Wednesday, January 25, 2006
I was just visiting the Internet Movie Database to check on something, and there on the front page was the news: Chris Penn is dead. (He was only 40.) I hesitate to admit it, but my first thought was selfish: What are we going to do without Chris Penn? I have written elsewhere about William Bendix, and Penn for me was more his--not Sean's--younger brother, so to speak, granted with a career that sometimes tread darker waters than Bendix's. Still, I remember Bendix in the 1942 version of The Glass Key, his sadistic henchman perversely calling Alan Ladd's character "Baby" as he beat him to a pulp. Chris could've done that in his sleep. He had the ability to move in two directions at once; in fact, when I read the news of his death, two images flashed simultaneously: Chris enraged, and Chris grinning. He did both so well, at least as good as Bendix, frightening me with his rage, inviting me into the joke with that grin. He was like certain guys I knew in high school: wild but amiable, almost a bully but too attention-deficient to turn it into a fulltime gig. And I write this with affection and respect. I always wanted to see him do more--even though, looking at his page on the IMDB, he seemed to keep busy. Still, after his early teenage moments--Rumble Fish, All the Right Moves, Footloose--and perhaps Mulholland Falls--what we all remember about him is Reservoir Dogs. That engrained in our hearts--or is it spleens?--his scary/silly bear routine, one that he did all the way down to his eyes. In memoriam I'm going to watch Abel Ferarra's The Funeral (1996), a fitting choice, and a movie where I think he is given the most room--aside from At Close Range--to tumble around on the screen, eyes narrowing, smile broadening, like Joe Pesci's beefier cousin.
I'm being selfish to think it--poor Chris Penn, I'm sorry you've moved on--but who will replace him? Maybe it's OK no one will, because it seems Movieland didn't know what it had. Oh, well; yet another reason to hope for heaven, and the great movies we'll get. I can see him now, playing Bendix's cop brother in a remake of True Confessions. Sic 'em, Chris.
(Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: The title of this blog is a reference to a piece by James Thurber, "The Dog That Bit People," about, well, you figure it out. When the dog died, Thurber's mother wanted a headstone engraved with "Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest"; the young Thurber, though, knew that the dog was not exactly melancholy--let alone a Dane, Great or otherwise--and rightly figured that the "simple Latin epitaph would do." I think the same goes for Chris.)
I suppose Hitchcock's comment about movies being a machine for manufacturing emotions in the audience--or whatever it was he said--is so blasted ubiquitous that I shouldn't be able to write about anything else. And I suppose, then, that all I should write about is the effect of editing; because isn't that the real machine here, more than the poor camera, which becomes a mere ocula rasa (right or wrong, how much fun is it to make up Latin expressions?) that is given shape only by the moviola? Maybe I should.
In the meantime there's Stupeur et tremblements (Fear and Trembling) (2003), which manages to manufacture emotions the old-fashioned way: by pulling us along an episodic progression of scenes as fraught with violent swings as any bipolarized teen, sunny and outgoing one minute, scarily sullen the next. It charts the experiences of a young Belgian woman during her one-year contract as an interpreter for a huge Japanese corporation. She narrates the film, and appears in virtually every shot, often in full-face close-up. The film does not want us to draw our own conclusions, but to consume hers, whole and complete. We are the clean slate on which the movie writes.
Of course, the mechanisms of editing--sound as well as image--play a key role here. The DV immediacy, the discursive/ironic music, the dreamy bounce of the camera as it swings us out the window to fly with Amelie (Sylvie Testud) in her fantasy escapes over Tokyo's New-York-Meets-Vegas skyline; this and more conspire to draw us into Amelie's perspective to more intimately share her disintegration. At the same time, her self-deprecating narration undercuts the absurdist menace of Japanese corporate culture and turns it into--well, a movie: At one point, Amelie identifies with David Bowie's Mr. Lawrence from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), seeing herself as the buried-to-the-neck prisoner of war--and of love, as she contemplates the seamless (and oh boy, inscrutable; this movie plays with stereotypes as though it were a game of pinball--or is that Pachinko?) beauty of her superior, Fubuki-san (Kaori Tsuji), who conspires with everyone else to observe protocol, and in the process reduce Amelie to near-catatonic subservience. Like the doorman in Murnau's Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (1924), Amelie descends to the position of lavatory assistant, where she continues to serve, and submit.
What really drew me, though, were not the visual/aural elements, but the mere sequence of the scenes, an inexorable catalogue of scary--and hilarious--mishaps, punishments, victories (her stint as "calendar-turner" has a Chaplinesque air; it is the start of her decline, but she doesn't know it; and we share with her the fleeting exhilaration of her celebrity in the office, as she flips over everyone's desk calendars with an endearing exuberance worthy of the Little Tramp)--and eventual defeat. I couldn't wait for the next scene to begin, and didn't want the one I was watching to end. The triumph of plot is not to be ignored--although I sometimes try, in my urge to gaze at a film; I was watching the Seinfeld episode with the 3-D hidden picture subplot, and thought of the hypnotism of the film image: did I need to unfocus, or, as Mr. Pitt exclaimed, "deep focus"? Well, with Fear and Trembling I think I had the chance to rest my eyes so that I could have the cozy pleasure of reading a good movie.
Monday, January 23, 2006
Just a few days after working myself up over Shelley Duvall, I watch The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), a Vittorio De Sica memorial to the idea of the past--and a warning of its limits; after all, it is the past, and one is always moving away from it. I think it's apt, then, to consider a devoted attachment to the past and the dangers of doing so, and the hoped-for, hard-won freedom as the past is left in the past: the picture stars Dominique Sanda, and seeing her reminded me that she as well was an obscure object of desire. I didn't see this film when it was first released, but I remember that she turned me into a moonstruck calf in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), a film I went to see for De Niro and Lancaster, but Sanda sent me into a dreamy flip-take. And I've sometimes wondered why I have a soft spot for the often-clunky Damnation Alley (1977), and the Internet Movie Database reminds me that it too features Dominique Sanda. Cherchez la femme, and how.
But I don't want to write about Dominique Sanda, at least not directly. It's the picture that I see, the garden itself, a framed remembrance, eventually a bitter taunt. In its story of a Jewish-American family that wanders half-conscious through the early years of Mussolini's fascism, until it catches up with them, as organic as any change--from ripe to rot, for instance--The Garden of ... is a kind of providential moment for me. In tandem with my meandering reminiscence of Shelley Duvall and lonely post-adolescent fits and starts, De Sica's film, in its presentation of Sanda as a beautiful enigma that unfolds like a crumpled letter of goodbye, rescued me from partial slumber. Sanda's character, Micol, smiles at the man with whom she grew up, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), and who loves her with abiding devotion, staring at her with blind love--"the only kind," as Tom Waits sings--until she stares back, as she sleeps with another man. Like Italy itself--or my hapless cinematic affections--the reward of his gaze is a kind of betrayal.
Now, I'm not here to discount the fun of looking at "purty guls," as the old man puts it in Flannery O'Connor. Duvall and Sanda certainly filled a gap, if I may indulge in a confusing image. And I don't mean to be flippant; but I remember another young fool, a friend of mine who hang-dogged after the pre-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd, whose Neo-Protestant level gaze--and was that a smirk? One could never tell--brought him to a low estate every single time, especially in The Heartbreak Kid (1972). You want to figure it out, ask Bruce Jay Friedman, who gave 1970s Lonely Guys a voice--OK, a mewling, distant, desperate one, but the truth shall set you free.
Or not; I'm brought back to the Finzi-Continis, who are summarily processed for the concentration camps, kept waiting in the same classrooms where Micol spent her soft-focus childhood. Again, at this precise moment in my ruminations De Sica provides a sad truth. As he did so many years earlier with his monumental The Bicycle Thief (1948), in The Garden of ... he allows us to watch our small vanities and large losses combine in a film that understands our indulgences, but is honest in its admonishments. And I think De Sica forgives us, as well, as we sit out there in the dark, at least enough to give us a glimpse of the garden--even while he closes the gates.
(Note: A minor admission: The final image in this blog is not from The Garden of ... but from Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), another film about fascism, except, as you can tell, hysterical. But I found the image fitting and evocative; personally, I'm reminded of the full-tilt opening sequence of Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983). Which only exacerbates my confusion over The Woman-Image, since Dominique Sanda now morphs into Sandra Bernhard. The mind reels.)
Friday, January 20, 2006
Watching the pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Encounter at Farpoint"--like the "old generation" Star Trek's first movie, a silly bit of self-satisfied business, pacing solemnly in front of the fans, stroking its Roddenberry-esque chin as it asks, "Is that all there is to God?"--I also had my first encounter with Colm Meaney, way back in 1987. He remained one of the franchise's sturdiest, most welcome sights. I was happy to see his character, Miles O'Brien, develop, even taking a quantum leap (ha, ha) to the worm-holed Deep Space Nine, where he has all kinds of opportunities to make friends and enemies, experience problems in his marriage, and generally establish himself as an old-style Star Fleet type; it was no accident, I think--or a happy one--for him to have an accent, like Scotty from the first Trek, both of them muttering in Gallic funks as they're asked to change the laws of physics on a weekly basis. Kirk would've gotten along with O'Brien better than anyone, even Bones. He could be abrupt--when it came to his mechanisms, or his politics, which were relatively conservative compared to his superiors--Picard and Sisko were enlightened, post-Klingon War types--although Sisko seemed to enjoy firing up the phasers when necessary--while O'Brien seemed to roll his eyes at their facilitator tendencies. But O'Brien could also be easy-going, amused by situations that made his peers tense. For someone living in the Star Trek world, he had surprisingly little baggage; while those around him battled inner demons and wrestled with conflicting loyalties and the finer points of the Prime Directive, Miles, sleeves often literally rolled up, whistled and worked.
Here it comes: Imagine my surprise to see him in The Snapper (1993), Stephen Frears' comedy-drama in which Meaney plays Dessie Curley, a working-class Irish Da whose twenty-year-old daughter becomes pregnant. His cold, profane, spluttering denial melts into warm, profane, spluttering acceptance in a narrative arc as filled with regrets as reconciliations. His maturing relationship with his daughter, in which forgiveness and strength combine to save them all, is set beside his rough-and-tumble marriage. As his wife informs him, "It's a terrible shock ... Being married for twenty-five years, and finding out your husband's a prick." This is not merely an observation but a goad, one of many on Kay's part, to rouse her husband to decency. But it's a comically rough road. After finding nothing to watch on TV, he turns to his wife and blandly asks, in the midst of a situation fraught with the perils of sexuality, "I suppose a ride's out of the question?" Oh, Miles!
But for anyone who's followed Meaney's career, this is just a test-drive. After all, Dessie is at heart a decent man who just happens to be capable of being a pain, like Miles O'Brien. And then the pain takes over, in a series of revelatory turns as one variety or another of creep or ass: Agent Duncan Malloy in Con Air (1997), so insulting that we know the only reason he has a Corvette is so that we can have the satisfaction of seeing it destroyed, spectacularly; Jerry Lynch in Intermission (2003), another insufferable cop, whose self-aggrandizing ways are the cause of at least half of this movie's dizzying misfortunes; and the brutally efficient Gene in Layer Cake (2004), a survivor in the high-attrition-rate field of drugs and general gangsterism. He's played other, less ragged characters over the years, but these are the ones I've noticed the most, because they chafe so painfully against Chief Miles O'Brien.
This is why I welcome Meaney on the sinister side. The friction between O'Brien--ingrained into my visual imagination after all those repeated Star Trek viewings--and Meaney's select turns as scary dad, know-it-all, self-promoter, and enforcer, burns even more unsettling after-images into the bad-guy roles. Meaney is actually more interesting as a heavy because of O'Brien than despite him. I look forward to the next time he asks me to hate or fear him.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
At the end of George Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good--and how swell is that title?--the Sergeant, a practical man, takes up with Sweetie, an "impractical," to use a euphemism, woman, explaining, with one of my favorite lines in Shaw, "a man should have one woman to prevent him from thinking too much about women in general." Let's remember that Shaw's judgment can be dangerously faulty--in his preface to this 1933 play he gushes over Stalin (and never stopped; and his anti-semitism, while perhaps oblique--oh, the snaky maneuvering of the master ironist--sticks like cow-dung to his shoes); such faults are grave and ugly, but necessary to look upon, for although I love his mind I cannot forget the dark folly of his heart. Still, he gives the Sergeant a great line--although I have to admit over the years I've re-written it in my head, preferring the balance achieved by adding two words, thus: "a man should have one woman in particular to prevent him from thinking too much about women in general." I guess you can't have everything--unless you invent stuff to fill in the gaps.
Which brings me to Shelley Duvall. She made her mark in a number of Robert Altman movies in the 1970s, capping her career with him in Popeye and with Kubrick in The Shining, both 1980. Somewhere in the late '70s I developed a crush on her. So strange, considering Pauline Kael's comment that Duvall was "the closest thing ... to a female Buster Keaton," and Altman's famous line as he was casting Olive Oyl for Popeye, that he had the role she was born to play. But I couldn't help it. I don't know if it was the flower-child fragility mixed with jet-set quirky cool, the fact that she had eyes that actually were like limpid pools, or simply that overbite; all I can say is that I was smitten. This persisted and expanded with her last two movies of note, especially The Shining. I suppose this journal is an opportunity to figure out things like this, but I cannot be sure why she fascinates me. Oh, I guess I could: Altman loved her quirkiness and made it beautiful, like an imaginary landscape in a Maxfield Parrish painting. And Kubrick tore her to pieces, engendering in me a post-adolescent urge to protect her. But my affection--if I am allowed to call it that--for her goes beyond such easy explanations. I watched her movies at a time in my life when I felt cut loose from others, especially women, beneath their attention, despite the women with whom I was good friends--ouch! By 1980, I was feeling the pressure of "thinking too much about women in general"--and I should add that I saw Shaw's play in 1978, and the line moved around on the stage like a living thing, scolding and promising, despairing and final. Time passes slowly when you're young; I'm amazed that the length of time between seeing that play and meeting my future wife was only three years; looking backward, it seems like a decade at least.
Shelley Duvall stood on that road I traveled, like a phantom hitch-hiker, appearing with insistence, a warning and a sad reminder. In retrospect, I'm grateful she served this purpose in my life. The image she presented had nothing to do with what I really needed--and what, thank God, I was finally given in 1981--but as a feeling that was equal parts masochism, solace, and keepsake, I'm grateful for Shelley Duvall.
(A postscript: I wondered just how off-center was my assessment of Shelley Duvall, and googled her name. I found at least one discussion thread in which the words "Shelley Duvall" and "drool" appeared in the same sentence--and as approbation, not a sign of dementia. And in a new search of Shelley Duvall images, I found one of her, ahem, en deshabille--and then some. It might have been wishful thinking on my part, but I seemed suddenly to remember this photo, which has that we're-Playboy-and-we're-classier-than-Penthouse soft-focus insistence. It seems everyone in the '70s was eager to display. I'm curious whether Playboy still manages to coax starlets to Reveal All. Then again, you think maybe that's what the internet is for these days? Duh; not only am I still a nerd, I'm getting to be an old one.)
Some movies hold a position in my memory that is a bit precarious. I recall them fondly, even with some enthusiasm, but I have a sneaking suspicion they're not as good as I remember them. This is common for anyone who's spent at least a dozen years or so watching movies. As a teenager I ran across across horror and SF movies I'd enjoyed or been scared spitless by--and hokey smokes, Bullwinkle, might they be the same thing?--when I was little, but at seventeen I was bored--and even embarrassed I'd taken them so seriously.
If enough time goes by, however, a weird thing happens: the movie is redeemed later in life, restored, if not to former glory, then to a fond corner of the curio shelf, more of a memory of a good film than a good thing itself. William Castle's The Tingler (1959) is a fitting case study of this shifting appraisal. When I was a little kid it scared me plenty. The Tingler was a crawling spinal column, ferchrissake, a shiny-black chittering centipede, yanked out of someone--a mute woman--who'd died of fright without screaming--and it's the scream that kills the Tingler; if you don't let loose with a good one, the thing clamps down and cracks your backbone like a walnut. It gets into a movie theater (attack of the meta-horror!), the screen goes blank--and so does the one on which you're watching the movie--and Vincent Price looks right at you and entreats you to start screaming, while the Tingler noses around the feet of the moviegoers. At eight years old or so, this was almost more than I could take. It was as if David Cronenberg had gotten an early start, and whispered a warning that he was comin' t'getcha, later on in the '70s.
Of course, by the time I was eighteen or twenty the movie had become a campy groaner; I'd heard about the original theater screenings, where certain seats were wired, and patrons would get a shock at fitting moments. The Tingler was joining that goofy cavalcade of William Castle's fun-lovin' huckster gimmicks, like Emergo and those contracts you signed promising not to sue the theater if you died of fright. Add to that Vincent Price's pencil mustache and the Tingler itself, obviously not crawling, but pulled jerkily on a string, and the movie lost its power to--well, to be a movie; instead, it was just another snicker.
What now? Did having children of my own to scare resurrect The Tingler? Not really--and maybe. My kids were much further removed from the culture that made the movie, a black-and-white world where everyone was comfortable with fake sets and acting styles. And the movies had become more literal since 1959--now there's an understatement--and not even Alien, one of The Tingler's mutant grandchildren, could give them nightmares. But then again, there was something about the idea of the Tingler, and the dream-qualities of flat black-and-white photography--not to mention the strange use of color, especially in that bathtub-fulla-blood scene--and finally the air of casual cruelty that pops up in older movies, in the mute woman who had been frightened to death by her husband. And while none of this fully redeemed The Tingler for my kids, I began to forgive it its faults--which, I knew, had led to our break-up in my teens; but now we were reconciled, agreeing to disagree. Besides, The Tingler's heart was always in the right place: right at the base of my spinal column, where my childhood sleeps, occasionally whimpering as William Castle, still, sends it a little shock.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
When I was a kid we played "War" all the time. I'm going back to the mid-'60s, so the war we fought was usually some undefined version of WWII, filtered through the TV series Combat!, with Vic Morrow and his troops as live-action supplements to DC comics' Sgt. Rock ("of Easy Company") and Marvel's deliriously titled Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. We were fully equipped, one or more of us, with helmets, canteens, blades with belt-loop sheaths. The helmets were pure cornball, but the canteens were serviceable (although I shudder to think of the quality of the liquid inside after a few weeks in the field--or did my mother clean mine when I wasn't looking? It's likely; unless she was fed up--which made her clean grimly, head down, muttering in Spanish like Ricky Ricardo, except no one was laughing--I never noticed her ministrations; it seemed clean clothes and hot meals were just there, like the walls and furniture. Lucky me.); the knives/bayonets, though, were laughably useless, reassuringly (to parents) bendable things with no gutting power whatsoever. And of course the ordnance: a variety of plastic submachine guns, sidearms, and rifles, as well as copies of a local newspaper, rolled up tight and secured with a rubber band, that functioned as captured Kraut hand grenades (or billy clubs in another bit of mayhem we indulged in, "Escaped Convict." Let's just say we were a brutal posse, more brawn than brains when it came to subduing the fugitive); and I occasionally lugged around a broken but lethal-looking BB gun that had been my father's when he was a kid--and oh did he regale me with stories of REAL war games, 1930s style, in which all the kids had BB guns--and leather jackets, he swore, to absorb the impact of the BBs (I was always uneasy at this piece of information; what about head-shots, not to mention Jean Shepherd-esque eye-loss?); and the battles occurred at a dump, with hunks of concrete as lobbed grenades and barriers of scrap fortified with all manner of rotted lumber and trash. My father seemed to live in a whiz-bang world that was part Little Rascal, part Bowery Boy, one I'd like to write about at length some time; but let's get back to the mid-1960s. That BB gun was heavy, not my first weapon of choice, although it was darkly ominous, a ruined giant. We often played war against an invisible enemy; it seemed the point was slow advance and heroic, even romantic, expiration, usually involving all kinds of twisting, spinning and sprawling, with one's weapon flung with the force of pain and despair. And that was the problem: at such moments my father's gun became a deadly projectile, so I had to either hang onto it or carefully plot its trajectory away from my fellow soon-to-be Glorious Dead. This was unsatisfying. Death on the battlefield was a transcendent moment, an abandonment of self-control, then self, for good and all. One could not, in the midst of such cathartic freedom, such a medal-worthy demise, simply set one's gun down on the lawn, lest another kid get brained. So I often opted for a less hazardous firearm (aint it ironic?), one that would assume the proper air of reckless finality--without the possibility of contusion--as it spun away from my whirling form. A danse macabre of terrible, beautiful sacrifice. ("Tell my mother--gasp, choke--not to cry.")
As I entered high school and had to register with Selective Service--not a real "draft card," with a number and an air of vibrating anxiety, but just preliminary paperwork; I was 18 in 1974, and we were officially out of Vietnam in '73--the war made me nauseous, despite my continuing love for war comics and movies. In my head I was always a pacifist. I couldn't bear to think of even the feeling of my bare fist on another person's face--in anger, that is; for fun, of course, we boxed with gloves and bounced each other around playing football (and in all honesty, there was also sibling-bashing, a form of hand-to-hand--or foot-to-shin--combat that seemed to circumvent all other moral imperatives); also, I was a real pest on social issues. I can still remember a debate our eighth-grade nun held: those in favor of capital punishment on one side of the room, those opposed on the other. While my memory encourages an inflated image of myself, so doubt may be in order, I'm still pretty sure I was the only one who stood on the "opposed" side. I can remember a bit of false pride at my lone stance, the self-satisfaction of the morally irritating. And I remember a drawing I did of Nixon in high school; he's Hitler with a skislope nose and jutting jaw, Bob Hope without timing, giving the ol' seig heil! while lines of bombers--secret ones, Cambodia-bound?--stream overhead. And we had some kind of variety show at my high school--I recall Georgie Jessell and Frank Gorshin were there--that ended with patriotic songs and the National Anthem. But, as I mentioned yesterday, at the time I was reading Kurt Vonnegut, and in Breakfast of Champions he describes "The Star-Spangled Banner" as "gibberish sprinkled with question marks"; and I refused to stand while it was played. I believe I was right, but what a price everyone around me had to pay.
I have carried this aesthetic-moral schizophrenia with me all my life. For instance, I know Doug Funnie's dad is wise because he once said, "Show me a man who resorts to using his fists, and I'll show you a man who's run out of good ideas." And I agree with Gandhi that one needs to be careful not to fall into aggression, since it takes all kinds of forms; as he points out, even a lawsuit is a form of warfare. My absolutism can be monumental and troubling, both to others and myself. But for years it's been the rock upon which I've been trying to build my whatever. Unfortunately, I'm also committed--or maybe just attracted--to some bad craziness, whether it's my well-documented mania for horror films, or video games like Doom, or creepy cartoons (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Venture Brothers, Ren and Stimpy), not to mention E.C. comics, the paintings of Francis Bacon, and the music of the Cramps. My friend Gene once mused that maybe I was like those people who can handle snakes and drink lye and not swell up/convulse and die. Now that would be a relief. But I suspect I'm just trying to have it both ways--or as many as I can--and while my open, yearning heart is filled with satyahgraha and the peace that passeth all understanding, my squirmy little brain smells a rat: me.
Am I being too mea maxima culpa on myself? Probably; but watching Gunner Palace (2004), I think I saw the bitter fruits of the divided mind. I enjoyed listening to the soldiers, especially their deadpan gallows humor, their combination smirk-sneer that kept them on their toes and straight in their heads. The counterpoint to this is the rappers, who have organized their thoughts in snaky couplets that work like telegrams of the bad news: Your son/daughter is Way Over There. I admired their wit, but I kept grinning at the jokers, the G.I. Joes like Stuart Wilf with his famous spiel on vehicles armored with scrounged scrap metal: "Part of our eighty-seven billion dollar budget provided for us to have some secondary armor to put on top of our thin-skinned Humvees. This armor is made in Iraq, and it's high quality ... metal ... and it will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going clean through. And that's about it!" And the soldiers watching this bit laugh explosively, rat-a-tat, But the movie also makes you squirm, while the rat scurries by; as one soldier says, slowly, as though he's picking his way through brambles, "I don't think ... anywhere in history has someone killed someone else and something better has come out of it. It's just ... not possible."
Gunner Palace reminded me of those silly suburban afternoons I spent imagining the right death--with no right, of course--and of my jaundiced adolescent eye watching Nixon crank the meatgrinder. And I was worried for those soldiers, because I could hear aesthetic-moral schizophrenia messing with them, sending the right message, but disguised, like alien signals broadcast from their fillings, telling them they're craaaa-zee. My mother dismissed war as "young men playing old men's games," and I've never forgotten it--but once you're in the game, you gotta play. Those old men count on that, and it's what makes the soldiers in Gunner Palace so heroic and rueful, and their sacrifice so beautiful and terrible.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Disc Two of Bruce Posner's seven-DVD series, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941, titled The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism, features a number of famous names: Edwin S. Porter, Billy Bitzer, Douglas Fairbanks, Robert Florey, even Orson Welles. But, aside from finally being able to see Watson and Webber's The Fall of the House of Usher (begun the year my father was born, 1926)--with images and sequences that are still beautiful and masterful, fluid and enviable (you want to be able to do what they did, half as expertly)--I was drawn to the work of Joseph Cornell, sculpture, proponent of assemblage, who collected small and once-quaint or beautiful objects and arranged them in shallow boxes.
This is my kind of thing: the random, the found, the accidental, made to follow an inexplicable order, a vague, half-ironic secret sequence, a code for finding lost memories. I know this music: far-off carousel murmur of the diorama, the rustle of a sudden still life, the chance juxtaposition of object and object and idea. It is a cozy surrealism, as non-menacing as the ancient reel lawnmower unexpectedly revealed behind a wall in our attic when it was torn apart for renovation a few years ago--and which the builders sealed up again while we were away; it sits in the dark still. Such juxtapositions are what draws us to the indistinct corners of used book stores and the back bins of thrift shops. A few years ago an old lady across the street died, and they ran an estate sale--an awful thing, one's life spread out and nickel-and-dimed to death, more or less literally. But I had to wander over there, and look at the stuff, the way it was set out, supposedly invitingly, on folding tables in her backyard, small things that had spent who knows how many years in her aging widow-woman's dim interior, now stunned in the dappled sunlight of her yard, feeling a breeze for the first time.
And so I did buy something: Pyrex salt-and-pepper shakers, in memory of a co-worker from a few years back who poked around antique shops with his wife for such minor objects; Bob said they cast about for an affordable thing to collect, and Pyrex fit the bill. The shakers sit today in our dining room on a little wooden shelf-unit, a found object itself: my wife scrounged it curbside and refinished it. It holds cocktail stirrers from my parents' younger days, some rocks, other Cornellian objects that might someday themselves end up sun-splashed once again, if my kids are heartless enough to want to make a few bucks on my--and others'--dusty souvenirs of ourselves.
Cornell's object-assemblages had their film counterpart. He collected stock footage, industrial films, old forgotten comedy and nature shorts, documentary fillers of farmwork and zoolife, and put them back together in odd little almost-narratives, "animal operas," and dream sequences. They have a strange air of nostalgia combined with an almost heartless, appropriating gaze--except Cornell seems eager to display, if not memorialize, these snippets of tractors and elephants, as personal possessions, not for sale--but still displayed, scratched with dust and the hair of projectionists long-gone. Cornell ran cinema's estate sale, and turned it into a permanent installment of the Effluvia Museum. Somehow, it seems to encapsulate the heart of the movies, where the past flickers by--maybe without a never-you-mind, but nonetheless on the dustheap if we choose not to collect, or watch.
Let me apologize right away: I'm going to write about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which invariably makes me echo his style, badly, no matter how much I try not to. I find him the most seductive stylist, next to Raymond Chandler, of the twentieth century. Already I can feel my sentences getting shorter, my thoughts cluttered--then clearer, back and forth. This may be a good thing. I'm not sure yet. (See?) I better get started:
I watched Mother Night (1996) again, based on Vonnegut's 1962 novel, and directed by Keith Gordon; I will always remember him fondly as Arnie Cunningham, the nerd who's turned into an evil hood in John Carpenter's version of Stephen King's novel, Christine, which makes Gordon the anti-Richie Cunningham (same last name!); like Ron Howard, an actor-turned-director, except Gordon got to be both Richie AND Fonzie in the same movie. Anyway, seeing Mother Night made me think about Breakfast of Champions, which I read when I was a senior in high school, in 1973. I still have it; in fact, it's in front of me right now, propped up by a book-holder I've had since I was a little kid. I was looking for the passage where Vonnegut asserts that one day we will realize all our problems are caused by bad chemicals. But it isn't in this book--at least, not where I was looking, in the Preface. Instead, he discusses syphilis and goiters and sleeping pills, and says something close to what I was looking for: "[I]t is a big temptation with me, when I create a character for a novel, to say that he is what he is because of faulty wiring, or because of microscopic amounts of chemicals which he ate or failed to eat on that particular day." It's a great Preface, apologetic and humble--in other words, carte blanche to behave in his typically abominable, beautiful, humane, sorrowful, scabrous, hilarious, profane--and sacred--way; as he also asserts in the Preface, "I don't want to throw away any sacred things." (I am pleased to be reminded that he offers a short list: Armistice Day, Romeo and Juliet, and "all music." Good picks.)
I cannot stop loving Vonnegut's books. I have been urging my teenagers to read him, and in order; if you've read Vonnegut, you know how he would intertwine characters and storylines, novel to novel--until Breakfast of Champions, in which he says, "I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there." This seems to include Kilgore Trout, his science fiction writer--whose fiction actually appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction--I know I have a copy of it boxed up somewhere--and a novel, I think. The writer was Philip Jose Farmer--still plugging along, according to the internet, just down the road from me in Peoria. The web also reminded me that Farmer's use of Trout's name caused problems; Vonnegut put a stop to it. You'd think Midwestern neighbors would get along better. So it goes. (Sorry.) Anyway, despite my better judgment, Vonnegut remains dear to me. I had read him when you're supposed to, in high school and college, and he has left a lasting impression, for which I am both grateful and anxious--a combination that I think would please Vonnegut.
I don't know Vonnegut's opinion of the movie version of Mother Night, but I think the movie was smart to have Vonnegut's protagonist, the Allied-spy-as-Nazi-propagandist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte) narrate the film (and by the way, doesn't that name have an SF ring to it, part Robert E. (Conan the Barbarian) Howard, part John W. (Astounding magazine) Campbell?); Nolte captures the weary ironies of the tale, its wry, detached humor. It is a sad story, and Campbell's famous tagline, "You must be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end you are who you're pretending to be," is one of those statements so simple it reverberates like hammers and anvils. It reminds me of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"--if you've never read it, do so. Now. Go on; nothing I'm ever going to write will be as important--in which he warns us of the hazards of Empire-building: "[W]hen the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." And then the great, chilling line: "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it." Campbell is such a man, eager to display his talent, blade-running between undercover heroism and Nazi terrorism. And of course he becomes what he has pretended to be; his face grows to fit the mask.
I have been meaning to watch the movie Onibaba for two months. It, too, plays with the idea of masks, and features a horror-movie literalization of the dangers of donning one. Now might be the time to watch it, after seeing Howard Campbell shuffle along the streets of New York toward immobility, and telling us, "What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction." In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut echoes this entropic doom: "I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can't live without a culture anymore." Again, reading those words in 1973 summed up the fear that swooped toward me, nose-to-nose, in those days--and still hangs at my back, waiting for me to put on a mask--or maybe forget I'm wearing one, and become what I've been pretending to be.
Oh, I hope not. I'm just one year younger than Vonnegut when he wrote Breakfast of Champions, but I think I'm closer to some measure of reconciliation with the minor losses of my comfortable life than he was with those of his messy, mournful one, let alone the lives he conjures in his stories. At least I didn't have to hear the giants walking around up there while hiding in slaughterhouse-five, or spew anti-semitism in the name of Allied victory. Etc.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
for Tom G.
This has been my week for friends: I've already been favored with email wisdom from one, and another recently passed through and gave me a great gift--actually, two: his and his wife's sorely missed presence, plus the thirtieth anniversary edition of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, which fortunately contains two DVDs, thus allowing me to write about it in this journal. Although I guess I could've snuck in Springsteen earlier, since videos count, yes? I hope so; I'd like to write about Bjork's some day--and with Springsteen there's been some remarkable filmed concerts, especially the Live in New York City set--but the current offerings seem to fit well here, this week, one in which I have been swinging wildly between that old black magic called angst and a kind of electric summit, from whose heights I imagine I can see everything, and with thundercrack clarity.
I'm reminded of one of my poetry-heroes, W.B. Yeats, who captures this spiritual bipolairity in--no surprise here--"Vacillation," an eight-part progression--free-association collection?--of brief verses; the first begins, "Between extremities / Man runs his course"--go, dog, go--but the bit I'll never forget is the fourth section, in which the speaker tells us, "My fiftieth year had come and gone"--and I'm getting there myself, in the sweet by and by--and he sits, "a solitary man, / In a crowded London shop"; I am compelled to quote the next stanza in its entirety:
"While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless."
That poem, that section in particular, reads like Scripture; it is a feeling that is transsubstantial, and why music and film must run through my head every day, ready reminders, testimonies, even when the tone grows harsh and the image dim.
The dancehall in my head where Yeats' music plays packs 'em in every night, and John Donne, Tom Waits, G.M. Hopkins, Scorsese, and Springsteen are the regular headliners, and their voices blur like rushing birdflight and run into one another, until I cannot see them clearly because I see them all at once. Again, they testify, and I raise my hand without even knowing it.
One of the DVDs in the Born to Run set is a documentary about the album, and once again I know I'm among friends as I listen to them talk about a record that marked a turning point in my life in 1975--although as I recollect I had been drawn to Springsteen a bit earlier, gazing at his first album in the record store, happy to see New Jersey on the cover. I was just going to college, and had been vacillating--I am always irked when I use anything but the present tense for that verb, but I need to tell it as a story happening in the past; convention must have her due--between revolution and renewal, eager to blast down to ground zero everything I had been, afraid I'd have nothing left for whatever was coming next. I wanted to see a new heaven and a new earth, but the more I thought, the less I understood. (Cripes; thank you, Socrates.) I'd listened to Springsteen before; Ed Sciaky (pronounced SHOCK-ee, rest his soul), the first person to play Springsteen on the radio, kept us tuned in. I remember an all-night--or so it seemed--gig Springsteen played from The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, broadcast on WMMR, I think, with Ed at the helm. And then I went with Tom Wilk to the 3500-seat Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, and "tied faith between my teeth" for once and all. Between the deep understanding in "Thunder Road"--that urge to take hold and run--and the gauntlet he threw down with "Jungleland"--making me feel like one of those poets who "Don't write nothing at all" but "just stand back and let it all be," winding up "wounded / Not even dead," I was able to accept my need for faith, hope and love, and the strength to look for them.
Oh, you can roll your eyes, but Born to Run gave me permission to imagine I could "go out walking"--not stumbling or crawling. And even though I didn't accept that invitation for a long time--maybe even not yet, but I must admit I don't look as close as I could; as one of my favorite cartoon characters once said, "Everyone is beautiful if you squint a bit"--I could always listen to the songs to reaffirm that I should, and that, even if I didn't, someone still knew what it was like to be "a prisoner of your dreams." Hearing Springsteen and others on the DVD talk about the cinematic nature of the songs, their spiritual insistence, their promises and warnings, I was reminded once more that I have gotten it right every once in a while, when it comes to the people and music and movies I love. And although my foot slides more than I care to confess, I can look at my loved ones' faces or watch Raging Bull or listen to "Thunder Road" and maybe not know much, just that I was blind and now I see. Even with the squint.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Well, given what I've read it seems Woody Allen's new movie, Match Point, is going to serve up a dish colder than 1984's Crimes and Misdemeanors. I guess every once in a while Allen slices open my fears and makes me stare at their rust-and-cream guts, their "exuberant godlessness," as Film Comment described the movie, both horrifying and horrifyingly familiar. I count on him for the occasional whiff of corruption, so to speak. Even Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Stardust Memories (1980) have a bit of the charnel house about them; despite their farcical/phantasmagoric trappings, "the bullets go right through," as Danny says, realizing that being shot in the eyes is fatal. I'm willing to peer into this, as long as I'm free to extrapolate it all back into my own moral universe.
That kind of freedom in a movie is a real pleasure. For me, one of the masters of the inviting shrug is Jim Jarmusch, and he shrugs like mad--if such a thing is possible--in what may be his breeziest work--although I haven't seen Coffee and Cigarettes; but I wonder if those improv-vignettes count--Broken Flowers. I hesitate, though, to call this "breezy." After all, there's all kinds of sad revelations and scary monsters--and prurient creep that I am, I cannot shake the giddy terror--the both puerile AND febrile heartstopper--that is his encounter with the audaciously named--and just plain audacious--Lolita (Alexis Dziena), daughter of ex-girlfriend Laura (Sharon Stone). The only thing more honest than Lolita's casual, dangerous nudity is Murray's face as he registers an expression I can completely undetstand--in fact, I'll bet I was wearing the exact same one as I gaped at those dangerous curves--followed by a patented Bill Murray hasty retreat, stiff-legged and panicked but somehow graceful. Jarmusch and his star are having a great time, and the movie--despite the sad limbo Murray's character wanders through as he searches for the potential mother of his potential son--marches with ambiguous but humane steps toward Don's necessary, lasting reminder--not revelation; you can see in the movie's first moments Don's determined immobility--that he has missed having a life.
As Don at the end peers closely at every young man he encounters, seeing his son in their faces, I'm not sure if that's a bad thing. Jarmusch, like Allen, creates a world that hangs suspended--but in Broken Flowers--and Allen's Broadway Danny Rose and Stardust Memories (unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors and, it appears, Match Point)--the hanging isn't fatal, with a sick snap and a mess no one cleans up because no one notices; instead, we get a kind of floating anticipation eddying around half-admitted regrets. For Jarmusch and Allen, that's practically slapstick.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
I received a letter from a friend--OK, an email, but from someone who doesn't see the form as an opportunity to dash off jibes and forward urban legends, but merely a letter delivery system that works faster than fast. He wrote at length on the state of modern irony in film, and the encroachment of "the New Sincerity." Again, I was pleased by the happy coincidences in my life--or at least that of my mind--because just last night I watched Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle's 1994 Hitchcock-meets-Seinfeld sneer-a-thon, in which a clever-clever, happy trio snips and capers, then snaps up every chance to indulge in merry greed, violence, and the cool thrill of the triple-cross, until they're left with a hysteria-laced goblet spilled across the tablecloth like Poe's mad wine, dark and venal. I saw it on video around 1996, and enjoyed its widdle-ol-wicked-me snicker and dull thud mayhem.
Maybe it's because of the movies I've been watching lately, or the fact that two of my children will all-too-soon be (hopefully clever) young adults on their own themselves, or simply the resolve I've been forming over the past near-decade--if I must say, since my parents died--to pass through with a bit less sniping and a bit more grace--not exactly Elvis C.'s move from disgusted to amused, but it'll do; but I didn't have as much fun with Shallow Grave as I did that near-decade ago. I couldn't stop thinking that this was not just a darkly witty, brilliant exercise--although it works as one--but a horror film for the wayward ironist; watching the three young up-and-comers (a physician, an investment banker, and a journalist) cut up a corpse, drive themselves to insanity--and drive knives deeply into each other--I was convinced that, despite their bright, helpless laughter at the film's start--which Boyle reprises briefly, in slo-mo, right before the credits roll at finis--their joy at being with one another, life was simply waiting to present them with an opportunity to be evil, and they chose it as easily as you scoop up a found dollar on the sidewalk. Circumstance is the only thing that kept them from madness and messy death.
Perhaps, then, the movie is no longer a Tarantino-esque no-brainer, not because I've turned into, as Jed Leland wonders about himself in Citizen Kane "a stuffed shirt, a horse-faced hypocrite, a New England school marm," but because I've caught up with Boyle's ironic fable of accident and opportunity. Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous "prison experiment" in the mid-1970s, writes about "dispositional" vs. "situational" evil, and concludes something moralists have always known: that we are all capable of evil, given the proper situation; it's just that the moralist also assumes a disposition to evil that makes even the slightest situational temptation a quivering bear-trap. Watching Shallow Grave with an ironic lack of irony--I think that's right--I stopped snickering--and passed right by being appalled--and moved on to sober sadness. Those poor bright young things. It took so little, but they took so much, including each other. Boy, am I lucky. So far.
Watching Fassbinder's movie is a trivial-pursuit treat. He replaces Rock Hudson's silky, manly gardener with a stolidly anxious Moroccan, pot-bellied and unblinking--but also muscled and affectionate. And Jane Wyman's character becomes a puffy cleaning woman, Emmi, sweet and lost, to be true, but also blotchy and stiff. Fassbinder gives us figures that both challenge us--to accept their love as much as we accept their blocky, assertive normality--and invite us; after all, most of us are closer to these two than Sirk's collectible figurines. More re-imaginings follow: Wyman's upper-crust coterie becomes Emmi's fellow charwomen--but still they keep their noses upturned, thusly! and move from Emmi as swiftly and surely as Jane Wyman's cocktail set. I especially liked the almost-comic rejection of the marriage by Emmi's children. In the Sirk movie, they stiffen and sniff, petulant and final. Emmi's children, though, gape at Ali as though he had two heads--or horns?--and one of them, remarkably re-inventing All that Heaven Allows's TV-as-Christmas-gift/manacle scene, deliberately kicks in Emmi's TV set--only to later bring her a new one, as part of a sequence that goes beyond Sirk into a more sober view of the weight of conformity and the mercenary heart of prejudice.
Just as things between Emmi and everyone else--including, in a Fassbinder complication, Ali himself--are at their worst, her enemies realize they need her (or Ali)--as a customer, as a workplace support, as a babysitter, and in the case of Ali, as an all-purpose strongman, cleaning out storage areas and so on--and the couple falls into favor with the world, just as they feel a rift between each other. This does parallel Sirk's movie, but in Fassbinder's case the couple, already married, drift apart as Ali continues to feel the weight of the race prejudice that replaces Sirk's classism. Everyone around him either disregards him or even openly insults his humanity. This, we know, has been his lot ever since emigrating to Germany. He meets Emmi at a crisis point, and the hatred his marriage magnifies drives him to plodding adultery--abetted in part by Emmi herself, who begins to allow the world's prejudices to seep into her own consciousness. She makes minor but telling comments about his "foreignness," and, in a quietly painful scene, even invites her friends to feel his muscles, as though he were a particularly appealing pack animal.
Ali collapses--like Rock Hudson's sudden tumble down the mountain--and Emmi learns of his condition, which the doctor informs him is common among immigrants: he has ulcers "brought on by stress." It's the pain of racism simultaneously made physical and internalized, literally eating at him. The film ends like Sirk's, with Emmi standing over her man, determined to help him--but in Emmi's case fearful the pain will not go away. Fassbinder, in expressing this uncertainty, claims Sirk's material for his own, and the movie becomes more than a game of trivial pursuit but its own sad creature, deliberate in its diagnosis, and more humane, I think, than Sirk's prettified dissection. Both films interrogate suspects, but I think Fassbinder's, in the quiet performances he encourages and the still and steady gaze of his camera, as unblinking as it is unmoving--and I see this in much of Jarmusch (I just watched Broken Flowers, more fluid than Stranger Than Paradise or Dead Man, but still willing to get out of our way and let us see)--but again, Fassbinder refuses to step on his punchlines; Ali's and Emmi's pains are bright and sharp enough on their own.
The result is a kind of reward for this Humble Viewer who has watched enough movies to connect some dots, but not so many--ah, but can there be too many?--that an occasional surprise, like Ali ..., can't suddenly appear after all these years to remind me, as a friend of mine recently wrote, "The universe of cinema is vast; it should contain multitudes." And--hooray for Hollywood, Bollywood, Indiewood, and all--it surely does.
Friday, January 06, 2006
Kung Fu Hustle (2004) These are not the fists of fury, but of Screwy Squirrel, kapow! instead of "What's up, Doc?" delivered in whistling firework cartwheels Tex Avery could've lit in some blonde's drawers to make her run cross-country, her dust-trail spelling out "Wow! Whatta dish!" as the sparks fly and the last kung fu movie clamps itself down and pops like paper bags.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) Trapped behind the mod glass walls, he looks as closely as he can as the mystery spills down the stairs like red velvet ropes, the snazzy framing and oblique vistas pure Italo-Hitchcock, with enough backtracks, desperate looks, and bellbottomed innuendo to keep an American abroad just long enough to crack the case like a mirror.
Bride of the Monster (1956) This world is flat enough to draw Lugosi into your living room, the only 3-D minion in Ed's woods, his haggard face absolutely at home in this final refuge of stupor and stammering lurch, his spider fingers curling around the Necronomicon of his last days, his eyes like a Svengali tarantula: "Where," they seem to implore, "are the children of the night, and the sweet music of 1931?"
So many images and impressions get in the way whenever a famous movie star delivers a performance that it becomes difficult to accept it on its own; we see every other performance superimposed on the one we’re watching, like multiple-exposure photographs--or archaeological layers, each level running atop another, striated multiplicities that can reduce any given performance to a parody of itself--or complicate it to confusion. Add to this the problems (opportunities?) of what James Naremore and others call "expressive coherence" (or "incoherence") in which actors "act" as we expect them to--or as their characters would, thus achieving "coherence"; or their characters (or performance styles) will run counter to our expectations of such a character or actor, resulting in "incoherence." Yikes.
Kirk Douglas is the quintessence of this situation. I watched Detective Story (1951) last night, and he was at full Kirk tilt, all agonized twists and crimps, mixed with slanting satires of ease, his legs stretched like his grin, almost lanky and lithe, if he weren't so tightly wound. At times he even wears reading glasses, encasing his face like a weird grimace--or something like that; I dunno; as usual, he is mesmerizing and bizarre, confounding all best efforts to hold him still. At all times, though, he plays with coherence and incoherence, satisfying our needs--for the humor, strength, and intense focus his character needs as he made his way through a tense day at his precinct house--but also alarming us, either with those simple spectacles--or (I can't resist the pun) the spectacle of his fury, guilt, and disintegration as his iron-fast moral code swallows whole his job, wife and all, including his life.
I keep coming back to this movie, having seen it five or six times over the years. I have an affection for its scenario--again, a day in the life of a precinct house with Douglas' Det. Jim McLeod as its savagely beating heart--and supporting cast--William Bendix (one of my father's favorites, for him the gold standard of the grandeur a character actor can achieve), who plays Douglas' counterpoint and conscience, and Joseph Wiseman (also a guy my father admired) in a surreal, unhinged performance--almost in a matchup duel with Douglas'--presaging the hopped-up chaos of Jerry Lee Lewis--and man you gotta know it, Michael Richards’ Kramer on Seinfeld; giddyup!--and most of all its finale, in which the fatally wounded Douglas, who has walked into Wiseman's four-time-loser hail of gunfire, grinds out half of an Act of Contrition before dying--so that Bendix can finish it for him.
That last scene stands for every lasting virtue of a movie star's career, the archetypical breadth, the familiar electricity of decades of performances. And it proves part of Naremore's point, because Detective Story stands at the tip of Douglas' early career. He has gone on and on, of course, but by 1951 he had already been suave in Out of the Past (1947) and true-gritty in Champion (1949), and bound and determined in Young Man with a Horn (1950)--but I think 1951 is a watershed, the year he also starred in Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival), a Billy Wilder torture engine that flays at the greed and thirst for glory that drives every media circus.
So, as Naremore points out while discussing Hollywood actors in his book Acting in the Cinema, the Douglas we know from his later films colors our view of the earlier one, and vice-versa. And that influence makes the viewer swoon; as Det. Mcleod dies, I think of Spartacus and Van Gogh and Col. Dax in Paths of Glory, all dropping like lead, final, no rebound, shot in the heart by their personal codes, but still rising to greatness--except Det. McLeod, who may have amended his life too late to save his wife or himself, who could not fear the loss of heaven because he lived the pains of hell. Watching him hack at his life like a reeling woodsman, I have, every single time, shrunk in horror and wept in pity, warned and entreated by that silly cleft chin and those x-ray eyes, until Douglas achieves the coherence his career rests upon, a snarling insistence that, if you don't firmly resolve to detest all your sins, they will, as they are for every tragic hero, all be remembered.
Thursday, January 05, 2006
Watching Douglas Sirk manipulate everything he touches--the actors, the script, the sets, the lighting and color, and thus of course the audience--in All That Heaven Allows (1955) can evoke postmodern hipster scorn. Jane Wyman's stunned, unblinking mask and Rock Hudson's pretty-ful profile are precisely positioned in their Technicolor noir world, rich and deep and crossed with slanting shadows, like bonsai trees, a stylized "imitation of life" that fools no one, as fascinating as it might look. And such scorn is in part earned, because Sirk--along with his producer, Ross Hunter--stubbornly refuses to leave the movie alone. He fusses and prunes, tilting every chin just so, framing every scene like architecture, until we feel penned in by his manipulations.
The result, though, is an irresistible force that grabs me by the nape of the neck and makes me howl, "Uncle!" Or maybe "Mommy!" if only because Sirk rubs my nose in the small betrayals of families and lovers and of the past as it bullies the present and molds the future. Despite my arm's-length appreciation of his lighting, camera placement, and direction of his prop-actors, I must admit All That Heaven Allows is not to be refuted. Its revelations about 1950s conformity, the power of class and the emergent suburban demands to lay low and count your blessings--and the power of movies to grasp with nimble fingers my need to be entertained and to subdue my objections like my sweetie, twirling my hair in her fingers, murmuring my name like a breeze--seduce and confuse.
Or is it confuse to seduce? I can't say. All That Heaven Allows always dizzies me, as it did last night. I hadn't meant to watch it; I wanted to see Onibaba (1964) again, a Japanese film whose own dizzying seductions always make me want to sit and calm down. But I channel-surfed past Turner Classic Movies, and there it was, with all its weird vibes--Rock Hudson's purring monotone, those lime-green and burgundy cocktail dresses and draperies, Jane Wyman's Zelda-from-Dobie-Gillis daughter (Gloria Talbott)--inexplicably sexy; I don't even want to think about it--and I couldn't look away, a total package whose attraction for me says more about myself than anyone--most of all me--wants to know.
I'd like to shrug it off, but at the heart of All That Heaven Allows are some rocky truths that the movie's lush surface cannot obscure. Everyone who sees the film remembers two images:
(1) The presentation of the television set on Christmas morning, a gift from the children, who have finally gotten their way and completely suburbanized their mother. Her horrified, stupefied, caught-in-the-headlights face is eerily reflected in the looming, blank screen. She's inside the TV, like--well, like Jane Wyman, who made her way to Falcon Crest in the '80s--her face frozen in a terrified parody of courtesy.
(2) The morning of her reunion with Rock Hudson, who lies like Sleeping Beauty on the sofa as the huge shutters are opened and the blinding, snow-lined woods are revealed--with a tame deer right at the window, peering unconcerned; God's contribution to the decor.
Both scenes play to the same set of hopes--and the fears that accompany them--about home and family, about safety and reassurance. Sirk gives Cary and Ron to each other, but only after he ruins almost everything around them. Even Ron has to be wrecked, like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, for Cary to burn down her own house, so to speak, and make her way back to him. And by the end she has only him: her children, the memory of her husband, her upper-middle-class life, all need to be obliterated by that winter sun, as serene and final as the idiot's gaze of the TV set. Sirk plays it any way he can: we are relieved Ron and Cary are together, but we know it's only because the movie wills them to be. In the real '50s--and onward to the millennium and beyond?--the TV won, and the shutters were closed on the brilliant landscape.
I just had a conversation with someone who said her New Year's resolution was to be joyful. Now there's a good idea, and I think it can be done--as long as one keeps the shutters open and turns off the TV. And this from Your Humble Viewer! I'd say I needed time off, if I didn't just have some. Oh well. Please close those shutters on your way out; there's a bright shadow on the screen.
(By the way, for a truly enlightening double bill, follow All That Heaven Allows with Far from Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes' reimagined, deconstructed homage to Sirk's movie. Curiouser and curiouser.)
Owning Mahowny (2003) provides Philip Seymour Hoffman with an opportunity of epic proportions to display his talent for implosion. The sight is unlike anything else I've seen in a movie; even Bill Macy's famous black hole impression in Fargo (1996) has a nervous energy, with a final backblast that relieves him and the viewer of the tension of being a fool. Hoffman gives himself no such catharsis; instead, he subjects us to 100 minutes of suffocation without the accompanying thrashing about, which would be relatively reassuring as it reveals the struggle for survival we would expect.
This is where Hoffman gets it right. His bank manager/gambling addict, based on a real person who stole over $10,000,000 (Canadian!) in less than two years, may be drowning, but strapped to the wheel as he is, we get not even a flinch. The guys who watch him through the eye in the sky at the casino call him "The Ice Man," and they're right, if they're thinking about one of those Paleolithic fellows found every once in a while suspended in a glacier, perpetually stunned that he's trapped and doomed. Hoffman's Mahowny may be hunting, like that caveman in the permafrost, but his only prey is his own desire, and he never grasps it firmly enough to register satisfaction--at one point he practically breaks the tables in two casinos, in both Vegas and Atlantic City. No, he is only capable of stunned dismay as he methodically shoves money at bookies and casinos, doing everything he can to guarantee the cold thrill he gets as the glacier moves him along.
One of the most interesting things about this movie is that everyone around Mahowny--his girl, his friend, the casino workers and managers, even his dimwitted bookie--stands amazed, appalled, delighted, outraged at his fall, and rise, and fall, while he remains stolidly plugged up, a grunting, hunched-over, constipated victim of his bad habit. It's like watching a glutton slowly get sick--without the upchuck. Hoffman moves through it all without ever looking anyone in the eye; his averted face, shiny and pallid, would be tragic if it were self-aware. For him, though, it's all about "a financial problem, a shortfall," not an addiction, so he can never expel the poison.
At the end, he makes what is for me a stunning admission: that, on a thrill scale of 1 to 100, gambling is a 100. But you can't tell from watching him. Every win seems merely the swing of a hammer breaking the wall between himself and failure--and the failure merely the hammer itself, which he carries with grunting dedication. But despite his best efforts--or maybe because of them; I am continually, happily duped by good performances--Hoffman makes me feel sorry for Mahowny, if only because it looks like it hurts so much. We're informed in a postscript that Mahowny went to jail for six years, and has yet to place another bet. But Hoffman's performance indicates the real wounds of addiction, which manage to pull a horrible trick: They may heal, but the pain does not fade. So Hoffman's cramped form lies like a last-gasp fish in the bottom of Satan's bass boat, too small to keep, too slippery to throw back.