Saturday, July 16, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Moulin Rouge!, A Corner in Wheat, 31/75 Aysl

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

A pop culture kaleidosope-cum-travesty, Moulin Rouge! is as unbearable as it is enthralling, always at once, all throughout the film. The exclamation point in the title is actually the most subtle element of the whole shebang. It's like a Girl Talk musical, running through fragments of a vast range of music in blitzkrieg assaults of color and choreography. Though I don't know where on Earth the people who get emotionally invested in its paper-thin romance narrative are coming from, the film's aesthetic smorgasbord makes for an unforgettable, transfixing experience. Tim Brayton said it best, even if I can't match his level of enthusiasm: "Five minutes of the film can be exhausting; two hours is the most invigorating, blissful experience that cinema can offer."

The performances are fantastic: Ewan McGregor has rarely been more attractive, Nicole Kidman definitely hasn't, and Jim Broadbent has never been more boisterously endearing. Jill Bilcock's editing feeds every shot through a meat grinder, but Donald McAlpine's lurid throwback to Technicolor and Catherine Martin's vibrant art and costume design are still striking. Luhrmann's bombastic setpieces take choreography and romantic melodrama to gaudy extremes, and it's funny how this, his most bewildering picture, is also his most coherent and successful. I have no grade for this film; it's an A+ and an F at the same time and averaging out to a C doesn't remotely give the right impression of my feelings for it.

A Corner in Wheat (D.W. Griffith. 1909)

With its rapid editing between financially shaken-down commonfolk and monopolizing wheat tycoons, D.W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat presages Soviet montage not merely in aesthetic but political thrust. His intercutting is darkly humorous: boisterous, lavish parties of the rich mix with static tableaux of miserable, exorbitant breadlines that feel like Griffith somehow went through time and brought back photographs of the Depression to splice into his moving picture. Even when they move, the poor trudge like zombies, and when the bread runs out all too quickly, the sense of despair only compounds. Griffith's grim comeuppance for the tycoon who starves the people to add $4 million a day to his coffers is a literal burial in riches, a macabre joke I didn't know Griffith had in him, but then I've only seen Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The depiction of the middle class being driven into poverty to compound the wealth of the rich is, of course, more relevant than ever 112 years later.

31/75 Aysl (Kurt Kren, 1975)

Shooting over 21 non-consecutive days with the same strips of film and an alternating masking board with altering alignments of holes, Kren's 31/75 Asyl turns a static shot into an ever-changing tableaux of colliding light exposures and alternating time periods. The shifting areas of black space and splotches of countryside comprising differing days and lighting/weather conditions make a pointillist landscape, like satellite TV in a storm. When Kren drops the black space altogether for a moment, he's left with a pan-seasonal collage where winter snow rubs against spring bloom, the multiple timeframes glimpsed in the alternating patches of light and exposure now fully visible. I confess I don't know what it "means," but Kren's structuralist experiment is fascinating, beautiful and suggestive, calling attention to the way time affects all images even as they are constructed.

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