Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Books of 2010: A Best Of List

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Hey everybody, it's that time of year again, when I pick the best books I've read over the previous twelve months. I don't remember what I've called this feature in the past, but I've probably had a different name each time, due to my failing memory. Titles like "Favorite Books of 2009" or "What Are the Best Books I Read in 2008? THESE ONES ARE!", probably. It doesn't matter. The only salient facts about these lists are that I don't limit myself to ten, and I don't limit myself to books published that year. This last one is fortunate as I read very little new fiction in a given year, although this time around two whole books published in 2010 make the list, which for me must be some kind of record. The only other thing I want to mention, as I always do, is that this list is, for the most part, in no particular order, until you get to the top four or so. Even among those it's kind of interchangeable, but I think the number one book on this list is, in fact, my number one book of the year. So now to the list.
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13. Tales of the Callamo Mountains by Larry Blamire - Quite possibly the most purely entertaining book I read in 2010, Blamire's debut collection of fiction -- all the stories are of the Western/horror hybrid variety -- was also part of my The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! series this year. I went ahead and finished it up in November, and the damn thing stayed real good until the end. There is, in fact, not one bad story in the lot, which is a rare feat. Beginning with the funny, but soon very creepy, "The Line Shack" and moving through Twilight Zone-ish stories like "Winchester Repeater", into the exquisite surrealism of "On Tuesday I'll Be in China" and "Old Rhiney's Tale", on to the unexpectedly moving "The Bunk at the End" and finishing with a weird corker like "The Last Thing One Sees in the Woods", Tales of the Callamo Mountains is something of a triumphant throwback. The "throwback" part probably accounts for the fact that Blamire's book was self-published. This pisses me off a little, but at the same time I have it on good authority that Blamire is writing a follow up. Good for me!
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12. The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson - I also raved about this collection during The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!, and also went on to finish it in the weeks that followed. In that post, I focused on a pair of brilliant stories, one called "The Wavering Knife", the other called "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette". Having finished the book, those still stand out as highlights, and it would be wrong to say that I didn't find any weak links in the rest of the book. These tended to be the really short stories, the ones between 2 and 5 pages, of which there are several. It would also be wrong to say that those were bad, exactly, but rather, for my money, a bit too cold and impenetrable for me to find much of a way in. There are also repetitions of type, as you'll find if you go from a very good story like "Promisekeepers" and then jump to "The Prophet" or "Barcode Jesus", which are also good, but in pretty much exactly the same way as "Promisekeepers". Even so, any collection that includes a story as bizarrely ingenious as "Moran's Mexico", or as utterly bone-chilling as "The Installation", or as grippingly Orwellian or Kafkaesque or whatever it is as "House Rules", is plenty okay by me. Let's be conservative and say only half this book is a masterpiece.
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11. Nemesis by Philip Roth - I read something like ten Philip Roth novels last year. This year I read only one, his newest, and the last of the so called "Nemeses" series of short novels, which also include Everyman, Indignation and the very underrated The Humbling (so what if that last one sounds like a cheap knock-off of The Shining from the 1980s, with a dancing skeleton and a single drop of blood and/or a broken doll on the cover -- it's a damn good book). Nemesis is the story of Bucky Cantor, a very fit young man who is nevertheless consigned as 4F, and therefore unfit for military service during World War II, when the novel takes place. He fills his time during the summer as a playground director in Newark. Soon, there is a polio outbreak, and the children under his care begin to fall victim. Bucky is a supremely likable man -- a rarity in Roth's fiction -- whose sense of any purpose or good in the world is smashed to pieces over and over in Roth's unforgiving novel. It's about cosmic rage in much the same way as Moby-Dick, though Roth's language is streamlined to the point that style is mostly obliterated. If anyone thumbs their nose at the tired old "show, don't tell" rule and comes out ahead, it's Roth.
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10. It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan - Possibly the most curious and most original book I read this year was this wonderfully written piece of dark whimsy about a man who makes the switch from kind-hearted eccentric to reluctant, but willing, murderer rather smoothly. There also may or may not be time travel in there. Also God. The book is no goofball, affected lark, and yet that cover is not inaccurate. It's really something, this one, gripping and funny and sad and appalling (in a good way). It left me a bit flummoxed at the time I read it, and leaves me a bit flummoxed now, as well. But if you read it, I feel confident you will at no point regret it. Good, weird stuff.
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9. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton - This is the most recent book I finished, and also, I now realize, the second of four books on this list that deal in some way with World War II. As with Nemesis, the war is something of a looming figure in Hangover Square. Published in 1941 but set initially in 1938, and ending in 1939 when the war began, Patrick Hamilton's best known novel (due to the 1945 film version, directed by John Brahm and starring Laird Cregar in his final film, which more or less completely disregards Hamilton's book) is about George Harvey Bone, an unemployed drunk coming to the end of his inheritance and aware that something in his life must change. Mostly friendless, Bone does hang around with a small group of fellow drunks, much less likable then he, who are led by Netta Longdon, a failed and flailing actress who is unspeakably cruel to Bone. Nevertheless he loves her, or at least he loves her when he's not suffering one of his amnesiac "dead moods" -- during those times, he plans her murder. Much more than just a simple murder story, Hangover Square is the story of a sad man in crisis, whose own fate seems temporally linked with the coming war. The ending of Hangover Square is inevitable but no less devastating for that. When I'd finished the book I had to tell my wife about it, just to get it off my chest.
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8. New Grub Street by George Gissing - You wanna talk depressing! I first heard of George Gissing through his appearance as a character in Peter Ackroyd's novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. It was some time before I found my way to reading his most famous novel New Grub Street, and only then because it was chosen, somewhat curiously, by K. W. Jeter for the essay collection Horror: Another 100 Best Books. This is a bit of a cheeky selection, as Gissing -- whose life, but not career, overlapped a bit with Charles Dickens, which is hard to not think about when reading New Grub Street -- did not write a horror novel here, just a supremely bleak one. What the novel is is a fascinating examination of the various corners of Victorian literary life, and the unhappy realities you'll find there. The main characters are the fiercely proud and doomed Edward Reardon, writer of high-minded yet unpopular novels (what little I know of Gissing suggests that he may have viewed Reardon as a kindred spirit) and Jasper Milvain, a cynical producer of the precise opposite sort of fiction -- deliberately commercial, approached by Milvain as a formula that merely needs to be written out. The two men are friends, and the rise of one is neatly paralleled with the fall of the other, but it's the details of the 19th century literary life, and the vast array of side characters, that make New Grub Street really sing. For my part, Harold Biffen will live longest. An even more extreme version of Reardon himself, Biffen represents the pure artist, creating only for himself, partly because no one else in the world would give a nickel for what he writes.
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7. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada - In some ways the most extraordinary book I read in 2010, Fallada's last novel was written in 1947 but not published in English until 2009. It's loosely based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hempel, a middle-aged German couple who resisted the Nazis by writing anti-Nazi propaganda on index cards and dropping them all over Berlin. Wickedly suspenseful, and expansive enough to include almost the full life stories of Gestapo members, con men, and Germans who just hope to get along, Every man Dies Alone feels perfectly complete -- Fallada leaves no facet of his story unexamined, or dramatized. Not short at something like 600 pages, it nevertheless feels like three or four novels' worth of story and ideas have been smoothly fitted in. Though Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in a heated and absurd twenty-four days, the book only rarely suffers from what might be a respectful lack of editing, and is, in the end, emotionally overwhelming. By the time you close the book, you've heard it all.
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6. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin - This is Franklin's third novel (he also wrote a story collection called Poachers), and I've read all three. I'm not sure this has happened to me before, that an author writes a first novel I really like -- Franklin's Hell at the Breach in this case -- then follows it up with a sophomore effort, Smonk, that I more or less despised. And then came roaring back with one of the finest, most elegant and well-observed, not to mention beautifully heard, novels about the South that I've ever come across. To describe the basic plot of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter will make it sound hopelessly rote -- two teenage boys, one white, one black, become friends but part ways due to the white boy's apparent involvement with the disappearance of a girl from their high school. Then the two grow up and meet again, and so on. But whatever you might envision from that summary will give you no idea of the heartbreak at the core of Larry Ott, the white boy, or the complicated conscience of Silas Jones, the black boy. All Larry ever wanted, as he prays nightly, was a friend, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the story of what came about because he found two. Gorgeous, suspenseful, vastly entertaining, brief (worth mentioning, I think), and with an ending that is completely and wonderfully earned. I loved this one, and I don't see how anybody could find it in themselves to disagree.
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5. Darkness Falls from the Air by Nigel Balchin - The fourth of the four WWII novels on this list, I first heard about Nigel Balchin's 1942 novel about a war-time civil servant who divides his time between battling incompetence and passive bureaucracy at work, and maintaining a passionate but difficult affair with a married woman, through an interview with Patrick McGrath (damn it, I meant to read Port Mungo this year!) over at Asylum, John Self's blog. In that interview, John asked McGrath what one book he would recommend to anyone reading the interview, and McGrath picked Darkness Falls from the Air, claiming that it had
a perfect ending. Bold words, and I'll leave that up to you to decide, but the book does pack a great wallop, reading to me like a less ponderous Graham Greene. And, though the novel can hardly be called a comedy, a funnier Graham Greene, too:
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Baxter always acted and talked as though he thought somebody was taking notes for his biography and might want to put this bit in.
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I mean, come on.
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4. Despair by Vladimir Nabokov - The greatest writer in the history of everything, Vladimir Nabokov could do, or seemed to be able to do, whatever he wanted to do with his fiction at all times, and in Despair he decided to give me a present, some forty-one years prior to my birth, by writing a chilling little murder story about Hermann, a man who believes he has found in Felix his exact double. Hermann is the kind of narrator -- deluded, absurd, funny, frightening -- that Nabokov seemed able to create at will, without ever repeating himself, though when you can write prose like Vladimir Nabokov you probably don't waste a lot of time worrying about how your plots come across. But Despair's plot is nevertheless beautifully handled, culminating in a wintry confrontation in a forest that Nabokov himself called "good fun", but which struck me as fairly worthy of the novel's title. Despair is Nabokov working in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, but in the end creating something entirely his own. Magnificent.
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3. The Jugger by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - The sixth of Donald E. Westlake's Parker novels (which were written as, and almost always attributed to, Richard Stark), The Jugger didn't merely prove to me that these books were excellent -- I'd figured that out by reading the previous five. What The Jugger confirmed for me was that all the legends I'd heard about this series, from the days when they languished out of print, used copies fetching very steep prices and therefore out of my reach, were entirely true. This is one of the top two or three crime novels I've ever read, and is special among the Parker novels I've read by breaking from the established heist-based formula and putting the cold-hearted Parker in an absurd situation that has nothing to do with him, and from which he must extract himself to protect his way of life, and by extension his actual, literal life. The Jugger presents Parker at his most cold-blooded, and Westlake/Stark at his most cynical and streamlined. It begins: "When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page." Well, yes.
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2. True Grit by Charles Portis - I'm not sure I can say anything more about this book that I didn't say in one way or another in my recent review of the new Coen brothers adaptation. All I feel like adding right now is that, for a cult author, Portis has enjoyed a very healthy history of reprints, and at least a few of his five novels, if not all of them, are readily available right now. True Grit is the least eccentric of those books (and the least funny, but it's still really funny), and in some ways is the purist story he's ever told. I hesitate to say it's his best -- Masters of Atlantis, to name but one, is just too wild -- but it's so accomplished as a story that to me it's achieved a near mythic quality. Endlessly rereadable and endlessly quotable, I don't imagine True Grit will ever be very far from me.
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1. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer - And so we reach the end. Back in January, I wrote a short, self-pitying post about how I couldn't think of ideas anymore, and the blame for that should fall on Jeff VanderMeer. Something like that, I don't know -- it's an odd post, and I don't recommend it to anyone. But as I wrote that post, I was preparing to read VanderMeer's massive novel/collection of stories and novellas and ephemera City of Saints and Madmen, which collects all of his shorter pieces centered around his fantasy city of Ambergris, home of fungus and water and cults and violence and horror and magic and I don't know what-all. There are even hints that our world is but the delusion of one of Ambergris' mental patients. Inspired in part by the work of writers like Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, VanderMeer's book is quite unlike anything else I know, made up of shorter pieces ranging from a few pages to several dozen, but ordered in a way that makes the final 700-plus page volume seem like a single, flowing reference book, one that reads like the best fiction. City of Saints and Madmen is, as you may have gathered, a difficult book to describe, but I loved every goddamn page of it, and in some ways felt like I'd been searching for this book my whole life. This is me recommending it to you.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Love of Decency Does Not Abide in You

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Just recently -- like last night -- I realized that it's difficult for me to write about True Grit. I watched the 1969 film, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a U. S. Marshal hired by a young girl named Mattie Ross (Kim Darby in that version) to hunt down the man who murdered her father, countless times when I was a kid. I've lived with the "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" climax as one of the central movie moments of my life. I have since then read Charles Portis's books, and other Portis books, and become a member of the Portis Cult that I like to think is sweeping the globe. Now that my favorite living filmmakers, the Coen brothers, have adapted Portis's book, or remade Hathaway's film, depending who you ask, I find myself feeling possibly too familiar with the story, or maybe content to simply be an audience member as my favorite filmmakers unspool a new version of one of my favorite stories. I don't know what it is, but I wonder what I could possibly have to say. Thank Christ I'm not being paid for this.
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Still, though, I feel compelled to write about the film a little, because I'm seeing some curious reactions. First thing's first: I loved it. I thought it was a beautifully made film, which is something that goes without saying regarding the Coens at this point. It's also exceptionally well-cast. A few members of that cast have some rather large shoes to fill, but while Matt Damon is asked only to replace Glenn Campbell from the Hathaway film he's still terrific as LeBoeuf, the vain Texas Ranger pursuing Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie's father, for a separate crime. It's the kind of role Damon was either born for, or has played some version of so often at this point that he can do it in his sleep. I'm not sure which, but it could be both. Either way, he's terrific. As are Josh Brolin as Chaney -- employing a slightly odd cadence to his speech, and apparently wearing some dental thing that renders Chaney somewhat less evolved than those around him, both choices achieving the desired effect -- and Barry Pepper, nearly unrecognizable as the coincidentally named Lucky Ned Pepper, onto whose gang Chaney has latched himself since fleeing Frank Ross's murder. In the Hathaway film, Ned Pepper was played by Robert Duvall as a fairly cool customer, or so I remember it, while Barry Pepper plays him as a kind of manic professional, one who recognizes the ability to exude menace a part of his job.
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After that, we need only concern ourselves here with Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, who play Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross (respectively, of course), which in turn will take us into Coen vs. Hathaway and both vs. Portis, and who changed what and why and to what purpose. One thing I've heard, a sort of complaint, about this new version of True Grit is that it's nothing but a "straight" Western, that it isn't very much like a Coen brothers film. Taking the second part first, I should point out that another regular feature of reviews of True Grit so far is a mention of the film's dialogue, and how much of it has been pulled straight from Portis's novel. Rarely mentioned is that a big part of what makes a Coen brothers film a Coen brothers film is their way with language -- from Blood Simple on, their characters have talked with some level of literary knowingness, or raw, precise brutality, or both at once. They have a hell of an ear, those guys, or a pair of them, and it's unusual to me that anyone would bother to point out that the dialogue in True Grit is largely the work of Portis and not think to also mention that his words are pretty much the perfect marriage with the Coens' sensibility. Several times already they've seemed to make films that are simply adaptation of Portis novels that Portis never wrote. The very act of adapting Portis is already a Coenesque thing to do.
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I guess it's also a Hathawayesque thing to do, because, since this is the way of things, a lot of people have used the Coens' excellent True Grit as a stick to beat Hathaway's True Grit, even though, having refreshed my memory of that earlier film by rewatching crucial scenes, it turns out back in '69 they used a pretty healthy pantload of Portis's language their own selfs. The big difference between the films in this regard is that Hathaway doesn't seem to care especially if you notice how great these lines are or not -- in other words, he doesn't make a big deal of it, doesn't foreground it, kind of tosses it away. This may be, or at least sound, preferable to you, but the Coens care about this language very deeply, and foreground it in the way they foreground their own language: by having the actors play their roles as men and women who would actually speak this way. I happen to think Kim Darby is quite good in Hathaway's film, but if one of the stated motives of the Coens to remake that film is to hew more closely to Portis's book, it's worth noting that in this sense Darby plays Mattie as altogether too eager and girlish. Hattie Steinfeld, on the other hand, makes her arrogant, but -- and this is key -- shows her arrogance to be well-earned. She's very smart, smarter than anybody else she meets throughout the story. She knows it, and she proves it again and again. She's the kind of 14-year-old who really would talk like this:
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"I have left off crying, and giggling as well. Now make up your mind. I don't care anything for all this talk. You told me what your price for the job was and I have come up with it. Here is the money. I aim to get Tom Chaney and if you are not game I will find somebody who is game. All I have heard out of you so far is talk. I know you can drink whiskey and I have seen you kill a gray rat. All the rest has been talk. They told me you had grit and that is why I came to you. I am not paying for talk. I can get all the talk I need and more at the Monarch boardinghouse."
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So, too, does John Wayne's inarguably iconic (and Oscar-winning) performance as Rooster Cogburn differ from Jeff Bridges' in the Coens' film. Wayne plays Cogburn as a fairly jolly sort, which is not quite Portis. Wayne's Cogburn is a guy who likes to drink, a lot, but is pretty much a delightful fellow to be around, whatever the circumstances. Bridges plays the role very broad, but his Cogburn is also more dissolute and worn out. Bridges's Cogburn is a guy you have to watch.
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What's really curious about these two films are the changes they make to Portis. Neither film is entirely slavish. The Hathaway film begins with a scene between Mattie and her father before he's murdered, while the book, and the Coens' film, begins after the death. A more puzzling change made for the Hathaway film has to do with aspects of the film that would count as spoilers -- Hathaway's version may be 41-years-old, but we're talking about differences here -- but basically in 1969 they hardened one aspect of the film, darkened it up, so that they might be free to soften up another, possibly more objectionable (commercially speaking) aspect of Portis's book. I'm assuming certain things here, but it seems fair enough. I do believe that people who are hardcore fans of the John Wayne film and who don't know Portis's book will be up in arms over the Coens' film, believing their more faithful film has actually chickened out, and Hollywooded that shit up. They didn't, though. The Coens made only minor changes -- the bearskin trader, the hanging man, LeBoeuf's brief separation from Mattie and Rooster are all their creations (okay, I didn't reread the whole book yesterday, but watching their film, those bits seemed original to them, and some reasonably intensive browsing and skimming through the novel seemed to confirm that. Please correct me if I'm wrong).
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The real difference between the two films is tone, and this is where those who claim this new True Grit is simply an ordinary Western confuse me. If they feel that way, I can only assume that's because they're familiar with the story already and are letting that get in the way of the Coens' truly original approach to this genre, or at least truly particular take. In his review of the Coen brothers' film, Glenn Kenny said: "[T]he Coens' True Grit is not just a different film than the more classical Henry Hathaway-directed one; it's a different idea of a film than that one." I believe that's at the heart of things here. All you need to compare is, as I say, the tone. Hathaway is making a unique Western in a fairly ordinary way, at least behind the camera. In the remake, there's a genuine sense of these events -- the pursuit of Chaney by Mattie, Rooster, and LeBoeuf -- having happened in the past, which is importan, and that something will follow after the ending we know from Hathaway's film (itself different in a couple of important ways). And there's a melancholy to it all because of that, and hidden inside of that, which is entirely absent from the original film. Just take the night-time ride of Rooster and Mattie that is the emotional climax of both films: in Hathaway, it's filmed as a basic race against time, but with the Coens it's solemn, fierce, desperate, even impressionistic, and deeply moving.
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Then there's what comes after that, and the little twitch in your memory when you meet one character and remember the reference to Cogburn's history with Quantrill during the Civil War, and the Coens' film comes out just plain richer than Hathaway's. But that's probably because Portis is richer. Either way, so what? Wayne's Rooster is a performance for the ages -- I think he's great in the role, and I don't care what the revisionists say -- and the rest of the film is plenty brisk and entertaining and well-made. And so we have two good film versions of a masterful book, plus we have the book. I'm looking for a reason to complain here, but I'm not finding one.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let 'Em Burn

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Steven Spielberg first showed that he had a way with violence in 1975 with Jaws. The severed, sinking leg, the terrifying, almost surreal death of the Kintner boy, and the brutal end of Quint still have a strong impact today, but Spielberg rather quickly backed away from that (unless you count the deliberately pulpy fantasy violence of the first two Indiana Jones films, which I don't) and became known for many years as a filmmaker of grand family entertainment, whose occasional attempts to branch out into more mature films, for lack of a better term, were slapped away by critics and audiences (most unfairly in the case of Empire of the Sun). But in the 1990s, he suddenly became one of the most deft, unblinking and morally complex creators of violence on-screen. This is not the sort of thing that a filmmaker is generally given credit for, as such, but I'm nevertheless going to point out that Spielberg never gets credit for it. At best, his way with violence is ignored -- because it's too low a thing to be appreciated? -- and at worst he's badly misunderstood.
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Not always, of course, because nobody's going to claim that the violence in Schindler's List was out of place, and nobody's going to not mention it, either, because what would people say about you if you did either of those things? But what often goes uncommented on is the specifics of the violence, the details that carry the weight of those snuffed out lives -- in regards to Schindler's List, I'm thinking of a moment when several Jews are lined up back to back, in two rows, while two German soldiers square them up so their bullets will go through the first man, into the second, possibly into the third, thereby saving ammunition. It's the squaring up, though, and the delay before gunfire, and mainly the stiffness of the victims, accompanied by nervous fiddling, as if because they know they are about to die, they don't know what to do with their hands. Also going unmentioned are the bodies as they drop, like empty sackcloth, after the bullets have passed through. For most people, the fact that it's graphic violence is all that needs to be mentioned -- in what ways is it graphic, and in what ways it is shocking, don't need to be mentioned.
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Of course, in Schindler's List, there are no moral questions about the violence -- it's all unquestionably terrible, although the execution of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) might carry a certain uncomfortable sting to it, the awkwardness of the moment -- the executioners have trouble kicking the stool out from under Goeth, the noose around his neck waiting to pull taught -- mirroring an earlier scene when Goeth fails, despite his best efforts, to murder an elderly Jew. But for me, that's just a bit of cold-hearted justice and I question the idea that Spielberg wouldn't back me up on that. My reason for this belief is primarily due to Saving Private Ryan from 1998, a film that, for all its flaws (if ever there was a weak, or even bad, script that was turned into a great film entirely due to the skill of the director, it's this one), must be one of the ballsiest films about violence, and violence in war specifically, ever made. In Saving Private Ryan, which is about a squad of eight American soldiers who are ordered, fresh from barely surviving the D-Day invasion, to find Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) and issue him a ticket home as a PR move to offset the tragedy of Ryan's three brothers all dying in combat, Spielberg presents the violence of combat with all the same crushing ferocity of Schindler's List, but in this case the argument is that the violence is not always bad. Or rather, it is always bad, but it's not always wrong.
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At first, it seems like vengeance. After the Allied forces have broken through the German strongholds on Omaha Beach, we see a German bunker blasted with a flamethrower, and as burning men scramble for air, a GI yells to his comrades "Don't shoot! Let 'em burn!" Later, two Germans are attempting to surrender to two GIs who pretend they don't understand what the Germans want. Then the GIs shoot the German soldiers, and make jokes over the corpses. Tom Hanks's Capt. Miller witnesses this particular war crime, and the weary disapproval is clear in his face. The best excuse possible for those Americans shooting the two Germans is that after seeing their friends slaughtered around them (one of the most enduring images from Saving Private Ryan is a shot from behind a Higgins boat full of Americans getting chopped up by German machine gun fire before they've even been able to take a step towards the beach) they want payback that is more face-to-face than what they would typically experience by shooting a distant, fuzzy figure in an enemy uniform. And while Miller knows this is what war too often is, it's not what it should be, or what he would prefer it to be. Later, when the squad is searching for Ryan, Miller orders his men to engage a German outpost -- unnecessarily engage them, according to some of the men, as these Germans could easily be avoided, and in any case this is well outside of the boundaries of their mission. But Miller orders them, and in the ensuing battle, which occurs off-screen, the squad's medic, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is killed. One German soldier (Joerg Stadler) survives the battle, and is taken prisoner. However, he can't be taken with them on their mission to find Ryan, so what should they do with him? Kill him, according to most of the men, because to let him go would simply allow him to join back up with an enemy patrol. Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies) is adamant that the man should not be killed, and eventually Miller agrees, and the German, referred to as "Steamboat Willie" in the credits due to his spouting of WWII-era American pop culture references to try to get in his captors' good graces, is let go. Most of the squad considers this man at least partially responsible for Wade's death, and are outraged by the decision, but Miller explains that "every man [he] kills makes [him] feel farther from home," and the men, roughly speaking, accept the decision, and Steamboat Willie is gone.
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Later, after Ryan has been found and Miller and the remainder of his squad has decided to join Ryan's platoon to help defend the bridge they've been assigned to guard, two moments in the ensuing battle make clear Spielberg's approach to violence in Saving Private Ryan. At one point, Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a German soldier, and Upham can hear what's going on. He makes a move up the stairs to help Mellish, but his combat experience and cowardice cause him to freeze, and Mellish is killed. When the German descends the staircase he sees Upham curled up in fear, and chooses not to kill him, as he doesn't consider Upham a threat, or even a soldier.
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The second moment comes when we see Steamboat Willie again. He has, in fact, joined up with another German patrol, one who is involved in the assault on the bridge, and it is this man who fatally shoots Cpt. Miller. So in these two moments we see a condemnation of cowardice in Upham's unwillingness, or mental inability, to deliberately engage in combat, in violence, a decision that leads to his comrade's death, and a condemnation -- and here's the real ballsy part -- of mercy. Miller and Upham both stumped for offering Steamboat Willie a beneficent hand, an olive branch, and it leads to Miller's death. When Upham finds Willie among the German captives after the battle, he coldly shoots him, unable to accept how cruelly his own mercy has been rubbed in his face.
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What seems to confuse some people about Saving Private Ryan (other than the mistaken idea that the German who kills Mellish is the same man who kills Miller; it's not, though, it's Steamboat Willie. I know this because Steamboat Willie and the man who kills Miller are played by the same actor, one who isn't the same actor as the man who kills Mellish. You just have to noodle it through) is that Spielberg takes this approach to total war while never pulling back from the horror of it. World War II was a just war, but just wars are every bit as ugly and hellish as the unjust ones. A Nazi can suffer with his guts blown out just as easily as an American GI -- what Saving Private Ryan is saying is that the Nazi needs to have his guts blown out. He may not need to suffer, but he will because that's what happens when you get shot. It would be dishonest to approach combat as a serious subject and then, when someone gets shot, have him simply grab his chest and fall backwards. Spielberg would rather lay it all out and say, of World War II at least, "This all needed to happen, and it was horrible."
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Saving Private Ryan takes the unusual stance, for movies anyway, that killing is sometimes necessary. On top of that, it piles on the point that killing is never anything but abominable. War movies in particular can quite often be divided into action movies and anti-war movies, and it's this latter type for which the genuine brutality is saved. Brutality is bad, so it should be used to portray things that are wrong. But that's not honest. Unless you're Nicholson Baker and therefore completely deluded, you know that World War II needed to be fought -- the alternative is not worth thinking about -- yet what should be so confusing about applying your understanding of real world violence to this historical necessity? On this matter, Spielberg, at least, keeps a clear head.
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This post is part of the Spielberg Blogathon, hosted by Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sweet Girl

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[Major spoilers for Black Swan are not stated outright but can be inferred from what follows]
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Darren Aronofsky seems intent on becoming on of the of the strangest and most unpredictable filmmakers working today. Looking back on it now, Pi, his 1998 debut, seems like an interesting slog, and one that could have easily generated mild heat before Aronofsky slipped away into ambitionless small movies, or was grinded up once he tried to cash in. Instead, he moved onto the Hubert Selby, Jr. adaptation Requiem for a Dream which, despite occasionally betraying an influence from the not-beloved-by-the-mainstream Jan Svankmajer, kept Aronofsky's light burning. A good film, at least part of Requiem's ability to breakthrough came from certain shocking and grotesquely explicit moments, some involving Jennifer Connelly. But Aronofsky also crafted a role for Ellen Burstyn, as a woman addicted to diet pills, that garnered some of that awards buzz that they got. This is something Aranofsky and his actors have been able to do repeatedly, though before then his career was almost fatally derailed by his third film, 2006's The Fountain, a strange philosophical science fiction fantasy about illness, death, grief and the afterlife. Despite boasting a major star (giving an outstanding performance) in Hugh Jackman, The Fountain was badly, and weirdly, underrated by critics whose support The Fountain desperately needed in order to not disappear, which it ultimately did. So six years between Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and nobody seemed to welcome Aronofsky's return. Aronofsky was attached to a number of potentially interesting genre/geek material, such as adaptations of the comics Batman: Year One and Lone Wolf and Cub, which ultimately came to nothing. Now what?
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Now what is that Aronofsky did what a lot of directors who've struggled as he has end up doing, which is to at least momentarily retreat from screenwriting (he'd written all of his first three films) and accept the possibility that he could make his way as a director for hire, finding appealing scripts and putting his own stamp on the resulting films (there's probably a word for this kind of director, but I don't feel like looking it up). The first film to come of this was The Wrestler from 2008, an excellent film written by Robert D. Siegel that also counted as a jaw-dropping comeback for Mickey Rourke. That awards buzz came around again, and Aronofsky suddenly had a career again. Continuing his directing-for-hire ways, Aronofsky's new film Black Swan resembles nothing so much as the kind of latter-day work we might see from another hard-to-pin-down filmmaker who long ago also retreated from writing his own films, David Cronenberg.
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So Black Swan resembles something by Cronenberg, and, you know, also The Wrestler. It's pretty rare that the kind of X-movie-meets-X-movie formulation to describe a third film is so on-the-nose as it is when describing Black Swan as The Fly meets The Wrestler. But that sure is what it is. The story of a withdrawn, repressed, deeply neurotic and possibly psychotic ballerina named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), Black Swan is structured, imagined and occasionally shot as a batshit horror film as it chronicles Nina's desperate but nervous attempts to us her rigorous technical ballet skills to persuade ballet company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to cast her in his "stripped down" and "raw" staging of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The kicker is, Thomas wants one dancer to play not only the tragic White Swan, but the evil and seductive Black Swan, as well. Working against contemporary ethics, Thomas uses sexual aggression to eke out the kind of fire from Nina (when he tries to kiss her, she bites him) he needs to convince himself that she is something other than an empty technician, and gives her the part. However, Nina, even before she's cast, begins seeing and experiencing strange things, such as women who appear to be her walking past on the subway, and mysterious, bleeding rashes on her shoulder blades. These can be experienced anywhere, including in her own apartment, which she shares with her mother, a severe-looking, but warm -- and very good -- Barbara Hershey.
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Needless to say, these images and rashes increase in bugfuckery as the film progresses, and as the story takes dark and paranoid turns revolving around Winona Ryder's raging, drunk, and past-her-prime former ingenue, and Mila Kunis's hauntingly beautiful newcomer to the company, who may or may not rather have the lead in Swan Lake for her very own. All of this had me pretty much in hog heaven, because as a whole Black Swan hits on a variety of things, seemingly disparate things, that I enjoy and find interesting and mash them all up together.
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Oh my goodness, how did that get in there. But so anyway, among those mashed up things are stories of backstage drama -- a genre that fascinates and entertains me to a degree I'm at a loss to explain -- and horror (which around here is ground well covered). Combining these kinds of stories is something of a masterstroke by screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, and Aronofsky approaches it with all the pulp verve of a guy making a solid little modern B-horror picture that the suits hope will double its meager budget come October. But Aronofsky also brings his detail-oriented eye from The Wrestler over to Black Swan, so that we get a number of shots, and brief digressions, that deal with Nina digging at the soles of her ballet slippers to give them better grip, or having her strained sternum muscles being worked on by the company medic. The pain and physical toll of ballet, as of wrestling in The Wrestler, is always present in Black Swan, as it must be to drive home not only Nina's drive, but what she's driving to do.
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In short, Black Swan is a curious mix. It also manages to be a bit schematic in its final third, when not only the horror elements break into the foreground, but the parallels with The Wrestler become more than just stylistic in nature. There's a moment near the end, a shot, that I felt certain was the end, but I soon realized it wasn't, and my heart started to sink. The film, I felt, was pulling away from everything -- pulling away from certain story elements is part of what movies like Black Swan do, but pulling back too far can bring the whole mess down. Before going further, I should point out that I didn't feel that the source of the film's horror elements were all that difficult to guess (an early trailer for Black Swan cheated by adding a line that deepened the mystery, but that line is not in the film, and, in fact, could not have been in the film, given where it goes, so the trailer, which got a lot of people quite excited for the film, was constructed at least in part in bad faith), and so certain revelations operated on a level, and not a bad level, different from what Aronofsky and company had planned. But still, how far can you go before it all stops working, and becomes a hollow shell, empty of any of the significance you'd tried to build up?
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In the case of Black Swan, I'm not sure of the answer. Because while the film goes on for about another ten minutes past the point I thought and hoped would be the end, my uncertainty about the wisdom of this choice is pretty sharply offset by what Natalie Portman does in those ten minutes (and the previous ten minutes, and the 80 minutes prior to that). If there is one thing that is, for me, unambiguously great about Black Swan it is her performance, though when I think of her greatness here I have to focus on that final stretch, when Portman has to show Nina -- a nervous, insecure, unhappy person -- "bringing it together", mentally, silently, for two different reasons and in two slightly different contexts, and pulling it off in ways that are both chilling and skin-crawling, not to mention, from a perspective removed from the madness of what Black Swan has become, heart-breaking. Black Swan is, I think, a very good movie. Natalie Portman, meanwhile, is a goddamn revelation. To say I didn't think she had this in her is an understatement (and definitive proof, if any was needed, that George Lucas can't direct actors for shit) -- I do not mean to exaggerate when I say that I'm having a hard time thinking of a performance this year that so blind-sided me, apart from Edgar Ramirez in Carlos.
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All these words and I've never even mentioned the sex! Well, it's there, and it's as advertised, and it's not by any means an insignificant aspect of the film. In other words, it's not just there to be there, those scenes having both dark and terribly awkward stings in their tales to underline Nina's status as a grown-up child -- when she gets angry and swipes a music box off her nightstand, taking her frustration out on it precisely because it's a reminder of her childishness, there's a porcelain kitten right behind it, in plain view -- a young woman who is being forcibly driven from her shell by a curiously meek brand of ambition, and various seduction attempts by various genders. Plus also other things. But who's to blame for where we end up? Not her mother (this was an easy lay-up I was pleased to see Aronofsky and the screenwriters refuse to take), but certainly any number of other people. First, though, look in the mirror.
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Up Next

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Even though I'm not posting as regularly as I used to, when I do I seem to only be posting rather monstorously long pieces -- from my point of view, if not yours, this counts as a good thing. And one not likely to change right away either, because later today I'll be seeing Black Swan which, depending on how it strikes me, will mean a second post today (counting this one), or at the latest tomorrow. On top of that, starting today is the Spielberg Blogathon, hosted by Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine (who has already written up Munich and War of the Worlds, two films I might well have been tempted to write about, so thanks a lot for that one, dickface) and Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies (who has gone deep into ephemara right out of the gate with an interview with the band who wrote the music to Spielberg's very early short film Amblin' -- this is a post I myself would never have considered, so Adam is not a dickface, at least not in this instance). This is a project I very much want to take part in, so there's at least one more post in the offing, as well.
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So I guess the idea behind this post is that hey, I'm going to write at least two more things. How wonderful for all of us. But also to help announce Ryan and Adam's project, which I meant to do earlier, but didn't, what with distractions and everything. Anyway, it's lasting from Dec. 18 through the 28th, so check that shit out. And check out my shit, too, when I post it, which will be soon. THE END.
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PS - Incidentally, the above picture is no signal for which Spielberg film I plan to write about -- I haven't decided that yet. It's a good picture, though.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Only You Could Have Made This

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William Lustig and Joe Spinell's Maniac, from 1980, begins with a murder. It progresses from that murder to another, and then to another, and then to another. The first of these murders (actually a double murder, as is one other later on) is relatively brief, centering on the two victims, a man and woman, on the beach only long enough to set a mood of doom before the killer arrives with his knife. After that, the killer -- Spinell, also the co-screenwriter, playing Frank Zito -- is shown either stalking his prey, with very little to no surrounding dialogue (or ancillary characters), or alone with the victim, who is not aware that that's what they are, as he waits for his mind to dissolve sufficiently to carry through with his plan. These scenes, these almost context-free killings, amount to about forty minutes, roughly half the film. In this sense, Maniac -- a film that is, at least by general reputation, a sleazy, exploitation gore film -- finds its closest relative in Alan Clarke's Elephant, a film about Ireland's Troubles that, in its entirety, lasts about forty minutes, and consists entirely of one murder after another.
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Clarke's film was made nine years later, and though I don't know for sure I feel safe in assuming that Clarke was not aware of, let alone influenced by, Maniac. Even so, Lustig and Spinell's film gets a bad rap, in that even many of its admirers chalk it up as a well-above average bit of exploitation. Which it is, I guess, but Maniac stands out for me for a number of reasons. The gore is there, courtesy of (but of course) Tom Savini, though there's less of it than you might think, and also virtually no nudity. There's also almost no plot, no mystery, no cops hunting Zito down, and the closest we get to a story, as such, arrives in the person of Caroline Munro as a fashion photographer who goes all Cybill Shepherd on Zito by befriending him (he's a photographer, as well) and even flirting with him a bit (does she?), but this is only plot in that she leads to his downfall, and that only comes about because she has a healthy flight instinct and a strong pair of legs (which can be seen also in Starcrash, also featuring a (dubbed) Joe Spinell. Caroline Munro must have the most ridiculous/wonderful filmography of all time).
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Maniac is grimy, it's cheap (it looks good though), and it takes place in the parts of 1980 New York that would have the kind of movie theaters that would actually show a movie like Maniac, but if there's one reason the film is regarded now as an exploitation classic, it's because the film is about murder. Serial murder, specifically, but murder in general, as a topic for art, has an odd place in cinema history. I think we can agree that murder, while it's unlikely to happen to you, is a major, let's say, problem. Most of us will never be homeless either, but you'll give up before you get to the end of films that try to tackle that one with sincerity and a noble spirit. The problem with murder, though, is that you can't pin it down. One guy gets drunk, and gets angry, and stabs another guy in the neck. This guy over here got drunk, got angry, and stabbed nobody. The guy finds his wife in bed with another man and he shoots them both. This guy walked in on the same scene, turned around, and walked away. This person was raped and beaten as a child, and grew up with a dozen blown fuses behind his eyes, so that now he sits in a van at night waiting for a woman to walk by alone. If he ever took pills, he's stopped. Another victim of hideous childhood abuse somehow moved on, or if he, too, blew fuses, he never stopped taking his pills. If he does stop, he punches walls and breaks windows, but doesn't stalk women with a knife.
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If murder is a problem -- and it is -- it's a cosmic one. It's a hard thing to trace, the moment, if there even is one, when a soul goes black. So what you don't get are movies about the "problem" of murder. Films about the homeless, or racism, tend to be made by people who naively believe there is an achievable goal in the distance, that their film, or their film accompanied by hundreds of others like it, can push towards, I don't know, a cure for racism. I won't say they're shocked when that doesn't happen, but they still hang tight to that possibility. Foolish as those people are, I'm not aware of anyone foolish enough to think there's a cure for murder, through film or any other means. They might believe that their are sources that, if obliterated, would take murder along with them.
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So the closest you're going to get is something like Maniac, a horror film that is about murder, and a murderer. Frank Zito kills his victims and scalps them, and we see him nailing those scalps to a blood-streaked mannequin he sleeps with, all the while talking to the mannequin about how there's not too much blood, and she looks good anyway, but also he has to stop this, this is "silly", they're going to find out. The best line Roger Ebert has ever written is from his review of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, where he says "[John McNaughton] raised the budget for Henry from Waleed Ali, a Chicago home video executive, who wanted a horror film but reportedly was surprised when McNaughton gave him the real thing..." This gets to the heart of why a film like Maniac occupies the place it does: it's a horror film that offers you nothing but horror, and doesn't even have the decency to employ the metaphor of ghosts or vampires so that we can pretend it's about something other than it is. (The fact that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer enjoys a slightly more respectable realm, even though it is, in essence, the exact same kind of film as Maniac, is not so easily explained. It's not because one film is well-made and the other isn't, because both are well-made. Perhaps it's because, by the time Henry came around, the grindhouses were gone.).
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When Maniac came out, it was met, predictably, with outrage from various groups, most prominently feminist groups who claimed the film was exploitative and misogynistic. The misogyny angle is absurd, because I don't suppose you'd get far with anyone trying to make a film about a serial killer who loves women, never mind that the most lingered-over bits of violence in the whole film are the deaths of two men, one of them (Tom Savini) a victim of Zito, and the other Zito himself. Though the phantasmagoria of Zito's death is a feverish hallucination he experiences during his suicide, it's also by far the bloodiest sequence in Maniac, and the specifics of what we're shown have perhaps gone unnoticed by those who would label the film misogynistic. But I guess that's how it goes.
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The question of Maniac's exploitation is a little bit different, however, because the question there is, how far does the film go, and is there any worth in the fact that it goes as far as it does? I think I have the answer, though, and it’s this: well, that all depends. In Maniac, there is an, I guess, instructive scene. Appropriately, it is a murder scene, and it involves a young woman, in her apartment, getting into the bath. This accounts for the film’s only nudity, and the fact that the woman is young and attractive is not not worth pointing out, but neither is the fact that she’s not nude for long, nor is she nude when she’s killed. This is splitting hairs, no doubt, and anyway isn’t really my point. After she gets into the bath, the camera pulls away, out of the bathroom, backing down the hallway outside, with the ajar bathroom door receding. There’s no credit to anyone guessing what her fate will be, and eventually the camera stops as Zito’s hand looms into the right side of the screen, and he’s holding a knife. It’s hard not to be put in mind of Anna Massey’s murder in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, where the camera leaves Massey and Barry Foster, her killer, entering her apartment, as it backs away, down the stairs, out of the building, and across the street, as if to leave them to it. This shot is, to me, one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, and the genius of it is in the grim, even mournful, elegance of the camera’s withdrawal. Had this less ambitious but similar shot in Maniac signaled the end of the scene, the audience would have gotten the picture, but Maniac is not about looking away, and Lustig and Spinell go further, so that we subsequently see what Hitchcock chose not to show. And so the question would be, is this choice better, or worse? Well, it’s not better, in the sense that, whatever his genuine skill, Lustig is no Hitchcock, but the question is, or has become, because some demand it, a moral one. And to be fair, it’s not true that there is no such thing as immoral art – Oscar Wilde couldn’t be right about everything, after all – but in the same way as there’s nothing immoral about filming an erupting volcano simply because we have no way of stopping it, it’s also not a given that depicting the kind of rancid violence we’re about to witness at the end of this scene is immoral simply because the Frank Zitos of the world are going to do what they do until they get caught.
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For his part, Joe Spinell was mortified by the charges of misogyny that greeted Maniac’s release. His solution, which was possibly not terribly well-thought-out, was to make a sequel called Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie. Bearing no relation to the original outside of Spinell's presence and violent death, the film was to be about the host of a children’s show named Mr. Robbie (Spinell) who is flooded with letters from his young viewers, despairing over the abuse they suffer at the hands of their parents and other adults. Not terribly stable in his own right, Mr. Robbie takes it on himself to supply violent retribution on behalf of these children – and rescue, as well, or so the idea goes. I’m not sure this would have satisfied any of the people who objected to the violence in Maniac (though there would doubtlessly have been few to no protests), but the film wasn’t made in any case because Joe Spinell died suddenly – though probably not surprisingly, to those who knew him – in 1989 (it’s probably worth pointing out that trying to undo the supposed damage of Maniac nine years after the fact was, in all likelihood, putting the horse way beyond the cart). Spinell was able to complete a short film version of Mr. Robbie, at seven minutes amounting to, and intended as, a kind of promotional film which would be used to secure funding. You can watch it on Youtube here, along with an introduction culled from the very worthwhile short documentary The Joe Spinell Story. Mr. Robbie, the short, has some nice touches -- such as Spinell holding up his end of a conversation while sprawled across a bar, an authentic moment quite possibly pulled from Spinell's life experience -- but if any problems are signaled it's that Mr. Robbie was trying to frame its violence with something greater, child abuse. Although, who's to say that really would have been a problem, and I would dearly love to be able to watch Mr. Robbie in its entirety. It's just that Maniac was after something more nebulous (and if it eventually found itself ringing certain chimes with Elephant, it also did with Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven, a film not exactly like Maniac, but it's out to depict a similarly jacked-up psychology, from that psychology's point of view), and Mr. Robbie wanted to be something, or seemed to want to be something, more concretely satisfying.
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A curious bookend to Maniac and the films it’s influenced – or seems to have, but really probably didn’t – is the moment in the film that very explicitly quotes Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (in which Spinell has a small but memorable role). It’s a brief bit, but Caroline Munro and Spinell are talking, and Spinell responds to something she says by saying “You talkin’ to me?” He says it with a smile, and the camera lingers, so that the audience can’t miss it – not only the reference, but that Zito is knowingly making the reference to Munro’s character. The two films don’t have a hell of a lot else in common (outside of the aforementioned Munro-as-Shepherd aspect of Maniac), because Travis Bickle is a different kind of killer, one who believes himself to have a moral compass, but both films ride through the same rain-spattered streets of New York’s darker and grubbier corners. So while Maniac may be carving its own path, Scorsese is still sort of all over it, as he was in so many other low-down and violent New York films of the time. Not one to miss out on his own brand of Scorsese influence was Mr. Robbie’s director, Buddy Giovinazzo. At the time he worked with Spinell on the Maniac sequel, Giovinazzo was, and remains to this day, best known for his own low-budget bit of psychotic nastiness, called Combat Shock, from 1986. Owing its very life to Taxi Driver (and its most memorable visual to David Lynch’s Eraserhead), Combat Shock is about another mentally diseased Frank, this one Frankie Dunlan (Ricky Giovinazzo, the director’s brother), whose own psychosis seems to be the result of his exposure to Agent Orange while fighting in Vietnam. As if that weren’t enough, he and his wife have since had a child, a one-year-old in the form of a writhing wad of animatronic clay with a face and the cry of a busted air-raid siren. Frankie is jobless, a drug addict, crazy, and on the verge of homelessness.
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Shot in the dirt-and-grass lots and burned out fringe neighborhoods of Staten Island, Combat Shock is a product of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Films, and man does it show. Combat Shock is an ugly movie, in ways both intended and not, and I can’t pretend that I think it’s very much good at all. While Maniac had a cast of decent-enough actors anchored by a tremendous Joe Spinell, Combat Shock has nobody, plus the visual sense of Toxic Avenger, and very nearly the tone of same, minus the terrible jokes. What it does have going for it, however, is a genuine lunacy – it’s a very strange film, filled with verbal non-sequitors (check out the scene where Frankie goes job-hunting), blunt sentimentality (Frankie’s desperate call to his dying father, who is wheeled to his phone in what appears to be a forgotten meeting room at the local Shriners hall by a male nurse played, it would appear, by Freddie Mercury) and equally blunt cruelty (Frankie’s wife is quite unbearable, at one point saying of Frankie, in reference to their deformed baby, “Only you could make this!”). Add to that occasional psychedelic flashbacks of the Vietnam variety and an appalling synth score, and you have a film that has been referred to as an accidental masterpiece, though I’m not sure about either part of that phrase. Combat Shock ends in massive violence, both of the Taxi Driver and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? sorts, but for all its strangeness (whatever it owes in concept to Eraserhead, that baby is still frigginnuts), Combat Shock is still skittish in a way that Maniac, and even Taxi Driver (I’ve never been convinced that Bickle’s status as a Vietnam vet explained, or was meant to explain, all that much) is not. Combat Shock ties its violence to societal ills, as if to say “Well, if we hadn’t treated this guy like that, this wouldn’t have happened.” Yeah, but then again maybe it would have. And in any case, it does, all the time, all over.
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I have to give Giovonazzo credit anyway, though, because Combat Shock has to be some kind of pinnacle for Troma. For a company that seems to treat filmmaking as a form of hoax, Combat Shock strikes me as at least sincere. Plus, if I may presume for a moment, I doubt that the men behind Sgt. Kabukiman and Poultrygeist followed up the non-breakthroughs of those films with a series of novels, as Giovonazzo has done. The problem is simply that Combat Shock (along with all its other problems) follows the path of so many films before and after it, by pretending that murder is part of a giant puzzle of problems (as does Elephant, though in that case you would either have to have been in the middle of the problem, or do some digging afterward to know just what's going on there), and that by fixing all these more readily understandable problems, people will stop shooting each other in the face. But no, it’s not like that. Murder is like the sun – it will always be with us.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Prawns and Monsters

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The basic idea behind Gareth Edwards's Monsters is a good one -- or maybe not the basic idea, because I don't know which of the film's three or four ideas was Edwards's jumping off point. But the basic narrative idea is a good one, and that idea is this: the Earth has been sort-of invaded by aliens, specifically one chunk of the Earth, and a man and a woman (played respectively by Scoot McNairy (!) and Whitney Able) need to travel from that chunk, to another, alien-less chunk. These aliens, while not obviously aggressive, are nevertheless alien, and therefore ignorant, enough of Earth and humans that they're causing a good deal of havoc. Also, while sometimes very large in size, they're not everywhere, so while this man and woman go about their difficult journey the aliens are spoken about far more often than they are seen, and when they are seen it's usually in glimpses, and more often than not on television.
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But Monsters takes some wrong steps early -- starting with some unfortunate dialogue, as when Andrew (McNairy), who has been sent by his employer to find Samantha (Able) because she is, in fact, his employer's daughter, greets her by announcing "I work for your father's publication" -- culminating in the realization (this on the part of the audience) that Monsters is an allegory about an Important Issue of Our Time. This is, I suppose, inevitable, because these days, and in all the days that preceded these, science fiction can often be divided into two types: action stories, and Important Issue of Our Time stories. That's when it comes to movies, anyway -- in literature, it's quite a different proposition, because in that medium the genre allows for quite complex books like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, and its bleak yet hopeful approach to evolution, or Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream, the conceit of which is that Hitler never went into politics, but rather science fiction, and The Iron Dream is, indeed, supposedly written by Hitler, and well, I have to admit I've never read that one, but I do like the idea, and anyway I think it's safe to assume that James Cameron will never be tackling that kind of material, or, at least, not on purpose.
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What I'm saying is, science fiction on film is somewhat less varied, and while I won't presume to speak for you, I'm beginning to suffer for it. Monsters, for all its minor faults, has a really nice, theoretical approach to the idea of extra-terrestrials, or rather -- and this, unfortunately, is crucial -- "aliens", and here I mean on visual terms. Thematically, however, somewhere along the way (right from the beginning, for all I know) Gareth Edwards apparently thought "Space aliens are a lot like Mexicans," and Monsters as we know it was born. Because Mexico is in fact the setting for Monsters, and America has built a wall along the U.S./Mexican border, and at some point, swear to Christ, Samantha actually says, in reference to this wall, "It's like we're imprisoning ourselves." That quote is inexact, but, I assure you, just barely. Almost nobody has realized, even at this late date, that unless you know what you're doing, you should leave allegory in the fucking toolbox. Virtually without fail, the result of removing it from that toolbox, with the intention of actually using it, is either a lecture, or a mix of a lecture and a round of high-fives with all the people who walked into the theater already agreeing with you. And I swear to you, it's not the specific politics or philosophy that is the issue here -- the problem is a lack of imagination. Being stopped in your tracks when you realize that "aliens" can actually have two meanings...well, that's not the kind of barn-storming idea that kept your Wellses and Asimovs and Ellisons and Delaneys and Silverbergs chugging along -- put it that way.
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But oh ho! Monsters, as it turns out, has quite a surprise in its pocket -- I realize I sound like a sarcastic dick there, but I actually mean it. I won't give away the end of the film, but before turning its story into a silly loop-the-loop for not good reason I can figure, Monsters presents us with a pretty darn good look at these titular "monsters" (to Edwards's credit, the underlying meaning of his title is not that "we are the real monsters," and for that I can only be grateful), and they're huge and beautiful and astonishing and doing...something. This stretch of the film -- a good five minutes or so, focused on these creatures -- is quite honestly one of the greatest bits of science fiction filmmaking I have ever seen. For a film that wears its influences not so much on its sleeve as on its forehead -- a lot about Monsters will seem awfully familiar to an awful lot of people -- to suddenly go all dazzling and awesome (the original definition, as in "wonder-inducing", as opposed to the more familiar meaning, "pretty neat") was a bit of a jolt. And it seems to me that this is why Edwards made this movie, because he knew he could do this (and, not incidentally, he could do it for not very much money); what he needed was a reason to do it, and the uninspired 90 minutes (and the dopey, but non-fatal, "twist" that follows) that precedes this moment is what he came up with.
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But Jesus, you know...I'll take it! What this section of Monsters is doing is exploring true alienness. Not the alienness of "the Other", which in college classrooms often means "people who aren't white", but true alienness, otherworldly, science fiction alienness, which itself, just lightly buried, doubles as the entirety of what we don't know and will not know in our lifetimes, and would never understand even if we could witness it. It's about knowing you don't know shit, that we don't know shit, even though the majority of us seem pretty confident that in a relative eyeblink, universally speaking, we've amassed all possible world and scientific knowledge. Finally, for all its massive failings, Monsters put me in mind of one of the greatest, and purest, science fiction stories I know: Terry Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" (you can follow that link and read the story yourself), which is a rather brilliantly dark take on the idea of uncertainty, approached by Edwards in Monsters with a more positive, albeit speechless, sense of wonder. So that ultimately my take on Monsters is that it's really not a very good movie, until suddenly, and however briefly, it is a very good movie.
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But I don't know, maybe recent disappointments have just made me soft, or quick to forgive, given that disappointment is not my favorite emotion. What I'm getting at here is last year's weirdly beloved District 9, the triumphantly successful first feature from Neill Blomkamp. The thing about the critical reaction to District 9 is that it appears to have had a positive baseline, so that reactions needed to grow from the feeling that it was rather nice that such a film, on such a scale, came from a country other than America. Which, okay, but from my perspective this means that I'm supposed to think that I don't really like the movie, but at least it came from South Africa. I'll give you that, if you think it's so important, but I'm still left with this broken heffalump of a lecture -- er, movie, this broken heffalump of a movie, whose noble goal is to illustrate Blomkamp's take on South Africa's current ethnic and political situation without chintzing out on shots of people exploding. I appreciate that, I guess, even though it means that District 9 is a mix of the two types of modern cinematic science fiction I'm most sick of.
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I thought of District 9 a lot while watching Monsters last night, mostly in the context of believing they were equally bad, and for the same reasons, but I think it should be clear now that in a head-to-head race, I think Monsters comes out ahead. For one thing, Monsters is visually consistent -- as a piece of filmmaking, it knows where it's going. District 9, meanwhile, consists of a very uneasy split between faux-documentary and standard, third-person omniscient (or whatever the opposite of a documentary is) action spectacle. This split is all the more uneasy because the documentary style is eventually just unceromoniously dropped. More obnoxious to me, from a technical standpoint, is the entirely absurd plot element involving the main character, named Wikus Van De Merwe. Played by Sharlto Copley in a much-hailed performance (even though I can't see what he does here that is any different from any other actor who has played a self-important, twitchy beaurocrat in any film ever; the film's innovation, which is genuine enough, is to make this guy the hero), Wikus goes from a guy whose job is to evict the space aliens from the impoverished blotch of Johannesburg they've chosen to inhabit since their baffling arrival some years before, a job he takes to with some callousness, to a guy who has great sympathy for, and even fights to correct, the plight of these same space aliens. He gets there because the aliens have this fluid, see, which is on one hand fuel that they need in order to escape from this South African plot of land back to their ever-hovering mothership, and on the other hand is a goo that if a human gets sprayed with it, it will transform him into a space alien. What good, or even just impact, this particular chemical property has on the space aliens when they're nowhere near Earthlings -- which presumably, in the context of their entire species, is almost all the time -- is anyone's guess, but it sure comes in handy in District 9.
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And look, I'm really not a big believer in the idea that the science in a science fiction film needs to be spotless in order to pass muster, nor do I find much worth in those who would pick away at all the supposed implausibilites in a story (strange, quick digression: the most recent episode of The Office features a protracted and even vicious snowball assault by one character on another, and I've seen people criticize this plotline for being too absurd in general, and because in reality one of their co-workers would certainly have stepped in and called an end to it; it is my hope that these people never enter into the field of comedy writing), but surely there are limits. When your plot hinges on something that is not only nonsensical, but also manages to rub our noses in metaphor, then something's wrong somewhere. How about I write a movie about a poor minority kid who travels with his dog through an unforgiving countryside, until one day he sees a rich white man drop a loaf of bread, and when the kid feeds that bread to his dog the dog gains the power to sniff out free money. Whatever, it's a metaphor.
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So District 9 is quite a bit more plotty than Monsters, which is fine by me in theory, much less so in execution. Worse, though, is that outside of some nice shots of the mothership, Blomkamp has no awe for his aliens. He's not trying to make a science fiction movie -- he's trying to make an action movie that Says Something. However, since he thinks he's making a science fiction movie, in order to stitch the action to his point, he's got to go through this absurd business with the fuel/transforming goo. But he betrays his intentions by having no curiosity about his aliens. Science fiction, along with everything else, is about curiosity, and Blomkamp has none. His "prawns" are not well-imagined creations -- they're substitutes. Like so many others, Blomkamp doesn't realize that something can be a metaphor and still be the thing itself, or if he does know this he thinks that making his aliens fond of cat food (which, honestly, is very close to being a joke from ALF) counts.
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Monsters is curious, though. It takes a while to get there, and frankly it's almost not worth it. But in the end, I believe it is. For about five minutes, Monsters is the anti-District 9, and for all my bitching, it gives me hope for the future.

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