Tuesday, November 28, 2006

140. Rating Game Redux 1: 3 '70s

In an effort to encourage my natural laziness, I have decided to use this blog for occasional reprints of "Ratings Game" lists that I've assembled for our local paper, The Register-Mail. Some of these have been in non-movie categories, but I will offer here only the cinematic lists. (And as proof of my simultaneously industrious and self-indulgent nature, I will supply addenda in boldface.)

Three Greatest '70s Stars

Robert DeNiro
If these days he seems content to mug his way through comedies, it's easy to argue it's because he burnt out in the '70s; just consider the roles he tackled: Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, The Godfather II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and in 1980, Raging Bull. I'm exhausted just looking at the titles.

Of course, he always seems on the verge of a major commitment; his upcoming CIA movie may not be the King Lear I've been hoping from him, but at least it reveals he knows he can do more than Focker-baiting--even though he's awfully good at it. Then again, the real strength he may be showing here is as a director. So I'm still waiting.

Bruce Lee
With about six appearances on film in his entire career--as many as DeNiro in this one decade--Lee still completely remade cinema’s notion of what an action picture could look like or be about, let alone how it could move.

I must admit, though, that my real affection for Bruce Lee lies in the genre he helped create--and which is at its best when it waxes poetic (Hidden Croucher, Dragging Tiger, or whatever the heck it is) or hysteric (Kung Fu Hustle); and better yet, in the memory of seeing one of his movies thirty years or so ago in a Cuban neighborhood movie theater. With my abuelita, no less, who screamed hysterically and wondered loudly--as did the entire audience about everything they had to exclaim--where they managed to get all that ketchup.

Jack Nicholson
Smilin' Jack. Jack--make that Knave--of Hearts. The big grin and the bigger trouble that came with it. In other words, the real '70s show.

Nicholson belongs here most of all; originally, I realized that such a list also demanded Burt Reynolds, Karen Black, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, John Cazale--not to mention Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier, Alex Rocco and Richard Conte. But "The Ratings Game" calls for three and no more; a cruel mistress in a small paper. So I now make partial amends.

Monday, November 27, 2006

139. Halloween Roundup (9):
Lonely Dreams

In blissful ignorance I hold in my mind what I prefer to think of as a private truth: that Annette Bening is lovely because she brushed, ever so lightly, against the soft cheek of Gloria Grahame, whose eyes flashed just a moment before returning the caress, a softly shadowed almost-wave as the past took her in black and white. I have no critical faculties--OK, maybe hardly ever, but never with Grahame, from It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Crossfire (1947) to In a Lonely Place (1950) and, of course, The Big Heat (1953), in which Lee Marvin--such perfect casting; point blank, if I may indulge--swept up the boiling carafe in his long meaty hands and splashed rough pleats into her lovely cheek. And somehow Annette Bening (actually two years younger than me, but always seeming all grown up) smoothed that cheek, and wears it as her own.

You can see Grahame's bequest to Bening all over in the latter's work, especially in the wide-eyed outbursts of Neil Jordan's* In Dreams (1999), where Bening's hysteria seems as big-heat raw as Grahame's. Her daughter has been killed, and her dreams lead her to the murderer, played by Robert Downey Jr. with lips as pursed as Lee Marvin's--not, though, in snarls but kisses, each rotten-sweet, like the apples piled high in which he hides. It is in fact one squashed mess of a movie, beautiful and dumb--but never sitting still long enough to let you go. And while Downey, as usual, demands my attention, it is Bening I lean toward--tentatively, because her sometimes-nasty panic is dangerous, more than an echo all the way back to the late '40s, when her long-gone twin receded into the shadows, ashamed of what's happened to her face, but refusing to leave. Bening re-invents that tendency in Grahame, but adds a less jaundiced eye, and in doing so becomes not so much Grahame's savvy dame as her agitated double, vibrating with violence. It's odd, in a way: Despite her vigorous performance, Bening seems less capable than Grahame--and I do not mean as an actor, but in her character's response to evil: She scraps with it, topples over the edge with it, makes it happen. Grahame seemed to flow more, sometimes right into the rocks, but never openly rushing toward the growl of the rapids. In fact, in her headlong plunges, Bening often seems scarier than Downey.

I am not sure where the seam shows between the two, but it might be in Bening's aggressive posture, convincing and uncontrolled. She may, then, be giving us both Grahame and her nemeses, rough men who hardly ever stop to see if she's going to get up, but shoulder past her down the hall, slamming the door shut--all, of course, except George Bailey, who saw she needed attention. And in such a "protected station" she was able to find the breathing room to give us Annette Bening, a Hollywood pro-/re-creation that urges me to keep my eye on that soft cheek, unwilling though I may be now to raise my hand to it, because Bening might slap it away; and that too draws my gaze, a little afraid but thankful that I can see the shadow of her twin, lonely but not forgotten.

*This is a director whose "body" of work is a sprawling--mercurial? chimerical?--hybrid, all jammed onto the screen with a spliced-diced sensibility, including Breakfast on Pluto (2005), The Good Thief (2002), The End of the Affair (1999), The Butcher Boy (1997), Michael Collins (1996), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Crying Game (1992), Mona Lisa (1986), and The Company of Wolves (1984). All of them up to something or other.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

138. "One tough gazooka
that hates all palookas
that ain't on the up and square":
Robert Altman, 1925-2006

I will simultaneously arise from weeks-long silence and pause the (still-running) Halloween Roundup to pay my respects to Robert Altman, the original meatball surgeon. It's hard to imagine him being born a year before my father: The former's sensibilities seemed so much a part of the good-bad chemicals of post-modern cut-out/up culture, while my Dad was, if I'm to be stuck with this line of comparison at least for another sentence or two, a High Modernist, full of the whiz-bang optimism of a world defined by change. He enjoyed the fact that he was born in a Philadelphia where horse-drawn wagons were common, and was approaching a (never-to-be-realized) old age (gone at 70) in which microchips (and -waves) were as ubiquitous as boredom over space travel. Positivist flux, "all the way down the line."

Altman, on the other hand, seemed in some ways to have sprung out of the '60s forehead both brand-new and all grown up--and gleefully outraged at It All--with M*A*S*H in 1970. And he didn't seem to look back much, barreling along with both guns blazing--and sometimes out of true, wild shots often, all smoke and noise and beautiful overlap, like Buffalo Bill (someone he and Paul Newman took apart messily in 1976, by way of Arthur Kopit's 1969 play) giving Mad Hatter history lessons. As the '70s circus rolled on, I found myself missing his bulls'-eyes (McCabe and Mrs. Miller/1971, Nashville/1975, Three Women/1977), instead lingering on the ones that sometimes seemed like feature-length outtakes fiercely proud that no one was watching (Quintet, 1979)--or unashamed if everyone was, but jeeringly (Popeye, 1980).

The Altman I held was one slippery fish, and either too big to hold on to or too ugly to handle. I didn't always love his movies, but I did always want to see them. And although I still cannot forgive him for trashing Chandler/Marlowe in 1973's The Long Goodbye, at long last I can admire how thoroughly he did so. (Two horrifying words: Elliot. Gould.) So when I saw his beautifully crafted TV version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988) or the light-infused, deliberately paced and patched Short Cuts (1993), I would point to them as signs of his greatness, until after a while, it seemed I didn't need Nashville and company, while something like The Player (1992) seemed an Altman movie only marginally, as much his as The Thing from Another World (1951) was Howard Hawks'--which might mean mostly, but only in the set-ups and punchlines. The "real" Altman, you understand, was not interested in filling theaters, just the screen.

I'm glad this is my perception of him: a sideshow of import, an iconoclast who irritated his own generation by encouraging the noisy habits of their children. But a quick glance at Altman's TV work belies another take, with all those episodes of Route 66, Bonanza, Combat!, Maverick, Whirleybirds, Peter Gunn. Perhaps not simply Altman the blissed-out pest, but after all just one of those aspiring Americans reaching adulthood after World War II, often dazed and confused themselves, but workin' on it every day, and hard; the evening lineup as palliative and preamble. So go ahead, now that he's gone: look at Quintet's frozen beauty and the first real live-action cartoon, Popeye, and relax just a little bit in the fit-filled glow of Altman's long and bittersweet grin-and-grimace. (And, while we're on the subject of Buffalo Bills, ask, along with e.e. cummings, "how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.")

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

137. Halloween Roundup (8):
To Die For

(I know it's November 1, but the Roundup is--OK, has become--atemporal; I have a good dozen or so movies to cover before I can wave those bony fingers and bid a cackling "Bye-bye, kiddies!" to Halloween. Besides--and as usual with this Humble Viewer--such mundane details interfere with the flickering rush of one movie after another, unhindered by the labor of marking time. So let us speak no more of it.)

Twenty seconds into Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and I remembered--what? Not that I'd seen it before; another five minutes and I was pretty sure I hadn't--although already it's happening again, a strange cinema deja vu: I choose a movie I'm not sure I've seen before; I watch it, assuring myself I haven't; I think about it afterward--or (and this works even better) start writing about it--and the feeling slips along my forehead, like a trailing damp breeze, that I have seen it before. It's happening right now, as I think about the opening shot, the canoe in the water, Jessica's voice-over wondering if it all really happened or is she mad and was it a dream, and so on. And the rest of the movie is a flashback, returning at the end to the canoe; so is that the moment of deja vu, simply seeing the scene twice? Or does it trigger a real memory? Or is it simply reminiscent of other horror films I've seen that feature a small boat in the water, from Friday the 13th to Humanoids from the Deep (both 1980)? Persistence of vision, the notion that the eye is fooled into seeing a series of still pictures as a single moving one, has been pretty thoroughly dismissed as a way of describing how movies are processed by the brain; but it remains an apt phrase for this refusal growing within myself over the past few years to tell one movie from another. Of course, I can still make such differentiations--but not at the level of memory, not after seeing it. So while I hope I will never confuse the three films I've mentioned so far, I know they have confused themselves in me, so to speak, these simply filmed observations of a simple thing: A woman sits in a rowboat while the bad moment waits to happen. So maybe I remember the movie only now; or maybe I've never seen it before, but watching it means I now have seen it, at least this one time (whatever could be, I wonder, the right verb tense for such uncertainty?); and so, at this stage in a life of movies, it at long last becomes one I've seen before, and gets to sidle up and insinuate itself into other films. The vision that persists, then, is not that I have seen every movie, but that I want to remember having seen them all. As Joseph and Barbara Anderson put it in "The Myth of Persistence of Vision Revisited" (1993), "we process movement in active meaning-seeking ways." This is, at least, how I process, if not movement, then at least movies: actively, seeking meaning (or at least recognition)--but also passively, succumbing to the myth/vision that every movie persists, somewhere. Well, I have silenced myself with this; better to just keep watching, and let them all be repeat viewings.

But what I do know I saw was Jessica herself, played by Zohra Lampert, an actor I immediately recalled--better yet, a face, a form, a set of mannerisms that never went away, not since I first saw them on some TV show or other. I checked the IMDb, and she was on TV a lot, in episodes of Route 66, The Defenders, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Bob Newhart Show, Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, plus appearances in various movies. A face that invites deja vu if only because it must've darted and shimmered across my line of sight for a decade or so as I consumed TV with foolish nonchalance; after all, it was on.

Zohra Lampert, though, was no mere who-was-that bit player, a lost '70s face in the crowd. No, if you saw her at all, she stayed with you, if only because, as even my son noticed, you cannot read her. She seemed perpetually undecided whether the world was laughing with or at her, whether she wanted to grin or flinch, stay or go. She was like some kind of gangly land-bird just about ready to dart off. In some ways, playing in Let's Scare Jessica to Death a recovering head-case with a chuck-it-all-and-start-a-farm husband (with a remarkably sideburned friend in tow), Lampert found a perfect role: She really did look crazy, and maybe was, in an effectively indeterminate way. She made Jessica seem trapped in a particularly damaging emotional-memory exercise, star pupil of an unbalanced acting coach who didn't care how much harm all this stress was doing her; so Jessica herself didn't seem to know exactly where things were or who she could trust or whether the small-town vampires were real or, like everything else increasingly seemed, figments of a constructed imagination.

In other words, I couldn't stop watching her. For ninety nervous minutes, Lampert captured the essence of that first nameless sap who gets it just so we can glimpse the monster--except Lampert is forced to hang on, to walk the dark corridor the whole way, to creep along the hedge for an hour-and-a-half, to listen at the too-thin door far too long. And in her hands the effect is not unrelenting suspense, but exhausting explication of victimhood. But don't get me wrong: Lampert is no limp rag wrung in the anxious hands of whatever and blah-blah-blah (to tell you the truth, every once in a while even I get tired of writing like me), but a performance artist, if I may mix metaphors (or occupations), turning toward the viewer a self-conscious eye, a direct request that the audience watch her acting. It was fun but disconcerting, a true tall tale about horror's fractal pattern, lightning clawed across the sky, cliched but still making you jump. And at the very end, as Jessica slumps suddenly below the gunnels, she has been so indecipherable that all we can do is refer to the title to make sure what has happened: that they have indeed scared Jessica to death, something that, as I look back on the film--suddenly remembering it--Lampert had been insisting all along.

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