Sunday, February 28, 2010

Month Two Status Report

Well, two months down, and I'm not nearly as far along as I'd like to be. Still, I'm averaging one film per day exactly, which means I should finish some time around Christmas 2012, or with the addition of new films, early in 2013.

Expect that to drop off a bit for the next three weeks or so--probably 3-5 films per week until near the end of March due to life and work. That'll pick up again when I'm off for a week, and likely for the first month or so of the next quarter, then I'll get terribly busy again and this will repeat itself. I'd love to average about one per day from this point on, if I can.

Yowza. What the hell did I get myself into?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Sweet Smell of Milkshakes and Oil

Films: Sweet Smell of Success, There Will Be Blood
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Sweet Smell of Success), DVD from Lemont Public Library (There Will Be Blood) on big ol’ television.

How much is a man’s soul worth? That’s undoubtedly a question that has no set answer. It depends very much on the soul, I would guess. It’s a question that is asked in both of these films, and both of them essentially have the same answer: The value of a man’s soul is far more than he is willing to take for it. The soul always goes for a discount price, or so these films would have us believe.

Sweet Smell of Success is about the give and take between two men who will do anything to get what they want. The first, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), is a powerful man in the world of show business. He is the quintessential late 1950s gossip columnist, and his column gives him incredible power. Getting a positive mention in Hunsecker’s column is the equivalent of rave reviews from every critic in the land. He claims a readership of 60 million, and he can deliver the goods.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent who finds himself perpetually in Hunsecker’s hip pocket. What J.J. needs, Sidney does, because of the power wielded by Hunsecker. If Sidney wants his clients to get a mention—and he does—he has to do the dirty work that J.J. gives him.

The current load of dirty laundry concerns Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison), J.J.’s kid sister. It seems that she has become enamored of Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a local jazz musician with the Chico Hamilton Quintet (played by themselves, with the addition of the very clean-cut, vaguely out of place Milner). A guy who plays the six-string in local watering holes is never going to be good enough for J.J. Hunsecker’s sister, so Sidney’s job is to break the two up. Unfortunately for Sidney, Steve Dallas got all of the integrity that Sidney didn’t.

And Sidney is a louse, a pure unadulterated bastard of the first degree. To get the ball rolling on splitting up Susie and Steve, he bribes another columnist with a story about Steve Dallas being in with the Commies, and having a significant marijuana habit, both untrue. To get this done, Sidney fixes up the columnist in question with his girlfriend Rita (Barbara Nichols) for a little nighttime fun. She objects, but goes along with it anyway, in a scene that almost contains the sound of the poor girl’s soul dying.

Eventually, Susie and Steve go their separate ways, but J.J. isn’t satisfied. It’s not enough that Steve Dallas has been pushed away. For Hunsecker, the only thing that remains is to destroy Steve Dallas completely, another task that he gives Sidney. Sidney doesn’t want to do it, but has the carrot of Hunsecker’s column dangled in front of him, and once again, the spectral cash register rings up another sale.

Throughout this film, the overwhelming emotion is not love or desire, but loathing. Hunsecker loathes everyone who isn’t himself or his sister. He badmouths Sidney even while Sidney is lighting the man’s cigarette. Sidney loathes everyone, including himself. Susan learns to treat the world with her own brand of contempt by the end. Everyone seems to be just on the edge of hitting someone else.

Burt Lancaster is truly awe inspiring as Hunsecker. This is a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, no matter the cost. He is willing to bring as much power as he can to bear at any time to achieve his goals. With his severe glasses and more severe haircut, he presents himself as a man who cannot be taken lightly. Tony Curtis has never been oilier or more despicable.

There Will Be Blood stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a silver miner-turned oilman when his old mine plays out and starts gushing the black stuff one day. In the early days of the 20th century, Plainview wildcats around the southwest, looking for likely places to drill and hitting strikes to fund his continued operations. On his first well, a man is killed in a freak accident, and Plainview adopts his now-orphaned son, christening the boy H.W. (played as a pre-teen through most of the film by Dillon Freasier). While hardly in the ranks of Standard Oil and other major players, Plainview is successful and wealthy, and would like to keep things that way.

One day, he is met by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, who also plays Eli Sunday). For a cash payment, Paul tells Plainview about the town of Little Boston, where the oil bubbles to the surface. Plainview and H.W. go and scout the area, buying up land from the people there, and building a derrick to bring the oil to the surface. However, Plainview specifically snubs Eli Sunday when it comes to blessing the well, and two important events occur. One man is killed, which sets things back a bit. More significant is that the well erupts, exploding and catching fire. The blast also permanently deafens H.W.

Around the time H.W. is sent away to learn from a teacher specialized in the hearing impaired, Henry Plainview (Kevin J. O’Connor) arrives. He claims to be Daniel’s half-brother, and is at the end of a string of bad luck. Daniel takes him in, and essentially confesses everything to him—he hates the bulk of humanity. However, Henry is willing to work for him, and take what he can get, and he essentially replaces H.W. in Daniel’s world.

Daniel Plainview, like J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco, knows what he wants, and he’s willing to do anything to get it. Anything that deviates from his worldview becomes something that should be destroyed. It’s difficult to ask the price of Plainview’s soul, because as the film continues, it becomes more and more evident that he never really had one to begin with. All he ever really had was an oil derrick for a heart. Even when he is on top, he can’t help but grind those he dislikes into the ground—and he dislikes everyone, especially Eli Sunday. He and Hunsecker are two versions of the same person.

Of the two films, I prefer Sweet Smell of Success. I like the story better and I appreciate the characters more. This isn’t to detract from the latter film. The more I watch Daniel Day-Lewis, the more I think he may be the best actor working today. He is always memorable and always riveting. I’m also happy to see a quality role for Kevin J. O’Connor, who is far more talented than many of the roles he gets. He’s badly underrated, and I’d like to see him work more in good films like this one.

However, There Will Be Blood concerns the soul of a man who is far more successful than most of us will ever be. Of course he’s a bastard, and he’s easy to dislike. There’s a pleasure in seeing the characters in this film get what they deserve. In Sweet Smell of Success, there is a continual feeling, at least for me, that something better has to happen to some of these people. There are innocent victims like Susie and Steve who deserve better. In short, there was something more for me to cling to there. There was, if nothing else, hope.

Why to watch Sweet Smell of Success: Two of the greatest sons of bitches to ooze across the screen.
Why not to watch: Martin Milner as a jazz musician?

Why to watch There Will Be Blood: Daniel Day-Lewis is that good.
Why not to watch: The DVD is pretty punishing—2:38:00 of film, and only 8 scenes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Plot is Secondary

Film: The Thin Man
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

The 1930s were a vastly different era from the one we live in now. That’s hardly a shocking statement. One need only compare a great film from the first era with one from the modern to see the difference. When the film from the 30s is The Thin Man, the difference is in the dialogue. Witness Nick Charles (William Powell) explaining to bartenders how to properly shake his fourth or fifth martini of the night, because martinis should always be shaken to waltz time.

Things really liven up with the appearance of Nora Charles (Myrna Loy), Nick’s wife, who is as smart and verbally devastating as Nick. They sit down for a drink, and she asks him how many drinks he’s had. He answers that the one the waiter has just handed him is his sixth, and she asks the waiter for five more, lined up on the table in front of her.

On its surface, The Thin Man is a murder mystery. A scientist named Wynant has disappeared, although it’s not actually a consensus that he may not be in town. When a body connected to Wynant shows up, it becomes evident that Wynant may well be the killer. Then a second body and even a third turn up and Wynant looks even guiltier.

Things are additionally complicated by Wynant’s odd family. His ex-wife keeps a lover named Chris (Caesar Romero), and her son is odd in many ways including a morbid fixation on criminals and psychiatric complexes. Wynant’s daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) is hoping to marry, but won’t until she finds out where her father is and his guilt is either proven or disproven.

It’s a complicated plot with a lot of different characters moving in and out of the picture at a fairly constant rate. Many of the people who show up are suspects for one reason or another, and all of them have a motive for the various killings. Into this walk our heroes, Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a former detective who hung up his gumshoes when Nora’s father died, leaving her a fortune. While he denies he’s taking the case, he eventually takes it simply because every assumes he is and gives him enough evidence that he can investigate on his own.

Since this is a 1930s film, you can assume from the outset that the case will be solved, the murderer will be captured, and Nick and Nora will survive to the end despite what happens to them. That’s the nature of the beast.

Anyway, all of this is secondary to the relationship between Nick and Nora. The film is all about their relationship, which is both delightfully romantic and sweet and falsely antagonistic. The two of them are absolutely devoted to each other no matter how much they may pretend that they aren’t. Therein lies the charm of this film. It’s all about the dialogue between these two more than it’s about any murder, let alone three of them.

Well, it’s about that and the prodigious drinking that the two of them partake in at an almost constant clip. Both Nick and Nora are almost constantly either boozed up or nursing a hangover. They go through more alcohol than a typical fraternity party, which again is part of the charm of the two of them.

In addition to the dialogue, what makes the film work is the very natural chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two of them appear to really be a real couple who have an actual relationship. Their verbal bantering aside, they are truly playful with each other throughout the film in a way that is entirely endearing. They make the sort of couple that would be ridiculously fun, if tiring, to know in real life, both enraptured with each other and frustrated with each other. The film is wonderfully fun, and specifically because of the two of them. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the presence of their wire-haired terrier Asta.

The chemistry here is more amazing because the film was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, better known as “One-Shot Woody.” Van Dyke allegedly created the film in a mere 12 days, and it doesn’t show. It’s also a little surprising at the level of raciness that was allowed to creep in to a film made in the 30s. When the police search their hotel room and start going through the bureau, Myrna Loy shouts, “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” William Powell performs a nearly flawless spit take in response.

One more example:
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

They just don’t write dialogue like this anymore. Such a pity.

Why to watch The Thin Man: Smart dialogue and…well, smart dialogue.
Why not to watch: A complicated plot that is still secondary to Nick and Nora’s verbal footsie.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to Make a Scary Film

Film: The Haunting
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

The world is filled with movies, and many of those movies are bad. There are probably more bad comedies than any other genre. Coming in second is undoubtedly bad horror movies. It’s not that difficult to gross people out or make them jump, but to really inflict terror on an audience is incredibly difficult. There’s a reason that great horror movies are treasured by those who love a good scare. It’s not just the visceral thrill—it’s also the fact that it’s so rare.

One of the standout examples of a truly magnificent horror film is Robert Wise’s The Haunting from 1963. This is a film that exudes more atmosphere than any ten slasher movies or knock-off alleged scary films. The Haunting is a relatively low-budget film, contains almost no special effects, and has only five actors who are in the film for any length of time. There is no giant monster, no ghost, no dude in a rubber suit. Nada. And yet this is one of the scariest film experiences ever created.

The film is based on the Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” A researcher into psychic phenomena, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), has rented a house reported to be cursed since the time of its building. Several people have died around the house, and always in terrible or unusual circumstances. His goal is to discover a true psychic phenomenon, a true ghostly occurrence or spiritual sighting.

To help him, he enlists three people. The first is Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris), a frail woman who can sense the presence of spirits. Nell has little life experience, having spent the last decade caring for her ailing, overbearing mother. The recent loss of her mother has left Nell particularly fragile, in no small part because Nell’s sister, who she lives with, blames her for the mother’s death. The second arrival is Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has no last name, at least publicly. Theo is a witch of sorts, and also something of a sensitive. Third is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a skeptic who hopes to inherit Hill House some day.

Almost immediately, strange happenings start around the house. Noises that only some of the people hear, terrifying thumping footsteps, doorknobs moving on their own, and voices all begin to plague the new tenants. Particularly affected is Eleanor, who is more sensitive to such things than she thought. Eleanor herself is strangely attracted to Hill House just as she is completely terrified by it. While frightened of the terror and unexplainable noises, Eleanor, for the first time, feels as if she belongs somewhere. She is also attracted to Markway, and is disturbed when his wife, Grace (Lois Maxwell) appears.

Much of the film takes place in Eleanor’s head in the form of her thoughts. These start merely as her thoughts but quickly become more and more disturbing. One of her final voiceover segments is brilliantly directed, particularly for the time in which the film was created. While Luke, Theo, and Dr. Markway argue, they slowly fade into black while Eleanor is brightly lit. Her inner monologue begins, and the voices of the others drown out.

Robert Wise, who began his career doing uncredited filming on Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is perhaps better known for his musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. As will be apparent when I get to that particular film, I dislike musicals in general and that one in specific with a burning passion. However, The Haunting is so good, and so good specifically because of the direction and genius of Robert Wise that I can forgive him Austrian children singing about deer and sunshine.

What makes the film so good is precisely the fact that nothing is ever shown. The closest we get to a real spook is a rickety spiral staircase, a few statues, and some bulging woodwork. All of the scares here are done with magnificent camera work and incredible use of sound. There is truly only one great jump moment, and this comes very near the end of the film. Despite this, the film is oppressively frightening. Wise uses camera angles and tricks to convey the fear and paranoia of the people in the house.

True terror is nearly impossible to achieve in any audience. Scare ‘em, sure, but to genuinely create a feeling of dread and paranoia in the people watching the film is difficult, and because of this, the gold standard for horror movies. If you can truly get your audience to feel as if their own life is haunted during the watching of your film, you have succeeded in no small respect, and that is what Wise does here.

One of my favorite movies of all time, El Espinazo del Diablo, begins with a line about the nature of the spiritual visitors who plague Eleanor: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.” Hill House seems to be all these things, but my favorite of these is “an emotion suspended in time.” Hill House wants Eleanor, just as Eleanor’s mother wanted her, just as former resident Abigail Crain wanted her caretaker. Hill House, and Eleanor, and the film itself, are all filled with pent-up emotions that both cannot be revealed and must be released. Is the house truly haunted? Is Eleanor manifesting psychic abilities to remain in the house and become the center of attention? These questions are not answered. Also unanswered is the question as to whether Eleanor—or any of us—truly belong anywhere, or are deserving of love and acceptance.

Special effects would have killed this film. What the audience imagines is always more terrifying than what they are shown. Anyone looking to make a scary film that actually scares someone should watch this one over and over. Skip the stupid remake. This one is the one that asks you to walk alone.

Why to watch The Haunting: True terror.
Why not to watch: You need to have special effects, gore, and a guy dressed like Satan.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Redefining the Screwball Comedy

Film: Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday)
Format: DVD from Mokena Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

In any artistic endeavor, there are those people who, for whatever reason, have a small output of material—not good material, but material in general. Stanley Kubrick, for instance, directed fewer than a dozen and a half movies, although close to a dozen of them are bona fide classics. Tarkovsky directed only 11. They’re sort of like the cinematic equivalent of George Orwell, who wrote only six novels, but within those six novels, penned Animal Farm and 1984.

Jacques Tati is like that. One of the greatest French directors in history (and that’s saying a lot) and certainly one of the greatest comedy directors of all time, Tati directed a mere nine films, including his incomplete final film. And yet, virtually every one of his films is a clinic on how to do comedy. In almost all of his films, Tati not only directs, but stars as the eccentric Monsieur Hulot, and never better than in Les Vacanses de Monsieur Hulot.

Hulot is a good natured and well-meaning man, but he is also a blundering lummox and a boob. With his pants pulled up to well above his navel, odd gait, and omnipresent pipe and hat, Hulot is unmistakable in any scene even if he is not the focus of that scene. Hulot always means well, but is incapable of doing anything without causing tremendous chaos around himself.

In this film, widely considered the greatest of the Hulot comedies, M. Hulot goes on a vacation to a seaside resort. Here he tries to fit in with the regular summer visitors, but is unable to either by his own complete lack of awareness for his own surroundings or freak chance events. That’s really all there is to it. Essentially the film is a series of comic events, situations, and people, a mostly plotless little film with a great repeating guitar and vibraphone soundtrack.

Tati’s film style is unlike anything else of its time, and unlike almost everything that came afterwards, although much of what Rowan Atkinson did with Mr. Bean appears to come as a direct answer to Tati’s character. Bean is, in many ways, a British answer to the French Hulot. Tati’s style relies on a few particular oddities virtually unique to him. Conversations are almost entirely muted and difficult to hear, and in many cases aren’t that important. Because of this, many of the comedic gags are played in mime, or virtual mime. On the other hand, sound effects, particularly those that are essential to the various slapstick gags that occur throughout the film.

Tati is a brilliant physical actor. His various escapades as Hulot are consistently funny, often in very subtle ways. While there are certainly some laugh-out-loud bits in this film, much of what happens or odd coincidences or silly happenings that would be passed over in any other film. Here, such minor comedic happenings are given as much scope as many of Tati’s grander jokes. Many of these jokes are little setpieces that have nothing to do with anything else in the film, but are charming enough that their remaining in the film is something of a testament to Tati’s ability to choose scenes wisely and well.

Hulot attempting to mount a horse is one perfect example of his skill behind the camera. In a typical comedy, we’d see a series of pratfalls of Hulot attempting to get on the horse and falling off—funny, but typical. Instead, we see the entire scene from a different point of view, only getting Hulot thrown into the frame now and again, leaving us to imagine what is going on behind the corner of the building.

In addition to being adroit with his camera, Tati is also very clever with how he constructs his narrative. Often the Hulot character is nowhere near the main action that is going on, but is standing in the background, doing something else, completely oblivious to everything else, but still creating chaos around him. By focusing the camera somewhere other than on himself, though, Tati is able to show odd little moments that are staggering. A woman picking up seashells and handing them to a companion, for instance, doesn’t notice him simply tossing the shells away while she isn’t looking. These little asides add to the overall appeal of this film, making what would otherwise be an entertaining film something far more special.

Jacques Tati was something truly special both on camera and behind the camera. It makes me wonder how much more he could have done if only he had managed to make more than his small handful of films. With Tati, though, you take what you can get, and Les Vacanses de Monsieur Hulot is worth at least two of almost any other comedy film ever made.

Why to watch Les Vacanses de Monsieur Hulot: A unique, light, and still funny comedy.
Why not to watch: That vibraphone song will get lodged in your melon for days.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Separating the Man from His Art

Film: Chinatown
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

It is nearly impossible to discuss the films of Roman Polanski without at some level discussing Polanski himself. As a filmmaker he’s often lauded with great and deserved praise. He’s a hell of a filmmaker, and at least four of his films—Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, and today’s current offering, Chinatown are on this list. It’s possible that there are more on the list and I’m merely forgetting them. There’s little question that Polanski is one of the great directors of the modern age.

It’s his personal life where things start to get a little fuzzy. In his personal life, Polanski’s best known for two things. First, he was married to Sharon Tate when she was brutally killed by the Manson family, and he reportedly committed statutory rape on a 13-year-old girl and fled the United States. It’s difficult to distinguish between the man and the man’s art, and for some, it can be nearly impossible. It’s unfortunate to consider that, for instance, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Ezra Pound, was also a fascist sympathizer. He was, and his poetry is still worth reading despite this. It’s critical to separate the craft from the man—while he may be repugnant or terrible, his movies are ballsy and terrific, Chinatown no less than any other. It’s important to note this particularly with Chinatown, since this was Polanski’s last American film.

Polanski’s films worth watching. Perhaps only Rosemary’s Baby is better known and admired than Chinatown, which also contains one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest and best-known roles. Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private investigator who is hired by a woman to follow her husband. She suspects him of having an affair, and wants the truth revealed. The man in question, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) also happens to be the chief engineer for the L.A. water and power division. Since the city is currently suffering from a drought and many local crops are dying on the vine, there is pressure for him to build a new dam—which he refuses to do because the land can’t support the weight.

Gittes tails the man and discovers some interesting things. Primarily, he discovers that at night, desperately needed fresh water is being dumped into the ocean, undoubtedly to make the crisis worse. Things get extremely interesting when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) appears in his office and accuses him of investigating her husband (and accusing him of infidelity) when she never hired him to do anything. It gets even more confusing and perilous when Gittes, trying to make everything right, goes to find Hollis Mulwray and discovers instead that the police are investigating his murder.

This is merely the start of this film, which plumbs very convoluted depths of human depravity and evil, particularly in terms of greed and sex. As Gittes gets deeper and deeper into discovering exactly what is happening with the water of Los Angeles, the death of Mulwray, and how much money really is tied up in getting water to the farms, he finds himself pulled further and further into something he can’t step away from. This is classic detective noir. Once on the trail, Gittes can’t stop until he knows everything, regardless of the cost.

One of the most memorable scenes is Gittes heading to one of the reservoirs and being on the business end of an opened sluice. When he reclimbs the fence to leave, he is accosted by a pair of threatening men, one of whom Gittes knows. The other (played by Polanski himself) slits Gittes’s nose with a switchblade. Gittes spends the middle of the film with his face bandaged, which makes him appear far more vulnerable. What is more interesting here is that while Gittes appears more vulnerable with the bandages in place, he doesn’t truly become vulnerable until the bandages are removed.

What is disturbing about Chinatown is how much it is an indictment on American justice in addition to being a great, twisting and convoluted mystery. As the plot shifts and changes, it quickly becomes evident that what is happening is because of money, and the money is what allows it to continue to happen. Those who are wealthy in this world of the film are capable of anything. Their money truly is power, and that power only gives them more money—and nothing can be done about it.

Chinatown was originally planned as the first movie in a trilogy, and while The Two Jakes was a sort of sequel to this, the original plan was quite different. It would have been interesting to see the films that were planned here, because this is the sort of story that leaves no one involved in it untouched. Gittes could never have been the same man after this experience.

While this is absolutely Nicholson’s film, it is astonishing how much of the film is dominated by the character of Noah Cross (John Huston). In only a trio of scenes, Huston looms large over this film. With maybe 15 minutes of screen time, he nonetheless controls almost all of the action, and is a presence felt in nearly every frame after his first appearance.

Polanski, guilty of whatever crimes he was after the making of this film, still made one hell of a film. The great film doesn’t excuse the crime, and the crime doesn’t affect the quality of the movie. Hate me for this or not, Polanski's movies work for me.

Why to watch Chinatown: An easily followed but complex plot, and one of Polanski’s best.
Why not to watch: I honestly can’t think of a good reason.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Space, No One Can Hear You Yawn

Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solyaris
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (2001), DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (Solyaris), both on big ol’ television.

There are films that give film critics a bad name. Had I a dollar for every time somebody complained about the fact that the movies that film critics like are all foreign titles with a lot of talking and not much action, or movies that are completely incomprehensible to all but the most erudite, well, I’d be able to write this blog full time and live off the interest. Just as there are bands who are known and beloved by music critics without having much of a general fan base, there are films that critics adore and gush over while the rank and file movie watcher is left cold.

2001: A Space Odyssey is sort of like that, I think. When it was released, it was thought of as a great movie to watch zoned out on a variety of chemicals, and I can see that, particularly the ending sequence as our lone astronaut pal goes barreling down a corridor of shifting lights and landscapes for what seems like an eternity. These days, though, I’m not so sure. I have a sense, I think, of what a lot of people will sit through willingly and what they will throw their hands up at, and today, 40 years or more after the release of this film, I don’t know how much of 2001 a typical audience can take.

It’s not that the film is incomprehensible, although very little is actually explained here. It’s that the film is incredibly, ploddingly slow. Nothing happens for vast stretches of time. We get long moments on screen of no dialogue, and even no sound—just images. Some of the most well-known sequences, ones that have been repeatedly referenced in other films and television shows stretch and stretch and stretch for minutes on end. The docking sequence, set to the Blue Danube waltz, goes on for what seems like forever, just a ship floating toward a space station and eventually touching down.

The plot, as best it can be comprehended, is as follows. We start in the distant prehistoric past. A tribe of proto-humans is visited by a gigantic black monolith that, evidently, gives them the power of rudimentary thought. At least shortly after touching the monolith, one of the proto-humans figures out how to use a discarded animal bone as a tool, and uses it to both procure food for the tribe and to slay one of the tribe’s enemies. The proto-human (called Moon-Watcher and played by Daniel Richter) tosses the bone into the air, where a jump cut turns it into the ship of the docking sequence.

Now we’re in the near future. Mankind has colonized the moon, and it’s evident that, unlike 1968 when the film was made, we’ve made friends with the Soviets. The space station appears to be of the international variety. A scientist named Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is taken to the moon because something has been discovered. There is another one of those monoliths that has been buried under the moon’s surface. While investigating the black slab, the moon’s rotation brings the slab into the sunlight, which causes it to emit an ear-piercing shriek.

We jump forward again. Now we are on the first manned mission to Jupiter. The crew consists of three men in cryogenic sleep, two awake and running the ship, and the ship’s computer, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). The two astronauts, Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea) do not really know the reason for their mission. Things seem to be fine until HAL notices something wrong with one of the sensors on the ship. The sensor is removed and tested, and proves to be fine, leading the two men to think that something might be wrong with HAL. Not wanting to be doubted or disconnected, HAL then acts to keep control of the ship by any means necessary. Eventually, this leads to the long trip over the psychedelic landscape, a hotel room at the end of the universe, and a final meeting with the black monolith.

2001 is still a marvel, even today. It is still a beautiful film to watch and pore over and study because of its startling imagery and intense beauty. But it is slow. Really slow. Go and make a sandwich between lines of dialogue slow. For many, this is a considerable problem because modern audiences don’t have the same sort of patience as tripped-out potheads did in the late 1960s.

This is the first time I’ve watched 2001 since I was quite young, and I remembered it far differently from its reality. I remembered the opening sequence of the proto-humans, for instance, as taking ages to get through, even though it’s less than 20 minutes. I remembered the ending light show as going on forever as well, and it is long, but not oppressively so.

Kubrick was a master of film, and it was never more evident than here. The long, still shots allow the viewer to concentrate not on the moving camera but on what is happening on the screen. Particularly disturbing are the shots of HAL’s camera lens, impassively watching and plotting while action takes place elsewhere. HAL is one of the screen’s great villains, and would not hold this distinction without Kubrick including so many shots of his red camera eye simply glaring.

The film that is most commonly compared with 2001 is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris. On the surface, the comparison is a good one. Both films are epic in length, deal with Humanity’s place in the cosmos, and are painfully slow at times. Solyaris is often thought as the Soviet answer to Kubrick’s film. The movie is based on a novel by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, who disowned it upon seeing it. It’s worth noting that when he made the film, Tarkovsky had not seen 2001.

Ostensibly, the movie is concerned with a station on the planet Solaris. This world is home to a vast ocean that is currently being studied by a small contingent of men living there. This ocean is actually a sentient organism that attempts to communicate with the men on the Solaris station by creating physical manifestations of their thoughts, dreams, and hopes. These manifestations came as a reaction to the ocean being bombarded with heavy radiation—essentially, the ocean is attempting to communicate with the humans on the station in the only way it knows how, but since it is completely alien (a common theme for Lem), it is doomed to failure.

The protagonist of the film is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who is sent to the Solaris station to determine whether or not it should be kept open. The station is designed for more than 100 researchers, but currently, there are only three onboard: Snaut (Juri Jarvet), Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn, who looks vaguely like Robert DuVall), and Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan). However, once Kelvin arrives, he discovers that Gibarian has committed suicide, and has left a cryptic message behind.

Kelvin is almost immediately plagued by a visitation that arrives thanks to the sentient ocean: his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). What might have been a comfort is something very much the opposite, since Hari committed suicide 10 years previously because Kelvin was transferred for his job and she refused to go with him. Essentially, the ocean is plaguing him by continually visiting his dead wife on him, a physical manifestation of the world’s most intense guilt trip.

The genius of Solyaris is evident in the set design. Where 2001 is pristine precision on the ship—even the astronauts who are killed in their cryogenic sleep are perfectly contained and sedate in death—the station on Solaris is in complete disarray. Machinery lies abandoned in the hallways, wires are exposed throughout every room. The lack of people on the station and the increasing mental and emotional demands placed on the men have turned the station into an outward manifestation of its inhabitants’ inner turmoil. These scenes of disarray are frequently contrasted with scenes of clean, orderly, pristine beauty of places on Earth. Solaris is a technological purgatory at best, a place where disorder and entropy constantly increase.

While beautiful and existentially powerful, Solyaris is perhaps even slower than 2001. Like 2001, this tranquil pace is punctuated by significant events. Here, though, the events are far more horrific than the coldly logical crimes of HAL. Hari continually relives her separation from Kelvin and his rejection of her, and kills herself again, this time with liquid nitrogen. In a truly horrifying scene, the body revives, forced back into consciousness by the alien ocean. It is equally terrible for Kelvin, who must constantly relive the loss of his wife. It takes a fascinating toll on Kelvin himself. It is almost impossible to pinpoint his age based on physical appearance. At times, he looks to be in his late 30s or early 40s while at other times, he seems to have aged terribly.

Ultimately, the two films are remarkably different for all of their surface similarity. Kubrick seems to be saying that human ingenuity, drive, and power will eventually take us to the edge of the universe. We may not remain human, we may become something alien or much greater than ourselves. The culminating moments of the film are obscure, but hopeful. It is the machine that will take us there, even if it attempts to betray us in the end—it is the machine that we must trust in, our own invention and inventiveness that will allow us to conquer the vast reaches of space.

Solyaris on the other hand seems to be far more concerned with our souls. It doesn’t doubt that the conquest of other planets and solar systems is almost inevitable, but asks instead what the cost of such conquest will be. Rather than growing from our humanity as Kubrick envisions, Tarkovsky would have us think that we will be diminished by such exploration in the end. We will not become something more than human, but something different entirely, something separated from that which truly makes us human. The cost will not be giving up our humanity for something greater, but losing the essence of our beings entirely. Isn’t it funny that from God-fearing America comes the film that pushes an ideology of conquering science while it is the godless communist Soviets who search space for Humanity’s soul?

Both films are masterpieces of the cinema, but for those not willing to give over to them entirely and experience them as they are meant to be, both films are also potentially incredibly boring. I am no less guilty than anyone else of this. I admire both films, but a year ago when I first tried to watch Solyaris, I fell asleep the first two times. I just couldn’t get past the endless scenes where nothing happens. This is why these films give critics a bad name with the rank and file. Critics see the style, the grandeur, the majesty of these films in their slow pace and gorgeous scenes (Kelvin and Hari floating in weightlessness, the docking sequence) while someone expecting an explosion every 30 seconds wanders off mentally or drifts into sleep. Since those unwilling to spend time studying what is on the screen or investing the mental energy into it don't get it, the feeling becomes one of finding critics stuffy, needlessly academic, and full of their own pomp.

Why to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey: Kubrick may have been this good, but he was never better.
Why not to watch: It…is…reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally…slow.

Why to watch Solyaris: A quest for the soul of Mankind and existential angst to end all angsts.
Why not to watch: It’s not just slow, it’s frequently inert.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Greatest Music Video Ever Made

Film: A Hard Day’s Night
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Every now and then, a movie comes along that changes the game. When everybody imitates you, you must have done something right. It’s what happened shortly after the release of The Matrix, it happened when John Carpenter made Halloween, and it happened with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night.

A Hard Day’s Night is somewhere between a movie and a documentary. While not a real day in the life of The Beatles, it certainly does touch on what at least a part of their life must have been like. Like the movies of a similar style, John, Paul, George, and Ringo play themselves as they go on a whirlwind tour of…somewhere. They spend time on a train, live in hotel rooms, get chased by cadres of girls, sing a few songs, and get into trouble.

There’s not really much of a plot beyond that with the exception of the presence of Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), who constantly gets into trouble. As Paul tells us early on, “He’s a king mixer,” and where grandfather goes, trouble follows.

The boys are scheduled to play a show, but the grandfather convinces Ringo that life is passing him by. Ringo buys into it and “goes parading.” He disappears before the show to live a little, and there’s panic that he won’t be back in time for the show to go on. That’s pretty much the entire movie. Otherwise, it’s simply an excuse for the members of The Beatles to act like goofs, have fun, and make fun of other people.

For being so essentially plotless, A Hard Day’s Night is still an absolute joy to watch. The bits are still funny, the songs are still great. This is not a movie I get tired of quickly simply because it is nothing more than joyous fun. It plays very much like an extended Monty Python skit, flitting from topic to topic, but always sort of being in the same general direction, or coming back to the same thing.

This isn’t what makes this film so noteworthy, though. What does is the way in which it was filmed. After A Hard Day’s Night, jump cuts became more common, as did handheld camera work. In fact, much of the style of films from the late 60s to modern television has been influenced by what Richard Lester did with this film. It could be argued pretty easily that music videos, music documentaries, the Monkees, and films like This is Spinal Tap wouldn’t exist had this film never been made.

Ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night is little more than a lark. The members of the band want nothing more than a few minutes of peace to sit around and do not much of anything, but they are constantly hounded by fans, by their managers, by reporters, and by people who want something from them. The later Beatles films like Help!, Yellow Submarine and the rest didn’t manage to capture this same joie de vivre or nearly as much of the presumed spirit of the band.

I watched this tonight with the entire family—it was Sue’s choice, which I was comfortable with, it being a couple of days past her birthday. Maxine fell asleep about half way through and Gail spent the entire film either fussing because we weren’t watching her choice or trying to make sense of what was happening. She loves Yellow Submarine, but I don’t think she’ll choose to watch this one again any time soon. Her loss.

Why to watch A Hard Day’s Night: Great music and the birth of music videos.
Why not to watch: You’re an angry pre-teen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Children of the Night

Film: Dracula (1931), Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, 1958)
Format: DVD from Lockport Public Library through interlibrary loan (1931), DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (1958), both on big ol’ television.

Some movies, despite being made over and over again, are still worth watching in their original screen version. Dracula, the 1931 variety, was not the first vampire film made, but it was one of the first, and one of the first talkies if not the first vampire talkies. It is regarded as a classic, and well it should be. The vast majority of vampire legends, myths, and ideas come from this source.

Before today, the last time I saw this movie was about as ideal a situation as one could imagine. A local theater managed to get an original print of the film from Universal and displayed it on the big screen as a midnight show. The big television is nice, of course, but little compares to seeing this film on a big screen as it was originally intended.

The story is one that virtually everyone knows. A count named Dracula (Bela Lugosi) from Transylvania is actually a vampire. Looking for new worlds to conquer, or at least a different flavor of A-positive, he arranges to move himself to London with the assistance of a man named Renfield (Dwight Frye). Dracula turns Renfield into a crazed servant, and moves into a ruined abbey in the heart of London.

Here he preys on the closest victims he can: Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina Seward (Helen Chandler). Mina lives with her father, Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), and is wooed by her suitor, John Harker (David Manners). Seward runs a sanitarium, which happens to abut the abbey possessed by Dracula. Consulting at the asylum is Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who is quickly convinced that the sudden rash of mysterious deaths in London is due to the presence of a vampire, and he suspects Dracula.

Dracula’s lusts are initially for Lucy, but they switch quickly to the lovely Mina, who Dracula would like to turn into his new bride. Her father, Van Helsing, and John especially do their best to protect her, but this is not easy considering that their opponent has been alive for centuries and has all of the power of the undead behind him.

It’s worth noting that the film is considerably different from Bram Stoker’s original book. The biggest switch comes right at the start—in the novel, it is John Harker who travels to Transylvania, not Renfield. Additionally, he, Mina, and Van Helsing pursue Dracula back to his home on the mainland and confront him in his own castle. Much of the reason for the changes is that this film is not an adaptation of the novel itself, but of the stage play based on the novel.

As such, very little happens in the film. What could have been shown in film easily isn’t, because the film is adapting the stage performance, and in fact the film does look considerably like a stage play. The marks on Mina’s neck, for instance, are never shown, although they certainly could have been. At one point, the John looks out the window at a wolf running across the lawn. We don’t see the wolf—we see only John looking at the wolf, as happened in the stage play. Similarly, very little is shown otherwise as well—Dracula certainly bites his victims, but we never see him get any closer than six inches or so from a victim’s neck.

Dracula has lost its ability to frighten an audience except for the very timid or the very young in this day of modern audiences used to seeing splayed bodies, sprays of blood, and viscera. While it no longer can frighten, it is still worth watching. Among other things, Dracula is the film that made a name for Bela Lugosi, and arguably is the film he never overcame for the rest of his life. The same could be true for the underrated Dwight Frye, who gives a masterful performance as Renfield. Frye went on to play the hunchbacked lab assistant in Frankenstein, and was thus typecast as a lunatic and weirdo for the rest of his acting life. Here, he switches from the edge of sanity to far beyond the pale, back and forth, chewing the scenery as if the film were created in the silent era.

What’s surprising to me is how quickly the film moves despite the fact that so little happens. It seems almost immediate that Mina and John are sitting on the terrace with Mina coquettishly making a play for John’s bared neck. If anything in the film approaches the scary, it is Mina’s eyes going wide at the sight of the man’s neck ripe for the biting.

Still great, even with the fact that the terrace is obviously an indoor stage and the wires are evident on the flapping bats.

In what might be called the original gritty reboot, the Hammer Films version of the Dracula story, most commonly known as Horror of Dracula places the great Christopher Lee in the role of the devious count. Like the 1931 version, this film plays fast and loose with the original Stoker story, but in very different ways. For instance, we get Harker (John Van Eyssen) traveling to Dracula’s castle and killing one of Dracula’s brides quite quickly.

However, as a significant change in Dracula lore, Harker’s fiancĂ©e is Lucy, not Mina. Unlike the book, Harker has traveled to the castle to destroy Dracula, and also succeeds in getting himself bitten rather quickly as well. Additionally, rather than meeting up in London and traveling together, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) simply shows up in the area with Dracula’s castle and arrives (one hopes) in time to save Harker. However, as Van Helsing arrives at the castle, we find Harker has been transformed into a creature of the night, and Van Helsing quickly dispatches him.

It’s an odd decision. Equally odd is the presence of a new hero, Arthur (Michael Gough), who is married to Mina and is the brother of Lucy. This may have been done for copyright reasons, not with Stoker’s novel which was likely in the public domain by this point, but with the original Universal film.

Hammer Films made their name mainly as a horror house in the 1950s and 1960s. There were a number of reasons for this. Part was in the securing of some respectable and marketable actors like Cushing, and eventually, Lee. Christopher Lee made a career for himself in vampire films starting with this film, and he became an international star because of the popularity of this movie. It’s odd to hear him speak, because his voice in this film is considerably different from the measured baritone with which he speaks these days.

Another key word in the Hammer lexicon was gore. While not all of the taboos were gone by 1958, enough of them were that director Terence Fisher showed quite a lot more here than in previous vampire films. Hammer was known for plenty of blood, and there’re a few spare gallons here. It becomes evident that this is a different style of vampire movie when we see Lee burst into a room, wild-eyed and with blood dripping down his chin. In short, unlike the Universal version, we can expect to see puncture wounds on the necks this time, as well as some actual biting.

Another point in Hammer Films is that the sets looked quite a bit more lavish than they really were. Hammer became known for this sort of signature style of filled sets that looked like a million despite costing a small fraction.

While Cushing is the one who propels the movie along as Van Helsing, it is Lee who is the real center of the film as Dracula. There is little exotic about Lee in the sense that Lugosi was exotic, but there is much more real appeal for the filmgoer watching the movie. Lee is perhaps the original sexy vampire, one who carries a natural magnetism beyond what a vampire is granted by the script. When he is on screen, it is nearly impossible to look anywhere else.

Which film is better? It’s hard to say. The two tell similar stories, but are so remarkably different throughout that it is much like comparing two works that are far less similar. Universal’s classic is not scary, but is incredibly influential, a place where horror filmmaking owes many debts. Hammer’s version of the tale is far more graphic and still has the possibility of giving many a viewer the creeps if not truly scaring them. It too had significant influence on the films that came after.

For a modern audience, Horror of Dracula is more easily received. As for me, I can’t pick one over the other.

It’s worth saying this, though—I for one was happy to see a couple of vampire movies that involved real vampires. Vampires are creatures of undeath that exist to destroy and feed on the living. That’s it. Seeing a vampire become romantically involved with a human is not unlike seeing a human become romantically involved with a hamburger. Vampires should be heartless and terrible, and while appealing because it helps them lure their victims, vampires want to eat. They don’t sparkle in the sunlight or suck their cheeks in and tilt their heads to look tragically sexy. The modern vampire has lost its ability to be frightening or even threatening, and that’s a damn shame. Vampires should be cool the way any movie monster is cool, and not romantic daydream fodder for pudgy pre-teen girls.

Why to watch Dracula: Despite its age, it is still powerful and wondrous.
Why not to watch: It’s no longer capable of scaring anyone older than 8.

Why to watch Horror of Dracula: A more graphic, interesting take on Stoker’s novel.
Why not to watch: Lee should be in it more.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Old Stone Face, Part 1

Film: Seven Chances
Format: Internet video on laptop.

A question I am asked infrequently, but regularly enough that I need an answer for it concerns silent films. “How,” people ask, “can you pay attention, or stay awake?” Silent films, goes the consensus, are boring, old, and not worth paying attention to.

I’ll admit that some silent films are ones I’m not looking forward to seeing. I find silent dramas tedious, for instance. Many of the film conventions of the silent drama don’t really work for a modern audience. The overacting is pretty evident, but was necessary for the time. We’re also used to having at least the dialogue spelled out for us, and with silent films, much of the dialogue is just mouths flapping, with title cards that give us more the sense of the conversation than the actual words. That’s a problem with drama, since a lot of the meat of a drama is in the conversations.

However, silent comedies, or at least good silent comedies, hold up. Chaplin is as funny now as he was 70 years ago. The same is true of Harold Lloyd, and the same is true of Buster Keaton. All three of these men were true masters of their craft. I’ve seen only a smattering of films of each of them, and thus have not yet fully formed an opinion of them, and at the moment, I can’t rank them. Each is brilliant in his own way.

A case could easily be made for Keaton being the best of a grand bunch, and a film like Seven Chances is a pretty strong argument for placing Keaton at the top of the list. Keaton’s films still work today because he doesn’t stick with a single type of humor. There are plenty of sight gags, and quite a bit of slapstick, but much of his comedy requires a little thought to process as well. As a viewer, I appreciate this, but I also appreciate the fact that the man was a physical genius, willing to risk himself bodily for his craft, and did his own amazing stunts, many of which hold up to this day.

Seven Chances starts slowly. We begin with Jimmie Shannon (Keaton, both actor and director) and his partner Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes), who are stockbrokers. Sadly, they’ve made some bad choices and are now in desperate need of cash. As it happens, a relative of Jimmie’s has passed away, and bequeathed a $7 million fortune on the boy, provided he is married by 7:00 pm on his 27th birthday. As it happens, the day he finds out about this inheritance is, of course, his 27th birthday. Now he has to find someone to marry him…now.

And that’s it. That’s the set up and the payoff. Jimmie essentially spends the movie proposing to anything he sees in a skirt and being repeatedly shot down for one reason or another. There’s some evident racism from the 1920s present here; one girl he chats up proves to be Jewish, which sends Jimmie running based on nothing more than her Hebrew-language newspaper. Beyond that, though, the proposals and reactions are consistently different and consistently comic. It starts slow—perhaps the first third of the movie is pretty straightforward set-up. After that, however, the jokes start coming and do not stop.

One does require some explanation. Jimmie buys his way backstage of a show to propose to the main attraction, whose name is Julian Eltinge. This is a missed joke for a modern audience, but certainly sent the 1925 crowd roaring—Eltinge was a well-known female impersonator. For a modern audience, substitute the name “Rupaul.”

What keeps an audience watching here is the magnificent stunt work. It’s important to remember that a lot of the stunts—Keaton leaping off a cliff or falling out of a tree—were done for real, with rudimentary or no safety equipment, by the guy starring in and directing the film. Each instance had to be a time to hold one’s breath for the entire cast and crew, but Keaton manages to pull off each one without even changing his characteristically stoic expression. That’s real talent.

So how do you watch a silent movie in this day and age of THX and Dolby and surround sound? You watch the stuff that’s still as funny now as it was when your grandparents were too young to take a date to the movies. That, now and forever, is the essence of Buster Keaton.

Why to watch Seven Chances: You’ll laugh a lot.
Why not to watch: You’re a Philistine.

Race and Death in Mississippi

Film: In the Heat of the Night
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library on big ol’ television.

How do you make a great movie about racism? It’s a ripe subject for a film, and it’s a film that’s been made over and over, at least in terms of subject matter, but how do you do it without slamming people in the fact that it’s a movie about racism? The answer to that is simple—you create a movie about something else and place that something else in a position where the racism happens naturally. Of course, it helps to have the services of Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, and Norman Jewison.

The set up is the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, where a murder has been committed. As it happens, the victim is a Yankee from Chicago who has come to Sparta to build a factory, something the town desperately needs to get back on its feet. The factory means many hundreds of jobs locally, which makes this death a significant event. There are no initial suspects save one: Virgil Tibbs (Poitier).

Tibbs is a suspect for two reasons; he’s black and he’s a stranger in town. What the Sparta police don’t realize is that in addition to being both black and a stranger, Tibbs is the best homicide cop on the Philadelphia Police Department. Despite his reluctance, he is asked to help with the case he was initially accused of by his chief. This arrangement also comes as something of a shock to the town’s police chief, Bill Gillespie (Steiger).

Tibbs is a man good at his job, but he’s also used to more cooperation than he’s getting in Sparta. In fact, the only real cooperation he gets is from the wife of the dead man, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant). She demands that Tibbs be kept on the case despite the fact that it quickly becomes evident that many of the people in the town are uncomfortable with Tibbs and want him dead.

For Virgil, the best suspect in the case is Endicott (Larry Gates), who opposed the factory. That belief is enhanced by the fact that Enidcott grows orchids, and the brake pedal of the car in which Colbert was killed has the growing medium for orchids on the brake pedal. Tibbs is dead sure of Endicott’s guilt, a certainty that keeps him in town longer than is healthy.

What we have here, then, is a pretty good murder mystery. There are plenty of suspects and plenty of false arrests to go along with it. Every few minutes, a new suspect crops up, and many of these suspects can have a case made against them without too much trouble. Each time, Tibbs does everything he can to steer the case back to Endicott, while Gillespie is convinced every time that the new possible suspect is the real thing.

The most famous scene here, and it’s deservedly famous, is when Virgil first confronts Endicott with the idea that he is a suspect. With the accusation made, Endicott slaps Virgil across the face and Virgil slaps him back almost immediately. Endicott’s reaction is a mixture of fear, loathing, and horror, and he tells Virgil that there had been a time when such an action would get a man killed. Virgil walks away, and the continued reaction from Endicott is hatred, close to tears, and painful. More telling is the reaction of Endicott’s servant, who slowly shakes his head and walks away from his disgraced boss.

The racism throughout the movie is palpable and completely realistic for the late 1960s. In fact, the movie had to be filmed in Illinois because the racial disharmony in Mississippi. The movie is forthright about this racism. It never excuses it or justifies it, and doesn’t do a lot to discredit it, either. Instead, the racism is merely shown as a fact to be dealt with, almost as if racism was just another character in the film.

It’s easy to lose sight of the murder mystery here because the significant storyline of both overt and covert racism takes center stage. However, the story and the details of the murder make for a good story, even without the racism angle. It’s a smart film that works on multiple levels, and this one works on several at the same time. It’s a great crime drama, and it’s also a film that explores not the source of racism but the existence of it.

Ultimately, despite the strength of Sidney Poitier’s performance, this film belongs almost entirely to the great Rod Steiger. This is a character that Steiger inhabits completely and totally. Despite his racism, he’s a character that is easy to come to like, even respect. Additionally, while his manner and method of speaking do not change throughout the film, he changes mentally and emotionally by the end of the movie.

This one is not only still worth a watch, it’s worth discussing afterwards, both for the excellent mystery it contains and also for the racism that run through it.

Why to watch In the Heat of the Night: A good murder story and a better lesson in racial justice.
Why not to watch: You’re under the impression that there’s never been anything but happy-happy race relations.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Rebirth of the Western

Films: Winchester ‘73, The Searchers
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television (Winchester ’73)DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty television (The Searchers).

Several times in cinematic history, the western has been proclaimed dead. The same plot over and over gets tiresome, and there were a lot of westerns that recycled that some tired plot again and again. In the late 1940s, the western was dead according the Hollywood, good only for B-movies and fading stars, a few cheap thrills and a quick buck in the theater.

Fortunately for a movie-going public that had come to love the tales of the Wild West, some very smart directors and writers got it into their heads to make a different sort of western. The old school western had good guys who were all good and bad guys who were all bad. No one had conceived of a western that featured a hero who was anything other than the noblest paragon of virtue, always fightin’ fair and always coming out on top with nary a scratch on him, no matter what the bad guys did.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Anthony Mann's Winchester ’73 led to something of a revival of the western, and most of that in the character of Lin McAdam (James Stewart). The film follows not the man himself but the gun of the title, and Winchester 1873 model known as a One-in-a-Thousand. This gun was rare, a fortuitous fluke of the production line. Essentially, it was a gun so good that it was nearly flawless; fewer than 150 of them came off the line no matter how many Winchesters were made.

The gun is offered as a prize in a shooting contest in Dodge City, and McAdam shows up with his riding partner High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell). The gun is a rich prize, but the real quarry is a man named Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Brown killed McAdam’s father, and McAdam is after him to bring him to justice, preferably at the business end of a Winchester.

In Dodge, everyone has to give up his gun by order of the sheriff, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). It’s also here that Lin first encounters the film’s femme fatale, Lola Manners (Shelley Winters). She’s on her way out of town, by order of Earp. At the shooting contest, it comes down to McAdam and Brown, who battle it out. McAdam wins with a bit of fancy shooting, but Brown and his gang steal the gun and ride off.

From there, the gun changes hands multiple times: to Indian trader, to chief, to rancher, to criminal. That criminal, Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) is waiting on Dutch Henry to pull off a dramatic crime. McAdam and High Spade finally catch up to Dean, Brown, and the gun, and everything comes to a head for the final showdown. The chief isn’t to be missed; it’s Rock Hudson under a lot of makeup.

So what makes it different? Essentially, the biggest difference is that Lin McAdam isn’t a Boy Scout. At several times in the film, he seems very much on the edge of losing control of himself, something that audiences hadn’t seen in the hero of a western film before, and hadn’t seen much from Jimmy Stewart, either. While essentially a heroic character, he is not in control of himself, a significant break from the typical western. It also comes out in the course of the film that McAdam fought for the South in the Civil War, a fact that for many audiences may change the opinion of the man.

This film almost certainly ushered in a new era for Stewart. People were certainly used to seeing him be passionate on the screen; there’s no shortage of emotion in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, but here he is a man truly on the edge of losing himself, and that’s something new for him. Following this film, Stewart went on to take on a number of challenging and nuanced roles.

It also wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that without Winchester ’73, The Searchers may not have been made, or may not have been made in the same way. The Searchers could be the greatest film of John Wayne’s career. It was unquestionably one of his favorite films, considering the fact that his son, Ethan, was named after Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards. The simple story is helped immeasurably under the direction of the great John Ford, a veteran of the western genre.

In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home from the Civil War to his brother’s ranch in Texas. Shortly after his arrival, the ranch is raided by the Comanche, who kill most of the Edwards clan, but run off with the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie (Natalie Wood). Ethan sets off in pursuit, accompanied by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the 1/8 Comanche adopted son of Ethan’s brother. The two men pursue the girls and the Comanche tribe for five years, dealing with privation. For Martin, the biggest problem is living without Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles), the woman he loves.

Like Lin McAdam, Ethan Edwards is a seriously flawed character. Ethan’s issue is rampant racism against the Comanche in general, and the tribe of Scar (Henry Brandon) in particular. Ethan, in fact, is so overtly racist against the Comanche that he can barely stand to be around Martin most of the time. After a few years of the search, the question becomes not whether or not Ethan and Martin will find Debbie, but whether or not Ethan will kill her when he finds her because she has become assimilated into the tribe.

A few of the more interesting performances come from minor players. One, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis), is played as the foil to Martin for the affections of Laurie. McCorry is oddly comic and evidently slow, but has the advantage of being home and available, unlike Martin. Another comic performance comes in the character of Mose Harper (Hank Worden), who is sort of a court jester to the deadly seriousness and earnestness of Ethan.


The most telling shot of The Searchers is the final shot when Ethan brings Debbie back home to the family farm. Martin and Laurie enter the house happily, finally together with the remnants of Martin’s family while Ethan stands outside and turns away as the door closes behind him. Ethan, while certainly a member of the family, is forever on the outside looking in. Whether this is due to his intense racism and the fact that he nearly killed Debbie twice or something else isn’t known, and really isn’t important.

However, his hatred of the Comanche is understandable. Lucy is killed almost immediately by the Comanche after being ravaged by them, and Ethan’s family is destroyed as well. It’s evident from the start of the film that Ethan has feelings for his brother’s wife, and she is brutally killed. Additionally, in an almost throwaway, a gravestone by the family homestead indicates that his mother was killed by the Comanche as well.

Ethan’s racism, while always evident, comes to the fore when he encounters a group of soldiers who raided the Comanche and came away with a few white captives. These women are clearly insane, at least by the standards of the white men, particularly the two young girls who do little but grin maniacally at Ethan while he attempts to determine if one of them might be Debbie. Hard to say if the film is suggesting their time among the natives drove them crazy, or if there was some other cause. It might be argued that the women are shell-shocked after a fashion, but in Ethan’s world, they have ceased being white, and are now nothing more than, as he says, “Comanch.”


Can it be argued that the western became what it did by the influence of these films? I think so. Films like Unforgiven might have never come about without the idea of an imperfect, flawed western hero who was still worth rooting for. Both films are excellent, and both are still worth watching, even for those who aren’t fans of the genre.

Why to watch Winchester ‘73: It was the original gritty reboot for an entire genre.
Why not to watch: It’s not that gritty by today’s standards.

Why to watch The Searchers: Proof that The Duke could act and a plot that still resonates.
Why not to watch: In your world, John Wayne only played John Wayne.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Why I Love Scorsese

Film: Gangs of New York
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Leonardo DiCaprio catches a lot of grief from people who, for whatever reason, don’t like him. Maybe it’s because he’s pretty, maybe in real life he’s a bit of a jerk, or maybe they’re hating the player instead of hating the game. Regardless of the reason, it’s pretty evident to me that DiCaprio has the chops to hang with anyone on the big screen. Dude can act. So too can Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s won two Oscars and been nominated for two others. Put them both together in the same movie, and you could get a variety of things. You might get a clash of egos or you might get Gangs of New York.

Of course, it helps that the supporting cast for this film is fantastic. Cameron Diaz, who has made a career for herself in a lot of fluff films and a few great ones picked a fantastic role for herself this time. John C. Reilly, currently making every comedy possible with Will Farrell, makes a dramatic turn here, and Brendan Gleeson (a personal favorite of mine) turns in his typically stellar work here. Another great performance is produced by Jim Broadbent, who I didn’t recognize under the giant beard and the huge stovepipe hat.

This is the story of a lawless area in New York City in the mid-19th Century. Life around the Five Points is a constant battle between allied gangs looking for control. The two main factions are the natives and the foreigners. The natives are led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) and his group of American citizens. The foreign contingent is led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), who heads up the Dead Rabbits.

In the skirmish that starts the film, Vallon is killed by Cutting, who declares the Dead Rabbits illegal. Cutting takes control of the Five Points, and from this point on, he holds sway with an iron fist, eventually influencing everyone in the city, including the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, led by William Tweed (Broadbent). Vallon’s son is sent off to an orphanage, and emerges 16 years later as Amsterdam (DiCaprio), bent on revenge for his fallen father.

Thrown into this mix is Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), who had a previous relationship with Cutting, who rescued her from the streets. She and Amsterdam have a volatile relationship that culminates in something approaching love tinged with jealousy and anger. Their relationship is an interesting one and helps propel the movie forward. Jenny’s “job” as a bluget (female pickpocket) and a turtledove (thief posing as a maid) informs her character, and creates the first two meetings between the pair. As Amsterdam comments, “It takes a lot of sand to be a turtledove,” and Jenny has the sand.

To get his revenge, Amsterdam essentially works his way into Cutting’s crew, becoming one of Cutting’s most important lieutenants. At the moment of his betrayal, Amsterdam is foiled, setting up the final act of the give and take, push and shove battle between Cutting and Amsterdam.

This is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. While the Irish are coming off the boat and being immediately conscripted into the Union Army, Cutting and his group are doing what they can to make their arrival painful. As the war heats up and the Union begins the first ever mandatory conscription act, the city heats up to a boiling point that culminates at the same time as the climactic battle for the Five Points.

Gangs of New York was directed by the great Martin Scorsese, who may be the greatest living director in the world today. The film is unquestionably a Scorsese picture. He shies away from nothing, and many points in the film are extremely violent. I don’t mind violence when it makes sense for the film (see yesterday’s travesty for a film in which the violence is completely gratuitous) and for this movie, the violence is essential. It comes in fits and starts, but always makes sense, even when it seems to come from nowhere. For me, the most impressive Scorsese moment comes in the montage of Amsterdam, Cutting, and New York royalty Mr. Schermerhorn (David Hemmings) saying grace simultaneously. The first two are gearing up for battle, the third for Sunday brunch, and with the amens, all hell breaks loose across the city.

Another major selling point is the set. The buildings of the Five Points were built as a real set, and I can only imagine the scale. It’s tremendously big, dilapidated, and impressive. It’s also incredibly claustrophobic, which I imagine is also perfectly realistic. The city of New York depicted in this movie is one filled with people on top of people living in squalor.

This is a remarkable film. Although many criticized it for being uneven in places, I don’t see such unevenness. Instead, I see one of the most masterful performances in the last 20 years in the person of Daniel Day-Lewis. He leaps into this role and grabs it with both hands and his teeth. Scorsese originally planned to make this movie in 1978, and a number of other people were considered for the role. Lewis’s performance is so strong that I cannot picture another person playing this part.

This is not to short the performances of Broadbent, DiCaprio, Diaz, or anyone else. It’s simply Daniel Day-Lewis’s movie through and through. That this film lost all 10 of its Oscar nominations is shocking to me. That Lewis lost is amazing, and that the film lost for Best Picture to Chicago leaves me stunned. Despite its near three-hour running time, at no time does Gangs of New York drag or cause me to lose interest. It is magnificent, and deserves to be seen.

Why to watch Gangs of New York: Daniel Day-Lewis. There, I said it and I’d say it again.
Why not to watch: “Cutting” is not only Bill’s last name, it’s also what he does with very large knives to people.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Salo, or the 116 Minutes of Covering My Face

Film: Salo, o le Centoventi Gio di Sodoma (Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

When I decided to create this blog a little more than a month ago, I knew there would be bumps in the road. There are movies that are difficult to locate, and others I can locate but that I have little interest in watching. I know I will find films that inspire me with nothing to say. I knew it wouldn’t always be smooth sailing regardless of how many truly magnificent films I was able to watch.

There are also the films I genuinely fear. I’m not so much of a Philistine that I think art must be beautiful to be meaningful or important. Picasso’s “Guernica” is a terrible thing to behold in the original sense of the word, and it is magnificent because it is so terrible. In fact, much of greatest art in the world is of this variety, great because it causes such intense feelings and responses, and art because it has something to say. Like a vaccination, these works of art are painful, but useful and healthy. They help us draw out the poison of our daily lives, hurting us in the process, but making us stronger in the end.

And then there are things like Salo. It’s difficult for me to know where to start here. One does not respond to Salo; one reacts to it. This is not ugly art, hurting to heal or revealing the ugly side of society to the unwitting sheep-like masses. Salo has all the therapeutic qualities of a punch to the kidneys. This is, no matter what the ivory tower intellectuals have to say, not art. This is a baby step away from a snuff film in its aggressive dislike for its actors, its subject, and its audience. I am convinced the director of this film, Pier Paolo Pasolini, wanted to hurt me in a real way. His goal was not to enlighten or to celebrate, but to damage and destroy. Normally, when a filmmaker wants to cause me pain, I can understand. If I can’t, my reaction is to want to hit back. Here, my reaction is to flee.

Salo does not have much of a plot; it has scenes and episodes. We have a group of four Italian fascists who, with a group of four aging prostitutes, kidnap nine young women and nine young men. These degraded leaders take their captives to a large estate where, over the course of the next four months, they subject these poor young people to every conceivable form of degradation possible. Then they kill them all off and the movie ends.

Often, the movies that shocked audiences when they were made lose their potency over time. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, for instance, while still a fantastic film, is not nearly so shocking as it was to the rioting critics who panned it. Much of Salo still shocks as much as it ever did.

However, not all of it is still shocking. Salo is almost entirely about sex, and depraved sex, or at least depraved sex for 1975. There is a tremendous amount of nudity, but very little of this is erotic at all. The women, most of whom are completely nude all of the time, exist not as sexual objects but as things to be degraded as much as possible, reduced by pain and humiliation. The majority of the sex is male-male, certainly beyond what the average person was comfortable with in the mid-1970s. Today, in a world where Brokeback Mountain was a critical and commercial success, homosexual scenes can do little to shock us as an audience.

But while homosexuality no longer holds the taboo it once did, every other form of sexual expression here is as disturbing today as ever. I’ll put it this way; the entire middle of the film deals with coprophagia. If you know this word, you can understand why the middle of the film is difficult to watch. If you don’t know the word, look it up. I can say with all honesty that for the first time in 40+ years of watching movies, I gagged. For a few moments, I thought I was going to vomit into my own lap.

This film is one of the most controversial ever made. Many people consider this film to be nothing more than an exercise in awfulness, the vilest thing ever placed on celluloid. Others defend it, calling it Pasolini’s masterpiece worthy of study and discussion. I agree with the first crowd. If this is art, so is Eli Roth’s Hostel. If this is art, so is Caligula. I can see no difference here. This is degradation for the sake of it and nothing more, a gross-out artist doing the most perverse and perverted thing imaginable simple to freak people out. There’s no merit in this that I can see.

If nothing else, I never have to watch this thing again, and I never will. If anyone tells you that you should watch this, look suspiciously at that person. If someone tells you that they like this film or, God forbid, that it’s one of his or her favorites, leave. Never talk to that person again. Really.

Now, if I could find some bleach to wash the memory of this thing out of my brain and to scour it from my eyes, I’d be happy. Some things can’t be unseen after they’ve been witnessed. Salo is like that, damn it all. Pasolini was murdered shortly after this film was made, and having seen this film, I’m trying to convince myself that his murder was a bad thing; I’m failing at that.

Why to watch Salo, o le Centoventi Gio di Sodoma: You need to brag that you’ve seen the most depraved thing ever distributed in a cinema.
Why not to watch: You still have a modicum of sanity and enjoy things like food, your family, and not plucking your own eyeballs from your skull.