Archive for June, 2010

“What Price Hollywood?” (1932)

June 30, 2010

A tip of the ten-gallon hat to The Self-Styled Siren for turning me on to George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?, the first and (I think) best of all the A Star is Born movies. Aside from one funky character it’s got a really modern feel, and it needs to be seen for Lowell Sherman’s brilliant, upsetting performance as a burned-out movie director who, like Wild Bill Hickok on Deadwood, just wants to go to Hell his own way. Four or five moments in What Price Hollywood? are so creative and intense that you have to pinch yourself to remember that it was a studio picture from 70 years ago. After Constance Bennett becomes a star, a near-riot breaks out when she and her husband try to exit the church after their wedding, with her fans nearly tearing them limb from limb. That’s a great scene, and so is the one where Bennett keeps rehearsing a silly line of dialogue over and over again, until she nails down the delivery that lands her her first movie role, and so is the scene-within-a-scene where she sings a French ballad as Cukor’s camera wanders freely around the soundstage, taking in the crew’s muted, affectionate reaction to her performance. But the kicker is a montage by Slavko Vorkapich which captures the final moments in a man’s life with the nightmarish elision of Menilmontant’s axe-murders.

Normally I’m not that big a Cukor fan but he put it together in this one…

Adventures in Puberty #2: Jane Fonda

June 29, 2010

Days and Nights in the Whatever

June 28, 2010

Well, I didn’t leave town and—like a good fucking boy—I managed to stay sober the whole weekend, so that must mean I threw a lot of money away on a goddam video game player I didn’t really want and definitely don’t need. What the hell was I thinking? At least it got me through Saturday, when my next door neighbor started playing a 20-minute loop of some guy yakking for a while, followed by a spare but loud bass guitar and finally a monotonous techno drumbeat that came throbbing through the wall, beginning at 8 a.m. and running with nary a break until 9 p.m.—note the difference in meridians there—at which point he finally put on some regular music, but not without first cranking up the volume and maintaining this new level until two in the morning. I was like, fine, fuck, whatever. It was Gay Pride Weekend, and since anyone needing to celebrate his fabulous Otherness at such a pitch should be allowed to knock himself out once a year, I just cranked up my headphones and kept on killing off outlaw gangs in Red Dead Redemption. But then on Sunday morning—that holiest, most heterosexual of mornings—I was just picking the croissant crumbs out of my teeth at 9 a.m. when that monotonous thud set my wall to shivering again.

See, I’ve got an anger management problem that keeps me from fully embracing life. I believe in “Live and let live” and all that other bonny crap, but I require a certain amount of peace and quiet to keep the lid clamped down on my tortured fucking soul, plus I’ve got a lot of resentment issues which make it hard for me to express my needs without going off in people’s faces. So I was sitting here doing deep-breathing exercises and planning out just how I was going to approach this maniac, and what sort of tone I’d adopt to achieve the most productive, beneficial outcome for both of us and blah-blah-blah, when I see Wolfman Jack himself standing out on his back deck. Only he’s not Dan Savage or a pompous 20-something shitbird in a faux-hawk or porkpie hat, but just a gangly, uncertain 17 year old kid from Hong Kong, here to visit old Mr. Lee next door, and who hustles back indoors to turn the music down the second I bring the subject up. Which was swell, as it left me plenty of time to concentrate on the goddam video game and thereby waste a beautiful sunny Sunday. Really, I’d have been better off drunk in Death Valley.

At least I saw some good movies the last few days. Days and Nights in the Forest is something special, even for Satyajit Ray. It’s the Ray movie whose rhythms and complications seemed most familiar to me as a Western viewer, even if its setup resembles movies as diverse as I Vitelloni, The Big Chill, and the early (and best) part of Deliverance, where the cocksure city-slickers entertain themselves by mocking the country rubes. In Days and Nights four friends from Calcutta—all young, male and well-to-do—spend a few days in a remote bungalow, a break which brings out their various attitudes toward authority, toward women, toward working and art and alcohol and sex, each of them colored by their relative affluence and the lingering aftereffects of the British Raj. Days and Nights sustains one of the freest atmospheres in a movie this side of California Split: in no order, and according to no plan, the men nap, bathe, hit a backwater bar, take walks, read, play games, and bicker, bicker, bicker. (It nails the tensions that can settle in between friends who are sharing close quarters.) Eventually they befriend two young women, one of whom (the awesomely talented, supremely beautiful Sharmila Tagore) is given to Western customs; by comparison, her sister-in-law, a plain-faced young widow who’s playing badminton in a sari when we meet her, comes across like a drip. But Ray does what Laurence Cantet did with the crab-like union leader in Human Resources, and encourages our prejudices against a character just so he can later knock them down. By the end of Days and Nights in the Forest—and what a great title that is—I felt more for the sister-in-law than anyone else in the film.

After trashing Scorsese the other day, I was a bit abashed when I gave The Departed a second chance and realized how much I like it, with a lot of the things I admired most coming from William Monahan’s fresh-mouthed, death-obsessed screenplay. Along with the scripts for Chinatown and Midnight Run, it’s a model for a certain type of genre picture; the first 20 minutes in particular smoothly ping-pong around, unscrambling the complicated backstory of its three main characters with a figure-skater’s elegance. Overall Monahan crafted so many intensely focused scenes with fresh, pungent conviction that one only wishes certain other filmmakers, like the guy responsible for that pointlessly blabby, rough-draft mess called Inglourious Basterds, could catch a clue from it.

Elsewhere…

John Simon, whom you may have noticed is hardly ever discussed nowadays, regularly disgraced himself a generation ago by pouncing on the personal traits and physical features of actresses he happened not to like, always under the guise of judging their “fitness” for their roles. As a critical practice it would’ve seemed only inane and slightly creepy had Simon not invested his takedowns with such acidic gusto: he interpreted his subjects’ homeliness as such a slap at his lofty standards that he’d take a verbal scalpel to their faces, painting the unsightly hags with their unmitigated gall as unfit not just for the silver screen but human society in general. (A typical “insight”: “Sandy Dennis has balanced her postnasal condition with something like prefrontal lobotomy, so that when she is not a walking catarrh she is a blithering imbecile.”) Simon coolly rationalized that people presumptuous enough to fill a forty-foot screen with their faces ought to handle the flak along with the laurels, and while that’s true, it doesn’t explain the sadistic relish he brought to his work half as well as the idea that he was a moral homunculus who got off on writing demeaning shit about women.

This is all by way of saying that my biggest surprise this weekend came when I found myself enamored with a Renée Zellweger romcom. Renée and me, we don’t really get along, and I hate to admit how much of it has to do with her face. I simply can’t look at her without thinking about castor oil, nor does it help that in her movies she’s merely pretending to act, which is something different than actually acting. Vera Farmiga doesn’t ring my bell either but she’s clearly loaded with talent, and though it may mystify her high-school classmates to see her making out with Matt Damon or George Clooney, it never feels like it came to pass only because mysterious forces were at work deep within the earth’s core.

Peyton Reed’s Down with Love hasn’t made me a Zellweger fan—nothing will ever accomplish that—but if I saw her choking on a chicken bone today I’d probably give her the Heimlich Maneuver. An incredibly knowing pastiche of those sexless sex comedies from the early ’60s, Down with Love isn’t close to being as consistently funny as Airplane! or This Is Spinal Tap, but it’s funny enough and it’s the richer work—a genuine pomo study of gender politics. (It puts Far From Heaven out to pasture altogether.) Reed, the writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake (their only other major credit is the Legally Blonde sequel), and the production team studied the hell out of those old Doris Day-Cary Grant-Rock Hudson monstrosities, then stitched together a Frankenstein of their own from a million old tropes and gags.

Set in the Manhattan of 1962, the movie follows the sexual and romantic exploits of Zellweger, the author of a bestselling proto-feminist manifesto, and Ewan MacGregor, a chauvinistic magazine publisher who’s caught somewhere between Hefner and Bond. All of the old clichés are here, including MacGregor’s plan to bed Zellweger by impersonating a chaste, Southern, glasses-wearing astronaut (“Major Zip Martin”), a boardroom stuffed with old fogies who all go by their initials, a brassy gal-pal and confidant for Zellweger (Sarah Paulson) and a Tony Randall-like sidekick for MacGregor (a perfect David Hyde Pierce), and—the cherry on top—the real Tony Randall, in a bit part. The old movies’ style has been inflated, particularly in the women’s eye-scorching clothes, to make it play not as the exact replica of a Doris Day comedy, but as something someone with a slight fever might dream about one. (The men’s clothes are more sedate, but even there Down with Love captures something essential, especially in the late-night conversation between MacGregor, clad in his bathrobe, and Pierce, who’s just run in from the rain in a businessman’s trenchcoat.) Even the old-school look is sent up: Zellweger’s and MacGregor’s her and his penthouse apartments both have views of a spectacular but conspicuously artificial New York skyline, and at one point they share a phone call which, through the split-screen technique once favored for such situations, looks like they’re providing each other with oral sex throughout the conversation. The one cliché almost everyone would nominate as most typical of the genre—the climactic race to the airport—is the only one that never appears. Instead Down with Love has its own ending, one that celebrates the ascension of feminism while quietly implying that nobody—and women least of all—ever wanted its goals to come to pass.

bolts are blowin’

June 24, 2010

I can’t decide whether to buy a PlayStation 3 or spend the weekend drunk in the Sierra foothills. It’s down to one of those two things, I know that much. Something’s gotta give here…

Jurassic Park

June 23, 2010

Some Golden Oldies

June 21, 2010

Happiness is Aleksandr Medvedkin’s silent 1934 symbolist-surrealist fable about a luckless peasant in Czarist Russia. That might sound like work, except that this is the cinema of Vigo and Vertov and Bunuel, along with the cinema of Gogol and Kafka and Lewis Carroll, the kind of intelligent but playful and uninhibited filmmaking that makes you want to put on widow’s weeds and go into mourning for all the directions commercial movies were never allowed to explore. A rich man doesn’t even need to use his hands when he eats—the food simply flies up from the plate and straight into his mouth without his moving a muscle. The hero’s horse, a swaybacked nag with conspicuously artificial spots painted on it, is given to crossing its front legs and dozing off whenever the peasant’s attention strays. (Lee Marvin’s horse stole the gag for Cat Ballou.) The film’s universe is a menagerie of venal priests, landowners, tax-collectors, politicians, and outright thieves, several of whom steal the community’s granary by lifting the building off its foundation from the inside and then running away with it like a giant Fred Flintstone car. Some of the sets have the discomfiting off-kilter angles of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the backdrops are straight out of A Trip to the Moon, but this thing moves in a way neither of those pictures ever dreamed of. It’s a blast.

*

The big difference between United 93 and The Battle of Algiers is that Pontecorvo inflected his movie with an outlook while Greengrass deliberately chose not to. Algiers has that brilliant bit where the woman planting the bomb in a crowded bar lets her gaze drift round the room, and seeing all the customers from her point of view, with both her and ourselves knowing that most of them will soon be dead in mayhem conjured by her hand, creates the very best kind of ambivalence in us, and the fact that the patrons reflect such life and specificity makes the moment that much more agonizing. It is a scene created with a maximum amount of awareness, and the closest thing to it in United 93 doesn’t come very close at all. It occurs early on, when the leader of the hijackers sits down among his soon-to-be fellow passengers (and victims) at the airport gate, but Greengrass mutes, defuses, the situation within the anonymity of the public space. Not even the hijacker’s face is allowed to serve as a Rorschach test—there is none of Pontecorvo’s interplay between his too-blank gaze and the people around him, even though we will see him and his co-conspirators studying the passengers and crew aplenty once all are aboard the plane. His expression at the gate is a cipher, no shallower and no deeper than anyone carrying a secret, forget about a guilty one. I don’t know what kind of aesthetic breakthrough Greengrass hoped to achieve by sticking so closely to a chain of events. United 93 is easiest to understand as a tribute to its subject—something monolithic and pure, whether or not anyone can relate to it. It’s something akin to the Washington Monument, which is something totally different than a biography of Washington. Aside from all that, there’s one line of dialogue in it that I can’t get out of my head. It comes when the second plane hits the WTC and the major in the military command post, seeing it happen live on the big screen, blurts out “Jesus! Shit!” At one point of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree the hero, made furious by one of his barfly pals, sputters a less than serene “I don’t want a cupping fuck of coffee!”, the only time I remember seeing this kind of not-quite-a-Spoonerism used to convey a character’s outrage. For sheer natural ear, that “Jesus! Shit!” comes as close as anything I know to Suttree’s line; it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what the real-life major remembered blurting out at that moment.

*

Le trou is Jacques Becker’s 1960 film about four convicts, crammed together in one cell, who are planning their breakout from Santé, a maximum security prison (and infamous hellhole) in the heart of Paris. We aren’t even sure what their crimes were, but their desperation (and the magnificently carved lines in their faces) hints that it wasn’t spitting on the sidewalk. It resembles A Condemned Man Escapes in plot—at the last moment a youngster is thrown in amongst them, and like the hero in Bresson’s film the cons are so far along in their plan that they have to gamble on the newcomer’s discretion—and somewhat in style. I say “somewhat” because though scene after scene exposes the mechanics of the convicts’ plan, in close-up and with minimal cutting (one shot, focused on a pair of hands and a homemade pickaxe, is held for the length of time it takes to break through a concrete floor), they’re such magnificent physical specimens, and they put such gusto into their chipping and hammering and tunneling, that Becker rightly turns the soundtrack up when they’re at work, until you too feel exhausted when they crawl out of their hole each night for a few hours’ sleep.

*

Works like They Were Expendable, Guernica and Catch-22 are the only things that leaven my feelings about World War II; if the damn thing had never happened, 50 or 100 of my favorite pieces of art would never have been created. Now I can add Army of Shadows to the list. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dry-ice epic shows us the French Resistance through the eyes of an aloof professorial type who isn’t above shivving a German guard in the neck if that’s what the moment demands. That doesn’t mean he likes it. To Melville everything is “a question of ethics”, as Johnny Caspar would put it. If nothing much happens for stretches of time, a single close-up can reveal the true nature of the pharmacists and bookkeepers—that is, as they appeared before the Occupation. Garroting informers doesn’t come any more naturally to them than it would to you or me, and every situation they encounter requires a recalibration of every understanding they’ve ever held of the world. There are plenty of scenes showing the mechanics of how the Resistance worked—on one level it’s as if we’re following the schoolteacher that Lucien Lacombe betrayed rather than Lucien himself—but Melville is really concerned with the worms wiggling round his protagonists’ souls. They’re mired in the misery of their moment in time, with nary a spark of the ahistorical nudge-nudge-wink-wink that plagues nearly all period pieces, and which magically aligns the heroes’ feelings about their actions with our own. Coming two years before The Sorrow and the Pity blew the doors off the subject, it’s easy to see why Army of Shadows, with its creeping moral unease and offhanded depictions of collaborators, gave so many Frenchmen the yips.

*

In Francesco Maselli’s 1971 Open Letter to the Evening News a band of amiable Communists in Rome, all pushing past 40, have been marginalized by their beliefs for so long that they’ve accidentally succeeded as capitalists. They’ve turned into novelists, executives, filmmakers and professors, drive vintage autos and own spacious lofts, and with their vibrant intelligence and money they’ve attracted a coterie of girlfriends and wives much younger than themselves. At a party one night they write a private manifesto announcing their (nonexistent) intention to join the North Vietnamese Army—but then the manifesto is published, with their names attached to it. It’s bad enough when the Italian Communist Party gives them the green light and Hanoi welcomes them to the fold, but they’re totally screwed when they start receiving support from Europe’s leading intellectuals—including Sartre—and their own students start demonstrating in their favor.

These post-Godardian leftists apply Marxist analyses to every scrap of their lives, but their dialog is enlivening and funny even at its most theoretical. Maselli shoots them with an antsy handheld camera that’s always looking for the hottest discussion in the room, and between the men’s various ruses to find a way out of their jam without appearing pathetic (their biggest fear) and their women’s alternating chidings and encouragements, it has a lot to choose from. Even though the men remain dedicated radicals, they never lose their daily human drives, so that even at the deepest point of their crisis they don’t lose interest in hanging out or having sex with their supermodel-looking mates. (There’s a lot of sex in this movie.) It drags a bit towards the end, but it was so grand to find an unabashedly Marxist film that has an actual funny-bone and sense of proportion that I can’t help but take it to heart, partly because it mirrors the exercise in futility of being a leftist in America today.

*

The art-house anthology film L’Amore in città only sounds light-hearted; for much of the way it’s a harsh motherfucker, with tightly focused documentary-like looks at the lives of prostitutes and failed suicides (Antonioni). The harshest of all: Zavattini and Francesco Maselli’s retelling of the true story of a young mother who’s forced by circumstances into abandoning her toddler in a city park, with the actual woman playing herself—brutal. Fellini’s contribution follows an investigative reporter who tells a marriage agency that he wants a girl who’s willing to date a werewolf, which sounds pretty funny until the agency lays off a desperately lonely wallflower on the guy. All this grimness is balanced by two great light episodes, Dino Risi’s look at the coltish, lust-driven behavior of the habitues of a twenty-something nightclub and Alberto Lattuada’s short that’s like a lewd-minded episode of Candid Camera: the camera trails (and in some cases practically slobbers on) about 20 drop-dead gorgeous women as they go about their business in Rome, and the comically devastating effect they have on the men they leave broken and bobbing in their wake.

*

In Julien Duvivier’s Panique Michel Simon plays a stand-offish eccentric who, already hated by his neighbors, is framed for murder by a pair of lovers. The rumor of his deed spreads through the village while he’s away, and there’s a stunning moment when he disembarks from a cab in the town square only to notice the stores all shuttered and the townspeople peering at him with unalloyed hatred; when they begin yelling “Kill him!” and charge him en masse, it’s a nightmare come to life. There aren’t any last second miracles either—Duvivier lets the nightmare play itself out. It really makes you wonder just what in the hell was going on in the French provinces in the ’30s and ’40s that caused virtually all of their great filmmakers to paint their countrymen, from the aristocrat down to the most humble butcher, as gullible, hateful, hypocritical, or sadistic.

*

Forget about the title of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men and just remember that the movie itself is intelligent, funny, observant, real. (It was co-written by Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and David Dortort, who created Bonanza.) Robert Mitchum’s an aging, broken-down rodeo star who returns home as he nears the end of his road, and if that sounds familiar, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner also quotes a line or two from The Lusty Men and stays in touch with Ray’s movie in other ways. Mitchum falls in with dissatisfied ranch-hand Arthur Kennedy and his wife, Susan Hayward; Kennedy yens for money and adventure, and seeing the rodeo as his ticket, takes Mitchum on as his partner-mentor and begins riding the circuit. Like Junior Bonner this thing seamlessly blends footage from real rodeos (in San Angelo and Tucson) into the narrative, and like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid it’s full of backwards-looking anecdotes and tall-tales, all of them winners—Arthur Hunnicutt’s story about how he learned to ride a horse as a baby is especially appealing. The other movie it reminded me of is The Right Stuff —a major subplot is given over to the wives, each of them clearly individualized, who sit and wait as their men scratch their itches in a way that could maim or kill them (leaving the women destitute), and like the astronauts’ wives, they have to sweat out the sweet-looking groupies who came squirreling around for a good time. The direction, the writing, the acting are all aces. Things keep coming back to me, like the way a post-rodeo party looks like a less obviously gaudy Hollywood bash, but Ray doesn’t push any of that stuff—it’s just there if you want to notice it.

*

Goin’ Down the Road is a brilliant little Canadian indie from 1970 by Don Shebib. Two young dreamers jump in a crumbling ‘60 Chevy Impala and head for the city lights of Toronto to chase women and get rich; they don’t have an easy time of it. This is Canada’s answer to Last Night at the Alamo, except that Pete and Joey make Claude and Cowboy look like winners of the Irish Sweepstakes. Shebib catches the ongoing-ness of poverty as well as anyone I’ve ever seen; he also does shitty jobs and the hard death of dreams very well. It was shot on the fly, with Shebib calling out his three-man crew (Carroll Ballard among them) as the money and inspiration came to him. As Kael pointed out in her review it virtually erases the barrier between set and setting: Shebib’s young actors, especially when seen from a distance, melt right into the material. The movie made a lot of U.S. critics’ top ten lists before falling into the rabbit hole. It’s out of print now but it did get issued—in a beautiful release—on DVD, so it may be available on Netflix.

*

Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 La 317ème section (or The 317th Platoon) is set in Vietnam in May of ’54, amidst radio chatter of the debacle at Diên Biên Phú. A platoon of Frenchmen and their Cambodian recruits are picking their way to safety through a raging Vietminh offensive; not surprisingly, things grow more and more fucked up for them. Filmed entirely in the Cambodian jungle, Schoendoerffer melds action with setting the way Anthony Mann did: real tropical rains rise up in the middle of scenes, drenching the actors without their taking notice of it. It also features a fascinating variation on that old standard, the seasoned platoon sergeant who, to his charges, fills important roles as both a father-figure and a totem of the working-class. The twist here is to make Bruno Cremer’s Alsatian sergeant a veteran of the Wehrmacht whose experiences in Russia make him more capable than his reasonably competent lieutenant. Raoul Coutard captured a parade of images—stretcher-bearers crossing a hilltop in silhouette, a herd of elephants approaching the camera through grass as high as their eyelids—so basic that they feel pagan, while elsewhere deep-focus B&W shots so crisp you can make out details hundreds of yards away are used to view entire battles from the perspective of God’s favorite armchair. Schoendoerffer navigated the Scylla and Charybdis of war movies—forced sentiment and forced cynicism. In fact, a pleasing absence of bull all the way around.

“The Violent Men” (1955)

June 18, 2010

Rudolph Maté’s The Violent Men is another one of those hot-house Technicolor Westerns, a boiling Freudian stew of incestuous, power-mad cattle ranchers, all riding this way and that, and fighting and fucking each other to a deafening brass score. With that live-action Huckleberry Hound Glenn Ford as its hero it should’ve been called The Violent Doorknobs, except that Barbara Stanwyck is on hand, playing a cowgirl version of Connie Corleone, and so is her land-grabbing hubby Edward G. Robinson. Robinson has Lord Chatterley’s Disease—that is, he’s paralyzed from the waist down, with symbolic complications—so he tries to pleasure his wife by knocking off small ranchers; but, sorry—she’s busy diddling his brother (Brian Keith), who likes to strut around town showing off his fancy pencil moustache. Ford plays one of the sodbusters, and his I-stick-my-neck-out-for-nobody routine lasts a seeming eternity, but with about 40 minutes left in the picture he finally has his Billy Jack moment and starts giving back to the bad guys. The last half hour cartwheels from one showy climax to another: a smartly executed ambush, the fiery end of a magnificent ranch-house, a no-guff gunfight that settles things for good. (There’s also a grand moment where Stanwyck, her plans having come to seeming fruition, rubs her success in the face of her one female rival. Let’s just say it’s the wrong way to go.) The Violent Men is a little too stodgy for a little too long to rank it with The Furies, Pursued or Gunman’s Walk, but its scenery, tough action, and fancy lassoing place it far above its celebrated cousin Duel in the Sun. It’s also 45 minutes shorter.

“Beautiful schlopp with a cherry on top…”

June 17, 2010

I was just out having a smoke when I got blindsided by something I did when I was 8 or 9 years old. We were living in Metairie then, and my mom had gotten chummy with a bunch of her coworkers in Tenneco’s marketing department, so one night a bunch of us went bowling in New Orleans. Everyone in our party was gathered around the two or three lanes we’d rented, and I’d moved over by myself to the first empty lane next to them and started fooling around with the overhead projector, scribbling my name and drawing on it and what-not. There were two black couples a couple of lanes down from me, and I remember looking at them and then looking down at the little lit-up panel in front of me and then very deliberately scrawling on it, in big block letters, the single word NIGGER. I never saw my mother move faster than she did when she came sliding around the bench and started running over to those people. She talked to them for three or four minutes while I sat at my table, swinging my legs and pretty much oblivious to what I’d done; I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I can still see them huddled together, and in my memory anyway the couples were a lot cooler and more understanding than we had any right to expect. (Though God knows they probably weren’t too eager to get into a fight with 10-15 whites in a New Orleans bowling alley.) Afterward it was one of those rare times when Mom didn’t blow her stack, but instead did the right thing the right way, calmly explaining to me why it was wrong and so on, even when she still had to go back and apologize to her friends for my nearly starting a brawl.

Naturally there were a lot of mitigating circumstances at play here, but none of that made any difference over the years because that’s not the way shame works. I have no idea how many of the other people who were there that night remember what I did, but I sure as hell couldn’t forget it, even if it is just one of those stray, stupid memories that comes to mind whenever it feels like fucking with me. When it does come, though, it’s never a good thing—reliving it always ends with me shuddering with mortification. When I was about 13 I started huffing a toluene-based aerosol product called Plasti-Coat, and the various hallucinations had a through-line that repeated themselves note for note, like the refrain of a song, and each time they’d come to me I’d experience the identical physical and mental reactions to each point of the progression. There was one train of thought—I don’t know what else to call these things—where I was in outer space and connected to Earth only by a thick green tentacle that protruded from my navel and extended to some unseen point down here, and this tentacle was like a whip. Something on the Earth end would pull on it, stretching it tight, and then the tension would suddenly be released, so that it was like a rubber-band unsnapping and I’d go flying backwards into space—alone, and in the other direction from home. Another mental string only revolved around the image of three strips of semi-rigid metal, like the tongues of a Jew’s harp, arranged with two on the left side and the third extending from the right in between them; in this little playlet (which never varied), the middle strip would bend downwards until it bent the lower one far enough to snap under it, then it would suddenly snap back upwards, pushing past both of the left-hand strips all the way to the top of them. This all occurred with a certain rhythm that never varied, and each time it happened—could be five times a session, could be none at all—the moment just before the final release would build and build, and when the single strip made its final snap through the other two, always with the same palpable release of energy, it was accompanied by a cracking noise followed by a cold, piercing whistle, and a current of pain that seemed like an extension of the whistle would shoot down my spine, making my backbone feel like it was snapping in two. But at least one of these hallucinatory progressions had a discernible narrative line. I didn’t experience it often, and the details are beyond hazy today, but it was like a story from Creepy magazine, and basically consisted of a series of events at the end of which I’d stand exposed to the world as…an incorrigible racist. (Yeah…13 years old. Go figure.) At the end of it I’d be flooded with a feeling of irreversible moral infection and only the merest trace of relief that none if it was true.

Of course, every dog has those moments he’d give anything to get back. But the striking thing about that bowling alley episode is that my reaction to the unprovoked memory of it today is still so consistent with the helplessness and self-loathing I felt back when I was huffing Plasti-Coat behind the carport on Holly Street—and that’s even with full awareness of the disconnect between my actual responsibility for that night and the sharpness of my regret. “Oh, the THINKS you can think!” as a wise man once put it, but for once not even the great Mr. Geisel may have known just what it was he was saying.



It Must Be Lunchtime

June 16, 2010

What I’ve Been Up To, When I Haven’t Been Up To Anything At All

June 15, 2010

Phase IV is the only feature-length film directed by the King of the Title Designers, Saul Bass, and its strengths and weaknesses are what you’d expect from someone with such a strong visual orientation. An open-ended, ruminative sci-fi movie in the mold of The Incredible Shrinking Man (though, I haul ass to add, nowhere close to its league), it watches what happens when the world’s ants band together to take things over from their human overlords as represented by Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, and the woman who ripped off Peter Sellers’ estate. The dialogue and “futuristic” hardware are strictly snort-worthy, but there are passages here and there where Bass just lets his camera do what it will. The opening 10 minutes in particular are beautiful, even hypnotic, as a spare elliptical voiceover sets out the movie’s basic concepts while we watch some gorgeously lit high-magnification photography of our insect friends at work and play.

Seven by Satyajit Ray, in about the order I liked them: The Home and the World (a cousin of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes), The Music Room, Two Daughters, The Big City, The Middleman, Charulata, and Devi. The first three titles are stone-cold masterpieces but even Devi—in which a young girl, mistaken for the reincarnation of Kali by her overreaching father-in-law, comes to believe it herself—is nothing short of wonderful. All of Ray’s stories are like that; with their simple hooks and rapidly widening ripples they remind me of Cornell Woolrich without the murders and double-crosses. A typical Ray scene consists of two people talking and working something out, and these scenes accumulate until they burst into a lyrical outpouring of emotion: in The Home and the World, a young wife leaves her palace’s inner apartments and enters the main residence—“the world”—for the first time in her married life, while in Two Daughters a rural postman decides to quit his station and return to the city, devastating the small local girl who’s attached herself to him. Ray’s main characters sometimes remind me of Jeff Daniels’ monstrous father in The Squid and the Whale, in that they’re such pure distillations of their drives that they take on a monumental aspect. His secondary characters are more directly relatable—I was especially fascinated by the nouveau riche farmer who subtly but mercilessly baits his old employer in The Music Room and the manager who turns out to be not such a nice guy in The Big City.

The Whisperers stars Edith Evans as a pensioner, half-mad from loneliness, who’s running out the clock in Manchester’s slums. We experience her routine—endless rounds to the welfare office, a visit to the library to warm her feet, ferocious, ridiculous arguments with her neighbors—until it all becomes a bit numbing, even more so thanks to Bryan Forbes’ fastidious direction which works on the human brain like chloroform. His meaning is always achingly clear, but things never spill over the way they constantly do in Ray’s movies, at least not until the late introduction of Eric Portman as Evans’ estranged, caddish husband. Portman’s regal seediness is electrifying for the 20 or so minutes he’s in the movie, and even Forbes seems to forget about Evans in that time; once Portman disappears, though, the story starts running in place again.

Gordon Douglas’ Come Fill the Cup opens with a bang, with James Cagney playing a formerly distinguished newspaper reporter who, when we meet him, is just being fired for chronic drunkenness. For 10 or 15 minutes Cagney actually improves on the alcoholic melancholia that he looked to have perfected in The Roaring Twenties, and the picture seems poised to kick The Lost Weekend into the gutter. Instead, it inexplicably pulls in its horns. Cagney sobers up, gets his job back, and goes after a local mobster with a team of other (less interesting) dried-out drunks; even worse, he works to sober up poor little rich boy Gig Young who, thanks to an obnoxious Mexico obsession, calls everyone Sẽnor”. Worst of all, Cagney stops acting, and falls back on the hectoring, barking mode that made me want to strangle him in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Too bad.

Lewis R. Foster’s unsentimental Crashout follows six escaped convicts on a cross-country run to pick up some buried loot; to skirt the dragnet blocking their way, they wind up traveling by foot, car, and train, and getting picked off one by one, with each exit leaving a pungent taste in your mouth. The cons are played by a stellar collection of heavies—William Bendix, Arthur Kennedy, William Talman (“Hamilton Burger” of Perry Mason), Gene Evans, Luther Adler and Marshall Thompson—all carefully differentiated from each other, and all of them doing good work. Their journey brings them into contact with something more than your typical band of movie hostages—a country doctor who sniffs with annoyance as he’s being lured to his doom, a disillusioned unwed mother hiding out just as deeply as the convicts are, and a young woman, already defeated by life, coming home to her burg after washing out in Hollywood. It’s only available on VHS for some reason, but Jesus, it’s good.

This Bitter Blurb

June 13, 2010

This shit made me think of Pauline Kael’s line “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.” When Thomas Doherty published his article “The Death of Film Criticism” a few months back, people came spilling out of the movie blogosphere’s woodwork to point out how deeply dopey it was in light of all the talented film crit available in different media today. (Now, professional movie reviewing can be seen suffering, but that’s a distinction which Doherty never makes.) The ensuing pile-on was to be expected, partly because bloggers like to flail away at things, but mainly because Doherty’s argument was insane—not only is film criticism not doing badly, it’s healthier than it’s ever been. It didn’t help either that Doherty made his case out of both corners of his mouth: read it closely and you’ll see he never says that film criticism is done for—the jury’s still out, I guess—but that other people say so, and here’s a little (though not much) evidence to back them up, with a closing line to the effect of “It’d be a shame if it’s true, wahh.” Obviously he wrote it that way to cover himself from the shitstorm that he knew must arrive, which only makes me wonder why someone who can anticipate both the content and the venom of the rebuttals headed his way would continue plodding ahead with his thesis. Of course he’s getting paid, but presumably he would’ve gotten paid just as well for writing something that isn’t demonstrably false and which wouldn’t generate personal attacks against himself and his descendants lo unto the seventh generation, all of which leads me to the conclusion that Thomas Doherty is both a fool and a masochist.

Anyway, Glenn Kenny (who, incidentally, thinks Shutter Island rates being mentioned in the same breath with Vertigo, and, I’m sorry, that too is simply incorrect) and a host of other bloggers, instead of just dismissing Doherty’s article with a “Hmph! What a conspicuously fallible argument the man makes!,” instead chose to go full-monty ape-shit about it. More to the point, none of them turned the discourse towards what still seems a very logical progression of such a conversation, to wit, how all the movie love that’s out there can be translated into getting better movies made. One way, I’d suggest, would be not to supply free merchandising ad copy for the studios in the New York Times, and another would be to not gas up empty garbage like Shutter Island. In fact, Scorsese is sort of ground-zero for what I’m talking about. In My Voyage to Italy and his DVD commentaries, the man talks the talk like no man alive: he understands exactly how movies work and what makes them special, and his taste is nearly impeccable. And yet if you shove a camera into his hands, he comes back with a 130-minute episode of The Twilight Zone.

I did find one good thing thanks to Shutter Island, though:

Small Fish in Peril

June 7, 2010

Spent part of the weekend watching BBC’s Nature’s Most Amazing Events. That title is a little misleading—most of it isn’t that damn amazing—but there is the gigantic school of sardines beset by an array of enemies whose numbers and diversity could’ve been dreamed up only by God, or J.R.R. Tolkien.

And as a bonus, herring in peril:

Silk from a Sow’s Ear

June 4, 2010

What I wrote about Justified still goes, and then some. Its unflashy, straightahead brand of storytelling (presumably fallout from its modest budget) may keep it from ever being considered one of the great TV series, but it’ll do until one comes along. There have been weak episodes, such as the one where Raylan Givens’ pursuit of a dentist-embezzler carried him into a half-assed shootout on the Mexican border, the only time where the show’s violence, and Raylan’s almost divine facility with a handgun, were cartoonish and uninteresting. (It was also a case of someone’s affection for Midnight Run getting the best of them.) But even that episode could boast the classic confrontation between Clarence Williams III, playing a vinegary Vietnam veteran, and the young cop who tiredly confesses to him “Sir, I don’t know what the Mekong Delta is.” Justified is full of lines like that, lines which, while written totally in character, contain a bemused, aware measurement of American life.

It’d be too much to say that Justified breaks the fourth wall, but it definitely messes with it. Its one identifiable character arc—something to do with Raylan coming to grips with his “anger”—would be a groaner if the show’s creators took it at all seriously. It’d be just as easy to make Justified sound slovenly and lax, what with its nick-of-time appearances by characters who couldn’t be more genie-like if they showed up in puffs in smoke, Raylan’s fail-proof ability to intuit what the bad guys are going to do next, and the unlikely presence of not one but two small-town goddesses—Raylan’s current squeeze, Ava, and his ex-wife, Winona—either of whom could burn the big city down.

The truth is, Graham Yost and his writers aren’t crafting a masterpiece of Sopranos-level subtlety or polish (the direction is often merely functional), but they preempt such carping by focusing on Elmore Leonard’s menagerie of felonious, lovelorn fuck-ups and the back-country no-class world they inhabit. If Jake Gittes’ M.O. in Chinatown was to let sleeping dogs lie, Raylan Givens likes to kick them awake, demand their tags, and then start whacking them on the snout with their own chew-toys. But his self-righteousness never descends to a Death Wish shellacking of the bad guys, and sometimes, as when he picks a fight with two burly barroom louts, it even blows up in his face. It’s Raylan’s very fallibility that makes him, if not heroic, then at least endlessly diverting. Timothy Olyphant had to place his natural warmth under house arrest to play that natural-born prick Seth Bullock, but here he lets it ooze all the way through, and there’s something commonsensical, even disarming, in the calm, splay-fingered way Raylan addresses the hit-men and hostage-takers who are evidently overrunning southern Kentucky nowadays, even when he’s threatening their lives.

The balance between available talent and worthy material has probably always been out of whack, but these days, when a single show like The Wire can uncover literally scores of good actors in one fell swoop, it’s a joke to hope that any more than a few of them will find gigs that exploit everything they can do while treating them right money-wise, making it extra nice when a show like Justified comes along and starts passing out the juicy parts like Halloween candy. It took me a while to warm up to Walton Goggins—with his harshly chiseled features and thousand-yard stare, he looks like he ought to be a terrible actor, but he’s actually as much of a hoot as the shape-shifting, homicidal Boyd Crowder possibly can be. In fact, all the Crowders are fun to watch, especially the mountainous M.C. Gainey as the patriarch Bo, a habitual criminal who lumbers about in cammies and seems like the world’s coolest granddad until utterly vile things start spilling out of his mouth. (Gainey was also a kick as the no-nonsense Nam veteran in Citizen Ruth, and those were his blubbery nether parts jiggling against Paul Giamatti’s car window in Sideways.) Justified has also given guest-shots to a handful of Deadwood alumni—the next best thing to a Season Four, I guess, even if it was a sadistic tease to bring Con Stapleton back for only one brief scene.

Some of the other guest stars have given me simply ridiculous amounts of pleasure; along with Williams my favorites include Katherine LaNasa, as a manicured trophy wife with a bagful of dirty tricks, and Stephen Root, as a hanging judge with a weakness for whiskey and strippers. All of these characters, morally maladjusted as they are, are integral cogs in Elmore Leonard’s cosmic, comic view of temptation. His novels and short stories offer something like a malt liquor version of Jean Renoir’s judgment on the human race: people, in his eyes, indeed have their reasons, but they’re almost always half-baked, and are frequently indictable.

“Cop Hater” (1958)

June 3, 2010

It’s smarter than it looks—not a lot, but enough. It opens with a bleak view of a shirtless man lying on his bed, and as he gets up for work, still looking tired, the stark words COP HATER appear with a lurid splash of horns. Within minutes the man—a homicide detective—will be shot dead on the street, and soon after that a second cop will be gunned down. Adapted from the first of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, Cop Hater follows Detective Steve Carelli’s hunt for the apparent psycho-killer in a thinly-disguised Manhattan. The funny thing—at least it seems funny until you’ve seen the ending—is the pit-stops it makes, and the detours it takes to reach them. These are the scenes where the cops do pretty much nothing: just drinking (sometimes on duty), cutting short a dinner with their girlfriends to take a call, or going out for a night on the town, where they engage in playful macho jockeying while dancing with each other’s wives. (“Hey, that’s too close!”) The movie also allots plenty of time to titillating views of the cops’ dishy companions, who always seem to be caught in their bathing suits, cocktail dresses, or clingy bathroom towels.

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A 28-year old Robert Loggia stars as Carelli and a 23-year old Jerry Orbach has one big scene as the gang leader “Mumzer”; Loggia is already working his hands overtime while shaking his head in search of the right word, and Orbach looks fine talking down through his nostrils while telling the cops where to get off. But the best performance comes from Gerald O’Loughlin as Loggia’s partner; hauling his fireplug body around the living room in just a pair of Bermuda shorts, the better to jump his bombshell wife, he looks like a cross between a cannonball and a testicle. The ending ties the motive for the killings to the cops’ compulsive, sexist, alcoholic lifestyle, which the movie actually indicts, if only carefully, from the corner of its mouth. The case solved, Cop Hater ends just as The Big Heat did, with a citizen reporting a fresh crime, the detectives barreling out the door, the cycle beginning  again. Cop Hater misses the chance that Ellery Queen jumped on in Cat of Many Tails, to flesh out the city’s reaction to a serial killer and make dread a player in the story; still, its grungy world view and doubled-edged exploitativeness puts it light-years ahead of William Wyler’s grindingly solemn treatment of similar material in Detective Story.

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