Update on the Chinese Film Industry

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Confucius

The WSJ published an interesting article last week stating that “cinemas confirmed that they have been ordered to pull two-dimensional editions of the Hollywood blockbuster as of Thursday to make way for a state-sponsored biography of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.”

Let’s be honest, this isn’t such an outrageous move. What a fantastic bio-pic idea! Though you have to be a touch leery of anything state-sponsored (see Frank Capra’s government funded propaganda series in 1943-44 on Why We Fight). However, an ancient philosopher, proponent of the Golden Rule, is hardly much to give the stink-eye about.

The article points out, however, there’s been much push back from China on foreign films entering their market. And in a triumph for foreign distributors, in December a World Trade Organization ruling said “China should open its market to foreign films by lifting the requirement that the movies be sold through a government-run monopoly…. The system allegedly discriminates against foreign films and limits foreign companies’ revenues. China has a year to change the rules or face tariffs from the U.S.”

I can’t imagine how smart it was removing 2D-Avatar from the screens to make way for Confucius. We’re talking big money here regardless of it’s foreign or not. Further, as of yesterday, Avatar is predicted to overtake prior Box Office record holder (and Cameron flick, Titanic).

In some haughty backlash against the request from Beijing to remove 2D-Avatar, some movie houses are giving it the middle finger and continuing showing the film. And why shouldn’t they? The government currently only allows a total of 20 foreign films a year to enter the Chinese market; this can only occur during slow seasons (you won’t find a foreign soul during the upcoming Chinese New Year, that’s for sure).

Stay tuned. Not only is this an interesting development for film distribution, but also the continual slap of the cheek between US-China protectionism.

Fish Tank

January 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Fish Tank


Director Andrea Arnold’s new pessimistically carnal character study Fish Tank completes the triptych of the young and restless young ladies of 2009. That being Precious in Precious, Jenny in An Education, and now Mia, brigadier general of the group. Take your pick: a frolicking ode to sexual awakening in pre-Swinging London (That time as Philip Larkin so ironically put it “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP”); Harlem in 80′s with sexual and physical abuse thrown on a minor who also happens to be a mother of two children from her father’s loins (who tops this by giving her a dose of HIV); or monolithic shanties bearing foul-mouthed chavs and their tramp parents in present day Essex, UK.

All of these teenage girls have such clueless parents, particularly mothers (not to mention abusive, though “An Education” bows out before things get rough, though we doubt child abuse would ever happen with such a prickly daughter as Jenny). And yes, Mo’Nique deserves all the accolades she’s been bestowed for her magisterial monster mother she portrays, however “Precious” falls into tedium too soon, not rooting it feet into the soil as Fish Tank so firmly does.

Why “Fish Tank” is the strongest of the three is the patience it gives the viewer in siding with our young protagonist. We’re not tossed into the emotional muck quite so quickly as “Precious.” Nor do we find our protagonist particularly precocious enough that we find her tedious after the first third of the film as in “An Education.” Arnold doesn’t have time for backstory nor do we need it. We get the picture (As William Holden says in “Sunset Boulevard,” “You just look at their shoes, and you know the score”). We know that Mia is an aspiring self-taught hip-hop dancer (as much as Abigail Breslin is Ginger Rodgers in “Little Miss Sunshine” if you catch my drift). She comes from poverty, bad manners, an absent father, an alcoholic mother, and is a loner who alienates every friend-to-be. She’s a sad creature, but a very curious one. And this curiosity is piqued upon the arrival of mum’s new boyfriend Conor (smartly played by Michael Fassbender). He’s a very kind, warm creature. One who seems more alien than the family he’s preparing to adopt for himself. Sexual tension is inevitable between the two, and it’s released in a rather erotic–yet cold–scene on the couch after hours when mum is passed out upstairs.

What underscores the success of “Fish Tank” is the relentlessness of Arnold to aim for stereotypes and yet zip around them with such ease. We need these for familiarity’s sake, however we can walk without them quite effortlessly. These types of movies that are destined for Oprah’s couch are easy to get bogged down in “pray for them, Sister” jeremiads. Take, for instance, what’s especially troubling about Mia. It’s not that she’s not reaching for the stars–she knows her socioeconomic ladder is a mere stool–but rather her complacency about it all: she’s beat before a fight is even arranged. But since knowing her parameters she works in them, and the parting scene underscores this ever so nicely. Is the film pointing the finger at cases like Mia and telling the government “clean this mess up?” Not exactly. Mia makes no cries for help. She’s the existential hero Sartre could never write. She starts and stops again on numerous follies in the film. She knows she’s the only one who’ll take herself to task. And this type of wisdom does come from age, but rather spirit. And I appreciate Arnold finally giving us an adolescent protagonist who’s not a chest beater, nor an obvious victim of some discrepancy in the system (that is to say there is, but outcomes are multi-faceted, of course, and this is a refreshing take). A very worthy achievement.

Now showing in Manhattan

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
1886 Broadway 11:05am, 1:20pm, 4pm, 6:45pm, 9:20pm

IFC Center
323 Sixth Ave. 11:05am, 1:40pm, 4:20pm, 6pm, 7pm, 8:40pm, 9:40pm

Film Comment’s Top Films of Decade

January 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Yes, very late getting to this.  But stumbled upon Film Comment’s Top Films of the Decade Poll (see below).  Fascinating list, though I disagree with some of the choices (Zodiac #11, Wendy and Lucy #86, Miami Vice # 119…how on earth did they even make it on this list?), and applaud others (Malick’s hidden gem, The New World, breaks the top ten).  Enjoy!

Mystic River

My Top Ten:
1. Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood)
2. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. The New World (2005, Terrence Malick)
4. Gomorra (2009, Matteo Garrone)
5. The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
6. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
7. Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman)
8. Bad Education (2004, Pedro Almodovar)
9. Antichrist (2009, Lars Von Trier)
10. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)

Film Comment:

Mulholland Drive

  1. Mulholland Drive David Lynch, U.S. 2001 2808
  2. In the Mood for Love Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong 2000 2687
  3. Yi Yi Edward Yang, China 2000 1833
  4. Syndromes and a Century Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/Austria/France 2006 1738
  5. There Will Be Blood P. T. Anderson, U.S. 2007 1664
  6. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu Cristi Puiu, Romania 2005 1407
  7. A History of Violence David Cronenberg, U.S./Canada 2005 1303
  8. Tropical Malady Apichatpong Weerasethakul, France/Thailand/Italy/Germany 2004 1301
  9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Cristi Mungiu, Romania 2007 1249
  10. The New World Terrence Malick, U.S. 2005 1223
  11. Platform Jia Zhangke, Hong Kong/Japan/France 2000 1206
  12. Zodiac David Fincher, U.S. 2007 1143
  13. The Intruder Claire Denis, France 2004 1110
  14. The Son Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France 2002 1089
  15. Dogville Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/U.K./Germany/Netherlands 2003 1084
  16. Caché Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy 2005 1083
  17. Kings and Queen Arnaud Desplechin, France 2005 1080
  18. Elephant Gus Van Sant, U.S. 2003 1036
  19. The Royal Tenenbaums Wes Anderson, U.S. 2001 1007
  20. Before Sunset Richard Linklater, U.S. 2004 1005
  21. Spirited Away Hayao Miyazaki, Japan 2001 1000
  22. The Gleaners and I Agnès Varda, France 2000 985
  23. Goodbye, Dragon Inn Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan 2003 975
  24. The World Jia Zhangke, China/Japan/France 2004 974
  25. Talk to Her Pedro Almodóvar, Spain 2002 973
  26. Inland Empire David Lynch, U.S./France/Poland 2006 960
  27. Still Life Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong 2006 934
  28. Colossal Youth Pedro Costa, France/Portugal/Switzerland 2006 929
  29. Russian Ark Alexander Sokurov, Russia/Germany 2002 870
  30. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence Steven Spielberg, U.S. 2001 850
  31. In Praise of Love Jean-Luc Godard France/Switzerland 2001 834
  32. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Michel Gondry, U.S. 2004 832
  33. No Country for Old Men Joel & Ethan Coen, U.S. 2007 791
  34. Werckmeister Harmonies Béla Tarr, Hungary/Italy/Germany/France 2000 778
  35. Grizzly Man Werner Herzog, U.S./Canada 2005 777
  36. Three Times Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan 2005 767
  37. Café Lumière Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japan/Taiwan 2003 761
  38. Regular Lovers Philippe Garrel, France 2005 759
  39. Blissfully Yours Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France 2002 713
  40. I’m Not There Todd Haynes, U.S./Germany 2007 703
  41. 2046 Wong Kar Wai, China/Hong Kong/France 2005 700
  42. In Vanda’s Room Pedro Costa, Portugal/Germany/Switzerland 2000 654
  43. Los Angeles Plays Itself Thom Andersen, U.S. 2003 649
  44. Millennium Mambo Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/U.S./Spain/Greece 2001 636
  45. La Commune (Paris, 1871) Peter Watkins, France 2000 632
  46. The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow, U.S. 2009 623
  47. Million Dollar Baby Clint Eastwood, U.S. 2004 607
  48. What Time Is It There? Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France 2001 600
  49. demonlover Olivier Assayas, France 2002 583
  50. The Headless Woman Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/Spain/France/Italy 2009 581
  51. La Captive Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium 2000 580
  52. Esther Kahn Arnaud Desplechin, France/U.K. 2000 579
  53. Notre musique Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland 2004 562
  54. Distant Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey 2002 559
  55. Saraband Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 2003 553
  56. The Holy Girl Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/Italy/Netherlands/Spain 2004 550
  57. Y Tu Mamá También Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico 2001 537
  58. Brokeback Mountain Ang Lee, U.S. 2005 537
  59. Children of Men Alfonso Cuarón, Japan/U.K./U.S. 2006 537
  60. Ten Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/U.S. 2002 527
  61. Silent Light Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands 2007 527
  62. La ciénaga Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/Spain 2001 511
  63. L’Enfant Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France 2005 511
  64. Star Spangled to Death Ken Jacobs, U.S. 2004 508
  65. Flight of the Red Balloon Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France 2008 498
  66. RR James Benning, U.S. 2007 491
  67. The House of Mirth Terence Davies, U.K./France/Germany/U.S. 2000 484
  68. 25th Hour Spike Lee, U.S. 2002 469
  69. 35 Shots of Rum Claire Denis, France/Germany 2008 460
  70. Summer Hours Olivier Assayas, France 2009 453
  71. The Host Bong Joon-ho, South Korea 2007 441
  72. Adaptation Spike Jonze, U.S. 2002 438
  73. Lost in Translation Sofia Coppola, U.S./Japan 2003 435
  74. Gerry Gus Van Sant, U.S. 2002 433
  75. Private Fears in Public Places Alain Resnais, France/Italy 2006 430
  76. My Winnipeg Guy Maddin, Canada 2007 430
  77. Punch-Drunk Love P.T. Anderson, U.S. 2002 426
  78. Fat Girl (A ma soeur!) Catherine Breillat, France/Italy 2001 422
  79. The Departed Martin Scorsese, U.S./Hong Kong 2006 422
  80. Far From Heaven Todd Haynes, U.S./France 2002 421
  81. Donnie Darko Richard Kelly, U.S. 2001 413
  82. Moolaadé Ousmane Sembene, Burkina Faso/Morocco/Tunisia/Cameroon/France 2004 410
  83. Woman on the Beach Hong Sang-soo, South Korea 2006 407
  84. Memories of Murder Bong Joon-ho, South Korea 2003 405
  85. West of the Tracks Wang Bing, China 2003 398
  86. Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt, U.S. 2008 395
  87. Trouble Every Day Claire Denis, France/Germany/Japan 2001 390
  88. Femme Fatale Brian De Palma, U.S./France 2002 386
  89. Songs from the Second Floor Roy Andersson, Sweden 2000 386
  90. Letters from Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood, U.S. 2006 379
  91. Gran Torino Clint Eastwood, U.S. 2008 375
  92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Andrew Dominik, U.S. 2007 374
  93. Last Days Gus Van Sant, U.S. 2005 368
  94. The Man Without a Past Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/Germany/France 2002 368
  95. When the Levees Broke Spike Lee, U.S. 2006 360
  96. The Best of Youth Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy 2003 358
  97. Turning Gate Hong Sang-soo, South Korea 2002 356
  98. 24 City Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong/Japan 2008 352
  99. In the City of Sylvia José Luis Guerín, Spain/France 2007 352
  100. The White Ribbon Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany/France/Italy 2009 348
  101. La libertad Lisandro Alonso, Argentina 2001 344
  102. Nobody Knows Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan 2004 343
  103. The Pianist Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/U.K. 2002 343
  104. The Duchess of Langeais Jacques Rivette, France/Italy 2007 343
  105. Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro, Mexico/Spain/U.S. 2006 335
  106. WALL·E Andrew Stanton, U.S. 2008 331
  107. Pulse Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan 2001 329
  108. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 Quentin Tarantino, U.S. 2003 328
  109. A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin, France 2008 326
  110. Time Out Laurent Cantet, France 2001 326
  111. Police, Adjective Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania 2009 325
  112. Secret Sunshine Lee Chang-dong, South Korea 2007 324
  113. Mystic River Clint Eastwood, U.S./Australia 2003 323
  114. Morvern Callar Lynne Ramsay, U.K./Canada 2002 321
  115. Va Savoir Jacques Rivette, France/Italy/Germany 2001 321
  116. Head-On Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey 2004 319
  117. Tarnation Jonathan Caouette, U.S. 2003 318
  118. Hunger Steve McQueen, U.K. 2008 310
  119. Miami Vice Michael Mann, U.S./Germany 2006 309
  120. Los muertos Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/Netherlands 2004 306
  121. Eureka Shinji Aoyama, Japan/France 2000 305
  122. Irreversible Gaspar Noé, France 2002 305
  123. Black Book Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands/Germany/Belgium 2006 304
  124. The Lives of Others Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany 2006 303
  125. The Secret of the Grain Abdellatif Kechiche, France 2007 301
  126. Oldboy Park Chan-wook, South Korea 2003 300
  127. The Piano Teacher Michael Haneke, Germany/Poland/France/Austria 2001 300
  128. The Lady and the Duke Eric Rohmer, France 2001 299
  129. The Incredibles Brad Bird, U.S. 2004 292
  130. Mysterious Object at Noon Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand 2000 292
  131. Death Proof Quentin Tarantino, U.S. 2007 288
  132. Let the Right One In Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008 287
  133. Ghost World Terry Zwigoff, U.S./U.K. 2001 275
  134. Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany 2008 274
  135. Dancer in the Dark Lars von Trier, Denmark/Germany/Netherlands/U.S./U.K. 2000 273
  136. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 Quentin Tarantino, U.S. 2004 273
  137. Spider David Cronenberg, U.K./Canada 2002 272
  138. Friday Night Claire Denis, France 2002 271
  139. Memento Christopher Nolan, U.S. 2000 270
  140. United Red Army Kôji Wakamatsu, Japan 2007 269
  141. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/China/Taiwan/France/Austria 2007 264
  142. Still Walking Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan 2008 262
  143. Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant, France/U.S. 2007 262
  144. Wild Grass Alain Resnais, France/Italy 2009 261
  145. Divine Intervention Elia Suleiman, France/Morocco/Germany/Palestine 2002 261
  146. Gosford Park Robert Altman, U.K./U.S./Italy 2001 260
  147. Collateral Michael Mann, U.S. 2004 259
  148. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button David Fincher, U.S. 2008 254
  149. 13 Lakes James Benning, U.S. 2004 254
  150. Dog Days Ulrich Seidl, Austria 2001 251

Living with Madness (Yours, Not Mine)

January 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Hour of the Wolf

Seeing Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” this evening set me up beautifully for this post.  I thought about tackling such a topic as madness in the movies for a while, but nothing better has instigated the urge as this film.  (And this is a very small exertion).

In 1968, Bergman still on his disintegration kick with “Persona” from two years back, set off a marvelous voyage exploring the madness of an artist desolated on an island with his mouse wife.  The hour of the wolf is that hour between night and dawn where people die and children are born.  Has a wonderful folklore quality to the idea and it works.  The buffer zone between reality and insanity blurs throughout the movie, finally the latter giving in entirely and swallowing our protagonist through a thinly disguised horror set-up of a neighboring castle full of demons.  They, of course, represent the characters in his paintings, and if we choose suicide as his demise, well, that’s up to us, Bergman says.

Probably one of the realistic portrayals of madness comes six years later by John Cassavettes in “A Woman Under the

A Woman Under the Influence

Influence.”  Played by his wife, Gene Rowlands, this film’s protagonist is a gosh darn loving mother of three who happens to be schizophrenic and married to Peter Falk (reason enough to mad).  Not only is this take on the “living with madness” story pleasing for its sheer heart bleeding, but, my God, it’s clear as day: living with insane wife and mother certainly is alright.  She’s mom!  And by the end of the film this makes sense, does it not?  It was Norman Bates who succinctly put it: “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

Antichrist

Our most recent entry (from 2009) in the madness annals is “Antichrist” by the self-proclaimed greatest living director, Lars Von Trier.  You really have to disparagingly chuckle over the brutality he gives his lead actresses.  He puts them through rape, beatings, blindness, and now self-mutilation.  Antichrist so easily resembles Hour of the Wolf it really took some of the steam of out it for me that I originally carried me for it.  Still, all-in-all, a deeply moving and flawed film, but one for the ages–certainly this last decade for sure.  Here a child’s death that was caused in part by negligence on the love making between mother and father, leads to the mother’s demise, and the physical and mental torture she puts herself and her husband through when they escape to the woods for solace and redemption.  Of course it doesn’t work.  And of course we’re staring Adam and Eve in the face, and the downfall of humanity right before our very eyes.  (And yes, this is womankind’s own doing, says Trier).

What all three films have in common as well as other studies in madness (“Repulsion,”The Hours,” “American Psycho” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Three Faces of Eve,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” to name just a morsel in this overwhelming sub-genre) is not the subject of madness but rather their (platonic or romantic) partner.  How on earth do you live or work with this person?  And all partners usually take stabs at curing, and fail miserably–that’s fun of it, you see, in the movies.  Is it love that binds?  Or is it simply they find themselves so very much at one with them, share their madness, and somehow adopt it for themselves giving them this serene effect of utilitarianism (Peter Falk’s character in Woman is the poster child for this, as is George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” himself the Leonard Woolf character of sorts if you’d like to get ‘meta’ at this righteous hour).  And if a director and screenwriter are credulous and keen enough to get it, we actually learn more about these fascinating characters and their illness from their loved ones’ multifarious reactions, as madness takes the same form every time around (in cinema) mark my word.

“Creation”

January 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Creation

If you’re a skeptic, non-believer, or mere fence-sitter, I’m here today with great shock and awe to tell you: yes, there is indeed a God.  For no man could be capable of making such drivel as that of “Creation.”  Certainly an act of divine intervention occurred to give us this wretched miracle of a film.

Behold, Darwin (Paul Bettany).  Here’s a man of profound intellect, curiosity; both an absolute realist and dreamer who was well-respected amongst his peers and his foes.   Not only does he have On the Origin of Species to place on the mantle, he also wrote The Descent of Man, The Expressions of Emotion in Man and Animals, as well as other texts, encyclopedias, lectures, etc.  He also had great skill as a taxidermist, amongst other things.  This is learned man.  Creating a world view that shakes its fist at monotheism or other fantasia, and has remained clenched ever since 1858 is certainly no small feat.  But in this stinker called “Creation” we simply would not have known.

No.  What we’re given via a (loosely fictional) biography by Darwin’s ancestor Randal Keyne’s uncomfortably entitled Annie’s Box, is this silly account of a hysterical scientist who for the majority of the film is stuck in deep or rather flirtatious conversation with his deceased daughter, Annie.  By the final third of the film we simply could care less in seeing her again, and wish for someone–whether it’s Lucifer or Saint Peter–to take her off the screen and back to her appropriate abode.   This Darwin can’t write do to the pressures of the matrimonial home front.  (Forget his lingering convictions or simply writer’s block).   His loving wife so frigidly (and, may I say, predictably) played by Jennifer Connelly, has a smattering of lines and glances, but really it’s impossible to think so brilliant a man (and wit) would take issue with his wife’s religious devoutness to the point of forfeiting his philosophies.

“Creation” drones on and on and on, and finally the Origins manuscript is finished in what appeared to be a couple weeks, and read in one flicker of an evening by Mrs. Darwin.  Her approval baptizes the manuscript before making its voyage to London to change the world, and that’s that.

This is not a film that should be taken lightly.  It being the 150th anniversary last year of Origins 1st edition, this is not a bubble gum romance.  I take the material seriously.  And so does the theater full of wonderful secular humanists who invited me (as well as husband and wife, Bettany and Connelly, who, by taking on such a plainly boring script, had obviously had some spiritual interest in doing the movie for evolution’s sake) .  I am not one claiming groupie status of Darwinism.  But being such a water shed philosophy I expect a great deal more consideration and frankly gall in making this picture which was given the task of “summing it up.”  It did none of this.  This was made for TV at best and it should stay there.  Biopics are hard to pull off, yes.  And truth be told, not all are 100% accurate, shockingly enough.  However a tender stab at erudition would’ve been nice.

Down the pipeline no doubt we’ll be garnered with the wild eye of Tom Cruise and his embalmed wife, Katie Holmes as they take on Scientology in the L. Ron Hubbard serenade “The Song of Dianetics” and thanks to “Creation” we’re ready for it.

R.I.P Eric Rohmer

January 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Eric Rohmer

The AP reported that famed French filmmaker, Eric Rohmer, passed away today.  He was 89.  Rohmer is known especially for his Six Moral Tales (“Claire’s Knee”, “Chloe in the Afternoon”), and was crusading member of the French New Wave, focusing heavily on the intricacies of relationships.

Jazz and the movies: a marriage made in heaven (or too tired for an affair)

January 10, 2010 Leave a comment

This post’s title riffs on a wonderful satire by the late great Irma Bombeck, and it’s so conveniently apt for the marriage of jazz and the movies.

Both are such fascinating art forms who share very convenient birthdays.  There’s never an exact day when jazz dropped or when cinema began.  But traces of each can be found in the late 19th century, and before in different forms.  As the 20th century began to develop so did these two mediums.  And both have evolved into respected arts with their own avant gardes (see the line-up for this year’s Winter Jazzfest for a smattering).

2010's Winter Jazzfest, New York City

However, jazz which reached its crescendo (in terms of popularity) in the mid-50′s to mid-60′s (it’s offshoot, rock-and-roll, took it from there, again, in popularity), has found its place in contemporary culture in the back catalog.  Sure there are crossovers like Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, and (say it isn’t so) Michael Buble.  But these aren’t jazz singers in the same sense as Annie Ross, Johnny Hartman, or Betty Carter.  (This is not to say that there aren’t groundbreaking jazz vocalists today, they’re just shamefully removed from the mainstream spotlight).  And for the the majority of the world, jazz has become this convenient aperitif whenever the mood strikes, or connotations of intellectual behavior need to be made to a credulous date or parent.

This is not so with the movies.   Jazz is as much as crowd art form as the movies, perhaps even more so.  We can clap, jeer, dance, shout during performances.  Whereas, in the cinema we’re accustomed to silence for the most part unless the laughter track is set-up for us.  However, with box office revenues surpassing the $10 billion dollar amount in 2009 alone, there’s no comparison in who the real winner is in terms of economics and longevity.

John Cassavettes' Shadows

And yet one of the most interesting aspects of these two mediums is that their avant gardes began breaking into the mainstream at the same, and included one another.  Take John Cassavettes.  Hailed by many as the Godfather of American Independent Cinema (Maya Deren, the more obscure Goddess), his first feature from 1959, “Shadows” not only had a jazz soundtrack, but was about the love life of jazz musicians, their friends, and siblings.  (Two years prior, the darkly satiric “Sweet Smell of Success” hit screens and showcased a brilliant score of jazz, and live performances complementing the film’s pacing and chiaroscuro).  These are just two examples of the cross over.  Some are more blatant like Clint Eastwood’s biopic, “Bird,” or even one of the earliest talkies (if not the first, as it’s so heralded), “The Jazz Singer.”

Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows

Jazz does make it’s auditory appearance in the movies and when it does, most critics’ ears perk up to make note, as if it were a fluke, a rare, special occurrence (see Sideways or Elevator to the Gallows, or Last Tango in Paris for examples). I think it also adds much more to films when it’s included, and gives any film a degree more intimacy and energy.  You also remember the film better.  (This can be said of any film with a memorable soundtrack, of course, but on a whole those with jazz soundtracks verses those with standard catalog fare will claim immortality easier).

Chet Baker

Why on earth jazz is not used more often except for the art house picture is beyond me (it can’t be budgetary reasons, of course–think how much cheaper it would be to use an independent quartet verses the likes of James Horner or Hans Zimmer).  Not only would this nicely inculcate jazz into our film language and history; a history so paralleled with the movies’ in American culture.  But it also would help push jazz back into the popular spotlight it once shared with the movies (good luck try finding any moviegoer in the mid-fifties who didn’t also listen to Chet Baker or Sarah Vaughan).  We can thank the likes of Mick Ronson and company for pushing Motown back on to the music charts the past couple years.  Now how about a marriage counselor for movies and jazz?

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