Thursday, March 30, 2006

69. Crossing the Narrow Margin: Richard Fleischer, 1916-2006

His father was the animator Max Fleisher, who worked with his uncle Dave. I've read Richard intended to study medicine, but how could he concentrate, with Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman down the hall and under the stairs, literal testaments to persistence of vision? It seems the pressure was too much--and it shows in Richard Fleischer's work, a frantic outpouring of practically every genre of film. First, a selected filmography:

The Narrow Margin (1952)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
The Vikings (1958)
Compulsion (1959)
Crack in the Mirror (1960)
Barabbas (1962)
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Doctor Dolittle (1967)
The Boston Strangler (1968)
Che! (1969)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) (U.S.A. sequences)
Blind Terror, a.k.a. See No Evil (1971)
The New Centurions (1972)
Soylent Green (1973)
The Don Is Dead (1973)
Mr. Majestyk (1974)
Mandingo (1975)
The Jazz Singer (1980)
Amityville 3-D (1983)
Conan the Destroyer (1984)

I've left out a dozen or so, but look at that list, a kind of controlled delirium, marking one of the most enviable directing careers in Hollywood--if the epitome of directing is breadth, almost undiminished relevance, and marketability (especially at the drive-in). Compiling this list from the Internet Movie Database, I was surprised at how many of them I've seen, off and on, since I was kid--I'm old enough to have gone to the theater to see Barabbas--little knowing for years that they were all directed by the same person, a fact that, at least for a few of these titles, I'm finding out just today. Martin Scorsese has commented that a part of him would've loved to have been such a journeyman director, tackling all kinds of pictures, smuggling in a quirk here, a personal vision there, leaving behind a deceptively broad body of work united not just by his name but a half-whispered hint of his inner self, his private world a sly shadow stretching across the films he directed. An auteur of sorts, in other words.

Richard Fleischer did not seem to have such aspirations--beyond a certain point. He was primarily a maker of entertainments, plugged in to certain exploitation markets, capitalizing on trends. And yet ... Well, I won't push this too far, but in his movies I see two tendencies regularly asserting themselves, one formal, the other thematic.

As a director, he seemed willing to experiment now and again, as long as the movie didn't end up serving the experiment. The hand-held camerawork and claustrophobic spaces of The Narrow Margin; the multiple-role casting of Crack in the Mirror--and the multiple-screen approach of The Boston Strangler--as well as the refusal to make the camera hyperventilate in 10 Rillington Place, despite that film's hysteria-inducing subject matter; even his willingness to ride the '80s 3-D mini-revival: These films and more provide glimpses of someone willing to take chances--not without cause, but in the service of the story. His approach to these stylistic risks is not always virtuosic--except for perhaps The Narrow Margin and The Boston Strangler--but nevertheless always earnest, always adding intriguing visual layers to genre pictures.

At their best, those formal flourishes served his thematic concerns. In many of his pictures he explores the relationship between the powerless and the powerful--and, more important, the shifting of those roles; consider Barabbas, Crack in the Mirror, Compulsion, The Vikings, Blind Terror, 10 Rillington Place, Mandingo, and Mr. Majestyk. Aligned with this are films that deal with code heroes, those who stand apart from the norm to assert their personal moralities, as seen in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Narrow Margin, Soylent Green, Che!, and The New Centurions--and OK, even Conan the Destroyer. Finally, and perhaps most telling, are the movies that pry open secretive lives, especially ones that disrupt society's smooth workings with sickening, violent force: Compulsion, The Boston Strangler, and 10 Rillington Place. Again, shifts in power, sick surprises in the dark.

Now, I know that one could extract such trends from the career of any prolific drector, but I keep seeing these tendencies to consider stylistic possibilities and to explore the nature of heroism (sometimes the mere exercise of brute force)--and often to peer at the lurkers in the shadows, those who disrupt all moral codes, public and personal. Again I hear echoes of Scorsese, who also seems obsessed with outsiders and subversives, and who also cannot resist playing with the camera and his casts. I don't know if Hollywood can much sustain Scorsese--and I know as time goes on we will not see many directors with Fleischer's broad resume. I'm happy to have grown up with his films--often catching them at the drive-in, where many of them belong (and of course that is a compliment)--and I urge you to seek out his movies yourself--or rediscover them, lined up one after the other, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Go and Netflix a Richard Fleischer Memorial Film Festival; as you can tell from the titles, you'll at least be guaranteed variety.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

68. Still Shaking

Lucky me: I haven't watched The Transporter yet, so I don't have to worry about comparing sequels to originals. Although, given Transporter 2, I don't think "worry" is the right word. The sequel is probably as disposable as the first film--and that's fine with me. It is now officially impossible to differentiate among high-speed action pictures, within a certain mid-to-big budget range. The only thing that makes one stand apart from the next, I think, is the star.

This is where Transporter 2 gets it right. Jason Statham saves the picture, not the hand-to-hand-to-foot-to-head-to-sternum-etc. fight sequences, the Aeon-Flux-ish nemesis-vixen, the impossible-trajectory vehicle chases--certainly not the Man on Fire plot. We've seen much of this before; all that's demanded of this kind of movie is a certain level of professionalism and not too much derivative drivel. And as far as the minimum standards of the genre go, Transporter 2 manages not to actively offend or distract. Again, if the movie has merit, it's because Statham as Frank Martin provides a welcome addition to the action figure shelf, carrying to the character the substantial goodwill of previous performances, particularly Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) for Guy Ritchie--with honorable mentions for Cellular (2004) and the 2003 remake of The Italian Job.

The post-matinee-serial action picture was forged in the '60s by Bond and Steve McQueen, then mutated by the Sly/Arnold/Evil Empire crushinator--followed by an almost-accidental synthesis when filmmakers in the late '80s started throwing punches and shooting bullets at and dropping buildings on Bruce Willis. His post-Moonlighting wiseacre charm and regular-guy looks, receding hairline (despite various 'pieces) and all, rejuvenated the form, weaning the action picture from its steroid habit while maintaining the Big Bang Theory.

Statham, like Willis, knows how to lower his balding head and take it like a man--well, at least the kind who's always half-scowling to himself as the rest of the world either pours it on or gets out of the way. Transporter 2 is sustained by a matter-of-fact performance that almost makes credible his character's Andy Taylor-like lack of firearms: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Frank makes his way through much of this film without a gun. (Althuogh to be fair I should note his better-than-yours kung fu.) Talk about your forceful personalities.

Transporter 2 obeys its own laws--of plot plausibility, characterization, and especially physics (welcome to Luc Besson's world)--and is kept afloat by Statham's--dare I use the word?--nuances. He is square-jawed and steely-eyed, Doc Savage in a suit; but also (almost) reluctant to be the only one in a bad bad world willing and able to slog through it, pulverizing miscreants as he goes. Watching this movie, I was convinced that when the Bond franchise decides they want a working-class hero, they need look no further.

67. Shaken, But Cool

A while ago I noted, then forgot, a little blip on the entertainment radar: The new James Bond was picked: Daniel Craig, whom I remember from Layer Cake, Road to Perdition, and Tomb Raider. I think I heard in the distance some howls of protest, but that would be inevitable in any case. I'm a bit sorry to see Pierce Brosnan go--and yes I read the gossip about his abrupt disposal; it reminded me of the similarly sudden, jet-propelled deaths of certain Bond villains, sucked out of the frame with the force of violent decompression or detonation. Then again, his Bond, so veddy veddy debonair, was lacking in a certain bullying quality we haven't seen since (obligatory fanfare) Sean Connery--feh; who cares?. Sorry, but as much of a Connery fan as I am, I'm getting tired of dragging him into the picture, so to speak. How long has it been--more to the point, how many generations--since he's toweled off, speargun at the ready? Too long to matter, I'm afraid.

To be honest, I don't worry much about Bond unless he's hogging basic cable channels, as he is periodically wont to do. I'm more interested in the incognito cameo, a fleeting figure in other movies. And I'm not talking about the long line of knockoffs, as admirable as some of them are, from Matt Helm and Our Man Flynt to Indiana Jones--and let us not forget casting Connery as Jones' father--and XXX, not to mention the even beefier action heroes that have come between, rocky terminators with long hard, ah, stares. There's a dismayingly wide range of quality there; but I am in no mood for replicas and duplicates. No, the real fun's in the sudden surprising glimpses, the non-Bonds who catch me off-balance with their sudden Bond-ness.

This started in earnest for me when I read something on Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent/2003) in, I think, Film Comment a few years ago. Sorry I can't recall the writer, but he/she daydreamed that in an alternate-universe Hollywood, Dinklage would be the next Bond. Good call: Watch Dinklage's effortless cool in The Station Agent--in a completely un-cool situation--and you'll see a kind of grace under (everyday) fire no Bond has ever completely captured--although I admit I'm fond of recalling a moment when Pierce Brosnan, zipping beneath the Thames (which in spots was on fire) in some sort of multi-surface sports-jet, actually adjusted his tie while the flames roared above and bullets thwipped in the water around him. Still, I think Dinklage could manage that, a real contrarian's treat, perfectly off-center. Since then, I've kept an eye out for such unexpected Bond-ing. Try it yourself; you'll find Bonds in the unlikliest places: George Clooney in Three Kings (1999), keeping it together; John Gries' Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), living in narcissistic bliss; even Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow--as long as you're willing to entertain the thought of Keith Richards on Her Majesty's Secret Service. The effect that accumulates is bracing: One sees how "cool" continues to be revived, despite its corruption and co-option, until the Truly Cool are marginalized, asked to wait off to one side while noisier, Pop-Tart-colored parties jitter and jive past the velvet rope. But in the shadow-Bonds--as riddled with self-reflexivity as they may be--you'll hear echoes of cool-cats like Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, John Coltrane and others, with close-cropped hair and black suits, thin ties and skinny lapels. They were cool because they knew how to keep it. Bondspotting reminds you that this is not yet gone, that some still know about something cool.

Now don't bolt, but this brings me to Bill Murray. Not so odd, I guess: His almost-over-the-hill actor Bob Harris in Lost in Translation (2003) is in Japan doing a whiskey ad--"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time"--and the photographer asks him to think of 007. (Bob responds, "He drinks martinis, but all right.") And as a comic actor Murray has always cultivated a kind of cool, deadpan and charming--or a close approximation thereof. But Murray's Bond movie is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). He has gadgets, a mission, and sundry villains, confederates, and women in various--and sometimes total--stages of affection, ire, and undress.

But one moment stands out for me, when I knew he could be Bond: The pirates are on his ship, making a mess of everything, shooting people. Steve is tied up, but he chews through the ropes (!) and runs at the pirates, gun blazing; and he's wearing a big floppy robe and a Speedo. It is not a "cool" moment per se, but watching him I thought, "He should do one Bond movie." I think I'm right--and not a jokey, Bond-busters spoof--another ex-SNL-er has already done that more times than necessary--but a straightforward Bond programmer, with the standard-issue nemesis and his illogical world-domination plot, the good babe and the bad babe--with single-entendre name--the Sharper Image ordnance and Eames-designed lair. With Murray, we would get the American cool Bond, his eyes letting us in on the joke, but his hand steady. Murray may be getting a bit old for the part--and OK, maybe a number of directors over the years have already given him the chance to play Bond, albeit under deep cover--but I'd still like to see that license to kill given to someone who seems almost to disdain it, even while dispatching scores of henchmen. And if I may once more invoke Connery-Bond, I think Murray could also handle the bully-boy aspect of the role, the slight sneer and amoral gleam in the eye as he cracks the unconscious minion's skull one more time, for luck. After that, Bond could go back to his franchise a bit refreshed, and a little more than amused.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

66. Split Infinity

Poor little nerd: I can't stop enjoying Star Trek. In my defense, I'll assert the various Treks do at times provide the pleasures of well-made SF, in which a "fascinating" (thank you, Mr. Spock) idea is extrapolated to its (extra-)logical conclusion. Kirk's Tribbles and his visit to the City on the Edge of Forever, Picard's endless Prime Directive quandaries, Sisko's future socio-political history, even Janeway's internecine struggles; more often than not I find myself watching puzzles unfold--and, more important, the figures who cause or solve those puzzles, so that, in the end, Trek's characters provide, I think, the deepest rewards. As with any TV series, familiarity breeds content, and the Treks are generous in their efforts to give us "interesting" (thank you again, Spock) but readily identifiable characters. On the surface, Star Trek is "comfort video," as challenging (OK, and as good for you) as any beige middle-American meal, and as easy to consume. This partly explains why I've recently turned to Enterprise on DVD, perhaps the last Trek series; I'm watching every episode--almost dutifully, I'll admit (to continue the gustatory analogy, I guess I'm being good and cleaning my plate), but also along the way gathering some rewards: the series takes place about a century before Kirk's Trek, and includes affectionate nods to the first series' day-glo aesthetic and mini-skirt/Nehru jacket sensibility; more important, in its plots and characters it rewards The Faithful without turning the series into a poster-board presentation at a Trekkie-con.

But, beyond the blandly satisfying familiarity of series television and the intermittent SF rewards, what is it about Trek that holds my interest? I want to get back the characters--specifically, one recurring feature of Trek characterization; to clarify I'll turn to anthropologist Jon Wagner's 1998 book, Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, , which offers compelling arguments for Trek-as-myth-cycle, as it charts the shifts in the various Treks as reflections of similar movements in modern American society. A number of years ago, a friend pointed out that every other culture has their myths set in an imaginary past; modern Western society, on the other hand--at least since the late nineteenth century--positions its myths in the future. Wagner's book explores how Trek contributes to this future-engineered myth-making, in part how it manipulates its characters. In a section called "The Doppleganger Effect," Wagner points out how often Treks deal with the idea of the doppleganger, the alter ego that haunts us. He notes that Jung considered this "the strongest of all the archetypes." This "evil version of the self" is "the repository of all the personal traits that one ordinarily refuses to confront and may actively deny." Jung insists, though, that we must recognize and reconcile with this double. Wagner notes that Counselor Troi in The Next Generation actually mentions this in one of many Trek split-personality episodes, "Frame of Mind," in which she advises Riker to "own" his other self. Like Kirk before him--split in two in one episode ("The Enemy Within"), and elsewhere ("Mirror, Mirror") propelled into an alternate universe of literally devilish "others" (the alternate Spock particularly fits the bill, not only equipped with his requisite pointed ears but sporting a goatee)--Riker also faces his other self at least twice, as do sundry Trek characters. Most intriguing is the android Data, a "double" himself who time-travels--and whose remains are discovered in his "future"--and who encounters Lore, his manufactured "evil twin."

As Wagner comments, such splitting/doubling allows for "explicit interaction" between the separated aspects of self. I'm especially attracted to this, since one of the pleasures of Trek characters--and more than that, something that I believe lies at the center of all the Trek myths--is a fundamental principle: "to boldly go" cannot occur until one achieves Jungian "unification with the shadow self" (coincidentia oppositorum). The real "strange new world" is the divided self, that is, the Prime Directive-bound passive observer vs. the explorer/intruder. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer; they all lead us, not just out but in, not merely toward the Peter Pan-ish "second star to the right" (as Kirk commands in the sixth movie, The Undisocvered Country/1991) but to Pan himself, unwilling to grow up, aggressively "striving, seeking, finding and not yielding," to semi-quote Tennyson's "Ulysses." (And why not, as long as I'm writing about a series that loved to quote the old warhorses?) From Kirk's Cold Warrior to Picard's empathetic concensus-builder, from Janeway's Wanderer to Sisko's frontier sheriff-cum-Emissary, and--once more time-traveling--back to Archer's--well, exactly what I'm not yet sure; Jim Hawkins saving everyone from the pirates in Treasure Island? I haven't seen enough episodes yet to decide. But taken together, these characters--and their split motivations--seem to vacillate between Self and Double--until they recognize and reconcile, as Wagner and Jung remind us, with the truth that the grotesque figure in the dimness is ourselves. It is a sly myth because it is an open-ended one: the ultimate sequel. Gene Roddenberry toyed with the basic stuff, sometimes softly yielding, sometimes rock-jagged, that we feel beneath our feet as we make our way through this mythic terrain, accompanied as well as accompanying.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

65. One Dark Blot

When Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line fingers the teeth of that table saw at the start of the movie, the convicts' feet thumping like the T. Rex in Jurassic Park--both making the water's surface jump--I was immediately relieved: I knew I wasn't going to have to slog dutifully through every inspiring step in a calcified Great One's life and career, milestones bright and obvious, ticked off in obligation to its subject. That is the grave danger of the biopic, and I won't make comparisons--although I do need to mention that Ray is mostly compelling for Jamie Foxx's performance, rather than the movie's structure and rhythms; while Great Balls of Fire, Jim McBride's 1989 take on Jerry Lee Lewis, wisely chooses to spin out like the Killer himself, glorious and goofy; its rhythm is "the beat, the beat, the beat." Walk the Line follows McBride's lead, except it respects its subject more--while not sanctifying it. Phoenix's Cash is introspective and haunted--which can be a trap as well, the Deep Pop Star approach that makes my skin crawl.

Mangold and company, however, manage to avoid the extremes of both Saint John and the Man in Black. Instead, we are given a fundamental problem--How does one recover from a deep and early loss?--and asked to watch that recovery stumble up the hill. The saw-blade that killed Cash's brother resonates like those stomping feet, and Phoenix carries the sound in his eyes; we can also see it in the trademark scar--the internet tells me he was born with it; another metaphor--that forces even his sunniest or saddest moods into a bit of a sneer; and best of all we hear it in his voice. Phoenix (and co-star Witherspoon) give the movie a great gift by doing their own singing--and not to display their abilities as mimics, but to capture the emotional depth of the need for restoration. Phoenix has staked his claim on that need--I don't like to indulge in biographical criticism, but I cannot help thinking of River, dead at the hands of the same kinds of demons that snapped at Cash's heels--and Joaquin's: again, the internet tells me he is a recovering alcoholic. I often think bringing up such details is rudely intrusive, ultimately distracting, but in Walk the Line they do accumulate in the biographies of the characters and the actors, commingling to provide layers of sediment--or is it steps on Jacob's Ladder?--that enrich, not cheapen, the film, and allow Cash to ascend intact. Among his final recordings is My Mother's Hymn Book. And the last song on that album is "Just As I Am": "I come I come ... waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot." And as long as we're on Last Things, the last song on the last volume of American Recordings is "We'll Meet Again." It is a beautifully silly thing, since it is also the song that wraps up Dr. Strangelove. Johnny serenades the Apocalypse, and manages a quick one-sided grin.

64. "How am I not myself?"

Although in some ways I feel uncomfortably like I'm watching an indie-phile's case study that hits all the right notes--"philosophical" musings countered by self-reflexive deconstruction of such musings; startlements (the string of profanities that begins the movie, Jason Schwartzman being wet-nursed by Jude Law); lo-fi soundtrack; primary-color palette (with digital doodlings); reinvention of Old Guards (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin) as Old Turks (not to mention the Young ones, particularly Jason (Rushmore) Schwartzman); and obligatory stunt-casting and iconoclasm (consider Naomi Watts disheveled and Isabelle Huppert begrimed--and bent over a log)--I must admit to heart-ing I Heart Huckabees (2004).

The problem, though, is that I am a sentimentalist--at times unashamed, at others apologetic, at still others masked by a faux-casual "directness" I fear I've swiped from my betters: Phil Marlowe, Bogart, even Bruce Willis when he isn't howling through a firestorm. In any case, my sentimentalism impedes me from a clear-eyed appreciation of the general shape of a movie. I go in wanting one particular thing, getting another--or, more often, many others--but willfully tossing it all out in favor of some off-center self-referential moment, some hint of my own life outside the movie, instead of sticking with the movie itself. I simply have too much (I believe) I want to say. Thank God I actually try to be silent during a movie--even so, I've been scolded for spontaneous utterances; heck, I can even now see myself at home pausing the movie to hold forth on something.

Yet I'm the one who's always insisting that the first pleasure of movies is the passive nature of the experience. Consider that it affects both sight and hearing--and even feeling, even at home, with the surround sound cranked up (I won't consider John Waters' foray into "Odorama" in 1981's Polyester)--to such a degree that one can surrender to it unconsciously. Live theater cannot do this, at least for me: I'm always aware that I'm watching people pretend. But the movies allow me--or so I keep insisting--to sit back and relax, while they lay it all out for me. Ha! Never happened, else I would never watch them. I know me--and the fact that I have finally broken down over the last few years and committed to writing about the intersection between movies and my life testifies to this: I need to remake everything in my own image. I'll spot something in a movie--a big thing, like the yearning for home in Howards End (1992); or a small thing, like Dick Powell's half-smiles in Murder, My Sweet (1944)--and hog it all for myself, as if it were just waiting there for me to pick it up--or, my real fear, to wrench it out of context--and take it home with me, where I can re-tool it, kustom-kar-style, to fit my own dizzy dreams.

I did all this and more to I Heart Huckabees--and I'm glad I've been writing about this, because it's only taken me a couple of paragraphs to convince myself I've done nothing wrong; actually, I'm doing exactly what I should. At the moment when a movie trips the breaker and shuts me down, I have the opportunity, quiet in the dark, fumbling to regain the light--but calm, even (if I must say so myself) thoughtful--to decide what to do when I switch the light back on. Huckabees is a good movie for this kind of ruminating reinvention; indeed, it all but demands it. When Schwartzman's Albert looks at the Polaroid of his arch-nemesis Brad (Jude Law) in tears, and little digital squares float like butterflies atop Brad's face, replacing it with Albert's, I felt the breaker go--and the light I restored, in a second or two, was made of forgiveness and reconciliation. Albert was seeing interconnectedness. It was bliss.

And then of course the movie cuts to a slo-mo interlude in which Albert and Brad spin joyfully, clutching each others' hands in mouthwash-fresh bliss, love conquering all at last, in a soft-focus, screw-that-noise dismantling of the moment--but not quite, and not entirely. Huckabees keeps doing that: Handing me a bright gem or clod of earth, and asking me to erase the distinction--while maintaining judgment, moral and otherwise. See? I've remade the movie, gotten it right where I want it--I'll write "need it" for the sake of justification and completion. But I think Huckabees plays this game, not because of, but despite, my inclination--my determination, I admit--to lay claim to every movie, to set it just so on the mantle, where I can glance at it to remind me of me. I heart Huckabees because it chides me for such colonization, such empire-building--but opens its borders to me at the same time, daffy and deft; my kind of tightrope-walk, where I can achieve my own balance, and make my way at my own chosen speed.

Monday, March 20, 2006

63. Hey There

I can always place my age--ten--when my father brought home our dog Georgie because my mother named her after the Seekers' song, "Georgy Girl" (as you can see, we erred on the spelling). I don't recall seeing the movie Georgy Girl on its 1966 release (or since), until today--even though it seemed vaguely familiar; but I would have to guess it didn't play on '70s television, with its unmarried cohabitants and casual abortion references--well, the latter being the actions of the movie's only "villain," Charlotte Rampling's Meredith, eager to get rid of yet another unwanted pregnancy, but this time sticking it out, under Georgy and the father Jos' (Alan Bates) influence--still, there it was, the shadow of an issue that would've never made it to UHF television in those days. And it doesn't seem the kind of movie to have cropped up on basic cable much.

One thing is certain: I knew from the song that our terrier-sized mutt was too high-strung to be "Swingin' down the street so fancy-free." And I did have a general sense of the plot, probably from the song lyrics--"dowdy" girl seeks love--and, more than that, an image of Lynn Redgrave's rueful little grin, not quite swingin' in her particular '60s, set in a colorless, rain-spattered London. For years the movie has occupied the same space in my time-closet as To Sir, With Love (1967), a second black-and-white snapshot of a future I wasn't sure I was going to get--or necessarily wanted. It seemed a bit frayed at the edges, cut loose from secure moorings.

Little did I know how right I was, how spot-on were Georgy girl's sad, almost-frightened slumped shoulders and uncertain advances into a larger world. I confess I identified not with Alan Bates' kinetic rowdy, Jos Jones, but with Georgy's halting uncertainty--and, finally seeing the movie today, I was right: I understood with her that the move into "adulthood" is beset with exhausting delays and half-measures. Georgy searches for a firm place to stand, purused by her father's employer, millionaire James Leamington, played with just a touch of post-Lolita self-consciousness by James Mason; and by Jos, dance-hall-clownish but calculating, capering but icy-eyed, who loves then leaves Georgy. She ends up with the millionaire, who takes Meredith's unwanted baby as part of the deal, while Jos skips away--his posture, though, a bit slumped himself as he stands alone on the pier, another messy interlude along Georgy's way.

As the credits roll at the end, Georgy sits in her wedding-car, baby in arm, while Leamington, having what he wants, fumbles, befuddled. And Georgy stares ahead, her smile fading; but she no longer averts her eyes from a world that has held her pudgy face and blocky frame off to one side, a little scorned and a little cast-off. The title song plays merrily along, a weird counterpoint (like so many '60s movie and TV themes, narrating the plot--"You're rich, Georgy girl") to Redgrave's solemn--sad? resolute? hard to tell--face, moving onward past the '60s into her version of adulthood.

I'm reminded of the "Up Series," begun by Paul Almond in 1964 and continued ever since by Michael Apted, a lifelong documentary in which a group of English boys and girls--now men and women--have been interviewed every seven years since they were seven years old themselves; Apted completed 49 Up last year--and I'm 49 myself. I will write about this series another time; in passing, let me say that in its own way it is my favorite documentary--and why not? It has followed me, year for year, most of my life. It intersects with Georgy Girl because of its monochromatic haziness--so close, and yet in another world, far from my own postadolescent stasis (at least Georgy moves). Still, I felt I would in part inherit that world; and the thought made me a little afraid. It seemed more about loss than gain--which for me turned out to be the truth for some years.

So Georgy Girl discomfits me today, but only as an unexpected glimpse of myself in a sudden mirror. Somewhere or other, James Thurber describes such an encounter with a mirror as a kind of horror, a cruelly objective revelation, as you see yourself naked and pitiable; I prefer to think of it as an aching twinge, like touching a sensitive tooth, followed by relief as the pain passes, like swift septets of years, up and up.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

62. Pulling a Boner

One of the first blogs I posted on this site was on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985). I will indulge and quote myself at length:

"[Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is] completely irresistible to some obsessive part of my brain that feels perfection just enough out of reach that it may as well be at the other end of the universe, or of life; exciting with the shivery frisson of recognition of some half-buried desire; completely innocent in its exploration of the loss of innocence, its post-something wink at everything I'd forgotten about the solitary moments of childhood, in which I held the world I'd invented close to my face so that the other one could fade away; and of course exploding with the joy of self, in which the tiniest bite of cereal is savored, because you can hold your own spoon now."

I could write that about any number of Tim Burton movies, in particular Beetle Juice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994), Big Fish (2003) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), not to mention his work with Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). And while one might argue that every Tim Burton movie is a guilty pleasure, I must admit to particularly savoring the indulgences of Batman Returns (1992) and Mars Attacks! (1996), two recklessly jerry-rigged collages that insist they're comedies, classy as a sequin'd tarantula.

At his most dedicated, Burton spins and fingerpops his way through the deep recesses, cracking wise like a cathartic whip. And it seems his most constant companion in this is Johnny Depp, who, in four movies with Burton, seems more than willing to play--and to do so unsupervised, like Pee-Wee, allowing for the kind of unembarrassed foolishness found only in one's unconscious, a hyper kid who leaps into the frame and makes a welcome mess of things. This kind of madness is good for you, a free space where the grappling outbursts of childhood finally have the room to mean something beyond the hints offered by the dim, isolated images of our past. At least mine: Burton/Depp lets me know it's perfectly fine that I'm always wanting to be eight, alone in the backyard and spinning around, just because. Like Wordsworth says, that kid is my dad.

So what went wrong with Corpse Bride (2005)? It had Depp, it had the means to erase inhibitions offered by animation, it even had a patented Charles Addams sensibility to open the creaking door to all kinds of mischief. In other words, why wasn't it The Nightmare Before Christmas? I won't go all the way with this, but maybe it was the absence of that stop-action pinwheel, Henry Selick. Now, he may not have been absolutely necessary--Johnny can gibber and squeak all on his own, acting the way Donald O'Connor danced, with gravity-defying floats and flips. (Digressive) case in point: Despite my better judgment, I am always mesmerized by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)--although that may be due to the presence of yet another unhinged hotfoot, Terry Gilliam--but I'll save that for another day. The thing is, I was certain that Depp and Burton would give us more in Corpse Bride than we got.

Again, perhaps what it needed was Selick's apparent willingness to coast right up to the edge of a sticky "13," ready-made to slap itself onto the heel-end of the movie's "PG," to tear at the cowardly membrane of the superego and let the id come out and play. True, it almost gets there: Helena Bonham Carter's Bride is at once noisome and voluptuous, her figure reminiscent of Lisa Marie as both the Martian hooker in Mars Attacks! and Vampira in Ed Wood; and the dead are at times happily ghastly--there's some slippy-sloppy fun with the guy who splits in two--and one can never go wrong with a Peter Lorre maggot. But it stops short of Pee-Wee's joy--or Nightmare's gothic glee. I am compelled to bring up Monkeybone (2001), Selick's Cool World-ish Freudian pratfall that tosses Brendan Fraser--the beefy Depp?--into That Which Is Unconscious and shakes the cocktail, drunk with its own lubricious abandon. OK, so it takes advantage of its PG-13 like a drunken fratboy; but also consider Nightmare Before Christmas, with its own creepy-crawly disregard for restraint--just like Pee-Wee and Charlie. So Monkeybone does not have to be the acid test for this kind of thing--although in its zippy, hubba-hubba horny way, it revels in its commitment to a netherworld. Corpse Bride refuses to go all out, except for selected moments, such as the dancing skeleton song--which I will admit flips its lid--with ample help from Danny Elfman, turning and turning in his usual happy-go-wacky and widening gyres. But Depp remains sotto voce, the photography is too-often murky, and the plot plods. A vita more acido than dolce, despite its alluring allusions.

Perhaps I wanted too much: the movies as Freudian dream, wish-fulfillment with puppets; or perhaps the movie I wanted has already been made by these folks, any number of times. So maybe Corpse Bride isn't so much disappointing as unnecessary--like Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001), despite its own moments of giddy excess. Or maybe it's just me again, in the mood for Principles built on Pleasure, wanting to see a movie willing to go skidding on an oily, banana-shaped peel, in a world where a cigar is never just a cigar. Say: I may have been asking this of the wrong movie: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit--one of the Oscar wins that made sense this year--may have been the answer all along; after all, as it so pointedly warns us, it "may contain nuts."

Monday, March 13, 2006

61. As One with Authority

As I've mentioned before, I continue to be pleased with the great gift I've given myself at this time in my movie life, a kind of second youth: revelatory first viewings of the great ones, the must-sees that I haven't, tugging at my sleeve, reminding me that I have measured out my life in popcorn boxes, and have miles of film to go, and so on. Poetic, but at the heart of it a practical concern: Do I have time for them all?

Well, at least one more (he told himself again):

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) is Kenji Mizoguchi's retelling of Akinari Ueda's "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain"--its "informal literal English title," as the Internet Movie Database informs me--and I'll never get tired of those informal literal translations, stiff and beautiful, like the film's ghostly Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), lovely as only an Asian ghost can be, hiding in the woods like a fawn, but still the doom of anyone who gets too close. The film alternates between domestic melodrama and archetypical fable: Two simple but ambitious men--one (a potter) pursues wealth, the other (a would-be samurai), glory--endanger their families during Japan's feudal wars for the sake of their desire for gain, while ghosts possess and spirits soothe, until ambition is humbled beneath the buddhistic yearning for a middle path of compassion amidst suffering.

I just finished teaching a college writing course; I had the students slam and skid like demo-derby drivers into the two-wheeled-turns and fireballs of various Deep Thinkers and High Talkers, from Plato to Emerson, Jung to Lao-Tzu. We finished with the topic of ethics and morality, for which we read a little Torah--decalogue and addenda, Bill Blake's dreaded "thou shalt not's"--and some Sermon on the Mount--in which Jesus, with a straight face (I think Keaton learned it from Him), explains how the Law will stand (except for, you know, all that stoning and scowling and blind adherence)--and a sura from the Koran--ever notice how Allah sounds awe-fully familiar to Judeo-Christian ears, especially in His insistence that we take care of innocents and remember what side our bread's buttered on--or however that goes--I've always had adage dyslexia. We then listened to Iris Murdoch explain why religion is unnecessary for morality, and we even gave glowering, towering Nietzsche a go-round; he was alternately hated and loved by my students. Some were insulted because he called them weak-minded whiners for believing in God (I explained to them that he was not under the same restrictions as they to treat his opposition with respect--as to why that's so, I maintained a diplomatic silence; he was, after all, our guest.); others were relieved to hear that, God being dead, nothing was going to stand in their way, and they could finally be happy.

We finished with the Dalai Lama, who in his own way provided for them the least accessible text. This surprised me at first, since he is non-sectarian and kindly, and a bit of a celebrity. But in the selection we read from Ethics for the New Millennium he begins, "all the world's major religions stress the importance of cultivating love and compassion," which made him lose credibility right off the bat among both believers and non-believers: the former seemed uncomfortable with the way he lumped them together with other camps, and the latter simply knew he was wrong. But that isn't the worst of it. In common-sensical declarative sentences, he announces the need for "unconditional, undifferentiated, and universal" compassion--"empathy" is the word he keeps using, "our ability to enter into and, to some extent, share others' suffering"--and insists that one should engage in this kind of behavior without any thought at all for gain--but that the effect is nonetheless gain; such compassion, he argues, "is the wisest course for fulfilling self-interest."

Yeah, right, my students concluded. (Well, at least some of them; the rest were silence, ha ha.) This kind of thing, they admitted, sounds nice--poetic, sensitive, idealistic--but enemies are enemies, after all, and life is competition (and this they know: as students their intellectual worth is measured by a GPA, down to the hundredth of a point), and such idealism is fine for him, and so on. Self-interest and relativism combined to marginalize His Holiness. Earlier, we had read Machiavelli, who knew all about power; if pressed, I think as a group they'd vote him the most useful thinker, more so even than Jefferson with his generalities about equality and Maria Montessori and her advice to let kids fidget. (We read not deeply, but with breadth.) In short, you need to learn how to compete, that is, win; and, as you do, be prepared for attack; these are life's constants.

This is the smoking, rubble-strewn plain upon which Ugetsu begins. The men seek fortune and glory, and are indeed successful, but of course at a bitter price. And it is paid in a dreamlike marketplace, where Genjuro's (Masamuki Yori) babble of commerce is hushed by a beautiful, gliding ghost; and on the battlefield, where the clatter of warfare delivers a general's head to an accidental samurai, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa). Their gains and losses, captured by Kazuo Miyagawa's mist-shrouded cinematography, provide an illustration of the Dalai Lama's calm insistence that one must enter another's suffering to end one's own--and the other's. Mizoguchi devotes the middle portion of his film to Genjuro's "possession" by Lady Wakasa. She is many things, not the least of which respite from the storms of ambition--as well as its prize: a beautiful, Geisha-like patroness who murmurs love over both Genjuro and his blue-tinged pottery. It is an essay on beauty, love, and delusion. And then Mizoguchi draws us down to the core, as he lingers on the child in the story, Genichi (Ikio Sawamura), and the women who suffer, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), whose fates are mirrored by the tale of Machiko Kyo's Lady Wakasa, abandoned as her noble house fell, lost like Miyagi and fallen like Ohama. Genjuro, seduced by the Lady's ghost, is then soothed by his wife Ohama's spirit, who appears to remind him of his true need--to show compassion and thus be loved--and lays him to rest, back home with his son.

Mizoguchi's film arrived at an opportune time for me. Just as I was watching entreaties for selflessness fail in the classroom, the movies let me watch those pleas reassert and fulfill their promises. I'm glad I waited for Ugetsu--or maybe it was waiting for me, when I needed it. George Harrison is right: all things must pass. Ugetsu documents how one thing, in passing, leads to another, which passes too, but not before meeting yet another, in a space where, as the Dalai Lama tried to tell my students, one can assert, "there is nothing amazing about being highly educated; there is nothing amazing about being rich. Only when the individual has a warm heart do these attributes become worthwhile." Sneer at such beatitudes if you must; all it adds up to is perfection.

Friday, March 10, 2006

60. "Like in poetry I go dot-dot-dot ..."

I can feel myself heading toward one of those headlong-rush periods in which I cannot watch enough movies. And I want It All, too: plenty of new ones that will delight and amaze, layered with plenty of old ones I want to reacquaint myself with--and acquaint my growing children, whose turn it is to tumble down the long rocky hills of cinema--or skip like smooth stones across the bright water, their progress marked by silver arcs. Depends on what's playing.

The first one up was both a tumble and a shining skip: We watched Sling Blade--1996, I surprised myself by finding out; only ten years ago. I thought it was earlier, almost a story from childhood, it sits so large and square in my head, like Karl, Billy Bob Thornton's "humped-over retard," as Doyle (Dwight Yoakam, making my jaw drop like every other actor in this movie) puts it, a kind of monument to the quiet, scary intimacy the movies can manage every once in a while, zeroing in on your heart, making you live in it, like Frank (Lucas Black, who also appears with Thornton in one of my three or four favorite sports moves, Friday Night Lights). And, as Karl tells Vaughan (John Ritter, giving us a great gift here--and, I do not forget, playing flabbergasted opposite Thornton in Bad Santa--a guilty pleasure, gawd help me), your heart's "an awful big place to live in."

Reading over the previous paragraph, I'm glad I distracted myself with blather about great performances and peripheral appearances; it keeps me from thinking much about Sling Blade itself--because the more I think about it, the more my eyes well up. Hard to type through a veil of tears--or in a vale of tears; sometimes I can't tell the difference. Sling Blade never stops wearing me down, from its wistful, Cuckoo's Nest-like opening music to the end-title song, "The Maker" ("I have seen the flaming swords / There over east of Eden / Burning in the eyes of the Maker"). And in between, moment after moment of a voice sliding like thunder, a hand unfolding with an innocent in its palm, no bigger than a squirrel. Like Karl, clutching the hammer, I cannot stop the urge toward full-immersion baptism, movie-style.

Before I do, though, I'll manage an observation or two. When Karl asks Frank's permission to put his arm around him, Thornton gives us Karl's whole life, as a son, a brother, a friend, and a father, in fifteen seconds of soft gesture. And fathers and mothers at that moment should hang their heads in shame for every short word and missed opportunity. And when he tells Frank that he likes the way he talks, too, and grins, that averted mask of a face breaking into small joy, I see for a moment an innocent who has been forced to wend his way alone, lit up by those flaming swords--but now not alone, but with the boy, hand in hand at last, like Milton's First Parents in Paradise Lost.

"Headlong rush" or not, after Sling Blade I think I need a little less gravitas and a little more levitas, or I'll be calling it a keyser blade myself. Corpse Bride, anyone?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

59. The Cat That Won't Cop Out: Gordon Parks, 1912-2006

"Cut the crap, man, this is Shaft. " All his life, it seems. Gordon Parks took photographs for the Farm Security Administration. While Dorothea Lange snapped migrant farm workers and Walker Evans praised famous men--as Alabama sharecroppers--with James Agee, Gordon Parks turned to Ella Watson, a cleaning-woman in Washington, D.C., where, Parks insisted, "discrimination and bigotry were worse there than any place I had yet seen." His photographs of Watson were more small essays than journalism. Like his fellow FSA photographers, he carefully posed his subjects, choosing from a number of negatives the one worth keeping.

I was looking at some of his photographs, as well as Lange's and Evans', and thinking about a student presentation I had heard earlier today in a course on media and ethics (and I will not take this solemn occasion to discuss the ironies of the life of the mind). The student felt that the ethical responsibility of the photojournalist was to relate in unflinching detail What Is. He's right, but he's also aware that photographs are not entirely objective moments. The presence of the frame itself imperatively demands subjectivity. The trick--at least as far as the ethics of the situation are concerned--is not to let the frame send the photographer down the slippery slope. As always, the truth slips off to the side, down at the periphery, even while the finger touches and the camera's eye momentarily stares, but the photographer has to keep shooting, getting the truth back in the frame, shot by shot, until it begins to behave. Tough work.

Parks' photographs reflect this effort. They are studiously flat at times, carefully lit--almost over-lit, as if to implore the camera to tell the truth. In the end, then, they are ethical moments, if only because Ella Watson stares back at me, and the moment is almost, as they say in the interpersonal relations biz, "transactional"--even despite the almost-joke of her American Gothicism. And that is why I trust her, and the photo, and Parks, despite the liberties of composition. I'm willing to accept limits--what else can one do?--as long as I feel that transaction. Reading that Parks had died, I looked at some stills from his film Shaft (1971), and made a tentative connection between Richard Roundtree's serious mouth and honest eyes. I know I may be dreaming, but everywhere I look these days I see entreaty, and feel my own sorry attempts to answer as I should, without artifice; beyond my own unavoidable frame and sometimes-self-conscious pose.

Above: Reverend Gassaway stands in a bowl of sacred water banked with the roses that he blesses and gives to celebrants. Photograph by Gordon Parks, 1942.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

58. "Living like this is a full-time business." --Mark "Rent-Boy" Renton, Trainspotting

Danny Boyle is my age--both of us born in 1956--and I'm just foolish enough to let that mean something. Or maybe not so foolish, if only because I often find myself sharing the concerns and sensibilities of his movies. He may be from Manchester and I from New Jersey, but we both seemed to have passed the same streets on our way home.

I felt a touch of kinship from the start. Shallow Grave (1994) comes from the same world as Seinfeld's. The people on this planet are self-indulgent, self-destructive--but oblivious, even taken aback by the notion that something could go terribly wrong. And before it does, there's endless laughter, cutting wit, childish glee. I rode that wave in my early 20s, luckily avoiding jail or impalement, but still surfing those waters with my friends, our tireless energy for the clever--and the clever-clever, the self-conscious and -reflexive, sending us through the pipeline. Boyle grabbed that sensibility and rubbed our noses in it, but good.

And speaking of "deserved," did any of us get what we deserved--or expected--from 1996's Trainspotting? As with all post-Pulp Fiction cinema of various underworlds, this movie used aggressive punctuation, visually, aurally, every which way, not only to watch its addicts caper and reel, but to let us all but lay our hands on the third rail of their lives. I'd been waiting for a movie that pulled back the leathery flaps of addiction's chest-cavity--no, really, I had--and not simply as docu- or shocku-drama, but like a mad doctor intent on the necessary understanding that leads to a cure. But Boyle's film is smarter than that, and knows that "choosing life" is not the "cure," but simply the other kid, the one that sits on the curb across the street--hearing and seeing the hoods rumble in the playground there across the way, maybe even wiping his own bloody nose, sent staggering from the fray and deciding for once to just go home. Trainspotting is like that exhausted punk, rueful, but nervous he might go back.

In light of--or is that in the shadow of?--Trainspotting, 28 Days Later (2002) made me see something in the Danny Boyle movies I'd watched that I had only guessed at, hoped for. It was a simple gesture, really, but I was thankful for it: He was concerned for his characters, and did his best to save most of them--despite the necessity, as we know (and as I've written before), of supreme idiocy at some point in a horror film, to get the innocent that last inch closer to the monster--and did indeed spare some of them. It became a movie about survival strategies, rather than execution techniques. Preferable, yes? A movie that instructs the prey rather than the predator.

And then--as I've experienced enough times before that I continue to allow the movies to sit there in front of me, demanding my attention--Boyle shows me what I'd like to think is the card he's always been holding, the one that's determined every play, every bet: Millions (2004). Aside from the fact that this movie seems to place Boyle in the category of directors who want to work in every genre, it also vindicates the attention I've been paying to his movies. I knew he had it in him, this sweet, sad, joyful lark, suckering me in with casual saints and clear water. I watched it as part of a long movie weekend that included Domino, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, This Gun for Hire, and The Constant Gardener--and one of my daughters pointed out that the last and Millions both involve themselves with Africa, the death of a wife, and the need for redemption. I'm wearing ashes today, asked to accept love and humility. And watching Millions, I felt ready to stop being clever-clever, to pick myself up and go home, to protect and serve. The little boy who talks to saints in Millions, Damian Cunningham, has a conversation with St. Clare of Assisi. She lights up a cigarette, and Damian asks her if they're allowed to smoke in heaven; she tells him, "You can do what you like up there, son. It's down here you have to make the effort." I'm not sure where Danny Boyle's efforts might lead, but the movies I've seen reveal a hand bold enough to touch fire and generous enough to offer a palmful from a sweet spring.

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