Archive for May, 2012
I was just watching pieces of Taxi Driver, in particular the quiet hero scene just after the massacre, and while usually all I do there is wonder if Jodie Foster’s father is supposed to sound like Jimmy Stewart, this time I froze the frame and read the newspaper clippings hanging on Travis’ wall. They describe the shootout exactly as we see it—Travis really is considered a hero for entering a building and blowing away almost everyone he meets in there—but the grafs identifying his victims refer to Harvey Keitel’s character as “Charlie Rain” instead of Matthew or Sport, which makes him a liar on top of the only white pimp in New York City. And when it wouldn’t quit ringing a bell, I remembered that “Charles Rane” is also the name of William Devane’s character in Rolling Thunder, Paul Schrader’s other script about a vengeance-minded veteran from that era.
Oddly enough, the only other nugget I recall ever gleaning from freeze-framing a movie came in The Searchers, a movie that’s practically Taxi Driver’s grandfather. For those who haven’t seen it—and I know for a fact at least a few of you haven’t—movie-buffs have been arguing for half a century about the exact motives of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a bitter racist with some unexpectedly tender corners in his character. (If you haven’t seen it, just trust me and order the Blu-Ray today, for no movie ever looked better than this one. In fact, it’s the best possible argument there is, not just for John Wayne movies, but for Monument Valley, Technicolor, fleet horses, and the infinite genius of John Ford’s eye for composition; from the opening shot it looks like one of the most beautiful paintings you’re ever going to see. I’ll go so far as to say that if you have a problem with the movie itself, let me know and I’ll pay you for the disc. Just don’t expect me to ever speak to you again.)
Anyway…I digress! In the scene where little Debbie hides from the Comanches out by “Grandma’s” grave, we catch a quick glimpse of the tombstone:
MARY JANE EDWARDS
MAY 12, 1852
A GOOD WIFE AND MOTHER
IN HER 41ST YEAR
Now, when I say a “quick glimpse”, I mean exactly that: you have all of one frame, two at the most, before Debbie runs into the scene and crouches down in front of the epitaph—nowhere near enough time to read and absorb the information that’s written there. Knowing that Indians killed Ethan’s mother 16 years before the start of the movie goes a long way towards explaining his ringing hatred for them, but Ford, being Ford, and loathing pedestrian a=a kind of motivations, did what he could to obscure the connection. He did the same thing at the end when he cut a crucial line from Frank Nugent’s script—“You sure do favor your mother”—just before Ethan spares Debbie’s life, instead relying on his audience to remember a series of important moments early in the picture.
Anyway, I’m very proud to have this trivia at my fingertips. Now if some fine day I can only get onto Jeopardy…
I want to see the new Michael Haneke movie as much for the cast as for him—I think it’s the first screen work Jean-Louis Trintingant’s done since his daughter was murdered, and that was years ago. As it is, I just watched Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, a fantastic road movie with Trintingant and Vittorio Gassman. Gassman’s a hard-living playboy who looks like he has life by the balls but who’s fast closing in on middle age; he gets hooked up with Trintingant’s genteel, rather cowardly law student, and they spend a weekend tearing around Tuscany in Gassman’s Lancia convertible, eating, getting bombed, visiting both their families, chasing chicks, etc., as the movie examines both the comforts and drawbacks of being either too aggressive or too passive in life. It pretty much wallows in the era it was shot in, with lots of bikini shots and references to Jackie, Nikita and (especially) The Twist (it’s one of the earliest films I’ve seen that had a soundtrack listing at the end). It just kept getting better and better; I could’ve watched it for another hour and a half. Unfortunately it’s a gray market jobbie I bought off eBay, but keep an eye out for it should it ever show up here. (It was released in the U.S. as The Easy Life but the Italian title translates to “overtaking”, the word used over there for one car passing another. The movie has half a dozen hair-raising shots of the actors doing just that at some very high speeds.)
Here’s a taste of what it feels like—in fact this contains one of my favorite parts of the movie:
Maybe Woody Strode was getting his head polished that day, but I have no idea why Satchel Paige materializes in a cavalry sergeant’s uniform in the scenic but slightly dull The Wonderful Country. I’m just glad he does. Paige doesn’t get to demonstrate Long Tom, the two-hump blooper, or any of the other pitches that left Walter Johnson, Dizzy Dean and DiMaggio awestruck by his talent, but he’s in such fighting trim and sports such a rich, melodious voice that the man could’ve had a real movie career. As it is, this was his only feature credit when he wasn’t playing himself.
Also really good: Pedro Armendáriz’s seven-minute tour de force in the middle of We Were Strangers, a political thriller that John Huston turned out between Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle. The film’s a showcase for solid performances by everyone not named “Jennifer Jones”, but Armendáriz outshines them all with this fat, showy scene. Just roll forward to the 55:00 mark, and watch as Armendáriz, playing a Cuban policeman who enjoys toying with people, unexpectedly turns up at Jones’ house, where John Garfield and his revolutionary buddies are hiding in a back room. As his case of the hot-pants for Jones gets the best of him, the cop loses all self-possession: he gets drunk on rum and sucks down a plateful of crab-legs, all the while lecturing Jones on the evils of revolution and what a great guy he is, and he isn’t done until he’s hit every cardinal point on the emotional compass. The scene hits me as a strange instance of a top star taking backseat to a character actor (an ethnic one at that) for an extended period of time; heck, stars rarely had to sit out a scene so completely even for other stars. Armendáriz was also terrific in The Fugitive, John Ford’s overbaked adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, but not even Ford gave him a chance like this one. (Armendáriz was born in Mexico City, but he’s probably best remembered as the Turkish spymaster in From Russia, With Love.)
April was the uncoolest month, but May has had its blue notes, too. I bumped into an old friend from The Expansion a couple days ago, and in the course of chatting I asked him about a neighbor of his—Wilson. That’d be Clay Wilson, or S. Clay Wilson, the underground cartoonist, famous for his tales in Zap Comix about animalistic bikers and, ahem, exceedingly well-hung pirates who settle all differences by using their cutlasses to remove each other’s engorged members in spurting gouts of gore. The happening local dive in my area when I moved to San Francisco was Dick’s, an unpretentious corner tavern renowned as the only straight bar in the Castro, and like The Expansion it was a cool and easy blend of old San Francisco characters (ancient mariners throwing down their PBRs as their asses fused to their barstools) and young hustlers (one guy mutated from an innocent farmboy to a minor Scarface in the short time I knew him). Wilson was in there most nights, holding court, or rather holding harangue, for anyone who cared to listen.
If you caught him before he had his ten too many, he was the ideal companion for what Sterling Hayden calls “an old-fashioned man-to-man drinking party” in The Long Goodbye (a Wilson favorite, incidentally). It’s easy to hang with even a really drunk guy if he’s well-read and into the arts, especially if he has an outsized personality, an old-fashioned code of honor, and a home that’s a museum of constantly rotating arcana. (His coffee table was an antique coffin.) I can’t say I cottoned much to the work that made him famous—the Checkered Demon lost its novelty value for me almost immediately, and it was maddening to see someone with so much talent recycling old material for the paychecks—but if he was miffed by the accolades thrown Crumb’s way after Zwigoff’s movie appeared, he didn’t respond by trying to make his work (always as pointedly gross as Crumb’s) more “relevant” in any kneejerk way, and in conversation he remained fixed on fresh material and new ideas. His hectoring, garrulous, exuberant ways put a lot of people off, but not me, at least not until one of us—usually, but not always, Wilson—had had too much to drink.
So I was more than sorry to hear of the brain injury he suffered after either being mugged or taking a fall around the corner from my house more than three years ago. (I knew I hadn’t seen him in a while but, damn, I had no idea it’d been that long.) And apparently he’s just recently taken a turn for the worse, which is even more fucked up. (His wife’s line in her blog—“It is terrible to be old and poor in America!”—just breaks my fucking heart.) This is not a situation I ever could have envisioned in 1983, nor wanted to. Warts and all, the man’s definitely one of the good guys.
Let’s start with the fact that not all of these pictures are real. Though they all purport to show the roundup of collaborators near the end of World War II, the one I’ve labeled “Florence 1945” was actually staged by Roberto Rossellini for his movie Paisà. The film appeared in December 1946, before fashions had had time to change, and while the thoughts and feelings of the Occupation were still fresh in people’s minds. But the photo blends in with the others for more basic reasons. The unhindered energy, the random postures and groupings, and the idiosyncratic touches—those improbably glamorous sunglasses, the men whose backs are turned to the camera, the medial distance that doesn’t allow any one person to swamp out the others—together create a quality which James Agee nailed down as “the illusion of the present tense”.
It’s a concept which movies are tailor-made for, but practically all of them, including the ones which want to say something about the real world, live in fear of it, preferring instead to exist four feet off the ground. The Army of Crime, Robert Guédiguia’s docudrama about a group of Resistance fighters in Paris, spends serious time stroking its chin and pondering the morality of violence, a question that’s already rigged when your enemies are freaking Nazis. Must you make your bloody grenade attack look like Ring-Around-the-Rosie, too?
In a commercial movie it’s a dead cinch that the character standing apart from a hundred others will be the star. It’s not enough that Ben Kingsley, playing a character we know to be important in the story, is made the focus of the scene. No, he has to have his own space, a force-field separating him from all those union-scale mannequins.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Why make a movie about mortal men and then do everything you can to segregate and deify them? It’s not so hard to make a famous face—or even two—melt into a scene.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This is democracy in action. The extras here—made up of real Bruins fans watching a real hockey game—are also, by no coincidence, real looking. Your eyes don’t get bored once you’ve taken in the leads; on the contrary, it’s impossible not to notice that a couple of the faces look even more lived-in than Bob Mitchum’s mug.
Schindler’s List, which does some important things right, does even more important things wrong. It treats its minor Jewish characters as Polish Ewoks who gather in photogenic clusters, speak in adorable Yiddish accents, and yelp “Oy!” whenever Ralph Fiennes shoots one of them—a “Jewish street” which Spielberg tunes into whenever the audience might be wondering what “the Jews” are thinking. Below, giving off a single, unified, easy-to-scan vibe, they register as nothing more than statuary.
Schindler’s List (1993)
This despite the fact that human beings never stop being themselves, not even in the direst of circumstances. Realism is always in the details, and details are always wild-cards.
Sam Fuller once said that to make a realistic war film one would have to fire a rifle into the audience from behind the screen, a line pointing up the differences between two very different styles of filmmaking. Movies have the power to terrify, but even the sharpest movie shock lags far behind our real-life traumas. The bathhouse scene in Schindler’s List is objectionable for any number of reasons—a naif such as Steven Spielberg positioning himself as our historical and moral tutor; the camera’s doting on nude actresses who, unlike those in the earlier Selektion scene, remain unavoidably fetching despite their supposed plight; or the fact that, in the movie’s most thoroughly Spielbergian touch, these women survive, a decision reducing their ordeal to the level of Indiana Jones’ flight from the giant boulder. Had Spielberg really wanted his audience to experience the Holocaust, he would’ve chained the exit doors and pumped the theater full of Zyklon B; instead he gave us a thrill-ride and pretended it was something more, because that’s the way he thinks that movies work. And everybody’s fine with it.
There was a lot of open snickering when Thomas Kinkade died a few weeks ago, but I bet a lot of the snickerers unabashedly ascribe to a film aesthetic which Kinkade himself would have applauded. Who believes that the basic elements in any Nolan-Fincher-Cameron-Scott-Jackson (and, sadly, perhaps Scorsese, too, now) shot have not been digitally prettified? By contrast the young Terrence Malick, who hated both shot-lists and striking sets, often veered from his daily planner and let his eyes dictate his next move, an attitude that filled his movies with found moments, and found moods, some of which celebrated nothing more than the time of day. I’ve always preferred the shot plucked from Nature’s pocket
to Kinkadian fantasias
(Star Wars 1977)
but today—when movies are formed as much on the keyboard as in the lens, and when either of these images could be generated by a computer—it feels like an imperative.
Oddly, realism doesn’t need to look or sound totally realistic to do its job. The exquisite little tracking shot that opens The Public Enemy may not be convincing in all its details, but its choreography of bustling urban movement is thoroughly credible while painting in a few fleet seconds the immigrant, lower income world that Tom Powers springs from. The final episode of Paisà follows a band of resistance fighters who are cornered in a marshy river delta during the last days of the Occupation. The acting by the amateurs is so provisional that there’s scarcely an acceptable line-reading between them, and yet the sequence shines with the immediacy of reality. Andre Bazin said that Rossellini was simply “directing the facts”.
In Pina’s death scene in Rome Open City Rossellini accumulates a flood-tide of disparate actions until they reach critical mass. Things move so quickly we can barely register the humanly amused German masher or Marcello kicking the guard’s shins; the details keep piling up even after Pina falls to the street. Our knowledge that she would’ve hated for the world to see the tops of her nylons is a part of the scene. Even the fact that we don’t see which guard actually shoots her is a part of the scene.
People say they don’t want reality in movies, that they go to movies to escape. First, an escape from what, I’d like to know—we live in Disneyland, for crying out loud. Second, I’m not even sure it’s true. We’re too quick to complain about obvious fakery, too ready to take sustenance from realistic details, whether it’s the dust beating off Indy’s pants as he runs to the seaplane or the unsimulated distress of Cassavetes’ daughter at the end of Husbands.
Character motivations, and the effect of our desires on reality, suffer as badly as visual details. What we want and why we do things simply don’t have the stranglehold on the world’s concern that the movies or our egos (though we may be splitting hairs here) suggest they do. That’s the grandest illusion of them all. For every concrete cause and effect we detect in our lives there’s a greater web of circumstance and coincidence guiding, retarding, muddying and igniting things, which is only to say, yet again, that it’s all about context. “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul” makes a wonderful credo for trust-fund babies, but the rest of us know better.
Movies may thrive on clear-cut conflict, but real-life problems are nebulous things made up of contradictory parts, taking root over years and mutating as our situations change. Even odder is the idea that anybody’s internal strife can be reduced to some single tagline—“a fear of letting strangers in”, “a longing for something new”—or that these problems, no matter how vast and crippling they seem at the outset, can be solved like a mystery come the last act. Lasting victories in life are rare enough, and the idea that they arrive just as we’re winning a prizefight, performing “Swan Lake”, facing down a hooligan, or running a marathon on one leg beggars all belief. (And of course it’s the last major life-challenge we’ll ever be asked to face.) What is it we pine for in these fairy tales? Why do we long to be carried around on the shoulders of strangers? Why do we pretend to ourselves that our lives are awful? Why can’t we be free?
I’m not arguing for movies to be perfect mirrors of life, as if they ever could be; any attempt to capture every inchoate grunt and groan that forms living conversation could only result in a fake vérité. What does work, though—and that still from Eddie Coyle is the perfect example—is to begin with a documentary surface and then let your fiction melt out upon it, like a pat of butter on hot toast.
What does realism add? Well, for starters it can construct a three-dimensional environment—the house in Gosford Park, the town in Deadwood—which we can mentally explore to to our heart’s content. It adds atmosphere and texture, and an enlivening randomness which grounds the action while serving as Kevlar against the hoary and predictable. It gives a work heft, an authority denied to fantasy, because it’s bound to sights and sounds, feelings and places, that we all recognize. And if nothing else, it keeps us from trivializing the world we live in—which is the same thing as trivializing ourselves.