Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pie

Over the weekend, I watched The Help, with the intention of writing about it and one or two other Oscar movies, but since the impulse to do so could be summed up by the phrase "It's something to do," the urge quickly faded. This was not helped along by the fact that The Help exasperated me to the degree that I found it easy to focus on other matters, and that the only other film I watched for this scuttled post, Midnight in Paris drew from my mind no thoughts beyond "That was a pretty good movie."

Still, one thing about The Help must be noted. A lot of people have talked about the hideous "chocolate pie" scene from this movie, some even noting the absurdity that a film as pleased with itself as this one should hinge almost entirely on one woman serving another woman an evidently delicious pie made out of human crap. But as this is depicted as an act of well-deserved revenge, it is not thought about in terms other than "This is stupid" (it is) or "This is funny and makes total sense!" (it isn't and doesn't). Now, I'm not about to argue the morality of it, because the pie-eater, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is an inhuman monster. Her reaction to the pie, however, reminds me of something Martin Amis once said about porn, which, to paraphrase, is that if you find yourself indiscriminately browsing pornographic images and encounter one whose theme involves coprophagic pig farmers, you better hope you don't find out you like it. The mania of Howard's character from that scene onward could be chalked up to her wrestling with the knowledge that she genuinely likes the taste of what she didn't realize she was eating. Because of course she couldn't not know that wasn't just chocolate, right? That's impossible!

But besides that, the thing I really can't shake is the part the filmmakers so scrupulously avoid showing, and that is the preparation. The baking of the pie. Because the baker, played by Octavia Spencer, had to do all this. In other words, she had to gather her ingredients. And...and mix them. In a pan, in her kitchen. And then put it in her oven, in her kitchen. And once you consider this, you sort of have to think, deserved revenge or not, that this is basically the kind of thing that serial killers do. So I'm left wondering, okay, does she also have a mason jar full of human thumbs stashed somewhere? In the film, she claims to regret her actions, and describes them as horrible, but I'm sorry, there would have to be way too much prep time involved in this whole process for me to buy that. If she thought it was that horrible, she would have stopped as her hand started reaching into the toilet, and said to herself "You know what? No."

She didn't though, and here we are. Pardon me for my crassness.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I Saw a Star Fall from Heaven

John Carpenter’s a funny little muddle. He’s a filmmaker who seems to be split down the middle, a man who would probably be more at home making Westerns in the 1940s or 50s, but who obviously wouldn’t be the filmmaker he eventually became without growing up on a mix of Howard Hawks and the science fiction and monster movies from that same era. It is therefore no surprise that the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby monster movie The Thing From Another World became such a formidable and defining influence on Carpenter. But Carpenter has been making films for a long time now, about forty years, and the quality, most would agree, has been sagging for a while. His most recent film, The Ward, has some prominent defenders, but by and large it was received as a professionally made bunch of nothing, nothing close to the kind of comeback his fans had hoped for. Oh well, as they say. The curious thing about Carpenter’s weary skid is it hasn’t been greeted with the kind of mockery, or at times even gloating, that, say, Martin Scorsese’s supposed loss of edge (a view I don’t share, as I think I’ve made clear in the past) has engendered. People still like Carpenter, and root for him, and are sad, but understanding, when he doesn’t meet our expectations. I have to point out that I’m no different in this regard – I wasn’t crazy about The Ward myself – but just typing that previous sentence makes me aware that fandom carries with it a certain condescension towards its object.

It’s just that once Carpenter was so good, and now he’s not quite that anymore. He’s made a number of acknowledged classics in various genres, from Assault on Precinct 13 to Halloween to Escape From New York to his pinnacle and masterpiece, The Thing, a remake – sort of, though the number of similarities are probably equaled, if not dwarfed, by the differences – of the Hawks/Nyby film. The era that produced those films, the mid-1970s into the early 80s, must be counted, from a film historical viewpoint, as Carpenter’s heyday, but as is often the case with filmmakers with deep bodies of work, some of the most interesting stuff is happening on the fringes, meaning just before and just after the undisputed Great Works. For example, and the point of the post, finally, for chrissake, with 1982's The Thing, Carpenter would begin what he now refers to as his Apocalypse Trilogy, though this is very loose in trilogy terms, and I suspect he didn't regard these films as such until the third one was completed and he could step back and think "Hey, there's three that are sort of like that." The third film is 1995's In the Mouth of Madness, a good and interesting movie I hope to get around to writing about sooner rather than later, and in the middle is Prince of Darkness, from 1987. While not Carpenter's best film, Prince of Darkness has long struck me as his most interesting, and bizarre, and even personal.

Prince of Darkness is such a weird mix of standard 1980s horror gloss and rather cerebral ruminations on the cosmos and phsyics and God and evil that it's both easy to see why its cult has been so slow in growing, and frustrating that horror is a genre where the best work is often only appreciated well after the fact. "Horror was good and now it is bad" is the mantra that has left a number of good movies and books scrabbling in the dust, and it's a mantra I am not immune to muttering over and over myself. However, it's my speculation that the indifference with which this film was met partly led to the apparent indifference with which Carpenter now seems to regard filmmaking ("It's still shot, reverse-shot, over-the-shoulder..." Carpenter recently said in an interview with Mick Garris on Fearnet). I mentioned this to some people, and persuasive counter-arguments were offered. All I can say is, that's how it feels.

But Prince of Darkness really is special. It concerns religion and science, personified by a priest played by Donald Pleasance and a theoretical physics professor named Birack, played by Victor Wong. The two men are old friends -- and, you sense, philosophical sparring partners -- and as the film opens the priest has sought out Birack to help him with a mysterious problem. Which boils down to this: in an ancient and shadowy tomb-like room beneath the priest's church is a massive glass and metal cylinder, and inside the cylinder is a roiling green liquid. This cylinder has been kept a secret by the church, basically forever, so long that nobody living even understands it. But it's clear that what the liquid is, and means, and will do, is about to become very apparent. So Birack puts together a team of grad students -- biochemists, molecular physicists, microbioligists, even one studying Latin and ancient theology -- to camp out in the church and study the situation.

So what is this all about? Well, the film's title should give you some clue, but the key to the film's fascination is how Carpenter (writing here under the pseudonym Martin Qautermass, a choice that won't seem terribly odd if you've at least seen Quatermass and the Pit) reconstructs the universe. Eventually, Birack will explain that what the priest has always believe is essentially true, that there is a massive intelligence that controls the world on a subatomic level, a God, but our perception of that intelligence has been skewed by various things over the millenia, not least our desire to project benevolence onto the cosmos. But this is wrong. As there is matter, there is anti-matter, as there is Christ, there is Antichrist, although as far as Prince of Darkness is concerned, Christ was something other than what we imagine. The point being that, whatever our idea of God is, the truth is opposite, and the universe's Great Intelligence is an Anti-God. Who is forming, or re-forming, within that cylinder.

This is all very complex stuff, and Carpenter does a wonderful, chilling job of combining the ideas of very abstract science with visions of doom -- there's a nice shot of Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), the film's theoretical hero (in that he's the one who develops a romantic interest), watching a TV show about quantum physics, and the camera moves down the back of the TV set to show it covered in insects. Insects are big in Prince of Darkness -- they turn up as an image, a symbol of apocalyptic doom, casually throughout the film's early going, but later take on the role of occasional eaters of the dead.

I said before that this so-called "Apocalypse Trilogy" is rather loosely tied together, and it is, but there are still interesting connections beyond them all simply being about the end, or possible end, of the world. For instance, I somehow had not noticed before how Prince of Darkness picks up on the theme of one's body being stolen and used by an otherwise unseen and malevolent force from The Thing (as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while we're at it) and merged it with the more straight-up horror concept of demonic possession. Because while Carpenter's Anti-God might be less supernatural than scientific to a degree we're as yet unable to fully grasp, it does possess various characters when the green liquid begins to escape, and is soon able to transfer, via a, come to think of it, very Exorcist-like green spray from one possessed person's mouth to another, now also possessed person's mouth. There's also the horde, for lack of a better term, of possessed homeless people, both covered in and sometimes proferring (and possibly consisting of) insects, who block any attempt at escape from the church. Admittedly, it's not as if Carpenter could show you his math, but conceptually he is rendering the demonic possession of one's soul in scientific, even subatomic, terms.

Not only that, but to hear Carpenter tell it, our end will come from space. This is shown explicitly in The Thing, with the distant shot of the alien ship crash-landing on Earth. In Prince of Darkness we're talking about a cosmic intelligence, the mind of the unknown universe, wanting to reform itself and destroy us (although, too, there is, in this film, the idea of our savior coming from the same place). With In the Mouth of Madness, things get much less scientific, or theoretical, or whatever, but that film is also explicitly Lovecraftian, and where did Lovecraft's Old Gods come from? The ones that don't come from the oceans, I mean. They're up there in space, waiting. In this sense, Prince of Darkness is every bit as Lovecraftian, its final air of hoplessness and cosmic malevolance is one Lovecraft would have understood.
As implied earlier, though, Prince of Darkness does also enjoy, or anyway have, the unusual distinction of being all this stuff I’ve just described, and also a horror movie from the 1980s. This is sometimes held against it, because in the movie people where those shirts they used to wear, and Jameson Parker is in it. Well, to begin with, Tachyon beams or no Tachyon beams, none of us are going to be able to go back in time and stop those shirts from happening, and second, I think Jameson Parker is really good in this movie (also very good is Donald Pleasance, in what must be counted as among the best of his late-career performances. He has a number of wonderful moments, but the best is when the priest is attempting to perform Last Rites on one of the characters, before realizing that the power he thought this ritual had has been proven false. Pleasance plays this moment with in a way that is very quietly heartbreaking). He’s often singled out for ridicule, anytime someone wants to praise Prince of Darkness while also signaling that, in some ways, they are above it, and this has to do mainly, I think, with his mustache, to which let me respond by simply referring you again to the fact that Tachyon beams will not help us. But Parker is very good here, honestly. There are a lot of little things, such as the way he reacts to a bad deal in a hand of solitaire he’s seen playing early on, or the way he distractedly delivers the cheap joke “Where were you planning on taking him?” in response to his friend’s (Dennis Dun) complaint that this church business is keeping him from a hot date. But again, Parker’s Brian Marsh is only the theoretical hero. He’s presented in the movie as the handsome young man who falls in love with the pretty young woman (Lisa Blount), is smart and capable and brave, but in the end he doesn’t actually do much of consequence. Not for lack of trying, mind you. It’s just that…he can’t. The opposition is too much. That pretty young woman does much more, and gives much more, but it’s Marsh’s realization that even this may not have been enough that closes the film.

The final moments of the film are very effective, though in terms of imagery it pales next to Carpenter’s masterstroke. In the film, all the characters start sharing the same dream. The reasons they’re sharing this dream are made clear, but it’s the image of the dream, the nightmare part of it – because the dream is part nightmare, part hope – that really stuns. It appears to be a video recording of the front of the church. We’re told it’s from the year 1999, a not insignificant year in regards to what Prince of Darkness is on about. And in the doorway of the church, we see a figure. In context – and maybe even out of context – this is one of the richest, in terms of generating fear and dreadful mystery, horror images I’ve ever seen, certainly from the 1980s, a decade which was sort of a wasteland when it came to this sort of thing. And it, the image, isn’t even all that much, but this, of course, is the key. It is, as I’ve said, all fear and dread and mystery. And doom and destruction, and the end of everything.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Monster of the Century

Prior to yesterday, it had been a long time since I'd seen a Godzilla movie, and, prior to yesterday, I had never seen the original, unaltered Japanese cut of Ishiro Honda's 1954 original. That film, set to be released by Criterion tomorrow, is, according to David Kalat in his detailed, wide-ranging, and mildly defensive commentary track, really marks the beginning of the monster movie as we think of it today, at least in terms of giant monsters destroying lots of things, there not really being much of a tradition before that. Godzilla's real progenitor, Kalat explains, is King Kong, a film which is a full twenty-two years older than Godzilla. Subsequent giant monster movies certainly existed, but were sporadic -- Godzilla is the one that unleashed everything. Another point Kalat makes is one that he never states outright, and may not even have thought to make at all, but the way he lays out the timeline in his commentary, it seems to me now very short-sighted -- even more than it already was -- to blame films like Jaws and Star Wars for the death of 1970s Hollywood inependence. If it's important for you to blame anything, it should be the 1952 re-release of King Kong. Thirty years of what Kalat calls "unsatisfied nostalgia" was paid off with that hugely successful re-release, and the inspiration that led to Godzilla then of course also led to the wave of big science-fiction and fantasy films through the 1950s and 60s, films which were gobbled up by your Spielbergs and your Lucases, which led to you-know-what.

Godzilla is of course interesting for lots of different reasons. And it's a good movie, to boot, which is basically the gist of Kalat's commentary. His defensiveness -- which he claims at the outset he plans to avoid, but it can't help creeping in, and whos says it shouldn't? -- stems from his desire to make the case for Godzilla, which shouldn't have to be done, at least if you've seen the original cut. Kalat excitedly points out the discrepency of the New York Times claiming in their review of the film that not one of the actors is any good at all, two years after dubbing Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, who plays Dr. Yamane in Godzilla, the greatest actor in the world for his work in Kurasawa's Ikiru. But it's annoying that anyone should have to dig up that kind of hypocrisy to defend Ishiro Honda's film. Godzilla's bona fides as a profound nuclear age allegory are undisputed at this point, and the Bosley Crowther's of the world did not have fifty-plus years of increasingly goofy and vapid Godzilla films to dilute the idea (though they did have forty minutes of Honda's film replaced with forty minutes of Raymond Burr adjusting his belt, so we must temper our outrage a little).

Suffice it to say, Godzilla holds up. The monster effects are occasionally dusty, but mostly still strong, even knowing it's one of two dudes in a rubber suit. If nothing else, Godzilla's roar remains terrifyingly weird. The opening credits of Honda's film begins with about thirty seconds of just that strange, malicious, train-engine honk repeating itself before Fumio Hayasaka's propulsive, near-martial score kicks in. It's a while into the film before that sound will mean anything to the audience, and it's quite informative to note how Honda keeps his monster off-screen, but present. Note the early attack on the village, during the typhoon, with the rain and darkness, and think, too, of Spielberg's tyrannosaurus rex reveal in the first Jurassic Park.

The story, as is usually the case in monster movies, is simplicity itself. A fishing boat from a seaside village is lost to some strange event, as are rescue boats sent after it. Giant footprints and radioactive readings, as well as old village legends, eventually lead Dr. Yamane to suspect a prehistoric creature is to blame, which is in fact the case. Godzilla will make his presence known, but just a little bit at first. Later nuclear monster films had a tendency to hold back on their reveal for a while, before putting the creature out there all at once, but Godzilla is first seen over the crest of a massive hill, first just the distinctive leaf-shaped spines on his back, and then his head. Eventually Godzilla is front and center, smashing Tokyo in a manner that would eventually become the stuff of parody, both within and without the Godzilla films. But boy, it sure takes on another aspect in the first go ‘round. There’s real terror, and real destruction, in these images, and in the set-up of victims who chat – with surprising casualness – about how they survived Hiroshima, and now they have this to contend with.

Obviously, Honda is not interested in keeping his themes hidden. The idea that Godzilla was awakened, and angered, by H-bomb tests, and the relation these weapons have to an invention Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), the film's stealth hero that will eventually lead to the monster's destruction is right there, out in the open. Serizawa is an interesting figure in the film, as he’s introduced as the third corner of a love triangle filled out by Dr. Yamane’s daughter (Momoko Kochi) and her scientist fiancé (Akira Takarada). Serizawa’s “Oxygen Destroyer” is clearly the film’s version of the next awful step after the H-bomb, and Serizawa’s despair comes not from any unrequited love – it’s pretty clear, once we meet him, that this is the last thing on his mind – but from the possibility of this invention being used for destructive, rather than helpful, reasons. What non-destructive uses something called an “Oxygen Destroyer” could be put to is anybody’s guess, but it’s eventually used to the one thing everyone wants to see destroyed. I can’t help but note at this point that Godzilla, like so many other films that address this broad issue – and I don’t just mean Japanese films – is conspicuously unwilling to deal with the role Japan played in bringing about Hiroshima (Nagasaki is, perhaps, another matter), and on that count Godzilla does rankle a bit. Then again, Godzilla was inspired, yes, by the atom bomb, but the H-bomb is something else, and the H-bomb testing that inspired the film post-dates the end of World War II by a good half decade.

It is difficult, though, to watch this film and not think of so many of the later Godzilla films in which Godzilla is portrayed as Japan's savior. The Japanese fought in World War II at the behest of an Emperor whose time had come and gone, who represented a dying way of life, and who brought out the absolute worst in his subjects. The atomic bomb seems to have violently thrust the country into the modern age, something they would come to embrace. Science fiction writer William Gibson has said that Japan "is the global imagination’s default setting for the future," which is pretty hard to argue with, and the changing role of Godzilla in their films, from symbol city-destroying nuclear power to (occasional) defender of the nation's well-being and liberty, may well reflect they would take the modern world that fell from the sky and formed it into their own image, occasionally to their dismay.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Death Still Touches Me

The most curious thing about Luis Buñuel's fairly-curious-anyway Belle de Jour, which Criterion will be releasing tomorrow, is that even the film's ending unfolds with attempted murder, death, crippling, betrayal and despair, it never steps being, or at least feeling like, the odd, coy, erotic, fun movie that it's been pretending to be all along.

"Pretending to be" being the key phrase, though. Buñuel's film, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, is the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful young woman whose outward sexual coldness, so judged by her husband (Jean Sorel), hides a not just heated fantasy life, but a perverse one that includes among their sexual accoutrements broken bottles, lily seeds, and cow shit. To name but three. Severine's real self is sussed out by an acquaintence and habitual customer of prostititues (Michel Piccoli), and he directs her to a brothel where Severine becomes the shy, uncertain, bemused, but soon fully awakened prostitute dubbed "Belle de Jour." One of Buñuel's methods here is to not make a big deal about the stuff that is ultimately a pretty big deal, such as the violence of Severine's sexual fantasies. You don't see anything in these fantasies, but in one Piccoli breaks a wine bottle and takes it with him under a table with Severine. It's sort of played for laughs, but is it just me or is that sort of horrifying?

The violence, or death, violent or not, follows her from fantasy -- which also includes horewhipping -- to reality, a divide which can be hard to determine. There's a very Gothic, almost goofily so, scene where Severine goes to an aristocratic client's home, a client who wants her to lie nude, except for an essentially completely sheer gown, in a casket and act dead while he mourns over her (and pretends she's his daughter) before he tremblingly sinks out of frame to do...whatever.

The fantasy of the above-referenced aristocrat doesn't appear to do much to turn Severine's crank, but who knows? Her husband thinks she's cold, but the whole reason for that coldness is because that which she truly desires would possibly freak her husband out, and therefore must be released through the ministrations of strangers, even criminals like Marcel (Pierre Clementi). Marcel, scarred up, toothless Marcel, so satisfies her aggressive fantasies that she comes very close to loving the bastard, a thug Buñuel makes no attempt to romanticize. But that's what's so strange about Belle de Jour. Severine's desires and infidelity bring about real life death and destructions, but the tone of the film is always pitched straight down the non-judgmental middle.

It would be wrong to claim the film is coldly, clinically observational in the mode of, say, Kubrick or Cronenberg. There's a warmth to the photography -- the Gothic necrophile scene has an almost Hammer-esque vibrancy -- and Deneuve, despite her reputation as an on-screen personality, seems sad yet approachable, even sweet. I once claimed to dislike Deneuve, at least as sex symbol, as the icy blonde thing wasn't really my whole deal, but that was many years ago and I hadn't seen Belle de Jour. My reaction to her now is well, sure, okay. In a conversation with Buñuel and film critics Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrant reprinted in the Criterion booklet, Turrant says that Deneuve's beauty is "asexual" and "abstract," and Buñuel agrees. It may be just me here, but I think that's a very strange description to apply to this particular film. I mean, does this look abstract or asexual to you?

Well, anyway. The point is that Belle de Jour takes an almost celebratory, in that it's portrayed as charming, approach to the film's sex, yet when this sex and desire and aggression leads to gunfire and remorse, it's not like day giving way to night, but day giving way to tomorrow, when the desire will remain, and the consequences will be no less bad, but none of this will keep the sun from rising.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Those Things They Don't Have Words For Here: Dennis, Me, and The Man Who Wasn't There - Part the Last

Welp, here she is -- the final installment of my conversation with Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule about the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There. Tonight it's all Dennis, on whose shoulders it falls to bring us to a close. I feel a great emptiness, which can only be viewed as appropriate. Go here, here, here, and here for the rest of the discussion.

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DENNIS: Bill, it has been a tremendous amount of fun trading thoughts with you this week on The Man Who Wasn’t There, even if we managed to schedule the conversation during a week in which the deadlines and demands of the outside world of work made it maybe a little more difficult to dig in than we would have liked. And those “real-life” demands are making themselves felt even on this Sunday, a designated day of rest, if I’m not mistaken, one whose status as such has never made much of an impression upon the forces that make my breadwinnin’ work available to me. (Over the past 20 years those forces haven’t been significant respecters of any free time-type hours outside the usual eight or nine demarcated in the average American workplace. But hey, at least I’m getting paid!)

So if you will indulge, and if the notion doesn’t seem particularly slovenly in the shadow of your previous, meticulously considered near 2,000-word response, I’d like to offer an answer to your final question, “How do we close this out?” with a few brief comments followed by a gallery of striking images from the movie that I found galvanizing, haunting or just plainly beautiful, accompanied by some explanation as to why.




I was really grateful for you mentioning the business of shaving. I don’t recall if I’d made a mental note of it during previous screenings, but this time the connection between Ed shaving Doris’ leg in the bathtub and later Ed’s own casual observation of the executioner shaving the patch on his calf where the electrode would be placed really impressed me. And it’s not just the shaving. We see Ed’s leg being cleaned, and that’s followed by a glance toward the bucket where, much the same way as Ed did with Doris, the executioner rinses the razor in a slosh of soapy, hairy water. You ask if I think Ed perceives Doris as being there with him. I’m not sure I made that kind of inference (and that may be due to what I bring to the table, an indicator of my own spiritual inclinations) so much as that I saw Ed reflecting, in the much the same way as he subconsciously does during that remembrance of Doris rebuffing the salesman and then coming inside for a disengaged sit-down on the couch, on his relationship with her. (He does speculate that she might be where he’s going, wherever that might be, and expresses the hope that he might be able to tell her how he feels, about her, about the world, in a way he never could during their corporeal time together.)


What’s moving about this remembrance, coming in his last moments as it does, is its quality of genuine warmth. Unlike the dream of Doris returning not so much to him but to her glass of bourbon, enduring his company as a necessary evil, as an uncomfortable aspect of the comforts of home, this remembrance harkens back to the one moment of genuine intimacy the movie affords to Ed and Doris. It comes in the moments after Ed’s first meeting with Tolliver, when he’s first beginning to turn the idea around in his head about somehow getting the money to invest in Tolliver’s dry-cleaning proposal. He muses to himself about the convenient process involved (“It was clean. No water. Chemicals.”) while he soaps and shaves the leg belonging to the woman whose infidelity will eventually inspire his impulsive scheme to extract the necessary cash from her lover, Big Dave. So it’s an intimate moment, however tinged with betrayal and suppressed anger. But in Ed’s reflection upon it as he approaches the Big Sleep, the moment itself seems cleansed of resentment, suffused with regret and even apology, the prickly stubble of a bad marriage washed away by the hope of an unlikely future, or at least the desire to reconnect with what was ever good about the marriage in the first place. It’s hard to imagine trying to insist on the heartlessness of the Coens in light of this lovely strand of emotional acuity, even as they use the most unlikely of imagery in order to express it.


Someone wrote me earlier in the week, when this discussion first started and suggested that to him The Man Who Wasn’t There was, instead of a spiritual twin to A Serious Man, a black-and-white remake of Barton Fink. Though the comparison may have rewards of the sort that we’re talking about here that I just haven’t thought through, it also seems inapt in some significant ways, the primary one being that there’s a big difference between feeling the noose tighten around one’s neck over a case of writer’s block—one’s own pretense to literary and artistic value being a contributing factor to the sense of impending doom—and not having anything even resembling talent or the opportunity of expression to fall back on during the inexorable dip into the abyss. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone back to the Earle Hotel, and truthfully I haven’t felt much compulsion to do so in the years that have passed since I saw Barton Fink for the first time. It’s always seemed to be to be the Coens’ most facile movie, dismissive of the idea of literary sincerity, either from a theatrical specimen like Fink (a stand-in for Clifford Odets) or from a boozy, dissolute figure like William Faulkner, and the strangeness of the Coen touch (the peeling wallpaper, the life of the mind, et al) always struck me as being a little too in love with the influence of David Lynch, who was heavily in vogue with Twin Peaks during the movie’s production and release. In other words, the movie many might first think of as being quintessentially Coen-esque is, to me, one of their least genuine. (I think of Barton Fink as their fanboy movie.) There are many things to like, even love about it-- Tony Shalhoub’s Ben Geisler being primary among them, as you point out. (I tried finding video clips of Shalhoub’ brilliant harangues in this film, but each one came tethered to an announcement which told me that I could not view the clip in my country. I see…) But the brand of fatalism being peddled in Barton Fink has always seemed imposed rather than earned, as it does in The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. That said, given that my attraction to their work as filmmakers is largely one in which even their worst is better than the strained efforts of their many imitators (and even many who have no interest in imitating them), I will concede that it deserves another look, one which, being 20 years removed from that Lynch-saturated cultural atmosphere, may reveal things I’d never seen before.


And to answer my own question, because whether I like it or not Barton Fink is clearly more than a pastiche, I can’t put it at the very bottom of my Coen ranking. And can’t put The Hudsucker Proxy there either—it’s a movie I like much more than I do Barton Fink, but it’s been even longer since I’ve seen it than it’s been since I’ve seen the other, so I’ll have to refrain from any real judgment on it of this sort on it. I’ll reserve the bottom spot for Blood Simple, a movie that has always seemed like not much more than a Hollywood calling card to me, clever to be sure, but also exactly the kind of Post(modern)man Always Rings Twice reference manual that The Man Who Wasn’t There fastidiously avoids becoming. Blood Simple has the earmarks of the technical brilliance to come, but it’s an precocious, immature movie and the shadow of all those film noirs runs too deep for the brothers here— it took moving into the realm of a completely different, sun-splashed world, that of Raising Arizona, for them to find their true, original voice and escape the traps of cool pastiche. Blood Simple gets my vote for my least favorite Coen Brothers movie.

Okay, last call. The Man Who Wasn’t There is such a visually rich movie, and we’ve spoken so often in this exchange of ideas about story and character that find their expression in the richness of visual imagination that the Coens and their peerless director of photography Roger Deakins bring to the movie, that I thought it would be appropriate, and fun, to end off this series with a gallery of some of those images, accompanied by a brief line or two of appreciation. A couple of these will have most certainly already shown up here or at your place, but that’s okay. Beauty shouldn’t be restricted to a single glance.


There's something incredibly warm and sympathetic about the way they light and frame Doris in this scene when Ed first comes to visit her after her arrest. The hint of a shiner on her right eye, never explained, adds to the poignancy.



I love the offhanded way Birdy and the boy regard Ed when he talks with them outside the piano recital. It's clear they are doing their best just to indulge him until he extricates himself from the scene.


Detective Burns (Jack McGee), the gumshoe Riedenschneider hires to get the deep background on Big Dave Brewster. Visually perfect.


"You know how Big Dave loved camping and the out of doors?" "Yeah."

"We went camping last summer in Eugene, Oregon. Outside Eugene..."














Everything you need to know can be found in contemplating the haircut...




Deakins employs an extraordinary long-lens tracking shot to observe Ed swimming against the tide of humanity and his own despair, already unable to remain afloat in the wake of Doris’s arrest. “When I walked home it seemed like everyone avoided looking at me, as if I’d caught some disease. This thing with Doris-- nobody wanted to talk about it. It was like I was a ghost walking down the street.”




Dark shadows...




"I killed him."


Ed's sophisticated dinner manner (what the Coens have called his talk show host pose) cannot disguise his contempt or his disinterest...


The note.


A guard peers at Ed from outside Ed's cell...

A car crash unlike any other. The sequence in which Ed, distracted by Birdy's advances, drives off the side of the road, rendered anything but routinely by the Coens' consummate command of the power and clarity of their images. I love how they use this sequence to visually tie into the UFO motif that informs the second half of the film:
































Finally, another moment of curdled intimacy between Doris and Ed. Early on in the film, as they are preparing to attend the Nirdlinger Christmas party, Doris asks Ed to "zip me up," a moment of casual companionship familiar to most couples. Yet this one, with its slow track in on Doris's back, sights on the open dress, and Ed's deliberate act of compliance, has about it one part intimacy and two parts foreboding, as if Ed were zipping Doris not into a dress but into a body bag, which metaphorically, of course, he will soon do.








On that note, Bill, thanks once again for a lively and rewarding exchange. Let's consider this conversation zipped up. Next year, Roller Boogie?

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