Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Shade Against Dark Blue that is Mystical Flamingo

Black Narcissus (1947)
directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

My favorite scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark occurs after Indy secures the headpiece to the Staff of Ra and visits the house of a scholar in Egypt for translation. In some ways, the set is the film's most flagrantly artificial: an antique clutter of telescopes, lanterns, dusty books, and a decrepit man in a tunic. The sky outside the window at the back of the room doesn't look like the moon over the desert so much as a painting, but at the moment of the translation's completion, the ominous wind that stirs out of nowhere is as eerie as anything else in the film.

No movie is as artificial as Black Narcissus, but nothing shot "on location" could be better. There is nothing like Technicolor for candlelight on a starry night, or composite shots of great ringing bells and endless Himalayan valleys, or faces - faces like demons, lit from beneath or from deep within - either in close-up or ringed by a thousand miles of clear sky. And the wind! At a whisper, or a gale, or a long, sad moan. I am often thrilled by movies, but rarely does my heart race. That occasional flicker in the three-strip Technicolor is like embers at the end of the perfect campfire - an elemental, magic warmth that turns one's mind to distant galaxies. Black Narcissus is one of the medium's great experiences, and the real world simply isn't as wonderful when it's over.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Secret History, Secret Tombs

Arabian Nights (1974)
directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

It's probably impossible to separate a movie like Arabian Nights from Pasolini's political interests, as it's my understanding that politics were his chief artistic preoccupation. But insofar as a moral exists, it is a simplistic one, filtered through a courtly indifference to the will of the individual, subverted by sumptuous, languid pleasure above all else. Sex - acquiescence, denial - is the same as love, and lovers stumble towards their hearts' desires blindly (even by the relaxed standards of ancient erotic fiction). Women are raped, men are castrated, but the fantastic torpor in the air makes the act a game played for the amusement of kings.

The best reason to see it, though, is its locations. Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Nepal: Africa, the Near East, and the Far East as an Arabian continent of the mind. If nothing else, Pasolini connects the dots between the average travel documentary's slightly leering intentions and actual pornography, though the amateur actors at play beneath palm trees and in the dark of cool rooms show nothing on their faces but bemusement. If, as one character claims, the whole truth is never revealed in one dream, but many, then this fragmented 2,500 mile tale is a lovely but inadequate piece of the puzzle.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Winter Light

Fanny and Alexander - The Television Version (1982)
directed by Ingmar Bergman
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The Bluths of Orange County are a lot like the Ekdahls of Sweden, with failings large and small. One needs to see the worst of them - brother Carl berating his wife for the better part of one of the film's five acts, or the family's decision to let Emilie leave at all - to make the funny moments shine. Otherwise the negotiations between the surviving Ekdahl sons and Edvard Vergerus would be nothing but a demonstration of dramatic anger, instead of the give and take that adjusts, once again, our compassion for Carl and even sympathy for the Bishop.

Best of all, it is a great movie about kids. The title itself, as others have pointed out, says much about Bergman's attention to them and to details. Fanny, who appears in most scenes beside her brother, says almost nothing in the space of five hours. But she is the reason, even more than her mother, that Alexander rebels in the ways he does, and fights back when he would otherwise admit defeat, and wins, in the end, his fractured freedom. She is there for him, and he for her. Even the ghosts that drift and moan in Alexander's ear have imperatives beside their own misery: in the case of the dead sisters, a game with the boy that replaced them, or for Oscar Ekdahl, the unexpected wish of his son to please get along to heaven and leave him alone.

The magic that Alexander takes for granted and fears remains a mystery, even with time between episodes to talk it over, and Bergman explains his horrors only by piling more daring feats of sorcery atop minor tricks of the eye. He devotes entire rooms, and then houses, to the occult and the dead, who achieve their odd ends in odd ways; there is more loneliness in that mummy's turn of the skull than even Imhotep achieved, but power, too. As a movie about winter, Fanny and Alexander does two things. One, it gives us ghosts, and restores the heightened senses of October nights to the first cold and feeble months of the new year. Two, it ends in summer, with daylight, and ushers us through gray days into green.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Astral Zombies

Planet of the Vampires (1965)
directed by Mario Bava
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

With only a soundstage to film, Bava doesn't make as much of his low budget as he does with a location shoot in play. The spaceship where the movie begins is run like the switchboard at Sterling Cooper, with Brylcreemed men cracking jokes at the helm while a beautiful receptionist loses track of a mysterious communication. The travelers aren't human, but they look it, and when they reach the surface of the fog-shrouded planet, I hoped for an eerie atmosphere to save the day. I was disappointed; "strange behavior" besets the crew, but sometimes a plaster rock is just a set, and a primary color scheme is just a cluster of lights.

That said, Planet of the Vampires (there are no vampires, by the way) is an important movie for fans of Alien to see. Dan O'Bannon clearly did, and the half dozen credited screenwriters of Vampires cobbled together a surprisingly cohesive, indefinite sci-fi puzzle that includes, among other things, an enormous alien skeleton in the cockpit of a crashed alien ship. Did it respond to the same beacon as our hapless crew? Where did it come from? And can H. R. Giger design bones that look a little less human-like?

Remakes are tricky, and I, for one, don't advocate a blanket hold on the process. Where would Ripley be without them?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Drift

The Keep (1983)
directed by Michael Mann
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

On paper, The Keep looks like Michael Mann's masterpiece. In 1941, a Nazi regiment is sent to guard a mountain pass in the Carpathian Alps; they are warned by Romanian villagers of the evil in the keep where the soldiers set up camp, but these are Nazis, and they kill three villagers in a firing squad to demonstrate what Germans think of local folklore. When I was ten, Gabriel Byrne played a pirate in Shipwrecked, and ever since, I've had a soft spot for the guy. Scott Glenn is a poor man's Lance Henriksen, but Lance is one of my favorite actors, and who wouldn't cast Ian McKellen as a crippled professor tempted by the promise of restored youth if she could?

The Keep begins with those three names, rolling thunder, and a dark night. The soundtrack - by Near Dark's Tangerine Dream - builds slowly, as tanks roll in on an incredible rural village set hemmed in by high cliffs. Fear seeps out from beneath door frames like fog. It's just like The Fog, in fact, making cinematographer Alex Thomson the poor man's Dean Cundey. Thomson is the hero, really, forced to navigate an increasingly erratic, confused plot that makes hash of the lovely simplicity of that initial narrative. Eventually, one Nazi officer berates another about madness and power, the moral point emerges that two wrongs don't make a right, and the only female in the film is reduced to a sexual interlude for holy warrior Glenn, who wants to feel human for the length of one nude scene.

But good lord, if you could have heard the superlatives I muttered to myself throughout that first half: its sense of scale, its atmosphere, that tracking shot back from the mouth of a cave to its deepest depths. Glenn's boat ride from the coast of Greece into the Black Sea is the stuff I see in dreams, and Thomson gives it mystery and color. With a great DP and the right premise, you can carry me pretty far down the river, but not, as it turns out, all the way.

Still, watch those first 45 minutes before Netflix takes them back. If Richard Donner is famous for 50% Superman, Mann can be king for The Keep.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

If You Can Afford It, If You Can Shoot, and If You Can Drink

My Name Is Nobody (1973)
directed by Tonino Valerii
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Ten minutes of My Name Is Nobody were filmed at Acoma Pueblo, and I'd guess that what separates the work of director Tonino Valerii from his producer, Sergio Leone (also uncredited behind the lens, according to IMDB), is that Valerii's Western interests are specific, not general. That scene at Acoma is breathtaking; the first shot is a crane shot that drops down to follow Henry Fonda as he winds along the same rain pool that tourists see today. The camera pulls back and takes in the entire great sweep of valley, and lingers long enough to watch clouds color and darken the far floor.

The movie is a comedy, but Valerii is a romantic with clear things to say about age and myth. Fonda's last stand is in New Orleans, on a street with St. Louis Cathedral behind him. The crane comes back and takes everything from the Mississippi River to Jackson Square in its arms. "Nobody" is a rascal who aspires to be the justified gunslinger embodied by Fonda's Jack Beauregard, but all Beauregard wants to do is retire. Backed by one of Ennio Morricone's best scores, the two fight their way from New Mexico to Louisiana, from a hall of mirrors in a carnival funhouse to a train track massacre told entirely with still images, like La Jetée.

There's plenty of slapstick - a lot of it funny - and sometimes the thread of the plot gets lost, but take the railroad fight, for example. It begins with a 360 degree pan of the foothills of one of those Spanish land grants out there, a two-minute drift just to soak in the emptiness and beauty of the place. When offered a bribe to live like a king until he's 100, Fonda - 68 when this was made - replies, "I don't intend to get that old." But he takes the bribe anyway, and thinks on it later in a pea coat and watch cap, sitting on the deck of a boat in the Big Easy.

Hardly perfect, but an essential Western in spite of its faults, if only for the homoerotic final frame that reinvents those close-up eyes as the love story behind Valerii's love for the land.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Yours Truly

Sans Soleil (1983)
directed by Chris Marker
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

Sans Soleil is like W. G. Sebald or Jean-Luc Godard without Godard's explicit love for the movies. Sans Soleil wouldn't be as good as it is if Marker wasn't a sucker for Vertigo, but memory and its obligations preoccupy him, and images represent his effort to make sense of the past. For Marker, memory is fiction; in life, as in Hitchcock's masterpiece, it is impossible to live with memory without falsifying it.

Sans Soleil wanders across continents, and a woman relays observations framed by her relationship with a man meant to be Chris Marker, but named something else. This man finds comfort in the taste of fresh donuts and remarks that youth is not wasted on the young. "They wanted to give a political meaning to their generosity," says the narrator, "and their generosity has outlasted their politics."

Or this: a romance in the past appears at first to be a love forgotten or diminished, but is instead a case of the heart in love but removed from now, and therefore disembodied and adrift in time. I appreciate the fullness of that sentiment, and it is nice to have someone give voice to the idea. Directors like Chris Marker are acutely aware that the people they film will look the way they do only for the duration of the shoot. When I watch La Jetée or Days of Being Wild, I do not revisit 1962 or 1990 so much as part the sheen to find that disembodied heart still beating.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Even Inland Empire

Flying Down to Rio (1933)
directed by Thornton Freeland
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

The heir to some dull fortune chooses to be a band leader instead, palling around America with Fred Astaire and the "Yankee Clippers." When not in front of a microphone, our hero flies airplanes and keeps a piano inside the cockpit in the event of inspiration. Because of his involvement with the female guests who show up to dance, Roger Bond - nonchalance intact - gets his company kicked out of every Coconut Grove from Los Angeles to Miami, and they're forced to try their luck in sunny Rio de Janeiro.

Not a bad life, and although Flying to Rio is best remembered as the first time Fred Astaire asked Ginger Rogers for a number, my money is on the slow introduction to the song they share, with Brazilian musicians trickling in one instrument at a time. Merian C. Cooper, in addition to serving in the Polish Air Force and on the first Board of Directors at Pan Am, underwrote Rio at RKO in part because he wanted to put pretty girls on the wings of biplanes and watch them dance in the clouds. There are some amazing sets - a brass band suspended above the dance floor as if from a hot air balloon, or six pianos arranged like a pinwheel played over a rotating floor while Astaire and Rogers dance on top in the opposite direction - but nothings beats the air-devil sequence for excess and glee.

At one point, Astaire is literally framed by the breasts of one extra and the thigh of another, and it struck me that this, at last, was the first great Barry Hannah adaptation. It's the spirit of the thing, way back when: slurred speech and lovers who parachute out of floatplanes to give their women the freedom they deserve. "Is she saying she wants me so much she'd pay for a plane to my yard? Or is she saying: Look at this, I never gave a damn for anything but fun in the air?"

Monday, January 17, 2011

Victim of Circumstance

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
directed by Milos Forman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

When I'm not sure how I should feel about a film from the seventies, I imagine the same movie made forty years earlier under the direction of Frank Capra or Preston Sturges. Is the "common man" angle I like so much in You Can't Take it With You appealing to me only because of the movie's age? Is my affection for Sullivan's Travels a double standard in light of the superficial melodrama of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

The thing is, if I went forward in time another fifteen years, wouldn't Dead Poets Society be the closest point of comparison? Or Forman's own Man on the Moon? And wouldn't I laugh Sean Penn out of the room in the wake of his Oscar for a portrayal of a sane hero committed to an asylum?

If you told me that there was a film from 1975 in which Brad Dourif, Jack Nicholson, and Christopher Lloyd play the Three Stooges opposite a deaf and dumb Indian as the straight man, I'd watch it immediately. If instead, you tried to sell me a movie my parents liked that addressed mental illness more generously than it had been treated by movies they'd seen in the past, I'd put it at the end of my queue and make sure a rainy day never caught me with a short list. It's fun to witness Jack mimic masturbation while trying to impress his insanity on observing psychiatrists, but the same could be said for anything he's been in, and a lot of the rest are better.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Your Thanks This Side of 40

Party Down - Season Two (2010)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Banjo

Hey, did everyone know that a better-than-bootlegged copy of Deadhead Miles is available to stream "instantly" on Netflix? If I ever join the 21st century with a new TV and Blu-Ray player, that might be half the reason right there.

The second season of Party Down can be seen in the same format, apparently, but I caught it over Christmas on DVD instead. I didn't laugh at anything during the holidays the way I laughed at "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday," and I don't even like it when shows make G-list celebrities the center of attention. Anyway, he isn't, or no more than any of the catering company's Johns (Steves?). Regardless of guest stars, the spotlight belongs to the regulars, abetted in their creators' belief that luck is an opportunity that good people sometimes get, and sometimes don't.

If Party Down was a one season show, I wouldn't rush to recommend it. That's a lie. Everyone deserves more Martin Starr. Everything that makes him such a true, unlikable nerd is back in season two, but the writers find a better way to play to the strengths of his deficiencies. The friendship between Henry and Ron runs deeper, Uda retains the sweet calm of her oddly compelling personality, and the core cast - even in a room full of strangers - interacts like so many kids in love.

Romance is tricky and funny television almost impossible to find, but children and drugs and Lizzy Caplan will set you on the right path home.