29 December 2009

Great World of Sound.

Fire up your own Great World of Sound dvd. Put it on in the background, chapter thirteen, 1:25.32 in. If you begin to watch it instead of reading this you're making the right decision, I won't take it personal.

Because Great World of Sound doesn't require qualification. It doesn't require familiarity with contemporary American independent cinema, conditions of society in the southern states, the bland disillusionment of stagnation, the frustratingly misleading dimensions of success, love between friends, between spouses, or between strangers. The film is a tour through a place and time, an introduction to its people, and shrine to the feeling of being there.

There isn't a single sentence which can describe the film. That's why I missed it in the theater. There's no angle. By the time of its release its distributor, Magnolia, was already a well-known independent; the director, Craig Zobel, had been the producer of DGG's George Washington (and here DGG is his producer), which implied certain recycled tendencies it seemed; partly because the trailer was, I think, misleading, because of the classic problem: Magnolia (or maybe even the director, what do I know), didn't know what it had. It wanted to fit Great World of Sound into this popular conception of independent cinema, and it made it seem like either a boring drama or an only slightly funny comedy. It made it seem like a 500 Days of Summer type movie, without the youth appeal. If you think I'm overstating this condition of indie branding which is brainwashing and neutering the market, please take a moment to glance over this year's Independent Spirit Award nominations. Please, take a moment.

Though you don't have to give a fuck about any of this. It's my theory on what happened to this film, from a personal perspective, but it doesn't matter. What I mean is, Great World of Sound doesn't give a fuck. It's liberated. It doesn't make an effort to belong to any movement or be a certain type of film, but, and this is very important, it also doesn't make any effort to be different. It allows its jokes to be fully expressed, its drama to be fully explored, its characters to learn and react, its story to evolve, and it does all this without an imposed cinematic frame. I heard the name Robert Altman thrown around at the time of its release, but I disagree with the comparison. Altman has a unique style, a strong voice, and pronounced features, all of which distinguish him from other filmmakers and imprint a worldview on his films. And I don't feel that Zobel is borrowing from or mimicking Altman. If they have common virtues, it's that they both allow their characters space, and subordinate the plot. Certain attributes are shared between two places off the map.

What delights me about Great World of Sound is the precision of the film. Zobel is a craftsman with a traceless touch, and he reserves cinematic punctuation for impacting moments. Songs work like dialogue, appearing briefly, stating their intentions, and then vanishing (including the auditioning characters). This is different from the bloated use of music in many contemporary films, which drift songs over multiple scenes and entire sequences, making their meaning ambivalent and their presence unmissable. So too does the story creep in the background. When done poorly, a story instructs and leads an audience. In Great World of Sound, the audience's knowledge of the film's circumstances expands as the characters move forward, and it's ultimately the characters who make the decisions that power the narrative. We learn about the reality of the Great World of Sound company through the experiences of the lead characters, and as their perspective changes, so too do their characters' hearts, which alters their decisions. The narrative tension, and the struggle, is generated as they begin to respond to shifting conditions while remaining consistent to their personalities.

Pat Healy and Kene Holliday are the perfect leads because they're comfortable playing the characters. They never feel like they're acting. They're so skillful, so unassuming and natural, that I assumed they were non-professionals or first-timers. Pat Healy and Kene Holliday, it turns out, are professional actors who have been at it for a long time, with many credits to their names. I apologize for my surprise at learning this, but it is of course a compliment, and their performances are commensurate to the accomplishments of Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, or Philip Baker Hall, etc, actors who fill their roles with such capability, commitment, and detail that you can't even believe they exist somewhere off screen. Zobel's characters have a completeness, like in a Mike Leigh film.

It's not required of a film to contain the key to its own lock, but I never mind when they do. Great World of Sound does. There's a business meeting, the boss is up front discussing the objectives of the company, and he tells the new-hires: "Most people that make it in this country today just do it on volume. They come up with a simple idea, but yet something everyone can use. Like a bolt, or a slightly different bolt. Or a bowl that holds just a little more cereal. A slight change, small innovation." The message of this speech and its hilariously dead-end delivery enforces the absurdity of the company within the film, and also the treasures of the film itself, which is far more than just a slightly different bolt.

03 December 2009

Coven (and by extension, American Movie).

Here's the thing about Spinal Tap: they're a real fucking band. I've seen their 2007 Live Aid performance, and this year I saw them on Conan. They're real people playing real instruments and writing real songs, and it's only their story and context that is fictitious. If they had never left the movie, if their characters hadn't exited the film, they wouldn't have the conceptual legitimacy that they do. Their continued existence is a laceration to the rules of their conception. I love that.

Here's the thing about Coven: the plot is fictitious. Fictitious? The plot is nonsensical, ludicrous, and etc. It's somehow about real feelings though, and I know this because I know Mark Borchardt, and I know him because of Chris Smith's film American Movie. The parallel existence of these films allows a bilateral comprehension of the man and movie. Coven the film is the coded token of a man's soul, and American Movie is the decoder.

This relationship is essential to me. Ross McElwee competently and sometimes impressively attempts this within a single film, but he makes personal decisions about what he exposes about himself. As honest as he can be, he still operates under a narrative shield, and that inherently creates distance. Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is an emotionally infectious testimony to success by way of complete filmic candor. His film offers total honesty and achieves this because Caouette mines his own gut, but then that's all there is. The closest it comes to Coven-like mystification is the sequence that ruminates on the creation of a rock opera. If that rock opera had been included, it would have been Caouette's Coven.

Less you think I'm ascribing too much meaning to these films, American Movie and Coven, let me be clear: I'd love this concept with every opportunity. I achieve it to lesser degrees when I watch special features, biographical documentaries, read essays, etc, but the connection, it seems to me, has never been stronger than it is here. You can name for yourself other examples which near this effort, but the core and distinctive feature is the amount of information which it is necessary to receive from American Movie in order to understand Coven. Coven requires American Movie for its efficacy.

After American Movie, the alcohol motif in Coven makes sense. The language is understandable. The passion is detectable. Beyond that, the narrative's mysterious interruptions of supernaturally deleterious entities become bizarrely meaningful (absurdly relevant and metaphorical), and this meaning is the beginning of comprehending the function of horror films in general. If I sometimes want to attribute metaphysical, spiritual, or existential qualities to horror films, it seems to me that American Movie/Coven represent a golden bridge for a validation of that effort. Borchardt's personality is splashed across Chris Smith's documentary, and in turn it is splattered through the Coven narrative.

And here's what blows my mind: Coven becomes a real film. I fucking love that.

23 November 2009

The Hole.

What's alluring (what's revolting?) about romantic comedies is their emphasis on possibility and fate, chance occurrence, and romantic destiny; the films run on dream currents, idealistic wiring; they propose the existence of a tender, passionate architect who manages the lives of romantic hopefuls, and constructs future events that bring together compatible and needy lovers. Their need is the desire for something beyond the quotidian, separate from the individual self and external to the standard. Their narratives seek out the special, intangible dimensions of love.

Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole is titled after this need, and covers basically the trajectory of a romantic comedy. It begins with a television reporter commenting on the outbreak of an epidemic that transforms people into scurrying cockroach-like scavengers of darkness and solitude; and from this announcement (over white text credits on a black screen), the film opens onto the apartment of Hsiao Kang. Kang is the Typical Romantic Lead: the disorganized bachelor riddled with bad habits and single-male tendencies. We first see him asleep on a couch late-morning, a mess in front of him, clothed in tight white underwear. He opens the door, dressed as such, for a plumber. The plumber, in this movie, is destiny incarnate.

The literal hole the plumber leaves in Kang's floor is the first visual motif established in the film. Much of the romantic development relies on the audience interpreting these visual motifs and applying them, projecting them, onto the protagonists. This is Ming-Liang's forte as a filmmaker, his visual starkness and accompanying acumen over the domain of symbolism. I don't know if anyone has counted the total number of spoken lines in his first eight films, but hyperbolically I imagine the number is something like 20-25. He's a true filmmaker: he builds and sorts his characters with visual cues and photographic tension.

The woman and Kang are indifferent to the Taiwanese pandemic, and though I'm not knowledgeable about the specific value of this metaphor to the Taiwanese or its exclusive properties within the culture, the idea is nevertheless universal: she and Kang refuse to become a part of the sickness, or to even invest fear in the sickness. Their lives are free of the prevailing disease, and this is why they will stay in their apartments, and this is what will allow their love to grow.

Part of the genius, absolute genius, of the film is this encompassing doomsday metaphor. It casts deep shadows over the love affair, and somehow nears a trueness absent from most romantic comedies, which are often filled with similarly lovable characters, often falling in love themselves (reminder: I'd like to write a 100 relationship romantic comedy. It'd be a cinch. One true one? Jeeesus that's tough). The Hole seems to say that a love affair will work not because of the rest of the world but in spite of the rest of the world. It paints the treasure of love as truly unique and truly nourishing.

Love approaches from the distance, and Ming-Liang portrays the ascending romance through a series of endearing musical sequences (Ming-Liang pays direct tribute to the songs of Grace Chang at the end of the film). These daydream music numbers interrupt the ceaselessly rain-drenched lives of the protagonists; they're staged within the apartment complex the film is set. Gorgeous people in beautiful clothes under ravishing light and entrancing choreography dance and sing amid concrete stair cases, upper-level banisters, and mostly unadorned environments. Again the point: they are their escape. Within themselves they can escape where they are, and who they are environmentally forced to be. This is a key difference between The Hole and some other romantic comedies: no one in the film is forced to become another person in order to obtain the person they love. The collision of chance and romance is a matter of patience, obstinacy, and honesty.

Kang widens the hole in the ground; she dreams beneath him. The bizarre, the dreary, and the ordinary blend with romantic energy. Kang pisses in a sink, the woman has a dream telephone conversation with Kang while rubbing t.p. over her body: somehow these things add up, somehow Ming-Liang makes them really count. He imbues not just the everyday with the idea of love, but even the tragic, even the end-of-the-world atmosphere.

I won't tell you how it ends. I'll tell you what it meant to me: it meant so much. It's common for a romantic comedy to make you love certain ideas, and it's very rare for a romantic comedy to make you fall for the movie itself. The film has Eisenstein's visual specificity, Wai's romantic intensity, and a modern filmmaker's sense of the everyday. Film as dreamweaving? Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole. A woman in a white-colored air-filtering mask should never mean the same again.

28 October 2009


There's a great palette here, a terrific vision for a film, and if Calvaire had fully realized all its potential it would have been a great film. It itself borrows from other cinematic visions, it's a veritable stew of Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Deliverance, but it uses these former genre achievements as a backdrop to express its own cinematic voice. The result is bizarre, and surreal in the proper sense.

These are the elements of the film, the three overlapping motifs which I am speaking of: 1. The genre riffs. The echoing of past horror films. If this was a stage, Calvaire has done the equivalent of hanging an Edvard Munch painting as a backdrop to the drama. The legacy is intentionally highlighted in order to build from it, in order to establish the boundaries which will be broken. 2. "Writer/director Welz said he purposely wanted to create the characters in the film against type, by fleshing-out and sympathizing more with the character of the villain rather than his victim." I would say that what happened, intentionally or not, is that everyone in the film became a victim. Everyone is worthy of sympathy. 3. The end. Last night I had a conversation with someone whose opinion was that the last ten minutes of a film validate or invalidate all the antecedent exposition. I'm sure horror/thriller filmmakers believe this and often count on the audience possessing this belief. I think Calvaire is very successful in its delivery because its final lingering note is a psychological one that casts a new light on the actions of the film. Rather than ending in a final violent moment, Calvaire ends with a moment that reshapes all the already ample violence which has occurred.

The tone, the characters, the conclusion: all slightly complimentary and slightly contradictory. There's nothing to make sense of, which elevates the film over the intellectual or high-minded horror films that attempt to have social meaning. Horror is horrifying in part because it is senseless and unpredictable, at east this is the modern sense of horror, and Calvaire demonstrates how effective it can be to have a narrative which mirrors this. The villains in Calvaire are neither faceless nor understandable, and they're neither vacant nor obscure. In this way Calvaire is clearly a horror film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and not a thriller like Psycho or Peeping Tom, the distinction to me being that a horror film works on the psychology of the audience and a thriller works on the psychology of the character/mood.

Still, it has its borders and boundaries. It takes too much time to set up a basically unused environment (the end would work fine standing alone). It sometimes relies on its allusions for effect, and it spends too much time on them. It should have dared to explore its chore intention, "According to director Fabrice Du Welz there are really only two characters in the film - Marc and Bartel. Welz says that the rest of the people in the film are all some variation of the character of Bartel. Notice how everyone in the film is desperate to be close to Marc, just like crazy Bartel." I hope Fabrice Du Welz is able to develop a confident voice and continue pursuing his strange path. He has another film, Vinyan, and I wonder if he pushed forward or diverted onto a new goal.

26 October 2009

Local Hero.

During an industrial video outlining the increasing productivity and capabilities of the Knox oil company, the CEO falls asleep at the head of the table. The rest of the board members continue the meeting in a hushed whisper, not wanting to wake the executive. Thus begins Bill Forsyth's delightful film Local Hero.

Mac MacIntyre is sent by the Knox oil company to negotiate a purchase of land in a small Scottish town. More specifically, for the purchase of the entire town and beach, in order to build a refinery in its place. That's the story of Local Hero. If that's the story of Local Hero, why is that about forty or so minutes into the movie the local liaison for the purchase, Urquhart, discusses with the landowners what the tactic should be to draw out the bid? Isn't Mac there to make a bid?

The purchase of land in Local Hero is about as important to the movie as the money is in Psycho. The land purchase provides narrative propulsion, which then the characters take over as they become the principal agenda. The story is never fully phased out or abandoned, and devices stretch out from it that affect the characters, but it somehow becomes a detail not a focus. Sometimes a film will use a narrative catalyst to divulge the inner complexity of a character, and as the character obsesses over a personal vision the audience learns about the character. There's a lot of crime drama that follows that path. Local Hero isn't that direct. The story is an appendage to the characters, and the story flows on outward and inward channels.

It's spontaneous and shapeless. It taps directly into the characters, and sometimes it requests the viewers to become substitute decision makers. For example there is no motivation given to Mac's languidness in business matters. He doesn't play hardball and he hates business games; the only slight explanation is that he's more of a telecommunications man and usually handles all the deals over the phone in a matter of hours. The solution is natural and obvious: he's become enamored with the small-time beach-front lifestyle. The film doesn't tell you this, but it shows you what happens because he has these feelings.

As the days creep by without a resolution, finally Urquhart approaches Mac with a proposal which is quickly sorted out without prolonged haggling. It's an oil company paying off the townspeople, millions of dollars are being offered, the townspeople are ecstatic about the deal, it's not Mac's own money, and what they're asking for isn't beyond reason. It's an easy, perfect deal situation. With one snag: the reclusive, eccentric beach owner who lives in a hut on the beach and won't sell the land that has belonged to his family for four centuries. That's a problem for the deal, but it's not a crisis moment for the movie.

The things that the film is not create a void filled by the things the film is, and that substance is the mannerisms, personalities, and incidents of all the characters in the film. They exist inside the plot like the characters exist inside their town, living off the environment circumstantially without being wholly possessed by it. This is the film's triumph, the way it doesn't saddle the locals with a single voice, the way it doesn't rely on them to buttress its motifs; it allows too for the oil company to be ambitious without being faceless, to be human willed and malleable; and this strategy exists in the tiny details too, like a beautiful woman with webbed toes, and a psychologist that is truly troubled.

No conclusion is reached at the end of the film about anyone or anything. No character is a single attribute and no problem has a single answer. The film would have faltered if it had conceded a single judgment, but in its total refusal to do so it creates the perfect void to be filled by the audience later, who exist too in the place they are, and know too the happenings of Local Hero. It's a film that makes you feel like you've lived it by having seen it.

Night of the Lepus.

I'm about to discuss a film featuring a full-grown adult dressed in a rabbit costume wrestling a live horse. The director is William Claxton, who I see also directed the classic Twilight Zone episode I Sing the Body Electric, and later went on to direct 68 episodes of Little House on the Prairie. It's a 1972 film set in the southern state of Arizona, with the southern side of Arizona played to a high pitch, stars Psycho's Janet Leigh and Star Trek's DeForest Kelley, alongside Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, and Paul Fix (each with over 100 other IMDb credits to their names). I'd like to draw attention to the fact that Night of the Lepus is based upon a novel by Russell Braddon called The Year of the Angry Rabbit.

Lepus is Latin for rabbit, and in Night of the Lepus an experimental serum injection on a member of an overabundant population of rabbits results in extraordinarily giant sized killer rabbits. The rabbits, in their horrifying onslaught, attack general stores, produce trucks, families, persons, horses, and cows. Scenes of blood-dripping rabbit-fangs abound, which is to say that Night of the Lepus delivers in its b-movie premise where others do not.

While I can enjoy just about any film with a lunatic storyline, it's rare to find one that's also engaging and fulfilling. Through a mixture of convincing miniature sets and actual rabbits, and full-grown adults in rabbit costumes, the rabbits terrorize in glorious scene after scene. This satisfies me on two levels. Beyond the accomplishments of the filmmakers, there is also the pleasure of the concept being committed to with such wild ambition.

It's complete and undisguised absurdity, and for me it's like Night of the Lepus is a tune and filmmaking is a piano. I enjoy a composition of fantasy that drives my mind into the corners of possibility, where my own ideas bloom, outside the typical tracks, settled figuratively in its own small-town ways. The laws of eco-horror permit all acts in Lepus, but seldom have I seen such creative use or passionate dedication. The willingness of this film to venture into mutant-rabbit territory spurs me on forward into my own direction, god bless 'em.

14 October 2009

Private Parts (+/-).

Private Parts (Blood Relations, the alternate USA title according to IMDb, is a much better title for the film) shares characteristics with the three previously discussed films. Obviously Eating Raoul, as this is another Paul Bartel film, and Peeping Tom, because it's a thriller with themes of obsession, and Shaun of the Dead, owing to the filmic depth of its characters and the unraveling of the narrative. Not Quite Hollywood too, because Private Parts is a personal take on a type of genre.

The film is typical for the period, especially as the name Corman is attached to the production. It's a genre film that faintly exhibits personal traits of the filmmaker, but is geared toward commercial success and exploitative reactions. Following Eating Raoul with Private Parts, traveling in reverse order, illustrates the way filmmaker's interests can break through the surface of a genre narrative without finding full expression. Private Parts is a diluted combination of Bartel's impulses, several previous films (most obviously Blow-Up and Psycho), and genre intrepidity. In Not Quite Hollywood QT talks about the one scene everyone talks about in a good genre film, the scene that's complete 'what the fuck' and 'did they just do that' material. Private Parts has that scene, which Quint of AICN also mentioned in his recent write-up of the film.

I'd like to think that Bartel was inspired by Bava at the time. I know he was around Joe Dante, and I know Dante was into Bava. Regardless, the film plays out like an Italian genre film. There's murder, sexual perversion, mystery, suspense, drama - there are all the qualities that make a film exciting and interesting. This is how it fails: it doesn't wholly commit itself to one idea. It shares qualities with many films but fails to become its own. Development of story and plot is the primary concern, and all peripheral components of filmmaking, including characters, are driven toward a final revelation, or simple audience titillation. Not that Bava had fully realized characters, but he had fully realized films, movies that were cinematically excessive. Bartel totters between character-driven and genre-driven, and wedges these two on his filmmaking inclinations.

It works to the extent that Bartel is an interesting person, a competent filmmaker, and has a bizarre script to draw from. A tapestry of peculiar Los Angeles eccentrics is the direct link between this and Eating Raoul. I love the way Bartel views LA in both films. The problem is in Private Parts the characters, the unusual LA personalities, aren't allowed to steer the film. They're pushed into the background, and to describe them is to simply reduce them to their exploitative and attractive features: a man-loving priest, a sexually oppressed photographer, a time trapped old woman, an alcoholic, an innocent midwestern girl. The tone of Eating Raoul is determined by its characters' mindset. When that happens it makes every shift in the narrative feel like a furthering of character development. That's the difference between a good genre film and a great genre film, generally speaking.

Private Parts is exciting and easy to watch and not a bad film: there is one scene in particular I rewatched about twenty times. But the difference between it and Eating Raoul is significant. Eating Raoul feels like a film made by a man, and Private Parts feel like a movie produced through a system.

13 October 2009

Eating Raoul.

Whether working in drama or comedy, an artist's voice partially comes from their perception of death. Paul Bartel's angle in Eating Raoul is deliciousness, indifference, and absurdity. A great deal of all three if you ask me. I looked for but could not find what I believe is a Pynchon quote that says, approximately, an artist's seriousness is judged by how he treats the subject of death. What I take from movies like Eating Raoul, The Honeymoon Killers (+ Ripstein's Deep Crimson), Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven, an Almodóvar film, or a John Waters film, is an appreciation for the richness of emotional expression and the range of personal guilt over the matter of mortality and transience. Also, something like that Oscar Wilde quote "Life is too important to be taken seriously."

Because what runs through my head in any very serious situation, such as death, is not only unbearable sadness and grief. Not only that. I'm afraid that my first reaction to any very gloomy matter is usually a smile. A defensive reflex or a habitual sublimation, I'm not sure. Often a strange pettiness as well. For example there's an immense repercussion to manslaughter. I think about this all the time: manslaughter destroys two lives. An unintentional murder and the subsequent personal devastation is an awfully terrible thought. It's the kind of real life drama that's interminably both sensational and relatable.

The message I take from Eating Raoul is not that death is funny or that murder is humorous. What Eating Raoul does, however, is it takes this seriousness and works it all the way through to the other end, it frames murder against other absurdities and misfortunes, declaring it one horrible aspect in an unending deluge of life's absurdities and misfortunes. Because although death is the final statement of the dead, for the living it's a fraction of a life. Like that famous quote from Gates of Heaven, "Death is for the living."

If the world does not die when someone I love dies, and if I do not die when someone I love dies, and if I must continue to live, then my life must continue to be something beyond intolerable unhappiness. Let the films which only want to see death one way see it as that way, but it will not help anyone see the full reality of their lives. And what I mean to say is, Eating Raoul is ultimately simply a traditional comedy in that it frames the drama in a medium shot as to make it funny.

It's terribly funny. It's horribly humorous. Easily among the blackest, the bleakest, and the funniest of any dark comedy. It has lines like, "Why don't you go to bed, honey? I'll bag the Nazi and straighten up." It has exchanges like, "Mary, I just killed a man." "He was a man. Now he's just a bag of garbage." All completely straight faced. There's not a single wink in the film, all the way down to the supporting character of Raoul, who's at least as full a character as Paul and Mary are, and has his own dreams, motivations, mannerisms, challenges, and contributions.

The film lampoons a little bit of everything in society, including the film itself, the film's own characters, and Bartel's own sensibilities. It's thorough enough in its criticisms that it clearly doesn't convey an agenda. It's not counter-cultural or conservative, but it's not anarchic or flippant. It's deeply passionate about nothing in particular. As in, from the total nothingness of everything, it draws its passions.

It also possesses one of my favorite, though not necessary, virtues of a film. It's sloppy. It was clearly made over a long period of time, has frequent continuity errors, and feels low budget. I love a film with a pulse, with a sense of human eyes and hands laboring over the film. To me that amounts to hard work and dedication on the part of Bartel and only strengthens the film. It does not, however, share in the sin of the poorly made low budget film: it is not uncinematic. You could not accidentally film such a sexy x-ray room scene. You could not incidentally evoke the pathos of sexual perversity on the scale this film does. The narrative, too, works, and is a complete statement, fully realized.

12 October 2009

Peeping Tom.

In the roughly five years since I last watched Peeping Tom (the receipt is saved inside the case, purchased December 2004, before I knew you could find any dvd you wanted online, back when my collection was completely dependent upon the stock of Borders and Best Buy; I remember finding Peeping Tom in Fingerprints in Long Beach and telling my friend "I don't have the money for this but I don't know when I'll see it again") my life has progressed only in a behind-the-camera sense. Only through thoughts of the camera, by imagining the world through a lens, an imaginary lens at that, wanting to record everything and being able to record hardly anything. And my eyes have stolen the images of all I've seen, none of it first belonging to me.

I've brought myself into a desert of passion and lost my way. Deluded and in a fit of hysteria, hallucinating dreams of the silver screens, I watched Peeping Tom again last night in the perfect state to be genuinely thrilled. Imbued with my own guilt, thoroughly directed along by master craftsman Michael Powell (you can forget how good some filmmakers are), and able to understand what was being shown to me, Peeping Tom was for me a white-knuckled hair-raising endeavor.

Karlheinz Böhm, with the veneer of a masculine Hitchcockian blonde, channels the pitiful eeriness of Peter Lorre. His voice is shy and limited, as are his eyes, and his movements and the noises he makes (Helen never knows when he is home, but her blind alcoholic mother Vivian does), but he is unguarded, unprotected: he allows Helen easy access into his personal world, he hides a corpse on his own set, he takes photos of his bodies being discovered. He's crazy we know, and he knows it, except only he knows the extent. He knows the direction the madness is headed in, and once revealed to us, Böhm, Mark Lewis, becomes a tragic hero of morbid, warped, obsessive and passionate intensity. He seeks to fill a void created by his father, who taught him to love through the camera and by fear, and as an artist he risks everything to fill the void.

I'm reminded of Paul Schrader's quote on screenwriting, "When screenwriting, be prepared to drop your pants and show your dirty laundry. If you can't do that, better find yourself something more polite." Michael Powell goes well beyond this, beyond irrational fears and embarrassing idiosyncrasies, beyond failed romances and personal regrets. It's not the usual dramatic material Powell explores in his film, but the unusualness of his attractions at a sinister and intrinsic level. In the special features Peeping Tom is referred to as a Chinese Box, with riddles and mysteries and puns hidden within itself. Consider the ways in which the film overlaps with Powell's personal life: Powell casting himself as Mark's father, including his own first camera in Mark's collection, and casting his own son as young Mark. The creepiness of the film is immensely heightened by its apparent honesty and lack of compromise.

In its completeness Peeping Tom exposes what is unnerving about the Josh Harris types and captures the futility and randomness of modern murder better than Bogdanovich's Targets or McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Peeping Tom also investigates the development of psychosis in a serial killer better than any other movie, exceeding the usual motivations or explanations. The horrifying revelation at the end of Psycho is rapidly summarized by a doctor in the next scene, but Peeping Tom explains itself out over the course of its running time, allowing the character of Mark to grow and enlarge in our minds.

Most of this could not be achieved without the skill of Michael Powell. A great thriller is directly the result of a great filmmaker, it's a genre that magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of the filmmaker, and it's impossible to fake. Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, Richard Franklin, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa are all names linked to unbridled passion for cinema. A bad thriller works on movie mechanics, and they're like seeing the inside of a clock, while a great thriller, like Peeping Tom, can change both the way you see the breathing world, and the way you see cinema.

08 October 2009

Shaun of the Dead, Cont.

If you haven't read part one yet, then, you know, read part one first.

After Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead makes the best use of the zombie-to-death horror relationship, and the meaty symbolism the zombie state represents. If you haven't read Simon Pegg's essay on Why the undead should never be allowed to run yet, then, you know, read that before you read this. It'll begin to demonstrate how much the writers of Shaun really cared about what they were writing, really thought about the subject and material, and it'll settle all debate as to whether the humor was biting or affectionate, if that question lingers in your mind (if it does, you should watch Shaun before reading, you know, anything, period.).

If you count the high points in Shaun, from an emotional perspective, three of them deal with the sadness of death and fragility of life. There are five high points total. The three deathcentric ones would be Philip's essentially unearned death scene, the first burst of brilliance from the movie, Barbara's inevitable demise and the consequent conflict, and Ed's heroic and redeeming final stand. The two remaining points are the Shaun/Liz reunion, and the Shaun/Liz David/Dianne love dynamics. The latter enjoys a partial appearance in the film's death theme, but it's earned so hard and fast, and by such different means, that it doesn't really count in my book. The book that I keep for my personal records. For me the David/Dianne death scene falls into the category of eradication of dispensable characters.

The first half of Shaun establishes the absurdity of the zombie scenario, and the second half highlights the bitter tragedy of absurdity. If it strives for too much and extends itself too far, the more the film should be appreciated. An attempt to unravel the fears and repressions of a person is the basis of the most exciting and engaging genre films, and if Shaun doesn't explore new territory, it does stick faithfully and effectively to its material. It gives itself entirely to its material, which is what a film of its nature must do.

There is an element of double-layered symbolism to Shaun because of its fetishistic treatment of popular culture. In the second sequence of the film, right after the hilarious bar scene, the inhabitants of London are filmed as zombielike creatures, and it's unclear if at that point they're even zombies or not. Wright and Pegg riff on one of Romero's other contributions to the zombie symbolism, the zombification that is a result of commercialism and materialism. This statement is made clearer by the fate of Ed and the lack of substantial difference between who he was alive and what he's like as a zombie. Furthermore, Shaun could and I think should be read as a wishful rumination of the zombie universe. Although the characters in the film cannot choose their deaths, Wright and Pegg chose for each of them to die a zombie death. Beyond a horror staple, the message, in the context of the film, is that zombie death is a great death to have. I think they could have killed all the characters and still it would have been a happy ending, because of the positivity and enthusiasm that Wright and Pegg portray the gruesomeness within. It's a rather tame horror film, and if it wasn't for the investment of characters Wright and Pegg corner you into this would be even easier to see.

What about the skill of execution? Beyond differing thoughts on the subject material, Wright is clearly a gifted director, and one of the few working today who can craft a movie that fires on all engines. It's a rare breed of film that finds success in the horror/comedy field, and it's even rarer for it to have identifiable characters. Wright's films also have the energy and tactility that so many modern films endeavor toward, and it's achieved effortlessly. His films are enjoyable and easy to watch. They don't make too many mistakes, and they sometimes land on brilliant moments (as discussed).

Wright is also gifted at giving his films over to his audience. His fans become fanatics, true believers. He's the Paul Thomas Anderson of genre films. People decode Wright's films, they study them, they search out their influences, they hunt down Wright's interviews, Wright's early films, Wright's breakfast menu, etc. Wright is probably the furthest you can get from the self-indulgent and self-satisfying type of filmmaker. He's one of the few filmmakers who has retained his original beliefs despite a typically souring successful career. His blog is like a 16 year old's blog. It's like the blog of someone who yesterday discovered films. His movies are like that too. His movies have the pulse of movies, they're real movies, the kind you look forward to seeing.

Shaun of the Dead.

The difference between fine-tuned and contrived is a thin one, based on feeling and intuition, and even beginning to make the distinction requires a degree of reflection and contemplation. Artists are regularly subjected to criticisms of their ability to succeed in accomplishing the mechanisms of naturalism, and there's a definite sphere of criticism that has a major concern with these qualities, in film and other areas, but in film there's a condemnatory voice frequently raised against a filmmaker whose films exhibit characteristics deemed movie fantasy material. A towering example is Steven Spielberg. Even the allmovie.com mainpage used to have that Alex Cox quote where he says, approximately, "Spielberg is not a filmmaker, he's a confectioner."

When I worked as an usher in a Dayton Ohio dollar theater, around the time my love for film was truly burgeoning, my manager was a graduate of the Wright State film program and had received his degree in a period of fierce criticism over the films of Spielberg. There was a large group of snobbish people who reacted strongly against the Spielberg design, and my manager found himself regularly defending the likes of Jaws and 1941. At this time I had a bit of affectation built into my mindset, I would pass judgments based on either partial personal exposure or simply the opinions of others, and I vividly remember saying something to my manager and his friend like, "Well you know, that's because his only good film is Schindler's List." A frankly bullshit proclamation that I was no doubt spontaneously fabricating. My manager and his friend rightly glared at me like I was a moron.

If this attitude towards Spielberg still exists I don't encounter it much anymore. Or I ignore it. Point is, many younger filmmakers begin with the opposite point of view. Everyone from Kevin Smith to Bryan Singer names Jaws one of their favorite movies, Jurassic Park is now called the final of his 'good films' (when it was initially deemed the nail in the coffin, which goes to show how opinions on his work shift over time), and writers like Edgar Wright and Diablo Cody very much carry on his torch, deliberately or not.

As this edges closer toward a discussion of Shaun of the Dead, and the obvious manipulative aspects of the film, there's a Frank Cottrell Boyce quote that should pose as a background, one from an interview with Roger Ebert. "A while back, I was on Radio 4's Film Programme the same day as Simon Pegg. We were asked what we thought of screenwriting manuals. I dismissed them as get-rich-quick compendiums of cliche. Pegg said he thought they were really useful. Our films opened that weekend. His vacuumed up money. Mine tanked. It may well be, I thought, that I've been missing something."

In a dream-type situation, where I am a studio executive and am allowed to fund whatever films I want, I would want to finance a Frank Cottrel Boyce film. Welcome to Sarajevo, The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, and A Cock and Bull Story are some of my favorite movies. Millions is absolutely my second favorite kids movie (only just behind Free Willy). I'm partly bullshitting now though too, projecting the same airs I did with my previous theater manager, because on opening day, with Boyce's film opening against Wright's film, let's be honest, I'm going to see Wright's film. There are external factors, for example Wright's films are better audience material, while Boyce's films work big and small, and I'm probably going to have an easier time talking a group of people into seeing a Wright film with me, but the point is, like when QT talks about taking satisfaction in Inglourious Basterds being the most widely anticipated film at Cannes, movies are easier to digest than films. And when I say movies, in this instance, I'm meaning the type of film you watch and say, "That never happens in my life."

Shaun of the Dead is basically an orgy of that feeling. It's a movie lover's fantasy, a popjunkie's paradise, and there's hardly a moment in it that isn't part of some overarching construct meant to elicit a specific reaction. In Shaun, as in Hot Fuzz, it's all about the pay-off. Wright's strategy is to be comically high and narratively straight-faced for about half of the movie and then deliver on all the set-ups in roughly the second half. I think it's euphemistic to say that he plays it safe in the beginning of Shaun, and in an angry or impulsive mood I'd say that the whole thing is essentially movie bullshit, a pack of dirty lies.

The beginning humor and exposition gradually build into the fabric of the film. The word exacerbate, Timesplitters 2, the Night of the Living Dead named mother, Barbra, the asshole roommate, and the pub/gun Winchester are some examples from Shaun. Wright is the kind of filmmaker who doesn't leave loose ends, and every piece of his film is either referential, trivial, or character building. Movie lovers see this as a way of adding depth to a film, but detractors interpret it as a way of resiting or inhibiting naturalism. Wright places reality into his film, and there's an obvious contradiction in this style.

Or is there, right? What artists, besides the non-fiction filmmaker or writer, and even they are often accused of steering the emotions of the audience, deal in reality? You know this conversation, of course, the one about nature vs. naturalism, the Bresson debate, the Neorealism angle, the vérité style, etc etc etc. Most people have heard the debate a million-trillion times, and I guess some people won't even have it anymore.

Wright's sin is that he uses filmic devises to reveal his characters' emotions, which means that the emotional high-points are grounded in basically a bedrock of falsity. He's a child of movies, and he's a moviemaker. The question I find myself asking myself is, am I, while watching his movies, again being that usher in front of his manager, disliking a film based on obscure and irrational pretext, or am I a matured filmwatcher, disallowing the unnatural and the unsubtle to affect me?

07 October 2009

Not Quite Hollywood.

It's of course frustrating to watch Not Quite Hollywood and then discover that most of the movies talked about are unavailable to you on the dvd market. For example the film I decided I absolutely had to see, Next of Kin:

I absolutely can't see the movie in its entirety. I ordered like a schmuck Dead End Drive-In and Roadgames, which I'll be sure to talk about here after they've arrived and I've watched them.

Not Quite Hollywood is a better film for having so much cinema to talk about, and as the film progresses through the different cycles and films it becomes more and more interesting. By the end I was salivating for the movies, I was hungry for the movies.

(Stone actually is available on dvd, but in two versions, the better one [the one I would buy] more expensive than Dead End Drive-In and Roadgames together).

It didn't bother me that their only outside source was QT. It's a film about genre films, who the fuck else are they going to use, the Saw director?

The Saw director is also an interview subject, along with many of the actual filmmakers, producers, and actors, and even one critic from the period. Greg Mclean is in there too, and I love his Rogue, and now I want to see Dark Age as well.

It has great Dennis Hopper stories too. I love great Dennis Hopper stories. I love the Blue Velvet one about how Dennis Hopper loved the Frank Booth role, connected with and thought he was perfect for the role, and so called Lynch to tell him this while Lynch was having lunch with Isabella Rossellini and Kyle MacLachlan. Lynch told them, approximately, "Dennis says he is Frank Booth. That's great for the movie but I don't know how we're going to have lunch with him." That story isn't in Not Quite Hollywood but there's some gut-busting good ones dealing with Mad Dog Morgan.

Ultimately the movie portrays these filmmakers as a single face, a single body that wanted to craft personal films, outside a national agenda, based on inner passions and genres. Mostly with motorcycles, naked women, blood, and animals. There is an unquenched place in my heart and mind which shares this thirst. It's a great rush to hear how a group of people projected their own Hollywood visions out onto the screen.

Rent or buy this one and watch it when you need to jolt your ambitions. Which I mistakenly just mistyped as ambissions, although I don't mind because I want to make my ambissions my missions.

06 October 2009

An Evening with Bill Morrison.

A girl from the back rows begins to ask a question. Everyone turns around to see her. She asks Bill Morrison what Bill Morrison's contributions are to the films of Bill Morrison. Her phrasing is slow and awkward and she stutters a little bit. Her hesitance amplifies the tension the question creates. A multilayered tension. Bill is even kind of defensive about the question, the question of why he claims authorship over his found footage, and after he explains his involvement he asks her if she has a problem with his art. She says no, she thinks it's a creative approach, and then refers to the second of the films shown, Morrison's 2001 Ghost Trip, a live-action film that's a quasi-documentary about Morrison and some friends renting a hearse and driving it across the country. Ghost Trip plays exactly like any other Morrison film, including a hypnotic soundtrack (I'm lifting the description from Morrison's own Hypnotic Productions), repetitious sequences, sequences which literally reuse frames, and a non-verbal narrative.

She dodges a confrontation I don't think she intended to instigate. What compelled the girl to ask the question? The other films shown tonight featured archival footage that Morrison reprocessed, re-edited, had scored, and to which he applied new structure. He didn't shoot anything for them, he wasn't in contact with actors, and, except for 1997's Film of Her, he didn't write any narration. There's no dialogue anywhere. Maybe that's confusing, but I don't think so.

When Morrison says that if it wasn't for him the footage wouldn't be seen I think he's referring to the restorative aspects of his work, and he means that we literally wouldn't see these lost or damaged films if he didn't rejuvenate them. He's right, but that's not why I think his work is important, personally, except for the already mentioned Film of Her. Film of Her is explicitly about the sadness of film degradation and the voices that are lost to time and history because of improper handling or direct lack of concern. Aside from the factual, the tangible, what I wouldn't see without Morrison, and what is Morrison's true contribution, is the beauty and sadness of a woman being engulfed in flame-like filmrot in his 2004 Light is Calling. Nowhere else do I experience the airplane-like images toward the end of his 2006 The Highway Trilogy, a truly provocative moment that Morrison slowly builds, not inherent to the original footage.

It's kind of hard to tell someone that you really connected to the airplane-like images in the film you just saw. It's not usual film speak. There's a lot that's unusual about watching Morrison's films. The rot is sometimes illuminating, sometimes distracting, and sometimes confusing. Morrison relies on a portion of the emotional force to come from his famous scores, which he edits the films to, sometimes even the music coming first. As a filmmaker he uses music in a traditional sense and to great effect. If sometimes as a viewer I lose track of the film's pulse, or lose myself in the obliqueness of the image, the music guides me back in.

05 October 2009

H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival 2009 (Sunday).

The best way to begin is to tell you about the storytelling session which occurred before What Does it All Mean Elwood? played. Festival founder Andrew Migliore told two stories. The first was from his youth, about a cat vomiting worms and goo. The setting was a game store called Dragons and Spaceships, and the story goes that the cat coughed up this disgusting pile of sickness and Andrew became very grossed out. Yes. The second was another story from childhood, and the subjects were beef jerkey and a creaking stair. Yes. Then came on another man, a friend of Andrew's, a jovial and entertaining right-to-bear-arms kind of guy, who told longer and more detailed stories. His two stories were longer because there were more details, not because there was more content, and the details consisted of his inner-paranoia while encountering first an invitation to a horror-themed play, The King in Yellow, in an old theater, and second a giant box on his doorstep in New Orleans. Mostly he told us about the many gun firings which were to occur should he find himself in a doomed situation.

Nothing horrifying truly happened in any story told. It seems to me, although I am no expert and I know now that there are indeed very serious and very dedicated experts on the subject, that the Lovecraftian sense of horror is a pre-modern concept of the genre: shadows are potential threats, your personality is unpredictable to yourself and others, the fantastic and the magical can occur, and all things are creepy and potentially harmful. The world is fantastically spooky, anything is possible, and the cosmos are indifferent. I think their stories are evidence of patience and true belief in the coming of horror, and at the festival they spoke of Lovecraft as a deity. Worship Lovecraft is a running theme. It's one of those serious comments that's partially a joke or vice versa, depending on who the speaker is (some might call it tribalism, etc).

The Lovecraftians are truly like a religious sect within the horror community. They await Lovecraft to receive his proper recognition as a master, they have a set of beliefs, the Mythos, books that originate and delineate their beliefs, and they expect there to be a horror revelation. They're very aware of how funny this is, to certain degrees and depending on who you talk to, but in general they're all nice, godless people who are avid readers. I liked them, those that I met.

I attended a panel on Weird Horror in Popular Fiction, that was the first thing I did. It had your regular assortment of panel members, my favorite being:

Who has an eye patch (+1, obviously), but is also a great speaker and a sensitive, insightful personality. His name is Laird Barron and I'm going to check him out. Cody Goodfellow also impressed me. There were two major discussions: Cthulu bumper stickers, the pros and cons, and Del Toro's potential adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness. They are against the adaptation if it means a copyright on Lovecraft's material, and of course they worry about how the material would be handled. Overall I had the sense that they trust Del Toro but not the studio's interference with intellectual property through trade marking, etc.

The one true film I saw was Italy's Colour from the Dark, directed by Ivan Zuccon. The theater was packed, people were standing in the aisles. It was a micro-budgeted Bava-inspired Lovecraft-infused camp-fest that I and the audience loved. There's a certain type of American slasher film in which a litany of plot devices must be executed in service of the genre, and then there's the much more exciting Italian tradition of a series of death scenes. This one went though some good ones, including gut-stabs and eye-gouges. It also featured incest, blasphemy, and evil curses. And a breast-feeding joke.

I made the mistake of passing on Beyond the Dunwich Horror for festival favorite What Does it All Mean Elwood? There was a lot of buzz about Elwood before it started and I got sucked in, but this infamously bad 1996 Lovecraft Fest submission was basically a Lovecraft themed student film that the Festival wanted for some reason to advertise as their own Rocky Horror, because for some reason everyone needs their own Rocky Horror. Its best parts were the mumbling Elwood and a ferret. I didn't take anything from it, and I did Colour from the Dark, and I probably would have taken something from Beyond the Dunwich Horror. The lesson is always choose the better film regardless of the quality of the audience.

23 September 2009

L'arroseur Arrosé.

The first fully staged film of course (of course!?). It's also the first film comedy. What happens when you re-enter an academic or instructional view of film is that you find yourself watching early short films again. And it's very exciting, because here you are in this classroom where all love is being directed towards the one great thing you love. And everyone wants answers to basic questions like who is the gardener (he's the gardener!), and "What do you think people felt when they saw this?" The latter question being the most elemental emotional question, and the fulfillment of the question starts everyone down the path to the necessity of filmmaking and the privilege of narrative and the versatility of the human mind and heart.

I remember why I love film when I am in a room full of people wanting to rewatch L'arroseur Arrosé. Giggling over L'arroseur Arrosé.

20 September 2009

The White Hell of Pitz Palu and Leni Riefenstahl.

The White Hell of Pitz Palu is apparently a single example in a genre of German films that dealt with the perils of mountain climbing. Arnold Fanck was the director of the exterior scenes and had directed a handful of mountain films prior. G.W. Pabst directed the interior scenes. The exterior mountain scenes take up the majority of the film. Leni Riefenstahl's career began by acting in these types of films and she had worked with Fanck previously in this vein. Riefenstahl would direct one mountain film herself three years later in 1932, The Blue Light, reportedly because she could find no other director, and this would be her directorial debut.

A young engaged couple prepare for a leisure-type trek of a mountain when a doctor enters their cabin. The doctor's misery involves an ice casket and a lover's unrecoverable corpse. The White Hell has fantastic body-in-ice-casket scenes. The young couple is convinced by the doctor into convincing themselves by sentiment and pity to join the doctor on his journey for discovery of his lover's lost corpse. The body is buried on the north side of the mountain, the most dangerous side of the mountain, and it's apparently the last chance to climb this area because summer approaches and temperatures rise, causing avalanches and proportional risk increase. Other people are climbing this side of the mountain too, on the same day.

They all die. The entire other group of people climbing the north face of the mountain. Their bodies are recovered though, unfortunately, and none of them receive the reward of a badass ice-casket. But anyway if I have to tell you I will: the young couple and the doctor endure all sorts of avalanches and personal injury and become lost on the mountain. The two men are gravely injured. There's a sensational and beautiful sequence of attempted rescue, by the local people, involving midnight blackness and torches through snowy tunnels. The emergency crew only finds the other group of dead people. C'est la White Hell of Pitz Palu.

Later a friend in an airplane spots them. He's flying around the mountain face looking for them: he loops and flips his plane and throws parachutes with informational material. It's a critical moment for the stranded group: the engaged man has gone mental owing to head injuries and the reality and implied doom of their plight pressing upon his mind, he's tied to a rock, and the group has been in the gelid environment without food for a number of days. I won't tell you what happens but you know someone gets a badass ice-casket.

That's the movie. When I watch it I think mainly of Leni Riefenstahl. What was on her mind? She's three years away from seeing Hitler for the first time. What are her passions now, and is The White Hell one step toward artistic obsession culminating in Triumph of the Will and a contentious legacy? She smiles a lot. There are close-ups of a snow covered Riefenstahl throwing back hair from her face and she's intensely movie beautiful in these moments.

On the Kino dvd there's an extended interview with a 100 year-old Riefenstahl from 2002 (that means she was born in 1902 - no prob). The interviewer is kind of vicious I think. She probes Riefenstahl not only on her connections with Hitler and Nazism, something you can sense she's had to explain 1,000,000 times, but she also challenges her on details of her sexual history and the merits of an old lady re-entering filmmaking. Riefenstahl was promoting her 2002 film Underwater Impressions, a film that's only 45 minutes long and was filmed by Riefenstahl herself while scuba diving. It's a grandma film, don't you think, is what the interviewer seems to be saying. Sometimes I want to choke the interviewer because I feel so bad.

I feel so bad in a lot of ways. It's very difficult for me to separate and identify the sins of Leni Riefenstahl, a woman who held hands with Hitler on the beach. A woman who sent him a letter that said, "With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany's greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?"

The accusation is that Leni Riefenstahl glorified Hitler in her Triumph of the Will and created a strong, effective, and lasting propaganda tool for his hate machine. The counter-accusation is that Triumph of the Will is a beautiful and amazing cinematic revelation. Both are true. There's an opinion that they can't both be true. My personal sympathy goes to Riefenstahl, whose greatest work can never be discussed without a series of caveats. And I wish Olympia wasn't public domain or someone would pay for a great transfer so I could really see the film the way it was intended to be seen.


Do 20 year-olds review silent films? I feel like I'm talking from the outside. But here I'll go, and I apologize for all self-references. I want to omit self-references from my reviews as much as I can. I feel it's a part of the this review however. I came to this filmmaker through James Whale, who was apparently a Paul Leni fan. This is the beginning of Leni's career on dvd. It's as beginning as I can get. He'd made a number of films by this time and he was 39 years old. Douglas Fairbanks would see Waxworks and be inspired by it for his same-year The Thief of Baghdad, according to Kino, which offers convincing visual evidence through excerpts of the Fairbanks film. Leni's next film would be for Carl Laemmle at Universal Studios in Hollywood.

They (the obvious references) call it three stories in one film. It's two mostly. It's four kind-of (was my 83 minute version the full print? I'm not sure). They (the casual referrers) call it The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-lite. I've seen The Cabinet and don't agree. Or I think it's too easy to say. Some people call silent dramas boring. I fell asleep the first time I watched it, which happens to me too often with silent dramas I'll admit, but it was to my advantage that I decided to give it another go before returning it to Hollywood video. It's not at all boring that was my bad. This review will begin with the assertion that Waxworks is not boring in any way.

In the first story there's a moment where a guy jumps off a building. Others are pursuing him. He lands on a tree and the tree bends, and the bending allows him to escape freely to the ground where he can continue his flight. It takes place on a single set with all the buildings shown together in certain scenes. This happens often in the first long sequence. The character's house/workspace (he's a baker) is also on a similar set, and there are long shots and close-ups which reveal the set for its major and minor details. It convinces me as a viewer of the reality of the scenario. The believability is based on the set design. Waxworks is a German Expressionism film, or a child or a product of that movement, and in German Expressionist films the set is the total reality of the film. In Waxworks the reality blends cultural and fictional aspects in order to enhance the experience of spectatorial immersion: when the guy jumps off the building, I believe in the tension of his movements and the context of their motivations. It's very gripping and very filmatically convincing.

The second story is more drama-heavy. In it Ivan the Terrible looks like Ivan the Terrible from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. It's not the same actor. I guess that's what Ivan the Terrible really looked like. I kept thinking of Eisenstein's film because of this visual similarity, and it also made me think of Eisenstein's penchant for visual repetition. That was pretty cool and enhanced what was otherwise a much duller second story. There's a scene where Ivan fears an assassination attempt, owing to a prognostication, and asks a visiting noble to disguise himself as Ivan and they switch places in the carriage and also exchange clothing. It's the best scene. After that some unnatural narrative propulsion culminates in a bizarre loveless escapade with a female that leads to an hour glass fixation I can't explain in under 200 words.

It's bizarre other-worldly and faintly exotic material. I think the cultural differences are exaggerated, combined with the set design, in order to achieve this effect. That seems typical for the period and certainly links Leni with Whale, Tod Browning, Fritz Lang, etc. The dramatization and aggrandizement of cultural behavior works to energize the narrative and also archaically tints the film. It's nothing I expect from reality. That's kind of cool shit too, because the film attempts to deal in true emotional currency inside of this melodramatic framework and it grants an ethereal quality to the film. It's sight and spectacle at its most fundamental, but it's executed so earnestly and elaborately that it enriches the effectiveness. You want to believe: you want to believe your eyes, you want to believe the story, you want to feel the characters. As a 21st century man I still feel the meaning of that want. It's the bedrock of an entire future of filmmaking. This is a root.

16 September 2009

Love Liza.

Wilson Joel: Do you have the yellow pages?
Cashier at Pancake House: Customer copy out of the phone book.
Wilson Joel: It's all torn to shreds.
Cashier at Pancake House: I apologize, but that's our customer copy.
Wilson Joel: Can I use your copy?
Cashier at Pancake House: Sorry, convenient store next door might have one.
Wilson Joel: But, you have one.
Cashier at Pancake House: Sir, I'm sorry. Try next door.
Wilson Joel: I just got finished eating your bad pancakes and got my plane stolen out of my car in your parking lot.
Cashier at Pancake House: Want me to call the police? I can call the police.
Wilson Joel: No, I just want to see the yellow pages.
Cashier at Pancake House: What are you looking for?
Wilson Joel: Planes.
Cashier at Pancake House: Planes?
Wilson Joel: Yea, model planes. You know remote control planes?
Cashier at Pancake House: Toy Planes?
Wilson Joel: Yea, toy planes.
Cashier at Pancake House: You're not gonna find anything like that.
Wilson Joel: Let me look... let me look.
Cashier at Pancake House: You're not going to find it.
Wilson Joel: Haha, yea you see that? You see that? One of your fucking friends stole my plane. Somebody who eats the bad food in this place all the time. That plane is going to ruin this whole place.

04 September 2009

The Guatemalan Handshake.

I want to call it an indie comedy filmed as an art film to the pitch of a Harmony Korine film with shades of David Gordon Green, but I don't know what that means and it sounds like I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't know what I'm talking about. Maybe I'm throwing in Green because The Guatemalan Handshake dvd comes with a essay by him, and he gushes over the film and says something like it evokes the sadness behind a fart joke.

The film is a bizarre mixture of a lot of emotions and characters and scenarios. It's tender and sometimes hilarious and oddly daring. And it juggles these things often within a single scene. It has some creeping motifs and some creepy scenes. It's unique and untidy: just the way I like my films.

I want to watch it again and let my thoughts grow. I watched it as a double with The Brown Bunny and together they reminded me of the many things that are often smoothed over when films are made. The filmic barrier that exists between most cinema and the actual breathing world. You can tell right away when a film itself is going to breathe.

Do many contemporary screenwriters, following QT's lead, attempt to eradicate all 'bad lines'? While I was writing today I wondered if I should erase a bad line I had written that I thought was really truthful but wouldn't make good dialogue. Would a line that was completely honest and revealing and contextually appropriate be a bad line? No. That's a horrible way to think of a script. It's the same as the idea that a character has to be sympathetic.

There were two or three characters in The Guatemalan Handshake that probably should have been left out in a conventional sense, who if had actually been left out wouldn't have allowed the film to work the way it did. That's important to me. It's important to me that filmmakers make those personal decisions and it's important to me that I can be reminded that it can work. I think Todd Rohal in time, given the opportunity, could become an absolutely amazing filmmaker. All the evidence is in The Guatemalan Handshake.

This is a quote from David Lowery's blog that I think he himself transcribed from the Japanese Brown Bunny commentary that he himself ended a blog posting with a little while ago and I dragged up to use myself:

"What, what exactly do I get out of making these films? I mean, I don't make any money, I give up three years of my life on each one, I make a lot of enemies because I'm bossy and pushy and crotchety, and I get old and crabby and my back and my neck and everything hurts now, and I didn't go on any dates. What do I get, this weird satisfaction that I was able to put something in the world that now exists that most people don't like anyway? I don't know, this is just a sick in the head move. But at the time it seemed like the most important thing."

01 September 2009

Summer Hours.

In the first scene of Summer Hours I expected the mother to die. She doesn't die then, but she dies later. The mysterious tension that lurks in the framing and pacing of Summer Hours is similar to Irma Vep and maybe indicative of Assayas (these are my first two), and certainly what Irma Vep said about the film industry Summer Hours says about the family. It shares messages of transience and ephemerality, and a sadness that's tactile but always looming, always arriving but never arrived. Or maybe arriving and then departing. At any rate there's motion in the emotion.

There was a moment in which I was sure the house was going to catch fire. I was actually positive. It's beyond my personal fatalism: Assayas purposely lingered the sound of hissing gas from the oven over the entire scene. It could and does make other statements about the scene, but I know Assayas wanted me to think there was going to be an explosion. He's plugged into a sense of cinema in the best way. He can read the audience and perform for them.

He's also a patient filmmaker, but one who delivers. If there's an ambiguity to these two films it's not because of a fractured utterance. And the narrative is elliptical but predictable. It cuts off right when it should and right when Assayas has completed his thought. It explores its layers to an appropriate degree and reveals each character as an architect for its design. For example in Summer Hours there is the child who wants to keep the estate, the child who needs to sell the estate, and the child who wants to keep and sell the estate. And they each kind of want to keep the estate because it's their mother's estate, a part of their family's history, an irreplaceable monument of their upbringing, and a sentimental part of their French nationalism. They don't keep the bulk of the estate (a few items to remind them of mother), and the value of the estate is translated into pecuniary terms. The eldest brother is an economist and he and the film make sure you understand how important that is. Except you can't disagree with the son who wants to finance his burgeoning career in China, really, can you? And what about the daughter who simply won't be around to appreciate the estate any longer? Well that's what Assayas asks.

31 August 2009

Irma Vep.

A couple of times on here I've tried to describe scenes with words instead of posting actual videos, but with this one I really think you'd lose the force of the moment without the visual accompaniment.

The film is worth seeing. I'm going to borrow allmovie.com's review to prompt the video. It's what I would have to type out myself otherwise, and in other words there's nothing I wish to add.

"A sinuous dark comedy about cinema, Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep may cast a critical eye on the state of 1990s filmmaking and all that it implies, but the critic-turned-director also creates an artistically thrilling testament to the medium's luminous allure. Though Assayas references French cinema history through the conceit of remaking Les Vampires (1915) and featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud (aka Antoine Doinel) as embattled director Rene Vidal, the English-heavy dialogue and the casting of Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung suggest that the fictional production's maladies are more global in nature. Shot in under a month, Irma Vep's restless style aptly evokes the production's (and Vidal's) implosion under the weight of commercial imperatives, petty power struggles, and misplaced egos, while Cheung's fabulous cat-suited presence renders her a model of elusive star desirability. Punctuated by glimpses of Vidal's dailies, Irma Vep's aborted Les Vampires seems like an artistic lost cause -- until its final, dazzling five minutes reveal how much creative life still potentially percolates through the art form. Though less than adored in France, Irma Vep won ardent fans on the international festival circuit, confirming Assayas' place in French cinema's 1990s renaissance."

This video is those final minutes:

The rest of the movie is nothing at all like that. I should say.

30 August 2009

Milestones (Portland Screening).

My previous reactions after seeing Milestones at the LA Film Festival.

A haunting portrait and exploration of lost dreams, I ascribe Milestones a false lyricism - one that exists in my memory of the film but was missing from the screen Saturday night. Milestones is a revolutionary's counseling session, a musing on a journey out of a certain place. This place is referred to as a 'melted context' and 'changed roots,' and it means that people from a generation of self-discovery are a decade later emerging to find themselves trapped in a lifestyle, and to a greater extent a society, that doesn't fit the image they conjured in their early dreams. It's real stripped-bones filmmaking: the film implements no cohesive device to structure its story, and the narrative is personal, non-traditional, and amateur. This amateurism is what my memory had smoothed over.

The film on a technical level isn't very well made. Boom mics are present regularly, voice-overs are used over scenes of two characters together, some of the more obviously staged scenes lack motivation, and the choices in editing often mirror the hippie mindset. For example, the narrative is stopped for a moment in order to watch clouds pass over the moon. I find it hard to determine which scenes are diary-like or documentary, and which scenes are fiction. A character dies a fake death, and it makes me wonder how authentic his introduction was. Some of the dialogue is wooden, but is it because that's the voice of the person, or is it the staging of the dialogue? You realize at a point that the film isn't always entirely what it needs to be, only what it wants to be.

The title references the transformations taking place in the characters' lives. The film ends with a real-life birth (I admit that, knowing it was coming this time, I watched this scene with my peripheral vision, and am really terrified by ten-foot tall six-centimeter-dilated vaginas), and in some ways everyone in the film is being born or re-born or growing up. Their openness is the film's lasting charm. Ultimately I think the film truly makes transparent, fictional or non-fictional, the lives of its characters, and it shares their honesty on a basic level. Maybe you can't really categorize the film, but you can't really categorize the people in it either.

12 August 2009

Starship Troopers.

There's a genuinely gripping moment about 2/3 of the way through Starship Troopers. An evacuation plane (piloted by the only pilot crazy enough to attempt this rescue mission, Carmen Ibanez, the ex-love interest of Johnny Rico, who will soon become Lieutenant of the group that is the target of this particular rescue) has landed in the midst of a significant strategical offensive initiated by the alien bugs. The bugs have a brain, and the brain has manipulated the Starship fleet by transmitting false orders over their communication systems: the bug brain orchestrated an ambush. The roughnecks caught in this trap are retreating into the plane. Lieutenant Rasczak has already perished (death from a bug), and Dizzy Flores has just won retribution for his death by tossing a grenade into the mouth of his monstrous murderer (kind of - Rico shot Rasczak before the bug could finish him, so technically Rico is Rasckzak's murderer). She is one of the last on their way to the plane. Rico, her new lover, the lover she has dreamed of having for years and years, a lifelong yearning that has only recently flourished, shouts for her to come aboard. As she turns and runs toward the plane a bug appears behind her, and the bug devastatingly inflicts mortal wounds upon her body. Rico's retributory slaying of the bug allows Flores to make it on board the plane with her injuries. As the plane begins to leave the co-pilot, Zander Barcalow, the former competing love interest between Rico and Ibanez, signals for the final two turret roughnecks to board. They run towards the plane but are incinerated by giant bug leaders of the approaching horde.

The plane takes off. Barcalow tells Ibanez that Rico is aboard the plane. Ibanez has no knowledge of Rico's love affair with Flores: it is in that moment that she learns Rico is still alive, as she was falsely informed of his death on the battlefield at an earlier point. In the back Rico holds the dying Flores in his arms, but it is not a sad moment, because Flores, with her dying breath, assures Rico that all this was worth it, because she was finally able to be with him, the one she always loved. Flores dies in Rico's arms.

The truly powerful moment comes then: Rico, assuming leadership of the squadron, rushes to the cockpit of the plane. He orders an all-out nuclear assault on the bug planet. He doesn't acknowledge Barcalow or Ibanez, he simply issues the command for planetary annihilation. Though his request will be denied, and through all that has happened before and will after, the true drama in this scene, for me, is the red-eyed Rico, who has been transformed by war in ways he never imagined, in ways the audience never imagined. His story we enter at its beginning, back in his high-school days, when he was still in love with Ibanez, and Flores was annoying and meddling along the peripheral.

It's those red eyes that are genuinely gripping. I can accept this moment because I can accept what surrounds and houses it. I'm not fucking around when I say that amid all the sci-fi lunacy and ancillary drama of the film, all the other badass shit going on, it's a truly powerful and meaningful message on warfare, and a sadly fatal moment for the human spirit.

08 August 2009

Il Posto.

When I watched Il Posto recently I kind of felt a Planet of the Apes sense of revelation. You know how the Statue of Liberty was there the whole time? Well Il Posto has been here the whole time, through my ruminations on Bujalski and Bahrani, beyond the Italian Neorealism years which I often find so melodramatic, and existing even as a precursor to Kieslowski. Like Kieslowski, Olmi is a documentary filmmaker turned narrative filmmaker, and likewise Olmi brought into his narratives the sensibilities of his documentaries.

It's become obvious to me that if you focus your narrative intensely upon your subject with complete honesty and a passion for accuracy, and disregard purposefully whatever modern conventions of filmmaking are prevailing, you can create a film that's wholly engaging and dramatically convincing. When you strip the mechanics of storytelling from a film, your film can become truly alive. The protagonist of Il Posto walks among the living indeed: he walks in a real Milan, he applies to the actual Edison Company of Milan, takes real aptitude tests, converses with his bosses, and, most important to me, his emotions by way of Olmi's direction are depicted authentically and without exaggeration.

It's a mellow film, and I think the pace matches the personality of the mellow protagonist. I think it's edited so the story evolves in the speed of his thoughts. A really great unique quality of Olmi, compared to most other filmmakers in the same vein, including contemporary filmmakers, is that he allows poetry to escape into his frames. Take for example the first scene with the boss:

The camera is of course looking down on Domenico from the elevated perspective of the boss, which conveys his insecurity in this moment and also the boss' dominance, but the framing doesn't suffer from what I think could be an unnatural embellishment. Instead it heightens the sense of Domenico's anxiety, also achingly present in the actor's face, and compliments rather than overpowers the scene. What the camera does is act as a psychological additive, like was common from cinematography back in the day and is very uncommon today, but it does to an equal degree as the film's scene is operating, so that it blends into the narrative, suggests greater ideas existing beneath the scene, and builds on Olmi's true Milan. The camera is uncovering more truth without suggesting a falsely dramatic realm. That's a thine line I think, and it's really difficult to navigate.

What it is also means is that Olmi is interested in every aspect of his film's reality. The total experience of the Edison Company and not the singular experience of Domenico. His intentions and their execution allow me to understand what Domenico is entering into. I can understand 1960's Milan from 00's Portland. I can understand an entire room of 1960's Milan people.

In this scene Domenico has entered a room already mostly full of people waiting to take the Edison admissions tests. This view captures both the tension of the moment and the weight of the pressure, the sense of Domenico's isolation, and the feelings of everyone in the frame with him. The camera will move and more people are yet to arrive, but even in this one shot you can wonder what the two seated are thinking about, why the standing man is staring that way; you wonder about Domenico's fate, share his nervousness, and enter the politics of a waiting room, Edison Company, Milan, 1961. Olmi has Domenico acting, the rest of the room acting, and the camera acting: this is why his film presents a whole reality with a complete truthfulness.

07 August 2009

Day of Wrath.

There's one truly vindictive character in Day of Wrath, the mother, whose suspicions are valid. There's only one truly innocent character, the son, and he betrays his father and contributes to the conditions which lead to his death. There's one victim, the wife, and she's the witch. There's one great tragedy, the death of the husband/preacher, and his punishment is retribution.

There's one God in Day of Wrath, and it is in the name of that God that the priests torture the old woman. There's only one Evil One, and it's the Evil One's power that allows the wife to free herself from oppression and grants her her only meaningful relationship.

The torture and killing of the old woman is outright barbarianism and an absolute injustice. I suppose this depiction is what made Dreyer have to flee Denmark from the Nazis. Though even in her scenes I could not, despite her suffering, and despite the great sadness and grief Dreyer injects into her scenes (her clothes torn off her, her body tied to the stake, her screams as she falls into the fire), consider her character wholesome or morally pure. The old woman attempts to leverage the life of the priest's wife, whose mother was a witch, against her own life in order to grant herself freedom. This is a self-serving action which would be justifiable if you believed one life is worth more than another life, based on the virtues of the person. It also becomes misdirected: while the woman initially wants the priest to recognize the fairness in freeing her (the priest freed the mother in order to marry the daughter) as the moment of death approaches the old woman seems more vengeful, as if she could lastly accept her death if the wife died as well. She's out for the wife's blood as they're out for her blood, though there isn't any indication that the wife is even passively playing a hand in the old woman's death. The wife first hides the old woman, then denies ever seeing her, and then stays inside, visibly upset, during her killing.

The wife is a witch, though, and the old woman is not. I would expect a film in which there is an actual witch to be a film about morality, but I always think of morality as being polar, you're morally right or morally wrong, and Dreyer is definitely saying here, in Day of Wrath, that the actions of all are intertwined in the tragic and doomed destinies of each. The film then is not amoral or immoral, but about sin, the imperfections of humanity, and the corruptibility of perspective. The imperfections of the religious and the wicked. His characters seem to be expressing that one is not worse than the other and that, regardless of morality or intention, their fate is shared.

03 August 2009

Funny People.

Seeing Funny People is exactly, for me, like visiting Georgia. Specifically a place in Georgia about an hour outside any major city, about fifteen minutes from a freeway entrance, and the kind of place in the south where Confederate flags still emblazon pick-up trucks. I don't mean Funny People shares themes with a place like this Georgia place, I just mean that I didn't so much enjoy visiting this Georgia place. It was kind of boring. There wasn't a lot going on. At night I'd sit on the front porch and drink margaritas and literally listen to the sound of mosquitoes flying into their electric light deaths. Zzp.

I wouldn't go back. If you said, listen Shawn, I have tickets to either some backwoods place in Georgia, that you've been to, or I have tickets to Fiji, and we can live in one of those Fiji huts and all that shit, I would choose Fiji. Especially if you were buying.

Then again, some details from my Georgia trip stand out vividly in my mind. There are certainly things that happened to me there which haven't happened to me anywhere else. And I saw things there I haven't seen since. What if I'd never been to this Georgia place? It wasn't a homogeneous entry into my memory bank. Although not life changing, it was something oddly special. I remember too being asleep and awoken by the twelve-year old who was the son of the man I was staying with. He was clutching a beer and dancing to The Doors. He told me The Doors were his favorite band and that he always drank beer and danced while listening to them loudly.

I've read those interviews with Apatow where he talks about early screenings and showing the film to P.T. Anderson and all that. I wish someone had stood up, locked the door to the room, and been like, "Listen. Listen to me. Apatow you're a great filmmaker. You're the average man's genius. You're like a brilliant p.e. coach who reads poetry and teaches kids about life and weight training and encourages them to apply themselves. But nobody is leaving the room until you admit this movie is uneven and clunky."

It's easy to compliment the film. I'm glad he made it. I'm glad it compels people into discussion. Of all the Hollywood types I think he creates the strongest characters. I like the mutually denigrating experiences Rogen and Sandler experience from opposite sides, and how there's this middle ground they can meet in it for short moments like birds on rock islands. I think Schwartzman has awesome deliveries, if not the funniest lines. But. . .(start at beginning again, repeat endlessly).

The Tenant.

Some films have moments that are like passcodes or answer keys, scenes that are giveaways for intent and design, scenes that reveal in one clear moment the artist's interior like an open robe can show you a flash of a naked body. In The Tenant this happens when Polanski himself, the star of Polanski's The Tenant, arrives in the middle of the night at his semi-girlfriend's apartment. He's a mess of distress and paranoia. He's seeking shelter from the immensely bizarre and claustrophobic psychological drama that's everyday escalating in his home space, and the semi-girlfriend says yes you can stay here with me, and Polanski is so grateful that he kisses the girl. They fall back on the bed together. The girl returns the kiss. Polanski begins to cry. Cut to Polanski asleep in her bed, curled in a defensive sleeping position, and the girl moments from leaving for work, and she's explaining to Polanski that he can stay as long as he needs to.

From then to the end The Tenant is devastating. It's harrowing, it's operatic, it's comic, macabre, absurd, riveting, intense, inevitable, just and unjust, crazy and comprehensible, cinematic and powerful.

It begins with a man entering an apartment building. The first moment is a tour of a vacant room. Polanski wants to rent the room. The manager is obliging: he can have the room on the condition that the former tenant dies. She'd thrown herself out of a window - this window right here, look you can see the broken glass - and she's in the hospital now. What if she recovers? Don't worry she won't. Polanski visits the disturbingly broken body of this suicide attempt at the hospital, and this is the scene in which he meets the woman who will be his semi-girlfriend, a demented roar of pain from a hospital bed leading to a Enter the Dragon handjob and boobgrab.

I've heard The Tenant described as predictable. I'd say sometimes predictable means formulaic, but in this instance predictable means well developed and hard earned. I've heard the beginning described as slow. I'd say sometimes slow means aimless and difficult, but in this instance slow means assured and patient. So patient, and that patience, under Polanski's control, is what draws me into this film. It's what makes The Tenant stand above the thriller type that only cares about shocking the audience. I mean sometimes a quickie is nice, but sometimes a tease is incredible. And I think in The Tenant Polanski gives you a real two hour fuck, and the end of the film is one dilated, glorious orgasm of frantic and compelling horror histrionics. And the truth is that if a movie was called Man Buys Bread: The Story of a Man Who Does Nothing but Buy Bread, and the story of a man purchasing bread was explained to me in every grand and minor detail, so that I could feel and understand the passion of this bread-purchaser, and I could see the bread the way he sees the bread, and I could want the bread the ways he wants the bread, then I would love that film too. So don't tell me that The Tenant's structure is a flaw, because my white-knuckles at the end of this film are real.

The film was d.p.'d by Sven Nykvist. Polanski and Nykvist fit so well together I wish they'd formed a parallel partnership to Nykvist/Bergman. I would use the adjective 'liquid' to describe the visual aesthetics. The Tenant has the same stylistic imprints of other Polanski films from the period, but I kind of think Repulsion is like Plato, Rosemary's Baby is Socrates, and The Tenant is Aristotle. The Tenant is a learned, cumulative work that builds on Polanski's previous ruminations, and while some might prefer the rawness of Repulsion, or the courage of Rosemary's Baby, I prefer the maturity and confidence of The Tenant. I think Polanski was making The Tenant for himself, based on his tastes and likes/dislikes, he was at a point in his career where he could do that, and that this is when talented filmmakers with strong voices are able to do their best work. It makes sense. Hithcock in the 50s-60s (what if I had written to the end w/o mentioning Hitchcock? You wouldn't have taken me seriously! And while I'm being parenthetical, let's name another name that needs named: Mario Bava. Bava!), Hawks' Rio Bravo, Ford's The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, Huston's Fat City, and I submit this one too, Polanski's The Tenant.

24 July 2009

John Huston walks into a bar.

I have a vision from my youth of my grandmother's mother on a bed in a back room located somewhere in downtown Dayton. My great grandmother: immobile and moribund, pallid and silent, oblivious to my visit. It's no joke that Pet Cemetery was a horrifying film for me at that age, because I knew exactly what it was to have death's presence fill a room. And that was my central image of elderly living for a long time.

I think it'll be a goddamn miracle if I live into my 90s, 80s, 70s, or even 60s. I come from a cursed family, a cancerous family; bad luck and bad genes. Because there are real living people making these films I watch, and because I can learn about them, it matters to me that John Huston was 77 while filming Under the Volcano. It matters to me that he would die three years later. It even sort of matters that his previous film was 1982's Annie, a bizarre collision of tones that isn't overpowering.

I watched three late-Huston films recently: 1984's Under the Volcano, 1979's Wise Blood, and 1972's Fat City. The three of them weren't good by an old man's standards, the three of them were great period. Especially Under the Volcano and Fat City. Real quick some auxiliary talent contributing to these films: Fat City was shot by Conrad Hall, Richard Sylbert was the production designer, and the film stars Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, and Candy Clark; Under the Volcano is an adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel, was shot by Gabriel Figueroa, the production designer was Gunther Gerzo, and the film stars Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, and Anthony Andrews. Smart choices for both films. John Huston, a relic of the studio system, continued to make brilliant cast and crew selections, selecting not only talented people, but talented people whose specific qualities blended with the tone of the script and film. However much I enjoyed Under the Volcano, part of that enjoyment came from knowing it was Gabriel Figueroa behind the camera, someone I could think of as a legitimate tour guide into the bowels of Mexico (Huston too, definitely Huston too, who spent a great deal of time in Mexico).

Not only did he make great films late into his career, but these films are also virile, vibrant, and evocative. Stephanie would have liked a single happy ending between the three, but Huston was completely in step with his contemporary times, and downbeat endings were a prevalent feature of films from the period. They the three films are populated by anti-heroes thrust into morally ambiguous worlds without proper means for coping, and could be played favorably next to any Altman, Ashby, or Rafelson whathaveyou, Cutter's Way, etc. Huston's characters roam their narratives like cattle on the free range, and if there's a criticism I have it's that they have too little definition, especially in Wise Blood, which is why I don't think it's a truly great one.

Fat City is an episodic, backwards journey into semi-professional boxing in a 1970's city. It opens with half-retired professional boxer Stacy Keach entering a gym where a casual, spare-time boxer, the young Jeff Bridges, is working out. They engage in a spar and Keach compliments Bridges, telling him he's a natural athlete with a god-given talent. And in many ways this way will be the high point in a film that shimmers with the pains and joys of always being a contender, never a champion. The film is like if Rocky had started in the middle and spiraled inward to the beginning, and the end of Fat City is a direct parallel to the beginning of Fat City. The narrative has a double meaning ring structure: the ring of events as a symbol of the fighting arena, and the ring of events as a symbol of the human condition.

Under the Volcano is a darkly humorous and richly layered film that is undoubtedly the work of a mature filmmaker. In some ways it's the Key Largo I always wanted to see, and Albert Finney is the same kind of hard to like and hard to hate and probably impotent protagonist Bogart was in Key Largo, but Finney's character is not confined to the rigor of plot and decency Bogart's earlier film (with Huston) was. Huston and his crew match the inner drama of Finney's character with violent and macabre images of Mexico city. The opening is a stroll through a town on the Day of the Dead. Death haunts the picture, haunts Finney. Stand out scenes are Finney's entry into the church with his friend, to pray to the Madonna for his wife's return, the bull fight sequence, and the incredible final moments that are thoroughly sad, utterly miserable, and completely sick. In those final moments there's both the sense of the impending doom and the sense of completion, and I would say it's too precise an ending for a film that's been to this point unbound and spiritual. It feels a bit 'and the moral of the story is.' This forwardness is redeemed by Huston's skill as a filmmaker. What could feel too overdone plays out at a perfect pitch, and that's why the ending works when it shouldn't.