Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In the Tomb of That Darkened Room, We Both Sat Down to Play

Today Kino Lorber is releasing two films to DVD, one of which is of major importance to myself and the other one of the major independent releases of the year. If you don't mind, I would like to offer an opinion on each.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (d. Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein) - This is the one that is of great importance to myself -- I will try not to bore you explaining why that is. "I really like magic and I really like Ricky Jay" will probably suffice, though I should note that at this point in my life I still have not had the pleasure of seeing Jay live. I've been stuck with as many TV appearances and YouTube clips as I can scrounge up, a sporadic reading of his books, such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women and Jay's Journal of Anomalies, and his work as an actor, which I've enjoyed but which isn't really the same thing, in films such as Boogie Nights, House of Games, and the like. In those films, Jay is working as an actor, but not in his natural role as a performer. To see a performance from him that better represents why Ricky Jay is a suitable subject for a documentary, and one that is also, one might argue, a more genuine piece of acting than anything he's done for Paul Thomas Anderson or David Mamet (his most frequent filmmaking collaborators), check out the clip below:

That's taken from an old BBC special about Jay called Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pransters, Jokers, and Ricky Jay, an irritatingly cumbersome title that is nevertheless excused due to the inclusion under its umbrella of the above magnificence. That special also allowed Ricky Jay to cross paths with a reporter for The Guardian named Suzie McKenzie. McKenzie appears in this new documentary Deceptive Practice and tells a key story about trying to smooth Jay's feathers -- he can be prickly, as is the case with most geniuses -- after a heated disagreement with the BBC director over a trick they wanted him to perform. It's a trick devised by Max Malini, and which Jay himself describes in the film. It involves spontaneity and a block of ice, is all I'll say about it, and Jay did it for McKenzie. The way McKenzie recounts this incident in her life, when Ricky Jay performed this mind-boggling trick just for her many, many years ago, makes it abundantly clear that this was something of a life-altering experience for her, something she still hasn't quite gotten over, or, to put a more positive spin on it as it's obvious she's grateful it happened, hasn't yet chosen to let go of. It was wonderful precisely because she can't understand it.

Deceptive Practice is a wonderful film, and the McKenzie story is one of its strongest bits. While directors Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein have made a film about Ricky Jay, and you do learn a good amount about his life and career, he is crucially left mysterious, not least because his art depends on an audiences inability to understand it. I think it's a safe generalization to say that most true fans of magic, unless they're interested in developing their own skills in the field, don't actually want to know how the best tricks are done -- they'll wonder about it, and puzzle about it, but I know that I don't want to be told. And to ask? In the film, David Mamet, an old friend of Jay's who has directed him not only on film but has directed several of his stage shows, talks about asking Jay how a particular trick was done. Jay said, I'll tell you, if you agree to go home and practice and practice and practice until you can do the trick as well as anybody has ever done it, then I'll tell you another one. Mamet says that at that moment he realized that to ask the question as he'd done was "a desecration." The mystery of Jay, and others like him (such as his assistant, Michael Weber, who is shown late in the film performing some pretty jaw-dropping tricks himself) comes through in the film when we learn about his devotion, and state of mind while simply handling a deck of cards. He says nothing makes him happier than simply shuffling cards, which he can do for hours when he needs to think about something, and it's easy to believe him, and to imagine him sitting in a chair, shuffling cards, possibly forever. 

I read one review of Deceptive Practice that complained that it should have been more directly about Jay. It's a curious think to moan about, not only because I walked away from the film knowing a lot more about the man than I did before, but because the focus of it is far more rich. It's there in the subtitle: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. So we learn about Max Malini and Dai Vernon, Al Flosso, Charlie Miller, and a host of other magicians of the sort that simply no longer exist, and we are poorer for it. Without Ricky Jay, and without Deceptive Practice, they might be gone, as in gone gone. The film is a biography and a history, and I'm biased but I love it.
Computer Chess (d. Andrew Bujalski) - Now this one, on the other hand... Okay, look. Mumblecore's this thing we all have to put up with now. I'd say "for the time being," with my characteristically optimistic lilt, but when something like Computer Chess is embraced not just on comedic grounds -- it is essentially a comedy, and sometimes a funny one -- but on aesthetic ones, I have to wonder if the boot of intentionally (I'm making a charitable assumption here) cheap and clumsy affectation will ever be removed from our necks. I'll admit that since I'm not obligated to see everything, I am therefore not obligated to see things that don't interest me, which includes (I'm tempted to say "almost exclusively") the films that constitute the mumblecore base, such as most of Joe Swanberg's stuff (I've seen Uncle Kent and some of his short horror films), the early Duplass brothers movies, Aaron Katz movies that aren't Cold Weather (I saw that one, and I liked it), and so on. So who am I to say, etc. But almost every time I get pulled towards a movie that is either a part of mumblecore or -- are we already at this point? -- "post-mumblecore," a movie like, say, The Color Wheel or The Comedy, or now Computer Chess, I'm repelled by the smugness or a defiant lack of craft. This doesn't apply across the board, necessarily, but the overriding philosophy seems to be "This looks like shit, let's roll camera."

And few look more like shit than Computer Chess, but of course it's not simply enough to say "This looks like shit." It looks like shit because why? It's not a matter of giving Bujalski the benefit of the doubt that he intended the film to look like the interior scenes of the earliest episodes of Doctor Who. He shot it, and not, I don't think, by accident, with a Sony AVC 3260, which I'm told first came out in 1968 (so just a little bit after Doctor Who -- point taken, Andrew Bujalski). The film is set in 1980, and the action revolves around a group of computer programmers and software engineers who have gathered together for a tournament pitting their various chess-playing computers against each other, and ultimately against a human chess master in attendance. An early panel discussion scene would seem to justify the film's aesthetic, as this scene, which introduces the main characters -- such as Wiley Wiggins as Martin Beuscher and Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton, whose malfunctioning chess computer is central to the whole movie -- looks pretty much exactly like you'd imagine such a panel discussion held in a hotel conference room in 1980 would look, using the extant technology to film it and show to classes later and what have you. But I personally see no benefit in applying that same aesthetic, or conscious lack of aesthetic, to the rest of the film. Bujalski's imagination is such that it only seems like a good idea to him to change things up in a late scene when a couple of characters are high. 

So it's visually off-putting but this isn't even my biggest gripe. The two films Computer Chess most reminds me of are Randy Moore's recent disastorously underthought Escape From Tomorrow, a film whose creative thrust seems to be to go crazy because when anything can happen how great is that?, and an odd 1996 film by director D. W. Harper and writer/actor Stephen Grant called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I last saw that movie a long time ago, and my memory is sketchy, but it's a film set in Austin, TX (and Wiley Wiggins is an Austin, TX-based actor; it's all coming together before my eyes), though shot in North Carolina, that attempts to combine Walt Whitman, Charles Whitman's murder spree, theater groups, college life, something about astronauts I think, and things of this nature. The "Walt Whitman/Charles Whitman!!!" concept is about what you'd expect from a film made by college kids, but I remember liking the nutty ambition of The Delicate Art of the Rifle at the time. Computer Chess, which eventually ropes in references, as opposed to ideas, to artificial intelligence, the singularity, and the insidious shadow of the military over everything (I initially thought this last bit was a joke, a bit of satire similar to later stuff in the film about New Age free-love-type hippies, but now I think, no, this is in fact Computer Chess's Big Idea), pretends to have an ambition similar to The Delicate Art of the Rifle, but can never commit to anything. When things get weird, and they eventually get very weird, the motivation is simply to be weird just for the shit of it. "Art for art's sake," you might say, and which I'm all for, but I'd rather there be something like Nabokov's "aesthetic bliss" involved, as opposed to an underimagined scramble to justify an expansion of the ridiculous self-imposed visual restrictions by the drug use of a couple of tedious minor characters. So back to that part again, which I clearly didn't like. But what more is there to hold on to? A shockingly large number of the jokes are based on how older things look old to us now. The jokes about hippies -- again, something I'm all for -- are all, essentially, "Can you believe these hippies?" And computer nerds? Oftentimes, they have trouble with ladies. The funniest character in the film is the chess master, played by non-actor Gerald Perry. Perry is very good, and there's some attempt in the writing of his character to give his language anedge. Not "edge" as in, like, cuss words, but "edge" as in a quirk or bent to the words that make them funny. Nobody else really has that to work with (though Chris Doubek, as one of the hippies, does make the most of his line "Oh wow! Whoa!", and I'm actually being serious).

So anyway. I didn't like it. There's an ambition to this sort of thing that strikes me as curiously ambitionless.


Jesse Furgurson said...

I met Bujalski after a screening of Computer Chess a little while back, and the impression I got from the conversation and the preceding Q&A was he chose the camera based firstly on a sincere appreciation for the ghostly quality of some of the images it produces, and secondly on its unpredictability. Most of the points where the image skips, distorts, and otherwise spazzes out happened spontaneously. And for him--and also for me and I imagine most of the other people on the Computer Chess bandwagon--this linked up nicely with the structure and themes of the movie. Structurally, a situation, setting, and timeframe is established--tournament, hotel, one weekend--but within those neat parameters, all sorts of left-field oddness begins to manifest itself, just as the computers start to behave irrationally, just as the aesthetic of the movie (and it is very much a real aesthetic, thoughtfully chosen) becomes less and less stable as things progress. It all contributes to this escalating--comic, but also paranoid--sense that technology is developing its own will, separate from its creators' intentions. There are other parallels in there, too (clumsy technology--clumsy social interaction). Some the humor is derived from this binary opposition of people who can't express their emotions directly and people who are so in touch with their emotions as to seem ridiculous. That's really what the New Age stuff is about, not "stupid hippies, hardeehar." There's a degree of affection and admiration for them mixed in with the acknowledgement that yes, they do look absurd.

Which nuances might be hard to appreciate if you think the movie simply looks like ass, but you gotta admit it's playing a more sophisticated game than l'oeuvre de Swanberg. (At least, much of l'oeuvre de Swanberg. He has improved lately, though not really in a way anybody with a strong m-core aversion could appreciate.)

toko sepatu grosir said...

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William Fuller said...

just read this and damn bill I love Ricky Jay and this post (well, the first half at least; I read the second half and it was good, too, but I share your views on MC with the exception being that I don't think I've ever actually exposed myself to any); that RJ clip was enthralling and hilarious! you made my day! you do great work and I guess I represent the teeming masses who read you but rarely if ever comment. this time I couldn't resist. thank you!