25 for 25 – What a Story, Mark

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I don’t know if other cinephiles ever have these humbling moments where somebody out of any corner of film watcher-dom introduces a film or culture that has clearly made a bold and big impact on the cinematic world that I had no idea was in existence and makes me rush to find out what it is. They still happen often and often, but the biggest one in my life was right when I was starting college in 2010 and hours after my arrival to Phoenix, my roommate tells me about the already seven-years-old and long in the middle of its cult phenomenon (hell, by that point it already had a video game made of it) The Room, made by the enigmatic fellow of Tommy Wiseau. And man, my roommate was REALLY selling this movie to the point of going through a plot synopsis of the movie in the middle of dinner with my dad at IHop and making me watch the Nostalgia Critic review.

I have since seen the movie 3 times – first with friends indulging in the cult actions of throwing spoons and such, then with Wiseau present on his “Love Is Blind” tour, and then after finishing The Disaster Artist (the infamous book by co-star and line producer Greg Sestero that elaborates on the production history of the film) – and all with an utter and immediate fascination that promised I’d be watching it another time. This is quite unorthodox because The Room is widely known as one of the worst movies to ever be made.

And it quite frankly lives up to that reputation every time.

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Just by looking at the synopsis of the movie is a Herculean task to parse out a straightforward premise. You can get to the center of the film, being that writer Wiseau (who also is the director, producer, and star of the film, but more on that later) wanted to craft a love triangle in the center between Johnny (Wiseau), a successful banker who is beloved by everybody around him and surrounded by friends, his fiancee Lisa (Juliette Daniel) who is bored by the idyllic life that Johnny provides for her, and Johnny’s mysterious best friend Mark (Sestero) who begins an affair with Lisa despite his utter disgust with his actions. Soap opera stuff, not entirely the sort of thing that holds up a 100 minute feature.

Then there’s the hodge-podge of non-sequitors and tangeants that have absolutely no weight on that primary plot, from the infamous subplot of Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) famously declaring her diagnosis of breast cancer before never bringing the matter up ever again, to the childlike Denny (Philip Haldiman) getting in debt-related trouble with the aggressive drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian). Perhaps Wiseau felt these sort of random events are reflective of how real throws things at you (I once had an acquaintance suggest a movie with the same sort of narrative logic as The Room and have avoided him appropriately), perhaps he just wanted to fill 99 minutes, perhaps he just keeps forgetting to delete all scenes related to whatever subplot. In any case, any possible sense of reality, sense, or logic in Wiseau’s screenplay is vacuumed and leaves something like an unfunny Adult Swim episode. These characters and their dialogue don’t sound like anything other than what Wiseau’s concept of how humans behave, and given Wiseau’s presence on-screen as the lead, it’s easy to see how Wiseau has trouble understanding human behavior. His presence seems like a desperate attempt to mimic it and it is an utter failure on that front.

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Everybody else in the cast seems to be desperately trying to sell whatever nonsensical word salad Wiseau mandates for them to do and it’s admirable, although I’m not sure we would be having any great performances out of them even if the lines made sense. Some are overly intense and out of the zone of the movie like Janjigian or Greg Ellery (in his one appearance), some are kind creepy in their sedateness like Haldiman, the only truly relaxed and casual cast member seems to be Minnott without a real care in her life about being embarrassed by Wiseau telling her to demand her daughter get her “hot buns in here”. Is it truly fair for me to judge a cast forced in this position?

I guess not because in the end everything is controlled by Wiseau and I guess I may as well confront my attitude towards The Room here and now. It’s not only how utterly collapsed The Room is narratively or aesthetically (the movie went through three different cinematographers and they all supply the same flat lighting that wouldn’t run for a made-for-TV movie on chilly designed production of rooftops, flower shops – “Hi doggy!” – and apartments), but how it is the only lens we get to the mind and life of Wiseau, alongside a Hulu series he made called The Neighbors which I have no intention of watching. I am not the first or even the last person who will claim that The Room is one of the most auteur-driven pictures of all time and I can’t see how this is deniable to anybody based on Wiseau not only had his hands on every major lever of the production, but how he is the most involved person on-screen. I kind of hold that is irrefutable proof that while the auteurist theory is a sensible map onto reading the works of a film artist, it’s not the end-all be-all way to validate a filmmaker’s output as irrevocably good, as people tend to do these days with the works of “vulgar auteurism” such as Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, refuting flaws and tossing the words “masterpiece”. It makes movies worth talking about, not worth praise. For The Room is very much a movie worth talking about, but not remotely worthy of praise.

And to dig deep into that psyche of why The Room would be worth those things, for one thing it’s lonely. The amount of adoration Johnny is surrounded by and how he’s so very much a source of support and help to every single person in his life (see how he valiantly dispatches of Chris-R or how he lets Denny down gently when Denny expresses lust for Lisa), it’s unrealistic to the point of fantasy. It’s like a twisted version of the memories from the Rick and Morty episode with mind-worms acting as imaginary friends, there’s only happiness, no conflict except from those devious ones, which leads to my second declaration about The Room. It’s very misogynistic in a shallow way, a representation of the sort of nightmare “nice guy” MRAs picture when a woman is given oh so very much everything and yet still selfishly goes behind her significant other’s back because it’s fun. And look how much it ruins Johnny*, look how he l– wait, no he’s always looked like that sort of ghost with a oily mop on his head, but look at how much Lisa tears him apart and how callous she is to his pain and support. Together, it only paints a sad portrait of Tommy Wiseau only desperately wanting to be loved, even through all the footballs being flung and the inhuman visual and verbal language. The inability to represent human interaction in any realistic way only further shows how distanced Wiseau is from having that sort of interaction nourish his life.

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That’s the sort of desperation that sets a work like Miami Connection apart from The Room, despite both essentially being ego-trips. One is simply out of positivity and excitement, the other is negative and desperate. One is full of color and liveliness, the other is set in a catalog-ready apartment for the majority of its runtime.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Wiseau’s not that sad as a person. Maybe he’s actually had a rich and filling life (and I am avoiding Sestero’s recollections in The Disaster Artist in this dissection, I’m only pulling from The Room itself) surrounded by loved ones. But that’s kind of the thing about film, it’s an art like any other and so it functions really as an extension of the artist. It’s a two-way communication between the author (whoever that is) and the audience and this is the sort of Tommy Wiseau that the man has opted to introduce to us (my reading is hardly deep, I think. It’s not even particularly profound on my part). And that makes The Room only all the more interesting to me as a feature film, in a way validating the ability of film to unlock many of the secret thoughts or desires of a being even when everything else may go wrong.

And The Room is, in the end, the epitome of everything going wrong.

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*I wanna note something… that was the SECOND time I accidentally typed “Tommy” instead of “Johnny” and had to go back and fix it. Take from that what you will.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – I Don’t Have Time for Movies. I’m Too Busy with Life.

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It’s really tough to square out and acknowledge exactly what makes movies and filmmakers that experiment and bend with the form of the medium so very intellectually stimulating to me. It might just be the challenge towards my perceived notions and comfortable expectations with what a film would do: “it would tell a story like so and so and so and so and it would look like so and so and so and so”. If it were really challenging, I feel I would be a lot more antagonistic towards the movies themselves, but instead I find it a lot more fun and engaging, no less so than watching a guy bungeeing off a giant rig in the Australian outback jamming on a flamethrower guitar. Every single time – Inland Empire, Full Frontal, F for Fake, hell even the concept of what Psycho is doing (acknowledging it can no longer work today where everybody is aware of its narrative structure) – it gives me more to roll around in my head after watching. I can think more on what kind of subjective material I’m witnessing and how much the movie itself believes its content. It’s probably why formalism – figuring out why a movie chooses to be presented the way it does – interests me more than narrative. That shit just rocks my socks.

Anyway, all of this is to say the Iranian poet/artist/filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was probably not the first artist to introduce this possibility of movies being more than our pre-conceived notions of what movies are nor is Close-Up the movie to introduce me to that (Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is probably that film), but it introduced me to the idea that such a clinically intellectual approach to movies, so aware of their form, could also be humane. For Kiarostami was possibly one of the most humane filmmakers of my time (and I miss him since his passing last year) and Close-Up feels like potentially the most humane film out of a man who wrote The White Balloon and directed Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Taste of Cherry.

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It certainly helps that the humanity behind Close-Up is a man whose crime is fuelled solely by his love for movies, not malice, not any intent for theft. Hossain Sabzian – our subject – only convinced the Ahankhah family in Tehran that he was the famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who is just as much a national treasure as Kiarostami was) simply because he found himself so affected by Makhmalbaf’s films that he couldn’t help but identify with the artist behind the work. Why wouldn’t one expect the sympathies of a filmmaker and film audience be with another cinephile and hear him out in the moments where he explains what Makhmalbaf’s films changed his life?

Now, here’s where Kiarostami plays with our subjectivity of the film: Close-Up is essentially a docudrama. Parts of the film are obviously documentary captured in real-time including the trial of Sabzian (indeed, the trial and the extended opening scene of reporter Hossain Farazmand provide the informal elements of what happened), which acts somewhat as a frame for us, and others are re-enactments, and the film doesn’t do a great job to hide which is which (the visual and audial elements of the verite segments are more troubled than the re-enacted portions). I’m not sure this is something Kiarostami intended but it works wonders because knowing from the get-go that elements of what we’re watching are just fake means we, as an audience, can recognize that we’re being manipulated into this story. At the same time, the veracity of the more important moments refuses to let us watch this at a divide from Sabzian and the family’s drama, we’re just as engaged as they are.

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Now, we’re definitely not going to be denied the fact that what Sabzian did, in the end, was criminal and there’s no such thing as innocence in this film. The elder son of the Ahankhahs, Mehrdad, is there to remind us that there is a matter of money borrowed under false pretenses and Sabzian claimed an interest to filming the family in their house, after all. Alarm is understandable. And there’s a clear resentment from Mehrdad and the others that he won’t actually be involved in a film like Sabzian promised that Kiarostami also understands. And yet Close-Up is patient with Sabzian’s diatribes and interested in him – the camera fixes on him when he talks about how the act has made him confident and felt more of a connection to Makhmalbaf than ever before. And in the end, it plays so obviously with the fact of what Sabzian has done with kid gloves and a willingness to forgive all involved, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

The manipulation comes full circle upon a late re-enactment of Sabzian’s arrest. Essentially a fixed shot waiting game, it’s where Kiarostami tries to test out whether or not we love Sabzian as much as he does by making him the subject of a Hitchcockian thriller scene where we know the outcome and are anticipating the moment he has to be taken away by the police. It’s a scene that relies on our perspective being affected by Sabzian’s testimony to work and when it works, it’s a triumph to Kiarostami’s manipulation of the facts (hell, it has to be somewhat aware of the camera’s presence in the courtroom somehow affecting the verdict) and cinema’s general ability to be generous to a character’s psyche.

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And then it compounds that generosity by one of the most affectionate motions that a document could make to its subject, an ending that leaves all parties satisfied and pleasant to a point that radiates unto the audience. Giving how much room it leaves for thinking about how what we witness has went (the sound is turned off during the scene; played within the film as an accident, but actually a deliberate decision by Kiarostami as a last manipulation), the viewer can insert himself into Sabzian the same feeling of validation and wonder at finally meeting their hero. Or the optimism of its final shot. Kiarostami knows what he’s doing all the way through (and hell even presents Makhmalbaf himself as just as manipulative in his visit to the flowershop). But what’s wrong with manipulating the audience in the end, especially with film? It’s what makes me endear to Spielberg’s sentimentality and never find the criticism worth that much thought. It’s what makes me root for ambitious projects even if I sense failure in them. It’s what makes film so engaging and makes me glad it’s possible to exist.

I defy anybody to walk out of a movie that’s obvious in what it’s trying to do than Close-Up and leave without a great feeling. Such a movie only means the best. For you, for me, and for all cinema. I would not hesitate to call it the most important movie of the last 30 years.

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For Hossain Sabzien and Abbas Kiarostami

P.S. apropos of nothing, if you are interested in Makhmalbaf’s films, Kandahar seems to be his best known. My personal favorite is A Moment of Innocence and I have a love for Salam Cinema. Iranian filmmaking is a treasure and I encourage you guys to dig into it.


Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Living for the City

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So, where I left off talking about Wings, I was discussing a very unfortunate discrepancy involved in the very 1st Academy Awards on May 1929. You see, there were in fact TWO equally highest honors in the ceremony and while one of them – The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture – was adopted over the years into what would eventually become The Academy Award for Best Picture, the second honor was disposed of before the following year’s ceremony. That honor was The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture and the main source for ire and controversy comes from the fact that the former would be awarded to Wings while the latter would be awarded to F.W. Murnau’s lovely melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and practically everybody who has had the fortune of seeing both films recognizes that Sunrise is far and away the much better picture, making the abandonment and denial of its place in Academy history feel something like a heavy slight. Then again it’s kind of very easy to find such actions a slight and recognize Wings as the inferior choice when Sunrise is among several consensus picks for the very best film ever made and if you’re expecting me to break with consensus, nahhhhhhhh son. I’m basic like that too.

1927 is a year like no other in cinema. It’s right in the middle of that fantastic period in the late 1920s where the early experimentation inherent in the creation of a new artform – particularly led by European filmmakers and film industries, where each nation had its own vocabulary to visual storytelling – led to it taking the sort of narrative shapes we recognize as common in the movies we watch today, yet at the time of those films’ release, they were probably fresh enough to be mind-expanding to audiences. It’s especially great, in my eyes, when such filmmaking techniques can be seen as innovative in modern circumstances, just from the roughness of their genesis having a kind of realness to what we’re watching. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not just feel innovative – like we’re watching the beginnings of cinema anew – it feels heavily expressive and moving to an almost schmaltzy way.

1927 also happened to be the era in which European filmmakers were now being brought over to Hollywood on the merit of their talents, particularly Germans with their heightened shadow-based Expressionism style heralding Hollywood Studios’ interests in using that for genre tales, such as horror. F.W. Murnau was one such filmmaker – with possibly his most famous work, the vampire story Nosferatu, and the fable adaptation of Faust under his belt – but horror was not the genre for which he was recruited for. In fact, William Fox wanted Murnau to make whatever film he wanted with Fox’s production.

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Whatever film Murnau wanted to make turned out to be a picture about a tale written by Carl Mayer so simple and straightforward, it doesn’t even afford proper names to its subjects. Our primary couple is the Man (George O’Brian) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and they both live in the Countryside separate from the City where the vampish Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) comes from to start an affair with the Man. The Man is so corrupted by this relationship outside of his marriage that he becomes malleable to the Girl from the City’s suggestions of leaving with her to live with in the City, but this would only be possible if The Man kills his wife (they are ambiguous as to what should happen with their infant child). The particular plan goes that The Man would take The Wife across the water that separates The Countryside from the City and arrange her drowning to look like an accident, but the Man finds himself unable to go through with it. The Wife, understandably frightened by her husband, rushes away when they get to shoreline while the Man chases her and her forgiveness into the City and it takes a while but they find their love for each other renewed in the day they spend enjoying the sites and sounds of the metropolis they found themselves in.

Certainly a story with major incidents but not much depth beyond the insistence on love triumphing over doubt and fear and a balanced ability to find room for the serenity in the simplicity of life in the Countryside – captured by cinematographers Karl Struss & Charles Rosher in a dreamy light haze that makes the day scenes glow and the night scenes become smoky and inky – yet merriment in the busy attitude of the City – brought to glorious toppling life from the ground up by uncredited art director Rochus Gliese in solid angular modeling and exciting lights, aided by an ambient soundtrack from Fox’s Movietone technology that gave us crowd noises, train sounds, and car sounds to immerse us into the city of The Man and the Wife’s pursuits.

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In any case, Sunrise is not a movie that tries to hide what emotions it thinks you’re supposed to feel. Expressionism earns its name for a reason and Murnau was possibly the most well-regarded filmmaker to invoke Expressionism in the majority of his work (I at one point called him the greatest filmmaker of all time and would probably still hold him in my top ten. I certainly still swear by most of his stuff.), he was interested in using as many toys he could pull out of the box from rear projection to chiaroschuro (especially used in moments that imply the Man’s capability for violence) and even my favorite, title cards that transformed with the mood and morphed (the only other film I can recall doing this so effectively, maybe even better than Sunrise, is Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary of the same year from another German Expressionist filmmaker come to Hollywood). All of these toys are used to project those feelings as directly as possible to the audience and it feels fine for a story that intends to be nothing more than fable, devoted to traditional story tropes from the very beginning. The archness of O’Brien’s foreboding presence where it feels like every step he takes is dragged by a weight alone and Gaynor’s muted but spirited feminity (as opposed to the loudness of Livingston’s flapper stereotype) is just another tool for Murnau to use to present that.

Everything about Sunrise comes together well. It feels ambitious even in moments where it’s only character based moments like when the couple are in a church musing upon their ordeal. It has a sharp handle on tone, such as when the affair between the Man and the Woman from the City turns a bit more towards Murnau’s familiar horror in a psychological sense, or one of my favorite instances, a perfect tossaround between happiness at the couple freshening up at a barber shop, followed by uncomfortable black comedy at the Wife being hit on by an insistent patron there, followed by turning again into brief horror as the Man threatens said patron with a pocketknife, before back to comedy as he frightens him with a swipe. The abstractness of the story made it all just so easy for Murnau and editor Harold D. Schuster to form single scenes into great big emotions while indulging playfully in moments like the Couple dancing at a fair and chasing a pig.

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This is silent cinema. It needs to be bold. It has no room for subtlety. Murnau was one of the greatest because he recognized that and yet he afforded his storytelling a level of sophistication because he took pride in his craft and looking for new ways to change up the shapes of emotions on the screen. And I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have been proud of the films he gave us nor should I be surprised that the director of The Last Laugh – my very first Murnau picture – is good at using award-winning visuals and performance (Sunrise also has the distinction of winning the very first Oscars for Best Actress and Cinematography) to manipulate our emotions and sympathies with our characters. Only that he was THAT fucking good, for Sunrise is a movie I’ve hardly ever seen improved upon in the 89 years since its release.

In the end, the arbitrary committee and decision-making that led to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being unceremoniously snubbed feels unfair to this day, especially appalling to me given that it’s in my top ten favorite movies, and so if I had to utilize this upcoming series to rewrite history in any manner as befits my tastes, it would be to recognize Sunrise as one of the first recipients of what was one of the highest honors American cinema would receive, a good pin on what the movie would promise for the medium it took to such dizzying heights, even when Oscar had to be retroactive in its own recognition for its merits.

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