Tuesday, January 30, 2007

153. Play and Pay, concluded

Lindsay Crouse in House of Games (1987) seems made almost of wax, the kind Madame Tussaud worked into eerie similitude. Grand old Wikipedia tells us that during the French Revolution Tussaud fashioned death masks of prominent victims of another Madame, la Guillotine, having searched through corpses to find the decapitated heads she needed. Two centuries later, Crouse emerges from the Mamet-ian shadows with the same relentless dedication, her own head intact--or is it?--the surfaces of her face curving in cool detachment and butter-yellow melancholy, eyes widening as the sly ecstasy of the game takes her--well, into its confidence, if I may play with the phrase, and draws her to her true self.

I have watched this movie three or four times over the years, and until this last viewing what always struck me were two things--no, three, if you count Joe Mantegna's Mike, one of those performances I find dismaying because they lead me into the covetous yearning to discard for a while my threadbare self and wear his, like a good suit; but I digress. Again, two things:

(1) The sheer fun of learning the cons, the vicarious vice indulged, the smugness of sleight-of-hand. Watch Mike standing alone, no audience, making the coin disappear, to understand the egoism of the act, the wise guy lording it over everyone--or nobody; doesn't matter, as long as you can do the trick. But the con is also like gambling, until you're part card sharp, part close-up magician; the best of two bad worlds.

(2) The prim sexiness of Crouse's Margaret Ford, starched into late-'80s power-wear, but also somehow burgeoning, like an arbor. I'm not sure if it's her posture or her mouth--or better yet, her eyes, at once flat and vivid; a watching face. In any case, to me she seemed a piece of fruit, except--you guessed it--wax.

And now, watching her one more time, I see the mannequin move, and the grapes spill out, but rotten. How could I have missed it, her predatory half-smile, her mouth slightly parted, smeared by a handful of Deadly Sins? Mike caught it right away, Margaret's "tell," but he didn't realize how feral she was, how simply compelled, a creature of instinctual desires. Pure Mamet, in some ways, given his reputation for female characters who seem more projections of fears rather than dramatic personae. But in House of Games there is a sadness mixed in with Crouse's inscrutable glances; Margaret is nothing but guilt without a sense of itself, an amoral animated figure watching in a mirror the simple movements of its eyes and arms.

This is the House of Wax, then, and getting in costs plenty, at least this time around for me, as I felt my earlier impressions of the film like a faint draft on the back of my neck while I walked into this new room, where Margaret pockets small personal things, just as Mike had told her--but now it seems more like Biff Loman stealing that fountain pen, sad recompense for having to be so pleased with oneself, a life as a con, all games and no winner. In the final shot of her in the film Margaret has to be content with a slight movement of her mouth in a gesture so secretive that I cannot know, watching her one more time, whether she's tasting corruption in the back of her throat or merely suppressing a last laugh.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

152. Rating Game Redux 4: Winners, Schminners

Just a quick and lazy posting:

The Oscar nominees were announced today, so I figured now's as good as time as any to unload yet another unpublished best-of local newspaper list, "Best Movies of 2006." (I submitted a little late, beat out by someone, a nice person in many respects, who nonetheless listed V for Vendetta among 2006's best. Are we still in the game? as one might ask in eXistenZ; 'fraid we are.) I will admit that (1) I didn't see many movies in the theater last year--I know, I know: despite the fact I can get in for free because one of my daughters regularly can be seen at our local octoplex wearing a bowtie and sweeping popcorn--and (2) these are really "favorite" rather than "best" movies. But here you go:

The Departed
Martin Scorsese proves once again that he is simply the best living American director, with a ferocious love of cinema matched only by the full-tilt performances he draws from his actors.

Rocky Balboa
An amazing accomplishment: Stallone induces audience-amnesia, allowing us to forget all those Rocky sequels, leaving us with a fond memory of 1976 and a new movie made up of sentiment, loss, and self-deprecating humor--as well as Stallone’s patented brick-wall uplift, absolutely. And remember: "It ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward."

Little Miss Sunshine
How does a story about drug addiction, monomania, attempted suicide, and sundry dysfunctions become the feel-good movie of the year? Simple: Just make sure that "No one gets left behind." In its own way, as filled with pity and love as Stallone’s movie.

Photo found on China View (www.chinaview.cn): "A person passes by models of the Oscar statue on sale in Hollywood in Los Angeles, the United States, Feb. 23, 2005. (Xinhua Photo/Qi Heng)" No doubt. But hey: Isn't that third one from the left in the second row Joseph Schildkraut's Best Supporting Actor award for The Life of Emile Zola? J'accuse!

Friday, January 19, 2007

151. Play and Pay, continued

"Flow my tears," the policeman said, running along the blade, scanning darkly. And how heavy the feeling was, like taking something made of poison--but not at first, just a little less breath and a weight on my chest, so that I find it--well, not difficult to move, just incidental to being right where I am.

And where am I? It seems small but free, like the high stool on which a Nowhere Man could sit, making his plans for nobody--except I'm lying down, one leg dangling, the foot on the floor, the couch scratchy on my forearms, my t-shirt bunching up beneath me, and the house quiet, while the traffic shivers outside, like small waves breaking. And the TV kept on, excited voices turned down but insistent, whittling at something until it becomes something else. So I crack one then two eyes open and see the flat familiar shapes on the screen sliding a little, like plate tectonics sped up--each million years a half-second, the jitter from millennia to millennia no longer discernible--and it's faces and cars and trees--and more faces, some dull, some shifty, all bearing down on whatever's in front of them--except some slip and shift forever, scrambled disguises, masks and altered tones until no one knows who's who. An undercover world.

And not quite real, rotoscoped and morphed, cartoons. Finally! some truth there on the screen, a cartoon at last. And they're all on something, "D" for Death, hilarious on the way down, until it's all bugs and funny looks from bystanders. And everyone I see is on the hit-list: Keanu and Winona, Woody, Junior and Rory, and even Philip. They keep remembering to swallow, and down they go--until, alone in the field, the second harvest peeks up, down there where the cornstalks meet the loam. And I quote:

"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I'm cursed and cursed again."

But now I'm no longer on that couch, I'm on my own, and I see him, bending down; it is a moment without murk, almost joy--certainly relief, certainly one little piece of what should be--and he plucks a present for his friends at Thanksgiving. Almost death, then, but taken up and tucked away. And this gave me the strength to look it up, and one Frank C. Bertrand reminded me of something M.H. Abrams mentions about the Romantics in Natural Supernaturalism:

"Whether a man shall live his old life or a new one, in a universe of death or of life, cut off and alien or affiliated and at home, in a state of servitude or of genuine freedom ... all depends on his mind as it engages with the world in the act of perceiving."

Arctor loses his old life to live the new, plays and almost loses--maybe; we leave him in servitude with a chance of freedom slipped in his sock. I can see him, a clear and cleanly drawn object, flat and right there against the glass wall of my TV, breaking my heart at the thought of the way all that high-strung fun gets torn out of their heads by the absolute roots of it all. I'd laughed plenty, then knew it was time to turn over, curl up a little, cry over that long list of lost boys and girls. But the movie makes a little quavery toodle, like a theremin approached, and I smile at the spooky half-gift and almost-promise.

Monday, January 15, 2007

150. Play and Pay

Watching, while they lasted, the quick-jump joys of Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962)--as the two friends (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) raced through their early adulthood, straight into World War I (on opposite sides) and the arms of the mad Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), where they held tight, released, and held again, squeezing until all breath was expelled--I was rueful in my assessment, if I may use so dull a phrase. On the one hand I envied their mad rush: They were using their strength while they had it, trying everything once--and finding much of it (some version or another of) good, running like children who whip their heads back and forth as they fly, heedless of destination, the terrain a veering blur, heads aching and mouths open in grins that refuse to become grimaces--but do, and that's the other hand: Senseless to the end, they dash toward their dooms; as Jim notes succinctly--always so, almost abrupt, whether in foolish whim or sudden certainty: "We played with life and lost."

I both yearned for and was appalled by the reckless course they run. I myself lived a much different third decade, having internalized an eminently useful yet--or should I say "and necessarily"?--deflating rule: If I do this or that now, what will "this or that" in turn do to me in ten years? Imagine being twenty and always caretaking some emerging thirty-year-old; one would have little time for one's current self, that unformed charge demanding so much, in silence but firm. Of course, sometimes I ignored my duties; but mostly I stopped, let the others make their pell-mell way, and stood--well, to rescue some pride let's say high on the windy hilltop, like a scout suddenly spotting a suspicious rustle--while less pensive heads rolled on, dizzy with the speed of their descent. So here I am, watching Jules et Jim, safe--thanks to that careful fellow thirty years ago--but again, sometimes rueful that I did not look up from the meticulous cataloguing of Needful Things to jump and be damned.

Then again, it worked. At twenty-four--after jerking around like a badly made tin toy,* mooning over one safely unattainable prize after another--thirteen days after I met my incredibly-soon-to-be wife, I asked her to marry me. We were both stunned, and I was not sure if I had thwarted my plans for the decade-away me--or whether after all I ever had any plans, just a hidden but essential impulse, and tried it out for sure that once--saving all untrammelled joy for one quick leap--and found out that if you take off just right, the ground does not rush up at you, but you almost become the air you're falling through, like Alice down the rabbit-hole, able to pluck from the shelves this and that as you go--and in the end it isn't falling, merely arriving. And so I have been arriving for the past twenty-five years--ahead of schedule, so to speak--and still playing with life, neither winning nor losing, but nonetheless in the game. It's a silly thing, but true: If you're lucky enough to have a roof over your head and meals in front of you and some measure of health, you are free enough to lose only when you quit. Catherine quits, because life will not let her play her particular game any more: She's been at it too long without a decisive move; so, like everything else in Jules et Jim, she loses quickly, with a look, a racing hurtle, and a fall.

Once again I've written myself into--I will not say for certain whether it is the truth or a reconciliation; maybe some of both, but mostly I've cast off my rue without plunging, but still loving Jules' et Jim's et Catherine's first high capering kicks, a part of me always playing, despite the fact that I'm not so much in the game as making it up as I go along, at long last letting the years do as they will, no longer ill at ease over the next move.

*Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: I have, ah, appropriated this simile from the final "British" chapter of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex, "cured all right," sees his old droog Pete, now married, "very nice, very pleasant, you know. Harmless"; and Alex, "both very very tired and also full of tingly energy," begins to see himself as another "clockwork"--this one, though, has no purpose or direction, but is "like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines." Alex concludes it is necessary: "And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers." Alex's job, you see, is to become a real orange, all clockworks sprung, despite the "terrible grahzny vonny world."

Friday, January 12, 2007

149. Merrie Olde Woodie

I remember seeing Truman Capote on a talk show back in the '70s--Johnny Carson?--talking about Tennessee Williams' slipped reputation. Maybe Capote hadn't yet felt the full weight of In Cold Blood on his own career--or maybe he had, and Williams was just the beard--but I can still see Capote's insistent posture as he scolded the critical establishment for what he saw as a denigration of Williams via a sniping chorus of what-have-you-done-for-us-latelys. He asserted this would not happen to such a figure in France, that the French cherish their artists, that one such play as Williams wrote in his prime would be enough to enshrine the artist forever.

Well, so long after the fact I won't argue with Capote's assessment of French cultural loyalty; but I was--and still am--in complete accord with his impatience toward short memories and voracious appetites. Capote was right: a masterpiece is a masterpiece, a Golden Age never tarnishes, and if Williams never rose to later heights, the early and mid ones are still much more than simply enough.


Which leads me to Woody Allen. I feel like Capote when I think of the treatment he's received over the past decade. And by all quarters, not just the yodeling hyenas of the Media Press, having to sustain their Entertainments, both Tonight and Weekly, with whatever perpetual-motion machine they can cobble together. The Woody's-washed-up contraption clatters away upstairs and down, as though no one ever watched Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall or Sweet and Lowdown. I was Capote-ish in my chagrin when everybody allowed themselves both to gush over Match Point as well as slap him on the sinister side by "hailing" the film as a "return to form."

Sorry, closet cinephobes--so often disguised as movie-mavens or pundits, to me just a collective bowl of cold mush--but he's never been away, just running through various costume changes. I'm still smiling from his Match Point companion piece, that other Anglo-Saxon attitude, Scoop. Part Manhattan Murder Mystery, part Broadway Danny Rose, with a whisper of Manhattan and an occasional nod toward Woody-trails-along pictures like Mighty Aphrodite, Scoop fits into his career as comfortably as just about everything he's done. And who wants more from a filmmaker, and who would want to be anything more? Woody's 30+ movies are remarkably consistent for me, all springing from a post-'50s, middle-browed, buttoned-down-mind, as ready to spin a yarn as ruminate over a subtlety. I'm much happier simply comparing one Allen picture with another than one "Woody Allen" with another. We've been trying to commodify him for three decades or so, and the effort to package a one-Woody-fits-all seems to me infinitely less important, engaging, or simply entertaining than leaving him alone and letting him show us something every year.

And like Capote with Williams I'm willing to let Woody's masterpieces inform the doodles--and not to let one diminish the other. Life's too short--and I wanted to type, "and so's Allen"; let's just say, there's only one Woody Allen, and I'd rather treat him the way Danny Rose handled his audience: spluttering, sometimes befuddled, sometimes appalled, but always plugging away, asking for ages and Zodiac signs, smiling enough to keep us at bay and in our seats--where I'm staying until he tells me he's done.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

148. "Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three."

Note: This counts as Rating Game Redux 3

Our local paper's latest open call for best-of lists is "Best Movie Directors." As always, we can list only three. ("Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out." Sorry; I had to finish it.) I like the restriction; it leaves one with a haiku-sharp sense of economy, plus the anguish of having left out so many more. I'm not sure if my picks and commentary are going to make it (my word count is a bit high this time around) so I will not waste--wanting is always another matter--but post them here. Argue all you like; I'll probably agree with you. (Yes, I'm talking to you, you


-o-philes; you're as right as could be. Especially the last three. Of course.)

Martin Scorsese
In the bomb-detonation business it's called a "controlled explosion": the bomb goes off, but only after the experts shoot at it or set off another bomb next to it or deflect the force of the explosion. This pretty much describes a Scorsese picture, as he manipulates the most incendiary human impulses with a master’s sure touch (and a mad bomber's glee), placing his actors--and us--just enough in harm's way to feel the heat of the blast but emerge in one piece (more or less).

Orson Welles
He made the best movie ever, then was punished for it the rest of his life. Prometheus, yes, but he invited his curse, and the tantalizing ruins he left behind--The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial—as well as the still-standing monuments--The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil--serve as remnants of an alternate movie-civilization in which Welles ruled, self-indulgent, -centered, and -satisfied, but never boring.

Federico Fellini
From his first film, Variety Lights (1950), to his last, Intervista (1987), Fellini calls our attention to a central truth of cinema: it is the most dream-like of the arts--that is, if one’s dreams are wish-fulfillments of cinema itself, watched in the dark but bathed in the glow of human memory and artifice, an imitation of "Action!" richer than the action itself. One part Da Vinci, one part P.T. Barnum, a master of mirror-writing and divine hokum, Fellini was God's jester, reminding Him that even forbidden fruit doesn't fall far from the Tree.

Monday, January 08, 2007

147. Rating Game Redux 2: Christmas Cavalcade:
On the 14th Day of Christmas ...

The following annotated lists were originally submitted to our local paper. The Best Holiday Movies appeared as a simple list with other contributors'; the Worst Holiday Movies list was not, I believe, ever published--I'm not always sure, since I do not read them in the paper, but just email them off. It's an odd arrangement, one that I only appreciate when, for instance, I'm at the bank drive-thru and the cashier recognizes me from my picture in the paper, or when I hear second-hand from my wife that someone likes the picks. Hence, "sheer egoism"--as Orwell puts it, listing the motives for writing--is satisfied without my poring over the actual printed version, scrap-booking it for those long winter nights or whatever.

In any case, here are my favorite ones, with notes added for this version:

It's a Wonderful Life As I wrote last year, the top of the heap: familiar and scary, heartwarming and edgy. A strange brew, suitable for sipping before the crackling fire--even if you don't have one.

A Christmas Story A close second (the others are not in any particular order), with enough repeated viewings by now that one can sing along, as it were, from verse to verse.

Miracle on 34th St. (1947 version) No better Santa than Edmund Gwenn. And Natalie Wood scowls perfectly, until the truth of Christmas sets her free. The movie doesn't talk down to her, but convinces in joyful increments.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (TV version) Dr. Suess' signature style (crowded twirls and precarious topographies) filtered through Chuck Jones' signature style (perched silhouettes and delicate eyelashes), with Boris Karloff adding just the right note of semi-campy bah-humbug-ness.

A Charlie Brown Christmas Like A Christmas Story's permeating Jean Shepherd references, this one is packed with in-jokes for fans of Schulz--and with some true-blue late-'60s "commercialism"-bashing, plus some straightforward religion in the middle.

Holiday Inn Its race-consciousness is typically confused--Bing Crosby's black housekeeper profit-shares in the Holiday Inn while Bing does Lincoln's Birthday in blackface--but the Christmas and New Year's segments are postcard-perfect evocations of middle-class ideals. A nostalgia-piece set to (gratifyingly familiar) music.

Joyeux Noel A new favorite from 2005. Recounting the moment when Scottish, French and German soldiers emerged from their respective foxholes to spend Christmas together--and then catch hell for it later from their respective superiors--this movie allows you to wallow guilt-free in poignancy and aching sentiment--because it all happened, and one can let life break one's heart with joy and pity every once in a while. At least once a year.

A Christmas Carol (1951) Like Miracle on 34th St.'s Gwenn, this version soars with its lead. Alastair Sim's Scrooge is a sight to behold: He giggles--in both despair and uncontained glee--with such force that I cannot help giggling along with him, feeling my own feet hanging on the constant brink of Scrooge's losses. Sim makes Scrooge not an anomaly but ourselves, as ready to blame the past to excuse our present--and ruin our future. And just as ready, one hopes, to share our way out of doom.

The Nightmare Before Christmas OK, so it's just as much--maybe more--a Halloween movie (my middle daughter did watch it October 31). But just when I'm ready to suffocate beneath Christmas fluff, Tim Burton and Henry Selick toss a shrunken head in our laps, until ho-ho-ho and boo! sound happily alike.

The Homecoming I have not seen this for many years, but you wouldn't even be interested in this kind of list if you didn't agree with me that the Waltons knew how to be, well, the Waltons. And this Waltons' Christmas is as good as the '70s '30s-craze gets.

The paper also asked for the 3 Worst Holiday Movies. I avoided most recent big-budget ones for the true non-believers:

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) Almost too easy: goofy B-movie camp? Don't get your hopes up. It's a generally flat, slightly queasy attempt at a "spoof." Pia Zadora’s film debut, if that matters any more.

Eight Crazy Nights (2002) Punch-Drunk Love is Adam Sandler's best movie because it offers reasons to feel sorry for someone so damaged all he can manage is contempt, which is what Sandler seems to feel for his audience. Why else would he insist we share his obsession with anything that can be spewed out of bodily orifices, including heartless words? Somewhere in this sticky mess is Hanukah, the poor thing.

It Happened One Christmas (1977) Not a charitable pick, because it really isn't a "bad" movie, just a redundant one. Marlo Thomas' charms aside, there is no need to re-make It's a Wonderful Life, one of the best Holiday movies of all time. But that's for another list. [See above.]

I am now finished with painfully long-gone holidays. And please believe me: I'm happier about it than you are.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

146. Halloween Roundup (13-20): Done to Death

I have about another week of new-year energy left, and I've decided I simply cannot expend it by writing individual postings for horror films I saw two months ago. (Gee, what a rash decision.) But the Roundup will have its way with me, and so I will round it up all at once, right now:

13. Cronos (1993) Guillermo del Toro has a certain fearlessness to him. This may be due to his Latino verve (cultural stereotype #1) or comic-book-geek sensibility (cultural stereotype #2) or simply his big but nervous heart; in any case, his movies do not hesitate from, as Dr. Johnson might put it (metaphysically speaking), "the most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together." Consider the tenderness between the grandfather and granddaughter--while the former becomes a vampire and the latter empties her toy chest for his repose. And the ubiquitous Ron Perlman, forever since Quest for Fire part simian, part comic menace. And at the center of this the Cronos Device itself, as beautiful and horrible a mechanism as Gothicism has ever concocted. A glimpse into the "Pan's labyrinth" of del Toro's authentically outre mind.

14. Brides of Dracula (1960) Terence Fisher in ripe, Freudian form. The lasting image for me is the dark-haired Bride, for many years merely a still in Carlos Clarens' Illustrated History of the Horror Film, a truly delirious Terrible Teeny-Bopper on whom I had a troubling crush. Oh, the damage done by Hammer.

15. Ju-on: The Grudge (2003) I will forever insist that lovers of J-Horror need to look closely at Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964), particularly its high-contrast colors and deep shadows, as well as its silent approaches and creeping pans, its left-handed framing--what is that in the corner? one wonders--and quick-cuts to the last thing you want, but have to take. Ju-on has learned those lessons, and added aural layers to Kobayashi's love of whispering wind and high-pitched keening.

16. Shaun of the Dead (2004) How does a movie filled with gore manage to make one grin without a grimace? Well, those cute British accents help, but what really works here is the matter-of-fact approach everyone takes: twentysomethings encounter zombies--sorry; not supposed to use "the zed-word"--and take advantage of the flesh-eaters' incredibly slow gait to make leisurely escapes, engage in lengthy conversations, enjoy a pint, all with time to spare for devising half-formed plans for survival, which are swept away by sheer military force. Plenty of bullets to go around, after all. Like Young Frankenstein, Shaun loves its source material enough to understand the proper way to spoof it.

17. The Other (1972) In his "User Comments" on the Internet Movie Database, one Keith Anderson writes, "[this movie] has haunted me for about 28 years now. I was 13 or 14 when I happened to catch it in its original theatrical run in 1972. For me, it's become one of those rare discoveries that truly feels [sic] like something of my own." Very strange; I was about the same age, and admit to similar feelings. Watching it again, it seemed less magical--although it retains its Bradbury-esque qualities--but remains a private screening, a hidden twin deep in the barn. In some ways built simply on a gimmick, The Other still manages to evoke a unique sense of nostalgic dread. Like Carnival of Souls, this is a movie that understands itself, and refuses to speak in other than its own voice.

18. The Changeling (1980) I know I've written about this before--I think--but I'm too tired or whatever to hunt around for it. Suffice to say it is a yearly Roundup entry. Best horrifying bouncing ball EVER! OK, so I checked: I mentioned it in an unpublished newspaper Best-Of list: Scariest Movie Moments or something, in which I wrote, "A small and innocent thing becomes a source of dread." True enough, despite the enormous hulk of George C. Scott puffing and glaring through it all. Still a tough (American) ghost movie to beat.

19. The Black Cat (1934) This is so fraught with amour fou I feel as though I've seen it many times, beginning in childhood. But I know it's only been twice, and in the last three years. Edgar G. Ulmer's '30s masterpiece, a dark fable in which Art Deco never looked so deco-dent.

20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Our one guest at the Roundup viewing of this movie was a nice young woman from work who seemed a lot less flustered that she was watching it than I was having her watch it. I kept apologizing to her, while Tobe Hooper carved the roughest Jack-o'-Lantern of the Roundup. I had forgotten the last twenty minutes is composed of uninterrupted screaming. People from two rooms away waited with uneasy patience for it to be done with. It still bludgeons; to be honest, I'm not sure I can watch it again.

Well, I'm sure I've left out one or two, but the id-lid must come down, kiddies, and the year must renew itself. My middle daughter wants to watch what one--maybe me--would consider the greatest films of all time, and I hope we can see all 10,000 or so of them. In the meantime a tentative list of what might be our first ten:

A Hard Day's Night
North by Northwest
Jules et Jim
House of Games
It's a Gift
Sweet Smell of Success
8 1/2
Full Metal Jacket
Bonnie and Clyde

As usual, I'm aiming for a foolish inconsistency, the hobgoblin of expansive minds.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

145. Prime

When The Godfather was released, I resented its insistence that it understood Sicilians. My father was Sicilian, and I knew a lot of Italian guys in my high school; some of them were junior goodfellas, and I felt a somehow adolescent irritation with the way they identified with the Corleones. I admit I was filled with an indignation that wasn't sure what it was indignant about; what I do recall was how satisfied I was--smug? oh, I hope not--with the awful descent Michael undergoes in Godfather II; something in me wanted to punish all those Sicilians. Maybe it was because a few of those guys in my high school were smug themselves, casual bullies who had it all figured out. And I didn't want them to be at the table on Sundays, where my father's parents fed us with expected excess. It was a world in which two helpings were barely eating, and three barely enough to convince Grandmom she didn't have to shout Mangia!--and I'll admit it; she really did that, like a Mama mia in a bad movie. And OK, Basta pasta! we cousins would yell, not really knowing any Italian but pleased with the rhyme. This wasn't a movie, though, just Sunday. But by the mid-'70s those helpings were dwindling, as Grandpop died and the family began to drift away from each other. I seemed to be losing my Sicilian-ness just as every other ticketholder in America was discovering/inventing its own.

So was my irritation with the Godfather cult a form of mourning, or the simple need to maintain a hold on a simple claim: the way my father's side of the family lived? I guess I felt that Coppola was stealing a little something and giving it to those potato-heads who thought it was cool to be Italian--when all it should've been was who they were, not an instant movie moment. These were not the best combination of half-thoughts and impulses for careful film-watching; I'm surprised I could stand the two Godfathers.

By 1976, though, something good had happened: I was two years out of high school; and, like those South Park guys mention in Bowling for Columbine, it's amazing how quickly high school falls off your shoulders. Besides, at twenty I was a bit--just a bit--less confused than at fourteen, and able to move outside the constricting circle of psuedo-goombahs with too much money and not enough brains. In fact, I found myself completely understanding Rocky--and now that I think of it, thirty years later and having just seen Rocky Balboa, maybe Stallone gave me an Italian I understood: Not a phony winner, all wing collar and sneer, but a more hesitant variety of knuckle-breaker, as ready to call pet birds "flying candy" as to shout with bitter hope, "I had no prime! I had nothin'!" Rocky filled me with joy despite myself, because there I was, still trying to figure out if movies were art or pure satisfaction--and how bad are things in your head when those two seem mutually exclusive?--and I saw in Rocky a chance to enjoy the movies without sacrificing anything. It was written and acted with a startling tenderness and excess, unafraid to be sentimental but unwilling to deny its characters their uncontrollable desires. Just consider the always-dangerous Burt Young. Stallone seems to know exactly what to do with him, this wild hair who always frightens me a little; you're never sure what Young might do: hit the other actor, or start to cry, or sing a song, or just walk off and wander into another movie. But in Rocky and Rocky Balboa he is at home, another palooka refusing to go down.

And so, protective of the delicate/brutal balance of Rocky in my head, I was unsure whether to see the new picture. Those campy sequels are emabarrassing--anyone who likes them does so because they get to laugh at them while, for instance, insisting Mr. T is awwwwwe-some; I didn't want one last smudge on my memory of 1976. But Rocky Balboa pulls off a neat trick--more like breathes a final relieved sigh--as it erases all memory of those sequels and reaches back and clamps onto the first picture with love and joy--and sorrow and regret--and makes me a present of, if not the best picture of the year, my favorite one, a brick wall of a movie that never lets itself look foolish, and keeps itself alive with enough self-deprecation to soften the blow of Stallone's patented uplift. But even that, the Bill Conti fanfare of Rocky-ism, sounds clear and unashamed. When Rocky tells his son, "It ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward," I heard Stallone explaining most of himself--as well as Rocky--without an easy out. And as Rocky leaves the ring, turning his back on it--to face the crowd--I was reminded that, while the past does follow you, you can stop looking over your shoulder, at least long enough to raise your arm in both hail and farewell, and visit your Adrian's grave to recognize how solid you can make yourself, despite time and lost favor.

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