leonora and gabriel – an instant

favorite films watched in 2014

My film-watching habits are erratic to say the least, and there are often long periods where I don’t watch any films. I cannot claim to be a particularly informed or sophisticated viewer. I don’t see many films when they debut in the theater, relying instead on Netflix to manage my film viewing. If a film catches my eye in the media when it first appears, I add it to my queue for when it’s released on DVD. Other than that, I watch older films as they randomly come to my attention, through books, other people’s lists, interviews, etc. Often I watch films based on a particular actor or director. If I find someone I like, I’ll at least flirt with completism (a few examples are noted in the list below). But I don’t spend nearly as much time researching films to watch as I do researching books to read. As a result, I sometimes experience lackluster periods in my film viewing. This year, for example, was not particularly inspiring, and it was actually a little tough to come up with the arbitrary 10 I’ve included here, especially since I separated out the documentaries. Except as noted, I’ve included links to trailers, although in general I have some ambivalence toward trailers. The Bergman ones are notably bad, but they at least provide a taste of the films. I would’ve linked to the IMDB entries instead, but the ads on that site are oppressive. But enough apologies, here’s the list:

(Organized in descending order of film release date)

1. The Imitation Game (2014) – Benedict Cumberbatch – One of my favorite contemporary actors. This film was inspired by the book Alan Turing: The Enigma. I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on how much the film departs from it. Seen in the theater.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson [director] – I place this one above both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Unlimited, but still not at the level of his finest work.

3. Ida (2014) – Dark subject matter filmed in black and white, atmospheric, i.e. the sort of film I tend to automatically like. Seen in the theater.

4. I Used to Be Darker (2013) – Matt Porterfield [Baltimore filmmaker] – I’m not sure how much I’d like Porterfield’s films if they weren’t filmed in Baltimore. That said, I liked this one more than his first two, and the Baltimore setting seemed less important this time. It was also fun to recognize someone in the film whom I wasn’t expecting to see.

5. The Iceman (2013) – Michael Shannon – Another favorite actor. This film is much more violent than most that I watch, but I made an exception because of both Shannon and Winona Ryder.

6. Dirty Pretty Things (2002) – Audrey Tautou – I watched this because I like Tautou, but Chiwetel Ejiofor is equally good here, if not better. The trailer is awful, especially the voice-over, so I linked to the film’s website instead. I don’t recommend watching the trailer if you’re thinking of seeing the film, as it distorts the storyline. Also, the film’s title is incongruous with its content.  I’m still puzzled by the title.

7. The Apostle (1997) – Robert Duvall – My film watching was especially sporadic during the 90s so I’m still catching up on the classics from that decade.

8. Persona (1966) – Ingmar Bergman – Still working my way through Bergman.

9. Winter Light (1963) – Ingmar Bergman – Ditto above. This is my second favorite of the Trilogy, the first being Through a Glass Darkly.

10. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – Alain Robbe-Grillet [screenwriter] – Robbe-Grillet is known for his groundbreaking fictional work as part of the Nouveau Roman Movement. Some of his novels are favorites of mine and knowing he also wrote screenplays, I was curious about those. This is considered his masterpiece, and I found it to be deserving of that reputation.

Documentaries:

1. From One Second to the Next (2013) – Werner Herzog [director] – This link points to the full film. It’s only about 30 minutes long and is worth watching in its entirety, especially if you have ever used your mobile phone while driving. Herzog is a brilliant filmmaker whose other documentaries and feature films are also highly recommended.

2. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012) – Harry Dean Stanton – Another favorite actor. This documentary is less about Stanton as a person, and more about his skills as an actor. It’s a somber portrait of a man who has made a career out of acting natural in his many roles, yet without giving much of himself away. In this age of celebrity, few actors anymore are known to the public almost exclusively through their work. Stanton has managed to be one of those rare exceptions, though likely not without exerting significant effort in maintaining his privacy.

3. Last Days Here (2011) – An often painful-to-watch, yet redemptive portrait of Bobby Liebling, the singer of cult doom metal band Pentagram, who spent decades struggling with drug addiction, to the detriment of his music career.

monday fuzz

What is this dialect—tearing the oilskin remnants of time—the sun a hot dripping ball of wax sealing shut another sudden day—a new place a new suit a new matchbox—walk this gauntlet overshadowed by a pair of rotors and a smile—another scene stuck in a feedback loop—(hey who let all these gnomes out in the desert)—welcome to distortion a normality found in the far reaches of a certain type of mind—if it makes sense do not r e p e a t do not report it—a pattern of melancholy strung up like twinkling lights throughout the ages—now we enter the cloud chamber now we genuflect to the amplifier—to celebrate a sudden soaring up of souls on waxen wings of failed entrepreneurs—now there is this feeling this feeling of looking up at lights in windows from sidewalks sewn lifetimes away—a hurt that feels too good not to press on a little—our survival depends on this twisted nest feathered with compulsions—and we pass through the gates—(having entered as sound, blind)—we board the vessel and wait—what ho, off the starboard bow is it Scylla is it Charybdis or is it nothing at all nothing at all—(we exit as light, deaf)—next time take the train it’s said to be more scenic—wait everything changed again—wait wait there is no next time.

a tribute to conrad

Sometimes I look people up on the Internet, people whom I have lost touch with, yet periodically wonder about. After years of doing this, I have found that the people I tend to befriend are often not people with much Web presence. So, in general, this practice is frequently frustrating and, in most cases, fruitless. Sometimes I stop trying.

Today I again looked up my friend Conrad, a compatriot from long ago, and one whom I’ve never had much luck in tracking down before. And so I was shocked this time to find an obituary for him from almost two years ago. He was only 33.

I met Conrad in the dishroom of a large university’s student food court. We both worked there, and during my three years of periodic employment at that hellhole, he was my closest friend. We used to spend our days plotting to overthrow the management. We planned to mount towering Gothic thrones for ourselves in opposite corners of the dishroom, from which we would reign over our kingdom. We grew giddy from drinking too much Josta cola.

Conrad had a vivid imagination and a wicked sense of humor. He was generous and kind. From what I observed he was also quiet and rather withdrawn with most people. He loved comics, movies, and video games. I remember him being obsessed with Spawn. We shared a deep-seated love of the film Repo Man. He even made me a cassette of the soundtrack, which I still have. He liked Iggy Pop and Saturday Night Fever. Sometimes he would even dance like John Travolta in the privacy of the dishroom. He often wore black…maybe even always.  He was creative and liked to draw, but he was self-critical to a fault. He had talent, but didn’t seem to believe it and would viciously criticize his own work. It didn’t matter if you told him otherwise.

We goofed off a lot at work. It was a crap job and there was a lot of down time. We were young and belligerent. We’d go to the basement of the building and Conrad would do pull-ups on the pipes. He was in good shape and his arms looked strong. I remember going to his apartment once and he showed me some of his drawings. I pestered him to see them, and he finally relented. It felt to me like he was exposing some part of himself that he rarely did, and that meant a lot to me. He came to my place once, too, and played Scrabble with me and my girlfriend. I took a photo of him there, sitting on the couch, dressed all in black and scowling like Bela Lugosi at the camera.

I wish I could remember more about Conrad, the things he said, because he was so funny. But it was so long ago, what feels like a few former lives prior to this one. I have in my head a few bits and pieces of conversations we had and I still keep those close. In my online searches, I came across only a few pages referencing him: a guestbook from the funeral home where members of his family had left messages; a page on deviantART where his cousin (a noted comic artist), whom he had lived with back when I knew him, had posted news of Conrad’s death and written a bit about his interests and artistic skills; and a handful of illustration credits from role-playing adventure games. I was happy to see that he’d published some work. I hope that had boosted his self-confidence.

Conrad was one of those regretted lost companions, for we connected on a certain rare level. I used to send him my zine after he moved back home, but I never received anything in return. I even based a character on him in a crappy novella I wrote some years back. He left an impression on me, and I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know him better than I did. He wasn’t easy to get to know, though; he was rather private and sort of a loner (like me, I guess), and I was also young and confused, aloof and distant from my own emotions.

I don’t know how Conrad died and I suppose it’s not that important. I don’t know what it is that makes us wonder about cause of death. I guess part of it is that he was so young. I don’t know if he was sick, or how much he suffered. Maybe some of this is morbid curiosity, from which I am not immune. But mostly it’s wanting to know how he was in his final days and wishing he was not in pain. All I know from reading the obituary is that he died at home, and I hope that means he was comfortable and with his family. But I don’t know that. I didn’t know any of his family, either, so I guess this mystery will remain.

He was a good person, a true friend, and I won’t forget him.

© 2012 S. D. Stewart

Repo Man Soundtrack b/w Dead Kennedys Plastic Surgery Disasters (and a little bit of Fever)

yes, wednesday night is movie night

When you watch a film it’s full of so many intense moments and none of them are real because life is not really made of those moments. It’s full of different ones, many blanking moments between a handful of sparking others that brighten and never wane in your mind, only in your heart. And it’s not the moon. It is ever the sinking sun. On the rocks, the desert floor, the pink and orange and blue, like that trip so many years ago. A film is a distillation of all these things, it is a prickly intensity of which we are not so used to in our daily lives, at least not in later years. In youth life can be like a film, though we lack the perspective required to appreciate it. And I imagine the people who make the sorts of films I have been watching make them because they want to see their lives like a film when they are young, but with the perspective that allows them to see it for what it was.

Tonight I was excited to go walk in the warm night air, even though it is October and it should not be so warm. The crickets yet fiddle and when I touch the inside this night it does not feel so tender. And yet when I talk to someone about his plans to leave this place, even though he’s been around awhile, he’s still a decade behind my next curve in the road. So maybe you can grasp the urgency I feel snaking around me. And if you can grasp it perhaps you could do me the favor of wrenching it off me so I can breathe lighter and freer.

Everything is profound in the late hour. It bears down upon you with a ferocity daylight would never allow. You start thinking about the beginnings of endings and the ending of beginnings and the brutal flatness of middles. You think about contours on a map and start seeing your life through a cartographer’s squinted eye, with those squiggly lines circling around you and they’re all the places you’ve been, the walks you’ve chosen to take, the daily ribbons of flayed flesh stripped from your shrunken sides.

This is not to say…anything, really. When I start typing nothing is ever as it seems. Words touch other words like hot wires and who am I to pull them apart. This hovers before me like a psychiatric tinderbox into which to dump the fantastic and the absurd and what torn shreds are left of the real. The box is metal to minimize the explosive risk? Not that any match will strike and catch this fire.

There is never a conclusion to reach and that appears to be the point. Which is fine, I guess. But can a person reverse evolve? I think I’m becoming a mollusk. Or a bioluminescent dinoflagellate. Foxfire! That’s it. I want to be foxfire. I want to be the green glow you see hovering in your woodpile as you gaze out upon it one evening through the icy windowpane.

the vagulator’s map

I want to be somewhere unfamiliar and yet I know it is merely a swirly chipped vision I see in my head. Outside a stone house at dusk, looking down the hillside at a copse of trees, wood smoke trailing from the chimney to the violet sky above, a pungent scent to breathe in, to savor. Gravel crunches underfoot, a lantern swinging from a hand slants yellow light across the path, scrape of the gate latch, a figure strides into darkness, never to return.

Canadian art house films don’t help, the lush scenery a starring role in itself, stealing the limelight, all humans fade to flat. I care less about what they are doing to each other, probing each other with words and organs, wrecking lives, all-too-familiar narrative arcs, but what about the waves forming across the lake, lapping onto the stony shore, the way that mountain looms like a haunted face over us all. These things matter. They outlast flesh.

I like words that start with ‘wood’. A woodnote is a song or call of a woodland bird. A wood nymph is a nymph of the forest. I would imagine a wood troll is a troll of the forest, or perhaps an orchard. A wood pussy is informal for a skunk. Wood sugar is xylose.

There is a bird (actually two of them) called a wryneck. These Old World species can twist their necks into unusual contortions. Perhaps they also demonstrate a dry sense of humor when relaxing amongst their bird friends and colleagues. I’d like to fancy myself a wryneck, but an old cycling accident prevents it.

In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses the phrase ‘vagulous phosphorescence’ to describe an old lady. Vagulous is a word that Woolf apparently made up (see p. 7 of this article), meaning ‘fanciful formation’. There is also a verb form, vagulate, meaning ‘to wander in a vague manner; to waver’.

In the woods today there were more birders than birds. The bird to birder ratio was not in my favor (and yet as I now review other reports online from that location today I see that two rarities were found, both of which would have been life birds for me…sigh). Even the typically less-traveled trails held women with feeder blobs secured to their midsections, guffawing young ones with canine friends, a full orchestra of humanity tuning up for the day’s symphony. And why not. The humidity broken, temperatures dipping to livable levels, cotton puffball clouds clotted a blue painted sky. Why not all converge in one spot.

I rose above it, literally, and found a Brown Thrasher. And an American Redstart. I need less input, more output. Rather, more filtered, structured input. Less information to influence, to make one waver. The vagaries of the vagulator, vacillating with vociferous vim and vigor.

In the port-a-john there was a violent-looking spider. It was perched calmly in the corner at seat level. This raises questions in my mind. Are spiders vindictive? Was that spider thinking I know you all hate me and think I’m horrifying so I will lurk here in this portable toilet until you sit down and then I will jump into your naked lap, possibly onto your private bits, scaring the living shit out of you and causing you to never use a portable toilet again? Was it thinking that? Or was it just thinking, damn, this sucks. I am stuck in this portable toilet. How am I gonna get out. Or was it thinking, I’m a spider, I’m a spider, I’m a spider. Or the abbreviated: spider, spider, spider. Or not thinking, just being its spider self, in the portable toilet, unaware of any special significance attached to its location or even its existence.

When you start researching things on the Internet you tend to see the exact phrasing used in Wikipedia articles repeated over and over, in blog posts, news articles, and ‘answer’ sites (which presumably exist for people who know how to get online and ask questions but don’t understand how to use a search engine). Take for example, the vapors (or vapours, if your people prefer the ‘u’), which is described in these exact terms in Wikipedia, as well as a million other places: “Vapors were considered to be the female equivalent to melancholy found in men.” So, really the movie I watched last night should have been called Vapours, not Melancholia. And who assigns gender to a planet, anyway. Of course the Earth is a she isn’t she and we have been legitimately raping her for years haven’t we. Maybe she will magically expel us all soon. Better get in your magic tepee, teepee, or tipi.

These are the days, the days we are living.

review: bill callahan ‘apocalypse’ film tour

Bill Callahan showed up in my city last night with a filmmaker named Hanly Banks, who had filmed Bill on his Apocalypse tour last summer and made a documentary about it. They showed the film outside on a giant inflatable screen that looked like a moonbounce. This was behind an art gallery in the heart of the city. Trees grew out of the surrounding abandoned buildings. Literally out of the walls. Given time and an absence of interference, nature always trumps concrete and brick. Think how beautiful that could be. A local brewery served beer. I was there with my friends. After the movie, Hanly Banks answered awkward audience questions, such as “Did Bill’s laid-back nature help offset the mundane aspects of touring?” And “Do you feel that how you captured Bill’s personality in the film is how he really is in person?” Not that I’m one to talk. I sometimes obsess in a similar manner over writers, just not so unabashedly. I cultivate my obsessions secretly. Jung would likely not approve.

I’d never been to the art gallery before and when I looked it up on the internet the map made it unclear which side of the street it was on. When I arrived in the vicinity, I crossed the street to the other side, thinking it was over there because of the grassy lot that looked appealing for movie-watching. Then I turned around and looked across the street and saw Bill Callahan moving around inside a storefront. Bingo.

After the film, Bill played a few songs. He joked that he’d been hoping for more screen time in the film. He also mentioned a strange object he’d seen in the sky a few minutes before, like a fixed light, but with a body is what he said. It was probably Foxtrot, I thought to myself. After his third song, he said good night. People kept yelling for an encore, but I knew he wouldn’t be back. Five bucks for a film and three songs was a good deal. I was content.

The film made me think about how many non-zomblobbies there are in this country, doing their things, just trying to make their way in the world. It lifted the bleak veil a bit and let me peek through to the golden light. But then there was everyone with their devices, so frantic to capture this moment as it was occurring. Why can’t they just sit back and enjoy the show. Why with the constant recording of everything that happens around them. When you watch it later, you think, “there i am with my device, recording that guy on stage and updating my status to reflect how much fun i am having.” [Note to self: stop thinking about this]

But the golden light, remember the golden light. And now these intoxicating scents fill the space around me. I drowse into a trance of sensual overload…Labradford’s feedback washes onto the shore of a delicate lack of sleep, coming rain foretold in the shaking cottonwood leaves, rare essential oils pungent and desirous unravel me…and I am gone, like Rumi, on a visit to the elsewhere from whence my soul comes. Or…maybe I’m only going downstairs…

over time, a mask is recognized

Foxtrot’s tractor beam halos the sidewalk slug trails. We linger in limbo near the antique fan house. It is night. There is no reason to dispute this is the time when I feel safest. Moving in shadow, yellow light spilling across the floor. Motives murky. Fiddle and banjo sound like always during this brief time. In Rhinoceros Eyes the props speak to Chep. He’s not happy about it, mind you. But what can he do. He’s an idiot savant, after all. Or is he. Maybe if you look hard enough at any one single thing, it will begin speaking to you. Dim light, that’s what I’m about. Except when reading. of course. I like a bright light on the page, but dim light everywhere else around. Smoking oil lamps and waning firelight.

The antique fan house intrigues me. They are everywhere. So many fans, none of them moving. It’s pleasantly absurd. I like walking around late night and there is some light in the houses but you don’t see anyone. God, if you saw just one person it would wreck it all. Maybe. I take the corner to the alley and wouldn’t you know it those dogs are out on the deck. We disturb a man and his cigarette, the dogs caterwauling across the way. The city’s branding iron on your eardrums. There is no quiet.

There are others skulking with their dogs. There always are. Skulk, skulk, skulk. We slither down the sidewalks, following the faint slug trails, glistering in the sodium glow of street lamps. Chep has trouble talking. He is awkward and what has built up in his mind is another world not fitting right with this one he’s operating in. It doesn’t matter what those props tell him. Maybe it’s all just a bad dream. Sometimes it is. Sometimes you wake up relieved. And not just when you’re aging, the days running off like lost sheep on the edge of fading summer pasture. I mean when you’ve seen the bottom of the haunted well in your dream life and lived to wake the next day. Morning looks so good then, like a doctored photograph.

It’s happening again. A man in a smiling bag. New shoes. Ha-ha…it’s all still there. The repetitive inputs of our lives, be they intentional or not. You can’t rip out hard wire. But you can open the window and let in the night air. You can do that. And what does air do but move through you. It moves through you like the shadows of night and does no harm. Not like a person. Not like a talking prop. But like the song playing down the credits. And the yellow light all around. And the glass in your hand. Like that. It moves through you like that and there’s nothing like it in the world.

film review: short cuts

This movie is terrible. First of all, it’s over three hours long. If you’re going to make a movie that long, it better be good…damn good. I watched the first 10 minutes or so, which consisted of flickering credits interspersed with long opening scenes (an annoying stylistic affectation). At this point, I switched to scanning through the scenes. This film, billed as Robert Altman’s “masterpiece,” purports to swirl Raymond Carver’s work into a cinematic “mosaic.” Having read most of Carver’s stories, I decided to cut to the chase and find the scenes that I consider his finest work, and see how Altman mangled them. I don’t know if it was the disgust I felt at reliving the trappings of 1990s American culture (perhaps our most sickening decade to date) or the horror of seeing the fresh young faces of so many now well-established American actors and actresses contribute to what amounts to a pissing contest on the collected short fiction of one Raymond Carver, but when I arrived at the bastardization of “A Small, Good Thing” (possibly my favorite Carver story), I could go no further. I guess I don’t get it. The cast of this film reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood. And not necessarily bad Hollywood. There are definitely some good actors in here (Hello Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins: I’m looking at you, among others). Maybe it was the 1990s that warped them (Sorry, Tom Waits, but I don’t think this excuses you). On the other hand, Alex Trebek has a cameo, so take that for what it’s worth (keeping in mind that we have Canada to blame for him). The fashion alone in this film is enough to make you vomit profusely. Carver’s stories are still popular today because they are timeless. But this film is dated, its stylistic baggage weighing down on the strength of any given scene to the point of crushing Carver’s lifeblood out of it. We all know that film adaptations of literature are always a disaster-in-waiting, but few approach the extravagant failure of this bloated celluloid monstrosity.

hold this empty box

Tonight I watched Box of Moonlight. I cannot believe it took me so long to find this film [thanks to a respected Goodreads user for mentioning it in a comment thread]. It came out in 1996, while I was deep into my cultural blackout period. Lord knows what else I missed during that time. But I wouldn’t trade those halcyon days of shooting pellet guns at the abandoned van in the gravel parking lot of my hut down by the river. Or maybe I would. Depends on the price. Regardless, it’s all part of who I am now. When you watch a film from 1996 on DVD, the movie starts right up without any previews or pushing any buttons on the remote. It’s nice. I like John Turturro and Sam Rockwell and Catherine Keener. They are all good people in the movies. This is a film that the orbs would hate. Only strange people like films like this. People are smart in different ways. I wish this was universally understood. One person can’t know everything. People think in different ways. This leads to exceptional behavior in one avenue for one person, and a different avenue for another person. What this means is we each can learn from another, from anyone. People are so hard on themselves. It’s unnecessary. We can only do the best that we can.

So there’s this zine called Miranda and the editor, Kate Haas, writes a regular column in it called “Motel of Lost Companions,” where in each issue she spotlights some person from her past she’s no longer in touch with and talks about the significance of this person in her life at the time. This has always resonated with me, for my past is littered with lost companions. Where they all are now is anyone’s guess. I suppose I could get a Facebook account and try to find them, but what would be the point. Likely to be a depressing and futile exercise. I’m sure most are married with kids now…so boring and predictable. Although I suspect some of them aren’t even on Facebook at all. Some of them are probably living desperate lives in basements or roominghouses, struggling to get by and largely failing. Those are the ones I’d probably like to have a conversation with but could never find.

The current moon phase is 47% of full. I hate the internet for telling me that. It would be a tough night to gather moonlight in a box, especially in the city. When I went out, the air felt cool and clean at least. I thought about lost companions and the few that still remain. I thought about Joy Division’s song “In A Lonely Place” and how it haunts me. It’s tied to someone lost, then found, now in limbo. The needle on the vinyl in that room so long ago, caressing the marble and stone, the blinds drawn against our futures.

There are lost companions everywhere, some of them lost before they’re even found. And we’ll never meet because the world is so big. I guess that’s okay, although it sometimes still bothers me. We are all of us in lonely places, after all, but the ones inside us we cannot leave.

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