1/31/7 - 2/9/7
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 all ten parts of Kieslowski's Decalogue to instantly forgettable Hollywood crap du jour like A Perfect Stranger to cult classics like Sam Fuller's White Dog. 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 1/21/7 - 1/30/7>>
1.31. Louvre City.
An engaging behind-the-scenes doc about the inner-workings of the small army of custodians, artists, bureaucrats, and museum-types that got the Louvre up and running again during its extensive renovations in the late 80's. From the same director as the highly regarded To Be and to Have, it's another heaping slice of kinda-direct cinema style observational reportage. There's significantly less human drama in this film than in To Be and to Have, but the whole thing is fascinating on a certain level: we're given an intriguing peek into a world that we probably hadn't realized existed. I don't know that there's all that much to say about it, other than it's neat to see the gears turning on the massive machine that keeps a boatload of the world's greatest artworks on view to the public. It makes a couple of stabs at humanizing the process and there's some dry "humor" that's probably more to your college-educated mom's taste, but that stuff really isn't the strength of the movie: the gigantic Louvre itself is by far the most interesting character in the film and the more tightly the film keeps its focus on the institutions miles of endless galleries, underground corridors, hidden passages, and treasure trove of artworks, the better off the film is. It's the type of film you would normally see on PBS. Nothing wrong with that.
2.1. In the Kingdom of the Unabomber.
(dvd) at the gym.
A fairly interesting subject: the story of an author who unsuccessfully courted the friendship of the Unabomber in order to obtain the exclusive rights to pen the Luddite terrorist's story. An episode of his "First Person," Errol Morris seems particularly intrigued by this story of a man who descended into the most pathetic depths of self-deception, but survived to tell the tale with clarity and humor. What kind of man befriends a monster like Theodore Kaczynski? Well, the struggling author in front of Morris' camera will tell you exactly what kind of man does such a thing. The moral/philosophical grey areas in the relationship between the writer and the bomber created in me a sense of deep unease – when the writer says "who doesn't hate strip malls?" I, too, was placed in the position of identifying with Kaczynski's callous logic.
At what station on the relentlessly linear path of Kaczynski's train of thought do I hop off? At the peaceful protest part? Or later on, in the realms of deep frustration and angry desire for direct action? How far would I go if I explicitly had something to gain from hearing out Ted's point of view and nodding along with his violent logic? Morris himself must know something about the strange attraction of amoral thinking: his graduate thesis on serial killers resulted in a friendship with Ed Gein, the ghoul of Plainfield Wisconsin (and the extremely loose inspiration for both Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It helps that our host on this journey is affable, intelligent and somewhat embarrassed by his association with Kaczynski. I wonder how he would've felt if the book deal hadn't fallen through.
2.2. You’re Soaking in It!.
(dvd) at the gym.
Probably not the worst episode of "First Person" (that distinction goes to the maddening, improbably boring The Little Grey Man), but certainly one of the weaker films, You're Soaking in It! never takes off the way it should. The "crime scene clean-up" specialist interviewed by Morris doesn't reveal the kind of rich inner life one expects Morris to draw out of his subjects. She's just a regular lady in an extremely unusual line of work – she could be your Aunt, if only for the fact that she disposes of decaying corpses, cockroach-infested detritus, and all manner of disgusting, bloody, vomit-inducing refuse left behind at the scene of the crime long after the police have gone. She doesn't think too hard about how the grisly scenes came to be (the police don't tell her what happened), but she also doesn't completely disassociate from her job: she has a personal connection to the clean-up as there was no comparable service available to her after her son committed suicide. That puts her in a kind of no-man's land for the series: she's neither a victim of her own self-deception, nor idiosyncratically heroic – she's just a lady going about her business with handful of cleansing foam in one hand and a fistful of clichés about God and family in the other.
2.3. Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion.
(35mm) Film Forum.
Imagine if Bernardo Bertolucci ever had the inclination to direct a sleazy giallo or Dario Argento suddenly got into politics and you get a bit of a sense of the lurid, politically charged tone of Investigation of a Citizen. The films has more than its fair share of kinky sex, half-naked models, sweaty misogynistic villains and razor-blade-centric violence, but all done in service of larger ideas about fascism and the nature of power. Gian Maria Volonte gives an iconic performance as an egomaniacal police inspector who commits a vicious murder knowing that he will never be taken seriously as a suspect. His performance bounces from one extreme to another: cocky and condescending amongst the other officers, sycophantic before his superiors, vulnerable, hateful and pathetic with the cruel women whose throat he decides to slit.
Ultimately, the film is a strange parable about the impotency of power and the identification of those on top with those on the bottom: the failings of Volonte's character are rendered painfully acute by the revolutionaries his fascist cop despises; those without power inspire in him fear, the fear masks itself as arrogance, the arrogance expresses itself as derision. The surreal climax of the film is a gripping revelation of his ultimate guilt and weakness, his worst fears made concrete in a fantasy of humiliation; a fantasy with which he can cope. In this way, the climatic scene mirrors the larger film: it's about Volonte's attempts to come to terms with his latent sense of humiliation and his fantasies of omniscient power. The Morricone score remains one of my all-time favorites and adds a strutting, sarcastic sense of humor to the proceedings. At the end of the day, it is a film about a man who is his own worst nightmare: a sneering authoritarian who's as helpless as a baby to control the world around him.
2.4. The ‘Burbs.
(dvd) in my tiny, claustrophobia-inducing apartment.
I'm under the false impression that this movie has some kind of a cult following because just by coincidence Eric Pfriender, John Cribbs and I all love it with a burning hot intensity rivaled only by our love of the Candlelight Inn. They're the two people with whom I most frequently discuss movies, so The 'Burbs and its greatness have been the subject of conversation on more than one occasion and, subsequently, I've developed the delusion that other folks, perhaps many other folks, believe this film to be one of cinema's greatest achievements. Right behind Gremlins. And The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In reality, I'm not sure I've ever encountered anyone else to whom it has occurred to think twice about The 'Burbs – sure, everybody seems to like the film, but it doesn't have the pathologically devoted following of cult members that it rightfully deserves.
To recap: it has no less than three of the greatest pratfalls of all time, three or four mind-blowing sight gags, an iconic career-defining performance by Tom Hanks (as far as I'm concerned), endless tomfoolery, a dark genre-bending plot, hordes of top flight character actors in dynamite supporting roles, one of the best climatic speeches ever delivered, a sort-of twist ending and a cameo by Dick Miller. Also, Nicky Katt turns up as Steve "Dean" Koontz. Or "Kuntz," depending on if you believe the credits. All this and a mid-80's fascination with pizza delivery - really, what more do you need, folks? If boring, contrived shit like Hedwig and the Angry Inch gets to have a cult following, I demand one be developed for this film! Let's get organized here - I want you start watching this movie at least once a month, recommend it persistently to everyone you know, get a picture of Bruce Dern as Rumsfeld tattooed on your forearm and start stalking Rick Ducommun. We can make it happen – the dream is alive!
2.5. Big Trouble in Little China.
(dvd) with Allen Cordell & Laurie Isabella, up in their apartment. Also, my dog was in attendance.Hey, remember when I still had a dog? Back when I hadn't made a series of dubious and life-altering decisions that I will have the opportunity to regret for years to come? I miss those days.
Anyway, there are movies that you like and think are really good and all that - and then there are movies that you identify with: I think that The Seven Samurai is probably the greatest film ever made, but I don't identify with it nearly as strongly as I do L'Eclisse or Naked. I wouldn't rate either of those films as "better" than Seven Samurai, they're just a closer reflection of my internal landscape. Even past that initial level of identification, there are movies that are so fundamentally connected to the inner core of your being that they are you, in some way. Big Trouble in Little China is one of those movies for me. It's connected to both my youthful love of patently weird adventure films (keyed off by an intense love for Temple of Doom at age five) as well as my adult identification with Jack Burton. At the end of the film, there is a moment I hadn't really noticed before and it's kind of hard to believe it exists in a big, dumb action movie designed for mainstream consumption and profit maximization. Jack Burton is contemplating his romantic future with intrepid attorney Gracie Law; he looks down at the ground and mutters to her apologetically, "It wouldn't work out. Sooner or later I rub everyone the wrong way." Granted, it's just a set-up for the following killer exchange:
Jack Burton turns to leave for the final time.
Margo Litzenberger: Aren't you even going to kiss her goodbye?
Jack Burton: [a pause followed by a wry smile] No.
He turns and heads to the door.
That's a great freakin' moment. But I never really paid too much attention to the set-up, though, Jack's half-sincere excuse: "It wouldn’t work out. Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way." There are few lines and line deliveries that have pained me as much on a personal level as that one did watching BTiLC this time through. So, there's a level on which Big Trouble in Little China isn't even a movie anymore. When I now watch it, it reveals something to me about myself – even in little throwaway lines that I never paid attention to.
I had a pretty awesome dinner with a beautiful young lady, so no movie. I guess that's a fair trade-off.
(dvd) at my apartment.
Carlos Reygada's assistant director made this film when he was just 26 years old and I am extremely depressed to report that it is pretty mind-blowing and at least as good as Battle in Heaven and Japon. I'm 27 now and the movie I made when I was 25 is not nearly as good as this desperate, long-take exercise in spiritual decay and ambiguous redemption. The plot sounds vaguely similar to Battle in Heaven in that it revolves loosely around a botched kidnapping and two revolting Mexicans having graphic sex, but while the Reygada comparisons are inevitable, it has a directorial stamp all its own. The final scene in the trash dump is one of the best sequences I've seen recently – it has a grubby sense of transcendence that's repulsive and beautiful at the same time. Really, the whole movie could be described in the same way: it is profoundly in touch with the pock-marked, greasy corporeal elements of reality, but it has a simmering sense of God that slowly begins to build underneath the garbage, but never totally bursts forth despite the best efforts of its hapless, inarticulate characters.
As with Reygada, director Amat Escalante uses non-actors in all of the main roles and the performances are used to similar effect: the actor's lack of affectation is frequently eerie or opaque, but it ends up being revealingly expressive at crucial moments - such as when the main character's wife freaks out about a perceived infidelity after he consoles a co-worker. The wife deserves some kind of non-actor award for the way she shifts seamlessly between harpy-ish jealousy and inexplicable carnal lust for her decidedly unattractive husband. She never has too much depth, but her two-note performance has a compelling conviction and off-kilter insanity that it's hard to imagine a trained actor achieving. The appearance of the main character's drug-addicted daughter (from another marriage) sends the film off on an unexpected tangent and the daughter's performance was just about the only thing that didn't work for me: her scenes with her dad don't really work, but even that lack of actor-ly connection is used well by Escalante – the father's estrangement from his offspring is palpable and pathetic, which makes his attempts to redeem himself all the more compelling. Anyway, it doesn't have an American distributor yet, so I hope somebody like Tartan or IFC First Take takes a chance on it and picks it up, even if just for dvd release.
2.8. & 2.9. The Big Lebowski.
(dvd) at the gym, spread out over two exercise bike-intensive sessions. I'm extremely masculine.
Of course, everybody loves this film now (myself included). But I can distinctly remember having a different reaction when I saw it for the first time in theaters: it was the film that soured my love of the Coen Brothers. Every burgeoning cineaste is naturally attracted to the work of those indie stalwarts: their films are accessible, unique and over-flowing with an abundance of style that relentlessly draws attention to itself. Their movies are readily, identifiably different than regular mainstream movies while still being essentially just entertainments: a perfect entry point into the world of film beyond Predator and Schindler's List. As you get a more refined sense of cinema, their charms become increasingly thin: they definitely don't have much on their mind other than joking around. Their films are elaborate, defiantly self-contained, utterly pointless narrative contraptions. They are thrilling at first glance, but increasingly tiresome the more you look at them: they make toys that are designed to amuse and then be discarded. But
The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the two movies that changed my life. It was the first real, genuine, honest-to-god, out-of-the-mainstream Film I ever saw. I had never seen anything like it (not having heard of Preston Sturges or Meet John Doe or any of the other countless sources from which it endlessly quotes) and, quite frankly, it blew my mind. I was fourteen, so sue me. For the next few years, certainly up through Fargo, I was on that level with their films in which I more than identified with them (they were me). In between the release of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, that began to change: for one, I was now familiar enough with the history of cinema that empty-headed genre enthusiasts like the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino didn't seem particularly original or exciting – they were the simply the latest in a long line of similar-minded filmmakers; they had their genre, not sui generis. Perspective revealed them as insignificant tributaries in the gigantic river of cinema. It's hard to see The Seven Samurai or Wages of Fear and continue feeling like Pulp Fiction is brilliant. It's even harder to find the Coen Brothers’ brand of genre-bending truly strange and ground-breaking after you’ve seen Tetsuo or Phenomena or Sweet Movie.
Plus, I began to read reviews of their work that accused it of being mean-spirited, condescending, and (most surprisingly) racist. They were accused of being smirking assholes, content to live in their world of ostentatious stylistics, acidic in their contempt for things like emotion, drama, and thoughtfulness. That view of their work caught me off guard at first. But by the time The Big Lebowski rolled around, I was fairly disenchanted with the way in which they spit on artists like William Faulkner and Clifford Odets in Barton Fink, the way cackled endlessly at the Midwestern accents in Fargo, their obvious smirking affection for stereotypes in Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and, above all, the genuinely offensive passages about "negroes" cut out of The Hudsucker Proxy (but still present in the published screenplay).
Then came Lebowski. When I saw it, I thought that it was by far their most mean-spirited film, full of ridiculous characters that existed only to be caricatured and ridiculed. Its incomprehensible, clearly beside-the-point plot felt like a disingenuous cop-out; yet another excuse to take shots at much-abused targets like ex-hippies and performance artists. Its Western trappings were an intentional, smirking slap-in-the-face to the conceptual cornerstones of that genre: nobility, duty, and honor. It felt cynical and smug. It was too clever for its own good. It felt genuinely hateful, at times.
In retrospect, I can see that my reaction was just the process of disassociation: the Coen Brothers' films certainly aren't me, anymore – I don't even identify with them (is there a whole generation of youngsters currently entering the dark night of their souls as they struggle to justify shit like The Ladykillers?) I genuinely like Raising Arizona and all of their films still have their moments, but I just can't share their self-satisfied, condescending approach to cinema. So, what about The Big Lebowski? Didn't I start this endless essay by saying I love that film? Yes. It is extremely funny. It took me a long time to come around, but the jokes in it are just classic and so many scenes are just brilliant little masterpieces of dialog and performance. I still think all of the Maude Lebowski stuff is stupid and unfunny and thinking about the plot is pretty tiresome; but overall, there's a lot of high-larious stuff in it. But, again, don't mistake this for an actual good movie: it's just a puffed up timewaster; a giggle of self-satisfied, childish virtuosity.
<<click here for 2/10 - 2/19>>
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