Tuesday, August 31, 2010

With a Lance and a Musket and a Roman Spear

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Neil Marshall is a director who seems desperate to hold on to his cult. In his quest to become…I don’t know…the next John Carpenter(?) he has a tendency to slide back two steps for every three he’s gained, and as an intermittent fan of Marshall’s (at this point, I don’t think anyone is more than an intermittent fan, but then again we’re only four films in – the day is young) I’m becoming a bit frustrated. Marshall refuses to take off -- in that he's not using them as a springboard -- completely from his past successes, but, still, at least he is taking off -- in the sense that he's leaving them in his rearview -- from his past failures.
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It all began with 2002’s Dog Soldiers, Marshall’s on-the-cheap werewolves vs. the Army film, which was considered good enough by some to get this whole cult business going. I wasn’t on board, myself, though at this point I don’t remember the movie well enough to offer up any kind of strong objections (the fact that Dog Soldiers has almost completely fled my memory might be considered damning enough, if I wasn’t the one saying it, because my memory’s shot). But next up, Marshall offered the world The Descent, a highly effective, at times even torturous, in the good sense, horror film about caves, female spelunkers, and blind, shrieking, underground monsters. It’s an excellent film, about which I won’t say too much at this time – for now it’s enough to note that the Marshall cult was ready to get this show on the road, and that Marshall seemed perfectly willing to lay his cinematic influences bare, in The Descent quoting liberally from, for instance, Kubrick’s The Shining, among others. This was all fine by us, until Doomsday, Marshall’s next film, came along, and struck the world as basically Escape from New York and The Road Warrior, but bad. Not terrible, and in fact, for my money, sort of fun, but about as empty as such fun can be. Doomsday’s debt to The Road Warrior is especially immense, to the point where you can’t say, as you could with The Descent, that Marshall was quoting his influences – this was plagiarism.
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Needless to say, the Marshall cult began to lose a lot of its verve and enthusiasm at around this point. When the object of a cult begins, with only his third film, to flaunt his lack of creativity and show signs that he is not, in fact, in the filmmaking business, but rather the recycling business, the acolytes tend to start standing around, scratching their necks and kicking the dirt, filled with a dread that this may not have been such a hot idea after all. Such doubts tend to be fleeting, however, and why shouldn’t they be? At worst, Doomsday and The Descent cancel each other out (Dog Soldiers counting as sort of an introduction, an announcement of potential, more than anything else), and there’s no reason to not hold out hope for Marshall’s next film. Maybe if he could come up with a movie title that began with a letter other than D, he’d really be on to something.
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Which brings us to Centurion (that’s a C! Which is only one letter back from D, but that’s okay, you don’t have to be a world-beater every time). And we’re left with what? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s better than Doomsday, not least because, as far as I can tell, it’s a whole hell of a lot less derivative. The story, briefly, is about Quintos Dias (an excellent Michael Fassbender), a former gladiator and now Roman soldier, who is stationed in Britain, which he and all the other Romans are trying to conquer. (Let's get this out of the way: if you go to Centurion expecting or hoping to see parallels with current events, you will find them. However, you might have a more difficult time trying to make the film conform to whatever your own politics might happen to be. And I'm cool with that.) Dias's initial platoon, or whatever, gets massacred by the dreaded Picts, and Dias, because he can speak their language, is taken captive. He escapes, however, and is taken in by the Roman ninth infantry, led by General Virilus (Dominic West). Except they're also massacred, due to the double-dealings of a Pict tracker and double agent named Etain (Olga Kurylenko, whose make-up and costume as Etain causes her to bear more than a passing resemblence to Lee-Anne Liebenberg as Viper in Marshall's Doomsday; it's probably worth mentioning that Liebenberg was the most striking feature of that entire film), a now-tongueless victim of past Roman misdeeds whose head is filled with thoughts of vengeance. So Virilus is taken prisoner, and it turns out seven of his infantry survived the massacre, including Dias, and soon a rescue mission is under way, which goes badly, and soon we're in escape mode. It's all very effective and thrilling.
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It’s also very lean. One thing about all of Marshall’s non-Doomsday films is that they tell very simple stories, with Marshall focusing his energy on craft, mood, tension, and all that other stuff. Doomsday was too busy by half, and to give you an idea of how far on the other end of the scale Centurion can be located, consider that it’s a story about ancient Rome, honor, combat, betrayal (and I guess also identity, if you want to be one of those people), yet it clocks in at 97 minutes, with credits. When was the last time that happened? Such films tend to have a minimum run-time of two and half hours (incidentally, if lately I seem to be making a lot of the run-times of various films, that’s only because I believe that efficiency is an underrated quality). But Marshall gets all the same stuff in there as his swollen brethren do, and he doesn’t really short-change anything. What isn’t needed is gone. If, in short fiction, it’s vital that you don’t waste words, in filmmaking it’s often equally vital that you don’t waste seconds, and Marshall doesn’t.
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What Marshall also doesn't do, however, is good blood. And let's be honest: this is a blood movie. Like Braveheart and 300 before it, Centurion is a grand, blood-and-thunder, skull-crushing decapitation festival. It tells an interesting story, has swell acting, and all that, but its primary reason for being is to drench everyone in viscera. I don't know about you, but that's plenty okay with me -- the problem is that practical gore effects, of the kind used in Braveheart, seem to be going to the way of stop-motion animation, at least for now, and in Centurion what you see a lot of are swords and such arcing down into the unfortunate torso or head of a doomed Roman or Pict, and then a smear of what appeared to me to be MS Paint, red, on the spray-paint option. This is fairly distracting, and unnecessary, and all around a bad choice.
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But it's not ruinous. It's just a very strange blunder, one that, to me, kept 300 from ever achieving a level beyond "curiosity" (although that movie has a number of other issues) but here just keeps Centurion from being a slam-dunk, albeit one of modest ambitions. The film still represents Marshall back on solid ground, though; closer to the heights he reached with The Descent (pun!), still scrambling a bit to fully get back there, but comfortable at least with the fact that Doomsday is, for now, behind him.
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UPDATE: I just changed my first paragraph, as the early version made it sound as if I was getting ready to slam Centurion, which I don't do. It was a bad paragraph.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Collection Project: The Kind of Face You Hate

A little over two years ago, due to my own interest, and at the urging of a few friends, I decided to start a blog (this one!). I knew, roughly speaking, what I wanted to write about thereon (though the tone would be slow in developing), so the one thing that was really holding me back, apart from my lack of computer skills and knowledge, was a title. I wanted a good one, something interesting, and movie-related, but not obviously so, and one that in some way would reflect my interests. And I was coming up with bupkis. I'm generally bad with titles anyway, and whatever movie lines I had rattling around in my head for easy use weren't doing the trick. Nothing that worked as a title, at least..
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Then, not long after this problem began, I was watching Requiem for a Killer, the short documentary on the making of Blast of Silence on that film's Criterion DVD. Typically, the makers of those documentaries front load their films with clips from the movie in question, and Requiem for a Killer was no different. Early on, they showed the clip from Blast of Silence where writer/director/star Allen Baron, as contract killer Frankie Bono, is considering his new job, and looking at photographs of his target. Blast of Silence employs some of the best narration (written by Waldo Salt, who is here credited as Mel Davenport) I've ever encountered, using the gravelly voice of Lionel Stander to not just comment upon the action, or allow the viewer into Bono's head, but to speak to Bono, in second person, referring to Bono as "you". Most second-person narration in literature I find to be too much of a self-councious stunt, a lazy attempt to bring the reader into the book to some degree (it's similar to the whole "you're the voyeur!" idea in Hitchcock and De Palma movies, though, obviously, in those cases it's handled with much more grace). But in Blast of Silence that narration, those "you"s, are all about Frankie Bono, and the cynical, sardonic, occasionally even disgusted (it's subtle, but it's there) tone taken by Salt and Stander serve to expose Bono's blasted soul better, even, than much of what's actually on-screen.
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Though what's on-screen's nothing to sneeze at its own self. Despite the fact that Baron (who, in Blast of Silence, looks a great deal like The Hustler-era George C. Scott) has had a long directing career, he hasn't made that many films, working mostly in TV for the past 40-some years. As a result, even though it's not, Blast of Silence feels a little bit like a one-off (much of this is due to the relative unavailability of the rest of Baron's film work), like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls. And both films have a strong ethereal, haunted quality (literally, in the case of Harvey's film) as the protagonists of both films spend a lot of time wandering around their respective environments, and through a particularly gray form of black-and-white photography. Both Frankie Bono and Candace Hilligoss as Mary in Carnival of Souls do have a purpose (of a vague sort, in Mary's case), so "wandering" may be the wrong word, but the very specific purpose behind Bono's movements are, at times, irrelevent to watching him walk through, say, Harlem, because one of the pleasures of Blast of Silence is seeing New York (and it could have been anywhere and been just as captivating) and its inhabitants captured not as extras, because a lot of them weren't, but as people who existed at the age we see them, in 1961, shopping for Christmas presents (for example). Blast of Silence nails down, for posterity, a brief record of daily existence. Not the daily struggles and existential whatevers, but just the facts of it -- this person walked past this store at this time. It's the sort of thing captured in more detail by actual documentaries, like the Maysles brothers' Salesman, but Baron did it at the service of a crime story about a lonely hitman who's about to have to pay for the way he lives.
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(By the way, Arbogast of Arbogast on Film once suggested to me that Blast of Silence would make an interesting double-bill with Frank Henenlotter's dirt cheap, New York-based horror comedy Basket Case. I haven't programmed that double-bill yet, but I have seen Basket Case, and in the way Henenlotter steals shots of tucked-away corners of that city, and long-gone storefronts, I believe I found the connection Arbogast was hinting at. If he ever reads this, he can tell me if I'm wrong, which I bet I am.)
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Anyway. So I'm watching Requiem for a Killer, and that part where Bono's looking at the picture comes on, and Lionel Stander says, in the narration, that the guy in the photograph wears a mustache to cover up for the fact that he has the mouth of a woman. This kind of face, Stander says, to Bono, is "the kind of face you hate." And there it was. The line had somehow managed to escape my notice when I was watching the actual film, but this time it buried itself in my head. No better title, I figured, could possibly be forthcoming. And here we are.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scratch That

Last Friday (see below), I put up a post in which I pointed out my failure to remember my own blog anniversary, and went on to say that, despite my forgetfulness, my planned post on Allen Baron's Blast of Silence would nevertheless be forthcoming. And it is. But obviously my hoped-for Saturday posting date has come and gone, as has Sunday, and Monday. And now, Tuesday, as well.

Nobody wants to hear my excuses, but I do apologize to anyone who cared to read it. It is coming, and will be the next substantial piece I write -- it's just that my return to work, and subsequent two-day training, which involved a lot of walking on my part (never mind why), has just worn me out. I'm all out of my rhythm. Is that an excuse? Whatever, it's true.

But I am sorry, and I hope to have something up very soon. I refuse to promise anything for tomorrow, though, because we can see how much promises mean to me, apparently. Still, last night I started re-watching Blast of Silence and, if anything, it's even better than I remembered. I intended to watch the whole thing, but felt my eyelids rapidly closing. I'll finish it tonight, but this training I'm dealing with isn't the usual kind, which means I can't zone out for long stretches and begin writing blog posts in my head. No, I have to actually pay attention (there's a test and everything). Tomorrow isn't out of the question, but Thursday seems more likely. In any case, it has to go up by then, because I'll be out of town this weekend.

Let's see, what else should I tell you about myself that hold no interest for anyone? Um...I had some crab rangoon today. It was delicious. And there's a place in Virginia Beach, a video store, that was having a seven-for-$20 DVD sale, and I found nothing of interest there. So that should tell you something.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Holy Crap...

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Guess what I just did? I missed my own blog's two-year anniversary, which was yesterday. For some reason, I thought the anniversary was on the 21st, and my plan had been to use the opportunity to write-up Allen Barron's Blast of Silence, as that's the film that gave this blog its name. Obviously, I could still do that, but the frickin' anniversary was yesterday, and that realization has made me feel all out sorts. I know -- boo hoo. But I honestly like kind of a punk now, and I don't want to half-ass a Blast of Silence review just so I can say I was only one day late.

So what do I do now? I don't know. You're supposed to do something special for your blog anniversary -- I think the second is the "sarcasm" anniversary -- and I completely spaced. And my ambitions were so out-sized, too: Blast of Silence, pizza, Citizen Kane-esque dancing girls.

Welp. Happy anniversary to me, I guess. It might well have been interesting, had I remembered.

UPDATE: Ah, I'll probably still do it. Write up Blast of Silence, that is. Look for it tomorrow, or something.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Whose Mouth Shall Be as a Furnace

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George Steiner's sole novel, The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H., is rooted in a very pulp idea: Hitler survived the war, faked his suicide, and like too many of his barbaric henchmen escaped Germany, and retribution, to settle in the jungles of South America. However, now (the novel was published in 1979) he has been tracked down by a small band of Jewish Nazi hunters. The mission has been masterminded by a man named Leiber, who we never meet directly, but who monitors their progress via radio. When the team of five men find Hitler, he's a 90 year-old man in a dirty grass hut, in the heart of most horrid and inhuman jungle, guarded by men with guns and no ammunition. He is easily taken captive. From this idea, Steiner constructed one of the strangest and most unnerving novels I've ever read. Steiner says that he wrote the book in a feverish three days, and that he knew, when he was done, something of what he'd face upon it's publication.
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The novel is a short one, about 160 pages, and though it's filled with thunderous language (Steiner's description of the hunters' suicidal drudge through the "green hell" was so powerful that I found myself thinking "My God, now they have to go back?"), The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H. can be usefully boiled down to two sequences, which form the entire reason for the book's existence. And it's hard to know from which sequence to quote first. In the first, one of Leiber's radio transmissions is presented, and for eight pages Leiber recounts the subhuman terrors of the Holocaust, as well as warns his men not to listen to Hitler's words, not to let him speak, and not to require him to ask twice, or even once, for water, food, clean bedding, to supply him with these things at once so that he can never appear to them as a person. But most of all, so that he not be allowed to speak, because Hitler's infernal genius was his gift for language:
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When He made the Word, God made possible also its contrary. Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian. No, He created on the night side of language a speech for hell. Whose words mean hatred and vomit for life. Few men can learn that speech or speak it for long. It burns their mouths. It draws them into death. But there shall come a man whose mouth shall be as a furnace and whose tongue as a sword laying waste. He will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others.
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The problem with quoting from this extraordinary chapter first, even though logically I should as it comes first in the novel, is that what Steiner -- a literary critic, teacher, and philosopher by profession -- does with it, or appears to do with it, or maybe should have fully intended to do with it, without qualifications, is pre-refute what comes later, in the last chapter. That's the chapter where Hitler tells his side of things, defends himself (eloquently, even), where Hitler is given the last word. Leiber's message, it is implied, was not received by his men, and after the death, from fever, of one of them, and a general crumbling of spirit, it is decided that before all the powers of the globe swoop down upon them and take Hitler away, an honest accounting of his crimes, a genuine trial, must be held, there, in the jungle. And so it is, and, in the last chapter, Hitler overwhelms all procedure, and speaks his mind. This is the sort of thing Steiner gives Hitler to say:
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[I learned f]rom you. Everything. To set a race apart. To keep it from defilement. To hold before it a promised land. To scour that land of its inhabitants or place them in servitude. Your beliefs. Your arrogance...My "Superman"? Second-hand stuff. Rosenberg's philosophic garbage...My racism was a parody of yours, a hungry imitation. What is a thousand-year Reich compared with the eternity of Zion? Perhaps I was the false Messiah sent before. Judge me and you must judge yourselves. Übermenschen, chosen ones!
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And:
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...[T]he Jew mocks those who have pictures of their god. His God is purer than any other. The very thought of him exceeds the powers of the human mind. We are as blown dust to His immensity. But because we are His creatures, we must be better than ourselves, love our neighbor, be continent, give of what we have to the beggar...We must bottle up our rages and desires, chastise the flesh and walk bent in the rain. You call me a tyrant, and enslaver. What tyranny, what enslavement has...branded the skin and soul of man more deeply that the sick fantasies of the Jew? You are not God-killers, but God-makers...The Jew invented conscience and left man a guilty serf.
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Furthermore, Steiner's Hitler says, the Jews owe me big time, because without the Holocaust, there would be no state of Israel. And also that while I, Hitler, may have slaughtered six million Jews, as well as Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped, and caused, through the war against me, several million more to die, so have lots of other people throughout history, and their dead number far greater than mine. This last point is easily refuted -- "So what?" I'm tempted to ask -- but Steiner seems to take it pretty seriously. He belabors it in his afterword to my University of Chicago Press edition, and while Steiner doesn't use the point to excuse Hitler, it strikes me as particularly inessential. If you were to scale down the body count, and say "Yeah, I killed that person, but that guy over their killed two people", it becomes somehow even easier to wonder why that should in any way mitigate how you should be morally viewed.
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There's more, to do with, for example, Hitler's view that Moses, Marx, and Jesus are far greater criminals than he, in Marx's case because he inflicted a morality on mankind that Communism itself has proven especially ill-suited for. This is a very makeable point, and has been made countless times, but generally this is done in a way that is completely divorced from the Holocaust. The blood on Stalin's hands is, in a sense, a separate issue. But it is a makeable point, and Steiner has Hitler make it. Personally, I find the points made by Steiner's Hitler easier to discount than many other reasonable people might, which is not to take any kind of moral high ground, but rather to note that politics do enter into all this, and reasonable people disagree on politics sometimes (perhaps you've noticed this). Reasonable people also sometimes compare each other to Hitler. In that sense, maybe Steiner was on to something here, but I'm not sure he was on to what he thought he was on to.
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It's probably high time I mentioned that Steiner is, himself, a Jew. One who is very critical of Israel's policies, but one who also, according to Ron Rosenbaum, who spoke to Steiner for his book Explaining Hitler, an "anti-anti-Zionist". Even so, his criticism of Israel, which I've gathered was a semi-regular feature of his writing prior to The Portage... (I confess I've read nothing else of Steiner's) found its way, in some form, into Hitler's mouth, and this did not go unnoticed by people who were deeply critical of the novel. And there were many of those people. As if Steiner hadn't already started a big enough blaze, he allowed the novel to be staged as a play, and that, according to Rosenbaum, is when things really got hot:
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Toward the close of our conversation in Steiner's Cambridge University study, I read him a quotation from an account in the London Observer of the play and the fierce controversy that surround the production -- the pickets outside, the applause within. The Observer critic said the audience appeared to be applauding Hitler's speech in the play, the final epic soliloquy of self-justification Steiner had crafted for his Hitler character; the words that close the play.
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"Oh no!" said Steiner, horrified. "Oh no, no, no, no, no," he insisted five times. The applause was not for what Hitler said, he told me, but for the play as a whole, which ends a moment after Hitler's speech. In other words, the were applauding him -- or the actors -- not Hitler.
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Rosenbaum seems a bit skeptical of this idea, but I must say I'm not. In whatever state of mind one walks away from The Portage... with, it's unlikely to be "I don't know, I feel kinda weird saying this, but that Hitler guy made some damn good points." Granted, I can't see applauding at the end of such a play, either, no matter how good I thought it was -- the whole thing would be just too goddamn unnerving. And Steiner, in his attempts to defend himself in Rosenbaum's book, doesn't do a thing to make it any less unnerving. He doesn't praise Hitler, he doesn't discount in any way the nightmare of the Holocaust, and it's more than clear that he views Hitler as a Satanic figure (he frequently compares what he was doing in The Portage... to Milton's Paradise Lost), but he does say that the questions he asks in Hitler's speech are questions he would like answers to. Specifically, he would like Jews to answer them. He also criticizes the Jewish intellectuals with whom he's debated his novel for never answering the questions when he's bluntly asked them to. Not being privy to those conversations, I can only imagine that perhaps having this ghastly filter of Adolf Hitler to deal with in relation to those questions perhaps made those men to whom Steiner was speaking a bit uncomfortable. But more than that, more than a little bit pissed off. Why should they give Hitler the time of day, even by proxy? Ask your questions, but do not ask me consider Hitler's point of view.
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Towards the end of the chapter on Steiner and his novel in Explaining Hitler, Rosenbaum says that eventually in his conversation with the man, Steiner speculated on something that deeply disturbed him:
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It was a line of speculation so shocking, so transgressive, I later found myself wishing I hadn't heard it at all. He introduced it by referring to a startling remark in the final, posthumously published interview with Sidney Hook, the celebrated anticommunist philosopher -- a remark Hook realized was so inflammatory he insisted it could not be published during his lifetime.
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What Hook, also a Jew, wondered was that if the Jews had assimilated, things might have been a great deal better for everybody. Steiner builds on it this way:
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"My question goes even further. I have said Auschwitz does two things: It does everything to the Jew, and it does everything to those who do it to the Jews...The horror of the thing is we have lowered the threshold of mankind...We are that which has shown mankind to be ultimately bestial. We refused Jesus, who dies hideously on the cross. And then mankind turns on us in a vulgar kind of counter-Golgotha which is Auschwitz...And when somebody tortures a child, he does it to the child, he doest it to himself, too...Auschwitz breaks the reinsurance on human hope in a sense...And without us, there would have been no Auschwitz. In a sense, an obscene statement and yet an accurate statement."
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I don't know about you, but what's at the bottom of that line of thinking makes it awfully hard to accept Steiner's claim that Hitler's self-defense at the end of The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H. was simply what he believed Hitler would logically say in those circumstances. In fact, most of what Steiner says in his own defense makes the idea hard to accept. This, in fact, is the first justification Steiner makes in Rosenbaum's book, and then there's his horror at the idea that at the end of the stage version, audiences were applauding Hitler. And then Rosenbaum keeps asking questions, and Steiner, unfortunately, infuriatingly, keeps answering them.
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In the end, I don't really know what to make of The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H., and feel that for all the words here, I've said very little myself. It's a book, separated from the rest, cold and intimidating and a little frightening. But it's just a book, to be read. Or not.

Monday, August 16, 2010

When the Well Runs Dry...

...I turn to Naomi Watts. I just think she's pretty, is all.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cat People: Both Parts Must Die

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In theory, I do not mind remakes. My thinking is that remakes are essentially no different from the restaging of plays, except that they cost a lot more, and are frequently in no way necessary. Even so, if a filmmaker can bring something interesting to an already-told story, then why kick up a fuss? Over the years, we've had at least two excellent versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg has improved on Kurt Neumann's already highly entertaining The Fly, and John Carpenter successfully returned to the source material, a novella by John W. Campbell, that was largely ignored in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's tremendous The Thing from Another World. So there's reason to be at least not quite so relentlessly negative when another remake is announced. Wait and see, be positive, all that shit. (Furthermore, the arguments against any and all remakes tend to sound like thoughtless and impotent rage. One I hear a lot is that the remake will rake in a truckful of cash, and all these young kids won't even be aware of the original, but I got news for you: superior the original may well be, but those young kids wouldn't have given a damn about it anyway.) Of course, there are any number of films -- like 2001, for instance -- whose hypothetical remakes would probably cause me to vomit in annoyance, but my exception for those films, I have to admit, is essentially arbitrary, and hypocritical.
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Where things get really hairy, however, is when the filmmaker behind the remake begins talking shit about the original. Even if the original is bad, it's a classless move, and frequently the original has at least something going for it, or nobody would want to remake it in the first place. In his collection of film essays and criticism, Harlan Ellison's Watching, an enraged (of course) Harlan Ellison, speaking on the topic of homage, throws out this:
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Was any attempt made by concerned parties, to hire a spiritualist who might pierce the veil and get Val Lewton's reaction to writer[sic]-director Paul Schrader's quote in the May-June issue of Cinefantastique, just prior to release of Schrader's remake of the 1942 Lewton-produced Cat People, that "Val Lewton's Cat People isn't that brilliant. It's a very good B-movie with one or two brilliant sequences. I mean, we're not talking about a real classic"?
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I first read that passage well before I'd seen either version of Cat People, and for whatever reason, at the time, Schrader's words came off far more snide and harsh than they do now. I mean, he does say the original is "very good", and that it has "brilliant sequences". But what particularly sticks in my craw now is the patronizing attitude towards B-movies, which I think a man like Schrader, who has a deep and abiding love for film noir, should have gotten past in the 1960s, at the latest. What, does he think the only film noirs that are truly great are those that were afforded A-movie budgets? In any case, I would be very curious to hear Schrader's thoughts on the subject now, given how history has not only elevated Lewton's Cat People, but relegated his remake to the bargain bin.
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Of course, history often gets things wrong. I've read enough great novels by forgotten writers to know that. But history was pretty much on target this time around. Personally, I would rank Lewton's Cat People somewhere in the middle of the nine horror films he produced (with massive creative and stylistic input) between 1942 and 1946, but that should be viewed less as a middling take on the film than as a testament to the very high regard in which I hold Lewton's work as a whole. Cat People was the first horror film Lewton produced at RKO, and with it the template was already clear: psychologically based horror, whether it featured supernatural elements or not, with sharp, literate writing, gorgeous, shadow-cloaked cinematography, moral complexity, ambiguity, and powerful sequences of suspense and terror. Lewton didn't cut his teeth on horror, and made these films because he was assigned to; he approached the genre as an outsider, a state of affairs that often yields fascinating results (see also Tom Alfredson, whose first horror film was the exquisite Let the Right One In, the American remake of which is coming soon).
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Summarizing Cat People at this stage strikes me as a bit pointless, and besides I hate that shit, but suffice it to say it tells the deceptively simple story of the sexless marriage of the mysterious and ethereal Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and lunkheaded good egg Oliver Reed (Trent Smith). The "sexless" part stems from Irena's considered belief that her Serbian ancestors were evil witches, who were able to take the form of cats, primarily (only?) when in the throes of sexual passion. So because she loves Oliver, she refuses to have sex with him. Oliver takes this all pretty well, only taking the step of referring his wife to a psychiatrist (the great Tom Conway, who had all the on-screen class and charm of his more famous brother, George Sanders, but none of the off-screen assholism). Though Oliver's a sweet guy, he eventually drifts, after having a touching conversation with his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) about how, until his relationship with Irena, who he loves, he'd never been unhappy.
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Lewton, Tourneur, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen keep the truth of Irena's condition -- is it psychological, or is she really what she says she is? -- ambiguous, almost to the end (all the way to the end, according to some, but it's pretty hard, lack of on-screen cat transformations notwithstanding, to psychologically explain away certain moments, and sounds), and one of the things that's so fascinating about the film, and about the performances of Simon and Smith (some would say he's wooden, but I say he's playing the character) in particular, is that often the film plays, or could have played, straight, as a snapshot of a crumbling marriage, and of Irena's mental breakdown, the kind of breakdown that would warn all concerned parties to hitch the next train out of town, before she starts shredding everything around her, cat or not cat. This is a result, no doubt, of Lewton making a horror film only because he had to, and making it about cat people because RKO already had the title. Later Lewton films would be more straightforward (though no less complex) entries into the genre, but with Cat People he was injecting his real-world concerns, interests, and phobias (he didn't like cats, or being touched) into material that, in less sophisticated hands, would have played out as a half-assed, low-grade pulp knock-off of the kind of werewolf movies that were popular at the time.
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Which is sort of funny, when you think about it -- as I said, Cat People was handed to Lewton by RKO, who said "Here's your title, now make a movie." A lazier producer would, without question, have told a thinly veiled werewolf story. That's not the story Lewton told, but guess who did tell that story? Paul Schrader. In his film (written by Alan Ormsby), Nastassja Kinski's Irena doesn't know about her true nature, and has to learn, Lawrence Talbot-like, about the family curse that dooms her to a life of cat-transformation any time she meets a guy she'd like to do sex to. Except that, apparently, this has never happened to her before, since not only is she a virgin, but she's never turned into a cat before, which means she's never experienced sexual desire before. From the standpoint of narrative logic, this makes no sense. Whatever Lewton's reasoning was (and I strongly suspect his reasoning had nothing to do with my current point), having his Irena know full well what she was not only made her a much more interesting character, but also obliterated a whole host of storytelling problems. Schrader's film rejiggers quite a few elements of the original story, saving it from being a "pointless" remake, but it perhaps should have either rejiggered fewer, or more. I can't tell which, but Schrader being Schrader, and 1982 being 1982, there was no way anyone involved in the remake was going to dump the sex-makes-her-a-vicious-cat angle. So maybe lose the idea that she's not aware of it, but of course that would have meant losing the character of Paul (Malcolm McDowell), Irena's brother, whose entire purpose, from what I can tell, is to be the one who tells her about their family origins. Well, that, and to introduce a nonsensical incest subplot (the only way they can have sex and not becomes cats is to have sex with family members, you see), which isn't consummated in any case, a fact that mitigates the film's already fairly high sleaze factor by a smidge.
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But, you know, the thing is, Schrader's Cat People isn't really all that bad. It's not. It is, in fact, a good deal better than I remembered. Kinski is wonderful, McDowell is very good, there's a nice energy and pacing in the first half or so, and, occasionally, strong images, such as those that accompany the astonishingly Last Temptation of Christ-like opening credits, and the shot of blood slowly splashing over Irena's white shoes, on its way to a floor drain. Also, the panthers in this film are very striking, which I mean sincerely. But it's still just a sexed-up, 1980s-style tweak on the werewolf legend, and, in fact, one could easily say that Paul Schrader's Cat People is just Tony Scott's The Hunger, but for werecats. Or rather, one could, if not for the fact that The Hunger came out one year later. So facts have defeated that point, but one thing I think can't be argued is that Schrader's film broke no new ground in horror cinema, and in a number of ways it's in lock-step with the formula of the genre as practiced in the 1980s. For example, Ed Begley, Jr. has the thankless role of the unfunny funny guy, which means you know he's doomed, and indeed he is. There are also a great many tits, which I have no problem with, and even, ahm, blooming from this particular story they come off as gratuitous. It's also a fairly gory film, so with your stock victims, your tits, and your gore, you have all the trappings of a more or less typical 80s horror film. No trails are blazed, whereas that's exactly what Lewton was doing in 1942. Even back then, no one was pulling as far back from genre tropes as Lewton was, and no one was creating so much dread by showing so little. And that restraint, of course, was just the tip of the iceberg.
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Which, again, I have no problem with -- the tits, gore, and lack of trailblazing, I mean -- and I wouldn't even bring it up (okay, I might, but not like this) if not for that Schrader quote in which he condescends to B-movies. Words hurt, Paul Schrader, and if you're going to express an ignorance of the true meaning of the term "B-movie" -- an ignorance I can't believe you ever actually possessed, even in 1982 -- you're probably going to be called out when you make one, which is what your Cat People is, at least going by your definition of "B-movie", which is very narrow and reductive anyway. So "trashy", I guess, is what both you and I are going for here. And no, I don't believe Paul Schrader will ever actually read this. I just got caught up in things.
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The other funny thing about all this is that you can sort of sense Schrader straining to bust out of those trashy binds, and that's not a compliment. One thing about B-movies, whether they were trashy or not, is that they often had a sense of pace, something that completely deserts Schrader's Cat People in the last half hour. The film shrugs off the sense of narrative fun and excitement it had been riding, in favor of a last quarter that just drags interminably, all to make a point about being trapped by sexual desire, which was already there anyway, and was already there in the Lewton film, too.
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Again, though: Schrader's film isn't that bad. And I wonder, if it hadn't been a remake, if history wouldn't have been kinder to it (I'm sure it has its rabid defenders, but it's unlikely they'll turn the tide). But of course, it is a remake, and that's the curse of of such films -- without the film being remade, the remake would never exist, would never even be conceived of, and unless what's being offered is of especially high quality (a not inconceivable notion, as I've shown), the remake will come and go in a blink. Profitable, maybe, but not much else can be hoped for. It's a tough road to hoe, when you think about it, especially on the screenwriting end, which must be a just about entirely thankless task. But give it a shot anyway, if you happen to feel like it. I won't bitch. Just, you know...show some respect.
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Monday, August 9, 2010

Capsule Reviews: The Shadow of Something That is Real

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He Walked by Night (d. Alfred L. Werker/Anthony Mann) - The best film noirs (films noir?) can be broken into two camps. I'm speaking very broadly, of course, but in my view those camps are the doomed, prisoner of fate, dark psychology films like Double Indemnity, and the clipped, hard-bitten police procedurals, like He Walked by Night. This latter film, directed primarily by Anthony Mann after Alfred Werker fell ill, is based on a true story about a former Army radio engineer (Richard Basehart) who, upon his return from WWII, goes on an eclectic crime spree of burglary and robbery. When pinned down, he shows no hesitation about using his gun, and, after killing one police officer and critically wounding another, he shows no remorse afterwards.
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This film's tight 79 minutes focuses mainly on the police investigation, as led by Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts) and Sgt. Brennan (Scott Brady), with special assistance from a young Jack Webb, as a kind of ballistics expert and technical jack-of-all-trades. But Basehart still stands out in his cold psychopathy, whose desire for money hardly seems to be the driving force behind his crimes, but rather -- and even then only perhaps -- a desire to simply get away with it, no matter what. On the other side, Scott Brady represents the rage of a police force struggling to bring the net (or something with more weight to it) down on the man who killed one of their own, and the whole thing drives along at a relentless pace.
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He Walked by Night precedes The Third Man by one year, which is not a non sequitor piece of trivia, as Werker and Mann's film climaxes in the vast sewers of Lost Angeles, all shadows, echoing footsteps and gunfire, and wavering flashlight beams, courtesy of John Alton's ever-striking -- but especially so here -- camera work. This needs to be on DVD, like, yesterday.
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Exposed (d. James Toback) - Toback's third film is a bit of an oddity, as it's made up of one part making-it-in-the-big-city story, and one part political thriller. The fact that these disparate chunks flow together quite smoothly is a testament to Toback's early skill and ambition, which I can't, with much confidence, claim is gone, because I've felt almost no interest in checking out what Toback's been up to since Exposed was released. But if When Will I Be Loved, which I did see, is anything to go by, then, well...
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In any case, in Exposed Nastassia Kinski stars as a young woman who, after being forced out of college by her desperately lecherous English professor (Toback himself, in a performance that seems to be pretty rich in knowing self-mockery), takes to the streets on New York, trying to make her way. A series of men -- beginning with Toback's professor -- alternately hinder her, offer her help, or lie to her. After James Russo's restaurant owner gives her a waitressing job, Ian McShane's fashion photographer gives her a huge break as a cover model, after which she finds herself being shadowed by a mysterious, and quite frankly creepy, violinist, played by Rudolf Nureyev. They begin an affair, and he confides in her that his mission in life is to kill a particular terrorist who, along with the horror he's showered on dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent strangers throughout Europe, has had a significant, and negative, impact on Nureyev's own life, and that of his family.
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This terrorist is the last link in Kinski's chain of male experience. Harvey Keitel plays the murderous Left-wing revolutionary, and it's with his appearance that I began to wonder what the film had on its mind, exactly. I suspected that whatever it was, it wasn't entirely political in nature, because while the film clearly doesn't sympathize with Keitel -- the most unambiguously decent man in the whole movie, McShane's photographer, is also the most capitalistic, in that he's rich, and seems to enjoy being so -- it also doesn't have much new to say about people like him. Keitel doesn't even show up until the film has about a half hour to go, and while he and Kinski exchange words about the folly of his way of life, they are fairly trite. They're no less true for that, but it's hard for me to believe that Toback was building towards that moment.
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Exposed ends with a rush of violence that seems arbitrary, or maybe obligatory is more on target. I don't mean that a scene of violence isn't a natural conclusion for this material, but the scene isn't imagined with much sharpness, and the staging of it is on the bland side. Even so, the film is quite strong overall, and especially involving in the way Toback stitches together the various elements of Kinski's experience. Some might complain that, when the chips are down, she's too passive, and is simply swept along by the wills of these men, but I guess that's life in the big city for you.
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The Collection Project Film of the Day:
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The Last Wave (d. Peter Weir) - I'm not sure what kind of status Peter Weir currently enjoys in the hierarchy of living and working film directors, but, while I do know that he's generally admired, I feel confident that he's not admired nearly enough. The Last Wave, Weir's third full-length film, is such a unique blend of social critique -- the subject being white Australian society's casual obliteration of Aboriginal culture -- and apocalyptic horror film that I'm left wishing that, if modern horror filmmakers are going to base their careers on all the films they watched growing up, more of them had watched Weir's early work. Pairing The Last Wave with Weir's previous, obliquely hair-raising masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock, gives you a snapshot of a body of work in the horror genre that would most likely have been extremely formidable. Unfortunately, Weir decided to move away from that world, and make excellent films in any number of other genres.
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The Last Wave centers on the mysterious death of an Aborigine man who appears to have drowned, after a drunken fight, in a shallow puddle of water. A group of Aborigines are accused of the murder, and admit their guilt. However, their white attorney, David Burton (a very good Richard Chamberlain) wants to base his defense on the idea that the man's death was the result of his breaking of tribal laws, a defense that, if it bore fruit, would strongly effect the sentencing. Because all the men, the accused as well as the victim, are believed to be city people, and not tribal Aborigines (the fact that this is all taking place in Sydney would, alone, seem to indicate this), Burton finds little sympathy for this idea, but he's driven forward, based on scraps of evidence, as well as strange, premonitory dreams involving tribal symbols, one of the accused (ubiquitous Aboriginal actor Gulpilil), and water. Significantly, this is all happening in the midst of massive, endless rainstorms that are thoroughly soaking the entirety of Sydney, in a way that at first seems like a relief that that sun-cracked country, but soon becomes ominous.
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The Last Wave doesn't revel in the unexplainable in quite the same way Picnic at Hanging Rock does, and this is perhaps to its detriment, but working with a low budget, and therefore unable to falsely pump up his film with special effects, even if he'd been inclined to, Weir brings the same kind of quiet dread and nightmare imagery to The Last Wave as he did to the earlier film, and the overall effect is one of creeping, pervasive unease. Mr. Weir, if you have any interest in returning to your own brand of horror filmmaking, I beg you to do so. We need it badly.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Slump Continues

I humbly apologize for the lack of posting around here lately. My surgery, you'll be thrilled to know, was a success, and even the worst of my recovery period seems to be behind me. But mentally I still haven't adjusted to...something. I don't know if it's the fact that I'm four days into my medical leave, with a whopping fifteen more to come, or if it's just plain mental laziness, or what, but I still haven't been drawn back to this blog for any reason other than guilt. Frankly, I haven't been much drawn to the internet as a whole, but it should be noted that until today, my computer chair was the least comfortable chair for my battered, well, groin, to rest in. The fact that this, too, appears to be a thing of the past hopefully bodes well for the coming week, part of which I do plan to spend writing.

Writing what is a different question altogether. Earlier today, I was browsing a pop-culture website, and saw a post there that used the word "intertextual" in its title, and I felt a deep existential shudder. It made me think of the dangers of forcing yourself to appear academic, or to pretend to be something you're not, which is something I've fought against since I first started this blog. Seriously, go back (or don't) to some of my very early posts here. Horrific! So I have to get my mind right, and find something I really want to write about, as opposed to something I feel like I can bluff my way through.

In the meantime, you can, and should, read the good stuff that the internet has to offer, which, against all logic, is plentiful:

- Glenn Kenny has a terrific piece up about the supposed "death" of the romantic comedy. He argues against the idea with his typical blend of wit, erudition and acidity.

- Over at Arbogast on Film, Arbogast takes an intriguingly even-handed look at the much-looked-at-askance The Descent 2, which is, of course, the sequel to Neil Marshall's almost universally admired The Descent. As usual, Arbo knows not only more than you do, but also more than the filmmakers do, yet his wish is only to use his abilities for good.

- Meanwhile, Dennis Cozzalio has a wonderful, thorough piece up about Gwen Welles, seen through the lens of her work with Henry Jaglom and, as the subject of a documentary, Donna Deitch. Dennis has a Tarantino-like habit of pulling a name from obscurity -- obscure to most of us, anyway -- writing about them, and, by the end of the article, making the reader feel as if their frame of reference and understanding of film history has been instantly expanded. Which is as it should be, but Dennis does this with an open heart, and a warmth, that is the polar opposite of the academia I alluded to above.

- Speaking of Tarantino (sort of), last week Greg Ferrara wrote about Robert Forster's brilliant turn in Tarantino's Jackie Brown. If you haven't already read Greg's article, please do so now, because there are few bloggers who have as deep an understanding of the art of acting, or can express it as well, as Greg can.

- At Ferdy on Films, Rod Heath mounts a very convincing, on the page, defense of John Huston's Moby Dick. I remember, after reading Melville's novel about six years ago, being very excited to check out Huston's film, which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. And I was profoundly disappointed (not that I made it all the way through, because the tape broke, and I didn't bother rent the DVD after having my hopes dashed by the first half hour or so). Rod makes me think that I might have acted like an ass.

- Kevin Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies has just wrapped up his Summer of Slash, which I myself am in the process of reading my way through. And there's no reason you shouldn't be doing that, too. Kevin knows his horror films, and more and more lately I've found myself willing to embrace slasher films as something other than a despicable plague upon the genre. Kevin's just the kind of guy to make that argument, so I'll be paying attention.

- Recently, Ed Howard of Only the Cinema wrote up one of my very favorite films, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. As is often the case with Ed, he refused to simply agree with my every every passing thought and opinion, so his view of Egoyan's film is rather more mixed than my own. But fuck it, he makes some good points, as always. So give the piece a look, and then remind yourself that Bill R. disagrees, which should take the sting out of Ed's words a bit.

- I'm not going to point to a specific post here, but rather to an overall blog, namely Too Much Horror Fiction, hosted by Will Errickson. Will's blog is about exactly what you'd think, with a particular, but not exclusive, focus on the paperback horror fiction from the genre's boom years in the 1970s and 1980s. Will truly knows his stuff, and is a fun and engaging writer. I'm not pointing to a specific post, because you should just read all of it. It's my favorite non-film blog, so dive in.

- And finally, Tony Dayoub of the great blog Cinema Viewfinder, goddamn him, has just announced that he'll be hosting a David Cronenberg blogathon in September. If, for some bizarre reason, I'm still not off my ass, blogging-wise, by then, Tony and David Cronenberg should finally jolt me into action.

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That's it. Just popping in here to let you know I'm not dead. But look for more updates next week!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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