Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The Rite (d. Hafstrom) – I have a very strong bias in favor of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I’ve probably said before that, in my view, it is a perfect film, horror or otherwise, but specifically as a horror film it casts an enormous shadow over one subgenre of horror. That subgenre is, of course, films about exorcists, of which there have never been terribly many. Most if not all of those were made after The Exorcist, and the subgenre is so specific, filmmakers find that not only must they use essentially the same plot points, and some version of the same shock effects as Friedkin did, but some are even driven by desperation to comment on The Exorcist, so that this exorcist film you’re now watching is taking place in a world where The Exorcist exists. And you shouldn’t expect real life to be like a movie!
Take Mikal Halfstrom’s recent The Rite. In this one, the Max von Sydow role is played by Anthony Hopkins, who, after meeting with a possessed young woman, asks our skeptical, and possibly atheist, seminary student hero (Colin O’Donoghue) “Were you expecting spinning heads and pea soup?” Oh ho, well played, sir. In answer to your question, though, no, I wasn’t expecting spinning heads and pea soup. But something would have been nice. The film has the crisis of faith angle and demonic possession and also takes an element from the end of The Exorcist and expands it, to no discernible effect. To this, it adds precisely nothing. The film just plods through the expected story points until the credits roll.
I sort of like Hopkins, because one of his default modes these days is to play guys who are very smart and focused, and not happy to be distracted by outside information. That’s how he plays the elderly exorcist role here, and it is occasionally amusing (such as when he absent-mindedly absolves O’Donoghue of his, O’Donoghue’s, sins before meeting the possessed girl). Other than that, there’s nothing to see. There’s nothing to see in pretty much any other exorcist movie, as I’ve said. Even when a film tries something different, as when The Exorcism of Emily Rose tried to merge the exorcist movie with a courtroom drama, the filmmakers seem to have no clue about how to integrate anything new to the formula established by The Exorcist, a formula which is inherent to the genre. Why would you make a movie like this now? If I made horror films, exorcism is the last subgenre I’d ever want to work in. I’d do vampires before exorcism. There’s no upside.
[I pretty much spoil the ending to Sucker Punch here, so fair warning]
Sucker Punch (d. Snyder) Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is sort of like what you’d get if Joe Francis was somehow inspired to rewrite The SCUM Manifesto by playing Duke Nukem. A bad and confusing analogy, no doubt, not least because there are dragons in the movie, and simply thinking about dragons would require the kind of imagination that would enable you to see past your own dick, which Francis (and Solanas, come to that) is incapable of doing.
So kudos to Zach Snyder, I guess! Sucker Punch is still a terrible mess, though. What it’s about is, this lovely young blonde lady’s (Emily Browning) mom dies, her evil stepdad tries to use his power to force a change in his wife’s will, which favored her two daughters, and then the young blonde lady snaps under the pressure and gets a gun and tries to shoot her stepdad but accidentally shoots her sister, and is then merrily (by the stepdad) whisked away to a mental institution. It is here that Sucker Punch hauls out all of its, I guess, ideas about reality and women and robot samurai. This mental institution is full of hot ladies, see, and it's less a mental institution than it is a sort of strip club, but the nice kind, classy, except that all the girls are forced to dance (they never strip, but the goal is the same) by the asshole who runs the joint (Oscar Isaac) because he likes money so much. And if they don't dance, then he'll hurt them, so the girls are taught to dance, and protected, by a Russian-or-something lady (Carla Gugino). The main thing, though, is that when that one blonde lady finally starts dancing, she, or her mind, is whisked into a majestic fantasy land -- to avoid the Male Gaze, I'm assuming -- where she's taught how to escape from her real-world prison by that one guy (Scott Glenn).
Up to this point, Sucker Punch hasn't really been very good, but it hadn't developed enough plot yet to be all that stupid. Pretty stupid, yes, but it's when Glenn is forced to explain how the film's story shall henceforth play out (and during these scenes, I imagine Scott Glenn's own mind whisking away to some fantasy land where he's still making The Right Stuff or Nashville) that Snyder doesn't just step in it, but rolls around in it. A good fantasy film, of the type that's following a well-worn formula, will not make too big a deal out of the formula itself, and will hide it as natural plot progression. But Snyder has Glenn just tell you what the formula is. He tells Browning "I can help you escape, but you'll need five things: a boot, some scrap paper, a jar of honey, and scissors" (whatever, I can't remember what they were) and Browning says "But you said five things" and Glenn says "The fifth thing is a mystery. So when you figure out what that thing is, that'll be, like, the end of the movie."
And so each quest to find one of the five things, during which she's accompanied by a group of other dancer/mental patients (even though I guess they're not consciously in the same fantasy land as Browning is, I don't think) brings the characters into a new world of battle, which feature, individually, zeppelins and zombie Nazis, dragons, robots, and so on. These are all filmed in Snyder's by now exhausting mix of digital massiveness and ramped up, or down, action. But while some of this can be partially excused as being what you pay for with Snyder, he adds new levels of obnoxiousness by making every single thing one of these girls does feel, in theory, extra cool. It can have almost no impact, or at least no substantive impact, on their quest, but he's going to add a little something to make anyone in the audience jump up and cheer, should they be so inclined. For instance, during the battle with the zombie Nazis, Jena Malone sees a potato masher grenade on the ground. Snyder shoots her in close-up, with a devious twinkle in her eye and badass smirk on her mouth, as if she's thinking "I'm going to throw that grenade at some guys." Then she picks up the grenade and throws that grenade at some guys. So she succeeded, which is good, not to mention empowering for young women everywhere, but couldn't she have just thrown it? Why'd she have to be such an arrogant dick about it? Throwing a grenade is one of the easier things you can do.
Anyway, the whole thing turns out to be more like Brazil than anything else, but shitty, except wait a minute, how can Scott Glenn be there...and also here...! So that kind of thing happens and then the voice over, which sounded to me like Carla Gugino no longer doing an accent, says something about each of us (although maybe she just means girls) having all the weapons we need. "Now fight!" she says. Fight what, you big dummy?
Oh well. Sorry, Scott Glenn. I still like you.
Monday, June 27, 2011
That's my take on it, anyway. Black Moon is an exceedingly bizarre movie, one of the few works of pure surrealism I can think of from a major filmmaker in the late 20th century. I don't happen to know how closely or consciously Malle adhered to the concret tenets of surrealism, but part of Andre Breton's definition of that movement reads "Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation." And in her criterion essay on the film, Ginette Vincendeau talks about Malle using a sort of automatic writing technique with the film, implying that he wrote down or shot whatever occurred to him, free of any concerns about narrative. As I've said, Black Moon feels pure in that way.
So why the tendency by so many, when confronted with a work like this, to break it down in absolute terms? Vincendeau herself does this, stating baldly that Black Moon is the story of a girl's sexual awakening, but it's sort of hard to see how she can be so certain. There is stuff in here about women maturing -- in terms of nursing, but of course in this film the two woman who perform that act are nursing not a baby but an elderly woman -- and there's a unicorn, which tend to find their way into questions of sexual awakening, but the unicorn gets chased by Lily (Cathryn Harrison, the Alice-like figure in the film), and she could be said to be chasing that awakening, I suppose, except that sort of reading gets derailed, or deflected, by Lily's eventual confrontation with the beast, which has to do with which of them is being more cruel to the crying flowers over there.
Black Moon is fascinating in its go-for-broke oddity. Most films and fiction that traffic in surrealism tend to have a pretty clear satiric satiric, and while not every scrap of weirdness can be pegged to that structure, the base tends to support the satire. Black Moon is not like that. There is a war in the film, apparently between men and women (and in fairness Malle did claim that idea came from the social events of the time), but in her attempt to flee that danger, Lily finds herself pretty well removed from it, in a country house occupied by an old woman (Therese Ghiese) and a brother and sister, both also named Lily (played by Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dellasandro). The house is full of alarm clocks and glasses of milk that refill themselves and huge talking rats and naked children and pigs and snakes and badgers. The war can be heard still, sometimes off in the distance, sometimes a bit closer, but not too close. Strange scene after strange scene pile up with no sense of narrative momentum. Even the seemingly climactic moments near the end only seem that way because one's sense of time passing indicates the movie should be over pretty soon. The same events could have occurred within the first half hour without any great impact.
Which is not a criticism. What's engaging about Black Moon is its utter nonsensicality. No film like this will ever escape claims by some viewers that they've figured it all out, but those claims won't alter the film's true madness.
Another film of a type you don’t really see anymore, and also out on DVD tomorrow from Criterion is People on Sunday, a late-era silent film about something that is immensely important to the vast majority of the movie-going public, but rarely dramatized, or not realistically dramatized: weekends. Weekends of frolic, more specifically, and of the mass winding down and lightening up that takes place as people shrug off the burdens of their goddamn jobs and just go to the lake or have a picnic or do whatever else strikes their fancy (stay home and watch People on Sunday, for instance). That really is what the film’s all about, though there is some jealousy-tinged tension among the core group of characters, three woman and two men, one of those men being interested in two of the women, who find him interesting right back.
Those core characters, and everyone else in the film, are played by non-actors, who had never appeared in a film before, and (mostly) never would again. This is part of People on Sunday’s curious history, and rather staggering list of behind the camera talent: directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak, cinematography assistance by Fred Zinneman, screenplay by Billy Wilder, which in turn was based on “reportage” done by Robert Siodmak’s brother Curt. Or Kurt, seeing as the film was made in 1930, before those men, and many other people, fled Germany. The film was shot in Berlin, and it’s both tempting and depressing to think things like “Well who knows what that guy did eight years later!” while watching all the happiness unfold onscreen – even the aforementioned jealousy ultimately doesn’t appear to do anyone very much damage – but to think along those lines will get you nowhere, and expose you as a joyless ass. Because of course People on Sunday was not made eight years later, it was made when it was made, by a group of filmmakers it’s almost shocking to imagine together in one room, and who would go on to make one classic after another in Hollywood, many of them of a much darker and more cynical cast than this modest little affair.
Or ostensibly modest, anyway. One thing that struck me was how much the camera moved. It’s often jittery, and just as often clearly attached to some form of conveyance (boat, car, etc.), but it still moves a lot for the era, indicating that in this ode to free time, Ulmer, Siodmak and the rest were nevertheless pushing very hard.
Monday, June 20, 2011
The Aldrich film is based on Spillane’s seventh novel (though the novel’s title had, or was meant to have, a comma between “Me” and “Deadly”), and it features his most famous series detective, Mike Hammer. Aldrich, who was contemptuous of Spillane’s writing and his right-wing politics, once said that he and screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides “threw out everything but [Spillane’s] title.” He was no doubt intentionally exaggerating, but reading the book, as I’ve been doing, he almost seems to have been lying. As far as plot goes, a great deal of Spillane’s novel is kept intact; hints of where the film will really diverge can be found in the changing of a beat reporter who Hammer uses as a source of information into a newspaper science writer who has disappeared. In any event, the main thing Aldrich wanted to do in terms of gutting Spillane’s work was to show, as J. Hoberman quotes in his Criterion essay “The Thriller of Tomorrow”, “justice is not to be found in a self-anointed, one-man vigilante.”
It’s hard sometimes to take Spillane’s hardcore macho savagery all that seriously, and in fact that element of his writing is the main reason I haven’t finished his Kiss Me, Deadly yet: there’s simply too much of it, and it bogs things down considerably. Still, in those passages Spillane reveals the moral code that he wants to drive Mike Hammer – if some innocent or defenseless person is abused or even killed by the nefarious among us, Hammer will make them pay. In order to subvert this, Aldrich has to cheat a bit by removing that code from his version of Mike Hammer (the absolutely perfect Ralph Meeker), at least in the early going. Initially, Aldrich’s Hammer is a total bastard, greedy and sadistic, seeking retribution not so much for the woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman) who is tortured and murdered at the beginning of the film, as he is seeking vengeance for his own abuse at the hands of the same men. In the film, he never betrays a great deal of emotion for Christina, and seems to be mainly getting his jollies by crunching the bones of whoever gets in his way. But Aldrich’s Hammer is an evolving beast, a man whose ape-like savagery slowly gives way to a human confusion, grief, even regret, and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way not just in a search of answers and skulls to bust, but in an attempt to save Velda (Maxine Cooper), a woman he cares about. This is not something critics of Kiss Me Deadly tend to allow for, in their rush to condemn the film’s version of Mike Hammer as completely as they’re able to.
Ralph Meeker is, of course, sublime as Hammer, and why his career didn’t explode as a result of this film is a mystery. Had I been alive, and had I the power, I’d’ve cast that son of a bitch in everything. He has the right sadist’s gleam when crippling the hand of a greedy coroner, or breaking a collector’s prized LP simply because Hammer doesn’t think he’s answering questions fast enough. But when Hammer soon finds himself up to his neck in shit, which is quickly rising, Meeker lets Hammer look not just defeated, but proved wrong. My reading of Spillane has been meager up to this point (I’d like to add here that, flaws aside, Spillane was not a bad writer), but I have my doubts that he ever let Hammer fuck up quite like he does in Aldrich’s film. In this way, Meeker’s Hammer joins Steve McQueen’s Reese in Hell is for Heroes as one of the very few tough guy heroes whose air of violence-hardened superiority is disastrously humbled.
Though it’s not shown, Hammer’s fate might even be similar to Reese's. Who knows how Mike Hammer and Velda will be feeling the morning after Kiss Me Deadly’s horrific finale. Not great, I’d wager, a dark ambiguity Aldrich fully intended. Because Hammer’s violent bulldozing through the film’s mystery lands him in the same room – when the same house, the same zip code, would probably be bad enough – as “the Great Whatsit”, Velda’s name for what some people have referred to as Kiss Me Deadly’s macguffin. Except that implies that what the players in Kiss Me Deadly’s mystery are seeking ultimately doesn’t really matter, and in this case what the Great Whatsit is matters a great deal. Along with the casting of Meeker, this development is Aldrich and Bezzerides’s great imaginative triumph, as this mad convergence of film noir and possible (actual? Again, who knows what tomorrow brings in the world of the film) nuclear holocaust boils down a certain 1950s psychology so much better than Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance did thirty years later. And the truth of it all makes Mike Hammer feel like a dumb putz.
Regardless, I still have to question Aldrich’s stated anti-vigilante motivation here, because where are we at film’s end? With justice, of a very bizarre and chilling sort, but it was not only not brought about by the police (if he knows so much, where was Wesley Addy’s judgmental cop when Hammer was braving nuclear fire?) but might not have occurred at all without Hammer. If he’d taken no action in this, the Great Whatsit would still be in the wrong hands, the same greed and betrayal would still fire the cylinders of a certain dumb psychotic blonde -- a woman not entirely unlike Hammer, minus his sudden burst of self-awareness -- and Hammer’s cop friends would still be sitting around with their thumbs up their asses. Dumb sadistic ape he may be, but at least Mike Hammer took his shot.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
So give Dan Kois credit there, at least. In his New York Times Magazine article “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables”, he does sort of try to hide his smugness behind a façade of guilt and “regular folk” pandering. The gist of that article, which has caused some considerable response, not all of it negative, was that Kois, a paid film critic, is just so tired of having to watch long slow films (except for the fortunate few he says he likes, to demonstrate that he doesn’t think they’re all bad) in which nothing much happens or something, and also he feels guilty about feeling bad about that:
I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp. My guilt isn’t unique, even if my particular aspirational viewing is my own…And my cultural guilt has only intensified as Twitter reminds me hourly that my colleagues and friends are finding deep satisfaction in reading The Pale King or attending Gatz or watching Le Quattro Volte.
To me, this sounds a little bit like Kois trying to find a way out of doing the hardest part of his job. But no, claims he, it’s all about being yourself:
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext [pause to claw desperately at your own eyeballs. –Ed.], I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
Well, I mean…figure it out, motherfucker! You seem convinced that you’re a pretty funny dude, and based on the evidence here I have to admit that I, too, have my questions about that whole thing about you and jokes, but otherwise why in the hell are you asking us? Do you not know your job?
The action heats up! Who will survive...Mouchette!
The conversation that has floated up in the wake of Kois’s article reached a sort of something-or-other, something like civilized debate, I suppose, in yesterday’s NYT piece, structured as a conversation on the topic of “aspirational viewing” between Kois on one side, and A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis on the other. What Scott and Dargis have to say in the course is of little interest to me here, partly because what they say is plainly logical, but also part of me questions the sense of possibly legitimizing Kois’s inanities by engaging him. But Kois, I believe, is a dirty rotten stinking liar. To wit:
Most full-time critics naturally consume, as Tony Scott puts it, a varied cinematic diet. But for noncritics the expense (in cash and, often as crucially, in time) forces a set of ruthless calculations whenever a new film is praised by reviewers or friends. In that context aspirational viewing is risky — whether those unfamiliar flavors are the populist blockbusters you often dislike but feel you oughtn’t miss, or the slow-moving art films you’re worried you’ll appreciate without actually enjoying.
Okay, hands up, who thinks any of Kois’s thinking on this has even a little bit to do with his concern over the precious time and money that ordinary men and women – good, hard-working, simple men and women – are laying on the line any time a critic says something positive about, I don’t know, The Werckmeister Harmonies? I count zero hands. In the earlier article, he makes a big point about preferring to watch “Phineas & Ferb” with his kids because he believes that’s a better use of his time, so when did “Well I would rather spend time with my kids” turn into “But what of Old Jed over at the feed mill? Or sweet Martha, who spends her days at the library helping children find a new book to read under the covers at bedtime? Or Timmy, who practices three hours after school every day, getting ready for the big game? Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin is a long movie!” Bonus points for using “oughtn’t.”
And plus which, you’re not a “noncritic”! If that’s not just rank disingenuousness, then I don’t know what is. And it doesn’t stop there. In both articles, Kois talks about “appreciating” but not “enjoying” the sorts of movies he’s labeled “cultural vegetables”. I think that’s an awfully mealy-mouthed way to avoid putting up while also not shutting up. Dargis goes along with this a little bit when she says “I don’t ‘enjoy’ Shoah, but I do appreciate it…” “Enjoy” and “entertain”, in their many forms, have been horribly misused and abused over the last several years by being applied where they don’t belong. Dargis is quite right that Shoah is not a movie you “enjoy”, and that this fact in no way deadens its impact, but “appreciate” is too vague, and feeds into Kois’s “Well, I appreciate Solaris, but…” formulations. “Engaging”, “compelling”, something along those lines (or something else entirely, if you want) maybe, but the idea that if something cannot be enjoyed, then it can only be coldly appreciated, is one that has to die. Not that Dargis would disagree, of course, but in this argument “appreciate” should be outright murdered, so that the Dan Koises of the world can’t come back with “Oh, I appreciate it, too! It’s just that ‘Phineas & Ferb’ was on.”
But down to brass tacks: the thing that disturbs me most about Kois and his arguments is that I think he believes he’s speaking for people like me. I am not a critic (not only because it’s not my actual job, which, if it seems like I’m bringing up that point a lot, it’s because the fact that Kois somehow gets paid for this is a long way from being irrelevant), and the guilt Kois talks about feeling regarding “cultural vegetables” is a something with which I am not unfamiliar. The plain fact is that I can’t think of a single film writer I read who doesn’t completely smoke me in terms of film knowledge, not to mention viewing habits. I am keenly aware of this (and in a cruel twist of personality, this can sometimes strengthen my laziness). I am also keenly aware that my tastes drift towards genres like crime and horror, and I could find myself watching such films exclusively if my resolve were to crumble even slightly (though there’s not an ounce of guilt to be felt for favoring those genres, a stance I hardly think I would need to explain to any cinephile worth his or her salt). The things I’m incapable of saying about Alain Resnais are simply staggering in their number. In other words, I know my tastes as well as Kois claims to know his, but the difference is that I don’t choose to cut off the development of that taste. The reason is simply that I’m entirely aware of my ability to still be surprised. I can admit to the mildly embarrassing fact that I was actually sort of relieved that I not only liked Fassbinder’s World on a Wire as much as I did, but that I liked it at all. This despite the fact that I already knew I liked Fassbinder’s work, but, you know, that 204 minute running time can seem alarming to some people. But so I watched it anyway (granted, I was sort of obligated to, but I would have, and would have wanted to, all the same) and didn’t instead accept a paycheck for writing an article about how I didn’t want to watch it. Because that’s bullshit.
Save the bandwidth next time, Dan. Just admit you gave up.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Not only does the film I have in mind fall outside of that timeline, it falls outside of the United States. The film is World on a Wire, made for German television in 1973 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It's the story of a man named Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), a computer programmer whose direct superior, named Vollmer (Adiran Hoven), on a massive project that involves creating a version of our world on a virtual plane, has recently died, mysteriously. Stiller is picked by the head of this project, Herbert Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau) to take over, but after Gunther Lause (Ivan Desny), another friend and co-worker, literally vanishes just before he was about to tell Stiller why Vollmer was acting so strangely in the days leading up to his death, and what he believes Vollmer discovered about the giant, world-encompassing computer called Simulacron, and subsequently nobody seems to be willing to admit that such a person as Lause ever existed, Stiller suddenly finds himself quite possibly in the same deadly situation and broken frame of mind as Vollmer.
World on a Wire immediately precedes Ali: Fear Eats the Soul on Fassbinder's filmography, and in some pretty obvious ways -- subject, length, scope -- it could not be more different. Except it never feels different. To begin with, there's a bit of a "the gang's all here" situation, with Fassbinder regulars and associates Ulli Lommel ( a filmmaker himself, with such credits as the Fassbinder produced, and extremely Fassbindery-in-general Tenderness of the Wolves), Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab (able to look pitiful or sinister at will) and El Hedi ben Salem all making appearances. This pales, however, next to the sense that World on a Wire takes place in the same world as every other Fassbinder film, a world of intensity and cheapness (by which I do not mean, even in the aesthetic sense, bad) and sex and death and bizarre reactions, sudden outbursts, madness. Check the sudden and manic kicking in of a TV screen in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul against something like Stiller's reaction to the sudden and devestating collapse of cinder blocks in World on a Wire. The latter is an extreme example, but in neither case can the behavior really be considered normal.
World on a Wire is based on a novel by American science fiction author Daniel F. Galouye called Simulacron-3. It's a novel I haven't read, but wish I had, not least because I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it served as the source material for both World on a Wire and Joseph Rusnak's The Thirteenth Floor from 1999. That film is a tedious mess; World on a Wire is a mess too, maybe, I guess, but a glorious one. Rich, even novelistic (the 3 1/2 hour running time no doubt helps on that end) in a way filmed entertainment of any kind is rarely able to be, and truly eccentric in a way that only films can really manage. Throughout Fassbinder's film, characters in the background, or even in the foreground, will suddenly turn vacant when they're not being spoken to, or in order to get from one place to another people will unnecessarily walk to the background and behind a wall, looping around the other side and back into frame. Then of course there's the Marlene Dietrich impersonator taking part in a cabaret act about Nazis, and the giant shirtless chef muttering about his patrons being "barbarians" and the like. The thing about those vacant faces, though, is that this is all groundwork for certain story reveals later on. It's not just needless oddity.
And if you’re the kind of person who likes to do things like eke out a film’s themes, then you’ll probably be happy to hear that in World on a Wire Fassbinder hits the trifecta of identity, reality and existence. The problem I have with these as themes is that usually the discussion begins and ends with someone pointing out “That film is about the nature of reality.” But World on a Wire makes all this stuff immediate and vital and particular to the characters in the story. World on a Wire functions as both a science fiction film and as a thriller, and it is an endlessly suspenseful piece of work. And the nature of that suspense grows out of the question of what is the reality of Stiller, and how does that reflect on his view of himself and his world as actual things? Add to that what, if anything, would it mean if that existence suddenly ended? Identity, reality and existence aren’t just themes; they’re plot. And they’re not just plot; they’re life and death.
As with most great films, I’m a point where it’s difficult to describe why certain details elevate World on a Wire over so many science fiction films, old or new. For instance, intriguing questions linger in my mind, such as “In the world that Fassbinder has created, where, or even what, is Rome exactly??” The lack of answer is appealing. Or on a maybe more abstract level, why was it such a rush for me that the ending of the film first cuts between two realities, or ideas of reality, both true, one disastrous, and then ends with a build to Gottfried Hungsberg’s simple guitar theme over the closing titles, a theme that reminds me of the opening of the Beatles’ “Sun King”? Such a rush that I was led to rewind and watch those few minutes again? I couldn’t really say. But it was indeed a rush, as were the preceding 200 minutes.
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World on a Wire hwill be screening twice at TIFF Lightbox in the coming days. First tomorrow, June 17, and again on Sunday, June 19. If you can, you absolutely should.
Monday, June 13, 2011
Tanizaki's novel is mournful, but also clinically curious, even to a fault. It might not be necessary for the reader to know, for instance, the travel itineraries of various characters as they journey from Osaka to Tokyo, but you'll get them anyway. It generates a certain coolness, aided by, at least in translation, its very plain style, which will every so often help to off-set some very strong pieces of writing. In any case, all this coolness and detail and relentless parade of illnesses, major and minor (with not always predictable outcomes) and natural disasters helps the reader of the novel, or me, at least, to feel as though he's lived through it all, or at least among it all, with the Makioka family.
This is not quite the approach taken by Kon Ichikawa in his 1983 film version, which will be out on Criterion DVD tomorrow. The story, briefly revolves around the titular sisters: Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi); Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma); Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga); and Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa). The two eldest, Tsuruko and Sachiko, are married. The next eldest, Yukiko is not, and Taeko, the youngest, is traditionally (though not legally) forbidden to marry until all of her older sisters are. Making things worse is that Taeko has found a man, or men, who Taeko will bounce off of, and bounce off each other, repeatedly. Yukiko has not found a man, and much of the film and novel are given over to the attempts of her sisters and their husbands, as well as outside matchmakers, to pair her off with a good man. Due to fallen fortunes and previous scandals, as well as the fact that Yukiko is perceived to be past the age when being unmarried could be looked as as normal, as well as Yukiko's own seemingly bashful nature and the strict demands of the head of the family, Tsuruko and her husband Tatsuo (Juzo Itami), one suitor after another falls away, and the social standings of each one seems to drop a tier every time.
I threw that "seemingly" in before "bashful" when describing Yukiko because I realized I was starting to describe the novel more than Ichikawa's film. Watching his version of The Makioka Sisters the same day I finished reading the novel, I was quite surprised by how freely Ichikawa and co-writer Shinya Hidaka interpreted Tanizaki's book (which Audie Bock, in her essay on the film in the Criterion DVD booklet, describes as the Japanese Gone With the Wind). There are so many characters and intricate connections between each in the novel, and so much tangled Japanese tradition, that Ichikawa's adaptation might be described as brutal. Working on a tight budget, as Bock notes that Ichikawa was, means that the reader of the novel will not be seeing either the flood or the typhoon, and whatever changes wrought by those events will have to be arrived at in a different way, or not at all. But this is not what makes Ichikawa's work as an adapter of Tanazaki interesting -- this is merely the kind of streamlining that must always be managed when tackling a project this size. What’s interesting are the fundamental changes Ichikawa brings about to central characters, and watching the film I was led to wonder about the equivalent American reaction to such a situation. Over the last few decades, the very idea that a beloved American novel might be adapted at all, let alone altered in the way Ichikawa alters The Makioka Sisters, has been a guarantee that the filmmaker doing the adaptation would be euphemistically flayed alive. Imagine if a director set Catcher in the Rye in Cleveland and maybe you’ll have some idea.
But nobody in America has read Tanazaki’s novel, so Ichikawa was able to take Yukiko’s bashfulness and transform it into something quite a bit more seductive and knowing, with an outward appearance (only?) of reticence. Carried along with this change is Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) who, quite unlike the hard-working, disciplined, but wary man in the novel, finds his life potentially ruined by his sister-in-laws seductiveness. This choice completely shifts the focus of the story’s sadness, which in Tanazaki’s novel finds a variety of outlets but is located primarily in the other characters' inability to match the quiet, withdrawn Yukiko with a husband, and the dangers of what Tanizaki viewed as the danger of Japan’s outmoded traditions. (Anyway, the air of seduction adds a heat to the proceedings that is absent from Tanizaki, although, despite this being the only novel of his I’ve read thus far, such heat does not seem to have been entirely absent from his work, unless it’s just a coincidence that his novella The Key has been adapted by both Ichikawa and Tinto Brass.)
I could go on. World War II is brewing as the novel opens, and is erupting unseen around the characters by the end, but Ichikawa basically leaves it out. Gone, too, or at least strangely upended, are Tanazaki’s overt critiques of the Japan in which he grew up. I’m tempted to be wildly presumptuous here and wonder if the fact that Tanizaki was born in 1886, and therefore had grown up among those old traditions, while Ichikawa, born in 1915, was entering adulthood at the time Tanazaki, at least, has pegged as the waning days of those traditions had anything to do with the two mens' different approaches(this difference can also be seen – though the source of this might have been practical, and at least one of simple taste – in the terrific synth score Shinnosuke Okawa and Toshiyuki Watanabe, which breaks the film into the modernity Tanazaki leaves hovering over his novel. Anyway, I’d like to note that synth music, which was rampant in films of the 1980s, found it’s true worth in Japanese cinema in a way it never came close to in America). As a result, observe:
Ichikawa’s film is gorgeously colorful, and the immense beauty blooms not just from the cherry blossoms that the four sisters enjoy visiting together, but the kimonos, a traditional and ancient Japanese garment, they wear. In this sense, the film’s beauty is from the same tradition that Tanazaki chips away at over the course of 530 pages. In the novel, kimonos are frequently contrasted with the Western clothes often favored by Taeko whose rebellion against tradition practically destroys the family, and is a kicking out at old Japan. But Ichikawa divides her impropriety and shares it with Yukiko, and extracts the massive lump of resentment and disappointment and drops it into the lap of one man.
Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters ends brilliantly. I won’t say more, but it’s fairly exquisite the way he lays the groundwork for this moment, and how suddenly the heartbreak flows from a reasonably unexpected source. And in his own way Ichikawa is presenting a view of marriage as it existed, or once existed, in Japan that is almost as caustic as the one Tanizaki quietly uses to poison the end of his novel. I mean “poison” as a compliment, incidentally, but it’s curious, again, about that word “gentle” being applied to Tanazaki’s work. Because if anything, Ichikawa’s progression is one of gentleness and beauty to melancholy, while Tanizaki begins with sadness and moves towards cruelty.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
For the above, see also Ken Russell, who I find it impossible to separate from Roeg in my mind. I find the critical embracing of Russell entirely maddening and have to remind myself that it’s really no business of mine if that kind of scatology gets excused, or celebrated, as Chaucerian ribaldry because Russell pins it to lunatic historical biopics and literary adaptations, but elsewhere condemned for lowest common denominator pandering. Fine by me, I say (publicly, anyway). And besides, I like at least one Russell film – that would be Altered States, though that’s a case of Russell, to my mind, managing to not fuck it things up completely. In this sense, Roeg has it all over Russell, actually, because I can name three whole Roeg films that I like: the barely Roeg-like Dahl adaptation The Witches; the entirely Roeg-like Bad Timing, which I like because it opens with Tom Waits’s “Invitation of the Blues” and because of the counterintuitive use of the admittedly excellent Art Garfunkel as a twisted sex pest (to borrow from the British); and the unimpeachable masterpiece Don’t Look Now, which I first saw around the same time I was watching Eureka and The Man Who Fell to Earth. At the time, I didn’t like Don’t Look Now much either, but I’ve seen it since, and now I understand that Roeg can never be dead to me. So great, even perfect, a horror film is it that I consider it one of the small handful of modern (relatively speaking) works in the genre that is able to entirely encompass what horror is and should be. Unimpeachable, as I say.
Yeah, but still. I have reason to be thinking about Roeg because his long-unavailable 1985 film Insignificance will be released on DVD by Criterion on June 14th, which I’ve been privileged to check out a bit early. The film, based on a play by Terry Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on four characters – Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) and Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis). Although, of course, for whatever obscure reason they must never be named, and must be listed in the credits as The Professor, The Actress, The Ballplayer and The Senator. This is the sort of coyness I can’t abide, although in the long run it has essentially no impact on anything, which goes a long way towards explaining why I can’t abide it. In any case, it should be clear to those not yet initiated into the film that its subject is really America in the 1950s, or maybe the “1950s”. Also, fame, as Johnson explains in a conversation between he and Roeg, reprinted in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion disc, from the August 1985 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin:
It was always meant to be a play about the era, about fame. The fifties in America seemed to be a very good point to look at that. It’s more to do with what these people stood for, what we have invested them with, rather than what they were. I’ve made certain presumptions as to the possibilities of their true natures rather different from the ones that were projected.
I can’t say this comes across all that strongly – for instance, does it go against our mass projections of McCarthy to depict him as a bully and a thug? Does adding “pervert” really subvert anything? Or to portray Einstein as a shy genius, and DiMaggio as a likable galoot? – and when it does, we get nothing but easy reversals. Marilyn Monroe, you see, may not have been a simple ditzy sex bomb. She might have actually been pretty smart! The fictional Monroe’s crisis of loneliness as it pertains to her fame and the basic meaninglessness of it, and probably everything else (and here I’ll add that whatever my problems with this whole endeavor, Insignificance is a damn good title) forms the core of Johnson’s scenario. The stage roots of Insignificance are betrayed by the fact that the film’s action takes place primarily in Einstein’s hotel room, and the other three come and go to carry on long conversations with him, and occasionally each other, and Einstein and Monroe take up most of the film’s space and time. Monroe sees Einstein as something of a savior, though this is naïve of course, but the two of them manage long and, I guess, significant, or not, discussions about relativity and Einstein’s work on the Unified Field Theory. Meanwhile, McCarthy pops in occasionally to try to force Einstein to testify at the HUAC hearing, and DiMaggio shows up to be jealous that these two guys keep talking to his wife.
It all adds up to very little. As I’ve said, there is no subversion of these icons to be found, certainly not of the kind implied by Johnson, and relativity and the UFT exist in the film to remind us that those are, indeed, things. No matter how much time is given over to them, Insignificance finally feels like a film made by two men who want to tell us about the only two or three things they can remember about the 50s (though it doesn’t relate specifically to that decade, this shallowness finds its most concentrated form in the brief appearance of Will Sampson as The Indian, a Cherokee elevator operator – the sad and quietly dignified Native American is essential to convincing the viewer that a certain purity of spirit has been achieved). Roeg’s brand of pop surrealism (is what I guess you’d call it) does give the film some energy, and keeps it from feeling too stagebound, but in the way he seems to barely direct Emil, and overdirects Russell to the point of embarrassment, he manages to undercut most of what might be interesting about these portrayals. If Emil wasn’t dressed as Einstein for Halloween, he’d barely register, and if this version of Monroe is meant to be an upending of her popular façade, why then is Russell made to swoon and breathlessly giggle and speak as if she were doing voice work for a Monroe-based Jessica Rabbit-like cartoon character? This isn’t Monroe as we’ve never imagined her; this is Monroe as unflattering burlesque. Russell has maybe never been more gorgeous than she is here, but Roeg somehow manages to make her difficult to watch.
Contrast these performances with the important but less central work done by Busey and Curtis. Both are terrific, natural and entertaining and vibrant – they inhabit without having to imitate. They’re not given much to do or be, but they’re great, and Busey especially has a wonderful moment with Russell – and here Russell is allowed to pull back and is therefore also allowed to be very good for once in the film – in bed as they discuss the future of their marriage. It’s a sad and sweet little scene, cut off too soon by the disappointing decision to have DiMaggio fall asleep. Fall asleep quite suddenly, in fact, as though this level of genuine intimacy was getting in the way of the bellowing tone Roeg normally likes to shoot for. Anyway, the film as a whole is a depressing reminder of what Busey was once capable of.
But then there’s the ending. Einstein once famously said of the atom bomb “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” This forms the core of what I can only describe as Roeg’s astonishing and disturbing series of images that (nearly) closes out Insignificance. So jaw-dropping is his work in this sequence that Roeg’s sex/death obsession has never been more forgivable. It really is a “My God…” piece of filmmaking. Which he immediately blows to shit by showing us again that he has nothing at all to say about Marilyn Monroe. Although I guess what Russell does in the film’s final seconds can probably be described as being “the point” of Insignificance, and even sort of slyly sharp. But a moment that is “slyly sharp” is awfully weak tea compared to what immediately preceded it. For about two minutes there, Roeg revealed himself to be a genius. Then he quickly covered back up again.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
And beyond that, the article has an oppressive reek of "Yeah, but when I do it it's cute" political attitude, a bottle of which scent the commenters pick up and spray in the air like Glade. So fuck that shit.
It is not my intention to provide a list of the things that are keeping me from posting at the pace and in the manner, and about the things, I would prefer, and anyway you're going to know about the vast majority of them pretty soon because most of them actually are blog-related. It's insane to me that suddenly I have actual obligations related to this site, apart from the neurotic ones I've taken upon myself. Now when I consider the things I have to write about in order to keep up my end of certain bargains, it's almost as if I'm getting paid to do this. Except that in a very real, financial sense, I'm not. Also, speaking of obligations, but not ones pertaining to the blog, Infinite Jest is super long, and lots of times there aren't even any paragraph breaks.
This is all to say that things will probably be light around here for a few days, until the weekend, which tends to be my MO lately, because I apparently prefer to post on days when nobody's going to read shit on the internet. But several things in the pipeline, boy do I feel busy, how can a single girl like me juggle relationships and a career in the big city, my friends are like my sisters. See you later.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
* * * * *
4) Second favorite Frank Tashlin movie
6) Best/favorite use of gender dysphoria in a horror film (Ariel Schudson)
7) Melanie Laurent or Blake Lively?
That’s not really a question, is it?
8) Best movie of 2011 (so far…)
9) Favorite screen performer with a noticeable facial deformity (Peg Aloi)
10) Lars von Trier: shithead or misunderstood comic savant? (Dean Treadway)
11) Timothy Carey or Henry Silva?
12) Low-profile writer who deserves more attention from critics and /or audiences
13) Movie most recently viewed theatrically, and on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming
DVD: The Devil’s Chair, a pretty lousy horror film whose tagline should be “Pleased With Itself So You Don’t Have to Be”
14) Favorite film noir villain
15) Best thing about streaming movies
16) Fay Spain or France Nuyen? (Peter Nellhaus)
17) Favorite Kirk Douglas film that isn’t called Spartacus (Peter Nellhaus)
18) Favorite movie about cars
19) Audrey Totter or Marie Windsor?
20) Existing Stephen King movie adaptation that could use an remake/reboot/overhaul
I feel like Pet Sematary, faithful as the adaptation was, got the shaft a little bit. It’s such a gut-punch of a novel, but the film exists on that King-film assembly line, which was powered by a creative philosophy of “We’re making this one now”. Even so, I don’t think that would be my choice. It wouldn’t be Thinner either, although that’s a terrible film, and in the book King makes the ridiculous-seeming premise work by going for straightforward pulp thrills. I suppose what I wouldn’t mind seeing is a filmmaker pick up the short story “Lawnmower Man”, read it, like more than just the title, and say “You know what? Fuck it. I’m doing this.” Whether anyone would give him money to do this is another question, but I’d like to see it.
21) Low-profile director who deserves more attention from critics and/or audiences
22) What actor that you previously enjoyed has become distracting or a self-parody? (Adam Ross)
23) Best place in the world to see a movie
24) Charles McGraw or Sterling Hayden?
25) Second favorite Yasujiro Ozu film
Thank God I’ve seen enough Ozu now to answer this! And that answer is Good Morning. If you’d asked me before I put in the DVD “Hey, how many fart jokes do you think Good Morning has?”, I would have said “Zero.” I would have been wrong.
26) Most memorable horror movie father figure
27) Name a non-action-oriented movie that would be fun to see in Sensurround (Sal Gomez)
28) Chris Evans or Ryan Reynolds?
29) Favorite relatively unknown supporting player, from either or both the classic and the modern era
30) Real-life movie location you most recently visited or saw
31) Second favorite Budd Boetticher movie
32) Mara Corday or Julie Adams?
33) Favorite Universal-International western
Winchester ’73. It’s probably been too long since I watched it for me to honestly count that as my favorite, but I strongly suspect that once I rewatch it, my opinion will hold strong.
34) Favorite actress of the silent era
35) Best Eugene Pallette performance (Larry Aydlette)
36) Best/worst remake of the 21st century so far? (Dan Aloi)
The Wicker Man is such an easy choice, but it’s also pretty unforgivable (fascinating though its existence is). Also bad, though, is The Crazies, which has somehow tricked people into liking it. Another bad one is pretty much all the rest of them. Among the best are Let Me In and The Wolfman. But you know which one also isn’t bad, for a simple Sunday afternoon? House of Wax. Forget that that….thing is in it. Just give it a look – it’s sort of fun.
37) What could multiplex owners do right now to improve the theatrical viewing experience for moviegoers? What could moviegoers do?