Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shall a man be known by his deeds or by the fruits thereof?

This scene can serve as illustration of the ethos, though perhaps not the look (which is mostly darker), of Army of Shadows (1969), an eyewitness account of the French resistance, and an inspiration and source for Flame and Citron. Hannah Erendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" with reference to the bureaucratic and mundane way in which the Final Solution was carried out. Army of Darkness might be said to be about the banality of the resistance of evil.

There are no fabulous daring raids, no destruction of huge ball-bearing plants, no mass assassination of Nazi bigwigs, no examples of individual heroism really at all. This is a movement whose energies are almost entirely engaged in survival. Like Washington's army (and that of Ho-Chi-Minh), all it has to do is stay intact through the end of the war in order to win. But that is no simple task, and as the clip above illustrates, it requires a frigid and efficient cruelty which hardly exists in peacetime.

Director Melville was best known for his laconic noir gangster films. Army of Darkness is to war films as Goodfellas is to gangster films. Both are about grubby, workaday violence, the glamor and romance fairly well stripped from them, in constant fear and danger of discovery to the point where fending off discovery overtakes the original object. Lino Ventura, so brilliant as the cornered yet cool criminal of Melville's Classes tous risques and Le deuxieme souffle, is similarly cool and virtually with affect in this film, merely exchanging one state of violent criminality for another, i.e., one is "bad" and the other is "good," so long as the ends justify the means.

Back in the 60s, all the talk was about "anti-heros." This was meant to refer to actors like Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, who didn't look like Clark Gable or Gary Cooper and didn't have morally unambiguous triumphs. But in fact most "anti-heroes" didn't accomplish anything. Sure, Ben married the girl in The Graduate, but that marriage didn't appear to promise salvation or even success beyond a few months. The bad guys beat the cops, the investigative reporter got killed by the conspirators, the cops shot the hero, all the 70s heroes lost.

The heroes of Army of Shadows win without triumphant, without victory. To persist is to win. This is true anti-heroism.

The film also marks the beginning of the de-glamorization of Simone Signoret, who plays a brave and skillful but not alluring resistance member, so worried about maintaining her connection with her daughter, that she dies for the sin of carrying the child's photograph. In order to fight inhumanity, one must shed one's own humanity.

This sounds like a dark, brittle, cold film. Maybe it is. But it is exhilarating in its capacity to embrace good and evil together and trust the audience to sort it all out. See it and be surprised you hadn't heard of it before.

Monday, September 27, 2010

When did neurosis become attractive? Oh, that's right--never

I thought Noah Baumbach's The Squid and The Whale was pretty accomplished. I was especially impressed with how he depicted the effect of a father's narcissism and hypocrisy on his adolescent children. I was also impressed with Jeff Daniels's willingness to play such a horrible person without visibly judging him or trying to distance himself from the character.

Greenberg (2010) has no such merits. It has no special cinematic, literary or performance craft. I mean, the actors say their lines so they can be heard and don't crash into the furniture (or if they did, it has been edited out), but there is nothing much special here. Ben Stiller, an actor who once displayed talent on the Ben Stiller Show, but now is in severe need of someone to pick him up and throw him against the wall very hard, is slightly less irritating in this film in that his character is trying to get better. It has an interesting example of graceless grace from Greta Gerwig, who reportedly has carved out a career in mumblecore, of which Greenberg appears to be larger-budgeted example.

Other than the pleasantly and surprisingly normal Rhys Ifans, the characters are people I would pay money to avoid, especially when they try and exhibit their creativity.

So far, Noah Baumbach's film oeuvre seems about as significant as most of the fiction that used to appear in The New Yorker before it banished fiction. They're enervated, jejeune, solipsistic and use too many big words.

Hysterical hysteria

It's a good thing for Pixar that A Town Called Panic opened in 2009, because while Toy Story 3 is a very good movie, Panic is an explosion of lunatic creativity like I haven't seen in a long time. If any movie deserved the appellation "LOL," Panic does.

This is not just a smart movie based on a TV show with limited animation, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. The limitations of the animation, using the sort of figurines that children play with (based on real figurines bought at flea markets and garage sales) is an inherent part of the style. Smoother, more "realistic" animation would spoil the jokes.*

Once you've absorbed the silliness of the animation, the next thing that hits you is the speed and density of the events and the gags, and the way they link to each other with a child-like explosion of imaginative leaps. Some commentators say the story follows its own logic or carry ideas out to their logical conclusion. But that is an inadequate explanation of how the heroes fall through a trap door to the center of the earth (where they answer their cell phones), find a door that connects directly to an Arctic tundra where they encounter a giant robot penguin flinging giant snowballs to other parts of the earth. Later, we discover that the creatures stealing the walls belonging to Cowboy, Indian and Horse look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and live far, far below the pond in the neighboring farm. This is nothing like any kind of logic--it just follows, the way a child makes up a story as he plays.

The whole film feels like a long session with a hyper-creative child. There is very little snarky adult satire in the film--only the double vision of a child's adaptation of the world to their own understanding and the adult's unfortunate knowledge of how things really are. Why shouldn't they make pianos that horses could play (not to mention toothpaste dispensers)? Why can't a little police booth expand into a local jail (like an earth-bound Tardis)? Why can't an angry farmer attack you with parachuting cows? (see the clip.)

Happily, Zeitgeist Films has chosen not to produce an English track, because the over-excited voices are an integral part of the whole thing. (Indian is constantly hysterical, Horse sounds like an American comic doing Charles Boyer, neighbor Steven is apoplectic non-stop.) And they add to the sense of speed, which makes The Simpsons seem stately and majestic by comparison. That contributes the child-like nature of the film, since healthy children at play think, talk and act at the speed of light. It's amazing to learn the script took years to develop and refine--the film seems like a mad improvisation, like a playtime locomotive bearing down on you at top speed.

And one of the best things about this film is it dispels the notion that only 3D CGI characters are compelling enough to entertain nowadays. Now I just got to find a crazy kid to watch this literally hysterical film with.
* Panic originated as a Belgian TV series. Belgium is France's answer to Canada; a neighboring country which doesn't take itself as seriously and has an extra language (or two) to contend with.

80 years on, still wreaking havoc

I don't know why it's taken me so long to see Pandora's Box (1929) a film I have been reading about and hearing about for at least 40 years. Perhaps I was afraid that being German, silent and over two hours, it would be heavy going. I couldn't have been more wrong. The film is at least as breathtaking as it must have been 80 years ago. It needs no apologies, no excuses. It barely even needs historical context. Few films of any age leap off the screen with the power and immediacy of Pandora's Box, and especially not silent films.

Naturally, much of the power and immediacy come from the extreme direct and unaffected performance of Louise Brooks as Lulu, around whom much of the legend of this literally legendary film is built. As Orson Welles said in another context, "it's all true." Brooks triumphs in the first and most important task of the film actor--to appear to be unaware of the camera and of the fact that one is giving a performance. The best film performances do not appear to be constructed or considered, but "caught." Brooks simply is Lulu, the strangely innocent destroyer of men and their lives, the femme fatale whose fatale quality finally reaches even her own self. She is no immoral vampire, sucking the life out of her helpless victims, but an almost pre-moral toddler of sex, who tears the lives of others apart like a small child kicking over a castle of blocks, for fun and to see what happens.

She is a fool, but not a dullard. She has a strange intelligence, and she is one of the few femmes fatales who seems to enjoy sex for its own sake, rather than merely what it can do for her material circumstances. And Brooks has a powerful flesh impact--not in a blowzy way like Monroe or other conventional sex symbols, but with a glow of youth that could have been fresh and redeeming, but here carries the stink of corruption of death. There is an ambiguity, a duality in this performance that is indescribable. It has to be seen.

Lulu is a narcissist and a sociopath, but the people around her are far worse. Her "mentor" (read "pimp") Schigolch is an evil troll who encourages her in prostitution and murder. Her "lover" Schon clearly hates her for his obsession with her (you can see that in his face at the end of the clip that appears above). Her "true" lover Alwa, is young, weak and easily manipulated. Her final lover turns out to be Jack the Ripper. Lulu does not have the power to make this world evil--she is merely a reflection of the cesspool she finds herself in. That might make the film sound repulsive and difficult to watch, but it is riveting.

Much of this has to do with the brilliant cinematography and staging of the film. In the clip below, we see one of the most authentic and detailed stagings of a backstage setting, with only a modicum of exaggeration for comic effect. The clip illustrates the expressiveness and fluidity of silent film at its height. This is not a form that is "missing something," but has created a detailed and effective visual vocabulary and syntax. This is silent film that speaks for itself.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oh, yes, they went there

The Black Balloon (2008), a small Australian film from a few seasons ago, was positioned as a story about the effect of autism on a family starring Toni Colette as the long-suffering and loving mother. It is in fact a coming-of-age story and a first-romance story, made luminous by the presence of the former model, Gemma Ward making her first significant acting appearance. (She has since booked a job on the next Pirates of the Caribbean picture.)

The film is really about what it is like to have a special-needs sibling in those critical years when you are becoming who you are going to be. It is a time when one is necessarily self-oriented as you try and shape your identity and the visage you present the world. And a large element in that process is the first person you love who loves you back.

At first, Thomas thinks that giving his autistic brother his love and attention is in conflict with his desire to have a girlfriend. Then he discovers that he was fortunate enough to have picked a girl who understands, who is ready to let Charlie into her life as well. It's not easy to play a person this good, this open-hearted, this accepting of all of life's little complications. When you're young you often believe you're entitled to get things your way--after all, you are just starting out, you haven't made those restricting choices, you haven't messed things up seriously yet. But a mark of maturity is that all of life is coping with the given circumstances. Not compromise, not surrender, but acknowledging the reality of things over which your control is limited.

Gemma Ward as Jackie seems to literally glow from the screen. It helps that she is very fair in a very brown world. But it looks as though there is a light somewhere behind her eyes. It is impossible to imagine being 16 and not falling in love with this girl. And her kindness and generosity to Charlie, the autistic brother, confirms her loveliness inside and out.

Aside from Ms. Ward, the most surprising thing about the film is how far it goes to show how difficult Thomas's life is. At one point, he is so angry with Charlie (because he has upset Jackie) that he rages against Charlie and even punches him. I wonder how many siblings of disabled people have felt that way and never dared admit it. Surprisingly, Thomas retains our sympathy even with this terrible cruelty. To see those violent feelings, out there for all to see, makes you pity Thomas as much as Charles.

The film has modest technique to support its modest goals, which it achieves completely. Toni Collette, who is spot-on brilliant, cannot do a scene less than superbly. The story has a very touching and funny denouement, effecting a complete rapprochement between the brothers. But if The Black Balloon earns a place in film history, it will be because of this first important performance of Gemma Ward.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Knowing when to hold 'em

A Big Hand For The Little Lady (1966) presents itself as a comedy Western about gambling, specifically poker. But in fact ***SPOILER ALERT*** the film is in fact a con movie, one of the earliest I am aware of to deal with a long, or at least semi-long con with a sympathetic point of view for the cons. (Until then, most films about con artists were police procedurals.) The trickiest thing about a really fine con film is that there must be at least one con reserved for the audience. This gets harder as the years go by.

Back in 1966, the mere fact that you were witnessing a con without your prior knowledge was a pretty satisfying twist. Today I would guess most movie fans would guess that at about the halfway mark. (There's a large and improbable turning point which is a tip-off.) One still doesn't know the extent and the shape of the con, so there is still fun to be had. And back then, having sweet old Henry-Abraham-Lincoln-Mister-Roberts-Eagle-Scout-Fonda as one of the cons was fun in and of itself. (This was three years before Sergio Leone cast Fonda as a psychopathic mass killer in Once Upon A Time In The West.)

Today in the post-Sting age, when everyone has plumbed the depths of The Sting's source work, David Maurer's 1940 book, The Big Con, it takes a lot more to completely sandbag the audience. (I confess, Matchstick Men did that for me, and I've gotten pretty good at these things.) The key, usually, is in character. Think about who would want to con who--and remember, there's probably someone you've forgotten or overlooked.

In this case, the marks (as in the best con films) really deserve it. Jason Robards blew his charm wad in A Thousand Clowns, and for the rest of this film career specialized in scowling. Charles Bickford contributes his own 50 years of experience in scowling, John Qualen is having a rare turn as a non-Swede and Kevin McCarthy uses that beautiful voice to contribute some super smoothness that might deceive you. You could overlook Burgess Meredith and I completely missed Chester Conklin (was he wearing his moustache?), but the film is most remarkably a fine vehicle for Paul Ford, who gets to play an actual human being rather than the human foghorn he plays in The Music Man and The Russians Are Coming! If you recognize at least a few of those names, this is a film you appreciate.

Finally, the strangest credit, director-producer Fielder Cook, not known for Westerns--in fact, he was a specialist in live television drama and later in making films based on plays. This seems strange during the opening 10 minutes of the film, until the picture arrives in the single room in which it will spend at least 75% of the balance of the movie. One of these days I might try to compile a list of Westerns set in a single room. (And wouldn't you like to see Clerks remade as a Western? I would.)

What about Joanne Woodward. She's just fine, as would be a few dozen competent professional actresses. Good thing she didn't co-star with husband Paul Newman in this film, or it would have given away the trick right away!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Where do ghosts go when they die?

Roman Polanski has never made a movie that is less than eminently watchable. I have taught Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in my film courses, and lessons learned in those films are applied at times in The Ghost Writer (2010), Polanski's entry into the paranoid political thriller genre. (Although given Polanksi's origins and his life since, I suppose all his films are paranoid thrillers. Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean people aren't after you.)

The film's title outside the States is "the Ghost" and that's how Ewan MacGregor's character keeps introducing himself, most ominously in the scene pictured above, when he simply says, "I'm your ghost," announcing that Pierce Brosnan's Tony-Blair-like character is already dead, which politically speaking he is.

Polanski is the master of what is not shown. The most famous example is in Rosemary's Baby as Ruth Gordon, having a secretive telephone conversation leans just out of shot, which caused much of the audience during the first run to physically lean over, evidently hoping they could see around the corner on the movie screen. There is a bravura example in The Ghost Writer as a folded note is passed hand to hand within a crowd. Polanski chooses to show only the hands and the shoulders being tapped. The fact of a note being passed seems to excite surprise or consternation, but we have no faces to show us this, just body language. But over the course of this very long shot, our desire to know the content of the note ramps up until the pressure is almost unendurable. Too bad the actual note itself is sort of flat compared to the build-up.

Similarly the climax of the film and the final revelation takes place just off-screen, although what has happened is clear and does not need to be shown directly to be understood. If you haven't seen the film and you want to--and you might want to becuase there are rewards to be found--be advised that Polanski's ending (which is meant to be a shock) has returned to the ethos of "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." In effect, Polanski says, all effort to discover the truth, to effect justice are feckless and almost ludicrous. The result is a highly unsatisfying, disappointing and perhaps even predictable downbeat 70s ending--albeit in a well-designed shot of which Hitchcock would be proud.*

Which solves the final mystery: why a film which for 127 minutes of its 128 minute length seems like a rattlingly good post-Hitchcock thriller with a major star and a raft of well-known supporting players should have disappeared at the box office this spring. You just can't tell an audience it's all hopeless and expect them to like it. At least not since the mid-70s, anyway.
* We can't discount the possibility that Polanski may have come his conclusions about truth and justice because of his own personal history as a long-time fugitive, although I think there is no hidden mystery about the acts which are the substance of the charges against him. The only argument is as to the just punishment therefor.

Lights down, lights out

Fat City (1972) is not well remembered now, but it began the John Huston renaissance that continued--fitfully--through his final film, The Dead. It is a noirish little boxing film, sharing much with Robert Wise's The Set-Up: tank town, washed up fighter(s), the women who hang on for better or worse.

There's not much story. The film is all acting, atmosphere and cinematography. And if nothing else, Fat City nails down the relationship between Edward Hopper and film noir. For a boxing picture, little of importance takes place in the gym or the ring in comparison with the Eugene O'Neill-like barroom that forms the emotional center of the film. Here they share their dreams and disappointments, project future triumphs and spill their guts.

Cinematographer Conrad Hall, who made the definitive Hopper-influenced film in his final feature, Road to Perdition, doesn't seem want or need any front light at all. This is one of the darkest films this side of The Godfather Part II--it must have been a smeary mess on VHS tape. But it is only appropriate for a film made up of confessions that can only be made under the comfortable blanket of darkness.

It's also a great opportunity to see the young Jeff Bridges, fresh off The Last Picture Show and warming up for brilliant work to come in a line that has peaked lately with Crazy Heart. Here his somewhat soiled, but still innocent optimism is a great contrast with Stacy Keach's air of defeat--personae that are hard to from those of the actors themselves. But then, as a director who loved real locations and non-actors, Huston was the master of the cinematic found object.

Bordwell on action editing

David Bordwell, the best shot-by-shot analyst of film in its history has another superb piece on his blog, this time about the trend I've complained about here frequently, specifically, the tendency toward disjointed and incoherent editing in action and fight sequences. Here's an excerpt:

During the 1990s several critics began to notice that filmmakers were doing something odd with action scenes.

Directors were consciously, even joyously, sacrificing clarity. When two characters were punching it out, the framing didn’t make it easy to know who was hitting whom, and how. Changes in angle and shot scale were sometimes so abrupt that you had little time to adjust. The cutting pace was so quick that you couldn’t entirely register the movement in shot A before shot B replaced it. Sometimes the spatial layout of the fight was confusing as well: too many close views, too few master shots. Later, the return of handheld shooting made many action scenes even more illegible., blurring and smearing them to the point that sound (as in the Bourne films) had to specify that a body has hit a window or a hand has busted a bottle. Now we have Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables, which might be a new summit in overbusy, incoherent, inconsequential action.

I wrote about this trend back in the 1990s, and I’ve returned to it on occasion since. Other writers, notably Todd McCarthy of Variety, noticed it too. He referred to the full-throttle editing and “frequently incoherent staging” on display in Armageddon (1998): “Bay’s visual presentation is so frantic and chaotic that one often can’t tell which ship or characters are being shown, or where things are in relation to one another.”

...The Michael Bay approach has become the principal way in which action scenes are shot. It isn’t absence of craft that leads to these aimless bouts. The filmmakers actively want the action to be hard, even impossible, to follow...They seem to think that making the action illegible is creative because it promotes realism.

...Realism, as usual, is simply a fig leaf for doing what you want. Virtually any technique can be justified as realistic according to some conception of what’s important in the scene...

Forget the realist alibi. What do you want your sequence to do to the viewer? Do you want it to pass along an impression of bustle and flurry? Or do you want to make the viewer wince, recoil, even mildly reenact the movements of the players? Then follow the Hong Kong tradition. Yuen Woo-ping once told me that his goal was to make the viewer “feel the blow.” To convey the effort and strain, the impact and pain: that’s something worth doing.

It’s something that the blur-o-vision tussles lack, but even fights that are more carefully filmed are strangely unmoving...
Bordwell then goes on to analyze, step by step, why the Hong Kong editing method works to convey the impact of a fight and the Michael Bay-Stallone method does not. Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It doesn't take a prophet

A Prophet (2009) takes a mere 135 minutes to cover the story material found in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the average James Cagney movie in the 1930s; namely, the rise of a young, tough but naive outsider to become the top of a dangerous gang. At least with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, it was fun. A Prophet is just slow and weary and heavy and self-aware.

So what's new? The story takes place mainly in prison. While that seems novel at first, in the long run it doesn't change anything about the dynamic of the story. The young gangster waxes, the old gangster wanes, and it is Little Caesar all over again.

The main character is Muslim, which turns out to make no real difference. Sure, he's part of an emerging minority, but so were the Irish and Italian characters of the films of 70 and 80 years ago. There is nothing unique about his religious affiliation--no objection to alcohol or drugs, no special provision for prayer, no specifically Muslim worldview.

The whole movie is French. Well, that just means that there's a lot of chatter, the actual events in the story are spaced far apart, and the "run and gun" method of filming becomes numbing rather than exciting.

Cineastes around the world are raving about this film. It has won many awards and high ratings from critics. I'll confess: I don't get it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Faux noir

Film noir, once an interesting mode of film analysis, has become such a potent marketing tool that desperate home video distributors are willing to slap the name onto any black-and-white film that has any character or activity which is slightly more hard-hitting than a Shirley Temple film. In the case of Bad For Each Other (1953), not only is there no sense of doom, no guilt, no sense of the world overcoming the protagonist, there is not even a crime of any kind. Don't let the title fool you: there is really nothing to recommend this film for any purposes, especially entertainment, except for the presence of the borderline sinister Lizabeth Scott, who managed to project the aura of a girl who was born to a good family but promptly got into bad--maybe even kinky--stuff. That's all kept pretty well offstage in this attempt at a Warners-style soap opera, directed by Warners journeyman Irving Rapper.

Two Of A Kind (1951) comes a bit closer to noir, given that there's a half-hearted attempt at a con, and that the head con is the weak-chinned and sort-of greasy Alexander Knox. (Yes, I know he's famous for playing Woodrow Wilson, but he was sort of a greasy prig himself, disguised as an upright college professor.) The con itself, like most long cons, has disappeared into the mists of time. Long cons require a fundamental lack of knowledge on the part of the mark, and it is hard to keep the marks in this state of extreme ignorance nowadays. Specifically, the cons try to pass off seedy, sweaty and burly Edmond O'Brien as the son they lost when he was a three-year old boy. (It's hard to imagine Edmond O'Brien was ever three years old. Could he have been that sweaty then?) The point is, one simple DNA test would end this con quick. As it is, they can't pull it off, even then sweaty Edmond has allowed the tip of his pinky to be hacked off to further the plot.

But honestly, the men are of no real interest in this movie, at least not in comparison with the good girl-bad girl dichotomy set up, as seen in the illustration above. The good girl is Terry Moore, who evidently learned from bad girl Lizabeth Scott, and switched over to being a bad girl later in the decade, especially in a sweater (very bad!).

But Lizabeth Scott is the whole show here. At first she seemed like a road company Lauren Bacall, all husky voice and sassy attitude. But where Bacall is insolent, Scott has the inherent superiority of just being better and smarter than her men, which makes her free to exhibit a sparkle and enthusiasm not available to the sullen sultry Bacall persona. Bacall had Howard Hawks to guide and shape her, but Scott had no such mentor. She had been discovered by producer Hal Wallis and followed him through Warners and Paramount, both home to heavy-breathing melodrama before she fetched up at Columbia, which really lacked a house style, taking what it could from the occasional A-list talent that went slumming in Gower Gulch. But Wallis was not a star-maker, but a star-finder and exploiter. Among his contractees were Kirk Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, Elvis Presley and Martin and Lewis. The filmographies of the latter stars should indicate that Hal Wallis mostly gave up on quality when he left Warners.

Oddly, though Bacall was a cool and a noir dame, she was never a femme fatale. She might think you were kind of a jerk, but she would never destroy you. Scott, on the other hand, might be completely head-over-heels about you, but she'd sell you out in a second. That splendid balance of enthusiasm about men and about money made a lot of her films and roles seem more interesting than they really were.

And you gotta like a gal whose big break in show business was understudying and appearing as Sabina in The Skin Of Our Teeth. It is said that at 81 she could still recite her first speech in the play from memory. I believe it. It's a really good speech.*
* Oh, oh, oh! Six o’clock and the master not home yet. Pray God nothing serious has happened to him crossing the Hudson River. If anything happened to him, we would certainly be inconsolable and have to move into a less desirable district.

The fact is I don’t know what’ll become of us. Here it is the middle of August and the coldest day of the year. It’s simply freezing; the dogs are sticking to the sidewalks. Can anybody explain that?

But I’m not surprised. The whole world’s at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me. Every night this same anxiety as to whether the master will get home safely: whether he’ll bring home anything to eat. In the midst of life we are in the midst of death, a truer word was never said. ...

My advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy. Don’t forget that we got through the Depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like this and where will we be?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The potency of decent sentiment

In the 1930s and 1940s, the studios manufactured them on a regular basis and they were called tearjerkers. Ostensibly they were for women, but since they often involved the loss not only of husbands and lovers, but of children, I am sure many men enjoyed a good sniffle in their day. The cathartic effect of viewing such vicarious tragedy was understood and accepted, even if the form was not artistically respectable. As late as 1968, theater director and critic Harold Clurman called Robert Anderson's I Never Sang For My Father "a play of decent sentiment."

Today, decent sentiment, as represented in a film such as The Greatest (2009) is too middlebrow to be endured by people of education and good taste, and calumny is heaped upon such misshapen oddities, especially by the young. But I think that non-parents must be automatically disqualified from judging any works which contemplate the death of a child. Until you've gone down that road, is impossible for mere imagination to conjure up the fear of such overwhelming and devastating loss. Until then, you can't know how losing another person, even a lover or a spouse, could drain you of your sense of purpose and identity.

And perhaps the only way to exorcise the fear of that abyss is to stare straight down to its center. And so, Pierce Brosnan as the father of an 18-year-old who is suddenly and randomly killed in a road accident cannot sleep, but simply lies in bed clutching the alarm clock, staring at it dully as it goes off. Next to him, his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, stirs from her sleep for a few moments before the memory of what her life has become hits her and she begins weeping horrifically. This scene alone makes the movie the horror film of the year for a parent.

And The Greatest is to be praised for avoiding some cliches without twisting itself out of shape to do so. The mother of the dead boy does not welcome the prospect of a grandchild by that boy as one would expect, but is angry and resentful. The film does not wander far down the road of "is the baby really our son's baby" which would be tedious and irrelevant. And it posits a sweet and quiet bond between the young woman and her would-be father-in-law.

The film has been unfavorably compared to Robert Redford's Ordinary People (which Lillian Gish, presenting the Academy Award for Best Picture, called, in a moment of Freudian truth, "Ordinary Picture"). True, it is not pretentious, it is not directed by an overrated actor-director, does not have a bunch of affluent dried-up WASPs and a loveable Jewish psychiatrist (ethnics are always the bearer of truths to those repressed WASPs). It does not play Pachelbel's Canon over and over the way they did at your niece's wedding until you wanted to grab Pachelbel by the throat and kill him again, though he has been dead for over 200 years.

The one thing the films have in common (other than the set-up of one dead son and one unworthy living one) is that they center around the repression of emotion. But instead of following the road of Mary Tyler Moore's terminal toxicity (which is what makes Ordinary People an Art movie), the parents in The Greatest break through eventually. What is surprising is that the gush of tears, which produces a palpable relief in the audience, comes not from the mother but the father.

And this reveals a little truth about what it is to be a man--a real man, not a boy-man. Contrary to the prevailing mythology about the endlessly sacrificing mother, being a man is living for other people and serving other people's goals: your children, your spouse, your employer, the organization or institution you are part of. Men--other than artists and geniuses--are supposed to submerge their entity into greater entities. Individualism and ego are discouraged. (Yes, I know the movies are full of raving Jack Nicholson-types, but they are in the movies because those people are exceptional.) We men are supposed to keep our heads down, keep the grass trimmed, keep things going, make everything work for everybody else. When we're lucky, we get a beer on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

So it is a small victory to say, "I am entitled to my own grief." The only emotions we're supposed to have is pride, braggadocio, swagger. But like Pierce Brosnan's father character, we need to claim our emotional territory, where tears are allowed.

Maybe that's not art, but it's life, and sometimes art is about life, and not just about what critics are supposed to like.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Absolution in the land of Deliverance

There's little for me to add to the chorus of praise for Get Low (2010), as well written, shot and acted a film as one is likely to see this year (although that is rather a low bar to reach), so I will try to confine myself to a few quick and perhaps random observations.

The story is about a man who is going to be put in a box in the ground. He is a man who is good at making anything out of wood, including boxes. He even makes his own box to put his body in the ground, and it is beautiful. Is it for that reason, that most of the indoor settings look like the inside of a well-made box, with the sunlight scarcely illuminating these characters, who will all eventually go into one of these boxes?

I should have said at the outset that Get Low is one of the most beautiful looking films to come along in a long time, and not in a self-indulgent way, as in Eat, Pray, Love but in order to reveal the hidden beauties of what may seem to outsiders (especially city folk and Northerners) as a harsh and unrewarding way of life. This is hardly surprising, given that director Aaron Schneider has spent most of his career as a cinematographer (albeit without a really memorable work on his resume).

And not only does the wood look burnished and glowing; the actors, especially Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek look as though they are carved out of beautiful wood. Not that their performances are wooden--no, they are tonally perfect. But they appear to be in touch with the natural world as their characters are. The town people, represented by Bill Murray and Lucas Black are pale indoor folk, struggling to keep up with events instead of shaping them. And the magnificent Bill Cobb seems to have emanated from the wood of his church, a kind of tree himself, a fixed point from which to navigate the terms of good and evil (which, as his character says, are all tangled up together).

Bill Murray has become the most perfect film actor of his generation. Like most of the greats, he is a reactor. (John Wayne was famous for giving other actors the long speeches so he could simply react to them. Gary Cooper was great at that, too.) Whereas his contemporary comic actor Steve Martin has two modes: meta-, stepping out of the film and commenting on it (usually to the film's detriment) and embarrassingly sincere, as in A Simple Twist of Fate or Pennies from Heaven. Murray keeps his irony intact--he always has a double vision of what is before him, but manages it without the overt wink at the audience. The wink isn't necessary. We know Bill Murray, we know who he is. We trust him as our guide as to what is reasonable and what is ridiculous. And is acceptance of each preposterous suggestion of Robert Duvall as natural and desirable (an acceptance driven by Murray's desperation, not greed) is a plentiful comic wellspring, a wellspring I cannot imagine gushing so copiously with any other actor alive.

And giving Mr. Schneider his due, Murray does not pull the film off-kilter or off course. His irony and wiles are put in service of the story and of its lovely denouement. I can't say that Duvall's climactic confession was as surprising or shocking as it may have been meant to be, but no matter--it is what that confession means to Duvall's character, to his former romance, Sissy Spacek and to the people of the town who had never seen him as human.

It's a movie of immense balance and poise. The people with me thought the film was slow. I thought it was measured, like a Handel Largo or a Laurel & Hardy movie. If you sit back and wait patiently, you will be rewarded. You may even see some interesting things along the way. Like life.

(And for heavens sake, click on the Easter Egg in this post. It's fascinating.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dark side of the sun

First of all, let's not get excited or confused. The film under observation is a small Irish ghost story called The Eclipse (2009), not Eclipse: The Endless Twilight Thing.

The whole enterprise is virtually the definition of slight, a wisp, an anecdote, but it has the virtue of being continually intriguing, and a sense of satisfaction at the end. Perhaps that's because while very very little has taken place in the story, the protagonist has moved a great emotional distance.

Another great satisfaction is the role-reversal of the principal male roles. The usually charming and decent Aidan Quinn gets to play a narcissistic SOB. Ciaran Hinds, who usually plays kings, emperors or commanders, here plays an ineffectual and literally frightened man. And no disrespect to anyone else involved, Hinds is the whole show and it's a pretty good show.

It also has the good sense, as a ghost movie, not to give away or explain its ghosts. It never clarifies whether they're really there or just in Hinds' head, since it doesn't really make any difference, because Hinds sees them. And, of course, they serve their metaphoric purpose far better that way.

I used to wonder why so few films which required extensive exteriors were shot in the United Kingdom or Ireland, until I lived there for a year in the late 1970s, and realized that the weather was so rapidly changeable (especially in Scotland, Ireland and Wales) that it would be a continuity nightmare to try and match shots made only minutes apart from each other. Thirty-some years later, lighter, faster cameras, faster stocks and nimble, hard-working film crews have made it possible to bring the real look of the British Isles to film. The Eclipse was made in Cobh, which is beautiful, but given to a lot of dark, gloomy skies and rain. This, of course, makes it ideal for a ghost movie, and much good use is made of that moody southwestern Ireland climate.

Moreover, the film is one of the few to dramatize an interior psychological process, that is, Hinds's character working through stage of mourning. The outward apparent action concerns a literary festival, a sympathetic woman writer and the American writer who is trying to revive an old affair with her. But that action quickly moves to the background. Some writers about the film complain that it has few events, or that it depicts much of the routine activity of the literary festival. But that is the nature of process--it is backgrounded behind mundane aspects of daily life, and one waits warily for the next milestone to assert itself. It is the dramatization of non-drama.

As Eat, Pray, Love demonstrated, it is difficult to film a spiritual journey. The Eclipse comes a lot closer, as we see a man work through grief, exorcise some ghosts and prepare to begin life anew.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

One last swim

Summer is winding down, but there's still time to get one last swim in down at the town pool:

[Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928), a long underrated, laugh-out-loud film.]

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Your past is waiting for you in your future

The Escapist (2008) may be the only prison break film which shares structural qualities with a romantic comedy, specifically (500) Days of Summer. That is, the beginning and the end of the story are deeply intertwined, and action and result seem to co-exist side by side.

It is hard to say what new could be done with a prison film, otherwise. It is a limited form, and for the first thirty years it would seem that virtually all of the story twists had been exercised. After that, prison break pictures were based on true stories as in Escape from Alcatraz and The Great Escape. Since then, pickings have been lean for the form, which has mostly upped the violence on-screen without any true developments in the genre.

Escapist has all the usual characters, the Brain, the Muscle, the Scrounger. It has the usual fake-outs and tricks. The only thing truly interesting is that the audience acquires the knowledge that the entire reason for the break is rendered moot even before it has begun, and that these yobbos are risking everything for nothing. The plot launches along three separate time lines and moves freely among them. Though disorienting at first, eventually it becomes revelatory, like a cubist picture in time.

Perversely, by rejecting the trappings of conventional suspense, director and co-writer Rupert Wyatt creates a riveting form of anti-suspense: not, "what will happen?" but "what will they do when they find out?" This structure drenches the entire story in irony, a tone natural to the prison break (which is usually feckless).

Plus there's Brian Cox. He seems to have experienced an Anthony Hopkins-type transfiguration, by which a yeoman actor becomes an acting deity. More power to him.

Austin Powers's smarter older brother

It only took 40 years, but finally there is a truly great parody of James Bond, and surprisingly it's from the French, many of whom think Jerry Lewis is funny. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) is an amalgam of wit, buffoonery, satire, slapstick, social comment and silliness that would probably be impossible for an American filmmaker outside of perhaps Christopher Guest.

Whereas Austin Powers reverts to poo-poo jokes, Clouseau to pratfalls by stuntmen, Maxwell Smart to Yiddish verbal schtick, the Naked Gun to meta- joking, this parody of what was originally a serious spy series predating James Bond is willing to take on colonialism, racism, sexism and general white male narcissism in a way that is genuinely funny. The clip shown above is a fairly good example, and demonstrates the subtlety of Jean Dujardin's playing. It helps that the overall silhouette resembles that of the Neanderthal Sean Connery version of Bond. (The tilt of Dujardin's eyebrow as he says "Don't feel like it...It was the cow joke" in the clip above cracks me up each time.)

This is an idiot who thinks Islam has to be stupid to ban alcohol, who beats up a muezzin who wakes him up in the morning and likes to flick the lights off and on in the henhouse just to hear them start and stop cackling. More than that, one has to appreciate the precision of the parody--the sets, costumes, lighting, style of camera movement and editing all hark back precisely to the early 1960's, without self-reference or vaudeville self-mockery. Even the opening titles sequence can elicit a chuckle of recognition from anyone familiar with light thrillers of the era (not only the Bonds, but Charade and that ilk).

Most laugh-out-loud comedies have a streak of stupid. But for OSS 117: Cairo, the stupid belongs to the character and the society from which he has emerged, not to the film itself, which is very smart indeed. Put this one in your queue now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The thin blue line grows thinner still

Brooklyn's Finest (2010) is structured along the lines of Thornton Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which a chronicler tries to find some connection among several people who died together as part of the same seemingly-random accident. Brooklyn's Finest tells three parallel but unrelated stories of cops who died at roughly the same time in the same place. The question is why, or even if there is a why? Is it God or Fate or the natural cruelty of the universe, the nature of the blue brotherhood, or is it nothing at all?

The problem is that Brooklyn's Finest ends where Wilder's book begins. We are given all the circumstances of these co-incident deaths and no reflection on what they may mean, individually or collectively. Wilder doesn't answer the questions he raises, but at least he raises them. Brooklyn's Finest is so caught up in the detail that has brought these police officers to this point that it has no time for the larger questions.

Except, possibly, the possibility of redemption, which is what keeps the movie afloat. Ethan Hawke is killed, belatedly, for his sins, before we have a chance to know if his repentance is sincere; Don Cheadle--whose talents are in danger of deterioration for always playing a good guy; he may need to change it up like Denzel--dies by accident, borne of the pervasive mistrust between cop and community; and Richard Gere kills his own dead-souled self and comes back to life, exacting something between justice and vigilantism, but better than he was.

Director Antoine Fuqua is best known for Training Day and thus has spent time in morally ambiguous country before. But for all the hard work, there is nothing surprising, unusual, non-formulaic here. If it was not composed of three separate stories, there would be nothing remarkable about the film at all, either on a craft or an aesthetic basis. There's nothing terribly wrong with it, but with all the projects fighting for money and attention, why was this one that the people involved felt had to be made?

Still, any movie that begins with a rambling and colorful monologue by the inimitable Vincent D'Onofrio (when are he and Mark Ruffalo going to co-star in a movie?) has something going for it, right?

Resistance is not futile

There is a powerful air of authenticity that clings to European films about World War II, and especially when they originate from some of the smaller combatants, who had less of a hand in creating the narrative of the war as it is known by the masses.

So Flame and Citron (2008), a Danish story told by Danes has a strong pull, especially given that while Denmark was occupied, it was permitted to continue its own government. Thus the Allies could not officially recognize, sanction, fund or command the Danish resistance. So even though there were lines of communication with the Allies, the Danes were truly out there on their own.

In this era of phony military experts like Sylvester Stallone, it is refreshing to see the fight taken into the hands of untrained civilians, who have nothing but will, passion and a few simple weapons to bring down the Reich. Moreover, much of the film is about the relationship between these two men (who actually lived). One reviewer compared them--while acknowledging the strangeness of the reference--to Butch and Sundance. That bond is critical, because given the thin support they have and the stakes involved, no one can be trusted. Films about underground movements are, by their very nature, about ambiguity and about betrayal.

So the betrayal comes, not from the comrade in arms, but from a lover, Ketty, who begins an affair with "Flame" (nicknamed for his red hair), while continuing her affair with the head of the SS in Denmark. And Citron betrays his family in a sense, placing their needs below those of ... what? his country? his comrades? his need to assert his masculinity through violence?

Flame and Citron are not noble do-gooders. They are killers, albeit with amateur origins. They disobey orders, they endanger others, they are reckless and often vindictive. They are not simple straightforward heroes. Their quest destroys them, body AND soul. So the question for the viewer is-- would you do as they did? Would you sacrifice all, be content to reap nothing? Not even be sure if there is anything to be reaped by others, when you had the choice to be and remain safe?

The filmmaking is not groundbreaking--film writers merely note the influence of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, an even more terse and pitiless film, by all reports, which I will be writing about soon. In the meantime, it is good to see some ambiguity and complexity being permitted into the once monolithic telling of the story of the Greatest Generation and their Good War.

Real mean streets

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is a wonderful, jazzy title for a fairly pale rip-off of Panic In The Streets, a thrilling noir about the hunt for a killer with plague shot in the streets of New Orleans. Killer That Stalked is based on a real case of a smallpox scare in New York in 1947, which resulted in a mass wave of vaccination. Some smart producer and/or writer had the notion to graft the central premise of Panic in the Streets onto this true story--namely, that the source of the infection would be just the type of person unlikely to cooperate with the officials, being a criminal--and even better, a criminal in mid-crime, that is, waiting for the heat to blow over in order to get rid of stolen goods (in this case, jewelry).

Neither Panic nor Killer qualify as hard-core noir, since there is little element of doom, fate or evil. Panic has a couple of deaths and shootings early on which thicken the atmosphere, but its claim to noir cred mostly rests on the moody photography of Joe McDonald (a favorite of Frank Capra's) and the high-tension lead performance by Richard Widmark. Killer has none of that, being shot in a fairly flat, almost television style, with little point of view. The illustration above demonstrates some of the attitude of the film. All the cops are benevolent Irishmen, and the nurses are gentle and knowing. It is ankle-deep in early 50's Hollywood pap.

Killer has only two possible claims to noir status, one being the presence of Evelyn Keyes, who while not a significant noir figure, is a fairly consistent "bad girl" (perhaps mostly because she's a no-longer-young blonde and because of her long string of famous romances off-screen). She entered the pantheon as Scarlett O'Hara's pouty younger sister, but in Killer she's not especially pouty or especially bad. Just sort of flu-y and sweaty. The other, better claim is the use of New York location photography. Unfortunately, it doesn't amount to much more than some second-unit material, and some plates for Ms. Keyes to walk in front of on a rear-projection stage. Still, it's always fun to see New York 60 years ago, and those little slices here and there provide most of the entertainment value of The Killer That Stalked New York.

Much more extensive and enjoyable use of New York as a setting is found in The Glass Wall (1953). Like Killer, Glass Wall is not a noir, but a chase film and a suspense piece, but the person running is far more resourceful and determined than in the earlier film. He's a refugee from Communist Hungary without an immigration quota number, desperate to find the American, a jazz musician, who can tell the authorities that he aided the Allied cause during the war, and is entitled to entry. The film boasts excellent location photography by Joseph Biroc, who fought his way through the low-budget swamp of the 1950s, and became something of a specialist in comedy beginning in the 1960s.

Co-writer and producer Ivan Tors had to be a huge influence on the film, also being Hungarian (there is a striking encounter with a Hungarian family late in the film, who argue about their responsibility for the refugee), but also as the future creator of Sea Hunt and Flipper, a fellow who liked to take the camera out of the studio and into the outdoors. Much is shot with available light, and, I suspect, with hidden cameras, since most of the close-ups of star Vittorio Gassman are shot before rear-projection plates, which suggests that they did not want passing New Yorkers to see the cameras, and so kept them far away and under cover. How appropriate to have brought over an Italian actor (albeit playing a Hungarian) to recreate the feeling of Italian neorealism in the streets of New York.

But the element that truly brings Glass Wall closest to noir is the incandescent Gloria Grahame, who breathed guilty sexuality. Most filmgoers remember her as Violet, the girl who is no better than she should be in It's A Wonderful Life, to whom Jimmy Stewart lends money to get out of town away from the gossips, and whose flirty walk makes Ward Bond wonder what his wife is doing.

I don't suspect Gloria Grahame made many moviegoers think of their wives, but the irony is that her characters rarely project sense intentionally, nor even in the fake-innocent manner of a Marilyn Monroe. In Glass Wall, as in most of her films, she plays a lonely, damaged woman who has trusted some wrong men and suffered for it, and yet keeps hope alive, confident she will find a good one. In the illustration above, she is describing her life on the shoelace tip assembly line, part of her rough struggle for survival. The speech and scene is American screenwriting at its best, terse, heartfelt and hardboiled. Incidentally, the set decorators and director had the courage to make Grahame's slum apartment really look like a slum apartment. It may be the shabbiest living space seen in any film in the 1950's.

There's an exciting sequence which could only have been shot on a real New York subway platform (how little they've changed), and even more remarkable from a historical aspect is a brief chase through the still-new and apparently still uncompleted UN building, most strikingly when Gassman's character addresses an empty hearing room demanding justice--and this from a character who has spent ten years in concentration camps before stowing away to America. Perhaps not noir, but unafraid of harsh facts (and McCarthyites) and the reality of being an outsider in America, clawing for a way in.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fog of war

A number of commentators on The Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass are still complaining about the immersive camera technique Greengrass favors. Come on, folks, you've had at least since 2002 when Bloody Sunday, Greengrass's brilliant film on the 1972 incident in which British troops fired on and killed unarmed protesters in Northern Ireland. If you haven't seen this superb film, rent or borrow it NOW! Put it in your queue now. Open up another tab on your browser and go to Netflix NOW! I'll wait.

OK, back again. Greengrass has an unusually coherent body of work in film which is bound together by unity of subject matter and style. In fact, the two may be indissolubly linked.

Greengrass makes movies about people who are seeking the truth. Not big, universal, philosophical truth; just trying to find out what happened. And today, with the welter of media outlets mostly controlled by a few outlets, governments managing information and news items categorized not by significance, but by "buzz," finding out what happened is about the most difficult think one can do. It's not comfortable, it's not simple, and the information doesn't arrive in a nice linear order or an elegant three-act structure.

In this context, Greengrass's camera style, being in the thick of it, not moving smoothly from master to medium to close, not framing things perfectly, with foreground obstructions and uneven lighting, makes perfect sense; the truth is got at incrementally, the bits one can piece together which the world conspires to obscure.

Incidentally, contrary to those contemporary films with over-edited fight and chase scenes in which the viewer cannot orient himself and therefore feels alienated from the action, in a Greengrass film I always now where I am, where the other characters are, where the danger is coming from. (A side benefit from a one-camera-on-the-shoulder approach is that it is rare to find a cut across the axis, because the director has not made those kinds of shots.)

Frankly, I am getting sick of the critics my age or older who say "It's cut too fast," or "The camera shakes" or "It's so meta- [or so subjective] that I can't identify what the objective reality is." Who guaranteed anyone that a film would present a view of objective reality, or that editing rules of classical Hollywood would go on forever and ever. How is that different from complaining, "That music today is just noise." Either retreat into the past or go away--life is change, and to stay alive, you are obligated to keep up with that process.

Anyway, back to Green Zone. Damon plays a military professional who gradually realizes that his stated mission is nonsensical and that it is based on either bad or deliberately false intelligence. This is evidently a source of political controversy. I admit room for debate as to the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq (but only because I want to err on the side of reasonableness), but is there a serious argument that planning and early execution of the invasion was amateurish, based on unfounded beliefs and wishes? This is not a matter of left or right--Damon's character's question is simply: "What is it I'm supposed to be doing? And if it's looking for imaginary things, that's an insult to my professionalism and a detriment to the safety of my men."

Thus Greengrass's camera style, which some find confusion and disorienting (I don't) is not a stylistic flourish but a statement of the central theme of the film, if not of the entire body of Greengrass's work: that truth is not-obvious, seldom if ever grasped in toto and ever-changing.

The counter-argument, that truth is always simple and obvious, is a natural point of view for those who are simple and obvious.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Leone senza umore

The Australian western The Proposition (2005) forever settles the question, "What if you tried to make a Sergio Leone movie without any sense of humor?" This is a movie about bleak--bleak story, bleak characters, bleak landscape; without an ounce of release for the audience. There is good and interesting music in The Proposition, but nothing like the witty eye-wink scores of Morricone, which seemed to say, "Ingrid, it's only a mo-o-o-o-vie."

And whereas the Western often turns on the establishment or restoration of order, here the order is corrupt and evil. So there is no safe resting place, no comfort for the audience. This film is like the guest that came along with your friend who starts yakking in his grating voice and just...won't...stop. Also, I'm sorry about how the white Australians treated the aboriginal people, but they haven't got a thing on how both the English and white Americans treated native peoples they encountered--the latter seemed to me to be far, far worse.

In looking for something else to say about this baked-out, washed-out, shoot-em-in-the-head fest (without the whoop-up fun of a real shoot-em-up), I came across this quote: "...What The Proposition's characters have in common—the only thing they have in common, really—is the desire for community..." I have no idea what this yobbo is talking about. The only thing that happens is that some people get raped, then some people get shot, then some people get beaten, then more people get shot, then John Hurt natters on about something for 6 or 7 months, then the world's biggest psycho says it's all about family, and then his brother kills him, and do I really need to go on. This isn't a revival of the western genre, it's a concerted effort to destroy it forever.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why a remake?

For most of the history of dramatic storytelling, originality of the plot was not considered a primary virtue. The ancient Athenians expected to know the story of the play they were going to see in advance--in fact, most of them were traditional stories they had known from childhood, or perhaps soon after. The playwright's art was the expression of that story and the character's reaction the events through verse and dance. Making up a new story would have completely confused your average Athenian, sort of like those two old ladies who always sit behind you at the movies and try to figure out the story out loud while you're trying to hear the dialogue.

Shakespeare, as we all know, swiped his stories from legends, from from Hollinshed's Chronicles from Plutarch's Lives and Italian and other story collections. Nobody faulted him for that in his own era. It is only since short story writers such as O'Henry and Maugham popularized the twist ending that it became bad form to give away the story, culminating in the great story conspiracy of Hitchcock's Psycho.

So the idea of a remake is not inherently dishonorable, at least in historical perspective. So why retell an already told story?

1. We know everybody likes it. The trouble with this in the home video era, is that we can always go back to the source. Back in the day, when MGM remade Little Women in 1949, they knew that not many people would have a good memory of the 1933 RKO version, but just to make sure, they bought the earlier film and suppressed it. But nowadays, if we're jonesing to see Wuthering Heights, we have the choice of about eight different versions, including a number of television adaptations. But none of them have the heat of the Olivier-Oberon 1939 version, one of the sexiest movies ever made where people keep their clothes on. (Other contenders: Notorious and To Have and Have Not.)

Worst example of "we know everybody likes it:" Gus van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Color film, lesser actors and nothing gained (and quite a bit lost).

2. Let's see how the story or the characters change when we bring them into a new era. So The Front Page, which has been filmed four times since 1929, was most recently set at a cable news network in 1988, to see how the story is different. Turns out, not much, but that was OK. In the case of The Women, the original 1940 characters lived in a world of severely limited possibilities for women, and competing for men was one of their few active options. Today's version makes those women seem even more petty and small, given all the other choices they could make with their lives. Body Heat is not a remake, but it frankly reworks themes and story tropes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice with the sexual frankness of the 1980s, not available to filmmakers in the 1940s. This may sound like the basis of a Skinemax epic, but Kasdan uses the sexual heat to add a layer of tension and ambiguity to the already complex characterizations.

3. Let's see how the story or characters change with different actors. A hit-and-miss matter. For example, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr seem to click better in 1957's Affair to Remember than do Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in the 1939 original, Love Affair. On the other hand Audie Murphy in 1954's Destry can't hold a candle to Jimmy Stewart in 1939's Destry Rides Again. (Besides, we all know that 1939 was a phenomenal year in film.)

4. Let's take the story in a different direction. This is not attempted very often. For one thing, there is often common source material, such as a novel. (Sometimes a remake will be done in order to return to the original story, such as the various remakes of Wuthering Heights and Dracula which purport to return to the source works and discard the "improvements" of the original Hollywood films.) The dreadful remake of Sleuth and Planet of the Apes felt compelled to add a new twist, since the original twists were so well known--in neither case did that work out well.

This final tack is how the French sex melodrama Nathalie (2003) became the American stalker flick Chloe (2008). In both cases, a woman decides to test her husband's fidelity by hiring a woman to try and have an affair with him (when was this ever a good idea?) The first half-hour of each film is almost scene-for-scene identical. Then they begin to diverge, and the final half-hour of each is almost utterly and completely different. Interestingly, Anne Thompson, co-writer and director of Nathalie participated in the reworking and approved it, presumably because the result was a completely different (and inferior) movie.

The differences are also illustrative of the differences between American and French ideas about sex and adultery. In France, adultery seems to be an almost inevitable hazard of long-time marriage, something to be gotten through, but survived. In the States, when the adultery is long-standing and has an emotional content (not merely casual sex), most people believe the marriage is and should be over. (I have not desire to point out who is more correct--it is merely an observation about the two cultures.)

Thus, when Fanny Ardant hires Emmanuel Beart to have an affair with her husband (Gerard Depardieu--who else?) she did not expect them to consummate it at first, but when it happens, she is not repulsed but intrigued. She sees an opportunity to gain perspective on her husband in the bedroom through this other woman's eyes. Ardant demands that Beart describe their encounters in graphic detail, and apparently derives a sexual frisson from that language. Ardant and Beart have a more obvious chemistry between each other than either has with Depardieu, and their bond seems deeper. Consequently, when it is revealed that Beart has betrayed Ardant's trust for the sake of a few Euros, Ardant is hurt; nonetheless, she has learned and grown from the experience, and husband and wife return to each other with a renewed commitment. (SPOILER ALERT - It helps that the Beart-Depardieu affair never happened.)

Americans are not so natural about their sexuality, and so Julianne Moore in Chloe never really ceases to be uptight. It doesn't help that Amanda Seyfried still looks she just got her high school diploma, not at all the experienced sophisticated seductress of the French film. It looks as though Moore is inviting her husband to be a pederast, not a roue. Like the original, the hired girl has her own agenda, but in Chloe it's not money she's after, but love. SPOILER ALERT - In the remake, the hired girl is unhinged, and pursuing the wife, who succumbs. Then, given the American penchant for hyped melodrama and the legacy of Fatal Attraction, Chloe goes completely around the bend, violence ensues, and Chloe dies a violent death, ostensibly because she wanted to hurt Julianne Moore, but subliminally as a punishment for being bi-sexual. (That minx--she betrayed all her customers in the strip club by not desiring them!)

So points for not doing a cookie cutter remake, which never works anyway, because once you've changed the artists--the actors, designers, photographer, director--you have a different film; not to mention the different setting in time and place. But points off for taking the initial story premise and steering straight for the cheap, the obvious and the fake. There is nothing to take away from Chloe to reflect on--it says nothing about marriage, sex, love or life. The only takeaway is "watch out for crazy people," which is something that I personally figured out a while ago. (Although it's not always possible.) Still, there was some creativity involved, though the result be largely negative.

The 1945 musical State Fair was remade in 1962 for straight-up commercial reasons. Musicals were becoming popular again, the songwriters Rodger and Hammerstein were money in the bank, and had a relationship with 20th Century Fox, the studio that filmed all the adaptations of their plays except the somewhat neglected Flower Drum Song and Fox already owned the story and six songs from the earlier film.

There were some problems. The 1945 State Fair is short at 100 minutes and lacking lavish production values, given the standards of 1962. The cast, settings, score and length would all need to be inflated. Moreover, only one of the six songs, "It Might As Well Be Spring" is integrated into the action of the story in the manner developed and popularized by Rodgers and Hammerstein. 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck once sent out an edict that songs in a musical had to be justified. That makes sense--the song should fit the characters who sing it and the story situation they are in. But that's not what Zanuck meant. He meant that if there was instrumental accompaniment, you should at least show a guy with an accordion, or else the audience would wonder where the music was coming from. Which demonstrates that for all his story sense in other areas, in musicals Zanuck was an idiot. Yes, musicals use an artifice and convention that people sing to express their emotional states, and that to make it more pleasing we provide an accompaniment. But cowboy movies, monster pictures and war pictures have just as many artifices and conventions--don't get me started.

The next time somebody says, "Musicals are stupid because they start singing and you can't figure out where the music's coming from," tell them, "All movies are stupid because people do all kinds of stuff in front of a camera but they never notice there's a camera and a cameraman." So there. It's all artificial, so get over yourself.

Another problem with the 1945 State Fair is that there are not enough songs for the story and a lot of key character developments go by without being musicalized, especially in the second half of the film, which starts bursting with chatter and even sprouts a strange character, a song-plugger played by ever-reliable Frank McHugh who talks for pages and pages about the music business but is really just there to provide the information that the young hero's sweetheart is unhappily married. It's really very lumpily put together.

So in 1962, some things are smoother and more professional. Where "That's For Me" was sung by a chanteuse before she has even met her sweetheart, it becomes an explosion of emotion for Pat Boone's character just after he has met Ann-Margaret. (It's Ann-Margaret in 1962--you can forgive a guy for wanting to run around singing. Or doing something.)

(Sorry, the actual clip from the 1962 film is not available, so here is the soundtrack with a montage of photos of Ann-Margaret. You should get the idea that the second version was more explicitly passionate.

"Isn't It Kind of Fun" is a harmless ditty in 1945. In 1962, it's the ammunition for a sex bomb, that is Ann-Margret one year before she tormented American youth with "Bye Bye Birdie."

And I really wish I could show you Tom Ewell singing, "Sweet Hog of Mine" to an enormous boar he is showing at the fair. Or Alice Faye teaching her daughter to "Never Say No To A Man" (meaning you can tell them no without actually saying the word). Where Dana Andrews in 1945 plays a city guy enjoying the rural sights, Bobby Darin in 1962 looks like he's on his way to another, better movie and trying to get this part over quick.

Whereas the cast of 1945 is sincerely committed to this candy-coated view of American rural life (part of the American Way we were defending so hard in 1945, in 1962--except for Pat Boone and Pamela Tiffin who were trying to launch film careers--everyone else looks like they showed up to pick up a paycheck.

Oh, and the setting of the Fair changed from Iowa (losing a charming song) to Texas. Blee-a-a-ah. Let's face it, the only good movies about Texas are the ones that show what narrow-minded hell it can be, like Giant, Hud and The Last Picture Show. Trying to make Texas lovable would be like making Kevin Spacey cute.

True, the Hollywood production system demonstrated that it was not always necessary to have passion to make a great film. Casablanca was churned out by the great production machinery like any other sausage, and it came out really tasty. But still, it helps if you have some else on your mind besides a meal ticket. That goes for remakes as much as any other kind of film.

Holiday weekend coming - safety alert!

Labor Day is almost here, and there is always a danger of the misuse of alcohol, as demonstrated here:

(This is from a 1934 operetta film called Fra Diavolo (The Devil's Brother). MGM bought the film from producer Hal Roach, so it turns up on TCM fairly regularly.

The redemptive power of bad taste

There's no debating it. Kick-Ass (2010) is in bad taste. Which is not to say that it's not good, or that it's just naughty. It is truly transgressive, in a way that art needs to be on a regular basis. It's not in bad taste in a Judd Apatow-Kevin Smith-let's-make-fart-noises-with-our-armpit-in-church sort of way, a child's rebellion. It is part of the barbaric yawp of a generation arriving, and the older generations that protest are suffering from memory loss.

Let's face it: film art is born in the horrifically bad taste of the racist Birth of a Nation. In the early 30's, films were so offensive to some that the Production Code began to be enforced, which tamped down some of the most egregious examples, although some low-budget crime films such as Born To Kill and Detour still manage to be somewhat repulsive. Then came films such as Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, Baby Doll, Psycho, Dr. Strangelove and Bonnie and Clyde, all arguably in very bad taste. My romance with this breed of film began with The Producers which seems so mainstream now, but is based on A Joke Which Must Not Be Made back in 1968. Then M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance each set off a firestorm over allegedly bad taste. The Exorcist brought horror into the mainstream (before then, nobody would argue whether a George Romero movie was in bad taste--it was supposed to be), and the debate escalated.

In more recent years, the debate has swirled around movies like Kill Bill and Fight Club; and they become definitions for a generation. If you like this movie, you "get it." If you don't, you don't. It goes along with texting and Facebook, it becomes part of the ethos of our time.

Cards on the table--I'm squarely middle-aged, I could see that Fight Club was in bad taste, and I didn't like the film in spite of its bad taste; the bad taste was an inseparable part of the quality of the film. Perhaps I'm not a very nice person, but I was hooked from the very idea of using cancer support groups as a place to pick up dates. Now THAT's bad taste!

Bad taste is not to be confused with tastelessness. Sex and the City 2 is tasteless. The Expendables is tasteless. Everything on MTV is tasteless. Tastelessness is not transgressive, it's just unaware. It's not only unaware that there is such a thing as bad taste, it's unaware of good taste. Bad taste knows exactly what it's doing--it hears to grown-ups shouting "Don't go there!" and that's exactly where it goes.

So Kick Ass exemplifies both naughty-kid bad taste and let's-kick-down-the-wall bad taste, and it's got a lot of people excited. Probably most offensive was the indefensibly bad language used by Hurt Girl, an adorable 11-year-old poppet, in particular a single word which is used casually in Britain, but which is unspeakable here in the States. (I am delighted to read that not only does Chloe Moretz, the actress who plays Hit Girl not speak that way, she was not even comfortable saying the title of the film!) Most commenters have been somewhat less disturbed (and perhaps exhilarated) by the sight of a small 11-year-old girl wielding enormous weapons and causing grievous bodily harm to a large number of cartoon bad guys.

To be offended is to miss the point that (a) these are the defining characteristics of Hit Girl--and she is terrifying; and (b) she is the product of sustained child abuse. She has been raised by her father for his own purposes, not for her own good. She is the product of a twisted need for revenge, and if she were not shocking, then revenge would seem to be natural and good. Co-screenwriter Jane Goldman said in an interview for the Creative Screenwriting podcast that some of the studios that turned down the film in development wanted Hit Girl to be a sexy 18-year-old. But an 18-year-old is making her own choices, and this would make ultra-violence, sexy, liberating and a valid choice; as it is, the violence is sick and twisted. One is grateful ***SPOILER ALERT*** for the death of her father, for that is the only way she will be able to purge the poison from her system.

I suppose the survival of Chris D'Amico will permit the sequel project to be fueled by revenge--one wonders how long this particular dog will hunt. We all want to see Hurt Girl again, but that might not be a good idea. After all, when everyone asked Shakespeare to bring back Falstaff after the success of the two parts of Henry IV, he wrote one of his worst, most flaccid turkeys, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

There have been a lot of successful comic book movies before, obviously, and many of them have made big marketing splashes at Comic Con. Kick-Ass seems to be the first big movie made expressly for the Comic Con audience. It speaks directly to them about their preoccupations. Not only that, but in the fight that leads to the capture of Big Daddy and Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn has reproduced the actual look of modern comics better than anyone has done so far, especially with the literally alternating light and black panels. Never has a film seemed to so literally have filmed the storyboards--but in a good way, not in a stilted Alfred Hitchcock way.

If you don't like Kick-Ass, and a lot of good and decent people don't, it doesn't automatically make you a grouchy alteh kockeh. But you just might want to check and see if you have become one while you weren't looking.