26 May 2008


Welcome to the neighborhood I work in.

Coolidge Corner is essentially the intersection of Beacon and Harvard Streets in Brookline, Mass., an affluent, liberal, heavily Jewish suburb that cuts right into Boston. In the decade plus I've lived in the area, I've always been close to this part of town, if never an actual resident of it. Both Boston University and the last place I worked at are within walking distance.

Looking Southbound down Harvard St., you can see where I currently work.

Here's a dramatic close-up.

...and a more accurate view of the actual building. Although the exterior is not too impressive (save for the glorious marquee, which was added on in 2002), the Coolidge Corner Theatre was what usually drew me to this neighborhood, long before I began working there four years ago.

The neighborhood is a business district and popular upscale shopping destination, not least because the C Train on the MBTA Green Line runs straight through it. However, easy access to public transit does little to prevent incessant traffic jams.

It's a close-knit community that has its share of local retailers and institutions.

This store, in particular, is the kind of decades-old eccentric hangout you wouldn't find anywhere else. Cluttered from floor to ceiling with such marginalia as games, gag gifts and smokes, I don't know how it survives in an area of skyrocketing property values. I rarely visit it myself.

Sadly, more and more local retailers can't keep up with the area's escalating rents. Until last summer, this space housed a used bookstore, but it couldn't compete with the likes of Barnes and Noble and Brookline Booksmith just around the corner.

This was once a locally-owned cafe/grocery store that was usually packed with customers; rumor has it that the owner went bankrupt.

Now it's this. Not as much fun, but at least this particular chain seems to be a good match for the neighborhood's latte-drinking, sandwich and salad consuming clientele. At lunch time, I can barely find a vacant table there.

Still, at least much of the architecture remains distinctive. Like this Art Deco building, home to an oddly space age-themed monument on its roof, celebrating the town's 300th anniversary.

Directly across from it sits the S. S. Pierce building, a Tudor-style castle. It doesn't fit in with its neighbors all that well, although it's arguably the intersection's most recognizable landmark (next to the marquee, of course) due to its imposing girth.

Here's a close-up on the building's detail. You just don't find this style of architecture anywhere else in the Boston area.

At least most of the incoming chains have held on to (or accentuated) their building's quirks, like this Peet's on Harvard St.

Part of the S. S. Pierce, this archway is actually a hidden entrance to a municipal parking lot. It's one of the neat little touches that gives Coolidge Corner a bit of character.

22 May 2008


Enjoy this outtake from a project I'm working on for this blog.

17 May 2008


If it seems a little random that Derek Jarman chose to follow up a homoerotic biopic of Saint Sebastiane with a punk movie, well, it was 1977—the seminal year the Sex Pistols and the many bands inspired by them saturated British pop culture. Ever since he was an art student, Jarman always had an eye on his country’s counterculture while keeping himself at a critical distance from it. This peculiar approach—to be in the moment, but also apart from it—is what makes his work so frustrating for many; it’s also, decades later, what remains fascinating about this film in particular.

Jarman’s “in” to punk came when, through a mutual friend, he met Jordan, a model/actress/groupie who worked at Vivenne Westwood’s infamous SEX boutique. Taken by her striking, unusual style and fashion sense, he began filming her with his Super 8 camera. Some of this footage, consisting of Jordan dancing around a bonfire, made its way into JUBILEE, which Jarman structured around his new muse, her friends and other scenesters. Funding for the project came together thanks again to producer James Whaley. Filmed in the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee (but not released until 1978), those involved probably intended it as a harbinger of a new punk cinema.

Jordan stars as Amyl Nitrate, a nihilist “anti-historian” and ringleader of a group of mostly female friends, including unstable, flaming redhead Mad (Toyah Willcox), sex-crazed Crabs (“Little” Nell Campbell) and violent Bod (Jenny Runacre). There’s also Chaos, the girls' much-debased female French au pair; Sphinx and Angel, two brothers who are also homosexual lovers, and a wanna-be pop star named The Kid (in case of art imitating life, he's played by an unbelievably young Adam Ant). Meanwhile, Jarman views modern Britain as a garbage-strewn wasteland where the Royal Family has been booted out of Buckingham Palace and replaced by a recording studio run by the all-powerful Borgia Ginz (memorably played by the bald, blind, forever cackling Jack "Orlando" Birkett). Much of the film scans like post-apocalyptic Mike Leigh with a safety pin through his nose: characters sit around, talk, commit random acts of violence and debauchery, and struggle to make intellectual arguments that are often at odds with their emotions.

It all sounds fairly straightforward, but with Jarman, there’s always a catch. He opens the film with a lengthy sequence set in the time of Queen Elizabeth I (also played by Runacre). Assisted by her occultist, John Dee (Richard O’Brien—that’s two ROCKY HORROR vets in the cast if you’re keeping count), Elizabeth summons the spirit guide Ariel, who transports the trio to modern-day Britain, where they observe (but do not interact with) Amyl and her brood. This reoccurring framing device actually came from a separate screenplay Jarman had written years before about John Dee and alchemy, one of the director’s favorite subjects.

By structuring the film this way, Jarman sets up a glaringly obvious contrast: the ethereal scenes with Elizabeth I are set in the calm, idyllic, mist-filled countryside, while the “punk” scenes are abrasively loud, ugly and despairing. Where Jarman’s artistry shines through is in how he tempers this contrast. In the modern-day scenes, he occasionally allows for a moment of tenderness amongst all the attitude and irreverent, cod reggae versions of “Rule Britannia” and "Jerusalem"; in the historical scenes, he adds a smidgen of camp by casting Elizabeth’s “lady-in-waiting” as a bejeweled dwarf waddling around after her.

Mostly because the director was in the right place at the right time, the bulk of the film celebrates and aptly captures the punk aesthetic. It’s right up there with THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE as a candidate for the movement’s time capsule. And yet, the film was widely rejected by its target audience, not least by Westwood (Jarman later proudly put her disparaging remarks about it on a t-shirt). With its measured pacing, esoteric framing device and long, talky scenes which sometimes threaten to drift off into the ether, it’s not difficult to see why most punks found JUBILEE underwhelming.

Although it gets off on the movement’s extreme visual style and playful anarchy, the film simultaneously lays bare punk’s limitations. Scene after scene of people just sitting around talking undercuts punk’s ability to accomplish anything. When characters actually leave the flat to do something, it’s often aggressive. Sometimes, the violence results in gallows humor, such as when Crabs and Bod asphyxiate a male gigolo, or when the gang murders an aging drag queen Lounge Lizard (Wayne County, whose pre-death musical number is not to be missed).

However, the violent acts soon have consequences. After a bunch of military police murder Sphinx and Angel in a bingo parlor, Bod and Mad track one of them down at his home and pummel him to death (right after Crabs sleeps with him, no less). During this particularly brutal interaction, Mad reaches such a fevered state of catharsis that at one point, she erupts into hysterical tears. Although that part was apparently unscripted (according to a great interview with the now middle-aged Willcox in the Criterion DVD), it sums up Jarman’s attitude toward the punk ideology, making explicit the difference between nihilism and revenge. The scene also highlights the remarkable 19-year-old Willcox in her first film role. Much more than Jordan, she emerges as the film’s star, mostly because her outrageous punk mask is far easier to see through.
Admittedly, the past/present contrast is a little schizophrenic at times—it really feels like one is watching two separate films. But without it, JUBILEE would just be another study of angry youth, a territory well-covered by filmmakers such as Alan Clarke. The Elizabethan scenes carry over the languid, poetic style of SEBASTIANE, while the punk scenes introduce Jarman's love-hate relationship with his country. This dual narrative is essential to understanding his aesthetic. Subsequent films thrive on such contrasts as they veer between sexual celebration and persecution, dreams of an idyllic English past and remorse at a crumbling English present/future, traditionally structured (yet unconventional) biographies/adaptations and instinctive, free-form experimental essays. JUBILEE concludes at the sea, always a place of serenity for Jarman both on-screen and off, as we will see in his next film, a typically idiosyncratic version of THE TEMPEST.

07 May 2008


I don't post from YouTube that much, so allow me a little nostalgia. Here is a local commercial from my childhood: an ABC affiliate praising the metropolis that brought you "Laverne and Shirley". It's a little corny but seeing it after all these years, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

And yes, that awful Channel 12 logo at the end is still in use today! Though the smiley half-sun is long gone...

01 May 2008


A few years back, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien traveled to Japan to make CAFÉ LUMIÈRE, a charming, languid tribute to one of that country's greatest filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu. In this, his first non-Asian effort, he has crafted the earlier film's Western equivalent. Inspired by Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 short THE RED BALLOON, Hou instinctively approaches Paris as a thoughtful tourist, though perhaps that term doesn't do him justice--he's more a seeker, freshly viewing France's day-to-day rhythms with the same sense of discovery as in his Japanese film.

One does not necessarily need to be familiar with Lamorisse's whimsical boy-and-his-balloon travelogue--it's merely a jumping off point for Hou. By way of a lost red balloon, we meet one of the three main characters, a young boy named Simon (Simon Iteanu), who is introduced standing outside a Metro station, looking upwards and begging the titular object (which slowly comes into our sight) to return. In contrast to Lamorisse's film, the boy never gets his balloon back, but it remains a constant, often ghostly presence as Hou intermittently, leisurely tracks its whereabouts: bobbing in and out of the Metro, floating past windows and skylights, and eventually gliding over the Parisian skyline.

The other two principal characters are Simon's frazzled mother, Suzanne (a terrific, bleach blonde Juliette Binoche), who makes her living narrating puppet shows, and the comparatively more serene Song (Song Fang), a Taiwanese film student (and sly stand-in for the director) whom Suzanne hires as her son's babysitter. Half the film is set in Suzanne's tiny, cramped apartment; the other follows Song and Simon as they stroll through Paris, the former making her own student film homage to THE RED BALLOON with her video camera. Not much else happens, apart from a trip out of town to meet with a legendary Asian puppeteer and Suzanne's squabbles with her tenants, and those incidents feel vestigial at best.

As always, Hou is more concerned with emphasizing textures: the glow of a hidden side street, the way a gorgeous, melancholy reoccurring piano theme casts shadows over sidewalks and parks, and most spectacularly, the title-referencing motifs that subtly surface throughout, from a simple red handbag to the soft, pink glow emanating from an overhead lamp to even Simon's head of curly red locks. This is Hou is at his most inviting, engaging and poetic and I hope he considers filming something similar in America--maybe he'll have a better go at it than Wong Kar Wai recently has.