Monday, January 16, 2012

Hello, I Must Be Going

I'm not sure how you got here--I may be to blame--but welcome to my second blog--the first was "The Home Viewer," which is lost somewhere; I may have shut it down myself.  In any case, I want to thank you for visiting while pointing out that this site is all but abandoned.  I'm devoting my energies to The Constant Viewer, an attempt to make my way through film history without writing history; and Netflix Instant Play Picks of the Moment, which explains itself.

Writing the pieces on this site was a great opportunity for me--and a real education--as well as a lot of fun.  Poke around all you like, leave a comment if you will.  Some day I may revive this site--or me; in the meantime, Happy Wandering.

Monday, October 24, 2011

2011 Halloween Roundup: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck

This year’s Roundup settles firmly into that most dependable little room in all of Halloweentown: the vampire’s coffin, that plush satin button-tufted Mystery Box with the same surprise, every time: the Vrykolakas, Wampir, Vampire—the Invited Guest, the Undead, the Right One (for all the wrong reasons).  And while we’re certain we’ve left out your favorite, here’s the lineup for our annual Dark Ride (with cheap pizza at dusk).  Drop on by Sunday, October 30, bring your favorite treat (optional—but we’ll take garlic, hawthorn or holy water), stake your claim (heh-heh-heh), pull up a casket and sharpen your teeth, kiddies, because it’s Roundup time.

WARNING: These are all R-rated films.
The Roundup won't let children under 17 attend
unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.   'Nuff said.

1:00 PM Mr. Vampire/Geung si sin sang (1985)

And old Hong Kong favorite at the Roundup, this is as close as a vampire-only lineup can get to a kiddie matinee—although it may not be for actual kiddies.  Martial arts, broad slapstick, and indistinct mythology blend with obscure methodologies for dispatching hopping vampires—yes, like fanged pogo sticks—in a Jackie Chan-ish world of stunts and general foolishness. 

3:00 PM  Fright Night (1985)

Sorry, gang, but the original 3:00 show, Dracula (1993), is unavailable.  But we had this one in our pocket, the original Mom-let-the-wrong-one-in movie.  Roddy McDowell has fun playing Vincent Price, and Chris Sarandon is '80s hunky--but Stephen Geoffreys has the most fun of all as Evil Ed.  Dinner's in the oven!

5:30 PM  Shadow of the Vampire

Speaking of X-treme acting, here’s a movie that imagines the making of Murnau’s Nosferatu with John Malkovich as the famed director and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, his vampire.  I could tell you that in this version Schreck is a little too good at playing the rat-toothed Count, but the casting should be enough to scare you.  An overlooked Gem of the Genre.

7:15 PM  Let the Right One In (2008)

We’re not snobs just because we know that the average moviegoer is more afraid of subtitles than of vampires.  The only unfortunate side-effect of that fear is Absolutely Unnecessary American Remake Syndrome, an ailment that even the directors of the original can suffer from (see—or don’t—the remakes of The Vanishing and Funny Games).  Fortunately, there’s a cure for AUARS: Let the Right One In, a pale and frosty Norwegian original that reminds us how bad it is to be a vampire, even if you like it.  Along with Near Dark (1987), The Addiction (1995), and Nadja (1994)—with Peter Fonda as both Dracula and Van Helsing—Let the Right One In remolds the vampire movie in unexpected ways.  (Oh, and speaking of Norwegian horror films, do yourself a favor and watch Trollhunter (2010), a funny-clever-scary Blair Cloverfield Project—with the added bonus of the most stunning landscapes since Bilbo went a-wanderin.  You’ll be pining for the fjords before you know it.)

9:15 PM  30 Days of Night (2007)

Another chilly movie, we’re happy to end the Roundup with a David Slade picture, the man who gave us the terminally squirmy Hard Candy (2006).  But for 30 Days of Night he calms down, more or less, to give us a good-ol’-fashion CGI-fest—with generous slabs of thrill-ride satisfaction.  And you thought that almost-vice-president lady who looks like Tina Fey was the only scary thing to come out of Alaska.



Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ebertfest: Day One

First day of Ebert's festival: Pink Floyd The Wall and You, the Living. First one is aggressively depressing and confused. The second is Swedish and deadpan hilarious--and, in a compassionately depressing way, a persistent reminder of the need to--I'll just write the word, and be derided--love. There's going to be a panel discussion about whether film students need to know much about film history. How could one make, let alone understand, You, the Living without Buster Keaton?

Tomorrow: meet n greet for Ebert Club members. Dare I bug the Poobah and ask him to sign my copy of The Great Movies?

Monday, December 07, 2009

"Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye": Happy Birthday, Tom Waits

I walked into the little joint--more like a shed, something out back of a farmhouse, ramshackle leaning, door half-off in a half-smile--and someone was playing an old-timey phonograph--Victrola scratching her soft nails along my back, making me grin and shiver--but no, it was a real person singing--OK, not so much "real" as really imagined, a sight for sore eyes, skinny guy slouched at the piano, little hat on his head, something golden glinting in a glass always nearby--and I've stayed there for decades, and I can't tell you how often that fellow has made my throat catch and my eyes well up--and then he steps right up and I'm happy at last, knowing a little rain never hurt no one--"and the rain it raineth every day"--and he knows it, so he keeps singing, with that big smile and those sad eyes, pursing his lips at the naughty world, but ready to forgive it, down there by the train, blood money in our pockets--but we're innocent when we dream, he insists, and lets us off the hook--just long enough for us to slip out the back, Ruby still asleep, and take the long way home, all the way around the world.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Thanksgiving: Lou Jacobi, 1913-2009

I just read on Roger Ebert's website that Lou Jacobi died. Ebert reminds us of two of Jacobi's great roles: the cross-dresser in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and the outraged Uncle Gabriel in Avalon--and for me that is the lasting image, the uncle standing there, railing at everyone for carving the turkey without him, the big shots out in the suburbs leaving everything behind--everything, not just him. It is a painful scene for me to watch, familiar from my own childhood--my grandparents in South Philadelphia, the Sicilian block with the water ice stand on the corner, little pieces of lemon rind in the sweet snow, sneakers hanging on the wires, the alley behind, the wine cellar below. But the older I grew, the less frequent the visits, until it was all suburbs, and no more Mifflin St.

Still, even after I was an adult and married, my wife and I would occasionally visit my grandmother, who slowly receded, tinier every month. The row house was the same, sweet-smelling in an old-wine kind of way. I remember going to the little glass-paned doors of her china cabinet, and opening it, just to catch the whiff of some long-gone brandy in the little cut-glass decanter, with a few abandoned Jordan almonds behind the nick-knacks and set of aperitif glasses, dusty pale pink and yellow and white.

So when Lou stands shouting in the suburban lane, tearing his garment over the effrontery of the thing, I hate him for ruining Thanksgiving for everyone--and ruefully thank him for showing us what it's like to fade away. Jacobi does it in style, not gently but with his eyes up, asking God if He can believe such a thing could happen to a family, whether it comes from Minsk or Pinsk or Enna.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween Roundup 2009

[Note: I found the above version of "It's Halloween"--by those ever-lovin' Shaggs--on YouTube. Perhaps a few too many cats-in-costumes, but it has a REALLY scary ending; you've been warned, kiddies. Heh-heh-heh!]

Welcome, you little demons, to our third annual Halloween Roundup, an all-day (and into the wee hours of the night) marathon of cinematic scares. We start at noon with something for the kids, then Monster Mash our way to a hometown-tribute Midnight Special. So bring a Treat or pull a Trick, and join us this Saturday for a movie or two or three or four or ...

12:00 noon
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

You might want to bring a cracking good piece of Stilton to this (G-rated) Halloween entry in the stop-action animation film series that single-handedly redeems the expression "cheesy movie."

2:00 pm
Cloverfield (2008)

A movie whose home-video conceit and shaky-cam sensibilities work better on the small screen than in theaters. The plot: Young people just a little too nice for Real World: Brooklyn find themselves in a Godzilla movie.

4:00 pm
Suspiria (1977)

Is this Dario Argento's masterpiece? The epitome of Italian giallo murder-movies? A Technicolor excess-travaganza? Hitchcock for the delirious? Who cares? It looks great, and Jessica Harper is at her stupefying-'70s best.

6:00 pm
Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Every year we show one we haven't seen--not even the trailer. But I hear it's Sam Raimi doing a PG-13 impression of himself, Evil-Dead-style. Don't forget your Necronomicon; there will be a pop quiz--in which something might actually pop.

8:00 pm
Stir of Echoes (1999)

Kevin Bacon gets hypnotized at a party, then starts seeing Things. Nice mid-budget ghost-machine. Besides, afterwards you can go from Pam Grier or John Cleese--or from Peter Boyle or Burt Young--to Kevin with only one degree of separation. "Thank you sir may I have another!"

10:00 pm
Candyman (1992)

It's sexual politics are a bit icky, it's villain maybe verging on the racist, it's taste questionable. In other words, welcome to 1992, when '80s uncertainty met '90s desperation. Besides, it's Virginia Madsen's moment in the sun, and as good a version of a Clive Barker story you could want--sans Pinhead. Call it "A Poison Tree Grows in Cabrini-Green."

12:00 midnight
Strange Behavior (1981)

The companion piece to Strange Invaders, Michael Laughlin's two-movie homage to '50s SF-horror, sort of. Both pictures feature a combination of earnest appreciation and near-spoof--without falling too clumsily into either. And hey, this is the one about the psychological researcher doing terrible things to local college kids in a small town in Illinois called--oh, you guessed it: Galesburg. OK, so it was filmed in New Zealand(!). But it's heart--as well as various other organs--is in the right place: just a little to the left of the Hawthorne Center, and a hoot-n-holler away from Old Main. Midnight Madness, Knox College style.

Costumed Cut-Ups, Atlantic City:

"Hallowe'en" (1896)
Joel Benton

Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite
All are on their rounds to-night,--
In the wan moon's silver ray
Thrives their helter-skelter play.

Fond of cellar, barn, or stack
True unto the almanac,
They present to credulous eyes
Strange hobgoblin mysteries.

Cabbage-stumps--straws wet with dew--
Apple-skins, and chestnuts too,
And a mirror for some lass
Show what wonders come to pass.

Doors they move, and gates they hide
Mischiefs that on moonbeams ride
Are their deeds,--and, by their spells,
Love records its oracles.

Don't we all, of long ago
By the ruddy fireplace glow,
In the kitchen and the hall,
Those queer, coof-like pranks recall?

Eery shadows were they then--
But to-night they come again;
Were we once more but sixteen
Precious would be Hallowe'en.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Rating Game Redux 47: "Foos-ball? Buncha overgrown monsters man-handlin' each other..." --Mama Boucher

I've been away a long time--trying to get the heck out of the 1920s on my other blog--the darn movie diary book. But I decided to get back into the "Rating Game" in our local paper with "Best Football Movies." And while Sunday is behind us, and it is no longer Bosstime, I figured I'd toss a Hail Mary and see who nabs it.

“Three Little Pigskins” (1934)
Pan-handling Three Stooges are mistaken for the “three horsemen of Boulder Dam” and promptly dismantle college football beyond all recognition. Academic highlight: Larry woos Lucille Ball in Pig Latin.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Football, British-style, as a young Sikh defies her parents to play on a women’s soccer team. Maybe too easy in its mixture of feel-good sports comeback, grrl-power assertion, cross-cultural bonding, and love-won-and-lost subplot, but it’s an enjoyable hodgepodge, with more action in any five-minute stretch than twenty soccer matches.

Friday Night Lights (2004)
With Billy Bob Thornton in complete control of his character, and country star Tim McGraw as a father who peaked not when his son was born but when he received that high school championship ring, this is the Hoosiers of football movies—and that’s saying a lot. As much about the punishing pressure to win as it is about the nobility of playing, Friday Night Lights gives us a coach and team whose “heart is full.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Looking Backward: Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009

Robert Hughes points out that Wyeth's Christina's World is as ubiquitous a piece of Modern American art as Grant Wood's American Gothic--although the latter leans more toward the ironic, and I prefer the profound sentimentality of Wyeth's painting. I have a print of it in my dining room: I had given it away to someone dear, who framed it beautifully, and then dearly re-gifted it. We have not seen Karen for about twenty-five years, but her painting reminds me of her every day--and Christina models Karen a bit--and vice versa, the two of them taking turns in the field.

Christina's World resonates on the screen, as well. Two years ago I noted its influence on Terry Gilliam's Tideland--and every so often we can elsewhere see Christina sliding gently into view:

Ponette (1996)
The little girl's mother has died, and her tears blur her vision, until she finds herself wandering in a dream of grief and longing.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Harold Crick hears the far-off sound of his own unreality, and stares into the middle distance, giving us the look that must have been on Christina's face.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
Deaf and mute, John reaches out, and touches, but the returning hand brushes his cheek too softly for him to feel he can remain.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Even Guadalcanal in 1943 provides Christina an opportunity to appear--and it isn't just the wind-swept fields, but Terrence Malick's lowering camera, finding small flowers, insects, the secret world thrumming on, almost inaudible, but thriving.

With Edward Hopper and William DeBernardi, Wyeth is among my most dependable visualizers of American spaces. Only one of them remains--still hale and hearty, Bill, knock wood three times--but so do the pictures, plain and deep and helping me see.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Horror, the Horror

Yesterday I began teaching a three-week December Break course here at Knox College, "The Gothic in Film." We started by considering Gothic (and Gothic-influenced) lit--The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre, Poe, Hawthorne, "The Yellow Wallpaper," Stoker--and will explore a number of topics as they arise in various films--paying special attention to the visual/aural elements that help define the Gothic movie.

Here's the schedule of topics/films; play along at home.

WEEK 1 (December 1-5)

Introduction to Course: Nosferatu (1922)
Expressionism: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Batman Returns (1992)
The Oneiric: Eraserhead (1977)
The Outsider: Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Freaks (1932)
The Doppelgänger: The Shining (1980)

WEEK 2 (December 8-12)

The Body: The Fly (1986)
Ghosts: Ju-On (2003)
The Other: The Exorcist (1973)
Fate and Inevitability: Angel Heart (1987)
Revenge of Nature: Them! (1954)

WEEK 3 (December 15-19)

The Noir Sensibility: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958)
The Freudian Sensibility: Psycho (1960)
Grand Guignol: Mad Love (1935), Day of the Dead (1985)
Moral Tales: The Dead Zone (1983)

As you can tell, I'm not so much dedicated to advancing a single argument as giving the students as many options as possible to approach the Gothic. I'm also interested in non-horror films' Gothic sensibilities, especially film noir.

As we go along, I'm compiling a filmography for each topic, and welcome your suggestions.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rating Game Redux 46: "Determined to Prove a Villain"

Our local paper asked us to call into the abyss, and some boss villains called back.

The first villains are encountered in childhood. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is the Big Bad Wolf in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), his fingers famously tattooed with “love” and “hate,” Mitchum’s sleepy grin relentless as he pursues the children through a black-and-white troubled dream.

Given the current global economic state, Haghi (Rudolph Kleine-Rogge), the evil banker in Fritz Lang’s Spione/Spies (1928), comes easily to mind. Sitting wheelchair-bound (unnecessarily, his disability a ruse—how’s that for a metaphor?) in his office, wired to a worldwide network of saboteurs and assorted minions, his staring eyes and goatee pointing at us like a weapon, Haghi threatens monetary chaos while his own coffers fill to bursting. Fortunately, in Lang’s version, no bailout is offered.

OK, I can’t resist another financier: Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Also in a wheelchair, Potter cannot bear the thought of regular folk owning their own homes—or George Bailey’s growing conviction that, eventually, everyone should have a conscience.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Home Viewer (12): Dead of Night

Yes, yes, Halloween is over. But terror--not to mention my ego--knows no bounds, so here's the latest column I wrote for our local paper. Boo.

The best Halloween films are midnight movies, weird creatures that hide during the day, slithering and lumbering out only when the sun has set and it’s a long way until dawn. As Macbeth, among the finest citizens of Halloweentown, says, “Let not light see my black and deep desires.” So save your revered classics and perennial favorites for a happy matinee: It’s time for Midnight Madness, where (as long as I’m quoting) “something wicked this way comes.”

Les yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face (1960)

Also known as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (the English dubbed version, which I’m sure I saw in the mid-‘60s on some UHF channel), this is the least unhinged of our Creepy Cavalcade. Still, surrealist Georges Franju sent them running out of the theater with his tale of a surgeon who attempts to restore his daughter’s beauty (maimed when her father crashes the car) by kidnapping young women and removing their faces, which he then grafts onto his poor daughter, who wanders the mansion-clinic wearing a featureless mask, a ghost before her time, while her father and his dedicated nurse cruise the shadowed streets, searching for victims. The gruesome is always more so in black and white, the details of the surgical procedures soaked in darkness, the daughter’s melancholy mask pale as a bone in moonlight. (For a campy take on this situation, see 1959’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.)

Freaks (1932)

“We accept her--one of us--gooble, gobble--we accept her--one of us--gooble, gobble.” Or “gabba gabba” if you’re a Ramones fan. Tod Browning loved the circus, and the fact that night must fall. So every chance he got, he put the two together, in whichever way he could, from The Unknown and the lost London After Midnight (both 1927) to Dracula (1931). But Freaks has its own strange trajectory, veering toward exploitation (his cast famously includes actual circus sideshow performers)--well, plummeting over the edge, perhaps. But in Browning’s world the congenitally disabled and the purposely contorted are the norm, while the “normal” viewer is the deviant, the voyeur. If you feel uncomfortable watching the Human Torso, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, Johnny Eck the legless man, or the encephalitic Zip and Pip, it’s your problem, not theirs. But woe to anyone who crosses “one of us.”

Day of the Dead (1985)

After the original, this is the most outlandish (and my favorite) outing for George Romero’s forty-year zombie spree. The humans are nervous wrecks, the zombies are literally storming the gates, while undead Bub grooves to his Walkman. Gory without regrets, cluttered with endlessly bickering characters--the best of them as pleasant as spoiled milk--and punctuated by social commentary delivered with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, Day of the Dead should be viewed only at midnight, when your regular self is too tired to stop watching.

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

I would have to resign my post if I didn’t mention a Roger Corman movie--preferably one with Dick Miller. But what can I add to the basic premise of A Bucket of Blood? A wanna-be beatnik artist (Miller as Walter Paisley; what a Clyde, daddio) kills things—eventually people, natch--encases them in clay, and becomes the darling of the finger-snapping set. Only Dick Miller could play camp straight; lesser performers would have tripped over their own sandals. More desperate than The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), with a creepy-giggling sense of its own cheap appeal, this one deserves a tip of the beret.

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

In deference to this column’s appearance in a family-friendly publication, let me simply state that if you’re going to watch only one ‘70s eurotrash lesbian vampire film at midnight this Halloween …

The Brood (1979)

David Cronenberg’s horror films are bearable only if you’re willing to watch what appears to be occupational therapy. Here, it’s divorce Cronenberg-style, as Samantha Eggar turns to psycho-babble psychiatrist Oliver Reed to help her work out some marriage/motherhood problems. The result is a Gothic parable of anxieties externalized and rage embodied. Always one to rub our noses in our selves, Cronenberg turns the mad doctor scenario into an indictment of pop psychology--with truly nauseating and delirious results. And you thought Norman Bates had issues.

Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento’s triumph of style over substance, its suspense set-pieces textbook lessons in editing and pacing worthy of Hitchcock or DePalma. It’s basically an “old dark house” plot, with strange goings-on and multiple murders. But Argento brings a painter’s eye--and a devilish glee--to the proceedings to prove that a midnight movie can also be a class act.

Eraserhead (1977)

The ultimate student film, five years in the making, David Lynch’s first feature, “a dream of dark and troubling things,” set the tone for most of his later work. It is, for me, the ultimate dead-of-night movie, devoid of all camp sensibilities, deliberate as a virus, a dimly lit trudge toward adulthood depicted as a surreal withdrawal--not back toward childhood, but inside the resisting self, sickened by the prospect of growing up. For most viewers, Eraserhead is something to be endured, like an unwelcome guest, and so I’ll warn you more than recommend it to you. But if you must, watch it at midnight--better yet, after the midnight movie, in the “dark night,” as St. John of the Cross put it, when you’re ready for it because you’re all alone.

Have a Happy Halloween, kiddies.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Roundup 2008

Let's not lose our heads, kiddies: The Halloween Roundup is back! And as your faithful Mausoleum Master, I wracked my brains--and when that didn't work, I wracked the brains of a drifter I lured into my unmarked van--and out popped this year's Roundup, a salute to the post-Vietnam, pre-digital, big-haired '80s, with all kinds of stuff trickling down. Everything was awesome and the New Wave gagged everyone with a spoon--and at the movies, nothing was sacred--unless you were making a big-time Hollywood picture, with Ark-Raiders, Star-Warriors, or a pack of John Hughes brats.

But down there in the basement, the horror film hissed like a 'gator, the outer limits of bad behavior meeting the boundless audacity of Special Makeup Effects. So square those big shoulders, mousse up and bug out, because it's Halloween all day, and the '80s all the way (after a kinder, gentler kid matinee).

11:00 am: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Proud to have successfully digitized hair, Pixar luxuriates in a free-flowing, bouncing romp through that most basic of childhood fears: the Thing in the dark. Except this time it's John Goodman in Gentle-Giant mode, with Billy Crystal talking out of the corner of his mouth--and Mary Gibbs as Boo, the voice-talent highlight of this candy-colored clown of a movie.

1:00 pm: Mr. Vampire (1985)

A goofy Hong Kong hodgepodge of ghosts, follow-the-bouncing-vampires, wire-fu action and slapstick comedy, sprinkled with obscure (for most of us) references to various folk-myths and practices. A movie that all but demands you watch it dubbed, if only to add one more layer of foolishness. An early-afternoon oddity you won't soon forget.

3:00 pm: The Changeling (1980)

Along with Uzumaki (2000), a Japanese exercise in gothic-surrealism, The Changeling is a Roundup perennial, a solid ghost story that features George C. Scott tortured by guilt (not a stretch for the Big Man) and drawn into his new home's past sins. Worth it just for the rubber-ball scene.

5:00 pm Near Dark (1987)

Well, the '80s really begin with this one, Kathryn Bigelow's almost-comic gore-fest that asks the question, "Are there vampires in 'Real America'?" You may not want to know the answer, but you'll get one from Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton, and the rest of their a-hootin'-and-a-bloodsuckin' clan.

7:00 Eating Raoul (1982)

I'll admit I haven't seen this one since the actual '80s, so its satire may not travel as well as I'm hoping, especially as it enters John Waters territory: '50s camp sensibility paired with '80s alternate sexuality. Hmm. We shall see.

9:00 pm Dead and Buried (1981)

With James Farentino and Jack Albertson starring, one might fear we're in TV-movie territory. But if you remember the heyday of TV movies, you should fear not--and just enjoy being afraid of this small-town-with-a-secret. Although Dead and Buried is another one I haven't seen in years, it promises a twist or two as the body-count rises.

11:00 pm The Fly (1986)

Along with Les yeux sans visage (1960), one of the true masterpieces of "medical horror." Serving as a metaphor for AIDS, cancer, genetics as an industry, abortion rights, what-have-you, David Cronenberg's movie forces us to watch the changes any of these can force upon the body and soul. Audacious, funny, heart-breaking, sickening, The Fly takes us past midnight with a buzz no one wants.

Fall-back options (in case of damaged discs):

From Beyond (1986): Stuart Gordon's follow-up to 1985's Re-Animator.

The Shining (1980): Stanley Kubrick's Gothic meditation on the disintegration of the nuclear family, with a fire-ax.

Angel Heart (1987): Alan Parker drifts along the bayou with Mickey Rourke, joined by a decidedly de-Cosby-fied Lisa Bonet and Robert DeNiro eating a hard-boiled egg. Things, I don't have to tell you, get weird.

And I may have a few copies of last year's Roundup CD, free to our valued patrons and crammed like a doomed goose with spooky tunes to keep you doing the boneyard watusi all night long. See you Saturday, boos and ghouls! (Heh-heh-heh!)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rating Game Redux 45: Are We Scared Yet?

Our local paper continues to love Halloween, calling for "Scariest Movie Moments." (I have excluded the obvious: Michael Bay, Wild Hogs, Mike Myers' accents)

Them! (1954)

In the opening sequence, a little girl in a bathrobe, clutching a doll, wanders trance-like through the desert. The giant ants that follow are pretty cool, but that image of the little girl conveys real dread, deeper in your head than any ‘50s creature-feature could actually deliver.

The Fly (1986)

Just about the longest man-to-monster transformation in the movies culminates with Seth Brundle’s doomed, surreal consideration of his slipping into fly-dom: “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first insect politician. You see, I'd like to, but I'm afraid.” Always the jazz performer, Jeff Goldblum plays the scene like sci-fi Shakespeare, scatting his way into the genetic abyss.

Psycho (1960)

While Milton Arbogast’s (Martin Balsam) slow ascent to his doom is Hitchcock working the scare-machine full tilt, it’s Anthony Perkins at his ease that scares me the most, with his boyish grin and stammer, watching Vivien Leigh eat “like a bird,” his attention, as always, maternal.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rating Game Redux 44: We All Scream

Our local paper edges us closer to the October Country by calling--loudly, piercingly--for "Best Horror Movie Screams." As usual, too many remain unheard when three is all I'm allowed to mention--but we can still hearken to Mary Philbin, opening her mouth--and covering it, lady to the last--her eyes wide enough to take in every putty-and-wire rotted crease of Lon Chaney's Phantom--her scream silent, as if in a dog's-only upper register. And Janet Leigh, vying with Bernard Herrmann's violins as Anthony Perkins smiles, shy guy that he is, and helps Mother. And even John Goodman and Willliam Forsythe, the Snoats brothers, letting loose with lusty roars as they suddenly realize the shocking burdens of raising (as far as anyone can tell) little Nathan Arizona.

But these three--OK, four--will do for now, their din the first herald of Good Ol' Halloween, just around the dark corner.

In the original King Kong (1933), Fay Wray’s scream becomes more important than any actual words in the script (excluding the famous last line). Sometimes recorded as a tiny thing—to match her size relative to Kong’s—sometimes filling the soundtrack, her screams are as memorable as the animated ape himself.

A tie, same movie: When Helen Delambre (Patricia Owens) finally sees what her husband (David Hedison) has become in The Fly (1958), she screams—and the camera cuts to her fly-husband’s perspective, her face reproduced in every facet of his fly-eyes, her scream suddenly a distorted warble. And then the human-headed fly at the end, caught in the spider’s web, screaming, “Help me! Help me!” in a high-pitched falsetto at once ridiculous and pitiful—until Vincent Price smashes it with a rock.

In Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty spends an interminable final sequence screaming, moaning, begging for mercy. It is unnerving and almost impossible to watch /listen to, the cruelest ten minutes in movie history.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Home Viewer (11): Lincolnesque

I recently submitted a Lincoln-themed piece to our local paper--but I can't find it online, and I don't get the paper, so I'm not sure if it ran. (I really should work on my ego.) Anyway, here in Illinois we're generally pretty Abe-happy--although I'm used to that kind of thing: Growing up in NJ near Philadelphia, it was Ben Franklin this and Ben Franklin that. History. Sheesh. Anyway (again), we're gearing up for his bicentennial--and the college where I work was the site of the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, during which, we are always proud to point out, Lincoln "first condemned slavery on moral grounds."

And so it is in high moral dudgeon mode that I present The Roundabout Lincoln Movie Tribute. As the Honest One once said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than go to the theater." You have been warned.

As the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Weekend arrives, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the debates, Galesburg and Knox College are doing their best to honor the old Rail Splitter and his legacy. But as far as the Home Viewer is concerned, no celebration is complete without a random collection of movies. In my diligent laziness, I wandered around a Lincoln quotations website, and have allowed some choice passages to help me select the films that follow. Honest, Abe.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There’s nothing like opening strong. These words, from his first inaugural address, are justly famous, beautifully constructed without being too fussy, self-assured in their flourishes—the balanced, parallel structures, the long phrase separating subject and verb, trusting the reader to follow, to carry on to the end—with a judicious balance of sentimentality and profundity. But where, cinematically speaking, does this take us? I’m reminded of films where passion strains the “bonds of affection”:

In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards all but surrenders his love to hatred, a hard man whom everyone shuns—until he is forced to break his own will and be touched by those “better angels,” and stay his murderous hand.

Akira Kurosawa’s Akahige/Red Beard (1965) is the tale of young, ambitious Doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who feels trapped in a charity clinic run by Toshiro Mifune’s Dr. Niide (whose nickname gives us the movie’s title), a man whose great humility and good will—and humor—is tainted by neither false pride nor false humility. While Yasumoto complains, Niide persists, and the younger man’s ego melts under the heat of Red Beard’s implacable dedication. And the remarkable thing is that Kurosawa, like Lincoln in his speech, avoids sheer sentimentality, and instead asserts compassion as the “mystic chord” necessary to accomplish any worthwhile task, pride abandoned, enemies reconciled.

Touchez pas au grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1954), directed by Jacques Becker, feels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon in its brutally frank attention to failure, while ironically praising the virtues of friendship and loyalty. Jean Gabin's Max, a ready-to-retire criminal, is forced to risk everything to save his longtime friend/partner in crime. A casually hip movie in which thugs call each other “Daddy-o” and friendship is more valuable than loot. As Sam Spade says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Fifteen years later—and an ocean away—Max tenders the same warning, and woe to any mug who gives it the drift.

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Can we still affirm these words from Lincoln's first annual message to Congress? After a $700,000,000,000 bailout, it appears that, while we are told the American laborer/fundamentals/foundation is sound, Capital still rakes in better fringe benefits. Even at the movies.

Wall Street (1987) trickled down a little secret: “Greed is good.” Michael Douglas with his slicked-back mane and lizard eyes today may seem quaint, an ‘80s Simon LeGree, but is it a coincidence that his character’s name is Gordon Gekko? In its boundless truthiness, Wikipedia tells us that, when threatened, many species of geckos will “expel a foul-smelling material and feces.” Thus endeth the lesson.

But if you really want to see an angry populist at work, suffer through George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). The capitalists hide in a luxury hotel while the workers forage amid the living dead—which in the end become the not-so-meek inheritors of the Earth-as-buffet, taking what they like, and eating what they take.

Still, some movies give credit where it’s due. Norma Rae (1979) and Bread and Roses (2000) extol the virtues of unionization—although Ken Loach’s movie is not as optimistic as Norman Ritt’s, whose Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar-winning performance) rises above the cotton-dust to lead her fellow textile workers to victory. And while the anti-(crooked) union undertones of On the Waterfront (1954) shift the film’s politics, Brando’s Terry Malloy rounds his shoulders and sneaks in the class-hero side door, the worker-as-boxer, bloodied but unbowed.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

In this 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, a Southerner and slave-owner, Lincoln addresses, among other things, his opposition to the American Party, or “Know-Nothings,” “Nativists” who advocated restricting immigration of Catholics, particularly from Ireland. Despite his repeated statements that he did not consider a person of African descent to be his “equal in many respects,” as he put it in his first debate with Stephen Douglas, he maintained a strong conviction that “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” In the Know-Nothings he saw a damaging extension of the degradations of inequality.

Listen carefully to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and you’ll hear plainly the “progress in degeneracy.” He is always on the lookout for the Irish minions of “their king with the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome” and boasts, “You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear.” And in the end, it is fear that motivates even the fearsome.

My favorite part of the above quoted Lincoln passage is his assertion that, if the Know-Nothings gain control, he “should prefer emigrating to [Russia] where they make no pretence of loving liberty … where despotism can be taken pure.” But when John Reed went to Russia in 1917 and witnessed “ten days that shook the world,” he was hoping for a nation where no one craved “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” And for a brief time, the electric charge of freedom lit him up—as Warren Beatty chronicles in Reds (1981), where Reed moves from fellow traveler to true believer to disillusioned idealist to accidental martyr. In the end, Reed stays behind, buried in the Kremlin, finally equal to everyone, while the “pretence of loving liberty” is still kept up, although more than a little strained.

Well, I’d like to thank Lincoln for easy words to build on, evocative and brimming with ideas. Seems a shame that this is all I’ve squeezed out of them; but as another Master Rhetorician, George Orwell, reminds us, everything is political, even the decision not to be political—and that might include a movie now and then.

Coming Soon: The annual Halloween Roundup. I was thinking of doing an all-'70s version. Any suggestions--or alternate themes?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand": Paul Newman, 1925-2008

Two, maybe three kind favors from Paul Newman--maybe four: Hitting that pool ball, learning a lesson from the Fat Man. Fifty eggs in an hour--of course, of course--his grin as phony and as real as every single year that beats or blesses it out of him. And winking at everybody, especially himself, throughout the '70s, a fight where a hockey game breaks out, dispensing frontier justice, playing cowboy--but somehow, most of all following Robert Altman all the way up to Montreal, icing down Expo '67 and playing a little Quintet.

Why that last one sticks most with me, I don't know. But I remember being surprised to see him there, like John Wayne with the wind knocked out of him, wandering around the Last Days. And so now Mussburger meets the Old Man--the One he prayed to in Cool Hand Luke, a couple of hard cases with a sly-sad sense of humor. But maybe He'll forgive and forget, the tangy tastes of Newman's Own fresh on His tongue like kind words, both of them deep down charitable, with matching blue eyes.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Rating Game Redux 43: This Is the End

Our local paper's Rating Game called for Best Movie Endings--very nice category, but phenomenally difficult to do well. So I just did three Kubrick endings. Better than nothing, but of course I abandoned Kane's Rosebud; Antoine Doinel's walk on the beach--not to mention Charlton Heston's, accompanied by the Statue of Liberty; the telling piece of information that it's Chinatown, Jake; the Blair Witch wall-huddle; the standoff in the snow to see who's a Thing and who isn't; Marcello abandoning his film to dance in the circus-line; Rocky caring less who won the fight--and Joe E. Brown caring even less that Jack Lemmon's a man; Peter Sellers walking on the water; Michael closing the door on Kay; and Rick at the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And so on. (Feel free to add your own--c'mon, dear geeks, show me up and tell me what I've missed.)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Some sneer at its pretentiousness, others scratch their heads, puzzled. But it remains one of the movies’ great mysteries, a beautiful reminder that, before it was a story, cinema was an image.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.” You can say that again. Funniest apocalypse ever.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) wanders from the despairing mess of a war run by opportunists, and hears the German girl sing, his men joining her, their hearts breaking, the front waiting to tear them to pieces. The perfect counterpoint to yet another Best Movie Ending, Casablanca’s.

Aint YouTube grand?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Rating Game Redux 42: "What's So Special About Them?"

I usually don't go for the snarkier Rating Game categories for our local paper, but I eventually succumbed to "Worst Movie Special Effects." And while I promised myself not to kick a movie when it's down--that is, no low-budget picks--I couldn't resist just one.

The Polar Express (2004)

The mask-like faces of the motion-captured actors convey a sense of menace, rather than the almost-solemn dream that was the attraction of Chris Van Allsburg’s book. You know you’re in trouble when Tom Hanks (as the Hobo) looks more like Tom Waits.

Spider-Man (2002)

Yes, Spider-Man is strong--like the man says, “Listen, Bud, he’s got radioactive blood”--but the CGI Spidey seems made of rubber as he bounces from one skyscraper to the next, his trajectory as convincing as Wile E. Coyote’s--while only unintentionally funny.

Robot Monster (1953)

I’m being unfair: Good special effects are hard to come by when you have no budget. But when the interplanetary threat is the one and only Ro-Man--a guy in a gorilla suit sporting a dual-antennae space helmet who communicates with his home world via bubble machine--one must conclude that the lack of funds was exceeded only by a lack of imagination. As Ro-Man remarks, “Your deaths will be indescribable.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Home Viewer 10: August Personages

My monthly column for our local paper ran last week, just as the weather turned heavy with wet heat, dog days for sure. So for once my fortnight doodlings make some sense.

Sirius, the dog star, swims up there in the late-summer sky, innocent and unconcerned—but brings the dog days, hot and still, all kinds of bad mischief right below boiling point—or lazy, washed out, finished with all temper and fervor. Or one more: Can you hear Nat “King” Cole cheerfully sprinting through those lazy hazy crazy days of summer (“those days of soda and pretzels and beer”), the brutal heat forgiven in happy cornball song? So, before autumn slips in to steal away August, it’s doom or gloom or one last hurrah—and movies for each.


There’s an old Ray Bradbury story—“Touched by Fire”—that offers a theory: at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, people become homicidal. Almost forty years later, Spike Lee watches that same mercury rise in Do the Right Thing (1990). Everything in the movie is hot, from the colors to the characters, all of them impossible to touch without getting burned.

In Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), the sun is dying—but he brings us close, and it pulses off the screen, too bright to look at, so big we can’t see the curve of its rim. And the closer you get, the more beautiful and dangerous it becomes, a fatally ecstatic summer whose end no one wants to see.

Speaking of locales with an endless summer, the list of desert movies can stretch from The Female of the Species (1912; a “A Psychological Tragedy” set amid the “purple sage”) and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1925; its desert arriving in the finale, where the titular sin turns deadly in—where else?—Death Valley) to Sahara (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and the bizarre The King Is Alive (2000), in which stranded bus passengers decide to pass what time they have left by staging King Lear; talk about your blasted heaths. But when I was nine years old, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)—until it reached its feel-that-cool-breeze climax—knocked the breath out of me with its parched desperation, reducing life to some sand and wreckage, with a few sparks of hope not nearly as bright as the uncaring sun.


Despite the preceding, for most of us the phrase “dog days” is mainly about laying low, allowing August to blow its hot air while we half-slumber in the shade, too tired to do much, including complain. There is a kind of grandeur in laziness, as appreciated by “The Stranger” (Sam Elliott—and I’ll never get tired of his voice) in The Big Lebowski (1998), who acknowledges that “The Dude,” Jeffrey Lebowski (another perfectly sloppy Jeff Bridges performance), is not only a lazy man but “quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide.” Caught in a hardboiled thriller, The Dude shuffles along in his quest to restore his rug—because, man, “it really tied the room together”—and to bowl his way into the semifinals. The Dude abides.

The Big Lebowski is set in the early ‘90s, and if that half-decade taught Americans anything, it was how to slack off. And at the movies, the owner’s manual for slacking is, of course, Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), which meanders from one twentysomething to another as they amble and talk, semi-work and almost-think, content to let Austin’s heat beat down unnoticed, as they run into one another—although “run” is definitely too strong a term—and let everything slump to a halt. As one of them observes, “Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?”

Last Hurrahs

Before September changes everything, the dog days offer one more chance to live it up. In his original review of The Endless Summer (1966), Roger Ebert calls it “91 minutes of wish fulfillment.” Filmmaker Bruce Brown and his two surfers (Mike Hynson and Robert August—I kid you not) decide one month is not enough, and bum around the world, looking for—and finding—the “perfect wave,” all the while passing through sublime landscapes with a gee-whiz jokiness that manages to catch like a wave the laid-back heart of surfing.

Of course, one really shouts a last hurrah when it seems there’s little time left. Last Holiday (2006; the 1950 Ealing Studios version with Alec Guinness is not available on DVD) offers the irresistible Queen Latifah setting off for the Grand Hotel Pupp near Prague to doll herself up, cook like a Food Network diva, and generally brighten everyone’s day. She brings enough honesty to the role that you barely notice that the movie’s a lightweight, and simply root for the Queen.

Well, I can’t leave the dog days without mentioning an actual dog—and my favorite is My Dog Skip (2000), an earnest evocation of the Good Old Days whose plot contrivances and aw-shucks dialogue are redeemed by the performances—Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon as the parents, Frankie Muniz as the lonely boy saved by his dog (with Luke Wilson as the feet-of-clay hometown hero), and of course Skip himself (played by numerous dogs, among them Moose, who was also Eddie on the TV series Frasier), a Jack Russell to the bone, eternally aware and eager. The affection he gives and receives is as fitting an end to August as we could ask, finite but lasting, socked away for next summer.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rating Game Redux 41: Sometimes, Once Is Enough

Pretty straightforward Rating Game category this Thursday for our local paper: Three Best One-Hit Wonders. As usual, three is not enough--but with these artists, I'll make exceptions.

"They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha" (Napoleon XIV)

Not a great song, but, given the controversy surrounding Ben Stiller’s “Simple Jack” character in Tropic Thunder, I thought I’d remind everyone of a similar storm back in the mid-‘60s over this tune, which features a scorned lover who suffers a mental breakdown after his girl (“that mangy mutt”) leaves him, and he is carted off to the “happy home.” The tune was banned after its initial release. (The 45 itself was interesting: The B-side was the A-side in reverse, from the label to the song itself.)

"96 Tears" (? and the Mysterians)

Simple rocking rave-up, the quintessential one-hit wonder by the best-named band ever.

"Spirit in the Sky" (Norman Greenbaum)

A perfect hybrid: psychedelic blues in the service of a gospel tune with fuzz and feedback.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rating Game Redux 40: Out of the Inkwell

Our local paper called for the top three comic book characters in film--and, while Superman deserves always to appear on such a list, I decided to make room for smaller fry--but worthy entrants, as ironic-satiric as they may be.

Harvey Pekar

The author of the autobiographical comic American Splendor, Pekar was played by Paul Giamatti (and himself) in a 2003 film that re-defines the term “comic book hero.” Dour, frustrated, suspicious that Something is catching up to him (and he’s always right), able to outrage David Letterman and inspire Robert Crumb, Pekar emerges as the nerd-world Superman (not that Superman himself doesn’t already hold that title), able to leap postmodern angst with a single, ragged sigh.


From cliffhanger serial to High Camp TV to Tim Burton’s/ChristopherNolan’s take on the Dark Knight, Batman has endured all manner of violence—more to his character than his body—but manages to soldier on. Burton and Nolan, in particular (with help from Michael Keaton and Christian Bale), have done the most to deepen/broaden the Bat-myth.

Mystery Men

The 1999 film, based on Bob Burden’s comic, not only spoofs the superhero genre but contributes to it, with a welcome eagerness to allow anybody to enter the pantheon, as long as you can stay in character. As The Shoveller (William H. Macy) put it, “We struck down evil with the mighty sword of teamwork and the hammer of not bickering.” Now, isn’t that super?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rating Game Redux 39: Giving You Space

Yet another little list for our local paper--and oh, the easy irony of it: a little list for a big category: Best Movies About Space. I decided not to choose films that are simply set in outer space, but which use space as a central element. This excludes good movies--Outland, Red Planet, even The Right Stuff--with key sequences set in space. But three is three, so here we go.

(By the way, I took the category to mean "outer space." My wife, however, suggested down-to-Earth movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gerry and Cast Away that depend on open spaces to tell their stories. What a relief that someone else is clever; I'm happy just plodding along. Thanks, Jill.)

Solaris (1972, 2002)

In both Andrei Tarkovsky’s original film and Steven Soderbergh’s remake, the boundary between earth and space dissolves, leaving human memory to rebuild whatever might remain.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick jump-cuts us to a future in which humanity is wrought by space into infinite shapes, as stately as a waltz, as cold as evolution, an “ultimate trip” that leaves us wide-eyed and expectant.

Sunshine (2007)

The sun is dying, and Danny Boyle plunges us head-first into all that heat and light where space waits–either like a lover or a spider, depending on whom you ask.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Home Viewer 9: Just Another Word

Oops; forgot to post the following column I wrote for our local paper back on July 3. My editor asked for movies about "freedom and independence," and all I had was a re-imagined memory: nine years old and setting off firecrackers, nervous and eager, doing exactly as I pleased.

When I was a kid in New Jersey, my Fourth of July fireworks connection was Tim--actually, his older brother Ed, a genuine early-1960s hood, scary and impressive. Ed got us the good stuff: long double-row strands of Black Cat firecrackers; cherry bombs that looked like miniature versions of those hand-held explosives favored by cartoon villains; and the legendary M-80, which sounded like Doom clearing its throat and could punch sudden holes in most anything we’d cram it into. And of course the showering rockets and Roman candles, propelled above the suburban rooftops or spreading like fiery peacock feathers in the gloom of my backyard. No sparklers or fizzing bottle rockets for us; Ed brought only concussive oriental danger, Adult Supervision Required--but seldom obtained.

And so, if this Home Viewer is about movies of freedom and independence, it starts there, in the peril and joy of sulfuric freedom, the reckless independence that made me both grin and flinch.

Nothing Left to Lose

A guilty pleasure: movie heroes who couldn’t care less. Things are going so well--or so terribly--that nothing can touch their upward trajectory or downward spiral.

First, joy. Watch Richard Dreyfuss clench his teeth like a roller-coaster enthusiast in Let It Ride (1989), a gambling movie that captures the full-tilt thrill of a winning streak, as Dreyfuss’ compulsive gambler--who repeatedly promises his wife (Teri Garr) he’s coming home--keeps playing the ponies, while every other loser at the track rides with him, for once picking nothing but winners.

But also despair. Watch Nicolas Cage contort that happy-puppy face of his into manic, hopeless-but-unstoppable yearning in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Like Dreyfuss, Cage’s insomniac ambulance driver is surrounded by like-minded madmen (Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames, John Goodman); but here they fuel Cage’s guilt-ridden quest to drive anywhere for redemption. Trapped by regret, he frees himself to ride the nightmare wherever it wants to take him.

The Burden of Freedom

I’m thinking of the Kris Kristofferson song, in which at first he prays that God forgives those who don’t understand him--but then, as he considers he has “wounded / The last one who loved [him],” he prays she will forgive him. From the egoism of the self-righteous to the humility of the self-aware; there’s your burden for you. And nothing captures this better than movie incarnations of the Hemingway-esque “code hero,” who lives by a personal morality in a dark world, and whose failures are of no concern, as long as the code is followed. If these heroes are humbled, it’s by the code itself, which treats its faithful followers with indifference.

Despite its problems, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) confronts the burden of freedom, interrogating John Wayne’s code hero, Ethan Edwards, with a strange combination of sympathy and fear, even disgust. Ethan is the outsider, entering the homestead uninvited, his seemingly unbreakable resolve both respected and loathed. It’s as if Ford realized he had invented “John Wayne,” and was using Ethan to discover if he’d done the right thing. True, Ethan is the only man for dire circumstances--but he brings trouble with him, and is forced to cast off his pride to save the innocent (Natalie Wood) as well as himself.

The weight of the code can be felt in many films, from the hard-boiled detectives of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) to the hard-boiled crooks of Touchez Pas au Grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1960) and Shoot the Piano Player (1962). Just a word on two particularly startling examples: Detective Story (1951) and This Gun for Hire (1942), starring actors--Kirk Douglas and Alan Ladd, respectively--who couldn’t be less alike, but who manage to take their characters (Douglas a police detective, Ladd a hit man) all the way to the pitch-thick bottom of the code. Pride and despair drive them, expose them, finish them off. Among the darkest noirs to ask where personal freedom ends and personal responsibility begins.

Yankee Dandies

All right, I haven’t forgotten the Fourth of July. But if we’re going to get freedom and independence, we have to earn it. And if the Fourth means Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), then so be it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Jimmy Cagney’s George M. Cohan may be as grand an old guy as the flag he wrote songs about--but after all, it’s still Cagney. Seeing him draw himself up to hoof it like a flaming pinwheel, his face steady, his eyes staring into the camera, I can’t help but think of The Public Enemy eleven years earlier or Cody Jarrett seven years to come in White Heat--the three of them cocky and infinitely pleased with themselves--and relentless in their self-assertions.

Only Mickey Rooney could summon more energy than Cagney (if you don’t count Kate Hepburn in screwball-comedy mode), but you’d be hard-pressed to find an actor happier to be a sociopath in one movie and a barnstorming vaudevillian in another. So maybe this is the perfect Fourth of July movie: like fireworks, high jinks and mayhem combined, with a big explosive finish. Top of the world, Ma.

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