Ice Cream

Ice Cream

Today’s topic: Jim Jarmusch and his slow reality. When you think about ‘cool’, what comes to mind? For me, Jim Jarmusch. The grey haired sixty year old director, who enjoys smoking cigarettes, wearing sunglasses and making movies about people and their place in the world. This is a man who doesn’t rush; he takes his time, for each film he chooses the location carefully. His movies may not be the most aesthetically beautiful since all of them run on a tight budget (he hates studios and releases everything independently), his plots may not be the most dynamic and surprising ones, but there is something about his movies; something that elevates them from being simple short stories. It’s his take on the passing of each day, of the earth spinning, of the sun setting. In his movies everything starts and everything ends. Jarmusch goes from point A to point B in order to finally come to point C and it’s all planned out too – it’s his method of observation that strikes us. His patience. That’s it.

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The man of cool.

In his acclaimed second feature that put him on the map of independent film directors and made of him a walking paradox, Stranger Than Paradise from 1984, Jarmusch ties three people together and by the end of the movie, he cuts those ties leaving them separated, going different ways. The movie consists of slow fade-ins and fade-outs. Everything is quiet, peaceful, slow,  aside from the repeated Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track – I Put a Spell on You – everything follows a certain rhythm. It’s a study of a quiet society, connected but at the same time more than disconnected. The characters are genuine assholes, loners and punks who drive around in search of something. This theme of the search of nothing (really) establishes who Jarmusch is as a director – more of a poet, a bird watcher who quietly sits in the bushes with his binoculars on, studying. For some it could be a painful, boring experience, and for others it may just be what they’ve been looking for all the time. That quiet roaming around, the slow laziness, the stressful silences.

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Driving around.

Same thing happens in the next movie that won Jarmusch huge praise in the Cannes Festival, Down By Law from 1986. It’s a movie about innocence, escape, trouble and inner struggle. The story focuses on three prisoners in a New Orleans jail, who after being framed for crimes they did not commit (aside from the Italian prisoner), they escape into the Louisiana countryside. The three are – a pimp (John Lurie), a radio disk jockey (Tom Waits) and an Italian tourist (Roberto Begnini). This odd group of bozos are again, in search of something. They don’t know what it is. Jarmusch captures their anxiety, insecurity and anger by letting the actors improvise; what could have been a scripted piece of work turns into a quiet game of improvisation, lead by the skilled Begnini who makes the most out of his character. And that’s the point; Jarmusch dishes out these characters that seem on the outside to be empty, boring and silly but something carries them, something motivates them to move forward, not to give up. And right when we’re about to feel comfortable around these three, Jarmusch wraps up the whole thing; the three idiots go different ways. The tone of Down By Law is off-beat, a little unsettling, but isn’t that what makes life so fun? That’s Jarmusch for you.

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Hopeless bozos.

After making the dizzy and sentimental Mystery Train in 1989, Jarmusch went back to subtle observation by directing Night on Earth (1991). For most people the idea of this particular project, that of following five taxi drivers in five different cities all over the world during the same night, may seem more than boring. What could happen? After all it’s simply a camera placed on the windshield and actors sitting and talking. Well, again with Jarmusch you never know. At first it looks like a school movie project, but then, the stories, the acting, the atmosphere all make it so much more. Here, the director studies people’s different behavior, backgrounds and attitude, connecting all five stories, painting a larger than life picture of humanity. We see acts of anger, happiness, betrayal, empathy and grief. Jarmusch makes us laugh until we cry. He presents us a society of beautifully ugly and disgustingly beautiful people sitting behind the steering wheel of a taxi.

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Roberto Begnini in the ‘Rome’ segment of Night on Earth.

In one of his most mature directing efforts, Dead Man starring a young Johnny Depp, Jarmusch challenges the Wild West. Don’t think of it as a guns blazing movie with tons of blood and action. Jarmusch, as I said, is a poet and here he pays tribute to such poetic directors like Tarkovsky, Ozu and  Kaurismäki who prefer slow passing of time rather than fast paced action. It’s a psychedelic Western, twisted and surreal in every possible way, depicting man and nature as one single unit. It’s a postmodern take on the wilderness, on the savage land where men would square things off with the help of a duel. Everything ends in blood. Jarmusch knows it. We drift along William Blake, Johnny Depp’s character. He’s an accountant, a bizarre young man who’s always being stared at by others. He’s always picked on and laughed at. But is that his true self? His true nature? His true spirit? The camera pans slowly, as Blake, wounded, sits in a canoe drifting further away from land.

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Poetic Criminal

In my favorite movie of his, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch explores the gangster genre by creating a philosophical tale about the world of paradox. Who better than Jarmusch, right? It’s a study of the dirty streets of America, of the beautiful people we find, of the dangers we face every time we cross the street, of the stupid things we should never dare to think about. Ghost Dog, played by a great Forest Whitaker, is a paid assassin, a hitman working for the mafia. A black man raised in the streets of New Jersey. He kills for money but lives by a code. Everything follows a certain path, even a murderer. He’s a quiet, docile man, who like Jarmusch, observes others. The world that surrounds him defines him. A samurai. RZA’s soundtrack, Wu Tang’s gangster rap makes it even more poetic, more bizarre and strange. Everything seems like falling out of its assigned place and yet… everything is perfect.

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The art of humanity. The assassin.

And finally, Broken Flowers from 2005 is an exploration of love and loneliness. Bill Murray embarking on a cross-country journey to track down four of his former lovers after receiving an anonymous letter stating that he has a son. It is what it is. Jarmusch shapes a character so lonely, scarred by hypocrisy and grief that it seems as if we’re watching a documentary. Don Juan is looking for answers but he’s the last individual who would ever get them. Everything is hopeless, everything is broken. Nothing goes together. Don Juan roams around in his car, again, in search of what? Is he really looking for his son? Or is he really just trying to find a definition of himself?

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Who am I?

Jarmusch is a quiet dog. An artist who always goes under the radar. There is no publicity for his movies. His trailers go unnoticed. His soundtracks make a couple of bucks and that’s it. But he doesn’t care. All his movies are arguments about who we are and the place we find ourselves in. Everything is slow. Because slow is beautiful.

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Coffee and Jarmusch.

 

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Why Take a Chance

Why Take a Chance

Today’s topic: rewatch value. How many times can we watch a certain movie? Is enough, enough? Some people like to watch a movie only once and then they’re done with it. Boom. It’s over. Others can watch the same one time after time and still be entertained. Me? Well, let’s say that when a movie is a favorite of mine, I tend to watch it on special occasions. Sometimes I’m afraid it might get worse, it might get boring, I might find some flaws to it. A movie like There Will Be Blood, what I call my top movie, is something I’ve probably watched only five times in my life. It’s so perfect and so rich in its intensity that I wish it wouldn’t change. Hopefully it never will. Then what kind of movie do I like to watch every now and then and still find it refreshing, thought provoking and above else, entertaining? For me it’s none other than Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). A lot of viewers tend to call it a Goodfellas spinoff, a simple minded sequel. Well, let me tell you. It’s not. And that’s its secret; it’s a whole other animal.

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Boom! Right from the start.

The debaucheries of East Coast mobsters, Hollywood divas and Mid West con men that would take place in Las Vegas in the late 1970s and early 80s are known to the world. In fact, the Las Vegas of those times doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s a family place, a Disneyland for adults  and a paradise for plastic surgery freaks. But back then, oh boy. It was the capital of money. Everything moved from it and through it, creating money links across the globe. Foreigners would fly in rich and fly out dry poor in the matter of hours. People were willing to lose it all. Because why not? It’s Vegas. Scorsese, after partnering up for the second time with Goodfellas author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, decided to make his last ride (until 2002’s Gangs of New York) in the depths of violence. Believe it or not, even old man Marty decided he needed a break from all that blood, all that beating, stabbing, baseball-bat clubbing. But was it worth it. You see it’s one thing to say “I’m going to direct a movie about excess and glamour” and another really do it. Many have tried and many have failed, the one that comes to mind is Baz Luhrmann and his constant need of excessive production design in fairy tale movies like Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby with a mediocre result. Making the viewer feel the incredible amounts of money, the smoke filled casino lounges, the wind blowing from the sands, it’s an art. An who better than the one and only Martin Scorsese?

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What more do you want? Lights, smoke, money, excess, violence. It has it all.

The thing is: it’s not a perfect film. It’s flawed. There are minor issues with the editing, some of the sound mixing, and even some of the special effects look dated. But — the way it’s made, that outdated feeling it carries, it’s what makes it stand out. In it’s structure it’s a very simple movie: a voice-over, a flashback in its entirety, a lot of inserts and music. Because that’s what makes it a Scorsese picture. It’s simple, small but at the same time it’s larger than life. Every time i watch I pick on something that I’d never noticed before; Joe Pesci’s character chewing on the cuticle of his right thumb (the real life gangster he plays reportedly really did that out of habit), the constant overlapping of a never ending soundtrack (Scorsese goes from Bach to The Rolling Stones), the eye-popping cinematography (where every dominant character in a particular scene is marked with a streak of sunlight), and above all – the comedic touch. Because every gangster movie we see nowadays is plain serious, dreadful, wanting to prove to the audience how cruel and merciless those ugly gangsters really are. What these movie directors forget, and Scorsese doesn’t it – is that everything in life has a comedic side to it. Gangsters will quarrel over anything, they’ll spit into a club sandwich that goes straight to a local policeman, they’ll have genuine fun torturing a guy, they’ll stick ice-picks in his testicles if they feel like it. Forget about rules.

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Wise guys in town.

The secret of this movie lies in the way Scorsese connects with the viewer– the long panning and tracking shots, the extreme close-ups and wipe-outs make it feel closer, more relatable , almost as if we were reading a comic book and following with our eyes every single vignette. Because if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that Casino is an ensemble of quick shots, quick dialogue, therefore quick scenes. The main characters, Ace and Nicky, played respectively by De Niro and Pesci, narrate the story for us like a comic book artist narrates the story by writing clouds of voice-over in the corner of every vignette. It’s engaging, energetic and exciting to watch. It’s one of those movies that makes me feel right at home for an odd reason (there are no gangsters at my place) and still manages to leave me in awe by the ending credits. It’s also the way the characters are portrayed as simple minded fuckos with nothing to give but everything to lose. And they do. From the start, Nicky (Joe Pesci) says: “We fucked it all up.

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Love always comes at a price.

I say this because now gangsters are usually glorified and portrayed as untouchable creatures-gods. With Scorsese, it’s different. He likes mortality, he enjoys that vulnerability, the possibility that you take out a brick from the tower and the tower falls down. The constant pressure and heat these dirty individuals carry with them. It comes to the point that Nicky’s banned from all casinos in town and has to move out to the desert, 60 miles away from Vegas, and still finds himself under constant surveillance by the Federal sons of bitches. We don’t see him go guns blazing in the middle of the day. No, we see him the way he was. A small tough guy, walking around the desert covering his mouth so that the FBI lip-readers can’t tell what he’s saying. It’s that “the world watches you” feeling that makes Scorsese’s gangster movies stand out. They are not epics and they will never be because they do not romanticize that kind of lifestyle, they don’t show clean getaways like The Godfather, they are dirty pieces of art that will stay forever with those particular viewers, that have the guts for it.

So as usual, hats off Mr. Scorsese. You will always be the only one who can make a cup of coffee look interesting.

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The light of truth – the bosses have the final say.

The Earth I Pass

The Earth I Pass

Today’s topic: looking for meaning. We all do it. We try to understand something that is too incomprehensible. We want to grasp the meaning when something is meaningless. We want to find answers when there are no questions. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) directed by Werner Herzog is precisely about that. It’s a wild, hellish tale of mankind destroying itself; a tale that creates a terrifying yet brutally true depiction of a mutilated world, populated by corrupt individuals and silent gods.

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Aguirre – the devil himself.

Herzog, at the time an unknown German director with little to no experience, has become the symbol of an adventurist director. Having directed real life epics like Fitzcarraldo, gritty dramas like Rescue Dawn, cop thrillers such as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and numerous documentaries that have paved the way for countless specialists in the field with fantastic works like Grizzly ManInto the Abyss,  Encounters at the End of the World, and Fata Morgana, Herzog has become a film philosopher rather than a film director. Critics and colleagues keep describing him as an ‘intense madman’. Interviewers keep underlining the fact that he always answers with the first thing that pops into his mind, but let’s be honest – the world needs men like Herzog. Not many people involved with the movie business have the guts to talk about things that others choose to ignore. Not many people have the courage to set themselves a challenge so incredibly tough and not walk out of it. That’s Herzog for you and his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is an achievement that will speak for ages to come.

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An endless journey.

The story of a ruthless Spanish conquistador, Don Aguirre, who takes over an expedition in Peru in order to find the legendary El Dorado, the city of gold, is a very modern take on our burning reality. Above all, it’s a brilliant character study of a man blinded by the thirst of power, a man that keeps spinning in circles trying to find his destination – the meaning. But in a place like the jungle, there is no meaning. Or maybe there is, but it’s hidden. It strikes you when you got your back to it. It digs its blade into your chest the moment you least expect it. Right from the opening shot – a long column advances across the mountains, fighting the hostile weather and nature – we get a sense of what it is all about; a Sisyphus struggle, an endless journey into the real heart of darkness. The men who lead the way for the rest of the column are the first ones to go. Herzog doesn’t focus on their probable deaths, but rather on their disappearance. His camera stays steady as a rock while we hear a slave yell out in pain, a soldier suffocate in a deadly trap, an officer get hit by an arrow. We hear what we want to hear, but we see what Herzog wants us to see. It’s a fantastic example of how cinema can manipulate our minds, our senses, forcing us to make our own vision, our own idea. At the beginning, Aguirre stands in the far corner of every frame; the devil watches over and waits. In fact, Aguirre waits until most men tied to the expedition either die of illness or are killed by invisible ‘savages’. I type ‘savages’ because we have to keep in mind, that this whole expedition has as its man goal to spread the word of God among the natives, be it with the help of the Bible or the simple use of a sword. A priest is our main narrator, a man who is as possessed by his own ambitions same as the mad Aguirre. A man who dresses in rags, but aims for riches just as much as the soldier standing next to him.

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The mad expedition.

Herzog with the help of his 35mm camera immerses us into the humid jungle. He lets us observe the faces of the conquistadors, giving us the possibility to judge on our own, make up our own interpretations. “That man is a head taller than me. That may change.” whispers Aguirre into the ear of his devoted servant. The chopped off head lands onto the ground; the lips still moving. The message is clear – there is no place for truth in a world where slaves still exist, where houses are burned, where wars are fought, where innocent people die in the name of the guilty ones. The remaining members of the expedition build a raft that will end up being our main setting. Day by day, the group on the raft becomes smaller, and smaller and smaller. Every now and then we hear an arrow zip by. Herzog evidently haunts us with repetitive hand-held shots of worn out, tired faces, dying animals, bloody weapons. The raft starts to break down, but surprisingly no one cares about it. Hunger is not felt anymore, thirst is only a dark memory, and blindness becomes these men’s religion. “We keep going in circles” says the priest and there is no God listening to him. Maybe he never wished for one to be there. Some men don’t want to be listened to.

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A nation of devils.

Aguirre, being the only one left standing, represents all the things a viewer wants him to represent. He has no boundaries, no agenda, no dreams, no nothing. He only wants to be as big as God really made him. He wants to have power over nature, over his fellow soldiers, over the entire world. He wants the earth to shake when he walks. He wants the birds to drop dead when says so. Will it happen? Is this what this reality of ours has been leading us to? Herzog remains silent.

The meaning is hidden, but someday… someday something will happen. And Aguirre will emerge from the depths of darkness.

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The real savages are hidden among us.