Friday, October 28, 2005

The Gazing Game, Part 2

Once more I stop and stare. Like this:

Citizen Kane (1941)

He cannot believe what he sees: As he makes a gracious gesture of invitation to the wide world to love him--a kind of wave of the hand, almost like a magician--he is rebuffed, as though he had raised his hand to strike, not offer; and his outrage seethes and contests the verdict, certain someone has him all wrong, but there it is behind his eyes, the near-panic, while a simple but monumental thing, a child's moment, looms and burns.

Peeping Tom (1960)

You wonder what is that godawful thing you're looking at, that curving face, the whole thing like a blurry smile, concave--convex?--and leaning into you--and you realize it's you, your eyes wide, your mouth open, and without any breath left you know you should be screaming, because the sharp point has touched, and more than touched, and continues to approach.

Eyes without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) (1960)

The car races, its headlights slicing the night like Dali's razor--or Bunuel's cloud--toward the girl in the mask, her eyes impassive as she watches the scalpel flash and the flesh fail beneath the weight of her father's desperate guilt, strong enough to fling him into the jaws of Cerberus.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Good Luck, Last Night

Our fair town received a rare treat last night: We hosted the Midwestern premiere of George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck in the remarkable Orpheum Theatre. So here we are, finally exactly like New York and Los Angeles. At least as far as Clooney movies go. Galesburg is the home of Knox College, whose journalism program boasts Marilyn Webb among its faculty; one of her professors was Fred Friendly, played by Clooney in the film, and we were further honored to have it introduced by Knox's own Bob Jamieson. All in all, a regular single-entry movie festival.

The film itself has a beautiful consistency in terms of its subject matter and visual and acting styles. While Edward R. Murrow's on-air joust with Senator Joseph McCarthy is the stuff of TV journalism legend, it was played with an understatement that today seems almost morose. Good Night, and Good Luck is valuable because it reminds us of what American Cool really means. Like Miles Davis and Chet Baker, Murrow and associates perform straight-faced, level-eyed; nobody sweats, and the deadpan wisecrack becomes the only discernible measure of emotion. Watching the film, I was reminded of Apollo 13, another movie in which monumental acts of heroism are performed by semi- (and not so semi-) nerdy guys (and gals, in Clooney's movie) with horn-rimmed glasses and white shirts, people who know their jobs well and do them without drawing undue attention. These are rock-solid types who may be seething underneath, but on top give us only a square shoulder and a frank gaze. I once saw Miles Davis perform; he wandered around the stage, eventually making his way behind the drumkit, out of sight of the audience. The horn never wavered, but the performer slipped away, never missing a beat. This attitude is captured perfectly in Good Night, and Good Luck, particularly by David Strathairn. While he allows his Murrow an occasional tic of the eye or drawn corner of the mouth, mostly it all comes down to a deep concentration nothing can break. It is an attitude that seems long gone; and the film seems to imply that we are in trouble without this cool in the face of the marching morons of politics and cable news punditry.

There is so much to admire about this low-key movie; other reviewers will tell you of the beauties of its black and white--more like nuanced shades of gray--and the single exuberant touch of the vocal jazz combo whose musical numbers throughout the film punctuate key moments. What struck me last night was the movie's ability to make me long for a return to cool in the face of fire. We are always under one Blitz or another; I wish I could take mine with half of Murrow's reassuring immobility.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bob Clark Shouldn't Play with Dead Things

It's instructive, I think, to note that the director of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Bob Clark, gave us A Christmas Story (1983), which is, along with It's a Wonderful Life (1946), among the greatest Christmas movies. But he has also helmed two Porky's movies, as well as Rhinestone (1984), Loose Cannons (1990) and a couple of Baby Geniuses movies. Yikes.

But Clark's checkered career is only the tip of this nasty little iceberg. Children Shouldn't ... may boast a great title in a genre that prides itself on titular extravagance--consider The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Gave Up Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963)--but I'm afraid that's not enough. I'll admit I watch movies like this in part for the unintentional humor, but I have such a genuine affection for horror and SF films that, as much as I enjoy Mystery Science Theater's smug jibes, in the end they seem too easy. And I don't feel I have to lower my sights to appreciate low-budget films. Most fans agree that these movies are of the hand-made variety, so it's OK if a few seams are crooked, so to speak. And besides, to judge them by Hollywood fare marks a surrender to imposed "standards" that Hollywood itself is hard-pressed to live up to. Just ask anyone who's seen Battlefield Earth (2000). No, as many others insist, the Grade-Z genre pictures of the 1970s and before mark a true independent movement; by being cut off from big budgets, they had to rely on actual creativity and imagination.

Unfortunately, though, Children Shouldn't ..., well, doesn't. Have any creativity or much of an imagination, that is. I admit it did have just enough budget to produce Night of the Living Dead-style makeup effects (although Night's effects do look better, in large part because they're in B&W. See? Budget isn't the problem). And it had an intriguing story: An egotistical theater director (played by Alan Ormsby, who also wrote the screenplay and the one for Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People; how's that for a tangled web?) and his troupe go to a cemetary island, play with dead things, and naturally get more than they bargained for. There're just enough ideas here to get us through set-up, chills, and The Goods--that is, zombie massacre/just desserts. But I had the instructive experience of watching this last night with someone who has little patience with low-budget horror films, and her silent disapproval and impatience with it all influenced my own reaction. And I must admit she was right. Children Shouldn't ... is annoying, tedious, inappropriately hysterical, and self-indulgent. In a bad way.

Let me stress that low budgets and mediocre acting are NOT the problem. The semi-independents of the 1940s and '50s--Val Lewton, Ida Lupino--produced some real gems; and of course any number of filmmakers--George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Chris Kentis (Open Water, 2003), the Blair Witch phenomenon, to name the famous few--have done remarkable work with little time and less money. And let's not forget documentarians and animators, from Errol Morris to Mike Judge, who began their careers on the proverbial shoestring. So "quality" at the surface level is not the issue. Just look at Roger Ebert's list of Worst Movies. Most of them are Hollywood pictures with huge budgets. I agree with him that what we need to see on screen are living breathing imaginations at work.

Which is where Children Shouldn't ... falls apart for me. It didn't trust its premise enough and was too self-indulgent, spending much of its overly long (almost 90 minutes) running time hammering us with character "development" and "conflict," when all it needed to do was establish the mood, sketch out the characters, provide space for three short speeches--one for the egoist, another for the rebellious actor, a third for the submissive one--and keep hinting that things are going wrong. Then fifteen minutes of mayhem at the end. Clark only gets the last right; but by then we've been bored and frustrated by the need for his cast to chew up their particular corner of the scenery.

Maybe the real problem is timing: Right before Children Shouldn't ... I watched Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943), about bored intellectuals in NYC who become Satanists. The director, Mark Robson, needed only 70 minutes to immerse us completely in a world dominated by a jaded disregard for life, where suicide hangs--literally--in the air, a constant promise and threat, and where no one wins. The movie kills three people in an almost casual manner that is both despairing and subtle, all in the service of a Poe-like concentration on its "single effect": the dreadful inevitability of death. I will at some point devote a separate posting to The Seventh Victim; I bring it up now only to remind we lovers of low-budget horror that one needs talent as well as desire, vision as well as determination. Look at poor Ed Wood. I think Tim Burton gets it right in his biopic: he portays Wood as a man completely dedicated to something for which he had no talent. The so-called "turkeys" that resulted were foregone conclusions, and although they might not deserve our scorn, I don't think they can be praised. I'm afraid I have to say the same for Bob Clark's debut film.

(NOTE: Believe it or not, someone seems to be backing a remake of Children Shouldn't ... . I look forward to being proved wrong.) ED/PUB:LM

Friday, October 07, 2005

When "International Cinema" Was "Foreign Films"

(Note: This is an essay that originally appeared on a website I used to manage. I'm trying to use this present blogsite as an archive for earlier writings.)

The first time I saw Fancois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) was on television in the 1970s. During my high school years and the first few of college, I saw a number of films from France, Italy, Poland, and Japan that indelibly marked my halting departure from childhood and descent into what seemed at times a grinding emotional poverty, in which I cultivated disdain mingled with sentimental yearning; my friends at the time and I were of like minds--sardonic and spiritual all at once, self-righteous and -deprecating in a single breath. Amid this confusion I consumed revelatory films, all in the public space of our family room, in the rush and panic of various domestic tremors and a medley of uncertainties whose whimpers--if not whines--were drowned by Nixon's noisy mastication of the last scraps of civics class. How I clung to those foreign lessons in loss: aside from Truffaut's debut, there were Loves of a Blond (Forman/1965), La Belle et La Bete (Cocteau/1946), Knife in the Water (Polanski/1962), Rashomon (Kurosawa/1950) and La Strada (Fellini/1954). My memory of these films has been shaped by my post-adolescent mood of suppressed passion and idle threat; beyond that, I simply allowed the movies to handle all the rough stuff and heavy lifting.

It makes sense to begin with The 400 Blows, if only because, of the movies I watched, it sits closest to childhood. Truffaut's persistent alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, makes his first appearance here at age fourteen, essentially abandoned, both physically, at least to an extent, and emotionally by his parents. This abandonment, though not deliberate or even entirely conscious, allows him to enter, even propels him to, a life of careless, minor crime--but, more important, a miniature underworld in which he lives without adults, an anti-Romantic Huck Finn whose Mississippi is the vicissitudes of city life without a direction home. And while Huck had the force of the river, and of Jim's moral compass, to mark his way, Antoine flees indiscriminately, wandering through a nervous, gray, and ultimately unconcerned Paris, until he too arrives at water's edge; for him, though, it is merely the unresolved end of his journey, not its beginning and motivation.

At first I responded to Truffaut's movie with a great deal of discomfort. Doinel seemed "bad" in an unattractive way; most of the kids I'd seen in the movies were absolutely safe; they were "little rascals" who formed "our gang" and enjoyed noisy vacations from parents and school. Truffaut's boy would or could not recognize he was just fooling around; for him, his crimes and the resultant reform school became an integral part of his identity. And nothing came of it but an almost absurdist journey-quest away from nothing in particular and toward the same. A few years later, listlessly fooling around myself in graduate school, I encountered "The Wanderer," who also stood on the shingle and considered his lowly, lonely state. An image rises in my mind: Antoine Doinel on the beach, his gaze, anxious yet blank, staring at the end of his childhood and, like the Wanderer, keeping it to himself. At fourteen, his foot had slid, and the abyss into which he called did not call back. I was only a year or two older than Antoine when I watched this movie, and the word "discomfort," which I mildly placed at the top of this paragraph, belies the feeling, something almost like anger, but closer to knee-wobbling anxiety, with which I greeted this film. Surely that isn't all there is? Today, I say there's more and hope I'm right. At fifteen or so, it was tough to keep everything from falling off the shelf.

Still, the younger you are, the easier it can be to conjure hope, especially in terms of love. Now, let's be clear here: Actual love is not the issue. We all live in a secret, but the older secrets of childhood and adolescence are large and manifold, culminating, at least for me, in early adulthood, where for a brief time I held, or so I thought, a monumental open secret from others, one that the kinder, less confident of us can be trusted to keep: That we do not know how to be adults, and are simply imitating each other--and there's another irony for you--as we make our way; if we're lucky, eventually we can breathe a little easier, having cobbled together what will suffice as our identity, at least until some later shock to the system forces us into a second adolescence. God forbid; one was almost too much, yes? But before the wearying subterfuges of early adulthood come the richer secrets of love--or, to be more or less honest, its lies.

And the greatest lie we tell about love is that everyone is meant to have their portion, their "beautiful reward," as Springsteen puts it. About the time I first saw these films, I also was reading that master teller of small but devastating truths, Sherwood Anderson. I was stricken by the story of Alice Hindman, a woman who at twenty-five "began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone." Anderson told such a convincing truth about loss that I rebelled and wished it a lie. Milos Forman in Loves of a Blond captures a little piece of that. His young Czech girl, trapped in a dull factory town, enamored of a young man from Prague, faces the truth of loneliness when she follows him to his home, arriving suddenly at the apartment he shares with his parents, who in his absence treat her to the most painful and simultaneously bitterly amusing--and protracted--cold shoulder in the history of film. Her dogged determination to be loved, and their stolid refusal--especially the mother--to provide even a crumb of false hope, sets her up for her dreary epiphany. All my life, I have entertained the hope that we do indeed deserve love, that it is one task in our job--the other, and perhaps the better, is to love, of course; but Forman's movie all too accurately portrays the world's general position on this: If one deserves anything, it's whipping. I must mention that Forman's film is not so violent in its approach. It's actually a rather quiet, matter-of-fact meanderer; nonetheless, it does arrive at a kind of humiliation, at least on the part of its viewers, in that one's assumptions about how much one is loved are tenuous at best. At nineteen or so, I was able to understand the blonde's assumptions and to feel horrified at her embarrassment of having to "face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone," and sometimes in the presence of strangers.

Pardon the disgusting imagery, as Woody Allen says somewhere, but that plunge into love has the force of an archetype, and the rough-stroke feel of a fable. Both Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete and Polanski's Knife in the Water gave me a language for the dangers of such a force. I must admit, though, that much of Cocteau's version of the fairy tale impressed me because of its style: he used the camera aggressively to generate an air of the fabulous. The images glowed, the camera followed Beauty down those surreal corridors with insinuating familiarity. Magic occurred simply by reversing the action, allowing figures to fall with unnerving smoothness up into the midst of the story's simple but deep conflicts and resolutions. Along the way, Beauty had to drop from her hands things she loved--family, home--to pick up the Beast, to lean into his breath. The tale gives her hard choices, but I wished I had the same opportunity to bargain away everything just to be loved. I have revisited this movie only once since then, and my memory of its details is aptly limited to its famously arresting images, but what remains is a conviction that in Cocteau's world, a hungry heart can be satisfied only after one is willing to surrender and sacrifice.

One difficulty with watching these films during my post-adolescence was that they sometimes posited problems that were at least two steps ahead of me. I had too narrow a frame of reference, for instance, for Knife in the Water. How could I understand the murder of fidelity when I had not yet lived inside such fidelity? The bored and irritated wife who sides with the young stranger--whom the overbearing, bourgeois-assertive husband thought he had killed--and the young man himself, his knife always out, so to speak, his confidence both a perceived threat and a promise; these were people I did not know, except in the abstract, or by inclination. (After all, many teenagers stand every day--at least I did--on the narrow deck of a pleasure boat, ready and willing, albeit often alone.) Like La Belle et La Bete, Polanski's film lays out a stylized space in which to work out these concerns, a neverland that is Minimalist/Abstract to Cocteau's Romantic/Gothic. Just a few years later, I would watch the bad craziness, as Dr. Thompson would put it, of Polanski's Repulsion (1965), the Freudian hybrid of La Belle et La Bete and Knife in the Water, in which the anxieties of both films are pressure-cooked in Catherine Deneuve's homicidally repressed brain. I am thankful that I was almost old enough to watch this without cracking, because with the previous two films lurching around in there, my own brain seemed a little squeezed.

I was not, however, always alienated from these films. I understood with frustrating clarity the loss of truth in Kurosawa's Rashomon. I knew that the world is a haunted forest, and under those "dark, wet boughs" we do evil to one another, and once again often in full sight of witnesses. But their presence does not provoke justice; in fact, some of them turn out to be perpetrators, while the rest are so afraid, they lie--first to themselves, to make easier the lying to others. These were the political lessons of the 1970s, as well as the personal lessons of my life back then. I knew that the truth was both powerful and elusive, but I was too uncertain to make use of that power and too confused to grasp it firmly. It is fitting that the print I saw of Rashomon was faded and damaged; it matches the mood of the film and its post-adolescent viewer.

Felinni's La Strada is aptly titled here: for me it is the end of the road, the last way, where fading memories assert, not the details, but the lasting impression. The more I reflect, the more I must admit that this movie has become my cinematic acid test. If a film does not move me as La Strada did, it diminishes. I was most struck by two things in Felinni's movie: the cruelty of Anthony Quinn's Zampano, a strong man who bullies the diminutive Gelsomina, played with mime-like perfection by Giulietta Masina; and his love for her, repressed and deflected, until he loses her and is left alone, like Antoine Doinel before him so many years ago in this present foreign film autobiography, like that Anglo-Saxon Wanderer and Forman's Blonde--even, for a time, like La Bete and Polanski's foolish bourgeoisie, not to mention Rashomon's panicked truthful liars.

I have nothing new to say here: this loneliness simply breaks one's heart. Again, whenever a movie catches me by surprise and dizzies me with a sudden drop, it is the same howl of impotent rage I heard in La Strada. It is beyond Brando's "Stella!" and Welles' "I'm Charles Foster Kane!" but I feel it in those films, and some that came afterward, even if only in a long shot or short burst. Scorsese knows this moment, and has approached it many times, from Taxi Driver to The Aviator. To be honest, I think I keep insisting that Scorsese is our greatest living director because he hears clearly the sound of loss, and tries to ring its changes when he can.

Having written all this, I have come to realize that I still haven't watched The Passion of the Christ from the fear that it is a two-hour version of the last ten minutes of the films I've been discussing. I hesitate to offer any real commentary on a movie I haven't seen, but I would suggest that the sadism and gore that many have complained of, been repulsed by, jeered at, are nothing more than Gethsemane's legacy. All those lonely people staring blankly, raging, wandering off, lost in one Mirkwood or another, have asked for the cup to be taken from them--have asked, in the universal Last Temptation, to be human only, and left out of the business of God, which can seem cruel, divorced from what we want. And, of course, it often is just that, which is why in my adolescence I was drawn to those foreign films, whose images--of the water's edge, the menacing clearing in the wood, the road, the dimly lit corridor--provided "special mirrors," as Brecht says of the theater, of my own imploring posture and eventual, albeit partial, surrender to the dangerous joys of the will to love.


Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shocking Evidence

I was thinking about my childhood experiences at the movies and in front of the TV (I'm old enough to remember Saturday matinees and life without cable), and the memory of Famous Studios cartoons landed in my head with a sickening thud. These were hard-hearted animations: post-Fleischer Popeye, Little Lulu (or Little Audrey), Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey--and worst of all Herman and Catnip, I swear the real models for The Simpsons' Itchy n Scratchy. If you're interested in some background you can go here to Don Markstein's admirable Toonopedia website to see this dubious Murderer's Row deceptively smiling, sunny and pure. For your own sake, though, don't be fooled; who knows what evil lurks...

When I was a little kid the denizens of the semi-psychotic netherworld of Famous Studios left me with a sense of unease greater than that of The Outer Limits, but at least the latter was supposed to fill me with dread. Cartoons were meant to reinforce joy, of one kind or another. There were, for instance, certain happy alliances, as when Sniffles the mouse and the little bookworm partnered up to get out of one scrape or another. And of course the joy of chaos: Tex Avery's growth-serum-swigging cats, dogs, and mice, Daffy Duck's stints as mustache fiend, draft-dodger, pet and prey. And so OK, the joy of predation; just ask Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd.

But in the low-rent sub-basement of Famous Studios, the antagonist's sadistic rictus remained frozen amid the Bosch-like excesses of all that tearing and rending and dynamiting. These 'toons meant business, with some truly creepy forays into pathological behaviors:

Cannibalism-by-Proxy I can still see the wolf salivating with a child molester's single-mindedness as he coveted the plump flanks of Baby Huey.

Tag-Team Date Rape In the hands of Famous Studios, the rivalry between Popeye and Bluto degenerated into a circle of abuse, as Olive Oyl was limply tossed from one to the other, her warbling cries for help sometimes stilled by a blow or a fall.

In-Denial Stalking Casper's search for "friends" was always accompanied by a glaring ignorance on his part that HE WAS A GHOST, for godssake. As he wandered through the gloom, his very presence dismembered the hapless, caught in a literally eye-popping orgy of terror, until some innocent--a puppy or small child--was seduced into accompanying Casper in a misadventure that often included physical harm, even gunplay.
(NOTE: I'll admit to taking some creative liberties here; in reality, I was a huge Casper fan when I was six or so. Still, now that I think of it I'm not sure this redeems the Friendly Ghost; after all, I was a pretty spooky (ha ha) kid, happy to sit alone for long periods in my rocking chair, listening to Meet the Beatles over and over, pretending I was at once a DJ on an all-Beatles station and a Beatle--obviously, Paul. "If I only had a friend"; worra worra worra.)

Unashamed Reciprocal Sadism What I remember most were the opportunities for Mutually Assured Destruction: the gleeful snarl of Catnip as he stuffed wriggling masses of mice into hero sandwiches, followed by Herman the Mouse's Bronx-cheer vendetta, cramming Catnip's face--swollen by the beating he always had to take--with explosives, and bouncing him in a barrel down a rocky hill and into a chasm, or shoving him, his arms pinwheeling, into the one-way jaws of some impossibly lethal DIS-assembly line. The final image was more often than not Herman on the shoulders of a pack of squirming mice, their cheers gleefully heartless.

Maybe because it's October, the month when I give myself up to horror films, but these cartoons trail me like the doppelganger of the kid I once was: clownish and bookish, simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the Continuous Showings of Life's Chiller Theatre. I was, metaphorically speaking, willing to stick my finger in the electric socket--all right, maybe not metaphorically: I actually did this once as a kid, knowing full well you weren't supposed to, but compelled to check out why. And so goes Famous Studios: a shock that throws you like a rag doll, but one you invite.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Gazing Game, Part 1

The essential nature of film is expressed through the act of gazing. Great films demand a fixed attention; the real strength of that contraption, the motion picture projector, is to generate the illusion that pictures move. Movies, though, are not captured in mimetic amber, and so can shed--sometimes with an almost audible sigh of relief--the demands of dramatic exposition, conflict, and resolution. Like those early Edison studies, or "actualities" (and how's that for poetry?), of bodies going through simple motions--with titles like "Newark Athlete" and "Men Boxing"--the movies that stay with me are primarily visual "experiences" of the act of gazing. Film, unlike the free, three-dimensional space of live theatre, holds us in place and levels and narrows our ken, until, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, we can do nothing but viddy well our voluntary Lodovico Treatments.

Unfortunately, I cannot find a way--or, to woo your confidence in my abilities, I should say I have chosen not to find a way--to string such films together in a logical fashion. To convey the primacy of gazing (a still and silent occupation) over the intellectual perception of plot, I will abandon all semblance of order, and simply strew these along your way. I'll supply the prose poems, to misuse a moment from Citizen Kane; you provide the war.

(Note: In a meaningless act of masochistic restriction, to play The Gazing Game I have entrusted each entry to the reckless architecture of a single compound-complex sentence. Read 'em in a single breath!)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Pressed down by the last wet sandbag against the flood, his outraged heart thudding like a fist on jailhouse concrete, Capt. Willard gazes at Coppola's Vietnam, his fevered brow at times smooth and flat, like a child's, at others furrowed and shining, while his river trip--in its own way as baffling and overblown as Huck's--slowly uncoils its fist to show him a crushed black horror stinking like a field of gardenias.

Ponette (1996)

The camera operator stubbornly refuses to stand up, dust off his knees, and walk away from this little child whose mother has died in her presence and whose father, angry at the loss, blaming the mother, is unable to lift the child with conviction and carry her to her rest; and so we are alone with Ponette, and mark the trail of every wet globe that breaks and falls from the brimful of her eyelids.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

To answer the question, "How long does it take to walk from the Dawn of Man to Beyond the Infinite?" Kubrick hands God the camera, who makes us keep impassive watch as Dave Bowman trudges, weightless, through drifts of black and light and memory, the relentless Panavision, its bulk forced grudgingly into the role of Steadicam, jamming at the end, quadruple-exposing Dave, older Dave, dying Dave, and uber-Dave, while cold triumph rings in our ears.

I'm exhausted already. I'll gaze more at another date.

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