Daily Archives: May 30, 2003

Ghosts of Hollywood [THE DECAY OF FICTION]

From the Chicago Reader (May 30, 2003). — J.R.

The Decay of Fiction

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Pat O’Neill.

Truly original art tends to defy generic categories, and Pat O’Neill’s 35-millimeter, 73-minute The Decay of Fiction (2002), which Chicago Filmmakers is presenting this Saturday night at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema, is no exception. Inarguably an experimental work, it also reeks of classic Hollywood. The credits list O’Neill as producer, director, and editor and George Lockwood as cinematographer and sound designer, but no one is credited as the screenwriter — even though the film contains as much dialogue as any commercial feature, most of it apparently original. Forty-five cast members are cited alphabetically in those same credits, with no indication of who plays the most significant roles. Eight years in the making, the film partakes equally of the past (roughly the 1920s through the 1960s) and a disquieting version of the present.

It was filmed in and around LA’s Ambassador Hotel, which closed in 1989 and was slated for demolition at the time the film went into production in 1994 (although it was still standing when the film premiered last fall). The Decay of Fiction is both a color documentary about that crumbling edifice (where the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929, and where Robert F.… Read more »

Watch with Mother [on Carl Dreyer]

From The Guardian (May 30, 2003). –J.R.

For roughly two decades, my three favourite dramatic features have all been the work of the same man — and my favourite among these depends almost entirely on which one I’ve seen most recently. I came to know and love them in reverse order: first the incandescent and subtly erotic Gertrud (1964), discovered in my early 20s shortly after it premiered; then the gut-wrenching Ordet (1955), which I initially hated when I first saw it in my teens, misconstruing its climactic miracle as a tool of religious propaganda; and finally the voluptuous and mysterious Day of Wrath (1943), which I didn’t appreciate or understand until my 40s, when I finally saw it in a decent 35mm print.

Like all the greatest artists, Carl Theodor Dreyer demands to be taken as a figure whose work continues to grow and change, quite irrespective of the fact that he died in 1968 at the age of 79, with many of his most cherished projects (most notably, a film about Jesus) unrealised. Fresh insights about his life and career keep coming to light: not only through biographical research; the emergence of new prints (such as the remarkable 1981 rediscovery of the original 1927 version of The Passion of Joan of Arc in an Oslo mental hospital); but also through the uncanny fact that his films seem to grow more multilayered, ambiguous, and complex over time.Read more »

Cremaster 5

The third installment sequentially (1997) of writer-director Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle is just as lethargic and self-satisfied as the others I’ve seen, though less monotonous rhythmically. An opera set in late-19th-century Budapest, with extended portions of the action taking place underwater, it stars Ursula Andress in the only singing role (though her voice is dubbed by Adrienne Csengery) and Barney in three parts that seem to sum up his self-image (Diva, Magician, Giant). This avant-garde pageant is characteristically mythoprosaic (to coin a term), though it does make the most of its Hungarian locations. If it were less doggedly florid and had any sort of humorcamp or otherwiseit might qualify as a big-budget remake of an early Werner Schroeter opus. The music is by Jonathan Bepler. 55 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cremaster 4

With or without a comprehensible story, crosscutting is one of the least interesting forms of editing, and Matthew Barney addresses the problem much as Robert Altman does when he’s on autopilotby pretending it doesn’t exist. This lumbering avant-garde spectacular (1994) stars Barney as the Loughton Candidate, a tap dancing and crawling satyr juxtaposed with two motorcycle teams racing across the Isle of Man. The film invites us to consider the multiple meanings of its elaborate surrealist imagerymuch of it viewed from Barney’s favorite camera position, the celestial overhead shotbut all I could think about was hype and money. The colors are characteristically lurid. 42 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cremaster 1

Sculptor, writer-director, and former football player Matthew Barney returns to Bronco Stadium in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to stage a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine while two Goodyear blimps float overhead. Inside each blimp are four air hostesses and an elaborately set banquet table, and under each table lies a winsome figure known as Goodyear (Marti Domination), whose idly created configurations of green or purple grapes are duplicated by the dancing girls below. This slick spectacle (1995), packed with metaphors relating to procreative biology, tries very hard to impress us with its production values, but I was bored by its programmatic literalism and mechanical crosscutting. 41 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Family Affair

An arch Jewish-lesbian comedy without laughs (2001), made outside the usual American independent circuits, this is largely the work of writer-director-star Helen Lesnick, who models her persona on Woody Allen (and even includes a couple of references to him in the dialogue, in case we’ve missed the point). After splitting up with her girlfriend in New York (Michele Greene), she visits her gay-sensitive parents in San Diego and hits it off with a California WASP (Erica Shaffer); a Jewish wedding between the two is threatened by Greene’s reappearance. The couple’s parents have a bit more personality than the other characters, but on the whole this is strictly by the numbers. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Decay Of Fiction

Eight years in the making, this haunting and highly watchable 35-millimeter experimental feature by Pat O’Neill (2002, 73 min.) is partly a color documentary on the ruins of Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel (site of the first Oscar ceremony as well as the Robert Kennedy assassination) and partly a speculative patchwork of its decaying fictions. Working with sound designer George Lockwood and a team of 45 actors, O’Neill has superimposed transparent characters and props over the settings and added dialogue, music, and sound effects from black-and-white Hollywood features. A special-effects wizard whose day job is working on Hollywood blockbusters, O’Neill showed in his 1989 Water and Power a poetic feeling for human evanescence in relation to southern California locales; here he proves equally astute at showing how our sense of history becomes tainted by and entangled with Hollywood myths. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Letter

Frederick Wiseman’s first fiction film (2002), a one-woman performance by the Comedie Francaise’s skillful and expressive Catherine Samie, is so well made that I can only feel guilty for not liking it more. Its text is taken from a Russian novel by Vasili Grossman; in it the author tries to imagine a letter written to him by his mother, a Jewish doctor in a German-occupied Ukrainian city, shortly before her extermination. The text is vivid and powerful and the performance riveting, although the fancy configurations of expressionist shadow Wiseman employs throughout this black-and-white film suggest that he felt the package needed something more. It does: a little more breathing room for the viewer. In French with subtitles. 61 min. (JR)… Read more »