Friday, April 30, 2010

Bring the Pain!

Films: Meet Me in St. Louis, 42nd Street
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on itty bitty bedroom television.

By Christ, I hate musicals. I really do. Certainly there are some that are worth watching and enjoying, but for the most part, there are plenty of things I would rather do than watch a musical. I can generally tell how they are going to come out from the first few moments and I generally want to punch the characters in the melon. No one should ever be that damn perky most of their life. All of the characters in musicals (yes, I’m generalizing) are either those never-say-die, always bucked up people who greet any adversity with pluck and determination, or freakin’ manic depressives spinning from wild, uncontrollable happiness to the pits of depression on a whim. All of ‘em need a good slap across the puss.

What really drives me batty in musicals is, well, the musical part. A musical suggests itself as a slice of real life, with real characters acting in real ways. And yet they break out into song and perfect choreography and there’s an orchestra behind them whenever they need it. For me, it breaks the reality. And so, the musicals I tend to enjoy are those in which the music either makes sense with the story, or that are inherently fantastic. All That Jazz worked for me because of the nature of the music working with the story. Same for The Wizard of Oz.

Let’s take Meet Me in St. Louis as an example of the sort of musical I dislike. We are forced to spend our time with the Smith family in St. Louis around the time of the World’s Fair. Mainly we’re stuck with Esther (Judy Garland), who is boy crazy and desperate for the attentions of the new boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake). Her sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) has a beau who won’t propose. They’re also plagued by little sisters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and the incredibly annoying five-year-old Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). The problem comes when their father (Leon Ames) is presented with a job in New York, forcing the family to move to New York.

And here’s one of the places where I split the dog with people who are fans of this film. Right before the big announcement, Tootie and Agnes pull a Halloween prank that involves throwing a dummy body on the trolley tracks in an effort to derail it. When confronted with this crime—the sort of thing that would get anyone else sent to reformatory school—everyone laughs and gets ice cream. Then when everyone hears the news that Dad’s gotten a promotion, he’s treated like he stewed the family dog for Sunday dinner.

Later, Esther’s chance to go to a big Christmas dance with Mr. Truett is ruined by the fact that he can’t get his tuxedo from the cleaners. This is what passes for a damn problem in this movie—a guy can’t get his pants. And this is treated with the seriousness with which the Halloween prank should have been.

Seriously, I’m overloaded with the sassiness of everyone involved. Katie the maid (Marjorie Main) is filled with the sort of advice that shows up only in movies like this one. Dammit, these people have a freakin’ maid! Tootie is particularly disturbed and disturbing—she claims that all of her dolls have fatal diseases and buries them in the local cemetery. This is heartwarming? I’m supposed to like this kid and be amused by her? She’s scarier than Wednesday Addams on a meth binge. Before the big move to New York, she goes out in the yard and goes Leatherface on the collection of snowmen. This is sweet and endearing?

I’ll give you the production numbers, I’ll give you the music, I’ll even give you Judy Garland’s fabulous voice. But by all that is holy, these are relentlessly terrible people. I don’t like a damn one of them, and I’d like them to go away. They get bent out of shape about their dance cards at the ball, act like spoiled children, and generally give me a pain. Great music and production numbers aside, this movie couldn’t finish fast enough to suit me. This says nothing to the fact that in general, any man who isn’t at least 60 years old is portrayed as the world’s biggest chump. Screw you, movie!

The other sort of musical is the vein of 42nd Street, which is to say that it’s a musical about musicals. There’s a surprising number of these, and many of them are pretty famous. The musical numbers make a lot more sense in these because the characters are actors and producers and directors of musicals on Broadway. There are plenty of these, not the least of which is the previously mentioned All That Jazz. ATJ works for me, though, because it’s a bio pic. It’s not about the whacky escapades of theater people.

It’s the self-referential nature that bothers me with these. It feels to me as if the world would be very little different if these things didn’t exist—the only reason they’re around is to essentially aggrandize themselves. “Look at us!” these movies seem to say, “We’re special because we’re on stage and you should love us. LOVE US!” They almost plead with wanting the audience to find them irresistible. Frankly, I don’t find ‘em that way. I don’t care about a show that’s about the production of a show.

What 42nd Street has going for it is the cast of thousands, and it’s difficult to argue with a cast of thousands—you can’t make yourself heard because they talk over you. In this film, we get to spend a lot of time with (among others) Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers.

I can’t find myself caring about these people. I understand where the impetus for films and stories like this come from. In the first place, 42nd Street came right out of the Great Depression, and there was a certain need for feel-good films that made the populace walk out of the theater with a spring in the step and a song in the heart. The other place these come from is the fact that plenty of people who write them work in musical theater, so they’re writing what they know about. It make sense, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Years ago, when I was in high school, a few of my friends were into ham radio. They had rigs they’d pull out and call across the world to have conversations with people. On the surface, that’s actually pretty cool, if essentially dork-tastic. What got me about it was the fact that when they did get ahold of someone in, say, Germany or Iceland, they’d end up talking to each other about their radios. They’d bankroll these powerful radios and then spend their time talking about their radios. If they didn’t have the radios, they’d have nothing to talk about on their radios.

Films like this remind me of that—it’s a film about itself, like a story about writing a story, or a poem about poetry. Certainly people who are involved in musical theater will find a lot here to love, but for the rest of us who don’t get to wipe off the greasepaint…what’s the point?

Add to this the repressive stupidity of some of these people. One character is accosted by thugs looking specifically for him. He pretends to be someone else while his lady fair looks on. The thug busts him across the chops, and here comes the woman, shouting his name out in front of the guys looking for him. I’m sometimes surprised these people are capable of remembering to breathe without a constant reminder.

I can’t complain terribly about this movie other than its subject matter. It’s a well produced film with some good performances, despite the fact that I can’t find myself giving a rat’s posterior about these people. But if you’re treading the boards, you’ll like it a hell of a lot more than I did.

Why to watch Meet Me in St. Louis: Great musical numbers.
Why not to watch: Everything else about it.

Why to watch 42nd Street: A worthwhile cast.
Why not to watch: It’s difficult to care.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Draag on my 'Ommies

Film: La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet)
Format: DVD from Oregon Public Library through interlibrary loan on itty bitty bedroom television.

Anime leaves me cold in general. I realize there’s an entire subculture around anime, but I just don’t get it generally. Whereas I think a lot of films depend far too much on exposition and hammering points home, anime often has the opposite problem—there’s not nearly enough exposition. I can never follow the damn stories. So, for what it’s worth, I tend to prefer my animation in the hands of American storytellers. Pixar, to paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse, stands alone.

La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) is neither an American film nor anime, which puts it somewhere in the middle of my animation likes and dislikes. Certainly for a modern American audience accustomed either to Pixar’s style or that of most anime, the style here is rudimentary, basic, and perhaps even silly. It’s not as bad as, say, Clutch Cargo, but this is not animation that will wow anyone. It reminds me more than anything of Yellow Submarine both in terms of its look and feel and its overall weirdness.

We have a future world called Ygam (pronounced Yahm), populated by a race of blue-skinned, red-eyed, fan-eared humanoids called (depending on the translation) Draags or Trags. The Draags are scientifically advanced and stand roughly 50-100 feet high in comparison with the Oms, who are essentially culturally and mentally degraded humans. On Ygam, the Oms are both constant pest as well as companion animal for the Draags. Domesticated Oms are taught tricks and dressed in costumes while wild Oms are hunted down and exterminated. What makes manners worse is that various Om tribes battle each other in the park, preventing unified action.

Terr is such an Om, domesticated by a young Draag named Tiwa when his mother is destroyed thoughtlessly by another Draag. As Terr grows up, he discovers a way to gain the knowledge of the Draag, which he escapes with, taking this to the wild Oms. These Oms are superstitious and backward, and worship the planet’s sole satellite, the eponymous Fantastic Planet. Soon the Oms discover that once again the Draags are going to de-Om the park where the wild Oms live.

Much of the film is devoted to creating the bizarre world of Ygam. We frequently get short sequences of wandering beasties devouring each other or random Oms. One skull-faced monstrosity lands on an Om-populated tree and attacks like an anteater, sucking in the unwary on its sticky tongue. Plants wave ominously, striking the ground. A caged beast sticks out tentacles and captures birds, which it then shakes and throws to the ground. These sequences especially remind me of some of the animation in Yellow Submarine. They exist to emphasize the strangeness of the world as well as to indicate precisely how savage Ygam is.

La Planete Sauvage, for all of its colorful and possibly drug-inspired animation, demonstrates what I really love about science fiction. Any good story is about more than just the story it tells. Frequently, serious and important topics are tackled under the guise of science fiction because it is often easier to discuss problems like racism in the guise of human v. alien rather than white v. black. What is true for human/alien is shown then to be true for human/human and society/society. At least, I think, that’s often the intent.

It’s entirely possible to read racism into this film. The Oms, because of their degraded nature, are treated as little more than animals or pests. When Terr’s mother is killed in the beginning and he is crying, Tiwa asks her father why. His response is that perhaps he is frightened or hungry—no emotional possibilities like sorrow or grief are entertained. Because the Oms are small and annoying, they cannot think or feel according to the Draags. In fact, this was my initial read on this movie.

And then I looked into the history of it. It’s difficult to realize at first, since the director is French, that this is not a French production. Instead, this film was made by a Czechoslovakian film house by Czech animators. So while racism may still be here, this appears to be more a film about the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe than anything else. Those Czechs, it would seem from the Soviet perspective, make cute pets, but perhaps we’d be better off without them.

Fascinating, and strangely beautiful. L. Ron Hubbard stole the basic idea of this story (based on a Czech story by Stefan Wul) for Battlefield Earth. I can’t speak to the quality of that series of books, having never read them, but if you want this basic story, you’ll find a hell of a lot more to like here than the bloated film production that pile of stink turned out to be.

Why to watch La Planete Sauvage: A classic story in an oddly compelling setting.
Why not to watch: The animation is far less than you expect.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Film: Children of Men
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

Let’s get this out of the way right away—I have no faith in Clive Owen as an action hero. While I loved the look of Sin City I absolutely despised the content. I thought Shoot ‘Em Up was a steaming pile. Both of these featured Clive Owen in the role of studly protector of the weaker parts of humanity. I hated both of those movies. I heard nothing but good about Children of Men, but I was not encouraged by this; plenty of people I know raved about both Sin City and Shoot ‘Em Up.

I love the premise, though, so at least we have that going for us. The premise is this—humanity is dying. It is now 2027 and no children have been born since late 2009 because humanity has become infertile from top to bottom, stem to stern. With the collapse of fertility, civilization has collapsed around the world. England is hanging on as best it can, but is enforcing a new policy, rounding up any and all immigrants, considering them illegal immigrants (called “foogees,” short for “refugees”) and deporting them.

Theo Faron (Owen) is a fairly typical guy holding down a job in the not-so-brave new world. He narrowly escapes a bombing at his local coffee shop on the morning that the world’s youngest person, the 18-year-old Baby Diego, was killed. This bombing is attributed to a radical group called The Fishes that is fighting for the rights of immigrants in England.

The next day, Theo is kidnapped by The Fishes, who deny their part in the bombing. More importantly to Theo, he discovers that the leader of the group is Julian (Julianne Moore), his ex-wife. Julian wants him to acquire transfer papers for someone for her, and she’s come to him because his brother Nigel (Danny Huston) has contacts in the government and can arrange it. Theo isn’t interested in the plan, but agrees when Julian tells him that The Fishes can pay him 5000 pounds. He makes the arrangements and meets his new charge, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). Kee is pregnant, the first pregnant woman in nearly two decades.

Any science fiction movie relies on a number of things from its cast. First, it relies on a strong cast, something that fantasy and horror require as well. The key for films like this that plunge the viewer into a world of non-reality is for the cast to hop on board and buy into the film’s premise. More than other genres, science-fiction, fantasy, and horror can quickly become stupid. The buy-in is essential. Children of Men has a stellar cast, even figuring my dislike of Clive Owen in roles like this one. While Julianne Moore is not in the film much, she’s generally worth watching. I was also pleased to see Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I think is generally great and just as generally unknown or underrated. Just as important is the presence of Michael Caine as Jasper, Theo’s pot-addled mentor/friend.

What’s also required of films of this nature is a believable world that works on every level. Children of Men creates a desperate and terrible world, but one that logically follows from the premise of the film. That is priceless for science-fiction and speaks to the writing, the art direction, and the production.

It may seem like a little thing, but there are touches throughout this film that key up that verisimilitude. The British government, for instance, offers suicide kits for the populace, allowing them (to use the British slang) to snuff it peacefully and put less of a strain on the country, sacrificing self for the good of the rest. Realistic? Certainly—a lack of fertility to spiral thousands into crippling depression. Religious fanatics populate the country as well, and more to the point, there are various sects of fanatics, each pursuing their own way to salvation, repentance, and forgiveness. Political situations are tense, as things would be with a complete breakdown of society. It’s an ugly world, but it’s also a world that, given the premise, is at the very least plausible.

Theo's brother is another case in point. He reclaims great works of art, and reproduces others simply as testament to the human civilization now destroyed. When Theo arrives to see him, he is greeted by David, showing a bit of damage, and at dinner, the dining room table is dominated by Picasso's Guernica. Just as entertaining is the floating pig outside, recreating the cover to Pink Floyd's "Animals" album. This is exactly the sort of thing someone would do in a world descending into madness. Someone would protect that which was protectable.

It’s also worth noting this: there is a moment of true artistic statement in this film. Action films, and especially science-fiction action films aren’t supposed to do this, and yet Children of Men manages it in a truly staggering scene. Let’s go to the spoilers.

*** SPOILER! ***

Kee has the baby, and must be escorted out of a skirmish. As she and Theo leave the building, gunfire stops. Everything stops. People see the first baby they have seen in 18 years and the guns fall silent. It is a powerful moment, and a reminder that even in the midst of chaos and death, life still has meaning and is still precious.

*** ENOUGH! ***

I was pleasantly surprised, even by the Clive Owen-iness.

Why to watch Children of Men: Apocalypse in 9/8.
Why not to watch: Well, there is that Clive Owen thing…

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Love in the Time of Nazis

Film: La Dernier Metro (The Last Metro)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on itty bitty bedroom television.

Some situations are naturally dramatic without much being added to them. For instance, there’s enough potential drama in World War II to last a filmmaker a lifetime. The right situation makes almost anything watchable, at least in theory. With the right people and the right direction, though, a good story can become something that lasts forever.

La Dernier Metro (The Last Metro) is such a story. Take occupied Paris in 1942, a city under the grinding bootheel of German occupation. Certainly this situation is filled with possibilities for a great film. Add to this a theater desperately trying to stay afloat, a situation made easier by the fact that people flock to the theaters at night to lose themselves in the troubles of others and to avoid the discomfort of their daily lives. The lives of these people in the theater could make for a fascinating film. To Be or Not To Be did the same thing, blending drama with comedy in Poland, and did so beautifully.

La Dernier Metro, though, is no comedy. The theater is run by Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), the wife of the theater’s director and also its star actress. She has recently taken over the business of running the theater because her husband Lucas (Heinz Bennent) has fled the country. He’s done this because he sees the writing on the wall—he is both an immigrant to Paris and a Jew, and has let discretion be the better part of valor.

The theater hires a new leading man named Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu), who is a talented actor. What the others in the theater do not realize is that Bernard is also an active member of La Resistance, and plots with friends to plant bombs at German rallies and other places where they may get a few high value targets. The possibility of increased scrutiny causes several significant problems. First, and most importantly, we discover that Lucas really hasn’t fled the country. He has instead moved into the basement of the theater, where he directs the company’s new play in secret.

Adding to the troubles is that the “director” the company shows to the world is Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret), who is a known homosexual, who were hated by the Nazis only slightly less than they hated Jews. Sniffing around the theater is Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), a pro-German theater critic who espouses intense hatred for the Jews publically, although he frequently confides to Marion that her husband isn’t included in his vitriol.

Daxiat wields incredible power—he can help decide if the new play can be staged or should be censored completely. Additionally, he would like the theater for himself, and has discovered a way that he can force Marion and Jean-Loup to bring him in as an equal partner, which will almost certainly lead to him discovering Lucas’s hiding place in the cellar. Throw into this some love stories, particularly between Marion and Lucas, and Marion and Bernard, and there are plots here that could carry a film on their own.

La Dernier Metro could easily have gone in a variety of directions. With so much built on top of an already intense situation, the chance for this film to slip into melodrama would be the easiest thing in the world. So many interweaving plots and so much potential angst could either become comic or simply overwhelming and muddled. Fortunately, Francois Truffaut helmed this picture, and he is a master in the director’s chair.

In fact, as good as this film is, it’s not even close to his best work. One of the tragedies of the world is that often times, those who are the most brilliant in their work are also those who are so unfairly taken at a young age. Truffaut died in his early 50s, sadly taking away a good 20 years or so of an already brilliant career.

This is a beautiful film, strongly acted and carefully paced. While long (a shade over two hours), it does not slow down, get boring, or ever get confusing. It is thoroughly engrossing, with fully realized characters acting believably in every situation. The ending is perhaps a sly wink at the melodrama that could have ensued, but I for one was suckered into it and took Truffaut’s bait as if I were a large-mouthed bass.

In the end, La Dernier Metro is less about the war and the occupation, but about sacrifice and art. To what lengths will someone go to create that which they are meant to create? What indignities will they suffer, what physical, emotional, and mental pains will they endure to be given the opportunity to create? The answer to these questions is lovingly and carefully revealed throughout this magnificent film.

Why to watch La Dernier Metro: Ars gratia artis, for real.
Why not to watch: Your soul is made of stone.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Beauty in the Face of Ugliness

Film: Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black)
Format: Internet video on desktop PC.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating for a short documentary film like Khaneh Siah Ast—I knew going into this that some of the movies I would watch would challenge me greatly. Such a film is this one, coming in at a mere 20 minutes and change. Certainly not the ordeal that Salo proved to be nor the endless slog of Jeanne Dielman, Khaneh Siah Ast is nonetheless one of the more challenging cinematic offerings I have witnessed this year.

This film shows life in a leper colony in Iran in the early 1960s. It starts with a black screen, saying that what will come are images of extreme ugliness, and it does not lie. We are given a long, unbroken look into the face of a terribly disfigured woman. We then see life progress in the colony. Faces shattered by the disease, horrible disfigurements, limbs shattered by leprosy, club-like hands and feet. The people go about their day, eating, praying, and carrying on the basic functions of life, all of them suffering in one stage or another from the disease.

For much of the film, we are given a matter-of-fact voice over from a male voice that tells us about leprosy and what the disease is and can do. This is joined by a female voice offering what are essentially prayers for the stricken people, both crying out in the anguish of their fate and praising God for, despite the terrible wasting disease, the essential beauty of life.

Stirring stuff, and not necessarily for the weak of stomach. It’s worth noting that I’m a fan of a good horror movie and I don’t generally shy away from the gory bits. One reason I like the gory bits, though, is that I’m fully aware of said bits being stage makeup, special effects, and other such mummery. Not so here, and there were several places where I wanted to cover up the screen with a hand (and I’ll even confess that once or twice, I was compelled to do exactly that to avoid potentially seeing dinner come back from whence it came). Why? Because in this case, this is not makeup, nor is it staged. These are real people sorely afflicted and mutilated by a disease that is, essentially, curable.

And yet, while what is on screen is terrible and as ugly as the opening suggests, there is also a beauty and nobility here. That people so afflicted can maintain their faith, even to the point of praising their creator for the beauty in the world while their own physical form undergoes slow and inevitable decay is moving in the extreme. The prayers offered are heartwrenching simply because of this juxtaposition of the reaching for the divine and the extreme physical corruption.

With its running time of about 20 minutes 30 seconds or so, this film feels much longer than it truly is, and the images set forth here will not go gently into that good night in the mind. However disturbing, though, I feel genuinely fortunate for having seen the film because of its undeniable power.

If I could wish for anything, it would be improved subtitles. It’s not so much that the translation is bad or doesn’t make sense, it’s that the white text is sometimes extremely difficult if not impossible to read. I found the poetry of the prayers particularly moving, and would have loved to have been able to read all of it. Missing out on even a few lines seems like a disservice to these people who have suffered so terribly, and yet still maintained their essential humanity and dignity.

Why to watch Khaneh Siah Ast: As moving a portrait of both suffering and religion as has been created.
Why not to watch: Challenging in the extreme.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Love and Death, Death and Love

Film: Hiroshima Mon Amour
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

You sit down with a film with a given name, you have certain expectations. A title generally tells you a lot about a film and what you can expect from it. A film called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is probably going to end with everyone smiling at the end. One called I Spit on Your Grave probably isn’t going to have a lot of musical numbers.

So what does the name Hiroshima Mon Amour conjure up? Love and death? That wouldn’t be a bad image, actually. Hiroshima is forever linked with great human tragedy and suffering, and “mon amour” is an almost universally known phrase of love. But does that film name conjure up an image of something that has proved to be one of the most influential films of the last fifty years? Probably not. If it did, it’s because you’ve seen this film before or you’re lying just to make yourself look cool on my blog.

And yet, this is what this film did, and in Alain Resnais’s first feature film. Films before this had played with the nature of time as depicted on screen before. Citizen Kane is told in flashback, for instance, as is a great deal of one of my favorites so far from this year, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But until this film, a linear narrative structure was something we all tended to expect from a film. Resnais did away with this by creating a movie that has no real linear structure. This is not to say that it is difficult to follow. It isn’t. It’s just not always clear what takes place when. Yet this is not important. It doesn’t matter, because the story is one about memory and willful forgetting, which requires a non-linear depiction. Flashbacks cut in quickly to represent flashes of memory.

We have only two real characters of note here. Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress making a film about peace in post-war Hiroshima. Lui (Eiji Okada) is an architect conscripted during the war, and now back in Hiroshima. They meet and have a brief, torrid affair, all with the knowledge of their own spouses, their memories of the war, and the inevitability of her finishing her film and going back to France.

Both have much they would like to forget. For him, he had a family in Hiroshima, all killed in the blast while he was away with the army. She lived in Nevers and had an intense affair with an occupying German soldier. Because of this, she suffered the fate of many French women who were involved with the Germans—her head was shaved and she was ridiculed and humiliated. She fled to Paris when her hair grew back and her anonymity returned to her.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is about these past actions, these past lives that live with us still even though we wish to forget them. Both the desire to be released from these memories because of the pain they cause and the necessity of remembering these painful things because of their importance are explored here. In the beginning of the film, Lui tells Elle that she has seen nothing in Hiroshima. She saw nothing, remembers nothing, knows nothing of Hiroshima, while she protests that it is impossible for her to forget, but forget she does anyway, as she must.

There is a particular beauty to this film, but the beauty comes not from the creation of the film but from the losses that are realized in it. It’s a beautiful tragedy, beautiful because of its intense sadness. Lui becomes the German lover for Elle, and she relives both her love for him and his loss with him. Even this we see not in a straight line, but in snippets of memory in a vague order.

What I was not prepared for in watching this film was the first ten or twenty minutes. While we are introduced to our characters, we are also shown many of the horrors of Hiroshima after the bomb. I know these things are reality, but I did not want to see them. Oddly, despite this, it does not detract from the film, but there were a few spots during which I covered the screen.

A lovely film. A sad and tragic and beautiful film. And I don’t think I want to see it again.

As a final note, Resnais wanted this film to be universal. It’s why the names of our characters are, translated from the French, “her” and “him.”

Why to watch Hiroshima Mon Amour: Beautiful, beautiful tragedy.
Why not to watch: Footage of atom bomb victims.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Music Makes a Difference

Film: Koyaanisqatsi
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

I first watched Koyaanisqatsi either at the end of my tenure in high school or shortly thereafter. At any rate it was more than 20 years ago. The second time I watched it was tonight. I’d love to say there are specific scenes and things I remember from this film over 20+ years, but that wouldn’t be precisely true. It would be precisely true, however, to suggest that I do remember it and tonight recalled much of it nearly intact from all those years ago.

Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance,” is a film of surprising beauty and power, or at least I find it so. I can see how many would find this film either dreadfully dull (see: Jeanne Dielman) or nearly unwatchable. There is no plot as such, and no dialogue. Instead, we are presented with constant images of landscapes, nature, clouds and then a subtle shift into technology, industry, and masses of humanity. Some of these images rush by at a frenetic pace while others are shown in slow motion, unfolding before our eyes. Time-lapse photography makes up a great deal of this film, which runs at an increasing and increasingly disturbing pace through its near 90 minutes.

Most of what sticks is not one image flowing into the next or a particular sequence, but snapshots. A mushroom cloud unfolding and growing, shot over the outstretched arms of a cactus. Airplanes doing a balletic dance in preparation for take off. The moon, huge and almost artificial looking, rising and being eclipsed by an office building. Banks of clouds reflected in the glass and steel of massive high rise structures. Oceans of people fighting their way onto an escalator. Lines of cars driving endlessly into the night, mere streaks of headlights with the speeded up camera.

It is dizzying in its effect, and challenging to watch. Very little is shown at its regular speed. We pause languidly over mountain passes, deserts, mesas standing against too-blue skies. We rush headlong through factories, watching cars and computers being built at breakneck speed. Almost all of the human motion is shown at near-blinding pace, and that which isn’t is slowly and inexorably speeded up as the film progresses, pushing the pace of human life ever faster, ever onward.

While the film itself is an achievement artistically, it would be very little without the tremendous and gripping soundtrack by Phillip Glass. This I do remember specifically. The chanting beginning, low and slow voices repeating the name of the film, the voices and music sounding somehow like the Hopi from which the film name comes. The music changing and becoming more and more wild and uncontrolled as the footage becomes similarly speeded up and relentless. I can’t claim to be a huge fan of Glass, but this music makes the film what it is. Without it, it’s striking, juxtaposed images. With the music, it’s a real statement. Glass knows what we are expecting—we need musical resolution of themes and we are waiting for particular chords or notes to be struck to resolve the theme that has played, and he keeps this from us, continuously building tension as the images go faster and faster in front of us. We need the release of those notes, and he keeps them from us for a painfully long time.

This, of course, is intentional. It is, after all, “life out of balance,” and to give us the resolution would work against that idea. The fact that we can’t have the resolution is what keeps us out of balance, keeps us waiting and waiting for that thing that we need and cannot get. For a film without plot or dialogue, this is riveting stuff, and the images wouldn’t convey nearly the same power without this additional tension pulling on us.

A few years after this film came out, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame released a film called True Stories. It’s a personal favorite of mine, a film I dearly love every time I watch it, and one that does not get spoiled in the retelling. Much of Koyaanisqatsi reminded me of True Stories, but that isn’t surprising. Byrne certainly watched this film, and duplicated both the music in places as well as much of the style of camera-moving-across-buildings visual look. It’s either parody or homage, and I’m prone to think that it’s homage rather than poking fun.

Koyaanisqatsi is not a film for everyone. It is not completely accessible and requires a great deal from its audience for it to be appreciated. It’s worth the effort. When this whole thing is done, I’m going to seek out the other two films of this trilogy: Powaqqatsi (life in transformation) and Naqoyqatsi (life as war).

Why to watch Koyaanisqatsi: Difficult and compelling
Why not to watch: Landscape, landscape, explosion, landscape, people walking, factory, ad astra, ad infinitum.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Film: Henry V
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

It’s a rare movie that is only one thing, but it is a rare movie that is simultaneously as many things as Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It is, of course, one of Billy the Shake’s great history plays if not his greatest of the history plays (it’s my personal favorite at the least). It is also a great story of honor and, based on Henry’s character in the two Henry IV plays, a tale of redemption and a sort of bildungsroman for Prince Harry/Henry V. It is also a fantastic piece of propaganda created in 1944 to return courage to the British people tired after five long years of frustrating war in Europe against the Axis powers. And so, because of this, it is also a grand piece of British mythology. There are great action sequences, making it an action film as good as anything from its era. Finally, because of how Olivier filmed it, it is a meta-story, a play within a play.


So let’s start with the story. It’s mentioned briefly that before his coronation upon the death of his father, the man who would become Henry V, called both Harry and Hal, was a wasted youth. However, the moment his father died, he did an immediate about face and became the sort of king that England wanted—tough, fair, resolute, and determined. Harry wants to press his claims in France, and is immediately rebuffed by the heir apparent of France with a gift more suitable to his pursuits—a case of tennis balls. Henry won’t take this lying down, and sets about invading France.

He wins a few battles, but the defenses of France are not so strong where he attacks, and his men are quickly tired and sick. France takes this as an opportunity to attack the English army, hoping to catch them at their lowest point, but Henry rallies his troops and is victorious at Agincourt, claiming the territory for real which he claimed by birthright.

It is exactly what the people of England needed at that time. Caught in a terrible war against an implacable and terrible foe, the people of England needed something to restore their national pride. Henry V was the medicine they called for, a great past triumph over a foe on the mainland of Europe against a foe that seemed unbeatable. This was the U.S. defeating the Soviet hockey team on a much grander and more important scale, the sort of thing that, while it made no real difference in the war, made every difference in morale.

What’s especially poignant is the scene just after the middle of the film where Henry goes in disguise to talk amongst his troops. What he discovers is that the men know that a hopeless battle is coming to them, and while they may not understand the reasons for the war, they will fight for their king. Henry realizes that the men who die do so for him, and their deaths, essentially, lay on his own head. More to the point in terms of propaganda come in the guise of the two absolutely vicious speeches used to spur his men to war. The first, early in the film at a siege, concludes with the battle cry of “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

The second speech, uttered before the battle of Agincourt, is the one everyone knows if they know a little Shakespeare. The St. Crispian’s Day speech is one of the great orations in the history of the theater, and is truly remarkable in the hands of a master like Olivier. Anyone not inspired to kick a little booty after hearing it is someone not to be trusted. Any civilian population of a country at war would gain inspiration from this speech, but none so much as England. An English speech from an English king on the eve of a great battle getting his troops ready for what will likely be their deaths? How could you not stand up and cheer? Consider also Henry’s reaction when it becomes evident that the French leaders pull away from the battle and attack the unarmed men behind the line, slaughtering young boys. Imagine how that resonated with the English population in 1944.

It’s worth noting as well that because the film was intended as propaganda, some scenes were cut. For instance, in the play, Henry hangs his former friend Bardolph as a thief. While a scene in the play that shows Henry’s change of character, here it would display a cruelty not desired in the monarch.

The battle? Think Braveheart minus the blood. There’s death a-plenty as the English bowmen rain pointy death down on the French cavalry, but with 1944’s standards, there’s no hacking off of limbs or faces gashed with swords. Tame by today’s standards, this massing of men on the battlefield is as bloody and gory as things got.

But it’s the meta-story that I find particularly interesting here. Henry V was, after all, written to be performed not on camera on a huge battlefield, but on a stage in front of a live audience. Olivier never really lets us forget that, and much of the opening of the film does take place in a mock up of the Globe Theater, complete with an audience mocking the action on stage. This shifts, courtesy of our narrator, to a more traditional film twenty minutes or so in, because Olivier isn’t going to let us go away without that huge battle sequence. And yet, the actors remain the same. Olivier as Henry, at the start of the film, is an actor on a stage playing a part in a play. And then, suddenly, he’s Henry himself.

But Olivier never really lets us forget that this is a stage play. Many of the sets, while no longer on a stage, are obviously faked and painted to look like stage backdrops. The actors obviously wear makeup, Henry himself sporting some lovely eyeshadow when he delivers the Crispian speech. Because, despite the fact that we are watching men on the battlefield, we’re really still back in the Globe Theater with the patrons there, transported to this place by the power of the play and our own imaginations. And when all is said and done, it is to the Globe that we return.

It’s a hell of a story, a hell of a play, and a hell of a movie. I may prefer Kenneth Branagh’s version simply because of the modern touches Branagh used, but Olivier’s version is justifiably a classic, and one of the greatest adaptations of one of the best plays by the world’s greatest playwright ever made.

Officially, the full name of this film is The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France. Yes, “Fift.”

Why to watch Henry V: Shakespeare as it should be.
Why not to watch: You think Shakespeare is boring.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Coffee is for Closers

Film: Glengarry Glen Ross
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop

Certain aspects of film can elevate a mediocre movie to a good one, and can take a good movie into the realm of true brilliance. In the case of Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s not the plot or the art direction, but the dialogue, the scintillating, beautiful, amazing dialogue that couldn’t sound more natural if you snuck a tape recorder in and caught real people having real conversations.

Well, that and some of the most brilliant casting you could ever hope to come across should you live to be 100. This film is a nearly perfect blend of personalities, styles, and, most importantly, what we expect of these actors from past roles. There are certain things we come to expect from certain actors, and Glengarry Glen Ross delivers in every case.

The story revolves around a shady real estate office where the agents are capable, willing, and instructed to con, push, and otherwise do anything they possibly can to sell parcels of land. It’s a shady business, rich with promises and not so rich with anything but what the salesmen want as their commissions. However, sales are down. The leads they have are terrible, and no one is selling much of anything. All of that has to change, and to ensure it does, there will be some changes around the office.

We are quickly introduced to our main players. Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon) is currently on a down streak, but he’s been a top performer in years past. At the moment, though, he hasn’t sold anything for the month. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is the man currently atop the sales board. He looks the part of a slick hustler, the flopping mop of hair, ever-present chewing gum, and faux casual demeanor. George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) is even further down than Shelley, a man completely beaten by life. Similarly beaten is Dave Moss (Ed Harris), but Moss isn’t willing to go down without a fight. Running herd over all of them is John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), who reacts to the rudeness, lack of respect, and outright hostility of his salesmen by countering with complete contempt for all of them.

Into this happy family walks Blake (Alec Baldwin), a successful salesmen who, he gleefully tells the others, cleared nearly a million dollars the previous year. There’s a new sales competition at the office. The salesman who brings in the most money wins a Cadillac. Second place gets a set of cheap steak knives. Third and fourth place get handed their walking papers.

So, into an already cutthroat office comes this deadly competition. The other prize for the top finishers, aside from keeping their jobs, are new sales leads, actual good leads that might result in real sales. While Roma is convinced he can work with what he has because he’s on a hot streak, Shelley connives his way into getting the leads for himself by bribing the office manager. Moss and Arronow decide that rather than wait, they’ll break into the office and steal the leads for themselves, and sell them to a competitor.

It’s a straightforward story. There aren’t a lot of real surprises in what happens in general. What makes this movie sing, aside from the wonderful casting, is dialogue that is as good or better than anything ever written for the stage or screen. This is purely natural dialogue like real people talking, not actors on a stage or in front of cameras. Half sentences, people talking over each other, real emotion, as if the men were not acting in roles, but really living the lives of these men. This is David Mamet at his strongest, at the height of his power.

But it’s the casting I truly love here. There isn’t man in the world better at playing a down-and-out loser than Jack Lemmon, and he’s never better than here. Al Pacino is as good as it gets when given an oily character he can really sink his teeth into. Johnathan Pryce, Roma’s customer James Lingk, is a perfect chameleon on screen, able to play anything he’s given, and he does it here brilliantly. Alec Baldwin is in the film for all of about seven minutes, and yet he is one of the most memorable characters in the film, he leaves such a massive footprint.

For all this, my absolute favorite in this film is Kevin Spacey. There is not a single actor I have ever seen who can deliver a line with such utter contempt for the person to whom he is speaking like Spacey can. He can muster up such incredible disdain both in his tone and his facial expression that it’s impossible not to believe him. It would be nearly impossible to have him speak that line to me and not take offense at it, because I’d be convinced that he meant it. He’s that good, and he’s that honest when he speaks it. The man is a master.

This is not a happy film. Good things do not happen in Glengarry Glen Ross. You will not come away from this film with happy thoughts and good feelings. But you will come away with a genuine appreciation for the power of the language and of tremendous writing and characterization.

Why to watch Glengarry Glen Ross: Astonishingly good casting and better dialogue.
Why not to watch: If you’re prudish, the profanity comes hot and fast.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

If You've Seen One Gay Nazi Biker Film...

Film: Scorpio Rising
Format: Internet video on desktop PC

If you’ve seen on gay Nazi biker film, you’ve seen them all. Or really not, because there really isn’t much like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, or at least there wasn’t before Anger made this film. This is a difficult film to follow and even more difficult to understand. I’m honestly not sure that I really get it, but I’m going to try.

Scorpio Rising is more or less a homoerotic short film about bikers. There’s a lot of leather, some religious iconography, some Nazi images, and a lot of homoeroticism. Additionally, there’s no dialogue in the film. Instead, Anger uses popular songs from the '50s and early ‘60s to highlight what is happening on the screen. Guys work on their bikes, get dressed in a lot of leather, smoke, take some drugs, read the Sunday comics, ride on their bikes, and initiate a new member. That’s pretty much it.

But that’s not the reason to watch Scorpio Rising. This is not a film to pay attention to because of the gripping plot or the scintillating dialogue. The real reason to watch this film is because of the tremendous influence it has had on film in general.

Yes, you read that right: a gay Nazi biker film has had a tremendous effect on much of what was made since its debut in 1964. Kenneth Anger is not only one of the first (if not the first) to use actual known songs in his film rather than music created specifically for the movie (at least the first who didn’t use old songs for a musical), and quick cuts, including pieces of other films just to make things interesting.

The cuts get progressively faster and more difficult to follow as the film goes on, and this makes Scorpio Rising progressively more difficult to watch. There’s no question that Anger was intending this to be something like softcore pornography, as that covers the bulk of what he made in his career. The scenes of men getting dressed, the initiation of the new biker involving dumping mustard on his genitalia, all of these are there because, per the legend, Anger used this film as masturbatory fuel.

And yet, whether true or a legend, those scenes of bikers putting on their leathers continue to resonate today. Every time you see a hero or a gang of heroes gearing up to get ready for battle, from Army of Darkness to the campiest of the Joel Schumacher Batman films, the director is paying homage to Kenneth Anger. In their own world, the director may claim to be paying homage to someone else, but ultimately, it goes back to here. Anger, for whatever reason he did so, essentially created the gearing up for war montage.

This is a difficult film to watch, not because of particular images or anything disturbing, but because it’s difficult to follow. I can’t say that I loved the film, but it certainly was a worthy challenge. I’m also certain that there’s a lot here that I’ve missed. Someone much smarter than I am can do it better justice.

Why to watch Scorpio Rising: Influence.
Why not to watch: You have issues with homoeroticism.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Character Vs. Plot

Films I Know Where I’m Going!, His Girl Friday
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television (Going), DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty bedroom television (His Girl).

Depending on who you ask, there are only a few real stories in the world. Some will tell you that there are only seven basic plots. Joseph Campbell made a big deal of the fact that there’s really only one story. Whichever of these ideas you subscribe to, there’s a good reason why the same characters, the same plots, and the same ideas show up in movie after movie.

I Know Where I’m Going!, a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger collaboration, is an early example of a woman torn between what she wants and what she thinks she wants. This movie gets released about once a month, frequently starring Kate Hudson. Here’s the basic set up: a woman goes off in pursuit of marriage to a successful guy she probably doesn’t love, but who can set her up with a life of ease and privilege. One the way to her impending wedding, acts of God and man prevent her from meeting up with her husband-to-be, but she does encounter an attractive, romantic bachelor who she is both repelled by and attracted to. She spends the entire movie trying to decide between the two men—the one she obviously loves and the one who can give her the life she’s always dreamed of.

In short, I Know Where I’m Going! is a film you’ve almost certainly seen at least a dozen times, and there are no surprises here except for some of the set pieces like the massive whirlpool that threatens our heroine at the end of the film. In this case, the woman in question is the headstrong and difficult Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), and the young, poor suitor is Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). He is a poor Scottish laird, unable to enter his own castle due to a terrible curse. She is promised in marriage to a wealthy industrialist about the age of her father.

They meet because she is headed to an island on the Hebrides to be married to the old man, but the classic Scottish weather prevents her from getting there. Instead, she’s stuck on a different island with Torquil, a guy with a name that only Powell and Pressburger could even attempt to foist on an audience.

The plot is cute, but there are no surprises here unless you’ve never seen a romantic comedy in your life. From the moment Torquil walks on screen, the end is a foregone conclusion. And that would be fine if I gave much of a rat’s hindquarters about the characters, particularly Joan.

Quite frankly, I don’t like Joan. She’s bitchy, superior, and unpleasant. Most of the press material and many of the comments I’ve seen on this movie call her headstrong—as far as I’m concerned, that’s nothing but a euphemism for spoiled rotten. She’s sassy and brassy, and if she were a man, everyone would call her an asshole, but since she’s a woman, we’re supposed to be charmed by her. Wendy Hiller has virtually no chemistry with Roger Livesey, and frankly, I blame her, but that’s only because I really enjoy Roger Livesey. His voice is exactly what I think of when I think of upper crust British, and I could listen to him read a menu and be entertained by it. Frankly, in this film, Torquil is a much better match for Catriona (Pamela Brown), a local girl who is far more interesting than Joan could ever hope to be.

With better chemistry between the characters, or frankly with a character better than Joan Webster, I can be compelled to care about a story I’ve seen a dozen times. I enjoy both versions of Sabrina, for instance, even though I know exactly how it’s going to end every time. There’s a joy in seeing things come out the way we want them to. I’m as much a sucker for that as the next person. But not when I think there are better endings to be had out there. It doesn’t help that the theme song is horrifying, and made my dog twitch until it finally ended.

So what’s going for it? A few things. The Scottish countryside is beautiful, and beautifully filmed here. It’s also fun to see Petula Clark (as Cheril, the young girl with the giant glasses) as a young child, long before she sang “Downtown” or “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.”

But not every retreaded plot means for a dull movie. His Girl Friday features version 2.0 of the love triangle in I Know Where I’m Going! We again have one woman and two men, but things are a little more complicated. The basics are the same. Hildy (Rosalind Russell) is a newspaper reporter who is recently back from an extended vacation. The reason for the vacation was a quickie Nevada divorce from her husband and editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This divorce was entirely one-sided—Burns didn’t want it, doesn’t want to accept that Hildy has really divorced him, and wants her back, both in a marriage and on the paper.

However, Hildy has shown up to break some news to Walter. First, she doesn’t want back on the paper; she’s retiring. Second, the reason she’s retiring is that she’s getting married again, to a stable, but excessively dull insurance salesman named Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Now that you know the players, you should be able to figure out what happens. Walter does whatever he can to throw a wrench in the works between Hildy and Bruce, and also does everything he can to get her back on the paper. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a whale of a story going on at the moment.

A man stands accused of killing a police officer and is about to be executed. Walter Burns wants to save the man, and he needs Hildy to write the story. She finally agrees because Walter says he’ll take out a massive insurance policy on himself to give Bruce a fat commission. And, naturally, everything conspires to work out a happy ending for, well, at least Walter and Hildy.

The difference here, even though the story is pretty straightforward, is the characters themselves. Unlike Joan, Hildy really is a firebrand. She’s quick, she’s funny, and she’s just a little bit nasty. Walter is a conniving jerk, but he’s doing it because he can’t imagine his life without Hildy by his side. What’s great is how much of a match she is for him. She knows that Walter will pull particular stunts to prevent her and Bruce from boarding their train to Albany, so she takes all of their collective money and has him hide the commission check. Sure enough, Bruce is falsely arrested based on a tip to the police from Walter, and everything he owns is confiscated—but she’s outfoxed her ex, because the money and the check are safe.

We want these characters to be happy. They match each other and do so well. Even more, they can keep up with each other. As the story spins out of control and things continue to get crazy around them, they are the only ones who seem to know what is going on. They’re both frenetic, and both completely alive when something exciting is going on around them. They deserve eac other, and more than anything, we want them to end up were they should be.

The retread plot doesn’t matter here, because anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy before has a pretty good idea of where things are going to end up when the short running time finally winds down. We’re not watching this for the plot, but for the people going through the familiar story. If we like the people, we like the story, and Walter and Hildy are too clever and too fun to really dislike.

In short, good characters make even the most tired plot entertaining, and it never hurts to have Cary Grant.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen the Coen Brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s role as Amy Archer, the hard-bitten, tough reporter looking for a scoop is very much a sop to Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Leigh is a good actress, but in a side-by-side comparison, she’s no Rosalind Russell.

Why to watch I Know Where I’m Going!: There’s comfort in a familiar story.
Why not to watch: Why would anyone want the unpleasant Joan to end up with everything she desires?

Why to watch His Girl Friday: Snappy banter and fun, smart characters.
Why not to watch: Everyone talks at once.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Film: The Man Who Fell to Earth
Format: DVD from Musser Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Sometimes people appear to be born to play a particular role. Sometimes, this is simply because of a long association with a style or type. It’s difficult to imagine someone else playing Indiana Jones, for instance, so someone other than Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade. Other times, it seems like the role was written with a specific person in mind. Such is the case with the role of Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. There cannot be another person better suited for this role than David Bowie.

Newton is an alien who has come to Earth in search of water. His world is dying, and he has been sent to make enough money to rescue his own world. Bowie himself is so otherworldly in appearance that not much needs to be done to make him perfect for the role. With his slow, careful gait, mismatched eyes, almost disturbing thin frame, and shocking red hair, he is instantly evident and out of place everywhere he goes.

The first thing we really see of Newton, he is selling a gold ring for $20, a ring he claims he got from his wife. It looks like a moment of desperation, and it is followed by a much worse one—Newton scoops up water with a tin can from what looks like run-off from an industrial site and drinks it. As he does, he pulls out a massive roll of bills and a huge collection of identical gold rings.

Newton has arrived on Earth with a massive collection of new inventions—nine basic patents according to his new lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), which should be worth more than $300 million within a few years. As we learn of Newton’s impending fortune, we also get glimpses of a man who will become a major player in this story, a chemistry professor named Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn). Bryce, as we see in a mildly disturbing montage, is more interested in bedding young undergraduates than doing much else. He is, however, intrigued by a new company called World Enterprises, headed by the reclusive Thomas Jerome Newton.

The fourth player in this little drama is Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). A former housekeeper in a New Mexico hotel, it is she who first sees how truly fragile Newton really is. An elevator ride in the hotel knocks Newton flat and she gets him into his room, takes care of him, and introduces him to the pleasures of a large glass of Beefeater’s gin. (While it’s never really spoken aloud in the film, much of Newton’s implied fragility and much of what Bowie does in terms of movement throughout the film is because of much lower gravity on his home world. It’s a subtle and impressive piece of acting from a debut performance.)

The story of a man coming from another world to save his own planet might make an interesting story, but it almost certainly needs more. So, there’s more here. Newton’s goal is to save his own world, which we see in flashback and visions is a desolate world nearly destroyed. But it is a goal that he cannot, does not, and will not realize, not because of the difficulty or problems, but because of his own failings. Newton becomes a man unable to move on, unable to act in any meaningful way. The job of saving his world becomes simply too much for him, and he sinks into what essentially feels like ennui with no possible way out. Newton is so crushed by the weight of his worlds, he cannot continue.

And it’s both literal and figurative weight. From his home world, the fate of his wife, children, and people depend on his returning with water. On Earth, the oppressive gravity breaks him down physically, wearing him out, and both weights are impossible for him to break away from. Newton is tragic because of this, and pathetic as well. Of course it doesn't help that he is easy prey for ruthless and vicious businessmen (particularly Bernie Casey) blinded by their own greed.

Thus we have the name of both the film and the book it was based on. Newton did literally fall to Earth from the heavens. He also “fell” in the sense that from the high perch of his technology and generated cash, his life essentially comes to nothing.

Not everything is specifically what you might expect here. Science fiction films tend to have a lot more in the way of laser battles with aliens, spaceships zooming around Pluto, and obvious bad guys for the hero to battle in a climactic sequence. Not so much here. This is an existential drama. Newton fills up his life with booze and a bank of televisions, overloading him with sensory experience in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy his inner demons.

There’s also a surprising amount of sex, including gooey alien sex on Newton’s homeworld. I’m no prude, but I’m not sure I was entirely ready for a naked, sweaty Rip Torn cavorting with a coed. There’s an image that will stay with a person, a little nightmare fuel to disturb one’s sleep. Only slightly more disturbing is the gooey alien sex and Candy Clark literally peeing herself when she sees Newton’s true alien form.

Why to watch The Man Who Fell to Earth: Pain, hope, misery, and existentialism with a sexy science fiction coating.
Why not to watch: More artsy than most science fiction fans want their alien stories.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Survival in the Modern World

Films: Modern Times, A Nous la Liberte (Freedom for Us)
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library projected on big screen (Modern Times) and itty bitty bedroom television (both films).

Certain films, like certain books or pieces of music, need to be seen from the perspective of their own time to truly be appreciated. Others are timeless, and can be appreciated no matter what era they are from and no matter what era they are viewed in. Such a film is Modern Times, which I’ve now watched twice in one day, the first time by myself and the second time with my seven-year-old daughter. It’s interesting to see how well a film like this translates to a kid who’s never really watched an effectively silent movie before.

Charlie Chaplin is a good place to start as an introduction to silent films in general, and silent comedies in the specific. Chaplin’s tramp character is an everyman loser, which makes him not only readily identifiable, but entirely sympathetic for adults and kids alike. Harold Lloyd is a lot wilder and for my money, Buster Keaton is a more subtle. Chaplin is broadly goofy and comic, and like any good comedian, Chaplin coats his hero with tragedy. Modern Times, the last film that features Chaplin’s Little Tramp, is loaded with not only with broad comedy but also a mountain of pathos and tragedy for the Tramp to overcome.

If you’ve seen a still from this film, it’s almost certainly from the first part of the film, with the Tramp working in the factory, tightening bolts on an endless conveyor line of machine parts, winding through the machinery, or being fed by the automatic feeder. These are all great scenes, but are only the very first part of the film. I showed my daughter the feeding machine sequence, and she laughed so hard that she wanted to watch the whole movie, which is why I watched it twice. No question that these are wonderful comedic scenes, but they are also a very small portion of the film.

The bulk of the film concerns the Tramp’s life after he is forced out of the factory due to a nervous breakdown. He is mistaken for a communist leader and thrown in jail where he inadvertently foils an escape attempt. This gives him a life of ease in jail, until he is pardoned because of his actions and thrown back on the street. All he wants now is to get back to prison. His chance comes when he sees a young woman (Paulette Goddard) steal a loaf of bread. He takes the rap for her, but is let go. Eventually, the two of them are thrown in the same paddy wagon. She makes a break for it, he falls out of the truck with her, and now the two of them are stuck together.

The rest of the film is essentially him trying to make a life for the two of them as they run from the law and he attempts a number of careers to give them a place to live. The ending is far less than might be expected for a typical comedy, and yet it is uplifting and sweet in its own way. Chaplin’s Tramp is too much of a loser to have anything really wonderful happen to him, which is nicely shown in contrasted scenes. In the first, he imagines his dream home with the young girl. Later, almost the exact scene plays out with mildly disastrous results.

There’s a reason that the Little Tramp is an enduring character in American film mythology. He’s the lovable loser that everyone roots for. Bad things happen to him because of bad luck, and good things happen because of good luck. The Tramp is never in charge of his own fate, and that’s certainly the message here. In this film, created during the height of the Great Depression, the Tramp is at the mercy of the things that happen to him. We’d like for him to have things go well, but we’re resigned to the fact that things probably won’t go well. It’s simply never in the cards for the poor guy.

Chaplin is brilliant both as a comic actor and as a director. Each scene is played both for its comedic value and its tragic reality. We as the audience laugh at the Tramp’s misfortune both because it’s funny and because it’s sad. It’s also worth noting that Paulette Goddard might well be the most beautiful woman ever filmed. She’s certainly pretty when she’s cleaned up toward the end of the film, but for my money, she’s absolutely captivating as the dirty faced waif through the first three-quarters. The first time she appears on screen here, stealing bananas from a ship to throw to kids on the dock side, she is utterly, heart-skip-a-beat beautiful.

Modern Times is the last film to use title cards instead of speech except for parodies. All of the speech in the film comes through machinery—a phonograph, a radio, and the like. While there is music and sound effects, this is film essentially as a silent movie, the last one ever made. Everything Chaplin did after this was a talkie. Even Chaplin sings in this, although what he sings is less comprehensible and more a Romance language patois of goofiness (although you can follow the plot of the song by watching his hand motions).

The last ever title card used for its original effect, essentially the last ever “speech” in the silent film era, says, “Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along!” That we will, just as we assume the Tramp and the girl will.

Of course, it’s also important to acknowledge source material. Chaplin was sued for Modern Times by the distribution company of A Nous la Liberte (Freedom for Us), a French film from 1931 that Modern Times bears a striking resemblance to. It’s worth noting that author/director Rene Claire refused to be a part of the suit, considering Chaplin’s work an homage to his own. Eventually, the suit was simply settled by Chaplin after more than a decade.

Similarities are evident right away. As the group of prisoners at the start of the film stand up to a blaring noise and march in unison, it is evident where Chaplin got his inspiration for the food line scene in his own movie. Much of the beginning concerns a prison break of two inmates, Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand). Emile fails to break out, but Louis gets away, and knocks down a bicycle racer, hopping on the bike to get away. We also learn quickly that Louis is pretty quick on his feet. He manages to rip off a pawn shop by pretending to be robbed himself and sending the store owner out after non-existent thieves.

Eventually, Emile escapes and finds a job for himself in a factory that makes phonographs, and discovers his old cellmate Louis is a bigwig there. At the factory, the workers are treated little better and little different from the machines. There are shades of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis here, with the dehumanizing effects of the factory work on the men, although A Nous la Liberte is played for comedy. Also, since Louis is constantly worried that someone will recognize him from his prison break, there is some presaging another social drama, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang here. But it’s social repression, degradation, and soul crushing work with a cheeky grin and a wink.

Created in the early era of the talkies, A Nous la Liberte does more with sound than merely revel in the fact that it exists. Most directors seemed to be so enamored of the idea that sound actually existed in films that they didn’t really know what to do with it. Rene Claire realized at this early stage that sound was not something magical, but another tool in the repertoire of a smart director. Dialogue in places turns into little poems or songs, little rhythms that further establish the clockwork, dehumanized world that Emile lives in. To keep him quiet, Louis takes him in and moves him quickly up the factory ladder—anything to avoid being caught.

Like the Little Tramp who followed him into this modern, almost clockwork-punk world, much of what we are shown are comedic set pieces that involve this new world where only the end result product has value, and people have value only in so much as they can produce things for the good of the factory. Emile is a romantic and wants something more out of life than a mind-numbing job and just enough pay to get him by. But that’s not the reality that the capitalists—like Louis, who he helped free—have created.

Louis wants him away from the plant, but Emile wants to stay. His reason, despite the terrible work and treatment is that he’s fallen in love with one of the workers, known to us only by her employee number, 45. Fortunately for Emile, the girl’s uncle works at the plant as well. Sadly, he disapproves of the match until Louis offers a dowry for the girl—anything to keep Emile happy and quiet. But of course, she loves someone else.

What makes A Nous la Liberte work is the empathy developed for Emile. He may well be a criminal, but he’s such a gentle soul that we want things to work out for him. Even if he doesn’t get everything he wants, he’s the type of character we’d like to see succeed.

Why to watch Modern Times: The end of the silent era, and it goes out with a bang.
Why not to watch: Because it really does mean the end of the silent era, and ends are always at least a little sad.

Why to watch A Nous la Liberte: References everywhere
Why not to watch: Comedy is sometimes more difficult in another language.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Taxing Tax Day

Film: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Let’s talk about art, shall we? Art, of course, is in the eye or ear of the beholder. The film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (hereafter referred to as Jeanne Dielman simply for space reasons) is listed on virtually every top-20, top-100, and top-whatever list for great films. Critics love it. It’s packed with meaning, just like your morning breakfast cereal is packed with vitamins. It’s a masterpiece.

It’s also dull. Seriously dull. Oh-my-God-I-can’t believe-it’s-not-over dull. It’s like the film equivalent of the stereotypical daily life of an accountant. Boring things aspire to become Jeanne Dielman in their next lives. The film covers the life of the eponymous widow Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) over three days, and it feels very much like real time. The film has a running time of a shade over 200 minutes, and it takes a full week to watch the thing, or at least that’s how it felt to me.

There is virtually no dialogue in the film. Instead, we watch Jeanne go through her daily routine. She cooks, she cleans, she straightens up her house that she shares with her son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte). She also invites older men into her home in the afternoon and has sex with them. The only way she and her son are surviving is Jeanne’s daily foray into prostitution.

Ah, your eyes got big for a second there. So did mine when I found this film on the library shelf. I wasn’t looking for anything particularly prurient, but it sounded sort of like a low-key Belle de Jour. Not so much, actually. It’s roughly as titillating as reading about wound care. Again, that’s okay—it’s obviously director Chantal Akerman’s vision, and I’m fine with that. It’s a great story idea—a woman who lives an ordinary, middle-class existence supporting her son by means of the oldest profession.

But (and you knew this was coming) that’s far more than Akerman shows us. We see Jeanne’s day. Literally. She cooks, cleans, takes in a client while the static camera (just as in Sanma no Aji from a few days ago) waits patiently at the bedroom door, bathes, makes her bed, sets the table, cooks dinner, and eats with her son. That. Is. It. We watch much of this in real time. For instance, on the morning of the second day, the camera plants itself in the kitchen about 10 feet behind the sink. We watch Jeanne wash the breakfast dishes in real time. She finishes up, pulls the plug, drains the water out of the sink, dries her hands, and walks off. Cut, end scene. Next scene? We watch Jeanne from the hallway as she stands in the kitchen and dries the silverware on a towel, then puts it in a drawer, again in real time. Akerman, evidently, has never come across the concept of a montage. Next, Jeanne makes her bed. This, in a magical moment, we get to see from two angles—one from each side of the bed. Next, hold onto your hat—Jeanne take some of her hooker money out of the tureen in the middle of the table and goes to the bank and waits in line. Bored yet? Try watching it. Guess what else? When Jeanne finally gets back to her apartment, you’ve still got more than two hours to go. At the end of the second day, there’s still 75 minutes of Jeanne’s daily chores to watch. And if you thought you couldn't contain your excitement the first time Jeanne washes the breakfast dishes, just wait until she does it again.

Through all of this, Jeanne’s life slowly spins out of control, but you need to be very sharp-eyed to catch this through the first two hours. She starts forgetting steps, or not completing what she normally does. It’s subtle, but in a film like this, it would have to be. Ultimately, everything goes kablooey. I’m going to put this under a spoiler warning, but I’m also going to be blunt here. Jeanne Dielman is far more interesting to hear about than it is to watch. Normally, I’d recommend skipping the spoiler if you haven’t seen the film. In this case, the tags are there if you want to avoid reading the secret mystical ending of this film, but feel free to dive right in.


After two days of cooking potatoes, going to the bank, shopping, and knitting a sweater, Jeanne experiences her first ever orgasm. In response to this, she stabs the man at least partially responsible in the neck with a pair of scissors. This is either the greatest epiphany of female empowerment ever conceived or the most ungrateful action ever taken. I’m not trying to sound like a sexist here, but…damn. That’s black widow spider cold. It should be noted, incidentally, that this unsexiest ever film sex and then brutal murder occur after we have watched Jeanne go about her day three times through more than three hours of footage.

Then, true to form, we watch Jeanne sit at a table and do nothing for about eight minutes.


Jeanne Dielman is the sort of film favored by pretentious art film wonks because of its deep meaning. It’s been called one of the first great feminist films ever made, and one of the most important films of the last century by enough critics and knowledgeable movie people to force me to sit up and take notice. It is, unquestionably, art. However, like the works of Modigliani and Joan Miro, it is art that I don’t like. The beret-wearing, clove cigarette-smoking crowd naturally scoffs at me, expounding over their espresso that perhaps I should content myself with something my pea-sized brain can handle, like America’s Funniest Home Videos. Bite me, artistic crowd. No discussion about this film’s importance, value, or lasting impact on the cinema is going to change the fact that it is a dull movie of a woman doing household chores and is roughly as interesting as flossing.

You are welcome to adjust your beret, sniff, and call this a grand statement of a woman’s struggle against banality and the male power establishment. I’d rather call it a cab and send it far enough away that I don’t have to watch it again. I seriously can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to watch Jeanne Dielman. It’s like a cinematic tetanus shot—possibly good for you, but painful for a very long time.

Why to watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles: An artistic commentary on the banality of everyday life, the French-speaking equivalent of Britain’s “quiet desperation.”
Why not to watch: Would you enjoy watching me hang my laundry on a clothesline for three hours and twenty minutes?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

baaaa-DUM! baaaa-DUM!

Film: Jaws
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The other day, I talked about Yasujiro Ozu’s last film as the capstone to his career. But, just as every director makes a final film, so too does every director have an early career. Many of the greatest directors in history have an early period littered with low budgets, bad acting, cheap sets, and the best they can do with virtually no money. And then there’s Spielberg. With a few television episodes, a made-for-TV movie (Duel), and another film to his credit, he made Jaws. Freakin’ Jaws! And just to show people he was ready to smack the film industry around and call it his bitch for the rest of his damn life, he made one of the scariest movies anyone has ever seen and still got the thing through the censors with a PG rating. That’s right, folks; a movie that induces piss-your-bed nightmares and makes me glad I live in a landlocked state is cleared for viewing if mommy and daddy say so.

To make things more impressive, the pay off special effect of the film—the giant man-eating shark—didn’t work. The thing was consistently broken or malfunctioning, meaning he couldn’t use it as much as he wanted. So what did he do? He made it work anyway, because Steven Spielberg has balls the size of goddam Volkswagen Beetles.

You’ve probably seen this movie, but I realize that there are people in the world who haven’t. So here’s the story. A former New York cop named Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) has agreed to become the new police chief of Amity Island, a resort town on the New England coast. Brody doesn’t like the water, doesn’t like living on an island, but running herd on a bunch of drunk tourists and townies has to be easier than chasing down drug dealers, right?

Sadly, this year a massive great white shark has decided that the waters off Amity is a restaurant and has just opened for business. A late night swimmer is killed by the creature, although no one sees it happen. While Brody wants to close the beaches, the town’s mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want to do anything that might endanger the town’s survival or the flow of needed summer dollars. Then, a young boy is killed just off the beach in the middle of the day, right in front of most of the town.

It’s here that we are introduced to the other two important characters in this film. Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) is a local fisherman, who tells the town council that he’ll catch the shark for a fee of $10,000. Additionally, the local oceanographic institute sends a researcher named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to investigate the attacks, and his preliminary investigation of the remains of the first victim indicates that, to quote him, it wasn’t a boat propeller, a coral reef, or Jack the Ripper, but a shark.

You know how it’s going to end up, though, right? Quint, Brody, and Hooper end up on Quint’s boat out on the water hunting the giant critter and trying desperately not to get eaten in the process. That’s what movies are made of, folks: adventure on the high seas and not getting eaten.

Everything about this movie works from the opening underwater sequence and the first attack on the first victim through to the last moments as the credits start to roll. Brody has a genuine relationship with his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), who is as supportive of her husband as she can be while worrying desperately that the fool errand he goes on is misguided bravery. She may feel like a throwaway character, since she doesn’t get a massive amount of screen time, but for me, she’s one of the things that grounds the film in reality. It would be easy to make her a cardboard cutout, but she isn’t.

These are real people. After a shark is caught off the beach and Brody is confronted by the mother of little boy who was killed, Hooper goes to visit the Brodys. Martin is slowly getting himself drunk and opens a bottle of red wine and slowly pours himself a huge tumbler, then pours regular wine glasses for Hooper and his wife. It’s a real reaction, and it makes Brody real in that moment.

There are too many great moments in this film to mention them all. Hooper’s investigation of Ben Gardner’s boat, the two fishermen throwing a roast off the dock, Quint’s speech about the USS Indianapolis, it all works. Additionally, as with any truly scary movie, it’s not just a bunch of scares laced together. There are moments of comedy throughout, and even a few moments of sweetness. The cutest is when Brody is slowly drinking himself into oblivion and his young son is imitating his movements.

Spielberg is smart with his camera, too. A number of the shots before and during the shark attacks have the camera at the water level, sometimes moving the microphone under and over the water to catch snippets of sound. One of the greatest shots of all time occurs as the Kitner boy is attacked—Spielberg simultaneously pulls back and zooms on the horrified face of Chief Brody in what feels like a moment of vertigo.

This is a rare instance for a film as well; it’s better than the book. I read Benchley’s novel a number of years ago. While the book is certainly exciting, it also contains (in my opinion), quite a bit of unnecessary crap like Ellen Brody having an affair with Hooper. It seemed like pure, worthless titillation to me. The movie cuts through a lot of this crap and goes right for the meat of the story, concentrating on the shark and on the three men who hunt it down. Incidentally, Benchley makes an appearance in the film—he’s the reporter on the beach on the 4th of July.

It also doesn't hurt that it has one of the greatest soundtracks ever conceived by mortal man.

As Hooper says, the shark in this film is a miracle of evolution. All it does is swim, eat, and make little sharks. All Spielberg does here is film and make people scared of the water.

Why to watch Jaws: Even 35 years after it was made, it hasn’t aged a day.
Why not to watch: You’ll have to learn to take your vacations in the mountains.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Painful Romance

Films: Hua Yang Nian Hua (In the Mood for Love)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Evidently, of late I have been attracted to domestic dramas. Hua Yang Nian Hua (In the Mood for Love) is the third in a row, and the second from Asia. Had I been able to follow the original plans of today, I’d have also watched Bin-Jip, another Asian domestic drama. Interesting the little clusters of coincidence that play out in the course of completing this long journey.

This film is very similar to yesterday’s in a few ways. In addition to what is mentioned above, the story takes place in the early 1960s, and centers around the idea of marriage. This is a story from Hong Kong, though, and is less concerned with getting married than the idea of marital infidelity. Additionally, this is a more modern film, made in 2000 by the acclaimed director Kar Wei Wong.

The film starts with two married couples moving in next door to each other on the same day. On the one side is the Chans. Mr. Chan is away on business during the move and is thus not there to help. Instead, his wife Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is handling the move on her own. On the other side, we have the Chows. Mrs. Chow is also out of town, so Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is arranging things.

We discover rather quickly that Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow are out of town a lot, and usually at the same time. It becomes apparent first to us and then to their respective spouses that the two are having an extramarital affair with each other. Our two main characters attempt to recreate this affair as much as possible, avoiding the intimacy. Essentially, they want to try to discover exactly how the affair might have started between their spouses.

They also discover that they have common interests. Both of them like martial arts serial stories, and for something to do, Chow Mo-wan begins to write one with Li-zhen’s assistance. They continue to investigate their respective spouses, practicing confrontation on each other to work up the nerve to confront their spouses for real. And, the two slowly begin to depend on each other more and more for emotional support.

It’s clear to the audience that the two are deeply in love with each other long before they realize it themselves. However, they are also both incredibly concerned with appearances and propriety. Once, while working on their martial arts serial, she is trapped in his apartment when their landlady has friends over for a mah-jongg tournament. She refuses to leave because the other people might see her leaving his apartment. Rather than create suspicion, she waits, then creates an excuse for not being in her own apartment the night before when asked.

This is the beauty of the film. The two of them are so drawn to each other, and so deeply in love with each other, but are also unwilling to take that next step that both want to. Hell, we want them to. The ache between them is a physical thing, each gentle touch, each word, so filled with longing and desire that it is almost painful to witness. Several times, in rainstorms after a dinner spent talking about their spouses’ affair, they share a cab, leaning on each other in the back seat for support, knowing that their relationship will never go further than this no matter how much they want it to.

Good God, it’s pretty. It’s tragic and sad and heartrending as well, but it’s also the most romantic thing ever created. Romeo and Juliet have nothing on this pair in terms of desire. Kar Wai Wong (or if you prefer the traditional Chinese, Wong Kar Wai) manages to draw out performances here that express tremendous emotional power from small movements and long pauses. It’s masterfully directed.

It’s also beautiful to look at. Maggie Cheung wears traditional cheong-san dresses (yes, I looked up the name of this style of dress because there was no way I could have known it on my own) in every scene, and it’s a different one in every scene. They are gorgeous, almost mesmerizing. Of course, everything here is mesmerizing.

Why to watch Hua Yang Nian Hua: There may not be a more beautiful romance.
Why not to watch: You’ll ache.