Tuesday, February 28, 2006

57. Nipped: Don Knotts, 1924-2006

When I was a kid, a day home sick meant watching reruns. This was a pre-cable world, but I lived near Philadelphia, so had the pleasures of strong signals and the grand panoply provided by UHF--eight channels, counting the Big Three and "educational television." The provided the flashcards for the necessary boomer drill-work: We'd grown up watching these shows on their network runs, then caught the repeats repeatedly in syndication. I can remember my cousins and I playing a game in which someone described the opening scene of a Gilligan's Island or Honeymooners episode, and the others had to explain the rest of the plot. Like David Byrne sang, "I grew up in a house with the television always on."

Of course, The Andy Griffith Show was in that house. And also of course the purists insisted the only seasons that mattered were the ones with Barney Fife. The Deputy was one of a small handful of impressions class clowns knew they needed to master. That face, those mannerisms--and that voice--were as recognizable as Mickey Mouse or Chaplin--and I think have had the same impact on TV and movie culture. In Barney I can hear echoes of all those fussy, self-important floorwalkers and cops-on-the-corner, all the way back through Franklin Pangborn to Edgar Kennedy, set-upon, supercilious--and eternally thwarted. (And onward: I know I'm not the only one who saw the surreal ghost of Barney in Mick Jagger's face, hair slicked back, in the video for "Undercover (of the Night).")

When we were first married, my wife and I were working and traveling all the time, often just tired enough when we were home to let the TV do a lot of the thinking for both of us. And The Andy Griffith Show was on at dinnertime. We still allow those episodes to run through our heads, putting their mark on our days when we least expect them. If, for instance, a situation needs to be quickly remedied, I continue to voice Barney's advice to Andy concerning Opie's performance at school: "You gotta nip it in the bud, Ange. Nip it." Ah, the wisdom of the man.

But of course, like all of us, I hope--despite Messrs. Chicken and Limpet, despite his reluctance as an astronaut and his dubious distinction of shakiest gun in the West--like all of us my favorite Don Knotts image is Barney--but not in shock or outrage, eyes goggling, mouth gaping. No, I prefer Barney triumphantly dreamy, basking in the afterglow of an evening on the porch with Thelma Lou, his hair askew, his face covered with lipstick kisses. As a little kid, I was comforted: Barney seemed to live the least threatening adult life I could imagine, even with his insecurities (with which I could identify). Thanks, Don; thanks, Barn. In your honor, I shall hook my thumbs into my pantswaist, rock back and forth on the balls of my feet, and hold forth. Then retire to the porch with my best gal. Good night, sweet Deputy.

Monday, February 27, 2006

56. Case Open

I realized this weekend that for years I had dodged a cinematic bullet by not watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) before now. I think at 15--or 25, maybe even 35--it would've killed me, a libidinal surge of tsunamic proportions. I have written elsewhere about Marilyn Monroe, and in terms of the volumes others have filled, I have nothing new to add--but still: I don't know if it is the glaring clarity of the DVD I watched it on, or my current state of near-dotage, or what, but--

All right, I confess: I'm not being honest. I know exactly why this movie stunned me: Monroe and Russell are monumental objects. I cannot write otherwise, as sexist as I sound. They are--and I am sorry if I state the obvious; this movie is nothing but obvious, in the most epic sense that word can have--"sex-objects": totemistic representations of instinctual urges. Of course, I knew this before watching, but in my defense I had never seen them onscreen together, fer petessake; it is a reeling combination, like Valium and vodka. Except it makes you wake all the way up.

I'm trying hard not to just sit here panting and howling, but that Tex Avery wolf refuses to leave my head, and I admit I am a bit embarrassed by him. But the facts remain, and I offer them as my only case:

1. This movie administers its Technicolor like an hallucinogen. The longer I watched its electrostatically charged lavender and burnt pink, its crushed velvet orange and hand-squeezed pomegranate, the less I could see anything else when I looked away, my retinas imprinted, the colors smearing across the living room, until I was forced to look back and regain my equilibrium.

2. Only to lose it again with the sight of Monroe and Russell in their spun-glass and melted taffy outfits--more than painted on, but seeming to grow from the slopes of their bodies like smooth scales, giving off their own flashing outlines, modern engineering in the service of body fetishes, stem to stern.

3. And closer yet: their eyes. I was thinking of Quint in Jaws and his unforgettable monologue--didn't John Milius write it?--in which he tells us that a shark has dead eyes, a doll's eyes. Marilyn and Jane, I'm sorry to say, are the complete opposite. Fifty-odd years later, and I know they are alarmingly alive--and can see me. These are perfect eyes, in terms of trans-spatial/temporal optic ability, finding me, cornering me. Maybe, then, the shark is apt. Denta dentatis, to be delicate about it.

4. But to what end am I cornered? Lucky me, often just for the sake of the songs. OK, they're fun, and irreverent, and, like every other moment in this movie, convinced that the only entendre worth knowing is double (see below). But at least the tunes distracted me from the search-and-destroy single-mindedness of the two of them, flouncing around just to trip me up. Every once in a while, when I thought I was going to do something I would regret for the rest of my life, right there in front of everyone--wife, kids, piano-top photos of parents--one or both of them would start singing, keeping her/them occupied just long enough for me to regain my footing and grab the handrail before the next wave broke.

5. Which was often. The language was suggestive--true, in the silliest sense (like so: Marilyn finds out that a tiara is worn on the head, and gushes, "I just LOVE finding new places to wear diamonds.")--but if this kind of thing goes on all the time--which it does, both verbally and visually--then the movie's world shifts, until everything is about the Marilyn-object and the Jane-object, and the only expression possible is the anticipatory leer. At least on my face.

Of course, this evidence is more than prima facie, but downright inculpatory--the movie ends, more or less, at a trial (they want Marilyn to give back the tiara--and Russell shows up dressed as Marilyn--a lubricious melding of both, the final burden of proof). Hence my juridical flights. I stand accused, as the song says. And again, I am grateful I waited as long as I did to watch Gentleman Prefer Blondes. But the First Law has the longest arm, and still threatens to call me to the dock. I think you already know how I'd plead.

Friday, February 24, 2006

55. A Hayride to Remember

Once more with feeling, my ignorance rewards me with bliss. It wasn't until the credits were rolling for This Gun for Hire (1942) that I realized it was Alan Ladd's starring debut. He had some bit parts here and there, but, as his biography on the Internet Movie Database points out, he had trouble getting his big break, between his height (5'6"; his nickname was "Laddie," and he once ran a hamburger stand called "Tiny's Patio") and his pale color (he had a tragic childhood, including malnourishment, injury, the death of his father when he was four and his mother's suicide--by ant poison, which the IMDB reports he witnessed--when he was a young man, shortly after Alan, Jr.'s birth). To quote Tom Kromer--as I have before, and will again, and again and again--in Waiting for Nothing, "She sure is a tough life, buddy."

But, because life insists on its horrifying ironies, it all paid off for him. He tested for Philip Raven, the hired gun of the title, and although he is fourth-billed (after Veronica Lake--more on her later--Robert Preston--a real treat in a weird way, if only for the reverse-reference-point provided by his greatest role, accompanied by, at last count, seventy-six trombones--and one Laird Cregar, an actor I had never seen before (and who would be dead in three years) but who is fascinating to watch, like Sydney Greenstreet's slick cousin), Ladd finds in Raven the perfect, sad recompense for all that loss.

In his first scene, Raven indulges a kitten, letting it into his apartment window and feeding it a saucer of milk. We can tell this is a common routine for the two of them. The girl comes in to clean up--he's in the next room--and she starts to shoo the kitten. Raven comes in and tears her dress and hits her. Later, hiding in an abandoned train car with Ellen Graham (Lake), he suffocates a cat whose meowing threatens to alert his pursuers. Again: His first hit is a blackmailer; his secretary is unexpectedly there, and he shoots her as well. Later, after Graham helps him escape from a train, he attempts to shoot her, too. This kind of thing goes on and on: Raven is a dead-eyed psychopath with a laddie's face, a tiny thing without a conscience--or at least no opportunity or desire to use it, until the end, when he saves Ellen, and is rewarded by dying in her arms.

Despite its awkward moments, I was pleasantly appalled by this film. (And I can no longer apologize for my oxymorons; as I wrote yesterday, they sustain me as I watch. I might not be able to otherwise.) It is the darkest noir I've seen in a while, save, perhaps, Force of Evil (1948) or D.O.A. (1950)--with a nod to Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in the Non-Crime Category. This Gun for Hire refuses to provide Raven with an escape. The only light that glimmers at the periphery comes from Veronica Lake's hair. I will not say anything new about these two; I just want to note how beautiful and pathetic they were together, little folk with strange eyes, a bit stiff, unless they were leaning against one another. What a relief it must've been to act side by side, no trenches or stepstools, cheek to tiny cheek. Here in this movie they meet, and I prefer to daydream about it as a kind of love at first sight. And the film supports this, even though they are not the couple here--that's Lake and Preston, with his little mustache and butterscotch voice--and despite the terror Raven instills in Ellen (after a particularly harrowing encounter with him, another character makes the delirious observation, "What's the matter with you? You look like you've been on a hayride with Dracula."). No, Ladd and Lake are Hansel and Gretel--except for wisecracks and the faint whiff of gunpowder. When she kisses his cheek, he sheds years of abuse and depravity, at least to love her enough to hold on to her hand, tight, lost babes in the noir woods.

As weird as the ending is--evil industrialist geezers keeling over (Tully Marshall in a slightly aphasic performance, muttering, obscenely slurping at milk-dipped crackers), double-crossing flunkies, gas masks and reckless gunplay; we catch the later-to-be-blacklisted, Hollywood-Ten Maltz red-handed (ha-ha), as the capitalist is unmasked as the real traitor to freedom--it is unimportant to my stunned yearning: I wanted Raven to get away, to kill everybody he had to and melt into the tangled mess of the stockyards, like something in a fable, a talking woodland creature--or cat?--that saves the lost child--and it is not just Lake, but himself who's lost; and simply being near her saves him. They take turns, in fact, saving one another, until I was exhausted by the steep climb to his partial redemption.

In the aforementioned abandoned railroad car, Raven delivers a monologue about his childhood, how his mother beat him all the time, even striking him with a "red-hot flatiron." And he kills her. Graham watches him, unable to respond, as he half-explains his psychosis. Knowing the outline of his life, I wonder how Ladd made it through that scene--or, actor to the core, how he was able to, as I hinted at earlier, make it pay off for him. And I almost cried over the little man, and it wasn't just his sad life, or Graham Greene and Albert Maltz's script--which has it moments of bludgeoning truth--but simply Ladd's posture, like a boy forced to recite, while the cat, unseen, dies beneath his hands, and Veronica Lake's dreamlike face--its planes too sharp, while the hair floats in natural soft-focus--stares like a thin moon at the damage, but manages to walk with him all the way, past the "dark, wet boughs" of that internal landscape and into cleaner air.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

54. Happy

When James Agee decided to discuss what he considered the best films of 1945, I noticed that his position both in terms of history and ideology demanded a stylistic curative. Obviously, his movie world was deeply entrenched in the war. The first two pictures he mentions are documentaries: "Major" John Huston's San Pietro and The True Glory; he grumbles that the former, despite its ample display of "talent, skill and courage"--on the part of the filmmakers, in addition to the soldiers who fought in the battle--was not perceived as favorably as the latter (a sweeping record of the allied invasion of Europe, from Normandy to Berlin), which the "National Board of Review's Committee on Exceptional Films" named the best film of the year. He continues with The Story of G.I. Joe, then gets to a long paragraph in which he runs through twenty-five or so films; ten of them are war-themed--eleven if you count The Three Caballeros, with its almost-postwar Good Neighbor Policy-boosting. 1945 must have been, if I may state the obvious, quite a year.

But Agee is not happy with 1945, movie-wise. He "suppose[s] that it wasn't exactly a bad movie year"; but: "Those who are satisfied with it are welcome to it." The piece ends in a perorative sweat, as he exhorts both critics and artists not to "be satisfied short of perfect liberty, discipline, and achievement." But this Platonic yearning for essences occurs in a fallow period, which Agee estimates as having lasted "the past fifteen years." So there he is, a few years into a movie-reviewing gig in the depths of a pretty bad patch; it's surprising he would take up the trade, given the state of the goods.

To express both his hopes and fears, he consistently employs a rhetorical coping mechanism: the oxymoron. Pride of the Marines is "doggedly humane," Colonel Blimp is "charming but equivocal and overrated," The Way Ahead is "poky yet very able," Val Lewton's Body Snatchers and Isle of the Dead are "pedagogic" but "sensitive," and, best of all, the year-in-the-life documentary of the aircraft carrier Yorktown, Fighting Lady, is compared to "a magnificent box of chocolates filled with plasma." (You could tell he really had to get himself worked up to land on that one.) As I skidded over these rushing waters, I felt his desperate passion to will the movies into an art form, both its practice and criticism, so that it would be free and strong. It is postwar jitters, presaging the anxious, deep cold the war would assume after the mushroom clouds cleared. It almost seems he feels silly to make so much of musical comedies and whodunits, and has to balance them with battle-cinema and entreaty, as he conducts his "open wake," as he puts it in the first sentence of the piece.

Sixty years later, I admit I can still hear the music of that funeral-party. Too many film critics may have come between 1945 and now for me to feel Agee's imploring invocation without some measure of self-conscious silliness as I too implore and invoke. But I'm happy to be embarrassed, happy to try wringing some joy out of the seventh art. And I'm happy to read Agee insist that the first rule of life is freedom; it is a burden I know some movies carry along with me--and one that others should, if only so that my love and honor for them has some chance, some substance.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

53. Dopey

Occasionally, a true thing is suddenly there in a movie, obvious to everyone except me--or so I think, if only because it comes at me like an unexpected solid object, a fastball through my living room window. I'm usually letting my attention wander to a film's minutiae--a weird table lamp, the gleam of a bumper, the gray beauty of a starlet's cheek. Such meandering gives the movie I'm watching a little breathing room, where it can make mistakes I don't notice, or that I forgive--continuity errors, crew members caught in reflective surfaces, actors with inexplicable accents--and allows me to stick with it, a patient son forgiving of faults. Again, though, every once in a while I get a jolt, and I feel myself fall away from the film, no longer its confidante (sometimes its only friend in the room), instead scowling, the kind of viewer I've trained myself not to be. But I can't help it: the true thing won't stop being true.

This happened with The Blue Gardenia (1953), and I was completely unprepared for such a falling-out--not bitter, more regretful and disappointed, but there it was. Odd, considering the director--Fritz Lang--the cast--Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr, even a cameo by Nat Cole playing himself (performing the title song in a Tiki lounge, wearing a lei!)--and the story--Norah Larkin (Baxter) receives a "Dear Jane" letter from her man serving in Korea, goes out with date-rapist Harry Prebble (Burr), who ends up dead, with of course Norah as the key suspect, while investigative reporter Casey Mayo (Conte) falls for Norah. A Lang noir, the fog of moral ambiguity deepened by the panic--and the novelty--of the Wrong Man-as-Woman. What more could I have wanted?

For a while, not much. Baxter plays a pretty good drunk, and manages more or less to keep her head as she turns fugitive. Burr is almost-miscast--but works with, not against, my misgivings; his Harry Prebble has an ex-football-star's self-confidence, a kind of beefy assertion that made me accept him as a wolf--and completely understand his demise as he advances ever more violently on Baxter's woozy, broken-hearted recklessness. Conte also takes advantage of his odd casting as a hardboiled reporter who wants to nab "the Blue Gardenia"--as his paper calls Burr's killer, after the nightclub where he was last seen alive (and where Cole sings)--by giving his character the air of a clipped but soft-hearted romantic. Lang as well seems to relish playing with the genre, with echoes of--references to?--The Big Heat, released in the same year; both films have a central investigator (Glenn Ford's Det. Bannion in The Big Heat) who is a clench-jawed sweetheart. And both movies explore the depths of misogyny with unflinching brutality. And incidentally, The Blue Gardenia is beautifully shot, an expressionistic chiaruscuro landscape across which the characters stretch their long and anxious shadows.

And then it all fell apart: Mayo is contacted by Norah--one is trying to get his scoop, the other running scared--and Norah poses as a friend of the "Blue Gardenia"--and here it comes: Conte believes her. I actually thought he was playing along--hasn't every character in the position of confessor, from psychiatrist to priest to cop--to ace reporter, fer petessake--gone through this kind of thing? But he actually believes her--and is stunned when he finds out she's the suspect. At first, I thought Norah was the numskull for dreaming up such a creaky ruse; but she knew her man better than I did, obviously. I sat there, getting dopier myself--I find density of the brain catching--trying to figure out why the script needed Mayo to become a dolt. Maybe, if he had known Norah was the suspect, he would've had to turn her in. No, he was too eager for a scoop to shy away from trouble. Or maybe he wouldn't have fallen in love with her if he saw her as a murderer, as opposed to a pal who'd do a favor for another pal. After all, even Norah thought she did it. Closer, perhaps. But in the end I couldn't completely justify such blankness.

Now, there is a horror/suspense film rule that at some key point someone is going to have to do something truly stupid--and not from the audience's point of view, who knows all about the monster long before its victims; but the character him/herself has to commit a blatantly idiotic act--usually involving separation from the others, or the weapons, or the daylight, or whatever so far has been standing between predator and prey. You can't move this kind of movie forward to its climax without one perfect, severe lapse in the critical faculties. The trick is to save that moment until absolutely necessary. The best films of horror and suspense even mask the stupidity, or encourage us in our own; Hitchcock was exceptionally good at inviting slack-jawed surrender to danger: By the time Lisa (Grace Kelly) goes to Thorwald's (Burr again) apartment in Rear Window (1954), we're as goofy as she is, exhorting her to get on over there--then being gleefully punished for being so stupid. Hitchcock knew our secret: We want to approach that furtive scratching sound at the window; we just need to be tempted, which he does as slick as Satan.

The Blue Gardenia does not seem to be up to the challenge. As I watched Conte get duped, the whole movie stopped, and all I was left with were misgivings and regrets. In an effort to sustain Lang's auteur standing, I will blame the script. But I'll admit I was embarrassed for him. After all these years, it seems fruitless to second-guess the decisions of a hard-working director with a low budget and perhaps other things--like the aforementioned minor masterwork, The Big Heat--on his mind. But I can't entirely absolve Lang, either. Sometimes I just need to admit that anyone can blink. And if there's something in the plot of The Blue Gardenia that can rescue it, if I'm missing something vital, I'd like to know what it is. Because, as usual, if anybody's going to be the dope, I'd rather it be me.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

52. Krazy

Reading James Agee's Life magazine piece on silent comedy, "Comedy's Greatest Era," provided me with the always-remarkable experience of laughing out loud at words on a page. I am a great admirer of any writer who can reach out from the misty mists of time to me in my solitude, completely divorced from the writer and yet startled into laughter. It's a great gift. James Thurber can do this. And sometimes Dave Barry, and Matt Groening (in Childhood Is Hell, he sprinkles about little pieces of "information"; one that still works on me is "The word 'titter' makes kids titter." OK, it's about laughter--well, a kind of laughing--so maybe that's cheating. But still.) In his piece, Agee surprises me into laughter with his description of a supposed practice of Mack Sennett. According to Agee--and I keep qualifying this because it's so odd--"Sennett used to hire a 'wild man' to sit in on his gag conferences, whose whole job was to think up 'wildies.'" Agee describes this strange creature as "an all but brainless, speechless man" with minimal powers of communication but "a totally uninhibited imagination." The wild man was "the group's subconscious mind, the source of all creative energy." Agee concludes that the "ideas were so weird and amorphous that Sennett can no longer remember a one of them." To compensate, Agee offers "a fair equivalent," a scene from an unnamed Laurel and Hardy picture that is "simple and real ... as a nightmare": "Laurel and Hardy are trying to move a piano across a narrow suspension bridge. The bridge is slung over a sickening chasm, between a couple of Alps. Midway they meet a gorilla." The paragraph end here, and Agee goes on without further comment to a new topic. And, without realizing it, "surprised by joy"--or wildness--I barked out a quick laugh.

Immediately the moment sent me reeling to other wildies of American culture, and reminded me how firmly the idea of wildness is implanted in early twentieth century culture. Of course, such goings-on reveal themselves as the nascent impulse of surrealism, in which a simple error in rhetoric, the non sequitur, becomes a startling, sublime thing. And it's built into the wildy Agee mentions--or invents? No matter; such uncertainty is part of the magic here: I prefer to think it never happened, that Stan and Ollie never encountered that sudden simian. And if it did, I would be equally pleased. The surreal shock melts the barrier between the inner world, in which everything is a subject, and the outer world of objects, until, as Freud describes the experience of falling in love, "the boundaries of the ego become indistinct." I am Thou, and Thou, I. And so with fact and fabrication. The power of the surreal experience is that, in having no connection to what goes on before, it forces me to make connections, if only to right the world again. And when the magic is working, the connection made then causes further gleeful havoc, more wild than wild. And so to Krazy Kat.

Pop culture--all kinds, really--in the 1920s and early '30s cavorted in the surreal as it folded everything into itself: the move toward the abstract in painting, the improvisatory impulses in jazz, the time-space-capades of Einstein, the peasant-to-king hopscotch the Soviets tried to play. Unfortunately, by the time the Depression and Hitler started thudding and jittering around like surrealism's doppelganger, it all grew nauseous and hollow. But for a decade-plus, the West seemed liberally laced with ever-curiouser curiosities. I can recall seeing--where? USA network's famous Night Flight on the weekends back in the '80s?--early stop-motion animations, dim and jerky, with little demons capering and vegetable-shapes rolling and gamboling; and Segar's salty family, the Oyls--Olive and Castor--and Alice the Goon and the Jeep and that muttering sailer with the pop-eye, "out of the inkwell" and into one's subconscious, with Betty Boop and her coterie of human-animal-whatsis hybrids, and Alley Oop, spun by their heels across the screen by Fleisher and Iwerks, the grand cavalcade of them, including Herriman's Krazy Kat, but also Windsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, and even Bill Holman's Smokey Stover, whose secret-code language peppered with "Foo" and the immortal "Notary Sojac[k]," made comedy a private world, an in-joke for anybody who was watching, non-linear, pre-rational, unconscious, like Agee's wild man.

These snippets of rarebit-fiend nightmares are impulses of the Id, Pleasure Principle yawps that hint of dark, instinctual urges--but which, as Sunday funnies and silents, as the anima as animation, at least partially serve to dispel that darkness, and leave us with slapstick. The trembling tendrils of this effect move through much of the movies--I would like to argue sit at the core of the movie-going experience itself, that "gazing game" I like to play. With the wild surrealism of silent comedy, your gaze is rewarded with glimpses into depths, but they engender deep laughs, not groans; and the reeling satirical dismay of surrealism becomes a pie in the face, a totter and tumble. At its best, such moments do offer some anxiety. But the end result is escape from that anxiety via comedy's "unfair somnambulism" (a phrase Krazy Kat's Officer Bull Pupp, in futile pursuit, applied to a sleepwalking Krazy who wire-walked across an open space to freedom). Camus would approve, I think, of such a counterpoint to absurdist tragedy--although he might insist they're the same, and that laughter is simply anguish spit out instead of swallowed. I can live with that. Actually, sometimes it seems I can only live if there is that.

51. A Dangerous Thing

(Note: The following serves as a preface--or perhaps an apology. We'll see.)

I have to confess that I am just now reading the film criticism of James Agee, and finding it almost intimidating. For those of you who know film criticism well, I am humbled--an occupational hazard--by your exasperated sighs. But I've always liked watching movies in the dark, ha-ha, so I don't read that much serious criticism. (Interestingly enough, Agee begins his tenure at The Nation in 1942 by pleading ignorance himself; I feel better already.) I knew Agee was a Name in American film criticism, one of the fathers of the Kael Generation. But I had no idea he would be so formidable. The only glimmer of hope I can see is that I'm not always agreeing with him--and that he isn't always changing my mind. But I've only started, and either my adulation and anxiety or my suspicions and relief will grow as time goes by.

I am merely serving notice that my little knowledge of Agee may be informing the next few pieces. It is a rut I will deepen purposefully, until I find a way out of my concern that Agee is so good I'm just wasting my time and that I should just be telling you to find the American Library volume, Film Writing and Selected Journalism, if all you want is brilliance (or--and here I admit I do read a bit now and then--what J. Hoberman, writing on the new volumes on Agee, calls criticism as "cultural stream of conscious"). After all, he died in 1955, so Agee never got to review Son of Flubber, Weekend at Bernie's, or Monkeybone. Sooner or later, then, you're going to have come crawling back to me. And I'll take you back, with, I promise, only the faintest glimmer of a condescending smile.

Hold on; Agee dies in 1955; I'm born in 1956. If there's anything to that reincarnation stuff, maybe ...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

50. The Head Bull-Goose Loony

Was it only me, 18 years old and really dumb, or did the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) not seem like actors but actual mental cases? I watched it again last night, and Christopher Lloyd (Taber) and Danny DeVito (Martini) and Sydney Lassick (Cheswick) seemed raw-boned and consistently twitchy, institutionalized men to the core. Watching it the other day, I still get those little pangs of fear: Careful, Jack, those guys are crazy. That open dorm, with nutcases snuffling and snoring all around you; and that silent Indian; and the cold glances of the orderlies. Dank. That's the word.

But Nicholson's McMurphy hesitates only one moment, a reflex, then he dives right in, glad-handing, grinning, the Birth of the Jack, hand-made right before your eyes as the naked-girl card deck spreads itself out on the table and invisible baseball builds to delirium. For a while, we love hanging out with him, talking dirty and savoring the tang of it in our mouths. He makes us feel strong and carefree, stuck in the muck but what the fuck; and never bullying--although often measuring--he sizes us up, shakes his head, and looks for the angle. And he always finds it, and we don't have any more cigarettes, he's got em all, but nobody cares.

Except, of course, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher in a career-destroying performance, her Citizen Kane, a masterpiece of stolid certainty and cold calculation). To allude to the novel, she's the machine's maintenance crew, keeping the tubes clear and the wires uncrossed. The film asks us to hate her because Mac does; and we feel the awful correctness when he strangles her--a final scene of alarming realism; I think I heard somewhere that Nicholson squeezed a bit too hard--and isn't there a world of meaning there, a goes-around-comes-around demolition of the dream of freedom? Both Nicholson and Milos Forman would forge careers out of the urge to break on through to the other side, and emerge clean and smiling. But they keep running into missed opportunities and cold shoulders--variations on Ratched, from Salieri to the Overlook Hotel, from Andy Kauffman's cancer to Schmidt's lost highway.

Through it all both seem to remember Smilin' Jack, and the bone-deep bravado that gave me so much hope, even unto loss and death, back in 1975, and still does, while that saw plays on the soundtrack, satiric and sweet, a Penny for the Old Guy, mad and smothered and free.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

49. Burning Desire

Francois Truffaut made one English-language movie, Fahrenheit 451 (1966). It was the first Truffaut movie I ever saw; I was probably starting high school, not so much interested in Truffaut--but I was reading Bradbury without check. I didn't pay attention to Truffaut until 1973, with La Nuite americaine (Day for Night), and by then I was turning into a cinephile of all-but-academic aspirations (for better or worse, although I couldn't dream of going to college and majoring in movies--Who would have thought such a thing?--but I did know that I had to take movies seriously, bound as they were to every aspect of my waking and dreaming lives), so seeing Truffaut films was akin to eating one's vegetables--although that's not entirely fair, since, although they were good for me, they were also pretty tasty. Again, though, around 1970, when I think I saw Fahrenheit 451 on TV, it was all about my favorite fabulist, Mr. Dark, the presser of dandelions, the Illustrated Man, the Emperor of the October Country--sorry, but I could go on; my abiding affection for Bradbury remains, past all better judgment. After all, when I was a kid he compelled me to read, more than Seuss, more than DC or Marvel Comics, even more than my accidental forays into the classics of an earlier, Anglo-Saxon generation, with Alice, both in Wonderland and through the looking-glass, and Kipling's Just-So Stories, and even a big, woodcut-illustrated, slightly creepy edition of Jane Eyre. With Bradbury, though, one can feel the arrested development--in the best possible way--in his insistence on jarring images, wildly veering plots--or short stories like dreams--I almost wrote "Bradburian dreams," which should just about sum up his iron hold--his ability to thrust at the reader a startlingly apt metaphor--still potent: my wife read Dandelion Wine after we had a son, and she approved without reflection Bradbury's comparison of boys in kitchens to bees around a hive--the exuberant hunger, the circling joy. I have always read Bradbury with an open eye, glad to be rid of guile and order.

But Fahrenheit 451 is an odd corner for Bradbury. Yes, there are hints of dystopic futures in a number of his short stories; but those often feel less like polemics than meditations on loneliness and isolation, sad lingering at 3:00 AM, his favorite time, when everything is at once dark and all-too-clear. In his novels, these become moments and moods--the father, up late and ruminating, in Something Wicked This Way Comes or the rising black of the ravine in Dandelion Wine. I'm not sure, but his short science fiction--and with Bradbury, the word "science" must be used gingerly, like a busted apple-corer-peeler; somebody could get hurt--does not seem to live in the same world as Fahrenheit 451. I sometimes think of the novel as his rueful hit, the one thing everyone knows him for, but which does not speak to his true self. This happens all the time: Imagine if the William Tell Overture, as much slam-bang fun as it is, were all people knew of you. Sure, you get invited to all the bashes, and it's played in the marketplace, but what about all those other peerless passages? So it is with Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

And with Truffaut's version, except in reverse: Many people who like movies in general do not know Truffaut's work in particular, perhaps except for Fahrenheit 451--often discovered because they love Bradbury, or at least know of his book, and thus run into Truffaut accidentally, and in some ways at the weirdest place: this oddly set, slightly distracted movie, a future signaled only by big (for 1966) TVs and a monorail, a stark comic book without exclamations. One of my daughters saw it in her high school English class; she loves movies, but was unimpressed by this one. It is all-but-forgotten; I'm sure younger cinephiles like herself will have much more fun with The 400 Blows or Jules et Jim. My own memory of the film is that I simply enjoyed seeing Bradbury on the screen, and was moved by the snowy scenes of the Book People at the end, reciting, becoming--well, allowing at least a part of themselves to become--the one book they've memorized. I think that no matter who films the book, that is the one ineluctable Bradburian moment, the one that cannot be denied, no matter what motives draws a filmmaker to the book. (Mel Gibson was supposed to direct and star in a remake; now it appears Frank (Shawshank Redemption) Darabont is making a pass at it. I suspect that ending will again emerge intact.)

With Truffaut, his motives do not always seem clear. What is most consistent is the movie's pervasive lethargy. Yes, there are some jolts: the dual casting of Julie Christie as both Montag's wife and his "muse," and Nicholas Roeg's black-on-white-on-RED! cinematography, and some sudden outbursts, both verbal and physical, and the occasional abrupt scene shift--but, more than Bradbury's anxiety over a post-literate video world (and you know he's right), Truffaut seems to focus on the pharmaceuticals and bullying that permeate his version. The effect is of a slow descent punctuated by snarls. Linda Montag pops pills and sinks into the interactive, self-esteem-boosting TV world, where lessons in jiujitsu combine with banalities--and she uses both in her marriage, at one point tumbling Guy (Oskar Werner) into bed with a smoothly executed trip-and-takedown, and elsewhere eager to have her life placidly mirror the congratulatory commonplaces of her favorite interactive program. Montag's superior, "The Captain" (Cyril Cusack) seems a confident professional, a self-contained old-campaigner-turned-bureaucrat--but we see him quick to berate a young man on the street, slapping at him, hectoring like--well, like most of the adults in this film: at one point we view a news broadcast about a crackdown on young men with long hair, shorn in the streets by jubilant officers.

And watching this movie after many years, such scenes made me realize how much this movie depended on the fact that it was made in 1966. Truffaut had latched onto the drugged-out-middle-class trope, fried in the living room, hating the hippies--and the intellectuals, the, ah, bookish. Not the world Bradbury saw, exactly--but close; the book first appeared in 1953, not a good time to be a pinko or a Beat--or a self-proclaimed constant child; consider the famous story about Bradbury and special effects master Ray Harryhausen, promising each other in their youth to never grow up. More Pan than Yippie. Still, Truffaut sees the world Montag flees to, that of the woodland Book People, as a sweet, inter-generational counter-culture that wishes solitude and the bliss of a good book.

Wait a minute; we seem to be getting back to Bradbury here, the innocent, hopeful smile, the effect of melancholy, the Emersonian love of bare trees and snowfall. Again, I think at the end of the film Truffaut is drawn almost against his will back to the book itself, and its Bradburian confidence in and yearning for the small town, the sublimity of a front porch--actually mentioned in the film, when Montag sees a rocking chair for the first time--and the brave guilelessness of his urge to be "poetic"--which for Bradbury means a kind of vibrating sympathy for the little things, ecstatically making Whitmanesque mountains out of the molehills of the everyday. Both Truffaut and Bradbury seem to work together at the film's end to convey that fear of the losses of 3:00 AM and that affection for the simple sight of someone happily reading, the brisk joy if it, like the snow Truffaut walks the Book People through. Despite his seeming attraction to the youth/freedom-denied elements of the book, Truffaut manages to play notes that are more ephemeral--that is, less political--and more optimistic--that is, less realistic (reading in the snow seems hard work)--to settle like Bradbury's beloved Autumn leaves onto his film's shoulders.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

48. "... and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Sally Potter's Yes (2004) cannot be described without its sounding a bit silly--or worse, an exercise in irony for its own sake. The movie is set in present-day England, but everyone speaks in rhyme. It is in part about a passionate love affair between an unhappily married woman, Irish-born but raised in the United States, "She" (Joan Allen), and an alternately slightly lost and self-assured expatriate from Beirut, "He" (Simon Akbarian). But it is also about the Americanization of everything, the persistence of "messes"--at least, that is what the anonymous cleaning woman (Shirley Henderson) informs us, speaking to the camera--we're the only ones who'll listen, since no one in the movie pays attention to--barely sees--the world's cleaners, you see. And it's a movie about science--at first vs. God, then tugging at His sleeve--and the fine line between pride and terrorism, and the deep dark metaphor of who pays, and the dying dreams of She's Communist Irish aunt, "Aunt." Our principals, as you can tell, have no names. And the movie ends in Cuba. Yes it does, glowingly, romantically, without irony.

And I said yes to it--after, admittedly, fifteen minutes or so of getting used to the subtle Alexander-Pope-Meets-Dr.-Seuss effect rhymed drama has on modern ears--at least mine. And OK, that's a little bit of irony, since it was the rhyming itself that eventually drew me in, the lulling certainty of it, the slight distance achieved, in the end the honest and loving direct address, both character to character and film to viewer, that accumulated. The political debates, the love talk, the philosophizing about dirt, the deep wisdom of small revelations, person-to-person, that happen pre-, mid- and post-coitus non-interruptus, the sorrow and the fear, the recriminations and reconciliations, the grief and resolution and affirmation of this movie were all as indulgent as only grace can be.

I love this movie because it has ambitions, and one of them--the best, I think--is its insistence that to love we must surrender our positions to each other, and accept the new place we'll hold, because it is the former home of the one we love, who lives in ours now--and they become one house. As Tom Waits sings about the land where there's a town, and in it a house, and in that a woman, and in her a heart to love, I'm going to take Yes's Yes with me when I go. Better yet, consider The Cleaner, who insists, "everything you do or say / Is there, forever. It leaves evidence. / In fact it's really only common sense; / There's no such thing as nothing, not at all. / It may be really very, very small / But it's still there. In fact I think I'd guess / That 'no' does not exist. There's only 'yes.'" Yes almost breaks your heart, but pulls back at the end, in a finessed move, more like a diamond cut than a break, so that what the movie does is open your heart--and with an unironic grin and soft repose. Near the end of the film, She makes a video in which she looks in the camera and asks God if He can forgive her for not believing in Him. I might be wrong, but I think God answers, and I grew happy that sometimes they do make em like this anymore.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

47. (Un)dead: Al Lewis, 1910-2006

I'm trying hard not to be flippant--but maybe I shouldn't. After all, it was Al "Grandpa" Lewis himself who invented the cigar-chomping Jewish vampire, a Count who could call a hulking green--well, we had to trust the script on that; the Munsters lived in a black and white world--monster a schnook and make it sound like the most natural thing in the world. I remember Al Lewis from Car 54, Where Are You (also with Fred Gwynne, rest his soul), one of the last of the Borscht Belt sitcoms--and one of the best theme songs ("There's a scout troop short a child, Krushchev's due at Idlewiiild...")--and as the judge in Used Cars (ruling on "a mile of cars"), and as Turkey in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; but it's Grandpa Munster that he shall forever remain. He helped me defuse my terrors, reducing all those deepest horrors to canned-laughter comfort, in a monster's universe that included dragsters, beatniks and, of course, his schnook of a son-in-law, Herman, who, daydreaming about going to Hollywood, once enthused, "We'll see all the big stars: Charlton Heston, John Wayne, and Nick Adams." Another Rebel fan. I once had a nightmare that I was staying overnight at 1313 Mockingbird Lane--and I also once dreamed the same about the Addams family's manse ("If you need anything, just scream."); strange conflations, and I'll always be thankful for them. Unrest in Peace, Grandpa.

And, in a weird alignment of dark stars, today is George Romero's birthday. Undead again.

46. The Ballad of the Sick Rose

Let me get a piece of business out of the way: Daniel-Day Lewis was robbed. He should've received an Oscar nomination for The Ballad of Jack and Rose. A nascent thesis stirring fitfully in my head asserts that Day-Lewis' Jack cut too close to home for the Academy rank n file. Just consider the weird idealism of Jack's frozen-in-time commune politics, placing him squarely in militant favor of wetlands; but his passion forces him into isolation, a self-described "experiment" that, by the end of the film, in turn forces him to identify with his land-developer nemesis (played as a perfectly bland, straightforward capitalist by the always-welcome Beau Bridges); Jack despairingly considers the possibility that both of them are the same: eager to do whatever they please. Add to this Jack's fever-dream approach to his needs--he's dying of cancer--and the enlistment of his mainland four-months' lover, Kathleen (Catherine Keener, playing regular folk--and getting it right once again), who arrives with her own varied levels of dysfunction in her separate-fathers children. Finally, and near-tragically, there's his appalling misreading of the needs of his daughter (Camilla Belle, who keeps up with Day-Lewis, and adds her own inscrutable colors of sunshine and fire). All of this in a general air of meltdown as Jack rails against upper-class land-consumerism in an almost literally fabulous landscape that is neither campy enough to toy with its out-of-step hippie possibilities or cozy enough to make the Academy feel good about their wagons-in-a-circle intentions--and their own land-consumerism, their own denial of a once-embraced counter-culture. And there's yet another rub: Did they ever embrace it, or merely co-opt it? Just check out the current nominations if you think I'm being reactionary. Let's be honest: Would Nicholson have won today for Randall Patrick McMurphy, or Peter Finch for Howard Beale, or De Niro for Jake LaMotta? Maybe I'm stretching it, but it seems these days the Academy is using the nominations to compensate for lost political turf.

But I digress, because I really really liked The Ballad of Jack and Rose.

This is a movie with many mansions: Shakespeare, the Book of Genesis, Sarah Orne Jewett's tale of innocence tempted, "A White Heron," Samson's tonsorial agonistes, even the attempts at salvation through wrath in Sling Blade and the loss of communality in Sunshine State. But one moment in particular resonated so deeply and surely, I actually paused the DVD to recite a poem to my ever-patient wife. Jack lives on land he had started as a commune like a postmodern Prospero--he's an engineer--on "an island off the east coast of the United States" with his daughter, Rose-as-Miranda, while the roles of Caliban and Ferdinand are blended into various males who visit the island and pose alternatives, some threatening, others inviting. In retreat from the encroaching "naughty world," Jack and Rose grow close, to indulge in a gross understatement. At a moment of loss and betrayal, and of subsequent reunion and reconciliation, father and daughter embrace, pause, kiss--and break in confusion and shame, as Jack realizes how deeply he has damaged both of them, how dangerous their relationship has become. He wanders into sleep, and we get a shot of a caterpillar settling onto a leaf, preparing to feast. He bolts awake, momentarily re-living the kiss aborted, and William Blake whispered in my ear with the clarity of a well-meaning madman:

Jack is forced to see himself as the one with a dark secret love--and it is not incest, but the love of self--but before I frown too deeply, I am reminded of his cancer, and the cold sweat that pours out of him, and--but no spoilers here. Watch this remarkable film of archetypical potency, its howling storm, its crimson joy. How I love to steal from the best--and to see the best illuminated, if I may use a Blakean term, by the images of this film.

I regret to admit that perhaps the director-writer, Rebecca Miller, found a deeper well of myth and fable than Terry Gilliam did in The Brothers Grimm. I will not dwell on unflattering comparisons; suffice it to say that Miller lifts the dipper and has us drink deeply. Her movie slams around and pitches fits, and whispers and hints, and searches for whatever light the dark night can spare.

45. Don't look now--or now, or now. Or now.

When I see a horror film these days, I have to resist the selective amnesia and self-protective displacement that makes me think I ever really enjoyed watching them. As I've written elsewhere, the trauma outweighed the pleasure; as a little kid this was "entertainment" only in the Sadean sense, as I rubbed my own nose in my primal fears. I can recall even later, as a high schooler, "watching" The Exorcist, I focused mostly on the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, the only bit of the frame that was not piled high with a steaming helping of doom. This was 1973; was I really that terrified at sixteen?

The conditioning was deep and self-imposed. As a little kid I kept going to see them, and looking away, sometimes even retreating to the lobby, where the theater at the Cherry Hill Mall had an aquarium; I'd meander out there, false insouciance fooling nobody.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose, now; I'm more than all grown up, so there's no excuse for such foolishness--and I needed none, once again feeling the loss of terror at the movies, mourning it masochistically. A pretty good movie, photographed a bit muddily, with some unnecessarily herky-jerky editing--the bane of post-Millenial horror films--but structured well. I watched it from a cool remove.

I left it up to my teenaged daughter to handle all the heavy lifting. Unwilling to retreat to her back bedroom, she convinced her older sister to sleep with her in the living room. And she wouldn't go into the basement by herself to do her laundry, or outside at night to the driveway to fetch something from the car. The sins of the fathers ...

The following evening, I went downstairs to do some laundry myself. A cinderblock wall divides our basement in two, with an open doorway standing directly behind anyone loading and unloading the clothes. As the water poured and the bubbles rose, I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder at the shadowed opening; with some sad relief, I realized I still knew, as our good but scary friend Hannah Arendt tells us, that "Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival."

And, yes I know, joy is indispensable for salvation. It is the sheer rockface I climb every day. Horror films simply remind me of the size of the drop.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

44. Grimm Work

For the past few days I've been thinking about the lure of The Story, while leaning as always toward the lifting wind of The Image; and here we come to Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, which posits Jacob (Matt Damon) and Wilhelm (Heath Ledger) as con-artist-ghostbusters, a la Michael J. Fox's Frank Bannister in the Robert Zemeckis-produced The Frighteners (1996), directed by Peter Jackson (and there's something to consider for another day); except Gilliam's brothers have no supernatural entities, like Bannister's ghosts, as confederates. No, they're special effects experts, with all-too-human stooges that they dress up and fling about in staged re-creations of frightened villagers' tales, vanquishing the flashpot apparitions, revenants, and poltergeists, and thus cementing their reputation as Olde Deutschland's premier exorcists. Except Jacob believes The Truth Is Out There, and scribbles every tale the villagers relate, building the famous anthology one rube at a time--with himself as the most gullible: The film begins with the brothers as children; little Jake has been sent out to get medicine for his deathly ill little sister, and comes back with magic beans. It is a black beginning. And of course eventually they run into actual supernaturals, minions of a genuine fairy-tale curse that manages to combine most of the stories we associate with the brothers, from the Big Bad Wolf to Sleeping Beauty, not to mention a magic axe that works like a lethal boomerang and moving trees that would spook an Ent. Along the way, Jacob falls in love and Wilhelm learns to embrace the power of a tale told so well it becomes the truth. And at every moment Gilliam is given the opportunity to let his untrammeled imagination romp up and down and all around the fx/digital funpark.

So why is The Brothers Grimm not a better movie? I've read about the pre-production troubles--makeup, casting, and the big one: Bob Weinstein firing Gilliam's director of photography, Nicola Pecorini. And, as usual, he didn't get the budget he wanted. But I'm looking at the finished product--I have no idea, for instance, what Pecorini's movie would have looked like, and I believe Matt Damon's nose was supposed to be bigger or something--and it seems to move in fits and starts, and wanders a bit in tone, and sometimes fails to make smooth transitions from scene to scene, and--hold on; I'm describing most Terry Gilliam movies, for which I have inordinate fondness, from Holy Grail (1975) to Time Bandits (1981), and on to the heyday--hey-decade?--of Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995). Each of these has its attendant tales of woe, culminating in his implosion in 2000 with the ill-fated, never-completed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in which everything, including weather that was Biblical in its wrath, conspired against him. And yet the other pictures were made, and I can watch them over and over, any old time.

Maybe someday I can say the same for Grimm. For now, I feel a little woozy. The sound and fury didn't even seem to want to signify, although it was prime Gilliam territory: the nature of storytelling, the blurry line between what happens and what we tell ourselves and others--and how that confusion is a magic feeling, a kind of innocent freedom that we can breathe in deeply, like Bruce Willis sticking his head out the car window in pre-Apocalypse Philadelphia in Twelve Monkeys, grinning like blissed-out fools because Terry told us we could. At least that's how Grimm felt all over its surface--and down to the roots in selected moments: the little girl with the red hood picking her way through the trees, the giddy feeling of height in the Rapunzel-esque tower, glimpses of the forest that felt like Tolkien. (After seeing Holy Grail, I was convinced someone could do a live-action LOTR; we may be better off that Jackson did it, but Gilliam helped set the standard.) But in terms of the picture's Big Picture, I don't think Gilliam's heart was all the way in it,as in Munchausen and Fisher King, flawed themselves, but shimmering and vibrating with the internal light of deeply personal work. With Grimm, I did not see that light.

But, but, but. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe, like Brazil, a movie I admire greatly, Grimm is more like Gilliam than I want to admit, more like the reckless animator who started off with snippets and sketches, split-second bits and sarcastic asides and mutterings. I will say just about every piece of Grimm is worth it; I'm just not sure it holds together. Again, though, if one is to side with Gilliam, this may be a necessary condition. I am reminded of the map of the universe in Time Bandits: It's irresistible only because it's full of holes.

43. Thrilling Tales

Before the fit reclaims me--I've recently seen Onibaba and 2001, again--and I get that glazed look that comes from gazing, I will stand in the good company of, as Michael Chabon attempted to revive in his 2003 anthology, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, the plotted genre story. In his introduction, Chabon rankles at the post-1950 short story, "plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew." He admits he's part of the problem, but the anthology he edited aimed to clean that amorphous smudge on fiction's sleeve. The result is not quite what I hoped for, but I admire the resolve. Besides, if Chabon didn't quite get it right, it's already all out there, in musty paperbacks with quaintly low prices printed sideways on covers promising "masterpieces" and "treasuries," in which Saki's open window looks out on Henry James' tree of knowledge, and John Cheever's enormous radio can be heard in the next apartment, while Walter Mitty and a Bradbury carnival dwarf lean against the wall of Ring Lardner's Liberty Hall--and always, somewhere out there steaming in wet heat, waits Joseph Conrad's outpost of progress, as lonely and final as any Clifford D. Simak huddling place.

It was in this mood hungry for exposition, complication, tension, conflict, climax, and abrupt or lingering resolution that I watched The African Queen and Born Yesterday; and, as character-driven as these two are, their success still depends on the fruits of genre, of the tensions of adventure and romance, the humor and glory of incongruous characters and motivations shedding their differences to triumph against a common enemy--German soldiers or gangsters--and win each others' hearts--and, obviously, the viewers', in story turns and twists that are satisfying and endearing.

As I did with the film I wrote about yesterday, You Can Count on Me, I should note that these movies work not just because of the writing but the acting. Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, William Holden, and Broderick Crawford approach the material with open arms, glad to ham it up as the plot sweeps us all along. I watched The African Queen with teenagers in the room; they snickered at the lame special effects and rolled faux-sophisticated eyes at the actors' declamatory delivery. Oh, the price exacted by the post-Method world. They missed what was being offered: a thrilling tale, with leeches and hippos and crazy love, jury-rigged propellers and torpedoes, banging along like a downhill wagon. Born Yesterday, despite its staginess and civics lessons, also careens wildly, especially in those exchanges between Holliday and Crawford, dueling as characters and actors, a joy to hear.

Those two movies essentially reject the visual center of their medium--and this is true even of The African Queen, despite its exotic locale--as both directors lean the camera forward to hear every conversation, to examine the mechanisms of survival and the succor of affection. I can feel my foot slide to the essentially visual experience--and I am not sorry; it is the deepest well of my love for movies, cool water raised up from the dark to sparkle, epiphanically or not. In the meantime, I'm happy to be given the sustenance of character and plot--and to remind myself that the best movies draw it all in, until sight, sound, and narrative line run like a floodtide river, roiling and overwhelming.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

42. Ripping Yarns

Today I continue, like some dope who's never watched a movie in his life, to be in a frame of mind where all of a sudden I'm being captivated by actual plots. As any Constant Reader is painfully, deadeningly aware, I'm usually dedicated to the Mystic Order of the Seeing Eye, whose members worship the power of a film's visual elements to do most of the work of conveyance. Light, shadow, camera position and movement, shot juxtaposition--the manipulation of images draws me in, and often to a place the film may not intend; a Rorschach effect leads me to my own conclusions about a movie, in a dream-logic that changes everything. The movie, then, becomes the clean slate on which I write--or scrawl, or doodle; I'm not always as clever as I think, nor as deep-minded as I should be--until the film becomes a malleable substance, like either gold or Silly Putty, depending, not exactly on the movie itself, but my effort.

But as I've been saying, recently I've been taken in by moving parts, so to speak: stories with structure and substructure, seductive mechanisms--oh all right: dream machines. Blech. Nonetheless, a few days after Fear and Trembling I watched You Can Count on Me (2000), and although Kenneth Lonergan's debut film has a few sags and creaks, it's smart enough to depend almost entirely on the characters to do their old thing: They act, which defines them, and interact, which defines their relationships. Simple stuff, but Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Rory Culkin, Mathew Broderick, even Lonergan himself (as Linney's parish priest, whose deadpan refusal to summon any satisfying outrage at her indiscretions is both funny and affecting--and effective, in a moral-instruction-cum-passive resistance way), all plug away to make us see their characters clearly so that we can follow their story with sympathy, affection--and, best of all, crossed fingers. Lonergan and his cast make us wish them the best, even though his story refuses to neatly fold and stack them like dirty laundry finally transformed into Downy-soft linen.

The prizes go all around here: Linney's Sammy Prescott is feeling the pressure of being The Rock, the one who stayed in the small-town house, despite her parents' death when she and her brother were small and her own separation from her son's father. Sammy is keeping-it-together, and it is painful to watch--until her classic ne'er-do-well brother Terry comes home, at first just for money, but then for more: Ruffalo gives Terry such a lonely heart--and so much of it--that it threatens to become Uncle Buck-ish--and the fact that Terry embarks on an older-brotherly relationship with Sammy's little boy, played by a Culkin, no less, doesn't help the almost-uncomfortable movie echo. But Ruffalo and Culkin and the script pull back from the sloppy stuff, and everyone, even Matthew Broderick's insecure-martinet bank manager, Sammy's new boss, draws us into the story with neither sledgehammers nor violins.

My lasting impression is that everyone manages to involve us in the way they see their situation. We are allowed to cruise around in everyone's perspective--and not with the subliminal seductions of editing and cinematography, but because the story demands we do so. While not the most tightly plotted picture, it gets closer to the kind of storytelling that eschews visual aids so that we can savor conversation and resolution. This, again, is essentially a narrative experience, albeit fueled by the eminently watchable tics and graces of the characters. And while Lonergan does not give me the denouement I desired, in my silly sentimental way, it was the one that made sense.

More or less. My twelve-year-old son saw the key signs that things were going south for these characters, people he had grown attached to, admired, laughed with, shook his head ruefully over, and so on, so he bailed out with about twenty minutes to go. He also did this with Treasure of the Sierra Madre when Bogart died; despite my entreaties, my son cuts the Gordian knot occasionally, re-writing certain movies in the act of refusing to endure the thwarted promises of the first two acts. Walking out before the sad ending; now that's editing.

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