Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Before going any further, I have to say that this was, for me, a pretty great experience. I don't often get the chance to see revival screenings of any old movies, let alone Golden Age films, let even more alone Golden Age horror films. On top of that is the fact that this was a little bit more than just a screening, but rather the second edition of a new series at the Alamo Ritz called Cinema Club. Cinema Club is hosted -- or at least was hosted on Sunday -- by a couple of guys named Lars Nilsen and Daniel Metz, who introduce the film, and then are joined by a scholar and expert on that evening's selection. In this case, that expert was Dr. Thomas Schatz, of the University of Texas and author of The Genius of the System, among other books. After the film, the three of them got on stage to discuss the movie, and field questions and comments from the audience. All of this was great fun for me, and I would go back for Cinema Club every month if I could (next month they'll be showing Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, with special guest Kim Morgan). So no complaints.
Bride of Frankenstein is, as you all know, essentially a horror-comedy, which is a subgenre of horror that is far more problematic than the seemingly endless contributions to the category would lead one to believe. The tone the filmmakers have to strike, and the line that needs to be walked, is very delicate, and most people can't hack it, largely because they don't know tone is an issue, or can't see the line. James Whale, screenwriter William Hurlbut, and the other collaborators on Bride do manage to make their crazy mix of mortality, philosophy, satire, Vaudeville, and bleak examination of loneliness work (even though I, like Boris Karloff, do ultimately think the film is too comedic) because, as Thomas Schatz said after the Alamo screening, it's hard to know what to do with film. It's so loony, but so well put together, with three great performances -- from Karloff, Colin Clive, and the indispensible Ernest Thesiger -- that I'm sort of left shaking my head afterwards, thinking "Okay, then. It worked, but I'll be damned if I can say why." I'd rather watch Whale's original Frankenstein than Bride, but I wouldn't give up Bride for anything.
During the audience participation section of the event, one guy said that what really mattered to him about Bride of Frankenstein was the deep sadness of it, and of the monster's rejection by his bride (Arbogast has written extremely well about this element of the film, specifically the Bride's reaction to her mate, and I commend this post to your attention). Dr. Schatz beamed at the guy who made the comment, and I would have too, were I the type of person who beams, because that's what matters to me, too. The last twenty minutes or so of the film is what really provides any significant impact for me, at least emotionally, and I feel it's often overwhelmed by the tongue-in-cheek lunacy of the rest. I mean, even Schatz didn't bring it up, and his love of the film was quite clear.
. But coming to Bride of Frankenstein seventy-five years late is going to jack with some people's perceptions of it, and that's not the fault of the film itself. At the Alamo screening, when O. P. Heggie's blind hermit first appears on screen, there was quite a bit of laughter. It was of the semi-quiet, polite variety, for the most part, but its connection with what was actually on screen was telling. Outside of the bit with the cigars, this, the most famous scene in the whole film, outside of the Bride's reveal, is not played for laughs -- it's really pretty heartbreaking in how quickly it provides both the hopeless, desperate, dumb monster, and the blind, lonely hermit, with a glimpse of happiness and companionship before whisking it away with sudden violence and rage. It, in fact, sets up the monster's self-destructive rage at the end, when his best hope, another creature like him, looks into his face and shrieks in horror. And yet people were laughing as soon as Heggie showed up. And I knew why, and I'm sure you do, too: Young Frankenstein.
Broadly speaking, audiences -- including the kind of "hip" crowd in the Alamo audience -- have a hard time taking horror seriously, unless it's of a particularly visceral and overtly disturbing nature. When you add on the often broad comedy of Bride of Frankenstein, and its various and abrupt tonal shifts, it's hard to ground yourself while watching. There were one or two condescending comments from Schatz and Nilsen about what in the world could audiences in 1935 have possibly made of this movie -- because even though a sophisticated guy like Whale lived in 1935 and made the film in 1935, it's hard to believe that the rubes in the audience could have possibly appreciated it on as many levels as we do today -- but I have to ask what could those laughing at Heggie's appearance during the Alamo screening have possibly made of it? To put it simply, Bride of Frankenstein was getting bad laughs, and it didn't deserve them, and in the case of Heggie's scene, it was all because Mel Brooks expertly spoofed the movie twenty-six years ago, and some members of the audience on Sunday night couldn't look past that. When Karloff is angrily waving away Heggie's burning stick, they were seeing Peter Boyle's burning thumb.
In the Q&A, another audience member actually put this pretty clearly, asking Schatz how he thought Young Frankenstein colored our perception of Bride of Frankenstein today. I could have kissed that guy, because I think he was a irritated by that laughter as I was, but Schatz, unfortunately, didn't quite hear his question, or lost the thread of his answer, because the only point he made that was germane to the question was that it's impossible nowadays to come to the film innocently. True enough, but also too vague, and too willing to accept bad laughs borne of lazy, above-it-all attitude to old genre movies as a given. Yes, the film's madcap tonal changes play a part, but being unable, or unwilling, to shed the spoofs and copies you grew up with trumps all.
Bride of Frankenstein is actually a tough movie, deceptively so -- you can't just let it roll meaninglessly over you and hope to get inside it, even though those new to it would probably very quickly assume otherwise. For all my problems with it, this fact is obviously entirely to its credit, and it's why the film was picked for the Alamo Ritz's Cinema Club, and it's why Schatz, and his hosts, love it so much. But the further away we get from this film, and others of its era, the harder it becomes to present it as something other than a novelty, or a time capsule, something to be bemused by, because those people in 1935 sure had a crazy idea of what constitutes a great movie.
I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of the Alamo crowd with whom I saw the film. Far from it, though I realize it probably sounds as though I'm doing exactly that. It's just that those bad laughs really pissed me off. It indicates that some people went to the movie with a certain distance already set up between themselves and the screen, and they didn't want that distance shortened. They probably don't know it can be.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
First things first: I love Steve McQueen. And Jason Bellamy, over at The Cooler, is right this minute hosting a Steve McQueen blogathon from March 24th through the 27th. Under normal circumstances, I'd be all over this, but, as it happens, I'm about to go out of town for a few days, and will not be doing much with computers at all in that time, much less writing lengthy blog posts about The Cincinnati Kid or The Great Escape or Bullitt or The Getaway, or anything. So I'm out in the cold! Or am I?
Yes. One point of this post is to alert anyone who cares that this blog will be dormant at least until Monday, and possibly until Tuesday. No big deal, but until my return, you're all going to have to get your whatever reason you have for coming here somewhere else.
But what about Steve McQueen? Well, knowing that I wouldn't be able to participate in Jason's blogathon in any significant way, I still wanted to take part in what little way I can, so I tracked down (it was super easy) a video of one of the greatest, yet unjustly forgotten, fight scenes in film history.
The film is Soldier in the Rain, directed by Ralph Nelson, and adapted, by Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, from an early novel by William Goldman (this film being one of only two times, to my knowledge, that a Goldman novel was adapted by anyone other than himself, the other one being Jack Smight's No Way to Treat a Lady). It's not a great film -- it's a sort of loose, dramatic comedy about a wily Army supply sergeant named Eustis Clay (McQueen) and his friendship with a brilliant, sage-like master sergeant named Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason). The role is right in Gleason's zone, but I personally find watching Steve McQueen act like such a goofball to be oddly disconcerting.
At any rate, towards the end, Eustis Clay is feeling down, about a number of things, one of which is the letter he got from home informing him that his beloved dog had to be put down. He's drowning his sorrows at the local bar, when a couple of asshole MPs come in and start hassling him. McQueen, as Clay, is holding his own for a while, but he's outnumbered, and soon he's being overpowered. Then Jackie Gleason shows up.
There are a couple of things that happen during this fight that are a bit hard to swallow, but they gain a certain level of verisimilitude due to the clumsy brutality of everything else. It's strange to watch this moody little comedy, and then find yourself smack in the middle of a terrific, bone-crunching beatdown -- these guys are pounding the shit out of each other, and it makes them tired. And there's one moment that, to me, is almost as cool as the motorcycle jump in The Great Escape. I remember stumbling upon this movie on TV when I was a kid, right at the fight scene, and not knowing what the hell I was watching. For the longest time I wondered what movie I'd been watching, and when I picked up a VHS copy of Soldier in the Rain several years later, I did so because of the cast and, primarily, the William Goldman connection. And I'm watching the movie, going along, my opinion swinging back and forth, when suddenly...that's the fight! That's the fight I saw!!!!
Yeah!! Dropkick that sonofabitch!!!
Monday, March 22, 2010
PS - If you do a Google image search for "the rapture mimi rogers", you're going to pretty much only get pictures of her boobs. This is something I've learned.
EDIT: The conversation is going on right now! Go to the link above!
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Ordinarily, I don't write about film critics, or literary critics, nor do I ordinarily write about internet controversies or high-profile disagreements, or anything like that. I read critics (most of the ones I read who aren't dead can be found on my blogroll, but not all), and I, like anyone, enjoy a good on-line dust-up, but I rarely find myself drawn to those topics enough to actually write about them. This generally has to do with the fact that, whatever I know about movies, I don't do a great job of keeping up with the business of it, the trends in criticism, the employment shifts, and historical animosity between various film writers, and all the other stuff that, however important it might be to the individual parties, would count as ephemera to an outsider such as myself. Which is the other thing: not being part of the world of film and film writing in any real capacity tends to mean you have no stake in any of the ancillary uproars you might come across in your day to day reading, entertaining and fascinating though you might find it all.
But today I read Armond White's, ahm, defensive essay, with extra capsule review (for lack of any pre-existing category in which to place it) of Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (which I haven't seen, and therefore won't be discussing here), and I feel some need to weigh in. I freely acknowledge that, among people who find Armond White a subject of interest, however negative, I am really late to the game, at least as far as talking about him. So late, in fact, that a lot of people, after this latest go 'round of White madness, are basically saying "Enough's enough, I'm not wasting another breath on the guy." Which is a sound way to go about one's temporal existence. Still, there are certain particulars about White, and his new bit of prose, that, as I say, compel me.
I'm going to dispense with the surrounding drama of Armond White being barred from a critic's screening of Greenberg, his subsequent protests that his freedom of speech was being infringed upon, and even most of the background involving White, Baumbach, and Baumbach's mother, Georgia Brown, that led to it. Suffice it to say, White doesn't like Georgia Brown, and it seems quite likely that this animosity has bled into his assessment of Baumbach's films. I certainly believe that, as does pretty much everybody else who has followed this over the years, but it's not actually provable, and, in any case, has been rehashed so ad nauseum that there's absolutely nothing new I can bring to that table. The one aspect of that history that is relevant here is the fact that White, in his review of Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy, said, in effect, that since the movie was so bad, you know what would have been great? If Georgia Brown had gotten an abortion.
Ha ha, and then everybody had a good laugh and went home. Now, this abortion line is by far the most discussed aspect of the White/Baumbach controversy, to the point that, since the review pre-dates the New York Press's (the paper that employs White) on-line archive, some have wondered if White ever actually wrote that. Well, he did, as proven by J. Hoberman, who found the review in a library archive, scanned it, and put it on these here internets.
All of which brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is White's defense of the abortion line. First, here's the line itself, which White himself quotes in his Greenberg piece:
I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.
I'll leave the job of parsing and interpreting that last sentence to you. Shouldn't be too hard. Now, here's what White says by way of explanation:
The last line is not Oscar Wilde but it’s also not a death warrant; its impact is in your inference. It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral. No more than that.
First off, his admission that he's not Oscar Wilde is probably as humble as White is ever going to get, so you should savor it. Second, if he'd actually used that "natal congratulations" line in his original review, either no one would have cared, or maybe thought "Hey, that's pretty funny." Really, transplant that line into the Mr. Jealousy review, in place of the abortion line: it works! Third, we see here the entire Armond White Problem illustrated, plain as day, although your ultimate defintion of that problem may vary (in other words, its impact is in your inference), but basically it's one of these:
1. White doesn't say what he means.
2. White doesn't mean what he says.
3. White doesn't care what he means or says.
4. White knows exactly what he's doing at all times, and is some kind of nefarious super-mind, planting the abortion line into his Mr. Jealousy review over a decade ago, and demonstrating an inhuman patience before paying it off earlier today.
Except it can't be that last one. I don't know too many people who are still swept up in any admiring way by White's word-smithery, so it's like saying someone is a great liar: if you know they're lying, how great can they be? (And not incidentally, White's also a bad liar.)
But I digress. Let's look at that sentence again:
It clearly points out the clubhouse aspect of Baumbach’s raves, then contrasts natal congratulations with their demurral.
Well, that's not like any kind of definition of "abortion" I've ever come across, and "abortion" is the word he actually used (never mind that White has completely avoided the topic of what the word "retroactive" means, and how it functions in the sentence). But he seems to think that "abortion" means that, while others are congratulating a new mother on her wonderful new baby, you're backing away because you know that in the future that kid is going to make Mr. Jealousy. Which is also not what White thinks he's saying, because later he attacks Hoberman and others who have showered disgust on him for "suggesting" Baumbach's abortion by getting all political on them, and saying these people are hardly Pro-Life, so why should they be so offended in the first place?
Can Hoberman and Dart’s objections to the very mention of abortion mean that they are, in fact, Pro-Life? (I remember Hoberman railing against Juno for choosing life while praising the Romanian abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.) Can’t wait to see Hoberman and Dart defend their Pro-Life position on the Glenn Beck show.
There's a hell of a lot wrong with this line of reasoning, but what bothers me the most has to do with something more personal, which is that I've always wanted to like Armond White. There's a lot about the guy that, on the surface, appeals to me -- his refusal to walk down easy, knee-jerk Liberal lines of film criticism being the most prominent. When I first started to notice this aspect of his writing, I lit up a bit, excited to find a voice that spoke more directly to me, at least regarding politics, than most film critics do. But at best, White is politically a dumb-ass, and at worst his politics are nothing but a pose. At this point, I'm leaning towards the latter option. The way he brings up abortion as a bit of political self-righteousness is unbelievably cynical, and disgusting to me. I want to agree with the man, but I can't, because he doesn't mean what he says, or care what he means.
Words matter, is I guess what this is all about. Though, as you can see, I haven't been able to pinpoint what is the core motivation, or specific fault, behind all this, a few things still seem pretty obvious: he writes without a thought; he thinks we're all morons; he doesn't know what words mean. Also, he's a bitter, hateful, small little man.
Oh, and as I implied earlier, after several paragraphs railing against the shadowy organizations, which include Noah Baumbach, that would keep him from seeing Greenberg, White actually tacks on a capsule review of the film at the end. Guess what? He didn't like it very much.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
Moral gray areas. That's what serious artists often claim they like to examine. "Here," they say. "Here's a movie I wrote. What it does is, is it presents you with a man who does things that are so awful that you know you should be plainly disgusted by him. But you find yourself rooting for him, despite everything. Why is that? What is it about us that we can so easily find a link to such men? Are we all beasts inside? Or do we at least recognize the potential for violence, under certain circumstances, within each of our breasts? Also, it stars Antonio Banderas." So you take the the movie they wrote, and you watch it. Turns out it's about this hitman, a brooding, tortured man who has found, perhaps to his dismay, and against his own values, that the work he's best at is killing other human beings. This work proves highly remunerative, but his soul is dying. Except that, by the way, he does have his own private code under which he works, which says that he will only execute other killers, assassins less scrupulous than he, or tyrants, or members of secret government cabals who plot to blow up all the oceans so that they can become even richer! This hitman won't kill just anybody. And that movie is called Grosse Point Blank, and it stars John Cusack, not Antonio Banderas.
"To be honest," Renald said, "it's a little hard to concentrate on your problem. I keep thinking about the [Oxycontin] in my briefcase and this girl my daughter hangs out with. Nancy Hughes. God, I want her ass. I feel sort of sick when I think about it, though. She's still in braces."
"...My father wouldn't let me take the theology course I wanted, but he couldn't stop me from auditing it. I remember the teacher, a black woman, Professor Tandy, she said that Satan turns up in a lot of other religions as the good guy..."
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Monday, March 8, 2010
...is that for part of it, my giant cat was sleeping in my lap like this!!!
And get a load of this crazy baby orangutan!!
The Oscars! There's always something outrageous going on!
Friday, March 5, 2010
The shameful truth about The Box and me is that I kind of wanted to hate it. Even without yet having seen his previous film, the infamous Southland Tales, I've come to the decision that I really dislike Richard Kelly. He's said a lot of obnoxious things in interviews, about his "neo-Marxist" political views and his views on writing, and his response to the critical shellacking he received following Southland Tales essentially amounted to "If you don't like my movie, then you're old." So the fact that I did end up admiring the film, to a point, I guess means that I'm positively busting with integrity, but I'm not even going to mention that, as it would be crass.
Based on Richard Matheson's famous short story "Button, Button", The Box tells the tale of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), and the offer made to them by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward gives the couple a box, inside of which is a red button, enclosed in glass. If the button is pushed in the next twenty-four hours, someone who the Lewises don't know will die, and they, the Lewises, will be given one million dollars. If they choose not to push the button, Steward will retrieve the button, and go on his way. Their dire financial situation having been established, Diaz pushes the button about a half hour in, and this, by the way, signals the end of Kelly's Matheson adaptation, and the hour and half that follows is pure Kelly.
For better or for worse. The better is that there is a great deal of strangeness that Kelly squeezes out of Matheson's premise, and his own extrapolation of it: mysterious kids, random nosebleeds, a city-wide rise in domestic violence, NASA, Mars, lightning...what do any of these things have to do with each other? The first hour of the films at times feels like the stage is being set for something truly bizarre and mysterious, and the second half pays it off, or tries to, although the core pay-off -- the meaning behind it all -- has been cribbed from any number of earlier SF films (most of which cribbed it from one very famous movie, the title of which shouldn't be revealed as it would constitute a spoiler), and The Box's strangeness goes from intriguing to a trifle desperate. When Kelly wrote the section of the film that ends with Marsden suspended above his wife, who is at home in bed, in a pool of floating water, which then comes splashing down, I imagine he must have thought: "What the fuck am I doing?" And then he looked at the calendar, and then the clock, and thought: "It'll work. It'll work. It'll work. It'll work." Over and over again until he nearly believed it himself.
The second half, in general, is just loony, not to mention clumsy. In fact, clumsiness doesn't always cut it. At one point, James Marsden leaves a party due to illness, and as he steps outside another character, played by Ryan Woodle, approaches him with a gun, and tells him to get into a car, which Marsden does. After Woodle's character has revealed his intentions, Kelly cuts to a scene of another character being kidnapped. Then he cuts back to Marsden and Woodle, and Woodle says "They just kidnapped [character we just saw being kidnapped]." Well, how the Christ does he know that? Shouldn't Woodle have approached Marsden after we saw that other person get kidnapped, so that we could have inferred that Woodle either witnessed or was informed of the kidnapping before he talked to Marsden? As it plays now, Woodle and Marsden were already on the road by that time, so he couldn't have known this. Yes, we will learn that Woodle's character would have had a very good reason to suspect that such a thing would happen, but that's not what he says. He says, essentially, "Hey, they just kidnapped so-and-so." Like, "I just heard it on the radio that..." or "I was just watching the dailies earlier, and..." or "Richard Kelly wanted me to tell you..."
The Box is many things. It's part of a superb SF/horror film. It's also a paranoid thriller, as well as a surreal, existentialist nightmare. And it's also the kind of movie that uses an image of the World Trade Center, because that's the kind neck-breaking strain boneheads like Kelly put themselves through in their shallow bid to claim significance for their work. But I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel it was mostly those first three things. What The Box thinks it's up to, I have no clue, but when it's not being either very good or very bad, it's pleasantly baffling. And possibly, I've become too forgiving.
Gentlemen Broncos, meanwhile, was absolutely rent asunder by critics last year, and this disappointed me because, despite my aggressive indifference towards Hess's Napoleon Dynamite, the premise of this new film struck me as something I wished I'd thought of: a young man who aspires to write science fiction professionally, attends a writers' workshop/getaway, at which one of the instructors will be a successful SF author who is our young hero's idol. That idol will read what our hero has submitted, and then plagiarize it.
The capacity for a merciless skewering of SF, both professional and amateur, as well as fandom, in this premise is incalculable. But then the reviews started coming out, as well as clips from the film itself, and everyone who'd seen the film seemed to agree -- and I was beginning to see their point -- that the SF that was described in this film, and the SF film within the film, was so far removed from any reality, bore so little resemblence to the genre as we know it, from any era or any nationality, that there was no possibility for satiric sting, no potential for self-recognition for us SF fans looking to laugh at ourselves, or each other, or to get all the inside jokes we felt sure Hess would lay throughout his movie, because, of course, there were no inside jokes. Gentlemen Broncos existed entirely in the world of Hess's brain, so any inside jokes would be appreciated only by him.
So then I watched the film, and I realized that what everyone was bitching about was that Gentlemen Broncos was not the film they imagined it would be when they read the plot synopsis (I know this, because I imagined the same movie). The fact that Hess had no interest in satirizing, or even somewhat aproximating, actual science fiction, as we experience it in the real world (there's an irony there, I think) doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody. Or if it did, they didn't care, because they knew the movie they wanted to see, and this wasn't it.
Each of Jared Hess's films have been pitched at the same level of grotesque deadpan. The man is not a realist. I don't know if this was lost on the many fans of Napoleon Dynamite, but it's a style that has been falling out of favor with those fans ever since. The point is, none of his characters are meant to be believed, in the sense that we might expect to meet some version of them in our daily lives. But they are meant to be believed in the kind of world that might contain them all. Presumably, that world would also feature forms of entertainment; possibly, this would include some version of science fiction. If so, then the science fiction found in a world population by Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico, Don Carlos, and Dr. Reginald Chevalier is going to look like this:
You'll notice I haven't spent any time trying to convince anyone that Gentlemen Broncos is a good (not great -- nobody ever said "great") and funny movie. I can't do that, so I won't even try; the film is too off for me to muster that kind of argument. All I'm saying is, if you watch it, let it be the movie it is, and don't worry about the movie you thought it was going to be.
Of course, if you don't think Jermaine Clement as Dr. Chevalier gives one of the great comic performences of the last several years, then I have nothing to say to you.