14 October 2010

Scarecrow, Aloha Bobby and Rose, The Last American Hero, and Macon County Line.

Beginning with a rewatching of a personal favorite of mine, Straight Time, I began an impulsive streak of American film watching that both fascinated and exhausted me. It's low point was Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, of which I could not have a conversation without becoming violently offensive. If I must say something positive about it, I'd invoke a sentiment first expressed to me in a Ralph Ellison book, something about the closeness of hate and love in reference to specificity. Is it made-to-work or made-to-suck? It's made-to-suck. Compare to Adam Green's films, Hatchet and Frozen I watched, which are made-to-work.

The best theatrical moment in the rush was The Social Network. Fincher and Sorkin's movie leaves Pilgrim in the slow lane, as I like to say. For clarity, emotional accuracy, and dramatic speed, Social Network was fascinating. Another positive was Andrew Garfield, who then appeared in Romanek's Never Let Me Go (+ earlier in Gilliam's Parnassus). And that movie crushed me, as they like to say, with its tonal precision, emotional nearness, and vibrant vision. It's a beautiful movie, with sharp, natural colors, and subdued, steady expression. The meeting toward the end was my favorite scene from any film this year.

More distinctly, I also began a succession of American 70s films, ones with smaller legacies and followings, maybe you'd say second-tier American 70s films. I watched Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow, with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, shot by Vilmos Zsignmond, co-winner of the 1973 Cannes Grand Prize (second-tier?). I mostly think of Pacino as intense (rewatched Carlito's Way recently - love the movie, but the problem is Carlito [Pacino] is the only compelling character in it), but here he's happy and easygoing, playful and kind. The movie is solely about the relationship between Pacino and Hackman's characters, and that relationship is exposed mainly through their contact with each other, the way they treat other, the way they behave, the way they speak and what they do. A pure-blooded character movie. Would've loved to have seen this in the theater.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose, with Paul Le Mat from Demme's Melvin and Howard! I was excited about this one. It's a dirty, sad, blue-collar 70s LA point of view on life and love, executed with the typical delusion and self-contempt of the period. Some filmmakers of the time veiled their films with illusory impartiality when depicting low-lives and deadbeats: authentic looking actors, naturalistic dialogue, regional atmosphere; yet so many of the films uniformly depict their lives as pathetic, irredeemable, and lost. Real people without real pain or joy. As a movie it has a few memorable moments, including an okay car crash, and I think someone orders ice cream, which I love in movies. And I think Elton John's Tiny Dancer is playing in the background! Would've loved to have seen this movie projected onto a white sheet in a friend's backyard.

The Last American Hero, with Jeff Bridges!, is a truly idiosyncratic movie, a totally American one that captures well some of the South's less exportable expressions of their famous virtues. Bridges has less room for personal expression and spontaneity in his performance than the actors in the previous movies because the script itself is more vocal about certain convictions. For example: Bridges plays the son of a moonshiner and becomes a Nascar champion, and it's titled The Last American Hero. I love it because Bridges never quite expresses his emotions yet somehow always does, he's always proving something. There's also a tremendously touching scene involving an office lady at a certain race track, who takes a personal interest in the drivers and follows them, supporting them, encouraging them, and sometimes sleeping with them. Sort of an office groupie. She's so sweet in this one bed scene it kills me. She tells a story of a horrible experience at an Atlanta frat party that involves ridicule and shame, and it's the most you learn about the character, so you don't really know who she wants to be, but once her party story is over, you know who she doesn't want to be. She doesn't want to be this person she once was. She isn't going back. It really worked for me. The moonshine and racing aspect and Bridges character were pretty interesting and easy to follow, though also formulaic, for example the same basic story is told in Robert Mitchum's earlier Thunder Road. Would've loved to have watched this one on a shitty tv in some third-rate hellhole hotel in the south, with a hooker, and pizza.

The films which brought me to the point of satiation were last night's Lee's Do The Right Thing (watched She's Gotta Have It earlier, a charming, wonderful movie) and this other 70s American movie set in the south, Macon County Line. It's at mid-point between Aloha, Bobby and Rose and The Last American Hero. Two Chicago brothers spend a few weeks joy riding through the south before Army duty, but by circumstance are involved in a gun battle with a local police officer. It's a homicidal misunderstanding. The film feels like a trip from Los Angeles to the south, and never manages to feel truly Southern, and it's never convincing, straight down to the father (police officer) and son relationship (although crucial for a late-movie moment), but it's always nearing something. For example: the brothers are supposed to be switchblade, hellbent Beach Boys, and that's fine in my book, but that's the most I learn about them, and so they remain only that. The craftsmanship in the final showdown moment is laudable, as is the payoff. Would've loved to have seen in it at a drive-in.

01 October 2010

Max Headroom, Episodes 1-4.

Television audiences today respect the outlining tenets proposed by a show's pilot, I think, I think they accept the interior logic of a show if that logic is conveyed persuasively and followed loyally. A show like Max Headroom could be done really well today. As it is, this episodic show - in its first four episodes, the ones I viewed - consistently commits self-betrayal and violates narrative and real world logic for the sake of cheap entertainment.

It's unfortunate, because the underlying concepts of the show are impressive. "Twenty minutes into the future" major network television stations compete for massive audiences (200 million at a time - assumably the world's population has continued on a precipitous path) and dire financial stakes. The leading network, Channel 23 XXIII, has an ace reporter named Edison who frequently risks personal and professional injury in order to expose corruption, scandal, exploitation, and the like. His show is very popular. It must be a cornerstone of the network because in the very first episode his critical eye turns on his own network: the episode is about him uncovering the tragic, body-exploding consequences of Channel 23's revenue generating blipverts (adverts shown in rapid montage, too quickly for anyone to turn the channel!). People explode because their nervous systems are underused and the accumulating energy from this stagnation is ignited by the mentally intense blipverts.

Max Headroom does an okay job of explaining the bullshit it makes up. A friend of mine recommended this show told me. He described it as prophetic, the way it depicts the pervasiveness of technology in everyday lives, but its representation is far removed from our present reality, and my friend should have told me that the show was prophetic about the way writers would use absurd technological imaginings in order to explain away plotholes in adventurous storylines. Anyway I watched the show because he used the word cyberpunk in his introduction, and there certainly is plenty of cyberpunk weirdness. According to Max Headroom, in the future people will be confused by places called Body Banks - they'll be clueless as to what goes on inside of them. There will be a thriving black market of human organ selling, safely concealed behind the impenetrable veil of the name Body Bank - what goes on in a Body Bank, who knows, the name is so misleading, life is complicated, there are so many people and such violence, no one can stop to figure out these Body Banks. Also, even though Edison's show is massively popular, he has no imitators. Everyone else is complacent, so it really is up to him.

I'm writing myself out of the idea that this show has a strong foundation. There are lots of glaring annoyances like I'm describing. In Episode 2 the youth strap engines onto their skateboards in order to move at the same speed they already do; there is apparently no advantage because the skaters continue to perform inside half-pipes. The magic of the show is that it even attempts to invent these things. Engines on skateboards - that's interesting, isn't it? I've never seen it before, but here it is in Max Headroom.

That's what I mean though, in the television days of Max Headroom you didn't have to think about these things, there was an uncanny suspension of disbelief. Or maybe not - the show only went fourteen or so episodes. Why underestimate the people of the past, why assume they bought this hook, line, and sinker? I doubt anyone thought Get Smart was an intelligent and penetrating expose into the world of spies. Yes, I'm missing the point, and the point is entertainment.

The lack of fixed rules and a sense of reality inhibits my ability to enjoy the show. Television, like film, is fundamentally manipulative, and almost always a lie, but when you misshape your show's design for the sake of a single episode, you betray your own set of lies, and destroy some of the bridges you've formed with your audience. Sometimes rules are betrayed for subversive means, but in Max Headroom it's always for dramatic purposes, and that cheapens the entertainment because it's hard for me to value what they themselves don't. For example, this spontaneous rule making applies also to Channel 23. It's headache inducing to examine how this station is supposedly run - the autonomous Max Headroom, whom I haven't even yet explained, and won't, supposedly goes live on the air at any moment, interrupting whatever else was on. According to this show, in the future there won't be television programming or scheduling, just whims and chaos.

In each episode Edison is put in a perilous situation, but in each episode he escapes. There's not much weight to his danger, then, and there certainly isn't an escalating sense of danger over a course of several episodes. Each episode has its little threats and its unique reasons with little communication between the episodes. These qualities do help keep the show fun. The dialogue is sometimes very snappy, and the camera is extraordinarily mobile for a television show. The characters are sharply defined, and the social backdrop is vibrant and compelling. Some of its central questions are meaningful, and its objectives are worthwhile. If only the created world of Max Headroom had been cherished. A great movie, with a little love and attention, could be made from the first episode alone.