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Absurdists at heart, Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar have spent two decades perfecting their hilariously antic brand of fantastic, faux-naïve humor. After graduating from La Cambre, the School of Visual Arts in Brussels, the duo created a popular hand-animated series entitled Pic Pic Andre Shoow, about the adventures of a magic pig and an evil, beer-swilling horse, which first debuted as an award-winning short film in 1988, and was then expanded into a three-part festival fave. In 2000, the pair decided to revisit a stop-motion short Aubier had made as his graduation film, using the most rudimentary materials at hand: papier-mâché sets and generic, mass-produced plastic figurines (cowboys, Indians, farm animals). The pair set to work on “The Cake,” the pilot episode in their much-beloved TV series, A Town Called Panic, produced and co-written by Vincent Tavier (Calvaire). Originally aired on Canal Plus, the zany five-minute shorts engendered a cult following across Francophone Europe, finding a new audience on Nickelodeon U.K. when Wallace and Gromit distributor Aardman stepped up to dub them into English. The entire series was released on DVD in 2005.
In life and art, John Hillcoat takes the road less traveled. Born in Queensland, Australia and raised in the United States, Hillcoat got a crash course in mid-sixties American music and culture from his parents, who took him to folk festivals where Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and old-time blues musicians left a distinct impression. “As a young kid, I was thrown into the sixties in America, which was an unbelievable period, and my parents were very swept up in the civil rights movement,” he recalls. “I remember going on marches and seeing the profound upheaval of that time.” Hillcoat returned Down Under as a teen and, having soaked up the influence of Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, as well as Canadian author Michael Ondaatje (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid remains a touchstone), began making short films. While bouncing around Melbourne in the late ’70s, he met Birthday Party front man Nick Cave, who became a close friend and, many years later, an important collaborator on Hillcoat’s critically acclaimed Aussie western The Proposition (2005), which the rock singer wrote and scored. “He watches more films than anyone I know,” says Hillcoat, explaining their natural affinity. “Whereas in my free time I’m listening to music, so there’s another connection I think works.”
Forty-plus years into a still-vital, ever-proliferating filmmaking career, Werner Herzog has aged gracefully into the role of the sage adventurer, still fearlessly exploring the terrain between documentary and fiction as well as the vanishing point between charismatic eccentricity and full-blown psychosis. Born in Munich, raised in the Bavarian Alps, and lumped early on with other avatars of the New German Cinema, Herzog has ceaselessly chronicled the obsessions of dreamers and renegades both real (God’s Angry Man) and imagined (Stroszek, The Wild Blue Yonder), as well as social outcasts whose quest for ecstatic truth leads to madness, self-destruction, or sometimes, in the case of Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell, both. There are those who find Herzog’s documentaries to be the apotheosis of that singular vision, and those who are partial to the fevered collaborations with Klaus Kinski, when Herzog seemed to be placing his own life at risk in order to realize impossible ambitions, just like the protagonists of his twin monuments to crazed hubris, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God. In recent years, he has journeyed to a science colony in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), ringed the jungle canopy with a high-flying inventor (The White Diamond), and revisited the story of downed airman Dieter Dengler (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), this time in fiction (Rescue Dawn). Regardless of whether it makes sense to divide such effulgently individualistic output into separate genres (in this director’s cinema of extremes, we are forever on the brink of both catastrophe and revelation), one thing is certain: only Herzog is ever Herzogian.
Thomas Pynchon, whose gumshoe stoner novel Inherent Vice debuts today, exerts a peculiar fascination on the imagination of film lovers. Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed the book this week for Slate. John Carvill just penned an excellent piece in the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal about Pynchon’s literary legacy and his rich invocation of cinematic referents. Anecdotally, nearly every book reader I know working in film has a jones for this high-minded jester, whose carnivalesque historical novels (Mason & Dixon, especially) I count among the best reads of my life. So what accounts for Pynchon’s appeal to cinephiles? Carvill has an angle on that:
“For Pynchon has always been a movie nut, a fact that has long been apparent to his readers. In particular, Gravity’s Rainbow fizzes with film references, from Laurel and Hardy to German Expressionism, King Kong to Rita Hayworth. Characters often “act” the part of movie stars, taking on their attitudes and modes of dress, affecting a Cary Grant accent, say, or donning a “flopping Sydney Greenstreet Panama hat.” This is all great fun, but Pynchon also uses these acts of emulation to explore and illuminate a number of his perennial themes, not least the impact of technology on our lives.”
He goes on to elaborate the ways in which Pynchon “recognizes the contradictions inherent to the medium itself,” and provides, as evidence, a sustained reading of Inherent Vice. Is it any surprise the new novel, set in 1960s California and featuring a perpetually drugged-out detective, should echo both The Big Lebowski and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye? Read Carvill’s piece: it’s smart and exceptionally engaging.
Not long ago, I wrote a ruminative post entitled “What Makes a Novel Cinematic?”, in which I surveyed some of the other cinema-besotted authors (Don DeLillo, John Haskell, Steve Erickson) whose work seems to bear the influence of filmgoing experience. Pynchon isn’t mentioned (except as an adjective), though he should have been included in my mini-roundup. Nevertheless, some of the questions I pose at the top are relevant to this line of inquiry.
By the way, the creators of this video essay, which I discovered at GalleyCat, have just the right take on what makes Pynchon so fascinating:
It isn’t often that I have the opportunity to converse with filmmakers as admired and accomplished as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, La Promesse, L’Enfant, The Son). So I was delighted to speak with them twice in six months’ time about their powerful new film, Lorna’s Silence.
Dead at 72, David Carradine will be no doubt be remembered for his emblematic role as Kwai Chang Caine in the long-running TV series Kung Fu (not so much for the 16 episodes of Shane, when he was much prettier). Every obituary will recount his long, undignified slog through B-movie obscurity (take a look at IMDB; the sheer volume of dreck is staggering), and his unlikely resurgence after Quentin Tarantino cast him in a juicy role for Kill Bill. Who, however, will dare to recall his bizarre turn opposite Paul L. Smith and Brad Dourif in Robert Martin Carroll’s twisted family satire Sonny Boy (1989), a John Waters–grade farce spiked with extra doses of malice? Carradine plays Pearl, a transvestite who raises a nameless orphan with her grotesquely fat, psycho-criminal hubbie Slue (Smith) after the babe is found in a booted car. Naturally, they cut out his tongue and raise him to become a feral killing machine. “Sonny Boy” (Michael Boston) grows up, and mayhem ensues.
Here’s a clip to whet your appetite. Or kill it. RIP David.
Quiet, no-nonsense naturalism appears to be in vogue for a lot of younger, gifted Amerindie filmmakers these days, from Aaron Katz and Ramin Bahrani to Kelly Reichardt and Sugar duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, all of whom, coincidentally or not, hail from New York City. Why so many urban writer-directors are gravitating toward a style of filmmaking we associate with a state of repose and reflective distance, and with a specifically East Asian emphasis on time and formalism, while a previous generation of renegade Gotham filmmakers drew on Euro-arthouse dystopia and the anarchic energy of a big, teeming metropolis, has been the subject of very little discussion or sociopolitical analysis in cinema circles. (More on that in a future post.) Add to this unofficial school of poetic minimalism Bradley Rust Gray (Salt), whose second film, The Exploding Girl, debuted in the Berlinale Forum and screened Friday for the press at Tribeca. Read the rest of this entry »