Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Horror, the Horror

Yesterday I began teaching a three-week December Break course here at Knox College, "The Gothic in Film." We started by considering Gothic (and Gothic-influenced) lit--The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre, Poe, Hawthorne, "The Yellow Wallpaper," Stoker--and will explore a number of topics as they arise in various films--paying special attention to the visual/aural elements that help define the Gothic movie.

Here's the schedule of topics/films; play along at home.

WEEK 1 (December 1-5)

Introduction to Course: Nosferatu (1922)
Expressionism: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Batman Returns (1992)
The Oneiric: Eraserhead (1977)
The Outsider: Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Freaks (1932)
The Doppelgänger: The Shining (1980)

WEEK 2 (December 8-12)

The Body: The Fly (1986)
Ghosts: Ju-On (2003)
The Other: The Exorcist (1973)
Fate and Inevitability: Angel Heart (1987)
Revenge of Nature: Them! (1954)

WEEK 3 (December 15-19)

The Noir Sensibility: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958)
The Freudian Sensibility: Psycho (1960)
Grand Guignol: Mad Love (1935), Day of the Dead (1985)
Moral Tales: The Dead Zone (1983)

As you can tell, I'm not so much dedicated to advancing a single argument as giving the students as many options as possible to approach the Gothic. I'm also interested in non-horror films' Gothic sensibilities, especially film noir.

As we go along, I'm compiling a filmography for each topic, and welcome your suggestions.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rating Game Redux 46: "Determined to Prove a Villain"

Our local paper asked us to call into the abyss, and some boss villains called back.

The first villains are encountered in childhood. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is the Big Bad Wolf in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), his fingers famously tattooed with “love” and “hate,” Mitchum’s sleepy grin relentless as he pursues the children through a black-and-white troubled dream.

Given the current global economic state, Haghi (Rudolph Kleine-Rogge), the evil banker in Fritz Lang’s Spione/Spies (1928), comes easily to mind. Sitting wheelchair-bound (unnecessarily, his disability a ruse—how’s that for a metaphor?) in his office, wired to a worldwide network of saboteurs and assorted minions, his staring eyes and goatee pointing at us like a weapon, Haghi threatens monetary chaos while his own coffers fill to bursting. Fortunately, in Lang’s version, no bailout is offered.

OK, I can’t resist another financier: Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Also in a wheelchair, Potter cannot bear the thought of regular folk owning their own homes—or George Bailey’s growing conviction that, eventually, everyone should have a conscience.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Home Viewer (12): Dead of Night

Yes, yes, Halloween is over. But terror--not to mention my ego--knows no bounds, so here's the latest column I wrote for our local paper. Boo.

The best Halloween films are midnight movies, weird creatures that hide during the day, slithering and lumbering out only when the sun has set and it’s a long way until dawn. As Macbeth, among the finest citizens of Halloweentown, says, “Let not light see my black and deep desires.” So save your revered classics and perennial favorites for a happy matinee: It’s time for Midnight Madness, where (as long as I’m quoting) “something wicked this way comes.”

Les yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face (1960)

Also known as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (the English dubbed version, which I’m sure I saw in the mid-‘60s on some UHF channel), this is the least unhinged of our Creepy Cavalcade. Still, surrealist Georges Franju sent them running out of the theater with his tale of a surgeon who attempts to restore his daughter’s beauty (maimed when her father crashes the car) by kidnapping young women and removing their faces, which he then grafts onto his poor daughter, who wanders the mansion-clinic wearing a featureless mask, a ghost before her time, while her father and his dedicated nurse cruise the shadowed streets, searching for victims. The gruesome is always more so in black and white, the details of the surgical procedures soaked in darkness, the daughter’s melancholy mask pale as a bone in moonlight. (For a campy take on this situation, see 1959’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.)

Freaks (1932)

“We accept her--one of us--gooble, gobble--we accept her--one of us--gooble, gobble.” Or “gabba gabba” if you’re a Ramones fan. Tod Browning loved the circus, and the fact that night must fall. So every chance he got, he put the two together, in whichever way he could, from The Unknown and the lost London After Midnight (both 1927) to Dracula (1931). But Freaks has its own strange trajectory, veering toward exploitation (his cast famously includes actual circus sideshow performers)--well, plummeting over the edge, perhaps. But in Browning’s world the congenitally disabled and the purposely contorted are the norm, while the “normal” viewer is the deviant, the voyeur. If you feel uncomfortable watching the Human Torso, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, Johnny Eck the legless man, or the encephalitic Zip and Pip, it’s your problem, not theirs. But woe to anyone who crosses “one of us.”

Day of the Dead (1985)

After the original, this is the most outlandish (and my favorite) outing for George Romero’s forty-year zombie spree. The humans are nervous wrecks, the zombies are literally storming the gates, while undead Bub grooves to his Walkman. Gory without regrets, cluttered with endlessly bickering characters--the best of them as pleasant as spoiled milk--and punctuated by social commentary delivered with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, Day of the Dead should be viewed only at midnight, when your regular self is too tired to stop watching.

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

I would have to resign my post if I didn’t mention a Roger Corman movie--preferably one with Dick Miller. But what can I add to the basic premise of A Bucket of Blood? A wanna-be beatnik artist (Miller as Walter Paisley; what a Clyde, daddio) kills things—eventually people, natch--encases them in clay, and becomes the darling of the finger-snapping set. Only Dick Miller could play camp straight; lesser performers would have tripped over their own sandals. More desperate than The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), with a creepy-giggling sense of its own cheap appeal, this one deserves a tip of the beret.

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

In deference to this column’s appearance in a family-friendly publication, let me simply state that if you’re going to watch only one ‘70s eurotrash lesbian vampire film at midnight this Halloween …

The Brood (1979)

David Cronenberg’s horror films are bearable only if you’re willing to watch what appears to be occupational therapy. Here, it’s divorce Cronenberg-style, as Samantha Eggar turns to psycho-babble psychiatrist Oliver Reed to help her work out some marriage/motherhood problems. The result is a Gothic parable of anxieties externalized and rage embodied. Always one to rub our noses in our selves, Cronenberg turns the mad doctor scenario into an indictment of pop psychology--with truly nauseating and delirious results. And you thought Norman Bates had issues.

Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento’s triumph of style over substance, its suspense set-pieces textbook lessons in editing and pacing worthy of Hitchcock or DePalma. It’s basically an “old dark house” plot, with strange goings-on and multiple murders. But Argento brings a painter’s eye--and a devilish glee--to the proceedings to prove that a midnight movie can also be a class act.

Eraserhead (1977)

The ultimate student film, five years in the making, David Lynch’s first feature, “a dream of dark and troubling things,” set the tone for most of his later work. It is, for me, the ultimate dead-of-night movie, devoid of all camp sensibilities, deliberate as a virus, a dimly lit trudge toward adulthood depicted as a surreal withdrawal--not back toward childhood, but inside the resisting self, sickened by the prospect of growing up. For most viewers, Eraserhead is something to be endured, like an unwelcome guest, and so I’ll warn you more than recommend it to you. But if you must, watch it at midnight--better yet, after the midnight movie, in the “dark night,” as St. John of the Cross put it, when you’re ready for it because you’re all alone.

Have a Happy Halloween, kiddies.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Roundup 2008

Let's not lose our heads, kiddies: The Halloween Roundup is back! And as your faithful Mausoleum Master, I wracked my brains--and when that didn't work, I wracked the brains of a drifter I lured into my unmarked van--and out popped this year's Roundup, a salute to the post-Vietnam, pre-digital, big-haired '80s, with all kinds of stuff trickling down. Everything was awesome and the New Wave gagged everyone with a spoon--and at the movies, nothing was sacred--unless you were making a big-time Hollywood picture, with Ark-Raiders, Star-Warriors, or a pack of John Hughes brats.

But down there in the basement, the horror film hissed like a 'gator, the outer limits of bad behavior meeting the boundless audacity of Special Makeup Effects. So square those big shoulders, mousse up and bug out, because it's Halloween all day, and the '80s all the way (after a kinder, gentler kid matinee).

11:00 am: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Proud to have successfully digitized hair, Pixar luxuriates in a free-flowing, bouncing romp through that most basic of childhood fears: the Thing in the dark. Except this time it's John Goodman in Gentle-Giant mode, with Billy Crystal talking out of the corner of his mouth--and Mary Gibbs as Boo, the voice-talent highlight of this candy-colored clown of a movie.

1:00 pm: Mr. Vampire (1985)

A goofy Hong Kong hodgepodge of ghosts, follow-the-bouncing-vampires, wire-fu action and slapstick comedy, sprinkled with obscure (for most of us) references to various folk-myths and practices. A movie that all but demands you watch it dubbed, if only to add one more layer of foolishness. An early-afternoon oddity you won't soon forget.

3:00 pm: The Changeling (1980)

Along with Uzumaki (2000), a Japanese exercise in gothic-surrealism, The Changeling is a Roundup perennial, a solid ghost story that features George C. Scott tortured by guilt (not a stretch for the Big Man) and drawn into his new home's past sins. Worth it just for the rubber-ball scene.

5:00 pm Near Dark (1987)

Well, the '80s really begin with this one, Kathryn Bigelow's almost-comic gore-fest that asks the question, "Are there vampires in 'Real America'?" You may not want to know the answer, but you'll get one from Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton, and the rest of their a-hootin'-and-a-bloodsuckin' clan.

7:00 Eating Raoul (1982)

I'll admit I haven't seen this one since the actual '80s, so its satire may not travel as well as I'm hoping, especially as it enters John Waters territory: '50s camp sensibility paired with '80s alternate sexuality. Hmm. We shall see.

9:00 pm Dead and Buried (1981)

With James Farentino and Jack Albertson starring, one might fear we're in TV-movie territory. But if you remember the heyday of TV movies, you should fear not--and just enjoy being afraid of this small-town-with-a-secret. Although Dead and Buried is another one I haven't seen in years, it promises a twist or two as the body-count rises.

11:00 pm The Fly (1986)

Along with Les yeux sans visage (1960), one of the true masterpieces of "medical horror." Serving as a metaphor for AIDS, cancer, genetics as an industry, abortion rights, what-have-you, David Cronenberg's movie forces us to watch the changes any of these can force upon the body and soul. Audacious, funny, heart-breaking, sickening, The Fly takes us past midnight with a buzz no one wants.

Fall-back options (in case of damaged discs):

From Beyond (1986): Stuart Gordon's follow-up to 1985's Re-Animator.

The Shining (1980): Stanley Kubrick's Gothic meditation on the disintegration of the nuclear family, with a fire-ax.

Angel Heart (1987): Alan Parker drifts along the bayou with Mickey Rourke, joined by a decidedly de-Cosby-fied Lisa Bonet and Robert DeNiro eating a hard-boiled egg. Things, I don't have to tell you, get weird.

And I may have a few copies of last year's Roundup CD, free to our valued patrons and crammed like a doomed goose with spooky tunes to keep you doing the boneyard watusi all night long. See you Saturday, boos and ghouls! (Heh-heh-heh!)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rating Game Redux 45: Are We Scared Yet?

Our local paper continues to love Halloween, calling for "Scariest Movie Moments." (I have excluded the obvious: Michael Bay, Wild Hogs, Mike Myers' accents)

Them! (1954)

In the opening sequence, a little girl in a bathrobe, clutching a doll, wanders trance-like through the desert. The giant ants that follow are pretty cool, but that image of the little girl conveys real dread, deeper in your head than any ‘50s creature-feature could actually deliver.

The Fly (1986)

Just about the longest man-to-monster transformation in the movies culminates with Seth Brundle’s doomed, surreal consideration of his slipping into fly-dom: “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first insect politician. You see, I'd like to, but I'm afraid.” Always the jazz performer, Jeff Goldblum plays the scene like sci-fi Shakespeare, scatting his way into the genetic abyss.

Psycho (1960)

While Milton Arbogast’s (Martin Balsam) slow ascent to his doom is Hitchcock working the scare-machine full tilt, it’s Anthony Perkins at his ease that scares me the most, with his boyish grin and stammer, watching Vivien Leigh eat “like a bird,” his attention, as always, maternal.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rating Game Redux 44: We All Scream

Our local paper edges us closer to the October Country by calling--loudly, piercingly--for "Best Horror Movie Screams." As usual, too many remain unheard when three is all I'm allowed to mention--but we can still hearken to Mary Philbin, opening her mouth--and covering it, lady to the last--her eyes wide enough to take in every putty-and-wire rotted crease of Lon Chaney's Phantom--her scream silent, as if in a dog's-only upper register. And Janet Leigh, vying with Bernard Herrmann's violins as Anthony Perkins smiles, shy guy that he is, and helps Mother. And even John Goodman and Willliam Forsythe, the Snoats brothers, letting loose with lusty roars as they suddenly realize the shocking burdens of raising (as far as anyone can tell) little Nathan Arizona.

But these three--OK, four--will do for now, their din the first herald of Good Ol' Halloween, just around the dark corner.

In the original King Kong (1933), Fay Wray’s scream becomes more important than any actual words in the script (excluding the famous last line). Sometimes recorded as a tiny thing—to match her size relative to Kong’s—sometimes filling the soundtrack, her screams are as memorable as the animated ape himself.

A tie, same movie: When Helen Delambre (Patricia Owens) finally sees what her husband (David Hedison) has become in The Fly (1958), she screams—and the camera cuts to her fly-husband’s perspective, her face reproduced in every facet of his fly-eyes, her scream suddenly a distorted warble. And then the human-headed fly at the end, caught in the spider’s web, screaming, “Help me! Help me!” in a high-pitched falsetto at once ridiculous and pitiful—until Vincent Price smashes it with a rock.

In Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty spends an interminable final sequence screaming, moaning, begging for mercy. It is unnerving and almost impossible to watch /listen to, the cruelest ten minutes in movie history.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Home Viewer (11): Lincolnesque

I recently submitted a Lincoln-themed piece to our local paper--but I can't find it online, and I don't get the paper, so I'm not sure if it ran. (I really should work on my ego.) Anyway, here in Illinois we're generally pretty Abe-happy--although I'm used to that kind of thing: Growing up in NJ near Philadelphia, it was Ben Franklin this and Ben Franklin that. History. Sheesh. Anyway (again), we're gearing up for his bicentennial--and the college where I work was the site of the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, during which, we are always proud to point out, Lincoln "first condemned slavery on moral grounds."

And so it is in high moral dudgeon mode that I present The Roundabout Lincoln Movie Tribute. As the Honest One once said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than go to the theater." You have been warned.

As the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Weekend arrives, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the debates, Galesburg and Knox College are doing their best to honor the old Rail Splitter and his legacy. But as far as the Home Viewer is concerned, no celebration is complete without a random collection of movies. In my diligent laziness, I wandered around a Lincoln quotations website, and have allowed some choice passages to help me select the films that follow. Honest, Abe.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There’s nothing like opening strong. These words, from his first inaugural address, are justly famous, beautifully constructed without being too fussy, self-assured in their flourishes—the balanced, parallel structures, the long phrase separating subject and verb, trusting the reader to follow, to carry on to the end—with a judicious balance of sentimentality and profundity. But where, cinematically speaking, does this take us? I’m reminded of films where passion strains the “bonds of affection”:

In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards all but surrenders his love to hatred, a hard man whom everyone shuns—until he is forced to break his own will and be touched by those “better angels,” and stay his murderous hand.

Akira Kurosawa’s Akahige/Red Beard (1965) is the tale of young, ambitious Doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who feels trapped in a charity clinic run by Toshiro Mifune’s Dr. Niide (whose nickname gives us the movie’s title), a man whose great humility and good will—and humor—is tainted by neither false pride nor false humility. While Yasumoto complains, Niide persists, and the younger man’s ego melts under the heat of Red Beard’s implacable dedication. And the remarkable thing is that Kurosawa, like Lincoln in his speech, avoids sheer sentimentality, and instead asserts compassion as the “mystic chord” necessary to accomplish any worthwhile task, pride abandoned, enemies reconciled.

Touchez pas au grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1954), directed by Jacques Becker, feels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon in its brutally frank attention to failure, while ironically praising the virtues of friendship and loyalty. Jean Gabin's Max, a ready-to-retire criminal, is forced to risk everything to save his longtime friend/partner in crime. A casually hip movie in which thugs call each other “Daddy-o” and friendship is more valuable than loot. As Sam Spade says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Fifteen years later—and an ocean away—Max tenders the same warning, and woe to any mug who gives it the drift.

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Can we still affirm these words from Lincoln's first annual message to Congress? After a $700,000,000,000 bailout, it appears that, while we are told the American laborer/fundamentals/foundation is sound, Capital still rakes in better fringe benefits. Even at the movies.

Wall Street (1987) trickled down a little secret: “Greed is good.” Michael Douglas with his slicked-back mane and lizard eyes today may seem quaint, an ‘80s Simon LeGree, but is it a coincidence that his character’s name is Gordon Gekko? In its boundless truthiness, Wikipedia tells us that, when threatened, many species of geckos will “expel a foul-smelling material and feces.” Thus endeth the lesson.

But if you really want to see an angry populist at work, suffer through George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). The capitalists hide in a luxury hotel while the workers forage amid the living dead—which in the end become the not-so-meek inheritors of the Earth-as-buffet, taking what they like, and eating what they take.

Still, some movies give credit where it’s due. Norma Rae (1979) and Bread and Roses (2000) extol the virtues of unionization—although Ken Loach’s movie is not as optimistic as Norman Ritt’s, whose Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar-winning performance) rises above the cotton-dust to lead her fellow textile workers to victory. And while the anti-(crooked) union undertones of On the Waterfront (1954) shift the film’s politics, Brando’s Terry Malloy rounds his shoulders and sneaks in the class-hero side door, the worker-as-boxer, bloodied but unbowed.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

In this 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, a Southerner and slave-owner, Lincoln addresses, among other things, his opposition to the American Party, or “Know-Nothings,” “Nativists” who advocated restricting immigration of Catholics, particularly from Ireland. Despite his repeated statements that he did not consider a person of African descent to be his “equal in many respects,” as he put it in his first debate with Stephen Douglas, he maintained a strong conviction that “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” In the Know-Nothings he saw a damaging extension of the degradations of inequality.

Listen carefully to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and you’ll hear plainly the “progress in degeneracy.” He is always on the lookout for the Irish minions of “their king with the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome” and boasts, “You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear.” And in the end, it is fear that motivates even the fearsome.

My favorite part of the above quoted Lincoln passage is his assertion that, if the Know-Nothings gain control, he “should prefer emigrating to [Russia] where they make no pretence of loving liberty … where despotism can be taken pure.” But when John Reed went to Russia in 1917 and witnessed “ten days that shook the world,” he was hoping for a nation where no one craved “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” And for a brief time, the electric charge of freedom lit him up—as Warren Beatty chronicles in Reds (1981), where Reed moves from fellow traveler to true believer to disillusioned idealist to accidental martyr. In the end, Reed stays behind, buried in the Kremlin, finally equal to everyone, while the “pretence of loving liberty” is still kept up, although more than a little strained.

Well, I’d like to thank Lincoln for easy words to build on, evocative and brimming with ideas. Seems a shame that this is all I’ve squeezed out of them; but as another Master Rhetorician, George Orwell, reminds us, everything is political, even the decision not to be political—and that might include a movie now and then.

Coming Soon: The annual Halloween Roundup. I was thinking of doing an all-'70s version. Any suggestions--or alternate themes?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand": Paul Newman, 1925-2008

Two, maybe three kind favors from Paul Newman--maybe four: Hitting that pool ball, learning a lesson from the Fat Man. Fifty eggs in an hour--of course, of course--his grin as phony and as real as every single year that beats or blesses it out of him. And winking at everybody, especially himself, throughout the '70s, a fight where a hockey game breaks out, dispensing frontier justice, playing cowboy--but somehow, most of all following Robert Altman all the way up to Montreal, icing down Expo '67 and playing a little Quintet.

Why that last one sticks most with me, I don't know. But I remember being surprised to see him there, like John Wayne with the wind knocked out of him, wandering around the Last Days. And so now Mussburger meets the Old Man--the One he prayed to in Cool Hand Luke, a couple of hard cases with a sly-sad sense of humor. But maybe He'll forgive and forget, the tangy tastes of Newman's Own fresh on His tongue like kind words, both of them deep down charitable, with matching blue eyes.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Rating Game Redux 43: This Is the End

Our local paper's Rating Game called for Best Movie Endings--very nice category, but phenomenally difficult to do well. So I just did three Kubrick endings. Better than nothing, but of course I abandoned Kane's Rosebud; Antoine Doinel's walk on the beach--not to mention Charlton Heston's, accompanied by the Statue of Liberty; the telling piece of information that it's Chinatown, Jake; the Blair Witch wall-huddle; the standoff in the snow to see who's a Thing and who isn't; Marcello abandoning his film to dance in the circus-line; Rocky caring less who won the fight--and Joe E. Brown caring even less that Jack Lemmon's a man; Peter Sellers walking on the water; Michael closing the door on Kay; and Rick at the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And so on. (Feel free to add your own--c'mon, dear geeks, show me up and tell me what I've missed.)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Some sneer at its pretentiousness, others scratch their heads, puzzled. But it remains one of the movies’ great mysteries, a beautiful reminder that, before it was a story, cinema was an image.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.” You can say that again. Funniest apocalypse ever.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) wanders from the despairing mess of a war run by opportunists, and hears the German girl sing, his men joining her, their hearts breaking, the front waiting to tear them to pieces. The perfect counterpoint to yet another Best Movie Ending, Casablanca’s.

Aint YouTube grand?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Rating Game Redux 42: "What's So Special About Them?"

I usually don't go for the snarkier Rating Game categories for our local paper, but I eventually succumbed to "Worst Movie Special Effects." And while I promised myself not to kick a movie when it's down--that is, no low-budget picks--I couldn't resist just one.

The Polar Express (2004)

The mask-like faces of the motion-captured actors convey a sense of menace, rather than the almost-solemn dream that was the attraction of Chris Van Allsburg’s book. You know you’re in trouble when Tom Hanks (as the Hobo) looks more like Tom Waits.

Spider-Man (2002)

Yes, Spider-Man is strong--like the man says, “Listen, Bud, he’s got radioactive blood”--but the CGI Spidey seems made of rubber as he bounces from one skyscraper to the next, his trajectory as convincing as Wile E. Coyote’s--while only unintentionally funny.

Robot Monster (1953)

I’m being unfair: Good special effects are hard to come by when you have no budget. But when the interplanetary threat is the one and only Ro-Man--a guy in a gorilla suit sporting a dual-antennae space helmet who communicates with his home world via bubble machine--one must conclude that the lack of funds was exceeded only by a lack of imagination. As Ro-Man remarks, “Your deaths will be indescribable.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Home Viewer 10: August Personages

My monthly column for our local paper ran last week, just as the weather turned heavy with wet heat, dog days for sure. So for once my fortnight doodlings make some sense.

Sirius, the dog star, swims up there in the late-summer sky, innocent and unconcerned—but brings the dog days, hot and still, all kinds of bad mischief right below boiling point—or lazy, washed out, finished with all temper and fervor. Or one more: Can you hear Nat “King” Cole cheerfully sprinting through those lazy hazy crazy days of summer (“those days of soda and pretzels and beer”), the brutal heat forgiven in happy cornball song? So, before autumn slips in to steal away August, it’s doom or gloom or one last hurrah—and movies for each.


There’s an old Ray Bradbury story—“Touched by Fire”—that offers a theory: at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, people become homicidal. Almost forty years later, Spike Lee watches that same mercury rise in Do the Right Thing (1990). Everything in the movie is hot, from the colors to the characters, all of them impossible to touch without getting burned.

In Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), the sun is dying—but he brings us close, and it pulses off the screen, too bright to look at, so big we can’t see the curve of its rim. And the closer you get, the more beautiful and dangerous it becomes, a fatally ecstatic summer whose end no one wants to see.

Speaking of locales with an endless summer, the list of desert movies can stretch from The Female of the Species (1912; a “A Psychological Tragedy” set amid the “purple sage”) and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1925; its desert arriving in the finale, where the titular sin turns deadly in—where else?—Death Valley) to Sahara (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and the bizarre The King Is Alive (2000), in which stranded bus passengers decide to pass what time they have left by staging King Lear; talk about your blasted heaths. But when I was nine years old, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)—until it reached its feel-that-cool-breeze climax—knocked the breath out of me with its parched desperation, reducing life to some sand and wreckage, with a few sparks of hope not nearly as bright as the uncaring sun.


Despite the preceding, for most of us the phrase “dog days” is mainly about laying low, allowing August to blow its hot air while we half-slumber in the shade, too tired to do much, including complain. There is a kind of grandeur in laziness, as appreciated by “The Stranger” (Sam Elliott—and I’ll never get tired of his voice) in The Big Lebowski (1998), who acknowledges that “The Dude,” Jeffrey Lebowski (another perfectly sloppy Jeff Bridges performance), is not only a lazy man but “quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide.” Caught in a hardboiled thriller, The Dude shuffles along in his quest to restore his rug—because, man, “it really tied the room together”—and to bowl his way into the semifinals. The Dude abides.

The Big Lebowski is set in the early ‘90s, and if that half-decade taught Americans anything, it was how to slack off. And at the movies, the owner’s manual for slacking is, of course, Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), which meanders from one twentysomething to another as they amble and talk, semi-work and almost-think, content to let Austin’s heat beat down unnoticed, as they run into one another—although “run” is definitely too strong a term—and let everything slump to a halt. As one of them observes, “Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?”

Last Hurrahs

Before September changes everything, the dog days offer one more chance to live it up. In his original review of The Endless Summer (1966), Roger Ebert calls it “91 minutes of wish fulfillment.” Filmmaker Bruce Brown and his two surfers (Mike Hynson and Robert August—I kid you not) decide one month is not enough, and bum around the world, looking for—and finding—the “perfect wave,” all the while passing through sublime landscapes with a gee-whiz jokiness that manages to catch like a wave the laid-back heart of surfing.

Of course, one really shouts a last hurrah when it seems there’s little time left. Last Holiday (2006; the 1950 Ealing Studios version with Alec Guinness is not available on DVD) offers the irresistible Queen Latifah setting off for the Grand Hotel Pupp near Prague to doll herself up, cook like a Food Network diva, and generally brighten everyone’s day. She brings enough honesty to the role that you barely notice that the movie’s a lightweight, and simply root for the Queen.

Well, I can’t leave the dog days without mentioning an actual dog—and my favorite is My Dog Skip (2000), an earnest evocation of the Good Old Days whose plot contrivances and aw-shucks dialogue are redeemed by the performances—Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon as the parents, Frankie Muniz as the lonely boy saved by his dog (with Luke Wilson as the feet-of-clay hometown hero), and of course Skip himself (played by numerous dogs, among them Moose, who was also Eddie on the TV series Frasier), a Jack Russell to the bone, eternally aware and eager. The affection he gives and receives is as fitting an end to August as we could ask, finite but lasting, socked away for next summer.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rating Game Redux 41: Sometimes, Once Is Enough

Pretty straightforward Rating Game category this Thursday for our local paper: Three Best One-Hit Wonders. As usual, three is not enough--but with these artists, I'll make exceptions.

"They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha" (Napoleon XIV)

Not a great song, but, given the controversy surrounding Ben Stiller’s “Simple Jack” character in Tropic Thunder, I thought I’d remind everyone of a similar storm back in the mid-‘60s over this tune, which features a scorned lover who suffers a mental breakdown after his girl (“that mangy mutt”) leaves him, and he is carted off to the “happy home.” The tune was banned after its initial release. (The 45 itself was interesting: The B-side was the A-side in reverse, from the label to the song itself.)

"96 Tears" (? and the Mysterians)

Simple rocking rave-up, the quintessential one-hit wonder by the best-named band ever.

"Spirit in the Sky" (Norman Greenbaum)

A perfect hybrid: psychedelic blues in the service of a gospel tune with fuzz and feedback.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rating Game Redux 40: Out of the Inkwell

Our local paper called for the top three comic book characters in film--and, while Superman deserves always to appear on such a list, I decided to make room for smaller fry--but worthy entrants, as ironic-satiric as they may be.

Harvey Pekar

The author of the autobiographical comic American Splendor, Pekar was played by Paul Giamatti (and himself) in a 2003 film that re-defines the term “comic book hero.” Dour, frustrated, suspicious that Something is catching up to him (and he’s always right), able to outrage David Letterman and inspire Robert Crumb, Pekar emerges as the nerd-world Superman (not that Superman himself doesn’t already hold that title), able to leap postmodern angst with a single, ragged sigh.


From cliffhanger serial to High Camp TV to Tim Burton’s/ChristopherNolan’s take on the Dark Knight, Batman has endured all manner of violence—more to his character than his body—but manages to soldier on. Burton and Nolan, in particular (with help from Michael Keaton and Christian Bale), have done the most to deepen/broaden the Bat-myth.

Mystery Men

The 1999 film, based on Bob Burden’s comic, not only spoofs the superhero genre but contributes to it, with a welcome eagerness to allow anybody to enter the pantheon, as long as you can stay in character. As The Shoveller (William H. Macy) put it, “We struck down evil with the mighty sword of teamwork and the hammer of not bickering.” Now, isn’t that super?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rating Game Redux 39: Giving You Space

Yet another little list for our local paper--and oh, the easy irony of it: a little list for a big category: Best Movies About Space. I decided not to choose films that are simply set in outer space, but which use space as a central element. This excludes good movies--Outland, Red Planet, even The Right Stuff--with key sequences set in space. But three is three, so here we go.

(By the way, I took the category to mean "outer space." My wife, however, suggested down-to-Earth movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gerry and Cast Away that depend on open spaces to tell their stories. What a relief that someone else is clever; I'm happy just plodding along. Thanks, Jill.)

Solaris (1972, 2002)

In both Andrei Tarkovsky’s original film and Steven Soderbergh’s remake, the boundary between earth and space dissolves, leaving human memory to rebuild whatever might remain.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick jump-cuts us to a future in which humanity is wrought by space into infinite shapes, as stately as a waltz, as cold as evolution, an “ultimate trip” that leaves us wide-eyed and expectant.

Sunshine (2007)

The sun is dying, and Danny Boyle plunges us head-first into all that heat and light where space waits–either like a lover or a spider, depending on whom you ask.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Home Viewer 9: Just Another Word

Oops; forgot to post the following column I wrote for our local paper back on July 3. My editor asked for movies about "freedom and independence," and all I had was a re-imagined memory: nine years old and setting off firecrackers, nervous and eager, doing exactly as I pleased.

When I was a kid in New Jersey, my Fourth of July fireworks connection was Tim--actually, his older brother Ed, a genuine early-1960s hood, scary and impressive. Ed got us the good stuff: long double-row strands of Black Cat firecrackers; cherry bombs that looked like miniature versions of those hand-held explosives favored by cartoon villains; and the legendary M-80, which sounded like Doom clearing its throat and could punch sudden holes in most anything we’d cram it into. And of course the showering rockets and Roman candles, propelled above the suburban rooftops or spreading like fiery peacock feathers in the gloom of my backyard. No sparklers or fizzing bottle rockets for us; Ed brought only concussive oriental danger, Adult Supervision Required--but seldom obtained.

And so, if this Home Viewer is about movies of freedom and independence, it starts there, in the peril and joy of sulfuric freedom, the reckless independence that made me both grin and flinch.

Nothing Left to Lose

A guilty pleasure: movie heroes who couldn’t care less. Things are going so well--or so terribly--that nothing can touch their upward trajectory or downward spiral.

First, joy. Watch Richard Dreyfuss clench his teeth like a roller-coaster enthusiast in Let It Ride (1989), a gambling movie that captures the full-tilt thrill of a winning streak, as Dreyfuss’ compulsive gambler--who repeatedly promises his wife (Teri Garr) he’s coming home--keeps playing the ponies, while every other loser at the track rides with him, for once picking nothing but winners.

But also despair. Watch Nicolas Cage contort that happy-puppy face of his into manic, hopeless-but-unstoppable yearning in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Like Dreyfuss, Cage’s insomniac ambulance driver is surrounded by like-minded madmen (Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames, John Goodman); but here they fuel Cage’s guilt-ridden quest to drive anywhere for redemption. Trapped by regret, he frees himself to ride the nightmare wherever it wants to take him.

The Burden of Freedom

I’m thinking of the Kris Kristofferson song, in which at first he prays that God forgives those who don’t understand him--but then, as he considers he has “wounded / The last one who loved [him],” he prays she will forgive him. From the egoism of the self-righteous to the humility of the self-aware; there’s your burden for you. And nothing captures this better than movie incarnations of the Hemingway-esque “code hero,” who lives by a personal morality in a dark world, and whose failures are of no concern, as long as the code is followed. If these heroes are humbled, it’s by the code itself, which treats its faithful followers with indifference.

Despite its problems, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) confronts the burden of freedom, interrogating John Wayne’s code hero, Ethan Edwards, with a strange combination of sympathy and fear, even disgust. Ethan is the outsider, entering the homestead uninvited, his seemingly unbreakable resolve both respected and loathed. It’s as if Ford realized he had invented “John Wayne,” and was using Ethan to discover if he’d done the right thing. True, Ethan is the only man for dire circumstances--but he brings trouble with him, and is forced to cast off his pride to save the innocent (Natalie Wood) as well as himself.

The weight of the code can be felt in many films, from the hard-boiled detectives of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) to the hard-boiled crooks of Touchez Pas au Grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1960) and Shoot the Piano Player (1962). Just a word on two particularly startling examples: Detective Story (1951) and This Gun for Hire (1942), starring actors--Kirk Douglas and Alan Ladd, respectively--who couldn’t be less alike, but who manage to take their characters (Douglas a police detective, Ladd a hit man) all the way to the pitch-thick bottom of the code. Pride and despair drive them, expose them, finish them off. Among the darkest noirs to ask where personal freedom ends and personal responsibility begins.

Yankee Dandies

All right, I haven’t forgotten the Fourth of July. But if we’re going to get freedom and independence, we have to earn it. And if the Fourth means Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), then so be it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Jimmy Cagney’s George M. Cohan may be as grand an old guy as the flag he wrote songs about--but after all, it’s still Cagney. Seeing him draw himself up to hoof it like a flaming pinwheel, his face steady, his eyes staring into the camera, I can’t help but think of The Public Enemy eleven years earlier or Cody Jarrett seven years to come in White Heat--the three of them cocky and infinitely pleased with themselves--and relentless in their self-assertions.

Only Mickey Rooney could summon more energy than Cagney (if you don’t count Kate Hepburn in screwball-comedy mode), but you’d be hard-pressed to find an actor happier to be a sociopath in one movie and a barnstorming vaudevillian in another. So maybe this is the perfect Fourth of July movie: like fireworks, high jinks and mayhem combined, with a big explosive finish. Top of the world, Ma.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Home Viewer 8: Here Come Some Brides

For June, I promised our local paper a column on "June Brides." And immediately regretted cornering myself into yet another clichéd theme--which I weaseled into the following, culminating in a petulant snit as I bring up The Shining, of all things. Feh. I think.

“Up, up, fair bride,” the poet John Donne calls, his voice typically imperative. And so he should be, as he entreats the “phoenix” bride to “come forth … To an inseparable union.” Ah, what a fond dream it is, one that the movies conjure all the time—and stir up, shake and shatter. Let’s turn to face the bride during this most stereotypical month for (here come famous last words) “what no one may put asunder.”

Princess Brides

Some brides stand in patience, certain and self-assured, not in the back waiting to process, but already at the altar, to be approached. Arwen in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)—as dewy-eyed as Liv Tyler may play her—not merely courts but claims her husband, withstanding the dangers of the Ring-quest and the loss of her immortality, leaving her father and asserting her place. The film gives her more Grrl Power than Tolkein’s book, although in the end she remains a blushing bride.

Rosalind Russell, though, blushes not at all as she dangles an almost-ex-husband (Cary Grant) and an eager-to-please almost-to-be-one (Ralph Bellamy) in His Girl Friday (1940)—and don’t let the title fool you: Hildy Johnson is her own girl, an ace reporter whose Tommy-gun delivery and cyclone wit toss both men every which way she pleases, until she gets the man she wants—and probably a Pulitzer in the bargain.

There is one bride of solemn wisdom, both princess and companion, away in an ideal tower—but thankfully real when you finally reach her: Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian (1976). Not a great film, but what better bride to still the bluster of an aging Robin Hood, played by Sean Connery with his usual knowing wink? True to form, Hepburn underplays, inviting us to pay special attention, until she becomes the center of things—no mean treat, with James Bond unsuccessfully straining to save the day every ten minutes.

Runaway Brides

Like greatness, some women have bride-ness thrust upon them. In both Picture Bride (1994) and Sweet Land (2005), mail-order brides struggle to reconcile with strangers in strange lands. Picture Bride’s Riyo (Youki Kudoh) flees her troubles in early-twentieth-century Japan and goes to Hawaii as a mail order/”picture” bride. Isolated and unsure, she slowly finds, if not happiness, at least herself, amid the island’s beauty and hardships. (By the way, look for Toshiro Mifune as a benshi, a performer who accompanied Japanese silent films, providing narration and dialogue. His spirited cameo out in the sugar-cane field, brandishing his wooden samurai sword, is one of the great movie-within-a-movie moments.)

On the mainland, the mail-order tribulations continue in the rural Minnesota of Sweet Land, with the added burden of post-Word-War-I anti-German sentiment. Structured as a family memory, the film looks through Inge’s (Elizabeth Reaser) eyes at those who reject her, while managing to ask us in the present to reconsider our own attitudes—in which, for instance, “official language” acquisition becomes more important than the quality of the “outsider’s” character. Beyond that, though, the film remains a personal story of all-but-despair and the blind persistence of love, beautifully filmed—like Picture Bride—so that Nature broods over these melancholy stories, trying Her best to provide moments of sun and shade as needed.

Brides of the Monster

You’d be surprised—or maybe not; but who am I to judge your view of marriage—how many horror films have “bride” in the title, or feature marriage as both pit and pendulum. The most interesting ones involve the notion that marriage “changes” a person—as in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), in which Tom Tryon (who wrote The Other) is body-snatched, giving bride Gloria Talbott one Atom-Age Gothic honeymoon. It’s a well-worn SF theme (with variations featured in, for instance, the old Outer Limits series, with William Shatner—which itself was more or less remade as The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)—and I’ll let you decide if you’d rather see Bill S. or Johnny Depp as the alien spouse); and for the non-SF variant there’s always The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)—remade as Sommersby (1993).

For me, though, the Wicked Queen of the conjugal switcheroo is The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick’s trapped-in-a-marriage allegory, with fire-ax. Wendy’s (Shelly Duvall) husband (Jack at his most eyebrow-arching) stares, glares, and pitches homicidal fits as he lurches like Frankenstein’s creature to “correct” his wife and son. On that note, allow me to convey best wishes to all you June Brides out there. May your marriage last “for ever, and ever, and ever.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Rating Game Redux 38: Meet Some Beatles

More impossibilities for our local paper's Rating Game: "Best Beatles Songs." I made the mistake–after picking the first without hesitation–of going to a Beatles website that listed everything they recorded. It is, if you love pop music, overwhelming. So, perhaps more than any other Rating Game Gang of Three, the following is essentially random–again, except for the first, which is all I need.

“All You Need Is Love”

Just when their pop status reached what seemed an unattainable height, the Beatles invited us all up for a sing-along—anyone remember the world-wide satellite linkup broadcast?

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”

They were good at bitter love—and okay, sad love too, as with “Yesterday”—but when John ruefully invites “all you clowns” to “gather round,” misery couldn’t be better.

(And thanks, Stephe, for all those impromptu acoustic hootenannies in grad school. Every time I think of this tune--and a good dozen or so others we'd rough up like big happy dogs--I can see us in your dorm room or on Foley Beach, yawping with Tom, another lifetime ago.)


All the rocking of early Beatles with all the exasperation of—well, John, early or late.

Friday, May 30, 2008

"That's HEDLY": Harvey Korman, 1927-2008

I suppose I shouldn't be too worried that Harvey Korman is gone: Something or other is bound to make me laugh in the same way: overwhelmed by schtick, almost-sniggering asides, eyeball-rolling indulgence--all with a wit as keen as his timing, and a mad love for dopey laughs. What a cliché it is to state the importance of laughter--but I've never let the descent into the facile and the trite stop me before, and I certainly won't now, as I attempt to wave goodbye like a starstruck kid to Harvey Korman--a man whose very name verges on funny--that "K," that perfect "Harvey"--I'm smiling already.

I couldn't wait to see him on Carol Burnett's show. He gave me permission to laugh, even though I was a punk teen in the '70s, and adults--and by extension anything that would make them go haw-haw-haw--were supposed to be square hypocrites--and of course we are--OK, I am. But Harvey entered laughing--at least in his eyes, at the corners of his mouth--especially if he were approaching Tim Conway (oh, man: another genius for another day). And I didn't have to be hip; thanks to his sly generosity, I could laugh at stuff that--well, whaddaya know?--was straight out of Your Show of Shows, down to the on-air crack-ups. A long laugh-line stretching like an ample Borscht Belt all the way to Harvey.

I could blather on, but who needs it? What matters is that permission. Harvey always let you in on the joke--but he was never cute about it. He helped you keep up, grinning a little when you got it, hamming it up until you didn't. And at the end of the trail is Blazing Saddles, always funny, endlessly quotable, and Harvey'd up just right. And I also won't geek all over your shoes by ticking off his many moments in that film. I know we'd all rather let Harvey take care of it himself.

Rating Game Redux 37: Pixel-ated

Our local paper's Rating Game this week asks us to consider the "best computer-generated characters." While that stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) still holds quite a bit of Industrial Light and Magic-al charm, I opted for more recent synthespians (and aintcha glad that appellation never caught on?).


Andy Serkis is motion-captured and rotoscoped into one of the two or three best performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Precious,” indeed.

(Honorable mention: Peter Jackson/Andy Serkis' King Kong.)

Jurassic Park Dinosaurs

Stan Winston’s dinosaurs all but closed the gap between the filmmakers’ and viewers’ imaginations, creating that rare moment when you stop thinking, “It’s only a movie.”


All right, I’m cheating. But--from Woody’s wry grins to Mike Wazowski’s surprisingly expressive single eye, from the Incredibles arguing at the dinner table to Ratatouille’s hurt feelings--Pixar’s characters bridge another gap: between the computer and the cell-drawn cartoon, reinvigorating both media.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rating Game Redux 36: "Get Back to Work"

Another easy list for our local paper's Rating Game: Best Songs About Work. The following three quickly came to mind.

(And you know, I keep posting these, but nobody offers their own favorites. I hereby officially solicit your responses. Now get back to work.)

“The Promised Land”

Bruce Springsteen has written many songs about work, but “The Promised Land” captures the frustrations of working dreams deferred: “I've done my best to live the right way / I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.”

Something to listen to for all of you itching for something to start while you drive all night chasing some mirage:

(Now you see him, now you don't: Rest in peace, Danny Federici.)

“The Internationale”

Wikipedia offers more lyrics than you’ll ever need to this global workers’ anthem. But the stirring melody doesn’t change, and from the collective farm to the Ford plant the workers-of-the-world unite, raised-fist anger and optimism of this song remain the same.

Sing along with Bill Bragg's version, and for three minutes unite the Earth in song.

“Hallelujah I’m a Bum”

The perfect tune for when you can’t work because there’s no work to do: “When springtime does come, / Oh won't we have fun, / We'll throw up our jobs / And we'll go on the bum.”

Arthur Fields skips through the tune at 78 revolutions per minute:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rating Game Redux 35: Duos ex Microphone

(Above: My most tortured title yet.)

This was yet another one of those categories for our local paper's "Rating Game" that could've baffled and confounded: "Best Duets." Consider the thousands of wonderful pairings most of us barely remember--if we know them at all--or cannot fully appreciate, given our musical tastes. For my trio of choices, I didn't even consider opera--not that there's anything wrong with that; I just don't know one performer from another ("They're all wonnnnderful," he enthused diplomatically). And I left out the quirky ones I know (David Byrne once sung a duet with Selena).

Nonetheless, this was the easiest "Rating Game" ever--I actually have a short list of all-time favorites. The first two sprang immediately to mind; the third I had never heard--although my wife, Jill, saw them perform--and you can too, at the bottom of this post (and try not to be distracted by the video--although it's fun(?) seeing John Cryer (get it?) with his 1987 feather-cut). I have always held this duet in my head as a dream-team moment--which it is.

So for once, it seems, three is enough.

“Let’s Do It”

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sail with humor and affection through Cole Porter’s comic ode to—well, doing it, down to the last educated flea and sentimental centipede.

“I Never Talk to Strangers”

Like Armstrong-Fitzgerald, another gravel-and-butterscotch combination, as Tom Waits and Bette Midler cat-and-mouse their way through a bar pickup, eventually admitting “we all begin as strangers” before clinking their glasses in (at least temporary) agreement.


Roy Orbison takes a late run at one of his standards with K.D. Lang, and the result is one of the greatest pop-opera moments ever recorded.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Rating Game Redux (34): Group Shot

When our local paper asked for three ensemble cast movies, I was reminded how difficult it is to make a good movie that doesn't profit from ensemble. Even "star vehicles" improve when the secondary characters are allowed to step up; consider the floating eccentrics of most Coen brothers movies, drifting into the scene, demanding our attention, then moving on. Episodic pictures like After Hours (1985) and The Lord of the Rings explicitly forefront such contributions--in fact, as the hero(es) encounter(s) each moment, those who inhabit the new space often determine the trajectory of the narrative--or at least provide a satisfying interlude.

Still, certain group efforts are hard to miss. Here's a scant three of them.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, and Alec Baldwin preen and bluster and wheedle their way through David Mamet’s best “men’s club” movie, in which real estate salesmen vie for a Cadillac, a set of steak knives—and the last shreds of their dignity.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

What’s amazing is that the sets, costumes and makeup do not overshadow the actors; in fact, these troopers join forces to outshine the Technicolor excesses, resulting in a surprisingly “personal” movie, funny (even satirical) and touching.

Tokyo Story (1953)

The great Yasujiro Ozu, with his all-but-invisible touch, has his characters whisper in our ears the sad everyday secrets of family life, whose minor separations, rivalries, and missed opportunities accumulate into a tragedy expressed as a sigh.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Home Viewer (7): Mother May I?

Here's the column I wrote for our local paper to celebrate some of May's bounty. OK, so I left out the following May observances:

Lou Gehrig's Disease Awareness Month
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Awareness of Medical Orphans Month
Better Hearing & Speech Month
Borderline Personality Disorder Month
Brain Tumor Awareness Month
Creative Beginnings Month
Family Wellness Month
Fibromyalgia Education and Awareness Month
Freedom Shrine Month
Get Caught Reading Month
Gifts From The Garden Month
Go Fetch! Food Drive for Homeless Animals Month
Haitian Heritage Month
Heal the Children Month
Healthy Vision Month
Huntington's Disease Awareness Month
International Audit Month
International Business Image Improvement Month
International Victorious Woman Month
Jewish-American Heritage Month
Latino Books Month
Motorcycle Safety Month
National Allergy/Asthma Awareness Month
National Arthritis Month
National Barbeque Month
National Bike Month
National Correct Posture Month
National Egg Month
National Foster Care Month
National Good Car Keeping Month
National Hamburger Month
National Hepatitis Awareness Month
World Lyme Disease Awareness Month
National Meditation Month
National Mental Health Month
National Military Appreciation Month
National Moving Month
National Neurofibromatosis Awareness Month
National Older Americans Month
National Osteoporosis Prevention Month
National Photo Month
National Physical Fitness & Sports Month
National Preservation Month
National Salad Month
National Salsa Month
National Smile Month
National Stroke Awareness Month
National Revise Your Work Schedule Month
National Vinegar Month
Navajo Code Talkers Month
Personal History Month
Prepare to Buy A Home Month
React Month
Strike Out Strokes Month
Sweet Vidalia Onions Month
Teen Self-Esteem Month
Tennis Month
Tay-Sachs and Canavan Diseases Month Link
Ultra-violet Awareness Month
Women's Health Care Month
Young Achiever's Month
National Family Month

But wouldn't it be cool to find a movie that fits each of these? Or maybe not. Anyway, go read, if you like.

For T.S. Eliot, April may have been “the cruellest month,” but May is the greediest. From May Day to Memorial Day, from maypoles to Blessed Virgins, from earnest anarchists to honored dead—and wandering around in there somewhere, supermarket flowers and drugstore perfume in hand, dearest Mom—this month is just one thing after another. Not that I’m complaining.

May Day (I)

I wonder: Does anybody in the U.S. erect (so to speak) maypoles anymore? Or is it just capering Swedes and Brits, glimpsed on CNN and looking silly? Sometimes I wish we’d all join in and start the month with a little pagan merrymaking, as in L'Auberge espagnole/The Spanish Apartment (2002)—also known as, I kid you not, Euro Pudding. A French college student in Barcelona rooms for a year with a variety of Europeans, yielding various sweet, sad, roisterous fruits.

May Day (II)

Catholic school kids know May Day as Mary’s Day. When I was in my parochial prime, we would assemble in the playground and fidget while first-graders processed toward the Virgin’s statue, crown of flowers in hand, silly and sweet minor saints. Barring your own life-experiences among God’s peanut gallery, see The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Directed by Roberto Rossellini and co-written by Federico Fellini, the film—whose Italian title is Francesco, giullare di Dio/Francis, God’s Jester—employs actual monks, who play Francis and his followers as gentle slapstick versions of sanctity, filled with humility and the quiet urge to be happy.

May Day (III)

Also known as International Workers’ Day, when labor unionists, Communists, and anarchists commemorate Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in 1886, spurred by an act of “labor terrorism” and sparking pro-union movements around the world. Not to mention the eight-hour workday. If you didn’t take my advice last week (in the Rating Game for “Best Documentaries”) and check out Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), now’s the time to remember the real battles fought and sacrifices made. And if you want a (more or less) fiction film, John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) also walks the coalfields—this time, of 1920s West Virginia. In his book Thinking in Pictures, Sayles asserts that the story of labor is also an American one, and so he constructed the movie as if it were a wooded-hills Western, including a Main Street showdown—except here, the hero is a collective and the guys in black hats are union-busters.

Cinco de Mayo

On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army beat the French at Puebla. Over the years, this day has been happily re-invented as a trans-border party of Mexican culture, spirit, and pride, particularly in the United States. In Real Women Have Curves (2002), Ana Garcia (America “Ugly Betty” Ferrera) and her family personify the community of love, sorrow and hope that Cinco de Mayo celebrates.

Mother’s Day

I’m as eager as anyone to support the couplet-glutted greeting-card market, but if you want to give your mother a celluloid bouquet, try The Incredibles (2004)—now there’s one super Mom—or select scenes from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Jane Darwell as Ma Joad is pure Dorothea Lange: as sad and solid as the hard-packed fields she is forced to abandon, looking into a middle distance where she yearns to build a home for her children, one weary mile at a time. Thanks, Ma.

Of course, if she’s that “other” kind of mother, just screen Mommie Dearest or Throw Momma from the Train or Psycho or White Heat or The Manchurian Candidate or Serial Mom or Carrie or Aliens or—well, there’s plenty of Moms to go around.

Memorial Day

Formerly known as Decoration Day, it began as a way to honor the Civil War dead, but over the years has rested its soothing hand, filled with poppies and small flags, upon mourners of all wars. We could begin with Gettysburg (1993), a four-hour living journal of the decisive battle of a War that engendered too many mourners.

But a deeper urge persists, one that not only mourns but indicts the ones who cause the sorrow of those who live on. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, leaves its grim soldiers staring blankly at the future that has been left to them, as blood-soaked and filthy as the trenches they hate—and hate to leave—and as bleak as the slate skies that look down and could care less. The movie demands that, before we memorialize, we ask ourselves why we put ourselves in the position of honored dead and earnest mourner. As when I wrote about Veterans Day films last year, I’m reminded of the hesitation Lincoln expressed in the Gettysburg Address: “we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.” As he tells us, the dead have done that already, and we would do well to trade in our pride for humility, at least once a year, on the last Monday in May.

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