Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Month Six Status Report

Half a year in, and as of today, I've got 900 movies to go. At the current rate, I'll finish some time in 2013, which is a bit longer than I'd wanted to go.

The biggest issue I'm facing, aside from the 40 or so films I can't find, is that I still haven't watched any of the really long films. I've been making an effort lately to hit some of the longer ones, but the really long ones are still ahead rather than in the rear view mirror.

The goal is to get a good chunk of the 3+ hour films done this year. Look for some longish films in the coming week, as well as continued concentration on the three areas that are most difficult for me--silent films, musicals, and foreign films.

I'm curious to see where July goes. Ready or not, here we go.

The Wild Blue Yonder

Film: The Right Stuff
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

You watch enough films, you get jaded. Things start to get predictable when you’ve seen the same plot a couple of dozen times. This is even truer in situations in which the film in question is based on reality. The Right Stuff is very much based on reality, covering the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union through the 1950s and 1960s. If you don’t know your history, it’s a riveting tale filled with drama, danger, and excitement. If you do know your history…well, it’s really the same thing. Lots of drama, lots of danger, lots of excitement.

It’s difficult for me to remember sometimes that not everyone knows what I know, or grew up when I did. I remember the tail end of the space race and the origin of the space shuttle missions. Kids from my generation knew about astronauts and the push into space. So, since I grew up with it, it can be difficult to realize that there are plenty of people who don’t know the history, didn’t grow up with it, and never lived in a world where it was important.

The Right Stuff is the story of the seven Mercury astronauts, their wives, and the men who worked in the space program. We don’t start with Mercury, though. Instead, the film begins in the 1950s with the attempts to break the sound barrier, something that, like the four-minute mile, many experts said was impossible. So, for the first part of the film, we are dealing primarily with the great Chuck Yeager (played here by Sam Shepard).

If you’re unclear of the history and don’t know if the sound barrier was ever broken, you can rest easy. It’s broken in the film in the first half hour, and Yeager is the man who does it. We stay here, in the middle of the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, as pilots push the envelope further and further, with Yeager being the man to get airplanes past mach 2.5.

Everything changes when the Russians put Sputnik into orbit in the late 1950s. At this point, we switch over to the seven Mercury astronauts. We start with a larger group, and they are slowly pared down to the seven who made the cut—the seven with “the right stuff.” The seven are Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen). While we spend some time with all seven, the primary characters in the film are Shepard, Glenn, Cooper, and Grissom. Rounding out the cast as government agents are Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum.

This is essentially the entire movie. The seven men train, do a number of press tours, and risk their lives as they get closer and closer to taking a craft into space. While they quarrel at times—usually about some of the astronauts taking their new-found fame as an opportunity for extra-curricular activities—the seven also bond completely so that they can present a united front to the government and scientists.

Of the seven, John Glenn comes off as the true boy scout and as the aggressor when it comes to keeping the squeaky clean image of the Mercury astronauts. Cooper is depicted as the real player, and also as the one with the most significant marital problems.

What I find the most interesting is that the film does not give short shrift to the wives of the astronauts. There are several scenes where the women express their frustration and their worries as their husbands risk their lives essentially strapped to the front end of a missile. Most poignant is the relationship between Glenn and his wife, Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel). Annie suffers from a significant stutter, even when speaking with her husband, and is thus understandably not willing to go on national television. Glenn risks his own career to support her in that decision. It’s a sweet moment, made sweeter by the unification of the other six astronauts behind Glenn’s stand.

The most iconic moment of the film belongs not to the astronauts, but to Yeager. While Yeager’s fame as the first man to break the sound barrier faded as soon as the Mercury program began, he was left behind as unacceptable for the program due to his lack of a college education. It’s evident from the portrayal here that while Yeager puts on a front of not caring, he truly wishes to be flying the latest and greatest, those being the Mercury rockets. Near the end of the film, he takes an experimental plane as high as he can, pushing it to leave Earth’s atmosphere, only to fall back and crash at the end. There is no better moment in the film than Yeager walking stoically away from the wreck, his face half burned, the wreckage of a hugely expensive aircraft augered in behind him.

I knew the history, or at least some of it, going in. It doesn’t matter when the story is this compelling and the movie is this well acted.

Why to watch The Right Stuff: Fact-based true tales of real American heroes.
Why not to watch: If you know your history, you know how it ends.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thought Crime

Film: Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

A note: Typically, I refer to foreign films by their foreign language title in my write-ups. Today, however, since the first word of the English title is precisely the same as the French title, and because the French title is so long, it is easier to simply call the film by its English name.

I was recently asked by a co-1001 Movies blogger if I had watched any Godard yet. I hadn’t at the time, but assured him that I would undoubtedly dip my toes into the Godard pond this week, thus Alphaville in the spinner tonight. It’s hardly a stretch to say that in this day and age, Godard is no longer the most culturally relevant Jean-Luc for most people. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only a true thing. I’m guilty of the same. Say “Jean-Luc” to me, and I’ll respond “Picard” long before I’ll say “Godard.”

Before we delve to heavily into this film, it’s worth getting a few things out of the way. Lemmy Caution is the creation of British pulp writer Peter Cheyney. Eddie Constantine, who plays Caution in this film, played the same role a number of times before this film was made. Caution is, therefore, the British equivalent of Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

Similarities to other Lemmy Caution films ends here. In true existential fashion, Alphaville takes place in a sort of no-time and no-place. Certainly with some of the events and ideas here, the film is absolutely science fiction. However, the film also quite evidently takes place in the mid-20th century (Caution refers to himself as a Guadalcanal veteran). In terms of place, all that matters is that we are in Alphaville, and that everything is run by Alpha 60.

So what is Alpha 60? It’s the computer that runs Alphaville with an iron processor. Alpha 60 has made emotion illegal within the city limits of Alphaville. It is a sentient machine that has determined that the only way to have the city run efficiently is to eliminate anything that does not make perfectly logical sense. In short, love, art, poetry, and emotion are all illegal within the city. Failure to comply means a brutal interrogation followed by execution, even for the smallest infractions, like displaying grief at the death of a spouse.

Essentially, this film falls in terms of ideal between Orwell’s 1984 and George Lucas’s THX1138. Like Orwell’s work, the society is highly dystopic and rigidly controlled by an overwhelming, implacable force. Resistance is essentially futile because it is impossible to organize any resistance. Like Big Brother, the computer is everywhere and is always looking for any slip or sign of weakness to eliminate anything that stands in the way of its complete power. Like Lucas’s film that follows this one, there is no love or emotion, and expressing either is a crime of the highest order.

Caution’s task here is to initially find an operative named Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff) who has not reported back for a long time. Caution finds the man, who speaks rather cryptically, dallies a bit with a local prostitute, and then dies, telling Caution that Alpha 60 must be destroyed. Coincidentally, Caution is also charged with locating and either bringing back or eliminating a man named von Braun, who created Apha 60.

Caution meets von Braun’s daughter Natasha (Anna Karina), who claims to have never met her father, nor stepped foot outside of Alphaville into the Outlands. Similarly, and predictably considering the city she was raised in, Natasha has no concept of love or morality or conscience.

Like any good noir, Caution is tempted by the devil, in this case von Braun. As Caution digs further into the city, he discovers that Alpha 60 is sending potential dissidents out to other places, other worlds, to foment revolution, hopefully bringing about more Alpha 60-style societies throughout the universe. And so, as befits many films from the mid-‘60s, there is a strong anti-communist sense to this film as well.

Ultimately, the idea here is about sense of self and individualism. Just as Orwell feared the destruction of the unique person in the service to the state, Godard fears the loss of self and emotion as being the loss of that which makes us human. It’s a nice metaphor, and it works pretty well throughout.

Eddie Constantine does look very much like a traditional noir private dick. In his fedora and trench coat, he looks the part, and his craggy, weathered face that looks chiseled out of granite fits the part as well. His complete lack of emotion throughout actually works well here, too. The anti-heroes in noirs often tend to be emotionless, even when dealing out violence, something that Caution does frequently here.

The film is disturbingly weird. Most bothersome here is the soundtrack, which seems to play nothing but the same Baaaaaahm-Bamp! Buuuuuuuuhm-Bamp! over and over. It gets oppressive quickly. Just as disturbing is the narrator-like role of Alpha 60, which speaks in a deep, throaty croak that sounds like a man with a cold trying desperately to make himself belch.

And yet, I like the ultimate conclusion. For such a strange film, it’s almost uplifting at the end, despite the sudden violence, croaking voice, and lack of expressions.

Why to watch Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution: Existentialism that lifts rather than depresses.
Why not to watch: Croaky, belchy French.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Missing Persons

Film: Picnic at Hanging Rock, L’Avventura (The Adventure)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (both films).

I’m not prone to gushing about products in general. Something has to be truly exceptional for me to get all mushy-headed about it. If I’m getting exactly what I’m paying for, that’s not really worth laudatory praise. I’m close to giddy with what I’m getting from NetFlix, though. Not only can I get about 80% of the remaining list on NetFlix, I can get a bunch of them instantly on the laptop or through our Wii. Even better, if the movie I want doesn’t appear on the queue for the Wii, I can place it in the queue on the laptop, then watch it through the Wii. Technology is great when it works. Many of the streaming movies feel like odd choices, which is great. It’s not just the newest and biggest—there are plenty of obscure gems on the streaming list. Yesterday, for instance, I watched pretty much all of the Firefly television series, followed by Serenity. This is why I did not update yesterday.

Seeing Picnic at Hanging Rock on the queue was a pleasant surprise. I queued it up while pairing socks, and after a time, I forgot about pairing the socks and instead concentrated on the film. This film is both a great example of a period piece as well as a disturbing mystery. The whole thing centers on the Hanging Rock of the title. This is a massive outcropping of stone vaulting several hundred craggy feet into the air in Australia.

At the turn of the last century, the students and some of the faculty at a British all-girls’ school in Australia plans a day out to visit the rock. They are warned not to get too near it as there are poisonous snakes about as well as nasty ants. Most of the girls go, but Sara (Margaret Nelson) stays at home under the guidance of the school’s owner and mistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). It becomes evident that several things are at work here. Sara is opposed to authority, punished because she refused to memorize a particular poem. Sara might be (read: is) rebelling against Mrs. Appleyard’s authority. It’s also quickly evident that Mrs. Appleyard dislikes the young orphan. It’s also quickly evident that Mrs. Appleyard dislikes the young orphan. The reason why is a little trickier.

It’s hinted in the beginning that Sara may be having a lesbian relationship with another girl at the school. This other girl, Miranda (Anne Lambert), is the school treasure, loved by one and all. While Sara sits punished at home and dreaming of her dear Miranda, Miranda and a trio of other girls—Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Edith (Christine Schuler)—go trekking up the rock, eventually followed by a teacher. Only Edith returns.

This sequence is to my mind the most puzzling as well as the prettiest in the film. The three disappearing girls—Irma, Marion, and Miranda—are all beautiful and depicted as ethereal, almost unearthly. All four of the girls fall into a swoon, but it is the three who, socks and shoes removed, wander away, leaving the pudgy, homely Edith to sit and scream after them.

What happens next is difficult to explain. Two young men who saw the girls walk by are questioned, and their answers feel suspicious, almost forced and badly memorized. One of these young men in particular is obsessed with finding the girls, notably Miranda. It’s notable that he walks off from his friend when the girls go past. Did he follow them? Did he molest them and/or kill them? These questions aren’t answered. Irma shows up a week later, in shock and dehydrated, but otherwise fine. She has no memory of the past week, has no idea how she got where she was found, and cannot recall what happened to the other girls.

What’s hushed up at the school is the fact that Irma returned without her corset, implying strongly that it was removed, further implying the possibility of molestation. Did the young man remove it? Did the other two girls?

The school begins to fall apart at this point. Not only are the girls missing, but many of the parents of the other girls have stated that their children will not be coming back after the end of the term. As her school crumbles around her, Mrs. Appleyard takes out her frustrations on Sara, first claiming that her tuition has not been paid, meaning she can no longer take classes like dance lessons. Second, she says that if the bill is not paid, Sara will be returned to the orphanage, a place that Sara speaks of only in hushed tones.

The end result of all this, in something that has seemed like a theme for what I’ve been watching lately, is a movie that presents a great number of questions and answers none of them. However, unlike those films that present dilemmas that can be discussed and social problems that must be solved, Picnic at Hanging Rock’s questions are simply about itself. Those things left unanswered are the unanswered questions of the mystery surrounding the disappearances. Like so much of real life, there is no resolution here, and the story doesn’t so much end as stop.


Miranda, Marion, and their chaperone are never found. Mrs. Appleyard decides that Sara must go back to the orphanage, and on hearing the news, Sara throws herself out a high window into the greenhouse below, killing herself. Mrs. Appleyard claims that the girl’s guardian came for her, but when told of the girl’s death, she is already clad in mourning attire. The film ends with a voiceover stating that Mrs. Appleyard’s body was found a few days later at the foot of Hanging Rock, with the determination that she slipped while climbing it. Did she? Or did she jump? Or was she pushed by the spirits (or reality) of the missing girls?


Ultimately, this is a film that is beautiful, but also frustrating.

We stick with a similar theme with Antonini’s L’Avventura (The Adventure). Two women are going on a five-day boat cruise with a group of people. Anna (Lea Massari) is meeting her boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), who she hasn’t seen for a month. Her friend is Claudia (Monica Vitti), who is going along for the ride.

Anna’s and Sandro’s relationship is troubled, mostly because of their month-long separation. Anna wants very much to be with him, but complains that she also wants to be alone and without him. Being apart for a month has gotten her used to being alone. In short, she’s confused and doesn’t know what she wants.

On the boat, the group goes for a swim, but one of their number spots a shark. Everyone makes it to an island. After a siesta, the group discovers that Anna is missing without a trace. They scour the island for her, but to no avail. It is as if she has simply disappeared completely.

What happens next is that Claudia and Sandro become intrigued with each other. While they both search for Anna, they discover a mutual attraction that both excites them and fills them with guilt. Claudia attempts to get away from Sandro, but they keep ending up at the same places with the same wealthy, banal people, and eventually, nature simply takes its course. Claudia spends the film happy and guilt-ridden, excited by Sandro and disgusted by his womanizing. She’s guilty not because Anna is missing, but because she is secretly pleased that now Sandro can be hers. At one point, she whispers “Mine…mine…mine…” in his ear as they roll about on the ground.

The biggest knock on this film is that honestly, not that much happens. Anna disappears, Sandro and Claudia attempt to find something together (and may by film’s end), and that’s pretty much it. This emptiness of plot seems to symbolize quite a bit, though, and was certainly intentional by Antonini. For a film that stretches nearly two-and-a-half hours, very little of import seems to happen.

However, this is symbolic of the lives of the people here. While they are all wealthy and seemingly happy, they are also all empty. All, including Anna, Sandro, and Claudia, are burdened with shallow, unfulfilling relationships. All of them appear willing, able, and ready to cheat at the drop of a hat or a skirt. On the surface, it appears like hedonism, but beneath, it doesn’t rise to that level. It’s more like they are all trying to fill up the emptiness of their lives with anything and anyone they can get their hands on. Anna’s disappearance, in fact, doesn’t give them much to live for, either. While Sandro and Claudia appear to be searching diligently for her, this doesn’t stop them from trysts at virtually every possible opportunity.

In short, Anna disappears, and the world of these characters is unchanged. The world would similarly be unchanged if any of these people similarly vanished and were never heard from again. Slow paced, but interesting almost in spite of itself.

Why to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock: Trancey, dream-like qualities and a great story.
Why not to watch: So many untied threads.

Why to watch L’Avventura: Metaphors abound
Why not to watch: Not much happens.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Angels Want to Wear Elvis Costello's

Film: The Red Shoes
Format: VHS from Putnam County Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

I went into The Red Shoes believing it to be a musical, and that really is the easiest way to classify it. It is not, however, a musical at all, but a dance movie in the classic sense. In fact, it is even more of a dance movie than the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly films of the same era. While those films frequently turned on dance numbers, there were just as frequently singing parts and much of the plot hinged on what people sang at each other. Not so with The Red Shoes. There is no singing here (except to demonstrate other parts of an orchestration), and ballet takes center stage, both literally and figuratively.

The film takes its name from a story of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson. In the fairy tale, a young girl encounters a pair of magical red shoes. She puts them on, and the shoes make her dance. At first, she enjoys herself, dancing herself silly. At the end of the evening, when she is tired, the shoes refuse to stop dancing; they are never tired. She dances and dances until, finally exhausted and unable to do anything else, she cuts off the shoes (and her feet still in them) and dies horribly. Sorta warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it? So cheery.

Fortunately, there is no foot removal in this film. We start instead at the performance of a new ballet being attended by a group of students. One of these is Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a young composer, who discovers as the show begins that the music is quite familiar. It appears that the music of the ballet, ostensibly written by his instructor, is actually his own work. He goes the next day to see the man who runs the company, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who hires Craster as an assistant.

Lermontov also takes on a young woman who claims that for her, dancing is like living—she isn’t sure why she must do it, but she must. This is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who despite her wealthy upbringing is no dilettante. Lermontov recognizes that beneath her still untrained exterior there lurks a true dance prodigy, someone who can set the dance world on its ear. When the star of Lermontov’s company gets married, it is Victoria who becomes the new prima ballerina.

Her first major triumph is an adaptation of “The Red Shoes,” with a score written by Craster. She puts everything into the performance and the rehearsals, and while Lermontov believes she has a long way to go until she is truly great, she is well received. He promises her the dance world, with shows in every major city in Europe and America. Sadly for Lermontov, Craster has promised her something else—a lifetime of love and his devotion. And thus we come to the point of the film. Will Victoria leave the dream of becoming a truly great dancer for a life with Craster, or will she devote herself to the stage, shunning everything else to become the greatest dancer the world has ever seen?

The film is surprisingly effective at times, and surprisingly ineffective at times. The romance between Victoria and Julian, for instance, just seems to happen because it’s supposed to. There’s no build up, or at least not much of one, and it feels short changed, if not flat out cheap. On the other hand, Victoria’s relationship with Lermontov is nicely established. Lermontov is a true Svengali, and a terribly wicked man determined only to get exactly what he wants when he wants it. He stops at nothing to get Victoria to stay with him, stooping even to true cruelty.

Much of the film is the stage production of the ballet of the title. Here, the film both hits and misses for me. It’s absolutely a stunner, and Moira Shearer is a hell of a dancer. She made her living mostly on the stage, and while I understand that, it’s also very much a shame that there’s not a lot of footage of her in films of this sort. She’s absolutely incredible as a dancer, and despite the fact that she made only a half dozen films or so—and many of those without dancing parts—she’s one of the best to ever star in a film.

The ballet itself, though, is surreal. Much of what is happening on stage simply couldn’t be staged the way it is, and so I find that for me, much of it doesn’t work. For instance, when she puts on the red shoes, she simply appears in them, and they tie instantly. My kids are both in ballet, and I’ve seen people put on pointe shoes—it isn’t instant. The stage shifts into bizarre landscapes and backdrops, yet is always a stage. In fact, the only way the sequence makes sense (aside from people appearing and disappearing instantly and the whole “instant shoes” thing) is to understand that much of the scenery at least is taking place in Victoria’s head. There’s precedent for this—Craster tells her that she’ll be able to see what he wants her to with his music. For me, that’s the only way this ballet makes sense as both a cinematic piece and a piece being performed in front of an audience on a stage.

Beyond this, I’m not totally thrilled with how simplistic the story really is. Victoria’s decision doesn’t happen until the very tail end of the film, and it doesn’t even become obvious that she has a decision to make until just before that. It works here slightly better than it might otherwise because so much of the focus is on the dancing itself, which is really how it should be with this movie.

In short, don’t watch The Red Shoes for the plot or the acting. Watch instead for dance performances that are rightly considered some of the best in the history of musical cinema.

Why to watch The Red Shoes: Truly epic dance sequences.
Why not to watch: Simplistic plot.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fight the Power

Film: Do the Right Thing
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library on itty bitty bedroom television.

There are many people, many of them critics, who like to discuss particular films as being a part of one country’s cinematic tradition or another. There’s some validity to that, because there are films that could really only be made by the people of a particular nationality. To my mind, French cinema is often distinctly French, for instance. American cinema, though, is sort of the mutt of film styles, much like the country proclaims itself a melting pot. American cinema is all styles. Yet, there are some films that are distinctly American, deal with specific American problems, and could only be made by Americans in America.

One such film is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It tells the story of a single day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York. It also happens to be the hottest day of the summer, and everyone is on edge. What starts as a typical day in the summer quickly and inexorably escalates into chaos, rioting, and disaster. Is it the heat? Is it racial tension? Is it something else? Is it everything at once?

Few of the people on the block go by their real names. Our protagonist, or at least as close as we really have to one, is Mookie (Spike Lee). Mookie delivers pizzas for Sal (Danny Aiello) of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which stands at the heart of the predominantly African-American Bed-Stuy block. Sal is assisted by his two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Pino, the older of the two, hates the neighborhood, hates the pizzeria and more than anything, hates the customers who come in. Vito is less aggressive and more attuned to the neighborhood, and is more likely to stick up for Mookie than anyone else.

Mookie, while he delivers the pizzas, isn’t a very hard worker. He frequently takes breaks from deliveries and talks to the other people on the block. Most important for him are his sister, Jade (Joie Lee) and his girlfriend and mother of his child, Tina (Rosie Perez). Also on the block are Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the stuttering Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and a cast of dozens, including small roles for Martin Lawrence, Frankie Faison, and Robin Harris, who plays the awesomely named Sweet Dick Willie. All of this is overseen by Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the local DJ.

The bulk of the film is the people on the block dealing with the heat and each other. There’s an undercurrent of racial tension throughout the neighborhood. When a white man accidentally scuffs Buggin’ Out’s new Air Jordans, a riot nearly ensues. The bulk of the neighborhood verbally attacks, upset that the man owns a brownstone in the area, and further upset when he claims to have been born in Brooklyn rather than a white stronghold like Massachusetts. There is equal tension over the local Korean grocery store.

Most of the ire is reserved for Sal, though. Sal likes the neighborhood even though Pino wants to leave it. In a long speech, Sal comments that he’s proud to be a part of the neighborhood, and proud the that locals have grown up eating his food. Pino hears none of it, though, and can’t repress his anger at being forced to spend time in a part of the city he feels is beneath him.

Things start to come to a head when Buggin’ Out notices that the Wall of Fame in Sal’s only has pictures of Italian-Americans on it. Since they are in a predominantly black neighborhood, Buggin’ Out wants, as he says, some brothers on the wall. Things get more tense when Radio Raheem, his gigantic boombox blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” asks for a couple of slices, but refuses to turn off the music.

Slowly, inch by inch, the tension gets ratcheted up until it finally reaches a breaking point. The end of the film, while perhaps predictable, is predictable only because it is also inevitable. The tragedy here is not that the story essentially ends with a riot, but that like happens so often, things escalate into insanity from such a simple, mundane, banal beginning.

There are no answers here, only questions—the mark in my mind of a great film. The questions are made more difficult by one simple fact: Mookie, the one person who lives in both worlds (and in meta-thinking, the guy who wrote, directed, and produced the film), is also the one who causes the incident inciting the riot at end film’s climax. Mookie is the one who touches off the crowd despite his allegiance to Sal and the pizzeria.

Who’s right here? Doesn’t Sal have the right to hang what he wants on the walls of his own place? Does Buggin’ Out have a point that he should be more attuned to his customers if he wants to be a part of the neighborhood?

This is a film that demands not only to be watched, but to be discussed, at length, and with a mind toward frankness and openness on all sides. Put bluntly, this is Spike Lee’s best and most thought-provoking film. If the 1001 list were reduced to 10% of its size, I’d argue for this film to stay on it. It’s that good, and it’s that important.

Why to watch Do the Right Thing: The conversation is worth having.
Why not to watch: The conversation easily slides into argument.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Forward and Back

Film: Memento
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library on laptop.

I’m standing in the library at the school I work at, looking over the two shelves of DVDs we have. We have a couple of dozen on the list that I haven’t watched yet. I pick out a half dozen or so, including Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

is a film that plays with the most basic notions of storytelling, and does so brilliantly. The forms and methods of storytelling have been with us for so long, that to make such a basic and fundamental shift in the actual form of narration is a form of brilliance. It doesn’t hurt that the story, while ultimately simple watched in the correct sequence, is made complex, interesting, and gripping by shuffling it in this way.

I arrive home and immediately have to deal with what appears to be the nightly argument between my daughters. With that resolved, I look at the stack of DVDs I’ve come home with and select one. Memento seems like a good choice for the evening, based on the time and the fact that I do need to get up for work early.

This is a truly innovative film, and it is innovative in a basic way. Playing with the idea of narration is a risky proposition at best, but here it works. While much of the film is confusing, and makes sense only after the entire film is digested, it is fascinating to watch. Each character slowly changes just as in a traditional narrative, but as we the audience gain more and more information about each character, Leonard gains less and less, making him more and more naïve as the narration spools back.

I plug the DVD into the CD drive of the laptop. The film begins and my children run back and forth through the kitchen. Gail has a friend over tonight, so it’s louder than usual. I consider moving in to the bedroom, but I decide I am comfortable where I am.

The bulk of the story is told in reverse order, in color. Each scene here ends where the previous scene began, and this frequently leaves the viewer in the same sort of state of confusion that Leonard must exist in virtually every moment of every day. As this story plays out, it becomes possible to piece together small bits of the story, but there is nothing like realization of what is happening until the very end of the film, which is also the beginning of the narrative.

As the film plays, I recognize particular actors in small roles. I had forgotten that Stephen Tobolowsky was in this movie. I like Stephen Tobolowsky. More surprising for me is the presence of Thomas Lennon, the guy from Reno 911, here playing the much more serious role of a researcher. I find it interesting when directors cast comedic actors in serious roles. I also recall having the same reaction to seeing Michael Hitchcock in Serenity.

The story is completely straightforward, really. However, it is told in two different styles. The first style is in black and white, and generally consists of Leonard talking to someone on the phone. Most of this story explains Leonard’s condition through the example of another man with the same condition. In his former life, Leonard was an insurance investigator, and his most interesting case involved a man with anterograde amnesia. The man, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) can’t add new memories, and has no system for dealing with his life. Through investigation, Leonard determines that Sammy’s condition is entirely mental, possibly psychosomatic, and thus his claim is denied.

In the film, Guy Pearce tattoos himself with a pen and a needle. I don’t like needles. Watching something like this, even when I know it’s fake, really bothers me. Thankfully, the scene isn’t too hard to watch.

Aiding Leonard, at least in his mind, are two people. The first is Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who is actually using Leonard’s bizarre condition for her own ends. The other assistant is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who may be a cop, may be the man who killed Leonard’s wife, and may be something else entirely.

I can remember watching this movie in the past. I had a similar reaction to it the last time I saw it. It requires almost constant attention. I’m happy to be wearing a pair of headphones to help me drown out the noise of the kids in the next room.

Leonard’s tattoos are all related to the murder of his wife (played in flashback by Jorja Fox). Leonard encountered two drug dealers raping and murdering her. While he managed to kill one of them, the other got away, and injured him, causing the anterograde amnesia. Now he is driven by revenge.

I wonder about the risks being taken by Christopher Nolan with this film. Evidently, on the more well-endowed version of the DVD, there is a way to watch the film in chronological order, with the black and white scenes first, followed by the color scenes in proper narrative order rather than how they are normally presented in the film.

Leonard gets around his memory problem with two types of note. The first are Polaroid photographs. He takes pictures of everything important to him—people, his hotel room, his car. When needed, he writes additional notes on the photographs to help him remember further. More important pieces of information are tattooed on his body, all done in ways so that he can read them. Tattoos on his chest, for instance, are done backwards so he can read them in the mirror. The tattoos on his legs are upside down so that he can read them when he sees them.

The question the film asks is nothing as heady as the nature of memory or anything like that. As the film continues, the question becomes whether or not Leonard actually killed his wife, or already got revenge on the people who killed his wife. There is no real way to tell. Such is the nature of Leonard’s condition. Even he can’t remember what he has done.

At its heart, Memento is a straightforward tale of revenge and deception. The twist in terms of the story comes in the mental disability of our main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce). Leonard has anterograde amnesia, meaning that he is completely unable to create new memories. He knows who he is, and he knows what has happened to him, but since the incident that drives the film and his revenge, he is unable to add anything new.

Film over. Time for bed. Thankfully, I’ll remember this tomorrow.

There is a natural way that we tell stories. While we might deal with a flashback or two, or a start near the end with a very long flashback that gets us back to the start, for the most part, we like our stories to go in a particular direction: front to back. Playing with these established rules of narration offers only a couple of possibilities. The most likely possibility is that you end up with a mess. The other possibility is that you end up with a story that rewrites in many ways the idea of narration, and you get something like Memento.

Why to watch Memento: Perhaps once in a lifetime, someone creates an entirely new way to tell a story. This is one of those rare times.
Why not to watch: Blink and you’ll end up confused.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Brando Sings!

Film: Guys and Dolls
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I promise that I won’t bore you with my normal complaint about musicals in general. By this time, you’ve already heard it, and you know what I’m going to say. Suffice to say that I’m trying to watch about one per week so that I’m not leaving them all to the end. Since I’m also trying to get through some of the longer films on the list, I’ve buckled down to give Guys and Dolls a whirl. According to the trailer, Ed Sullivan thinks it’s the greatest musical ever made, which I guess puts me at odds with Ed Sullivan. He’s dead, though, so I don’t really care.

Enter Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra). He runs a floating craps game in New York, but is having trouble locating a place for the evening’s festivities. This is because Lieutenant Brannigan is on Detroit’s case and is looking to bust not only him, but all of his cronies, gamblers, and associates. Because of this, only one venue will offer him the place for the night, but the owner wants $1000 up front and in cash. This causes Nathan Detroit and his two associates, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye) and Benny Southstreet (Johnny Silver) to sing.

Things are more critical for Detroit because it is also the 14th anniversary of his engagement to Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), and he can’t even afford a present for her. More problematic is that at the moment, there are dozens of the highest rollers in town looking for action, and none is higher or more action-prone than Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando). What’s a crooked racketeer to do?

What he does, aside from sing a lot and talk completely without contractions (more on this in a moment), is make a bet with Sky Masterson. Sky is nicknamed thus because he bets big and he bets crazy. Nathan comments that Sky once refused penicillin because he had a running bet that his fever would hit 104 degrees. Masterson will bet anyone on anything. The bet this time is for that fabled $1000 that Nathan needs for his craps game. The subject of the bet is Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), a Sergeant in the Salvation Army (and the user of all of my capital s’s). If Sky can get the priggish, upright, staid, and excessively religious Sarah to accompany him to Havana, he wins. If he can’t, Nathan wins and can run his game, and thus make enough money to finally make an honest woman out of Adelaide.

Of course, since this is a musical from the 50s and taking place in either the 30s or 40s (I think. I’m not really sure), you can expect that there will be a considerable amount of confusion, frustration, and whacky hijinks before it all comes out right at the end. That’s the way these things tend to work—we’re talking musical here, not opera, after all.

Several things strike me about these characters and this story. First, no one uses contractions. No one. Because of this, everyone speaks in an overly formal style that I find incredibly grating and stiff. It is (sorry, I am trying to demonstrate how this comes across), unnatural and weird. In addition to the lack of contractions, everyone enunciates everything completely. There are no elisions in any word or phrase, so everything is hyper pronounced, almost as if being badly recited after practicing for too long with Mommy before the school recital. My biggest problem with musicals in general is this disconnect with reality, and this only makes that disconnect larger and more glaring.

Second, and more important in the overall scheme of things in the film is that I dislike the characters in this film intensely. Part of that is no doubt the inability to use contractions or talk in a way that is even remotely natural. The main part of it is that our characters come in two, maybe three flavors. The predominant flavor is jerk. Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Benny Southstreet, and all of the other gamblers and criminals are jerks who deserve a punch in the face more than my concern or empathy. These guys treat women shabbily, treat each other like chumps, and then smile and expect us in the audience to clap for them. The second, less overwhelming but equally unpleasant flavor of character here is self-righteous prig. That’s our pal Sister Sarah, who is two mules short of being interesting. She is supposed to come off as well-meaning and well-intentioned, but she comes off as holier-than-thou (or me) and prudish. If we have a third flavor, a toxic fudge swirl to go with the rancid vanilla and putrefied chocolate, it’s stupid. Adelaide and other women typically act like their brains have dislodged and are simply rolling around inside their skulls, connected to nothing.

I’ll give you that the songs are okay, but like any musical, I like them better out of context than in context. And for the record, Brando can sing well enough to get by. Good for him.

The final thing is this—while the songs are decent, the attitude of many of them, as well as much of what wanders past on the streets of New York while the songs are playing is, at least in the modern world, incredibly misogynist. Women aren’t anything here but accessories, and the men who love them love the idea of them more than the women themselves. Sky Masterson says early that “dolls” are great, but interchangeable. While he may well have changed the surface of that opinion by the end of the film, there’s no real evidence for me that his thinking goes any further than “this one has everything I want.” It’s also worth noting that the story plays into that classic fallacy of “I can get him to change for me.” No, you can’t. He just learns to fake it better.

Why to watch Guys and Dolls: Brando sings! Brando dances!
Why not to watch: If the characters aren’t rogues and jackasses, they are self-righteous prigs and jackasses.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

There's Terrorism, and then there's Terrorism

Film: La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers)
Format: DVD from Seneca Public Library through interlibrary loan on itty bitty bedroom television.

So it feels like forever since I’ve watched a movie, and it has been more than a week. The rigors of real life sometimes get in the way of our avocations, and the end of a quarter for me means mountains of grading papers, which means no ability to concentrate on a film. I’ve been aching to watch something, and finally feel like I can watch in peace now that the quarter is done.

Today’s film is La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers), a film so controversial that it was banned in France the moment the film was exposed, just about. I’m often surprised when a film is banned in some places, France being a place that to me seems like it would have a more open policy on the controversial and unusual. However, having seen the film, I understand why it was banned. I may not agree with the decision, but I understand it.

I can also see that the film would be highly controversial today in this country. Looking at the wars this country is fighting, any film about a battle for freedom, particularly a battle that involves liberal uses of terrorism on the one side, and torture on the other. There’s something here for virtually anyone and everyone to be offended by, and methods used that are distasteful and unpleasant.

This is the story of the Algerian battle for freedom against the French colonial forces occupying the country. The battle took place in the mid-late 1950s, shortly after the French were summarily pushed out of their colonies in Vietnam by the rebellious forces there. The French military, thus, had something to prove, having been recently embarrassed, and took the opportunity to come down on Algeria with an iron hand.

The Algerians, who wanted their freedom, responded in the only way they had available to them—with acts of terrorism. The film is unflinching in its revelation of the methods used on both sides of the conflict. The French torture their captives in their attempts to roll up the various cells of Algerian rebels, claiming only that they use valid interrogation methods to get the information they need to find other members of the FLN, the Algerian resistance. Several scenes of this are depicted, and depicted harshly. Men are nearly drowned, beaten, burned with blowtorches, suspended by their hands and knees, and shocked with electrodes. In one case early in the film, a man is executed with a guillotine. It’s brutal and harsh, and easy to side with the Algerian cause.

However, filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo does not make that decision an easy one, or even the only possible one. The FLN counters the French domination with random murders of police officers, looting the corpses of guns to use in further assassinations. As a more direct and terrible method, women are recruited to plant bombs in bars, cafes, and at the airport, killing innocents. Again, there is little disguising of the results of such actions. We are shown the innocent civilians before the bomb explosions—young children eating ice cream, teenagers dancing to popular music—and then the terrible results of the terrorist blasts.

By exposing both sides of the conflict in this way, Pontecorvo does not provide any easy answers, but instead gives us nothing but difficult questions. What lengths should people be willing to go for their freedom? Are some methods too far? Is it the soldier’s job to moralize his responsibilities, or simply his task to follow the orders he is given? What right does one country have to occupy and pacify another? What methods can be or should be legitimately used to be victorious in a battle or a war?

Tough questions, and questions worth talking about and thinking about. La Battaglia di Algeri asks them not because the answers are easy or obvious, but because they are so difficult and need to be asked. Avoiding the difficult questions keeps us from moving forward, and forces us to repeat things like this terrible war. It’s worth watching for the same reasons.

Why to watch La Battaglia di Algeri: Asks questions more relevant today than 50 years ago.
Why not to watch: The only answers you’ll get are the ones you come up with yourself.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Pearl of Great Price

Film: Tabu
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Is there a story more common, more well-known than that of the star-crossed, doomed lovers? Probably not. It’s a tale oft told and loved. Harlequin Romances have made more than a cottage industry on the idea of pairing the frail, idealistic woman with the dangerous, romantic hero. At least I think that’s true. That’s what the movies have taught me, at least. Having never read a Harlequin Romance, I’m basing this off what I remember from Romancing the Stone.

But hey, Romeo and Juliet has been kicked around in various fashion since long before Billy the Shake (Shakespeare’s MC name) crafted the version with those particular lovers. The Greeks and Romans had their share of doomed couples, and almost certainly the Sumerians and Babylonians before them did as well.

Tabu is such a tale set on the South Seas island of Bora Bora, demonstrating that awesome tendency toward reduplication so common in many Austronesian languages. The film concerns, of course, a pair of young lovers. The boy (yes, that’s his name in the credits; he’s played by Matahi, who has only one name, and is generally referred to in the film as Matahi) is a good hunter and fisherman, two important skills in this community. The girl (credited in a piece of fake ethnology as Reri, but actually played by Anne Chevalier) is of shocking beauty. Matahi meets her and falls for her instantly, and the two are happy.

The problem occurs when the chief of all of the islands arrives with news. The maid of the gods has died, and the successor to her must come from this island. The old warrior (Hitu) announces that the girl Reri has been selected to become the new maiden of the gods. It’s a great honor, but it comes with a substantial downside. Betrothed to the gods, Reri immediately becomes taboo; no one can touch her or even look upon her with desire or will suffer immediate death. And thus we have our doomed lovers and a plot for the final hour of the film.

What happens next will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen any film involving this plot, or indeed read a single story that involves this idea. The boy sneaks onto the boat holding the girl and preparing to send her away from him forever, absconds with her, and sails off away from the rest of his people to find a place where the two of them can live together, regardless of the taboo against touching her. Naturally, they are pursued by the man charged with her retrieval.

Additionally, the pair is also taken advantage of by those more aware of the workings of the world than they are. Unused to the concept of money, the boy frequently gives away valuables, and then must risk his life to pay off huge debts he didn’t know he’d acquired and wasn’t aware that he’d have to pay. It’s almost impossible to avoid some level of stereotyping in a film like this on one level or another. The boy and girl are shown as being hopelessly naïve and backward, and are cheated by not a white man, but a Chinese one.

F.W. Murnau is credited with the direction this film, and he did do most of it except for the opening sequence. But the film is helped in no small part by the work of Robert Flaherty, best known for Nanook of the North. Tabu is not an ethnography and doesn’t purport itself to be anything other than a love story, but there is a sense of the people in the film being portrayed in more or less a realistic fashion. Of course, Flaherty wasn’t above staging things for his other films, and thus the reality here needs to be questioned.

While nothing here is particularly shocking, for the time it almost certainly was. Not the story, nor the characters, but the clothing. More specifically, the lack thereof. Tabu is from 1931, and for at least a portion of the film, many of the young, nubile Bora Boran (that’s a guess, but if it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be) girls are topless, adorned from the waist up only with a lei that covers nothing. This film was also likely the introduction for many people to the hula, or similar dances, and it is certainly suggestive for the cultural standards of the early 1930s. All that pelvic thrusting and such.

A couple of things are worth noting, both about the film in general and the version that I watched. First is that this was the final film of the great F.W. Murnau. My age when he died, Murnau was killed in a car accident just a week before the premiere of this film in New York. While not my favorite of his movies, it’s a fitting end to a career cut far too short.

Second, while the transfer I watched was a good one in terms of the film quality, this version from Milestone has a terrible soundtrack in places. For the most part, the music is unremarkable and relatively appropriate, but some of it is flat terrible. The instrumental pieces are good, but several of the songs also have vocals, and these are borderline embarrassing. Several of the songs sound like Alpine yodeling while others are closer to what it would sound like if very very white people who have never been closer to the South Seas than Des Moines tried to get funky.

Silent films are often very stylized and overacted. It was a function of the time and a function of not having sound. Surprisingly, from the guy who created the hyper-stylized Nosferatu that this film does not really come across as overacted in the style common for silent dramas. Because of that, to modern eyes, the film comes across as more honest than it otherwise might.

Unusual for the time, unusual by some standards even today, the film does not condescend regarding the natives. A particularly rich pearl bed, for instance, is considered taboo because of native superstition according to the police on the island our couple goes to after fleeing. When one diver breaks the taboo and dives there, he is killed by a huge shark, demonstrating that there might be something to the taboo after all. Of course, just as he has broken the taboo by stealing the girl, Matahi will eventually break this taboo as well.

Is this a great movie? Probably. Silent films, or at least silent dramas, always lose something in the translation to a modern audience. But Murnau was nothing if not ahead of his time. The shocks still work, and the scenery is beautiful, especially when considering the equipment available at the time.

Why to watch Tabu: Exotic locales, exotic people.
Why not to watch: Same old story.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Perfect 1980s Film

Film: Ghost Busters
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

A couple of notes before we head into this one full-force. First, as should be evident from the information listed above, we’ve finally broken down and gotten a NetFlix account. I’ll continue to use the library at home and near work as well as interlibrary loan and sometimes the Northern Illinois University library, but a couple of NetFlix films every week will make a lot of films easier to locate, and should save me a good bit of time.

Second, I realize that so far, when I’ve watched two movies on the same day, I review them in the same post, so this is kind of a break from the established. Regarding that, I have several things to say. First, there are no rules regarding this thing I’ve set for myself. I’m not so much breaking a rule as I am altering a tradition. Second, I actually watched Crumb a couple of days ago but didn’t have time to write it up until this morning. Third, shut up. This is my blog and I can do what I want.


I’m certain that there are people in the world who don’t like Ghost Busters, although I’ve never met one. Our heroes are a trio of scientists who are kicked out of their cushy university research jobs because of a complete lack of results. They are the uptight serious nerd, Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis); the goofy, energetic dork, Ray Stanz (Dan Akroyd); and obnoxious, jerkish Bill Murray character, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray). All three are investigators in the paranormal, and Egon and Ray believe that they have the ability to capture and contain an actual spirit.

These three are quickly contrasted with Dana (Sigourney Weaver), a professional musician with the New York Philharmonic, who begins to experience strange happenings in her kitchen. Strange like her eggs spontaneously cracking open and cooking on her countertop. Strange like a demonic dragon creature living in her refrigerator.

Ghost Busters, despite the fact that it deals with the paranormal, is a comedy, and it is very much a comedy. This movie is funny as all hell, one of the funniest pieces of film ever created. It is an icon not only of the 1980s, but of comedy in general.

Chances are that you have already seen Ghost Busters, so there’s really not much of a need to go into the rest of the plot, the various sight gags, the collection of characters that show up, or the incredibly funny rampaging monster that attacks the city of New York at the end of the film. You’re familiar enough with the material already. If you aren’t familiar with this movie, you should go rent it right now and watch it half a dozen times.

The question with this movie isn’t whether or not it is funny. The question for me is why it’s funny. For the life of me, I don’t know why the movie is funny, but it is, and almost constantly. I mean, the Bill Murray character is an ass. Essentially, he’s the classic Bill Murray character from 1980s films. It’s the same guy he played in Stripes and Meatballs. He’s a dick, but he’s a really funny one. There’s a joy to this film that is rare. It’s evident that these guys had a great time making it. There’s a great cast in addition to the three main players and Sigourney Weaver. Annie Potts as their receptionist is tremendous, as is Ernie Hudson as Winston, the guy they hire when they get busy. Rick Moranis as Dana’s neighbor is suitably nebbish-y and entertaining. William Atherton, who made a name for himself playing cinematic douchebags, particularly as the smarmy reporter in the Die Hard series, makes the film as the guy from the EPA.

While Ghost Busters isn’t perfect, the cast is. This film wasn’t really a star-making performance for anyone, but more a star-confirming piece for everyone. Few films have this good of a cast all at the tops of their games. It isn’t evident in this film that Bill Murray had learned how to do anything other than be funny—there’s no proof here that he could act. There’s a sense in almost every scene he’s in that he’s winking and nodding to the audience, but it’s also done well enough that no one really cares.

This doesn’t take into account the various theological implications of this film. For instance, in a country where the vast majority of those with religious beliefs hold in one Supreme Being (of various names, depending on the flavor of monotheism), this film essentially posits that a Sumerian deity actually exists. I’m a little surprised that no one seems to glom onto that with this film—it’s exactly the kind of thing that should really irritate anyone with a religious axe to grind, and those people are legion. Admittedly, that’s probably heavier and deeper than even the creators of this film want anyone to delve, but it does create implications that other ancient deities might exist as well—which should have opened up a whole cool realm for a franchise of sequels. Instead, we got a terrible sequel, one that can’t carry this one’s ectoplasm.

What it ultimately boils down to is this: Ghost Busters is fun. It’s ridiculous and silly and brilliant. As I sit here, looking over the films that are still to come, seeing endless lists of serious Bergman movies, depressing dramas from the Eastern Bloc, and films that touch on every depressing, scary, painful topic known to humankind, it’s a relief to see films like this one pop up.

These days, when we’ve become so used to fantastic special effects that often take the place of story, it’s possible to see the strings on many of the effects here. But so what? If you watch this film and don’t laugh, it’s because either you’re dead or you had your sense of humor surgically removed.

Bergman and death and depression can wait. Life’s too short not to bust a few ghosts and revel in brilliant one-liners.

Why to watch Ghost Busters: One of the funniest films ever made, from the 1980s or any other decade.
Why not to watch: It spawned one of the worst sequels in movie history.


Film: Crumb
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

It’s easy to say that every family is at least mildly dysfunctional, and I think there’s some truth to that. There isn’t a person in the world who doesn’t have a relative or two that they’d rather not be related to, and some have entire families like that. My wife really enjoys books about people with incredibly messed up childhoods. I think this is in part to take a step back and see that most of the people we know—and our own family—is essentially normal.

is a documentary about the life, art, and family of underground comic artist Robert Crumb. Almost immediately in the film he introduces himself to an audience at an art school with his three most well known pieces of work: the “Keep on Truckin’” guy, the cover for the Big Brother and the Holding Company album Cheap Thrills, and Fritz the Cat.

As the film progresses, we investigate both the artwork and career of Crumb and the family that he grew up with and around. Anyone with a typically dysfunctional family should find a great deal of comfort in the level of dysfunction evident here. Robert is intensely strange, filled with quirks and twitches, and of the three brothers in the family, is without question the most normal and well adjusted. His older brother Charles is a recluse, unable to leave the house and on massive amounts of medication. His younger brother Maxon sits on a bed of nails, passes a long cloth through his body as a cleansing ritual, and has several convictions for molestation.

A vast amount of this film concerns itself with Crumb’s life and work, and it is impossible to talk about the one without the other. Much of Crumb’s work is deeply autobiographical, concerning his own hang-ups and life. And there are a lot of hang-ups to deal with here, a great number of them sexual. So, naturally, much of the film is about his relationship with women and his ideas of them.

Crumb’s work tends to be controversial because of his idealized fantasies, many of which are expounded on in this documentary. As with any art, Crumb’s work is open to a variety of interpretations. Is he misogynist? Perhaps. Does he instead admire women react the way he does because of a fear of them? That’s certainly a possible interpretation. Is it both? It’s almost impossible to say. There’s no question that many of his women are depicted as powerful and beautiful, but are just as commonly subjugated, chained, and abased.

The same conversation can happen with the subject of racism. Is he a racist? He very well may be, and many of depictions of anyone who isn’t white is stylized and hyper stereotypical. The question becomes whether or not he is a racist or if he is merely shining a spotlight on racism. It’s impossible to tell, and that is very much what makes it fascinating. His work is polarizing, as good or great art should be.

Crumb is an honest and open portrayal of a deeply strange man who seems able to connect with the outside world only through his artwork. Robert Crumb is a fascinating character in his own right, but the sort of person it would be difficult to know personally. I can imagine being simultaneously annoyed and intrigued by him on a personal level.

This is a magnificent portrait, and a great film.

Why to watch Crumb: An astonishingly honest portrayal of a deeply troubled, deeply brilliant man.
Why not to watch: Arguments about the meaning of Crumb’s work with other people who’ve seen the film.

Friday, June 11, 2010

All Hail the New Flesh

Film: Videodrome
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Ask me who is underrated as a director and I’d have a couple of answers for you. Guillermo del Toro certainly rates on this list for me, as does David Fincher, who never gets the acclaim he should. No one is more underrated in my opinion than David Cronenberg, though. Perhaps no other director has done more with less and done it well than Cronenberg. Few of his films are weirder or more interesting than Videodrome, which is oddly prophetic in places.

Max Renn (James Woods) is a sleazy manager of an equally sleazy television station called CCTV in Toronto. He makes his living showing soft-core porn and extreme violence. Nothing is ever “tough” enough for him, and he’s always looking to find something more. In addition to his television station, Renn also runs a pirate TV lab that pulls in signals from the rest of the world. The man who works here, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), has uncovered something he thinks Renn might like. Apparently streaming from Malaysia, the video feed depicts a woman being brutally tortured, and it’s impossible to tell if it’s the real thing or faked.

Renn is later a guest on a television program where he defends himself and his station to a psychologist named Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and a man who calls himself Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). O’Blivion won’t appear in person, but instead is on camera on a television set, claiming that he’ll only appear on television if he’s on another television. Max chats up Nicki, ignoring O’Blivion.

More investigating into the strange signal, which is evidently called “Videodrome” is not coming from Malaysia, but Pittsburgh. Max hooks up (in the modern parlance) with Nicki, and shows her the program. As it turns out, Nicki, the helpful, caring radio psychologist is also a masochist and is intensely turned on by the show. She has evidence of recent cuts from sex partners on her body and invites Max to cut her, something he’s not sure he’s really into. And as the conversation continues, it becomes apparent that she would love to be a “contestant” on Videodrome herself. Max buys into the pain thing, and while the tape plays on behind them, the two get freaky in a very real sense. I’ll just say that it involves very long needles, and serves as yet another reminder as to why I remain without piercings.

Max’s desire to track down the show conflicts with his desire to keep Nicki away from it. When she goes on assignment to Pittsburgh and doesn’t return, he’s now far more involved than he’d like to be. Through his connection Masha (Lynne Gorman), he finds out more about the rogue program. Masha is convinced that there are no actors involved—it’s snuff television—and she tells him the name she found is none other than Brian O’Blivion, the professor from the television.

In tracking down Brian O’Blivion, Max finds his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), who runs a mission for the homeless that encourages the people to watch hours and hours of television. It seems Brian O’Blivion no longer engages in conversation, but he does send Max a tape that changes everything. Actually, everything changes before he even watches the tape. When he takes it out of the box, it begins breathing.

What follows, the better part of an hour, is something like a fever dream as Max begins to hallucinate and neither he nor the viewer is ever certain if what is happening on screen is real or a bizarre, irrational fantasy. O’Blivion is evidently killed on the tape by a masked attacker, who turns out to be Nicki.

This synopsis covers less than the first half of this movie. For a B-movie, it’s pretty dense, which is one of the reasons I love Cronenberg’s work. It falls directly into the heart of the majority of Cronenberg’s work, which has always been about our relationships with our own bodies. Much of his work touches on this at least tangentially, and much of his best work sees it as a central theme—The Fly, for instance, is all about the betrayal of our own bodies, as were Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. Here, the theme appears central due to all of the extreme body modification that takes place, but I think it’s actually not the central point of the film.

What is central here is our relationship with media, and television in particular. In the Videodrome world, this obsession is a costly one, one that will eventually kill us all. It’s also where Cronenberg appears the most prescient. O’Blivion is usually his messenger for these prophecies—like how one day we’ll all have special names that we use (like on the Internet), or how what we see on television becomes reality for us, more real than what we experience in our daily lives.

Videodrome is a troubling movie. It asks difficult, real questions and offers few, if any, answers. It’s also disturbing because many of its images are terribly disturbing as well, and while some of the effects don’t really hold up after 27 years, some of them definitely do. The obvious disturbing stuff is the physical alterations Max Renn goes through—the gigantic stomach/vagina is the most iconic—but there’s a lot here that is viscerally disturbing and more that is emotionally and philosophically disturbing.

What sells Videodrome is that it’s more relevant now than it was when it was made.

Why to watch Videodrome: Prophetic vision of our relationship with video.
Why not to watch: Two words: stomach/vagina.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cagney and Lace Ups

Film: Footlight Parade
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

After yesterday’s films, I thought it would be a good idea to watch something wholesome and normal. Since I’ve fairly obviously decided that this month is going to be all about foreign films and musicals, it was time for another musical. Unless I chose really, really badly, there was no way possible that I could find a musical as weird as yesterday’s films. I suppose Oh! Calcutta! or Cannibal: The Musical probably would qualify, but neither is on the list. Fortunately.

Instead, I went with Footlight Parade, a musical from 1933 with enough stars to choke a donkey. This is something I do find interesting about films from the early days of movies, especially of the Hollywood variety. These days, a typical film might have a couple of major stars in it. Back then, it was pack ‘em in sideways like sardines.

The film centers around the life of Chester Kent (James Cagney), a theatrical producer who finds himself out of work. Why? Talkies. Everyone’s gone to the movies (pardon the Steely Dan reference there), leaving the traditional theaters empty. His wife immediately divorces him, leaving him alone and without work until he hits on a fantastic idea. His backers, the theater owners (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl), run small production numbers before their films, but are getting ready to cut them. Kent offers to create these numbers for them, and so they can send their troupes out to other theaters in other cities. These “prologues” as they are called become an immediate hit.

And now we get to all of the personalities. First is Kent’s assistant Harry Thompson (Gordon Westcott), who is secretly selling Kent’s ideas to a competitor. Also in the mix is Kent’s secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who is not-so-secretly in love with Kent. An acquaintance of hers, Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd), is a not-so-subtle gold digger trying to get her hooks into Kent as well. Kent’s bosses are skimming all of the profit off the top. The dance director (Frank McHugh) is a whiney crybaby who complains constantly. The new juvenile (Dick Powell) and the dancer cum secretary cum dancer (Ruby Keeler) both hate and love each other, a situation exacerbated by the juvenile’s sugar momma (Ruth Donnelly), who also happens to be one of the producer’s wife. Oh, and there’s a censor (Hugh Herbert) who hates everything Kent creates.


The climax of the film comes long before the end. All of the various plots come to a head at the exact same moment, or at least within a few minutes of each other and everything gets resolved. The last half hour or so are three individual musical numbers, each one a show stopper.

Essentially, what happens is that Kent finds out his wife never really divorced him, and now that he’s rolling in cash and fame, she wants a cut. Our gold digger has exacted a promised marriage, and she refuses to back down, threatening to sue. And even though they’re stealing from him, the producers need Kent to come up with three fantastic prologues to wow a potential new client and prevent him from going to the competition. All of this and more winds up at the same time so we can get to the big finish, the second big finish, and then the grand finale on top of the big finish.

These numbers are interesting, and very much movie numbers. Allegedly, these are being performed on a stage, but not a one of them would work on an actual stage, since they involve switching scenery and locations at lightning speed. Additionally, the second number in particular only works in many places if viewed from above, since it’s a massive water ballet. An audience would first be shocked by seeing a gigantic swimming pool on a theater stage. Second, all they’d see is bobbing heads instead of the intricate patterns we are blessed thanks to a fortuitous camera angle.

It’s these numbers that are the selling point of the film, of course, but also for me the place where the film breaks too much with reality. The numbers flat out don’t work for a theater audience. When the third number ends with Cagney essentially showing a flip-book cartoon…no one in the audience would see it, and the whole damn number would fall flat because of it.

Regardless of this, it’s impossible not to love Cagney in this film. He plays his role with a manic energy, shows off his odd dancing style, and really hoofs the hell out of it in the Shanghai Nights number at the end. Joan Blondell is exactly the sort of girl every guy would want—competent, funny, and a smartass. Introducing her “friend” Vivian Rich, she calls her “Miss Bi…Rich” in one of the funniest moments of the film. Another is when she tells Vivian that as long as sidewalks exist, girls like her will have a job, and she kicks Vivian out the door with a boot to the posterior.

I realize times have changed. Everyone makes a big deal of how beautiful Ruby Keeler is when she takes off the glasses and puts on dancer’s togs. For my money, she looked better with the glasses.

As much as this film moves away from reality, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. It’s just too much fun.

Why to watch Footlight Parade: A cast of thousands, but especially Cagney, Keeler, and Blondell.
Why not to watch: Hollywood reality never comes close to reality reality.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sex is Good

Films: L’Age D’Or (The Age of Gold), W.R.: Misterije Organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism)
Format: DVD from New Lennox Public Library through interlibrary loan (Gold); DVD from Rockford Public Library (Organism), both on laptop.

I have a degree in linguistics. There are a few realities about linguists that non-linguists don’t know. First, we don’t tend to correct the way people talk. Linguists don’t tell people how they should talk; they study how people actually do talk. Second, all linguists love the art of Magritte. Just like engineers and mathematicians love Escher (I do, too), linguists love a guy who can create a painting of a pipe, write “this is not a pipe” under it, and get away with it.

Magritte was a surrealist, so it wouldn’t shock me if you thought I was really into surrealist art. You’d be wrong. I have an appreciation for some surrealism, but a lot of it leaves me cold. It reminds me a lot of a bunch of Monty Python routines where things will just appear for no reason. That’s surrealism I could get behind. I’m never sure with most surrealists, though, if they’re serious or if I should be laughing at it. I seriously can’t tell. This is especially true with surrealist film.

L’Age D’Or (The Age of Gold) is a perfect example of this. It’s an hour of virtually plotless weirdness that I’m not sure what to make of. Was Bunuel trying to make a statement? Was he just screwing around with his audience? Was the film banned because of something Bunuel did or was it banned because the powers that be assumed that he did something worth banning? It’s a legitimate question when it comes to surrealist film. Regardless of whether or not there is something troubling in L’Age D’Or, it didn’t receive its American debut until nearly fifty years after it was created.

I’d love to go into the plot, but it’s pretty much impossible. It starts as a documentary about scorpions, then becomes…well…I don’t really know. A guy walks down a mountain. There are bishops chanting on the seashore. Guys talk about people from Majorca. A group of people walk to the seashore and the bishops are now skeletons. A woman giggles and the crowd turns to see a man and a woman moments away from getting it on while rolling in the mud. They chase her away, and two guys handcuff our lothario and walk off with him. They turn up later in Rome.

Then there’s a party. A guy shoots his son in broad daylight. The lothario from earlier slaps a woman at the party and people take greater offense to this than the man shooting his child. The guy and the daughter (I think) of the woman he slapped go off to the garden and come moments away from humping each other. They’re interrupted by a phone call, and while he goes off to the phone, she fellates(!) the toes of a statue. Then she goes off with another guy, and our hero has a temper tantrum that involves tossing stuff out a window. Then there’s a reference to the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom involving a guy who looks like Jesus. And then it ends.

Of course, this doesn’t touch all of the bizarre imagery that shows up throughout. There’s a cow on a bed, for instance. The guy’s temper tantrum involves throwing a burning tree, a bishop, and a gigantic plow out a window. Seriously, I don’t know if I should be laughing at it or thoughtfully stroking my beard and commenting on the deep meaning that Bunuel obviously meant with his juxtaposition of elements.

If you put a gun (or, if the surrealist in you prefers, a bright purple socket wrench) to my head, I’d tell you that I think this film is about sex. It’s about the fact that society tends to have a negative view of sex publically but has the opposite opinion privately, and this disparity between our natural desire for it and the societal pressure against it leads to problems and often to violence. That’s a guess, of course. It could just be that Bunuel is screwing with us all.

Is it good? Is it meaningful? Is it worth watching? Hard to say, honestly. I think I’m glad I watched it, but I don’t know that I’d call it good or meaningful, or really anything other than valuable because of what it is. Sorry if that’s a cop-out. I’m entitled every once in awhile.

We’re staying in weird territory with W.R.: Misterije Organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism).While I don’t have any proof at this point in my lengthy countdown, my guess is that this is about as close to pornography as exists here, considering that the opening ten minutes includes footage of people having sex, albeit in sepia tone and in a strange, hexagonal format.

This film is about half a documentary on the work of William Reich. Reich was a psychoanalyst who worked with Freud, attempting to rationalize Freud’s work with communism. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Reich fled, eventually winding up in the States. Here is where things started to get really bizarre. Reich claimed that he had discovered a form of energy he called “orgone” that was released during sex. He built a variety of devices that were supposed to harness this orgone and transfer it to patients. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration got an injunction against Reich, preventing the manufacture and sale of these devices. When Reich refused to comply, he was sentenced to two years in prison, and died before he was released. In an event uncommon for the U.S. government, Reich’s works were burned by the FDA.

Frankly, it’s beyond the scope of this blog and my education to discuss Reich’s theories or the possible existence of cosmic sex energy. I’m not even going to try. The video of people going through Reich’s techniques are some of the damnedest things I’ve seen on a screen.

So what’s the other half? I dunno. A lot of it feels like filmed performance art. The guy wearing the orange jumpsuit and the metal helmet, for instance, feels very much like this.

The rest is a film with an actual story that acts as a metaphor for Yugoslavia’s struggle under Russian communism. Yugoslavia here is represented by Milena (Milena Dravic), a communist revolutionary who preaches that free love needs to be a part of the socialist state—that without sex, the sex instinct gets sublimated into other things that eventually led to social problems and, more importantly, the problems of the world. Her roommate, Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper) is, for lack of a better term, the local slut, and thus obviously another believer in free love.

Milena’s argument at its heart is the opposite end of Orwell’s argument in 1984 for the existence of the Anti-Sex League. In Orwell’s world, the Anti-Sex League existed as a group that avoided all sexual contact, turning any sexual fervor into love and enthusiasm for the party. Milena essentially argues that without sex, the human race becomes something willingly led into anything.

Much of this story is intercut with the other pieces—discussions of artists, sessions of Reich’s work, and large groups of people screaming, shaking, and engaging in vaguely sexual non-sex. It’s plenty damn disturbing—primal scream therapy is not a pretty thing to look at, and a lot of Reich’s sessions look quite a bit like this. It’s nearly impossible to tell if the people in this footage are at the height of passion or the absolute pinnacle of horrendous pain.

Milena’s story revolves around a Russian ice skater, whom she seduces. It would spoil the film to reveal the ending of this particular affair, but it’s safe to say that filmmaker Dusan Makavejev wasn’t attempting to hide the metaphor; he named his Russian ice skater Vladamir Illyich, which was Lenin’s given name.

Is it good? I don’t really know. I feel almost unable to judge it. It’s not something I’ll watch again. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally watch. Controversial, certainly, but more bizarre than I’m comfortable with. I can’t think of a single person I’d recommend it to.

Why to watch L’Age D’or: Few movies swing this kind of influence.
Why not to watch: It makes no sense.

Why to watch W.R.: Misterije Organizma: Weird ideas never killed anyone.
Why not to watch: Weird ideas can give you a whanging headache.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Protagonist

Films: Ying Xiong (Hero), Point Blank
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty bedroom television (Hero), DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television (Point Blank).

First, a note: this should have gone up last night, but Blogger was down.

When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon first came out, people either loved it or hated it. I loved it; my mother hated it. I thought it was a beautiful story, and I loved the way it was filmed. I understand the thought that the wire work used throughout made it something of a fantasy rather than a realistic film, but martial arts movies have always contained a sense of the unreal. I wasn’t bothered by it. Instead, I was taken by the beauty of the story.

The same can be said of Hero, which follows many of the same conventions. It also bears a great deal of similarity to Rashomon, in that it tells the same story multiple ways, each slightly different, and each closer to reality than the one previous.

We start with the creation of China as a united nation. In the time of the story, China is actually seven nations. The most powerful is Qin, headed by a powerful king (Daoming Chen) who wishes to unite all seven kingdoms into one. To do this, he has created a large and terrible army capable of destroying anything in its path. He is also terribly paranoid of assassination, and does not allow anyone who isn’t a most trusted advisor within 100 paces.

A nameless man (Jet Li) has rendered the king a powerful service—he has killed the three assassins who have sought the life of the king since the beginning of the war. He arrives at the king’s palace with the weapons of all three as proof of their death. The killing of Sky (Donnie Yen) allows him to come within 20 paces of the king. Slaying the pair Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) allows the nameless man within a mere 10 paces.

Nameless relates his tale of how he destroyed Sky in battle. He also tells that Sky and Flying Snow had a one-night affair, which caused a rift between her and Broken Sword. He used this to push them further apart, causing her to kill Broken Sword. Then, with her distracted, he was able to kill her.

The king sees through this story, however. He realizes that nothing had come between the pair of assassins, since they worked as a perfect team in an attempt to kill him. Instead, he realizes that the nameless man is actually a fourth assassin, who compelled the other three to allow themselves to be killed so that he might have a chance at killing the king himself.

That’s really all there is to this story, but this is not a film so much about story. Instead, it is about love, betrayal, vengeance, and honor placed in a memorable time and location. It’s also about some of the prettiest fight choreography ever envisioned.

The fights are truly spectacular. They are obviously full of wire work, as the characters have a tendency to fly, spin, hover, and are capable of bouncing across water as if treading on trampolines. This doesn’t create something silly, however, Instead, it makes for scenes filled with beauty, as much about the scenery and the movements on screen as they are about the various reasons we are given for the people to be fighting.

It could be argued here that the story, for all its twists, turns, and revisions, is straightforward, almost simplistic. This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t really matter. This is a film to watch for its spectacle rather than the story.

In Point Blank, vengeance is the entire story. A man named Walker (Lee Marvin) agrees to help a friend named Mal Reese (John Vernon) out of a tight spot. Reese needs money to pay off a debt, and the pair plan to get it by robbing couriers making a drop on Alcatraz. The money they get isn’t enough, though, and Mal double-crosses Walker for his share of the take--$93,000. In fact, he shoots Walker a couple of times, leaves him to die, and runs off with his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker).

Walker survives the ordeal and swims to shore, making him one of the few (if not the only) person to escape from Alcatraz, Sean Connery in The Rock notwithstanding. Nursed back to health, Walker has only one goal. All he wants is his money. He doesn’t care about being set up, double crossed, or two-timed by his wife. All he wants is his cash, but Reese doesn’t want to pay.

As it turns out, Reese works for a criminal organization called simply The Organization. While Walker only wants his money, a mysterious man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) wants to take down the Organization. He seems to know everything about everybody, and he manages to put Walker on the trail of Lynne. Lynne leads Walker to a used car salesman named Stegman (Michael Strong), who leads to Lynne’s sister, Chris (Angie Dickenson). Eventually, his following his money leads him to Carter (Lloyd Bochner) and Brewster (Carroll O’Connor).

Essentially, this is the entirety of this film. Walker wants his money and does whatever he can to get it, up to and including killing everyone who stands in his way. In many ways, Walker is the prototype for the badass looking to get something that was taken from him. This is Mel Gibson in Payback or Liam Neeson in Taken. Walker is the hardest of hard asses, using anyone and everyone he can to get what he wants, at one point forcing Chris to seduce Mal so that he can have a shot at his enemy.

Point Blank is fairly stylized, and because of this, it’s a little stiff in places. Certainly, since this film came out, the revenge flick has been done and redone over and over hundreds of time, so there’s really nothing new here, despite how it must have appeared in 1967. Don’t let this fool you. While you’ve almost certainly seen this film before with different stars and a slightly different plot, this is a stylish and entertaining movie. It’s very much brain candy, but it’s the good kind that leaves an audience wishing for another helping before the run time is over. Lee Marvin plays this role as well as it can be played, and Angie Dickenson works this role with a near perfect combination of spine, guts, and vulnerability. And Walker never breaks. At one point, Chris goes on a freak out rampage, slapping at him and hitting him. He stands there and takes it, and when she collapses on the floor, he sits down and turns on the television.

John Boorman shows a particular style throughout this film. Early on, we see a montage of events going on as Walker tracks down Lynne. He is walking at a brisk pace down a long hallway, his steps echoing. We continue to hear the steps regardless of if we are watching Walker or not, a nice piece of relentless sound that quickly becomes oppressive. Is it film noir? Sure. It’s also European New Wave with its rapid cuts between present and past. It’s also great fun.

Why to watch Ying Xiong: Fight choreography like no other.
Why not to watch: A simplistic story.

Why to watch Point Blank: Lee Marvin kicks ass.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen this before even if this came first.