June 24, 2010

She asks, "What else do you do, besides shoot?"

He replies, "It's been enough so far."

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June 21, 2010

A Thousand Women Like Me (2000); Director: Reza Karimi

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Reza Karimi, director of the Iranian film A Thousand Women Like Me, wrote:

A Thousand Women Like Me was a personal assertion. Cinema is basically the product of experience, and A Thousand Women Like Me is the product of thought, experience and an index of my capabilities up to this moment. Maybe there are flaws in the film, but I have decidedly overcome the shortcomings of the previous film. If I were to make a film one day that did not represent a step forward, that day would surely signal the end of my career.

Starring Niki Karimi, an international star from Iran (and a director herself), A Thousand Women Like Me tells the story of Sharzad (Karimi), a divorce attorney in Tehran who loses custody of her son following her divorce. The film is an indictment of the patriarchal custody laws in Iran, and ups the ante by having the main female character be a divorce attorney herself. She spends her days in court, fighting for her women clients to get access to their children. She now finds herself in the same situation, and experiences, first-hand, the unfairness, the helplessness, the absurdity of what her clients go through. Her son is 8 years old and is a diabetic. The father (played by the wonderful fox-faced Fariburz Arabnia) is lackadaisical about giving their son insulin shots, and refuses to admit that he is ever at fault, even when the son collapses in the schoolyard. Sharzad is allowed to see her son once a week, and her relationship with her ex-husband is still prickly and full of resentment. She shows up at his house, and ends up doing laundry for him, as he follows her around, giving her a hard time.

Sharzad, familiar with the loopholes in the law, starts to fight her own case before judges and intermediaries. If a father can be declared "incompetent", then, and only then, will custody be granted to the mother. She documents her son's illness, the hospital visits, the emergency room runs ... to no avail. The court remains immovable. She becomes desperate. She fears for her son's well-being. Her ex-husband is angry that she divorced him in the first place. He wants her to come home. Her family puts the pressure on her. She starts to see no way out. She kidnaps her son. They then are on the run. Police are looking for them. They sleep in her car. They hang out aimlessly in playgrounds. Her son cries that he misses his father. There are no villains here. Or, perhaps the villain is the culture itself, that devalues women to such a degree that it leaves them no recourse but to take the law into their own hands.

This is serious business. This is a movie about people's lives. Sharzad is an angry woman, even more angry as she gets nowhere with the legal system, and she refuses to play by rules that she thinks are unfair or dangerous. Her family freak out. They cannot get behind her latest choice. She ends up crashing with a friend, while she is on the run, and there are long scenes of the two of them talking, trying to figure out what she should do. These are quiet human scenes, well-written and well-played.

Was she right to take her son? Probably not. Not really. She pays for that choice. Maybe she was right, in an idealistic way, but we cannot live our ideals, at least not without consequences. She is not alone in the world. She has an ex-husband, she has sisters and a mother, all of whom are worried about her. She has abandoned her lucrative and important business. Her son is traumatized by being kidnapped. He loves his mother, but he is the real victim here. He loves his father, too. Director Reza Karimi does not make the mistake of painting everyone with a black-and-white brush. Besides, when you're talking about cultural and social issues with Iran, there really is no such thing as melodrama. Even in a simple film about adultery like Hemlock (my review here - another movie with Fariburz Arabnia as the male lead), the pressures of the culture at large elevate the sometimes shlocky material with true horror. It is difficult to not try to imagine yourself in such a situation, and how you would handle it. The best of Iran's films show the price paid by all members of society living under such an authoritarian regime. The husband is baffled by the course his life has taken. He is not a bad man, although careless with his son. He punishes his ex-wife by refusing access to their son. And perhaps he has some resentment that their son is a bit high-maintenance, being diabetic. All of that is in the script and in the performances.

Karimi is riveting. She has a face the camera loves, with big glimmering eyes, but her performance goes deeper than that. She operates at an increasing fever pitch of desperation and fear throughout the film, and it is to Karimi's credit that none of it goes "over the top". Instead, it is harrowing. You ache for her, for what she has lost, and what she is willing to give up.

Arabnia, the husband, also manages to portray levels of subtlety here that a lesser actor would have missed. Watch the scene where the two make their son's bed together. Filmed with cut-away shots of their hands, tucking in corners of the sheets, it calls to mind all of the everyday domesticity that both of them have forfeited and perhaps now miss. He is a cold man, kind of uncaring, but when push comes to shove, he does not want to harm anyone. Not for good, anyway. Divorce sucks, in any culture. She left HIM. He is pissed off and ashamed. But watch the scenes where he plays with his son, or chats with him on the phone. His situation is heartbreaking as well.

It's a ruthless film, willing to follow events to their logical conclusions to put the final nail in the coffin to the conversation about divorce and custody in Iran. The fantastic 1998 documentary Divorce, Iranian Style was groundbreaking in that regard. Divorce is very easy to receive in Iran, if you are a man. Islamic law declares that a man can divorce his wife at any time, merely by declaring it. She has no equivalent rights. She cannot do the same. The burden of proof is all on the woman, should she want a divorce, and custody is almost never granted to the woman. A Thousand Women Like Me, from 2000, is a good companion piece to Divorce, Iranian Style, with its intimate look at what goes on in Iranian divorce courts.

The subtitles in A Thousand Women Like Me are extremely annoying and very poorly done. White subtitles against white background, completely unreadable. It gets a bit better as the film goes on, but the first 20 minutes are terrible. You have to pick up on what is going on from the behavior alone, because the subtitles are invisible. It actually was a little bit interesting, once I realized the subtitles were a lost cause. Yes, it was annoying, but I accepted the situation and stuck with it, thinking, "Okay. Let me see how much I can 'get' just from watching behavior and body language."

The acting is good enough, the story clear enough, with or without subtitles. I reiterate that the subtitle situation does improve about 20 minutes in, but you have to put up with that first 20 minutes.

A Thousand Women Like Me is worth it.


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June 18, 2010

"Talk About the Movie: A Bug's Life and Up"

In honor of the opening of Toy Story 3 (I haven't seen it yet, loved Glenn Kenny's thoughts about it, and am very much looking forward), here is a link to the piece I wrote for Pixar Week last year about A Bug's Life and Up.

In October, when I wrote that Pixar piece, I was starting to come out of the maelstrom I had been in in the summer (and, honestly, for months before that as well), and that piece was the most personal thing I've written yet about last year. I was asked to contribute and I immediately knew what I wanted to do and say, and hoped a more personal essay would be welcome to the mix, instead of a straight review or an examination of Pixar as a company (nothing wrong with those things, I just knew the direction I, personally, wanted to go). Todd Van Der Werf, the organizer, was open to whatever I wanted to add, thank you, sir, and he started off the week with my essay.

All of the pieces from Pixar Week were fantastic, and I was proud to be a part of it. I took a risk with that piece. Any time you are open and honest, you are vulnerable to attack. I was also the only woman who contributed to Pixar Week. I knew, too, that that could leave me open for attack. "Here's a woman writing a drippy story about her life - why do I want to read this?" It was a tiny test for me. Yes, people may have thought that. Who knows. But it was the truth, and I had some serious shit to SAY about those two movies, and I was glad (and afraid) to put it out there. The comments over there are some of the warmest and most human I have ever received. I wrote about myself, and two movies, and in the comments section people started sharing about themselves. Amazing. A tribute to movies and what they can provide.

Here's the link: "Talk About the Movie!"

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June 10, 2010

"Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." - Ingmar Bergman

From a beautiful post about the Polaroids of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

He was inspired by European, American and Japanese directors, especially the Japanese filming scenes showing of the value of the everyday. And I think that that's something that comes out in these photos that I personally find so appealing. Tarkovsky has also expressed interest in the art of Haiku and its ability to create "images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves." These beautiful Polaroids are kind of like that, they create the illusion that stops flight of time, causing a kind of inner reflection and thoughtfulness.

Go read the whole thing.

To get the conversation going, here is my review of what I consider to be Tarkovsky's greatest film, Stalker.

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In Clifford Odets' journal, he describes a conversation he had with Lee Strasberg, colleague, director, acting teacher:

[Strasberg] spoke of what he called "the blight of Ibsen", saying that Ibsen had taught most writers after him how to think undramatically. He illustrated this by an example. A man has been used to living in luxury finds he is broke and unable to face life -- he goes home and puts a bullet in his head. That, Lee said, any fair theatre person can lay out into a play. But it is not essentially a dramatic view of life. Chekhov is dramatic, he said, for this is how he treats related material: a man earns a million rubles and goes home and lies down on them and puts a bullet in his head.

The Russians are deeply concerned in their art about the state of a man's soul, and Strasberg's point (while a bit of a generalization) rings very true when you look at their greatest works. Dostoevsky, in the Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov delineates the struggle of how to lead a moral life better than anyone has done before or since. That scene rivals Paradise Lost in its excavation of man's fear before God, and also his fear before himself. The psychological aspect of things like boredom, money, love, family, are seen through a very specific cultural filter, where man's spiritual life, his spiritual peace, is paramount. Yet nearly impossible to achieve in this lifetime. That's the Russian torment.

It is impossible to speak of Andrei Tarkovsky's films without talking about his philosophy of life. The two are inextricably linked. He did not make all that many films, and while he died quite young, he was able to formulate, through his art, an entire philosophical system that had to do with the struggle of modern man to have a meaningful existence. Tarkovsky is hopeful, as many religious people are, that there will be redemption, but he also seems skeptical about the possibilities of it occurring any time soon. Either way, he knows it will not be easy. Tarkovsky is worried, truly worried, about the spiritual state of modern man, and nowhere is that more clear than in his 1979 masterwork Stalker.

Tarkovsky is an interesting case. He came into his career in the post-Stalin years in Russia, but the Cold War was at its apex when he was making his greatest films. He was able to work with the authorities, to stay within the system, but they gave him a hard time over the years until it got so bad that he defected. He died a year or so later. I believe it broke his heart to leave Russia. He wasn't a provincial man, he read widely, one of his dreams was to film Hamlet (and what I wouldn't give to have seen that!), and he didn't feel that he needed to be in Russia to be an artist; however, Russia was his home. His wellspring. His life.

His film Andrei Rublev (my review here) catapulted him into worldwide fame, and it is a great film. I suppose you could see it as a metaphor for what it was like for the modern-day Soviet, but Tarkovsky didn't look at it that way. Andrei Rublev was a 15th century monk in Russia who did giant triptychs, most of which were destroyed. Only one remains intact. Nothing is known about him as a man. Tarkovsky wanted to examine what kind of man would devote his life to painting pictures of religious exaltation and eternal peace in the midst of a time of great chaos.

As we all know, the Bolsheviks "got rid of religion" (or so they thought, by turning cathedrals into pool halls and Museums of Atheism) but you would never know that from watching Tarkovsky's films, perhaps the most subversive thing about him. He is a deeply religious man. It is a rare talent who can put his feelings for God on the screen. It is also amazing that he was able to "get away with" as much as he did, in that environment. One of the reasons why I think Tarkovsky was able to operate freely for so long ("freely" being relative) is that he stayed away from politics entirely. You could read into his films, you could see them as grand allegories for current-day themes, but the films would suffer as a result. It's similar to many of the great films coming out of Iran right now. You could see in Children of Heaven a buried message, involving the hardships of life in Iran, the ridiculous pressures put on the citizenry (a brother and sister having to share a pair of shoes?), the class divide which is so intense in Tehran - that is definitely all there, but if you only see it as the allegory, you take away much of its magic. These directors, working under these conditions of censorship and oppression, have to be very very tricky, and the good ones always focus on story. The story they are actually telling. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is a clarion call for spirituality, for what happens to a society when God is left out. His context there is 15th century Russia, but you can see the parallels.

Tarkovsky was a fan of science fiction, and his 1972 film Solyaris was his first foray into that area. He returns to that territory again in Stalker. He goes even deeper into his life-long concerns about the atrophy of man's spirit in the modern world. He was an anti-materialist, definitely, and his ultimate question about events always was: Will this make man happier? Better? Will this bring him closer to his spirit? Or will this separate him even further? Ironically, Tarkovsky ended his life as an exile - but his films all along, made within Russia, have to do with man being exiled from himself and from God.

Stalker was based on the novella Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but Tarkovsky made it his own, as he explains here in a 1979 interview:

I had recommended a short novel Picnic on the Roadside, to my friend, the filmmaker Giorgi Kalatozishvili, thinking he might adapt it to film. Afterwards, I don't know why, Giorgi could not obtain the rights from the authors of the novel, the Strugatsky brothers, and he abandoned the idea of this film. The idea began to turn in my head, at first from time to time, and then more and more often. It seemed to me that this novel could be made into a film with a unity of location, time, and action. This classic unity - Aristotelian in my view - permits us to approach truly authentic filmmaking, which for me is not action film, outwardly dynamic. I must say, too, that the script of Stalker has nothing in common with the novel ... except for the two words, "Stalker" and "Zone". So you see the history of the origins of my film is deceptive.

In Stalker, there has been some sort of apocalyptic event. It is thought that a meteorite had crashed into "our small country" (the country is never named), but the meteorite was never found. Troops were sent to investigate the destroyed area, and they never returned. It became clear to the nameless authorities that the area had to be cordoned off, and it is known as The Zone. A great mystery surrounds the Zone. Nobody knows the truth of it. What is it? There is a rumor that in the center of the Zone, there is a Room, and in that Room, man's greatest wish (whatever it may be) can come true. But how to get into the Zone, which is surrounded by electrical fences and barbed wire, and armed outposts?

This is where The Stalker comes in. The Stalker acts as a guide. People pay him money to take them into the Zone. It is a dangerous prospect. Not just getting past the guards, but once in the Zone, all bets are off. It is a place that changes, constantly - the laws of physics do not apply. It is as though the land itself is alive, and it recognizes when strangers have arrived, so it starts to shift, throwing traps and pitfalls in their way.


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The Stalker lives in a dreary cottage with his unhappy wife and daughter, who has something wrong with her legs. She is "a child of the Zone", which suggests to me that some Chernobyl event may have occurred. The landscape outside the Stalker's cottage is terrifying and industrial. Huge nuclear power plants loom in the distance, and it appears that the entire world is an abandoned construction site.

At the beginning of the film, the Stalker meets up with two men who want to go to the Zone. Money changes hands. They stand in a dingy bar and talk over how it will go.


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The two men who enlist the Stalker's help are known as "Writer" and "Professor". Everyone has their own reasons to want to go to the Zone. It is only what YOU think of it that matters. The Writer is cynical, and he feels he has lost his inspiration. When we first see him, he is having a conversation with a woman in a fur coat (who also wants to go to the Zone, but the Stalker sends her packing), and she is wondering about the mystery of it all, she references the Bermuda Triangle. The Writer scoffs at this. There is no mystery. There are no UFOs, no invisible forces - he is a realist. And yet here he is, about to embark on a journey into the unknown. The Professor teaches physics at a university, and because of his life's work examining things like atoms and protons he is more willing to accept that the invisible and mysterious are also real, but his desire to go to the Zone comes from his yearning to make tangible the intangible. He needs proof. The Stalker, a weary tormented man, has his doubts about both of these men, but they start on their journey.

The opening sequence, with the three men in a massive roofless jeep, driving around through decaying warehouses, is a masterpiece of style. The setting is extraordinary, and you wonder where the hell they were filming. These do not look like sets. The sound of dripping water is paramount (a very Tarkovskyian sound - it appears in most of his films), and the three men drive around in circles, hiding from the guards patrolling the main gate. It becomes clear that a train comes to the outpost, and this will be their way in. The gates open for the train, momentarily, and they will drive in behind the train. The Stalker explains to the other two that while it is dangerous, the guards do not want to go further into the Zone, everyone is afraid of it. The interlopers have that fear on their side.


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Tarkovsky drives his point home by filming the early sections of the film in a saturated black-and-white. It looks like a daguerrotype. Like we are looking at a world long gone away. Tarkovsky preferred to film in black and white, he felt it was a more realistic cinematic language, but here he chose to film the scenes in the Zone itself in vibrant color, to perhaps suggest that the Zone is what everyone thinks it is: a magical place where dreams can come true.

The journey through the Zone is filmed methodically. I think Tarkovsky's point about Aristotelian unities is one of the strengths of this film which could, if you think about it, have seemed rather silly. A magical land where dreams come true? But the journey is shown, step by step, and as they travel, they talk. The philosophical differences of the men become clear. Arguments break out. Both the Writer and the Professor have a hard time just doing what the Stalker says, even though he begs them to follow his instructions exactly - the Zone is dangerous, like a predator, it will eat you up if you don't follow the rules. That is why they hired him.


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Stalker is a dialogue-heavy script, unlike Andrei Rublev which is told mainly through images. I loved the dialogue. It wrestles with the issues, as opposed to presenting them clearly. It is obvious that these three men have different contexts and concerns, but above all else, you worry for them. The Zone, as filmed by Tarkovsky, calls to mind Planet of the Apes, an eerily familiar landscape, but it is a place where a civilization has died. Enormous telephone poles stand tipped over to the side. Buildings lie in ruin. In the earlier scenes, nature is almost nonexistent. There is no grass. The only water in the film appears in a glass on the bedside table, and dripping from the various ceilings, a sure sign of decay. But in the Zone, there is a rushing river. The sound of the water, roaring by, is a tumultuous sound of life - but it's also somewhat ominous, as the entire Zone is. Beneath the water (in a stunning tracking shot, my favorite shot of the film), you can see debris from the world gone by. Fragments of newspaper, syringes, old coins, a religious postcard ... Tarkovsky slowly trains the camera to pan over these objects, seen through the distorted waviness of water.


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It is difficult to not see in all of this a criticism of the Soviet Union's rapacious attitude towards the environment. The world is one of the means of production, to be used as such. Used up and left behind. Tarkovsky and his crew were exposed to toxic chemicals during the shooting of the film, and Tarkovsky probably already had the cancer that would eventually kill him. His evocation of the environment (all environments) in Stalker has to be seen to be believed. The Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, walk cautiously through an overgrown field, towards some unknown destination, having to trust in fate, having to let their innermost wishes come to the surface, because that is the only reason they are there, and the only way they will survive.

As the three men get closer and closer to the mythical "Room" at the center of the Zone, they all start to grapple more openly with what it is they are seeking. What would it be like to have your dreams come true? Again, I go back to the anecdote I started this essay with: Lee Strasberg's conception of what was dramatic, and why Chekhov was the primary example. What is dramatic about a man losing his money and killing himself? Isn't that what we expect? But how about a man becoming rich and then killing himself?

Why I thought of this anecdote when I sat down to write this essay was not just that it seemed to have something to say about Russian artists, but also that the Stalker's predecessor, the one who trained him and taught him to be a Stalker, was known as the Porcupine. And he came back from the Zone one time and found himself fabulously rich. The next week he hung himself. The specter of this hangs over our current-day Stalker - because there is something terrible about dreams, and wishes ... and one of the things he tries to make clear about the Room, is that your wish must be something from your deepest heart - not a selfish or worldly short-term wish.


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This is a true Tarkovskyian warning. Man has been made corrupt by money. Tarkovsky made no bones about his feelings about the West, and while he enjoyed time in Italy and England, etc., he felt that the West had abandoned spirituality in pursuit of worldly goods, and the toll of this cannot even be measured. By abandoning God, Man has abandoned himself. Tarkovsky worried about this (meaning, worked on it) in film after film. Man must look to God, to deeper and higher truths, for what he wants out of life. The Stalker repeatedly warns the Writer and the Professor about this, but it's one of the trials of the human condition. How many of us really can "let go" of the world like that? Tarkovsky insists that it is the only way.

An eerie frightening film, Stalker makes use of spectacular natural locations: empty dark tunnels, mossy overgrown buildings, a quiet reflective river - but there is also one fantastical sequence when they find themselves in a giant inner room in the Zone, with mounds of cylindrical sand on the floor, and two flying cawing birds, the only sign of life so far (except for an ominous black dog who seems to stalk the periphery of the three men's journey). This space is not the Room, but it is the threshold to the Room, and everything starts to break down there. The men, so close to the truth (the yearning of all mankind when looking up at the stars and wondering what the hell is up there?) begin to resist, begin to fight against what is to come.


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The last scene of the film (which I wouldn't dream of revealing) packs such an enormous punch (visually, thematically - it is different from all that came before) - that it acts as a catalyst in the viewer. It tells us something we have not yet learned. It suggests that things really ARE not what they seem, that they are far more mysterious than anyone had ever dreamed. Not even the Stalker knows the real truth.

To quote Tarkovsky's favorite play:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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June 9, 2010

Red Cliff (2008); Directed by John Woo

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John Woo's epic Red Cliff was butchered for its American release, cut down from its over-four-hour length to two hours. I have read of what was cut, and it actually makes me wince. Things like character motivation, small moments (the tiger hunt for example), set-ups of the historical situation, a voiceover was added at the beginning ... Just a mess. It was released in Asia in two parts, and now, through Netflix, you can see the whole thing. I couldn't recommend it more highly if I tried. Superlatives won't even do. Only a cliche will express what I mean: Red Cliff, in its full version, is a must-see. A giant hit in Asia (one of the most successful highest-grossing films of all time), it is a universal epic, and yet one of its strengths is how rooted it remains in the culture of the land from which the movie sprung. Its eyes are not on the West, it doesn't care about us, it is not pandering to us, its eyes are in its own past. This is history writ large, the tale of the Battle of the Red Cliffs, in 208-209 A.D.

One of my side obsessions (I have to kind of pick and choose which I let become the major obsessions, because there are only so many hours in the day) is military strategy through the ages. I love John Keegan's work (what I've read of it anyway), and I tore through Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, trying to follow the moves of cavalry and flanking and pincer formations and all that jazz. I could tell you almost every strategic military move in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It's part of the history of the region where I grew up, and also my country. The Battle of Red Cliffs is unfamiliar to me, and part of the joys of the film is opening up my mind and my curiosity to that part of Chinese history. It was the end of the Han Dynasty, and alliances were formed to combat the Prime Minister Cao Cao, run amok on his own grandiose power-grab. As with most famous historical stories, there are many versions: the accepted version, the romantic version, the post-modern version, if you will. Wherein does truth lie? Remember: it is those who write the history books who have the final say. At least until someone comes along to examine it again and say, "Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute ..." For almost a century, John Adams' and Thomas Jefferson's "version" of Alexander Hamilton was the accepted version. And Hamilton died young, so he wasn't around to defend himself, or exonerate himself. It has taken modern-day historians in the last couple of decades to re-examine this historical figure, strip away some of the accumulated prejudices (many of them unexamined) and look at him freshly. Here's how I like to think about it: To John Adams, Alexander Hamilton was a dangerous individual. He had to be stopped and destroyed. That's John Adams's view, and it was very true to him. There was a grandiose self-destructive tyrannical streak in Hamilton. So although I admire Alexander Hamilton immensely (uhm, obviously), I find it interesting to remove myself from partisanship, or a defensive stance and take in what everyone else had to say about him. The battle over Alexander Hamilton continues. Beware those who want to have the last word. They want conversations to END, not continue.

And with Red Cliff, I was in military strategy HEAVEN. Give me outnumbered troops, surrounded on all sides, and have them figure a way out of it, through cleverness, wilyness and sheer trickery (Washington having troops parade past a certain field, looping around to parade again, to give the illusion that there were more soldiers there than there really were) - and I am a happy camper. For example, my favorite scene in Master and Commander, in a film full of great scenes, is the one where they disguise their ship to be other than what it is, a feint, a camouflage, like the bugs who can disguise themselves as twigs. Imagine an entire movie with scenes like that. Imagine an entire movie that immerses you in the minutia of military strategy, in the 3rd century, and you'll get an idea of the sheer joy of Red Cliff.

But it doesn't skimp on character, either, which is why it is essential to see it in its unedited version, as John Woo meant it to be seen.

To be honest, I didn't get all of the names straight, but I'll do my best with what I have. Red Cliff takes place at the end of the Han Dynasty, when the young untried emperor Sun Quan (played by Zhao Wei, seen in the first stunner of a scene sitting in a giant room in front of his cranky advisors, wearing a fey dangley crown, and he seems soft, like a typical useless monarch, more interested in playing with birds than fighting war) finds himself in a confrontation with a general named Cao Cao (played by Zhang Fengyi in a fantastic performance) over suppressing the upstart warlords in the south. The king resists. But he is not respected by anyone. His word carries no weight (and his transformation from that soft oblivious bird-lover in the first scene to a ferocious and focused warrior is one of the pleasures of this movie). Cao Cao easily sees his chance, and goes off on his own, with a giant army in tow to "pacify" (a terrifying word in military parlance, along the lines of "cleanse") the South. The empire is thrown into chaos. Divide and conquer, right? A couple of far-seeing men realize that it would be far better to form an alliance than to continue to war with one another, which would weaken them in the face of Cao Cao's onslaught. Previously warring factions join together. It is tense. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. But who to trust? How will the alliance last? They are outnumbered. Cao Cao has the force of the Empire behind him.

Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Zhuge Liang, a military advisor to the new alliance, a crucial player, who stares at clouds, and wind patterns, based on his experience as a farmer, and comes up with brilliant plans to conquer Cao Cao's army. It is a marvelous performance, moving and mysterious. Who is this man? We never know the whole story. Does he have a wife? It isn't known. He is a skilled military tactician, and yet he admits freely that he battles anxiety, which is why he carries a giant bird-feather fan at all times. It relaxes him to fan himself. What an amazing character detail. Never explained. I love a script that has confidence like that. We are left to imagine what it is he is anxious about. He is not pathologized. Nothing like that. On the contrary, we admire him tremendously. He stands by the river. Cao Cao's forces are massed across the river. It seems that all is lost. He notices that a small turtle is sweating. That means that fog is coming in the next day, which will give them a huge advantage. He is a marvelous character. I love his face. It is a kind and intelligent face.

Zhou Yu (played by Tony Leung) is a veteran warrior who has holed himself up with his ragtag band of men (many of whom are not more than boys), training them relentlessly. He is in service to the Emperor, and yet, what will that mean for him? It is complicated a bit for him because Cao Cao once upon a time fell in love with his wife (played ravishingly by Chi-Ling Lin), and Zhou Yu knows this, so all along the question persists: Did Cao Cao start this war to "capture" his wife? It turns out that this is not just a neurotic question.

Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang would be fierce foes in any other time, but in this specific time, they become important friends. It is a beautiful and complex portrait of male friendship. There is a scene where they meet, and, after dinner, they play music together, on two different instruments, an intense and competitive duet, the two of them looking to outdo the other, by the sheer virtuosity of their playing. It's a sexual scene. Sex is an important part of war, maybe the most important part, although rarely acknowledged. How much of war is one guy insisting that his dick is bigger than the other guy's? And here, in this sensitive and exciting scene, of duelling zithers (or whatever it is they are playing), you feel that these men, without language, have bonded, one to the other. They have said to each other: "You. You are the one. I trust no one. Remember that. But here, in this moment, I trust you. You. You are the one." It makes all other "buddy movies" pale in comparison, Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro playing with passion and also one-upmanship, glancing at each other through the scene, a clear sign of intent and desire. Their alliance is not formed with words or a binding contract. It is formed playing music together. Zhou Yu's wife says to her husband, after their guest leaves, "Zhuge Liang is ready for war." She could tell. From how he played music. Don't discount women's intuition, how it senses the subcurrent. She was right.

THAT is an "action script".

Preparations for war begin. One of the leaders of a Southern province has his own army (he's played by Sun Quan, a man of deep convictions, but caution as well), and they are seen early on fighting, and trying to protect the fleeing refugees at the same time. A choice is to be made. A faction of the army is devoted to protecting the refugees, and it becomes clear they will lose the battle if they do not remove those troops to go to the frontlines. But that will leave the refugees unprotected. Sun Quan says to Zhuge Liang, "These are Han people. If we do not protect them, then what is this war for?"

It is a deep and pertinent point, one of the backbones of the script. What is war for? I believe that sometimes you just have to fight. There is a greater good. Stand up and be counted. War is hell, as the saying goes, but so is tyranny. Tyranny is a life of living dead. Better to die for the cause than go down passively under the black boot of a despot. Jafar Panahi is an example of that. As is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ryzsard Kapusinski, Vaclav Havel, the men I consider to be my intellectual and spiritual idols. They knew how to fight. But is there such a thing as an honorable war? I believe there is, obviously, but these are not easy questions, especially not when you are on a battlefield. Red Cliff, in its length and scope, grapples with that issue. Honestly, I think, although obviously we are meant to sympathize with the Tony Leung side of the fight, Cao Cao is not a faceless sneering comic-book villain. John Woo is smart. Cao Cao, too, is operating from a set of assumptions, and his own belief in right and wrong. It is just that his version of right and wrong clashes with Zhou Yu's version. Who is right? Well, the history books tell us that the victor is right. Right? Not so fast. There are scenes when Cao Cao uses dirty tactics, to terrorize his enemy's morale. Typhoid is raging amongst his soldiers, hundreds of them have died. Instead of cremating them, as per the sanitary customs of the day, instead he sets the dead free on barges, to float over to the enemy camp, where they will then be handled and touched by Zhou Yu's forces, not knowing that the bodies are infected and contagious. To Zhou Yu, this is not in the rule-book. The rule-book of an "honorable" war. It is important to him to fight with honor. But make no mistake: he wants to crush his enemy. Red Cliff handles these complex issues of warfare with finesse. It's not so much that we see both sides. It's that we see that war is brutal. You do what you have to do. And it is best when warriors remember what it is they are fighting for. All of that can be lost in the chaos of the battle. A good commander knows that, and prepares his troops accordingly. Training is key. Watching these men fight, the organization, the shields all coming down, as one, to buttress against the flying arrows, is nothing less than absolutely thrilling. It is brilliant war-time filmmaking. Every scene tops the former. It's hard to believe that's true, in a 4-plus hour film, but it's true.

Zhao Wei (an awesome actress) plays the emperor's tomboy sister, an accomplished equestrienne and archer, and a woman unwilling to play her assigned role as a woman. She becomes an effective spy, infiltrating Cao Cao's forces, impersonating a boy, calling to mind Shakespeare's many heroines in drag, Viola, Rosalind, Portia. How many women have seen such a chance to make a difference, in history, and taken it? Their names are not known to us, but they existed. She is the first over the wall. She has no fear. She is a patriot. Yet John Woo gives her room to be a woman, too, susceptible to things like softness, connection, a possibility of love, in the wrong camp. I have to admit I was afraid for her character. Not so much in terms of what would happen to her, but in how the script would treat her. Would she be used as a gimmick? Would her femaleness be used as a plot point, something to garner cheap sympathy? By that I mean: I was afraid that her womanhood would be revealed, and she would be on the verge of being gang-raped, and she would then be saved by her special friend in the enemy camp. If you think I'm exaggerating, then just picture how such women are usually treated in action movies, from A to Z, and how their "courage" in being "manly" is usually punished in the most female of ways. Red Cliff did not disappoint me, and I take such things very very seriously. I care about how women are portrayed on film. I don't think they should be always good, or victorious, no. On the contrary. But when womanhood is used cheaply, to bring up primal protective patriarchal responses in the audience, that's when I get my back up. It's similar to filmmakers who use the Holocaust as a plot-point, a cheap shortcut to getting the audience on its side. I'm looking at you, Swing Kids. (As my friend Mitchell said, "Swing Kids appears to be about how, despite the Holocaust, a bunch of German teenagers managed to have a good time during the war.") But Red Cliff didn't go that way. It's a stronger film for it. It did not betray her character. It did not betray me, the audience member rooting for her. Things do not "work out" for her, but the film didn't go the typical route which most by-the-book films do, which can't seem to figure out how to deal with womanhood. They want to thrill the audience with a fierce female, fighting alongside the men, but then, they don't know what to do next with her, and, essentially, "put her in her place" by creating a situation of sexual violence from which she must be rescued. You can almost imagine the fevered all-male script conferences that go on: "I know! Let's have her take a bath in the enemy camp, all afraid she will be discovered - and then - I know! We'll have a shot of her breasts, close-up, make it really hot, and then we'll see a soldier peek in on her ... and then ... I know, let's have him be shocked, and then let's have her cover her breasts ... and oh, this'll be great, a bunch of guys will burst in on her, naked ... and then, her friend will bust in like Rambo and save her!" To the men who always say that women are being too sensitive about such issues, I reply: Be careful. Be careful what you defend. Especially if you care about art, art that is for all of us. In Red Cliff, Zhao Wei is a force to be reckoned with, even the men she fights alongside of have to admit that. Her maps are beyond brilliant. She helps them win the war. And yet, her heart opens to a friend she makes in the enemy camp. He thinks she's a boy, he punches her in the stomach at one point, in a fond way, shocking her, and her heart opens up. Tomboys across the world will understand her pain. "Yes ... I'm good at kickball ... but ... I'm also a girl ... I want love, too... Can't I have both??" I've rarely seen this strange dynamic portrayed so beautifully, outside of Shakespeare (who did it best).

There are so many scenes to treasure. Too many to count. A couple of my favorites:

-- A fight scene early on with a general from Sun Quan's army. Dammit, I wish I knew his character's name, and I am sure he is totally famous with Asian audiences, so please, Asian film fans, fill me in: This man saves a baby, a crucial baby, a baby who will continue on the line, and then this man fights off all of the opposing forces with the baby strapped to his back. He is fierce. He is unstoppable. He is an incredible athlete. And yet it never becomes just a stunt-scene. What it is is a fight to the death. The baby must live. That is what this actor is playing, in all of his unbelievable fight sequences. I am so sorry I do not know this man's name, or character's name, because this man is so phenomenal, so incredible in his martial arts ability, first of all, but second of all, in his ability to inject worlds of emotion into his fighting. He spars with swords and arrows, in a fight scene that will have you on the edge of your seats, and all you are thinking is DID THE BABY MAKE IT?? This is a testament to his power as an action star. UnbeLIEVable scene.

-- A show-stopping scene involving arrows and boats. Zhou Yu's forces are better on the water, but Cao Cao has more boats. However, Cao Cao's forces are nervous people, unused to the water. They don't understand naval strategy. It has already been set up that Zhou Yu's side don't have enough arrows. They have 20,000 arrows compared to the 100,000 arrows on the other side. Zhuge Liang comes up with a plan, involving scarecrows, and floating their boats up to within shooting range of the massive enemy, in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. I am not lying when I say that I started clapping when I realized what he was up to, saying out loud, "THIS IS BRILLIANT." It all dovetails with my obsession with military strategies. Absolutely unbelievable scene, from beginning to end.

-- Early on in the film, early in the alliance between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, a horse is giving birth. It is a breech birth. A frightening situation, dangerous to both mother and child. Zhou Yu's wife lies over the horse, stroking it, commanding people to keep their voices down, because the panicked tones will disturb the birthing mother. It is this scene, and no other, that made me fall in love with the film. It brought tears to my eyes. I entered into THEIR world, and totally left my own.

-- Cao Cao's forces are drawn into a trap, laid for them by the opposition, who don't have the numbers to win, but who are tricky enough that it just might work. The commander shouts at one point: "FLIP THE SHIELDS." When they "flip the shields", well, all I can say is, goosebumps erupted over my flesh, and you'll just have to see it to see what I am talking about.

-- Tony Leung's first entrance, which is textbook "Entrance of Huge Honking Movie Star", and satisfies the audience at such a deep level, who have been waiting for him to appear for an hour or so. When we finally see his face (and it is prolonged, John Woo makes us wait), we feel a swansong of relief, "Ohhhh, there he is", and it is my favorite kind of star entrance.

-- The final battle with the fire-boats ramming the banked boats. If I described it, I wouldn't do it justice.

In the end, what makes Red Cliff special, is its willingness to let us sit in the philosophical implications of the business of war, in a way that calls to mind Apocalypse Now and Kurosawa's films. You may think that your "version" of history is correct. It must be nice to be so certain.

John Woo has been making flashy and important action films for decades. Red Cliff is his dream project. His most personal film. It shows.

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June 5, 2010

The Big Combo (1955); Director: Joseph Lewis

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Director Joseph Lewis, perhaps known mostly as "king of the Bs", worked at fast and furious paces on his films (not so out of the ordinary at the time), but the quality he managed to achieve in the midst of those breakneck cheaply-made productions, not just in the performances of his actors, but also in the look and feel of his films, is quite extraordinary. One of the things I love about Lewis as a director (in his finished products, and also how he comes across in interviews) is his obvious sheer love for the crazy pursuit, and the bravado it takes to get anything done, and how he seemed to relish the entire experience. Peter Bogdanovich interviewed him near the end of his life and Lewis's joy still comes across. He didn't take himself too seriously, but he sure took what he was doing seriously. I'm on a Joseph Lewis kick these days, and The Big Combo, from 1955, is one of his most well-loved film noirs. Gun Crazy is obviously his most famous (and rightly so - I'll talk about that later), but there's always something in all of his films to sink your teeth into, visually, or character-wise. The Big Combo looks awesome, every shot seething with atmosphere and emotion. Joseph Lewis got his start doing Westerns, and any time a scene was boring to him, he would shoot it through wagon wheels, to give the frame some interest, thereby garnering for himself the nickname "Wagon Wheel Joe". Producers would shout, "Oh Jesus, take those wagon wheels away from him, goddammit, not another wagon-wheel scene." You can see Lewis's intelligence and passion in how he frames each shot, the point being to keep things vital and good-looking, so that each scene is not just interesting because of its plot points, but because of how it looks. The acting is terrific, even down to characters who only have one line, and the script is great. What could have been your basic gangster film ends up being so much more. It's a psychological study of obsession. Everyone here is obsessed with something.

I think Joseph Lewis, like all the great directors (and he rarely is spoken in the same breath as people like John Ford, Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, but I'm putting him in that lexicon for the moment) understood obsession. He made it his primary subject matter. Gun Crazy is a primal example of it, but Big Combo is there too. Mr. Brown, the gangster, (played by Richard Conte, in a suave slightly ominous performance that reminded me of some of Burt Lancaster's roles) is obsessed with status, and being at the top of the heap. Leonard Diamond, the cop (played by Cornel Wilde) is obsessed with Mr. Brown, first of all, and has thrown the entire police force into a manhunt, against the advice of the commissioners and everyone else. But he is like a man with a bone. Through his pursuit of Brown, he has come to fall in love with Brown's gun-moll girlfriend Susan (played by Wilde's real-life wife Jean Wallace). Susan used to be a society girl, and something of a prodigy at the piano, but she has given all that up, and thrown in her lot with her gangster boyfriend, much to the bafflement of the world she has left behind. Why would she leave polite society and hang around with this thug? Ahhhh, but that's because Susan is obsessed with something, too: the kind of sex she has with her gangster boyfriend. It's dirty, it's passionate, it's fierce. Like Stella Kowalski, another society-girl tied to a man beneath her station because she's addicted to how he fucks and how he gets those red lights flashing, Susan hates herself for being trapped, but she is putty in his hands. Mr. Brown knows how to push her buttons, and he does. Susan is a sour-faced girl by now, broken down by disappointment and loneliness, but when he touches her, even casually, she goes into a private realm of sex and pleasure that leaves her helpless. Mr. Diamond tries to lure Susan away from Mr. Brown, not only because he needs a witness against him, but because he has fallen in love with her. But could Cornel Wilde, with his slightly earnest look, serious and tense, ever please her the way her boyfriend pleases her? This is not spoken in the script, at least not overtly, but it's there - in every look, every touch, every glance.

Big Combo also has the honor of being the first American film to at least suggest that oral sex is occurring. Ecstasy did it before then, way before, and was much more graphic, Hedy Lemarr having her first orgasm onscreen, in closeup. But that wasn't an American film. Joseph Lewis said to Jean Wallace, trying to loosen her up for the scene (and Wilde was a producer on the film, which added to her insecurity): "Your boyfriend doesn't stop when he kisses your earlobe. He doesn't stop when he kisses your neck. He doesn't stop when he kisses your tummy. He covers you all." Wallace apparently said, "I cannot believe you are talking to me this way, but fine, I understand what you mean, I'll do it, just make sure Cornel isn't on the set that day, please?" Susan and Mr. Brown are having a fight, and he tries to calm her down. He kisses her roughly. She submits, then resists. He moves up behind her, she is facing us, and he starts kissing her on the neck, saying things like, "I want to give you everything ... I'll give you all ..." You can see her sexual helplessness all over her face in that moment, she's almost climaxing if you want to know the truth.

I loved how Joseph Lewis described this scene to Bogdanovich:

I actually wanted to show - again by impression only - a man making love to a girl in this delightfully unique fashion that we have all dreamt about or experienced. Now, how do you show it on film? Well, I had an idea: as you saw the two of them, mixed with kissing her on the lips and then on the ear, the camera moved closer and closer and closer and, as you came into a huge closeup of Nick Conte and Jean Wallace, gradually Nick's head disappeared: first kissing her neck, then lower and lower and then, at the precise moment, Jean, who was icy - I think she was afraid to betray herself for fear Cornel would raise hell with her - but at that precise moment I envisioned, I went 'uh-uh-uh' off-scene, and that was recorded. Cornel never forgave me for it.

The scene is as graphic as you can get, even more so because you don't see it actually happen. You don't need to.

Joseph Lewis got in trouble with the censors because of it. One of the things his movies do is push back at the Code, which had been in place since the 1930s. Gun Crazy breaks boundaries all over the place, and Big Combo does, too. Lewis told Bogdanovich that one of the censors said to him angrily, "I can't believe you have put this filth into the movie of a man going down on a woman." Lewis protested innocence. "That is entirely your projection. I didn't show it. You have supplied all of the emotion of the scene, as an audience is supposed to do. So don't tell me I'm a filthy director." The scene stayed.

Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play two of Mr. Brown's goons. The heavies who do the dirty work. There isn't a scene that they aren't together. They are on stakeouts, they share salami sandwiches, they start to realize that they are being set up here, somehow, by their boss ... only they aren't sure how yet. Granted, they are not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. But their dynamic is set up to such a strong degree, that you actually like these guys, as horrible as some of their actions are, and when they finally are ambushed, and one of them doesn't make it (Van Cleef), Holliman, lying on a stretcher, begins to weep with the loss of his friend, and the scene works, it works so well. His grief is real. He is nothing without his partner. He can barely speak coherently. Earl Holliman does a terrific job with a "nothing" part, realizing the opportunity here for creating a real character, with a backstory, and relationships. So many actors and scripts miss this. But here: everyone is allowed to be human.

The script sparks and glides, with lines like, "Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotels make better money than that.”

Obsession drives the three leads forward. Other characters move into the action. There is a great cameo by Helen Walker, who plays Mr. Brown's wife, whom he has had incarcerated in a mental institution to get her out of the way. Mr. Diamond tracks her down, and she has been living in an asylum for 10 years, tending to the garden, and wants nothing to do with her past life. She is afraid. She tells Mr. Diamond: "I'd rather be insane and alive, than sane and dead." In Frances, Frances Farmer says, in the interview at the end of the film that if you are "treated as if you are sick ... well, I guess you can become sick." Helen Walker embodies that. She is a wreck of a woman. Her obsession is her flowers. It is the only thing that makes sense, and throughout her interrogation she keeps yearning to get back to them.

Obsession keeps us alive. Or it kills us. Either one. Let the chips fall where they may.

With a great climactic battle, involving Susan shining a spotlight on the side of the car into the dark warehouse to illuminate her trapped lover, and a final moment which is a complete steal from Casablanca, Big Combo is a great popcorn-movie, and shows what a movie looks like when it's made by a man who is obsessed with the process itself.


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June 4, 2010

Crimson Gold (2003); Director: Jafar Panahi

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Crimson Gold opens with a stick-up at a jewelry store. The camera is placed inside the dark store, and through its point of view we can see out onto the sunny street beyond. We see the little old jeweler come to unlock the door from the outside, we see the dark figure running up behind him, we see the flash of the gun as the jeweler is shoved inside, and then follows the stick-up, where the camera doesn't move once. The jeweler is pleading and fighting, the thief telling him to shut up and get the jewels, but half the time they are out of frame. They crash around, things fall down, we hear their dialogue, and occasionally they pass by the camera, but most often, they are not seen. As the theft plays out, a group of curious people gather outside on the sidewalk. A chic woman in a blue headscarf had tried to get into the jewelry store, found it locked, and, peeking in, saw what was going on and began to freak out, calling for help. People gather. A shot is fired from within. Chaos erupts on the street. Everyone knows the jeweler, they start to call out for him by name. The thief never says a word. He remains a dark lumbering presence, and it isn't until the final shot of the opening sequence when he, trapped in a situation he has started, stands with his back against the gate, his back against the crowd on the sidewalk, and holds the gun up to his temple.

It's an outstanding opening, and one of the best parts of it is that it sets up an expectation of what kind of movie we are about to see (jewelry heists, down-on-his-luck guy trying to make one big score, all the cliches), and while some of those cliches are in place, because it's Jafar Panahi directing (and the script is by Abbas Kiarostami) things don't quite look or feel the way they are "supposed" to. I love a movie that can do that, without being too clever or pleased with itself. Criminson Gold is not messing with convention. It has no opinion about the conventions of jewelry-heist movies. Or if it does, it's certainly not front and center.


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One of the dangers in talking about Jafar Panahi's films is that you (the writer) can make it sound too earnest, missing entirely the feel and energy of the film. He's serious, sure, but not too serious. He's interested in other things entirely. So if I said: Crimson Gold is about the gap between the haves and have-nots in Tehran, you would be forgiven for suppressing a yawn and deciding to see another movie instead. But Panahi and Kiarostami, film geeks essentially, understand that cinema is a language, it is visual, and it is what one does with the pictures that tells the story.

And Crimson Gold is full of beautiful and strange pictures.

Hussein (the thief) is played by Hossain Emadeddin, a non-actor (this is his only credit), and Ebert mentions in his review that Emadeddin, in real life, is a paranoid schizophrenic. He doesn't play one here, but there is something dead and abstract about his face that is compelling, making you wonder all along if something might be wrong with this guy. He is mainly wordless. He rides around Tehran on his motorbike. He lives in a dingy one-room apartment. He delivers pizzas. And, on the side, he is a pickpocket with his friend Ali (played by Kamyar Sheisi), and they strategize on how to pick women who clearly have money in their purses. There is a whole psychology behind it. Not that Hussein seems interested in psychology. He is engaged to be married to Ali's sister. Ali is relieved. He was worried about his sister's chances of finding a husband.


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All of this information is revealed in the early stages of the film, when it becomes clear that we are working backwards, to find out how it is that Hussein would end up with a gun to his head in a jewelry store. The two sit in a cafe talking, and an old man comes up to them and joins them. He gives them advice on thievery, a line he runs in too, and says that the best thiefs are the most honest. Don't knock someone over for pocket change, or the thrill of it. The motivation behind your robbery is what separates the men from the boys.

My expectations were still that we were about to see a movie about robbery. Maybe the old man will become a mentor ... maybe we will see the trial runs of big robberies ... maybe one will be busted ...

Crimson Gold doesn't go any of these predictable ways, and as the film meanders on, we submit to its pace, we submit to its journey. We give up our own. So much of life is about giving up your idea of what it should be, and accepting the reality before you. This is true of the characters in Crimson Gold (everyone: from the girlfriend, to the old guy in the cafe, to the people Hussein meets along the way) and it is true of the audience as well.

There are two standout scenes. They are long. They are complex, with many elements, many characters. Kiarostami's wicked wit and intelligence is here in spades. Throw out the rule-book. The opening jewelry-heist becomes a distant memory, and instead, we follow Hussein around on his delivery route, meeting different people along the way, and getting sucked into their various dramas.

The first standout scene takes place at a big fancy apartment building, and Hussein pulls up, with three pizzas to be delivered to the third floor. He is stopped at the front door by a cop, who tells him to go no further. Hussein lumpily argues. He is stubborn. "But I have pizzas to deliver." "That's none of your business. Just stand over there." It turns out there is a stakeout on the street, with plainclothes policemen and soldiers hanging out in all the bushes, and waiting in parked cars. There is a party going on on the third floor, you can hear the music pounding from above, and the cops are waiting for the partygoers to emerge, so they can haul them off to jail one by one. The cops won't let Hussein leave. He is now a witness, and may be important later. He is forced to stand against a wall and wait.

The scene unfolds, and each time you think it might be over, it unfolds some more. It takes surprising dips and alleys, it arrives at dead-ends, and then backs up and tried another way. The street is dark and shadowed, and the buildings have a greenish tinge from the streetlamps. It is beautifully shot, with Panahi's detailed eye for urban settings and strange beauty found in ordinary things. Kiarostami's script is incredible, too. A veiled woman drives up and tries to enter the building. The police stop her. She says that her daughter had called for her to come pick her up. The police try to make her phone up there on her cell phone and tell her daughter to come down. She refuses. She is told to sit in her car and wait. A couple drive up and get out, and the cops swarm around them. They haven't even said where they are going, perhaps they live on a different floor of the building, but the cops pull on them, demanding to know what they are doing. The couple fights back. (Everyone in the movie fights back, a little nod to the resilience of the Iranian people in the face of such nonsense.) "We haven't even gone in yet ..." The woman exclaims, "We're married!" A cop snorts, "What kind of a man goes out with his wife?" This is not said ironically, or as a joke. This is a serious sentiment, and opens up worlds of understanding of the sexual and moral culture of the place (explored in other Iranian films about marriage, like Hemlock, and Fireworks Wednesday, and The Day I Became a Woman.) These two HAVE to be up to no good, because what kind of a man goes out with his wife to a party? Kiarostami doesn't linger on this, though. All of this is shot from Hussein's point of view, waiting across the street, and looking on. Two young girls, chattering on their cell phones, emerge from the party and are hauled off to the waiting police van. The scene has to be about 20 minutes long.

Hussein doesn't have much to say during all of this, but he does strike up a conversation with a young soldier standing nearby. The soldier barely looks like he shaves yet. Hussein notices this and asks him how old he is. The soldier confesses he is 15. His brother died in "the war" (there's only one war to this generation of Iranians). We already know that Hussein is a veteran of that war, and he takes some kind of medication, it is never said what, but it has made him heavy and sluggish. The war hangs over this scene, its long memory, its reach. Hussein looks up at the window where the party is going on. The curtains are drawn, but you can see people dancing and whooping it up behind. The music is techno-pop with an Iranian flair. One woman who emerges and is immediately hauled off, protests: "There was a wedding - this is a family gathering." No matter. Men, women, dancing together? Alcohol probably? Hussein and the young soldier stare up at the gyrating silhouettes. Hussein asks the young boy, "Have you ever danced with a girl?" The young boy shakes his head no.

The streets are in shadow, long and green and murky, with one blinding red neon sign at the end of the alley. It is startlingly beautiful, yet disturbing as well. It has the feel of a hospital, or a prison, those institutional colors. Hussein knows he is going to be in trouble with his job, but he has three pizzas on the back of his motorbike, and it would be a shame to let them go to waste, so he offers a piece to the young soldier. The soldier refuses. Hussein thinks a bit, silently, and then walks over to the parked car where the police sergeant, walkie-talkie in hand, sits, and he offers him a piece of pizza. The sergeant tells him to go back against the wall like he is told. Hussein insists. "The pizza will go to waste. If you have a piece, then the others won't be afraid to have a piece. Come on." It is the most he has said in the entire film.

The sergeant gives in, he's hungry, and grabs some slices of pizza, which then embolden the others, who will probably be on this stakeout until dawn. Even the waiting veiled mother in the car takes a slice.

I have just described the action of the scene, but that can't begin to convey the slow creeping effectiveness of it, the dark colors, the sudden spurts of alarmed dialogue as the cops arrest yet another person, and above it all, the throbbing pounding Western music, seen as so threatening and yet so enticing.

The second standout scene is when Hussein delivers pizza to a penthouse apartment. A young slick guy in a tie answers the door. He is played by Pourang Nakhael, and it's rather amazing to me that this is his only credit, another testament to Jafar Panahi's well-known gift of working with non-actors. The slick guy is annoyed. He had ordered the pizzas because he had a girl over, he informed Hussein, but now the girl (and her tagalong friend) is gone, and he has no use for the pizzas anymore. He's more annoyed that he has been blown off by this girl. Hussein is impervious to such sophisticated problems. His character reminded me a lot of Victor, played by Pruitt Taylor Vince, in James Mangold's underrated film Heavy. Dominated and underestimated by others, mainly because of his weight, he has learned to suppress his desires, and his more unsavory feelings, like rage or insecurity. He seems passive. As Victor seems passive, overrun by his unbearable mother (played awesomely by Shelley Winters), and hopelessly in love with the beautiful new girl at the pizza place where he works (another interesting parallel with Crimson Gold). Both characters, Victor and Hussein, are in service jobs. They have to bite down their pride and their feeling that they deserve more ... because, perhaps, they have been mocked their whole lives. For being ugly, for being weird, whatever. And nobody wants to know that their pizza delivery guy has feelings, or a life.

Again, Kiarostami messes with our expectations of what the scene will be. We are led to think that it will be a short scene, a quick glimpse into an unheard-of world of echoey penthouses and guys with money to burn and girls who come over to ... do what, exactly? The slick rich guy doesn't want to pay for the pizzas, because it was the girls' idea anyway, but Hussein remains immovable, a dark stolid force, and so the rich guy goes to get the money. Hussein slowly peeks through the door. We see a wide white staircase, like the one in Notorious. We see gold leaf. We see Greek statues in little niches in the walls. Up until this point in the film, we are obviously aware that rich people exist, but since we are only in Hussein's small circle, we don't actually see how the better half lives. So the short glimpse we get, the wide black windows high high up, staring out at the glittering vast sprawl of Tehran, has a deep impact. It's devastating, actually.

One of the most boring things to do in life is to bitch and complain about not having enough money. It is not rich people's fault that they are fortunate. As a matter of fact, more often than not, their wealth comes from hard work and commitment. They have earned it. However, we are all only human, and by that point in the story of Crimson Gold, we feel that Hussein has perhaps earned the right to at least have a moment of thinking, "Dang. It's so unfair."

But that's just a projection. We don't know what Hussein thinks. We don't need to. Panahi, with the slow pan across that astounding room, tells us all we need to know.

Then: the scene takes a turn. The rich guy invites Hussein to come in and share the pizzas with him. Why not? The whole evening was a bust anyway. He had obviously hoped to get laid, or at least get something, and now what was he going to do? Hussein resists at first, but the rich guy is insistent, and finally, Hussein enters. What follows, a long scene between the two men, is not at all what you would imagine or conceive of - only Kiarostami could do it - and as they eat and talk, and the rich guy (who is about Hussein's age) complains about how "crazy" the country is (he grew up in the States and then got homesick, coming back to inhabit his parents' insanely palatial apartment), and offers Hussein liquor, and complains about the girl who came over, and complains about a lot of things, actually. There are many indictments of Iranian culture here, but since it is put into the mouth of this vaguely unsavory poor-little-rich-boy, the edge is taken off. Maybe he's complaining too much, I thought. But the knife of criticism is there, and yet another reason why Panahi so often gets into trouble.


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The penthouse apartment that Panahi found is one of the most incredible sets I've ever seen in an Iranian film. It's three or four floors, with a huge roof-deck, a crazy swimming pool with posing black Greek statues, a grand piano, a strange empty room filled with red-and-white striped plush chairs (it looks like a conference room in a hotel), a full gym with weight machines and treadmills, a stainless steel giant refrigerator filled to the gills with liquor, a huge empty room containing only a Persian rug and a flat-screen TV as large as a cineplex movie screen ... It is a creepy empty house, screaming "nouveau riche", with no taste, no personality, just an accumulation of objects, unused, there for show.

It is alienating to the extreme. Hussein and the rich guy sit at the table, eating pizza, and smoking. The girl who had just left had apparently gotten her period in the rich guy's bathroom, leaving some blood splattered on the floor (calling to mind the horrifying scene from Neal Labute's Your Friends and Neighbors, with Jason Patrick freaking out on this girl because she dared to bleed on his sheets - awful. Awful.), and the rich guy is incensed at the blood on his pristine floor. It seems to him indicative of how "insane" Iran is. "You people don't know how to deal with a simple biological problem..." he fumes as he cleans it up.

Part of the joy of this film is, as I mentioned, succumbing to where IT wants to go, and letting go of the feeling that "shouldn't we be moving on now?" Sometimes, yes, it is good to "move on", but Crimson Gold is not about its plot. It is about the lonely people you meet in the night, the sudden moments of connection (or disconnection), and the vast abyss between what you want and what you have. The rich guy, naturally, has no respect for his wealth, although he uses it for all its worth. But he thinks Iran is crazy, and all the men there are crazy, and the women even crazier, and why can't people just relax and have a nice glass of wine without all this ... this ... craziness?

It reminded me of the section in Marjane Satrapi's graphic autobiographical novel Persepolis, when she returns to Iran in her late teens, after having lived abroad for a bit, and how strange it was, how alienating ... to have been free (even unsafely so, with sex and drugs and all of the "freedoms" of the West), and then to come back to a place that is obsessed with sex, to an unhealthy degree, OBSESSED ... which creates a warped culture where relationship and "ambiance" (as the rich guy says to Hussein) are impossible. "I don't drink to get drunk, like all you Iranian lunatics," says the rich guy - "I need ambiance, a sense of occasion ..."

Kiarostami is quite pointed here. It gives the scene real bite.

Hussein wanders through the house, touching things, staring at the excess, and even jumps in the pool at one point, fully clothed.

So how is it then that Hussein, lumpy pizza delivery guy, ends up in the jewelry store holding a gun to his own head?

The strange sneaking power of Crimson Gold is that its structure moves you quickly away from that violent opening, so that you are lulled into forgetting it. Panahi's signature shots of cars zipping through the freeways around Tehran, Hussein and Ali on his motorbike, careening in and out of traffic, carry us far far away, immediately, from what we know the outcome of the picture will be.

Context is key. By the end of the film, it is not that we know why he did it. We can guess why. The reasons and motivations are all there. It is that we have spent enough time with this man that we feel the loss. The loss of this good man. 3/4 of the way through, I remembered where we were going in Crimson Gold, I remembered that opener, and because the pace of the film, after that fevered beginning, is so slow and deliberate, we have time to mourn. We have time to realize a loss. This is Panahi's true gift. None of this is accidental.

I don't even know why I love Hussein, he is not a particularly lovable character, although I suspect it has something to do with the fact that he made the sergeant eat the piece of pizza first.


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June 2, 2010

Don't Bother to Knock (1952); Director: Roy Ward Baker

Yesterday, June 1, was Marilyn Monroe's birthday. Here is a look at an under-rated performance, that of the babysitter in "Don't Bother to Knock", co-starring Richard Widmark.


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"I rather think that had she endured, had she come ten years later, maybe it would have been different. But at that time - I mean, she came in at the height of the Hollywood system - and she was not alone feeling debased by the whole thing. It was a common complaint. Like [the way] John Garfield was a terrific actor - yet he did nothing but scream and howl. There was some demeaning aspect to the whole thing. So most of them went with it. They simply adopted the contempt with which they were treated. I think that's what happened. Pretty hard to withstand - a culture of contempt. I think it helped destroy her." -- Arthur Miller on Marilyn Monroe

Seeing Monroe's performance in 1952's Don't Bother to Knock, as Nell, the psychologically shattered and borderline psychotic babysitter in a plush hotel, makes you wonder about roads not traveled. It makes you think of her courage in putting up with contemptuous projects like Let's Make Love or The Seven Year Itch (one of the meanest spirited movies she was ever in) and wonder what might have happened if she had been allowed to experiment. Now I'm not saying that her work, as it exists, in comedic gems such as Some Like It Hot is somehow lesser, or somehow lacking. But Don't Bother to Knock hints at another kind of career that this woman could have had. Who knows, maybe she wouldn't have wanted it. She wanted the love of the audience, she needed that love, it had to happen. I still wonder, though.

Billy Wilder said this about Monroe (this is a transcription of a conversation he had with Cameron Crowe):

She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her. That, I think, was very important. And she automatically knew where the joke was. She did not discuss it. She came up for the first rehearsal, and she was absolutely perfect, when she remembered the line. She could do a 3-page dialogue scene perfectly, and then get stuck on a line like, "It's me, Sugar"... But if she showed up, she delivered, and if it took 80 takes, I lived with 80 takes, because the 81st was very good ... She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. Fright. She was afraid of the camera, and that's why, I think, she muffed some lines. God knows how often. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.

We all have magic in us. But Marilyn Monroe had movie magic. And, like Wilder said, "...she automatically knew where the joke was." That kind of sensibility cannot be taught. And in the same way that it is rare to find a man as outrageously good-looking as Cary Grant who is also a comedic genius, it's rare to find a bombshell who can nail jokes in the way she does (even when she is the butt of them)! But she is always the one who comes off smelling like a rose, even in nasty pictures like The Seven Year Itch, which tries to make a joke out of her, and fails.

So I love Marilyn's funniness, it's one of the most spontaneous things about her. However, she always yearned to show more of herself, more of what she could do (especially as she got more serious about acting as a craft). Don't Bother to Knock is early Monroe. Her stardom hadn't "hit" yet.

Who knows what demons Monroe battled on a daily basis. All I know is that sadness and fear flickers across her face in Don't Bother to Knock in a neverending dance. She seems dangerous at times. She never seems to push the emotion, it seems to just happen to her. She (Nell) is not fully control of herself and neither is Marilyn. I don't know if Marilyn was "tapping into" her own wealth of miserable memories, or if it was her talent allowing her the ability to portray such fragility ... it doesn't matter "how" she got there. What matters is the end result. It's a stunning performance, and most often not even mentioned when Marilyn Monroe's career is brought up.

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Marilyn Monroe often played either naive breathless girls, easily taken in, a bit dopey, or vaguely trashy showgirls, who somehow have managed to maintain their sweetness. She never played bitter. She never played a wisecracker. That was not her thing. And whatever "experiences" she had had in her life, it had not touched that diamond-bright innocence inside her. Nothing could kill it. But she never played - except in Don't Bother To Knock - a truly damaged woman. I suppose a woman with a body like that and a face like that was made to be a fantasy for audiences and audiences don't really want to see their sex goddesses as damaged. Marilyn knew that better than anyone. She had a love-hate relationship with her beauty. It was her ticket to fame, she knew that, and she was grateful for it, and she knew how to use it. She was a master at creating her persona (and she knew how to turn it on and off). But it was also what tormented her, and gave her such intense stage fright that she wouldn't come out of her dressing room for sometimes hours, staring at herself in the mirror. What was she looking for? How hard was it for her to drag up that sexy goddess on days when she didn't feel like it? There are those who respond to such questions with, "Oh, boo hoo, cry me a river, she was famous, we all should have such problems!" I think it represents a truly ungenerous and stingy attitude, not to mention a lack of understanding of "what it takes" to be "on". And not just "on", but the most beautiful woman in the world, etc. ad nauseum. Monroe would lock her dressing room door, and refuse to come out, knowing that within her was an abyss of sadness that nobody wanted to see. It had to have been horrible. I can only imagine. I don't have that kind of beauty. I have no idea what that must be like. She was often very afraid of directors, who could get impatient with her constant bungling of lines (most likely the result of undiagnosed dyslexia) ... but (and this is important) she absolutely loved the crew, who loved her right back. They were her audience. They were not stingy. She would walk out of her dressing room, all dolled up, after having made everyone wait for hours, and the crew - hanging off their scaffolds - would catcall and whistle, and she ate it up. It was friendly. Marilyn was loved by those guys; they represented her fan base. Directors loved her too, in spite of themselves. They loved her because, like Billy Wilder said, even if it took 80 takes for her to get a line, she was Marilyn Monroe, after all ... so that's why she was paid the big bucks, and that's why you sucked it up and tried not to mind having to wait around for her to get over her stage fright or whatever it was. I see both sides. I can see why a director would tear his hair out with her shenanigans. But this is a post about Marilyn Monroe, and there were certainly demons there, demons that sometimes took over. In Don't Bother to Knock, she was asked to reveal some of that stuff.

Monroe plays a resolutely unglamorous part. She lives with her parents. She is recently out of an institution (we learn this later). Her uncle has gotten her a job babysitting in the hotel where he is a doorman. She shows up on her first day, wearing a simple cotton dress, low heels, a little black beret - and when she gets on the elevator for the first time and we see her from behind, her dress is a little bit wrinkled, like it would be for any woman who had just taken a long subway ride. It's touching. Alex told me that she read in some Photoplay magazine she owns that Monroe had bought the dress herself at a five and dime for the movie. Monroe had seen it, and known that it was "Nell's dress". It shows her intelligence of her choice for the character, as well as a lack of vanity.

Nell's backstory unfolds slowly. When we first see her come through the revolving doors, we see a pretty woman, who seems unsure. Her step is hesitating. She looks like a raw nerve, everything making an impression on her, the air, the molecules leaving marks on her, as though she hasn't been out in public for a long long time. This turns out to be true but watch how Marilyn is playing it in the first scene, before we know anything about her. That's building a character.) If we know the rest of Marilyn Monroe's work, we may be forgiven for thinking that Nell is just another one of her naive breathless creations. She meets up with the elevator man, who turns out to be her uncle, who has gotten her a job babysitting for a child of guests in the hotel. The uncle seems solicitous, perhaps overly so. He says, "You won't have any trouble babysitting, will you, Nell?" A bottomless look of sadness battling with fear comes over Marilyn's face. It's startling. This was my first clue that Nell was going to be a little different than Marilyn's other characters. She says, "Of course not. Why would I?" She's not defensive, only unbelievably sad that his question even needs to be asked. It seems to suggest that there might be something ... wrong with her.

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Nell is brought into the hotel room, and meets the parents of Bunny, the little girl she will be babysitting. The parents swirl out, leaving simple instructions. Nell reads Bunny a fairy story before she goes to bed. There is something touching here, and also not quite right. Marilyn reads the story in almost a monotone, a dreamy uninflected voice, as though she is trying to imagine herself into the story she is reading. She's cut off. From the sweetness of the experience, and also from her self. We can't even guess what she's thinking. Bunny, however, is riveted.

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Once Bunny goes to bed, Nell is left alone in the apartment. She's aimless. When her face is in stasis, and when she is alone, all you see is the sadness. And, more than that, more disturbing, the restlessness. In the introduction to the parents, and in her dealings with her uncle, she tries to keep it together, and put on a social happy expression. But once alone, the mask is off.

Marilyn was so rarely without her mask, and so it's amazing to watch.

Another thing that is fascinating about this film, and also singular in Marilyn's career, is that she gets the opportunity to show anger. Real rage. I can't think of another film where she gets angry in a similar way, where she pushes back, where the helplessness suddenly pushes OUT, lashing out in fury at those who try to contain her. It's terrifying.

Meanwhile, another story goes on in the film. Richard Widmark plays Jed, a cynical pilot, who's been dating Lynn, played by Anne Bancroft. Lyn is a lounge singer in the hotel, Jed flies in on the weekends. It's obviously a "friends with benefits" type situation, and Lyn has been okay with that, up until now. She's portrayed by Bancroft as an intelligent and compassionate woman, who is not above having harmless fun, and she's not the type to put the pressure on him to commit. But there are qualities she senses in Jed that disturb her, and she finally has come to the decision that she can't be with him anymore. It's his coldness, the way he treats people. Jed sees through a cynical lens, and any act of kindness is assigned a base motive. You can see it in how he treats Eddie, the elevator man, who tries to joke with him. You can see it in the contemptuous way he treats the woman who wants to take their photograph. Richard Widmark (he's so sexy in this film) only has a couple of specific moments where these qualities can be displayed, and he nails them. We can see Lyn's point. Lyn says, "You lack what I need. You lack an understanding heart." They "wrangle" back and forth in the bar of the hotel, and she's pretty certain that she needs to walk away. He's the kind of guy who has a little black book of names, always in his back pocket, but there's something about this Lyn woman that has gotten under his skin. He can't admit it yet. He's too proud. But her calm and reasoned explanation leaves him restless, pissed.

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Jed finds himself at loose ends back up in his hotel room, while he can hear the lovely strains of Lyn singing torch songs (or, to say it another way, Anne Bancroft lip syncing) through the radio on the wall, connected to the bar downstairs (a nice omnipresent touch). He pours a drink. He sprawls on the bed. He throws his black book on the floor. He's cranky. He thought he would be getting laid, and now he won't be. He then catches a glimpse in the window across the way, of Nell, dressed up in a gown, dancing around by herself. A private moment. Jed is struck dumb. Eventually she notices him, and they begin a conversation across the space in-between. He figures out her room number from the floor plan on the back of the door, and calls her. They sit and talk on the phone, staring at each other from window to window. It's hot. There's an ache to the scene, in their separation, the mystery of the connection.

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Now one of the things that I really love about this film is Richard Widmark's journey through it, and how he treats Nell at first, and then watching him adjust to the reality before him.

Here's the thing: Marilyn had an aura about her that clued you in to the fact that inside, she was about 11 years old. She had a woman's body but a child's mind. I think that's one of the reasons why pairing her up with someone like John Wayne wouldn't have worked. Wayne required a grown-up, and his best romantic pairings were when he was somehow equally matched. No kid's stuff for Wayne. Only grown-up dames need apply. The thing about Marilyn, the captivating and also complicated thing, is that she was a little innocent girl in that sex-bomb of a body. And here, in Don't Bother to Knock, Richard Widmark's Jed, a guy out for a good time, a guy looking (in this moment anyway) to fuck his loneliness away, only sees the body at first. But don't we all? I can't judge him for that. It's quite a body. He looks at Nell, and sees ... well ... Marilyn Monroe ... and he thinks: I have hit the jackpot. There's also a certain passivity in Nell (at first), a certain willingness, that makes you think she would be "easy". Monroe had that. She was soft, she would yield. And so Jed, who's not in the mood for a fight, or even a seduction, thinks that it will be pretty easy to capture this woman for the night. And that's what he wants right now. No more problems, for God's sake.

But over the devastating course of their next couple of scenes, when he invites himself over to her room (not knowing, of course, that it is not her room at all), he begins to realize that something is not right. They flirt, they drink, they kiss ... and through their interactions, something opens up in Nell, a ferocious need is unleashed. She projects onto him all of her hopes and dreams, which is alarming, so early in the game, and calls to mind Fatal Attraction, except perhaps with more subtlety. She needs too much. She loves him immediately. She clutches and clings. But instead of ignoring the red flags and taking what he thinks he deserves anyway (after all, she invited him over, she's in a negligee, she knows exactly what he wants!), he turns her down. And in so doing, Jed becomes a better man. He shows his "understanding heart". He doesn't realize that that is what is happening in the moment, he just knows that seducing this woman would be wrong. Kim Morgan, in her wonderful review of the film, writes:

In real life, most men wouldn't so sensitively resist.

That, to me, is the most moving part of the film: Widmark's growing realization that Nell is sick, and his decision to help her, rather than just add to the hurts she's experienced. Marilyn Monroe is usually a friendly girlie bombshell, eager, open-eyed, innocent, and yet smokin' hot. There is never any concern for how she might feel, being treated like a walking-talking blow-up doll. It is assumed that she is on board with it - and, like I said, Marilyn, for the most part, was. She was a movie goddess. We don't want to know that movie goddesses might have contradictory opinions about being ogled over in film after film. Marilyn's power was in strolling through that kind of gantlet and coming out unscathed, and yet still glowing. She did it in film after film. But in Don't Bother To Knock, she is actually human, and Widmark, at first distracted by the boobs and the face, ends up seeing her as she really is: a damaged sad little girl, trapped in a pin-up model's body. It's incredibly moving to watch that transformation happen in Widmark's face. Marilyn has never been treated so kindly as she is in this film.

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Don't Bother To Knock had a short shooting schedule, and Marilyn actually is not in a lot of it. It feels like she is, she dominates the film - but the scenes with Widmark and Bancroft take up quite a bit of time as well, and so Marilyn only really shot for 2 weeks. She was so enamored with Anne Bancroft's acting that she would show up on the set to watch Bancroft's scenes being filmed. Bancroft was a "real" actress, and this was at the point in Marilyn's life (with the encouragement of her good friend Shelley Winters) that Marilyn was starting to learn her craft, and taking acting classes at The Actors Studio. Bancroft represented the serious side of the business, the actresses, who got to act, rather than just show their awesome silhouettes, and giggle and simper and wear bathing suits, etc. Marilyn so wanted to be considered a real actress.

Like I said in the beginning, I love her comedic stuff ("Maybe somebody's name is Butler..." - her worried line from All About Eve that makes me laugh every time I see the movie). I love her musical numbers ("File my Claim" from River of No Return is my favorite). I'm a fan, regardless of the material. She's got "it". When Monroe was put in projects like Some Like It Hot, projects that were worthy of her talents, she was very happy. She hated some of the stuff she was forced to do (Let's Make Love, for example), and she hated that she wasn't able, most of the time, to show the full spectrum of her emotions. Her idols were not other bombshells. Her idols were real actresses.

We are a couple of years away, at the time of Don't Bother to Knock, from Monroe's famous disappearing act, when she dropped off the face of the earth, and wasn't heard from for a month or so until she re-emerged in New York, having moved there to study with Lee Strasberg, and to develop her own projects. She formed a production company. She wanted to do The Brothers Karamazov. It was a hugely rebellious act, and was treated with disdain by the powers-that-be, but it was her way of saying, "I do not like the movies I am being put in. I am taking control of my career." A reporter asked her at the press conference she held to announce her plans: "Do you know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?"

The guts that woman had. To tolerate such condescension. Monroe laughed at the question, however, and said, "Have you read the book? There's a wonderful part in it for me, a real seductress."

She was right, not only in her belief that there was a part for her in any version of Brothers Karamazov that would come to the screen (Grushenka, naturally), but also in how she handled the snotty remark from the reporter, who probably hadn't even read the book, or if he had, he certainly didn't remember it clearly.

Don't Bother to Knock, although a big flop at the time, and not well-remembered at all, is evidence of the many shades of Marilyn Monroe; it is a nuanced terrifying performance, and her crack-up at the end is excruciating to watch. She walks across the hotel lobby, and her arms look stiff and un-usable, she is vaguely unsteady on her feet, as though she is learning to walk for the first time, her face is wet with tears, and she blinks up at the lights of the lobby, alarmed, squinting at the glare. She goes down the steps, one step, two step, her body slack and yet also rigid, she cannot move easily. Her psychic pain emanates not just from her face, the ending of the film is not done in closeup anyway, it's a full-body shot ... and her physicality is eloquent. It tells the whole story.

The glass has shattered. The character is in pieces. Her psyche has fragmented, parts of herself trailing behind her as she crosses the lobby. Her sorrow and fear is in her pinky finger, her waist, her calves, her posture ... It surges through her and makes it difficult to even walk.

You know who plays a scene that well and with that much specificity as well as abandon?

A real actress does, that's who.




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May 28, 2010

Shanghai Gesture (1941); Dir. Joseph von Sternberg

A very strange movie, corrupt and bleak and fantastical, with a glacial pace, and phenomenal crowd scenes in a giant Shanghai casino (with the awesome Marcel Dalio again playing a croupier, as he did in Casablanca), Shanghai Gesture features Ona Munson (a dead ringer for Marlene Dietrich here, von Sternberg's muse, and most familiar to modern-day audiences because of her role as Belle in Gone With the Wind) as "Mother Gin Sling", a Shanghai casino-owner, and goddess of the Chinese underworld. I adore her performance beyond measure, but more than that, I cannot get enough of her costumes and hair pieces. It's distracting at first, but then I got used to it; It's a deadly serious movie, with a big secret revealed at the end to rival the one in Chinatown, and the pace only adds to the feeling that all of this is serious business. However, there would still be moments when she was having big dramatic monologues (At one point, she spits, with great bitterness and pride, "I .... am Mother GIN SLING". Of course you are, Ona) and suddenly I would remember the damn get-up she was wearing and burst out laughing, and then have to rewind to catch the missed dialogue. Hazel Rogers was the wig-maker for the picture, and I can only imagine her glee in getting assigned to this project, where she could let herself go hog-wild. Victor Mature, Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, also star, and the chorus girl named Dixie is played by Phyllis Brooks, an adorable wise-cracking blonde I want to write more about ... but for now, I will leave you with ...

The hair-pieces of MOTHER. GIN SLING.

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May 25, 2010

"But what about the OFFER?"

One of the best books about making movies is Steven Bach's Final Cut : Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. It is an indispensable and sometimes frightening book about the decision-making process that brought about Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate which, in turn, brought down United Artists, the production company started in 1919 by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Steven Bach was head of East Coast and European Production of United Artists at the time and a participant in the disaster. He was mainly responsible for making the Heaven's Gate deal, as he explains in this chilling paragraph:

David [Field] read [Stan Kamen] UA's terms for the picture, essentially what Kamen had asked, including preapproval of Christopher Walken, contingent on his deal's fitting the budget, raised that figure to [Lehman] Katz's still-leery $7.8 million, and aside from an excited slip of the tongue that offered [Kris] Kristofferson 10 percent of the gross instead of 10 percent of the profits - a slip that Kamen caught and graciously corrected - the deal was accepted. David and I made triumphant eye contact. We were now running production at United Artists with Danny [Rissner]'s blessing and Andy [Albeck]'s and Transamerica's, and our first official act, a fairly routine one at that, had been to make the deal that would destroy the company.

Hindsight's 20/20 and all that, but Bach is very honest about the signs he missed, the red flags no one heeded, and how many executives were actually just paying attention to the wrong things. This happens all the time in business. Everyone can see perfectly, after the fact, where things went wrong - but that's not an interesting or helpful perspective, at least not in terms of a book such as this one. Bach doesn't come off perfectly - and it's one of the reasons why the book is so effective. If he wrote it with an axe to grind, if he shoveled all the blame onto Field or Albeck or Cimino, or someone else ... the book would read as petty. The book would be an obvious ploy for sympathy, a biased self-righteous account of one of the biggest corporate disasters in Hollywood history (if not the biggest. Heaven's Gate is in the history books for all time.)

One of the best insider accounts of moviemaking that exists.

I also love Julia Salamon's The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, about the debacle of Brian De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities, and while that book is shocking for the access Salamon got (she trailed around with the production), she was not PART of the production. She was strictly an observer. It is part of the incredible nature of that story that Salamon would be given the access she would, which makes her observations that much more devastating, but Final Cut stands out as an Industry-Insider's mea culpa, yes, but written with a practical yet emotional style that Bach manages to keep far far from the realms of self-pity, which would have been a despicable tone for this particular book. These people are all millionaire wheeler-dealers. What do they have to whine about? Whining is not present here. But an honest examination of the events leading up to Cimino's basically hijacking United Artists, and how these men and women, smart, cautious, and with lots of Hollywood experience, allowed it to happen.

While I never agree with the flat-out contempt many ordinary people have for artists and artistic executives (I hear envy masquerading as moral outrage half of the time with these people) who happen to be fortunate enough to make some money, what is fascinating about Final Cut is its step-by-step look at how decisions are made. Some of the decisions are cynical, some are idealistic. Some SEEM idealistic and then turn out to be cynical. Sometimes you strike it rich. Sometimes you come up empty. Decisions are made all day every day in Hollywood, and very few are of such import that they bring down a Hollywood institution like United Artists. What happened?

Final Cut is about just that. I've read it about 3 times, I think. If you want to know "how things work", this is the book to read.

Here's an excerpt from the start of the book. All of these characters worked for UA, and all of them would be casualties of Heaven's Gate (not to mention the re-shuffling of UA at parent company Transamerica's insistence - the book is a masterpiece of corporate culture at work). Here is a conference about a property that had come their way, one of those intellectual/artistic/practical debates that go on all the time, but here take on enormous import because of all that came after. Christpher Mankiewicz (son of Joseph Mankiewicz, and part of Hollywood royalty) worked in the West Coast division of UA, Daniel Rissner (head of production at UA, and soon to be forced to resign), Steven Bach (who would step into Rissner's shoes following his departure, sharing the post with David Field, a situation that was treacherous from the get-go), and Andy Albeck (president of United Artists, but new to the post, and not from an artistic background, which was a blessing and a curse here).

Here, they discuss the third book by an author whose first book was a smash, and the movie made from the book an even bigger smash, changing the Hollywood game entirely ... so they are considering the third book as a possible property. It becomes easy to guess who they are talking about. My favorite comeback is one by Mankiewicz, and it'll be pretty obvious which one I mean.

Michael Cimino has not yet entered the picture at the time of this conference. This is merely set-up of some of the main characters, and how deals are made (or not made), and UA's desire to seem like a heavy-hitting player in the new landscape of 1970s American cinema.

Great book.

"Fellas, this book is a piece of shit!"

Chris Mankiewicz's considerable bulk rolled behind the statement, imploring the rest of us to agree. He flung his palms outward toward the room, as if the evidence were smeared there to observe. After a moment he dropped one hand into the pile of sweet rolls on the coffee table before him, piled high with danish and dirty coffee cups.

"Everybody knows that, Chris," Rissner sighed. "It's not about whether it's a piece of shit or it's not a piece of shit. It's about whether we want to make a goddamn deal."

"On this unmitigated, irredeemable piece of shit?"

Rissner borrowed matches from someone, lit a cigarette, pointedly ignoring the redundancy. "What's the minimum bid we could make, you think?" he said to the room in general. "A million? A million five?" His voice seemed casual, but his manner suggested constraint as he bent and rebent the borrowed book of matches. He looked up at the circle seated in mismatched chairs around the glass and chrome coffee table in his Culver City office. There was the chairman of the board, down from San Francisco for the morning, looking on with a kibitzer's curiosity, his expression acknowledging nothing more than respectful interest; the president of the company, his mouth a tight line, owllike eyes swiveling from one face to another behind his huge spectacles, glinting in the early-morning sunlight like windshields; there were the heads of domestic and ancillary distribution, ignoring Mankiewicz's outburst and Rissner's question by burrowing into their synopses of the book in question, readers' reports they were supposed to have read the previous night or on the plane from New York but clearly hadn't. There was Mankiewicz, exasperated beyond belief that his opinion was having no apparent effect on anyone else; there was David Field, looking thoughtful and tactful; and I - I was confused. Who cared what the distribution guys thought? I wondered. Why? When? What did they know?

I knew, so I answered Rissner. "My guess is that the least they'll listen to is a million five and a gross percentage, and that won't make a deal. If we're not prepared to go that high, we shouldn't make an offer at all because the agent will decide he's been insulted and our relationship with the agency is weak enough as it is. This is the first major submission from them in months, right?"

"Right," Rissner nodded.

"The first major submission because they're trying to hype what even they know is a piece of illiterate shit!"

"Chris, please."

Albeck looked simultaneously alarmed and annoyed. Why didn't Mankiewicz shut up? He had clearly been given more than a cue by his superior. Or could the book really be all that bad? He asked the question of Rissner.

"Andy, the guy's last two books were huge best sellers. The movie of the first one became one of the top-grossing pictures of all time. The movie of the second one, which was only routine, did forty million dollars. It's not about quality; it's about money and track record."

"Don't talk to me about track record," retorted Mankiewicz. "My old man won four Academy Awards in two years and then went out and made The Honey Pot. I know all about track record."

Rissner ignored this and turned to me for an opinion. "How would I know?" I waffled. "I turned down the first book. I thought who in Nebraska knows from sharks?"

"But what about the offer?"

"Well," I said, grateful for a money discussion to get me off the hook of commenting on a book I didn't like any more than Mankiewicz did, "if you want to make an offer" -- I couched it in Rissner's direction with the second-person pronoun -- "it should be as preemptive as possible. Otherwise, we look like pikers. What's he want - an auction, what?"

"One offer, all terms, sealed bids. He's submitted the book five places--"

"He says," Mankiewicz now seemed to be talking to himself since no one else was apparently listening, except maybe Harvey, but it was hard to tell.

Rissner ignored him again. "--five places, expects five bids by the close of business today, and top bid takes it. So the offer has to be the best and farthest we're willing to go. If we go."

Andy looked up, puzzled and impatient. "Are we obligated to make an offer?"

"No," said Rissner, anticipating resistance.

He was rescued by the musings of domestic distribution. "Forty million?"

"Domestic or worldwide?" asked ancillary.

"Domestic, I think."

Albeck shot sharply: "That was because of big boobies in wet T-shirts. Does this book have boobies?"

Jim Harvey's placidity seemed suddenly jarred, by the subject matter or Andy's terminology one couldn't tell.

"It has boobies and rapes and S and M, and not one word of it has any resemblance to human behavior as we know it!" Mankiewicz chimed in.

Rissner looked bored. "Yes, Andy. It has boobies. Wet ones."

While Andy mulled this over, frowning, I asked where else the book had been submitted.

"You have to assume to the producers of the first picture and the second picture, if only as courtesy submissions. They would be buying for Universal or Columbia. Then there's us, probably Fox and ... maybe Paramount. Or Warner's."

"Danny, you're close to Warner's," said Andy. "Can you ask them what they think?"

"Why would I do that?" said Rissner, appalled. "What difference would it make? Who cares if they like it or hate it? The point is, what do we do? Do we make an offer or not, and if we do, what's the goddamn offer?"

"I got it," said Albeck, chastened, gloomy, but instructed.

We voted. Andy agreed; Harvey said nothing.

An offer was framed, approved, and made, as Mankiewicz fumed in uncharacteristic silence. The offer came to slightly more than $2 million for the movie rights, based on a floor price which escalated with performance of the book on best seller lists, in book clubs, and so on; a gross percentage of box-office receipts was added to make the offer unbeatable.

It was beaten.

The producers of the movie made from the author's first book secured the rights for something closer, it was believed, to $2.5 million. Losing the book was almost a relief. We had demonstrated we had the money, were willing to spend it, and it hadn't cost a penny.

Two and a half years later, when the movie based on the book was released and landing with a critical and financial thud, I had lunch with Mankiewicz, who had been long gone from UA.

"I told you it was a piece of shit." He laughed without a trace of a sneer.

"That was never the point, Chris," I said.

"It should have been." He smiled.


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May 23, 2010

The Circle (2000); Director: Jafar Panahi

This is a re-post of a review I wrote a couple years ago. I post it today again to show my support of Mr. Jafar Panahi, currently in prison and on hunger strike in Tehran.


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Jafar Panahi's 2000 film The Circle is a shattering piece of work portraying the restrictions on the lives of women in Iran. It won Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival that year. Panahi's most recent project was 2006's Offside, a comedic film about a group of tomboys in Tehran dressing up as boys and trying to get into a soccer game (my review here). In Offside, Panahi treats the restrictions (women not being allowed to go into a soccer stadium) with humor, pointing out how unbelievably absurd it all is, even laughable. The tone of Offside is light, frantic, and hilarious. Sometimes the best resistance to a stupid rule is to laugh at it. It may not change the rule, but it certainly takes the edge off.

In The Circle, that hilarious atmosphere is gone. Panahi pulls no punches, from the first devastating scene to the last devastating image. But, in true Panahi fashion, the issues are not presented in a maudlin manner. They don't need to be. The tendency to be "maudlin" is for the privileged, those who have space and freedom to feel self-pity. In Iran, there is no need for such indulgences. Panahi launches us into the chaotic loud streets of Tehran, using handheld cameras, which circle the participants in the drama (there are very few hard edges in the film, very few angles, something to take note of when you're watching it: look for all of the circles and curves in the camera movements and set-ups). It appears that the film crew is just grabbing shots, filming their actors in the midst of a real-life busy street, and indeed, as always, Panahi uses mostly non-professional actors for most of the roles. Panahi is not interested in detailed character analysis, he says as much himself. He is more interested in "types". Characters are drawn in bold primary color strokes, and we can recognize them within moments: the crybaby, the bitter one, the sassy one ... Panahi casts based on looks alone, a bold and courageous move, because often people who look right can't act for shit.

Panahi has great confidence in himself as a director. He does exhaustive casting sessions, casting a wide net, and he also has been known to just approach a woman he sees in the park, who has the perfect look - and asks if she would be willing to do a screen test. (This was how he found the wonderful Nargess Mamizadeh, one of the main characters in The Circle. She's the one in the poster. She's not an actress - at least not professionally, but her looks - her scrunched-up beautiful face, with thick eyebrows, was just what he was looking for for that character). She has a black eye throughout the entire film, and it is never explained. It gives an unspoken backstory to the character, and makes us wonder from the get-go: Where did she get that? What is she running from?) Panahi only used two professional actors in The Circle, the rest were people he found who had the right "look". It's quite amazing, because everyone is great in the film. There are no weak links. There isn't a huge gap between the non-professionals and the professionals. Granted, Panahi is not looking for big cathartic scenes or delicate character development - something that is best in the hands of professionals. He's going for the message, and for the hyper-realistic atmosphere. And also, the pace. As with most Panahi films, the pace is breakneck.

The women of The Circle tear their way through the streets of Tehran, hurtling up against obstacles, hiding in alleys, crouching behind cars: the sense of being hunted is palpable. The women are right to be afraid.

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There is not just one narrative in The Circle, we get many. Sometimes they intersect: we're following one group, and then suddenly another woman walks by and we find ourselves following her, and she takes up the storyline. Panahi's points are clear: this is not just about one individual woman. It's about Women(TM) and the circle of restrictions that make up all of their lives.

The film opens starkly. The screen is black, credits rolling. Throughout, we hear the sounds of a woman in labor. She's screaming and grunting and howling, and the nurse and doctor say encouraging things. In the last moment of the credits, there's a pause, and we then hear what we have been waiting to hear: the indignant yowls of a newborn baby.

Next thing we see is a blinding white wall, with the back of a woman's head standing there, she's draped in the full black chador. You can hear the screaming newborns behind the wall. There's a tiny slot in the door that can be opened by the nurses and our chador-ed figure knocks on the slot. A nurse's head peeks out. The black chador asks for the status of Solmaz's baby. The nurse says, "It's an adorable little girl!" Black chador has no response. Says again, "A girl?" Nurse says, "Yes!" and closes the slot. Black chador doesn't move. She stands there, still, a domed black figure.


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She knocks on the window again. A different nurse opens it. "Yes?" Black chador says, "I'm here for Solmaz ... I know she had her baby but I don't know what kind ... could you check?"

A chill went through me at that moment. If you ask enough times eventually you'll get a different answer? Suddenly a girl will become a boy if you ask a different nurse?Apparently the ultrasound said it would be a boy, and everyone had heaved a sigh of relief in the family. Phew! A boy!! (I won't go into how despicable I find that attitude, in any culture.) But now, with the baby being a girl, it is valid grounds for divorce, the in-laws will be furious, the black chadored lady is the woman's mother, and for her, there is no joy at being a grandmother.

In one simple moment, Panahi indicts his entire culture. De-valuing women is a national concern.

As Panahi's film goes on, fast and furious, with girls in chadors running through bus stations, yearning for a smoke, huddled in doorways peeking out, hiding, terrified, trapped, you begin to see another side to the "Oh no, it's a girl" phenomenon. It is quite subversive, and really comes to fruition in the heartbreaking story of the single mother planning to abandon her 3-year-old daughter on the streets of Tehran. She says she hopes that her daughter will be adopted by a rich family who might take her away from Iran: "How can she have a future here? What is there for her in this life?" The woman had tried to abandon her child 3 times before getting up the guts. It rips her heart out. Watching her scenes made me go back in my mind to that first scene, with the open dismay at the baby being a girl. The critique is circular, as well as the structure of the film. With the world welcoming your birth with disappointment, what chance does a girl have? A baby absorbs love. Why wouldn't a baby absorb that other unwelcoming attitude as well? We may be horrified and pissed at the attitude, but by the time we get to the woman abandoning her daughter, we have to admit: we see her point.


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The Circle is not a soap opera-ish litany of complaints, and the fact that I even have to make that clear is just evidence of how privileged I am. 5 or 6 women skulk through the streets of Tehran. They are unconnected (or so we think). It becomes clear that all of them have one thing in common: they have spent time in prison. The repercussions of such a stain on your life are long-lasting (in this country and in others!) Only in the world of The Circle, you can't be sure that these women didn't do hard time for, you know, hitchhiking, or letting their scarves fall off their heads, or driving in a car with a man who is not a relative. These aren't people who've murdered someone.

A couple of them have just got out. A couple of them broke out of prison with a larger group and are now on the run. One was in prison, but she is now a nurse, and married to a Pakistani man who has no idea of her past, and he can never know. He doesn't know why she won't go to Pakistan to visit his family, but she knows she will be stopped at the border.


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These are women who are on their own, even when they are married, and the restrictions of their society makes it nearly impossible for them to survive and be self-sufficient. They need to travel with IDs at all times. They cannot travel alone. They cannot board a bus without a male companion who is also a relative. They cannot check into a hotel by themselves. It is outrageous. The Circle is titanically angry. The pace of the film is frantic. Nobody has time to reflect, or cry tears for themselves. Things are urgent. The police are everywhere.

One of the women comes home once she gets out of prison and it is clear that her brother means to do her harm because of the shame she has brought upon her family. She flees. But where can she go? She has no money. She can't check into a hotel. She can't jump on a bus and move to another town. To make matters worse, she is pregnant, and not married. She wants to have an abortion. This is presented with no euphemism, no judgment. Her lover was executed. What is this now-homeless woman supposed to do? Her family members are just as dangerous as the authorities. She has nowhere to turn. The baby must be gotten rid of.


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One woman spent 2 years in prison and when she got out found that her husband had taken a second wife. She is grateful to the second wife, because the second wife took care of her kids while she was inside, and we meet the second wife, and she seems like a nice woman. But the betrayal is clear. NOWHERE is safe.


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Meanwhile, it appears that everyone in Tehran is getting married on that particular day (Panahi's ironic sense of humor coming into play). Cars decorated with flowers and streamers meander by, in a long happy parade, we see a nervous groom spilling water on his nice shirt, we get a brief glimpse of a veiled bride in the back seat.


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What is there in marriage that can offer sanctuary? This question is not asked overtly in the film, but it doesn't need to be asked. All we need to see is the procession of blushing veiled brides in the backseats of cars, viewed by women on the sidelines who have nowhere to turn. Even when they are married. Marriage is no protection.

One of the things that Panahi is so good at, (and I noticed this in Offisde as well), is that on an individual level - person to person - things aren't so bad all the time. Man and woman can greet one another without all of those restrictions between them. The sales guy in the shop in the bus station, who helps Nargessa with her purchase, teasing her about her boyfriend, and doesn't she know what size he is? The bantering is good-natured, easy, friendly. In Offside we had the characters of the guys hired to guard the girls, and we watch as the girls slowly break down the guards' authority, and finally the guys just succumb to the fact that this is a stupid rule, and we're all soccer fans, and Iran just won, hooray!! The girls did not cower in fear at the sight of the males. They basically thumbed their noses at them. Even the spectre of the morality police and their scary van doesn't dim the girls' spirits. Or if it does, it is just because now they can't hear what's happening in the game in the stadium.

So tyranny - and a "regime" - can never so atomize a population that human beings cannot connect. The regime may try, and boy, they do - and perhaps in extreme cases like North Korea, the totalitarian atmosphere has gone down into a cellular level, hard to know, but Panahi, in his subtle way, shows how the restrictions are not just bad for women, but bad for men, too. Because aren't we all just human beings? And aren't women our sisters, mothers, wives, sweethearts? Don't we, as men, love some women? How can we let them be treated like this? Women aren't a scary "other" - not face to face. They're just people we either like, want sexually, love, or are indifferent to. But the regime cannot let this freedom of thought stand, and so morality itself is policed. And of course morality means (in Iran, and elsewhere, like here and everywhere): "How Women Behave". That's it. That's all morality is when you get right down to it. If women would just act like LADIES, and keep their LEGS CLOSED, and did what they were TOLD, so that no man would ever EVER be confronted with his own animal instincts and have to actually negotiate them, and NAVIGATE them responsibly, as opposed to denying them outright, we wouldn't have such problems in our society! Because sex is at the heart of the morality issue, women are the focal point. It's been true since Eve took the fall. The "morality" of women is a national concern in Iran. Women can't be allowed to drive in cars with men they aren't related to. What would happen next? Open anarchy!

But like I said, Panahi is not a black and white kind of guy. He messes with our assumptions and preconceived notions. In this wonderful interview with Panahi (highly recommended), Stephen Teo writes:

Like the best Iranian directors who have won acclaim on the world stage, Panahi evokes humanitarianism in an unsentimental, realistic fashion, without necessarily overriding political and social messages. In essence, this has come to define the particular aesthetic of Iranian cinema. So powerful is this sensibility that we seem to have no other mode of looking at Iranian cinema other than to equate it with a universal concept of humanitarianism.

When a woman's hair tumbling out of her headscarf becomes a national problem, it concerns all of us. And so while the men in The Circle are few and far between, they also are omnipresent. The women are either running from men who want to trap them and punish them, or mourning men who have also been persecuted by the regime. The circle continues.

The evolution of the film's journey is clear. We begin with a black and white image: black chador against white wall. Quiet and still. No movement. But soon we are out on the streets, and then we have nothing but movement, for most of the film. People running and waiting anxiously and hiding and whispering and hugging. At the end of the film, we meet a girl who has been arrested for prostitution (probably), although it is made to sound like she was just hitchhiking. We have never seen her before. She's a brand-new character. She's been hauled out of the car and is made to wait for the morality van to show up. She's kind of a hottie, truth be told, with sassy red lipstick. She calls the cop "honey", in a contemptuous way.


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The van arrives, and she takes a seat. She goes to light a cigarette and she is told there is no smoking in the van. The issue of smoking is an ongoing theme throughout the film. Everyone wants to smoke, but nobody can, for this or that reason, and she, at the very end, is the only one who actually gets to the point where she can light up. I saw an interview with Panahi and he was laughing, saying, "In the West, of course, smoking is seen as dangerous - but here, in this film, smoking is seen as the ultimate freedom." The one other prisoner in the van is a man, and he cajoles the guards to let him smoke. They cave, say "Sure". All the men light up. The girl glances around her (oh, so it's okay that they smoke, and it's not okay that I smoke?), and with a "Fuck this" expression, she lights up. For the rest of the drive, the camera is on her. The men all talk to each other, bantering, laughing, whatever, it's unimportant the topic or subject matter. She has a flowered headscarf on, her face is impassive, she stares out the window, and smokes. It's a long scene. It struck me, as I watched it this last time, how quiet and still the film got at the very end. As still as the scene that started it off. She's a statue in profile. Her situation is frozen. Stasis.

What will be next?

Panahi says in that interview:

Coming back to your first question: why is Iranian film so beautiful? When you want to say something like this and then you add an artistic form to it, you can see the circle in everything. Now our girl has become an idealistic person and thinks that she can reach for what she wants, so we open up a wide angle and we see the world through her eyes, wider, we carry the camera with the hand and we are moving just like her. When we get to the other person, the camera lens closes, the light becomes darker and it becomes slower. Then we reach the last person, there's no other movement; it's just still. If there's any movement, it's in the background. This way, the form and whatever you are saying becomes one: a circle both in the form and in the content.

An important film. Banned in Iran (naturally), but "it" got out. The Circle got out and found its audience worldwide. Because of bootleg DVDs and illegal satellite dishes, everyone in Iran has seen The Circle. In reference to one of Panahi's other films, Offside, there were protests outside of soccer stadiums last year, with women holding up signs saying "WE DON'T WANT TO BE OFFSIDE", demanding that they be allowed into the game.

Obviously the authorities are right, in their warped world view, to ban Panahi's films. The films are subversive, in the truest and best sense of the word. Movies like this have the potential to change the world. "How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world."

So perhaps The Circle is like a message in a bottle. A time-traveler. A flashlight in the darkness (a little candle throwing his beams far!), saying to future generations who hopefully will not have the same struggles, "Here is how we lived back then. Here is how it was for us." Panahi bears witness. He bears witness.


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May 19, 2010

No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009); Dir: Bahman Ghobadi

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Plucky kids in American movies have always rebelled against authority, whether they just want to dance, dammit, or put on a show ("My dad's got a barn!"), or love whoever they want to love. It's a rite of passage, made manifest in film after film. Who knows if we feel it is expected of us because once upon a time we saw Rebel Without a Cause, or if it's something ingrained in the hormonally surged time of adolescence. I know I was influenced by the films I saw. Either they validated my angst, they said, "I know how it is, I know how it is", or they showed me a better way, a way up and out of the muck and mire. Some of those films now seem rather silly to me, self-involved, but I still maintain affection for them because I saw them at that important time in my life when I needed an outside eye.

Rebellion in Iran necessarily takes on giant political consequences, even personal rebellion, as recent events have shown, and even something as innocent as first love is seen as a deep threat to the State (here's my review of The Girl in the Sneakers, an Iranian film that shows just such a situation), and a citizen's personal life is everyone's business. The new wave of Iranian filmmakers have a willingness to put their careers and sometimes their lives on the line to tell the stories they want to tell. These directors know that the chance of their films actually being seen in Iran are nil, and yet they press on regardless. Their reputations are giant worldwide, and yet, due to the regime's suppression of their work and their ability to work at all (not to mention canceling their visas and passports so they cannot attend festivals), they live under conditions that are fascistic and dangerous.

Bahman Ghobadi is a Kurdish director, engaged to Roxana Saberi, the American journalist who was arrested last year on espionage charges, causing worldwide protests (and tepid responses of outrage from so-called enlightened governments). Saberi is listed as a co-writer on Ghobadi's latest film, the wonderful No One Knows About Persian Cats, which received Un Certain Regard's Special Jury prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. There was a terrible irony in the timing: Saberi was imprisoned at the time, and the widely disputed Iranian elections of 2009 followed, bringing into sharp highlights all of the issues touched on in Ghobadi's film. Saberi was released in May of 2009, and now, a year later, No One Knows About Persian Cats has opened in America.

Ghobadi's film Half Moon (my review here) examined questions of Kurdish identity, as seen through the filter of music. Music is very important to Ghobadi, that is obvious, and in Half Moon, with its road trip-slash-requiem story of an old Kurdish singer trying to get back into Iraqi Kurdistan for one last concert, the music weaves through and around the film. It bonds people together. It is the voice of the exile. In No One Knows About Persian Cats, Ghobadi stays in Tehran, going underground (literally, at times), to explore the music scene in Iran. There is a story here, of two young singer-songwriters, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad (their real names), who have just been released from prison. Their crime? They play music. Music without the stamp of approval from the Islamic Ministry of Culture. They have booked a gig in London, but now they need to figure out a way to leave Iran, which requires passports, visas, not easy in normal circumstances, but nearly impossible for those who have criminal records. They are hooked up with Nader (played with humor and ferocity by Hamed Behdad), a sort of manager, a guy who can get things done for you, who knows everyone, who constantly says things like, "Don't worry, I'll take care of it ... I'll handle it." He knows everyone in the music scene, and Ashkan and Negar are looking for a couple of musicians to fill out their band, so Nader starts taking them around on his motorcycle (the two of them piled on behind Nader) to visit different musicians.


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He also tries to get them passports in a hurry. Nader is a guy with a finger in every pie. He makes his living selling bootleg CDs, and he, with his constant stream of enthusiastic chatter, is a born salesman. But he lives on the edge of the law. Any one of his various exploits could get him thrown into prison. But he maneuvers his way through the system in a wily manner, keeping a sense of humor, and groveling and begging the authorities if necessary (there is one terrific scene that shows just this thing). He, like many Iranians, has kept his soul, his spirit, intact by not internalizing the oppression of the regime. It hasn't "gotten" him. He plays by the rules, it's easier that way, but he is duplicitous, like most populations in totalitarian regimes. You do what you need to do to get by, but when the regime has turned its back, you do whatever the hell you want.

Ashkan and Negar may (or may not) be a couple. There is an easy intimacy between them that suggests romance, the two of them standing on the city rooftop, staring at the smog-glamorous sunset, and at one point, Ashkan moves closer to her, bending his head towards hers, and they rest there, in silent silhouette. They hang out, tooling around the city in her car (she drives), talking and arguing about music, what they are going to do, how they want to give one last show in Tehran ("I would love it if my parents could come," Negar says) before they leave for London. They both know that when they leave Iran, it will be for good. The situation has become unbearable for musicians.


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The "underground" music scene in Tehran is often just that: The camera follows Ashkan, Negar and Nader as they descend narrow stairways into this or that basement, where someone has set up an illegal recording studio, or where musicians hang out and jam, soundproofing everything so the authorities won't hear from the street. There is an almost ritualistic feeling to these repetitive sections of handheld descents (and ascents, sometimes - musicians also hide out up on the roofs, creating soundproof sheds where they can rehearse): Music driven underground, you have to know where to seek it out, it is not allowed to flourish in the light of day.

Ghobadi's use of nonprofessional actors, with everyone basically playing themselves (he appears in the film as well, in the music studio in the beginning), makes the film feel like a documentary at times, a whirlwind tour of Tehran's hidden music scene, but the overriding sense of oppression (and the humor with which everyone treats it, everyone's been in jail for playing music, everyone sort of just accepts the situation with a shrug, then they close the door and start banging on the drums, regardless of the terrible consequences should they be caught) is always on the periphery, and there are times when I felt outraged. There is one scene where Ashkan and Negar are driving, and Ashkan is holding his dog. They are pulled over by the cops who demand to know why they have a dog. (Dogs are seen as unclean animals in Islam.) Negar is a fighter, and argues with the cops, "the dog has been vaccinated, he's fine" - but, in a horrifying moment, the cops reach in and yank the dog out of the window, and we are left with Negar's scream of "No" as she leaps out of the car. Cut to the next scene. The dog is never mentioned again. The film is not overtly political (although, as with most films in Iran, everything is political on some level), and it doesn't use a heavy hand, but that one scene tells you how random, how awful, life can be on the streets.


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The bands Nader introduces the two leads to show the diversity of the music scene and also how creative artists have to be to just do their thing in Iran. A heavy metal band (I loved these guys) rehearse in a cow shed out in the middle of the country. The cows don't seem too happy about it, and the farm workers are all in cahoots with the band, piling bales of hay around the cow shed to blot out the sound. A rock band has constructed a metal shed on the rooftop of their building, and they have to wait for the neighbor to leave before rehearsing because the neighbor always calls the cops. The band mates, wearing CBGB T shirts and Joy Division T shirts, peer over the edge of the building, keeping an eye out for the telltale neighbor. A Persian rap band rehearse and film a music video on a construction site, in the open air, four stories up. They do not want to go to Europe, like Ashkan and Negar, because, as the lead rapper tells Nader, "We rap for Persia. We rap for Tehran. This is where we need to be." There is an added complication that any band with a female singer that gets a permit to play a show has to have female backup singers, or more females on stage. It is against the law for one woman to be on stage with a bunch of men. So, basically, No Doubt would be illegal in Iran. Ashkan and Negar go to a private house where two sisters are giving a concert, the small audience sitting in the dark, the women banging on the large translucent traditional drums (shown to such powerful effect in the scene of "exiled singers" in Half Moon).

There's a lot of music in No One Knows About Persian Cats, obviously, and each band plays a song for Ashkan, Negar and Nader, with Ghobadi providing what amounts to music videos for each song, with gorgeous caught footage from around Tehran, glimpses, fragments, beautifully realized: a little girl skipping down the sidewalk, two veiled women sitting on a bench eating ice cream and laughing, an old man glancing directly at the camera, people rushing in and out of subways, a montage, ongoing, of the faces of Iran, the populace just going about their lives, the haves and have-nots, with some startlingly beautiful images, things that show Ghobadi's piercing and specific vision. I mentioned in my review for Half Moon that sometimes, sometimes, a director actually gives you a vision of something you have never seen before. So many images in films, while beautiful, are just copycats of either something else, or depictions of something we have all seen a million times: sunsets, rainfall, a dark grey beach, whatever: beauty, yes, but not original. Half Moon was full of things I literally had never seen before. A strange journey through a borderland, filmed beautifully, but with some shots that caught the breath in my chest. He has an amazing eye. For landscapes, yes, he makes Tehran look like a vibrant strange place, but also for faces. Ghobadi captured most of this footage on the fly, with a digital camera, and it's haunting, beautiful, a counterpoint to the music, whether it be rock, rap, heavy metal, or traditional Persian. The full tapestry of artistic expression, going on below ground, as the world walks around above, trying to live their lives.


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Ashkan and Negar, a singing duo in real life, are sweet and unselfconscious in their acting roles. You root for them. I wasn't wacky about their music, but that seems immaterial in the world being depicted in Persian Cats. Artists should be allowed to make art. Period. Most of the bands say things like, "We make sure our lyrics are in line with today's social codes - we don't want to offend anyone - we just want to make music." The two leads plan on giving their last show in Tehran (they still don't have passports, but Nader assures him everything will work out fine), in a basement in a private house. They get the word out on the streets. They decorate the room, pulling Persian rugs across the stage floor, and Negar buys 200 small candles to pass out to the crowd. It looks like any underground rock club in any city in the world. I was rooting for these kids. The odds are stacked against them. They work hard at what they do, they argue over lyrics, they discuss their music, and, inadvertently, without even making too fine a point of it, they seem totally innocent. Ghobadi is a master at that kind of subtle portrayal. They are not rebels without a cause, they have a cause, but the kids themselves seem like good kids, with a love for music, and a yearning to just play shows, wherever they can, however it comes about. They are innocent. They are doing nothing wrong.

But the regime, as it shows itself repeatedly, doesn't agree. And, if you think like a mullah, who can blame them. Music is powerful. People gathering together to listen to music is a powerful event. If you let that happen, then where will it stop?

The screws begin to tighten. Nader is arrested for selling bootleg CDs. He pleads his case in a beautiful scene (my favorite in the film), with Ashkan peering through the slightly open door at the police station. The old man who makes passports is also arrested. Another door closes. Interspersed with music, the film works slowly, it meanders, it is not a scream of pain or outrage, not outwardly, and that is part of its power.

Ghobadi has a great eye for detail. Nader lives in a tiny flat, and keeps parrots and finches as pets. The main parrot is named Monica Bellucci. Two finches are named Rhett and Scarlett. He loves them all to death. He speaks in English, occasionally, and everyone makes fun of him for this, but he scoffs at them. "What's wrong with speaking in English? Listen to this!" (then in English) "I see no problem. There is no problem." (back to Farsi) "What is wrong with that?" There's a scene where Negar lies in bed, reading, and jotting things down in her journal. At one point, we see what book she is reading. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. A beautiful example of the soft subtle hand Ghobadi uses when telling this story. A man wakes up transformed into an insect. His destiny is out of his control. It is terrifying. He has transformed into something monstrous, against his will. Ashkan and Negar, who just want to play music, who just want to put on a show, in a barn, a shed, anywhere, who are willing to leave their homeland - for good - in order to pursue music - are faced with a similar nightmarish future. What will they be transformed into if they stay? None of this is said explicitly. We just see the book, Ghobadi making sure we know what it is, and the film moves on.


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A couple of years ago, I read this article about a girl group in Saudi Arabia, and was blown away by these young women, trying to do their thing in an unbelievably oppressive atmosphere. Read that article and watch the stereotypes disappear. Their parents support them, although they fear the regime arresting their daughters. The girls, with piercings in lips, ears, noses, are just like any other group of young women who want to be cool, who want to participate in the culture of trends, who just want to make music. Here they are, in a country where they are not allowed to play in public, not allowed to play in public, and that hasn't stopped them. In a global world, with things like MySpace and iTunes, word has gotten out about these girls, and in their own way, they are participating. I wish them the best.

I showed that article to my brother, a huge music fan, and a songwriter himself.

His response? "Right now, those girls are the greatest rock band in the world."

The word "brave" is used so often to describe films that it has become almost meaningless. But here, with No One Knows About Persian Cats, "brave" actually means what it says it means. The act of filming this movie was brave. Every musician who appears in the film is brave. They understand the consequences. They make their art anyway. Watching it yesterday, I thought of my brother's comment, and his words floated through my mind like an echo:

"Right now, at this moment in time, these bands are the greatest bands in the world."

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May 14, 2010

The complete Metropolis (1927); Dir: Fritz Lang

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The philosophical thrust of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis has all the earmarks of a frenzied moment of "enlightenment" that one gets while under the influence of a hallucinogenic: it seems so PROFOUND in the moment, yet once the drug wears off, you may find yourself thinking, "God, it was so brilliant ... why can't I remember the whole of it? Something about ... the heart needing to be the mediator ... If only I could share the message I received, the entire world would be different!" It's that damn Man from Porlock again. Why can't he leave the inspired alone?

That being said, Metropolis, with its portrayal of a dystopian mechanized future, is a masterpiece, terrifying and brutal, with set pieces that boggle the mind, and massive crowd scenes that pulse with energy and chaos. Part of the fun of the movie is wondering: "How on earth did Lang pull this off??" Fritz Lang told Peter Bogdanovich:

I first came to America briefly in 1924 and it made a great impression on me. The first evening, when we arrived, we were still enemy aliens, so we couldn't leave the ship. It was docked somewhere on the West Side of New York. I looked into the streets - the glaring lights and the tall buildings - and there I conceived Metropolis.

This is probably a bit of a white lie, or at least an exaggeration, and Lang probably already had the idea (if not the script) for Metropolis at that time, although, hey, he knows a better story when he makes one up.


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Adolf Hitler loved Metropolis, and methinks he might have missed the point that Lang was making: that this was a BAD image of the future, this is NOT where we want to go. Kind of like my friend Beth, who was telling me about a guy she knew, and how he "felt validated by Archie Bunker - like, he doesn't understand irony." Leni Reifenstahl's stunningly beautiful-looking and creepy Triumph of the Will, from 1935, showing the events of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, owes much to Metropolis, with its scenes of athletic events in giant stadiums, a glorification of the body (as in the human body, as well as the body politic), and its message that strength and youth and "togetherness" were the only things valued by Germany at that time. There is a scene in Metropolis that takes place in an intimidating giant stadium, with high unbroken walls surrounding the track and field area, walls that seem to touch the sky, walls topped by giant statues hearkening back to the ancient times, bodies contorted into beautiful alienating poses of athletic prowess. This is an actual set. The camera sits far back, so that the athletes running the race are dwarfed by their surroundings. This type of energy is par for the course in totalitarian and fascist architecture, which is designed to tell the populace: "The State is bigger than you are. Submit."

The science fiction aspect of Metropolis is so imitated now as to hardly be detectable at all. The "doubling" of Maria, the creation of a perfect human who is an arm of the State, calls to mind the replicants in Blade Runner, the endless "dormitory" of sleeping humans in The Matrix, and the terrifying face-swap in John Woo's Face/Off. But again, the imitations run far and wide. The laboratory where "Maria" is created, with its cold clinical spaces, and buzzing neon, influenced the entire 20th century's cinematic representations of the future. In Fritz Lang's M, the terror is of the more human variety, with Peter Lorre's child-killer on the loose, but there, the city too takes on terrifying aspects, with looming shadows and yawning alleyways, German Expressionism at its high point.


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Metropolis tells the story of two cities that exist parallel to one another, with zero crossover. The people in the shining city above ground, centered around the magnificent Tower of Babel, are completely unaware of the "worker's city" below ground, a land of slums and giant machines, the apparatus that keeps the city above working. Joh Federson (played by Alfred Abel) is the leader of the city aboveground, and he operates in a world high above the streets, his penthouses and giant offices staring out at the tops of the skyscrapers, with dirigibles and airplanes flying by, and giant causeways going between buildings, lined with moving cars. He has a vested interest in the status quo. His son, Freder, played with maniacal passion by Gustav Fröhlich, lives a life of ease and leisure time, running races at the stadium, and cavorting with naked girls in The Eternal Garden. Yet one fateful day, he gets a glimpse of Maria (played with startling power by Brigitte Helm), a schoolteacher from the worker's city, who brings a group of children aboveground to look around. These people have never seen the sky, felt the air.


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They have no business being up there, it is a security breach of the highest order, and they are shuffled back belowground, but not before Freder gets a glimpse of Maria, and literally swoons with love-at-first-sight. He must find her. He descends into the worker's city below.


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There he finds an astonishing world of machines as big as buildings, where men stand and work, all of them cogs in the giant wheel of production. There is an incredible shot (and I am so glad I saw this on the big screen yesterday - my first time with this particular film) of a wall of work stations (seen in first clip below jump), many-tiered, with men in black placed strategically all along it, and they are doing a synchronized dance of lever-pulling - to the left, to the right, back to the center, pulling all the way over to the right, back to the center, to the left - Each one is doing something different (some go to the right first, others to the left), yet the overall effect is one of dizzying synchronization. There are no individuals in this world. And yet, if one man steps away from his post for even a second, everything starts to fall apart, with drastic and apocalyptic consequences.

Turns out, Maria is a voice of the downtrodden. She gathers her followers in a decaying corner of the maze, and preaches of man's dignity, and of the hope that someone, The One, will come and save them one day, redeem them.

But Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who plays Rotwang, the evil inventor of the underworld, has other plans. Maria has influence. She has a following. And so Metropolis becomes a despairing chase, as Rotwang pursues her through the worker's city, hoping to experiment on her, and create the Robot of his dreams, someone who looks just like Maria, but who can influence her followers to evil, as opposed to good.

The plot is pretty standard, but I am saying that from my 21st century perspective, with things like Avatar and Blade Runner to look at, clear and open nods to the huge influence that was Metropolis. What is incredible here is not just how prescient Lang was, about the way things were going in Germany at that time, mechanization run riot (true of the wider world as well, but far more sinister in Germany), but also in the sheer scope of the movie, the hugeness of the scenes and set-pieces, the management of thousands (what look like thousands, anyway - apparently Lang used up to 30,000 people in some of the crowd scenes) of extras, and the creation of a futuristic world just close enough to our own to creep us out for all time. It is a cautionary tale. There is obviously no CGI here. What was created was either miniatures, or matte paintings used as backdrops, and they are obviously artificial, but that just adds to the power of what we are seeing. Of course the world looks a bit "off". It IS a bit "off". The buildings seem cold and empty, certainly not places where individuals actually live, with family pictures on the wall, and dirty dishes in the sink. The buildings ARE their surface, there to intimidate, impress, and dazzle. The "transformation" of Maria into her robot (or should I say avatar) is beautifully done, (see clip below), and devastating when you realize that it is too late, that Maria has been co-opted by the State. It is not just her I am sad for, it is the followers who huddled around her in the shadows, gaining hope and comfort from her words.

It's a stunning accomplishment and the fantastical scenes just pile on, one after the other after the other, with not one moment where the tension lets up, where the action sags.


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The worker's city is flooded, when the reservoirs burst, and Maria climbs up on a statue in the middle of the slum buildings, and starts to bang on the gong, to alert the populace. Water starts to creep up through the sidewalks, at first a trickle, then a flood, and children come running from all directions, and try to clamber up onto the statue with Maria, their wet dirty hands grasping up at her. The scene goes on far longer than you would expert, there is no catharsis, no let-up, no deus ex machina, and slowly, we see the buildings collapse from water damage, the floods rising up so that the children are basically swimming, holding onto one another in an extended awful life-raft. It is an incredible sequence. What we are seeing is really happening. There are no tricks here. These actors and extras are really going through all of this. The coordination it took must have been insane. But there are so many more. Freder, looking for Maria, finds himself trapped in the Inventor's solitary house, a brilliantly conceived space, where doors have no knobs, and once they close, there is no way out - an Alice in Wonderland nod, as Freder looks around a room, with 5 or 6 closed doors, and desperately tries to bash his way through one, then another, then another. There is a frightening moment when the machine overheats and actually becomes a gaping-mawed monster, swallowing bald and naked anonymous men into its depths.


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The acting is great, with powerful representations of the pantomime style at that time, Brigitte Helm committing to her gyrations of fear and passion in a crazy angular way that makes it seem she is made of rubber. As she is pursued by the wild-eyed inventor, she crouches in the shadows, cringing from his torch-light, with glimmering huge eyes, and a slanted back with angular arms, a true "portrait" of terror, recognizable to anyone of any culture anywhere. She's a master at that kind of gesturally-based acting and response. Her role is a double role: Maria and the Robot, and there is a scene where she, looking just like the gentle prophet from before, is now writhing about onstage, naked from the waistup, with glimmering stars over her breasts, as panting animalistic men crush in closer and closer, and it's a devastating commentary on the power wielded by sex, first of all, but also how dehumanized the world in Metropolis is, how vulnerable any individual is to corruption. The corruption of Maria is imposed from the outside, but it is no less important, or worthy of examination.


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This is powerful stuff, highly prophetic of the cataclysm approaching Europe yet again in the late 1920s, something that Lang obviously sensed and internalized.

Fritz Lang's original version was butchered by the studios at the time, and there is still lost footage, even in this "complete" version. It is hard to know if it will ever be found. In the "complete Metropolis", the still-missing scenes are described briefly by title-cards with a different font (at first I was afraid I wouldn't notice the font-change, but no worries: it is completely obvious by that time in the viewing) - and the existence of said scenes is guessed at because of, along with other things, a novelization of the movie that came out around that time. The quality of the found footage is not nearly as pristine as the rest of the film, and the aspect ratio is different from the rest, but no matter: it is good to have it all back together now.

Metropolis is a work for the ages. I am pretty deadened to CGI now (was never a big fan in the first place, the effects often come off as cold, or lifeless) - and seeing Metropolis, and what Lang was able to create, is nothing short of breathtaking. The "heart is the mediator" theme is left to reverb, strangely, and perhaps we are meant to feel hopeful. I, however, do not. I have been shown too much horror in the film, I have seen children climbing up stairwells screaming in fear, I have seen men shuffle through a tunnel deadened and de-individuated, I have seen the dehumanization gleaming in the eyes of those who want to shatter civilization and humanism. It is all well and good to say that yes, we need the head, and yes, we need the hands but we need the heart as well, and we will be lost as a civilization if we do not find a place for the Heart. As mediator. However, Fritz Lang, a pessimistic man, and not surprising when you think of what he had seen and experienced, doesn't seem to hold out too much hope that the Heart can make any difference whatsoever.


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New Yorkers: Metropolis runs at the Film Forum until May 20th. Information here.



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May 9, 2010

Metropolis: "complete" as it will ever be

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Cinephiles can get batty over "lost" footage. Legends just grow in the telling. Erich von Stroheim's Greed, based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, apparently ran for forty reels in its original version. Where did that footage go? Would it have improved the film as it stood, to run for 8 or 9 hours? Most probably not. Very few movies need to be 9 hours long. However: how awesome it would be to "find" that footage. People have spent their lives pursuing the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons, instead of the still-wonderful studio-butchered version we all have seen. But where did Welles's original cut go? There was a fascinating article in Vanity Fair by David Kamp about the "magnificent obsession" that the "lost" Magnificent Ambersons has become.

Fritz Lang's Metropolis has a similar (although not quite as dramatic) story. When we have seen Metropolis, as unforgettable as so much of it is, as visually startling, all that, what we have seen is a cobbled-together version, with titles in place of the lost footage, to explain the gaps. The lost footage has been found (not all of it, but most of it), and this week the "complete" Metropolis opens at the Film Forum here in New York City.

My friend Keith Uhlich has a piece in Time Out New York about the "treasure hunt" for the lost footage of Metropolis and how it all went down.

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May 5, 2010

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937); Director: Leo McCarey

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Peter Bogdanovich, during one of his many conversations with Orson Welles, asked Welles if he had ever seen a little-known film that was a flop in its original release, Make Way For Tomorrow, directed by Leo McCarey. And Welles exploded, "My God, that is the saddest movie I have ever seen."

Having just seen Make Way For Tomorrow, which was just released on DVD with much fanfare by Criterion, (it was a film that was never even released on video so it has earned that moniker "forgotten film"), I can say that Orson Welles's assessment is my own. This brutal film about the elderly pulls no punches, and watching it, I started to feel a dawning sense of awe and respect, that it was really going to go there, it had the courage of its convictions. And up until the very final shot, it does not waver. A lesser film would have at least have the wonderful Beulah Bondi smile a bit, in nostalgia and remembrance, to let us off the hook. But Make Way For Tomorrow stays true to its theme, and does not betray itself. It is a devastating picture. One that puts many other "tragedies" to shame.

Leo McCarey, that master of relationships (he was the one who put Laurel and Hardy together),got the idea to do a film about the elderly. Bogdanovich interviewed him as well and asked him how it came about. McCarey replied:

I had just lost my father and we were real good friends; I admired him so much ... My wife suggested we get out of town till I get over this, so we went to Palm Springs. I remembered a fellow who ran a gambling joint on the outskirts of Palm Springs, and I decided I'd go out there to visit him. And there I saw a most attractive girl; I tried to start a conversation with her, and she snubbed me. Now, my wife had given me this very good Cosmopolitan story to read: it was about old folks, and because I'd just lost my father, my wife had said to read it. It was by a gal called Viña Delmar, and I called the studio and told them I'd like an appointment with her for an interview; they called back and said she's in Palm Springs. And I said, "Well, run her down in Palm Springs - that's where I am." So another exchange of phone calls and they said she'd be over to my hotel at such and such a time. The desk announced that "Miss Delmar is here" to see me, and you can imagine both our surprise when it turned out to be the girl I'd tried to get to know at the gambling place.

McCarey told Bogdanovich:

I prefer Make Way For Tomorrow to The Awful Truth - and I got a lot of telegrams saying I'd won [Best Director] for the lesser of the two films. It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It's difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.

John Ford said it was one of his favorite pictures of all time. Jean Renoir was a huge fan. And yet for over 70 years, unless you got to catch it a local art-house that was doing a McCarey festival, you could not see this film. Now you can. All I can say is: Run. Don't walk. Rent it. Immediately.

But be prepared.

Be prepared.

Films about old age are not popular. Never have been. They weren't popular in 1937, and they aren't popular now. I have never before seen a film that tackles the problem of "what to do" with the elderly in such a forthright unblinkered manner as Make Way For Tomorrow. It does so with no sentimentality. The characters are all drawn with specificity and humanity. In the Criterion DVD, there is an interview with Peter Bogdanovich about the film, and he makes the point that while not everyone behaves well here, nobody is judged. You may not sympathize with them, but you understand. Every character, down to the maid, is a human being, with wants, needs, fears. The script is superb. Choices are made in life that seem temporary at the time, a stop-gap, which then becomes The Point of No Return. But rarely do the people involved realize it at the time. Denial is powerful. So is optimism. "It'll all work out ... Things will work out as we planned ... Our future is going to be what we imagined ..." Well, that is not always the case. We all know this in our bones, because we have lived it in one way or another, but it takes a courageous film to actually point that fact out, without softening the blow.

Make Way For Tomorrow starts with a family gathering at a beautiful snow-covered house. Parents Barkley and Lucy Cooper (played, respectively, by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) have summoned four of their five adult children (the fifth lives far away in California) to break the bad news. The bank is taking back their house because they are unable to make the payments. They had hoped that something would come through, a miracle, but now they only have a couple of days before they have to move out. It is (without a line of dialogue) clear that Barkley and Lucy have not involved their children in their problems not just because they don't want to worry them and bother them, but that they also sense that perhaps their children will not be reliable in such a crisis. How McCarey and his actors suggest this, with cuts from face to face as they take in the news, is nothing short of amazing. The children are not painted as villainous or awful. McCarey does not take the easy route. Each one is living their own life, and has problems, problems that make it seem unthinkable that they could take in their aged parents for a bit. One is married to a grumpy unemployed man who does not get on well with his in-laws. One (played by Thomas Mitchell) has a high school age daughter, and is finding it hard to make ends meet, so his wife (the wonderful Fay Bainter) has to teach bridge classes for extra cash. No one is rich. No one has a spare room. After a tense family discussion, it is decided that just for a while, "Pa" will go live with his married daughter Cora, and "Ma" will go live with her son George and his family in Manhattan.

Ma and Pa accept this situation reluctantly. One of the most powerful elements of this amazing picture is how the love between this elderly couple is made potently clear, without the word "love" ever being said. I think it's said once, near the end, but the moment is rushed through, as though they cannot bear to even give voice to it, because by giving voice to it they must then face what they are losing. Ma and Pa are not portrayed as dear sweet elderly people, cliched and sentimentalized, but as human beings, with experience and wisdom, with flaws and foibles, who find themselves in a terrible situation. They haven't spent a night apart in their 50 years of marriage.

But tough times require tough choices, so Pa goes to live with his cranky bossy daughter, and Ma goes to live with George and his wife. The scenes of adjustment are both funny and awful. McCarey, obviously no slouch in the comedy department, finds just the right specific moments to show how tough it is. It's a tragic situation, but life goes on, and people manage, sometimes awkwardly, but they manage. Ma is a social woman, and likes to talk to people, but here, in the claustrophobic apartment, having to share a room with her running-wild 17-year-old granddaughter, she finds herself shunned. Her help is not welcome. She tries to help by sending her son's shirts to a cleaners around the corner, only to find that that means he won't have a shirt for an event that night, and also to find that George's wife resents the "help". George's wife says, "I take care of my husband just fine." She is not portrayed as an evil callous woman; it is the same issues that wives had had with mothers-in-law since the institution of marriage was invented. Is there room for two Ladies of the house? George is caught in the middle. Thomas Mitchell is (no surprise) wonderful in showing this problematic and painful situation. There are other issues. Their teenage daughter Rhoda no longer feels comfortable bringing her friends to the house, since her grandmother insists on hanging out with them and dominating the conversation, so she starts sneaking out at night. This leads her to trouble. She starts seeing a 35-year-old man (and we learn later, from a buried line of dialogue that you might miss if you weren't listening carefully, that he is married), and this would never have happened if she had still felt comfortable hanging out at her own house, bringing her friends there, so that her parents could chaperone.

These scenes are all played with a minimum of cliche. Ma is not perfect. She can be passive-aggressive ("No, that's all right, you go out and have a good time, I don't mind being alone"), but the woman is disoriented. She doesn't even know what end is up. She has a hard time getting her husband on the phone, and when she does get to talk to him, people are always around. There is one particularly terrible (and beautiful) scene when her husband calls during a night when George's wife is hosting her bridge class at the apartment. The living room is filled with card tables, and well-dressed couples, and Ma has already made a bit of a spectacle of herself, by rocking in her rocking chair in the corner, unaware that the loud squeaks made by the chair are distracting the players. This scene could have been played so wrongly. Either by demonizing those who give her odd looks, or simplifying her character, as the aged so often are simplified - to someone childlike and sweet. No. She just doesn't want to sit alone in her room, by herself, when there is a roomful of people just outside. She doesn't join in the game, but she wants to be amongst the people. What is wrong with that? One of the things not discussed often about the elderly is the loneliness: the loneliness of not having peers around, of having no one else "remember", of wanting to be a part of the larger world still, but feeling increasingly that nobody really wants you around.

Last year at Christmas, we went, en masse, to go visit my grandmother who has Alzheimer's and now lives with the Sisters of Charity at one of their Retirement Centers, with many others who have Alzheimer's, retired nuns and others, those too old to take care of themselves anymore. My mother goes to visit often, and so do her siblings who live in the area, but I hadn't been before. It took a while to find the right place for my grandmother, once it became clear that she could no longer live on her own. Nursing homes can be depressing. They are depressing when they are not well run, obviously, but they are depressing when they ARE well run, as in: you can feel that it is a money-making enterprise. It's off-putting. But when they are bleak with a hospital-setting, and people just sit in wheelchairs all day, zoning out - it's just heartwrenching, and yet it's not a popular issue, definitely not something that sets the world on fire to "do something" about how we treat our elderly citizens. I believe that part of it is because they represent what we fear. We are all going there, God willing, we are all going to be that old, and while that should engender compassion and sympathy, often the opposite is the case. We shun what we fear. "No, no, I can't deal with that, I can't deal with people who are 90 years old, it makes me uncomfortable, no no no no." This is a very human response, in our society as we know it today. The Sisters of Charity have created a wonderful peaceful and joyous community (no surprise there, if you know their history), and the staff were just fantastic. It was an incredibly moving experience. I love my grandmother. She has had Alzheimer's for 10 years now. I haven't had a conversation with her, not like we used to, in 10 years. But she is still alive. She is human, she is loved dearly, she is still the same person, and she deserves to be peaceful and happy. We owe it to her. We owe it to ourselves. Our entire family went, cousins and aunts- my aunt Katy played the piano, my tattoo-covered cousin Owen, in a Santa hat and a Red Sox sweatshirt, did an impromptu dance as his wife Kelly laughed so hard tears streamed down her face, and we all sang old songs that we grew up on, "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" and "In the Good Old Summertime", and one by one, staff members would roll in women in wheelchairs to join in the fun. This wasn't just for my grandmother. It was PEOPLE. VISITING THEM. Laughter and songs and little kids running around. This was not a depressed atmosphere, with harassed irritable staff feeling "put out" that they had to do some work. No, this was an impromptu party. One of the most beautiful things was that Jean and Pat brought Lucy with them, in her pretty little Christmas dress. Lucy was 7 months old at the time (is it possible she is going to be a year old in just a couple of weeks??). The women there were in love with her, reaching out for her to touch her. Lucy, innocent and guileless, reached out to touch them back. Lucy had no judgment, no fear. She took them in as fellow people, the way babies do, because she doesn't know better yet, and good for her. She wasn't afraid of their wrinkled hands reaching out for her, their gleeful and happy faces staring at her. She was curious about them. Open to them. In that moment, Lucy helped ME to see how to BE. Because I'm human. And I am afraid of growing old. And I wonder how I will bear it. And I wonder what will happen to me. And because I have those fears, I cringe from being too close to that which I fear. In earlier times in our society, the elderly were not shunted off to homes. They lived in the houses of their children, they were taken care of, but also, that meant that they were incorporated in the human family still. It was an inter-generational world, and it was understood that "that is what you do". You take care of your parents. Leo McCarey starts the film with a quote from the Bible: "Honor thy father and thy mother." It's really that simple. But we're all human. We don't always behave as we should. I got an amazing photograph that day of four generations of women in my family: my grandmother, my mother, Jean and Lucy.

Make Way For Tomorrow, made in 1937, shows what has become par-for-the-course even more today: the dispersal of the original family. One sister is never even seen. She lives in California. People are spread out. They go off. They make their own lives. And as long as Ma and Pa were all set in the snow-covered house where they raised their family, life maintained its equilibrium. But once things start going badly, there is no original family unit left to handle the problem. Dispersal becomes the only option.

There is an amazing scene which shows (for me) Leo McCarey's specific gift. During the aforementioned bridge-class scene, Pa calls for Ma, and she goes to the telephone, with a crowd of people sitting in the living room behind her. Ma, unused to the phone, shouts to be heard, a humorous moment, Beulah Bondi bellowing in the phone. But it's mixed with an uncomfortable energy, due to the public nature of the phone conversation, and how she is obviously disturbing the bridge class by shouting into the phone one foot away. McCarey, not really a stylish director, his shots don't call attention to themselves, not really, chooses which shots to use with surgical efficiency. For the most part, the camera stays on Beulah Bondi during her phone call. The bridge class tries to continue playing in the background but slowly, as the conversation goes on, you can feel all activity cease, and you can feel all of them start to listen. One woman in particular, in the foreground, behind Bondi, stares over at Ma during the phone call, with an expression on her face that I am still trying to explain and understand. Sympathy, yes. Her heart is breaking for this frumpy woman who, so far, has been kind of a pain in the ass, in terms of interrupting the bridge night. But here, listening to her shout to her husband to make sure he wears a warm scarf, to tell him "Oh, I miss you too, Pa", the woman gets a stillness to her, a stillness of listening and identification, and slowly, the entire room changes. There are one or two cutaways during the phone call, where you can see Thomas Mitchell staring over at his mother, and you can see people in the background either look away (due to being uncomfortable, or to being moved to their very core) or stare at Ma, as if fixated. It is a phenomenal scene, beautifully acted and rendered, and it puts the audience through the wringer, without demanding "GO THROUGH THE WRINGER." It does not manipulate. It shows.

That is why it is a brutal film. If I felt manipulated at even one moment of the proceedings, I would have gotten angry. It is such a powerful experience that it requires purity and clarity to work. Purity of motive, I mean. The story is the thing here, not the manipulation of emotions. McCarey focuses on story and character (as does Ms. Delmar, in her writing), and the film works on a level that I promise you have rarely seen. There are successful films about the elderly, but you can count them on one hand. Make Way for Tomorrow is at the top of the heap.

I loved how it embraced disobedience as a good thing, a thing we all should be able to enjoy and choose, as adults with free will. Being "obedient" is fine when you are a child, and your parents are training you how to behave. Then it makes sense. But a 70 year old man and woman, having to be "obedient", because it is expected that old people have no real needs, and should just be happy with the scraps that they get, and also: there is a huge forgetting in place here, forgetting that old people may have decaying bodies, but with all of that mileage, is experience, stories, things to share, pass on. We don't ever move beyond needing human companionship, even the most prickly of us. I speak from experience. You don't reach a point in your journey through life and suddenly say to yourself, "Well, that's it. I'm 75 years old now. I honestly shouldn't expect to have any more happiness."

Bogdanovich, in the interview on the DVD, tells a funny story about interviewing movie-pioneer Allan Dwan. When Bogdanovich interviewed Dwan, he was 92 years old, and Boganovich asked him what it was like to be 92. Dwan replied (and I have heard this from so many other people, friends and family members who are elderly), "I feel the same way I felt when I was 32, it's just that sometimes I walk by a mirror and I think, 'Who is that OLD GUY?'"

Leo McCarey understood that inside, inside, we remain the same. Our needs are the same. Love, companionship, humor, a little bit of fun, and also, that we get to live our lives as we see fit. Tough times require tough choices, as I said, and Make Way For Tomorrow is all about tough choices, and therefore it is a wrenching experience, unlike any other film I have ever seen. I felt helpless, I wanted to intervene. I wanted some rich donor to come along and wave a magic wand and say, "Here's money for a deposit on an apartment - let the old couple live together - I hereby declare it to be so." But life doesn't work like that. Not always. It does in movies sometimes, but rarely in real life.

I haven't even talked about the acting. It's beside the point, almost. I forgot I was watching actors. I was eavesdropping on a family crisis. I forgot that Victor Moore and Beaulah Bondi were both a good 20 years younger than the characters they were playing. It didn't even cross my mind. Every actor here, from the little kid buying gum in the store, to the Jewish immigrant merchant who befriends Pa, to the black maid who works for George and his wife, is completely believable, and three-dimensional. To single out one person would be to unravel the whole. This is a family. This is how this family operates. There are no "good" people, no "bad" people. Just people trying to survive, trying to do what is best for them, which of course then conflicts with the needs of someone else. Just like life. Here, the acting is just like life.

I will not discuss what happens in the final half-hour of the film. Not because there are any spoilers or anything like that, but because part of the miracle of Make Way For Tomorrow is watching it unfold for the first time. I will say this: Never, ever, has disobedience seemed like such a clarion call for the dignity of human beings, to choose their own destinies, to choose how they want to spend their time, and never before have I seen a simple act of disobedience seem like such a (the cliche totally applies) shining moment of triumph of the human spirit. It knocked the breath out of my chest.

I am so grateful to Criterion for finally, FINALLY, bringing this important film out on DVD, so that everyone can see it. Make Way For Tomorrow is (or at least, until recently, has been) a forgotten masterpiece. I do not use that term lightly. It is a masterpiece. Thankfully, it is "forgotten" no more.


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April 30, 2010

Memos from David O. Selznick

Excerpts from the phenomenally interesting and addictive Memo from David O. Selznick, part of the Modern Library "The Movies" series, and an absolute must-read for any film fan (or history-of-Hollywood fan). Selznick grew up in the fledgling movie business and started to work for his father early on (he headed up a department while he was still a teenager). He then, of course, went on to work for Paramount, RKO, MGM (he married Irene Mayer - daughter of Louis B. Mayer - so that was a bit of a contentious job for him, since it seemed like he only got it because he "married into it", something he took very much to heart) - and created his own production company Selznick International. He's responsible for some of the most successful films ever made, films that are now considered classics. He was an old-school producer, of the kind that you rarely find today. Nothing was too small a detail to escape his notice. He wrote an entire memo about Marlene Dietrich's hair and the problems thereof. He handled casting, script development, hiring, advertising ... He was much hated for his meddlesome ways (Michael Powell, in particular, is quite damning about Selznick in his fantastic autobiography), and yet he was also much sought after, due to his keen eye, efficient nature, and the fact that he did believe (to some degree) in giving directors and actors space to be individuals. He thought it was important. He was not infallible. He thought Stagecoach, for example, was a bad idea. Ford, of course, then went on to do Stagecoach elsewhere which was a big success and, among other things, helped create John Wayne, one of the most important American stars of the 20th century. Nobody's perfect. David O. Selznick communicated with everyone via memo. Even if he was going to be meeting with them in half an hour. He got into the habit of writing everything down early on in his career (when he was self-conscious about how young he was, and how perhaps he wouldn't be taken seriously - he felt that a memo would carry more authority) and never stopped. Apparently, after his death, when it was time to go through his papers, there were two thousand - yes TWO THOUSAND - BOXES of memos. The book here has obviously edited much of it out - it probably represents only two or three boxes of memos, in terms of the numbers - and editing must have been an incredibly challenging job. Kudos. Gone With the Wind is famous for many reasons, the least of which is (perhaps) the final film. The filming itself was tumultuous, difficult, with hirings and firings coming too quickly to count. I am now in the Gone With the Wind section which makes up the bulk of the book.

One of the things I am quite struck by in these memos is how literate Selznick is. He has read everything. He can talk about story in a way that makes you realize he knows story not because he has worked in the movies - but because HE READS. He can sit down and talk about what should be kept in Anna Karenina and what they could afford to lose - because he had read the damn book. He had respect for written material (especially if it was successful) and hesitated to muck about with things, because he knew the audience would be expecting such-and-such, since the book was so popular.

I haven't finished the book yet, but I've been reading it non-stop since I've been out in Los Angeles, and it's fun to read such a Hollywood book while I'm out here. I highly recommend it.

Here are some excerpts.

To Mr. Harry Rapf
October 15, 1926

It was my privilege a few months ago to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made, The Armored Cruiser Potemkin, made in Russia under the supervision of the Soviet Government. I shall not here discuss the commerical or political aspects of the picture, but simply say that regardless of what they may be, the film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen, and I therefore suggest that it might be very advantageous to have the organization view it in the same way that a group of artists might view and study a Rubens or a Raphael.

To Mr. B.P. Schulberg
July 2, 1928

THE MORE WE WORK ON "DIRIGIBLE" THE MORE CONVINCED WE ARE THAT THE COOPERATION OF THE NAVY DEPARTMENT IS WITHOUT VALUE TO US AND IS INDEED A DETRIMENT INSTEAD. THE NAVY DEPARTMENT DEMANDS A STORY DEMONSTRATING THE SAFETY OF DIRIGIBLES WHEN IT IS APPARENT THAT OUR STORY DEPENDS FOR ITS MELODRAMATIC VALUES UPON THE DANGER OF DIRIGIBLES. EVEN IF WE STRUGGLE WITH THE NAVY'S DEMANDS AND SATISFY THEM ON EVERY STORY POINT, I DO NOT SEE WHAT THEY CAN GIVE US. THEY CERTAINLY WILL NOT ENDANGER A NAVY DIRIGIBLE, AND ANY SCENES OF VALUE WILL HAVE TO BE TRICKED IN ANY EVENT ... WE HEAR THAT HOWARD HUGHES HAS OBTAINED UNBELIEVABLY MAGNIFICENT DIRIGIBLE SCENES WITH THE USE OF A TWENTY-FIVE FOOT MINIATURE DIRIGIBLE. HAVE HAD DISCUSSION WITH [O.W.] ROBERTS OF EFFECT DEPARTMENT WHO IS CONFIDENT HE CAN GIVE US EVERYTHING WE NEED WITH DIRIGIBLES FLIGHT, IN DANGER AT NIGHT, EXPLODING, ETC., WHICH WE SURELY CANNOT GET WITH REAL DIRIGIBLE ...

To: Mr. B.P. Schulberg
July 18, 1930

We have an opportunity to secure Dashiell Hammett to do one story for us before he goes abroad in about three months. Hammett has recently created quite a stir in literary circles by his creation of two books for Knopf, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. I believe that he is another Van Dine - indeed, that he possesses more originality than Van Dine, and might very well prove to be the creator of something new and startlingly original for us.

To Mr. B.P. Schulberg
April 15, 1931
NOT SENT

I wish you would give another minute's thought to my suggestion that we do Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with [Emil] Jannings. Granted that Jannings is not the Englishman of the book, and granted also that he has not the beautiful physical appearance of Dr. Jekyll, there is certainly nobody else in the world that could give the magnificent dual performance that could be counted upon from Jannings. Any script of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would almost certainly be a pretty free adaptation - and certainly the character could be molded to fit the versatile Jannings. When one thinks of the variety of roles he has played so sensationally, from the kindly professor to the lascivious Nero, from Louis XV to the trapeze artist of Variety, one realizes that he is an artist without nationality and without limitation. I am certain that he could overcome even the limitations of dialect. For purposes of a horror picture no one, I am certain, would criticize us for having the artist Jannings play a Teutonic Dr. Jekyll.

To: Mr. [Daniel] O'Shea
September 9, 1932

I hear rumors that Miss [Katharine] Hepburn is under twenty-one, which we should take immediate steps to confirm, to find out whether it is necessary to get the approval of the courts. I understand she is prone to exaggerate her age and likes to be thought much older than she is.

To: Mr. Siff
January 26, 1933

Please arrange for the executives, including Brock, to see the test of Fred Astaire. I am a little uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test, and I would be perfectly willing to go ahead with him for the lead in the Brock musical.

To. Mr. [L.B]Mayer
September 6, 1933

I have arranged with Ben Hecht to do the final script of Viva Villa! ... On the quality we are protected not merely by Hecht's ability but by the clause that the work must be to my satisfaction. It may seem like a short space of time for a man to do a complete new script, but Hecht is famous for his speed, and did the entire job on Scarface in eleven days. I do not think we should take into consideration the fact that we are paying him a seemingly large sum of money for two weeks' work, because this would merely be penalizing him for doing in two weeks what it would take a lesser man to do, with certainly infinitely poorer results, in six or eight weeks.

To: Miss Greta Garbo
January 7, 1935

Fredric March will only do Anna Karenina if he is forced to by his employers, Twentieth Century Pictures. He has told me repeatedly that he is fed up on doing costume pictures, that he thinks it a mistake to do another; that he knows he is much better in modern subjectsand that all these reasons are aggravated by the fact that Anna Karenina would come close on the heels of the [actress] Anna Sten-[director Rouben] Mamoulian-[producer Samuel] Goldwyn picture, We Live Again, from Resurrection, a picture which has been a failure and in which March appeared in a role similar to that in Karenina. Mr. March is most anxious to do a modern piture and I consider his judgment about himself very sound.

Selznick's Notes on Anna Karenina (this is just a short excerpt from a long and fascinating document)
September 1935

Our first blow was a flat refusal by the Hays office [the office that made sure films followed the "code" of self-censorship] to permit the entire section of the story dealing with Anna's illegitimate child. This decision was so heartrending, especially as it meant the elmination of the marvelous bedside scenes between Anna, her husband and her lover, that we were sorely tempted to abandon the whole project - but even what remained of the personal story of Anna seemed so far superior to such inventions of writers of today as could be considered possibilities for Miss Garbo, that we went on with the job. There is no point in detailing the censorship problems beyond this. We had to eliminate everything that could even remotely be classified as a passionate love scene, and we had to make it perfectly clear that not merely did Anna suffer but that Vronsky suffered. But enough about censorship ...

Our next step in the adaptation was to decide which of the several stories that are told in the book we could tell on the screen without diverting the audience's interest from one line to another ... We retained only such of the story of Kitty and Levin as crossed the story of Anna and Vronsky. We naturally eliminated most of the discussions about the agricultural and economic problems of Russia of the day, considering these of little interest to the large part of our audience who came to see Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina and Fredric March as Vronsky.

From this point on, it became a matter of the careful selection and editing of Tolstoi's scenes, with a surprising little amount of original writing necessary ... I like to think that we retained the literary quality and the greater part of the poignant story of a woman torn between two equal loves and doomed to tragedy whichever one she chose.

To: Mrs Kate Corbaley
June 3, 1935 (an interesting context for this letter is Selznick's lifelong love of Charles Dickens, books he devoured as a child. He said later on in life that he could point out punctuation errors in new editions of Dickens' novels, so well did he know all of those books.)

It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens's brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramtic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak. Don't think that I am for a minute trying to run down one of the greatest books in the English language. I am simply trying to point out to you the difficulties of getting the Dickens feeling, within our limitations of being able to put on the screen only action and dialogue scenes, without Dickens's comments as narrator. I am still trying my hardest and think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud - but it is and will be entirely different from David Copperfield.

My study of the book led me to what may seem strange choices for the writing an direction, but these strange choices were deliberate. Since the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must "pack a wallop". These, I think, Conway can give us as well as almost anyone I knew - as witnessed by his work on Viva Villa! Furthermore, I think he has a knack of bringing people to life on the screen, while the dialogue is on the stilted side. (I fought for many months to get the actual phrases out of David Copperfield into the picture, and I have been fighting similarly on Two Cities, but the difference is that the dialogue of the latter, if you will read it aloud, is not filled with nearly the humanity, or nearly the naturalness.

As to Sam Behrman, I think he is one of the best of American dialogue writers. Futhermore, he is an extremely literate and cultured man, with an appreciation of fine things and a respect for the integrity of a classic - more than ninety per cent more than all the writers I know. He can be counted upon to give me literacy that wiol match. On top of this, he is especially equipped, in my opinion, to give us the rather sardonic note in [Sidney] Carton.

Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
October 3, 1935

I should like also to call to your attention the danger of treating this picture [Tale of Two Cities] as just another [Ronald] Colman starring vehicle. Granted that Colman is a big star; that any picture with him achieves a good gross; A Tale of Two Cities, even badly produced, would completely dwarf the importance of any star ... The picture is beautifully produced. If I do not say this, no one else in the organization will. It has been splendidly directed by Jack Conway; and Colman is at his very top. Further, bear in mind that the book of A Tale of two Cities would without Colman have a potential drawing power equaled only by David Copperfield, Little Women, and The Count of Monte Cristo among the films of recent years because only these books have an even comparable place in the affections of the reading public. This is no modern best seller of which one hundred thousand copies have been published, but a book that is revered by millions - yes, and tens of millions of people here and abroad.

To: Mr. Richard Boleslawski
[Director of The Garden of Allah]
April 14, 1936

I told [Marlene Dietrich] that my one other worry was about her performance - that she had demonstrated to the world that she was a beautiful woman, but that she had failed to demonstrate to the world, undoubtedly through lack of opportunity, that she was an emotional actress; that she had demonstrated very nicely in Desire that she was capable of an excellent comedy performance, but she had yet to make audiences cry. She said she had been wanting to prove this for years and certainly was anxious to make the attempt to show her stuff in this respect. I told her also, frankly, that I thought she worried most unnecessarily about her camera angles - that she was not Helen Hayes or Norma Shearer who had to worry about their faces, and that from any angle, it was impossible for her to be photographed as anything but beautiful and for God's sake and her own, she should forget about camera angles when it came to the playing of an emotional scene. She agreed with this also. Maybe I am just naive!

However, here again, I think you should go right ahead as though you were directing some newcomer, and not worry about any legend of Dietrich difficulties.

To: Mr. Richard Boleslawski
June 17, 1936

Would you please speak to Marlene about the fact that her hair is getting so much attention, and is being coiffed to such a degree that all reality is lost. Her hair is so well placed that at all times - when the wind is blowing, for instance - or when Marlene is on a balcony or walking through the streets - it remains perfectly smooth and unruffled; in fact, is so well placed that it could be nothing but a wig. The extreme in ridiculousness is the scene in bed. No woman in the world has ever had her hair appear as Marlene's does in this scene, and the entire scene becomes practically unusable because everything is so exatly in place that the whole effect of a harassed and troubled woman is lost ... Surely a little reality can't do a great beauty any harm.

To: Mr. Lowell V. Calvert
cc: Mr. Ginsberg
December 19, 1936

Concerning the tragic ending [of A Star is Born], this is the sort of comment about pictures that dates back twenty years, and that I didn't think any body seriously advanced today. I will be satisfied with a long line of pictures that do as well as Anna Karenina, in which Garbo threw herself under a railroad train, or A Tale of Two Cities, in which Mr. Colman had his head chopped off; and if anybody wants further examples, I will sit down and list about fifty sensational successes with tragic endings.

I make the flat statement that pictures have reached the stage where audiences demand the proper ending to a story, whether it be happy or unhappy. If there is anybody in the business that hasn't learned this, it is high time they did.

To: Mr. Bill Wellman
cc: Miss Keon
January 25, 1937

I have been thinking about my new idea for the end [of A Star is Born], and I believe that we can retain [Janet] Gaynor's entire approach up the aisle in front of the Chinese [Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood], simply retaking the reaction to the footprints, more or less as is; with her then pulling herself together' the announcer asking her if she will say a few words; [Adolphe] Menjoy saying something to the effect of "No, no - Miss Lester will not speak!"; Gaynor saying she will, advancing with all the pride in the world, throwing her head back, with tears in her eyes, and saying, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine speaking" - with an alternate take on "This is Vicki Lester speaking" ...

To: Mr. Fredric March
April 28, 1937

You must have heard from any number of people the most laudatory sort of opinoins on your performance in A Star is Born. Yet I fear that many of these statements may have seemed to you automatic flattery of a type you must be used to, and that perhaps you wonder which congratulations are on the level. It is for this reason that I thought I should send you this note to tell you that on all sides I have seldom heard such praise of any actor in any picture. In New York, as here, people are saying that your job is one of the most able and honest that has ever been done for the screen. That it will do a great deal for you, as it has for the picture and therefore for us, is a certainty.

May I add my congratulations (as well as my thanks) to the others? As to whether this is on the level, I remind you of what I told you about certain other performances.

At long last I salute you as I have wanted to through these years, with complete admiration and unstinted admiration ...

To: Miss Katharine Brown
August 30, 1937

This was one of my long-standing arguments with Max [Steiner, composer], and his point in turn was based upon something else which was the root of our decision to get a divorce, which was my objection to what I term "Mickey Mouse" scoring: an interpretation of each line of dialogue and each movement musically, so that the score tells with music exactly what is being done by the actors on the screen. It has long been my contention that this is ridiculous and that the purpose of a score is to unobtrusively help the mood of each scene without the audience being even aware that they are listening to music - and if I am right in this contention, why can't the score be prepared from the script even though cuts and rearrangements may be necessary after the picture is edited - for the basic selection of music and general arrangement would not be affected by these cuts.

To: Norman Taurog
January 8, 1938

The only criticism that we had in the preview cards [for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] - and this appeared in a number of them - was that the cave sequence was somehow too horrible for children. This worried me, because we certainly want the picture to be for a family audience, and I made it my business both to study this criticism and to ask innumerable questions of many people. My conclusion was that this horror was not based upon the melodrama of this sequence, but upon two things: the bat sequence, because of the feeling of horror born of weird and flying animals, and upon what I had thought was your brilliant execution of my hysteria idea for Becky. I didn't like to lose the bat sequence entirely, so for tonight's preview I have left it in, simply trimming it - and if we get the same reaction we may have to cut it further.

Since I feel that the hysterical scene is one of the high spots of the picture, I studied this even more carefully and came to the conclusion that the offensive part was, hopefully, only the unusually horrible close-up of Becky in which she is laughing hysterically and in which her mind is obviously completely gone, and in which she looks like a little witch rather than like a little girl - her hysteria perhaps a shade too much that of a very ill woman, than that of a little girl. I found that all the women I spoke to about this close-up were of one mind on it, and hence I have dropped it with regrets.

To: Mr. Stradling
cc: Mr. Ratoff, Mr. Klune, Mr. Westmore
June 9, 1939

There is no single thing about the physical production of the picture [the American remake of the Swedish film Intermezzo, for which Selznick had brought Ingrid Bergman to America] including the photography, that even compares in importance with the photography of Miss [Ingrid] Bergman. Unlike Mr. Howard, and unlike almost any player of importance that I know of, the difference in her photography is the difference between great beauty and a complete lack of beauty. And unless we can bring off our photography so that she really looks divine, the whole picture can fall apart from a standpoint of audience effectiveness...

It is entirely possible that we haven't yet learned enough about her angles or about exactly how to light her.

(Selznick was not the only one to make this observation. Cameramen who understood Bergman's angles said that if you photographed her head on, she appeared plain - it has to do with the size of her forehead and how the planes of her face photographed. But at a slight profile, 3/4s or so, her beauty flowered forth. That is why you RARELY see a close-up of Bergman that is head-on, facing the camera. She is always turned slightly to the side. Of such details are great cameramen made. Movie actresses understand their faces better than anyone, and those cameramen who knew how to make them look "divine" were (and still are) in high demand.)

From the same letter, Selznick reiterates hisp oint:

I cannot tell you how strongly I feel about this matter or how important I feel it to be. I think it is the difference between a successful picture and an unsuccessful picture; the difference between a new star and a girl who will never make another picture here.... The curious charm that [Bergman] had in the Swedish version of Intermezzo - the cominbation of exciting beauty and fresh purity - certainly ought to be within our abilities to capture.

To: Mr. Gregory Ratoff
cc: Mr. Gregg Toland
June 22, 1939

The Toland tests of Miss Bergman prove indubitably what we have been saying since before the picture started - that more than with any other girl that I know of in pictures, the difference between a great photographic beauty and an ordinary girl with Miss Bergman lies in proper photography of her - and that this in turn depends not simply on avoiding the bad side of her face; keeping her head down as much as possible; giving her the proper hairdress, giving her the proper mouth make-up, avoiding long shots, so as not to make her look too big, and, even more importantly, but for the same reason, avoiding low cameras on her, as well as being careful to build people who work with her, such as Leslie Howard and Edna Best (as well, as of course, as the children, beside whom she looks titanic if the camera work isn't carefully studied); but most important of all, on shading her face and in invariably going for effect lightings on her. This means that there should not be a single sequence of the picture that is not staged for real effect lighting - whether it be morning, afternoon, or night. One might say with justification that almost any dramatic picture benefits from this sort of careful attention to lighting effects, but in the case of Intermezzo the mood of the picture is dependent upon it to an extent far greater than what is true of most pictures. Thus, in photographing Miss Bergman properly we will be benefiting the picture as a whole.

To: Mr. Birdwell
November 9, 1939

Ann Rutherford, whom I saw on the train, told me something which might be the basis of some excellent publicity [for Ingrid Bergman's American debut], which is that all the girls she knows are letting their eyebrows grow in as a result of Bergman's unplucked eyebrows, and that she herself now feels very strongly about unplucked eyebrows, not merely because of Miss Bergman but because of Miss [Vivien] Leigh, whom we also should have eyebrows au naturel. So apparently our decision about Miss Bergman's eyebrows, based upon this studio's feeling that the public was sick and tired of the monstrosities that had been inflicted on the public by most of Hollywood's glamour girls, is going to have a national reaction!

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April 21, 2010

Out of the Past: the battle of the under-actors

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Excerpt from Lee Server's Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care:

Director and star proved to be ideally matched. In [Robert] Mitchum, [Jacques] Tourneur had found the most expressive embodiment of his own cinematic aesthetic of eloquent, subversive resistance and oneiric sensuality. Tourneur loved Mitchum's physical grace, the gliding, pantherlike movements, and his underplaying and powerful silences, his expressive quiescence thrilled the director whose films were among the quietest in the history of talking pictures. He savored Mitchum's ability to listen in a scene. "There are a large number of players who don't know how to listen," said Tourneur. "While one of their partners speaks to them, they simply think, I don't have anything to do during this; let's try not to let the scene get stolen from me. Mitchum can be silent and listen to a five-minute speech. You'll never lose sight of him and you'll understand that he takes in what is said to him, even if he doesn't do anything. That's how one judges good actors."

In Mitchum's opposite, the sort who tried "not to let the scene get stolen", Tourneur might possibly have been thinking of Kirk Douglas. With his explosive starring roles - Champion, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story - still a few years off, Douglas was becoming typed for intelligent, urbane characters, supporting parts. As Whit Sterling, certainly among the most well-spoken and civilized of ruthless racketeers, Douglas gave a brilliantly controlled and charismatic performance, but he could not have been thrilled by another second fiddle part - especially second fiddle to Mitchum, who had already taken from him the lead in Pursued. The two got along well enough off the set, but the rivalry would flare as soon as the cameras began to turn. Since Tourneur was not about to accept any obvious histrionics in his diminuendo world, Douglas was left to try and out-underact Mitchum, an exercise in futility, he discovered. He tried adding distracting bits of business during Mitchum's lines and came up with a coin trick, running it quickly between the tops of his fingers. Bob started staring at the fingers until Kirk started staring at the fingers and dropped the coin on the rug. He put the coin away. In another scene, Douglas brought a gold watch fob out of his coat pocket and twirled it around like a propeller. This time everybody stared.

"It was a hoot to watch them go at it," said Jane Greer. "They were two such different types. Kirk was something of a method actor. And Bob was Bob. You weren't going to catch him acting. But they both tried to get the advantage. At one point they were actually trying to upstage each other by who could sit the lowest. The one sitting the lowest had the best camera angle, I guess - I don't know what they were thinking. Bob sat on the couch, so Kirk sat on the table, then one sat on the footstool, and by the end I think they were both on the floor."

Tourneur, no martinet, liked to give his performers a lot of freedom and waited out the one-upmanship antics with a weary grace. "Quoi qu'il arrive, restez calme," he liked to say.

Actors were actors. One night he was screening the rushes of a scene with Mitchum and Douglas talking to each other on either side of the frame, and he was startled to see how Paul Valentine - placed in the background and without a line of dialogue - had craftily picked up a magazine and was flipping the pages with an altogether distracting intensity, hijacking the scene.

"Oh, Paul," he said to the actor, "now I have to keep an eye on you, too?"

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April 18, 2010

Heroes For Sale (1933); Dir. William Wellmann

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"It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people."

So says Tom Holmes, played by Richard Barthelmess, in William Wellmann's pre-Code drama Heroes for Sale, a terrific film, and included in TCM's Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three, a volume dedicated to the early works of Wellmann. The Hays Code was created in 1930, but wasn't really enforced until 1934, and the difference is startling. Not so much in the quality of movies made. Many of my favorite films of all time were from the 1930s, POST Code. But in the treatment of subject matter, in the willingness to present certain issues in a realistic manner, the lack of euphemism ... all of these things really mark the pre-Code films. There are those who have a nostalgia for the Code, but I imagine that those people, like myself, love the films made during the Code - and yet are not aware of what is actually IN the Code, and how vile it is. This is not just about keeping films "clean" and not showing sex or violence. This is about a moral mandate, institutionalized bigotry. Authority figures must not be questioned, religion must not be mocked, any mention of childbirth must be handled with "good taste", the Code goes on forever, trying to leave no stone unturned. It's a creepy document. For example, # 7 on the list beneath the heading Sex:

Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

Lovely, isn't it?

So you may indulge yourself in nostalgia for the Code, but please at least realize what you are being nostalgic for. I read the Code, and I actually feel like taking a bath. It's funny: the Production Code was trying to regulate the morals of the nation, but in so doing, revealed themselves to have the dirtiest minds of all. Isn't that always the way. The Code states:

The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

Yeah, because all Americans at that time ONLY slept in their bedrooms. Nothing else went on there! Nothing that wasn't in "good taste".

I am not one to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I find all of this to be interesting, and, naturally, smart directors and writers found all kinds of pesky ways to get around the Code. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more "lustful" moment on film than the look on Cary Grant's face when he says to Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings: "Would you like to come up to my room?" You can't get more explicit than that.

But the pre-Code films continue to fascinate, giving a glimpse of that brief moment in time before the crack-down came, before it was decided what could and could not be shown, and also HOW things should be portrayed (dancing, crime, religion, alcohol, patriotism, etc.). Being so used to the post-Code movies with their artful sneakiness in handling certain issues can make some of these earlier films seem even more startling. Can they say that?? Is that allowed? A film without a clear moral? What is this world coming to? A film where the bad girl is not only NOT punished, but flourishes? And, uhm, a film where a woman is branded like a piece of cattle, and it's shown on film? (Interesting that the Code specifically mentions "branding" as off-limits ("Branding of people or animals" is listed under "REPELLENT SUBJECTS"). I wonder if that was a direct response to Tallulah Bankhead's horrifying animalistic shriek as the brand is pressed into her breast.

There will be spoilers here. I hope it doesn't deter you from seeing the film.

The original title for Heroes for Sale was Breadline, which takes a more documentary approach to the situation portrayed in the film, but look at the cynicism in the chosen title. These are WAR heroes. What happens when a soldier returns? It is not pretty. Heroes for Sale looks at the challenges facing these men, not only returning home wounded, or shattered psychologically (sometimes both), but also the upheaval of the society brought on by the Great Depression. Things are not black and white (one of the key features of the pre-Code films). Even a year later, Heroes For Sale would not have been possible.


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Tom Holmes (played by the wonderful Richard Barthelmess) is a soldier fighting in WWI. The opening of the film shows war in a realistic chaotic way. The rain throttles down out of the sky. The trenches are terrifying. The enemy is faceless, but the sound they make roars through the air. The American soldiers know what they have to do, but they are scared. Their fear is showed openly, with no sneer at it (which would be par for the course later). Fear is human. It's certainly part of war. It doesn't mean the men are not heroic. Orders have come down, in the middle of a night-time battle, that their next mission is to advance forward, and this time, they are not expected to kill the enemy, but take him prisoner. A far more risky proposition. The men stand huddled in a tent. Wellmann films it with dark shadows, the sounds of explosions outside, the rain battering the tent. It's gloom placed on top of gloom. They all look at one another, and they know what this means. 9 out of 10 of them will die in the attempt. They know it. No one speaks it, but the knowledge is there, palpably. Men light their soggy cigarettes with shaking fingers. It's a tense scene, beautifully rendered by the actors, and the production design, which gives it all the sense of being a last (and perhaps) meaningless stand. It is the first scene in the movie. We don't even know who any of these people are yet. It throws us right into the middle of the action. The men begin their mission. The mud is like something out of a nightmare, it's dark, the rain pours down, and Wellmann shows the approach out of the trench, as one after the other is mowed down. It is slaughter. Beautiful work, by everyone.


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Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott, in a terrific performance, he would be dead 2 years later after falling off his polo horse, exactly like Christopher Reeve) is the Sergeant. He and Tom are from the same town. They huddle in a trench, waiting for their turn to charge. They have the following exchange:

Tom: You scared, Roger?
Roger: Unofficially, yes.
Tom: Me too. Only you can make mine official.

Pretty honest. It is these subtleties that would be lost once the Code was enforced.


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Yet, they do what they have to do. In a brutal scene, Tom comes face to face with a German soldier and shouts at him, through the rain, to surrender. The German does. At that moment, Tom is shot in the back and falls over the trench, screaming to Roger to "take him in, take him in". Roger, torn between helping his friend and completing his mission, takes the German soldier prisoner and struggles off through the mud, leaving Tom to die. But they knew this going in, that this was a possibility. Tough choices made by tough men.


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Roger, back in the tent, is congratulated for his bravery. People crowd in to shake his hand. Roger, knowing that he did nothing but cower in the mud, that the heroism is all Tom's, out there dead in the mud, is devastated. Watch how Westcott shows this. He is a marvelous actor. He is truly pained. Ashamed. And yet, who wouldn't want to have everyone think you're a hero? He tries to come clean, but people keep interrupting him, telling him not to be modest. We learn later what kind of a world Roger comes from, he's a rich boy on a hill, his father is a prominent banker, status and image is very important to his family. It has weakened him, morally. Think of the radical notion of that. He knows he did wrong, he knows that Tom is probably dead out there, and he is now basking in someone else's glory, but he doesn't speak. This is not shown as a malicious or cunning choice. It is shown in all its complexity, accepting that men under pressure often do not behave in honorable ways. And they feel terrible about it. In a very serious way, the choice Roger makes in that wet tent in the middle of the trenches, ruins his life. He can never shake the haunting memory of what he has done, what he is capable of.

Because it turns out, that Tom did not die out there. He is seriously wounded, but he is rescued by a German Red Cross team. He spends the rest of the war in a German hospital, a prisoner of war essentially, but a very sick man. The Germans in the film are portrayed as realistically as the Americans. They are not some "other", they are not the enemy (TM). They're soldiers, just like the Americans. Another radical pre-Code touch, which would be lost in the intervening years. In the German hospital, Tom is given morphine for the pain.

By the time he leaves, he is a serious drug addict. There is only so much that can be done for his condition. He still has splinters of steel along his spine, which cannot be removed without serious injury or perhaps death. He will have to spend the rest of his life managing his pain. While Tom's morphine addiction is not presented as quite as harrowing as Mary's in Long Day's Journey Into Night (or, as an angry commenter recently informed me: a "DOWNER" - and that, for him, was a bad thing. People want to be entertained, he told me. So we always need to see the bright side, right? Even of morphine addiction? Maybe it shouldn't be shown at all! That would solve all the problems of these pesky artists writing all of these "downers". This commenter would have been a great official for the Hays Code!)

Speaking of the Code (and I'll try to stop beating that drum, but Heroes For Sale, not very well-known, certainly not as well-known as the films that really prompted the Code being enforced - Baby Face, Public Enemy, etc. - is a very good example of some of the subtlety that was legislated out of existence when that Code came down), the portrayal of drug addiction was strictly forbidden.

Illegal drug traffic must never be presented ... Because of its evil consequences, the drug traffic should not be presented in any form. The existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences.

Holmes's morphine addiction is treated with honesty. It happens. It's terrible. Not just for their loved ones, but for the person suffering. He returns home to America after the armistice is signed. On the boat back, he runs into Roger, who now is highly decorated because of his bravery. One of the best parts of Barthelmess' portrayal is that he is a realistic man, and also a compassionate man. It is Roger who suffers the consequences. It's almost worse that Tom is so understanding about the whole thing. It would be better if Tom hated him. Roger is a tormented man.


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But Tom says to him, with a gentle sort of half-grin, "I am pretty sure I would have done the same thing." What a nice way to look at friendship. It's not simple all the time. And friends do forgive one another some pretty awful things.

Back in the States, things begin to play out in an inevitable fashion. Tom moves in with his mother. Roger is the toast of the town. Perhaps because of the guilt he feels, Roger gets Tom a job at his father's bank. We immediately can sense, however, that Tom is starting to fall apart. His need for morphine is running his life. He sits behind the bars at the bank (a perhaps too-obvious metaphor for the entrapment of drug addiction), drenched in sweat, worrying over the numbers he has to tally up, and he can't concentrate because he needs his fix. To address the Code and its idiocy: seeing a man in the throes of drug addiction does not make one want to become a drug addict. It has the opposite effect. Not only that, but it can actually intensify your compassion for those who suffer so. It would take a hard heart, indeed, to watch Barthelmess in these early scenes, and think scornfully of his weak character, how "bad" he is. That doesn't even come into play. All you can see is a man at the end of his rope. His doctor sympathizes but he warns Tom that he cannot fill any more prescriptions without reporting the case to the authorities. Tom stands at the door and shouts at the doctor, "What am I supposed to do?" There is true anguish in Barthelmess here. It's heart-rending. Tom goes to the streets. Tries to get drugs from shady characters in doorways, but they turn him down for this or that reason.


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Finally, Tom is reported, and he is committed to the "Narcotic State Farm".

One of the problems with Heroes For Sale (and this is nitpicky, especially with a film as fine as this one, but I feel I should mention it) is that it has about eight full acts. It's too much. Wellmann keeps us on track, with calendar years flying by us, and effective editing (a sign showing "Narcotic State Farm", then a shot of a hand pulling out a file with Tom's name on it, and a doctor signing his name to admit Tom - then the next shot, same file pulled out, hand signing his name, and then stamping the file: CURED AND RELEASED - a year of time is handled in three shots. Ah, economy!) But it does try to do too much, and there are times when you feel like you are slogging from event to event, with no overarching purpose. However, this is not a fatal flaw, as it might have been with other films, because of the universal excellence of the acting (even the extras are fantastic), and the fact that everyone creates characters that are interesting, who have places to go, emotionally and otherwise. Heroes for Sale has scope. Maybe too much? I'll leave that for you to decide.

Tom moves to Chicago after being released from the hospital, to make a fresh start. He gets a room in a boarding house, run by Mary, a no-nonsense yet warm and funny human being, played by Aline MacMahon, in yet another exquisite performance from this wonderful character actress.


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I love Heroes for Sale because it allows her to be human, too. She's not a caricature. She is allowed her own moments (including one absolutely killer closeup in a scene that moved me to tears the first time I saw it - when you see it, you'll know exactly the one I mean), her own personality. She's not just "support staff". There are only two other boarders in the boarding house - a German communist ("He's a Red," Mary tells Tom) named Mr. Brinker, played broadly (and rather annoyingly at times) by Robert Barrat, and a young working girl named Ruth, played by a glowingly beautiful Loretta Young. The second Tom lays eyes on Ruth, he's in love. His surroundings may be dreary, his room may look out on a brick wall, but suddenly he has hope. He might be able to make a life for himself, with this lovely girl at his side. In a touchingly old-school way, he asks her out immediately, letting his interest in her be known. She seems like a positive and warm person, and she likes him. A romance starts. She works in a laundry, and she gets him a job there as a driver.


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Almost immediately, Tom shows an entrepreneurial ingenuity with his job, finding ways to increase the numbers of his laundry route. The higher-ups notice. Give him a promotion.

"The Red", Mr. Brinker, is an inventor. He is always emerging from his room in his long-johns, demanding of the other boarders if anyone has a chisel. The funniest thing about this portrayal is that Communism is seen as kind of amusing (see the fantastic Comrade X for another example), and ultimately corruptible - which, in this universe, is a HOPEFUL sign. No ideology is so rigid that it can resist the call of making money. Mr. Brinker rants and raves about the employers, and how the workers are "slaves", and sniffs at things like profit and bottom line, but when he invents a new kind of laundry-apparatus that would make things more efficient, and gets a patent for it, and suddenly starts raking in the dough, he becomes an unrepentant Capitalist. It doesn't have the paranoia about Communism that later films have. This is the early 30s, remember. Hitler was the enemy. Russia was the Great Unknown. I really liked that aspect of the character. He has no convictions, actually.


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Tom teases him at one point: "You used to hate the capitalists!" Brinker replies emphatically, "Naturally! But that was before I had money!"

I love the observation of that, the social and political critique, leavened with humor.

The plot marches on. Tom and Ruth get married. They have a son. Tom has pitched the laundry-machine to his bosses, and says he will sell it to them ONLY IF it means actual human beings won't lose their jobs. They have an agreement. But then hard times come, and the laundry is bought by a larger consolidation. The agreement is broken, and 3/4s of the work force lose their jobs.

Wellmann uses two identical tracking shots to show the transformation: Early on in the film, the camera pans through the giant laundry, (and apparently many of the extras were actual employees at a laundry), showing people busy at work, folding and washing and drying, a hub of human activity. And then, later, same tracking shot, and we see the same space, empty of humans, with the machines busy at work. A bleak and realistic portrayal of what technology can do, a huge worry at that time. Will humans become obsolete?


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Tom finds himself on the firing line for this. Angry mobs of men show up at his brownstone home, shouting at him about his betrayal. He tries to reason with them, tell them that he did his best, but they are having none of it. The mob decides to go to the laundry and break all the machines. Tom screams at them that this will do no good, they will only build more. But the mob charges off into the night.


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The scenes of riot are filmed with a jagged sense of immediacy. You feel you are looking at a situation that is about to spin wildly out of control. It's frightening. Police advance on the crowd. Tear gas shots are fired. All hell breaks loose. Tom is in the middle of it, still trying to reason, but it's too late. Barthelmess's desperation here is heart-wrenching. Ruth, panicked, calls Mary to come watch her son, so she can run down to the laundry to be with her husband. In the riot, she is struck in the face with a rock, and she falls to the ground. Death, even a year later, would be cleaned up a lot in Hollywood movies, but here, her face is covered with blood, and her eyes are open, staring sightlessly up into the air. It is a memorable shot, unblinking in its willingness to show reality, and the moment is horrifying. Nothing up until this point has prepared us for THAT to happen. Barthelmess, being held down by two cops, is screaming, "THAT'S MY WIFE, THAT'S MY WIFE", but they won't release him to go to her. All around is the chaos of the mob.


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There are at least two more acts to go in Heroes for Sale, gritty and terrible, but Wellmann does not tip his action over into melodrama. This is a drama, end-stop. It shows its characters, flaws and all, and follows them on their bumpy journey through life, and through a time of great upheaval in American history. 1918 to 1933 saw a lot of changes, and the worst was yet to come, but Heroes For Sale, while it could be seen as a piece of propaganda ("Can't we do better for ourselves? Can't we do better for our returning veterans? Can't we just treat people better?"), it is also an examination of the economics and transformations that went down during that time, all seen through the eyes of people we come to care about deeply.

Richard Barthelmess has a kind of stiffness to him at times, which works wonderfully when he is in the right material. It worked great in Only Angels Have Wings. He is a man who feels things intensely, but is quite embattled about letting those feelings show. Howard Hawks spoke of the difficulties Barthelmess had in crying onscreen, but there is a scene here, a goodbye scene with his young son (who is about 3 years old) which is heartbreaking, and Barthelmess is obviously moved, spontaneously. It's a beautiful moment of watching someone respond, in an organic way, to a completely imaginary situation, the definition of good acting. The son is portrayed in later scenes as a kid of 8 or 9, but he has more of the stilted child-actor precocity that is so annoying, and was even worse at that time in movies. Children are often appallingly sweet in "old" movies (see the little kid in Penny Serenade for a perfect example of how awful, how truly nauseating they were encouraged to be). But the little 3 year old in Heroes For Sale (he is not listed in the credits) gives an unbelievable performance in this one scene, totally uninhibited, even though he has some tough things to do. He has to scream and cry, "I don't want you to go, I don't want you to go" - and however this little boy was able to tap into those emotions (I don't even want to know), he nails it. Barthelmess holds him at one point, in tears, and the little boy sweetly reaches out and brushes his hand across his father's cheek, following the tracks of the tears. It's an extraordinary performance by a wee young thing. The scene would be maudlin otherwise. Here, in the hands of Wellmann, Barthelmess, and young unnamed boy, it is heartwrenching.

With moments of wit (so necessary with bleak material like this), Heroes For Sale attempts to examine the state of American life at that time, with "poor people" shuffling in a line outside soup kitchens, and huge signs on the edge of town stating:


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This is how we lived then. Mr. Brinker, the Red turned capitalist, scoffs at the unemployed, calling them "moochers" and "loafers". We can see parallels to certain attitudes that persist today, in the portrayal of drug addiction (these people are seen as bad and weak, the boss at the bank rails at Tom for his "cowardly loathsome habit" and how disappointed his mother must be having raised her son to lead "a good Christian life") - and the contempt shown towards people who can't find work, they must be lazy, good-for-nothings, and they should be ashamed for accepting "handouts". (I am thinking of the recent moment at a rally where a man threw dollar bills at a guy suffering from Parkinson's. Disgusting.) Heroes For Sale pulls no punches in its portrayal of the lack of sympathy we so often show one another. But it makes its point: There are no "good" people, and there are no "bad" people. There are people who make choices. Choices that seem right at the time, and maybe are right, but there are always unintended consequences. How do we handle ourselves when the chips start to fall? How do we try to maintain human dignity when the world seems to be demanding of us that we fall to our knees?

Tom Holmes is an Everyman. He is not a "star", he's not extraordinary, he's like so many men at so many different times: he wants to have a good life, he wants to provide for his family, he wants to have work that doesn't demean him or anyone else. He does the best he can.

And so Tom's line, that opens this post, spoken at a moment when the Great Depression was at its most ravaging, becomes an optimistic patriotic message, a belief in the system, a belief in people in general, even when it has crushed him down to a powder.

The last scene of Heroes For Sale is unnecessary, and re-states its message too obviously, so Wellmann will be sure that we will "get it", in no uncertain terms, but it doesn't lessen the impact of the whole. We "got it" long before then, and that is a testament to Wellmann and, mainly, to Richard Barthelmess, whose impassioned, committed and specific performance represents the best that the industry has to offer.


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April 14, 2010

Punch-Drunk Love in Japanese

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I am in love with this poster. If you have seen the movie, you will understand the design elements, and I think it's perfect. The haunting bleeding melting colors that break up the "acts" of Punch-Drunk Love were created by Jeremy Blake, a successful artist, whose notorious recent suicide (a double-suicide apparently - he and his girlfriend both died) is a very strange story - he was being harassed by Scientologists, apparently? I haven't been following up with that story, but it sure was a strange one. More details here.

Thanks to The Auteur's Notebook for this image, and also other images in the same series.

It's a film I am not just fond of, but love intensely, so I was so interested to see other versions of the poster, that seemed to capture the emotionality and subjective dream-space that the film lives in.

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April 12, 2010

Under-rated Movies #18: Murder by Numbers

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So under-rated as to be almost completely invisible, and never mentioned in this past Oscar season, when Sandra Bullock was so much discussed - Murder by Numbers has some truly stupid elements, a boring title, and a terrible ending (badly shot, among other things which I will get into), but why I love it (and yes, I do love it), is its insistence on keeping focused on character, despite the bossy plot, and the "thriller" demands. At the center of this movie is a well-drawn specific portrait of a homicide detective, and how they do what they do. Bullock is terrific in the part, managing to suggest that the character is scarred somewhere, something is "wrong" with her socially, but she also gets to be really good at her job. She is driven by personal demons, as a lot of people are, but she keeps it all under a tightly-closed lid, which saves the character from the Freudian-slash-Oprah direction it keeps wanting to go in. It's a very controlled performance. You really believe she is an excellent cop. The character is not in the writing, which can be pretty on-the-nose, even annoyingly so, but in Bullock's performance. One of the most amazing things here is how consistently she dodges the bullets. Not from the criminals she is tracking, but from the pitfalls of the script. Bullock underplays, keeps her cool, stays hard, is willing to be unpleasant (she is not at all likeable, although you end up feeling for her), and doesn't care about protecting her character. By that I mean, she isn't telling the audience from the get-go: "I'm wounded, like me, feel sorry for me ... it'll pay off". Lesser actresses do this all the time. Not Bullock. She doesn't give a shit if you like her or not. Perfect for the role, and one of the reasons why the movie flat out works. Rent it to watch HER, and you'll see why this film is under-rated.


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The acting is good all around (and sometimes actually great) with Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling playing a modern-day Leopold and Loeb. They are teenagers, one is a brainiac, the other the class clown, and they make a big pretense of not knowing one another (all part of their dastardly plan), when in acutality they are enmeshed, and spend all their free time in a big abandoned house on a cliff, reading Nietzsche and drinking absinthe and playing Russian Roulette. They dream of the perfect murder. Just like Leopold and Loeb, they want to prove to themselves that they are real men, better men than others, because they could conceive of something so perfect, so airtight, that they would never be caught. They read forensic books, learning everything they can about DNA analysis and fiber analysis, so that they will not mess up. The best part is: the murder must be totally random. They must have no connection with the person. Only then, will it be perfect.


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Pretty cliched stuff, I know, but what elevates Murder by Numbers is the quality of the acting. There is some top-notch stuff going on here. Michael Pitt is a gloomy puffy-faced kid who skulks around, but he is hiding something: he is hiding his own dreams of grandeur and domination. He plays the victim, because it is a perfect cover. And Ryan Gosling is fantastic as the "dumb" one. The rich kid who wears a red leather jacket, who seems to have everything fall into his lap, but who is missing something in his personality. Empathy, certainly, but maybe that just comes because he's never had to work for anything in his life. Gosling suggests all kinds of things going on, even though the character is never given an explanatory monologue about who he is. He keeps it in the air, and when the mask comes off in an interrogation room, it is, I am not ashamed to say, a brilliant moment. Unforced. Compulsively watchable. He works every moment as though it is a battle of the wills and he must come out on top. You can see how he would snow everyone: teachers, parents, guidance counselors. He turns on the charm, and people fall like ninepins. He is fully aware of himself at every moment, a true narcissist. He has grown up believing he is untouchable, due to his wealth, his good looks, and he has the cocky swagger of someone who has no idea what it means to want anything. But he has a secret, too. Their crime depends on them sticking together, following the plan. They must not be broken apart. They must get their stories straight. The plan has been in the works for a couple of years. It is not clear how these two met, but they have been keeping up the charade that they don't like each other (Gosling makes fun of Pitt in the hallways, snickers at Pitt in class), so that when the day comes that they commit their crime, nobody would ever dream of suspecting them, or even know that there was a connection between them in the first place.

Both of them are true sociopaths, and the young actors are chilling in portraying their roles.

But the star here is Sandra Bullock. She plays Cassie Mayweather (first of all: the name is a problem. That is not a real name, script writer.), a homicide detective. She has been assigned a new cop to train who has transferred over from Vice (he is played by Ben Chaplin, who is actually given quite a lot to do here, unlike many of his other parts - and he's great), and a murdered girl is found in a ravine, so she takes him with her to the crime scene, walking him through the process. Early on, this is the scene that lets us know what kind of thriller this is going to be. It's not a "gotcha" thriller, it's not going to be gory or violent: it is going to be an intellectual thriller, one that focuses on forensics, and also how crime scenes are analyzed and handled. How investigations move forward. How criminal profiles are used by police departments, and how they rule out certain aspects. Is the killer "organized" or "disorganized"? Having just read Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI , by Robert Ressler (a top FBI profiler), I had a lot of fun seeing Murder by Numbers again, watching cops standing at white-boards, with "characteristics" of specific profiles written out, and trying to decide if the killer here qualified. This is how it's done. At least according to Ressler. It's not a magic wand: check this box, and you'll find your killer - but the guideposts are there, and Murder by Numbers has done its homework.


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Cassie and her new partner (Chaplin) argue about the profile. Chaplin says he's "disorganized", meaning he feels that, based on the evidence, the killing was random. Something doesn't sit right with Cassie about that. The body was found in a ravine, yes, but it was on the other side of a creek, far away from the road, and footprints were found in the mud, which meant, among other things, that the killer had to have picked this spot for its remoteness, and also had to have somehow dragged the body down the hill, through the creek, and across to the other side. A "disorganized" killer (thank you, Mr. Ressler) usually dumps bodies wherever they feel like it, they panic, they freak out, they don't cover their tracks. Arguments erupt between Bullock and her partner. "He's spontaneous AND he plans? Come on, guys, this doesn't make sense!"

Ressler talks about how important it is to learn how to analyze crime scenes, and that 9 times out of 10, everything you need to know will be at that primary site. Not just in terms of evidence left behind, but in subtler clues, clues which let you know who the person is. Is there blood everywhere? Are there missing limbs? Was an attempt made to cover the body up? All of these things are indicators (or, possible indicators).

I knew a homicide detective once, and I grilled him about all of this, because I feel like I missed my calling in many ways, although I would have a hard time being around murdered bodies all the time. But I asked him every question I could think of, and he was fascinating, I wish I had tape recorded it. He handled all of my questions with good humor, patience, and a deep animal intelligence, which actually bordered on something almost spiritual. Like a genius can't describe how he plays the violin like he does, or how he can calculate columns of numbers in his head with lightning speed, this homicide detective could not speak specifically (at first, but believe me, I wore him down) about how he did what he did. If you start to listen to these cops, (and I watch every forensic show known to man) many of them say stuff like, "I don't know, something didn't feel right." "I walked into that crime scene, and just knew something was off." "Something's not right about that guy."

Now you cannot convict someone on these vague "something's not right" feelings, but a good homicide detective always trusts his gut. He understands information, and he can process things very quickly. He knows what a random crime scene looks like, so he can instantly tell if one has been "staged". But often he cannot immediately point the finger at what is "wrong". It's a gut feeling. Hard to quantify.

Bullock plays a cop like that. She nails it. She and her partner kneel over the dead body and discuss what they see. The film has made him a trainee, which is a convenient way to "show" that she knows her job, because she is showing him the ropes, asking him to analyze the scene. It seems that the stab wounds on the victim's chest are tentative. They barely break the skin. That is information. The victim is missing a finger. Chaplin glances at Bullock and asks, "Trophy?" Bullock never takes her eyes off the victim. She murmurs, "Maybe ..."

Murder by Numbers has two separate stories: the two sociopath teenagers, and the local investigation closing in on them (even though they thought they had planned it perfectly) - and while it's perhaps not the tensest thriller of all time (we know from the start that the two boys did it), what I like about it is its patience with the boring nitty-gritty that is so much of cop-work. Filing paperwork, autopsies, waiting for fiber analysis, sitting around in the office and talking about the case ... In those scenes, Murder by Numbers knows exactly what it is, isn't trying to be anything else, and does it very very well. It's fun and engaging to watch people figure things out, especially when the plot is twisty enough to not reveal all right away. However (and this, for me, is key): the plot really comes down to personalities.

Who ARE these two boys? What is their dynamic? How did they do it? And above all, why?

Slowly, Cassie becomes obsessed with the case, and she seems especially obsessed by Ryan Gosling. She has a visceral dislike to the kid, and it seems over-the-top, it seems to be about something else. She is reprimanded repeatedly for this, but she continues to insist, "Something's not right with that kid ... something's not right."

To add to all of this, Murder by Numbers has given Sandra Bullock a really interesting person to play, outside of her important job and her skill at it. She lives in isolation on a houseboat. She sits around on her days off, in a bathrobe, watching Matlock. She is notorious for sleeping with everyone. The other cops call her "hyena" and her new partner wonders why. She says to him, casually, as she opens the gate to the dock leading to her houseboat, "Female hyenas have protruding mock penises." She doesn't seem particularly bothered by her own behavior. It's something to dull the pain. She sleeps with Chaplin almost instantly, before he realizes that she has done this to everyone in the department, as well as the assistant DA, and when they're done having sex, she kicks him out of bed. Literally. Shoves him off to the side. "I gotta get up in the morning. Go."

Bullock, who radiates niceness, I think, and humor, and good companionship - is bringing something else in her personality to the foreground here. The wounded coldness that can be the result of loneliness and fear. She plays none of this literally, however. Cassie Mayweather (sorry. Not a real name) is not particularly self-aware. She doesn't feel she needs to be, because her whole life is her job. And THERE, she knows who she is. Who cares if she sleeps with everybody? Who cares if she sits in a bathrobe for days at a time? Why on earth does it matter, as long as she shows up to work and kicks ass? Bullock, with brief flickers, lets us in on her sadness, which is even more heartbreaking because of the effort she has put in to hiding it. Pain hurts her more, because she resists it.

She has a secret, too.

The ending of the film is a betrayal of all that has come before, a showdown at the house on the cliff, which, unfortunately, puts Cassie Mayweather, the best cop on the force, into a damsel in distress situation, where she must be saved at the last minute. Too bad. The film didn't have the courage of its convictions, and it is difficult to imagine an ending of a film where the lead cop is male, and suddenly, when confronted with the killers face to face, crumples and must be saved by his female partner. Not to mention the fact that it's a very action-packed ending, with some giant occurrences involving architecture and falling bodies and the special effects look pretty shlocky. Silly, actually.

To see Cassie Mayweather (have I mentioned how I feel about her name), a woman we have come to know over the course of the film, as no-nonsense, fearless, willing to go in first to any frightening situation, ballsy, annoying, headstrong, suddenly reduced to a screaming female tied to the railroad tracks, is a bummer of the highest order.

Nevertheless: The acting here is why you should see it, and Bullocks' work throughout packs a strange punch for me. This is one of those movies where no matter when it is on, or what I am doing, I have to sit and watch the rest of it. The silliness is undeniable, but weed through that, and you have the four leads: Bullock, Chaplin, Gosling and PItt - creating really really interesting characters who all, cops and criminals, have flaws, fears and secrets, secrets from each other, of course, but also secrets they keep from themselves, and, in the end, the film is about intelligence. I love it for that reason alone. It is about watching people think. It is about watching Bullock look around her, at the ravine, the creek, the mud, the piles of leaves, and murmur to herself, "Something's not right here ..."


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More in my Under-rated Movies Series:

This post covers 5: Ball of Fire, Only Angels Have Wings, Dogfight, Zero Effect and Manhattan Murder Mystery

Four Daughters

In a Lonely Place

Searching For Bobby Fischer

Joe vs. the Volcano

Something's Gotta Give

Truly, Madly, Deeply

Mr. Lucky

Eye of God

Love and Basketball

Kwik Stop

The Rapture

Waking the Dead

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April 11, 2010

More of William Powell in Love Crazy

(I need it after getting my heart broken into a million pieces last night by In the Mood for Love.)

My review of Love Crazy (and other "marriage comedies") here.

Powell is hiding in the shower of his now-married ex-girlfriend (played awesomely by Gail Patrick). They are NOT guilty of infidelity but it would look very bad if he were found there. He is also escaped from a lunatic asylum and the police are after him. The ex-girlfriend's husband is going to take a shower, and the ex-girlfriend stalls him. They stand there, right outside the shower, talking about how he shouldn't take a shower right now. The husband is baffled. What is her problem? The fact that we know William Powell is right behind the curtain makes the scene hilarious. Without looking into the shower, the husband reaches in and turns on the water. The look on Gail Patrick's face, knowing what Powell is going through at that moment, is laugh-out-loud funny. The husband mutters how he likes the water to be "scalding", so he reaches in again and turns the knob. Steam blasts out of the shower, and poor William Powell is bombarded by scalding hot water, and he cannot scream, or make a sound. Tears streamed down my face as I watched him writhe, his mouth jammed open in a silent prolonged shriek, like Edvard Munch's painting.


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April 9, 2010

Mother (2009); Dir. Bong Joon-Ho

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Get rid of your expectations.

From the trailer, it looks like Mother is the story of a mother's quest to clear her son's name of murder. It is that. But it is so much more. This is one of those great and rare movies that has a byzantine plot full of surprises, but is also a powerful character study of a bizarre and driven woman. Any preconceived notions of martyr-mothers, and Eleni-style theatrics will be dashed here. Mothers can be awesome. They can also be monstrous. This one is both. She is played by Hye-ja Kim in what is, honestly, one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen. Certainly more raw and honest than any of the Best Actress nominees from this year. I struggle to come up with comparisons.

The only thing I came up with was when I saw Beauty Queen of Leenane, first on Broadway, and then in Chapel Hill, where my brother was in a production of it. When the Martin McDonagh juggernaut began, it was rather startling because while we have some wonderful writers here in America, many of them are not writing plays with big surprise elements or character excavations. I do not want to paint with too wide a brush. John Patrick Shanley continues to write plays with great characters and good stories, but many of our plays now are about their THEMES and IDEAS, which is all well and good, but if I want to read a pamphlet, then I'll, you know, read a pamphlet. How about some intrigue? How about some bombs being dropped in the second act, so we can watch the fall-out in the third? How about some good old-fashioned story-making? This is one of the reasons why God of Carnage (my review here) was so exhilarating. It was unafraid. Unafraid to go big. The Irish, at the time of Beauty Queen, were at the forefront, once again, in writing plays that weren't ABOUT anything, per se, no social consciousness or political agenda, but in-depth portrayals of the characters in those moments in time, giving us the chance to sits back and watch the horrible and wonderful things that they did. People with secrets and hatreds and losses that burned like fire. In Beauty Queen, McDonagh gives us Mag, the mother, a truly horrific personality, out of a Greek tragedy. She is hilariously funny, off her rocker, and truly cruel in a way that takes your breath away. You think you have a line on her, you think you will be allowed to pity her, but then she is so terrible you turn around and judge her. You, the audience, are in conflict about your own reactions. Great playwriting. The Greeks talked about catharsis. An event that brings about a "purging". Not of any random emotion, but of pity or terror. The Greeks knew what they were about. And so does Martin McDonagh, whose play owes much to the Greeks. Should we pity Mag? Or should be filled with terror? The play leaves this unresolved, as all great plays do, and she is a character that becomes rooted in your mind, like Blanche Dubois, or Macbeth. Our feelings about her are meant to remain unresolved, and you could argue about her with your friends after the production: was she a victim? A monster? How should we FEEL about this woman? Plays that always attempt to tell the audience how to feel (telegraphing: "this is a bad guy - hate him" or "this is an innocent victim - weep for him") are pandering, soulless. But in Beauty Queen of Leenane, we are given a character we can sink our teeth into. Something that is so much missing in today's drama. Character. How many modern-day playwrights give us characters that live on in the memory?

There is a bit of Mag in the "Mother" in Mother, and to say more would be to give it away.

Bong Joon-Ho (my review of his excellent Memories of Murder here) is working at full throttle in Mother, from the getgo, when we are thrust into the action. The film begins with a wide shot of a field of waving yellow grass, and we see Hye-ja Kim, in the distance, walking through the grass. She seems completely ordinary. She is an older woman, dressed modestly, and while she seems distracted, lost in thought, there is nothing extraordinary about her or the state she is in. She stands in the grass, in closeup, looking around her.


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What happens next is so unexpected that I would never dream of giving it away, but within 30 seconds, Bong has launched us into a world where we should know, right off the bat, that we can't ever know everything. We think we know someone. Just from looking at them for the first time. And then they behave like THAT. Forget it. No more expectations. My primal response to that first 30 seconds of film was, quite literally, WHO. IS. THIS. WOMAN????

The best part of Mother is that I still do not have the answer.

Mother lives with her son Yoon Do-joon (played by Bin Won), a man in his 20s, and he is obviously mentally deficient in some indefinable way, he certainly cannot make it on his own. There is no father. Mother and son live in a bell jar of intimacy, even sleeping in the same bed.


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Do-Joon hangs out primarily with Jin-Tae (played beautifully by Ku Jin), a guy who was probably his childhood friend, and now keeps hanging out with his friend, even though he's a bit "off". Jin-Tae is a cool dude, with a hot little girlfriend, and he is set up in the film, early on, as vaguely suspicious. You wonder what he's up to. Part of the fun of Mother (and I say "fun" meaning: "dawning horror and realization") is realizing that your first impressions of people are more often than not totally wrong. The entire film is from Mother's point of view. What she knows, we know. Nothing more. There is zero objectivity here. She fears for her son's well-being, and naturally Jin-Tae becomes her first target. But that is only because her intimacy with her son is so cloying that she cannot see the truth. The film is her journey, relentless and brutal, towards the truth.

Do-Joon and Jin-Tae are involved in a mild hit-and-run accident. A Mercedes clocks Do-Joon on the street and speeds away. Jin-Tae becomes hellbent on revenge, so they follow the car to a local golf course. Jin-Tae smashes the mirror of the Mercedes. They ambush the golf cart and have a brawling fight with the men in the sand. The police get involved. Mother is horrified.

This is one of the tricks of Mother, which manages to startle and surprise without feeling tricky or clever. It seems that the film may be about the boys getting their revenge on the guys who ran them down. Mother follows that path. Then takes a turn.

A local high school girl is murdered. Her body is hung over the railing on a roof, for the populace to find the next morning. It is a small community, not used to such violence, and everyone is shocked. Do-Joon was the last to see her (he has followed her through the narrow streets after a night out with Jin-Tae), and so he is arrested for murder.


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Mother knows he didn't do it. The police are convinced they have their man. Mother launches her own investigation. She, at first, focuses on Jin-Tae, the "bad seed" influence on her innocent son. There is an absolute masterpiece of a sequence, reminiscent of Sudden Fear, when Mother goes to Jin-Tae's flimsy abode, and searches his closet for clues. She finds a golf club with a red stain on it that looks like blood. During her search, Jin-Tae returns home, with his girlfriend, and she hides in the closet. There are shots where you see Hye-ja Kim's terrified eyes peeking through the curtains, calling to mind every film noir ever made (or a shaft of light falling across Joan Crawford's face in Sudden Fear). Bong Joon-Ho knows how to build suspense. He chooses his shots very carefully. We see through the closet-curtains, getting glimpses of Jin-Tae and his girlfriend making love. We are then out in the apartment, and in the foreground we see the making love going on, but in the background, we can see the gleaming eyeballs peering out through the curtain. It is a nervewrackingly unbearable sequence. After sex, Jin-Tae and his girlfriend pass out, and Mother takes her chance to escape. She has the incriminating golf club in her hand, and she tiptoes through the room, at a deadly slow pace (the floor squeaks), and at any moment she could be discovered. At one point, her foot knocks over a bottle of water, and it spills, the gurgling sound filling the room. Jin-Tae does not wake up. We see Mother's face, looking down in horror, and we then see what she sees: a small pool of water, spreading outwards, moving towards Jin-Tae's dangling fingers. Bong Joon-Ho, in true Hitchcockian suspense style, closes in on the approach of that water to the fingers, which will most certainly wake him up. We are at ground-level, the fingers enormous in the frame, with a thin glimmering line of water approaching in the distance.

This is solid filmmaking. This is a director in charge of his effects, who understands what audiences need. There's fun in his shot-choices, creativity, but it is all means to an end. He doesn't set up shots to call attention to themselves unless it is necessary (similar to the giant crane shot in Notorious, with the camera coming down from the balcony into microscopic closeup on Ingrid Bergman's hand: a shot that demands to be noticed, a stunner - but it is only because the STORY demands it at that point, not that Hitchcock was psyched to show his own cleverness). The creep of the water in Mother, coming towards the giant fingers in the foreground, is an attention-getter, but is is also emotional: it shows the horror of Mother's point of view. What will happen if Jae Tin wakes up? All is lost, all is lost ... her panicked mindset is IN that shot. It is one of Bong's many gifts as a director.


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Mother is a film about a private investigation (Bong Joon-Ho covering, as he did in Memories of Murder the territory of police procedures and forensic evidence), headed by a single citizen, and the majority of the film shows Mother interviewing people who knew the dead girl, putting together a timeline of the night before, trying to build up a character study of the dead girl - because (as all good homicide detectives know) it is often the personality and lifestyle of the victim that holds the clue to who killed her. Mother follows every lead. She pays the kids at the high school who knew the dead girl to gossip about her, giving them coins to continue. She finds an important ally in Jae-Tin (once she gets over her suspicion).

The deceptions in the plot are part of the great joy of Mother, and the sucker-punches it provides (which are never in the realm of cheap "Gotcha" moments) is indicative of the fact that Bong Joon-Ho not only respects his audience, and expects that we want to be surprised and challenged, but also that he wants, above all else, to give us a great great ride. He does not disappoint.

And Hye-ja Kim, relentless, fearless, a bludgeoning force against the injustices of the system (but to what end? that is the question), turns in a performance for the ages. I was so frightened during one scene that my natural instinct was to shut my eyes to spare myself having to see what was coming. But then there was a moment of conscious decision: No, Sheila. Keep your eyes open. You are not going to want to miss her acting here.

And you won't want to miss it either.

In that moment, or in the film entire.


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April 8, 2010

Love Crazy (1941); Dir. John Conroy

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I miss marriage comedies. The 30s and 40s were full of them, and they shimmer with light and fun and crazy shenanigans, as two people who once loved each other enough to MARRY, tailspin into misunderstanding and hijinx. The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, all of the Thin Man movies - These are not the movies of the 1950s, where marriage is captured in all its domestic claustrophobia (although it's presented as a given that it is GOOD). This is marriage on the verge of catastrophic collapse, yet it's handled always with humor and mania. These movies make marriage seem fun. It's totally not the trend now, at all, to focus on a married couple, at least not in the way these old films did. If the plot of a movie involves a married couple, it is more often than not dealing with serious issues of infidelity, long-buried secrets, a body in the basement - Marriage is now serious serious business. Leading UP to marriage isn't, which is why we still have "romantic comedies" by the truck-load (although I rarely find modern romantic comedies funny at all - they've lost the touch) - but once you get married, boom, things get serious.


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Not so in the 30s and 40s when we had Cary Grant and Irene Dunne battling it out in movie after movie, and Myrna Loy and William Powell, shimmering and laughing at one another. These movies are true advertisements for marriage, actually. Who doesn't want to be part of those couples? With their fabulous apartments and Manhattans before dinner, and going out to crazy whirling nightclubs? A fantasy, yes, but there are times when I prefer the fantasy. This is not Tracy and Hepburn. Their marriage-movies often deal with the fact that Hepburn needs to be tamed in some way, tamped down. Tracy is usually right in those films, and Hepburn needs to be taught some lessons. Enjoyable as all of that may be, they stand apart from the other "marriage comedies" with a more screwball aspect. Irene Dunne showing up unannounced at her husband's family gathering? Pretending to be someone else, dressed in a flapper dress, and then accusing one of the snooty people there of stealing her purse? All of this just to embarrass her husband, Cary Grant? If Hepburn pulled a stunt like that with Tracy, it would backfire. But Cary Grant, so dignified, so proper, so soulless in the beginning of Awful Truth, is putty in her hands. He splutters with embarrassment and anger, and she laughs in his face. Human relationships are NUTS. "Calming down" and "settling down" may be a worthy goal, but try to make Carole Lombard or Cary Grant or Irene Dunne "settle down". Not an easy task.

That's the spark in marriage comedies. Because the couple are already together, we assume a level of intimacy between them, it's already present. They've slept together, fought, they brush teeth next to each other ... it is that casual everyday intimacy that creates the tension in these movies, a strange combo, but a killer one at that.


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The modern Mr. and Mrs. Smith, famous now, I suppose, for breaking up Jennifer Aniston's happy home, is a bit of a throwback, one of the reasons why I think it's such a blast. The couple SPARS. Literally, but also linguistically. They love each other, are hot for each other, but they also drive each other insane. Typical 1930s married-couple behavior. Marriage is a sacred institution, my ass. That's part of the problem. Lighten up, Francis. Let's have some FUN with the institution. The couple, who drift apart in the marriage comedies, always come back together, usually in the very last SECOND of the film, so that we don't see the reconciliation, the credits roll, and our imaginations fly off the handle, gloriously. So yes, marriage is once again triumphant - (this is not always the case in the pre-Code movies which are much darker) - but you can feel the filmmakers and screenwriters putting off the inevitable as long as possible. Domestic bliss may be lovely for those who live it, but there's nothing more boring to WATCH onscreen.


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A little-seen modern movie that is a "marriage comedy" of the true old school is Nadine, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. Now if we lived in a righteous world where things happened as they are supposed to happen, then the Hollywood powers-that-be would have realized what they had in that pairing, and put them in movie after movie together. They finally worked again in Door in the Floor, a terrific film, and they are both great in it, but it's an example of a MODERN marriage movie - all unhappiness and torment and broken dreams. Not that there's anything wrong with that, in and of itself, but watch those two spar and kiss and break up and make up in Nadine, and you will realize what a lost opportunity it was. They are married, but separated. She is a bombshell in a red dress with a Southern accent. He is a vaguely dumb good ol' boy who doesn't want to grow up. She had some erotic photos taken of her, because she's an idiot, and they get into the wrong hands, and suddenly the two of them, enraged at their marriage breaking up, find themselves on the run. The plot is just an excuse, though. An excuse to revel in the chemistry and humor of the two leads. Because they once were married, it gives the film a different feeling - than if they were two single people thrown into these circumstances. Scenes are filled with more import and backstory automatically. They're basically hiding from criminals, and they can't stop bickering about "You ALWAYS do this ..." "Why do you ALWAYS do this ..." as bullets fly over their heads, and they escape from a dilapidated building by crawling across a ladder 5 stories up. Nadine may have come out in 1987, but it feels like it came out in 1939. Highly recommended.


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The reigning King and Queen of marriage comedies were Myrna Loy and William Powell, and they were first paired in Manhattan Melodrama (so famously featured in Michael Mann's Public Enemies - it was the movie Dillinger went to before biting the dust in the alley next to the Biograph), which was exactly what it said it was: a melodrama, a three-hanky weepie (I dare you to watch that final scene without feeling a little something-something gathering in your eyeball), and while there was obviously chemistry between Loy and Powell, having Clark Gable there as the vibrant third guy complicated their essential bond.


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Obviously, the studio knew what it had in Loy and Powell, so they were put in film after film after film together - it is one of the greatest acting teams of all time. They always play essentially the same people, but if it ain't broke, why fix it? One of the things I absolutely adore about watching them together (and this was present in Manhattan Melodrama as well) is how much they seem to enjoy each other. Not all men enjoy the company of women. They need to deal with them, because they are attracted to them, but they don't like hanging out with them. Clark Gable has a bit of that. It makes him a devastating leading man, because when he finally falls in love, it hits him harder than other men, because he resists it more. But Cary Grant, as gorgeous as he was, always seemed like a good companion - like he actually enjoyed women, even when they were driving him batshit crazy. He didn't have contempt for them, or if he did, he used it very subtly and specifically (his contempt in Only Angels Have Wings comes from having been hurt in the past - it's not generalized contempt, like Clark Gable often has - or Spencer Tracy). But William Powell is the pal to end all pals. The way he is with Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama ... from the second they meet, you can feel him thinking, "Wow. This girl is a hoot. Who is she?" She cracks him up. He enjoys her presence. And yet he is not an un-sexual man. He's not neutered. Watch him in My Man Godfrey, and you'll see a valid and hot leading man.


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He's not AS improbable a leading man (surface-wise) as Humphrey Bogart, who was short, balding, and LISPED, for God's sake, but Powell was not an obvious choice either for leads in romantic films. I mean, look at him. He's handsome in kind of a dapper way, but he looks strictly middle-aged (even as a young man he did), with phony teeth, and thinning hair, and maybe starting to get a bit portly round the middle. He's not Clark Gable. He's not Cary Grant. He got his start playing villains. Naturally. Because people who aren't classically good-looking are obviously evil to the core. Humphrey Bogart had the same trajectory, even though he came from a pretty chi-chi background, full of art and tennis courts and tea services. But he LOOKED kind of ... off. So he always played a bad guy. It would take a couple of imaginative casting choices to give these men the chance to show their stuff, as leading men. The risks clearly paid off tenfold.

These guys are valid leading men. Who knew? I love careers like theirs because there is an element of luck and accident to it. Someone had to look at them and think, "Hm. Wouldn't it be interesting to put Bogart with Ingrid Bergman in a romance?" Where he doesn't play a criminal or the Peter Lorre part - but the LEAD. That's a leap. It seems so obvious now, so inevitable, but it certainly wasn't at the time.


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Same with William Powell. But watch his first encounter with Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama, and you can see the sparks just flying. These are not just sexual sparks, but intellectual-kinship sparks, sense of humor sparks - They are so much fun to watch together because of this dynamic, which cannot be faked or pretended. William Powell, in his real life, had some pretty babealicious girlfriends (and wives) - Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, to name a few - and he's one of those people who just gets more and more attractive the more you look at him. He was probably a blast. These were funny funny women, and he exudes the qualities of a man who loves funny women. Not every man does, you know.

Love Crazy, from 1941, is a marriage comedy that has, at its center, the craziness of marriage, its precarious nature, even when you love each other - and what do you do when circumstances beyond your control (a busybody mother, an old girlfriend, the cops, no less) enter into your marriage? What happens when trust is destroyed? It may all be based on a misunderstanding, but while you're in that maelstrom you can't see that. William Powell and Myrna Loy play Steve and Susan Ireland, a couple about to celebrate their 4th year of wedded bliss. They have a big ritual planned, something they do every year, where they re-live the night they got married, and it involves a 4 mile walk, and a row on the river, and then dinner at midnight, and then .... lights out. They plan everything down to the minute, and have their maid (because, you know, these two always have a maid) ready to serve them dinner at midnight on the dot. It's all a little bit OCD and their opening scene with one another, as they get ready for their night out, is so fun and whimsical. They are still hot for one another. She sits at her dressing table, getting ready, and he attacks her and they end up lying on the floor, laughing and kissing. It's beautiful, their dynamic is so fresh. At one point, she stands in the window, looking out, and he says to her, "It should be against the law for you to stand in the moonlight like that."


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But the course of true love never runs smoothly, even when you've got wedding rings on your fingers. Susan's nosy annoying mother (played by the great Florence Bates, great-grandmother to my good friend Rachel) shows up, completely oblivious to the fact that they want to be alone on their anniversary. She sends Steve down to the lobby on a quick errand.


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As he returns to the apartment via elevator, he runs into an old flame, Isabel Grayson (played by Gail Patrick, an actress I love, she who was so funny and good in My Man Godfrey), and she seems a bit, well, forward. She's married now too, to a painter, but her marriage doesn't seem to have "taken". She happens to have moved into the apartment just below Steve's. They ooh and ahh over the coincidence, and then tragedy strikes. The elevator jams between floors. The doorman struggles to fix it. Steve begins to panic. What will his wife think?

It all begins with that damn elevator getting stuck. The three of them (Steve, Isabel, and the doorman) climb up through the roof of the elevator, and attempt to pry open the door to the floor. Steve hangs there, his chin on the floor, and then suddenly, the door closes - and at the same moment, the elevator shifts back into gear and plummets down through the shaft, leaving him hanging there, as the doorman and Isabel crouch on the roof of the elevator. It's an incredible shot. You look down the shaft and see the elevator disappearing, with two figures standing on top of it, as William Powell hangs there, his HEAD caught between the door. So if you were on that floor, and you walked by, you would see a man's head ONLY, sticking out between the elevator doors. This is a visual gag, hard to describe, but it is so well-conceived, so well-done, that I was howling watching it. The elevator suddenly returns, and Steve, his head still caught, is moved up, and then back down, and up and then back down, his head careening up and down through the slot in the elevator doors. He is terrified. He has no idea what is happening. He is panicked. I am laughing out loud as I type this.


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Love Crazy is so funny, so consistently, that I actually did a spit-take alone in my apartment last night, just THINKING about one of the moments.

So this begins the long journey of Steve's anniversary night. It is the first error. Steve's second error is that Isabel takes him into her apartment to recover from his terrible ordeal, hanging in the elevator shaft, and she turns on the hots for him. He resists, but he is already, to some degree, a broken man, due to the craziness of what had just happened. He tries to get away from her. She starts to tickle him. William Powell, a frayed mess of a man, rolls around on the couch, laughing uproariously as she tickles him, but it is a terrible and desperate sound. He finally gets away.

He returns to his apartment to find Myrna Loy dressed for dinner and wondering where the hell he has been.

To describe more of this hilarious movie would be to ruin it. Suffice it to say, there are some belly laughs of the kind you really don't see nowadays in modern movies. The elevator scene, for one - who the hell thought that up - and then to make it not only clear, it is totally obvious what is going on at all times, and it's a very complicated sequence, but also funny? It works so well. Then there is a new rug placed in the slippery foyer of their apartment, and one by one, people wipe out when they walk on it. Pratfalls. Give me more pratfalls in modern movies. People falling on their ass for no other reason than it is funny to watch people fall. I would find myself forgetting about the rug for a while, (and of course they never just say, "This is crazy", and roll up the dangerous rug) and then, once again, someone would step one foot onto it, and go flying into the air, and I would erupt into laughter yet again. A pratfall is not a tough sell. I would like more of them, please.


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Myrna Loy finds herself truly distrusting her husband. It looks really really bad. It looks like he spent the evening in Isabel Grayson's apartment. It also looks like he is lying about it. This is devastating news for her. Powell pleads with her that this is all "circumstantial evidence" that doesn't tell the whole story, but his wife is firm. She won't be conned. She has no idea how she will ever trust him again.

Divorce proceedings begin. And Powell is advised that if he "acts crazy", the divorce settlement will have to be put off, because he is not in his right mind. So begins the second act of the film, just as hilarious as the first, with Powell behaving in a lunatic manner, eating his tie as though it is a piece of pizza, and at one point, he is wrapped in a sheet like a toga, trying to chase a cockatoo out onto a branch, and the sheet falls off and he plummets, stark naked, into the middle of a garden party below.


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Most of these visual gags are handled with surgical specificity and perfect timing, which is just what is needed for this kind of stuff. Anything extraneous, or too messy, and you wouldn't get the joke.

Steve has an appointment with the "Lunacy Commission", hired to weigh in on his sanity. I loved the big sign on the door: LUNACY COMMISSION, which, to me, is a metaphor for the entire world portrayed in Love Crazy. The experts (who all have German accents, of course) decide, merely from the shape of his cranial lobes, that he is schizophrenic, so he is placed in a mental institution.

There is also a "world class bow and arrow man", named Ward Willoughby, played by Jack Carson, in a very very funny performance, who also lives in the Ireland's apartment building, and spends most of the film in his T-shirt because he "needs his torso free when he shoots his arrows". I mean, come on.


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Through a very funny scene of mistaken identity and incorrect assumptions, Ward gets roped into the Ireland's marital mess. He has the funniest line in the film. "WERE THEY PYGMIES?" he shouts at William Powell (only he doesn't know it's William Powell, because by that point, William Powell is dressed in drag, and posing as his own "sister").


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With a consistently laugh-out-loud funny script by William Ludwig, Charles Lederer and David Hertz, Love Crazy is not just its gags, although the gags come fast and furious, with people tangled up in nets hanging from trees, with people falling into swimming pools, and forgetting, repeatedly, that the rug in the foyer is slippery, so down they all keep going like ninepins - the script is also razor-sharp, smart, and witty. In an early scene, Steve is trying to reassure Susan about Isabel, that she is now married, and no threat to their marriage. But Susan knows about Isabel, and her wiles, and is having none of it. Steve says, "Susan, she has a husband!" and Susan coos, "Oh! Whose husband has she got?"

Of course, Myrna Loy and William Powell must end up together. It is the only thing that will right the world on its already wacko axis. As long as they are apart, nothing, but nothing, will make any sense.


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Everyone in this movie starts out relatively normal, and everyone, by the end, is stark staring mad.

Because that's what love does to us all. That's what marriage is. A crazy-making proposition. It drives people out of their gourds.

And not one of us would pass a test given by the LUNACY COMMISSION when we are in the throes of love. Not one of us. And thank God for that.


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The elevator scene (it comes at around the 4 minute mark):

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April 7, 2010

Love Before Breakfast (1936); Dir. Walter Lang

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Carole Lombard plays ditzy and impulsive, but she doesn't play dumb. One of her greatest gifts as a comedienne is her craftiness, how well she creates cunning selfish women, heedless, manipulative, who do not know their own minds (or, to put it more accurately, lead from the mind, and ignore the heart). It's most fun to watch her do battle with herself, expressions of annoyance and panic and "A-ha!" moments flicking across her beautiful face. She was un-tameable. Lombard was able to hit her stride in her short career, finding her rightful place in the world of screwball, but there were certainly some bumps along the way. She is so stunningly beautiful, a perfect face, really, blonde and porcelain skin and huge eyes ... But when she was cast as "the beautiful girl", as she inevitably was early on, her performances often feel artificial. She doesn't know who she is in conventional material. It put a lid on her. She suffers more under unimaginative direction than other actresses do. It was Howard Hawks (and others) who helped take that lid off and release that zany girl, who realized that she needed to be always on the verge of either a panic attack, a temper tantrum, or some horribly crafty scheme to get what she wants. Traditional female roles were not for her. One other thing about Lombard, and my only evidence for this is watching her performances: she is incapable of phoniness. When she's in a bad project, not right for her, she is bad too. She can't "pretend". She can't stoop down to bad material. She goes down with the ship. Either she was totally natural as her crazy self, or she was almost invisible, stilted, unsure of where to put her energy.


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Garson Kanin in his gossipy book Hollywood writes:

Has there every been such a laugh? It had the joyous sound of pealing bells. She would bend over, slap her perfect calf, or the floor, or a piece of furniture. She would sink into a chair or to the ground. She would throw her head back. And you would be riveted by that neck. That throat.

Lombard, more than other actresses, really needed a vehicle. Her talent was very specific. Of course every actress needs a break of some kind, to be seen in a project that heightens her visibility, but that's not really what I'm talking about here. It could have gone one of two ways with Lombard: She could have been pigeonholed as a pretty young starlet, and she would have had a short career, placed in weepy melodramas, merely because she was so beautiful to look at. Or, it could have gone the way it actually went. There was no in-between with her. She could have been in the biggest picture in the world, but if it didn't "get" her, it wouldn't have been a "vehicle". Not every actress is so specific, so in NEED of the right type of part, and director, and script. It's really actually quite precarious when you think about it. I think Julia Roberts is a similar type of actress, in the fact that she needed a vehicle. She could not be strapped down in conventional parts. She needed to be let GO, which Garry Marshall did in the highly improvisational Pretty Woman. Think about it: Before Pretty Woman came out, she was making Sleeping With the Enemy, and before that, she had been in ensemble dramas, where she was fine, often good, but no doubt about it: she had to be a giant star. She just doesn't fit in otherwise. My impression of the difference is in someone like Gwyneth Paltrow, who had stardom thrust upon her, by the Weinstein Brothers, basically - but who had been in independent films up until then, and could have had a very satisfying career as a character actress, or even a stage actress (following in her mother's footsteps). As a matter of fact, I think Paltrow would be more suited to that kind of career, she would seem more comfortable in her own skin than she does now. But Roberts? No. If Pretty Woman hadn't happened, (or something similar), she would have been stuck in a nothing career. This is my sense of her, anyway. Carole Lombard is a similar case. Without the screwballs, nobody would remember her name, as talented and wonderful as she is. She is not limited. She could do dramatic parts as well. But she is a persona, a natural STAR, and she needed the vehicle, she needed to be steered into the limelight, and once she was there, it was so obvious that she should never leave.

Love Before Breakfast, from 1936, is quite uneven, with two uninteresting men in the lead roles (Preston Foster and Cesar Romero), who play rivals for Lombard's affections. Lombard was so feisty and strong, so individual, that she needed to be man-handled a bit, that's part of the fun of it, but these are not the guys to do it.


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Preston Foster plays Scott Miller, a successful businessman (so successful that he can buy the oil company of his rival for Lombard's heart, just so he can send the rival off to Japan), who hangs out with a snooty silly Countess in his spare time, but really has the hots for Kay Colby (Carole Lombard). He pursues Lombard like crazy, even though she is already engaged to Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero, better than Foster here, in his part). Bill is sent off to Japan, leaving Kay unmoored, so Scott moves in for the kill, following her around town, buying her drinks, popping up everywhere. There's something missing in their dynamic, as actors, although Lombard does her best. She is torn between two loves, and very funny in how much WORK she puts in to her own denial. She loves BILL, not SCOTT, she is sure of it. She finds Bill amusing, but she is only interested in his money, or so she says, and she jumps through great fiery hoops to keep up her attitude of scorn and condescension. Preston Foster is a bit stuffy, he doesn't have the right arrogant attitude for Scott, a man with such grand presumptions that he moves people around like chess pieces, and expects to be thanked for it. Clark Gable would have been maddeningly good in the role. You would have wanted to wring his neck. It also would have been sizzling hot, as these screwballs always should be. You should be dying for the two to leap into the sack.

In one scene in a nightclub, a fight breaks out between every male patron there, and Lombard gets stuck in the middle of it. The lights are low, and the melee is insane, and in the midst of it all, Scott punches Lombard in the eye, giving her a shiner. Oh, the comedic possibilities in this, that sadly do not come to fruition. It is automatically amusing to see Lombard staring at herself in the mirror with an enormous black eye. It is also funny to think of the man she loves socking her one. But it's a thread that isn't really followed, or maxed to its potential. It's sort of left there. Obviously it's a good enough image that it made it to the poster (a poster I now have on my wall), but what a lost opportunity. She goes to the beauty parlor to have her eye covered up, she wears a hat tilted over her face, and that's the end of it. A true screwball would have realized what it had in that situation and milked the sucker until we were falling off the couch.


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There are a couple of great scenes where Lombard gets to show her stuff. One is a costume ball (her costume below the jump. She does the entire scene in that get-up, and it gets funnier and funnier the more you look at it), where she sets up Scott to dance with a visiting Southern belle, and she tells both of them (secretly) that the other one is deaf and "you have to shout" at them to be heard. So poor Scott and the visiting Southern woman needlessly shout banalities at one another on the dance floor, as Lombard, in that crazy costume, laughs until she almost falls down on the sidelines. Kanin was right. She laughs, and we laugh. It is irresistible. Especially in that totally outrageous outfit.

Kay and her mother have a Japanese maid named Yuki, and there's a very funny scene when Yuki reads the tea leaves for Kay. Kay, still convinced she's in love with Bill, not Scott, hovers over Yuki, asking her anxious questions about who she sees, who is her date, is there a man beside her ... and Lombard, always funniest when she is most serious, listens with an urgency that is very comedic, her face showing the roller-coaster of her emotions, second by second. When she doesn't get the answer she wants to hear, she becomes dejected and cynical and Yuki tries to cheer her up. Yuki tells Kay that it is obvious she is "in love with Mr. Miller". Kay balks at this. Yuki says in her Japanese accent, "In Japan, when a Japanese girl loves a Japanese man, she says to him, 'I love you, Mr. Miller', and everything right away fine." Lombard says, disgruntled, "Yeah. Everything right away great. The Japanese girl is shoved around for the rest of her life." The comedy is in the disgruntled manner in which Lombard says "everything right away great", which is, for me, the funniest moment in the movie.


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There's also a very well-written proposal scene, between Scott and Kay, where he presents her with three enormous engagement rings. Kay is beleaguered by now, beaten down, and she accepts the proposal, but listen to this dialogue:

Scott: You'll be sorry to hear my feelings haven't changed. I'm still going to marry you.
Kay: You'd better be careful. One of these days I might take you up on that.
Scott: Couldn't make it today, could you?
Kay: If I did it would only be for your money.
Scott: I never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Kay: You want me anyway?
Scott: Definitely.
Kay: All right. But this isn't going to be any Taming of the Shrew, you know. I'm not going to come crawling after you've broken my spirit.
Scott: I'll take my chance.
Kay: It's a long one.
Scott: I like 'em that way.
Kay: I guess that settles it.
Scott: Oh, no, there should be a kiss to seal the bargain.
Kay: Is that necessary?
Scott: It's pretty standard.
Kay: All right.
Scott: Can you spare it?
Kay: I think so.
They kiss.
Kay: Well, goodbye.
Scott: Oh, no, there's one more detail.
Kay: What happens now?
Scott: Come on, I'll show you.
Kay: I warn you, I won't sign anything without a lawyer.
Scott: You won't have to sign a thing. Just one minute.
He takes out a small box.
Kay: What's this?
Scott: The customary engagement ring.
Kay: Oh, you were all prepared.
Scott: Oh, yes, yes, indeed. Well prepared.
He takes out two more boxes.
Kay: When did you get these?
Scott: The day after you turned me down.
Kay: Sure of yourself, weren't you.
Scott: Just a gambler.
Kay: A gambler who knew he'd win. The fact that I don't love you doesn't spoil your victory. Well, I'm glad we understand each other. Which one of these little knick-knacks would you like me to wear?
Scott: Oh, they're all for you. I thought you might like to change off.
Kay: How romantic.
Scott: Now that we're engaged, I hope we'll see each other occasionally.
Kay: Whatever is customary, Mr. Miller.

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Lombard plays that great dialogue with the perfect amount of exhaustion and annoyance, but imagining Scott's dialogue in the mouth of Clark Gable, as opposed to Preston Foster, makes me ache to see THAT scene. It falls a bit flat, as is. Again, she is funny, and specific, but without the right scene partner, she doesn't have anything to buck up against.

But her talent is always operating. She's on a sailboat with Bill, her ex-fiance who has returned from Japan, and she is annoyed because Scott is on a boat across the bay, and naturally, things are not going as she wants them to go. Lombard is perpetually cranky throughout this film, she feels dominated, and afraid of more domination - she senses that Scott would demand something more of her than she would have to give (like her heart, like love), and she wriggles out of those chains the second they are on her. Bill (Cesar Romero) is not a bad guy, but he's had it with being used as a pawn in the love-game between the other two. At one point, during the argument on the sailboat, Carole lies on a couch below-deck, annoyed, and he pops a cork out of a champagne bottle, and it startles her. It's one of those subtle sometimes unnoticed pieces of behavior that Lombard does like nobody else. It's not even made into a "bit" - she doesn't scream, there is no dialogue referencing it - it's just Lombard, her comedic sensibility tuned in, ALWAYS, to the potential in every moment - and the slight jump she gives, startling her out of her depression, is hysterical: it is these moments that I treasure most from Lombard. It never stops with her. She is a runaway freight train. Hurtling into the reality of every moment, all pistons going, and she vibrates with life and feeling and responsiveness.


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Other actresses would have missed the cork-pop, it wouldn't even have occurred to them to decide to be scared of the sound - and that's what separates the men from the boys in an acting career. The women from the girls. Lombard from everyone else.

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April 6, 2010

Angel Baby (1995); Dir. Michael Rymer

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From the first moment Harry sets eyes on Kate, he is in love. She is intense, with dark eye-pencil lining her eyes, and strawberry blonde hair. Harry tells his brother later, "I worship her." But he hasn't spoken to her yet. He's shy. Also, small detail: they are both schizophrenics, and their first meeting is at one of the group sessions they have to attend at the clinic where they are both outpatients. Kate lives in a youth hostel, and Harry is staying with his brother and his brother's family.


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One day, Kate gets on a bus, carrying a big bag. Harry follows her. Kate realizes she is being followed, and moves to the front of the bus. Harry follows her. The bus comes to a stop, and Kate suddenly flees out the back door. Harry races after her. He chases her through a park and she finally stops and confronts him, "What are you doing? Why are you following me?" He is too shy to answer. She urgently needs to get back on a bus. She races back to the sidewalk, and the bus has just left. She panics, dropping her bag, and screaming at Harry. "I needed to be on that bus. I need a television!!!" He, madly in love with this strange girl, grabs her hand and pulls her off with him. They run across a bridge towards the city. It is dusk. Harry has a plan. He takes her to a store with TVs on in the windows. Wheel of Fortune has just come on. Kate crouches on the sidewalk, taking out her journal, and she starts to watch the show, and write things down. She tells him that she gets messages from Wheel of Fortune from "Astral", her "guardian angel." Kate glances up at Harry and barks, "And don't you dare laugh at me." He shakes his head, he won't, he won't laugh. And he doesn't.

Movies about mental illness are very difficult to get right. Often I sense the ghoulish delight the actors have, in getting to play someone "crazy", and that's insulting and not at all what I want to watch. Or the problem is with the script. Scripts often choose mental illness as some kind of metaphor - for enlightenment, sensitivity, a poetic connection with the spheres of humanity - and that's equally as insulting, to anyone who has struggled with mental illness (enlightenment? are you cracked?) or who knows someone who has struggled. It's a sickness, not a poetic sensitivity, although I do realize the lines are sometimes blurred. Denial is very powerful, and nobody wants to admit they are sick. James Joyce's daughter was schizophrenic, and he was in denial for years about it. He tried to see her as "poetic", and "in touch", and truly gifted - but he finally had to admit that she was just a very very sick girl. Now that is an interesting phenomenon, and quite common when you are dealing with mental illness - denial, not wanting to believe, etc., and also confusion as in: How on earth do you fix what is happening in my head? What will happen to me when you put me on meds? Will I vanish? But far too often, scripts do not deal honestly with that dilemma. A Beautiful Mind tried to make John Nash's delusions manifest, so that we are in his world, we see everything through his eyes. That was the only part of that movie that worked for me. The rest was a manifesto on how love can cure schizophrenia. Uh-huh. Sure it can.

Angel Baby makes none of these errors, and the result is a beautiful and harrowing film about two people in love, who struggle openly with their illnesses, and who try to make a go of it as a couple, against the advice of everyone in their lives.


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Written and directed by Michael Rymer, Angel Baby may sound, on the face of it, like a made-for-television movie, but it's not. It's a powerful film, featuring two spectacular performances by John Lynch (a favorite of mine) as Harry and Jacqueline McKenzie as Kate. Both actors won the plum prizes that year from the Australian Film Institute. The actors surrounding this couple is awesome as well, especially Colin Friels as Morris, Harry's brother, and Deborah-Lee Furness as Louise, Morris' wife. Angel Baby really gets the ravages of mental illness, and how it impacts entire families, the tragedy of it, the fear of it, how it tests everyone.

Harry was once a software programmer with IBM, but his illness has made him incapable of work. He has tried to commit suicide. He lives with his brother and his brother's family, and there are beautiful scenes of him interacting with Sam, his nephew who is about 5 years old. Sam is afraid of the monsters that are in his room. His parents try to talk him out of the reality of monsters, but Harry understands being afraid. He understands that monsters can SEEM so real that it doesn't matter if they are ACTUALLY real or not. He takes Sam up to bed, and writes a "magic circle" around Sam's bed with a piece of chalk, and tells Sam that as long as that circle is there, he will be safe from all monsters.

Harry and Kate's love affair heats up immediately. They devour one another in scenes passionate and raw. Harry has Kate over for dinner at his brother's house. She is overdressed, in a skimpy orange dress. She nervously smokes. She refuses to use a fork, and tries to cut her meat with a spoon. For reasons only known to her. McKenzie is so damn good, because she manages to portray an obsessive person, a person who must do things in a certain way, and in a certain order, in order to maintain her already fragile equilibrium. Morris' wife asks Kate how things are going with Harry, and Kate replies, freely, "He's the best lover I've ever had. He's got a sideways move that rocks my world."

Angel Baby is a love story, with a tragic underbelly to it, a ticking time bomb of illness, that gives the entire thing an almost unbearable tension, so even the happy scenes take on a fatalistic "this is how it once was" feeling. The colors in the early part of the film are warm and glowing, golds and reds and oranges, and slowly, as the film goes on, the colors start to bleach out. There are white-outs between scenes, not black dissolves, but the screen bleaching to white, which suggests, horribly, the fractured mentality of the two leads, as they begin to lose themselves in their delusions. None of this would work if the romance were portrayed as anything other than an intense love story. If Harry and Kate were played as an amalgamation of twitches and obsessions, it would be condescending. They cling to one another - literally and symbolically - knowing the sword of Damocles hangs over their union - but they are so happy together, so in sync ... shouldn't that make a difference?

It does and it doesn't.

They move in together, and there are funny scenes where they look through apartments at the realtors and add up the numbers of the addresses and apartment numbers, and reject places because they are not numerically calming. Lynch and McKenzie glance at one another, and you can see their eyes adding up columns of numbers silently. "Apartment 11 - so that's 2 - and what's the floor again? It's on the 6th floor? So that's not good ..." Their numerical system is not made explicit, but it works on them repeatedly, and causes much anxiety, limiting their movement. Bus numbers, dates, apartment numbers - there is a vast interconnected system out there, and if they can just align themselves correctly with the messages they are being given, from Astral, they will be safe.


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Kate becomes pregnant. She decides to go off her anti-psychotics, for the safety of the baby. Harry, in an act of solidarity, goes off his as well, and they sit over the toilet, flushing them down, the bright green pills whirling down the drain, reminiscent of the image of the wheel of fortune on TV, incessantly spinning, colors over colors, telling them the future. The inevitable occurs. They both begin to lose it. Things begin to spiral.

John Lynch, always good, is outstanding here. His transformation, from shy bumbling ill man at the beginning, to passionate funny loving partner, is breathtaking. It gives him so far to fall, and you feel the loss of that happy self, the same way he must feel the loss in his lucid moments. He has one scene in a public bathroom that is so powerful it roars out of the middle of the film a howl of loss and pain so unforgettable and wrenching it will leave you out of breath. He pounds at the side of his head, screaming to the ceiling, wanting to kill that illness inside of him, wanting to kill it forever. It is an incredible moment, burned on my head in indelible ink. Acting as good as it gets.


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Jacqueline McKenzie has been doing superb work for a couple of decades now, and this is the role of a lifetime. She is heartbreaking, a beautiful funny spirit, knowing in her bones how to cheer up her boyfriend (she stands on the edge of a bridge, flapping her arms in imitation of the gulls overhead, cawing at the top of her lungs), and she understands her own illness intimately. She knows what will happen when she goes off her meds. But the baby must be safe and free from complications. If it means she loses it for a bit, she is willing to take that risk. Illness of this sort, however, is a Leviathan from the deep, and it will take you DOWN. McKenzie charts this progression in a masterful way. There is a scene in a dark mall, when she has a bad episode, and she crouches in an abandoned restaurant. Harry finds her there, and takes her in his arms. She doesn't just hold him back. She clings, almost trying to climb up onto him, merge with him totally. However close he is holding her, it is not enough. She knows it. She knows what is coming. When the madness has finally overcome her like a tsunami, it is as though the very contours of her face have changed. The soul is no longer in the eyes. Only the madness. It has co-opted her completely.

Michael Rymer has created a beautiful romantic mood here, shot through with whimsy and humor - their apartment is like a big playpen, with collages of words and numbers pasted on the wall, little shrines, and banks of candles, and colorful clothes hanging up inside - and the omnipresent Wheel of Fortune on in the background of every scene. The movie is funny. There is hope. While the hope is mainly embodied by the two main characters, who know who they are, and know they are in love, Harry's brother (played by Colin Friels) is such an important element of the story. He knows how this will all probably end. He has lived with his brother for a long time. But he hopes. He hopes it will be okay. He is kind to Kate, even with her social awkwardness and sudden bursts of aggression. He is an old hand at dealing with a psychotic person. He is terrific, and his character here is a potent and poignant reminder of how much is lost with an illness such as schizophrenia. Harry and Kate do not (no matter how much they try) live in a bubble where only they exist. They have people who care for them, who hope for them too. The tension between Harry's brother and his wife comes from this sense of loyalty towards his brother. How much longer will they have to put their own lives on hold to deal with the tailspinning illness of his brother? But when do you say "No more"? How can you?

Love is about embracing the unknown, illness or no. It requires trust in the future, an acceptance of uncertainty. Are you the one? I don't know ... are YOU the one? Not knowing how it will all turn out, and yet acting anyway, is an essential part of falling in love. Harry and Kate already accept that much is out of their control. They did not choose to be mentally ill. They hate the drugs, but accept the domination, knowing the consequences. Here, falling in love is the wild card it is for all of us. How will it turn out? Will we be okay? Will my heart get broken? Are you the one? Are you the one? Angel Baby understands this on a level more intensely than other movies that cover the same territory.

Harry and Kate stand on the edge of the bridge, in the golden light of sunset, fearful of what will happen with their baby, fearful of how they will survive, afraid of the madness coming again ... knowing what that is, what that will mean ... and they flap their arms like the birds, cawing, cawing, cawing ... reaching out to one another to grasp hands, worried, you can see it in their eyes, but also laughing. Laughing not because they are happy. But laughing because all they have is the moment. The right now.

Everything else is a leap of faith.

Unfortunately, Angel Baby is not on DVD. I had to buy a used VHS copy off of Amazon. I saw it during its original theatrical release.

Angel Baby was one of the best films of 1995.


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April 5, 2010

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

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The blonde dame carries a gun. And .... she carries something even more deadly.

See my review of The Killer That Stalked New York at the indispensable Noir of the Week.

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April 4, 2010

Starman

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April 1, 2010

"I firmly believe in trying out your supposed opposite not only because (as they say) 'opposites attract,' but because you never know if you've actually found your twin."

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In honor of Bud Cort's birthday, Kim Morgan has a beautiful piece up celebrating Harold and Maude.

I came to Harold and Maude late (compared to other fans): I was in my mid-20s, although I do remember hearing my parents talking and laughing about it once. My father loved the opening sequence of attempted suicides, and would start to laugh every time he even started talking about it. I think he felt the movie went downhill after that point, but boy did he love that first scene, with the dangling legs, etc. But it was one of those movies I just never got around to seeing in my teens. I just missed it, somehow.

I arrived in Chicago, and right around that time Harold and Maude was playing in a double feature at the Music Box with Play It Again, Sam. Ted was a new acquaintance, a theatre director, and he heard I had never seen it, so we made plans to go. He was so excited to "show me" Harold and Maude (you will find that to be true about fans of this film - they ACHE that you haven't seen it). I have told the story of that night many times, in many different contexts. We went to go see the two films with a guy I was dating (full story here - with Harold and Maude section included). It was the three of us. What ended up happening, over the course of the night, was that Ted and I became friends (I actually date the night we went to see Harold and Maude together as the birth of our friendship), and somewhere inside of me, that same night, I made the realization I would have to break up with the dude I was with.

It all happened because of my response to Harold and Maude, which was enormous, and LOUD. Everyone at the theatre was a fanatic of the film. There was cult-like atmosphere, and I was clearly the only newbie. I started laughing so hard at one point (the soldier with the one arm) and it got so out of hand that I had to get up and leave the theatre. I could not breathe. At the same time, I remember tears streaming down my face through most of the film, pain, love, grief, regret, gratitude.... Unforgettable night. Unforgettable movie.

Yes, a romance ended that night (sorry, sir - you should never "shush" a grown adult when she is laughing spontaneously at something that gives her joy. Especially not if you want to be kissing her later.) - but a friendship was born (Ted and I are still great friends today) - and Harold and Maude wove itself into the fabric of my life, for good.

Please go read Kim's piece.

And happy (belated) birthday, Mr. Cort.


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March 30, 2010

Offside at BAM; Dir. Jafar Panahi

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Last night I met my friend Felicia at BAM to see Offside, directed by incarcerated Iranian director (there hasn't been word of him in a couple of weeks). It is part of their Muslim Voices: The Female Perspective. I have written of Offside before and how much I love it, and Felicia had never seen it, so it was going to be a fun night. Underneath it for me was a solemnity, because watching a work by a man who is now in prison, for no reason other than his being an artist (I don't care what the "police" say about his other "crimes"), is a sobering experience. But that was the only sober part about the night, adding to the tension of the film, because Offside is NOT solemn or sober, although it takes on a serious topic (women not being allowed to go to soccer games in Iran) - it is kinetic, very funny, very talk-y - that's all everyone does - talk, argue, scream, debate - and unlike Panahi's The Circle, which also takes on the position of women in Iran, but in a much more serious and blunt way , Offside is, in its way, even more subversive, because it dares to laugh at the stupidity of the rules. It MOCKS the rules. There's a reason why Offside was never shown officially in Iran (although, through bootleg DVDs smuggled in from basically everywhere, it became Panahi's biggest hit, and his most widely seen film in Iran) - and that's because it's even worse to have the populace laugh in your face over the moronic rules.

The lead girl, played by Shayesteh Irani, has a long scene where she chats up one of the guards holding all the girls in a makeshift pen behind the soccer stadium. She senses that somewhere he is weak, that he doesn't believe in what he is doing, so she sets about to crack through. She works him. She doesn't openly berate him. She says, "Remember when Iran played Japan? How come Japanese women were allowed in the stadium?" He replies, "They are Japanese." Her face lights up. "Oh, so it's only because I was born in Iran that I can't go in?" She's toying with him, setting him up like a good prosecuting attorney. He tries to scoff at this. "No - it's because men and women can't sit together." She says, "But they sit together at the movies." He is a country-boy, not from Tehran (one of the underlying class commentaries in the film), and does not believe her. "They do? Where?" She has actually visited his home town and mentions that she went to the movies in his hometown and saw men and women sitting together. "No! It cannot be! Were they dressed like you?" (She is dressed as a boy.) She laughs. "Of course not. They were dressed as ladies." "Well, they must have been with their brothers or fathers, then." Another chink in the armor, so her face lights up. "So it would be okay if our fathers or brothers took us to the game?" Every one of his lame excuses (and you get the sense that they are parroted out of his mouth, and by the end of the film, you can see that he flat out doesn't know why women aren't allowed in) she mocks, and also intellectually challenges. Like I said, Offside is full of dialogue, end to end. Panahi's script pulls no punches, but it resists being didactic, because of the sense of humor and excitement running through the whole thing.

It was filmed during the actual Iran-Bahrani game in 2006, where Iran qualified for the World Cup, so you can hear the surging screams of 100,000 people just inside the stadium, as the imprisoned girls, dressed up like boys, ache and yearn to see what is going on inside. While the issue of being arrested by the Vice Squad is nothing to sneeze at, the girls are undaunted, due to the circumstances of the moment. Yes, they are in trouble, but what the hell is going on with the game??

I murmured to Felicia in one of the early scenes, "Sports fans are the same everywhere," and we just started laughing. Everyone shouting, with the colors of the flag painted on their faces, breaking out into random fights, leaning out the minibus windows shouting at passing cars. The girls just want to participate in the national event.

One of Offside's defining characteristics is how funny it is. These girls are pistols, man, and there are very funny scenes where you can see the guards conferring with one another, and they are all serious and worried and frustrated, but in the background, in the pen, you can see all the girls dancing around, and blabbing, and re-enacting their favorite plays from such-and-such a game - they are completely and totally unconcerned with how much trouble they are in, and they laugh at the guards, sometimes in their faces. When the Vice Squad van comes to take them away, they are told to walk in single-file into the bus, and so they march off, and as they walk past the open gate where you can see inside the stadium, each one of them cranes her neck to the side, peering through the gate, to try to see the game. It is a very funny moment (the audience at BAM laughed uproariously - we pretty much laughed through the whole thing - a strangely ironic and beautiful experience), seeing the girls, being taken to some undisclosed location, not allowed to call their parents, but still ... still ... even in the middle of all of that ... as they are frog-marched to the bus, you can see each one, one after the other, turn her head to the side and squint into the distance to try to see the game.

Panahi is wonderful with details like this, you can feel his vibrant humorous personality running throughout. He has a daughter, a wife (both of whom were arrested in the original roundup at his home early this month - and were soon released), and his sense of injustice about their position in his country is obviously fierce. But at least with Offside, he took an absurdist tact - making the situation seem as ridiculous as possible - to have even the guards not know the reasons for the arrests of these girls - to drive his point home again and again and again.

There is a funny moment when one of the guards (and you can feel him grasping at straws) informs the girls that women are not allowed in the stadiums because it's all men in there, and men curse and use bad language. One of the girls replies to this, "Bullshit."

Ahh, Panahi, I love you so.

The girls refuse to accept the answers given to them. Why shouldn't they come see the game like everyone else? Why should they be forced to dress like men? (Panahi doesn't make a big deal of the veil. The VEIL is not the problem. His view is: Women should be able to dress as they would like to dress, and go where they would like to go. His criticism is that rules such as the soccer rule creates a division in the populace at large: if women want to go to a soccer game - a soccer game - they must dress up as men, denying their gender - and when you force women into a position where her gender becomes a detriment, then all of society suffers. He doesn't care about the veil. He said in one interview that if a woman is very religious, and wants to wear the full black chador, AND she also happens to be a soccer fan, then there is no reason that she should be forced to deny her gender and her religious feelings - in order to see a stupid soccer game.)

There wasn't a big crowd at the movie last night, but it was a fun audience. Dear people, whoever you are, I loved seeing Offside with you, especially the crowd of laughing boisterous girls in the back, who got all the jokes, and guffawed throughout. It's rather eerie, knowing that Panahi is in prison now, but I guess that going to see one of his biggest successes, and enjoying it in the full spirit of absurdity in which he created it, is a great tribute to him, even though ... how could he, sitting in a prison right now, know about us? And know that this is what we are doing at this very moment?

I can only hope that somehow, on some other plane, he does know.

He tells a great story in an interview about his inspiration for Offside. He was heading to a soccer game at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. His 10 year old daughter wanted to come. He told her no, she couldn't, girls aren't allowed in, and that it is a stupid law but we must obey the law. She begged to come along and at least try. He relented, but told her if she was turned away at the gate, he was going to go on in to the game, and she had to head home. She agreed. They arrived at the stadium, and his daughter is stopped at the gate. "You can't come in here." (Yeah, because it's so threatening to have a 10 year old girl watch a soccer game. Stupid.) As agreed, Panahi and his daughter parted. Panahi went into the stadium and his daughter headed off for home. Panahi found his seat in the stadium and sat down. About 15 minutes later, he glanced up, and saw his daughter walking down the steps towards him. She sat next to him, quite pleased with herself. Panahi was amazed and asked her, "How did you get in?" She glanced at him, like that was almost a stupid question, and replied, "There is always a way."

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March 28, 2010

Neo Ned (2005); Dir. Van Fischer

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Neo Ned is a mess. A charming mess, but a mess nonetheless. Featuring two standout performances by Jeremy Renner (fresh off the heels of his breakout performance as Jeffrey Dahmer - my review here) and Gabrielle Union (she of eternal Bring It On fame, I will love her forever for that alone), Neo Ned doesn't know what it wants to be. Or, to be more accurate, it does know what it wants to be, and I suppose that that is my problem with it. It wants to be (and is) a sweet and moving love story. The two leads have real charm together, they make a very believable couple. So many romantic movies, with giant movie star leads, don't capture this very simple component, having to do with chemistry.


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But I found myself playing Script Doctor repeatedly, as I watched it, and then I kept trying to tell myself to take it for what it is, Sheila, and to some degree, that is part of the battle. A realization of what a movie is, and that it's not about what you, the viewer, want it to be. However, if something doesn't work, then I do ask myself: "Why?" It becomes a puzzle. If THIS were in place, maybe it would work better ... if you took away this awkward flashback and got rid of the voiceover it might feel less clunky ... This is a constant inner-conversation that goes on with movies that aren't, you know, gripping from end to end (in other words: most films). "Hmmm, he's mis-cast ... that would be better with someone like John C. Reilly in the part ..." "Not wacky about that dissolve- seems like they're hiding something ..." "I think the end should be the beginning - that might solve this continuity problems..."

All of this makes me think of what the moderator at the Actors Studio says after two actors have presented a scene to the group. The moderator does not immediately launch into a critique when the scene is finished. Instead, he or she always asks: "So what were you working on?" If the actor says, "I was working on the drunkenness", then ideally all the comments should be about that. Did the actor succeed or fail in believably creating drunkenness? When critiques like that are handled well, it helps keep the session from devolving into people raising their hands and saying moronic things like, "If I were playing the scene ..." Yeah, but you're not. That's not helpful. Everyone's a genius when they're sitting in the seats. I like to think of this, from time to time, when I am watching a film, to try to align myself with what "they were working on", and then I can make my assessment on whether or not they succeeded. It's no use wishing a movie were other than what it was. If you wish Sophie's Choice were more like Annie Hall, then that is your problem. However, if you feel that a certain movie is not quite successful in being what it wants to be, then you have something to talk about.

To bring a perhaps ridiculous example into it: Blue Crush is (to my mind) a VERY successful movie, because it knows what it is, it doesn't pretend it's something else, and every single element in the film pours into the ultimate theme, story, feel, mood. I don't want Blue Crush to be anything other than what it gloriously proclaims itself to be, and so successfully. There are other more weighty films that also are successful in what they are trying to do, but I figured I'd throw Blue Crush in there to show that the theory works in ALL films, not just the great or serious ones.


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While watching Neo Ned (and, admittedly, I was in it for Renner), I found myself asking the question: "What does this movie want to be?" It's difficult to come up with the right answer at first (and yes, there is a right answer), due to the title, and the fact that it is a love story between a NeoNazi skinhead and a black girl who thinks she is Adolf Hitler. How does one "get past" these elements to see the love story? Eventually, if you just focus in on Renner and Union, you'll get it, you'll get what the movie wants to be, but due to the awkwardness of the early scenes, the uncertainty of tone, and the vagueness at the heart of the script, the essential story is sometimes lost because the trappings are so distracting.

There are also some awkwardly-handled flashbacks, and an overuse of self-help terminology ("Ned just wanted attention because he didn't get it at home"), which threatened to tune me out entirely. Thankfully, I stayed with it, because Renner and Union are so good together, so solid, and while it may have seemed, from the start, that Neo Ned was going to tell another kind of story, it's actually a conventional little love story, about a young couple trying to deal with adversity, and stick together even though no one else understands. Pretty cliched stuff (but hey, it worked for Shakespeare, so let's not knock cliches).


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The story is this, and this has to be the Meet-Cute to end all Meet-Cutes: Ned is in a mental hospital. He had been charged with second-degree murder of a black man, but his defense lawyer got him declared insane. He stalks around the mental institution, a twitchy bundle of nerves, with impulsive behavior, sudden Sieg Heils, and a stream of profanity and racial epithets, that he says with almost a sweet blunted innocence. Into the hospital comes Rachel, (Gabrielle Union) who suffers from post-partum psychosis and is also under the delusion that she is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. When we first see her, she is being dragged down a hall by two orderlies, and she is screaming at them in German. Ned, naturally, is drawn to her. He is a man with the SS symbol tattooed on his wrist, after all. Who is this chick? Only, naturally, he refers to her as a "nigger woman", sometimes to her face. That language runs rampant through the first half of the film, and Rachel somehow seems not to mind. She treats Ned with a sort of bemused condescension, knowing that she (as Adolf Hitler) has the upper hand.


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This is all extremely bizarre and goes back to what I was saying early about trying to take a film for what it is. The image of Renner, hard body like a pit bull, shaved head, covered in tattooes, reminded me so much of Russell Crowe's electrifying performance in Romper Stomper.

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But there the similarity ends. Hando (Crowe's character) is a true believer. A fanatic and a brute. It is a chilling and ruthless portrayal of a man whose mind has been taken over by the fantasies that stalk his night, until there is no person left in there. Ned in Neo Ned is a follower. A truly malleable and blank personality, which does make him scary in a way, but also makes him equally susceptible to kindness and encouragement. He reminds me a bit of some of the skinhead kids at my high school, I'm sure we all remember boys like him: misfits who just want to be noticed. Wearing a T shirt with a swastika on it is sure to get you noticed. It also gives you instant cache with a strong group, which is also most desired by a lonely person. It may be despicable, the group, but there are certainly definite levels. There are leaders and there are followers. It becomes clear, maybe 20 minutes into the film, that Ned, despite his vile language, isn't a racist at all, and he actually has a crush on this pretty black girl, who is just as messed up as he is.

A tricky balance, right? In general, the film is able to walk that balance, but that was true for me only after I stopped expecting to see Romper Stomper.


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Another movie that came to mind as I watched Neo Ned was the haunting Australian film Angel Baby, about two schizophrenics who are in love, and who decide to go off their medication together when they discover the woman is pregnant. John Lynch (marvelous actor, he who was "Cal") plays the man in the couple and Jacqueline McKenzie (who was also unforgettable in Romper Stomper) plays the woman. It is a beautiful film, harrowing, I remember I saw it with my friend Rebecca in a little theatre in the Village, and we both were weeping into our popcorn. A realistic portrayal of mental illness, and the damage that these drugs can do (of course they are also life-savers, but it's a tremendously difficult choice), Angel Baby has stayed with me for years. There were elements in Neo Ned that reminded me of Angel Baby: the mental hospital setting, the falling-in-love-while-incarcerated plotline, the sense that it is these two against a hostile world who want to keep them apart.

But Angel Baby was a dead-end road for me as well, in terms of getting in sync with Neo Ned, because Neo Ned is not really interested in the reality of mental illness. Neither of these characters are truly mentally ill. Ned has been diagnosed with ADHD, sure, and Rachel seems to believe she is Hitler - but nobody really buys her act. It is not clear that she is truly in a delusion. It seems to be something she is "putting on", maybe to extend her time in the institution? In my fantasy, a romance between an unrepentant racist and a black girl who believes she is Hitler could, if it had the courage of its convictions, knock it out of the park. Neo Ned is a conventional movie, wrapped up in the trappings of gritty independent film, and that was a bit of a disappointment to me. It completely skirted the issue of racism (hard to believe, with Renner in a swastika-Tshirt the entire time), and seemed to treat it all with humor and carelessness.


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Some of these moments work. They get out of the institution and go live in a trailer on Renner's mother's trailer park (Renner's mother is played by a delightfully ditzy Sally Kirkland - but perhaps that is redundant). Ned gets a job as a short-order cook. There's a scene where Ned and Rachel (only he calls her "Adolf" throughout the film) go to a grocery store. Rachel pushes the cart along, and Ned lies along on the top of it, being pushed by her. All dolled up in his jackboots, and Nazi regalia, rings on every finger, leather bracelets, and he's just chatting with her casually about how nice it will be to make some money and buy some groceries. He's a simple soul. But you can see the other customers of the supermarket glance at this oddball couple curiously, and one black woman, as she walks by, murmurs to Rachel, "Stay with your own, girl." It's a funny and specific moment, one of the only times that the inter-racial nature of their relationship really comes up, as surprising as that may seem.

Gabrielle Union plays Rachel as a damaged girl, almost damaged beyond repair, by the abuse she has suffered in her life, and becoming a mother was too much for her, and she cracked. Her insanity, however, does not mean she takes Ned for what he is. It's rather startling, at moments, how she sees through his surface to what is going on. They take shelter from the rain in an abandoned gas station. This is before anything romantic has gone down between them. They are soaking wet (a movie cliche that I wish would be put to rest), and laughing, and they suddenly realize how close they are standing to each other, and etc. and etc. Something is about to happen. Ned stares at her and says, in a whisper, "It's wrong to mix the races." Rachel looks at him for a long time and replies, calmly, "So what you're trying to say is you're attracted to me."


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Tough stuff to play, obviously, but Union does a great job in keeping her character on track. She senses his tenderness towards her from the beginning. He's like a little kid with a schoolboy crush. He wants to sit next to her in the cafeteria. He makes her a drawing in his art therapy. He asks her questions about Hitler, lolling about the couch, staring at her. Union does not make her character a self-righteous person at all, which would obviously not have worked. She is not the "Angry Black Woman(TM)". She has been beaten down by life, and this strange restless man takes a shine to her, and even though he says the word "nigger" repeatedly (she sighs at one point and says, grinning at him, "Can't you wait till I leave the room before you say that word, like Good White People do?"), she senses he likes her. She's got a tough part to play here, and I know that Union met with Fischer (the director) quite a bit before filming, to be sure what his point was with all this, that it wouldn't be used against her, that the film wouldn't be getting OFF on its free use of that explosive word.

She gives a very smart performance.


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In one of the awkward flashbacks, we see Ned's fellow skinheads shaving his head in a ritual, and pouring beer over it, and he seems happy and flushed with belonging. His language is violent and disgusting, and sometimes he throws tantrums, but really that's more because of his ADHD than any racist anger. He's an interesting character, mainly because he is played by Jeremy Renner, which I will get to in a second. Ned went through foster care as a kid, including being placed in a house where the parents tried to kill the whole family by carmon monoxide from the car. He's had it rough. His crazy mother capitalizes on her son's problems by going on any talk show that will take her, talk shows of the Montel/Maury Povich variety. Ned brings Rachel home to meet his mother, and 2 seconds later we see his mother on the phone saying, "Yes, my son is a skinhead convicted of second degree murder, and he is now dating a black girl ... Yes, the producers should have my number, thank you."


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Jeremy Renner is an extraordinary actor. What he does here is take his particular brand of narcissistic anti-social personality (which could very well become his stock in trade, putting him in a continuum with Peter Lorre and Robert Mitchum), and soften it, muddy it up, make Ned a mush ball hiding under the muscle and the clothing. He resists sentiment, which is a Godsend, because there are times when the script wants to force him into it. He has a moment where he says to Rachel, during an argument, "You're my home", and it could be a nauseating treacly moment in the hands of a lesser actor. He sort of squinches up one side of his face when he says it, almost wincing as the words come out, and a less observant girlfriend than Rachel would not believe him. I look for moments like that. How actors survive a script that is not really worthy of them. Because that is the mark of a true talent. As I said in my big piece on Dean Stockwell, when I was discussing his work in the hilariously campy Werewolf in Washington:

One of the reasons I really love this performance is because of where Stockwell was at in his life when he filmed it. He was struggling, he had become anonymous again, he had lost his cache as a star. He was job to job to job; it's easy to be wonderful when you have the plum parts offered to you, when every decision in Hollywood somehow includes YOU. But when you are outside that charmed circle, when the material offered to you is not quite up to the level of your gifts, how do you survive then? How do you, to quote Tim Gunn, "make it work"?

Jeremy Renner had already done Dahmer by this point, so his name was already known. He was one of the up-and-coming actors (not young, though, he was mid-30s, which is relatively old to start getting important parts), but he obviously wasn't A list yet. He's A list now, so it will be interesting to see how he handles what comes next. I'm a little bit nervous for him. He's so good. But here, in Neo Ned, which was a really fun part for him, he had a couple of things he had to deal with which generally isn't a huge issue in giant plum projects directed by masters of the craft. Here he had stilted dialogue, forcing the actors into poses of sentimentality, some awkward transitions that he had to make sense of all on his own - he handles it all beautifully. An actor's talent helps him choose well, even in the midst of syrupy moments like "You're my home", and therein you can see the survivor of Jeremy Renner, the integrity of his talent that will not be forced into something that will embarrass him. He either plays under it, or skips around it, with expressions flitting across his face of embarrassment, grief, fear, which makes it seem as though the stilted dialogue comes from the character's inability to find the right words (as opposed to the screenwriter being too on the nose). Hard to do.


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One of the things that I am getting to know about him (and there are a couple of notable exceptions) is that he has a way of making his eyelids heavy and flat, which is probably instinctual, but I've seen him in roles where he does NOT do this, which tells me that he is somehow in charge of it. He's choosing it, when appropriate. What happens with his eyes is that he begins to take on the visage of a psychopath (mental health care professionals and social workers, people used to working with psychopaths, all talk about their eyes - and the "flat affect" of their faces - I really must stop reading books about serial killers) - and Renner nails this, from the inside out. You could see it in Dahmer, of course, and you could see it in Hurt Locker too, although that came through a different filter: an essentially anti-social man who found work that was appropriate for him (a rare thing, indeed). Sgt. James was a star in his specialized field. He fit in nowhere else. He is not a savage warmonger, none of those cliches - he has not been "ruined" by war in the same way that, oh, Dennis Hopper's character in Apocalypse Now has been ruined - but he is a man who is able to focus very very narrowly on one task, under extremely dangerous conditions, and people who are able to do that are, shall we say, different from most other people.


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Renner can play an un-self-aware man like nobody's business, that very few actors can pull off, since so many of them are overly self-aware and analyze everything. He can play a man uninterested in introspection - or, it's not that he's uninterested - it's just that he doesn't even know what people are TALKING about when they talk about their feelings. He'd make a hell of a Stanley Kowalski. He plays men you kind of worry about, actually. You hope he finds his place in the world. Because it's not a done deal, with someone like Renner. He's an outsider. He glances around him, with flat-lidded eyes, that can go quite dead from time to time, which makes him rather frightening, unpredictable. It's not a trick. To mention one of the exceptions, he doesn't use this quality at all in The Unusuals, which was a short-lived television series, where he plays a detective in the Lower East side of Manhattan. He's the lead. In that, he is very funny, sharp, good at what he does, short-tempered sometimes, and a good cop, a good team-player, a good boyfriend ... basically, a civilized man. If you only saw Dahmer, Neo Ned and Hurt Locker, you would think of him as specializing in UN-civilized men. And by "uncivilized" I don't mean bad table manners. I mean men who cannot fit in in society as it is set up.


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Renner has said (he's a very insightful actor) that he knew, right off the bat, that Ned didn't really believe all that skinhead garbage. He was just desperate to belong. Renner did some research on skinheads (which is where he came up with the SS tattoo on his arm), but his main research was in people who have ADHD, and what it's like for them. And this is where his performance tilts off into something that is genius. I've seen his work before. I am getting to know his ticks. In no other film does he move or walk or talk or behave the way he does in Neo Ned. He races out of rooms when he's done with a conversation. He lies on a couch and can't keep still. He is suddenly tender and quiet when his meds kick in. None of this is attention-getting or seems belabored or actor-y. You get the sense of how hard it is for people who have this disability. His eyes always seem to float, in a disconnected way, above every conversation, because he is always flitting on to the next thing. He is nothing short of riveting in every single frame.


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The psychological aspect of the film is a bit juvenile, in that it doesn't seem interested in what it would be like to really be a racist, or what it would be like to really believe you had Adolf Hitler inside of you. Dropping the Adolf plot was a big mistake. You can't introduce something as powerful and weird as that and then dodge the implications of it. It's like having a gun in the first act that doesn't go off in the third. It felt like a cop-out, because that potentially could have been so juicy, and very very disturbing.

But Neo Ned, in the end, doesn't want to disturb. It wants to please. And it does, but not without losing something in the transfer.

And here is where what I want the film to be and what it actually is cannot be reconciled. Rachel is set up as a woman who speaks German, shouts orders at people, and believes she is Hitler. To quote my acting teacher in college: "What does more for you?" Meaning, what does more for the film: that she's just ACTING that all of this is true? Or that it is REALLY true? In my opinion, it is the second that does more for you, and Neo Ned does not go that route, to the film's detriment. The Hitler persona is dropped pretty much once the relationship heats up, and that's a shame, because then Neo Ned becomes about the regular every-day business of romances: "where were you last night?" "we need to get jobs, we need to get money" "tell me about your past" - which both actors play very well, but it's something I've seen 100 times before. However: a skinhead making love to a black woman who speaks German because she thinks she's Hitler? That's something I want to see.

I guess I miss the film that wasn't made.


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The "persona swap" of Mulholland Drive; Dir. David Lynch

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Last night, I went downtown to the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca (after a debacle involving all trains on the A, C and E line being rerouted to Brooklyn, skipping entirely my stop at Canal, so I ended up sharing a cab downtown with two nice stranded ladies) to see Mulholland Drive, which was being played in the small screening room. Miriam Bale, film writer, and curator of film series (I have met her before - most notably at this memorable occasion) - gave a talk beforehand. This is part of a project she is working on that I find very intriguing: She calls it the small genre of "persona swap". She is working on a big article about it, and I very much look forward to it. "Persona swap" films involve two women, usually blonde and brunette, who switch roles, or merge into one over the course of the film. She had a fascinating list of other films in this sub-genre, the most notable being Ingmar Bergman's Persona, which is similar to Mulholland Drive in that they are both about actresses (my thoughts on Persona here). I really enjoyed Miriam's talk, I enjoyed the fact that she placed Mulholland Drive (one of my favorite films of all time) in a context, and it gave a grounding-point, something to think about as the film unfolded. That is what really good film criticism can do. I can enjoy something viscerally, and I also make my own connections, obviously, but I love to listen to someone who has thought deeply about films through their own particular filter, and can express that, convey that.

I remember seeing Mulholland Drive in the theatre, back when it first came out, and it is one of the most thrilling, unforgettable movie-going experiences I have ever had. I cannot even express why, I can't point to one thing, either in the film or in me, that generated such an intense response. The film operates with "dream logic" (thank you, Miriam), and so every scene, in and of itself, feels logical and true and connected, but what are the threads holding it together? Why the sense of dread? What the hell is it behind the dumpster at that diner? Well, you don't need the answers when you operate with dream-logic. Dreams have their own universes, they operate on a primal level, jumpstarting your fight-or-flight response, and that was what it felt like watching Mulholland Drive for the first time. There are a couple of stand-out scenes for me, ones that have lodged themselves into my brain stem, and will never ever leave. Even if I never saw the film again, I would remember the scene in the midnight vaudeville theatre. I would remember Naomi Watts's audition scene. I would remember that creepy cowboy in the corral. I would remember that final third of the movie, the sudden switch and switch-back, which is so disturbing it seems to wipe out all that you have seen before. There are some classic great scenes here. Not "great" as in the way people use that word casually to describe anything better-than-good. I mean "great" as in "one for the books". These are scenes that live on, after you see the film, taking on their own life in your imagination. One of the creepiest and best things about seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time was that I knew it as I was seeing it. I knew that I would never forget the movie, that I would never stop thinking about, pondering it, worrying over it ... no matter how much I tried to forget it, or tried to block it out.

It cuts to the very core of identity, and I so much liked Miriam's perceptions on this score, because it helped clarify my own vaguer thoughts about it. In the film, Betty (played by Naomi Watts) calls a number and whispers to her co-conspirator (played by Rita Hayworth lookalike Laura Harring), "It's strange calling yourself."

The creepiness of that line, made even more creepy at the end of the film, when you realize who it was she was actually calling, is at the center of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Mulholland Drive still weaves its spell around me and I have seen it many times since that first time in the theatre. I have memorized certain sections of it, even the camera angles (Justin Theroux looking over his shoulder at Naomi Watts as he films the scene in the recording studio, the dark approach to the corral, Naomi Watts straddling Laura Harring and looking down at her, the camera from underneath, so that Watts looks truly demonic), and yet even with memorization, the film does not become stale or predictable. As a matter of fact, repetition helps. Not to get "clarity", or "meaning", because I think that is missing the point here. I have in my mind a murky sense of the "story", and what really happened, but - similar to Moby Dick, where if you focus on the meaning, you strip the book of its magic (or, to quote E.M. Forster, you "silence" the book)- Mulholland Drive lives on a plane where meaning is relative, where identity is fluid, where dreams become reality and vice versa, where the questions you most want to ask and most fear to ask ("Who am I?" "How do I fit in here?" "What is my 'role' in life? Am I playing that role well or should I be re-cast?") reverb through an echo chamber miles under the earth, buried in the subconscious minds of the characters. They come upon moments that seem startling, or frightening, but underneath the original fear, is a sense that I know this. I have been here before. The way deja vu works, when you think you are remembering something real, and then you just remember that you saw such things in your dreams. The amnesia of "Rita", played by Laura Harring, is a perfect metaphor. She doesn't even know her own name. She doesn't know where she was going the night of the car accident, she remembers nothing about her life before. She gets flashes, and they are always terrifying, as though what she is about to remember is far worse than the oblivion of amnesia. Her mind refuses to remember.

Both lead actresses give spectacular iconic performances.

Mulholland Drive is a mystery to be contemplated, a dream-space to be inhabited, and in the screening room, in downtown Manhattan, on a Saturday night, there was a small audience, maybe 50 people, and the sense of anticipation was palpable. I heard one man say to someone, as he sat down (and this was a stranger he was sitting next to), "I am so excited. This movie is a masterpiece." I feel the same way.


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March 27, 2010

The 5 most-deserving Best Picture winners

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(I don't like a lot of the Best Picture winners. I far prefer the "losers", in general - some true classics there. It was hard to leave off a couple but I gave myself the task to pick 5. So there you go. What are your faves?)

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March 26, 2010

Reasons I love Three Kings:

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(These are all reasons that other people seemed to hate it):

-- The filmmaking itself is obnoxious and in your face. I loved its kinetic energy. I loved its bombast. I loved the sheer obnoxiousness of it (closeup inside someone's body with the stomach filling up with bile. Awesome).

-- The script has a wit to it ("Can you let me look at my Iraqi ass map, please?") that is smart-alecky and too-cool-for-you, but it helps you know you're not looking at something that is supposed to be realistic. This is all about movie stars play-acting as soldiers. It should be enjoyed on that level. The details in the script (the Infinity convertible argument, the ring of Jesus fire, the quiet discussion about what they should call Arabs because "dune coon" is offensive - "Towel head is a perfectly acceptable substitute") help give it a snarky feel, which, again, saves it from being over-serious (or, hell, serious at all).

-- This is right around when George Clooney started finding his legs as a movie star. He had become famous on ER, but that brand of emotionally-distant hot guy won't get you too far in a long-lasting movie career. His earlier movies were not good - because he was cast as a leading man. Obviously, he was pegged that way because of his looks. What else is he gonna play? Goofy character-actor parts? But Clooney is darker than most leading men, he's un-gettable, truly un-gettable - and so I never bought him in straight romances. He seemed embarrassed for himself. He's not earnest. He doesn't do earnest well (although, when roused, he can do righteous anger. But that's different from earnest.) Right before Three Kings, he did Out of Sight, a surprise hit, directed by Steven Soderbergh (his collaboration with Clooney is now long-lasting) which capitalized on that Clooney THING that we all now know so well. Then came Three Kings, then came O Brother Where Art Thou, and suddenly, Clooney had a whole different kind of career. He took charge of it, it seems like. No more would he be lovey-gooey with another huge female movie star. He would be subordinate to no one. From now on, he would stand slightly apart - as he should. That's his thing, his true essence. Three Kings is an ensemble drama, this is not a Clooney vehicle, but you can see here, in his Special Forces guy Archie Gates that he is having fun with his persona (even though the shoot was notoriously un-fun - I don't think anyone has fun on a David O' Russell picture - just ask LIly Tomlin) - but Clooney here squints at the camera, growls, makes tough choices under fire, puts on his mirrored sunglasses, and it all borders on camp. This is perfect. Just right. Exactly what the picture needs, and also what Clooney needed in his career. There is an element of camp to the Clooney persona, the nostalgic aura of "ring a ding ding" around him, and I never saw his performance here as "straight". It's a parody. Which is made even more explicit by the last shot of him, when we see what Archie Gates has been up to after the war. Hysterical. It's fun to see Clooney come into his own. It happened late for him. It suits him.

-- The early section of the film, up until the point where they hatch their plan to go retrieve "Kuwaiti bullion", the movie has a pretty straightforward style. The colors look normal (albeit desert-monotonous), and while there are a couple of clues that this will be a different sort of movie (freezing each one of the characters in crazy moments, with text on the screen, telling us a little bit about them: "Troy Barlow - new father" "Conrad Rig - wants to be Troy Barlow"), it doesn't look any different from any old war movie. But once they set off to get the gold, things become distinctly surreal, even down to the vibrant (even psychedelic) colors of pretty much everything: the blazing lime-green milk truck, the bright blue delivery van, the orange and blue and green murals of Saddam on all the walls). We're leaving the real world and going into some fantasy land. Shadows appear stark and long (I think they must have filmed the entire movie during "magic hour"), and it just doesn't look realistic, in any way, shape or form. The music floats above the movie, never commenting on it, just adding to it - there isn't really a soundtrack, most of the music is either what they play on the cassette tape in their humvee, or eerie mood music when things start to get tense. The lack of a traditional score, mixed with the crazy colors crowding their way into every corner of the frame, makes it feel like the fantasy of adrenaline-surged men, as it is, as it should be.

-- There's one shot near the end of Mark Wahlberg (who plays Troy Barlow) and Ice Cube (who plays Chief Elgin). Barlow has been broken out of the interrogation room where he was being held, and one of their colleagues has been shot down. It finally is too much for him, and he breaks down in tears. Ice Cube comes over to him and puts his arm around him, holding him. I love that shot because I always think: Wow. Two hip hop rappers acting the SHIT out of their big emotional moment in a big Hollywood movie. In America, anything is possible.

-- The portrayal of the Iraqis is subtle and a welcome change to the stereotype. The uprising has begun, and the war is over. Saddam's army is turning on its own people. At one point, the "three kings" sit in a shelter with a bunch of Iraqis, hiding from tear gas that has gone off. Cliff Curtis (a wonderful actor from New Zealand - unforgotteable in Once Were Warriors - but here, he plays Amir, an Iraqi man, whose wife is killed before his eyes) holds his small daughter in his arms, and one of the American soldiers asks how she's doing. He looks at the Americans and says flatly, "She's traumatized. What do you expect." Then he says, "I went to Bowling Green University. Came back here to open up a couple of hotels near Karbala. You guys bombed all my cafes." What I love about that line is the sheer middle-class-ness of it, something that isn't often shown in American movies about places like Iran, Iraq, etc. The vibrant and important middle-class. Their women may be veiled, but come on, they aren't another species. I loved that line. Amir ends up emerging as a great character. He and Archie Gates look at one another and realize they need one another. So they strike a bargain. It is nice to see a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants something, and you cannot give something for nothing - because then it is uneven. Nobody THANKS you when you "give" them something, especially not if it feels like charity - it can breed resentment - but here: they go back and forth, bargaining, what's in it for me, what's in it for me? The way the world works. He's a great character, played beautifully by Chris Curtis (without a trace of his very strong New Zealand accent).

-- The scene where the milk truck explodes is really where the film moves into surreality. It's gorgeously shot, first of all, but it's such an absurd moment. A Republican Guard shoots at the incoming truck - it must be stopped! The driver is killed and the giant bright green truck skids out of control. The American soldiers step back, watching it spin around, horrified - and then the same Iraqi soldier shoots directly at the body of the truck. Everyone assumes it is oil or fuel in there, so they all leap out of the way, in exquisite (but, in retrospect, ridiculous) slo-mo. Out of the hole in the side of the truck pours a mountain of milk that floods the streets. People are pushed off their feet by the force of the milk, and there's an amazing overhead shot of the three soldiers swimming in milk, against the side of a building. The insanity - and also the tragedy - because milk is obviously something people need. Then we see dogs lapping up the spilled milk, women running out with buckets, people scooping it into their mouths with bare hands ... It's a great sequence, very complicated but beautifully realized from start to finish.

-- I love that the Kuwaiti gold is a true Macguffin. Yes, it gives rise to the title, the kings bearing gifts, etc., and it's the reason everything gets started, but then - poof - it's barely mentioned again. It's a device, totally artificial - and has nothing to do with the actual story being told.

-- Nora Dunn knocks her part out of the park. A kind of Christiane Amanpour wannabe, when she is frozen in the beginning, and her name is listed it says: "Adriana Cruz - 4-time Emmy award runner-up". It immediately sets her up: her ambition, her drive, her ferocity. Only she could make a completely humorless character hilarious. She gets in a shouting match early in the film with another female journalist, who has been found banging George Clooney. The two women go at it, the younger journalist standing there in her bra. Clooney's character is supposed to be Adriana's military escort, and here he is, fucking around when he should be taking HER around. The younger journalist is a snot, and says, "I'm different from you, Adriana--" and Nora Dunn interrupts, "YES. I'M DRESSED. I HAVE MY CLOTHES ON." Normally I don't like when war movies try to work a female into the story, if it's not called for, but here, it's perfect.

-- The banter between the four men (I suppose only the three leads are the "kings", and Spike Jonze, a borderline retarded soldier, is the tag-along) is fast, funny, and specific. Again, they're all chewing this stuff up and spitting it out - in a way that would seem ridiculous and over-the-top in a movie that wanted to seem serious. But here, they're all just utilizing their huge personae, and batting up against one another, for the sheer fun of it. Clooney glances at Wahlberg after Jonze says some stupid remark, and says quietly, "Are you able to control him?" There's a veneer here, somehow - the veneer of parody and satire - and it saves the film.

-- It is not without its moving moments (the standoff between Wahlberg and his Iraqi interrogator is especially good), but the main feeling here is energy, movement, snark, and desire. Everyone is operating on a selfish level, they have to, and it brings the whole conflict alive. An Iraqi soldier, a deserter from Saddam's army, now working with the rebellion stands in a bunker with all the gleaming cars stolen from Kuwait. Clooney wants to take the cars to go break Wahlberg out of the interrogation camp. Soldier shakes his head, "Cannot take." Clooney tries to rouse the men into patriotic fervor - hoping he can get the cars by manipulating their primal emotions - and gives a speech, like many other "St. Crispian's Day" speeches in war movies - meant to inspire men to action, and you wouldn't be surprised if Clooney suddenly started rhapsodizing about "we few, we happy few." He builds it up into a manic pace, "We're all together - America - Iraq - many races - one goal - we are all together - we all want a FREE IRAQ " But the way Clooney plays it, it feels sloppy and insincere, which makes it funny. How is TAKING these cars going to help free Iraq, Archie? Beneath his words (which he probably does believe on an abstract level) is desperation: I need those cars. The Iraqi soldiers (even the guy who refused him the cars in the first place) are whipped up into a frenzy by it. By the end, they are all screaming and cheering, "FREE IRAQ, FREE IRAQ FREE IRAQ" like the Revolution scenes in Reds. Clooney is SURE that this will do the trick, so he looks at his main adversary again. The soldier, with a big smile, says automatically, "Cannot take cars." Clooney immediately deflates, his eyes go flat, and he says, "Okay, fine. We'll buy them." NOW you're talking. It's a moving moment, because basically what it comes down to is two men, who both need something, who try to get what they want, and who finally just get down to bargaining, because that's the only way to move forward. It's deeply humanistic, actually. There's no do-gooding here.

-- Mark Wahlberg running across the desert in his longjohns. I'd pay the full admission price just to see that.

-- I saw Three Kings in the theatre, a matinee, with David and Mitchell, and we walked out of the theatre exhilarated and excited. It's a war movie ... but not. It's a buddy movie ... but not. It's a journey, a chase, a battle ... and when it needs to be sentimental, it doesn't linger on it. It skips quickly over it. There's one moment at the end where Clooney has tears in his eyes, and for me, the movie almost goes off the rails in that moment. It's a delicate balance they're trying to create here, as audacious as the movie is, and obnoxiously sure of itself. It is a transformative journey, of course it is, all of the men "go somewhere", that's the whole point of the movie, but the tears (and you only see them for a second) threaten, just a bit, to sink the movie into a cliche tarpit. But again, the restless camera moves on past. The movie is saved. Disaster averted.

-- I've seen it multiple times, now, and it still gives me a strange ridiculous pleasure. Like the video for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" : it wants to make a splash. The pleasure is ridiculous because Three Kings seems so pleased with itself, it should be more obnoxious than it is. There are worse things than a movie being pleased with itself. It could bore me, condescend to me, try to teach me a lesson, moralize, pontificate, it could present me with the same cliches I have seen 100 times, it could underline every scene with a soundtrack that tells me how to feel, it could treat me like a moron, it could forget that the business of movies is to tell stories and entertain. Three Kings makes NONE of those errors. And no matter how many times I have seen it, I still love to see that milk come pouring out of the truck onto the sand. The image never gets old.


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Inglourious Basterds: The Slate Reel

This is pretty amazing. The slate (or clapboard) is used to mark different takes, to aid in the editing process, and the sound syncing.

I came across this "slate reel" of Inglourious Basterds - showing how creative the slate-woman got, by giving names to the different letter-codes on the slate, and she becomes her own performance-art piece. (One take is called "39BJ", and she says, "39 Blowjobs, take 1.") Sometimes, she would call out something that would make the actors break up in laughter - which I suppose would be disruptive, if you're about to do a difficult scene - but this slate reel shows the general vibe Tarantino obviously created on the set, keep it loose, keep it funny, keep it moving - The whole crew gets involved (listen to them all chanting, 'Genius ... genius ... genius ...") This is so entertaining. I love the references she got in. "Clint Eastwood, Take 1." "DenIro, Take 1." "Akira Kurosawa, Take 1." "Fatty Arbuckle, Take 1." (The letter codes on the slate being, CE, DN, AK and FA ... ) Hard to explain: Just go watch it. What a brilliant idea!

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March 25, 2010

"The balcony is closed."

At the Movies is now over. Forever.

Watching Siskel and Ebert was a ritual when I was a kid. I loved that show. Through those two critics, I realized at a very young age, that there was a big world out there, of movies I had never seen, names I had never heard of - and they would casually reference things like "Herzog" or "Barbara Stanwyck", in context of some other review, and I would wonder what they were talking about. And sometimes I would make it my business to find out. So that is how I discovered movies. Not just the ones playing at the local cineplex, but movies with a capital M. The entire industry and its history. Once Ebert started publishing his compilations of reviews - I think I bought my first one when I was 13 - and forget it: I read every single review, and half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but I wanted to hear more. I was the same then as I am now. Present to me a world I know nothing about and make it seem appealing and fascinating and well worth your time - I'll dig into it. I can't even describe how influential those books were to me. Half the time, I couldn't even get my hands on the movies he discussed. This was before there was a VCR in every house. But I filed the names away in my head, for safekeeping, for later. John Cassavetes. Ingmar Bergman. John Ford. The list goes on and on. The most amazing thing about At the Movies was what sets it apart from other "reviews": They weren't just telling you about the latest blockbuster, although they covered those too. They reviewed foreign films, they reviewed smaller experimental films, they introduced their television audience to the wide scope of what was being made - and their reviews were thoughtful and personal.

Over the last couple of years, At the Movies has gone through a lot of upheaval, well-documented, I won't go through it.

All I can say is: a big part of my life - my childhood, yes, but my love of At the Movies lasted way after my childhood - has now ended, and that always gives one a strange melancholy feeling. It is a reminder of the passing of time, that I am not as young as I once was. One of the things I loved to do (back when movies weren't as easily accessible as they are now - you had to limit yourself to what you could rent at the local video store) was put stars next to movies Ebert had reviewed, reviews that seemed intriguing to me, and then see if the local store had it. I am sure so many people out there had similar experiences. I saw my first Fritz Lang movie when I was 15, 16, because of a comment Ebert made in a review - that wasn't even a review of a Fritz Lang movie. But he would throw references around like that, and I just wanted to know - know everything he was talking about - He cannot be allowed to just mention Fritz Lang without me understanding him!! Next time someone says "Fritz Lang", by God, I will understand!

Roger Ebert has some words to say on his blog about the ending of At the Movies, and highlights some exciting new prospects for a new show. I think he's right (at least in my experience hanging around with online film critics and film bloggers - not to mention the people who comment on such sites): People watch more movies now, due to the many different venues where you can get your hands on such films, even if you live in the boonies. You don't have to wait for there to be a German Expressionist film festival in the big city 2 hours away from your house to gorge yourself on Fritz Lang. It could be years. People in my generation who are film buffs know what that feels like. I would scour the TV Guide every single week, looking for any Elia Kazan movie that might be playing. This was when I was in high school. They were usually playing at 2 o'clock in the morning, or sometimes, excitingly, they'd play on the weekends. But that was how I got a chance to see those movies.

It's different now.

You want to watch every single film Kurosawa made? You don't need to rely on your mom-and-pop video store, or (God forbid) Blockbuster. Netflix has them. So while the situation may seem bleak if you look at your choices at the local movie house - it really isn't, because there are so many other ways now to see movies - the movies YOU want to see.

Regardless: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, sitting in that balcony, arguing and talking and basically educating me, were such a huge part of my life for so many years. It is sad that it is gone, although it was time to let it go. (Once they got rid of the balcony and created that new set which made it look like Entertainment Tonight, you could see which way the wind was blowing. There was a total identity crisis.)

Go read Roger Ebert's elegy for the show that introduced so many of us to the glorious enterprise that is "the movies".

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March 24, 2010

Stalker (1979); Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

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In Clifford Odets' journal, he describes a conversation he had with Lee Strasberg, colleague, director, acting teacher:

[Strasberg] spoke of what he called "the blight of Ibsen", saying that Ibsen had taught most writers after him how to think undramatically. He illustrated this by an example. A man has been used to living in luxury finds he is broke and unable to face life -- he goes home and puts a bullet in his head. That, Lee said, any fair theatre person can lay out into a play. But it is not essentially a dramatic view of life. Chekhov is dramatic, he said, for this is how he treats related material: a man earns a million rubles and goes home and lies down on them and puts a bullet in his head.

The Russians, at least in their art, are deeply concerned about the state of a man's soul, and Strasberg's point (while a bit of a generalization) rings very true when you look at their greatest works. Dostoevsky, in the Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov delineates the struggle of how to lead a moral life better than anyone before or since. That scene rivals Paradise Lost in its excavation of man's fear before God, and also his fear before himself, his battles with his own demons. The psychological aspect of things like boredom, money, love, family, are seen through a very specific cultural filter, where man's spiritual life, his spiritual peace, is paramount. Yet nearly impossible to achieve in this lifetime. That's the Russian torment.

It is impossible to speak of Andrei Tarkovsky's films without talking about his philosophy of life. The two are inextricably linked. He did not make all that many films, but a couple of them I would classify as masterpieces, and while he died quite young, he was able to formulate, through his art, an entire philosophical system that had to do with the struggle of modern man to have a meaningful existence. Tarkovsky is hopeful, as many religious people are, that there will be redemption, but he also seems skeptical about the possibilities of it occurring any time soon. Either way, he knows it will not be easy. Tarkovsky is worried, truly worried, about the spiritual state of modern man, and nowhere is that more clear than in his 1979 masterwork Stalker.

Tarkovsky is an interesting case. He came into his career in the post-Stalin years in Russia, but the Cold War was at its apex when he was making his greatest films. He was able to work with the authorities, to stay within the system, but they gave him a hard time over the years, until it got so bad that he defected. He died a year or so after. I believe it broke his heart to leave Russia. He wasn't a provincial man, he read widely, one of his dreams was to film Hamlet (and what I wouldn't give to have seen that!), and he didn't feel that he needed to be in Russia to be an artist. His inspiration came from mankind itself. His film Andrei Rublev (my review here) catapulted him into worldwide fame, and it is a great film. I suppose you could see it as a metaphor for what it was like for the modern-day Soviet, but Tarkovsky didn't see it that way. Andrei Rublev was a 15th century monk in Russia who did giant triptychs, most of which were destroyed. As a matter of fact, only one remains intact. Nothing is known about him. Tarkovsky wanted to examine what kind of man would devote his life to painting pictures of religious exaltation and eternal peace in the midst of a time of great chaos. As we all know, the Bolsheviks "got rid of religion", apparently, but you would never know that from watching Tarkovsky's films. He is a deeply religious man. It is a rare talent who can put his feelings for God on the screen. It is also amazing that he was able to "get away with" as much as he did, in that environment. One of the reasons why I think Tarkovsky was able to operate freely for so long ("freely" being relative) is that he stayed away from politics entirely. You could read into his films, you could see them as grand allegories for current-day themes, but the films would suffer as a result. It's similar to many of the great films coming out of Iran right now. You could see in Children of Heaven a buried message, involving the hardships of life in Iran, the ridiculous pressures put on the citizenry (a brother and sister having to share a pair of shoes?), the class divide which is so intense in Tehran - that is definitely all there, but if you only see it as the allegory, you take away much of its magic. These directors, working under these conditions of censorship and oppression, have to be very very tricky, and the good ones always focus on story. The story they are actually telling. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is a clarion call for spirituality, for what happens to a society when God is left out. His context there is 15th century Russia, but you can see the parallels.

Tarkovsky was a fan of science fiction, and his 1972 film Solyaris was his first foray into that area. He returns to that territory again in Stalker. He goes even deeper into his life-long concerns about the atrophy of man's spirit in the modern world. He was an anti-materialist, definitely, and his ultimate question about events always was: Will this make man happier? Better? Will this bring him closer to his spirit? Or will this separate him even further? Ironically, Tarkovsky ended his life as an exile - but his films all along, made within Russia, have to do with man being exiled from himself and from God.

Stalker was based on the novella Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but Tarkovsky made it his own, as he explains here in a 1979 interview:

I had recommended a short novel Picnic on the Roadside, to my friend, the filmmaker Giorgi Kalatozishvili, thinking he might adapt it to film. Afterwards, I don't know why, Giorgi could not obtain the rights from the authors of the novel, the Strugatsky brothers, and he abandoned the idea of this film. The idea began to turn in my head, at first from time to time, and then more and more often. It seemed to me that this novel could be made into a film with a unity of location, time, and action. This classic unity - Aristotelian in my view - permits us to approach truly authentic filmmaking, which for me is not action film, outwardly dynamic. I must say, too, that the script of Stalker has nothing in common with the novel ... except for the two words, "Stalker" and "Zone". So you see the history of the origins of my film is deceptive.

In Stalker, there has been some sort of apocalyptic event. It is thought that a meteorite had crashed into "our small country" (the country is never named), but the meteorite was never found. Troops were sent to investigate the destroyed area, and they never returned. It became clear to the nameless authorities that the area had to be cordoned off, and it is known as The Zone. A great mystery surrounds the Zone. Nobody knows the truth of it. What is it? There is a rumor that in the center of the Zone, there is a Room, and in that Room, man's greatest wish (whatever it may be) can come true. But how to get into the Zone, which is surrounded by electrical fences and barbed wire, and armed outposts?

This is where The Stalker comes in. The Stalker acts as a guide. People pay him money to take them into the Zone. It is a dangerous prospect. Not just getting past the guards, but once in the Zone, all bets are off. It is a place that changes, constantly - the laws of physics do not apply. It is as though the land itself is alive, and it recognizes when strangers have arrived, so it starts to shift, throwing traps and pitfalls in their way.


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The Stalker lives in a dreary cottage with his unhappy wife and daughter, who has something wrong with her legs. She is "a child of the Zone", which suggests to me that some Chernobyl event may have occurred. The landscape outside the Stalker's cottage is terrifying and industrial. Huge nuclear power plants loom in the distance, and it appears that the entire world is an abandoned construction site.

At the beginning of the film, the Stalker meets up with two men who want to go to the Zone. Money changes hands. They stand in a dingy bar and talk over how it will go.


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The two men who enlist the Stalker's hope are known as "Writer" and "Professor". Everyone has their own reasons to want to go to the Zone. It is only what YOU think of it that matters. The Writer is cynical, and he feels he has lost his inspiration. When we first see him, he is having a conversation with a woman in a fur coat (who also wants to go to the Zone, but the Stalker sends her packing), and she is wondering about the mystery of it all, she references the Bermuda Triangle. The Writer scoffs at this. There is no mystery. There are no UFOs, no invisible forces - he is a realist. And yet here he is, about to embark on a journey into the unknown. The Professor teaches physics at a university, and because of his life's work examining things like atoms and protons he is more willing to accept that the invisible and mysterious is also real, but his desire to go to the Zone comes from his yearning to make tangible the intangible. He needs proof. The Stalker, a weary tormented man, has his doubts about both of these men, but they start on their journey.

The opening sequence, with the three men in a massive roofless jeep, driving around through decaying warehouses, is a masterpiece of style. The setting is extraordinary, and you wonder where the hell they were filming. These do not look like sets. The sound of dripping water is paramount (a very Tarkovskyian sound - it appears in most of his films), and the three men drive around in circles, hiding from the guards patrolling the main gate. It becomes clear that a train comes to the outpost, and this will be their way in. The gates open for the train, momentarily, and they will drive in behind the train. The Stalker explains to the other two that while it is dangerous, the guards do not want to go further into the Zone, everyone is afraid of it, so they have that on their side.


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Tarkovsky drives his point home by filming the early sections of the film in a saturated black-and-white. It looks like a daguerrotype. Like we are looking at a world long gone away. Tarkovsky preferred to film in black and white, he felt it was a more realistic cinematic language, but here he chose to film the scenes in the Zone itself in vibrant color, to perhaps suggest that the Zone is what everyone thinks it is: a magical place where dreams can come true.

The journey through the Zone is filmed methodically. I think Tarkovsky's point about Aristotelian unities is one of the strengths of this film which could, if you think about it, have seemed rather silly. A magical land where dreams come true? But the journey is shown, step by step, and as they travel, they talk. The philosophical differences of the men become clear. Arguments break out. Both the Writer and the Professor have a hard time just doing what the Stalker says, even though he begs them to follow his instructions exactly - the Zone is dangerous, like a predator, it will eat you up if you don't follow the rules. That is why they hired him.


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Stalker is a dialogue-heavy script, unlike Andrei Rublev which is told mainly through images. I loved the dialogue. It wrestles with the issues, as opposed to presenting them clearly. It is obvious that these three men have different contexts and concerns, but above all else, you worry for them. The Zone, as filmed by Tarkovsky, calls to mind Planet of the Apes, an eerily familiar landscape, but it is a place where a civilization has died. Enormous telephone poles stand tipped over to the side. Buildings lie in ruin. In the earlier scenes, nature is almost nonexistent. There is no grass. The only water in the film appears in a glass on the bedside table, and dripping from the various ceilings, a sure sign of decay. But in the Zone, there is a rushing river. The sound of the water, roaring by, is a tumultuous sound of life - but it's also somewhat ominous, as the entire Zone is. Beneath the water (in a stunning tracking shot, my favorite shot of the film), you can see debris from the world gone by. Fragments of newspaper, syringes, old coins, a religious postcard ... Tarkovsky slowly trains the camera to pan over these objects, seen through the distorted waviness of water.


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It is difficult to not see in all of this a criticism of the Soviet Union's rapacious attitude towards the environment. The world is one of the means of production, to be used as such. Used up and left behind. Tarkovsky and his crew were exposed to toxic chemicals during the shooting of the film, and Tarkovsky probably already had the cancer that would eventually kill him. His evocation of the environment (all environments) in Stalker has to be seen to be believed. The Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, walk cautiously through an overgrown field, towards some unknown destination, having to trust in fate, having to let their innermost wishes come to the surface, because that is the only reason they are there, and the only way they will survive.

As the three men get closer and closer to the mythical "Room" at the center of the Zone, they all start to grapple more openly with what it is they are seeking. What would it be like to have your dreams come true? Again, I go back to the anecdote I started this essay with: Lee Strasberg's conception of what was dramatic, and why Chekhov was the primary example. What is dramatic about a man losing his money and killing himself? Isn't that what we expect? But how about a man becoming rich and then killing himself?

Why I thought of this anecdote when I sat down to write this essay was not just that it seemed to have something to say about Russian artists, but also that the Stalker's predecessor, the one who trained him and taught him to be a Stalker, was known as the Porcupine. And he came back from the Zone one time and found himself fabulously rich. The next week he hung himself. The specter of this hangs over our current-day Stalker - because there is something terrible about dreams, and wishes ... and one of the things he tries to make clear about the Room, is that your wish must be something from your deepest heart - not a selfish or worldly short-term wish.


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This is a true Tarkovskyian warning. Man has been made corrupt by money. Tarkovsky made no bones about his feelings about the West, and while he enjoyed time in Italy and England, etc., he felt that the West had abandoned spirituality in pursuit of worldly goods, and the toll of this cannot even be measured. By abandoning God, Man has abandoned himself. Tarkovsky worried about this (meaning, worked on it) in film after film. Man must look to God, to deeper and higher truths, for what he wants out of life. The Stalker repeatedly warns the Writer and the Professor about this, but it's one of the trials of the human condition. How many of us really can "let go" of the world like that? Tarkovsky insists that it is the only way.

An eerie frightening film, Stalker makes use of spectacular natural locations: empty dark tunnels, mossy overgrown buildings, a quiet reflective river - but there is also one fantastical sequence when they find themselves in a giant inner room in the Zone, with mounds of cylindrical sand on the floor, and two flying cawing birds, the only sign of life so far (except for an ominous black dog who seems to stalk the periphery of the three men's journey). This space is not the Room, but it is the threshold to the Room, and everything starts to break down there. The men, so close to the truth (the yearning of all mankind when looking up at the stars and wondering what the hell is up there?) begin to resist, begin to fight against what is to come.


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The last scene of the film (which I wouldn't dream of revealing) packs such an enormous punch (visually, thematically - it is different from all that came before) - that it acts as a catalyst in the viewer. It tells us something we have not yet learned. It suggests that things really ARE not what they seem, that they are far more mysterious than anyone had ever dreamed. Not even the Stalker knows the real truth. To quote Tarkovsky's favorite play:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,. Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Stalker is a stunning accomplishment.


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March 22, 2010

The Ghost Writer (2010); Dir. Roman Polanski

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From the opening shot of The Ghost Writer, directed by 76 year old Roman Polanski, of an enormous ferry pulling into a pier at night, you know you are in the hands of a master. The score, by the awesome Alexandre Desplat, is tense and orchestral, an old-school score, making it apparent, from the get-go, that things are not as they seem. Slowly, the ferry pulls toward the screen, backing up to the dock, and it threatens to overwhelm the entire frame. It is not clear why it is such a frightening image, not yet, but that's Polanski. Nobody knows how to create mood and tone like he does.


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One of my favorite Polanski stories is of an early screening of Rosemary's Baby, a film full of deeply destabilizing camera angles. You want to pull your hair out and just be allowed to look at something headon, thankyouverymuch. There's a scene where Rosemary is on the phone, sitting on the edge of the bed, and Polanski has placed his camera outside the room and around the corner a bit, so that you cannot see Rosemary. The phone call may be a benign one, but the camera angle tells a different story. And at the early screening, the entire audience leaned over to the side, as one, to try to see what was around the corner.

This is somewhat of a lost art today in cinema, especially in thrillers which seem to rely more on quick cuts and "gotcha" surprise moments, which may be satisfying in the short-term, but seem way too easy in the long-term. The good thrillers are successful because of the mood created, and it may be the quietest moments that are the most terrifying. I am thinking of Leopoldine Konstantine's slow descent down the stairs in Notorious, as she comes to meet Ingrid Bergman for the first time. She is seen in long-shot, through the doorway to the parlor, at the top of the stairs. She looks incredibly forbidding, but it is hard to pinpoint why, since we can't see her face yet. She descends, never taking her eyes off Bergman, and approaches - all in one shot, so she walks right into the closeup. Her eyes are enough to make you run fleeing into the night. That's tension.

There are a lot of Hitchcock references in The Ghost Writer, particularly one scene where a note with an explosive message on it is passed, hand by hand, through a crowd, the camera following the note's progression. It reminded me of the notorious key, in Notorious, and keeping track of the key, in her hand, Grant's hand, on the keychain, becomes one of the games of the film, including the famous tracking shot from high up on the balcony down to the middle of the party to a closeup of Ingrid Bergman's hand holding the key.


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The Ghost Writer tells the story of a writer (played by Ewan McGregor) who is a bit unmoored in his life (no family, no dependents), and gets the job of being a ghost writer to Adam Lang, the former English Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan). McGregor's character name is listed as "Ghost". His predecessor was found drowned on the shores of Martha's Vineyard, where Adam Lang has a forbidding private home, and there appears to be something sketchy about the death. But apparently he was drunk, that's the story, anyway, so McGregor is called in as a replacement.

From the get-go, there is something strange about the assignment. McGregor is given a manuscript to read, another manuscript, by Adam Lang's lawyer (played by Timothy Hutton), and on his way home, he is mugged, and the manuscript stolen, by two ninja-types on a motorcycle. Did they think it was the Lang manuscript? The one already written by the former ghost writer? The Ghost is freaked out, but the money he will be paid for this assignment ($250,000) is more money than he has ever seen in his life. He gets on a plane for Martha's Vineyard.

Lang lives in a fortress on the beach, a squat stone house that calls to mind a bunker, with the waves rolling in only feet away. The landscape is chilling and evocative (made me think of my time on Block Island and how bleak it can get on islands in the winter), and Polanski fills the wide screen with cold grey waves and lowering leaden sky. It's incredibly ominous. The Ghost is ushered through multiple security checks, and every face glimpsed by the slowly moving camera appears to have a secret.

The former ghost writer had written an entire manuscript, and it will be the new ghost's job to whip it into shape. The manuscript is kept under lock and key, and must never be shown to anyone. The Ghost has to sign a confidentiality agreement, and is not allowed to take the manuscript back to the small inn, where he will be staying for the duration of the assignment.


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At the house of Adam Lang, the Ghost is introduced to a multitude of new characters: Kim Cattrall plays Amelia Bly, Adam Lang's administrator (and mistress). She is the one who shows the Ghost the ropes. Cattrall is quite eerie here, so different from Samantha in Sex and the City, and it's nice to hear her speak in what is her natural accent. She moves with poise and control, no extraneous movements, and always has a bright yet cold smile on her face. Olivia Williams is marvelous as Adam Lang's wife, a woman with secrets and complexity (as everyone has here), who suggests worlds of bitterness - which seem to be one thing (the normal long-suffering wife of a workaholic famous man) and then, by the end, is revealed to be something totally different. There's a terrific cameo by Eli Wallach, who plays an old man who lives down the road, and appears to have some new information about the drowned former ghost writer. And then there is Adam Lang himself, played with gusto by Pierce Brosnan. Based on Tony Blair, obviously, Lang had a reputation for being a party animal at Cambridge, and that quickly becomes clear to the Ghost that this is not to be talked about, or dwelled upon in the manuscript. Again, things are not what they seem. Is it that Lang doesn't want to be portrayed as a lightweight, or is there something really to hide back there in those Cambridge years?


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The Ghost has no idea what he is getting into, but he gamely begins his assignment, reading through the manuscript, and conducting interviews with Lang. The room where he writes is a masterpiece of production design and imagination: a cold stone-walled study, with black leather chairs and couches, with one wall floor to ceiling glass, looking out on the whipping sand-dunes and big dark rollers coming in. McGregor sits at the desk, flipping through the pages, and the setting is so tightly coiled, so controlled, yet just outside is Mother Nature in all her wintry chaos.


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There are political themes in The Ghost Writer, with some obvious parallels to current-day events (a defense company called "Hatherton" becomes crucial), but the film avoids being too on the nose. There's wit to the references, and pessimism (it's a deeply cynical film), but the main thrust of it is not Lang's shady political past but the ghost writer's stumble down a blind alleyway, looking for the truth. McGregor is our eyes. We are as disoreinted as he is. Lang, within a day of The Ghost's tenure, is indicted for war crimes by The Hague. All hell breaks loose. Protesters pile up outside the gates at Lang's Martha's Vineyard Home, the phones ring off the hook, and the Ghost, a non-political person, finds himself entangled in the situation, writing statements for Lang, which are then read on CNN, and he has mixed feelings about it. "You're now an accomplice," smiles Amelia Bly.


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The Ghost isn't a particularly dare-devil personality, and isn't all that interested in politics - he doesn't care about the crusade, or the "talking points", but as he spends more time in the eerie house on the shore (even the maid seems ominous), he begins to ask questions, finding locked doors everywhere he goes (metaphorically and literally - another nod to Notorious, with that damn keychain). He discovers a folder left behind by the former ghost writer, with notes, and photographs with underlined names on the back - and McGregor wonders about it. It all has to do with Cambridge, with Lang's time there as an undergraduate. What is forbidden about this subject?


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I suppose you could see all kinds of allegories in The Ghost Writer: a commentary on our times, and the war on terror, and the allegiance between Britain and the United States. Sure, that's there. There is also a sense of Polanski himself, both in the hunted and persecuted Adam Lang, as well as the "ghost writer", a man who has been unmoored, in a way, from normal life, has become a ghost. Hidden behind the scenes, still operating, but living in a deeply threatening universe that is hellbent on grinding him to a pulp. For me, the strength of The Ghost Writer does not come from these allegorical connections, although it adds to the ominous through-the-looking-glass feeling. The Ghost Writer is a fantastic thriller, period, with or without the true-to-life backstories, and Polanski, like no other, creates a mood and a world where above all, you just want to escape. The audience wants to escape the tension, and so does the ghost. But there always comes a point of no return. Even if you wanted to escape, you could not.

A better-looking film you won't see this year (although Shutter Island comes close), with a score that gets inside your head, inside your nervous system, The Ghost Writer is a must-see.


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March 21, 2010

Across the Universe (2007); Dir. Julie Taymor

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In the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical, it was accepted that suddenly, in the middle of a scene of dialogue, a character would break into song. Another way to say it is: There was confidence in the genre. We've lost a lot of that in our more ironic age, which is even true in Broadway musicals themselves at the present moment, where the classic old-school musical is now out of style, and when it is done, more often than not it is done with a wink-wink at the audience, making the whole thing into kitsch. This is all fine - sensibilities change, and the musical then becomes a problem that must be solved. Good directors know how to handle this. They understand that they must create a context where the genre can live again, and it seems organic.

I was not an admirer of the movie Chicago, but one of the reasons it worked (I admit grudgingly) was that Rob Marshall dealt with this problem head-on. He made the songs into interior monologues, the characters going into psychological dream-spaces, where it would make sense that they would sing. Marshall realized it was an issue - that you can't go old-school with this stuff, not now, modern audiences don't tolerate it - and so each song occurred inside a character's mind. I didn't like the movie, but I liked how he handled the "problem" of the musical. It worked. Dreamgirls (the movie) did not deal with this issue well at all. When the scenes were flat-out performances, of the girls onstage, or rehearsing, it was fine. Then, the movie knew what it was: basically a concert movie. But when suddenly characters were singing in the middle of their lives, breaking into song, essentially, the movie totally lost its way. I felt that it was embarrassed for itself in those moments, especially in the number "Family". I winced through that scene, watching the actors try to pretend that a context had been provided for them where it would make sense that they would break into song. Jamie Foxx seemed mortified. Nobody knew what movie they were in. Like I said, when the movie showed actual performances, it was fine - but the problem of the musical had not at all been handled, and so the movie was very wobbly. If you're doing a musical, then you need to have confidence in the genre, and that's final. Dreamgirls didn't. They WANTED to be a biopic, they knew HOW to do a biopic, but that's not how the thing is written. It's a musical. Don't condescend to the genre. Figure out a way to make it palatable to a modern audience or don't do it. If the conversation-songs had been left out of the film, or somehow turned into onstage performances, perhaps the movie would have felt like it had more confidence in itself.

Julie Taymor, director of Across the Universe, knows a little bit about Broadway musicals, having created and directed The Lion King, although much of that project (the huge puppets, the handmade quality of the effects) breaks the mold. I saw it and it certainly doesn't look like anything else. Her film projects so far have been eclectic and fascinating (Frida, Titus, and her next project is The Tempest, which I cannot WAIT to see) and she is working at her full powers with Across the Universe, the "musical" made up only of Beatles songs. It is hard to express the joy and enthusiasm in this film, not to mention its wild creativity in lighting/production design/visual effects. How many worlds does Taymor create here? It's dazzling. Suburban Massachusetts, all golden light and green grass. Liverpool, England, cramped alleyways and dark muted tones. The lower East side of Manhattan, early 60s, with colored grafitti and crowded sidewalks. A drug trip in a psychedelic school bus. A dreamy gorgeous underwater sequence. Strawberries pinned to the wall of a bohemian apartment. The Detroit riots, with cars burning, and handheld cameras. Each world created with total confidence in the story being told, and also the genre itself. There is maybe half an hour of straight dialogue in the film. The rest is told through song.

The film opens with a shot of an empty beach, with a young man sitting in the sand by the shore. The color palette is muted, greys and browns, a bleak setting. The camera moves in slowly towards the boy. He stares out at the ocean. As the camera pulls in close to him, he turns and looks directly at the camera, and starts to sing. "Is there anybody going to listen to my story? All about a girl who came to stay. She's the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don't regret a single day."


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Taymor says in the director's commentary that they wanted to start off immediately with a song, and to make it even more explicit, have the young man sing directly to the camera. This works on multiple levels, but the main reason it works is because it tells the audience right away that This Is a Musical, no bones about it. He breaks the fourth wall, as people do all the time in musicals, and he sings. There will be no caginess about the genre. There is no embarrassment, like: "sorry, just going to break into song here, I know it's weird, bear with me ..." which is how I felt Jamie Foxx performed his numbers in Dreamgirls. He seemed embarrassed. Like: "Hey, I thought I was in a serious biopic - what is THIS shit you're making me do now??" Taymor was so smart in this choice, for the opening of the film, and also smart in the song she chose to start the movie. How perfect is it that the young man is saying, "Please listen to my story. I want to tell you a story ..." So the opening moment works on the genre level - it is a song, sung to an audience - and it also works on the story level. "I am going to tell you a story now." It is not realistic, and the film tells you right away what it is, and what you can expect.




Directly following this, the camera moves to the waves, with a change in music. The melancholy tones of "Girl" change, to the jarring screaming of "Helter Skelter", and in the curls of the waves we start to see black and white footage, newsreel-style, of the protests of the 1960s, with cops in riot gear, chaos, screaming, people being hauled away by the cops, with a couple of shots of gorgeous Evan Rachel Wood, screaming and fighting back.


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The connection is made visually: this is "the girl" of whom he sings. Immediately clear, done with no dialogue. But yet another thing happens in this segue: Taymor lets us know that the style of the movie is going to be non-realistic, like a collage or mosaic. We will be moving through different worlds, and we should not expect things to unfold in a literal fashion. Music will be key to this. The Beatles are introduced head-on. That's the whole point of the movie.

In this short opening sequence, from the young man on the beach to the waves revealing scenes of protests and chaos, Taymor tells us, with total confidence, Here is what we will be doing, here is what you can expect.

That is confidence.

And because she (and her team) have confidence, I can relax. I know she knows where she's going, what she's doing, and while that does not always translate to a good or moving movie, in this case it does. There are scenes that have quickly become favorites of mine, things I will go back to again and again (the opening sequence with two versions of "Hold Me Tight" - American suburbia and Liverpool underground).




There is a whimsy here, yes, and a creativity with the song choices and their placement; they obviously had a lot of fun weaving the songs into the story. It doesn't sacrifice reality. The first time I saw it, there were literally moments that I found myself laughing out loud, not because it was funny, but because I was so overjoyed by what had been created, the ridiculousness of it, and how ... wow .... in many cases I was seeing something I had never seen before. There are references, certainly, to pop culture through the 60s, Hard Day's Night, of course, and the Monty Python animated sketches. It's fun to revel in it.


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It's a rare movie that can provide that. Most visuals in movies are variations on a theme. Sunsets, dinner tables, horse stables, whatever - they can be quite beautiful but we have seen them all before. When a director can show me something I literally have never seen before, I fall in love. It's one of the reasons why I love foreign films so much, and especially films from Iran and Central Asia. The context is so different, the worlds so different, the perspective so different - that often I am confronted with a landscape or viewpoint that I have literally never seen before. Love! Julie Taymor gives me that over and over and over again in Across the Universe, which tells actually a rather conventional story (6 characters converge to New York City in the early 60s, their paths intersect, and the Vietnam War changes everything), but the WAY it is told, and how it LOOKS, is completely its own.

Some of the storytelling devices here annoyed some critics, and I see their point, but it all worked for me. The 6 lead characters are named Jude, Lucy, Prudence, Max, Jo Jo and Sadie. I loved that. Cutesy? Perhaps. But it also was practical: if you want to include "Hey Jude" in a movie-musical of Beatles numbers, then it certainly helps, in terms of story, if you have a character named Jude. If you want to have "Dear Prudence" act as a sort of "Cheer Up Charlie" number, then it helps that the character who needs the pep talk is named Prudence. Perhaps it's a bit literal of a choice, but I didn't mind that. I thought it was an effective device, and got us even deeper into the story. The entire context for these people is Beatles songs. There is no other music in the film, no other suggestion that other bands may exist. We are inside the songs. So in that world, of course all of the characters would have names from the songs themselves.


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There were also many in-jokes, for anyone familiar with the Beatles songbook, and I loved that. It's a bit of a wink-wink, but it seemed appropriate with the non-literal material, where the entire world is a Beatles song. If you get it, you get it. If you don't, it doesn't exclude you. Back in Liverpool, Jude worked at the shipyards, and when he goes to pick up his paycheck, he makes a comment that tells us it will be his last paycheck, he's taking off. The guy behind the counter says kindly, "I felt the same way when I was your age. I told myself, 'When I'm 64, I'll be long gone from this place.'" In New York, Jude has hooked up with a bunch of bohemian characters and they all live in one apartment. One rainy night, a girl named Prudence crawls in through a window and stands there, she needs a place to stay. Sadie looks at her and says, "Where did she come from?" and Jude replies, "She came in through the bathroom window." I loved these in-jokes. Maybe they're a bit corny, but so are musicals. It fits. It's funny and irreverent and a little bit stupid. Perfect for the material and context.


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Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a boy from Liverpool, working in the shipyards. He leaves his mother behind, and sails off to America, in search for his father, who had impregnated his mother while stationed in Liverpool and then left.


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Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a young American teenager, whose boyfriend has just shipped off to Vietnam. It is the early 60s, so the turmoil and strife of the late 60s is yet to come. Lucy lives in a big sprawling house, goes to high school, and writes love letters to her boyfriend. She is conventional, perhaps, but there are clues that she is also a searcher, a questioner (she doesn't want to have kids, for example, she doesn't see the point). This will be important later in the story.


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Max (Joe Anderson) is Lucy's wild brother. He is currently an undergraduate at Princeton, and he spends most of his time goofing off and getting drunk ("high with a little help from his friends"), not going to class, and rebelling. The spectre of the draft is just starting, but he really wants to drop out of Princeton, and hang out for a while, find out what he really wants to do. His parents are horrified.


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Jo Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) is a guitarist, who moves to New York in the wake of the Detroit riots, to escape the carnage and get a new start. A kind of Jimi Hendrix character, he tries to find his own style of music, while also supporting others, but it soon becomes clear that he is a solo artist, end-stop.


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Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is a singer of the Janis Joplin variety, and she lives in a sprawling apartment in the East Village, filled with other artists and bohemians. Jude and Max live there, and eventually Lucy moves in too. Sadie is a struggling artist, playing small venues, but she is being courted by a major label. A kind of den mother to the strays who come her way, she exemplifies the communal aspect of so much of 60s youth culture, yet also the need for the individual to assert herself. With a rocking raspy voice, she KILLS "Oh, Darling", and "Do It in the Road" and "Helter Skelter".


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Prudence (TV Carpio) is a runaway from Ohio who also ends up in New York. An Asian American teenager, isolated, not only by her race but by the fact that she is attracted to other girls, she finds solace and comfort in the idiosyncratic world of Bohemian New York, where she doesn't have to try to fit in, but can be herself.

The acting is good. I cared about these people. I liked the sense of breath that was in the songs, the sense that the songs were just extensions of the scenes.

The film is a masterpiece of integration. There's an organic feel to the plot, despite all the artifice, and the story is involving. Jude finds his father who works as a janitor at Princeton University. During his time at Princeton, he befriends the wild good-hearted Max, who takes him home for Thanksgiving. This is where Jude meets Lucy for the first time. Love at first sight? Perhaps, but she has a boyfriend. Max drops out of Princeton and he and Jude travel to New York. They get rooms at Sadie's apartment. Jude gets a job as an illustrator at an underground magazine. Max gets his draft notice and burns it at the table. Things are starting to get serious, but at first nobody really notices. Lucy does, however, because her boyfriend is killed in Vietnam. Heartbroken, she moves to New York to be with her brother, to get away for a bit before she goes to college. Jude and Lucy start a romance, sweet and sincere. Max begins to spiral out of control. He gets drafted. He goes to Vietnam. Lucy becomes involved in the anti-war movement.


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With cameos by Joe Cocker (who plays, in one song, "Come Together", a hobo, a pimp, and a hippie), Eddie Izzard (who plays a Mr. Kite, who runs an insane carnival in the middle of a field), and Bono, who plays Dr. Robert, a drug guru along the lines of Timothy Leary, the 6 leads are relative unknowns, which makes their singing and acting all the more potent, since we only know them in this context. The conversational quality of many of the songs (Jude whisper-singing in his girlfriend's ear as they make out, "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you ...") makes this world seem completely logical and true: These people sing Beatles songs and that's how this world operates. If that sense were not in place, if that context had not been created, then the entire thing would have seemed flimsy and pointless. (As in: what, you can't write your own script? You need to use Beatles songs to hang your hat on?) Taymor and her team (especially the musical arrangements, done by Eliot Goldenthal) are absolutely specific in every moment. Nothing repeats. The songs live and breathe, not just because they are classic songs, but because they live in this particular context, they help tell this very specific story. It's mind-boggling how successful this is, when you imagine how much it COULD have gone so wrong.


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Another thing that really makes Across the Universe special is that it is (for the most part) live singing. Normally, with movie musicals, you record the songs beforehand, and then when you film the scene, you lip sync to the recording. It's a practical matter, a sound issue, all that, but Taymor is up to something different here. She wanted to create songs that feel like speech, choreography that feels like regular movement, but never to forget that this is, ultimately, an artificial universe, one where people sing their language. So most of the singing that you see in Across the Universe is live. This is amazingly rare.

Because Julie Taymor is the director, and her work with puppets and giant hand-made creations is her forte, there is a lot of that here, so what you see is real, as opposed to computer-generated effects. There is choreography, which adds to the effect, never taking away. Businessmen stomp around in midtown, moving as one. Max, in a VA hospital, is haunted by dancing sexy nurses holding syringes. Prostitutes writhe on fire escapes in the lower east side. What I loved so much in all of this was not just the acceptance of the musical format, but the wholehearted embrace of it.

What could have been a series of gimmicks turns into a heartfelt story about the last years of the 1960s and the upheaval, both political and social. It does not become didactic, it has a spirit to it, all held together by the vast songbook of the Beatles catalog - the early innocent rock and roll tunes like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", which here is upended by having Prudence sing it, in her cheerleader uniform in Ohio, staring longingly at another female cheerleader. Quite unbalancing. And the song is slowed down to a ballad. I loved Ebert's comment about the use of the song in Across the Universe:

When Prudence sings "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for example, I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It's not happy if it's a hand you are never, never, never going to hold. The love that dare not express its name turns in sadness to song.

That flexibility inherent in most of the Beatles songs, and how they can "take" so much interpretation, is one of the reasons they are so extraordinary. The movie has a lot of fun with that.

And one of its strongest features is that despite its startling visuals and the fact that, you know, it's a musical, it keeps its eye on the ball, and never forgets that why we will invest, why we will enter into this magical world where people sing instead of speak, is that it presents to us characters who seem real to us, who we care about. It has some things to say, about the radicalization of American youth during the Vietnam years, and it's not what you would expect. There is a depersonalization that goes on when politics becomes the filter for all of human life. The symbol of having a television put into your living room so you can watch the war, instead of talk to each other, or make love, or art, or have a personal life, is made potent here. Ultimately, what Across the Universe is about is about the friendships we make along the way, the bonds we create. All you need is love. Love will not stop wars. But it sure makes our time here better, and if you forget that - if you abstract experience into just a political journey - you miss the whole point. Of course none of that is clear in times of upheaval when the stakes are high, but Across the Universe attempts to address that situation. Lucy begins to cut off from personal relationships. They seem trivial in the face of what is happening in Vietnam. Her boyfriend died over there. Her brother is over there. What does it matter that her boyfriend is angry that she works too much? But it does matter. Without love, we are nothing. There is a great scene where Jude bursts into the offices of the anti-war movement organization where Lucy works and sings "Revolution" right at her, mocking her commitment, mocking the earnestness, and mocking the cause above all else. This was a no-no in those days, and is certainly a no-no still, in some quarters. But Jude nails it. Not that there are not causes that are worth fighting for, but to what end? The humorlessness of activists is sneered at here, and it reminded me of the great scene in Reds when John Reed reprimands one of his colleagues for missing an important meeting, and Louise Bryant, his lover, looks on, disturbed, realizing that he has changed. He is no longer a journalist. He has a cause. The cause above all things. He crucifies his former friend, who couldn't make the meeting because his wife was hemorrhaging. In the world of high-stakes revolution, such events are trivial. Personal life must take a back seat. It's brutal. Inhuman. Across the Universe, in its own quirky way, captures the heartlessness of "community" when it insists on coming before the individual. Now that's radical.

A rich experience, fun and moving and connected, Across the Universe was one of my favorite films of the last decade. A true gem of creation. It made me clap my hands in glee at its sheer inventiveness and joy, and how often can one say that?


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"It feels so right, now hold me tight ..."


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"Tell me I'm the only one and then I might ..."


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"Yeah you ... got that something ... I think you'll understand ..."


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"I get by with a little help from my friends ..."


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"Every night when everybody has fun, here am I, sitting all on my own ..."


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"Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again ..."


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"Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be ..."


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"He shoot Coca Cola ..."


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"If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true and help me understand?"


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"I want you! I want you so bad! I want you-ou-ou. I want you so bad it's driving me mad, it's driving me mad!"


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"She's so .... heavyyyyyyyyyy. She's so heavyyyyyyyyy!"


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"The sun is up, the sky is blue, it's beautiful, and so are you, dear Prudence ..."


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"I am the egg man ... They are the egg men ... I am the walrus!"


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"For the benefit of Mr. Kite there will be a shot tonight on trampoline ..."


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"Because the world is round it turns me on ... Because the world is round ..."


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"Oh, darling! Please believe me! I'd never do you no harm ..."


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"Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields ..."


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"With every mistake, we must surely be learning ... while my guitar gently weeps ..."


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"Jai guru deva om ... Nothing's gonna change my world ..."


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"I need a fix cause I'm going' down ..."


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I believe that Lucy is, indeed, in the sky ...


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Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

March 19, 2010

Dahmer (2002); Dir: David Jacobson

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Shot in only 23 days, David Jacobson's Dahmer (he wrote and directed it) caused a lot of flak when it came out. Dahmer was shown as a human being, as opposed to a villain from a comic book. Because that's what he was. A human being. No excuses. Stalin was a human being. And what does THAT mean about the rest of us? The people who complain about this do not realize (or do not care) that it's far worse to show him as a human being rather than a Balrog from the deeps of Middle Earth. The implications are terrifying. I understand the victims' families issues here, but we're talking about art. Dahmer is not glorified here and his victims are not demonized (as they often were, by the cops at the time, and the press). Excuses are not made for him, we are not asked to defend him, but he is shown in a realistic light. Here is what happened.

Dahmer does not attempt to explain it all away, because honestly it can't be. However: the fact that Dahmer obviously had feelings about what he did, he spoke them very clearly afterwards, that he knew it was bad (he was meticulous in covering it up), and yet still he refused to suppress his actions based on those feelings that it was wrong (the definition of morality, in my opinion) is interesting. It makes him cinematic. Watchable. Even likeable at times. This is the reality of Dahmer. Oh well. Art's complicated. You want black and white go to Jesus Camp; don't go to the movies. People seem to feel certain things shouldn't be shown at all because perhaps it would seem like the actions in the film were being condoned. This attitude would wipe out most works of art that I find relevant, exciting, challenging, and important (bye bye Crime and Punishment!), so I'll leave all that behind so we can move on and talk about the movie.

Dahmer was no dummy. He experimented, he knew what he needed (as horrible as it was), and so calculated and planned to get that need met. You know, I need good friends, intellectual stimulation, and the love of a good man. Dahmer needed to create his own sex zombies. Whatever floats your boat, Jeff. But in terms of getting his needs met: There was something charming about him to get these guys to come with him back to his apartment. People in the gay community at the time referred to him as a "honey". Certainly not a catch, like the writhing six-pack-ab boys in tank tops at the nightclubs, the ones Dahmer stalked, but he wasn't a pariah. A friend of a friend of mine actually went on a couple dates with Dahmer. He was nice, and kind of boring, this person said.

Later on, when it was discovered that he had been slipping sleeping pills into boys's drinks and raping them in downstairs rooms at the bar, word got out pretty quick - but before that, he didn't make waves. He operated by stealth. He had a harmless persona. He was a cunning and very organized killer (until the end). He came off as completely unthreatening, almost a beaten-dog, with a shy smile, and he had boyish good looks. He may have been socially awkward, but he didn't seem frightening or dangerous. It's hard to see that now, because we only view him through the filter of his actions, but if you can picture that you didn't know what he had done, and you saw a shy kind of sweet guy buying you a drink ... it's a very effective ploy. While "cunning" has connotations of the Shylock-sterotype, the character rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee ... that kind of characterization is not what Jacobson is after here, thank God. Dahmer was one of God's lonely people, to paraphrase, Travis Bickle, another cinematic psychopath. The two performances have a lot in common. There's one brilliant shot in Taxi Driver where Travis calls up Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd) to ask her out for another date, after their disastrous first date where he takes her to a porn movie. The camera is in a hallway, and we see Travis on the payphone. As the conversation goes down, and you can tell, by Travis's responses, that she is turning him down for a second date, the camera slowly backs up and then - amazingly - goes around the corner so we can't even see Travis anymore. Oh, Marty, I love you so. The moment is so painful, and the camera move is so specific - it is objective yet subjective as well. To me, it IS the eye of God in that moment. God is useless in the world of Taxi Driver, yet very much present, and in that moment, He cannot bear to even look at Travis during the moment of rejection. And yet the camera also, in that moment, operates in a totally subjective way: it IS Travis, and in that moment, he completely detaches from himself - the pain is too great - he can't be in the moment, he has to back away from himself and go around the corner. Granted, Bickle is a fictional character, while Dahmer is real, but the psychological portrait is quite similar, and why Bickle resonates to such an intense degree. He explains so much. And yet he also explains nothing.


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That very lack of explanation, which makes Bickle so terrifying, is what makes Dahmer such an unbalancing experience. The film has some composite characters, but most of it is based on either trial testimony or what Dahmer himself said in interviews (hitting the tree with the baseball bat, for example, or how he cried after he killed his first victim when he was a teenager - he said it was the last time he ever cried).

The film has a dreamy pace to it, which also may have been jarring when it first came out, to audiences expecting action. I, for one, was riveted by it, and chilled. There isn't much killing in this movie. There is only one scene of explicit gore, and it is a very specific moment in Dahmer's life - his first killing - which shows him reaching the point of no return. In a way, Dahmer resists, totally, the titillation of a horror-thriller by concentrating solely on the psychology of a totally isolated human being. It would be far far worse to have slo-mo scenes reveling in Dahmer's killing, which would, by default, become sensationalistic. This is just my view, obviously not shared by everyone, but I think the film is strong because it resists easy answers. Like Steinbeck's Cathy in East of Eden, Dahmer is a monster. Born to human parents. He cannot feel things for other people. He doesn't have it in him. His parents now must grapple with this fact, and they are, but he split off, at a very young age. Trauma of his parents' divorce? Sure, probably. But plenty of children go through a divorce and don't become Jeffrey Dahmer. Any attempt at explanation would be puerile, in my opinion. Showing him as a human being is not making excuses for him. It is the reality.

Despite the fact that it was nominated for a couple of Independent Spirit awards (Jacobson as director, and Renner as Best Actor), it went to video pretty quick. I was fortunate enough to see it when it was out (I adore serial killers), and my main response was in regards to Renner. WHO. IS. THAT. I didn't track him down or follow him (which is strange, considering my track record), but I never forgot him, and the second I started hearing about Hurt Locker, and I saw his face in the promos, I knew exactly who it was. That's Jeffrey Dahmer. He gives an extraordinary performance.

He reminds me so much of Peter Lorre in M, one of the best portrayals of an anti-social criminal personality that I can think of.


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Even Renner's face, boyish, babyish even, with big eyes, and baby fat around the edges, calls to mind Lorre. His very looks are disarming, similar to, oh, Ted Bundy, although Bundy was more of a chameleon, and could adapt freakily to any situation. Dahmer has the blunt-eyed flat-affect face of the classic psychopath, and Renner captures that exquisitely.


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There are moments when things don't go exactly as he wants them to go, and you can see his eyes, flat-lidded, like a reptile, flit away for a second, trying to process this new information, and all you can see is a coiled predator who needs to be in control at every moment. He doesn't seem ferocious when things don't go his way. He seems more baffled, and uncomfortable. When he does turn violent, it is swift, sudden, and horrifying. Because nothing has prepared you for it up until that point (besides your preconceived notions of the character, which gives the film a wonderful tension).

When I first saw the film, I remember wondering how old Jeremy Renner was. When he needs to be 18, you would never believe he was anything else. When he needs to be older, that is completely believable as well. The facial hair changes slightly, the glasses, the haircut, but it almost seems as though the contours of his face actually alter, which is a startling accomplishment in a film shot in only 23 days, and not at all in sequence. This was my first glimpse at the master that Renner is, and the industry is filled with people such as Renner, and 99% of them are NEVER honored with an Oscar nomination. I am always on the lookout for people doing good gritty work, and the scope of the accomplishment here, in Dahmer, made me sit up straight in my chair. It had a low budget (which shows, from time to time), and a compressed shooting schedule. Renner had to be totally in charge of his own transformation, from day to day ("Today I'm playing 17 year old Dahmer, and tomorrow I'm playing Dahmer the day before he's busted") - and he is. Wardrobe certainly helps, but that's only half the battle. The look in his eyes hardens, and yet also dulls, as he gets further and further into his obsessions. It is a compulsion (as Dahmer said again and again). He doesn't question it. Does a lion question tackling that gazelle? Dahmer was acting according to his own nature, which is the most frightening thing of all.

Davidson and his cinematographer, Chris Manley, knew, going in, that they would not have a lot of time to create their mood/light/set. They did a ton of research beforehand, and came up with a plan for shooting. Dahmer does not play out sequentially, you leap around in time, and so Davidson and Manley came up with a color palette to signify the different times. It's not quite as obvious as the schematics of Traffic, where each section looks completely different from all the others, telling you where you are, but it is similar. The earlier scenes, of Jeffrey's teenage years (with a wonderful performance by Bruce Davison as Jeffrey's father - more thoughts on Davison here) have a soft contrast, with lots of natural light. There are outdoor scenes, daylight scenes. There is a grain to the film in the earlier years, giving it more of a documentary home-movie feel. The later scenes, showing Dahmer's exploits in the gay bar scene in Milwaukee, become dark, curtains drawn, no daylight or natural light, rooms saturated with color, deep reds and browns and blacks, with soft pools of light picking up the sides of Dahmer's face, like a Caravaggio.

The earlier scenes feel real, not editorial. The camera is objective. Detached. It keeps its distance from Jeffrey, more often than not, including a scene showing Jeffrey walking down a long hallway to go to a therapists' office (at his father's insistence), which calls to mind Scorsese's use of the hallway and the distant camera in Taxi Driver that I mentioned before. This is all very specific thought-out stuff, which clearly needed to be in place for such a short shoot.

Dahmer's apartment, the infamous apartment, appears to take on different characteristics, depending on Dahmer's emotional state. The first time we see it, it's filmed naturalistically, and by the end, it's just a gleaming-red nighttime interior space, with blocks of color showing the doorways to other rooms, and shadows encroaching upon all. Subjective and objective eye going on here. It works on the viewer subconsciously. By the end, Dahmer's apartment seems claustrophobic, the cameras are in close on his face, his victim's face, you get no sense of the surrounding space, and where there would be a way out.


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All of this is captured visually. Very strong work done here by Manley, and the production design and lighting design.

It's Renner's work I most remember, and I am glad to know that this movie, which so quickly disappeared back in the day, is now experiencing a resurgence, due to things like Netflix and, of course, Renner's Oscar nomination.

I have more to say about Renner. Working on something big. But for now, some screen grabs from Dahmer that seem to capture what I'm talking about, both in terms of the look of the film, and his tremendously mold-able appearance. (He's in charge of that molding, by the way. This is not a matter of slapping on a mustache and padding your belly. Humphrey Bogart said good acting is always "six feet back in the eyes". That's the kind of transformation I am talking about here - not just compared to Renner's other roles, but within the film Dahmer itself.)

A psychological portrait of an antisocial personality, someone without the ability to feel empathy, or even understand what the purpose of something like empathy is, Renner left an indelible impression.


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March 15, 2010

Jorge Luis Borges: "the epic tradition has been saved for the world by, of all places, Hollywood"

Excerpt from interview with Jorge Luis Borges in The Paris Review Interviews, I. I loved his thoughts here on movies, he's obviously a big film fan:

INTERVIEWER
Epic literature has always interested you very much, hasn't it?

BORGES
Always, yes. For example, there are many people who go to the cinema and cry. That has always happened; it has happened to me also. But I have never cried over sob stuff, or the pathetic episodes. But, for example, when I saw the first gangster films of Joseph von Sternberg, I remember that when there was anything epic about them - I mean Chicago gangsters dying bravely - well, I felt that my eyes were full of tears. I have felt epic poetry far more than lyric or elegy. I always felt that. Now that may be, perhaps, because I come from military stock. My grandfather, Colonel Francisco Borges Lafinur, fought in the border warfare with the Indians, and he died in a revolution; my great-grandfather, Colonel Suarez, led a Peruvian cavalry charge in one the last great battles against the Spaniards; another great-great-uncle of mine led thhe vanguard of San Martin's army - that kind of thing. And I had, well, one of my great-great-grandmothers was a sister of [Juan Manuel de] Rosas - I'm not especially proud of that relationship because I think of Rosas as being a kind of Peron in his day; but still all those things link me with Argentine history and also with the idea of a man's having to be brave, no?

INTERVIEWER
But the characters you pick as your epic heroes - the gangster, for example - are not usually thought of as epic, are they? Yet you seem to find the epic there?

BORGES
I think there is a kind of, perhaps, of low epic in him - no?

INTERVIEWER
Do you mean that since the old kind of epic is apparently no longer possible for us, we must look to this kind of character for our heroes?

BORGES
I think that as to epic poetry or as to epic literature, rather - if we except such writers as T.E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom or some poets like Kipling, for example, in "Harp Song of the Dane Women" or even in the stories - I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns.

INTERVIEWER
I have heard that you have seen the film West Side Story many times.

BORGES
Many times, yes. Of course, West Side Story is not a Western.

INTERVIEWER
No, but for you it has the same epic qualities?

BORGES
I think it has, yes. During this century, as I say, the epic tradition has been saved for the world by, of all places, Hollywood. When I went to Paris, I felt I wanted to shock people, and when they asked me - they knew that I was interested in the films, or that I had been, because my eyesight is very dim now - and they asked me, What kind of film do you like? And I said, Candidly, what I most enjoy are the Westerns. They were all Frenchmen; they fully agreed with me. They said, Of course we see such films as Hiroshima mon amour or L'Annee derniere a Marienbad out of a sense of duty, but when we want to amuse ourselves, when we want to enjoy ourselves, when we want, well, to get a real kick, then we see American films.

The French have been so instrumental in "saving" many of our great entertainers for us, after they have been shunned critically in America. The examples are numerous (Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray - hell, even Mickey Rourke) - it's like they keep the torch burning FOR us, of these artists that really are so quintessentially American, these are not cosmopolitan people - but local homegrown artists, and when they fall out of favor, the French have always reminded us and nudged us to not forget them.

The interview with Borges is a gem. I'll be excerpting a lot from this book in the coming weeks. Thank you to cousin Mike for sending it to me. So far, I have read interviews with Dorothy Parker, TS Eliot, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut and Borges. And one small observation: in each interview, James Joyce, at one point, comes up. The opinions vary, but not the FACT of Joyce, and the FACT of his influence, good or bad.

I love the image of Jorge Luis Borges tearing up watching a gangster film. It seems beautifully poetic and perfect to me.


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March 9, 2010

Rotterdam@BAM: Autumn Adagio; Director: Tsuki Inoue

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers). The screenings for the public are going on this week (see schedule in link above), and this is a great opportunity to get a look at films that have little to no chance of getting distributed in the States.

Here is my review of Autumn Adagio, a first feature from Japanese director Tsuki Inoue. Hard to believe this is a first feature. A masterpiece of tone and mood and also character. This is a character study of a Japanese nun named Sister Maria who, as menopause approaches, begins to experience an awkward and strange emotional awakening. Trying to talk about the "plot" is difficult here, because the movie's power lies elsewhere - in its images, music, and sudden moments of glorious catharsis. A very sad film, and deeply personal. Great work.

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Rotterdam@BAM: La Vie au Ranch; Director: Sophie Letourneur

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers). The screenings for the public are going on this week (see schedule in link above), and this is a great opportunity to get a look at films that have little to no chance of getting distributed in the States.

Here is my review of La Vie au Ranch, a first feature from French director Sophie Letourneur. I loved this movie, slight as it is. It was totally successful in what it tried to do, it didn't try to do too much, it kept on point, and it was engaging and personal. I'd be interested to hear other reviews of it. I wondered if others would be as forgiving as I was, especially because it shows a group of crazy irresponsible young girls who are NOT judged and held in contempt (unlike so many American films which basically can't stop themselves from SNEERING at sexy young crazy girls. That goes for many critics too who can't stop themselves from SNEERING about movies that are ABOUT women - they hold the very topic in contempt. It's heartbreaking). This movie was refreshing. It felt real. Those girls felt real.

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March 8, 2010

Rotterdam@BAM: Street Days; Director: Levan Koguashvili

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers). I went to many of the press screenings last week (as should be obvious by now), and reviewed as many as I could. The screenings for the public are going on this week (see schedule in link above), and this is a great opportunity to get a look at films that have little to no chance of getting distributed in the States.

Here is my review of the Georgian film Street Days, directed by Levan Koguashvili. A bleak and also hysterically funny tale about life on the streets of Tbilisi, Street Days focuses on one junkie, Checkie, and his moral dilemma. The cops want him to procure drugs for Ika, a teenage boy, who is the son of a minister in the government. Ika is the son of Checkie's childhood friend. Checkie is a junkie, a magnificent portrayal of the dead-end quality and yet also the manic desperation of addiction. Add to that an insightful portrayal of life in Georgia right now - the birthplace of Stalin - and you get a fascinating film. Go check out my review. It screens at BAM on Monday - that is, today (follow link above for more information).

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March 7, 2010

Rotterdam @ Bam: C'est déjà l'ete; Director Martijn Maria Smits

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers). I went to many of the press screenings last week (as should be obvious by now), and reviewed as many as I could. The screenings for the public are going on this week (see schedule in link above), and this is a great opportunity to get a look at films that have little to no chance of getting distributed in the States.

Here is my review of C'est déjà l'ete, a first feature film directed by Dutch documentarian Martijn Maria Smits. It tells the story of a laid-off Belgian steelworker and his two aimless teenage kids. Bleak. No hope. No possibility of catharsis. Detailed observations, showing Smits's documentary background. Beautiful color palette. Weird and riveting stylized ending like something out of Diane Arbus. Go check out my review.


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Rotterdam @ Bam: Mama; Directors Yelena Renard and Nikolay Renard

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers).

Here is my review of Mama, a Russian film directed by husband-and-wife team Yelena and Nikolay Renard. "Based on a true story", apparently, it shows a day in the life of an overworked mother and her obese adult son. Slow, meditative, at times annoying - it takes its time (understatement), and reveals the intimacies of this too-close mother-son relationship with ZERO dialogue. Not one word is spoken in the entire film. Go check out my review.

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March 6, 2010

Rotterdam @ Bam: R; Directors Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers).

Here is my review of R, a gritty prison drama from Denmark. Subjectively told from the perspective of a new inmate in Denmark's notorious Horsens State Prison, R is powerful, terrifying, and brutal. Great lead performance by the young Dane Pilou Asbaek. Relentless examination of the divide in Denmark between Arabs and Danes. Potential blockbuster.

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Rotterdam @ Bam: Cold Water of the Sea; Director Paz Fabrega

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers).

Here is my review of the disappointing (yet gorgeous) Cold Water of the Sea. A film from Costa Rica, Cold Water of the Sea connects its myriad dots too clearly for my taste. It felt sketched-in, an IDEA not fully realized yet. Beautiful performance by little 7 year old girl. Gorgeous footage of Costa Rican coast. Go check out my review.

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In the land before CGI

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Greg has a not-to-be-missed post, with relevant clips, about Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels with some of the most incredible action sequences in film - even more incredible when you realize how much of it was actually happening. The first clip is stunning - with the aerial shots of the depot, and the almost-beautiful explosions happening on the ground (reminiscent of some of those helicopter shots in Apocalypse Now, with the earth literally igniting down below). Hell's Angels has some pretty atrocious acting, but that's not the reason to see it. The reason to see it is those masterful action sequences (the dogfight sequence? Just un-freakin'-believable).

It is mind-boggling and humbling to see what they were able to accomplish, with a mix of live-action and the use of miniatures - to create a seamless and gripping whole - that also, flat out, just LOOKS phenomenal. There's a moment in the first clip, of the munitions depot attack, when a truck drives toward the camera and the ground explodes beneath it, sending the truck flying into the air, the dirt and debris catapulting towards the camera. I am imagining audiences back then flipping out about shots such as this one, but it is also a great reminder of its effectiveness, because I, myself, used to the rather cold and, at times, unimaginative overuse of CGI in this modern day and age, flip out over a sequence that, you know, looks freakin' REAL. Check that OUT, man.

Go read Greg's post!

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The "invisible art" of editing:

Dennis Cozzalio sits down with film editor Michael R. Miller (his resume astonishes), and asks him great questions about the "invisible art". Not to be missed. Here's just one excerpt:

The question of cutting that draws attention to itself is tricky. I guess I have to ask, "Whose attention is drawn, and how so?" When Yo Yo Ma plays a cello concerto, the playing is so good -- it convey the emotions and colors of the music so well -- that the attentive, trained listener is aware of the virtuoso performance. So, too, with editing. The car chase in The French Connection, the helicopter scene in GoodFellas, "Twist and Shout" in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-- virtuoso set pieces cut by three of my editing heroes -- all entertain in part because of the high quality of the cutting. But they're all edited with great pace, all in ways that advance story and reveal character. Cutting that's based on use of dazzling tricks for its own sake usually doesn't hold up.

Go read the whole thing.

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"As Time Goes By"....

Excerpt from Tennessee Williams' Memoirs:

A friend was employed in 1943 to the old Strand Theatre on Broadway as an usher, and, knowing that I was between profitable engagements, he told me that the Strand was in need of a new usher and that I might get the job provided I fitted the uniform of my predecessor. Luckily it happened that this former usher was about my height and of similar build. I was put on the job. The attraction at the Strand was that World War II classic, Casablanca, which was an early starring vehicle for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, both hot as blazes; the cast also included that fabulously charismatic "Fat Man", Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid, and there was Dooley Wilson playing and singing that immortal oldie, "As Time Goes By". In those days, with an attraction like that, the movie-houses of Broadway were literally mobbed and the aisles had to be roped off by the ushers to restrain the patrons till they could be seated. It was my job, at first, to guard the entrance to one of these aisles, and at an evening performance an enormously fat lady broke through the velvet rope and started to charge down the aisle, evidently intending to occupy a seat on the screen, and when I attempted to restrain her, she struck me over the head with a handbag that seemed to contain gold bricks. The next thing I remember I was still employed at the Strand but I was now situated near the entrance, in a spot of light, and directing traffic with white-gloved hands. "This way, ladies and gentlemen, this way, please," and "There will be a short wait for all seats." And somehow, during the several months' run of Casablanca, I was always able to catch Dooley Wilson and "As Time Goes By".

The pay was seventeen dollars a week, which covered my room at the "Y" and left me seven dollars for meals. And I loved it ...


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March 5, 2010

Rotterdam@BAM: The Temptation of St. Tony; Director: Veiko Õunpuu

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers).

Here is my review of Estonian film The Temptation of St. Tony, directed by Veiko Õunpuu. A must-see - but go read my review to hear my thoughts on it. A black and white film, mirroring the stations of the cross, it tells the story of Tony, a middle manager with monetary aspirations, who uncovers a Satanic underworld and cannot find his way back out of the maze. Marvelous. Awesome film. Go check out my review.

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March 4, 2010

Rotterdam@BAM: Sun Spots; Director: Yang Heng

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This week, BAM is partnering with the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam to present to American audiences the winners of IFFR'S Tiger competition (given to first- or second-time filmmakers).

Here is my review of Sun Spots, a haunting strange film from Hong Kong. It plays tonight at BAM, so if you live in the area, I highly suggest you check it out. These are films that will probably get limited to no distribution in the US, and Sun Spots definitely should be seen on the big screen. HD imagery that stuns, a chilling plot of violence (always off-screen), and footage you will not forget - Sun Spots is also so stripped of pace and drive that it can drive you BATSHIT. That seems to me to be part of the point. You MUST submit to it. If you don't, you'll crawl out of your skin. Submission is the key. It was for me, anyway. Go check out my review.

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February 27, 2010

About a Boy (2002); Dir. Chris and Paul Weitz

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Early in About a Boy, 38-year-old Will, a confirmed (and happy about it) bachelor, visits his friends, who have a new baby. They expect him to Ooh and Aah, but he holds the little thing with a look of horror and disgust on his face. They take the baby from him and he surreptitiously wipes his hand on the sofa pillow. The couple, basking in the smug glow of parenthood and monogamy, asks Will if he would like to be "Imogenes godfather", believing that he will swoon at the honor. His response: "You must be joking." They look crestfallen and Will says, "I couldn't possibly think of a worse godfather for Imogene. You know me. I'll drop her at her christening. I'll forget her birthdays until her 18th, when I'll take her out and get her drunk and possibly, let's face it, you know, try and shag her. I mean, seriously, it's a very, very bad choice." This depraved monologue goes over like a lead balloon, and the wife says to him, baffled, "No, I know. I just thought you had hidden depths, Will." And Will, played by Hugh Grant, in his best performance, says - in a way that only Hugh Grant could say it: "No, no. You've always had that wrong. I really am this shallow."


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About a Boy, based on Nick Hornby's second novel, is a perfect movie. Not a great movie, but a perfect movie. Many great films aren't perfect (as Pauline Kael always pointed out), and the "perfect" movies, the ones that work time and time again, that never ever miss their mark, are truly rare. Opinions may differ on what makes a movie perfect but my definition is as follows:
1. The tone is consistent and yet not boring or cliche
2. Every scene propels the story forward
3. Every scene has a perfect beginning/middle/end - no meandering, nothing extraneous
4. The characters are interesting and watchable, and whatever the journey is, the viewer can invest
5. The story has some element of surprise - which does not lessen the enjoyment of the viewer seeing it a second time
6. A soundtrack that ADDS, rather than DOMINATES. No songs that tell you how to feel. But songs that help create a mood.
7. The filmmakers and the screenwriter have a strong point of view that is clear to the viewer
8. No loose ends. Tie them up, without any clunky beyond-belief plot twists, so that the viewer is left with a satisfied feeling at the end

Now many great movies do not have these elements. They don't need to. They are up to something different. John Cassavetes' Opening Night, one of my favorite movies of all time, doesn't meet any of my criteria for a "perfect" movie, and it doesn't need to. The movie would be poorer for it if it tried to. Reds is one of the greatest pictures ever made in my mind but it also doesn't play the game in the way I described above. God help us if those scenes in Reds didn't meander a bit, if they didn't start, stop, leave you wanting more, if they didn't come AT you, expecting you to do some catching up. That is why the movie is so gripping.

But for what it is, About a Boy doesn't hit one off-key note. This is not on the same level as a "guilty pleasure", where a stupid movie for whatever reason works some magic. I have those in my mind as well (phone call for Center Stage), but there is nothing to "forgive" here, nothing to overlook. It is complete, a perfect representation of a world, and an emotional journey of a bunch of characters. Notting Hill comes close to perfection, except the soundtrack is bossy and way too obvious, the songs coming in to tell you what you already know, insisting you feel a certain way. Therefore, it is not perfect in my mind. About a Boy is a gem, and I have seen it multiple times and it continues to strike me as perfect. The same moments make me guffaw every time, the same moments pull me out of the humor of it and show me the dark underbelly of what is really going on. The movie's directors (Paul and Chris Weitz, of American Pie fame) have total confidence in what they are doing. They know exactly what to choose, why to choose it, where to put the camera, and how to lead us by the hand through the story. They also cast the film perfectly. The fact that the Weitz brothers came to fame with American Pie (a movie I didn't care for) makes the feeling of About a Boy even more extraordinary. If you go into it expecting the raunch-factor or the juvenile-humor factor, you will be totally surprised to find none of that here, although the movie is very very funny. It's also surprising because this movie feels very British. The British-isms stand without explanation for us Americans ("Are you taking the piss?" barks a frightening punk-rock girl named Ellie to Marcus, who is madly in love with her), and it lives in its own locale comfortably.

The source material is edited in a way that serves the film. There is a dual narration. One is by Will, the aforementioned bachelor, who declares that John Donne was full of crap, because man IS an island, and he, Will, is "bloody Ibiza." Will lives off the royalties of his father, who was a one-hit wonder, having penned the Christmas classic, "Santa's Super-Sleigh". Will lives in a slick pad, with lots of toys about. He's very into his gadgets. The espresso maker. He manages his time, moving from high-end hair salons, to the billiard hall ("exercise", he tells us), he takes long baths drinking beer, and surfs the Internet. He is, as he tells us, completely content. He is not interested in entanglements. He is obviously a bastard in relationships, and there's a very funny compilation of break-up moments, with different women talking right to the camera at him, in various states of disarray. "You selfish bastard ..." "I cannot believe I have wasted all this time with you ..." He's used to being the bad guy in relationships, he just can't help it. He wants easy sex, he wants a good-looking babe, but he doesn't want any complications. He's not 22 anymore, so women who are his contemporaries are, for the most part, not interested in casual no-strings situations. It's called growing up. But Will feels no compunction to grow up, and the movie is right to not judge him for this, although it does show his immaturity in very humorous ways. But Will has some good rejoinders to those who call him "selfish". His friend with the baby says, "You only care about yourself," and he replies, "Well ... yes. There's only me, though. I only have myself to look after." If you have no desire for what everyone else has, if you don't want the same things, then why should you feel pressure? To settle down, domesticate yourself? If that's truly not what you want? Will doesn't even have a career he has to bother about. He does nothing. All day long. There's a very funny moment where he sits in the chair at the hair salon, getting his head massaged, and he states in his voiceover, "To be honest, I don't actually think I would have time to have a job."


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The other narrator is a painfully geeky kid named Marcus (played beautifully by Nicholas Hoult), who lives with his clinically depressed mother Fiona (an amazing performance by Toni Collette). There is no father in the picture, and when you finally do meet the father, at a Christmas lunch at the house, you think that it's probably a good thing that this guy isn't in Marcus' life in any meaningful way. Regardless, life is not easy in the household. Marcus is picked on at school. His hair is obviously cut by his mother, in a terrible bowl cut, and his clothes are atrocious. Big sweaters with knitted rainbows on the back, and things like that. Fiona is a "music therapist" who works with sick people, and as the film goes on you wonder if such an unbalanced person should be spending so much time trying to help others, while she obviously needs so much help herself. Marcus has no friends. He is a serious dreamy little guy, who, unfortunately, has a bad habit of breaking out into song, without knowing that he's doing it. He sits in class one day, staring out the window, lost in thought, lost to the world, and, unconsciously, he starts to sing ... in the middle of the lecture. "Rainy days and Mondays always get me down ..." Naturally, this does not endear him to his classmates, who torture him on a daily basis, throwing things at him, chasing him down the stairs, and basically making his life a living hell. Marcus lies on his bed, fully clothed, at home, staring up at the ceiling. In the mornings, he sits at the table, watching as his mother pours his cereal, tears streaming down her face. He doesn't know what to do. He loves his mother. He can't tell her how bad things are for him, he has to protect her from all of that. She loves him to death but she is clueless as to what is going on. For instance, Fiona gives him a tamborine for Christmas and tells him maybe he wants to "get a pop group together, make some friends". Does she have any idea what adolescence is like? Her sense of reality stopped in 1971.


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About a Boy, though, does not make her into a caricature (this is what I mean when I say that their casting is superb). Her character could have become a vicious parody of a certain type of self-righteous vegan Birkenstock-wearing woman, who only eats a cereal that is called "Ancient Grains", who doesn't allow her son to eat McDonalds, who is crunchy-granola to the extreme. It could have been hostile. It is not. The film does poke fun at her (Will's voiceover when he goes out to lunch with her and Marcus, "The woman was clearly insane and was wearing some sort of Yeti costume", a line that makes me howl every time), but it does so without sacrificing her humanity

In fact, I think it's one of the most accurate depictions of clinical depression that I've ever seen. There is one shot of her, in the morning, weeping in the kitchen, for no reason, and she reaches up to get a bowl off the shelf, but she struggles, it doesn't come out into her hand easily. This undoes her. She lets go of the bowl, and stands at the counter, sobbing, completely defeated. This is what it is like. To more hearty and well-balanced types, it may seem ridiculous, and she just needs to pull herself up by her organic-wool boot-straps ... but clinical depression doesn't work that way. Toni Collette gets that, and the Weitz brothers were so so smart in casting her. Everyone is human here. No one is a caricature. No one is used as the butt of a joke. And Toni Collette turns in what is a very VERY funny performance, at the same time that it is heartwrenching. Not an easy task. A very difficult balancing act. The movie has perfect pitch. If that character weren't handled so sensitively and so well, the film would not have worked. Yes, the two leads - Grant and Hoult - are crucial. But she is the key, the catalyst to all of the action: why Marcus is the way he is, why Marcus reaches out to Will, why Will recoils - she is the connecting thread, and she HAS to be clear and you must empathize with her (even though you want to shake her at times and shove a Chicken McNugget down her throat). Collette nails it.

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Through a set of circumstances, Will comes to a realization: "single mums" are the women he needs to be targeting. Especially if they've been "messed around a bit" by the father/husband who abandoned them. Women like that are so grateful! They are also begging for it, the sex is passionate, and then, inevitably, they decide to break it off with him. "I'm not ready to jump into anything serious ..." "I've just got out of my marriage - I really need to take it slow ..." "I feel so bad, because you're such a good guy..." With a "single mum" Will always gets to be the good guy! What a refreshing change! It's not a perfect situation, however. There is a very funny sequence showing his dating of one "single mum", and unfortunately, she can't ever sleep over at his pad, because of the kid, so he is forced to sleep over at her place, but she doesn't "have cable" so he has to watch whatever's on with her. He sits on the couch, she's curled up next to him, and from the television you hear a voice weeping, in perfect Lifetime Television pathos: "We're told he only has one month to live! How ... how ... how can I bear it??" Hugh Grant's horrified face, as he stares at this dreck, is one of the comedic high points of the movie.

In lieu of his new discovery, of the gold mine that is the single mum demographic, he basically crashes a support group, held in the basement of a church, where single parents get together to share and support. The group is called SPAT, as in Single Parents Alone Together. Serious solemn women sit in a circle, and one by one, they share their horror stories. The Weitz brothers move the camera slowly around, as one, after the other, say something like, "Mine left me because he said I got too fat." "Mine took off with his secretary. Such a cliche." One woman has on a T shirt that has "LORENA BOBBITT FOR PRESIDENT" emblazoned across the front. Will, naturally, is the only man there. He confesses to us in voiceover that after ten minutes of listening to these stories he was "ready to cut his own penis off". Will is there under false pretenses. He makes up a son, a 2 year old named "Ned". The women of SPAT are shocked that the WOMAN left HIM. They have so many questions. "Does she ever see Ned?" "How does he handle not seeing his Mum?" Will hadn't quite thought through his cover story, so he bumbles along as best as he can, trying to be grief-struck, and yet also a proud dad. The women buy it, hook line and sinker. The Weitz brothers are so funny and specific in their observations. They show the members of SPAT doing trust falls together and they end each meeting standing in a circle, holding hands, and chanting, "SINGLE PARENTS ALONE TOGETHER, SINGLE PARENTS ALONE TOGETHER, ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL." This is very subtle sophisticated humor. It hits me right in the sweet spot. Will informs us that by the end of the meeting he had lined up his first date with a cute blonde single mum named Suzie.


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And this is how geeky bowl-cut Marcus comes into his life. Fiona attends SPAT meetings as well, and on Will's first date with Suzie (they are going to a SPAT picnic in the park), Suzie brings Marcus along because "his mum is a bit off-color, she needs a bit of rest today". Will, who, after all, is supposed to be a Dad, and supposed to be completely understanding of how kids mess up your plans, can barely contain his annoyance that this solemn weird little nerd is tagging along on his date.

The cliche here, of a kid somehow softening a curmudgeonly character, is so overdone as to be tiresome. But in About a Boy, the Weitz brothers down-play the sentimentality (there is no sentimentality, basically), and play UP the weirdness and quirks of their characters. You never feel like you are watching a worn-out storyline, but something fresh and original. Will does not become cuddly, and Marcus does not become cool. They maintain their essential characteristics, but the journey of the film is twofold: Will has declared repeatedly that man IS an island, and that is how he wants it. He sets his boundaries and keeps them, even at the expense of other people's feelings. Marcus, struggling to handle his mother's suicidal depression, realizes that he can't do it alone, he needs "backup". "Two aren't enough. You need at least three," he tells us. Marcus searches for "backup", and hones in on Will, the most unlikely father figure you are ever going to meet. In the face of the Marcus onslaught, Will tries to maintain his "island" stance, but slowly, it becomes difficult, as he gets involved, against his will.

These are prickly people, all of them. Their humor is blunt and sharp, they maintain their defenses, and break down the barriers only with a huge fight. All of this works in the film's favor. It is not misty-eyed about any of its themes. It knows that life is tough, man. Connecting with people is tough, especially if you are damaged, as everyone here is, with the notable exception of Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz, in a lovely understated performance. Rachel is another "single mum" Will is interested in ... yet unlike any woman before or since, she gets under his skin ... in a way that is unexpected for him, and disorienting. I like that the film doesn't make her perfect. Her house is a mess, for example, in direct contrast to Will's antiseptic immaculate pad, and when Will first comes over, she is hurriedly cleaning up some wine glasses from her coffee table, and putting them on a crowded countertop. She can't put them in the sink because there are some dirty pots already in the sink. This is subtle stuff, not dwelled on, but it says a lot about her. It's nice, it adds depth. Her son is terrifying and damaged, and she deals with it the best she can. She's an artist. Weisz isn't given much to do, but she uses her time in that role very wisely. You can see that she is a woman of substance, and for the first time in Will's life, he wishes he was more interesting, that he actually had something to bring to the table. "Every time she said something interesting, which was all the time, I wanted to kiss her," Will confesses to us. Will interested in something? Wanting to LISTEN to a woman? What is happening?


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With a fantastic pointed script by Peter Hedges (and the Weitzes), with multiple laugh-out-loud funny moments (Fiona sobs to Will, "Will, am I bad mother?" and Will replies, "No. You're not a bad mother. You're just a barking lunatic.") the film keeps all of these characters in suspension, their lives intersected by chance, and how it will play out you just don't know, but you know that they're all transforming. It's not easy, everyone goes down kicking and screaming. This is a crucial time for all of them. They don't always behave well. They don't accept love easily, or with grace. They think they're beyond it. They think that those things like community - "backup" - is not for them, either because they have chosen to be single and unattached (Will), or because the damage done is so beyond the pale that they have been shoved outside the human family (Marcus, Fiona).

Respecting its characters to the utmost, letting them be whoever the hell they already are, respecting both the traumas of youth (and its humorous side) and the emptiness of the approach of middle age when things aren't "set" yet, understanding completely what it means to feel "outside", and with the best work Hugh Grant has ever done (watch the anger there in the blowup scene with Marcus, the anger that's hiding the pain at his own inadequacies, the pain when he admits that he "is a blank" - this is damn good acting from him) About a Boy is one of my favorite films of the last decade.


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February 25, 2010

Johnny Guitar: a live text conversation between Mitchell and myself

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The wonderful Bill has some capsule reviews here, and one of the films is Johnny Guitar. (Gotta love in the poster above how the headline is "Joan's Greatest Triumph". No last name necessary, then or now. Makes me think of Meryl Streep's tired rejoinder to her mother Shirley MacLaine's suggestion that she should count her blessings because she "could have had Joan Crawford or Lana Turner for a mother". Meryl says, exhausted, "Joan? Lana? These are the options?") I first watched Johnny Guitar, believe it or not, during my isolated sojourn on Block Island last month, and Mitchell and I texted our way through it. Mitchell loves this movie, knows every shot, every line, every color palette, and was so excited to experience it with me. I have a record of our conversation, and here, in its unedited glory, it is. There is some overlap (if you text regularly, then you know how that happens). Naturally, after the movie finished, I had to call him right away so we could talk in person. A feverishly fun conversation followed. He is encyclopedic on this film and Nicholas Ray, in general. If you've seen it, then you know the weirdness of it. The passive artistic men, and the fierce (and ferocious) women, all the gender roles are effed up here. It's a gorgeous LOOKING film, and Francois Truffaut, in his essay on it wrote:

Johnny Guitar is a phony Western, but not an "intellectual" one. It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western. It was only a step from the dream to Freud, which our Anglo-Saxon colleagues took up when they began talking about "psychoanalytic Westerns". But the qualities of Ray's film are something different, not very visible perhaps to those who have never looked through a camera's viewer...Johnny Guitar was "made" rather hastily, out of very long scenes that were cut up into ten segments. The editing is jerky, but what interests us is something else: for example, an extraordinarily beautiful placement of individuals in a certain setting. (The members of the patrol at Vienna's, for example, arrange themselves in the V of migratory birds.) There are two films in Johnny Guitar: Ray's recurring theme - the relationships among the two men and two women, the violence and bitterness - and an extravagant catch-all done in Joseph von Sternberg style, a style which is absolutely foreign to Ray's work, but which in this case is no less interesting. For instance, we watch Joan Crawford, in a white dress, playing the piano in a cavernous saloon, with a candlestick and a pistol beside her. Johnny Guitar is the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream. The cowboys vanish and die with the grace of ballerinas. The bold violent color (by Trucolor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, sometimes very beautiful, always unexpected.

The public on the Champs-Elysees wasn't mistaken to snicker at Johnny Guitar. In five years they'll be crowding into the Cinema d'Essai to applaud it.

Here we go:

Mitchell: Johnny Guitar is on tcm...have u seen it?
Me: Haven't seen it and I can't wait!
Mitchell: Camp. Retro. Psychological classic.
Me: Thrilling.
The movie begins. We continue to text one another throughout.
Me: Omg her outfit.
Mitchell: The colors of the film r great.
Me: I'm so used to seeing her in black and white.
Mitchell: The lesbian villain has arrived. Not subtle. Ray was subversive.
Me: Yes quite blatant. I love the wind in the background
Mitchell: He created a whole Lez icon... lipstick. And a gun.
Me: And a butch haircut
Mitchell: "if I don't kill u fearst."
Me: Wow. Johnny Guitar's speaking voice is seeexy
Me: Hahaha fearst
Me: The lesbian is upset
Mitchell: She said tramp like wishful thinking
Me: Exactly. You wish you could be a tramp!
Mitchell: Like she is so sexually repressed. She is rageful
Me: Joan is scary gorgeous
Mitchell: Look at her brows
Me: love her acting
Mitchell: Me too. She means business
Me: I guess I didn't know her eyes were so blue
Mitchell: She was blue eyed and freckled
Me: Is that Ernest Borgnine?
Mitchell: Yup
Me: Her tie is killing me.


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Mitchell: It's so hyper realism. All archtypes turned on their head. With poetic dialogue and saturated color. Gender studies heaven
Me: Turkey lost his virginity to Vienna, I'm thinkin
Mitchell: Nice call
Mitchell: Wait until Joan wears all white
Me: How old is Joan here?
Mitchell: 49
Me: Wow
Mitchell: Hot
Me: Smokin
Me: I love how Joan just said that line "Enough".
Mitchell: I want Lez back. All angry and moist
Me: She's angry BECAUSE she's moist. What a betrayal of the body
Mitchell: Exactly. Also the cowboy rivals for Joan are a dancer and a musician. Not exactly butch. The women are butcher
Me: Right, lots of anxiety about gender
Mitchell: Can't be accidental. Not with Ray's issues
Me: Oh totally
Me: Oh, Turkey.
Mitchell: Lol
Me: Jesus, Johnny Guitar is hot
Me: Beautiful colors
Mitchell: Bad dreams


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Mitchell: Truffaut and Almadovar worship this film
Me: The colors remind me of Almadovar
Mitchell: So true. I think he even refers to it in Women on the Verge
Mitchell: Turkey needs a spanking
Me: He "makes her feel like a woman and that frightens her". What a line!
Me: Emma, you need to chillax
Mitchell: Put ur cock away lesbian!
Me: Rude!!
Mitchell: I think they pass Turkey around when there ain't no women folk
Me: Oh definitely Turkey is their bitch boy
Mitchell: Blue and orange colors
Me: White dress!
Mitchell: So girly all of a sudden
Me: Joan at the piano?? Brill!


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Mitchell: Perfect
Mitchell: Black and white ladies
Me: But the short hair is a dead giveaway
Me: She's just such a damn good actress
Me: Poor Turkey
Mitchell: Sweet boy
Me: Emma's a cunt
Mitchell: Big time. She did the devil's voice in The Exorcist


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Me: Really??
Mitchell: Yup
Me: Every shot is a mini work of art
Mitchell: It's style as substance. Ya know?
Me: Yes, style as substance. So many directors now cannot manage that
Mitchell: Btw. Turkey tied up with pretty red lips is such fetish porn. I fucking love this movie
Mitchell: Tom Ford does in A Single Man ... and Tim Burton. But it's rare.
Me: Rare yes. Michael Mann does it too.
Mitchell: Yes
Me: Look at Joan swimming!
Mitchell: Lol. Like my aunt Dottie
Me: Ha! You know, Joan was a huge star obviously, but I sense very little vanity in her actual acting
Mitchell: She liked working
Me: You can really sense that
Mitchell: She and Mercedes hated each other
Me: Really?
Mitchell: Yeah. Joan was threatened by her ... acted aloof.
Me: In a cage match I'd bet on Joan
Mitchell: She'll fight dirty
Me: This is a fascinating movie. Ur right ... subversive.
Mitchell: Here we go. Showdown.
Me: !!
Mitchell: The women are having the showdown in 1954
Mitchell: Great Peggy Lee song

Movie over. Ring, ring ....

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Memories of Murder (2003); Dir.: Bong Joon-Ho

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It is 1986, in the backwater Gyunggi Province of South Korea, and a woman has been found murdered in a drainage ditch on the edge of a field. A detective (played by the fantastic Song Kang-Ho) peers into the ditch, staring at the corpse, as though he is trying to see, in the evidence, what had happened here. This, we learn later, is his thing. He believes that just by looking into someone's eyes, he can see guilt or innocence. He has complete faith in this ability of his, which is one of the reasons why the investigation is a blunderbuss of the highest order from the get-go. Who was this woman? Who killed her? A couple of days later, another woman shows up dead, also in a field, and there are similarities between the two murders: how her hands were tied behind her back, how her panties were put over her head. Both women were raped. It appears that they may be looking at a serial killer.

Based on a true story, Memories of Murder examines the chase for what is believed to be South Korea's first serial killer. Because South Koreans would know the outcome of the story (in a similar way to Americans who would know the outcome of the Zodiac Killer case, even before going into David Fincher's movie), director Bong Joon-Ho finds the tension in the investigation itself, the dead-ends, false starts, and the following of ridiculous leads.

Memories of Murder is one of the greatest (and, at times, funniest) police procedurals of all time.


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Song Kang-Ho as Detective Park Doo-Man


Similar to Zodiac, where so much of the tension came from a modern day's audience thinking, "Jeez, if they only had cell phones ...", Memories of Murder takes place in what already seems a long-ago time, when DNA analysis was in its infancy, and when homicide detectives sat at their desks, laboriously tapping out reports on old typewriters, and in the middle of a stakeout you are on your own, because you can't text your partner across the field what you are seeing.

Park Doo-Man is the detective we saw in the first scene, and he's a rough type, willing to bend the rules to get a confession, to close the case. He's the biggest fish in that small pond. His partner Cho Yong-koo (played beautifully by Kim Rwe-ha) is a thug along the lines of Bud White in L.A. Confidential, the guy called in to rough up a recalcitrant witness (that's putting it mildly), if the detectives are not getting the answer they want. Immediately, we can sense that these two are in over their heads. They follow local rumors, regardless of the evidence, and hone in on a mentally disabled boy, who seemed to know a lot about the murders, and actually was obsessed with one of the girls who was murdered. There is no physical evidence that he was involved, and it is debatable immediately whether this child-man could have pulled off such an intricate killing, but the detectives believe they have their man, and go after him relentlessly. Under torture, the boy confesses.


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Meanwhile, a big-wig detective from Seoul is sent down to help out with the case. This is Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (played by Kim Sang-Kyung, in a magnificent performance - it is hard to pick a favorite, since everyone is good here, but he is particularly good), a city boy, who has different ideas about how to investigate a murder case. Here we are in the realm of thriller-cliche: the rivalry between detectives, the newbie coming in to show the old guard how it's done, and all of the attendant hostility and conflict that can result (speaking of L.A. Confidential ...) However, the cliche doesn't play itself out in the expected way (ie: the big-wig city boy learning that there is some validity to the rural way of doing things), although there are some reversals as the story moves on in its brutal relentless way. Detective Seo Tae-Yoon isn't a desk-detective, he isn't "soft". He may be from the city, but he's not a "city slicker". He knows his job, and is baffled and angered at the way he sees the detectives railroading witnesses and manufacturing evidence.


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Kim Sang-Kyung, as Detective Seo Tae-Yoon


He has a keen mind. While his colleagues are throwing out ideas at random, he examines the evidence. He stares at photographs late into the night. You can see the wheels turning, turning. (Dude is hot too. Just sayin'.) He is quiet, he keeps it to himself, but in a key scene, when the detectives sit around talking, someone says, "Are there any connections between the murdered girls?" Park Doo-Man throws out, "They were both single." And his thug sidekick adds, "And they were both beautiful." Yeah, not really helpful there, boys, although thanks for sharing. Seo sits off to the side, deep in thought, and then says, "They were both murdered on rainy nights." Everyone stops and looks over at him. He adds, "And both girls were wearing red dresses."

This may not be enough to jump-start the investigation (although it is), but it's certainly more useful than "Both those broads were hot and available!"

Bong Joon-Ho has created a masterpiece of tone and pace here. Scenes of buffoonery are mixed with gripping scenes of police work, and there are some truly terrifying sequences. There is a sense of doom in the picture, intensified by Bong's use of landscape: dark wet fields at night, the grasses slowly waving, the massive factory where a crucial chase scene takes place, and the twining narrow streets of the small village, where the cops race and double back and careen around corners, just missing their target every time. Much has been made of Bong's additional layer to the film, the sense of threat that was in South Korea at that time, when civil defense drills were the order of the day, in preparation for an attack from the North. Protesters crowd outside the police station, shouting slogans against torture and coercion, school girls do Red Cross drills, giggling, carting one another about in stretchers, but the casual sense of impending danger, a populace struggling to organize itself, filters down into the workings of the police department. 1986 was a crucial year for South Korea, their first democratic elections would be held the following year, after a military coup and increasing autocratic rule. In Memories of Murder, word gets out that "the President" will be driving in a convoy through the village, so the populace lines the street, throwing firecrackers into the road, a scene of chaos and potential riot. The tanks drive by, a militaristic show of might, burning fires up along the sides of the street, and in the throngs, the detectives push their way through, focused not on the larger political forces at work in their country, but on trying, desperately, to get a break in the case.


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The scenes in the station house are worthy of Howard Hawks, and the opening sequence reminded me of the start of His Girl Friday, with its jangle of cacaphony and chaos, the humorous joshing of one another, and an overwhelming and jocular atmosphere of male camaraderie, with detectives clacking away at typewriters, on telephones, ordering out for food, everyone talking at once. It is an atmosphere where any theory will do, regardless of logic. The murderer leaves no hair behind on his victims. So he has no pubic hair? Maybe he is a Buddhist monk, known for shaving "down there"? This has all the earmarks of a wild goose chase, based on nothing but a random guess. They wonder if they should investigate a local Buddhist monastery.

Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up. The town is in a state of fear. Nobody goes out at night anymore.

In an eerie autopsy scene, with the detectives crowded around yet another dead body, the coroner discovers that the victim has nine pieces of a peach inserted into her vagina. They all stand there, looking at each other. The case changes in that moment. Or at least the energy between the men, who, up until this point, have been rivals.

Park says to Seo, afterwards, obviously shaken, "Have you ever seen anything like this in Seoul?"

Since he has spent the entire movie trying to prove that he is just as good as any city detective, this is a chilling moment of uncertainty, an admission of helplessness.

But Seo's reply is even more chilling: "Never."


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The mix of investigative techniques is the crux of the picture, with the detectives battling it out, losing focus on what they are actually trying to do: catch a killer. But slowly, as the killer continues to kill, in a perfect way, leaving no trace of himself behind, the rivalry begins to dissolve. Everyone has become obsessed. It is thrilling to watch. Homicide detectives, knowing that they have been duped, that they are failing in their essential job ... that story has rarely been told so effectively. In a way, the movie is one of anguish.

A female detective comes up with a crucial bit of information. On every night a murder took place, a local radio station has played a certain song, from a request on postcard, a song called "Sad Letter". The postcard reads: "Please play this song on the next rainy night." The female detective races to the radio station to see if she can get the postcard for handwriting analysis. Turns out, the postcard had been put in the trash, which had already been carted away. Detective Seo goes to the local landfill, and there is a great shot of him standing on a mountain of garbage, looking around him, helplessly. He is so driven that it wouldn't surprise you at all if you saw him start to dig through the mountain for that one tiny postcard.

In thrillers, it is often easy to forget that the victims were once alive, that they have been robbed of something precious and beautiful. Memories of Murder, even with the Keystone Cops sequences, and the mostly-male cast, never loses sight of that fact, and it is one of the reasons why the film has such power. The murdered bodies are shown in unblinking clarity, but there is not that sense of titillation which is often there in thrillers, when naked dead (usually female) bodies are filmed in such a manner that they almost look sexy, capitalizing on the voyeuristic impulse in audiences. I understand why this is the case, and yet I do get tired of it. Memories of Murder captures, in no uncertain terms, the horror of this kind of death, and how the homicide detectives almost enter into the victims' world, trying to see what happened through their eyes, an empathetic and compassionate viewpoint. It is important for cops to keep their distance, naturally. But here, the lines are blurred. The newness of it (this is not a jaded police department, used to investigating this kind of case - the horror of it takes them by surprise as well), the surgical efficiency of the murders, is in direct contrast to the sense you get that ... these people were once alive, they were loved, they are not just bodies, they were people. Thrillers, in their desire to, well, "thrill", often forget that element. This one does not.

The dread the detective-team feels on rainy days is palpable. Bong is innovative in how he portrays this collective obsession. A woman is out hanging laundry, and one drop of rain falls, another. She puts her hand out. By this point in the film, rain has become what it needs to be: a warning bell, a symbol of death, and Bong makes you feel she will be murdered at any moment, but instead, she just hurriedly starts to take her laundry off the line. The tension is unbearable. On one of these rainy nights, the disconsolate team of detectives sit in the station house, stymied, unsure of what to do next, when suddenly, on the radio they hear the DJ say, "By request, here is 'Sad Letter'", and they all leap up and race out into the rainy night, hoping against hope that they can avert what they know will happen.

But they fail, and it does happen. Again.

Memories of Murder is a must-see. It is a great thriller, and a compelling portrait of obsession and drive. It does not have easy answers, and it is important to remember that this is a notorious case in South Korea and all of the elements (the rainy night connection, the pieces of peach) would be well-known to that audience. I will not provide any more spoilers because part of the pleasure of this movie (and it is, indeed, a deep deep pleasure) is in watching the story unfold.

I was left devastated at the end. For me, the key was in Seo's character, a bachelor (unlike Park, who has a nice cozy home life), his singular and tormented obsession growing, until he no longer knows where the case begins and where he ends. Never has it been so clear the helplessness homicide detectives must feel when, despite the hard work, the heart and soul put into it, despite the burning desire for capture, they cannot get their man.


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February 6, 2010

Movie Marathon

While I had tons of time to read, and walk, and have visitors, and write, and dream, I also had an orgy of movie-watching out on the Island. I brought some movies with me, but for the most part, I kept my TV on TCM the entire time and went wild, seeing whatever was on.

Some I took notes on, others I didn't. Here is the list of total movies seen in the month of January, with notes when applicable. Oh, and my "mirror" notes are part of that damn post I've been percolating over for literally years: men looking at themselves in the mirror in film. Basically, my theory is now bust (that men looking at themselves in the mirror in every other movie began in the 70s mostly)- I love that my original theory is now bust - it puts the post (in my head) in a whole new and exciting direction. And it actually ends up proving my original point.

Darjeeling Limited

Period of Adjustment

Two Weeks in Another Town

All Fall Down

Young Lovers

The Informer - NY Film Critics Best Picture of the Year, 1935
-- shot in one month
-- "nauseating, beastly" - Catholic Legion of Decency (focused on the scenes in the brothel) - "an insult to Celtic women"

Play Girl
-- effed-up pre-Code

Life Begins
-- maternity ward
"What's it for?"
"I'm not supposed to tell you but the doctor wouldn't order it if you didn't need it"

Heroes For Sale - Richard Barthelmess
-- great!

She Had to Say Yes

Key to the City
-- Clark Gable, Loretta Young

The Scarlet Empress
-- awesome

Finishing School

Registered Nurse

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Fear Strikes Out
-- Red Sox!! Jimmy Pearsall
-- great, moving, ahead of its time, portrayal of mental illness
-- Karl Malden, Anthony Perkins

Tender Mercies

Two Girls and a Sailor

The Great Debaters

The Double Life of Veronique

A Place in the Sun

Play Girl
-- Kay Francis

Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Feminine Touch
-- Drunk man on phone to operator: "Hello? Yes, I'd like Sydney Australia ... No one in particular, just Sydney, Australia."

Comrade X
-- Love!!
-- "co-pilot, co-co pilot and co-co-co pilot." "Stop stuttering."
-- "Comrade, I am obeying you blindly."

Night Must Fall
-- Mirror moment!!

Rage in Heaven
-- Robert Montgomery, George Sanders, Ingrid Bergman
-- great

A Woman's Face
-- fave of mine

Cast a Dark Shadow
-- Dirk Bogarde

Sounder

The Band Wagon

The Fountainhead

The Subject Was Roses

In a Lonely Place

Funny People

Rain
-- Joan Crawford
-- holy crap

The Whole Town's Talking
-- Edward G. Robinson
-- Mirror moment!!

The Long Night
-- Mirror!!

5th Avenue Girl
-- adore this movie

The Wedding Night
-- sad. Touching

Philadelphia Story
-- CK Dexter Haven is a deceptively simple part. It's actually quite difficult to get it right - without coming off as awful or condescending. Grant nails it.

Johnny Guitar
-- brill

The Adventures of Mark Twain

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Love, Lombard-style

And Sheila-style as well.

Found this poster in a bin on Bleecker Street and promptly purchased it. It now hangs in my room, a glorious reminder of the upheaval of love (before breakfast and otherwise). I am in love with it.


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I've only had a black eye once. It happened the first time I ventured into a mosh pit. Boom. Clocked right in the eye. Not quite the same thing.

UPDATE: Tim Lucas made a really great comment about this poster on my FB page: He said it reminded him of a Gibson Girl, the period look of the poster - only she is a "Gibson Girl, defiled and defiant." Nice!!

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January 8, 2010

Oh shut up, Mr. Allison

Watched the ridiculous-from-beginning-to-end Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison this morning, starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (two of my favorites). He plays a shipwrecked Marine. She plays an Irish nun living alone on a desert island after the priest she was with died. The whole movie is basically just the two of them, trying to survive - not only the elements but the constant threat of "Jap" invasions. Also trying to survive their burgeoning love for one another. Now, Robert Mitchum could make anything interesting. Just put a camera on his face and it's far more engaging than a brilliant monologue given by a more histrionic actor. And Deborah Kerr is never bad. You just flat out like her. At all times. The relationship they create here is actually quite interesting - with shades of The African Queen, although Kerr is not as prissy or uptight as Hepburn in Queen. But whatever, there are beautiful moonlit scenes of the hard-bitten Marine and the white-robed nun basically thatching a lean-to on some damn beach, and the whole thing is total BALDERDASH.

Nobody else is in the movie. It is all them. The romance is (obviously) an unlikely one, not to mention theologically precarious - but whaddya know, she has yet to take her final vows! What will she do??

Mitchum plays his part with a soft politeness (always calling her "Ma'am") which goes against his normal type, the heavy-lidded smoking cad who says, in the face of a woman's desperate plea for innocence, "Baby, I don't care."

But still. A nun and a Marine thatching a lean-to, while hiding from the Japs?

Preposterous.

I rolled my eyes through the whole thing.

But then: at a crucial moment, the electricity went out in my house for a moment. Deborah Kerr had run away in the rain, devastated by his drinking or some such idiotic bossy-plot reason, and now lay ill and shivering in their perfectly clean cave that looks like a set from the "Brady Bunch in Hawaii" episode. He huddles over her, calling her "Ma'am", and tells her that she needs to "help him" get her out of her wet clothes.

An erotic charge fills the Gilligan's-Island-huge-spider-episode cave with its fake rocks, and the bogus shivering nun lying on the clean dry floor.

He pleads with her to take off her clothes, but all with that gentle politeness that is so devastating in a man like Mitchum. On anyone else, it might read as insincere, or, frankly, sociopathic - but on him, you just die for it.

It was at that moment I lost power.

I had been making fun of the movie in my head the entire time - but boy when the power went out - AND AT THAT MOMENT - I was crushed. I actually stood up. Said to the dark television, "Oh please no. Not now."

Not just as the nun is about to take off her wet clothes as the Marine looks to the side in a gentlemanly devastating fashion. Not now!!!

A minute later, the power came back on, and the scene had ended, and some other scene involving an invasion of Japs had begun and I felt crestfallen and cheated.

The lesson? Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is complete balderdash (not to mention the stupid title that actually makes me ANGRY because of its cutesiness and lack of connection to ANYTHING that might have ANY emotional depth) - but boy is it satisfying balderdash.

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December 30, 2009

"Nothing Sacred"; (1937), dir: William Wellman

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Nothing Sacred has themes very familiar to present-day audiences, with its spoofing of celebrity culture and ridiculous fame-hungry journalists who participate in "human interest" stories, sometimes at the expense of truth, good taste, or logic. From 1937, starring the blonde goofball extraordinaire Carole Lombard and a grumpy cynical Fredric March (he's one of my favorites), Nothing Sacred tells the wacko story of a girl named Hazel Flagg (Lombard) from a small town in Vermont, who apparently is slowly being poisoned by "radion". Her bones are disintegrating. It is tragic, apparently. Except that she isn't really being poisoned by "radion" at all. It was some snafu on the part of her quack of a doctor who is a little bit too fond of the bottle. The doctor, played hilariously by Charles Winninger, is named "Enoch Downer". Hysterical.

The movie opens with a glittering gala dinner, hosted by the big New York City paper The Morning Star, honoring a "sultan" who is going to donate all of his Arabian millions to building a new complex of schools and auditoriums and libraries, all emblazoned with the name "The Morning Star". The "sultan" sits at the main table, swathed in robes and a turban, and he makes some bogus speech about how glorious it all is - before he is unmasked by his long-suffering wife and many children, who walk into the gala dinner, accompanied by a police officer, and the wife points him out, "That's my husband." So the sultan is a swindler. He's actually a shoe-shine man in Harlem. The Morning Star has been duped, and their top reporter, Fredric March, was the one who bought his story, hook line and sinker. It is a horrible embarrassment. To be taken in by such a hoax! Uhm, Jessica Lynch, anyone? There is nothing dated about any of this.

Fredric March, as punishment for the embarrassment of being taken in, is relegated to the obituary section of the paper, and we see him struggling to type out the obituaries, hemmed in by filing cabinets and water coolers and workmen hovering directly over him on ladders. It is a fall from grace. (Fredric March looks like a young Gene Kelly - anyone else notice that?) March is a newspaperman, cynical and jaded, but he's also (until the sultan debacle) very good at what he does. His reputation has been golden, and he takes a lot of pride in his work. He sees a buried story in the newspaper, about a girl dying of "radion poisoning" in Vermont, and wonders why the paper isn't covering it more prominently. Wouldn't this be a good human interest tale? Doesn't such a story have all the earmarks of a slamdunk?

Nothing Sacred is, make no mistake, a screwball comedy, and there were times when I found myself laughing out loud, and had to pause the movie to get it all out. But on a deeper level, it's an indictment, in a way, of the kind of journalism that uses up people - that makes heroes out of people whose only "gift" is that they suffer - and then, just as quickly - drop them like hot potatoes when the novelty has worn off. Fredric March fully participates in that part of his profession. It is his bread and butter. He hears about this suffering girl, sees her picture in the paper, sees how pretty she is, and wheels start spinning in his head. Couldn't he turn her into some kind of symbol? Of perseverence, of goodness, of dignity while suffering? It's contemptible, his profession, but he's so engrossed in it he doesn't know it. He decides to try to use her to save his own flagging career.

He takes a trip up to Vermont to track down Miss Flagg. It's a small town, uppity and judgmental. The second person he meets is Margaret Hamilton, sitting in a general store, rocking in a rocking chair, knitting, and not giving him the time of day. Everyone can tell that he's not "from 'round these parts", and the second he starts asking about where he can find Hazel Flagg they know he's a newspaperman, and nobody wants anything to do with him. Finally, we meet Miss Flagg, the radiant and spectacularly gorgeous Carole Lombard (she, like Marilyn Monroe, would look fantastic in a potato sack), who manages to make every single thing she does funny. Without ever mugging or seeming to reach for it. Her sensibility is inherently funny. As Mitchell wrote: "gorgeous and goofy - a killer combo". Indeed.


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Judging from the stories of those who knew her, she was just as funny in person. Howard Hawks describes watching her, an up-and-coming starlet, at a party after "she had a few drinks in her", and he watched how hilarious she was, how free and goofy - one of the boys, swore like a truck-driver - yet looked like THAT. He never forgot it, and came to her when he had a project ready for her (Twentieth Century). A tragically short career, although who knows what would have happened to such goofiness at that time, when women were so much relegated to the sidelines after their heyday of youth. Meryl Streep's career now would be more appropriate to someone like Lombard, who just would have gotten better and more interesting as an old dame ... but sadly, that was not in the cards. First of all, because of how the industry was set up then - who knows how she would have survived the 50s, where would she fit in there? - but also because she died so young.

What a shame.

She had it all.

She sits in the doctor's office, weeping about how she is being poisoned, and she manages to make the entire thing hilarious. She is funniest when she cries (I am thinking now of the brilliant "Carlo turns into a gorilla" scene in My Man Godfrey - which is funny because of all the shenanigans of Carlo, of course, and the shrieking laughter of her grotesque mother, but it's also funny because the crazier Carlo gets, the harder she cries).

Her doctor informs her that no, she is not dying. Lombard's response is classic screwball. She had been let go of her job at the factory due to her illness, and they were going to give her a big severance. She was going to use that severance to take a trip to New York City, see all the sights, live it up, and then be able to die happy. So now that she was going to live, all of this is a tragedy. Will she not get to go to New York now? Can her doctor please NOT inform the factory that she is NOT ill, so that she can still get her severance? "I know it's not ethical ..." she sobs. Uhm, no, it's NOT. Into the middle of this strolls Fredric March, wanting to interview her about her impending death, and also (drumroll) fly her to New York, to show her the sights, and introduce her around. "New York will love you!" he tells her, his ulterior motive all over him. She's his ticket to journalistic fame and redemption!

Everyone's got an angle in Nothing Sacred (which you can tell just from the title of the picture). Lombard wants to get to New York, and is willing to pretend she is still dying in order for that to happen. March wants to make his name as a journalist and redeem himself from the sultan hoax, so he offers Lombard the moon, talking about how much hope she will give to others. And Hazel's doctor, the always slightly drunk Enoch Downer, has been holding a grudge against The Morning Star for twenty years, because he didn't win the contest sponsored by the newspaper to a reader writing in on "The 5 Greatest Americans". He is looking for any way he can to finally stick it to The Star, who rejected his brilliant work. He decides to keep up the farce, that Hazel Flagg is dying, so that he can keep the fancy-pantsy newspaperman in thrall, until finally - the hoax will be revealed, to the ruination of all. Enoch Downer will get his revenge.

The three schemers all set off to New York. Once there Fredric March goes to work, writing piece after piece about the bravery of poor miss Hazel Flagg, and Hazel Flagg finds herself a celebrity. She goes everywhere, sees everyone. Wellman does a very funny montage sequence, where you can see the effect Hazel Flagg's presence has had on New York. A chalkboard outside a restaurant that would normally announce the specials now reads: "HAZEL FLAGG DINED HERE TODAY". There's a shot of a tousled man in a study, hovering over a pad of paper, and then you see the newspaper headline: "GREAT POET FINDS INSPIRATION FOR HIS BEST POEM IN THE STORY OF HAZEL FLAGG". You see her name on billboards at nightclubs, saying they welcomed her to the show that night. She goes to a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden and the referee stops the entire match to ask for "10 seconds of silence" for Hazel Flagg. The two sweaty wrestlers let go of each other, and stand there obediently, heads bowed. Then there's a funny footnote to the montage, where a newspaper, showing yet another front-page story about Hazel Flagg, is used to wrap up a stinky dead fish at the Fulton Fish Market, and a plump grumpy hausfrau, completely uninterested in the story, grabs the wrapped-up fish and walks off. So down on the ground life goes on. But up in the glittering elite world, Hazel Flagg becomes a hero. She makes everyone feel good about themselves. They get to be charitable, humane, they get to show how much they FEEL things (women breaking into sobs during a random speech that mention Hazel Flagg's name), how much compassion they have, how selfless, how open-hearted ... It's all a big display, meaningless at the center of it, but quite compelling on the surface. If you weren't cynical, you might be fooled.

Hazel Flagg, at first, is swept away by it all, by her newfound celebrity. She loves being loved, it's amazing to her that people want to take her picture, that she shows up at a play and the director comes out before the curtain rises to welcome their "very special guest". But slowly, the bloom wears off the rose. Her deception begins to eat away at her. She feels awful. All of these people, weeping over how sick she is, how brave, are all being fooled. What will they think of her when they find out? How will she get out of it? Should she fake her own death and then just disappear? She can't live with it.

There is a very funny scene in a nightclub, where, of course, she is welcomed, by name, before the show begins. The speech given about her is maudlin, over-emotional, and pathetic. How wonderful it is to give the poor dying girl a few laughs before she slips off this mortal coil. How magnanimous we all are! A waiter comes over to the nightclub table to refill Hazel's drink, and, as he pours the drink, you see that he, too, is in tears. He slowly pours her drink, sniffling above her. Lombard is so over it. She wanted to come to New York to have a good time. But everyone is so sad at just the sight of her, it has all become too morose. Not to mention the fact that she is healthy as a horse, and not dying at all. The concern of the masses is unbearable to her because it is all based on a lie.

Things grow more complex when it becomes apparent that Fredric March, against his journalistic creed, is falling in love with her. And she with him. He believes he is falling in love with a pretty woman who doesn't have much time left. She knows she is falling in love with a man who doesn't know the truth about her.

Oh, what will she do??

Lombard begins to disintegrate emotionally. I guffawed watching it. She gets very drunk at a nightclub show one night, hiccuping, and smiling giddily (and emptily) at the crowds who adore her. She lies in bed with her hangover, sipping on raw eggs, ice pack on her head, and I just want to hug her, she's so funny. She's devastated. She wants to come clean. But her "downer" of a doctor insists she keep up the charade, so that he can get even with the paper that so humiliated him many years before.

Fredric March, more in love every day, decides to call in a Viennese specialist on "radion poisoning" so that she can get a second opinion. Carole Lombard's face when she hears that ... there's so much going on there, and it all battles it out on her beautiful face. Shouldn't she, if she were really near death, be grateful for such a gesture? But all you can see is the flickering trapped panic of a woman who knows that the second that specialist takes a look at her he will realize that she isn't sick at all.

There's a scene where she and Fredric March get into a fist fight in her room. Yes, an actual fist fight. She flails at him wildly, missing him at every turn. This is all done in one take. The glory of the movies back then, which didn't rely too much on closeup or quick cuts. We get to see these two actors basically dance around one another, fighting, pushing, ducking, weaving ... Carole Lombard is in a silky negligee which makes it even funnier. Finally, he does punch her, right on the jaw. (He has ulterior motives, of course, which I won't get into - avoiding spoilers). After his fist lands on her face, she stands there, unmoving, head thrown back, stunned by the blow. You can see him staring at her, quizzically, waiting. Carole Lombard's mouth is moving. Nonsense words. Brilliant physical comedy. Finally, he gives her a gentle tap, and she falls back on the bed, straight as a board. I had to watch it three times in a row.


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She's so easy with herself, her talent just FLOWS out of her. Nothing worse than someone trying to be funny. She never has to try. She stands there with tears glimmering in her eyes, flickers of guilt and shame going across her face, and it is automatically funny. Lombard was a genius that way.

I won't give away the ending of Nothing Sacred, but I will say that it has a symmetry to it that is so satisfying. Lombard and March are so great together, wonderful sparring partners, and the goofball atmosphere of the entire picture makes it a comedic treasure trove. Every single person who enters, no matter how small a part, is in some way, off their rocker. Lombard tries, desperately, to have SOME sort of moral compass, but the attraction of the big city life is too much for her, and she gets sucked into her own deception with far more completeness than she could have ever dreamed. How will it work out? How will she get out of it?

The fun of Carole Lombard is to watch her deal with a big fat mess. She's best when she is navigating chaos, most of which is of her own making. She shines when everything is out of her control. It suited her manic humor, her highly-tuned sense of the absurd.

Nothing Sacred is fun from beginning to end.


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December 21, 2009

Yi Yi; dir. Edward Yang

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Edward Yang's masterpiece Yi Yi works on you slowly. At nearly three hours, it takes its time, lingering on scenes after a more conventional director would have cut. Yang waits to see what happens after the catharsis. Yi Yi reminds me of the epic movies from the 1970s in America - Reds (with its intuitive and non-literal piecing-together of events, via small scenes that feel "caught" as opposed to planned for and acted-out), The Deer Hunter (with the giant meandering opening wedding sequence which is the epitome of taking its time, it's the first THIRD of the movie, that scene) - films where the directors did not feel obliged to race to story story story (as in plot), realizing that it is through the characters, and their behavior when they are NOT just acting out the obligations of the plot, that the real story will be revealed. Yi Yi never drags, however, and that is a testament to Yang's skill as a director, not to mention the work of Wei-han Wang, the cinematographer (a more consistently beautiful-looking movie I have rarely seen) and the superb editing job of Bo-Wen Chan. Yi Yi tells the story of a family in Taipei, and the peripheral people who come in and out of their lives, neighbors, business associates, boyfriends. It is a highly observant film, gripping in its detailed and complex psychological portraits of an entire family, and how they operate, as a group and as individuals.


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There is the patriarch, N.J., played by Nien-Jen Wu (a real pioneer in Taiwan cinema, a fascinating man). He works as an executive for a software company, surrounded by business associates who are more openly accepting of the drudgery and silliness of some of the job requirements. N.J. has a family, a wife and two children, but he spends most of his time, even when in the presence of his family, with his headphones on, listening to classical music. It starts as a small character bit, something you notice about someone else, in passing ("Oh, he listens to music all the time...") but gradually, it becomes one of the most important things to know about this man. His desire to escape. Yet his desire (at least at first) is not for a big gesture, running off to join the circus, for example, or having extra-marital dalliances with young drunk hotties ... His desire is muted. He does what he can. He is obviously a loyal man, although he doesn't have a great love for his wife, yet there is something missing for him. He finds it in music. He can get lost there. He is a good and involved father, but there is a crack in his psyche. Missed opportunities, lost hopes and dreams.

In the first scene of the movie, a wedding (which is hilariously and lingeringly filmed - the bride is hugely pregnant, and everyone is scandalized but trying to be okay with it), he runs into a woman in the elevator of the swanky hotel where the wedding takes place. Their encounter is charged. They obviously knew one another long ago. It is a brief encounter, and you might miss it, but it starts to open up the cracks. It is the catalyst. She was a woman he had once loved and lost. The only woman he has ever loved. We don't realize this until much later in the film, however, but none of Yi Yi would take place without that fateful run-in in the elevator. It is a small moment in a long day, with lots of different elements - the scandal of the wedding, the fact that an ex-girlfriend of the groom shows up at the reception and makes a scene, having to be escorted out of the joint, NJ's elderly mother, sitting off to the side, starting to feel ill so that she has to be taken home ... the tapestry of a family. Into this mix, comes the love from the past, played by Su-Yun Ko, and with just a couple of words, "N.J.! Fancy meeting you here!", etc., N.J. starts to unravel.

Min-Min is NJ's wife, played beautifully by Elaine Jin, a superb actress. She has an office job, and there are a couple of scenes where you can see, in her interactions with some of her coworkers, that she, too, is dissatisfied with life. Only it is hard for her to pinpoint what, exactly, is wrong. A coworker has been spending time with a spiritual guru, going on weekend retreats, and Min-Min is curious about it, but doesn't take action. There is a sense in Yi Yi that life can be an eternal treadmill, you step onto one specific path, and then, with little choice on your part, you are carried on to logical ends. You have very little say in the matter. Why can't Min Min, on her own, start to pursue spiritual truth if that is what she is feeling called to? Well, we all know that feeling of WANTING something, and wondering: but, how will I make it work? Could I just go away for a weekend and leave my family? What exactly is my problem anyway, and why am I dissatisfied when I am so lucky and blessed? Who am I to want something more? It's a head trip. The catalyst for Min Min also occurs on the day of the wedding when her mother-in-law, who has been feeling ill, suddenly slips into a coma after being dropped off after the reception. She comes to live with NJ and Min Min for her recovery, but she is comatose. The doctors tell NJ and Min Min that she is aware of their presence, that they should talk to her, to keep her mind active. So the family starts to take turns, talking to the unresponsive grandmother. It is this which undoes Min Min. She is the one who organizes the schedule ("It's your turn to talk to Grandma ..."), and yet when it comes to be her turn, she finds that she has nothing, zero, to say. N.J. returns home one night after a business meeting to find his wife in tears. The actress has a tour de force of a breakdown. It is one of those cinematic moments when you forget you are watching an actress who has memorized lines. As she speaks, her sense of disconnection and grief and loss intensifies, and it goes to an even deeper level for her. She is hysterical. It brought me to tears watching it. What she says to her husband is:

I have nothing to say to Mother. I tell her the same things every day. What I did in th emorning, in the afternoon, in the evening. It only takes a minute. I can't bear it. I have so little. How can it be so little? I live a blank! Every day ... every day ... I'm like a fool! What am I doing every day? If I ended up like her one day ...

It is heartwrenching. Especially "How can it be so little?" How can describing my day - meaning: my life, the life that I live ... take so little time? Why isn't my life bigger? Why doesn't anything ever HAPPEN? "What am I doing every day?" It's a fantastic scene, amazing acting. Here's the thing about it: The fallout from this scene is that Min Min does go off to the temple, following a guru who promises spiritual enlightenment (the same guru recommended by her coworker). It is clear that she has had a nervous breakdown and needs to recover. So there must be a scene which shows her cracking up, a scene which gives us a glimpse of not only the loss and sadness which colors her every move, but the paralysis as to what to do about it. Where did she go wrong? How could her life be so little? It must make sense that this paralyzed woman, on autopilot, would suddenly decamp from her family and all of her obligations, and go off to live in a temple with a guru. This scene of breakdown helps us understand. The actress shows us that this is sadness that one does not recover from. You don't "bounce back" from a breakdown like that. It's not your garden-variety crying jag. Min Min has never before cried like this, or about this subject - and once she lets a little bit of it out, there's no recovery.

N.J. and Min Min have a teenage daughter named Ting Ting, played with heartfelt subtlety by Kelly Lee. She is haunted by the fact that a small blunder on her part (forgetting to take the trash out at her grandmother's) may have led to her grandmother falling ill. She can't tell anyone. But she knows. She knows what she did. It was an accident, but it eats away at her. In the middle of the night, she slips down to her grandmother's sick room, where her grandmother lies in a coma. In one of the few closeups of the film (it is mostly filmed in long shot, rather disorienting at first - if you're used to the director doing all the work for you, telling where to look and when - Yang doesn't do that), she sits in the darkness, and tells her grandmother of her guilt and how sorry she is. Meanwhile, she is doing a project for school, where she has to keep a plant alive. She struggles with it. It sits on her desk, straggly and struggling. Her classmates have bursting flowers and overflowing green coming out of their little plants, but not hers. This may sound overly obvious, and it is - but Yang handles it as a story element, as so often in life things become inter-connected. How often in life do we have a struggle, and suddenly we look around and everything in our lives appear to be symbolizing that struggle? You have a hard time, and the fact that your printer breaks down, or that you can't get someone on the phone at the DMV, or whatever, becomes a metaphor for that deeper emotional crisis. This is what Ting Ting's plant becomes for her (without any dialogue - none of it is on the nose). But she sits at her desk, doing homework, and you see that plant, on the sill, tiny, with only a couple of green leaves. Why won't it bloom? She also has her own secret journey, an adolescent trying to separate herself from her parents, who obviously are having their own problems and not paying attention to her. Her friend is in the midst of a tempestuous romance, with lots of screaming fights (where they say things like, "Fuck you, bitch" to one another), and it all seems frightfully grownup and appealing to the shy Ting Ting. She is drawn to the boyfriend of her friend. Secretly, they start to see each other, going to a concert and then out for coffee afterwards. He seems like a very different person, more subdued and sweet, in her presence. And when it comes time to maybe have sex, he can't go through with it. It's not right. This is all part of Ting Ting's growing-up process, which is seen in acute relief at this moment in her life since, obviously, she doesn't have her mother to rely on anymore. And would she confide in her mother anyway? Was her mother the type who could give sex advice or relationship advice? I loved Ting Ting's sections of the film, which, again, are often shot in long shot, Ting Ting seen from a great distance, outside windows, or through a plate glass.


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Most of the shots, in the film, have some sort of interference involved with the line of vision. The characters are seen reflected in windows with the nighttime skyline of Taipei glimmering in the glass, so that we cannot see them clearly. Or we see them through the glass of the coffee shop, the camera out on the sidewalk, the actors inside. As I mentioned, you can count the closeups in Yi Yi on your two hands.


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They are used very sparingly. Important emotional scenes are filmed from all the way across the park, the two characters seen as small silhouettes surrounded by the landscape, dwarfed, and the voices come at us from across the space. The sound editing for a film like this must have been quite a job.


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N.J.'s family is rounded out by little Yang Yang, played by Jonathan Chang, with that kind of preternatural ability that some child actors have. It's a serious business, being a child. How do you make sense of your world? Or the incomprehensible behavior of adults? Edward Yang takes Yang Yang seriously; in many ways, Yang Yang is the budding filmmaker, the autobiographical hook. He is just a little boy but he is fascinated with photography. Not for the art of it, but because he can't understand events, if he could only try to SEE them, maybe it all would become clear. He also becomes fixated on the fact that nobody knows what the back of their own head looks like, so he decides to take pictures of the backs of people's heads - "to help them" he explains to his father, in a moment so sweet and true it brought tears to my eyes. Jonathan Chang is so adorable, so in his face, the way children can be, and Yang handles him perfectly. He must be wonderful with children - just a guess. He treats Yang Yang's curiosity and also his troubles at school (being teased by a group of saucy girls) with seriousness and no condescension. Yang Yang's journey here is just as important and serious as that of his mother Min Min's, with her crackup.


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N.J.'s brief encounter with his old love in the elevator starts to expand in his mind, especially with the departure of his wife. It becomes clear that 30 years ago, he and Sherry had dated, briefly and intensely, and then, for some unknown reason, he left her. Without a word as to why. He has heard through the grapevine that she did not take it well, and that, in some way, it has become the defining element of her life. She never fully recovered. She is now married to a successful American businessman, but all you have to do is watch her body language in the elevator when she sees NJ, to realize that feelings for him still vibrate. She has moved on, on the surface of it. Because what else is she going to do? But it was a wound. To quote Cat Stevens, "The first cut is the deepest."

I really felt for her.

And I felt for N.J., too. Over the course of the film you start to realize that he is living a default life, not the life he would have chosen. He had never questioned, "Is this the life I want?" until the events of the wedding went down, and the repercussions began to reverberate.


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He has a couple of business dinners with a wealthy Japanese software innovator named Ota, played by Issei Ogata. To my mind, except for little Yang Yang (and, perhaps, the grandmother), Ota is the only character in the movie who appears to be living the life that he has dreamt of. Not because he's successful and rich, although he is those things, not because he is lucky or has good fortune - no, it's because he appears to be actively engaged with his own subtext. He does not spend the majority of his time on earth, like so many of us do (and certainly like most characters in Yi Yi do) trying to ACTIVELY avoid what is REALLY going on. The only way to get over a lost love is to eat that pain and find someone else. Grit your teeth and bear it. That is, if someone else equally as awesome doesn't come along. But Ota, in his gentle manner of doing business (he is a curious man, patient, and he seems to pick up on emotions in the way that other characters do not), in his easy way of incorporating WHO HE IS into the business of WHAT HE DOES ... seems to have found a kind of peace with himself. He doesn't Deepak Chopra it up, he's not egotistical about it or a pontificator. He just appears to live life on a deep level, in touch with emotions, not just actions. The two men go out to a cheesy karaoke bar, and after watching people bumble their way through "Proud Mary" or whatever, Ota goes up onto the stage, sits at the piano (in a very unassuming shy way) and slowly, feelingly, starts to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". And in that slick neon-lit atmosphere, it is clear that something else has entered the room. Something true, and real, full of memory and kindness and sadness. Ota makes space for ALL things in his life, not just the comfortable things, the easily-known things. N.J., a man who tries to shut out the world by listening to classical music on his headphones, looks on from the bar, a world of emotion and thought on his face. Ota has somehow incorporated art, and his love for it, into his life, where he maneuvers in the cutthroat world of new technology and international business deals. This is merely suggested, in Ota's behavior, and how he plays the piano, how he listens to N.J., how he does business.

It is no coincidence that after the night with Ota, listening to him play the piano in the bar, that N.J. goes to his office in the middle of the night and calls his old love, Sherry, leaving a message on her answering machine. His words gripped my throat. It is so much what I am dealing with right now, and also is so much what I have been working on in that script of mine.

Sherry? It's me, NJ. I'm glad it's the machine. Otherwise I'd be tongue-tied. Da Da said he spoke to you. He says you're doing well, I'm so glad. Before, I'd heard your life was tough. I felt it might be my fault. You asked why I vanished without a word 30 years ago. There were many reasons. Now they all sound stupid. I'm glad that you have a good life. I'm really happy for you. All my best wishes.

Yi Yi, with its web of stories, its numerous characters, and languid pace, is an experience, rather than a story. By the end of the film, there is an almost transcendent experience of having gotten to know these people, and also of being given an opportunity to go deeper into our own lives, to examine our motivations, our losses, to try - try hard - to see the backs of our own heads.

Because who knows what's going on back there? We can't ever see it, not without "help", from a mirror or a photo, or a film like Yi Yi, perhaps, but it's a worthwhile goal. To at least try.


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November 30, 2009

Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971); dir. Joël Séria

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In Act I, scene 7 of Macbeth, Macbeth is having doubts about killing Duncan, the King of Scotland. There is still enough of morality in him that he shivers, mortally, at the thought of murder, and what it will bring about. He asks his wife, Lady Macbeth, "And if we should fail?" Lady Macbeth replies,

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we'll not fail.

Would Macbeth have gone on to kill Duncan without Lady Macbeth whispering encouragement in his ear? What is it about TWO that can be so deadly? Killers, of course, often act alone, but the criminal pairings of history are numerous. Leopold and Loeb. Harris and Klebold. Alone, the personalities are undeveloped, blunted, even, just looking for its perfect half. When they find their perfect half, they become not only whole, but bigger, more grandiose, and capable of great and violent action. It's a two-way current, self-sustaining, a complete world under glass, the duo becomes impenetrable. They egg one another on, building each other up, whispering encouragement (or scolding - "what are you, a pussy?" - which is basically what Lady Macbeth is saying to her husband, a potent scold if ever there was one, to a certain kind of man, and Lady M knows her husband well). One side of the duo brings one aspect of the criminal mind to the table: the planner, the theorizer, the one who perhaps creates and builds up the justification for what they are about to do. "The world sucks", or "we'll show everyone how awesome we are", or "They made fun of us in school, they deserve what they got." These justifications are often backed up with loosely understood quotes from people like Nietzsche (a hero to Leopold and Loeb, with his ideas of the "superman", high above the everyday morality play of normal humanity), or, hell, Marilyn Manson, and cobbled-together hifalutin' theories of violence and death. The other side of the duo brings the mindset of the perfect follower, the subservient. Every leader needs a follower, breathless with admiration and willingness. There's a sado-masochistic thing that happens in deadly duos, the one getting off on being the leader, the other getting off on groveling. Again, it's a self-sustaining system. Nobody can infiltrate, and it's that way by design.

Leopold and Loeb, teenagers, still living at home with their parents, created an entire alternate universe, where they believed they were criminal masterminds (or at least had the potential to be), where they read Nietzsche and talked about the perfect crime, and didn't just talk about it, but planned it out. They slept with each other, a huge taboo, beyond the pale, really, at the time. There were some in their lives who were disturbed by their closeness ("don't you want to make other friends?"), but by the time those gentle suggestions came, it was far too late. The duo had taken its final deadly form. Compulsion, the 1959 film about Leopold and Loeb (with Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman and Orson Welles) takes the view that the sado-masochistic dynamic between the two boys is essential to understanding their crime, the one getting off on being dominant, the other getting off on being submissive. You need a partner for S&M games. Otherwise, it's a fantasy existing in a vacuum. It was the submissive one, however, who created the intellectual framework for their "perfect crime", it was the submissive one who talked about justifications for what they did, while the dominant one was less interested in that, and more interested in fame and notoreity.


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History is full of deadly female duos as well. I am thinking of the Papin sisters, in Le Mans, France, domestic servants, who murdered the lady of the house and her daughter in 1933. This event sparked the intelligentsia in France, at the time, inspiring Sartre, Camus, Jean Genet, to reflect on not only evil, and the nature of evil, but how evil often only comes about in relationship. One sister by herself would never have had the guts, or the smarts, to murder. But together? One imagines the sisters whispering to one another in their maids' quarters, whipping themselves into a frenzy of anger, outrage, and determination. Sometimes it takes someone TELLING you to "screw your courage to the sticking place". It strengthens your resolve.


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Jean Genet, famous thief, prostitute and intellectual, wrote a play based on the story of the Papin sisters, called The Maids. I worked on it as an independent project, in college, with Nancy Plunkett, a dear friend and fantastic actress, a person I have lost touch with entirely, and keep hoping she will reappear eventually. The Maids (at least in the translation I read, I haven't read it in the original French) has an incantatory breathless feel to the dialogue. Genet obviously was not known for kitchen-sink realism, and here, he goes into the darkness at the heart of that duo, jumping in with both feet. If anyone understood the underbelly of sex, and how it works ON us, even as we imagine that WE are working IT, it was Genet. A true outlaw, a homosexual, an artist, his interest in the Papin sisters was the confluence of sex and violence. Thwarted sex drive can often turn into rageful outbursts, and The Maids is a play without men. Men are mentioned, in passing, but they are completely peripheral to the bell-jar world of estrogen, unchecked. The sisters cling to one another in their degradation, reveling, in a way, in their lowly status in life. If they raised their status, then they wouldn't have anything to complain about, and complaining is what fills these sisters with purpose, a bleached-white burning fire of transcendent anger and martyrdom without which they would be lost. The sexual energy between the sisters is explicit. There's one scene in the play where the sisters are play-acting. When "Madame" is gone, they take turns role-playing, one sister playing Madame, the other sister playing herself. Madame glories in abusing the sisters, making them grovel and beg and scrub the floor on hands and knees. In this particular moment in the play, Madame orders the maid to lose herself in a sexual fantasy, making her talk about it, pumping her up, abusing her roundly, keeping the momentum going, until the sister, lying on the floor with her rags and mop bucket, orgasms. There is glory in degradation. This was Genet's stock-in-trade.

It's subversive stuff, and it taps into many things that upstanding citizens perhaps don't want to admit, or are not even aware of, since their experience of life is not that of the perennial "outsider". Genet presses his nose against the glass. His outlaw status was precious to him, it was the his creative wellspring ... and the tension between anger at the world at large, and fiery acceptance and LOVE of his status, makes up the main themes of his work.

The Papin sisters also inspired another play, My Sister In this House, beloved by college theatre programs everywhere because it features that rare thing: two strong female roles. It is one of those narratives that continues to fascinate, disturb. The implications are enormous. It messes with our preconceived notions: about women, about sisters, about victimhood and what it means to be a victim. Here, the victims LOVE their victimhood. They roll around in it, wearing it like a badge.

And, again, there is the fact that there are TWO. One sister alone would not have had the courage of her convictions. She may have smouldered with resentment, and groveled in her own sorry state, but once there are TWO - and once those two bond together, in a delusional fight against the forces that hold them down - everything changes. Victimhood turns into action. Revenge.


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The 1954 Parker-Hulme murder in Christchurch is similar to the Papin sister murder in that it has inspired many renditions in literature and film. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were teenage girls, best friends, living in Christchurch, New Zealand, and they brutally murdered Pauline's mother while walking with her in the woods. Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures is obviously the most well-known RIFF on this event, but there have been others. The girls lived in an intense heated-up fantasy world, and bonded because of their various physical ailments, reveling in fatalistic "we are not long for this earth" attitudes. When they were separated, even briefly, it was shattering to their senses of self. At the trial, it was suggested that the girls were lesbians, a charge that they both, to this day, deny.


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There is something self-sustaining as well as mania-inducing when you get two young girls together. Especially girls of a certain age. It can take benign or malevolent forms, depending on the circumstances. Sex is in the air, on the brain, hormones make sure of that, and the prospect of actually doing something about it, with a man, is terrifying and titillating, but as long as emotional fulfillment comes from the female, you are fine with living on that precipice. As long as nobody tries to separate you and your friend. You could not manage the shoals of adolescence without your friend.

Heavenly Creatures focuses on the girls' sexed-up fantasy life, and the clay creatures they create, which come to life in their minds. Jackson lets us see their fantasies, the medieval orgies they plan for their clay creations, writhing clay figures. It's an outlet for the girls, growing up in a prudish uptight decade. They also obsess about movie stars and singers, crafting semi-violent rape scenarios for themselves, clinging to one another in abject "fear" and excitement. They role-play. One is dominant, one submissive. It is a completely secret world. Nobody suspects how frenzied the girls really are about each other, and once their uneasy parents begin to suspect that something is a bit "off" about the girls' devotion to one another, it is too late. The imposed separations only intensify the bond, and the resolve. Each girl ceases to exist when not in the others' presence.

Joël Séria's controversial 1971 film Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal (sloppy English translation: Don't Deliver Us From Evil - I like the French better: "But Deliver Us Not From Evil" - a more direct inversion of the Lord's Prayer) is loosely based on the Parker-Hulme murder. Banned in the United States, never released here, it's a gorgeously shot eerie film, about two French schoolgirls, bored out of their minds in a French convent school, who decide to forsake Christ and embrace the Devil. If you take a look at the artwork for the DVD, you may be forgiven for thinking this is your normal underage exploitation affair.


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Billed as a horror film, it is actually a deeply psychological art film, with two exquisitely played lead characters, a portrait of obsession and disturbance.


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Jeanne Goupil, an inexperienced actress at the time (although you would never know it, this girl, with her choppy Bettie Page bangs, hairy armpits and mischievous grin, gives a chillingly great performance) plays Anne, an intelligent rebellious teenager (hiding cigarettes in her closet at home) who grew up in a grand chateau in a small French village, and goes to school at a convent. She comes home on weekends to stay with her parents, stuffy wealthy intellectuals, who sit around playing chess with one another, as their daughter slumps in a nearby armchair, torturing a small kitten, grinning at the yowls of the cat as she pulls its ears.


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Catherine Wagener plays Lore, the blonde sidekick, who is the classic follower. Her desire to FOLLOW eggs on Anne's desire to lead and plan. One would not exist without the other.

Both girls, when in repose, have a flatness to their aspects, as though they are coiled in the brush, waiting to spring, preserving their strength. Only when they are with one another are they giggling and free. The girls do nothing together but laugh, and their laughter is a constant soundtrack throughout the film, even during the most horrifying sequences.

The horror comes from not from gore and death and gotcha-moments of surprise. It comes from the sheer banality of it all, the benign. The two girls, in sundresses, ride their bikes down a country road, their laughter ringing through the air, their limbs long and supple, and knowing what we know about them, how their souls have turned to darkness, it is a chilling image. Holed up in the rigid cloister of the convent, the two girls hide under the covers at night, reading forbidden erotic literature, and whispering about evil and sin. The girls love to go to confession because it amuses them to see the discomfiture of the priest as he hears their stories. They report back to one another about how embarrassed he looked, how funny it was, and how fun it was to be bad. The opening of the film shows a long row of cots, lights out, reminiscent of Ludwig Bemelmans' illustrations for the Madeline books. 12 little girls in two straight lines. A nun strolls down the center aisle, doing a head count, then steps behind a sheer screen at the end of the room. Anne, wide awake in her bed, chewing gum, stares at the screen, a little grin of anticipation on her face. Through the screen, we can see the naked body of the nun in silhouette, her breasts and hips clearly outlined, and Anne gazes upon the sight voraciously. She snaps her gum.

From this opening, you might think you were about to watch a high-end Red Shoe Diaries, with its mix of subversion, flesh revealed, and illicit peeking at things you shouldn't peek at. Not that there's anything wrong with Red Shoe Diaries, I quite enjoy them myself - but Seria is up to something else here. The two actresses were in their late teens, early 20s, but they are playing girls who are 15 years old, ripe on the edge of womanhood, heady with the knowledge that they have ... power. To make men ... do things. Feel things. This is the essence of sin in their Catholic upbringing, and they revel in it. They are all-talk no-action in this aspect of their lives. They are not sexually active, as in, they are virgins, and would never go through with any deflowering with any of the men they torture. No. Men do not interest them. Not really. They are only interested in one another. The fascinating thing about Don't Deliver Us From Evil is that, yes, it does manage to be erotic, but it also manages to be an insightful portrait of sociopathic behavior, and how it operates. The lack of empathy, for instance. Anne and Lore take this to an extreme, renouncing Christ and embracing Satan as their Master, in a black mass done in an abandoned chapel on the chateau grounds. The black mass is filmed in lush detail, the two girls in see-through white nighties, with wreaths of flowers in their hair. They are committed to evil. But what does this mean, in human terms?

In the DVD extras, there's an interview with Jeanne Goupil now, about her experience filming this movie. It's fascinating. She was so raw, so untrained, that all she did was trust Seria completely, and throw herself into the world of the picture. She had no sense of herself as an actress, she didn't worry about her looks (she cut her own bangs), she wasn't outside of herself in the slightest, a reason why the performance is so deadly, so effective. Goupil still had compassion for her character, she had no apologies for it, something I found so refreshing. She found her character to be totally logical, although much of her behavior may seem erratic or insane. But it's not. Everything Anne does is very targeted. It may be amoral, but there is an internal logic that is unshakeable. Highly skilled and experienced actresses are unable to capture this dynamic, and telegraph "I am inSANE, aren't I??", which is a defense mechanism, the actress trying to tell the audience, "I am not like this. I realize what she is doing is wrong." Goupil is beyond those concerns. They don't enter the picture at all. She takes Anne at her word. Fearlessly. It is a fearless performance. Anne's interest is to see other people in pain, uncomfortable. She finds it funny. And so she thinks about it, she ponders it very seriously. She doesn't do anything randomly or on a whim. The mentally challenged groundsman at the chateau, for instance. He is barely verbal, he is guileless, a village idiot, really. He would never hurt anyone. But Anne is bothered by how he ogles at her. Not bothered in the way a prissy girl is bothered. But bothered, as in, he will PAY for looking at her like that. So she lies in wait, watching, taking note of what he cares about, what he loves. The only thing she can come up with is the birds he keeps in cages in his drab garage-attic room. They have bright plumage, citron, sapphire, emerald-green. He clucks over them, he loves them. It is the only thing he loves. To a sociopath, this is information that is gold. This is where you can "get" him. Slowly, over time, Anne and Lore sneak into his room, and kill the birds. One by one. They don't do it all in one fell swoop, because that would not be as psychologically shattering to the groundsman. What is shattering is to go through one death, grieve it, and then think: "Well, now I'm safe." To then come home the next day to find another dead bird.


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Goupil, in her interview, says, with zero embarrassment, "She is very smart, very logical. If you want to hurt someone, then of course you would go after what is important to them. What else would really do the job? The only thing to do is kill the birds."

This is what acting teachers talk about, endlessly, when they talk about how important it is to find "motivation". Not motivation as in excuse-making, ie: "My character is hurt and lonely and bored, and doesn't like how the groundskeeper looks at her." That's fine, that's part of it, but don't stop there. Because then you are only playing the excuse, and in so doing, you are plying the audience for sympathy, which has ruined many a potentially good performance. "Feel sorry for me - THIS is why I have done this! Aren't you sad for me?" Your mind should not be on the audience in that way. It should be on getting your needs met as the character. Without apology. So the underlying excuse is there, but the ACTION (killing the birds) is the correct focus. Because in that way, if your motivation is clear ("I must do this in order to get what I need"), the audience will get it, and their response will be far more powerful than if you try to win them over to your side. That's what you want. You listen to convicted murderers talk about why they did what they did, and it is always totally logical. "She was in my way." "I wanted a little bit of peace and quiet." "I needed that money." The horror is in how clinical they are about it. The best performances of this kind focus on the LOGIC inherent in the behavior, NOT in the emotional reasoning, because for such people those "excuses" are often beside the point. I'm talking about true psychopaths here, but the same can be true for playing any character. The brilliance of Nora Helmer dancing a tarantella for her husband is not the underlying thematic elements Ibsen is interested in portraying: the submission of the wife, the unfairness of misogyny and keeping women down ... No. The brilliance of that scene is that Nora is trying to keep her husband from going to the mailbox, because she knows the letter that will bring about her ruin is waiting there. I have seen actresses playing Nora play it as though they are trying to play all of Ibsen's themes, showing they "understand" the social implications of the play, and it's deadly, intellectual, boring. But I saw an actress play it at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and all she was playing - all she was DOING on that stage - was trying to KEEP. HER HUSBAND. FROM GOING TO THE MAILBOX. THAT is motivation an actress can PLAY. THAT is the difference between a great performance and a workmanlike performance. I still remember her blocking and this was years ago that I saw it. I remember the color of her dress, I remember being in agony watching, because - in that moment - I WAS her. Torvald must. not. be allowed to get the mail. She will do ANYTHING to keep him from going to the mailbox. It was truly terrifying.

This is actress-talk, but I think it's very important, especially when playing characters at the brink of madness. Jeanne Goupil and Catherine Wagener (and, by association, Joel Seria) avoid all of those traps. The script is magnificent, spare. It also allows for cracks in the armor, which elevates the entire story into something almost mythic. If they were just two little evil trollops cavorting around in see-through nighties, then that would be one kind of movie. But these are young girls. Bored out of their minds. Crushed under the oppression of their education and prudery, in general. They have no outlet. But still, they are just young girls. There's a moment that killed me the first time I saw the film. The two girls hover outside one of the bird cages, and Anne reaches in, pulls out the bird, and forces the poison pellet down its throat. She puts the bird back in the cage. The two girls watch, ghoulishly, and, almost immediately, the bird goes into its death throes. We have been so used to the girls giggling at everything, but here, they are silent. And you can see that Lore, looking on as the bird keels over, has some emotions about it. She has some feelings about what she has just been a party to. But the relationship - the current between she and Anne - does not allow for such doubts, for such second thoughts. They must be crushed down, seen as weakness. Morality is inverted here. Compassion, one of the strongest things on the planet, is seen as weak. Kindness is silly, stupid. Coldness and hardness is where it's at. The only vulnerability allowed in their lexicon is what they feel for one another. What's a bird to them? Nothing. But you can see Lore hesitate. You can see emotion fill her eyes. But then, they hear the groundsman returning, and they scurry away into the shadows, to watch him discover the death. Moment of conscience is therefore averted, squashed.

There are other moments like this in the film, where one or the other ... hesitate. It is not about God so much, although you could make that argument since the film is about embracing the Devil. Kindness comes from ... where? In an important scene, Anne (who really is the ringleader), realizes she has gone past some invisible point of no return. She realizes this with no dialogue, no expository monologue. But suddenly, we see her running, tears on her face, to the church, where she kneels and prays as though her life depends on it. It's heartbreaking. The black mass is rather silly, right, just superstition, right? But it is in her soul, what she has done ... can she take it back?

All of this is muddied by the intensity of her friendship with Lore. The girls sit around in stasis, legs slack, stretched out, fingers dangling through dead air ... and then, at the sight of the other one, bicycling up the drive, they spring to life. Bodies alert, shoulders back, face alight. A watchful parent would recognize the red flag in this, although the lines are blurry. Isn't that how we feel about our friends? Shouldn't we be happy to see them? What is wrong in that?


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Anne and Lore continue to push the envelope, that is the entire point of their existence. Things come to a head when they pick up a stranded motorist, and bring him back to the little guest cottage on the chateau's expansive grounds. It's a cold night. The girls have a fire going, and they take off their clothes, drying them by the fire, as the motorist looks on, bemused, turned on, shocked. They stroll around in their training bras and white panties, serving him whiskey, giggling, acting nonchalant and unaware of the effect they are having on him. This is not the first time they have provoked a man into violence. Doing so is sport for them. It's two against one. They know they are wily and can get away. But here, things go very differently, changing things forever.


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Don't Deliver Us From Evil is that rare thing: a film with the courage of its convictions. You can see why it was banned. It is unblinking. Unblinking in its honest portrayal of the sexuality of teenage girls, first of all, and also unblinking in its examination of the slow development of a sociopathic mindset, step by step by step, the girls supporting each other along the way.

Its ending is brutal and beautiful, Shakespearean in its symmetry and theatricality. It made me gasp the first time I saw it, as it dawned on me where we were going. I thought: "No ... no ... they're not going to ... are they?? They couldn't, could they?"

Yes, they could.

And so of course they do.

It's the only logical thing at that point. There is no other possible way for it to go. The girls know what they are doing, and they know how to get what they need.

The pairing has become complete, perfect. The self-sustaining system of the criminal pair will never be broken.

Haunting film.


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November 23, 2009

Observe and Report; dir. Jody Hill

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Normally, when I write about movies I've seen, I don't like to focus on what other people have said about it, even if I disagree wholeheartedly with the mainstream opinion. That's not fun writing for me. I enjoy reading dust-ups focusing on certain films (The Dark Knight being the most recent example), and I love reading reviews, I can't get enough, but in terms of what I like to write about, I'm more interested in putting down what I think about something, how I responded, and back up my opinion with specific examples to illustrate where my feelings came from. Also, I think it's good practice to write down your thoughts without qualification. I've written about my pet peeve about that kind of qualified writing before, although I was talking about political bloggers, many of whom seem to have a heightened sense of their audience, especially their "enemies", so they write directly to the enemies, trying to diffuse their criticisms at the get-go. It is dreadful writing. This is the kind of thing that was drummed out of me in 10th grade English. A political blogger starts a post with: "I know that some of you out there think I'm evil or wrongheaded, but just know that I, in turn, find you laughably unserious." That's how it starts. So you've ruined the conversation before it even begins. If anyone reads BEYOND that, you're lucky! It's amateurish. State your opinion, stand by it, back it up with examples, and then let the chips fall where they may. MUCH better read.

Film criticism is different in a couple of significant ways, but I won't go into that.

In terms of 2009's Observe and Report, directed (and written) by Jody Hill, starring Seth Rogen, I need to break my rule a bit. I almost didn't see this film, despite my high regard for Seth Rogen. The reviews, for the most part, seemed baffled that it was such a "dark" movie. I realize my taste is often not in line with the rest of the populace, but I get sick of not being marketed to sometimes. I LIKE "dark". I LIKE "ambiguous" and "morally ambivalent". I LIKE "serious". None of those things should be apologized for. If it's a good film, that is. You're on your own if your dark morally ambivalent film blows.

There are plenty of good films recently that I almost didn't see due to the misleading marketing campaign. The Weatherman. The Breakup. These are essentially serious films, and the posters, as well as the ads, told another story. I know complaining about this practice is similar to complaining about the tides, but indulge me. Back in the studio age of movies, genres were embraced and it was understood that different demographics were looking for different things. Notorious wasn't advertised as a wacky Cary Grant screwball comedy, just to get asses in the seats. This is not to minimize the giant risk Cary Grant took with that role, taking a persona beloved by millions, and turning it inside out. I'm sure many audience members, trained to expect one thing from Grant, were surprised to see how relentlessly "dark" that film was, and how dark HE was. Regardless. There is a market for serious movies, for "women's pictures", for comedies, and the studios targeted people brilliantly.

To advertise The Weather Man as a wacky Nicolas Cage comedy (something I'm not all that interested in, although I realize other people are) is, in the end, damaging to the picture. Because something I AM interested in is Nicolas Cage as a serious heavy-hitting actor. His performance in that was one of my favorite performances of the last 10 years, and I'm so glad I eventually just decided to go see it, despite the poster and the way it was advertised. But any laughs the picture got were wincing laughs of recognition and uncomfortableness, and that should be dealt with honestly in the advertising. Because those of us who love that crap would have gone to see it. And those it WAS marketed to, the ones expecting a wacky comedy, sat there, confused as to what the hell they were watching. I'm sure some were pleasantly surprised (like myself) to find themselves watching a bleak ruthless portrait of a man who has nothing going for him and can't seem to get a leg up with anyone. That's my kind of movie. He was brilliant. Advertising campaigns represent a lack of confidence in anything not easiliy classifiable. I get that marketing these weird movies is a challenge, shall we say, but it's comforting when a studio and its marketing gets behind a movie that may be difficult, or something outside the norm. Here's the post I wrote about The Weather Man, and Roger Ebert covers this issue wonderfully in his review for the film (I included a link in that post). One pertinent quote:

One of the trade papers calls it "one of the biggest downers to emerge from a major studio in recent memory -- an overbearingly glum look at a Chicago celebrity combing through the emotional wreckage of his life." But surely that is a description of the movie, not a criticism of it. Must movies not be depressing?

Amen.


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Now, on to Observe and Report. The main flap about the movie (from my outsider perspective) appeared to be that it depicts a date rape. People were either defending the choice, or criticizing the choice, back and forth, and there were some who said stuff along the lines of, "But it's not a date rape. It's obvious that when they started having sex, she was conscious, and she passed out DURING the act." To me, such arguments are beside the point. The real point is: date rape shouldn't be shown without apology? What if he DOES take advantage of the fact that she's drunk? What, that doesn't ever happen in life? The only reason to get into a tizzy about the fact that Jody Hill dared to SHOW such an event is if you are worried and concerned about the lead character being "relateable". Are we so programmed to need a lead character we can "relate" to? I sure as hell am not, that's not why I go to the movies, or not ONLY why I go to the movies. I don't go to the movies to be PROTECTED from harsh truths. We see movie after movie that shows unrelenting violence, bodies being blown to bits, with nary a moment of moral ambiguity ... and then everyone flips out because a date rape is shown?

I didn't understand the brou-haha about the date rape in the first place. It seemed that some people felt such things SHOULDN'T be shown without a big telegraphing arrow pointing down at the event saying, "This is bad. Don't do this." But I'm not an audience member who needs to be COACHED, morally, during a film, thankyouverymuch. I am aware that "date rape is bad", but I certainly don't think it shouldn't be depicted. Once I finally saw the film, I REALLY didn't understand the controversy about the date rape scene.

Not that I don't think it's an iffy moral situation he's in there. I do. Anna Faris is wasted. When the scene starts, she is obviously passed out, as he pumps away at her from above. He is saying her name over and over, which seems to suggest that at one point she WAS conscious. He then realizes she is unconscious, stops pumping for a second and looks down at her, saying her name questioningly. She, still with her eyes closed, not moving, barks, "Don't STOP, motherfucker." So he keeps going. It was hysterical, in a truly awful way. It was HER line that was the button to the scene, that really put it into murky waters, morally. She didn't remain unconscious. Who knows, she may have been conscious the whole time, but the fact that he has STOPPED is just not acceptable to her sorry drunk ass.


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Do I think it's date rape?

My question is: do I give a shit, either way?

What I care about is if it propels the story along, if it reveals something about the character, if it serves its purpose. If he fucks a girl while she's unconscious, then I have to say, I'm not surprised, considering the other stuff I have seen from the guy over the course of the film.

Additionally, it doesn't make me like him less. Not that I like him, but it's one of those films that creates a turbulence in the viewer, a disturbing feeling of empathy for someone who, frankly, is a loose cannon, a disaster just waiting to happen ... and yet, you feel for him. You feel like ... if someone would just show this guy some tenderness, or say to him, "You're awesome, you're doing a great job", then his whole life could change. But life isn't that easy, and it is under no obligation to give us exactly what we need. So I do like him, in a way. He's sweet to his souse of a mother (the always excellent Celia Weston), covering her up with a blanket when she passes out on the floor. He obviously is diligent at his job. He has good qualities. But on top of all of that, is a simmering surface of open resentment, the kind of guy who needs to WIN in any conversation he has (there's a very funny "fuck you" exchange with one of the guys who works at the mall, and it goes on forever, "fuck you" back and forth, back and forth, because neither of them can allow the OTHER one to have the last word).


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So the focus on how awful the date rape scene is seemed misguided, missing the point entirely. This isn't a black comedy. This is a drama. Morals don't need to be spoon fed to us. And sometimes, the greatest art creates confusion. By liking this, do I endorse it? I don't believe that, but art can push those buttons. It's a tug-of-war, and I love a movie that can do that. I didn't go into the film needing to "like" Ronnie, Seth Rogen's character. His behavior in that scene is completely consistent with his life as that trapped bound-up man. It wasn't gratuitous, it wasn't played for laughs - or not explicitly so. It didn't make a joke of the serious fact of date rape. But even talking about this issue annoys me because it gives credence to the opinion that such things shouldn't be shown. I loved that it was ambiguous. That she was passed out, that he hadn't noticed, and that when he stops, concerned for her, she barks at him from her coma to keep going. It was awful. It was perfect. It was funny in a terrible way. Give me more of that.

He's "in love" with her, but this is what he gets. This is what some people "get" in life, and so the resentment and the feeling of being left out of the human race starts to build up. In some people it just comes out as incessant complaining, or insufferable self-righteousness ("I'm the ONLY person around me who has ANY sense"), and in others, it becomes a cauldron of potential violence. All it takes is a perfect storm to bring such an individual to the forefront, and he will make you sorry, forever sorry, that you ever ignored him, or underestimated him.

Ronnie Bernhardt is that kind of man.

His ancestors in film history are long. Peter Lorre's amoral child-murderer in Fritz Lang's M come to mind, and his long creepy scene where he stares at himself in the mirror, making grotesque faces, just amusing himself, but also, on a deeper level, perhaps looking for A self to inhabit. This is a man outside the human family. He has no empathy for others, perhaps because he has been shown so little empathy in his life, or who knows, maybe he was born with "evil genes", something missing - a little something like compassion, or the ability to connect.


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I can think of another famous character in the canon that captures the loneliness of the sociopath.


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In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle says:

All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.

This is the territory that Observe and Report occupies. Seen in a mentally normal perspective, Travis Bickle's words make a lot of sense. It would be difficult to disagree with him. But in the context of that film, and his personality, you shudder with dread as to what this will mean. His "sense of someplace to go" is skewed, grandiose, unconnected from reality. Bickle is someone you would do well to avoid, if you meet him in real life. The film captures that sense of ongoing rejection he feels in encounters with his fellow man. He just can't seem to get the tone right. People back away from him, emotionally, and he can sense it. Why? It hurts him. Why should he be so rejected when he is doing the best he can like everyone else?

To imagine Seth Rogen, current golden-boy of the Judd Apatow comedy empire, playing an isolated loser with delusions of grandeur is a stretch, but it's something that is totally thrilling to watch. Not only is he up for the task, but he inhabits it easily. He's not "acting". This is another aspect of Seth Rogen that is usually showed in a positive light in his other films - his shlubbiness, his everyday guy sense of humor, a guy with few prospects. But here, those exact same qualities are used in an inverted way. Same qualities, but they seem totally different in another context. A similar thing can be said about Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. That was not a completely different person. He wasn't character-actor-ing it up. That was the same guy we see in all of his comedies, but without the levity, without the ba-dum-ching that keeps us comfortable. He has the same antisocial tendencies, the same sudden bursts of rage ... but nobody's laughing at him there. It was a brilliant hat-trick. One of my favorite performances in a long long time. Having dated a couple of men who are funny for a living, I can say that it's not a stretch at all to put people like that into more serious dark films (if it's the right one, that is) - because often their impulse to make people laugh comes out of something deeply neurotic. Generosity, too, they love to make people laugh ... but underneath that is usually a hell of a lot of loneliness and angst. The truly great comedians utilize that part of themselves. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, they don't shy away from their sense of the tragic.


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Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Bernhardt, a security guard at a mall. My first sense of where we were going, in terms of this character, was early on in the film when he's being interviewed by a local news station. A flasher has been terrorizing the parking lot, and Rogen becomes obsessed with the case. He's not a real cop, but this is HIS case. HE is going to solve it. To be interviewed by the news is a big deal to anyone, but to this guy, hovering on the edge of his fantasy of himself as a righteous avenger of the weak, it's blood to a vampire. He behaves badly. It's a toe-curlingly awkward scene. The reporter mis-states his title, introducing him as, "I'm standing here with Ronnie Bernhardt, a security guard at the Forest Ridge Mall -" He can't stop himself, he interrupts her rudely. "I'm head of Mall Security. I'm not a security guard. Can we take it back?" He looks at the camera and says, "Action." He's starring in his own movie, and she said the wrong line. She awkwardly goes on with her first question, and he interrupts her again. "You're just gonna keep going? You're not going to fucking go back and correct your mistake?" Rogen plays this moment just right. The curse word shows his anger, and also his lack of control when he feels threatened. She is taken aback, not sure what to do, and again, he grabs the reins. "I'm fucking Head of Mall Security. Let's take it back." Again, to the camera, overriding her authority, "Action."

It's an awful scene, perfect in its delivery, done in one take. It happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie, and in that moment, I threw out the sweet shlub I have come to love, and thought, "Woah, now, who is THIS person?" He did it with such truth, such recognizable resentment and impatience (he has no manners, he can't afford them, not when he has to win in every conversation), that I found myself getting excited. Rogen has always shown that kind of self-righteous grumbling about the stupidity of the rest of the planet, and usually it's funny. Here, you either want to smack him upside the head, or walk away, to avoid having to witness any more awkwardness.


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Rogen hangs out with the rest of the security guards, who all look up to him in reverence. He is King of the Hill in his small world. None of them are bright bulbs, intellectually, and he senses that, so he easily has dominated them into a state of groveling subservience. He demands apologies when they have slacked off on this or that aspect of their job, and when it seems the apology isn't sincere enough, he makes them say it again. And again. He's a petty tyrant.

He lives at home with his mother, a slurring drunk, who is racing herself into an early grave. It seems like death can't come fast enough, the way she drinks. She doesn't know how to be a mother. She stutters out the things she thinks mothers are supposed to say, but in the middle of her monologues, you can see her eyes flicker, with anxiety, addiction, because she can tell, vaguely, that she's not making any sense. Ronnie is kind with her. Gentle. He sleeps in his childhood room, with basketballs and soccer balls on his sheets. It is bleak. He is living on a subsistence level, in terms of emotional fulfillment.


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There are a couple of sparks that jumpstart Ronnie into action. One is his crush on Brandi, played by Anna Faris, a bitchy blonde who works at the makeup counter in the mall. Her name alone should tell you she would not be an appropriate mate for Ronnie. She doesn't give him the time of day. There's an awful scene where we see her gossiping and laughing with her gay coworker. Ronnie observes from afar, and Rogen, without doing too much, lets us see how much this bothers him. What bothers him is not entirely clear. That she has private jokes with someone other than him? That she is so buddy-buddy with a gay person? Rogen doesn't tip his hand. Instead, he strolls over to the counter, and starts laughing loudly, in an aggressive alarming manner. I remember thinking, when I first saw it, "Ronnie, what are you doing??" It was so obvious he had no idea what the joke was. But it wasn't as though he had been hovering on the outskirts, trying to look like he was involved. Oh no, that would be too vulnerable and open for a guy like Ronnie, who has an armor over his personality saying, "I laugh at people. They don't laugh at me. I feel sorry for people. Nobody should feel sorry for me." So his aggressive laughing is scary. Brandi and her friend glance at him, struck dumb, and he keeps laughing. I was dying for him to stop. This was the push-pull I went through with this guy. I know guys like him. They're the ones who usually bitch and whine about how girls like "bad boys" and why doesn't anyone like him because he's "nice"? I have learned that "I'm a nice guy", in certain contexts, is indicative of anger and resentment at an almost global level - and THAT'S why girls don't like them. Some guy complaining about how girls don't like "nice" guys is a giant red flag. Rogen embodies that sort of resentful pent-up type of guy, convinced he's nice, convinced that women are idiots for not going for him, not realizing that his personality is the issue. So I cringe from guys like Ronnie, and yet in that moment of weird laughing, I ached for him and wanted to intervene. Just go away, Ronnie, stop! However, characters like Ronnie have (alas) an impenetrable ego, to some extent. Their ability to lie to themselves, to see themselves as winners, regardless of the social embarrassment they cause, is eternal. He doesn't understand social cues. He sneers at social cues.

If you haven't seen the film, and you think of Rogen's other roles, you can see the similarities, but here it comes off as sociopathic, frightening. Kudos to Rogen.


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The other spark that comes along is the flasher controversy, and the introduction of Ray Liotta, a local cop investigating the case. Ronnie immediately feels threatened by him, but Rogen manages to suggest also the impotence and helplessness he feels when faced by a real cop. He's so angry he has no authority. He has engineered his life so that he can win, in his small sphere. But here, with Liotta, he can't win. The two clash immediately. Liotta brings just the right energy to the role. He seems like a real person, a real detective, at first baffled at this bossy disrespectful security guard honing in on his territory, and finally he is enraged, pushed to the breaking point.

The film doesn't come down too hard on Rogen's character. It's not a pamphlet meant to teach something. It's a portrait of someone's psychology. It shows what it shows. It shows what he does, what he feels. People live like this. Let's watch it.

Rogen strolls through the mall, looking around, seeing potential crime happening all around him, events that only he can stop. His voiceover reminded me of DeNiro's emotionally exhausted narrative in Taxi Driver. The ballast has been stripped away. When you have lost everything, when you are faced with the fact that your idea of yourself is actually not accurate in the slightest, things have a tendency to get very very clear. Rigid as well. It's a defense against the chaos that has been wreaked upon you, the luck of the draw (you're fat, your mother's a drunk, you're biopolar).

In any other context, a character like Ronnie deciding to work out, and apply to the police academy and "better" himself, is seen as a wonderful thing, something to root for. Oprah has taught us well.

But in the context of Observe and Report, I am forced to acknowledge, "Oh, shit. He really should just know his place in life. Because this program of bettering himself can lead to nothing good."

It's an awful feeling. Fatalistic. Hopeless.

Rogen, and Jody Hill, here, provide what appear to be mini-catharsis moments along the way. Random acts of kindness, understanding. The revelation (when he realizes his coworker, and buddy, is a criminal) that Ronnie does have a moral compass, that there is a line over which he will not step. Do the moments add up? Can he be redeemed? Can he find, if not happiness, then at least a modicum of peace and self-acceptance?

Or maybe I'm asking the wrong questions altogether. With this film, there are no easy answers. Looking for answers seems to be beside the point.

Observe and Report was one of the best films of 2009.


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Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

November 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are; dir. Spike Jonze

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Maurice Sendak's children's classic Where the Wild Things Are isn't plot-driven. There's not much text, and he uses a lot of repetition ("and they roared their terrible roars," etc.) that gives the book an incantatory feel. As though we, as children, can will ourselves into our own dreamspaces, through certain phrases. Max, a lonely wild little boy, who was making all kinds of trouble the "night [he] wore his wool suit", is sent to bed without supper. In the book, while in his room, he suddenly realizes that a forest has grown there, his room has opened itself up to the natural world. There are trees, and an ocean right there, and also a boat, made just for Max. He leaps in it and sails away on a long long journey. It takes him weeks, a year, until he arrives at the land "where the wild things are". Max is dreaming himself into a world where he is King, where he has power, where he can command a group of scary-looking yellow-eyed "wild things" to be quiet, to do what he says, and where HE gets to send THEM to bed without supper. A fantasy of being in control. The wild things look to him with awe and admiration. They accept him as their King. At Max's command (the famous "let the wild rumpus start"), they all go crazy, jumping and swinging through trees, stamping their feet. Max has no plans as King. A wild rumpus is enough for him. But then he realizes he's hungry, the most prosaic of needs, and yet also the most human. So he gets back in his boat, and sails back home, to find his supper waiting for him in his room, "and it was still hot". Time can bend, stretch out like molasses, if you have an imagination. You can be gone for a year and when you come back your soup is "still hot".


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When I was a small child, one of my favorite toys was my mother's metal collander. I wore it as a helmet. There are photos of me, a mini-Viking, peeking out from beneath the collander. You know how you are when you're a kid. You put on a costume, and you enter another world. Some of us, in the arts, never get over this proclivity. But still, it's not the same thing as when you are a child. Much of acting is either trying to remember what it was like as a child, when you were free enough to play "make believe" for hours on end, or trying to recreate the circumstances that allowed you to be that free.

Spike Jonze's film Where the Wild Things Are captures the spirit of Sendak's book with a lawless charm. It doesn't try to do too much. It doesn't add, oh, a giant war between two opposing factions of wild things, it doesn't try to compete with, let's say, Lord of the Rings (which it could have done, it's another story of a quest, a small creature thrown into the big world). It fills out the characters of the wild things, gives them names, whereas in the book they are nameless, but at its heart it is the story of "wildness", particularly the wildness in a small imaginative lonely boy. If his fantasy could come true, in the real world, what would it be? Maybe it wouldn't be a super-hero fantasy, where he leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Maybe it wouldn't involve clanking chainmail and the stomping of medieval-era horses' hooves. Maybe it would just involve him entering a world where he got to be the one ordering others around, especially those who are BIGGER than him, and where he got to be as wild as he wanted. Wildness would be sanctioned in his fantasy world.

The opening of the film shows Max (played by Max Records) playing by himself. Jonze films this in a jagged manner, following Max as he dashes around, jumpcutting from one crazy activity to another, which puts us right into Max's world in the most subjective manner possible. This is one of the times when handheld jumpcut camera movements are actually appropriate to the story being told. It gives a breathless feeling of the creativity and also boredom that little kids feel on almost a moment-to-moment basis, especially if they don't have a gang of friends to hang around with. How to occupy oneself?

Max does pretty well by himself. A small toy boat sails over the waves of his bedspread. A globe sits by his bed, and he stares at it, lost in dreams. But then he also races up and down the stairs, wrestling with the dog roughly, leaping over chairs and crashing into walls, before dashing up the stairs again. The way this opening section is filmed tells us everything we need to know with minimal dialogue, and the best part of it is most of it is suggested by Sendak's book. In the book, his mother sends him to bed without supper. No father is mentioned. Whether this was deliberate or no on Sendak's part I can't say, although I imagine it was. In the film, Catherine Keener plays Max's mother. She's a single mother, a bit harassed by her wild son, and by her responsibilities. There's a brief scene where you can see her working at night, after being reprimanded on the phone by her boss about her work. Max, in one of the most touching moments of the film, lies at her feet, idly playing with the toe of her nylons. He's still a child. He has a vivid fantasy life, but Mom is always there to come back to. There is a great comfort in her presence, even when she scolds him. None of this is filmed in a golden-glowed mist of nostalgia, which would have made it insufferable. This is a film about childhood, but it's not about childhood seen in retrospect, with the rough edges smoothed out. Childhood is intense, sometimes unbearably so. Children go through the full gamut of emotions that adults do: love, fear, rage, feeling trapped, guilt, shame ... only they don't have the context of experience, so events tend to take on grandiose sometimes grotesque shapes, especially to a sensitive child, like Max is. You don't know yet that spilt milk is not to be cried over. You still have to learn that.


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Max sees his older sister Claire, once his comrade in play, now moving on, with a new group of friends. The script remains spare, almost wordless in this opening section, a big part of why it is so intense. Much of what goes on, subtextually, in childhood, is on a wordless level. Fear of abandonment is one big thing, but what child ever says, "I fear you abandoning me, Mom, and that's why I'm acting such a nutbag"? Abandonment is part of life, in all its forms. Claire is allowed to grow up and have new friends, but to Max it is abandonment. A huge loss. His heart is broken. He trashes her room, stamping around her rug with his snowy boots. He tears up a little popsicle-stick heart he made her, and there's another shot of Max kneeling on the floor picking up the pieces, and you don't see his face, but the gesture tore at my heart.

Where the Wild Things Are made me remember. Made me remember what it felt like. To be that little and that intense, feeling everything, but not yet knowing that feelings aren't forever, and you won't feel sad forever.

When Max runs away (a significant change from Sendak's book), he finds a little boat in a small body of water, and leaps in, sailing out into open ocean. One of the strengths of the film, I would even call it revolutionary at this point in cinematic history, is how real everything feels. The film has a tangibility to it. The waves Max sails through are real waves, you can smell the salt in the air, feel the slap of the water against the boat. If there's CGI used, it's unnoticeable. This also goes for the "wild things". They appear to occupy real three-dimensional space, as befitting creatures built and created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Watching them, again, made me remember what it was like the first time I saw Empire Strikes Back, as a child, at a drivein, in my pajamas with my cousins, and what it was like when I first saw Yoda. Yoda, a puppet, with the voice of Miss Piggy, for God's sake, LIVED. He breathed, sighed, turned slowly, whatever, he looked like life, therefore he was alive. Additionally, he and Mark Hamill obviously existed on the same plane, in the same space. CGI is fine, I'm not knocking it, but at times it leaves me cold, knowing I am looking at something that is not alive. Where the Wild Things Are appears to take place in a real place. The trees are real, the dunes are real. But most importantly, it has that Yoda-Luke dynamic, where Max is actually occupying the same three-dimensional space with these creatures.

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A melancholy came up in me as I watched the film. A beautiful melancholy, with many different aspects. And one of them had to do with the question of progress, in all its guises. Just because something is possible, doesn't mean it is right, or artistically pleasing. CGI adds a lot, no doubt about it, but sometimes a lot of LIFE is lost in the process. Where the Wild Things Are pulses with life.

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Here's an example. At one point, Max was face to face with Carol, the main "wild thing", voice by Jim Gandolfini (and he does a spectacular job, my God). And they were having a chat, and it occurred to me, out of nowhere, "Man, I bet Carol's breath STINKS." This, to me, is indicative of the level of reality Jonze (and his collaborators) were able to generate. Bad breath is a tactile thing, bad breath doesn't exist in CGI, at least not on the visceral level I got watching Wild Things.

The wild things decide that Max, who shows some startlingly bossy and alpha qualities almost immediately (out of his fear of the creatures), is their King. Max, in his filthy "wool suit", with the sweet little whiskers coming out of the side of the hood, is a tragically adorable little figure, in his tarnished gold crown. My heart ached. The valiant nature of children, so small, so easily dominated. But their experience is not only valid, but from whence all good things come. The people I love best remember what it was like to be children, who haven't forgotten how to play, who have a respect for that level of experience, who don't pooh-pooh it. I am not sure what a child would think, watching Max in his crown, cavort with the wild things. The scenes have a crazy energy, with everyone whooping and jumping, the earth moving with the impact, Max scampering among their feet, nearly getting crushed with every step, but somehow escaping. They aren't joyful scenes, not really. There's more of a savagery there, a release, a catharsis. Sometimes it feels good to just go off on a "wild rumpus", throwing snowballs, smearing mud on your face, rolling around in the leaves. To me, as an adult, tears were in my eyes watching these scenes, because I remembered. I remembered myself, and how lost I got in my fantasies of being a coal-dusted Cockney orphan when I was a child, how real it was to me, how fantastic, how awesome and street-smart I was in my dreamworld, how I was always the Artful Dodger, never Oliver, no, no, I was a LEADER. I do look back fondly on those times as a child, but it is pricked with grief and loss, and Where the Wild Things Are manages to capture that very delicate balance, without tipping over into retrospective analysis. Max is not a grown man looking back on his dreamworld. He's still in it. But for me, in my place in life, watching him lost in it, made me ache. For what will come, for him. For what comes for all of us. Loss of innocence, having to leave the nest, having to learn to let go, all of those tough tough lessons we somehow (hopefully) assimilate when we are children.

The world of the wild things is not fantastical, not overtly anyway. However, there is a forest right next to a rolling Sahara desert, which goes right up to an open ocean. The fort that Max and the wild things build together is a masterpiece of set design and conception. There are shots in this film unlike anything I've ever seen, a whole world evoked, and with palpable reality, the way things seem in dreams sometimes.


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The "wild things" here are not actually wild, although they look scary, and you feel like they could be dangerous if provoked. They're more worried than anything else. They bicker amongst themselves, petty infighting. The arrival of Max, however, coalesces them into a group. They have been waiting for him all along, even though they hadn't realized it. When Carol asks Max what his powers are, and Max sort of stutters out some generalities, Carol asks, "Can you keep out the loneliness?"

When he said that (and Gandolfini has never shown more vulnerability than he does here - although his recent performance on Broadway in God of Carnage comes close), my breath suddenly caught in my throat. I felt like a dork. A tsunami of emotion built up behind me. Because that is the question. That is the question to ask a potential friend. "Can you keep out the loneliness?"

Perhaps the wild things are manifestations of Max's personality, phantom images of his own anxiety about growing up, losing things, having to leave Puff the Magic Dragon behind. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but that was the beauty of this film, for me. It gave me the space to contemplate such things, to have moments such as that one, where I got to sit and think about loneliness, and friendship, and how the human condition is so much about loneliness, and coping with it. Here, a "wild thing" is saying it, not human, but the anxiety in his yellow eyes was the anxiety I've seen in my own from time to time. Are you the one? Could you be? Could you help me? With this loneliness?


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Are you the one?



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November 20, 2009

My 50 favorite films of the first decade of the 21st century

To quote "that little round-headed boy":

This list means nothing, except to me. It's a list of 50 movies that gave me pleasure over the past decade. I can say without reservation that I would watch any of these again. Would I say that all of them are great films, however great films are supposed to be defined? Probably not. But that's nothing you need to worry about. Because it's my list.

1. Mulholland Drive
2. Zodiac
3. Offside
4. Mean Girls
5. The Hoax
6. The Darjeeling Limited
7. Shopgirl
8. Death Proof
9. Ghost Town
10. Punch-Drunk Love
11. The Rookie
12. Secretary
13. The Royal Tenenbaums
14. School of Rock
15. The Aviator
16. The Great Debaters
17. Rocky Balboa
18. Fireworks Wednesday
19. Stranger Than Fiction
20. About a Boy
21. (500) Days of Summer
22. Half Moon
23. 8 Mile
24. No Country For Old Men
25. Master and Commander
26. Gosford Park
27. Sin City
28. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
29. There Will Be Blood
30. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
31. Lost in Translation
32. Public Enemy
33. The Door in the Floor
34. Something's Gotta Give
35. The Day I Became a Woman
36. A Prairie Home Companion
37. The Lives of Others
38. Bend It Like Beckham
39. The Wrestler
40. Moulin Rouge
41. Erin Brockovich
42. Kwik Stop
43. Shattered Glass
44. Match Point
45. Miracle
46. Adaptation
47. Where the Wild Things Are
48. Thirst
49. Bring It On
50. Blue Crush


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November 18, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), dir. Frank Capra

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Frank Capra on Jean Arthur (quoted in Richard Schickel's The Men Who Made the Movies):

Jean Arthur was an enigmatic figure because she doesn't do very well in crowds, and she doesn't do very well with people, and she doesn't do very well with life, but she does very well as an actress. She's afraid. She'd stand in her dressing room and practically vomit every time she had to do a scene. And she'd drum up all kinds of excuses for not being ready. Well, I finally got to know her. All I had to do was push her out into the lights, turn the camera on, and she'd blossom out into just something wonderful, very positive, certain. An assured, poised, lovely woman. And she could do anything, could express love or hate or anything else. And when the scene was over, she'd go back into that dressing room and cry. She certainly had two sides to her: the actress, this wonderful actress, and this person, this shy personality that she was in reality. She's quite a study.

Frank Capra on Jimmy Stewart:

Jimmy Stewart first of all is very, very fine actor. He's a fine man. He can project whatever his thoughts are. He can project what he's dreaming, what's in his heart, what's in his soul. He can let you see that. He's a very humble man. And at the same time he's very educated and a very knowledgeable sort of a guy. But he's got this wonderful quality - all the women want to mother him, that's his great quality. Now, they don't want to jump in bed with him, perhaps, but they certainly want to mother him. When he's in trouble, they're for him. They want to help him.

Frank Capra on Stewart again:

My father first thought of Gary Cooper for Mr. Smith, but decided that Jimmy had everything Cooper did - with one thing more - he projected an Ivy League intelligence that was crucial to the character of Jefferson Smith, and it was something Cooper did not have. Stewart was the perfect garden variety of citizen with just the right touch of Phi Beta Kappa.

Marc Elliot, from Jimmy Stewart: A Biography:

The making of Mr. Smith was fraught with controversy from the beginning, reaching all the way to the highest governmental authority in Hollywood, Joseph L. Breen, then the head of the industry's self-regulated Production Code Administration. It was one thing for a director like Capra to make a satire about Utopia, as long as it was set in some far-off Shangri-La, or a wacky comedy about a wealthy, out-of-touch family of millionaires living in a Shangri-La-like mansion exempt from the realities of the "real" world. But, as Capra was to discover, it was quite another to attempt a head-on, non-metaphoric feature about the pervasive, ongoing political corruption set within the great, vaunted walls of the United States Congress.

In 1937, Harry Cohn had optioned a short treatment written by Lewis R. Foster called The Gentleman from Montana, which concerned the gradual disillusionment of an optimistic freshman senator. Foster was an "idea man" who, like Capra, started in silent comedy but had seen his career dissipate in the first decade of talkies until he was reduced to freelancing original treatments he'd written for the studios. Cohn liked the premise of The Gentleman from Montana but initially thought about shelving it after Breen, whose office insisted it be shown all material that any studio considered filming, personally wrote back to Cohn in January 1938 rejecting the treatment because of its "general unflattering portrayal of our system [that is] a covert attack on the democratic form of government."

The project then languished from studio to studio. Everyone who read it liked it, but no one in a position to get it made was willing to challenge Breen's powerful office, until Harry Cohn decided to take a chance on it. He believed he could soften up its rougher, more controversial edges and optioned it as a project for Soviet Georgian emigre director Rouben Mamoulian. Cohn had been searching for something for Mamoulian, hoping he could sign the director to a contingent long-range contract at a bargain rate. Moreover, if a controversial project like Mr. Smith failed, he could always put the blame on what he would describe as Mamoulian's Soviet-bred anti-Americanism.

More from Marc Eliot:

Principal photography on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington began in April 1939. The interiors were mostly shot on a giant sound stage that Columbia Pictures had converted into an impressively detailed reproduction of the actual Senate chamber. Early into filming, Capra decided to personally escort his principal players to Washington D.C., to shoot some location scenes while hopefully instilling in his cast a deeper patriotic feel for the material they could use in their performances. Along with Stewart and Arthur, Capra took the always spectacular and profoundly underrated Claude Rains (Senator Joe Paine), the Capra regular and ever-dependable Edward Arnold (state machine boss and corrupt publisher Jim Taylor), Thomas Mitchell (perennially tipsy D.C. beat reporter Diz Moore), and Harry Carey (benevolent vice president and president protem of the Senate.

It was the first time Jimmy had been to the nation's capital since he was a boy, when he'd once gone with his mother and sisters to visit Alexander while he was stationed there during World War One just prior to his being shipped out to the front lines of France. This time Stewart fell deeply in awe of the capital, particularly the monuments, and especially the Lincoln Memorial, which was to play such a crucial role in two of the movie's pivotal scenes.

Jimmy Stewart:

Director Frank Capra, who taught me a lot about acting while we were making Mr. Smith, refused to build synthetic Washington street scenes at the Columbia lot or use process shots; he took the cast to Washington and caught scenes at the exact moments when natural settings dovetailed with the story. In order to get a certain light, we made a shot at the Lincoln Memorial at four in the morning. To catch me getting off a streetcar, a camera was hidden in some bushes. I got on a regular car, paid my dome and, to the motorman's amazement, departed, two blocks later - in front of the bushes. For shots of me going up the Capitol steps, I sat in a car and, at a given secret signal, went trudging up through the swarming lunch-hour crowd. This search for absolute realism, plus the superlative work of the supporting actors, had a great deal to do with 'making' the picture. I think especially of the grand performances of Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchll and Jean Arthur, a fine comedienne who proved in Mr. Smith that she could handle dramatic moments with equal skill.

More from Marc Eliot:

The film builds toward its inevitable climax in which everything miraculously resolves itself in happy democratic justice and contentment but not before what Andrew Sarris once described as the "obligatory Capra scene of the confession of folly in the most public manner possible". During this sequence, Capra shoots Stewart in ever tighter close-ups, full-face shots with no visible background, his wrists curved downward like swans' necks under his chin, his eyes darting from side to side, his face awash in sweat and agony.

Jimmy Stewart:

It was the filibuster speech that Capra started way back in the gallery with the camera and ended up two feet from my face. Capra said, 'Jesus, do it right, 'cause this is what we're going to use.' He kept getting closer and closer. By the time he got there I had the thing all worked out.

Frank Capra:

To act hoarse for the filibuster scene would be an additional hurdle that he have to go through in doing this part. So I thought I'd like to relieve that [burden] from his mind. I asked a doctor, "Look, you can cure a sore throat, can you produce one?" And he says, "Oh sure." So about three times a day he'd swab Stewart's throat with a vile mercury liquid of some kind that would swell his vocal chords and make him hoarse. He'd have to fight to get that voice out. That, of course, was a great, great help in playing the part.

Marc Eliot again:

To modern audiences Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may come off as too oversimplified a fairy tale of right triumphing over wrong, one more in the endless replays Hollywood has given the world of the David-and-Goliath tale, even if this one is staged in the arena of Washingtonian democracy. However, in its day, the film's defiant view of the reality of American politics was nothing less than populist dynamite. Nothing like it had been seen in an American mainstream movie. No filmmaker had ever before made such massive accusations about the pervasiveness of the corruption inherent in the hitherto untouchable hallowed halls of Congress. Because of it, Mr. Smith deeply resonated with a citizenry that had lived through a decade of the Depression and was now engaged in a battle over whether or not America should enter into the dangerous battlefield of World War Two.

The film had a special premiere on October 17, 1939, in Washington D.C., the audience made up of Washington insiders and Hollywood glitterati.

Marc Eliot on the response:

The very next day, senator after senator and political columnist after political columnist publicly questioned the film's depiction of the everyday mechanics of American politics. Washington columnist Willard Edwards wrote that at the premiere "members of the Senate were writhing in their seats [over their] resentment ... the Senate believes itself to have been maligned by the motion picture industry [and] is preparing to strike back at Hollywood. Frederic William Wile of the Washington Star wrote what was perhaps the most stinging attack on Capra when he insisted that the film "shows up the democratic system and our vaunted free press in exactly the colors Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are fond of painting them."

The controversy quickly took on a life of its own, with Capra taking virtually all of the heat, while the film's stars, especially Jimmy, managed to avoid the fray. When things got too hot for Capra, he rather unfortunately suggested that maybe the blame really belonged to the film's screenwriter, Buchman, who was, Capra reminded everyone, a member of the Communist party, someone who'd "betrayed" everyone (including Capra himself) by inserting certain party "codes" into the movie.

Much to the relief of Capra and Cohn, the film's public premiere a week later, at New York's Radio City Music Hall, brought rave reviews from the general press, and it went on to become a box-office blockbuster.

Thomas Mitchell on Stewart:

He was the most naturally gifted actor I ever worked with. It was all instinct, all emotion. I don't think it came from training or technique ... it came from forces deep within him.

Andrew Sarris on Jimmy Stewart:

I would prefer to place James Stewart in a triptych of equal acting greatness with Cary Grant and James Cagney ... and say that Stewart is the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema, particularly gifted in expressing the emotional ambivalence of the action hero.

Frank Capra on Stewart:

He played [Jefferson Smith] with his whole heart and his whole mind, and that is what made it so real, so true.

Jimmy Stewart to Peter Bogdanovich:

That's the great thing about the movies ... after you learn - and if you're good enough and God helps you and you're lucky to have a personality that comes across - then what you're doing is - you're giving people little, little, tiny pieces of time, that they never forget.

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November 16, 2009

What we did today.

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November 12, 2009

"Days of Heaven", dir. Terrence Malick

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Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven is one of the most beautiful films ever made. There is something grandiose, epic, even melodramatic, about some of the vistas we see of the Texas panhandle in this film. Every corner of the giant screen is packed with beauty, arresting images, startling closeups of dew on a grain of wheat, and vast panoramic shots of empty waving fields, with one stark structure standing up in the distance. People seem miniaturized in this landscape. They lose their individuality. They become moving black specks, secondary to the natural world. The overall memory I have of the film is not of the plot, or of specific scenes. It is of the images. I can't get them out of my head. I have heard the film criticized for being too slow, nothing happens, the emotions seem muted somehow. All of this is true, but I'm not sure I think that's a fault. Perhaps it's a fault of the audience, who is primed to wait for EVENTS and climaxes, but I think Malick's mood here is deliberate. The main character of the story is not Richard Gere's hot-headed Bill, nor Brooke Adams' practical yet trapped Abby. The main character is not Sam Shepard's "farmer", nor is it Linda Manz's wonderful character of Linda, the tag-along street urchin, Richard Gere's younger sister. Linda Manz does the narration for the film (I'll get to that in a minute), and so we get that we are seeing it all through her eyes, a child's eyes. But still, the main character here is the landscape. All human endeavor, and all human relationships (made up of love, jealousy, anger, need) are secondary to the earth, and its movements and rhythms. This theme permeates the entirety of Days of Heaven, and seen in that light, of course the "problems of three little people wouldn't amount to a hill of beans".

The key to all of this is in Linda Manz's narration. I am hard-pressed to think of a more effective use of narration in a film. Maybe Taxi Driver. Linda Manz's childish tough voice, detailing the events and what they seemed like to her at the time ("at the time" - that's key - part of the power of the narration is you get the sense that she is telling this story long after the events transpired), adds to the elegiac atmosphere in ways that I am still trying to understand. Narration is tricky. It's awful if it is just telling you what you see on the screen. Then you don't need it. It's similar to unimaginative directors who choose a song to underline a scene that is so on the nose it loses its effect. An audience can start to feel condescended to if you consistently underline things for them, as though they couldn't pick it up on their own. So narration is tricky. When it's done well (like in Taxi Driver), you can't imagine the film without it. Without Robert DeNiro's tired bitter voice, detailing the filth and dirt that are seeping into his very soul, his exhausted disgust at the world he lives in, that film wouldn't be what it is. Because yes, there is a plot that has to be acted out, there are characters and dialogue and story - Taxi Driver has all of those things, but what it really is is a psychological portrait. Or, no, not a portrait. More like an excavation. The Travis Bickles of the world are forgotten, ignored, looked down upon. They seem "off". People instinctively stay away from such people. Taxi Driver gets inside his head. You are compelled to empathize, no matter how repelled you are. Narration is key to this. A recent study on psychopaths shows that mental health officials, prison guards, and other people who come into daily contact with people who are probably psychopaths (a true psychopath is very rare) all report a strange skin-crawling feeling when in the presence of such people. Gavin de Becker would call this "the gift of fear". One person in the study said that the sensation is like, "I'm about to be lunch." A propos, because these people are predators. A lion doesn't pity you. A lion eats you. The skin-crawling feeling (and I've gotten it once or twice in my life) is a warning sign, a deep evolutionary flare from within, telling you: "Get away from this person. Your life depends on it." We have Raskolnikov, an example of this in fiction, but the be-all end-all is Cathy from East of Eden. If you want to understand Travis Bickle, if you want to understand anyone with psychopathic tendencies, Cathy from East of Eden is a good place to start.

I have strayed far from my topic, but Linda Manz's narration did get me thinking.

Her voice is so distinctive. So her own. It is wise beyond its years, and feels "caught in time", rather than "acted", in any way, shape or form. That is tough for an adult to pull off in a narration, let alone a child. It feels improvised, like she really is calling up her own memories. She is articulate in the way children can be, with a bluntness of expression that is in stark contrast to the painterly beauty seen in shot after shot of the film. "He was pretty close to the boneyard," she states about Sam Shepard's Farmer. Or: "They pretended they was brother and sister. I guess it made it easier for them, because people like to talk," she says about the relationship between Gere and Adams. There is no affect in her voice. It's perceptive, this is a child who sees a lot, and maybe doesn't understand all that she sees, but she understands enough.

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It is HER story, not Richard Gere's story, not Brooke Adams' story, not Sam Shepard's story. And yet, Linda Manz, in the film itself, has very little dialogue. She hovers on the outskirts, we feel her relationship to the others, we understand her character, but she the actress is NOT the lead. If the film were narrated by Brooke Adams' character, we would be traveling into treacly Lifetime movie territory. Events and emotions feel distant in Days of Heaven because that is often how children experience the upheaval of adults. It makes, yes, for a muted atmosphere. But I think that is the film's selling point, rather than its flaw.

Days of Heaven requires that you relax, you sink into it, you breathe into that world. You slow down your own rhythms to reflect the rhythms shown on screen. A river being ruffled by rain and wind. A frog sitting on a small rock, breathing in and out. Wild mustangs galloping this way and that as a thunderstorm approaches. A staring scarecrow, teetering in the middle of an endless field of wheat.

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There is a school of thought that says audiences must be invested emotionally in the story. Now, of course, this is true a lot of the time. An acting teacher of mine used to say that if you were "bored" watching a movie, that was a sign. A sign that "something was wrong". Not with YOU, as in: you're not getting it, you're not paying close enough attention ... If something bores you, that is a valid response. It is interesting to contemplate: what is missing in the story? Why does it not engage me?

But stories can work on audiences in many ways. There is something like Woman Under the Influence, which tosses you into the middle of that family blow-up, and requires that you not just "go there", but you love these people. If you don't love them, then you may end up thinking, "What the hell is everyone going on and on about?" It is hard not to love John Cassavetes' characters, as rowdy and unreachable as many of them are. Even the drunken carousers in Faces, as cruelly as they all act at times ... I love them. Love makes all the difference.

Days of Heaven is not that kind of story. We have Richard Gere, and at this point in his career it was hard not to be drawn to him, to care about him. He was able to show a sort of baffled HURT that demanded you be sucked into his story. Perhaps it was because of his beauty. His beauty works on us, of course, that sort of beauty compels you to look at it, marvel at it. But so much of that HURT quality he captured so well early on in his career came from a sense that things should be EASIER for him, why weren't things just coming to him? I mean, I'm beautiful, I'm sexy, women want me ... why is everyone giving me such a hard time? It's strangely vulnerable. Gere has lost a bit of that now, in his middle age, but I think it is that that set him apart back then, that made such an impression in his early roles in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, American Gigolo, Days of Heaven and, of course, the pinnacle of this - Officer and a Gentleman. He's gorgeous, but he's vulnerable. He played great pricks. Irresistible pricks. Men trapped by their own beauty. Hard to do, hard to pull off. Because the trap here is is that those of us in the audience who are not beautiful, who have never experienced life being that gorgeous, may think, "Oh, boo-hoo, cry me a river. You're gorgeous. So life doesn't work out for you all the time. Welcome to the club." Yes, and that's it exactly. That is exactly the type of struggle that Gere embodied early on. He was a good actor. Limited, but that's okay - he was able to get, in a couple of key parts, roles that capitalized on those limits, and utilized his great and cinematic beauty. In Days of Heaven, he plays a hot-tempered impulsive guy, with a keen of kindness within him (watch how he plays with the kids, chasing, laughing, running - it makes total sense that children would gravitate towards such a man. He was HOT, not cold. Not aloof.) Beauty like his can be off-putting. Here, he wears it casually, unlike in American Gigolo, which fetishized him brilliantly.

Brooke Adams, with her distinctive elfin face, the downturned mouth, the huge eyes, plays a kind woman, who does what she has to do to survive. She loves Richard Gere, but neither of them ever talk about love. Perhaps it began as a relationship of convenience. It's easier to survive on the hustling streets of Chicago if you have a partner-in-crime than if you're by yourself. Especially if you're a woman. But their arrangement remains unspoken, understood. Events of the film bring their emotions to the forefront, as they realize how much they love each other only when they are apart. But again, none of this is spoken, or expressed. It's all in the silences.

Their romance matters to the film, but I am not invested in it emotionally in the same way that I am with John Reed and Louise Bryant in Reds, or any of the other great sweeping romances of the time. The point of the story is not the romance, or the love triangle, when Brooke Adams marries Sam Shepard (at Gere's suggestion). The "Farmer" is, as Linda Manz told us, "close to the boneyard", so if Abby marries him, maybe when he dies (hopefully soon), she will inherit his money, his property - and they all (Gere, Manz) will benefit. Things naturally don't work out that way, and the situation becomes tense, strained, sexually ambiguous.

It reminded me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, where Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) marries Claude Rains' Nazi Sebastian, as a ruse to get closer to his Nazi secrets. Cary Grant basically pushes Bergman at Rains, despite his growing love for her. The marriage is, of course, a sham, and when Alicia does a good impression of being a wife (after all, she must act the part, otherwise Sebastian would suspect!), Cary Grant's "Devlin" holds it against her. He thinks she's acting a little TOO well. It's all quite unfair, because it was his idea in the first place.

Brooke Adams is not in love with The Farmer, although she finds herself falling in love with him. None of this is said. You can see it in how she looks at him, and you can definitely see it in how he looks at her. Making love with someone every night is bound to change things, and her heart starts to open to this man. Yet she is still drawn to Gere, who scowls and pouts his way through the work on the farm, glaring across the wheatfields at the huge house standing alone.

But again, none of this appears to me to be the point. My response is not what I feel when I see Louise Bryant struggling on snowshoes through a tundra to try to get to Moscow. In that situation, I AM her. I must get to him. My life has no purpose without him. I must be by his side. The journey seems endless, and rightly so. Time slows down when we are denied what we need. Here in Days of Heaven, I do not feel the urgency of the romance between Gere and Adams. I don't feel, as I do watching Notorious, that this whole thing is effed up, and they are HURTING one another instead of LOVING one another, and it's awful! I feel here that these are two people, down on their luck, trying to make the best of it, making mistakes, acting impulsively, but still, not from any malevolent or underhanded motivation.

Days of Heaven keeps me at arm's length, except for Linda Manz's narration, and the beauty of the cinematography which is enough to catch my breath in my throat, repeatedly. It is surplus. How does one deal with surplus? Especially a surplus of beauty? I get that feeling sometimes in museums, if I spend too long there. I stop being able to take it in. I get satiated. Days of Heaven tiptoes along that line for me. You could freeze that film at any point and look at a work of art. Extraordinary.

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Looking at Days of Heaven, and its composition, I immediately think of two paintings (posted below the jump). I can't believe that I'm the only one to have noticed it. It appears deliberate. I love these paintings not just for the artistry, and the beauty of the work. I love these paintings because there are stories here, untold, unspoken, and I look at them and immediately, almost by instinct, start filling in the blanks, asking questions, looking closer, wondering what is the MEANING of what I see.

The paintings are meant to be a springboard for contemplation, not the final word.

So, too, with Days of Heaven.

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November 8, 2009

Edward Hopper's Usherette

From David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood:

Was [Edward] Hopper a realist, or was he dreaming as he painted this picture? Were we asleep at the movies in those days? Did all of us want to get lost?

It is a picture of an operating movie theater, yet things are wrong. There is that fragment of a black-and-white screen - not really black or white, but gradations of silver light - at the edge of a painting rich in color. There are the red drapes, scarlet, at the foot of the stairs; there are the rose-colored lamps; there is a glow on the brass rails next to the seats; the usherette's suit is midnight blue; and she is such a bright blonde - maybe she ought to be in movies herself. (Is she a premonition of Nicole Kidman?)

All that brave color needs light, and you realize slowly that just about all the house lights are on in this cinema, and maybe some it never had. With a picture playing, whether it is the feature or a preliminary attraction, there would be wounded cries to kill the lights. Darkness is the first fix moviegoers need. And the painting is very specifically silent (which is not the same here as being without sound - more of that in a minute.)

What has Hopper done? We know he was a moviegoer; as he wandered the city he spent hours in cinemas, for their own sake and to plan works like this. But he has left the lights on, when he could just as easily have painted the read dark. You can imagine that: the composition might be a little different, but every visible detail - the man's cheek in the stalls, the usherette's hair - could depend on the screen's reflected light, that moony spill. Then the painting would be darkness with just those fragments of human attention floating in the gloom, instead of a picture that is like day-for-night, like midnight shot at midday, or like a movie house that is being dreamed.

Then, do you see how the exact center of this strange picture is the least helpful? It is the featureless nothing of a heavy pillar, the thrust that separates the world of the theater (the screen, the seats, the people) from the solitude of the usherette - that quiet, peaceful sidebar where she leans against the wall, her chin resting in one hand. She is not watching the movie. She is not that kind of usherette bursting to get into pictures, a would-be actress studying every tiny gesture on the screen. No, she has her own private movie running, and maybe she is an usherette because in that job you have time to sink into your own thoughts, time to go unnoticed.

Not that she is anonymous or insignificant. Far from it. She'd be tall, I think, even without those high-heeled sandals with their sexy straps. And how does light get to her arched white feet? You can see within those dark blue slacks that she has legs all the way up, a cinched waist and the heave of breasts, as well as that corn-colored hair Doris Day had at Warner Brothers in the fifties, that drops on her shoulders like a wave. And there is light enough to pick out one side of her face - the bone-like flash of wrist and palm. I never saw skin so luminous in a functioning movie house - no, not even one glimpse of pale thigh on a back-row seat in the inadvertent swing of a south London usherette's touch. This girl has such a light strapped to her left wrist; you can see it tucked under the right elbow, thrust up to sustain the head so full of sadness or rapture.

Why watch the movie when that girl is standing there? Is that what the painting is about? Is it Hopper's way of saying that within the crowded, half-awake daydreaming of a packed theater, there may be some pressing loneliness or melancholy, one beautiful girl who doesn't buy the escape of the screen? Yes, that thought is there for sure: Hopper believed in the lonely crowd and urban solitude. He hoped to find drama there, just as his piercing eyes see her feet - put the light where the money (or the sexiness) is. But there's something else going on which has to do with the eternal difficulty in working out what is on the screen.

I mean, this is 1939, so you can propose that the picture playing is something from that famously golden year. Is it Dark Victory, Love Affair, Wuthering Heights? I can believe this girl would like those movies and know them well enough so that she could lean against a wall - Hopper is so alert to tiredness - and just listen to its dense soundtrack. I think her eyes are closed - but maybe that's just me - the better to encourage the process of digestion or absorption.

There, that is getting close to something, I think. As I look at the painting I feel myself absorbing its atmosphere, yet being absorbed, so that I wonder if the girl isn't dreaming me as I watch her. Like "Madeleine" in Vertigo, declining to notice Scotty, but falling in love with him a little even as he comes under her spell? Don't we fall in love with those who look at us with yearning?

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November 5, 2009

Birth of a Nation, dir. D.W. Griffith

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D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, from 1915, is an extraordinary accomplishment in any era. The battle scenes look like documentary footage. The crowd scenes, the cast of hundreds, his innovative use of the camera (the close-up, fast "tracking" shots following galloping horses, cut-aways, inserts) - not to mention the realistic acting that he was able to encourage in his leads ... all of these were giant innovations at the time. The advent of cinema had awkward beginnings, in many cases. Entertainment was theatrical and presentational, involving a proscenium arch. Much early cinema placed the camera far enough back to capture all of the action at one time - as though the camera were sitting in the audience at a vaudeville house. Perhaps it was hard to get your head around that this was a new medium, that with the camera you could do ANYthing. Griffith was the one who decided to go in close. To cut away from the main action to hone in on someone's face - it is startlingly psychological, the close-up, and if you imagine only having seen plays, or vaudeville, to then have the ability to go way way in until you are almost up someone's nose ... It's amazing that directors didn't immediately perceive this from the moment the camera was invented, but they didn't. Griffith did.

David Thomson writes:

To distill the stylistic advances of over three hundred films, Griffith abandoned the fixed point of view of the audience in the stalls and made his camera selective. He saw that there might be a balance between long shot, medium shot, and close-up, and that action might be heightened by the insertion of faces reflecting on or moved by the actions. T he effect of introducing a cinematic language should not conceal Griffith's preference for the standard sentimental melodrama of nineteenth-century theatre and cheap fiction, but he established the emotional impact of films by recognizing the value of sensitive acting. He stressed rehearsal, eliminated crude overacting, and saw that close-ups were more effective if restrained. The outstanding proponents of this novel cinema-acting style are Miriam Cooper in Intolerance and Lillian Gish, but Griffith organized a company of excellent players, just as he liked to use the same, loyal technicians - most notably the cameraman Billy Bitzer.

A blockbuster at the time, it was controversial from the get-go (Griffith's first screen of text in the film which has a statement abhorring censorship suggests that he understood that), and has just grown so over time. It's a romantic uncritical look at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. The Klan saved the South! Let's all just hug one another in happiness and gratitude that the Klan exists! There is no getting around it. The viciously racist portrayals of blacks, not to mention the white actors in blackface, are hard to stomach, and none of it can be justified, except as being representative of a different time and place.

Thomson again:

The most damaging exposure is of Griffith's adherence to a shallow, sentimental code of morality, at variance with the authenticity that he was able to obtain in performance and that he cultivated in art direction.

That's one of the reasons, for me, why Birth of a Nation is such a consistently fascinating and unsettling experience. Fascinating because I have to keep reminding myself: It's 1915, there are horses galloping, and the camera is following them, or leading them on, or riding amongst them - how did Griffith achieve that? I wondered about his process. There is nothing STATIC about his screen. The camera moves in, moves back out, cuts to other rooms - we go from a tight closeup on Gish's romantic little face to an enormous field of battle with horses and cannons and running soldiers - and this is completely modern. You are not looking at a "relic", this is still something vital and new (and I believe that some of the "modern" directors today, with their love of hand-held jerky jumpcut style - for no apparent reason except that it seems to cover up their inadequacies and the fact that they don't know how to TELL A STORY could learn from Griffith) - this is something that has life in it, still today. And yet so much of the entire enterprise is completely repellant. The swelling music when the "Little Colonel" gets the "inspiration" for creating the Klan. As though he has just discovered penicillin or something and we're supposed to cheer. This is abhorrent stuff.

Still, the film has a power and a life to it that is undeniable.

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It works as propaganda. If you take the film at its word, you can see the power of it, although that is difficult to do at times, because you can see the justification for racism woven throughout. But separate yourself from that, and see it as a historical document, in a similar way to the equally repllant Triumph of the Will (a more gorgeously shot film you would be hard pressed to find - but to what end?) - then you can see the propaganda at work. It is unsettling. I get involved in the story of the two families in Birth of a Nation, one from the North, one from the South, and they are good people, kind and loving to one another ... and their nation is threatened by ... well. Uppity negroes, frankly. Something must be done! Naturally, the climax comes when Lillian Gish finds herself in the clutches of Silas Lynch, the rabble-rousing "mulatto" from the North, who has come down South to raise up the blacks and crush the whites. The REAL threat is not equality of the races, oh no. The REAL threat is to the purity of white womanhood. Ah yes. Women are always at the heart of the matter, aren't we? And men decide to kill one another to protect OUR honor. The Klan gallops through the dusty streets, terrifying to behold, and their main goal is to get to the Little Colonel's house in time, before Gish can be deflowered by .... a mulatto! Yeah, cause that's why the Civil War was fought, right? Dear men: do me a favor, and do yourself a favor, don't use ME as an excuse to fight your damn wars, mkay? Come up with your own goddamn justification for the slaughter and leave me out of it.

It's ridiculous!

Speaking of war, I want to mention one scene in Birth of a Nation that never fails to bring me to tears, and each time I've seen it, I keep thinking it will end at a certain point, and then it doesn't ... it moves on, slowly, for a couple seconds more, and it is those couple seconds that make the difference. That Civil War battle scenes in the film are absolutely incredible. You get huge long shots, that today would be done with CGI, but here ... what we are seeing is real. Hundreds of soldiers, entrenched on either side, flags waving, drums, cannons going off - it is incredible stuff. There is one scene, during a particularly violent battle, where the two old friends, one from the North and one from the South, come across one another. The man from the North lies fallen, shot. The man from the South races over, thinking it is just "The Enemy (TM)", and raises his rifle to shoot him dead, when he sees who it is. His old friend and comrade. They hold out their hands to one another, they speak a little bit, all around them is the smoke of battle, but they are in a completely private space. This one short scene encapsulates, better than any giant battle scene, the true wrenching horror of the War Between the States. Brother against Brother. And then, the man from the South, who is standing upright over his fallen friend, is shot. He falls beside the other man. And here is where the shot lingers, lengthening, going on beyond the point where I think it will stop. Each time I've seen it. The two men now lie on the ground together, one curled up against the other. They are still alive, but the life is fading from them both. The man who has just been shot, reaches out and puts his arm over the man's chest. It is a shockingly intimate gesture, as though they are in bed together. It is tender. Loving. Like they are two little boys, having a slumber party, or sleeping out in a tent together. Before the self-consciousness of adulthood has descended upon them. That is when I think the scene will end. But it goes on. A bit more. They lie there, one holding the other, and the man with his arm over his friend, starts to slowly stroke his friend's cheek. A gentle loving gesture, usually reserved for male-female relationships at this time. Almost romantic. And still the scene doesn't end. He continues to stroke his friend's cheek, his body curled up next to his friend, and he strokes and strokes - until the life leaves him, and you can see it leave his body, his hand, his fingers ... and then the two of them lie there, still and dead, in each other's arms.

This scene kills me. It has the perfect arc to it, and then, when you feel, "Okay, I'm done now", because of the power of it - it refuses to stop. Just because you the audience are done doesn't mean that the STORY is done. This is the horror of the Civil War. There is more to do, more to show you. You may want to look away 5 seconds into this thing, but we've got 5 more seconds to go, and you're going to take it.

It's a beautiful poetic and tragic representation of that war, and its complexities, and it's done with simplicity and emotion.

It is impossible to discuss Birth of a Nation without discussing its content, and I actually am not interested in such a discussion, because the content is important. But it is also important to acknowledge what was actually done here, in terms of innovation, and the inspiration it provided to directors around the world. Ohhhh, so cinema is not so much about action - it's about FACES. Of course, why didn't I see that before?

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There's a moment when Lillian Gish, after having a sunny walk with her beloved Little Colonel, where they pledge their troth to one another and what have you, comes into the house and goes into her room. We see her dancing around, hugging herself, laughing out loud, a delightful picture of a young girl in love. Gish is, of course, sweet and girlish (perpetually), and her acting has the stamp of pantomime across it - which is one of the reasons I love it. Acting WAS pantomime back then. There were GESTURES which suggested Grief, Love, Anger, Fear. This acting style no longer exists. But watch Gish, and you can see what a gifted proponent of the 19th century acting style looks like. It's extremely effective, archetypal almost - and not melodramatic. It's not schtick. She manages to infuse it with heart, life, breath. She straddles two centuries, that's what we're seeing. The scene ends with her sitting down on the bed, lost in a dream of her love. Griffith then moves in close to her face. We've been seeing her in long shot all this time, but now he cuts to a closeup. Gish, her big eyes gleaming, hugs the bedpost. She is lost, lost in her dream, her happiness. And, almost unconsciously, she almost doesn't know she's doing it, Gish kisses the bedpost, as though it is her lover's lips. The scene fades to black.

This is the kind of naturalistic psychological detail that elevates Birth of a Nation (in terms of its content, I mean - the technological aspect cannot be denied) from a pamphlet about The Dangers of Uppity Negroes - to a story, involving character, motivation, obstacle.

Gish's acting in that moment (and in others) has much to do with the success of the film, and it is in how she does it. It's not just that she kisses the bedpost, which is already rather adorable and human. It's that she appears to do it without thinking about it, without knowing quite what she is doing. It comes naturally out of what is in her heart. She wants to be close to him, but he is not there, and ... the bedpost is. This is what cinema can do. Such a moment would not play on a stage. It is too small, too subtle. But on a movie screen, it reads large. We go inside her head and her heart. THAT was Griffith's innovation.

Birth of a Nation remains a troubling document of a time and place, with many elements that are disgusting. But still. It draws you in. That's perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all. That's why the damn thing works.

If I didn't know any better, I might also cheer at the sight of Klansmen galloping, as far as the eye can see.

Again, Triumph of the Will comes to mind. It is a haunting and gorgeous evocation of COMMUNITY, of ONE-ness. It compels you to join the group. It shows you the pageantry, the beauty, the sheer power of the group ... it doesn't have to say anything else. There are no questions involved in the film, nothing nags the conscience: Is this right? Is this group something I WANT to join? No. It appears to be an inevitability. The group COMPELS you to join it, and that makes Triumph of the Will, perhaps, one of the most effective films ever made. It's horrifying.

Regardless of the moral elements here, and how times and ideas change, Birth of a Nation remains a highwater mark, at least technologically, in that it showed what the new medium was truly capable of.

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October 12, 2009

What happened was ....

41R5R4AATJL._SL500_AA280_.jpgYears ago, I saw the film What Happened Was..., starring Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas. Tom Noonan also wrote and directed it. A critically acclaimed film at the time (it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance - Noonan winning for his screenplay, as well as his acting - and it also won a couple of Independent Spirit Awards - she won for acting, and he won, again, for his screenplay) it has since disappeared completely from off the map. It is no longer out on VHS, if you want to buy it you have to buy a used copy (which I have done), and it is certainly not on DVD. This is a shame. It's a wonderful haunting film that has stayed with me for years - strange little details stayed in my mind, although I couldn't remember what they signified:

-- the broken pieces of her china cat in the fish bowl
-- the little red room in her apartment with the doll house and the duck lamp
-- her behavior during the opening scene when she is waiting for him to show up (microwaving the dinner, drinking wine, running around)
-- his monologue at the end, that killer closeup
-- the blueness of her walls, contrasting with her bright red dress
-- the story she reads him
-- the sort of Rear Window aspect of the production design, the views into all of the other apartments
-- that freaky section when he looks at the doll house and thinks he sees little figures moving around in there - brilliant

And then how everything on this "first date" goes so far south that you don't believe either of these characters will ever fully recover. It's not the DATE that is so bad, although it's pretty damn bad, it's that THEY are broken people, with only fragments, shards of themselves left to give.

It's brutal. Claustrophobic. Occasionally funny, in a rather awful way, with stellar performances by the two leads. It is a pleasure to watch both of them work. This is not kitchen-sink realism. This is not cautious "realistic" work. They are characters, first and foremost, with some theatricality to them, some underlying issues and subtext, and all of that stuff which is so often left out of films such as this one. The poster for the film, while understandable from a marketing perspective, completely misrepresents the dark stifling relentless journey you are about to go on. You think you are watching one thing (an awkward first date), and you are, you are correct on that score, but then by the end, you realize you have been watching quite another kind of event. Something much deeper, the two characters straddling the abyss of their own lives.

When I first saw the film, I felt GUTTED like a freakin' FLOUNDER.

I haven't seen it in years, due to how hard it is to find. Also, I haven't had a television, so I have been strictly relegated to watching movies on my laptop. When I finally set up my entertainment system, I was happy because I am now able to watch movies that, for whatever boneheaded reason, have not made the transfer to DVD yet. Sounder, for example. It's been a joy. I haven't seen some of these in years.

So last week, I bought a used VHS copy of What Happened Was ..., and I watched it last night, which, perhaps, was not a good idea. I couldn't sleep afterwards. And I woke up this morning in a bit of a funk, so I decided to write it out. I remember how disturbing I found the film when I saw it 10, 12 years ago, but I was younger then. The issues in the film cut way closer to the bone now. Interesting, and just indicative of its power: that it could seem almost like a different movie to me, when I saw it at two different stages of my life. That's powerful stuff. Not all movies can transfer like that, but this one does. If anything, it was MORE disturbing now.

I will write a more in-depth review of it, I want to add it to my Under-rated Movies Series, but for now, I just want to reiterate that the film has a haunting inexplicable power. It works ON you, rather than working just in and of itself. It sneaks up on you. I spend an hour, watching their awkward attempts at conversation, watching how much she drinks, watching how skillfully and invisibly the actors reveal the characters they are playing. The film is a sucker-punch. 3/4s of the way through, she reads him one of the stories she writes in her free time. It is called What Happened Was .... She is drunk by this point. This is the turning point for him. His veneer cracks. Irrevocably. As he listens to the story (which is horrifying, brutal), you can see beads of sweat start to appear on his face, he is in ruthless close-up, I start to wish the camera would pull back, just to give him (and me) a break. This is when he glances at the doll house and, awfully, sees little figures walking around in the windows. What Happened Was... changes, forever, in that creepy terrifying moment. We realize what we are seeing. We realize what the EVENT actually is. And by that point, just like with him, it is too late for us to escape. His claustrophobia is ours.

The character Noonan plays is a Harvard grad, who works as a paralegal at a law firm, and has done so for 15 years. He has contempt for all of the lawyers, and partners, and it is his contempt (expressed in a kind of laughing way, which makes him seem superior to everyone) that gets him through the day. It's a good act. It's fun to feel smarter than everyone else around you. Or, in his case, it's not that it's fun, it's that it's the only way he feels he can grasp onto anything at ALL.

When she reads her horrifying story, in a kind of child's blunt sing-song, he can no longer keep up his act. He can no longer play superior. He certainly can't play superior to this woman. He thought he had her pegged. He did not. This is a devastating realization for him, and I would warrant a guess that this moment, in her red-glowing room, being read to her, is the most real moment he has had in not only years, but perhaps ever.

I was so thrilled, flipping through my giant book Defining Moments in Movies: The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events that Made Movie Magic to see that this scene is listed. It's a giant book, going back to the earliest days of film-making.

Michael Sicinski, who wrote the blurb for What Happened Was (the book is made up of a bunch of different contributors, Matt Zoller Seitz being one of them), writes:

Jackie informs Michael that she is a published author and offers to read him some of her work. He is naturally hesitant, since if her fiction is embarrassing it will increase his discomfort exponentially. Instead, Jackie reveals herself to be a somewhat naive but bracingly honest children's-book-author/performance artist, turning out the lights and delivering a tale of incest, abuse, and eventual escape. Like a female Charles Bukowski (imagine!) or some demon spawn of Sam Fuller and Judy Blume, Jackie has crafted a steely-eyed tale of innocence despoiled. (The ambiguity as to just how autobiographical it is only adds to the frisson, and Michael's dumbstruck awe.) Although the scene is followed by a disclosure that, in another context, could belittle Jackie, Michael - and the audience - instead respond with protective tenderness.

What Happened Was is not interested in letting anyone off the hook. It is a portrayal of Eleanor Rigbys, and all the lonely people out there, and while Noonan tries to maintain a distant stance of laughing at the foibles of humanity, he is unable to keep it up in the face of Jackie's blunt truth. And Jackie, Jackie ... what a character Sillas has created. You can literally feel her loneliness buzzing along the surface of her skin. It emanates a sickly aura. And yet, she still tries to put on the game face. She is beautiful, if a bit flat and serious in the eyes. She's on a date. She works with this guy, and she has had a crush on him for months. But this is not a woman who is able to be casual anymore. She once was, she makes reference to how crazy she used to be, and you can feel how much work it has been for her to tamp down that craziness. But you can't tamp down the longing for connection. The hurt sensation that life has passed you by. That somehow ... you have missed out on all of the human natural things that everyone else seems to get to participate in. Dating, love, sex, romance, marriage, a personal life ... why does everyone else get to have these things, and not her? Sillas doesn't allow any of this to become self-pitying, and she also holds her cards close to her chest. None of it comes out until the end, when the masks are ripped off, and neither of them can hide anymore. Her feeling about her life is one of anger, yes, but also she's more confused, and hurt, like a little girl. "Why not me? Why isn't any of this FOR me?" She doesn't know where she went wrong, but it is obvious that she has.

This has resonance for me on all kinds of terrible levels, but it's also one of the things I'm working on in that script of mine. It is the main element I am looking to capture. I watched What Happened Was ... last night and realized just how much that film had influenced me. It stuck with me. I saw it, and it has never really left me. It's strangely ominous. It was prophetic, actually.

It's a really fine piece of art, and I wish it was available to be seen. I probably shouldn't have just casually popped it in last night, I should know better by now, but it certainly made me think deep and hard about my script, and what I am trying to do there - and gearing up for this week of rehearsals, that is a good good place to be.

More on What Happened Was later, but for now, a snippet of the script, when things start to spiral down on the date. It's uncanny how much this reflects, uhm, recent experiences, let's say that. On both sides of the table.


Michael: I feel terrible now.
Jackie: Yeah, well, dates are weird sometimes.
Michael: This was a date?
Jackie: You know, you'd like everyone to think you don't know what's going on, but you know what's going on. You know very well that I liked you a lot and that this was a date.
Michael: See, if I had known that you felt that way --
Jackie: Don't tell me that you wouldn't have come.
Michael; If I have done anything to mislead you --
Jackie: No, you haven't done anything. You know, I liked you, and I'm sorry I liked you.
Michael: I'm very flattered that you feel that way about me.
Jackie: Flattered? Are you fucking kidding me? I mean, if you don't want to get involved, that's fine, that's your choice, but don't tell me that this never happened, that I got this all wrong, that I made this up. Don't tell me that I made this up!
Michael: Why don't you just let me try to explain --
Jackie: Just get out.
Michael: Well, if you'd let me try to explain --
Jackie: Just get the fuck out of here.
Long silence. She goes and starts washing the dishes like a maniac.
Michael: Uhm ...
Long silence.
Michael: I don't do this. I said I don't do this kind of thing anymore. I didn't quit law school. I had to leave. I was almost done and then I started to ... I couldn't get out of bed in the morning, and everyone's voices got louder and louder, and I felt smaller and smaller. I felt like I was falling all the time. I carry this briefcase everywhere, writing notes all the time. And I get home, and I put the briefcase on the hall table and I never open it. See, I don't write. I haven't written anything in years. And I don't have a publisher. You know what I do all the time ? I watch TV. I get home and I get my dinner and I sit in front of the TV set and I tell myself it's okay to watch for a little while, I'm lonely, I'll write after dinner and then after dinner I get the TV Guide and I check and see if something's on, and I'll watch one program, like a good one, like a science special or something, but then I'll watch whatever's on. Even if I've seen it before. Because it fills this void in me. Because nobody ever told me what to do. And so I watch all night hoping it tells me what to do. You know, I don't talk about anything I haven't seen on TV. I didn't read about birds or microwaves ... See, it's like something broke in me a long time ago. And I don't know what it was, and it's too hard for me to keep trying. There's a lot of things I want to do with my life. And I'm so far behind now. I'm never gonna catch up. I just wish someone could tell me what to do. That I should sit down, I should eat something, and afterwards, afterwards they'll answer my questions, and tell me how to do stuff, and if I screw up it's okay cause that's what people do, screwing up is a good thing, it's good, and then they'll tell me to go to bed and go to sleep, it'll be okay tomorrow, we'll do something else, we'll have fun. I'm sorry.
Long silence. She stares at him.
Jackie: You know, I lie in bed at night and I'm staring up at the ceiling, and it's like, the only thing that's gotten me through lately is the thought that I'd see you at work. At first I thought oh, I just liked you, because you were so much fun making jokes at those guys' expense, and them not knowing it ... and then you'd smile and you'd look at me, and I'd understand.I don't know what happened. It's like, at one point guys just stopped asking me out, you know? I don't know if it was cause of my age or because maybe I gave off this serious vibe. It was probably that. It's funny, you know? You finally grow up, you finally figure out who the hell you are, and just when you got something interesting to give, they're not interested anymore. So I probably knew you wouldn't come through for me, you know? I should have known when the smartest nicest funniest guy, who's a paralegal, who does the Xeroxing in the office, I should have known that you are where you are because you want to be there. Because we all are where we are because we want to be there, right?

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October 11, 2009

Great mad women in cinema

To be continued.

Some of these women probably would not qualify for a diagnosis from the psychiatric profession. And perhaps their madness is actually a heightened level of sanity, as is often the case. Nevertheless, they are mad.

Wonderfully mad.


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July 28, 2009

I wish I knew how to say "I can't wait" in 12 different languages

Because that's how excited I was watching this trailer.

Thanks, Jeff.



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July 25, 2009

"Kill, kill, kill, that's all I feel inside me!"

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A ceremonious showing last night of Berserk! (yes, with an exclamation point) in honor of Dan's birthday (he of the gorgeous recent Madeline Kahn piece). We all gathered with wine and "miniature cheese" (only in this crowd would someone reference Love Streams when someone shows up with a bunch of "miniature cheese" - "Member when Gena Rowlands shows up with all those ponies and she's like, 'They're miniature horses!") at Keith and Dan's, and reveled in the GLORY of late Joan Crawford.

Crawford plays Monica Rivers, the owner (and master of ceremonies as well) of a circus. "This circus has been in my family for 50 years," she declares. Of course it has. Every night, she puts on an unfortunate leotard showing her still-slamming legs, and walks out into the ring, announcing all the acts (which director Jim O'Connolly has decided to show in their entirety - a bizarre choice - do I need to see 30 poodles jumping through hoops for fifteen straight minutes?). But sadly, the "Great Rivers Circus" is going through some hard times, as the brilliant opening credits sequence shows (I'm not being sarcastic - seriously, you want to see ART? Mixed with CRAY-CRAY? Find Berserk and watch the opening credits) - and people are being murdered while doing their acts. A tightrope walker plummets to his death. Scotland Yard is called. Because yeah, Scotland Yard concerns itself with the petty jealousies swarming through a low-rent jank circus.

Crawford is supposedly a third-generation carnie, yet she dresses like, well, Joan Crawford in her Pepsi corporate days, with ropes of colored pearls on her neck, and strangely colored boxy-shaped suits. Except when she puts on her spangly leotard of course.

Crawford's business partner is a melancholy vaguely homosexual Englishman who sadly BITES it one night in a rather grisly manner. Right around this time though, a hottie tightrope walker (played by Ty Hardin, a truly strange individual - look up his bio on IMDB and you'll see what I mean. Dude, you need to chillax with the Ruby Ridge mindset. Gotta love those self-righteous Christians who also have had 8 or 9 wives! Way to walk the walk!) shows up and offers his services, to be the new act, something no one has ever seen before! He walks on a tightrope ("blindfolded" it is announced - although he actually puts a black hood over his head so he looks like a long lost photo from Abu Gharib) without a net, and on the ground below him is a bed of sharp knives, sticking up into the air. Crawford takes him on, in more ways than one. One second she is sizing up his act, next second she is wearing a flowy nightgown, her hair is down, she's smoking a cigarette, and obviously having a May-December sex fling with the dude. "Man, she works fast," one of us commented.

There are many complications to this plot (which sadly you have a LOT of time to ponder because of the interminable circus acts you are forced to sit through), including a perky daughter of Crawford who has been thrown out of boarding school (for smoking cigarettes. What? Also, the headmistress accompanies the daughter to the circus to hand her off to her mother. Really? A headmistress of a boarding school has nothing better to do than travel by train across England with an expelled student so that she can then snottily state the exposition to Crawford? The daughter is not a BAD girl, you understand ... it's just that she's circus folk ... she wants to be with her "peeps".)

Crawford wants MORE for her daughter (who looks vaguely like, hm, Cristina) than the circus life, but due to her love for her child she says, "Okay fine, you can come back - but you'll work."

There's also a blonde bodacious slut (Crawford actually calls her that in one of the best moments in the movie - she walks right up to her and says, "You ... slut") - who does the best act in the circus (apparently) with a suspicious-looking guy of apparent Serbo-Croatian heritage named Lazslo - and when we finally see the act, THE thing that has been drawing in the crowds over all those years - we all were like, "That's it? That's the headliner?" But anyway, blonde slut who dresses like a cheaper less interesting version of Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop becomes convinced that Crawford herself is behind all the murders. Blonde slut starts to stir the pot, whispering in a conspiratorial manner with the other circus performers. So there are great scenes involving a strong man, a bearded lady, a midget, and a blonde slut, whispering about murder. There are lines like, "I'm a strong strong man, but even I couldn't commit murder" followed by ,"I may have a beard, but I know right from wrong," followed by, "I'm a midget but I'm no murderer."

Cinema doesn't get any better than that.

Crawford, when filmed head on, always has a dark band of shadow across her chin and neck, to hide her age. It doesn't matter if the scene takes place in a small circus trailer where there is no outside light and also, well, no BARS to make shadows ... she still has her special light with her.

Her hair deserves its own zip code. It is pulled back sleekly, with then tiers and tiers of braids coiled on top, sometimes with jewels woven through. But then she's wearing these sea-foam-green corporate suits, or boxy black and white jackets. Because people who own traveling circuses look like that.

Events unfold with very little tension (due to the breaks we are forced to take to watch the elephant act or the trotting ponies), but a lot of unintentional comedy, and man, just watch Crawford SELL this abysmal material.

She's basically an old lady at this point in her life, and yet there she is, in this piece of shit movie, but she has obviously demanded that she have things her way. "I must have a band of shadow across my neck at all times, I must wear my own clothes, and you must get out of my way to let me do whatever I want to do." Why not, the woman is Joan Crawford for God's sake. To quote her best line from the movie, "I'm running a circus, not a charm school."

Damn straight.


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July 18, 2009

Sergio Leone presents:

Professor Serverus Snape's Sorcerer-Tastic, Muggalicious Mid-Summer Movie Quiz. Long anticipated. Questions are awesome, thought-provoking (your SECOND favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie? Love it!) - and the answers are even better. I was unable to participate in the last two quizzes because of everything that has been going on - but I gave this one a shot. I put my answers in the comments section over there, but true to form, I have put my answers below - in pictorial form. It's fun for me that way.


1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.


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2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

Things like Netflix. I really CHOOSE what movies I want to see in the theatres now. Other than that, I wait.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?


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4) Best Film of 1949.

Toss up between:


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and


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Jimmy Cagney's breakdown in the prison (and his command to director Raoul Walsh before filming that scene: "Just follow me ...") is an all-time high point for me in the history of movies. But boy, The Third Man!

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?


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6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

Yes. If used well, it's awesome. But if you don't know what you're doing and why then, well, you shouldn't do it.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

I believe it was


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8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?


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9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).


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10) Favorite animal movie star.


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That dog had a quite a fruitful career.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.


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12) Best Film of 1969.


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My thoughts here. There are other movies from that year that I love more, but in terms of scope and accomplishment, I have to go with this one.

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

Theatre:


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DVD:


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14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

It hurts me to choose. I know I'm in the minority but I am going with a movie I absolutely loved:


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15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?

So many come to mind! Kim Morgan, Sergio Leone, my entire blogroll basically.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)


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17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?


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18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.


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19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.

Hands down:


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20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.


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21) Best Film of 1979.

I must go with:


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which is, frankly, one of my favorite films of all time, but I am also forever haunted by:


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so I feel I should mention it.


22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

Hmm.
Realistic:


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it's chilling how this girl who is NOT a bad girl gets the reputation for being one and the scenes of gossiping neighbors and passive-aggressive shunning is really ahead of its time. More thoughts here.

Sincere:


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May be a bit sentimentalized but I grew up in a town like that and have a lot of fondness for it - and although it is a cynical movie, the representation of small-town life and its regular rhythms is quite spot-on.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).


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I am thankful for caller ID every time I see that movie. Tell that beeyotch I'm not in!

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.


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25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.


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Although there is this, so perhaps there is hope.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

Opening sequence of


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To quote within context: Untouchable.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.


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28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)

Ha!!

I was coming up blank but then I saw someone else's choice:


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Love Richard Widmark. Good ol' Allen Smithee. What underrated work he does.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

Oh what the hell, I'll take Crash.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.


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It is my favorite Woody Allen film in general.
Diane Keaton: "I'm gonna bust this case WIDE OPEN."
Woody Allen: "What the hell has happened to you?"

And then of course there's the homage to Lady from Shanghai that makes up the ending.

31) Best Film of 1999.


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... although


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is a sentimental favorite. Right, Bill? More thoughts here.

32) Favorite movie tag line.

It's gotta be:


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33) Favorite B-movie western.

Not sure of the definition of B movie. How about:


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34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

Dashiell Hammett. Shakespeare. Stephen King. Argh.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Sorry, Susan! I love you, you ditzy heiress, but I have to go with:


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36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.

Great question. Cameo. Hmm. This doesn't really qualify as a cameo since they both are in the movie but here we go. Glorious.




37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?

I'm gonna go with neither.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)


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June 14, 2009

Quotes from Jen, while watching Grizzly Man with her last night

"Dude, it's SHIT. It's not 'number two'. Who is your audience here? Channel 13? It's SHIT. The bear 'goes to the bathroom'? No - the bear takes a shit. What the hell is his problem?"


"That woman ... I hate to say it, but she needs to be in a war zone. A war zone'd straighten her right out."


"See, the thing is is that I think Timothy Treadwell was ..." (long profound pause, as she thought about her next comment. Then she reached out for her glass of wine, and said ...) "... was just a guy ..." (then she took a big swig of wine with an air of finality, like that was her big statement for the night. I burst out laughing which then caused Jen to do a spittake. That's all you got, Jen? That potent pregnant pause was for that? He was "just a guy"?? GUFFAWING.)


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June 10, 2009

When I need to escape

... and I often need to escape ...

it's comforting to know there's a movie I can turn to that is, at all times, a slam-dunk in that respect.

One of the greatest of all time. Doesn't matter how many times I have seen it. It gets me there every time. Meaning: out of my own life. Into another.

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May 26, 2009

Golf has never seemed so ominous

A spectacular sequence.


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May 11, 2009

A really well-written scene

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It speaks for itself. A perfectly cadenced scene - and perfectly balanced - both sides equal and reactive - the tension perfect and taut - not to mention how well it is played by Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer. But the material itself is fantastic. They rise to the occasion. Mmmmm, I love a well-written scene. There are so many layers here. For example, when he says "Careful, you're gonna have me thinking you're going soft on me" - he is throwing back her own words from earlier in the movie back in her face. He's such a cool character, this Jack Baker, but in that moment - where he lobs her words back at her - he lets us know how much that hurt him back then. But you'll never ever catch Jeff Bridges playing something so on the nose. No, no, he's better than that. He's better than anyone. It's a knife. His hurt comes out as cold anger, a blank wall. The scene is wordy, yes, they are hurting one another - so that later, when they come to apologize - they both have much to apologize for. But it's well-written, I think. It's one of those moments when you find yourself in a really ugly fight, without planning on it, and you can't back your way out of it.

So much for an actor to chew on.

It reminds me of Odets' great love/confrontation scenes. Only with swears.


Susie: I told Frank I'm quitting.

Jack: Congratulations.

Susie: As of now.

Jack: Well, if you need a recommendation you let me know.

Susie: Jesus, you're cold you know that? God, you're like a fucking razor blade.

Jack: Careful, you're gonna have me thinking you're going soft on me.

Susie: You don't give a fuck, do you? About anything?

Jack: What do you want from me? You want me to tell you to stay? Is that what you're looking for? You want me to get down on my knees and beg you to save the Baker Boys from doom? Forget it, sweetheart. We survived for 15 years before you strutted onto the scene. 15 years. Two seconds, and you're bawling like a baby. You shouldn't be wearing a dress, you should be wearing a diaper.

Susie: Jesus, you and Egghead are brothers, aren't you.

Jack: Let me tell you something. Over the years, they've dropped like flies in every fucking hotel in this city. We're still here. We've never held a day job in our lives. He's an easy target, but Frank's done fine.

Susie: Yeah, Frank's done great. He's got the wife, the kids, the little house in the suburbs. Meanwhile, his brother is sitting in a shitty apartment with a sick dog, Little Orphan Annie upstairs, and a chip on his shoulder as big as a Cadillac.

Jack: Listen to me, princess. We fucked twice. That's it. Once the sweat dries, you still don't know shit about me, got it?

Susie: I know one thing. While Frank Baker was home putting his kids to sleep last night, little brother Jack was out dusting off his dreams for a few minutes. I was there. I saw it in your face. You're full of shit. You're a fake. Every time you walk into some shitty daiquiri hut you're selling yourself on the cheap. Hey, I know all about that. I'd find myself at the end of the night with some creep and tell myself it didn't matter. And you kid yourself that you got this empty place inside where you can put it all. But you do it long enough and all you are is empty.

Jack: I didn't know whores were so philosophical.

Susie: At least my brother's not my pimp. You know I had you pegged as a loser the first time I saw you but you're worse. You're a coward.

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"Tyson" (dir. James Toback)

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I was in an elevator once with Mike Tyson. He stood directly in front of me. He was huge. He was in a suit and shoes that exuded millions of dollars. He smelled fantastic. But what struck me, standing as I was behind him, was the size of his neck. It was wider than my own shoulders. It was like staring at Mount Rushmore.

This weekend, I saw James Toback's documentary Tyson, which has been generating a lot of controversy, due to the totally biased nature of the project. There is no outside narration, no objective eye. Tyson sits on a couch and talks directly to the camera for the duration of the film. There's a lot of great footage, of Tyson as a young fighter, with his mentor and savior, Cus D'Amato, and all of Tyson's major fights - the triumphs and the disasters. But we are not meant to see the film as a clear-eyed objective look at the man. It is clearly a defense of Tyson. Human beings are, of course, notoriously unreliable when it comes to telling their own stories - but that's part of the strength of the film. Tyson does not wallow in self-pity so much. He takes responsibility for his actions, and while he may have blind spots, and deep character flaws, my main response watching the thing was compassion, and also identification. This is the last thing I thought I would experience, going in. I identified with Mike Tyson? His neck is bigger than my torso. How can I see myself in him?

He tells a story early on of his family moving to the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. Not just a rough area, it's a completely decimated area, and you see photographs of it at that time and it looks like you're looking at Beirut, circa 1983. Tyson talks about being picked on because he was fat, and he tells a story of another kid stealing his glasses. It blew his mind. It hurt him obviously. He still seems hurt. Things seem very simple in the Mike Tyson psychology we see in the film: he was messed with as a kid, and he vowed to never, ever, "lose" in any physical altercation with another person, ever. He says that repeatedly. He will never be humiliated again.

Could it be that simple?

Maybe it can.

One of the things that is so disarming about this film is how open he is. You don't get a lot of bluster and defensiveness. As a matter of fact, you get almost none - so when it does come out (he refers to Don King as a "reptilian motherfucker", and Desiree Washington as a "wretched swine") it is almost refreshing. He comes off as pretty passive, in many ways, and in touch with the pain and poverty that got him to where he is today. The lack of self-esteem, all those psychological catch-words ... He does not come off as unaware, or blind to the fact that he might have some deep-seated issues. He actually seems aware of all of it. He does not defend much of his actions - "I was out of control then ..." or "I was not taking care of myself, I had forgotten about discipline" ... but we do get his side of things in controversial moments such as the Holyfield fight and the rape conviction. Whatever you may think of Tyson and his behavior, it certainly cannot be argued that his "side" has been fully heard. To be angry that he now has a chance to talk about his version of events seems rather ridiculous to me, when so much print has been devoted to rehashing the case against him. He was buried in the press, he was crucified a hundred times over. Even at the time of the rape conviction, I remember thinking, "I don't know, man, there's something not right about this." I read the reports of what happened in that hotel room, and felt like this was a man being railroaded by a woman who regretted her decision to go up to his room. But "regret" does not equal "rape". Most of us have made choices in that arena that we regret. I never believed a rape happened, is what I'm trying to say. Not that it matters. He was convicted in a court of law. I still think it stinks. I wasn't in that hotel room, none of us were, so nobody can say for sure. Tyson is no angel, and he admits that repeatedly in the interviews. He has slept around, has never been faithful to one woman, and the lure of what fame gave him was too much for him to resist. But there was something rotten in the state of Denmark with that rape conviction.

Watching, again, the footage of the infamous interview Robin Givens (his wife at the time) and Tyson had with Barbara Walters, I was struck by how much was stacked against this man. The assumption being: he is a huge scary-looking black man with a gold tooth, and so we are prepared to believe the worst of him. Givens goes on and on about how "manic" Tyson is, and "abusive - but not physically abusive ...", all as he is sitting right there. I remember watching that interview when it first came out, and again alarm bells went off. Something didn't seem quite right. There are many things on this planet where I am completely comfortable saying, "You know what? I don't know enough about that topic to comment on it." But human behavior, and the nonverbal clues people give off, is NOT one of those topics. Robin Givens came off as false in that interview. It felt scripted and act-ed to me. She was making up a story. She knew public sympathy would automatically be on her side (I mean, look at her brute husband! Yeah, but hon, you picked him. You married him. Take some responsibility for that choice!) so she goes off, riffing, using psychological terms like "manic" and "abusive", all with Baba Wawa as a captive audience. Tyson says, in regards to this event, that all of it was a lie, and while, yes, he had problems, and would try to get away with things with women, he never abused her, it was all lies. But what could he do? If he went crazy, and defended himself, then that was only what was expected of him. It would prove Robin Givens' point. Nobody would defend him. He was completely alone.

But the most moving part of the entire Robin Givens section of the documentary, was Tyson saying, "Look, we were 21 years old, we were in love, everyone was in our business, and we didn't know what we were doing. But we were just kids, just kids, just kids ..." He says "just kids" three times, shaking his head each time, forgiving himself and her for the craziness they involved themselves in.

One of the things I found charming (in a disorienting way - the movie really worked on me) was Tyson's oddly formal cadences. He speaks in an old-school way, using words like "skulduggery" (two or three times), and referring to Robin Givens as "a nice young lady". He mentions that before one major fight he learned he had contracted gonorrhea. He says, "I either got it from a prostitute or ... a very filthy young lady." The audience I saw it with, myself included, burst into laughter.

I lost track of how many times Tyson said the word "fear". What I see in his eyes, what I feel from him, is not anger or rage or some kind of animalistic power. I see fear. The fear of the little boy who got his glasses stolen, and is afraid of a physical confrontation. It is a strange dichotomy, and one that I imagine most audience members will find supremely unbalancing. If you go into it despising Tyson and what he represents, you may find your mind changed. Or you may be furious at Toback, for presenting Tyson in a sympathetic light. That's all part of what is interesting about the film. It leaves the audience huge realms of space to make up their own minds. It is confronting because on some level the lack of omniscient narration puts you (the audience) up against yourself. You are forced to deal with your own issues, your own responses.

Now I may be more predisposed towards sympathy with Tyson than someone else, even though I'm not a big boxing fan, or anything like that. I felt the rape conviction was bogus and I thought Robin Givens came off really badly and falsely in the interview with Walters, I didn't believe a word she said.

The Holyfield fight was horrifying (amazing footage in the documentary, with Tyson breaking it down for us - the play by play of what was going on between those two men) - and Holyfield was fighting dirty, headbutting Tyson, and Tyson finally had it and bit the man's ear. Indefensible. And Tyson does not waste time defending himself. He is more upset that he lost his discipline. He has disappointed not only himself, but Cus D'Amato, the trainer who took Tyson as a teenager under his wing (moving him into his house with his family), who taught him everything he knew about boxing. Cus D'Amato, a kind of Mickey-from-Rocky character, drilled it into Tyson's head that there needed to be a spiritual aspect of boxing, that so much of it had to do with mental preparation, and mental toughness. In the Holyfield fight, Tyson snapped.

Toback uses a split screen a bit too much, with multiple shots of Tyson talking, and I wasn't wacky about that technique. I wanted more just full-frontal Tyson, no tricks or bells and whistles. Of course this is Toback we're talking about, and he can't help himself. Toback and Tyson have been good friends for over 20 years. Toback makes no pretense at making anything fair and balanced. I believe that that is one of the main strengths of the film.

Tyson makes a riveting subject. He is articulate, funny at times, honest, and so open you almost want to tell him to protect himself a little bit more. I could have listened to him talk for an hour or so more. He has the Maori tattoo across his face, and the camera gets so close you are almost up his nose, and any preconceived notions you might have about Tyson the man are right there in his face: he is so huge, so intimidating. He looks so frightening. But spending time in his company for the duration of the documentary, all I could see, over and over again, in a newsreel of repetition, was that little boy in Brownsville, who got his glasses stolen, and - to this day - seems baffled and confused as to why someone would ever do that to another person.

Highly recommended.

It will get you talking, that's for sure.

Here is Roger Ebert's review.

Don't miss Kim's review, which has a video clip of her interview with James Toback.

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May 10, 2009

Speaking of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:

I am not prepared to say this in any way approaching 100%, but I will say that the trailer for that film - the first one - is one of the best trailers I have ever seen in my life. I was in the theatre, seeing something else, and I saw the trailer (see it below the jump) - and had one of those voracious greedy responses that I get all too rarely when it comes to current-day movies. I MUST SEE THIS. NOW. I wanted to whip out my calendar and put the release date in bold letters into my personal notes so I would be SURE not to miss it. I felt I couldn't wait. But why? What was it that got me - so completely?

That's the art of a really good trailer. The trailer for Eternal Sunshine doesn't tell you too much. That in and of itself means it should be given an honorary Oscar, just for how it bucks the annoying trend.

It starts with a faux promotional film for Lacuna Incorporated, the fictional company in the movie that erases painful memories. We see Tom Wilkinson telling us how it works, and how wonderful it will be when your pain has been erased. But the way it is filmed - with multiple images of him, the screen splitting off and multiplying, gives a more comedic and also surreal feeling to it. Almost immediately, just through the style of the trailer, not through any dialogue, we the audience are told: Don't be too literal here. What you are about to see is going to be different. Not just the movie, but the trailer itself.

And that is really the only TALKING that goes on in the trailer. The rest of it is more like a music video (with, yes, one of my favorite songs of all time - "Mr. Blue Sky" by ELO - a perfect choice!) with strange surreal images - a bed in the snow, elephants walking down 42nd Street, people disappearing from the main floor of Grand Central ... Jim Carrey in an oversized kitchen ... what am I looking at? What is this movie??

I MUST SEE IT.

The only clue we have to what we are seeing is Tom Wilkinson's words at the opening - and the image of throwing a plastic brain into the trash can.

That's all we get.

The trailer doesn't lead us through the plot, as though we all in the audience need to know beforehand EXACTLY what we will see ... it just shows us images, some from a nightmare (the world crumbling), some just from a funny dream (rain falling inside the house) ... all to the accompaniment of the insistent positive catchy ELO tune.

One of the best trailers I've ever seen.

It set up my expectations for the film, and what a joy, what a surprise ... to have the movie FAR exceed my expectations. It wasn't just a good movie. It was a profound film, one that I often reference in my head, as I maneuver through my life, with my own painful memories that come up from time to time. I think things like: Would I get rid of this memory if I could? What would change if I no longer had THIS to think about?

In the video essay below, Matt talks about how he knows when a film has really gotten to him when it shows up in his dreams.

The same is true for me.

And it's all there in the trailer. Without anything being given away.

Bravo.

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May 6, 2009

One of the most frightening shots

... in the history of cinema.


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May 2, 2009

Fearless

Some screengrabs.

I treasure this movie.

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April 30, 2009

"Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other."

The faces of Faces.


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April 29, 2009

"These moments are so alive and spontaneous, it's difficult to believe that 'Faces' was entirely scripted; though the actors were given great freedom when it came to their gestures and motivations, there was virtually no improvisation on set."

A great review by Dana Stevens of John Cassavetes' Faces, a movie I've never written about (my bad, entirely) - and the latest Criterion Collection release. I have the Cassavetes box set, so I don't really need to buy the latest (the box set is truly deluxe, with enough special features to take up a week of your life - great stuff).

I saw Faces when I was about 15, and I had never seen anything like it. I was disturbed by it, thought about it for days. What did it mean? Who WERE those people? Why didn't they settle the hell DOWN, and stop dancing and laughing for one goddamn second, because they obviously were all so sad and angry!!

It was one of those moments in my life where I see a movie "too soon" - I was too young to get the adult emotions on display - I was too young to understand what I was watching - and it was the best possible thing for my development. A small leap forward, a bit of a tesseract. I saw Dog Day Afternoon "too soon" - and my entire mindset shifted about what I wanted to do with my life: "I have no idea what that was all about ... but I sure as shit know I want to be a part of it."

Faces was like that for me. An unforgettable groundbreaking film.

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Wonderful review - read the whole thing.

And watch Faces, if you haven't already.

Additionally, if your only experience of John Marley (late father of Ben Marley) is his unforgettable scene with the horses' head in The Godfather, then you need - yes, NEED - to see him here.


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April 28, 2009

"Merrily We Go To Hell" (1932)

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Normally I try to get my thoughts organized before writing a review, and I do want to write something more formal about Merrily We Go To Hell (starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March) - but I'm going to make an exception, and just write something off-the-cuff for my first impressions. It seems important in this case. So I hope you can follow.

Merrily We Go To Hell is a fantastic film, my favorite so far from the Pre-Code Collection. It has superb acting (not just from the two leads, who seriously could not be better) - but the rest of the supporting cast. It's one of those ensemble pieces where everyone, everyone, shows up 100%. Some of these people have very small parts (including a pre-fame Cary Grant), or only one or two scenes, but everyone makes such an indelible impression, you totally GET these people, that you never feel lost, or like you are in some "general" atmosphere. These people LIVE, and occasionally they stroll onscreen, say a couple of lines, and stroll off, and you never forget them, even if you haven't seen them for the last hour. George Irving, who plays Mr. Prentice (Sylvia Sidney's father) is in the film in the beginning, and then a good hour passes before we see him again. But his character is so solidly and evocatively created (God bless those character actors, man, they knew what they were doing) - that my response when I saw him again was, 'Oh! Hi, Mr. Prentice - how are you? What have you been up to?" He is REAL.

The film is another example of one that has the courage of its convictions. It doesn't wimp out. Even the ending (which I would not dream of revealing) is not a compromise. It may seem to be on the face of it, but - to quote Roger Ebert in his review of Stranger Than Fiction - it is the characters' compromise, not the compromise of the script. Because we, as human beings, don't always behave in a noble fashion, and we don't always do the right thing. "Happy" is subjective. You may look at a married couple and think, "God, I could never be happy in a marriage like that!" But to then take the leap and say, "So they must NOT be happy because I personally cannot understand the dynamic" is narrow-minded. What works for you may not work for everyone. Merrily We Go To Hell doesn't take a simple or easy way out. It also doesn't take an unnecessarily hard way out, the script doesn't feel too bossy or mechanical ... I truly felt I was watching actual events unfold.

This is not easy material, and much of it could tip over into melodrama, but due to the acting of Sidney and March (My God, are they both good) - it never does. This is a portrait of a real marriage, between two real and flawed people ... nobody is all-good or all-bad ... and there are deep deep compromises to be made. When does pride become something you hide behind? When does pride force you to make self-destructive choices because you are afraid of looking weak or giving in?

Another thing that is so wonderful about the acting of the two leads is the transformation they both go through over the course of the film. As we know, films are not filmed in sequence (not usually anyway), it's not like a play - where the actor can go through things sequentially ... In a film, you might shoot the last scene on the first day of filming. So the actor needs to be in charge of the gradations of whatever transformation the character has to go through. "Okay, so this is the last scene - I am now a heroin addict, I am on my last legs, I am devastated ... GO." You may START the film as a fresh-faced young schoolgirl and end it as a crack whore ... but you don't film the transformation in sequence.

Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March (I am filled with so much admiration for him - I have always loved him, he is an exquisite actor - but here he is particularly fantastic. I would say he predicts the future of film acting with this performance. The Method actors of the 50s ... that's what I saw in his work) start the film one way and end it another. It's all perfectly modulated. Nothing jars, or makes you go, "Why the hell would she do THAT? Only in movies does someone act like that." It is real.

Sylvia Sidney is an actress I have always loved, although I had never seen this performance. My first encounter with her, actually, was in an episode of thirtysomething in the early 90s. She played Melissa's grandmother who wanted to hand off her dressmaking business to Melissa before she passed. It was a fantastic performance by a little wrinkled old lady, who reminded me a lot of my O'Malley grandmother: a real DAME, nobody's fool, lives her own life, a matriarch, and in everybody's business. Mitchell, of course, was like, "Oh, that's Sylvia Sidney - she was huge in the 1930s."

She is a very special actress.

She vibrates with real feeling. You can see her breath catch in her throat, and spontaneous tears come to her eyes. There is always a laugh at the back of her voice. You absolutely fall in love with her. She is one of the greatest and most sympathetic of movie leading ladies. Beautiful, yes, but not in an alienating freak-of-nature way. She looks like a real person. She has a couple of moments in this film that are as good as it gets, in terms of acting. There's one painful scene later on where she gets drunk (very out of character for her) - and you just ache for her, because you know she's making choices out of heartbreak and desperation, and you want to intervene. I would say that the great romantic leading ladies - from then to now - all have one thing in common: You see their pain and you want to intervene. Not all leading ladies have that, and not all leading ladies should have that ... For example, I never worry about Angelina Jolie (and I'm a huge fan of her acting). She's got something different going on, a different dynamic with the camera and the audience. But Sylvia Sidney is such a sympathetic woman - and not a doormat - let me make that clear - she is not a tear-soaked downtrodden little lady - just a heartbroken wife trying to survive the disappointments being handed to her ... And so she gets drunk, and there's a moment where she staggers through her apartment - laughing and weeping at the same time. It is an extraordinary bit of physical and emotional acting. I felt like I was watching Gena Rowlands. This is great stuff. It's brave. It's not on-the-nose, or literal. It is an emotional expression ... a physicalized representation of a breakdown, with drunkenness added onto it. Sidney nails it. Not only is it moving to watch, but it's actually exciting.

That's how I felt watching the scenes between Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March: I felt excited. In a way that is very rare for me, with movies. I can enjoy movies, get into them, even love some of them ... but the movies that excite me really stick out. Where I get goosebumps as I realize just how much the actors are really "going there" ... and how much of that is for ME, specifically. If they don't "go there', then I won't "get" the film.

So. Actors. Do YOU have the courage of your convictions?

Can you enter a story like this where you might not come off looking so good or admirable? Can you, as one of my acting teachers said once, just "do what the character does"?

Fredric March has a moment at the end of the film where he says the line, "You're lying" twice in a row. I have a lump in my throat right now as I type this. My heart broke with how damn FINE he was in that moment, as an actor. A lesser actor would have pushed, would have shouted the words, "You're lying" - or he would have modulated himself in a technical way - saying the first "You're lying" in a soft voice, and then shouting the second one. We've all seen that kind of acting. In my opinion, it means the actor has one eye out on US, in the audience. His focus is split. He is in the scene, but he is also thinking, "Hmmm, what is the most effective way for them to 'get' this." Now, that is not a bad concern, in and of itself - it is important that audiences "get" things, but there are times - and the "You're lying" repetition is one of them - where you need to NOT worry about HOW to do it ... you just need to DO it. You need to enter the story, and listen to your scene partner, and let things hit you as they come.

It is a terribly tragic scene, and tears flooded my eyes, but then - with Fredric March's repeat of "You're lying" - I realized that what I was watching was not just a highly effective scene in a movie - but an actor truly REACTING to something in a real and spontaneous manner. He literally could not take in what the other person was saying. He refused to accept it. It could not be true. No. "You're lying." The other person went on talking, and then Fredric March said again, "You're lying." He didn't raise his voice. If you heard both of those versions of "You're lying" you might be hard-pressed to tell them apart. But to see March go through what he goes through in that moment ... to watch the news being given to him sink in ... It's breathtaking. Breathtaking acting.

One of the best examples of "Keep it simple, stupid" that I can think of.

Stella Adler, famous acting teacher, said (and this is probably her most well-known statement), "The talent is in the choice."

Lots of people don't like that statement of hers, and argue with it. That talent can reside in all kinds of things ... not just the CHOICE the actor makes. But I'm with Adler on this one. Fredric March, as he was memorizing his lines, or reading the script, knew that he had to say "You're lying" twice. I don't know his work process or how he worked, but whatever mysterious thing he did to prepare himself for that scene - led him to let it all go, not be technical, not over-think it ... and not to "play" it at all. He is IN the moment. And THAT is a "choice", and again: picture another actor who might have realized "Hm. This is my big moment in the film. Let me plan out how I will say it so that everyone will see that this is my big moment." So the talent IS in the choice. Fredric March's "choice" (conscious or no) led him to say those lines the way he did ... and words cannot express how wonderful and how awesome he is. I am writing a lot about his acting right now - but in the moment of watching that scene, all I thought was, "Oh my God. Jeffrey. [that's his character's name] Jeffrey. I am so so sorry. You have been a douchebag, but I am also so so sorry for what has just happened." My heart broke for him.

That is entirely due to how Fredric March played those two lines of "You're lying."

I have more to say about this film, but obviously it has really really touched me.

Not to be missed.

Top-notch acting. Top notch.

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April 27, 2009

Marshall, Will and Holly are rockin' out

It's strange. It's like a dream come true. I'm really into Everclear (as should be obvious - ahem, ahem, ahem - 'tis a juggernaut that shows no sign of stopping) and for some reason I did not have a copy of their The Vegas Years, which came out last year. To say that this album is "sheer liquid joy" is to understate it entirely. For example, they cover "Our Lips Are Sealed". They cover "867-5309". They cover "This Land Is Your Land", "American Girl", "Bad Connection". It is a generous album, full of humor and awesomeness, and I bought it on Saturday and I already can't get enough. I love his voice so much. It launches itself up out of pain and into joy. He is fierce about it. He will NOT be brought down. He is so passionate. Even his anger is life-affirming. He's not "over" anything.

Just as an example:

They cover the damn theme song to "Land of the Lost".

You can hear the original here. If you are a certain age, you can recite it by heart, and you also know where the dinosaur-roar comes in, and it fills you with a nostalgia for wearing Keds, a T-shirt dribbled with popsicle-juice, and the sound of crickets on a summer night as you race around the backyard with your siblings.

So to hear a full-on rockin' version of that song by Everclear has totally made my ... week? Life? Whatevs. I'm a simple girl, and I have simple pleasures.

The song itself is so short, there's basically one verse, one chorus. We get the set up - about the "routine expedition", etc., and then they fall down the waterfall to "the land of the lost" and that's the end of the song.

Everclear builds the momentum, until finally - it is as loud and rough and exhilarating as any of their regular songs - and it amazes me that nobody has covered it before now.

Well. Pat McCurdy did, but that is only to be expected. Of course he did.

But right now, I'm all about Everclear, and the screaming guitars, and Arthur Paul Alexakis, singing as though it is the greatest punk rock song of all time.

And you know what? It kind of is.

Marshall, Will and Holly
On a routine expedition
Met the greatest earthquake ever known
High on the rapids it struck their tiny raft
And plunged them down a thousand feet below
To the Land of the Lost

(repeat ad nauseum)

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April 25, 2009

"The Cheat" (1931)

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Blue Velvet has nothing on the perversity shown in 1933's The Cheat, starring Tallulah Bankhead.

There will be spoilers in this review.

Elsa Carlyle (played by a throaty-voiced Tallulah Bankhead) is married to Jeffrey Carlyle (played by Harvey Stephens). We get from the first scene in the yacht club that Elsa is a bit wild. She likes to gamble. She has a reputation for taking risks. She sits at the table with the high rollers and is reckless with her bets. Jeffrey is a young up-and-coming businessman, who hasn't yet made his millions, but he is close! He works hard, he is late to the party at the yacht club, and - from a brief conversation he has with an acquaintance before he enters the party - we know that he and Elsa have been married for about four years, and they are still very much in love, and all of his guy friends tease him about it. Like, Jeffrey enjoys "hanging out" with his wife. They go out to dinner, they go dancing, there is still a heat between them (portrayed very realistically in the film - no euphemism). It's actually kind of nice. You don't get the feeling that Jeffrey is a sap, or a weakling, following around his hot-to-trot wife. No. He has some backbone, he knows who she is, and he loves being the one that she has chosen. From Elsa's side (played very nicely by Ms. Bankhead), we can see, too, that she is madly in love with her husband. She is very tender with him, and sexually responsive - he kisses her and she melts, all that kind of thing.


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Okay, so within five minutes the entire relationship is set up.

But why is this movie so EFFED UP???? Seriously, this thing is perverse, yo, and you have to see it to believe it.

Here's a first example. The movie opens with a swank party at a yacht club. It's some sort of fundraiser, hosted by a notorious local gentleman named Hardy Livingstone (of course that's his name) - played with stiff creepiness by Irving Pichel. He is not a very good actor and here he seems totally out of his depth, but somehow that just adds to the creep-factor. He is stiff, his arms hang at his sides uselessly, like he has no idea how to actually ACT the part of this leering Lothario ... so its not good acting, but in the end it just makes him seem like a cut-off psychopath and you want to tell Elsa to run for the hills. Not to mention the fact that he spends most of the damn movie in a Japanese kimono.

Dude is a freak.

But anyway, back to the perversity at the heart of this movie: in the first scene, he's in a tuxedo (he saves his kimono for later), and he is asked to make a welcoming speech to all the wealthy folks attending the fundraiser.

His first line of the speech is something like, "I suppose anything I say right now will seem rather banal ..." And there is a snicker around the table, and one guy calls out, "Careful, there are ladies present!" and someone else says, "Nice word!"

What I am trying to say is that the movie opens with a joke about anal sex - in the midst of a chi-chi fundraiser. Laughter runs around the room, and Livingstone, the creep, continues, "As I said, it might be banal ..." Another burst of knowing laughter. It takes a dirty mind to hear the word "banal" and immediately think of assholes - but that is what the movie does. Everyone in the scene is in on the joke. It's not a "code". It's out in the open.

The moment also sets up his character - a lascivious jaded guy who has traveled the world, and we overhear him saying later, at the same party, how "Oriental women" are the perfect kind of woman. "Not that they are slaves, but they totally understand submission."

Mkay, douche.

The movie takes no time heating up into its weirdness. Because Elsa overhears the "oriental woman" comment from the local douche while sitting at the blackjack table, she makes a reckless bet. She loses $10,000. Her husband is unaware of this, although we do see him later chiding her on her over-spending. So it is already an issue in their marriage, her lack of frugality, so we know that just going to her husband and saying, "Can I have $10,000?" is not an option. Jeffrey, again, is set up as a man with a backbone, and he seems like a real husband. He's trying to help her see that they need to hang on just a bit longer, and save, because soon these big deals might come through, and they will then be all set. But for now? Cant we cut back a little, dear?

But Elsa, wild girl, can't cut back. She overhears the Oriental women are not slaves comment, it gets her goat, and she makes a crazy bet. It is arranged that she will pay the money back the following day, and she is pretty troubled. She has no idea where she will get it.

Livingstone, in his stiff-armed douchebaggery, smells the desperation on her, and naturally he is drawn right to it. He comes up to her and there is some casual banter, and you can see that she (of course, because she's played by Tallulah) is a woman who knows how to handle men. She's got the banter down, she has an air of plausible deniability, and yet she also projects a smouldering kind of wild sexuality. In the beginning of the film, we feel that she is in charge of all of that.

By the end of the film, it has all been taken away.

She pays a huge price.

In her conversation with Livingstone, he invites her to come back to his place. She says sure. We have not yet seen her interact with her husband, so it's not clear what exactly her deal is. She is not a crazy woman - she is not playing her like an out-of-control lush. She's a dame. Old-school.

So the two go down to the dock in the moonlight (beautifully filmed, on location) and get in his boat and motor away.

Cut to Livingstone's house, the interior. It is enormous and grandiose. He has two Japanese butlers in kimonos and we see them racing around in a panic because the master has come home soon. Livingstone walks in with Elsa. She oohs and ahhs over the house. She has extravagant tastes herself. Livingstone, though, has a special room he wants to show her. Oooh, you're such a sexpot, Livingstone, with your flaring nostrils and stiff-armed lack of charm. He slides open two Japanese-style doors and they enter a room which is like something from out of Sho Gun. In the middle of the room is a table, and there's a metal cannister at the side, and smoke emerges from it. This will become important (in an absolutely horrifying moment - I couldn't BELIEVE the movie actually "went there") later - but at the time I thought it might be a tea pot or something. Elsa glances at it and smiles. "Do you smoke opium here?" The banter continues. He opens up a door to the side and there is an enormous many-armed statue of some God of Destruction, and there's a closeup of Elsa's face as she takes in the image. It disturbs her. Something, some alarm bell, goes off. But sadly, she ignores it.

Let me talk a bit about Tallulah Bankhead.


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She's wonderful here. She's got the stoop-shouldered posture of Jean Harlow, and she also reminds me of Patricia Neal a little bit. My cousin Mike has always thought that Patricia Neal reminded him very much of our grandmother - the beloved "Mummy Gina" - and he's right. Seeing pictures of my grandmother as a young glamorous laughing woman calls to mind these images, of the slim fashionable stoop-shouldered ladies of the past. Not to mention the throaty smoker's voice. There's something about Tallulah that could never seem young. I am sure she was a child at some point, but she probably had a middle-aged soul from the beginning. There's a jutting quality to her chin and her nose that gives her a slightly peaked look. Beautiful, of course, but individual and very much herself. In The Cheat, Tallulah Bankhead is required to go through hell. There is a Doll's House quality to the character's journey: an ever-increasing tightness of the ties that bind, much of it having to do with money - and women's lack of power over their own money (the slightly political underbelly to the film). It is never explicitly stated: Doesn't it suck that women have to look to men to control their money? But it doesn't need to be explicitly stated. It is there. Elsa is a smart woman. Yes, reckless. But not a dummy. Not a stupid spoiled child. If she wasn't 100% reliable on her husband for money, then she might have actually had a chance to develop some financial skills on her own. But the situation as it is set up in society at that time (for many - not all, now - but for many) keeps women down. It's all about money. Once you have your own cash, your head can clear a little bit, you can look around and think, "Huh. What do I want to do with my life?"

In a way, this is a very radical film.

Tallulah Bankhead starts the film as a breezy dame, although not shallow. Her love for her husband is deep and sweet. And yet there is an inequality there, due to the financial situation. Jeffrey is not a control-freak, and he certainly wants to give Elsa a nice life, he also hesitates to share with her his financial worries - but he knows that they are in this thing together. Can't we cut back, darling?

By the end of the film, Bankhead has experienced such horror that who knows what the long-lasting effects will be. She will be marked forever by her encounter with Livingstone, and Bankhead plays that transformation like a tiger in a cage. She is marvelous.


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Livingstone then brings Elsa over to a cabinet he has against the wall. He wants to show her something. He has been talking about his experiences with women around the world. She banters back. But the banter stops when he opens the cabinet. There are three shelves inside. The middle shelf is empty. The top and bottom shelves are filled with dolls, each one in a different costume (we see geishas, and Indians and frauleins - you get the picture - "it's a small world after all"), and each doll is on a little square stand. It is very creepy. Livingstone explains that each doll represents a specific conquest. He enjoys commemorating the moment, I guess. Douche. He takes out one of the dolls to show Elsa, and he points out that on each of the stands he has put his "brand". To show ownership. Like he's a rancher branding a cow.

Elsa tries to joke about it. She doesn't feel implicated yet. Okay, maybe she IS an idiot. I'd be out of there so fast.

Eventually, Livingstone takes her back to the yacht club, and poor Jeffrey stands on the dock watching Elsa and Livingstone emerge from the boat. The shot itself is particularly gorgeous - with the moonlight and the sparkling waves and the silhouettes.

Jeffrey is a little concerned (wouldn't you be?) but Elsa is so breezy and casual, her loyalties so obviously lie with him, that he relaxes a bit. He does say to her, "Livingstone does not have a good reputation with women." Elsa grabs onto him, laughing. "Do you think I want him? I love you!"

There is a hot scene of the two of them embracing alone on the dock.

The Code, as it solidified, expressly stated that no one kiss could last over three seconds. (Hitchcock got around this, famously, in Notorious, by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for 3 seconds, pull away, speak, whisper, kiss again for 3 seconds, pull back ... in a scene that is at once hot and also totally neurotic.) But here, in The Cheat, no such constraints are placed on the lovemaking behavior of their lead couple. He has his hands on her face, cupping down onto her throat - it is passionate. Sort of a lovely moment of a still-hot marriage. In the slightly jaded world in which these two operate, where all men have a little sumthin-sumthin' on the side ... Jeffrey is a misfit. He still loves his wife, and wants her desperately. Judging from her passionate response to him, she feels the same. It's nice. A nice element to this FREAK-FEST of a movie. He's not a dupe, she's not a slut ... she's wild, he's conservative - but they love each other. As people, yes - there are scenes where they discuss money and other marital issues - but also as lovers.

Okay, so things start to go south for Elsa pretty quick.

There's that $10,000 gambling debt she owes. Dude's coming to collect the next day. But because of a brief conversation she and Jeffrey have, where he says they need to cut back and conserve until his deals come through, she doesn't feel like she has the power to ask him for that kind of money. She begs for more time from the collector, and he gives it to her. It's only another 24 hours though. She is going to have to figure out something fast.

Meanwhile, she is on the fundraising committee for some charity, and they are hosting a fair, as well as a big gala event. Livingstone (creep) is hosting the event and it is going to be an all-Japanese theme. Dude needs to get a life.

After the fair, the ladies' committee counts out the money. There is $10,000 there. Hm. Coincidence? And they give it to Elsa, for safekeeping, until they can deposit it in the bank the following Monday. Hm. Smart move?

Meanwhile, Livingstone has set his sights on Elsa. He shows up at the fair, "randomly", to give her a lift home. She is breezy and unconcerned. Whatever. She knows how to handle men, right?

Livingstone takes her back to his place instead, and back into that creep-fest Sho Gun room. He wants to show her something. He has his two Japanese houseboys run off to fetch this thing. It is a glorious jewel-encrusted dress from Siam, I believe. Real jewels. And yes, the ridiculous huge crown that I posted earlier. Elsa oohs and ahhs over it, not realizing that he means it for her. He finally gets to the point and says he wants her to wear it at the gala event the following event. She says, Oh no, I couldn't possibly. He insists, nostrils flaring. The glittering of the jewels is too much for her to resist. Uh-oh, Elsa. A guy like this never ever GIVES anything without expecting something in return. She accepts.

At home Elsa is still worried about her money situation. The wad of cash in the safe haunts her. But she still has a moral code. If she used that money, that isn't hers, to pay off a gambling debt ... that is a path she doesn't want to go down. There are no lines at this point to suggest this. It is all in Tallulah Bankhead's peaky concerned little face. What is she to do?

That night she and Jeffrey go out to eat at a little Italian restaurant. A mutual friend comes over to say hello, of course teasing Jeffrey about how much time he wants to spend with his own wife. Jeffrey laughs. He is not ashamed that his favorite companion is his delicious little wife. In the middle of this conversation, the friend gives Jeffrey an insider-trading tip - basically to place your money on such-and-such a stock, because it's going to skyrocket the following day. It is basically a done deal. You can see Elsa listening to this, wondering ... wondering if she dared ...

You just know this will end badly.

The next scene shows Elsa, holding the wad of cash gathered from the charity event, sitting in the office with the mutual friend. She wants to place it all on that stock he mentioned, and please don't mention this to Jeffrey.

Maybe things will work out? Elsa is a gambling addict, obviously. She believes in her own good fortune, all evidence to the contrary. She could double her money, pay off all her debts, and Jeffrey won't have to know a thing about it.

Somehow I don't think things will go that way though.

Later that night she and her husband are getting ready to go to the Japanese ball. Poor Jeffrey is wearing a ridiculous costume that makes him look like a community-theatre actor trying to play the King of Siam, and Elsa says to him, "Close your eyes - I want to show you what I'm wearing." She emerges from her dressing room wearing the jewel-encrusted dress and gown. He is gobsmacked by it and immediately realizes that the jewels on it are real. "Where did you get this, darling?" She says, breezily, "Livingstone leant it to me." Jeffrey (wise man) does not like this at all. Elsa cajoles him out of sulking. It means nothing, darling, it was just a nice gesture, he wanted it to be worn, that's all, no need to get concerned.

Elsa, you may be wise in SOME ways of handling men, but you have to realize that men know other men better than WOMEN know men - and so Jeffrey knows what Livingstone is up to better than you do.

But we all have our own journeys and mistakes to make.

The Japanese gala is a spectacular bit of film-making. The costumes, the geisha girls, the Japanese dancers, the decor ... hundreds of people. It's marvelous. Elsa circulates through the crowd in her ridiculous get-up, as Livingstone smirks at her from afar. She runs into a couple of her fund-raising friends, and one of them says something about how glad they are that the money is with Elsa, until it can be deposited. Elsa flashes on her financial troubles. You start to feel the net tightening. Almost as heavily as that damn rocket-launcher crown she's wearing.

At one point, she's called to the phone.

She goes into a private room and answers the phone.

Ahem.


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We then cut to that mutual friend who gave the stock-tip. He is in his office, and he is a madman. Pacing and panicked. Immediately you think (although you knew it was coming): Uh-oh. Uh-thefuck-oh. He babbles at her, insanely, how the stock has plummeted, millions lost, all her money lost, all his money lost, etc. She stands by the desk and you can feel her entire life collapse around her. Tallulah (ridiculous getup notwithstanding) plays the shit out of this scene. It is a classic example of the old-school style of acting - big on gesture that illuminates emotional truth. Nothing casual about it. It's not over-acted, it's not MELOdramatic - after all, the stakes are incredibly high in this story. Her reaction is appropriate. I actually started getting afraid for her.

Livingstone, in his damn kimono, slips into the room unseen while she is having this conversation, and he overhears the whole thing. He sees his chance. She hangs up, and she can barely stand by this point. She grips onto the side of the desk, as though she is about to collapse. He is at her side. "I heard your situation ..." he sneers. He then offers to give her a check to cover her debts. She, by this point, is going in and out of a faint, and can't think straight. She tries to resist. No, no ... she suddenly feels the ties around her wrists, her ankles, her soul ... If she says Yes to the offer, what will he want in return? Duh. She asks that question. He says (creepy), "I just want you to be a little bit nicer to me." Hmmm. He says, "And come over to my house to spend the night with me." Elsa, just like Nora in Doll's House begins to weigh all of her terrible options. Would a night with Japanese-Douchebag be so bad, if she can clear this debt off her soul without Jeffrey knowing? But what about Jeffrey? You really get, in this scene, the faithfulness and loyalty at the heart of this little wild woman.

Again, with the pre-Code movies' willingness to be complex.

Elsa is not "bad". She is wild and impetuous and comfortable with her sexuality. She is ALSO a good and loyal wife.

Two years later, women would need to be split off into compartments. Good ones over here, bad ones over here. No, no, no, women, you cannot be both.

Finally, tragically, Elsa sees no other way out of her bind. She says she will accept Livingstone's offer. She knows what this will mean. Her soul (finally) realizes the snake she is dealing with, and she recoils from him. But once she says Yes, there is no real way out.

The next day, Elsa paces round in her room, unraveled. That night she must go to Livingstone's to "pay him back".

In the middle of this, Jeffrey enters, excited. His big deals have gone through successfully, and they are now rich. He whirls her around. "Let's travel, let's take a year off, let's relax a little bit!" You get (from Bankhead's performance, which I think is very effective) that she will not go back to her wild gambling ways. She has been chastened, she has learned her lesson. It's never gotten this bad before, she's never had a debt that could not be repaid before. In the middle of Jeffrey's exhilaration she bursts out, sobbing, "Jeffrey, can you give me $10,000?" Jeffrey stops. He asks her why. The truth comes pouring out that she has a gambling debt from the yacht club and she can't pay it back, she's so sorry, she'll never do it again, sorry, sorry, but Jeffrey, please save me ...

Then comes a subtly awful moment. I gasped when I heard it, because I could feel the trap even more intensely. Jeffrey says, "I know all about it, darling. The gentleman stopped by my office yesterday to collect. So I paid it off."

Wonderful, right? (In terms of the script being effective.)

So then ... oh no ... she still needs $10,000. She needs to pay Livingstone back, so she can get out of THAT situation. But how to tell Jeffrey that?

It's a nice nice little moment in the script. The light at the end of the tunnel receding, further and further away.

Elsa, good for her, good little woman, throws herself on her husband's mercy, knowing that she may lose him forever, and bursts out again, "Jeffrey, I still need $10,000! Please don't ask me why - I just need it!"

Jeffrey eventually does write her a check, but you can see ... you can see the doubt growing. Will that poison their relationship?

Now we come to the 20 minutes of the film where the gloves really come off. I couldn't believe The Cheat had the nerve to actually go there. It didn't make threats it couldn't follow through on. It is an absolutely harrowing 20-minute bit of film.

That evening, Elsa goes to Livingstone's house. Before she gets there we see him, kimono-ed up, thinking he's about to get lucky, stands alone in his Sho-Gun room. He holds a doll, obviously a hand-crafted doll wearing the costume that Elsa had worn to the Japanese gala. He stands, staring at it, and it is truly awful. You want to intervene and tell Elsa to screw the debt, do not enter that house, run home before you even get there!


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Then, ceremoniously, Livingstone opens that smoking cannister at the end of the table, and pulls out a brand, like you would use on a cow. Slowly, he moves the brand closer to the little pedestal the doll is on, and - with a singeing awful sound - he presses the brand into the pedestal. Smoke bursts forth. He pulls the brand back and then stares at his handiwork. Slowly, he walks to the cabinet against the wall and opens it up. The empty second shelf looms, and he, smiling, puts the doll on that shelf, standing alone. Closes the doors.

It is at this moment that the Japanese house-boy lets Elsa into the room.

Livingstone is all sexed up and ready to go. It is played quite blatantly. There is no euphemism about what he expects.

She comes in, and, quivering with fear yet also determined, hands him the check as payment. This pushes him over the edge. "That wasn't a loan. That was a GIFT," he seethes, starting to get, well, dangerous. She stands strong. "No. I must pay you back. There it is. All of it. Our deal is off."

But Livingstone decides to take what he wants anyway. A struggle ensues. This is no carefully-choreographed domestic struggle. She slaps him across the face at one point, and it's wild, it looks unrehearsed.


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At this point, I had no idea which way events would go. I was on the edge of my seat, I'm not kidding. I was actually scared.

The fight gets so out of control that Livingstone realizes she means business, that he cannot "have" her, and so he stops, and says, with terrifying stillness, something along the lines of, "Fine. You won't spend the night with me? I will put my mark on you so you will always know I own you."

My mind sort of split off when he said that ... no ... no ... he's not going to ... is he?

But yes. He goes to the smoking cannister, and takes out the red-hot brand. She sees what's coming at her, and tries to run (she's fantastic - no melodrama here, just action and re-action) - but he blocks her way.

And does Livingstone brand her?

Damn straight he does.

He presses the brand into the skin of her breast, right over her heart.

Now how they show the branding is horrifying, because they don't actually show it. It's not AS fucking awful as the hot-pot-of-coffee-thrown-in-face from The Big Heat (I cringe just thinking about it) - but it's pretty damn close ... because until the last second you don't believe that Livingstone will go through with it. But he does. He holds the brand down onto her skin and Tallulah Bankhead - an actress with major freakin' GUTS - doesn't just scream, but howls. Her head thrown back, making a sound like a wounded animal. It's not an "actress" scream. It is a wrenching squealing scream.

This is not filmed headon, but the way they film it makes it even worse.

I won't give any more of the moment away, but all I can say is Holy shit.

Now THAT'S a movie that has the courage of its convictions.

There's still about half an hour to go in The Cheat, but I'll leave off here.

Suffice it to say, the way it works out is complex, and left me uneasy. It is not clear what it "means". There is no clear moral. You have to think about it, talk about it.

At the center of it is a kick-ass performance by Tallulah Bankhead.


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I am still freaked out by The Cheat.

Some screengrabs below.


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April 21, 2009

"Torch Singer" (1933)

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One of the things that strikes me about the pre-Code movies I've seen is that the endings leave you, at times, with an unfinished feeling. You think, Huh. Yeah, everyone's smiling, and 'things worked out', but how the hell is this going to go? The moral order has been tipped so far off to the side that you wonder if it's ever going to right itself. And even with a "happy" ending, you can't forget the pain and suffering you have seen, and you know, because you're a human being, that things can't just work out sometimes.

It makes me think, strangely, of the last sentence of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. After all of the pain and suffering and love lost, the two sisters pair up in marriage to two suitable men, and we're supposed to be thrilled about it. I, for one, cannot forget Marianne's suffering, and I also cannot forget the suffering of the cad Willoughby. That's part of what the ending of the book has in it, even with the clanging of the wedding bells. And for some reason, I think Austen was aware of that, and so the last sentence of the book is a masterpiece of negative language used to express a positive happy ending. Look:

Between Barton and Delaford there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that, though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

That's a happy ending? With words tumbling all over each other, words like "least", "almost", "without", "disagreement, and "coolness"? That is one cautious happy ending.

Sense and Sensibility was Austen's first book, so perhaps she was not, as yet, in charge of her effects and that unbelievably ambivalent language was unconscious on her part, but I don't think so.

Marriage sometimes comes at the end of a long hard road, of loneliness, pain and loss. You may be happy to finally be "protected" by having a mate, but you can't just forget the man you REALLY wanted, and what it was like to nearly die for love of him.

So I am not left with a ringing sense of triumph and joy. I am left with a chastened almost crouching feeling of, "Sheesh, they made it through that one, okay! Some of us aren't so lucky!"

The pre-Code movies make me feel like that, and Torch Singer, from 1933, starring the wonderful Claudette Colbert, has an ending that almost feels like it comes at the end of a marathon. All you can do at that point is lie down, pant for breath, check your pulse, and make sure that you are still among the living. If you think of the ending of Bringing Up Baby, with the crashing of the dinosaur, and the gymnastics on the scaffolding, and then the sudden embrace before the ending-music bursts forth - you can see the difference in sensibility. Yes, Torch Singer is a melodrama and Bringing Up Baby is a comedy, but the same principle applies. Although the moral order of the world is completely up-ended by Susan Vance's screwball energy in Bringing Up Baby, we understand to not worry about it TOO much, even though she fells dinosaur skeletons just by walking into the room. We don't worry about it because she is obviously insane and we are meant to laugh at her. She doesn't MEAN to up-end the moral order. And Cary Grant is just trying to keep up with her (all the while he is running away from her at top speed). So the audience can relax, we can guffaw at these two people, and we can't wait for them to get together. The world will go on turning. They aren't challenging how we look at things, or the way things are.

Torch Singer does. And it challenges so much that the happy ending leaves me uneasy.

I find it refreshing. I also find refreshing how supposedly "bad" characters are treated in an egalitarian fashion, and we can see where they are coming from, they are not sneering villains - they are people who may have made some bad choices, and so have ended up in a particular kind of life ... but they are not held up for scorn. At least not to the audience. We can see other characters scorn them (this happens quite a bit in Torch Singer - and also in Hot Saturday, come to think of it - when the larger community shuns one of its members), but since we are on the inside with this scorned character, our main response is: God, it's unfair how such people are treated, isn't it?

Now THAT is something that really WILL upset the moral order. (And rightly so, I might add. I'm always on the side of more compassion.)

If I can look at a smelly homeless man lying on the subway, taking up four seats that could be used by other people, and not judge him, or roll my eyes in contempt at him, but instead feel bad for his circumstances, well, then, I think that makes the world a better place. I do not always succeed at this, let me just say, but I think it is a worthy personal goal, and living where I do I am challenged in this manner almost every day.

Torch Singer was filmed in 1933. The Code was coming, and bad girls would need to be punished, black people knew their place, gay people would be turned into vicious stereotypes, and a host of other dictums would be in place.

Sally Trent, played by Claudette Colbert (and I'm sorry, but isn't she just delicious? She is terrific here), is seen in the opening scenes of the film as a shy broke young woman (she doesn't have enough money for her cab fare) going to a Catholic hospital, where we see a woman emerging with a baby in her arms. Okay, maternity hospital. The nun at the front desk stamps on Sally's card 'FREE CLINIC PATIENT'. Okay, so we understand everything in the first five minutes. Nothing is said, it is all done in images, concise, evocative. She is an unwed mother. I was interested to see how it would be handled.

Again, there is no euphemism here. Life is presented, as it is, and people speak of things that, a year later, would be unspeakable. Now it's not that anyone is blase, and "over it", and Sally Trent doesn't have feelings of guilt and shame for being knocked up by some dude who isn't there with her - she does - we are still in the world we recognize, our world, but there is a lack of inhibition in how these issues are presented. Sally goes in to talk to the Mother Superior of the hospital.


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A brief aside: I'm Catholic, obviously, and I grew up with great-aunts who were nuns. Nuns were a part of my life growing up. I remember my dad saying once, "I don't understand why nuns are seen as funny. All the nuns I had as teachers were pretty wonderful." Nuns get a bad rap. I get that there are some pretty bitchy nuns out there, but it is always nice to see the opposite portrayed as well. Because then we move out of the world of too-easy stereotype and into something that is more in the grey area of life, where most of us reside. Some nuns suck, others are compassionate and wonderful. The Mother Superior in Torch Singer has seen it all. Her job in life is to help unmarried pregnant girls have their babies. If they want the children to be adopted, she handles that. If they want to keep the baby, then more power to them. That's what a Catholic maternity hospital is for. Mother Superior interviews Sally (and it's a wonderfully played scene, by both actresses), and the nun asks for the name of the father. Sally refuses to say, refuses to the point that she gets up to leave the room. Mother Superior, I am sure with her own thoughts and feelings about the man who has left this poor woman before her pregnant and unprotected, stops Sally from leaving. Her job is not to judge. Her job is to help the women. I don't know - it's subtle, and that's one of the reasons I liked the scene so much. Her priorities are clear. Sally, hesitant, sits back down and we see what the Mother Superior is writing on the patient card, in the slot where it says "Father":


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Sally has the baby, and there is even a wrenching-to-watch labor scene, where she thrashes about in the bed, weeping, and calling out for "Mike", as a couple of nurses and the doctor look on, worried and sad for her.


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To imagine this scene in a movie even a year later is unthinkable, although there are exceptions. I think of the wonderful Penny Serenade, a movie I love, and all of the things it handles openly and with sensitivity: marriage, sex, miscarriage, infertility, adoption ... It's really an adult movie. I love it, the compassion it has for people who have tough things happen to them, and are forced to make tough choices. But, on the flip side, Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade, while obviously a working single girl, wise to the ways of men (the way she handles Cary Grant's request that he come upstairs the first night he walks her home, for example), is not as beyond-the-pale as Claudette Colbert eventually is in Torch Singer. To have compassion for a married woman who loses her baby when she is injured in an earthquake and then is unable to have any children at all is - well, I do not want to say it is par for the course, because there are those who say "God has His ways" or "It's all in God's plan" in the face of any tragedy, and that can be horribly insensitive. God doesn't want me to be a mother? Suck on this, church lady, and take your 'compassion' elsewhere. But what I am saying is that Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade is "protected" by the institution of marriage. The sex she has is legal, the baby she has in her belly is accepted as part of marriage. She's shielded. Claudette Colbert in Torch Singer is not. She is an unwed mother. The father is nowhere to be found. She is a chorus girl, who was wooed and bedded by a rich-boy from Boston, who has since gone on business to China, leaving her to deal with the situation. Her only recourse is to find work, again, as a chorus girl, but now she has an infant at home, no man, and how will she survive? To have compassion for the wayward is where true character is revealed. It's a different focus, and Torch Singer doesn't hold back from any of those implications.

Look at how she behaves now. You still like her? You still feel for her? Well, watch what she does HERE. How do you feel now? Do you still ache for her pain? How much will we accept from our wayward daughters before we cut them loose?

Torch Singer does pendulum-swing into schmaltz here and there, but not too much. It pretty much stays on target, and Colbert's terrific performance has a lot to do with that. The script has what I would call some "bossy" elements, forcing the characters to do such and such, unrealistic, very plot-heavy ... but the acting is so good that I forgive it. It's really Colbert's movie, but everyone around her is excellent as well.

Her financial stress eventually becomes so acute that she is evicted from her apartment. Desperately, she goes to the unknown father's wealthy family and begs them to take the child. Since the snooty aunt she speaks to has never even heard of her before, "How do I know your claims are to be believed" - she is shown the door. There is no work for a tired chorus girl (we see shots of Colbert's feet walking down the sidewalk in heels and, nice touch, there are band-aids on her ankles. Really nice moment. This woman has been walking for DAYS, looking for work). Finally, she can no longer survive, and she brings her beloved baby girl back to the Catholic hospital to give her up for adoption. The goodbye scene with the one-year-old girl is, yes, melodramatic, with close-ups of Colbert's glistening tears, but I have to say, it is tremendously effective, and it does not feel "acted" to me. It seems that whatever is going on with Colbert is coming from a very real place. The baby, of course, is just a baby, and is behaving as babies do. Occasionally the baby says something like "Ba-ba" - and reaches out to touch her mother. She's behaving spontaneously, as all babies do, and Colbert takes all of that behavior into consideration, reacting to it, responding. She is not just waiting for her closeup, she is actually dealing with the moving-breathing reality of the little creature in front of her. It's really good work.

After the grim beginning of this film, we then see Colbert's character make the choices that will define her life. She gets a job as a torch singer and eventually gets the attention of a Lothario-type who offers her a position in his swanky nightclub. Since she has given up her child, there is nothing left for her now, she has no pride left, nothing to hold onto. If she could do THAT, then why shouldn't she sleep with the men who want her? She does. Her reputation plummets, she becomes notorious, and yet at the same time, her career skyrockets. She is beyond the pale, she is no longer a part of respectable society, and her friends reflect that. She finds herself surrounded by giggly platinum-blonde girls who drink all day long, and smoking cheeseballs who all want to sleep with her. I suppose she feels that that is what she deserves.

But Colbert doesn't play this transformation in a self-pitying way. She keeps her cards close to her chest. She doesn't show us too much. What we see is a woman who has shuffled off the past, and is now fully living in oblivion. It is essential that she not give herself quiet time or time for reflection, because then all she will see will be the daughter she gave up. This is just my interpretation, because again, none of that is expressly shown in the script. And instead of sitting back judging the bad girl, I ache for what she is running from. I know it will catch up with her sooner or later.


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I have more to say about this movie, and I will, but for now I continue to work my way through the pre-Code collection, and I'll speak more on it when I've seen them all.


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April 12, 2009

"Kwik Stop" on iTunes; (Michael Gilio: director, writer, actor)

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Kwik Stop, written and directed by (as well as starring) Michael Gilio is now available for renting (or purchase) on iTunes. I meant to write a thing about this when it happened in December, but that was when everything started going to shit, and I couldn't.

I included Kwik Stop in my Under-rated Movies thing I used to do. Here is my review. I recommend the movie with no hesitation. Follow all the links in that review, to see the words of the bigwigs who championed this small film - Roger Ebert, Charles Taylor. Great stuff.

In recent months, things have sort of heated up for Michael, intensifying and accelerating, due to his inclusion on the famous "black list" of 10 Best Unproduced Scripts in Hollywood (and his script won't be "unproduced" for long)!

Anyone who is a regular reader knows who Michael is to me.

I haven't been writing personal essays lately. All of that has been going into my offline work, and my book. But ... I'm in the mood today.

Michael is a man who has a permanent place of affection in my heart. Indelible ink. I will never get rid of him, and I am thankful. He is a true gentleman, honest as the day is long, he's also a pain in the ass, a brat, and a kick-ass disco dancer. Obviously.

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We met when we were both in a play in Ithaca - an insane out-of-town experience which we still laugh about to this day (I also shared what I think of as "my best day" with him. Perfection). Early on, within a couple of days of dating, we discovered that we share a passion for the films of John Cassavetes. We felt like we were members of a sacred and bizarre little sect that nobody else understood. We talked about Cassavetes and his muse, Gena Rowlands, for hours. We still do such things, finding things in common, shared obsessions, and plumbing the depths of them (uhm, Mickey Rourke?) We didn't date for long, only a couple of months, but that was it. We are friends for life.

It's kind of funny (and interesting) when you get to a place with an ex-boyfriend where you have no boundaries (Examples abound). It's rare. (I think my friend Cara knows exactly what I am talking about). I wouldn't want it with all of my ex-boyfriends, because it can be kind of annoying, but for whatever reason, Michael and I just have no bullshit. It is a true connection. You know, he came to New York and crashed on my floor and we talked or didn't talk for hours on end. The connection existed when we dated, and it exists now still. In a different form, but no less welcome and awesome.

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Here is an example of a conversation we had recently. This is how it went:

Me: I'm old-fashioned. I need him to make the first move.
Michael: It's not old-fashioned. It's a test of character. And don't sleep with him on the first date, but then you already know that.
Me: Iron-clad rule. As you may remember.
Michael: Good.

We lost touch for a couple of years after I moved away from Chicago. I was in grad school, he was busy ... we lived in different cities ... there was no Facebook ... if you wanted to get in touch with someone you had to pick up the damn phone. When September 11th happened, he called Mitchell to get my new phone number, and left me multiple messages on that first day of trauma ... which, of course I did not get. When I finally picked up all of my messages when my phone worked again, and I heard the 70+ messages I received on that one day (I'm not kidding ... it was a voice mail system I paid for, so there was unlimited space) ... I felt like my heart would burst. And there was Michael's voice, a couple of different calls over that day and the next. "I have no idea why you would be down in the financial center, because you're an actor ... but ... just call me ... okay? I'm sure you're fine, but just call me." Major phone problems for a couple of days, I could not get through to anyone, but he kept trying until I was able to call him back a couple days later. Friends for life, man.

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One of the main things I recall, is my last night in Chicago, before taking off to New York to start my new life here. It was a soft quiet end-of-summer night. I lived a couple blocks from Wrigley Field with Mitchell. A beautiful tree-lined peaceful street.

My last night before I left, before I ripped up my Chicago roots and moved back east, was full, and sad, and rich. I went out to dinner with my core group of friends. Michael had been invited but he couldn't show. He had been vague in his refusal: "Maybe I'll be able to make it ... I might be done in time ..." Uhm, Pisces? I knew that this probably meant I wouldn't see him before I left. But there was too much else to be glad about, to be thankful for, to have regrets. I had had a nice goodbye with M., my main flame in Chicago. I had just come off a terrible illness, with a fever of 103, and I had spent a couple of days recuperating at M.'s apartment, and we watched TV and hung out, and ordered in food, and by the end of that time, I certainly felt better, but I also knew that I was ready to leave M. as well. It was good. Everything happened in the right way. No loose ends.

On my last night, we all sat around outside at a restaurant, and had pizza, and beer, and talked. Everyone at the table told their favorite Sheila story from Chicago. (And there were many.) We laughed until we cried. Sometimes we just cried. A beautiful acknowledgment, and a perfect way to close. Close it up. It was achingly difficult for me to leave Chicago, but I had to. Saying goodbye to my community of friends was painful. But we did it the right way. We didn't rush it, or pretend it wasn't happening, or try to smooth over the moment with trite, "Oh, we'll all still be friends". Of COURSE we'll all still be friends, but it cannot be denied that the dynamic will change.

Our night ended, and we all parted ways. Mitchell and I came home. Ann Marie was with us, too. It was so quiet. There was a melancholy in the darkness, a piercing bittersweetness ... but there was also joy. The kind of joy that is unbearable. We sat on the front porch, drinking grape ginger ale ... why do I remember that? I don't know. I never drink grape ginger ale but for some reason that night I was ... and every time I see a big ol' bottle of it at Pathmark I think of my last night in Chicago.

Ann and I sat on the front steps in the dark. We were quiet. We were going to see each other early early the next morning, since she was helping me pick up my rent-a-car at, oh, 5 oclock in the morning. There was just the darkness, and the quiet. I wanted to soak everything in, imprint every single physical sensation onto my brain. Forever. My wind chimes. God, those wind chimes. The thick grass of the front yard. The plaintive Meows of my insistent codependent cat Samuel. He could not BELIEVE that I was sitting outside, RIGHT IN HIS PLAIN VIEW THROUGH THE WINDOW ... and he couldn't come out and join.

And you know what? I think I did a good job with "soaking everything in", because I remember every sensory detail. I can close my eyes and conjure up that street, that night, the feel of the soft night air on my skin, the taste of the grape ginger ale ...

The street was empty, but at some point, I became aware of a lone figure approaching. He was in shadow, dark, but I knew ... I knew it was Michael. He had come to see me off. At midnight.

I was barefoot, I jumped up and ran down to meet him, my heart in my throat, my soul on the OUTSIDE of me ... We hugged and hugged and hugged, and Ann Marie quietly slipped away to leave us alone.

Michael and I had stopped dating about a year prior to this point, but that was no matter. There was a powerful thing to say good-bye to here. We both knew it. I was so glad he showed. So glad. It just made everything perfect, complete, a closed circle. No ragged edges for my departure. And we sat on my front porch, and we drank grape ginger ale, and we talked about ... I can't even really remember. Not too many words were said, actually. What was said was brief and tender and poignant. We kissed for what felt like an eternity. Lost in each other. I felt looked after, cared for, like ... things were okay. It was okay I was leaving. It was hard, but it was okay.

And seeing him strolling towards me in the darkness, showing up after the crowd had dispersed ... showing up for his own private good-bye ... It was good and right. Maybe Michael knew that a group event, a group dinner, wouldn't have been appropriate for the two of us. We could never have said what we needed to say in that environment, we could never have completed our own little special circle.

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No matter how long it has been ... how many years has gone by ... when I hear from him, I get that same sensation of when I caught a glimpse of his shadowed figure coming towards me on that last night, and I leapt up and ran to him in my bare feet. Unafraid to show him my joy, unafraid to let him know how happy it made me that he had come ... I didn't have to hide my intensity with him, I never did. I still don't. I had a crazy freakout recently about something that had happened on Facebook, I made it mean something that it wasn't (and I will be honest: I was not in my right mind at the time - this was in January) - and with anyone else I might have suffered in silence, tailspinning into insecurity. But with him, I blasted him a CUH-RAZY email saying, "Why did you do what you just did on Facebook? It hurt my feelings, yo - please don't do that to me - talk to me - this is insane - I'm really hurt!" Poor Michael. But - unlike most of the ex-boyfriends I have known, instead of belittling me, or ignoring me, or rolling his eyes, he said, "Woah! Slow down!" It had been a complete misunderstanding, and he let me know, in no uncertain terms, that he would never do what I had thought he did (and of course, if I had been thinking straight, I would have known that ... but I couldn't think straight then. Raw nerve) - and he said that I was obviously sensitive right now because of obvious reasons, but I needed to relax, and everything would be okay.

There is a cuh-razy about me. I spin off. I get manic. And being able to BE that (and I do work to not be like that all the time, but sometimes I can't help it), and not be punished or cut loose - but also to be talked off the ledge by a calm and invested friend ... I was so glad I had said something. Even though it just revealed my own craziness to me (and to him) ... It was a relief to be told, "No. You just made that up. You're fine. We're good. Relax, dear."

To say I "need" that kind of energy is to understate what the word "need" means.

It's also reciprocated. He emailed me recently - February - just a regular touching-base "How you doing" email, and I didn't respond. Things were going on with me, real-life stuff, book stuff, other stuff, and I became a bad and negligent correspondent. Michael emailed me again, and I thought, frenzied, "Oh yeah ... gotta email him back ... make a note of it ..." And then forgot to email him back. Finally, he sent me an email to my regular email as well as to my Facebook page, saying, blatantly, "Why are you ignoring me??? What do I have to do to get you to respond?" Oops. Emailed him back immediately. "Sorry, sorry, sorry!"

No standing on ceremony. No politeness. Friends.


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This has felt good to write.

So, to re-cap:

Kwik Stop: AVAILABLE ON ITUNES. Go rent or purchase it now. And again: my review here.


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Posted by sheila Permalink

April 8, 2009

"The Babies Got The Blues" (director: Rachel Hamilton)

My friend Rachel Hamilton shot a short documentary last year, about the Delta Blues Museum's Arts and Education Program in Clarksdale, Mississippi - a fascinating community of blues musicians, committed to passing on the torch of the blues to the younger generation.

Great stuff.

Click below to watch the two parts. About 15 minutes all in all.

I love it when the little boy says, "Not all day. Sometime we gotta go home!"

Wonderful job, Hamilton.




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March 31, 2009

Rest in peace, Maurice Jarre

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Academy-Award winning composer Maurice Jarre died this past weekend at the age of 82. NY Times obit here. A nice tribute here.

Known mainly for his collaboration with David Lean, and - oh yeah - some of the greatest scores of all time from that collaboration (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, to name only a couple) - he worked for decades, being nominated for an Oscar nine times. He had fruitful collaborations with other directors, Peter Weir included (he scored Fearless, Witness, Year of Living Dangerously - and has said that Weir gave him the opportunity, with Witness, to do an entirely electronic score, something brand new for Jarre - and Jarre, always up for the challenge, tackled it with a relish. He was that kind of collaborator, and the eerie terrifying quality of the music in Witness adds so much to the feel of that film). You only need to hear just a couple bars of his most famous scores to have your head fill with images, and feelings, and associations - which is just extraordinary, because so much of music in movies is, well, forgettable. Jarre created true themes. And he was able to, at least with Lean's stuff, enhance what was already there, deepen it, make it work on an almost subconscious level. The epic film needs a composer like Jarre, who does not, through his music, just tell us what we already see. He makes it personal. And yet he also elevates. It's majestic, what he does. (Clip of Lawrence of Arabia below).

In 2007, I received a review copy of a DVD entitled Maurice Jarre: A Tribute to David Lean. The movie shows, in its entirety, a 1992 tribute concert given in honor of David Lean who had passed away a couple of months prior. The evening was made up of themes from four of Maurice Jarre's collaborations with David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter and Passage to India), and Jarre himself was conductor (the screenshot at the top of this post is from that concert). Jarre was visibly moved at some points during the concert, his friend and greatest collaborator had just passed, and the feeling of power and grief and appreciation in that concert hall is palpable. It's also great to hear that music live, with a full orchestra.

There is a terrific interview with Maurice Jarre included in the DVD, where he talks about his career and about his working relationship with Lean.

Here is my review of Maurice Jarre: A Tribute to David Lean.

My favorite anecdotes shared by Maurice Jarre are included in the review. (And I must reiterate what I said in my review: "You have to give me the missing monkeys with your music" is one of the best things said by a director to anyone, ever.)

Maurice Jarre will be sorely missed.

At least we still have those sweeping scores.

Pop in Lawrence of Arabia tonight, or Dr. Zhivago, or any one of the many, many, many MANY films he scored, in honor of a brilliant man, one of the greatest composers the industry has ever known. His music is in us - those notes, and the associations they bring.

Rest in peace.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 27, 2009

"The Cold Reader"; dir. Jeff Levine, starring Ben Marley

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Cold reading refers to a set of techniques used by professional manipulators to get a subject to behave in a certain way or to think that the cold reader has some sort of special ability that allows him to "mysteriously" know things about the subject. Cold reading goes beyond the usual tools of manipulation: suggestion and flattery. In cold reading, salespersons, hypnotists, advertising pros, faith healers, con men, and some therapists bank on their subject's inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is.

-- from The Skeptic's Dictionary

When I was in college, I knew a guy very well whom I now see was a sociopath. He was crazy good-looking, disarmingly so, and when he turned that charm onto you, you found yourself flattered, softened, it was as though you were the only person in the world. He talked emotionally, going right to the heart of things, in a way that could be off-putting at first, but eventually irresistible, even to a prickly chestnut like myself. He'd come up to my side at a party and smile at me, eyeing me kindly, seeing right through me, and make a comment about my body language, and how the way I was crossing my arms told him such-and-such about my emotional state. Now, I was friends with this guy, so on some level I gave him permission to get that close, to 'see' me, to know me. It was only later, years later, that his vicious side was revealed, that it became clear how he was more than willing to use all that he knew about me as an attack against me. When he felt threatened or trapped, he went for the jugular, in a way that left you defenseless. But when he was in a good place, everyone fell in love with him. He didn't know how NOT to be close to people. He bonded intensely with the gas station attendant, the costume-shop assistant, the teenager behind the deli counter. I would watch him flirt, indiscriminately, with men, women ... and I would watch them all fall like ninepins. It was hard to resist. Especially if you were in a vulnerable state, as I often was then, a restless insecure virgin, looking for a way to break out. We never dated, nothing like that, but we were friends. I finally realized how addicted HE was to closeness, to getting people to "tell him things", to reveal themselves. But what did he get out of it? What hunger did it feed in him? That remains unclear. Obviously he was very damaged, but his surface was so perfect, so gorgeous, that the damage never showed. All you knew was that this archangel was paying attention to you, and you found yourself telling him your deepest thoughts.

Jeff Levine's 11-minute film called The Cold Reader, starring Ben Marley, from 2008, is about a guy like that. Only he has turned his sociopathic tendencies, his desire for a mirror everywhere he looks, into a profession. He has set himself up as a medium, a channeler, a guy who can communicate with "the departed". He's a con man. This dude couldn't talk to the dead if he leapt into an open grave. He's in it for the secrets people tell him, he's in it for how his clients give over to him, submit. It turns him on. It's a chilling glimpse (yet also very funny) of a calculating conniving personality, and yet, over the 11 minutes we spend in the presence of this man, we are sucked in, too. Seduced. He turns that focus on his two elderly clients, and you watch them melt. That makes him feel powerful, jazzed, and even though everything he says to them is bullshit, because they are already credulous (they made the appointment, didn't they?) they fall for it, but not just "it", not just the information he tells them about their dead loved ones, but for him. That's the con. That's the sociopath at work. It's all about HIM. He chooses his clothes, his shoes, carefully, to create the impression he knows will be a slam-dunk. And so when they look at him, openly, nervously, with submission, he knows who he is. Without that reflection, he'd be lost.


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How does a film show all of this in only 11 minutes?

Well, first of all, you start with a kickass script, taut as hell, nothing extraneous. Jeff Levine has done that, with his screenplay. It is based on a short story by Matthew Simmons, and Levine took the source material, already very strong, and fleshed out what was a nice character study into something laser-sharp, precise, dramatic, even poetic.

The story is a straightforward first-person narrative, with the lead guy telling us what he is going to do in his con, and how he does what he does. He's a magician, telling us how he pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

Not everyone is a strong skeptic, with critical mind intact, especially not those who are vulnerable, who need an answer, who need comfort in their grief, who are the most susceptible. Anyone who is a recruiter for a cult of any kind understands this. And the Ben Marley character knows it too, as do all con men. The interesting and insightful element in the script here is the sexual rush this guy gets from the openness with which his clients come to him. It is feeding some need in him, some bottomless pit of need. In the short story, he has sexual impulses during sessions towards his clients, especially when one of them offers up information to him: He wants to nuzzle her, stick his tongue down her throat, hold her close. He doesn't act on these impulses, but they are there. It is his version of intimacy.

In the film, Levine has a couple of fantasy sequences, where Marley lays his head in the lap of one of the women, where romantic music plays, and they slow dance, cheek to cheek. Not so much a sexual thing, but tender. You can see where the guy is coming from psychologically, drawn to the openness of the symbolic female, her giving nature, so different from his slick sleek male-ness. Of course he glances up at the camera at one point, sprawled on his knees laying his head on the couch, lost in the fantasy, and says to us, "Who doesn't want to re-attach to the nipple?" It's a chilly moment of self-knowledge, and self-awareness. You can't put anything over on this guy. You could not make an observation to him about being "drawn to the openness of the female". He would have contempt for such theories. You can't tell him anything. He knows exactly what he is doing.


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One of the best things about the screenplay is that we are not outside of the action, we are not left out in the cold by an omniscient eye. We are invited in, by him - the unnamed lead (played by Ben Marley). He talks directly to the camera, telling us his thought process, how he does what he does, and while he doesn't really explain why, where this need for connection comes from, I can make a guess. The funny thing is that the character talks about "tells", which any poker player will understand immediately (he alludes to this in the script). People "tell" you things, with body language, unconscious, and if you have a good eye, you can see the whole story. It reminds me of Christopher Walken's moment in True Romance with Dennis Hopper, which needs no introduction:

There are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give himself away. A guy's got seventeen pantomimes. A woman's got twenty, but a guy's got seventeen... but, if you know them, like you know your own face, they beat lie detectors all to hell. Now, what we got here is a little game of show and tell. You don't wanna show me nothin', but you're tellin me everything. I know you know where they are, so tell me before I do some damage you won't walk away from.

I love that a woman's got twenty, but a guy's got seventeen. Isn't that the truth? If you're a man, and you're chatting up a woman, and the vibe is good, and she says, "I'm really not into getting involved right now ..." all while touching her face and lips randomly, or twirling a strand of her hair around her finger, and you believe the words and miss the body language? Then you're an idiot, sorry. And if you are a woman, and you are not aware of the signals you are putting out, by touching your lips and twirling your hair, then you need to grow up and be responsible for the firefly-flashes you are emitting, sorry. It's the courtship dance, body language is key. That's the fun of it.

So this "cold reader", played beautifully by Ben Marley, knows the seventeen (or twenty) pantomimes by heart, and it is his life's blood. I could say to my friend in college, while feeling terribly awkward at a party, but trying to hide it, crossing my arms in front of my body, "No, really - I'm having a blast!", and he would gesture at the body language, which belied the words, and I have to say, there was a relief and a humor in such moments. You could be truthful, you would be safe in this man's hands, it would be okay to admit what was really going on. It is frightening to look back at this, to realize how much I let him know me, and see my weaknesses. Because make no mistake, he will use those weaknesses against me. He is just waiting for the right moment.


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I love how the film captures how much he is getting out of the nonverbal clues given to him by the two women who come to him, vulnerable, that day. This is not casual for him. He is not just a cool con man, oh no, he gets something out of this. Again, like my friend in college, it is not clear what exactly, or where the damage comes from, why he is so soulless ... looking to others for validation, existence.

The script, with its mix of real-time action and interior monologue spoken directly to us, manages to capture all of that, simply, with humor and precision, and it's a joy to watch.

What Levine does is find the variety in the device he has set up. A cleancut guy, in a scarily-pressed shirt, talks directly to us, telling us what he is about to do, his technique, and he tells it with a relish. Here's the con. Here is how it will go.


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He's not gearing up, or getting himself into the correct emotional state. This guy doesn't need prep time. This is his obsession, his reason for living. It is the only time he knows he is alive.

What I also liked was the disparity between the public persona (Marley with the clients), and the private persona - who was, albeit, public in a way since he is talking to us. But he is alone. When he is with his clients, he is cool, smooth, he offers wine, he is a gracious host, he is immaculately dressed and confident. And when the film cuts, intermittently, to him alone, telling us, "See what I just did in that moment? Do you see how I just bullshitted my way out of that moment?" - he's always doing some man-boy-esque activity, a completely different energy than the confident gentleman he shows to the clients. He's lying on the couch reading the racing times, he's juggling, he's building things out of his kitchen appliances, he's eating a truly awful sandwich (the worst sandwich I've ever seen, all processed cheese slices, and bright yellow mustard - it also freaked me out that he didn't just pick up the cheese slices with his fingers, he used a fork ... I don't know, that freaked me out - like he's afraid of his own germs), drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, watching television. He dances with himself, mamba-ing about in a self-pleased circle. We get these glimpses of who this guy is when no one else is around, and then we cut back to the smooth operator sitting on the leather couch, pretending he is listening to a dead mother talking from the afterworld. None of those man-boy activities are in the short story. They have been invented by Levine, and perhaps Marley had a hand in them, too, and damn, they just work. They add to the uneasiness inherent in the whole situation, because you can see, so clearly, what a bullshit artist the guy is. You get worried for the two ladies sitting opposite him on the couch. Like: do you have any idea who this guy really is?


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Levine shows his strength as a director in, not only his filming of this story, which is wonderful and varied, but in his adaptation. The sections of the original story that give away the guy's secrets, the tricks of his trade, could have been done in voiceover, but that would have been a deadly choice. Instead, Levine shows us the private life of this creep: eating, television, boredom, building a frightening contraption out of his kitchen appliances which at first I thought was some clinical gynecological instrument (shows you where my mind goes) and now I know is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (I'll get to that later, and how perfect an image it is, how much it "fits" with the larger themes of primal need and hunger.) There are layers going on in this film, and it really benefits from repeated viewings.


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Of course that is a T-Rex, it is so obvious to me now. He has created a dinosaur out of his damn salad tongs and corkscrew, in his spare time, waiting for his real life to begin when his clients show up.

But again, I think a strength of Levine's work here, as well as Ben Marley's acting, is that my mind would go gynecological when I looked at that thing. In other words, that I would spend my first two viewings wondering what nightmarish speculum this guy was concocting in between channeling sessions. That's part of the subtext, I got it loud and clear.

Even if it wasn't a T-Rex, a speculum would make sense, and I'm stickin' to my story.

All I need to see is Ben Marley, blissed out, eyes falling shut in mid-sentence, confessing to us how much he loves how "open" his clients are to him, and what a "turn on" it is for him, to know that something sexual is going on with this guy.


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While I'm on the topic of seeing this guy by himself in his apartment (or condo, whatever it is), I want to take a moment to sing the praises of Paul Greenstein, who was the Production Designer for The Cold Reader. It's a one-set movie, all interior, and that space is perfectly rendered and imagined. The Ben Marley character talks about how much he loves "tells", when a client tells him something without saying a word. Well, his condo tells me everything I need to know, and he never says a word. It is all browns and creams, with two big leather couches which reflect the light in an alienating way. You couldn't cuddle on those couches. They squeak when you move your butt on them. They're sleek, cold. Against one wall is an ostentatious liquor cabinet, which draws your eye, no matter how much you want to look away. There's a samurai sword on the wall. If some dude was courting me, and his apartment looked like that, warning bells would go off in my head. It wouldn't be a dealbreaker, like being rude to a waiter is a dealbreaker for me (I walked out on a date once when he was a dick to the waiter - basically got up, said, "Sorry ... I'm done ..." and walked out. It took me about 15 minutes to decide to get up and go, but I finally thought Life is too short, and that behavior is a #1 dealbreaker. I'm done. Nothing can repair what just happened. What's done cannot be undone. I will never respect you again. Buh-bye), but I would definitely take note of the coldness in the decor, and be on alert for what that would mean. There are no family photographs anywhere, there is nothing that says this guy is connected to ANYTHING.


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There's a big television pointed right at the sleek dining room table, and beside that there is a tall cabinet filled with stainless steel bowls and kitchen appliances. It all gleams in, again, an alienating way. They all seem completely unused, out-of-the-box new, untouched. Would this dude ever use one of those mixing bowls? I think not. Not judging from that atrocious sandwich he was making. Every detail of the production design is perfect. Everything you see adds to the story that Levine wants to tell. There are things that are not explained, which I also love: it takes a really good director to allow room for mystery. For example, Homeboy has three umbrellas in a stand by the door. Why three? Yes, there are three people in the scene, but the two ladies didn't enter carrying umbrellas. All three are his. Another example: He's got a big wall unit with books and vases and things on it. He has a turntable, old-school, with a bunch of vinyl records. The main record I can see is a Roger Williams album. No, not Roger Williams, the troublemaking founder of my home state, Rhode Island, but the famous pianist. Okay, hm, so that's interesting. To me, that's the only really personal touch in this guy's decor. Everything else looks like he hired some interior decorator, told her: "I want it to be sleek, macho, and cold", let her go to town, and then basically wanders through the space, playing with all of these things that actually have serious functions. But the turntable? That's personal. Those records? They are beloved by our handsome sociopath. The books on the shelves (naturally, I had to scan the titles) are mostly hardcover, and they're Tom Clancy books, Stephen King books. These are not dog-eared paperbacks. There's something off about them. Like they're for show. But this guy didn't go the route of buying identical sets of books from world literature, stuff that looks nice with his decor. No, they are big mass market hardcovers that appear to be untouched.


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I saw the film before I got my hands on the short story it was based on, and so I was quite gratified to read the following paragraph:

One bookshelf filled with contemporary novels, popular nonfiction, biographies, mountain-climbing stories, tragedies at sea. No Sylvia Brown, or Edgar Cayce. No Madame Blavatsky. No theosophy. No Manly P. Hall. No dusty leather bound volumes full of diagrams, and arcane discussions of the humors, or energy. I even have my latest Skeptical Inquirer on the table.

That's a lot of great information there, and Paul Greenstein completely followed the author's lead, by the books chosen to fill those shelves. I noticed the vibe and knew in my heart that it was deliberate, a deliberate choice. It's perfect. And again, that room and everything in it (what's with the creepy little toys you can see on the shelves behind him?) is full of "tells". This character has put together a space ("where I sleep and eat", he tells us, giving us a glimpse of what "home" means to this guy, with that primal need thing going on) that creates an impression on his clients. They walk in and feel perhaps intimidated by the decor, its perfection, its lack of warmth. But perhaps that is why they trust him, perhaps that is why they feel that he is the genuine article. He IS a charlatan, but his decor doesn't "tell" that. It tells the opposite. Very nice work.

In many ways, Marley's character here reminded me of Cary, played by Jason Patric in Neil Labute's Your Friends and Neighbors, a performance that, frankly, scared the shit out of me when I first saw it. It reminded me so much of my friend in college. If you meet someone like Cary, the smartest thing to do is not engage, don't try to win, don't try to beat him at his game. He is a predator. Recognize that. Walk away. Or shoot him in the face. Those are your only choices. Now Marley doesn't come off quite as malevolent as the smooth slick ruthless Cary does. The Cold Reader takes a lighter view of people like him, we can see him as a manipulator, a conniver, there's something missing in this guy, there's a blankness at the heart of him. Lord help any woman who dates him. Because he, too, is a predator. Which is why it is so perfect that he constructs a makeshift T-Rex in his spare time, the ultimate predator.

At one point (and it's my second favorite moment in the film), Marley, after having a breakthrough with his clients, turns to the camera, almost confused, hand on his stomach, and says, "Huh. I'm still hungry."

He doesn't get why that should be. Wasn't he just "fed" by the clients totally succumbing to him? He should be satiated now. He should be lying under a tree on the savannah, licking his chops from the gazelle he just killed. But no. He's "still hungry". So he knows, then, that he's not done. And like an animal does not examine its motivations, does not wonder why he is still hungry ... and just goes about procuring food as quickly as possible, Ben Marley here knows what he must do. He suggests they come back "for another session ... I have a really good feeling about this." Part of the beauty of such a hunger, and part of the beauty of being a successful con man, is that you can prolong the hunger, knowing you will be able to feed yourself again. Part of joy is the delayed gratification of it, like with sex, or looking forward to a big meal. This is the environment in which he thrives.

The two women who come to him, played by Joyce Greenleaf and Dianne Turley Travis are nervous in his presence, hesitant at first, one more skeptical than the other, but their need to hear from their dead mother overrides their critical thinking.

At one point, the cold reader goofs up. He's been guessing all along, as he informs us cockily, saying things to the women like, "October. What's the connection to October?" Now, naturally, if you are faced with a question like that, and you scan back over your life, you're going to find SOME connection to October. But in the moment of contacting your dead mother, it seems like a miracle that your mother's sister, your Aunt Judith, was born in October. And so trust begins to grow between the cold reader and the clients.


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It's almost too easy, isn't it?

The cold reader is not interested in having it be too easy. "Saying it out loud would have been showing off," he tells us, lounging on his couch. The pleasure for him, the rush, comes in having the CLIENTS do all the work for him. He's probably a horrible lay, with that attitude.

But at one point, he over-reaches. He hits on something that does not resonate at all with the two women. The energy shifts, dramatically. He has guessed at some factoid, and they both shake their head "No" at him, and he can see ... he can see that he has lost them.


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What's great about what The Cold Reader does is it allows for him to basically flip out in the face of doubt (which feels like abandonment to him). We get to see what happens when he gets it wrong. He sits on the couch, rubbing his temples, as though trying to "see" clearly into the afterlife, but we get quick cuts to him pacing around his condo like a madman, hair messy, dark circles under his eyes, five o'clock shadow on his face. He twitches, tries to laugh it off, but he looks like a wolf caught in a trap, panicked and desperate. The music, which up until this point has been kind of dreamy and romantic, goes off the rails. Finally, Marley just crouches down against the wall, staring right at us, in a total panic. Hands over his mouth. What a fun and nervy representation of what happens to these narcissistic types when their needs aren't met. Everything falls apart. It's a house of cards. There is no SELF within to express itself, to comfort itself. Everything comes from the outside, from the reflection. As long as you are dominant, then that's fine. But when the world does not cooperate in giving you what you need, what happens then? Clearly, you lose your shit, and curl up into a fetal position.


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This episode is not in the short story, and I find it to be a very creative and cinematic fleshing out, not just of the actual events being depicted, but of the character's psychology, which is quite fragile, pressed shirts and slick shoes notwithstanding. It's riveting to watch him pace around, throwing glances at us, the viewer, as though now he feels caught, busted. He's not embarrassed by being a con man, as long as he's successful at it. He brags to us about his technique, he loves the mechanics of what he is able to do, how much he is able to see. But in the moment of his downfall, he can barely look at us anymore. He totally unravels.


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As should probably be pretty obvious by now, I have a great affection for Ben Marley and his acting. I want to see more of him. He's terrific. He was terrific when he was a teenager, and he's terrific now. One of the things I love the most about his performance here is how much fun he seems to be having. He gets a kick out of acting, or seems to, anyway. It's fun to watch someone who is in that zone, who seems unconcerned with making an impression, or showing off, or making it about himself. I wrote about that in my piece on Apollo 13, but it was there in Skyward as well. He's a natural. There's a humility in his acting, which is an odd paradox, but would make sense to any actor you talk to. Yes, you have the desire to do this thing where you are the center of attention. So there's that. But then you also have the desire to fit into the larger story, and not pull unwarranted attention to yourself, or your acting. Marley always has that humility in him, even when, like here, he is playing a cocky confident unselfconscious attention-whore. It's a cliche, but it's true: I had an acting teacher say once, when someone was struggling with "how" to do a scene: "Just do what the character does." Now obviously, it's not always that simple, especially if you don't have talent. Some people can never "just do what the character does". But in everything I have seen Ben Marley do (and I haven't seen it all), that's what I get. He knows how to "just do what the character does". It's a beautiful thing. It is an oft-unsung talent in the industry today - which seems to reward the bells and whistles of acting (accents, limps, costumes, playing a drug addict with mental problems, or a mental case with drug problems, whatever) as opposed to what I would call "essence" acting. Something simpler and more grounded. Essence acting cannot be faked. It is not put on from the outside. It is the uncanny ability that some actors have to let us into their heads, their hearts, just by standing there in front of the camera. You can get a tutor to learn a Cockney accent, but you can't get a tutor for that other kind of acting. Spencer Tracy was an "essence" actor. Gena Rowlands is an "essence" actress. Mickey Rourke is an "essence" actor. Jeff Bridges, Kurt Russell. No surprise that these people are all my favorites. They still transform, they are not the same person picture to picture ... but the work itself is invisible. They do not want you to notice it. Their egos, while obviously involved in the endeavor (anyone who wants to be an actor has to have an ego), are submerged for the good of the project. Ben Marley has that in spades.


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My favorite moment of his in the film can't be described, really, it's all in the timing - so funny - but I'll give it a shot. He's kneeling by the empty couch, obviously lost in the jazzed-up fantasy of how open his clients are to him, telling him all their secrets willingly. He's staring at the places on the now-empty couch where the two women were sitting, and he keeps staring. There's a long pause. He drags his eyes away finally, reluctantly, and glances at us. Intense. He is intense. He doesn't speak right away, and when he finally does, he says, with 100% sincerity, "I love this." Slowly, his eyes drag back up to the couch. It's like he misses the women now that they are gone. It's a truly funny moment, which loses a bit in the description, but my friend Allison and I burst out laughing when we saw it, and had to rewind it to watch it again. We see him as the operator, the smooth host, but in that moment, you can see that he is actually mad. Predator needs to be fed. But you never see the nuts and bolts of Marley's work. It is mysterious - and yet never opaque or muddy. It's not mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It has the beautiful clarity of essence in it.


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Jeff Levine has engineered a minor miracle with this short film, which feels much longer than it actually is. That is a compliment. I finished watching it, and my first thought was, "That was only 11 minutes long?" It's rich. Detailed. It has a great eye for nuance, it allows silence, it doesn't explain too much. At the center of it is a riveting character. You know he's a con man, but you want to keep seeing him. You want to keep watching him.

And what ultimately I am left with is the image of a handsome guy in a pressed shirt, dancing around his creepy apartment by himself, grinning at his own cleverness, lost in himself, glancing at us to see how impressed we are by him. The reflection he has received from the two women has been accurate, as far as he is concerned, and he now can fully see himself the way they saw him. He is powerful, insightful, sexy, and basically awesome. And so he is satiated ... but all the while the T-Rex he has built sits on the table in the background, reminding us that this cold reader will never be satisfied.


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Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

March 23, 2009

Snapshots from last night: Watching "Psychotic" starring Liz Taylor

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Last night, a group of us gathered at Keith and Dan's in Brooklyn, to watch Liz Taylor, in what was the swan song of her career, in a movie that is called (depending on where you find it) Psychotic, The Driver's Seat or Identikit. Based on a Muriel Spark novella (which Dan informed us was not her best), it tells the story of a schizophrenic woman wandering around Europe, having various psychotic episodes, witnessing coup d'etats in foreign countries, having strange encounters with Andy Warhol, and being chased by Interpole. The movie has the weirdest mix of art-house pretension and camp. Not to mention the 100% over-the-top performance of Liz Taylor, at her zaftig best (and by "best" I mean WTF??). Her clothes alone would warrant her being committed into a mental institution. She is head to toe in crazy colors, stripes with flowers with bright yellow skirts. Her hair cannot be described but I'll give it a shot. Blue-black, it is teased within an inch of its life, and she is often seen from behind, and the width of her hair, I am not kidding, goes past her shoulders. She looks absolutely insane. Her makeup is out of control. There are a couple of moments when she is still breathtakingly beautiful, those eyes! - but what I was really taken with is that even in the midst of all that balderdash, Taylor is acting the SHIT out of this ridiculous part. Even when it's inappropriate, even when underplaying would have made her not seem so, well, batshit crazy. Yes, the character is crazy, but seriously, you have to experience how that manifests in Liz Taylor's hands to see what I am talking about.

Dan had warned me, "You will be forever changed after seeing this movie."

He's right, although I cannot yet name the transformation.

It's one of those movies where you can't believe what you are seeing, and your brain basically explodes from trying to understand.

Her line readings! She picks up a small knife in an airport shop, fingering the sharp blade, in a vaguely crazy manner, and then calls out, "How much?" It goes to show you how bizarre she read that line that we all burst out laughing in response.

Her best line, said in an angry throwaway manner to a leering gentleman with yellow teeth, "When I diet, I DIET. And when I orgasm, I orgasm. I never mix the two cultures."

We couldn't stop saying that line. As a matter of fact, that was the first thing I thought when I woke up this morning, pondering the ineffable truths in that line. Look, when I diet, I diet. And when I orgasm, I orgasm. No need to mix up the two cultures, mkay?

What the hell is Andy Warhol doing in that movie? He plays ... a diplomat? An attache with an embassy in a wartorn country? It's not clear. He and Liz have a strange encounter in an airport when he picks up a book she dropped to give it back to her. Intense vibes of ... sheer liquid bullshit ... pass between them. It is not clear what is happening but that it is very important to the both of them.

At one point, Liz, staring up at a ruin, says in a musing tone, "I sense a lack of absence."

We kept talking about that line. "What the hell is she talking about?" "What is a lack of absence?"

There were a couple of lines when I said, "Oh my God, these people are on so much drugs. That's the kind of thing a stoned person says that seems deep only when you're high."

"I feel homesick for my own loneliness," mourns Liz.

Of course you do.

Dan, in setting up the movie for us, told us that we all needed to have two glasses of wine before we started the movie. "We need to be LOOSE" he declared. Well, all righty then, pass the wine. Once we all were loose enough, we started watching.

Oh, and Dan, also, trying to describe where Liz was at this point in her life, said, "She is almost Rabelaisian."

I am still laughing about that line. ALMOST Rabelaisian? Not quite, but almost??

I love these people.

And you know what? She is. She is almost Rabelaisian. Her breasts are lethal weapons. Occasionally, she strokes them. I suppose at that moment she is NOT dieting, so she is then free to orgasm. That's my interpretation anyway.

The cinematographer of Psychotic, The Driver's Seat, Identikit was the Oscar-winning Vittorio Storaro, whose other jobs include, you know, The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, Reds ... and damn, this is a fine-looking movie. There's not one bad shot. It's all bells and whistles, yes, with a slowly moving camera, strange dreamspace scenes - backlit - You can tell (or I'm guessing) that Storaro was like, "This entire thing is completely bullshit - so I might as well have some fun." Each shot is a work of art. We all kept laughing about that. Saying, in the middle of some ridiculous scene, "Vittorio ... look at what he's doing here ..."

It's worth it to see - just to watch his work.

And if I'm making this sound like a terrible movie, I haven't done my job. It's not terrible. Yes, there is a trainwreck aspect to it ("How much??" barks Liz), but it's riveting, as all good trainwrecks could be. You cannot look away. Everyone in the damn thing is totally committed to the LUDICROUS project they are in. Not to mention Liz Taylor, who is behaving as though this is the greatest part she has ever been given. Every moment is over the top, every moment is full of twitches and sighs and bizarre behavior that makes no sense. There's a moment where a bomb goes off and a car blows up. Chaos ensues. People run, flee, scream. Liz, in teetery heels and hair so big that it puts her off balance, falls into the street, howling in fear. She writhes about, one of her legs kicking up behind her. She has huge hair, crazy sunglasses, her coat has long vertical stripes of every color known to man - colors that should never be put together in one garment - and she rolls around on the street, her head coming up, mouth wide open in a scream. It's an astonishingly embarrassing, funny, and crazy moment. The whole thing is bullshit - but here's the deal: There is something to be said for commitment to something that is bullshit. In a way, that is part of the actor's job, sad as it is. I've been in pieces of SHIT where I have begged friends not to come, warned them that our relationship will be OVER if they buy a ticket ... but hey, it's a living, and I'm up there, committing to the bullshit I am in. So to see Liz, writhing around, ridiculous, howling to the moon, makes me think: Okay. Now obviously this material is pretty bad (sorry, Miss Spark), but if you play such a moment realistically or subtly, or if you have in the back of your mind somewhere Wow, this is really embarrassing ... then you REALLY aren't doing your job. Liz Taylor acts the CRAP out of that moment, and yes, we all guffawed seeing her ... but there was something deeply disturbingly right about it too.

Liz Taylor still has the breathy English-accented energy of her heyday in the 1940s. She's from another world, another technique. And here she is, in 1974, still doing that, still acting in that old-school MGM way ... only it's in this psychedelic art-house (sort of) movie with a cameo by Andy Warhol. It is so weird to watch.

So yes, Dan, I am somewhat altered after seeing that movie. How could I not be?

Other funny snapshots from last night:

-- Keith, as I walked in, "So, how is your fiance?" A joke ... which can't quite be explained yet ... but I assure you it was hysterical.

-- After we watched the movie, somehow we all got to talking about movies that have basically a sound-effect as a title. Boom!. Phffft. ... tick ... tick ... tick ... Now that last one caused some hilarity. Keith went to the computer and reported back to us - "The title is: Ellipses, tick, ellipses, tick, ellipses, tick, ellipses." Dan said, "Whose bright idea was that." I was joking about including the ellipses at the start of the title when you talk about it. "So, what are you seeing tonight?" Me: Long pause. "Tick ..." Seriously, the title STARTS with a pause, so you had better include it.

-- This then led to an internet search of all the movie titles that include ellipses, everyone sitting around making guesses. "Does 'I, the Jury' have an ellipses in it?"

-- Oh and this was so funny, but I'm not sure if I can describe it. The group of us had broken up into different conversations. I was standing with Keith at the computer, looking at the poster for The Driver's Seat (the one at the top of this post) - and suddenly there was a pause in all of the conversations, and I could hear Judd say into the silence, to whomever he was talking to, "So it was one of Ron Howard's earliest directing jobs, and it starred Bette Davis ..." I am DYING. I had never met Judd before last night, but he had read my pieces on Skyward (part one and part two ) and wanted to talk to me about them, and there he was, at the party, filling in SOMEONE ELSE about Skyward. I am laughing out loud as I type this. I am determined to get this movie back into circulation. I really feel like it's working. I am creating buzz. It is now being discussed at a party in Brooklyn, because of me writing about it. It is one of my proudest moments of 2009.

-- Here are a couple of choice quotes from Jeremiah, as he watched the movie:
"Oh my God."
"Holy fucking shit."
"Oh no."
"I am so glad I am seeing this movie."
"I love this movie."
"Vittorio."
"Oh my God."


My sentiments exactly.


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March 10, 2009

Early Raiders script conference: Not to be missed

Go here for information and download the transcript between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, as they hashed out their ideas - and tried to nail down the character of this "Indiana Smith" archaeologist guy. I also love the analysis by Mystery Man.

Excerpt from transcript (S = Steven Spielberg, G = George Lucas):

S — It would be funny if, somewhere early in the movie he somehow implied that he was not afraid of snakes. Later you realize that that is one of his big fears.

G — Maybe it's better if you see early, maybe in the beginning that he's afraid: "Oh God, I hate those snakes." It should be slightly amusing that he hates snakes, and then he opens this up, "I can't go down in there. Why did there have to be snakes? Anything but snakes." You can play it for comedy…

And I love one of Mystery Man's screenwriting lessons:

No idea is a bad idea when you’re brainstorming.

Something definitely to keep in mind.

Go read the whole thing. Such fun. Wonderful, wonderful, to listen to those three guys bat their ideas around.


Indiana_Bullwhip.jpg

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February 10, 2009

Movie Poster mania

I love movie posters.

Maybe some of you out there do, too.

I don't put up the posters below because I like the movies in question (although a lot of times I DO) ... I think the posters are works of art in and of themselves.

Enjoy.

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Movie poster

Another stop-you-in-your-tracks poster. Not just scary - but creepy.

Maybe go down and look at it (it's the second image - not the first, but I'll explain that in a minute) and then come back.

Here's what I thought when I looked at that poster for the first time:

In the recent Macbeth I saw, with Patrick Stewart, out at BAM, the way the three witches were handled in this particular production was brilliant (which is so strange, because the witches are usually the weak link in any production of that play).

First of all, they were SCARY. So often the witches just aren't handled right, they seem like cackling hags from a fairy tale, kind of silly, and you get that Macbeth is scared of them - but the audience NEVER is.

These witches? They seriously made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. First of all, they were camouflaged into scenes. You never knew where they would turn up. They worked in Macbeth's kitchen, they were nurses on the battlefield ... they were all young actresses, maybe 21, 22 - all slim and boyish shapes ... and wearing uniforms that made them look the same: maid uniforms, nurses uniforms, so you could not tell them apart.

I have goosebumps right now writing this.

The idea was to give the feel of a secret police in a totalitarian society. They are not out on the wild heath. They are in your effing house. They are preparing your food. They huddle over your bed when you are sick.

And so below: please see, first, the image of the first appearance of the witches in that production - only you didn't know at the time that they were the witches. They had said no lines yet, they were busy and official and seemed like extras, space-fillers, part of the crowd.

The three descended in the elevator, dressed up as nurses, and entered the room, ready to take care of wounded soldiers. They raced around the bed, white nurses caps and dresses gleaming in the darkness, setting up IV drips, passing instruments to one another ... In the distance you could hear the sounds of battle. And I was sucked in. I was more focused on the screaming wounded soldier rather than the nurses, who appeared to just be "background".

And then one of them said to the other, over the operating table:

"When shall we three meet again?"

And I swear to God, gasps went through the audience. It was a truly dangerous moment. They had sucker-punched us. You never ever could trust that they wouldn't come up right behind you, from that moment on. They were everywhere. You realized that the call was most definitely coming from inside the house.

Brilliant, I thought.

Anyway.

Image from Macbeth below ... followed by the movie poster. I know nurses are par for the course in horror movies - but I still think these images are very reminiscent of one another.

Macbeth_Witches.jpg


SawIII.jpg



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Movie poster

Even just looking at this gives me the chills.

M_lang_poster.jpg

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Movie poster

I like this poster for its old-fashioned feel (reminiscent of the sweeping romances of the 1940s), and the fact that it's a drawing - not photos. Gives a strange story-book feel to it, rather epic, which I think is appropriate.

I just like the poster. Even though it gives away the last damn scene IN THE POSTER.

Officer_poster.jpeg


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