Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Rating Game Redux (19): Nice List

This time around, the Register-Mail asked for Best Animated Christmas Specials. As always, three is a cruel number, and much had to be discarded--such as the '70s Rudolph (hovering at mid-camp for the past decade or so) and the indie-'90s pleasure of (here comes a great pun) Olive, the Other Reindeer/1999 (check out those too-cool-for-school voice characterizations here). But I have committed to two masterpieces, and one cruel doodle for the kiddies.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
This captures the spirit of not only Peanuts but Christmas itself, bending low to prop up all of us, like the droopy little trees we are.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and Boris Karloff make perfect sense together: part whimsy, part slapstick, part Gothic benevolence, all dedicated to making our hearts grow three sizes.

“A Tale of Two Santas” (Futurama episode)
In the year 3000, Santa (voiced by John Goodman as the anti-Burl Ives) is a homicidal robot convinced that everyone is on the “naughty” list, insuring that “X-mas” continues to be a time for all to gather together—in abject terror.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Home Viewer (2): 'Tis the Season

(Note: This is the latest column I've written for our local paper. But you can read it here first!)

What’s that small light shining from movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story? And why does the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas run so pleasantly through one’s head? Inside that light and beneath that melody lies an impulse, generous and optimistic: to stand like Whos in Whoville, “heart to heart and hand in hand,” despite the Grinch’s worst efforts. This year let’s consider movies—“Holiday” and otherwise—that ask us to stand together, despite all differences and distractions, in faith, hope and love.


In Shadowlands (1993), Anthony Hopkins plays C.S. Lewis, whose level eyes may be fixed on God, but which fill with blinding tears when his new wife, Joy (Debra Winger), dies of cancer. Lewis has insisted that “pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” but the call stuns him. It takes a heartbreaking effort for him to learn that “the pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."

Halfway around the world, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), a meditative-ecstatic biopic of the young Dalai Lama, unfolds in beauty and distress. This is a genuinely transcendent movie that first painstakingly builds then sweeps away its sand-painted mandalas, infinite sanctity and human impermanence finally reconciled.

With both Tender Mercies (1983) and, more overtly, The Apostle (1997), Robert Duvall listens carefully to Texas flatland wind and Southern peepers, his lonely men sand-blasted and baptized, slowly, quietly, until they surrender—not without a struggle, but still with trust in their allotted places.


Well, I’m trying to avoid the standards, but to understand hope we have to face despair. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) recognizes this more thoroughly than we’d like it to. George Bailey does not wish simply not to be, but never to have been at all. However, he has lives to save, including his own, so he must go on. The evidence of his necessity is too overwhelming, almost as shocking as his earlier urge to tear it all apart. And in living both the hysterical despair of his life—the loss of that small sum of money an agony—and the helpless misery of his never-having-been, George plunges back to himself, careening down Main Street like Job reconstituted in the nick of time.

While Frank Capra’s film is assertive in its mercies, David Lynch simply grins sheepishly as he reveals his kind heart with The Straight Story (1999), the true tale of an elderly man who drives his riding lawnmower hundreds of miles to see his estranged brother. Visually, a paean to Midwestern landscapes; spiritually, a slow-and-steady affirmation that, because we are all neighbors, we really can go on, no matter how steep the way.

—Even if it leads to the limitless Gobi Desert, in The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), a “semi-documentary” about a family of nomadic herders and the new-born camel who refuses to nurse, causing monumental concern. The animal is a valuable commodity, to be sure; but it also is one of the family, and the anxiety caused by its refusal and the efforts to coax it to nurse—ultimately, through song—form the movie’s fable-like narrative arc. Like Frank Capra’s film, disaster seems always imminent, but so are the bonds that drive us together, even the camels. It is the suspense of love, breathless until accepted.


It’s Christmas Eve in Joyeux Noel (2005)—based on actual incidents—and a German tenor emerges from his World War I foxhole, small Christmas tree in hand, singing “Adeste Fedeles,” and all combat ceases. Despite the penalties suffered by the German, Scottish, and French soldiers who met to Keep the Day and bury their dead, their carols ring true with clear and melancholy joy.

Seven-year-old Damian (Alex Atel) of Danny Boyle’s Millions (2004) sees saints; he’s also come into some cash: a giant bagful of “jolly old Pounds” destined for disposal before Britain switches to Euros. Damian assumes it’s from God; as he says to his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), “who else would have that kind of money?” This remarkable glimpse into childhood faith comes without sentimentality, just the delight of the shining irrationality of love.

Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat (played by Takashi Shimura with excruciating, blank-eyed despair) who has wasted his life, learns in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) that he is dying of stomach cancer. Constantly pained, Watanabe follows a circuit, from fear to mercy to death to victory, that not only rescues him from hopelessness but also ennobles those around him. A heroic triumph expressed in small gestures.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Home Viewer (1): In Which They Serve

The good folks--in particular, Jane Carlson--of the Galesburg Register-Mail have given me a new outlet for endless prattle: an "occasional column"--in the old-fashioned sense of the term, in which I write about films suitable for certain occasions--called "The Home Viewer"--which, stalwarts of my postings might remember, is the name of my first blog. If good artists borrow and great artists steal, what the heck are you if you steal from yourself? Oh, yeah: a blogger.

First up: Veterans Day. Here--because in the end this Viewer is not quite as Humble as he makes himself out to be--it is:

The Classics

Of course, before becoming a veteran one must do some soldiering. Few films bring us closer to that hellish business than Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). Legendary director Sam Fuller says somewhere that the only realistic war picture would involve shooting live rounds at the audience. Yikes. Still, Spielberg comes close, in a movie about making a small gesture of kindness amid massive bursts of brutal chaos. It begins and ends with a single veteran, whose memory is the film, which in turn provides glimpses into the varied hearts of front-line combatants. In the end, whether Ryan "earns it" does not seem as important as his searching face, eager not to forget why they fought.

In Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), the undertow-pull of memory draws down both the strong and the weak. Beneath the homecomings and long-gone fades of its steel-worker vets, the war itself shrinks to a cramped, isolated space where combat is Russian Roulette made irresistible only because it's all that's left. Critics have taken as ironic the final scene, in which Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and their friends and family tearfully sing "God Bless America." But tragedy demands its epilogue, and sorrow its music.

Soldiers, though, can bring back more than fear and pity. In Glory (1989), Edward Zwick pays tribute to the Civil War's all-black 54th Regiment, and the stellar cast (Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes) personalizes the experience of fighting for a cause larger than oneself, as the 54th's soldiers endure the bigotry of the Union they defend and transcend all doubts, proving their worth cannot be measured by any other standard than their own.

Ones You May Have Missed

Based on the true story of the Army Rangers and Philippine guerillas who rescued 500 American survivors of the Bataan Death March - losing twenty-one Filipino and only two American lives (with 800 Japanese soldiers dying in the surprise attack) - John Dahl's The Great Raid (2005) meticulously charts the complex strategies necessary to maximize success and minimize loss behind enemy lines. And get out your handkerchiefs for the footage of the actual rescued prisoners and those who risked everything for them.

Another film more about survival than conquest, Sahara (1943) offers a microcosm of war by pitting a single ramshackle tank crew (led by Humphrey Bogart) and hitchhikers of varying nationalities, religions, dispositions - and allegiances: at one point they're joined by a German soldier - against the desert itself, drawing them closer to not only death but each other. A remarkable movie that reveals, with slam-bang heroics, humor, even tenderness, how soldiers left on their own can achieve both military and moral victories.

Speaking of soldiers on their own, Danis Tanovic's satirical-somber No Man's Land (2001), set in 1993 Bosnia, dismantles futile warfare in the confines of an increasingly public foxhole/trench, where enemy "combatants," frozen by a landmine held down by the weight of a third, wounded soldier, wait - and debate the "virtues" of a conflict so absurdly convoluted it may as well be settled in a muddy hole, while the press, blue-helmeted U.N. troops ("Smurfs") and the world wait with them. This is "bringing the war back home" literally by the seat of one's pants.

Ones You Need to See

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Big Red One (1980) express Samuel Fuller's typically matter-of-fact dictum, "all war stories are told by survivors." Fuller, a World War II combatant himself, in the second picture follows a sergeant (Lee Marvin, unforgettable as a "carpenter of death") and his men all the way through their war, including the liberation of a Nazi death camp. It's grim work, demanding appalling impartiality.

For his part, William Wyler finally brings 'em home in The Best Years of Our Lives, frank in its depiction of the difficulties-personal, economic, and social-a trio of veterans (Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell) face. The standout is Russell as Homer Parish. Russell had lost both hands while training paratroopers, and he was awarded two Oscars for his role. These three demand a real Veterans' Day, when we should pay tribute to their service, nurse their wounds, and, for future veterans, make promises we intend to honor.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Rating Game Redux 18: Once More, with Screaming

Another vain effort, this time in the service of "3 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes." A contrarian part of me wants to point to the appalling death of eroticism in Showgirls--every time I look, my leer turns to stone!--or the nameless terror of the words "Extended Version" and "Quentin Tarantino" on the same DVD box--but I get it: only actual jeepers and creepers admitted. so here's a random three, strewn like broken blossoms along the bread-crumb trail, lost in the gingerbread woods. Say goodbye, kiddies:

1. Karloff’s entrance in Frankenstein (1931), back to the camera, then turning around in close-up, his dead-alive face, “blank and pitiless,” filling the screen. My Dad told me kids ran from the theater. Smart kids.

2. Wendy sees Jack’s writing--“All work and no play …”--in The Shining (1980), and finally realizes she’s in a horror film.

3. In Audition (1999), a young woman sits, her phone ringing unanswered, a big burlap bag behind her. Just as we assume the scene will end, Something in the bag lurches. The later, all-but-unwatchable revenge-torture scene is almost less dismaying than that simple movement of the sack, which captures every promise we wish horror films wouldn’t keep.

Oh, and Jeff Goldblum at the mirror in Cronenberg's The Fly. And The Exorcist, every four minutes. And John Hurt's face hovering over the egg in Alien. And bedtime in the original version of The Haunting. And, when I was a kid, the dripping jaws of The Black Scorpion descending. Good Lord, as they used to say in E.C. comics, it simply doesn't end. (Choke!)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Halloween Roundup '07

At long last, kiddies: the Dark Carnival is back in town, so let's start like the guilty things we are, and spend a long and terrible day in the dark, "feeding the alligators of the mind," as little Stevie King puts it. The Roundup this year is a bit Grand-er in the Guignol department--even the (relatively) bloodless Peeping Tom rubs one's nose in It a bit too gleefully--so you may need to check your finer sensibilities at the door. But Halloween comes but once a year, a Day of the Dead as worthy of celebration as precious mortality deserves, a cinematic haven for lost children and broken promises--I'll admit, mended roughly, but still, pray-tell, sometimes found.

8:00 am The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter is given a big budget, and he hands it over to special make-up effects fan-favorite Rob (The Howling) Bottin, who with ferocious recklessness extracts like recalcitrant molars all the subtleties from John W. Campbell's original story, "Who Goes There?"--and aren't we the lucky ones. Ice-cold in every sense, the movie still delivers the fun of watching everybody, including Wilford Brimley, freak out, not to mention one of Kurt Russell's patented reluctant-tough-guy performances, all the while wearing the single most enviable hat in the history of cinema, outside of a Yosemite Sam cartoon.

10:00 am The Host/Gwoemul (2006)
Whenever I find myself bowing too low in reverence of the Gothic--sniffing solemnly the Blakean "sick rose" of secret love worming its way through the night, destroying, illuminating, the final "moral tale"--I chug a dose of Pacific Rim moonshine. Not since the New Wave shook n stirred the crime picture in the 1950s has a genre been so thoroughly tom-fooled as in Asian horror films of the past decade. This South Korean picture, for instance, recognizes the slapstick beneath Armageddon--imagine Kubrick with a sense of humor (Let us not forget that he cut a piefight scene from Dr. Strangelove)--and sees gore as simply a kind of fatal banana peel in our collective paths. This movie is scary because of/despite its silliness, one and then the other, as campy as Gojira, as creepy as Ringu.

12:30 pm The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Well, depending on which way you lay your squint, so to speak, this is either a Halloween picture or a Christmas one. But I wanted something for the kiddies--while not denying King's gators--and Tim Burton/Henry Selick's sweet-salty treat does nicely. I never tire of its visual style, which owes equal obeisance to the elongated sweep of Joseph Mugnaini's illustrations for Ray Bradbury's High Gothic stories, Charles Addams' dim-corner bottom of the inkpot, Edward Gorey's crowded, cross-hatched Victorian nightscapes--and above all a kind of Day-Glo effrontery, adamant that All Is Well. And it is: After all, Danny Elfman sings!

2:00 pm Peeping Tom (1960)
The movie so toxic it killed its director--at least his career. After thirty years of beauty and grace, Technicolor generosity and black-and-white sensitivity, Michael Powell delivers a rancid Valentine to all his fans, and exposes the pathology of cinephilia as an end-stage disease, with voyeurism as a mere symptom of a much more serious condition. You'd-a thunk Dylan had gone electric, the howls of outraged sensibilities so thoroughly drowning any apologetics--until Martin Scorsese "rehabilitated" Powell decades later and, like any good anatomy professor, insisted we approach the cadaver. A picture that refuses to become less appalling with repeat viewings.

4:00 pm Isolation (2005)
Imagine if Ridley Scott were all set to direct Alien--then the budget went south. So he re-sets the film on a small farm in the middle of Irish nowhere, and substitutes H. R. Giger's amor fou shape-shifter with, um, cows. Sort of. Isolation's director, Billy O'Brien, makes a picture you can hold in one hand--if you're crazy enough. Dark as the inside of an old barn at midnight, sloppier than a mid-Autumn farmyard, this triumph of hand-made, animatronic ick plays gene-splicing hob with the viewer's need to know vs. the desire to look away.

6:00 pm 1408 (2007)
A little dinnertime fare for the squeamish. I won't belabor the point that movie adaptations of Stephen King material are more miss than hit. But every once in a while he gets actors surprisingly dedicated to the uneasy mixture of humor and depravity--with a workmanlike tragic finish--that marks his material. Sissy Spacek, Jack Nicholson, E.G. Marshall, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Christopher Walken, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins--and, of course, every single dam actor in Stand by Me and The Green Mile--have given King perhaps more than he deserves--or perhaps not; I'm still not sure--and made something happen: lasting impressions amid claptrap and clutter, performances that have as much genius as foolhardiness. John Cusak digs especially deeply here, and gives new and startling meaning to "carrying the picture." Cusak refuses to believe the movie's a thrill-ride goof--or that it is, but so thoroughly so that all lines become blurred. I've known a person or two who have felt that De Niro wasted way too much talent on a bum like Jake LaMotta; but I think great performances know this, and couldn't care less. Lucky us, John Cusak barrels along with the same kind of blissful/willful ignorance, and hooks his arms in ours for one giddily sick yellow brick roadshow.

8:00 pm 28 Weeks Later (2007)
Short answer: I have teenagers. But, if one is looking to fill the zombie-hole, this'll do. Danny Boyle's prequel is the superior picture, but this triumph of jiggy-cam splatter barges into the living room with appropriate savageness--whilst not ignoring the requisite social commentary that seems to keep afloat most contemporary mass-gore offerings. Loud and fast, ultimately disposable, but with a good clean bite. (What kind of Crypt-Keeper would I be if I didn't do that at least once?)

10:00 pm Re-Animator (1985)
I have been whistling past this garish graveyard for a number of years--extolling its "virtues," grinning in fond--albeit queasy--remembrance of its heedless excesses--but not committing to an actual viewing. Director Stuart Gordon arrives just as the most rabid period in horror films had begun to wane--and hot-shots the genre with a psychotronic spoonful, ODs for everybody, tied off nice n tight by Jeffrey Combs, who in the '80s played the I'll-get-you-for-this avenging nerd to Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead-ly cranked fratboy. A messy end to the Roundup, I'll admit, but those of us who'll watch this many horror films get what we deserve--and so none of us (belated apologies to Bill S.) will escape whipping.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Rating Game Redux 17: Cereal Viewing

The latest newspaper Rating Game involves "classic" Saturday morning cartoons. Well, many of the cartoons I consider "Saturday-morning classics" actually began life during Prime Time, sometimes twice a week. Even the Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1950s were presented as evening fare--"Overture, douse the lights, this is it ..." But as I made the first turn of childhood--ten years old in 1966--many of those dim but animated memories had seeped down to Saturday morning--which was already being calcified with Hanna-Barbera stopped-motion animation, ha-ha, cartoons with clever one-liners and fine voice characterizations, but whose aesthetics were pasted on like last-minute addenda to a committee meeting, bland and featureless.

Nonetheless, the '50s and early-'60s Prime Time soldiered on, scratchy reminders of the years before my second decade rolled inevitably, no turning back, and on into extended childhood. Spongebob, anyone?

Crusader Rabbit
The first TV cartoon series, a near-parody of superhero comics. Co-developed with Jay (Rocky and Bullwinkle) Ward, the series proves that, even at the onset of TV culture, kids found irony entertaining.

Jonny Quest
Best. Theme song. Ever. And a grand wish-fulfillment--for Boomer boys, at least--of life as one Ripping Yarn after another. Originally aired during prime time, it eventually made its ways to Saturday morning and immortality--The Venture Brothers notwithstanding.

Winky Dink and You
An interactive ‘50s cartoon: 1. Purchase special plastic sheet for TV screen plus crayons. 2. Draw on plastic sheet whatever Winky needed--a staircase, for instance. 3. Most kids drew right on the TV screen. 4. Winky was deeply hated by parents.

Of course, so many more, eyeballs popping, feet propeller-ing, explosions reverberating. As a kid, I had a fey love of Caspar the Friendly Ghost; all its sins remembered, I still hold a dark fondness for the cartoon that taught me that one could be sensitive and feared. Machiavelli without tears.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rating Game Redux 15: The Literary Life

Hard on the heels of Mizzy and the TV-Tones, our local paper has asked us to wax autobiographical, and list the three "best books your high school English teacher made you read." Now, far be it for me to indulge in self-absorption [INSERT GIANT SLOBBERING ALL-ENCOMPASSING SMILEY EMOTICON HERE]; still, I took a shot. And while I left out all kinds of things--the poetry of John Donne, a pleasant smattering of European short stories, The Screwtape Letters and Metamorphosis (although the last two don't count; I found them on my own in my high school library--a cool cover has often helped me judge a book, old saws to the contrary notwithstanding)--I think the ones I picked reflect genuine eye-openers as "I traveled in the realms of gold," back at the mid-point of High Late Adolescence.

King Lear
At 17, I shouldn’t have been ready for a play about the madness and despair that can come with age; but the heart-breaking degradations of Lear’s situation—whether or not of his own making—compelled me to open my eyes to the “primal sympathy” we share in suffering.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
For better or worse, since reading about Huck and Jim I have been convinced that the best stories depend on journeys, from On the Road to Lord of the Rings—and back to The Odyssey and forward to Star Trek.

A Clockwork Orange
A rough ride, but hey, it was 1974, and what better time to read a book that brutalizes not only youth but also the forces that seek to suppress youth?

I can remember hearing about James Earl Jones as Lear--maybe I even saw it, on Great Performances. It seems 1974 wasn't so bad after all.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Rating Game Redux 14: All Together Now

Unlike last week's impossible mission, I did not hesitate to choose the three best TV theme songs for The Register-Mail. And while many more than three would be better--as always (my heart breaks to leave out The Dick Van Dyke Show or Mr. Ed--although both are mentioned in passing--let alone the deeply reassuring strains of the various covers of the Law and Order theme--a melody that I greet with Pavlovian immediacy, mouth watering for both crime and punishment, with cool guest stars, Columbo with a better wardrobe--I chose the following for an obvious reason: their complete internalization by anyone my age--50 and counting (by cracky)--who, as David Byrne once sang, "grew up in a house with a television always on."* In particular, the first involves snapping fingers; if pressed I will confess I enjoy hearing that sound in a song more than hand-clapping--which has its own all-systems-go attractions. The second features whistling--every song should feature whistling, even classical music. And the third gets even more iconic in my head if I think of the Mad magazine parody. ("By the way, how's your Mom, Ed?") Together, these three have served to gleefully deaden intellectual faculties for decades, providing for many of us a respite from rational thought and pragmatic deliberation. In other words, truly mystical experiences.

The Addams Family
Vic Mizzy (Mr. Ed, Green Acres, F Troop), who sings the lyrics himself, embeds into the collective TV Generation mind a literally finger-poppin’ paean to all things creepy, kooky, and of course ooky.

The Andy Griffith Show
As Andy and Opie head off fishing, Earle Hagen (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, The Mod Squad), who does the whistling himself (another multi-tasker!), perfectly captures the breezy, casual mood of the best of all sitcoms about small-town America.

Dom-dah-DOM-dom. Dom-dah-DOM-dom-DAH. Like Jack Webb’s persona, this manages to be no-nonsense, relentless, surreal, and implacable, all at once. Just the facts, courtesy of composer Miklós Rózsa.

*And Good Grief! how could I have forgotten The Twilight Zone? I apologize to the little boy I once was, happily scared to death by that theme, a little spidery dance along my spine, sharp and venomous.

By the way: Suavity. Some have it, some don't. (Lest we forget, Don, lest we forget.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rating Game Redux 13: These Lists Just Got a Whole Lot More Impossibler

So, the Register-Mail call went out: "Three Best Movie Lines." That's right, for once a no-brainer. All I needed to do was wade through eighty-plus years of talkies and emerge with three little lines that once and for all closed the case.


What could I do? I chose at random--although one had been a part of my email signature for a few years, and another is one of two great lines from Unforgiven--the other being, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."--while the Raging Bull mantra really is among my actual favorites; it reminds me of the contrarian insistence that the best Shakespeare line is poor King Lear's five "never"s at the end of everything--his wits, his life, the play, and all.

On a personal note, there's also the list of friends' favorite lines, the ones they've latched onto in their own quirky responses to movies. My favorite of these is Stephe's, who, despite all the justly famous lines of Casablanca, prefers Rick's comment when Sascha kisses him after Rick lets the young refugee win so that his girl won't have to sleep with Captain Renault: "Crazy Russian!" So best be damned; these are simply some that have stayed in my head, long after the more quotable quotes have slipped into, if I can manage the phrase, enervating ubiquity.

From the final scene of Raging Bull (1980):
Jake LaMotta: “I'm the boss, I'm the boss, I'm the boss, I'm the boss, I'm the boss ... ”
(Greek tragedy, middleweight class.)

From Unforgiven (1992):
The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) on seeing a man die: “I guess he had it coming.”
Will Munny (Clint Eastwood): “We all got it coming, kid.”
(Judgment Day, with a squint.)

From Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959):
The Amazing Criswell: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
(It’s funny because it’s true.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rating Game Redux 12: Sound of Female

Preoccupied as I am by yet another writing project, this site languishes. And the current entry--despite potential cheeesecake appeal--will do little to re-vitalize things, being a non-movie list I submitted to the Galesburg Register-Mail. But, thing of Nature as I am, I abhor a vacuum, no matter how quiet and relaxing, so here you go:

Three Best Rocknroll Bad Girls

Poison Ivy (Rorschach)
Sidewoman for the infamous psychobilly Cramps. With album titles like Stay Sick and Smell of Female (I kid you not), one almost has no choice but to submit to this latex-lovin’ orgone gone wrong.

Pat Benatar
Before you groan, let me hit you with her best shot (OK, with that you may groan): 1991’s True Love, in which she covers 1940s-‘50s R&B tunes with irresistible gusto. You haven’t heard a bad girl triumphant until you check out “Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me.”

You know, the “Woo Hoo” band, a Japanese three-piece girl group who for twenty-plus years has shaked-n-baked American music with a combination of wide-eyed affection and sly-fox grin.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Rating Game Redux 11: War Isn't Hell ...

... Picking only three "best" war films is. In responding to our local paper's latest call, I realized one would need to subcategorize the genre to even approach any kind of list. I opted for war films that were at once intensely personal and thoroughly fed up with the whole bloody mess. Even then, so much is left behind, from Ballad of a Soldier/1959 to Three Kings/1999. And I've offered no real surprises here, no early Sam Fuller (Fixed Bayonets! or The Steel Helmet, both 1951) or mondo weirdo cross-gender war-as-metaphor freakouts (Bob Clark's Dead of Night/Deathdream/1974, Joe Dante's Masters of Horror entry, Homecoming/2005). Just bigtime classics--my comments slightly expanded from the original newspaper version-- with an Honorable Mention to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

And due apologies for not posting in a long time. I'm working on Something Big, and it takes up much of my time. But not to worry: If it never gets published, I'll just slather it all over a new blog.

Paths of Glory (1957)
The organizers of a hopeless campaign during World War I cover up their incompetence by condemning to death three arbitrarily chosen soldiers, defended onbly by the seething--but impotent--moral outrage of Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas, in a performance so achingly clenched you can almost hear his teeth grinding down to the nubs). With Full Metal Jacket (1987), this marks Stanley Kubrick’s ongoing dissection of the blind brutality that underlies unchecked power.

Ran (1985)
Akira Kurosawa adapts King Lear as a meditation on the loss of compassion in the face of greed. Among the most overwhelming scenes of battle filmed, Saving Private Ryan’s digitized apocalypse included.

The Deer Hunter (1978)
War is reduced to a game of Russian Roulette in which the winners fare worse than the losers. Michael Cimino and a peerless cast (Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren--and that Immortal of the Screen, John Cazale) tally up the costs of war as everyday moments of despair and survival.

Friday, July 06, 2007

They Should Not Perish

I know I'll find it difficult to avoid philosophy or theology, let alone moist-eyed pathos, while writing about Offret/The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky's final film--or any of his movies, for that matter. He is perhaps best known for Solaris (1972), if only because of the 2001 comparisons--both are mystically obtuse SF movies, all but entropic in their daunting leisure--or Andrei Rublev (1969), which also unfolds with custodial deliberation, as though Tarkovsky were displaying one of the title character's painted icons, and feared to scrape off the smallest flake of the holy image.The Sacrifice, though, is even more fragile, an overtly spiritual, even supernatural parable of First Questions--as Alexander's (Erland Josephson) grandson, "Little Man," remarks at the film's end, lying alone under the dead tree he and his grandfather had planted, then watered frequently in a ritual (Japanese, according to Alexander) to encourage spontaneous rebirth in the dead limbs, "In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?"--and End Times--the country calm of Alexander's home, on his birthday, is shrieked into fighter-jet hysteria as World War III erupts, somewhere in the distance. Filmed in Sweden, with Sven Nykvist behind the camera, starring one of Ingmar Bergman's frequent players, and set in a beautiful, pale, Dali-tree-spotted rolling plain and shoreline, The Sacrifice accepts its station in (cinematic) life and holds out to the viewer light-and-shifting-shadow tableaux and one-shot monologues that drew me in and claimed ownership, in an effort both anguished and transporting, filled with abysmal thoughts (in the Nietzschean sense) and the labors involved in fulfilling a pledge.

We once took a bike ride along the Hennepin Canal in northern Illinois. I found myself alone, the water on my left, a tree-line on my right, with corn fields coming and going beyond. As I moved along, the hiss and rustle of the light leaf-cover on the trail and the flicker-dapple of the tree-shadows on my face, the moment was the same as when I was twelve or so, the light and the sound, the movement and air. I was sentimental in my sadness over the time gone, and then almost despairing, then almost giddy as I jounced along. A simple moment, but for five minutes I felt a kind of levitation, and everything was filled with Grace and I was not alone.

Told you, right from the start.*

The Sacrifice comes close to that brief spell along the Hennepin, but it adds an overt magic realism that permits a copy of Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi, lurking behind a deeply reflective pane of glass, to become at once a promise and a threat; and that allows Otto the mailman (Allan Edwall) to serve as a guide through not only the ethics of sacrifice but the mysticism, even witchcraft, of mercy. Otto gives Alexander a map of Europe from the 1600s; when he informs the household that it is not a copy but an original, he is told he shouldn't, that it is too large a sacrifice. "Of course it's a sacrifice," he agrees. "It wouldn't be a gift if it weren't a sacrifice." Well, this may not seem like much, but it's the foundation for the film, as Alexander, who has been mourning the lack of spirituality in the world--but who, when Otto asks him what his relationship with God is like, answers, "Practically non-existent"--falls to his knees when the world threatens annihilation, and chokes out a garbled Lord's Prayer, promising God he will surrender everything--his home, his comfort, his voice (he is a writer), and all contact with his family, especially his Best Beloved, Little Man--if all is set aright. And Otto presents a way to seal the pact: Alexander must sleep with the servant Maria, a witch, according to Otto. The resulting scene, with Alexander washing his hands and Maria feigning ignorance until she accepts him in paranormal, gravity-defying comfort, combines the film's threads of Western and Asian spirituality with a tender, "pagan" physicality.

I will let you work your way through to the end yourself; suffice it to say, though, that when Alexander describes his relationship to God, Otto considers the answer and comments, "Sometimes that may be best." In any case, despite its insistent quietude interspersed with roars and tears, The Sacrifice--with its own significant bike rides--moves--all right, even levitates--along its trail with achingly familiar beauty and sorrow, its losses both touching and necessary, its gains as filled with sorrow as joy. I do not want to reduce this movie to empty dualities, but I hesitate to take you exactly where it heads--if only because you may find yourself somewhere else, maybe even nowhere like the Hennepin, as the film tallies up the cost of the gift even as it shows us the bright faces of those to whom it's presented.

*And sorry for the cut-rate W.B. Yeats impression; the original sentiment, from "Vacillation," goes like so:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

I've been stealing from him--and often this particular poem--for thirty years--and waiting for my own fiftieth to come and go, to see if Yeats was on the square with this. I think he was.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Tattooed Heart

Tom Verde (Hugh Jackman) stands next to the Tree, counting the hundreds of tattoo-rings around his arms that mark his life--one that shines and fades, three times, with the light of moon-phases shot through gold and milky sap--and each is shadowed with forgetfulness. He has lived through centuries of loss without reconciliation, and needs monumental urging to finish and be done.

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006) is easy to dismiss--J. Hoberman is particularly snarky-eloquent:

"Solemn, flashy, and flabbergasting, The Fountain--adapted by Darren Aronofsky from his own graphic novel--should really be called The Shpritz. The premise is lachrymose, the sets are clammy, and the metaphysics all wet. The screen is awash in spiraling nebulae and misty points of light, with the soundtrack supplying appropriately moist oohs and aahs."

This is his first paragraph. I suppose it's rhetorically proper for him to support these assertions, but the rest of the review simply continues to sneer; there's nothing, it seems, in either Aronofsky's movie or Hoberman's review that is necessary. Both, one could argue, simply make a lot of noise.

There is a moment--noticed, as I checked, by other internetters--lifted shot-by-shot from Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952). His morose bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) has just found out he has stomach cancer. He walks along a silent city street, past a construction site--a shower of sparks fly--and into the street, where he is almost run over by a truck--and at that moment the sounds of the world crash out, like a switch thrown. In The Fountain it is Tom walking from the hospital and his cancer-victim wife (Rachel Weisz), and the scene is repeated in every detail. Aronofsky, then, makes a film about immortality and necessary death that itself has a long life, stretching along the--yes, lachrymose--trail left by movies that share its concerns. And so comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey are inevitable--and in some ways unfortunate--but not entirely inaccurate nor off-putting. I have also recently watched once more Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), another movie that approaches both Aronofsky and Kubrick--which in turn hearken to any number of experimental, non-narrative films made in the decades before.

So for me the first step toward accepting The Fountain was in its own willingness to become a part of the long march through oft-repeated themes and visual tropes. Beyond that, however, are its graphic novel sensibilities, eager to cut from scene to scene, the sheer experience of sequence equaling "narrative": first we see this, then that, then the next--and we make connections, many of them visual. This film works for the viewer only if each scene does; and the scenes themselves make sense only in their relationship to the one that precedes and the one that follows. The particulars of character and plot fell away for me--I was satisfied with the mere repetition of certain lines ("Finish it," "Together we will live forever," and, most anticipatory, "Death is the road to awe") and images.

And it is mostly in the images that this film compels us to supply meaning, from the Tree itself, to the various incarnations of Jackman's character, to Rachel Weisz's face. And the road to the city, the interior of the nebula, the lights in houses and labs, all move in each major sequence (past, present, future) to imply an arc that moves very simply--from doubt to faith, from anger to acceptance. To step among such archetypal goings-on, one must abandon all malice. Admittedly, this is a supremely self-indulgent film; but, I confess, so are most of my favorites, from Nosferatu (1922) and Citizen Kane (1941) to Eraserhead (1977) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), as well as the films of Guy Maddin and the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmejer, and the silent collages of Joseph Cornell. Together such filmmakers play (to steal a Maddin title) the saddest music in the world--and also ask us to forgive each other--and the filmmakers, of course--for loving such self-indulgence, all of us guilty in our pleasures, but rewarded. Aronofsky made an ambitious collage, one fraught with the perils of its own extravagance, but in the end as beautiful as a starlit night--speaking of which, one more lengthy quotation, a curative to Hoberman, another bit of beautiful excess and sky-gazing reconciliation, this one from G. M. Hopkins:

"Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!"

If you can put up with that, The Fountain shouldn't be much of a problem. The trick is to let it be itself, not the poem or movie or whatever you wanted it to be.

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