Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Home Viewer (4): Love Is Strange

(Here's the latest piece I've done for our local paper.)

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the Home Viewer trusts you to find your own favorite cinematic love, whether it be Titanic or Gone With the Wind, a mere Ghost or a Pretty Woman. As for me, I’ll wander down meaner streets to the lonely places, where the Valentines are blue, and the love is mad, blind, or lost—and sometimes found.

Mad Love

--Or, as the French put it, amour fou, plunging into icy Freudian waters, searching in dim dreams for pleasures without any principles. There’s Mad Love (1935) itself, in which director Karl Freund (cinematographer for Browning/Lugosi’s Dracula) makes a pact with that little devil Peter Lorre, and together they paint an expressionist portrait of a brilliant surgeon deformed by his needs. Mad Love has two strange bedfellows: Gun Crazy (1949) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which impotency is cured at gunpoint while passion mingles with shame. All three accept fatal excess as the everyday, and let its mad lovers misbehave all the way.

Blind Love

If not mad, does love go blind? Tom Waits sings that “the only kind of love is stone blind love,” and the only way to find your love is to close your eyes. Which can be dangerous. Consider all those film noir fall guys, from Fred MacMurray’s insurance investigator in Double Indemnity (1944) to William Hurt’s poleaxed lawyer in Body Heat (1981)—actually more or less a remake of Double Indemnity. But it isn’t just the femmes who are fatale: Charles Boyer keeps Ingrid Bergman guessing with near-fatal results in Gaslight (1944), and Jimmy Stewart has in the end only himself to blame for getting so dizzy over Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Ah, the ache of (I’ll quote Waits again) that “blind and broken heart that sleeps beneath [your] lapel.”

Blind love, though, can be a remarkable thing, unconditional, infinitely compassionate, redemptive. Akira Kurosawa's Akahige/Red Beard (1965) gives us the great gift of Dr. Niide (Toshiro Mifune), a doctor in a charity clinic whose deep humility and good will—and humor—is untainted by false pride or false humility. He simply moves forward, implacable and self-effacing, healing as though he has no other choice and shining a light on everyone he meets so they can see clearly their failings, strengths, and needs—including the need to stand with him in love to accomplish whatever job awaits.

Lost (and Found) Love

So far, it’s been mostly risks and falls. And you must admit there’s something inevitable about the losses of love. As Cagney famously barks out in Boy Meets Girl (1938), it’s the Only Story: “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl!” Wes Anderson applies his typical pretzel logic to this formula in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), as everyone confronts their loves, mad, blind and what-all, sometimes reckless, sometimes calculating, sometimes even suicidal. But, like Royal Tenenbaum himself (Gene Hackman having the time of his life)—his character loving everyone almost as much as he loves himself—these dedicated eccentrics find their lost loves only when they finally do love others as much as themselves, and devise ways to save each other from lovelessness. It appears, then, that Royal’s gravestone doesn’t lie as it announces he “Died Tragically Rescuing His Family From The Remains Of A Destroyed Sinking Battleship.” That’s as good a metaphor for love as any.

And as the ship sinks, drastic measures sometimes must be taken to save the innocent. Sling Blade’s (1996) Karl (Billy Bob Thornton) has lost almost all love, but still manages to give what he has to young Frank (Lucas Black), “nervous” and lonesome, hanging onto his mother even as she slips from him. And while Karl may be lost in the horrors of his childhood, it is hard to deny that the final blade he slings, like Michael with his flaming sword, frees Frank and his mother and helps them all find at least partial peace.

Well, the biggest risk we could take this time around as Humble Viewers is Sally Potter's Yes (2004), which cannot be described without its sounding more than a little silly. The movie is set in present-day England, but everyone speaks in rhyme. (I kid you not.) It is in part about a passionate love affair between an unhappily married woman, "She" (Joan Allen), and an expatriate from Beirut, "He" (Simon Akbarian). And although Yes is about a great many other things—I will not detail them here, lest you disbelieve or storm off—it returns, with ecstatic affirmation, to love, particularly in its insistence that to love we must surrender to the other, and treasure the new home because it is the home of the one we love, who lives in ours now—and they become one home.

I should give the final word to “The Cleaner,” the movie’s wise housekeeper, who insists,

... everything you do or say
Is there, forever. It leaves evidence.
In fact it's really only common sense;
There's no such thing as nothing, not at all.
It may be really very, very small
But it's still there. In fact I think I'd guess
That 'no' does not exist. There's only "yes."

Yes almost breaks your heart, but at the last moment opens it instead. Near the end of the film, “She” makes a video, looking in the camera to ask God if He can forgive her for not believing in Him. I might be wrong, but I think God answers with, as The Cleaner asserts, the only response possible. A small word, but it’s the key to finding what was once lost.

(Note: I know this should be about home viewing, but I’d like to mention the best off-center/dead-on love story I’ve seen in a long time: Juno, the tale of “fertile Myrtle” “the cautionary whale” whose shenanigans—“one doodle that can't be un-did”—make us love her for exactly what she is.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rating Game Redux (23): A Short Stretch

Back to movies for our local paper; this time, Best Prison Movies. Once again I offer minority opinions, allowing my fellow panelists to laud The Shawshank Redemption, Birdman of Alcatraz, Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, and even The Longest Yard. I hope they all make someone's cut.

One I should've mentioned: Jacques Becker's Le Trou/The Hole (1960). Perhaps the best prison escape film, lean and direct, claustrophobic and dismaying--just like prison.

Brute Force (1947)
A relentless parable about fascism and the politics of terror starring Burt Lancaster, with Hume Cronyn as the sadistic guard who both manipulates the warden and tortures the prisoners while wearing the same glassy-eyed smirk.

The Hill (1965)
Somewhere between Goldfinger and Thunderball, Sean Connery delivers a perfectly controlled performance in Sidney Lumet’s sand-blasted tale of a WWII British military prison camp in Libya, where the prisoners are made repeatedly to climb a hill. Yes, it’s Sisyphus in khaki, an absurdist’s view of power and nonconformity.

Hart’s War (2002)
Stalag 17 meets Mississippi Burning, with Bruce Willis channeling William Holden and Colin Farrell as the innocent forced to confront a delirious space where racism, justice, and duty clash. The result is at once noble and unsettling.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Rating Game Redux (22): Am I Blue?

My latest list contribution to our local paper. This one's so slight it's almost not there. But still, here:

Best Songs With a Color in the Title

I’ll take the easy way out and give myself the “blues”:

“Blue Velvet”
Sappy, spooky—and beautiful in its own way. Besides, no other song makes me think simultaneously of David Lynch and Bobby Vinton.

“Crystal Blue Persuasion”
Tommy James and the Shondells go mellow, and produce their most pleasantly melodic hit.

“Almost Blue”
Pure cool jazz from Elvis Costello, who once more proves he can write any kind of music he pleases. After “My Funny Valentine,” perhaps Chet Baker’s greatest cover.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Home-Made Film Festivals (3): Tom Cruise, Master Thespian

Despite his public persona, Tom Cruise has often managed to mark up his celebrity with enough nicks and outright gouges to help us forget the automatic smile and relentless charm, and see a sharper, rougher shape, surrendering to the role--and to the good directors who have helped him in these efforts.

The Color of Money (1986)
It’s important to realize this was released the same year as Top Gun. Martin Scorsese anticipates Cruise’s emerging image--and dismantles it, as he sets him against Paul Newman, in a changing of the guard that is as heartless as it is exciting. An early sign (his role in Legend/1985 notwithstanding) that Cruise was more than willing to both nurture and abandon his Cruise-ness.

Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson gives him the ultimate anti-Cruise role: Frank T.J. Mackey, self-help guru for ex-frat boys, profane, heartless, and cocky (pun intended), who falls apart as thoroughly as Cruise’s own status as Mr. Right.

War of the Worlds (2005)
A fitting end to this festival, in which absent dad Ray Ferrier needs to reassert his value to those around him. Ray is always on the verge of collapse, as war-damaged as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and all but useless until he faces the limits of grinning away one’s problems. This is the second time (after Minority Report/2002) that Steven Spielberg hammers like a swordsmith on Cruise, producing dangerously honed edges.

Monday, January 21, 2008

This Bird Can Fly: Suzanne Pleshette, 1937-1970

I was sixteen or so when The Bob Newhart Show started its run, and Suzanne Pleshette could not have happened at a better time in my life--although she did confuse me, and more than a little: I liked the show, but really liked her, and I wasn't sure why. She seemed the opposite of everything I thought I needed: a bit too able to see through her husband's weaknesses, above most of his stammering objections, almost cool in her appraisal of his worth. Me, I craved all the forgiving I could glom my clammy little hands onto, and a blind eye to all my faults, and unquestioning admiration--but Emily Hartley would have provided very little of that. Besides, she was twenty years my senior.

--And was that it? Was she simply the quintessential Older Woman? There was the throaty voice, those big beautiful eyes, that self-assured set to her frame. But I think it was more than post-adolescent leering--or misbegotten mooning. Or at least not simply that. She was a promise somehow, that when I finally grew up the rest of the way I might run into someone who'd look right at me, and if she smiled it would not be a courtesy but a fact. I'm lucky that Someone came along, and she has kept that promise--for twenty-six years and counting--but I'm also happy that Emily shook me up just enough to wake me up just a little, and help me see more clearly what I should--well, see more clearly.

Besides, once I made the connection to Annie Hayworth in The Birds (1963) I realized Pleshette had been taking me to task practically all my life, almost smiling, head cocked, cigarette (oh, poor Suzanne) resting in her hand, the weary world her intimate companion and constant challenge, as much relished as endured, like anything worth wanting.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Home Viewer (3): The Four Corners of the Earth

(Here's the latest monthly column I've written for the Galesburg Register-Mail. Note that I have taken on the humble task of capturing all of world cinema in 1000 words or so. Where would I be if I didn't know everything? In a pickle, that's where. Of global proportions.)

On January 26, Knox College will hold its International Fair; I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the promise that, no matter the corner where we start, if we travel as curious and generous explorers, we may end up as friends.

The Asian Corner

Asian filmmakers appreciate the visual potential of cinema; from hyper-realized song-and-dance frenzies to austerely beautiful tableaux, from gun-fu standoffs to epic widescreen, one can almost forget the mundane elements of plot in surrender to aesthetics.

But the stories assert themselves amid the visual splendor. In Raise the Red Lantern (China, 1991), Zhang Yimou explores the walled-in palace of an old man who takes a fourth wife (the stunning Gong Li), who unwillingly enters the squabbles and maneuverings of the wives, trapped just as she is but determined to recreate the worst elements of the world outside. A red lantern is raised outside the quarters of the wife whom the lord will visit, and it becomes as much of a warning and curse as a sign of favor. Yimou’s camera looks down on the house as the seasons pass and invites us into secrets no one should have to keep.

One of the simplest stylists, Yasujiro Ozu is also one of the most profound. Tokyo Story’s (Japan, 1953) plot is barely there: Aged parents visit their children in the city, are patiently endured, then return home, where the wife dies and there is a funeral. But with these simple notes Ozu composes a remarkable symphony, contemplative and heartrending, in which love, loss and reconciliation find full voice.

Bridging all kinds of gaps, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Japan, 1961) may dedicate itself to the beautiful compositions we expect from Japanese films, but in the foreground is his Samurai bodyguard (Toshiro Mifune), the original “man with no name” who strolls into a town populated almost exclusively by bad guys and plays one against the other, all for a “fistful of dollars” (well, yen) until he is the “last man standing.” Kurosawa gleefully borrows from hardboiled crime novels and Westerns—and, lucky for moviegoers, turnabout is fair play, from Clint Eastwood to Bruce Willis.

The European Corner

Like Ozu, Vittoria De Sica focused on the everyday, with epic results. The Bicycle Thief (Italy, 1949) has never lost its potency. In postwar Italy, a father stakes his family’s future on his bicycle, necessary for his job (ironically, posting Hollywood movie posters around town). The bicycle is immediately stolen, and the man and his young son embark on a city-wide search that manages to capture every facet of both their relationship and the larger world through which they roam, one as opposed to their success as any government bureaucracy.

As World War II faded, European cinema looked inward, particularly the French New Wave. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1959) follows his alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), as he wanders from his distant parents into the streets, petty crime, a juvenile detention center—and then famously to a beach, where, suspended between land and water, he turns and stares into the camera all his solemn sadness and hidden dreams. Truffaut would make four more Doinel films, but this one remains as the truest expression of a young artist on the run and left behind.

Speaking of running, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (Germany 1998) propels his heroine like a time-traveling bullet through a Berlin only an Xbox could’ve built. As Lola tries to save her bagman boyfriend from the mob, Tykwer tosses her, most of the city, and us like zero-gee pinballs, until it all ends in tragedy. Or does it? The movie ramps up again, and again, offering alternate-universe recreations of her run, and the power of narrative literally to make and break—and re-make.

The African Corner

Despite its own rich cinematic history, particularly since the mid-1960s, modern Africa is most often seen through Western eyes, from Out of Africa (1985) to Blood Diamond (2006); even an African film like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981) can’t get started until it practically bonks a Bushman on the head with a Coke bottle. One of the best films to reflect this dualistic/“filtered” view is Battle of Algiers (Algeria/Italy, 1966), which alternates between the French citizens/colonizers and the Algerian revolutionaries/terrorists. Presented in an unapologetic documentary style, the film explores the shared violence that sullies the colonial legacy.

Also facing an “African problem,” but with great compassion and beauty, even humor, is Moolaade (Senegal, 2004), directed by Ousmane Sembene. The title means “protection” or “sanctuary,” which a woman gives to four village girls who are about to undergo female circumcision. The film, though, is more than an exposé of a social concern; it interrogates the past, anticipates the future—with mingled hope and apprehension—and celebrates the undaunted courage of everyday people.

The American Corner

For a US film, I was tempted to discuss anything by Martin Scorsese, but the fervid hopes, wild humor, and dark despair one could say marks much of “American” cinema is captured perfectly in the Brazilian film City of God (2002). Imagine Goodfellas in a favela—or better yet, forget the Hollywood comparisons and brace yourself for a fiercely original and appallingly honest observation of life in its last extremes.

Which leads me to the States. If I will not indulge my Scorsese fixation, where can we go for some real deep-fried, quick-talkin', old-fashioned American mischief? I’m torn between two audacities: Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. For some reason Do the Right Thing (1989) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) seem to foot the same bill. Both are filled with music and dangerous curves, overblown egos and “startlements”—while bouncing along quite different American roads. Taken together, they lay out town and country with sly honesty and bittersweet affection.

Eventually, all roads lead—well, to all roads, as in Babel (2006), Alejandro Iñárritu’s continent-hopping exploration of the ties that bind. And they pain us, intertwining just about everything we worry about today—relationships, poverty, terrorism, loyalty, the search for home and safety, the fear of lost connections. Babel provides an opportunity to feel the sharpness of the four corners of the Earth and to remember what we all share.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Home-Made Film Festivals (2): Overlooked Steven Speilberg

It may seem impossible, but the director who single-handedly invented the summer blockbuster has made a few movies many of us have overlooked--some would argue justifiably so; but they're worth a viewing, if only to compare them with his more visible efforts.

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Like The Color Purple (1985), maybe a little too pretty for its own good, but it's an interesting companion to Saving Private Ryan as it follows the often-surreal trials of Jim, (young Christian Bale in a remarkable feature-film debut), separated from his British parents when the Japanese invade Shanghai in 1941. In true Spielberg fashion, the transition from childhood to adolescence occurs in the midst of delirium--here, from prison-camp starvation to atomic blasts.

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
A truly strange hybrid, A.I. is Golden Boy Spielberg's memorial to Ice King Stanley Kubrick. In the process he lets slip some of his more Kubrickian tendencies, particularly his cynical side. But this--like E.T. and Catch Me If You Can--is also another "little boy lost" movie, perhaps overlong by about thirty minutes, but determined to remain true to Stanley's sardonic scorn for humanity's inhumanity.

1941 (1979)
One of the last of the Young Turk self-indulgent megabudget flops, it bears repeated viewings if only to catch every well-timed slapstick disruption, jaw-dropping set-piece, and fearless camera swoop, not to mention all those SNL and Second City slickers. It's easy to think of Indiana Jones as you watch a Ferris Wheel plow its way along a pier and a U.S.O. dance become a jitterbug Armageddon, while a Japanese sub noses along the coastline, its crew--perhaps with the audience--mourning the loss of "Hollywoooood!"

Monday, January 14, 2008

Rating Game Redux (21): Rebel, Rebel

When our local paper asked for a list of "songs about rebellion," I saw lots of ways to do this: political ("We Shall Overcome"), social ("Signs"; you know, "Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind"), even personal (Eric Burden barking out, "Don't push me!" right after informing us whose life it is in the first place). I think I tended toward the last; even the Beatles' "Revolution" seems to be more of a dropout/head's dismissal of politics than a direct response to any legitimate public ill. And I never miss a chance to mention Springsteen.

“C’mon Everybody”
Eddie Cochran’s joyous snarl against his parents’ punishment for his throwing a party while they’re gone—“Who cares? C’mon everybody!”

Paul McCartney shows admirable disregard for his vocal chords in the service of announcing as loudly as he can that it’s gonna be alright.

“Growin’ Up”
Early Springsteen in full-throttle Dylan mode: “I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere / And you know it’s really hard to hold your breath / I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared / I was the cosmic kid in full-costume dress.” Yep, when they said “Sit down” he stood up. Ooh-ooh, growin’ up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Home-Made Film Festivals (1)

Before I was given the opportunity to write a monthly column for the wonderful folks at the Register Mail, I had suggested a weekly mini-film-festival piece; but the editor felt it stepped on the toes of the "Rating Game." Before the dust settled and I started writing my present monthly column for the paper, I had assembled a few of these and posted them on another site. And in an effort to "simplify, simplify, simplify"--and to cannibalize anything I've ever made--hmm, maybe like Tarantino (see previous posting) I am beginning to eat my own tail; oops: one-a those "lest ye be judged" moments; gee thanks, God--I'm shutting down the old site, and moving those postings over here. So here's the first, "French Crime Wave."

note: The image layout was intended to convey the sense of a pile of posters; I'm not very good at this kind of thing, so please excuse the mess.

Part hommage, part parody, part self-conscious de-/re-construction, French gangster/crime films manage to combine hard-boiled cool with self-conscious "interrogations" of their Hollywood counterparts. After all, it was French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier who first used the term film noir to describe American movies like The Maltese Falcon, with their brooding atmosphere and obsession with the "dynamism of violent death." So we should celebrate the following classics of French noir as true partners in crime.

Shoot the Piano Player (1962)
David Goodis' hardboiled novel, Down There, serves as the source for Francois Truffaut's second film. Almost a comedy, the movie still manages to capture the suffocating atmosphere of a noir in its (anti-)hero's self-reflexive glance over his shoulder at a past that inexorably catches up with him.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1960)
Critic Philip Kemp aptly describes director Jacques Becker's visual style as "unstressed elegance." Add to that dapper, sleepy-eyed Jean Gabin, and the result is a world-weary, ultra-cool meditation on friendship, the passage of time, and the nuances of the double-cross.

Bob le Flambeur (1955)
Speaking of cool, Roger Duchesne as high-roller Bob embodies the kind of grace under fire that helps define the French noir hero. His closest American counterpart might be Robert Mitchum; but under Jean-Pierre Melville's direction we receive a surprisingly tender take on the no-regrets tough guy who literally gambles everything to protect his personal code.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Film Comment-s

I sent a list of the 20 best films of 2007 to Film Comment magazine, mostly because I could win Criterion Collection DVDs. I Am Curious (Yellow), you are mine! The list is in alphabetical order, and as a "bonus" I've included a little rant I sent to FC with my list. "Grr!--there go, my heart's abhorrence!"

The Bourne Ultimatum
Charlie Wilson's War
Eastern Promises
God Grew Tired of Us
Gwoemul/The Host
Hot Fuzz
I Am Legend
The Kite Runner
Lonely Hearts
No Country for Old Men
Reign Over Me
Rescue Dawn
The Simpsons Movie
Smokin' Aces
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
This Is England

Best direct-to-video release: Futurama: Bender's Big Score

The Rant:

As far as the FC critics' poll goes: So there's room for Grindhouse but not I Am Legend? Will Smith perfectly suspends himself somewhere between Tom Hanks' Cast Away hysteric and Tim Robbin's jaw-clenched paranoiac in War of the Worlds, and the movie itself knows when to shut up and let the suspense build on its own, no muss, no fuss. I'd much rather encourage Smith than Tarantino, whose video-clerk enthusiasms seem at last to have imploded, leaving us with the hey-ma-lookit-me version of the ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail--or, as Plato describes it, a creature from which "nothing went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him, ... his own waste providing his own food." Except Tarantino keeps making us watch him eat.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rating Game Redux (20): EAT

This may be about as far as I'll ever travel from "an autobiographical film journal," but the compleatist in me urges I present this latest list I thrown together for our local paper. And while I will admit I wanted to write only about Rachel Ray, losing myself in a dreamy fog of cooking steam, contemplating how a woman who talks out of the corner of her mouth like Eddie G. can so captivate--nay, enthrall--one's attention, until all that remains is the lingering waft of sweet garlic and the quiet burble of brimming saucepans ...

Where was I? Oh, yeah: Best TV Cooking Shows.

Good Eats
Alton Brown approaches the culinary arts like a High Camp OCD sufferer with a deep commitment to cotton-ball molecular models and a Zealot’s conviction that boiling water deserves as much attention as a standing rib roast.

The French Chef
While some might argue Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live parody would suffice, nothing beats a solid half-hour with the twittering, chicken-dropping, joyous bluster of the original celebrity cook.

Emeril Live
I know, I know: Rachel Ray is cuter. But Emeril’s “food of love” crusade convinced us that food has feelings, too—even if, every once in a while, you have to BAM! it into submission.

By the way, did I mention Rachel Ray? I can't quite recall. You know who I mean? Has a couple cooking shows? Travels, spends some $40 or so, cooks in 30 minutes, and so on? Rachel Ray, right? You know. Don't you?

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