Thursday, July 28, 2011

The End

My friend – both internet and really – Greg Ferrara recently posted something very on-target about film endings, in which he saluted a few films that are sometimes, or even often, regarded as having “non-endings.” In these specific cases, Greg is absolutely correct, but either way the post lines up with some thoughts I’ve had about film endings lately. I haven’t been focusing so much on non-endings and their opposites, but more on how important a good, or simply decent ending is. If you punt the ending of your otherwise excellent film, then it will be disliked more intensely than if the whole thing was just fine. By me, anyway.

Cases in point, and the films that have me thinking about this, are Duncan Jones’s Source Code and Neil Burger’s Limitless. Both are basically science fiction thrillers, building from genuine SF ideas but, in the case of Limitless, coasting mainly on its thriller tone. Source Code is the better film. It’s premise is odd and, I found, hard to grasp completely, but not hard to follow in the broad sense, and the science fiction-ness of it all could not be separated from either the thriller elements or the genuine emotion that builds throughout. Limitless is more jokey, more off-hand, less interested in itself. Not taking itself too seriously, which Burger’s film doesn’t, isn’t a bad thing, but being uninterested is. It’s a fun movie, but slight. So Source Code is chugging along, winning this race I’ve set up, until the ending which, the more I think about it, is an absolute disaster. That genuine emotion I mentioned before is discarded by Jones (or the studio, I guess) at the same time he’s pretending to expand on it. Source Code was a thriller with an underlying melancholy that it almost, almost, capitalizes on, that it almost makes count as the most memorable facet of this pretty relentless thriller plot. And then it fucking tanks it! The panicked babble about whether the melancholy ending would fly with audiences is practically audible. You can reconstruct the conversation, about sending audiences out on a high as opposed to a low, this is an expensive movie, goddamnit, in your head, and if you were into the film up until about three minutes from the final credits, then you just deflate. A good film spoiled.

Meanwhile, Limitless just sort of scampers along, keeping its ambitions and tonal shifts in check. And for a movie about suddenly becoming a genius, it can even be pretty stupid at times. For instance, the film is about this pill you can take that will increase the amount of brain power you use from 10% (or whatever random low number out of many I’ve heard that the film actually uses) to 100%, and this allows you to do anything at all you might wish to do. So Bradley Cooper does this and gets into all sorts of trouble, and is being followed, and at one point his girlfriend, Abbie Cornish, is being chased by a bad guy, and she’s in Central Park, hiding behind a rock, and decides to take one of these genius pills to help her think her way out of this jam. After doing so, she’s all “Aha!”, and she runs onto the ice skating rink they got in Central Park, and the bad guy follows her, so she grabs a little girl and swings the girls legs at the bad guy so the girl’s skates slash his face open. This strikes me less as a brilliant plan that couldn’t fail as a monumentally ridiculous one that just happened to work. But what do I know, I never claimed to be a genius.

By the time it’s all said and done, though, Limitless has gone out on a high note and Source Code hasn’t. Not that Limitless tries very hard, but by sticking to its loose, flippant demeanor, it’s able to have a kind of winking, crowd-pleasing exit that makes you sort of smile, which is better than making you sort of say “Why did they piss all over their ending?” Limitless is contrived and no big deal either way, but it’s at least savvy enough to use “Howlin’ For You” by The Black Keys, which is the sort of thing that middle-of-the-road movies always do, specifically, riding the coattails of a cool song into their own contact-high form of coolness. That’s how Limitless plays its hand. Not overly appealing, perhaps, but that’s better than folding. Although I don’t imagine I’ll watch either film ever again, so call it a push.

Monday, July 25, 2011

You're the Only One Who Hasn't Forgotten Me

A common complaint leveled – by general audiences and some critics – against films of a darker philosophy than may be the norm, one that has been the source of some debate recently, is that the film in question does not have any “likable” characters. This criticism strikes many people, including myself, as completely dismissible (it can get slightly more complicated than that, but that’s not for today) since “interesting” or “good”, in the aesthetic sense, trumps “likable” any day of the week. If I needed my characters to be likable, I’d steer clear of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, lots of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford books, and other works that I consider indispensable. So cram your likable characters with walnuts, see?

But there is another criticism, a close cousin of the “likable characters” one, and one that seems more readily embraced even by some of those cocking a snoot at the aforementioned, and that is the apparently fundamentally moral claim that a given filmmaker doesn’t like, or even hates, his characters. Because how dare he, for one thing, and who does he think he is, for another. This criticism does not tend to involve films in which a character that reflects the filmmaker’s political or philosophical or moral bias is set up to be knocked down. More often than not, those characters are what we in business like to call “the villain” and so it’s no biggie. No, in the cases I’m referring to, the hated characters aren’t villains, but might even ostensibly be the hero, or anyway the lead, and the evidence for the filmmaker’s rage can be found in the ways the character is mocked, verbally or through the hand of fate, as well as general misfortune and lack of empathy for the character from creator, or lack of openings for the audience to provide their own empathy, if the director’s going to be like that about it.

I’ll admit, I don’t really understand what it might mean for an artist to hate one of their characters, or why it should be the first thing that matters. I mean, you know made up people aren’t real, right? But let’s stop speaking in generalizations and get to the topic at hand: Todd Solondz. In his controversial 1998 film Happiness, one scene featured two overweight (this is important!) characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a deeply disturbed and chronically lonesome obscene phone caller, and Camryn Manheim, as a friendly woman whose idea of a perfect night is to drench herself in blankets and watch TV while eating ice cream, and who also killed a man who was trying to rape her, dancing to “All Out of Love” by Air Supply. Well, said some, why should this moment of tenderness be mocked by the inclusion by a song as lousy as “All Out of Love”? Why couldn’t Solondz have chosen a good song so that we would know not to laugh at the fat people? I know, it’s infuriating. Except, how about the idea that the song means a lot to Manheim’s character, and that “All Out of Love” means to the scene what it means to her? And that it might not be intended as an insult to say that someone like the woman Manheim is playing would probably like a song like “All Out of Love”? And that one needn’t even like “All Out of Love” to not mean that as an insult? And that the thousands (this is purely hypothetical) of Air Supply fans reading this must be wondering why this is even a question to be hashed out? And that, by the way, some people just really do like Air Supply? And that for all we know Todd Solondz is one of them? Point being, when you say a filmmaker hates their characters, you just might be revealing more about what you don’t like about that character than you realize. You fucking snob.

Then again! I watched Happiness again recently, as a lead up to watching Solondz’s kind of sequel, Life During Wartime, which will be released by Criterion tomorrow, and it struck me how many cheap shots Solondz really does take throughout the earlier film. The Air Supply thing does not count as a cheap shot, but the way he portrays Trish – played by Cynthia Stevenson in Happiness and Allison Janney in Life During Wartime, and one of the three sisters who are the core of both films – as entirely oblivious of the nightmarish crimes happening under her own roof and smugly condescending to her sister Joy (Jane Adams in Happiness, Shirley Henderson in Life During Wartime), and finally as a mockable “type” by twice having her chirpily and inappropriately ask “Did you see Leno last night?”, which carries a texture that is completely unlike that of the Air Supply scene. There is a context for mockery with Trish in Happiness that grates, and gives ammunition to the Air Supply protestors, if only they saw it.

This is all probably why Life During Wartime has been hailed by many as Solondz’s best film so far. The man makes pitch-black comedies about pitch-black subjects, and even in Life During Wartime he is not above the occasional cheap or easy shot at his characters, but he never does it in order to tear them down. For instance, at one point Janney as Trish, and Michael Lerner as Harvey Weiner (apparently the father of Dawn Weiner from Solondz’s earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse) are made to say trite things about terrorists – that they have no goals and hate freedom and that’s all that needs be said – that Solondz probably figures is the sort of thing that people dumber than he would say. Okay, fine, and then this is followed by a scene of genuine warmth and caring (though boy does it backfire) from Lerner and a subsequent fierce motherly protectiveness (though boy is it misplaced) from Janney. In other words, Life During Wartime seems to find Solondz developing a special brand of maturity that can still include taking cheap shots at your creations, as long as you don’t let those shots define them. In Happiness, that’s how Trish was defined; in Life During Wartime, while she’s still quite a piece of work (and played hilariously by Janney), she is no longer empty.

Life During Wartime has lots more to recommend it, too. If you’re a fan of Happiness, then it’s essential, and it’s quite interesting to see how Solondz – who once, in his film Palindromes, cast eight different actors to alternate playing the same role – has recast the major characters from Happiness, and how in some ways the casting and resulting performances mirror the earlier work (the switch from Jon Lovitz to Paul Reubens goes down pretty smooth) or starkly contrasts it (replacing Dylan Baker with Ciarin Hinds is much more jarring) or, in at least one case, significantly rewrites the character so that you have to wonder how connected the two films are really meant to be. In Happiness, Allen, the obscene phone caller, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In Life During Wartime, he is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. Williams is black, which doesn’t matter; what does matter is that Solondz has now given Allen a background as a former gangbanger, which would be hard to imagine when played by Hoffman. So Solondz is jerking us around, again. Plus he probably hates Allen anyway. But still, check it out. Solondz puts off a lot of people, with his funny stories about rape and pedophilia and abortion, and about half the time is frankly asking for it. He’s also the only guy I can think of who is currently making films like this. That’s no little thing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Clear Case of Possession

A while back, when Criterion was about to release, or had just released, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos and Le Deuxième Souffle somebody on one of the Criterion message boards bemoaned that these releases (as well as whatever titles were set to come out at the same time) were an example of the DVD company descending into "self parody." This raised a few questions in my mind, such as how is it possible for a DVD company to achieve self parody? If Blue Underground continues to release horror films, will it eventually become a parody of itself? And if this even is possible, what is it about releasing Jean-Pierre Melville films to DVD that makes self parody a danger for Criterion? I don't think it's going too far out on a limb to assume that anyone bothering to post on a Criterion message board likes movies a lot, be they domestic or international. Melville is something of a major filmmaker, though he was not very prolific -- 14 films in his liftetime, from 1945 to 1972. At the time this particular individual was accusing them of self parody, Criterion had released seven of those. One, Bob le Falmbeur, has since gone out of print, and has not yet been re-released by another American DVD distributor. To my knowledge, only one Melville title, Un Flic, is available in the US from a company other than Criterion. So when it comes to Melville, it's basically Criterion or nothing. I think I've lost track of what the original complaint was.

Except, uh oh, here they go again, with their self parodic ways: on July 26, Criterion will be releasing yet another Melville film, those idiots, this one a bit of an off-brand title for Melville, or the Melville that is primarily known as a director of crime films. It's Léon Morin, Priest, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as the title character and Emmanuele Rive as Barny, the film's actual main character, an atheist and widow with a young daughter. These characters meet amid the day-to-day turmoil of occupied France during World War II -- the village in which the film takes place is first occupied by the Italians, who are later driven out by their ostensible allies, the Germans. Barny works as a secretary among a strange group of female friends and associates, and is driven to meet Father Léon initially because, she claims -- although this never really pans out, other than her eventually admitting to the priest what her original itentions were -- she wanted to mock him, or mock the clergy through him. But almost instantly she's smitten with the young priest, and he with her, though their relationship is one of friendly spiritual debate. At first, anyway, until the central question of religious conversion begins to bind with the sexual attraction, and deeply confuse matters.

The ad copy for Léon Morin, Priest sets up the film as an illicit romance between Barny and the supposedly celibate priest, and it is that, sort of, in part, but man is that description reductive. Barny, for instance, is not some repressed flower who suddenly swoons for the unobtainable spiritual authority figure. Rather, she openly admits, in her role as the film's narrator, to being in love with another woman, Sabine (Nicole Meril), and a third woman, Christine (Irene Tunc) apparently becomes enamored of Barny when Barny slaps her. There is a lot, in fact, of what I like to call "interesting lesbian stuff" in the film, though very little of anything that might be consummated in Léon Morin, Priest actually ends up being consummated.

And several things that appear to be set up for eventual payoff are left alone, as part of the texture of a small occupied town. As it must have been in reality, even what we might regard as pretty big deals are treated as part of the every-day – see, for example, the casual conversation about one character’s “Vichyism”. That one almost does payoff, but not as much as you might expect, and what climax there is is sort of lost in the realization that the town has just been liberated by American forces, and Melville didn’t show it. That’s because Melville doesn’t show a lot in Leon Morin, Priest. Scene transitions are almost completely dispensed with, so that when a character has said the last line of a scene that Melville doesn’t want to go any further, there is a quick fadeout, and then back up to another scene, in another setting with no establishing shots; the characters in the new scene begin talking with no context given or needed.

Melville plays around with his style a lot here. Typically – and here I’ll stick to my experience of his work, which is not insignificant, but is also incomplete – Melville comes across, in his crime films, as one of the most technically brilliant and precise directors who has ever lived. He can be Hitchcockian, as in the billiards scene from Le Cercle Rouge (which is the scene I always point out as one of Melville’s crowning achievements, but no one ever acts like they agree or even know what I’m talking about, and I don’t get how you can not love that overhead shot of the table, and suddenly the second cue stick, and all the rest of it; this is somehow not regarded as one of the classic scenes in all of film, and I demand to know why), but is often more subtly masterful, choosing shots and placing the camera based on what must be shown, and managing to infuse it all with a cool artistry that is akin to the peak of craftsmanship, but somehow tripled. Place Leon Morin, Priest next to another World War II film by Melville, Army of Shadows, which must be one of the grimmest stories of Allied bravery ever put on screen, and which is not unlike Le Cercle Rouge in style, and you’ll see an enormous difference. There’s a lightness to Leon Morin, Priest though the subject matter is anything but, as well as an energy – that slap referred to earlier takes the form of a rushing camera taking the place of Barny’s actual physical self.

Much of this can possibly be chalked up to the difference between Melville’s black and white films and his color films, which difference I consider pretty pronounced (and I confess a preference for his color stuff, but just barely) but anyway just two sides of the same coin. The important thing is that as far as I can tell, Melville never shot a dull inch of film -- this one is full of wonderful details, such as the moment when Barny (Riva and Belmondo are outstanding, by the way) laughs at the silly, befeathered uniforms of the Italian soldiers, an one glances at her as if to say "I know how I look, and you're being rude." So not a dull inch of film did Melville shoot, and if, in the grand scheme of things, there weren’t very many inches in comparison to, say, his pal Godard, then all the more reason preserve it all, get it all out there, and the sooner the better. The less of something there is, the more there is to lose.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Washed Away

The first time I ever heard of Satyajit Ray was in 1992, when he was given the Lifetime Achievement Oscar (shortly before his death, as it turned out). All I remember from that part of the Oscars is the clip reel of Ray's films, and that they all looked so very strange to me. The name stuck in my head, anyway, firmly enough that when I purchased Salman Rushdie's essay collection Imaginary Homelands some time later, I skipped down the contents page to read his piece on Satyajit Ray. The Rushdie piece is really a review of Andrew Robinson's book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, but like many a book critic before him, Rushdie uses the book in question as an excuse to talk about that book's subject (I remember a review of a biography of Ogden Nash that included one sentence about the book under review, and everything else was about how much the reviewer knew about Ogden Nash). And in fairness, Rushdie is very interesting on the topic, or was to a total Ray novice such as myself. In the essay, Rushdie makes a big deal about Ray's fantasy films, such as The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, and the relative dismissal, on a global-cinema scale, of those films as compared to the naturalistic work, like Pather Panchali, that made Ray famous in international film circles.

All of this I found very interesting, and Rushdie's praise of the fantasy films that have been forgotten about outside of Ray's homeland really strengthened my desire to check out these movies. But of course part of the whole deal about Satyajit Ray is that his films are strangely unavailable, at least on video, in the US. What releases there have been have been sporadic and inconsistent, so it's long been believed that It Was About Damn Time somebody got on the ball here. And so they have, at least tentatively, with the Criterion release of Ray's The Music Room from 1958.

The Music Room takes as its theme a very popular one among serious artists, both foreign and domestic, and that is the passing of one type of society into another, modern world, about which the artist is thoroughly ambivalent (in America, we might have something about "Why aren't there any cowboys anymore?"). However, it is simply the way of the world that some societies will seem more exotic to Western eyes than others, and India is quite exotic for most of us. As Claude Sautet points out in one of the extras on the Criterion disc, one of Ray's great accomplishments in The Music Room is the way he first exposes the viewer to, and then eases them into, this exotic world. The India of The Music Room looks like a blasted land, with dry earth stretching out around the palatial home of our protagonist Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) -- this is a surreal image, reminiscent of something from J. G. Ballard, but before Ballard got there himself.

In fact, The Music Room repeatedly, but subtly, tips off Ray's interest in the fantastic. The story is basic, as most stories of this kind are -- a man once rich and powerful, when the world ran in a certain way, now finds those riches and that power draining away as the world begins to run in a different way. But Ray brings shadows and eerily dimming lights, spiders crawling on paintings or drowning in alcohol, in other words strange, near-fantastic imagery, into his depiction of this dissolution. Meanwhile, much is made in the film of the land Roy used to have and what has happened to it. We're told it has been destroyed by the rising waters, but where is the water? Even a wrecked boat, which figures into the film in numerous ways but is only seen once, is, when it finally appears, stuck on dry land. Forget modernity -- water has destroyed Roy's life, and then it disappeared. What little water we see appears calm, harmless, remote.

But that's not all, of course. In The Music Room, Ray manages to do a lot of things while keeping the film surprisingly lean, and among the things he does is showcase Indian music, as Roy's greatest indulgence is holding parties in the titular room, where his rich friends get drunk and musicians and dancers perform. In an interview included on the DVD, Ray says that part of the inspiration for the film was to see if music and dancing could have a place in Indian cinema, which leads me to believe I know even less about Indian cinema than I thought. In any case, The Music Room strikes me, in its focus on realism through the occasional prism of very low-key fantasy imagery, and in the depths of my ignorance, as a perfect starting point for those new to Ray, and a perfect title to begin the flood of Ray films released to video. Which is just my way of saying "More, please."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Affinity #27

My very long reader/book relationship with David Foster Wallace's thoroughly incredible and infuriating Infinite Jest is not quite over, but the end is very noticably near. I don't quite know what I'll do with myself afterwards, or what I'll do with the fact that the book is over; I feel like I've been at this a year now. Wallace was unlike anyone. Even when the book exhausts me, it exhausts me in a brand new way. The strange thing is that Infinite Jest will be only the second Wallace book I'll have read, but his style and brilliance and way of thinking have so burrowed into my skull that when I think of Wallace, I often first think of him as still being alive, before I remember that he is not. This is a book you live with. Forever, probably.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Exploitation Explosion

Last night, I was up late and I fell asleep while watching Vidal Raski’s The Sinful Dwarf. The Sinful Dwarf, a notorious, sleazy, apparently Danish-British co-production, is about a destitute British couple who take a cheap room in a boarding house run by an ex-cabaret singer and her depraved son Olaf, the titular sinful dwarf. The story involves kidnapping and heroin-assisted sex slavery, and various forms of rape – which I suppose is redundant – and the whole thing is really sort of objectively nasty and unappealing. And I fell asleep during it. If the watching of The Sinful Dwarf is going to be stopped before its natural conclusion, one would assume this would come about because the “stop” button on the remote had been frantically mashed down in disgust. But no, in my case, I just dozed. Here I thought I was going to watching something truly appalling, and instead the most horrible moments are obscured by camera trickery! Yawn.

I’m not going to pretend to be more disturbed about this than I really am, or, actually, that I’m disturbed by this at all. I’ve become convinced that what happens in movies isn’t real, to begin with, and also that depicting a thing is not the same thing as advocating that thing. There are limits, certainly, but despite its infamy The Sinful Dwarf does not reach, let alone exceed, those limits (despite what Severin Films, the company that released the 1973 film on DVD, would like you to believe, as expressed on a DVD extra called “The Severin Controversy”. In this, a couple of pothead movie fans of dubious sincerity are interviewed and explain why they think The Sinful Dwarf should not be released on DVD. This extra also repeats rumors about Torben Bille, who plays Olaf, as fact, and misidentifies actress Anne Sparrow). It’s rather less disturbing than comparatively mainstream films like the original The Last House on the Left, but it does have a crazy dwarf in it, which for whatever reason has a tendency to cause people to regard the sleaze quotient as significantly upped.

But regardless. My experience with The Sinful Dwarf (I finished watching it this morning, you’ll be relieved to hear) was only highlighted by the fact that I realized I watched a lot of exploitation films this weekend, to the near exclusion of any other kind of film. Again, I don’t think much of this, nor am I the kind of person who would try to explain the existence of a film like The Sinful Dwarf by saying “Well, Vietnam.” What does strike me about my recent viewing habits is the variety of both types of film and of my personal motives for watching them, as well as how closely those films met expectations, or were even interested in meeting them. Take A Boy and His Dog, for instance, L. Q. Jones’s adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s classic science fiction novella. The fact that A Boy and His Dog is often referred to as an “exploitation film” makes me think that it’s just possible that the definition of “exploitation film” is an "R-rated genre film that was made back when they used to make films called 'exploitation films'.” Because A Boy and His Dog is simply an excellent piece of science fiction that has a little nudity and a little violence. Jones doesn’t slather his film with either. See also William Lustig’s Maniac Cop – this one is made by the same guy who made Maniac, a true exploitation film, and yet it plays like a straight suspense/horror film. A film about a possibly supernatural, undead New York cop hacking up fellow cops and innocent citizens, it’s actually remarkably unbloody. Films like Maniac Cop supposedly exist to sate the public’s desire for viscera, but this one doesn’t really do that – it didn’t do it for me, okay? – and further doesn’t actually want to. It’s an exploitation film only based on genre and budget. There aren’t even any boobs in it!

At the same time that civil rights and Vietnam were forcing independent filmmakers to make violent movies, Hollywood studios developed their own brand of exploitation film known as the “disaster movie.” And currently I find this to be the most interesting, if far from the best, type. I was watching Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg, you see, and as I read the credits I took note of the list of famous names – somewhat shorter than those in other disaster movies, but long enough – and found myself thinking things like “Hm, René Auberjonois…I wonder how he dies in this.” Because that’s the exploitation thrill of the disaster movie: watching movie stars and famous character actors get crushed or burned alive or drowned. If anything, disaster movies are maybe a bit less respectable than…well, not than The Sinful Dwarf, but Maniac Cop, at least, because disaster movies, with their A list stars (George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft in this case) and big budgets (and, in Robert Wise, even sometimes Oscar-winning directors) they try to pretend that you’re watching for more high-minded reasons. It doesn’t even have to be very high-minded; wanting to watching stuff blow up is less uncomfortably low-brow than wanting to watch Robert Wagner burn to death.
And then when a disaster movie fails to provide what the genre surreptitiously promises, the viewer’s shameful desires are exposed. Because you know how René Auberjonois dies in The Hindenburg? He doesn’t! Nor does Burgess Meredith or Charles Durning or Anne Bancroft. Plus, those famous actors who are shown across are done so artfully – once the zeppelin ignites, Wise switches the film, inexplicably, to black and white (because 1937 was in black and white maybe?), and I guess because The Hindenburg is a highly fictionalized account of a true disaster, all the lowdown thrills are leeched away because now we have to feel bad. Yet for a serious-minded disaster film, The Hindenburg is curiously, or maybe not so curiously, inert – you can practically see George C. Scott cashing his check – and while Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg beats Mark Robson’s Earthquake in the Disaster Movie Directed by Someone Who Once Stabbed Val Lewton in the Back and Helped Drive Him Into an Early Grave Sweepstakes*, it’s also occasionally laughable (when it’s not being inert, I mean), such as at the end when still photos of all the characters are shown, and a narrator provides their names and then says either “Dead” or “Survived” – the list ends with a photo of a dog and the audience-relaxing announcement “Survived.”

So I was annoyed that Burgess Meredith didn’t get crushed by a burning girder, and I fell asleep during The Sinful Dwarf. But it may not just be the desensitizing effect of cinematic sex and violence at play – The Sinful Dwarf’s unsurprising incompetence didn’t enliven me any, either. Even my favorite bad movie thing, idiotic dialogue, left me largely unmoved (the film includes one of my favorite types of bad dialogue, which is a two person exchange where the response to a question doesn’t quite match the question, as in: “Do you know how to use a gun?” “You’re damn right I can!”). I suspect that “exploitation film” being a meaningless phrase, certainly now and to a degree even when the phrase became popular, is just as big an influence. Exploitation audiences simply didn’t kid themselves – this, I suppose, is the difference. And wanting what such films offer is no different, in the end, from wanting what a comedy offers. Also, when it gets late, you get sleepy.

*I get very angry about what happened to Val Lewton.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Two Can Play at That Game, Smart Guy

One of the most famous scenes from the Coen brothers’ Fargo is the bit where Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) meets an old high school acquaintance, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) for lunch. The ensuing plague of embarrassment, revolving around Mike’s apparent attraction to Marge and his tearful confessions of loneliness and past tragedy, initially leaves Marge mortified, but a subsequent phone conversation with a friend reveals that Mike’s story of widowhood was phony, and that Mike never married the woman he’d claimed to, and in fact has long suffered from mental problems.

This seemingly pointless (or, my preference, “pointless”) scene reveals much about the Coens, and plays to many of their odd strengths – the comedy of embarrassment, the tragedy of comedy, all that. But what’s most remarkable is that it finally does have a function, one of plot and character (and it’s not the only ostensibly diversionary scene in Fargo’s very tight 98 minutes that will later reveal its place in the film’s overall structure), as Marge uses what she’s learned from the experience to double back and re-question Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), husband of the woman (Kristen Rudrud) whose kidnapping Marge is investigating. And good thing, too, because we, the audience, have known from the beginning that Jerry is the jaw-droppingly stupid mastermind behind the kidnapping, in the hopes of winning out in a very lopsided split of the ransom, to be paid by his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). The key to this all, somehow, is that it is never spoken about. Marge never has a moment where she says “You know, that thing with Mike Yanagita has got me thinking…” We see her eating lunch in her car, and she looks thoughtful. That’s it. The transition is clear, but silent.
So. But Marge isn’t the only one out there in Fargo whose transitions and motivations are never talked about. What about the kidnappers themselves? A couple of no-good shits, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) are classic types, in their way, and their untold story I imagine must be located somewhere along the narrative line that connects Hubert Cornfield's The Night of the Following Day and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The Night of the Following Day, I admit, was chosen more or less at random as being one of many crime stories about men adrift, who meet and join up to be nefarious together because each sees a familiar wild streak in the other. Typically, one of these criminals ends up being “better”, morally speaking, than the other, as well as less reckless. One will shed blood (Richard Boone in The Night of the Following Day); our hero, in it only for the money, will not (Brando in ibid). Meanwhile, in Henry, of course, we have two men adrift, who meet and join up to be nefarious together because each sees in the other a desire to spill their sexual rage into the cold-blooded slaughter of the innocent. Pretty different, those two sets of guys, but if you start at Henry and slide back towards the comparatively innocent world of The Night of the Following Day (which, I hardly need to add, is not innocent), you will fade out certain things, such as Henry’s serial murder component, even its bloodlust, or anyway the idea of murder as a goal in itself. But you must stop sliding before you lose cold-bloodedness and rage, and before you gain things like empathy or pity. There is where you will find Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud.
Grimsrud is not very interesting on his own, though the Coens make his type an almost literally towering figure of inarticulate evil – if they’ve crafted a moment better than the one at the end of Fargo when Grimsrud, chained and slack-faced in the back of Marge’s police car, his eyes sparking and his body moving just enough to watch the axe-wielding Paul Bunyan statue glide by, I don’t know what it is. But basically, Grimsrud is just a Cold-Blooded Killer. Where he gains in importance is how he shapes Carl Showalter. The first of Fargo’s several murders occurs when Carl and Gaear’s car is pulled over by a police officer. When Carl’s attempt to bribe the cop doesn’t work, Gaear shoots the cop, splattering Carl with blood. Gaear does it swiftly before lazing back into a slump. Carl, meanwhile, is shocked, his eyes wide as he quietly murmurs a disbelieving “Whoa daddy…” It’s not a stretch to assume that this is the first time Carl has ever seen a man killed. Gaear is disgusted with Carl’s inability to act and his stupefied reaction to the murder (“You are a smooth smooth, you know?” says Gaear), which means that if you begin that narrative line referenced above, but you start at the The Night of the Following Day end this time, Carl would have been the “good” one of the pair (Brando again), the one in it for some quick money, but no rough stuff. Gaear, would naturally, be the psycho from whom the good one must separate, at the very least.
But of course, Carl makes no attempt to do that. And more importantly, we’ve slid into rage and bloodthirstiness by now, and Carl comes to personify that. As Henry does Otis in McNaughton’s film, Gaear has educated Carl by shooting that cop, and then racing after those two witnesses to blow them away, as well, leaving Carl alone and weak and exposed, holding one of Gaear’s fresh kills. What Gaear has taught Carl is that it’s okay to kill people. They may or may not deserve it, but you deserve to do it. Instead of recoiling from the revelation of what Gaear is, Carl bears his teeth and launches himself down the same path. When Carl goes to pick up the ransom from Wade and things don’t go exactly as he’d envisioned, it’s suddenly nothing to Carl, the man gasping “Whoa daddy” not long ago, to draw his gun and shoot Wade down. He’s been helped along no doubt by the ass-kicking received by Shep Proudfoot (Steven Reevis) earlier, but regardless – it’s easy. So easy that he blasts the poor kid running the gate of the parking lot where the ransom was to have been passed off. And as his wounded and bloody self shambles into the cabin he shares with Gaear, he boasts, regarding the wound Wade gave him before expiring, “You should see the other guy.”

And what’s in that cabin, with Gaear? The body of Jean Lundegaard, who Gaear has shot (off-screen, I’d like to point out to all those flabbergasted by the depiction of certain events in No Country for Old Men) because “she started shriekin’, you know.” Carl’s reaction? “Jesus. Well, I got the money.” At one point in his life, Carl may have been shaken to his core by seeing this poor woman’s body sprawled on the floor, but now she just gets a shrug. He’s an old hat at this killing business, is Carl, so it’s no big deal. Where he was when he first met Gaear Grimsrud is not where he is now. Who knows how they met? Or why they met? Maybe Carl had something diseased in him all along. Or maybe sociopathy is contagious, and he came down with a case just before the axe fell.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How Many Days Has it Been Since My Last Post?


I'm aware of this. Sorry. Hey, but I really liked Battle: Los Angeles, and everybody who didn't can go screw.