Friday, August 25, 2006

126. Back-to-School Special

Yesterday was my thirteen-year-old son's first "day" of school--two hours, actually, just enough time to tell his teachers that we have a new dog--Frankie the pug; dear Patty the mutt passed away earlier this summer--and to forget to bring home a reading list we could've gone over. And they're off.

I usually like to mark such events with something special; so of course we watched three movies and ate junk food. This also marked the first time I've seen the original Alien on DVD--and not really "original," since we opted for the "director's cut," seeing three or four scenes that weren't in the theatrical release. (I don't want to write about this new cut right now; I'll simply agree with Ridley Scott that, while the deleted scenes have merit, the original release is better.) And it was interesting watching it after Silent Hill (2006)--and before Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). I'll leave Jack Sparrow alone for now;* I'm more interested in comparing the two horror films.

Silent Hill is based on a video game, but that isn't necessarily a problem. Yes, video games can employ a narrow, first-person point-of-view; but so do some movies, even good ones, especially mystery/suspense and horror films; so the horse still draws the cart, since video games in large part mimic movies--seek/chase movies in particular. I don't think watching The Wages of Fear (1953) and trying to picture it as a video game automatically demeans the film, because the best games distill--not merely "simplify"--the suspense, shock, and chase elements of genre pictures and combine them with the pleasures of the arcade shooting gallery. And I'm old enough to remember games with small tin geese arcing uncertainly and tiny lurching deer heads poking out from two-dimensional tree-trunks in the foreground, while you fired away with your swivel-mounted miniature rifle at what you hoped was their general vicinity. And I loved them, and just writing about them makes me want one in front of me right now so I can hear that Bang! and watch the silhouettes flip backwards. And yet: go back in a time machine and bring the kid I once was any contemporary shoot-em-up video game (in which the game shoots back!), and I know I'd be crazy for them--after being scared to death by their gore and violence, and thoroughly flummoxed by the split-second eye-hand coordinations necessary to stay alive for more than ten seconds.

Well, I've written about this before, when I saw the Doom movie--which I liked. Silent Hill, on the other hand, seems flat and boring--despite some appropriately startling monsters. It's the same old story: lazy writing abetted by a cynical attitude toward the audience. For instance, within five minutes of the movie's opening titles, the woman is venturing alone with her sleepwalking, obviously disturbed child to the mysterious--heck, hellishly combustible and rats-in-the-walls/dwellers-in-darkness Lovecraftian--town of Silent Hill (which the girl seems to be seeking in her somnambulistic, suicidal forays) and immediately losing the child, just so the movie can start the chase. I could see the marketing wheels turning, convinced that the audience does not want to care about the characters--after all, gamers often skip over the cut scenes (or, more tellingly, cinematics) that introduce or stop the game to advance a storyline, establish characters, and so on--but I don't think even the gaming audience only wants the movie simply to start throwing monsters at them. Imagine if Silent Hill had taken fifteen minutes to allow us to see how deeply troubled the little girl is, how desperate her mother, how convinced her father that the doctors know best, all snowballing into the foolish, panicked decision to abscond with the little girl and seek the source of the nightmares. We now have people--more or less--to worry about; and no matter how simpleminded one might think is the audience for video game movies--and to be fair, no matter how simpleminded it might actually be--the movies any audience likes best are the ones that have good stories with people they remember, all presented with a visual sense that fits plot and character. Even Doom recognized this, painting--and yes, with the broadest of strokes--the various characters' alliances and attitudes well before we watched them blasting monsters.

Meanwhile, Alien (like Jaws two years earlier, and a number of others since) knows that, while its audience wants to be shocked and terrified (remember the teaser trailer--was it the first of its kind?--in which the egg cracks open, the sickly green light bursts all over, and the tagline informs us that "In space no one can hear you scream"?), the viewer also wants to feel that some semblance of real people is in peril. Alien may do this in shorthand, but we are given more than cutouts in the crosshairs.

But beyond character, even plot, a horror film depends on mood. And watching it yesterday, I was reminded how much mood Alien has, thanks to the monster design, the music, the sets and costumes, the lighting and camera movement; and more than that the film's pacing, especially before the monster bursts (sorry) on the scene. Nothing you looked at or saw seemed innocent; and everything that did, seemed in imminent peril. In Alien's first fifteen minutes, Scott generates tension and dread, and a serviceable feeling of concern for its victims. Silent Hill just tosses CGI effects at you.

And that is the final failure of so many contemporary horror films. In the lazy decision that more is more, the filmmakers present us with a cavalcade of creeps dutifully marching across the screen, each more outlandishly blood-gushing than its predecessor--and all in the end merely empty blood fireworks displays, so unbelievable they become cartoonish (in a bad way) and dull. I'll admit some of Silent Hill's monsters seem almost beautiful in their surreal awfulness, but they tromp and jerk around in a movie without tension, without purpose, let alone pacing or integration with character and plot. At one point, we even get a "cinematic" of sorts, to outline the town's history. OK, it is cleverly presented as grainy newsreel or hidden video--and in itself is well-crafted--but, as in a game, the movie has to come to a dead stop to make room for a movie-within-a-movie to fill in for a real narrative. Now, I can understand the thinking behind the cut scenes in video games, but I'm always suspicious when the same thing happens in a film, even one based on a game. We're being told that the monster rally is all they have, and that any story--or idea behind the story--is incidental. And again, loading us up with mere visual excess is not enough. The scariest stuff in Silent Hill comes in the small touches: the lurch of a monster's gait, the mewling sounds of another, the sense that one is moving in a dream. Like Val Lewton with a budget. A good horror film is waiting there, but we don't get it.

So my son and I watched Alien, and while it does depend on shocks, its commitment to mood and character makes it a much richer experience than Silent Hill. The crew of the Nostromo have distinct personalities--again, sketched quickly, but clearly. Geez, the two women (Rhada Mitchell and Laurie Holden) who search for the little girl in Silent Hill even look the same; but there's no way one is going to confuse Tom Skerritt with John Hurt or Ian Holm, or Sigourney Weaver with Veronica Cartwright, let alone Harry Dean Stanton with Yaphet Kotto. How smart to give us such disparate shapes and sizes, and to add to them variant senses of duty, humor, and morality. That way, when the monster shows up, we know who's in trouble, and we worry accordingly.

There's more to consider, not the least of which is the element of Freudian sexuality running through both movies, and which nicely illustrates their points of contact as well as differences. Good horror pictures do tend toward that crazy old Austrian; he provides an easy but potent (sorry again) subtextual machine, part organic, part cold logic--a regular cyborg--atop which the movie runs, as on slippery grease, keeping those diabolical wheels turning. Alien evokes male sexual fantasies (Sigourney Weaver) and fears (everything else), and capitalizes on misogynist views of orgasm (the sound editing is especially distressing, not to mention Weaver's brief encounter--sorry once more--with the alien at the film's climax--oh, I give up), while Silent Hill opts for Freud's assertion that women "laid the foundations of civilization by the claims of their love"--for their children and the maintenance of the home, since they have been "forced into the background by the claims of civilization" and have adopted "a hostile attitude towards it" (Civilization and Its Discontents).

This mother-urge in Silent Hill--strong as Ripley's in the first sequel, Aliens (but done with more depth and poignancy in the latter)--has potential, especially when we see that one of the sources of evil in Silent Hill is the witch-burning matriarch (Alice Krige), who seems to be the antithesis of the Freudian mother--or maybe, even better, simply its doppelganger--as she defends civilization by sacrificing its children, and thus becomes opposed to the maternal need to keep the family united; after all, one cannot build a civilization by staying at home all one's life (unless by "civilization" we mean chat rooms run by husky guys way past twenty, hunched over in their parents' basement rec room, Comicon t-shirt doubling as a napkin, stained with Cheetos-dust; and that may be the next step).

But as it stands, the Freudian element of Silent Hill does not generate much interest--unlike that of the horror-movie queen (if I may use the term) of all this, The Shining (1980). And heck, let's not forget that the computer in Alien is named "Mother," and is willing to kill the crew to save the alien--raising the question of whose mother the ship really is. Again, though, Silent Hill simply asserts mother-love, then tosses monsters and speeches at us. And I want more, even from a horror movie.

*I'd like to mention, though, that the real joy of this second viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean was assuring my son that pirates really did have a code--codes, really, depending on where you did your pirating, and with whom--and that some of them dressed as outlandishly as Jack Sparrow, and that others had the kinds of delusions of grandeur of Sparrow's nemesis, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush)--and I want a movie in which both he and Ben Kingsley are villains; straight or camp, those two know how to make with the villainy--and that there really is a Tortuga, and that pirates really were hung and left to rot along the harbor. At least according to David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag, the only pirate history I've ever read--aside from some background information in a book I owned when I was a kid--and which I hope is still waiting patiently for me in a box in my basement--with, if I remember correctly, the self-evident how-to title, Hunt for Sunken Treasure.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

125. "You know--for kids."

Well, I got my wish from the last posting, and saw The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) again. I've always thought of it as a movie nobody really liked, and confirmed my suspicions by checking out some reviews. Roger Ebert's is particularly telling: He frames it as a debate between the angel on one shoulder who loves the way the movie looks, and the devil on the other who complains it's "all surface and no substance." He gave the movie two stars, because the angel wanted to award it four and the devil wanted to punish it with zero. And so on.

Of course, as a comfort movie, such hollowness is not only unimportant, it is an asset. Like Seinfeld--heck, like Gilligan's Island--the best entertainments are about nothing. (And let's give credit where due: A good friend of mine, Gene the bigshot lawyer, a million years ago in college taught me to disdain "socially relevant" TV shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H--at least those elements of the shows that aspired to seriousness--and to recognize that the fundamental image of the satisfied TV viewer is an enraptured kid wearing a coonskin cap. And I think comedy in general works best at this level. Seinfeld was on Letterman once, and said something simple and true: that his show was so successful because they held to a basic rule: Don't do anything that isn't funny. At first blush, that seems a bit reductive, like the classic advice on how to sculpt a horse: Get a block of marble, and remove everything that doesn't look like a horse. Or Steve Martin's breathless, excited revelation of how to become a millionaire: "OK, first, get a million dollars, then ..." But of course, Seinfeld is right. There are no moral dilemmas in the show--at least none that stop the comedy--no concerns outside of immediate, personal ones, no depth of thought whatsoever. And Seinfeld was always careful to point that out, as it inflicted all kinds of damage on individual selves and their communities, and at times the very fabric of society, without any qualms, without the slightest regrets. In this morally free space, one could go anywhere, ruthlessly cosmopolitan, and point and laugh at whatever, whoever, came one's way.

The Coen brothers have always known this. And this is one reason why I love their movies so much: They are a vacation from the moral universe, the "burden of freedom," the weight of tragedy--let alone the "eternal delight," as Blake would put it, of the ecstatic recognition of one's power and glory. And while the Coens pay attention to the comic possibilities of such weighty matters--consider the grave figures of their movies, watching the wheels turning, proclaiming a world bigger than any dope in a Coen brothers' picture could ever hope to recognize--those figures themselves are goofy, sometimes out of synch with the heartless machinations of the leading characters.

But wait; maybe the Coens make something more than Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld's "comedy about nothing." Because I find myself as attracted to those moral voices in the former's movies as I am the cads and dipsticks. And I think it is because the Coens have managed a pretty good trick: The integration of dazzling-but-meaningless stylistics with moral imperatives. I enjoy their hollow bounders because the Coens force them to lose, while doofuses like Tim Robbins' Muncie booster, Norville Barnes, end up on top. Yes, it's always some thunder-stealing deus ex machina--consider the cartoon-perfect stoppage of time in Hudsucker, as Norville's downward plummet is stopped--twice!--by the omniscient caretaker of the Big Clock, Moses (Bill Cobbs)--and for now let us pass over (ha ha) that name. This is a true comic world, open-hearted and optimistic, in which lovers are united, fortunes made--and even when the villains are punished, it often occurs with a grin, or at least a solid sense of righting things, of asserting the need not only to be funny but to do the right thing. I need a separate post for something with a bit more gravitas like Barton Fink (1991) or Fargo (1996), but it needs to be noted that even in their flat-out comedies the Coens remember that comedy works best when justice and mercy have as much say in matters as satire and glee.

The "all surface and no substance" charge, then, only works as far as one is willing to accept it--and the Coens do give the viewer ample opportunity to keep things light, to disregard all substance. But I've noticed that what makes me grin at their movies is not just the freedom of tennis without a net but the sweet joke of success, as silly as the losses suffered, but with the added advantage of rescuing one from the cruelty that is inevitable when the surface really is everything. And from the music the Coens choose to the performances they encourage, I think they find in their comedies a satisfying balance between heartless glee and order restored. One more look at Moses, the "Clock Man." His position at the top of the Hudsucker Building gives him the opportunity to know everything, and to observe the Coens' world with a rub of his chin and a slight shake of the head. It's silly, but it has rules, and it needs tending. And as he does, he exercises ridiculous powers that nonetheless tidy up the mess, and give everybody a break. Now that's comfort for you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

124. Uneasy as Pie

It seems every culture has its carb-based foundation-food, usually in the form of a flat cake or dumpling: tortillas and samosas, frybread and potstickers, hotcakes and crepes, gnocchi and kreplach, pierogi and spaetzle. Just typing them out makes me simultaneously hungry and full. They're simple, familiar, and easy--depending on who's doing the cooking in your house, of course, but you know what I mean. And cinema is full of movies like that, ones you could watch every week, old reliables always welcome. The genre doesn't matter, nor the country of origin nor year released. For me, it's The Maltese Falcon and Forrest Gump, Glengarry Glen Ross and White Heat, Alien and Diner, anything by the Coen Brothers or Hitchcock, Scorsese or Felinni, Kubrick or Lang. I can tuck 'em in over and over, good eatin' every time.

My wife has her own version of this: The Fifth Element and The Lord of the Rings, Fried Green Tomatoes and As Good as It Gets, Star Trek: First Contact and anything British, from the Age of Enlightenment, on through the general neighborhood of the Sepoy Rebellion, and stopping somewhere in the tree-dappled vicinity of Howard's End. I share some of her comfort movies--except a more recent one, Cast Away (2000). Twice was nice, three times OK. But it didn't seem to stick to my ribs; instead, it--oh, I don't know; I'm already beginning to feel trapped by this culinary analogy--skip it; I won't even make the attempt. Let's put it this way: I didn't want it on the repeat-viewing queue. From my first viewing, I insisted Cast Away would've been a better film if it had ended at the moment of Chuck Noland's rescue, with his hand raised into the frame, the ship gliding by, the alarms sounding. I felt the final act was simply a protracted epilogue that diminished the mythic power the movie had achieved in its long silence on the island, and Hanks' minimalist expressiveness. I still think his face works as hard in Cast Away as it ever will, but I'd always griped about the return, the loose ends tied up, the Gump-like ending, Noland's face staring, while a feather is pursued. Mighty labors--or labored.

And so of course, what happens: I come home from work, and my wife and two of my children are watching it. I walk in just as he loses Wilson on the open sea, and so the movie I get is practically all epilogue. But a funny thing happened: I found myself deeply moved by it, breathless in dismay. In his farewell to his wife, Chuck confronts death without paradise. He sees everything he loves taken from him, with nothing in its place. He remains as still as he can, stiff in the presence of a snake that is going to bite him--but it doesn't matter: He's already dead, and the only "afterlife" he's given is a brief parade of what he has lost, a futile embrace, and then the dark.

It scared me, that scene; and I realized that, in the final moment, in which he delivers the package and stands--as we all know, ready to follow the beautiful redhead--Cast Away grants a reprieve and becomes a movie once more, blessedly fictional, easy as a stack of flapjacks. But for one moment--at least today, seeing it divorced from the rest of the movie--Cast Away's epilogue made my heart stop, and asked it to contemplate the loss of everything it yearned for--specifically, the one I love, who for her part was calmly watching it for the umpteenth time, proud to say she was the only one who, albeit squinting, watched him ice-skate his tooth out. Ah, a movie moment, the lucky woman, and she wolfed it down. But the Cast Away I saw, twenty minutes long, told me it was all going to go, and I was going to have to take it. This will happen one day, and paradise has nothing to do with it because, as Socrates noted, you don't know if you're going to get it until you do. And as one's life moves, knowing only life, not knowing is simply not good enough. All the faith in the world--at least, all the faith I have--does not lessen the depth and dark of that hole into which--not you, but everything you love--must drop.

As Tom Waits sings, "Even Jesus wanted just a little more time / As He was walking Spanish down the hall." Cast Away, for a few minutes there, takes away that time, and gives me nothing but what must be. I think it's safe to say that this is the opposite of comfort food. Cripes; I really need to get myself in front of The Hudsucker Proxy or Coppola's Dracula or something; any silly dumpling will do.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

123. A Temporary Dream

Back on July 17, I wrote about Anthony Hopkins, starting with Magic in order to work my way toward The World's Fastest Indian. Well, after many years I finally watched Magic again (written by William Goldman, directed by Richard Attenborough). And my memory of it, at least those reflected in the July 17 post, seems to have been pretty accurate. Hopkins does do Karloffian pathos, but with a hyperactive vocal register, the Richard Harris-style "loud voice" so perfectly parodied many moons ago on SCTV. But in Magic it seems to fit, given the nervous in extremis situation. It was startling to watch Hopkins and the dummy yell at each other: Fats, the dummy/alter ego, raging in a keening voice that also managed to be as gravelly as Burgess Meredith's, who plays Corky/Fats' agent, Ben Greene--"Gangrene," as Fats calls him. All in all, another one of those 1978 creepy crawlers I mentioned the other day, Hollywood part-revolution, part-misfire oddities I will always have an affection for, especially if I "squint a bit."

Except for Ann-Margret. For the original kitten with a whip, it's eyes wide open. I'll admit I'd forgotten--sort of--how, ah, taken I was with her in that movie. Oh, let's be honest: not forgotten at all. In my late teens and early twenties she swam around in my head like Ahab's whale, except without all the, ahem, harpooning. No, Ann-Margret--and I am not telling anyone anything new here--exists in a rarefied atmosphere, the prettiest girl in school you--all right, I'll speak for myself--I would never have spoken to, let alone known. And so in 1978, three years after the Oedipal wigout of Tommy, there I was, watching Magic and finding myself identifying with Hopkins' character. Urg. Well, it was difficult to resist: in high school Corky had had a crush on her--loved her--but had never spoken to her. And then there he was, crazy as all get-out but finally getting lucky with--I kid you not--ex-cheerleader Peggy Ann Snow (Goldman, you have a twisted little mind). Again, if movies are dreams, and dreams are wish-fulfillment, this one came to me without metaphor, symbol, or sign, but unfiltered and flat out. Watching it today, I reminded myself how much I'd enjoyed those scenes of Corky and Peggy in love, and how temporarily soothing a movie can be. It's sad, I know, but it fits with every other emotion generated by the movies, no matter how awkward their origin or foolish their expression.

So when Corky falls apart, loses not merely his sanity but Peggy, it served me well, because his frustration was played out with such hysteria that I was able to leave the movie, in 1978 especially, with my own thoughts tucked away in relative safety--because I could feel I was not crazy like Corky, even though my mind had its own ripples and currents, not the least of which the illusionary movie-induced conviction that some guys have all the luck. Today, though, half a lifetime later, I can report that Magic provides merely the memory of a temporary dream--although I cannot deny its power, since it was a dream that held me over until my real life could begin.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

122. Squeak and Gibber

Appropriately enough, Edgar G. Ulmer's Strange Illusion (1945) begins with a dream: Paul Cartwright (Jimmy/James "Henry Aldrich" Lydon) walks with his mother and sister, while a shadowy father and Other go with them; and a train approaches, and sudden sentences are uttered, and anxiety builds. This is how I like to think of all of Ulmer's best movies, especially Detour (1945), The Strange Woman (1946--with a strange Hedy Lamarr performance), The Man from Planet X (1951), and his early masterpiece, The Black Cat (1934): dreams all, with a dream's low budget and big drop. Strange Illusion is perhaps the "lightest" of the films mentioned, although its smooth Hamlet references and queasy villain, Brett Curtis (part Bluebeard, part--believe it or not, in 1945--child molester, played with comforting '40s oiliness by Warren William, his pencil-thin mustache and low-rent Great Profile almost reassuring: after all, such an obvious cad--you know, more than kin and so on--looking like something Tex Avery might draw to chase around a hapless babe, is bound to be defeated--not to mention Paul's "sensitive" nature, played by Lydon with his usual gee-whiz faintness, all give Strange Illusion a decidedly tilted posture; like its dream-pursued, melancholy hero, it seems more than a little light-headed.

But chock-full of plot. The Hamlet-lifting serves it well: Paul's judge/criminologist father is killed in a train "accident," and Paul, markedly attached to him--and his mother (Sally Eilers, just hefty enough to look like a widow, but young enough to provide a Freudian whiff)--is haunted by a dream--which propels him to find his father's killer: Curtis, of course, pursuing Paul's mother, charming his sister--but creeping out his girlfriend, who suffers Curtis' deep-end affections in the pool--not shown, of course, but related to Paul as further evidence that Curtis is the movie's pre-nuptial Claudius, with an even bigger appetite than Shakespeare's killer. Curtis' confederate, a crooked psychiatrist, adds to the Ulmer-esque weirdness of the movie as he, Svengali-like, guides his former patient through the machinations necessary to get him married to the judge's widow--and thus ensconce him in the only family that could prove who and what he is (remember the dead father was a criminologist). Again, this is a plot that needs no thickening; from its dream beginning, it's one thing or another.

My only regret is that Strange Illusion ends up loving its plot too much, giving us, as one "bmacy from Western New York" put it on the Internet Movie Database, a "Hardy Boys" movie. I guess I wished for something more delirious, like Detour's clueless descent or The Black Cat's full-blown dementia. But Strange Illusion does provide a clear sense of Ulmer's strengths: his ability to keep things moving, his affinity for abnormal psychology, and his affection for shadows. And, in a Saturday-afternoon kind of way, it is enough, another Ulmer effort set "in the dead vast and the middle of the night."

From Lydon's 1941 high school yearbook: "A redhead Irishman who likes nothing better than a good argument. His aim is to be a pilot and a motion picture cameraman. Jim becomes positively poetic about roast lamb and apple pie." This is someone I would've liked to have known.

121. The Burden of Freedom

(WARNING: spoiler in 3rd paragraph)

Despite the title of this post, the topic today is not Kris Kristofferson--although, in its recognition of the slim thread by which our convictions hang, his song might not be a bad place to start. On the one hand, the one who seeks salvation is "bitterly" damned and condemned by those who "don't understand"; and on the verge of freedom--in the midst of its burden--he asks for the strength to forgive them. But by the end of the song, while he seems saved, he hopes to be forgiven for wounding "the last one who loved me," and himself ends up not understanding.

This song comes up a lot in my head, as it did last night, watching V for Vendetta. And here's another coincidence (although the film insists there are no coincidences): It ends with a song that contains excerpts from Malcolm X's "On Black Power," particularly those famous words about the virtues of self-defense "by any means necessary." While V for Vendetta presents some thoughtful ideas--the kinds Orwell handled so well in his seminal fables of totalitarianism--I'm made uneasy by V's (Hugo Weaving) dependence on violence, his appropriation of the enemy's strengths to assert not merely the truth but his need to revenge himself on those who unmade his life--and society at large. It is a simple objection I raise against the perpetuation of violence, "the chain reaction of evil," as Martin Luther King described war.

And then there is V's torture of Evey (Natalie Portman). Now, I won't deny the power gained by stripping oneself down, and the freedom earned through suffering. But Evey is not given a choice; and she is not punished for her convictions, but punished to create and hone said convictions. Martyrdom is one thing; coercion is another. And yes of course, V's society is venal, an opium-dispenser the likes of which Marx only glimpsed. But again, I'm simply unable to reconcile might with right. And I worry in these new nervous times whether terrorism--perpetuated not only by governments and groups but also individuals; the whole lot of them--should be extolled as a virtue. I'm not sure whether V's demolition of the Old Bailey or the Houses of Parliament is half as effective as his words. And there, then, is my last cliche: Speak the truth, live the truth, and you will give it to others, and make it so. Simple vendetta is not the truth, but an indulgence. You wouldn't have tragedy without the impulse for revenge, but you can accept the burden of freedom if you learn forgiveness.

And that leads me to one more thing: V for Vendetta is correct that death is not the worst fate. But I will not deal it out to others to achieve salvation; I cannot see the truth through such a curtain of blood. Instead, I hope, as in Kristofferson's song--and I guess I'm not just starting but ending with it--that I can be wounded and not succumb--or wound and be forgiven. C.S. Lewis' The Weight of Glory discusses some of this, including the joys of humility, in which one is pleased to please. At the end of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Malcolm sends his bodyguard away, telling him he will not allow black men to kill black men; and in that final submission, in his own putting down of the sword, I think he shoulders freedom. And while V dies by his sword, I'm afraid the lasting image is the triumph of might.

I'll admit I'm still trying to decide exactly what to make of this movie. But I cannot deny the anxious voice I heard while watching it, the one that warns me against the misuse even of the truth and virtue. Maybe V for Vendetta loves Evey more than V; but she does cover his body with roses and propels the train toward Parliament. And the film seems too careful to portray it as a fireworks display rather than death and destruction. Someone must've been killed by such a use of force. And one is too many. That, too, is the burden of freedom.

Friday, August 11, 2006

120. Purely Academic

I work--ah, "work" is such a dry word to describe the cornfield glories of my career amid the missionaries and muckrackers; but it'll do--at Knox College, which requires its incoming students to take First-Year Preceptorial (FP), a common course that uses a variety of texts--including films--to "discuss broadly based, fundamental issues that define the human condition and inform significant choice." You know, the small stuff. Since 1993 I've been working with students writing papers for the course, and since last year I've had the chance to teach it. FP is one of those split-decision courses: those who teach it often love it, while those who take it often don't. And while some become exasperated with the course materials, or the students/faculty, or the course itself--oh, the bane of anything "required"--others keep the FP fire burning in their hearts throughout their teaching careers or educations--and beyond: I've had students who've graduated and told me that FP crops up at the oddest moments, especially the ethical dilemma ones, or human nature ones. You know, the big stuff.

Me, I'm one of those who love FP. Geez, that sounds like a bumper sticker, but I canna help it: Over the years, FP has excitedly asked students to play with all kinds of firecrackers, from "Heart of Darkness" and Things Fall Apart to The Moral Animal and the Book of Genesis (the falling-down parts). We've heard Rousseau rail against civilization even as Hobbes raised the beast to secular godhood. And Frankenstein tried to make it happen, Cap'n, while Joyce Carol Oates asked the students where they're going and where they've been--and Marx told them exactly where, and what to do about it--the weatherman is always right, yes?--while Darwin inherited something more than the wind. And we've watched Kane let everybody know who he is, while Alex and his droogs ate much more than lomticks of toast, their eggiwegs swinging with the force of tawdry doom.

And speaking of watching, this year a pro-movie swell is rolling by the Good Ship FP, so over the past few weeks some of us have been watching films that might fellow-travel with our main readings (Kwame Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Mary Doria Russell's novel of Jesuits in space, The Sparrow; we also have The New Humanities Reader, for picking and choosing, well, readings in the humanities that are, more or less, new). So far we've watched Costa-Gavras' Amen, Hotel Rwanda, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Spike Lee's Malcolm X biopic. (Next week is The Battle of Algiers and some docs.) Of course, I'm a hunnert percent behind the effort to include films in the course, but a funny thing keeps happening after we watch a movie: We think of ways the film under discussion would not work. Now, some of these objections make perfect sense: Does the film add to our discussion? Are its ideas self-evident, or is it not "cinematic" enough for us to focus on technique, structure, editing, music, and so on? It's a sad but true winnowing, in which there seems more chaff than wheat.

But we continue to fan the breeze, viewing Malcolm X (1992) last night. I hadn't seen it in five years or so, and was determined to watch closely, to draw to the surface Lee's best touches, his most enduring contributions to the story. And I did see--and hear--much I had not remembered. From the opening title sequence, in which a flag covers the screen, while Lee cuts to scenes of the Rodney King beating--fresh wounds in 1992--and the flag eventually burns, slapping us with the left hand of Patton--to Malcolm in his final moments, his head literally spinning as the camera rotates 360 degrees. And I saw many Scorsese-like touches, in which Malcolm positions himself as Jake LaMotta stripped down to raw muscle, or Christ leaning toward, then away from, last temptations. And the soundtrack always supplies the perfect song, whether as complement or counterpoint--with Terence Blanchard's score, bold in its percussive, symphonic flourishes, willing to take chances: In the Mecca scenes, for instance, he generates a kind of post-Les Baxter exotica mood that never slips into kitsch. And there are individual moments, especially early on and in its final scenes, in which Vincente Minelli and Oliver Stone seem to vie for Lee's attention and, to the movie's benefit, get it.

We were still not sure, though, whether we wanted the students to watch the movie. We discussed showing individual scenes, or breaking it up in two, or making it an ancillary film, off to the side somewhere. But the more I think about it--and write about it now--the more I trust Lee's movie. We could not fail to notice Denzel Washington's achievement, as he captures Malcolm's charisma--or Angela Bassett as his wife Betty, who naturally is the first to see that misogyny ends in lies and shame. I think we should show Malcolm X--or at least I will, and take the time to offer FP students a chance to recognize the visual/aural contributions of a "film experience." And we won't even need to do so by any means necessary; just a handful of good movies.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

119. Maul Rats

My son and I continued with his consumption (ha ha) of Romero's Dead trilogy with 1978's Dawn of the Dead--and I'm beginning to realize what a weird year 1978 was, both personally and cinematically. As I've written elsewhere--most recently, July 17--it was the year I graduated from college--and promptly took off a year, ostensibly casting about for the right grad school, but in practice engaging in some of my least satisfying loafing of a loaf-ridden life. No wonder I can remember so many 1978 movies, including a number I've written about--Midnight Express, The Fury, Magic--but also, now that I'm thinking about it--and looking it up on IMDb (which explains why the following are in alphabetical order) ...

Animal House
The Big Fix
The Boys from Brazil
Damien: Omen II
The Deer Hunter
The End
Every Which Way But Loose
Eyes of Laura Mars
Foul Play
Go Tell the Spartans
Goin' South
Harper Valley P.T.A.
Heaven Can Wait
House Calls
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kauffman's remake)
The Lord of the Rings (Bakshi, of course)
The Manitou
Movie Movie
Paradise Alley
Same Time, Next Year
Straight Time
The Swarm
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
The Wiz

Now, these are the ones I went to the movies to see; it doesn't include the 1978 movies I soon after saw on cable or video:

Coming Home
Corvette Summer
Days of Heaven
Gray Lady Down
Pretty Baby
Up in Smoke
Warlords of the Deep
A Wedding
Who'll Stop the Rain?

(I'm not even counting the few--Debbie Does Dallas, The Driver, Faces of Death--I have never watched, but that remain in the job jar.)

I suppose the same dizzying variety would show up in any year, but something about 1978's movies--at the least the ones I watched--combine to produce an uneasy blend of reverence and embarrassment.

And so it goes for Day of the Dead, which I originally saw in the early-to-mid '80s. I'll admit that was close enough on the heels of its original release for me to accept its view of American culture--at least in 1985 the haircuts and music weren't distracting--but seeing it after Alien, released just a year later than Dawn, it did creak a little in the fright and tension departments. Still, I've always appreciated Romero's movies, and have forgiven their clunks and lurches. After all, the man never seemed to have two pennies to rub together, and was doing the best he could.

Or was he? Watching Dawn recently with my son--and after slogging through a few decades of all kinds of living-dead mayhem, which may be a distinct factor here--I was struck by some of Romero's off-notes, especially the over-dependence on a kind of macho posturing that seemed a little too easy even back in the mid-'80s, and that weakens the film today. Even my (now-)thirteen-year-old kept wondering why they were making obvious mistakes, and I got tired of saying, "They think they're tough" or "They're all pumped up from the situation they're in." Yeah, sure. Listen: Even when I first saw it, I cringed whenever the men whooped it up, all excited to have guns and free candy. And worse, the social satire always seemed a bit self-evident, as when they spot the mall from the air and describe it as though it were a relatively new phenomenon: "It looks like a shopping center, one of those big, indoor malls"; and then there's the famous line explaining why the zombies--"ghouls" in the first picture; so much better--are returning to the mall: "Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." That's more than a little condescending--magnified by the cartoonish Muzak that plays over the wandering-zombie sequences.

Now, I'll admit some of those moments resonated; but mostly I think Romero drops this particular ball more than he should have, at least given some of the stronger lines and scenes in the film. Again, as in the first Dead picture, Romero nails certain aspects of the dread of this situation via the media response. With my most recent viewing, I am still struck by the mad insistence of the scientist: "This is down to the line, folks, this is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!" Or another expert's succinct explanation of what's happening: "Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!" I can still hear a down-to-the-bone delirium in these lines. And then there's the occasional wit of the protagonists, especially Peter, as when he quotes his grandfather: "'When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'" Or admiring a rifle they've looted: "The only person who could miss with this gun is the sucker with the bread to buy it." It's no coincidence that Romero has teamed up with Stephen King a few times. Both sporadically display a talent for capturing the honest face of the pulp figure, trapped but grinning--grimacing, more like it--while, literally, all Hell breaks loose.

In the end, Dawn does retain some of its strength for me; but I'm convinced it's in Day--and Land--of the Dead (1985 and 2005--twenty years later! Talk about a franchise with, ahem, teeth) that Romero's voice is most clearly heard--and it makes a wet, tearing sound, as close to lunacy as Romero dares, a place where his urges toward both social satire and inexorable nightmare plant themselves like talons, tenacious and cruel. My son and I are halfway there. "Down to the line, folks."

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