Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Affinity #28

All three of us were laughing, and we couldn't stop.

- Charles Willeford, The Shark-Infested Custard

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Recommendation

Over the past however-many months, I have become a devoted fan of radio shows you listen to on your computer or some other such device that is not actually a radio, also known as “podcasts.” They’re quite the thing these days, and cover a huge variety of topics, through various tones and at varying levels of professionalism. As one would assume, this being the internet, movie-based podcasts are everywhere, and me liking movies the way I do you’d think I’d be all up on those. But actually no: the majority of my podcast-listening habits are devoted to the comedy ones, of which there are also many. My experience with movie podcasts so far has led me to believe that they’re all either too smug, too negative, too geeky, or too empty -- you know, the whole “this movie was good but not great” thing. Now, I do enjoy a couple of what have become known as “bad movie podcasts”, but the ones I enjoy are, while too taken with their own ironic interest in Nicolas Cage, tend to be mostly free of malice, and actually funny. But at this point we’re dealing with comedy more than we are with movies.

The big exception so far, and the reason for this post, is The Kubrick Series, itself a miniseries within the ongoing Movie Geeks United podcast. So far I only know the Kubrick episodes, but they’re pretty glorious. They come out only very occasionally, and once you’ve heard an episode you can see what takes so long. The most recent episode, Episode 5: Redrum, about, of course, The Shining, is two hours and forty minutes long. Longer than The Shining, in fact, and it plays, the podcast does, like a series of audio documentaries. Smoothly hosted by Jamey Duvall, each one is structured around a series of interviews, with Kubrick associates like Tony Ferwin and Leon Vitalli, film critics like Glenn Kenny and Keith Uhlich, Kubrick biographer Vincent LoBrutto, and on and on. These interviews are then sliced up and stitched together as you would in a documentary film, with voices weighing in on different aspects of a given film as the podcast episode shifts from theme to theme. And it’s all terribly fascinating.

You pretty much get everything. In The Shining discussion, you have people talking about how the ghosts in the film must be in Jack Torrance’s head, a beloved and totally infuriating critical theory, that you can hear happily dispelled when the next guy pops up and says “Well, Wendy sees them too, so…” Also, at the beginning of the A Clockwork Orange episode, which I haven’t heard in its entirety, during the “On this episode…” montage, you hear Tony Ferwin saying that he finds the whole idea, put forth by a depressingly large number of critics, of Alex being almost admirable because in his evil he is at least “alive”, very troubling. I have not often heard this fairly, let’s say gross, critical reading refuted, so I can’t wait to sit down with that episode as well, or any of the rest. They’re well worth your time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Achieving Immortality Through Not Dying

"I married a very immature woman, it didn't work out. Tell me if you think this is immature: I'd be home, in the bathroom, taking a bath. She would walk in, whenever she felt like it, and sink my boats."

That, taken from an early Woody Allen stand-up routine, is a very good joke. I would argue that it's a great joke, though greatness is probably achieved through the delivery, something that, it goes without saying, is lost here. But either way, I think the joke is pretty stellar, and while I typically resist the temptation to explain why a particular joke strikes me as funny, I have to say that the writing of this, the self-contained nature of the joke, and the simple declarative nature of the punchline, paired with the implication that Allen believes this story will win you over to his side, renders the whole thing truly brilliant.

In Robert Weide's new three-and-a-half hour documentary Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide links that joke, without needing to strain himself too terribly much, with the fact that Allen's first marriage, to Harlene Rosen, occurred when both parties were teenagers. Which I think you'll agree gives the joke a whole other thing to think about, though frankly it doesn't make the joke funnier. It just makes you go "Oh, I see" and then move on. The joke is the kind that, if you find it funny (and I'll allow for the possibility that some of you don't), you're going to want to repeat it to others. I seriously doubt, and anyway sincerely hope this isn't the case, that anyone who chooses to repeat that joke to friends and also happens to know about Allen's past will follow up "...sink my boats" with "And did you know that the man who told that joke was married to..." That wouldn't help anybody.

All of this is perhaps slightly illustrative of the tension that has been present in Woody Allen's filmmaking career since the mid-70s, which is basically Allen's own repeatedly stated regret that his mind functions comedically first, and not just first but above all, rather than tragically. That is, creatively, so that his bone-deep gift is for the joke, and not the existential weight and philosophical profundity that he nakedly strives for and idolizes in other filmmakers. In Weide's documentary, Allen comments on the strangeness -- and you have to think he regards this as debilitating -- of his having been influenced primarily by Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Ingmar Bergman. I think "strange" is probably fair enough, although I'd say some version of that combination, with equivalent figures swapped out based on generational differences and what have you, is hardly unique. What's unique about Allen is his ability to make it work.

I came to Woody Allen through his comedy. Everybody who has ever been a fan of Allen, even if they eventually fell away, took the same basic route. Regardless of the fact that I believe there is a depth to Allen's best work that he himself doesn't believe is there, I still started with his early, funny ones. Which one, I couldn't tell you now, but I remember working backwards through Bananas and Take the Money and Run and Sleeper and Annie Hall, so I'm going to guess it was either one of two film which I still regard as among my favorites: Love and Death and Broadway Danny Rose. If you care to know how my top five Allen films gets rounded out, I'll tell you: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days. So pretty clearly, as far as Allen is concerned, I consider the 1980s to be the Salad Days. And I'll be honest, using these films, and also Zelig, probably, as my base, working back through his 70s stuff was mostly a disappointment. I would say that, obviously barring Love and Death, his greatest pure comedy, as well as Take the Money and Run (and What's Up, Tiger Lily?, while I'm at it), the movies by which Woody Allen made his bones and which are still considered by many to be among his greatest work strike me as being more evident of the kind of strain towards seriousness and Artistic Expression that others claim -- and in many cases I would probably agree -- mar a lot of his later films. It was years before I saw Manhattan, and now I would happily watch Cassandra's Dream again before it, if given the choice. Speaking of which, in Weide's film, Larry David talks about the impact Annie Hall had when it was first released, and says that his father, who'd seen it first, told him "Don't go see House of Wax!", which apparently he'd been out the door to check out before his dad stopped him. I like Annie Hall, and I'd still take House of Wax.

I like jokes, and I don't devalue them as Woody Allen does, or as anybody who shrugs off criticism of a bad comedy or bad comedian by saying "Comedy is subjective." The idea being that if you laugh, it's funny, and you can't force anyone to laugh at something they don't think is funny. Well, you can't force a boner on somebody either, but if crime scene pictures of the Black Dahlia case are doing it for you, you're wrong. So jokes matter, and there are levels of quality in jokes as there is in anything else. It can be difficult to see a comedian you admire turn his nose up at the entire world of humor simply because it comes so easily to him, and because he wishes he was better at something else. Another early experience I had with Allen's work was his three (at the time) books of comic writing, Without Feathers, Side Effects and Getting Even. In "The Scrolls", a piece in Without Feathers the conceit of which is that versions of famous Bible stories that differ significantly from the versions we know have been discovered, Allen wrote this line:

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on."

Reading that for the first time, it must have been the single funniest thing I'd ever read. Still, today, it's right up there. How is it possible that such a talent is not enough?

As it happens, that’s none of my business, and good thing, too, because (again, barring Love and Death) Allen is at his best when he finds some outlet for both sides of his brain. I should probably preface this statement with the confession that, phony superfan that I am, I have pretty much avoided Woody Allen’s completely serious films as if they’d been made by a filmmaker in whom I had no interest whatsoever. With the exception of Another Woman, which has thus far been enough (I am also somewhat familiar with “Interiors”, a basement-tape type song by Randy Newman, who regards the sort of infamous Woody Allen drama of the same name with some amount of sarcasm). I do not, let it be noted, count Allen’s latter-day crime films like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream in this not-actually-a-boycott, and in fact find them, though flawed, an entirely fascinating and welcome new-ish facet of Allen’s career. The only major problem with Match Point is that it never needed to be made at all, at least judging by Allen’s stated motive, which is that Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point being a remake of half of that film, is too funny. It, of course, isn’t too funny, so the problem seems to be that it’s funny at all, all of that funniness coming from the Woody Allen section. The Martin Landau section, the one that Allen thinks is worth anything, is a chilly tale of murder and guilt and, more importantly, the overcoming of that guilt in the face of a shrugging universe. The Woody Allen section, the one that Allen came to think hobbled the film overall, is a light-hearted bit of romantic comedy that involves heartbreak – unalleviated at film’s end, by the way – a particularly grotesque form of rape, and suicide. So what I’m saying is, Woody Allen is wrong about Crimes and Misdemeanors, mathematically and demonstrably (in fairness, as seen in Weide’s film, he seems to view Crimes and Misdemeanors somewhat differently and more affectionately now than his comments at the time of Match Point’s release would indicate). The film is funny, but the humor sort of chokes a little bit. And anyway, without the flashes of humor and even warmth that film has and Match Point does not, he would not have achieved the rather astonishing tone of hopeless optimism, or optimistic hopelessness, that is the film’s final note, and is of a complexity that Match Point can’t even comprehend.

Not that I can blame Woody Allen for being wary of his own impulses. By the time he made Crimes and Misdemeanors, he’d already made Hannah and Her Sisters, after all. That’s a film that, for many years, I would have placed among my favorites, but now I have to say that when I read Allen claim, as he does in Woody Allen on Woody Allen, a book-length interview with Stig Björkman, that he had a failure of nerve on Hannah and Her Sisters, that he “copped out”…well, it’s true, he did. It’s not that the film is, in the end, happy. It’s the godddamn pregnancy. The ending of the film goes something like: I can’t ever get pregnant, oh wait yes I can, roll credits. The passage of time has revealed to me that this is objectively terrible. This is a shame, because there’s a lot that’s very nice about the film, a bit New-Yorker-up-his-own-ass, certainly, but funny, full of fine performances, and empathetic. It’s just that the harder edge Allen wishes he sometimes had would have really come in handy. When Allen derides his light and comic impulse as his greatest weakness, he’s not doing it just because he thinks comedy is a lesser form – I mean, he does, he’s said so, but he’s also been creatively harmed by it before. And Allen would never patronize to the comic abilities of Bob Hope or the Marx Brothers as he does to his own. Maybe this simply makes him a hypocrite, but see, too, Shadows and Fog, a film that I – perhaps only because of my personal tastes and interests, but still – believe could have been his masterpiece, but which manifestly isn’t. When Shadows and Fog is discussed, one thing that is never, as far as I can tell, remarked upon is the fact that it’s based on a one-act play Allen wrote called Death, which can be found in Without Feathers. This play is mostly the same as the film – both are funny, eerie tales of murder and vigilantism in some unnamed, early 20th century European town, possibly in Germany or Austria, mixed with questions of God and Godlessness, plus some other things, too. Setting aside the various digressions the film, with its longer script and running time, allows itself, Death and Shadows and Fog seem to follow the same path narratively, until you remember how Death ends, and how, in an early scene, Shadows and Fog removes any possibility that it will end the same way. Okay, but Death remains eerie right up through the ending, and Shadows and Fog…well, it loses its nerve, and it cops out. It actually becomes charming, of all things. This is not the desired outcome for a film such as this. Why would Allen purposely do himself in like that? He had an ending that he could have used and which would have been better, but he refused. For all the talk of Allen’s amazing position in the film world to do whatever he wants to do, did he or somebody else convince him that, in this case, nobody would accept his ending? Not coming from him, anyway? Whatever happened, Shadows and Fog does two things: one, it adds credence to Allen’s assessment that his natural-born wit sometimes gets in the way of his better artistic judgment; and two, it places all the blame on Allen and makes you think that maybe you’d rather he not complain about it, even in the modest, resigned way he does, if the examples offered are actually going to be acts of sabotage. It also makes me think of another short play by Allen, Death Knocks, which is not terribly closely related, but also not entirely unrelated to Death and Shadows and Fog, and I start to wish Allen could give up the struggle in favor of his particularly formidable gift. “Holy Christ, and I thought you were saving sixes.”

Which I suppose brings me to Broadway Danny Rose, my single favorite Woody Allen film. Viewed, I’m guessing, as an accomplished trifle by not just Allen but by the majority of his admirers, it is, for me, his single most moving film, and in the 80s, in particular, that was a crowded field, with Radio Days and Purple Rose of Cairo, to name but two. It’s also his funniest (again, although only possibly this time, barring Love and Death). And these two points, the emotional and the comic, are completely bound up in the character of Danny Rose, played by Allen. What Allen accomplishes with Danny Rose, as well as the various lowest-grade novelty acts for whom he is a sun, is pretty extraordinary. There’s an old saying that critics like to paraphrase, as do schoolkids trying to avoid getting in trouble, that goes “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.” When the schoolkid says this, he or she is lying, of course. When a critic uses some version of it, usually by saying it makes them feel uncomfortable to be offered characters in a comedy who are meant to be laughed at, he or she is revealing a few things, among them a lack of understanding of comedy, as well as their preferred use of movies, which is to allow them to feel superior to the filmmaker. Plus also, like the schoolkid, they’re lying. The films that practice laughing with tend to be engaged in some very shrewd self-mockery, an excellent and time-honored tradition, and they are exceedingly rare. I'm thinking, almost exclusively, of Albert Brooks here (there are more, and it can get a bit murky, but by and large...). Show me a comedy that’s made up of a bunch of people laughing together, with no derision or mockery stated or implied, and I’ll show you a movie that doesn’t exist, or at least is the worst comedy that has ever been made. To one degree or another, it’s almost always laughing at (the essential meaningless of the phrase “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you” reminds me of a family joke: “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing near you”). In Broadway Danny Rose, we’re laughing at Danny Rose constantly. But what cuts this is the fact that there’s a great deal of affection in that laughter – laughing at need not be acidic, which is a key point. But it can’t be laughing with, because Danny ain’t laughing. Hell, the movie even has us laughing at a guy with a stutter! Because he has a stutter! I don’t know, maybe all that means is that we, and Allen, all suck, but I never feel like anyone in Broadway Danny Rose is being condescended to, and when Danny gets stabbed in the back, it’s infuriating. Not just that, but Danny’s lovable cowardice does not mark him for sainthood, as a more condescending film would do. No, that cowardice lands an innocent man in the hospital, and Danny suffers the guilt he deserves. Broadway Danny Rose is human, and humane, and funny as shit. It certainly, for me, is more meaningful than Match Point, the film he made specifically as a corrective measure because he thought another film wasn't meaningful enough. It's strange to think that after forty years, Allen hasn't learned to just let things happen, and to seek profundity will almost ensure that you don't find it. Or that when you laugh at a really good joke, you're not laughing at nothing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Another Chump Flaps His Wings

Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, which will be released on DVD by Criterion on Nov. 22, had a huge impact on me when I first saw it some, I don’t know, 25 years ago. It remains, with the possible exception of Dog Day Afternoon, my most often re-watched Lumet film, and I think, or rather know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the reason this small film got its hooks so deeply into me, is all the talking. It’s a very well-made film, without question, as should be evident by the fact that it is so relentlessly rewatchable, and since the film only uses four locations -- four rooms, really -- and that’s if you count the courtroom at the very beginning and the courthouse steps at the very end, with, meanwhile, twelve significant speaking parts, you sort of have to hand it to Lumet, if you weren’t already inclined to do so, for the supremely graceful confidence he displays in this, his debut feature.

But 12 Angry Men is a film about talking, and the talking is, if I may say so, real good. There are lots of odds and ends involved in the talking that are worth noting, but to begin with the whole film revolves around what might be the most interesting form of talking that mankind has yet invented, but which rarely gets properly depicted on film, and that is the argument. Monty Python understood this, though I wonder if I’m the only one who watches “Argument Clinic” and thinks, once Michael Palin gets frustrated with John Cleese’s continued and empty gainsaying so that suddenly, if briefly, the two of them are arguing cogently about what defines an argument, that the sketch makes a pretty good case for why someone would seek out the services of an argument clinic in the first place. This is the fascination inherent in 12 Angry Men: one man, Juror 8, Henry Fonda, arguing with eleven others over the guilt or innocence of a young man facing the death penalty for the murder of his father, and swaying them one by one (more on that in a bit). Now, obviously, throughout film history there have been more than one or two arguments portrayed on screen, but very often they descend from, or explode beyond, the realm of intelligent debate and become shouting matches, or were arguments never based on an intelligent point of view in the first place, but were of a more personal and fiery nature, such as why did you sleep with my best friend, because you’re distant can’t you see that I’m suffocating. Technically an argument, I suppose, but emotional, not intellectual, and personal, not removed. Of course, Rose and Lumet will make a big deal about how certain stubborn jurors, specifically Juror 3 (the tremendous Lee J. Cobb) who take up the side they don’t happen to agree with are making the argument personal while pretending otherwise, but, again, more on that in a minute.

Or no, let’s do it now. It’s sort of where I’m going with all this anyway, so why not get to it. Like a lot of Lumet’s films, and like a lot of films Henry Fonda came to be interested in making (he was a producer here), 12 Angry Men does make it clear that A Social Topic Or Topics Is Or Are Being Discussed Here. Also like a lot of Lumet’s films, the topic either is, or is viewed through the prism of, the criminal justice system. The problem inherent to Reginald Rose’s script, however, is that the argument that is finally being made seems to be that one shouldn’t find other people guilty of crimes under any circumstances. Of course, that wasn’t the plan, and if you were inclined to boil 12 Angry Men down to the “point” you thought it was trying to make, you’d end up with something about prejudice being bad rather than the fallibility of juries, the boy on trial being poor and ethnic (Puerto Rican, it's generally assumed, though that's never stated in the film).

But for God’s sake, look at the case Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 tries to build! The case as laid out by the prosecution is that this boy killed his father with a knife that had a distinct handle. He was heard to say "I'm gonna kill you!" by an elderly downstairs neighbor, who also saw the boy run from the building. The knife found in his father's chest was known to belong to the boy. The murder itself was witnessed from across the street, through the windows of a passing elevated train, by a woman who testified in court that the boy did it. The boy claims that he did fight with his father, but didn't kill him. When he ran out, the knife fell through a hole in his pocket, and someone else must have picked it up and killed his father. Also, his alibi was that he was at the movies, but when questioned couldn't remember which movies he saw or who starred in them. So, pretty clearly this is the construction of a writer trying to make it easy to understand why the vast majority of his characters would vote guilty right off the bat, while setting up little bits of things he can come back to later when Juror 8 needs to start dismantling everything. The problem is, Juror 8's dismantling basically consists of yelling out "It's possible!" any time one of the other jurors says that, for instance, the idea that the knife fell out of the kid's pocket and was picked up by someone who decided now would be a good time to go kill a stranger, is a bit tough to swallow. Because that's how Juror 8 gets around that one -- he says "It's possible!" Then of course there's the big dramatic reveal that the knife used to kill the father was not, in fact, the only one of its kind ever made. Much is made in the film about the idea of "reasonable doubt", but Juror 8 seems to think that just means that the defendant's argument doesn't break any of the laws of physics. His alibi wouldn't require him to achieve faster than light travel, for instance.

It actually gets worse from there. Although it goes unstated in Reginald Rose's script, what I've decided, after all these years, to take away from 12 Angry Men is that old people and women can't be trusted, because in the case of the former, old people are so goddamn lonely that they'll do anything to get noticed, up to and including perjuring themselves in court by falsely claiming to have seen a young boy run out of a building shortly after his father has been murdered (and another thing: when Fonda has to demonstrate how long it would actually take for the old man to get from his bed, where he said he'd been when he heard the boy scream "I'll kill you!", to the hallway where he actually saw the boy, he imitates the man's crippled shuffle, and is told by one of the jurors who is still (stubbornly!) voting guilty that the old man could move twice that fast. Fonda says he'll go faster. Now you go watch that scene and tell me if Henry "Slyboots" Fonda picks up the pace even a little bit), and women, meanwhile, are so caught up in their physical appearance that the very idea of being seen in public wearing eyeglasses would mortify their cute little souls no end, so yes, they too will lie and send a boy off to the electric chair if that means the facade of their womanly vanity might be preserved for one more day.

One could reasonably argue that a case against the old man's testimony has been made, or at least a reasonable case has been argued, but the woman and her glasses holds no water. Yes, two dents on the sides of her nose are noticed, and may indicate that she wears glasses. If she does wear glasses, as Lee J. Cobb furiously and correctly points out, they could be any kind of eyeglasses, including sunglasses, that would not have kept her from clearly seeing what she testified she saw, but no, because she wears some kind of glasses sometimes, that's enough to assume her to be a liar. Testimony shitcanned. The juror who makes the case against the old man happens to be old himself (Joseph Sweeney), so that's okay, and you can bet your ass that if it was common practice for women to serve on capital murder juries in the mid-1950s, Patricia Neal or someone would have turned up to sympathetically point out that whole eyeglass business, not some dude. Then, too, there's Fonda's desperate need to justify the boy's inability to remember the films he claims to have seen, by taking Juror 4 (the wonderful E. G. Marshall) back through his week until he finds a night that Juror 4 can't remember with total clarity, before triumphantly bellowing "See!?"

The crown jewel of the Criterion disc's extras has to be the original television broadcast of 12 Angry Men, written by Rose and directed by Franklin J. Shaffner for Studio One in 1954. This provides the opportunity for interesting comparison to Lumet's film on many levels. Speaking to my current point, Robert Cummings plays Juror 8 in the original, and while I'm not about to claim Cummings was better than Fonda, or his equal, his take on Juror 8 is rather interesting, because he plays him -- and this is crucial -- as uncertain. Fonda's Juror 8 talks a big game about not knowing, but it's easy to imagine that his Juror 8, when it comes time to first make his stand as the lone holdout in the jury room, is thinking "This is it: my big moment." Or more precisely, this was planned, this whole drama of fighting against the majority. All he had to figure out his justification -- the untrustworthiness of women and the elderly, for example -- as he went along. But Cummings's version of the character really doesn't know what to think. In fact, he's closer to the film version's indecisive Juror 12, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit", played with evaporating self-confidence by Robert Webber. Not that Cummings is ever seen to reconsider what he's doing, but early on he really doesn't know if the course he's mapped out for himself in this jury room is the correct one. Plus, Fonda's Juror 8 has a bit of "smug prick" about him, as when he's shown baiting Lee J. Cobb's Juror 3, a man we'll come to learn -- and we already have some inkling of this early on -- is grief-stricken over the fact that his own son has run away. So that's a dick move, and one Cummings never makes.

The other thing about the Shaffner/TV version of 12 Angry Men is that Lumet's film is better than it in every way. I don't say this to kick the Shaffner version, but to acknowledge, despite everything I've been saying, that Lumet's 12 Angry Men is an absolutely terrific movie. At 50, 55 minutes, the TV version is hobbled right out of the gate, and its origins, imaginatively speaking, as an "issues" story are highlighted at almost every turn, because there's no time for anything else. One of my favorite performances in the film is given by the great Martin Balsam as Juror 1, the foreman. If anything justifies that bullshit about the woman's glasses, it's Balsam's reaction to being reminded of her nose dents by saying "He's right, I saw them too, I was the closest one to her! She had these things on the side, what do you call those things, on the side...?" In the TV version, Juror 1, played by Norman Fell (or "Feld", as he's credited here) is given precisely nothing to do but call for votes and pass out scrap paper. The refusal to give any of the minor, or essentially non-crucial jurors, a thing to do or be is why Lumet's film stands as a classic. So in the original TV version, there's no "That was a damn stupid thing to do!" or "Your horn works, now try your lights", "That's not bad, I mean, considering marmalade" or "Let's put it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up" or tic tac toe or rain or broken fan or anything. It's just "Juries are prejudiced", hammered on relentlessly until the end.

Lumet's film, meanwhile, is alive. Sidney Lumet is of course now remembered as, among other things, one of the great directors of actors in the history of American film, or just film, period, and his great victory in 12 Angry Men is compiling this excellent cast (only two of whom, George Voskovec as Juror 11, and Joseph Sweeney as Juror 9, appeared in both versions) and either encouraging Rose to flesh out his script by putting actual people in it, or working with the cast himself to do so, and finding all these little moments ("It just came down, WOOSH!"). I don't know which it was, and don't care. 12 Angry Men remains endlessly entertaining, a sublime record of human behavior, and exquisite acting. And also a testament that eleven men can be made to believe anything if you make them feel guilty enough first.

Friday, November 11, 2011

An Encounter

I was outside the sandwich shop where I worked smoking a cigarette. It was wet out, the only dry parts the sidewalk just outside the row of stores, at one end of which was the sandwich place, myself and a scattering of other cigarette butts, a lot of them mine, shielded from the very fine rain by the overhang that turned where I was standing into an incomplete tunnel, its missing side opening out onto the parking lot.

A guy was walking up to me. He was wearing a dark blue windbreaker, he was about my age, he had a baseball hat on, also dark blue, with a big white “E” on the front. I didn’t know what team that was for.

The way he was bearing down on me with some kind of purpose, I thought he was going to ask me for a cigarette, or at least a light. But instead he stopped with one foot on the sidewalk in front of me, the rest of his body still leaning out into the wet misty air, and he pulled a lone, loose cigarette out from somewhere inside his thin windbreaker and lit it with a tiny black lighter.

“Hey man,” he said, “any of these stores cool at all?”

I exhaled smoke that in the cold day looked like steam from a train engine. “Cool how do you mean?” I asked.

“Like movies or tapes or whatever?” He hunched himself onto the sidewalk and under the shopping center’s little roof, as though it had just started to rain right then.

I didn’t know what kind of tapes he meant, but I said, “No movies or anything. There’s a music store about five doors down, by the nail salon. I don’t know if that’s cool to you.”

“Music like how? Like CDs or tapes?”

“No,” I said, “like instruments, or sheet music. Guitars.”

“Yeah well, music’s cool, but I can’t play any instruments. I can’t even sing,” he said, implying that he thought most people could.

He stepped backwards, back out into the rain, but further back into the parking lot so he could scan the row of store signs that began above my head. He held the hand with the cigarette wedged between two fingers up above his eyes, in a sort of salute. As he scanned, his eyes widened, his mouth formed an “o”.

“That a tattoo place?” he asked, still looking at the sign.

He was talking about Squid Ink Tats, which was a ways down. I said, “Oh, yeah, that’s a tattoo place.”

He chuckled and rejoined me out of the rain. He nodded his head and took a long pull on his cigarette.

“You think they tattoo dicks?” he asked. “I’d go in there, be like ‘Hey, you guys tattoo dicks?’ They’d be ‘What the fuck?’ All right, you have a good one, brother.”

It took me a minute to realize the last part was him saying goodbye. I didn’t want to actively wish him a good day, so I said “Yep.” I was noncommittal.

He walked away then, into the misty parking lot, his head turned back so he could keep his eye on the tattoo place’s sign, maybe because he thought it was going to change. After a bit, though, his walk slowed, and I watched his path drift leftwards, towards the tattoo place. He walked in a horseshoe, looping into the parking lot and back to the shops. I took my time with my cigarette so I could watch him walk quickly to the tattoo place’s front door, pull it open, and slip in.

Then, for a brief moment, I was watching nothing, just empty sidewalk. But after only what seemed like a few seconds the door opened and the guy walked back out. He was looking at me, and he stood there, shaking his head no.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Through the German Night

Lars von Trier, you must admit, has had a very strange career. He currently enjoys a place as a filmmaker with one of the year's most celebrated films (Melancholia, which I still haven't seen, goddamnit) and as a filmmaker with one of the most reviled, or at least distrusted, personalities and artistic philosophies and psychologies. This last is largely a product of ill-timed and unfortunately public jokes, Von Trier's taste for provocation, and a deeply wearying global self-righteousness which has flipped the generally accepted principle that what you do means more than what you say.

But anyway. That's all just what's going on right now, and the strangeness of Von Trier extends way back. There's always a lot going on in any given Von Trier film, many reflecting his various social prejudices or fetishes or fears (maybe "terrors" works better), as well as, always, all the sources of his despair. But the central struggle of Von Trier as an artist is stylistic. Still known, eleven years after he made a film even remotely in this mode, for the Dogme set of artistic rules he devised back in the mid-1990s, Von Trier has gone from seeming to want to send up filmmaking convention, to dispensing with it -- sort of, or so he thought, or so he said he thought, but you never really know now do you? -- to throttling the very life from its bones, to shooting electricity through it to see if it could be made to kick again, Von Trier seems to have for now settled into a kind of style of classical composition and photographic beauty (he did this first, by my count, with Antichrist. Of all things, need I add). Back with Dogme, the rules of which were picked up by several other like-minded Danish filmmakers, the idea was to strip away everything that made films, to Von Trier's way of thinking, boring and predictable. What he was stripping away sometimes made sense, under the circumstances, such as no artificial light, and sometimes seemed entirely arbitrary and pointlessly limiting, like no guns, and anyway, in the end, did not achieve the clear-eyed, kitchen-sink realism that a lot of people mistakenly believed was the goal. Dogme was, if anything, a phase, and a way for Von Trier to reinvigorate himself. It's like when you hear artists talk about working on tight budgets, or under the thumb of censorship, and how this forces them to be more creative, although in Von Trier's case the restrictions were self-imposed, and the true creativity seems to have followed the mantle of Dogme being shrugged off, or more accurately slowly chipped away.

But what led to Dogme, anyhow? Von Trier's stated reasons don't interest me too terribly much, but what does interest me is that the Von Trier film that directly precedes Breaking the Waves, his first Dogme film (barring some Danish TV work) is Europa, the least Dogme-like film you could imagine, in that it is so aggressively artificial both in style and content, but mostly style, that it's not hard to imagine Von Trier looking at the film upon its completion and desperately choking down a scream. If anything like that happened, I know how he felt.

What Europa is, is The Good German as if it had been directed by Guy Maddin. Maddin's hyperventilating, fever dream take on silent film aesthetics is not only content to hold on to the rough edges, as compared to today, of the early days of filmmaking, to the point where he wants to twist the relatively primitive technology to perform grotesque acts. In Europa, Von Trier sort of gets that, but he still wants to keep the polish of Hollywood's golden age. This leads to moments of characters walking in place in front of a rear projection in a setting where, in a Hollywood film from the 30s and 40s, no rear projection would be used. Verisimilitude is hardly Von Trier's top priority, though, because Europa operates as, and wants to evoke, a dream.

It tells the story of Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German extraction who travels to Germany shortly after World War II has ended. A dull, naive, and therefore easily led young man, Leopold comes under the wing of his shady and very Teutonic, with all that implies in relation to World War II, uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegard) who gets him a job on a train as a sleeper car conductor, a gig were led to believe is kind of plum. The train is part of the Zentropa line, which is owned by the troubled Hartmann family, whose members include Max (Jorgen Reenberg), the mournful patriarch; son Lawrence, played by Udo Kier and notable mainly because Udo Kier's Udo Kier-ness not only doesn't, but is never asked to shine through; and daughter Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), with whom Leopold will fall in love, and whose loyalty to Germany, not just generally but possibly Germany as it had just very recently been, becomes the cause of some distress. As does, not unrelated, the presence of a band of underground Nazi terrorists known as "werwolfs" (or "werwolfen"? I don't believe the plural is ever spoken). Leopold will eventually be approached by the American military, in the person of Eddie Constatine (who in 1991 looked a whole lot like Järegard), to try to infiltrate the Nazi group, and will be approached by the Nazi group to plant a bomb. Until the film's ending, Leopold is, as I've said, such a weasley, inactive little turd that his eventual crack-up leads to a brief moment of basically impotent aggression that briefly put me in mind of Saving Private Ryan's Cpl. Upham.

So. I found Europa largely infuriating. It has elements that are powerfully, dreamily haunted -- Max von Sydow as the hypnotic narrator doesn't hurt -- and an ending that is entirely gripping. But it is finally too schematic as a story and earnestly willed into being as an exercise in style, and a confused one at that. Classic film techniques as a metaphor for a dreamstate seems workable enough, but the dreamstate itself as a metaphor for post-war Germany specifically and Europe generally, and post-war Germany as a metaphor for any situation that might call for a human being to either take a stand or be swept away...perhaps it's all too much for Von Trier, at least the Von Trier of 1991. Not to mention the fact that it's pretty much impossible to invest oneself emotionally in anything to do with Leopold, let alone the eventual romance that is supposed to pack any sort of punch. Aggressive artificiality and sincere emotional stakes don't need to be mutually exclusive, but they are in Europa.

Boy, the ending's good, though. It's hard to see much of what would become Dogme in those few minutes, but you can see what Von Trier would finally leave Dogme behind in favor of. He would take baby steps away from Dogme with the, let's face it, entirely wretched Dancer in the Dark, which attempted to match Dogme's realism (or "realism") with not just melodrama but the musical, too (more Dennis Potter than Stanley Donen, though) before almost seeming to send up his own rules with his masterpiece Dogville, a film that keeps guns and artificial lighting but sweeps away a good deal more of the things one might expect a movie to have. It's frankly been fascinating to watch Von Trier over the years trying to decided what things -- and by "things" I mean actual, physical things -- a movie needs, before deciding, at least for now, that it's okay for movies to have the kinds of things that movies usually have, and see what he can do with that. Antichrist, apparently. A film for another day, perhaps, but I will say that if movies like Antichrist are the end result of Von Trier's struggle, then it has been well worth it.


TIFF Lightbox just started a Von Trier program and are screening most of his work, including Melancholia and the hard to find The Idiots, as well as Europa, which is playing Nov. 12 and 17.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Apparently, I Have a Blog

And I have been neglecting it! Well, this break was planned, just not announced, but with October and everything like that there, I figured I needed to not write anything for a little while. Plus I was away, because my life is not spent chained to my computer like the rest of you. I was in New Orleans just a few days ago, and I saw a table of radicals at a book fair selling (or perhaps offering up to be stolen) signs that said "Kill Your Xbox". Oh, indeed! Indeed! TEAR IT DOWN!!! TEAR IT ALL DOWN!!!!

So anyway, probably this weekend is when something that is ostensibly worth reading might once more make an appearance. I'm not dead or anything.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dear Naomi Watts...

Thank you for once again making the first day in November a wonderful and deeply pleasant experience.


Everybody ever