Monday, April 29, 2013

Think of Me as Your Shadow

Senso (1954)
directed by Luchino Visconti
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Alida Valli (she's in Suspiria, too?) looks much better throwing shade at Joseph Cotton in The Third Man than she does playing a love-struck countess. A withering stare of disdain suits her more than wide-eyed infatuation. If melodrama ever found a happy home (across the continent from me), it's here. The very first scene, elaborate in an opera house, appears to exist simply so that Visconti can drift from Valli's reflection in the mirror of a private room to the curtain rising on a tremendous painted castle and the light of a crystal chandelier with hundreds of burning candles.

Senso is a beautiful movie, and Technicolor its own pleasure-cruise, but who cares about aristocrats? The loveliest moment comes when the countess rides away from her country estate at dawn. There is no villa in the frame, and the horse-drawn carriage is small against the pink blush of the rising sun. Earlier, someone talks of the smells of summer, specifically ripe wheat. But ripe wheat is a working smell: the smell of farmers in fields with scythes.

Of course, you do not need to be rich to indulge in a little indolent lounging - a great movie pastime and a great Sunday morning (and afternoon, and night). When the countess and the officer finally meet for their first illicit rendezvous, they do not do much (after the obvious event) for hours. He speaks of everyday details - the rustle of curtains, the sound of a blowfly at the window - that become important in the context of a particular recollection. Ever after, a blowfly's buzz is not the same sound.

I liked that, much more than lines like "I was no longer mistress of my own feelings." When the countess, looking for her soldier, intrudes upon the barracks of Austrian officers, she finds a harmonized wonderland of half-dressed men. They size her up and try to intimidate her, but their embarrassment and discomfort is clear. Why would Farley Granger ever prefer Livia's company to theirs?

Friday, April 19, 2013

I'm Your Only Suspect

Eagleheart - Season One (2011)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

The world is a better place because half-assed comedies like Eagleheart exist in it. On the one hand, the fundamental absurdity of procedurals like CSI: Miami and Walker, Texas Ranger make send-ups superfluous. Seven minutes with David Caruso on YouTube (thanks Syl) will restore your good humor before breakfast. But after the coffee and the eggs and bacon, you'll want something else to watch, and that's where Eagleheart comes in.

Or it should. The truth is, Eagleheart is a tough show to track down without paying for it. The Comedy Central website isn't any help, and neither is Netflix. The first season was released on DVD a year ago, and my local library just brought in a copy in March. I don't know what that means for Chris Elliott's bottom line, but hopefully it's the last you'll ever hear from me about the politics of copyright and digital access.

Maybe I should review Burning Love instead. Like Eagleheart, each episode is standard Adult Swim length. Some jokes are better than others, all of the recurring gags are gags I've seen before, but everyone is jovial and well-rested. Faint praise? Backhanded? Not intentionally.

... But still, what a deflated post! Alright, I like Michael Gladis's Orson Welles impression a lot better than any bad decision Paul Kinsey ever made. I wasn't fond of Mickey Rooney in the Tim & Eric-lite sketch "Once in a Wattle." I think the creators are smart to keep continuity to a minimum, because it doesn't really matter which villain Chris Monsanto is assigned to take down, or when, or why. Come for the puns, stay for the jokes about swingers.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Irma Vep in Meung-sur-Loire

The Three Musketeers (2011)
directed by Paul W. S. Anderson
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There is a great story at the heart of The Three Musketeers, and it involves (not surprisingly) Anderson's wife. I do not know if Anderson is responsible for this particular Milady de Winter, or the writers, or Dumas himself. Maybe there was no role at all for Milla, but she insisted there should be. She isn't on the poster, and the part, theoretically relevant to the plot, exists entirely on its own, influencing (yet not influencing) the characters around her; she moves through every important scene like a ghost. If Milady didn't exist, the movie still could, albeit with one or two amended, slightly foggy motivations.

That movie would be bad: bloated and silly. Athos is a frogman, Aramis a ninja, and Porthos a shade of a shade of Gogo Yubari. They rob a single set of blueprints from "DaVinci's Vault" - designed to protect the "plans of his greatest inventions" - then thuggishly destroy the entire marbled set on the way out of town. In contradiction to my own understanding of chivalry and fair play, D'Artagnan (in fact D'Artagnan's son) leaves his sword impaled in the chest of a bad guy and gloats over it.

The blueprints build airships, and the airships are relevant in the war that Richeliu wants to start with England. Jovovich apparently complained that the studio did not sufficiently promote The Three Musketeers as a "family" film, which it very much is: sidekicks, tart retorts, Orlando Bloom. It's also a crime caper. Bloom does his best impression of Jaime Lannister, and it's a good one. Only Jaime Lannister is worthy of Milady de Winter.

He gets her, but he doesn't keep her. Ditto Athos. Milady helps take the blueprints, then poisons the Musketeers. She's a double-agent for Richeliu and for Buckingham too, and ends up alone in the ocean, left for dead. There is every reason to believe she loves Athos deeply, but when forced to kill him to effect her escape, she does not hesitate (the gun misfires). He cannot do the same to her, so she gets away clean. She is nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and the smartest person in the room. Too smart for The Three Musketeers, to the degree that it's positively subversive to have her there at all.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Full-Figured Flight Suit

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Ulmer's biography is an interesting one but Beyond the Time Barrier came right at the end. I thought at first that this would be a science fiction movie filmed in unmodified real-world locations, both for budgetary reasons and because it's a good idea. A Texas producer paid to make it, and reportedly insisted that Ulmer shoot outside Fort Worth. He did, at an abandoned Marine Corps air station, the then-active Carswell Air Force Base, and the Texas Centennial Exhibition Fair Park.

But you can read that on Wikipedia, and Ulmer didn't leave well enough alone. Art director Ernst Fegté modified some rooms in a triangular state of mind, and while I'm certainly sympathetic to everyone's best efforts, the story just isn't there. I hoped that time travel would prove crucial to the plot, instead of simply providing the narrative means to dress actors like spacemen. I hoped that the well-meaning protagonist would ultimately be the cause of the plague he stumbles upon in 2024 (La Jetée appeared two years later).

Instead, time travel is used chiefly to let petty scientists bicker about power. The tone is right - pessimistic - and the ten-gallon hats holding the bankroll let Ulmer cast the blonde he wanted to (Darlene Tompkins), but whatever happened, happened. No one can prevent the plague. No one gets to go back and change a thing. All a hero can do is watch, and follow his instincts, and blame his bad decisions on a circle that looks a lot like a fate he doesn't want to believe in - a circle that inevitably leads back to Darlene.

PS - Stop the presses! The more I think about it, I'm not sure that the pilot actually changes anyone's mind (or anyone's decisions). Motion to strike the picture from the Bill and Ted Time Travel Club rescinded.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Best Part of the Day

Sundown (1941)
directed by Henry Hathaway
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I can only imagine what it was like to see a 21-year old Gene Tierney at the head of a column of Kenyan soldiers marching towards Acoma Pueblo seventy years ago. I never really thought the movies added much to what one comes across in person in New Mexico, but obviously I hadn't seen the right movies. I hadn't seen Gene Tierney with an afternoon thundercloud behind her, for one.

They aren't really Kenyan soldiers, any more than Bruce Cabot - born down the road in Carlsbad - is a British officer. As best I can tell, Henry Hathaway had an "African village" - palm trees, thatched homesteads, zebra skin lounge chairs - constructed along one of the outcroppings that looks towards Sky City. On one level, the effort to repopulate the pueblo with a second marginalized culture is insulting, but from a moviemaking perspective - as a way of recasting the physical world - the result is breathtaking.

The cynical older officer calls it "miles and miles of nothing to do," but we know better than that. An Italian prisoner of war who says he reads and thinks about things, and looks beyond whatever is right in front of him, spins a frightful tale of a German agenda in Africa. He wants to warn the British about what the Third Reich could do if they controlled the continent (thereby foreshadowing the events of the film). The Italian is a gentle man who likes to cook and be left with his thoughts.

And that's the highlight, from a geopolitical standpoint. Events move underground at the end of the movie, and most of the magic falls away. But first it's a bare and beleaguered encampment in the middle of one of the most beautiful places on earth. At night, while the officers drink gin and talk in a melancholy way about "sundown," Tierney walks in out of the darkness.

She's the half-English (of course) daughter of an Arab trader, dressed like no trader dressed in the course of history. She wants to see her father's house, abandoned since his death, and there it is: a physical construction, no backlot set, no ruin. Cabot (twice Tierney's age) eventually marries her in London (of course), in a bombed-out cathedral, where they listen to someone preach about Africa's "salvation." It feels at least a movie away.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If I Like It, Paint It Red

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
The End of Evangelion (1997)
Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007)
Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance (2009)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library and Netflix

Last night I watched the latest episode of Mad Men, and I decided that I like the shorthand that Matthew Weiner uses at the start of a new season. If Don's reading The Inferno on a beach, I know that everyone will be thinking about death for the next ninety minutes. But when Roger sobs at the passing of his favorite bootblack, I rolled my eyes. Why contrive a second death? Why not end the episode with Roger getting a shoeshine instead?

Why am I okay with the obviousness of The Inferno but not the wooden kit of horsehair brushes left with Roger's secretary? Why is Neon Genesis Evangelion as compelling as it is ridiculous? If I never have to see another crucifix or hear Shinji complain about something ever again, it will be too soon.

I'm drawn to conspiracy theories because I'm cynical about the intentions of people in power. I romanticize otherness because it is a lazy way to be cynical, and many of my favorite movies traffic in exoticism for similar ends. When Gendo Ikari warns about the Dead Sea Scroll prophecies, I don't think about religious symbolism, but Victor Mature's nightclub in The Shanghai Gesture. Both provide the thrill of a secret history in which historical losers flourish somewhere.

There are big ideas in Evangelion, and silly ideas, too. My very favorite thing about the show is the weather. It's always summer, a summer without sea breezes and the lively "smell of putrefaction." An endless, sweltering summer - a summer that sits heavy on people's minds. But it looks, and sounds, like summer from a movie: the loop of cicadas, the bend of the horizon at sunset. There was no apocalypse if summer looks like that and refrigerators still run.

That, and the sense of scale. Characters talk as they ride an escalator together, but the escalator spans football fields. Tokyo-3 sinks into the earth, where a second city sits beneath it. Transports link across miles of road while modified power lines thrum overheard. It all gets back to atmosphere, and an ongoing joke about smart penguins, and the awkwardness of a show about high school kids beloved by men in their thirties.

But I do love it, more than I'll ever love Mad Men. I can't really say why.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Love in a Forest of Ferns

Lady Terminator (1989)
directed by H. Tjut Djalil
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's a moment at the end of Lady Terminator when a cop from New York City throws himself between his pal and the eponymous gun-toting beauty. Like many other men throughout the course of the movie, the cop from New York City dies. But this man is special; he was close, like a brother. So how does his best friend say goodbye? He looks at the corpse on the ground and says, "I owe you one."

Not in this life! But in Rudy Wurlitzer's Valhalla, old amigos meet and die again and again, each time with a little more panache, arms like cooked pasta, and stuffed to the gills with fat squibs. There are so many enthusiastic deaths in Lady Terminator, most of them anonymous (even the stars aren't credited on the IMDb page). But in 1989 Indonesia, I'd pick death by Barbara Anne Constable, and so would you. And so did they, brave warriors.

The plot is The Terminator by way of working-class South Pacific exoticism, and the cyborg manifestation of a "South Sea Queen" is never justified or explained by the terms of the curse she casts. Except for Constable, Christopher J. Hart, and Hart's two wingmen - who go by the names of Snake and Tubb - the entire cast is Indonesian. Snake only says things like "Fuckin' A!" and "Yeaahhh!" but with such enthusiasm that I'd like to think Kurt Russell could hear him all the way back in the US of A.

That's the same fictional universe in which Angelo Janotti from Miami Connection worked his way into the psyche of a nine-year old one-day Bust-Ass. I thought of Miami Connection for the obvious reasons, but it's okay to be obvious - and it's okay to steal James Cameron's silly story - if what you really want to do is make the best Miami Vice homage you can. We should all be so ambitious.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

We Are Quite, Quite Wrong

Blithe Spirit (1945)
directed by David Lean
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

I didn't renege on my recent vow to not watch adaptations of plays, because I've always been curious about Blithe Spirit vis-à-vis the adaptation of Noël Coward's Design for Living. I "admire" Brief Encounter as much as the next Criterion fan, but I'm no Anglophile. Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter were released the same year, both directed by David Lean and written by Coward.

Who wouldn't choose Ernst Lubitsch and Ben Hecht if the chips were down? Such happy abandon in their redesigned Design for Living, such warmth - so far from parlor tricks like "wit" and "repartee." And Design for Living was old by 1945: Fredric March nearly fifty, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins getting there. What can these new ghosts say about ménage à trois, or love, or life? Can they be anything but sad?

No. In Blithe Spirit, they cut, they deconstruct, they sigh. The men they haunt take tea and joke about the help. The men are rich, the ghosts were once rich, but Hecht made the lovebirds in Design for Living poor. Poor and full of life - open and self-effacing in place of "roguish flippancy." At least the three principals in both films are roughly the same age, relative to each other.

Ronald Neame was Lean's cinematographer, and together they show what Technicolor will do even to something so drab as a stage. A flickering candle casts stranger shadows on the wall. The wall looks like the sea, and the breeze that blows gives a painted dress an otherworldly quality. The camera is itself a spirit, unseen as it passes by mirrors, unmoored in claustrophobic little rooms.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Days in the Sun

The Road Warrior (1981)
directed by George Miller
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

In an early scene, Max scavenges for gasoline from the leaking tank of a wrecked 18-wheeler. He puts down anything shaped like a basin: a hard hat, an inverted Frisbee, maybe a plate. The Frisbee and hat are so dusty with red sand that the first drops of fuel look like the start of the rainy season. But no one drinks anything in The Road Warrior. How is water not the resource that everyone needs most in the desert?

When all is said and done, I prefer Mad Max.  Mad Max is a horror film set in a mostly recognizable, slightly fantastic rural landscape. The Road Warrior is a western with scope and scale. More binoculars, plenty of canyons and beautiful vistas, a single line of isolated footprints shot from the air. But out on the highway, no one gives chase the way he used to. These are cars and dune buggies, not motorcycles, and they're armored liked dinosaurs. Villains swarm more than strike, denying me the pretty hum of an open engine and the vision of a mounted camera racing a band of gold.

I enjoy the North American prologue, just like I prefer The Road Warrior to the original title Mad Max 2. The voiceover recasts this new world efficiently, then cuts away, for the first and only time, to Max and Dog speeding down the road. What a dog! But once Max arrives at the refinery - once he trades endless chase for siege - he's hobbled. Max isn't a drifting rōnin, he's a speed junkie with a chip on his shoulder. And I like his pure self better: the Great Western Railway bent on simple-minded revenge.