Monday, February 28, 2011

Month 14 Status Report

Well, not too much in the way of musicals in February (I did one, I think), but I certainly made a dent in the silent films. I've decided that for as long as I can, I'm going to attempt a silent film every week from this point forward until I get through them all. When possible, I'll watch the earliest remaining film on the list, and will sometimes do more than one. I have a sudden urge to complete them all and leave them behind. I don't know if that's because I'm becoming attuned to them or because I'm becoming tired of them.

February was a good month in other ways, too. I got through the second-longest film still remaining (Satantango), which feels like a real accomplishment.

Look for a tapering off of posts for the next three weeks, followed by a massive surge of activity at the end of March.

Oh, and for the record, I'm officially 30% done with the entire list.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Film: The Heartbreak Kid
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I believe I have said before that I have difficulty with most movies in which I sincerely dislike the main character. If I don’t feel some sense of connection, some level of sympathy for the person who spends the most time on the screen, there’s a large part of me that wants to turn the film off and walk away. This was my essential problem with The Heartbreak Kid, a dark-as-night black comedy about a syndrome common to many people.

Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) has just gotten married to Lila (Jeannie Berlin), and the two have set off on their honeymoon in Miami Beach. We discover a number of things about the couple during the first act of the film. We learn, for instance, that Lila is a slob, can’t sing, and tends to be immature—even infantile on a number of things. She’s a sweet enough kid, but she’s essentially someone who acts about 10 years younger than her real age. What we learn about Lenny is that during the drive from New York to Miami, he’s wondering if he made the right decision in marrying Lila.

In Miami, Lenny encounters Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd), a young and pretty rich girl from Minnesota. She is cold and aloof, but also devastatingly gorgeous, and treats Lenny much like Princess Buttercup treats Wesley at the start of The Princess Bride (and if you don’t get that reference, shame on you). Lila manages to get a ferocious sunburn on the first day in Miami, forcing her to stay in the hotel room, and giving Lenny the freedom to pursue his blonde shiksa (essentially a tempting non-Jewish woman).

The obstacle in Lenny’s path, aside from the fact that he is on his honeymoon, is Kelly’s father (Eddie Albert). He takes an instant dislike to Lenny, and hides this inexpertly on purpose. Lenny, it would seem, is everything Mr. Corcoran hates.

And so we have our four major players—a guy who wants what he can’t have and doesn’t want what he has; an infantile, immature girl; an ice queen who expects that she’ll get what she wants; and a glowering old man who, because of the situation, is the most understandable and sympathetic. The comedy comes initially from Lenny’s elaborate and frequent lies to Lila about exactly what is going on outside their hotel room. She recovers from her sunburn while Lenny does everything but hump Kelly’s leg. Much of the middle part of the film concerns Lenny’s failing and flailing around Kelly’s father and his unfortunate attempts to impress the man.

I can’t fault the story, really. It’s just on the edge of what I’d call believable behavior. I can’t fault the acting, either. I tend to like Charles Grodin quite a bit, and both Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin earned deserved Oscar nominations (especially Eddie Albert), and both won film critics’ awards. But there’s a part of this film that’s like biting down on metal for me. I had serious problems getting past it, and found the middle 20 minutes or so to be excruciating. I knew I had to bull my way through, but didn’t want to. It was almost like painful elective surgery. I knew it would be good for me to get it behind me, but I didn’t want to have to go through it.

I have no idea why I had this reaction to the film. There is some real brilliance here. When Lenny makes the admission to Kelly’s father that he’s not only already married, but a newlywed, the expression on Eddie Albert’s face changes slightly, almost imperceptibly, but the change is one of the nicest jobs of acting I’ve seen in awhile. Just as entertaining in this scene is Kelly’s mother (Audra Lindley), who goes from a pleased expression to one of aghast shock over the course of several minutes. The film works (evidently for many people but me) because it understands that underneath a comedy lurks tragedy, and this has that in spades. It's a layer of comedy-flavored frosting on top of tragedy cake.

What’s interesting about this film is the length of the scenes. Some, which consist of little more than a few people sitting at a table discussing essentially Lenny’s lack of fulfillment with his current life, go for 10 minutes or more. There’s a sense of intimacy here that is unmistakable for anything else, and since the intimacy exists for the revealing of painful and depressing truths, the feeling is as if these truths are being revealed to us personally, which in a way, they are.

In a nutshell, this film is about a man who always sees the grass as greener somewhere else. It’s about people who will stop at nothing, including destroying the lives of others, to get what they want. Lenny is a man who doesn’t want anything he gets. It’s the pursuit, the not having something, that drives him, and once he achieves something, it’s no longer desirable. If you think that’s a spoiler, you might be right.

The big question is how this film ended up on this list. When I think of the other films that could have been added here…Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Last House on the Left, and Silent Running are all more deserving in my opinion, and these are just more deserving films from 1972, the year of The Heartbreak Kid’s release. Ask me to decide, and I’d leave this one off, even with its surprising ending.

Why to watch The Heartbreak Kid: Bad things happening to bad people.
Why not to watch: Every character needs to be punched in the face.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Outsiders Looking In

Films: Broken Blossoms, The Elephant Man
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Race—differences between races, the similarities, problems of, dealing with, etc.—is almost certainly one of the most filmed major themes since film began. It’s impossible at times to separate race from character, or race from plot. This is as true of films being made today as it was of films made during the silent era. The attitudes of the rank and file have changed with regard to race in the main, and generally for the positive, but that doesn’t mean that race problems have vanished, or that there is nothing more to be said.

D.W. Griffith seemed to return to concepts of race again and again, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Films like Birth of a Nation deal with ideas of racial superiority and stereotype while others, like Intolerance touch less on race specifically but deal more with a general, well, intolerance. Broken Blossoms falls somewhere in between these two extremes of favoring ideas of racial superiority and supporting ideas of tolerance and equality.

What this means is that I think it is evident that Griffith’s sympathies in this film are with our Chinese leading man, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess). Cheng is depicted initially as an idealist and a pacifist who becomes dissolute due to opium addiction, but Griffith gives him a chance to redeem himself throughout the film, and Cheng jumps at the chance he is offered. In other words, Cheng Huan is shown as a human with failings, but who is at his core a good man willing and ready to do the right thing.

To really understand the depth of Griffith’s sympathy for Cheng, it’s important to bring in the character of Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish). Lucy is a poor little teenager who is regularly beaten by her father, prizefighter Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). He beats her to the edge of death before she passes out in Cheng’s store. Cheng cares for her, dressing her in silk and treating her well for the first time in her life. It’s evident here, and in fact before this point that Cheng loves the girl. However, even now, with her life in his hands, he refuses to take advantage of his position, treating her instead with concern, compassion, and kindness. Griffith wants us to like Cheng. He wants us to root for Cheng. He wants us to want Lucy to fall for Cheng despite his foreignness (less of a deal now, but a huge deal in 1919). That this is his goal could not be more evident had it been written on a title card.

Perhaps to help our sympathies, or to create his own, Lucy’s life is depicted as being so terrible that she is forced to physically move her mouth with her fingers to bring a smile to her face when her brutish father demands it. It’s melodrama of the highest order at this point, but again, it’s important to look at this through the eyes of its intended post-World War I audience rather than today’s. Lillian Gish is a cutie (which is to be expected—she has to engage our sympathies, after all), and seeing her physical, emotional, and spiritual degradation at the hand of this thug is affecting, no matter how contrived. “Certainly,” thinks the 1919 audience, “Anything is better than this—even the Chinese man.”

And this is where the racism seems to really rear its ugly head. Throughout the film, Cheng is referred to in title cards as the “Yellow Man,” a phrase that would cause mass protests today. In fact, at one point, once his descent into opium addiction begins, Cheng is referred to as another “Chink shopkeeper,” a racial slur that may have once been common parlance but in today’s world is one of the most unacceptable.

It’s true that most of the racial bashing here comes not from the title cards, but from the characters we are supposed to dislike. As Lucy recovers from her beating from accidentally spilling food on Battling Burrows, he reacts not because Lucy has taken up with a man, but because she is being cared for by a Chinese man. What is perhaps more shocking is Lucy calling him “Chinky” as a term of affection, and recoiling from him when he dares get physically close to her.

It’s almost as if this film is the public beginning of White Guilt. Griffith wants us to want Cheng to come out victorious, but Griffith himself can’t see Cheng as a man, but only as a subset of men. He’s not quite the worth of a white man—he’s always something different and to a great extent lesser. Cheng’s greatest fault is not so much his opium addiction, but that he’s Chinese rather than white.

Ultimately, Broken Blossoms is a soap opera, a sensation only enhanced by the soundtrack that runs through much of the version I watched. That it tells a bittersweet story and features a hero who is not white is noteworthy in 1919. That the inherent racism of the time still bleeds through is perhaps inevitable. Maybe…maybe it’s enough that at least Griffith was trying to overcome what had been pounded into him in a lifetime of living in society that viewed anyone not of European stock as lesser, inferior, or sub-human. Is it his fault he didn’t get all the way there? But could there be better proof of this truth than the fact that a Chinese man is played by a Caucasian actor?

As a last note, this contains some of the funniest boxing I have ever seen. I realize it’s not meant to be comic, but it really, really is.

The idea of racial equality has undergone a number of changes in this country and much of the world since Broken Blossoms was filmed. In other ways, society has perhaps changed less. David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is a biopic of the life of John Merrick, whose celebrated skeleton Michael Jackson once wanted to purchase. Much of the story comes from the journal of Frederick Treves, played here by Anthony Hopkins.

On its surface, this is the story of a badly deformed man suffering from a combination of medical conditions that combined to create such deformities that had never been seen before. Merrick, whose real first name was Joseph, has been diagnosed in the years after his death as having a combination of neurofibromatosis and proteus syndrome (you can look these up on your own). His body was covered in huge benign tumors of such size that he was forced to sleep sitting up lest he risk suffocating. In practical terms for this film, it meant that the great John Hurt had to spend seven hours per day in the makeup chair and could only work on alternate days.

What this truly is, of course, is a story of human dignity. Merrick’s extensive deformities do not change the fact that underneath it all he is a man. We don’t start there, though. Initially, Merrick is a sideshow attraction, a freak of nature, and there is no indication that there is anything at all beneath that massive head of his. His “owner,” Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones) takes care of him, but not very well, and Merrick is evidently subject to a series of regular beatings administered by Bytes’s walking stick. Treves takes a special interest in Merrick, showing his deformities to the medical community, and then coming to his rescue after a particularly severe beating from Bytes. He brings him into the hospital and attempts to communicate with him.

It’s not until Merrick is introduced to hospital official Carr Gomm (John Gielgud) that we discover that he has a mind underneath his deformed skull. Merrick is actually a gentle creature, a man of fine sensibilities and refinement. This is contrasted in the evenings when a riotous porter (Michael Elphick) brings his drunken cronies around to gawk at the man.

What’s actually quite lovely here is the progression of the people at the hospital, where Merrick is eventually allowed to stay permanently. Initially, he is a figure of terror due to his massive disfigurements. Eventually, the people come to accept him, and eventually like him, particularly Carr Gomm and the nurse Mothershead (Wendy Hiller). A visit from a famous stage actress named Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) provides John with a source of dreams, a sense of himself, and a desire to be seen as a man.

The Elephant Man works frequently as melodrama. Merrick is so terrible in appearance and so gentle in nature that it’s almost too much. Those who are despicable—Bytes, the porter—are so nasty as to be missing only the pencil-thin curly mustache and Snidely Whiplash sneer. And yet it is effective here. Hurt’s performance is one of the great ones of his career. He plays Merrick with a real sensitivity and pathos.

The film is shot in a crisp black-and-white, and this does a great deal for the film. It has been reported that Lynch decided against color because the makeup effects looked appalling in color, and that may or may not be true. What is true is that the film is beautiful in black-and-white, and I can’t imagine it in color.

It’s worth noting that The Elephant Man lost every Oscar it was nominated for. The one award it was not nominated for was for makeup effects. There were many who believed that the film deserved a special award, because there was no regular category at that time for makeup. The film went unrewarded—a huge oversight in my opinion—but the next year, a category for makeup effects was added.

What’s the final analysis here? Bluntly, it should have won something. Despite the obvious melodrama and the overhyped emotional content, this is a beautiful film and a touching one. Merrick is a tragic figure, and beautiful despite his deformities, perhaps because of them. John Hurt has never been better, and considering the roles he’s had and the films he’s been in, that’s saying quite a lot. You’re doing yourself a disservice not seeing this film. I wish I had seen it before tonight.

Why to watch Broken Blossoms: A sad little story, more touching and intimate than might be expected from Griffith’s earlier bombast.
Why not to watch: The racism still bleeds through.

Why to watch The Elephant Man: Probably David Lynch’s most coherent and understandable film.
Why not to watch: Excessive sentimentality.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's a Jazz Thing...You Wouldn't Understand

Film: Shadows
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s not that original to make a movie about racism, and it wasn’t really terribly original back in 1959 when John Cassavetes finally released his revamped version of Shadows. It probably wasn’t too unusual to make a film about jazz musicians and hipsters, either. What was unusual was making a real film about real issues on a tiny budget.

Shadows is the story of three siblings: Hugh (Hugh Hurd), Ben (Ben Carruthers), and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni). All three of them are involved in beatnik culture to some extent. Hugh is a singer very much in the style of Nat King Cole, which is less hipster than traditional. Ben is a jazz trumpeter. Lelia writes, although she doesn’t really want to that much. The three are, from eldest to youngest, less and less black, at least in appearance. Hugh has traditional African features and dark skin. Ben could pass for Middle Eastern, or perhaps Italian. Lelia looks Caucasian and has very light skin. This becomes an important plot point very quickly.

It happens when Lelia meets Tony (Anthony Ray) at a party. The two are quickly interested in each other and leave together. He takes her up to his place and the two have sex—it’s the first time for her, and it’s unpleasant for her. She reacts badly to it and wants to go home, so he takes her there.

And it’s here that the problem begins. When Tony meets Hugh, he realizes Lelia’s ancestry and he leaves. This is an awakening of a sort for Lelia, and she quickly latches on to Davey (David Jones). Meanwhile Ben and Hugh fight—Hugh can’t understand Ben and Ben is filled with a sort of unfocused anger that sometimes lashes out.

Let’s be frank here; Shadows is hardly the best acted film ever created. It was done essentially without a script with mostly amateur actors improvising their lines in each situation. It’s also Cassavetes’s first film, which means that he hadn’t really discovered his voice as a director yet, making the film feel unfinished and rough.

In short, it feels a like a real amateur film. A lot of the camera work is stilted and stiff. A lot of the dialogue is equally stiff and weird in places. Hugh is excellent, and of the three siblings, is the nice one and the responsible one. Ben is also good as the young tough, the punk who carries a chip on his shoulder the size of New York. Lelia’s performance is more unusual. It’s broad in places, whiney in others, and very natural in other spots. It’s the most uneven of the three actors, certainly.

Shadows is in many ways the true birthplace of independent film. It’s more a character study of these three siblings and their relationship than it is about anything else. It’s a film about jazz hipsters only because the characters are jazz hipsters, and a film about racism only because the Tony character proves himself to be a racist.

While not a particularly difficult film to watch, there’s a strange ennui connected t this film for me. I expected it to go somewhere much more than it did, and in that respect I was disappointed with it. I’m not sure if I expected Cassavetes to blow the proverbial lid off the racism problem, but I certainly expected more than a relatively short confrontation between Tony and Hugh followed by Tony virtually disappearing for the rest of the film.

Cassavetes went on to make a number of great films, and much of what he started in Shadows is evident in his repertoire of movies that followed this one. It’s an interesting beginning for his career, if not as particularly strong as I had been led to believe. This one is all about the style—all about how it was filmed rather than what specifically was filmed. Watch this one, because without it, the entire independent cinema movement would have taken much longer to get off the ground. And when watching it, try to see it for what it is—essentially a film about the characters, and in many ways a film about acting and filmmaking instead of being a film about a particular story.

Why to watch Shadows: The birth of independent film.
Why not to watch: It's amateurish.

Monday, February 21, 2011

She Take My Money...

Film: Gold Diggers of 1933
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Musicals of the early era of talkies are their own thing. They have a particular pattern to them and a particular method of getting from start to finish. Much of the time, there are multiple road blocks thrown up in the path of, well, putting on a big show. In the end, everything comes together at essentially the exact same time, the show goes off, and everyone who should go home happy does. Most of these musicals were created as a sort of antidote for the Great Depression, and feature upbeat numbers, happy endings, and people who start out down on their luck and end up either in a hit show or happily married, or wealthy, or some combination of the above.

So it comes as no surprise that Gold Diggers of 1933 follows essentially this exact formula with a cast of characters that have become stock and a cast of actors that did this same basic show over and over (as a matter of fact, about half the cast also appeared in 42nd Street from the same year).

So let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this one. Four showgirls have their show closed a day before it opens, putting them back on the skids with rent due and with their stomachs empty. These four are Polly (the actually quite adorable Ruby Keeler), the juvenile ingĂ©nue; Trixie (Aline MacMahon), the funny one; Faye (Ginger Rogers), the pretty one; and Carol (the lovely Joan Blondell), the singer. They get word of a new show being produced by Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks), and he’s game to use all of them in the show. The problem is, as usual, no cash.

The cash, as well as the music for the show, comes in the form of Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), a songwriter who lives across the alley from the girls and who is in a mutual sighing-at-each-other conspiracy with Polly. Barney hires Brad to write the music for the show and Brad promises $15,000, a promise he delivers on the next day. However, Brad flat-out refuses to take part in the show itself. He just wants to write the music.

On opening night, the male juvenile, who is actually approaching middle age, suffers an attack of lumbago, forcing Brad into the stage role. It is here that he is discovered. Brad Roberts is actually Robert Treat Bradford, the scion of a wealthy Boston family. His brother Lawrence (Warren William) and Lawrence’s assistant Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) arrive to talk Brad/Robert out of his career and especially out of his desire to marry Polly. He won’t listen, which forces the two interlopers into a confrontation with the girls.

In a twist that would no longer work in a film today, Lawrence and Fanuel show up at the girls’ apartment and confront not Polly, but Carol, assuming that she is Polly, and not letting her get a word out despite the fact that she tries multiple times to tell them that they’ve got the wrong girl. She and Trixie decide to take the two for suckers. The men believe that all show girls are really gold diggers (hence the name), so they’ll play the parts. And hilarity, allegedly, ensues.

This, in a nutshell, is why many musicals don’t work for me. All Carol has to do at a critical juncture is say, “I’m not Polly!” and the entire second half of the film unravels. All those whacky hijinks are certainly there for the show tune crowd who appear to survive on a diet of such things, but I need a greater dose of realism in my story. Everyone we’re supposed to root for is just a little too clever and everyone who we’re supposed to dislike is just a little too foolish or a little too stupid to work for me. The girls especially are a little too wisecracky (especially Trixie) and a little too streetwise for me do much but roll my eyes.

Okay, the numbers are pretty good, and “Petting in the Park” is a show-stopper that comes at the end of the first act, and the “Forgotten Man” number is great as well. But with “Petting,” they’ve staged a number that is supposed to be taking place on a stage, but features a segment in a park with grass, a terrifying “baby” played by Billy Barty, and a freakin’ rainstorm. In a theater. In the 1930s. Yes for a movie, no for a stage, and yet when the number ends, we see an audience clapping away. These numbers are pure Busby Berkeley, and they look it, and for the musical spectacle of the era, they’re top of the line, but they miss on the “actually in a theater” part.

Since this is a feel-good musical from the Depression, there shouldn’t be a lot of surprises on how it turns out. If you can’t see at least a third of the ending coming at you an hour before we get there, it’s only because you haven’t seen many movies of this era, or many movies that feature either “romantic” or “comedy” or “musical” in the genre description. Since Gold Diggers of 1933’s description includes all three, there’s not a single reason in the world to be surprised at the ending the minute we get past the 20-minute mark and most of the characters have been introduced.

Does it have anything going for it? Well, fans of the genre will find a great deal to enjoy here. I’m not a fan of the genre, so I have to dig a little harder. Twist my arm, and I’ll say that Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell are, despite the black-and-white footage and the whole 80-year-old movie thing, are sweet, sweet balm for long-suffering eyes. They’re absolute dolls, and they make the film worth seeing, at least in parts.

Ultimately, though, this one is silly and fluffy without much in the way of substance. I can take it or leave it, and nine times out of ten, I’d choose to leave it.

Why to watch Gold Diggers of 1933: Elaborate Busby Berkeley dance numbers and a lot of wisecracks.
Why not to watch: If you can’t see through it, you’re a moron.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Best Month Ever: June, 1982 Part 2

Films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player (E.T.) and on big ol’ television (Blade Runner).

[These reviews have been included as a part of Pussy Goes Grrr's Juxtaposition Blogathon!]

The biggest film event of 1982 was not Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan no matter what the Trekkies have to say about it. The movie of the year was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Like any great kid movie, this one enamored both adults and kids and became a huge sensation, solidifying Steven Spielberg’s reputation as a director who could capture magic on film and could do no wrong, an amazing feat from a guy just a few years removed from 1941.

There’s not much reason to go into the plot here—if you haven’t seen E.T. it’s because you’ve seen fewer than a dozen movies in your life, are less than 20 years old, or live under a rock (which makes me question how you have Internet access). There are other options, but it’s still no excuse for not having seen this film, which even now, 30 years later, is remarkable for how well it captures a particular mystery and sense of youthful adventure. Suffice to say that a squat little alien gets left behind by his compatriots, is discovered by a boy who helps protect him, and the two attempt to get the critter back to its people while the big bad government attempts to kidnap the alien for research purposes.

Starring in the film is Henry Thomas as Elliott, the boy who finds the alien in the woods behind his house. He’s a good child actor, although at times he’s difficult to notice simply because he spends so much of his time next to the creation that is the focus of the movie: the alien. Also featured as his siblings are Robert MacNaughton as Elliott’s older brother/tormentor Michael and, of course, Drew Barrymore as little sister Gertie. This film was the break-out role for Barrymore, who has gone on to a tremendous Hollywood career. MacNaughton, on the other hand, has vanished from acting and at last account works in a post office. In many ways, though, he is the most natural of the kids on the screen. I had a brother much like Michael. He tormented me the way Michael torments Elliott. At the same time, once Michael discovers what is going on, he’s Elliott’s protector and confidant. This is a great screen relationship, and speaks to smart and believable characters.

E.T. is filled with early Spielberg tropes—a missing father, evil government, and magical childhood adventures, things it holds in common with Spielberg-written films like The Goonies. There’s also a sense of high adventure--Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind all bear this stamp.

What’s fascinating to me, and it’s a connection I didn’t see until today, is that for Spielberg, at least at this point in his career, dangers came from planet Earth while salvation came from the stars. Early Spielberg films have terrestrial, or at least formerly terrestrial dangers. The bad things in Duel, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Jurassic Park and Poltergeist have Earth origins. In outer space-related, science fiction films, the aliens are misunderstood at worst and actively beneficent at best.

And get this—I’ve also only realized on this watching (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film) that E.T. the character is essentially space Jesus. Much of the symbolism is there. This is an odd realization, and an odd position for the Jewish Spielberg to add into American film mythology, but there it is. It would not surprise me if a cut scene involved E.T. walking on water and then turning around and transmuting that water into kid-friendly root beer. Quick spoiler:

*** E.T. PHONE HOME ***

Think about it—E.T. has magical abilities. He can levitate objects and move them, and has a special connection with Elliott in the sense that what one feels, the other feels as well. He can also heal the injured and afflicted. E.T. is persecuted and hunted by those who don’t understand what he is. Eventually, E.T. dies, but comes back to life and ascends into the heavens, but not before he tells Elliott that he will continue to live on in his heart…just like Jesus does. Both are misunderstood by all but those who believe (although the argument could be made that Jesus is misunderstood in particular by the most devout). Still, there are enough points of similarity that the two occupy the same general sphere of altruistic, beneficent, otherworldly beings with miraculous powers. The one can be seen as a version of the other.


It’s without a doubt true that E.T. has entered the American mythology and lexicon. There are several iconic moments—“E.T. phone home” and the bicycle across the face of the moon being the most obvious ones, not to mention the huge upsurge in sales of Reese’s Pieces in the years to follow this film’s release. But the real reason the film has had such staying power, and will continue to charm children and adults is that it is a recognizable and great story. This is a true boy’s-own adventure, immediately accessible to kids of virtually any age, and still entertaining for the parents.

I like E.T. just fine. My tastes tend to run to the more violent, weird, thoughtful, and/or disturbing, but it’s a difficult film not to like. Of the great and noteworthy films released in this greatest month of American movies ever, this one is my least favorite—but it’s my least favorite in a hell of a good group. It’s sweet and endearing—perhaps too much so—but as a movie conceived and written for kids, it hits almost every mark. As a jaded high schooler, I wasn’t a big fan of this film. As an adult with kids, I appreciate it for what it is, and what it is is special.

And this brings us to the final movie on The List from this marvelous month: Blade Runner. For a long time, I think I liked this movie because I was supposed to like it. Everyone told me how great it was, and how much I should appreciate it, so I went along with that idea without really understanding what the movie was or what it was about.

And then I finally got around to reading Phillip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Suddenly, Blade Runner made sense to me, because I suddenly had context for it. Certain aspects of the film are not really explained in the film and exist almost as artifacts from the book. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Blade Runner exists in a world where nearly-human androids have been created for use in off-world colonies. Because of some problems that existed in the past, these androids, called “replicants,” are not permitted on Earth, despite the fact that many of them attempt to come to Earth. Because of this, special agents of the police, blade runners, exist to “retire” the replicants, “retire” being an obvious euphemism for “terminate with extreme prejudice using a high caliber pistol. Our blade runner in question, Deckard (Harrison Ford), has just been given a contract on a series of replicants that are of a new model, and have not only been spotted on Earth, but have killed at least one agent.

That’s enough of the plot, really. What exists around this plot, though, are artifacts of Dick’s world that don’t really make it into the film. For instance, there’s really no reason given why so many of the questions on the test to determine if someone is a replicant deal with the death or torture of animals. There’s no indication of exactly why people are still living on Earth despite the massive advertising blitz to send people to the colony worlds. These aspects of the story are explained fully in the book. They add to the experience, though, but are not necessary for the Blade Runner experience.

We get an interesting cast taking us through the story. In addition to Harrison Ford, the film features Edward James Olmos as Gaff, who acts both as Deckard’s foil and as his partner. Deckard’s nominal boss in this situation is Bryant, played by the always-excellent M. Emmet Walsh (an actor so good Roger Ebert once said that any movie that featured him can’t be all bad). As the replicants, we get the terrifying Brion James as Leon, Joanna Cassidy as Zhora, Sean Young as Rachael, Daryl Hannah as Pris, and the great Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty. Batty is a terrifying presence in the film, in no small part thanks to Hauer’s talents. Also worth noting is the underrated and entertaining William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, an afflicted toy maker and geneticist.

The cast is great, and so is the story, but it’s the mise-en-scene that is the true star of this film. Blade Runner looks real to such a degree that it becomes real. Costuming, makeup, set design—it all works perfectly to create a real, believable world of the future. Ridley Scott was smart enough to make this future multi-cultural, giving it a pan-linguistic patois and a decidedly Asian flavor that functions perfectly as a backdrop for the action on screen.

I don’t normally like Sean Young, but she’s good here. It’s also worth noting that in general, Daryl Hannah is great when she plays non-humans. The minute a script asks her to be something that isn’t 100% human, she excels. Go figure.

There are multiple versions of this film out there. One version contains the much-maligned voice over explaining the film. There’s a definitive edition, a director’s cut (the first real director’s cut ever made), and it can be difficult to tell which one to watch. I’ll say it here—watch the director’s cut. When you have someone as good as Ridley Scott making the film, go with his vision. That being said, there are a couple of spoilers to handle:


The big question in the director’s cut is whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. There’s evidence on both sides of the issue. For years, I believed he was for two reasons. First, he dreams of a unicorn, and Gaff places an origami unicorn in his apartment, almost as if he knows the implanted memories in Deckard’s head. Second, replicants have a particular eye gleam in certain angles of light, a gleam that appears in Deckard’s eyes at one point. I’m not so sure these days. I can tell you that in the book, this is never even considered as a question. There’s no indication that Deckard is a replicant. There’s also no love story between him and Rachael—Deckard is married in the book.

Second, why does Roy Batty save Deckard at the end? Because he does. Maybe it’s to prove that he has free will. Maybe he wanted his last conscious act to be something positive. Maybe he wanted someone to know that he was more than a killer. Again, this doesn’t happen in the book and is entirely a creation of this script.

*** TIME TO DIE ***

Like all good science fiction, Blade Runner explores the essential question of what it means to be human, and in this case, what humanity means in a world that is increasingly becoming dehumanized. That’s a central theme of author Ray Bradbury, which is one reason I can think of that there’s a building named after him in the film. Blade Runner may not answer this question fully, but should it? It offers the question as food for thought, and that should be good enough.

And so we close on this greatest month of American films in history, at least before the December deck stacking for the Oscars. I miss that prior age in the sense that there’s no mystery of when a truly great film will be released now. Summer blockbusters are just that—expensive and bombastic, and the great films don’t show up until Christmas. There’s little chance of a magical June ever happening again, and that makes me sad.

Why to watch E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The greatest kid adventure ever made.
Why not to watch: Too cute by a half.

Why to watch Blade Runner: The birth of cyberpunk, plus kick-ass humanoid robots.
Why not to watch: A vague, possibly unsatisfying ending.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Most Accurate Name Ever

Film: Brief Encounter
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Romance is not a genre I tend to favor. Actually, that’s only partly true. I genuinely dislike romantic comedies as a general rule, but I’ll watch a good romance if the mood strikes me. Note the operative word in that sentence: a good romance. So I gave David Lean’s first great movie, Brief Encounter a shot.

This story couldn’t be simpler or more classically romantic and tragic. Two married people meet, fall for each other, and then go their separate ways. This is not a spoiler—if you’re paying attention, you know exactly what is happening here in the first ten minutes of the film, since the entire story is shown in flashback.

In the central role is Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, a simple housewife with a husband and two kids. She’s relatively well-to-do, spending her days in London doing the shopping, having lunch out and sometimes taking in a movie. She spends at least part of her day around the train station, and it is here that she meets Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). Alec comes to her assistance when she gets something in her eye and he extracts it. Later the same day, they find themselves in the same crowded restaurant and share a table, then go to a movie together. They agree to meet at the same place a week later.

They continue to meet at the train platform and spend their Thursday afternoons together, and it soon becomes evident to both of them (and to us) that the two have fallen deeply for each other despite both being married. They both realize what has happened and the only real possible outcome for this love, but still it continues, because the two can’t stay away from each other.

The pair are discovered twice; first by a couple of her friends in a restaurant and then later when the pair retire to an apartment owned by one of Alec’s friends. Based on these two occurrences, Alec reaches a major decision in his life—to head to South Africa to help create a new hospital. They plan to make the most of the time they have left before he heads off half a world away. The immediate belief here is that the two will probably never see each other again, but if they do, it still will never be the same.

There’s a sense of tragedy around the pair, and we know right away that they are doomed from the start. We know nothing about Alec’s wife and kids. We know precious little about Laura’s kids, but we do see her husband a couple of times. He seems like a stereotype for wealthy and boring, which may well be the reason Laura consented to this sort of affair in the first place, because of her desire for something more.

Despite other members of the cast, only Laura and Alec are fully realized characters here, and that’s as it should be. Other characters are there to judge our two lovers, as foils for their behavior, or as a reason to make a particular decision like Alec does at the end. There’s no space here for anyone else.

The story, as mentioned above, comes to us via a flashback with only spotty glimpses at the present. Laura is, throughout her mental recounting of this affair, wrestling with the reality of her life, comparing Alec on the one side and her husband and children on the other side. Each possibility pulls her in different directions.

Where this film fails for a modern audience is in the timidity of the romance. The two attempt to spend a bit of a night together, but otherwise, they are nearly as chaste as a pair of strangers. There are a couple of passionate kisses toward the latter half of the movie, but otherwise, the romance is actually a little tepid. A few stolen kisses, some smoky glances, and idle talk are difficult to read as romantic on any sort of sustained basis. Remade today, our twin heroes would be splitting the cost of a cheap motel.

Regardless, there’s a sense of tragedy and loss running through this film that is very effective. This is David Lean before he became the master of the grand epic film. What comes as little surprise is that many of the themes he explores in larger, grander films are here as well. Many of Lean's epics focused on the individual story or the story of people together in the middle of a grand sweep. This is that, without the grand sweep.

Brief Encounter lives up to its name. It’s a short one, but lovingly filmed with careful pacing, if too bland in terms of almost everyone in the cast. Watch it with someone you love.

Why to watch Brief Encounter: Romances don’t get more romance-y.
Why not to watch: A couple of mooning kisses equals a lifetime of angst.

Friday, February 18, 2011

More Like Foolish Director

Film: Foolish Wives
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

A number of other 1001 Movies bloggers are quite a bit brighter than I am. That goes without saying. Specifically, though, they are smarter than I because they made a concerted effort at the beginning of their personal quests to watch all of the silent movies right away. I have not been nearly that smart, although as of late I have been trying to rectify that. This is my fourth silent film in the last week, and there’s at least one more coming pretty soon.

Foolish Wives comes out of my personal collection. I found it a few months ago in a resale shop for a couple of bucks and picked it up because I recognized the name. That may have been a mistake—I don’t know if this film is in the public domain, but I’m sure I could have found it elsewhere and spend those couple of bucks on something I’d have enjoyed more. Another movie, perhaps, or a couple of burritos. Several times in the past I have watched a film and thought to myself, “I am watching this…why?” In this case, the question is, “I paid money for this and am watching it…why?”

I can’t really tell you why I spent time with this film. I have three layers of complaints. We can start with the easy layer first. The history on this picture suggests that von Stroheim’s initial film ran something along the lines of eight hours. When confronted by his studio as to how people could reasonably watch this in an evening, von Stroheim is alleged to have commented that the film was perfect, and presenting it to an audience wasn’t his problem. I have to wonder what the man was thinking—the film barely sustains a length one quarter of that. Be that as it may, the film has been chopped a number of times; there are versions running past the three-hour mark and one running less than 90 minutes. It is what it is.

The second layer of complaint I have is specific to the version I watched. It’s a punishing DVD, with only six scenes, each one relatively equal in length. The scene breaks are less natural pauses and more places selected arbitrarily, with a new “scene” starting in the middle of a title card or an actual scene. It can’t be that difficult to break this up into actual segments, can it?

Further, the music selected for this version of the movie is ridiculously bad in terms of matching up with the story. It’s almost as if someone merely selected music based on length rather than mood. If the film is legitimately as great as its press clippings, then someone should take the time to write an actual score for it. The action on screen rarely matches the music cue. At one point, the main character’s maid is crying, and the music is a lighthearted dance played by a string quartet. Earlier in the film, we get a massive orchestral hit when a man picks up the phone to order a room service breakfast.

Additionally, the print is quite muddy in spots and rough. Again, if the film is so great and so important, why hasn’t anyone bothered to remaster it? There are splotches and blotches, speed ups and slow downs, fuzzy spots, and a few place that look quite a bit like the film was impressed with an imprint of burlap. All in all, this makes for a painful viewing experience. I can live with that if the film is worth it, but it certainly affects my opinion and the overall experience. I try to remain conscious of such problems, but there is only so much I can do to prevent myself from being swayed to the negative by such carelessness as the mismatched music.

The top layer of problems here are the ones that can’t be explained away with the director’s alleged megalomania or the decisions made by the producer of this disc. Bluntly, this movie is dull, dull, dull. We have Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim), late of the Russian aristocracy. He lives in Monte Carlo with his two “cousins, Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch), in an opulent style that the trio cannot hope to afford and that includes freakishly long cigarettes. They receive counterfeit money from a man named Ventucci (Caesare Gravina) and otherwise survive by bilking the wealthy and gullible. The Count, who goes by Sergius, romances married women for their cash, and the women attempt to do the same thing to the men.

A new chance for them becomes available when an American ambassador named Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife (Miss DuPont) arrive from America. Sergius immediately sets to work on winning here and then providing a sob story about a debt of honor that needs repayment. Meanwhile, Hughes is suspicious of the man he has heard is an inveterate womanizer and con artist. The trio’s maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller) also loves the Count, and will do anything to win him over.

That’s the whole plot. I have no idea how that could have possibly sustained 480 minutes of footage, nor how anyone could have watched that much of what is often quite amateurish.

Sergius’s plot for getting money appears to be acting charming, and then asking for cash. This is a tactic that evidently works not only on bored wives, but also on the wives of ambassadors and homely, skull-faced maids. Sergius is shameless and wanton, which is great, but his shamelessness and wantonness comes in service of a bland story blandly told. The title cards, written in a way to evoke excitement, fail miserably. Part of this stems from the style of the cards. Everything is—written—with dashes—spaced—throughout—evidently to generate—more interest—in what’s—going on. (Now go back and read that like Shatner!) At times, the film is so dialogue-heavy that minutes are spent reading with brief flashes of the characters mouthing the same words.

There are a couple of things that work, and a few good jokes. I like that our criminals are Russian and that Sergius evidently really is nobility and a former soldier. It makes sense that he would be in Monte Carlo, as he no doubt fled Russia after the revolution a few years earlier. That’s effective and interesting, and while nothing is really made of this, it’s easy to think that this is precisely what von Stroheim (who also wrote the film) intended. There’s a nice joke in the middle when we discover that Mrs. Hughes is reading a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim.

But a good little joke and some smarts do not a movie make. Or they do, but they sure don’t make an interesting one. I’d be willing to watch this again with a cleaned-up version and an actual score that fits the action. But at the same time, I think that if this film really was so important to the canon, someone would have scored it and remastered it already.

Why to watch Foolish Wives: You have time to kill.
Why not to watch: There is virtually any other movie to watch or thing to do.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mild Mild West

Films The Great Train Robbery
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Movies, obviously, have changed a great deal in the 100+ years from those first few with rudimentary plots to the films of today. The Great Train Robbery has in common with modern films virtually nothing except that there is a moving picture on the screen and there is at least a semblance of story. Things we expect in movies, like sound, are obviously absent. But even things expected in silent films—title cards, director credits, a cast list—are missing as well. Instead, this is just 12 minutes of guys robbing a train, making a getaway, and a posse mounting up to track the bandits down.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of this film, which is the first real Western ever made despite its being filmed in that rugged western state of New Jersey. What’s important to remember is that in many ways, the Wild West was still pretty wild when this film was made, and it isn’t too difficult to imagine an actual train hold-up much like this one happening for real somewhere west of the Mississippi while filming took place.

What is noteworthy here are a few innovations that took place. In 1903, when The Great Train Robbery first released, almost anything done in front of a camera involved some innovation. Things that we take for granted as experienced movie watchers (and virtually everyone in this day and age has enough savvy to follow a filmed story) did not exist as conventions at the turn of the previous century.

This is not the first film with a plot; that honor belongs to La Voyage Dans la Lune of the previous year. The Great Train Robbery takes that idea of filming a story and adds a few technical and cinematic achievements to it, though. First, the film was made in real locations instead of on a stage, and with real props instead of stage gimmickry. It’s a real train, and the actors use what certainly look like real guns instead of cardboard mockeries. They ride real horses.

This is a bigger innovation than it sounds like it should be. La Voyage Dans la Lune was more or less a staged production that happened to be filmed. Certainly there are camera tricks there that would be nearly impossible on a stage, but that is essentially what the film is. Actors stand in front of stage backdrops and use two-dimensional props. Here, the film shows a real world, mainly because it was filmed in the real world.

It also shows a real-life story, or at least a story that could be real life. Train robberies happened, and the actors are dressed as real people of the period. Again, that seems like a minor innovation, something so natural to us that it’s almost not worth mentioning—but this is the first realistic fictional story ever filmed, and that’s saying a lot.

Porter also does a few interesting things with the way the narration plays out. Rather than giving us a straight linear story, he cuts between different locations, showing us what happens to characters later in the film. We see at the start a telegraph operator being assaulted, for instance, and then when the robbers leave him tied up on the floor, the telegraph man is out of the picture. Except that he isn’t—he comes back after the robbery, when he is discovered tied up on the floor of his office. Before this, that kind of skipping back to earlier characters or previous locations didn’t happen. A story was shown as it happened, concentrating on the main action. Porter freed those bonds by showing that as a medium, film could allow us to compress or expand time and location, and that it was possible and effective to show a story from multiple different aspects.

This isn’t a great film. It’s rudimentary, as should be expected for something made when creating a film with a story still had an umbilical cord attached. This isn’t a film to watch for the fantastic plot, camera work, or direction. The reason this film is important is because of what it is and because of everything it represents. This is the birth of American filmmaking, and it’s equally the birth of removing the cameras from a stage and putting them out in the world. It is the first film to try to capture an exciting and lurid event as it was happening.

You know what? It’s about 12 minutes long. You should find the time to hunt this down online and watch it if you are even remotely favorable to watching film not just for plot and character, but for seriously studying the medium and seeing where so much of it started. Really, it’s 12 minutes long. You owe history at least that much of your attention.

Why to watch The Great Train Robbery: Cinematic history.
Why not to watch: No interest in where films came from.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Film: Satantango (Satan’s Tango)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on various players.

There are plenty of films in this world that make the average movie viewer distrust the serious film critic. Much of the catalog of Fellini, for instance, falls into this broad category. Films with really long takes, not much happening, huge pauses, shots of empty places, dry dialogue scenes, incomprehensible plots, and other staples of art films seem to thrill critics and both bore and frustrate someone who simply watches films for entertainment.

And thus we come to Bela Tarr’s Satantango (Satan’s Tango), a film that is the epitome of heralded art film that those not serious about movies will encounter initially with curiosity, then boredom, then frustration, and then outright anger. I admit, even though I consider myself more serious than most about studying film, this one was a trial. I’ve been watching it in bits and pieces for a couple of weeks—a necessity when the discs come one at a time from NetFlix and the film spans a full three DVDs.

Tarr’s style has been compared with that of Tarkovsky, and with good reason. This film takes the idea of a long take to ridonkulous levels, with some shots going on for ten minutes or more. In the full seven-plus hours of the movie, Tarr claims that there are only 150 different shots, and having seen the film, I don’t doubt that this is true. This is broken up at times with slow pans or tracking shots, but even these are a relative rarity for some long sequences.

The story concerns a failed collective farm in Hungary. The people are broke and broken, and spend their nights drinking, dancing, and stumbling around in a local bar. A conman they thought long dead returns and sells them on a dream of a new collective, a model farm, that will require their investment if they are to make it work. A bunch of them leave for the new place. And really, that’s the bulk of the film. Most of the time, people sit around drinking and waiting for something to happen, and it’s about as exciting to watch as it sounds like it would be.

But this film isn’t about excitement, and not all films should be. This is a meditation, perhaps on the failed Hungarian system or on the process of life itself. Certainly it’s bleak enough both in terms of how it is filmed and the story that transpires that it wouldn’t be difficult to assign this meaning to the film.

More than any other film, I’m reminded in parts of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielmann, which couldn’t have been more of a trial for me had it been injected directly into my cerebral cortex. Tarr’s film has more happening, though, and is also in many ways an easier watch despite being twice the length. Many of the shots, while they seem eternal, are strikingly beautiful. While the film concerns itself in many ways with the banality of the existence of its characters, the ugliness of their environment, the terrible rainy weather, and human misery, there are a number of extended shots that are truly gorgeous.

Where Tarr loses the average viewer, and in many places lost me, is just how long he holds his camera in the same place without anything happening. We get close-ups of people that last for thirty seconds or a minute with no dialogue. Nothing happens. At times, I had to check to make sure the DVD hadn’t frozen, because nothing on the screen moved for half a minute, and just when I was getting ready to check, someone spoke or the camera twitched. Shots like this require intense patience both on the part of Tarr and on the part of the viewer, and this patience can be rewarded. These shots, for their lack of any action, are revealing in giving us genuine looks at the characters.

And yet, it could also easily be argued that there are far too many of these shots. Someone leaves a room, and the camera sits on the open door for upwards of a minute, an unchanging tableaux, until we are given a new shot. We watch people walk, camera in the face, with a background of unbroken gray clouds. At one point, a girl named Estike runs through the woods for what seems like a couple of miles, the camera tracking in front of her. In another scene, people sit around the bar while a man talks endlessly, repeating the same five or six lines over and over. Later, we watch people dance and act drunkenly for ten minutes or more while an accordionist plays the same few notes over and over. Tarr pulls no punches with shots like this—he opens the film with seven or eight minutes of cows walking in a paddock and a very slow tracking shot.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the film to watch comes in the middle, when Estike brutally tortures a cat. This may not sound like much, but this is painful to watch, and like every scene in this film, it continues far longer than it feels like it should to get the point across. Later, the girl spikes a bowl of milk with rat poison and forces the cat to drink it, saying over and over that she can do whatever she wants to the cat because she is stronger than the cat. Following this, the girl watches the drunken elders dance, then swallows the rat poison herself. It’s this sequence that caused the film to be at least temporarily banned in the U.K. despite Tarr’s assurance that there was a vet on hand the whole time, and his statement that the cat in question ended up as his personal pet.

Within the context of the film, we cover the same ground repeatedly. We see action from one perspective, then see the same action from another perspective later. The girl watches the dancers, for instance, and later, we watch the same scene from inside, catching glimpses of the girl standing in the rain.

Satantango was filmed to mimic the dance: six steps forward and six steps back. It’s a subtlety that is easily lost without being made aware of the fact, a statement true of many things in this film.

Is it good? Unquestionably, this is art film at one of its highest points. Tarr’s work is carefully crafted, smart, and unflinching. It’s also difficult to like. In other words, I’m impressed with the effort, the message, and the artistry here, but like many great works of art, it’s not something I want to spend a lot of time seeing. I went 43-plus years without sitting through this epic; I’ll happily go another 43-plus without doing it again.

Why to watch Satantango: This is art for art’s sake.
Why not to watch: A new definition of “long take.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Best Month Ever: June, 1982 Part 1

Films: Poltergeist; The Thing
Format: DVDs from personal collection on big ol’ television.

[These reviews have been included as a part of Pussy Goes Grrr's Juxtaposition Blogathon!]

Once upon a time, movie studios didn’t hold their best films until the last couple of weeks of December as Oscar bait. In those days, before the maniacal push for the Oscar, perhaps the greatest month of movies ever was June, 1982. Oh, there are better years for movies, certainly. Both 1967 and 1988 have more than 20 films on The List, but I stand by June of ’82 as the single greatest month. In rapid succession, releases included Poltergeist, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner, and The Thing. Additionally, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out this month, and I hold that it should be on the list as the best example of one of America’s greatest cultural exports.

Is it possible there’s another great month out there? Sure, and if I did a little research, I could probably find one just as good or better. But why bother? This one holds a special place for me. I saw four of those movies (all but Blade Runner--I was too young to care about it) in the theater and remember each one vividly.

Of the four, Poltergeist was the first to be released. Allegedly filmed by Tobe Hooper, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Spielberg, who wrote the story and produced, had a heavy hand in the direction. It looks like a Spielberg film, honestly. There’s a natural progression in terms of lighting, shot, and effects from films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark to this one to make a pretty solid connection.

This is the story of the Freeling family: Steven (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams), and kids Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). They live in a fairly standard suburban home, in a newish subdivision. Steven works for the developer selling houses while Diane manages the house and the kids. All is well until one day Carol Anne starts talking back to the static on the television. A few nights later, during a thunderstorm, she speaks to the television again, and some ectoplasmic stuff comes out, burns a hole in the wall of a room, and we get the iconic line, “They’re here!”

These are what Carol Anne calls “The TV people,” and they start causing mischief around the house. During another storm, a tree breaks through the window in Robbie’s and Carol Anne’s room, pulling Robbie into the yard. While the tree appears to be attempting to eat him, Steven pulls him out, and the tree is carried away by a tornado. As all this is happening, Carol Anne is sucked into the closet and what appears to be a parallel dimension in which she can only talk to the people in the house through the television set.

The image of the little girl looking over her shoulder from the static-covered TV is only one of the iconic moments from this film. The other is Zelda Rubenstein, who plays the medium Tangina. A squat little woman, she is on camera only for a few minutes, but her presence in the film is huge, and one of the most memorable things from the film.

There’s also a sense of humor at work here. When a trio of paranormal investigators come to look at the house and to help find Carol Anne, one (Richard Lawson) talks about an event he filmed in which a child’s toy moved a distance of seven feet in seven hours. Steven, unimpressed, opens the room that belonged to Carol Anne, displaying a tableau of moving furniture and flying toys. Another investigator (Martin Casella) has a terrifying moment in the family bathroom. Later, the leader of the team (Beatrice Straight) tells the family that she and the first investigator will be back. The other will not be returning. Earlier in the film, the parents lay in bed smoking pot while Steven, evidently high as a kite, reads a biography of Ronald Reagan. That’s subtle, and funny.

For a PG movie, Poltergeist is terrifying. At one point, when we learn exactly what is going on in the Freeling’s house, Diane is trapped in the unfinished swimming pool. She climbs most of the way out and then slides back in in what is one of the great moments in film in the 1980s. I saw this with friends when it was released. The night I saw Poltergeist, it rained terribly. I had trees outside my bedroom window; I slept in another room.

There are too many great moments in this film to recount. It stands as one of the greatest films of its genre and its decade. Much of it, the iconic lines (“This house is clean.” and “Cross into the light!” resonate as much as “They’re here!”), the ultimate reason for the disturbances, and many of the shots and scenes have woven themselves into American and perhaps world culture. There’s a reason films like this one still get talked about.

My original plan was to watch E.T. as well, but of these four movies, this is the one I don’t have in my collection. It also happens to be my least favorite of the four. So we adapt and adjust. The Thing and Blade Runner were released on the same day in 1982. Of the two, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I prefer The Thing. It has nothing to do with the direction, or the story, or the mise-en-scene. It has everything to do with the situation in which I saw the film for the first time.

I was 14, and my parents were gone for the weekend. My brother and sister were supposed to look after me, and while I was certainly old enough to spend a few hours by myself, they weren’t supposed to leave me in the house by myself at night. It happened to be June 26th, which was the day after opening night for The Thing. My brother and sister were dedicated splatter film fans, and desperately wanted to see this. Rather than draw straws to see who had to stay home, they took me, acting as my legal guardians for the night.

While certainly not the first scary movie I’d seen in the theater (Jaws and Poltergeist came first), it was the first time I saw one in the company of my siblings. I was a relatively squeamish 14-year-old, but I gutted this one out. Because of that—because I didn’t cry or hide my face or leave the theater, for that night I got treated like one of the big kids. It’s been one of the many reasons I have loved horror movies ever since.

This is a remake, and it’s far superior to The Thing from Another World from the ‘50s. Our action takes place in a research station in the Antarctic. When some people from a Norwegian station nearby appear to go berserk, the Americans investigate, and find everyone dead. They also find evidence that the Norwegians located something horrible below the ice. Taking back what looks like a mass of melted flesh, the Americans soon discover that the Norwegians did indeed find something, and that something is alive and dangerous.

The critter is a shapeshifter, and essentially each cell of its body is a separate entity. It invades a host, gestates, then splits apart in a spray of gore. After a little while, it coalesces into the shape of its original host—it looks the same and sounds the same, but it is now an alien creature bent on occupying other creatures and propagating itself across the world.

This is a tense film, and for this reason is one of Carpenter’s best. Once it becomes evident exactly what is going on, everything devolves into paranoia. No one can be trusted, and anyone could be an alien menace looking to get someone else alone for a couple of minutes to enact a changeover. It has a lot of similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in that respect.

Two things sell this film. First are the special effects. In 1982, this was as gruesome as a film got, rivaling such splatterfests as Dawn of the Dead for pure, gratuitous entrails. In one scene, for instance, a man’s chest opens up and forms jaws, biting off another man’s hands. When the creature is attacked with fire, the head splits off from the rest of the body, sprouts legs and antennae, and skitters away. It’s completely obscene and completely brilliant. Sadly, the effects aren’t as tremendous 30 years later, but they still work to an extent.

Second, the cast is fantastic. Heading things up is Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, the helicopter pilot, and one of the few men who appears to be thinking. His friend and foil is Childs (the always underrated Keith David), whose self-preservationist paranoia is tinged with just enough menace to make him either a huge son of a bitch or one of the creatures from the very start. Wilford Brimley plays Blair, who quickly loses his shit, making Childs’s paranoia look like minor dyspepsia. Running the crew is Gary (James Cromwell lookalike Donald Moffat), who deals as well as he can with the world shattering around him and each man looking out for his own skin…or to get into the skins of the others. Rounding out the cast are the medical doctor, Copper (Richard Dysart); the dog handler, Clark (Richard Masur); the cook, Nauls (T.K. Carter), radioman Windows (Thomas G. Waites); stoner-grunt Palmer (David Clennon); and scientists Norris (Charles Hallahan), Fuchs (Joel Polis), and Bennings (Peter Maloney).

What really makes me the happiest about this film, though, is that the characters often do things that turn out to be huge mistakes, but they do them for the right reasons. Over and over again, they make decisions that look smart until they play out to their logical conclusion and prove to be terrible errors. I love that, because the characters act in a way that, on a first view, I’d like to think I would. And then I discover that, like them, I’d be alien fodder because of it.

I love this film, and bought in on DVD mainly because I wore out my VHS copy a few years ago. Few other films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers being one) create such an intense atmosphere of panic, paranoia, and fear. This is great stuff, and if the effects don’t hold up, every other aspect of the film does.

Why to watch Poltergeist: Proof that PG movies can scare the snot out of you.
Why not to watch: Nightmares.

Why to watch The Thing: It’s hardcore.
Why not to watch: The effects don’t hold up as well as you might like.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Super Silent Saturday

Films: Intolerance, The Thief of Bagdad
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

When D.W. Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation, he simultaneously invented modern film and created a storm of controversy. In an effort to soften that criticism, he produced Intolerance, the biggest, longest, and most expensive film ever created, at least for its time. Intolerance weaves four stories of intolerant behavior—three from history and one from Griffith’s present day—to show the terrible damage cause by judging others harshly and, well, being intolerant. Should you sit down with this one, be prepared to be hammered with the world “intolerance” virtually every time the story switches from one era to the next.

What Griffith does, rather than run each story through from start to finish, is skip back and forth between the four, spending the most time in the present day and in the oldest story, which takes place in ancient Babylon. It’s likely that the first story had the most interest for people of the time and it’s absolutely true that the Babylonian story, with its massive sets, huge crop of extras, and live freakin’ elephants was the most expensive, and he wanted the most bang for his buck there. What this means is that each story essentially builds to a climax at the same time and resolves at the same time.

The four stories are:
Babylon, the siege of the city by Cyrus, aided and abetted by the disgruntled priest of Bel-Marduk, upset that worship has turned to Ishtar instead of his god.
Judea, Christ against the Pharisees and Christ’s eventual crucifixion.
France, and the persecution and destruction of the Huguenots under Catherine de Medici and Charles IX.
And Modern, unrest, strikes, and temperance, leading to moral outrage from moneyed individuals who hold themselves superior to the working class.

The three historical stories all show the terrible consequences of what can happen because of intolerant behavior, and links between the stories come in the form of Lillian Gish acting as a sort of universal mother rocking a cradle, undoubtedly the easiest payday she ever scored.

While this does contain four distinct stories, only two have any real meat on them. The Christ story is almost non-existent to the point where it becomes difficult to recall anything from it. The Pharisees hold themselves above the common masses of the people, Christ here is depicted as the sort of ultimately tolerant individual he was, and he is crucified for defying the wisdom and influence of his elders. Perhaps it’s safe to say that Griffith gave the story so little traction here because it was (and is) such a familiar story to his viewers. Similarly, the French story holds little more than Catholics getting pissed off and killing scads of Huguenots, and disrupting a wedding.

The modern story concerns the destruction caused by the alleged good intentions of reformers, who actually do more to destroy people, tear apart families, and create crime than perform any positive service. This is shown by giving us the story of people who, through circumstances, are treated as emblematic of the problem in the eyes of the reformers, but who are essentially innocent of the crimes of which they are convicted. The intolerance of the reformers blinds them to anything but the necessity of getting their reforms across, whatever the cost, and no matter who is ground down in the wheels of their justice.

The big story, with the cast of thousands and the massive sets, is the Babylonian story, which probably could have (and perhaps should have) been the entire film. Here, religious intolerance leads to the complete destruction of Babylon, and lives are ground down under the wheels of an onrushing army, all because a priest was dissatisfied with the fact that his ruler and the people had turned away from his god.

In this story we get some of the most magnificent battle sequences ever filmed. The sets here are tremendous, and the cast is massive. Thousands of people throw rocks, get hit by arrows, and move massive siege towers into place against huge walls created for the film. There are some really fine bits here, with towers being knocked over and a couple of decapitations that certainly would have shocked people 100 years ago (although through modern eyes, the trick is an obvious one).

What’s really noteworthy here is that again, Griffith did things that no one had done before. We have huge crane shots over Babylon, crane shots with moving cameras that really look like modern camera work. And, even today, 95 years later, the sets are still staggering. It’s the spectacle that makes this worth watching.

What’s difficult for the modern viewer is the typical overacting and overreaction of silent film actors. The Mountain Girl, for instance, takes part in the battles in an effort to help protect her beloved Belshazzar. She launches an arrow, then points to it, and jumps up and down. Yes, you launched an arrow. Good for you. In the middle of battle at one point, she spots Belshazzar and moons over him while around her, people are dying. It’s the sort of thing that to a modern audience makes silent film difficult to take seriously. Her realization of the treachery of the Priest of Bel comes with so much eye-bulging and double taking that it becomes comic.

Doubtless Griffith wanted these characters to be iconic, which is why most of them don’t have names. The accused in the modern story is known only as “The Boy” and his wife is “The Dear One,” while the girl in the French story is called “Brown Eyes.” In general, the bad guys have names—they are specific, but our heroes are known only by what type they are.

Intolerance, for all its epic sweep and profound greatness, is a film without a time. When it was made, audiences reacted by staying away in droves, bankrupting Griffith’s production company. Today, the acting is too extreme, and everything too melodramatic to have any traction with a modern audience. This is a rough ride—watch only for study, and for the giant battle sequences. Otherwise, it’s a few hours of preaching, bad behavior, and overacting.

If you think that the actors in Intolerance overdo it, it’s only because you’ve never seen Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. There isn’t a gesture here that can’t be made grander, or with a larger sweep of the arm. Seeing a dish of food he’d like, he smacks his lips and rubs his hand over his stomach from groin to chin.

Fairbanks, as might be determined from the previous paragraph, is the eponymous thief. The opening sequence shows him doing what he does. He filches purses by feigning sleep near a drinking spot, climbs walls and takes food, and steals a magic rope when its owner bows in prayer after being called by the muezzin. He also offers a speech to the clerics of Allah, saying that he looks for no reward in the next life. Instead, he takes what he wishes; this is a speech repeated a few minutes later by a Mongol prince, who has set his sights on Bagdad for his own.

To get it, he’ll try to win the hand of the Princess of Bagdad. To do so, the suitor must return with the rarest of treasures. The thief originally breaks into the palace of the Caliph of Bagdad to steal goods, but becomes so enamored of the princess that he decides that she is the true treasure. He first feigns being a prince himself, but is found out and flogged for his trouble. However, once he discovers what must be done to win the princess, he sets out on his own journey, fraught with peril, terrible monsters, and the treachery of his opponents for the princess’s hand.

At a touch longer than two-and-a-half hours, it would be nice to think that there’s more to the plot than this, but more really isn’t needed. Like the Babylonian scenes in Intolerance, the sell here is the spectacle on the screen. While the sets are huge and grand and a number of scenes have a large crop of extras, that’s not the focus. The focus is on the effects and on the talents and charm of Douglas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks is really something special. He was famous and a star back in the 1920s for the exact same reason that Jackie Chan is famous today—he looked like he could do anything, and made it look easy. In fact, while Chan often takes both a real and an apparent beating in his movies, Fairbanks does his stunts with a smile on his face. He is a tremendous acrobat, making everything he does look as simple as walking down a staircase. Naturally there were some tricks here—in one scene hidden trampolines aid his jumps, for instance. But many of these stunts were him and him alone. He moves with the natural grace of a dancer and the skill of a trained athlete. Few actors in history have had this natural gift, and fewer still used them so well and to such good effect.

As far as the special effects, it can be difficult to judge in this modern world of jaded viewers and films like Avatar and Inception. Still, for their time, they are ahead of the game, and while there’s no shock of how these effects were pulled off, several of them still look great and still work. What are the effects? Well, there’s a giant lizard monster, a bat creature, an undersea expedition complete with giant deep sea spider, and a winged horse that really looks great. The magic carpet is a nice effect, too. They all pale to the soldiers who appear from clouds of smoke, though. All in all, it’s impressive enough that it must have been cause for great discussion 85 years ago, and today is still good enough to be worth noting.

Sure, this film is overacted and melodramatic. And? It’s also a great deal of fun, filled with adventure and entertainment. If Douglas Fairbanks makes too much show of everything he does, who really cares? This is really the first non-comedy silent film I can say I have truly been entertained by, and that’s worth the price of admission.

Why to watch Intolerance: It’s grand in a way few films have ever been.
Why not to watch: Being hit over the head with message/message/message is never pleasant.

Why to watch The Thief of Bagdad: Stunts you won’t believe aren’t trick photography, and some of the greatest early effects ever made.
Why not to watch: Crazy, crazy melodrama.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Turn On, Tune In, Surf's Up!

Film: Surfwise
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

If you are human and have a job, at one point or another you have gotten to the place where in your head it’s a good idea to chuck everything, give up all ideas of material possession, and go live on a beach somewhere. That dream, living without commitments and without obligations has a real place in the psyche of anyone who has ever spent a day getting yelled at by a boss or slaved over a task that could be accomplished by a poorly-trained chimp. Surfwise is the story of a family that really did this, and made it work for not just a little while, but decades.

At the center of this world is Dorian Paskowitz, a doctor with a Stanford medical degree. After two failed marriages and disappointment in making money off of sick people, he went to Israel for a year. At the end of his year, he attempted to join the Israeli military, but they wouldn’t have him, so he returned to the U.S. to look for the woman he could make happy. In his world, this meant finding someone who would put up with what would become his ultimate Bohemian-on-the-surface lifestyle, would be willing to churn out children like a factory, and would want hot monkey sex every day. He found the right person when he met Juliette.

For the next couple of decades, the Paskowitzes drove around the world in their beaten down camper, looking for places to surf and producing a brood of eight boys and one lone girl. So imagine this—eleven people in a camper, not on vacation, but permanently. Doc Paskowitz raised his children by his own principles, which included the idea that formal schooling was worse than no schooling and that being healthy involved surfing every single day. So the Paskowitz clan surfed, drove, ate fish that they caught from the ocean, and made money by running surfing camps and by having Doc taking doctoring jobs in remote locations.

The first half of the film or so is an idyll. Here we learn all of the positive things that happened from this strange lifestyle. The kids, naturally, became world champion surfers from all of the constant practice, and starting getting endorsement deals. Their lifestyle was incredibly healthy and positive, and it’s evident that there was a great deal of love.

Not all was sunshine and roses, though. We also learn of the terrible cost of this lifestyle. The kids, as successful as they were in the surfing world, also came out of this experience with absolutely no idea of how to function in modern-day society. They have, as a rule, no formal education, having instead the wisdom that they were taught as children, which sounds great but looks like hell on a resume.

This doesn’t begin to address the other, perhaps more subtle but certainly just as deep scars that the life left on the entire family. Any break from what Dorian wanted was considered as betrayal. Any desire for a normal life or anything traditional was against the family code. Just as disturbing, Doc and Juliette never seemed to quell their appetite for relentless, constant sex, which means that every night, the kids got to listen to Mom and Dad going at it in the same small camper that all eleven of them slept in. Certainly, every one of them has multiple “I caught Mom and Dad having sex” stories, and from all accounts, it appears that all of them have about five of those for every week of their life.

Any extreme thing like this particular lifestyle can’t last forever, and as the kids started to get older, the cracks started to show. It started as competition between the older brothers, which became increasingly vicious as surfing competitions became more competitive and more important. Eventually, the family splintered, less with factions and more with people simply walking away from their extreme existence and trying to find something like normality. It’s telling that of the nine children, only one claims he has plans to raise his own children in anything like the same way as he was raised.

Doc himself is very much extreme in the same way. Because of this, he’s a divisive figure—he is both intriguing because of his ideas and his putting those ideas into practice and terrifying for the same reason. Much of what he says makes a good amount of sense, but much of what he says feels so wrong that it’s like coming around a corner and finding a dead animal. There’s an immediate pull back reaction. Any good lightning rod has the same effect.

If Surfwise fails in any way of creating this both compelling and repellant portrait, it fails at the end, when the family reunites. This Paskowitz family gather feels like a made-for-the-film event, a “let’s all put aside our differences for the sake of the camera” moment that wouldn’t happen if it hadn’t been for the film crew.

It’s impossible to watch this film and not feel twinges. On the one hand, it’s natural to look at that lifestyle and see a carefree, idyllic existence, the kind that would be possible if it weren’t for a mortgage, a job, a car payment, and an inherent need to keep up with the Joneses. On the other hand, there is a comfort in knowing that I’ll probably never have to eat fish heads to survive, and have never forced my children to walk around bare-assed naked because we couldn’t afford clothing for them.

Why to watch Surfwise: Your mind will be blown that they made this work for so long.
Why not to watch: The mixture of jealousy for the lifestyle and disgust at the lifestyle.