Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kid You're a Case

The Slumber Party Massacre (1986)
directed by Amy Holden Jones
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

The 76-minute Slumber Party Massacre was written by Rita Mae Brown as a parody of the slasher genre but filmed by Jones (at the behest of her producers) straight down the line. It begins with a tracking shot along the length of a palm tree while a kid delivers papers at sunrise. The protagonist - one of two - stands naked in front of a mirror, then puts the stuffed animals from her bed into a plastic bag to take out to the trash.

Women occupy the usual men's roles, as coach, telephone repair technician, or jack of all trades. The killer is a man whose identity is revealed early on but proves irrelevant. He is persistent and matter-of-fact with his work; the body count is unusually high.

I think this is what I wanted Jennifer's Body - another horror film written and directed by two women - to be. The girls are flirtatious, but beyond their outrageous talk about basketball ("I love all those great big guys in their little shorts!") or breast size ("You know, I think your tits are getting bigger!") they converse in a casual way that feels completely genuine to the adolescent experience. If there is a hook beyond the promise of nudity and ongoing gore, it concerns the new girl at school, who is pretty but despised by her teammates and elects to stay at home with her sister, conveniently next door to the all-night soiree.

Val and her sis read fashion and gossip magazines, then take turns scaring one another with the same set of trash cans outside. Each girl's jealousy or resentment cuts deeper than the usual small talk ("You were beating off boys in the fifth grade!"), and the speed with which they turn from enemies to partners rings true as sibling rivalry. I don't want to make too much of it, and my enthusiasm might be what a month away from a month's worth of horror films does to a guy in late November, but I wish that more movies were just like this.

Take the neighbor, Mr. Contant, who certainly looks scarier than the killer. An average creep with an "easy living" California quality about him, he's done in by the guy with the power drill while hunting snails with a cleaver in the dark. The actress who played Val is beautiful and died young, but don't let a sad story dissuade you.

"Since I'm the only one dressed, I'll go get wood for the fire!"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You Know How the French Love Shadows

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
directed by Paul Schrader
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

I wanted to piece together something interesting to say about American Zoetrope, since this and The Black Stallion are the only films produced by the studio (before One from the Heart bankrupted it) not directed by Francis Ford Coppola or George Lucas. Like One from the Heart, Mishima is a soundstage movie. Eiko Ishioka, the production designer, went on to create those marvelous costumes for Dracula. And Lucas is a billionaire and Coppola makes wine; what is there really to talk about?

Lucas, more than Coppola, seemed indispensable in securing financing for Kagemusha. But Schrader's neon aesthetic is much closer to Coppola's than Lucas's. Were they all just in love with different aspects of Japan? In spite of the color, the sets, the score, Mishima is an average biopic: sympathetic but flat. My favorite moment came when the narrator thinks back to his time in the cockpit of an airplane, when he felt closest to the moment of understanding - to the balance of words and action - that he otherwise believed he must find in death.

There's something to be said for the way that writers born in the 1930s and 1940s used to think of flying as a romantic ideal. But those dreams, really, were of fighter pilots in the two World Wars - men in leather caps and scarves. When jets appeared, I suppose they embodied the limits of the mental pursuit made physical, but there was no place to go from there, unless it was outer space, a genre that men like Mishima shied from. People my age have spent our lives being less and less impressed by planes, which at this point are simply blunt exercises in physics.

Good thing a rewatch of Porco Rosso is about due.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Little Birdies Know By Now

Red Desert (1964)
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

On one hand, Red Desert can't be a movie about alienation because every frame is a love letter to Monica Vitti. But Vitti, one of the most beautiful women in cinema, is also a great actor. She and Antonioni aren't playing at the neuroses of the rich, but fighting through a loneliness every bit as sympathetic as a bad day in the life of someone you care about. Their collaborations are in a different league from Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, much closer to John Cassavetes' work with Gena Rowlands but so gorgeously composed that a secret life - gentle, watchful - is always there onscreen.

Antonioni is a humanist but also a lover of movies. He wanted to make a film about Ravenna, a town he knew as a child, because he was interested in the ways the town had changed. People speak of desolation in Red Desert, but it is clear that Antonioni does not see the Port of Corsini that way. In an interview, he says that it is silly to be against progress, since progress is inevitable. Given the choice between an image of trees and a factory, he is in favor of the factory because there are people inside.

Red Desert is Antonioni's first color film, but is so full of fog and the Adriatic Sea that the green of Vitti's coat, or her chestnut hair, spread like ink stains. That Criterion cover is terrible because it gives no indication of Vitti herself, who moves in a way - an everyday, normal sort of way - that makes paintings and photography obsolete. She says to Richard Harris, "If Ugo had looked at me the way you have these last few days, he'd have understood lots of things." About her illness, she means, though Harris isn't there to save her. She is alone, for good and bad, just as the factory is there, or those incredible ships just outside her window, or the ocean.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Love's for Latins"

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
directed by Jim O'Connolly
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I have to say that I'm probably too old to give The Valley of Gwangi the love it deserves. I can share enthusiasm for Ray Harryhausen but I can't pretend that watching a stop-motion dinosaur attack a stop-motion elephant elicits any reaction other than an appreciation for craft. That isn't exactly the spirit of the picture, where the academic anthropologist is a drunk, but you can't see them all on cable as a kid, and I missed a lot. Or, as the protagonist puts it while hiding behind a rock in the desert, "I make it a rule to never shake hands with an anxious man."

The plot is King Kong and Jurassic Park, but the setup involves a fast-talking love-'em-and-leave-'em type by the name of Tuck, played by James Franciscus. If I've seen Franciscus before, I don't remember, and his ex-Yalie look of a playboy gone slightly to seed gives him plenty of charm to sprint to the altar. A Mexico-by-way-of-Spain location throws flamenco guitar and bullfighting into the usual mix of cantinas and sombreros, and a bullring is just intimate enough a real-life location to put spectators within a convincing range of danger from the great Kong Gwangi.

Tuck, in pursuit of an ex-flame and a quick buck, enlists the equally gregarious, similarly shameless youngster Lope to trick a few wandering gypsies into surrendering the lost location of their "Forbidden Valley." Said lesson in geology is a less-forgiving recipe for ranch dressing (har har) but also a place where time stands still. Harryhausen's first stunt is a tiny horse named El Diablo, and with a pretty woman jumping a big horse into an above-ground water tank, we're watching a successful comedy franchise not half an hour in. Frankly, those first thirty minutes were a lot better than I expected, and the rest - well, the rest is wrestling pterodactyls and roping tyrannosaurs. Nothing less, nothing more.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sleep Makes a Long Journey Short

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
directed by Frank Capra
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Carnegie Library

Hopefully this wraps up my inadvertent series on racial intolerance, since I don't think I have it in me to forgive another Swede. This time it's Nils Asther, technically a Dane, beneath the offensive makeup, but at least Barbara Stanwyck is beside him, just the way she was. Nevermind that this was considered an unusual (and poorly received) effort at exploring interracial relationships in a major Hollywood production. Mostly it's lines like this: "That's why China is 2,000 years behind the times!"

The screenplay takes a few stabs at Christian hypocrisy, and Capra is quick to condemn the prevalent expatriate attitudes towards Asia. As fiancée to a missionary, Stanwyck's Megan Davis gets more than one opportunity to join in on the condescension, but opts for female solidarity with the general's mistress instead. It costs them both, and the general, too, but by then the remaining Americans are more or less out of the picture. Babs looks beautiful with her hair out of her face, smoking a cigarette in the humid night air.

You've already guessed that I liked it best for atmosphere, and a paper moon above a pagoda's silhouette. Megan's first dream as a captive is a feverish assault by an Asian Nosferatu that melts into Yen dressed as Green Hornet three years before that character's creation. Her fears mellow with time and exposure, and the last few minutes are touching because they embrace a ceremony that is executed wordlessly. With a breeze in the rigging and one more cigarette between her fingers, Stanwyck says nothing and sails away.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Wish I'd Been Sweeter, That's All

Stars in My Crown (1950)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Stars in My Crown is a kind film paced by meandering conversations between childhood friends. These, in turn, ripple away from the central narration, spoken by the young orphan as an adult. His adopted uncle is a country pastor, and his aunt the woman who marries him. They belong to a town with friends and injustices, and aside from the hymn of the title, there is at least one refrain of "Shall We Gather at the River."

I agree with the IMDb review that remarked how hard it is to "dislike any film with a character named Chloroform." Fathers worry about their sons, sons want to be in other places. Complicated views of rural communities still skew impatient with rich folks and bullies, and the pastor is there to witness it and sort it out as best he can. It feels like a John Ford film with lower historical stakes, but the same shadows are present: the Civil War, racism, larger-than-life heroes by way of a Wild West magic show.

The famous last scene (or infamous, since Josiah invents a black man's final words in dialect) is really about listening, and taking the time to get to know your neighbors well enough to know what's important to them. The life of a freed slave? No. A worn-out shotgun? Yes. Jed and his sons are standing by with weapons of their own, in the event that words don't dissuade the lynch mob, but this is a movie where words do. It's as problematic and touching as the same scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, twelve years later, this time abetted by a Cat People breeze.

Also, apparently actor Jim Beaver writes a lot of plot summaries on IMDb. It put Deadwood in mind again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skin as White as Curd

The Ten Commandments (1956)
directed by Cecil B. DeMille
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I think I expected more in the way of celebrity cameos, but DeMille limits most of the personal drama to a handful of major characters. Not that anyone could top Vincent Price's turn as a "master builder," or the pleasure he takes in plowing down "grease women" with building stones. A greased-up Heston is there to correct and later murder him, all in a bright green headdress.

The Voice of God seems awkward when asked to join in while other men oggle pretty girls. When Moses is given his pick of a shepherd's daughters, that grin of his gets so big that it's indistinguishable from a grimace. A cohort nearly drools beside him, slurring the phrase "a pleasant task" with a leer. Not for Chuck! The best that Heston can muster is one more pained smile as he stammers out an unconvincing "Indeed."

No, the heroes of The Ten Commandments are without a doubt Rameses and Nefretiri. "Better to die in battle with a god than live in shame," says Pharaoh, who alone stands fast while his disloyal advisers quake before parlor tricks. Nefretiri loves Moses enough to kill for him, loves him in spite of the news that turns his uncle's heart against him, loves him as a Hebrew shepherd as much as if he were her king. For her, there is love, which is passion, and nothing else.

Not so Moses, so caught up in tit-for-tat that nothing but more slaughter will satiate him. Even his own people get tired of it, and turn to Edward G. Robinson for an old-fashioned Hollywood Saturday night. Pharaoh's out of the picture by then, probably at home with his brokenhearted queen, wondering why he ever bothered to miss that bearded moralist.

Such a silly story, but DeMille deserves credit for a deft touch. When the angel of death appears like a hand in a green fog around the moon, and families sit and listen to the unnatural murder of firstborn sons in the streets and homes around them, one is aware that nothing is as effective for horror as silence in a crowded city. Rameses asks for his fastest chariot, but we do not see it. We see Moses delivered, walking the marble halls of that endless temple alone, surrounded by silent columns and fires on open braziers.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Carefree, AZ

Zabriskie Point (1970)
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's a part of me that likes that Daria imagines the modern house in Arizona blown to smithereens. The Daria of today would want to live there, but Daria back then prefers the desert. And I actually found the "sand orgy" sequence sort of beautiful, and not at all the awkward posturing that the political conversation at the start of the film led me to expect. When a family pulls up to Zabriskie Point in the wake of all that dusty sex, the blue of the Dodge is startling. They're a likeable group, down to dad's joke that all this empty space would make for a good drive-in.

A documentary about Death Valley wouldn't have any cars in it, but Antonioni sees a visit to the park as inseparable from one's mode of transportation. There is at least half an hour of airplanes and cars in motion, with nowhere to be and only music on the radio. He remains my favorite director for a set of rubber tires. Whatever cultural commentary the terrible script aspires to (I'm looking at you, Sam Shepard), the movie itself is more than content with a pretty girl in an old car who stops to refill her radiator from a bright yellow water tank, and the young man who circles her head in a Cessna for a thrill.

It's interesting that the two co-stars were amateurs and fell in love with one another, and interesting the way that Mark Frechette later died. Daria Halprin married Dennis Hopper, Antonioni made The Passenger, and I think that house outside of Phoenix is now a spa. Once you hit the desert, it doesn't matter.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Virginia is for Ray Liotta

Something Wild (1986)
directed by Jonathan Demme
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Something Wild is the sort of movie that makes me like New York, maybe because the characters spend most of the film in another state. The city is busy with small talk, petty acts, and cheap food. Restaurants are crowded and friendly. There is the sense that every table is full of guests with stories at least as interesting as this one.

I love that the plot hinges on a high school reunion dance because there aren't many real-life events for adults that indulge nostalgia but retain a genuine adolescent optimism. If Demme keeps everything believable by not spreading either the violence or the comedy too thin, Ray Liotta is the secret ingredient, or the toast in this protracted, painful metaphor. He is absurd and sympathetic, and it's to his credit that I thought of Ray Sinclair as "funny" even after the movie devolves into Straw Dogs-lite, thankfully without the rape.

But while Something Wild is a nice reminder that taking the afternoon off is never that big of a deal, it's still a movie about one more yuppie realizing what he missed by wasting his twenties behind a desk at the bank. Everyone's a little crazier in Wild at Heart, but Sailor goes to jail. Ray Sinclair is more Sailor than Bobby Peru; Ray, not Charles, should wind up with Lulu in the end, and a better script would make that possible.

Demme won't even let Charles Driggs cheat on his wife, a red herring early on. Charles didn't abandon his kids and he isn't an irresponsible father. There isn't a single reason to dislike him (I'm even a Jeff Daniels fan) - and that's why I dislike him. If nothing else, watch it for John Waters' cameo as a used car salesman and a lesson in expression and a well-timed grin.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

She's a Weekend and a Monday

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Anna Karina came from Denmark and learned to speak French when she arrived, on her own, in Paris, at the age of 17. She changed her name and appeared in advertisements but did not undergo the choreographed transformation from model to movie star that American actresses like Lauren Bacall were famous for. In interviews at the time, Karina is approachable but vague, and aside from her beauty, not especially memorable.

The men in Vivre Sa Vie might just as well not exist at all, and although each of them contributes in some way to Nana's unhappiness, it isn't unhappiness that we're left with at the end. Talking about Godard is difficult because so much of what a person can say about him seems to be said at the expense of other films. If the camera is "playful," then How the West Was Won, released that same year, must be a relic. He deserves a less relative context.

I guess I get around it by talking about Raoul Coutard, the man who didn't marry Anna Karina but must have loved her. He does not so much watch for the natural, open light of Paris as follow helplessly as Karina wanders on a whim from park to shaded parlor. Godard both loved and married her, but his own affection is indistinguishable from what his cinematographer sees. Isn't it? Is Karina looking at Coutard, at her husband, or at us?

After Vivre Sa Vie, I didn't think of movie stars the same way, and I began to see the girls I already knew as avatars of an impermanent world. None of them are famous today and likely as not, only photographs exist to show them at 22. They missed their chance to be like Anna Karina, but Anna Karina did not, and watching this movie, one thinks of her as a memory that, against all odds, it is possible to physically return to. Which is why it is such a comfort, and why Godard was so good: no past and no future in a movie like this. Only facets of the people we know.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forgive Me, Forgive Me, Forgive Me

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
directed by Rouben Mamoulian
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Mamoulian and this film seem like relics from a hidden path deep in the woods - an alternate trajectory of the direction that movies might have gone. It is a supremely confident example of craft and atmosphere, full of life, and so unlike most early sound films in its brashness and elegance that it deserves to be compared with the masterpieces of those years. Karl Struss, the cinematographer, shot both Sunrise and Island of Lost Souls. He was also DP on The Story of Temple Drake, a famous Miriam Hopkins performance that should not be more famous than this one.

Where to begin with Ms. Hopkins? I feel like I worked backwards with her, from Design for Living, which I first saw in college, to this, more than a decade later. Jekyll and Hyde is a good place to start, since it would be nice to see how light she could be in those Lubitsch films after so much suffering here. Hyde is terrible, terrible. He moves like Jack Kirby's Demon and really rubs Ivy's face in her own helplessness. Around her it rains, and gutters fill to overflowing.

I still haven't read the book, but Jekyll doesn't commit suicide this time around. He is horrified but not, in the end, sorry, and so tries to save himself with a breathless lie that is quickly debunked by a friend. The police gun him down, poor justice for his victims. But goodness, what an enchanted little world he lived in, with figures at the windows and such clean lines through a city of shadows and fog. That opening POV, Ivy in her bed, and Fredric March, the future Tom Chambers, as the vulgar and insatiable id: dream denizens all, at the edge of a fitful, unquiet sleep.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Anybody can make a bunch of flowers!"

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
directed by George Pal
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

To begin, I'm not okay with the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan adaptations of the 1930s. In both, Asian characters written by American authors are portrayed by, respectively, Peter Lorre and Warner Oland. I don't like that Henry Brandon, a German-born actor, painted himself up as Scar, a Comanche, in The Searchers. There are a hundred - a thousand - examples of these minor racist caricatures in films, and it's easy not to mention them because there are so many things about The Searchers worth discussing instead. But I love movies and they are full of bad stereotypes, and from time to time it is important for me to say so.

Here, Dr. Lao, the protagonist and heart of the film, is played by Tony Randall, an actor you probably recognize, as I did, "from TV." There is an "adviser of magic" in the credits and a funny joke in which a spurned suitor refers to a mourning dress as "widow's weeds." 7 Faces of Dr. Lao concerns a small Western town about to be swindled by a local land baron with insider information about water and trains. Like his fellow residents, Clint Stark is neither happy nor satisfied. Dr. Lao's carnival imparts a lesson about wisdom and revenge to each; hearts are softened, boys become men.

The movie is gentle, if misguided, and even its antagonist can be redeemed. Lao speaks of the dignity of man, and beneath his improbable big top in the desert, characters from myth and legend - Merlin, Pan, Medusa - stalk about and compel citizens to action. Among oddities that include the Abominable Snowman as a ticket-taker, Barbara Eden, the not-yet-merry widow, finds herself ravaged by the god of the wild to the point of visible perspiration. Lao says that charlatans are "secretive rather than mysterious," a nice synopsis - if someone else delivered it. Lao is the most prominent of Randall's seven performances, so you can't say that he didn't know what he was getting himself into.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Catastrophe of the Simplon Express

Fantômas - À l'ombre de la guillotine (1913)
Juve contre Fantômas (1913)
Le mort qui tue (1913)
Fantômas contre Fantômas (1914)
Le faux magistrat (1914)
directed by Louis Feuillade
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Whenever Fantômas strikes and his crime - an unconscious bellhop, a stolen string of pearls - is discovered, Feuillade floods the frame with witnesses. Maids pour into the room with clerks and the concierge. Men walk in from off the street. All react to the name of Fantômas like an ocean surge carried a thousand miles.

Each episode begins with a rogues gallery of the false identities that Fantômas will assume to thwart the good citizens of Paris. His direct address to the camera reminds me how effective breaking the fourth wall can be, mostly because these old prints make every bearded criminal look like a portrait of Rasputin. Inspector Juve, a clever opponent in the Paris police department, chain smokes and frets and can never keep the cuffs on.

I liked the movies best when they came closest to a magic show: Fantômas escapes because he's wearing false arms, or the Inspector simply disappears into a well-disguised hole in a field. At one point, Fantômas dons a pair of gloves made from someone else's hands, enabling him to leave a murdered man's prints on every broken window in France. When Fantômas impersonates an American detective, he names himself Tom Bob, and when he crashes a train to distract the Inspector, there isn't a survivor left on board. He seduces heiresses, then destroys them, bribes jailers and executes actors in his place. He is a sociopath with style.

But the elements that seem most surprising in Fantômas - À l'ombre de la guillotine, whether structurally or as part of the plot, don't evolve, and in that sense this serial feels like an early television show more than a film franchise. Fantômas escapes in the end - French philosophy, you know - but he is at his best when Juve is most confident of his capture. Arrested outside a Montmartre night club, Fantômas gives Juve the slip and returns to the bar to finish a bottle of champagne with two beautiful companions. Juve is embarrassed but proud.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I Only Hunt in Wind and Rain

The Haunted Castle (1921)
directed by F. W. Murnau
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

This was something of a risk, since the title suggested it might be better next October. But I've been tricked by misleading titles before, especially in silent German cinema (I'll think of an example later). Also, those Mayans might know a thing or two yet, so I hedged my bets. Good thing, too, since a single scene is all that Murnau teases to let you know that Nosferatu is only a year away.

It turns out that the castle is only "haunted" by an uninvited guest who wants to clear his name for murder. No one at the party believes an acquittal handed down by the court was fair, since Count Oetsch is a nobleman and of course a rich man can always buy his innocence. His confidence keeps him bright with a sense of humor, telling jokes and lighting cigarettes from a candle atop the dining room table.

People disappear, but mostly to mope or relive the past in a confessional set up by a traveling priest from Rome. Someone has heard that Oetsch learned "prophecy in India," but it doesn't go anywhere, exotically speaking. With a fall hunt hindered by nasty weather, most of the men sit in a cavernous parlor and play cards in pairs.

Oetsch becomes the hero, in a way, for wanting to keep his fortune and not squander it on the poor like the victim in question, his brother. Clouds of cigarette smoke and bad tonsures come and go, but stay awake for the "Dreams" section and you'll get your reward: a long hand through the curtains of an open window, reaching in to strangle a man in his sleep. Impossibly long, as in Coppola's Carpathian taxi just as Dracula gets under way.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Nudity Clause

Eastern Promises (2007)
directed by David Cronenberg
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In retrospect, I can see why a man so obsessed with the more grotesque aspects of biological matter would be attracted to a fictionalized account of the vory v zakone. What better mainstream platform for "body horror" than vengeful, violent criminals? The opening scene, in which a young man with an intellectual disability hacks through a victim's neck with a straight edge razor, clicked into place like the world's easiest jigsaw puzzle.

Did Cronenberg and Viggo agree behind everyone else's back to play it as a comedy? Is my attraction to Naomi Watts still so much goodwill from Mulholland Dr.? I did like the moment when her old-world uncle makes a racist generalization about black men, but Anna waits for her mother to come to her defense with a misguided rejoinder ("But he was a doctor!") before getting angry - at mom. On a motorcycle with Viggo in a hospital gown behind her, I have to say she's still got it.

Generally speaking, mob movies, like this blog, are plagued by inflated self-regard. It would be nice if more directors approached them as genre films without wanting to "elevate" the genre to something else. The bathhouse scene is a great example; why not put a naked man in a knife fight? It felt like a horror movie, not because it was scary or supernatural, but because it was fun. Silly, goofy fun.

Drive, He Said (1971)
directed by Jack Nicholson
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

I want to be careful about blaming Jack Nicholson for this mess, but it did feel like the unhappy revelation that the cool guy you want to be friends with isn’t as fun as you thought. Male nudity here includes one more shower sequence and an episode involving a draft-dodger releasing lab animals while naked. Between conversations about “diseased culture” and the campus basketball star picking fights on the court, the counter-culture trend of 1971 is alive and well.

Problem is, there are few narrative angles in movies more dated than disaffected political fomentation. Make the professor open-minded about his adulterous wife, let the hippie be a misogynist, and keep the cheerleader naked half the time, and all you’ve got are three more drips in rainy Eugene, Oregon. The part of me that respected Nicholson for not putting himself in front of the camera yearned for a well-timed twitch of physical comedy. No part for a thirteen-year old New Yorker?

Nothing doing. If it didn’t have to culminate in the attempted rape of Karen Black, I could at least let Drive, He Said slide as a sincere, if tone deaf, imitation of the era’s trendiest disenchantment. As it is, forget it. Remind me of those Hollywood afternoons with Anjelica by your side before I get cynical, Jack.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Drinking Song of Earth's Misery

The Holy Mountain (1926)
directed by Arnold Fanck
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

With that late October snowstorm seven days of blue skies behind me, it was time to remind myself what I’m in for come January with this most famous example of the German “mountain” genre. Fanck loved the outdoors and films Leni Riefenstahl as if she is equal to nature’s geologic wonders: the surge of ocean and strut of peaks. Each morning she dances, careless and full of emotion, and each night she performs at a place in the city. A visiting engineer from the hills falls in love with her, and she with him. He gives her a flower and owns a plain white cottage in a vale.

I am always amazed by the modernity of these silent Teutonic tragedies. Too bad the director and star became Nazis in the end. The affair evolves to include the puppy love of a young outdoorsman, and this, it seems, is first an excuse to film men on skis, careening through meadows and leaping over cliffs. But it opens the door to jealousy, better suited to winter winds. Fanck makes alpine competition a wonder of fresh air even as he suggests that the race, taken at speed, robs the mountains of their mysteries. In that sense, the engineer is his stand-in, wandering out alone for days.

It all ends badly when the male protagonist hauls his cohort up the north face of a particularly dangerous ascent and realizes, too late, that murder wasn’t really what he had in mind. Freezing to death on the noble end of a rope with a corpse at the other gives him time to dream of a palace made of ice where he and Diotima could be happy. When the sun finally rises, it seems so lovely that he steps off into thin air to greet it. The movie mistakenly suggests his last act shares qualities of loyalty with the resolute and unyielding mountain, when petty jealousy got a good man killed. In German film as in American foreign policy, no retroactive justification for bad decisions!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Boardwalk, Beach, and Sea

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
directed by Bob Rafelson
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

In some ways these independent 1970s productions are completely predictable. "Oh, an Atlantic City low-life dreams of an island paradise? Let me guess, the dream doesn't come true." But The King of Marvin Gardens is so self-assured, so confident, that I was taken aback by its riches. Each scene is a revelation, a minor and beautiful thing, settling softly on the others like fresh snow.

I'll begin with Julia Anne Robinson, who died in an apartment fire two years later and never appeared in another film. There's a moment alone with Jack Nicholson when she apologizes for his brother's behavior but lets him know that she's as caught up in it as the rest of them. To forgive her would imply she'd made a mistake, so Nicholson does not condescend to do so. They just look at each other and smile. Later, on the dark stage where she tap-dances while David emcees, he shares the life, warm and full, in his brother's unsatisfactory arrangement.

It's too obvious to be in love with the actress with a single role, so I'll be in love with Ellen Burstyn, too, and Bruce Dern, and the scope of his scheme. Nicholson, incredibly, is eclipsed by each of them, but I love the meeting he gets with Scatman Crothers at the back of Lewis' nightclub, a scene without intimidation or anger, frank and clear-eyed and sad. It's up to Jason to do himself in, since even Lewis likes him, in his way. David's last monologue seems redundant, since we've seen it so beautifully onscreen, but it doesn't matter, it's a lovely film.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Steam Press, Back Door

My Brother's Wedding (1983)
directed by Charles Burnett
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

The day-to-day vignettes, from fathers exhorting the younger generation to go back to Mississippi and work like mules, to that wordless, beautiful introduction of Pierce's romantic interest in the doorway of his parents' dry cleaning shop, seem more relevant to Burnett's characters than the larger story that Pierce moves through. Small scenes are warm and gentle, like when a woman places a call to Natchez to tell relatives that someone died. Each time the teenage girl appears to flirt with Pierce, or Pierce meets up with his date, we're aware of the repetitions that add up to a life.

Pierce is often bored, or frustrated, but I don't think that either of the plot's major narratives - the death of a friend or a brother's wedding - add much to his conflict but melodrama. Not that death is uncommon, or should be in stories, but Burnett does so much with Pierce alone, and the family and circle of friends he regularly encounters, that the stark examples of an upwardly mobile sibling and trouble-plagued pal are like tromping around a canoe in combat boots. The two hour running time at least lets everything settle down, ironing out the more obvious creases.

Still, it's a fine movie. From the random men who appear at the dry cleaners to complain or offer advice to that murmur of a chase along Arlington Avenue, most scenes let you pay attention to the color photography, to faces, and to the passage of time. The end of the country is right there, but as in Killer of Sheep, no one ever sees the ocean. Someone supposedly connected with the production mentioned in an Amazon customer review that the pace of a 35mm film is different from a 16mm film, and that the amateur cast is more obvious here than in Killer of Sheep. I agree but think that the script - relative to the fiancée and her family especially - reads flat sometimes.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

They're Dreaming of Oceans

A Safe Place (1971)
directed by Henry Jaglom
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

This is what I always imagine the "foreign films" that my sister knows I watch look like in her mind's eye. She would add that the movie is silent and in black-and-white, neither of which, in this case, is true. It forms a dim view of my interests, but sisters are like that.

On the surface, I'd say my sister was right. Close-ups of Tuesday Weld looking right at the camera, Orson Welles in Central Park practicing illusions, Jack Nicholson chomping through a hot dog on a rooftop with the city behind him: movie heaven! Nicholson has never been an actor whose performances suggest he'd rather be someplace else, but here his fidgety ticks make him a nervous hound before the hunt. "What else do you want me to say up here, Henry? Want me to kiss her again?"

But there's too much of that already, too much improvised dialogue, and too many icky themes from the early 1970s, like emotionally damaged women reciting rape fantasies and sexual partners nobly accepting the freedom of open relationships. Tuesday Weld is beautiful, sure, but she plays the sort of person who never lets the friend she's with be right about anything. Her conversations inevitably devolve into anecdotes about her past, and these, before long, lead to tears.

I suppose I stuck it out for Orson's sake, thinking of those USO stories, and Marlene Dietrich "cut to ribbons" at a magic show. Not the same. Five minutes, at most, onscreen. Comme ci, comme ça.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Ocean Salt and Desert Sand

A Colt Is My Passport (1967)
directed by Takashi Nomura
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Jô Shishido's cheek augmentation surgery and subsequent career reinvention is one of the great movie star stories. I happen to think he looks like a chipmunk, but it makes his characters' identities as loners more appealing, since he isn't a secretly handsome leading man like Bogart or Belmondo. A Colt Is My Passport is like wanting to drink a beer and finding that the beer is exactly what you expected. "I'm looking forward to a cold can of beer when I get home this evening," you say to yourself. True to your expectations, you are refreshed and satisfied. A can of suds.

If what you want is a stylish Japanese gangster movie shot in black and white, this is your number. Its derivative but winning score convinced me that Ennio Morricone composed my all-time favorite movie soundtracks. There is nothing else like them, and nothing that encapsulates the entertainment value of a great movie better.

There is no obligation in Morricone's music, nothing owed to the past except an appreciation and respect for stories. It is lusty stuff, like Vikings would sing, but tempered with the craft of that traveling instrument, the guitar. Any man can whistle, and does so often on a road or a job alone. These elements converge - a secret history of hard luck and true hearts - and feel as solid as the earth beneath your feet. As permanent and frivolous as the wind.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

My Pacified Pacific

Meek's Cutoff (2010)
directed by Kelly Reichardt
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Even Dead Man fell back on the "minority figure helps white guy find grace" cliche, and people talked about Jim Jarmusch as if he'd reinvented the western. But Dead Man is a great movie anyway (I'm still waiting on that bear coat before I dress up as Blake next Halloween*), and it's okay for its uniqueness to flourish within the boundaries of a well-established genre. I don't mind open-ended narratives or movies that forgo the traditional arc of a "well-told story," but Meek's Cutoff is better described by what it isn't than what it is, and that's a problem. Not a disaster, just a problem.

The mere presence of an Indian (stuntman Rod Rondeaux, who is not asked to perform a stunt) makes this a movie with a message, no matter how unwilling Reichardt seems to be to commit to what, exactly, that message is. That settlers don't understand Native American culture? That there's a heck of a lot of wilderness out west? The heroes of the film - thoughtful Emily and Soloman Tetherow - can play conscientious and considerate while the bad guy - an inexplicably hammy Bruce Greenwood - threatens to blow off the savage's head. They're lost, and that's tricky for everyone, and wouldn't you know that different folks react differently to such news.

The movie is hardly torture to sit through, but the ten-minute, equally non-committal "making of" extra feature shows just as much scenery with even fewer conversations. One more layer of self-awareness - an Abbas Kiarostami-like mash-up of documentary and fiction - might have saved it, but oh well.

* An acquisition that will also permit the realization of my second most-desired costume, that of John McCabe, sad town founder.