Fassbinder’s The Third Generation
Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers
But, lord, I’m in a pissy mood today. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I fell asleep on the couch last night, and slept there the whole night long, sitting up no less, as if I were doing something sentient and useful instead of filling the room with my snores and the occasional fart or coughing fit, so that when I woke up at 7:00 this morning I still had Meyer Lansky’s biography spread open on my lap and a crick in my neck that’d put down a fucking giraffe. Plus it’s been pissing rain for thirty days and nights now, and it’s freezing outside, so when I slogged into work I was a half-hour late and immediately made some bonehead mistake which, ha ha, went out over the company intranet a second before I caught it. To relax I engaged in some restful Googling of the search-term “German Autumn”, which was okay at first (thanks mostly to this interview with the surviving pilot of the Landshut hijacking, a great read even if it’s from a website anti-Muslim enough to give Pat Buchanan pause), but it was around this time my mood really started to sour. I even read about these fucknuts, who actually shot an entire movie before realizing their script just might have a teensy-weensy problem, which normally is the kind of thing to cheer me right up, but today it just added to the gloom.
As fate would have it, though, a co-worker showed up about that time—a guy named Michael who I share occasional smoke breaks with, and one of the few people here who gets my sense of humor, even if he sometimes acts like we’re more simpatico than we really are. I like him quite a bit, but at the moment I wouldn’t have felt like interacting with Molly Parker if she’d walked up to my desk in a Merry Widow, and when I asked Michael how he was doing, I hoped he’d say just fine and keep on moving. Instead, as if to apply the coup de grâce to my whole fucking mindframe, he gave a dramatic sigh, planted his folded arms across the top of my cubicle, and announced in a voice loud enough to carry 20 or 30 feet: “I’M PISSED!” Okay, now, anger I can relate to, so I put down my croissant and looked up at him.
TB: What’s the problem?
M (emphatically): Britney Spears!
M: Haven’t you heard?
TB: About Britney Spears.
M (braying): YE-EAH!!!
TB: What’s she done now?
It seems that Ms. Spears was planning an outdoor concert next week (new album dropping, natch) in front of the Castro Theater, a concert that was originally slated to be both free and unpublicized, though it is going to be televised on Good Morning America. (Michael: “Robin Roberts is even going to be there!”) But then came another gloomy weather forecast, along with complaints from a merchant’s group, and of course those shitbirds at Ticketmaster, incensed as ever by the thought of people having fun without paying for it, got their foot in the door. The upshot: Britney’s still playing alright, but indoors at Bill Graham for $3 [sic] a pop, and the whole thing sold out in a fleeting half an hour. It’s a crummy deal, to be sure: there’s no way a free Britney concert would ever stay a secret, but the idea of her bopping around on Castro Street just as a lot of her biggest fans are walking out the door to start their day—well, it’d be a nice throwback in spirit to the Castro’s halcyon days.
But I had no idea Michael is such a militant Britney fan—the poor guy’s almost deranged by the whole affair. He’s already written a letter of complaint to someone (his voice was so choked with rage I couldn’t make out the name), and the fact that GMA used the weather as an excuse has him going for the throat. “Cher performed in the rain!” he pointed out. “And”—snapping his fingers here—“Diana Ross gave that concert in Central Park! It was pouring then!”
Ouch! I feel for Michael, I really do, but at least he broke up my downward spiral. There’s nothing like having your life turn into a sitcom to pull you out of a nose-dive.
Brecht’s and Sirk’s influence on Fassbinder are well known, but the downward pull of fate on his characters smacks of Hardy or the Melville of Pierre: or, the Ambiguities. All of his movies that I’ve seen start out slowly—sometimes punishingly so—only to quicken as his characters near their preordained cliffs, and if the abuse of emotional power was one of his major themes, one of his favorite ways of treating it was to set before us people—Herr R., Martha, Fox—whose march toward self-destruction is so sure-footed that we feel almost sadistically vindicated when it arrives. (Though at least one film marks an important exception. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul finishes on a precarious sweet-and-sour note, in which Emmi and Ali do manage to stay together, but knowing that the vast divides between them will continue to wreak havoc with their happiness. It’s a conclusion I love, open-ended yet untainted by any of the false “ambiguity” which so many directors screw onto their stories in a helpless stab at honesty.)
Fox and His Friends is touching partly because Fassbinder, playing the main character, makes his unpolished acting style work as a manifestation of Fox’s naïveté. Capable of passing for 19, his bald line-readings work in concert with Fox’s unconfident posture and beloved denim jacket (his name spelled out in rhinestones on the back) to create the timorous, gullible circus hand who himself might be a Melvillian fancy. What must’ve been a moment of madcap happiness in Fox’s life—the moment he wins the lottery—is entirely glossed over in favor of the degradation he submits/is submitted to afterwards. As deliberate and distanced as the early part of the movie is, Fassbinder bears down on Fox’s “business partners” (his boyfriend and the man’s desperate-for-money parents) as one by one they sign the contract screwing him out of his fortune, with each elegant tilt of the camera revealing carefully gauged shadows of regret in their eyes. If Fox’s friends are any nicer than the friends of Eddie Coyle, it’s only because they stop short of actually putting one in his head.
Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959) is a smart, good-looking Western, with Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn ringing changes on the Clanton-Earp-Holliday story. The movie opens with two cowpokes talking to a town marshal, and only gradually do we realize that we’re witnessing a humiliation ritual; after that it’s full of complex motives, including Quinn’s unmistakably gay feelings for Fonda, which move to a surprising front and center position as things go on. Fonda is fascinating as a professional town-tamer who knows how fickle his support is: the townspeople who treat him like a hero now are actually repelled by his talent for violence, and they’ll be the first to turn against him once he quiets the troublemakers. Fonda shows so many sides of his character that the decision whether to root for or against him has to be made on an almost minute by minute basis.
Blast of Silence is Allen Baron’s sturdy miniaturist DIY portrait of a contract killer who agrees to “one last hit” in New York during Christmas week of 1959; while waiting for his specialized weapon to be manufactured, he stalks his prey, crashes a bohemian soiree, nearly date-rapes an old flame, and takes long walking tours of Harlem and the Village while burning through his world-weary thoughts like so many cigarettes. Some of this stream-of-consciousness is strictly cornball, but much of it is coldly brilliant, and delivered in Lionel Stander’s raspy voice it sounds like death itself is speaking. The shots of Baron staring down from the top of a brownstone look like the seed for young Vito Corleone stalking Don Fanucci from the rooftops of Little Italy, and the existential loner-hitman theme is more compelling than in Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract, the movie which inspired the scenes of Travis Bickle hanging out in his apartment, waiting for his last synapse to blow. Baron also found a stellar location for the bleak and wintry ending to his story, and put it to perfect use. This movie is a pip.
I realized just lately that I hadn’t shaken off Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie since watching it six months ago, and revisiting it last week convinced me that it needs to be seen twice. Based on Ruth Rendell’s acidic novel A Judgement in Stone, it opens with a strange scene—Jacqueline Bisset interviewing Sandrine Bonnaire for the servant’s position in her country home—in which the women talk past each other without either of them noticing. Bisset’s family is bourgeois to its core, but it’s also cultured, energetic, and friendly; by contrast, Bonnaire’s Sophie is a clenched and private woman so distressed by her illiteracy that she keeps her internal life hidden from the world. A fragile case in the best of times, she befriends the town’s postal clerk—Isabelle Huppert—a woman who skips around in pig-tails and flouncy skirts, but who turns out to be a social tumor intent on pouring her class hatred into the servant girl’s ear. As the movie goes on the family’s bemused, well-meaning gestures subtly mutate into emblems of condescension and entitlement; my second time through the film I was especially irritated by the subtly patronizing lilt Bisset injects into “Sophie” when calling Bonnaire to some grubby chore. Chabrol joked that La Cérémonie was “the last Marxist film”, and the movie shows just how narrow the seam can be between between personal and political motives. It’s reminiscent of Mamet’s Oleanna (not a crowd favorite, I know) in the sense that even though the aggrieved party’s reaction—in this case, a Manson-style slaughter—may color them as unreasonable, or even insane, their basic complaint remains unassailable.
Animal Kingdom is a potent, occasionally mesmerizing crime drama based on the charming Pettingill clan of Melbourne, Australia. It wisely makes the four gangster sons very different from each other, and even more wisely kills off the smart and likable one first, leaving the fresh-faced cousin who moves into the household at the mercy of its most insane elements. But that central role is played by a young actor who photographs like a cinderblock, and when writer/director David Michôd shoves the camera in on Jacki Weaver’s Joan Crawford eyebrows and has her enunciate “You’ve done some bad things, sweetie” in her best Cruella de Vil voice, you can feel him straining to create a classic monstress. (The more-than-motherly smecks on the lips that she gives her sons lead directly to Eleanor Iselin.) Oddly, the movie picks up the family on the brink of its final collapse—it’s like beginning Dillinger’s story with his escape from the Little Bohemian shootout—and thus skimps on the dynamics that might turn an entire family to violent crime. Animal Kingdom is worth seeing, though, for Ben Mendelson as the erratic son whose eyes seesaw between menace and some private pain and Guy Pearce as the detective who’s doggedly running the family to ground. I’ve also been wading through Underbelly, the Aussie TV serial about the insanely tangled Melbourne gang war, in which the Pettingills also played a part. Some critics have tagged the series “another Sopranos”, but those critics would be wrong, wrong, wrong.
1967’s Robbery is a fictionalization of Britain’s Great Mail Train Robbery of 1963. (The robbers scored more than three million pounds, or $65M in today’s money; as a kid I pictured the robbers tearing open envelope after envelope to get at all those $5 birthday checks being mailed to grandchildren.) The opening five-minute car chase, lame by today’s standards, convinced Steve McQueen that Peter Yates was the man to direct Bullitt, but the movie gets going with the actual robbery and (especially) its aftermath, when the large band of robbers, many of whom barely knew each other, had to cool their heels at an abandoned RAF base while coppers swarmed the countryside. Even with this bountiful opportunity for criminal shop-talk there’s scant evidence that Yates had The Friends of Eddie Coyle waiting inside him.
Speaking of grand larceny, Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job is a Rage Generating Machine about the 2008 “financial crisis” that saw millions of helpless people screwed out of their jobs and savings by a few advantageously positioned individuals; taken in concert with more recent news—say, the State of Wisconsin’s castration of the public employees’ union—it brings to mind Leo Tolstoy’s immortal question: “What is to be done?” It’s a hard question to answer, what with half the population viewing the mildest class analysis as totalitarian overreach and even sensible people allowing themselves to be mentally waylaid by the latest Charlie Sheen tweet. The last 15 minutes of the film make it clear that we shouldn’t expect help from Barack Obama (Democrats don’t fare any better than Republicans in Ferguson’s hands), but while Inside Job ends with a metaphorical call to arms, it suggests no practical courses of action for the very good reason that there aren’t any—not now, anyway. (Having seen The Baader-Meinhof Complex not so long ago, I can vouchsafe that route won’t pan out so hot.) Inside Job does do a good job of naming names and the amounts of the annual bonuses they earn, and it rips the mask of civility off one running dog in particular: Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia’s business school and a major player in supply-side economics theory since the Reagan era. Unlike most of the guilty parties Hubbard agreed to sit down for an interview, and when the tack of Ferguson’s questioning keys him in on his mistake, this mild-mannered academic looks suddenly ready to drink the filmmaker’s blood. It’s a shock—our monsters rarely give us such unguarded views of themselves.
If you’ve ever—even for a second—been a Mickey Rourke fan, you should hie thee to the closest available copy of Animal Factory, Steve Buscemi’s terrific prison picture from 2000. Like A Prophet it focuses on the cross-currents between a hardened con and a kid who’s adrift in the system, but Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong’s complicated relationship has both paternal and sexually tinged components. Though it’s inconceivable that the unspoiled-looking Furlong could escape being turned out in a maximum security facility, the script by Eddie Bunker (the ex-bank robber and ex-con turned novelist and occasional actor) is otherwise so funny and knowing I could put that aside. Animal Factory just drips with great acting—Danny Trejo and Seymour Cassel both stand out, and a seedy little guy named Victor Pagan has a scorching turn as the weasel called “Psycho Mike”—but it’s Mickey Rourke, in about 10 minutes of screen time, who turns in a stunning cameo that’s capped by one of the most touching close-ups I’ve ever seen.
I Am Filthy Rich Love – Few things in the world photograph more beautifully than the trappings of Italian aristocracy but director Luca Guadagnino’s immodest rendering of his Milanese characters’ moneyed lifestyle is enough to stun Robin Leach. Tilda Swinton, married to a modern Medici, is living a 24-karat wallow until she falls in love with her son’s earthy little chef friend, Mayonardo G. Krebsio. The affair winds up queering an ultra-modern multinational business deal, but Guadagnino’s attitude towards sex is ancient Lawrentian hogwash: in best Open Male fashion the twerp shears off Tilda’s hair and swaps her high-end designer dresses for sweaty old gardening togs. We never understand the source of Swinton’s discontent because the camera is too busy panning across palatial living rooms or dishes topped with haute cuisine, to the point where the act of wrecking her own family verges on caprice. In addition to adultery the movie boasts an unwed mother, shaved pudenda, young lesbians, and deaths both natural and premature, yet we don’t react to any of these things because Guadagnino doesn’t even try to land any of his punches—he just wants us to swoon before the gaucheries. You can tell me that’s amore, but I don’t have to believe it.
And finally, I haven’t been able to figure out whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is real or a hoax because I’m still using those brain-cells to ponder other fascinating, not remotely tedious subjects, such as whether the replicants in Blade Runner are “human”, the dark parallels between Batman and The Joker, and what a paradox it is that Clint Eastwood’s shooting up the town is actually a plea for non-violence. I’ll get on it as soon as I can, though.
And going back a while:
Righteous Stuff: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder), Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee), Head-On (Akin), and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Schlöndorff)
Recommended: Please Give and Friends with Money (both by Nicole Holofcener), Let Me In, Red Road (the feature debut of Andrea Arnold, who made that other movie I like so much but which I promised myself I’m not going to mention here Fish Tank there I said it anyway, nyah), Sweetie (Campion), Police, Adjective (though I gotta say my penchant for realism hits the wall with these Romanian directors; what the hell is going on over there?), Poor Cow (Loach), and Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about Godard and Truffaut. More on this one soon.
Mixed Bags: A Perfect Getaway, The Italian Job (1969), The Last Valley (Clavell), Next Stop Wonderland (Anderson), 28 Weeks Later, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, 2 Weeks in Another Town, The Entity (Furie), Burnt by the Sun (Mikhalkov), and The Dogs of War (Irvin)
Hopeless: Unstoppable—even for Tony Scott it’s a nadir.
Watching Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last week made me start thinking again about Winter’s Bone—another movie about a young woman being tested by a stormy family crisis, blah blah blah, but so many people adore the damn thing that I had to wonder if maybe I was tired when I saw it or whether—Jesus, I dunno, whether I really have turned into Bosley Crowther and flat-out missed the boat.
But now, having seen it again, I’m ready to swear on a stack of Bibles that I do not like this movie Winter’s Bone, and I did not miss any fucking sailing vessel. To begin with, let me count the ways. I don’t like its lazy reliance on backwoods meth labs and secretive criminal clans as plot devices. I don’t like the cheesy horror movie touches in a low-key drama. I don’t like dialog that aims for memorable quotation status, like “Never ask for what ought to be offered” or “Is this gonna be our time?” I don’t like the dangerous uncle “Teardrop” turning into a bucket of sentimental goo or how freely the movie condemns the only half-written sheriff played by Garret Dillahunt. I don’t like the way other details get fudged (does Ree really burn the photograph album? would such a family-centered woman even consider it in the first place?) or the way all of her problems miraculously auto-correct in the movie’s last ten minutes. I particularly don’t like the nonsensical climax in which her relations cave in and lead her to her father’s body because they feel too much in the spotlight even though Ree’s turning her father’s hands over to the authorities is the surest way to spark an investigation. I like even less the bail-bondsman who magically appears at movie’s end with a packet of money—the exact amount is cunningly left to our imagination—just to reassure our guilty liberal urban asses that the kids won’t be eating squirrel all winter. And finally, I really don’t like the way Winter’s Bone paints the Dolly clan and its cohorts as sinister geeks who communicate via some antiquated Al Capp hickspeak. These trashy, dead-eyed people are so strange and backward they still refer to dating as “keepin’ company” just because it sounds so gosh-darned country, and in exaggerated accents they drawl out cretinously constructed sentences like “I put the hurt on her” and “Talkin’ just causes witnesses”. Sorry, people, but not even in the highest mountains of Arkansas do Ozarkians talk like Mammy Yokum.
Melissa Lawrence’s performance as Ree Dolly isn’t bad in the sense it throws you out of the movie, but you can see her being careful not to make any mistakes, which is a sure sign that she’s not going to show us anything new. She hits all the notes that Debra Granik asks her to, but that’s all she ever hits, and the notes themselves are hollow, obvious ones. Her face never holds more than one emotion at a time, and it’s always one of the same three or four safe, easy-to-scan emotions—grit or defiance or carefully measured doses of confusion or fear—that always fill these can-do stories. And you can forget about Ree communicating through some memorable physical gesture—she may as well not have any arms or legs for all the use Lawrence puts her own limbs to—and by the end of the movie we still don’t know anything about her beyond the fact that she showed some guts in one particular crisis. Great, so she’s a hero. She’s Rocky Balboa. Hooray for free fucking beer.
On the other hand, I give you Mia Williams:
This isn’t the clip I’d pick given my druthers, but it’ll do. What I like about it is the way Mia’s nerves and amusement wash through Katie Jarvis’ face, how her dancing expresses, all at the same time, her self-consciousness, her lack of talent, and her delight in moving around and showing off, and how the emotional cartwheel sparked by her mother’s reappearance causes her to change the most basic way she holds her body. There’s also the wonderfully irrelevant line “I’m gonna wet myself”—a line ringing with more spontaneous life than the whole of Winter’s Bone. You can learn as much about a character from what she does when nothing’s going on as you can in the midst of a crisis, and since the between-crisis moments make up the vast majority of our lives, their exclusion is one of the more mystifying omissions and falsifications in our movies, of which there are many. The most haphazard reach of Winter’s Bone comes in the sorta cute but still over-arranged view of Ree’s little brother sprawled across a trampoline, while just that little clip from Fish Tank shows how many things can be going on even when nothing is happening.
What I’m ultimately talking about here is the distinction Robert Altman used to draw between “acting” and “behaving”, which is the difference between making faces on cue and a denser, blending-in activity which throws off energy and meaning. Tony Soprano and David Brent were wonderful creations because James Gandolfini and Ricky Gervais stitched together a million disparate and often contradictory atom-sized details into an organic whole that highlighted every in and out of those tricky personalities. It’s an approach that reveals mysterious, hearty and immensely satisfying congruences with the world around us, and while it’s common in European art films, it remains pathetically under-applied here. The most telling difference between Mia Williams and Ree Dolly (I mean, besides the fact that one ends up hanging by a thread and the other wrapped in a neat little bow) may be Mia’s ability to fuck things up: near the end of Fish Tank she commits an act of eye-opening callousness while the thing we’re meant to admire most in Ree is her frankly inhuman constancy. Giving off the same exact non-vibe in Scene 42 as in Scenes 1 and 19, Ree never erupts in so much as a snit. Lacking all flaws and bumps and curlicues, her personality can be summed up by a banal adjective or three where Mia resists easy definition precisely because her actions don’t stem from a single wellspring of unchanging goodness. What’s the point of following a character who’s already perfect when her story is just beginning?
I wouldn’t be so down on Winter’s Bone if Debra Granik had merely made a more serious version of Justified—a modest TV series set in Kentucky’s coal country, starring characters who could pass for Ree Dolly’s cousins. The problem isn’t the 95% fresh rating which the movie has racked up at Rotten Tomatoes; if people want to like a thing, that’s fine, it’s no skin off my nose. No, the problem comes when such an obvious fiction is almost unanimously hailed as psychologically and ethnographically “real” (and I’ll leave it to you to see how many times that word comes up in the reviews). Winter’s Bone may seem real compared to Hollywood films—films which sell tickets by being as unreal as they possibly can—but it has nothing to do with “reality” if the word means anything at all. If this is the closest our movies can come to reflecting either American life or the physical world, it’s probably time to throw in the towel.
Agh, screw it, as the Italians say—I’ll let Mia have the final word.
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.