Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rating Game Redux (28): I Don't Even Want to Hear It

A non-movie category this week for our local paper: worst lyrics. None of the panelists seemed to be responding, so our editor sent out a second email request for submissions. Gallant as I am, I tossed together the following. As the Cramps put it, "bad music for bad people."

“American Pie”
Pseudo-Dylan mishmash I was sick of sometime in late 1971—but at least you can dance to the Madonna version.

“Horse with No Name”
Well, maybe in the desert "there ain’t no one for to give you no pain" because there ain’t no radio for to hear this song.

“I Write the Songs”
That, Mr. Manilow, was your first mistake.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rating Game Redux (27): Animated Response

When our local paper asked for a list of "best animated films," I knew what they wanted: feature-length fare, classics and watershed moments. But what sprang to mind were the little critters, seven-minute bouts of wabbit trouble--and mouse trouble, and billy goat, and Martian. Mustache fiends. Cats who hates people. Cats who look and sound suspiciously like Abbott and Costello. Cats who thuffer thucotash. And their prey, mice and birds, falsely innocent, with startling upper-body strength. Ah, we could go on and on, could we not? Sniffles and Wolfy and Daffy (that mad, impetuous boy) and Foghorn. But you gotta be a flippin' magician t'keep a kid's attention more than five--or seven minutes--these days, so I will bow to the following three prestidigitators, stretching animation* with Sam Clampett molecular hoodoo, many frames per second.

Pinocchio (1940)

The son rejects then rescues the father in a Magic Realist wish-fulfillment chiaroscuro cartoon-dream, in which nightmare and sentiment seamlessly combine, with music.

Spirited Away (2001)

Not since Lewis Carroll has anyone better understood the fears and hopes of childhood than Hayao Miyazaki, whose beautiful film creates a Wonderland that, like Carroll’s, invents its own mythology—and knows how to keep a secret, sometimes even from the viewer.

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

The Brothers Quay’s sublimely disquieting stop-action masterpiece of impenetrable gloom and compulsive attention to movement—even the dust on their hybridized found-objects/subjects seems infused with febrile life—capturing the alternate-reality essence of animation, both captivating and delirious.

*Except for the Brothers Quay, whose animations usually run under twenty minutes or so. But for those of you unfamiliar with their work, I promise they will be the longest twenty minutes (in a good way) you'll ever spend.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Home Viewer (5): Go, Erin, Go!

So, to introduce this month's Humble Viewer version of the monthly column I write for our local paper--which will be online after this Thursday, so why do I bother posting it here? Ah, vanity, vanity--anyway, in trying to be cute, I searched an "Irish Proverbs" site to find something appropriate to get us started, and found this: In winter the milk goes to the cow's horns. Say, kids! Submit your own impenetrable sayings! Here's the column, on movies about Ireland or Irish people.

St. Patrick’s Day as we celebrate it in the U.S. may have as little to do with Ireland as corned beef and cabbage, but such fabrications and confusions still make a fine feast, whether at the table or in the movies. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats is supposed to have said of someone, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” So, when one accuses the Irish of whimsical melancholy—or vice versa—they have only themselves to blame—and perhaps the film world as well, mightily fond of Ireland and its people, whether just as they are or as we (or the Irish themselves) would like them to be.

Emerald Isle, Lucky Charm

Few Hollywood filmmakers understood the reality-fantasy of Ireland better than John Ford in The Quiet Man (1952). He took his favorite leading man, John Wayne, and the most durable leading lady he could find, Maureen O’Hara, and plunked them down on the Old Sod to brawl their way toward marital bliss. Watching Wayne shoulder beneath those cottages’ low ceilings, exasperated and withdrawn—before exploding for fifteen minutes at a time, whether at O’Hara or her brother (Victor McLaglen)—I’m reminded how well he worked with Ford—and the Ford “family” (Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, McLaglen)—especially in this film, which re-imagines Ireland without “The Troubles,” and offers perfect peace between Catholics and Protestants. Even the IRA seems genial.

Such light spirits persist in Irish films: The Snapper (1993) paves the way for the recent Juno with its tale of twenty-year-old Tina Kellegher (Sharon Curley), who becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Much of the film’s focus is on her curmudgeonly “Da,” Dessie (Colm Meaney), whose clueless bluster and one-liners lead to a gradual acceptance of his role as Modern Grandfather. Once (2006) is also set in Dublin—and set to music, as the nameless “Guy” and “Girl” form a compelling, magical duo, their lives expressed as song; to be sure, an Irish ideal.

Irish Troubles

Unfortunately, it isn’t all merry eccentrics and lilting melodies. From the Blight to the Famine, from Home Rule to the Easter Rising, from outright war with England to civil war among themselves, Ireland has had its share of “The Troubles.” Many great films have risen to accept the challenges of this tragedy; a few stand out:

In the Name of the Father (1993) Daniel Day-Lewis proves once more his ability to deeply affect an audience—here, as Gerry Conlon, who in 1974 was wrongfully accused with three others of an IRA bombing. The film pours outrage and sorrow on the errors and malice of a system so intent on laying blame and righting wrongs that all it accomplishes is radicalizing the innocent.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) Ken Loach’s bitter history lesson. 1919 brings revolution, with civil war quick on its heels. The film eventually becomes a classic brother-against-brother story, brutal and heartbreaking.

Odd Man Out (1947) Carol Reed directs James Mason (as Johnny McQueen) in this fable-like tale of a Belfast Nationalist on the run. More “Ulysses in Nighttown” than action flick, Reed’s quasi-surreal epic leads McQueen in almost total silence through a world whose shadows are as menacing as the politics that drive him.

In America

Over the past two centuries, the Irish story has been also an immigrant’s story. Movies such as In America (2002) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) have interpreted the decision to travel “into the West” as struggle, reconciliation, and sometimes triumph. But once in America, and generations pass, the climb seems steeper, the terrain less certain. In The Last Hurrah (1958), John Ford follows the Irish to the political arena, in which party machines, mass media, and entrenched corruption pit themselves against Ford’s typical hero: unassuming, optimistic, tenacious. Spencer Tracy gives one of his rough-tooled/fine-tuned performances as the mayor (based on real-life Boston Mayor James Burley).

Even harsher battles are fought on the streets of Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), which begins like a particularly engrossing Law and Order episode, but, under Ben’s direction and with its remarkable cast—especially his brother Casey and Amy Ryan—the film explores guilt and innocence, sin and salvation, with fierceness and rueful acceptance.

Roaches and Rabbits

In America, the earliest “Gangs of New York” hurtled at each other with fanciful names—Roach Guards, Ducky Boys, Dead Rabbits—and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 picture attempts to capture those bloody collisions as an immigrant tale of rejection and assimilation, followed by oblivion. It was Yeats, once more, who writes of Byzantium that it is “no country for old men”—and the gangster Irish America is no exception: the young themselves may not survive the bludgeoning. Scorsese continues his interrogation in The Departed (2006), a cell phone-infested, bullet-ridden proving-ground. Nicholson’s Frank Costello asks a man, “How's your mother?” and the fellow replies, “I'm afraid she's on her way out”; without missing a beat Frank replies, “We all are. Act accordingly.”

In the end, though, it seems that even in their murkiest incarnations, the Irish never lose an otherworldly sensibility—at least in the cinema. With Miller’s Crossing (1990), the Coen brothers situate their Irish, Jewish, Italian and what-all gangsters in an alternate 1930s universe of snappy comebacks (“Where’d you get the fat lip?” “Old war wound. Acts up around morons.”) and wind-blown hats, where “Danny Boy” becomes a Tommy gun ballad of casual havoc and cool under fire—in short, a movie in which everything that can go wrong, does—citing a law that, not coincidentally, appears to be named after one “Murphy,” assumedly an individual of Irish descent.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Rating Game Redux (26): Novel Movie Ideas

Our local paper asked for "Best Movies Based on Novels." The following three came to mind pretty quickly. I'll follow this with an addendum.

The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)

Despite plot changes and deletions, Peter Jackson exuberantly devotes ten-plus hours to J.R.R. Tolkein’s never-can-be-filmed work—and pleases just about everybody, even those who find the books a bit creaky.

In Cold Blood (1967)

If Capote’s work is a “nonfiction novel,” then Richard Brooks’ film is a fictionalized documentary. And thanks to Conrad Hall’s dust-bowl-noir cinematography and Quincy Jones’ exclamatory music—and most of all, Scott Wilson’s and Robert Blake’s Dick and Perry—the movie gazes into the abyss with lidless courage.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

The first postmodern novel (which just happened to be written in the late eighteenth century), Tristram Shandy’s fractal-ized narrative becomes a Russian nesting doll of a movie-within-a-movie—without restraints. As funny a deconstruction of an already-deconstructed book as it is of filmmaking—and the egos necessary to make a movie about a man who cannot stop referencing himself.

More great novels-to-movies. The rule for me here is that the movie should (a) refelct the "spirit" of its source and/or (b) re-imagine the novel. After all, if I want just the novel--all its plot, characters and details--there's always, you know, the novel.

Wise Blood
A Clockwork Orange
The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
(Bogart version)
Naked Lunch
(Coppola's version, Lugosi's performance)
The Age of Innocence
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(Siegel's and Kaufman's versions)

A decidedly partial list--in both senses of the term. Feel free to add your own.

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