Archive for August, 2012

“Underworld U.S.A.” (1961)

August 30, 2012

Director: Samuel Fuller / Director of Photography: Hal Mohr

“Chaos” Theory

August 27, 2012

The problem is actually state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking itself, which while in pursuit of relentless video-game-style cool and nonstop action no longer has room or time for ideas or story or character or even other kinds of tasteless sensationalistic impact—the kind that Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier, for example, have trafficked in without always resorting to chases and punching, chases and punching, and then some shooting.

That’s from Michael Atkinson’s takedown of the Total Recall remake, which I was ready to sign onto without even reading it because of the whole Jesus!-Hollywood-get-some-imagination-already thing, but also because I’m a fair to middling fan of the old Schwarzenegger number. Indeed, I’ve bitched so much—here, there and everywhere—about the lack of “ideas or story or character” in mainstream fare that I don’t really need someone haranguing me on the subject.

The slam-bang relentlessness Atkinson is describing refers to the sensation-centered cinema of Roland Emmerich’s mega-disaster flicks, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies—the exact kind of cinema that Pauline Kael once feared would eventually cause audiences to see nothing but “a big hole in the screen” during movies that don’t come with over-the-top action scenes. These movies take as their basic building block the loud, splashy and improbable sequence, as opposed to the old-fashioned story that organically grows out of a single idea, which is roughly the difference between a string of sausages and a living pig. Fans of the style like it because it’s exciting and at its most extreme it provides what they think is a one-on-one correlation between the perils on the screen and their own experience—“It’s like you’re really at war” they’ll tell you, although why anyone would want to experience such a thing is never explained, any more than the difference between sitting in a comfy theater chair and someone firing a machine-gun into your face is ever reconciled.

The style was recently christened with a name—“chaos cinema”—which successfully conveys the idea of a perspective that’s missing a unifying consciousness, and when Tony Scott, a past master of fragmented editing, committed suicide last week, his work was hailed as “a smearing of the senses”, which gets at the same thing. Well, as for me, I don’t get—not even remotely—where the pleasure is to be had in this stuff. The final battle of Seven Samurai also employs a lot of cutting, but only after Kurosawa has so thoroughly grounded us in both the characters of the combatants and the layout of the battleground that not only can we make instant sense of what we’re seeing, we can derive meaning from the action even as it’s happening—meaning that goes far beyond “Oh, he got him right in the head!” I believe the people oohing and aahing over Bourne’s car chases are being sincere when they say they’re having a good time; I just don’t think they’re demanding enough. If the biggest high you get from movies comes from a fireball seen from half a dozen angles, then a stripper humping a silver pole must make you feel like you’ve just gotten laid.

For my money, good action scenes—whether it’s the train robbery in White Heat, the encircling nightmare of Nada’s arrest in Carlos, or a shootout on the velvety streets of a night-darkened town in No Country for Old Men—do a hell of a lot more than throw me into a passive trance. Craving disorientation isn’t just infantile—it’s self-defeating. The touches and details that go into a successful action scene create levels of involvement and satisfaction that go far beyond who’s whacking who. The car chases in Siegel’s The Lineup and Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds are thrilling in part because, even amidst the mayhem, we can appreciate their geographical correctness as they zoom across San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The ironic thing is that “chaos cinema” ultimately hails from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which in 1969 contained an unprecedented amount of multi-angle editing, to the point of setting a record for shot-to-shot edits in a single feature film. (Some 3,200, if memory serves.) But Peckinpah was a classical filmmaker to the bone, and every shot of his massive gunfights was both intensely motivated and carefully fixed within the physical arenas of his action, while his famous intercutting of film shot at different speeds was done with Hitchcockian precision to achieve very particular effects.

And so I’m fundamentally sympathetic to Atkinson’s complaint here. However, he makes a mistake that’s common as dirt when critics lament The Death of Cinema, and it’s all based on some strange misunderstanding people have about videogames. It may be simple prejudice. Once, when I told a pair of friends that I was playing Grand Theft Auto IV, they literally gasped “No!” as if I’d told them that I like strangling kittens in my spare time. It’s no dark or dirty secret, though: I own a PlayStation 3, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the half-dozen games I own. And I’m here to tell you, my brothers and sisters, those games—all among the most popular ones on the market—provide an experience which is completely and utterly at odds with the slash-and-stab attack on the senses that Atkinson is talking about. In fact, he has it exactly bass-ackwards. Movies haven’t come to resemble awful videogames; instead, the games—these games, anyway—have done their best to look like good movies.

The games’ cinematic roots can be seen dangling from them in various ways. In GTA IV a bank heist gone awry leads to a reproduction of the (classically staged) street shootout in HeatRed Dead Redemption owes some of its story and many of its tonal elements—the music, most noticeably—to Unforgiven and Leone’s spaghetti westerns. And as its title indicates,  L.A. Noire is the most movie-conscious of them all, with in-game references to a million old crime pictures and a wild foot-chase through the Babylon set from Intolerance.

There’s none of Tony Scott’s whiplash editing style in any of these games, not even for a second. Indeed, that would be impossible, for apart from the cut-scenes—that is, those autonomous little scenes in which the storyline is advanced without the player’s participation or guidance—there’s no real editing at all. Typically you’re viewing the scene through a proscenium-like frame, just as in a movie. Even during the gunfights the action remains framed, continuous and seen from a constant perspective—your own.

Atkinson also complains about the breathless pacing of the modern action movie:

Total Recall is structured in one-second bricks—that’s exactly as long as you get, and not one microinstant more, to let your eye rest on an image, contemplate a character’s feelings, or piece together a narrative sequence’s logic. What movies traditionally basked in now comes at us in strobe-rate splotches…You watch the blip-blip-blip of Total Recall‘s trite ingredients speeding by, and your abandoned craving for context and contemplation and substance—any substance—quickly turns into irritation and then disgusted rage.

In GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, the player’s surrogate is normally found on foot, and has to be put on horseback or in a car to travel with any velocity at all. If you’d wish to have him walk across the entire “sandbox”—meaning the territory as a whole on which the game is played—from one end to the other, you better be ready for a lot of context and contemplation, because it’s going to take you hours. These game-worlds are each infused with an uncountable number of details that serve as constant enticements to slow down and examine one’s surroundings. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, recreates the topology of the American west—from the plains to the deserts to the snow-capped mountains—while carefully including all the wildlife, weather conditions, and changes in light one would expect to find there.

This encouragement to explore to your heart’s content is the opposite of “chaos cinema”, which holds your attention in a death-grip and never stops directing your gaze. The appropriate cinematic equivalent for videogames, in which “the camera” is perched slightly above and behind the character, isn’t Gladiator at all. It’s the Dardenne brothers’ subjective camera peeking over Rosetta’s shoulder.

In truth, the impersonal, purposeless cutting that’s killing so many action movies today is derived from an art-form that was the whipping boy for everything that was shallow and fast in the ’70s and ’80s: the music video. If you want to blame someone, blame Adrian Lyne and his goddamned Flashdance video. (It’s only fitting: chaos cinema has shredded the musical, too.) That’s the model that has six edits whenever someone tosses a cigarette away, that zooms in and out willy-nilly, and that rejects anything resembling a governing consciousness. The distinction is hardly a milestone in the history of aesthetics, but it’s worth getting right if it’s worth going into at all. Far from corrupting movies, videogames have done their best to replicate the older medium. They’re practically a tribute to it.

“The Mortal Storm” (1940)

August 22, 2012

This somber anti-fascist tale opened 18 months before Pearl Harbor, when American isolationists, both inside and outside the movie industry, were still calling the shots. As the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust points out, Germany made up 10% of Hollywood’s foreign market, and the studio moguls—all of them Jewish—felt even more threatened by anti-Semitic currents washing through American society at the time. MGM was also the least political of the studios, so it takes something more than Louis B. Mayer’s love of glossy literary adaptations to explain why he okayed a film version of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.

The film begins on the night that Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, and goes on to cover the ensuing years, as history bears down like a freight train on two men: a soft-spoken freethinker (James Stewart) who quietly withdraws from society when his lifelong friends plunge headlong into the Nazi madness, and a Jewish professor (Frank Morgan) who is stepfather to an Aryan family that includes two sons of military age. Despite its gassy, unparseable title, The Mortal Storm avoids the stodginess and stridency of so many wartime pictures, thanks largely to its ensemble work—Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Bonita Granville help round out the cast. The Alps may be represented by obvious models and matte shots, but the characters come with detailed histories and an air of having known each other forever. And that’s something different from most films of the era: an acknowledgement that life under Hitler remained a social tapestry. Though real-life counterparts may have been few and far between, it’s important to the movie’s ethos that even the young man who has cruelly turned on his loved ones can feel a shred of self-doubt.

Frank Borzage’s years in silent cinema can be seen in his gliding camera moves (especially during an invigorating ski race),  and in sequences like the one in which Stewart and Sullavan find themselves in a beerhall surrounded by monsters. When the troops break into one of their drinking songs with their arms raised in the fascist salute, the young couple warily rise to their feet with a perfect mixture of apprehension and disbelief on their faces, and the fact that they’re facing the opposite direction of everyone else seems like a poetic gesture rather than a weighted symbol.

It’s not clear when the story takes place other than sometime before the Anschluss in March 1938. In the movie’s world street-beatings and book burnings are common, and the Nazi regime’s attack on rationality is a close match for what we know was going on in those years. And though the Final Solution still lay in the future, and one might think such an apocalypse unimaginable before it occurred, the filmmakers intuited at least something of what was to come in a heart-rending farewell scene. The atmosphere is one of harrowing, mindless violence, widening fear and a deep and growing sorrow.  [A note: despite the fact that Hitler’s name is tossed about along with the swastika and other Nazi trappings, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film—“non-Aryan” is the term of choice—and the setting is downplayed (though not denied). The Mortal Storm was still potent enough for Germany to ban MGM films after it appeared—a testament to the power of a movie that was being made even as its vast historical events were still unfolding.]

Night Life

August 19, 2012

Last night I tried watching a couple of Don Siegel movies back-to-back, but when I started nodding off during the second one I packed it in and went to bed. That was at 1:30. I wake up at four in the morning. My brain is involuntarily picturing Don Siegel’s IMDb page, and his credits there include a movie called “Myrnes”. I know good and goddam well Don Siegel never made a movie called “Myrnes”, and now my stupid brain has made me angry. I am wide awake. I get up and start surfing the net and listening to music. An Oasis song called “Morning Glory” comes on. Huh? When I did download that? I don’t even know who Oasis is. I Wiki it and see Andrea Arnold used it in Red Road. Okay, that explains it, I guess, but I suddenly realize I can’t remember what that actress—what’s her name, Kate Dickie—looks like. So I Google her image. Oh right, that’s her. Then, because it is five in the morning and I am who I am, I Google “kate dickie nude”. There aren’t many pictures of nude Kate Dickie, and the ones that are there aren’t very interesting. Google tries to make it up to me with pictures of lots of other naked women; some of them are doing ghastly things. I wonder, why did Google pick these naked women in particular? Are they all named Kate? Do they know someone named Dickie? I light a cigarette. Then I Google Red Road and read the Wiki article about it. It tells me something I don’t know:

Advance Party is the name given to a concept of three films which came out of discussion between Lars von Trier [and three producers]. Each film is to be made by different first-time directors…Scherfig and Jensen created a list of characters and gave them back stories, which the three directors could then write their story around…Red Road was the first film in the trilogy to be released, directed by Andrea Arnold. The second film, Donkeys, is completed and was released in 2010. Plans for the third one are forthcoming.

Huh—that’s kind of interesting, at least. What is this Donkeys movie? And what is it with filmmakers and donkeys? I start to read the Wiki article about it but it looks like it might have spoilers. I go to Amazon to see if they have it. Ix-nay. So I try There it is. In fact, Donkeys is being released on DVD…tomorrow. Surely I am meant to buy it? It is not expensive, so yes, I order it. Finally, just to be on the safe side, I search for “Myrnes” at IMDb. I knew it: there is nothing. Better yet, I have managed to wear my brain down with all this high-level activity. Maybe now I can sleep again. Let us pray.

“The Leech Woman” (1960)

August 12, 2012

This Universal cheapie was surprising—my guess is that feminist critics know it well. Colleen Gray is a middle-aged woman married to a younger doctor who’s got his ants in his pants because the missus is showing her age. Suffice it to say that they get their hands on a rejuvenation spice that needs to be activated by the serum from human pineal glands, which is extracted via a ring with a fancy little hook on it. Gray sacrifices her shit-heel husband first, but since the potion needs to be replenished in order for her to stay young, she quickly works her way through a handful of other victims. The movie’s interesting partly because it makes her culpable in her own predicament—she’s as repulsed by her aging as her husband is—and the scenes where her husband is belittling her actually have a sting to them. (They also carry an added layer because at 38 Gray was old, if only by Hollywood standards; it had been a no doubt fast 12 years since Nightmare Alley, where Tyrone Power had traded in a fading Joan Blondell for her.) There’s also a trip to Africa, which bears a surprising topographical resemblance to the San Gabriel Mountains, but the movie’s progressiveness stops with the feminist stuff: the natives all speak fluent ooga-booga.

Adventures in Puberty #11: Marilyn Monroe

August 8, 2012

“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (1960)

August 5, 2012

Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs sucked me in with its second or third line: “Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup”. Truly great study of a bar hostess in the Ginza who’s trying to become independent—preferably as owner of her own bar, though the more realistic possibility of marrying one of her customers is constantly dangled before her. Hostesses weren’t required to sleep with their “clients”, but the businessmen kept coming back with the understanding that a certain amount of mauling would take place; the movie, through a dozen or so detailed secondary characters, puts forth just about every type of both customer and hostess imaginable. It’s also striking because Naruse, who at 55 was the veteran of scores of movies, was still fresh both stylistically and temperamentally. The film reeks of what feels like a young man’s knowledge of bar life, beginning with the title cards which contain small graphic illustrations of barroom interiors; combined with the quiet jazz xylophone score the tone resembles the cool chicness of Mad Men. When a Woman also contains a couple of rueful post-coital scenes that could’ve been shot yesterday, and in one passage the hostess (the deceptively innocent-looking, fantastically talented Hideko Takamine), having just been dealt one bad hand too many, gets bombed in her own bar; her ensuing tantrum is one of the truest bits of sad drunken foolishness I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s not too much to call it a Japanese Nights of Cabiria.

From “Cinéma Cinémas”

August 4, 2012

Dunaway Chambre 357: Faye Dunaway doing PR for Barfly, interviewed while sprawled across a giant bed in her hotel suite, wearing an elegant suit, looking wonderfully warm, answering questions while chain-smoking and slipping back and forth between French and English. More thoughtful, more attractive as a person than I’ve ever seen her—softer; she runs her hands through her hair as intermittent bits of the love theme from Vertigo are heard. The ending is typical of the series, with the interviewer asking her about her childhood. Dunaway ponders the question and asks aloud “What kind of little girl was I?” Cut, to the little clip from Alphaville that separates the segments.

And Hotel Jacumba, the best thing in the box so far. In 1928 Louise Brooks shot Wellman’s Beggars of Life on the Mexican border, with cast and crew lodging at the local roach-trap. The segment opens with a clip showing Brooks (in the same get-up she’s wearing in my FB avatar) and Richard Arlen jumping onto a moving freight train—it’s clearly Brooks herself sprinting full-speed and hoisting herself up the ladder. A railroad dick appears and clubs her, sends her spinning off the train onto a stretch of rocky ground (in long shot). Cut to the modern day, to the now abandoned and spookily dilapidated hotel. As the camera roves through the rundown grounds and lobby, a woman is heard reading from Brooks’  account of the shoot, describing how she seduced the stuntman who took the spill off the train, how he subsequently asked her—in public—if she was carrying syphilis, then mocked her in front of his girlfriend. The woman’s voice is calm and unruffled as she recites these facts, and weeds choke the life out of Hotel Jacumba.

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