Cine Manifest – Judy Irola’s lively, likable 2006 documentary about the San Francisco-based Marxist filmmaking collective Cine Manifest, which existed from about ’72 to ’78. (Its most famous member today is probably Rob Nilsson, of Signal Seven fame.) Along the way the group had to contend with internal rivalries, sexual politics (Irola was its only female member), and hangers-on (at one point the crew found itself in the unexpected position of having to “evict” an aging, ravaged Nicholas Ray from their Folsom Street warehouse), yet they managed to churn out a stream of shorts and two features, the second of which drew enough attention at Cannes and elsewhere to provide what they didn’t realize was their 15 minutes of fame. Irola’s portrait often feels like an easy-listening version of The Weather Underground, as its members, now scattered and grey (or bald), lace their reminiscences with obvious love, and more than a little rue: a regular feature of the group was the “Criticism/Self-Criticism” sessions in which they’d take each other to task for various perceived failings, and which often went too far in ways that only the young and very idealistic pursue. Only one member, who as a cameraman shot Don Ho specials and other Leninist works for ABC, brought in any real income over the years, making things like Irola’s subscription to Ms. an unaffordable luxury. Worst of all, one member was unanimously, and unceremoniously, deposed as the director of a feature film, one which happened to be not just his idea but based on his actual life–an event that wrecked some friendships for good. Cine Manifest definitely had its good times, though, as evidenced by the myriad “birthday movies” they made for each other (a couple of them are included on the DVD), and they look looser and goofier than the stick-up-the-butt Marxists I knew in Houston back in the Seventies. Even if they never affected anyone beyond themselves, it’s still nice to know where their spot on the map was.
The Enforcer – Inoffensive 1955 riff on Tom Dewey, Abe Reles and Murder, Inc. Bogart plays the prosecutor who’s much confused by these new terms “hit” and “contract” he keeps hearing on the street, and it’s never made clear that the murder-for-hire business is actually the enforcement arm of a larger, and very ethnic, organization; the movie treats the killers as guys you might go to if your neighbor complained about your music one time too many. Bogart looks too old to still be roughing up tough guys—you can see he needs a breather here and there. Still, there’s a rather decent climax on a street at lunch-hour, with the D.A. and the gunsels trying to beat each other to a key witness who’s lost in the large crowd. Directed by Bretaigne Windust, who surely had the best old-timey director’s name this side of Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast.
Hotel du Nord (1938) – Marcel Carné in a minor key, focusing on the denizens of a crumbling hotel on the Seine. (The hotel was real; you can Google Map the building.) A despairing young couple takes a room to commit suicide together, but the guy gets cold feet after shooting (but just wounding) his girlfriend, and runs away. (And I feel guilty about some of my relationships.) To be honest, the movie is no great shakes, but it does have meaty parts for Louis Jouvet and Annabella, and Arletty’s wandering around too. That should be enough for anybody.
Warning Shadows: A Nocturnal Hallucination – A 1923 German silent from Arthur Robison, its story is just an excuse to play with the medium. A countess throws a dinner for a group of her “admirers,” as they used to put it, ticking off her husband more than a little; an entertainer arrives and performs a series of fantastic shadow plays culminating in a what-if tragedy that brings everyone to their senses. A little slow but visually inventive enough that not a single intertitle card was needed. All kinds of weird lighting effects play out here: the tails on the coats of two of the would-be suitors are turned up so that when they stand sideways their shadows resemble pig tails, and when the husband’s imagination is running riot with fantasies of his wife’s infidelities, he looks up to find his shadow on the wall crowned by the antlers hanging there. He gets the joke, and he doesn’t appreciate it.
Wuthering Heights – A lineup of Wyler, Hecht, MacArthur, Toland, Olivier and Brontë would have intimidated the ’27 Yankees, but sadly, their manager was Sam (“Wyler only directed it”) Goldwyn. I spent most of its running-time staring in awe at the shape of Olivier’s head.
The Exterminating Angels – The director, Jean-Claude Brisseau, was sued after asking actresses to masturbate on camera during auditions for his previous movie, and this 2006 film is a fictionalized version of what happened then. Brisseau, who is 65 and a not particularly attractive man, has replaced himself with a 40-something actor who’s handsome and agreeably aloof. This fake Brisseau is planning a film about “the secret erotic life of women,” but for once this fancy Emmanuelle-type palaver has more on its mind than soft-focus cock-teasing; the director winds up with three (gorgeous) women who are eager to perform, solo and together, for his camera. The Exterminating Angels gets one key point perfectly right: that the women most likely to accept such an offer would be young and unstable, but it’s this very insight that renders the movie’s conclusions moot. The fictionalized Brisseau is right in stating that eroticism has too successfully resisted cinema, and the sex scenes are actually decent-looking porn that’s about four-fifths of the way to being hardcore. A couple of the scenes are, in fact, intensely horny-making, and not just because they involve beautiful women fingering themselves; it’s because it’s done right, and because the actresses really do look like they’re dropping their guard. There’s no getting around the fact that the last 15-20 minutes amount to garbage, giving in to the antique moralizing which we’d earlier been told to reject, and the moment in which the director-figure is made into a victim is, to be clear about it, revolting bullshit. And yet, with that all said, Brisseau’s ideas deserve more than a shrug. The man’s onto something.
Soldier of Fortune (Dmytryk 1955) – That dolt Susan Hayward has lost her husband again—this time the filthy Reds have whisked him away to the Chinese mainland—so she screws Clark Gable because some things are just meant to be. Just like she did in Garden of Evil, Hayward falls for the guy she’s hired to rescue her hubby, and the movie becomes a waiting game to see how she’ll jump studs without making the censor swallow his dentures; in Garden the writers simply killed the bugger off, but whoever wrote this thing must’ve been watching his Noel Coward because things end in a very civilized (and very off-screen) divorce. The movie is mostly talk, much of it awful, but half a dozen Graham Greene lowlifes—an aging whore, a down-at-the-heels ex-general—are loitering in the corners, it looks smashing (it was shot largely in Hong Kong), and the thing moves right along.
1962 saw the release of three quality films about the shrinking effect that the closing of the Western frontier had on the American character, a fact that arouses all kinds of nostalgia in a time when the alignment of Hollywood’s celestial stars is more likely to produce Armageddon and Deep Impact within six weeks of each other. Compared to the giants Ride the High Country and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, however, Lonely Are the Brave is just a skinny guy who keeps getting sand kicked in his face. It has only itself to blame. Dalton Trumbo outdoes even himself, for one thing—does the final instrument of destruction really have to be a truckload of toilets?—and this is one of those Kirk Douglas performances where his bravado comes across like an irritating form of mental illness. (The extras stare dumbly at him as he reels off his wisecracks, just like they did in Ace in the Hole.) Nor does it help that Douglas delivers a gassy speech about being a loner, especially since he uses it to escape the clutches of a young Gena Rowlands, looking as beautiful as a desert rose. Walter Matthau has two pointless scenes built around a dog pissing on a fire-hydrant, while his deputies are painted as a tribe of morons. (And if that’s not enough, one of them—George Kennedy, at his smirkmouth worst—is also a sadist.) Crossing the Gobi on foot would be easier than sitting through undignified, mock-serious movies like this one. It does, however, feature a glamorous, scene-stealing horse—there’s a fine scene of Douglas trying to coax the beast over a mountain slope that’s covered in loose gravel.
Alain Tanner’s Le milieu du monde alerts us up front that it’s set at a particular point in time and space, and indeed, it’s firmly fixed in a handful of towns sprinkled across the Swiss outback over 112 days in the winter of 1973-1974. Philippe Léotard, who was so good as the targeted pimp in Bob Swain’s La Balance, is an engineer whose bosses decide that his personal qualities—he’s a nice-looking family man, etc.—make him an ideal candidate for a seat in Parliament. During his campaign tour of the region, he’s smitten by a young Italian truck-stop waitress (Olimpia Carlisi), and they jump into an affair so reckless that the whole canton, or whatever it’s called, quickly finds out about it. And so the forces, internal and external, begin working against them…It’s a beautiful, solid film.
And Cassavetes’ Love Streams, an absolutely incredible two hours followed by 20 minutes of hall-of-fame level fucking up. Worst of all, it’s arty and pretentious in an Alan Rudolph kind of way, a way that you’d think Cassavetes’ style couldn’t attach itself to. It does, though, thanks perhaps to his co-screenwriter, who also wrote the play which the screenplay was based on. There’s one scene where I just felt sorry for Rowlands—it’s like nobody took that crucial step back to see just how badly she was coming off. Enough about that part of it, though—it’s still worth seeing for that first two hours, which are so rich and double-edged tragi-funny that I would’ve sat there forever had it kept on in that vein.
Movies that still hold up their end of the deal: Beau Geste, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Big Clock (one of the tightest little screenplays in the world, by Jonathan Latimer).
New ones (good):
El Cid – Another colossal mind-fuck out of Samuel Bronston by way of Anthony Mann, who started out making little film noirs that cost a buck seventy-five each. As with The Last of the Roman Empire, the stumbling blocks include a stodgy script and some ridiculously choppy editing–the movie prepares us for certain events, or even entire time periods, which then take place off-screen, leading to some mental whiplash. But with experiences as voluptuous as these movies are, whose scale and color and density put them completely beyond anything coming out today, it’d be practically unchivalrous to carp too loudly.
The Tall Men – Extremely Hawksian Western by Raoul Walsh, with Gable, Cameron Mitchell, Robert Ryan, and a frickin’ hilarious Jane Russell. (She lets Gable know she’s horny by flapping her blanket around him.) The fucking big-ass cattle drive utterly dwarfs the one in Red River, and the Texas-to-Montana trajectory makes me wonder if McMurtry encountered this thing before he wrote Lonesome Dove. But this is a much more contented, more lyrical movie than Red River–there’s one little sequence of the cattle and horses making a river-crossing that’s just a corker. Beautiful use of CinemaScope coming from a guy who’d been around so long he’d played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation.
Alain Tanner’s Messidor – I’d love to ask Callie Khouri if she knew about this before she wrote Thelma and Louise. Two unremarkable teenage chicks who are at loose ends hook up and begin hitching aimlessly around Switzerland; when two guys try to rape them, their jaunt turns into a mini crime-spree, which is also aimless. There’s a lot of humor in it, but it isn’t cute like Thelma was–it’s observant. It also doesn’t underscore its themes or have an inflexible point of view, and it doesn’t snicker at its own characters, least of all its victims.
Hallelujah – This 1929 King Vidor flick was the first release from a major studio with an all-black cast. (And it was a labor of love that Vidor fought to make, not an assignment.) The soundtrack alone is a killer: good versions of a lot of the standard spirituals plus some blues and gospel. The oldest son of a family of sharecroppers takes the cotton crop to town and sells it, then gets sucked into a rigged crap game and proceeds to a) lose the whole wad, and b) accidentally kill his kid brother. That’s all in about the first 20 minutes. Then he becomes a preacher, and after running into the temptress that got him into the crap-game, gets into a whole new mess with her. The one drag is the longish preacher sequence–a couple of those sermons go on forever when they don’t need to. The big things worth seeing: Nine Mae McKinney as the temptress; a bonus feature short of the young Nicholas Brothers dancing is worth the price of the disc by itself; the interesting ways that the entire white world is excised from the film’s reality; and some shots, which at least look like they were taken on location, that feel like visions of a lost world. The one I found particularly haunting is a shot of the family walking up a dirt road to their cabin after another day in the fields. It’s like looking into a time machine.
Breaking Bad (Season 1) – Some quibbles (cloying stuff like that “talking pillow” bullshit or the shoplifting sister, and ham-handed plot devices like the gas mask that gets left behind) aside, the thing’s pretty fucking good. I’m still not totally signed on to Aaron Paul’s performance, and it seemed to take forever before the two main characters had a conversation with each other that wasn’t a bunch of writerly bitching. But it’s a hard show to resist. Bryan Cranston’s so fucking good–that’s a big part of it–plus it shows whole sides of America that never get play on TV (what strikes me as being a very “real” America, though Sarah Palin might disagree), and it doesn’t shy away from its chosen subject matter. (The meth users look like they’re genuinely going to hell, and soon.) I’ve also learned more high-school science from it than I did in three years of actual high school. That right there is something.
Also: Wellman’s The Call of the Wild (it has exactly fuck-all to do with Jack London’s novella but it’s fun), The Dam Busters (WW II movie in that clipped, crafted British style–this is also the one with the dog named “Nigger,” whose death provides what’s practically the only human drama in the whole movie), and some noirs I was tipped to by my online friend Leonard Pierce: Black Angel (the movie in which God finally saw fit to bring Pete Lorre, Cornell Woolrich and Freddie Steele together), Blonde Ice (cheap but decent), and Possessed.
The best noir this cycle, though, was David Miller’s Sudden Fear. Joan Crawford’s a starting-to-age playwright who gets swept off her feet by young actor Jack Palance; through a fluke she realizes Palance and his real girl–Gloria Grahame, natch–are plotting to kill her for her estate. She comes up with a counterscheme, but it works about as well as Rex Harrison’s plan to murder his wife in Unfaithfully Yours. It’s a surprisingly decent movie (Crawford and Palance were nominated for Oscars), and one scene (it involves a windup toy dog) has all the elements of a Hitchcock set-piece–I was literally holding my breath at one point. Whatever else you can say about Joan Crawford, she never backed down when a camera was pointed at her.
More interesting than actually good: Face of Fire, a weird U.S./Swedish production based on Stephen Crane’s “The Monster”. James Whitmore is a handyman whose face is badly burned in a fire–the town, including his fiancee, rejects him. He spends the last 2/3 of the movie wandering around wearing a straw boater on top of a black hood, which is not a happening look, but when the hood comes off, his makeup is startlingly realistic. Strange fabular tone not unlike The Night of the Hunter; marred by an atrocious Cameron Mitchell performance. Still an affecting ending, though–the word “Polliwog” has a whole new context for me now. Also, Walsh’s silent version of Sadie Thompson, with Gloria Swanson, Walsh himself (before he lost his eye), and Lionel Barrymore, when he was still thin and walking around, as the shithead preacher. Fair amount of atmosphere, and Menzies did the sets, but this is definitely a specialty item.
Three classics I somehow never managed to see all the way through: The Adventures of Robin Hood, From Here to Eternity and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Robin Hood’s easily the best of the three even though Errol Flynn really could not act. (I’ve never gotten so tired of seeing a man put his hands on his hips and throw his head back in laughter. I swear, if he did it once…) Eternity–well, I’m still not sure how I feel about that one. Definitely some great stuff in it: Lancaster throughout, and Deborah Kerr does that secret crazy nympho thing with her eyes, and Borgnine’s attitude when he comes out of the bar and runs into Clift is just completely goddam superb–the best work I’ve ever seen ol’ Ernie do–but in the end I felt like I’d been sniffing chloroform. It just…I dunno. I should watch that one again. Yankee Doodle Dandy, though, didn’t cut it at all for me, I know that much. Naturally that’s the one they gave Cagney an Oscar for.
Reflections in a Golden Eye – One of John Huston’s pain-in-the-ass lit-ru-choor adaptations, this time from a Carson McCullers novel. Features Liz Taylor waving her ass at the camera while braying in a Southern accent, an expressionless Robert Forster staring at a darkened house–and staring, and staring–and the least giddy-making backstory I’ve encountered in years: Julie Harris cuts her nipples off with pruning shears when her baby dies. Did I mention all the flaming Freudian symbolism, including rearing stallions and a broken ceramic rooster? (I shit you not.) Or that the entire film is tinted such a deep gold that your eyes never adjust to it? Or that Harris has a Filipino houseboy who’s so floridly gay that he makes Truman Capote look like G. Gordon Liddy? And yet…this thoroughly rotten movie has a remarkable Marlon Brando performance right at the heart of things. As a deeply, deeply closeted army major with a secret thing for PFC Forster, he has a handful of moments–overhearing Taylor sharing a queer joke with their maid, or (in a Thomas Mann moment) smearing rejuvenating cream all over his face–that work like someone snapping his fingers in your face, and make you forget the pseudo-prestigious bunting that Huston’s draped all over the place.
A couple not so good ones:
The Crooked Way – Negligible noir. Not offensively terrible or anything–just not much there.
Pretty Maids All in a Row – Softcore ‘71 Roger Vadim shlock with Rock Hudson as a high school teacher who’s having so many affairs with his students he makes Rip Torn in The Man Who Fell to Earth look like Mr. Chips. When some of the girls start turning up dead, Telly Savalas and Keenan Wynn show up to play painfully unfunny cop routines; in a twist I’m not sure how to read, but which I’m pretty sure can’t be a compliment, the notoriously fake heterosexual Hudson turns out to be the killer. (Hey, people, you can’t spoil what’s already rotten.) Angie Dickinson plays a substitute teacher who all innocent-like keeps poking her tits in the boys’ faces. Worthless except for the views of Angie and the often naked sweet young things, which are the only things, it’s safe to say, that Vadim really cared about.
“There’ll be no one unless that someone is you…”
If you’d told me a month ago that a Doris Day biopic that’s coated in shaky period décor would still be pulling at my thoughts weeks later, I’d have called you a fruitcake, but Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me is a ridiculously potent movie. On the surface it looks like just another one of MGM’s flossy fifties songfests, but it’s less a musical than a drama with a lot of singing in it, and has less in common with Annie Get Your Gun than the troubled relationship movies of Rossellini and Cassavetes. It’s a knowing and surprisingly grounded look at two people who’ve sunk their hooks into each other for all the wrong reasons.
Love Me or Leave Me follows the upwardly-mobile path that the singing star Ruth Etting ascended in the Twenties and Thirties, thanks in no small part to her husband and manager Martin “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago laundry owner who ran an extortion racket on the side. Marty meets Ruth just as she’s being fired from her job as a taxi-dancer and, hearing that she wants to sing, he takes what he thinks will be the shortest route to laying her, baiting his hook with the promise of a singing job. The movie is about the way the two parties baldly use each other: Ruth accepts Marty’s help but has to work overtime to hold his appetites in check, while Marty shepherds her out of the two-bit nightclubs to New York and Hollywood, waiting in vain for her to yield to him. Not even his belated recognition of her talent—eying her audience’s response one night, he says wonderingly, “This is legit. I don’t have to stack the joint no more”—can make him see her as anything more than the focus of his desire. (The nonsense-free script is by Daniel Fuchs, who also wrote Criss Cross, and Isobel Lennart.)
Ruth’s songs, even when delivered by Day in some truly loving close-ups, exist less to entertain us than to take the characters’ emotional temperature. At one point Vidor picks her up already in mid-song, but the focus is on Marty, seated at his front-row table and raptly studying her frame. And “frame” is the operative word here: Vidor shoots Ruth literally from neck to thigh, reducing her to a shimmying torso in a blue sequined dress. (The movie’s most noticeable lapse comes during Day’s rendition of Etting’s heartbreaking hit “Ten Cents a Dance”. Already on the nose for this scenario, Day’s delivery is two-dimensional at a moment when we’re aching for Ruth; it’s the one spot where her acting chops fail her.)
Love Me or Leave Me finds Jimmy Cagney deep into the middle-age of his career. He became a star by crossing gleeful energy with the Devil’s own self-possession, but in time he grew just as adept at projecting vulnerability and quietude. Near the end of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, Cagney, as a former racketeer now on the skids, shares a tired out tête-à-tête in a sleazy bar with an old friend (Gladys George), mooning over the strait-laced girl he’s loved for years but who never loved him back. It’s a gorgeously written scene, casting about in as many directions as Eddie Bartlett’s drink-besotted mind:
Panama: I’m sick of watching you try to put out that torch you carry for her with a lot of cheap hooch. Who does the kid look like?
Eddie: Like her.
Panama: And they got a nice house.
Eddie: Yeah, it’s a nice house if you like that kind of a house, but for me, I’ll take a hotel anytime. You know that.
Panama: Me, too. Ain’t it funny how our tastes have always run the same? Ever since the first time we met. I can just picture you living in the suburbs, working in a garden, raising flowers and kids. Wouldn’t that be a laugh?
Eddie: Yeah, wouldn’t I look cute?
His face sagging and his gaze unfocused, Cagney delivers these lines in a funereal, rue-laden whisper that’s the aural equivalent of smoke. The Roaring Twenties’ heart and soul lie less in its gunfights than in this scattered, heartsick conversation, and in the dying-with-a-dying-fall parabola that the mortally wounded Eddie will trace in the church steps’ snow like a dancer running out of steam. By the time of White Heat two years later, a new Cagney had completely deposed the dapper barracuda of The Public Enemy. He’d become blunter, squared off, granitic, unyielding. By now he was capable of expressing a mood, or the shape of an entire relationship, with the simplest gesture, such as the minimalist hand-roll urging his wheel-man to give it the gas, or the appalling moment when, having gunned down Steve Cochran, he points at the corpse in dry triumph.
In Love Me or Leave Me every part of his body is capable of eloquent speech, and Vidor’s camera wisely stands back from Marty, simply taking him in, beginning with the moment that Cagney’s hustling, lopsided shadow precedes him into the dingy dancehall where Ruth works. Marty spends the movie sprinting on his bum leg from one appointment to the next, and yet his limp may be the least played up physical handicap in cinema—it’s simply another given in the movie’s scheme of things, leaving it up to us to suss out what part it may have played in making him the biggest asshole in Chicago. (His mini-Capone act is just an embarrassment when he tries it out in New York.) When all’s said and done, the film’s greatest virtue is its refusal to break faith with Marty Snyder. Never once, not even in his earliest scenes, is he made a cute Damon Runyon hood who talks in dese’s and dose’s, or whose bark is worse than his bite, and we’re never expected to sympathize with him just because he’s Jimmy Cagney. (A quick look at City for Conquest or Yankee Doodle Dandy shows that even Cagney could stoop to an almost Robin Williams level of pathos.) In fact, it’s just at the moments that we think cute little Doris Day is about to soften him that Marty behaves most viciously towards her. Most of all, Marty Snyder is a living monument to the concept of Not Getting It, and near the movie’s halfway point his emotional myopia causes him to rape Ruth, and not in a swoony Rhett Butler way. Tired of her stalls he simply takes her, as if it’s his share of a contractual obligation—a phrase he’ll give resonant life to later on.
The last two minutes of Love Me or Leave Me are chilling in their perfection, with Ruth and Marty revealing surprising new sides of themselves to the very end, and it’s here that Cagney does his most dazzling work, bringing light to practically every color in the emotional spectrum, even with his back turned to the camera. In its relentless, close-up view of male possessiveness Love Me or Leave Me might bring to mind Star ’80 or Raging Bull, but Love Me, with its prehensile understanding of its players’ moves and countermoves, is a richer, less shrill and monotonous film. And while Meet Me in St. Louis or It’s Always Fair Weather might flirt with their characters’ darker currents, in their last-minute fixes both movies scurry back to their comfort zones. The most that Vidor ever promises us is the hope that someday we’ll be able to live with ourselves. For the Marty Snyders of this world that’s no laughing matter.
After writing about The Fall of the Roman Empire, I went back to Scorsese’s documentary to make sure I’d remembered his quote correctly (not even close), and I was a little damn dismayed when his discussion of Roman Empire segued into the film’s weakest segment, the section covering the advent of computer graphics. Scorsese’s expert-of-choice on the subject, George Lucas, sits slouched down in his chair, looking bloodless and only half alive, as he impassively describes how, as the costs of moviemaking have become prohibitive enough to render epics like Mann’s film unfeasible, computers can fill the gap by rendering and re-rendering the figures of a relatively small number of human forms until a digitally-generated crowd that’s suitably impressive in its massiveness has been produced. Cut…and now we have Francis Coppola, adding that complaints about technology harming cinema are silly because cinema has always been driven by technology.
For starters, Mr. Coppola could use a nap. His rebuttal to a nonexistent argument is a marvelous way of missing, and of dismissing, the point of the many legitimate objections one can raise to Lucas’ claim; of course, Coppola might be unduly sensitive on this point thanks to the critical flak he took during the period that he performed his directing chores from within the confines of a high-tech trailer. (That practice was merely the apotheosis of an instinct that took hold of him during the Apocalypse Now shoot–a distancing from story and character that was especially painful whenever he’d call The Godfather films chapters in a giant “home movie”.) The fact remains: I’ve never heard a single living soul complain about the role, or the size of the role, that technology plays in movies. Film is not a medium that attracts Luddites.
My premise here might be summed up as, When CG is used as a substitute for reality–that is, when it’s not being used to create what’s supposed to be an outright fantasy such as Pan’s Labyrinth–then the more narrow and sparing its use, the better, for the reason that it’s used best when we’re least aware of it. This rarely happens, partly because CG is such a costly and exhausting process that filmmakers want us to know that the glorious sunrise we’re observing is the handiwork of a craftsman other than God. CG has provided the replacements for so many of film’s physical realities–sets, stunts, lighting, climate, crowd-scenes–that any shot we suspect is too good to be true nowadays is indeed likely to be ginned up. (And when exceptions, such as the car-chase in Ronin, come along, it’s hard not to feel thankful for the simple act of being viscerally entertained, which in this corner anyway has always been considered one of the whole points of commercial cinema.)
In fact the use of digital effects to enhance landscapes, etc., has a rollover effect on the genuine ones. It’s not much fun staring at that beautiful dawn if one suspects it isn’t real–that it’s arbitrary, a magician’s trick. Analog images have always been vulnerable to manipulation through color balancing and other means, but no matter how they were tweaked, there was still a core image, a core reality, that was captured whenever a camera was turned on at a certain time and in a certain place. Now the sun and the clouds around it can be moved about the frame to create a more artful effect; clouds can be added, or subtracted, or the sun itself may be fabricated from wholecloth. In this sense the people who paint illustrations for Hallmark cards can be considered filmmakers; even worse, the average Hallmark’s illustrator is likely to have more artistic training and understanding than the average animator, whose baseline judgment of his own work is usually predicated on a technical, rather an artistic, foundation.
The overfed and logy Lucas must be kidding when he says that CG achieves “exactly the same effect” as non-digital effects–at least one hopes he is, for otherwise George is saying that he can’t detect any difference between those vivid, breathing human beings that deliver his muffins each morning and those wan cookie-cutter ghosts patrolling the decks on Jim Cameron’s mock-up of the Titanic. Think of that moment in Lawrence of Arabia when we see, in a single pan shot, the Arab army sweeping into Aqaba. You know as you’re watching it that you’re seeing, if not an actual armed army, what is still a real and impressive event: hundreds of real men galloping on hundreds of real horses across a plain and into a seaside fortress, all of it captured from a celestial vantage point as the army swarms through the streets, until it’s infested every corner of the garrison. Imagine that same army, but this time boasting a mere twenty men and a host of digital echoes. If we’re willing to let this second army stand in for the first one, then we’re putting no demands on the medium at all; the image becomes unworthy of our attention because the act of bearing witness, which is so central to the whole process of photography in any form, has been lost.
One of the biggest lures for a moviegoer is the sense of wonder we get from seeing things actually happening. They don’t even have to be big things: an absurd amount of pleasure can be had from the grace with which Henry Fonda snatches a thrown hat out of mid-air and, in the same smooth motion, reverses its course, sailing it back away from him, in My Darling Clementine. Over the course of time trains have provided more than one eye-popper: Buster Keaton and David Lean both saw fit to pitch entire trains over dynamited bridges, and John Frankenheimer’s The Train features a succession of high-speed locomotive collisions that seem to take place in the audience’s lap. Yet CG effects have become so mandatory and standardized in today’s movies that a director who was making The Train today might automatically farm out this sequence to a digital effects house, even though he could probably crash two real trains more cheaply, under the thinking that a created effect can be controlled, and made splashier, than a real one. But the holy-shit reality of the crashes in The Train is precisely what makes them such a powerful (and pleasurable) experience, so much so that we don’t even miss the fireballs Michael Bay would think the only fitting exclamation point.
I got interested in The Fall of the Roman Empire because Scorsese included a great-looking clip in one of his documentaries, but even the fact that Anthony Mann directed it wasn’t enough to overcome my aversion to a three-hour sword-and-sandals epic until tonight. But, man, this thing’s a flat-out motherfucker. Scorsese describes it as having “the poignant beauty of a lost art,” and you see what he means before you’re five minutes into the movie. It’s just astonishingly beautiful–scene after scene after scene knocks your eyes out–with one of the most gorgeous palettes I’ve ever seen in a film. The massive sets were designed and lit not just to be big and bold like DeMille’s epics; they manage to perform subtle dramatic functions while remaining as visually stimulating as possible. In many places contrasting colors, or different shades of the same color, are splayed next to each other, as when orange torchlight consumes one side of a cobalt blue pillar, or the red in one part of Sophia Loren’s hair is highlighted while the rest of it is pitch-black. Even the titles–what to my eye looked like watercolors of martial scenes–had me hitting the rewind button.
God, it’s big. As in, big enough to swallow David Lean’s filmography without burping. It’s got more people than fucking Tokyo in it. It traces the same (fictionalized) ground that Gladiator covered: the dying Marcus Aurelius wants to leave the Empire to his humane general Livius (not “Maximus,” for God’s sake), but his shit-heel son Commodus grabs the throne for himself, then starts running Rome like a giant crackhouse. Christopher Plummer plays Commodus as if he’s George W. Bush–a guy who’d normally be talking about last night’s kegger grabs the brass ring to make up for a lifetime of inadequacy, and then (to continue the Bush metaphor) falls apart under the pressure. Plummer runs away with the movie’s acting honors, just as Joaquin Phoenix did in Gladiator (Commodus is a great role), but James Mason and Alec Guinness have their moments. Of course it’s Stephen “Minimus” Boyd and Loren who share the love scenes, so we’re talking major vacuum there, but at least those scenes are kept short–they seem to have been included just to satisfy expectations. (Oh, early on there’s a scene where Commodus and Livius link arms while chug-a-lugging goatskins of wine, then fall down on each other with gratified looks on their faces. I’m pretty sure that was a love scene, too.)
Just some incredible set-pieces. In the middle of one huge battle, which already seemed to involve every human being who’s ever lived, someone looks over a hill and yells, “Oh shit! Here come the Persians!”, and the camera cuts to an entire valley that’s covered by people. There’s also Marcus Aurelius’ funeral in the snow. Commodus literally dancing on a map of the Empire. An exciting and bizarre chariot chase that careens down a cliffside lane before plunging offroad and through a forest. James Mason taking up common cause with the Barbarians (led by John Ireland in heavy-metal makeup), whom he converts into a sitting Renaissance Faire until Commodus goes nuts from all the lute music and kills everybody. An argument in the Senate that could’ve been written yesterday: in 5-6 minutes they touch on illegal immigration, the wastefulness of war, the effectiveness of torture, and whether dissent is treasonous. I’m pretty sure a second stimulus package was next on the agenda. The finale is when things get really loco–it’s like the last 10 minutes of The Children of Paradise, El Topo and Invasion of the Body Snatchers rolled into one. I don’t want to describe it–it deserves to be seen cold.
I can’t believe I’m saying this but I can’t wait to see El Cid now.