Sunday, November 30, 2008

To Inflict Moral Insanity Upon the Innocent

The man pictured above is Arch Hall, Jr., and the movie from which he's pointing that gun at you is James Landis's The Sadist, made in 1963. There has never been, to my knowledge, an official DVD release of the film, but I was lucky enough to have recently stumbled across a fairly high quality DVD of the film, the existence of which seems to be owed entirely to the concept of "public domain". My purchase of the disc coincidentally follows the latest in a long string of tantalizing references to Landis's film that I've encountered over the past year or so, the last of which being Dennis's selection of The Sadist for his Alphabet Meme list.

The Sadist has a reputation for being a particularly nasty and shocking B-movie, and the basic story -- three people on a road trip are terrorized by a giddily violent sociopath -- is one that has been exploited to those very ends countless times (in fact, the list of films that The Sadist resembles both directly and superficially is a long one, and I'll get to that later), so I didn't quite know what to expect. How far did this thing go? After all, 1963 is the same year that brought us Blood Feast, a film that, for all its lunatic incompetence, still shows how extreme the violence in a no-budget B-film could be, even in those days. I hoped that James Landis's film didn't owe its reputation to the same kind of eternal cult tastes that Herschell Gordon Lewis's film did, but Dennis was notably free of wink or snark in his recommendation, so I was quite curious when, earlier tonight, I finally watched it.

The story The Sadist tells is as I described it above, and there's very little to add to that synopsis, apart from the fact that the three people being terrorized -- played by Richard Alden, Don Russell, and Helen Hovey -- are schoolteachers, and friends, who are on a day trip to see a baseball game. Their car is in need of some small repair, and they pull off to a service station in the middle of nowhere, which they soon discover is apparently abandoned, despite the fact that the house to which the garage is connected shows signs of having been recently inhabited. Their unease begins to worsen, and with good cause, because it's around here that Arch Hall, as Charles Tibbs shows up, girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning) in tow. Recklessly waving around a gun, Tibbs tells the three teachers that they must repair their car, after which Tibbs and Judy will take the car for themselves. If the teachers do not repair the car, Tibbs will shoot them all.

The first, and primary, influence on this film must have been the true story of Charles Starkweather, a mass murderer who, with his teenage girlfriend Carol Anne Fugate, gunned down eleven people in 1957 and '58. We learn that Tibbs, a young man who even physically resembles Starkweather, has murdered more than one person before meeting the schoolteachers, and Judy, like Fugate, is high school age. Starkweather's story also inspired Terrence Malick's Badlands, and Starkweather's psychology may have inspired, nearly ten years later, another Charles, Charles Whitman, who in 1966 would kill seventeen people, firing upon them from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas. Starkweather's case was very well known across the country, and when you consider that it is still well-known today, it's not a stretch to think it may have been a bit fresh in Whitman's mind when choosing the method by which he would go down in history. And Whitman's case, of course, was at least a partial inspiration for Peter Bogdanovich's masterful Targets, a film in which Boris Karloff, playing a version of himself, opines that his brand of old-fashioned, melodramatic horror was no match for the real-world horrors of Bobby Thompson (the film's fictional stand-in for Whitman). The Sadist, meanwhile, has been labeled a horror film by some, and by Karloff's definition of "horror" in Targets it certainly qualifies.

My concern that The Sadist might follow the example of Blood Feast in terms of both gore levels and general quality were completely unfounded, and because The Sadist is less enamored of its own violence than H. G. Lewis is of the viscera in Blood Feast, while at the same time being far more blunt on the topic, Landis is able to construct moments that function like a kick to the gut. There is little to no actual blood in The Sadist, but I sometimes wondered if there wasn't more. (Pardon me for this long parenthetical interlude, but this phenomenon of thinking a film's violence is more extreme than it really is has effected, I'm told, certain viewers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I don't know if this is really true, but, though it's superficial, Tobe Hooper's film also bears some resemblance to The Sadist, not only in its basic narrative, but also in its, well, sadism. Some thirty years later, the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still being felt and noted in films like Wolf Creek, while The Sadist is almost completely forgotten, despite the fact that Wolf Creek so closely resembles Landis's film that it almost functions as an unofficial remake. Which is not the same, he quickly added, as saying Wolf Creek is a rip-off.) I don't really know anything about the cult of fans that has grown around this film, but I have to assume that the scene most often commented upon as news of The Sadist was passed on by word-of-mouth over the years is the film's first killing, an act of violence the camera doesn't flinch from, even though I don't think we quite see what we think we do. But even if we just focus on what we do see, this film is from 1963, and it's presenting the audience with shocking violence that they would have a really hard time laughing about afterwards, like they could with Blood Feast.

One of the things I personally find most fascinating about the time in which The Sadist was released is not just that this was done in 1963, but that it was done in April of 1963. Cultural historians -- at least the ones with whom I have unfortunately had experience -- would be stymied by the chronology of The Sadist's filming and distribution, because, you see, cultural historians apparently believe that everyone born before they were is a total dumbshit, and the dumbshits who were adults in the 1950s and '60s (thereby having survived World War II and the Korean War, among other things) still needed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in November 1963, to remind them that guns were sometimes used to shoot people in the head, and it was this horrifying act of public murder that allowed for the creation of films like The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde and so on and so on. I'm sure everyone reading this has seen someone making this kind of connection, but for this connection to work someone needed to tell James Landis, who was on this particular case when Lee Harvey Oswald was still greasing machinery in New Orleans.

Another aspect of The Sadist that shouldn't be forgotten is the fact that the victims are teachers, and Tibbs is, if not actually a teenager, at least still young, and mentally a teenager in some of his behavior. What a great double bill this would be with Rebel Without a Cause! Jim Stark was a fundamentally decent kid who was simply being consistently misunderstood by the adults around him. Charles Tibbs, on the other hand, is plain fucking bad, in a particularly uncomplicated way. Like Merv Griffin, he simply loves to kill. I'm tempted to say that Landis is trying to send the message -- or at least pretending to be alarmist about the topic in the service of his film's financial returns -- that Charles Tibbs is the final result of juvenile delinquency not corrected strenuously enough. But that's not really what the film is about. The film is about what its title says it's about. The Sadist is about the utter lack of empathy that exists in some people. It's about the exact opposite of human decency. It's about Charles Tibbs shooting a man in the head while his next two victims watch, and wait.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, and Whatnot!

I probably won't be able to post much until Saturday night or Sunday, so in the meantime have a delightful Thanksgiving, everybody! If you're from some country other than the USA, enjoy work.

When I do post again, you can most likely look forward to posts about The Sadist and possibly L'Argent (I didn't bump The Milky Way up in my queue in time...), and I use "look forward to" very loosely here. But if you're bored, and you don't have to go to the bathroom, you can always spend a few minutes here!

In the meantime, enjoy Carla Gugino, won't you?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marilyn Monday - Angela Molina

Not a lot of good, non-nude photos of Angela Molina available on the internet...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Now I'm Sure You Love Me

In the comments section of my post about Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, I said that I planned on following up on that film with that same director's That Obscure Object of Desire, which I also planned to write about. Commenter and fellow blogger Ed Howard then astutely observed the following:

...[That Obscure Object of Desire is] if not Bunuel's absolute best...certainly up there... It's no easier to write about than Viridiana is, though; I won't spoil it but I can promise you'll be puzzling over the meaning of many of Bunuel's aesthetic devices and choices in that film. I think what I like about Bunuel is that he so consistently short-circuits the tendencies of auteurist viewers to think of his choices in thematic terms. He calls attention to his aesthetics in very showy ways, and there are obvious thematic unities in his work, but he also makes sure that there's an element of ambivalence and ambiguity underneath everything, preventing any pat interpretations.

Having now seen That Obscure Object of Desire, I now know that the above is so true that I feel very tempted to use it as my way out of putting in the work of writing about it. But I made a promise to the the world, and I'm a man of my word.

First, the obligatory synopsis: Fernando Rey plays Mathieu, a wealthy man who we first meet boarding a train after parting very belligerently with a woman. The other passengers in his train car are curious about the scene they've just witnessed, so Mathieu decides to tell them his story. The woman, Conchita (famously played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) was a former maid of his, with whom he fell deeply in love. Early in their bizarre relationship, Conchita tells him that she's a virgin and wishes to remain so until Mathieu proves to her that he wants more from her than sex, although, as the months go by, and the two break up and get back together over and over again, she persists in casually torturing him with her body. Throughout all this, Bunuel peppers the story with references to acts if terrorism being perpetrated throughout Paris by, we eventually discover, both extreme left and extreme right-wing political groups.

So. Where do people usually begin with all this? With the fact that two different actresses play Conchita, of course (generally, Bouquet and Molinia alternate scenes, but occasionally they switch mid-scene). Why did Bunuel do this, and what does it mean? Early in the film, I began trying to pin down differences between the scenes featuring Bouquet and those featuring Molina -- an idea I imagine no one has ever thought of before. At first, I thought I actually noticed a few things -- for one, Bouquet seemed to appear nude far more than Molina. That changed in the second half of the film, but still might be significant. Another thing is that the character is a Spanish girl living in France, and when Conchita is at her most, er, Spanishy, she is inevitably played by Molina, who is herself Spanish; Bouquet, not incidentally, is French. Let's see, what else...oh yeah, at one point my wife, who wasn't actually watching the film, but was in and out of the room while I watched, asked at one point if Conchita had changed back to the "nice one". By "nice one" she was referring to Molina, who did indeed project far more warmth in the early part of the film, and it's during that section that my wife said this. It's worth mentioning that my wife didn't see the end of the film, which is very Molina-centric, and during which section "nice" would probably not be the first word anyone would first think of in relation to Conchita or Molina.

Why do this at all? The story is told in flashback, so maybe using two actresses (who are, by the way, not dissimilar in appearance) is simply Bunuel's way of addressing the problems of personal memory, or, maybe more likely, it's his way of showing the fractured nature of her personality. Maybe, in fact, it's a storytelling device (I'm going with the idea here that "character is action", meaning character is story, and so on). One thing that has especially struck me about these last two Bunuel films I've watched is how precise they are in their storytelling -- there aren't a lot of wasted seconds of screentime in either film -- and how original and involving both are as stories.

I feel like I'm not supposed to admit to liking a film by someone like Bunuel because the story is "gripping", because then some people will accuse me of being anti-intellectual, but seriously, fuck those guys. That Obscure Object of Desire is a heck of an involving film, narratively speaking, and Bunuel strikes me as being, among many other things he apparently was, a plain old born storyteller. One of the things that, to me, is so interesting about this film is that the story is always just about a hair away from toppling over into full-on pulp crime territory. Conchita could easily have been created by James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, as could the whole film, had the ending gone in a slightly different direction. This got me thinking a little about Bunuel and genre, because I remember seeing The Exterminating Angel many, many years ago, and thinking at the time that, in its story and structure, it was not unlike an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Did Bunuel ever make a straight-ahead genre film? Not to my knowledge, but I'm beginning to notice certain pulp influences that he, if not quite hides, at least doesn't show off. Godard, in comparison, flaunted his genre influences to the point where he almost seemed to be mocking them, and I find him incredibly boring. Bunuel's hesitancy in revealing this side of himself is compelling and, to a genre-hound like myself, frustrating.

I don't know if the terrorism subplot of That Obscure Object of Desire ties into the above or not, though I'm actually inclined to think that the connection is loose at best, and is more in line with Bunuel's political side. But hey, has anyone else ever taken note of the similarities between this and the terrorism subplot in Brazil? Conchita seems to have some kind of link to the bombings in this film, though this is only hinted at, and she doesn't seem to be a terrorist herself. Still, we wonder if she might be, as we're meant to wonder about Jill in Brazil. And in the end, what am I to do with all of this? As Ed Howard seems to suggest, what I'm supposed to is just puzzle over it, try to work it out, or just let it soak in and remain mysterious. Which is fine by me. The Milky Way is next.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Make Fun of My DVD Collection...If You Dare!!!

I don't really know why I'm doing this. I think it has something to do with the conversation about DVD collections that took place a few days ago at Cinema Styles, which got me thinking about my own collection, and what I like and don't like about it. Also, just yesterday I was over at DVD Panache, Adam Ross's joint, and I saw this picture in his sidebar. I assume the picture was taken because it's a cute picture of Adam's dog, but I'm sure Adam is also aware that the photo exhibits at least a portion of his own DVD collection. One of the features of my personality is that if I'm watching a movie, and a scene happens to take place near bookshelves, I will become distracted trying to read the titles on the spines of the books.

So. That brings us here. All of the above combined to convince me that posting pictures of my DVD collection on my blog was a good idea. I'm no longer sure that I'm right about this. But here goes...

First up...TV!! sets!!

And what's this? What are these movies?? Not pictured: some very good movies that the flash obliterated.

And now, the Filmmaker Section!

Horror and such!!

That last picture kind of sucks, doesn't it? Oh well. I know, you can make a game out of it! Who can correctly guess the most titles? And what prize will the winner receive? Honor, my friends.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Have I Ever Mentioned that I'm a Brilliant Artist?

I am, I admit, very mysterious. The only thing that many of you, my Dear Readers, know about me is that, in the world of film and literature analysis and criticism, I have no equal. But I can't help imagining many, if not all of you, sitting at home, or at work, reading my humble little musings and thinking, "Who is this man?? Where did he come from?? Why have I been so blessed that I have his words in my world??"

The answer to your first question is that I am but a man. Extraordinary? Perhaps, but still simply a man. The answer to your second question is that I come from everywhere and nowhere. In a sense -- and this is important! -- I am "everyman". Or actually it should probably be "Everyman". I am like you! Or like Old Gus, who delivers your morning paper, or like Kim Sook, your Korean grocer, who always has a kind word and a wink for you! Or like Danny, the little boy who loves collecting bottle caps. I am all of them! And none of them... The answer to your third question is "I don't know, but thank you for the compliment."

It is not my intention today to reveal very much about myself, because I have my own life to lead, and I'd rather it not be cluttered up by strangers knocking on my door and asking if they can touch my shirt, or sending me letters, asking if I can send them a piece of my shirt, or whatever it is people like you do. You're like lampreys, every last one of you (no offense). However, I would like to open up one part of my life to you, Dear Readers, that has hitherto gone unreferenced on this "blog", and that part of my life has to do with one of my great creative passions. For I am a monologuist.

I can hear you asking, "You mean like Eric Bogosian??" Yes, but better. When my monologues are at their best, which is most of the time, they showcase my stunning ear for human speech in all its gritty, idiosyncratic poetry, as well as a complex understanding of social issues -- you might say that, as an artist, I've been cursed with a social conscience. You will not find easy stereotypes in my work, for I do not see the world, nor do I paint it, in black and white. No, I paint in shades of grey. And incidentally, when I say "paint", I mean "write monologues". Of course, writing monologues is only half of the creative process, and it is true that I also perform them on stage. I will perform them anywhere, really; you might even spy me opening the eyes of the world through my art on a street corner in your city! All I need, really, is my vast collection of wigs and character-appropriate costumes, as well as some kind of bucket, in which admirers are required to place money. And please note, if you see me performing, that I did say "required". My art is not about money, but come on. You don't steal cable TV, do you?

Today, I would like to offer to you the transcript of one of my finest monologues. It is called How Much is a Hero?, and our character is a gruff, hard-drinking fireman named Paddy Hoolihan, who is ending the night's shift at his favorite watering hole. While this is a monologue, Paddy's words are being spoken to a bartender. You'll just have to imagine that part. That's what art's all about, you know. But that's enough from me! Let's hear from ol' Paddy Hoolihan. I think you'll find him quite a character...

Hey there, Mickey! Yeah, that's right, you got it, it's me, ol' Paddy Hoolihan, just comin' in for a few drinks! What's that you say?...Naw, I won't start any trouble tonight! I'm just an old fireman, takin' a load off. People say I drink too much, but I don't think so, do you?...Haw haw! I'm keepin' you in business, did you say? Well, that's true enough, old friend! Haw haw! Give me a glass of whiskey, and also two beers. That's right, the regular! Boy, I sure do need it tonight, I don't mind tellin' you. Saw some shit tonight, my friend. That pre-school down on Abraham Lincoln Street went up like it was made out of fireworks. Yeah, that's right, the one on Abraham Lincoln Street . That's right, the one where all the African-American kids go, the ones from Abraham Lincoln Projects...I agree, Mickey, that name is ironic. All them kids...I tell you, it makes you not want to get up in the morning. One little kid ran out and he was on fire and he was holding his stuffed animal toy, and he was screaming "Why!?" After I put him out, all's I could say was, "I don't know, son. I don't know!" But you know, it got me to thinkin', seeing that little boy's stuffed animal toy. The other day, you see, I took my little nephew out toy shopping, and he was all crazy about buyin' that new toy, what do they call it? Oh, yeah, that's right, it's called the Action Hero Toy. Now, my little nephew, he's just a little kid, and he can't say the whole name, so he just calls it a "Hero". Also, he can't read numbers, which is important to my story. So we're in the toy store, and we get to these what do you call them's, oh yeah, the Action Hero Toys. So my nephew says to me, he says, "Uncle? How much is a 'Hero'?" Now, he was talkin' about the toy, you understand. But it got me to thinkin', how much is a hero? A real hero?...What's that you say? I've had too much to drink?? I've only had a glass of whiskey and two beers! Gimme another round, before I sock you one! So anyway, like I'm sayin', I thought, because of what my nephew said, "How much is a hero?" Why, I imagine to some people, a hero's cheap. You know, like politicians and corporations and whatnot. Those people, they see a hero, and they think, "Well, I can just get a picture of that brave fireman who saved that poor family and slap it on a t-shirt with the word 'Hero' on it, sell it for forty dollars, and I'll be rich in a year!" Heck, you could maybe even buy the t-shirts on "Hero dot com"! (pause for laugh). But heck, Mickey, forty dollars? For a hero? A hero's a guy who says that danger isn't enough to keep him from doing the right thing. He's a guy who thinks that maybe his neck's no more valuable than the next guy's. A guy who sees smoke, and smells fire, and he don't think about runnin' away from it. He thinks about runnin' to it, with nothin' but a bucket o' dirty water in his mitts. He's a guy who would say to Mr. Politician, "Stick your forty dollars, you ain't puttin' me on no t-shirt!" (there will probably be applause here. Pause until it ends) What's that, Mickey? Next round's on the house? Why, that's mighty good of you. But can I ask why you're being so nice all of a sudden?...Because you think I'm a hero??? Aw, that's just loony talk! I ain't no hero. I'm just a guy doin' his job. Doin' an honest job for honest pay. If that job means I gotta put my life on the line to save a bunch of kids, well, that's what they pay me for. Ain't that right?...Huh? Whuzzat? Well, sure, Mickey, of course I want my regular again! Why do you even gotta ask?...Huh? Because you changed the name?? Well, what are you gonna call it? I'm the only one who ever orders it, after all!...Whuzzat??'re gonna call it...the Hero???

The End. And you're most welcome.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Viridiana and Me

Some films, as I'm sure you're all aware, don't really lend themselves to easy interpretation. With certain directors, this is something you learn to expect going into one of their films. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, for instance, have made it clear to me that "I don't quite get it" is a perfectly acceptable reaction to their work (this enigmatic quality is something that Cronenberg seems to be currently inching away from, whereas Lynch apparently just said "Fuck it, that's what I do").

But I've been watching both of those guys for years, and I've learned how to watch them, as much as you can learn such a thing. Other directors, however, I approach with trepidation. If I don't "get" this movie, what does that say about me? Liking or not liking a film is one thing, but I'd like to know what it is I'm liking or not liking. Does the fact that I think both Hour of the Wolf and Persona appear to be a bit thick mean that I'm missing something. In both cases, I've come to learn that the answer is no (that Hour of the Wolf speaks to me as a work of art, and Persona doesn't (or hasn't yet) is something I'll have to work out for myself, possibly with the aid of a psychiatrist), but I didn't know that when I first watched them. My nervousness in this regard probably has a lot to do with the fact, typically, I don't read a hell of a lot of film criticism, and even less film theory. Most of the time, I go into a film practically stone cold. That's not to say that you might see me browsing in my local Blockbuster(TM), where I'll pick up Beware of a Holy Whore and say, "Huh! Never heard of this one. Think I'll give 'er a spin!" But it does mean that what I know about Fassbinder the next time I watch one of his films you could comfortably fit inside my favorite hat...and I don't even have a favorite hat!! I'm probably putting myself across as some kind of film illiterate, which I'm not at all, but, as they say, I know what I know, and I'm fully, painfully aware of what I don't know.

All of which brings me, sort of, to my subject tonight, which is Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, a film I approached gently, for fear that it, too, would mercilessly expose me as the bone-stupid rube that I am. Here, I'll show you what kind of no-nothing douche I am by telling you what I know about Luis Bunuel:

1) He was Spanish

2) He was an atheist

3) He didn't like rich people

4) He never worked with Tom Berenger

5) He directed that movie about the serial killer who sliced up people's eyes. What was that one called, Maniac? Maniac Cop? Maniac Cop 2?

And of those, only the second two really seem to apply to Viridiana, which, ever so briefly, is about a woman named Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), who is preparing to take her final vows and become a nun. Her Mother Superior tells her that before that happens, she should visit her Uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), whom she barely knows. Jaime, Viridiana's last living relative and a very rich landowner, is a widow. Shortly after Viridiana arrives, he attempts to seduce her, even begs for her hand in marriage, making her put on his dead wife's wedding dress (and that's hardly all, but, for those who haven't see the film yet, some of its perversity should be experienced in pure form). Viridiana rejects him, and attempts to flee back to her convent. She's stopped at the train station by the police, who inform her that her uncle has committed suicide. After that, Viridiana decides to stay at her uncle's estate (as does Jorge -- played by Francisco Rabal -- the son Jaime neglected his whole life, but to whom he willed his entire fortune), where she takes the local homeless, crippled and diseased under her wing, and to whom she functions, or attempts to function, as a personal savior. It's at around this point that one should remember that Bunuel was an atheist.

Okay, so he was atheist. I'm not an atheist myself, but, regardless of what Bill Maher thinks about folks like me, knowing this fact about Bunuel does not lead me to imagine him rotting in Hell, writhing in blood-soaked agony, all the while marveling at the sinful erection this image has produced (either that, or I get so angry at learning of Bunuel's atheism that I run right out and punch a gay person). Anyway, my friend and fellow blogger Rick Olson has more than once pointed out to me (indirectly) the interesting fact that one of Bunuel's closest friends, in his declining years, was a priest. Does that mean Bunuel experienced a conversion late in life? No, but that fact does help explain his treatment of faith and Christianity in Viridiana. Bunuel is, without question, blasphemous in this film, and his view of the power of faith is withering. But Viridiana herself is never anything less that wholly decent, loving, and kind -- hopelessly so. Even her Mother Superior, in her two scenes, is portrayed as a good and reasonable woman, however stern. How jarring is it, in this day and age, to see a film made by an avowed atheist that doesn't make its points through cheap shots at Christianity and condescencion, and by proudly flaunting its ignorance of the religion? I'll tell you how jarring it is: really jarring.

What puzzles me about Viridiana has to do with Bunuel's treatment of class. Rich Jaime is perverse, almost dangerously so, but he's a sad figure, not at all like the hateful cartoon played by Fernando Rey in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. And his newly rich son Jorge...what is his deal, anyway? He's kind to dogs, I know that.
Do you know who is portrayed as a hateful cartoon? All the poor and handicapped people. Frankly, Viridiana feels like Crimes and Misdemeanors tripped and fell on the dinner scene from Freaks. If the "freaks" in that film were hateful. Okay, that last one didn't work. The point being, class in this film is trickier than in any other Bunuel film I've seen, and I haven't worked that part out yet. If I could be bothered to open a goddamn book every once and a while, maybe I wouldn't be having this problem, but that's what I get.

In Viridiana, I'm following Bunuel about halfway, but after that things get a little bit slippery, harder to pin down, and as a result I'm tempted to conclude that Bunuel wanted to make a film, and maybe didn't care too much about earning plaudits from those who would simply congratulate themselves for agreeing with him.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Affinity #6

...Once I had revealed to Edwin that I was going to be his biographer, once he had allowed the idea to take hold and sink in, he became fascinated by my project, indeed obsessed by it, and proved at times almost aggressively helpful in providing me with information -- information which, I am grieved to say, was often at variance with my own precise and infallible memories.

- Steven Millhauser
Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an
American Writer, 1943 - 1954
by Jeffrey Cartwright

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Fall

First of all, the internet sucks. Until I break down and by whatever the technology it is that allows me to take images from a DVD and post them on my blog, the internet is so supposed to provide to me every image from every film, making that aforementioned technology moot, and thereby saving me a couple of dozen bucks. But the internet lets me down time and time again. This is a particular shame, because the film -- films, really -- that I wanted to talk about tonight exists and is worth seeing almost entirely because of its imagery.

The film is Tarsem Singh's The Fall. Briefly, it tells the story of a little girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) who is laid up in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s with a broken arm. Also there is Roy (Lee Pace), a stuntman who has been badly injured in a stunt gone awry. These two strike up a friendship, and Roy begins telling her a story about five heroes and their quest for revenge against a man named Governer Odious. Alexandria becomes entranced by this story, and the more she becomes involved, the more willing she is to do favors for Roy, such as stealing morphine from the hospital's pharmacy.

Naturally, director and co-writer Tarsem Singh visualizes the story Roy is telling, and that's when we get shots like this:

...and this...

...and so on (that's about the extent of the variety of images from the film offered by the internet). It's absolutely stunning how strange and beautiful this film is, even in its throwaway moments. I haven't seen this confirmed, but throughout The Fall's running time, I kept thinking that Singh must have been deeply influence by Terry Gilliam, and that this is the kind of film Terry Gilliam still wishes he could make (and I think I mean "could" in all senses, but I'm more than willing to give Gilliam's upcoming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus a fair shake).

The Gilliam film The Fall most resembles is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and like that film, Singh's film is flawed. And the flaws in both films are quite similar, and largely boil down to a level of whimsy and ill-advised humor in the fantasy sequences that threaten to sink the entire enterprise. But both films, in my opinion, overcome this, and The Fall adds a bracing darkness to its latter sections, which nevertheless at no point remove it from the category of "children's film", which, in truth, is what The Fall is. I think kids -- of which I own zero -- will love this thing. If you do have kids, by the way, The Fall is inexplicably rated R. I'm really at a loss to explain why. Yes, there is violence, and some themes that I guess would be regarded as "adult", but by this criteria, the Lord of the Rings films should have been rated X.

Singh, in case you're not aware, also directed the Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Cell. This movie was widely slammed by critics, and was a commercial flop, a fact which no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that Singh has made no other films until The Fall. If you haven't seen The Cell, you may very well be sneering at the name "Jennifer Lopez", and while I'll admit she's miscast, she's by no means terrible, and besides which...


I like The Cell, and I've never understood the vitriol directed towards it. Roger Ebert's lonely rave review may be a bit over the top, but it comes closer to describing the film I saw than any other review I've read.

In both The Cell and The Fall, these images are literally fantastic, in that even within their respective films, they're not "real" -- in The Cell, they all appear in the mind of a comatose serial killer, and in The Fall they're the visualization of Roy's story, filtered through the mind of little Alexandria. And, honestly, my own preference is that Singh apply his formidable imagination to a story that is a straight fantasy or horror story, where his images actually exist in the same world as his characters. That, however, is a minor quibble. Everybody bitches about modern special effects, and CGI, and how the art of in-camera effects is dying, and I'm right there with those people (the last fight scene in The Incredible Hulk looked like a video game cut scene). But there are a couple of people who do the hard work of making the fantastic look both gorgeous and real, and Tarsem Singh is one of them. He deserves an audience for that reason alone.


PS - Just a quick word about Catinca Untaru. Her performance in The Fall must be the most charming and deeply believable child performance I've ever seen. And she plays Alexandria as a child. I think Haley Joel Osment's work in A.I. is pretty amazing, but he's obviously not playing a real kid. Untaru is, and she's just incredible. Credit must also be given to Lee Pace, who not only turns in a very good performance, by any definition, of his own, but the vast majority of his scenes are with Untaru, and from what I heard of the DVD commentary, his work in the film involved a lot of improvisation with Untaru, who is not only a child (I'm guessing that, during filming, she was about six years old), but English isn't her first language. So Pace went above and beyond, and it worked incredibly well.

Monday, November 10, 2008


My good pal Rick Olson recently tagged me for a new meme that's been floating around, called the Alphabet Meme. This meme, created by Fletch over at Blog Cabins is maddening in its simplicity. What you do is, you pick a favorite film for each letter of the alphabet. The standard rules of alphabetization apply, with the one exception being that a movie whose title is, or begins with, a number would be categorized by the first letter of that number: 8 1/2 would be an "E" title, 12 Monkeys a "T" title, and so on.

Before being tagged, I'd run across this meme on other blogs, such as over at Marilyn's place, and at Final Girl, and somewhere or another I read that the movies you chose had to be personal favorites, movies that you had a special connection to. That's not part of the rules as laid out by Fletch, but I stuck to it anyway. As a result, and much to my embarrassment, the list I ended up with features only one film made before 1970, and contains no foreign films at all. Now, I love a lot of classic American films, and all kinds of foreign films, so I'm not entirely sure how this happened, nor am I happy about it. But I also have to admit that this list is pretty representative of me -- at least the "me" who loves movies.

The thing is, though, a lot of films, and filmmakers, who are equally representative of my tastes don't get a look in here either. There's no Herzog, no Kubrick, no Melville, no Paul Thomas Anderson, no Robert Altman. And there are only two films that could be reasonably categorized as horror. That's a real puzzler. Now, I could have very easily put The Exorcist or The Shining in here, and those two in particular are actually a better fit for this list, as I've laid it out above, than the films which ended up in those respective slots, but those two end up on just about every list of movies anybody has ever put together, and while I love them as much as I ever have, the idea of writing about them makes my shoulders slump, so I left them off. Then again, I can't really be said to have done much writing about any of the movies below, so I don't know why that should have stopped me including the Friedkin or Kubrick films, but I've already made the list, and I'm not one to dwell in the past. Ever forward, that's my motto.

That's enough of that. The list:

American Movie (d. Chris Smith) – You know what I like about Mark Borchardt? When he’s unable to get a movie going, apparently he shifts over to writing radio plays. Who does that anymore?

Brazil (d. Terry Gilliam) – The power of this film has certainly dimmed over the years, but watching Gilliam’s only truly great film today, I can’t help but notice that Brazil still manages to feel like no other movie I can think of.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (d. Woody Allen) – Woody Allen now says that he regrets including the comedic storyline in this film, because he believes it deadens the impact of Martin Landau’s story. You remember the comedic storyline, right? That’s the one that deals with suicide and coprophiliac rape. This is the richest work Allen has ever done, and the most optimistically pessimistic film I’ve ever seen.

Dead Man (d. Jim Jarmusch) – You’d think naming your main character “William Blake” would be gilding the lily just a bit too much, but this film by Jim Jarmusch is so bizarre in its humor, and so shocking in its violence, and so enigmatic in its purpose, that I’m willing to allow that Jarmusch knew what he was doing.

The Elephant Man (d. David Lynch) – Man, how I wish David Lynch would make another film set in Victorian England. No other film gets closer to my own personal sense of that time and place than this one, which is both Lynch’s most atypical (outside of The Straight Story), and also my favorite of his films. I’ve never seen another film set in that era where you can actually hear the hissing of the gaslights.

Frenzy (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – One of the reasons I like this film so much is that, just once, Hitchcock was able to let rip with his more graphic inclinations that he’d been tamping down for pretty much his entire career up to that point. And while he did indulge himself in that regard, he also held back and went for dark elegance when the film called for it. Hitchcock was an old man when he died, but Frenzy still makes me sad about the films he never got to make.

Glengarry Glen Ross (d. James Foley) – I can’t overstate the influence this film, and David Mamet in general, has had on me. To me, this film is just astonishing, and no one has ever got Mamet’s rhythms on film like James Foley did here. Adapting Mamet should be Foley’s career.

Homicide (d. David Mamet) – At one point, I was so determined to affect a kind of eclecticism regarding my tastes that I almost chose Hour of the Wolf for my “H” movie. Not that I don’t like that film, but that’s not what this meme is about, and we must be ethically pure when dealing with memes. Anyway, this is two Mamet films in a row, except Mamet directed this one itself, and to me it still represents his best work behind the camera. Fiercely original and provocative, plus one can never have too much Joe Mantegna.

The Ice Harvest (d. Harold Ramis) – I think this film would make a great double feature with Groundhog Day. Really. Think about it. Plus, this is the best work John Cusack has done in a really long time.

Jackie Brown (d. Quentin Tarantino) – Tarantino seems to bristle when anyone claims this is their favorite of his films, but oh well. He needs to realize that, despite the fact that this is an adaptation of someone else’s work, Jackie Brown is still a Tarantino film from top to bottom (and I say that having read my fair share of Elmore Leonard’s fiction). This film is so goddamn patient in its storytelling, and that, more than anything, is what I love about it. So few filmmakers take their time to let a story unfold anymore, but Tarantino does that here. And for that matter he did it with Kill Bill, as well. That’s one lesson none of his imitators chose to follow.

The King of Comedy (d. Martin Scorsese) – The last half hour or so of this one has never really completely worked for me, but I happily let that slide, because this must be the most idiosyncratic movie Scorsese or De Niro have ever put out there. Hilariously uncomfortable.

The Life Aquatic (d. Wes Anderson) – Of Hotel Chevalier, the short film that serves as a prologue to The Darjeeling Limited, one well-known film critic said that it showed what Wes Anderson would be capable of if only he’d stop being Wes Anderson. Yeah, because that’s what we need, filmmakers who strive to be as disconnected from their work as possible. The Life Aquatic is not impersonal: it’s wild, and singular, and hilarious, and beautiful, and devastating, and the ending makes me cry, and I don’t care who knows it, so shut your mouths, you bunch of dicks.

Miller’s Crossing (d. The Coen Brothers) – More than any other film, Miller’s Crossing made me a cinephile (it also kicked my love of crime fiction into full gear). It remains one of the most visually and, hell, aurally striking movies I’ve seen. When I first saw it in theaters, it knocked me on my ass, and it still does.

The Ninth Configuration (d. William Peter Blatty) – This movie combines a completely unbelievable, even cartoonish, depiction of mental insanity; Stacy Keach speaking almost entirely in monotone; Vietnam; lines like “I wish you’d douche, sincerely”; the question of God; Jason Miller trying to stage Shakespeare with all-dog casts; a wickedly brutal bar fight; and one of my favorite openings in film history. Don’t ask me why all this works, because I don’t know, but it does.

Of Mice and Men (d. Gary Sinise) – Ray Walston makes me cry in this movie, as does one brief, wordless flashback at the end. This is the best adaptation of this book you will ever see.

The Prestige (d. Christopher Nolan) – Probably the darkest summer Hollywood film to roll around in many a moon, I feel like this film is already being forgotten, and that’s just not right. Now I’ll admit that I do have a particular affinity for stories revolving around turn-of-the-last-century magicians, especially if the story involves two magicians trying to destroy each other, but seriously, watch this thing again. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

Quiz Show (d. Robert Redford) - This one single-handedly justifies the directing career of Robert Redford, and it’s one of the recent high-points of the Big Hollywood Oscar Film genre. An exceptionally strong cast mixed with a really smart script about a fascinating, fringe bit of American history: what’s not to like? Plus, any time a scene revolves around food in some way, the characters actually eat. I don’t know, I feel like that’s worth noting.

The Right Stuff (d. Philip Kaufman) – I’m tempted to say that this is the great modern American epic film. It’s hard to make a film about America that is, at the same time, cynical and rousingly patriotic, but this one is, and it’s completely sincere about all of it.

A Simple Plan (d. Sam Raimi) – I fear this film is, like The Prestige, rapidly dwindling from our collective memory. But don’t let that happen. Billy Bob Thornton is unbelievably good in this story about how evil regular, decent people can be.
Topsy Turvy (d. Mike Leigh) – There’s a moment in this Mike Leigh masterpiece where Jim Broadbent, as W. S. Gilbert, is watching the rehearsal of a song he’s not pleased with from his newest operetta, The Mikado. He has a cigar tucked between his fingers, and with that same hand he takes a drink, looking at the stage from over the rim of his glass. I love that moment! I can’t explain why, but if I’m watching the film, and I happen to glance away and miss it, I have to rewind. And that one second of screen time in some indefinable way sums up why I think this is one of the great films of the last twenty years.

Unforgiven (d. Clint Eastwood) – I had an asshole professor in college who called this film “banal”. I think he was referring to the scene where Clint Eastwood says, “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away everything he has, and everything he’s gonna have”. I’m sure my professor could have come up with something far more complex to say about the act of killing another man, and I’m also sure it would be torture to listen to, and would be ultimately meaningless. This film is magnificent.

Videodrome (d. David Cronenberg) – This is easily the David Cronenberg-iest film David Cronenberg has ever made. And how can I sum up my feelings on this flawed and disturbing movie, a film so original that no one even knows how to go about being influenced by it? I don’t know, but I do think that the next time I have to write kind thoughts in someone’s birthday card, I’m just going to put “Long Live the New Flesh! – Bill R.”

Waiting for Guffman (d. Christopher Guest) – “People always say, well, you must have been the class clown! And I say, no I wasn’t, but I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.” I like this one even more than This is Spinal Tap.

X - The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (d. Roger Corman) - This letter worried me the most when I sat down to begin this because, you see, I'm actually not a great fan of the X-Men films. But hey, I thought, what about X - The Man With the X-Ray Eyes?? I hadn't actually seen it, but I did own a copy, so I watched it. Just now. With my fingers crossed, by the way, because if I didn't like it, then what? I needn't have worried. The art of the well-crafted B-movie is practically dead, but thank God they made a whole shitload of them before that happened. I could make a whole new, and just as honest, list filled with movies like this.

The Yakuza (d. Sidney Pollack) – One might reasonably make the claim that a filmmaker’s talent can best be measured by how well they handle genre material, especially if that filmmaker is eventually known for other kinds of films. If so, then Sidney Pollack was a better filmmaker than he’s generally given credit for. This is a gripping, unflinching crime film/samurai hybrid that has at least two show-stopping action scenes. Highly underrated.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (d. Xan Cassavetes) – The kind of film that makes you nostalgic for a time, place and experience that you never had (if, in fact, like me you didn’t live in the particular section of California in the 1980s that offered the services of Z Channel). I’m so glad Xan Cassavetes remembered this unusual story about one guy’s spiral into the abyss, and the kind of love of film that everyone reading this shares, because it’s the sort of documentary that, if the one person who did make it hadn't made it, nobody would have, and I’d be poorer for it.


Well, that's that. I shall now tag the following people...

Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running

Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

Adam Ross at DVD Panache

Brian Doan at Bubblegum Aesthetics

Arbogast at Arbogast on Film

None of you should feel obligated, of course. It's just that I'm supposed to tag five people, and I'm too new to this whole blogging thing to be making waves.