Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Antipasto Western

We think of the spaghetti westerns of the 1960's as being more cynical and ironic than the classic American exemplars that preceded them, but one can see the roots of this development throughout the 1950's. Most famously, there is Vera Cruz, about some amoral mercenaries played by Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. Gasp! Gary Cooper! Good old Gary Cooper...a mercenary! Heavens!

Surely, Randolph Scott is always upright and true-blue. Well, not always. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) finds Scott not amoral, but certainly happy-go-lucky, and looking askance at the law, at least as it is represented in the dirty little town he has found himself in. (It has that in common with its predecessor, Decision at Sundown.) But where Sundown is earnest, Buchanan is cynical, with a story reminiscent of Yojimbo and the Fistful of Dollars films, in which the protagonist is ratcheted back and forth between rival gangs (these ones are members of the same family).

A number of writers on this film have ascribed much humor to it. I don't see as much as they do, although there is a wonderful lazy-larricky performance by L.Q. Jones. In the scene pictured above, Jones and Scott botch the burial of a would-be betrayer, whose body they have had to put up in a tree to avoid the varmints around and the swamp below. Jones's intended eulogy is laden with all sorts of unflattering details about the departed, interrupted by a harrumph from Scott.

But the film winds up with far too high a body count to really count as a comedy--it is not a black comedy. But it is odd and quirky, and refreshing for those who have tired of Western cliches. You can watch it yourself online by clicking the illustration above.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Remakes hot and cold

Why a remake? Usually enough time has gone by so that the original film no longer has the kind of commercial heft that might justify a sequel. Yet the original film may still have residual audience goodwill, or it may have an irresistible and universal story element. A filmmaker might wish to change a single aspect of the story which in turn changes all of the story, as in the gender change from The Front Page to His Girl Friday. (Gender changes seem to be one of the most consistent elements in remakes.) Social or technological change may have clouded the earlier film, and a filmmaker may undertake a remake in order to reveal the basic qualities, now clouded by time, to a new audience. (You've Got Mail updated The Shop Around The Corner by converting snail mail to e-mail, and changing a leather goods store to a bookstore.)

The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009) and Brothers (2009) represent a couple of different approaches and rationales for remakes. The 1974 version of Pelham, the story of an "impossible" subway hijacking, was a solid commercial performer, but not a blockbuster. Nonetheless, it inspires affection from people in and out of the industry. At its center was a cat-and-mouse game between two dead solid perfect performers, craggy crusty old Walter Matthau, and elegant edgy Robert Shaw, who managed to put himself into two of the blockbusters of the decade, The Sting and Jaws. New York was near rock bottom in those days, and the film reeks of those smelly, decayed old days. There are fistfuls of great New York character actors like Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, Dick O'Neill, Tom Pedi, James Broderick and Martin Balsam. In its day, the film felt relentless and pounding, emphasized by the percussive music. The best term for it is "a wild ride."

Wild rides have not gone out of fashion and it is not surprising that someone decided to take this one again, 35 years later. They have addressed one of the flaws of the earlier film, and put the two antagonists in the same frame together for a few brief sequences, although none of them has as much impact as the initial over-the-radio encounters. The characters have been complicated. Whereas Walter Matthau merely seemed annoyed that someone was screwing up his subways, Denzel now plays a character in disgrace, with a reason to seek out heroism. Where Robert Shaw just wanted a million bucks, John Travolta doesn't need the cash, because he has shorted the entire market, which is panicked by the hijacking. Now there are cell phones and laptops to be accounted for, but much else remains the same. In fact all the character complications come to naught, and new holes have been inadvertently introduced into the story. Where the mayor was stuck in bed with the flu all through the first, in the new film, Mayor James Gandolfini walks around being rude to everyone. The car crashes are bigger and there is a big above-ground chase, but all of it comes to naught. Sometimes the value in a story with a compressed setting comes directly from the compression, and while the new Pelham is fun until its soft ending (the original ended on a very sly bit of sleuthing), the second it is over you will start poking holes in it until all the air has gone out of it.

[Side note--can we retire the over-hyped opening and title sequences, with shots ramping up and ramping down, titles flying around and frames sliding around laterally. It is such a tired way to simulate excitement at the beginning of a film when there is none inherent in the film yet. I think Zombieland ought to make anyone else ashamed of doing funny animated titles anymore.]

Fact is, the original Pelham thrived on the joke of a few bureaucrats tried to get one small corner of a broken city to work, and now that NYC is functional, a lot of the fun has fled.

Brothers is similarly handcuffed by its need to follow the original film's blueprint. In this case, the original was a 2004 Danish film. One brother is thought to have died in war; his ex-con brother is attracted to his wife. From all reports (and I am planning to verify this myself), the original film is heartfelt and organic, and focuses more on the sense of betrayal within family than on the question of sexual jealousy. I don't know what changes were introduced by the Americanization, but the film collapses simply because its action rests entirely on two unprepared-for and therefore implausible story points.

First, the scapegrace brother, played by Jake Gyllenhall, obviously feels some comfort and respite in his sister-in-law's house, with his adorable nieces. He decides to do something decent and generous and rebuilds her kitchen. When they get the erroneous news that big brother played by Tobey Maguire is dead (and this is also not plausible, because the US military doesn't usually tell people their relatives are dead until they know for sure), they commiserate a bit, start to talk of high school days and then, suddenly, Jake kisses the wife (played by Natalie Portman). And one's response is...Wha? Where did that come from? Perhaps it is simply that these two actors cannot portray being attracted to each other.

Then later, when Tobey shows up at home, having turned out not to be dead, his young daughter tells him that she and her sister prefer their uncle. This is not a baby or a toddler, but a girl old enough to remember her dead before he went away. I'm just not buying this, no matter how weird or crazy Tobey is compared to Jake. Children do not turn away from their parents because they are weird and crazy--I can tell you that from personal experience.

In both cases, one cannot escape the conclusion that these developments arise simply because it was time for them to happen according to the template inherited from the earlier film. A pity, because director Jim Sheridan has done superb work, including My Left Foot, In The Name of the Father and In America. This feels like journeyman work, a job picked up to please a development executive, and despite a level of professionalism, not enough heart to make it ring true or have any personal resonance.

Strangely, a good remake takes at least as much passion and commitment as a good original. Maybe more, because of the perceived need to improve on the original.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Exciting 50-year-old newcomer

I can't imagine what new thing I could add to the conversation about Precious (2009) at this late date, especially as a human or social document, of which it is a profoundly powerful example. So I will confine myself to a couple of strictly film-oriented observations and urge you to see if it you haven't.

A note about that. I suspect many people avoided the film, as I did, because it looked like one of those ponderous downer indie films. And the marketing emphasized the suffering of the main character and never revealed her transcendence. When you see a trailer or an interview for The Blind Side, you can't miss the fact that it's all going to turn out OK, that, in fact, you're going to feel great when the film is over. The marketers for Precious didn't do that, and as well as the film did, I can't help suspecting it had blockbuster potential if it had been positioned more astutely.

The film has some of the most beautiful and thoughtful framing and staging in a long time. I looked for a long time without success for a screen grab of my favorite shot in the film--again, the publicists have limited themselves to a handful of pictures, mostly showing lead actress Gabourey Sidibe scowling. It happens when Precious arrives for her first day of classes at the alternative high school and the language teacher, Ms. Rain saunters into the hall for a soda. The camera remains stationary, keeping both the foreground chair Precious is sitting in and the hall which recedes toward the classroom in focus. The teacher invites Precious to join the class, but Precious, who has just vomited up her gobbled-down breakfast, doesn't move. The teacher walks partway back, but out of Precious's line of sight. And she leans on the wall, waiting. Precious still sits sprawled. At the moment, each is in their own sphere, hovering on the brink of connecting. And director Lee Daniels has the sense to let us have a moment to contemplate that.

A moment later, Precious will take the steps to change her life and as she does, there is a blinding white light, which settles into the warm, brown inviting tones of the classroom. It is impossible to miss this is a milestone.

The transitions into Precious's fantasies are all marvelous and inventive, especially for this old trope (I mean the troubled youngster escaping into fantasy.) There are two uses of special effects in the movie and both of them are dazzling. At one point, Precious looks through a cross-shaped window in a door and the camera moves through it to a digital snowstorm against black and then we move to the next scene. I don't know what it meant, except that it connects all these separate realities. Then later, in the halfway house, Precious looks out the window and sees a young man on a motorcycle who could conceivably be a boyfriend (she's never had one). And the stones in the asphalt of the street glitter like stars until we fade into reality. That should have seemed silly, laughable, but it is profoundly expressive.

One quibble--one day Precious is barely writing intelligible words. A few movie minutes later (it is supposed to be months later) she is winning an award for her poetry. It stretches credulity, but it wouldn't have stretched it if we could have heard some of that poetry, which would also have given us more detailed insight into Precious's inner growth.

Finally, the director has to be credited with the high level of acting in the film, given that only one of the principals (Paula Patton) is a full-time, trained actor. The rest, newcomer Sidibe, Mo'nique, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherry Shepherd come to acting from other places, most from other types of performing which call on them to project the best, most likeable version of themselves. Obviously, that was not what they were called upon to do in Precious, but everyone delivers superbly, right down the line. Think of the climactic scene between Sidibe, Mo'nique and Mariah Carey--a scene which seasoned pros would find intimidating. These three neophytes breezed through it like nothing.

This could indicate the skill of the director; his good sense and judgment in making and cultivating friends (which is how he cast many of the non-actors); or that they didn't know to be afraid of a scene like that because they lacked experience. A hard scene was just as hard as an easy scene, and vice versa. But it also says something about film acting. It only has to be done once. It could be argued that the only reason an actor needs technique is in order to be able to repeat a performance, whether for different audiences in the theater or for different takes in the movies. If you only have to do it once--and in these days of digital photography, it makes sense to shoot with multiple cameras to get coverage--perhaps all that is required is some intelligence, sensitivity and imagination, and the old virtues of technique are less important. It's happened before--think of Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives or Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple--but I can't think of another movie so thickly populated with fine performances by non-actors.

If Lee Daniels weren't already past 50, I would say he was a youngster to watch.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A choice and a price

Though most, if not all, of the controversial topics George Bernard Shaw wrote about 100 years ago have passed their expiration date, we still produce and enjoy his plays because of his skill at writing good arguments. They're good not just because his language is crisp and the jokes sharp, but because each side of the argument gets its due.

Shaw was fond of having a sympathetic character lay down his position in a thoroughly reasonable way, usually with a soupcon of wit, and getting everyone to know their heads along with him, when--BAM--on would come the opposite point of view, quite often from the mouth of an UNsympathetic character (in a couple of cases, the Devil Himself) and seem just as reasonable, just as deserving of a fair hearing as our erstwhile protagonist.

There's no use playing the game of social or political controversy with a stacked deck. Yes, some audiences can feel righteous and good for cheering for the good guy, but that fun wears off, and those films (much of the work of Stanley Kramer, for instance) fade fast. The trick is to play fair. It's like the story Jean Kerr told about her young daughter, who balked at playing Eve in her Catholic school play because, she said, "the snake has all the lines."

Rod Lurie, writer-director of Nothing But the Truth (2008) seems aware of this principle, but is not always able to follow it. His very interesting notion for the film was to put two women on opposite sides of a controversy, place them side by side and compare the human toll taking a public stand makes, especially on wives and mothers. Problem is, he can't help making one a clear heroine for standing up for a principle, even though it hurts her family. Lurie cuts some corners, comes up with some mechanical complications. And one of the story lines turns greviously melodramatic, which makes the final revelation more of a cardboard surprise than a stunning irony.

Still, the concept is good, and when Lurie sticks to his main idea, it is compelling, greatly aided by the acting of Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga as the women in question, Alan Alda as a defense attorney, Matt Dillon extremely convincing as a bullying prosecutor (from experience, I can tell you that is a redundant expression) and actual First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams as a judge. The film also boasts David Schwimmer, Noah Wylie, Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, so this does not look like the low-budget indie that it is.

Adding verisimilitude is the grainy and washed-out cinematography by Alik Sakharov, who (presumably in collaboration with the director) makes some strikingly asymmetrical compositions that contribute to the feeling of unbalance. The most shocking thing about the film is how a piece this well done on such a strong subject with such a well-known cast could have sunk without a trace a couple of years ago, while the parade of comic-book movies goes merrily on and on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shadow play

If, in the endless debate as to whether film noir is a genre or a style, you take the position that it is a genre, with a coherent world view and set of audience expectations, you are going to have to account for He Walked By Night (1948), which, for my money, is still viewable today only for the cinematography of the great John Alton.

The story is a grubby little police procedural about hunting down a thief who has become a psycho killer. We don't know who he is, where he came from and why we kills and we don't care. We are siding with the police in this one. Many have noted that a very young Jack Webb plays a police technician and the word "dragnet" is used in the script, and have speculated that his is a source for Webb's TV series Dragnet. Dragnet has none of the style, visually or textually of film noir. It is the essence of flat, flat, flat. No irony no humor, just plodding police catching boring criminals. This film partakes of this a bit, but then is redeemed by brilliant sequences, such as the one you find about 0:30 minutes in, or the final chase through the storm sewers, which I would like to point out, antedates The Third Man's sewer chase by a year.

Like T-Men and Raw Deal, also made at Eagle-Lion, there are so many scenes with low-key single source lighting, often directed across the picture or toward the lens. There is a lot of wonderful fog, and of course the extreme light and dark of the aforementioned sewers. If the movie has a theme is that life, like this unexplained villain, comes up out of the shadows and returns to the shadows, and if you've been able to perceive anything during that brief moment in the light, well, good for you.

Another point in favor on this one--no music score, which means no overdone, cliched score, unlike many that mar otherwise perfectly good late 40s films. And if you're serious about studying the look of this film, which is quite dazzling, don't rely on public domain copies, like the one embedded above, but seek out the MGM/UA DVD, which, while not restored, comes from a cleaner clearer print than this.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Like a gate

When we think of musicals of Classical Hollywood, we go right to Meet Me In St. Louis, Singin' In The Rain and others now recognized as classics. For moviegoers of the 30s, 40s and 50s, a "musical" was as likely to be a melange of vaudeville like Swing Parade (1946). (Side note: All sources, including the Internet Movie Database and the Maltin Guide refer to this film as Swing Parade of 1946, but the onscreen title is simply Swing Parade.) The video above contains what is probably the highlight, Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five performing their hit "Caledonia."

Forget movies a minute, let me talk about the amazing Louis Jordan. This man is the missing link between big-band swing and early rock-and-roll. Where most small jazz groups of the era such as the John Kirby Sextet or the Nat King Cole Trio embraced their "smallness" and offered tight, intimate and very hip swing to their nightclub audiences, Jordan took all the energy and swagger of a 16-piece ballroom orchestra and somehow distilled all that into groups of 6 to 8 players. (He always called his group "The Tympany Five" no matter how many were in it.) And where others were sophisticated, Louis swung like a demon. One of the keys to this was focusing almost exclusively on the blues and blues-related bop. There were blues-oriented big bands. Count Basie, Chick Webb, Charlie Barnett and Woody Herman all had a solid base in the blues (and never discount Duke Ellington's band, which could play anything, but really knew their blues).

Over time, he developed a way of playing the blues with a shuffle beat under the vocal, which turns into a fierce backbeat in the instrumental, dance-0riented part of the song. The result is the roots of rhythm-and-blues, stemming from a fusion of big band and blues. The only thing Chuck Berry had to do was lose some of the horns (he occasionally retained the saxophone), drop the shuffle beat in favor of the backbeat and put his guitar work front and center. Big band to rock and roll in two quick steps and Louis Jordan is that middle step.

You can see Louis at the top of Swing Parade singing and playing "Don't You Worry About My Mule" and at about the 47-minute mark singing "Caledonia" (as in the clip above). Neither he nor singer Connee Boswell have any role in the movie other than to show up and perform a couple of tunes. The story is as follows: Phil Regan wants to open a nightclub in a property owned by his rich industrialist father. His father wants to serve a notice of eviction. That's it, that's the plot. The nightclub provides an excuse for a lot of numbers by Regan and Will Osborne's orchestra and about eight dancers who pop in and out. Actually, none of the tunes (which are a mixture of old and new) are bad, which is more than you can say for most musicals. There's a bit of dancing, including a bizarre moment in which star Gale Storm (yes, that's her name and she had two TV series of her own in the 1950s) pulls a random bespectacled audience member from his seat and they proceed to do a huge complex dance number together. There is no reason for this, but it's really fun.

Groovy as all this is, the only reason such a strange thing is likely to be unearthed at all (other than for the clip above) is the presence of the Three Stooges, who are moonlighting from their cheap Columbia shorts to this even cheaper Monogram feature. (Monogram was known for making features for less than $50,000 at a time when the average picture cost about $400,000.) I sought out this film because of seeing Dancing Lady a little while back, and it led me to wonder what they were like in other feature films. (Until the 1960s, when they were old and over-the-hill, the Stooges never starred in a feature of their own, but appeared strictly as comedy relief for others.) Unlike many raucous comics, the Stooges are rather good as supporting characters who do what they can to help the young lovers get together. In their salad days, MGM made the Marx Brothers do the same thing, and they always looked uncomfortable, as did Laurel & Hardy in their terrible 40s films for Fox. But the Stooges always seem to welcome a chance to stop hitting each other and be nice to other people. Moe was always excessively ingratiating to outside parties, and Curly and Larry's characters seemed genuinely nice.

So if you want to watch this movie just for Stooges, here's where you'll find them:
At approximately 3 minutes in, they're introduced, and return at about 10 minutes. There follows an incredible sequence in which Gail Storm, who has been tossed out by her landlady and is being allowed to stay in a spare room in the nightclub thinks that Phil Regan is preparing to join her in bed. She reluctantly gets into the pajamas being loaned to her, and then (at 24 minutes) in, passes out when the Three Stooges enter, all in nightshirts. I can't believe this gag got by the censors! (They were not the first comics to attempt a group sex joke--at the end of Horse Feathers, all four Marx Brothers marry Thelma Todd. That would have been the tiredest woman in the world!).

At 35 minutes in, Moe and Ed Brophy engage in a variation of the burlesque chestnut "Mustard"--this time with Roast Beef. At 51 minutes they begin a sequence of plumbing hi-jinks, with a pale echo of "A Plumbin' We Will Go." At 1:10 the Stooges appear in top hats and tails to join the company in a big finale.

The intricate plot described above is resolved in the space of about 45 seconds at around 1:05. Then, for no good reason, a kid called Windy Cook makes his one and only film appearance (according to the Internet Movie Database) as a busboy who can do Michael Winslow's sound-effects act from the Police Academy movies.

That's it. Compelling, no. Coherent, no. But you've spent an hour-and-a-quarter a lot worse ways in your life than sitting through Swing Parade.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Time capsule and something more

George C. Scott said about the film Petulia (1968), in which he stars that he didn't know what it was about but that he was certain director Richard Lester did know. Move over, George. Let me be clear--being unable to state the theme or the intent of a movie in 25 words or less does not invalidate the movie. In fact, it may do quite the opposite. A work of art which can be completely restated in another form has no reason to exist. The film Petulia exists in its own perfected form as a film, as something which cannot be otherwise duplicated. But because it is so stimulating, one needs to write or talk about it, and so here we are.

Correction--it's not that hard to discern what the film is about. What actually happens in it--what the storyline is, or at least what order it happened in is a little difficult. But the overall portrait of adults struggling against the structures that society has created to separate and isolate people is fairly clear. The system has militated against anyone connecting with anyone else, including one's own spouse. Technology, work, fear of violence--everything is conspiring to keep everyone at arm's length from each other.

Along comes Petulia, who is a self-labeled kook. Except that she's not. Goldie Hawn was a kook. Petulia, as portrayed by Julie Christie in one of her best performances, is a woman at war with herself, attempting to distract herself and those around her with kookiness. But it doesn't ring true. She does indeed kidnap a tuba and later in the film has a greenhouse installed in George C. Scott's tiny apartment, but that is the extent of her zaniness. She announces to Scott that she is going to have an affair with him--or even marry him--as soon as they meet, but the affair is desultory, an attempt to escape her cold and sometimes abusive husband (Richard Chamberlain).

This brave new world boasts a motel room that connects directly to a parking garage, filled with automatic lights switches and vibrating beds, a joyless and unerotic topless club and sterile overdecorated, yet unlived-in homes. The very types of settings and objects which were the object of laughter and satire in Lester's earlier films, such as Help and The Knack create an air of melancholy and longing in Petulia

One of the things that makes the film such a remarkable document of its time is that while these 30ish-40ish upper middle class people are fighting their detachment, an entire society ready to connect is springing up all around them. The film is set in San Francisco and we see brief glimpses of Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, and members of the Committee (an sketch comedy group of the day) including Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, Austin Pendleton, Howard Hesseman and Marshall Efron. Also, some genuine hippies wander through the film, although not in Haigt-Ashbury, but in strange (for them) locales like Telegraph Hill.

The film is noted today partly for the cinematography of Nicholas Roeg, who seems to be transitioning from the high-key slick lighting of commercial filmmaking of the era into something more real and revealing. More remarkable to me was the editing of Antony Gibbs. The film is an early instance of flash-forward, which is clearly identified and easy to grasp today, although it must have been bewildering in 1968. Interestingly, it seems to have its influence mostly on photographer Roeg, who used it very effectively as director of the thriller Don't Look Now (also co-starring Julie Christie).

Petulia very effectively reveals that the 1960s, especially the second half of the decade was not so much a thing in and of itself, but a time of transition from conformity to liberation; the style of the film itself reflects that very journey.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Saving Grace (1999) demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the eccentric British comedy genre as exemplified by The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, On A Clear Day and the original Death at a Funeral. It is usually about someone who is in need--perhaps of a change, perhaps money. In order to make that change, they must step outside the bounds of British propriety. They usually do so in secret, or part secret. Often this is done with the knowledge and complicity of their odd little village. (These films rarely take place in a city--the ancestor film is Whisky Galore! [a.k.a. Tight Little Island] set in remote Scotland. The only city film I can think of is Passport to Pimlico, but in that case a London neighborhood broke away to become its own little village.)

The important thing is that, although people grow and develop, order is also restored. This is true of comedy in general. Walter Kerr pointed out in his great book Tragedy and Comedy that tragedy has a definitive ending--usually death--but comedy does not. We often end comedies on the marriage altar because it is a convenient stopping point, but comedy belies an ending. Therefore, we have the satisfying that convention that, after a great period of turmoil and disorientation, order is restored. Perhaps things are changed for the better (for example, people are no longer engaged to the wrong person in a classic farce), but the entire order is not seriously disturbed.

The other part of the form is that The Scheme Works. The lads in Full Monty do indeed strip off and make a lot of money, as do the gals in Calendar Girls. The hero does swim the channel and the brass band wins the competition. If there is change, it is the inevitable change of history--the mines close, the money runs out, but life goes on.

In Saving Grace, not only does the scheme to save the heroine's house by selling 20 kilos of pot which she has raised using her excellent gardening skills fail, but the heroine's problems are resolved by marrying an international drug dealer and gangster. What??? Our adorable Brenda Blethyn married to a French-Turkish gangster? That's how she pays off the bank. And, yes, the idea of the entire town, especially the garden-party ladies, getting a contact high when the marijuana is burned is cute in theory, but it's ghastly to see in actuality. (This might have been obviated by hiring actresses instead of the obviously amateurish local extras prancing about demonstrating their ideas of a marijuana high.)

Similarly, the scene in which Brenda tries out her own product is such a hopeless cliche that the film begins to sink there and then.

A pity, because Craig Ferguson wrote some decent scenes for his fellow actors for the first hour, and he is a reasonably effective screen presence. But it is hard to figure out why anyone thought the last third of this film would work.

Maybe they were high.

Handling the truth

The premise that the protagonist possesses both knowledge and moral clarity is so deeply ingrained into the structure of narrative that every time it is challenged--and that is pretty often, especially in films of the 1960s and 70s--it can still be a shock. I still remember my astonishment, when I first saw Mozart's opera The Magic Flute and we got to the second act, when I realized ***SPOILER ALERT FOR AN 18TH CENTURY OPERA*** that all the good guys were actually bad guys, and vice versa, the "bad" guys were good and that the hero had been sent on a fool's errand.

So Decision at Sundown (1957), working that well-worn path, is still a surprise. Because Randolph Scott starts off the film wrong. He has a wrong goal, based on a wrong interpretation of the facts. This is Randolph Scott we're talking about. If Randolph Scott can be wrong, then food can kill you and the President can lie-- oh, wait a minute.

And in fact, the evil at the center of the story is far bigger than Randolph Scott's misplaced vengeance. Decision at Sundown is a "town" western, like My Darling Clementine and High Noon. Whereas most Westerns set a lone man against a vast landscape, "town" Westerns are about the arrival of civilization, and an examination of what we get from joining society in exchange for what we give up. And Sundown (it's the name of the town) is one of those "dirty little towns" in which one big baddie has sewn everything up including the law. What the people in town have given up is their integrity, their decency, their souls, for a little sense of security. (Should sound familiar for any American who was an adult in the spring of 2003.) Westerns are inherently suspicious of towns--the town in The Tall T is called Contention, and why? Because, as the station master says, "It's full of people, son."

The big boss, Tate Kimbrough (could people really be intimidated by a game named "Tate"?) is the guy Scott has come gunning for, albeit for the wrong reasons. Unusually for a Western, the film pivots around sex and sexual possession. Tate is going to get married today to a good girl, but he openly sleeps with the town floozy. (It's wonderful how much sex they could get into these low-budget programmer movies without anyone noticing.) Scott believes that Tate, who dallied with his wife when he was away fighting the Civil War, drove her to suicide. The truth, as Noah Beery, Jr. tries to tell him, is that Tate was one of many, that she was not a woman worth seeking vengeance for.

One even questions whether Randolph Scott is the central character. He spends most of the movie crouched in a livery stable, trying not to get shot by the corrupt sheriff. Although he does learn (or perhaps simply accept) the truth about his wife, he goes through no great character change, leaving the story as bitter and alienated as he entered it. You have not seen a Randolph Scott western until you've seen him at the end of the film, drunk, stinking, and spitting contempt on the townspeople who found their decency too late to save his friend.

This makes for an odd Western. It's not the usual man-against-the-landscape or man-against-evil force-set-against-the-landscape. One question why it needs to be a Western. But it needs to be an environment in which the rules are not yet set, where the only guidance as to the right way to behave come from the promptings of one's conscience. Choices are yet to be set in stone. One might be a sheriff or an outlaw--or switch back and forth, like Wyatt Earp. History and tradition have not set their heavy foot here, which is why Westerns as a form may have appealed to Europeans in days gone by.

This may be the only Western in which both hero and villain slink away in shame--because neither belongs in the about-to-be-civilized world of The Town.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The thin white line

Every Little Step (2008) is not only superior to the disastrous film version of the musical play A Chorus Line, it just may make the play itself unnecessary. The film is about auditions for a musical about an audition. Being film, it short-circuits the major flaw of the play--which is that it is, and must be, a rehearsed reenact of spontaneous human events. Documentary film by its nature can be present for and record actual events, although its presentation of them is in turn artificial.

That is, theater creates a spontaneous and natural shell within which to present a (usually) unspontaneous, un-natural event. Film--especially documentary film--does the reverse: capture actual life as it lived and encase it in a shell of technology which removes it from reality as experienced.

So part of the evaluation of which medium is most appropriate for which story must be the consideration--for whom is reality more important: the people in the narrative, or the people observing the narrative. In classical theater, in which surprise is not significant, and public ritual is at the forefront, the characters need no spontaneity. The entire significance of the event lies in it being carried out in public in the prescribed way so as to create a particular effect in the audience. That is theater in its most natural form. We may be more familiar with the variations and distortions introduced in the succeeding centuries, but they are the result of shifts in the culture and the technology--indeed, over the last ten years, the expectations created by film have colored our theater. But its roots are in pre-ordained ceremony. Theater is by necessity performance. If it is not now being performed before an audience, theater doesn't exist.

To the extent the film audience is a community, it is a continually temporary one. Primacy is invested in the events recorded and arranged, not the performance of the film. Film exists independent of the audience. How many films have failed with one audience, disappeared and reappeared to be celebrated by an audience in a different time and place. Film can punch a hole in space and time, theater exists solely within space and time.

The point of A Chorus Line was the difficulty and uncertainty of the audition process--the vulnerability of every performer who put himself on the line. If the play could be done with a different cast and a different outcome every night, it would be able to represent its own experience. But it can't. It must have pre-written lines, music, choreography. It must be rehearsed down to the last flutter of the last eyelash. And thus it invalidates itself.

The film of the audition for A Chorus Line requires only the artifice (and it is substantial) of film editing (and to some extent score music). I suppose to be utterly true to the event, one would have to sit through the entire process on some sort of endless live television feed. (Note to cable stations--get on this right away!) So for the sake of human endurance, we must needs have editing, shaping the incoherent experience into compact and well-formed narrative. Still the elements which have been shaped are themselves real and true. (The superb editing is by Brad Fuller and Fernando Villela. It rivals Alan Heim's work on All That Jazz.)

The performers are real and exciting, those who made the cut and those who didn't. Although the film is not the definitive Chorus Line documentary, there is some amazing vintage footage, included for purposes of comparison with the more recent performers. Not all of the play is represented (notably the song "Nothing" scarcely appears). There is an enchanting guest appearance by Jacques D'Amboise. Given the tightly-defined and somewhat artificial quality of the event being documented, the producer-directors did a superb job of making sure to have selected enough characters and have enough cameras running in enough places to have, like Frank Buck, brought it all back alive.

And when you see someone tell a loved one, "I got the job," to a loved one (not re-enacting it--the moment is happening right in front of you), there is such an irreducible reality to that joy that I defy you not to weep at the beauty of the sight.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Western has attracted several star & director teams, starting with Wayne & Ford, (and Wayne & Hawks) Stewart & Mann, and even Eastwood & Leone and Eastwood & Siegel (although the latter produced as many cop thrillers as Westerns). The most recent pairing to enter the auteurist pantheon is the seven Westerns starring Randolph Scott (who had already been a star for 25 years) directed by Budd Boetticher between 1956 and 1960. I've just viewed the second one made, the first currently available in home video, a tense, tight chamber piece mysteriously called The Tall T (1957). (Literally mysteriously-- there is no evident explanation for that title from anything in the film, or indeed, the Elmore Leonard story it is based on, which was called "The Captives.")

As is always mentioned, Boetticher learned bullfighting as a young man, but the reason it's always mentioned, is that it seems to have informed his entire approach to storytelling--the idea of the inescapable test of will and nerve, the man in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt would have it.
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...
In The Tall T the arena has a physical representation, in the form of the cramped space at the base of an outcropping of rocks sheltering a small shack in which the film spends its last two-thirds. Where so many Westerns make use of the vast expanses--Ford and Monument Valley, Stewart riding across all sorts of wastelands in search of justice or vengeance, Boetticher ratchets everything down to a space that could fit on a stage in a theater.

But by then you already knew this Western was different because **SPOILER ALERT**, 28 minutes into the picture, he KILLS OFF THE COMIC RELIEF, in this case the craggy Arthur Hunnicutt (who seems like Walter Brennan as a college professor who dropped out of the system). Perhaps you have to know this genre well to know what a radical thing this is. The film starts off, pleasant and pastoral, clearly a Saturday-afternoon movie, as genial sunburned Randoph Scott greets a little boy (representing much of the potential audience) and his goodnatured dad at the coach station. They too, will be killed by the baddies--in fact, even before funny old Arthur Hunnicutt. Nearly all the people that our hero is friendly with and can rely on--all the stable welcoming touchstones in his small circle are gone. Don't know about you, but I think that's going to push a man to the edge.

The next thing that is striking about this movie is the warm, seductive Richard Boone as the villain. Not warm and seductive like an oily conman. A genuinely likeable guy who never actually shoots any of the good guys. He has too juvenile delinquent psychos to do that. Boone spends most of the movie trying to cuddle up to Randolph Scott, trying to get Scott to like him, trying to show how he is just like Scott.

Randolph Scott is not a fashionable cult movie star (except to cinema cuckoos who've delved deep into these Scott-Boetticher movies). John Wayne was more colorful and varied, more given to flawed heroes, Gary Cooper sexier, James Stewart more neurotic. Randolph Scott was just a stand-up Southern gentleman, and thus the perfect representative of our American ideals to put to the test in confrontations with evil. His taciturnity is not an affectation, or a suggestion that he was simple, but simply a measure of reserve that originates not just from good manners, but from a genuine conviction that the less said, the better. (This is why it's good for Scott's antagonists, like Boone, to be chatty.) Incidentally, because he was born in Virginia, film writers are always talking about his Virginia accent, but anyone who knows the area recognizes the substitution of "oi" for "er" as pure North Carolina, which is where Scott grew up.

So Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy have cleared away everything extraneous, and the stage is set for a confrontation between good and evil. And unlike other Western heroes, Scott has already admitted he is afraid and he has no plan. Maureen O'Sullivan, the other surviving hostage passes briefly through hysteria, but Scott coaxes her out of it by getting her to acknowledge her own self-worth, an assessment he reinforces by planting a big one right on the kisser. Incidentally, in deference to both the gentleman Randolph Scott and the boys in the audiences who don't go for all that mushy stuff, that one kiss suffices--and given its fervor, it damn well ought to.

The final confrontation rests on one piece of knowledge the viewer must have about the code of Classical Westerns. The good guy will Never Shoot Anyone In The Back, Even the Baddest of Bad Guys. Naturally, this boxes our hero in; and the baddie would have gotten away scot-free, if not done in by his own greedy impulse. Scott does what he has to, but in sorrow, not in anger. Then he tells Maureen it's going to be a good day, and so I think perhaps it will be.

The difficult thing about the Scott-Boetticher Westerns is that none of them qualify as all-time great films, or even all-time great Westerns. But they are all solidly built, sure, specific, drawn from character, and always dealing with clear moral dilemmas and moral tests. It is as a group they are significant. It's a bit like trying to identify the one great Chopin etude or the single great Raymond Carver story. It's not any one of the works, but the totality which shows a clear world view clearly expressed.

Looking forward to seeing and writing about the next one soon.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Yin and yang on the runway

The publicity for The September Issue (2009) all focused on Vogue's famous editor, Anna Wintour (on the right). But the film tells quite a different story. It is about the tense and productive partnership between Wintour and her chief stylist and creative force on the magazine, Grace Coddington (on the left here). Together, they are the Lennon and McCartney of fashion publishing, each self-sufficient, yet each needing the other to complete themselves creatively, making the other better, sharper, more inventive and continuing to lead their respective fields.

Naturally, the marketing promises a film about fashion, but it is really a film about collaboration, the nature of it, its difficulties and rewards. On a first viewing, the film is frustrating because it purports to reveal the process by which the keystone September issue of Vogue is put together. But the actual process is impossible to observe at first viewing. The film is a cineastes delight because there is so much to entertain the eye--color, design, form--and because these visual people communicate almost non-verbally. Shrugs, eyebrow tilts, mumbles--these are the way messages are delivered. If you are looking for someone to explain, "This person begins an article by doing this, and then these people get together and do that..." you will be disappointed. How this immense thing comes together is nearly as mysterious when the film is over as when it started.

Along the way is a huge amount of detail, more than can be assessed in a single viewing. Take any scene in this film and count the number of shots, especially the cutaways. The fact is, that cutaways are used to abridge scenes that ramble on in real life and need to be given economy and shape in the finished film. But these cutaways are so often to telling and unexpected details. Yes, of course, darting eyes, tapping fingers, lists being crossed off. But sometimes they cut to shoes, pictures on the wall, scenes outside the window--every bit of visual stimulus that could have an effect on the final product.

September Issue is a remarkably pure example of Direct Cinema. If you do not know what a collection is, what a stylist does, what couture is and how fashion journalism shapes it, this film will not make that clear to you. There is no narrator, and the only titles indicate the amount of time until the September issue closes. So you don't get explanation. What you do get is total immersion in this world, to the point where the filmmakers become part of the story, in an amusing final incident reminiscent of Albert Brooks's film Real Life.

Every detail of how Vogue makes it to your newsstand or mailbox may not be made crystal clear (for example, I have no idea what Andre Leon Talley, the third most important character in the film, actually does. He seems to just run around being amusing.) What is clear is the dynamic tension between the two principal figures, and that--plus the ticking clock until the closing date--makes a good movie story.

What do we mean by that?

What is really remarkable about Adam (2009) is not merely that a touching and entertaining romance can be built around Asperger syndrome, but the apparently effortless command and mastery by which writer-director Max Mayer employs Asperger as a metaphor for a whole range of adult relationships, and indeed, for the act of watching film. Before I go on, I need to tell you that this is not a "disease of the week" movie, or a plea for special understanding of a misunderstood population. It's simply a story about relationships in which one person has an inherent difficulty with relationships--not much different than all those movies about slovenly frat boys who don't understand women. Adam just doesn't understand anybody. And there is not a single dull or redundant moment in this highly engaging movie, beautifully shot by Seamus Tierney. (I was stunned when I learned this film was shot on hi-def video, not 35mm. The images are crisp and evocative, nothing like the dull, smeary look of Cold Souls.)

Many of the salient characteristics are Aspergers are phases that we all go through, especially as teenagers. Inability to look people in the eye, a low level of empathy (this is actually physically developing as the pre-frontal lobe is still growing and not completed until the late teens), difficulty understanding non-verbal communication, or indirect verbal modes such as irony and sarcasm--all of these can be puzzling to 14-17 year-olds. There are films from Classical Hollywood I have learned to shy away from in a high school film course, not because material is offensive or upsetting, but simply too difficult to decipher. Social and censorship codes of the 30s, 40s and 50s made it impossible to discuss some matters directly. I found myself stopping the film Casablanca to explain that when the young Bulgarian bride asks Rick what he would think of someone who does a bad thing for a good reason, she is asking him if she should sleep with Renault in order to get an exit visa for herself and her husband. So many films of this era--To Have and Have Not, Notorious, Gilda are reeking with sex which a teenager cannot detect because no one removes any clothing or says a dirty word.

But indirection, compression and the use of verbal and visual signals is often right smack at the heart of filmmaking. Look at the beginning of Adam. We see a young man at a funeral. We see him return to an overly-large apartment. He goes to a calendar marked with "Dad's Chores" and "Adam's Chores" and strikes out "Dad's Chores." Close-up on an American flag folded in a triangle, shoved onto a shelf. We know this young man has lost the father he lives with, that he is methodical and that the father was a veteran. All this in the space of seconds without dialogue. I wonder how readily someone with Aspergers would grasp the unspoken exposition of this very film.

And then there are relationships. How much do we ever understand what is in another's head? (This is one of my "commercials" for teaching literature in school--it is one of the few ways to approach the inside of another person's mind.) We try, we guess, we make mistakes, we ask forgiveness (or don't), we are forgiven (or not) and the success of relationships is often measurable by our tolerance for each other's stumbles.

It is hard to describe how satisfying and sure-footed this film is. Adam is not a saint, and not possessed of mystical knowledge. (Adam even makes a deft Forrest Gump joke, which takes his girlfriend a moment to recognize, so rare are his wisecracks.) Scenes are visually well-composed, the action well designed, beginning and ending at the right spot. One might take issue with the subplot, which has to do with our tolerance for deception from others, but I think it sheds light on the main thread of the story.

Also I liked the metaphoric use of children's stories, particular Le Petit Prince and The Emperor's New Clothes, which ties in nicely with Rose Byrne's character's desire to become a children's author; this in turn neatly wraps up the conclusion, which is satisfying without being pat. It is hard to believe someone with such a meager film resume can make something with such clarity, control and confidence.

One little side note--that satisfying conclusion is the result of studio involvement and focus groups, which helped pinpoint some audience dissatisfaction with the original ending. Hats off to Fox Searchlight for acquiring and distributing the film, but also helping make a positive artistic contribution.

Monday, April 12, 2010

An American life with no second act

I used to travel to France on business and I did not find the people slow or obtuse or having difficulty picking up on things. So why can French films be so slow? Cold Souls (2009), written and directed by French-born Sophie Barthes, has a pretty good joke to tell, but it tells it--slowly--then tells it again, then sort of loses interest in going on, flops around listlessly and stops.

Yes, the movie has ideas, or at least one, but it treats that idea like a shopper in a gift store, picks it up turns it around halfway, then puts it down and goes on shopping. At no time is the idea explored, developed, worked out, or even reversed. It's simply stated and we are all expected to sit back and congratulate a movie for having an idea.

The idea is that the soul is an extractable item, that it brings unbearable weight to some people, and that some people are happier without them. Yes, I know they should have brought Donald Trump and Paris Hilton on at this point, but no, they go to Russia, where everyone has "heavier" souls than Americans. This idea is presented without a speck of irony, as is the concept that Russians are either downtrodden plebes or gangsters.

Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti, but strains credulity that an actor of that intelligence would imagine he could continue in his chosen field without a soul (unless of course he had a series on the WB). The self-referential aspect invites comparison with Charlie Kaufman's work, in which both John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage have played characters who have the same name and occupation as they do, inviting the audience to believe they are playing themselves. But Kaufman keeps pulling rabbits out of the hat, but this movie quickly becomes all hat and no rabbit.

A few examples: After Giamatti has his soul extracted, he has a terrible rehearsal playing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya as a manic narcissist, turning the role and the play into utter nonsense. Director Michael Tucker simply walks away in disgust, eschewing a chance to explore what's gone wrong. Giamatti immediately realizes the problem and begins trying to solve it (at first by renting another's soul). But what if Giamatti's career had taken off once his soul was extracted. At the moment he's a bit of a cult favorite. When he appears in a pop movie it is in a supporting role, perhaps as a villain. What if having no soul automatically makes you a star? Or what if he had to attend a family reunion with no soul? Would anyone notice? What would they see? The whole concept of being soulless is raised and then immediately dropped so that the film can go on a long tedious trip to Russia.

Why tedious? Because the pretty and marginally talented Russian actress who has had Giamatti's soul installed (under the impression that it is Al Pacino's--Al Pacino would never be so foolish as to have his soul extracted) does not seem to display any effect of having a different soul. Not that she fails at the task--the writer-director simply hasn't provided any opportunity to explore this idea. The whole thing makes no sense, because if her husband (who runs the black-market soul factory) can lie to her about the soul she is given, why bother using any American actor. Why not just grab the first unclaimed soul lying around, which would have saved a lot of money and effort. And we can't see that it makes any difference in the woman's behavior.

This goes to one of my complaints about films with strong abstract concepts--so many of them get caught up with the mechanics of their premise. So a great deal of the running time of the film is spent with soul-extracting machines and the containers the soul comes in and how the "mules" move in and out of the country, that the central concept of the film remains unexamined, and the characters have to spend immense amounts of time finding out information that we, the audience, already know.

Similarly, when Giamatti begins carrying around a Russian poetess' soul, a soul described as "beautiful," why doesn't Giamatti act on the promptings of that soul? Why doesn't he gain greater vision and insight of the world around him? Being sensitive to other souls doesn't seem to have any effect on Giamatti other than burdening him. The unaddressed question for the whole film is "What is the effect of the soul on human life? How does it make us different--from each other and from other types of life? If we are better off with souls than without, why?" At the end of the film, the young woman who has been acting as a "mule", carrying souls back and forth is left with an enormous residue from the souls she has carried. Wouldn't that give her real insight and vision? I don't know. She goes down to walk on the beach. Is that profound? I don't know.

Early in the film I remarked to my wife that this seems like an idea for a Gogol story. But as the film moved along, it remained nothing more than an idea. Doesn't anybody read these scripts before they start shooting? Didn't anyone notice that after the first act, the movie quit? Can't help wishing that a film with this premise had been made by Ricky Gervais...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Two stars in search of a movie

There should be a law. Comedians who can write should not perform in scripts they could write better themselves. This applies especially to Tina Fey and Steve Martin, who write good comedy scripts. (This does not apply to Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler who do not write good comedy scripts. They should always perform in movies written by their betters. Which would include a group of 9th graders from the East Wadsworth Memorial Middle School.)

It is really hard to understand how two such funny people as Steve Carell and Tina Fey could fail to detect the sloppy, lazy haphazard and unfunny contours of the script of Date Night (2010). Yes, the premise is good, but the covered the premise in about 15 seconds in the trailer (most of the rest of the trailer was dull).

Examples: Steve Carell has taken the reservation of another couple. On the way to the table, Tina Fey has such funny lines as "Oh no, you really shouldn't do this." I realize his may not be an exact quote, but surely somebody could have written a joke to cover the action while they are seated. Or else just cut.

Steve and Tina are being threatened by the baddies. Steve tells them the thing they are after (let's call it the McGuffin) is in the Central Park boathouse. Central Park was a great idea for the movie because...well, I really don't know why. They fool around in the boathouse for a while, then Steve and Tina escape. So why Central Park, which has never been more boring and pointless on film. Then Steve and Tina are running around holding the boat over their heads and they bang into a tree and they drop the boat. Wow! What a comedy feast! I mean, that the best physical schtick they could come up with?

It's set up that Steve Carell never remembers to close drawers. This pays off brilliantly in the climax when...well, actually it never pays off. It is completely pointless.

Steve bashes the car he's driving into a taxi, so their bumpers are stuck together. Then both drivers push on the accelerator. Shot of wheels spinning. Shot of drivers shouting. Shot of wheels spinning. Shot of drivers shouting. Shot of wheels spinning. Shot of drivers shouting...does wheel-spinning seem especially appropriate here? Just as we're wondering whether they'll go one way or the other--they go one way. No surprise, no variation, just push, push back, push, push back and then one guy wins.

Then there's Mark Wahlberg who's a mysterious guy involved in international black ops who helps out Steve and Tina, except that in a surprising twist...oops, forgot to create a surprise twist.

Then, at the end, the villains are frozen when the unarmed Tina begins to count to three, which always works with her toddlers. It works with these evil and vicious villains because...because somebody thought it would be funny, even if it makes no sense for the characters and the situation.

See, on top of an ill-thought-out comedy-free script (I mean, seriously, Mila Kunis is the funniest person in the movie, which is sad), then they hired Shawn Levy to direct. Mr. Levy has directed a terrible remake-in-name-only of Cheaper By The Dozen, a terrible remake-in-name-only of The Pink Panther and the very-amusing-to-9-year-olds Night In The Museum movies. The man does not know about set-up and payoff, he doesn't know how to build and fill moments, he has no concept of pace, of characterization, of using character to drive story nor does he have any gift for imaginative physical comedy. This guy thinks that people running into things and falling down is funny. (So did my kids when they were 3.)

A smart producer would have recognized that the shape of Date Night is essentially that of an action comedy and, as was done with Beverly Hills Cop 2, hired an action director to keep the picture moving, devise twists and surprises and relied on his stars and their writers to keep the quips and comedy business floating on the surface of an action-film structure. The story itself is not inherently funny--Hitchcock based half his career on mistaken-identity suspense films. So the story and the situation will not deliver the funny. That's going to require some work by talented people. And there is one slight little problem.

Shawn Levy has ABSOLUTELY NO TALENT WHATSOEVER. If someone is scheduling and intervention and we can somehow convince Mr. Levy that he is in the wrong line of work and perhaps he could do something better with his life, count me in. I will do anything to hasten his retirement from filmmaking.

That said, Carell and Fey have a nice team chemistry, and I would enjoy seeing them appear together in an actual movie--not necessarily as husband-and-wife or romantic partners, but comedy partners, which is where they meet well. I don't have much hope. Coming in 2012: Date Night 2--This time it's even more incompetent.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Living, yet dead

Zombieland (2009) comes barreling out of the gate with more energy and imagination than a film comedy has shown in quite a few years. The 3D animated "rules of survival" are a surprisingly durable joke. The four principals (Jesse Eisenberg in his second "-land" film of 2009, Woody Harrelson, the irreplaceable Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone, showing she is ready to step out and carry a movie) come loaded for bear, ready to kick butt and take names and there are a couple of nice story switches that really work (at least the first time).

Zombie movies usually have an element of metaphor, and it seems as though it is going to go that way during the prologue. But clearly, the zombie-ness of zombies is not terribly important to the filmmakers. They're not all that scary, and in a sense not even essential to the character of the film. Any threat would have done--rabid coyotes, killer tomatoes, accountants on stilts, whatever. The essence of the film is a road movie plus "misfits coalesce into a family." And that works nicely, particularly as the new family gleefully trashes a junky gift shop together.

Then, for no good reason, the travelers enter the greater Los Angeles area. (Note to filmmakers--Los Angeles is only interesting to people who live there. New York is a world capital, Chicago is an exciting vibrant place, Washington is the seat of power. Los Angeles is Columbus with money and narcissism.) There is one absolutely side-splitting, daring and hysterical plot development at about the 2/3rds mark, which I do not wish to spoil. Then there's a little character bonding, which is harmless, and then the film is off to a loud, fast, nonsensical and ultimately disappointing finale.

Setting the final act in an amusement park: pretends to be based on character, but is only attached by a thin thread (the two girls were happy there and they heard a rumor it was zombie-free--which makes no sense as soon as you hear it); it makes no narrative sense--in fact none of the geography in the film makes any sense at all. How can two characters be traveling together across the MidWest to Talahassee and Columbus and then go to Los Angeles because the two girls who keep scamming them want to go there? The whole place is a big dead end. And ultimately it turns out to be visually uninteresting and sparks some very unoriginal stunts and gags, with really no pay-off for the film as a whole. It is obvious this was tacked on to the screenplay (a fact confirmed by the director) because the brilliant "Rules for Survival" never appears in the entire sequence, as if the writers had fled in horror by what the director and producers had done to their clever little movie. A very sad and incompetent come-down for what had been a smart little picture.

I mean, how can you top shooting down Zombie Charlie Chaplin? (Well, actually, they do top that one, but you're going to have to see the film to find out what I mean.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I lost it at The Last Picture Show

I remember it still. It was my 16th birthday, May 30, 1972. Although The Last Picture Show had opened the previous October, it had won some Academy Awards in April and went back into release, at least in little neighborhood houses like where I lived. And I was now old enough to attend an "R" film without a parental unit, so my steady girlfriend and I went to see what the hollering was about.

Up until then, my concept of "important" films was a literary one. A Man For All Seasons, To Sir With Love, Beckett--these were the important-type artistic films. They were about big things like Justice and Freedom and usually somewhere near the end, the hero had a long speech in which he explained his choices and defended his ideas as the camera slowly dollied in and we all knew that this was a Very Profound Movie.

This type of work is an aesthetic booby trap. Because, despite its pretensions otherwise, it is not challenging the beliefs and assumptions of its target audience: it is confirming them. It confirms to the audience that they are good and decent people and that they would Do The Right Thing if confronted with such an important moral dilemma.

But those are not the choices we have to make. We don't have to decide if our country is going to adhere to the pope's dictates, or if a generation will be saved or lost. We decide where to buy our houses, where to work, if we will stay true to our spouses, if we will raise our children well or abandon--physically or emotionally--when they need us. Real true, everyday life choices.

And as far as I can remember, The Last Picture Show was the first American film I could remember that seriously dealt with these issues, especially from my point of view as a teenager. (I probably hadn't seen Rebel Without A Cause and if I had, I would have seen it as a melodramatic hyperventilation of an earlier generation.) The film addresses that time in your life when you need to leave your hometown--if you can. (It would make an interesting companion piece to the lighthearted American Graffiti.) And what it says is quite ambiguous--which was new to me. And nobody made a speech to clarify the matter.

The people in The Last Picture Show were not given to speeches; when they spoke at length it was of memories. Most of the time, they said less than they thought, less than they felt. They spoke indirectly, obliquely. They communicated by looks, by looks away, by pauses and silences. Case in point: the final line in the film. Sonny has betrayed and hurt Ruth and she explodes with anger. Then she sees the hurt in his own eyes (he has undergone his own losses), weaves her hand in his and says, "Never you mind." Somehow, those three inarticulate words sum up the humanity of this film.

Another example, which illustrates both the use of subtext and the extraordinary quality of the acting. Ellen Burstyn's character is bored at home. She hears an engine, which has been established as the distinctive-sounding engine of her husband's right-hand man, with whom she has been having an affair. We see on her face--"Oh, good, he's coming to see me." She heads toward the door and sees her daughter, looking angry and disheveled. Clearly her daughter (Cybil Shepherd) has been with her boyfriend, they have had sex and the daughter is upset. Burstyn swallows her disappointment, passes quickly through anger (for the boyfriend standing her up, for him preferring her own daughter and for him treating her daughter like a two-dollar whore), realizing that the daughter needs to be talked through this. Burstyn begins prattling, suppressing all the emotions she is feeling, trying to soothe the daughter and dismiss the importance of what's happened. And under the chatter you see her forming the plan to get the girl out of town. Get her out because she doesn't want the girl near her boyfriend, get her out because there is nothing for her in this crummy little town and get her out because her daughter is both an innocent and a manipulative bitch and will have more scope for her talents in a larger town, where she can capture a rich man and make him miserable. None of this is in the dialogue--it's all in Burstyn's acting. It's another reason why one trip through this film will not be enough to see what's there.

While the subject matter was almost soap opera or turn-of-the-century Realism--the secret stories, rivalries, dreams and disappointments of a small town-- the pace and handling were like the French New Wave. Filmmaking of the classical era had never been as frank about sex, language and other private matters. Yet the visual style is quite classical. The film is famously black and white, which today makes it seem as true to 1951 as 1971, much the way Keaton's The General looks like a Matthew Brady photo. It was the first serious contemporary black-and-white film I had ever seen. (I was too young to have seen In Cold Blood--the last previous major B&W film.) The result was a story that seemed to come from a distance and yet have an immediacy, given the language and subject matter.

And the film follows the John Ford rule of camera placement and movement. First, the camera only moves if it moves with the characters and keeps them in a constant relationship with the frame. Otherwise, the camera is fixed and records events happening within the frame. Second, two-shots are preferred in dialogue scenes, because the physical and temporal space between the characters is important. Deep focus is used to make both foreground and background action visible and important. In addition to the beauty of this formality, it makes the film even more timeless. There are few things as dated-looking as the "up to date" camera styles of the 1970s--overuse of the zoom lens, super-shaky handheld work, washed-out color and endless camera flares. Many of the most highly regarded works of Picture Show's era looks like museum pieces. Picture Show still looks fresh as a daisy.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about the film without its extraordinary cast, few of whom were familiar to the film audience: Tim Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid as the kids, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan and Cloris Leachman, whose ability to move from plain to beautiful is brilliantly exploited here. Interestingly, the major male actors bring some film history: Clu Galager and the incomparable Ben Johnson of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master and so many other Ford films, who you can see earning an Academy Award at the top of this post. (Leachman also won, probably for that brilliant final scene. Oh, what the heck, let me put it in here:)

I watched the film again the other night, and then watched it yet again to hear Bogdanovich's commentary, which is very straightforward and honest. I cannot be objective or analytic about this movie. It is too beautiful, heartbreaking and true. It is all about the sweet pain of growing up, of hurting people you love and learning to ask their forgiveness, of the fusion of past and present, how everything you love will leave sooner or later--unless you leave them, and unfortunately, that very fact will not kill you. If you can watch this film dry-eyed, I wonder if you really remember being young.

Keep dancing

Dancing Lady (1933) demonstrates how quickly the film studios--even the lumbering MGM--could align themselves with popular trends during the studio era. With the arrival of synchronized sound, musicals had sprung up like weeds in 1928-29, and by 1931, the public had tired of them, probably because most of them were shoddily thrown together grab-bags. Then in 1933, Warner Bros. released 42nd Street, which had both an engaging story and the incredible surreal and abstract production numbers of Busby Berkeley. Suddenly, musicals were viable again, especially backstage stories, and if one could manage some Berkeley-style showmanship, that was good too. (Incidentally, if you want to see 42nd Street for yourself, here it is:)

By the end of the year MGM had its answer ready, in the form of Dancing Lady, although the differences between it and 42nd Street are instructive. Both are romantic melodramas set against the pressure of opening a new Broadway musical in the depths of the Great Depression. (This much was true to life. New production on Broadway shrunk drastically between 1930 and 1935.) The musical numbers in both films are diagetic, yet they both ignore the limitations of the living stage in favor of a fantastic presentation only possible in films.

But MGM being MGM, the story centers around the ambitious chorus girl (Joan Crawford) instead of on the hard-driving director as in the WB film. The character in the latter has no time for romance, but Gable and Crawford begin their partnership that lasted through eight other films. MGM substitutes Ted Healy for Warner's Ned Sparks, and since Healy had three stooges, they come along, too. Yes, the Three Stooges in their last "A" production. Larry is rather believable as a rehearsal pianist (he was reportedly a good violinist), and Moe and Curly float through the background of the film almost constantly poking and slapping each other. They all demonstrate a rather natural acting technique, easily overlapping dialogue and moving comfortably in and out of scenes. But they are never permitted to complete a set routine.

Instead, Larry gets to mime the piano accompaniment for Fred Astaire's film debut. Astaire is tossed in casually, without introduction, using his own name, as a sort-of "guest star" appearance, first in a brief rehearsal and then in the final sequence of numbers. Not content with that, we get an early glimpse of Nelson Eddy before operetta--in fact, so pre-operetta that he sings the very jazzy "Rhythm of the Age." Not content with that Robert Benchley is running around the margins playing a completely superfluous drunken newsman. One other strange credit on the movie--it is alleged to be based on a novel by James Warner Bellah, known to most film buffs as the writer of the stories on which the John Ford cavalry trilogy was based. This is like finding out that James Ellroy has been punching up the script on Sex in the City.

While Crawford is always believable as some kind of star, she is scarcely plausible as a talented chorus girl promoted to the lead. Her dancing always looked like a cowboy trying to kill cockroaches; the costume designer astutely puts her in a long gown in the finale that masks the awkward jerky movements of her legs. But while she is the film's raison d'etre, she is also its downfall, because the long, dragged-out telling of her romantic ups and downs with lounge lizard Franchot Tone almost drive the film into a ditch. (A pity, because director Robert Z. Leonard has made the first half of the film is very swift and breezy, especially for an MGM product.)

Luckily, she realizes that she really loves showbiz, not Franchot and rejoins the show THE DAY BEFORE THE OPENING, and all is triumphant. (Notice that getting the show rehearsed in time is never discussed in this film, whereas it is one of the central points of 42nd Street.) Because the essential momentum of a backstage story is toward the successful opening night, not toward the successful romance. In fact a lot of backstage musicals were posited on the impossibility of a normal personal life for performers and artists. But MGM wants us to root for the romance, and given that it's with Clark Gable, that's not so bad.

Meanwhile, Gable has been pushing the writers (Sterling Holloway is one of them) to write something modern and up-to-date, and then we find Fred and Joan in lederhosen singing a song about beer. (I can only imagine they were trying to imitate "I Love Louisa" from Astaire's hit show The Bandwagon, the title of which became my favorite Astaire film, 20 years later.) Why is it that Broadway shows in classic Hollywood films are absolutely incomprehensible? You'd think that with only three or four numbers, there could be some sort of consistency to them.

Slight retraction--the strength of the Berkeley films at Warners is that the numbers do seem as if they come from the same show, stylistically if not in a narrative way. But MGM hasn't learned that lesson, and the songs from the show-within-the-show appear to be the first three or four at the top of the stack in the musical building. The one genuine hit, "Everything I Have Is Yours" is sung at a party, not in the show. (Another historical coincidence: the music for this first film by Fred Astaire is by Burton Lane, who wrote the music for Astaire's final musical, Finian's Rainbow. He also wrote the score for the not-bad Astaire vehicle Royal Wedding.)

The imitation Berkeley numbers are actually pretty good imitation Berkeley, except without the implicit "face in the downtrodden crowd" aspect found in the Warners films. (Another random observation--the sound technicians of the day were capable of voice dubbing--Joan's singing voice is thankfully dubbed. Why then are all the chorus girls allowed to record their own weak, wobbly voices for their close-ups? This sort of thing was going on right through the 1940's. Puzzling.)

Clearly MGM was less focused on making a good, coherent engaging film than it was in keeping its production factory going. To that end, it needed to create a Joan Crawford vehicle, whether or not she was suited to the style and subject matter of the film; it needed to work on developing new personalities such as Nelson Eddy and Robert Benchley, even if the film has no real use for them; it must keep existing talent, like Ted Healy and His Stooges busy, even if they can't really contribute. The result is a barely coherent jumble that distracts for 90 minutes but is utterly unmemorable.

Except for one line. Gable orders his assistant, Ted Healy, to fire his inadequate leading lady. Gable: "Send her back to where she came from." Healy: "Oh boss, they closed that place a long time ago." Same goes for musicals like Dancing Lady.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Vengeance is not justice

There is little to say, cinematically speaking, about a thing like Law-Abiding Citizen (2009). Director F. Gary Gray has a good eye and can move things along. That the resultant film is both preposterous and nauseating was, I suppose, built in to the project from the start. You must other buy these things or reject them outright. You can't fix them up by cutting a scene here or there or adding a fact to increase plausibility. Plausibility is not the point. It's all about MAKING a point. In fact, the title character is willing to kill 8 or 12 people, many of them innocent and take his own life to make a point. I think they call people like this terrorists.

What bothers me, and this perhaps comes from my experience as an attorney who was for a time attached to the Public Defender's Office, is that the film turns on the assumption that plea agreements are bad. (The writer doesn't seem to like bail, either. I think he should move to Singapore, myself.) There are flawed plea agreements, but that's because there are flawed criminal cases. And in order to do away with flawed criminal cases, we're going to have to do away with the 4th, 5th and 6th amendments, and I'm not ready for that. Moreover, plea bargains yielding lenient sentences are less of a problem than plea bargains which coerce false confessions--which allow unidentified malefactors to go free.

None of this makes Law Abiding Citizen less of a slam-bang thrill ride. But it's the kind of thrill ride that may make you want to throw up afterwards.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

That's a big 10-4

At first, Trucker (2008) feels like one of those pre-Production Code movies of the early 30s in which women were strong and tough and independent, far more so than they would be portrayed later in the decade.

Then the film seems to be settling into the territory of "women as part of the desperate underclass" films, such as Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy. Then as Michelle Monaghan's central character was reunited with her long estranged son and displays no ability to relate to him, I thought, "Aha, they are remaking all those grouchy-old-man-with-spunky-kid" movies they used to do with Walter Matthau 30 years ago, only now with attractive young women instead of wrinkly old guys.

But in time, Trucker shows its true colors as one of those film-festival films which packs 24 minutes of incident into a thrill-packed 88 minutes. You know, the kind of movie which, after any dramatic incident, needs to have about 60 seconds of shots of the leading lady sitting and smoking and thinking about what just happened. Too bad, because I was waylaid into seeing this film by the presence of Nathan Fillion, who is always welcome. (Someday some smart producer will cast Nathan Fillion and Bruce Campbell in the same movie, perhaps in the same scenes, and my head will explode with delight.)

I know this is not a very thoughtful or analytic post, but the film simply strikes me as one of those films which benefited from the excess of investment funds available three years ago, but would have benefited more from a more thoughtful, complex and engaging script.