an homage to the work of Furie, as well as the thrillers of Alan J. Pakula and Arthur Penn.

Reinventing the Reels: Considering the Implications and Possibilities in the Rivettian Make-Over Edit

One of the countless things I admire about my favorite filmmaker and personal creative hero Jacques Rivette is his insight for recognizing and actively realizing the breadth, depth and fullness of expression in the artistic process and the filmmaking craft.  This, to me, is illustrated perhaps most in the fact that Rivette has, on his own volition, recut, overhauled and completely made over certain films of his own, as a thoughtful meditation and reconsideration of the material itself.  This is truly extraordinary, in that literally no other filmmaker on the international scene does such a thing.  This practice, however, is not to be confused with directors presenting a director’s cut and/or an extended version years after a film’s initial release.  This is reinvention.  We are talking about an artist totally rethinking the work at its core, and reconsidering its essence.  We are talking about re-focusing a project’s ambitions — watching it walk back over itself.

In 1974, Rivette recut and reinvented his Out 1 into the retitled Out 1: Spectre.  In 1981, he reshaped his feature film La pont du nord into a short film called Paris s'en va.  In 1991, he recut his La belle noiseuse into the retitled Divertimento.  These are six completely different films culled from the same wells of footage.  There are select isolated incidents in cinema history when material is used over again in only slightly reinvented versions, but no one seems to think as deeply about the ramifications of this as Rivette does.   One such example is Alain Robbe-Grillet, who helmed N. a pris les dés (1971) using footage from his previous year’s Eden and After (1970).  Robbe-Grillet later did the same in literature, reworking his early novel Le reprise into a late-career novel called Les gommes. In the music world, the late musician Arthur Russell conceived many of his most haunting cello/vocal songs using worked-over riffs, repeated, sharpened then softened again with a shuffling of moods and audio motifs. Russell meditates on these elements, in some sense reinventing them in succession over the course of entire albums.  Filmmaker Alain Resnais also toyed with a similar notion of meta-reinvention with his 1993 diptych Smoking/No Smoking.

Sure, needless to say, there are plenty of horror stories about any number of outside hands wrecking and emasculating films and, yes, I include studio heads and overzealous producers in the “outside hands” category.  But a director himself beginning again from scratch after having completed a cut he has approved for release to the public, and then releasing yet a second film for the public to consider is unique and exhilaratingly novel.  It’s a patently original process, demonstrating great care, respect and excitement for the form, as no other filmmaker in my perspective possibly could demonstrate it, at least to such an extent.

Time Out London critic and film scholar Jonathan Romney writes of Divertimento, “Rivette here remodels La belle noiseuse into another film entirely, using alternative takes, recutting to a much brisker rhythm, and bookending it with a discretely but crucially different beginning and ending.  The film makes more of a mystery out of the artist-model relationship; the emphasis now shifts radically onto the artist’s wife, who now witnesses the proceedings from outside, much as we do.  It’s a lighter film, but by no means slighter; it’s more like the difference between a Henry James short story and an extended performance piece.”  Romney also writes that Out 1: Spectre is “not so much a digest of Rivette’s legendary original Out 1 as a ghost and a reworking of some of the same material (‘a critique,’ Rivette himself says).  Cinema will never be the same, and neither will we.”  I cannot undersell how enterprising and fascinating this is.  This idea of a film critiquing itself within the outlines of a reinvention of itself is truly revolutionary, and not even Godard at his most deconstructively fiery could reach these heights.  Of this, Rivette says, “Film is not granite or stone.  It lives.  A general release of one version does nothing to change that.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, "Complicating the textual status of Out 1 still further is the 255-minute Out 1: Spectre, which Rivette spent the better part of a year editing out of the original material. Part of the fascinating difference between the two films can be seen in the ways that identical footage can often carry disparate meanings and perform radically different dramatic and narrative functions according to its separate placement in each film. (The opening shot of Spectre, for instance, occurs almost three hours into the serial. One of the more striking differences in the long version is that Michel Lonsdale, the director of one of the film's two theater groups, emerges as the central character -- not only because of his role in guiding his group's improvisations and psychic self-explorations, but also because his ambiguous role as a rather infantile patriarch becomes pivotal to the overall movement of the plot.)"

As I am on hold while facing vexing but not insurmountable production troubles on the thriller I am directing, promoting my newest film A Simple Game of Catch, and in early pre-production on a film I am co-directing in San Francisco, I have decided to “do a Rivette” on my 2011 feature The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour.  I have taken this task upon myself knowing that there is enough material that was never used in the original version, which makes such a prospect exciting for me as its principal creator.  Insofar that every film one makes is like a child to its filmmaker father/mother, I will have eventually given birth to twins.  In considering this upcoming recut of my own film, seeing my raw material anew with a fresh pair of eyes courtesy of the sweet immunities granted by time and distance, and calling to mind how exceptional Rivette’s cinematic “reinveted films” are, I started thinking about what other films for which I would love to see make-overs — and not out of discontent for the films the way they are currently, but out of an awareness of and excitement for their own elasticity.

Not every film warrants reinvention, however, and some films warrant it more than others.  For instance, in the creatively fertile early 70’s, it seems that shooting ratios (i.e. the ratio of raw film shot to film elements used in the final cut) were at the most “insane” for American film.  It was not uncommon for filmmakers to shoot almost a million feet of film for a 90-minute motion picture.  In perhaps the most exploratory and intensely probing period for actual film production, when single scenes became encounter sessions and epic-scale improvisatory wonder-reels, and when the editing process became something akin to active sculpting of the unwieldy moving parts, the possibilities for re-toolings works of this nature are endless.

Similarly, The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour, a film which pays homage to many of the pictures of that period, was simply a constant discovery in that the cameras just rolled often with only the vague outline of a game-plan, ending up with a prodigiously large shooting ratio and material at which I ultimately chizzeled away for over a year.  As a result, I have one finished film and loads of unused material that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time, and I now believe I can tell another story (or at least another side of the same story) with this wealth of rushes.  The new work will be titled Teschlock’s Whale.

Below are some other films which, to me, are the most promising candidates for Rivettian re-imaginings, by sheer virtue of the nature of the projects and the rumors of their shooting ratios.

The Last Movie (1971, Directed by Dennis Hopper)  Wild stories of this film’s production are truly the stuff of legends.  Running the gamut from a dancing-wild-in-the-aisles airplane trip to Peru with cast and crew, to a drug-fueled flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants shooting schedule, The Last Movie has time and again been used as an example of the wretched excesses of the New American Cinema of the early 70’s.  I am one of a steadily growing number of admirers, however, who find that film extraordinary, or at the very least challenging and brilliantly daring.  Albeit, this is through the lens of four decades having gone with the wind.  It is certainly one of the few examples of abstract expressionist filmmaking.  Dennis Hopper himself used the term “abstract expressionism” to describe the film’s bold editing techniques in the now rarely seen 1988 documentary Out of the Blue and Into the Black.  At the time of its original 1971 inception, though, it was barely released and promptly buried as an incomprehensible failure of the first order.  As rumor has it, cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (of El Topo and The Holy Mountain fame) goaded Hopper to rip an early more straightforward edit apart in favor of a final version that would, among other things, more directly insure traumatizing the Universal Pictures execs.  Most of all, though, what the current edit of the film does is test the elasticity of the film form to muse on its fallibility and its beautiful fallacies.  One can witness an unhinged Hopper in Taos, New Mexico editing The Last Movie first-hand in L.M. Kit Carson’s documentary The American Dreamer, and that can tell you an awful lot about Hopper’s chaotic, tripped-out headspace while putting the film together.  A miscellaneous brigade of hippies and transients that Hopper encountered in Taos had their go at shaping the film’s final form.  However, knowing what the shooting ratio was on The Last Movie and knowing what must have gone on while on location in Peru makes one chostle in wonderment about how a Rivettian reinvention of the material would play.  Unfortunately, Hopper has left the planet, so we will most likely never know.  As is, it is a film that has angered and frustrated audiences for decades.  That does not take away from the fact that the film is still brilliant and original…even if it were only by sheer virtue of being itself loud and proud.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961, Directed by Marlon Brando)  The workprint Brando turned into Paramount Pictures in 1961 for his Method Acting Western-revenge saddle-drama was over five hours long.  At 141 minutes, the film still holds the record for the largest shooting ratio in Hollywood history, with six times the amount of footage normally shot on a picture of that size.  First-time director Marlon Brando assumed the director’s chair after personally firing Stanley Kubrick.  Cineastes have been trying to envision for years how a Kubrick-directed One-Eyed Jacks would have played.  What transpired as a result of Kubrick’s firing was a genre-constrained acting workshop for Brando and his band of undoubtedly bewildered actors.  Just how much and how substantially the film could be altered and re-focused will probably be forever left to the imagination, as the footage is most likely long deteriorated and/or destroyed.  As it is, One-Eyed Jacks would most definitely make my top-ten favorite Westerns list, and is also a favorite of Martin Scorsese, mostly because it takes a standard cowboy-bandit revenge tale and injects a healthy dose of Stanislavsky, in which we can see Brando wired at his most layered and finely tuned since On the Waterfront—and it’s a small wonder that his career petered out for over ten years after this film’s completion, as his amount of exertion on this film probably made him run out of gas fast.  One can only wonder if the mountains of unused material could yield a solid reinvented edit, but I personally have faith that there most likely was enough.  Concerning even his five-hour cut, Brando was unhappy with the final product.  Of it, he said, "It's a good picture for Paramount, but it's not the picture I made.  Now, the characters in the film are black-and-white, not gray-and-human as I planned them."

A Safe Place (1971, Directed by Henry Jaglom) According to a 1971 public television talk show featuring film critic Molly Haskell in which she interviews Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom about their respective films’ inclusion in that year’s New York Film Festival, Bogdanovich reveals that Jaglom shot enough material on his debut film, the 94-minute A Safe Place, to render at least two finished films.  Unused material apparently included a lost scene of Bogdanovich himself dancing and juggling.  Bogdanovich later says in that same talk-show interview, “I think Henry just wanted it for his scrapbook.”  In interviews decades after the aborted Columbia release of the sharply polarizing A Safe Place, Jaglom claimed that he shot around 65,000 feet of film on the project, rendering his shooting ratio somewhere in the range of 15:1.  Considering both this prodigious shooting ratio and the breezily experimental nature of the film, a hallucinatory and fragmentary journey into the world of a young woman’s complex emotional life, one can easily and with very little concerted effort imagine an alternate Rivettian reinvention of the material, and one that would zero in on other themes and aspects of Jaglom’s simultaneously loose but tightly structured tableau.  Then again, truth be told, it would also be interesting just to see Bogdanovich dance on camera.  Jaglom remembers the film's massacre in the press: "The New York Times or Time Magazine said the film looked like it had been tossed in the air and landed in a mix-master."  The film dabbles in a variety of thematic areas including memory, illusion, time and its repercussions in the world of human emotion and, in many ways, women's liberation.  The character tries to find her "safe place" by, among other things, willfully abstaining from the world at large, rather than by clawing away at her identity.  These are rather capacious thematic aspects, each worthy of their own film (or even their own recut and reinvention).  Screen tests featured on the Criterion Collection DVD of the film intimate that scenes existed between characters who, in the finished version, passed like ships in the night (e.g. the characters played by Phillip Proctor and Gwen Welles share a seduction scene in the screen tests, and never share a moment together in the final cut).  Jack Nicholson’s appearance in the final cut of the film feels deliberately capricious and fly-by-night, suggesting to me that his scenes were heavily workshopped as the cameras rolled mag after mag.   Orson Welles’ “wonder rabbi” character, the presiding spirit in Tuesday Weld’s character’s fractured cine-psyche, seems similarly urged towards in-the-moment invention by a general on-set spirit.  Evidently, Jaglom also captured a collection of encounters with various personal friends and personal acquaintances for the film, as well as recording every nook and cranny of his parents’ posh Central Park West apartment as it existed in 1970.  Now, one can most likely only imagine, and leave it at that.  As an addendum, Jaglom’s sophomore feature, the 90-minute Tracks, is perhaps equally a candidate for Rivettian reinvention, as an early version of that film allegedly ran four hours.

Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Directed by Ingmar Bergman)  It would seem as if Bergman chose to shoot Scenes from a Marriage in much the same style as Rivette shot both Out 1 and La belle noiseuse, with a copious amount of angles that could serve in visually and psychologically re-contextualizing the audience's experience of watching the tremulous marriage between Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson disintegrate, if re-edited in such a way.  Bergman's objective in making this film seems quite focused and incisive, however, and it is doubtful that he would have ever entertained a reinvented version of this film, although it was ultimately condensed from a 281-minute Swedish miniseries down to a 173-minute American theatrical film—and there is a palpable difference in the rate of an audience's appreciable emotional exhaustion between the two cuts.  Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives could similarly be re-imagined in this vein, considering its kamikaze jump-cut hand-held style.  In Episode/Chapter 5 of Scenes from a Marriage, titled "The Illiterates," the ferocious argument over the signing of the couple's divorce papers constitutes the majority of screen time.  It is a sequence whose power and message solely relies on the conviction of the actors and the precision in the rhythm of cutting, and Bergman does establish such a precision.  As much as there are different ways of painting a landscape or a face, there are a myriad of ways to cut a scene, with every bit as much precision.  Rivette's use of alternate angles in an early dinner scene of La belle noiseuse/Divertimento alone renders a different scene both psychologically and emotionally.  Scenes from a Marriage is perhaps one of the most exciting prospects for a reinvented film, but alas, it will most likely never happen.

Coming Apart (1969, Directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg) Director Ginsberg once mentioned in an interview that the cut he originally delivered to the distributor was four hours long.  As is, the film is a 110-minute series of hidden-camera encounters that psychiatrist Rip Torn has with a parade of unusual and often damaged women.  I have written about this film before, in my article about New York mayoral eras on film (despite the fact that we never leave Rip Torn's high-rise apartment over the entire length of the film).  One of the words that leaps to mind about Coming Apart is "raw" in that its edgy caught-in-real-time technical parameters and its frenzied penchant for emotional outbursts do much to jangle the nerves.  Much could be done in the editing room to render a different take on the events in the film.  This example is certainly more difficult to discuss relative to the other films I have profiled, in that it is perhaps the most confounding and discursive of the five examples.  Ginsberg certainly does not lack a sophistication in his approach, but the work itself can appear rather unforgivingly rough-and-tumble on a cursory glance.  The majority of the film is shot in long takes, and every cut is met with a harsh punch on the audio track, making us wholly cognizant of the cut itself.  I have often tried to imagine the alternate cut of the film which would function more of a scrapbook of bedlam, cutting more often than it does and often returning to fragments of the encounters that would build towards another design.  The centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly an orgiastic gathering of spaced-out individuals which occurs about an hour into the film.  Presenting this sequence alone in a kind of fragmentary manner would shape Coming Apart into something wholly other.