Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Friday Club 10: Just Deserts

You are duly warned: Occasionally (and a second warning: the word "occasionally" is defined at my not-so-humble discretion), the titles of some of these Clubs will descend to the achingly obvious, the terminally precious. But I cannot resist, so I won't.


The movies for this week are not simply set in the desert, or feature deserts prominently. Films that merely sift through the sand belong in other weeks: "Big" (Lawrence of Arabia) or "Snakes on a Plain" (Tremors--and I know Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward battle worms, but such are the hazards of the frequently occasional groaner) or even "A Boy and His Dog/Horse/Robot/Etc." (Hidalgo). Heck, if all we need this week is sand then we can visit Mars--with Robinson Crusoe on Mars (unfortunately not available on DVD) or Mission to Mars or maybe best of all Red Planet.

But this week let's consider versions of the notion that the sand gets into everything, including individual psyches, as the desert insinuates itself to the core, redirecting one's perceptions, providing new and shifting foundations for one's fundamental ability to make judgments. In each of the following, the desert not only determines the arc of the narrative, but grates and grinds itself into every crevice, replacing whatever came before with its heedless grit and hard-baked finalities. In short, consider a basic truth of desert travel: Once you make it far enough, you'll die if you turn back; so you go on, and give the desert what it wants.

Monday Sahara (1943)
Zoltan Korda (Revolt in the Desert/1937, Elephant Boy/1937, The Four Feathers/1939, The Thief of Bagdad/1940, Jungle Book/1942) was no stranger to arid climes and outre situations by the time he plunked into the official Desert of Deserts tank commander Bogart and crew--with hitchhikers of all stripes, including British soldiers, a Frenchman and a Sudanese soldier with an Italian prisoner, even eventually a Nazi. The film provides an extreme setting for its cultural cross-section, in which disparate individuals have to make choices about who they are and whom they are willing to trust. While Korda's camera is not nimble enough to spend much time inside the tank, we get enough to realize we're looking at a super-heated box in the larger heat of the desert; and that combined the two exert a constant force on those inside (and riding atop it) to move not only forward, out of the desert, but toward the proper allegiances--and, given the desert's bland unconcern for the people foolish enough to tool along its waiting surface, that force, and the choices made in its wake, are literal life-and-death. The desert is always an arena, and the players better be serious in their efforts, or it will heat-freeze them in no time.

Tuesday Three Kings (1999)
As the Internet Movie Database tells us, "At the beginning of the film there's a disclaimer explaining that the strange look [and vibrant color] of the film ... is due to the fact that they used 'Ektachrome' slide transparency film instead of standard film stock, and the 'bleach bypass' process actually gave the prints a much deeper black. The silver halide is completely opaque, thus a 'true' black." Short version: We finally get a visual technique and style that serves as the best analogue for heat, a thermal imagery that helps explain why so many mistakes were made in this desert, and why we're still sweating under that sun's lidless eye. And the only respite for our parched throats is literally spilled milk (in the exploding tanker scene) and, for Mark Wahlberg's Troy ("Are we shooting people or what?") Barlow, oil, poured down his throat, Mission Accomplished-turned-torture. Blinded by the light, so to speak, the three are no wise men, but, driven by "what is most necessary to them at any given moment," merely reactive agents, sparking the last thing they need in the desert: more fire, black smoke rising like an early warning we refused to heed.

Wednesday The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
This thrilled me when I first saw it--and it is difficult to use such an expression with a straight face, but it's true: In its insistence that we simply could not depend on the movie to telegraph its punches, to let us know who would make it--if any--this was, if memory serves, the first movie (after The Birds) that made me no promises. It is, then, true to the desert, in that the only promise it makes is that it will remain, to flake their skin and dry up all hope. Well, almost all. And that is the beautiful thing about this movie, the way it succumbs to the desert, only to further give in to our desire for flight, higher and higher--and yes, closer to the sun, but also toward the horizon, finally removed. At the core of the great desert movie is the act of leaving it, and this movie gives us that moment with deep satisfaction. I can still feel the sudden cool of the breeze as the Phoenix rises.

Thursday Gerry (2002)
Sometimes, though, the act of leaving the desert is the only movement, and Gus Van Sant bludgeons us with it, as we walk and walk and walk with the two Gerrys (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) in a desert that always threatens to become exactly what it is: a dull expanse, fatal to forward progress. Desert movies are fond of discussing the problem of walking in a straight line: You can't, instead eventually describing a circle, because you naturally move toward your dominant side, left or right. It would seem, then, that the best chance of survival involves a pair walking, one left-handed, one right, canceling out each others' tendencies to double back. Van Sant's film demolishes this possibility, as the two Gerrys wander--whether circuitously or serpentine it is impossible to discern--but again with the threat of fatal boredom. And yes, the audience is included, making Gerry perhaps the most grueling of desert films--you know: It's not the heat, it's the--I'm really trying to avoid writing "stupidity," because I like the Gerrys, and I've watched this film more than once. But, like the aimless wandering of those lost for good, many viewers find Gerry maddening. And that is, in part, why this movie succeeds. The regularity of the clock, the certitude of geography, eventually the rules of interpersonal engagement, prove as useless as a dirt mattress, assembled with minimal expertise and less concern, simply something to do until you're claimed by the desert, all plans Gerried for sure.

Friday Suna no onna/Woman in the Dunes (1964)
... and once claimed, does your life sift like sand? Does foolish you become a living clod in the dune's deeper crevice? Hiroshi Teshigahara, by way of the always-intriguing Kobo Abe, takes us not merely to the desert but beneath it, in a completely original landscape of sand-dwellers who keep one foot in this world, another in a fable, as fraught with anxiety of all kinds--personal, sexual, social--as any modern urban desert; but of course with the stark beauty of ... well, I'll admit it: not the desert, but dunes at the seaside--in particular, a pit in the sand, where a woman lives, and the young entomologist slips, and joins her, while the sand keeps sliding down, and they dig themselves out--only to dig themselves further in. It is an allegory both obvious and ingenious, and Teshigahara handles the material so matter-of-factly that neither its obvious nor ingenious qualities distract us from the creeping ease with which this unlikely situation becomes daily life, encased in sand, another entomological specimen pinned on the screen.

Saturday The King Is Alive (2000)
Or, as it is known by the cognoscenti--and that's us!--Dogme #4. According to the Dogme 95 website, 195 films--sorry, 195 efforts to "counter the film of illusion by the presentation of an indisputable set of rules known as THE VOW OF CHASTITY"--have been made. The first "institution" of the digital age, Dogme 95, whose Vow was originally signed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, seeks to minimize the distance between the director and the actors, between the actors and the action--and hopefully between the film and the audience. Is the result merely videoed stage-pieces? Not always. Is it neo-auteurism, in which the director is given the burden of creativity, using minimal accoutrements and technology--makeup, artificial lighting, non-diegetic music, and so on--to make the film interesting? Sometimes. Above all it aims for austerity--but also the avant-garde, in that the individual is subsumed; as the Vow thunders in its climax, "I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work,' as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations." And how: The King Is Alive sometimes comes close to becoming an actual movie, but too often hoists itself by its own petard--I know: not a line from King Lear, a production of which the desert-stranded tourists of the film attempt to mount, but still Shakespearean in its irony. This is the (often exciting) fault-line along which Dogme 95 runs: In trying to eliminate the ultra-controlling auteur and/or blockbuster-izer--Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick, Spielberg (along with most of the New Wave)--Dogme 95 paradoxically places huge responsibilities on the director's shoulder. As stated in the FAQs section of the site, "These unusual production circumstances, gives [sic] both restriction and freedom to the director, who is forced to be creative. You eliminate the possibility to 'save' a horrible, not functioning scene with underlying music or voice-over. You have to come up with creative solutions." In some ways, it's simply Cassavetes hard at work with his actors, the cinema as an improv organism. And Cassavetes would be the first to admit the challenges of such chastity--as does The King Is Alive, which takes full advantage of its ghost-outpost-in-the-desert setting to force its actors to move with varying levels of certainty through the sand-lined rooms and along the mile-high drifts that surround them. Alternately mesmerizing and ludicrous, this is a movie that provides a glimpse into the deteriorating minds of not only the characters in a desert movie, but the actors and director who go into the desert to make such a movie. At times, even the viewer feels the aimless despair of such a situation, slowly dying on a diet of canned carrots and condensation, a blasted heath on which all heads are singed by "thought-executing fires" and "all germains [are spilled] at once." So it goes for "ingrateful man"--and the pig-headed Vows that send us into the desert in the first place, stubborn in our decision to divide the kingdom and lose everything in the process.

Sunday Holes (2003)
In its own way as bizarre as Woman in the Dunes, this movie takes advantage of the surreal isolation of a desert milieu to set its delinquent youth on a Sisyphus-ean quest, digging one hole after another--putting me in mind of Sidney Lumet's The Hill (1965), about a British military prison in the Libyan desert where prisoners are forced to climb a hill over and over. But in Holes Something is hidden in the sand, a treasure and a secret. This is real desert work up close, sweaty and seemingly pointless. But Holes is also a "young teen" movie, with enough cathartic authority-bashing to keep the target audience interested and the plot moving, until the demographic blurs and you dig along with the teen inmates, partly out of sympathy, but mostly in curiosity, as the McGuffin is upended at last from the sand--a bit obtuse in its origins, but satisfying in its--here it comes--just desserts.

As good a note as any on which to end the week. And don't forget to pour a cold one and keep your hat handy: that sun gets hot.

Friday, May 18, 2007

191. The Friday Club 9:
Comfort and Joy

The weather in May--at least here in the Middle West--can be forceful, if only because it is so insistently pleasant. The cool breeze skims along while the sun warms, and the birds twitter at 4:00 AM while the boys and girls--at least the little ones and the college students--go la-dee-dah all day. The rain comes down, and up go microscopic droplets that settle in your nose the sweet musk of trees perspiring, and fireflies pulse in the newly humid air. And more: Everything knows that spring is short, summer transient, and winter hard on its heels, so a mad glee runs through it, the twitter-pated recklessness of the indestructible and the permanent amid the fleeting world of full spring. These are intimations of joy--not mere "happiness," which you can make--and which belongs only to you (thus diminishing joy--a communal experience, something you can get even at funerals, but never when cloistered); instead, joy is something that makes you--joyful, that is.

When this happens in a mere movie it is, admittedly, not as good as the thing itself, the real breeze and moisture, the burgeoning of everything, but a portion nonetheless, a bright shadow of the big surprise.*

Monday Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Watch the strength of joy, for this movie survives Alex, A Clockwork Orange's Humble Narrator, and his satanic warble. Gene Kelly lifts his grinning face to the downpour in Technicolor unapologetic extravagance while Donald O'Connor hurls joy in alarming trajectories and Debbie Reynolds sprints alongside, feet also lifting in the wake. Even its jabs at Hollywood seem mere throwaway gags compared to the "pop-pop-POP!" as it were, of the dance numbers, incidents in a life of--if this is possible--carefree ecstasy.

Tuesday My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
When I first saw this movie with my children I was afraid the mother's illness would fret, but the joy flourishes like mild-summer crops, as the children become the parent, traveling far to soothe and heal. Along the way they are shadowed and led by the most benign of spirit-beasts, roaring and snoring, sighing and snuffling, in love with every lazy snooze and bouncing jaunt, light as a catbus along humming wires. Miyazaki goes to the edge of the city, then to the edge of the wood, uses all of his senses, and returns with a tale as full as a Totoro's belly and as light as a soot sprite.

Wednesday O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
A film so eager to charm everyone that it manages to cast a concerned eye even toward George "Babyface" Nelson, maniacal cow-killer and manic-depressive narcissist--and to set up one-eyed conmen/Klansmen just to bonk them on their heads with their own burning crosses. It grabs at every stray "startlement" and handles them like juggling pins, all-singing, sometimes-dancing, with the devil on a leash and a good-sized glob of Dapper Dan (and remember: "the pleasing odor is half the point") to keep one's coiffure just so, despite the tight spots and epic demands of wife-bound travel. Yes, "hard times flush the chumps," but the Coen brothers--in this return to the high-toned hillbillies of Raising Arizona--cast off all doubts, and give us a quick-pickin', fun-strummin' twirl in their "happy little tire swing."

Thursday Duck Soup (1933)
There are a number of Marx Brothers movies that fill me with joy, but--keeping in mind that this is the one with the mirror routine, the frenetic war-parody (in which a standing army is preferred as way to save money on chairs), songs that make both sly sense and non-sense, startling word-gags tossed off like minor asides--not to mention as a bonus a patented Edgar Kennedy slow burn and the sight of poor Margaret Dumont pelted with fruit--again, despite all that, Duck Soup is the Marx Bros. movie in which Groucho intones, "Go, and never darken my towels again!" I'm still laughing.

Friday The Straight Story (1999)
Despite his reputation, David Lynch seemed to be heading toward this picture his entire career. All his other, "nightmare," films simply express the terrifying loss of the determined love Alvin Straight shows for, not just his estranged brother, but his own sense of what is right. The Lynchian morality embraces peace, love and focus--a meditative attitude, if I may refer to his dedication to Transcendental Meditation; it is a state that flows from Alvin and calms everyone he meets. Virtually every episode of this journey-quest affirms the need for love expressed as a certainty, like simple laws of physics, immutable until the universe shifts, if it ever does--and if it ever does, this film, in its own almost-silent way, seems to assert that love--the expression of peace focused on whoever is right there in front of you--will withstand even a universal shift--will, if I may wax monumental, be the shift; and love will still stand, like Alvin's rickety rig, chugging along, finding in the end a sudden downhill slope to take you to the moment of reconciliation. This one goes up to your heart, and in the end draws you toward a state of literally astronomical proportions.

Saturday Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
To be honest, rummaging around in Tim Burton's Playhouse can be a little disconcerting, but Pee-Wee, almost like a campy hybrid of Harpo and Alvin Straight, transcends not only a sense of proportion but the law of averages that states one must fail sooner or later, and giggles his way into spastic affirmation--of self, to be sure; no one thinks more of Pee-Wee than Pee-Wee--but also of the trick of innocence, a now-you-see-it smirk overlaid with a now-you-don't grin, part Pink Flamingos, part Bugs Bunny, all hijinks, as much comic strip as kitsch. Having taken a particularly nasty spill on his bike, Pee-Wee recovers with an almost-challenge: "I meant to do that." The pleasure of this movie is that, as long as it is running, you believe him.

Sunday North by Northwest (1959)
This is Hitchcock's most exuberant, least "serious" thriller, a celebration of his own title as Master of Suspense, a chance for him to play card-sharp extraordinaire, with Cary Grant as the plant, and to fling around the Wrong Man with such happy violence that Grant himself becomes a McGuffin, while Bernard Herrmann and Mount Rushmore build iconic/almost-parodic Jacob's ladders. At no point are we asked to worry about anyone; like its secret agents who invent some lives and toy with others, we too get to sit back and make our gaze as potent as a director's, moving everything around at our whim, in patterns as exact as an Owner's Manual but with zero impact on anything beyond ourselves as the merry-making audience. In short, as my son puts it, you smile all the way through. This may not seem to be much, but it does provide an inkling of "a mere movie's" exertions as it makes its way into our eyes and ears, into our need for joy.

*I've left out some joyful movies because (1) joy deserves more than a week and (2) some joy--It's a Wonderful Life, for instance--is better discussed before snowier landscapes.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

190. A Game Show
(and Ratings Game Redux 8)

While Quiz Show (1994) is satisfying, like all Robert Redford directorial efforts it seems a bit too tidy, almost flat, in its careful, quiet succession of scenes. The physical details of this period piece are engaging and the script crackles with hard-boiled wit, while the scope of the narrative allows the audience to understand the quiz show scandals of the late '50s as both personal and social ethical dilemmas, squeezed into duplicity by an unfazed corporate climate that, once the dust settles, simply "makes the questions easier." As usual, Redford gives us a solid picture, and one that marks an on-again, off-again examination/interrogation of the American psyche he has conducted elsewhere, from Ordinary People's deconstruction of "suburbia" to The Milagro Beanfield War's land-and-labor tussle, all underlined with personal relationships that may seem a bit movie-perfect, but which strive to shine a light on the individuals who are swept along by and/or direct various social forces.

And while this "personalizing" may threaten to trivialize the Big-Picture theses of his movies, Redford, like Eastwood, knows how to find the right actors and draw from them performances that for me transcend the limitations of his quasi-invisible approach to directing. Because--perhaps obviously enough--it is not in the editing where Quiz Show comes together, but in the performances, especially John Turturro as the desperately kvetching Herbie Stempel, the onetime kid who had always been chosen last on the ball field, but finally gets the chance to show 'em all what's what--and is punished for it. I'm not dismissing Rob Morrow's and Ralph Fiennes' performances, but I've always found John Turturro fascinating to watch. It isn't that he's a "great actor"--whatever that means (I know, I know: De Niro in Raging Bull, Brando in On the Waterfront, Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Cary Grant in North by Northwest; OK?)--in fact, the best thing about Turturro is that you get to watch him "acting." I always feel like he's allowing us to watch a work-in-progress, a combination role-reflection and risk-taking rehearsal, the final version forming during the performance itself. Even in his comic turns, such as Jesus Quintana, the jumpsuited fetishistic child-molester Latino bowler(!) in The Big Lebowski, Turturro gives us a Sneak Preview: He licks his bowling ball, and we wonder if that's something he's comfortable with, or will he take out the gesture once the cameras roll?--but too late! There it is.

Am I hinting at the notion of a "natural performance"? I don't know enough about acting to remove those quotation marks. But there is that quality, that sense he has just been asked to essay the role, and brings whatever is happening in his life at the time to the performance, but deeply disguised, with just the slightest hesitation on his part--enough to keep our attention. Herbie Stempel breaks my heart--just as that phony, Bernie Bernbaum, in Miller's Crossing, suckers me in as he asks me to "look in my hot"--but, like Barton Fink and Pino in Do the Right Thing, Herbie's hypocrisy informs the performance, lets us "see" Turturro "acting," and I find myself unable to hate Stempel; Turturro's performance settles the ethical dilemma by engendering recognition and thus pity.

I just watched The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (2005), an Oscar-winning animated autobiographical film by John Canemaker, in which Turturro stands in for the filmmaker, interrogating his dead father (voiced by Eli Wallach--and don't get me started; he will be one tough old bear to replace) about his father's shady past and damaging rages. Turturro again captures that feeling I get--and I want to assert this is not a problem, although it sounds like one--that he is still working on his character, finding the cadences and notes, almost asking us to workshop the role with him. He produces an intimacy that I find rude to resist; the least I can do is watch and listen, and afterwards finish it for him myself, as he asks me to consider the tilt of his head and the set of his eyes. When Herbie Stempel drowns in his hapless dissembling, there's Turturro peeking out, looking at me, as though he expects me to feel a bit short of breath myself over my own hypocrisies, and to give back to the performance my own line reading. It is a kind of acting that is at once generous to and hard work for the audience. Turturro keeps us on our toes, since, like him, we have not been given the answers beforehand.


As long as we're on the subject of game shows, I thought I'd share my Ratings Game list of Three Best TV Game Shows. I've left out some worthy entries--I've Got a Secret, Password, The Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy--but, as usual, I decided to play gadfly. So hit your buzzers--ha, ha: "gadfly," "buzz"--oh, never mind--and Name Those Shows:

Name That Tune
Where else could one thrill to the sight of a junior-high math teacher from Tepid, Ohio actually Naming That Tune in two notes? Jeez, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” have the same first two notes!

Queen for a Day
Hapless housewives vied for wringerless washers by telling sad personal histories. The winner was draped in velvet and crowned. Who says TV demeans the human spirit?

Bowling for Dollars
All the excitement of televised bowling, plus actual dollars. The honest, arrhythmic heartbeat of the game show.

Friday, May 11, 2007

189. The Friday Club 8: Head

I've written elsewhere--and too often, I know--about the vague inquietude of low-budget horror films, with their leaden admissions of pain and disconcerting acceptance of lurching impulses, their dim stroll along cardboard storefronts and blank walls, all in enervating medium shots that last so long I begin to wonder if everyone behind the camera has just wandered off, leaving the audience to decide the fate of the characters as they shuffle in the gloom.

One of the lasting emblems of this feeling is the severed head--not to mention the wounded trunk with its black wet space between the shoulders. But it's the head itself that marks the line between sane and not, light and rolling along the grey floor, papier-mâché cheeks flat, tousled hair bristling at the temples--and of course the doll's eyes wide, and the last small rocking motion as the violence ends. And at the movies, the lower the budget the more unsettling was this image, for I was not seeing merely a head cut off, but, given the obvious, inept FX, catching a glimpse of the fervid little imaginations of the filmmakers toiling away, tawdry but grim. Somehow, the thought of them--in black and white, like their movies, grainy images in poor lighting, pasting together the head, squishing wet stuff into the neck wound--seemed worse than the finished product. This may be why I took to building Aurora plastic models of monsters: so that I, too, could indulge in the nasty pleasures of prosthetic psychosis, dabbing on the heady Testor's paint--gore-green and blood-red--and touching ever so finely the center of blind-witch eyes, the silver pupil wet. It was like an arachnophobe trying to cure himself by lying all night in a dirt-floor crawlspace.

Once again, let us pause and recall the halcyon days of childhood.

Well. As a little kid among the worst things I could imagine happening was having my head chopped off--and I know it sounds obvious: "decapitation is awful" does not seem much of a revelation; and kids often sit around amusing/scaring each other by contemplating various demises--after reading Jack London, we agreed freezing to death would probably be best; a little bit of shivery pain, then the drowsy descent. But there is something particularly traumatic about a beheading, stirring up some of the more mucid separation anxieties. The pain, of course, was always a terrible thing to consider, but it was the cause of it that really dismayed me; not just death but fundamental loss--and of course a loss observed, since every child hears and never forgets the notion that a severed head remains conscious for a while, watching the world spin as it rolls helplessly along the grimy floor or into the underbrush, momentarily glimpsing its own body standing or lying there, witness to its ragged-flesh death. It is the final act of voyeurism, and its final punishment.

As boy and man I have often returned to that image, daring myself to watch and at last get over it. And there were plenty of opportunities, even without the matinee. Just a few years before we'd all get--if not over, at least used to it--via Stephen King's best-selling gross-outs, I read Dickens' assertion of the universal dread of decapitation in A Tale of Two Cities: "Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world--the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine." Now there's phrasing for you; Dickens understood that some sights, no matter how new, hearken to the dimmest beginnings, fraught with mortality. And throughout his book blood drips and heads roll: "It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red." Dickens understood something else, that such horrors were like children (of the damned) at play: "It was taken to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it."

I too, reluctantly, have put together this infernal model kit--and do so once again, for this week's Friday Club. All hats off, and you-know-what as well, to these daily ruminations on the ridiculous but awful notion that, when things go terribly wrong and you lose your head, you become a monster, at least for a while. [1]

Monday The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

I'd like to think I saw this at the drive-in, but by 1972 I was a sophomore in high school, and I'm afraid my family's days of dusk-til-dawn excursions were over. So why, if I saw this on TV, maybe when I was out of high school, does the memory of this movie make me a little queasy? Was it the thought of the procedure, the wounds and extreme separation necessary to graft Ray Milland's head onto Rosey Grier’s body—OK, just writing that last part of the sentence was enough to exact my own separation from discomfort. I'll admit it is a silly movie--and an obvious attempt at horror-comedy--the stuff that jokey monster trading cards were made of. And then there's the clunky social parable: Ray Milland is a racist millionaire, and his head's attached to a Black man! So again, why the unease? Maybe it was Milland himself, always so serious--unlike Vincent Price, he never seemed to let slip that he was doing low camp--Milland's perpetual squint particularly evocative of his pain as he wobbled on Rosey’s shoulder, a grotesque ventriloquist's dummy. In any case, we begin with a lighter offering.

Tuesday They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963)

Yes, still goofy, but it exists in a purebred B&W netherworld of awkward silences and surreal turns. I believe there's a high-speed chase, in which Hitler's brain is jostled around in the back seat, where he looks appropriately miffed, just as one would assume from Hitler. Also, he may not have spoken throughout the film. Silence is one of the tropes of the living head, [2] and this engenders in me a transference, in which I recall dreams where I could not speak, no matter how imperative the need. Unable to move, to shield itself from harm, the living severed head, as unappealing as it may be--and if it's Hitler's ... well, 'nuff said--still manages to draw from us reluctant sympathy, as inert as it is horrendous.

Wednesday The Brain/Head That Wouldn't Die (1962)

I've written about this movie before; its particular attraction is the strange combination of sexual need--the husband, in trying to find a new body for his wife's head (severed in an auto accident and kept alive by his skill as a, um, mad scientist, I suppose), visits a burlesque house; say, as long as you're looking, why not shop uptown?--and physical repugnance, as another of his experiments, a deformed Thing, becomes the yearning-for-death head's accomplice and only ally.

Thursday Re-Animator (1985)

If you've seen this movie, feel free to supply your own double entendres for "head." Suffice it to say--in as delicate a manner as possible--that of all the head movies I would like to give you, this is the one I want least to give you. Head movies, that is. Oh, I give up: A re-animated severed head fellates a young woman. Please don't kill the messenger, it's simply that the director, Stuart Gordon, understands the dreadful implications of the severed living head, its appetites unabated but its capabilities literally truncated--and decides it's all so horrible all the only response left is a sick laugh. The result is one of the dirtiest rolls in the muck managed by late-'70s-early-'80s horror cinema, a (literal) orgy of the (no-longer) dead. Its star, Jeffrey Combs, reminds me of Welles in Citizen Kane: a dedicated ham who transcends his own impulses--and the soggy weight of the material--to produce an unequaled performance. So, while You Have Been Warned, I cannot help but play Crypt-Keeper, wring together with glee my sweaty hands and encourage you to see this one--if only to relieve yourself of the burden of ever having to see it again.

Friday Sleepy Hollow (1999)

While Tim Burton's clinically accurate digital-realism exercise in decapitation-from-beyond seems to turn its nose away from the mephitic core of the classic severed head movie--whose potency lies in amateurish but well-meaning attempts at verisimilitude--he gives us Johnny Depp as our surrogate, a Keaton-esque forensic investigator with a weak stomach, to nudge us toward the telling stink. The result is a less dreamlike, more direct confrontation with the staring face of headlessness. A toned-down Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow maintains comic distance from its foul subject, but understands the repulsion that makes the hand not only hesitate but eventually descend to the wound.

Saturday Barton Fink (1991)

As you may have noticed, as the week goes on the heads become less lively, but, at least with Barton Fink, more menacing. The Coen brothers have it both ways: a "well-made" film with a low-budget locale: the Hotel Earle, a near-portmanteau of "hell" and "hurl." The package wrapped in twine, all but steaming in its solid portent, sits next to Fink like an accusation—better yet, a comeuppance. If it does not actually contain a head, that parcel does have its own "specific gravity," especially as it accompanies Fink to the seaside, where the open spaces and fresh air are mitigated by the wrinkled lump from the Earle, in true severed-head fashion somehow still alive, but mute in its accusation--of what crime, only the bearer knows.

Sunday Stop Making Sense (1984)

My congratulations to those of you who saw this one coming. After all that silent menace and icky kitsch, I thought you could use some Talking Heads. Besides, the lighting and staging, not to mention David Byrne’s persona, retain enough off-center strangeness to make this concert film a fitting coda for the present Friday Club, as Byrne propels himself round and round the burning house, as he run-run-run-run-runs away, his Big Suit bobbing, his tiny head almost not even there. And while we all "hate people when they're not polite," if we finish with a song we may not lose our--aw, skip it.

[1] For an interesting overview of the allure of severed heads, read Fred Bush's essay, "Guillotines and Body Transplants: the Severed Head in Fact and Fiction."

[2] And I can't go on without mentioning Futurama's plethora of living heads in jars, including long-dead US Presidents and, of course, contemporary celebs, all infinitely chatty--especially Nixon's head, scarier than Hitler's and a lot bossier.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

188. The Devil's Due

I've been wanting to see Haxan (1922) for a long time. Its images of witches and devils are legendary--better yet, archetypal, at least in the movie-cosmos, ur-symbols that have settled deeply into the occult crevices of cinema. Haxan promised to be my favorite kind of movie: a descent into the First Questions, before which are offered no explanations.

And the scary pictures of Haxan do live up to their reputation, filled with shivers and groans--but the film lays heavily on them a strange internal contradiction, at once disclaimer and progenitor, as Benjamin Christensen, the movie's director (and star, if Satan's brief appearance--or Jesus' even briefer cameo--in the film fills that capacity), works phenomenally hard to make three movies at once:

The first is a God Is Not Great-esque denunciation of religion--at least as the film's "historical review" characterizes it: a self-serving, lubricious marketing campaign that both fulfills and creates desires, explaining complex problems with small-minded "ideas" (superstitions), all slopping around in a sadomasochistic soup of retarded babbling, repressed desires, and expressed malignancy. While his chronology is not entirely clear, Christensen in part sees the "Dark Ages" stretching as far as did Petrarch, who coined the term--and, living way up in the 1300s, felt he was still in them, deeply dissatisfied and nostalgic for Greco-Roman literature and culture (and that is the most bittersweet of nostalgias: fond recollections of a past one never had to actually live through). But Christensen is not mourning "the grandeur that was Greece, the glory that was Rome"; his feelings seem more aligned with the historians of the Reformation, who weren't bashing religion as much as Popery. And even more so, he was siding with the Freudians--but that is the third movie, which we'll get to soon enough.

The opening section of Haxan almost kills the film before it has a chance to live, by presenting professorial mini-lectures and presentations with static shots of woodcuts and statues, interspersed with models and tableaux. He even employs a lecturer's pointer, sweeping along the images, pausing here and there for emphasis. Actually, in some ways it's kind of endearing, a dimly lit mini-museum of antique notions. The models of early conceptions of the universe and Hell are particularly captivating, evoking the hand-make dioramas of a pre-digitized era. Like many such films, this crafted aesthetic has its own charm, even potency. Still, for later audiences Haxan is famous as a psychedelic phantasmagoria, not a pseudo-scholarly treatise, so this first section threatens to dampen spirits and quell all prickly anticipation. (I suspect that even Christensen's contemporary audience in 1922 may have grown a bit fidgety; and I wonder what the audience for its 1941 re-release made of this impulse, since the film included a long introduction by Christensen himself, finally getting the chance to shed his Halloween costume and play doctor, as he calmly informs his audience how stupid everyone used to be.)

In the second movie he made--composed of the middle sections of the film, at best a partial "history" of European witchcraft and a "case study" of a witch hunt/trial--Christensen finds his greatest strengths, both as a polemicist and filmmaker. The former, as heavy-handed as it may be, compels the viewer to share his disgust with the creeps who unjustly accused, tried and executed old ladies and fresh-faced girls. The ridiculous "tests" for witchcraft, the "sentence-first-verdict-afterwards" mentality that trapped the accused--and, most of all, the sick minds that motivated the whole enterprise--combine to condemn the condemners with as little mercy as they showed their victims. The fact that the whole thing is an exaggerated mess, narrow in scope and partial in understanding, can make some viewers--yes, me--angrier at Christensen almost more so than at his targets; but I can lay aside my ire, if only because this second movie has what we all came for: the meticulous, unhinged imagery of demonism and dementia, warty and glistening with sweat, eyeballs rolling in damned sockets while tongues dart like the last promise anyone ever wanted kept. All told, he conjures about twenty minutes of unadulterated delirium, true cinematic upheaval, in which Christensen makes us all kneel to kiss Satan's unsettlingly convincing arse, while cold fires glow and impish faces loom. Over the years I have probably seen stills from Haxan, but something more is happening here: the creation of an aesthetic, one powerful enough to generate its own memories, right there on the spot, and to give them to its viewers as if all along they had been their own.

Which leads us to the inevitable conclusion, Christensen's third movie, in which he seeks to explain how the Dark Ages got that way: Superstitions were adopted to explain psychological illnesses, and opportunistic clerics took advantage of the resulting confusion, fear, and mistrust to cement their authority. And what were these illnesses? Aside from some nods toward physical deformities and the generally "witchy" appearances of old folks, mostly women--and again Christensen becomes the curator, having his hunchbacks and crones pose for the camera, while the pointer moves along their irregular outlines--the real problem was--here it comes--"hysteria," both personal and mass. Christensen was a True Believer of the early-twentieth-century pop psychology that replaced one error--the ignorance and greed of Dark Ages* witch-trials--with another: Freudian misogyny, that labels as "hysterics" with "nervous conditions" middle-class female somnambulists and kleptomaniacs. I watched him in the 1941 introduction, firm in his convictions and convinced of his rationalism, scolding the past and warning the present. To be fair, he does suggest an association between the methods of the witch-hunters and the modern psychiatrist: There are some neatly juxtaposed images of accused witches bound to the instruments of the Inquisition and female patients in their cold showers--

--But there it is, the final aesthetic dilemma, the contradictory heart of the film: Christensen's attraction to the "sick" image, the loving attention to the very impulses that literally put on the screws in the first place. Christensen wants all three movies to co-exist; but there's too much of the Grand Guignol in him to remain calm; in the end, his own dark age gets the better of him, and in his pity for those poor hysterical women he himself becomes the hysteric, and indicts himself, the twentieth century's version of the marginalizing male, who never pauses to wonder why his diagnosis comes as easily as an accusation, condescending and simplistic. I cannot resist reminding us that he decided to play Satan, and jokingly presented a female actress' giggling Ouch! as she tried on a thumbscrew.

The 1968 wigged-out re-re-release of Haxan--featuring a jazz score with Jean-Luc Ponty and narration by William S. Burroughs, and re-titled Witchcraft Through the Ages--retained some of Christensen's agenda, but cut about thirty minutes from the original. The focus in this version is on the hallucinatory and ineffable nature of Christensen's images, underscoring the most potent urges to make such a film. At the start of this I had made a slighting reference to Christopher Hitchens. In his latest book, one of his "irreducible objections to religious faith ... [is] that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking." Hm; it seems I'm not the only one who isn't yet tired of Freud, who does relate compelling myths that have informed artistic minds for, well, ever--which I guess makes him retroactively influential. But of course he is most infamous for not only inventing psychoanalysis but screwing up both his field and the minds of those analyzed with his clumsy measuring instruments, reducing patients--particularly women--to truths he found difficult to deny, once proclaimed. Christensen's images, too, work like Freudian dreams: wish-fulfillment with the comfort of historical distance and the stubbornness of self-sustained truth, just as Hitchens keeps the dead-god dream alive, smoothing over rough edges and subtleties to fulfill his own wishes. In the "Credo" to his Civilization of the Middle Ages, Norman F. Cantor quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1145):

"There are some who wish to learn for no other reason than that they may be looked upon as learned, which is a ridiculous vanity. ... Others desire to learn that they may morally instruct others; that is love. And, lastly, there are some who wish to learn that they may be themselves edified; and that is prudence."

If only Christensen has focused merely on his aesthetic urges. He would have avoided much vanity, and maybe even inadvertently spread some love; in any case, it would definitely have been the most prudent course. And speaking of "vanity," Hitchens as well could stand to be a bit more fair--hey: "vanity," "fair"; Ah made a funny. Get it, son? (Sorry; I haven't done my Foghorn Leghorn impression in a long time.) In any case, once the socio-political agendas are played out--and, if you're smart, discarded--the instructive nightmares of Haxan remain, "irreducible truths" of the still-obscure inner workings of the viewing mind.

*I can't resist at least one historical truth: the heyday of the witch-hunt was actually in Early Modern Europe, circa 1450-1750. As usual, nobody pays any mind to Humanists.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

187: The Friday Club 7*: Seven Beauties

The size and immediacy of a filmed image create an intimate bond between the image and the viewer's psyche that, given the proper circumstances, is all but involuntary. Without conscious intent--and with only minimal warning--the viewer is permitted--no: encouraged--to open all kinds of doors, and indulge in a helter-skelter of associations, impressions, conclusions, some clear and sharply defined, others shadowy, still others clean and soft or smudged and smeared, snapping like jaws or settling like a soft breath on one's cheek. And the mind unpacks every nasty little prejudice and vice, discovering with dismay--or is it, for some, relief?--that those little monsters have all this time lain alongside the yearning to love and be loved. And the mind, now viewing, holds this up like a light to the moving light of the image, until memory and judgment, anticipation and revulsion, deliberation and impulse evanesce, until there is only the all-but-unmitigated gaze.

I worry sometimes that this experience is too manifold in its passions to allow room for my moral sense to maneuver. The viewing occurs in a rushing freedom, so that I see the feeling form in my head just as the image does. It is an exercise in simultaneity I find irresistible, as often abashing as ennobling. And so I look again--

--this week at movies that play this game of reverse origami with what I will call "images of women." Freud-as-fraud notwithstanding, I have always understood Hitchcock's--I will be calm about it and call it "ambivalence"--toward the images of women as they move around in his films. The act of filming them--and of course then viewing them, especially in the kinds of last-extreme narratives he so often chose, allowed him--and us (OK, me) to commit certain, ah, sins, while still carving odd virtues, like a medieval woodcut whose exact subject is difficult to make out. We'll begin with one of Hitch's efforts--if I may call him that, indulging in the familiarities of the co-conspirator, guilty but bound (oh, the pitfalls of language in such a discussion!) to self-indulgence, returning to the screen my appalled grin. In the end, perhaps the ambivalencies of movie-viewing cancel out each other--if one views long enough, often enough, closely and openly--and, at least in this week's movies, with just enough Freudian tension to keep one alert--until the relationship between the movie and the viewer reconciles itself, and the viewer acquiesces just as the image does, both finally impartial, creatures of the moment, as moral as the instinct to be free.

In short: girls girls girls.

Monday Marnie (1964)
One year after she let him peck at her, little by little, until all that was left was a stare, wide-eyed and stricken, in The Birds, Tippi Hedron climbed once again into Hitchcock's deceptively comfortable butter-leather back seat. And whom did she find there but Sean Connery, no matter how kind, still letting his lip curl and keeping his eyes watchful. And they made her out to be the damaged one.

Tuesday Three Women (1977)
This may be Robert Altman's greatest film; if it is, it's because he seemed to stay out of the way of the women--Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule--who dream this movie--or perhaps, like every other man in this film's world, he is in the way, and the movie is dreamed to dream away him and the rest. And watching it, I feel less than an intruder: I'm incidental, the act of viewing all on me, since the women pay me no mind--good thing: The dream moves better without me--or maybe I am only a part of the dream, the dreamer's incidental object.

Wednesday Nights of Cabiria (1957)
My favorite male dreams about women, though, are dreamed by Federico Fellini. Maybe it's because most of his cinema is a kind of dream anyway, or because he was so eager to tell us the truth about what he thought of women that anything he got wrong about them is forgiven by the truths I find out about him--and me, as always. And he seemed closest to the truth when he allowed Giulietta Masina to tell the dream. I suppose, if we are going to look for a woman emerging from a dream, we should be watching Masina in Juliet of the Spirits (1965); but her Maria in Nights of Cabiria does not so much live as dream herself into a reality. She is a prostitute, in other words already mostly an image/object--except to herself; and this is where I find her face, especially her eyes, moving me. She returns the viewer's gaze, and makes me ashamed for watching--and so the act of watching becomes ennobling in my shame, and I thank her for doing so much to herself for me. And more shame follows, for who am I to ask so much?

Thursday Killer Bait/Too Late for Tears (1949)
The indicted male returns, and the gag is that it's hard to tell who's the dame here: Lizabeth Scott, the woman who wants a little something for herself, Don DeFore, the sap of a husband who caves in, or--here he comes--Dan Duryea as the creep who wants what they get. Sorry, but Duryea fascinates me, a "feminized" tough guy--and is it just me, or is there something of this also in Richard Widmark, with their slight frames and weak chins--and especially their tendency to bluster and wheedle. You cannot have a noir without pretzel gender-logic; and to get to the heart of this post-vampire, post-War criss-cross-dress, the genre carves its women out of teak--and certain men out of soft soap--to simplify male and female to sharp-shadowed silhouettes, either spitting and yowling like cats in heat or caving in like a TB lung. Then the ol' switcheroo, as every wily Jane becomes her own John.

Friday Darling (1965)
Twenty years after noir's shell-shock, and we were still trying to keep smiling, grins fixed like bayonets, mod gear flaunted for mad love. And if you're not sick of the swingin' '60s by now, baby, maybe Julie Christie, Laurence Harvey, and Dirk Bogarde can help. A pitch-perfect movie--and that's it's undoing, as it basks in its own '60s-ness while interrogating the empty spaces inside the a-go-go molded-plastic souls on parade. The cast alone might be enough, sprightly and jaundiced, anxious and cool. And Christie's Darling, while she may seem free, in true big-studio fashion has to pay while she plays, because beneath the arms-wide romp lies a frown, and the man who wears it, wears her down. Sorry for the rhyme, but Darling after a while simply isn't--if it weren't for Christie herself, freaking out the jilted, jittery men who'd rather it were the '50s, fuming that they've gone from pillow-talk to pillow-biting in one uneasy decade.

Saturday Nurse Betty (2000)
And while we're on the subject of superfine casts--refined to perfection, sifting through the movie's fingers like granulated silk--watch how Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, and Chris Rock refry the War Between the Sexes as post-traumatic stress, as funny as it is hair-raising (literally, but that you'll have to see for yourself). Zapped into parallel/alternate universes by the need for the ideal in a particularly seedy real, Betty and Charlie--with Chris Rock's changeling-child, Wesley, in incredulous tow--head West to sunshine and bliss--all on the inside, while blades and bullets bloody the outside, where they refuse to live. A love story with invisible lovers.

Sunday Seven Beauties (1975)
Given this Club's title, it was inevitable we'd end up with Lina Wertmuller--especially if this week's images of women tend toward discovery and deconstruction. This movie is disturbing, like psychosis--because, of course, it's about psychosis--in particular, the psychosis of masculinity, maleness as mental illness, and the body as sodden thing to be hoisted up and flopped on the deck like the catch of the day, stinking already. And for me, it's doubly disturbing because my father encouraged me to see it. Relentless, implacable movie-consuming machine that he was, Dad clutched at home videotaping like Thor his mighty hammer. And he knew, almost instinctively, that the best home video library would be a Hall of Curiosities, like the Things in bottles he loved to tell me about in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, various cloudy glimpses of conditions and deformities, the obscure and the recondite, preserved in decline. And his home-taped collection took this shape, with The Terror of Tiny Town (the first--and only--"midget" Western), and a silent film whose title escapes me, in which I remember seeing a topless Indian maiden--and Seven Beauties. As usual, my father wasn't expansive, merely telling me I'd like this one and leaving the tape lying there, waiting. And I watched it alone late at night, stunned and riveted. The movie world is like the world women have to live in: often pre-programmed and demarcated, life laid out before it's lived. Wertmuller rushes ahead of her audience and tears this world into chunks, and grinds it all down, even before we realize what's going on. And when we catch up with her, it's like a tabloid crime scene, and nothing stays down. Gee thanks, Dad. I'm just glad I was twenty-four or so when you showed it to me. But, like they say on Futurama, "You've watched it, you can't un-watch it!" Ladies first, indeed.

*Two days late, but I've always contended one makes one's Friday as one can.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

186. Ratings Game Redux 7:
The Amazing Adapted Man

At some point when I was a kid, I looked up the word "Juggernaut"--if only because I already knew astro-NAUTS were the coolest humans alive,* and could not get out of my head the stunning image of Jason and the Argo-NAUTS fighting living skeletons and monsters sown from the Hydra's teeth; I figured a "Juggernaut" had to have something going for it. And boy was I right. According to my 1948 edition of The Winston Dictionary, with "Pierce School, Philadelphia," imprinted on it--which of course I still have at my side today; I mean, how much damage, really, can I cause by infantilizing only myself? Please treat that as a rhetorical question; I think I already know the answer, and I'm getting jittery just trying to avoid it.

Anyway. This was the dictionary my Dad's sister Rita--rest her--used when she went to secretarial school, and the one I kept handy as a young nerd while reading. It informed me that "Juggernaut" derives from "Krishna, or his idol: sometimes, Jagannath ... dragged in yearly processions on a great car." It is also "anything demanding blind devotion and self-sacrifice"--and the Winston is also quick to note that this definition is due to "the former belief that worshipers cast themselves to death before the car of Jagannath." This is the kind of dictionary filled with those small, finely drawn illustrations you can still encounter; and for "Juggernaut" we get something very much like the image above.

Well, aside from indulging in the desire to mention my old Winston, I bring up this word simply because I wanted to introduce my latest contribution to the "Ratings Game" in our local paper, the Galesburg Register-Mail: "Three Best Film Adaptations of Stephen King Works." "Thinking" about how to begin, I naturally sank into the comfort of cliche, and wanted to describe King as a Krishna-esque car of blind devotion-doom. I won't elaborate--much. I do think the image works, even though it creaks with age--and could probably not squash anyone, despite the oblique Christine reference. I suppose for me, King is a "former belief"--but persistent: Despite his many flaws--and all right, mine, as my reading habits "change" (read: dwindle to nothing)--I continue to be, if not happily, then at least willingly--albeit sporadically--run over by the Kingmobile. Like many a lapsed member of a highly ritualized religion,, I continue to obey the forms, while the dogma slumbers uneasily, quiescent but ponderous, in the dingy file-room of memory.

So here be the three--revised since submission; and that, Best Beloveds, is how the little busy bee doth--or something like that. And all culpa is mea for excluding other King adaptations that manage to satisfy the urge to mortify the flesh--and how; but, as always, the Ratings Game involves a trinitarian faith of hurts-so-good restriction. "Please, sir, may I have another?" "No."

The Shining (1980)
The one King so famously hates--shows you how much he knows, even about him. Kubrick demolishes the horror film and uses the bricks to wall in the Torrances, like Poe mushing through deep powder.

Misery (1990)
Rob Reiner knew you should play Pulp Gothic as broadly as you can get away with it--and was smart enough to hire James Caan and Kathy Bates, who can get away with plenty.

The Dead Zone (1983)
David Cronenberg respects the material, perhaps King's best short(er) novel, painting Johnny Smith’s decimated portrait with an uncharacteristically delicate touch, while Christopher Walken marches Smith down his own Green Mile, each step as inevitable as a ticking deathclock.

* ... and rarer every year. Wally Shirra--and is it just me, or wasn't he just that much cooler because he never lost his kid-name--the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, just left us. Gone outside for good and all.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

185. "How My Light Is Spent"

How can I discuss the bliss of my ignorance without sounding like a fool? Does it matter that I reject, with disgust and even fear, the millennial Bronx cheer of what-EV-rrrrrr? Can I defend myself by announcing that I try not to indulge in the near-cleverness that leads one to know just enough to provide snappy answers to stupid questions but not enough to ask--let alone answer--the smart ones? And am I rescued simply because I have always wanted--cliche of cliches--to be wise enough to know when to shut up--and because I also know this, too, is not enough--at least not enough to bother anyone else with the tamed yawps such tepid wisdom can manage?

Here, though, is what I am smart enough to know: Those things I love that I do not understand hold me like a simple object gently in the palm, and measure my inconsiderable heft, and toss me in a long arc; and I am happy while in flight. But even midair my ignorance is grave as it enjoins me to glance left and right at the disapproving eyes following my blue-sky trajectory. I understand the proprieties that come with being Your Humble Viewer, but this feeling, that maintains I cannot simply love a movie but must understand it, can deaden me to the core of, as Nathan Arizona would put it, my "whole Goddamn raison d'etre."

And I will take advantage of this phrasing to bring us to the matter at hand: the French New Wave. I know how important it is; I yearn to sit down and read read read all about it--because this is one more thing I know: la nouvelle vague est tres importante, as fundamental to any real appreciation of cinema as, say, film noir or John Ford. And more than that: It is distinctly Modern, if not Modernist, and so reading about it is as important as it, itself.

But I have at least watched a number of New Wave films, including Cleo from 5 to 7, Alphaville, 400 Blows, Bob le Flambeur, Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Shoot the Piano Player, Last Year at Marienbad, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg--and Godard's Breathless, My Life to Live, and, just recently--and the one I want to write about today--Band of Outsiders. And for the moment I find some small strength in this list, something I've earned by watching the movies. So I will read read read, some day, but in the meantime keep watching--humbly, as always, but with blind joy--after all, when a better writer than I will ever be considered how his light was spent, he bore his mild yoke, and stood and waited, serving all the time. I should be so lucky.


With each Jean-Luc Godard film I watch, I become sadder. This may be a perfectly legitimate response; after all, as in Band of Outsiders (1964), two things--wait: three--seem to be happening at once:

a movie,

a discussion of the movie

(--and, by extension, movie-making), and

a deep regret that the discussion ever occurred

(--coupled with an exhilarated lack of regret).

And that may be five things, and the contradictions may cancel each other out, until I have nothing left to say, but this minor film noir love-triangle/heist movie jumps off the sidewalk like firecrackers when it turns to itself interrogatively--and to us, asking us to consider the relationships among the narrative, the way it's filmed, the effect of voiceover, the impact of the actors on their roles--and the actors' acknowledgment of an audience, perhaps even of their own presence in a film. Add to that the contrite--or self-consciously trite?--attempts to regain all necessary distances--between narrative and audience, technique and experience--interrupted by the film itself, which refuses to settle down and simply be the movie, and we have an attempt at guerrilla warfare on moviemaking, freezing all cinematic elements until the only movement is somewhere in the director's eye, a reflection--but one we will never see, stuck even further than behind the camera: alone in the audience, with just whatever the movie leaves us.

I cannot explain this; I cannot even explain why I like each Godard film I see better than the one before it. But when the two crooks and their accomplice/victim line-dance in some little joint, solemn as any self-conscious performance, but matter-of-fact, almost carefree, while the narrator forces the music to cease while it speaks, cluing us in on the characters' thoughts--presenting them so flatly we suspect either the thoughts themselves or the fact that those are actually characters with thoughts--or even the narrator's account of the thoughts--I find all three--or five--of those things I think I know crowding in, making me smile--then asking why I'm smiling. And at the end, when murder will out, I am relieved by the choice of survivors, but wonder if I have overstepped my bounds by feeling anything. I cannot simply assert that Godard is a clever-clever cold sonuvabitch: I enjoyed Band of Outsiders too much. This isn't Stanley Kubrick with monumental precision, like the builders of the Pyramids, framing his disdain with the perfect cold of a star's light. Godard works too fast, and tumbles in too much. Again, all I can explain is that I want to see another, and another. I am back to bliss, even though I have to close my eyes every once in a while--the humblest viewing of all--as it all passes by, handheld and measured in meaningless seconds, a blind sprint through the Louvre.

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