Saturday, May 31, 2008

Side Orders #2

Here we go with more clips, previews and other fun stuff:

I think, from now on, I'll start these Side Orders posts of with an opening from a movie I like. Now, when most people cite great credits sequences, they're usually in that Saul Bass/Kyle Cooper mode of thinking--animated graphics and the like. But what about the ones where the graphics aren't the whole magilla? Case in point: the credits to Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! After a silent, sepia-toned prologue we get the surprising initial chords to the movie's title song, the first lob in a most perceptive and rocking soundtrack. Written and performed by former Animal Alan Price, O Lucky Man's chugging, singable score serves as a Greek chorus to the story of Travis, an ambitious coffee salesman who has his mettle tested by the forces of sex, charity, poverty, excess, rock and roll, big business, religious institutions, the military-industrial complex, the court system, the medical industry, and the prison industry! Wow. Rich photography from Miroslav Ondricek compliments this wonderful performance clip. By the way, the man with the glasses and the leather jacket? That's the sly director Anderson.

I ran across this marvel while watching That's Entertainment!, the 1974 compendium of great (mostly musical) scenes from MGM movies. Frank Sinatra saunters on and introduces this remarkable scene from Broadway Melody of 1940, saying "we won't see the likes of this again." Goddamn straight! This was Fred Astaire's first major MGM movie, not with Ginger Rogers as partner but the "Female Fred Astaire," Eleanor Powell. I'm wondering now if Astaire shold be known as the Male Eleanor Powell? She is just spellbinding. This must have been very fun for Astaire, after dragging Rogers around for eight years because he was now partnering with a lady who could easily match him on the dance floor (Rogers was fine, but not Astaire's equal.) This "challenge" dance number, shot amidst a strange black-based, mirror-bedecked set, is absolute proof that dancers are athletes first and artists a hair's-bredth close second--I mean, athletics make the art possible (it's chicken and the egg all over again). Anyway, enjoy this percussively tasty morsel, performed to "Begin the Beguine!"

1990's Life is Sweet is my favorite Mike Leigh movie, largely because of the twin sisters portrayed in the film. One, Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is a pissy, chain-smoking, unemployable tangle of nerves and barely pent-up rage; the other, Natalie (Claire Skinner) is an even-tempered but saddened, lonely woman working daily as a plumber. Here Leigh fills the frame with their bright red hair, pale skin and eyeglasses as they have one of their typical, dead-end arguments. Best scene in a 1990 movie filled with great scenes.

Here I have graphic artist Pablo Ferro's jarring, commanding preview to Dr. Strangelove, another in my series of Best Trailers Ever! We've all seen the movie, but the detailed composition of this trailer really refreshes it for us! It makes us want to see the movie (again!) but, as with all previews of its quality, it really stands as a movie unto itself...a movie about a movie.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Film #41: Dad, Can I Borrow The Car?

When I was about nine years old, I tuned in to The Wonderful World of Disney one night to watch what I thought would be your typical Disney fare--cartoons, or a live-action adventure with li'l prairie dogs, or even a faboo tour of Disneyworld (an episode kids always wanted to see).

Instead, what I got was something that blew my mind, and I hope it blows yours. But first...

I was never a big fan of cars. Anyone who knows me also knows that automobiles and I have never found common ground. Other kids were drawing Torinos and Corvettes during geography lectures--me, I was drawing spaceships and movie logos. I have always found sedans to be burdensome, dangerous objects--certainly something I didn't want to control myself. A 3000-lb burnin' hunk of metal powered by fermented dinosaur juices? No way. Not for me, you can have my share. Believe me, the roads are safer without me on 'em. Besides, I think cars make people mean as hell and start them down the road thinking of other cars as mere obstacles to be vanquished rather than potentially deadly objects being controlled by other stressed-out people. It's all a big video game to most drivers. And certainly everyone's getting crabbier behind the wheel now that gas is four bucks a gallon some places. Geez, what're guys gonna be like when it hits $20 a gallon?! It'll be Mad Max all over again.

When I got to be a teen and then a young adult, living in Atlanta (the East Coast car capital of the USA) was very difficult for a guy who was not only unwilling to drive, but actually would get physically ill behind the wheel of a car. Lemme tell ya, it made dating nearly impossible, unless the girl was willing to do the carting-around, which is still seen (unfairly, I think) as a sign of male weakness (and what girl wants that?)

It became a big issue for me. Why's everybody so car-crazy? Why is life like this? And I started to think and think about it, and I came to the only conclusion, really: that it's all about sex. This love affair we have with cars is because they make sex and access to it much easier, even inevitable. Yes, ya got those people who'll tell you it's about freedom. And it is. Freedom to get sex. Freedom to make money to get sex. Freedom to pick up girls who want to have sex. That's what cars are all about. Chicks love cars. They love feeling safe and pampered, going fast and having the world at their feet. It turns 'em on. And most guys like turned-on girls (including me!)

"But it's not just that! I love to drive! It's fuuuuun!" Look, Clarence, driving ain't supposed to be fun. You want fun, go get on a rollercoaster, laughing boy. That's fun. Driving's supposed to get you somewhere you wanna go and when you get there, then you have your fun. It's this "fun" idea that causes horrible, bone-crushing, gore-gushing accidents. And stop talking on your cell phone, for Christ's sake, you ignoramus!!! Goddammit, fuckstick, turn your goddamn radio down so you can hear me honkin' my goddamn horn at ya! Hey, Mac! See this?! See this?! Yeah! You know what you can do with that finger! Yep! You got it! Right up there, too--sun ain't shinin' down there!!! WHAT?! WHAT?! I'LL KIIIILLLL YOU!!! Ahh, same to ya, jerk-off! Jesus, God, just get me home...what time is it?!

I mean, I...I...sigh...I could go on about my dislike of cars, touching on their negative environmental, political, and cultural aspects, blah blah blah. But I won't...Orson will do it for me. The movie quote below is my favorite exchange from Mr. Welles' 1942 masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons. Joseph Cotton plays an early inventor of cars and devoted suitor to Isabel Minafer, George Minafer's mother (played by Dolores Costello). George (the young Tim Holt) hates Eugene not only because he's stealing his mother away from him, but because he sees Eugene as an agent of change from the old ways to the new. With Uncle Jack Minifer (Ray Collins) at the table, patriarch Maj. Anderson (Richard Bennett) starts things off:

Maj. Amberson: So your devilish machines are going to ruin all your old friends, eh Gene? Do you really think they're going to change the face of the land?

Eugene: They're already doing it major and it can't be stopped. Automobiles...

[cut off by George] George: Automobiles are a useless nuisance.

Jack: What did you say, George?

George: I said automobiles are a useless nuisance. Never amount to anything but a nuisance and they had no business to be invented.

Jack: Of course, you forget that Mr. Morgan makes them, also did his share in inventing them. If you weren't so thoughtless, he might think you were rather offensive.

Eugene: I'm not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. May be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of the men's souls, I'm not sure. But automobiles have come and almost all outwards things will be different because of what they bring. They're going to alter war and they're going to alter peace. And I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. May be that in ten to twenty years from now that if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine but agree with George - that automobiles had no business to be invented.

Brilliant talk there.

Anyway, this is all leading up to something much lighter. Back to Disney-time. So I'm sitting there, 1974 or so, Sunday night, and this INSANE thing pops up on screen as tonight's feature. I'll talk about it more later, after we watch it. So here it is, in three parts (it's 22 minutes long), via the wonderful You Tube (God, I love that site). From 1970 and narrated by a young Kurt Russell, get ready for: Dad, Can I Borrow The Car?

Gee, is there anything better than Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? Noooo. By far, the Disney company's coolest moment, it was directed by Ward Kimball, one of the original "Nine Old Men" who advised the Disney machine back in the day. He was an animator in the Diz biz since 1934, was the one who designed Jiminy Cricket from Pinnochio and redesigned Mickey Mouse from the '20s black-and-white little guy to basically the version of the character we know today. He'd won an Oscar the year before for another Disney short It's Tough to Be a Bird. So he was 56 years old when he produced Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? And you thought this was directed by some refugee from The Monkees or something. Nope. Kimball, pictured above, really let loose a bunch of old-guy hipness when he made this thing. That pic makes him look like a pretty funny character--I think that monster claw was even used in the movie!

The screams of laughter Dad provokes from my guttiwuts are endless--the wild-ass beginning with the "racing stripes" (if I were a rich man, I'd have exactly the car in this credits sequence, painted just like that buggy ends up); that bitchin' opening montage with that melange of oddball hotrods like a guy driving a burning cigar, a lemon on wheels, and a car hauling Mt. Rushmore away; that incredible, long B&W auto dealership commercial with all that gobbeldygook about "wrap-around hoods" and "pre-greased upholstry" (who IS that astounding actor with the fake bald wig anyway--that's the best commercial of all time!); those talking vehicles begging to be purchased (I love the old one that coughs and says "Get me soon, cause I'm goin' fast"...if only Cars could have been this cool); and, hey, was that a young, long-haired Jamie Lee Curtis as the girl who thinks he's trying to cheat off her test at the DMV? (The IMDB says Timothy Hutton's in this, too, but I couldn't spot him, could you? And, yeah, that was the Maytag repairman, Jessie White, a veteran of many a movie and TV show, doing some of the voices).

And, of course, there's all the references to sex and getting laid which, as I said, is what cars are all about. That scene with he and his friends taking the convertible under the car wash has to be one of the most suggestive things in a Disney film up to that period. I swear, some of the shots looked like soft porn! And with young Johnny watching over to the side, too! Gracious! Weird ending to this thing, too, with that kissing montage!

The killer graphic design was by John Emerson and Ed Garbert, with the stunning editing--the thing I think that first caught my young "WHAT IS THIS" eyes--is by Lloyd Richardson. And, naturally, there's Kurt Russell's funny, natural vocal performance, though I don't understand why they just didn't go on and use him as the lead actor; woulda made the movie that much better. I want to note that, though I saw this on TV, Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? did get a movie theater release, probably as a short in front of Superdad or The Cat From Outer Space or something. How do I know this? Because I have a movie poster for it!! Yayyyy! Coolest thing ever. I almost cried when I found it in this old warehouse I was helping clean up one time!! Score!!!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

TriBeCa Diaries #9: Dying Breed

I had talked about seeing the film with a very sweet publicist earlier in the day.

But I had forgotten about Dying Breed when it came to showtime. I had settled on seeing Harmony Korine's new film Mister Lonely instead, even though earlier in the day I had run into someone who said it sucked. I felt I should give Harmony another chance. He had, after all, written Kids. And though I disliked Gummo and HATED Julian Donkey-Boy, I felt the guy eventually HAD to emerge with something good. But I was dreading Mister Lonely inside.

I got to the theater and started chatting up a cute volunteer. She asked what I was here to see and I told her. Just then, a dashing guy in a sharp suit tapped me on the shoulder and said, in an Australian accent, "You should come to see our film, mate. It's much better."

"Oh, really? What is it?"

"Dying Breed." I slapped my head and yelled "Oh my God, I WAS supposed to see that." Changing my plans immediately, I followed the director, Jody Dwyer, into the theater, telling him that one of my favorite horror movies of recent times was Australia's Wolf Creek. "Good," he said. "Some of the same people worked on this one."

So I was excited as I took a perfect seat, and a guy behind me yelled "SCARY!" as the lights went down. It was a rowdy crowd that let me know I was in for a good time.

After a stunning period prologue (this is based on a true story) and an even more eventful, crimson-coloured credits sequence, I was settled in--as much as I could be--for the very best horror movie I've seen since maybe Se7en in 1992. Dying Breed is a hair-pulling, face-grabbing, oh-no-not-that-anything-but-PLEASE-not-that! sort of horror movie, one that confirms a new wave of Australian scares for us to get all balled-up over.

Dying Breed bleeds dread as it tells its sullen story. Mirrah Foulkes plays Nina, a twentysomething who's still in shock over the sudden drowning death of her sister. It's holiday time, so she plans on a curiosity-killing vacation to the Tazmanian island where she died. Along for the holiday/investigation is her sensible boyfriend Matt (Leigh Whannell), his partying best friend Jack (Nathan Phillips) and Jack's newest fuck-buddy, Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo).

When they arrive, the film morphs into a free-for-all shockfest that combines two cups of Deliverance, a cup of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, two teaspoons of Evil Dead, and two dashes of Friday the 13th. There's no point in recounting more of the story, as it'll give away some of the scares, which are plentiful. This is a gory film, but one done with taste, if you can imagine that. For instance, the most shocking death in the movie looks horribly painful, but becomes much more so when we're faced with the life trickling out of the character's body, coupled with the horrified reactions of the people surrounding the scene. You'll know it when you see it, what I'm talking about.

You'll also see the horrible, blood-clouded waters of Tasmania, where the devils run quickly, teeth bared. You'll see smoked meats hanging from hooks and eels exiting blistered mouths and all sorts of terrible scenarios involving sex and blood and bloodlines. Your brow is guaranteed to be furrowed throughout. Director Jody Dwyer, a former film editor who worked under Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket, expertly presents the film complete with the four benchmarks of a great horror film: (1) A terrifying use of silence (though the film has a fine dischordant score from Narida Tyson-Chew), (2) an equally terrifying use of darkness (great photography and art direction!), (3) a dizzying sense of disorientation, and (4) most importantly, the fear of a violent, prolonged death.

After the screaming had stopped and the lights went up, the writer of the film, Rod Morris--a gentle looking chap, really--stood up behind me and said "It was so fun to see you react to the film." I answered that I reacted the only way I could: with complete dismay. He ended up inviting me to their after-party, which I spent talking about how great their film was, and how it ranked with the finest titles in the horror genre.

How does it rank? Right up there!! Dying Breed is dedicated to making you VERY scared; it would go perfectly on a double bill with another TriBeCa horror find, The Wild Man of the Navidad (see TriBeCa Diaries #5). Jump for jump, you'll not see a more frightening movie all year.

TriBeCa Diaries #8: Green Porno

It's perfection, having the always extremely erotic Isabella Rossellini as the focus of Green Porno, her eight-film debut as director (along with co-director Jody Shapiro). The subject of these charming, inventively educational one-minute shorts?

The sex lives of insects. In each, an elaborately costumed Rossellini portrays a bug--a firefly, a house fly, a spider, a snail, a bee, an earthworm, and so on--and sensually explains the ins and outs of insect copulation. Always capped with effective cinematic punchlines and beautifully simple art direction (I particularly found the end of the spider film hilarious), Green Porno is Rossellini's optimistic attempt to bring short films into a new paradigm--one which might make it possible for short-form directors to actually make new media cash with their efforts (Rossellini hosted a TriBeCa panel discussion about just this issue). Her lovely Green Porno series should certainly enjoy this fate. Here are some pix of Isabella in her various buggy guises!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Tribeca Diaries #7: The Autuer

WARNING: This is a salty-languaged review, by necessity.

Writer/Director James Westby has certainly gotten off the most raucously received movies at the 2008 TriBeCa Film Festival with The Autuer. This brilliantly-constructed pastiche of mockumentary and true narrative storytelling posits the existance of Auturo Domingo, the world's foremost director of hardcore porn, the Kubrick of cum. Played with showy apulmb by Melik Malkasian (who has Kubrick's intense eyes), Domingo is followed from a child who simultaneously discovered copies of both Cahiers Du Cinema and Hustler under his father's bed to his meteoric rise to the top as a student filmmaker with Five Easy Nieces to his hustling days as a top industry force with such titles under his belt as Broadway Danny's Ho's, Snatch Adams, Requiem for a Wet Dream and the controversial Full Metal Jackoff.

It's so stunning how the film begins at the comically-named porno house the Clinton, as we see a film festival audience consuming a documentary about Domingo titled All That Jizz. This portion of the movie is shot with a theater procenium around the main image's edges; this is something I've never seen done at such length before--a shorthand to let you know we're getting two movies in one. When it comes to the rest of the film, it's suprisingly sweet as it explores the relationship between Domingo and both his estranged best friend, porno star Frank E. Normo (an energetic John Breen) and his true love, a fresh-faced vision named Fiona (the beautiful Katherine Flynn).

But amongst the sweetness, you get loads and loads of other things. Like lots of glimpses of great tits (yum!) or Auturo carefully instructing an actor how to eat pussy, or a run-in with a dreadlocked killer-pot dealer hilariously named Friend (Michael Fetters). Or amped-up clips from Frank E. Normo's popular cable show Let's Get Fucked and Domingo's taken-in-stride clashes with a nasty fast-talking concierge (Katie O'Grady). But nothing will prepare anyone for this movie's climax. You can read between the lines, if you like, but you'll never see it coming. Or, on second thought, maybe you will.

The movie is shot with vibrant color by Alan Jacobsen and scored with a melifulous blend of accordian and piano by Jason Wells. It's also peppered with fantastic inside film jokes (only Kubrick fans will get the reference to a famous photo of Kubrick playing chess with George C. Scott, for instance, or Auturo's donning of a Kubrick-style parka). Made with love and care, The Autuer is a comedy that, despite its audience-limiting subject matter, will certainly find its more adventurous and less-easily offended fans, cum hell or high water.

TriBeCa Diary #6: Bart Got A Room

I didn't come to TriBeCa to slag any movies, but I lost my patience with the contrived Bart Got a Room about 45 minutes in, and I just had to say something.

At first, it looked as if I'd like Brian Hecker's somewhat hateful new film. It opens to Danny Stein (Steven J. Kaplan) as he's playing in his school swing band for a smatterling of beach-tanned senior citizens. It's a promising opening, colored in Florida blues and yellows, and from this point on, the film does a fine job of creating a setting, with its constant intentionally-cliched flamingoes and soothing pastel shades. But when the plot kicks in--shy school acedemian can't find a date for the prom--the film takes a vacation from placement and character, choosing instead to run its sweet protagonist unpleasently through the wringer.

Lemme give you an example. With Danny's date options dwindling, his would-be playa dad (a good William H. Macy in a Jew fro fright wig) somehow at one point makes an desperate move to hire his son a streetwalker (and an unattractive one at that); this is so outlandish--no father would make this choice, even one as clueless as Macy's. And there's a scene where Danny is faced with having a conversation with his best friend, cute wallfower Alia Shawkat, or breaking away to go and meet the knockout he had a date with. After Danny fails to simply, politely break away from his friend and just tell his date he was there waiting for her---well, my patience for this character was spent. Danny just stands there stammering in impotent pain as the knockout walks away, pissed off. It was here that I completely wrote Bart's Got A Room off as an exercise in sadism.

Unfortunately, Danny is a passive character and it's difficult to make movies about this sort. In fact, it's almost never done, because the audience gets as impatient with them as I did. Bart Got a Room makes it extremely difficult to like any of the people in it, though you sense the movie achingly wants us to. What remains is the nagging notion that Hacker himself, as writer and director, doesn't care for his characters, either--almost every actor's assumed persona comes off badly (except for Shawkat's, who's written with dignity and decency).

Sorry, I hate being this mean towards any film, but its poorly-structured screenplay spends 90 of its minutes cutting poor Danny Stein to ribbons, and devotes two minutes to the story's payoff. By the time it comes, it's way too little, too late. It's like a Floridian Welcome to the Dollhouse (a movie I despise) and a Jewish John Hughes movie all rolled into one, and it comes off like weak borscht. No fault to its excellent cast (including Cheryl Hines, Dinah Manoff, and Jon Polito), but Bart Got A Room isn't comedy; it's abuse.

TriBeCa Diaries #5: The Wild Man of the Navidad

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez unleashed Grindhouse on us in early 2007, it was an essential orgy of nostalgia dressed up in zombie violence and car-chase-mania. It was an exhilerating experience for anyone who'd gone, back in the day, to the drive-ins and--yes--the grindhouses to catch Death Race 2000 or Dawn of the Dead or God Told Me To. It seemed to get every detail right--the weathered prints, the visible splices in the film, the exciting casting, the blaring music, the hit-or-miss previews with their ostentacious graphics, and the garish colors.

But Grindhouse also looked like it had a lot of money behind it ($53 million, to be exact) and with that money, it posed a rich illusion of a film unearthed from obscurity. However, with Justin Meeks and Duane Grave's petrifying new horror film The Wild Man of the Navidad, the illusion comes in at a fraction of the cost and, in many ways, with a surplus of vividness. These newcomers have also gotten every detail right in telling the story of Dale Rogers, whose experiences being terrorized by an unspeakable, carnivourous monster in the Texas midlands town of Navidad form the film's basis.

If you're a fan of this genre or a confirmed film geek, you'll notice the little things here--how the sound pops noticibly as a placard tells us this is based on a true event, or how the grain of the "film" looks. How the credits look imperfectly printed on the image, or how they include a slyly-reworked version of the MPAA ratings logo as dischordant music cries in the background. Take a look at the constant rack-focusing or the insistant use of zoom lenses, or too-close close-ups that sometimes even cut off the mouths of their subjects, or the choppily-edited visions of fly-covered gore after the Wild Man goes on his rampages. And notice the jarring juxtoposition of violence with jaunty country music, or the cheerily amatuer quality of most of its acting, which goes a long way, ironically, to making The Wild Man of the Navidad feel more authentic. The casting of an wide array of suspicious, hairy old men is a stroke of genius, as is much in this well-crafted film that, I swear, could be mistaken for a lost Sunn Classic (which made bad but entertaining documentaries about UFOs and Bigfoot in the 1970s) or a once-buried inspiration for Charles B. Pierce's The Legend of Boggy Creek (Pierce acted as an advisor to Meeks and Graves; also, Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Last Night at the Alamo writer Kim Henkel produces and plays a supporting role).

The whole production was spearheaded by the Meeks family who not only owned the house that serves as its main locale, but also served as everything from actors (Justin Meeks is the lead, and cousin Stacy Meeks plays his drooling, invalid wife) to boom operators and designers of the monster's horrifying costume and makeup. Justin Meeks is notably impressive in his tense, sweaty, multi-lingual portrayal of the put-upon trailer denizen whose midnight feedings of skinned rabbits to the Wild Man lead the monster to wanting more dangerous game. (The movie does fine job of keeping its monster in a box until it simply has to be loosed--a triumph of restraint that most ADD present-day horror directors have forgotten is a choice for which they can opt.)

Ultimately, The Wild Man of the Navidad remembers the one-time charm and horror of low-budget filmmaking--that its qualities, too, were a certain "look" that viewers imprinted on and loved, and that needn't be forgotten in the face of what's popularly called artistic and technological progress. Mr. Tarantino, take your power and throw it behind this one. It's a winner.

TriBeCa Diaries #4: Run For Your Life

I stepped into Judd Ehrlich's Run For Your Life not knowing anything about the history of the New York City marathon. I stepped out an educated man. The event was started by a charismatic, Romanian-born businessman named Fred Lebow, whose enthusiasm for running began the marathon's infancy in 1969. At that time, people on the street weren't used to seeing runners jogging alongside cars in clothes that looked like underwear. In 1970, when the first marathon was launched, the participants--no women allowed, either--just sprinted a few times around Central Park. After female athletes were accepted in 1971, and after the marathon's route was amended to follow a path that swept through all five boroughs in 1976, the fevered publicity surrounding the event began to launch its popularity.

All the while, Lebow--whom one friend says "ran like a duck, but was slower than a duck"--acted as press agent, detail man, and provocateur. He used the marathon to feather his own nest with fame and a constant array of young women (but no money--he was famously broke a lot of the time). But he also used it to help an ailing, bankrupt New York City find its footing and its pride once again. Using his mastery of event planning and salesmanship, he garnered an array of big-time sponsors and, by 1977, a 5000-strong army of runners hoping to complete the course. Nowadays, the crowd numbers close to 20,000 (and there's nothing like seeing all those people crunch across the Verrazano Bridge in the opening helicopter shot).

Run For Your Life does what all fine docs do: it recounts a story we've never heard, but which has massive historical implications. It gives us a main character worthy of our attention. It has a complex structure that doesn't follow events as they happened in a timeline, but as they relate to one another. And it inventively illustrates its story with perceptive interviews (with marathon champs Bill Rogers and Grete Weitz among them), archive footage that's well-edited (by Alison Shermin), and stunning graphic work (by Nicholas Vranzian) that casts still images and CGI work into an appropriately low-fi 1970s look. I also have to mention its incredible source-music soundtrack of past hit songs and present-day songs that should be hits.

I've never been a runner--I'm too busy watching movies, so I've always found its appeal a bit mystifying--but now after seeing the inspiring Run For Your Life, I think I know what its point is. And certainly, for Fred Lebow and the adoring friends who surrounded him, it was about passion. That's a good enough explanation for me.

TriBeCa Diaries #3: Empire II

Dedicated not to Andy Warhol but to late film geniuses Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni, Amos Poe's new experimental documentary Empire II still owes a lot--including its title--to the white-haired pop artist. Warhol's 1964 film Empire was an 8-hour black-and-white shot of the top half of the Empire State Building. It was a quizzical experiment that I suppose had to be done, but of course is not for everyone to enjoy. When I saw it in 2003 at Atlanta's Emory University theater, my friends and I drifted in at about the two hour mark, and stayed to see the sun set on the NY landmark--ostensibly the film's most "exciting" part. We alternately sat in respectful silence and made giggly wry comments (a reaction with which I don't think Warhol would've been unhappy). I should say that the sample of the print you see below is actually better than the pristine one I saw, because the print is somewhat damaged. That underlines the plastic quality of film itself, which I think is something Warhol wanted to highlight. Check it out in its entirety, whether you're in the mood or not.

The Empire State Building is definitely the main character in Poe's new 3-hour film--we should remember that now the building is again New York's most memorable landmark now that the death of the World Trade Center is a reality. But this follow-up resembles Warhol's Empire mostly in that it serves as an endurance test to the impatient.

Me, I loved it. In many ways, it's like Geoffrey Reggio's Koyannisqatsi in its illustration of nature vs. civilization, specific here to New York City life. Shot largely in time-lapse photography, Poe shows us the dizzying activity of the streets as taxi cabs whiz by, headlights dancing and pedestrians dodging. Time bolts past us as a clock towering over Union Square kills an hour-and-a-half in a minute flat. The Empire State Building itself is beset by rushed days and nights, and by zooming clouds of creamy blues and solarized reds. Empire II approximates four seasons of movement, so we get the hordes on the street slopping through snowy weather, baked by the yellow heat of August, and dampened by October rain showers. The onscreen rush reaches its apex in two holiday scenes: the explosive Fourth of July fireworks (which look even more spectacular ratcheted up a few notches in speed) and the humorous climactic onslaught of the Village's idiosyncratic Halloween parade, where the playful play at an impossible rapidity.

The visuals are hypnotic and joyous, chaotic and meditative. However, it's the soundtrack that really sends the work into the ionosphere for me. While the incredible video footage surely cost Poe--most famous for the groundbreaking punk doc The Blank Generation--a tremendous effort to compose, shoot and edit, the aural aspect of Empire II feels even more labor-intensive. Poe approximates the sound landscaping of New York City perfectly. His music track--filled with the likes of
Patty Smith, Brian Eno, Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Jimmie James, Deborah Harry, the Hysterics and Pink Martini--flows in and out of the air like tunes blaring from cruising sedans. A song might get bitch-slapped by the sound of thunder and rainfall, then pick itself off the pavement moments later. Helicopter blades chop through the rumbling crowd noises, winds whip around sharp-cornered high-rises, clocks tick quickly like challenging metronomes, and ghostlike voices appear and disappear while reciting poetry by Edgar Allen Poe (any relation?) and Jim Carroll. The soundtrack--effects, ambiance, music and all--is a stunning feature, like nothing I've ever experienced.

Still, even with all the sturm und drang, with all of Poe's fascinating movement and noise, Empire II failed to keep many journalists in their seats when I saw it. I was the only one who stayed, mesmerized from beginning to end. I suppose, as I and many others did with Empire, then others simply said "I get the point" and walked out. I dunno--maybe I understand; or maybe it was the excitement of the festival that got to them. But if one doesn't see the whole thing, how can one have really gotten the point?