Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The bureau chief saw Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" in 1996 and vowed never to see another of his films. It's the story of a naive and religious woman who decides that she must obey, as an order from God, her paralysed husband's request that she have sex with other men and then describe it to him. She has rougher and rougher sex, with a variety of men, until she's killed. She's a kind of Christian sexual martyr. The description sounds interesting but the experience of watching the film is horrifying. We see a confused and harmless woman being brutalized to death.

None of the reviews of von Trier's subsequent films made me want to see them, until "Melancholia". I'm very glad I did. First, it's beautiful. Back in 1996, von Triers made "Breaking the Waves" following the rules of "Dogme 95" which allowed only handheld camera, only production sound, only music that was played in the actual scene, etc. He's abandoned all that. A lot of the music is Wagner. The camera work is excellent. The central special effect, a planet approaching the Earth, is well done. One thing that hasn't changed is that the casting and the acting are very good.

Melancholia is the name both of the approaching planet and of the depression that afflicts Justine (Kirsten Dunst). You scholars of the Four Humors know that the excess of Black Bile that causes Melancholia also produces an artistic temperament and Justine has one, although she is wasting her talent writing ad campaigns. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is married to John (Kiefer Sutherland). He's very rich and Claire spends her time being a hostess and mother. The first half of the movie is named "Justine" and chronicles the opulent and painfully disastrous wedding party that Claire throws for her sister. The second half is called "Claire" and chronicles the approach of the planet and how the central characters deal with it.

Justine had fallen into an immobilizing depression after the failed wedding but the approach of the planet begins to strengthen her just as Claire becomes weaker and more helpless. In the end Justine manages to create an absurd little piece of art in the face of the final day. I really enjoyed this film and highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Descendants

In the middle 80s, Madame Le Chef and I went on vacation to the Hawaiian island of Maui. A travel agent had found us a very reasonably priced hotel. It turned out the good price was because it was in an unfashionable part of the island near the airport and lacked a sea view. On the other hand it came with a free rental car (we just had to pay for the gas). Think how long ago 26 years is. I've just mentioned two things that barely exist anymore, travel agents and free rental cars.

We used the car to drive all over the island and discovered the same thing that millions of other visitors have. Under the typical American layer of highways, subdivisions and malls Hawaii is a tropical paradise. All those millions of visitors haven't destroyed it. And the locals there are living their quotidian lives, like humans everywhere: loving, working, raising children, growing older, dying. In Alexander Payne's, "The Descendants", George Clooney's narration makes this point, early on, in a way that is perhaps too on the nose, but it's a point worth making.

Of course Clooney's character, Matt King, is not a typical local. He's a member of Hawaii's white ruling class and he, and his enormous extended family, own 25,000 acres of undeveloped land on Kauai. It's going to be sold and it will make everyone in the family very rich. That's just one of the things complicating his life. His wife's in a coma. He's been a mostly absent father but now he has to be the parent of their two girls. There are even more complications that I won't go into.

I haven't been a rabid fan of Alexander Payne's films. I liked "Election" but really disliked "About Schmidt", which I thought was condescending. I liked parts of "Citizen Ruth" and of "Sideways". I think "The Descendants" is his best film. It has a few really funny things in it but digs deeper into the stuff of living than he ever has before. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Richmond VA 2011

The Virginia Museum has become a first rate art museum. They recently built a new wing and redid the grounds. When the bureau chief visited it last week, it didn't have any big shows but did have some interesting small ones. Tristin Lowe recreated Mocha Dick, the historical basis for Moby Dick in industrial felt.

Chinese artist Xu Bing's father died of lung cancer which was one of the reasons he did the Tobacco Project. One of the objects in the exhibition was a tiger rug made from 500,000 cigarettes. He angled the cigarettes so that from one side you see the filters which produces an orange and white tiger.

From the opposite side you see the tobacco which produces a grey and white tiger.

The bureau chief hates the smell of cigarette smoke but 500,000 unsmoked cigarettes smell pretty good. The artist also made a large block of tobacco embossed with the words, "Light as smoke".

The British Museum had lent a traveling exhibit on mummies with a very good 3D film (an exception to my usual hatred of that format) and some beautiful 3,000 year old artifacts.

Finally, the autumnal grounds.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Last Month

The bureau chief feels bad about the lack of posts and promises movie reviews after Thanksgiving. It's cold and rainy today so here are some shots from a sunny day at the end of October. Tall ships.

Airborne tourists.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Russian Ark

Alexandr Sokurov's "Russian Ark"(2002) is a filmic tour de force. The film consists of one 96 minute Steadicam shot through the rooms and corridors of The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It covers three centuries of Russian history. Sokrov utilized 2,000 actors and extras, three orchestras and hundreds of film technicians. Director of Photography Tilman Büttner was also the Steadicam Operator. They apparently recorded a guide track of the actors and looped the whole thing in Post so they didn't have to stop for sound problems. As it was, they had two aborted tries and then got it on the third take. They only had access to the palace for one day.

This highwire act would be worth a look just to appreciate the feat, but the film is also very beautiful and quite engaging. We see everything through the eyes of a recently deceased ghost from 2002. Most of the others characters can't see him, with the exception of a few people from our era, and a French aristocrat from the 19th Century who the ghost dubs, "The European". The European (according to Wikipedia) is based on an actual Marquis who published a book on Russia in 1839, whose thesis was that Russian civilization was a thin veneer over the Asiatic barbarism that was really Russia.

The film occasionally lags but mostly flows gracefully, providing us with a wonderful opportunity for historical voyeurism. I recommend it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lemony Snicket and Occupy Wall Street

Lemony Snicket is an amusing and preceptive guy and he has some observations about the OWS protests. Here are my favorites:

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

Do they still make tumbrels?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bob le Flambeur

The bureau chief enjoys noting what artifacts of American culture interest people in other countries. In the 1950s, the French found the rather unremarkable name, "Bob", très cool. Boris Vian has a very amusing song called, "Je suis snob", in which the snob says, "Je m'appelle Patrick, mais on dit Bob." (My name's Patrick, but they call me Bob.)

The Bob (Roger Duchesne) of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Bob le Flambeur" is also très cool. He's actually a very nice guy in spite of being a compulsive gambler, bank robber and ex-con. He lets Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young semi-pro prostitute, stay at his apartment and doesn't try to jump her bones, which confuses her. He mentors a young aspirant gangster, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), who falls in love with Anne. He hangs out in Montmartre, the bureau chief's favorite Paris neighborhood.

Bob is enduring an extremely long period of bad luck and finally decides that he has to return to robbery to solve his problem. This film has a very satisfying ending which I won't ruin. It's shot in beautiful black and white with lots of Parisian locations. It's well cast and is a treat for fans of French gangster films. It's out on a Criterion DVD and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zazie dans le Métro

"Zazie dans le Métro" is the film version of Raymond Queneau's novel of the same name. Apparently Queneau used a lot of neologisms in his book, which is a bigger deal in French, where they have the language police (L'Académie française), than it is in English. When director Louis Malle set about making the book into a movie in 1960, he decided that the filmic equivalents of this literary playfulness were the gags of the great comedies of the Silent Era.

The best things about the film are the performances of the actors (particularly Catherine Demongeot as the wonderfully foulmouthed Zazie and Annie Fratellini as the lovestruck waitress Mado), the art direction and the Paris locations. I was with the film until the last part where it degenerated into an endless chase sequence, which was true to its silent film influences, but finally became tedious.

I was reminded of Richard Lester's two Beatles films, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" which were made a few years later. Actually all of "A Hard Day's Night" is a chase sequence as the Fab Four ceaselessly flee from mobs of screaming female fans. The difference between "Zazie" and Lester's films is that if the chase sequences go on too long in the latter, we have still have the Beatles and their amazing music. The score of "Zazie" sounds like Spaghetti Western music unsuccessfully repurposed for a comedy.

I don't want to end on a down note. I enjoyed a good bit of "Zazie" and can give it a qualified recommendation. It's out on a new Criterion DVD.

Monday, September 26, 2011


André Øvredal's "TrollHunter" is the bureau chief's favorite faux documentary since "This is Spinal Tap". It most often gets compared to "The Blair Witch Project", since the conceit of the film is that it is footage shot by student filmmakers who have disappeared. Supposedly others edited the footage into the film that we see.

Apparently some people are confused by the film. I actually stumbled across a review, somewhere in the vast internet, by some gormless git who gave "TrollHunter" low marks because it wasn't scary enough. Well "This is Spinal Tap" isn't very scary either. That's because both films are COMEDIES! I guess the Norwegian sense of humor is a bit dry for some entities.

It's true that unlike "Spinal Tap", "TrollHunter" is a horror film which utilizes the requisite conventions. It's also shot in really stark and beautiful places in rural Norway and has trolls. It has great fun with the conventions of troll lore like their fondness for the underside of bridges and their ability to smell the blood of a Christian man.

Otto Jesperson, who plays the title character, is great. This film has just become available on Netflix. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Devil's Beefsteak

Actually, that's mine. It's September and San Francisco just had three days of summer. Now I see fog on the horizon. Maybe we'll get a little more summer soon.

Monday, September 19, 2011


The bureau chief liked Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 film "Kwaidan"so much when he first saw it that he watched it again soon afterwards. That was back in the early 70s when there were not yet any VCRs, much less DVDs, and one had to drag one's ass to an actual theater. Recently I was curious to see it again, 40 or so years down the line.  It's not as good a film as I remembered, but has several aspects that survived the test of time.

It's a collection of four Japanese ghost stories by the writer Lafcadio Hearn. The first segment, "The Black Hair", may be the weakest, but for someone who labored in the dark satanic mills of sound editing, as the bureau chief did, it has an interesting aspect. There are no traditional sound effects in that segment. It begins in silence and then there is some minimalist music and a sound of clattering wood that syncs up to nothing in the scene. Turns out that the film's composer, the celebrated Toru Takemitsu, was also the "Sound Designer". Talk about the Music Department winning before the mix even starts.

The second segment,"The Woman of the Snow", and the third, "Hoichi the Earless", are the strongest. Both have really interesting Art Direction which Madame Le Chef pointed out serves as a time capsule from the 60s. The whole film was shot on sets. The winter landscape of the second segment features a sky with abstract eyes in it --- very evocative of the coming Psychedelia, and the ghostly palace of the third segment seems a tribute to Dali or Ernst who were still  "Modern Artists" back then. The forth segment, "In a Cup of Tea", is a little oddity, an unfinished story tucked in an unfinished story. The second segment achieves a pleasurable chill and the third segment a certain grandeur. Even though I don't rate this film as highly as I once did, I recommend it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Guard

The Guard is an excellent film if you like an intelligent mix of dark, dark humor, violence and some genuine sentiment. The bureau chief does. The film, which has not been seen by many people in this country, is ill served by it's trailer which works to make the viewer think that this is a fish-out-of-water comedy about an African American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) dealing with racist, buffoonish Irish cops. That's not what the movie is at all. Cheadle has an important role but this is the story of Sergeant Jerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a very complicated and very burned out cop.

The director is John Michael McDonagh who is the brother of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. The latter's film "In Bruge" is also excellent if you like (see above). The brothers McDonagh share a very similar sensibility. The film has plenty of energy and starts with a bang that tells you a lot about our hero in a very short time. The casting and acting, even in small roles, is really good. I had never heard of Slovenian actress Katarina Cas but would like to see her get a lot more work. I highly recommend this film.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ripley Street Then and Now

In this picture from the early 1940s Ripley St., location of the bureau, is the dirt street to the far right. Our house is the second one from the top on the dirt path. (Please click.)

In this picture from 2006, it is the small yellow house squeezed between two taller houses, uphill from the palm tree.

Ripley in 1964. Our house is hidden behind the palm.

In this photo from this year it's still hidden, but the paving goes to the top of the hill.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Horizon

Last week there was a classic sunset for this time of year. There's a scaffolding on our downhill neighbor's house.

More sky.

The sky in the window.

The fog rushes in.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Joan Jeanrenaud

The cellist and composer Joan Jeanrenaud lives in Bernal Heights and this Saturday past she performed a solo concert of her work at our beloved local branch of the SF Public Library. The library is a WPA building which was recently painstakingly renovated. The concert was a fundraiser to help pay for new murals on the exterior which will replace murals from the 1980s that are faded and damaged. Since childhood the bureau chief has loved public libraries and what can be better than hearing wonderful music played in a favorite environment.

Ms Jeanrenaud first played selections from her latest CD on which PC Muñoz contributed a percussion track. Since he wasn't there she played his part from her iPad. For her older pieces, she used a loop machine. She laid down backing tracks and then played over them. A lot of the music had a North African or Spanish feel to it, although my favorite piece, "Waiting", evoked Romanticism. There was loud applause at the end of the show.

The Honorable Ed Lee, our interim major, showed up and made a short speech. Two days later he announced he was running for the full term in the next election. The former porn star and current performance artist, Annie Sprinkle, was in the audience. She is also a Bernal Heights resident. I was filled with neighborhood pride.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

No Horizon

Although we San Franciscans don't have to endure the hot weather torture that the rest of the country has suffered this summer, cold wind and wet fog in August does not exactly raise one's spirits. Normally we can see the Golden Gate Bridge, last evening we couldn't see past the trees in our neighbors' yard. (Click)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Staycation Part 2

Last week we saw a good photo show at SFMOMA and then walked down towards the bay. Unlike in other parts of the country, there's a lot of demolition and construction in San Francisco. (Click.)

I find these heads goofy but charming.

We walked down to The Ferry Building and got an outdoor table at Hog Island Oyster Co. Our view.

Bread and wine.


Yet more bivalve slaughter.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Staycation Part 1

Our summer is drawing to a close but we continue to find delights in our city. In the adjoining neighborhood of Glen Park there is a steep flight of stairs that starts on Laidley St. (Please click.)

It's very green.

Art or protective fetish?

Headed for the light.

The Bureau's own hill seen from a neighboring one.

Worship me mortals!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bastille Day

Last year Mme Le Chef and I were in Paris on July 14, this year we were in Point Reyes, which is a 90 minute drive from San Francisco as opposed to a nine hour flight. There a no similarities between the two places, but each has its beauties.

Limantour Beach.

The marsh.

Local fauna.

The shore.

At day's end.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Clarion Alley

While taking a postprandial walk with a friend, we went through Clarion Alley, which is pictured in the man-shaped cutout. (Please Click.)

The haunting.

That damn Mission.

The persistence of memory.

Through the wonder of the internet, I discovered the quote is from Rumi.

Word Art.