Chuck Stephens

Eleven patriot acts


(1) Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand). It isn’t just the laugh-out-loud third-act arrival of a typically grin-struck and beehive-hairdoed MD who keeps a pint of Mekong whiskey in her prosthetic leg that’ll leave you convinced that Syndromes is Apichatpong’s funniest film to date. A blissfully bonkers daydream about intoxicating orchids, unrelieved erections, the possible meanings of the acronym DDT, and the smoke-snarfling blowhorn in the bowels of a Bangkok hospital, Syndromes — commissioned as part of the Mozart-celebrating New Crowned Hope series — is so stuffed with surrealist comedy that it might serve as an ultracryptic gloss on Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. While Tony Jaa heads the world over turning most of what might have become a truly modern Thai cinema into some sort of throwback kickboxing hall of shame and even the brightest of contemporary Thai filmmakers seem increasingly content to play catch-up with their own shadows (Wisit Sasanatieng’s politely nostalgic ghost story, The Unseeable; Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s short treatise on air travel and irrational longing, "Twelve Twenty," in Digital Sam in Sam Saek 2006: Talk to Her), Apichatpong’s unattenuated ability to keep bending time’s arrows to his own cinematic desires seems almost as remarkable as his always Cupid-like inclination to keep firing them straight into our hearts.

(2) I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/Malaysia). Diehard Tsai aficionados will no doubt recall that this leading light of modern Taiwanese cinema is actually a native Malaysian — but who could have anticipated a sex-comedy-slash-love-hate-letter to old Kuala Lumpur as sweaty, scrungy, narratively schizoid, and violently scrubbed and scoured as this? Fans of the foot-stompin’ fellatio follies of Tsai’s last film, The Wayward Cloud, that’s who. Splitting his constant muse, Lee Kang-sheng, into two separate but similarly catatonic parts, each of them oblivious to the admirers who covet and caress his mostly supine form, Tsai burrows beneath and brazenly overenlarges the seediest sounds, side streets, and half-finished architectural skeletons of the country’s monsoon-moist first city in ways that even Malaysia’s brave new breed of cine indies rarely dare. As bizarre and visual gorgeous as it is brutally suspicious of Kuala Lumpur’s racially polyglot society, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone shifts the director’s patented mannerisms and love-blossoms-in-the-ruins paradigm only slightly — but just enough to remind viewers that even the moldiest mansions can prove breeding grounds for desire and that scratching an itch only makes it worse when the bedbugs start to bite.

(3) and (4) The Host (Bong Joon-ho, Korea) and The Departed (Martin Scorsese, US). Two mass-market blockbusters from opposite if equally cinephilic corners of the multiplex world, relative newcomer Bong’s politically loaded sci-fi spectacular and past master Scorsese’s performance-driven, pretzel-logic policier both made buckets of ducats at box offices across the planet, even as they were winning the most fickle of film critic’s hearts and minds. That The Host would immediately be optioned for a Hollywood remake surprised no one; that The Departed would manage to reinvigorate and at times even overshadow its already quite vibrant Hong Kong source material surprised almost everyone. (Christopher Doyle, eat your hat.) OK, so Martin Sheen’s no Anthony Wong — how about the mouth on Mark Wahlberg? Or the riotously rat-infested payoff of the movie’s final shot? And as for the blend of blighted familial relations, bitter anti-Americana, and run-Run-RUN! hyperkineticism that fuels The Host — to say nothing of the exquisite Zen archery of Bae Doo-na — well, when faced with the task of trying to improve upon the effortless zap and zeal of Bong’s filmmaking, the chopshop chumps in Hollywood haven’t got a chance.

(5) and (6) Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, US) and A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, US). I’ve loved Kelly Reichardt’s deliberately lo-fi reconsiderations of many of the early 1970s’ most cherished genre-memes since her Badlands-on-a-lunch-money-budget first feature, River of Grass. My feelings about almost every Richard Linklater film I’ve suffered through since Slacker have run entirely to the opposite extreme. So while the inclusion of Old Joy — Reichardt’s gorgeously drifty riff on modern American malaise and misfit male bonding — seems an entirely natural inclusion on this list, the appearance of Linklater’s fear-soaked and ferociously rotoscopic incarnation of Philip K. Dick’s most harrowing and heartbreaking book surprises no one more than me. But from the first volley to the film’s inescapably haunting final thought — "I saw death growing up from the earth" — A Scanner Darkly‘s inescapably despairing analysis of lives sucked hollow by addiction had me hooked.

(7) through (11) The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, Deadwood, Dexter (various directors, US). I may have already perilously and uncharacteristically overburdened this list with Americana, but the ways in which so much of modern American television, now some five or six years into its latest and most glorious golden age, has risen to the occasion provided by modern American cinema’s almost wholesale evasion of politically progressive and powerfully open-ended storytelling is a phenomenon no one can afford to ignore. From the battle of the Wills (Shakespeare versus Burroughs) that underscores the sixth season of The Sopranos and the seriously fucked-up bad cop–bad cop antiheroics of The Shield to the symposium on the failure of social systems borrowed from the poetics of the ancient Greeks by The Wire and the McCabe and Mrs. Miller–meets–Berlin Alexanderplatz frontier profanities of Deadwood, today’s American television is as much a source of constant pleasure as an unprecedentedly complex nexus of narrative sophistication and moral-vacuum despair. That the "hero" of this season’s best new program, Showtime’s Dexter, isn’t just a lovably humanized sociopath (à la Tony Soprano), a homicidal policeman (à la Vic Mackey), or a basket case forensics specialist (à la the entire cast of CSI: Miami) but a huggable (and strangely pink-lipsticked) combination of all three delivers ineluctable proof positive that where once lay a vast wasteland populated by Gilligans and Gidgets now blossoms the promise of a brave new world. (Chuck Stephens)



Few American independent features in recent memory have seemed as truly capable of turning something old into something surprisingly new as Old Joy — an achingly beautiful ode to the varieties and vagaries of iPod-era young male disaffection based on a short story by Jon Raymond and transformed into something richly steeped in the increasingly remote cinematic traditions of ’70s New Hollywood by Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker all-too-little heard from since her startlingly downbeat Badlands rethink, River of Grass, played film festivals more than a dozen years ago.
An oft-times emotionally elliptical tale of two increasingly estranged friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), approaching the end of their 20s, Old Joy is, however, far more than yet another return to the once-hallowed terrain of Amer-indies past. It is resolutely modern and of the moment — in everything from its narrative nuances and politically loaded peripheral details (including a startling glimpse of the marquee for a movie house called the Baghdad) to its cognoscenti-inclined casting of Oldham as the philosopher-fool at the (off-)center of its tear-shaped universe. Old Joy finally attains escape velocity from the anomie of the past by deciding to wear its hand-me-down stripes inside out. In the process it rediscovers the sort of between-here-and-there heartbeat once found within Henry Gibson’s archly overblown anthem to Americanarama in Robert Altman’s Nashville: how far we all have come till now, and how far we’ve got to go.
Set mainly among the verdant, mountainous Cascades of rural Oregon and poignantly bookended by brief episodes in the quasi-Buddhist backyard retreats of suburban Portland and the vagrant-haunted halogen corridors of its (relatively small-town) inner-city nights, Old Joy ultimately extends well beyond those parameters even as it dissolves into them. “It’s all just one huge thing now,” Oldham’s Kurt at one point rather blankly declaims. “Trees in the city, garbage in the forest. What’s the big difference?” And though Reichardt’s film scarcely seems to have an answer to that question, her filmmaking paints a wholly deliberate picture of contemporary America in contrasting tones of talk radio babble and freak-flag-flying drum circle excess. Old Joy finally comes to limn a new millennium mural within which the collapse of dissenting voices on both the right and left of the political spectrum is an indistinguishable part of one great, awful, swirling whole.
With betweenness a central, dynamic element of Reichardt’s film, it seems somehow entirely surprising and altogether natural that she proves to be a filmmaker intent on discovering a new frontier by following the bread crumb trails of some joyfully old-fashioned cinematic extremes. No better example of that tendency can be found than in the way that Reichardt counters her own heartfelt if generationally predictable fealty to a ’70s touchstone like Five Easy Pieces (implicit in a roadside diner scene) with a far stranger red wagon reference to an altogether unlikelier era’s angry-funny relic, Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Old Joy’s adenoidally intoned expression of age-old alienation manages to escape the antigravity of tradition. Reichardt’s movie trumps the oppressive politics-present-and-accounted-for exertions of cornball kitsch like World Trade Center with a succession of mumbling inarticulations, inchoate male intimacies, and the barely stressed but overwhelmingly evident assumption that when it comes to rediscovering certain perpetually misplaced American verities, Two-Lane Blacktop may be just another way of saying Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Loading a dog and a doggie tent into the back of a Volvo and running down the road to nowhere (occasionally in reverse) on their way to half-remembered paradises among the mighty pines, Mark and Kurt slowly begin to explore their mutual and individual disappointments with the world, themselves, and each other. Not since the windscreen mindscapes of Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road has the conjunction of motion sickness, modern living, and the struggles of overgrown boys seeking to finally attain the status of men seemed so moving — and so at pains to find a way to get moving at all.
As the strains of Yo La Tengo’s dream-drift soundtrack and cinematographer Peter Sillen’s high-def digi-vistas of roadside splendor increasingly blur together and as Mark and Kurt at last begin to haltingly immerse themselves in the baptismal fluids of Old Joy’s promised land — the Bagby Hot Springs, a remote and rustic respite for body and soul nestled deep in the old-growth woods — Reichardt’s film finally finds a way to cross the myriad bridges briefly glimpsed from Mark’s Volvo windows as Old Joy’s relatively brief but precisely calibrated screen time whizzes by. But if what you find once Old Joy finally reaches its destination seems neither precisely a sense of uplift or letdown, rest assured that’s a carefully patterned part of Reichardt’s picture too — a moment that seems neither an ending or a new beginning but yet another frozen teardrop in a world that’s only just begun to thaw.

Opens Fri/20
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For an interview with Old Joy writer Jon Raymond, go to Pixel Vision at