Wednesday, May 31, 2006

90. A Gaze Blank (But Pitying?)

As I watched Steven Spielberg's procedural-from-hell, Munich, an odd echo bounced from another movie, a structural feature, like a particularly vaulting ceiling, that slid into my head: Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood (1967), for its part echoing Capote's "nonfiction novel," in that, as Dick famously promises Perry, "honey, we'll blast hair all over them walls"; but, in one of the most expertly crafted, poignantly suspended, and ruthlessly executed versions of one of the oldest strategies of narrative, it makes us wait, and wait, and wait, until we're sick of waiting--and don't you wish, even better, sick of ourselves for our impatience? As we are led toward something awful, but made to want it, then made ashamed for our desire, we fall again into a trap as time-worn-but-true as Oedipus' foregone revelation or Hamlet's authorized revenge. It is unfair of Capote--and Sophocles, and Shakespeare, and, in Munich, Spielberg--to play both sides. But then again, they're the only sides we have, and fool me twice so I'll know who's supposed to be ashamed.

We know--or should--what happened to the Olympic team in 1972, with sportscasters fittingly the messengers of decline and horror, regular guys like Jim McCay telling us flatly that it's just when you thought you could hope for the best that you get the worst. And Spielberg lets us know from the start, even if we don't remember our history (and I guess 1972 is history now)--but like Brooks/Capote, Spielberg, makes us wait. At its worst, such a move can be a cruel appropriation of the sorrows of the dead and our lip-smacking appetite for death, the big payoff. And reading/watching In Cold Blood, we can feel the manipulation. Then something happens: the narrative parts, not just for the blood on the walls, but for our own good, and provides a glimpse into the abyss, with that black reflection rippling down there and just enough light to see ourselves.

Given its narrative structure, Munich takes on the feel of a Kubrick movie--or maybe a Hitchcock movie remade by Kubrick: It lays out the state of things, and backs away so we can get a better, grimmer view. But there is also enough Spielberg left to push us, like Sophocles pushes Oedipus, to pity, both in the giving and receiving. So maybe there is not much Kubrick after all: just a cold touch that refuses to let go of the back of our necks, forcing us to see, with, again, a devilish dab of Hitch, as we yearn to see the executions in their details, until we side with the careful preparations made and tense challenges faced by the--I want to say "villain," but between Kubrick and Hitchcock and Shakespeare and Sophocles, there's so little room to see which is which--good guy, bad guy--that in the end the suspended death of the athletes seems not just inevitable but universal, and not just political but personal.

I won't digress too far, but something about Spielberg lately makes me think he keeps making 9/11 movies, from Minority Report's fruitless, horror-movie urge to be safe, to War of the Worlds'--well, everything--and culminating in Munich, thrusting us to shared guilt, relentless as a corridor of blood you don't need the shine to see.

Above: Hitchcock casts his Frenzy-ed gaze on the Last Thing.

Monday, May 29, 2006

89. Send More Queen Latifah

I, like everybody, love Queen Latifah; it's just that until recently I'd never watched any of her movies--no, wait: I saw Ice Age, and some of Chicago. But it is not necessary to see her movies--or watch her perform her music, or catch her on old Fresh Prince of Bel Air episodes--to love her. She has a generous beauty, with serious eyes that can also actually twinkle. At first glance she may fall into certain categories, those usually reserved for African-American women--and not just recently, but all the way back to the earliest appearances of American Blacks in stories and plays (and movies)--either the Big-Mama matriarch or sassy Jezebel. And I have yet to see her in "serious" roles--although I am on the verge of watching 1996's Set It Off. Again, though, Queen Latifah has a place in pop culture--well, at least the one bopping around in my head--that makes her a lot more than a fun-lovin' hardcase who can, despite her size, pull it off.

Of course, that combination would do fine for some kind of movie career, but I hope it is not enough for her. I watched the remake of Last Holiday, and marveled how she kept my attention in a bad movie that still looked pretty--and not just because of its Austrian locations, but more because of The Queen Herself, solid and clear--and managing a trick: transcending both Mammy and Jezebel, staring them down with those eyes. I was just reading an article by Paul Arthur in the May/June '06 Film Comment about cinema of the body, and he rightfully evoked films--such as Jane Campion's, "intent on restoring physical gravity, an onscreen heft, to the female form, which has long been the object of voyeuristic scrutinty in dominant cinema"--that present unadorned women, bodies that hang from gravity's rack, "all the more shocking." as the old exploitation tagline used to scream, "because it's true!" And I thought of Queen Latifah, made up--over?--and coif'd, dressed like a jet-setter and smiling amid the gourmet delights of a multi-thousand-dollar-a-night resort wrapped in the snowy embrace of the Alps. This was a Black Diamond of the slopes indeed, a BBW for the rest of us--and about as far removed as a girl could be from the meaty assertions--the "carnality of a liberatory gesture"--of Body Cinema, right?

Well, I'll have to agree, "right." Except. As I watched Last Holiday, I began to think of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, Sophia Loren and Shelley Winters, silly things that insisted we pay attention, they had something to tell us. And although it was often about their own pillowy selves--back to voyeurism--it was also about us--or OK, maybe me--and the--this?--moviegoer's persistent gaze. I thought of Body Cinema's arresting solidity, and, despite her cutesy dress-up, Queen Latifah stirred the bellied pot and ran me headlong into Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates--and Monroe and her cohorts, bigger than Hepburn, jaws thrust even further than Crawford's--and hold on: way back there, before the war, sparring with Cary Grant, I suddenly saw another Russell, Rosalind, and knew what Queen Latifah was doing for me: melding and recalling all those big bodies with a belt of His Girl Friday--but girl no more, instead a charismatic New It, peeling off her own "yellow wallpaper"--and not going nuts, but Hollywood.

The more I think about her, the more I want to watch more Queen Latifah movies. And did I mention "more"?

Above: Adrien Brody has the Queen with an audience.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

88. Recovered Memories

Since its 1998 release, I think I've watched Dark City three or four times, usually after something happens to me as I'm watching another movie--a certain dim fumbling in my mind, a shape like the victim-in-a-sack of Miike's Audition that suddenly lurches, and I feel the urge to see Dark City once more.

It is so often compared--favorably and unfavorably--to Fritz Lang's Metropolis that I won't trouble myself. I am pleased it echoes that movie's silly plot and humanist sensibility, but Dark City exerts its own pull, draws me like gravity. I will in passing point out that it also joins the short but vital list of films (Total Recall, eXistenZ, Seconds) that deals with the Matrix's who's-zoomin'-who preoccupations, but with more satisfying results. And its debt to a dizzy cavalcade of sources--from Twilight Zone to Philip K. Dick, from Nosferatu to E.C. horror comics, and onward through film noir and the many odd corners of half-remembered SF short stories that swim in and out of my enfeebling ken--is not merely great, but ably repaid. Again, though, Dark City is its own self for me, a particular moment when its director, Alex Proyas, allowed himself to indulge in excesses of magnificent fertility. In other words, this is one ripe piece of fruit, pendant from the branch like a black pomegranate, bitter but irresistible.

Can you turn away from Kiefer Sutherland's Peter Lorre-esque mad scientist, stricken and impish, pathetic and horrible? I almost wish he were the protagonist. But that would involve the loss of Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, tuning the tuners, his beautiful eyes swimming in their blue, up and out of the multiple blank lives the Strangers have given him. And I had forgotten about William Hurt as Inspector Bumstead--and isn't that the finest, most dangerous compliment one can give Hurt, a man who disappears so easily into his modulated performances, pitch-perfectly subsumed by the role at hand. Watch how brief an appearance he makes in A History of Violence--and how impossible it is to deny he deserved an Oscar nomination. His Bumstead is a man struggling to rise from sleep, too much of a--well, Inspector--to give in to the temptation to live in a dream. Even Jennifer Connolly--my favorite non-screaming scream queen--knows how to tilt her head downward like Bacall and look up at you so that she doesn't have to insist, you're in love with her anyway. And maybe most of all the Strangers themselves, animated corpses with spiders in their brains, slouch hats and derbies atop bald and leathery pates, the absolute definition of a monster that just sort of comes at you: my favorite kind.

And beyond that the visual hysterics, splashing around in the film's bravely muddy colors, the simple plot almost incidental to the evocation of a shifting city that should live inside your head, but instead makes you live inside its. With Dark City I am dreaming again: in that automat, startlingly narrow--and all lit up; notice that there is a bright moment in this film before its dawn-cometh finale; but be careful what you wish for, because the joint's a sick green neon coffin--and in the tumbling furnished (and re-furnished) apartments, everyone's stuff fingered and filched by the spider-corpses; and at the edge of the city, a brick-walled back room where scrapwood leans and the dust settles. It's as if Kafka had written The Trial as SF, and led us to an offworld storage closet where punishment is inexplicably meted out in alien bondage and despair.

But not quite. And I don't mean that triumph-of-the-heart ending--at least not entirely. Because in its performances--and Trevor Jones' insistent, unhinged score--Dark City finds its light, sometimes fitful and lurid, sometimes garish and stark, but never quite flickering out. When John visits his uncle's small-time aquarium, the tanks along the dark walls, the dusty mounted fish tacked up, forlorn, I felt, soft on the liquid surface of my eyes, the light of a dream, one I had actually had, of such a place, lost in the dim silence as the shapes moved in the water, one room to the next. And then I realized that I had, perhaps, actually visited such a place, in Atlantic City, I think, at the Steel Pier, where you paid one price and got to see all the attractions, including a small assortment of sea creatures listless behind the scratched glass. At least I think it was there, on a rainy day when we couldn't go on the beach. I must admit, then, that this is where the movie leads me, into "shadowy recollections," and the mingled discomfort and relief as they recede. Dark City's promise of "a swift sunrise" leads to a satisfying height, but what remains with me afterward is the play of slanting light in those dark streets and rooms, drawing me into a past I can't quite forget--or is that "recall"?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

87. An Imperative Raid

The return of the "old-fashioned" war movie is not as straightforward a proposition as I thought. Or is it? Of course, Saving Private Ryan (1998) began the trend--a kind of "greatest generation" memorializing that sidesteps Vietnam and looks backward to the Good War--and it was an auspicious (re-)start. Although Ryan seemed brand-new, an up-close, digitized nose-rub into everything terrifying and transformative and pitiable about combat, the more I thought about it the more it felt exactly like the great G.I. pictures of the 1940s and early '50s, in that it brings us not only close to the action but next to the soldiers, whether via the clunky roll call of American types or the more psychological approach--both equally open to parody--in which ethnicities, geography and personality-type signify the soldiers. Of course, any number of war films play with these categories, mixing and matching, and the end result can creak a bit, as "Brooklyn" or "Schwartz"--or "Texas" or "Martini"--or the buttoned-down clueless Second Looey or the shell-shocked shrieker/freezer or the Old Campaigner or the over-eager quasi-psycho trot through their various paces.

And as I watch war films post-Ryan, I notice how easy it is to fall into those conventions. After all, even the earlier "anti-war" war films--Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987)--indulged in such character-typing. It's difficult to resist. Occasionally, though, what's happening is more important than to whom, and so the broad character strokes subside to make room for what is essentially a military procedural. John Dahl's The Great Raid (2005) falls into this category, with satisfying results. I was intrigued to see that his credits include Red Rock West (1992), The Last Seduction (1994), Rounders (1998) and Joy Ride (2001), and while each has its own memorable characters, they remain genre pictures of a particularly garish--and often nasty--sort, again, featuring performances that stick with you--by Nicholas Cage, Linda Fiorentino, Edward Norton, Steve Zahn--but also an attention to details, small things, inside information, the otherwise decorative elements of a set or a shot or the film's world, that allow even the most delirious moments--such as Joy Ride's finale--make their own sense.

Dahl brings that attention to detail to The Great Raid, and aside from perfunctory but serviceable character-sketches for the principles, focuses on the events that unfold, and the precise moments that matter. It is an almost literally synchronized-watch film, especially in its masterful last half-hour--a precise recreation of an "inspired-by-actual-events" 1945 mission to rescue P.O.W. survivors of the Bataan Death March, ticked off for us with clarity and expository clarity. You know, aspirations to art, attention to mood, and a lingering gaze upon the glow of the human soul is all well and good, but the question is, can you film a battle sequence so that it is more than smoke and fire and noise? The Great Raid becomes a display of craft, but also affirms its commitment to narrative, while not entirely forgetting the people who, after all, made the narrative happen.

This focus on action lies at the heart of movies I may not revisit, but admire as I'm watching. I was struck by how easy it was for me to suspend judgment and enter the movie's spirit, whole-heartedly wishing someone would drive a bayonet into the camp commander's guts,* feeling my heart swell with admiration for the Philippine commandos who held the bridge, mourning the soldier whose malaria claimed him just as he had been liberated. Working changes on my soft--read: malleable--heart may not be such a great achievement--I'm a sucker for such sharp and compelling demands--but Dahl never proselytizes; he merely ticks off the events, one after another, allowing me with natural ease to side with the tortured and neglected, and rail against the oppressor. He wisely chose a rescue mission rather than a battle per se to wring these emotions from me until, despite the moral qualms that lead me away from the battlefield, I can surge toward The Great Raid, fingers crossed that all I'm doing is siding with the innocent.

That is the great trick the war movie--or the crime film, or the Western--needs to play: Distract me from my pacifism long enough to answer my moral imperatives. And as long as at the end I can leave the picture and be myself again, I forgive such films their sleight-of-hand. So far, so good.

*I will credit George Orwell for this image. In his remarkable essay, "Shooting an Elephant," he discusses with his unflagging honesty his youthful confusion: "With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny ... clamped down ... upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." (He had earlier written of these priests as the worst irritation, young men who "seemed to have [nothing] to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.") While I should be well beyond Orwell's conflicted youth, I must remind you that I have spent most of my thinking life watching movies. This has a tendency to retard the ability to make a fine discernment between "is" and "should." Unlike Hamlet, sometimes it seems I know nothing but "seems."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

86. Irma la Interminable

Billy Wilder knew how to walk the line between Hollywood schmaltz-farce (onomatopoeic flatulence intentional) and full-blown moral dyspepsia. At once breezy and nasty, his best comedies smile at you and hold your chin in one hand while cracking you across the cheek with the other. So sometimes it's hard to tell if you were watching comedy or tragedy--Sunset Blvd. (1950) is probably the irresistible but fetid apex of this tendency, followed by the more serious but still corrosively outrageous Ace in the Hole (1950) (and would somebody please get this one back on DVD? Or at least get Turner Classic Movies to run it, again and again?). I can think of few people in--or near--Hollywood in the '50s who seemed so ready to dismantle the studio system from within.

While I'd like to linger on the pictures mentioned above--and many others--having just seen Irma la Douce (1963) I'll just consider his work with Jack Lemmon, which is of course justly legendary, especially Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). So last night I settled in and fired up Irma, ready for another Wilder sex farce.

Let me first admit I should've known better. I noticed a running time of two and a half hours, my first warning. Could I stand that much Lemmon? He is a sight to behold, but there's something about his comic performances--you can also see it in Jim Carrey--that can be grating. He is almost too quick, too snappy. And there's a hysteria lurking that can be either hilarious--his morning-after maraca-shaking ecstasy after receiving Joe E. Brown's proposal of marriage in Some Like It Hot--or strained--his British Lord disguise in Irma la Douce--with an accent reminiscent of his later performance in 1965 as Professor Fate in The Great Race--OK, a movie I loved as a kid (for years afterward, my sister and I would echo his outraged response to a wake-up call--"Up and AT 'em!? Up and AT 'em!!?"). But still.

For quite a while, though, Irma shone. The location shots and sets were enchanting, the Technicolor typically mind-bending--this is a movie about streetwalkers, and it is a sight to see them lined up in their blues and pinks and oranges--and Irma's signature green, both stockings and hair ribbon--to match her underpants, as she informs Lemmon's erstwhile upright gendarme, Nestor. And Shirley MacLaine's Irma is pitch-perfect, a matter-of-fact, so-what sex-kitten in an almost restrained performance--well, as would be any next to Lemmon's--her insouciance about her profession balanced nicely with her douce urge for peace and quiet, and a little peppermint tea. And Lemmon is often hilarious, aided by the always-dependable Lou Jacobi as the multi-faceted (according to him) Moustache, who bought a bar named "Moustache" and felt it was cheaper to actually grow a mustache than change the sign, and who constantly claims one fascinating past after another, providing the movie's motto and tagline, "But that's another story." All in all, a perfectly wicked-but-safe scenario.

I also duly noted its Wilder-trademarked unashamed cynicism toward social-sexual mores, at least as he sees them. The movie forgives, even defends, prostitution, toeing the "victimless crime" line--while tagging only one villain, the pimp, whose violence seems out of place in the girls'-club gay abandon of the streetwalkers' lives. At one point Moustache muses, "Shows you the kind of world we live in. Love is illegal--but not hate. That you can do anywhere, anytime, to anybody. But if you want a little warmth, a little tenderness, a shoulder to cry on, a smile to cuddle up with, you have to hide in dark corners, like a criminal. Pfui." Well, it's a relief to know that the prostitutes provide such soft service. Ahem. But I liked the oblique digs at social double standards. In fact, Wilder gives Moustache a central role, as he comments on, aids and abets, encourages and critiques. My favorite line is one he delivers to Nestor before the gendarme is fired for raiding the prostitutes' hotel--with the chief inspector in attendance. Moustache disdains Nestor's oblivious attitude toward the corruption and turmoil around him (Nestor's previous police assignment was at a children's park), noting, "Life is total war, my friend. Nobody has a right to be a conscientious objector."

But Irma la Douce ends up being one long campaign, troops. As the plot thickened--like an untended bearnaise--and Lemmon ranted, I longed for an end. And while each scene had its moments, Wilder seemed to indulge too often in real-time sequences that stopped the picture dead. It almost seemed as though he felt he was under the desired running-time and was trying to pad scenes, rather than accepting the responsibility to check plot-bloat--and Lemmon-izing--and finally end the damn thing. Again, I kept finding myself smiling at choice moments, but you know the picture's in trouble when you keep checking the "time remaining" display on the DVD player.

I wish I had had the wherewithal to watch it in bits and pieces; I probably would've liked it more in 45-minute increments. And despite what I've written, I do recommend MacLaine's and Jacobi's--and all right, about 70% of Lemmon's--performances. And Marguerite Mannot's and Andre Previn's music is pure early-'60s exotica Paris cafe. All in all, a movie that could've been. But that's another story.

Monday, May 15, 2006

85. Following Up

OK, so even though I watched Following (1998) this past weekend, I'm still not a Christopher Nolan compleatist: I haven't seen his three-minute student short, Doodlebug (1997). But that's all right: I have seen Memento (2000), his 2002 remake of Insomnia, and Batman Begins (2005). (For the upcoming The Prestige, you can go here on the Internet Movie Database for general plot and cast information; looks like strange doin's.) And so in true Memento fashion, I've watched his first feature film last, so that it is following while I follow his films. If you follow me. (Sorry.)

After those first two movies, it seems Nolan gave up on non-linearity. But without going into detail about his second two films, it's obvious he remains hooked on the mysterious effect of time and circumstance, whether it's in Bruce Wayne's past-present loop, trapping him almost fatally in his misapprehension of the past, and need to re-configure his present; or Detective Will Dormer's (Al Pacino) time-blurring insomnia, leading him into a blinding whiteout future that reveals his past. In both of these films the past judges, then instructs, then either saves or ruins.

Following anticipates the mysteries of his last two films and the blank walls of Memento in a neo-noir whose black-and-white London seems claustrophobically enclosed--with choices, to be sure, but all of them leading down. The protagonist, Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a would-be writer, follows people around the city, playing by careful rules that he of course breaks, and is confronted by one of his subjects, Cobb (Alex Haw), who leads him to a lonely place indeed, with "The Blonde" (Lucy Russell) as Bill's femme fatale. Eventually, it becomes a triple-cross Double Indemnity (1944) without Walter Neff's (Fred MacMurray) steady job. Instead, Following's investigator is a half-smart double patsy, in a plot that in the end may be more interested in its twists and turns than its characters, most of whom it doesn't even bother to name, but still provides icy-good fun.

What I like best about Follwing, though, is its student-project handmade quality. It felt unrushed but spare, a carefully crafted film with limited resources. Indeed, the IMDB informs, "Principal photography of this film took over one year. Because all cast and crew members had other full time jobs they were only able to film on Saturdays about 15 minutes of footage until photography had been completed." Like George Romero before him--and the Blair Witch kids and so many more--Nolan lets us see how talent does not overcome limitations, but takes advantage of them. Whenever I'm on the subject of low-budget efforts, I think of poor Ed Wood, whose drive was unmatched, but whose talent was non-existent. In many ways he's another story--one Tim Burton (of course) tells so well in his 1994 biopic--but I cannot resist noticing the thin line between Poverty Row and independence in the art of film. I suppose the man in the middle here could be someone like Edgar G. Ulmer, who made admirable low-budget pictures like Strange Illusion and Detour (both 1945), as well as The Man From Planet X (1951) and Naked Dawn (1955) (the last is noteworthy at least according to Francois Truffaut, who glowingly wrote about it as a film that led him to believe he could make Jules et Jim). But these languish amid fifty or so nondescript movies that slump like weary petitioners in moviedom's outer office.

Nolan was able to enter this dingy waiting-room, Following's film-cans piled on his lap, while the movie-world sped glittering below, so often beautiful but aimless, all the luck but none of the effort. He wanted in--and to his credit, it appears with Following that he knew he had made something that worked--at least fifteen minutes at a time--a cunning mechanism that would get him in to see the boss. I just hope he doesn't forget he follows Following, and that it follows him, another memento of a past that is never as far behind as one might think.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

84. The Naked Truth

Jane Campion would be pleased to know how uncomfortable Holy Smoke (1999) made me feel. Ruth (Kate Winslet, who one of these days should do a mother-daughter movie with Kathy Bates) comes from regular folk, Australian-style (and it's always interesting to note how often in the movies Australian mainstream culture seems to resemble American eccentric redneck culture, their swell opera house notwithstanding), but goes to India to follow a guru. Fearing for her mind and body, her family hires a cult de-programmer, or "exit counselor," P.J. Waters, played by Harvey Keitel with his usual, beautifully schizoid approach, at once in complete control of the role and yet seeming to invent it as we watch. Don't get me started on Harvey; his quirky choices have not had the weight they should have, and we have missed much. With Christopher Walken and even, it seems, Robert De Niro, Keitel has all-but-squandered an immense talent, no matter how good he is (almost) every durn time I see him.

But I digress.

My discomfort is understandable, since Campion made it happen. As soon as Ruth is alone with P.J., we can tell the real battle will be over P.J.'s mind and body. Ruth combines surface strength with inner uncertainty, so that her decision to go to India in the first place is implied in her back-to-the-outback agonies over the boozy seductions and dysfunctions of her old life and the efforts she makes to expose P.J.'s deepest insecurities while simultaneously confronting her own. Watching P.J. preen and plead, and finally succumb, I saw that part of me that requires attention--and more, identity, bestowed by others, confirmed by their love. Ruth makes both of them naked--literally; this is, after all, a Jane Campion film, a parable of Eden stripmined, then gingerly sifted through for signs of life. At one level, of course, it is a "feminist" parable, but only in so far as Ruth is asserted as a person, defiant, lost, and searching, while P.J. struts and boasts, his age and position at first scorned by Ruth--until she defines and destroys it for him, until they can reach a tentative truce--and more, a kind of love, as Ruth returns to India with her mother and P.J. remains with his wife, a virtual cameo by Pam Grier, who can use her solid presence only to hint at the sexual-spiritual rock on which P.J. will have to learn to moor his bobbing boat.

I saw in this movie so much of my own foolish assertions, as well as uncertainties. Winslet and Keitel deliver the kind of brave performances Campion demands, which helped me be brave myself, as I faced my own silly cock-of-the-walk inclinations, and asked them to come clean, so to speak, and remember how waging the war between the sexes makes one one's own cuckhold, male or female, betrayed and bereft--unless someone is kind, as Ruth was: kind enough to love without owning, despite the heat-and-cold, sorrow-and-joy, of love, and the purchase one feels giving way beneath one's feet every other moment, backsliders all, if not for the vagaries of the terrain and the grasp of another.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

83. Over the Wall

My film class at the prison watched Singin' in the Rain (1952). I initially wanted merely to discuss Technicolor and the changing aesthetic of the movies, especially American ones, as color--and eventually widescreen and one version or another of stereo or "surround" sound--became the norm by the late 1960s. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that such exuberant, often garish, sometimes even jarring developments in the look and sound of films was less a response to audience appetite or market pressures--television--than it was a reflection of cinema's strongest inclination: toward "that which is unconscious," the dream-state triumphed first by the expressionists and then the surrealists/Dadaists. The musical and Technicolor--and after them widescreen and audio advances--were, at their best, mass-appeal manifestations of the Pleasure Principle, set in almost explicit conflict with the anxieties of film noir's insistence that life is a dream--about falling. The dancing bananas and toothy grins of Busby Berkeley, and later the aggressive athleticism of Gene Kelly, seemed to capture the giddy assertions of the ego, just as noir charted the fear-frozen withdrawal of the superego. (Good old Freud; as an analyst, he's almost dangerous; as an art critic, though, he's invaluable.)

So how do we go from Un Chien Andalou's slit eyeball in 1929 to Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor insisting that they gotta dance and be a clown, respectively? It's easier than you think: Watch Kelly's nonlinear approach to a dance number, as he shifts unexpectedly from tap to ballet to flat-footed clowning. And even more so, the frenzy of O'Connor's entire persona, literally from tip to toe an unchecked random-access pastiche-program of every involuntary tic and reflexive jerk, tumbled together like goofy fractals. When Dali and Bunuel assembled Un Chien Andalou, they agreed that no individual scene should have a logical connection to its predecessor, nor serve as a transition to the next. And although Singin' in the Rain seems to bow to the conventions of narrative, as boy gets/loses/gets girl, its insistence that it be a movie about making movies--it meta-ends with the cast starring in a movie called Singin' in the Rain--makes the movie turn inward, until it finds the dream-state, fulfilling wishes with Dali's sense of humor: This is chaos, to be sure, but of a flamboyant variety, goggle-eyed and self-conscious, aspiring to glory.

I pressed all this upon my students, with handouts and lecture and those annoying-but-necessary pauses during the film to point out salient moments of sparkly insanity, graceful dream-soaring, and pounding assertion, as Kelly, O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds threw the furniture around and deconstructed the acts of making and viewing movies. I'm not sure I convinced them that Singin' in the Rain is hallucinogenic--I checked an online quote repository, and it reminded me that Dali said somewhere or other, "I don't do drugs. I am drugs"--but certainly, bathed in Techni-reds, greens, blues, fueled by the hardest-working feet in show business, Singin' serves as a reminder of Technicolor's doorway to a frisky ur-world, one whose atemporal shrugs shift its pastel sensibilities any which time it pleases--we also watched a few metrosexually costumed moments from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) (talk about yer time-defying reds, greens, and blues)--and echo in the movies' propelling arc toward the suspension of disbelief--we turned to scenes from House of Flying Daggers (2004) that were startlingly similar to Singin' in the Rain and The Adventures of Robin Hood, in their attention to the graceful but impossible flow of scarves--see the Echo Dance of Daggers and the Broadway Melody ballet of Singin'--and improbable forest flight-and-fight, whether in Robin Hood's staves and Tarzan-swings or Dagger's bamboo-top wire-fu.

We ended the class by going to "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" via 2001's final sequence. One of my students asked me if it was a silent film. Of course, this pleased me immensely--as it would have Kubrick--and allowed me to wax ecstatic about the loss of narrative line in everything we'd watched that morning, not reducing, but purifying film to its surreal elements. I'd wished I'd had handy some of Edison's "actualities," in which barely clad figures run and throw balls, divorced from cause and effect, atoms collected in their own hidden agendas, flickering at us with the illusion of purpose, while dedicated only to direct, untrammeled experience. But, like 2001's Dave Bowman, nobody around me saw how desperate the situation had become. I needed to take HAL's advice and sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

82. Breakout Session

As I may have mentioned elsewhere, I teach part-time through a community college program at a local correctional facility. I handle the English department offerings, which means I cover as much of the catalogue as we can--given our textbook resources--including British and American literature, College Composition I and II, Introduction to Fiction and Drama, and, once in a great while, creative writing. And about once a year I teach Introduction to Film Art--except for a period in which most Illinois Department of Corrections video equipment was locked away after the postmortem release of a David Speck video in which he taped himself and other men having a relentlessly ugly good ol' time. (And I am sorry even to have mentioned this; your curiosity might lead to internet research--and I promise you, all you will find is bad craziness.)

I've used a variety of films over the years with equally varied success. It is sometimes a disheartening experience--my students do not always appreciate the films I choose--which is true even outside of the strange environment of a prison; still, it is discouraging to hear those loud yawns during, say, 2001--although I guess I should've seen that coming--let alone during The Big Heat or On the Waterfront. Goodfellas is often appreciated--and I intend no stereotyping, because so is Chaplin. A few students usually drop the course after the first class--I suspect it's in part the film selections, but the sticking point may be the realization that we are actively observing movies, and that is not nearly as much fun as watching them.

Anyway, I'm two weeks into the term and thought I'd report on the proceedings so far. (And I must mention that the shape of the course this time around was largely determined by the suggestions of a good friend. Sneaky me: All I had to do was dangle the opportunity--What Would Michael Do?--and he did most of my work for me. And by the way, about a week after we corresponded I received an email from his son suggesting different films for each section of the course. Thank you, Paul, for reminding me I should've chosen The Wizard of Oz to illustrate Technicolor. Duh.)

As I commented above, Chaplin has the ability to get just about anyone on his side. We started with Modern Times, and in my students' responses I noticed something about Chaplin's greatness. The biggest laughs came from the small touches: the grace with which he twists noses and nipples with his wrenches, driven assembly-line-mad until he cannot resist tightening everything; and, during the black maria escape, Chaplin's gentle gesture of smoothing the bald pate of the cop regaining consciousness before bopping him on the head with his own billy club. While the reception for Modern Times was, as with everything, a mixed affair, overall they found it a film easy to enjoy, even passively. They especially responded to his "institutionalization," in which he hesitated leaving prison after getting used to three hots and a flop, and his dutiful optimism, smiling all the way.

This past week we watched Citizen Kane, and I kept pausing the movie--we recently upgraded to DVD, which already has changed the way I teach the course in expected but welcome ways (at least welcomed by me). I wanted them to see the rewards of active viewing--and of course Welles gives you something to consider every ten seconds--make that three. They were especially impressed by the dissolve from Susan's defiant face after Kane slaps her to the interior shot of the stained-glass window in Xanadu featuring an eye that appears in practically the exact spot occupied by Susan's stare-down. I asked them to consider the implications of exerting such energy on moments we do not consciously see--unless we look. I think I began to convince them that great movies are intentional, even if no one realizes it--including sometimes the filmmakers.

After Kane we watched a scene from Sweet Smell of Success: J.J. Hunsecker holding court at his restaurant table, juggling stooges and hangers-on, disdainful and self-impressed. As I mentioned in my previous blog, it's Kane without Xanadu, another newspaperman declaring un-principles.

Next week I'll let you know what they made of Singin' in the Rain and the effect of all that singin'--and dancin' and color. Wish me luck.

81. Nosed Out

How does a director whose credits include Ealing comedy classics like The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) find himself unable to build a career? Well, it seems all Alexander Mackendrick had to do was come to the United States, helm Sweet Smell of Success (1957), star Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and hire writer Clifford Odets and master cinematographer James Wong Howe. The result is one of those strange moments when a near-perfect movie is initially scorned, by both audiences and critics--so someone, it seems, must be blamed. And Mackendrick, as director, would be the logical choice. After Sweet Smell of Success, he never regained his footing; while respected--in 1969 he was made Dean of the Film Department of the California Institute of the Arts--he went on to direct only a handful of minor films.

This is a great loss, because his American debut is risky and brilliantly executed, a fast-talking, late-noir expose not only of the dark side of show business but of the American urge toward greatness--with, in passing, a creepy king-sized dose of Freudian mad love. Hmm. Considering all that, it's failure to please in 1957 makes sense. Bathed in "Low-Key" Howe's deep-focus camerawork, the film gives us a New York that, both on the street and in its smoky nightclubs and bigshot eateries, comes off as a giant, glistening snake, black and sparkling in perpetual midnight. It's the perfect setting for the story of J.J. Hunsecker, make-em-and-break-em columnist--played by Lancaster with his patented clipped glee, arch and almost prissy, but sharp as a serpent's tooth--and his uncomfortably close bond with his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), whom J.J. wants all to himself. Her relationship with a jazz musician, Steve Dallas (Adam-12's Martin Milner), sends him into sinuous rage, and to break up their romance he enlists the help of a seedy publicity agent, Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis with Newyawk perfection, looking seriously beautiful--as a starlet observes, she took him for an actor because he was "so pretty"--but also deeply fed up with being Hunsecker's toady.

The "clash by night" between Hunsecker's amour fou and Sidney's redemptive self-loathing provides everyone with the rare opportunity to chew up the scenery with perfect finesse, a kind of controlled chaos that results in a Beat Generation Citizen Kane, in which the American hero--success-driven, commanding, ruthless--implodes under the weight and pressure of his own obsession. Kane famously toasts to "love on my own terms." In Sweet Smell of Success, those terms come with the throbbing heft of a blackjack, as blackly ripe as the shadows Howe pulls out of the cityscape, pressing down on all concerned--including the soon-to-be-smothered career of its director. While Lancaster and Curtis went on to films in which challenges were met and promises delivered, Sweet Smell of Success claimed its sacrifice in Mackendrick; as nasty as the thing is, I suppose it had to sink its fangs into someone.

Monday, May 01, 2006

80. The Unbearable Weight of Kane

I'm not sure when I first saw Citizen Kane (1941), much less when I was impressed with it--or it was impressed upon me that it was The Greatest Film of All Time. That's the kind of thing you have to grow into--unless you just accept it, then move on. After all these years, I'm sometimes still not sure what kind of movie-goer I am--or, perhaps more honestly, the kind I'm willing to admit being. I often find myself following one crowd or another--often a crowd of one, usually a good friend who conveys a film's worth (or lack thereof) to me with just enough strength to tip me over--and that aint sayin' much. I'm all-too-willing to fall in love with a movie--and also eager to doubt my judgment and fall out of love. This happens all the time; for instance, a part of me mistrusted the Star Wars movies even way back in 1977, after a friend from my high school days refused to see it because of the instant hype surrounding its release. By then I'd waited in 'round-the-block lines at least three times; but ever since--and all too soon--I saw the marketing assault as a lessening of the films' power--OK, so did just about everybody else who wasn't a Lucas-geek. But for me, turning a blind eye kept the movies fresh and shining. Of course, my friend was right; still, my open heart always wants to love those movies, despite all odds: If you really want to be irritated, I can give you my pro-Jar Jar Binks speech. (It's weak, but the argument is based on a curt, comparative study involving certain other Star Wars characters. One word: Ewoks.)

So perhaps I only want Welles' "masterpiece" to be one; maybe it is merely an idea in my head, implanted by a half-century of Sight and Sound magazine polls, American Film Institute lists, the awestruck paeans delivered by friends. What a relief that would be: At long last I could stop watching the cursed thing, falling into it like a sudden chasm every time, dizzied by its technique and structure, of course, but more so by its deeply lonely heart. That is where Citizen Kane rests, not as a testament to the wunderkind's audacious, dazzling sensibility--which it is, of course--nor a landmark, the American cinematic Huckleberry Finn, along whose banks every filmmaker must loiter, watching and learning--which they must. No, the film's lasting strength is the way the formal elements of the film wait upon that loneliness like wise virgins, watchful of the sorrow Welles wrings from that monster Kane, trimming their wicks as the night deepens and the moment approaches.

And that moment is the breathless shock of Rosebud--and not on his deathbed, but when Kane stands in the ruined bedroom, Susan gone. He absent-mindedly holds the snow globe, realizes it's in his hand, and looks at it, stunned, his face like a strange bladder filled to almost-bursting with bile and loss, and mutters That Word. And we realize that it isn't a little thing, but, as Jed Leland suggested, "something he lost"--or worse yet, something he never had: Watch Agnes Moorehead as his mother, her face mingling sacrificial love and grim denial. "Rosebud" is only partially the lost mother; more than that, it is the lack of one, the orphan's lament. Susan asks Kane if he's a magician--as often noted, what a Wellesian appellation that is--as he fumbles with shadow-figures; but he is not; instead, he's the rube, conned and empty-handed as the snow globe tumbles and shatters--as it has from the very beginning.

I don't think anyone talked me into this lonely place--unless you count Welles, of course. I think, for once, I found a film that has learned to speak to me without mediation. Those are the movies I most seek out, impervious to my own vacillating judgment. And since Citizen Kane seems best able to do this of (practically) any other movie I've seen, I suppose I can continue to allow it its greatness, at least as long as I can bear to watch it.

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