Archive for the ‘Acting & Actors’ Category

Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)

April 30, 2014

I can think of two indelible images of Bob Hoskins: one is of him sobbing inconsolably behind his novelty sunglasses when he realizes that Cathy Tyson has been using him all along in Mona Lisa, and the other is the extended close-up of him at the very end of The Long Good Friday. The latter comes at the moment Hoskins, playing a barbaric little gangster named Harold Shand, has just realized that he’s made the miscalculation of a lifetime—one that will cost him not only his life but the lives of those dearest to him—and that there’s nothing in the world he can do to fix it. The shot lasts some two to three minutes, and not a word is spoken during it because there’s nothing left to say. Harold is seated in the back of a limo that’s whisking him to his doom, and the shot’s tight framing and its location in the story make it a bookend to the closing shot of Michael Clayton, an unblinking close-up of George Clooney sitting in the back of a NYC taxicab, as he reflects on his role in events we’ve just witnessed. Now, I love Michael Clayton dearly—it’s just the kind of thriller Hollywood ought to be cranking out by the bucketload—and Clooney is great in it, but his moment simply pales next to Hoskins’. An agonizing parade of emotions—surprise, fear, regret, outrage, defiance, grief—washes over Harold’s face, and Hoskins expresses each of these in such concrete terms that you feel like you’re tracking every inch of his anguish. And in the end you can see it happen, in his eyes and his tightening jaw-line, when Harold experiences the belated, now meaningless discovery that his downfall was entirely avoidable—that he has only himself to blame for his ruin. It’s a ghastly, glorious bit of work.

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michaelclayton

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.

All Gone

July 8, 2012

Stanley Kubrick’s Power Junkies

July 5, 2012

The other night I was watching a chunk of Paths of Glory and savoring the performance by the guy on the left here.

His name is Richard Anderson—yes, he’s with us still—and he was in a lot of schlocky TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s. He never impressed me then but in Paths he held his own amidst a host of big-name stars, and showed what he could do as Major Saint-Auban, aide to the almost metaphysically evil General Mireau. In his scenes with the general he’s in a state of perpetual alert, like a pointer hound on a hunting trip, and when Mireau explodes into a tirade because the regiment hasn’t left the trenches, Saint-Auban simply trains his snout on his master and holds that pose, knowing the right answer is to simply agree with anything the general says, even if it’s an order to shell their own troops.

Leeches like Saint-Auban—the sycophant who enables soulless bureaucracies to flourish—are peppered throughout Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Paths of Glory is infested with these termites—Lieutenant Roget and General Mireau himself belong to their ranks—and the military is such a natural magnet for them that Kubrick would return to that milieu through the rest of his career. But they exist everywhere, and they’re also reflected (or parodied) in the repulsive social worker, prison guard and hospital staff of A Clockwork Orange, the gangsters kowtowing to their ringleader in The Killing, and Clare Quilty’s impersonations of a cop and a school psychologist in Lolita. Thanks to his obsession with food-chains and pecking orders, picking out the biggest prick in Kubrick’s pictures would make a good day’s work for anybody. Any short list, though, really ought to include the government’s point-man on the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just look at this smug bastard.

Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (played to a turn by William Sylvester) is dripping with a sense of entitlement from the second he steps onto the space-station. He absently talks down to a helpful receptionist without ever seeing her; he calls his daughter back on Earth so he can rush through a list of bullet-points, one of which is her birthday; he coldly stiff-arms some Russian scientists who are concerned about (gulp) a lunar epidemic; and he quashes his staff’s discontent by telling everyone to keep their pie-holes shut if they know what’s good for them. He can’t even do a voice ID check without giving the machine a condescending smile.

Dr. Floyd needs a scant few minutes for all of these breaches in civility, but it’s during the moon-bus flight that we see what a putz he really is. Along with a pair of gray-souled subordinates he engages in some frosty bonhomie that’s the verbal equivalent of white noise.

Floyd Minion #1 (opening a cooler of synthetic sandwiches): Anybody hungry?
Dr. Floyd: Great. What do we got?
FM #1: You name it.
Dr. Floyd: What is that—chicken?
FM #1: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway.
The men chuckle.
FM #2: You know, that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
FM #1: It certainly was.
FM #2: I’m sure it beefed up morale a hell of a lot.
Dr. Floyd: Thanks, Ralph. By the way, I want to say to both of you I think you’ve done a wonderful job. I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing.
FM #2: Oh, the way we look at it, it’s our job to do this thing the way you want it done. We’re only too happy to be able to oblige.

On paper this reads like nothing at all; one must hear the faintly snotty inflections, deadpan deliveries, and lifeless chuckles to appreciate the exchange.  The ending of it recalls the moment in Paths of Glory when General Mireau offers Saint-Auban a shot from his flask and the canny major insists that the general take the first drink, causing a thin smile to crease Mireau’s face; here, too, a subordinate being thrown a bone immediately turns it into a boomerang flying back to his master. The rules of the game aren’t merely adhered to in Kubrick’s world. They’re enjoyed.

And a moment later there is this exchange:

Dr. Floyd: I don’t suppose you have any idea what the damn thing is.
FM #2: I wish to hell we did.

The casual condescension in Floyd’s voice, the forced nursery-room profanities, and the hollow collegial laugh that follows them—these are not the sort of things that Kubrick is noted for. He’s normally remembered for grand set-pieces and camera-moves that cry out for attention, but these moments of overgrown boys jockeying for position employ a quieter action that goes on just beneath the surface of our gaze. The constant in all of them is the way they sound, a kind of sub-bureaucratic murmur delivered with only a shadow of human personality. Everybody is oh so nice on the surface, but in truth they’re all busy repressing, repressing, repressing. Listen closely and you can hear the throb of blood under each exchange; it’s no surprise when these people sometimes react like the apes of 2001 and panic over a noise in the night.

In the (increasingly rare) examinations of machismo and power-worship in our cinema, we’re more used to seeing the gristly, often lethal likes of criminals or renegade spies, but Kubrick understood the dangers posed by the Saint-Aubans and Dr. Floyds—the bland, un-extraordinary men who we must deal with every day. The Shining opens with a long job interview in which a rageaholic puts on his best face for an overworked hotel manager and his eagle-eyed security chief, and for perhaps ten minutes the three men sit and exchange banalities while looking like they want to tear each other’s throats out. The next time you’re on an elevator with two coworkers talking over a deadline, just listen to the sound of it and see if it doesn’t ring a bell.

Good Drunk/Bad Drunk

June 18, 2012

Bummer: the marvelously eccentric actress Susan Tyrrell is dead. It’s genuinely weird because just last week I started working on a post about Huston’s Fat City and her righteous performance in it, playing a woman I’ve met what seems like 50 times by now. Here’s a taste (and just bear in mind that when she tells Stacy Keach “I love you so much!” that she barely knows the man):

The better to appreciate it, here’s Ray Milland pretending to be something, but certainly not a chronic alcoholic, in The Lost Weekend, and speechifying in a tony, pseudo-literary gobbledegook that’s an embarrassment to real drunkards everywhere.

Bullshit like that is exactly why Billy Wilder puts me in a coma. Just to go out on a good note, here’s another clip from Fat City. When people say they don’t make ’em like that anymore, this is what they’re talking about.

Almost all of the movie’s great dialog and grungy atmosphere can be found in the novel by Leonard Gardner, who also wrote the screenplay. The novel too is set in Stockton’s dives, flophouses, crumbling gyms, etc. The only diff is that the book takes place in ’59, though the difference between late ’50s Stockton and 1972 Stockton probably isn’t enough to squeeze a dime out of. With its grainy decrepitude and its downwardly-mobile heroes the book kept bringing to mind Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, at least if Suttree had been written by a normal human being.

Pair of Bullets

May 16, 2012

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.)

Come and See: Some Notes on Realism

May 11, 2012

France 1945

France 1945

Florence 1945

Italy 1945

Rome 1944

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?

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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.

Budapest 1944

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.

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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


(Badlands 1973)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Traudl Junge 1946

“Traudl Junge” (Downfall 2004)

Wartime

February 21, 2012

Finally saw Generation Kill, which somehow managed to live up to its reputation. Like The Wire, it’s marked by such an even distribution of mood and energy across its episodes that it’s impossible to settle on just one as a favorite. Part of this is thanks to the wall-to-wall military jargon (it’s even more unapologetically jargon-intensive than Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), but mostly it earns its stripes the old-fashioned way, through solid direction and writing that’s tighter than J-Lo’s kootch. (Just to be clear, that’s a reference to something in the script, and not yours truly being a foul-mouthed fucker just for the shits and giggles it gives him.)

I’m amused by the counterintuitive casting decision that made macho pinup boy Alexander Skarsgård a subordinate to the girlish (and much shorter) Starks Sands, and by the fortitude David Simon and Ed Burns showed by including, and then summarily forgetting about, an off-color running joke revolving around a picture of the reporter’s girlfriend. (Any other production in the history of entertainment would’ve made it the focal point of his goodbye scene.) And yet another raft full of good actors comes out of nowhere? Just how many great actors can possibly be hiding out there? Seriously, they should just all come on out now, from whatever school or shitty job they’re holding down, just to give us some idea of just how many scripts it’s gonna take to keep them all working. (I by no means begrudge him the paycheck, but Skarsgård deserves a lot, lot more than teen vampire flicks.) I especially loved James Ransone in this fucking thing, and the fact that he benefited the most from the writing also worked to our advantage: Ray Person’s ephedra-fueled monologues could have made Ziggy Sobotka’s numbskull perorations sound like the wartime Churchill if they weren’t truly funny.

That said, my biggest grumble about the show involves the scribe’s exit interview with Godfather, the battalion C.O.; it’s a joyless, unworthy scene that resuscitated all of the didactic impulses one hoped Simon had laid to rest in The Wire’s farewell tour. For better or worse, Generation spurts out all of its bullshit in its closing installment as well, its other notable lapses being the chain-yanking close-ups of the incompetent “Captain America” every time he suffers a crisis of confidence and, more generally, a too heavy beating of Simon’s “institutional corruption” theme, which, no matter how legitimate a cause for outrage, has already become a hobby-horse in his hands.

But apart from that it’s a hell of a ride, one which individualizes its characters much as The Wire allowed us observe its characters on their own terms, without preconceptions clouding our gaze—quite an accomplishment given their respective milieus. Much of the humor in Generation Kill derives not from punchlines but from some very droll camera moves, e.g., the slow push-in from an indolent Ransone to a quartet of Marines a mere few yards away as they give some suspicious locals an intense once-over. And the action scenes run absolute circles around all the soft-headed handheld quick-cut bullshit that passes for action filmmaking nowadays: think about The Hurt Locker and then think about the ambush at the bridge in episode 6, and tell me which one looks like Gladiator and which one looks like The Wild Bunch. At its core, though, Generation Kill is a Howard Hawks work for our time.

Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy provides insight into a different type of military order.  A mix-tape of primary sources, Vichy consists of two hours of newsreel and propaganda shorts—though the two forms are indistinguishable much of the time—which are only occasionally broken up by a narrator who sketches in some rough historical context for what we’re looking at. The material is ordered chronologically so we can feel both the peak and then the long decline of Vichy and its chief of state Philippe Pétain, around whom the Reich and its French minions created one of the shabbiest, most unseemly personality cults the world has ever known. The ancient warrior had been made prime minister just as history was casting about for a dupe, and in that role he was both a manipulator and nakedly manipulated. We see him meeting with Hitler (who kept him waiting) and with Franco (who couldn’t have looked more bored), but he spent most of his time implementing laws designed to curry favor with Berlin (when they didn’t actually originate there) and making appearances designed to swell the hearts of France’s pepperpots and schoolchildren. The Eye of Vichy also contains some interesting cultural sidebars: ads for powdered soap and Scandale girdles; the rats sequence from The Eternal Jew; middleweight Marcel Cerdan giving an opponent a thorough drudging; and various propaganda efforts, some of which came in unexpected forms.

But it mostly observes official functions—rallies, conferences, visits from Reich big shots, all the while tracking one of the most important components of Franco-German relations in those years, the work programs by which French POWs and civilians “volunteered” to leave home and provide labor for the German war machine. (Cue clip of many tight-lipped smiles at the Gare du Nord.) But the real face of Vichy is clearest in the speeches given by such ugly-souled functionaries as Jacques Doriot and Philippe Henriot, men who in any other time would be dismissed as the thick-necked bullies they were. Chabrol closes his film with a clip from the famous speech that Charles De Gaulle delivered after the liberation—the speech in which he uttered the words “Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France!” Whether he meant them to or not, De Gaulle’s words helped lay the groundwork for a generation of denial; by laying down such clear divisions, he reduced the moral complexity of the war in general, and the Occupation in particular, to an Indiana Jones adventure, and France would pay the price for decades to come.

Two Ways of Looking at a Rooster

August 2, 2011

The Coen brothers’ True Grit fills me with a lot of different emotions, not least of which is regret for having waited so long to read Charles Portis’ terrific novel. I avoided the story in all its forms when Henry Hathaway’s film version appeared in 1969 (the paperback was ubiquitous then), but the truth is I was in no position to appreciate it. I had your basic longhair’s bias against John Wayne, whose loud certainty about Vietnam placed him in the enemy camp and made him seem a one-dimensional grouch. It didn’t help either on Oscar night when the sentimental favorite Wayne snatched the Best Actor award away from Dustin Hoffman, whose work in Midnight Cowboy had hit this 15-year old like a hurricane.

But Wayne’s halo and caveman politics wouldn’t have mattered so much had he only been making good movies. John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a great film, but it was Wayne’s last great film—in fact, it’s arguably his last good one, with 26 pictures still to go. By the time he directed The Alamo in 1960 all of that American manly-man bullshit was clogging his acting arteries, and by the mid-’60s he was specializing in overripe beer-bust entertainments—McClintock!, The War Wagon, The Undefeatedwhose very titles put you to sleep. His characters kept getting louder, broader, less interesting; both the lively amiability and the pointed bitterness of his great films were gone, along with his figure. He spent his screen-time bawling out the characters around him, he could never be wrong about anything that mattered, and even when he was supposed to be happy he was just overbearing. Who in the world wanted to spend two hours with a pot-bellied scoldand with Kim Darby, wearing that haircut? Even the eyepatch seemed like a dodge for an actor who barely bothered to refresh his wardrobe from one movie to the next.

(1963, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970)

Of course no home video market existed at the time, and repertory houses didn’t screen Wayne’s older movies—the ones that might’ve opened my mind about him—precisely because young audiences couldn’t relate to an ever-stiffening movie star who, like a hero out of Peckinpah, was losing his race against time. (Kael, in her review of El Dorado: “Wayne has a beautiful horse, but when he’s hoisted onto it and you hear the thud you don’t know whether to feel sorrier for man or beast.”) Most of the people I knew were so poisoned against him for cultural reasons that they would have simply denied his charm in Stagecoach and his bewitching watchfulness in They Were Expendable. They certainly wouldn’t have admitted that he showed any guts by visiting Harvard University.

My favorite Wayne performance can be found in Ford’s perfectly rounded Fort Apache. Awakening to her first morning at the fort, Shirley Temple runs out onto her balcony and stares with giddy awe at a parade ground teeming with men and livestock, and the movie gives us a top-to-bottom view of this society, ranging from the officers as they lay out their war-plans against Cochise, to their wives, engaged in the no less serious work of furnishing Temple’s quarters, to the hard-luck troopers mucking out the stables. The story required a foil for the Custer stand-in played by Henry Fonda, and the result—Captain Kirby York—allowed Wayne to air all of his best qualities. York the character and Wayne the actor were both in their prime, able to draw on a veteran’s larder of experience yet young enough to perform their duties with great dash. (Near the movie’s midpoint York and a cavalry sergeant go on a scout of the territory, and their long ride over river and mesa, backed by Richard Hageman’s zesty score, is a celebration of movement through the great outdoors.) York is a study in moderation, virile and decisive without being macho or rash. An ultra-competent soldier, he’s also decent, sensitive to the Indians’ needs and their thinking, and encouraging, even nurturing, to those around him. Wayne gave more powerful performances in his career but he never gave a sunnier one—he warms every scene he’s in. I’d take Captain Kirby York over any action hero of the last 60 years.

With the onset of the New Hollywood, Kirby York gave way to a new rootless protagonist who was guided by a personal and often fungible morality. Jeff Bridges, as unmistakably American in his multivalent way as the monolithic Wayne had been, got his break in The Last Picture Show a mere two years after True Grit appeared, then set to work building a career out of roles which Wayne wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole—assuming, of course, he could have played them in the first place. Losers, stoners, ex-cons, club fighters, army deserters, gunmen, has-beens, deadbeat dads, and even (once) a wife-killer—that was Bridges’ speed. He was morally unfit to serve in any John Wayne movie precisely because he was as wild and anti-authoritarian as the Ringo Kid, except that he stayed that way.

He had a keen eye for parts that suited him, and over the years he rode the crest of changing film tastes in a way that Wayne, James Stewart, and James Cagney couldn’t approach. Fat City, The Last American Hero, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, Ivan Passer’s gimlet-eyed requiem for American idealism Cutter’s Way, Jagged Edge, American Heart, Fearless (with that pure, time-stopping airplane crash), Wild Bill, The Contender—all of these films are worth seeing for what Jeff Bridges brought to them. He seemed especially drawn to post-Vietnam dropouts, knockabouts and paranoids, a quality which made his eventual casting as Jeffrey Lebowski just that much more fitting. And yet talented and adventurous as he was, he never attained the star voltage of a De Niro or Pacino, perhaps because his insistently heterosexual demeanor was offset by irrepressible ripples of femininity, courtesy of his full lips, a mane of hair that required constant fussing with, and a voice that approached a falsetto when he giggled. (Michael Cimino absolutely tortured this side of Bridges’ image in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, dressing him, for one long scene, in all too convincing drag.)

He was 61 when he took on Rooster Cogburn, a year or two younger than Wayne had been when he assayed the role. Yet where Wayne’s performance is interchangeable with a dozen others in his scrapbook, Bridges’ Rooster is fresher than Adam. Speaking in a half-asleep yowl which I’ve never heard him (or any other actor) use in a picture, he outfitted Cogburn with a series of tossed-off gestures which together add up to a personality: the fathomless hard/soft gaze he aims at LeBouef that quells one of their arguments, the way his finger rises like a compass needle to indicate where “the federal house in Detroit” is, or the way he sprays self-deprecation all over the line “Aw, it’s just a turkey shoot” to tamp down a compliment from Mattie. For the clearest difference between them, listen to the two Roosters react to Mattie’s claim that a frivolous coon hunt has prepared her to chase Tom Chaney through the Indian Territory: Bridges absolutely bays in ridicule while Wayne’s comeback is generic canned corn. Bridges, who knew he was the favorite to win an Oscar for Crazy Heart before True Grit was in the can, didn’t have to go to all this trouble; Wayne, having finally landed a plum part after almost a decade’s worth of losers, couldn’t understand why Kim Darby cared about keeping the tone of the book intact.

In the novel Rooster is only about forty, and Mattie barely alludes to his one sightless eye. The decisions to age him and give him a eyepatch served to particularize him, and the fact that they were conceived for Wayne’s interpretation only makes Bridges’ ability to retain them and still bury the older performance that much more impressive. But Bridges had his advantages. Where Henry Hathaway tried to flatten all meaning, the Coens enlarge things, to the point of filling in physical details—the measured rise of the tree branch when Mattie cuts the hanged man loose, a small apron of dampened pine needles under the water bucket—which give actors and viewers both a toehold onto their fictional worlds. Nothing says more about Hathaway’s lackluster intentions than his pressing the Rocky Mountains into service as Oklahoma or the casting of non-actor Glen Campbell as LeBouef—the worst kind of commercial pandering there is. By contrast Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned in the Coens’ version, infused an outlaw caught in the wilderness with a synthesis of some of our greatest Western performances.

It’s hard to think of another movie about revenge that takes less pleasure in its accomplishment; even when Mattie pulls the trigger and blows Tom Chaney over a cliff, the movie doesn’t give us time to crow before the gun’s recoil has knocked her into a snake pit. The feeling of regret and missed opportunities that permeates the movie practically enshrouds LeBouef, the vain Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, who’s pursued Chaney for months and come close to him a single time—only to miss his shot. LeBouef, a peacock in buckskin, is another solitary wanderer, and his sharp campfire exchanges with Rooster pop with emotional firecrackers thanks to the men’s unspoken suspicion that they have wasted their lives. It’s a doubt which throbs throughout LeBouef’s farewell to Maddie, in a beautiful scene invented by the Coens. “The trail is cold, and I am considerably diminished,” he admits to her, though he must struggle to get the last phrase out.

It’s a confession John Wayne could never bring himself to make. I’ve been hard on him here, I know, but nothing I ever say can blunt his image: he was too great, and too many people take it on faith that no modern-day star, not even Eastwood, will ever top the legendary Duke. Fort Apache appeared in 1948, as the curtain was still rising on the Cold War, and while guessing at what-if’s is a sucker’s game, I’d give anything to know what directions Wayne might have gone in if he hadn’t spent World War II making movies in the States. He spent the rest of his life living down that evasion, and without it, just maybe, his movies wouldn’t creak so heavily under the armor of self-righteousness.

closer

June 14, 2011

Courtesy of the redoubtable DVD Beaver, two famous pairs of eyes from The Cincinnati Kid:

“There’s a place for us…”

April 22, 2011

When I was compiling that list of Bogie and other depressing old man losers in my last post, I totally forgot to mention the very model of a modern middle-aged muddler. Bill Murray would’ve come to mind eventually just because he always does, but I was spurred to think of him last night thanks to Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.  By the way, movies blur together pretty badly for me nowadays so I made this little chart to keep those two straight in my mind:

                                             Lost in Trans.     Somewhere

Spectacularly pointless pole-dancing scenes:      0                 2

Fresh send-ups of film industry figures:          4                 0                                        0

Shots that go on way too long:                    0                144

Endings that leave you wondering where in
the hell this guy thinks he’s going:              0                 1

On-screen relationships that make it clear
Sofia is still working out some issues
with her dad:                                     1                 1

Mia & Ree

March 6, 2011

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.

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.


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