Daily Archives: May 30, 2003

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