Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Say Goodbye

I've heard it said that if you don't care for James Cameron's Titanic, or rather if you say you don't like James Cameron's Titanic, because as we shall see the former is an impossibility, then the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that you are a liar. Because Titanic is "impeccably crafted." I think there's generally more to the argument, sometimes something to do with special effects and spectacle, but mostly focused on how impeccably crafted the whole thing is. But I don't like it. I don't. I find it a turgid sprawl of basic ideas poorly executed, at least up until the ship actually sinks, at which point the film does attain a level of tragic splendor. This occurs, interestingly enough, only when Cameron shifts focus away from his star-crossed lovers and spends some time with the nameless masses of passengers and crew as they slip and tumble into the Atlantic. Cameron's "Nearer My God to Thee" montage is very affecting, the single best part of the film. I just find it curious that out of a three hour film, the most concentrated bits of emotional payoff come from people the script had no reason to give names to. Whatever the creative foundation for these moments is, I've always felt it was a shame that Cameron couldn't have built his entire film on it.

Thankfully, someone already did. Roy Ward Baker and screenwriter Eric Ambler's A Night To Remember, which James Cameron has doubtlessly seen a billion times, and which Criterion is re-releasing today on Blu-Ray, is such a film, an almost clinical, though hardly cold, step-by-step dramatization of what led to this tragedy on April 14, 1912. It focuses on the pure history of the event, centering its story on Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) and Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), the designer and builder of the Titanic. Lightoller stands in for the businesslike heroism that is expected of the crew of a sinking ship, and many of my favorite shots in A Night to Remember are of crew life on the ship after it has started going down. Some of these have the air of a store closing down for good, rather than one of impending doom, which somehow makes it all the more chilling. Baker portrays the sinking of the Titanic as almost ridiculously slow -- slow enough that the passengers who don't fully understand their predicament find it easy to remain in denial until the water is at their shoes.

One of the best sequences in the film mirrors these shots, as Baker portrays the eerie quiet of the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. This being a film based on one of the defining events of the 20th century, you know what's coming, and our tension is heightened by seeing waiters cleaning up a dimmed dining room -- this is a store closing for the night, as opposed to for good -- and, for instance, the strange, slow zoom on a rocking horse, a shot I love perhaps beyond reason, or at least beyond easy definition. It has something to do with an object so easily set in motion shown in a moment of utter stillness.

If Lightoller represents businesslike heroism, Andrews represents businesslike despair. "She's going to sink," he tells Cpt. Rostron (a terrific Anthony Bushell), after laying out his case that the disaster is a "mathematical certainty." With nothing to be done to reverse things, Andrews settles into the task of saving as many lives as possible, resigned to, if not exactly comfortable with, the knowledge that his own life won't be among them. "Are you not even going to try?" a crewman asks Andrews, who is standing alone and blank in one of the ship's upper-class lounges, as the Titanic's begins sinking faster by the minute, and is met with an almost cold glance. Andrews's fate is, in his mind, as much of a mathematical certainty as that of his ship.

A Night to Remember (a title, obviously, taken from the Walter Lord book from which the film is adapted, and about as good a title for this story as I can imagine) has a grimness about its details that Cameron never matched. At his best, Cameron was occasionally able to depict the sadness, but he never managed the horror. Baker and Ambler manage it, and without fuss. As people struggle to survive in the freezing ocean, a man (George Rose's drunken baker) clings to the side of lifeboat until someone's death makes room for him to scramble aboard. Another man pulled from the waters implores Lightoller to save the child he is carrying, unaware that the child is already past saving. The simple shot of Lightoller glancing at the other men on the boat to indicate that the child is gone, but to say nothing to the man, ends with Lightoller placing the corpse back into the water, and a quick fade-out, as if Baker can't bear to linger on it.

A Night to Remember is a superb historical drama whose simplicity of style, when applied to such a big event, does honor to that event in a way that spectacle never can. It's perhaps bad form to use one film to beat up on another, but the truth is that Cameron's Titanic has always rankled me, especially when a corrective to his film was already made, forty years previously.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

No More Laughter, Prepare for Tears

On Tuesday, Criterion will be releasing David Lean Directs Noël Coward, a boxset of the four films -- Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, This Happy Breed, and In Which We Serve -- David Lean made at the beginning of his career, from 1942 to 1945 each one either adapted from one of Coward's plays, or with Coward serving the film in a much more hands-on way, as with In Which We Serve.

The jewel of the crown must be that aforementioned war film, which has been released on video before, but is still somewhat neglected (Brief Encounter has already been a part of Criterion's library for years), but watching these four films -- some for the second time, some for the first -- over the past four days has been something of a revelation. With a core group of repeat actors, and with Ronald Neame behind the camera, always, Lean and Coward created four films that now feel effortlessly moving, casually funny, observant, wise, and elegant.

Perhaps Noël Coward's single best-known work, Blithe Spirit stars Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine, and Constance Cummings as his wife Ruth. As the deceptively frothy film begins, the couple is preparing to host a seance, which they're doing from a skeptical point of view, Charles's motive being to observe the medium, Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, who plays the role in a way that reminds me of a female, manic Alistair Sim), for tips on her methods of deception so that he may incorporate them into the plot of a mystery he's writing. However, Arcati's no phony, and the seance has the effect of bringing forth into the lives of Ruth and Charles the ghost of Charles's previous wife, Elvira, played by Kay Hammond in a way that suggests Elvira died in a state of pleasant drunkenness, and the rules of the spirit world dictate that she stay that way.

Of course, Elvira's appearance is not the first the audience has heard of her -- in the opening scene Ruth and Charles talk about the dead woman, and what Charles considers her upsides and downsides, as though Elvira hadn't died tragically young, and Charles had not been cruelly widowed, but rather that the couple had experienced one of those very sophisticated divorces I guess they used to have. "Flippant" -- a word used in the film at one point -- doesn't even quite cover it for me. It's very nearly mean, or anyway callous. And while I'm willing to consider the possibility that this vibe is heightened for me by virtue of the fact that the bulk of the callousness comes from Rex Harrison, a man who in real life would make Charles Condomine look like someone whose heart never stops bleeding, I'm not willing to consider it for very long.

Blithe Spirit is a very good film, a funny film (lines like "We're old friends, we meet each other coming out of shops" are completely thrown away on a routine basis), and, not accidentally, a visually very alive film -- you'll rarely see color used in film with more consideration than by filmmakers from the era when the possibilities were still new. But it's honestly less frothy than it is nasty, something I have no doubt was well understood by Coward and Lean. For one thing, there are dinner table scenes between Harrison and Cummings that seem on the cusp of gaining speed to become the dissolution-of-a-marriage dining montage from Citizen Kane if it was funny and in color and had a ghost in it. More alarming than anything, though, is Blithe Spirit's approach to death, which is less hopeful than mockingly gleeful. And this isn't a criticism! But death is sudden in Blithe Spirit, yet is presented as delightful and light-hearted. Which is of course the blackest thing about the film. This is the cynic's version of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death.

Or the cynic's version of Brief Encounter. This exquisite film came out in 1945, the same year as Blithe Spirit, and the two bear some interesting similarities regarding married life while adopting completely different attitudes towards those similarities. However, they don't exactly act as counterpoints to each other, because neither one could be said to put forth a winning view of marriage. But they're not approaching the same things at all. Brief Encounter, based on Coward's play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as the idealistic Dr. Alec Harvey, each of them married to other people, who meet randomly in the cafe of a train station. Laura goes there once a week for lunch during her errands in town, and Alec passes through during a layover between trains during his once-a-week shift at a local hospital. They come together when Alec helps Laura get a piece of grit out of her eye, and this leads to familiarity in the coming weeks. This itself leads to a fierce love, even though up until this point in her life Laura would not have thought of her marriage to her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) as unhappy. But Alec's passion and kindness and adventurousness makes Fred's love of doing crosswords by the fireside seem suddenly stultifying and imprisoning to her.

The film, as I say, is gorgeous. It is even, in my estimation, close to perfect, and it was one creative choice, or two related ones, that makes Brief Encounter soar. The film begins with the last meeting between Laura and Alec, after Laura has made the decision that they can never be together, and Alec has revealed that his philanthropic ambitions are going to take him away, essentially forever. But as the film opens, the viewer doesn't know this. They only know that these two people are sitting together, talking quietly, when suddenly their privacy is blithely(!) intruded upon by Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg), a friend of Laura's. So now, unable to speak openly about their situation, or to say the goodbyes they want to say, in the way they're silently crying out to say, they are forced to part as near strangers. The rest of the film exists in part to reveal why this moment is so crushing.

The rest of the film flows from this heartbreak, and even, I suspect, works as a leavening agent for certain viewers to accept the potential infidelity of Laura and Alec. A great deal of the power of Brief Encounter does come from Coward and Lean's refusal to construct villainous spouses the viewer can easily reject. Poor Fred may be dull, but he's a good man, and the ending of the film is almost rapturously sweet, even if Fred himself can't recognize why. And does Laura, fully? Her reaction to this final moment with Fred seems loving to me, but I suppose some might read it as despairing. It can obviously be both, and this is the genius of Celia Johnson, who gives here one of the great screen performances. Her torment and joy and sweetness are felt deeply, and its Laura's decency that animates Johnson's face. You want her to do the wrong thing, if it is the wrong thing, and it probably is, if it will only give this good woman some measure of happiness. Also, and unfortunately I can't go on about Brief Encounter forever, but Trevor Howard ain't no slouch either.

Celia Johnson also worked with Lean and Coward in 1944's This Happy Breed, a domestic drama about an English family from 1919, when the patriarch, Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton), returns home from World War I, gets a job at a travel agency, and moves his family to South London, to 1939 and the dawn of World War II, when the family moves again. Frank and his wife Ethel (Johnson) preside over a household that includes three children, Ethel's mother (Amy Veness), and Frank's sister Sylvia (Allison Leggatt). The action of the film, or the drama anyway, usually revolves around the children, such as daughter Vi's (Eileen Erskine) relationship with a young Communist (Guy Verney); son Reg's (John Blythe, who mugs a bit, let's be honest) own anti-Capitalist leanings, as well as his approaching full-grown, responsible-adult manhood; and especially the social strivings of their daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh), a significant name, or nickname, as her very existence seems to depend on her ability to live better than her parents.

The film consists of a series of vignettes of varying lengths that highlight the changing attitudes of England after World War I, and the significant turns within the Gibbons family, through everyday banality. Christmas dinner, a quietly startling talk between father and son before the son's wedding, Frank spending occasional evenings drunk with his best friend and fellow veteran Reg (John Blythe), breakfast, dances, and so on. There are three marriages that occur over the course of the film, but no weddings; a couple of deaths, too, but no funerals. Films like This Happy Breed exist narratively in wild peaks and valleys, but Lean and Coward almost seem to want to make those peaks and valleys function on the same plane. This is not to say the film is bland -- it's not at all, but arguments between characters are not meltdowns, tragedy is greeted with almost complete silence, save for the incongruous swing music piping out of a radio that nobody has the presence of mind to switch off.

Again, like most movies of this type, This Happy Breed contains everything, but unlike most it shows almost nothing. The film's color photography by Ronald Neame is scrubbed, not until its clean, but until its dull, an extreme contrast to Neame's fantastical primaries in Blithe Spirit. It's the kind of family epic where one of the most emotional moments is when Frank tells his best friend, who is about to move away, "I'm going to miss you like hell."

The whole Coward/Lean partnership (or Coward/Lean/Neame partnership, or Coward/Lean/Neame/Celia Johnson partnership) began in 1942, and I realize now that I've written about these films in reverse chronological order. The intent had been to pair off the films, as they naturally do anyway, by theme, the theme of Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit being broadly "love" or "marriage" or something, and the theme of This Happy Breed and the film I'm about to write about, In Which We Serve being, very broadly, "war." In This Happy Breed, the wars that bookend the story make their presence known in a manner that is just a shade or two more obvious than subliminal, but In Which We Serve is, as the title indicates, much more straightforward about it, even if it plays a little bit how The Best Years of Our Lives would if it had combat scenes.

In Which We Serve actually counts as David Lean's first official credit as director, and he shares it with Noël Coward. Coward also has the lone screenwriting credit, the lone composer credit, he produced the film, and he stars in it as Kinross, captain of the HMS Torrin, a destroyer that is torpedoed as the film opens, its crew abandoning ship to cling to life rafts and hope they don't get strafed by the Stukas zipping overhead. In this way, it sort of resembles Brief Encounter, because here, as in that film, we begin very near the ending. A core group of the Torrin's crew -- Coward, John Mills as Shorty Blake, Bernard Miles as Walter Hardy, and others -- clings to a single raft, and as they ponder their fates Lean and Coward takes us back to the homefront, to the lives of these men before first shipping out, to their precious moments of leave, where Mills (who played Queenie's frustrated suitor, also a Navy man, in This Happy Breed) meets his eventual wife Freda (Kay Walsh, also in This Happy Breed).

The lives of the women at home are not given short-shrift in any way, and in fact there is some rather queasy irony in store for the characters who think only the men at war are in danger. As Coward's wife, Celia Johnson -- the great Celia Johnson, an amendment I have no choice but to make after watching these films -- is the model for strength in the face of endless tension, Upper Class English Division, while those that scrape by a bit more, like Freda and Joyce Carey's Kath Hardy, knit and wince and don't talk about the German bombs shattering the London streets around them.

Like This Happy Breed, In Which We Serve was made to be a patriotic morale boost in the middle of the war. This Happy Breed does this by depicting an attitude of strength and forbearance often associated with the English of the era (even while criticizing them, as when Robert Newton rages about his countrymen's attitude towards England's appeasement of Hitler by lamenting that he saw Londoners cheering the fact that they'd been "thoroughly frightened"), and In Which We Serve shows what happens when that attitude is called to action. Like many British film's meant to awaken patriotism in the viewer, In Which We Serve is often very sad, but like all the best movie's of this type, the sadness serves to rouse as much as the triumphs do. This is what we must do, and this is the cost. They are inseparable.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Diamond City

If ever a film title quietly foretold doom for the characters within said film, Letter Never Sent is it. However, title aside, in Mikhail Kalatozov's magnificent, devastating 1959 story of Soviet scientists and explorers dispatched to Siberia to find and map out diamond veins, thereby freeing Russia from their economic need for foreign diamonds, and set to be released by Criterion on March 20, the doom starts early, and isn't all that quiet. Even before disaster strikes our four main characters -- which include two geologists, Tanya and Andrei (Tatyana Samoilova and Vasili Livanov), who are openly in love with each other, and a third, Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky), who less openly, but still blatantly "secretly" loves Tanya -- our protagonist, Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), is shown simply writing an ever-expanding, and for now still optimistic, letter to his wife, and director Kalatozov has surrounded him with the shadow, or the projection, of ominous flames.

Letter Never Sent is, at its roots, a basic story of survival, though the film ultimately manages to not be basic in any way. For one thing, Kalatozov and his screenwriters occasionally make storytelling choices -- one in particular -- that would be regarded by just about any other filmmaker as dramatically perverse. But more importantly, as nature rises up against our characters and their hope crumbles, Kalatozov lets his visual sense off its tether, or at least gives it a nice amount of slack, so that over the course of the film I was reminded, variously, of Wages of Fear and/or Sorcerer, Malick's The Thin Red Line, The Seventh Seal, Sansho the Bailiff, and even the Algernon Blackwood horror story "The Willows". This last one is no doubt just me, but there's a certain otherworldliness about all this, and topographically speaking Letter Never Sent and "The Willows" have some stuff in common. More to the point, had our heroes' misfortune finally been shown to have its source in some kind of Nameless Evil, the revelation would not have felt entirely out of place.

The story told in Letter Never Sent is a stark one, but Kalatozov's style isn't stark. Or, if it is, it's a very heightened starkness. Rushing, hand-held cameras, ghostly silhouettes, fire and hell everywhere. "Stark" would maybe apply to a world after the Apocalypse, but in Letter Never Sent the Apocalypse is here, and current. Death, too, in a film of more severe and arid hopelessness, would be immediate and bloody, or the deterioration of the body would be lingered over, but here death often takes the visual form, if this isn't too oxymoronic, of disappearance, or at least a sealing off from the eyes of the living. This is the mystery of despair. And speaking of counterintuitive visuals, Kalatozov's very modern camera, whose tricks and expressionism are never anything less than justified, somehow reduces the characters, each of them steeped in their modern science, to such primitiveness that the late appearance of a helicopter is fairly jarring. This is achieved, by the way, and not to be too glib, by showing anybody drinking their own pee or contemplating cannibalism or, short of that, eating bark or insects. This is a film where almost nothing is expressed in the writing, other than emotions, but, if I may resort to a synecdoche, through smoke.

Meanwhile, of course, Letter Never Sent is a Soviet film, and this influence is not missed, though its presence is often conflicted. On the one hand, the movie opens with a scroll of text encouraging others to explore and through exploration move their society along. The scroll ends with a dedication to the Soviet people, and presumably those are the same people being encouraged to explore. However, within the body of the film itself you have characters wondering, absurdly, about a "Diamond City", which would result from their discoveries, and Sergei is shown mourning a life spent looking for "other peoples' treasure." This line is particularly striking in its cynicism, and while it's sort of thrown away in the film, it's hard not to wonder what Khrushchev's censors were doing during that part. Perhaps they simply forgot about it once the film's ending rolled around, an ending that doesn't count as forced or phony, but which seems clearly constructed to live up, in some small way, to that opening scroll, since the audience who might have been initially inspired by those words to take up a life of science and exploration must have, over the following 90 minutes, begun to think "Fuck that noise."

Kalatozov's Letter Never Sent is hardly the first or last Soviet film to be so conflicted, and anyway this submerged struggle adds a certain philosophical vigor to the whole endeavor. But you can take that or leave it, as it isn't exactly The Show. The Show is Kalatazov's eye and restless imagination, and the poetry of survival.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

And the Mercy Seat is Glowing, and I Think My Head is Melting

It's rather amazing how quickly A Serbian Film has left my brain. That's not to imply I've forgotten it; I watched it just a couple of hours ago. But already, I don't care anymore. The shock impact director Srđan Spasojević has no doubt banked on -- and banked on effectively, as far it goes, given the movie's far fringe infamy -- to carry A Serbian Film through as some sort of career-starter, has been awfully quick to drain away.

I can think of a few different reasons for this, but right at the top of the list is that once you know what's in the film, you know what the film is. It's become something of what I guess you'd call a meme to say you've read A Serbian Film's quite thorough Wikipedia plot synopsis, and then announce that under no circumstances will you ever actually watch the film. I said this myself not terribly long ago, and figured the film's sketchy availability, at least in my neck of the woods, where getting my hands on it would, I thought, have involved something to do with home delivery, would make it a pretty easy promise to keep. So but then I was in the local video store today where I buy almost all of my DVDs, and I was absent-mindedly scanning the horror section -- which I do in the same way people in the supermarket linger in the bread aisle before deciding they already have plenty of bread -- and there it was. Just sitting there, with a big "UNCUT" sticker right on the front. For $8. I ended up buying it out of disbelief more than anything else.

So I bought it, and I watched it, and I decided that Wikipedia had summed it up rather nicely. There's nothing in that synopsis that isn't in the film (mostly, anyway; my copy is actually shaved down by one minute from the edit of A Serbian Film that blew up film festivals a few years ago, but I promise you the gist was clear), and there is nothing in the film that expands on the synopsis, this latter point being the key. The shock effects that A Serbian Film so feverishly pleads for are in the idea of the shocks rather than the shocks themselves. This is maybe easy enough for me to say when I've possibly been robbed of up to a full minute of child and infant torture, but when I think -- and I have no choice but to do so -- of the description of the film's most notorious scene, the one that enabled Spasojević to coin the term "newborn porn," a phrase that has gone on to do his marketing for him, and then think of what I saw on the DVD, I'm left to wonder what might have been removed that would still make the DVD legal for me to own, which I assume it is. Not much, I should think.

And either way, so what? Would a half second more of trauma have rendered A Serbian Film meaningful in some way? Because by the way, it's not a film that means anything. The narrative, such as it is, hinges entirely on extreme excess, and can be summarized quickly: Milos(Srđan Todorović) , a legendary ex-porn star who is now married and has a son, is approached by one of his former costars (Katarina Žutić) with an offer to appear in a bit of art porn being put together by the mysterious Vukmir Vukmir (Humbert Humbert? If so, Spasojević, then how dare you?). Vukmir is willing to pay through the nose for Milos's services, the only sketchy part, from Milos's point of view, being that he will not have any idea from one day to the next what the filming will involve. Vukmir wants Milos's reactions to the sexual situations to be pure. And are they ever!

At this point, cue the shock. Vukmir is once referred to by Milos's wife as sounding like he's one of their countrymen on trial at the Hague. This line is the equivalent ofThe Last House on the Left ending with somebody saying "Plus, Vietnam," which Wes Craven has sort of been doing ever since, or Eli Roth closing out Hostel Part II with a card that said "Hey, guys? Iraq." Which, okay, ibid. In other words, it's phony horseshit. Because I don't think it's any kind of accident that Spasojević has not followed up A Serbian Film with a scathing political indictment of modern day Serbia, but rather a section of the upcoming horror anthology The ABCs of Death. Not that I have anything against horror -- I quite like it, most times. I think what I'm saying is that horror directors are assholes. I don't know, that can't be it.

Plus, whatever you might want to say about Wes Craven -- and I want to say very little that is good -- it's unavoidably true that The Last House on the Left, a film I have no love for, has about it a certain cheap power, a low budget coating of filth that can make it feel like a videotape you found in the garbage. You don't have to believe it's recording actual events to feel uneasy about it. Unbelievably, A Serbian Film doesn't carry a whiff of this, or at least not one that lingers. It's professionally, which is not to say interestingly, made, very polished, and while I guess I shouldn't beat up on Spasojević for trying to do a good job, whatever that would mean in this case, he also very clearly wants it both ways. He wants his not actually porn, not actually snuff, film to look like snuff porn (professional snuff porn), so that necessitates the use of some pretty obvious prostheses, or maybe just the one, passed around. Whatever the case, with maybe one exception, the graphic horror is easier to dismiss here than it might otherwise be, because you can see Kenny Baker through the R2 suit. But Spasojević doesn't want it to be like that. But it is. But he'd rather you be fooled. But you aren't. And here we are.

If believing, or "believing", as far as we reasonably could, what we're shown in A Serbian Film didn't matter, then, obviously, it wouldn't matter, and this would also be a completely different kind of movie. Maybe closer in spirit, if in no other way, to Andrzej Zuwalski's Possession, another notoriously disturbing horror film, but far, far less graphic (but still pretty graphic), that I saw recently, one I didn't "believe" (let's go with that one) for a second -- it's a film that revels in its artifice -- but which gave me far greater pause in terms of my own personal uneasiness than A Serbian Film could ever have managed. Probably because Possession's effects are in some ways undefinable, and A Serbian Film has all the force of a synopsis.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Capsule Reviews: 127 Hours, Tony Manero, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

127 Hours (d. Danny Boyle) – One of the reasons I was interested in seeing Boyle’s film (which stars James Franco as real-life outdoorsy-type Aron Ralston, who became famous some years ago when a canyon climbing accident left his arm seemingly hopelessly pinned under a large rock, from which hard place he escaped by cutting off his own arm) is that it is 93 minutes long. “Oh,” thought I to myself. “What a relief. I should reward this restraint by watching the film projected onto a screen.” So something like a year and a half later, I caught the movie on HBO, and I can now state with confidence that 127 Hours is perfectly okay, if you don’t mind Danny Boyle or James Franco too much.

As it happens, I do not mind them too much, so I found the film to be a relatively painless experience. But Boyle has an ingrained jitteriness that I always have to get past in order to enjoy any of his movies. Sometimes I’m successful, but I still always have to do it. In the case of 127 Hours, I got the sense that the jitteriness was being deployed in order to achieve some kind of Koyanisqaatsi-esque global connection to Aron’s plight. This he fails to achieve, and doesn’t need to be messing around with that stuff anyway, because it’s not hard to imagine oneself partially crushed by a rock and unable to extract yourself, and think “What would I do?” Further – and this is a script thing, which Boyle wrote with Simon Beaufoy – Franco’s epiphany that he was sort of a selfish dick before a rock fell on him rings terribly hollow, probably because the conceit of 127 Hours is that Franco records everything he thinks or feels onto his little camera dealy that he brought along. Which in terms of depicting the way people live their lives these days is certainly fair enough, but on the level of using the medium of film to convey character and emotion, is kind of a bit of a rip.

Franco is fine, by the way. He’s right at home with Boyle’s aesthetic, which is maybe not the biggest compliment you can pay to an actor, but at least they mesh. Franco does not deliver the tour de force some have claimed – my goodness he acted all alone for a lot of the time! – because Boyle makes it very easy for him, in ways already covered. Franco’s, and the film’s, single best moment comes when that arm finally pulls free from the rest of his body. Boyle drops the sound and deflates the tension into anti-climax as Franco stumbles backwards, free, and totally baffled. The plan worked, but still somehow makes no sense.

Tony Manero (d. Pablo Larrain) - This Chilean film from 2008 comes with a lot of notoriety -- infamy, you might say -- due to the graphic nature of its story about a middle aged man named Raul (Alfredo Castro) who, in 1978, during the Pinchoet regime, has become obsessed with the film Saturday Night Fever, as well as brutally convinced that he himself is a South American version of John Travolta's character. The graphic stuff is supposed to be the violence, because Raul is, if not technically a serial killer, still a remorseless and casual one, but what I ultimately found most interesting about Tony Manero is how the film treats Raul's violence with the same air of insignificant digression -- note, please, that I did not say transgression -- as Raul does himself.

This isn't to say there's no savagery or satisfaction to Raul's killings, just that there might not be. He's pretty stone-faced when he goes about it, after all, and they're all a means to an end anyway. That end being the purchase of glass floor, similar to the one at the disco in Saturday Night Fever, for the stage at the beat-up little night club where he works and performs, and for which he is planning a big Tony Manero-esque dance-off (Raul also hopes to win the upcoming Tony Manero look-a-like contest for a local TV variety show). Then, too, there is the fact that the brutal-murder-with-a-tired-sigh vibe of the whole ties in with a central idea, which is that Raul can bash in the heads of whoever he wants, and with Pinochet in charge no one will notice anything amiss.

This is a good idea, or a good joke, if you prefer, but not necessarily something you'd be advised to build a whole movie on. Larrain doesn't, thankfully, and in the end Tony Manero (which, by the way, I did not find to be egregiously violent in any way, and therefore I'm baffled by its reputation; still, though, don't take the kids) is a grim little snapshot, or maybe a portrait of a week in the life of the second worst person in Chile.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (d. Brad Bird) - I wondered out loud recently how common is it for the third and fourth movies in a franchise to be the best ones. Almost never, was the aggregate answer, but the Mission: Impossible films have achieved the, at least, highly unlikely, because part three, directed by J. J. Abrams, was a lean and fun little action movie, buoyed by the inspired casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Bond villain role, that trumped franchise predecessors Brian Freakin' DePalma and Goddamn John Woo For Christ's Sake, and now Brad Bird, known before strictly for his animated films for Pixar, like The Incredibles, and elsewhere, like The Iron Giant, bests even Abrams. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is simply fantastic. It really never lets up, almost at all, save for a brief period of regrouping following Bird's magnificent Dubai set-piece, but otherwise the film, which finds Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt and the rest of what's left of IMF trying to pull together what little they have after being, by necessity, cut loose by the US government, is aggressive in its desire to keep the adrenaline flowing. The group, made up of Cruise, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and Simon Pegg, not only have to stop the rogue Russian "nuclear extremist" that is their enemy, but they have to do it in secret, because they've been smeared as villains in the cutting-loose process.

So that's the set up, and the movie just sings. I've heard complaints that the villain, Hendricks, is not much of a presence, which is sort of true, I guess, but two things keep me from agreeing totally. For one, the film's showdown between Hunt and Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) in a Mumbai parking garage reveals, in small doses, the character's dangerous mania pretty nicely (too little too late, perhaps, but I thought it worked). And for another thing, outside of the film's wonderful action filmmaking, which is as precise and clear and ambitious and thrilling as you could want, the film's chief pleasure for me was the group of heroes. Up to now, the Mission: Impossible series has taken some well-earned lumps for being The Tom Cruise Program, starring Tom Cruise, while the show on which they've been based was more about the team. Brad Bird, for the first time, gets that, and while Cruise is the unquestionable leader, nobody, not Patton or Pegg or Renner, is left behind. It's a good team, and the actors have great chemistry together. This is the kind of film that should have kicked off the whole franchise. I'd hate to think of them pulling the plug just when it all started working finally.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

No Ball Game For Him

About two-thirds of the way into Charles Portis's novel Masters of Atlantis, a character named Dolores is arguing with her boyfriend, named Maurice, about his adherence to a strange, and going-nowhere cult, of the currently harmless Freemasons variety, if Freemasons still believed all of their ancient nonsense, called Gnomonism. Dolores intuits that Maurice is not especially happy with the part of his life that is steeped in Gnomonism, which involves him living part of his time in a temple located in Burnette, Indiana, and here she argues her case:

"But a tower in Burnette, Indiana. At your age. A professional man like you. I just don't get it, Maurice. I just can't believe there's much to it. You tell me you're sleeping in a chair. You admit you can't get your apricots stewed the way you like them and you say you can't get your brown eggs or your three-bean salad at all. Can't you see you're living in a house of -- cards? I almost said a house of pancakes."

I regard those last two lines as among my favorite bits of dialogue, as well as among the funniest I've ever read. This is no doubt a matter of taste, but I have an abiding love for any writer who can faithfully -- though not necessarily with complete slavishness to kitchen sink realism -- and imaginatively recreate these sorts of quirks in human speech. More than that, though, this passage is a nice illustration of Portis's style, which is a kind of deadpan absurdity that can be much admired but rarely emulated to the same effect. I know that among Portis's cultish (hey, that's I guess ironic) group of fans can be counted comedians like Conan O'Brien (who I remember, in an interview with Rolling Stone offering to lend Masters of Atlantis to his interviewer, as O'Brien regards it as one of the few laugh-out-loud novels he's ever read, but then mildly regretting his generosity and making sure the journalist knew that he wanted the book back at some point), David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Bill Hader (who is currently, with director Greg Mottola, working to make a film of Portis's The Dog of the South), but I can't say I can see much direct influence from Portis on any of them. There are no doubt a host of reasons for this, but I think paramount would be that in Portis, you rarely find any jokes, as we would normally define them. Outside of a few omniscient narrator interjections, which are in any case rare, everything in his fiction is played as straight as can be, to the degree that you actually sort of are laughing at the characters, rather than with them. But gently. But also loudly. In any event, I think it's probably very difficult to accurately, and genuinely, reproduce what it is Portis does, this sort of ridiculousness without ever winking at it, or signalling it. Portis's brand of absurdity must be, as Johnny Caspar once said regarding friends, a mental state.

Portis is, blessedly, still with us. He's 78, lives in Arkansas, as he has pretty much his whole life, and hasn't written a novel since
Gringos in 1991. Before that was Masters of Atlantis in 1985, The Dog of the South in 1979, True Grit in 1968, and Norwood in 1966. And that's it. I'd very much like to know what happened after 1968, not to mention after 1991. Could the fairly wild success of True Grit, and the subsequent film adaptation by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, have had anything to do with the eleven-year gap? I have no idea, and don't want to speculate, so I won't. But I can't help but wonder if Portis, as J. D. Salinger is reported to have done, has been writing this whole time, and simply stashing it all away because actually publishing doesn't much interest him. He's a recluse, which maybe helps to fuel my Salinger-esque fantasy, though unlike Salinger he can be rustled out in front of a journalist from time to time, most recently in a few short pieces -- I read one where the journalist pointed out that while Portis agreed to be interviewed, he would not allow himself to be directly quoted -- that coincided with the Coen brothers' 2010 remake of True Grit. It must be said, though, that as publicity-shy as Portis is, he does owe a lot to articles written about him in the years since he's gone quiet. Especially articles written by Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote a piece for Esquire in 1998 called "Our Least-Known Great Novelist." Sadly, this article doesn't appear to be available on-line*, but I read it way back when, and it immediately sparked my interest. At the time, I only knew Portis as the author of True Grit, and I only knew True Grit as the John Wayne movie where he says "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" I wish I could remember the Rosenbaum article better, but what's most important about it is that it actually made something happen. Along with simultaneously exciting and frustrating, because the books were out of print, save True Grit, people like me, it also caught the eye of Tracy Carns of Overlook Press, a publishing company whose area of expertise can be inferred from their name. And, over a period of a few years, beginning in 1999, Overlook reprinted all five of Portis's novels, and they have remained in print ever since. This is not some flash-in-the-pan, trendy kind of resurgence, clearly. Portis's books are hanging in there once again. He's just not writing any more of them.

I was inspired to think, and to write, about Portis after rereading Norwood recently, and I was struck again by his effortless, or seemingly, but probably actually not, effortless, comic tone.  And incidentally, if you’re new to Portis, Norwood is an excellent place to start, for several reasons.  For one thing, it can be easily read in a day, by anybody, though if it were ten times as long I don’t think I’d kick up much of a fuss.  More importantly, having also reread Masters of Atlantis, a book written almost twenty years later, not too very long ago, I can attest that Portis’s voice, or style, or whatever you want to call it, was pretty much fully formed right out of the gate.  He knew at once the particular way he wanted to be funny, or was funny, and how to put that on the page.  You could safely argue that Masters of Atlantis is more ambitious than Norwood -- and though it’s hard to pick, I might rank Masters of Atlantis as my favorite (that or True Grit, but please don’t tell Portis that) – but you couldn’t claim it was more mature, or a more accomplished example of his prose style.  He had that down early.
 
Norwood is about Norwood Pratt, a recently discharged Army veteran who is returning home to Ralph, TX following the death of his father.  The primary reason he needs to take over the family home is because somebody needs to take care of Vernell, Norwood’s sister.  This is established much more economically by Portis in the novel’s first sentence, but I’ll dispense with the rest of the plot summary by saying that Norwood is essentially a road novel, which is kicked off in part by Norwood’s too easy-going, slightly naïve manner, as well as his understanding that these parts of his personality can only be stretched so far, and Vernell’s recent taking up with ex-Marine blowhard Bill Bird has stretched them pretty taut.  So he agrees to take a job with a shady businessman named Grady Fring, who wants him to drive two cars to New York City and deliver them to Fring’s man up there, for which Norwood will be paid probably not enough, but the trip will also give him the opportunity to collect the seventy dollars he’s owed by one of his Army friends, who also happens to live in New York.  And off he goes.

Nothing lasts for long in Norwood.  It’s typical of road stories that they bounce from incident to incident, that’s their nature, but Norwood sheds characters and locations and modes of transportation at a furious clip.  And since it’s a short novel anyway, this has the effect of making the thing pretty impossible to set aside.  But it’s never rushed, nothing is short-changed, you never wish Portis or Norwood would linger somewhere or with someone longer than they do.  Portis’s imagination may chug along, but he has a very sharp sense of pacing, and an ability to elegantly sketch out a place, or a character, or a comic...I was going to write something like “interlude,” but that sounds way too stuffy.  So here’s what I’m talking about.  Norwood has recently arrived in New York, and he sees a man dressed as Mr. Peanut outside the Planter’s store, beckoning to potential customers.  Norwood goes over and starts talking to him.
 
”Do they pay you by the hour or what?” Norwood said to the monocled peanut face.

“Yeah, by the hour,” said a wary, muffled voice inside.

“I bet that suit is heavy.”

“It’s not all that heavy.  I just started this morning.”

“How much do you get an hour?”

“You ast a lot of questions, don’t you?”

“Do you take the suit home with you?”

“No, I put it on down here.  At the shop.”

“The one in Dallas gives out free nuts.”

“I don’t know anything about that.  They don’t say anything to me about it.”

“He don’t give you many, just two or three cashews.”

“I don’t know anything about that.  I work at the post office at night.”

“Well, I’ll see you sometime, Mr. Peanut.  You take it easy.”

“Okay.  You too.”


I think this passage pretty nicely encapsulates Norwood, so if you found it funny you should love every page of the novel. Even if you don't understand what I'm on about, read it anyway. There's a subtle profundity to all of Portis's work (though I haven't read Gringos yet, which is why I keep not mentioning it; I'm told it's very much a lesser work, by a friend who knows his Portis, but I remain undaunted and will read it presently) -- True Grit is especially magnificent in this way, though as a more-or-less straightforward Western, one that still happens to be very funny in parts, it does count as something of an outlier among Portis's small body of work.

But in Norwood, for instance, there's a bit where Norwood and a couple of characters who have gathered themselves among him at this point, including a chicken, are traveling by bus and find themselves passing by an accident, another bus carrying Elks, the Rotarian or Oddfellow kind of Elks, not the animal, and among the wreckage Norwood sees...

One Elk was lying on the grass, maybe dead, no ball game for him, and others were limping and holding their heads.

That "no ball game for him" is both fairly hilarious and glibly, intentionally so, touching. The suddenness of the fatality, even the unfairness of it, is contained within that bit of flippant gallows humor. Also, a woman named Rita Lee, who has caught Norwood's eye, and Norwood has reciprocated in his typically laconic fashion, questions Norwood about his military service, and asks:

"Did you kill anybody?"

"Just two that I know of."

"How did you do it?"

"I shot 'em."

"I mean but how?"

"Well, with a light machine gun. They were out there in front of the barb wire and one 'em hit a trip flare. It was right in front of my bunker and they just froze. My gun was already laid on 'em, except I had to traverse a little and I cranked off about thirty rounds and dropped 'em right there."

"Did they scream?"

"If they did I didn't hear 'em. A bunch of mortars come in and when that let up me and a old boy from South Carolina name Tims went out there and throwed a plank acrost the war and brought their bodies back."


But, crucially, this isn't Portis making a statement. This is all pure character, or straightforward observation. If Norwood has a message -- and it doesn't, but if it does -- it's that if you take enough shit, after a while you won't take it any longer. Not that you shouldn't take it any longer, because Portis never insists on anything, but simply that you won't. It is a quietly beautiful book in some ways, though the beauty isn't as easy to root out as it is in True Grit. Laughter can sometimes obscure things a little bit, so once you've read Norwood, go ahead and plan on reading it again. And everything else Portis wrote.


*In the absence of Rosenbaum's Esquire article, you can read this one he wrote about Portis for the New York Observer in 1999. For the record, this is where I got my information on the Overlook reprints.

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