Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rating Game Redux (33): Nothing But the Truth

Our local paper's Rating Game wanted the truth on Best Documentaries. Not happening, with only three allowed on the list. But here--with all due apologies to Robert Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, and even that Big & Tall Man gadfly, Michael Moore--is a good start. In cinema veritas!

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Kentucky coal miners strike in 1973, and Barbara Kopple marches right along, through double-dealings, drive-by shootings, homespun egos and hard-won (partial) victories. Talk about your bitter Americans.

The “Up” Series (1964-present)
Michael Apted has followed a group of English boys and girls from age seven onward (49 Up in 2005) in an epic series that explores personal and social change—and continuity.

Gates of Heaven (1980)
Errol Morris’ first documentary, an exploration of pets, pet cemeteries, the American Dream, and endless tangents, as Morris aims his camera at his subjects and lets them take over. A slyly manipulative “anti-documentary” in which the periphery becomes the story.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Home Viewer (6): The Cruellest Month

T.S. Eliot's old-timey spelling notwithstanding, our local paper thought I should do a little something on spring--which in the baleful Midwest we haven't really experienced yet--mostly bursts of fitful sunshine followed by straight winds. But I decided to consider it a Silly Season, and tunefully wedged my way into the narrow margin springtime seems determined to maintain this year.

As we turn–at last!–toward spring, stuck in my head is a relentlessly joyful tune written back in the 1920s by Harry (“I’m Lookin’ Over a Four-Leaf Clover”) Woods entitled, “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” The lyrics are famous for repeatedly entreating the “sleepyhead” to “get up” and “cheer up,” and commanding that we “live, love, laugh and be happy.” So we better get to it.


Federico Fellini saw life as an epic dream, a memory recovered so passionately it melts the boundaries between past and present, reality and imagination. Amarcord (1973) (literally, “I remember”) looks back on the director’s childhood with equal parts affection and irony. In his hands, even the rising fascist culture of 1930s Italy becomes part of his small town’s circus procession of love, rage, longing, mischief, departure, and renewal, with a peacock in the snow, a fever-inducing encounter with first lust, a giant animated Mussolini head–and the airborne puffballs of spring. Amarcord climbs the tree of life and, like mad Uncle Teo, shouts its demands for more.

In Richard Linklater’s lucid dreaming grab-bag, Waking Life (2001), a multitude of philosophical observations/rants are delivered by a host of rotoscope-animated thinkers, freakout-artists, slackers, and crazies–dreamers all. As Speed Levitch observes, “Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each others’ presence.” OK, maybe a bit clichéd and/or overblown. But as the dreamer (played by Wiley Wiggins, whose name alone evokes Wonderland) falls awake into further dreams, he gives himself the chance to live many lives, sometimes merely by listening to his fellow dreamers.

To truly live, then, one life may not be enough. But each, as we see in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (2003), has its trials. This South Korean film by Ki-duk Kim, set in a monastery floating on a lake, follows the seasons as it explores the Buddhist injunction to show infinite compassion while striving for detachment. Beautifully filmed, hushed in contemplation, it gazes at lives that, like stones tossed in the water, spread inevitable ripples.


In honor of spring, let’s agree that love is revival. One of my favorite comic versions of this is Born Yesterday (1950), in which a racketeer (Broderick Crawford) gets more than he bargains for when he insists his moll, “Billie” (Judy Holliday), receive an education. Enter William Holden as the Henry Higgens-esque tutor, who gives Billie the chance to exercise the independence she already had: Just watch the scene in which she beats Crawford in a game of gin. Smartest dumb blond in movie history.

Love is also rejuvenation. Four years after Al Jolson bawled the talkies into existence (Edison’s 1895 Kinetophone notwithstanding), Charlie Chaplin made a “silent” film (with music and sound effects), City Lights (1931), marking the final appearance of the Little Tramp. Not only is this movie unashamedly sentimental, it reminds us of the beauty of silent films and the universal appeal of the Tramp. At forty-two, Chaplin seems as fresh and eager as he did back in 1914, in Kid’s Auto Race, ready to dazzle with his nimble frame and surprising attention to the small gesture. City Lights keeps the promise that the cinema so often breaks: that seeing a movie can be like an openhearted return to youth.


Knowing what’s funny is one slippery fish to grasp. There is, of course, a simple rule: If it makes you laugh every time, it’s funny. For me, that includes The Producers (1968) and every 1930s Marx Brothers movie–but I’ll settle for Monkey Business (1931). I’d also like to add an Honorable Mention: The Imposters (1998), in which Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt, more than willing to be ridiculous, combine Max Bialystock with Groucho to produce a farce that either of their anarchic, over-acting predecessors would be proud of. Filled with verbal sleight-of-hand and giddy disregard for life and limb (and propriety), these movies place no demands on higher brain functions–but plenty on your stamina.

Be Happy

Some movies, such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), make being happy look easy. It’s obvious how much fun Paul, John, George and Ringo are having: You can see it on their faces. And there’s more than a little Marx Brothers in their one-liners and blithely awful puns.

Then again, happiness can be a life-and-death battle–but that doesn’t mean you can’t sing and dance. Consider Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002), a documentary that celebrates the relationship between music and the struggle to destroy apartheid in South Africa. Whether in mourning or joy, tragedy or victory, the comrades unite in their song of “amandla” (power), their bodies rising and falling–and rising again, like their lives, faces upturned in melodic defiance and joy.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) depicts the struggle for freedom as a middle-class nightmare, perfectly capturing (thanks to Will Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner) the anxiety of poverty and the burden of the American dream–and a triumph that is not only financial. All in all, an idea that, even misspelled, Gardner asserts is worth pursuing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rating Game Redux (31): Sad, Sadder, Saddest

In considering the "saddest songs" for our local paper's "Rating Game" this week, I must confess I fell back on what is for me overly familiar ground. So if you can stand another mention of Springsteen, read on. If not, cry if you want to.


Hoagy Carmichael’s elegy to lost love–dreaming in vain, wandering in the night with nothing but memories. Could it get any worse? Well, yes:

“Dreams to Remember”

Otis Redding sees his love with another, walks away and cries; still, he refuses to give up, even though, like Hoagy, he has nothing but dreams. Now we’re at the depths, am I right? Almost:

“I Wish I Were Blind”

Bruce Springsteen also sees his girl with someone else, and figures, “though this world is filled / With the grace and beauty of God’s hand / Oh I wish I were blind / When I see you with your man.” Like sad old Hopkins tells us, “No worst, there is none.”

Oh, yeah: This is the saddest of them all. I forgot all about it; but this elfish chanteuse on Toobio or whateverthehellitis sure didn't. Watch and grin; listen and weep.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Touch of Evil: Charlton Heston, 1924-2008

I may not be saying it first, but I'll still say it: Get your hands off him, you damned dirty apes. I don't care how vigorously he courted the Right, nor how effectively he became a whipping boy of the Left. When I see him in my head, he is not holding high a long-bore hunting rifle but a Technicolor Decalogue, final warning to sinners in the hands of an angry God. And more: his whip held high, the chariots plummeting. And in a quieter mood, an Omega Man watching Woodstock over and over--or most of all, the clenched-jaw cynics, munching on Soylent Green or cursing on the beach, goddamming us all to hell--Moses once more at the end, seeing creation and concluding it is not all that good.

And these images last because, as an adult, I saw on video the strange statue Orson Welles had carved back in 1958, the Mexican Heston, stooping beneath low border-town apartment-dive ceilings like John Wayne in The Quiet Man, both of them out of their elements, and transformed. He was exactly what Touch of Evil needed: a slab of marble among all those sweaty double-crossers, with his wife, Janet Leigh, packed into her foundation garments--un-dress rehearsal for Anthony Perkins just a little down that black and white road. And Heston plugged along, wading in the oily water, a practical Ahab after the Great White Orson, the double-est crosser of them all. That single late glimpse of Charlton Heston clears up everything between us, and allows us at last to set down that shootin iron and lift a toast to Apocalypse, whether pillar of fire or busted-up Statue of Liberty, car-bomb or plague-psychos. Now those are moments you're going to have to pry from my cold, dead--ah, you get it.

Rating Game Redux (30): Trippy

This week our local paper asked contributors to hit the road with "Best Road Trip Movies." As usual, a huge category, but only three picks allowed. So many miles to go before we sleep.

The Straight Story (1999)
The real David Lynch takes it on the road with the inimitable Richard Farnsworth as they explore the breadth of human kindness from the seat of a tractor.

Broken Flowers (2005)
Bill Murray does his dead-on Buster Keaton impression in Jim Jarmusch’s lopsided comedy, a little trip–with dangerous curves–down romantic memory lane.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake discover the crossroads where comedy and tragedy meet in Preston Sturges’ messy masterpiece, part Hollywood satire, part social critique, part sentimental journey.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Rating Game Redux (29): This Aint No Disco

More music listing for our local paper: Best '70s Songs. Mostly off-center picks. I suppose I could've just stayed with Motown--or been honest enough to reveal my Art Rock leanings and picked ELP, Yes, Tull. Then again, there's always "Smoke on the Water"--as long as you don't pay attention to the lyrics. Anyway--for what it's worth--here you go:

“Theme from Shaft” (1971) Isaac Hayes
The Stax Records sound elevated to sainthood—and one of the few endlessly repeated singles that has never passed into cliché.

“Thunder Road” (1975) Bruce Springsteen

I suppose “Born to Run” should be the pick, but this surprisingly melodic rocker perfectly captures Springsteen’s mid-decade effort to give rocknroll a future.

“Psycho Killer” (1977) Talking Heads
Whipping up a fitting anthem for The Little Decade That Couldn’t, Byrne and Co. hand the club kids exactly what they deserve; like the man says, “I hate people when they’re not polite.”

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