4/21/7 - 4/30/7
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. This is the final installment.
<<click here for 4/11 - 4/20>>
4.21. The Short Life Jose Antonio Guitierrez.
(dvd) my apartment.
If there is anything interesting about this film at all (and I'm not sure there is), it's as a time capsule capturing a particular moment in the general argument between the mainstream progressive (blue) and conservative (red) camps. The story of the film is a mildly interesting human interest piece – a destitute immigrant from Central America comes to the US illegally, joins the Army and is killed during the American invasion/occupation of Iraq. No doubt, the filmmakers chose their subject, a man named Jose Antonio Guitierrez, not because there is something particularly unique or outstanding about him, but rather because his situation has a certain commonness. His journey is emblematic and therefore perfect to be wedged into the pre-existing schemata for the red vs. blue discourse.
Since this emblem is being presented through the "shitty documentary" medium, it is obviously being wielded by the blue camp. If it were appearing on Fox News or talk radio, we could assume it was being wielded by the red camp. We start with the underlying assumption on which both sides agree: soldiers are heroes.* Guitierrez is used to advance the blue ideas that a) immigrants deserve respect b) war is bad c) poor people are noble. Reds believe the opposite: immigrants are parasites, war is ultimately good, poor people deserve their fate. The film demands the reds respond: do you deny that soldiers are heroes? If you cannot deny that soldiers are heroic, then in light of Guitierrez how can you deny a), b), & c)? A) Heroes deserve respect. B) War is bad because it kills our heroes. C) Heroes are noble. The reds parry by reminding the blues of "underlying assumption #2:" a criminal is a criminal – and Guitierrez forfeited his rights to heroism by engaging in criminal activity such as illegal immigration. The blues forget about Guitierrez to search for another emblem to prove their point. Guitierrez remains dead and not particularly compelling.
* Within that idea, there is a further scale of heroism that ascends according to health status - with the "most dead" being the "most heroic." Soldiers with four limbs lost in battle are slightly less heroic than a dead soldier, a soldier with a mangled hand is somewhere in the middle of the scale, someone with a bit of shrapnel in their buttocks after a swift-boat attack is not very heroic at all, etc.
4.22. La Collectioneuse.
(dvd) my apartment.
All of the films in Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" cycle follow the same basic plot structure: a young man enjoys a brief flirtation but ultimately settles on another, idealized woman. The films stretch and contort this set-up to varying degrees; in the case of La Collectioneuse, we are barely introduced to the more idealized woman, while My Night at Maud's climaxes in a series of long scenes with the ideal lady. I like to think that there's a certain irony at work in these films, but it's really hard to tell. The basic thrust of the premise is a conflict between two fantasies: the fantasy of initial attraction and the fantasy of idealization. When we first meet someone and are attracted, it opens up a world of possibilities or at very least confirms the continued existence of this world of possibilities: sexual, emotional, intellectual, etc. This is a new person I want to get to know, they represent a new world outside of the one in which I currently exist. Or they're hot – Rohmer knows that it's more than significant enough to represent nothing beyond the possibility of a new pair of tits. The fantasy of the ideal is the inverse, a closing down of possibilities: this is the pair of tits I could spend my life with.
It's kind of hard not to put these sexually regressive terms on the subject because Rohmer has such an obvious conservative bent: the idealized women in his films are either blonde virgins or almost-entirely off-camera. Marriage is the institution emblematic of idealization and to be attracted to a new woman means forsaking the catholic space of matrimony. The flirtations are with divorcees, hyper-sexualized coquettes, or modern academic proto-feminists. In La Collectioneuse, the flirt in question is lithe young woman with no compunctions about taking on new lovers. She ends up sharing a beach house with the strapping, handsome middle-aged protagonist and an equally attractive middle-aged stoner. The film toys endlessly with the power structures of this triangle with the more experienced men falling prey to the young beauty's sexual wiles and then re-balancing the situation through intellectual dominance, emotional games, and sheer cruelty. They're incredible jerks to her at certain points in the film, but she plays along and often has the upper hand, so it's hard to feel too sorry for her. The film mainly seems to want to link her immaturity to their behavior: there is no way to engage a hot, young thing like that and not revert to being a petty, needy, child.
I'm writing, perhaps, a little too dismissively of film that I really think is good, but it's hard to avoid. I fear that Rohmer really doesn't have any problem with the idealization of the unseen other woman to whom the protagonist returns at the end of the film. It's easy to see the protagonist's conciliatory phone-call as anything other than a sensible gesture, but I'm not sure if Rohmer sees the protagonist as the source of his own problems or if Rohmer blames the outside woman: is avoiding coquettes the Moral Lesson he wants us to take away? On top of it, he seems to tip his hand by calling the film La Collectioneuse (in reference to the lovers that the young lady collects) – there's at least a hint of criticism of her sexuality. I'd like to think he's smarter than that, but this film is mainly valuable for a deft, winning, intelligent, and gorgeously-shot demonstration of the perpetual, ugly immaturities of young love.
My Night at Maud's.
(dvd) my apartment.
Ok, in the light of My Night at Maud's, it's virtually impossible to say that Rohmer always equates a specific behavior with a morality (in the way that the flirtation - that behavior - seems to the locus of blame in La Collectioneuse): the film's two middle-aged protagonists, a stylish divorcée and a mathematician with a Pascal fetish, are nothing if not sober, thoughtful and mature. Their flirtation doesn't render them childish or petty (and certainly not cruel), but the fact that Rohmer once again sends our boy off with the more conservative conception of the ideal woman seems to indicate that Rohmer really means to moralize – these six "Moral Tales" are like the anti-Decalogue. Once again, the film is elegant and intelligent, insightful and compassionate, but that still doesn't make me feel any better about the fact that the mathematician treats the divorcée like damaged goods. It doesn't help that I found his ideal lady to be punishingly boring and completely charmless: she's a glassy-eyed, blonde, Catholic school-girl with more virtue than personality. Am I really supposed to think, "good for him, he chose the right lady?" I'd like to think that Rohmer wants us to see the protagonist as somewhat unrealistic and silly – but the little coda at the end of the film has an unmistakable, "all's well that ends" vibe with only the faintest traces of melancholy. And even then, despite the wistful reflection of the scene, it's a sort of condescending, "that poor divorcée, she's damaged goods" tone that characterizes the melancholy.
But actually, I'm understating Rohmer’s greatest strength: his amazingly well-written characters. There's no way to totally dismiss the mathematician's attraction to the divorcée; she's just too well-crafted of an attractive character. Rohmer excels at the kind of characterization that I associated with the best of art: his characters exist in a universe beyond morality, the truth of human behavior takes precedence of above all other things. I'm not simply talking about psychological realism (although his films have that in spades), I'm talking about Rohmer's unwillingness to bend any of his characters to fit into whatever moral schemata in which he really believes. On that level, it's entirely possible to watch one of the "Moral Tales" and not have the faintest idea what lesson he wants to impart. Some might consider that bad filmmaking, but I think that this specific suspension of moral judgment is what redeems his films. You, as an audience, can judge these people however you'd like, but there's a world here that does no such thing and the machinations of the narrative eschew such traps of thought. It is easily possible to leave the theater identifying entirely with the divorcée or the collectioneuse, even if I think that Rohmer himself would prefer if you took up an entirely different meaning from the proceedings.
In that sense, Rohmer excels at creating complex and beautifully true ontologies: you can apply a Catholic point of view or a Marxist point of view to his films in the same way that you can apply a Catholic point of view or a Marxist point of view to the real world around us; but the worlds of his films are too real and even-handed to be submissive to any ideology. He builds this world of truth from his characters up and regardless of what they decide to do and what that means to Rohmer himself, it is entirely possible to come away with your own, entirely different moral lesson. In the case of My Night at Maud's, I am left most with that feeling of sleeping in a strange house and those fleeting moments of sudden, unexpected, inevitable attraction. It doesn't matter than I find the Catholic girl to be a bore because I understand that the mathematician choosing her is truthful. That's my contorted defense of an incorrigibly conservative filmmaker, at any rate.
4.23. Lady Chatterley.
(dvd) my apartment.
There is a certain type of literary adaptation which has a perversely antagonistic relationship to its source material. I don't mean those films that simply disregard their source, such as that species of Hollywood prestige film that frequently seems to be created by folks only glancingly familiar with the novel or play or (bluh) t.v. show upon which they are basing their Oscar-bait. Rather, there is a certain kind of adaptation bound deeply and passionately to its literary origin, but that for whatever reason feels compelled to resist and re-imagine the great work with which the filmmaker is so deeply concerned. This compulsion to "re-envision" a great work can have a variety of justifications, the most obvious and seemingly reasonable is the simple desire to make a work "more cinematic" – and the method for doing thus usually entails stream-lining the action, dispensing with secondary characters, externalizing internal ideas, turning monologue into dialog, pensiveness into action.
Alternatively, there's the compulsion to re-contextualize a work; frequently this means to re-examine an older source through the lens of a modern philosophy – to create a feminist take on Cyrano de Bergerac or a Marxist take on Hamlet, to apply psychological realism to a Picaresque or to place Dostoyevsky's characters in high school. The adaptor's resistance is frequently aligned along political or psychological lines and often takes a condescending tone: a modern adaptation of The Merchant of Venice that wants to salvage greatness from anti-Semitism or a new Battleship Potemkin without its Bolshevik sympathies. They are driven by the idea that a great work somehow needs to be corrected. Pascale Ferran's film of D.H. Lawrence's seminal novel follows this outline with somewhat grotesque, but also somewhat intriguing results. Although working from a novel notorious for its depiction of sexuality and generally regarded as a significant marking-post in the progress of a greater cultural sexual liberation, Ferran's adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover attempts to save the work from its sexually regressive attitudes. Based on the eyebrow-raising decisions Ferran and her screenwriter Roger Bohbot have made in their adaptation, the novel apparently did not go far enough in its decriminalization of carnality or its reverence for nature, earthiness and uninhibited animal desire.
But I don't think that the screenwriters have missed the point of the book altogether, it's that they wish the book had a different meaning. Granted, I'm clearly making the mistake of guessing a filmmaker's intentions, but I still don't think I'm speculating too much here – the first thing that tips their hand is which version of the novel they chose to adapt. Over the course of his lifetime, Lawrence wrote three wildly different versions of the Chatterley manuscript. The final version is the one most commonly regarded as the "real" version – although not without controversy: it was edited for decency and Lawrence acknowledged that he was trying to make his story more palatable to a wider audience with his different versions. However, at the end of the day, third manuscript is the book to which most anyone is referring when they say "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Ferran and Rohbot instead adapted the second version of the story, entitled John Thomas and Lady Jane. This version is notable for its overall softness – Lawrence's first tactic in trying to make his novel more palatable is to give it a happier ending and then next to take the edges off the characters, to make its characters less psychologically complex and the story's core problems social instead of moral or philosophical.
In this version, we have the tale of two lovers doomed by society – it's a melodrama in sense that the lovers are kept apart through plot contrivance and social pressure rather than any internal struggle: John Thomas and Lady Jane would fuck like bunnies if only "the man" weren't trying to bring them down.* So, this version sets a clear and simple dichotomy between the natural world (to which John Thomas, the grounds-keeper, is deeply connected) and the world of social mores. On the one side: carnal desire, the beauty of nature, the simplicity of animal desire, the joys of the body and the earth; on the other: strict mores, class divisions, money, power, human ruthlessness and jealousy. This version of the story has many elements that can be easily appropriated by several popular modern moral tendencies: the idea of psychologically "healthy" sex without shame, the green hippie-ish Earth-mother "ain't nature beautiful and pure" viewpoint, and the vague anti-capitalist sentiment that generally accompanies those other moral positions. If Lawrence were to publish that version of the story today, he would be derided by the literary establishment for over-loading his book with embarrassing banalities. Conversely, it would become a beloved hit after being featured as an "Oprah" book.
What makes this all feel like a rebellion against Lady Chatterley's Lover (the "real," third version of the novel) is the fact that Lawrence ultimately has a much more ambiguous viewpoint than what's presented in John Thomas and Lady Jane: sex is awesome, but it's also scary, dirty and dangerous. Part of why sex is awesome is that it's scary, dirty and dangerous. Fucking your brutish servant in the mud and then going home to your high-society life is hot because it's dirty and taboo. Lawrence's great discovery is "dirtiness" – I don't think it's an insult to say that he understood the psychology of "smut" better than any author before (and maybe even since.) That's part of what makes his books so uncomfortable to read: he's got to get down in the thick of smut or it just won't work – even though his intentions are never essentially pornographic, he has to muck around in that same swamp to find what he's after. Lady Chatterley's Lover is famous for using coarse language and rightly so: there's nothing more ridiculous than describing sex in florid language or academic terms; especially if your principal interest is just what makes something feel so dangerously drrrty (to quote xTina). If you're writing about fucking, you've got to say "fucking" - unfortunately, Ferran's film is the cinematic equivalent of an author describing a woman's "lady-parts blossoming like a rose." In the world of Ferran's film, sex is always beautiful, tender, passionate... but never filthy or raw – the failure of Lady Chatterley is that in the entirety of its excessive runtime, it ignores the one great discovery of the work upon which it is based: depraved, smut-stinkin' dirtiness.
*What's up with "the man" always trying to ruin our good time? I hate "the man."
4.24. The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
(dvd) my apartment.
A fine social realist drama, Ken Loach's heartfelt study of the Irish Republicans at the turn of the 20th Century is even-handed, attractively photographed, well-acted, intelligent, earnest and engaging. It is the type of film about which I have exactly nothing to say.
La Guerre Est Finie.
(dvd) my apartment.
Among the most accessible films Alain Resnais ever created, La Guerre Est Finie confirms his estimable capacity as both a stylist and a clear-eyed thinker. This movie is a confident cross between the downbeat political thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville and the technical experimentation of early Godard - think of it as Second Breathless. Yves Montand's exiled Spanish revolutionary agitates from France for the defeat of the Fascists, occasionally taking on daring covert missions within Spain itself - but he's been gone from his home country for so long that more people comment on his French accent when speaking in Spanish than vice versa. The plot loosely revolves around Montand's efforts to keep another undercover colleague from walking into a fatal set-up. Enthusiastic French radical Genevieve Bujold plays the wild-card in his efforts to navigate the treacherous terrain between Fascist police forces, Labor Union bureaucracy, and aggressive student revolutionaries.
Montand's character is a tragic hero worthy of Melville: he's dedicated his life to a losing cause and he no longer has anything driving him forward other than integrity and a Zen-like focus. But he's also a particularly Resnais creation as well: the man increasingly unable to separate his politics from his emotions. He doesn't have a good answer for his wife when she wants to know why he continues to put himself in danger (and risk leaving their daughter without a father) nor can he come to terms with the French students who demand violent, direct action – at what point did the struggle to defeat the Fascists in Spain become a fight that belongs to other people? What does he owe his homeland? What, exactly, is it that he continues to believe in? Resnais’ attempt to grapple with these complicated questions never becomes tedious or pretentious (a la Last Year at Marienbad) because he takes a page from the Cahiers critics Nouvelle Vague playbook and renders the proceedings in a fleet-footed, exhilarating style over-flowing with location photography, jump cuts, hand-held camera, and a general sense of youthful excitement. It doesn't hurt that Montand is as gloomily magnetic here as he is in his best work (like Wages of Fear, State of Seige or The Wide Blue Road) and that Bujold's performance is a tiny explosion of coquettish guile and steely-eyed intelligence.
Resnais is (rightly) considered a filmmaker bound to bouts of sheer cinematic obnoxiousness, a guy really capable of making phony, mannered films that are nothing more than hollow post-modern shell-games, so his pared down approach to this story is sort of a revelation – this film is as urgently human and sensitive Hiroshima Mon Amour and piercingly intelligent as Night and Fog. His filmography is littered with underappreciated obscurities (Muriel, Stavisky, Mon Oncle d'Amerique), but La Guerre Est Finie might be the most criminally underappreciated film he ever made.
4.25. Les Cousins.
(35mm) at the JBFC.
Now that I've seen his first three movies (and having previously seen at least fifteen of his other films), I will ask sincerely, for the last time: where on Earth did Chabrol's reputation as "the French Hitchcock" come from? Their interests, tactics, and styles have virtually nothing in common. Sure, there are some mild mommy issues present in Les Cousins and both directors have a tightly gripped approach to composition, camera movement and editing, but at no point am I reminded of Hitchcock when watching any of Chabrol's films. I thought that, perhaps, one of his first few movies bore the unmistakable stamp of cinema's second most irritating pseudo-genius,* but Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge (as well as the domestic drama, Les Bonnes Femmes) most certainly do not – their debt to Clouzot, however, is as clear as day. Above all, Chabrol is fascinated with the poisonous influence that human beings are able to exact on one another: the pet theme of Clouzot as well. And while Clouzot frequently operated in the more traditional mode – his thrillers are as entertainingly tense as anything Hitchcock ever produced – both Clouzot and Chabrol focus on character as much as technique: they are obsessed with the unease and fear that can be generated by peering closely at a depraved mind (a prop that's just as effective as a bomb in a briefcase).
Reuniting Chabrol with the principle cast of Le Beau Serge, this characteristically Chabrol-ian psychological thriller follows the archetypal Chabrol protagonist (a provincial almost deranged in his extreme ordinariness) studying law in the big city with his debauched cousin. The provincial law student immediately reminded me of Benoit Magimel's plumbing fixtures salesman from The Bridesmaid: in both instances, Chabrol sets you up to believe that these regular folks are going to be corrupted by a more apparently malignant influence (the debauched cousin in this one and a sultry weirdo bridesmaid in the other) only to reveal that the seemingly ordinary fellow has an unexpectedly large capacity for their own degeneracy. As I think about, a reoccurring theme in Chabrol's work is how the ostensibly malignant influence is never as crazy as the poor fellow they end up driving over the deep end: Isabelle Huppert's bitchy postal worker might be the catalyst for violence in La Ceremony, but Sandrine Bonnaire's monosyllabic maid is the one who's truly out of her fucking mind. Certainly, their condition is so intertwined that the distinction between one's encouragement and the other's initiative is so blurry as to be nonexistent. And so it goes in Les Cousins, Gerard Blaine seems like a nice guy dropped into a bad situation, but he's certainly the cause of escalation: in caddish Jean-Claude Brialy's world, wine might be spilled and hearts might be broken, but no guns would go off without his cousin.
* Surprise! I don't like Hitchcock! And Kubrick is in the #1 slot!
4.26. Le Beau Serge.
(16mm) JBFC. The 202nd film in this project. With a couple days left, I'm officially in "bonus high-tops" mode.
In Chabrol's feature debut, Brialy and Blaine invert their roles from Les Cousins: upon returning from Paris to his provincial hometown, the seemingly normal Brialy resumes his disquieting relationship with a childhood pal, played by Blaine (the titular handsome malcontent, Serge). As the first feature length film completed by any of the Cahiers du Cinema critics, The Handsome Serge (translated into English by me for maximum awkwardness) is generally considered the official start of the Nouvelle Vague, but it scarcely contains any of the hallmarks of cinema's most influential movement. Just about the only New Wave elements included are location shooting and young, unknown actors.
But, then again, Chabrol always existed on a different planet than his New Wave compatriots and, really, at no point in his career did he really specialize in characteristically "New Wave" films. His natural tendency towards subtlety eschewed the exhilarating stylistic pyrotechnics that vaulted Godard and Truffaut to art-stardom, his cool dissections of emotional interaction always more distanced than the deeply personal work of Rohmer or Truffaut, his political critique circumspect in comparison to Godard and Rivette's head-on assaults, even his most well-known early works are strangely out of step with the radical atmosphere of 60's French cinema. His filmography has very few grand failures and blind alleys, his worst work is most puzzling for its very similarity to his best work: it's almost impossible to say why L'Enfer and The Swindle don't work as well as Le Ceremony and Les Biches. Even the absolute worst of his films that I've seen, the Jennifer Beals dystopian-future suicide romp Club Extinction,* isn't miles away from his other work: its stylistic irregularity (the very un-Chabrolian choppy, MTV-style editing) seems to have been forced on the film by the producers as an after-thought.
In those respects, Le Beau Serge is a particularly strange way to kick-off the Cahiers folks' crazy rise to fame: a careful, slowly-unfolding delineation of the decaying psychological state of a seemingly nice fellow and the malignant forces that drive his moral rot. It's hardly one of Chabrol's most remarkable films, but it's interesting to see how close to being fully formed his thematic obsessions started out. Also, this movie shares one more over-lap with Les Cousins: their supposedly attractive female leads are both pretty homely. Plus, in the 50's, did French women just jump immediately into bed with dudes? Is that where the inexplicable stereotype about "French women" comes from? Movies like this? Anyway, the most memorable scene in the film is when Brialy's convalescent gets pathetically beaten up by handsome Serge outside of a dance (this film and Il Posto make me wish I lived in a time/place where quaint little drunken dances occurred in brightly-lit dancehalls). The scene is resonant because the motivations of both characters are so cloudy that you can't understand why they're fighting and relenting and apologizing and regretting and hating and fearing: it’'s a perfect little set-piece demonstrating the fucked-up emotional bonds at the heart of Chabrol's best work. It's a great scene - and you could easily imagine turning up in almost any one of his films.
*Although, I should mention that John assures me that Innocents with Dirty Hands is worse.
4.27. Away from Her.
(35mm) Museum of the Moving Image.
A prime example of the kind of film about which I have no real objection other than it is all coated with a certain veneer that makes it always feel like a movie. But what do I mean by that? To be clear, the film has many virtues: the performances are uniformly solid (especially Gordon Pinset as the man who looses his lovely wife, played by Julie Christie, to Alzheimer's), the photography is attractive, the script is intelligent, the themes are legitimately complex, the directing (by actress-turned-director and "World's Most Attractive Woman" candidate Sarah Polley) is deliberate and striking without ostentation. The film feels sincere: you don't doubt the motivations of everyone involved to simply make an intelligent, heartfelt, meaningful work of art.
But still, there's this veneer, this layer of artifice that prevents the film from ever achieving a feeling of authenticity. It's virtually impossible for me to tell what's generating this veil of "cinema" that prevents the film from being really anything other than "just a movie”" – is it the fault of the movie stars? Will the presence Julie Christie always make a movie feel like a "movie?" Is the production too attractive? Should it be grittier? More raw? Is the problem that it never really ignites and always moves a measured pace? That it never catches you off guard or throws you for a loop? Do I simply want more of something from the film? More complexity, more plot, more truth? I'm not sure any of those things are legitimate criticisms of the film, even if they explain the distancing veneer that kept me from really engaging this film on a personal level. Maybe it's just that I'm not the right audience for this sort of thing – perhaps when I'm older or lose someone I care about to a disease, it will come painfully alive for me. Whatever the problem may be, this completely solid, totally worthwhile film can never escape it.
4.28. Road House 2: Last Call.
(dvd) my apartment.
This film is the gold standard for highly dubious dtv sequels with a tenuous connection to the original. Even though none of the original cast or "creative" forces behind the seminal "so-bad-it's-good, but maybe it's actually just straight-up good" classic Patrick Swayze knuckle-duster have returned, the film still has a strange fidelity to and affection for the source material – it's like the exact opposite of those Disney dtv sequels like Peter Pan 2 that serve little function aside from lining that monstrous conglomerate's already over-flowing vaults* and diminishing the value of the original artwork. You get the sense that the filmmakers, above all star/co-writer Johnathan Schaech, really want to make a film as goofily badass as the genuinely idiosyncratic and entertaining 1989 sweat-fest. It's not just all in-joke nodding or simply a remake with lesser components in the machine (e.g. Will Patton is no Sam Elliot) – this thing is genuinely entertaining in its own right.
Schaech plays Patton's nephew, a loose-cannon DEA agent with a hard-on to take down the still-unknown creeps who offed family friend and legendary cooler, James Dalton (aka the Swayz). When a local drug-lord (played by Jake Busey) roughs up Patton (he wants to buy Patton's bar, The Black Swan, but Patton ain't selling to any no-good drug-dealin' sumbitch), Schaech turns in his badge and heads down to Louisiana to settle the score. And maybe find out, once and for all, who really killed Dalton. And then kill them. And then totally get it on with a hot, young Louisiana belle. And then kill Busey's Miami-based drug-runnin' boss. And then ride off into the sunset on a fan-boat, a beer in one hand and a tit in the other. Busey is perfectly suited for this type of cruddy action fare: he's a marginally talented actor with a barely containable load of manic screen presence who's never more entertaining than when barking orders at his henchmen whilst seated in a hot-tub with two topless, tattooed strumpets. He's not an actor: he's an over-actor; that special and valuable species best suited to thick-headed heavies with nothing more on their mind than consolidating their feeble amount of power, snorting lines off of strippers’ asses and escalating the level of violence directed at the hero.
His final showdown against Schaech at The Black Swan is actually a pretty decent bit of extended action filmmaking and one of the best bits of bare-knuckle action combat that I've seen in quite some time: there's no jumping through the air in super-slow-motion or flying around like they're in the Matrix; just two ripped dudes beating the absolute hell out of each other. Schaech, as the set of firing pistons that propels this cinematic locomotive, is a perfectly likable screen presence and his unintentionally smarmy demeanor is perfectly suited to a dtv vehicle – he's an heir to that lineage of genre stars that could never crack authentic leading man status because there's something fundamentally off about their persona: think of Laurence Tierney, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Leslie Nielsen, Ronald Reagan – guys just as likely to be cast as villains as heroes. Anyway, I don't want to give the impression that this film is as totally satisfying as the original, but it comes as close as a film that's made fifteen years later for what seems like a quarter of the budget could come. It makes me want to see director Scott Zielh's other dtv sequel of dubious purpose, Cruel Intentions 3.
* The Disney building has to contain a room that looks exactly like the one in which Scrooge McDuck did his money-swim backstroke, right?
(dvd) my apartment.
This film is probably the closest thing I have to a guilty pleasure. Bill Pullman plays a deeply neurotic private detective with a knack for solving difficult cases through the sheer quirkiness of his methods. Ben Stiller is his half-loyal, half-fed-up assistant and, you guessed it, we meet up with them just as they undertake the case that changes everything for our lonely, troubled hero. I can't recommend it to anyone in good conscience. But as a matter deeply-held ethics, I refuse to look down on any film and especially not one that I enjoy. I figure you have to take a stand in life for the things you believe in: some people oppose war or the death penalty; I declare a respect for Dude, Where's my Car beyond ironic detachment, post-modernist deconstruction or any other critical tactic used to mitigate a shameful affection for Sean William Scott and boner jokes.
However, despite that ego-defining ethos, even though I really enjoy Zero Effect, I have to admit that I don't think it's actually very good. When the big mopey-voiced guitar ballad comes in at the end just before the soft-focus "tender" sex scene, I always cringe. I mean for Christ's sakes, the lyrics start out "Now, I don't believe in an interventionist God."
[Allowing a pause for everyone to cringe].
The film has the typical Hollywood problem of being too outlandish to be really taken seriously, but too self-serious to completely avoid asking for its audience to do just that – it's a goofy, over-the-top comedy that all but abandons jokes in its final third in order grind through some sentimentality and awkward plot mechanics. The performances are utterly mismatched with Bill Pullman mugging and twitching his way through an SNL-level conception of physical comedy, Ben Stiller doing the tightly-wound, emotionally opaque journeyman work for which he is notorious and Kim Dickens floating through the proceedings with a laid-back, naturalistic ease. (Also, the back of her neck is distractingly hairy.) Oh yeah, Ryan O'Neal is in it too, so that's obviously one stiff, charmless jackass to add to the mix. The whole thing is filmed without imagination, like an hour-long tv drama. There's a lack of detail beyond the hyper-abundance of writer-ly notions like the OCD hero having 10 deadbolt locks on his door and drinking only Tab. Watching the film, you have no reason to think that the director ever did any other interesting work and you get the creeping suspicion that the writer probably spends a lot of time being pleased with his own cleverness.
But despite all that, there's something about this film that I like. I'm not certain, but I think what sparks it is Bill Pullman. Pullman is one of the odder leading men in the history of cinema. He's neither traditionally handsome like George Clooney nor everyman-ish in the way that made Tom Hanks and Ray Romano stars. He's not exactly funny, though there's something off-kilter and knowing about him that undercuts the sense of seriousness in his performances. He's got a certain presence, but Hollywood seems just as at a loss of how to employ it as I am to describe it: he pops up in everything – as a bedraggled detective in a nasty neo-noir (The Last Seduction), as the avant-saxophone wife-killer in a David Lynch film (Lost Highway), in winking a bit part in a perversely post-modernist art film (Dear Wendy), in a dour cameo in the prologue of an Americanized J-horror (The Grudge), as the friggin' President of the USA in a giant Hollywood blockbuster (Independence Day). You know something is up with an actor when he's cast as Ellen Denegeres' heterosexual love interest in a movie directed by the guy who played Michael Meyers in Halloween (i.e. Mr. Wrong). If there's any consistency in his career, it’s that he frequently gets cast in ill-conceived neo-noirs that are a failure with critics and audiences alike: in addition to Lost Highway he also appeared in Wim Wender's truly awful The End of Violence, John Dahl's disappointing You Kill Me, and, of course, Zero Effect.*
And that genuinely weird Bill Pullman presence is kind of necessary if there's any hope of these type of films coming together and actually working, too. In Zero Effect in particular, his unsteady, winking performance bridges the gap between the cheap sentimentality and the broad comedy: he's an actor capable of generating real pathos, but his knowing smirk lets the audience relax – we shouldn't be taking this so seriously, even if we are. He's like a drunken juggler: you're impressed that he can pull it off at all and, if he drops a ball or two, hey, that's amusing in and of itself. His strange rhythms allow the film to both make cheap jokes about a guy who eats nothing but tuna fish and also give some breathing space for the tenderness in the romantic subplot. At home, off the case, he's an amateur musician who stumbles around his high-rise apartment clad in boxer-shorts, a bathrobe and cowboy boots. When he belts out the opening words to his big mopey-voiced guitar ballad "let’s run away and get married!" I don't want to cringe, my eyes well up at the genuine goofy emotional intensity of it all. But most of the time I can't help but laugh. Just writing about it makes me feel a little guilty.
* These roles just narrowly edge the other Pullman specialty: the "smirking authority figure" of Independence Day, Brokedown Palace and Lake Placid.
(dvd) my apartment.
"He never beat me and he always ate whatever I cooked him, so I had to give him the benefit of the doubt."
There are few films to which I have as an acute, personal reaction as Miami Blues. I've often thought about just what it is exactly that I respond to in this film – because it's not that I necessarily think it's an exquisite work of art or that I have a literal identification with the lives and situations of the main characters. When I was in college, I had a fairly typical crisis of confidence in the direction my life was headed. I dropped out of college for a year, moved from Westchester New York down to New Orleans (near my parents) and worked pointless jobs as a copy editor and in a video store. The whole time I had a line from Miami Bluesstuck in my head, "I could have everything and anyything that I want, only I don't know what I want." When Alec Baldwin (the sociopathic as Freddie Frenger, Jr.) delivers the line, it's not a boast but a confession. There's an urgency and helplessness when he asks Jennifer Jason Leigh's slow-witted prostitute Pepper ("what's wrong with 'Susan Waggoner?'") to tell him about her dream of opening a Burger World franchise. Her excitement is touching as she explains that you have to hire a bunch of high school kids "so you can pay them nothing and then you watch them like a hawk or they will steal you blind." Frenger laughs off her enthusiasm. He calls it stupid. An icy void opens between them and the awkward silence falls into it like light into a black hole.
But the connection was there: I could have anything and everything that I want, only I don't know what I want. Tell me what you want. Tell me about Burger World. I want to believe that it's possible to want something. To know what you want. Anything. Freddie Frenger, Jr. is a character who cannot reconcile the arbitrariness of "doing," of work, of ambition and the fact that "doing," work and ambition are what define anyone. Why would anyone work at Burger World? Why would anyone go to film school? When Frenger steals Detective Hoke Mosely's gun and badge and starts pretending to be a cop your pulse picks up, he has a purpose, a drive – it's unique. It's psychotic. Sure, sometimes he breaks up crimes to steal from the criminals. Other times, he shoots a numbers-runner for no good goddamn reason. He stares down an armed robber in a convenience store, trying to talk him out of a life of crime, a jar of spaghetti sauce poised in his hand like a weapon. In a split second a truck smashes into him through the plate-glass window in the front store, the clerk tries to help him up and all he can do is moan "I'm a cop dammit, get this shit off of me."
At that point, there's no going back. He's not married to Susan. He's not a cop. All this clean living has made him complacent and making him think he's some kind of solid citizen when he's not. I always cringe when I here college students describe themselves as filmmakers. When I hear waiters describe themselves as actors. When I think to myself about how I should be really writing screenplays and directing movies starring Benoit Magimel, instead of writing movie reviews that no one reads. I sometimes wonder why I tell the Susie Waggoners of my life that their vinegar pie is delicious, one of their best.
4.29. Suzanne’s Career.
(dvd) my apartment.
The second of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," this one has a slightly different flavor than the other films. The basic structure is there (in director's own words, "While the narrator is looking for a woman, he meets another one, who occupies his affection until he finds the first woman again."), but the flirtation is wildly different as the two main characters never seem really interested in Suzanne and their flirtation is more condescending than anything else. Essentially, two university students spend a semester bankrupting this poor girl for no reason other than that they can. She clearly likes them and wants their company, so they take advantage of her.
As in several of the tales, the "first woman who is found again" exists mainly off-screen and we don't really get much sense of why she's preferable to Suzanne, but this film has an ironic coda that other films lack: Suzanne gets her revenge. She falls happily in love. The main characters immediately feel tinged with envy and nostalgic desire for her – which is sort of like the end of My Night at Maud's, only the complete opposite. The fact that Maud is alone and a little pathetic is what keys off the protagonist's the nostalgic desire in that film; which is more fucked up the more I think about it. Suzanne's revenge on the cads, however, is completely satisfying. Her ability to move on and general indifference to their assholery packs an ironic punch – the reversal of power and desire is deeply gratifying. At less than an hour long and awkwardly filmed in grainy black and white, it definitely feels like more of a sketch than the later films in the series, but that doesn't mean it will stay with you any less. Like the others, it's an intelligent, complexly constructed piece of work that you'll turn over and over in your mind – a film you'll feel compelled to examine from every possible angle.
(35mm) Landmark Sunshine. midnight madness.
There was a time when, for about year or so, I would say answer the question "what's your favorite movie?" with the one beautiful word: Gremlins. I had visited my parents down in New Orleans over the winter break of my Sophmore year in college and, in the midst of lounging endlessly on their couch, I caught the last thirty minutes of Joe Dante's masterpiece. I probably hadn't seen this fine film since middle school and the sheer perfection of its inventive insanity blew me away. Or at very least caused me to sit up on the couch – certainly, it caused a wide grin to break out across my face. What's striking about the climax of this film is how it takes its absurd idea beyond its logical extremes and offers up a live action cartoon of orgiastic debauchery: once the gremlins take over the town, they go beyond simply being nasty little monsters to lovably nasty little monsters. They're a perfect representation of everything that's charming and alluring about violence, heavy-drinking, cruelty, and conspicuous consumption – the film continuously blurs the line between the categories of "horrific" and "endearing" and the monsters' big drunken sing-along to Snow White is truly an amazing spectacle: of course the razor-toothed, candy-hoarding, slimy, goofy, mean-spirited, little guys love Disney movies! The movie captures something rarely elucidated about the unrestrained glee derived from shooting pool, playing practical jokes, blowing your money on crap and dancing with drunken dis-inhibition: the joyful violence of complete anarchy.
Dante pulls a neat trick by snapping us back from the large scale (the movie theater sing-along) to the small scale (the pursuit of Stripe through the department store) and suddenly restoring the menace to the critters. When the Stripe-headed leader of the gremlin horde avoids getting blown up in the movie theater because he's taken a moment to smash open a department store window (ah, the fun of smashing a window!) and dive in a pile of candy behind it (what kid doesn't want to dive into a pile of candy?), the film suddenly shifts gears and jerks the audience back in another direction: the scenes with horde play like a Three Stooges short, but the scenes with Stripe in the department store play like a slasher film. Stripe is disgusting and terrifying, a wicked reptilian beastie who skirts along the edge of the frame, popping up jaggedly to hiss and bite and claw at the small-town teenager in pursuit. When he shoots a cross-bow bolt into Billy's arm and lurches at him with a buzz-saw, you're genuinely terrified for the hapless kid's safety. The scenes are shot with a stylistic control and filmmaking intelligence that's gone completely out of style – the framings in this final sequence are carefully and cleverly constructed; it's like Haneke with slobbering baby demons. The deliberate construction of these moments have a military precision to their timing that allows Dante to retain the sense of anarchic humor that consumed the film only moments before; but now that sense of humor is used to sly, sardonic effect: who's laughing now? And that's the genius of this film: it gives equal, insistent weight to both the joy and menace of the gonzo profligateness of these creatures. So, then, for a year or so: the standard conversation:
"What do you study?"
"Oh really. So, what’s your favorite movie?"
And most people know the film so I got far fewer quizzical glances than I did from my previous answers to that question such as M ("I love Gwenyth Paltrow!" "Not Emma. M. It's a Fritz Lang movie." "What's it about?" "Um stuff.") or Weekend ("It's about a rich couple that wants to get away to the country for the weekend but ends up embroiled in a kind of anti-consumerist nightmare of traffic jams, rape, and Marxist guerilla groups.")
So, I bought a dvd and watched the gremlins take over town again and again – but it actually took me almost a year to watch the film from the beginning. And, ugh, I just wish the stuff with Mrs. Deagle didn't exist. I get that it's a spoof of both live-action Disney villains and the cold-hearted money-grubbing folks who made life hard for the George Baileys of Capra's universe. I get that it's a contribution to the goofy "family film" atmosphere that Dante set-ups specifically to subvert into something way too fucked-up for kids. I get that it pays off with her violent murder – a truly wicked joke played on the audience's expectations and desire for Deagle's ultimate comeuppance. It just is too much, though. I probably wouldn't even mind it all if they had just lost the facetious, leaden synthesizer score that accompanies her first few appearances. She's simply too much of a caricature and a witch (and the Wizard of Oz reference makes me groan every time). So, Mrs. Deagle's the reason Gremlins lost its status as Funderburg's Stock Answer to the question of "favorite movie?"
But, I still yield to no one in my love of this thing and when the Sunshine did a midnight screening, of course I was there. I had literally just moved to Queens the day of the screening, so I was completely exhausted and I probably would've skipped almost any other film. The screening had a good amount of folks, but I was hoping for a packed theater that would sing "hiiii-hooooo!" along with the gremlins when the dwarves headed off to work. That's probably for the best because I wouldn't have wanted the evening to end with someone jamming me into a microwave, heating it up and splattering my soupy guts all over the place.
4.30. Red Road.
Marcus Pinn's enthusiasm for this film convinced me to check it out – plus, its production had an interesting set-up, so it seemed like something I really should see even if I weren't all that interested: Dogme filmmakers Lone Scherfig (director of the better-than-they-have-any-right-to-be Italian for Beginners and Wilbur wants to Kill Himself) and Anders Thomas Jensen (writer of Open Hearts, Mifune, After the Wedding and The King is Alive) created a group of characters and then had three directors write scripts based around those characters. All three scripts would then be shot in Scotland with the same actors in each film in over-lapping roles. The idea is intriguing, but like the lesser Dogme movies with which the participating filmmakers are associated, the concept is more exciting than the final product – Red Road is a predictable melodrama without much to recommend it other than sturdy performances and a certain restless intensity.
The main character is a dour security officer who spends her days peering tiredly into a giant bank of monitors connected to cameras peppered throughout a mid-sized, grey city. The narrative drive of the story is kicked into gear when she unexpectedly spots some burly dude in one of the monitors: the plot is moved forward by the mystery of who this guy is and why she seems to be so overly concerned with him. But it's quickly established by the film that the burly dude is an ex-convict (out of jail early for good behavior) and that the security guard's husband and daughter died several years earlier. Hmm. I wonder where this could be going. I wonder, wonder, wonder. As she gets closer and closer to the ex-con (both physically, moving from monitors to parties to fucking, and emotionally, moving from silent contemplation to oblique confrontation to fucking) the machinations of the story become increasingly maudlin, culminating with several scenes of encounter-session truth-telling and downcast catharsis.
It's all very stereotypically unpleasant with some cinematic clichés like monitor-focused obsession and un-simulated naked erections thrown in for sport, but the film's over-reaching problem is its utterly flaccid construction: it's the exact inversion of a film like Cache, which has you constantly scouring the screen for any visual clue that will untangle the mystery and defuse the unbearable tension. This is a film that suffers from too much narrative information, most of it expository. It's funny: my boss saw this film and enjoyed it very much. However, he's hearing-impaired and was quick to point out that he could barely understand any of the dialog as it's delivered in thick, nearly impenetrable Scottish brogues – that is, he enjoyed the film because he missed out on all of the exposition. And that makes sense: this is the type of film with which you'll probably more engaged if you only half-pay attention.
While that's technically it for Funderburg - his 209th movie in 200 days - stay tuned for a special final installment of 200 DAYS AND 200 MOVIES...
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