Eric and Shaye (2016 – The Premiere!)

I have been a fan of the absurdist films of Eric Fournier since they started popping up on the internet when video sharing still required a long download of a WMV file at 640×480. It took forever, and when it was competing with your (legal) Napster and Limewire downloads, forget it. There was a certain commitment to what was being consumed. There was rarely much more than the trust of an E/N site to (poorly) curate what you were getting, and rarely would one find quality content that said something new or interesting – but when one did, one held onto it with the fervor of being part of an exclusive club of those that appreciated the content more than anyone would ever realize. Members of the cult of Shaye Saint John (while not entirely sporting the numbers and popularity behind Homestar Runner, Salad Fingers, and Strindberg and Helium) are a feverish few whose exclusive membership vibrates wonder and postmodern appreciation for Fournier’s work.

Eric’s name didn’t even appear with the work until his release of a DVD compilation in 2006, and part of the wonder was the mystery behind these little films. The Shaye Saint John films were terrifying, funny, absurdist glimpses into the character’s upside-down Lynchian cabinet. The story goes that Shaye was a supermodel that was injured in a bus accident where she was completely disfigured, amputated, and reconstructed with floppy discount-bin plastic mannequin prostheses. Her resulting life of solitude led her to communicate her experiences through miniature documentaries that featured her triggers, her little telekinetic basket-doll Kiki, and her various ill-fated trips down therapeutic treatments. The films were literally something that had never been seen before in video production, and the use of strobe effects, bizarre graphics, overlays, repetition, macabre imagery inter-spliced with hilarious slapstick antics, strange music, strange images, strange scripts, and defamiliarization and deconstruction of the natural laws and human form have been literally influenced by (and from, depending on who you ask) many of today’s great video artists such as Tim Heidecker / Eric Wereheim / Doug Lussenhop (The Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job / Tom Goes To The Mayor / Check It Out!), Jeremy Shaw, Charlie White, Frances Stark, George Kuchar, Ryan Trecartin, and many, many, many others.

At Fournier’s death in 2010 – a story that only came to the Internet in strange trickles because of Fournier’s (and his close friends’) dedication to the character’s separation from his own reality – we were devastated, looking for answers, wanting to know more, but still managing to separate the art from the artist and appreciate what was without mourning the loss of everything that was no longer coming next.

When filmmaker Larry Wessel began a Kickstarter campaign for a new, feature-length documentary on Eric Fournier and Shaye Saint John that would exist as an homage, an informative study of the work, and a biography of Fournier, I jumped at the chance to join the investment team to insist the story of this man and his work was preserved on film in a lasting and meaningful manner.

Last night we held a private screening of Eric and Shaye a day before the premiere of the film and decided the opening day is a perfect time to review Wessel’s work and hope that many more people experience Fournier’s story.

Wessel captured the life and work of Fournier perfectly. The story is told in several parts, and his organization of the narrative seems to make a great deal of sense. It begins with the trailer, then a gorgeous theme and opening credits sequence featuring Saphir, and then cuts to MySpace email correspondence between Wessel and Fournier outlining how their relationship started. It then moved into the gestation of Shaye’s character, the building recognition of the character as a performance art piece, Fournier’s process for filming and editing his works, and interspersed throughout the film were various biographical and personal stories that ran from the time that he started making the films to his death. Frankly, what I found most beautiful were the stories of those in direct relationships with him. Original animations abound. The narrative’s pacing and overall execution make the final product’s 105 minutes fly, and the expected, inevitable conclusion to the film absolutely crushed us – until the surprise bizarre new touching Shaye surprise at the end.

The film is entirely successful from the beginning. The editing is somewhat jumpy and the pacing a little awkward in places, but that may only be an issue with audience members who are unfamiliar with Shaye. If anything, what little awkwardness exists is likely a testament to Wessel’s commitment to making Shaye’s  awkwardness, camp, and shifting reality a part of his narrative – and in this sense, is almost making the picture itself an homage to Fournier’s work. Perhaps one of my favorite elements of the film are the various ways in which the narrative of those around Fournier explained their relationship, his experiences, and his larger than life personality when in character. Ultimately, it was moving to listen to the effect Fournier and Shaye had on their lives, and Wessel managed to present their stories in a manner that not only captured the essence of Fournier’s life, but also how important Fournier and Shaye were to them as people. Of course, their identifying them as separate entities is incredibly beautiful because it showed a true commitment to his art and performance.

What Wessel manages to achieve in Eric and Shaye is a biographic triumph. This is the portrait of a man whose art and vision were remarkably different than anything we’ve ever seen before, and it is in many ways a postmortem love letter to Fournier not just from Wessel but from we who appreciated and loved his work. I could think of no better homage to Fournier than what Wessel has shared with the world, and I am proud to be a part of its creation – a work that truly represents all of our appreciation.

In three words, see this film.

For more information, as always, click through the links sprinkled throughout this review, or visit the original Shaye Saint John Website http://www.shayesaintjohn.net/ or the Official Eric and Shaye Website http://www.ericandshaye.com/

Update: We learned afterward that there was a music video for Saphir’s Shaye Saint John… Check it out!

 

Swiss Army Man (2016)

‘Fraternal funerary farts’ is probably the best way to describe Swiss Army Man on the surface, but it couldn’t be further from what Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are able to accomplish in their slim and beautiful film. Described by Radcliffe as his favorite movie he ever made, this movie with its paltry $3M budget was an incredibly heartfelt and gorgeous magical realist story about friendship, identity, and existentialism.

Kwan and Scheinert’s script explores how complicated our platonic and romantic relationships are and can become, and the manner through which the fantastic is used to examine the various ways that interpersonal relationships are complicated. Friendships that we build as part of the experience of living require a lot of navigation, and as we age, we build walls around ourselves to protect us and to protect others. When we were children, things were so much easier, and as we age and build an identity and families and marriages and other relationships, everything gets so much more complicated – usually at the expense of our own happiness. This film teases apart what this all looks like with the open-eyed wonder of a completely new type of story with only two beautifully performed characters. It almost seems like the type of make believe that we played as children – and the music!

The result is a bizarre, touching, and original story that borrows from many types of tropes but manages to create something entirely new. From the beginning of the film, we thought that it was going to open the Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge trope at the end (and not really a spoiler), but its ending was so much more satisfying because it didn’t rely on a gimmick to resolve many of the elements. Instead, the entirety of the film is a hyperreal dream that entirely uses practical effects to tell a great story. Enjoyable, beautiful, simple, and exploratory, this is easily one of the best new films we’ve seen in a while. In a world awash with remakes and superhero flicks, Swiss Army Man was truly a wonderful surprise.

People, be yourself. Being alive sucks sometimes, but being real in what little time we have is important.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Army_Man

#157 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is one of the first true Hollywood Noir films. Appearing on the scene at the same time as Citizen Kane, there is no mistaking the true amazing “arrival not of an enfant terrible, but of a consummate professional” writer and director in John Huston (Schneider). Transcribing the novel’s dialogue word for word and scene for scene (which may suggest that Hammett is actually the mastermind behind this amazing film), there is no question that it is Lorre, Bogart, and Astor that carry this film. What is most amazing about this film is that the crime and inevitable love  story end up resolving in a manner quite different than what is expected, bringing shock, humor, murder, adventure, and some genius double-crossing to a head at the end of its beautifully shot 101 minutes. A truly enjoyable classic, this remake (yes, it is in fact already the second version of the same picture, even in 1941) is a “cornerstone of film noir” that can’t be missed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Maltese_Falcon_(1941_film)

Jennifer

“A story as explosive as his blazing automatics!”

This  1941 film is a classic who-done-it  that starts as all movies of this thread must, with a gorgeous and helpless damsel in distress.   The rest of the story unfolds at a fast pace.  This movie is brilliantly acted by Bogart, Lorre,  and Astor who effortlessly volley back and forth classic one-liners and great playful dialogue.  I have never read the book, but the movie (this is the third remake!)  appears to have done it justice.  This movie doesn’t require much deep thought or critical analysis by the viewer but offers up some classic Hollywood fun with a genre of characters we’re familiar with and a great mystery.  Even I couldn’t have guessed the ending of this one.

Garrett

The Maltese Falcon is one of the most memorable Hollywood crime films. Written and Directed by John Huston, based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, we get Bogey, Lorrie, Astor, Wilmer, and George together in a beautifully cut mystery of murder, theft, double-crossing, masterminding conspiracies,chases, and the dark, dirty streets. There are many films that we think of when we think Hollywood Noir, but The Maltese Falcon is one of the forefathers of the genre.

I read this book in my youth but actually never saw the film. It was exactly what I feel like I signed up for. While I prefer Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep in terms of the genre and style, there is no doubt that this film delivers a solid, gritty crime drama that seems to have all aspects of the archetypal trope. The dialogue is snappy, there is violence, humor, and murder, and the actors work beautifully as an ensemble.

The Maltese Falcon is pure Hollywood Popcorn fun. This isn’t the best movie in the world, but it shows some of the greats performing at their peak in Hammett’s tight storytelling, and it is guaranteed classic fun for a night in on the couch.

My Name is Jonah (2014)

Tonight we watched the brilliant, funny, heartbreaking, beautiful, and captivating documentary My Name Is Jonah. This film is not on our 1001 list, but deserves some praise for being an excellent story, AND clicking the link above is not only the usual requisite trailer but is a link to the full feature film available for free streaming online that began at midnight when the filmmakers posted it on Vimeo for all the world to enjoy. Touted as rejected by Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Slamdance, once can only hope that this piece’s new place as a free online documentary can garner more worldwide attention for its emotion, subtlety, warm humor, and mastery in storytelling.

The film profiles the larger-than-life personality of Jonah Wishnis, a man who’s life blurs the line between fantasy and reality in small-town Greece, New York. Beginning as a musician in the 1970s, his career has morphed into modeling, music, MySpace stardom, and the production of imaginative calendars, stories, comics, cards, and other memorabilia that celebrate his life as a kickass time-traveling mercenary. Living a life on the outskirts of what many would consider tasteful, Jonah’s true personality is eventually revealed as a man who has not given up on his dreams and endeavors, and truly gives his all in making a change in the world and the lives of people around him.

The production team of Phil Healy, JB Sapienza, and Jon Caron have built Jonah’s story from the ground up, expertly presenting the profile of a man whose heart and soul are dedicated to making the most of the time he has on this earth. The editing of the film, the heart of any documentary, is perhaps the most engaging part of its execution. To present a man with little commentary, and build his character through his own projects and the views of family and community members in a balanced and unbiased way is difficult. The piece coalesces into a gorgeous product, opening little conflicts and complications to the narrative as the film progresses and keeping the audience engaged with Jonah’s captivating personality.

The end result is a documentary that is easily on par with many profile-driven project centered pieces that have become standards in the industry. Well worth the price of admission (did we mention this was FREE to stream online?) and will easily enter the canon as a remarkably comprehensive biography of the most badass man you may have never heard of.

We loved it.

Long live Jonah.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3511262/

#14 Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert J. Flaherty, the “father of the documentary,” created the first true documentary with his Nanook of the North – a film that explores the lives of the Inuit of Northeastern Canada, most specifically one “Eskimo” named Nanook who tragically died two years after filming but had become a worldwide sensation. What is most beautiful about this film is the story of its genesis – that there was a real version of 30,000 feet of film that tragically burnt up with the accidental flick of a cigarette ash, and Flaherty felt so passionate about his subjects that he headed back into the wilderness to reshoot the entire documentary. That is not without controversy, however, since the new version is made up of performers, situations, and an overall execution that seems to be entirely (or at least mostly) scripted and performed rather than shot naturally.

A short digression. We actually watched the Documentary Now season 1 episode 2 about “Kunuk” and really enjoyed it. We only knew a small piece of the connection to this film – I mean, anyone with any small exposure to a significant education is at least aware of it – and actually watching the film was a really eye-opening experience having watched the satire of it first. Watch Documentary Now. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are geniuses.

So what we have left is a film that generally covers a great deal of material that may not be entirely real – but as Schneider’s book observes, “if Nanook’s beaming face as he warms his son’s hands is part of an act, then he was simply one of the great screen performers in history.” It is less about what is obviously not real, but what is so very real that makes this film spectacular.

We watched Nanook of the North on Criterion (#33), and it was a surprising early Criterion release with few special features and even a different logo. It was interesting to see how far they’ve come! The short Harvard interview with Flaherty’s wife parroted a great deal about what was already written about the film, but it was a nice addition to the DVD.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanook_of_the_North

 

Garrett

I enjoyed this film. It is somewhat strange to look at a historical document with such a bizarre history and examine both of its fiction and nonfiction contributions to early filmmaking. Still, this piece showcases big cultural observations about a family in the throes of a violent environment. They still struggle, they still push for survival, they still work hard to make the most of their lives that are all they know. While some of what is in the film seems like strange directed-blackface-parody (for whatever reason, the scene with the record player really rubbed me the wrong way in terms of its infantile and bizarre direction in what I can only hope was fiction when Nanook bit the record…maybe I’m wrong), the majority of it showcases some beautiful little poignant moments.

What I am most impressed with is the story about how the film came to be and Flaherty’s dedication to making something genuine and never before seen in the world. While nonfiction adventure writing had been the norm since the beginning of time, this new format truly forced Flaherty to be on scene with all of his equipment and to edit together thousands of feet of footage – an entire first draft of which was tragically destroyed. His dedication to his subject and telling the story he set out to tell as a life mission is as inspiring as it gets, especially considering the world that he was portraying was literally a harsh, desolate wasteland.

A film as beautiful as it is legendary, Nanook of the North sets the bar high for every documentary that followed.

Jennifer

While the history behind this movie is somewhat strange, this was a fascinating film. It follows an Inuit family  living in Canada through their daily lives. While some of the scenes are clearly staged or set up, the men and women featured in the film are taking us through their own personal realities – hunting to ward off starvation, creating shelter, teaching and carrying on traditions with their children. It was fascinating to watch how  Nanook and his companions hunt for fish and giant walrus, and how resourceful they had to be to keep from literally freezing and starving to death.

The real star of the movie may have to be the Malamute dogs and puppies who work with the family. The feature prominently as they work to pull the family’s sled of supplies and as they guard the igloo. They also apparently love to snuggle up with the Nanook’s infant. Nanook even  builds a baby puppy igloo –  inside their big igloo. Youtube has nothing on this early adorable animal cuteness. I also really enjoyed watching how Nanook and his family built an enormous igloo on the spot while they were out on a hunting expedition ( I have always wanted to build a real igloo). Finally, as in several of the films on our review list, the setting plays a huge role in this movie. It portrays the Hudson Bay area as  savage,  fierce and almost completely unspoiled.

#43 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Considered in many circles to not only be the greatest Joan of Arc film ever made but one of the greatest films ever made, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc “reinvents the world from the ground up” in a silent masterpiece of visual emotional gravity (Schneider). Using highly abridged and reworked transcripts from the actual inquisitions and trial of Joan, the tight camera angles, terrifying beauty of the performer’s faces, and clear references to the brutality and irrationality of World War I, this film is a true masterpiece that will continue to spellbind audiences with its melancholy humanness.

We watched this film on Criterion, #62, although you can watch the film in its entirety legally online in many places and would just need to add your own score. The haunting score on Criterion, Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” is a spectacular addition if you have the chance to see it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc

Garrett

This was an early film that I heard murmurings about in the past, but really had no jumping excitement to run out and grab. The story of Joan has always been something that has captivated me, however, and this year alone I have probably consumed at least two books on the subject including Mark Twain’s novel that he considered to be his best work. Various images from the prints and box seemed familiar to me, but besides that there wasn’t much context. I saw the Criterion at the library, and knowing it was on our list I grabbed it. I am so happy I did, and Criterion’s gorgeous print and brilliant pairing with Richard Einhorn’s score immerses one in a beautiful and destructive alternate reality for eighty-two minutes.

Striking sets, completely ahead-of-its-time camerawork, and Renée Falconetti’s morally and emotionally shattering performance all work in concert to evoke maximum emotional carnage. Essentially, the film is a series of impeccably framed, gorgeous, high-contrast faces performing an interrogation of Joan. As the film progresses, the entire range of human emotion is presented by these truly captivating countenances. What the film is visually is where the perceptive value of the digital restoration (and mastery of the camera) really makes every pore, every puddle of tears, every shock, and every blissful gaze pop off the screen and made me feel wholly sympathetic and empathetic to all of the characters in the piece – most notably Falconetti’s. While many elements of the execution of the film lend themselves to absolute worship in performance, it is Falconetti’s Joan that is truly one of the greatest performances ever recorded, all the more surprising considering this was only one of two roles she ever played on film having been primarily a theatrical actress. As a theatrical actor myself, I am incredibly impressed. Many performances try to be what this is, and I couldn’t help thinking of Hathaway’s I Dreamed A Dream in Les Miserables (which I didn’t particularly care for) attempting an uncanny impression of Falconetti’s Joan… But after seeing this, and after seeing many actresses attempt rapturous despair, it is clear that I haven’t seen anything like this. There’s simply nothing close.

What I found to be the most amazing about this entire piece isn’t even the script, direction, and execution, but the story behind why we’re even able to watch it at all. For a piece like this to be a commercial flop that is lauded by critics in the early days of cinema is not a story that is unique to Passion, however, to be solely printed on nitrate stock and virtually disappear from the face of the earth for sixty years and then miraculously re-emerge from a janitor’s closet in an insane asylum before its demolition in 1981 makes this reel the stuff of legend. Everything stood in the way of this piece’s genesis, from political and cultural upheaval from the French insisting that Dreyer couldn’t do the story any justice to the seven million franc price tag of the authentic set. Still, Dreyer wrote and directed an amazing piece that is sincerely a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is even more interesting that there are a variety of places on the Internet where one can legally watch the film for free (save for the lack of soundtrack and subtitles) and almost enjoy the piece as a gift to the world.

Simply put, one of the greatest films and performances I have ever seen, and I am grateful it still exists to be able to experience it.

Jennifer

I can’t say I was very eager to watch this movie.  After viewing, I can say this movie is truly a  must-see film.  The performances (it is a silent, black and white film) are expressive and hard to describe.  The actress that plays Joan can say more with her eyes than many great performers have been able to express with all the words.  The set and costumes are minimal and do not distract from the actors.  In place of words, the narrative of the story is moved along with extreme close-up shots of the actors’ performances, and jerky quick transitions.

One analysis I read of the movie pointed out that the director purposefully did not create continuity with the shots of the film –  when a scene cuts back and forth between two characters speaking the background, setting and props do not match up scene to scene.  This was to provide the audience with a sense of disorientation similar to how his character Joan was feeling in the movie.  The director also  shot and re-shot scenes multiple times – sometimes spending hours on just one scene.  He had the actors perform in uncomfortable situations (kneeling on rubble for hours) in order to obtain perfect facial expressions.  When the original film was thought completely destroyed by fire, the director was able to almost completely re-create the film a second time using the multiple additional takes every scene.

A must see – I have never seen anything like it!