Friday, June 29, 2007

The Tattooed Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Friday Club (13): Pet Sounds

Domestication was a Paleolithic sign that humans had moved beyond mere subsistence and had not only the incentive but the leisure (if I can use that word for those alternately dusty and mud-caked ages) to develop all kinds of everyday human stuff, from tools to artworks, as well as language and perhaps the beginning of a "spiritual life." The first domestic animal appears to be the dog--and not, like goats and pigs, primarily for food (although that use seems likely), but as a working partner--and, as most pet-owners would agree, a companion. So the idea of a "pet" is as old as flint blades and cave paintings.

Like our forebears--and most everyone--I've had my share of pets: two dogs in childhood--Spike the Collie/mutt, Georgie the terrier/mutt--as well as my sister's Siamese, Ch-Chi (my mother's childhood nickname), and of course various birds and fish, and a late encounter with gerbils. As an adult we've had a cat, Boo-Boo (named after Shirley Feeney's stuffed cat), two dogs--Patty the mutt and currently Frank the Pug--plus, largely due to children, sundry birds and fish and rodents, as well as a few baby rabbits plucked from the yard and kept for a while in the house, serving as characters in a low-key Disneyesque short of gentle mishaps and cutie-pie antics.

I sometimes profess unconcern, even disdain, for our pets, a curmudgeonly frown worn as a counterpoint to the kiss-kiss hug-hug fuss made over wee beasties. But I know--from Georgie and Chi-Chi, even Boo-Boo (taken in when we were first married)--the power of pet ownership, especially as one begins something--adolescence, adulthood, the Stone Age--in other words, that larger act of moving outside of one's immediate needs and recognizing something outside of oneself, even one's species, and accepting a bond that we manufactured millennia ago with, it appears, mutant wolves--both of us, then, unlike others of our kind, setting off together in unequal gait--sometimes one stepping ahead, sometimes the other--along the valley floor, hunter's knife and artist's charcoal both at hand.

My Dog Skip (2000)

Almost any dog movie--even this Friday's selection--can threaten sentimentality. The mere sight of a child--especially if he is uncertain, alone, or frail--holding a clear-eyed canine seems the whole story itself, with no need for detail. But My Dog Skip, as often as it picks up that broad maudlin brush, knows how to position the boy--played pitch-perfectly by Frankie Muniz--and his dog so that they stand between the boy's fears and the other side, whatever that may hold. And those fears are not ill-founded: His protective father (Kevin Bacon) had lost his leg in the Spanish Civil War, and the hometown baseball hero (Luke Wilson) returns in shame from World War II. And maybe it's too easy to go on about a small thing in a ruthless world--not to mention the film's veering toward Tom Sawyer-like or "social consciousness" subplots; and Skip is phenomenal, gregarious and decisive to such an extent that it sometimes seems his owner simply tags along--but the movie refuses to let us forget that the simple kid-and-pooch bond is potent because it is so simple. And the joy we are allowed to feel in their idealized relationship is tempered by the inevitabilities of human years vs. dog years, and how they intersect in love first, then sorrow, then memory.

The Yearling (1946)

I saw this on TV when I was a kid, and what I remember most--aside from the absolute prettiness of the yearling--was the look on Claude Jarman Jr.'s face. His Jody seems ready to grow up, but the imperatives of farm life, his dependence on his parents and the safety of the homestead impose a permanent slightly wounded look on his face--even when he smiles--OK, beams--at the deer. Gregory Peck previews his later fatherliness in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but his Ezra Baxter has less time to see the bigger picture--although both fathers feel almost helpless in the face of required killing, glimpses into the prehistoric beginnings of this story, the pretty deer and the oiled gun necessary in the same movie.

The Story of the Weeping Camel (2004)

This "narrative documentary"* concerns a Mongolian family's troubles with a camel that refuses to nurse her new calf. In his review, Roger Ebert acknowledges it is "reasonable" to mention the camels' names--Ingen Temee the mother and her white calf Botok--"since they are so much a part of their nomad families." Something large looms here: a view of the earliest human relationships with domesticated animals. Yes, the camels are a vital resource, and the family's concerns make sense as they consider the loss. But their anxiety is not merely proprietary; as they send for a musician to play the music that should urge the mother to nurse--and which should move her to tears--we know that they are not merely concerned about goods, but another mother in their midst, another child. As the camel weeps, so do some of the people watching tear up, just a little, just enough to reassure us that we are also allowed to be moved. The film has given us a beautiful landscape--and more, a loving family to witness, and to emulate if we can. In their bond with their animals, they do not turn away from each other. They are simply in the same family, and their love awakens with the cries of an infant.

Duma (2004)

I just finished teaching for "College for Kids," a two-week program at Knox College. One of my students in "How to Watch a Movie" suggested we screen Duma in response to my need for a movie that would display all the elements of film we had been talking about--camera placement and movement, shot length and sequence, lighting, sound, and so on. While I had something more "adult" in mind (but nothing above PG), I wanted to reward her participation, so we watched most of it over a period of two days. And while Duma was "well-made," in that it had the budget to pay attention to the possibilities of sight and sound, I was most struck by the image of the white South African boy with his orphaned cheetah. The animal's face is beautiful but a bit distant, a perfected cat's face: round-eyed--a little surprised anyone's looking--but still composed, confident in its lean, zero-to-sixty-in-three-seconds hyper-ventilated frame. At the same time it seems fragile, as much as the boy who hangs on to it. Often, it's difficult to tell who's protecting whom. Together, they often seem out of place--at boarding school, in a motorcycle sidecar, on the desert plain. The only thing that makes the image comfortable is the subjects themselves, trusting each other, cheek-to-cheek in a landscape that, either out of malice or love, tries to thwart them. This is the first of two Carroll Ballard films this week; the other is The Black Stallion. But a number of his films (such as Fly Away Home/1996 and Never Cry Wolf/1983) would suffice, if only because he recognizes that the purest setting for human-animal stories is the wilderness, the sky, even the paddock--any place the animal belongs. In his movies, humans meet them more than halfway, setting a bond that merits our respect.

Best in Show (2000)

Sometimes, though, all respect is lost, all around, between humans and their pets. While Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy and friends tend to expose (with sometimes cruel glee) their subjects' frailties--Waiting for Guffman (1996) makes me wince perhaps more than any of their films--a certain (albeit often merely residual) affection remains, something Guest learned playing Nigel Tufnel, "going to eleven." And so, as cringingly awful are the dog-show people in Best in Show, we never discard them. And while we may not care for them much--if we did, how could we laugh?--we see that they understand pet ownership as much as any less self-consumed dog-lover, at least in some cases, particularly Guest's hound-lover, Harlan Pepper, the jowly fellow who "used to be able to name every nut that there was." There's a joke in there, but it's too easy. I'd rather watch this movie's telling combination of dog-love and self-love, the first suffering for the second, while the dogs somehow seem above it all, our better halves.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

And what happens when this human-dog bond is all that remains? Depend on that little madman of speculative fiction, Harlan Ellison, to provide a vision dangerous enough to contemplate a reverse Old Yeller, in which, to be as blunt as the movie, it sure isn't the dog who's put down. This is a black comedy that manages to be deeply humorless, intent on adolescent apocalypse and the fine-tuned effect of a sledgehammer as instrument of social commentary. It loves its ugliness, its sardonic dismemberment of the square world, its petulant refusal to let anything live beyond the capabilities of one's teeth. And it is, of course, compelling. A fresh-faced Don Johnson and his telepathic dog maneuver their way through this revenge fantasy with our complete attention, almost innocent in their direct appreciation of how crappy everything is, and the necessities generated by accepting the carnivore's code: Eat, don't be eaten. If one must suffer a nuclear Holocaust, this film argues, at least one should bring along a trusted pet--in this case, Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), smarter than his owner and quicker on the draw. The always-contentious Ellison gives in not an inch--until he admits the secret strength shared by a boy and his dog--even as he upends it to serve his nasty, riveting ends.

The Black Stallion (1979)

Remove the tattered cities, the subterranean mutant suburbia, and all that uneasy eating, and A Boy and His Dog gets close to The Black Stallion--although the latter most certainly decides on, to understate the case, a less scarifying version of mutual protection and sacrifice. One of those children's movies that refuses to pander, its depiction of the partnership between Alec (Kelly Reno) and The Black informs us we have entered a kind of fable, beautiful, dark and full. And the friendly troll/wise wizard is no less than Mickey Rooney, whose Henry, the wise trainer, is nothing but Puck as a father. Visually, director Carroll Ballard stresses the horse's shining darkness in chiaroscuro counterpoint to the often-dazzling terrain Alec and The Black course along. As stirring as another late-'70s crowd-pleaser, Rocky (1976), The Black Stallion joins Stallone's film in understanding that competition is most ennobling as an internalized thing--and adds the connection that stretches way back, when men and horses barely knew one another, but somehow figured in each others' dreams, like those all-but-hidden cave paintings--food at first, naturally, then slowly in tandem.

*I suppose it would be insulting to call it a "staged documentary," although that is more apt. Like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the north (1922), Weeping Camel uses real people in their own environment to tell a story typical of their culture. And if Flaherty's film is considered the birth of the documentary, then Weeping Camel should be proud to stage its narrative; after all, whenever we look back at our lives we do the same, form stories, and replace those with the events themselves. It is the simple process of memory, as good a system as we have, and movies like Weeping Camel flourish in the act of recreating reality as immediate filmed memory.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Friday Club (12): Bad Beginnings

Before we end in dogma, I'd like us to begin in heresy--or at least outrage--which may be the virtue inside heresies. As bad as a beginning may be, we should consider it generously--with caution if you like, even fear, but without malice. Because--when I'm being very brave--I know one must "test his mettle / In a crooked ol' world"--even though I also know that one can become reconciled with heresy, forgive it its mess and smoke, and gain strength along the way, as tenuous as that strength may be.

So in this spirit of outrage tempered by amity--and I know that sounds pretty limp, but (at least for watching movies) it'll do--let's spend a week with dubious origins, and lay our hands on the palpitating machine that drives us forward into the past.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Oh, Stanley. You (re-)tell a simple tale: The first step toward humanity is murder. In the opening section of 2001, "The Dawn of Man," Kubrick pastes fab fur on lithe dancers and lets them Raise Cain--with the help of a big square open piece of black, like an idiot robot's mouth opening, inexplicably--but relentlessly--hungry. And as the howling Lucys of the film masticate prehistoric tapirs and bludgeon their own for a waterhole, we feel we do not have to blame ourselves--it is food and water, after all--but in that act of, if not forgiveness at least understanding, we set ourselves up for a "billion-year spree" that takes only a moment to cross but infinity ("and Beyond") to understand. And even then we're stymied, as the curve of the Earth is matched by the curve of the Star-Child, and the same music swells, an echo-cry from the satiated throats of the hominids we still are.

Alien (1979)

More horrible appetites, as Ridley Scott takes it like a man--literally, in a movie obsessed with misogynistic body-terror. All orifices contain teeth here--and then protrude, with more teeth--and the feast is promiscuous--and prodigious--in its appetites. Every five minutes someone's slipping in or out of something (un)comfortable, or spraying something all over everyone, or in turn being drenched with something viscid, as Some Thing waits. And where? In the deepest crevice of male unease: birth, here presented as sentence and means of execution to John Hurt's Kane (hmm), so eager to drop into the hole and peer into the wet opening. In this movie, the origin of species is indeed heretical, life-denying as it purports to bring forth life, boring like acid down down down to the frightened core.

Frankenstein (1931)

Karloff is almost nothing but a frame and a face--but what a look he gives us: as much a wounded child as a vengeful ghost, a brute with a pianist's hands. His "New Prometheus" not only cringes from fire but curses humanity--wordlessly, with those watery eyes shining like quicksilver. At its best, James Whale's movie still hearkens to the silent era (only five years gone) in its breathless stare--with jump-cut--at the Monster's face, willing to traumatize Little Rascals across the Depression, quiet as dawn--but without any promise. It is a Thing born in hysteria--watch Colin Clive's Bad Doctor as he flings himself against the Monster, claiming to know what it's like to be God. And maybe he does, if only because of the misery and sacrifice the making brings.

Altered States (1980)

When William Hurt's Professor Eddie Jessup descends into the waters of the isolation tank, you know it is a burial, almost at sea. And even though the film propels the moment into birth, from the start a menace hangs over the proceedings--except, unlike Universal Studios' Deco graveyards and Metroplis-a-poppin' labs, Jessup's Castle Frankenstein is shiny and air-conditioned, grant-funded and cool. But that does not save him from Frankenstein's curse--nor even the Monster's, since Jessup is both: creator and creature, the Thing that pursues and is pursued. And as Jessup travels farther along the evolutionary road, he moves further within--then back, at Ken Russell-patented fever pitch, the search for the beginning a sickness and addiction, with a will of its own. His "altered state" is merely a return--but of course unnatural, the clock's hands snapping as they're forced backward.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)/Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

When I was a kid, I read Burroughs' books as well as saw the movies--the latter as one is supposed to: on Sunday mornings, the Sugar Pops (which were Tops!) floating uneaten as stock-footage elephant stampedes saved the day from White Hunters with pencil-thin mustaches. I still love these movies--and fondly recollect the books--although their incipient (and too-often outright) racism began to disturb me somewhere around age twelve. [1] Still, what caused me the most unease was Tarzan's beginning, the infant Lord Greystoke lost in the jungle with his doomed parents, alone in the makeshift cabin, found by the apes--genuinely scary in the books (again, as memory serves--and it surely does)--and swept into the trees. It was with relief that I turned away from Tarzan's infancy, grateful to see Johnny Weismuller's confident smile and steady footing, comfortable in the jungle. Because he began in abandonment, imminent danger averted only within the rasping fur of a gorilla. For me, there was nothing adventurous about that. Just a terror to be forgotten. I did, however, admire the knife he retrieved from the cabin, and the glint of "civilization" it provided in Deepest Darkest.

Quartermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth (American release title) (1967)/X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

Professor Quartermass and his science-fiction/horror adventures have been a British pop culture staple--on TV, radio and film--for half a century. Unfortunately, none of the three major films in the series (The Creeping Unknown/1955, Enemy from Space/1957--both American release titles--and the above-mentioned title) are currently available on Netflix. However, if you want a pretty accurate representation of the uneasy path Quartermass negotiated, you could do worse than the X-Files movie. [2] Both deal with aliens who arrived on Earth a long time ago, and who since prehistory have exerted enormous physical and psychic power over us--and both even leak terrible goo when punctured. Discovered under "Hobbs Lane" ("Old Hob," aka the Devil, you know), the alien ship and the remains within not only wreak havoc, but prove to be the source of much of our primeval anxieties over the dark holes into which all our fears descend, taking us with them, wide-eyed and transfixed. Like The X-Files, this film posits an external source for these fears. Unlike Kubrick's pre-humans, whose nervously shifting glances were earned by sheer exposure to predators, in Five Million Years to Earth we have been infected with our fears, which use us as a conductor of energies that are not only dismaying but destructive.

Batman Begins (2005)

How admirable is a Batman movie that takes its time getting to Batman? I know the movie's title, but I still appreciate the conviction in carefully, often compellingly, mapping out for us the phobic source of Batman's persona, and the moral weight he had to shift to squeeze from under the fears that compelled him. Like Tarzan, Batman begins as an orphan; and in his perceived abandonment he ruthlessly carves away his past--until it stands next to him--no, swoops down, dry wings against his stricken face, pinching him with little rodent claws and lifting him upright. Christian Bale's mouth and jaw, so often undecided whether to clench or quiver, serve him well as he faces Batman's violent, sad start--as well as his pulp code of justice through terror, with enough regret to allow him to peel off the Batsuit every once in a while, so that he can try to be a good son.

[1] And if you'd like to be discomfited yourself, just read Jungle Tales of Tarzan, in which we are treated to the interspecies attractions and voyeuristic gazes of the young Tarzan, who hated "Mbonga's black savages" but (fruitlessly, thank goodness) loved Teeka, a particularly fetching she-ape among "the sullen bulls and the snarling cows of the tribe of Kerchak, the great ape." Not the best of literary diets for an adolescent. But compelling.

[2] Stephen King's The Tommyknockers owes an even greater debt to Five Million Years to Earth. It is a maliciously funny book, a Creepshow whose notion of just desserts is distinctly rancid.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I'm more than midway through "College for Kids," a two-week program held on our campus every--well, almost every--June. I've been teaching for it since 1998, mostly broad-based theme/genre courses like "Science Fiction" (always a big draw any year a Star Wars movie was released), "A Brief History of Comedy" (Guess what? Someone getting hurt is funny!), "Unlocking the Mystery" (pyramids to riddles, Holmes--Sherlock, not John--to Genomes), and this year, "Heroes and Villains"* and--gee, what a surprise--"How to Watch a Movie."

My experience in the movies course thus far is comparable to the times I taught Film Art at our local correctional facility--and I make the comparison without malice to either tot or con. But both have often disappointed me by not sharing my enthusiasm for particular movies, or scenes, or the effect of camera placement and movement, shot sequence, color and light, sound. Both groups, for instance, grow fidgety and flippant over 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I revere without embarrassment--unless I'm teaching it to inmates or children, when their boredom and disdain tarnish the glow and muffle the tone of every coldly beautiful--and emphatically leisurely--moment. Just today, I showed the children selected sequences--to illustrate the relationship between music/sound and image--and I could feel their relief as I stopped each scene--each of which was punctuated by their giggles and wisecracks. The only cultural reference-point any of them had with the film was the giant-chocolate-bar-as-Monolith in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory--which, when I saw it, I appreciated as homage to a cinematic icon, but which today proved a mere distraction. (I found even myself referring to the Monolith as "a giant candy bar"; oh, the fawning squeak of the quisling, eager to fit in!) Showing the movie at the prison, during the EVA scene, when Frank is fetching the AE35 unit, I was queried, "Is this a silent film?" I told him Kubrick would have been pleased by the question; still, it was not, I think, intended as a compliment, no more than the comment that 2001 is like Burton's film--the backwards-comparison particularly stinging.

But how petty can I be? Why should I expect universal acceptance of Film as Art (even if the course at the prison proclaimed so in the title)? And what matter if it isn't? But even more, I should understand my students' unconcern. After all, the movies are shared by everyone. Most films, even many of the "serious classics," are infinitely more approachable than their counterparts in literature--narrative as well as dramatic. The wall between most contemporary readers/audiences and Chaucer or Shakespeare, Milton or Spenser is quite tall, as it must be, given the removes of time and culture. And even more "modern" fiction encounters resistance, either from feminists or multiculturalists or other social empower-ers. This too is not only common but of course desirable. Passive consumption of art defeats the purpose, so to speak, since most art requires participation of some sort, dialogue rather than monologue. And the movies provide the readiest opportunities for such participation. This is in some ways its greatest strength as an art form. Like Dickens' novels, movies are so popular that the audience claims ownership, and provides movies all necessary sustenance by its mere attention, whether in appreciation or ridicule, or both. Even the most consumptive cinephile can hawk up a justly deserved gobbet in cinema's face.

Again, the ease with which most of us can adore, deride, or ignore cinema is linked directly to its ubiquity, and when one reacts to something so easily accessible, one does so with whatever's right there at the time, whether it be a TV commercial with Fred Astaire dancing with a Hoover or a greedy kid zapping himself into mega-choco-land--or even another, "lesser," film, in heavy rotation on basic cable, film school by osmosis, creeping in with repeat dinnertime viewing. Whenever we try to understand things, we use what's handy: "The Kingdom of God? Er, well, it's like seeds sown, or a treasure hidden in a field, or a fishing-net lowered into a lake." Why do we do this? Perhaps we will never be ready to know what cinema, itself a kingdom in hiding, is really like. So we make it out to be like something else--or make each movie like another. We can keep going, then, movie after movie, like those farmers of Paradise scattering seeds, letting grow those things we know, to help us little by little understand the things we don't.

So OK, 2001 is obscure and aloof. But it is like a silent movie, and its images have seeped into the visual culture. So it gets what it deserves, and doesn't escape a whipping. And lucky me, I've written myself to a point where it doesn't matter, as long as we keep watching, if only to see what we know in every cinematic enigma, every Rosebud and Monolith, tossed into various furnaces--or onto various soils, some fertile, some thorny, some rocky. It appears, then, that it may not be the movie's fault, but where it lands. Me, I'm going to keep talking and talking and talking, to any child or felon who'll listen, and try to soften the ground a bit, to see what purchase can be gained.

* ... in which at one point we wondered whether video games had heroes or villains; I instructed them to conclude No. But I did suggest maybe the gamer him/herself was the hero, not Link or Mario. (You may now roll your eyes.) But there's good news: They all concluded heroes were everything villains weren't, so it seems the cultural moral compass still works, more or less.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rating Game Redux 10: Copland

The Register-Mail has sent out the call for "Best TV Cop Shows." I'm not sure the following are the "best," but two of them are surely influential, while one is a personal favorite. I used to laud its virtues when it was on--to the bewilderment of my friends, as I recall--but to this day I'm convinced that Robert Blake's career has never been what it should, and while one can point to the monumental achievement of his Perry Smith in In Cold Blood (1967)--and his promising turns in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) and Electra Glide in Blue (1973)--those seasons on Baretta remain the broadest consideration one can take of the strength of his nervous, frightened bravado and surreal expressions of an always-forming self. Little wonder that the only director to see this in him since the '80s is David Lynch, who white-faced and flash-froze Blake to play the bi-locational "Mystery Man" of Lost Highway (1997). Yes, it's the last credit listed on the Internet Movie Database, and while that may be Blake's fault as much as anyone's, I still yearn for one more long look at those darting, watery eyes and lead-pipe frame, his mouth curled in an uncertain grimace, his hands fluttering like the wings of that damn cockatoo.

And oh yeah: Keep your eyes on the sparrow, cos that's the name of that tune.

With this bedrock police procedural, Jack Webb insinuated himself forever into the American TV consciousness, as matter-of-fact as the unmoving camera that gazed at every square-jawed interrogation and inevitable arrest.

Police Story
Ex-cop Joseph Wambaugh’s anthology show (featuring ‘70s stalwarts like Tony Lo Bianco, Vic Morrow, and James Farentino) was groundbreaking in its warts-and-all depiction of police officers, and paved the way for all later “realistic” cop shows.

Ignore the silly bird Robert Blake had to interact with; what remains is the first Method Actor cop show, in which everyone—cop and crook alike—seems anguished.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Adventures with the Night People: Film Noir (et Blanc)

In 1955, Jean Shepherd began broadcasting on WOR in NYC. But--before the unmatched gift of A Christmas Story in 1983--I knew him best from NJ public TV--Shepherd's Pie in the late '70s--and of course his many published stories of Golden Memories and Havens 'o Bliss. And noodling around for information on John Cassavetes' directorial debut, Shadows (1959), I discovered that Shepherd had Cassavetes on his WOR show, and, according to the Internet Movie Database, "loaned his assistant Ellen Paulos to Cassavetes to help with [Shadows]." (One of the opening credits of the film reads, "Presented by Jean Shepherd's Night People"--which is what he called his listeners). I was simply thinking of jazzy, noir-ish films of the late '50s-early '60s when I came across this--not trivia by any means, but evidence of the Great Integument that, if examined closely enough, reveals itself spread out everywhere,* holding us all together with surprisingly fewer degrees of separation than we could imagine in our most Baconian dreams.

Still--albeit soothed as my hand lies along the unbroken expanse of said Integument--I digress.

Sort of. Because in the late 1950s and early '60s, all kinds of Night People stood up in the movies and called out, allowed at last to begin to draw attention to their after-midnight struggles toward dawn. I watched Man in the Middle (1963) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) in my usual haphazard manner, simply wanting to see Robert Mitchum and a heist movie, once more noodling--and once more pleasing myself with a sudden melody, as these two came together in their focus on race--more specifically, the hell to pay for racism. Shadows stands in their midst, so to speak, a work-in-progress that snaps like jive gone stone cold, a strange hybrid viewpoint: race from both inside and out, as Cassavetes' jazz sensibilities improvise with his Black actors to take a stab at some after-hours truth. It may not quite get there--and neither do Man in the Middle and Odds Against Tomorrow--but, again, I'd like you to hear this accidental chord I managed, Humble as usual, but for once along a kind of groove.

Man in the Middle--set in 1944 in India, where relations between British and American forces were, it seems, strained--plays a little like A Few Good Men (1992); except Mitchum's Barney Adams, the court-martial defense attorney, is, at least at the film's start, more of an insider than Tom Cruise's Daniel Kaffee, more ready to play ball and help convict his client, who had shot in cold blood a British soldier. But as Adams prepares his boilerplate defense, he begins to realize that Keenan Wynn's Charles Winton is a genuine psychotic--and that everyone knows it, but is still eager to have him executed to prove the Americans don't play favorites, that the British can trust them. Things stink; the film keeps reminding us of the heat, the remoteness of the locale, the ease with which expert testimony and the simpler mechanisms of justice can be shipped out or intentionally fouled up. And like a true hardboiled hero, Adams puts his career on the line to give his man a fair trial.

But something else is going on here. Winton is indeed insane, but the expressing symptom of his illness is simple, goggle-eyed racism. Winton's delusion is painted in white and black--and black scares the hell out of him. He sneers, he coils, he rages, and the trigger is a black face, a whiff of miscegenation--interesting, because Winton's only ally is Kate Davray (France Nuyen), a Chinese-French nurse--and she is also Mitchum's love interest. Why? At first, it seems just because. But maybe not. His attraction underlines his increasing hostility toward the powers-that-be and his growing unconcern for What People Think. Still, his relationship with her is typical for Mitchum: offhand muttering followed by no-escape clinches. In the end, a bit odd, although Nurse Davray emerges as the most determined truth-teller, as she too risks her position to track down the transferred/exiled psychiatrist who knows how crazy the defendant is. But again, the movie gives its audience no other choice but to agree that racism is simply paranoid delusional psychosis. There is no evidence to the contrary.

Less self-consciously Hollywood-ish, (at least, seemingly more seat-of-the-pants), is Robert Wise's masterful Odds Against Tomorrow, a heist film perched at the tail-end of noir--and the midpoint of the first great surge of the Civil Rights movement. Its cast is pitch-perfect: Ed Begley as the Old Man with a Plan, all but washed-up and literally gnashing those famous choppers over the chance for One Last Score; Harry Belafonte as his vibes-playing right-hand-man, a boiling-cool sharpie completely immersed in a New York world of sweetly sad gray dawns and smoky nightclubs, his dapper car coat cut as cool as John Lewis' score; and Robert Ryan as the muscle, a good-ol'-boy whose tough-guy matter-of-factness is matched only by his little-boy insecurity. And just when that seemed like enough, we get Shelley Winters as Ryan's devoted wife--as always half-wheedling, half-scolding, and near-dangerous, like her pal Marilyn; and Gloria Grahame as the lonely neighbor whose bathrobe could use a tighter cinch, her lower lip out, her eyes down, once more in a lonely place. Just watching them makes one claustrophobic, they fill up the spaces so much.

Blacklisted Abraham Polonsky's screenplay gives them plenty of scenery to chew, and at the center of the Plan, the Setback, the Execution, and the Crack-Up is again an illness bred out of paranoia--and here, severe self-esteem issues, if that does not sound too distractingly Oprah-tic (sorry). Ryan's Earle Slater is a racist; it's his only defense against self-doubt and despair. (There's a crying scene with Shelley Winters (Earle doing the crying) in their hotel room--in only the second windy hotel I know of, the other the Earle(!) in Barton Fink--that is about as unsettling as anything that man-mountain has done on screen.) [Spoiler Alert: Skip next sentence if you're going to Netflix this one.] And of course, Earle's mistrust of Belafonte's Johnny Ingram bollixes up the deal, and leads to Begley's agonizing death in the alley, shot full of holes slammed in one by one by faceless cops, mere instruments of Slater's hysteria.

It was illuminating to run into these two at the same time, my desire for one thing leading to another. I'm not sure how successful these movies are as direct confrontations with racism, but they serve as allegories of a sort, in which the racial divide leads to madness and death. Within a few years, plenty of people--not just in Selma, but watching Selma at home, with Cronkite trying to analyze the symptoms--will get a good look at the snake pit's grinning inmates, dressed up like sheriffs and cops, mayors and governors--and just plain folks--their compulsions captured in grainy network black and white, ironic, accidental noirs with code heroes square-shouldered and waiting where the sidewalk ends for the gunman's decision.

*Case in point: Preparing for this piece, I found out Bob Clark died in April. In his memory, and despite everything I said back on October 12, 2005, I really was happy about the possibility of a remake of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972). Good-bye, Bob.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ratings Game Redux 9: The Big Town

Next week's Register-Mail list focuses on movies set in Chicago. While plenty of films fit this category, many are not actually shot in the city. But I've chosen movies that depend on location shooting, and that appreciate Chicago's big-shouldered capacity for scrutiny and mayhem, a city that looks older than it is--considering its post-Colonial birth and, you know, that fire--standing at the top of the state, sending out railroad tracks like Walt Whitman's spider, that "launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself." One could argue Chicago invented the Midwest; but it's at least safe to say it invented itself, and still tries to draw everything to it, to "catch somewhere" "till the ductile anchor hold."

(Note: No John Hughes movies; I left that Day Off to my fellow Gamers.)

Blues Brothers (1980)
“It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses.” “Hit it.” So begins the quintessential Chicago journey-quest, a mission from God that reveres every famous landmark it (almost) demolishes.

The Untouchables (1987)
The Union Station/Battleship Potemkin homage indicates the mythic qualities Brian DePalma gives Chicago, at first bathed in darkness (and blood), then shining like gold in its triumphant climax.

Call Northside 777 (1948)
Assertively shot on location, at mean-street level. Reporter Jimmy Stewart dogs working-class neighborhoods and brick-and-granite bureaucracies to free convicted murderer Richard Conte.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Friday Club 11: Outside Over There

(apologies--and thanks--to Maurice Sendak)

The child looks up, cheek resting on the wall, the texture of the surface clear in front of her eyes, nubbled and mottled, but smoothing out the further she peers, way up to the light switch, out of reach. If she could flip the switch she could go into the next room. It's just the small dining area between the front hall and the kitchen, but it's dark now, and while she "knows" nothing's there, she also knows that if she goes into the dark room she will become afraid, or worse: propel herself through the dark and maybe tumble over something--a chair or the table's corner--full speed, which will hurt--or worst of all, fall onto Something cruel, sudden and firm and grasping. And that's where it stands, as does she, leaning her smooth cheek on the wall, one more look at the light switch, before going back, and finding bigger people. She doesn't ask them to return with her to turn on the light. That's one more thing she knows: Few except another child (and not all of them) understands about Outside Over There--and that with even a little conversation it becomes less clear. In any case, it remains, hiding in the dark.

Some children, though, do manage to edge themselves into or tumble across the room. And look what happens:

Monday Little Fugitive (1953)
Imagine a movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, or John Cassavetes that had no conscious desire to help build a New Wave in cinema. This is the effect of Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin's movie about a small boy who mistakenly believes he's killed his brother and hightails it to Coney Island, where he spends two days while his older brother searches for him. An extroverted The Cat in the Hat, in which anyone outside the house has to return to normal before Mom gets home, The Little Fugitive loves its gee-whiz early-'50s freckle-faced boy almost as much as it does Coney Island--some would say the real star of this fairy-tale-verite wander through the joys--and the near-joys (a kid can do only so much with the money he gets from soda-bottle refunds--which in 1953 is admittedly quite a lot) of hot dogs and pasteboard buckaroos, Tilt-a-Whirls and try-yer-lucks. Like any old-style tale, the shocking catalyst for the child's journey--(imagined) fratricide--is soon forgotten as he makes his way through an idealized--but so-simply filmed--reality in which every day (well, at least two of them) is a holiday. And the adult gatekeepers of pleasure--ride attendants, barkers, soda jerks--while always looming, also recede in the distance, merely there to crank the handle and keep the Carousel spinning. A completely recognizable Wonderland for pennies an hour.

Tuesday Spirited Away (2001)
As usual, Hayao Miyazaki shows us how well he understands children. As Chihiro/Sen and her parents walk down the dark tunnel, the little girl holding her complaining mother's forearm, her father striding with a Dad's glee at giving his daughter a little adventure, we know we are only at the very beginning of a mystery, but we also know that none of the wonders to come--and there will be many--can match the feeling of anticipation as the family makes its way across the field and into a story. Chihiro/Sen settles into her Wonderland, and Miyazaki-as-Lewis Carroll allows her the opportunity to build a life, even a family, out of this invented mythology, this dreamscape that refuses not to be as solid and even visceral as the food she eats and the dragon-lover she accepts, in all innocence but with proper devotion. Poignant and honest, this is a movie that believes in its world without irony--and it has to, or the little girl will never leave it.

Wednesday Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Like the book series on which it is based, there is much irony in this film; however, while conspiratorial winking at the audience would demolish Spirited Away, the fun of Lemony Snicket is that one must put on a wry face to navigate its rocky coast. The mordant/morbid narrator sets the tone, and the film's atmosphere--Edward Gorey-meets-Dr. Seuss--tosses us like careless dandelion seeds into a creaking wind of monsters and murderers. At the center of this is Jim Carrey, the world's scariest ham, who roars around as if we are all partially deaf, bullying us--yes, just as though we were helpless children--with manic scorn. Imagine Cruella DeVille on speed and roller skates, and you can guess at the mayhem inflicted on the children--Klaus (Liam Aiken), Violet (Emily Browning) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)--apt pupils all, who eventually return fire. This is the kind of wish children's stories so often fulfill: to suffer the cruelties of the adult world only to learn and prevail.

Thursday Tideland (2005)
Terry Gilliam's movie has much in common with A Series of Unfortunate Events--except Tideland plays for keeps, and the child in danger, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), needs to go it alone. Even her White Knight, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), is more threat than promise, despite his own (perhaps) ignorance that he is a monster. Not for the faint of heart, Tideland is nonetheless a film that, as Gilliam points out so dryly in his DVD on-camera introduction, asserts a truth--or at least a hope--about children: When you drop them, "they tend to bounce." It may seem heartless to illustrate such a thesis with a real child (actor), but I think Gilliam never loses what he calls "innocence"--maybe in some bipartite Blakean sense--in the attempt to watch the child fall and bounce back, surviving amid fire and wreckage.

Friday Oliver Twist (2005)
Another directorial Imp of the Perverse, Roman Polanski, chooses well when he finally gets around to making a movie for children. He gives himself the restrictions of a well-worn plot, and approaches it simply and unaffectedly. While Tideland hurls its child down a well to see it bounce, Polanski edges Oliver carefully, even gently, no matter the misery that fall entails. Oliver's Outside is London, and his monsters the stuff of Henry Mayhew's* world, as real as Big Ben, as fantastic as demons and changelings. We are asked to pity Oliver, but he eventually becomes our support, braver for having fallen into the dark room, and kinder for having suffered so much cruelty.

Saturday Labyrinth (1986)
And children find cruelty waiting in strange places. Jim Henson's universe--whether we visit Sesame Street or Dagobah--is, to say the least, rough around the edges, full of sudden, barking orders and dismissive sneers, self-absorbed egos and lurking danger. He gives these impulses almost full control over Labyrinth, despite the calming effect of David Bowie's silly hairdo. More than any other film for this week, this one hones closest to Sendak, as the girl--an adolescent Jennifer Connelly--goes on a journey-quest to retrieve her younger brother from the Goblin King. Like Outside Over There, the Freudian subtext is not all that sub-, and the unconcern of the denizens of the maze--into which she must descend to retrieve not only her brother but the remnants of her own childhood--as often menace as rescue. She may not fully recapture her share of childhood--and is soundly punished for trying--but the attempt itself redeems her, and in the process reconciles her to the cruelties she will soon be party to, simply by dint of her own entrance into adulthood.

Sunday Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
As we reach the end of this week's Club, climbing, as it were, the rabbit-hole's ladder, we move from Jim Henson's to Guillermo del Toro's labyrinth--and his is a strange circle to enter, part Tideland doll's-eye scorn, part Evil Muppet ambush, part deeply unfortunate events. A true fabulist--by way of horror comics and pulp thrillers--del Toro understands that the scary maze in the woods is a haven compared to the literal fascism of the adult world Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) tries to step ever-so-lightly through, the worse walk in the dark, where the house squeaks and gibbers its gossip, and the grownups carve away at each other in the name of something no one--not just the child--completely understands. The revolutionaries who triumph are, as history informs us, the most fairy-tale element of the film. The groping terrors of the Labyrinth, on the other hand, wait in dream's final promise to give the little girl a final rest and resurrection. Del Toro plays hard, but he knows that, if children do indeed bounce, it is only because they can, not because anyone helps them.

*He co-founded Punch magazine with Mark Lemon, but he also wrote London Labour and the London Poor, a phenomenal work of social research--and social criticism--that considered practically every facet of the daily lives of the lower and under classes. The details of Oliver's existence--especially his sojourn with Fagin and Co.--can be seen in Mayhew's work. I'm sure Dickens had his own experiences as an impoverished adolescent to draw from, but what fun--if I can call it that--to read in Mayhew descriptions of the same pickpocket training exercises that form Oliver's larcenous education, and to see the organization that framed the disorganized crime of the dimmer lanes of Jolly Olde.

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