Thursday, April 26, 2007

184. The Friday Club 6: Madcap

When I am writing about a movie that makes its own world with reckless unconcern, wobbling on an axis so far out of true it's a miracle the whole wet mess doesn't splatter like cosmic creamed spinach--oh, boy, someone needs an editor--I am too often tempted to use the word "delirious." In all fairness, though--at least to me--it's a good word for a certain kind of cinema that springs from a region close to the unconscious, spanked into hungry life and making all kinds of racket.

The people behind these movies often didn't know what they were doing--no, wait: They did. It's just that what they did was different than what happened. Hmm. Let's try again: In documentary filmmaking there was a dream called "direct cinema," in which the camera would gaze dispassionately and allow the viewer to do the same, unimpeded by directorial intention or the intrusions of "technique." Good luck, pally; anyone who tried to make such a documentary had already spoiled the broth by "intending" to supplant "intention" with "truth." It was the cinematic equivalent of telling someone, "Don't think of a horse." Oops; too late.

But something close to that dream does occur in some movies. I'm thinking, in part, of so-called "unreflective cinema," low-budget sell-out-and-cash-ins that are about nothing but themselves, garish product whose shelf-life is as long as the movie's own flicker: gone with the last frame. Well, then. I suppose we could call it a day, having figured it out, with perhaps a slight neo-Marxist-revisionist disdainful curl of our lip at "popular entertainments" cobbled together by alienated labor rough-ground in one of the more dilapidated mills of capitalism.

But that's still not right. The movies in this week's Club are no mere McDonaldized massburgers piled high with over-lit cutie-pies and hyped-up creepazoids in disposable romantic comedies and slicers-n-dicers. Nor are they "homages" to the cinema of delirium (keep it in your trousers, Tarantino), "recreating" the "fun" of "B-movies." Sorry for all the quotation marks, but as Roger Corman has said, over and over, he never made B-movies.

But what the heck did he make? Well, before he allowed himself the luxury of a two-week production schedule--and occasionally after, through the '70s and the exploit-o-rama of New World Pictures--Corman and filmmakers like him--especially ones with even less money and what we might call "talent," just to get it out of the way--churned out movies in three to seven days, seeing themselves purely as entrepreneurs, carny-style. Just like MGM and Warner Bros., for the zero-budget boys n girls it was a business--but no Graumann's Chinese for them; no, they barnstormed from drive-ins to 42nd St. grindhouses--real ones, children, real ones--from lonely little Main Street Bijous to any empty space, indoor or out, where a screen could be thrown up and the pictures could roll.

And so. What are we really talking about here? Well, look below at this week's Club offerings. These are pictures so unreflective they're barely there, stolid lumps, canned and wheeled around like some disconsolate capybara in a near-empty county fair sideshow, billed with desperate enthusiasm as "World's Largest Rat!" Their makers were just filling gritty little niches in the movie market, where everyone's tired, including their clothes and shoes, and this better be good. Unfortunately, it often wasn't.

But--one more time--what was "it"? I'm almost there: the lowest common denominator, but transfigured by the sheer act of viewing. Pauline Kael, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, tells us (famous quote coming): "The words 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this." Pretty words all in a row, but not quite right. Just take out the need for "more than this," and you're left with the following movies, simply there and waiting for us to hitch them onto our shoulders like a Salvo overcoat, scratchy and threadbare, but suddenly ours, and alive like a kiss and a bang, like the Pleasure Principle sneaking around because Doris Wishman made a nudie-cutie in three days, working so fast she didn't notice the Id slipped out and now lies like creases on the film, twenty-four delirious dreams per second, more than the picture ever wanted to be, but--here we are at last: finally direct--as direct as a bullet, as basic as the first thought: "I wannit." So look on these works, ye mighty, but don't despair.

And no descriptions. These titles should simply appear, like jack-knife impulses.

Blood Feast (1963)

She-Devils on Wheels (1968)

The Sinister Urge (1961)

Spider Baby (1964)

The Sadist (1963)

The Unearthly1957)

The Wasp Woman (1960)

183. Who Put the "Gee" in "Gratuitous Nudity"?

A number of years ago a good friend and fellow-cinephile (thanks, Mike), exasperated by another of my perpetual, irritatingly stubborn assertions of a Truth of Cinema--in this case, "Elliot Gould is a drip"--and after vainly trying to make me admit I was lying--either to him, myself, or both of us--by demanding I recognize that at least in M*A*S*H those things I claimed made Gould drippy--self-satisfied smirk, lazy approach to acting ("Well, here I am; whaddaya think? Aw, never mind."), and general air of smugness for being able to do nothing in particular except look vaguely like Groucho on downers--were actually assets--or at least were not as prominent as I asserted--insisted I watch The Silent Partner (1978), which would not only reverse my poles, so to speak, but force me to admit that my real problem with Gould was that he had fully participated with Robert Altman in the latter's deconstruction of private eye Phil Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973), a film I still cannot--oh, OK: will not--entirely forgive. Of course, my friend was more right than I was, even though I was still somewhat right to begin with. Elliot Gould in the '70s did seem darned pleased with himself. Problem is, once I noticed that, I couldn't see anything else. It was the relatively small pimple on the tip of a nose that, when noticed on another's, makes it difficult to look at anything else; and, when perched on one's own, leaves one cross-eyed. When it came to Gould, I was a little of both; but naturally I would not admit it.

It was difficult for me to soften--but I did, in large part because of my persistent friend's perfectly perfect recommendation of The Silent Partner, in which Gould's mild-mannered, tropical-fish-collecting, chess-problem-pondering bank teller, Miles Cullen (a name soaked in milk if ever there were one), gets wind of a plot to rob his bank, and he shorts the thief--Christopher Plummer in ultra-scary deadpan-cum-freakout mode, narcissistic, sadistic, sociopathic; in other words, many kinds of ick--keeping a large chunk of the loot for himself. The rest of the movie becomes a compelling cat-and-mouse game with an increasingly dangerous swticheroo, as cat becomes mouse and mouse, cat. The movie is such a cure for the condition I will call--if I may be stupid (too late you say, har-dee-har)--the galloping goulds, that I have been able to appreciate him in a number of later roles--Alby Sherman in Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984), Harry Greenberg in Bugsy (1991), Reuben Tishkoff in the Ocean's movies--and, as the Internet Movie Database reminds me, even Rabbi Goldberg on Nickelodeon's Hey Arnold!--all quintessentially New Yawker roles that are easily forgettable--but not for me, because Miles Cullen smiles faintly behind their eyes and insinuates himself like an implied question in their voices. Miles gives me the strength to revisit the heyday Gould in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), Getting Straight (1970) (alas, the only one not on Netflix), Little Murders (1971), California Split (1974), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)--and helps me to stop staring at that blemish, one I may have all-but-imagined anyway.

Besides--because I haven't forgotten the title of this post--The Silent Partner has four separate scenes of classic '70s gratuitous nudity, by four different actresses--including, when you thought it simply wasn't gonna happen, Susannah York. And why? It was 1978, you square, and you couldn't have a "sophisticated adult entertainment" without it. And now that I think of it, maybe not as gratuitous as it could be, since Gould's bank teller is supposed to be on the cusp of middle age--he was forty when the movie was made, and seems to be playing his age--and appears for a time to be out of place amid all that unaltered flesh--until he goes from mouse to cat, with the requisite grin and pounce, as ready to dally as to dispose of inconvenient corpses. Of course, such exposure is a female-only trope, although Plummer looks like he'd be up for it--please excuse the imagery--if only because messing with people's heads and then killing them might be more fun "peeled," if I may be at once delicate and creepy. But no kidding: before this most recent viewing of the movie I had forgotten all about it. Tells you something about either (a) the strengths of The Silent Partner's plot and performances or (b) the state of my pre-Althzheimer’s, in which I forget lots of things, but can still recall that I have forgotten them. Or something like that. Sorry; I have always found sudden nudity distracting.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

182. Life Begins at 1950: David Halberstam, 1934-2007

His connection to movies was--well, I was going to say "peripheral," because all he did was report on them, along with everything else that happened in America at the midpoint century, in one of my favorite books, The Fifties. But if writing about movies is a "peripheral" connection to them, then I'm in trouble--or, to be redundant, at the periphery. Oh, well; at least it's quiet.

In any case, I could not let Halberstam's passing go unnoticed on this site. Among the bounty offered in his aforementioned survey of the 1950s, he notes that Elia Kazan disliked "the image of youthful alienation that he and [Nicholas] Ray had fostered [via Marlon Brando and especially James Dean]." Kazan "was not fond of Dean and did not think him a major talent." Halberstam leaves us with the image of an old guy upset over the fact that he had helped invent a cultural norm in which, as Kazan himself put it, "parents were insensitive idiots ... [while] all youngsters were supposed to be sensitive and full of 'soul.'" "Youngsters." It's these kinds of tidbits, culled from every aspect of American life--political, social, economic, cultural--that makes The Fifties such a great book, molding an image of this country's defining decade--and of the people who invented it.

So there's Kazan, standing on his porch, shaking his cane, yelling at James Dean to get off his lawn. I'm sorry Halberstam won't be able to take any more of these snapshots. But there's still the books--The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and practically the only sports books I can read--allowing the second half of the American Century to open up, page after page, and tell us exactly what it thinks--and what it thinks of us.

Friday, April 20, 2007

181. The Friday Club 5: Snake Pit

This week it's existential dentistry, as we peer into the mouth of madness. I'm really not trying to be insensitive, given the week's events; I just want the comfort of metaphor--which is problematic, since great metaphors intensify the blow, not soften it. Still, better it happens in Karloff's head than anyone else's.

Monday The King Is Alive (2001)
People stranded among the dunes decide to while away the time by putting on a production of King Lear in this Dogme venture. And, believe it or not, things spin out of control. Sounds fine; as I've mentioned elsewhere--or thought it, or just bothered my wife and friends with it, or whatever--King Lear is my "favorite" Shakespeare play, just like Raging Bull is my "favorite" Scorsese picture. Besides, I have an affection for movies set amid sandy wastes--The Flight of the Phoenix, Sahara, and the mysterioso Woman in the Dunes, all scooping out a big hole in the desert in which to pit character against character, and all against the landscape itself. As Howard Hughes says in The Aviator, the desert is "clean"; problem is, once you crawl inside and scrub that big bowl, the sides get so smooth you can't climb out. Hence the blasted mind on the equally blasted heath.

Tuesday Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
I liked parts of Flight Plan, especially the ones that remind me of Bunny Lake Is Missing: the woman who insists her child is missing, to everyone's growing suspicion. Otto Preminger directs Carol Lynley and Lawrence Olivier in a mystery that seems to occur almost entirely in people's heads. I think I've seen this one, but the subject matter is so fraught with ambiguity that my impressions of it have sunk (in a nice way) to hints and whispers.

Wednesday Spider (2003)
I know I have seen this one before: once, and by myself, in the dark. Not a good idea. David Cronenberg cooly observes schizophrenia from the inside. Restrained, you might be surprised to hear--for Cronenberg--but still the definition of "impenetrable gloom."

Thursday Straight Jacket (1964)
What a relief after Spider this will be. Joan Crawford, looking more and more like Mr. Sardonicus, returns from the booby-hatch and resumes her ax-wielding ways--or does she?

Friday Vernon, Florida (1981)
Early Errol Morris, solid evidence of a career-long fascination with the "thin line(s)" between the truth and the lies we tell--and each other. And he does this through the cracked lens of eccentrics--both small-town, as in Vernon, Florida--and big-time--as with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War--who've "handled brains," but whose own lie unattended, while grit gets in the folds until strange pearls form. Crazy, man.

Saturday The Devil Commands (2003)
He most certainly does, at least for Boris Karloff to once again suffer from monomania, this time to reclaim his wife from beyond the grave. Electro-spiritually. I hope there's a Tesla coil.

Sunday Bubble (2003)
Steven Soderbergh is boss: He Ratpacks it with George and Julia and Brad, then genre-busts--The Limey, The Good German--then, as with Bubble, slips into chilly experimental waters. Small-town doll factory workers engage in obsession and murder. All on location with non-professionals, proving that antic dispositions know no bounds.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

180. Good-Bye to All That: Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

I was at work today, and someone asked me to look over a flyer and check it for errors. I suggested changing a semicolon to an ellipsis, and a colleague asked me if I knew the Kurt Vonnegut "quote about semicolons."* I said I didn't, and she said she'd forward it to me. And she did, and that's when I realized that Kurt Vonnegut died last week.

Ray Bradbury will be next--he'll be 87 this August. And I'm not trying to jinx Bradbury--besides, that old Gothicist would probably be happy to see his mortality batted around like a shuttlecock. I'm simply watching the seconds tick on the deathclock of my youth. Bradbury may have held my hand through the Dark Ride of childhood, with eternal Autumn and music like thin breath through a thighbone flute, but Vonnegut helped me climb on the goggle-eyed bucking bronco of adulthood; and I was scared to death but ready to whoop n holler. (I cannot think of Vonnegut without a flickering under-image of Slim Pickens riding that H-bomb in Dr.Strangelove. Learn to apocalypse the easy way!) And I was thinking of him the other day--could it have been, in some unstuck moment, last Wednesday?--as I considered his warning from Mother Night that "you must be careful what you pretend to be because in the end you are who you're pretending to be," along with George Orwell's image of the young man who becomes an instrument of Empire: "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it." Perhaps Orwell's is the more elegantly worded version, but both devoted their careers to exploring the processes of disguise and deceit, and the effort to breathe beneath that mask. Vonnegut, though, was a pal of mine, if I can put it that way--as Marc Bolan once sang, "Book after book, I get hooked every time the writer treats me like a friend." He understood the American wish to be both the man in the gray flannel suit and the beatnik on the road, and could catalogue--sometimes with sad smile, sometimes in grim exactitude, the "alarms and diversions" (as another of my college-onward heroes, James Thurber, would put it) that result from such divided sympathies.

The trick, Vonnegut always seemed to be telling me, was to live in love--but to do so without pretense. I will admit, though, that I was--and maybe still am--not strong enough to do the first without indulging in the second. But every once in a while I splash some Vonnegut on my face like cold water, and it's no fun waking up, but necessary. And while a part of me, knowing he's dead, wants to cry, "What now!?" I think the more I peer at them, the more Bradbury and Vonnegut, two eighty-something Midwesterners--Illinois and Indiana, leaning on each other, square edges broken off by rivers and grudges--begin somehow to look the same, smiling like Halloween moons as the world regularly turns its face away from the light--while always insisting we look out for each other, lonely and lovelorn, and try to keep each other company, and love each other enough to pop the skins of every granfalloon with holy glee; because, as we should always remember, "a really good religion / Is a form of treason." God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, and see you sooner or later.

*For what it's worth, here's the comment, Vonnegut being his usual contrary self, giving us "a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college." Thanks, Kurt; I've been to college, and I like semicolons; indeed--and there; I've just used the word "indeed"; take that!--in this footnote alone there are FOUR semicolons. (And looking at this mess, Vonnegut may be right.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

179. Elephant in the Room

With Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant turned to death like a mortician: calm and direct, his hands unhesitating as he touched and adjusted--and one might argue whether he showed "respect," but again, for the quiet man at the funeral home, handling the job effectively can become a form of respect. Still, this could have been horrible: a cool observation, an uncaring gaze. But Van Sant gives all the burden of sorrow and pity to us; we need to realize that the high-schoolers his camera follows will become either murderers or their victims; otherwise, we are left with only shock, anger, weakness, recovery. Of course, that is how it happens--how it is happening down in Blacksburg--but, as in Oedipus the King, tragedy is only possible when the audience already knows the things to come, so that every action we see, casual or purposeful, well-meaning or otherwise, is fraught with the worst kind of irony, sharp like knives, awful to watch.

But in life we are never as lucky as even the unluckiest fictional characters. For us, it's always shocking. I thought of Elephant not just because it mirrors Columbine and what happened in Virginia--and happens, and is happening, and will happen--but because the movie provides comparative comfort, where I can mourn the victims before they are killed, and cherish them as I watch them still alive. Marginalized people, on the other hand, poor, homeless, displaced people, those who are "cleansed" or get to be called "minorities"--they already know it's time to mourn, right now, simply waking up and getting on with it, inventing a kind of peace. The rest of us--matter-of-factly showing up every day to fairly decent jobs, making regular purchases of non-essential items, sending off our children to tree-lined campuses--are free, and have to be surprised.

And maybe that is, after all, something we need to know: that we are all not just sufferers but "guilty things surprised." I have nothing else to write here: I read Cho Seung-Hui's plays this morning, and not even fiction feels lucky at the moment. I'm not sure what I'm touching, blind in the dark, nor how much longer I can avoid looking at its insistent bulk; but I'm hoping that my hands will know just a little, and that I can manage to at least glance at the rough flanks of the thing we're sharing space with.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

178. Talking to Me

I watched The Good Shepherd (2006) and City by the Sea (2002) back-to-back--but not really: They did not, if you will excuse the silly imagery, turn from each other, back facing back, sulking from some small tiff; or simply tired, ready to dream their own dreams. No, I think they lay beside one another, looking up, talking quietly in the dark. I was almost intruding, but, to reference another De Niro performance, I heard things:

Both Matt Damon's Edward Wilson and De Niro's Vincent LaMarca, responding to the lung-filling conflux of their lives and their jobs, dark, oily waters merging, sink into silence, settle into immobility. Edward builds CIA counter-intelligence with decades of whispered conversations behind closing doors, poker-faced--that is, the same face, to enemy and friend, wife, lover, and son--as his breath gets shorter and his resolve inscrutable. And Damon does have a good face for this, one you want to see smiling, relaxing; almost a movie star's face because it approaches charm. And this is why he makes an attractive up-and-comer, the eager kid you wish would ease up on himself and enjoy the arrival of his success; I'm thinking of Good Will Hunting (1997). But it's also Tom Ripley's talented face, the boy who grins at you, brushing away the wingless flies he's been torturing just as you walk in. In The Good Shepherd he drowns almost immediately--rising a few times as he considers whom he might love, and there is that smile again, perhaps real, but always being drawn down. Near the end of the movie, someone asks Edward a question. As he looks back, silent, in her frustration my wife muttered, "If he doesn't answer that question ... ." And of course he doesn't. I was going to write, "Because at that point it's too late," but, once he wipes away his girlish makeup--the "poor little buttercup" at Yale--it's Skull and Bones, and cold logic, and proprietary attitudes, until everyone, including the women he professes to love, and the son he says he'll protect, drowns with him. It seemed too late for him from the start.

Vincent DeMarca in City by the Sea has also withdrawn his offer, so to speak, to wife and lover, and especially son. In his attempt to protect his own damaged self, he lowers his head and averts his eyes, becoming the good cop, but the silent partner. His junkie son, Joey (James Franco), falls almost all the way down, his "shirt-tail muddy, his hands a little bloody," and Vincent moves toward him, but so tentatively, so slowly, that it all but guarantees he will remain untouched--although not unmoved; like Edward Wilson, DeMarca knows he is drowning, and taking others down with him--but he is too afraid of the past to change the things in front of him. De Niro gives us a character who is also almost likable; but he is no Edward Wilson, cooly inventing a self. DeMarca seems willing to emerge, but it takes mighty efforts from everyone around him, generations of them--father's ghost, ex-wife, almost-girlfriend (an admiring bow to Frances McDormand), lost son, abandoned grandson--to grab him by the nape and pull him from the flood.

As the director of The Good Shepherd and the lead in City by the Sea, De Niro lets us hear the sound of footsteps receding, down to the water's edge. I'm glad I watched the cop movie second, if only to be left with lessons in resuscitation rather than the dimming face wavering and dying. Both films, though, "speak of something that is gone," although City by the Sea finds "strength in what remains behind."*

*I can't help it, but Wordsworth sticks in my head like an exceptionally subtle jingle, always compelling me to buy buy buy those intimations of immortality through recollections of early childhood. Sheesh.

Friday, April 13, 2007

177. The Friday Club 4: All That Heaven Allows

This week is particularly random; I'm tempted to work up themes for the Club--feel free to make suggestions--but when I was a kid my Mom would make us throw out the grab-bags we got at Halloween--rat poison and razor-blades, you know--so I've always felt there was something exciting about the unmatched and unforeseen. Just remember, boys and girls: You eat at your own risk.

Monday Lustre (2005)
A man wanders NYC post-9/11. A "fictional documentary"? I don't know; but I am more than willing to watch this in memoriam Victor Argo, as much a New York institution as the Brooklyn Bridge: over the river and straight into the gut.

Tuesday The Legend of 1900 (1998)
Let's get a quick confession out of the way: I have yet to watch Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988, I was surprised to see). I'll admit to an odd hesitation; until now, my best-beloved Italian view of movie-going is in Fellini's Amarcord (1973), with its heady combination of Hollywood star-gazing and adolescent lust. I'll get around to watching Cinema Paradiso one day; in the meantime, there's The Legend of 1900, which concerns a man (Tim Roth) who spends his entire life aboard a cruise ship. A hybrid of Being There (1979) and Fellini's own And the Ship Sails On (1983). Maybe.

Wednesday The Gleaners and I (2000)
I've seen only one Agnes Varda movie--Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961), perhaps my favorite French film about a woman (Amelie fans may howl their protests)--and I've read she has made a number of documentaries. This one is about modern French "gleaners," people who are authorized by law to gather fruit from already-harvested orchards in the country and dumpster-dive in the city. And I have the impression that it is also autobiographical--or self-reflective--as Varda also sees herself as a gleaner. My faithful readers will not be surprised that I'm attracted to the act of discovering oneself while exploring something else.

Thursday One from the Heart (1982)
I've seen this Francis Ford Coppola--you need to write out the whole name; there's at least two of them now--movie once, I think on cable, soon after its brief theatrical run. Many people don't care for it; but it has a great cast--Teri Garr, Frederic Forrest, Raul Julia, and the one and only Nastassia Kinski (Tess was the first movie I took my then-fiancee to see--oh, OK: the first movie we saw together)--and Tom Waits songs--with Crystle Gayle--and that whole business about it being shot on a sound stage while Coppola ensconced himself in a high (for the early '80s)-tech Command Center from which he delivered electronic edicts. So--famous last words--what's not to like?

Friday The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Ernie Pyle is one of my minor heroes, and he is played by Burgess Meredith. Almost 'nuff said: Robert Mitchum's in it, too. I almost would like this one for Sunday--it has that pot roast and mashed potatoes feeling, at least from here--but, as you'll see, I've saved even heavier fare for that day.

Saturday Crank (2006)
Lighten up, it's Saturday night. I like D.O.A., I like Speed, and Jason Statham is cool and crazy, daddio. As Nick (Nick Dennis) the mechanic, considering a sports car, exults in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), "Zoom! POW!!"

Sunday Heaven's Gate (1980)
A group of us rented this in grad school, pitching in so that it would cost us only a dime each to see it--and one of us (Are you out there, Karen?) sat patiently through the whole thing, then, as soon as it was over, shot up and bolted out the door. Enough, it seemed, was enough. (At least that's how my wife and I remember it.) While leisurely (he admitted, albeit in gross understatement), I will never concede that this is a bad movie, in large part because it isn't. But it's infamy also marks its significance in film history: the moment when filmgoers began to act like studio execs. Most (OK, not all) of the jeering directed at Michael Cimino's film resulted from its "excessive" cost, not its merit simply as a movie--one that, by the way, has many moments of stunning clarity and grace that still resonate, at least in my mind. Again, one of the ugly side-effects of consumer criticism is the urge on the part of the audience to dwell on the Biz, the dirt dished by entertainment media, and the tendency toward judging a film based on what others say about it. To quote Daffy Duck, "Now that's just plain silly."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

176. Wrestling Foreign Men

The Borat phenomenon went past me largely unnoticed, if only because there is just so much I can pay attention to. Still, I had the feeling I would appreciate Sasha Baron Cohen's shtick, even though--hm; because?--I heard grumblings that it was ugly and gross. And then came the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for these "cultural learnings Of America for make benefit glorious nation Of Kazakhstan," and I grew more curious about how an extended prank could merit such attention.

But even before Borat made it to the "U. S. and A." I realized what I was watching: the Andy Kaufman that would have been, the non-cancerous comedy-tumor Andy would have, if he'd had the chance, lovingly, impishly grown on our collective backsides. As much as I laughed, at once tickled and appalled--and ashamed for laughing--I felt a little sad--and, of course, vindicated. I long ago joined the Andy Kaufman faithful, '70s college students who, as pointed out in an old National Lampoon magazine parody of Mad, knew we'd "really outgrown Mad" because we laughed "at simpler things, like clouds and flowers." Like Andy Kaufman. His comedy--or whatever you want to call it--seemed (and when it comes to Andy, if you "know not 'seems'" you're in trouble) predicated upon the notion that you began to understand what he was doing first through the jaundiced eye of irony, but would never get the punchline unless you could transcend* your condescension and embrace the experience itself, as much of a non sequitur as it might be.

Kaufman's "Mighty Mouse" routine--in which he "accompanies"/lip-synchs a scratchy 45 of the cartoon's theme song--is the apotheosis of his method: It begins as off-kilter camp--his late-'70s audience had that song engraved into their kid-consciousness--and we could appreciate the irony of a slightly formal young man, also a bit nervous and self-conscious, using the song, spinning away next to him on a cheap record player, as an "entertainment": absurd, but not absurdist, if you catch my drift. Yes, the performer is a simpleton, somehow convincing himself this is worth "performing" on national TV. But just as we decide the point is to laugh at him, the combination of every element softens our response: We understand his love for the song, a silly little thing from childhood; but it becomes more than nostalgia, because the performance chides us, ever so slightly, for our nostalgia--and then more sternly for our even imagining that he should've done something "worthwhile"--after all, this is TV, the last place we should expect any substance. But the performance--here comes that word again--transcends parody (of what, though, is not certain: '50s nostalgia? the act of performance? definitions of "professionalism" or "comedy"?) and becomes itself: a minimalist's exercise, a rehearsal-as-performance. We have been invited to watch, but it is so personal we believe it would have occurred even if no one was watching, even if the performer had remained at home--a home cluttered, of course, with comic books and trivia, junk collections and garish memorabilia--meditating on the light of the self diffused.

Cohen's Borat is, of course, simply an extension of this urge to erase the line between private and public life. Cohen's most obvious predecessors in pop culture are the clueless victims of reality programming, the punk'd celebrity-ette, the mortified housewife who must smile because she's on Candid Camera. But between Borat's surreal origins--a Kazakhstan that only drunken fratboys and small-city socialites could believe exists--and his (seemingly?) innocent demeanor--and, of course, all that discomfiting wrestling--I could see nothing but the desire to "carry on Kaufman." Borat is Andy's "Foreign Man" grafted onto Tony Clifton; it's just that Cohen realized there is, after all, something worse than a man wrestling a woman.

*It's difficult to discuss Andy Kaufman without using this word: Transcendental Meditation was at the center of his life, and he held on to it with open-hearted conviction.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

175. Sunny Side Up

My parents fought hard to enter the post-War middle class: property-owning, suburban, and solid. They were determined to keep my sister and me out of the city--Philadelphia--and to raise us in two-story Colonial, self-landscaped quarter acre tract-home glory. But my father's job--jobs; he worked days, two nights a week, and every Saturday he could--and my mother's in-home work--sewing, back when people paid good money for custom-made slipcovers--barely kept us solvent; after a while, especially after my Dad was laid off in the early '70s, being only thirty days behind on the bills was a pretty cozy situation.

But it wasn't all hard-scrabble privation. Sure, my Mom figured out how to stretch one chicken over two dinners and a lunch, and nobody was going to jet off to Gay Paree any time soon, but we went to Atlantic City--the working-class paradise, or so it seemed in the early '60s--every year for a week, and out to dinner at least twice a month; and we didn't have to share shoes or eat butter sandwiches. But even if we did, in one way or another every once in a while, when you're a little kid you don't notice. And today I can look at family snapshots and Holiday poses, and we're hale and hearty, all-American semi-butterballs smiling under combed hair and Easter bonnets, in front of Christmas trees and Star-Spangled Banners. My Mom planted flowers and bushes and trees, my Dad tooled the Lawn-Boy across the sward, my sister carted around suitcases full of Barbies, and I had access to every piece of plastic ordnance accessible to the Junior Commando, Mid-Boomer Division.

But as I mentioned, my Dad lost his job when I was in high school, and the thin veneer cracked, until it became harder and harder to keep those surfaces smooth and shiny. I think one time we almost lost the house, and by the mid-'70s, when I entered college, our financial situation found its only perk in the truckloads of Great Society money the Gummint poured on my scholarly head: Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, National Direct Student Loans--issued as personal checks cut "directly" to the student!--and a New Jersey State Scholarship. I went to a private college, but emerged only $1000 in debt. (I won't go on about how much you could buy for a dollar in 1978; even back then, I'll admit, a grand didn't seem all that much.) Otherwise, though, it was One Thing After Another. My mother's kidneys failed 1n '76--a particularly grim Bicentennial Moment--and my father tried to run a small business, with less than modest results. Life seemed one long, nervous wait--and I wasn't sure which was worse, the waiting or Whatever would arrive. And things bumped up and down, mostly down, and my Dad got sick, and life lurched on; then my sister and I married, gave my parents grandchildren and a few more-or-less happy years before they moved on--maybe just passing through, but always trying to make it home.

Well, that is a story I should tell better, but it stays with me like that, a small bundle, and inside of it some things laugh and some worry, some cry and others try to stay as still as possible. Watching 1950s housewife Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore, in another unshakably honest and measured performance) "contesting" (that's "CON-testing") like Sisyphus up a hill of jingles, limericks, and debt in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005), I felt that tucked-away bundle jump, still alive, and--although my own family, thank God and my good Dad's kind and loyal heart, did not have the burden of an alcoholic father, like the Ryans in the film version of Terry "Tuff" Ryan's memoir--I understood the mother's never-quite-exhausted optimism, her smile digging in, no retreat and no surrender. It is easy to mock her insistent cheerfulness--and a lesser actor would have made it seem ironic or pathetic--but watching Moore was like being in one of those moments when you catch an odor--maybe the tang of disinfectant or woodsmoke, or the wet smell that trees sweat out, between the end of a rainstorm and the return of fair weather--and you are suddenly thumped back to childhood, a small but sure drop, and you land inside your head when you were another, smaller person, as uncertain of the cause of your fears as you are of the way back to quietude. I don't want to mis-speak the truth, but Evelyn Ryan's ironclad happiness "in the moment" was not, for that generation at least, a sham tiara unconsciously worn by dupes, no matter what a later, more self-conscious and -satisfied generation might think. After all, Evelyn's generation were kids during the Depression, and knew what it felt like as the floor sagged, the moment just shy of collapse. No, the hap-hap-happy face was put on like armor, and was just about as burdensome to carry on one's shoulders.

The other day I wrote about Tideland, and here again in The Prizewinner ... I see the same demand that life better watch its step, that the isolated individual will not abandon itself, that the good moment will be seized and forced to make up for all the rotten ones that came before--and will certainly follow. When Evelyn announces, as though she were telling us that one and one make two, "Everything is possible," she is not asking life to prove her right; she can do that for herself. And when her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson, once again proving that, for some jobs, there's only one man that'll do), again screws up, then stammers his apology, Evelyn tells him, "I don't need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am." This is the last morsel in the traveling bundle I carry, the one my mother, despite all kinds of falling, both away and apart, showed me she had tied up and secured. I found out that good things really are moments, not promises or rewards, and have to be held like something small and fragile, even though they save your life. It is a little something I keep trying to put together for myself and keep secure, as often as it may spill open and scatter.

Monday, April 09, 2007

174. Harrowing

I watched Terry Gilliam's Tideland (2005) the other night--Holy Saturday; on my way to bed, my sixteen-year-old daughter showed me a YouTube clip of Bill O'Reilley and Geraldo Rivera violently yelling at each other. That night I dreamed I attended a special screening of Tideland. We were a small group, and most of the other attendees reminded me of Eric Stolz's drug dealer in Pulp Fiction, but without the bathrobe. We were hanging around outside the theater, waiting for Gilliam himself. He never arrived, and I engaged in a strange shouting match with a fellow Gilliam-ite, in which we heaped invective upon all those who didn't like Tideland. Lucky me: my mind is a simple thing, taking two events--and adding on the side the central conceit of the world's most famous (and long-cliched) absurdist play--and simply gluing them together, like dried macaroni on a paper plate. Today, class, we're going to make a dream.

But my dream was right: There is strength in simplicity--maybe even simple-mindedness--and I'm glad to join Gilliam in exploring this fundamental urge toward--I want to say "innocence" with him; and for now I will, if only because,despite the need to cast off childish things, the fact remains that certain doors--perhaps even the Only Door--will remain locked to everyone but little children. This is a mystery, and a dream--much better than mine; and while it may seem too simple, it becomes a well-worn path, leading backward and worth following.

Tideland (2005) begins, at least on the DVD, with Gilliam, like some fey William Castle, talking to us about the movie we're about to see. He's shot in black-and-white, with his shadow looming off to the left, and he looks a bit "shagged and fagged and fashed," as Alex puts it in the Korova Milkbar, as he patiently--and maybe even a little more than mischievously--informs the audience that he has "bad news": that many of us will "hate" Tideland. He follows by asserting that others will love it, and the rest won't know what to think. He then enjoins us to go ahead and think, and talks about childhood, then--well, you can see it for yourself; I watched this little intro three times, once before seeing the movie, twice more afterward, and each time it seemed more important, as much a part of the film as any of the Misadventures in Wonderland Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) "enjoys" in the course of her "Christina's World" abandonment and literally explosive rescue.

In telling this deeply strange--and not-so-strangely familiar--story, Gilliam digs in all the way, and reaches the point he has been attempting his whole career: to make sense of Lewis Carroll's books. Look at his films:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Jabberwocky (1977) (ahem)
Time Bandits (1981)
Brazil (1985)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The Fisher King (1991)
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Many might argue that hiding in these movies is Don Quixote--a book he is famous for trying to film (like Orson Welles, who almost did it)--but for me there's more of the rabbit-hole than the windmill. So what is he looking for? I must admit I'm riding my own hobby-horse here, because the Alice books hold an embarrassingly firm grip on me. They speak more than most other books of the idea of Romantic dreaming, the pre-expressionistic world-building that starts from within, deeply personal, idiosyncratic--to the point of obscurity--and self-indulgent, then moves outward, to others, toward the public and the self-effacing. As we try to survive, we keep leaning on pride; but as we consider the view of children in Carroll--and Tideland--we are given the opportunity to feel the heat of that pride, until we draw away, pained, and, like Alice--and Jeliza-Rose--we lean on others.

And whose fault is it that those others so often uncoil like serpents, and smell like death? Not the child. When Alice/Jeliza-Rose feels the weight of dependence, it is the adult world that crushes. I don't want to say anything about Tideland; it is an unusual film that needs to be seen to be believed--and I mean that without sensationalism, if that is possible. But read about Alice with Tweedledum/dee, with the Walrus and the Carpenter, with the Queen of Hearts--or perhaps worst of all, the sleeping Red King, for whom Alice is "only a sort of thing in his dream"--and you'll see the book Gilliam has been trying to film all along. Carroll does offer Alice the kindly White Knight at the end--famously, the surrogate Dodgson walking into the dream--and perhaps, in his own scary way, so does Gilliam, albeit in epileptic frenzy and fireball eruptions. I will say this about Gilliam's pre-film introduction: He admits that, at age sixty-four, he has discovered "his child within," and that it is a "little girl." And he thanks us, three times a charm, as he fades into darkness to let the movie--the only one he has left--begin.

As long as I'm delving into the strangely compelling, deliriously fractal-freaky world of childhood, let's all join together:

"Happy birthday to you,
You belong in a zoo,
You look like a monkey,
And you act like one, too."

Happy Birthday, Cheeta. Seventy-five and still Boy's best friend.

Friday, April 06, 2007

173. The Friday Club 3: Easter Eggs

This week--and it's odd that for last week's Friday Club I completely ignored the facts of Passover and Easter; another missed opportunity--I'm going to try to find some Easter eggs, little hidden gems amid the clutter of my Netflix Queue. With a nod to the week before.

Monday The Return (2003)
A Russian film about a man who suddenly arrives at his home after a twelve-year absence. Dave Kehr of The New York Times uses the word "mysticism" and makes a comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky. If he's right, this might be a good pick for Easter Monday--but done in slo-mo; no mystery disciple racing to the empty tomb here--and perhaps not a joyful return.

Tuesday The Silent Partner (1978)
My favorite Elliot Gould movie--and yes, I'm not forgetting M*A*S*H--and one of the best movies featuring a shopping mall. This is a Club entry that I have seen--and thanks, Mike, for introducing it to me--but it has been long enough--a decade, maybe?--since I've seen it, so it deserves a return. Tense and sometimes ugly, funny and thrilling. An early screenwriting credit for Curtis Hanson; L.A. Confidential does have a parent, it seems. (And the Internet Movie Database informs me he was also a screenwriter for The Dunwich Horror (1970); talk about your "colour out of space"!)

Wednesday Macbeth (1971)
I've been promising myself for a long time to watch Polanski's version of what was throughout high school and college my favorite Shakespeare play after King Lear. I used to imagine a film version of Macbeth in which he was a kind of Larry Talbot, a victim of forces inflicted on him, a werewolf whose full moon was power; from what I know about the movie, Polanski also knows that here be monsters. And I'm afraid I'm also intrigued by the fact that this is the first film he made after Sharon Tate was murdered, an event which must have "hovered through the foul and filthy air" of the production.

Thursday Contempt (1963)
This is on my extremely long list of "important" films I have yet to watch. And I can't tell you how pleased I am that the list is so extensive. I relish those magical moments when I can introduce someone to movies as "obviously" great as Casablanca or On the Waterfront. I am amazed they haven't seen the movies, but deeply pleased I can be the first one to watch it with them. So, although my premier viewing of a movie like Contempt often occurs alone--my wife sometimes joins me, but I suspect Jean-Luc Godard may be too much of a chore for her--I am happy to see it for the first time in the midst of a life already cluttered with movies, so that it can join so many companions in my head. Besides, Fritz Lang, Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance are all in Godard's "inside movies" movie; so join the Club, you alienating little nouvelle vague, you.

Friday The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
I have a vague memory of watching a Lotte Reiniger animation on the old Night Flight program back in the golden days of nationwide cable TV, in 1980 or so--when the possibility of many channels implied access to many programs; I forgot all they really wanted was more room for crummy commercials. I'm looking forward to Reiniger's cut-out version of German Expressionism, in which the narrative is straightforward--Arabian Nights tales--but the method of transmittal--black silhouettes--evokes blissful Otherness. The true heart of the cinema is in the obscure and the fleeting, the efforts of mechanisms to force us to gaze, and I think The Adventures of Prince Achmed will give us a chance to try.

Saturday No Good Deed (2002)
Director Bob Raphelson, whose '70s-'80s lights seemed in some danger of fading, might be on to something with this one, based on a Dashiell Hammett story and starring Samuel L. Jackson--who has occasionally exasperated me (like spending too much time on a snake-filled plane), but more often satisfies, especially in his willingness to play creeps with actual personalities (as good as he is in Pulp Fiction, I think he's even better in Jackie Brown)--and Milla Jovovich, for whom all I can usually muster is a heartfelt albeit adolescent woof! I'm keeping my fingers crossed the two of them give us something to bark about.

Sunday 2005 Academy Award Short Films Collection
I've seen the 2004 disk, and am encouraged this will continue. I recall that in the late '70s PBS ran a series that showed Academy Award-nominated short films, and I'm sure that's where I saw That's Me (1963), nominated for Best Live-Action Short. It was Alan Arkin's first credited screen appearance, a monologue in which he sits in Central Park, holding a guitar and talking about his life; I think his character is Puerto Rican. I'm glad that newer films are rising out of the ever-increasing obscurity suffered by those that live on only in memory; maybe someone some day will release them all, the cartoons and the vignettes, the experiments and doodles.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

172. The Joyful Gloom

It's been many years--oh, jeez; almost thirty?--since I've read E. M. Forster's novel, Howards End, but I've seen the 1992 Merchant/Ivory film version at least half-a-dozen times. It gives me a kind of pleasure that has only become a guilty one over the past few years. I won't belabor the point that many Americans still grow up Anglophiles, at least indirectly. The "British invasion" certainly didn't begin in the '60s, and it isn't going to be over any time soon. In movies alone, there's been Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, haunted castles and emigrating vampires, not to mention the semi-British accents favored by Golden Age movie stars--and let's not forget Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, nor the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis--and on to Lord of the Rings and Shawn of the Dead--and of course the veddy-veddy, RAW-tha, I-say-old-bean onslaught of the aforementioned Merchant/Ivory mill. Americans have never entirely left the groaning laden table of Merrie Olde.

I admit I myself have spent many hours at the board, so to speak, raising more than a few in cozy British imaginary familiarity. Whether rude-boy rowdy or dowager dowdy, upper-lip-stiffening or self-consciously whimsical, the Isles across the Pond never seemed that far away to me. It began when I was little: Among the earliest "real" books (more words than pictures) my parents gave me were Kipling's Just-So Stories and the Alice tales. While the former led me more to the Empire than the drawing-room, and the latter down rabbit-holes and through looking-glasses, the journeys remained unmistakably British. And despite the strangeness and violence of those books, they left me with a sense of the "homely," of the promise of some small treat by a lightly crackling fire. And then I found myself with a copy of Jane Eyre, then Great Expectations. Little by little, a part of me was altered, until I find myself still unable--and unwilling--to resist the Gothic coziness of these particular books.

Their influence extended to film, where, especially in black and white, I felt the pull of those slate-gray hills and windy rises, cobbled lanes and cheerful little doorways promising respite. But as I entered adulthood and my career in teaching--and as Americans--especially the ones going to college--began to wonder exactly who they were, while many, often less privileged, voices arose, insisting they too were Americans--I became aware of something ridiculously obvious: Here I was, a working-class East Coast-er, half Cuban and half Sicilian, and yet it was the "haunts of coot and hearn" I pined for, not the swaying sugarcane fields or olive-shaded hollows of my gene pool, let alone the sea to shining sea right here at home. And a part of me felt I had duped myself, defending foreign soil, doting on strangers.

But Howards End--the place, and the promise it makes--still stands; and to be honest, if someone handed us the keys to any version of Forster's nestled country place, smelling of fresh-cut hay, the sopping grass of the meadow merging with the lawn, the rooms low-ceilinged and close enough that you can hear them talk to one another as the wind passes, we would grab and go, forsaking all ethnic and national ties, relieved at last to open the gate and approach the yellow square of light that opens like a hand waiting to grasp in reassurance. Despite all its sorrow and loss, the house remains, the only solid thing in all that phony Britishness that Americans (and perhaps the British themselves) have invented--well, at least the only thing we want to remain, even though it is fragile--as Margaret worries in Forster's novel, a "westerly gale might blow the wych-elm [that stands next to the house] down and bring the end of all things." But such imaginary landscapes are by nature slight; and the funny part is, it's our imaginations themselves--abetted by foolish things like books and movies--that can form any substance, that make the hay smell the way it does and fill the rooms with solid furniture.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

171. Barks of Yore

When, in his first scene in the Coen brothers’ version of The Ladykillers (2004), Tom Hanks as Professor Goldthwaite H. Dorr, Ph. D. (“Like Elmer?”) leans forward and, in a tone of conspiratorial glee mingled with equal parts bombastic charm, condescending inclusion, and self-conscious befuddlement, informs Mrs. Marva Hudson (Irma P. Hall), "You, madam, are addressing a man who is in fact quiet ... and yet, not quiet, if I may offer to you a riddle," I knew that this was going to be one of those Coen brothers movies that might do many things wrong, but would prove irresistible in its consistent commitment to a kind of neo-Dickensian strategy of tagging characters via distinctive quirks of speech and manner. And The Ladykillers is mostly that, a celebration of caricature-as-character, inviting instant recognition and acceptance, at least within the narrow--"and yet, not narrow" (like I said, irresistible)--confines of its slight contraption of a plot.

As one of the Coen faithful, I am quick to forgive their lapses, eager to exaggerate their gifts. But if their work holds up, it is again especially because of, not despite, their unwavering faith in accents, postures, tics and twitches, as well as slaps, screams, and Hal Roach takes and slow burns--not to mention the pinpoint-accurate sledgehammer they take to the notion of mock-epic dialogue. The Ladykillers may not be the most coherent example of the object of my faith, but it is among its best-written--Prof. Dorr’s vocabulary alone is one of the most sprightly and recondite ever composed in the history of screenwriting (and infectious; even a newspaper headline glimpsed near the end of the movie, after Dorr and his fellow ersatz lovers of music of the "Ren-AY-zahnce" have robbed the casino, solemnly informs us, "Authorities Perplexed"). And Tom Hanks' performance explores every obscure corner of the House of Dorr. He turns his face slightly toward his listeners, inventing himself as he goes along--we can see it in his eyes--and accumulating authority while grasping desperately for purchase with every step. Like Gump, and Viktor Navorski in The Terminal (2004) before him, Prof. Dorr achieves solidity with what in some hands could merely be a distracting dependence on bizarro vocal work (consider every third Adam Sandler movie), but with Hanks becomes his--and our--entrance to the core of his character. Sometimes all a good actor needs is the freedom to invent an anchor. Commenting on his Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy, Dan Akroyd joked/noted that he did so well because they let him wear a hat. Again, such such a triviality can move a performance all the way. Olivier, in one of his frequent declamatory moods, is quoted as announcing, "We ape, we mimic, we mock. We act." A bit much, perhaps, but I like the combination of self-deprecation and scorn. It speaks to the kind of performance Hanks manages with Dorr: disdainful of itself but delighted as well, willing to be simultaneously laughed at and loved. We never pity or fear Dorr--or fear for him--but we can't wait for him to open his yap.

While the film orbits around Tom Hanks' and Irma P. Hall's characters--with of course much more "colliding" than "orbiting"--the rest of the cast also pitches in and sells sells sells. I'm reminded of Glen Garry, Glen Ross, another film that, if listened to closely, does not shine as brightly as other David Mamet efforts, but captures your attention through the sheer force of its performers. Of course, in The Ladykillers, Marlon Wayans stands out in more ways than one: A gifted mugger--yes, I wrote "mugger"--in his own right, he is also I think the only “hippety-hop” character the Coens have attempted thus far. While I wonder how much Wayans brought to his performance—the Internet Movie Database does not give him a writing credit—I think the Coens have raised the stakes with Gawain MacSam. He is the third world bashing around The Ladykilers' universe, opposed to everyone, especially J.K. Simmons' Garth Pancake, a startling performance in its own right, in which an anal-retentive surety vies with a weak flank--or should I say an irritable bowel--that renders Pancake the film's best (but false) hope for order and success. The other ladykillers--Tzi Ma as The General (his acrobatic, disappearing cigarette one of many silent-comedy visual references--even his mustache and wide-eyed concentration have a certain referential quality--I was going to mention Chaplin, but there’s more than a hint of Ben Turpin there); and Ryan Hurst as Lump Hudson (and fans of Spongebob Squarepants will recognize the echo of Bill “Dauber” Fagerbakke’s Patrick Starfish in Hurst’s breathless monotone, a sound that takes us back to Alex Karas' Mongo in Blazing Saddles, which in turn has been handed down, I think, from the paleolithic murmur of Lon Chaney’s Lennie from Of Mice and Men and the primal honk of Edgar Bergen’s Mortimer Snerd), provide opportunities for chaos through sheer variety, rather than the coherence of an ensemble. I think this may be the source of some critics' concerns, but one must accept the Coens' desire here to cram in as much as possible, and to play with the outer limits of caricature.

The sum total of The Ladykillers is of course much less than its parts. It does not resonate, as do Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, or Fargo, let alone the down-Homeric hootenanny, O Brother, Where Art Thou?--although the last gains its strength by being a rich visual and aural experience, while the others seem more deliberate in their attempt to provide a coherent plot or generate a more textured mood. Still, I return to Hanks' performance. Like many of his efforts, it is a combination of nuance and proportion, which has gotten better and better over the years--although earlier "mature" performances, especially Forrest Gump, show us how he can use a Coen staple like an accent or exaggerated posture to invite us wholly into the world he creates. And let's go almost all the way back and admit no one has ever played a kid (including actual kids) better than Hanks in Big. With Prof. Dorr, he is given the chance to reach almost too far, and he certainly does go right to the edge, but rears back at the last second with a whispery-whinnying laugh, his handkerchief dabbing at the corner of his mouth. Dickens' readers will always remember Wemmick in Great Expectations with his mouth like a letterbox slot, and Madame DeFarge knitting and knitting and knitting in A Tale of Two Cities--and the entire manifold whistling, limping, goggle-eyed, head-ducking lot of them, all fitting neatly into Dickens' novels with--I'll state it again--surprising nuance and proportion, so that, despite our best efforts, we sympathize with and feel we understand these bags of quirks, so that in the end they do have their own shapes, even if they must summarily be conked on the head with a gargoyle and dumped into the, well, dump. "Sometimes, it's the only way."

Abnormally faithful readers may recall this piece from my previous site, The Home Viewer, from three or so years ago. I've tweaked and re-punctuated and so on, but the song remains more or less the same.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

170. In Medias Res, with Cheesecake

It's early in the morning, dawn or thereabouts, and I'm sitting in front of the TV, having watched the weather--thunderstorms; welcome to springtime in Illinois; later we will hear the monthly first-Tuesday testing of the tornado siren--odd timing, since the sky will be low, pressing its gray face against the wet ground, and many of us will assume it's time to hie ourselves to the cellar--but for now I flip to Turner Classic Movies, just for a sleepy look-see.

And I'm puzzled, because there's Joan Crawford (I think), young and in her slip, behaving strangely in bed with another woman, clothed. The scheduled movie was Mannequin (1937), and Joan Crawford does star in it, but this undergarment interlude seems too silly for Spencer Tracy to be involved--although, again, everyone is just a kid in this one, so maybe even Spence will suddenly enter, his baggy boxers flapping or Union suit paunching just a little.

So what am I watching? The other woman is sleepy, but is trying to remain conscious. She leaves the bed and sits nearby in a rocker, whistling to keep herself awake, rocking furiously. We get a wipe, and the chair is empty, and the camera pans to the bed, where Crawford's companion lies asleep next to her, on her stomach, her behind pointing skyward. And suddenly I realize they're in the window of a department store, and the "automatic shades" go up, and they already have an audience. There's a guy up front, hat askew, smile crooked--a bit tipsy still, and looking a little like the great Edgar Pangborn. But he's not the floorwalker this time, instead a sidewalk ogler, perched on a crate and waiting for the show. A few minutes of shocked squealing and imprecations follow, during which Crawford's (?) bedmate loses her housedress and is also now in her slip, and the two of them scatter and dodge, knocking over furniture and imploring their gleeful audience--95% male, of course--to avert their twinkling eyes. And then the obvious Authority Figure arrives on the sidewalk--the manager, I assume--and storms into the scene, firing them both--and both are glad to be rid of their situation, whatever the heck it was to begin with.

And it ends abruptly, and I hear--like a voice so familiar that, even if absent for decades, it would never be forgotten--that unmistakable Roy Shields music--happy little muted trumpets, almost wistful, but more in the mood for madcap--I've heard all my life at the end of Little Rascals shorts, and I realize--or at least I am led to believe--that I haven't been watching Mannequin after all, but an obscure short, there on the cusp of the hour, as one movie gives way to the next--a little cinematic puff of dust, a grainy little moment from who knows when.

Or maybe not, maybe that is how the movie ends. But where's Tracy? And why that Roy Shields theme? I may never know--and that’s fine--no, that's better: a small bundle of images and sounds, a humble viewing in the midst of things. And I am on the margin, barely noticed at that moment--but the margin is a free space, where four minutes of film and I can make up all kinds of half-waking dreams, as maybe-Crawford and her pal awake as I do, and they kick up their pretty stockinged legs and keep their audience piqued, all of us teetering on crates and rolling our eyes in innocent erotic transport. Hotcha, gang, another movie day begins.

And by the way: Happy, happy birthday, baby.

Monday, April 02, 2007

169. The Friday Club 2: Sprung

I'm a few days late for this second Friday Club, but "I forgot." There; that should handle any culpability.

These are movies for my wife, who is on spring break from teaching and has a birthday coming up. She wanted movies that fit into her repeated-viewing category, or that neither demand too much nor deliver too little. So here they are, for a girl gone not wild at all.

Monday Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Perhaps the best Star Trek movie--I'm ignoring the camp attractions of the original series. I think the guest cast helps "make it so" (ouch; sorry, Picard-ies): Alfre Woodard as Lily, the surrogate non-Trekkie who comments that the name "Borg" "sounds Swedish," and who scolds Picard ("You broke your little ships"), while convincing him to Do the Right Thing with a patented Trek Literary Reference--to Moby Dick--afterwards admitting she'd never read it; and the always-reliable James Cromwell as Dr. Zefram Cochrane, the reluctant icon who seems inordinately fond of Roy Orbison's "Oobie-Doobie" and, on accepting that the Enterprise crew is really from the future, queries, "So you're all astronauts on some sort of ... star trek?" An easy gag, but Cromwell sells it. And then of course Alice Krige's surreal sex kitten/dominatrix, icky and (almost) irresistible, her lips curling like an oily little wave. The Trek movie non-Trekkies can enjoy.

Tuesday (my wife's birthday) The Good Shepherd (2006)
A movie neither of us has seen, but it's a big story (2-1/2 hrs. worth) with a big cast--Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie,Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Keir Dullea, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Joe Pesci, John Turturro--and lots of cool period details, it seems. No Lord of the Rings this week--at least not from me (as much as I love the trilogy, my wife needs no encouragement to re-view it)--but still a big quest (for invisibility of another kind?).

Wednesday The Ladykillers (2004)
Purists who revere the 1955 original and Coen brother critics who lie in wait for their slightest misstep generally band together to disdain this one. But Tom Hanks' performance is a fascinating train wreck, like Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, and the rest of the cast refuses to be left behind. Profane, and careless of the necessities of narrative arc and character development--you know, like Blazing Saddles or Life of Brian--the movie asks only that you watch what is happening at any given moment, and see how funny it is. If it doesn't make you "wanna go hippety-hop," then you're probably the kind of fellow who would bring your bitch to the Waffle Hut.

Thursday Thunderheart (1992)
My wife doesn't remember seeing this one--I myself recall it only vaguely--but I am a generous husband, and am always willing to satisfy her, shall I say appreciation, for Val Kilmer. Which isn't so difficult: She gets the va-va-va-voom, and I get the troubled action-hero. (I would've picked Spartan, but we just saw it a few months ago.)

Friday Radio Days (1987)
Woody Allen is both self-indulgent and generous in this faux-innocent tribute to the pop culture of his childhood. Episodic with a balanced dual-tone, as it sways from nostalgia to satire then back again, Radio Days nods in passing at the real world of network radio (The Lone Ranger, Orson Welles) while offering quasi-invented programs and incidents generously punctuated by justifiably romanticized reminiscences of NYC in the early '40s. The scenes by the water at Rockaway Beach and the evocations of Radio City Music Hall and nightclub life are pitch-perfect. A tender memoir with a knowing wink.

Saturday Educating Rita (1983)
If you're unlucky enough not to like Michael Caine's acting--or irritated that you know someone who doesn't--this is usually the movie to watch/show as a curative. Caine is abrupt, self-satisfied, and dismissive--with him, these are strong points--mitigated by that lord-love-a-duck grin and the ability to soften slowly--as opposed to the rush toward smarminess you usually get when the Gruff go soft. And Julie Walters' Rita never descends into cliche, even with that great line about "Howard's bleedin' End."

Sunday The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
No offense, but it's Sunday afternoon, and I wanted something my wife could take a nap to. Nothing against the movie; it's just that she is famous for falling asleep during loud films. (She nodded off in the theater during Batman, even with all that Nicholson capering and cackling.) So, while she loves Speilberg's dino-series, I know she'll cozy up to the raucous familiarity of all that roaring and screaming and crunching and drift off into CGI slumberland, the distracting thoughts of the waking world wiped clean with the soothing power of the unlikely and the downright ridiculous. The only thing missing, for her, will be Sam Neill.

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