Friday, December 27, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 9: I'm Not You

In July of 1975, Stewart and Cyril Marcus died, both of them, in their Manhattan apartment.  Withdrawal from a shared addiction to barbiturates was the official cause of death.  They were brothers, identical twins, in fact, and both were gynecologists.  Their lives and careers by this point had been shattered not just by drugs, but by malpractice charges having to do with what Ron Rosenbaum and Susan Edmiston, in "Dead Ringers," their Esquire article about the twins, refer to as "a powerful aversion to filling out insurance forms."  So this, the ruining of their bodies with drugs and alcohol, and those same substances beginning to affect their work to the point that their careers were essentially ruined, eventually led to their deaths, which, official judgment or no, remained, and remains, mysterious for a variety of reasons.  Rosenbaum and Edmiston reproduce a verbatim portion of a conversation between Dr. Mel Platt and Dr. Hugh Luckey, two high-ranking New York doctors who were looking into the case:

PLATT:  If I could figure it out I'd write the greatest novel of all times, because this is an enigma that's going to be with us for a long time.

LUCKEY:  And I'd buy the movie rights.  You're damn right.  I can tell you this:  You're not gonna find out.

PLATT:  You're not gonna find out.

LUCKEY:  You're not gonna find out.

PLATT:  I wish I could find out.

LUCKEY:  That's the honest-to-God truth.  You're not gonna find out.

In 1977, Bari Wood and Jack Geasland did write a novel based on the Marcus brothers called Twins.  Between 1975 and 1995, Wood wrote six solo novels, all in the horror genre as far as I can tell, but Geasland seems to have no other writing credits to his name.  In any case, Twins, which I would not count as a horror novel, strictly speaking, is not the greatest novel of all time, but it's still pretty good.  For the most part, it sticks quite closely to the lives of the Marcus brothers as laid out by Rosenbaum and Edmiston -- including, crucially, the free-wheeling single life of Stewart as it compared to Cyril's restricted, as far as the twins were concerned, marriage -- but ramps up the sleaze by positing that the twins, named Michael and David Ross in the novel, had a lifelong desire, which is eventually succumbed to, to engage in homosexual incest.  "You're not gonna find out" can lead those who'd like to find out to invent any number of theories.  Or that gap can seem like a beacon to those who want to invent.  Whatever the case was with Wood and Geasland and Twins, incest is what was landed on, and the resulting novel is rather powerfully unpleasant.  Sex of all kinds factor into the book, and even drives the story.  David is a pansexual sybarite, essentially, on top of being Luciferian in his sinister manipulations to lead Michael away from the normal life and into the life of hedonism that David thinks is their right, as twin geniuses who resemble in mind and body nobody else in the world.

Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, David Cronenberg was working on a novel called Roger Pagan, Gynecologist.  The date on which this manuscript was begun, or conceived, is obscure, but based on how Serge Grunberg describes these early years of Cronenberg's creativity in David Cronenberg:  Interveiws with Serge Grunberg, the idea, at the very least, for Roger Pagan, Gynecologist must have preceded the deaths of the Marcus twins, and therefore their newsworthiness, by at least a couple of years.  So fortuitous, in a way, though Cronenberg wouldn't be able to make a film about any of these things -- and he would read about and become fascinated by the Marcus twins when news of their strange lives and deaths hit the news -- until 1988.  To make things easier, he optioned the novel Twins, but that was just a formality, in a way.  He didn't really adhere to Wood and Geasland's additions to the true story at all -- he chucked the incest, for example -- and veered away from the facts when they didn't interest him, which was often.  His film, called Dead Ringers, like the Esquire article (though the number of suitable and commercially viable titles for such a story must be extremely small, and Dead Ringers at least suggests more of the content than Twins does), keeps only the broad strokes -- twins, drug abuse, and gynecology; lunatic sex is in there too, but Cronenberg being who he is I seriously doubt he needed Geasland and Wood to give him the idea -- and builds from there a film that stands now, along with The Fly, as a cornerstone of his current reputation as a major world filmmaker, no longer critically shunned, respected and embraced just as he mostly sheds (and I do believe this is a coincidence) his early genre interests.

Because in terms of genre, what in the world is Dead Ringers?  One of the most fascinating things about the film is that its tone, and some of its energy, make it play out like a bleak drama made by someone who thought he was making a horror film.  The twins, in this case named Beverly and Elliott Mantle and played ingeniously by Jeremy Irons, when performing surgery where red scrubs that appear to have been designed by a member of an alien blood cult, and late in the film, as Beverly's mind begins to rapidly corrode from a mixture of drugs, psychosexual mania induced by his unhealthy (but again, not incestuous) relationship with his brother and an uncontrollable jealousy connected to his tumultuous relationship with a patient named Claire (Genevieve Bujold) whom the brothers "share," he seeks out a local abstract sculptor (Stephen Lack) and commissions him to build, from Beverly's own designs, an array of new gynecological surgical instruments that wind up looking like ludicrous and medieval torture devices.  But he doesn't then go on a murderous rampage with these things, and one deeply uncomfortable interaction with a patient is in fact based in part on something done by Cyril Marcus.  As a matter of fact, much of the imagery that relates most directly to horror, of the Cronenberg variety, comes in the form of dream sequences.  This marks a fairly major shift in the course of his films, and quite often from here on out the issues of the body that Cronenberg wants to deal with are approached from, or by, the mind -- not the brain, you understand.  In Rabid, to grab one at random, the physicality, and corruption, of the body is all.  In Dead Ringers the way these twins exist with and connect to each other is largely mental.
Then again, it is a big part of Dead Ringers -- and not so much Twins, and almost certainly not the Marcus brothers -- that what one of these brothers might do individually has an effect on the other.  "You haven't fucked her until I've fucker her," Elliot says at one point.  "You haven't done anything until I've done it too."  This seems like a figure of speech at the moment, but by the end it has become less clear.  In Chris Rodley's Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the filmmaker talks about the amazing studies that have been done on twins that reveal that twins that have been separated at a very young age often still develop the same interests, marry women with the same first name, and so on.  On the topic of twins, Cronenberg has a number of interesting, strange things to say.  "I feel as though I invented twins," he tells Grunsberg, and to Rodley:

In one way, Dead Ringers is conceptual science-fiction, the concept being "What if there could be identical twins?"  Some might say, "But there are."  But I'm suggesting that it's impossible, and let's look at them really closely.  I can imagine a world in which identical twins are only a concept, like mermaids.  The fact that Elliot and Beverly are identical twins is their evolution into something monstrous.  They are creatures, as exotic as The Fly.  So there's a double game there; the mind/body split is still very much on my mind (and possibly my body too), but here the body is separated into two parts.  Twins tend to love Dead Ringers because it talks about stuff that no one else talks about.  It's like seeing your home town on screen.

...The feeling is like an aquarium, as though these are strange exotic fish creatures...People find it extremely disturbing.  The fact that they can't exactly say why -- there isn't much blood, etc. -- makes it more so.  With They Fly you can say, "Yes, it was yucky.  I had to turn my head.  Other than that, it was neat."

I'll confess, it had never occurred to me to view Dead Ringers as a science fiction film, but with that now in mind, and not to imply I'd ever found it opaque, the thing opens up in almost shocking ways.  Shocking because from that point of view, Dead Ringers is something completely new, something that takes a genre concept -- the core of the genre, in fact -- and putting it to use in a way no one else, to my knowledge, has ever done before.  The way science fiction typically works, if you'll allow me to burrow right to the heart of it, is it imagines something that might one day conceivably exist, be it a scientific or social concept.  What Cronenberg does is apply that same wonder -- and in science fiction "wonder" can mean something glorious or, as Cronenberg says, something monstrous -- to something that actually really does exist, and has always existed, and take the imaginative and intellectual position that it doesn't.  Now, the world of the film is our own -- no one is shocked to learn of the existence of identical twins.  Nevertheless, the Mantle twins are purely alien.  The way they exist among other people is one thing, but the way they exist when they're alone together, that's something else again.  They are different.  They are, in fact, not entirely unlike the beings we get in the last third or so of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, who destroyed without malevolence but rather because they were the next step, and the previous step had to be swept away.  The Mantle twins, to be sure, don't have their shit together anywhere near as well as Clarke's next evolutionary strain, and of course by the end of it all it's pretty clear that, reading the film as Cronenberg suggests we do, or might do, Nature will have to make some tweaks for the next go-round.  But the first aquatic life that struggled to shore probably didn't last very long either.
Casting Jeremy Irons was not just the perfect choice, but doing it with another actor might have brought as much success as going ahead without a camera.  Perhaps only David Bowie could have communicated the particular "more than human" nature of these brothers, but I doubt he could have made them each so specific without it ever seeming like a gimmick (and the methods Cronenberg uses to put Irons onscreen together with himself are entirely seamless; it's really amazing how good filmmaking can make you forget certain things).  The specificity is perhaps shallow, in that you can break it down and say that Elliot is the confident, aloof, cold, smug, arrogant, all that stuff, brother, and Beverly is the the weaker one, easily led by Elliot, uncertain he's comfortable with certain moral choices that Elliot makes for them both.  But indeed, this is why they don't survive -- together they form an imperfect organism, and had either one been born alone, as just a single entity, their chance for survival into old age (and to help propagate the species) would be much greater, no different than anyone else.  Together, they are a creature, a new thing, a clumsy form that is above us, smarter as one than they'd be as two, but they're like a machine that's slipped a gear inside, and the thing is shredded as, and because, it's functioning.

And Cronenberg says twins like this thing.  Though since I have no concept of what it's like to have an identical twin, I suppose even something as bleak as Dead Ringers can be a breath of fresh air if it truly explores what makes that relationship unlike any other.  For the rest of us, though, what fascinates and disturbs about the film is rooted in Cronenberg's intellectual approach to genre ideas in a non-genre film.  It makes Dead Ringers a film that has never existed before, even if it sometimes feels familiar -- there is a tone to it, on the surface, and an underlying I-don't-know-what, something that bubbles, but not from heat, from coldness, rather, somehow, something that stains everything else and makes it feel off.  Makes it feel wrong. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Seeing Things

Toad Road, which comes out tomorrow on DVD through Kino Lorber's Artsploitation line, is a horror film that comes weighted with some real-world significance, partly natural to the proceedings, but mostly awful, and eerie as well, though it's an eeriness that the filmmakers would have never wanted for their film. The regular significance, the insignificant significance, comes from the fact that Toad Road takes as its core horror idea an actual urban legend, that of the "Seven Gates of Hell" which are said to be found along a stretch of rural asphalt in Hellam Township, PA, near the border with Maryland. Urban legends being what they are, there are lots of variations and contradictions that you'll find once you start reading about it, but for the purposes of writer-director Jason Banker it suffices that in his film that lonely stretch of road is known as Toad Road. The seven gates -- which were real gates, regular gates I mean, though most are now gone -- represent different stages of the path to Hell, and no one, we are told, has ever made it past the fifth gate. Getting to the fifth gate will involve, a character in the film says, "hearing things" and "seeing things" and so forth.

Toad Road bears a very close resemblance to The Blair Witch Project, though it isn't a found footage movie (this in itself, in 2013, and given what Banker's budget must have been, is almost transgressive). Banker does, however, want to create a documentary tone, and much of what he films may indeed function as a document. Most of the characters are drug-addled burn-outs played by actors, and non-actors, of the same name -- so, for instance, the lead characters James and Sara are played by James Davidson and Sara Anne Jones, another Blair Witch Project conceit, though in this case that choice hurts a little bit more. It would appear that many of the drugs being consumed on camera are actually being consumed on camera -- one guy certainly does snort a condom up his nose -- and for much of Toad Road it feels like the reference being pursued is more Charles Bukowski than Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Sara is a pretty young woman who, when she meets James and his group of friends, whose idea of a good time is to hike to a cave and get high inside it, she's bizarrely ennamored with the lifestyle (I mean, I know it happens all the time, but when you see it happen in front of you it actually makes no sense) -- it's all very scuzzy, and unwashed, and drifting, and gross. But she wants in, and James, the expert, takes her under his wing and instructs her with an air of wisdom that would be hilarious if other factors didn't make that laughter catch in the throat. Not atypically in stories like this, Sara wants to push further than any of the people who've been living like this for years, and it's Sara who introduces Toad Road and the Seven Gates of Hell into Jame's life. She wants to actually go, and as the drugs suck her down deeper, and as James tries to claw out of the same hole -- he does a poor job, but the attempt feels genuine -- they finally do go, and the last twenty minutes or so of this very short film (it's only 76 minutes, with credits) becomes a horror movie of the kind you more or less expected when you put in the DVD.

More or less. The horror in Toad Road is a metaphor for all the drug stuff we've already seen, and on one level it's rather blunt, but this is okay as far as I'm concerned. Horror is a genre that allows for bluntness in this way. I almost feel that horror is most effective when its either very blunt or entirely obscure, when you sense there are metaphors at play, or might be at play, but you'll be damned if you can guess what they're for. This is a generalization, and I maybe shouldn't have made it, but the point is that in a sense Toad Road is carrying on the tradition of classic horror films like The Wolf Man, where the horror is only pretending to act as a mask for some other idea.A crucial plot element involves one character blacking out for an extended period, and, so it follows, having no idea what happened during that time. From there, you don’t have to travel far to find what Banker’s after.

The supernatural elements in Toad Road come very late, but are nevertheless briefly visualized. I’d have thought that at the point where we see anything, Banker might have realized such a thing was unnecessary. Not only unnecessary, but ill-advised, at least as the image is executed. Banker was clearly working with almost no money, and while it’s fine and admirable to stretch those limited resources at some point you do have to acknowledge this isn’t poker and there’s no one to bluff. All of which is simply to say that the one visual effect to be found in Toad Road doesn’t work, and looks cheap in a very specifically digital way that strikes me as the exact opposite of what is desired. However, it’s there only briefly, and the concept is modest enough that it’s not too hard to sale on by it, especially since what follows – how many gates were passed, and to what end? – is the meat of the horror anyway.

Which brings up the other aspect of reality in which Toad Road, as a completed film that exists now beyond the making of it, in a form accessible to millions, finds its roots. Before the closing credits role, there’s a dedication to “the memory of Sara Anne Jones,” the lead actress who died, very young, of a heroin overdose shortly after filming was completed. The way this fact lines up with the film is impossible to ignore, and Toad Road carries that weight. Both of these things are true, but then what? It would be tasteless to suggest Jones’s death somehow made Toad Road a better film, even though the world Banker creates ties in directly to Jones’s own life, as well as her death. So Toad Road is left adrift as something it never intended to be, as less a horror film than a document, or anyway this, I predict, will be its fate. When you watch it, it’s up to you to try and separate the film it was trying to be and the film it became and see if it can stand up. As a matter of fact, I think it can, though my patience with it was tested, and tested early. But it goes somewhere, and finally is its own thing, which is about all you can hope for.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Ha ha not really. It's just that I've been working on other things. I'll be back soon with the regular postings and such like, and I know, I know, David Cronenberg, Dead Ringers, etc. It's percolating, though, I swear to Christ it is. Just hang tight, my friends!

Incidentally, I tried to include a picture of one of those "Please Stand By" cards they used to put up on TV during one of the weekly nuclear strikes, but I'm at work and can't save the image, and for some reason can't post the link directly from the host site, and so I'm just like "Fuck it."

See you later dudes!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Run the Red Light

Tomorrow, Criterion will be releasing on DVD and Blu-ray director Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. If it's necessary, which it probably isn't, or in some way appealing, which I've decided it is, to categorize the film a certain way, then I'd have to say this is one of the more unusual "first-person" crime films I've seen, though in certain ways it's hardly unprecedented. Because while Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a political film to its core, it's hard for someone like myself -- by which I mean, and this is simply not the least of it, someone who is not a far-Left Italian in the 1960s and 70s -- to not take note of how it is in line with the classic and twisted American crime fiction of the mid-20th century, as in, your Jim Thompsons and such. This could be a re-thinking of Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me -- it's not impossible to imagine the Lou Ford who burns up at the end of The Killer Inside Me somehow surviving and subsequently going crazy in some new way.

Petri's film, which he co-wrote with long-time collaborator Ugo Pirri, is about a Roman chief inspector (Gian Maria Volonte) who as the film begins is engaged in two quite important activities: transferring from his department's homicide division to political crimes, and murdering his lover (Florinda Bolkan) for I think more than one reason, quite honestly, but more than anything to, he hopes, show that he is in fact not as above the law, not as out of the reach of justice and deserved punishment, as the Roman police of the time were said to be. Achieving this goal proves quite difficult. In the booklet that accompanies the Criterion disc, an excerpt from Pirri's memoir The Cinema of Our Lives details the conception, creation, and political fallout of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, the most internationally successful film of Pirri's career, and, with the possible exception of the 1965 Robert Sheckley adaptation The 10th Victim, Petri's as well (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1971, for what that's worth). After laying out the multifariously infuriating nature of Italian politics at that time, Pirri describes more or less what you might expect: excitement among the filmmakers for what they were doing; the fear that the resulting film, however good, might land them in prison; angry criticism aimed at them not just from the Right, but from the Left -- for a host of ridiculous reasons, from disdain at the film being made more or less through mainstream channels to completely misunderstanding the intent of the script -- and so on. The actual outcome, which I'll leave for you to read up on yourselves, was rather different than they expected, and even the least of their fears didn't come to pass -- the film was not banned, in other words, though an uneasiness over what might happen did lead Pirri and Petri to make a rather odd change to the ending. Pirri is correct that the change doesn't alter the gist of what happens, but it does have a curiously deadening effect.

But anyway. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is anchored by the rather extraordinary performance given by Gian Maria Volonte. His chief inspector (like LT in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, he's given no other name) makes a seamless transition from cold-eyed and ruthless investigator to passionate murderer to crazed and perverse seeker of justice, and Volonte is terrifyingly adept at each mental state. It says something, I think, that even when his chief inspector is at his most untethered, Volonte's performance still shows hints of what once must have been competence (if not morality, although if you go far enough back, who knows?) -- it's a piece of satire that still manages, unlike most satire, and in fact unlike the very intent of most satire, to depict a full human being, however deep in shadow that fullness may be. So as I say, Volonte is extraordinary. The rest of the film isn't too far behind him, though I do have my issues with it, some of which, I'll confess, may be somewhat knee-jerk in nature. And even now I can see my skimpy objections on political grounds aren't fair -- if Pirri and Petri announce some of the Roman Socialists which make up the fringe (which is fitting enough) of the movie's action are not merely Socialists but actual Stalinists, well, that is not what they, Pirri and Petri, were (well, not Petri anyway, I don't know about Pirri). I'd argue, then, that there's more to be satirized in all this, with Leftist terrorists being an actual threat in Rome at the time (in the excerpt from his book, Pirri stops just short of betraying some sympathy for the police, and while that means he doesn't betray that sympathy, you can tell when he stops short).

However, every film doesn't have to have everything in it, and anyway as fiercely political as Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is, I'm not primarily interested in it on those grounds. I'm interested in it on Jim Thompson grounds, and I'd have to say it's quite thoroughly successful on those terms. Pirri never claims to have been inspired by Thompson or any other American crime writers -- and I focus on Thompson because his stuff offers the most clear and direct comparison -- but along with Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of The Killer Inside Me, Petri and Pirri have created here the best Thompson adaptation I've ever seen, however unintended or literally not actually that it may be. But boy, it's all there -- the grotesque sexual fetishes, the man in power who hides in plain sight his violent psychopathy, the ability of those around him to ignore all the evidence because to allow themselves to become conscious of the truth would either endanger their lives or their positions, or in some cases perhaps they're just straight-up dopes. This is The Killer Inside Me! The very concept behind Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is one Thompson, had he thought of it, would have savored. Thompson did live long enough to have been able to see this film, and if he did I imagine him sitting in the theater, shaking his head, and muttering "Goddamnit."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Forgotten Song of Our Drifting Tomorrows


Douglas woke up and thought about society. “There’s a lot of suffering,” he thought. “Why *is* that??” He was the boss of a college so he woke up like this a lot. It was time to go to work.

Driving there he felt like a great American Indian sunbird or a giant arcing beam of limitless potential. The clouds and trees were like cottonballs and those fancy toothpicks with the green plastic at the top. It was as if he was driving through outer space with a torid whisper WHY ALL THE SUFFERING aching behind his eyes. Earlier he’d thought of sunbirds because he was fascinated by American Indians and he’d read all of their folklores. The last time he read a bunch of Indian folklores he went“There are so many metaphors in this!”Was there really a Trickster God in his life?

He pulled into his parking space like a great arcing beetle scurrying for its primal feast. He got out of his car and the sun basked him like a soaking rain. Nearby his favorite student Gloria was in a MAKE WATER TASTE GOOD protest march. Gloria had two books in her hands. One was about the history of the good water movement and the other one was all about vaginas.

“Your protest is so good,” Douglas said to her. “How do you find the time with your studies and whatnot?”

She had braids and a not-famous band shirt on. "You have to make the time, Professor Tartaniam. You have to make time for what is right."

Douglas and Gloria were having a sex affair. If his wife ever found out about it she would be like an arcing flame of furious light. Also if the college found out he would be fired and he’d get arrested and Gloria would probably have to give up crunk dancing.

"Gloria," he whispered hotly "No one can ever find out about our sex affair."

"I agree," she hissed.

Then he said "My brother is coming to visit. I hope he's no longer dealing street drugs. He got into some messes with some bad people."

"I agree," she hissed.

Douglas gazed into the wind.

"I have to go back to protesting," Gloria said.

"Okay," he said, and she started yelling protests. "NO BAD WATER ONLY GOOD WATER!"

He wondered what their future would be. It was like he was a baby uncertain of what it was or indeed who it was. The tree shadows trembled.


"Hi Douglas," said Dimitri Jenkins his office partner. "What do you think of morals? Do you like them?"

Douglas put his hand to his be-stubbled jaw. "Well Dimitri," he said, "I rather think I do. You see morals in our society today are like a guide for behavior. They are the sunbirds to our Trickster Gods, if you will."

Dimitri nodded. "That makes a lot of sense."

"I think morals are basically really important," Douglas went on. "A lot of them are metaphors. A cosmic swirl of light and image."

"The reason I'm asking," said Dimitri "is that my student Gloria is cheating on all of her tests and homeworks."

The shock of the news made Douglas's world spin and he was suddenly thinking in a stream of consciousness kind of way.


"Gloria!?" he went pretty loudly. "Gloria the radical crunk dancer!?"

"Yes," said Dimitri "which is why I'm concerned. Ordinarily when a student cheats I'd just call the police but she is the soul and conscience of not only our college but of our lives."

Douglas nodded. "If she's caught for cheating it would basically be like America has died." He smiled ruefully. "Or taken off life support."


Douglas looked at Gloria's cheated tests and homeworks. One test was about World War II and there was an essay question that went "Why do you think Hitler killed those people? What about economics? How many battles were there? Were there morals? Show your math." Gloria wrote "Yes there were morals and economics. Also Hitler was a patri-anarcho-Fascist, so that's why. There were about 70 battles."

That answer was exactly right...almost TOO right. Douglas could understand why Dimitri called her a cheater. He picked up his desk phone.

"Trinity," he said to his secretary "Have Gloria come see me."

"But sir she's in her good water protest."

"DON'T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT!?" he bellowed. His voice arced from his throat like a fleet of devious salmon. "Get her here NOW!" Gloria came into his office.

"You're a cheater," he said to her, "how could you cheat? My anger is like an awoken dinosaur!"

"Oh so that's it, is it!?" cried Gloria. "You found out I cheated on tests and homework! And here I was thinking you wanted to continue our sex affair! I WAS SO NAIVE!"

"Don't throw that back at me!" Douglas hollered. "You knew what you were getting into with me!"

"Sure I did. SURE! I knew that you would take my young person and use it and then, later on, after that, when you thought that my radical ethics might get in the way of your precious boss-at-a-college job you'd throw me out of your life like yesterday's..." She stopped suddenly, almost as if she couldn't think of a good thing to compare it to.

"That's ENOUGH!" he choked. He threw up in his trash can. There was so much stress! Gloria looked at him disgustedly.

"I'm going to tell your wife about our sex affair," she said. "Maybe then you'll realize the importance of good water!"

She slammed her way out of his office in a flurry of wind and dust like a ghost arcing down off the plains of Ireland.

"Nooooo!" he screamed. "NOOOOOO!!!!" he screamed again but louder and more crazy.


Mathilda Tartaniam sat at home where she lived with Doulgas Tartaniam (the professor from before) and read a magazine. It was called "Ethics and Morals in the Culture of Today." It was their special annual "Good Water" issue and Mathilda was all excited for it. Good water was important to her. She had a daughter named Judy who drank some bad water this one time and honest to God, she almost died. Mathilda went to the mayor and said "How can we have all this bad water? Why can't we have good water!?" So after she said that, the mayor went "Good water?? I'm controlled by a special interest group, my dear! Bad water makes this town thrive! HAW HAW HAW!"

Mathilda was powerless but then she heard about the Good Water Movement which in this town was run by Gloria Tomtassimo a politically radical crunk dancer. Mathilda wanted to be a part of that so now here was this good article for her to read. It would be a nice day.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK went the door. Mathilda opened it up and it was Gloria.

"Why, but, how," sputtered Mathilda. "Aren't you Gloria Tomtassimo!?"

It was Gloria Tomtassimo at the door. She said "Yes I am."

"It is an honor!"

"There's no time for that!" said Gloria. "You husband is cheating on you with me in a sex affair. Meanwhile, I have guilt about it and so I'm confessing."

Suddenly Mathilda's life was upside down. Her thoughts went like this:


Mathilda said to Gloria "What you've just told me is driving me nuts!"

"I bet!" said Gloria.

Just then suddenly a car pulled up. No, two cars pulled up. One was her husband's car and the other was her husband's brother's car. Her husband's brother was named Redmond, or "Red." First her husband Doulgas the professor ran up.

"Mathilda, don't listen to this stupid idiot! My ethics and my morals are really good! I would never cheat on you because that would make me a hypocrite!" Then suddenly it dawned on him that he was a hypocrite. "Oh shit!" he said.

Then Red got out of the car. He was holding a shotgun. He yelled "Douglas you gotta help me! I have street drug dealers on my tail! I got nowheres to go! I done screwed up real bad! They'll be here in six seconds!"

And they were, the drug dealers, they pulled up in a big truck and all got out. Red turned around with his shotgun but the drug dealers shot him and his life crumpled up like a void of existence which if you think about it is like all of us.

"Wait don't shoot!" cried Douglas. "We are all innocent!"

"But are we though?" hissed Gloria knowingly.

The drug dealers all shot their guns and the bullets arced in a flaming parabola of primeval notions of fate down on Douglas and Gloria. Gloria's head got completely shot off. Douglas got shot in his body and fell over. The drug dealers squealed away like Death's own parade.

Mathilda knelt over Douglas. "Oh no Douglas! Why! WHY! I thought you lived so ethically!"

With his dying breath Douglas went "So did I, Matty, so did I. But it's like you get into this kind of head place where you think if you are moral in your good water opinions then that's moral enough and you don't think about all the bad things. But Matty I have now thought of all the bad things and let me tell you I feel pretty sad about it. And now here I am dying, my blood arcing into our front yard like the bad water of our corporate money mills. And my eyes can't see you anymore. It's all light and rainbows, and oh! My hearing! My hearing is going too! I suppose I am dying, Matty, because all I now hear is the forgotten song of our drifting tomorrows..."


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This is For Your Eyes

In his essay “The Immortal Tramp” that accompanies the new Blu-ray and DVD release of City Lights by Criterion, Gary Giddins describes the unusual and ambitious nature of Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1931 film:

Chaplin’s new art was a form of storytelling combining burlesque comedy and dreadful pathos, each tuned to a pitch so high that the audience is jolted from one physical response to another: laughter and tears, the two faces of Comedy and not Tragedy but rather the melodramatic concession of Pathos, looking straight at each other. Familiar territory today, but it smacked of radical egotism then. No one had brought it off before, and Chaplin – the orphaned music hall clown who became, through movies, the most popular comedian the world had ever known – defied his partners’ warning that his ambition would cost him his audience.

And now look at us. Comedy as a means to achieving pathos, or at least as something that is inextricably bound up in it, almost defines the form over the last half century. There are certainly exceptions, and in fact currently there is a strong tide of absurdity in comedy that may be the result of a conscious choice by some comics to pull ridiculousness, the good kind, the Monty Python kind, away from those who abuse the relationship between comedy and pathos, of which there are a great many. But without Chaplin, and without City Lights, would Albert Brooks have ever thought to include in his masterpiece Modern Romance the short scene of the old man in the phone booth desperately trying, and failing, to save or rekindle a romance that ended badly? It’s a sad moment that illuminates what’s driving Brooks’s character more sharply and succinctly than any of the (truly great) comedy. Woody Allen, meanwhile, for about the first third of his career seemed intent on illustrating the history of American film comedy up to that point, beginning with complete absurdity in films like Take the Money and Run and Love and Death before moving on to (my deep love for comedic absurdity forbids me from saying something like “graduating to”) the more emotional films like Annie Hall and Manhattan that caused everyone to decide that he must be a major filmmaker. Allen has always cited Bob Hope as a primary influence on his comedy, and the shape and cadence of his jokes bear this out, but Allen has nevertheless worked hard to put the most Hope-like of his films behind him. Never the greatest fan of his own work, Allen would undoubtedly be appalled by the suggestion that his early films were even a patch on Hope’s best, but Allen is fundamentally a comedic filmmaker and much of his aesthetic owes more to Chaplin and City Lights than to The Road to Utopia (or Bergman, for that matter, though, like Hope, Bergman is still there).

So how did Chaplin do it? The key to the success of City Lights, even more important than Chaplin’s exquisite craftsmanship, is his performance. Watching the film again last night, Chaplin struck me as perhaps the supreme silent film actor, the man who understood how to exploit the limitations, or “limitations,” of the form better than anybody else, which obviously has something to do with why he was still making silent films in 1931. When bad comedians want to spoof silent movies, they tend to triple-down on the burlesque Giddins describes and force contemporary actors to mug in a way you’d rarely actually see, and which, in any case, you’d never see from Chaplin, a frequent target of bad spoofs. Chaplin is immune to this, though, because he knew exactly how to calibrate his performances, and in City Lights you see an actor who knows how to play to the rafters just enough to either sell the joke, or, in his tender scenes with Virginia Cherrell as the sweet blind girl who believes Chaplin’s penniless tramp to be her wealthy savior, to overcome the restrictions of silent films – which Chaplin evidently didn’t consider restrictions even after technological progress had removed them – through expression that is not, in my view, heightened much beyond what you might see in a good sound production of the same story. By which I mean, the idea behind silent film acting, as with live theater acting, is to go big so that, in the theater, the back seats can pick up what you’re doing, and in silent films the audience can understand what words would normally, but can’t or in the case of City Lights, won’t, convey (and incidentally, City Lights doesn’t have a lot of intertitles; it has enough, I suppose, and you probably shouldn’t listen to me since I’m no expert on this cinematic era, and in this regard it’s certainly no Warning Shadows, but still). But as an actor Chaplin seems to operate on the theory that if you just act the emotion as directly as possible, audiences can’t help but understand. Look at the tramp’s first encounter with the blind girl, and the way Chaplin plays the moment he picks up on her disability – there’s nothing showy about the moment, there’s no close-up; it’s all performance and, crucially, context. Chaplin was very good at, and very smart about, letting his story do a good bit of the acting for him.

I wonder, too, if City Lights would be as funny as it is without the pathos, and watching it again after many years I laughed a whole lot. Again, this is a question of context, and maybe it’s a matter of the kinds of laughs Chaplin is getting rather than whether or not he’d be getting them at all. The film’s biggest laugh for me comes at the very beginning, as the tramp struggles to stand at attention for the National Anthem while off-balance due to his pants being skewered by a statue (long story), all of this being before there’s any context at all. And I’m going to get off track here, but this is – and maybe not only this, but this kind of thing -- is the apex of physical comedy, for lots of reasons but mainly, I think, because Chaplin knows when to call it quits. If you read about comedy, or listen to comedians talk about it, especially today when one can go and pay money and ostensibly be taught how to be funny, you’ll hear a lot about escalation being a vital element to the form, and so now as a result (of that and probably a host of other things it would be too complicated to go into here) when a comedian deigns to do slapstick they typically get their laughs by never pulling back and pushing forward until every possible laugh has trailed off. Chaplin, though, knows when to stop, and knows it’s funnier to simply let it be. The scene I just described, or the slapstick within the scene, probably doesn’t even last a minute, and what’s funny is the performance, the seriousness of the tramp, rather than seeing how far he’ll go. Later, the tramp, drunk, walks across a dance floor and slips, to put it simply. It’s a terrific and hilarious pratfall that Chaplin does precisely one time, and while it’s exaggerated, this being a pratfall and everything, Chaplin also uses speed-ramping to make it go by quicker. Which, okay, that’s not why he used speed-ramping, but one of the results is, he gets his laugh and moves on – he doesn’t belabor anything. The only comedic sequence that goes on for a considerable length of time is the boxing match, but that’s a piece of elaborate choreography that wouldn’t work as well if he moved through it too fast. I could probably argue that it’s still too long, but I don’t want to because I don’t especially care. And see, too, the early bit with the street elevator. That scene not only doesn’t escalate – it’s funny precisely because it never escalates. It overturns not only this supposed rule of comedy, but it overturns while simultaneously using Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, that being the audience knowing something the character doesn’t. Chaplin does exactly this, but unlike Hitchcock never pays it off. And he makes this, somehow, funny.

So anyway, context, and pathos. There’s something about the gentleness that is at the heart of City Lights that makes everything funnier, not just the slapstick but the tramp’s occasional, and useless, attempts at being stern with others. This is no doubt at least in part a retroactive effect brought about by the film’s famous last shot of the tramp’s anxious but gleefully hopeful face, all the film’s emotion gathered up and concentrated into that one image. I was about to say that the upshot of all this is that it makes it possible to not think we’ve been laughing at the tramp, but of course that’s nonsense – we certainly haven’t been laughing with him, and anyway, that’s what comedy is: laughing at people. And of course the blind girl, her sight having been restored by the time the final scene rolls around, is shown laughing at the tramp before she realizes who he is. So she’s like us – it’s not that she’s “no better” than us, she’s just like us, and Chaplin isn’t asking “Why were you laughing at this man?” or judging us for doing so. He’s simply saying, and this is the pathos of his comedy, “Laugh all you want, because it’s funny. It’s just that it’s not only funny.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Damn the Man That's Standin' in His Way

Tomorrow, Kino Lorber is releasing to Blu-ray and DVD a film called Shoot the Sun Down, a Western from 1978 co-written (with Richard Rothstein) and directed by David Leeds. This is the only film Leeds ever made, and upon learning this I automatically assumed that something terrible had happened to him, but thankfully that's not the case. Why he left the film business I don't know, but now he's a sculptor, painter, and poet -- he's doing just fine! Don't worry! I would still very much like to know why he left films behind, though, and I'd like to know the story behind the making of Shoot the Sun Down, because I'm sure there must be one. All the Blu-ray offers is an alternate title sequence that features an original song written and performed by Kinky Friedman. What else was going on, I haven't a clue.

By this I don't mean to imply that I think Shoot the Sun Down is a bad movie. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. It's a modest version of the sort of ambitious bleak Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven's Gate that we all remember with great fondness/outrage from the 70s and just barely into the 80s. David Leeds, on the basis of this one film, strikes me as more Monte Hellman than Michael Cimino, an entirely wonderful thing to be. This film, Shoot the Sun Down, is about a quiet gunfighter, but not one looking for trouble, named Rainbow(!) played by Christopher Walken who wanders into a situation that hitches him against his will to a group of characters who are mostly no good. Most of the characters outside of Rainbow don't have names, but filling out the core group is The Captain (Bo Brundin) who is seeking gold and a British woman who was sold to him as basically a maid, or, in this particular case, "slave" (Margot Kidder), and lastly another man seeking gold, and Indian scalps, played by Geoffrey Lewis. Over the course of the film, the characters played by Brundin and Lewis will form an uneasy alliance to find Montezuma's Gold, and the woman and Rainbow will form a bond, partly romantic but primarily based on her desire to be free of the Captain and Rainbow's desire to free her.

There is some element of politics in Shoot the Sun Down, of a "this nation was built on blood" variety, though I believe Kino's description of it plays that up a bit too much. More than anything, the film is a standard, and solid, dark drama of violence, most of it, the worst of it, pending, and inevitable. If these four characters are fated to meet up, that most or all of them will die is inevitable. The performances are all very good -- Walken doesn't have to do much but sit back and calculate and softly call the two villains on their shit, which he's of course very good at. Brundin and Lewis play flipsides of villainy, Brundin being somewhat in denial about what he is, Lewis fully conscious and pleased about his own awfulness. Though it's not a scenery-chewing performance, Lewis, a good actor who I've rarely seen in a role this major, actually strikes me here as a little bit of an Elmore Leonard bad guy -- smarter than most people, yet grimy, aware of how smart Rainbow is but maybe thinking that knowledge is enough to win, this comfort being his weakness. Brundin, meanwhile, since I'm thinking of this, is very much like one of Leonard's subvillains -- arrogant, announcing himself morally justified but not able to convince anybody including himself, not worldly, only avaricious. And so on. This is the sort of thing that makes the film work. Helping things along, even if she is only playing "the woman," is Margot Kidder, not an actress I would have thought capable of pulling off a convincing British accent, but she does. Oh, she lets "New Orleans" trip her up, but otherwise quite solid, as is her work overall -- the character is an archetype, maybe, the flinty-yet-vulnerable woman of the frontier, but Kidder's performance doesn't stick a flag in the ground and make a big show about Women in the West; she's just the person, and it's easy to root for her freedom.

Now. But. So. Shoot the Sun Down is a curious film, though, because in the midst of all that's good about is a lot that seems wrong, like something happened during shooting or post-production or something. Time and again, scenes suddenly end, either with a sharp cut or even with a fade-out, long before it seems all the information the scene might have to offer has been given. This isn't to suggest the film is confusing, but there's a rhythm to scenes in your standard narrative film that David Leeds is either flouting without any sense of why he's doing it or how to do it, or something was forced on him. It's not that scenes end right after a character says "And another thing!"; it's more that they end just before a character says "And another thing!" Awkward, too, is the violence, which is a mix between the old Hollywood style of "get shot, grab your chest, sink to the ground" and the blunter, more visceral kind ushered in by films like The Wild Bunch. But since Shoot the Sun Down is rated PG, the visceral stuff in the film is harsh only up to a point, and the death of one character, as Leeds appears to have looked for a way around blatant gore and into a zone of implied horror, is particularly absurd.

This same half-reticence regarding violence pays off on one very important occasion, or two closely related occasions, which I won't spoil, but it works because gallons of blood isn't necessary to get across the trauma. Even this is weirdly edited, and it's not until minutes after this violence occurs that we even know what happened. It all works out in the end, though, and Shoot the Sun Down ends on an up-note, in terms of quality. It's fitting for the whole film, too, since from the beginning David Leeds' only film is about 90 minutes of strong writing and acting held back by genuinely baffling editing. It alternates throughout, and, as a matter of fact, the very beginning is one of the film's lamest scenes. It's only right and fair that it should end strong.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In the Tomb of That Darkened Room, We Both Sat Down to Play

Today Kino Lorber is releasing two films to DVD, one of which is of major importance to myself and the other one of the major independent releases of the year. If you don't mind, I would like to offer an opinion on each.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (d. Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein) - This is the one that is of great importance to myself -- I will try not to bore you explaining why that is. "I really like magic and I really like Ricky Jay" will probably suffice, though I should note that at this point in my life I still have not had the pleasure of seeing Jay live. I've been stuck with as many TV appearances and YouTube clips as I can scrounge up, a sporadic reading of his books, such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women and Jay's Journal of Anomalies, and his work as an actor, which I've enjoyed but which isn't really the same thing, in films such as Boogie Nights, House of Games, and the like. In those films, Jay is working as an actor, but not in his natural role as a performer. To see a performance from him that better represents why Ricky Jay is a suitable subject for a documentary, and one that is also, one might argue, a more genuine piece of acting than anything he's done for Paul Thomas Anderson or David Mamet (his most frequent filmmaking collaborators), check out the clip below:

That's taken from an old BBC special about Jay called Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pransters, Jokers, and Ricky Jay, an irritatingly cumbersome title that is nevertheless excused due to the inclusion under its umbrella of the above magnificence. That special also allowed Ricky Jay to cross paths with a reporter for The Guardian named Suzie McKenzie. McKenzie appears in this new documentary Deceptive Practice and tells a key story about trying to smooth Jay's feathers -- he can be prickly, as is the case with most geniuses -- after a heated disagreement with the BBC director over a trick they wanted him to perform. It's a trick devised by Max Malini, and which Jay himself describes in the film. It involves spontaneity and a block of ice, is all I'll say about it, and Jay did it for McKenzie. The way McKenzie recounts this incident in her life, when Ricky Jay performed this mind-boggling trick just for her many, many years ago, makes it abundantly clear that this was something of a life-altering experience for her, something she still hasn't quite gotten over, or, to put a more positive spin on it as it's obvious she's grateful it happened, hasn't yet chosen to let go of. It was wonderful precisely because she can't understand it.

Deceptive Practice is a wonderful film, and the McKenzie story is one of its strongest bits. While directors Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein have made a film about Ricky Jay, and you do learn a good amount about his life and career, he is crucially left mysterious, not least because his art depends on an audiences inability to understand it. I think it's a safe generalization to say that most true fans of magic, unless they're interested in developing their own skills in the field, don't actually want to know how the best tricks are done -- they'll wonder about it, and puzzle about it, but I know that I don't want to be told. And to ask? In the film, David Mamet, an old friend of Jay's who has directed him not only on film but has directed several of his stage shows, talks about asking Jay how a particular trick was done. Jay said, I'll tell you, if you agree to go home and practice and practice and practice until you can do the trick as well as anybody has ever done it, then I'll tell you another one. Mamet says that at that moment he realized that to ask the question as he'd done was "a desecration." The mystery of Jay, and others like him (such as his assistant, Michael Weber, who is shown late in the film performing some pretty jaw-dropping tricks himself) comes through in the film when we learn about his devotion, and state of mind while simply handling a deck of cards. He says nothing makes him happier than simply shuffling cards, which he can do for hours when he needs to think about something, and it's easy to believe him, and to imagine him sitting in a chair, shuffling cards, possibly forever. 

I read one review of Deceptive Practice that complained that it should have been more directly about Jay. It's a curious think to moan about, not only because I walked away from the film knowing a lot more about the man than I did before, but because the focus of it is far more rich. It's there in the subtitle: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. So we learn about Max Malini and Dai Vernon, Al Flosso, Charlie Miller, and a host of other magicians of the sort that simply no longer exist, and we are poorer for it. Without Ricky Jay, and without Deceptive Practice, they might be gone, as in gone gone. The film is a biography and a history, and I'm biased but I love it.
Computer Chess (d. Andrew Bujalski) - Now this one, on the other hand... Okay, look. Mumblecore's this thing we all have to put up with now. I'd say "for the time being," with my characteristically optimistic lilt, but when something like Computer Chess is embraced not just on comedic grounds -- it is essentially a comedy, and sometimes a funny one -- but on aesthetic ones, I have to wonder if the boot of intentionally (I'm making a charitable assumption here) cheap and clumsy affectation will ever be removed from our necks. I'll admit that since I'm not obligated to see everything, I am therefore not obligated to see things that don't interest me, which includes (I'm tempted to say "almost exclusively") the films that constitute the mumblecore base, such as most of Joe Swanberg's stuff (I've seen Uncle Kent and some of his short horror films), the early Duplass brothers movies, Aaron Katz movies that aren't Cold Weather (I saw that one, and I liked it), and so on. So who am I to say, etc. But almost every time I get pulled towards a movie that is either a part of mumblecore or -- are we already at this point? -- "post-mumblecore," a movie like, say, The Color Wheel or The Comedy, or now Computer Chess, I'm repelled by the smugness or a defiant lack of craft. This doesn't apply across the board, necessarily, but the overriding philosophy seems to be "This looks like shit, let's roll camera."

And few look more like shit than Computer Chess, but of course it's not simply enough to say "This looks like shit." It looks like shit because why? It's not a matter of giving Bujalski the benefit of the doubt that he intended the film to look like the interior scenes of the earliest episodes of Doctor Who. He shot it, and not, I don't think, by accident, with a Sony AVC 3260, which I'm told first came out in 1968 (so just a little bit after Doctor Who -- point taken, Andrew Bujalski). The film is set in 1980, and the action revolves around a group of computer programmers and software engineers who have gathered together for a tournament pitting their various chess-playing computers against each other, and ultimately against a human chess master in attendance. An early panel discussion scene would seem to justify the film's aesthetic, as this scene, which introduces the main characters -- such as Wiley Wiggins as Martin Beuscher and Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton, whose malfunctioning chess computer is central to the whole movie -- looks pretty much exactly like you'd imagine such a panel discussion held in a hotel conference room in 1980 would look, using the extant technology to film it and show to classes later and what have you. But I personally see no benefit in applying that same aesthetic, or conscious lack of aesthetic, to the rest of the film. Bujalski's imagination is such that it only seems like a good idea to him to change things up in a late scene when a couple of characters are high. 

So it's visually off-putting but this isn't even my biggest gripe. The two films Computer Chess most reminds me of are Randy Moore's recent disastorously underthought Escape From Tomorrow, a film whose creative thrust seems to be to go crazy because when anything can happen how great is that?, and an odd 1996 film by director D. W. Harper and writer/actor Stephen Grant called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I last saw that movie a long time ago, and my memory is sketchy, but it's a film set in Austin, TX (and Wiley Wiggins is an Austin, TX-based actor; it's all coming together before my eyes), though shot in North Carolina, that attempts to combine Walt Whitman, Charles Whitman's murder spree, theater groups, college life, something about astronauts I think, and things of this nature. The "Walt Whitman/Charles Whitman!!!" concept is about what you'd expect from a film made by college kids, but I remember liking the nutty ambition of The Delicate Art of the Rifle at the time. Computer Chess, which eventually ropes in references, as opposed to ideas, to artificial intelligence, the singularity, and the insidious shadow of the military over everything (I initially thought this last bit was a joke, a bit of satire similar to later stuff in the film about New Age free-love-type hippies, but now I think, no, this is in fact Computer Chess's Big Idea), pretends to have an ambition similar to The Delicate Art of the Rifle, but can never commit to anything. When things get weird, and they eventually get very weird, the motivation is simply to be weird just for the shit of it. "Art for art's sake," you might say, and which I'm all for, but I'd rather there be something like Nabokov's "aesthetic bliss" involved, as opposed to an underimagined scramble to justify an expansion of the ridiculous self-imposed visual restrictions by the drug use of a couple of tedious minor characters. So back to that part again, which I clearly didn't like. But what more is there to hold on to? A shockingly large number of the jokes are based on how older things look old to us now. The jokes about hippies -- again, something I'm all for -- are all, essentially, "Can you believe these hippies?" And computer nerds? Oftentimes, they have trouble with ladies. The funniest character in the film is the chess master, played by non-actor Gerald Perry. Perry is very good, and there's some attempt in the writing of his character to give his language anedge. Not "edge" as in, like, cuss words, but "edge" as in a quirk or bent to the words that make them funny. Nobody else really has that to work with (though Chris Doubek, as one of the hippies, does make the most of his line "Oh wow! Whoa!", and I'm actually being serious).

So anyway. I didn't like it. There's an ambition to this sort of thing that strikes me as curiously ambitionless.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

When the Axe Comes Through the Door

Andrew O'Hehir's review of The Counselor appears, as depressing as this is to say, to be the big one. But when you, or someone else on the staff tasked with this job but who is pulling directly from your review, slaps on a title like "Meet the Worst Movie Ever Made," you're going to enjoy a fair amount of traffic. Is it possible that O'Hehir could have possibly anticipated such a thing beforehand? Could that, now wait I'm just thinking this out here, have possibly motivated him to write such absurdities as those that litter his review, a review that, given the content of it, might have more accurately been titled "I'm Going To Use The Phrase 'The Devil's Candy' Something Like Six Times'?" Since O'Hehir happily -- gleefully, even -- imagines all sorts of cynical self-satisfaction blackening the hearts of The Counselor's principal creative forces -- director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, for example -- I'm going to go ahead and say "He absolutely fucking did." It's a terrible, infuriating review, badly written and devoid of an argument about what the film is, and constantly falling back on boilerplate critic-speak so that he might better fail to describe what his objections are. Here's a key passage, or as "key" as it's ever going to get, from the review:

[T]he narrative of the film is almost entirely discursive, and largely consists of the Counselor sitting around with his obviously crooked associates —Pitt in a dingy white suit, stringy hair and a black eye; Bardem in hilariously ugly designer duds, accessorized with girly cocktails — having stilted, stylized conversations about women and money and snuff films and the meaning of life that don’t go anywhere. It’s like a mumblecore movie about a bunch of Sarah Lawrence philosophy majors, made by coked-up rich people for 100 bajillion dollars.

Well, hold the phone, if I'd known the dialogue was going to be stylized I daresay I would never have bothered! O'Hehir also calls the dialogue "stilted," which is at least a pejorative, but as with anybody who has ever used that word in a review, he believes that since "stilted" has a definition his work is now done, and providing examples and arguing his case would therefore be redundant: I said it was bad, which is my evidence that it is bad. As it happens, I rather liked McCarthy's dialogue, and tend to favor his writing in general, and furthermore thought The Counselor in general was pretty fantastic, about which more later. But right at the moment my head is full of this nonsense that I have to use as my launching point.

Except, no, I should reel this in. I would hate to be discursive, which The Counselor isn't, and which anyway, once again, isn't a pejorative unless you then go ahead and describe in what way the film under discussion falters as a result of this discursiveness, which O'Hehir doesn't do. And so, the plot! Michael Fassbender plays the titular character (we're never told his name) a very successful defense attorney who is deeply in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz), a sweet and beautiful woman with whom the counselor is about to forge what would appear to be a perfect life. However, we learn that the counselor is rather lackadaisically attempting to enter into the world of drug trafficking. He's being helped along in this endeavor by one of his clients, a flamboyant nightclub owner named Rainer (Javier Bardem) who is not entirely unfamiliar with the world of the Mexican drug cartels. Because of this familiarity, Rainer never stops warning the counselor about what kind of men are being dealt with, the kind of men being dealt with kind of being the core of the entire film. Why, precisely, the counselor thinks it's a wise move, or an okay thing to do, to go into business with a drug cartel, even at some remove, is never explained (this kind of withholding also bothers O'Hehir); all we know is that at one point he says that his back is against the wall, and we also know that he's arrogant enough to think he can handle it. "You can't," is what Rainer tells him, and "You absolutely can't" is what Westray (Brad Pitt), another link in the chain of clients and shady associates the counselor uses for his drug deal, says. But he does, and because he's naive, and because he's arrogant, he doesn't realize that someone, Rainer's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz, who is not very good, I'll go ahead and agree with O'Hehir about that) is working against him -- or not him, specifically, but certainly against his best interests -- and leaving him vulnerable to an angry cartel.

And an angry cartel is unlike anything else. This, you see, is the "point," if I must be forced to use that word. Westray's short speech about snuff films is not in the least "discursive", and it certainly goes somewhere -- where it goes could not be plainer. It functions, first, to illustrate what the cartels are capable of, how their violence is so very different from most people would imagine it to be. Horrible violence to most people is shooting someone in the head. Violence to the cartels is a snuff film, or a bag full of severed heads, or death by bolito, a weapon described in the film that I will leave to you to learn about. I'm paraphrasing here, but Westray follows up his bit about snuff films by saying something like "If you ever thought there is something these people are not capable of, there isn't." So that's where it goes, first, and then? Well, it provides information that pays off very clearly later on. If O'Hehir can't be bothered to pay attention to the film unspooling in front him, then why should I pay attention to him when he writes things like "This having Alice Waters and Mario Batali labor in the kitchen for a while and then serve you a gray-green burger on Wonder Bread, with what looks like somebody’s pubic hair stuck to it" and believe it to be anything other than a child's idea of wit? He's not just wrong, he can't even be funny about it. This is unforgivable.

But I'm being discursive again. Elsewhere, I've seen Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote the script for The Counselor, pilloried for having gone off the deep end with this one. "Cormac McCarthy," goes the cry, "You are so great! Why have you written something so verbose and crazy and violent!? Your very first novel ever, The Road, wasn't like that! WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU!?" I might be paraphrasing again, but the idea many are expressing that The Counselor is somehow unlike the McCarthy works we all, as a people, have enjoyed in the past, appears to have dug its claws in to the point that the response by others has been "Yeah, what's the deal with that, Cormac McCarthy?" And I'm reminded of one thing, as I always am when the subject turns to questions of Cormac McCarthy's writing style, and what I'm reminded of is this:

It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo’s clamor.

That's Cormac McCarthy describing the cry of a baby in his novel Outer Dark, which, now that you mention it, why didn't The Counselor have any palsied jawhasps or witless paracletes?? The gist being, The Counselor is pure McCarthy, or, rather, no -- in terms of the films preoccupations and use of violence, and the types of violence used, its Biblical morality, and almost pathological unwillingness to offer the viewer a shred of hope, in all these ways, yes, it's pure Cormac McCarthy. However, the language used -- the English language, not cinematic language -- is more like the comparatively straightforward No Country for Old Men, a novel and film with which The Counselor shares more than a few similarities. But the speeches in this new film should not be sticking in so many craws. They're quite excellent, in my view, and if they aim for profundity, whether or not they reach it doesn't mean they don't achieve poetry. Pitt has some terrific ones as Westray, but his are mostly fairly plainspoken. Ruben Blades, on the other hand, has something of a showstopper of a speech late in the film, his character being perhaps the last person to gently but in no uncertain terms explain to the counselor what a fool he's been. In the speech, he says, among much else, that the counselor wants to return to where he was, but "life won't accept you back." I fear this is not exact, and I would very much like it to be, but it's at least close. And, as a way to express the damage done not only spiritually but in practical and hellishly moral ways, when a certain moral line is crossed, it's clear and precise in its language; you cannot be the Prodigal Son, it says, because you've gone too far. What will happen has, for all intents and purposes, already happened.

Hey, but quit being so discursive! And don't cost any money at all to make, either. O'Hehir -- who spends at least a third of his review describing how he thinks The Counselor will one day be regarded (hint: it will be regarded as something that rhymes with "pevil's bandy," and it rhymes with "pevil's bandy" five time) -- gets pretty hung up on the fact that The Counselor was made by a Hollywood studio and therefore had some money behind it. In the bit from his review quoted above, O'Hehir says "100 bajillion dollars" but you guys don't think he could have literally meant that, do you?? Wait, I just checked -- the film cost $25 million, so pretty modest as these things go nowadays. But for fuck's sake, O'Hehir might as well have screamed, if you're going to make a film whose budget ends in "-illion," at least have the decency to not have so much talking in it. And yes, I wish O'Hehir had come clean and just fucking said that, since it's plain as day that's what he was thinking. If you're bored and confused -- that he was confused has been proved -- then just say so. Don't mask it with some vague economics-based self righteousness.

I think The Counselor is a terrific film, which I hope I've made clear. Fassbender is wonderful, even if his accent is sketchy -- watch him coming apart in a late face-to-face conversation with Pitt. His posture, his eyes, his voice, express the feeling that the counselor's life has now changed into something unimaginable. Cruz is heartbreaking, effortlessly sweet -- her face when she sees her engagement ring is about as on the money as I've ever seen that oft-dramatized scenario played -- and Bardem plays the flamboyance of a somewhat unlikable person as something that could easily exist and function on this earth. In fact, Bardem saves one of the film's missteps, which is the already-infamous "car-fucking" scene. The mistake there, in my view, was to go to the flashback at all, unless Ridley Scott was going to shoot it so that it, if such a thing is even possible, looked like it belonged with the rest of the film. He didn't, and it doesn't, but that scene exists prior to the film's main action, and the story is being told by Bardem's Rainer to the counselor, and as Bardem plays it (and as McCarthy writes it), Rainer is still utterly thunderstruck by what he witnessed, even disturbed in a way he can't really define. What comes through most is Rainer's confusion. But even this, for all its absurdity, much of it ill-advised, isn't "discursive" or "beside the point"; it may not work, but it leads to a realization. It's not the product of McCarthy or Scott saying "Hey everybody, let's put this stupid goofball shit in our 100 bajillion dollar movie!" Then everybody else goes "Hooray!"

I must be blunt about this: if you're going to trash a film in the way O'Hehir did, you must understand what you're trashing and you must then make your case. It's simply not enough to say that Cormac McCarthy's script is "labored," as O'Hehir does, because what in the world does that mean? It can mean something specific if you put it in your review, but if you don't then I guess you'd better say the film you're trashing might be the worst film ever made, because at least in that case you might go viral.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: Striking a Few Villainous Chords

The attempts of mechanicians to imitate, with more or less approximation to accuracy, the human organs in the production of musical sounds, or to substitute mechanical appliances for those organs, I consider tantamount to a declaration of war against the spiritual element in music; but the greater the forces they array against it, the more victorious it is. - from "Automata" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann was devoted to music, it was his greatest passion, and most of his creative life was given over to it, either as a composer, music director, critic, or performer, so it is a grand and tragic irony that the piece of music with which he is most associated wasn't written by him -- in fact, the man had hastened along with booze what was probably his impending doom anyway, long before it was written. I am speaking, of course, about Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, written around 1879. The libretto of The Tales of Hoffmann takes as its spine a loose adaptation of three of Hoffman's fantastic and tragic stories, "fantastic and tragic" being one way you might go about beginning to define horror, as a genre.

Hoffmann took his fiction seriously, though it was a practical occupation for him. According to E. F. Bleiler's quite thorough introduction to my 1967 Dover edition of The Best Tales of Hoffman, his writing, which did include a quite successful and influential period as a music critic, was the main thing keeping the wolves from his door (his writing, and one very generous friend). After a while, there was no hope of Hoffmann finding success as a composer and so he had to move on. To drink mainly, it would seem, but to writing, too, and his stories have survived almost two hundred years. His music hasn't; according to Bleiler, not only are most of his compositions lost, but they weren't even very good. His most successful piece, an opera called Undine, is praised by Bleiler as "a capable work, on the whole very pleasing." And you can take that to the bank!

You can still find Hoffmann's work in print -- he wrote several novels (Bleiler is very keen on one called The Devil's Elixir) you can find, and any number of collections of his stories, though I have yet to see anything called The Complete Tales of Hoffmann, which is an odd thing, and I hope I'm simply not looking hard enough. In any case, the collection you'll most often hear about and stumble across is the aforementioned The Best Tales of Hoffmann, which contains ten of his stories including the three that were adapted into Offenbach's opera. I read those three, plus one other called "Automata" just for the hell of it, sort of, but which anyway turned out to be entirely of a piece with "A New Year's Eve Adventure," "Rath Krespel," and what John Sladek considers Hoffman's most horrific tale, "The Sand-Man."

Of course, not even Offenbach has managed to swallow Hoffmann completely, because in 1951 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made film version of his opera, and so The Tales of Hoffmann is now more of a Powell and Pressburger thing than it is an Offenbach thing, and certainly more than it is an E. T. A. Hoffmann thing. Which, you know, if you have to be dead and your name forever associated with a couple of 20th century filmmakers, that's pretty good. But what are these tales, and what was done to them? In his essay on The Best Tales of Hoffmann in Horror: 100 Best Books, John Sladek isn't wrong when he says "In 'The Sand-Man,' the nightmare is relentless." It's about a man named Nathanael who, as a young boy, is terrified by stories about The Sandman, that otherworldly being who sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to make them sleep, and later associates that with a vile business associate of his father's, named Coppelius. Coppelius's work is mysterious, Nathanael's father his one employee, and it eventually is the death of the poor man, though not Coppelius. And so for the rest of his life Nathanael is obsessed by Coppelius, believing the man to haunt his very existence, until he one day falls in love with Olimpia, a strange, beautiful, but utterly blank girl, the true nature of whom the reader well knows.

"The Sand-Man" is eerily prescient in the same way Frankenstein has been (a comparison Sladek makes), as well as despairing, hopeless, a headlong plunge into ruin. It is also an elaborate fantasy in that it imagines a world on the cusp of being overwhelmed by automatons indistinguishable, except perhaps for the then-undefined "uncanny valley," from your neighbor. It is this, more than the horror of its tragedy, that Powell and Pressburger (and presumably Offenbach, though I'll belatedly admit that my experience with his opera comes only from the film) latch onto. In their film's first act, "The Tale of Olympia," an extremely free adaptation of a small portion of "The Sand-Man," is actually almost light-hearted, goofy in its surrealism, but in addition to inexplicable bits of strange imagery that pop up here and there, an undeniable uneasiness creeps in, exactly the uneasiness that so disturbed Hoffmann. The stage is overrun with gaudily dressed and brightly colored automatons, the air is festive, but the eyes are empty, the corners of the mouths turn neither up nor down, and the inevitable result is that their capering is grotesque and cold.

Hoffmann's "A New Year's Eve Adventure" at first seems like it might be just the thing to supply Powell and Pressburger with a similar tone for their take on "The Tale of Giulietta," Offenbach's second act, but the story, like every Hoffmann story I read, is almost a collection of stories in itself. In it, our point of view comes from a man named The Travelling Enthusiast, who drifts through a romantically disastrous New Year's Eve party and into a couple of bars where he meets a man who casts no shadow and a man whose reflection doesn't appear in mirrors. Melancholy and fanciful, until The Travelling Enthusiast encounters one tale after another and Hoffmann drops us further down until we learn the awful story of Erasmus Spikher, the man with no reflection, and it's a story of weakness, murder, obsession, and demonic seduction. Spikher informs the Enthusiast that he journeyed with great excitement to Italy, where his unwillingness to cheat on his wife despite the encouragement to do just that by virtually everyone around him marks him, ironically, and quite against the EC Comics style of moral horror, as a target for Giulietta, a soul-hungry succubus who sets about destroying his life.

Powell and Pressburger (and Offenbach, or mainly Offenbach, I know, I'm tired of covering my ass every time!) wisely choose Spikher's story as the focus of the adaptation, leaving out The Travelling Enthusiast, the New Year's Eve party, the bars, the man with no shadow, in favor of the bold fantasy of, as Hoffmann called it, "The Story of the Lost Reflection." It's kind of a swashbuckler, too, and visually calls to mind the 1940 film version of The Thief of Bagdad, on which Powell served as a co-director. But it's the dark elements -- even if it all leads towards a rather more optimistic finale than Hoffmann's original -- and the surprisingly frank, if still coy, sexual elements that distinguish "The Tale of Giulietta." I don't want to go nuts here, but in its creepy approach to high fantasy, "The Tale of Giulietta" feels like part of the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. But I said I didn't want to go nuts! It's just that there's a swordfight on what appears to be, though must not technically be, Charon's boat as it sails along the Styx, or a river that brings the Styx to mind. It's foggy and weird, with, again, like "The Tale of Olympia," occasional shots depicting things you can't quite understand. The film's disturbing "What is that exactly?" tone really takes hold here.

Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier, and Powell and Pressburger, finally adapted Hoffmann's sad and mysterious "Rath Krespel." It's the story of a deeply eccentric violin maker named Krespel, beloved by all for his charmingly odd way of going about life -- the first pages of the story focus on the building of his unusual house, and the celebration that follows its completion -- and his astonishing musical talents. But when our narrator learns that Krespel keeps as an apparent hostage a young girl named Antonia, who possesses, the narrator is told, an unspeakably sublime singing voice, a darker side of Krespel is hinted at. And indeed, as the narrator learns more, the more insane he appears. The two men become friends, and the narrator is even allowed to meet Antonia, but when the narrator's attempts to make the girl sing become more transparent, Krespel snaps, and expresses his outrage all the more frightening as it mixes affection with violence. To the narrator, Krespel says:

"In very truth, my esteemed and hounourable student friend, in very truth it would be a violation of the codes of social intercourse, as well as of all good manners, were I to express aloud and in a stirring way my wish that here, on this very spot, the devil from hell would softly break your neck with his burning claws, and so in a sense make short work of you; but, setting that aside, you must acknowledge, my dearest friend, that it is rapidly growing dark, and there are no lamps burning tonight so that, even though I did not kick you downstairs at once, your darling limbs might still run a risk of suffering damage. Go home by all means; and cherish a kind remembrance of your faithful friend, if it should happen that you never -- pray, understand me -- if you should never see him in his own house again."

I love that "softly break your neck," not to mention "setting that aside." As it turns out, though, mad or not, Krespel has an excellent reason for his behavior, as we learn through another of Hoffmann's tale-within-a-tale that reveals who Antonia is, and what, or who, is the true source of her danger.

For once, Powell and Pressburger actually pile on the horror. Though the tone of "The Tale of Antonia" is as melancholy as "Rath Krespel," it alters Antonia's history, and brings in a true villain in the form of Doctor Miracle, a character cobbled together from other Hoffmann stories, and so it becomes almost a classic tale of good and evil. The core idea of Antonia's character as imagined by Hoffmann is a rather ingenious fantasy concept -- might as well say, though not why, if she continues to sing she'll die -- that pays off, if that's the phrase, with the bluntest climax I've seen from Hoffmann. Powell and Pressburger, even with their addition of naked villainy, smooths that out, not by eliminating it but by casting events in a heavenly golden shine. It is, and this certainly seems logical, in fact quite the tonal opposite of Hoffman in that, instead of ending as sharply as the chop of a butcher's knife, it ends with an operatic upswell. The film's tragedy is grand, while the story's is simply lights out.

In Hoffmann's stories, his heroes had many names, as you'd expect, or none, in the case of the young attorney in "Rath Krespel," but Offenbach made the hero of his versions E. T. A. Hoffmann himself. Bleiler's introduction offers a good bit of biography, but he can only go so far in terms of the man's romantic life, but nevertheless Offenbach's choice seems right. The horror of love, to borrow a phrase, via the title of a novel by Jean Dutourd, appears in these stories in very similar way, the obsessions combine into a motif that sprawls over many stories, the terror of the artificial encroaching on the natural casts a shadow like the Angel of Death. In the opera, Hoffmann taking on the role of the protagonist feels like a choice that Hoffmann simply couldn't bring himself to make himself. At the end of the Powell and Pressburger film, Hoffmann's final slump is meant to be that of a drunk man losing consciousness, but looks very much like a man dying. Hoffmann's own death was at the very least sped along by alcohol, so intentional or not it's gloomily fitting. And after all those bright colors and all that sweeping music, all that imagination and vibrancy, for E. T. A. Hoffmann to end up like that...