"Cul-de-Sac," "Blow Out," More

"An insane true story about an unemployed Army veteran and crystal-meth addict named Shawn Nelson who stole a tank from a San Diego military base in 1995 and went on a rampage, [Cul-de-Sac: A Suburban War Story] sounds — in abstract, at least — like an appealing piece of wish-fulfillment fantasy," writes Steve Dollar in the Wall Street Journal. "But it also was a profound tragedy that resonated long after the destructive stunt faded from the memory of a local evening-news audience. The incident, which ended with Nelson's death, is memorialized and given rich context by Garrett Scott's 2002 documentary, which frames the mayhem within the rise and fall of Clairmont, CA, Mr Nelson's hometown and a city whose fortunes were tied to its manufacturing of bombs for the American war effort. The screening also recalls the achievements of Mr Scott, who died in 2006 at age 37."

"Cul-de-Sac is heavily influenced by a time, a place, and a literature," argues Christian Parenti. "The time was the 1990s, the place California, and the literature was the critical urbanism that revolved around the work of [Mike] Davis, particularly his book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. For Garrett, and many others of us, City of Quartz had an electrifying impact. Published just before the LA riots of 1991, the book read like prophesy. In Davis's work the sunny palm-lined streets of Southern California were not pretty and mindless, but sinister and tragic sites of class struggle, racial oppression, and crypto-authoritarian state repression." It was also in the 1990s that "politics (which were increasingly repressive) and video technology (which was increasingly cheap and abundant) came together and gave rise to what you might call a 'reality' or evidentiary aesthetic which is typified in this type of shaky, grainy, 'raw' footage…. The conceit of reality video of course is that it shows the truth. But Cul-de-Sac digs deeper into the actual lives of the people who knew Shawn Nelson as well as into the larger historical context. In that way, Cul-de-Sac shows how reality video and news spectacle are ideology that obscures and confuses rather than reveals or explains. But I digress. Cul-de-Sac is much more than a comment on the media. Its more substantial elements are a soulful reading of the Southern California landscape and the underlying processes of militarism and economic boom and bust which produced it."

Also in the Brooklyn Rail, Ian Olds, who edited Cul-de-Sac and who co-directed the Indie Spirit-nominated Iraq doc Operation: Dreamland with Scott, recalls meeting him in 1999: "He didn't talk like a filmmaker, hadn't been to film school, and had no track record of previous films. When he spoke about his project he didn't speak about characters or simplistic dramatic arcs; he spoke about people, ideas, history, and a post-industrial moment made visible through the shock of a slow speed tank chase in suburban California."

Screens tonight only at the IFC Center in New York.

 

DVDS


"Two years ago Kino International offered Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913, a three-disc set adapted from a superb seven-disc collection, Gaumont: Le Cinéma Premier, issued by the French studio that is probably the oldest continuing filmmaking concern in the world," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "Gaumont struck again with a second volume, and now Kino has imported and adapted that anthology under the title Gaumont Treasures, Vol 2, 1908-1916. For anyone interested in how the movies came to be what they are, it's essential viewing."

 



"Brian De Palma brought hip, freewheeling funkiness to the American film renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s," writes Michael Sragow for Criterion. "His temperament and style were so complex and unique that he needed journalistic support to help him break out of a college-town niche to wider audiences. He found it in the most influential critical voice of the day, Pauline Kael, who was, in her unique way, articulating a view of movies as a glorious hybrid art. As critic and creator, Kael and De Palma became as strongly linked as Edmund Wilson and F Scott Fitzgerald, or Malcolm Cowley and William Faulkner. She championed his work, and he fulfilled her dreams…. or Kael, Blow Out [1981] was both a grand summing-up — the film that showed De Palma's talents in full bloom — and a transcendent achievement, going beyond wackiness or pop or camp to a tough-minded, clear-eyed humanism. She called it 'his biggest leap yet,' proclaiming that it had risen to 'the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision.'" And Criterion's posts that review from Kael, which appeared in the New Yorker in July 1981.

"I know many have tremendous affection for De Palma, fellow critics especially ('Paulettes' most especially)," writes Josef Braun. "Yet there's something in his approach that consistently pushes me out. His work deserves scrutiny on a film-by-film basis, but I'll offer one generalization. Whenever De Palma unfurls his more expensive, grandiose set pieces, whether in Blow Out or The Untouchables (1987) or The Black Dahlia (2006), when everything slows to a crawl and every frame is so conspicuously composed, I inevitably feel as though I've been asked to sit through an over-rehearsed audition. There's a strange thinness to these sequences (not unlike the thinness that plagues certain De Palma characters). De Palma's frequently taken to task for cynicism or irony, but the way he crafts such sequences strikes me as nakedly earnest. He suddenly wants genuine opera, and it feels awkward. Yet in the case of Blow Out the big set pieces hardly spoil things overall, and the quieter bits (that inciting incident especially) are eloquent and highly memorable. So if you happen to share some of my frustrations with De Palma, do see this one. It's looking an awful lot like his masterpiece."

"The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray is predictably superlative, with an impeccable transfer (a massive improvement over MGM's old no-frills DVD) and a wealth of special features," notes Travis Crawford at Filmmaker. "On the subject of Market Street in Philadelphia, it should be pointed out that no film ever made has ever used the city so effectively as Blow Out (I've lived in that region almost my entire life, and it's the only movie I've seen where the town actually resembles the city with which I've always been so familiar). De Palma grew up in Philly, and he comments to [Noah] Baumbach in the interview that it might be one of only two films he's directed where he knew each location like the back of his hand, and that assisted greatly in choosing his shooting locations (interestingly, the other example was the Paris of Femme Fatale since De Palma resided in that city for quite some time before shooting that project)."

On a related note, Noel Murray conducts a career-spanning interview with Nancy Allen at the AV Club.

"Apart from proving to me that it can pay to stick with movies that annoy you," writes Bill Ryan, looking ahead to a release coming from Criterion on May 10, "Something Wild, and all 1980s [Jonathan] Demme films really, stands as a bit of a time capsule for a particular kind of American film. The sunniness of the whole thing, in contrast to some of what's taking place on the ground, is part of it, but so is seeing the name Tak Fujimoto in the credits (a name I first noticed on Demme's The Silence of the Lambs), and the appearance of people like Charles Napier and, even more to the point, Kenneth Utt." He explains. Meantime, a little viewing: Criterion presents three reasons for revisiting Something Wild.

In anticipation of Criterion's release of a newly restored version of Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), the New Yorker's Richard Brody will be revisiting the film all week long.

DVD roundups. Ed Gonzalez (House Next Door), Mark Kermode (Observer) and Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE).

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