12/12/6 - 12/21/6

john cribbs

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 12/2/6 - 12/11/6>>

12.12. World Trade Center

If anyone out there was interested in seeing Oliver Stone castrated stylistally, this is the movie they've been waiting for. If I had seen this movie without being told who made it, I would have guessed Norman Jewison. For one thing, it's just what everyone was afraid it would be: a propaganda film. There's literally a scene where some people are watching the attacks on a TV in Boston and one of them says, "Bastards..." It may not have children running by in slow motion waving the American flag  la Armageddon, but there is a marine who rushes to help survivors of the destroyed towers who majestically states, "I'm going overseas to AVENGE THIS" (or something like it, referring to the war in Iraq, which for those of you who've been paying attention the last five years know has NOTHING TO DO WITH 9/11.)  

Secondly, why would you put Stephen Dorff and Frank Whaley in a movie together, especially one where they are both covered with dust from the fallen towers and have conversations with each other, making it confusing and impossible to tell which one is which?  The center of the story is supposed to be the unwavering bravery of two firefighters who went into the building and were trapped in the rubble. They are depicted here as not knowing what was going on, entering the building without any knowledge that it was all about to fall down and not rescusing anybody (the Nic Cage character basically gets his squad killed) - what's heroic about that? And as Funderburg pointed out, it all plays out like The Day After Tomorrow or Poseidon, with generic Hollywood archetypes desperately trying to survive a scenario which, out of context, could easily be mistaken for The Towering Inferno. It's a glorified disaster movie, and a boring, repetitious one at that (when one character cried out, "Don't fall asleep on me, John!" I thought he was talking to me.) But back to Stone: he was present at the screening, and I really wanted to ask him, "Did you want to make this movie?" but decided he seemed a little too drunk and cranky. I didn't want him to go ballistic on me the way he did on Janet Maslin, who could not stop talking about this photograph during her interview:

 

12.13.6. Inland Empire.

Allen Cordell believes that David Lynch has made the same movie three times with Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. All three (it can be argued) concern a character who projects a new, "ideal" identity that manifests inside an alternative reality which in turn collides with the world of the original character (still with me?) Lynch is interested in this idea as part of a very specific surrealist's quagmire: the layers of voyeurism which result in a mirror effect of the individual watching themselves, something he's been toying with since Eraserhead. Jeffery becoming the monster he had watched from the closet in Blue Velvet... Laura seeing the picture on the wall in Fire Walk with Me and ending up inside the same room from the photograph... and in Empire, two different examples, one in particular Laura Dern as an actress who walks into a moviehouse and sees her movements reflected on the giant screen before her. It's because Lynch is constantly exploring himself and his own prevalent themes - oppressive relationships, female suffering, the layers of voyeurism, psychological torture, television and pop culture, atonement and rebirth - that he returns to the same set-ups using many of the same people (besides Dern, Grace Zabriskie, Harry Dean Stanton, Laura Herring, Justin Theroux and Diane Ladd return in Empire.)

Approriate to his recent divorce, his latest is a film about marriage which, in Lynchian terms, means it's about dissolution, paranoia and the identity crisis of wealth versus poverty and monogamy versus promiscuity that spends three hours discovering new rabbit holes (literally, in sequences from his "Rabbits" series of shorts) for its despondent heroine to fall through.  It contains some of his best images and ideas, and Mary Steenburgen appears in a scene looking, for the first time in her career, not unappealing. The end credits, a musical number, reminded me of the bookends of Takashi Miike's Gozu: the warning in the first scene that everything to follow was a joke that shouldn't be taken seriously and the final image of maniacal laughter straight into the camera.

 

12.14.6. Army of Shadows.

Army of Shadows opens with a man (Lino Ventura) being transferred to a prison camp. He's greeted politely enough by the commandant and ushered to his quarters, where he quietly unpacks his suitcase. In his stylish trenchcoat and orderly demeanor, he might just as well be checking into a hotel room; the difference is that here, he can be led in front of a firing squad any minute. And that's the world of Jean-Pierre Melville - a world that's civil on the surface yet cold and brutal at its core, where danger is the inherrent part of an everyday formality that shadows a dark morality. Trust is volatile and death ubiquitous, so the code of ethics for Shadow's resistance fighter protagonists are as loose and improvised as any of Melville's gangsters. They live by the same ostensible rule that fueled the conflicts of Le Doulos and Second Breath: double cross your friends and you die.

When the rebels decide to execute one of their number for selling Ventura out, they risk becoming too much like the enemy they're trying to defeat. It's in finding out how far they'll go, what decisions they'll make, that Melville finds his own take on French fatalism and provides a heavy suspense that saturates the film with angst. Ventura and his friends are fighting a just cause, but at what price? What do honor and virtue have to do with the behind-the-curtains resistance struggle in WWII?

 

12.15.6. Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Breath).

I was craving more Melville (and more Lino) the night of the Army of Shadows screening, so I threw on my shitty bootleg copy of this unjustly neglected classic when I got home. The black & white makes the Melville universe so much grittier and coarse: stripped of their lush sepia, the morality of his characters (in this film, the question is whether to murder two cops during an armored car heist) is ambiguous as ever. Like Le Cercle Rouge, Second Breath begins with a prison escape that leads our antihero back to his former life of crime and underworld associates.  

The two defining scenes, where loner Karloff explores the attic where he's to meet rival hoods and plants a gun in a nook that he can easily access, only to have it discovered by one of the hoods when he does the exact same thing (hailed by Herzog for its use of "space and orientation" as characters) are given so much time to play out, Melville's deliberate pacing becomes a methodical transience in which we're learning about the people of the film and investigating their motives, what makes them tick.  These two scenes are a great companion piece to the opening confrontation of Le Doulos and the final shootout in Rififi.

 

12.16. The Double Life of Veronique.

There's a Richard Brautigan poem called "Xerox Candy Bar," which in its entirety reads: "Ah you're just a copy/Of every candy bar I've ever eaten." I feel that way about so many foreign films that are given major distribution in America - they seem tailored specifically to have that "Oooooh, foreigny" quality. I'm thinking mainly of brightly colored, romantic quest/comedies with posters of brilliantly lit actresses smiling with their eyes closed or looking adorably at her audience like Ridicule, Cinema Paradiso, Amelie... movies that have less to do with art cinema than they do with cute and clever treks through Europe: a Sarah Jessica Parker movie set in Paris, funded by Frommer's, usually released in the states by Miramax. It's sad that Kieslowski fell into this sort of generic, empty, eager-to-please approach after amazing films like Blind Chance, Camera Buff and the defining Dekalog series. I blame his infatuation with hot international starlets and their chests, something that tends to derail every master filmmaker (except Buuel and Haneke - it's currently marring the work of Francois Ozon and Hal Hartley.)  

The Trois Couleurs trilogy was an artistic bankruptcy for Kieslowski, even if it was his international meal ticket, and The Double Life of Veronique is a precursor to that vacuous meandering. From the title, I thought I could expect a dark film about identity - a Kieslowski noir - but it's actually two stories about two young women who are not related or part of each other's lives yet look exactly the same and have similar experiences in life and love. They're played by Irene Jacob, who is often brilliantly lit (by Slawomir Idziak) and (yep) smiling with her eyes closed. A Polish/French co-production which is "universally beloved" according to the sleeve, Veronique is occupied with the sort of Kundera-esque notion of narcissistic void filled by physical love (or memory of love) depicted frivolously in endless shots of mirrors and POV shots. The one scene that reminded me of prime Kieslowski is set in a marionette show, with Jacob watching the stage while the puppeter is transfixed with her image in (yep) a mirror. It's the central plot of the second story, in which Jacob gives a much more interesting performance and has a much more flattering haircut, making the film seem lopsided on top of disenchanting.

 

12.17. Apocalypto.

Since my girlfriend couldn't be restrained and just had to go see Apocalypto earlier this week, I had to go see it by myself today. To be honest, I was looking forward to seeing just how much Mel Gibson had lost his mind, sputtering around behind the camera in Martin Riggs-doing-Three Stooges mode with the occasional anti-Semitic remark thrown in for good measure while a bunch of confused native extras looked on, an embodiment of his now famous "South Park" depiction. I was banking on a cryptic, inaccessible film about Mayan rituals and primal savagery - the movie everybody else was dreading. Instead, Apocalypto is two hours of old fashioned Hollywood adventure, where a young hunter named Jaguar Paw is taken into captivity by a sun-worshipping, stone-city living Mayan tribe, then breaks free and spends the rest of the movie pursued by the plunderers who devastated his village and people.

It's bascially the structure of Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, with grisly human sacrifice added to the mix. Heads topple endlessly down temple stairs, fleeing prisoners are skewed by flying spears, jaguars rip faces from skulls: this is as close to mania as Mel is willing to get, his obsession with mutilation and gore which previously informed his malformed hero in The Man Without a Face, the slow torture scene in Braveheart and the entire running time of the whip-cracking, snuff-happy The Passion of the Christ. What people always erroneously accuse Sam Peckinpah of is actually more attributable to Gibson as a director: his favorite theme is human suffering, his favorite sound effect the foley mangling of a melon to represent disembowelment. It's scary to think what he'd do to the Jews if he got hold of them. The first scene of the film seems inspired by "Fear Factor" more than anything.  

To further its resemblance to any straight Hollywood thriller, the film has Jaguar Paw on a ticking time clock to rescue his pregnant wife and young son, who've been left stranded in a deep cave that just may or may not end up slowly filling with water to up the ante.  The Will Durant quote that opens the movie ("A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within") has nothing to do with anything that follows. The thing is that it's fine, the movie's fine - kind of shocking because of how unshocking it is. There's a really weird moment, I can't tell if it's a joke, where a tree falls in the path of the warriors and one of them shouts, "I am walking here!"  Was... was that a Midnight Cowboy reference? Weirdest part of the movie.

Side note: A few days later I was at work, and somebody I didn't know walked up to me and said "Hey I know you you were the guy sitting all by yourself at Apocalypto! Why were you all by yourself?" I regarded him with restrained hatred.

 

12.18. Unforgettable.

I'd ignored this inappropriately titled, Fugitive-meets-Brain Jail title since its original release back in high school, even though I managed to see every other Ray Liotta movie at the time, including No Escape, Turbulence and Operation Dumbo Drop. It didn't look very good (unlike those other movies!) and as a big John Dahl fan I didn't want to be disappointed. Since I had recently been let down anyway by his passable but bland big budget effort The Great Raid, I thought I'd finally give this one a shot. It turns out that what Dahl did for Red Rock West and The Last Seduction - transcend their run-of-the-mill cable B-thriller leanings and use them to create a small movement of original neo-noir classics ("daylight noir," I'd call it) - he didn't bother to do for Unforgettable.

Much of it is pretty standard with a lot of false starts, the most criminally missed opportunity not using the premise (forensic scientist uses experimental serum to experience his murdered wife's memories and find her killer) to explore Liotta's anguish over the way he treated his wife while she was alive and he was an abusive alcoholic. The fuel behind his obsession to solve her murder is glanced at but never given the attention it needed to make it interesting: he feels bad because he was blind stinking drunk the night she was killed, but that's about it. Liotta's good in the movie, but distant and hard to sympathize with (not that my wife's ever been strangled to death, still...) and a love subplot between he and Linda "IS She Hot?" Fiorentino never really develops. Most of the running time is spent trying to figure out which of the two actors who always play villains, Christopher MacDonald or Peter Coyote*, would be unmasked as the guilty party and realizing how Kim Cattrall must have really needed "Sex and the City" at this point based on her small, useless role.

* Doesn't it seem like Peter Coyote was always chasing something in the 80s?  Either extra-terrestrials or "invincible" pop outlaws? Funderburg and I created an amusing scenario in which a mid-80s Peter Coyote is frustrated because he can't hook up his Atari. He even calls up Kenny Rogers for help (we just assumed they must have known each other.) We're currently developing it into a sitcom.

 

12.19.6. Old Joy.

Former joy, "old joy," and the present absence of it, permeates throughout Kelly Reichert's second film. Two old friends (Daniel London and Will Oldham) get together for a camping trip, then come back (sorry to spoil the whole movie for you.)  They're both at a clear transition period in their lives: London is an art teacher about to settle into conformity with his pregnant girlfriend, Oldham is a lone pothead about to slide into despair and homelessness. For its non-commitment to any sort of dramatic tension or action of any kind, Old Joy does provide an astute character sketch.  I've known guys like this, sets of guys like this who've grown apart, and I certainly share some of their least admirable qualities myself.  

The film (which runs just over an hour) is centralized on one amazing scene which takes place at the duo's destination, an outdoor lodge/spring bathhouse (the credits warn against any smoking or drinking at the actual location.) The malaise of their existence takes on an umcomfortable devastation in this isolated environment - a place that makes it hard to feel trapped anywhere but inside yourself - like they could be there forever and their absence wouldn't effect the natural world around them.  In this scene, which frankly could have been an amazing short film by itself, Oldham shows he's got the acting chops (he was also in John Sayles' Matewan, weirdly) by delivering a great monologue about a strange experience he once had riding his bike. It ends in a moment of connection that lasts only a minute or two, but says more about the relationship between friends than anything in the entire running time of Sideways.

Critics have fallen all over this film and I'm surprised to have found it such a worthwhile distraction. It gives itself over that imbued small movie stylization - bland camerawork, endless shots from car windows - that, while not aesthetically offensive, seems like weightless filler (keep in mind this comes from a guy who did NOT enjoy track 10 on Polyphonic Spree's "The Beginning Stages of-" nor Derek Jarman's Blue.)  Still, it's got ideas, and I like it the more I think about it. The Yo La Tengo score is excellent.

 

12.20.6. The Fury.

I can't not watch this film when it's on TV. I own the LP, and am constantly disappointed when the rhythm of John Williams' ultra-Star Wars-y score doesn't cause someone in the room to explode. I love this movie unabashedly - it may be my favorite of Brian De Palma's early cannon (an opinion not shared by many people I know - Cassavetes sure seems to hate it.) Yes, it's a shameless Stephen King swipe, but since De Palma made Carrie, doesn't the old John Fogerty dictum that an artist can't rip off himself apply? Like deals with invasive mnd powers in the form of female sexuality as a cathartic runaway train: in the former, Carrie's bleeding provokes her deadly powers; in this film, the telekenesis/telepathy of Amy Irving's Gillian triggers bleeding in those around her, causing them to suffer by proxy.

Unlike Carrie, The Fury's Gillian has people who care about her and want to protect her, although none of these folks meet a pleasant end. The death of Carrie Snodgress is possibly the greatest use of slow motion ever from a director known for his amazing slow motion scenes. The walk to the stage in Carrie, the Odessa steps shoot-out at Chicago's Union Station in The Untouchables - and slow motion is not an easy thing to do well (the only other notable slo-mo scenes I think come close are Belle's entrance to the castle in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and the jiggling topless joggers in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life.)  Throbbing head veins, flying amusement park cars, old school pong and pizza, psychic levitation, Middle East shoot-outs, an anti-shirt Kirk Douglas...what's not to love?

 

12.21.6. Pretty Persuasion.

There isn't much to say about this toothless Heathers-wannabe that throws around words like "dyke," "kyke" and "ass-crack" as if it discovered them, trying to wring reactions from its audience by using the same boring tricks as every other "edgy" indie film: racism, dysfunctional families, teenage sex. Been there, bought the t-shirt. Ron Livingston, more or less useless since Office Space, is a high school teacher targeted for a sexual harassment suit by three students in a blatant rip-off of Wild Things.

Evan Rachel Wood, more or less useless in general ("She sucks balls!" according to my girlfriend), is the leader of the group (transformed from the norm by the nuclear goop.) She uses phrases like "unkempt miscreant" because she's smart, while her friend says things like "iambic pentagram" and "pediatrist" (instead of "pedophile") because she's stupid. The third member of their clique, an Arab girl, is stupid because she's Arab. This waste of time (even Selma Blair dancing around suggestively doesn't help) has more in common with Clueless (it even steals a joke from it!) than the provocative black comedies it sets out to emulate.

<<click here for 12/22/6 - 12/31/6>>

 

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