Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 10: Report on the Assassination of Joan Lee by Unknown Forces

I should perhaps begin by talking about how I screwed up. My intention was to read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs so that when I wrote about David Cronenberg's 1991 film I could say "Hey I read that book." Having read Burroughs before only to find his way of going about things (this is just my short-hand for a lot of things) to be entirely anathema to my own, I don't know that I would have been able to say much beyond that, but it seemed important to be able to say it, if for no reason other than to cover matters of due diligence and so forth. Well, I read most of Naked Lunch, and then one day I set it down, but with no sense of anticipation for the next time I might pick it up, and this is I think key. I never picked it up again, though I only had about 80 pages to go, and I've forgotten very little about what I did read that could be useful to me today. Therefore, in any way that matters, I have not read Naked Lunch.

I think I'll be okay, though, because watching the Cronenberg film again yesterday, and doing some research, I feel sure that David Cronenberg was not so much adapting Burroughs's 1959 novel as he was adapting this passage from Burroughs's 1985 publication of his novel Queer:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

"Joan" is of course Joan Vollmer, Burroughs' common-law wife, who, while in Mexico in 1951, and in a roomful of friends, Burroughs shot in the head and killed, apparently while trying, with Vollmer's permission, to shoot a glass off her head. "Why I did it, I don't know," Burroughs later told biographer Ted Morgan. "It was an utterly and completely insane thing to do." He would publish his first novel Junky two years later, then write Queer shortly afterwards (though it wouldn't be published until 1985), and then his signature, landmark novel, the phantasmagorically drug-sick Naked Lunch.

And while I might not be a fan of Burroughs' work, David Cronenberg, unsurprisingly, is. The idea of making a film out of Naked Lunch had been kicking around between him and producer Jeremy Thomas since 1984, though he says in David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg that the very early notion was more of a joke than anything else -- a joke, presumably, because as he tells Chris Rodley in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, a "literal" adaptation of Naked Lunch "would cost $400-500 million...and of course it would be banned in every country in the world. There would be no culture that could withstand that film." And, well, no, probably not -- the sex and violence in that novel ("what I read of it," he shamefully amends) is not only very graphic, but also so stratospherically elaborate that filming the sexuality alone would force the great special effects minds of the late 1980s to devise new ways of doing things. Add to that the fact that Naked Lunch is also, essentially, science fiction, and the expense begins to grow exponentially.

However, after The Fly and Dead Ringers, the film version of Naked Lunch was becoming a reality in Cronenberg's mind, and the method he developed was what he calls a "fusion" between himself and Burroughs, while the result was something like a general adaptation of Burroughs' ideas and a kind of biopic. Peter Weller plays William Lee, which Burroughs used not only as a character name in several novels but also occasionally as a pseudonym, an exterminator in New York during the 1950s, or perhaps an "exterminator" in "New York" in the "1950s." At the beginning of the film, he discovers that the bug powder he uses in his work has been skimmed. Lee learns from his writer friends Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) that Lee's wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been doing the skimming, because she's become addicted to the powder, injecting it like heroin. Lee is less horrified by this than maybe bemused, but anyway he goes along with her idea and begins using it too. He does take some steps towards getting Joan off the stuff by visiting a Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who introduces him to "black meat," made from a particular kind of Brazilian centipede, which is supposedly a drug similar to methadone -- wean her off the powder with the black meat, increase the black meat little by little, her craving will disappear. Things really kick off, however, when Lee is approached by two cops who take him to the precinct, where he's introduced to a giant talking cockroach (voiced by Peter Boretski) who tells him that he, the roach, is Lee's "case worker," and that Lee is an agent whose new mission is to kill Joan because she is an agent for Interzone, Inc., which in the grand scheme of things is essentially both a country and a drug-manufacturing corporation. It's best to not try to summarize all this too much, so the important part now is that Lee dismisses all this and flees, first killing the giant roach. Lee is a wry but passive sort of fellow, and he's soon back living his normal life, even his newly-boosted paranoia failing to crack him too much, until during a bug powder-and-booze fueled gathering of himself, Joan, Martin, and Hank he tells Joan that they should do their "William Tell" act, so she puts a glass on her head, he pulls a gun, and shoots her in the head. We're maybe a half hour into the film at this point.

Typically, I'm not a huge fan of films whose stories can mostly be interpreted as a hallucination of the protagonist, or some kind of drugged-out fever dream, but Naked Lunch is a different kettle of fish in this regard. Soon after Joan's death, Lee goes to a bar -- he's trying to figure out what to do, but he's also not a guy who's capable of doing a great deal -- where he's introduced by a gay man named Kiki (Joseph Scorsiani) to a Mugwump, a big humanoid insectile alien creature (voiced again by Boretski) who gives Lee new orders, as though that roach had never been killed, to travel to Interzone and investigate and write reports and such, et cetera and et cetera, the point being that later when Lee is telling Martin where he plans to flee, from the legal aftermath of Joan's death, he shows a confused Martin his plane ticket, which we saw the Mugwump give him, but what he holds out to Martin is a tube of bug powder. Or heroin, in other words. Martin is no less confused by this, but Cronenberg's intentions couldn't be more clear. Lee's "plane ticket" doesn't exist. He's going on a "trip," a pun I don't like making, and which Cronenberg himself doesn't make even while he's making it.

How much of what happens really happens? Very little, it would seem, but I can't see how that matters. Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is, in its best moments, an exhilarating intellectual portrait of diseased creativity, or creativity born from disease, the artistic flowering (whether you like what Burroughs wrote or not) of one writer from a brain exploding with the most powerful and deadly of narcotics, and raw guilt, and from tragedy that almost redefines "senseless." The cockroach, and the Mugwump, insist that Lee write very detailed reports, which he does (on a typewriter that itself turns into a Brundlefly-like object, half talking cockroach, half typewriter, which, needless to say, Boretski again), and this is why Lee/Burroughs writes anything at all. And he doesn't type a word until Joan is dead and he's in Interzone. His need to escape both justice and his guilt transforms into the "appalling conclusion" of a writing life. Of course Cronenberg complicates things a little bit further by having the idea of killing Joan planted in his head by a talking cockroach, which even in that early scene is a hallucination (isn't it?), because by then he'd started on the bug powder-as-drug (the bug powder, Joan tells him, provides a very "literary high," and by the end of the film I suppose we know what that means, don't we?) so nothing he sees, at least nothing that seems so very much out of the ordinary, can be read as "real," even within the very expansive borders of a Cronenberg film. The point being, in this film Burroughs has to kill Joan to become a writer, though he doesn't understand any of this, it's a subconscious notion (earlier he tells Martin and Hank that he gave up writing when he was ten; he also tells them that writing is dangerous), and in Cronenberg's film it can be read almost as his destiny. Which sounds terribly cold-hearted in regards to the death of Joan Vollmer, but one mustn't be so literal about these things. When you look at the mark Burroughs eventually made on 20th Century American literature, and you think about what Burroughs says led him to write in the first place, this demonically stupid death, is it insulting to think -- again, let's not take this literally, please -- that this was all going to happen one way or the other?

So there's William Lee pounding out his reports on his Clark-Nova bug typewriter, in a little room in Interzone. His literary career has begun, and though Lee still doesn't regard himself as any kind of writer, in Interzone he finds himself among the literati. Because Interzone, as Cronenberg depicts it, is, or might as well be, Tangiers, Morocco. This is where Burroughs wrote the novel Naked Lunch, and in the 1950s it was also for strung-out or otherwise socially unacceptable writers what Paris in the 1920s was for Hemingway and all the rest. A lot of Beat activity, in other words, but also the home, by then, of the American writers Paul and Jane Bowles. Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles were both gay, but were married to each other (in the case of Paul Bowles, at least, there could have been some of the intense denial that Cronenberg says was such a strong feature of Burroughs' own struggles with his sexuality, and which helped the filmmaker construct how homosexuality is presented in Naked Lunch, as a "disguise"; in any event, in his introduction to The Stories of Paul Bowles, Robert Stone writes that Bowles was "genuinely puzzled" that so many people thought he was gay). I bring them up because in Interzone/Tangiers, William Lee meets Tom and Joan Frost. Tom Frost is played by Ian Holm, and you're meant to pick up on the Paul Bowles link from certain circumstantial clues, such as Ian Holm's hair in the film, and then you see a picture of Paul Bowles, and you go "Hey their hair is the same." As for Joan Frost, she's also played by Judy Davis. Here's a picture of Davis as Joan Frost:

Okay, now here's a picture of Jane Bowles:

Now tell me, am I crazy? No, I don't think I am, either. While the last half of Jane Bowles's life is a very sad story filled with disease (she had a stroke when she was 40, which essentially put an end to her writing career, though it would take another thirty years to kill her), it's not as if Paul Bowles had anything to do with her death. So even though Burroughs and the Bowleses knew each other in Tangiers (Bowles was even instrumental in getting Burroughs's career started), the presence of these stand-in figures in Cronenberg's film is a little bit obscure to me. It could have as little to do with the historical figures as W. P. Mayhew in Barton Fink being very loosely based on William Faulkner, or Fink himself being based on Clifford Odets, neither detail being something about which too much should be made. But there are a couple of things. The Frosts are somewhat sinister figures, with Tom Frost going from friend to Lee to a man battling with Lee over insect typewriters (because Tom Frost is himself possessed/addicted/infected), and Joan (Jane) being revealed as having connections with Interzone, Inc., and a strange lesbian cabal. Nothing much is made of Joan Frost as a writer, and her drifting away from the action for a while could be her "stroke"...maybe. Whatever the case, in the film Joan Frost the writer, as Jane Bowles the writer, is sucked away from her literary life. Joan Frost also becomes the key to one of the most bone-chilling, brutally ingenious moments in any Cronenberg film. At the end, Joan Frost has ended up with Lee. They've left Interzone in a van and have crossed the border to Annexia, a country under some kind of Communist influence, it would be appear, because their van is stopped by soldiers. Joan is asleep in the back, Lee is driving. The soldiers ask Lee questions, including his profession. He tells them he's a writer, but they want proof. He holds up a pen. Not good enough, they tell him. So he turns around in his seat and wakes up Joan. He tells her that they need to do their William Tell act. So she puts the glass on her head, he takes out his gun, and he shoots her in the forehead. He has now proven himself a writer.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Coming Soon...

This is my promise to anyone who gives a shit, but mostly it will force me to actually fuckin' do it already. I'm so serious that I'm using swear language!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

You Never Think About Your Life

I watched some movies recently. Are they on video right now? Yes. All of them? Well no. But soon! Here, let me explain...

The Great Beauty (d. Paolo Sorrentino) - Last Tuesday, Criterion released Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, just a couple weeks after it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. So clearly everything's coming up Sorrentino lately, just a couple of years after his previous feature, This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as an aging glam rock 'n roll star turned Nazi hunter (for some strange reason, I haven't seen this yet) was met with some unhappy bafflement. And in truth The Great Beauty hasn't been greeted with only applause -- from what I've seen, it's a somewhat divisive films, and some of the unconvinced can be rather venomous. Why's that, I wonder.

The film stars Toni Servillo (absolutely sensational) as Jep Gambardella, a middle-aged writer whose one novel was published decades ago. It's been mostly forgotten, and he looks back on this young man's work with what Dennis Potter once called "tender contempt." Now Jep spends his time writing culture reviews and articles and living it up at night, his apartment, which overlooks the Coliseum, being one of what I must assume are many, many hubs of big-spending nightlife. But Jep's empty. He has a good time, but his mind is never far from a distant memory of Elisa (Anna Luisa Capasa), a girl he loved in his youth but hasn't seen in many years, and who, he learns from Elisa's husband, recently died, never having forgotten Jep.

All of which makes The Great Beauty sound like a rather tender story about aging and regret, which to some degree it is, but Sorrentino's film is also a colorful, grotesque, whirlwind attack on contemporary Italian obscenity, excess, and blindness. Though not precisely evil, things can get somewhat infernal back at Jep's place (a shot of a regular party guest realizing in horror that she's overdosing on cocaine is almost thrown away), and if Jep's fiddling while this all happens is self-aware, that doesn't excuse him. Sorrentino sets up his intentions rather ingeniously in the beginning, with a series of images depicting tourists as well as oblivious locals lounging against and clashing with the relics of the ancient world that are now scattered throughout Rome like trees or park benches. This modernity set against the ancient -- and Jep, possibly alone among his friends, does notice the past -- brings to mind Rossellini's Journey to Italy, which had George Sanders rushing away from his wife Ingrid Bergman so that he could enjoy Italy's nightlife while she wandered further into its past. Also evoke are Fellini, in various guises, and Antonioni, whose work in particular Sorrentino seems interested in trying to draw towards some kind of logical conclusion, and even Resnais, in Sorrentino's meaningless and almost frightening lost and wealthy characters, sprawled across the lawn.

The Great Beauty starts to have a tough time at about the ninety minute mark, around the time a particularly significant story development sends Jep reeling. Sorrentino appears to share Jep's struggle to right himself, and the film hit several points that feel like logical endings before skipping off in a new direction. And while The Great Beauty hardly resembles a film that was written with a screenwriting guide within easy reach (this is a good thing), it's hard not to imagine that Sorrentino doesn't now understand the pitfalls of introducing a vital character (I'm thinking of the 104-year-old nun, here) three-quarters of the way through your film. Be all that as it may, The Great Beauty nevertheless remains a sort of glorious act of flag-planting: Sorrentino has wrapped up the major landmarks of Italian cinema into one bemused, disgusted, sad, and hopeful package. The stain that is the prime ministership of Silvio Berlusconi has often been noted when discussing this film, and while that would logically be Sorrentino's inspiration, The Great Beauty is a greater and more sympathetic biopic than that man could ever hope to deserve.

L'Immortelle (d. Alain Robbe-Grillet) - Speaking of Alain Resnais, sort of, on Tuesday Kino Lorber's Redemption line will continue its Alain Robbe-Grillet revival with their release of writer/director Robbe-Grillet's 1963 debut L'Immortelle. Robbe-Grillet had written Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad a couple of years previously. That experience appears to have stuck with Robbe-Grillet, let's say, because frequently resembles that earlier film, prominently using, for example, the imagery of people standing completely still and spread over a confined landscape like chess pieces. It's been some time since I saw Last Year in Marienbad, but here the ultimate effect of this effect is one of almost horror-film unease. This partially despite, and partially because, of the fact that L'Immortelle is very consciously a crime thriller, or "crime thriller." Despite their clear relationship to one genre or another, I've found it almost impossible to comfortably categorize the Robbe-Grillet films I've seen so far, and it's no less difficult here, even though it's nowhere near as aggressively post-modern as Trans-Europ-Express, which I wrote bout earlier this year. In the case of L'Immortelle, Robbe-Grillet's story is a simple one. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze plays a man traveling through Turkey. He stops for directions and finds himself in the company of a mysterious woman played by Francoise Brion, with whom he naturally falls in love. There's much he doesn't understand about her, but she's game and alluring and then one day he can't find her. She doesn't answer his calls, she doesn't call him, or leave a message with his somnambulant landlady, nothing. Obsessed, he begins searching for her, and L'Immortelle begins to take on the air of the kind of thriller that might have been written by Patricia Highsmith, or if you were too high-falutin' to call it a thriller, maybe by Paul Bowles.

Doniol-Valcroze's quest, and the form it takes, is classic thriller material, but of course Robbe-Grillet's concept of where this should all end is all his own. Scenes repeat, but with different characters. A child seems to appear in two places at once (and the man witnessing this seems not the least bit alarmed by it). The barking of a Satanic gangster's two dogs can be heard at any time. An antiques dealer from whom Doniol-Valcroze purchased a strange and supposedly rare figurine assures him that the exact piece that has reappeared in his window cannot be the same one. And in fact I'm eschewing one bit of plot that occurs about halfway through and completely blows L'Immortelle up. And which by the end means exactly what?

As I've said, the overall atmosphere of this film is one of horror, not unlike, actually, certain stories by Robert Aickman or Reggie Oliver, or any other classically-minded writer who sends an unwitting tourist into a world he or she can't hope to understand. Not that Turkey itself is the source of horror, but Doniol-Valcroze's character isn't depicted as wholly ignorant of the language just because. He's an easy mark for whatever it is that gets his, or their, or its, hooks into him.

A Touch of Sin (d. Jia Zhangke) - Another major 2013 film, this anthology of violent stories about China will also be arriving on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, on April 8. Jia Zhangke loosely adapts several true events to tell the story of an angry miner (Wu Jiang) who suffers physical and mental abuse as a result of corruption in his village before finally snapping and going on a murder spree; a brutally violent thief (Baoqiang Wang); a receptionist at a sauna (Tao Zhao) who kills a man threatening her with rape; and a young man (Lanshan Luo) who is driven by financial and romantic desperation to commit suicide.

Money is at the heart of each of these stories, and the belief of the corrupt in that the ability to spend entitles them to everything they want. Now what other 2013 film does that remind you of? It's not just that, either -- coincidentally, and in pursuit of a slightly different goal, the final shot of A Touch of Sin mirrors the final shot of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. But maybe not even slightly different. The final scene of The Wolf of Wall Street is set in New Zealand, which suddenly turns the target of the last shot, and the whole film, into a global one, while A Touch of Sin is a local story, top to bottom. Nevertheless, both final shots could perhaps be titles "Look At Yourselves," which is always a fair question.

A Touch of Sin is not otherwise particularly Scorsese-esque, though it, like many Scorsese films, is quite violent. This being my first Jia Zhangke film, I don't know if he's ever dealt with such extreme violence on screen before, but it does often seem like it's something he's not used to, and is constantly grappling with find new ways to make it both fresh and visceral. When the miner begins blowing people away with his shotgun, it's a shock, however easily this turn is predicted, but as Jia explores new angles from which to film it, or new tracks along which to follow the movement of bodies, it's hard to not think something more blunt and less glossily splattered might have not made his point better. If such a suspicion occurs to you, a moment later on, when Baoqiang Wang's thief approaches a man and woman outside of a bank and abruptly shoots the woman in the head, might confirm that you were correct. It's a horrible moment, not polished, seemingly not choreographed (though of course it was). One uncomfortable possibility in the change in styles is that the people the miner kills (with one exception) "have it coming" -- see also the killing of the potential rapist by Tao Zhao's receptionist. I'm not about to wring my hands over a killing done in completely justified self defense, but it's filmed in a way that is meant to remind the viewer of a martial arts or samurai film. Mind you, Jia doesn't completely flip his lid here, but the associations are unmistakable, and the design of the moment strikes me as not an entirely good idea. There are as many ways to film violence as there are to film a dream sequence, but I think filmmakers today too rarely appreciate the power of bluntness, and perhaps don't realize how even the slightest stylization can rob the moment of its slap. In A Touch of Sin, I don't think Jia Zhangke lands as many slaps as he intended.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

As Sane As You Or I

The last time Kino Lorber released any Pete Walker films on Blu-ray, it was in the form of a box set that included The Comeback, Die Screaming, Marianne, Schizo, and the cream of that particular crop, The House of Whipcord. I wrote about the set here, but the gist was that these are some odd films, about halfway into the realm of exploitation but never really pushing all the way. This reticence, which Walker has spoken about, could be to the film's benefit, as in The House of Whipcord, or could result in a film that barely seemed able to sit up, as with Die Screaming, Marianne. On top of all this was a whole different kind of strangeness altogether, but now's not the time to simply rewrite that post -- read it if you feel like it. The point is, today sees the release of two more Walker films by Kino through their Redemption line: The Flesh and Blood Show from 1972, and Frightmare from 1974. The range in quality on display in that earlier set is rather precisely illustrated with these titles.

To begin with The Flesh and Blood Show, well, where do I begin? The plot is simple: various young actors, all but two of whom are strangers to each other, are summoned by the promise of paying work to a once-abandoned but supposedly now up-and-running-again theater located in a small English seaside village. The show they are to put on, as the director Mike (Ray Brooks), who was summoned in the same way as the actors by the same mysterious employer, never ceases to explain, will be entirely improvised (we see a little of what they're putting together, and what they've decided on, apparently, is some kind of interpretive dance piece about cavemen). This means nothing in itself, however, and I think the improvisational nature of their show is just a short-cut by Walker and screenwriter Alfred Shaughnessy so that they can quickly move past any questions about what the play is. The play is nothing, and there is no play.
This is perhaps fitting since The Flesh and Blood Show is also nothing. The title promises two things but provides only one, and in fact much of the time it seems like Walker is using the barest bones of a horror concept as a vehicle for nudity, of which there's a fair amount. All of it gratuitous, of course -- when the three actors we meet first (played by Luan Peters, David Howey, and Judy Matheson) arrive at the theater, they see two other young actors sleeping in the stalls, and the female of the two (Penny Meredith) is topless, for no particular reason that I could find. When she wakes up and sees that she's been observed, she says "Gor blimey!" (paraphrase) and covers up. It's that sort of movie. There's also lesbian shoulder rubbing.

It's worth pointing out that these sleeping actors are initially mistaken for deceased actors, and this is the second time in about ten minutes of screen time that someone is mistakenly believed to be dead. Those instances account for nearly half of the violence in the film. The Flesh and Blood Show is almost shockingly bloodless, despite the fact that it does include a decapitation (off-screen). In an interview on the Blu-ray, Walker chalks this up to censorship, and I'm sure he's right, but because the film, specifically as a horror film, has nothing else that it especially feels like offering to its audience, it's left with nowhere to go. I should say that of course the actors start being murdered, and who the hell summoned them to this theater in the first place anyway? So you'd think that what you're getting here is a proto-slasher film, but without any slashing. And I suppose it still is a proto-slasher film in some basic ways, but there's no push to wallow in anything. I've never seen a more humdrum lesbian scene than that shoulder rubbing bit, is what I'm really upset about.

One thing that's sort of interesting about The Flesh and Blood Show, and this is another way in which it differs from slasher films, is that not every character is killed -- in fact, most of them survive. This makes it seem almost like a murder mystery, which it sort of also is, though this element of the film doesn't have any energy either. But it is sort of interesting that the body count is so low -- I can get behind that, in fact. I was reminded of the rarity of this in horror films just a couple of nights later I watched The Prowler, Joseph Zito's somewhat notorious slasher film from 1981. That movie leaves a lot of people breathing at the end, too, and in some strange way kind of feels like an attempt to correct The Flesh and Blood Show, because while the body count is low, the gore is intense. The work of Tom Savini, naturally, the violence in The Prowler is some of the most disturbing I've seen in a slasher film (hence the film's cult status, I suppose). Savini was an infernal kind of wizard back then, and his make-up effects could seem not terribly far removed from what one might conceivably imagine the real thing looking like -- what does it look like when a nude woman taking a shower is actually stabbed to death with a pitchfork? Watch The Prowler and you'll have a pretty good idea. Of course, like The Flesh and Blood Show, The Prowler is otherwise quite bad, and everyone is content to hitch their star to Savini's wagon. Pete Walker had no Savini to carry him through The Flesh and Blood Show, and we're left with a film that Walker himself admits is "safe."

Not so Frightmare, however. This one also has a very simple story, though in this case it's one with a bit more potential to have something interesting squeezed out of it. In the 1950s, a married couple are arrested, tried, and convicted of a series of cannibalistic murders. In the opening flashback, we learn that the wife was the truly Satanic one, but the husband was fully complicit in her evil, so they're both locked up in an asylum until they become sane, an outcome the judge seems to think can be guaranteed. When Frightmare's main action begins, we soon learn that about fifteen years after being locked up, the couple -- Edmund and Dorothy, played respectively by Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith -- have been deemed sane and released. They have two daughters, one grown, named Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) and one still a teenager, named Debbie (Kim Butcher) who was born while Dorothy was locked up and then put in an orphanage. Jackie and Debbie are together as the film opens, though Debbie believes her parents are dead. Jackie still sees her mom and dad, and indeed her dad does seem mentally stable. But Dorothy very much is not, and Jackie and Edmund know it. They want to stop her, even if it means tricking her, from tipping all the way back over into cannibalism. I'll tell you right now that they fail.
Frightmare is imperfect, but excellent. As is often the case with Pete Walker films, the youngsters who populate his stories are all blandly hip professionals played by actors who might be good if they were more carefully directed -- it's almost impossible to say. Though they all look different, they're all, men and women, basically the same person, more or less, at least those who aren't morally corrupt. What you also get with Frightmare, however, and which you also got with The House of Whipcord, is performances by more seasoned (older) actors. In this case, Rupert Davies, for example, is rather wonderful in a sad kind of way. You wouldn't be able to call this film a character study, whatever that means anyway, but Davies does sketch out the life of a man who found himself committing, or helping his wife commit, unspeakable acts, and you can tell that when he was convicted fifteen years ago he's the sort of person who believed his sentence was better than he deserved. Now that he's been granted a freedom he doesn't believe is his due, his only hope is to stop it from ever happening again. Very little of this is in the script, but Davies plays it.

Then you have Sheila Keith. Dorothy is the killer here, the source of horror, and she's magnificent -- she's terrifying, even, and Walker doesn't make some kind of grotesque joke out of her age (Keith wasn't elderly when she made the film, but she's one of those people who always looked older than she was) -- he simply lets go of her leash. The first scene where Keith is allowed to become fully berserk is truly chilling, a disturbing mix between "movie psycho" and the unpleasant thought that perhaps this is what being in a room with a psychopathic cannibal is really like. And she enjoys it. Keith's Dorothy loves murder, and loves sadism, and loves to eat flesh and lick human blood off her hands. It's how much Keith seems to relish it all that really turns your stomach, because while Frightmare is considerably more violent than The Flesh and Blood Show, Walker still isn't working with Tom Savini. But Savini isn't missed. Keith more than picks up the slack.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Mind of God

It occurred to me recently that if you wanted to make a particularly strong case for the auteur theory, you might want to look at documentary filmmakers. Or rather, my thinking went like this: If you wanted to make a strong case for the auteur theory, what about looking at documentary filmmakers? Oh because most of them are stylistically and artistically barren. Because the auteur theory isn't supposed to have anything to do with rhetoric or activism, the pool of documentarians to whom you could beneficially -- for you or them -- apply it is a shrinking one. Maybe hasn't always been, but is now. When you think about it, though, documentary filmmakers are hemmed in by facts, if they're honest and ethical (and the pool grows ever smaller) so that the only way they can really distinguish themselves is through a creative, artistic point of view. Still, the great non-fiction (a dicey term, which is another thing, but never mind) filmmakers don't often find themselves roped into that debate, and they should be. Or some should be. Or one should be.

In 1978, Errol Morris released his first film, the documentary Gates of Heaven, about pet cemeteries in Napa Valley. Roger Ebert flipped his damn lid for the movie, and rightly so, and this reaction by the world's most popular film critic no doubt helped this strange, quietly breathtaking piece of work, which could very uncharitably, blindly, and myopically be described as a collection of talking head interviews, not actually fall of the edge of the Earth. I watched Gates of Heaven the other night, having not seen it in years, and among the many things that are striking about it is that even then, even before his major breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line from 1988, and even before Morris's invention of the Interretron, a rough description of which would paint it as a camera attachment that allows Morris and his interview subject to view each other through separate camera lenses so that the speaker, Morris's subject, is talking to Morris but looking directly into the camera, even before all of this, his style was intact. In terms of the kinds of things held within the frame, Gates of Heaven really doesn't offer much; most of it really does consist of a speaker, or speakers, positioned in the middle of the frame. There are very few scenes that even call for cutting from one speaker to another (I can think of one such scene, a partial pet funeral that appears maybe halfway through the film), and with one or two notable exceptions I don't think the camera ever moves. Yet somehow out of this -- and certainly with the help of the unique subjects Morris seems to have an unerring skill for turning up -- and in just over 80 minutes, he created a sort of whispering philosophical epic about pets and pet cemeteries (literally -- Morris is too smart and too curious to use them only as a metaphor), the 1970s, naiveté, insensitivity, sensitivity, mortality, and, frankly, just loads more. Gates of Heaven is a very direct film in some ways -- the way in which it is so very much about the 1970s, and the burgeoning self-help culture, and how the children of the 60s and 70s were not the same kind of people as their parents, comes through very strongly. However as the film fades out, there is a lingering mystery to it, a sense that for all a given audience may have understood, and may have "gotten" about it, there are still depths that have been plumbed by Morris but perhaps not yet by us. And though I'm not here today to talk much more about Gates of Heaven, my own theory is that the source of this exhilarating uncertainty is, in fact, the pets. The silent montage of pet headstones near the end seems to change everything. Why? Because, maybe, it's a reminder that everything else you've now got on your mind because of this film started here.
So that was his first film. How did Morris do it? Well, as implied above, by seemingly doing nothing. But of course that can't be it, can it? I'll tell you, though, the movie that's my ostensible subject here, offers another example of his mysterious genius. That film is A Brief History of Time, Morris's film about Stephen Hawking from 1991, and his follow up to The Thin Blue Line. There are a lot of standard documentary tools that Morris likes to dispense with -- not every time out, but when it suits him, at least -- and one of those tools is chyrons, which are the on-screen graphics that tell you who a speaker is. I'm talking about Harlan Ellison again or how much I hate Bonnie and Clyde again, and under my fat head it says "BILL RYAN, THINKER" or whatever. A useful tool, one must admit, but if Morris can get by without them, he will -- he does in Gates of Heaven, but through context, and because people keep talking about each other, the viewer can figure it out. But in A Brief History of Time there are a whole lot more speakers than there are in Gates of Heaven, and all of them are talking about one of two things, and often both at once: black holes, and Stephen Hawking. So while it might be easy to figure out who Hawking's mother and sister are by what they're saying, his various classmates from Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, are rather harder to place a name to. It doesn't matter a great deal -- again, Hawking is the film's subject, and their's as well -- but you do still kind of wonder. Then the movie ends and the credits roll, and we get a list of the speakers, credited beside -- and this is the kicker -- one of their quotes from the film. Like so:
Now, I don't know what anyone else's experience with this has been, but when I read those quotes I immediately was able to place the words to a face. It could be that this was achieved by the film simply being well edited, by which I mean all the good stuff was left in and the bad stuff was taken out, but it still feels a little bit like a magic trick. "How did he know I'd remember that phrase?" Or maybe because this film is also just about 80 minutes and my memory's not as devastated as I sometimes think it is. Morris is still taking a lot on faith, or putting a lot of it into his audience.

A Brief History of Time, I should probably point out, has been the "lost" Morris film just about since it's release. For whatever reason, while everything else he's made, including more obscure movies like Vernon, Florida, has been more or less readily available, A Brief History of Time never got a standard DVD release, and in this interview with The Dissolve, Morris describes his quest to buy it back and then working with Criterion to have it added to their collection. Which is why we find ourselves here today, with the Criterion release happening tomorrow. Pardon my frank enthusiasm, but this is a wonderful thing in general, and a wonderfully put together release. An adaptation of Stephen Hawking's physics text/memoir (which I confess with much chagrin I've never read) of the same name, in A Brief History of Time Morris juxtaposes biographical material, usually delivered by Hawking's friends, family, and colleagues, with Hawking speaking about his work, his scientific philosophy, as well as the history of black hole theory, in the development of which Hawking played a key role.

Which will have to do for a plot summary. Visually, Morris gets away from the strict talking head aesthetic -- and it is an aesthetic, at least the way he does it -- that he'd already gotten away from anyway with The Thin Blue Line, and, in the way that earlier "true crime" film employed reenactments of the murder of a Dallas police officer to make a case for the innocence of the man who was convicted and against the man who turned out to actually be guilty, sort of "reenacts" classic metaphors (the chicken and the egg) and those original to Hawking (a shattering teacup) to illustrate quite abstract scientific concepts. And when photographing his interview subjects, with the indispensable assistance of cinematographer John Bailey, Morris goes deeply, and perhaps wryly, British. Almost everybody, except Hawking's family and one or two others, is just on the edge, and sometimes partly within, a kind of dim, leathery shadow -- no one is shown smoking a pipe but you can smell one anyway. Even if this is only a depiction of what the environments that housed scientific debates in Cambridge, Oxford, and elsewhere in the UK some fifty years ago might look like only in the current popular imagination, it nevertheless, as aesthetic choices that concern themselves with the past must do, makes it all feel immediate -- the exhilaration of discovery, even one that may later be disproved, somehow comes through the words of these pleasant but reserved men because something about the visuals puts us there. That, and of course the structure of the storytelling, the easily skilled storytelling by both Morris and his subjects, and the fact that this giant is sitting apart, shrunken and rendered immobile by his debilitating disease, his mind so breathtakingly dextrous that his distance from everyone else in the film puts him not just on another street, as one former classmate of Hawking says of him with great reverence, but another planet.
"He liked dancing, you see," Hawking's aunt says at one point, speaking of the scientist as he existed before the effects of ASL changed his life. Morris shows us photographs of this other young man, and while they're plainly the same person it can still be hard to reconcile these pictures with the famous scientist we all know. Morris lets this disconnect and lines like those spoken by his aunt just sit and accumulate so that along with everything else A Brief History of Time is, it's also quite melancholy. Melancholy, though never pitying -- not that it could be expected to be the latter, because what a boneheaded misstep that would have been, but it would be hard to watch the film and not walk away from it feeling both sad and humbled. Stories told about Hawking's early symptoms and eventual diagnosis, not to mention the initial prognosis that he would only live another year and a half -- this being told to him over fifty years ago now -- feel horrifying even todau, the intense focus that his never-weakened mind was finally able to summon still bewildering. But while Hawking's mother does speculate that his ASL allowed him to work harder than he might have had he not had the disease, she is quick to dismiss the notion that it could ever be considered any kind of blessing. This is the strange nature of Stephen Hawking as a public figure, that we might consider and wonder about but never understand. That Morris does not use his film to pretend to find an answer to Hawking's full and deepest thinking about his situation is not only as it should be, but it's in keeping with the rest of his work, and Hawking's. At different times in the film, Hawking points out where Einstein was wrong, as well as where his own theories have been mistaken. Nothing is ever certain, including a healthy life.
A Brief History of Time is the first of Morris's two science documentaries, the other being 1997's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which juggles the stories of four disparate men with four disparate jobs -- a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, an expert on naked mole rats, and an MIT scientist who builds robots. That film, which wonders about our relationship to animals (like Gates of Heaven) and the, when you think about it, resemblance of so much in life, including our own bodies, to insects, finds the cosmic here on Earth. Even the topiary gardener, as shot by Morris and DP Robert Richardson, seems to be creating an alien environment that we're as yet incapable of fully understanding. The fact that he's doing this by manipulating flora to look like fauna, and that this is juxtaposed with images of artificial life in the form of the MIT scientist's (insect-like, it should be noted) robots, with mammals that behave like insects, and with lions who have been trained to entertain us and thereby actually resemble us, well, it's a lot to take in. And this is Morris actually scaling back from A Brief History of Time, at least in terms of scope. But going earthbound only serves to show how little we understand about what we do and see every day, and by the way at this point in his career Morris's Interrotron was in full working order, so this new tweak to his style adds a shot of surrealism -- these people on screen are looking right at me -- that is somehow both a gimmick and yet wholly unfeigned. It's an honest gimmick that makes the way a person looks at you when they're talking to you appear off-kilter. So basically Morris drags us back down to Earth and suddenly that's when things go crazy. That film seems to ask the question "What the hell are we, anyway?" Meanwhile, in A Brief History of Time, so much is unsolvable, or anyway unsolved, the questions and goals of Hawking and his fellow scientists so overwhelmingly massive, but it's all rooted in Hawking's life and humanity, that the result is a kind of drifting, general feeling that we're all in this together -- we don't know what this is about, but one day we will. The last shot of the film is of the back of Hawking's wheelchair, which is superimposed over a field of stars, the idea being that Hawking is facing and moving towards those stars. As an image in an Errol Morris film it's perhaps a little bit on the nose, but so little else in his career has been that just one can't hurt.

Monday, March 3, 2014

It's Cold Out There Every Day

[This post contains spoilers for The Ice Harvest as well as Groundhog Day, but you've all seen the latter anyway]

Shortly after seeing Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest in 2006, something occurred to me. Before I tell you what that something is, I should note that The Ice Harvest, a somewhat neglected entry in the late Ramis's filmography, is a favorite of mine, and when Ramis died on February 24 it was the first movie I thought to watch in his honor. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you take care of this as soon as you possibly can, and once you have perhaps you, too, will find something occurring to you. And that something is that The Ice Harvest in many ways closely resembles, and in fact functions as a sort of inverted restating of, Ramis's beloved 1993 masterpiece Groundhog Day.

In Groundhog Day, to catch you up, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors a cynical and intensely arrogant Pittsburgh weatherman who, as the film begins, is begrudgingly making his annual trip to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony, which involves the removing of Punxsutawney Phil, groundhog, from a hole and announcing his prognostication regarding how many more weeks of winter we will or will not have. So with his his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) in tow, Phil, weatherman, goes there and in general acts like a big-city asshole. However, his prediction that a blizzard will not hit the area turns out to be wrong, and Phil realizes he's snowed in, in Punxsutawney. The next morning, he wakes up to the same sounds and sights and conversations he'd had the morning before. He's freaked out, but just tries to roll with it, until it happens again the next morning. And again and again and again.
So that's the premise. In The Ice Harvest, John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer in Wichita, KS who, on Christmas Eve, and during a terrible ice storm, and with Vic Cavanaugh (Bill Bob Thornton), his pornographer colleague -- "friend" seems too strong -- has just robbed Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), Wichita's reigning mob boss. The ice storm has made it impossible for the men to skip town as expeditiously as they'd like, so they have no choice but to wait it out. As it happens, though, "waiting it out" ends up involving Charlie nursing the love he has for Renata (Connie Nielsen), who owns the strip club Charlie frequents, and therefore choosing to help her blackmail a local politician. Charlie also spends a lot of time escorting his drunk friend Pete (Oliver Platt), who is unhappily married to Charlie's ex-wife. Charlie also spends a lot of time afraid that Roy Gelles (Mike Starr), one of Guerrard's thugs, is on to the robbery, and communicating (in person, since he slipped on the ice and broke his cell phone) with an aggravated Vic, to see what should be done about this. And so on and so on.

Now, those two summaries may not seem to you to offer up a lot of similarities, but I do hope you'll have noticed on theme joining the two, which is the inability to escape an unhappy situation due to inclement weather -- this is sort of key. A blizzard keeps Phil Connors locked into this fantasy zone of Punxsutawney (let's just say that Punxsutawney is magical and that's why this happened) and so forces him to relive the same day over and over again. One of the many ingenious aspects of Groundhog Day is the logical progression of Phil's attitude towards his situation. First, he's frightened, but soon he sees the potential to take advantage of every selfish, even borderline sociopathic, impulse his natural personality has ever entertained, and without consequence. But when one of those impulses -- to seduce Rita by using what he's learned about her over the course of possibly hundreds of conversations with her that he remembers but which she doesn't -- leads him to fall in love with her, only to start from zero the next morning, an existential despair takes hold and he turns to suicide. Which doesn't work.

The Ice Harvest, meanwhile, begins with Charlie in the grip of existential despair. He's about at the point Phil is after maybe suicide attempt number three, though without the "let's throw this at the wall and see what sticks" attitude Phil is able to bring to his attempts, Charlie is content to simply do something that many people would only consider suicidal, which is, he rips off a violent mob boss. He hopes it will free him from the clutches of his miserable, amoral existence, but while the fear of death is a key motivator of Charlie's actions throughout the film, its not unreasonable to think that somewhere in his subconscious his thinking is "No matter how this ends up, I'm out." What's great about the character of Charlie Arglist is that he's a miserable shit of a human being who knows exactly what he is and hates himself. By the time we meet him, most of the miserable shittiness he's ever done in his life has already been done, but the regret of it all hangs like death over him, and lives in Cusack's face (this is Cusack's best performance, as far as I'm concerned). Now he wants to start from scratch, as Phil does every morning, or barring that, to die.
So, picking up with Groundhog Day, Phil's inability to kill himself flips a switch in his mind and he begins a new phase. He begins to learn things, to not behave selfishly, to help prevent as many of the big and small mishaps that he has by now learned will transpire over the course of one February 2 in Punxsutawney (the fact that he can't prevent the death of an elderly homeless man, no matter how hard he tries, is perhaps one of the many nods by Ramis to his own self-defined "Budd-ish"-ness). In short, he starts to become a better person. I put the bit about Ramis being "Budd-ish" in parentheses, but of course it's more than a parenthetical in Groundhog Day, as each new day is sort of a new life, and as he goes along his wisdom expands, his self-absorption drains away, and he becomes the shining light of Punxsutawney.

Of course, this doesn't quite happen to Charlie Arglist, but some version of it does. As his night wears on, Charlie witnesses, and even takes part in, some horrendous things. He has associated himself, willingly, with murderers. He disposes of corpses. He sees people die. He kills people (he sort of has to, but the Buddhists would frown on it anyway). Pete, who is maybe his best friend, is a drunken lout. In all honesty, the film tries to let Charlie off the hook a little bit regarding his ex-wife by giving evidence that she's no prize, but they don't let him off the hook regarding his kids, who have clearly suffered because of him, and on top of that, when Charlie and Pete blunder into Pete's home in the middle of a Christmas Eve dinner with the in-laws, Pete's father-in-law offers the two of them a pretty strong and utterly fair rebuke. Pete behaves appallingly, drunk and boorish and profane, no matter how unpleasant his wife, Charlie's ex, is, because she ain't the only one sitting down to dinner. Anyway, so this is Charlie's friend. And as this all plays out, the horrors of Charlie's Christmas Eve, Charlie's disgust, with himself and others, continues to boil. Like Phil, he breaks through the awfulness. Phil becomes a wonderful person, and Charlie becomes, at best, an acceptable person. In Groundhog Day, as things get better for Phil, Phil gets better. In The Ice Harvest, Charlie gets better as things get worse for him. By the end of Groundhog Day Phil has helped out pretty much everybody in town. The last thing Charlie does before finally getting out of Wichita is to help the strip club's bartender, who's trying to take his family to Six Flags, siphon some of his gas. It's something, anyway.

Phil's endless loop finally ends, and February 2 turns into February 3. There's no literal time loop in The Ice Harvest, but the film has sort of a motto that implies a metaphorical, or maybe linguistic, or anyway thematically appropriate if somewhat mysterious version. It's first seen written as graffiti above a urinal in the strip club men's room (curiously appropriate) and it says "As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls." At first glance it almost seems like the phrase is eating its own tail, but of course it isn't -- there's a way out of it. It also implies a sort of crumbling, of big things, everything, crashing down around your ears. But there's still a way out of it. The temperature warms up, the ice thaws, the roads clear, and you and your hungover friend can drive away from the ruins.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

There's Nothing You Can Do About It

A. E. Hotchner has had a very strange writing career. The extensive bibliography he has amassed is no doubt the very logical result of his strange and eventful life, but it all probably only makes total sense to him. I will say right here that I've only read one of his books, more on which in a little while, but that was enough to deeply intrigue me about the man and his work, and here's what I know. Hotchner's career has been hitched at different times to the wagons of two of the most famous men of the last century: first, Ernest Hemingway, who Hotchner got to know through a magazine assignment. They became friends, and after Hemingway's death Hotchner wrote a hugely successful memoir about that friendship called Papa Hemingway (there would follow a few more Hemingway books over the years, including a collection of the two men's correspondence). Second, Hotchner was very close friends with Paul Newman, and it was with Hotchner that Newman founded Newman's Own, Inc., the producer of a very successful line of salad dressings, popcorn, and so on, all of the profits funneling right into charities like Newman's The Hole-In-The-Wall Gang. A couple years ago, Hotchner published Paul and Me, another memoir about a friendship, and over the roughly thirty years of working together, Hotchner and Newman would co-write (I'm naturally assuming Hotchner did pretty much all the actual writing) three cookbooks as well as Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good, a history of the Newman's Own company.

So there's that, and along the way Hotchner also wrote authorized biographies of Doris Day and Sophia Loren, a scattering of novels, many of which, like The Man Who Lived at the Ritz, are World War II thrillers, as well as at least one historical epic, called Louisiana Purchase. On top of all this, though, are Hotchner's personal memoirs -- that is, not a memoir that illustrates him in the shadow of someone like Hemingway, but directly about his life and family. There seem to be a great many of these -- last year, the then 92-year-old Hotchner published the latest in this series, called O.J. in the Morning, G&T at Night -- but most famously are the childhood memoirs, and most famously of all, his first childhood memoir. That would be King of the Hill, published in 1973, about his life in St. Louis during the Depression. This is the one I've read, by the way, and it's terrific. I won't pretend to have read a huge number of memoirs in my day, so I don't know if I'm about to describe something that's fairly commonplace in the genre, but what seems to me to be Hotchner's stroke of genius in composing King of the Hill was the decision to write it in the present tense, and not as an older man looking back. The Hotchner who wrote the book was in his 50s, but the Hotchner who tells the story is about twelve. As a result, the book is immediate, funny, as scrappy as a smart kid angling for food would have to be, and neither exceedingly precocious (though he describes himself as a pretty good student) or wise beyond his years. It's great.
You know who else has had a pretty strange career? Steven Soderbergh. His first film, 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was a massive success, a winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and one of the key films of the major American independent film movement of the late 80s and into the 90s. I remember seeing a documentary about that movement which included an interview with Soderbergh, in which he said the success of that film allowed him to "cash in [his] chit," and make his second film, the bizarre, somewhat Brazil-esque, black and white bundle-o'-genres that is 1991's Kafka. Not overly fond of his work on that one, Soderbergh moved on to an adaptation -- and here's where I suppose my "point" begins -- of Hotchner's King of the Hill. That was 1993, and in 1995 Soderbergh's career took a curious turn with his crime film The Underneath, a movie Soderbergh himself thinks so little of -- did then, does now -- that the only way he could reinvigorate himself as a filmmaker was to make the most wacked-out movie of his career, the absurdist comedy Schizopolis. After that? Out of Sight. And from there, what with one thing or another, here we are, however you'd like to describe "here." "A sense of the formal possibilities of commercial filmmaking, plus Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience" is all I'm prepared to offer at the moment.

I bring all this up, of course, because today Criterion is releasing King of the Hill on Blu-ray and DVD, the film that brought these two strange careers into convergence. And it's a curious thing. I first saw King of the Hill maybe seventeen years ago, and remember it as being one of Soderbergh's best. Having just watched it again a couple of days ago, I'm now no longer sure it is. The gist, first of all, is this: Aaron (Hotchner, that would be, played in the film by Jesse Bradford) lives with his family in a hotel in St. Louis. They are quite poor, though his father (Jeroen Krabbe), a frustrated and somewhat thoughtless man, struggles daily to find work. Early in the film, Aaron's younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) is sent off to live with relatives, thereby easing some of his parents' financial burden. Shortly after this, their mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is diagnosed with tuberculosis and has to live in a sanitarium until she's better. Finally, about midway through the film, the father gets a job as a traveling watch salesman, but his territory is not St. Louis, so he, too, has to leave Aaron, so the boy is finally the "king of the hill", alone in the apartment as fellow tenants around him are being locked out of their rooms for not paying rent (with all their possessions locked inside). He has no money, almost no food, and his few ideas for getting any of either generally come to nothing. His reckless friend Lester (Adrien Brody) helps when he can, but it's not enough.

What I didn't remember about the film was how pretty it looked -- it is, in Soderbergh's estimation, "too beautiful." That's his assessment now, as delivered via one of the special features on the Criterion disc, and while I don't always agree with Soderbergh's opinions about his own work (more on that etc.), I have to say in this case, he's not wrong. Or not entirely wrong. It's a good movie, King of the Hill is, but an interview with Soderbergh that is included in the Criterion booklet, gives some indication of his thinking behind the film's look, and why it ended up being something of a wrong turn. He says that the bright and glossy look of the film (courtesy of DP Elliot Davis) comes from two things: 1) during the Depression, many Americans had a great deal of optimism (and indeed, whatever his faults, Aaron's father is at least optimistic, though he may not always convince his family that there's good reason to be) that these bad times would end and things would get better, and he, Soderbergh, wanted the film to carry that idea in its look, and 2) he says that Hotchner's memoir was not exactly The Grapes of Wrath. Which, okay, it isn't, and in many ways "delightful" is good description of the book, but there's some mighty grim stuff in it all the same. Witnessing something ghastly during a tornado, a peculiar and fatal traffic accident that results in cattle running wild outside a synagogue, and a memory Aaron has of a terrible game of "king of the hill", all of this stuff, and a bit more, make Hotchner's book, if not exactly The Grapes of Wrath, still a book that is haunted by death and the possibility of it that hung over the country throughout the Depression. None of those scenes made it into the film, and I'm not arguing that they should have, but they give the book a texture that Soderbergh seems now to regret leaving out of his film. All of this also connects to Jesse Bradford's performance. Bradford is good here, but he's one of those polished kid actors, no rough edges, nothing hardscabble about him. The fact that Aaron was a very gifted student seems to have taken hold for Soderbergh as the most important thing about him, and so even if the mudslide game of "king of the hill" had been included in the film, it would be hard to picture Bradford and Soderbergh's Aaron wanting to take part in any such game. In the film, Aaron isn't quite a kid, in other words, but the whole power of the story comes from recognizing that he is just a boy, and not some kind of small adult.

Still, there's lots of good stuff here. Krabbe is excellent as the father, and you get the sense in the movie, even more than in the book, that the father's thoughtlessness, while sometimes infuriating, stems from his need to never stop -- never stop angling to keep his car from being repossessed, to never stop doing that one little token thing that will keep his family from being evicted for another week, to never stop trying to find work that will suddenly dissolve all his other problems into nothing. There's a nice moment in the movie, which for some reason I've always remembered and which is taken from a detail in the book but reconfigured to another purpose, where Aaron is making soup for his dad and himself. Sullivan and Aaron's mom have both been sent away, and the ingredients of the soup Aaron is making are these: hot water and ketchup. It's tomato soup, of a kind, and as they talk about the father's next plan to get work, they eat the soup, and both remark on how good it is. That strikes me as daily life during the Depression in a nutshell.

Also good is the stuff concerning another tenant, Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), and the prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern) he seems to be able to afford hiring on a long-term basis. A heavy rejigerring of parts of Hotchner's book, there's a nice humor to these scenes, and even a mystery that does more than anything else in the film to make Aaron seem like the child he is. The climax of this is also as close as the film ever gets to being truly grim. One shot of this subplot's grimness is described by Soderbergh, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a "movie moment," and it is that, but it's also hugely effective, and the kind of shot in the arm King of the Hill needed a little more of.
I feel obliged to point out before closing that one of the extra features on the Criterion disc is, actually, The Underneath, Soderbergh's 1995 crime film that so dissatisfied him at the time that it almost derailed him creatively. Well, he hasn't warmed to it any in the intervening years, and, in his introduction to The Underneath on the disc he calls the film "sleepy," essentially devoid of ideas, and he would only recommend it to anyone interested in examining the arc of a filmmaking career. And it certainly is interesting on that level, but it's also interesting because it's a really good movie. I find Soderbergh's disdain for it, good-humored though it may be, and always is with him, completely baffling. Based on the novel Criss-Cross by Don Tracy, which also served as the basis for the 1949 Robert Siodmak film Criss-Cross starring Burt Lancaster, The Underneath stars Peter Gallagher as what I guess you'd call a degenerate gambler named Michael who loses everything, including Rachel, the woman he loved (Alison Elliott), although he "lost" her by running away. So he comes back home to not only attend his mother's (Anjanette Comer) wedding to a nice old fellow named Ed (Paul Dooley), but to possibly hammer down some pegs and stay. He gets a job with the same armored car company Ed works for, and tries to rekindle his relationship with Rachel. Who initially is having none of it, and anyway is now involved with a club owner played by William Fichtner. Who, in the interest of short-cutting through some plot summary, I must remind you is a club owner played by William Fichtner.

All of which is leading to the central crime, an armored car robbery, and as if to make matters worse, the whole film is superbly executed. The acting is on point up and down the line, I'm not sure Peter Gallagher has ever been better (excluding of course his performance as Vic Tenetta in The Hudsucker Proxy), and Comer and Dooley are more than up to the task of representing the ordinary people who deserve our sympathy, quite frankly, far more than any of the major players. I confess I've never seen the Siodmak film, nor have I read Tracy's novel, but the aftermath of the robbery, which I'm trying to tell you might not be original to Soderbergh for all I know, is both unusual and, in its way, classic noir. Everything is classic noir, of the best 1990s variety, and there's a sharp and wry "you're all fucked" philosophy to it all.

So what does Soderbergh hate so much about it? He's said, but I'm still stumped. I know he takes particular issue with an early dinner scene involving Gallagher, Dooley (and by the way, this is back when Gallagher was an Altman regular, so him and Dooley, and then for some reason in a small role Shelley Duvall, The Underneath is like a mini-Altman travelling show), Comer, and Adam Trese as Michael's suspicious and resentful cop brother, Adam. In the DVD extra, Soderbergh talks about how dinner table scenes are a horror show for directors, both in terms of the logistics, and in terms of being able to inject any style or anything interesting at all into the proceedings. Soderbergh's solution in this case was to use a series of split diopter shots -- foreground and background both in focus, but a blurry line down the middle of the screen -- putting, say, Dooley in the front and Gallagher in the back in one shot, Gallagher in the front and Comer in the back in the next -- which is, I don't know, perhaps not ideal, but not as head-slappingly ruinous as Soderbergh seems to think. And it does establish a style early on, which I think gets more to the heart of why Soderbergh is, well, wrong about his movie. It's stylish, smart, the use of flashbacks to Michael's skeezy gambling days used with a terrific sense of rhythm...the damn thing just works. Soderbergh needs to give The Underneath another shot, give it a fair shake for Christ's sake.

King of the Hill is a fine movie, but in this Criterion release I honestly believe the film that shows up in the special features as a kind of historical curiosity is the real selling point.