12/2/6 - 12/11/6

christopher funderburg

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 Haxan 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 grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.

<<click here for 11/22/6 - 12/1/6>>

12.2. The Fountain.

(35mm) The Angelika.

The worst. Don't watch it.

Ok. I'll explain my opinion somewhat here. The Fountain is not a regular critically-maligned snoozefest: it's the rare kind of movie that for some reason springs up partisans in its defense, folks who seems to have their fanatical devotion to the film driven by the all of the negativity surrounding it. The shooting set-backs and budgets cuts, the cast changes, the booing at the Venice Film Festival, the studio's lack of confidence in the project, the frequently terrible reviews: these elements are what seem to drive the fervor in those who would come to the defense of Darren Aronofsky's recent debacle. And, to an extent, I can understand that fervor. This is seemingly a film with lofty aspirations, a work imbued with a visionary's ambitiousness to surpass the normal scope of commercial cinema. Plus, it's a science fiction film and that genre has a fanbase notorious for passionately advocating films that ultimately aren't worth the trouble (i.e. Blade Runner, Star Wars, V for Vendetta, even the fucking Lake House).

Ok, so my reaction to The Fountain was that it was boring, stupid, clichιd, terribly acted, poorly written, dimly lit, un-inventively staged, both obvious and muddled in its philosophy, histrionic, lame, guilty of having a slack narrative that manufactures cosmic coincidences that are neither interesting nor profound, pretentious and basically just embarrassing on most levels. But can I try to see the film from the partisan's perspective? Possibly – but I don't buy it. The partisan's argument rests on the idea that this film is either mind-expanding or deeply original and, really, it probably needs to be both to be either. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much of an original vision, visually or philosophically. It borrows a plot structure that has been used plenty of times, in works from Orlando to  Alain Resnais's  Je T'aime, Je T'aime to Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra – in particular, the Spanish elements immediately bring to mind Fuentes' sprawling masterpiece. If someone were to claim The Fountain is a rip-off of Terra Nostra, you couldn't convincingly argue against them. It steals visual cues from such well-known sci-fi sources as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Little Prince and Princess Mononoke, it even cribs the most striking imagery from Saturday afternoon tv staples like Troll and Creepshow. If you're going to stake your claim to originality, your most memorable images shouldn't be readily identifiable with other films.

Its philosophy is paper-thin and all of the visual analogies that Aronofsky can draw between brain tumors, tree branches, and supernovas don't make up for the simplistic take on love and death. Worse still: as a love story, it falls totally flat. If you claim to have felt the slightest emotional reaction to Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz's undercooked bathtub make-outs, then you are a liar. Or so easily manipulated that the shameless chestnut of "young love interrupted by early death" shamefully works on you. Isn't The Fountain just Dying Young or Sweet November, but with Hugh Jackman floating in a tree for what seems like 2 and a half hours? I'm being too thoughtful here: the movie is fucking retarded. How many times do I need to see Hugh Jackman's frustrated doctor throw everything off of his desk in a rage or hear Rachel Weisz ask him to come outside into the snow? Apparently, Darren Aronofsky thinks the answer to those questions is "thirty times or so." It takes itself so fucking seriously and does nothing to justify it. I never thought that in my life I would have to suffer through two movies where at least 50 minutes of screen-time is spent watching characters sitting in trees, doing nothing - but oh no, The Fountain and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers have to exist. I never thought I would come out of a film and immediately think, "wow, that makes Steven Soderbergh's Solaris seem ok." I guess, in that way, the film did expand my mind.


Happy Feet.

(35mm) City Cinemas 1-2-3 (on 59th St. and 3rd Ave.)

I was willing to give the great George Miller the benefit of the doubt – we all owe him for bringing Mad Max into the world. Plus, he directed the best segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie and his Babe: Pig in the City was pretty great (if too disturbing for kids). So, I was willing to hear him out with Happy Feet, the first film he'd made in 8 years. I had heard he'd left the film industry to go back to being a doctor, but it seems more likely that he was just struggling to get Fury Road off the ground and then going through the lengthy process of creating a highly detailed CGI film. And Happy Feet does have a good amount of detail: the animals featured in the film have an essential animality that is a bit surprising. Unlike most CGI feature, they're not cartoonish and don't move like little weird-looking human beings. The penguins move like penguins, even when they are executing Savion Glover-inspiring dance moves.

Actually, even though they're the focus of the film's advertising, the dance moves are by far the worst thing about the film – for the first hour, the film is CGI penguin version of Moulin Rouge and that's as excruciating as it sounds. I saw it with John Cribbs and we almost walked out; who needs to hear an ultra-vanilla mangling of Queen's "Somebody to Love" accompanied by standard MTV hip-hop dance flailings? It's all the worse that the songs and dances are performed semi-photorealistic birds. But, late in the film, the narrative takes a twist – the main character declares, "no more singing" and the plot becomes almost unbelievably dark. Scenes late in the film run the gamut from terrifying set-pieces to depressing moments of individual failure to depictions of slow, wheezing asphyxiation to disturbing mental breakdowns. I'm not exaggerating: because of the film's immense success, it's very easy to imagine an entire generation of kids totally scarred by Happy Feet's relentlessly grim second half. Sure, it all comes around to a happy ending, but there's much more Black Sunday here than Good Friday. Happy Feet may often be cloying and annoying; but it's ultimately a one-of-kind, strangely exhilarating film experience.



No film today. In my defense, however, I did spend the day with a beautiful woman. And Eric Pfriender. Eric is a pretty good-looking dude, too.


12.4. Avenue Montaigne.

(35mm) JBFC tech screening.

Seeing a film like this reminds me of Bunuel's remark, "I would rather burn a museum to the ground than create another artwork of my own." You will want to burn this film to cinders. Avenue Montaigneis an exceptionally unremarkable film – every element of it could be perfectly described as mediocre: there are no obvious structural problems, no loose ends, nothing too over the top to be embarrassing or too needlessly contemplative to be boring. It is a story of intersecting lives on the titular street, Paris' version of Broadway, and it carefully lays out its plot, draws its character diligently, takes no stylistic risks, and achieves exactly nothing. It's funny because mediocre scripts invariably have the effect of making their characters seem like shallow human beings – they aren't cartoonish (as in an out-and-out bad script) or thinly-drawn (as in a script unconcerned with characterization); instead their characters simply seem like believably shallow people. And in a film with a sprawling sub-Altman narrative design, there is room for piles upon piles of shallow, yawn-inducing characters.

Clearly, the filmmakers don't want you to have this reaction, it is a mistake in the design of the film (that is, Avenue Montaigne is not thematically concerned with the concept of "shallowness"). It's the type of artwork that has absolutely no value but that will without a doubt achieve some measure of financial success because folks seem to have an unquenchable desire for stereotypical emotional conflicts, unimaginative staging/camerawork/all-around aesthetics, stock characters and tidy resolutions. It's not even bad enough to be worth considering and I wouldn't tell you to avoid it at all costs (like Marie Antoinette or The Fountain) - it's pleasant enough diversion, I suppose, no more or less worthwhile than reading a magazine or staring off into space while eating Doritos. And that's the kind of art that cannot justify its existence, the kind of artwork that without qualm I would advocate utterly destroying, burning to cinders, erasing all trace of from the face of the planet.



(35mm) in the small theater at the JBFC.

This film can best be described as a "curio": the first art film from director Stuart Gordon (best known for Re-Animator and From Beyond), a screenplay by David Mamet based on a dimly remembered play he wrote two decades ago, tons of well-known actors in a film that managed to generate zero publicity, an over-the-top provocation on matters of race and sex, and a striking lead performance by William H. Macy playing against type as a hateful yuppie. Everything about this film feels like it has long-since reached its sell-by date. For instance, the cast all peaked at least five years ago: William H. Macy, Denise Richards, Mena Suarvi, Julia Styles? Debi Mazar? George Wendt?!? Even if he has been cranking out more or less enjoyable straight to video material at a consistent pace, Stuart Gordon hasn't had much prominence since at least 1989 (when he wrote Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!) and David Mamet's play-writing mannerisms are openly the object of mockery at this point. Plus, the "angry white man who won’t take it anymore" story-line has become a genre unto itself at this point. It all just feels too stale for the film to possibly overcome it.

That said, there's a lot of interesting stuff here and when it clicks, it clicks pretty damn well. It's another long night of the soul movie, this particular trip through hell brought on by a trip to a fortune teller, with all the same Tarot Cards that are in every scene with a fortune teller ("The Hierophant!" and "The Ace of Swords!" Oh No!). William H. Macy leaves his wife, heads out into the night to get laid and ends up involved in all manner of trouble from muggings to prostitution to murder. A particularly nasty streak of racial anxiety underlines the grotesque narrative and Macy and co. are prone to frequent outbursts about "the niggers" and such. There's also a heapin' helpin' of sexual anxiety that basically drives the plot (and ties in nicely with the racial material) and Macy's overt misogyny is pretty fucking relentless.

The ironies of the final third are way too pat, but I found the final scene to be strangely touching. Macy shares the scene with Bokeem Woodbine and their rapport as actors is perfect – their ease with Mamet's unwieldy material is matched in the film only by an earlier scene featuring two old Mamet pros, Macy and Joe Mantegna. Woodbine and Macy manage to create something more emotional than you might expect and it unintentionally has the effect of highlighting the emotional flatness of the rest of the film. Sure, Macy is good throughout the film, but his co-stars are often not up to the task (I'm looking at you Rebecca Pidgeon and Denise Richards).

Still Gordon acquits himself admirably and his background with Mamet's work shows through – he directed the first ever staging of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" back in the 70's. In a strange way, Gordon's natural proclivities are a perfect match for Mamet: bombastic, brutal and more than a little bit cartoon-ish. I'm interested to see what else Gordon can do with straight drama (as opposed to, say, a script about space truckers), but ultimately Edmond is a weird little artifact that seems to serve no particular purpose for an audience that no longer exists.


The Bridesmaid.

(35mm) also in the small theater at the JBFC.

It's getting close enough to the end of the year where I know most of what I'm going to write about in my "Year in Review" shit – for instance, I know I'm going to be writing about The Bridesmaid as one of my favorite films of the year... so do I write about it now and re-copy what I have into the "Year in Review" or do I write something different for each one? I guess this little dialogue with myself settles it: I'm writing something different for each. I had seen The Bridesmaid over the summer and really liked it then, so I decided to bring it to the JBFC and do a "Reel Talk" after it. "Reel Talks" are the fucking oh-so-clever name we give to post-film discussions led by the staff. "The staff" at this point means either me or Vicente Rodriguez Ortega. Vicente writes for on-line publications like "Reverse Shot" and "Senses of Cinema." I write an obsessive daily blog. You decide who has more dignity.

Anyway, we're doing our normal December series right now, "Catching Up," where we highlight the worthy films that we didn't play here at the JBFC for whatever reason. It's always a nice excuse for me to get another chance to see some of my favorite films from the year one more time on the big screen – I'm going to catch A Scanner Darkly tonight (Tuesday) and Army of Shadows next week. I'll also planning on going to Changing Times, The Proposition and The House of Sand, none of which I've seen. The talk after The Bridesmaid went pretty well, but I should've predicted that since it's a convoluted thriller most of the discussion would focus on the machinations of the plot. Personally, I would've rather talked mostly about Benoit Magimel's extremely strange performance or Chabrol's use of model/actress Laura Smet and his hatred of upper-class people. As any one who goes a lot of them on any regular basis knows, the worst part of any Q&A is always where the audience gets to ask questions. And "Reel Talks" are just one long session of audience questions. Still, there are always enough bright people in the audience to justify it and I like being the center of attention in an (semi-) intellectual setting (as I am an intellectual narcissist), so I have a good time. I just hate having to answer questions like, "so when exactly did he go to the police?" and "do you think the sister knew because she acted really strange in that one scene after the wedding and wouldn't that mean that the one guy should've called his boss?"


12.5. A Scanner Darkly.

(35mm) small theater at the JBFC.

Several folks I've spoken to have voiced the same complaint about Richard Linklater's adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick's most personal novels: it didn't need to be "a cartoon." Let me just say that I find this complaint to be moronic. If Linklater simply likes the way the digital rotoscope animation looks, then that's more than enough justification for using it – why is animation automatically limited to the realm of singing mice and wise-cracking automobiles? People don't look at Rembrandt's paintings and say, "why didn't he make a scuplture?" They judge the painting on an entirely different schemata of aesthetics. If Linklater wants use animation for a story that doesn't seemingly "require" it, that's his business. Besides, there's no denying the animation looks fucking awesome in A Scanner Darkly – and as Nick Scoullar once said, "Keanu Reeves should always be a cartoon."

Anyway, I find Bob Sabiston's process of digitally drawing over pre-existing footage of actors to be especially compelling in light of the advances that CGI animation has made in the past few years. As CGI looks more and more photorealistic, the expressive qualities of animation become more and more under-utilized. I would say that Shrek or Madagascar are films that "need" to be cartoons just about as much as A Scanner Darkly. Think of Stuart Little or Spiderman or something along those lines, a digital effects heavy "live action" film – wouldn't Shrek be just as well suited to that kind of treatment? If you're just going to have cartoon characters behave according to the laws of physics and reality as much as is digitally possibly, what's even the point? Granted Shrek does have some cartoon flourishes, but the medium of animation is not as essential to Shrek as it is in the work of someone like Suzan Pitt or even in the great original Looney Tunes.

All of this may seem like an aside, but it seems to me the true value of Scanner is being remarkably underplayed – it is by leagues and leagues the most original and striking artwork I have seen this year. It mashes literally dozens of separated genres, moods, and ideas. And it all works for the most part – it's hilarious, sad, thrilling, and amazing to look at. Name me a film made this year that has as much texture to each individual image, to every last one of the thousands and thousands of frames that make up a feature length film! Granted, it's Linklater and propelling the plot forward still remains a weak suit; I'm not sure the machinations of intrigue are either entirely clear or compelling. On the other hand, they're not completely slack and the absolutely heart-breaking detour that film takes in its final reel relies entirely on those machinations (so they must be somewhat functional). I'm not sure what people want when they step into the theater for A Scanner Darkly, but they what they will get is a little of everything and more to chew on they'll get from any 10 other Hollywood sci-fi vehicles I've seen this year combined.


12.6. Maxed Out.

(dvd) JBFC.

For the level of disdain in which I hold them, the sheer amount of political documentaries I ingest is staggering. If a movie exists solely to grind a political ax or bring attention to the plight of something or other, then it's not even a movie in my mind – it's a political pamphlet in movie form and the material included is almost always of the variety that would be better served by some other medium (say, a pamphlet - you know, like Thomas Paine would've done or more realistically an essay or an editorial). Occasionally, these films are entertaining or beautifully shot or intelligently passionate about causes about which I care deeply, but at the end of the day they're basically a waste of time. Maxed Out (a documentary about the credit card industry) is entertaining, well-shot and intelligently passionate, but that isn't enough. It tears a page from the Michael Moore playbook and uses a snarky tone and a fast pace to make the material go down quickly: it's full of ironic music cues and stock footage, it makes the villains look like heartless buffoons, and it takes a scattershot approach that doesn’t spend too much time with any one character or situation. It's often breezy and occasionally devastating (think of the end of Roger and Me) and, troublingly, it's absolutely correct.

The film doesn't bring up any point that I don’t 100% agree with, it sees corruption where I see it, it expresses outrage over the same things that outrage me. So why do I fundamentally hold it in contempt? Am I cynical about political filmmaking as a tool for actual social progress? Do I simply not believe in social progress? Do I think cinema is valuable far beyond expressing a political idea? It's probably a bit of all three. In terms of content and philosophy, Maxed Out is a film with a quantifiable practice value – it points out a problem, makes a convincing statement on the roots of the problem and implicitly proposes solution to the problem. In short, it is useful. And that reminds me of the statement made by the main character in Brave New World: "Yes, yes, I know: even epsilons are useful – and I damn well wish they weren't!"


12.7. Carnival of Souls.

(dvd) my apartment.

David Lynch must've seen this film, oh, a hundred times. I know it's de rigueur at this point to compare any cinematic intersection of small town Americana and self-conscious weirdness to Lynch, but Carnival of Souls is genuinely the only film I know of that mirrors Lynch's proclivities for stilted dialog, a "gee shucks" small town setting, an atmosphere of sexual terror simmering just below the surface and elements of the supernatural that straddle the line between silly and terrifying. The story follows a church organist (who is, incidentally, only in it for the money and not in any way religious) who inexplicably survives a car wreck and then immediately leaves her hometown for another organist job in Utah. It was made in 1962 by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker from Lawrence, Kansas and, despite its enduring cult success, it was the only film he ever made. Even though it was made in the 60's, its Utah locations make it feel like it was made in the early 50's and that time schism also has a very Lynch-ish feel: the modern world constantly encroaches on the quintessentially 50's-style main character.

Other striking Lynch similarities: first and foremost, the Robert Blake's pale-faced supernatural figure in Lost Highway is a direct copy of the creeping villain in Carnival. Sidney Berger's pathetic, abusive "John Linden" is an embryonic version both of the Nic Cage's greaser in Wild at Heart and Dennis Hopper's sexually predatory Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. The highly idiosyncratic sound design (which seems to be frequently the result of poor technique rather than any intentional artist strategy) recalls Lynch's frequent sound-dropouts, off-kilter synching, bursts of static and repulsively minimalist ambient noise. The constant, bordering-on-hysteria organ score could've easily been created by Angelo Badalamenti and Harvey's use of its driving, insistent rhythms in even the most mundane of scenes is probably the most direct and obvious stylistic influence that Carnival had on Lynch's work.

Also, I can't emphasize enough how much the dialog – both in content and delivery – recalled Lynch: I can think of no other films that have the same peculiar mix of over-statement and obliqueness. The dialog is expositional and over-written to the point that it actually becomes somewhat incoherent: why are these words being delivered with the actors placing such an emphasis on the subtext, when there is seemingly no subtext to be had? Everybody steps on their lines with an awkward, off-balance stiffness and then randomly drop into raw, emotional expressiveness – the scene where Dr. Samuels offers his help by the water fountain has to be the most bizarrely rendered set of performances of all time. At first, I regretted watching the film on a muddy, cheap dvd transfer – I wished I had waited to see the film on Criterion's superior disc. After a while, though, it seemed to me that the film was more at home in the streaky, grey copy I was watching than it might have been in a clean crisp transfer: it's a film that relies so much on its suggestive possibilities that cleaning up the margins and clearing up the images would only undermine its truly striking eccentricity.


12.8. Broadway Bad.

(35mm) part of the "20 Century Fox before the Code" series at Film Forum.

Film Forum has done a couple of these "X Studio before the Code" series, and I had never bothered to check out any of the films. Hollywood films from the 30's and 40's generally aren't my thing, so checking out a couple films that were most notable for their salacious/depraved/violent pre-code content didn't seem worth the effort. If the films had some value outside of scantily clad ladies and blue language, wouldn't I have heard of them? – and the films in these series usually have me drawing a blank. Fortunately, a whim to see just go and see whatever was showing at Film Forum led me into Broadway Bad: it was either that or a documentary about Ingmar Bergman (2 or 3 Things I know about Her was still on the third screen). I must say, I was probably wrong in my stance on the pre-code films: nearly naked ladies with potty mouths and a complete lack of scruples go a long way towards making an enjoyable movie-going experience.

The plot of Broadway Bad follows a young chorus girl who rises to prominence after the tabloid-fueled scandal surrounding her divorce: she's secretly married to a wealthy Yalie who is convinced she's having an affair with a well-known man about town. The Yalie names the high society cad in the divorce suit and mayhem ensues – all to the benefit of the chorus girl's career, who (thanks to the scandal) now packs them in down at the nightclub. The film is totally opportunistic with its backstage settings: the opening scene aboard a train full of chorus girls is an extended take masterpiece of wiggling gams, saucy dialog, fancy underwear and ass-slapping. Lots and lots of ass-slapping. Many of the pre-code elements are downright shocking: a steamy prelude to public copulation on a set of empty stadium bleachers, some dancers engaged in ridiculously suggestive stretching and a casual depiction of homosexuals. All in all, the film is the type of solid entertainment that gives Hollywood a good name – even if it features a throwaway plot and was made quickly on the cheap, it's clearly put together by intelligent folks and taps an endless reserve of craftsmanship. Mid-way through the film, there's a tracking shot across a crowded restaurant that lasts probably four minutes and is stunningly well-designed. On a purely technical level, no exaggeration, it recalls some of the elegant long-take work of Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. Strangely, this doesn't make me feel like the director of Broadway Bad is an undiscovered master, but rather the genius and artistry implied by long tracking shots is maybe overrated. Make of that what you will.

Anyhoo, Joan Blondell plays the chorus girl and she's kind of great: she's an innocent-looking blonde who easily shifts gears between vulnerability and hardness. She effortlessly exudes affection when it's called for, but can equally easily summon up a wisdom implied by coldness (especially later in the film). Ginger Rogers plays her best-girl and sidekick and she's also striking in the small role. Anyway, there's plenty of interesting stuff here – for instance, the film's almost compulsive use of cross-cutting to create visual puns (as in: a line of chorus girls' legs become the wheels of a train or a woman blow-drying her hair fades into a similar-looking hood-ornament on a fancy car) – so I'm really glad I checked it out. And I guess I should say that it is startling to see a pre-code depiction of life in New York City. It certainly resembles the city I know far better than the scrubbed down depictions that would follow after the Hayes Office cracked down on moral indecency in cinema.


12.9. I Bury the Living.

(dvd) my apartment.

Another pleasant surprise – I had a big box set of public domain dvd's lying around, so I decided to pick one at random and throw it on. First off, that's an awesome title. Period. Secondly, this film works wonders with essentially one set and one prop. It follows the story of the new committee chairman of a local cemetery - it's some kind of figure-head job that he's obligated to take. He's forced into it by his business partners, they all trade off on the position year to year. Richard Boone (who plays the new chairman and looks like a cross between Fred Ward and Mike Wallace) starts to get an eerie feeling his first day on the job and then quickly comes to fear that he is killing people with his mind. Why? In the office of the cemetery, where the majority of the action takes place, there's a big map of all of the grave plots: as-of-yet open graves are marked with a white pin, occupied graves are marked with a black pin. When Richard Boone accidentally sticks black pins in the plot of a young couple, they die shortly thereafter in a car accident. Is it an isolated coincidence or does Boone actually have the supernatural ability to cause death with the map?

Brilliantly, the movie generates tension by acknowledging that the prospect of Boone having psychic death-dealing abilities is fundamentally absurd: the film is a psychological drama about Boone's attempts to prove to himself that the deaths are a simple coincidence. And as the bodies pile up, Boone is driven insane by the fact that what simply cannot be true (that he really is causing the deaths) is the only reasonable explanation – the scene where his business partners demand he place black pins in their plots (as a definitive proof that it's all in his mind) is both terrifying and heartbreaking. As I mentioned, the film rarely leaves the cemetery office and, more importantly, it works wonders with the map itself: it uses the intersection of pins and plots and names to create an incredibly varied gamut of memorable visuals. When appropriate, the map is ominously blank and at other times, its swirls of roads and paths look down on Boone like two evil eyes. The final sequence of the film is a mind-bending hallucination with the map as an all-consuming maze of elements now loaded with demented meanings: the pins, the plots, the roads, the names all have a terrible significance that seeks to overwhelm and destroy the sweaty-faced Boone. There is a brain-melting moment where Boone comes loose from reality and steps up into the map. He raises a gun to his head well, I won’t spoil it.

Gratifyingly, the film retains a good amount of ambiguity even after the police show up and the supernatural plot gets explained away. Even if there is a rational explanation for everything, Boone is still a broken man and you get the sense that he'll never be able to determine what’s true or false about his mind's seeming powers. My only real complaint is that the movie looks exceptionally cheaply made. The dialog is frequently inaudible and the photography is often murkier than it needs to be. There's a bit of cut-rate acting as well, but these are minor quibbles – the fundamental solidity of the filmmaking makes me wish it had been made on a bigger budget. With a little more time and money, I Bury the Living could've been a genuine, bona fide classic instead of the minor gem it is.


12.10. Cause for Alarm!.

(dvd) my apartment.

Man, is this ever a heaping helping of early-50's style sexism served up in one of the worst plots I've ever seen. Discounting a couple flashbacks, it follows a day in the life of housewife Loretta Young. You see, she's married to former pilot Barry Sullivan (a smarmy, sleep-eyed Robert Mitchum knock-off who I only know from Sam Fuller's Forty Guns) and loves him and just wants to clean the house and have kids and, maybe maybe have a garden someday, like the lady next door but Sullivan is losing his mind because he's stuck in bed all day with a heart condition. He's convinced that Young and his best friend (a doctor played by the extremely handsome Bruce Cowling) are trying to murder him for his life insurance policy. Fine. That's perfectly serviceable idea for a movie – variations on it have been done hundreds of times before or since.

Only that's not what Cause for Alarm! is really about. Cause for Alarm! is really about Young's desperate attempt to get back a letter that her husband sent to the district attorney detailing the supposed plot. About twenty minutes into the movie, the bed-ridden Sullivan whips out a gun, tells Young about his suspicions (and the letter to the D.A. it generated) and then promptly dies of a heart-attack before he can shoot her to death. So from there Young begins to make a series of harebrained decisions that make no sense other than in the context of "boy, broads sure do go all willy-nilly at the first sign of trouble." Keep in mind, the movie makes it abundantly clear that Young has absolutely no intention of killing her husband. He's a raving paranoid lunatic. Seriously, the movie then spends the rest of its running time following Young as she tries to find the postman to whom she unwittingly gave the letter earlier in the day, attempts to convince him to give the letter back, and generally fumbles around like a moron. I swear to God, she even at one point stops to change outfits because she's worried that her harried appearance will have negative consequences in her quest to get the letter back. Those women, always thinking about outfits. The post-man is a puttering dork who's a stickler for the rules but not really so much: if Young had just an ounce of intelligence or guile, it seems like she could've definitely convinced him to give her the letter back.

The whole film is predicated on the notion that Young is as hopelessly helpless as she could be – she's a bundle of specious reasoning, hysterical decisions, and emotional weakness. The film never ups the ante beyond the most miniscule terms of getting the letter – and, even then, are we really supposed to believe there's any danger of the D.A. pursuing nonexistent criminal charges against Young and Cowling? I should also mention that it flashes back to Sullivan's courtship of Young, which amounts to him threatening to rape her and then making some jokes at her expense - his come-ons could best be described as "single entendre." The scenes are seemingly executed without irony, like they're genuinely supposed to convey how the couple fell in love. He's condescending, brutish and full of masculine swagger – a lady could fall for a fella' like that! The movie ends with an absolutely groan-inducing bit of deus ex machine that makes you want to punch yourself in the face for having sat through the whole damn thing.


12.11. Withnail & I.

(the nice Criterion dvd) my apartment.

I wanted to watch this movie again since I was talking about it with Eric Pfriender on my train-ride home from work. Actually, we were talking about Wayne's World 2 and all of the strange references in it that its theoretical target demographic of 12 year old boys wouldn’t possibly get: the detailed The Graduate parody at the end of the film, Chris Farley's An Officer and a Gentleman bit, even all of the Oliver Stone's The Doors stuff. But the absolute weirdest bit of obscurity in WW2 has to be Ralph Brown's reprisal of his role from Withnail & I. In both films, Brown plays the slow-speaking stoner/roadie with a penchant for odd stories and empty-headed philosophizing. I mean, what the fuck is that character doing in Wayne's World 2?! I wonder if Withnail director Bruce Robinson tried to sue anybody. Come to think of it, he probably should've just sued himself for making Jennifer 8. Whatever the fuck that means.

Anyhoo, Withnail & I is one of those rare cult favorites that deserves every bit of the praise and affection heaped on it by its cultists: it's unbelievably funny, but also very authentic. It has a rare streak of pathos that elevates it beyond the "cult comedy" ghetto into something like the realm of art – interestingly, Robinson's other cult classic (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) pulls off the same feat. The plot of Withnail meanderingly follows two down-and-out actors who decide to go away for the weekend to a rich Uncle's country house. That's about all there is to it. Withnail (Richard E. Grant in one of the all-time iconic portrayals of a lovable loser) and Marwood (the dour Paul McGann) get fed up with being broke in their trashy flat, finagle permission to use the country house from Withnail's uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths, who is definitely the weak link in the film), and then spend the weekend trying to do simple stuff like get a fire started and make breakfast. Plus, they drink. A lot.

I'm not sure how many people in this world have had a close relationship with someone like Withnail, but the film nails that character dead-on. In the liner notes on the dvd, Robinson says Withnail is based on his friend Vivian, who was theoretically an actor, but that "what Vivian was really brilliant at, was being Vivian." I have a close friend who always reminds me of Witnnail, the kind of guy who leads you down the path of irresponsibility, drunkenness, and general self-destruction – which on the surface seems like a whole host of unpleasant things that one would ideally want to avoid. But someone like Withnail knows exactly how to lend the depraved proceedings an air of theatricality and calculation: you're never totally out of control, just simply playing a part (the part of the Sancho Panza, the Pantagruel, the willing sidekick) in the theater of insanity written by, directed by and starring Withnail. Things may seem like a mess, but the mess is the intended effect, the desirable outcome – what's the point of spending the weekend with Withnail, if you're not going to get locked out in the cold accidentally or get drunk at 10.am. in an unfamiliar small town?

The final scene in Withnail & I is heart-breaking: it's the backstage moment after the play is over, when the reality of Withnail as a person (and not a performer in the theater of Withnail) is a little too much to bear. When the play is over, there's always a tinge of sadness and regret but when it's on, nothing feels better than a weekend in the theater of life under the depraved direction of Withnail.

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