10/13/6 - 10/22/6
In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Fassbinder's 15 & 1/2 hour Berlin Alexanderplatz to goofy teen comedies like Savage Steve Holland's worthy One Crazy Summer to idiotic dreck like Open Water 2. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.
10.13.06. Les Diaboliques.
(dvd) on the tv in my apartment.
I went home on Friday the 13th and decided that the best way to deal with my crippling bout of depression would be to sit alone in my tiny apartment and watch the definitive mean-spirited thriller. I had forgotten all about the enthusiastically Satanic opening music (courtesy of a choir of school-boys) and it only got even more diabolical from there - even the muck-swollen pool that factors heavily in the proceedings has almost biblical quality to its filthiness. Is a lake of fire really that much worse than a lake of cess? Wife abuse, mistress abuse, corruption, rotten food in the school cafeteria, murder, double crosses, terror-induced heart failure: a bout of pure nastiness, it’s hard to imagine that in its day this movie was a crowd-pleasin’ pop hit.
It’s a film so sordid and perverse that it makes you want to call it things like “deliciously sordid” and “gloriously perverse” – but none of that does justice to Clouzot’s acute sense of how people are able to bring out the worst in each other. That theme slices like a meat cleaver through Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau as well, but Les Diaboliques is really the ultimate in pathetic neediness, bluster and emotional violence.
Vera Clouzot is phenomenal, but remains strangely underrated as an actress – maybe she’s just seen as an impossibly pretty face logging screen-time perhaps only because her husband is behind the camera. Or maybe it’s a discomfort with her screen persona caused by the unmitigated abuse her husband is willing to heap on her endlessly exploitable characters. The film gets you so turned around that by the end that you’re not sure what you’re rooting for to happen and you’re almost demonically amused when the villains reach the climax of their scheme.
10.14.06. Two Lane Blacktop.
(35mm) Brooklyn Academy of Music.
I hadn’t seen this movie since high school and I can honestly say I didn’t get it back then. Because of its cult reputation, when I first saw it I was expecting some kind of outlaw-cool-underground-racing-circuit exploitation flick. Instead, I was mainly just puzzled by the slow-moving, almost aimless film in front of me – it seriously has to feature the least urgent cross-country race of all time. Maybe the unspoken rule of the race was that the participants were required to stop at every diner along the route?
At any rate, I had a completely different, exhilarated reaction this time around: Monte Hellman is the absolute master of “the scene in which nothing happens.” Seriously, there are moments where he builds an utterly indescribable sense of rhythm and mood through the minimalist sound design, precise editing and brilliantly staged, miniscule background action. There are few movies as skillfully able to conjure a sense of having nowhere to go and nothing to do (and here’s the catch) without being even slightly boring.
To my taste, the best scenes of angst-y tedium in this film are rivaled only by Ride in the Whirlwind’s wood-chopping/ nervous breakdown scene, another Hellman high point. Surprisingly, I found myself identifying most with Warren Oates, whose performance as a middle-aged loser frequently borders on hammy, but which also radiates a certain painful desperation: he’s man with no identity, no ethics, no destination. At this point in his life, he’s nothing more than his vehicle, a standard-issue muscle car which he doesn’t even know that much about: his car lacks especially the dedication and personality implied by James Taylor’s home-built hot-rod. When he constantly revises the story of his future plans and lies through his teeth about everything he possibly could, his sense of nothingness (of having no self) seeps through like glare on a hazy day. Of course he’s a liar (and a joke for it), but what the hell does he owe the truth, anyway?
10.15.06. The Grudge 2.
(35mm) AMC Empire 25.
I saw the American The Grudge remake (not to be confused with the original Japanese The Grudge or the Japanese remake of The Grudge or any of the Japanese sequels to either Japanese version) at a big multiplex in Pittsburgh and slept through most of it. I woke up just in time to see Ted Raimi get killed, so that counts for something. Anyway, I’m not sure if my mainly unconscious experience of the film to which this is a sequel meant I missed some key plot points, but I sure as hell felt a little in the dark about what was supposed to be going on in The Grudge 2. It’s one of those films that on the surface seems very complicated - with curses and twisted back-stories and arcane rules and folkoric allusions and tons and tons and tons of exposition – but at the end of the day there’s not really much to it: characters walk into a darkened/secluded area, a ghost jumps out, repeat. In the case of The Grudge 2, repeat endlessly. I can even kind of appreciate its deceptively disjointed time structure and the satisfying reveal of said structure, but truly this movie is just cat scares and nothing but.
10.16. For Your Consideration.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
Christopher Guest’s new “zany showbiz satire” is pretty toothless, even by Guest’s lax standards. Scoring cheap points off of mile-wide targets such as hair metal bands, dinner theater performers, and out of touch folk musicians isn’t terribly difficult, original, or prescient – Guest has always specialized in mocking subjects that already border self-parody. However, what Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman lack in studied insight and sagacious nuance, they make up for in comedy and that fact is easy to overlook until you encounter as laughless an affair as For Your Consideration.
First off, it’s technically not another mockumentary. What’s odd (and maybe predictable), though, is that Guest can’t quite let go of the techniques he honed in his other films: it has big sections of shaky hand-held camera and meandering, obviously improvised scenes - it’s half regular studio-style comedy/ half-fake doc. This awkward, confused merging of approaches isn’t helped by the fact that Guest is particularly inept when working in the studio style; everything is over-lit and over-played, it’s both ugly and broad (like a sitcom). This style schism is one of the many smaller problems that find their root in the larger problem of a movie that can never seem to find an answer to the question “why bother?” It seems to exist only to rub salt in the wounds of delusional Hollywood types; the kind of “Hollywood types” that only seem to exist in movies mocking them.
What’s more, the parody elements are totally off; there’s a strange lack of detail and precision, everything is done up in a kind of thoughtless shorthand that feels dull and lazy. What’s the point of making fun of over-the-hill actresses that get plastic surgery, angry young actresses who put on one-woman shows, clueless talk show hosts and incompetent, sleazy agents? To be funny? Fine. But be funny then – this thing is full of groaners about method acting, super-obvious double entendre (he was in a foot-long hotdog commercial; I wonder where they’re going with that one?), incongruous use of Yiddish, and plastic surgery gone awry. Seriously, having someone say “schpilkis” in a Southern accent is on the exact same level as having an old white lady say “fo’ shizzle” – that is to say, they are both extremely unfunny.
What’s worse is that Guest is repeating himself: The Big Picture and Waiting for Guffman covered almost the exact same territory to much greater effect. It’s a movie going through the motions, making the same jokes you’ve always heard, picking on the same targets, spinning its wheels, wasting your time. *Also, Ricky Gervais did nothing to convince me he's anything other than a middling hack.
10.17. Sisters of the Gion.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
In my mind, the films of Kenji Mizoguchi exist along a particular axis of melodrama that flows Ozu/Naruse/Mizoguchi. The filmmakers in this axis make films about how people endure suffering – in the case of Ozu and Naruse their constant theme is how when people attempt to suffer nobly, they end up causing more suffering. I used to kind of thoughtlessly lump Mizoguchi into the same philosophical mindset, but Mizoguchi really specializes in characters who suffer ignobly and reach a point where they kinda, sorta finally begin to suffer nobly. Their ignoble suffering still causes plenty of suffering, so it’s not like he’s light years away from Ozu/Naruse. In the case of Gion, he doesn’t deviate from the formula: two Geishas/sisters go about their unpleasant business in the downtrodden Gion district, one schemes of the better life and in doing so destroys both her sister and the men in their lives.
Like in Ugestsu, the plot revolves around a kind of get rich quick scheme – actually, I suppose they’re both more get rich slowly schemes – that doesn’t pan out. Gion’s plot involves duping in a gullible client into garment embezzlement, which allows Mizoguchi to pound home his idea that material goods, the material world, are the source of desire and therefore the source of his characters’ misery. On the whole, there’s something that I don’t buy about the Ozu/Naruse/Mizoguchi world, everything is always a little too pat and the messy emotions always resolve very cleanly (even if they resolve tragically). Also, Mizoguchi really lets his actors have at it and the two sisters in this film give strangely contradictory performances: they are overly-emotive (almost hysterical) in their depiction of emotional restraint. Like Ozu, Mizoguchi is a master at composing carefully considered shots and maneuvering his camera elegantly, but the whole thing ends up feeling a little too ornate, too tightly gripped, and, unfortunately as a result, too phony.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
(dvd) my apartment.
I watched this for about the twentieth time as preparation for a lecture on Thursday and I’m not sure I have much energy to write about it. It’s most likely my favorite film of all-time, even if at this point it doesn’t have the same effect on me it once did it. I guess no movie can sustain through repeated viewings the emotionally draining, transgressive effect that seeing TCSM had on me – seeing it for the first time is one of the most vivid film-going memories I have. There is no moment that stands out in my mind in the history of cinema as much as the cut after Leatherface whacks the guy in the face with the meat tenderizer (is it a hammer?) and slams the door shut. Now we’re outside on the swing. It goes from distance to close-up, darkness to light, an ambiguous image to a clear shot of a face, inside to outside, inhuman to human, meat to soon-to-be meat. As a nightmare come to life, nothing beats this film.
10.18. The Queen.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
The main thing that there is to be said about this film is that Helen Mirren is awesome. There’s a funny thing that happens with films built around a dynamite lead performances: it’s hard to tell how good they actually are. And Helen Mirren definitely gives a one of those totally transformative, devastating, superstar performances that seem designed to court awards. The nice thing here is that her performance is more thoughtful and subtle than you might expect, less brazenly “Oscar-worthy” and, therefore, all the more palatable, being more genuine and intimate than is the norm with such showcase roles. Yes, on the one hand, she’s does the “becoming barely recognizable” thing that often feels like a stunt or ploy for undeserved credibility (Christian Bale in The Machinist and Charlize Theron in Monster are two recent and completely egregious examples); but she always scales it back just enough that you can actually get lost in it and not simply think something like “wow, Robert DeNiro sure looks fat.”
Anyway, I am inclined to give Stephen Frears the benefit of the doubt and say that this is actually a good movie, but I’m kind of on shaky ground with that assessment. Ostensibly, the movie is about the Queen’s reluctance to make a public statement after the former-Princess Diana’s death in a car accident in Paris and Tony Blair’s consequent attempt to “save her from herself,” but the most interesting pieces of this film are concerned with how bewildering and difficult it is to deviate from protocol. The Queen is a woman who has had every gesture in her life mapped out for her – that is to say, she may not have had every moment move along a set path (and the film goes to great lengths to remind us she was Queen during the uncertainty of World War II), but she has always known the appropriate action, behavior, and decorum for every situation. When the people of England demand a flag flying at half-mast at Buckingham Palace, it makes literally no sense to the Queen – a flag-flying at half-mast is a nonsense gesture, one that has nothing to do with anything and certainly wouldn’t count as an official expression of grief.
The film hits its stride most when it allows you to empathize with someone who is being falsely accused: someone who attempts to follow the protocol the only way they know how, but is told repeatedly that their gestures have the wrong meaning. The contrast of Tony Blair’s common-sense manipulations of the public is telling – he’s guy who knows how to channel irrationality and public hysteria to his advantage. He’s never portrayed as cynical or coldly-calculating, but rather as someone who excels at telling people what they want to hear. He is a master of the meaningless gesture, the hollow statement, the empty promise. Ultimately, if the film is about anything at all, it is about the irrationality inherent in democracy and the certainty inherent in aristocracy. It gets some nice digs in at Tony Blair at the end and draws a lot of tension from a political system in which the leaders are held hostage by their constituents and led by the nose into making statements in which they neither believe nor which make much sense upon more complicated reflection. As someone who hates very rich people, I was prepared for a viscous satire of out-of-touch Royals, but I think I got something even better. It’s easy to give a film with such a forceful, magnetic lead too much credit, though, so take this with a grain of salt.
10.19. Wolf Creek.
(dvd) SUNY Purchase Choral Hall.
When I first saw this film, my expectations were just about as low as they possibly could’ve been, so I was pleasantly surprised that Wolf Creek is a definite cut above most of the other mainstream horror films clogging up the multiplexes like the greasy hairballs in the my drain. It’s built on the Texas Chain Saw Massacre template: some youths go to a remote area, they have vehicle trouble which leads to an uncomfortable meeting with their future killers, mayhem ensues. Cut to: and I alone lived to tell the tale.
The whole thing is done up in the John Stockwell School of Teen Demographic-Targeted Filmmaking with lots of semi-improvisational scenes, loose attractive cinematography and more laid-back patience than the material seems to deserve. It never rushes to get where it’s going – you don’t feel like you’re suffering through pointless set-up in order to “get to the good stuff.” It achieves this fairly uncommon feel by being highly attuned to the rhythms of cross country travel and inane college-kid chatter: the small dramas of the film play out with unforced ease and this contrast – between the “nothing is a matter of life and death” feel of the first half and knowing that it’s a horror film, so violence will eventually rear its head – slowly builds a very nice tension that’s all the more effective for not feeling manipulative.
Watching it a second time, however, I was more disappointed in the second half of the film, the part where mayhem ensues. That’s odd because ensuing mayhem is normally where a good horror film shines. But, unfortunately, John Jarrett’s portrayal of chuckling Outback madman Mick Taylor has more in common with Robert England’s Freddy Krueger than the genuinely disturbing clan from the original Chain Saw: Taylor is all out-sized affectation and sadistically funny one-liners. He’s an unstoppable, unflappable killing machine and a gregarious, magnetic host all in one – in essence, he becomes the “star” of the film and it ends up squandering the casual authenticity of the first half of the film. Not that I didn’t enjoy John Jarrett’s performance – it is entertaining - it just doesn’t sync up with the laid-back but creepy vibe of the first part.
Also once the killing starts, the film’s scare tactics become fairly predictable with folks wandering slowly into darkened rooms, villainous monologues being delivered to captive victims, and cars not starting when they need to. Once the film begins to feel more like a Hollywood movie than a home movie it never fully recovers. Sure, it’s never less than entertaining, but it also ends up feeling like a missed opportunity for something better.
(dvd) my apartment.
Since I don’t have tv or netflix, this blog is going to feature a lot more films I’ve already seen several times than either John’s or Pfriender’s 200 Movies Blog.* However, that should be counter-balanced by the fact that I see more new movies and things before they are released. Just get off my back, dad. Anyhoo, for years, this film was my favorite Fassbinder, but recently In a Year of 13 Moons and The Merchant of Four Seasons have been gaining in the polls. Even though I might not consider it the “best Fassbinder” anymore, I still believe it continues to be the “most Fassbinder” of his films I’ve seen: it’s like taking off the top of his head and looking down at the soupy mechanics of his brain.
All his most cherished complexes are spelled out their most explicitly here and a lot of the themes that run through his other work have an urgency here that feels very personal: this is a film not just about power, sex, and class, but Fassbinder’s own intimate fears related to power, sex, and class. I think it also tears apart the subject of an artist’s relationship to their art more vigorously than even Beware of a Holy Whore (which is one of my least favorite Fassbinder films and - this has been proven by science - also one of his most boring). Kurt Raab gives a memorably rancid performance as Walter Kranz, a poet with writer’s block who rationalizes his plagiarism by claiming to be the reincarnation of Stefan George.
Kranz is one of Fassbinder’s greatest messes: on the one hand, he’s self-deluded and dishonest; on the other hand, his work inspires devotion and accolades and is the sole means of support for his wretched family. He seems to believe in his art so violently because that’s all he has going for him: he’s otherwise fat, insecure, dishonest, mean and frequently very pathetic. Late in the film, when Margarit Cartensen’s school-teacher finally busts out of submission and reverses their positions, the look on Kranz’s face is genuinely heart-breaking. Also, the scene with his little mole-people parents is amazing and the moment when he finds out his wife has died is among my favorite moments in film history.
There’s an Artaud quote at the beginning of the film and I can never decide if it’s meant to be taken seriously or ironically: the gist is that savage peoples are fortunate because they live by their bellies and not their brains. The despair in Satansbraten is derived from a world in which everything is personified, in which everything exists in human terms. Kranz is a man who is driven (to extremes) by his most base desires, but who insists on recasting the world in grand, poetic terms. The reason the quote feels ironic is that everything he touches ends up feeling so base, animalistic and perverse: what’s the difference between living with your belly and fucking flies?
* Ha! Pfriender.
10.21. Marie Antoinette.
(35mm) City Cinema Village East.
Sophia Coppola’s first two films were about hard it is to be a princess and it’s nice that she’s at least being literal about it this time. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was genuinely surprised at how dumb this film actually is. I kinda don’t want to come down too hard on it because I like so many of the cast members (which is the only reason I saw it), but everyone here from Jason Schwartzman to Asia Argento to Judy Davis to Rip Torn to Steve Coogan has been better used and more likable elsewhere. Much, much more likable.
It’s funny to see it the same week as The Queen, which is also about the alienating effect of extreme affluence. I tried to imagine The Queen remade with the same stylistic tricks as Marie Antoinette: in that version of the film Helen Mirren and James Cromwell cavort around their luxurious estate wearing fancy clothes and eating decadent meals while early/mid-90’s hip-hop (think De La Soul, Wu-Tang and EPMD) blares on the soundtrack. Then suddenly, once it’s too late, Helen Mirren delivers her public statement, but the cruel, stupid, selfish public has no sympathy for this poor lady who’s just trying to figure things out.
Goddamn, I mean, really, boo-fucking-hoo Sophia Coppola, I know Marie was just a teenager and that it’s sometimes tough to follow the rules, but give me a fucking break – this film is about people so pampered, vacuous, self-centered and oblivious to the world around them that the annoyances of having someone dress you and the rigidity of following courtly manners while you eat your gigantic gourmet meals seem like oppressive, soul-crushing obstacles to happiness. Coppola has said that this movie really about what it’s like to be a teenager and I’m glad to see she that she’s so capable the channeling the shallow, narcissistic mindset of stuck-up rich kids who think they are better than everyone and can’t be bothered to control their spending or think about the world outside of themselves. I know when I was a teenager I wasn’t aware of anything even slightly political or concerned about anything other than what to wear. But at least I knew all about the coolest bands.
This movie also repeats a telling sequence from Lost in Translation: it has a couple scenes in which the supposedly likable (but trapped and tragic) princess is mean and condescending to a vulgar, dumb rival. In both cases, I found the ostensibly vulgar rival to be far, far more sympathetic and just plain likable than the spoiled baby at the heart of the story. Maybe it helps that the always lovable Anna Faris and Asia Argento were the ones pitted against the execrable Sco-Jo and frequently irritating Kirsten Dunst. What’s so shocking about these scenes is their apparently straight-forward, literal perspective: don’t you just hate uncool people? We’re meant to roll our eyes with Sco-Jo and Dunst at these losers. There’s no pay-off, no lesson learned, just a straight-up malicious mean-spiritedness. That’s some outrageous bullshit, so off with her fucking head. Why would anyone disagree?
The Science of Sleep.
(35mm) Brooklyn Academy of Music – that’s right, a double feature spanning two boroughs.
This was the second film in my self-antagonizing double feature, but I actually ended up really liking it. I didn’t like either of Gondry’s first two films at all and, pleasantly, this one all but eliminated the two sources of my displeasure: a loose, hip madcap feel (that is all early Richard Lester) replaces Charlie’s Kaufman boring, mannered, writer-ly script machinations and Jim Carrey’s emotionally retarded histrionics are replaced by the upbeat charms of Garcia Bernal’s lovable psychopath. I mean psychopath literally: Bernal is a man who is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality and this is a film about both the joys and dangers of an all-consuming imagination.
There are tons of great throw-away lines that seem like they must’ve been improvised and the whole thing has a free-form musical quality. I did find myself occasionally checking my watch, but only because the film is so loose and unstructured it was hard to locate myself within the narrative – to figure out how much time had passed while I was watching it and how much more there was to go. The little dream set-pieces were for the most part charming, which was a relief because they could’ve been so easily pseudo-charming. Pseudo-charm is to my mind the great problem of cinema: so many films have moments or sequences that hinge on being charming, a state which is in actuality very hard to achieve. For me, the other great charming moment of the year is Matt Damon picking up Vera Farmiga in the elevator in The Departed. Normally, you get a signifier there: you are to understand that what he is saying is unexpected and attractive to her, but you don’t really feel it yourself. You understand that the character is "being charming" without really being charmed yourself - for the sake of the plot mechanics, that's what needs to be happening, but you (and the rest of the audience) don't feel it. Think of virtually any romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock in it and you’ll get a good sense of what I mean.
Science of Sleep specializes in scenes where you are seduced by the innocent charms of Bernal’s uncontrollable imagination. It goes one step further and draws out the perverted, angry and regressive side of his imagination and that’s what really makes this film most interesting: it isn’t content to accept Bernal as a lovable, over-grown child. It looks at him as a man who can only relate to the world by transforming it into his own terms, a man who can only deal with relationships, parents, work when it is within the safe confines of his brain, totally under his control. The more reality encroaches, the less equipped he is to deal with it. The final scene has a startlingly grim quality, it is a snapshot of a man who is left with nothing once his seemingly endless charm has run out. What is there left for him to do but to retreat into fantasy?
10.22. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
(dvd) my apartment.
After the Eagles gut-punch loss (by an absurdly long 62-yard field goal), I went home and needed something to get my mind off the string of last second defeats through which Brian Dawkins and co. had recently suffered. What choice did I have but Harold and Kumar? The answer is none. To be serious (unfortunately) if art has any practical value, it is its transformative function. When executed correctly, it has the ability to affect my brain chemistry to a degree that it can, at very least, send me from the pit of meaningless despair to the heights of inconsequential euphoria and really if any movie ever made you want to stand up and cheer (other than Digstown) it is Harold and Kumar.
Honestly though, it’s funny and all that, but what movie is both this funny and as perceptive about racial politics, male friendship, and the true joys of fast food? This movie remind me of when I lived when John Cribbs in White Plains and we were destitute and working terrible jobs and dodging creditors and we would go to the Candlelight Inn at 2:00am or drive to the secret Pizza Hut that was almost an hour away.
Anyways, Kal Penn’s Kumar gets all the laugh lines, but I’m more partial to John Cho’s put-upon everyman who learns to stand up and seize what’s rightfully his. When you hate your job, don’t get the girl, don’t stand up to the bullies and just want that perfect snack that you can’t fucking get, you need a movie like this to remind you to tell the boss off, invite Maria to Curly Sue, steal the bullies’ car, and do whatever it takes to get to White Castle. I want that Harold, I want what they have: the feeling that comes with getting exactly what you desire. I used to be kind of bothered by the fact that they got 40 burgers each because even if I was really hungry I could probably only eat twenty of those. They’re pretty small, so maybe twenty-five. Anyway, that’s Hollywood for you.
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