“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” we read at the end of The American, in what has to be the most unnecessary disclaimer of 2010; the prawn-faced, cat-food-gobbling aliens in District 9 were more recognizably human than any of the mannequins stumbling about the sunny malaise of Anton Corbijn’s eye-roller. A thriller that looks down on thrills except when it doesn’t, The American hearkens back to Graham Greene’s “serious” (and, usually, seriously phony) novels about morally threadbare heroes. George Clooney plays a jet-setting loner who manufactures high-grade firearms for professional assassins (what, you’ve never known anyone like that?), and who’s so uptight he can accept human contact only from a gorgeous but stupefyingly boring prostitute named…well, I forget what her name was. When Clooney’s not working on his latest assignment in what look like the deleted scenes from Robert Bresson’s worst movie, he moons around the Italian countryside like a poleaxed calf in search of the same brand of Catholic redemption that Greene used to dangle like a cheeseburger in front of his losers—a literary salvation which, of course, is utterly useless in the actual world. In what seems a direct nod to Greene, Clooney even takes on a sidekick priest, a baggy-eyed old man who peers sadly at him while delivering such Movie Priest sayings as “All the sheep in my flock are dear to me”, “You cannot deny the existence of hell. You live in it”, and other moldy sentiments that make you want to knock the guy’s teeth out for him. Honestly, I didn’t think I could hate any movie more than Shutter Island this year, but The American just walked off with the prize.
Archive for December, 2010
..the place where they’ll do anything for free speech, even die for it, just so long as nobody tries to exercise it.
Looks like Hitler didn’t enjoy Christmas parties any more than the rest of us.
The Square is part of a new wave of Aussie noirs, and it’s gotten so many rave reviews I stupidly let myself get my hopes up. It’s familiar stuff. A married, middle-class guy is having an affair with a younger woman whose riffraff boyfriend has a big bag of ill-gotten cash, so the lovers decide to torch the house and make it look like the money burned before taking off for some Shangri-La where neither the boyfriend, the guy’s wife, nor the police will ever think to look for them. As Basil Fawlty would say, “YES! BRILLIANT!” They can’t even make it to the city limits though they live in a fucking swamp. Now, I know haplessness can be the noir hero’s defining trait, but this goofy schmuck winds up accidentally bumping off half the cast before the end, and the last death made me laugh out loud when I was clearly supposed to be devastated. It doesn’t help either that, unlike Stanwyck or Kathleen Turner in their primes, the object of his desire wouldn’t rate a second look on the street. Sorry, fella—you brought this one on yourself.
More than most kinds of nostalgia, Texan nostalgia is absurdly easy to overdo. That helps to explain why Eagle Pennell’s first two feature films—The Whole Shootin’ Match and Last Night at the Alamo—are such special things. Both movies are intricately, almost embarrassingly, familiar with certain Texan types and attitudes, yet manage to explore them without either sentimentalizing or condescending to them. To this pair of eyes at least, Pennell’s movies, even with their rough edges (and some of those edges are really rough), present a truer picture of Texas than all of the Hollywood colossi striding through Giant, the dirt-kicking mumblefucks of Tender Mercies, or the upscale hot-house symbols and tropes swarming like locusts through Hud, Lone Star, and The Last Picture Show.
I first saw Last Night at the Alamo on television around 1985. It definitely stood out from the other cable fare of the time, if only for the humble place it occupied in the world. Its miniscule arena extends no further than the premises of a mildewed Houston dive—“The Alamo”—on the night before it’s to be bulldozed and replaced by condos; its action consists of about a dozen of the bar’s regulars acting out their nightly rituals one last time before losing what for most of them is their real home. In places the movie feels like an artistic commando raid, rescuing characters—a henpecked husband, a perpetually pissed-off redneck kid—who are usually confined to the background of movies, and dragging them front and center where we can take a good, long look at them.
The movie’s brazenly foul-mouthed dialogue also made it memorable, for Last Night at the Alamo has a case of potty-mouth like few other movies do; Deadwood by comparison sounds like the Gettysburg Address. One character in particular—the almost metaphysically miserable Claude, played by Lou Perryman—delivers a graduate seminar in framing life’s dilemmas using only four-letter words. Yet for all its rambunctiousness, Last Night at the Alamo remains focused, mostly on the travails of “Cowboy” (Sonny Carl Davis), the bar’s most celebrated regular. Cowboy is a balding, sawed-off John Wayne wannabe who gets through life by posing as a grinning, strutting good-time-charlie. A little man revered by the other barflies only because they themselves are so small, Cowboy claims to have a secret plan to save The Alamo, and it comes as no surprise when it works about as well as Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam. (Because of their relative sizes Perryman and Davis resemble a redneck Mutt and Jeff, but in terms of what they mean to Pennell’s movies it’s more useful to think of William Demarest and Preston Sturges or Elliot Gould and Robert Altman—as living, breathing manifestations of the filmmaker’s personality.)
Last Night at the Alamo’s finest accomplishment is recognizing its characters as the misogynistic alcoholic losers they are without ever giving up on them as human beings. Celebrations of the pathetic are rare enough in art, but they’re nearly unheard of in contemporary America, where normal human concerns about status and self-esteem have blossomed into full-blown psychotic obsessions, and people act as if spending time with even fictional failures brings bad juju. Yet Pennell and his co-scenarist Kim Henkel don’t bother giving Cowboy & Co. any synthetic little touches to redeem them or make them “worthy” of our interest. It’s simply assumed that their very existence is reason enough to care about them—a notion which, if it’s good enough for democracy, ought to do for a movie.
Pennell’s 1978 ode to scrapers and battlers The Whole Shootin’ Match is even purer than Alamo. It follows two Austin lowlifes, Loyd and Frank (Perryman and Davis again), who fill their days working as common laborers and dreaming up fanciful get-rich-quick schemes. Again Pennell (this time sharing writing duties with Lin Sutherland) doesn’t shy away from his heroes’ darker patches—at one point Frank, his manhood stung by his cousin’s flirting with his wife, mindlessly takes a belt to his young son—yet the movie’s overriding tone is affectionate and understanding. When one of their schemes seems certain of a big-time payout, Frank treats himself to a leisure suit and cowboy hat, and his shopping spree is a delight to watch even though we know he’s setting himself up for a fall. The last scene, in which the two old friends make a long quixotic trek across the Hill Country in search of Spanish treasure and wind up making some peace with their jimmy-rigged lives, is memorable both for its easygoing pace and the physically convincing vibe of a long day spent outdoors. (Robert Redford has often cited Shootin’ Match—the archetypal regional, independently financed production—as a primary inspiration for the Sundance Film Festival.)
Pennell made three more movies after Last Night at the Alamo, all of them unavailable on home video, and all of them reputedly awful. After his early successes he suffered a long, sad decline, eventually drinking himself to death in Houston in 2002. Earlier this year Watchmaker Films released The Whole Shootin’ Match on DVD, along with a documentary by Pennell’s nephew which, in the course of tracing his rise and fall, touches on filmmaking, Austin in the ’70s, and terminal alcoholism—and it’s superb on every count. (Last Night at the Alamo has never made it to DVD but remains available via used VHS tapes, occasional cable broadcasts and YouTube.) Perryman, Davis and their splendid co-star Doris Hargrave, about whom I haven’t said anywhere near enough, provided a commentary track for Shootin’ Match that’s colorful and informative, even if it doesn’t reach the uproarious heights of The A.V. Club’s fabled 2008 interview with the two men. In an agonizing postscript, Lou Perryman was murdered in his Austin home in April 2009. It remains a mystery why he and Pennell had to meet ends so much harsher than anything they wished on their characters.
Dog Canyon 2009
A pretty big letdown after all the ink it’s gotten. I even stopped having fun hanging out with those actors halfway into it, mostly because the script kept forcing them into such unnatural positions. The simulacrum of life’s messiness, with its carefully gauged not-too-serious tone, reminded me of Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, and like Brooks it wouldn’t stop with the music—that goddam acoustic guitar was pissing poignancy on everything in sight. Some things in it I didn’t even understand, like that bit at the end when the girl sends everyone away, but I found its treatment of Ruffalo’s character really puzzling. Sarah Palin might approve of the way it asserts the primacy of family while managing to make the liberal eco-minded libertine appear to be every bit the “interloper” that Bening accuses him of being. That these people couldn’t find a place for each other in their lives, especially when they seemed so largely cut from the same cloth, came as a real surprise.
That all said, Bening is just a jewel in it—I could almost recommend it just for a couple of closeups of her. Alas, almost…
(Thanks to Phil Freeman…)
Tonight it was Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, a drama about illegal immigrants in London getting caught up in the wheels of the human organ trade. It opens with a Nigerian hotel clerk—the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who ought to be a star—unplugging one of the rooms’ toilets, and finding it stuffed by a human heart. (It’s the image art has been searching for since the start of the 20th Century.) That sounds grim but the movie actually plays on the level of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa: serious, but with a fairy-tale touch to it. Despite the downbeat milieu and the self-conscious way with which it gives voice to the powerless, it’s endearing, even invigorating, by the end.
Restrepo is amazingly intense—it’s also funny, sad, touching, frustrating, and all that other stuff, so much so that it can easily stand in as the 2000s’ version of The Anderson Platoon. Mostly, though, there’s the unforgettable sequence where the guys in the platoon simply lose their shit over something that’s just happened, and a couple of these trained killers, unable to get past the reality of what their eyes are pointed at, simply turn into blubbering babies—I can’t remember another movie that shows real people undergoing such deep levels of grief and fear. It also shows, almost incidentally, why the Afghan war remains the most insane of ventures, but that’s probably the smallest thing you take away from it.
First, a toss-up between what’s more unbelievable, evil aliens pitching camp in Dodge City or that even after 40 years in the business Harrison Ford can’t make the words “Or I’m gonna take him” sound half-human:
Elsewhere, this true crime piece by Mark Bowden is well worth reading—some really ingenious detective work at play here. Be sure to watch the video afterward…
And finally, the thing that made me laugh the hardest in the past couple weeks:
Tonie Marshall’s Venus Beauty Institute is a gorgeous, amusingly bitter movie about a Parisian beauty salon and its staff of lonely unattached women. Among other things it’s a great corrective to American rom-coms: the characters (played by Nathalie Baye, Audrey Tatou, Bulle Ogier, etc.) act like real people, not superstars dressing down as the girl next door, and they do things—having sex in the back seat of strange men’s cars, taking up with pathetic-seeming sugar daddies—which U.S. audiences would find off-putting. It all has a point, though, and it’s not to be depressing. (It’s too much influenced by Demy and Tati to be a downer.) And if, like me, you’re any kind of a Nathalie Baye fan, it’s a real must-see; I’m also giving it bonus points for the short scenes with Emmanuelle Riva, Edith Scob (!) and Claire Denis.
Afterschool – An alienated kid at a posh prep school accidentally films two classmates dying of an OD, then is asked—“ironically”—to make a video tribute for the school memorial. The debut feature by Antonio Campos is getting a bunch of “talent to be reckoned with” buzz, but its surprise ending isn’t very surprising, and it abounds in predictable, annoying distancing techniques (askew framing, glacial pacing, long silences, entire scenes played with the performers’ backs turned to the camera) that are favored by the very young. I thought it was the work of someone just playing at being an artist, but your mileage, naturally, may et cetera.
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing – The Harry K. Thaw-Stanford White murder of 1906 done as a big Fox production, with Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit. The real Nesbit was credited as a consultant, which sounds about right since everyone other than Harry Thaw and his mother has been unreasonably sweetened. Ray Milland in particular is nowhere near sleazy enough as Stanford White (White liked to push his young girlfriends on the velvet swing while they were naked, not clad in dresses buttoned up to their chins), and while Farley Granger captured Harry Thaw’s terminal neuroticism just fine, he should’ve been allowed to carry it into deeper water. (Thaw was practically a turn-of-the-century Paul Snider.) The movie’s darkest ripple comes in a cafe when Evelyn obediently hands him a note reading “The B. was just here”—“The Beast” being Thaw’s pet name for White—and Thaw simply pockets it and mutters “I saw him.” Finally, it has to be said that delectable as Collins was as a young woman, she was never quite like this:
Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion throws many people for a loop the first time they see it. Its reputation as one of the great works of cinema leads them to expect an eye-popper like Citizen Kane, or a Bicycle Thieves that distills to perfect transparency some aspect of human experience. Instead they find an apparently formless drama performed in a melange of acting styles, a supremely melancholy film that’s crowned by a note of tentative affirmation, a work that’s both a plea for ecumenical brotherhood and a surprisingly felt lament for the passing of the aristocracy. Even the film’s reputation as an “anti-war classic” is misleading – it doesn’t have a didactic bone in its body.
Set in World War I, the film follows a pair of French soldiers who are taken prisoner by the Germans and transferred through a series of POW camps, and chronicles their interactions with each other, their fellow prisoners, and their German captors. Superficially the movie is something of a shaggy-dog tale: characters disappear and reappear with a minimal amount of explanation, and elaborately planned events – a camp show, an escape – are abandoned or aborted at the last moment. But as the movie goes on its connections keep multiplying, deepening, and eventually the seemingly haphazard events evolve into a tightly-knit meditation on all the man-made barriers – class, nationality, language, religion – that separate people from each other.
The main characters stand at slight angles to each other that highlight their similarities and differences. The two career officers, the captive Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the German commandant Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), recognize that the war heralds the end of the Old Order that they represent. The mechanic Marechal (Jean Gabin), the Jewish couturier Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and the other common soldiers have more earthly concerns of regular human beings: home and food and sex. Culture as Boeldieu and Rauffenstein know it isn’t part of their world. When the Czarina sends the POWs a crate full of books, the soldiers, enraged at not finding vodka in the shipment, begin rioting and set the books on fire. The one common soldier who has an education – he spends his time in captivity translating Pindar – is ostracized by his fellow prisoners. Even Rauffenstein, rendered incapable by his heritage of recognizing any bond with such a specimen, gives the man a withering look and murmurs, “Poor Pindar.”
Boeldieu can see the historical transition as a joke at his own expense, but Rauffenstein is himself a prisoner to the old forms and divisions. Trapped inside the steel plating that binds up his war wounds, he can’t look on the inheritors of his world with Boeldieu’s equanimity. He pronounces their names – “a Rosenthal, a Marechal” – as one might say “a louse, a vermin,” and belittles them as the “happy gifts of the French Revolution.” It is Boeldieu’s embrace of historical inevitability that sets the final chain of events in motion. He can be seen unlimbering himself throughout the film: by degrees he stops pulling rank (and attitude) on Marechal and Rosenthal, and by the end he is defending them to Rauffenstein when he knows what heresy that sounds like to the German’s ear. When it comes time for Marechal and Rosenthal to escape the fortress, it’s left to Boeldieu to distract the Germans while his comrades carry out their plan. Boldieu’s seeming madness forces the hand of the uncomprehending Rauffenstein, and what results is tantamount to a double suicide. In its aftermath Rauffenstein moves to the frail geranium that he’s nurtured in his quarters and liberates it – his last connection to his own humanity – from its stem.
Renoir is at his best near Grand Illusion’s end when Marechal and Rosenthal figuratively reenter the world by taking refuge in a farmhouse inhabited by a war widow (Dita Parlo) and her young daughter. The sequence, only some ten minutes long, teems with quiet epiphanies, stirs layer after layer of emotion. A German soldier knocking on the window for directions takes an extra moment to soak in the domestic atmosphere before resuming his march into the night. Marechal and the woman sip at each other’s existences by trying on phrases in their opposing tongues. Rosenthal, catching the two in a morning-after pose, preempts any chance of awkwardness by advancing with a light civility to shake hands with the lovers – and shakes the woman’s hand first.
Grand Illusion is a cornucopia of great acting in different styles. Von Stroheim, a fabled director in his own right, gives a performance worthy of Renoir’s complex conception of Rauffenstein: the delicacy with which he entertains the prisoners at his table conveys the civilized values that Renoir found admirable in the elite, yet his fatal lack of resilience is expressed in the rigidity with which he throws back a shot of cognac. As the superficially starchy Boeldieu, Fresnay employs a dry flintiness that has a comic side effect, as when he takes in Gabin’s vulgar yawn with a savory astonishment. Early on his mien is so convincing in its gravity that we’re almost as shocked as Rauffenstein when Boeldieu begins his Pan-like capering among the castle ramparts during the escape attempt. And the scenes in which Boeldieu and Rauffenstein take refuge in each others’ company are indelible. Left to their own, the two men converse in a specially toned language that’s intended only for one another’s ears, betraying their privileged upbringing with unconscious lapses into English; when they plop down on a window-seat for a chat about the good old days, with Boeldieu curling one leg underneath his body, they have the familiarity of sorority sisters.
Gabin and Dalio give the film’s most naturalistic performances, befitting their status as a new earthy aristocracy. Gabin never strays beyond the salt-of-the-earth contours of Marechal’s character, but he’s magnetic just the same. Dalio, as Rosenthal, gives the least conspicuous of Grand Illusion’s great performances. Early on he appears to be a negligible figure, but in the film’s last third he emerges as the film’s most worldly and assured character. The other miraculous performance belongs to Parlo, who conveys the widow’s aching loneliness with a minimum of dialogue. In one moment she catches Gabin staring at her as she’s scrubbing the floor on her knees, and in the simple act of straightening up at the waist she expresses in turn the woman’s initial mortification, a resentful challenge, and finally a frank return of his sexual interest.
More than sixty years after it was made, Grand Illusion remains one of cinema’s great achievements. Sitting at a potent intersection of the dramatic and the poetic, just as the German war machine was readying for another onslaught on all of Europe, the movie is itself like Rauffenstein’s geranium: an impossible piece of beauty blooming in the unlikeliest of places.