An Ear for Film: Leaves of Gross

The three best movie-related podcast episodes of the week.

Movies Lists
An Ear for Film: Leaves of Gross

Each week, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.

Also, Dom’s about to talk up the Northwest Film Center’s screenings of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament, which, for Portland-OR denizens, you can see this weekend if what Dom says piques your interest. Seriously though, give the Film Center your money because at the very least you can tell your friends about the literally-shit-filled movie you saw over the weekend.

Have a suggestion for a good movie podcast? Slide into Dom’s DMs on Twitter.

On the first installment of this column, I picked as one of my favorite episodes of that week an episode of Norm Wilner’s Someone Else’s Movie covering Pier Paolo Pasolini’s harrowing Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. In describing what was to so admire about the episode—the ways in which Wilner and guest Maxwell McCabe-Lokos were able to use context and the concept of the auteur’s voice to wrench the film away from the realm of obscenity—I was confronting my own viewing of the film: Why, I seemed to be asking myself, did I do that to my brain?

I asked myself the same question again two weeks ago, when I spent a day attending a screening of Matthew Barney’s nearly six-hour River of Fundament, which as of this writing is showing throughout the weekend here in Portland, care of the wonderful folks over at the Northwest Film Center. An experimental “opera” (of sorts) based on Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, as well as on Leaves of Grass and the death of the Detroit auto industry and Mailer’s own life, River of Fundament is a spectacle of visceral confrontation, industrial violence, urban beauty and a reservoir’s worth of feces. Seriously: If I were a religious man, I would pray that none of the shit in this movie is real.

Throughout, revolting visions commingle wetly with meticulous compositions of monumental, jaw-dropping beauty, eating at one other like rust in the wheel well of a Subaru unequipped to survive a Midwest winter. Anilingus, incest and what may actually be Paul Giamatti’s cradled junk are images literally unforgettable, littered throughout decaying hellscapes representing both the majesty of human progress and the need for some kind, any kind, of rebirth. Even if it means wading nipple-deep through a river of shit.

Maggie Gyllenhaal pinches a dollop of breast milk from herself; a poop-festooned spectre of Norman Mailer climbs into a bloated sewer corpse of a cow; an Egyptian goddess gives impressively graphic birth to a small bird; later, she jerks off her son into a cabbage, which is then eaten by another diety. Enduring it feels like an accomplishment, rewarded with a cinematic experience like no other. Which isn’t a compliment. We see it all. We can’t unsee it all.

What Barney best has going for him is that there is no other filmmaker who could craft something like River of Fundament, and perhaps no other filmmaker who’d want to. It’s Barney’s uncompromising vision, and he tells it in the only way he knows how, using the only images he trusts to convey the messages of his work—whatever they are (which is a much longer discussion for another time)—to the extent that satisfies his basest, most deeply buried urges to express himself in this way, with this medium, with this unflinching realism, with Paul Giamatti’s dick.

It’s the same point McCabe-Lokos made in championing Salò: Pasolini knew no other way to express these ideas to the extent that he needed to. Which may be too much to stomach for some, but is the perfect amount for the director. And if you feel something within your flesh when watching—be it the abrasive, subcutaneous stirring of your own conception of decency confronting its limits, or whatever—then isn’t this what art should do? Not: Because it can be filmed then it should be filmed. But: Because there is no better visual language to tell this story, then it should be used.

It makes sense given this week’s picks for podcasts, as each episode deals, tangentially or not, with filmmakers and their compulsions. So, attempt to hide your eyes from the 10-foot-tall, quivering anus projected onto the eternal screen of your mind, and then check out my picks for the three best film-related podcast episodes of the week:

ear-film-you-must-remember-this.jpgYou Must Remember This
“The Blacklist Part 13: On the Waterfront: Elia Kazan” and “The Blacklist Part 14: After the Fall: Arthur Miller”

I’m cheating, what with serving up two episodes here, but beyond Karina Longworth’s latest series united by telling in wonderful detail the story of The Blacklist in Hollywood, these two installments work in tandem, offering up two sides to the controversial divide that shook the film industry in the 1950s. The professional and, as Miller called it, conspiratorial relationship between Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller began with a shared distrust of capitalism, but eventually devolved into a sort of slow-motion tragedy after Kazan turned informant post-HUAC-subpoena. On one side stood Kazan, stage and film director, a notorious womanizer who realized his anti-capitalist ideas directly conflicted with his need for luxury and notoriety, while his socialist proclivities directly conflicted with his need to fuck his mistresses in private. On the other was Miller, a writer who struggled futilely in the showbiz system before, suddenly, he didn’t, gaining his idealistic fervor through protesting the anti-interventionism of many Americans during World War II, which he saw as intrinsically capitalist and anti-Semitic. As Longworth tells it, the ways in which these two floated in and out of one another’s lives, forever bound but never quite on the same page, mirrors the tenor of an industry which kept the American Dream alive by warping it beyond recognition.

ear-film-important-cinema-club.jpgThe Important Cinema Club
“One Shot Wonders”

Will Sloan and Justin Decloux spend this week gabbing about directors who only made one film, yet still left considerable enough a mark to be remembered—even if the only people doing the remembering are serious cinephiles. This they casually mention about the third film they cover, The Night of the Hunter, directed by the “hilariously in-the-closet” Charles Laughton: It’s really only something someone who considers “movie loving” a dominant character trait would qualify as a necessary work of art. Which leads pretty naturally into a quick aside about The Room and how Tommy Wiseau could qualify as a One Shot Wonder. If you’ve seen The Neighbors then you understand the truth in this.

Unexpectedly, Sloan and Decloux offer an addendum to You Must Remember This’s profile of Elia Kazan, picking up where that podcast’s story ends by taking a look at Barbara Loden’s first and only film, Wanda. Loden was Kazan’s second wife, a connection that not only gives the two hosts the chance to comment on how much of a shitball Kazan was to his wives and pretty much every woman in his life, but one which makes painfully clear the near-impossible time Loden had in Hollywood being taken seriously by her peers. Kazan, of course, never supported his wife’s talent, and every effort following Wanda stalled out before she died in 1980, ten years after her only film premiered.

Though Sloan admits that he thinks a director can be “great” if backed by a body of work, Decloux assesses greatness based on the compulsion of the director’s creative spirit. While Loden kept trying to push a number of her projects toward the light, wrestling her way forward despite the misogyny at the heart of Hollywood—plus that her husband was an industry stalwart and also a total ten-foot-tall quivering asshole—a director like Leonard Kastle (1969’s The Honeymoon Killers) just sort of fell into the directorial role. He had a clear vision for the film, and he saw it through. Then he became a dentist or something.

Ear-for-Film-Someone-Else.jpgSomeone Else’s Movie
“Jonas Chernick on Swingers

I first saw Swingers in college, between 2001 and 2005 or so, and I don’t remember connecting to it much. When Norm Wilner and guest actor-director Jonas Chernick share tiny, beautiful moments about how when they first watched Swingers they felt something special—how Chernick felt as if the movie was made specifically for him—I don’t get it.

What I do get is how a film can seem too perfect to be real. I have them, and sometimes I worry if I’ll never be able to write enough or talk enough about why they mean so much to me, and really only to me: Robocop or Aguirre, the Wrath of God or The Life Aquatic—I don’t really even think Bill Murray is that brilliant or anything. And maybe Wilner’s podcast is always about this, but here Chernick seems to only be talking about this feeling, about connecting to a film, to some sort of piece of whatever art, on an ineffable level. I cried when I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and I didn’t really even like the movie much. But it had a hold on me. I was rapt by Matthew Barney’s shots of Detroit throughout River of Fundament’s middle section. Maybe it’s because i come from thereabouts; it did something to me. The only film I’ve seen more times than Grandma’s Boy is The Room. I don’t know why; both just feel like home.

When I listen to podcasts about people talking about movies, I’m looking for that feeling again—to be reminded that other people have that same feeling, and have just as much trouble articulating why. Which is why all this stuff is so fucking great.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can find it on Twitter.

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