Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Hell On the Soul

It's often said that action films are only as good as their villains. I'd say this rule does have its exceptions, but broadly speaking yes, if your villain is just some useless fart of a guy, the thrill of seeing him defeated, or of seeing him evil it up big time, if that happens to be your thing, is significantly dampened. This danger exists even when adapting a classic story, because you can take Dracula, for example, and simply by casting the wrong person obliterate over a century's worth of the hard work that went into making him famous. Also, the approach: should Dracula snarl a lot, like vampires do, or should he sit in chairs most of the time? There are a host of choices to make, most of them bad ones.

One of the most reliable villains in film history is also sometimes the hero of the same story, by which I mean, Dr. Jekyll (hero, of sorts) and Mr. Hyde (villain). I've now seen, I believe, four films based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, one of the Big Three works of 19th century horror that paved the way for the genre we all know, love, and sometimes disdain with great venom. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an interesting case, because while the influence of Dracula can be charted in ways both blatant and vague across the entire vampire subgenre, and Frankenstein (the best of the three, in my opinion, and just for the record) is such a specific story that any influence, which is certainly copious, must nod very directly towards Shelley's original, Stevenson's story has had the greatest impact on werewolf fiction and films, at least the early-to-mid 20th century variety, far more so, from what I can see, than any piece of lycanthropic folklore you might care to point to. The idea in both being, the ravenous and amoral beast in all of us is released, tragically, from within a good man. This has been subverted and messed with, and even discarded, plenty of times, but 20th century werewolves are, essentially, Mr. Hyde. But the ways in which one might depict werewolves is pretty limited -- do they stand upright or are the basically just wolves? is as far as it usually goes -- whereas your options for portraying Mr. Hyde provide a bit more room.

I bring all this up, and am winding towards a specific point, because today saw the release by Kino Lorber of John S. Robertson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1920. It's worth noting that this film predates Nosferatu by two years, so in terms of horror film history this is pretty close to the very beginning. And in some ways, it seems not terribly distinguished. By that I mean not much more than "John S. Robertson wasn't F. W. Murnau," but, I mean, he wasn't. But look, back to a point I think I'm making. The other three major Jekyll & Hyde adaptations I've seen each present a different Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll is always kind of a saint, a humanitarian who nevertheless also has some pretty wild scientific and medical theories, but anyway a good guy. Along the way and for subtly different reasons (in the Robertson film, paired with a plot touch from The Picture of Dorian Grey, all it takes for Jekyll is seeing a pretty Italian lady spin around a few times) he develops and takes a potion that is intended to do exactly what it does, which is to separate the two sides of man, the good and pure and the ravenously amoral. In Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 film, starring Fredric March, Mr. Hyde is basically a classic movie monster. In 1941, Spencer Tracy starred in a film directed by Victor Fleming, and he played Hyde, most intriguingly, not as a horror movie figure (though it's still a horror film) but rather as an abusive husband (I was just reminded that Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor counts as an adaptation, too, of a sort, and given the specifically masculine element of Buddy Love in that film, there's a connection -- again, of sorts -- to Tracy's performance). Then in 1959, Jean Renoir made The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, a quite faithful adaptation of Stevenson, and here the Mr. Hyde figure (Jean-Louis Barrault) comes across as a kind of sociopathic prankster. All of these are excellent films (including The Nutty Professor), and each Mr. Hyde is at turns fascinating and disturbing, while even occasionally allowing, or inviting, the viewer to recognize the hideous liberation of Jekyll.

But none are quite so vilely horrifying as the Mr. Hyde given to us by star John Barrymore in Robertson's 1920 film. The, what I guess you'd call, design of the character is simple and ingenious, particularly the way Hyde's head comes to a sweaty, stringy-haired point, and the facial contortions Barrymore employs are nearly as powerful as Lon Chaney at his best. The greatest moment in the film is the murder scene -- traditionally, Hyde, though his terrible deeds are endless, kills just one person, but I think we can agree this is one too many, morally speaking -- where Barrymore goes into a frenzy that is both animalistic and satanic. Of course he's animalistic, that's Mr. Hyde's whole deal, but Barrymore seems so much more unleashed than other actors I've seen in the role, as good as they've all been. His glee is terrifying. Murder, his Dr. Jekyll seems to be communicating through his Mr. Hyde, murder...this is that I've been missing. He's not always this manic, of course, and for the most part his Mr. Hyde slithers around London like a caricature of a pervert, which is a perfectly valid way of doing it, but when things finally snap and fly loose, the frantically evil Mr. Hyde carries with him a true sense of Hell. Robertson pumps this up with one image that is not directly capital "i" Infernal, and which if taken literally doesn't make a great deal of sense, but is, taken literally or metaphorically, powerfully strange. I'll let you find that one on your own, when you watch this movie, which you absolutely should do.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tomorrow is the End of the World

Today sees the release by Kino Lorber of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. This is the first time the film has been available in any kind of high quality home video presentation, and it’s my understanding, though the evidence is purely anecdotal, that until now a general unavailability has caused the reputation of Nostalghia among Tarkovsky’s work to dip somewhat. Having just watched the film for the first time, via the Kino Blu-ray, I am now in a position to sneer at those who would regard it as a weaker effort. “You guys are dumb,” is something I might say. But where would that get any of us? What I'll say instead is that Nostalghia feels to me like a genuine masterpiece, one whose reputation can only strengthen when seen by new eyes.

In the film Oleg Yankovsky plays Andrei, a poet who travels to Italy to study the life of and exiled Russian composer. Accompanying him is Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), an interpreter with whom he also he has a fraught and unconsummated relationship. The possibility of sex hangs over them both, but Andrei has a family back in Russia, and in general his mind seems preoccupied with other matters. In the course of their trip together, they end up at what you'd call a spa, I suppose, where clients wade in the natural hot springs, but the place is ancient, crumbling, melancholy -- almost sinister, though sinister less in an aggressive sense and more in a sense of hopeless melancholy. There Andrei hears about, and then meets and becomes fascinated by an apocalyptic madman named Domenico (Bergman veteran Erland Josephson), who at one time was so sure the world was about to end that he locked his family up in their home for seven years. Once released, the didn't stick around much longer.

While writing the script (with Tonino Guerra) in Italy and before filming, Tarkovsky had considered defecting from the Soviet Union. However, like the Andrei in the film, he had a family back home and couldn't bring himself to do it. Nostalghia doesn't so much dramatize this split in his desires as it turns them into apocalyptic poetry. And if "apocalyptic" can be described as a form, or a mode, then it is most effective when it's used to not deal literally with the end of the world. This is Nostalghia. Just look at Tarkovsky's depiction of Italy -- nowhere in this film will you see the kind of bright, sunny beauty that you typically find in other films set in Italy, even films that aren't particularly interested in celebrating that beauty. Most times it sort of just happens. But Tarkovsky and cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci film their little patch of Italy as if it was part of the Russian wasteland where Trakovsky shot Stalker. In other words, never has Italy looked more like Russia. Occasionally the film looks like it was (or actually was?) filmed in black and white, but as these scene progress, bits of color seep in, or light up (the opening shot of Andrei and Eugenia's car driving along a foggy road reveals color through the gray in a brilliant way). Green is the one color that finds its way past the dead white of crumbling walls that actually appears inviting -- perhaps that's Italy. Perhaps that's where Tarkovsky longs to be, and the Italy of the hot springs, all dank and sunken and haunted, is where he actually exists because Russia is both never far from his mind, or from his future. The Andrei played by Yankovsky has a tough time getting home, too.

Domenico, however, holds the real power of the film -- he holds the apocalypse, and he holds what little hope is left to anybody. The section of the film that depicts Domenico's fate -- and as intriguing as we, and Andrei (both of them), may find his ramblings it should never be forgotten that he's insane -- is one of the most viscerally terrifying that I've ever seen. It's a scene of complete madness, almost Lynchian in its use of sound, but less otherworldly and more blunt -- what's weird about it is still earthly. It's the end of the world in miniature, and it gave me that weightless, uneasy feeling that you, or anyway I, sometimes get when a film really begins to howl, when the darkness is clarified as not being an artistic pose, or simply appropriate for whatever story is being told, but inherent and unavoidable within the man who made it. Yet even then, you can interpret what follows as..."hopeful" sounds too, well, hopeful, and "optimistic" is precisely wrong. In Nostalghia's final minutes, Tarkovsky can't even be said to urge anyone to not give up. What matters, and I won't be specific about what happens, is that even though it won't work, at least the guy did it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

There's Money in This For All of Us

There's a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? where Christina Drayton, as a young white woman who has fallen in love with and plans to marry a black man (Sidney Poitier), is telling her mother, played by Katharine Hepburn, how she and the man met.  It's a thoroughly uninvolving story, but as this is not what is meant to be communicated by the scene, Hepburn acts as though what her daughter is telling her is not only interesting but also funny.  So she laughs at things that aren't funny, so not funny that it's tough to tell if they were ever intended to be funny, or it would be tough to tell if Hepburn didn't keep laughing.  In any case, Hepburn plays the scene well, but because she's responding to essentially a blank fog it plays as good acting coming off as bad acting, and the emotion instilled in me was one of unease.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is typically billed as drama, but a lot of it shoots for a kind of warm humor.  By my count, it only comes close to that once, when Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, as Drayton's father, are getting ice cream and Tracy keeps politely bothering their waitress with questions she couldn't possibly know the answer to, and with observations that couldn't possibly amuse her.  It's funny -- well, sort of funny -- because Tracy's performance as, in this scene anyway, a kind but slightly distracted and rambling old man pretty much on the money.  It may not inspire actual laughs, but it's amusing because we've all met a guy like that.  The comedy comes from humoring the character (please note that I avoided the obvious pun).  Outside of that, though, you get scenes like a delivery boy performing what I can only describe as a "funky and with it rock and roll dance" as he approaches a house, and all throughout the rest of his scene, or the family priest (Cecil Kellaway) doing the not-with-it old man version of same when he simultaneously mocks and reassures Tracy, teetering on the precipice of Good Liberal Hypocrisy, by singing the refrain of The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" albeit with a completely different melody, and moving about in a way that youngsters at that time most assuredly did NOT when those lovable mop-tops etc., etc., rock and roll music, etc.  That sort of thing.

All of which might be regarded as what you should probably expect in terms of a sense of humor from a guy like Stanley Kramer, a director and producer who was once quite the big deal but has since fallen quite drastically out of fashion, largely due to the fact that he was an "art is about delivering messages and teaching lessons" kind of filmmaker.  His approach can perhaps best illustrated by the opening of his film Ship of Fools, from 1965.  The very first line of that movie, delivered by Michael Dunn from the rail of ship and directly into the camera, is "This is a ship of fools." Oh okay, I think I get it.  He was nevertheless a big deal at one time, but tastes change, and Kramer, as I've said, has become something of a punching bag by film critics and even filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino has taken shots at him at least a couple of times).  I think it's just this side of possible that the terribleness of Kramer's films is a little bit overstated.  Not that this is what's typically criticized, but for one thing as a producer Kramer shepherded along some really good stuff, like The Sniper, or The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which is far more aesthetically adventurous than anything he directed himself.  But also, as a director, though I found it quite frustrating, I think The Defiant Ones is generally solid -- it ends well, at least -- and I remember quite liking Judgment at Nuremberg. That one seemed to hit the right seam for a morally serious message film, the morality being inextricably tied up with the drama, and the sprawling cast of stars kind of being justified, but either way who cares about that part.  Still, as Mark Harris points out in Pictures at a Revolution, his book about the making of the the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? being one of the five, the moral questions of that and other Kramer films weren't anything anybody either needed to be persuaded about or, to go in the other direction, could be persuaded about.

At his worst, though, Kramer was almost indefensible:  Ship of Fools is numbing, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is blundering and actually kind of thoughtless, and his nadir, 1957's The Pride and the Passion, is not only ridiculous at its base, but at times just as inept as many films of about the same era that are routinely regarded as the worst films ever made.  In this sense it's at least more interesting to watch than Ship of Fools, which floats along on a hazy and dissipating cloud of general competence that, to that film's detriment, remains intact until the end.  But The Pride and the Passion is bad enough to explain Kramer's name becoming something of a punchline.  Harris quotes Kramer as arguing "All the people who say 'Messages are for Western Union' don't really mean it.  They mean, 'Messages that don't make money are for Western Union,'" and I'd say Kramer probably has a point about the hypocrisy of certain critics and Hollywood, but even if he does it's still no good because he's only dinging the hypocrites, not the ones who mean it, whose arguments remain unaddressed. Harris also quotes Pauline Kael's 1965 takedown of Kramer at length, and her line about his approach resembling "original sin meets Mr. Fixit" strikes me as not only withering, but more than fair.

So what happens when this guy decides to loosen up and have some fun?  Well.  And so to my subject.  On Tuesday, Criterion is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, one of Kramer's most famous films, and the one most likely to survive with any amount of goodwill from its audience. But those generous people do not speak for all of us. The film is famous because it has a classic premise, devised by screenwriter William Rose (a veteran of Ealing Studios who wrote The Ladykillers and would go on to write Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) -- the idea is, a gangster (Jimmy Durante) dies in a car accident, but before he dies he croaks out to a bunch of witnesses a series of clues regarding the location of a stash of money.  The instructions are very incomplete but just specific enough to inspire the witnesses, and any attendant family members, to try and find the loot and from here on out it'll be easy street.  Also part of the premise is the fact that the five witnesses are played by Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters, and Mickey Rooney. Spencer Tracy is there, too, as the cop who's been working the crime that produced the hidden money in the first place (it was a tuna factory robbery, guys), and along the way Kramer adds Phil Silvers as a particularly venal and duplicitous fellow who learns about the money and makes his own way towards it, Ethel Merman as Berle's mother-in-law, Terry-Thomas as an English military man who teams up/spars with Berle, William Demarest as Tracy's chief, and he wedges in cameos, both brief and extended, by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Carl Reiner, Don Knotts, The Three Stooges (as they then existed) and others.  The theatrical cut of the film runs 163 minutes long.  The roadshow cut ran quite a bit longer than that, and while some of that footage is apparently gone forever, Robert Harris has restored a cut, which Criterion has included in their package, that runs 197 minutes.  It is this version that I watched today.  And goddamnit.  Jesus Christ.  Shit.

I do like the general concept of the film, which has been ripped off numerous times (this claim presupposes that it was original to Kramer and Rose, and I can't say for sure it was), and I also enjoy the early going.  Though with the overture and extensive Saul Bass-designed opening credits the actual film doesn't begin for almost seven minutes, when things do get rolling, Kramer and Rose dive right in.  Durante's car accident is the first thing that happens, and the gathering of Berle, Rooney, Winters, Caesar, and Hackett is fun, reasonably funny, and well-played all around.  I would say that pretty much all the main performances are quite good, with my favorites being those given by Silvers, naturally, and Mickey Rooney who, while decked out like a 1960s or 70s NFL coach enjoying some downtime, gives some hint at the seemingly natural on-camera skills a lifetime of hard and near-constant work in the film industry can provide.  But everyone's good.  Everyone showed up.  The fact that I can't stand Dick Shawn, who plays Merman's son and who I neglected to mention earlier, doesn't mean he didn't come to work.  That he basically plays that groovy delivery boy from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? for roughly two hours doesn't negate the fact that he did the job he was paid to do.  It was that he was paid to do it that I take issue with.

The issue, really, is the sense of humor.  And again, I think you have to question how funny can a guy be who thinks of art the way Kramer did.  In his autobiography A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World:  A Life in Hollywood, Kramer writes:

I have often been accused of making message pictures, and in a way [with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World] I found myself making another.  This one I suppose you could call a satire on greed, though I never called it that.  (I learned from my first picture that even if you do create a satire, you had better call it something else, and comedy is the word I prefer).  In It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all the conspirators end up in the hospital, swathed in bandages, without the treasure and header for long prison terms.  The picture says that, in one way or another, greed leads to no good.  I won't apologize for its message.  Every picture worth watching says something.

This quote is both instructive and troubling in a number of ways.  For one thing, to Kramer "greed isn't any kind of a good thing everybody" counts as a message, one he thinks it's meaningful and brave to not back away from. More alarming, obviously, is the idea that "saying something" is the only measure of artistic worth.  In the past, I've regarded Stanley Kramer and the rise and fall of his reputation as rather touching, but them's fightin' words.  That's appalling.  I would point out that it's probably also not that rare, but this makes it no less appalling.  But as they often say about large budgets, it's all up there on the screen.  Not the message so much, which is unmissable but not actively obnoxious as a sermon, but it's there in the way someone like Kramer approaches comedy.  After maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes, an air of desperate mania takes over, one further contaminated by an almost complete absence of imagination.  It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World could almost be said to have been constructed from a series of shots through windshields of comedians driving and yelling.  Sometimes gas stations made of notebook paper fall down, and sometimes cars crash, but other than that Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle in the driver's seat yelling, that's your movie.  It's run-time being anywhere between 163 and 197 minutes long is something that cannot go unacknowledged, because this thing grinds you down.

Typically nowadays you'll hear people complain about comedies being too long, brevity being the soul of such films, or so they say. I've never been convinced by the truth of hard and fast rules about any genre or form, and indeed the idea of an epic comedy is appealing to me, but only if you can pull it off.  If you can't, I almost don't even want to know about it. On their extremely informative commentary track on the Criterion disc, fans and historians of the film Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scarbo at one point try to argue the idea that It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a very funny movie but must be seen with an audience to fully appreciate it, because audiences laugh more than people watching a comedy by themselves, the whole thing feels more like an event, and so on.  I've heard this sort of thing before, and I don't doubt that there's some truth to it -- hell, I've laughed at comedies I couldn't get through a second time because I first watched them with my wife and we were both happy to be sitting there together, watching a comedy we hoped would be funny.  But I don't buy this is as a case for genuine quality.  "If it's funny, I'll laugh," Rex Reed can be heard saying at the beginning of the actually, truly funny comedy Lost in America, and he was specifically refuting the "comedies need a big audience" argument.  What he didn't add was "If it's not funny I might also laugh, if I'm with an audience, or just happy to be there."

This is a strange phenomenon that I don't claim to understand, but I think it's a real one.   Whatever's behind it has helped to fuel the currently popular bit of received wisdom that comedy is somehow more subjective than any other art form.  If you laugh, it's funny, even if I don't laugh.  Laughter being spontaneous.  You can't explain to someone who didn't laugh at a joke why the joke was funny and expect them to laugh.  It's like getting a boner, I believe someone once said, in those exact words. But of course you can't argue anyone into having any sort of emotional or spontaneous reaction after the fact, and comedy is no more or less subjective than anything else someone might wish to criticize.  And I hate the idea that it is, because it presumes -- and by the way, you get this from actual respected comedians, too -- that there is no such thing is a well-made joke, or rather that there is essentially no difference between a good joke or a bad joke.  You might as well say there's no difference between a good song or a bad song, but no one would ever say that -- they'll say it about jokes all day and night, though.  Meanwhile, there aren't a lot of good jokes in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and the film as a whole rather neatly illustrates that there is a difference, time and again.  To name but one, rather illustrative, example, take Jerry Lewis's seconds-long cameo.  In 1963 Lewis released a film of his own, his classic The Nutty Professor, and let's just say that the differences between the two films is rather illuminating, but anyhow Lewis never mugs so egregiously, or at least with so little purpose, in his own films as he does during his five seconds on screen in Kramer's.  I think explaining why Lewis is, or was, or could be (he doesn't always turn my crank either, I'll admit) funny is probably more useless than any other type of comedy criticism, mainly because it's my guess that the notion that he wasn't came from not ever bothering to watch him in the first place, but Kramer, with this wildly popular film, certainly gives the Lewis naysayers ammo.  Because all Lewis does is make a face.  Kramer reduces Lewis to making a face.  "Hey Jerry Lewis, come down here to the studio and make that face for me, that funny one, yeah that one." Lewis cashed the check and why shouldn't he, but whether he got Lewis or not, Kramer's use of him in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World betrays a misunderstanding of him, and of comedy.  Comedy is funny faces.  Here's three hours of that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Secret History of Movies #1

(The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, 1953, d. Roy Rowland)

(Deliverance, 1972, d. John Boorman)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

You're Scary Because You Don't Give a Fuck

This Tuesday sees the release to Criterion Blu-ray of Michael Mann's classic 1981 crime film Thief, and this strikes me as conspicuously well-timed.  Not as conspicuously well-timed as a Christmas Day release would have been, but still not bad.  I say this because now that Thief is about to be in the cinephile air again, the door opens to look at critically acclaimed movies that take a somewhat sympathetic look at criminals and ask "Why is this okay, but that isn't?"  "That" being, in case you're not already ahead of me, Martin Scorsese's surprisingly controversial The Wolf of Wall Street.  Not that one wouldn't expect a film like that to be controversial on some, or many, levels, but the particular way in which The Wolf of Wall Street has been controversial is, I'd say, most curious.  And by the way, it's necessary to get this off the table before I even begin, and you'll believe me or you won't, but my issue isn't that some people don't like Scorsese's film, but that some who don't like it blame the film for being, itself, immoral, and a glorification of the animal behavior Scorsese depicts (or if they don't think the film goes that far, they at least believe unsophisticated viewers will take it that way, and wish to emulate the characters therein).  Which I'll get to, but I think I was talking about Thief.

Thief was Michael Mann's feature debut, and though it's a touch over two hours long and also not my personal favorite of his films, it's perhaps his most tightly constructed -- simple and clear in its storytelling while allowing just enough room for Mann's aesthetic, rooted always, it seems, in the 1980s, to blossom, something he'd probably, after thirteen years spent in the then stylistically barren world of television, been aching to see happen.  The film also features a possibly career-best performance by James Caan as Frank, an ex-con and professional thief who, like any working man, has his eyes on retirement.  He knows what he needs to be happy, and he knows how much money he needs to make that happen.  After one of Frank's confederates is killed, and one or two things lead to other things, Frank gets roped into a professional relationship with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky, who at 51 was here appearing in only his second film). Frank is wary, because part of his plan for his life depends on his professional independence, but the way Leo describes it he might get to his destination faster.  It turns out that Leo is a liar and a sadistic piece of shit, but you knew that.

The thing is this, though.  Frank is a criminal. He doesn't break into homes and whack people with clubs and take their life savings, but he still takes other people's money, and I'm pretty sure we can all agree that this is something that is wrong to do and should not be legalized.  He's not Robin Hood, either, instead wallowing in the money, saying at one point to his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) "I wear $150 slacks, I wear silk shirts, I wear $800 suits, I wear a gold watch, I wear a perfect, D-flawless three carat ring. I change cars like other guys change their fucking shoes. I'm a thief."  The idea of Thief, however, is that he should get to keep his money.  "Better him than Leo," the thinking seems to go, but somehow never "Better the people he's stealing from than him."  A curious aspect of the romantic outlaw ("in American culture," I feel compelled, but don't want, to add, so we'll call this parenthetical a compromise) is that unless they're literally Robin Hood, or have been transformed into Robin Hood by time, and by those who for their own reasons would prefer to see some criminals in that light ("Armed Thugs Shoot, Kill Our Beloved Dillinger" reads on headline in the Onion's Our Dumb Century), is that they're never remorseful.  At best, they just want to stop, or they want to retire, like everybody else on the planet.  Taking what doesn't belong to them is just a gig they happen to be good at, and about which they should feel no worse than if they happened to be good plumbers.  Of course they'd never be plumbers because in order to live they need that juice!, but anyway, remorseless, is my point.  If that thief seems like a nice guy otherwise, as James Caan's Frank certainly does, then hey bud, live your life.  His name is Frank and the woman he wants to marry is named Jessie.  There are no coincidences.

It comes down to execution.  Not by the filmmaker, or in terms of craft, because the same thing can be done well or badly, but the execution of crime.  In Thief, Frank and his partners are really good at what they do, and audiences and critics appreciate this.  I'm not immune to it myself, and in fact my dad was an FBI agent who worked bank robbery cases for a long time, and he told me that the ingenuity of some of these guys was just plain admirable.  This doesn't make it right, of course, but in movies like Thief the morality of it is not an issue.  There are no victims of Frank's crimes, just money being hauled in a big sack with a dollar sign on it.  The trick to fool your audience, and critics which is really my point here, is to have a worse criminal than your hero, and this Leo guy is really something else, but why should anybody fall for that old gag?  Why should the only people questioning the morality at work in Bonnie & Clyde be the uptight dissenters (of which I am one, and here I'll move away from Arthur Penn's deeply off-putting milestone because I've gone on about this at length many times, but should curiosity grip you here is my more relevant post about it)?  And why, so often, are we rooting against the cops, rooting that they fail to stop our hero criminal from doing something to someone else what we would never want them to do to us? (Because it's just a movie?  Well, in part, indeed.)  Because of half-formed ideas about The System, presumably, that allow for empathy for the criminals but not the police, and which allows for the bloodless gunning down of cops in Bonnie & Clyde (sorry!) because all the red stuff is being kept in store for the deaths that really matter. This isn't exactly Thief's bag, or anyway not Mann's, because while this specific film does feature some corrupt cops he typically portrays them as heroes, or with a fair amount of sympathy at least.  But taking the cops back out of it and sticking only with the hero criminals, I hold none of this against Thief.  It's an excellent film, for one thing, and that's pretty far from negligible, and because I understand that Thief isn't Mann's attempt to endorse robbery as a way of life.

One of the most interesting, and one of the strangest, films in the long history of criminal hero movies is Don Siegel's Charley Varrick, from 1973.  In this film, the title character, a bank robber, is played by Walter Matthau, and as the film opens he and his crew are preparing to rob a bank.  As they go through with this, some nearby cops, doing their jobs and appearing quite friendly and likable sort, follow up a hunch.  In the below still, a deputy played by Rudy Diaz is about to be shot in the head by one of Varrick's partners.  This partner is Nadine (Jacqueline Scott).  Nadine is Charley Varrick's wife.

She's about to be mortally wounded herself (good, I say), but here's what's so fascinating about Charley Varrick.  Varrick is going to escape with one of his men (played by Andy Robinson), and Nadine who will die on the way to their hideout.  Varrick will be shown mourning the death of this woman who we just saw shoot an innocent and, from what we've seen, good man through the head, and this man is mourning her.  Well, she's his wife.  This makes sense.  Even the worst among us are human, and so on.  But Varrick is not meant to be, for example, White Heat's Cody Jarrett, a character we can be fascinated by while still reviling him.  Once Nadine's body has gone up in the car fire Varrick set to make her corpse more difficult to connect to him, Varrick is a bereaved hero who discovers that the money he has stolen belongs to the mob, the bank having been shady in that way, who has sent out a vicious hitman named Molly (Joe Don Baker) to get it back, by any means.  Molly is the embodiment of the evil shadow of organized crime, also represented by a character played by John Vernon who tells another low level colleague, who actually did the mob work in the bank, that these unseen men would come at him "with a pair of pliers and blowtorch" (a line Quentin Tarantino lifted for Pulp Fiction).  Varrick has nothing to do with those guys, who, on top of everything else, and perhaps this is the key to the box here, are organized.  It's about power, you see:  Varrick might be bad, but we want him to win because at least he's not powerful

But the strangeness of Charley Varrick doesn't stop there, because director Don Siegel, not, as I understand it, anybody's idea of a bleeding heart hater of cops, isn't making Bonnie & Clyde (sorry!).  It's perfectly true that most of the film is about Varrick, and it's just as true that Varrick is the hero.  But Siegel doesn't forget about that dead cop.  In a scene shortly following Varrick's escape from the scene, the sheriff arrives on the scene.  He's played by William Schallert, an actor who often turned up as humorous scolds in comedies but is very good here as the good small-town cop with a horrible mess on his hands.  When he gets out of his car, he walks along until we see his stride halt somewhat, and we see that he's come upon the dead officer.  A brief shake of his head not only shows the suppression of emotion he needs to get on with his job, but later, after tending to another wounded cop, he goes back to the body, picks up the dead man's hat and places it over his face.  Then Siegel stays there for a minute while Schallert picks some bits of grass off the crown of the hat, to clean it up, to give the man as much dignity as leaving his dead body in the grass, as Schallert is professionally obligated to do for now, can permit.  Not a lot of filmmakers, making a movie like Charley Varrick, would keep the camera there for this controlled piece of mourning.  I won't say who, but I can think of one off the top of my head who not only probably wouldn't, but definitely didn't.

Anyhow, the morality of Charley Varrick, an otherwise lean piece of work, is about as crazy a jumble as you'll find in such a picture.  The leader of the criminal group that murdered that man is now, somehow, supposed to be the guy we want to get away?  Why shouldn't we be fine with Molly taking his head off with a shotgun?  Movies allow for the expression of the kind of bloodlust we, the audience, might otherwise, though not necessarily, choose to either keep hidden or be practical and real-life about, so why do we let Varrick off the hook?  More to the point is why is Charley Varrick not questioned?  "How can Don Siegel endorse a man like Charley Varrick?" is a question that I've never heard critics ask about this movie, and obscure though it may be to general audiences, among movie freaks it, like Thief, is very well-liked.  And I like it too, incidentally, but if Siegel didn't show Schallert picking those bits of grass from the dead cop's hat, I bet I wouldn't.  If not for touches like that, we'd be left with a film that offered nothing within it to refute the idea that Varrick's crimes, and the crimes of his wife, which so far exceed in vileness what Thief's Frank ever does, do not therefore render him unworthy of our sympathy.  But Charley Varrick does have those touches, and so I won't argue against or condemn a film that Siegel didn't make.

So what does any of this have to do with Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that pretty clearly has nothing to do with any of the movies I've just been...
...sorry, so like I'm saying, what does any of this have to do with The Wolf of Wall Street?  Well, that film, which I think is pretty fantastic, does not, it has been argued, contain whatever touches would be it's equivalent of William Schallert picking grass off a dead man's hat, and which would therefore reveal that the unbridled greed and hedonism and thievery on display in Scorsese's film was not, in fact, being celebrated by the filmmakers.  And okay look:  these sorts of movies, as I've tried to illustrate, tend to break down in one of two ways.  Either, like Thief, they regard the criminal with empathy, and so you like him or her, and so when shown the alternative (Robert Prosky in this case), well, good luck, Frank!  Or like Charley Varrick and Bonnie & Clyde (sorry!) they can show the criminal doing terrible things, things beyond just theft, or being remorselessly connected to terrible things, and either expect (Bonnie & Clyde) or allow room for (Charley Varrick) the viewer to hitch their wagon to them anyway.  The issue, when it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street, is why is this one suddenly so different?  People fuckin' love that Bonnie & Clyde shit (I'm not going to apologize for bringing it up anymore), and that thing is a moral catastrophe, and is designed to be understood the way I understand it (though admittedly not with the horrified reaction I bring to it).

The things at issue here are various, and most prominent, though not remarked upon to my knowledge, is the fact that the kind thievery at play in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is Wall Street malfeasance, is currently politicized, has been for several years, and frustrates many because, and maybe the Hays Code had a point here, many of the real-world perpetrators have not been sufficiently punished, or punished at all.  So they skate by in real life and now we gotta see these fucks skate by in the movies?  On Christmas??  So there's that, and there's also the fact the film is funny, and everybody in it has a lot of fun and the thing only really turns dark when the Feds show up and try to pull the blinds on everything.  Anyway, this is what has been said about the film, or this is roughly, in capsule form, what has been said about it.  "Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining," said this person.  This person says of The Wolf of Wall Street's characters "[Y]ou're supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald's and riding the subway alongside wage slaves."  Even if those who criticize the film on these ground allow that Scorsese and his actors know that the behavior they are depicting is disgusting, they insist that they believe it is a disgusting hoot.  What they somehow don't acknowledge is that no, it's just disgusting.  The Wolf of Wall Street strikes a very grotesque note quite early on, when Oakmont & Stratton, the Wall Street firm run by Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort, makes a big trade (or whatever), and the celebration becomes a bacchanal.  At the center of this, yet also somehow forgotten, is a woman who Belfort says agreed, for a price, to have her head shaved.  Scorsese shows this happen, and the woman laughs and cries as her long hair is shorn away, beginning to look half-crazed, her head filling up with greed and regret and maybe even some unacknowledged fear.  But it's all in fun.  Scorsese just thinks this is fun.  Don't do it, but come on it's fun.  This is clearly a logical takeaway from this scene.

"Where are the victims?" some have pointedly asked of The Wolf of Wall Street.  "Where are the victims?" no one has ever pointedly asked of Thief.  Yet in the case of Mann's film they'd have much more justification.  Because Frank (of Frank and Jessie, please remember) is the hero of Thief.  Belfort is not the hero of The Wolf of Wall Street.  He's the protagonist, but this is not necessarily the same thing, and certainly isn't here.  If Belfort is the hero.  If you think we're meant to admire him, even if we think that admiration is intended to be begrudging, does that mean you think the honest, hard-working FBI agent, played by Kyle Chandler, who is working to bring Belfort down, is the villain?  And if he's not the villain, then who is he?

It's all about money, of course, and the political aspect of money, particularly now, and how Frank struggles for it while Belfort swims in it.  Frank is just like us!  Belfort disdains money as much as he loves it, and he really loves it a lot.  Is that hard to see?  For many, many years, critics have complained about films that hold the audience's hand, leading them to the one conclusion the filmmakers want everyone to arrive at, but now at least a portion of critics are complaining that their hands aren't being held firmly enough.  And because, in a flagrant disregard of the Hays Code, nothing truly bad happens to Belfort at the end.  Except what happened to Henry Hill in Scorsese's Goodfellas.  Belfort has to stop drinking and using drugs and he punches his wife in the stomach and loses his kids.  He's a schnook eating egg noodles and ketchup, but with a lot more money in his pocket.  No one missed the "point" (God forgive me) of Goodfellas.  And if you, like David Edelstein, think Kyle Chandler on the subway in The Wolf of Wall Street is saying "Who wouldn't want to live like Belfort rather than this dope?" then please think once again of the schnooks and the egg noodles and the ketchup, and think about who the schnooks are meant to be in Goodfellas, and all the implications of that, and why did no one ever get mad at that movie? I'll show you who's a schnook.

The triumph of Thief in this capacity may be that even though it offers the viewer an easy out when it comes to its criminal hero (that big diner monologue is mainly what I'm thinking of here), Mann still knows what's what when it comes to people like Frank.  Yes, he's the best of a bad lot, yes, rather him than Leo, certainly.  But look where he is at the end.  Look what he's forced to do.  What Mann never bothers telling us is that while Leo is the monster, Frank would never have even been in the same room as that prick if he'd chosen an honest line of work.  He can romanticize it all he wants, and he does, but his life as a thief has actually fucked everything up for him, and for those he cares for.  Mann keeps pretty quiet about that throughout the film, but that doesn't mean it's not there, right in plain view.  If you're paying attention, it sticks out like a shaved head.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Best Books, or "Reads," of 2013

Once again I would like to tell you all about some books I read last year. As always, my list isn't meant to be a "Best of 2013" because I never read enough new books in a given year to make that work and, indeed, there are no 2013 books on this list at all. I think I only read two anyway, George Saunders's The Tenth of Decemberand Sam Lipsyte's curiously-similar-to-Saunders The Fun Parts, neither of which made the cut. So take that, contemporary literature! Also, as always, you should make nothing of the order of these -- it's not a ranking. But also, as always, the last book on the list probably actually is the best thing I read all year.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner - Amazing, complex, infuriating, deeply bizarre, possibly, or probably, heavily inebriated. Quite a performance. What more can I add about this psychically morbid chronicle of the complicated moral disease of history, embodied in the immortal, sort of, Tom Sutpen? On a number of levels, for my purposes today, this novel, considered by many to be Faulkner's masterpiece, completely defeats me. But while reading it, it's a book you sink into, like quicksand.

Butcher's Moon by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - This is the last of the original run of sixteen Parker novels that Westlake wrote before taking quite an extensive break from the character. And as is often advertised when the book comes up, it is the culmination of quite a lot of things, not so much in terms of plot (though this story does directly connect to a previous novel in the series, Slayground) or even, really, character, because Parker is unchanging, but in terms of ruthlessness. Butcher’s Moon is not quite so pitiless about Parker’s moral universe as The Jugger – which is still, to me, the gold standard of the series, and quite possibly of the whole genre – and there’s even, to my dismay, a mild softening here. Parker is not inhuman. Or he’s not entirely inhuman. Of course you could say that already happened with the introduction of Claire, Parker’s girlfriend, but I firmly believe the only reason Claire exists in the series (and the book in which she’s introduced, The Rare Coin Score, is pretty excellent, and not especially soft) is because Westlake got tired of repeating Parker’s between-jobs downtime in every book. No, here, in Butcher’s Moon, Parker does something for someone else. I’m not sure how to feel about that. But then again what he does is rain down Hell, if not precisely on the just and unjust alike, then at least on the deserving and the undeserving. But “deserve”’s got nothin’ to do with it, and so on.

The Day the Call Came by Thomas Hinde - Reviewed here.

The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory - I wanted to write about this one last October, but with one thing and another I never did. This is one of those slender little British horror novels, set in the country, about a family who, when one strange element is introduced into their lives (in this case, the titular bird, which sounds like a terrible kind of a bird), begins to implode. Quite weird, subtly skeevy, and finally horrifying.

Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven - Reviewed here.

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene - Discussed here.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household - Also discussed here. Same post!
The Hunters by James Salter - Salter is pretty dismissive these days about his first two novels, this one and Cassada (aka The Arm of Flesh), both of which are about his years as a fighter pilot in Korea. Well, he may dismiss away, but I very much liked both. The Hunters in particular is a fascinating novel about an American ace who finds, through bad luck (or some might call it “bad” luck) and vanishing self-confidence, unable to live up to the hype. Salter’s approach is unusual, and the dogfight scenes, while as clear as any I’ve read outside of Derek Robinson (“clear” is not the only word I’d used to describe Robinson’s dogfights, but anyway), are few and far between. They are, in fact, almost beside the point in that the means through which the goal is being sought could be anything. This becomes more plain once you’ve seen the film Downhill Racer, which Salter wrote, and which feels like The Hunters but for skiing.

The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton - The Neil Labute who wrote In the Company of Men almost certainly has read Patrick Hamilton’s The West Pier, and I’d say he owes Hamilton an apology, on various grounds. This comparison, even with the stuff about owing an apology, probably won’t sell Hamilton’s black-hearted novel (part one of a trilogy about sociopath Ernest Ralph Gorse) to many of you, but there is a big difference (plus lots and lots of smaller ones): with In the Company of Men Labute acted as though he was describing all men. In The West Pier, Hamilton is only concerned with describing this one man. It is therefore all the more persuasive, and disturbing.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – For a long time, my belief was that Wuthering Heights was what you might call a “classic romance.” Happy, unhappy, whatever, but love was all around. I didn’t know very much about books back then. Of course, this is not to say that love is not all around in Wuthering Heights, but a more scabrous, hateful, ruinous, vicious kind of love that doesn’t actually end with knives plunged into flesh, I can’t imagine. And by the way, I did not find Heathcliffe very likable! Or very relatable! Yet somehow I got through it anyway.

Gringos by Charles Portis – Portis’s forgotten novel, in a way, I opened Gringos with the expectation that this, his…well, I refuse to say “last,” so I’ll be optimistic and say instead “most recent” (as in, "published in 1991"), would be a lesser offering, hoping only that True Grit and Masters of Atlantis and Norwood and The Dog of the South wouldn’t loom to heavily over its pages so that I might still enjoy what pleasures I was sure must still be there. Did these lowered expectations have anything to with my belief that Gringos is one of Portis’s best, or anyway, given the amazingly consistent quality of his sadly meager output, every bit on the same level as his other novels? Don’t know, don’t care, but I also kind of don’t think so because Gringos, while every bit a Portis novel, is possibly the oddest book he’s written, a combination of The Dog of the South and True Grit, is maybe the only way I can describe it, a hilarious depiction of a group of white eccentrics who have found a home in a curious Mexico town that eventually becomes…quite something else, before becoming that first thing again. I can say no more. All I’ll note is that the fascinating narrative balancing act that Portis pulls off here (in a way that I found supremely satisfying) also sets up perhaps the single funniest sentence the man ever wrote.