MFF 2013 DAY THREE: Blow Out – Oh Boy – Something in the Air

9/28/2013

State of Cinema, featuring The Dissolve

The Dissolve, recently launched film extension of Pitchfork Media (Chicago based indy music site), is operated by the team who brought the Onion A.V. Club from the streets of Madison, WI to real national prominence: Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin and Tasha Robinson (present now and not including a few others who are no less relevant). They have earned the credibility and fanbase to write about what they want, when they want, offering commentary on a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films (sound familiar?), moving away from atrophying systems of distribution to digital streaming and tinier screens by the day; in a word, primarily internet-based media.

For ninety minutes these writers discussed evolving cinema models and the inevitable implosion of an antiquated Hollywood studio system where marketing costs have essentially eliminated the usefulness of making pictures whose profits are not LOTR-proportioned – or that are so cheap that risk is minimized to the point of being hardly measurable. They then chose a film to screen in 35mm in that glorious main auditorium of Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater: de Palma’s Blow Out.

Blow Out

This was maybe my fourth time seeing Blow Out, I think..? Two or three times too many, I fear. But I was surprised to note its lukewarm effect on a very well populated theater; the laughs elicited during the film’s lighthearted moments were more like the reluctant people-pleasing utterances chortled to the partygoer who approached you and won’t leave (with the exception of the finale, which did provoke some genuine guffaws from my neighbors) and, really, the film’s tension is more implied than exercised. My schedule did not permit me to stay for the Q&A with The Dissolve, but if I had I would’ve asked them to explain the relevance of the solid, primary reds, whites and blues which permeate virtually every scene of the film, a particular combination that clashes very unattractively (“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen”) – though I’ll admit I did not think those thoughts during Pierrot le Fou, which we’ll all concede applies the same colors ad nauseum. I’m tempted to blame Blow Out’s production design, but it is evident that De Palma knew precisely what he wanted and got it. I found myself noticing that the first time I noticed that color schema was when Jack was given the option to compromise and lie, or challenge the powers that be: red, white and blue equals patriotic duty? The Dissolvers did mention that they loved old governmental conspiracy films, so perhaps those colors represent the omniscient, malign will of Big Brother? But of course this is not a governmental conspiracy film; a private source merely attempts to libel a rival candidate and loses control of its willful, lone hatchet man. That’s a far cry from the sinister scope seen in The Parallax View.

There seems to be only one idea at the film’s center: “Get the scream.” And I can’t help but see the film as a rather indulgent genre exercise, and can’t help but compare De Palma to Tarantino (gulp), the leitmotifs of both auteurs being more about the language of cinema than anything original – apropos, examine the later films of both artists that did not reflect homage but originality and witness the demotion of quality (Blow Out vs Snake Eyes, Pulp Fiction versus Kill Bill). Get that scream… red, white, and blue. As for Pauline Kael’s gushing praise of the film, well, she plays her favorites and doesn’t pretend to do anything else.

What works in Blow Out? Jack Terry’s vulnerability, increasing desperation, and concentrated ambition to do good make him highly sympathetic, and make his end, of course, crushing. It seems very important to have cast up-and-comer heartthrob Travolta in a role requiring so much charm. Dennis Dennis Franz Franz, so entertaining I’ll say it twice, and probably the only person present who is able to wear and speak the mantle of the 1950’s that is curiously worn by every character (seriously – the precise pluck demonstrated by each character from the smart beat cop, to the tasteless shithead film producer, to the ambitious “scoop” reporter all feel curiously off the mark by at least two decades). What is perhaps most enjoyable (I won’t pretend this is anything but subjective) is watching the procedural at play, and every technical step involved in professional sound recording and photography. Much time is spent on these time-consuming activities, and I couldn’t be happier. Everybody, and I mean everybody, loves a good investigation.

I’ve seen a great deal of De Palma and do like the man’s work very much, but I won’t make excuses: I found Blow Out a bit hard to watch this time around. Why not Sisters? Even Body Double would’ve been a bit wild to see in 35mm!

Oh Boy

My praise for Oh Boy will be inversely proportional to the age of its writer/director, Jan Ole Gerster. You’re getting a live feed here. My guess is he’s 27 (hopefully he’s younger). Processing… result: whoa, 35! You’re fired. That dismissive snark aside, Gersten managed to craft an earnest, emotional, often beautiful black and white homage to Woody Allen and Antoine Doinel (by default), for starters. Oh Boy’s protagonist is played by Tom Schilling, who thankfully makes broody disaffection always palatable, usually delicious. What is regrettable about Oh Boy is its diminutive sum total; without mincing words, the universe conspires against a hapless 20something to deny his efforts to get a cup of coffee for a 24 hour period. Our unemployed Niko Fischer goes through the uninspired motions of a regular day but is fraught with frustration at every encounter – tactless barista, tactless neighbor, tactless suicidal former classmate, tactless performance art director, tactless bar patron, and more. The ATM eats his card, the coffee machine is out of order, he needs money back from the homeless guy’s cup… it’s a light, meandery film, but the problem is the way each encounter is forced into a slightly more awkward situation than would normally occur. For the sake of humor. But it gets a bit tired and the film’s energy remains at a constant engine hum. Again: an extremely well composed film – like mumblecore that gave a damn about photography and performance. But altogether slight.

Something in the Air

Transitioning from the minimalism of Oh Boy to Something in the Air involved a considerable adjustment. The latest film from Olivier Assayas, a semi-autobiographical one, is an extremely dense emotional journey through a cultural revolution of thought experienced through a troupe of beautiful, brave, utterly free bohemian intellectuals in early 70s France (the title Something in the Air is undoubtedly in reference to Chris Marker’s film, known domestically as A Grin Without a Cat, chronicling in depth this tumultuous period of French history). This is not a film that is for everyone, but I found it, actually, rather enchanting, and I felt transported to France and Italy and even a little Afghanistan. Admittedly, sometimes you wonder if the film will ever end – and when it does end, you may find yourself wondering why this point was chosen; the uninflected, seemingly arbitrary episodic formula grinds through scene after scene after scene, god knows how much time is passing, and character motivations are seldom elucidated.

When the film begins, young painter Gilles finds himself associated with a retinue of activists – an intense early scene features a collection of armored police officers tear gassing and beating the hell out of dozens of teenagers. Then extended urban vandalism and much political maneuvering before Gilles and his friends realize they must lay low by escaping the country for an indefinite period of time, and they head to Italy. From here the scenes of expounded rhetoric and anarchistic planning begin to ebb out, and the story contents itself to focus on hippie love, extended, archetypally French lidded eye, monotone love confessions – all delivered here without any undue sentiment at all, and moved on from immediately – and the general atmosphere of copious inebriation and commune openness. Oh, and you’ve never seen so many cigarettes smoked in your life – no hyperbole in that statement. It’s absolutely astounding. You may scoff your head off when I say that I wanted to be with these people, sometimes wanted to be these people, yearned that my teen years (yes, they’re only 16) could’ve been so varied, so driven, so conscious, so full, filled with so much history and community and love. The images of youths sketching naked female forms and ancient Italian ruins and frescoes indifferently, adoring one another, and variously lobbing molotov cocktails or fleeing the authorities – being fully alive – creates an enviable mosaic. The film has no destination and merely charts the ephemeral trajectories of these youths in this place at this time.

It is worth noting that Gilles represents Assayas: both living in the French countryside in youth; taking part in activist activities and swept up in the movement; both failed painters; both winding up writing film scripts on behalf of their ailing fathers, and eventually coming to work in the film industry.

I really feel embarrassed to have written such a gushy, revealing review. I’ll never live it down. If I had more time I could’ve written something considerably more in-depth and less of a pure emotional reaction. Also this was a rare occasion where I deigned to not take notes.

written by David Ashley

Seen so far
Blow Out
Oh Boy
Something in the Air

Ranked
Something in the Air
Blow Out
Oh Boy

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