12/12/6 - 12/21/6

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 Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de... to lesser films by great directors like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to idiotic dreck like A Night at the Museum. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.

<<click here for 12/2/6 - 12/11/6>>

12.12. World Trade Center.

(35mm) at the JBFC.

Oliver Stone's depiction of the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th is emphatically de-contextualized: the events are drained of all political/social/cultural meaning and approached in purely dramatic terms. It's defiantly not an analysis or elegy, an allegory or a deconstruction – it is, above all things, a movie. In some ways, this is the flipside of United 93: neither film is concerned with the "why" (or even the details of the "how," really) of 9/11 - instead Stone steels its focus on the most literal possible thread of the "what." What is offensive (and pointless) about World Trade Center is that it chooses to render the material in the most standard of Hollywood terms; it replaces the greater, complex meanings if 9/11 with generic archetypal characters (the terse cop, the worried wife, the hardened Marine, the scrappy minority), images recycled from every other film in the "disaster" genre, a soaring orchestral score that underlines every moment and emotion, easily readable story arcs and clichéd-to-the-point-of-insincerity ideas about heroism, family, and survival. There is nothing in World Trade Center to distinguish it from Poseidon. So what's the point?

I only watched about an hour and fifteen minutes of it (the running time is a little over two hours) because I realized I didn't need my memories and response to 9/11 mediated by a film like this – or any film probably, but especially not one that seeks to recast the events in purely Michael Bay-worthy terms. Walking out of the theater, I realized the true audience for WTC is not folks who experienced the attacks in some personal way (folks who knew someone in the buildings or lived in NYC or worked for United Airlines, etc.), but the hoards of red-blooded Americans out in the Midwest or down in the South who actually have no personal narrative frame on which to hang the events of that day. WTC is a film for the people who desperately want and need to have a deeper narrative connection to these attacks: otherwise, they only exist on the tv news and in the editorial page. And so, WTC's use of Hollywood blockbuster style seems all the more repulsive to me: it feels like a cheap attempt to cash in on an audience that the filmmakers know to exist, no different from any of the other test-marketed special effects extravaganzas with "high audience awareness" that the studios churn out month after month. I'm personally not one to mythologize September 11th or even to treat those tragic events as epochal, but I think everyone can agree that rendering those events in such a way as to be interchangeable with the material in Deep Impact or The Day After Tomorrow is pretty sickening.


12.13.6. Changing Times.

(35mm) at the Jacob Burns Film Center, dude.

I wish this were just followed Gerard Depardieu's forlorn businessman: his scenes are both touching and pathetic, a melancholy collision of romantic sentiment and clueless helplessness. He plays an architect who takes a thankless job in Tangiers only so he can pursue the love of his life, a radio personality (played by Catherine Deneuve) that he's tracked to a small station in Morocco. His hapless mixture of single-minded focus and utter lack of romantic strategy is heart-breaking: all he knows is that he loves Deneuve and wants her back, but he has absolutely no idea how to make it happen. She's married with an adult son and, while her marriage isn't perfect, there's no reason to think she'd abandon it for a man she hasn't seen in twenty years. She responds to Depardieu with a bit of skepticism, but also a bit of regret – her big cold eyes belie the fact that she does wonder how her life could've been different, she does wonder what it would mean to run away with the man who has traversed continents and decades to be with her (and also to leave behind the chest-hairy malcontent who takes her somewhat for granted).

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is unbearable melodramatic garbage: Deneuve's closeted son arrives from Paris with his drug-addicted Arab wife and their precious tyke. This (confusingly) gay son has an affair with a Moroccan dude while his wife confronts her devout, headscarf-wearing sister. The low-point is the scene in which the gay son is chased by vicious, slobbery dogs. Director Andre Téchine is one of those bland, middle-brow European auteurs whose name you recognize, but don't really associate with any particular movie (like Leo Carax or Benoit Jacques or Jean-Jacques Bieneix) and, aside from one bit of jarring stylistics at a construction site, there's nothing here to distinguish his work from any other Euro-Art journeyman.


12.14.6. Army of Shadows.

(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.

It's always invigorating to walk out of a movie theater and be able to entertain the thought, "hey, wait a second  - did I just see the best movie of all time?" Back when I was in high school and familiarizing myself with the canon, I didn't have that thought: when I saw Band of Outsiders or La Grande Illusion or M or Singin' in the Rain or Rashomon (all films which I have vivid memories of first seeing) or whatever for the first time, I was in the process of having my mind-blown. Since everything was beyond the limits of what I had to that point experienced, my impulse wasn't to think, "that's a great movie, perhaps the greatest" but instead, "I can't fucking believe how awesome this movie is!" At this point in my life, there are no Fellinis or Tarkovskys or Fassbinders (or even Bela Tarrs or Hollis Framptons) to sneak up on me. I say this not as someone jaded with film or as someone who has exhausted the endless possibilities of cinema viewership: I just mean there are few films out there that are in the running for "greatest film of all time" that I am not somewhat familiar with. I am an asshole and I know everything about everything, just for the record.

Well, Army of Shadows - Jean Pierre-Melville's epic story of French Resistance fighters - is in the running for "greatest film of all time:" it's the whole package and seeing it is a thrilling experience: an intense action-thriller, a philosophically loaded statement about political struggle, an insightful human drama, a gorgeous work of cinematic virtuosity. I guarantee that you will never see a movie that makes better use of sparse simple visuals, minimalist sound design and controlled visceral editing. It's heart-breaking, rousing, stunning, hilarious, and intense from first frame to last. It even has the additional layer of knowing that Melville himself fought in the resistance and had firsthand knowledge of the experiences depicted in the film. I could either sit here singing the praises of the film or pointing out individual moments of sheer awesomeness (such as the main character being led to the firing squad), but really, just see it. If you don't like it, then you've never really thought about what it's like to be on the losing end of a battle, to be morally correct and have that afford little comfort, to feel helpless and outnumbered and still have no choice but to face your fate head on. Also, you probably don't like movies.


12.15.6 - 12.19.6

I had a bad run here where I didn't see anything for a couple days. I guess that'll happen sometimes.



12.20.6. Poseidon.

(dvd) bus to Toronto.

Part one of "Chris is subjected to films about his paranoid fears" double-feature.

Paranoid Fear #1: Travel Disaster (with claustrophobia bonus).

I've been reading Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes which is basically all about the neuroses one develops when one understands that the basic tenet of manhood is to be tough (with certain victory being a corollary of this toughness), but you reject the standards of success, heroism, and normalcy provided by the world. You know what you need to do to succeed (to be a Man), but you reject that brand of success. The book is much more complicated than that, but the way films like Poseidon are all about "manning up" couldn't help but remind me of Fred Exley's failures to deal with such un-manly things as grief, longing and uncertainty. In Poseidon, the stakes are simple: you're either a man or you're dead. Or you're a hysterical broad. But anyway, the main dudes in this film are all action and no talk - they know their job is to tough things out, make it safe for the women and children, ignore the stuffed shirts who vacillate, etc.

I saw it when it first came out, but in light of Exley, this time through I paid more attention to Richard Dreyfusses' character who is a gay, wimpy, cry-baby who gets rejected up by his ex on New Year's Eve. He also wears an earring. Anyway, the film is careful not to treat him with contempt (and be accused of homophobia), but it basically just lumps him in the undifferentiated mass of followers. He is willing to commit a murder to save himself - so that's worth something I guess, especially since it comes down as an order from Josh Lucas. Understand? Commit a murder to save yourself = not a man. Follow orders to commit a murder = acceptable sidekick (and able to share in the Man's certain victory). I guess it's the difference between being a murderer and being a soldier.

So, when it comes down to it, there are only three characters that matter in Poseiden: Kurt Russell's former fire-fighter/NYC mayor, Josh Lucas' terse, pro-gamblin' cad, and the spikey-haired dude that plays Kurt Russell's son-in-law to be. They are two men and one soon-to-be-man. Before I go any further and actually, you know, analyze this movie, I should make very clear that it sucks. It's boring, the characters are thin, the special effects are cheesy by just about any standard, there are gigantic logic and plot holes, and the dialogue is ludicrous. For example: 

Comely Hispanic stowaway: Your dad seems familiar to me.
The Russ's daughter: He was mayor of New York when I was a kid.

Comely Hispanic stowaway: Cool.

The Russ's daughter: No... It wasn't.

Keep in mind that exchange happens as they are trying to find a way through the upside-down main hallway which, in addition to sinking, is now on fire. Really, that exchange is all you need to know about this fucking movie. If you're ok with that exchange and also want to see a ship flip over and then blow up, Poseidon will do just fine.

But back to what interested me about the film: it posed two templates for modern heroism, two models of masculine modernity. 1) Kurt Russell's fire-fightin' mayor: the natural leader who is a bit old school. He's good-looking, physically fit and doesn't cotton to the idea that his daughter might be having premarital sex. He doesn't understand his daughter... and they are only able to reach an emotional detente (and eventual reconciliation) through his displays of heroism. It doesn't matter that he's a bit of a condescending asshole who's totally full of himself: he's a man, dammit! Let him be a man! 2) Josh Lucas (who is a vomitous abortion of an actor, by the way) plays the typical anti-hero: you can tell he's a bit of a womanizer, a loose cannon who plays by his own rules, unscrupulous and always looking out for #1. But he's tough. And if it's certain victory you're after, you want him in your corner. He's contrasted against Kevin Dillon's blowhard gambler, who is also only looking out for #1. His blow-hardiness betrays his lack of toughness: really tough dudes don't share their grief or fear, they keep it bottled up so tightly it doesn't even show through in their behavior: are you willing to die for a lame-brained plan to escape out of the ship's engines? No? Maybe you want to talk things over or listen to the captain or some of the emergency response personnel? Well, enjoy dying, pussy. Josh Lucas has his heart-warmed by a flailing broad and an adorable scamp, but maybe he's just trying to get laid, who knows? I do know a real man would definitely go that far for some sweet poontango. Not so far as to quit gambling or drinkin' or whatever - get off his back, woman!

The Russ' son-in-law to be is the final element of heroism in the film. Since the Russ' condescension and possessiveness of his daughter are sublimated sexual desire (a desire which is aroused by his stunted emotional interaction with her - I'm just assuming that's what the screenwriters intended. I'm sure NYU and UCLA or wherever this writer went to school was careful to teach about how the subtext informs the text) his natural competitor is the young douche-bag with frosted tips and form-fitting sweaters who wants to marry his daughter. Of course, that guy proves to be the ideal sidekick to the Russ: athletic, good-looking, tough and willing to follow nonsensical orders that endanger his life and the lives of others. The stage is set at the end of the film for the Russ to pass the torch to young jeezy, for the frosted-tip student to become the condescending, possessive master. Yay! Russ sacrifices himself so that the spirit of toughness (and certain victory) may live on and he can marry his own daughter by proxy.

There is not a moment of Poseidon's running time spent lingering on grief or fear, despite the hundreds upon hundreds of dead. That's fine - if this movie didn't suck, I could totally accept it as a blockbuster and enjoy it. Watching it this time though, I kept on thinking of Fred Exley's meeting with NY Giant's coach Steve Owen. Owen asked Exley's father (Exley's dad being a notoriously tough football player) if eight-year old Exley was tough. "Too soon to tell," was the answer. I'm not done with the book yet, but I hope the last chapter is about Exley's ship capsizing or him surviving a terrorist attack, so we can find out.


Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America
(dvd) bus to Toronto.

Part two of "Chris is subjected to films about his paranoid fears" double-feature.

Paranoid Fear #2: Communicable disease outbreak - voraciously virulent virus.

I guess this was a made for tv movie or something along those lines - certainly it has all the hallmarks of made-for-tv-dom: a hot topic with a glaring "sell by" date, slick but somehow cheap-looking production values, a plot that engages the hot topic with a hysterical "worst case scenario" mindset and, most importantly, Stacey Keach. So, I'd recap the plot, but the title lays it out pretty clearly: this is the story of the fatal contact (with filthy Chinamen) that brings bird-flu to America. The split-screen montage of the disease's progress from a small Chinese village to a house not unlike yours (!!!) is torn straight from the germophobe's handbook: shots of people handling money, snot-nosed kids using public doorknobs, train passengers being careless with used tissues, waitresses failing to properly clean out coffee cups!

It's weird because anyone who knows me knows that I am absolutely paranoid about contracting rare diseases - but stuff like Fatal Contact never has much of an effect on me. Obviously, if the government/mass media/corporate hucksters want you to be afraid of something, then there's profit to be had in the fear. Or maybe their stock needs a boost and they just happen to sheltered under same the corporate umbrella with the manufactuers of the medicine to treat the incredibly threatening disease everybody get a flu shot just to be safe, quick! And I'm too savvy for that, man! You see, it's the stuff like mad cow that you have to be afraid of - diseases with no conceivable treatment, diseases that if unleashed on a mass scale will only mean a decline in profit, dude! You see, The Man, doesn't want you to know what's in your hamburgers because it would blow your mind! But they know, man, they know! I swear to God, this is how my brain works. Fuck you - whatever, like you're not afraid of untreatable degenerative brain diseases.

Anyhoo, this movie is not very good, even if it does have the guts to kill off literally millions of innocent Americans who only want to play baseball with their kids and then conduct business deals abroad without contracting the dreaded bird-flu human-to-human mutation. Stacey Keach was good as the President of the country or the head of the CDC or head-chief John Bureaucrat - at any rate, he was the dude in charge of convincing Joely Richardson that they needed to tell the public everything was fine and that a treatment was on the way even though she sternly objected because it wasn't altogether true. I guess he was kind of the authority figure villain and she was the noble crusader, but they were both too level-headed and boring for any kind of dramatic dynamic of opposition to emerge. They both basically just agreed that bird flu was going to kill a shitload of people and that France was somehow involved in a negative way. Fuckin' France.


12.21.6. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

(dvd) train to Edmonton.

I like Powell and Pressburger, the duo that created not only Blimp, but also The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Tales of Hoffman and I Know Where I'm Going. This film is definitely one of their masterpieces, but it should also be said that they were folks who specialized in masterpieces: most of their films have an epic sweep and a tasteful opulence that makes them clearly prime cut in terms of both execution and ambition. Their work is imbued with a certain British propriety that makes them seem family-friendly even when (as in Blimp) they're kind of wicked and cynical underneath it all. It's easy to imagine Blimp's gentle ironies about the relationship between "the military" and "the political" slipping right by a wartime audience (it was made in 1943) - it certainly has a huge amount of affection for its charming main character, Lieutenant Clive Wynne-Candy and it definitely is not anti-British or anti-military; so I would imagine its bitterness and jaded detachment about war and politics can be easily over-looked (or even contorted slightly to take on an anti-Fascist meaning).

The story picks up with Wynne-Candy returning from the Boor war and getting involved with a British governess in Berlin who wants him to defend England's honor against a group of German ideologues (folks who "have high-minded political agendas that they advance by drinking beer and having duels"). Candy ends up dueling one of the ideologues and then, by coincidence, recuperating with his combatant in a German hospital. The movie is a fast-paced comedy full of lightning quick dialog delivered with deadpan timing and an endless repertoire of throwaway gags that almost always work and don't get in the way when they fall flat (kind of like a classy British military version of The Naked Gun). Anyway, it's an episodic adventure that follows the soldier from the Berlin duel all the way up to WWII - the second half is definitely tinged with a kind of nervous energy and a certain grimness hangs over it, but it never loses its dry sense of humor.

It's a strange kind of movie and to some extent all of the Powell/Pressburger films suffer from the same problem: it's not that they're cinematically outdated, but that they're somehow philosophically outdated. And let me be clear: they're definitely not dumb. They remind me of the work of either James brother, pick either the philosopher William or the novelist Henry: both men were impeccable stylists, beautiful prose craftsmen, intelligent as all get-out and in the fray of the most important artistic/intellectual issues of the moment. Their work is never bad, but it frequently feels useless - it's from and about a time that has passed: the arguments they most passionately engage have long since been settled (or, at very least, the terms of the conflict have mutated into something else altogether). I can't help but feel that to an extent while watching Blimp - it looks gorgeous and comes off without a hitch (I mean, the mustache stuff is priceless), but its greater meaning (the meaning which I imagine Powell & Pressburger to have thought most important) doesn't really matter. We're past the time when war and politics were separate, past the time when being a soldier was something one was even in peacetime, past the time when it was shocking to suggest that war doesn't start at midnight.

At its most basic, it's a bit of stiff-upper-lip British wartime propaganda (and laced with all of the anxiety and dignity that implies)... But I don't know. There's a lot, a lot, a lot to like in this film and there's more than enough reason to see it. It has some absolutely classic lines ("You might say she was my ideal, if you were a sickening long-haired poet") and the two lead performances are a pitch perfect collision of sympathetic caricature and delicate make-up effects. The German's late film monologue about home and country is heart-breaking despite its transparent "larger meaning." Great work, but it's like listening to a brilliant biologist argue passionately against the concept of spontaneous generation: his argument may be rendered with style and intelligence, but I think it's safe to say we're past that point in history where we need to hear it.

<<click here for 12/22/6 - 12/31/6>>


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