Friday, December 23, 2005

24. Objects and Subjects

My earliest exposure to "art" photography was Diane Arbus--and it was an uneasy entree. While I was attracted to the images, I was uncertain I should be "enjoying" them. Unlike a painter or sculptor, she had not transformed her subjects, paint and stone inevitably turning them into metaphors, no matter how thinly disguised. No, photography is appropriation. It seems too ready to objectify its subjects, allowing us to maintain a distance that can be cool or cruel, impassive or condescending. The more I looked at her photos, the more I felt I should look away.

I have never lost that discomfort around photographs--although I admit I fall into the trap myself, snatching web images of real people to decorate my home-made CD covers--or this blog (as I'm doing right now). My innocent intentions, or outright affection for these images, I fear may not be enough to justify the theft. Documentary films developed this same slightly nauseating tilt in my head, especially the cinema verite work of someone like Frederick Wiseman, whose monumental Titicut Follies (1967), about a Massachusetts institution for the criminally insane, I haven't seen in many years, but still flops meatily around in my head, rising up to stare back at me like old Nietzsche's abyss. This is a movie you cannot even see anymore; the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled it an invasion of the inmates' privacy, despite the fact it had already been filmed--and after the filmmakers were sued by the Commonwealth; maybe it was the Commonwealth's privacy that was invaded. (Where oh where did I see this, then? I'll bet it was on good old PBS, during the glory days of the 1970s, when it seemed devoted to film, from everywhere, about everything.) How's that for a living metaphor about the conflict between those who photograph, that which is photographed, and those who see?

This was roiling around in the background as I watched Born into Brothels (2004), Zanna Briski and Ross Kauffman's documentary about "Calcutta's red light kids." Briski and Kauffman visited this nightmare district over a period of years, eventually training the children to take photographs, some of which were exhibited internationally. The film is sensitive and open-hearted, but the dilemma remains, compounded by the children's becoming photographers themselves: What is being served here? Art or humanity? Can one do both? Or are we stuck with a literal act of slumming, with these children, like Arbus', captured and sold?

Briski and Kauffman rise to the occasion, and become something like art's missionaries here, using the cameras like icon-making icons, or something--or better yet, like missals and hymnals, exhorting the children to rise and be saved. And it almost works: the filmmakers attempt to place the children in boarding schools where they can escape the inevitable descent into prostitution, abuse, and drug addiction. These children are not mere objects, but subjects, and the camera doesn't take, but gives. The sad truth that most of the children do not prosper--remaining in the red light district, or drifting from the schools--does not lessen the reciprocal nature of this artwork. Briski and Kauffman show us that the act of documentary appropriation, of the soul-stealing of the photograph, can be an exchange, not merely a surrender. Watching Born into Brothels, I lost that dizzy ache--which I will admit is probably the point of photographs of the underworlds; but this movie shows us you can ache and act, not merely watch and take.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

23. Tender Mercies

Akira Kurosawa's Akahige (Red Beard) gives us the great gift of Dr. Niide, whose nickname provides the title of this 1965 film. Red Beard is on the short list of truly admirable fictional heroes, and is played by Toshiro Mifune with the actor's typical understatement, as a man whose great humility and good will--and humor--is untainted by false pride--or false humility. He simply moves forward, implacable and self-effacing, healing as though he has no other choice--he is a doctor in a charity clinic--and shining a light on everyone he meets so they can see clearly their failings, strengths, and needs--mostly the need to stand with him to do the job that waits for them.

Noble, eh? But fortunately Kurosawa and Mifune manage the material without preachiness or puffed-up moralizing. On the contrary: Dr. Niide expresses confusion over the fact of suffering; he never claims to know any will higher than that of his profession, which urges him to heal, even when he feels he shouldn't. He approaches his duties with the kind of--dare I speak his name?--John Wayne forthrightness that I think lies at the root of much of Kurosawa/Mifune's work, a source of strength or weakness, depending on whom you ask. But I don't think Red Beard falls into simplistic sentimentality or lazy self-assurance--and self-centeredness--as Wayne's movies sometimes did. Instead, it makes generous room for various other characters and stories that contribute to the cumulative impression Kurosawa wants to make on us concerning the need for compassion, and our capacity to provide it, until the movie becomes the definition of a "personal epic."

He broadens the scope of his film beyond Red Beard, shifting to the newest doctor on staff, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who feels the position is a punishment, and is biding his time until he can become "the shogun's doctor." His life at the clinic provides the viewer with a clear sense of what's necessary to become like Red Beard, despite the obstacles and failures. There is also an interlude in which a dying patient (Tsutomu Yamazaki) confesses the great secret of his life in an extended flashback that highlights Kurosawa's beautiful use of black and white, as well as his "humane" composition style and framing techniques. The finale of the film traces Red Beard's influence as it moves from doctor to patient to the world outside the clinic. The emotions Kurosawa generates are sometimes overwhelming: the movie breaks your heart, then asks you to bend down, gather up the pieces, and put it together again so that you can get back to work.

Near the end of the film, the clinic's female workers call a dying boy's name down a well in the belief that doing so will bring him back. The sound echoes like the wails of mourners, but also like outraged demands, across the length of the film; Kurosawa even takes us down the well to look up at their desperate faces, so that we can answer them and let them know we hear our own names, even from that depth. I have watched many Kurosawa movies, but none of them has affected me as deeply as Red Beard. It is his hidden fortress, a tireless samurai protecting the innocent, a dream I will never forget.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

22. The Power of Schrader Compels You

I was dutiful and didn't watch Renny Harlin's re-shoot of the Exorcist prequel, waiting instead for a chance to see Paul Schrader's original, rejected version. I'd heard some groans from those who saw Harlin's salvage mission--Renny Harlin made a dud? Come, come: This is the man who gave us Deep Blue Sea (1999), the sharks-smarter-than-us movie that has the distinction of killing off Samuel L. Jackson earlier than Janet Leigh was in Psycho, except Jackson's being swallowed had no plot impact. (I'll admit, though, it took me by surprise; fun, except when I realized we had to make it through the rest of the movie without Jackson--although LL Cool J steals what's left of the movie, which isn't much, but beggars/choosers, and so on.)

I kind of liked the fact that Schrader's movie was causing trouble. Fitting for The Exorcist, a movie I still insist is one of the great horror films, as close to expressionist/surrealist dream-logic as narrative film can get: that repetition of entering the dark room, compelled against reason, compelled by love--but buffeted by fears; still, the camera enters, and we aren't allowed to wake up, let alone look away. And Paul Schrader can be pretty compelling himself. As a writer and/or director, he has done the right thing many times: Blue Collar, Hardcore, the Cat People remake, Taxi Driver--AND Raging Bull--American Gigolo, Patty Hearst, Light Sleeper, Mishima, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction, Bringing Out the Dead--I like seeing them all lined up like this, difficult pictures with "God's lonely men" way out there on the frontier of self and soul. The Exorcist seemed a natural for him.

In some ways, it is. Schrader and his writers--William Peter Blatty, still minding his little shop of horrors, William Wisher, and Caleb (The Alienist) Carr--are deeply interested in Fr. Merrin's (Stellan Skarsgard) fall from grace, and the Mark of the Devil it puts on him all his life. It starts, naturally enough, with Nazis, who force him to confront his instinct for survival as it conflicts with his duty as a priest. He sees himself as failing this test, thus becoming Satan's pet project. The film shows us his confrontation with his demons--ho, ho--and sets him up, like so many Schrader protagonists, as the only one who knows the truth, and must carry it like Atlas to keep the world aloft. This happens again and again in Schrader films, and in this prequel he gets to write the story in very large letters.

The result is a satisfyingly low-key movie. Even the scary stuff is more under your skin than below the belt. At the end, one of the local African holy men warns Merrin to be careful: He's made an enemy of the demon, and it will follow him all his life. Of course, he's right. Little Regan is waiting in Georgetown with her pea soup and moves so startling they'll make her own head turn. Schrader's film counts on our superimposing of the two movies; doing so, we can more easily follow Fr. Merrin as he slouches toward 1973. And the prequel helps us see he will not come to a bad end, that it makes sense he will die in the attempt to compel the Bright Liar to leave us alone. Which he never will, of course; but people like Merrin are necessary as we make our way once more to that dark, roaring room, even down those vertiginous stairs.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

21. Is Ron Howard Necessary?

I know the question asked above makes me sound like a snob, but his films, despite their life/victory-or-death/defeat subject matters, can easily slide to the back of the cupboard. As much as I liked Cocoon (1985), Backdraft (1991) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), they are not films I'm eager to revisit. But then I'm reminded, again via the Internet Movie Database, that he has made some movies that stick with me. I guess there's something about seeing them all lined up that way on IMDB, but I know I'm a happier moviegoer because of, for instance, Night Shift (1982), just to watch Michael Keaton go nuts, as he examines the etymology of the word prostitution ("... and there's "shun," to push away ... Well, that doesn't really belong here."), and has yet another brainstorm: feed tuna mayonnaise to get tuna salad in the can ("Bill to self: Call Starkist."). And the weird thrill of Daryl Hanna as a mermaid--oh, not so weird, I guess. And of course his masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned: Apollo 13 (1995), the perfect marriage of all those TV-friendly faces--Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris--playing my favorite subcategory of hero: supernerds, their white short-sleeved shirts and horn-rimmed glasses gleaming and glinting as they buckle down and solve problems, no whining allowed. Howard paces the action beautifully, with a good eye for NASA both on and out of this world.

I think he gets close to this kind of solidity in Cinderella Man, especially in his casting. Russell Crowe's Jim Braddock is a well-defined character--or at least type, played by Crowe without any fuss. But--and you're on the wrong page if you disagree with me--the real pleasure of this All-American nose-to-the-grindstone fable is Paul Giamatti's Paul Gould. He single-handedly puts this movie right where it belongs: somewhere between Damon Runyon and Sly Stallone, channeling a bit of the latter's Mickey (Burgess Meredith), but mostly creating a character that would be completely at home in any movie made during Cinderella Man's Depression-era setting. I can easily see him exchanging one-liners with Rosalind Russell, or trying to convince Bogart to lay off, see, if you know what's good for you. Or just tearing his hair out in some Preston Sturges pressure cooker. But his performance is not merely a great stunt--although in some ways that would be enough. He pulls Crowe--and Howard--into the '30s and asks the movie to see why the Depression worked the way it did, as decent men demurred from extending a hand and the worst things happened in an offhand way, business as usual. Gould is on a perch, watching the Depression take its toll--until he topples, too, and manipulates Braddock without malice but with forethought.

His presence in the boxing scenes illustrates his position in this movie. Can you mention a fight movie where the corner man hogs the spotlight? Giamatti is given permission to lift us out of our seats and plop us down ringside, where we can see the messy precision of a boxing match--but where we also can feel how high the stakes are. It becomes a movie about the toil involved in maintaining personal integrity, without forgetting the money. Again, the Depression looms even in the big match at the end. We've already seen that the lack of money makes a father break a promise to his son (Howard nicely keeping the problem personal without ignoring the fact that everyone we care about in this movie shares in the problem); losing for Braddock would not be the same as Rocky's loss. Stallone convinces us to focus on Rocky's moral victory; winning isn't everything. But Howard, perhaps closer to the system, knows how money changes everything--I'm reminded of George Bailey's $8000--but also asks us to watch Braddock and Gould's enthusiasm and conviction. So when the fight started, I knew if Braddock lost both men would face troubles, but that, win or lose, they had kept their promises to each other.

I don't care how sappy that sounds. This is why I think some Ron Howard movies, like Cinderella Man, might be--well, if not necessary, then helpful, occasionally, as I listen for a small still voice. The great thing about this movie is that Crowe gets to be the Quiet Man, while Giamatti lets us hear that voice--but not so small, and not still at all.

20. A Sick Rose

In his Playboy interview a year or so before his death, Jackie Gleason begins a story with something like, "I was in Toots Shore's joint with Salvador Dali. He had that cane with a sword inside, and ..." I don't remember exactly what happened; it doesn't matter. But I say you can't consider yourself "cool" unless you can start a story this way. It's a measure of a celebrity, I guess, but also of the artist, who often places him/herself consciously--if not always purposefully--in a separate world, a "protected station" that allows artists to play and fight with each other in relative isolation--barring the occasional spillover into the square world, where you and I are trying to get to work but are thwarted by some Merry Prankster whose Happening keeps the trains from running on time.

Of course, such disruption can be a good thing. I remember catching John Cassavetes' Husbands (1970) on TV, and being stunned by the seeming disconcern that anyone was watching it, and the hypnotic effect of ignoring me. Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara spontaneously combusted--but it was a cool blue fire, an enchanted ring. And Edward Hopper's paintings also poleaxed me, as they turned their shoulders from my eyes, forcing me to be satisfied with what they allowed me to see, their steady breath as sad as it was measured. Or Raging Bull, the last noir, as confused and lost as John Garfield in Force of Evil, keeping everybody blind except the audience, if they would only see.

Thinking about these artworks, I return to my irritation with the self-absorption necessary to be an artist. The demands of not only the artists but their artworks is intrusive; again, I'm often just trying to keep moving forward, but this stuff stops me short, and I am suspended between hypnosis and derision. After all, artists make demands on those around them, as do athletes. You better love helping out if you're going to live with either, because they're busy creating, so clean those brushes and replace those divots. This point is driven home for me in Frida (2002), as Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) and Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) trade demands disguised as needs, tossing everything and everyone out with the bathwater. Again and again, I grew irritated by their insistence that the other--or, worse yet, innocent bystanders--make way for whatever Creation was brewing at the moment. I confess there's something conservative in my heart that begrudges such self-absorption. Am I wrong in asserting that the best lives are passed in service?

But Frida, like Cassavetes, Hopper, and Scorsese, cracked its elbow through the window, another burglar of my bluster and indignation. Frida was badly injured when a girl, and suffered numerous operations--and this during the first half of the twentieth century, so you know how much good they did, and how much harm. She was wracked by pain, losing strength, mobility, her baby, some toes, as the years went by. The more I saw her soldier on, drawing in bed, slow with pain, the more I realized she really wasn't asking anything of me. I had no need to feel inconvenienced by the tantrums and double-standard arrogance. It was none of my business. I just needed to look at the paintings, and allow her her pain. A lifetime of illness can begin to look like an artist's life, you know, with its constant demands on those around the sick person, its insistence that everyone see the world through Malady's eyes. When the pain becomes the artwork, I feel ashamed that I complained about the noise and smell. Because if you watch carefully and lay your hands softly but firmly, you are given a life to serve, and can draw strength from the tortured muscles straining beneath your grip.

Monday, December 19, 2005

19. Miracle on Market Street

No one sends customers to Gimbel's anymore--because there is no more Gimbel's. The 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street always reminds me of this; I can remember Gimbel's in Philadelphia--and later, in the malls of South Jersey. When I was a kid the economy of the Delaware Valley could support a startling number of department stores (all gone now, of course; for a quick eulogy for Philadelphia's past retail glory, go here): not just the King, John Wanamaker--with its giant eagle, the standard Center City meeting-place--but also Strawbridge and Clothier, Lit Brothers (with its impossible wrought iron facade on Market Street), Bamberger's (Macy's South, more or less) and of course Gimbel's. These were big fellows, filled with not just clothes but furniture and pharmaceuticals, fine china and pets--I can remember going up the escalator in Wanamaker's and hearing the distant "cheep" of canaries and Australian finches, and smelling the cedar chips for the hamsters. My mother was a bargain hound, always able to find that magic number: 75% off! We maneuvered through those stores like special forces on a search-and-purchase mission.

We'd troll Market Street, passing street-corner Santas, peeking at the department store versions--perched amid the greenery and dazzle of the toy floors--yes, entire floors of toys, with a monorail, I kid you not--circling one of them (Lit Brothers?). My confusion over all these Kringles became a Family Story, how I asked my Mom which one was the real Santa Claus, and she answered, "They're his helpers," allowing her forever after to affirm that she told the truth, that they did keep Christmas moving along--and also providing me with a pretty impressive image of elves, big strapping fellows dressed like the Big Man among us, but back in their toy-making togs at the Pole. Everybody was happy, not the least of which the proprietors of all those city-within-a-city establishments.

I was particularly fond of Wanamaker's. Aside from the pets and toy floor, it also boasted a dual-level book store--the lower level was for paperbacks, in the '60s adding some posters. I remember it was adjacent to the beauty parlor, so for me paperback SF books always bring with them the whiff of hair sizzling under dryers. I still have most of those Ace Specials, Dells, and Bantams, as well as a number of other bargain finds: two massive coffee table books, one on Edward Hopper and the other a complete collection of the newspaper strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("with an introduction by Ray Bradbury"), as well as a number of film-related books, including paperback scripts of Monkey Business, Greed and A Clockwork Orange; I shopped there all the way through college. I've been currently re-reading another Wanamaker find, David Curtis' Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution, published in 1971. I got it on sale--the price sticker is still on it--fifty-nine cents!--so I must've bought it a few years later, maybe when I was a senior in high school or starting college. Old friends, together forever.

So I have a special fondness for Miracle on 34th Street, with its comforting black and white glimpses of the Lost World of my childhood. But more than that, I get suckered in every year by Edmund Gwenn's and Natalie Wood's performances. When Gwenn lifts the little war orphan to his lap and speaks Dutch with her, ending with a song--about himself, of course, soft and yet affirmative, I fall apart. That right jolly old elf knew what he was doing; jeez, he even kept me from panicking during Them! (1954), calmly laying out the giant-ant apocalypse scenario, and how best to avoid it. A man of many talents, all of them directed toward the innocent--there's a little traumatized girl in Them! who, for my purposes, looks a bit like Natalie Wood.

And of course there's Wood's little jaw-jutting, scowling, puzzled, finally--I think with some relief on her part--widely smiling face, as the reasonable world slips away and Christmas asks her, and her startled mother--ah, Maureen O'Hara; somebody give that casting director a raise--to say Yes, like reformed Blue Meanies, and accept a fond dream. While It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story achieve perfection, there is more than enough room at the table for Miracle on 34th Street. Just ask Thelma Ritter, whose befuddled shopper is slow to follow Kris' lead, but agrees to play along, if only because it means her kid's happy.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Island Style

After The Polar Express, I saw another supersized film, The Island, in which rich people and guys with British accents screw up everything, then let nothing stand in their way to remain in a position to continue screwing up everything. Yes, I know: It's called Capitalism; but I'm not sure how much we can learn about its perils from Michael (Bad Boys/Pearl Harbor/Armageddon/The Rock) Bay. I didn't know much about this movie beforehand, except that it was a big-budget SF affair with A Secret. So I thought it might be fun, and avoided trailers and articles and TV Guide Channel featurettes and so on. I wanted to be surprised.

Be careful what you wish for. While the idea of clones for spare parts has been done a few times--many times in print SF, and occasionally on film, as with the whiz-bang of The Sixth Day (2000)--which proved that two Arnolds equals two times the Arnold acting power, which is more than one time the acting power, but less than three times. Ahem; where was I? Oh yeah: clones as spare parts. The idea has real potential for drama and dread, if only because I'll betcha a nickel it'll happen by mid-century. If it can be done it will be done, and all that. Unfortunately, The Island only proves that such an idea will have glitches, goofs n gaffes--but no moral nausea will be suffered, just a kind of one-upsmanship as the clones supplant the originals, as ready to live it up on yachts and dispatch their enemies as the evil accented millionaires who made them. This is a Bay movie all the way (once again validating the auteur theory), in that it substitutes the survival imperative for the moral one. Of course Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson shouldn't be killed. But dozens of innocent bystanders are, to insure that My Pretty Clonies live to flash brighter-than-white smiles another day.

The above seems a bit snippy, but the longer this long movie ran, the less I sided with the clones. Not that the quasi-cannibalistic capitalists were any better. It's just that nobody paused to mull over anything; they simply zipped around in impossibly engineered sports cars until the original capitalists were impaled and the new ones ensconced on the sundrenched deck of a yacht. Somewhere along the way the Theme of Freedom glances along the surface of the movie, like a fleeting finger on one's cheek. But it is freedom without anything worthwhile to do with it, and no earned victories. Just fortunate explosions.

By the way ...

1. I am, for better or worse, stuck with a ghost image of Leonardo DiCaprio whenever I think of this movie. That's right, because Leo starred in The Beach (2000). Mongo like movies.

2. Here's a picture of Michael Bay. Just thought you should know.

17. Hearing Bells

The digitally captured Conductor (Tom Hanks) of The Polar Express tells the digitally captured Boy (Tom Hanks), "The thing about trains, it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on." I agree; it was with some hesitation that I decided to board Robert Zemekis' IMAX'd to the max reinvention of Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 book, which I fondly remember reading to my children. If one were prone to the snide, one could see it as a deeply yuppified book, pretty and buttery and smooth, self-assured in its graphics, almost deadpan in its affirmation of the virtues of sharing, memory, and faith. But that's all right. It is a pretty book, with some redemptive, evocative moments--my children sharply remember the wolves, and I vividly recall the roar that went up from the assembled elves when Santa arrived. It is a relatively effective dream-story, in the vein of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There, but not as eerie. And it does quietly affirm its virtues without guile, like a Chronicle of Narnia.

But the movie is a goggle-eyed thrill, quiet as dts 6.1, dreamy as The Transporter. Now, I've gotten extra good at separating movies from their sources, so I won't mourn the loss of the unassuming solemnity of the book. The movie has enough problems on its own, not the least of which is the strange fluidity of its digitization. Digital cartoons always seem to be shot underwater. Everything floats, as Pennywise the Clown says in It--and the result is almost as creepy as Stephen King's book, at least to my eyes. The faces seem to come at you, slowly, hovering a bit. Sometimes this works, as when the children gaze at the world unfolding before them in the train or at the North Pole. But otherwise it's distracting, unless you need some zip and slide; then the digital format sweeps you up like leaves in a gale.

The movie works, though, only when it slows down--or holds back, as in some of the North Pole scenes, when the children explore the innards of the world's biggest toyshop. As I've mentioned earlier, those Christmas oldies floating on the soundtrack during this sequence are my favorite thing about the movie. They evoke the sense of quiet you get even in the smallest snowbound back yard, or in the dust-suspended calm of the best week of the year, between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, as you loll around in a house devoid of the panic and rush of getting there--unlike Zemekis' Express, which slams around like a last-minute shopper clawing for that one remaining Xbox 360, even though he knows it'll be obsolete by summer. Feh. You can have it; if you need me, I'll be outside, over there.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

This Pressure Got to Stop

I recall seeing pieces of The Seven Year Itch here and there over the years, and the weirdest thing about it for me was the image of Tom Ewell, a really old guy, hound-dogging Marilyn Monroe, his eyes bulging, his voice wheezy, his whole posture full of creaks and groans. I didn't get it. I know Hollywood movies demand with a Prom Queen's insistence that you enter the moment, paste a grin on your mug, and dance, dammit, everyone's looking. But I wasn't able to get myself onto the floor; this was one date I couldn't buy.

After a while I just gave up trying to watch it. This was difficult, because, like so many others, I find it a chore to keep my eyes off Marilyn. She will always be the duskiest, dewiest grape on the vine, a not-so-secret indulgence, one for the road. Pick your metaphor, I don't care; despite my happy life and settled path, I allow Marilyn to be a movie I still like to watch. And I didn't want crummy old Tom Ewell horning in, his pointy little nose twitching like a dumb bunny darting across the road.

Naturally, it is mea culpa once more. I was simply too young to get it, even when I was forty--Ewell's character, Richard Sherman, is supposed to be thirty-nine when Marilyn steps into his apartment and his shivery dreamlife. But come on, he looks fifty at least; like Walter Brennan or Michael Jeter, God rest him, Ewell has always been old. So I half-unconsciously waited until I was approaching geezerdom myself before I'd watch Itch.

It was worth the wait. At forty-nine the whole setup makes dismayingly obvious sense, from Sherman's self-delusion to the unnamed Girl's oblivious attitude toward her own flabbergasting power. I understood why he would stare, knowing better, and why she would let him, not knowing any better. You reach a kind of invisibility at a certain age. No one wants to know you're still under lots of pressure; they just flounce on by and leave the terminal swooning to you.

I wondered briefly if The Girl knew she was va-va-va-vooming Sherman into gaga-land. (Given the pastel world of martinis and hi-fis of this 1955 movie, I think I'm using the right kind of language here.) Marilyn, though, plays her, not as clueless, but guileless. She's happy to see you, and hot--literally; the movie's set during a sticky-steamy NYC summer. She loves a tall cold drink and air conditioning, but the rest of it--Sherman's hectic parody of suave, the double-backflip-entendres of every other line, even her own precision engineering--is incidental to her desire for a nice talk and a cigarette.

So while Tom Ewell, at last in my eyes behaving perfectly normally, wrestles with the billowing sails of the Good Ship Marilyn, avoiding the rocks at the last moment--actually never in danger, as far as Marilyn is concerned; she's too busy smiling wide-eyed at every bit of fun available--I came to terms with my own jittery fits and starts, happy (as much as possible) that The Seven Year Itch, while not Billy Wilder's crowning moment, did serve up a passable slice of life, as loaded with as much whipped cream and guilt as my plate could bear.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Godot Arrives

I watched James Fotopoulos' Back Against the Wall (2002), then went online and read comparisons between his work and that of the two Davids of sexual anxiety and body dread, Cronenberg and Lynch. It is a more or less apt comparison, especially as I consider the nervous stasis of Eraserhead, the intermittent teeth-gnashing of Videodrome, the grainy peek at the truly, deeply gnarly in The Elephant Man and The Brood, and the sudden screeching hysterics of Rabid (or They Came from Within) and Twin Peaks--except Fotopolous, at least for now, seems dedicated to minimalism. I write "seems" because, according to what I've been reading of his work, each film has become increasingly expansive, in terms of camera movment, scene shifts, character development, and subject matter. I am tempted to think he just needs more money--and is getting it, little by little; and the films he makes show it--but I suspect budgetary restraints are not the only ones he suffers under.

At the core of Back Against the Wall is a frustrating dogmatism--or maybe it's just me who was frustrated, waiting for something to fulfill the Harold Pinteresque mood of menace, some last straw to thumb its nose at its Samuel Beckett stubbornness and finally break those backs against the wall, including the "lingerie model" and her dyspeptic first boyfriend (J. Hoberman in The Village Voice calls him "a grim slab of middle-aged beef jerky"; now that's writing); followed by his girlie-club-owning replacement, a kind of low-rent Paul Giamatti; and in his turn replaced by the first boyfriend's neckless buddy (when I saw him I thought of Sydney Lassick, Cheswick from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, except without a personality, and not as good-looking). Well, there were some payoffs to all the interminable, flatly geometric scenes (in his description Hoberman evokes Edward Hopper; close, but Fotopoulos ignores the sadly unrealized potential for life in Hopper's compositions), the sudden bursts of sound and light, and the occasional beating. But despite the blood and sickness, the methodically repetitive cursing, and general atmosphere of slow boil, I found myself impatient and empty.

OK, I got it: That may be the point. And I'm glad to write about a movie like this, because as I keep going the thing comes to life, sort of, and rises like a remembered dream. I had watched The Polar Express the night before, where, as in 3-D movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon, you can spot those IMAX "experiences" comin' right atcha. It was often exciting, but nothing about it remains like the burned-in images of Back Against the Wall. I'll write about The Polar Express elsewhere, but for now I'll note that its best feature is the use of Christmas oldies at the North Pole. Everywhere you go, Perry Como and Company waft in the background, a kitschy-poignant reminder that some things want to last, no matter how much life tells them otherwise. I thought of that while watching Fotopoulos' movie, because I think he too hears distant music, only his is made of dirges that root his characters in stiff clay. I think I forgive him for making me fidget; entropy can do that to you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ten Reasons to Watch a Jean Rollin Movie

Every once in a long while I turn my weary head toward Jean Rollin, the Ed Wood of France--turnabout is fair play--for a number of pubescent, tumescent, prurient, prodigal reasons (for the sake of the title of this piece, ten of them):

1. He has the French knack for extended shots of nothing in particular. If someone is going to drive up to a house, get out of the car, make it to the door, fish around for keys, and go in, it's happenin' in real time, bebe, in a flat, stationary medium shot that tells us only that someone has driven up to a house, gotten out of the car, and so on.

2. He will employ the exact same static real-time approach to girls standing around naked.

3. Sometimes vampire girls.

4. OK, lesbian vampire girls.

5. He does the above without much visual imagination, and yet he fancies himself a surrealist. This paradoxically makes for some truly surreal sequences, since they're so matter-of-fact and mondo weirdo at the same time.

6. The English titles of his films often verge on the astounding (and are often simply translations of their equally desperate-living French titles): Once upon a Virgin (1975), Requiem for a Vampire (1971), The Shiver of the Vampires (1970), The Grapes of Death (1978)--or, more precisely, in terms of the French title, The Raisins of Death--The Living Dead Girl (1982), or--and this is the one I most recently saw--Night of the Hunted (1980), which the Internet Movie Database parenthetically informs us is the "informal literal English title." C'est vrai!--that is, I kid you not. Notice how, as in pornographic movies (and, quel surpris, given some titles, he does seem to have made some (softcore?) porn films), his titles slink around the feet of their betters. But with Rollin, it almost seems an afterthought. It is as if he honestly figures that both Wrath and Death have grapes.

7. Watching his movies explains Anne Rice better than any LARPer ever could. Rollin's movies may have much to answer for, but they also answer much.

8. Back to the nudity. His women are simply there, like clouds or buildings. This allows for close scrutiny of the non-enhanced version of the pinup model, gone forever--except for the internet, but you're on your own with that line of research. You watch your keywords, you naughty naughty thing.

9. Like Wood, he manages plots that are often both perfunctory and delirious. Case in point:

Night of the Hunted begins almost like Les yeux sans visage, Georges Franju's 1959 surrealist-indebted surgical horror film: the road at night, headlights, sudden plunges in medias res. But instead of a disorienting mood of dread, as soon as he can Rollin gives us the bijou of a naked woman. She is rescued by a man who takes her home and has sex with her--and along the way treats her a bit roughly; he seems angry she's an amnesiac, despite her nudity and pliable personality--but this is the French way, again and again in their films--and he manages to fall in love with her. But her amnesia gets in the way; even her time with him slips from her mind as she sits in his apartment. While the man is at work she is taken away to a huge "Tower"--a kind of industrial park of highrises; as someone points out, you can see L'Arc de Triomphe from the upper stories. Anyway, the Tower is filled with people in the woman's condition: catatonic, short-term-memory-stripped, eventually-winding-down automatons. There's more sex, some murders, and an eventual explanation: A nuclear power plant malfunction had zapped passers-by, who have been spirited away to the Tower, there to allow the debilitating effects of being zapped to run its course until they're considered "dead," at which point they're redundantly killed. The man seeks out the woman, and in the course of their attempted escape he is shot in the head, a grazing wound, one that puts him in the same zombie-like state as his girlfriend. In a long--and I mean LONG--closing shot, they wander away from the camera, hand in hand, shuffling and stumbling toward death, like Milton's Adam and Eve, but not really. Finis.

This synopsis actually does the film justice, and Rollin adds some interesting touches: the denizens of the Tower invent memories, as well as relationships with each other; there's some internal debate among the Tower's administrators as to whether they should be in the covert euthanasia business; and did I mention the nudity? But the overall impression is of an aimless hand fumbling at clay it never commits to shaping.

10. The distance between one viewing and the next of a Rollin picture is great enough that I convince myself he's worth one more shot. I'll admit that those long, silent takes can be kind of fascinating, and that his world is just disjointed enough to create enough low-level anxiety to disjoint the patient viewer. But I think what really makes me return to Rollin is that I keep mistakenly crediting him as the director of Vampyros Lesbos (1971), a truly unhinged extravaganza of eurotrashploitation, actually helmed by Jesus Franco of Spain. If only I'd keep these guys straight, I could waste my time more productively.

Ein Berliner

I wanted to title this, "Bruno Ganz Is Hitler!" but no one (I give a tinker's damn for) would want that said about him, even if he did play Hitler in 2004's Der Untergang (Downfall)--and with documentary precision, in a completely invisible "performance" that looked more like the "trite facts" of history than a movie. But the facts are only the beginning. In his book, Re-Thinking History, Keith Jenkins makes the epistemological assertion that "through hindsight, we in a way know more about the past than the people who lived in it." Shine on, you crazy historiographer. Downfall seems to run with Jenkins' statement, smoothly, surely, confidently, leaving me exhausted after hauling Hitler's final days in the bunker across the blasted heath of the second half of the twentieth century--blasted, I hope we know, more by Der Feuher than anything else (before the globalized market, of course; but that's for another blog)--and laying them at my feet, clear and cold.

OK, so maybe Bruno Ganz is Hitler. At the least, he draws your eye inextricably--although one should note that Hitler has that ability; he was, of course, the programming bedrock of the young History Channel, before it discovered sex. Still, Ganz is impossible to ignore. I recall Christopher Walken discussing Danny DeVito when they worked together on Batman Returns (1992). He was commenting on DeVito's portrayal of the Penguin, and how silly it all could've been, but that the real strength of an actor is in the eyes; and, according to Walken--and I think he's right--DeVito had the Penguin's eyes. No Danny left, just that snapping, slobbering ball of damp rage. Ganz does Hitler like this, all the way to the eyes, which makes sense: Hitler and the Penguin have a lot in common, especially the sense of abandonment and isolation, and, as hammered into our skulls again and again in Downfall, the will to be cruel.

Speaking of cruelty, it's interesting that Downfall runs more than half its length before Hitler says anything about Jews. And when he does, it is with the calm satisfaction that he did one thing right: He cleaned Germany's house. One less thing, as Forrest Gump might say. And the more we watch, the more we see Hitler tallying the six million-plus score, adding it all up--then watching it slip away. As he does so, he goes perfectly insane, cursing everyone, except the women and children. These he takes with him to Valhalla.

Except Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary, who died in 2002 and frames the film. She gets the last word: "All these horrors ... these six million Jews ... who perished ... shocked me deeply. But I hadn't made the connection with my past. I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didn't know anything about the enormous scale of it. But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz-Joseph-Strasse. I saw that she was about my age and she was executed in the same year I came to Hitler. And at that moment I actually realized that a young age isn't an excuse. And that it might have been possible to get to know things." The English phrasing of that last sentence is fitting. Junge proves Jenkins' argument via autobiography and hindsight: she not only lived through it, but lived long enough to finally get to know it.

I've read that the film has been criticized for "humanizing" Hitler. According to an April, 2005 posting on Studio Briefing, "Efraim Zuroff ... of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he had no plans to see it. 'I normally prefer that censorship not be employed in issues like this,' Zuroff said. 'I would hope people will vote with their feet and prefer not to see the movie.' This makes sense; Hitler's blood-smear has darkly marked the Jewish lintel, inviting not Passover but one plague after another. You'd think the last thing we need is to see Hitler agonistes.

But I return to the Penguin. Bruno Ganz "humanizes" Hitler in the sense that he allows us to see the arch-nemesis all the way down to the eyes. Let me admit that as a pure performance it's remarkable. Ganz could have been playing any last-days dictator and he would have been irresistible. But we cannot ignore that he is portraying Hitler, assertively, with a bunker witness present. Given that, I still believe one has to look into those eyes, that a filmed performance can allow us to "get to know things," not the least of which is the mess Hitler made on history's floor, one we're still cleaning up after.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

If It's a Good Picture, It's a Marvel

Mark Frost was a screenwriter for Fantastic Four (2005). He also wrote for Twin Peaks, not to mention the screenplay for The Believers (1987), the Martin Sheen movie that introduced santeria--well, at least the voodoo-ey version--to American pop culture. Before then, he worked on Hill Street Blues and The Six Million Dollar Man. Taken together, it all makes sense, especially the clear connection between his most recent turn of the big Marvel wheel and the Lee Majors show.

And that connection is the too-frequent awkward/dull touches. I'll admit Fantastic Four sometimes echoes the old comic book. In terms of the characters, there's Ben Grimm's anguish and Johnny Storm's showboating--especially his refreshingly honest recognition that to have superpowers is to be a celebrity; no Batmanesque brooding for this firebrand (sorry). And they have that big-budget high-tech lair--practically open to the public; these are superheroes without secret identities. But again and again the movie seems lazy in its writing, painting by the four-color numbers of the sloughed-off bad years of comic books, when no one was paying attention to them, so no one making them worked very hard.

That seems to be the problem here; but it's understandable that everyone's getting tired, including the viewer: Just type in the keywords "Marvel Comics" on the Internet Movie Database and, between the TV series, cartoons, video games, and movies, you'll get an even 110 titles, from a Captain America serial in 1944 to more than a dozen titles upcoming in 2006-07. 'Nuff said yet, Stan?

To be honest, I grew up a DC comics kid--I know, uncool squares from Smallville, DC fell prey to a cultural shift that glommed onto the edge and angst of Marvel's perennially insecure and uncertain quasi-heroes. But this is unfair. Let's not forget Batman in the '40s toting that gun, orphaned by crime, a bona fide noir code hero. And isn't Puny Peter Parker, photojournalist, simply a not-so-subtle goof on Clark Kent? So maybe I had deep-seated prejudices against Marvel; however, these were substantially altered when I was in high school and college in the '70s, when the comic book renaissance, for better or worse, re-transformed the comic book until everybody looked like Marvel. Between "events" like special (high-priced) issues of Spider-Man and the Neal Adams-ization of DC, I found myself in a world which marginally mirrored my own adolescent tremors via a completely cozy medium, the comic book. Existentialism lite had arrived.

But after a generation and a half of such tortured shenanigans, it seems the Mighty Marvel Marching Society might forfeit its charter, if Fantastic Four is any indicator. We'll see; it's just that as time goes by I may not want to make any real commitment to the comic book movie--aside from that which comes from having a twelve-year-old son, who knows better than I can remember the value of these movies, and whose enthusiasm--or at least tolerance--for them might allow me to sit still for clobberin' time once more.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

I Spy with My Little Eye ...

Starship Troopers (1997) is a movie I keep revisiting. It has all along its surface a shine that I cannot resist; I want to run my hand along it, like the swoop of a 1950s car bumper. The movie has a lithe, garish glee that provides the viewer with ample opportunity to indulge in special effects that are alternately nubile and berserk.

Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriter, Ed Neumeier, who together gave us 1987's Robocop, pulled off a famous sly one here. Starship Troopers was greeted with mixed responses--prompting Neumeier in 2003 to write a letter to the Hollywood Investigator, which had drawn parallels between Starship Troopers and "post-9/11 war hysteria." Neumeier congratulated the writer who, as Neumeier put it, "clearly understood what we were up to"; he also admitted, though, that "we may have suffered when Starship Troopers was initially released because we were not willing to underline for the audience and critics that this was, in fact, a movie about the dangers of fascism." The impression he leaves is that he and Verhoeven thought the satire would be obvious--but this is disingenuous, albeit in a good way, because Starship Troopers moves just like their earlier venture, Robocop. That movie, too, plays it both ways: as a comfortably zero-brain-required ultraviolent action flick and a savage satire of post-1960s cop movies.

Is this fair? Are the filmmakers scolding our desire for the clear lines of--well, if not outright fascism, at least an orderly, healthy, brightly lit world--with one hand, while scooping up the green with the other? Well, yes and yes. I am attracted to Starship Troopers because of that double-duty manipulation. I'm glad to watch a movie nimble enough to amuse and dismay, excite and repulse. Starship Troopers keeps us on our toes, and reminds me once again we have to be very careful when we watch a movie.

I love the term camera obscura, the "dark room" with a tiny hole in one wall that projects the outside world upside-down on the opposite wall. This goes all the way back to fifth century B.C.E. China, but Aristotle, Islamic scholars, Da Vinci, and finally Johannes Kepler, who gave us the term camera obscura, all fooled around with this optical dynamite. And considering that the device has often been used for safely viewing solar eclipses, I cannot ignore that the layers of metaphor here are satisfying.

Starship Troopers fits nicely into these layers, a trick of light that shows us objects clearly but inverted. Our job is to keep watching, but also do the hard work of craning our necks to see how the mirrors re-vert the image so that we can watch in misleading comfort. I have a cousin who, when he was a kid and wanted to stay up late to watch a movie, would sit in a cramped position so that he wouldn't fall asleep. There is a lesson here, especially if you're up past your bedtime to watch something as satisfyingly duplicitous as Starship Troopers.

(Below: a stereoscopic slide of a camera obscura in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park, circa 1870.)

Copyright Notice

Content copyright © 2005-2011 by Paul J. Marasa. No part of the written work displayed on this site may be reproduced, linked or distributed in any form without the author's express permission. All images, video, audio and other materials used are deliberately and solely for illustrative purposes connected with each article. Each accompanying element is intended as a research and reference tool with relation to each article. No challenge to pre-existing rights is implied. Aside from The Constant Viewer, the author claims no responsibility for websites which link to or from this website.