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Obituary / Remembrance

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 6

A Girl’s Own Story stands out for the concrete stylistic choices elaborated in each scene, but also owes much to an overall tone: passionless, desolate. This atmosphere is soaked in the experience of a world that is too small and gives too little, a world filled with boring rituals and sickening family dynamics. Costume, décor, and sound play an important role in the depiction of this milieu. Listening to the film attentively, one can appreciate that there are many details unifying its soundscape: music cues that are never gratuitous; voices coming from TV sets; animal, electrical, and human background noises. However, the main dialogue sounds raw, as if projected into a void space.” Cristina Álvarez López offers a sympathetic reading of Jane Campion’s A Girl’s Own Story that remains somewhat in awe how fully-formed and still ambitious the director was in this 25-minute short.

“And what does that puppet master have to say about the accusations of sexism and promoting real-life violence addressed in Tenebrae? He actually seems to agree with them. This film is an utterly despairing, nihilistic vision of art and artists as unable to achieve anything positive in the world. If art can change the world, in Tenebrae, it can only damage it. I’m sure this was adopted as a devil’s advocate position, and the film’s early scenes express it with dark humor, but by the time the film’s final 10 minutes turn into a parade of slaughter, it cuts pretty deeply.” Steve Erickson argues for an appreciation of Argento that doesn’t just acknowledge the filmmaker’s misogyny before passing over it, but keys into the director’s self-awareness of the issue as a way of making his films even more despairing, no-escape labyrinths. Via David Hudson.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 29

Some giants of the experimental film scene receive attention at BOMB magazine. First, a reprint of a letter Stan Brakhage wrote to poet Robert Kelly about the inspiration and trying process of creating Mothlight shows the filmmaker’s literary style almost as dazzlingly abrupt as his cinematic. (“I began thinking that Mothlight must begin with the unraveling of a cocoon and end with some simulation of candle flame…. Much to my surprise, the cocoon was full of spider eggs, or at least what I quickly assumed was spider eggs, and not a caterpillar, or semi-moth, or moth at all; and I realized that I had committed the first (and last) intentional destruction of life in the making of Mothlight by my actions and that I would have done so no matter what had been inside the cocoon, it was a sobering moment in which all the false path I’d been insisting on was revealed clearly. I gave up, as gratefully given sacrifice, both cocoons and candle flame in that instant.”) And four brief excerpts from Jonas Mekas’s memoir “A Dance with Fred Astaire” captures the day he decided to be a dog, the impish humor of Nam June Paik, and two screenings of avant-garde films, one of which seemed to go magically only to turn to a farce at the end, and one that went from a disaster to Mekas’s idea of a “most perfect screening.” (“We stood there, still half asleep, looking at the morning, almost in ecstasy. Then Ken and myself, we pulled out our cameras and we began to ?lm. We had to do it, we had to ?lm; we were ?lled with the ecstasy of cinema. We felt we were the monks of the order of Cinema.”) Via David Hudson.

“’At first I was amused by the fact that Blade Runner was an influence,’ Scott says. ‘Then I got fed up with seeing pouring rain onscreen.’” Brian Raftery’s set visit to Blade Runner 2049 offers no great insights either to the nature of the sequel or how its predecessor earned its beloved cult, but there’s a nice, almost accidental study in contrasts provided of the somber, patient director Denis Villeneuve and the shrewdly bombastic executive producer Ridley Scott, whose every sentence, even on the page, seems wreathed in the smoke of expensive cigars.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 22

A pair of fine memorials remind us what a unique presence we lost with the passing of Harry Dean Stanton. Drew Fortune rounds up a baker’s dozen of friends, collaborators, and fellow barflies to share memories of a flinty buddha who wouldn’t hesitate to cut you down to size even as he remained your boon companion. (“He’ll tell ya, ‘You’re nothing.’ Everybody would get mad, because they didn’t understand why he’d always be saying that. It’s his way of expressing that we’re all just individuals on the planet Earth—that you’re no bigger or better than anyone else. Him and Marlon Brando were tight, and he used to get Marlon all the time. He’d say to Marlon, ‘You know, we’re all nothing.’ Marlon would say, ‘What the hell do you mean?’”) And Brian McGuire, who directed Stanton in four films and acted as a special sort of assistant on the actor’s last, Lucky, recalls the headaches and concomitant great rewards that came from working with such a marvel. (“A million questions, all for just one short scene and one line! I made up answers on the fly, but Harry had yet more questions. ‘Where are we going after we leave the apartment?’ I said, ‘You’re going out to a nice restaurant for a celebration meal.’ Harry: ‘Where?’ I quickly spat back, ‘I don’t know, Harry, it’s been a long time since I had a nice meal. So you’re gonna have to pick the place.’ There was a long silence. Shit, did I just blow it? Did I go too far? Then I heard that classic old man voice say, ‘OK, I think I can do your picture.’”)

“There is beauty to burn here, and a hint of desolation in the train’s mournful horn as it pulls into Livingston, a town in the wide-open spaces of a state that has earned the nickname Big Sky Country. In and around that small town, we meet three strong-willed, uneasy women trying to shrug off or rise above or transform lives that feel too small for them. Each gets her own story in this portmanteau film, and though the women may brush against one another in passing, they will never meet. By the end, you might wish they had, if only to dissipate the loneliness that rises off them like morning fog. Reichardt weaves in comedy, in varying shades of wicked black, but she’s never one to shy from despair, even at the close of a film.” Ella Taylor plumbs the human depth behind the minimalist surface of Reichardt’s Certain Women.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 15

Filmmaker’s annual collection of 25 new voices in independent film has arrived, a clutch of movie makers, with influences ranging from Laura Moss’s love of horror films to Jessica Kingdon’s reconnection with her mother’s Chinese heritage, to discover and, in a few cases at least, excitedly anticipate their future development.

“I’m not going to declare that Ruby Gentry is a litmus test for cinephilia, especially because the film itself fails all litmus tests. But there is something about it that gets to the heart of how movies live and why we watch them. That “something” is wrapped inside a contradictory film that ultimately gives way to the delirious powers of animal magnetism, deft shadowplay, and compositional expressiveness. If you love movies, you know the camera lets hobgoblins loose. Good taste and ideological purity are little match for a mud-spattered Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston creating a Pietà in a swamp.” Even in Caledonian exile Robert Horton feels the pulse of uniquely American films, in this case King Vidor’s strange, powerful, (typically) underrated Ruby Gentry.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 8

“While the personal plotline is often seen as quintessentially Epsteinian, the lighthouse story tends to be regarded as the product of contractual obligation. In fact, one recurrent criticism made of the film concerns the use of a voice-over that guides us through this larger narrative. This voice is, indeed, very prominent, but it’s also suffused with the self-enjoyment and sense of adventure of a storyteller. If, as many commentators seem to assume, Epstein felt constrained by external impositions, he managed nonetheless to make a film that lovingly embraces both its educational character and its global spirit. If there was a burden attached to the institutional demands of the project, he subverted it, creating new possibilities for his cinema.” While many have dismissed Epstein’s UN-commissioned Les feux de la mer as fatally compromised by its government sourcing and pedagogical slant, Cristina Álvarez López finds the director thrilled to discover a new strain or two of storytelling to fold in with his more explicitly poetic mode.

“Hitchcock had never gone so far inside his characters before. And that would prove to be his creative destiny. But he was not happy on Rebecca. He and Selznick fought most of the time, and neither felt satisfied, although the film would carry off the best picture Oscar. Still, something had given Hitchcock access to his fascination with the emotional alarm preying on individuals in regular melodramas. You can tell the story of Rebecca to someone before they see the film, but they’ll still be astonished when they feel the guilt and apprehension Hitchcock has delivered. That comes from the vulnerability of “I,” the malice in Mrs. Danvers, and the uncertain authority of Olivier’s Maxim. He owns Manderley, but he is an insecure master, desperate for the reassurance that a woman may bring him—or ready to be overpowered.” David Thomson flips through the many genres—romance, mystery, ghost story—and many masters—Danvers, Rebecca, and “I” fighting onscreen, Hitchcock and Selznick tussling off—of Rebecca.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 1

“Earlier this year marked another 40th anniversary: that of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), which back in May was remembered in a flurry of appreciations and think-pieces. The two films remain tied together in history. They share a composer and a concept artist, and Hollywood lore holds that Spielberg and a beleaguered Lucas traded box office points on the movies as a bet, each certain that the other would have a bigger hit. Star Wars is by far the more momentous event; it’s still the artistic and financial model for how a successful franchise can be launched, expanded, marketed, merchandized, and exploited to infinity. (It was a messy risk that yielded a magnificent sensation; a studio nowadays should be so lucky). But Close Encounters is the more interesting anniversary, precisely because it is difficult to imagine a blockbuster quite like it appearing in multiplexes today. It is an extravaganza whose modus operandi is primarily—and close to entirely—one of revelation. ” Duncan Gray’s appreciation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind gets at how the two sides of Spielberg’s childishness—the humanist awe and the oft-clunky naiveté—can’t be separated in his finest films, for better and for worse.

“Out of that wonderful ’60s and ’70s generation of American horror directors, no one was more blatantly indebted to the classic EC Comics, drive-in fare, and the full-color overindulgence of the Hammer and Corman schools of horror than Hooper. His movies are deliciously unsomber, unambiguous, and grotesque, without the classical taste and formal rigor of John Carpenter or the scrappy Rust Belt sociopolitical sensibilities of George A. Romero to ground them. So of course the metaphors are obvious….” If you want to understand Tobe Hooper’s art, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky argues, skip the masterpieces and the acknowledged better-then-they’ve-a-right-to-be entertainments and check out Spontaneous Combustion.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 25

“Those films are less about what is happening than they are about our position towards it. Most of all, they ask the question: Do we believe or not? The same is true for many feature films. In fact, the camera deliberately tends to arrive at the scene a bit too early or a bit too late. Actions have already taken place or will take place no matter what we see. Maybe some secrets can’t be shown at all. One could talk about an economy of means that was perhaps also formed during the short film years. Mr. Tourneur doesn’t show too much, he just shows what is necessary. There is an air of something unavoidable, as if many characters in his films were not presented as real beings but ghosts from a story that has already been told.” After a retrospective on the director, Patrick Holzapfel finds a key to the muted (and thus more dramatically and symbolically potent) sense of the miraculous in Jacques Tourneur, and it has to do with resignation. Via David Hudson.

“Reviewing Drafthouse’s Blu-ray of Wake in Fright (1971) for Sight & Sound (May 2013), Michael Atkinson describes Ted Kotcheff’s film as ‘a wrenchingly odd piece of work… that could’ve easily, with some tweaks, emerged as a dark comedy’. When I finally caught up with this remarkable film, what immediately struck me was how closely it anticipated an actual black comedy: Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). Another of those chance juxtapositions I described in last month’s column? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. For Scorsese was one of Wake in Fright’s earliest champions; after selecting it as a Cannes Classic in 2009, he described the film as ‘a deeply—and I mean deeply—unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971 and it left me speechless.’” Brad Stevens finds more points of contact than a first glance would suggest between Kotcheff’s brutal dissection of Aussie machismo and Scorsese’s long-dark-night-of-the-yuppie-soul.

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How do you not find that hilarious? Celebrating Jerry Lewis

Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?

Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 18

At Film Comment, praise for an overlooked director and one of the most famous movie stars who still hasn’t gotten his due, as Nick Pinkerton looks at the career of Gerd Oswald (“In depicting incessant small-talk as a kind of water torture drip on a delicate sensibility, [Crime of Passion] pulls up just short of R.W. Fassbinder and Michael Fengler’s 1970 Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? And the connection between these two German filmmakers a generation apart, both deeply invested in the experience of domestic despair, is not so obscure as it may seem—both favor compositions with characters facing front-forward, creating an effect both confrontational and alienating.”). While Sheila O’Malley offers her latest fine defense of Elvis Presley on screen even when he’s not strumming a guitar (“In the final years of Presley’s contract, nobody was paying attention anymore. Sadly, some of his best movies come from this period. Many of them are not musicals, outside of the title songs. There’s a looseness to them, a roiling chaos lacking in the Elvis Formula movies. Presley is unleashed, his persona naturally expanding to include more eccentric shadings.”)

“Kendig is nobody’s idea of a superspy, though. He’s not slick. He’s not even smooth. What he is is the smartest guy in almost every room he puts himself in. Intelligence is a key component of the Matthau persona. His incarnation of The Odd Couple überslob Oscar Madison is the only one that makes you believe the character really could be a newspaper writer. In The Fortune Cookie, his due-for-a-comeuppance shyster is a little too smart for his own good. And so on.” Glenn Kenny has a few insightful lines about Hopscotch’s bridging the ’70s paranoia thriller and the gung-ho ’80s variations, and some deserved nice words for Ronald Neame, but he never pretends the film’s chief attraction could be anything other than Walter Matthau. Singing, yet.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 11

“The distinctive tone of Minnellian melodrama rises out of the protagonist’s frustrated attempt to sublimate desire into art and transform the real with the imaginary. This project is doomed, but it provides the films with an impressive stylistic ‘excess’ or melodramatic delirium. It also makes the artist a lonely figure. We occasionally feel this loneliness in the more optimistic musicals, which transform the world through song and dance, but in the melodramas the characters never fully reconcile life and imagination. Especially in such films as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Lust for Life (1956), and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), Minnelli seems to recognize that the utopian force of art can never transcend its social and psychological circumstances. The melodramas are therefore the most revealing examples of his work—the place where the paradoxes and contradictions of his aestheticism become apparent.” James Naremore offers a distillation of his exemplary book The Films of Vincent Minnelli, charting in 4,500 words why, undeniable as the consistency of his themes may be and howsoever strong a lineage he drew from modern art, the director’s oeuvre remains so critically controversial and impossible to pin down as the unalloyed stylings of a master. Via (as so much this week is) David Hudson.

“The woman the clergyman obsesses over, played by Génica Athanasiou, is—Sandy Flitterman-Lewis has argued—less an object of desire than a “force of desire”. She resists consumption by the spectator, and Allin’s clergyman is too weak to compete with her. Whenever he attempts to capture her, the director intervenes to save her from his touch: he grabs at her neck, and the neck becomes a house; he puts her face into a bottle, but when the bottle breaks we find his face inside. With a surrealist disdain for the normal bounds of filmed reality, Dulac uses editing and superimposition to protect Athanasiou’s character.” Chelsea Phillips-Carr shows how prescient Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman truly was, as both surrealist experience and a feminist rejection of male desire—for the audience as much as her eponymous priest.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 4

“This eventually leads to one of the only purely erotic sequences in To’s body of work, in which Yam’s and Lin’s characters share a cigarette on a leisurely drive in a vintage Mercedes convertible. The narrative purpose of this or any other sequence in Sparrow is secondary at best. It’s all about the musicality that’s the essence of To’s style. Anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of film craft would do well to study the guy.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s appreciation of Johnny To’s Sparrow is alert to the film’s playfulness and homages, while subtly making the larger point that perhaps something essential has gone missing in a film culture where masters can no longer make such inconsequential delights in between their grand statements.

“But Wenders also perceived the sympathetic faces of angels watching over Berlin everywhere he went (most notably the Friedensengel monument) and found that he was inexplicably drawn to angelic symbolism in other realms: a song by The Cure, a painting by Paul Klee, elegies by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He wasn’t sure where it was all going, but the seemingly disparate imagery of dilapidated Berlin and serene angels had begun to fuse in his mind.” That contrast that became the crux of Wenders’s Wings of Desire also informed the soundtrack, from Jürgen Knieper’s mournful, ethereal score to the collection of pop tunes, as Clare Nina Norelli explicates.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 28

“Last year, a series of Fulci’s films and several exhibitions of postwar Italian painting coincided on New York’s cultural calendar. Shows of Schifano’s work and that of several other figures in the Italian avant-garde of that period, such as Alighiero Boetti, Giulio Paolini, Alberto Burri, and Fabio Mauri, colonized uptown art galleries. Downtown at Anthology Film Archives, the Italian film programming collective Malastrana presented “Lucio Fulci: Genre Terrorist,” an October showcase of 15 films by the Italian director. Though it’s safe to say there was little overlap in the crowds viewing the post-war paintings and those reveling in grindhouse gore, the two seemingly distant bodies of work bear a number of distinct points of comparison and reference.” Chris Shields points out the numerous debts and points of contact between postwar Italian art and the postwar Italian horror film, particularly the bleak, “texturally obsessed” landscapes of Fulci.

“Apart from the idyllic partisan forest, there also exists the tragic universe beyond the forest’s bounds. These two universes, closed on themselves with heightened genre definitiveness and finality, oppose one another and define each other through this opposition. In the forest reigns early autumn, with its sun shining through the luxuriantly yellow foliage. But around the forest is a pre-winter season, with its bare wastelands, where under heavy skies and wind skeletal trees are stripped of their leaves and burned down huts stand still. During some of the shots the viewer is startled: we’re seeing the landscapes from IVAN’S CHILDHOOD.” A newly translated excerpt from Evgenii Margolit’s 2012 book The Living and the Dead places Boris Barnet’s A Good Lad as the wellspring of Soviet war films—despite its unorthodoxy and official banning. Via Mubi.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 21

Good Morning is inarguably the least loved and least representative in the Ozu oeuvre. But as is often true of early comedy in more or less anybody’s oeuvre—whether or not they’re known as comic artists—Good Morning is one of the seeds from which Ozu’s later works grow, a sort of first principle. It is perhaps a more intricately structured investigation of what we can say through the walls of time and age and experience erected even between parents and children, siblings, lovers. It is a chamber piece for all the human linguistic instruments: fart and sigh, small talk and drunken ramble, all the possible declarations of weakness, suspicion, compromise, and love of which you could conceive.” I’d say Annie Julia Wyman’s initial statement up there is much more than arguable, but past that her praise of Ozu’s celebration of the wordless means by which we convey love—including, yes, farts—is spot on.

“It might seem rather a cliché to insist that film is a visual medium, but surely what is not spoken is just as important, in the total effect of this movie, as the articulation of its earnest ethical strivings. Tarkovsky seems to have found a way of photographing the human head—animated and in repose—as it had never been photographed before. He makes it monumental: sculptural and philosophical. Granted the chaotic interruptions to the pro­duction process (of which more shortly), the concentration of effort he achieved here strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. Naturally, these human heads had to be extraordinary in the first place: not just that of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) but the Writer’s and the Professor’s as well. How hypnotically the camera inves­tigates them!” Mark Le Fanu traces the oppressive state of mind under which Tarkovsky conceived Stalker as a hidden religious allegory, and briefly recounts the horrifying ordeal of the shoot, in which the third time (filming the picture) might have been the charm but also the reason so many of the crew, director included, succumbed to cancer.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 14

“The three features Berger and Tanner made together are essentially films about class. Characters are struggling to live life after political failure, finding ways to resume their resistance to a value system that remains ever-present and crushing. Berger, as a writer and as a human being—the two were never truly separated—was engaged in a similar process. His work became increasingly focused on the poor and working class following his move to Quincy, and he was searching for a form to match his subjects.” Craig Hubert traces the political and formal evolution—which would lead to the dissolution of the partnership—of the three films that writer John Berger and director Alain Tanner made together. Via David Hudson.

At Criterion, a pair of essays on crime films that couldn’t have less in common. Adrian Martin traces the history of distillation that resulted in Bresson’s final film L’argent standing alone even within such a unique filmography. (“Rather, the ominous “agent” at work here is money: the workings of an entire capitalist system boiled down to the movement of a forged note and the unstoppable catastrophe that it triggers. As money travels, it dehumanizes everyone it touches, no matter their class status or religious or ideological beliefs. What, in other hands, could be played as the premise for a screwball comedy (the phony dollar bill that caused such riotous havoc in a small-town community!) is treated by Bresson as the darkest tragedy.”) While Benjamin Mercer salutes one of Japan’s finer directors of detective films, still underacknowledged in the West, Yoshitaro Nomura. (“The director was certainly something more than an ace at operating within any given genre, often avoiding clichés, combining narrative modes in unusual ways, and wisely taking a page from Matsumoto in his eye for telling details and attention to contemporaneous social realities. Nomura’s films are perhaps most remarkable, though, for their immersive sense of place, most strikingly felt when their protagonists find themselves amid what is to them foreign terrain, if still on Japanese soil.”)

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 7

Freshly returned from their pilgrimage to Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson offer three articles outlining their fresh discoveries and welcome reacquaintances, from large-format experiments that actually predate moving pictures to the latest from Agnès Varda. Whether breaking down the humor in an early Ophüls or reveling in the fine early adaptors to sound from Mexico, the pair remind us that marvels lay scattered throughout the history of film, waiting to be revealed by the light.

“How to be adequate to this time of being in-between and not yet decided? This is what S?mai seems to have asked himself. The question determines the style of the film, which is in constant flux. Comedy is life seen in long shot, tragedy is life seen close-up, Chaplin said. What to do when it is precisely a question of avoiding the choice of genre? S?mai’s answer is to adopt a perpetual middle distance. In this middle distance, not enough is seen to let us say with any certitude that we are seeing an event and that we know what an event is. At the same time we also see too much, so much that we have to look away, as if the event were too powerful, overwhelming.” Chris Fujiwara finds Shinji S?mai’s Typhoon Club a perfect match of meaning and methods, its own transcendence of genre reflecting its lead character’s aim to rise above the social demands of his school. Via David Hudson.

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