2/20/7 - 3/1/7
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 Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the delightful experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 2/10 - 2/19>>
2.20. The Fallen Idol.
(dvd) half at the gym/ half on train to work.
Some people go nuts for this type of attractive, staid British thriller – for instance, director Carol Reed's most well-known film, The Third Man, inexplicably pops on more than one "Greatest Films of All Time!" list. Granted, Orson Welles’ cuckoo clock speech is fantastic and I yield to no one in my love of Joseph Cotton, but it's ultimately nothing more or less than a well-done spy programmer. Not that The Fallen Idol is even that kind of a thriller; despite its Graham Greene origins and embassy setting, it's not a political thriller in The Man Within or The Tenth Man or The Third Man mold. And despite its pint-sized protagonist it's also (unfortunately) not a Wayans comedy in the Little Man mold. The plot: a diplomat's extremely irritating son ingratiates himself into his butler's personal life, inadvertently becoming a pawn between the butler (Ralph Richardson, the best thing about the film) and his shrewish wife in their disintegrating marriage. When the butler's mistress is offed, only the little scamp knows the truth – did the butler's wife do it, as implied by the set-up?
If you can get into mysteries, then this film is perfectly ok. It relies a little too heavily on the boy being a fucking moron, but at least it sets up a character and propels the plot through his established behaviors rather than by the revelation of precariously placed clues or shocking reveals (though, Ralph Richardson’s butler is revealed to really be - get this! - already dead. spoiler alert). I guess I shouldn't harp too hard on the kid when the film is clearly most interested in the shifty butler; and there's plenty to like in both the conception of that character and in Richardson's performance. His speech at the zoo about putting down a potential rebellion in Africa is the first sign that something might be up and Richardson's subtle alternation between solemn condescension and absentmindedness is a pretty genius bit of characterization for how it both alters our perception of the character's truthfulness as well as its insights into how adults treat children (and how that treatment colors a child's understanding of the world). By the end of the film, the kid is supposed to have come of age through screwing up in just about every way possible, but the ending of the film lacks resonance because he's such a dullard throughout. Super: now this annoying idiot knows he's an annoying idiot.
(35mm) Film Forum.
I enjoy most of Sam Fuller's movies, although I'm not quite the convert that many hardened cinephiles are. Even his movies that I really enjoy certainly aren't masterpieces and all of his films suffer from large elements of goofiness – whether it be plots or dialogue or performances or music ("High Ridin' Woman with a Whip," anyone?), there's nothing that characterizes the work of Sam Fuller quite so much as a moment of unabashed, perseverant cheesiness. But that's a small trade-off to get the good stuff - the groan-inducing, hard-boiled language of The Naked Kiss doesn't reduce the sheer insane greatness of that opening sequence. And frequently, he straddles that line between sublime and silly to a great payoff: it's easy to imagine the gun condoms in The Big Red One being another bit of Fuller dubiousness, but once the crew begins wading onto the beach at Normandy, there's an undeniable poetry to the pathetically out-of-place nozzle protection.
White Dog is a sustained exercise in grade-A Fuller nuttiness and I can easily imagine someone walking out of the theater thinking it was the stupidest thing they'd ever seen in their life. When Kristy McNichol (of "Empty Nest" and Full Moon Junction fame) finds an injured German Shepherd and nurses it back to health, she thinks she's found the dog of her dreams until a series of viscous attacks and erratic behaviors convince her that the pooch is actually... a racist! She recruits a black dog trainer (who she meets at a place that trains animals for movies – "Use our panther - he knows every camera angle!") to help her deprogram the mutt; which has been trained to attack black people on sight.
Back when it was made in 1981, the movie stirred up an inexplicable controversy over its race-oriented subject matter (inexplicable because it couldn't be more clearly and plainly against racism) and was never really released by the studio that produced it. The reason the studio dumped the film seems not to be that the movie racially insensitive, but that it's so damned weird – it's an archetypal Fuller film in terms of tonal imbalance, stylistic over-confidence, and pure genius. There's a scene where an actress gets attacked on-set that's utterly brilliant, a scene of a black dude being pursued by the dog into a church is genuinely upsetting and Paul Winfield is dynamite as the dog trainer (his justifications for taking on the dog rehabilitation project are that typical Fuller combo of straight-faced and loopy). Morricone's score is maudlin, melodramatic, intense, bizarre and beautiful – just like a Fuller film.
2.21. No movie.
2.22. The Messengers.
(35mm) AMC Empire 25 in Times Square.
Not nearly as bad as I was expecting it to be. Still, not any good either. Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller? John Corbitt? God bless you, I hope you're happy. This is a movie about which there is nothing to be said: black-haired ghosts scuttle around the basement, crows attack people, and a crazed killer re-enacts the last fifteen minutes of The Frighteners. Apparently, the Pang Brothers directed some movies in Hong Kong that impressed Sam Raimi enough to have him import them to Hollywood to create this forgettable little nothing. And the great Paul Cooney loves their Bangkok Dangerous, so I can believe that they're probably capable of making interesting movies.
At any rate, this movie is the thinnest cut imaginable above all of the American J-horror garbage polluting American screens: it's never boring, even if it's never for a second memorable or original. Is anyone still afraid of grey-skinned moppets doing a herky-jerky dance across the ceiling? The mute toddler who can see the dead people gives a pretty dynamite performance (for a three year old) and the malcontented female lead (a pout-y teenager who got into drunk-driving trouble back in Chicago and nearly tore this family apart!) seems like she's destined to become an actual actress at some point in her life [I swear I wrote this before any of the Twlight shit went down! - christopher] – as a matter of fact, the performances were pretty good across the board. Not the goofy male love interest, though. He kind of sucked. See it or don't see it; you'll be the exact same person before and after leaving the theater. Actually, this is the type of film that genre enthusiasts are going to go nuts over 40 years from now: it's a perfect example of the genre and competently made with no frills and no deviation from the norms – it's like Robert Siodmak's The Killers or something.
I went bowling after work and then made an early evening of it.
2.24. The Lost Boys.
(vhs) at Megan Bennett’s apartment.
Ah, Timmy Capella, for what inexplicable reason was your rise to fame impeded? You deliver such a mesmerizing performance as the shirtless greasy dude with a ponytail playing the saxophone and dancing salaciously at the wild boardwalk show that I find it utterly inconceivable that the darkness of History has consumed any and all collective pop cultural awareness of your sweaty, cod-piece laden glory. The lesson to be learned is this: Jesus Christ, things that seem cool become super-lame, super-quick. There's a whole vibe surrounding this movie's hip, up-to-the-long-since-passed-minute approach to teenage vampires that it renders the film jaw-droppingly dated: did anyone ever think it was cool for Corey Haim's character to wear a "Born to Shop" t-shirt and have a big poster of Rob Lowe on his closet door? Is that just director Joel Schumacher's way of dropping a giggling series of references to gay culture on an unsuspecting public? What am I to make of Edward Hermann's flipped-up collar trench-coat and day-glo pink glasses? Is he supposed to be cool or lame? I, mean, it's freakin' Edward Hermann!
At any rate, Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric demonstrate pretty solidly why they were teen idols: good looks, a modicum of acting ability, zany hairstyles, a sense of PG-13 rated danger about them. I'm not sure what kind of vampire is served by having a curly mullet-sportin' Alex Winter in his posse, but, hey, that's Kiefer's business, not mine. Corey Feldman gives what's probably the worst performance of his career (and I include Rock and Roll High School Forever) while Dianne Wiest continues to make me wish she was my mom.* It's strange – is there any way for a film like this to exist as anything other than an artifact, an embarrassing record of jacket-styles since forgotten? The plot belongs to the vampire genre's venerable tradition of heavy-handed metaphors (a tale of a good kid brought over to the dark side by bad kids, drugs, Jamie Gertz, and dirt-bikes), but for all its emphasis on fantastic newness, there's absolutely nothing here that isn't simply an unadventurous retread of genre clichés. At the end of the day, you're left with nothing but mullets and Timmy Capella.
* Not in place of my current mom. I just think she'd make a good mom, that's all. I love you, mom!
I watched the Oscars, so sue me. The highlight was Errol Morris’ introductory film, followed by Will Ferrell's song. The Michael Mann montage was incredibly odd (was that Rocky IV?) and Eddie Murphy seems like a grade-A douchebag.
SPOILERS: just don’t read any of the Decalogue entries if you’re worried about having their endings spoiled.
2.26. Decalogue I: "I am the Lord your god, you shall have no other gods before me."
(dvd) at the gym while riding on exercise bike.
I knew that there was at least one episode I hadn't yet seen of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s multi-epsidoe ironic exploration of the Ten Commandments, so I decided to sit down and watch them in order over the course of a week or two. I'm glad I did because A) the films benefit greatly from being seen as a cohesive whole; there are small cameos and intertwinings of the films that add a lot to the experience that would be invisible if you watched each film in a vacuum; B) they're great films by any standard and the richness of their simplicity is easy to underestimate – they're even better than you remember them being, even if you remember the Decalogue itself to be among cinema's greatest achievements.
Unfortunately, it's frustrating to watch them and not know which commandment was being dramatized; there are no title cards on any of the films that say anything helpful like, say, "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me." Doing this blog gave me an excuse to research the Commandments more thoroughly and, I've got to say, if you don't know exactly what Commandment is being examined, there's a wealth of value you won't be able to access – this is true of episode I and especially true of episode II. This first episode draws a counterpoint between a man’s faith in logic, reason, and science and the fundamentally inexplicable nature of the world. Like almost all of the stories in the series, its description is parable simple: a computer scientist trusts his computer’s calculations that a pond is frozen enough to skate on, but the ice instead breaks and his son drowns.
On the one hand, the film could easily be taken as a simple cautionary tale: don't trust your machines above God or your son will drown - but the movie has more up its sleeve, both questioning why science and God must be in conflict, but also slyly suggesting that the scientist might be putting his son (not just science) above God and, therefore, ripe for some Old Testament retribution. These three notions are bounced back and forth off of each other in a simple but endlessly interesting counterpoint. The scientist/father gives a performance that feels initially awkward when the family man aspect is emphasized, but makes complete sense after we see him in the classroom. The child acting is uniformly great (there's a little girl with guinea pig that sticks out in my mind as much as any small character from the series), making the son's death felt all the more deeply. How do you separate God from the world he has created? Is the logic of science not the expression of God's language?
2.27. Decalogue II: "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain."
(dvd) on the train to work.
Yeah, blink and you'll miss it. "Do you swear to God?" "I swear." That minute exchange in the middle of a larger scene in the middle of one of the most complex plots in the series is the only direct, explicit reference to the Second Commandment.* The story follows a pregnant violin player whose husband is dying. He is not responsible for the pregnancy; he is infertile. This is her only chance to have a child. If he dies, she will keep it. If he lives, she will get an abortion. She needs to make a decision soon, so she consults his doctor – will he live or die? He assures her that her husband's case is hopeless. "Do you swear to God?" "I swear." The husband lives and it is revealed that the doctor's family was annihilated by a bomb during the war.
On the surface of things, that seems like a simple enough implication: the doctor lied - because of his past trauma he wanted the woman to have the child. But that's a fairly outrageous provocation: Kieslowski knows that in the scenario he has set up that to follow the Commandment means that the doctor will be speaking in favor of abortion! This is the first time that Kieslowski plays two of the commandments against each other: which one takes precedence in the conflict between though "shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not take the lord's name in vain?" But I should also mention that these films work entirely beyond their theological dimension – this film is as heart-breaking a human drama as you will ever see.
Also, the filmmaking is top notch: the scenes depicting the husband's illness-induced delirium (the walls of his hospital room begin to drip, sweat, and eventually pour water) are some of the only depictions of illness that have made me squirm with sense-memory recall: that is what it is like to be sick, feverish, hallucinating. So, is the doctor taking the lord’s name in vain by lying? Or is the notion of "in vain" impossible to pin down: would the doctor be taking the lord's name in vain by indirectly causing an abortion? Also, the three central performance are first-rate, idiosyncratic and textured and real – they're like something out of a Mike Leigh film.
* I should also mention here that Kieslowski is going by the Catholic version of the Ten, which threw me at first because I initially started out using the Protestant iteration. Did you know that the Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Islamic religions all work from the same text, but use different versions? I didn't until episode IIseemed totally unrelated to "You shall not make yourself an idol" and I did a little more research. After I thought about it, I realized Polish Catholics probably woouldn't be going by the abritrary iteration that the Southern Baptists use. Anyway, all of this could've been avoided, if Kieslowski just had a freakin' subtitle on each episode.
I've read a couple sources argue (notably Annette Insdorf's writing on the series) argue that no commandment correlates directly with any one film - but that's nonsense despite the cagey interviews Kieslowski gave to the contrary. Insdorf's analysis is bosltered by the fact that the commandment's don't line up clearly with any of the episodes, but she's working from the Judaical iteration of the Ten, which throws everything completely off. If you go from the Catholic version (which a Polish Catholic like Kieslowski would've obviously been using), there's so much more to be gained from every individual episode in the series - they do line up and quite clearly. (which co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz always maintianed that was the case).
2.28. Decalogue III: "Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy."
(dvd) my apartment.
I'm glad I decided to watch the entire Decalogue again because some of the episodes I can't imagine I would have ever pulled out for individual viewing and that's a shame. Case in point: Decalogue III, which I only saw at Lincoln Plaza way back in college when they were running new 35mm prints of the entire series. I hadn't bothered to revisit it on the dvd set - my memory of it from the theater was that I found it to be the weakest entry that I had seen, somewhat aimless and a little boring. In short, my feelings for it were negative. I'm glad I watched it again to correct that impression because while it is definitely the weakest of the first six episodes (the ones with which I'm most familiar), it's by no means an unworthy addition to the project. The low key vibe and muted emotional payoff of the story (it follows a man accompanying his former mistress on a search for her husband on Christmas Eve) are a nice breather in between the full-blown tragedy of episode I and the utter devastation to come in episodes IV-VI. Plus, watching them back to back, I spotted the small, touching cameo by the computer scientist from Part I which I otherwise would've never noticed.
As with all of the films, it's frustrating that the commandment isn't ever explicated in the film itself – but III is one of the more obvious illustrations: the dude leaves his wife and kids to go out with his mistress on Christmas Eve. This time, the irony of the film is philosophical, as opposed to dramatic – what does it mean to keep a Sabbath Holy? How do you separate one day from the rest of the week – can you keep the Sabbath holy, while rendering the other six days profane? The former mistress is the engine that drives the film and the neediness inherent in her deception and anger is one of the more subtle emotional portraits in the series. The unholiness inimical to her character is deeply sympathetic, especially in light of the film's big (and intentionally obvious) climatic revelation. Is this poisonous part of her, the lies she tells, the desperation behind her decisiveness, is it necessary for her to engage those poisonous things to ultimately leave them behind? Does she need to be sinful to become Holy? Also, I should mention the extremely upsetting scene at the drunk tank – it's a small, throwaway scene that's so characteristic of everything these films do right.
<<click here for 3/2 - 3/11/7>>
home about contact us featured writings years in review film productions
All rights reserved The Pink Smoke © 2009