Sparks & Beauties: Fruitvale Station

I live now in an area where there’s really, like, two places to see a movie, and they are both multiplexes featuring the latest blockbusters and gross-out comedies. Seeing any indie or foreign film anymore is a rare occasion, which is such a 180 from my NYC film school days, when I easily saw movies 2-4 times a week. Now it’s slightly painful to read about great films coming out, knowing there’s little chance for me to go see them right away — I have to wait for them to hit Netflix or the one locally owned video store. There used to be an arthouse cinema in this town ages ago, at the height of the great indie renaissance of Miramax and October Films in the late 90s…but that theater closed, the victim to the do-or-die economics of film distribution.

So it was with great surprise and utter haste that I grabbed the chance to see Fruitvale Station at my local theater. For those who don’t know, it’s a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland, California, who was shot in the back and killed by a BART public transit police officer in 2009. His death was captured in footage taken by hundreds of cell phone and video cameras on the scene, and the case inspired a huge wave of debate, activism and protest in an area already noted for its political awareness.


Prettiest Ghosts You’ve Ever Seen

I watched Dark Shadows recently. Not a great movie in general, but when Tim Burton makes such visual beauty, why quibble over such inconsequential details like a lame script and stilted dialogue? The fantastic thing about Dark Shadows‘ look, especially within the larger Burton milieu, is how he juxtaposed that kind of spectral Victoriana he does so well with an almost camp take on late 60s/early 70s nostalgia. And the soundtrack is pretty ace, too.

The whole “vampire confounded by modern world” were the liveliest bits of the movie, but my favorite-looking parts was definitely the supernatural-y, ghostly stuff: haunted mansions, Gothic cliffs, a spirit or two knocking around. It falls into what I call the “pretty ghost aesthetic”: Victorian-influenced, pale fire etherealness, flowing hair, alabaster skin, wide eyes, beautiful lace and pearl-encrusted dresses — and of course, you’re so graceful because you float everywhere. (Floating gracefully is very important as a pretty ghost.)

Pretty ghosts are like the other side of fashion-Goth: instead of all-black, it’s milky-white, pure and wraithlike. It’s the other side of death, made beautiful, plaintive and graceful, the kind of look that classical ladies themselves once cultivated with their pale arsenic-laced complexions and their dark, haunted eyes — aided with the help of some belladonna, of course. (Nothing like a little poison to dilate the pupils.)

Pretty ghosts are all over Burton’s movies, and I think Dark Shadows had the prettiest ghost of all, ever, with these delicious little bits of Bella Heathcote floating along, heading into the magic wind machine of eternity:

But you don’t have to be a real ghost to be part of the pretty ghost aesthetic in a Tim Burton movie. Burton’s take on “Alice in Wonderland” turned Anne Hathaway into a visual pretty ghost: pale skin, white dress, flowing hair, check, check and check. Even real-life brunettes can be pretty ghosts, if their skin is pale enough!

Burton did the same thing, after all, to Christina Ricci for Sleepy Hollow, which I really actually want to revisit as a movie. I remember her wardrobe in the film being particularly gorgeous:

Sadly, as an Asian lady with medium-dark olive skin, it’s hard for me to be able to participate in the pretty ghost look, even with the help of Oscar-winning costume designers and makeup artists. And in all honesty, I feel uncomfortable in costume-like clothing, and tend to privilege feeling natural and at ease in my daily life when it comes to fashion. I might just be a pretty ghost for Halloween, but in real life I’m just me.

But I love a nice Victorian detail when it comes to a lovely blouse, so my yen for pretty ghosts does come out in little ways. This summer I got a cream lace t-shirt this past summer that is makes me think of pretty-ghost Victorian, but I wear it with jeans and so it feels more 70s singer-songwriter than Henry James ghost story heroine. (His “Turn of the Screw” is one of my favorite ghost stories ever.)

I did get a lovely headband that does make me feel a little pretty and floaty. I’ll just pretend it’s Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem or something. Or part of my snow princess raiment.

Isn’t it lovely and sparkly? It’s about as close to pretty ghost as I can get.

I Really Enjoyed “Looper,” And Not Just Because of My Semi-Weird Crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Of course it was a given I’d go and see “Looper.” I’d developed kind of a persistent crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt since “Inception” — something about him floating around those rooms in a nice vest-and-tie combo really appealed to me. (I do love a guy who can wear a vest-and-tie combo.) He wears a tie nicely in “Looper,” but that’s only some of its ancillary pleasures.

Because of the tons of commercials, I don’t really need to tell you that “Looper” is about time traveling contract killers, and that Joe (as I like to call him in my head) plays one, and that Bruce Willis plays the older version of him. Joe wears prosthetics to look more like Bruce Willis (he’s always properly Bruce Willis in my head), and some reviewers found that distracting — myself, I found the makeup obvious in some shots, but I think the more genius mimicry is actually in his voice and the constant pissed-off furrow of his brow and downturn of his frown. I didn’t have a problem with it, though sometimes the weirdness of his prostheticized mouth and jawline did distract me from his superb tie-wearing. But those are petty quibbles; in general, I was too busy enjoying the time travel stuff, unraveling the plot and intricacies, both philosophical and logistical, of the sci-fi aspects, and thoroughly enjoying the bat-shit crazy supporting performance of Paul Dano. The whole film was a fun puzzle to sit through and figure out. I hadn’t been so engaged by a film in a long, long time — I could feel my head working in the dark as I watched in a really good, pleasurable way.

Beyond being super-enjoyable and a really smart, creative popcorn movie, I loved the unexpected left turns of the film. Left turns in movies are fascinating to me: like when smaller movies seem embedded into bigger movies, or you head off with a new character for a moment, or a strand of backstory unravels that makes it all so much more resonant. I think mostly about how these cinematic left turns were critiqued when I was in film school, as we were making our own films and writing our own feature scripts — mostly you’d get chided over not sticking with the main character, or digressing from what is supposed to be a taut storyline. And it’s true, you don’t want to make such a left turn that you don’t fulfill the early promises set up by the early part of the work — and you don’t want to venture so far off the path that you have a hard time heading back. But there’s something about left turns that uncovers the real soul of the movie, what’s genuinely odd and eccentric about the creator’s imagination.

“Looper”‘s so-called left turn takes the film out of the urban-y, sci-fi thriller genre it’d been (Somewhat brilliantly) trafficking in and goes into what I call semi-Terrence Malick territory — wide fields, a quieter pace, richer character moments. It’s interesting, because it happens at the point in a script where conventionally filmmakers are told to speed up and let the events of their plot “play out.” I could feel my own internal clock get itchy at points, like “Why aren’t we going faster?” Movie pacing is so internalized by viewers by now, to the point where I’d argue that it feels like instinct even though it’s completely culturally prescribed. Without giving too much away, it’s this rural, Malick-y idyll in the film where it goes beyond clever and becomes truly interesting on a moral, ethical and even philosophical level: where the film contemplates larger questions beyond “What happens next?”

Of course, director Rian Johnson handles the left turn in such a way that the information revealed during it becomes an integral part of the pulse propelling the movie forward later (therefore making it less “left turn-y,” I suppose, and genuinely useful in what they call “the narrative economy.”) And the film speeds to its conclusion, ending with a moment of black screen and a quiet that lasts well into the ending credits. It’s almost a pity that it spins so quickly into its ending, actually. It’s like when something gets oh-so-close to genius — just a few more spins, really — but in the end settles for grand, high-concept entertainment.

On Chris Marker

Chris Marker made films that felt like dreams and reveries. He was French, and his work was probing, politically engaged, generous in spirit and often poetic.

Most know of him tangentially: his short film “La Jetee,” a post-apocalyptic fever dream of a time travel film, was the springboard from which Terry Gilliam wrought 12 Monkeys. I first saw “La Jetee” in my Intro to Film class, and I will never forget the memory of its haunting, tortured black-and-white images: a disquieting procession of stills, sound and one exquisite moment of moving image that unfurled in the dark and invited you into its mysteries. I left class that day inspired: a film could be anything I wanted it to be — it could bend time and space and sound and image beyond the typical rules. As long as you had something to say, a story to tell, a strong point of view: anything was possible. He was a punk in the most elegant sense.

As seminal as “La Jetee” is, my favorite work by Marker is Sans Soleil. Both intimate and enigmatic, it is often described as a documentary or a travelogue, but it is really a river of footage and sounds that makes intimate the relationship between globalization and its impact on memory and personal history. Images from all corners of the globe sweep over you — Japan, Iceland, Paris, san Francisco: the way it is edited together, complete with a beautiful score and layers of sound, is a remarkable exploration of how time and place pass through us, sievelike, and sometimes sediments of location and history remain behind, echoing again and again no matter where we go.

Chris Marker reportedly passed away yesterday, apparently on his birthday. For a filmmaker who explored the strange elasticities of time and memory, this seems fitting and slightly ironic. Through his films I felt an affinity to a questing, mysterious, discerning creative spirit and philosopher, someone who mapped how politics and society impacted the terrain of subjective experience, someone who kept working well into his 80s. He inspired me, and he will be missed.