25 for 25 – Asa Nisi Masa

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Like I said in The Room review, I’m generally of the attitude that most filmmakers, regardless of skill or genre, imbue some part of themselves and their psychology in their art. After all, the way an artist chooses to shape their object doesn’t come from just anywhere, it comes from inside (it’s for this reason I don’t judge anyone who chooses to avoid Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movies, etc., though I don’t). Now, I don’t know how far back openly self-reflexive cinema has been happening, but Federico Fellini’s Italian masterpiece 8 1/2 strikes me as the most audacious dirty laundry-slinging you can possibly get away with before losing me as a viewer. Everything meta- after 8 1/2 seems trying to catch up, whether New Nightmare or Annie Hall or Birdman. They just can’t hold a candle to 8 1/2 for me.

Its very opening scene is the kind of shocker that puts you right into the headspace of its lead character Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) and does that by putting us in a point of view shot for the majority of the time that he’s being asphyxiated by leaking gas in a car stuck in bumper to bumper highway traffic in the patronizing eyes of the other cars. He escapes through the sunroof and begins to glide and fly up into the sky before being caught in some rope from a shore below and the movie has already taken up a surrealist nature that overwhelms the viewer, pulled out of it once the person holding the rope tugs and Guido falls into our view and us out of what was presented as a dream. A cold awakening that sets the heightened theatrical tone of the film (though it should be noted that 8 1/2 is in many ways much more grounded than most of Fellini’s other works like Satyricon and Amarcord), the feeling of lack of self-control or freedom that fuels the frustration Mastroianni guides us through all within the film, and it aligns with Guido’s perspective irrevocably.

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All of this is tied to the fact that Guido, a film director (obviously representing Fellini himself), is in the middle of a big epic spectacle production that he has no clue what to make it about, a half-constructed rocket ship one of the major setpieces Piero Gherardi provides as towering monument of Guido and Fellini’s uncertainties and insecurities. He’s also in the middle of a break ostensibly for his health in a Catholic spa that Gherardi and composer Nino Rota craft as a hypnotising carnivalesque white block (even more solid in the black and white stock of which 8 1/2 is shot by Gianni Di Venanzo) of “supposed” salvation and real confusion, the kind that you don’t really mind living in because it blankets you well. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with his imminent separation from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) while his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo, Fellini’s real-life mistress) is staying right next door at the spa. And while the plot circles and circles with Guido’s inability to make any creative decisions walking right past all of his assistants in the hotel or appease his clearly tired producer (Guido Alberti), any real attempt to present a solution is way too hard for Guido and he retreats into his hat or sunglasses to indulge himself in a memory of his childhood – like being punished for witnessing a prostitute’s dance – or a fantasy that is extremely telling of his flaws – such as the chauvinistic harem sequence.

Guido’s not a good guy, he’s spineless, he’s creatively bankrupt (at this point in his career), he’s a liar, he’s an adulterer, and that’s just the things that Fellini wants us to read into a character who is essentially meant to represent him. Even if 8 1/2 is eager to forgive Guido’s faults by the end of it, I can’t pretend this decision on Guido’s personality is a brave move on Fellini’s part and it’s even more miraculous that 8 1/2 can be so entertaining as a movie, swinging around Rota’s big marches and fanfares to make start seeping in between Guido’s real circus of screen tests and press conferences and his fantasy escapes within his mind, so that by the end of the picture it becomes so overwhelming you can’t tell where one begins and one ends.

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But I’m almost getting ahead of myself, for what makes Guido still so tolerable a protagonist in spite of his faults is how humane and willing Fellini is to go backwards into his psyche to find the root of his problems with women, his art, his inner guilt, and the honesty behind 8 1/2‘s revelations end up feeling relatable as a result. The other big deal is how every cast member no matter how cartoonish he or she is presented by the film, they’re so involved in their own lives that it’s clear we’re witnessing real people only given a distorted lens by Guido/Fellini, most tragically towards Luisa who looks probably more like a stern killjoy to Guido, but Aimée is not willing to play along with that ruse and even before the screen test confessional where Aimée gets to do the best work out of everybody in the movie, she gives Luisa a sense of pain and embarrassment so sharp it’s impossible not to understand her frustrations. Fellini as a filmmaker intelligently stays out of the cast’s way so that even Carla has inner life and we can imagine where she goes when not in the presence of Guido. Or Claudia Cardinale being pictured on the spot as Guido’s ideal woman (standing out in black amongst a sea of white in the resort) despite her clear ailings that brought her there to begin with and are exacerbated by Guido’s fetishizing of her. Fellini may not have an idea of how to craft these women, but the cast does and it only puts more perspective in how small Fellini/Guido’s own ailments are.

Nevertheless, while I wasn’t wrong in claiming 8 1/2 may be one of Fellini’s most restrained films, it still announces itself as theatrical even without all the fantasy sequences. Moments are full of metaphor within them such as Guido’s attempt to clumsily direct Carla in a love scene between them or Guido’s descent into a sauna steamed white hot wisps like Hell itself despite meeting with a cardinal in that very sauna. The connection that can be made between Guido’s inability for creativity and his sexual impotence is implied by his own mind. All of this, when we’re reminded they all come from our alignment with Guido’s perspective, suddenly tell us that these real-life scenes are no less fantasy escapes than Guido’s mind-harem, they’re all Guido trying to rectify the fact that he doesn’t have an authority over his own life by visualizing them as big moments and himself as a big character in the center of his life. And who doesn’t see themselves that way, director or not? Which is how the movie and Guido arrive to the final revelation that Guido doesn’t need to direct his life the same way he directs his movie, although whether or not Fellini truly believes that is up for question as even when Guido relinquishes absolute control around the end and is willing to start over, we see his younger self guiding his own life literally and figuratively in a dance I find impossible not to associate with the finale of The Seventh Seal, albeit a bit more optimistically.

I don’t want to say 8 1/2 is an impressionistic movie. I don’t think think it’s ambiguous at any point about what it’s about or what it’s trying to say, but I don’t know. Maybe I just respond so well to that because I want to be a filmmaker myself. Maybe I just respond to it well because I’m a straight guy who has similar neurotic hang-ups. Maybe this essay is my own great big sloppy 8 1/2, for I have started and stopped over and over again writing this not knowing how or what to focus on (and indeed 8 1/2 is the sort of movie where there is so much about Fellini to unpack that I wouldn’t have known where to start), and so that will leave me with some sort of dissatisfaction about what I’ve had to say. But I can’t lie to myself about how I feel for 8 1/2 and how sometimes I find myself trying to escape even the slightest antagonism by dreaming within my own shades.

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25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

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I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

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The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

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And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

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And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

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Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

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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!