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Tigers, Pigs, & Ben Affleck

May 11, 2013

The following was written as an email.

Saturday 5/11 @The Teahouse:
The Drunk Tigers & The Invisible Hand

@Vinegar Hill Theatre:
Terence Malick’s To the Wonder  4:30 daily through Thursday
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color  7:00 daily through Wednesday; 2:20 Sat./Sun./Wed.; 9:10 Sat.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless  7:30 Thursday


It has been a long time since the last Subverbo email. The blog has been my writing outlet of choice. But the return of The Drunk Tigers provides the perfect occasion for resuming, as the last time they played in Charlottesville I promised I would never write about them again, and some promises are best broken. Matt and Zach have regrouped in DC, put together a new rhythm section, and are making their triumphant return. The Invisible Hand joins them on the bill to provide a night of straightforward rockin’ musical enjoyment, the kind that provides this country with it’s only real barrier against complete collapse and despair. As the Tigers rise again, may not we all? Once they saved Christmas, perhaps now they can save Mother’s Day. The bands will be raucous, the tea hot, the crowd overflowing with good cheer.

It is also a great week for cinema at Vinegar Hill. Three generations of visionary auteurs, three excellent movies, far easier to write about than music.

You might not think of Godard as a director whose work you need to see on the big screen, but in a way that is exactly why you should. I find that it is often the movies that are less obviously Big that are more interestingly different when you get to see them in a theater. Another reason for going: by showing up for this one you will help ensure that VHT hosts future screenings of film classics.

The two current features demand theatrical viewing for the more obvious reason: they are beautiful widescreen films with very fine use of sound and music, movies that draw you into an immersive viewing experience that leaves you strangely altered as you walk out of them. (Admittedly, the VHT facilities are less than ideal for this, because ideal costs the money that comes from the paying customers that don’t come to these kinds of movies — such is our world. Still, better than what you’ve got at home, and anyway the technical aspect is only one of the reasons for going to the theater; it is perhaps even more important that it provides a special place that you make a special trip to, marking out your experience, separating it from the day-to-day, providing a proper ritual setting for imaginative communion.

But of these movies are remarkably cinematic — you could not conceivably retro-adapt a play from them. Dialog is very sparse, it is all about the images, editing, sound, music. Upstream Color is a kind of sci-fi mystery (just kind of) that uses, amazingly, absolutely no exposition. Ben Affleck’s character is at the center of To the Wonder, but (perhaps fortunately for us) we hardly ever hear him speak. These aren’t just directorial stunts, they are ways to create uniquely affecting films. To make us feel something else, perceive differently.

I found Upstream Color the more enthralling of the two (also: much cooler title). Like everyone else, I have no idea how to describe it. Recognizably from the director of Primer(which is great) but very different, it defies categorization. There are pigs in it. There is a love story. There are some things near the beginning that, if you are squeamish, will make you squeam, but the movie does not continue in that direction. If, after it is all over, you don’t understand what happened, there is plenty on the internet to enlighten you, without diminishing a sense of mystery. As with Primer, the movie shows us what it shows us with perfect clarity, but is highly selective in what it shows us, resulting in a dissonance between comprehension and confusion that can become an elation.

With To the Wonder Malick goes full Malick. It is his style purified. Totally worthwhile, but it may leave you wishing you had something else to cling on to. There seems to be nothing but surface and transcendence in it, beauty and God. It is film aspiring to the condition of music, and sometimes I felt bored watching it the way I often feel bored listening to a symphony, no matter how good it is. But writing that, and thinking of the elements of dissatisfaction I had with the movie, a strong counter-surge overtakes me, a sense of its greatness. There is still some digestion to be done, and I will watch it again. Maybe you should give at least one try. Open yourself to it, be patient, and there will be some moments in this film that will touch the core of your being.

One other thing about To the Wonder. Now, I like to see beautiful women gambol about. A woman in joyful movement (she doesn’t even really have to be beautiful) is one of the finest sights life provides. There is a lot of that in this movie, and some people have complained. I do not see their point. I think it is thematically justified, but even if it weren’t, it is churlish to object when Olga Kurylenko twirls.

Apart from, but dependent on, the merits of their work, Godard, Malick, and Carruth are heroes. They are badasses of cinema. Each has followed his own strange path, pursued a bizarre career, against the odds, with stubborn independence, to make the films that only he could make, that nobody else could have even imagined. And they have triumphed. Their work justifies them and enriches the rest of us. This is not just about movies, but about life and what a person can do with one. Vinegar Hill, at its best and least profitable, is a temple to such heroes.*

*’heroes’ in the gender-neutral sense 

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