Monday, March 25, 2013


Beneath the Argos, Money Balls, Descendants and other big/buzzworthy movies that play at the Toronto International Film Festival are smaller films that may never get any kind of real distribution. And if they do, its for a short run in a few small theaters in random parts of the world. This new series is designed to shed light on some of those small films that I've seen at TIFF in the last two years...

Here's something I was disappointed by (although didn’t completely dislike) but its been stuck in my head for almost two years. Carre Blanc is one of those small French films that probably didn’t even get much play in its own country which obviously means it won’t make it to the states. This was one of the reasons I made it a priority to see it at TIFF in 2011 (naturally there's a lot of big films that play at Toronto but at a festival like TIFF it’s a good idea to take advantage of checking out stuff you may never get a chance to see again). In the few reviews I was able to find on Carre Blanc before Toronto, I saw Tarkovsky's name pop up a few times. I could see how one would make that comparison without putting much thought in to it. There's even a scene lifted directly from Solaris in Carre Blanc (the highway scene)...
Carre Blanc (2011)                                                                           Solaris (1972)
But a Tarkovsky comparison is pushing it. Carre Blanc lacked soul. Tarkovsky's work is full of soul & spiritualism. The only comparison Carre Blanc deserves when put next to Tarkovsky's work is imagery. My main issue with Carre Blanc, a sci-fi dark dramedy about a suicidal married couple ("Philippe" & "Marie") who have to hide their emotions in an odd futuristic dystopian society, was that there was actually a pretty good movie hidden somewhere underneath all the "big brother"/Kafka-esque atmosphere that's been done a million times already (there's also a subplot about cannibalism which was clearly a metaphor for fast & processed food consumption). There's not a whole lot to work with when it comes to this film. It’s not even 80 minutes long, there isn’t a lot of dialogue and most of the scenes seemed forced & random in an effort to try and be "different". This is a case of too much style and not enough content (much like Park Chan Wok's latest; Stoker, which we may get in to at a later date). But there's this almost unexplainable reason why it deserves a write-up longer than a small blurb. Carre Blanc had a few things I love when it comes to film: cold atmosphere, dreary (yet strangely beautiful) weather and an emphasis on bold & solid colors (reminiscent of Kubrick's work). I'm also a fan of cold, droning, electronic music (Brian Eno, Boards Of Canada, Sigour Ros, Jan Jelinek, etc) and Carre Blanc's score is full of nothing but that kind of music. This is  also a very architectural film (once again for those that don’t know, that's what I studied in school). The buildings & designs in Carre Blanc are pretty sleek & rhythmic. Its almost as if Le Corbousier came back to life and worked on the set design...

Architecture & Design in Carre Blanc...

Selected architecture of Le Corbusier...
The Carpenter Center (Cambridge, Ma)
Unite D'Habitation (Berlin)

Unite D'Habitation (Interior)
Le Corbusier Sketch - "A City Of Towers"
Bottom line - this film was beautiful to look at but after a while even that started to wear off and I wanted more. There was some nice haunting voice-over narration and a few interesting scenes (a waiter being kicked to death by a group of businessmen for spilling a drink on one of them while people pass by and go about their business as if nothing is happening) but I still found myself checking my watch more than once (which is bad because, like I said; Carre Blanc isn't even 80 minutes long!). There weren’t any real memorable performances and I found it hard to even care about the characters. Everything just felt so...empty, bordering on pointlessness. What is the point of all this? What is Carre Blanc telling us that Michael Haneke didn’t already perfectly convey in his first three films (The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video & 71 Fragments)? After about 40 minutes in to Carre Blanc I found myself thinking; "why don’t I just watch Michael Haneke's early stuff instead of this. He did a much better job at getting across that cold, urbanized, depressed, working ourselves to an early grave "thing" much better. Carre Blanc is trapped somewhere between the flaws of Vinterberg's It’s All About Love and Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 yet it has the BEAUTY of both films as well.

Sami Bouajila (who plays "Philippe", the main character) is a great actor and his character's story is actually pretty interesting - At a young age he watched his mother jump to her death. Before committing suicide she left him with a list of strange guidelines to live his life by in order to survive in this cold futuristic world. He grows up to work for some big nameless corporation where his job is apparently to put the employees through a series of strange tests to keep them sharp & on point. He lives with his depressed wife ("Marie") who is on the verge of cracking up. And although it isn’t outright said, its clearly implied that they lost their child at some point in their marriage. There just wasn’t enough time for the audience to latch on to Philippe & Marie. I don’t mean to keep getting on the length of this film but that's also what kinda hurt it big time. It shoulda been longer in my opinion. On the drive up to Toronto in 2011 Chris Funderberg (the pink smoke) made an interesting statement along the lines of how movies should be either just under 80 minutes or over 3 hours. There's some serious validity to that and this film is a good example. Carre Blanc dealt with way too many issues (depression, suicide, globalization, parenting, the loss of a child, the future, marital problems, processed food, etc) and crossed to many genres (dark comedy, dramedy & science fiction) to only be a 70-something minute long film.
As you can tell from this write-up it’s a very visual/image heavy film and if you're in to architecture & design you'll probably appreciate this a little more than the average person but at the end of the day it needed more substance, a bit more dialogue & some cohesiveness.

Friday, March 22, 2013


If you enjoy the films of John Cassavetes and say the words; "like" & "dude" an excessive amount of times then there's a good chance you'll love The Duplass Brother's feature film debut; The Puffy Chair - a part road movie comedy, part relationship drama that takes us from Brooklyn to Atlanta. Ever since the start of that mumblecore scene (courtesy of Funny HA HA) critics, cinephiles & film festivals like SXSW & Sundance have given praise to Puffy Chair-influenced works like; LOL, Dance Party USA, Hannah Takes The Stairs and other pointless films about broke Brooklyn & Portland hipsters wandering around aimlessly wearing ironic t-shirts they found in thrift stores while listening to hip indie pop music, saying “like” in between every other fucking word that comes outta their quirky little mouths and I honestly never got what all the fuss was about. And this isn’t some misguided rant towards hipsters or the kinds of brooklynites that live off the L & G train lines. These films, that show a lifestyle I have no interest in seeing on the big screen, just aren't any good. They’re quirky for the sake of being quirky and get mislabeled as "real" or cinema verite when it’s just lazy half writing & sloppy improvising. I guess I kinda respect the filmmakers of the mumblecore movie scene for picking up some cameras and just making movies without concerning themselves with all the roadblocks that would cause a person to not wanna make a movie in the first place but I don't wanna listen to dialogue along the lines of; "um, well yeah, ya know" or "like uh, like, I dunno" for 90 minutes (seriously, you think I'm exaggerating to make a point but listen to the dialogue in a film like Quiet City and tell me I'm lying). And what's more frustrating is that these films somehow manage to get mentioned in the same breath as legitimate filmmakers like Spike Lee, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, Mike Leigh & John Cassavetes.

My biggest gripe with the Mumblecore genre, which I've never really expressed in my writings until now, is that it’s more commonly associated with my generation (Y) instead of the films that really should be like; Rushmore, Welcome To The Dollhouse, Ghost World, Half Nelson, Elephant and other films that paint a better, somewhat deeper and slightly more complex picture of people born in the early 80's.
But The Puffy Chair is one of the FEW mumblecore films worthy of praise & comparison to a legendary filmmaker like Cassavetes. I have no problem with The Puffy Chair being a defining Generation Y movie. It’s more than evident that Mark & Jay Duplass spent some time studying Cassavetes' work. The abrupt opening scene of the The Puffy Chair where our two main characters (Josh & Emily) go from having a sweat boyfriend/girlfriend moment to one of them storming out of the apartment is almost like a reworking of the scene in Cassavetes' Faces when John Marley & Lynne Carlin are sitting at the dinner table laughing hysterically one minute then exploding at each other the next. The way the camera in The Puffy Chair momentarily goes in & out of focus or zooms in on something way too close is reminiscent of the camerawork in Cassavetes' Shadows or The Killing Of Chinese Bookie.
Faces (1968)
It was Ray Carney’s praise of The Puffy Chair that sparked my interest. Not to say that because a film critic like Ray Carney likes something means that I should too but he’s a notorious snob and picky about what he likes. What would a snob who spends his time over-analyzing the works of John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh & Carl Theodor Dryer be doing loving something like The Puffy Chair? To my surprise it turned out to be one of my favorite films of 2006. I actually hadn’t seen or even thought about this film in a couple of years but when it came up in conversation a few weeks ago I was immediately reminded of how much I love it. I don’t normally like to quote other critics but Ray Carney hit the nail on the head when he wrote about this film:

The Puffy Chair gives us the real McCoy, the real thing, the way life and love and romance really, truly are. 

If you walked in on the middle of a scene in The Puffy Chair you might think you were watching a documentary along the lines of A Married Couple (ESPECIALLY during the arguments & blow-ups). I know its beyond cliche to talk about how "real" an indie film is but there's a genuine realness to The Puffy Chair that we don't see in many films today. The two main actors in the film (Mark Duplass & Katie Aselton) are married in real life and I imagine some of the heartache, joy, growth, pain & love from their real life relationship seeped in to the film. This goes back to that Cassavetes influence I spoke about earlier. All of his personal work had a serious documentary-like feel. It’s almost as if Duplass & Aselton weren’t even acting. Certain moments in The Puffy Chair felt like b-role footage that we weren’t supposed to see of a real life couple arguing off camera.

The Cinema of John Cassavetes isn't the only appropriate comparison to The Puffy Chair. In 2005 Sideways was its most commonly associated with and/or compared to film. I guess that’s somewhat understandable as both movies are partially comedic, partially dramatic, indie road movies but there’s a clear generational difference between the characters, dialogue & scenarios in both films. For people my age or younger who don’t identify with the wine tasting, vineyard visiting, divorced, mid-life crisis aspects of Sideways, The Puffy Chair is the perfect answer for you.

Although it’s technically a comedy, The Puffy Chair falls right in line with other stuff like All The Real Girls, Flannel Pajamas, Blue Valentine and other examples of modern cinema verite about young-ish love where a relationship is put to the ultimate test. These are the kinds of films where we wonder if the couples we've been watching for the last 100 minutes are going to last. The Puffy Chair is not without a few seriously touching moments (Josh's speech at Rhett's "wedding") explosive arguments and important moments between fathers & sons. I'm always a sucker for a good road trip movie (Alice In the Cities, Roadside Prophets, I Travel Because I Have To, The Brown Bunny, etc) and The Puffy Chair delivers. Along their roadtrip Josh & Emily pick up Josh's brother (Rhett) who joins them for the rest of the trip, get sidetracked along the way for various reasons, and they also come to discover that the puffy chair Josh thought he was getting off eBay isn't quite what he expected.

This is the perfect introduction to the Duplass Brothers' filmography. The only problem is nothing else they've done comes close (in my opinion) so you may be a bit disappointed with their later work. The Duplass Brothers do grow as filmmakers with each movie (I don't wanna totally shit on their post-puffy chair work) but I almost wanna recommend that you watch The Puffy Chair last in order to appreciate it even more. I thought Baghead bordered on being pointless, Jeff Who Lives At Home has its moments and Cyrus, they're first film using actors outside of the mumblecore scene, was ok and surprisingly touching but still not as great as The Puffy Chair.

Monday, March 18, 2013


The last time I made an appearance on Warren Wade Anderson's Inside The Phoenix (an excellent podcast you should all be up on by now) we got in to a mildly heated, although friendly, debate about a few misunderstood masterpieces here on PINNLAND EMPIRE (most notably The Brown Bunny & Soderbergh's Solaris). We didn't quite see eye to eye on those films but the dialogue between us was great. That's the beauty of misunderstood masterpieces - one person may consider a certain film to be a work of art while another may consider it to be an abomination. Given Warren's passionate stance on misunderstood works like The Brown Bunny and his knowledge of cinema I gave him the opportunity to write about his own misunderstood masterpiece here on the site.


When I was asked to make my contribution to PINNLAND EMPIRE’s MISUNDERSTOOD MASTERPIECE series, I was asked to write about Peter Greenaway’s first feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract but I believe The Pillow Book is his most refined and original work; originally, can be defined as something created, undertaken or presented for the first time. This could be done in an instance where all the components of the undertaking are new or in an instance where the juxtaposition of familiar items are presented in a new way. Peter Greenaway’s film The Pillow Book represents the latter definition. Now, I realize that this might be a controversial statement for many people because, it’s an obscure film that has never been placed on any publication’s notable list, contemporary filmmakers have not cited it as an influence on their work and it has not won any consequential awards. With all that said, the film is an original because it foreshadowed the way we currently engage art and culture. This foreshadowing was built on three familiar components of filmmaking.

The first component was constructed in the story. Writer/Director Peter Greenaway was inspired to write the screenplay after reading a translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon in 1972 and again in 1984. The book recalls the personal observations and musing of 990s court life by Japanese Lady in waiting, Sei Shonagon. At the time of Greenaway’s second reading of the book, he wrote a screenplay treatment called 26 Facts About Flesh and Ink. In the treatment he delineates the life of a one thousand year reincarnation of Shonagon, Nagiko. In section D of 26 Facts, Greenaway wrote: “The contemporary Sei Shonagon is passionate to the point of abnegation about literature, about words, about writing, authors, poets and men-of-letters. She keeps a cupboard, a large, eighteenth century European cupboard, stocked to overfill with a vast array of pens and inks, but there is no paper in the cupboard. Her body is the paper”. In the final 1994 screenplay, The Pillow Book became the story of a Kyoto born model, Nagiko (played by Vivian Wv) living her early adulthood in 1990’s Hong Kong. At an early age, she develops an obsession with The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon from her Aunt and fetish for writing on skin from her father. After much searching, she eventually finds a lover, an Englishman (played by Ewan McGregor), who shares her love of writing. Together they embark on an endeavor which leads to tragic consequences.

The next integral part of the film is the unmistakable work of Cinematographer Sacha Vierny and Greenaway’s knowledge of art history. Vierny is known for a number of very notable films, including, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year At Marienbad and Belle de Jour. In this thirteenth collaboration with Greenaway, he uses interior lighting techniques to capture Nagiko’s life from the age of four to the age of twenty eight, switching from stark black and white to cold blues and warm sepia tones in color. The life of Sei Shonagon was often drenched in outdoor light to complement the colorful costumes of that era. While films like John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, Vicente Minelli’s Lust For Life and Peter Webber’s Girl With A Pearl Earring particular tones or shots are based on works for a painter, The Pillow Book is bathed in references from multiple painters and calligraphers. As a graduate of Walthamstow College of Art (now known as the University of East London) and a practicing artist, Greenaway brings his knowledge of calligraphic writings, the works of Ando Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro to life in very provocative ways. Examples of calligraphic writings are most poignantly shown in scenes where different lovers write on her body in mutiple languages. Scenes of copulation between Nagiko and Jerome are posed to match erotic Utamaro compositions. Instances of exposition utilizes Hiroshige and Hokusai prints as guides to stage Nagiko’s modeling on catwalks and the moments after Nagiko’s kidnappers fled the scene of the crime in Hong Kong.

The last original component of this film is the editing. Mr. Greenaway, Along with editor Chris Wyatt uses the concept of a picture book as a framing device to compose the non-linear narrative of Shonagon’s life (along with anecdotes from her book) and the linear story of Nagiko. They also use, color and tonal changes and spilt screens to make this esoteric film visceral. The spilt screen technique have been apart of cinema since the silent era, in films like Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, in modern times, we remember the bank robbery scene in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, The Who’s performance in Woodstock and the phone call scene in When Harry Met Sally. The Pillow Book transform split screen from a technique to an indispensable part of the story. It becomes a means to bring the audience into the use of diaries to express secret thoughts and books to express oneself publicly. Secret thought is evident in the scene where Nagiko’s aunt reads Section 016 of The Pillow Book to her: “A lover on his second night - time visit”. It’s also shown in the scene in which Nagiko’s Japanese husband becomes so offended by the content of her diary that he burns it. Public expression is shown when Nagiko pens her first book of thirteen on Jerome’s skin and sends him to display his naked body and her work to her father’s publisher.

I must admit, that the unforgettable conceit of the film, the Cinematography rooted in Japanese culture and the multi-layered narrative of this work made an indelible mark on me. It introduced me to a Japan beyond the Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Ran. After The Pillow Book I began to seek out films like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman In The Dunes and Antonio Gaudi, Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, Fireworks, Brother and Outrage. I also opened my mind to books on Hiroshige, Hokusai and Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. While this film was an epiphany for me, it is gift for us all because it presupposed the way we all currently use the internet and production software. We sit in front of a screen consuming multiple threads information by expanding and collapsing smaller screens with Google Chrome, Apple Safari, or Internet Explorer. We enhance photos with Photoshop and create virtual three dimensional objects with Autocad, Maya and 3d Studio. Although Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book was originally a homage to a courtesan’s tenth century diary, the means of creating it became an echo to a rich future.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Thank god this was good. The Man With The Iron Fists was no masterpiece or work of art but it was fun & entertaining. For the last 20 years The Rza has based almost everything about his persona, music & way of life around Asian culture & kung-fu films. He also scored other modern martial arts films like Ghost Dog & Kill Bill. It would have been pretty embarrassing if a guy like The Rza made a bad martial arts movie. He'd never be able to show his face in public again. Thankfully he didn't rush to make The Man With The Iron Fists. He took his time & developed the story for several years. Rza had a lotta pressure to deliver a solid piece of work. Some doubted his ability as a filmmaker but remember - he's the unofficial "leader" of the greatest/largest supergroup in hip-hop history and one of the most influential producers of all time. He's a mastermind. If he could manage the personalities & ego's of the 8 other Wu-Tang members (along with a musical dynasty of countless other artists) as well as exclusively produce 7 of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time in the span of 4 years - making a film isn't the most difficult task for a guy like The Rza. He's a born leader & strategist. Plus many of his solo projects & music videos have a very cinematic quality so he wasnt exactly a novice when it was time to make The Man With The Iron Fists. Look at his first solo album. Bobby Digital was a concept album that played out like a movie for the headphones. And who could forget the music video for Tragedy (directed by Rza himself) that came off more like a short film...

Given all the elements that went in to making this (Eli Roth's involvement, Tarantino's influence, a ragtag ensemble cast made up of a pro wrestler, a few "A-list" actors & some cult movie figures) The Man With The Iron Fists could have EASILY been a disaster. It comes from that school of Tarantino-influenced "movie mixtapes" which is usually nothing to boast about (with the exception of stuff like Black Dynamite) and lets also not forget about that unspoken low expectation many people have towards hip-hop artists that act in legitimate films (which is sometimes understandable). But The Rza somehow managed to make it all work...

Set during the 19th century in a fictitious place known as "Jungle Village", Rza stars as "The Blacksmith" - a former slave who washed up on the shores of China that's taken in and trained by shaolin monks. He makes weapons for rival clans at war with each other in order to make enough money to move himself and his woman ("Lady Silk") out of Jungle Village. There's currently a major power struggle going on between all the clans and The Blacksmith gets caught in the middle of it all. When he gets in way over his head he has to join forces with "Jack Knife" (Russell Crowe) - a mercenary & "X Blade" (Rick Yune)- the son of slain emperor, in order to save his woman and bring order back to Jungle Village.
On one hand The Rza, being the strategist he is, used the knowledge he gained from acting in so many films over the years as well as his connections with all the people he's collaborated with in the past (Russell Crow/American Gangster, Tarantino/Kill Bill, etc) to make his dream project come to life. On the other hand, The Man With The Iron Fists feels like he was just copying Kill Bill-era Tarantino in some parts. Some may view this as nothing more than the last 45 minutes of the first Kill Bill stretched out to a feature length movie. I guess its understandable for a first-time filmmaker to emulate others but the end of the day this was very much Rza's own film and he did the kung-fu genre justice. I loved the idea behind the Blacksmith using his "inner-chi" in order to essentially turn himself in to a human weapon. Rza nods at everything from the classic Shaw Brothers Shaolin films (cameos from Gordon Liu & Bryan Leung) to Enter The Dragon (there's a "house of mirrors" scene towards the end). I'm interested to see what The Rza will come up with for his next project. The ending of The Man With Iron Fists clearly indicates there's gonna be a sequel but I'd like to see Rza branch out from the martial arts genre. Personally, I think a comprehensive documentary on Wu-Tang is long overdue (36 Chambers is almost 20 years old now) and The Rza is the only person who can make that happen in my opinion.
The Man With The Iron Fists is not without a few more flaws. There were WAY too many characters for a film that wasn't that long. Its like Rza got caught up in that Robert Rodriguez style of filmmaking where a new character gets introduced every 5 minutes. In the first half of the the film all these characters kept getting introduced as if they were gonna play a part in the story then they got killed. It kinda threw me off. At times it was difficult to tell who was on what side or who was who. This leads us to the next problem - The plot wasn't exactly convoluted but it was unessecarily layered with too many subplots & storylines. Classic Kung-Fu films that The Man With The Iron Fists tips its hat too don't always have the simplest storylines but they weren't as layered as this. But I kinda wanna give The Rza a pass on this. This was his "baby". He'd been working on it for years so its understandable that he got a little carried away. Its like the ending of Malcolm X or the last Lord Of The Rings. Sure they both took fucking forever to end but those films were lifelong projects for Lee & Jackson. The one storyline I did like very much was The Blacksmith's back story as a slave taken in by Chinese monks. Throughout the film I wondered if Rza was ever gonna explain how a black person ended up in china during the 19th century. The Rza's fascination with Asian culture is evident but his lyrics & persona are also influenced by African culture so this storyline didn't seem out of place at all (listen to his lyrics on the 2nd Gravediggaz album). The slave angle in The Man With The Iron Fists made me think about its connection to Django and why so many people (black people & fans of hip-hop culture in particular) were so gung-ho and in love with Django (which i get) but kinda downplayed The Man With The Iron Fists. Both films, which are equally entertaining & silly, are violent homages to a certain movie genre about a former slave that forms an alliance with a white bounty hunter/vigilante character in order to get revenge. Sure both films have some obvious differences and Tarantino is a much more experienced filmmaker than The Rza but at the same time the comparison between the two films is pretty uncanny on some levels.
Many film purists or lovers of B-movies might not like all the special effects & CGI. The Man With Iron Fists pays homage to films that didn't really use special effects. A lot of the blood shed in the film was clearly fake & computer generated which may look cheesy to some. The budget seemed rather high for something that was supposed to emulate a style of film that was originally cheap & grainy. I may be a lil' bias towards this as The Rza is responsible for about 50% of what I listened too as a teenager and he's also responsible for one of my favorite film scores of all time (Ghost Dog) but I was genuinely surprised with the great job he did. Oh and on a side note - I'm shocked & surprised that Eli Roth was involved in, or partially responsible for something that was actually good. If you're a fan of the first Kill Bill, 90's hip-hop, violence and hanging out in video stores I don't see how you cant enjoy this. As a fan of hip-hip (which is an understatement) this film reignited my love for Wu-Tang's music that Rza sprinkles all throughout the movie (I'm listening to my wu-tang playlist on my ipod as I write this). Woulda been nice to see a cameo from a Wu-Tang member or two but that's just me being nitpicky.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Had I known this was loosely based on the life of Humbert Balsan, the French film producer & occasional actor who committed suicide back in 2005, I would have rushed to see this a few years back when it played at IFC. Anyone can appreciate, understand or enjoy The Father Of My Children as its about depression & workaholism which are two things that affect just about everyone in some way or another, but you kinda have to know who Balsan was and what he did in order to really feel the full impact of this film. He indirectly affected the lives of so many cinephiles, like myself, who appreciate seeing indie, foreign, art house & abstract cinema on the big screen. Hes been described as a warrior & pioneer in the world of art house cinema when it came to getting financing for films that most people would consider pointless because they were "artsy" or couldn't generate money. I first learned about Balsan while reading up on Lars Von Trier's Manderlay back in 2006 (one of the last films he produced). After clicking a few external links and doing a little bit of research I came to find out that he not only produced films for Claire Denis (The Intruder) & James Ivory (Jefferson In Paris) but he also maintained a relationship with filmmakers like Robert Bresson & Sam Fuller. I recently discovered he also produced films for Jacques Rivette & Jean-Louis Trintignant (co-star of Haneke's Amour). Then come to find out I'd been looking at him on my TV screen for years as an actor, most notably in Bresson's Lancelot Du Lac, without even knowing it...
Balsan (right) in Bresson's Lancelot Du Lac (1974)
His life is a testament to how amazing cinema can be and how connected & intertwined it often is which makes me sad because I have this feeling he didn't realize all the things he accomplished. His life was not that much different than that of a guy like Tony Wilson (co-founder of Factory records who signed groups like Joy Division and played a major role in the Manchester music scene). The Father Of My Children's existence is more important than some may realize. Had this film not been made many people wouldn't know how important of a figure Balsan was. His legacy would have been downplayed and only those close to him would know the kind of person he was. Not that there's anything wrong with that but he seemed like a great human being, from what I've read, whose story deserves to be told.

The more you read about cinema the more you learn about the great & selfless things that sometimes go on behind the scenes. The movie industry is obviously known for being cut throat & shady but there are some great little behind the scenes stories that many people don't know about like; Wim Wenders giving Jim Jarmusch film so he could make Stranger Than Paradise in to a feature length film, Monty Montgomery (the cowboy in Mulholland Drive) downplaying his role in the creation of Twin Peaks, John Cassavetes setting up a meeting with Gordon Parks and some movie executives so Parks could make The Learning Tree (Cassavetes never took credit for helping Parks get his foot in the door) or Shirley Clarke lending John Cassavetes her camera equipment so he could make his first film. The event's in Humbert Balsan's life were not that much different than the examples I just gave you. Movie producers sometimes get a bad wrap as being money hungry control freaks without any understanding about the art of cinema. You hear horror stories of producers re-editing films behind a directors back or screwing people over for money but you don't always hear about the Ted Hopes, Bingham Rays & Humbert Balsans.
There is a scene in The Father Of My Children where the main character; Gregoire, based on Balsan, is urged to sell his entire back catalog of films in order to get money he desperately needs to stay afloat yet he replies: its a non-question. I wont sell my catalog. losing it would mean I did all this for nothing. Moments later hes asked why he works with a particular artsy filmmaker who has a reputation for being difficult (I'm pretty sure is supposed to be loosely based on Lars Von Trier) Gregoire casually replies: I like his films. Everyone turned him down.
That's the beauty about the main character in this film - Hes a movie producer with integrity who actually loves cinema and isn't just in it for the money.

Balsan apparently suffered from depression and I'm sure his production company going under didn't help things. His life makes you think of so many struggling independent artists (not just in film) who give so much of themselves to their craft and get nothing or very little in return. That could drain someone after a while and make them wanna give up. You start to question what you do and wonder if you're putting all this energy in to something for nothing. Imagine if you were in Humbert Balsan's shoes - you've been a movie producer for 25 years and all you have to show for is bankruptcy and a failing production company. That's enough to make anyone depressed. It goes without saying that quite a few art house, foreign & indie filmmakers come from wealthy families so weather or not their films make money is irrelevant. But there are those struggling filmmakers out there who do need to make a living off of a craft they love that may not be "profitable" or interesting to mainstream audiences (like many of the films Balsan produced). I don't know about you all but its pretty damn heartbreaking when a talented artist cant make a living off of what their good at.
I don't know what kind of relationship director Mia Hansen-Love had with Balsan or the impact he had on her life but it must have been pretty special because her sophomore film essentially plays out like a sweet love letter to the late producer. Maybe they didn't know each other at all and Hansen is just giving praise to a producer who made it possible for her to make the kind of films she makes. In The Father Of My Children Louis-Do de Lencqueasing plays Gregoire - a workaholic movie producer and family man. He's smooth, calm and soft spoken. Unlike other workaholic characters we often see in movies Gregoire is actually a good father and tries his best to be there for his wife and children (one of which is played by Lencqueasing's real life daughter Alice). Due to his smooth & laid back demeanor you'd have no idea that he's suffering from depression mostly due to the fact that his films are no longer successful and he has major financial problems closing in on him (his habit for producing abstract & artsy films that don't make any money has put him in the hole). The Father Of My Children has a pretty calm atmosphere but as the film progresses we start to feel the pressure that's falling on Gregoire and we see him slowly come apart. Gregoire's wife (played by Chiara Caselli) is the unsung hero of this story in my opinion. When he starts to show his depression and becomes vulnerable its Gregoire's wife who tries to hold him up and keep everything together (especially in the 2nd half of the film). Everyone gives a great performance and I honestly believe Alice Lencqueasing (who plays Gregoire's oldest daughter) is going to be a hell of an actress when she gets older.

The Father Of My Children is also about the relationship between fathers & daughters to some extent (the main character in the film has three daughters). This seemed to be a trend in art house cinema a couple of years ago. Between 2009 & 2010 art house/indie cinema gave us quite a few great portrayals of good fathers (or fathers who at least try) on the big screen. All three stories are pretty different but at the same time 35 Shots Of Rum, Somewhere & The Father Of My Children all have a similar minimalist ambiance and show a realistic relationship between a dad and their young daughter. This trend hasn't completely taken over cinema yet but recent stuff like Pariah (as we discussed in my recent write-up on black characters in modern film) is an indication that fathers aren't being painted as these one-dimensional, uncaring hard asses as much these days. Even though Gregoire suffers from depression, he tries his best to instill real happiness in his moody eldest daughter.
Real life father & daughter (Louis & Alice Lencqueasing) in The Father Of My Children
The Father Of My Children has quite a few elements of Olivier Assayas' more personal style of filmmaking (this makes sense given that Assayas is somewhat of a mentor to Mia Hansen-Love). The chaotic behind the scenes atmosphere of Irma Vep, the ensemble cast of actors from Late August, Early September and the story of an upper-class family dealing with the aftermath of a death in the family (and all the legal stuff that follows) that's in Summer Hours (which coincidentally co-stars Alice Lencueasing) runs all throughout the film. Even the ending has an eerie similarity to the ending of Summer Hours. This is one of those rare recent works were I'd use the word touching to best describe it and not feel corny or insecure. For a film about depression & heartache there's plenty of sweet & happy moments all throughout.

Much like Scarlet Diva, The Father Of My Children is yet another film that shares a spiritual connection with Bernard Rose's brilliant Ivan's XTC (both films are personal, semi-autobiographical stories about key background figures in the movie industry that pushed themselves too hard who die sad deaths long before their time). I don't care how many times I've mentioned this film - I'm gonna find an audience for it and get it rediscovered if its the last thing I do!

The Father Of My Children isn't just strictly a love letter/dedication to Humbert Balsan. Its about the importance of family, coming of age, the beauty of film as well as the bumps and other legal issues that go into the filmmaking process that people don't often think about.

Monday, March 4, 2013


What's left to say about Claire Denis that hasn't already been said here on PINNLAND EMPIRE? I've written about all of her features, dedicated a "cinema of..." series to her work, tracked down the co-star of two of her films (Alice Houri) and have managed to reference either her or her films in numerous reviews & writings. I guess the only thing left to do is to interview her. This seemed like a longshot but thankfully Alice Houri understands my intense/borderline unhealthy fascination with Claire's work and put us in contact with each other.
Claire was nice of enough to take the time out to answer some questions regarding her upcoming film; Les Salauds (which reunites her with Vincent Lindon, Agnes Godard and a few of her other regulars). Anyone familiar with this site should know she's PINNLAND EMPIRE favorite #1, so this is pretty special.
Given that Les Salauds is still somewhat under wraps and not that much is known about it yet besides the basic plot (only one official movie still has been released so far) take this opportunity to read about this mysterious & anticipated film directly from it's creator.

PINNLAND EMPIRE: Where did the origin of your new film come from? How was it birthed?

CLAIRE DENIS: The origin of this film is my health in a way. I was obliged to stay in France for a while. My projected next film was due to be shot somewhere far away from home (Wild, dangerous and hot). So in March my producer suggested I make a little film in the neighborhood and to start shooting three months from then. A little film but a fast one. I guess it was so crazy, it looked like a joke. But the producer was also betting me to respond so I said OK to be a sport in a way. Not to react like a little thing - a challenge I thought.
And I start wondering, and Vincent Lindon, the actor, told me he wanted to be part of this crazy bet. I was wondering even more as everyone seemed serious.
I was watching a Kurosawa film, no two actually, with Mifune and from then on I started drifting towards a story that, little by little, transforms into something I was not expecting…towards Faulkner. A move that I would not have done directly or openly. I did it in a hidden way.
Let’s say in Faulkner what happens is inevitable. It was therefore an obligation to try a different way to work with J.P Fargeau. Piece by piece. Like brick by brick without hesitating too much as if everything was urgent. I have no idea if it was for the best or for the worst. I wanted to be ready to shoot in time. Painful & interesting, yes. Every day I was forcing myself to believe in the film.

PE: Do you consider Les Salauds a noir, a revenge thriller, a drama or something else?

CD: I have no name like that under my tongue. The film is not finished, it’s still free.

Les Salauds (2013)

PE: Would you say the basic plot behind Les Salauds (a rich businessman causing the death of a smaller businessman) is a comment on France’s current economic state or a metaphor about the evils behind money & greed?

CD: No, no, it is not really the story. The suicide has, in a way, another cause I guess. And on top of that, no metaphor about anything. Evil is a very complex word for me. I do not use it. It’s almost religious. Hate and Love yes, I believe.

PE: Given that Jean-Pol Fergeau co-wrote some of your more dreamy scripts, will Les Salauds have a surreal/dream-like ambiance similar to L’intrus or Nenette & Boni?

CD: Don't know about that, I am making the film. I have no idea. For me l'intrus was such a natural and realistic story. I was a believer. I am a believer.

Alex Descas & Claire Denis - 35 Shots Of Rum (2008)

PE: Is the filmmaking process easier when you work with people you’re so familiar with like; Agnes Godard, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Alex Descas & Gregoire Colin?

CD: I did work also with Vincent Lindon before. No it is not easier, it is even more difficult - not to trust a sort of habit, not to be bored together. And also I feel good when I see their face in the morning. They represent my companions in cinema.

PE: In between White Material & Les Salauds you made the short documentary; To The Devil.

          -Can you tell the readers a little bit about it and what it meant to you?

          -Are there elements of To The Devil in Salauds?

CD: I did it yes, it was part of a project for a feature film (as I told you to be shot "far away") and it was produced by Jinju film festival. It's about a short visit to a man who lives in Surinam.

No connection.

Thief (1981)

PE: What are some of the latest films you’ve seen that have really impressed you?

CD: El Estudiante, Leviathan, Hong Sang Soo’s new film (In Another Country) & Thief (yes, Thief by Michael Mann with James Caan & Tuesday Weld)

PE: What current filmmakers are you a fan of?

CD: Lisandro Alonso is one of them, but listing is terrible and boring

PE: Are there any American actors besides Vincent Gallo that you’d like to work with?

CD: Yes I do, but Vincent Gallo is Vincent Gallo, that's a simple fact.

PE: Are there any future plans (that you know of) on releasing your “rare” and more unseen work like US Go Home & Keep It For Yourself?

CD: No time right now. I think Vincent Gallo has those films on the internet. So I heard…

PE: It seems like you go through periods where you release films frequently (Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day & Friday Night) then you go through periods where you take a break from making feature films for about 4 to 5 years. Is Les Salauds the start of another one of those periods where we can expect to see another feature to follow soon?

CD: I have no idea about that, man. Each project is a full time program.

Friday, March 1, 2013


I don't know if I actually like Asia Argento's semi-autobiographical feature film debut but it is intriguing to say the least. I do give her respect for working triple duty as director, writer & actress but this film has quite a few problems. On one hand Scarlet Diva comes off like that wasted guy or girl at a house party that keeps spewing out all their personal problems to people they hardly know just to get attention. On the other hand it’s entertaining and sometimes clever. Not only is it filled with good ol' fashion sex, drugs & rock n' roll and inside references to the movie industry, but there's also a funny jab at Vincent Gallo (Argento's ex) which you might miss if you blink. I guess part of me likes certain aspects of Scarlet Diva because it comes from the same school as other personal/autobiographical rarely seen underrated films shot in the same digital handheld style like; Ivan's XTC & Kreutzer Sonata (both directed by Bernard Rose of Candyman fame) as well as Ellie Parker (essentially a comedic Mulholland Drive that coincidentally stars Naomi Watts and a few other actors from the Mulholland Drive cast). All the aforementioned films, along with Scarlet Diva, deal with broken dreams, redemption, the dark side of the entertainment business, talented artists spiraling out of control, etc.

Much like how Ivan's XTC is loosely based on the real life of former movie agent: Jay Moloney, Scarlet Diva takes us inside the life of a semi fictitious actress based on Asia Argento. Scarlet Diva & Ivan's XTC, both released in the same year, also happen to be two of the earliest digitally shot features. Personal films shot in an experimental style can be a gamble because if you aren't careful you end up laying out all your inner chaotic turmoil on the table for people to either quickly dismiss as silly or to laugh at. There’s nothing worse than sharing an intimate part of yourself only to have people not take it seriously. Scarlet Diva was a bomb upon its release but part of me feels like no one gave it a chance because it came from someone who was not only an international sex symbol (in the art house world at least) but Asia Argento is also the daughter of one of the most famous cult directors of all time (Dario Argento for those that don't know) and the film is nothing like her father's work. 2nd generation filmmakers are often unfairly judged based on the legacy their parents left behind (Nick Cassavetes, Roman Coppola, Asia Argento etc). There always seems to be this expectation that they’ll make the same kinds of films as their parents and when they don’t deliver on those unfair expectations they get negative press.

Today Asia Argento has set her own path in the movie industry working with the likes of Olivier Assayas, Gus Van Sant & Abel Ferrara. But in the late 90's I imagine it was tough to make a name for herself as a director given she wasnt in to making horror/giallo films like her father (which is actually part of what Scarlett Diva is about). Making Scarlet Diva was probably like therapy for Asia. It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s "good" or "bad" just as long as she works out her demons (it's good). It’s like when a therapist asks a patient to draw a picture or hit a pillow. The act of hitting a pillow or drawing a messy scribbly picture to let out ones frustrations may seem silly to some but for others it’s a way to vent or let off steam. Scarlet Diva is definitely like that messy child's drawing done in a therapy session but there's still a lot of important information & insight in those drawings messy or not.

In the film Asia plays "Anna Batista" - a drug addicted, sex addicted actress who's jaded with the movie biz and sliding down a slippery slope of destruction. She plans to retire from acting soon to become a director yet no one takes her seriously. She tries to pitch her movie ideas to her agent and other film producers but all they see in her is a sex symbol. Throughout the film she has to fight off sexual advances (sometimes attempted rape) from sleazy movie producers, coke dealers and random fans that can’t seem to disassociate her from the sexy persona she displays on the big screen. In one scene she’s harassed by two male fans that can’t respect her personal space and end up literally chasing after her in the street. In between trying to make her dream of becoming a director a reality, she goes through the motions of promoting the latest film she’s acted in, coke binges, random hook-ups with strangers, nearly overdosing, trying to maintain her sanity and preparing for another film she’s scheduled to act in. Reality finally sets in when Ana discovers she’s a few months pregnant. Now she has to track down the father (she has a pretty good idea of who it is) and get her life in order. Anna receiving the news of her pregnancy is just like the moment in Ivan’s XTC when Danny Huston finds out he has lung cancer. Both Anna & Ivan get life changing news that does nothing to change their destructive ways of life. Ivan continues to do drugs until he overdoses and Anna continues to do drugs and live fast months in to her pregnancy until she finally slows down.

Scarlet Diva has a spiritual connection to Lost In Translation as well. Both films, directed by 2nd generation female directors, are about depressing & existential periods in Argento & Coppola's lives. The difference is Coppola took a more subtle route whereas Argento went all out balls to the wall (imagine Lost In Translation on speed). Asia Argento managed to keep her father's name out of the film as to not ride his coattails but it’s still very much a family affair as it was produced by Dario & Claudio Argento (her uncle) with a cameo from her mother.

My biggest gripe with Scarlet Diva is that I wanted it to be longer (I guess that's a good criticism). Asia Argento has never held her tongue about her strained relationship with her father and the movie business as a whole (especially after this movie came out). Growing up in front of the camera under the shadow of a famous director father whose attention you never got when you needed it isn't exactly the easiest thing to deal with. Somehow Asia manages to cram all of that in over 80 minutes without things feeling too rushed.

Scarlet Diva is worth checking out especially for those interested in digital cinematography (this is one of those early digital films that never gets the recognition it deserves) and the filmmaking style of Abel Ferrara more than likely had a subconscious influence on Argento's work (Argento worked with Ferrara a few years prior on New Rose Hotel).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...