Mateo [2014)

Here is a perfect film.

After awhile, you wonder whether such will ever appear again.

To call Mattew (Mateo) Stoneman a white “mariachi” singer is somewhat misleading.

But that’s the gist of it.

The premise.

Of this documentary.

No, this isn’t the Columbian drama Mateo from about the same year.

This is Mateo, the priceless documentary directed by Aaron Naar.

Why perfect?

Why priceless?

Because it is true.

I can attest.

To the life of the musician.

Somewhere…I must have been dreaming…while watching.

But the life of a musician is really not even worth two dollars.

I know.

I know the life of a rubbish-filled room.

Sleeping on some pillows.

Or a mattress on the floor.

Bedbug man comes to spray.

Doesn’t know where to start.

I know the life of playing crap gigs.

All for the big payoff.

To leave a legacy.

I know.

Mr. Stoneman (Mateo) references Scorsese.

That’s rich.  And right.

Talking to the filmmaker.

Do we ever see him?

The man with the movie camera?

I don’t know.

But he more-or-less makes himself invisible in this pungent story.

We get Los Angeles.

Where I should be.

But I chose another path.

And yet, Mateo chose the right one.

For him.

Follow the music.

Not the money.

Follow your heart.

Play and write and sing until your heart gives out.

Until the apple juice and Subway sandwiches finally kill you.

Bukowski described it as dog food.

The life of a writer.

Or musician.

Alpo.

Post office.

But what Mateo does is scrimp and save.

Because he’s addicted to recording.

Or rather, he’s making his masterpiece.

A $350,000 album.

Self-funded.

No record label.

Fuck ’em.

This guy, Mateo, has cojones.

A white man in a brown man’s genre.

But he’s all love.

Love for the music.

And the kicker is Cuba.

Yes, dear friends…

Much of our action happens in Havana.

Over and over and over again…Mateo travels to Cuba.

To record.

It’s real.

Quantegy GP9 tape.

2″

I may be useless to most of the world, but I get this.

Reel after reel after reel.

And so it is mambo.

But so soft and subtle.

Like the bossa nova of 60s Brazil.

But Mateo succeeds in his aspiration.

And so his voice is feathery-light…like Billie Holiday on Lady in Satin.

Because Mateo Stoneman had to pay his dues.

Prison.

A thief.

Almost like François Villon.

Stealing to make music.

To afford to record.

I’ve been there.

Pawned all my best shit.

To make a record.

Nobody heard.

Or cared about.

But finally for me it came down to family.

And we get some of that too.

Matthew (Mateo) Stoneman.

From New Hampshire.

We wonder about Ernest Stoneman.

Virginia.

And we get Ernest Hemingway.

20 years in Cuba.

“Who was he?,” asks the novia.

Dead guy.

Shot himself.

Up in Ketchum.

Next to where Ezra Pound, his champion, was from.

Hailey.

These are the savant details which Stoneman, Mateo can rattle off concerning music.

And I can do the same.

But I had to diversify.

So from cornering the market in shit, I spread my tentacles into manure.

A bit too pithy a metaphor.

But just so you know.

The life of a musician.

One minute up.

Touring Japan.  Or Sweden.

Signing autographs.

Wads of money in your pocket.

Next minute down.

Catching hell from the two-bit valets.

Having to pull out the LA Times.

Look.

This is me, motherfucker.

…it ain’t easy.

Sticking to your guns.

Your dreams.

Through extreme poverty.

Duress.

But Mateo shows you what it takes.

Dream big.

You might be autistic.

You might have crippling anxiety.

You might have existential episodes…depression…woozy disorientation.

“What the fuck am I doing?!?”

So do the best of them/us.

And so if I am counted “in that number”…of saints…like Mateo…then I am happy that I have lived my life bravely and to the last drop of blood and courage.

Ars gratia artis.

But for real!

-PD

Les Enfants terribles [1950)

The past is hidden.

My friend.

You must find the magical words.

Which fit like teeth in combs.

A lock clicks with greasy precision.

A marvel of craftsmanship.

Two siblings in love.

A prolonged insult.

From the start it is as a homoerotic phantasm.

But that is the illusion of bent gender.

And genre.

What genre?

No, once again sui generis.

We would expect nothing less from Jean Cocteau.

The history of cinema.

Begins with luminaries.

Trying their hands.

Not yet taboo.

The world has not yet grown up.

Cynically, it could be said Cocteau had enjoyed the green hour a few too many evenings by 1950.

Crepuscule with absinthe.

But the truth is more beautiful.

Play the game…everybody play the game.

Just a Queen lyric haunting the childhood dreams of Paul and Lise.

It sounds like Liz, but looks better in the French.

Americans, take note!

You must love French cinema.

It is not for everyone.

John Milton.

Not for everyone.

Even Shaky William is acquired like marmite.

Or green olives.

Foie gras.

This train is the height of luxury.

Bound for glory.

Such concision of expression from Cocteau.

And such economy of means from director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Don’t worry about mispronouncing.

Here’s a French bloke who named himself after an American author (Herman).

Really!

It was the postwar influence on France.

The death of French cinema.

Slowly, as in a car crash.

Now they worship Tarantino.

Quel dommage!

Mais…what’s the damage?

It is Villon come full-circle.

The ladies of Paris.

And on through Baudelaire’s lady:  Paris.

Man becomes woman.

Voila!

It is a tricky story.

As when Lise is drenched in milk.

Not even for Technicolor Singin’ in the Rain.

Just for the texture.

Not color.

Renée Cosima.

Real name:  Boudin.

Like a sausage cased in a condom.

And Cosima Wagner.

Real name:  Liszt.

And Franz Liszt.

Real name:  Liszt Ferencz.

And Ferenc Fricsay.

Well, you get the point…

Renée with her beautiful, wide jaw.

And Nicole Stéphane trying to perfect her Greek profile.

A clothespin on the bridge of her nose.

[Which I call ghetto acupuncture.  Works great!]

And Édouard Dermit is not bad.

But the real star is Stéphane.

She.

Haggard from the world-weary beginning.

Funny and annoying.

Continuous repartee with Dermit.

All slang and no manners.

She is unlovably lovable until she does the expected.

She was no hero.

All along.

An antiheroine.

And it is anticlimax which we should feel.

When, like a cinder-smeared Gilda, she spits at the world one last time.

You can say they didn’t know.

Any better.

But their dream was more real than our reality.

 

-PD

Way Down East [1920)

David Wark Griffith.  Perhaps it’s fitting that I return to my mission by way of this controversial figure.  To ease your fears, my mission is cinema.  Things disappear.  D.W. Griffith.  Histories become written on the wind.  Sirk.  Search.  And the stream of consciousness carries us to the precipice.  Will we go over with the orphans of the storm?

Ice floe.  Sloe gin.  Bathtub gin.  Spinning jenny.

It was a different time.  Lillian Gish.  Smashing.  Pupkin.  Will we “go over” like the orphans?  Well, the orphans would have to wait a year.  But what we really have here is the Urquelle (the Q source) for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  It is a long, sad movie which ends with some of the most immortal celluloid ever printed.  It was like watching La Roue by Abel Gance.  Mercifully, 273 minutes would have to wait till 1923.  Griffith gives us a mere 145.

It was Billy Bitzer behind the camera for this story “arbitrarily” set in New England.  It is a bit like Ghost World in that it is universal (to a certain extent).  Are we in Chicago or Los Angeles?  It doesn’t really matter.  Anyplace.  But Bitzer, the cinematographer, was actually from this fictional setting.  Griffith was the hick.  From LaGrange (cue ZZ Top), Kentucky.

Lowell Sherman plays the villain.  Lillian Gish is just simply stunning throughout.

The story is transcendentally sad.  Richard Barthelmess is even a sad sack…until he becomes the unequivocal hero.  Burr McIntosh plays the backwards Squire who is required to “see the light” multiple times over the course of this film.  In his character we get glimpses of that stain upon cinema:  The Birth of a Nation.  But we also get the redemption of Intolerance.  Those two films alone (not to mention this masterpiece) display the crux of the problem:  Griffith cannot be written off as a bigot.  Far from it.

If you know D.W.’s work only from that famous racist relic, then you only have a small portion of the plot.  And yet, how do we explain that sad document?  Sure, it was a product of its time, but is that the end of the story?  The Birth of a Nation has endured as Griffith’s most famous film perhaps precisely because it is so repulsive to modern sensibilities.  But once one sees Intolerance, it is as if the man had seen the light.  Way Down East is perhaps the first feminist film.  Yes, Griffith turned it around within his heart to that extent!

Seemingly.  White River Junction, Vermont.  You can go read the backstory.  It is like François Villon‘s ink freezing in the inkwell.  The shooting of this film is the stuff of legend.  I can’t begin to wrap my head around the sets Griffith used in 1916 for Intolerance.  It is nearly inconceivable to me how Griffith made the abomination that is The Birth of a Nation with a clear conscience.  But by the time of Way Down East he had become a masterful humanist director.  As improbable as it sounds, it is true to my eyes.  This is not a biography of Griffith.  I claim no expertise regarding his oeuvre.  I merely urge increased engagement with his body of work.  There is something there.

-PD

Winter of Frozen Dreams [2009)

What a beautiful title…like Bashō, Li Po, or even François Villon.  In this age of over-medication, we hear of new disorders every day (accompanied by ridiculous commercials we have to endure with relatives at Christmastime).  Of special note in these cold days is seasonal affective disorder.  It’s legend as something independent of general depression lives on as most people do not have the DSM-IV or DSM-5 by their bedside.

And so, “with seasonal pattern” there are many of us who struggle especially in the wintery days of the year…especially if we feel our dreams have been suspended.  Ah, suspended animation…it can be beautiful…like insects caught in amber (that Greek touchstone which lends our word “electricity” an etymology).  Static electricity and ēlektron (the classical name for amber)…  Such irony that flies and gnats would meet their demise drowned in the same substance…and countless days later we wonder at the beauty of their death.  It is one of the few times death can be generally agreed on as beautiful.  In the spider frozen in amber, we marvel at the beauty of the creature.  Their life is preserved.  While they have ceased to exist as a living creature, their form lives on through the sepia light which attests to them having existed.  Grammar becomes difficult in such a state of was/is/will be.

But alas, as they say, this film is not really a poetic tour de force.  It is, however, a time capsule which presents a haunting portrait of the northern U.S. in the late-’70s.  One wonders whether the props department of Boogie Nights was lifted whole-cloth (!) as the action unfolds during this strange movie.  Indeed, it is more strange than haunting.  It is not frightening or repulsive like a Silence of the Lambs, but rather disjunct like a lesser cousin of Mulholland Dr.

I do not want to disparage this film because it is actually quite good, but I must admit that my sole reason for watching was to see Thora Birch act.  Thora was the first actress I ever fell in love with.  We all have our celebrity crushes.  She was/is mine.  Her trio of films American Beauty, Ghost World, and Homeless to Harvard (a Lifetime “joint”) was really an acting triumph which I can only compare to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  I know it sounds ridiculous to say so, but Birch directed those three films as much as did their auteurs/metteurs en scène.  Call it la politique…in reverse…unlike King Midas…

This film presents a problem in its representation on Wikipedia.  After viewing a film, I like to recall what I’ve just seen.  Wikipedia is good for that, but not in this case.  It’s as if this film was a Falconetti one-reeler from 1916 and not an American feature from 2009.  In this dearth of information, one begins to suspect that Thora’s claims of having been forgotten and overlooked after Ghost World might just be right on the money.  That’s where film critics step in.  Though it be five years late and $991,679 short, I can (with my little voice) once again assert that Thora is an acting genius.

Poor Eric Mandelbaum…his name isn’t even a hypertext link on Wiki, but he did a fine job here painting a snow-drift picture of the not-so-old, weird America.  Dan Moran at least has a dead link (empty page).  The trouble with Harry, that!

All jokes aside, Brandon Sexton III is very convincing as the bearded, lonely Jerry.  His stoic visage becomes as much a motif as Birch’s radiant beauty over the film’s course.  Poor Jerry gets duped into some accessory to murder business…we think.  None of it is very clear.  Based on the true story of Barbara Hoffman, this tale plays with time and the facts like Lynch directing Pynchon.  I can’t help but wonder if PTA’s Inherent Vice might converge with this film in some way…no doubt at a locale with an angry cropduster.

Keith Carradine is good here (resembling Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams).  Also good is Colleen Camp in the small role as Jerry’s mother.  There are scenes of unspeakable sadness and ennui at the dinner table and near the end as she takes the phone call.  We sense a connection to Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Requiem for a Dream (with the mise-en-scène of a Harmony Korine).

One thing is certain: my little piece of shit website shall always sing the praises of one Miss Thora Birch.

-PD