Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Learn That Poem, Learn That Poem"

I gave in to a fond indulgence: a DVD filled with Hal Roach's "Little Rascals" shorts, in all their cheerfully brutal glory, with enough nascent racism to make one squirm--but still enter laughing, buoyed by Stymie's doggedly insistent hunger that will never be sated, no matter how many sizzling frypans of eggs and ham or smorgasbord handouts--complete with Arty-choking artichokes and dog biscuits--or sagging sacks of candy--OK, here it comes: Yum, yum, eatumup--he can wolf down. Watching those long-gone children scampering around their nondescript edge-of-Hollywood early-morning locations--scraggly fields, stagnant ponds, dirt paths, alleys and culverts cluttered with handy brickbats suitable for bouncing off dog catchers' and truant officers' bald pates, and of course home to inexplicably available mules--I am once again filled with nervous excitement as they race between the legs of cruel adults, some of whom are actually armed, others merely squinting with Edgar Kennedy-esque certainty of delinquency; and I am filled as well with Stymie's hunger, broad and blatant, but real, even when he literally licks his lips in anticipation, because I understand the feeling: Anything--everything!--but mush.

When I was a kid myself, the Little Rascals were easily recognizable as real children, albeit inhabiting an idealized--or at least stylized--world, particularly because of their appetites: for food, of course, constantly, but also each other. They know how vital it is for children to, like good revolutionaries, hang together to avoid hanging separately. Exclusion from the gang is a bitter, tearful, panicky business; and their friendships demand a calm port after the storms of school and romance, capture and flight. While some adults extend affectionate or charitable hands--the nice ladies whose back porches Stymie approaches to beg for food, or shopkeepers and passers-by who indulge the children's whims--"borrowing" apples for an unsuccessful lesson in arithmetic (doomed to failure because of the apples' presence; they are, after all, food, not academic abstractions)--and of course the lovely Miss Crabtree, still the single most charismatic educator in film history (goodbye, Mr. Chips, you betcha)--most grownups in the Little Rascals world are active threats, far removed from the absolute values of childhood: appetite and loyalty.

The DVD I watched seemed determined to offer a thesis about those values: that they were best expressed in terms of the Rascals' relationships to dogs--particularly the phenomenal Petey, of course, but also a number of other crossbreeds tumbling around, fellow children--or at least creatures of the same world, pursued with ugly unrelenting violence by adults posing as dog catchers simply to make easier their acts of aggression in the War on Children. Petey is even featured in a weird silent short that chronicles in flashback his decision to commit suicide by hanging--assisted by a sympathetic fellow canine--in a telling turn of events, due to his master's betrayal. And true to form it's cherchez la femme, another appetite encountered--but the pursuit of the girl is an adult yearning; no wonder it spells doom. And Petey actually goes through with it, twisting at the literal end of his rope, but is rescued by his repentant master. If you want order--true, of a noisy sort, borne aloft by misunderstandings and a skewed child's-eye view, but order nonetheless--you have to turn your back on the adult world, or it can be lethal: Petey is gassed at the dog pound in another episode--and the fact that the gas canisters were empty does nothing to lessen the cruel extremes Hal Roach's series resorts to in order to test the absolutes that bind the Little Rascals.

The more I watch them, and the older I get--and doesn't that work out nicely?--I become convinced that, as stiff and formulaic as they are, these little films resonate. Yes, the Rascals are deeply caught up in bodily functions, material gain (Consider the truant wannabe, Brisbane, who, speaking out of the corner of his mouth--yet another Rascal visual trope--disdains his mother's plans for him to become President in favor of his own dream to become a street car conductor: "Boy, do they take in the nickels!" He listens to a hardworking man at his "grim forge" describing how he dutifully studied and was first in his class, all in the service of his own aspiration to reside in the White House. But as Brisbane observes with finality, "And you ended up a punk blacksmith."), and of course the joys of the chase. But they also seem to yearn for a perfected state, one that provides a justification for their appetites, a kind of vacant-lot-as-Pure-Form, a Rascal-ness, Professor, if you please, that places them out of the reach of starched shirts and outraged dowagers and allows them room to see the world as it is really is--or at least as they are always imagining it, which by the end of the second reel means a full belly, a safe pooch, and arms draped over each others' shoulders, as ready to give one another a kiss as a razzberry, in the safety and freedom of a partly hidden world at knee-level, little but not forlorn.

As Brisbane regrets his truancy, weeping as the Rascals often do--and not only because he has let down his mother and the radiant Miss Crabtree, but because, as an expelled student, he may be free but he is also divorced from the gang--he accepts his punishment: to recite a sickly sentimental poem, a rapturous ode to his teacher. He stands at the front of the room, torturously expelling the awful words, while the other kids howl their cleansing derision, drawing him back--and I don't think into simple conformity to adult authority, but to a far better place, where the clubhouse leans and Petey waits with Spanky--so fond of pointing out deviations from the Code of Loyalty with a sarcastic, drawn-out, "My pal"--and Stymie and Weezer and Farina, while that theme music, surprisingly plaintive, more goodbye than hello, reworks my childhood in its own grainy, mugging, double-take image.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Year in Movies Begins

I've been writing pretty regularly this year; I started with the intent to write every week, and slacked off, then vowed to write every day, then slacked again. Eventually, I settled into a fairly regular schedule, intermittent but ongoing. I have come to realize that this current run has been a prelude to a kind of mission: to watch a movie a day for a year, and to write about that movie every day. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Fair enough; nonethless, I shall arise and go now, I shall strike the board and cry, "More!" I shall stand in the mead-hall and make my vow, swearing neither by my hand nor my head, neither by Jehovah nor Moses nor Allah nor the Buddha, neither by my mother nor my father--God rest them--nor wife nor children, but by my word, saying Yea. The rest is the opposite of silence.

I entertained the notion of beginning this journal with some sort of grand entrance--a discussion of Bruce Posner's Unseen Cinema seven-DVD collection, for instance; on the first disk, early motion picture cameras settle their gaze on direct and unadorned Life as it slides along a river or outside a train; or I could have raised a fitting paean to a classic film, touched unmistakably by the force of its own artistry as well as my memory of the experience of watching it. I thought of The Maltese Falcon, I believe the first movie I saw on the big screen after four or five scratchy viewings on television. I wanted to convey the sense of revelation I had, and how it has clouded the following decades of watching movies on TV, which I love to do, though it diminishes them - especially ones that deserve pilgrimage out of the damn house, like The Aviator or Eyes Wide Shut or Minority Report, all movies I have seen only on TV, what a shame. Some sort of fitting entree should occur; after all, I'm standing at the threshold of a movie a day, and of writing about each one; I'm already crowded with jobs and kith and kin, so I should open strong, at least for luck.

But I want this to have an element of the incidental about it, of the found--although I admit I'm getting all the movies through Netflix, lined up in a Queue I can unerringly manipulate with the aid of "Netflix Freak," a program that allows me to treat my Netflix account as though it were an iPod playlist--oh, the sleek and softly audible undertones of the Macworld, where everything's as smooth as a VW Beetle's behind and sharp as a Michael Graves teakettle. So I won't kid any of us with blather about accidental movie tourism. And yet: Here I go jumping off early, so to speak, writing today in late November, when I had planned to start January 1, run straight through to the last day of 2006's December. But I'm impatient for once; it is a rare enough feeling that I should take advantage of it, and start now. So I will.

Today I watched Time of the Wolf (2002), a French film about the post-apocalypse--nuclear, I think: I spotted a drawing on a wall that looked like a mushroom cloud; but the details are hazy. What is clear is that this film prompted me to start now. I’m weak-minded enough to appreciate the faux cleverness of beginning this journal with a movie about The End, and eager enough to get started, and to start with a sense of simultaneous discovery and intentionality. Time of the Wolf is a murky wander in the dark, a listlessly brutal and sonorous mediation on society's eagerness to slough off its civilized skin.

I won't get too smarmy and snide, but last weekend I watched Spielberg's War of the Worlds, twice (and one I did catch at the octoplex), and he covered much of the same ground as Time of the Wolf in two or three scenes that managed their own confluence of the brutal and the banal with intense and intimate attention. Time of the Wolf often seems disengaged; even its long-drawn-out scenes of tears and hoping against hopelessness failed to resonate, particularly because we were never asked to care about the people who passed through those dark vales. At one point I muttered, "This is why one can watch the evening news and not weep." This movie is like that: By keeping everything static, at arm's length, we are never asked to engage our moral sense. In fact, like the news, such an approach is immoral, allowing us to stare blankly while babies die and old women wail, as young men sit poleaxed at the crossroads, struck down and doomed.

I teach college classes at a nearby correctional facility. This term it's Introduction to Drama, and we began by spending many hours with Aristotle and Oedipus--exhausting company--and looking closely at the heart of tragedy, its bursting arteries clogged with irony, and I ask them to consider that the act of touching such a heart can break your own, what with all that fear and pity. I am always eager to present Oedipus to them, the story of a man who searches for the cause of all his troubles, and realizes it's him. It is something I leave hanging in the air before them as long as I can manage. And I find it now standing here in front of me; I have to look through it as I write about Time of the Wolf, and in all fairness I begin to see an effort at catharsis in its climax, as a young boy, driven to despair much too early in his life, grasps at suicidal straws, but is saved at the last moment by a stranger, who hugs the boy--whose father was shot and killed in the movie's opening scene in, I will admit, an affecting moment of shock and open-mouthed horror--and reassures him that everything could very well be restored, that perhaps even the dead will rise.

So wait a moment; where am I now? Time of the Wolf was a frustrating experience, so much so that I--the Will Rogers of movie-watchers--perversely wanted to use it to start this journal: a movie I met and didn't like. But here I am ready to accept it as tragedy, almost, its hamartia not hubris but hollowness--and, here it comes, hollowness immolated, as the boy intended, as a sacrifice to make things right again--but eating its own ashes to live again; and it emerges as a movie whose faults do not disappear but are transcended, the more I think about it (and I guess that was my first mistake), as the final shot unveils: a train makes its way through the countryside, which is beautifully quiet, but rushes past us because we are on the train, you see--and most of the movie is spent at an abandoned train station, a desperate locus of the urge to connect and establish order--and if we are on the train--which everyone wanted to get on, if only it would come--and, if the train did arrive, if only it would stop . . . Again, if we are on the train, then we are safe, and the world is coming back after all.

And we're off.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Gazing Game, Part 3

Do you see what I see? Right here:

Solaris (1972)

The famous inky depths of outer space should reward the viewer with a solid emptiness that is so slow to change that one must hurtle through it to remember difference; but on Solaris one can simply stare at the curve of a hallway and everything moves, but at the periphery, and with a subtle hand at the elbow to drive one into the past, where a constant shifting seems necessary to keep the memories one step ahead of the anticipation of the next moment, which does not come, leaving only Solaris wherever one looks.

The Machinist (2004)

The face in the mirror advances like Romero's dead--but not with solipsistic cool; instead, the more the face approaches itself, the more its skeleton-stench fades in order to flesh out the necessary truth, until the self is nothing, the truth everything, and the forehead cracks the mirror.

Shadowlands (1993)

His bright and level eyes are fixed on God, but he does this without blinking, which is why they fill with blinding tears, and his gaze becomes a straining bursting mask of insistence and importuning, completely useless until he blinks and relieves the unnecessary effort, so that he can see again--if not so clearly, at least for longer stretches, and with joy.

Monday, November 07, 2005

It's a Wonderful Christmas Story

(NOTE: This is a revision of something I wrote last year for my previous website. File under "Redundancy Department of Redundancy")

In terms of decorating this blogsite with a Christmas piece, I know I'm as early as a Wal-Mart, but I want to be among the first to check in with my obvious picks for The Two Greatest Christmas Movies: It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and A Christmas Story (1983).

Let me quickly add Honorable Mentions: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) -- really more of a Halloween movie, though -- and the Chuck Jones version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). Fine work all, but I think my two picks are the gems in the crown that shine more deeply, and tell us more about American Christmas and the thin red (and green?) line of the Season itself, than any others.

Any heft these movies possess comes from a dual source: (1) the brains of their creators--Jean Shepherd (and OK, the director, Bob Clark, who does get many things right) and Frank Capra--and (2) the faces of their protagonists--Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and George Bailey (James Stewart).

In the Shepard/Clark movie, Christmas is bracketed and bookended by a variety of mishaps, malfeasances, and garden-variety meannesses. In fact, Christmas itself is forgotten for relatively lengthy stretches, as Flick's tongue gets glued to a flag pole -- and it hurts to watch, doesn't it? -- and Scut Farkus dishes it out (and takes it), and Randy roots among the cabbages, and a Major Award gets its fifteen minutes of fame, and lug nuts fly like sparks in the night air, while profanities bark and all of one's hard work results in a decoded "crummy commercial."

Despite these diversions, what places this movie on the list is its willingness to dip into Shepard's canon and fill out these mock-epic lives, to make us feel they deserve a perfect Christmas morning, with its granting of the wish for once --including of course an eye getting (more or less) shot out --as well as that amazing sequence that moves from innocent delight at a decapitated duck to a still and glowing and perfectly natural moment before the tree.

All of it becomes more than whimsy and farce--which good Christmas movies are wont to serve up--and more than heartstrings tugged, but an implanted memory, like all lasting family stories, retold so often the tale becomes the truth; and fiction, you need to know, is truer than fact.

Through it all, Billingsley's Hummel-figurine face, at turns beaten down by the adult world -- can anyone ever forget Santa's foot applying just the right pressure to Ralph's forehead to send him sailing down the Horrendously Happy Slide? -- and heart-breakingly confident it will all work out -- and he is right, after all -- reminds us that there is something at stake here: simply the rest of Ralphie's life, which I am convinced will take a course dependent on his foolish Christmas wish, ocular jeopardy or not.

All this, plus true hilarity, and flawless performances by Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and that rough gem, Darren McGavin. I know you've seen this one way too many times, but I triple-dog-dare you to catch it once more between now and the Big Day, and treat yourself to a careful examination of all their faces. Not a single false note, just like a Christmas choir. As Shepard intones about the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (with a compass in the stock, for some reason an ineffably beautiful detail), the movie itself becomes "the greatest Christmas gift I ever did or will receive."

As for It's a Wonderful Life, it too ignores Christmas for quite a while -- in fact, is in many ways not a Christmas movie at all. This is part of its greatness, in that Christmas is entwined in the fabric of George's story, where it becomes more than another episode, but the arena for the deciding moment in George's life. Unlike Ralphie, though, for George the moment is not the granting of a Christmas wish, but the relinquishing of a wish to be - actually, to have ever been at all. Ah, such Buddhistic bliss, to be allowed to meander off into stillness, quietude, and eventual nothingness, a cozy paradox where wakefulness is no longer required because there is no one to awaken. Like the clouds and the birds in "The Walrus and the Carpenter," one would not see George, for there would be no George to see.

Of course, George is not allowed to not be. He has lives to save, including his own. Somewhere or other, that sometimes-enlightening curmudgeon of a film critic, David Thompson, argues that It's a Wonderful Life is about the tenuousness of the American Dream, that a small sum of money can spell real ruin, and that George's violent panic, as wide-eyed and horrific as any Greek mask of tragedy, is averted only by a deus ex machina--or would that be populus ex machina, as his neighbors literally heap his salvation before him?

The moment is joyful, to be sure, but Thompson rightly points out its hysteria, with barely time to hear the bell tinkling out Clarence the angel's ascendancy. George must go on; the evidence of his necessity is too overwhelming, almost as shocking as George's earlier urge to tear it all apart.

I think, though, that this film is about something more than a close call. Like A Christmas Story, it insists that Christmas is a culminating moment, or better yet, a fitting space to work out wishes made with conviction AND in haste. For me there is something deeply attractive about the snow scenes of both movies, like Robert Frost's snowy woods--except their snow does not distract from the promises to keep, but punctuates those promises, with an exclamation point or an ellipses, and promises further promises, if you follow me. This is the faith to which these movies testify. Clarence and his twinkly eyes and all that are not where faith rests; they are cute catalysts to get George careening down Main Street, delirious, first with pain, and then joy. And as any moralist will tell you, it's always pain first.

I suppose what I love most about these two movies is their willingness to surrender to the notion that one can be both an idealist and a dope. Ralphie and George believe in what the poet G.M. Hopkins calls "the habit of perfection"; the fact that they walk into all kinds of walls because of that belief does not deter them--nor does it detract from the value of cultivating that habit in their drafty, perfect little living rooms.

The Last Man (Standing)

(SPOILER WARNING/APOLOGY: I'm sorry, but I cannot write what I want about this film without giving away the ending. I know I'm breaking The First Rule of Moviegoing, but I cannot avoid it. Feel free to Netflix this movie and watch it before reading; I'll wait. Humbly, as always.)

F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) is one of those silent films you should watch if you (a) love movies but (b) are wary of silent ones. Let me assure you that there is a list--I should show you mine one day--of silent movies that will cure you of your not-entirely-unwarranted hesitation, and The Last Laugh is one of them.

Still, depending on your age, the silent era is two or three generations removed from your experience, so I will not be such a snob as to scold you for a perfectly natural apprehension. Let's keep in mind that plenty of avid, even serious readers have to take a deep breath before reading Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Homer, let alone most poetry. So we'll agree that the problem exists. Now, let me try to solve it.

The director of The Last Laugh is best known for Nosferatu (1922), his "unathorized" version of Dracula. But he also directed other remarkable films, most notably a version of Faust (1926) followed by Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1931), all noteworthy because of their collective commitment to fluid camerawork and expressive set design that work together to reflect his characters' personalities and perspectives.

Watching Murnau is a curiously "modern" experience, if only because, in a variety of classic and contemporary films, from Citizen Kane (1941) and Night of the Hunter (1955) to Scorsese's and Spielberg's restless cameras, we see Murnau's influence. Consider the sharp slanting light that cuts through the shot compositions of film noir, the subjective perspective as the camera moves smoothly through the bar scene in Mean Streets, or the swooping glance across the audience in The Age of Innocence. And let's not forget the giddy low-tech stunts that got Barry Sonnenfeld (as cinematographer for Raising Arizona) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) noticed, not to mention the dizzying tracking, dolly, and handheld shots that thrust us headlong onto the beach in Saving Private Ryan. One can see Murnau's hand at work everywhere a director wants to carry us with and into the action.

In The Last Laugh (German title: Der Letzte Mann, literally, "the last man"), Murnau brings his bold acrobatics to a painfully simple story. An anonymous hotel porter/doorman (played by the formidable Emil Jannings, who came to Hollywood, was made unemployable by talkies, and returned to Germany, where he became a leading figure in Hitler's film industry), whose identity derives exclusively from his position--even more specifically his uniform, with its heavy square shoulders, epaulets, and shining buttons. He lives among the working poor, but works among the gaiety of Germany's Roaring '20s. Preening, flirting, manfully hoisting luggage, he gains all his status via the irony of his job: He is the fanciest laborer in his neighborhood.

But he is getting on in years, and the hotel manager notices how he struggles with a trunk perched high upon a rain-swept taxi, and the bit of a sit-down he needs afterwards, and immediately demotes him. He is now a washroom attendant, spending his days underground, brushing dinner jackets, supplying towels, accepting small tips. He even takes his meals in the bathroom.

Ashamed, he attempts to keep his demotion a secret, stealing his confiscated uniform and donning it as he approaches home, where he climbs the stairs past the other tenants, who as usual cease beating rugs and emptying garbage pails in deference to his uniform. While his pride, his very identity, has been sullied and soiled, the uniform is spared.

Eventually, the truth emerges, and the neighbors who had given him such respect turn on him, jeering at his diminished state. He is now their equal, and the object of their scorn.

The ex-porter reels from these humiliations, casting himself down even lower than the hotel manager and his neighbors ever could. Alone, completely extinguished, he slumps in the dimness of the lavatory.

Murnau tells the story without the intertitles we often depend on in silent films--so that it is more fitting to state that he does not "tell," but truly "shows." The action occurs in a special kind of silence: All of the exposition and character development is physical, down to Jannings' remarkably expressive face.

It is a pantomime of epic proportions, set amid looming skyscrapers--at one point the hotel where he works, now an object of dread, literally bends toward him like a great, leaning monolith, threatening to crush him--and increasingly darkened streets and rooms. This alone is enough to give this movie a special place in film history.

Something else, though, occurs in its last ten minutes that struck me deeply the first time I saw it, when I was in college, and has haunted my attitude toward film ever since.

It is a turn of events that Roger Ebert finds "improbable and unsatisfying." The ex-doorman is alone in the bathroom, so still he might as well be dead, and the scene fades. Suddenly, the film's only intertitle appears, and states, "Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue." As Ebert tells it in his "The Great Movies" essay, "The doorman accidentally inherits a fortune, returns to the hotel in glory and treats all his friends to champagne and caviar, while his old enemies glower and gnash their teeth."

Ebert complains it is a painfully obvious tacked-on happy ending to soothe the sensibilities of the day. Perhaps; but even on its own, it is a remarkable sequence, filled with glorious excess, scenes of eating and gleeful consumerism, punctuated by not only gnashed teeth but the delighted, and I think condescending, smiles of the other hotel guests.

When I first saw this film I was stunned. But unlike Ebert I did not feel cheated by the ending; instead, it taught me a simple but fundamental lesson about film storytelling that I have never forgotten. In that moment when Murnau--better yet, as the intertitle puts it, "the author" (shades of auteur!) steps in and yanks the story out from under us, he completely undermines our trust in film narrative--a trust that is at once immediate but fleeting, because as the images roll on, we are forced to watch closely, lest we miss something. And we expect that attention to be rewarded with a recognizable narrative arc, rising and falling as all narrative has since we hunched around the fire and told our stories--and then of course drew the tale on the walls (I like to think of them as the first storyboards).

But the film punishes us for paying such close attention, for trusting "the author" so much, and reminds us of the power of storytellers to do what they please. It is unfair but, in a stinging Socratic way, instructive: The Last Laugh sets us up to thwart us. All of our intellectual and emotional investments derive from the choice we've made to be manipulated by the film; if so, we have no right to complain when the manipulation continues counter to our expectations. After seeing The Last Laugh I learned that I can trust myself as I watched movies, but need to be on guard. Dangers lurk in a great movie because it's freer than my needs; in fact, it may even have an agenda counter to those needs.

Over the years, I've found the caution that Murnau taught me to be a good thing. It has increased my pleasure when my expectations have been fulfilled, and thrilled me like a roller-coaster when thwarted. In either case, I'm reminded I'm merely one of those "little people out there in the dark"; but there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

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