Casablanca. Dr. Strangelove. Planet of the Apes. Chinatown. Ask most folks what part of these milestone movies really stands out for them and they'll immediately mention the memorable last scene. And rightfully so - those endings aren't only satisfying, they punctuate and pretty much make you reconsider the entire film. In this series, The Pink Smoke examines some lesser-known finales we feel deserve a spot among the greatest final moments in cinema.
joseph strick, 1974
I don't have any hobbies really. Least not anymore, and probably haven't been into movies since I was about twenty-four or so. Sure I'll go see a movie every once in awhile, but my patience is sparse, and more-so than sparse, it is also highly selective. And arbitrary. Bergman, most Antonioni, and Hitchcock – all great and good, but I rarely ever feel like in the mood to hang out with them, or any of the others really. Kind of like people. If I'm watching anything it's usually episodes of De-Located or Eric Andre or anything else that tops off at about 11 minutes long and makes me laugh. Otherwise, I don't really care about movies one way or another at this stage. I find more connectedness with staring at the floor.
So, with that said, I really don't know how revered Joseph Strick is in cinema and academia. I feel like he has to be – he's aimed a camera at Genet, Miller and Joyce. Joyce more than once. And yet I discovered him mostly by accident, more or less. I can't remember how exactly. I think Road Movie just ended down at the slipstream somewhere. I feel like his other work may be better, at least technically so. Rip Torn gives a hell of a performance in Tropic of Cancer, one of his best until The Larry Sanders Show came along a few decades later. Coming Apart and Payday, those too. And Ulysses is a great film that reasonably diverts from its source material while staying relentlessly true to it all the same. It has all the things that I'm concerned about – the shaving, the meat cutting, and Molly Bloom's stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in full. Yes, Yes, Yes... It's a great movie I think, but it's also just aesthetically beautiful.
Road Movie is stationed on another planet altogether. And what an isolating and cold, dead planet it is. The American rust-belt. Endless grey skies and smoke stacks, ramshackle mill towns, an industry in decline, dirty bathrooms in dirty cafes, fibrous and nasty motel carpets that require a tetanus vaccination to walk upon, soiled bed-sheets littered with DNA and microscopic varmints in search of a human vessel to hinder shop. These are locales that comparatively morph the town in Huston's Fat City into a hotbed for economic prosperity. And too – there's a similar pervasive ugliness that colors this film. It's a lot like living in Pittsburgh. But I bitch and complain about that too much as it is. This piece doesn't say much about the movie itself, does it? It's probably not a movie that doesn't lend itself to much analysis, but who cares – just watch it if you like that sort of thing. Or don't. I don't care.
A SERIOUS MAN
joel & ethan coen, 2009
The last fifteen years of Coen Brothers movies for me have generally been paved in varying degrees of disappointment. About half of the movies made since the early 2000's I've hated, the other half I found merely inoffensive, and in the case of a nearly-identical remake of True Grit, staggeringly unnecessary, especially when there's better (all) Charles Portis books screaming in the moldy dark of the shelf to be dusted off and awarded some well-deserved attention.
I only really mention this because in that timeframe they also managed to make two of my favorite films in their entire 30-year repertoire. And A Serious Man might actually be my personal favorite. Blood Simple might be too, but as with my inherent nature I'm completely indecisive and can never gather the faculties to come to a confident decision about virtually anything. I usually need these matters decided for me by an external source. Yet even with such a major handicap, I was immediately impressed by virtually everything in A Serious Man when I first watched it a few years ago.
They venture off into Barton Fink territory here. But not too far. But just far enough - just shy of John Goodman brandishing a shotgun running down the mile-long hallway of the Hotel Earle as it explodes into a literal hell. Here the suffocating claustrophobia shifts from a cramped hotel room with an overactive mucus membrane to the middle class American suburbs of 1967.
Larry Gopnik is having the worst couple of days since Job. His son is flaking out on his preparations for his Bar Mitzvah and is instead getting baked between classes and stealing money, signing up for Columbia House mailing lists and snatching up albums that won't even be recorded until three years in the future. His daughter isn't much better. She's also depleting Larry's accounts to fund a nose-job. His deadbeat man-child brother has moved in; his wife is openly having an affair with a family friend, Sy Ableman, who goes on to cuckold Larry out of his own home "for the children's sake" and into the Econolodge, which doesn't bode much better.
He awakes in the middle of the night, shaking off the cold-sweat that radiates off nightmares of his gun-loving neighbor, no doubt the kind of man that would be driving around with truck nuts had they been made available to the general public in 1967, picking him off in a Jew-Hunting expedition. And work doesn't serve as a much of a distraction. He's being bribed and black-mailed by a disgruntled student, and the tenure committee is probably going to deny him – they've been receiving some anonymous libelous letters about Larry's conduct. F-Troop is still coming in fuzzy.
Larry is desperate for answers, some reason why his life is so rapidly falling apart, but all his calls result in pisses in the wind. His attempts to reach the rabbi for guidance are pointless. At one point he even approaches a dentist to aid in clarity – and for a few fleeting moments, the dentist dances on the edge in alleviating the situation with some analogous lucidity – but it's another red herring. All going nowhere.
It's a strange movie in its biblical telling of Larry's rapid disintegration. He's perhaps the only approachable character in the film, the only likeable character (much different than Barton Fink who, one has to admit, there is at least some glee to be taken from his descent to life's gallows); most of the other peripheral characters – his wife, her lover, the blackmailing student, his brother – are all malicious liars or fraudulent humans, or at least share the characteristics one finds in phonies and con men. This makes Larry's deluge of misfortune seem all the more cruel and unjust, almost as if De Sica's Umberto D. were an all-out comedy. Because the movie is funny. Hilarious in that same acidic voice that breathes comedy into Kafka's The Trial and Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. Fassbinder's much undervalued and rottenly hilarious tragicomedy Martha is another one.
Larry goes to great lengths to seek out order. Some reconciliation with the chaos. Some answers for why, no matter how vague. Larry never loses hope that things will get better somehow, that things will pan out, and this is simply a rough patch in life – and for a brief moment perhaps that seems like it may be the case – but instead we're just hanging out in the epicenter of fate's absurd cosmic storm.
terry zwigoff, 2001
FIVE EASY PIECES
bob rafelson, 1970
I guess my biases and tastes are becoming increasingly clear, if one takes a cursory glance at my contributions not only to this article but at least half of the articles I have excreted in my five-year on-and-mostly-off occupation at this site. It wasn't something I was really even all that conscious of until I started writing a relatively lengthy and not particularly very interesting or engaging (it sure as hell wasn't when I was writing it, though I did flip over a table at the Panera Bread when I reached a word-count of 150 words after a full 10 hour day) write-up of Ghost World, and then remembered I would have to end up repeating myself for another film on my list of submissions that I had been assigned to write about. Then I thought about it a little bit more and realized half the movies I actually like are generally about the same thing: people living on some fringes of society, half of them either going insane and killing themselves or someone else, the other half making a healthier decision to end up just leaving.
Ghost World and Five Easy Pieces are two films that go out on similar notes. The closures to both films are in effect virtually identical: characters abandoning their lives with impulsive urgency, lacking all pre-meditation, and doing so not without leaving emotional collateral damage. Both Enid Coleslaw and Bob Dupea leave someone behind in their brash, seemingly selfish decisions. With Bobby it's leaving Karen Black's character at the gas station while he hitches a ride with a truck going in the opposite direction, with Enid it's leaving Seymour in a therapist's office as she boards a bus that's apparently long-since stopped running with a blank marquee listed as its destination.
I've watched both films multiple times, maybe once every two or three years or so. It took me a little bit longer to warm up to Ghost World than it did to Five Easy Pieces, which I loved immediately watching it for the first time as a testosterone-driven 20-year-old. In years I've mellowed a bit, lost hair, gained weight, still angry and bitter – at what exactly I'm about as unsure about now as I was then. This of course has nothing to do with anything.
Ghost World in particular has become one of the few movies I've come to revisit with some regularity. Maybe once every other year. That's saying a lot for me. I don't normally watch, or re-watch, too many things that aren't strictly Wally George-related uploads on YouTube these days. My affections toward it strengthens with each viewing, especially now that I'm completely despondent and as cynical about everything as ever. Not a trait I really pride myself on as much as I used to, and I really use to pride myself on that shit (it's probably why I can't stand to read most Bukowski anymore). I'd love to go outside and not return as a miserable, ranting unintelligible egotist that occasionally pisses or shits themself. I stress the word occasionally, meaning – not very often. But sometimes I miss the trigger and shit the bed. I can't help it, maaaaannnnn – that "Blues Hammer" scene is too much on point. I wind up at too many bars, both familiar and strange, trivia nights, get drunk, be an asshole, feel bad about it the next day, then do it again. I just need to find a desert to drop acid in, but I hear most of them aren't air conditioned and I'm too reluctant and lazy to take psychedelics with any kind of Cary Grant regularity. It's exhausting and it gives me a tummy ache. Archibald Leach is still alive. Shit. Back to Wendy's.
james ivory, 1972
I am biased. I really do love the earlier Merchant-Ivory productions, most of the films made before A Room with a View I dig. At the very least, Roseland I think is an incredible film that I suggest with as much enthusiasm as Savages. Incidentally, I also like the Frederic C. Hobbes film of Roseland that bears the same name; I never saw Oliver Stone's Savages, but I'm sure it's terrible, and not in that terrible but still kind of engaging and entertaining way that Wall Street is, terrible in the way Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is terrible.
But the Ivory/Merchant movie Savages is quite good. At least in my opinion. It's also about as atypical of any Merchant/Ivory vehicle I can think of, maybe Slaves of New York too...
For starters we find that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - the screenwriter behind almost every film with very few exceptions – is notably absent. Instead Ivory employed a couple of alumni from the National Lampoon: cultural critic and New Yorker contributor George W. S. Trow, whose extended essay "Within the Context of No Context" serves as a satirical but ultimately damning indictment of public perceptions on history and reality skewered through the lens of television talk shows and a celebrity and fame-obsessive culture, and Michael O'Donoghue, maybe most notable for being the first head writer on Saturday Night Live while being significantly less notable for the guy behind Mr. Mike's Mondo Video. O'Donoghue's style and approach to humor was slightly darker, or at least far more idiosyncratic, than the chain of writers that would follow him in the years to come.
The Ivory-Merchant-O'Donoghue-Trow quadruple marriage is an odd one. The result is an acerbic class and cultural satire that is both playful, surreal, weird, off-kilter – somehow more cognizant than anything Buñuel was doing at the time, but systematically kind of disjointed as well. There are points where it's capricious, maybe too playful, and yet I think it's thoroughly absorbing, sometimes bordering on wacked-out unmedicated genius. Comedies always seem to date the most of any genre, but Savages contains some of the most memorably disorienting comic moments I can think of – moments that aren't so much laugh out loud funny (I don't possess the ability or talent to actually laugh at things) as they are cosmically bizarre, like a music and dance number entitled "Steppin' on a Spaniel," a Paul Whiteman-inspired piece dedicated to the joys of abusing small animals. Oh, and it's got Sam Waterston and Ultra Violet in its cast of players. I'd say that alone would be a pretty big selling point for the rediscovery of this movie.
The separation between civilization and alleged barbarism in Savages is marshaled by a rogue croquet ball, which attracts the attention of a so-called tribe of "mud people" when it rolls into the scene causing a disturbance in some kind of tribal ritualistic sacrifice taking place in the woods of Long Island. Members of the tribe follow the ball to its origins, coming upon an abandoned Gatsby-like estate. After some initial exploration and dry-humping, they begin to don the clothes of the long-gone tenants, and begin to assimilate behaviors associative with the mise en scène of the estate, assuming roles of the upper crust. They then segue (or not – there's virtually no real transition) into dance parties, dinner conversation, and whatever else it is that old-money rich folk in the 1930's engaged in, all the while intermittently regressing into their primitive behaviors, the civilization they've adopted on the manor a façade that slowly erodes over the next 90 minutes or so, their aristocratic appearance just a performance that slowly dims, and these social mores shed away with as much fluidity as it does for them to shed their clothes, which they do, literally, as the mock-civilization ends right where it began, chasing after a croquet ball, stripping naked, running back into the enigmatic Long Island forestry and experiencing something of a lycanthropic freedom.
As per Ariel Levy's article "The Last Gentleman" (New York Magazine, October 24 2007), George Trow's body was discovered at his apartment in Naples in 2006. After resigning from his post from The New Yorker following a disaffected and strained relationship with then-head editor Tina Brown, he adopted a quasi-nomadic existence. He stripped himself of most possessions, traveled between states and continents. His mental stability loosened as his alcoholism flourished, isolating himself from friends and family; some would eventually reach out to him and find him in Nova Scotia a few years before his death. He had become frail and weak, and was living off a diet mostly consisting of scotch and sardines. And the neighbors too were complaining of his behavior. He was regularly leaving the house naked.
ivan passer, 1982
The studio system is a strange place. I understand and have never had a problem with the release of an Adam Sandler movie every few months; everyone knows they're pieces of shit, including the studios backing them, but they make money and I don't have to watch them (Billy Madison being the main exception, which I still readily defend, if only for its peripheral casting).
But it's those horrors of the test screening, the stories of studios botching an entire movie to placate a few people that would not have invested any interest in seeing said film had they not been paid to be there. The fate that befell the release of Cutter's Way, a seemingly deliberative sabotage due to internal conflicts and a transfer of power at United Artists, is one of absolute confounding purpose. The new bosses didn't much care for it, decided its commercial potential was low and in concert with a legion of negative early reviews, the most notable of which being attributed to Vincent Canby which wasn't so much as negative as just being outright dismissive, essentially dug an early grave for the film by limiting its distribution, giving it a title change, and pulling back on promotion; a release plan that was destined to fail - and it did, earning less than half its somewhat modest three million dollar budget back.
But it's a buried treasure. Easily one of the greatest films of the 1980's, the overlooked missing link between the Watergate-infused 70's post-Vietnam, post-Watergate conspiratorial thriller a'la Parallax View, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, and Bergman's equally overlooked Serpent's Egg and the sun-drenched day noirs of The Long Goodbye, Night Moves and Miami Blues. Cutter's Way has that rye manic humor familiar with the latter films, but systematically keeps a similar tone analogous to the former. I find it even systematically bleaker than any of those films; it's years later, characters are no longer battling an on-coming darkness but instead going head-on into the abyss in homicidal-cum-suicidal frenzy. Mostly suicidal.
The film follows a familiar shaggy-dog arc of murder and corrupted aristocratic power. We have three equally immobilized protagonists. Bone, a fading slacker-gigolo; Cutter, a one-eyed one-legged loud-mouthed vinegar-pissing Vietnam vet and Mo, his wife and co-dependent in alcoholism and existential despair who is perhaps the most pained and self-aware of the three; the actualities of her fate in the film grow all that more ambiguous upon repeated viewings and deconstructions of the film.
Fixated at the center of these outsider is JJ Cord, a local oil tycoon who Bone drunkenly witnesses dump the body of a young girl in a dumpster. He's bothered by it, but remains somewhat passive about the thing until he mentions it to Cutter. It opens a wound. The rage boils over and he seeks out something akin to revenge. Revenge, not so much necessarily, or at least not fully, dedicated for the killer of the girl in the trash. But Cord is a figure of representation for Cutter. A representation of reckless answerless hegemony, similar to the powers that be that transformed him into the physical and emotional cripple that he is; a vexation that's obviously long been manifest, sloshing around in the gut next to the Wild Turkey, churning like a turned tuna melt that refuses to exit. Cord is just as good of a fulcrum as any to take aim and explode upon. And then he does.
I don't really want to go into any detail at all about the actual last shot of the film. But I will say that when I was asked to contribute to this series, this is the movie that sprung up with the most automated urgency for me, the one I had to include above almost anything else (Killing of a Chinese Bookie certainly came close). That was over a year ago – a lack of equal parts free time, interest, mental stability and ability keeps a lock on being more prolific.
Right now I'm writing this in my cramped room, a meager desk space that's been usurped by neglected pizza boxes, nursing a drink and a runny nose of possibly illicit origin. And I'm listening to a recording of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. "Holding onto Nothing" is playing.
LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE ~ jon jost, 1977
I watched Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance for the first time about five years ago. I liked it quite a bit from what I recall, but I didn't really go back and revisit it for a good while and thus filed it away in the part of my brain that forgets where I put my car keys. A few years later, I was unemployed, searching for work, but not really sure as to why – other than that thing about running out of cash, the whole not-working thing was doing wonders for my sanity and social life, and I was fat enough that I could afford to miss a few meals when it came down to it, and besides my work ethic has always been relatively poor. I drift, I stagnate, and I procrastinate until the last few minutes of the eleventh hour – it's taken me thirteen consecutive hours to generate the first few sentences of this write-up, and as of this writing I'm not sure if they are worth keeping.
I interviewed for and was rejected from a series of jobs that I never really wanted in the first place – twenty, maybe thirty times over – a lot of them corporate micromanaged positions that I knew would encourage me to tap an artery in the first couple of days. Some I couldn't even make it through the interview process without losing my mind. I got into a minor argument with someone trying to interview me for a position at an inbound call center. About what I'm not sure. The other 29 or 30 jobs I interviewed for didn't go much smoother – the initial few I was legitimately nervous for and I didn't really do much for myself in terms of answering questions in any kind of discernable human language. After that, I just became apathetic, probably somewhere between the 13th and 15th time I was asked to provide hypothetical examples of how I, if I were to be hired-on as a ten dollar an hour part-time assistant data entry clerk, would benefit said company over the course of the next five years. Though most places, obviously, didn't give me a call back at all given my clear lack of experience and resource in a buyer's market. I had applied for Aftermath: cleaning up suicides, crime scenes, and road side accidents. It was a gig that would have paid a minimum of ten bucks an hour, and a maximum of 20 – depending on if you were scraping brains out of the carpet of a triple patricide scene or just hanging out in the office. Either way, it would have been the highest pay I would have ever earned at a job at that time. I never heard back from them.
But I guess as long as I could put out the effort to smuggle Hot 'N Ready's out of Little Caesar's dumpster after close while getting drunk off turpentine fumes from the Sherwin Williams next door I would be fine 'til winter.
In that period I watched Jost's film about five or six times in as many months, and thanks to some friends who had access to a movie theater for super-secret after hours screenings, once on the big screen – an impromptu late-night double bill with Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name. I became weirdly obsessed with the film, and I don't know why. Maybe because I identified with it because I was rapidly losing my mind at the time, or maybe because one of my favorite hobbies is staring at blank and empty doorways for five, ten, sometimes fifteen minutes at a time. I even tried to "remake" it at one point. Actually – I just lifted the title and edited together Tom Sizemore's sex tape intercut with Bud Dwyer's suicide footage and myself squeezing guts out of a rainbow trout I bought from the grocery store before assaulting it kilbesa and shoe polish. It sounds better than it is, and I'm glad I no longer retain a copy of it.
It is uniformly a pretty polarizing film, surely. Very rough. Very slow-moving. Shots and sequences in the movie generally exhaust every bit of the film stock used, virtually all single takes. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film occurs a bit after Tom picks up a woman from a bar, has sex with her, then begins the early morning by using her phone to call up and berate his family for several minutes. She asks him to whom he was talking to. "Something about a job," he says. "Do you always yell at people who are about to hire you?"
The camera's point of visual interest aligns itself neither to Tom nor the woman. Instead it stays firmly positioned in the living room, focal point on the television with no one watching. Carson at first, then the National Anthem and sign-off. Color bars and early morning television, an artificial dawning light bleeding in through the open window. It should be boring, and for the first time I ever watched it I'm sure it was. But the scene is a goldmine of nuance; the uncomfortable voyeuristic humor – it's akin to being alone in a parked car at the 7/11 as your friend goes in to buy a pack of cigarettes, apparently enough time for the schizophrenic in the car parked next to yours to get out of his car, tap on the driver's window, half down, and immediately start screaming at you, threatening to kill you, and of course you're far too stoned to really do anything about the situation if this nutter were to go ahead and keep his promise.
It's a long time going where I found myself in such a paradox of paranoia and fear while still finding the situation hilarious. The fact that I broke out in uncontrollable laughter – both as an inherent human defense mechanism to fear and a usually welcome side effect to the pot – except in this case, as it only seemed to infuriate the guy more. Inadvertently drawing my attention to the scrap truck that pulled into the parking lot at about this time ended up getting me out of this jam as the schizoid followed my point of sight herein, asking me for advice: "You think I should rob him?" He heard a response, but it wasn't from me. "Yeah, I’ll rob him. I'm going to rob him. Then I'm going to rob the store." -- He ended up not doing either, but just ended up walking over to Fred Sandford and screaming a bunch of similar nonsense to him. Other guy, sober, I'm guessing, just looked very confused. But this is a story for another time.
As I was trying to get to before I went into all that...
As a film, Last Chants is a curiosity and a strange attractor. For a movie that's never been really widely seen, never having any kind of official home video release and probably not a notable revival favorite on the festival circuit for the years to follow its release it's still managed to gain an impressive scope of influence. And I'm not talking about some drunk lowlife dicking around in fish guts. Jonathan Rosenbaum has been championing the film for decades, declaring it amongst the hundred best films ever made. Similarly, you can see shades of Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr, and Gus Van Sant's work coloring much of the foreground of Jost's early narratives – this film especially. It was a possible template for John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. At least I heard that it was from someplace. Some place that wasn't McNaughton himself, so who really knows.
Last Chants shares plenty of similarities with Stroszek. Besides being the greatest work of their respective filmmakers, they're movies about outsiders and their disintegrations in a world they have little use for. Main difference of course: Bruno in the Herzog film is a far more sympathetic of a protagonist. Tom is far more unreliable, more unhinged. He's kind of a dickhead too, though not necessarily an outwardly evil being – even as he robs and kills a man on the side of the road for a sum of cash that amounts to no more than fifty bucks. It's not like the money even really matters that much to him anyway; the killing is done without passion or motive – instead it's a logically wayward conclusion that fits this character – volatile, aimlessly careening off the banks to nowhere.
~ SEPTEMBER 21, 2015 ~