Swimmin.

Dad explained in his curt way that he didn’t like going swimming very much.  If he came along at all, he’d sit in a chair under the trees on the shore.  My brother would swim laps up and down the buoys, but the twelve or fifteen feet of comparatively murky water out there encroached a little too far into Jaws territory for me; I hung out in belly depth.  Now I feel roughly the same way about going to the movies as my dad does about swimming, and probably for similar reasons.  It’s crowded.  I don’t like to get wet for its own sake, and the sense of exposure is…I don’t know, it’s awkward (although I’d rather be submerged far beyond the buoys, as it were).  The impetus to feel at movies isn’t always what I’m looking for, at least not in the collective sense, the communal sense – and tapping so much treacle from clunky Hollywood machinery is generally beneath us all.  Like it or not, we tend to taste a lot more, and with greater complexity, than most films acknowledge.  To shift metaphors, it’s disheartening at best to find oneself scarfing Jim Beam instead of sipping Laphraoig; the top shelf is often a little light at the art houses, let alone the cineplex.

There’s the noise, too: the talking, the cell phones, the popcorn, the wrappers, the cups and bottles, the creaking seats.  We don’t live in a world where images are watched instead of merely seen, and sound is listened to instead of heard, but at least we can close our eyes.  The ear was clearly designed for pure self-preservation in a time of imminent bear attack, not for discerning savory soundscapes under the crippling thunder of ignorant human cacophony.  The ideal film screening is still, and always, in a darkened theater, but with a crowd of co-conspirators who want to partake of a good film.

As the summer stifle squats down upon New York City, the good theaters grow particularly flaky (or resort to retrospectives and niche festivals – not always a bad thing), and I’m finding myself hunkering down at home.  It’s quiet here.  This Blu-ray contraption is the greatest invention since the film strip (though still second to it), and the sheer number and quality of recent transfers makes a trip to the UA Court Street Stadium 12 to see Iron Man 2 sound like a trek through Death Valley in search of snowflakes.  So barring that: a few of the wonderful films I’ve discovered – or rediscovered – on Blu-ray.

1. Lola Montès (1955). Years ago I picked up a bootleg DVD of Max Ophüls symphony of color and motion, and found it ugly and tedious beyond measure; I never got through the first twenty minutes.  But Criterion has cleaned it up and slapped it on Blu-ray, and it’s become a real film again for those of us who dig a fine dolly and kinky performances of variable fluidity.  The whole thing is a catalogue of cinematic control, in everything from its gloriously choreographed circus tent sequences to the little flourishes between the actors in period costume (visible, finally, on HD) – all designed for camera, for film, not the other way around.  Films like these completely transcend story very quickly, and become experiences for the eyes (if less for the ears), and consequently for the mind, in Ophüls’ hands.  Look, maybe it’s splitting too fine a hair to separate this visual extravaganza from that one, but there are Michael Bay films and there are Max Ophüls films – only one of them requires you to be there.

2. A pair of Ang Lee joints: Ride with the Devil and Hulk.  I wasn’t Brokeback Mountain‘s biggest fan, but it’s clear Lee has a rigorous sense of pace and structure, and a shooting style to match.  He goes too far sometimes; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon makes your head spin in its action sequences, but then demands that you give a damn about the mystical horseshit in between.  These two earlier films, however, released in 1999 and 2003 respectively, reveal his precision at their dramatic and intellectual finest.

Criterion got their hands on Lee’s director’s cut of Ride with the Devil, and it’s sort of wonderful in its stylistic simplicity – a classical sculpture in Lee’s quirky, unpredictable mold.  The story doesn’t go where you’d expect, and on a first viewing, it can be disappointing in places.  But it’s filled with magnificent, unexpected performances from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jim Caviezel, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, and Jeffrey Wright (Jewel and Tobey Maguire don’t hurt anything), and there’s a jarring quality to the storytelling that abolishes our expectations: anything could happen, to anybody, for anyone’s reasons.  Lee’s at his best in his setpieces, his scenes crammed with immersive young talent, each actor on his own trajectory, the frame filled with vigor, the dialogue spat off the tongue in dialects grounded in physical habit.  Seen twice, Ride with the Devil seems to sprout directly from the wayward behavior of a handful of characters – it contains virtually no other arc.  A lovely film.

Hulk, made between Crouching Tiger and Brokeback, seemed hampered at its release for not being enough of an action film – I see the argument, but it’s foolish.  Lee takes incredible pains to characterize the Hulk from a human perspective – the film is more about children damaged by their parents than about an action figure – and when the Hulk appears, two things happen: the comic book fantasy springs campily to life, and, in Hulk’s unquenchable fury, the film suddenly takes on enormous pathos.  Wrath has never been so formally brought to term in a film; the kitschy fun in the few, relatively brief action sequences coexists, deliriously, with the high-pitched tenor of pure animal rage.  Watching Hulk tear a tank to pieces runs a far second to understanding and feeling why he does it.

3. Close-Up (1990). I understand Abbas Kiarostami considers it a compliment if you fall asleep in some of his recent films, like The Wind Will Carry Us.  I’m not completely sure why.  The film, built essentially of repetitive long shots following a car across sun-blasted evening landscapes, rides that precarious line in cinema between mesmerizing and narcoleptic with, it turns out, the filmmaker’s blessing.  I found it monumentally dull, but I found his prior film, Taste of Cherry, seductive in its sameness.  His frames don’t vary much.  His soundscape is natural.  He gets low-key, unmannered performances out of his actors (and non-actors).  It should all be tedious beyond measure, but Kiarostami has a masterful sense of rhythm, and he never breaks it – if you can fall into his films, you can fall into a trance.

I think it’s because he’s an incurably patient watcher of human behavior.  He’s made entire films with digital cameras hung inside cars, watching the occupants (Ten, Cherry) as they troll through ochre urban, suburban, and rural landscapes.  Close-Up opens in a car, winds up in a courtroom, forever wielding endless sequences of faces – watching, listening, thinking, feeling, accepting, rejecting, rebelling, grappling, laughing, realizing….It may be something of a cliché by now that the film also deals with the process of making a film (it blends documentary, uhm, casting, with fictionalized recreations), but it’s rarely done this articulately.  Close-Up is maybe less about seeing than about the thought that goes on during seeing, from the responses of characters (all played by their real-life selves) to what they’re seeing around them, to the sense of a camera operator following what he sees through his viewfinder.

4. Bigger Than Life (1956). A recent article in the Village Voice interviewed the makers of a handful of up-and-coming low-budget features, most of them in their twenties, who at one point descended into softcore mockery of Nicholas Ray’s film, mostly for James Mason’s acting.  These filmmakers had a lot to say about “realism”; I haven’t seen their films, but they had nothing to say in the article about context – I wonder whether they’d appreciate any performance pre-mumblecore.  I’ve often had trouble watching older films, sometimes finding performances stilted, and camerawork stolid, for my taste, but as I’ve crawled into my 30s, watching films as, let’s say, time capsules has started to make a lot more sense (a la Close-Up).  Every film works that way anyway, as a fossil of a filmmaker’s immediate sensibilities in the process of making his film.  Any other argument seems to suggests that films exist without their creators.

It’s not a screaming work of art, but Bigger Than Life reflects a social environment that’s hard for those of us who never lived there to imagine (although Mad Men has given us a good primer).  There’s something about these films, these Advise and Consents, these Lost Weekends, that’s doubly unsettling under modern scrutiny.  They stand so outside the topical norm in their treatment of homosexuality, drug and alcohol addiction, that in retrospect we wonder what the hell everyone was so worried about – why was this stuff taboo to begin with?  The truth is that Bigger Than Life would look awfully timid if it had been made ten years ago, loaded with obvious symbolism and a relatively static visual approach – but then, it was not, any more than “Beowulf” was written during the Civil War.  That counts, that’s all.

5. Happy Together (1997).  Between them, Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Chris Doyle have perfected the slapdash-jumpcutty style of filmmaking, sculpting films out of fragments of images and vaguely incomplete shots that perfectly complement each other in sequence.  Most filmmakers don this approach in lieu of naturalism, hoping an imprecise camera will lend a sense of spontaneity, but Kar-Wai breathes through his camera.  Like all great filmmakers, there is the feeling that he sees the world in no other way than the way he shoots.

There’s also the sense that his stories are as cobbled as his visual style; they don’t really matter anyway.  In the Mood for Love is not just a great film, it’s a great title for a film – nothing else can capture mood in quite the same way, in honed snatches of looks and gestures, in tones of voice, in music.  Happy Together is sort of a lovely comma in Kar-Wai’s career, bridging the handheld flash of Fallen Angels and Chungking Express and his latter-day composure in Mood for Love and 2046.  Socially bold in its vigorous treatment of a gay Chinese couple in the dregs of their relationship in Buenos Aires, Kar-Wai eventually zeros in on the same constrained emotional turmoil that absolutely ruins you in the following two films.  He seems constantly to be making a film as a dry run for the next one.  Or just repeating himself.  As artists tend to do.

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