Film


The Royal TenenbaumsI certainly am not such a cinephile that I see all, or even a significant percentage of, the films released in a given year. But thanks to Netflix as well as a desire to see many of the leading directors of our times films on a big screen I do end up managing to see quite a large number of each years films though perhaps well after they are made. While I’ve enjoyed film on a more serious level for the last couple of decades I have really devoted a lot more of my time watching new and historical films as well as collecting them for more in depth study in the last ten years. So here I present my favorite films that were shown in this last decade.  Almost all of these films are ones that I love, own the DVD of and watch over and over again.  However there are several films that I simply recognize as an amazing achievement which still moved me in some way, even if I don’t feel much compulsion to own and re-watch it.   This list of course is a snapshot of my preferences at this time, as I catch up on even more films from the past decade I’d surely edit this list.  Also I’m not going to write an essay for each of these films (though they certainly all deserve it) but I can definitely explain what is great about each of these films and in what way they moved me. They are ordered by year with no hierarchy implied and all films link to their IMDB page.

Favorite Films of the Aughts

Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love) (Kar Wai Wong, 2000)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Requiem for a Dream (Darran Aronofsky, 2000)
Untitled (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
Werckmeister harmóniák (Béla Tarr, 2000)
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Stephen Spielberg, 2001)
Monsters Inc. (Pete Doctor, 2001)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Nekojiru-so (Cat Soup) (Tatsuo Sato, 2001)
Royal Tennenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (Hayao Miyaaki, 2001)
Rivers & Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2002)
Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) (Ki-duk Kim, 2003)
Cidade de Deus (City of God) (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund ,2003)
Five Dedicated to Ozu (Abbas Kiarostami, 2003)
The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)
The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson,2004)
Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2005)
The New World (Terrance Malick, 2005)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)
Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros., 2007)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon ,2007)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers, 2009)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Peter Esmonde, 2009)

2009 of course is a bit incomplete as like I said in the intro I tend to spend much of the following year catching up on a given year,  yet it already has four that I placed on the above list and thus I’d say it was a pretty strong year.  My full list of favorites (in order) from 2009 so far:

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers, 2009)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
Gake no ue no Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2009)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Peter Esmonde, 2009)
Up (Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)


Over the Weekend I managed to catch the latest Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man. I enjoyed it thoroughly, enough so to overcome the rather unpleasant theater experience (detailed somewhat here). As I say in that post on IHM I still don’t feel prepared to really delve into the film on this single viewing and honestly I think for anyone outside the Jewish community there would need to be pretty extensive research into the culture to get a lot of what is going on.  No what I kept thinking about, and which I wish to ruminate a bit on here, was the idea that the film is an encapsulation of the story of Job from the bible.

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them. 7And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. 8And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? 9Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. 11But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. 12And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD. (Job I:6-12, King James Bible)

The book of Job opens with an outline of Jobs possessions, setting up the parameters of the loss he is about to suffer. The plot is then setup in the above verses, as a bet between God and Satan – Job is faithful because you have blessed him, take that away and he will quickly stray. God takes the bet and Satan then takes all from Job that God has given him in quick succession: first his wealth in lands and goods, followed by his house and finally then his children. “20 Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, 21And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. (Job I:20-21, King James Bible). This setup is the first two chapters, the bulk of the book then is Job sitting on the ashes of his life while various people come up to him and try to convince him that he brought his troubles upon himself. Job of course always remains faithful to God and in the end God rewards him for his faithfulness by making those who had spoken against him restore his wealth and gave him more children and a long life.

It is this rather troublesome book (are we just playthings of the gods? it certainly can feel that way and it is clear that this book of the bible is designed to address this particularly glaring contradiction of unwavering faith) that A Serious Man most closely resembles. Note, from this point on I’m going to discuss all aspects of the film including the end, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t wish this spoiled I’d cease reading at this point.  The film opens with a Jewish parable set some centuries before the film that probably is the crux of film in many ways. This I’m not really prepared, nor perhaps am capable of, really discussing.  When our protaganist, Larry Gopnick, is introduced he is undergoing a physical which is intercut with his son listening to a pocket transiter radio during hebrew class. After an X-Ray (with no lead protection!) and told that he seems to be in good health Larry returns to his office at the college where he is a mathematics professor on the tenure track.  It is here that the testing of Job begins in the guise of a Korean student who tries to bribe Larry into reversing a failing grade.  It is this that I propose is the equivalent of remaing faithful to God, of being “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil”.

Larry remains faithful and rebuffs the students attempt to get his grade changed. But the envelope of money is left, only requiring Larry’s acceptance of same to bring him down.  The Coens then begins to enact equivalents of the other trials of Job upon Larry; he loses his wife to another man, loses his house by being forced out of it and thus access to his children as well. His financial situation, shaky from the start, steadily deteriorates as the film progresses, bills from lawyers mount, first from the impending divorce and then as his brother becomes increasingly in trouble with the law. As he attempts to understand his troubles he visits the three rabbi’s of his synagogue and is given naught but platitudes, riddles and in the case of the most austere rabbi a refusal to even meet with him.  Job likewise attempts to gain some understanding of his situation via discussion with three friends, who steadfastly contend that Job  must have brought this evil upon himself.  In both of these cases there is a failure to understand the actual situation and to, in the guise of wisdom, not offer anything at all.  The Coens I think are additionally criticizing religious practice, one that transcends all religions, which is that if you give explicit advice you will invariably give some bad advice and your role as one who speaks for God (or is especially wise, or learned, or holy, or enlightened, or whatever) is undermined. If on the other hand you speak in platitudes and riddles, offering little but generalities and vague allegories then you can never be wrong and your insight (and thus your roll) never questioned and your status reinforced. Thus it is with Jobs friends, for every man sins and it is a pretty safe assertion to say that ones troubles are the results of those sins.

Larry though perseveres throughout these trials, though plagued with doubt and questioning all that he has taken for granted.  As further indignities are heaped upon him; badgering from the Columbia Record House over failure to pay for records received (by his son of course), forced to pay for the funeral of the man who has cuckold him, badgering and threats from the family of the student who has bribed him, Larry remains steadfast. And in the end things seem to right itself a bit: His rivals accidental death, his son, a poor student and inveterate stoner, miraculuously making it through his bar mitzvah during which his wife seems to reconcile with him a bit and finally he gets tenure. But at this vary moment that things seems to have taken a turn he gets a bill for the lawyer retained to represent his brother: US$3000. This proves too much a burden, one that he can not see a way out of. He changes the students grade and accepts the money.

3And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause. 4And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.  5But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. 6And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.  7So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.  8And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes. (Job 2:3-8, King James Bible)

As Larry changes the grade from an F to C (and in a classic Coen’s touch, hestates then adds to the C a minus)  he gets a call from his doctor requesting that he come in to discuss his x-ray, something that would be better discussed in person. Paralleling the beginning of the film this is intercut with Larry’s son, who had regained his confiscated transistor radio, again ignoring his hebrew class. But this time it is interrupted by a tornado warning (it is the midwest afterall) and they all mill out to the parking lot to get into the storm shelter.  As his teacher fumbles through his keyring trying to find the right one, the massive funnel of the tornado is seen approaching the children.  The film ends at this point (much to many peoples consternation, but again that is outside the scope of this post).  Satan failed in breaking Job with the loss of his goods and family and tried again with his health. Job passed that test as well, and though confused remained faithful.  Larry though failed against his final test, that final crushing financial blow and broke his faith. His loss of his son had previously been more symbolic, separated by his wifes demands for divorce and the increasing gulf between the generations.  But in the final reckoning, at the breaking of that faith, God lets it all be taken from him, even his life which he had previously spared. One can only imagine that the malady that takes Larry, keeps him alive long enough to see the completion of his ruin.

As O Brother Where Art Thou? is an allegorical take on the Odyssey A Serious Man, among its other concerns, addresses the central question of Job: “Is misfortune always a divine punishment for something?”.  While the conclusion of the film can be seen somewhat ambiguously (I present my take above, but you could perhaps argue that the film had been chapter 1 of Job and now Larry’s on to chapter 2. But in my mind that doesn’t address his final giving in and thus prefer the above interpretation) I think that they also diverge from Job in the end to consider the man who finally breaks. Or perhaps in the end their answer to the question, is that , no, misfortunate is not a divine punishment for anything because the universe is arbitrary and without meaning. Larry always would have been stricken down by disease, that tornado may or may not kill his son (among other children) , marriages are always breaking down, car crashes happen far to frequently in the United States and there are those times when everything seems to happen to us, that it feels that the universe (or god) is using us as the pawns of its allegory.

Among the great treasures of Seattle is sculpture, instrument inventor, composer, etc Trimpin. As with any installation artist, unless you are a jet setter, it is hard to see much of his work in person and in his case in particular it is quite difficult to gather much of a sense of the scope of his work.  This is because there are no catalogs, no recordings and little documentation in general of his work. That is until the release of a new documentary film Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, which is now making the rounds of the festival circuit.  Happily for me the Seattle International Film Festival is one of those festivals an they are showing the film several times throughout its three week run. 

I made the trek into Seattle Saturday May 23rd to catch the film, only realizing that morning that this coincided with Folk Life the epic four day free music festival in Seattle Center.  Seattle Center also houses the SIFF Theater where the film was being shown and the combination of Folk Life and SIFF meant it was going to be crazy. So I left extra early to insure that I’d make it there in time to get a good seat.  A backup on the freeway on the exit to the Seattle Center had me plenty concerned that it was going to be exceedingly difficult but it turned out to be the result of an accident at the exit ramp.  I was able to park right in a garage right across from the SIFF theater (at a fairly high parking cost) and was almost two hours early.  That was fine as Folk Life was a fine distraction and I also wanted to get lunch before the film.  This I did and I walked through Folk Life a bit which is always entertaining. You see they allow anyone to busk almost anywhere during the festival and as you walk around all varieties of sound intermingle and compete with each other and the sounds of thousands of people engaged in conversations, transactions and the like. Always sonically rewarding. I didn’t spend too much time there, I wanted to be certain of a good seat (they give precedence to SIFF members so sometimes the number of good seats for non-members is nearly non-existent (and yes I suppose I should be a member, but I find film festivals almost the worst way to see a film so I usually only see a couple per SIFF). 

I only waited around for about a half an hour before being let in, though I was in the wrong spot for a while and thus was not as far to the front of the line as I should have been. I got a good seat though, in the middle fourth row back. SIFF Cinema is not a huge screen so that is not too far forward. One or two rows back is probably the best seats in the house but this was within the good range.  The festival organizer introduced the festival and the film to us and then director, Peter Esmonde took the stage.  He only gave a few words before the film primarily admonishing us to listen as well as watch and to thank a lot of people. The lights dimmed, we were treated to about 7 minutes of trailers and finally the film.

Trimpin's perpetual motion machine

The film mainly devoted time to exploring the creative process and followed Trimpin through junkyards (shout out to the late, lamented Boeing Surplus!), galleries, concert halls and his workshop/studio.  It worked in historical material in service to this goal in that he mostly spoke of his upbringing in the Black Forest region of Germany in terms of musical, mechanical and important events that later influence his work and process. Woven throughout the film was the development process and finally a performance of a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet called 4 Cast: Unpredictable. Watching him work was among the best aspects of the film, observing him work out this completely original ideas of turning junk into machines that made sound. One moment that I particularly loved was the accidental discovery of this beautifully haunting glass armonica as he was polishing with a rag the glass tube from a television set. He had this hung and was using them as sound projectors for reed instruments that were in the tube like next of the glass.  As he was polishing one of these he pulled the rag out and it generated a sustained tone like running your finger on a wine glass. He was immediately captivated and iteratively worked out exactly how to replicate it. Then he tried running his finger on it ala a wine glass to similar though a bit duller results. Finally he dug around the copious piles of stuff in his studio and pulling out a bow proceeded to bow the glass device to beautiful results.  This is a a highly creative mind at play and discovering something that who knows how he’ll apply?  They showed the finished installation with the TV tubes and it did not utilize this effect.

 

4 Cast: Unpredictable

4 Cast: Unpredictable

 

The film also spent time covering Trimpin’s lack of interest in many of the trappings (or traps?) of the art world: he has no representation, or an agent nor as I alluded to earlier has he spent much effort on documentation.  He wants to do his work and move on to the next thing.  But his installations are permanent, durable, completely hand made and interactive. Getting to see a bunch of these, which you’d have to travel all over to see was fantastic.  As was the bits we got to see of this performance with Kronos which only happened once and has not been documented beyond this film. (though see the pictures here an some video footage here).  The first Trimpin piece I ever saw was the huge fountain of guitars in the EMP and the process behind putting this together was also covered in the film.  Trimpin, who tells a good anecdote, detailed his meeting with EMP founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as not a traditional public art pitch. The guitars at the top of this mammoth fountain of guitars would play music via these robotic devices that Trimpin constructed and Paul Allen inquired who would get up there to tune these guitars. Trimpin, flustered on the spot replied that they’d tune themselves.  Paul Allen, who heretofore had failed to even look him in the eye, looked up from his dossiers and uttered an awed “Wow”.

 

 

 

Trimpin had come to Seattle from his clearly beloved Black Forest because he said he had better junk.  The stuff you can find in Boeing Surplus and the other junkyards that feature castoffs from Seattle’s aerospace, shipyards and other high tech industries certainly provide that (though sadly most of these resources are now gone).  His experiences in the Black Forest, home of the cuckoo clock industry and where every beerhall, shop and coffee house would have a unique music making devices (usually based on music box type technologies) clearly set him on this track.  The bespoke nature of those instruments, their mechanical nature with their exposed mechanisms and memories etched in physical objects clearly directly anticipate his sculptures. But his move from the pure pragmatic aspects of those machines, to the abstractions of his, plus his embrace of the Cagean notions of sound as music makes his the tremendous artworks that they are.  These machines are really compositions that play themselves, or are instruments that the audience is vital for it to actually sound.  Trimpin heard the great player piano composer Nancarrow on the radio and his world opened up.

 

 

He hadn’t heard music of that density and complexity, music that was acoustic and yet required mechanical means to exist.  It was like the music machines of Bavaria being put to use on modern, creative and wholly originally music.  Trimpin eventually would meet Nancarrow and work with him, transcribing Nancarrows deteriorating piano rolls into midi and saving the music for all of us.  Kyle Gann’s great article for American Mavericks series on builder composers covers this territory a lot better then I can.  It is important to note that Trimpin’s restless imagination never stayed stuck with antiquated technology, an issue that actually hindered Nancarrow from realizing some of his more ambitious later projects.  The film showed him working with mechanical and pneumatic instruments, reading punch cards and the like in his earlier works. But his later works are all controlled by Apple laptops, use Midi and custom control software and his assistants include computer programmers, roboticists along with sculptures and machinists.

This film is right up there with Rivers & Tides as one of the best art documentaries that I have seen. In many cases it is because of the subject matter, Trimpin, like Goldsworthy, is about process and there is an ephemerality to their work that lends itself to film.  But beyond that it is the artistry of the filmmakers to not try to force their own narrative, to create a “story” but to focus explicit on the creative process.  This film was being projected right off of a dvd which is fully setup with menus and extras and everything. I think that after its time on the festival circuit it will certainly be made available on dvd. I urge you to see it if it plays near you, but otherwise definitely plan on picking up this dvd.

After the film there was a brief Q&A with the filmmaker and Trimpin moderated by the SIFF organizer. I folded in bits from that into the above but the most interesting questions were on his reluctance of documentation.  To which Trimpin replied it was the issue of reproduction, that since his sculptures acoustically generated the sounds they were inherently spatial and that stereophonic recording couldn’t capture that. Once 5.1 systems were everyday he said he felt that a better reproductions could be made.  He was then asked why he allowed the film to be made which didn’t really get a direct answer but they talked about the rules they put in place for the project. These namely involved the lack of forcing any sort of agenda from the filmmaker on Trimpin. He’d be allowed to film and tape whatever but nothing would be done to accommodate that and there would be no artificial scenes, retakes and the like.  This I think was pretty essential to the film.  

Anyway they wrapped this up fairly shortly and told us there would be a reception and panel discussion at 4pm the Lawrimore Project a local gallery about 5 miles away.  They also mentioned that they’d be showing outtakes from the film and had some of his scores there to view.  Well all of the sudden my plans of wandering around Folk Life for the rest of the afternoon changed and I had to make my way to this. Christopher DeLaurenti local musician, writer of whom I’ve written before gave me directions to this rather out of the way gallery and I was off.  Took some time to make my way across town but made it I did about ten minutes or so before the panel discussion.  I acquired a much needed pale ale (it was very hot on this May weekend) and checked out the art hanging in the gallery.  Their current exhibition is on Scores a top near and dear to my heart. There were some interesting things hanging but I’d need more time with them to say much.

 

Left to Right: Charles Amirkhanian, Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and  Scott Lawrimore

Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and Scott Lawrimore

 

The panel was made up of Charles Amirkhanian,  composer and producer of Other Minds fame, the aforementioned Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray a Curator at the EMP, Beth Sellars – Curator, Suyama Space who put on many a Trimpin exhibition and of course Trimpin himself.  It was moderated by Scott Lawrimore of the Lawrimore Project. The panel was quite interesting, it began with discussion on the relationship between Trimpin’s art and composition with digressions into Nancarrow, Cage Antheil and the like.  As I’ve mentioned before Trimpin tells a good anecdote and we got several of those. He talked about seeing a concert (I’ve spaced on the composers name) in Amsterdam which featured multiple orchestras on barges in the canals, bells from the churches and sounds basically coming from all over the city. The density of sounds and the extreme spatialization of them highly impressed Trimpin. But it was hearing Nancarrow on the radio that he felt that that density, complexity and layered structure could be captured in a more finite system. This was instrumental on Trimpin’s moving into the more abstract musics that his sculptures would make.  He also talked of attending a music conference (In Denver IIRC) with Cage and others where he finally got to really talk with other composers (which he said just didn’t happen).

There was really too much covered in the panel to really go into, but one thing that brought up some serious regret was talking about the Year of Trimpin in 2005. This year+ long showing of Trimpins works in 11 galleries all around the NW (extending as far as Montana) was probably the best opportunity to see a lot of his works. Something I missed back in the day. After much discussion it was opened up to audience questions and proving the rule that in open Q&A you are always going to get some idiotic question the very first one was asked about how much he was influenced by urban culture. Specifically how much “crunk, beatboxing, rapping” and the like influenced his work. Anyone who had seen the film knew that he followed his own muse and while his stuff is not disconnected to the world around him there is no Crunk involved.  The second aspect of this dude’s question though on engagement with the world was taken into an interesting direction and Trimpin talked about the political nature of his works. In this regard many of his works are political but not always overtly so. As always I find that a lot more effective then in your face political art which has small impact and even less longevity.  One of Trimpins more overtly political projects involved 24 bobbing chickens used as a random number generator to create new random speeches using words culled from 8 years of GW Bush’s Saturday radio addresses.  Chris DeLaurenti pointed out three urban/political connections in Trimpins work: reuse/repurposing of the detritus of modern society, the non-commercial aspect of it which, as Kyle Gann has pointed out, is inherently a political act and the inherent accessibility of his art some of which demands interaction with the audience to work at all.

Overall a great panel with tons of good information. After this they showed some outtakes from the film in one room while there was a reception with food and drink in another.  The later attracted the MFA’s in throngs but it was the scores hung on the wall that got my attention. I couldn’t find many images of them on the net (the best at this Henry Gallery page) but they were fascinating.  A mixture of subverted traditional notation, midi/mechanical notation, colors, images all colleged together some in an almost Rauschenberg level of complexity. Real artworks as well as being scores.  To this graphical score geek I was entranced by these.

But I did also watch all of the outtakes (which were clearly “bonus features” on the dvd) the most interesting was of a visit to the Instrumentarium where Harry Partch’s instruments are stored.  There was a great segment of Trimpin in the back room of the museum with the curator as he played and demonstrated all of Partch’s unique creations. Trimpin was clearly enthralled and like a kid in a candy store.

Anyway this was a great afternoon of art and film and talking with interesting people about interesting things. I learned a lot and was highly inspired by a lot of what I saw and heard.  I definitely want to see more of Trimpin’s art and will seek it out whenever I travel.

See all of my pictures from the panel here.

Further explorations:
1) Trimpin: The Sound of Inventionmovie blogimdb page, SIFF Page
2) Trimpin on Wikipedia
3) Trimpin page at Other Minds
4) American Mavericks series on builder composers, Kyle Gann
5) Trimpin installation at the EMP
6) Trimpin installation at SeaTac
9) Kronos Quartet
10) Trimpin on Youtube
11) Conlon Nancarrow on Wikipedia
12) Lawrimore Project
13) Christopher DeLaurenti
14) Other Minds
15)  EMP
16) Instrumentarium

Next Page »