1/21/7 - 1/30/7
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 Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de... to lesser films by great directors like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to idiotic dreck like A Night at the Museum. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 1/11/7 - 1/20/7>>
1.21. Dressed to Kill.
(dvd) my apartment.
In Brian DePalma's typically sinister, salacious and sanguine Dressed to Kill, when prostitute Nancy Allen witnesses a murder in an elevator, she teams up with the murdered woman's teenage son to track down the killer. You can see the ending coming from a mile away (or I did, at any rate), but that doesn't really matter when you're watching the film for the fourth or fifth time: instead, you can focus on how the ground-breaking steadi-cam work in the early scene at the museum creates a sense of tension while stalking the subjects through its subtle spatial disorientation. And then there's the great subway pursuit sequence which once again plays directly to DePalma's strengths – it's a perfect mixture of creepy, lurid characters/settings, forceful editing and evasive composition that causes you to crane your neck in a vain attempt to see around support columns and into subway cars. Also, Angie Dickson getting herpes from her one-stand is a quintessentially DePalma joke: our complicity with her carnal desire is defused with an unmistakable sardonic glee. Of course, it is DePalma, so cheesiness abounds, including Keith Gordon's nerdy teenage sleuth, Dennis Franz’s usual 'New Yorka' tough guy cop shtick, and a lame ending that doesn't come together nearly as well as several other set-pieces in the film.
I got up late, actually worked at work, and then I had dinner with Nicole Schaad, all of which conspired to prevent me from seeing a movie.
1.23. - 1.25. no movies.
What a shame.
1.26. Knife in the Water.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
Roman Polanski is, of course, a genius, but this is maybe the one film in the existence of cinema for which I would recommend watching the dvd over the 35mm print. Granted, the print looked gorgeous - it had a depth and texture with which digital media are under-equipped to compete but the translation! The translation failed to acknowledge about half of the little bits of throwaway dialog exchanged between the husband, wife, and the drifter they pick up; bits of dialog absolutely essential to charting the subtle shifts in dynamic amongst the trio. They were treated as throwaway lines by the translator and simply left out of the subtitles – no translation whatsoever was offered for about half of the dialog! Obviously, that renders the film so much less expressive and complicated, it’s like watching a widescreen movie in pan-and-scan or a b&w film colorized.
Anyway, the subtitles on Criterion's top-notch dvd release provide all the notes missing from the composition and even the old vhs copy I have features about double the amount of subtitling. See it in one of those versions or you may leave the theater perplexed as to why this is still considered among Polanski's greatest achievements – without those subtitles, you'll be left only with the painfully on-the-nose metaphors (such as the brewing storm just before the big climax or the boxing match on the radio that mirrors the competition between the husband and the drifter) and the confounding Christ symbolism (walking on water, crucifixion poses, the boat's name, etc.). Take my word for it, though: at no point has Polanski been more subtle and more perceptive in delineating the emotional power struggles lurking just below the surface of regular folks while they pretend nothing important is happening.
1.27. The Smartest Man in the World.
(dvd) at the Paris gymnasium while I rode an exercise bike. The 100th film in this project.
Errol Morris' great theme is self deception and this portrait of a surly bouncer with the highest recorded I.Q. in the world illustrates that theme as clearly and concisely as anywhere else in Morris' other brilliant work. The last episode ever aired of Morris' tv show "First Person," The Smartest Man in the World keeps with the series' basic method of letting its subjects speak for themselves. And bouncer Chris Langan has quite a bit to say about himself: he's been constantly misunderstood and underappreciated, he's way smarter than Darwin (who is "way down in the toilet" with an I.Q. of 130 or so), he's closer than anyone in history to holding the entire concept of the universe in his mind all at once and, for all these reasons, he should therefore be given control of running the world (along with a consortium of other "high I.Q." folks).
The film mainly ends up revealing how shockingly deluded he is: although he readily admits to having accomplished virtually nothing in his life, he doesn't see why some folks may possibly be skeptical of handing the reins of world domination over to him. He seems oblivious to how his stand-off-ish nature belies his years of abuse and a dysfunctional childhood. There's an utter disconnect between his supposed total comprehension of the universe and his inability to come to terms with his lot in life. It's probably not one of the two or three best episodes of the series, but only because Langan is such unpleasant company - perhaps too expressive of the theme of self-deception to which Morris obsessively returns.
* In 2008, I saw Langan on some gameshow (I think it was called "100 vs. 1") and he was a startling caricature of deferrence and humility. Maybe he was humbled by Morris' cutting portrait? More likely, it was all a condescending act put on for the studio audience...
(dvd) on the tv in my apartment.
"First Person" can be more or less divided into two categories: "films about self-deception" (as illustrated above in The Smartest Man in the World) and "films about heroes." Mr. Debt is emphatically a film about someone Morris considers a hero: debt lawyer Andrew Capoccia. Morris' voice pops up on the soundtrack in this film (the series' inaugural episode) much more than it will in future episodes and what he says is very revealing: he actually tells several funny stories about being out of work, deeply in debt, and relentlessly harassed by ruthless collection agencies. Enter the lawyer. Capoccia's entire specialty is taking on the corrupt and illegal practices of credit card companies who deliberately target people who they know will end up borrowing more than they can repay; people who will end up perpetually in debt and unable to make ends meet.
The episode is a bit startling not only because it is rare to hear Morris speak so often and so enthusiastically, but also because it highlights all the strange hiccups and twists in debt law. To a guy like me who has paid off his fair share of credit card bills and dodged his share of creditors, Capoccia does seem like a David taking on a Goliath: he's a guy who sees how individuals have neither the resources nor understanding to take on gigantic credit card companies in a legal arena, yet he knows those individuals frequently have the right to do so. He understands how one gets cowed by guilt ("did you not borrow the money, Mr. Morris!? Have you no shame?") into accepting outlandish and, often, illegal terms in dealing with one's debt. 26% interest?! Payment checks intentionally held and then processed after their due date, so that the card holder will incur late fees?! At any rate, Morris’'enthusiasm for his subject and the subject matter is infectious and you can't help but root for Capoccia to continue his taking down the evil giants.
1.28. Harvesting Me.
(dvd) on the train to Peekskill.
This strange episode of "First Person" feels somehow incomplete, like there's a piece missing. When I first saw it a year or so ago, I could see the ways in which it hinted at Morris' obsession with self-deception - and it's mirror, self-awareness - but this story of a man who set up one of the first webcam sites and proceeded to live his life "entirely in public" never quite came together for me. It felt uncharacteristically open-ended and unsatisfying, I couldn't get a read on the subject, Josh Harris, or what Morris made of him: he starts out arrogant and self-congratulatory about his hugely successful and profitable performance art project (at one point his website/company was worth $18 million), but by the end of the episode he's broken down, confused, and sort of pathetic. Morris rarely takes his subject through such an obvious and clichéd character arc. Also, Morris gives Harris only a small opportunity to explicate his idiosyncratic beliefs (which are mainly about pop culture - and irritatingly "Gilligan's Island"-centric) and that stuff is normally the bread and butter of a Morris film. What says "Errol Morris" more than a loopy artist expounding endlessly on the nature of reality and childhood fantasies turned into adult obsessions? But Morris barely lets his subject meander off on those weird tangents that are the hallmark of his work. I couldn't get a handle on it – the episode felt interesting, but incomplete.
Anyway, I was dicking around on the internet, looking up reviews and whatnot of the show recently and I found a tantalizing tidbit that explained my frustrations: Harvesting Me was intended as the first part of a two part series within the series. The first part featured Josh Harris talking about "We Live in Public" and the second part would be his live-in girlfriend's side of the story. Apparently, the show was cancelled before the second episode aired. I guess it was most likely never completed because why else wouldn't have they included it on the dvd? Anyway, once I get the guts worked up, I'm going to send an e-mail to Errol Morris' office and see if it was ever completed and if, please, please, please, I could see it. Otherwise, Harvesting Me will always just feel like exactly what it is: half an idea, an unfinished sentence and an incomplete thought.
1.29. WR: Mysteries of the Organism.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
A prime example of how a film can become painfully dated, it's not that Dusan Makavejev’s WR is a bad film, per se (and its heart really is in the right, loopy place); it's just that it's so hopelessly of its particular historical moment that its extremely idiosyncratic charms and insights are only visible through the distorting glass of early 70's alternative culture, darkly. Loosely divided into two halves, the film begins as a nonfiction documentary on cultural theorist and orgasm enthusiast Wilhelm Reich. The second half follows a fictive Wilhelm Reich disciple on her quest for World Revolution as well as her doomed love affair with a dreamy Russian figure skater. The film is a sloppy bouillabaisse of political monologues, goofy comic set pieces, hardcore pornography, street theater, nonfiction sections documenting a minor Warhol "superstar," performance art, musical interludes, scientific theory, protest art, historical biography and (kind of) tragic romance. The final shot is a decapitated head speaking from the mortician's table and that's hardly the strangest thing in the film. Sounds great, right?
The only real problem is that everything is rendered with an early 70's pop-Marxist flavor that never really draws together the tenuous connections between Vietnam, figure–skating, and the orgone. It all probably felt exactly "right" at the time, but I'm not sure the text itself carries all that much weight – certainly, there's too much here that's recognizably out of fashion for the mix to go down smoothly: not just the hairstyles and aforementioned pop-Marxism, but also embarrassing segments such as the one featuring a woman who makes plastic molds from real dicks and the recurring bit with the hippie dressed up like a soldier - it's all about as fresh and daring and crazee as a back issue of "Mad" magazine. However, Makavejev isn't an idiot by any standard and even when it leans heavily on cultural/conceptual refuse like "free love," it never is anything less than intelligent, playful and questioning. This balance of skepticism and humor is the film's strength – it never seems slavishly devoted to the outmoded concepts it vigorously engages. It refuses to take too solid a position on any of the ideas floating around in the stew; it picks up concepts, plays with them for a moment and then puts them back down. In that way, its primary virtue mirrors also its biggest flaw: you never know exactly what the hell it's getting at.
1.30. The Nanny Diaries.
(D5) at the Jacob Burns Film Center.
Oh, dear lord. Quick thinking executives, looking to get themselves some of that The Devil Wears Prada money, cash in with this cheap-looking misfire about an intelligent young woman who gets roped into being a nanny for a demanding Upper Westside bitch. You see, this young woman is a woman of substance – she has more on her mind than simply tending to the every whim of a cold-hearted, self-important monster in expensive shoes: she aspires to be a good person, a real person. Scarlett Johansson plays the role she was born to play as the young nanny who thinks she's so much better than the mildly irritating lot in life which she's been handed. Her vapid yet condescending gaze has never been more appropriately employed than here, where she is called on to suffer silently, to piss and moan about how tough things are while never demonstrating an ounce of what, exactly, makes her worthy of something more than verbal abuse and hissy fits from a spoiled brat. Laura Linney is utterly miscast in the Meryl Streep role: she's simply too warm and motherly an actress to pull off cold and self-absorbed – a word of advice, Laura Linney, leave the self-absorption to Sco-Jo.
Directed by the husband and wife team that made American Splendor, this film's painfully misguided meshing of fantasy and reality proves conclusively that I was correct in finding Splendor to be grossly overrated. There are a bunch of fantasy sequences that I guess are supposed to evoke some sense of whimsy – in reality, these sequences are neither clever nor suggestive: they're absurdly literal illustrations of Sco-Jo's purportedly rich inner life. For instance, when Linney all but forces Sco-Jo to become her nanny after a chance encounter in a park, Sco-Jo is suddenly besieged by hordes of nattily attired socialites clamoring for her nanny-ish services. What's the point? The bit of surrealism is neither funny nor smart – it's just an exaggerated repetition of the scene we just witnessed. The film follows that lobotomized formula in endless circles – why is it again that am I supposed to care that an upper-middle-class white girl has a mildly irritating job? Oh, right - because The Devil Wears Prada made boatloads of cash. Sorry if I forgot to give a shit.
Home Alone 3.
Inadvertent Scarlett Johansson double feature! Trust me there's no way I would've done this on purpose.
I suppose I did watch Home Alone3, so who am I to qualify anything I do?
(on television) Allen Cordell's apartment.
It's easy to make fun of a movie like the original Home Alone. Its cynically manipulative combination of Christmastime sentimentality, excessive slapstick violence, contrived plotting (complete with deus ex machina) and general cutesiness are easy (and deserving) targets for derision. However, when faced with something like Home Alone 3, it's impossible to not look back fondly at its progenitor with a certain amount of esteem for what the original did right. Home Alone’s elements actually come together the way they’re supposed to – sure, it may be a cynical trick orchestrated by soulless, money-grubbing Hollywood executives, but at least the trick works: the audience laughs when it's supposed to, says "awwww" when it's supposed to, gets sad, feels the poignancy, etc. I find it hard to believe that anyone who ever saw 3 enjoyed it on any level. Even the dubious "clever" violence is boring and underwhelming this time through. If you can’t laugh at a guy getting hit in the face with a shovel, what do you have really?
Sadly, 3 proves that it's possible to have an even more contrived plot than the first one, something about a microchip hidden in a remote controlled car and a gaggle of incompetent spies that want to get it back. This time, "Kevin" is actively trying to keep his family from coming home just so he has time to thwart the would-be robbers himself. It's all just an excuse for people to get covered in tar and hit in their spines with heavy objects, anyway, so the fact that the big pay-off (the spies attempting to break into the Home Alone-signature booby-trapped house) wheezes painfully into comedic futility makes suffering through the mawkish scenes of parent/child reconciliation and endless sequences of unsupervised antics truly pointless. Goddammit, how do you screw up the delightful combination of children and violence?! A very young Scarlett Johansson turns up as the older sister. She's slightly better in that role than she was in Scoop. Slightly.
<<click here for 1/31/7 - 2/9/7>>
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