Tuesday, November 29, 2005

R.I.P. Fred Pfeil

My friend and recent mentor Fred Pfeil died today, nine months after suffering a massive seizure that was quickly diagnosed as an effect of already-metastasized brain cancer. Fred has been bravely fighting his disease and even more bravely withstanding the intensive treatments of radiation and chemotherapy that became such a dominating part of his last months of life. It's a marvel that he never acted as though his life had been co-opted by illness, and he remained cheerful, funny, and warm even after he was inducted into hospice care in the days before Thanksgiving.

He died between 3:00 and 3:30 this afternoon, almost a full day into an unrestful and machine-assisted "sleep" that he entered on Monday, after suffering a painful fall in the middle of Sunday night. I was with him in his hospital room less than an hour before he died, and since he seemed able to hear (though not to open his eyes or raise himself, much less talk), I did at least get to speak to him one final time. It bore no relation to "saying goodbye." Fred and I always talked about movies, and I was telling him that tonight I am screening one of his absolute favorites and mine, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, after which I am assigning my students to read his own essay on the film, entitled "Terrence Malick's War Film Sutra: Meditating on The Thin Red Line," anthologized here. I told him that I was looking forward to returning to his hospital room to read him my students' responses to his essay and to the film we both love so much. I told him that a graduate-student advisee that I inherited from him when he got sick had just come down for a meeting last week, and that his project is exemplary and exciting, and something that Fred would be so proud of when he got to read it. And I told him that I was glad he had been able to spend Thanksgiving with his father and sister—he was awake and fairly lively through Sunday evening—and that I had missed him these last few weeks and was eager to talk with him soon.

No one, at least none of the people who were already in his room when I arrived there today, seemed to think he had so very little time left, so I wasn't being false in looking forward to future conversations. In a lot of ways, I'm glad that I didn't know, since it stopped me from being maudlin and from unburdening my own sadness onto him as he was going. (I hope I wouldn't have done that anyway, but you just never know.) His expression did seem to change when I started talking and identified myself by name; that was the only sign that he really could hear me, and that he knew who I was and what I was saying, and it was such a subtle change that I hope I wasn't just projecting it.

I had to rush off at 2:15 to go teach my afternoon class, which stretches from 2:40 to 3:55. When I walked back into my department afterward, I ran into a colleague in the doorway, and she told me what had happened. I didn't even read the e-mail until just now. I went immediately to see two of the friendliest people in the department who have been here for the longest time: the administrative assistant and the current chair. I admire both women so much, and I know how much they loved Fred.

After talking with them, I came back to my office, which is really Fred's office—you see, I was hired at Trinity to teach the classes Fred normally teaches, but not because he knew he was sick at the time (or at least he didn't tell me so, nor anyone else that I know of). He was going to be teaching in a special interdisciplinary lab on campus these next two years, and I was hired to teach the Film and American Literature courses that he usually offered in the department, even though he was initially hired years and years ago to teach Creative Writing (Fiction). He was a talented and polydextrous person. Fred was devastated by that final seizure in February only hours after he had called me to offer me my job, i.e., his job. When I had met him in the weeks before—to interview for the position in December (at MLA, for you academic types) and to present a sample seminar on campus in February—he was not only the picture of health, but he was so kind, affable, gentle, hilarious, and lavishly admired by his students that I instantly made up my mind to accept the job if it was offered to me, in order to be around him, and hopefully become more like him.

As it happened, I only ever saw him three more times: at lunch in late August (early September?), where he told me the last movie he'd seen in a theater was Batman Begins, which he thought was much too loud; in the middle of a rainstorm in late October, on his way to the campus bookstore to pick up some newly-arrived special orders (he didn't have a coat or an umbrella, and he only accepted mine when I drew him into a conversation about Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg); and then, today.

I've shed a lot of tears in the last two hours, and I expect I'll cry some more tonight during the movie, thinking of why Fred loved it and of how immediate our friendship was when we discovered what a mutual passion it was. I tried to make three phone calls after I came back to my office (again, Fred's office) to be alone, and though I couldn't get through the first two times, bless my brother for being there and letting me talk. My head is full of thoughts, but not really full of memories; it couldn't be. I didn't know him that well. But almost never in my life have I known someone so little who elicited such profound love and admiration right on the spot, and it's been made pristinely clear from all of Fred's friends and colleagues at Trinity that my response to him, sublime though it was, was also quite common. He was a hero of so many people. All semester, while he's been sick, people have walked past my building, seen the light on in this second-floor office, and walked up and in, hoping against hope that Fred was here. A few of these disappointed visitors—I always say, as they try to mask their disappointment, "Don't worry, I feel just the same way!"—have stayed in my office to tell me about how they knew Fred and all the things he did for them: as a teacher, an award-winning local peace activist, a friend, an advisor, a colleague, a kind editor, a gleeful conspirator in sweet-tooth indulgences.

I don't know what to think about having spoken with him mere hours before the catastrophic and unpredicted onset of his illness, and then again less than an hour before his well-prepared-for but still unpredicted moment of letting go. I will never know what to think about this. The sentimentalist in me, leaning on coincidence but also on some fingerfuls of friendly confidence he offered me last winter, wants to believe that Fred was proud to have me standing in his professional shoes, though only temporarily, and nowhere near to filling them. He always talked to me with the tone of a mentor, even when we were too slimly acquainted for that to make sense, even though I felt the same way about him just as swiftly. Scores and scores, hundreds of people at Trinity and in Hartford were closer to Fred than I was, and I trust they all have intimate memories of how special he was, and how special he made them feel when he was with them. My heart is with all those people right now even more than it's with myself. And I wonder so much, with such acute concentration—I'm almost embarrassed by the questions, and by their involuntary force—where Fred has gone, what has become of him, what he is right now.

But I admit, my heart is heavy and full for myself right now. I'm too sad, momentarily, to really take comfort in what a loving, supportive hand he always held out to me, but I know I'll take comfort in this later. I miss my friend, I wanted to know him better. He was young, no more than 60, if he was that. I'm sitting in his office, surrounded by his books—those he wrote, and those many more that he owned and read and annotated. I see little notes that he scribbled to himself and forgot, an old turtle shell that has always sat on the corner of this desk, even after he cleared out his personal mementos so that I could better use the space. He left teabags and microwavable soups, stashed in a bottom drawer, a snapshot of an otter enjoying the water, a poster-sized print of an artist's rendering of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Taped to the wall is a collection of undated Gallup Poll figures from early in the Second Gulf War, indicating the degree of opposition to the war registered in public surveys in dozens of countries: Albania 89% against, Argentina 87%, Australia 83%...

His gloves are in a drawer. His phone line, split off from mine, just rang. (Of course I didn't answer.)

I miss you, Fred!

(Thanks, everybody for listening.)


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Needs-Better-Material Girl

Having flubbed my intended blog entries for Mimi's Emancipation and Missy's Cookbook—the only other albums I have bought in 2005, because in pop-music terms, I am already an Old Dog Set In My Ways—I do not intend to drop the (disco) ball on Confessions on a Dance Floor...though, sad as I am to say it, I kind of think Madonna dropped the ball herself. It's not a bad album, but it's not a necessary one, either, and even though I have notoriously changed opinions on many albums after my initial listens, both for better and for worse, I'm not too hopeful about warming to this one all that much.

But first, some background. In fact, mostly background.

Madonna makes three kinds of albums: the Dead Mama albums (where she both shows and overcomes her wanna-be-loved insecurities by giving 110%, as an entertainer and/or an artist), her Stick It To Daddy albums (where she dishes out the sexual and/or political provocations and dares people to call her bluff), and her Paper Mill albums (where she attempts to mass-produce some cash money, so that Lourdes can get Cirque du Soleil at home for her Sweet 16, beyotch!). I would break down the discography this way, with the boldfaced titles being the ones I really love.

Oh, and in case my allegiance is in question, I was Madonna for Halloween in fourth grade, amidst the Reagan Era, on a Marine Corps base... so you know the 9-year-old in the jean skirt was not happening all the time. But I brought it, because I love this woman.

The Apotheosis: All Three in One
  • Like a Prayer (1989): In which Madonna shows unprecedented depth and range, with Dead Mama ventriloquism ("Promise To Try," "Dear Jessie"), Stick It To Daddy As Much As Possible ("Til Death Do Us Part," "Oh Father"), and ballistic missiles of Paper Mill commercial appeal ("Like a Prayer," "Express Yourself," "Cherish")

    Dead Mama
  • Madonna (1983): Wall-to-wall dance pop with heavily repeated hooks and phrases and unremarkable singing, but Madonna's palpable attitude and total exuberance in songs like "Lucky Star," "Holiday," and "Everybody" sound more spirited than this stuff tends to sound

  • Bedtime Stories (1994): Intimate and rangy, it's the first Madonna album where all of the songs work better in the fabric of the album than apart from it, even though most of them are well-crafted accomplishments

  • Evita (1996): Mama, I can really sing!

  • Music (2000): Everything that was fun and saucy about Madonna adopted to her post-Ray of Light soundscape and her marriage. She definitely wants to keep riding the wave of Comeback Love, but she also wants to party...and "I Deserve It" is one of the most believable self-revelation cuts on any of her albums

    Stick It To Daddy
  • Like a Virgin (1984): From the brazen hussying of "Material Girl" to the startling candor (for Top 40) of "Like a Virgin" to the sexy but slatternly cover art, it's a bold gesture

  • Erotica (1992): The last Madonna album I bought on cassette, which is why the curious split between the stunning Side A and the humiliating Side B was all the more impossible to miss. Still, with this many gems, I'm not complaining

  • American Life (2003): Weirdly anti-commercial, like Erotica. The lame title cut is a cold shower on the way in. But this is an interesting and surprising album, full of bounce and anger and other moods, all of them persuasive and I think it's my favorite since Bedtime Stories. (The cover art and implied politics belong to the old provocateur Madonna, i.e., Stick It To Daddy)

    Paper Mills
  • True Blue (1986): "Papa Don't Preach" is Stick It To Daddy all the way, and "Live to Tell" has strong Dead Mama tendencies, but Madonna knows she's rolling bank, even though she hasn't finished writing a full portfolio of songs... why else would "Jimmy, Jimmy" be on here?

  • You Can Dance (1987): Paper Mill all the way, with boring remixes and a disposable new song called "Spotlight"

  • Who's That Girl? (1987): Paper Mill with embarrassing sidebar acts, though I like all three of her songs

  • I'm Breathless (1990): Hard to read. Dead Mama insofar as only Serious Artist would tackle Sondheim, etc. Stick It To Daddy insofar as "Hanky Panky" and fling with obvious father-figure Beatty. But Paper Mill insofar as movie tie-in, and insofar as "Vogue," a wholly unrelated add-on which exposes underlying insecurity of whole project (which correlates back to Dead Mama).

  • The Immaculate Collection (1990): Definition of Paper Mill, though "Justify My Love" is a sweat-scented emblem of Stick It To Daddy

  • The Holiday Collection (1990): A little-known corollary, with "Holiday" and three hits inexplicactly left off of IC ("True Blue," "Who's That Girl?" and "Causing a Commotion"). I.e., Paper Mill on the DL, which is like Vanilla Fudge

  • Something To Remember (1996): A totally snooze-inducing ballad collection, laying groundwork for Evita

  • Ray of Light (1997): Madonna's weirdest studio album, and by many degrees my least favorite. A giant, narcissistic iceberg, notwithstanding "Ray of Light" single. All the KabbalahHinduGeisha stuff curdles instantly, and she's singing like someone's told her that her strength is torch ballads. Which: it isn't. Indeed, Madonna, you're frozen/ when your heart's not open, though it was all brilliantly calculated, and nabbing her a Grammy and a big smash. Whatev's.

  • Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1999): Paper Mill album, capitalizing on Ray of Light comeback

  • Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005): Earns its keep as background, or as thumping club music, but there's precious little here that requires any of Madonna's particular persona—plus, she panders to her fanbase with a love letter to New York when the yotch lives in London amidst Burberry tweed, and any song that pledges to "tell us about fame" can only be a useless retread...kind of like using a song title that you've used before ("Forbidden Love"), neither time with much payback. Only "Get Together" and "Push" snap me to attention, and I like them, but this just doesn't feel like a very sincere or rewarding effort. I've listened to the album three times, and each time, by the end, I'm only half-listening. I think she sings at one point about how we can all love her or leave her, but she's not going away, and while I, as a lifelong Madonna disciple, am thrilled that she's not going away, it seems pretty preposterous to imagine anyone loving or leaving Madonna on the basis of this wet noodle.

    P.S. I friggin' LOVE The Cookbook ("This year y'all will all lose sleep, while I break 'em off some, break 'em off some..." hootie-hoo!), and Mimi is sweet reward to those of us who never left Mariah's side, even though, make no mistake, this dame is still dizzy, and she has badly worn out her voice. It's not all that pretty anymore, but her stuff is catchy, and I'm hooked. Especially by "Say Something," "We Belong Together," "Circles," "Mine Again," "Stay the Night," and the best album-closer she's ever had, "Fly Like a Bird."

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  • Happy Birthday: Gayl Jones

    Today is the 56th birthday of Gayl Jones, a novelist, poet, and essay writer so underrated that there's more information on the web about her terrible and operatic personal history than there seems to be on her books or her still-stinging critiques of American and African-American culture. Her first two novels, Corregidora and Eva's Man blaze with so much intelligent fury and blistering prose that they fall out of your hands like hot coals when you're finished. Written while Jones was still in her mid-20s, and with Toni Morrison as her editor, they made Jones the troubling toast of African-American letters for a few years there before personal fiascos and the escalating popularity of peers like Morrison and Alice Walker eclipsed her. Decades later, she published a third novel, The Healing, which is a kind of personal obsession for me—a strange, mysterious, gangly book, with moments as dark as its predecessors but new strains of humor and grace. I think it'd make a great movie, and that's why I'm trying to adapt it into a functioning screenplay...which will probably never get anywhere, but I'm serious about trying, while Alfre and Angela are still young enough. (Actually, we've got a good healthy while before I'd have to write it for Kimberly Elise, but the clock does tick and tock, doesn't it.)

    Anyway, she's a brave and bold and brilliant writer—I don't mean to give short shrift to her volumes of poetry, Song for Anninho and Xarque, though her last novel Mosquito is probably for Gayl-lovers only. If she's a new name to you, start with Corregidora, and I dare you to forget that book. And in the spirit of both her birthday and Thanksgiving, I hope she's well and that there's more work to come. It's almost impossible to learn anything her condition these days, but for her fans, the well-wishes keep coming, and the dream is still alive.


    Monday, November 14, 2005

    Dispatches on Dispatches, Pt. I

    I have just finished reading the first section of Michael Herr's Dispatches, the best book I have read in many years. I know that the stupendous excellence of both Herr's prose and his ideas are already old news to a lot of people; Dispatches is an American classic, excerpted in anthologies of our most canonical literature and referenced in shorthand by writers, journalists, politicians, soldiers, and almost anyone else who has a jot to say about the Vietnam War (though many people, of course, either don't or won't remember the war the way Herr does). I can't imagine that I have anything new to add to the public record on this book, but it is moving and unsettling me so profoundly that I can't help posting about it.

    So far, the biggest surprise to me in the book is the texture of the prose, which is incredibly literary and inventive for a work that has even one foot planted in the world of journalism. Herr taps the veins of Ginsberg and Burroughs with his freewheeling but self-justifying ordering of incidents and his staccato strings of unexpected compounds: freakyfunky, airmobility, eye-shooters, widow-makers, nametakers, a random soldier described as a moving-target-survivor subscriber. He is an ingenious conveyer of place, in its palpable, political, and most of all its affective qualities: "Sitting in Saigon was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower, the poison history, fucked in its root no matter how far back you wanted to run your trace....You'd stand there nailed in your tracks sometimes, no bearings and none in sight, thinking, Where the fuck am I?, fallen into some unnatural East-West interface, a California corridor cut and bout and burned deep into Asia, and once we'd done it we couldn't remember what for. It was axiomatic that it was about ideological space, we were there to bring them a choice, bringing it to them like Sherman bringing the Jubilee through Georgia, clean through it, wall to wall with pacified indigenous and scorched earth."

    That passage alone conveys something of the genius of Dispatches, though one gets the sense that any paragraph plucked at random would resonate with equal terrible life. Note how Herr's cultural reference points are innately American (Sherman's blazing swath, California's arcades, Henry Fonda, Jimi Hendrix) but also convincingly global. In none of his responses to Saigon, to the jungle, to a helicopter, to a troop of "grunts" does he upholster his persona into something wiser or more familiar than it is, and yet he sizes up these foreign places and alien encounters with stunning, persuasive probity. Though Dispatches was published in 1977, almost a decade after the independent press tour that Herr conducted in 1968, his descriptions feel remarkably unedited, spontaneous. Perhaps it's the coursing way he works with sound, alliteratively passing the torch from the S's to the F's and the P's in the first sentence cited above, or the way in which nouns, verbs, and adjectives keep getting reassigned to unexpected parts of the sentence. Syntax reshapes itself, commas going missing as clauses pile up. On the level of tone and vantage, the book is sympathetic enough to embrace everyone from stranded South Vietnamese civilians to disillusioned CIA "spooks" to the ground soldiers, many of them teenagers, who "had their lives cracked open for them"; at the same time, he resists any temptation toward relativism or martial carte blanche, castigating the vicious and the trigger-happy in no uncertain terms.

    So far, the long opening section of the book titled "Breathing In," and preluded itself by a dizzying, ghostly rumination on a tattered map, has described an arc from the morbid carnivalesque of the opening anecdotes—discovering that this assigned photographer is the son of Errol Flynn, etc.—through a steady saturation of new and heavy impressions, and culminating in the last two pages with his first, well-nigh accidental experience firing a gun with military intent. Already, Herr has accrued enough wealth of detail to sustain several longer works, ranging from the foil-wrapped homemade oatmeal cookie that one desperately sentimental infantryman is still toting in his knapsack to the awful, unbridgeable remoteness of news from home, even when he receives notice of a friend's suicide. I have no present idea whether the book will maintain its impossibly lucid frenzy of description and synthesis or if Dispatches will slide more concertedly into some form of narrative or a more steadily familiar cast of characters. Already it's the sort of book I trust implicitly, no matter what direction it elects. Maybe some or all of you have already read this? If so, your own memories or interpretations are heartily invited. If no, can I possibly convince you to read along? At the very least, I hope you'll indulge a few more of my dispatches on Dispatches. To close this first one, I'll quote one more passage at length, distilling the wizardry of the language and the all-too-obvious relevance to modern predicaments. It reminds me of everything from the fiddling Neros and the electrified boxing rings at the outset of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to the paradoxically motivating and tranquilizing rock music that we hear wired into American soldiers' helmets near the center of Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, it's easy enough to imagine Dispatches as the key cultural and artistic causeway connecting the one to the other:

          "Up on the roof of the Rex BOQ in Saigon I walked into a scene more bellicose than a firefight, at least 500 officers nailed to the bar in a hail of chits, shiny irradiant faces talking war, men drinking like they were going to the front, and maybe a few of them really were. The rest were already there, Saigon duty; coming through a year of that without becoming totally blown out indicated as much heart as you'd need to take a machine-gun position with your hands, you sure couldn't take one with your mouth. We'd watched a movie (Nevada Smith, Steve McQueen working through a hard-revenge scenario, riding away at the end burned clean but somehow empty and old too, like he'd lost his margin for regeneration through violence); now there was a live act, Tito and His Playgirls, 'Up up and awayeeyay in my beaudifoo balloooon,' one of the Filipino combos that even the USO wouldn't touch, hollow beat, morbid rock and roll like steamed grease in the muggy air.
          "Roof of the Rex, ground zero, men who looked like they'd been suckled by wolves, they could die right there and their jaws would work for another half-hour. This is where they asked you, 'Are you a Dove or a Hawk?' and 'Would you rather fight them here or in Pasadena?' Maybe we could beat them in Pasadena, I'd think, but I wouldn't say it, especially not here where they knew that I knew that they really weren't fighting anybody anywhere anyway, it made them pretty touchy. That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish heads. We were going to club him to death with our meat; what could you say except, 'Colonel, you're insane'? It was like turning up in the middle of some black looneytune where the Duck had all the lines. I only jumped in once, spontaneous as shock, during Tet when I heard a doctor bragging that he'd refused to allow wounded Vietnamese into his ward. 'But Jesus Christ,' I said, 'didn't you take the Hippocratic Oath?' but he was ready for me. 'Yeah,' he said, 'I took it in America.' Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ballbreakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, 'right here in-country.' Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death."

    (All quotations from Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Knopf, 1977)


    The Seven Weeks of Christmas

    There's been no time to comment on the upcoming holiday releases, or even much inclination, since I'm excited by roughly half of them, and obsessively preoccupied by only one. In lieu of any such post—and again, I'm only talking about personal anticipation, not Oscar prognostication, box-office prediction, or whatever—the following pyramid pretty much sums it up.

    You can keep your partridge and your pear tree. (Although, I'd easily take a pear tree over Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Ice Harvest, and the other non-starters that aren't even listed here.)

    So what are you looking forward to?


    Sunday, November 13, 2005

    Picked Flick #70: Night of the Living Dead

    The opening shot of the lonely gravel road, circuitously joining two unknown points, is held several beats longer than is strictly comfortable, and right from that single choice, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead sets itself apart as both a smart formal exercise and a new kind of horror film. Minutes pass as a frankly annoying thirtysomething called Johnny taunts his sister Barbara, a piece of gleaming ivory who'd look endangered and overchallenged in almost any circumstance. Johnny's petulance and Barbara's shrill anxieties, both of them shallow reactions to mortality, virtually incite the vengeance of the dead—inviting the zombies to stand up for themselves, as it were, and sock these two into a more genuine confrontation with the terror but also the slow, lumbering fact of death. It hardly matters that these two will never receive any lifetime achievement awards from SAG, though it's also quite easy to underestimate the skill of the film's performances. From a standpoint of technique, the opening of Night of the Living Dead is a tour-de-force in hobo's clothing, splicing its cheap-looking footage into brilliant orchestrated sequence, using severe montage to lend credence to the hysterical, teetering camera angles. What best depicts the barrier between life and death—the stark and horrifying way the film dives from simple, straight-on full shots to canted, quaking, handheld panic? Or the nagging likeness between the glassy, one-dimensional humans and the lockstep, frozen-faced undead? Or the inexorable, ungainly momentum with which these hobbling bugaboos skulk toward their prey, who will all die later if they don't die now?

    Romero, using Zapruder-grade black & white film, founds a hellblazing film and in fact a stout, hardy franchise out of these basic yet wittily debatable oppositions. Having whipped together such a tense scenario in his opening scenes, Romero bunkers Barbara into an old, lonely house, as undermined in its pastoral, self-protective isolation as the Clutter estate in In Cold Blood. Barbara's only companion there, at least at first, is the lucid and capable Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who knows that Barbara's almost pathological inertia and inward-turning fright in his presence may only be proximately rooted in their ghoulish state of siege. In his combination of competence and impatience, generosity and ire—all the more easily stirred when he meets the jittery bigot hiding in this American basement—Ben is the most fully dimensional character in the movie, not to mention a more believable person than almost anyone Sidney Poitier played at any point in the 1960s. That this is the case says less about Poitier than about Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison, Ralph Nelson, and other big-studio directors who honorably assayed racial themes in their films, though they were at best inconsistent at realizing that the Hollywood mainstream was hardly the place to achieve or even expect the kinds of stories or ideas adequate to the issues. It's incredible to observe the sharp, cutting brushstrokes with which Romero draws attention to the racism, chauvinism, cronyism, naïve romanticism, and other diseased attitudes that torque this ragtag outpost's ability to properly forestall the slow zombie onslaught. The nuclear family intrudes meanly on the wider social unit, as the distraught Coopers demand both privileges and privacy as the birthright of their domestic bubble, lesioned though it already is with an ailing, probably monstrous daughter. Even the Red Scare starts to infiltrate the Dead Scare, as newscasters pontificate about nuclear radiation as a possible explanation for this clearly inexplicable phenomenon.

    Night of the Living Dead, still my favorite from among Romero's excellent series, is a brilliant allegory of how people and especially strangers act in a crisis, rather than how we might prefer to act or how we remember ourselves as acting—and yet, as any viewer can attest, Romero's obvious conviction in mounting this critique does nothing to slake the force of the tooth-gnashing, clobbering, apocalyptic plot. Quite to the contrary, Night of the Living Dead's basis in genre only amplifies its thematic parries, since the palpable, lethal urgency of the crisis underlines both the tragic, angry rendings of the social canvas and the hopeful glimmers of alliance and entente in a way that In the Heat of the Night's more peremptory and self-enclosed plot—much less the dinner with Mr. Guess Who—can't really equal. Every dimension of the movie culminates in the incomparably brave final shots, and rarely has "shot" seemed like such an apt name for what can be stirring, powerful, complicated, dangerous, and almost exhaustingly entertaining in this popular medium. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Picked Flick #71: Les Rendez-vous d'Anna

    The cold, obdurate symmetry of Chantal Akerman's shots in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, less protracted but just as deliberate as those of her most famous film, Jeanne Dielman..., made an indelible impression on me from literally the first frame. In this prologue, which soon reveals itself as pure in medias res, the titular Anna Silver debarks from a train but lingers on the platform, even as the rest of the passengers clamber down the stairs. As Anna pauses on the quay, she is both overwhelmed and made more interesting by its bland but looming structures: the overhang, the pillars, the signs. Just as much as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Haynes' Safe, Akerman's Rendez-vous spins an involving and specific story out of seemingly arid spaces, photographed in precise, frequently mirrored compositions that somehow make the world seem airless, anonymous: in this case, an endless series of boxes, concourses, and doorways to nowhere. Uniting all of these nonplaces is a sprawling grid of railway lines, conveying featureless passenger-cars full of nearly featureless passengers to veritable approximations of wherever they've just been. Cologne, in this film, looks remarkably like Brussels, like Paris. Relationships between people are as vague as those between places, and even the human body, often enough revealed in states of non-erotic undress, looks worrisomely like a portable property, a valise for cloudy agendas and memories that are rarely evoked or acted upon in any appreciable way. But the bodies aren't cold, exactly. Real people live there, though it's a mystery how this taciturn film is drawing them out, continually stoking our faith in something warm still underlying it all.

    What comes through is a vision of Europe that feels remarkably prescient for a film from the late 1970s, a stretching plane of points and horizons from which nationalities, languages, and other cornerstones of unique culture have eroded, or else merged with those of their neighbors. Anna, ostensibly promoting a film she has just directed, peddles her art in a world that not only seems to lack any artistic manifestations (we see not one frame of Anna's movie, nor do we even come close), but from which the very artistic impulse has been superseded by economy, impersonality, and basic accommodation. Not for nothing is Anna's tour wending its way toward Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich; neutrality all but defines her character, as well as all the milieux among which she travels. That neutrality can feel so infertile is one of the layers that make Les Rendez-vous d'Anna interesting from a political standpoint, though the film works harder to prompt contemplation from the vantages of desire, human relationships, and contemporary hiccups in old, generational models of how the present becomes the future. Anna is dogged from pitstop to pitstop by phone messages from her mother, handed to her by an array of indistinguishable concierges, and when she finally does catch up with Mom, she climbs naked into her bed and tells her, in the film's foggy-intimate fashion, about a woman she once slept with on a press tour. Other lovers are implied, but children are not—and not only because Anna is so defined by her career. "Defined" may not be a word that Anna remotely invites, so wispy and reserved is she, but her various dates, temporary lovers, old friends, and conversation partners are hardly more vivacious or transparent than she.

    Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, for all its formalist and intellectual engagements, is also weirdly moving, either despite or because of the purposefully stolid photography, the general forsaking of music in favor of droning ambience, the peripheral characters who remain utterly peripheral, even as they trade their detailed monologues with Anna that do not quite amount to conversation. What it means to reveal oneself in words or to confide in another are active questions posed by the film, but it's reassuring that Akerman has opted not for a bilious tract about modern isolation but for a low, slow symphony of encounters that never extinguish the humane potential or the search for connection that imbue almost all of them. The film also has a healthy sense of humor that eases as well as complicates the tone whenever it pokes through. In a similar vein, Anna's remoteness from her paramours, even as they loll or murmur or evade or press into each other in bed, does not deprive the film of a wise, believably adult sexuality. The modern age is not the death of sex or friendship, and perhaps art and love will also survive, but they need to be recognized in new ways, hustled up from often unpromising elements. Also, the more one sees of the world, touring in the most anodyne and unintensive ways, the less one seems inclined or even able to absorb much of it. But watching Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, guided and anchored by the smartly restrained performance of Aurore Clément (Paris, Texas; Apocalypse Now Redux), you do feel like you've been somewhere, as though you've seen something worth considering, worth deconstructing, worth telling someone about. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Friday, November 11, 2005

    Picked Flick #72: Eraserhead

    I conjectured further down on this list that Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man would be the hardest entry to write about, but having now arrived at Eraserhead, David Lynch's roomy and surreal yet utterly cohesive debut feature, I realize that I was wrong. How many times has a David Lynch movie proved somebody wrong? He proved beyond question, and to the chagrin of many more timid artists, that you can hop from a first feature this singularly bizarre to the basically conventional Elephant Man, a film that remains distinctive and troublingly irreal even as it parlays so comfortably into narrative paradigms and popular favor. That you can reframe comfy, Eisenhower-era iconography within the savage, huffing, sadomasochistic framework of Blue Velvet and still galvanize a core of fans who will journey to the outer, saturnine limits of your own obsessive images. That you can suavely oscillate between film and TV projects, even before such a thing was fashionable for our auteurs, and without the protective auspice of a paid-cable channel. That you can court incoherence in Fire Walk with Me and honor the simplest classical traditions in The Straight Story all in the same decade. That you can alchemize a rejected television pilot into the ranking apotheosis of your own feature-film career, and maybe of postmodernism more generally in the American cinema.

    Lynch keeps daring us and daring himself, and the film world tenses with anticipation at each new step he takes—which, more than four years after the trip down Mulholland Drive, could hardly appear a moment too soon. There is no question in my mind that Mulholland is Lynch's best and richest movie, but if that masterwork is missing anything, it's the daft, piquant riskiness of a film like Eraserhead, which reflects not the trained professionalism that comes with decades in the business and a cohort of frequent collaborators, but from a pure will to test the on-screen viability of an almost id-level sensibility. Lynch is the credited director, writer, editor, composer, production designer, special effects technician, and sound-effects editor on Eraserhead, and I suppose I feel, with no particular justification, that assigning any more chefs to this dada dish could only have diluted the flavor. Though quite evidently a workshop for sonic concepts, experiments in framing, and poker-faced acting styles that would later be redrawn in finer detail, Eraserhead works marvelously on its own terms. A dreamscape to equal Un chien andalou, the film also traces a clear narrative line through nervous courtship, an excruciatingly anxious paternity, and a kind of fantasy life that isn't so much stifled as it is genetically rearranged by an oppressive, penurious existence in a post-industrial no man's land.

    I'm sure all of Eraserhead's fans have their own favorite moments. Unquestionably, one of mine is the non-diegetic soundtrack of whines and slurping sounds beneath Jack Nance's first painful meeting with his girlfriend's parents, belatedly linked to a dog suckling her litter in the same room. Close behind that is the Tod Browning shot of Charlotte Stewart's strained expressions as her head rests on the foot of a mattress, only tangentially indicating that below the sightline of the frame, she is reaching for a suitcase beneath the bed. All of the scenes of the titular and pustulent dino-baby are unforgettable, as is that famous shot of Nance's startled grimace and his backlit pile of wiry curls while the spores released from his baby's abdomen fill the air around him. What does any of it mean? Please don't make me guess. I haven't even tried to delve into the connotations and integrated resonances of Eraserhead because the pleasures it imparts as pure collage are so profound, so inexpressibly funny, and so relatably sad. And I cop to finding enjoyment in the fact that Eraserhead is, for all its notoriety and the prestige of its director, so totemistically difficult to locate, making the movie rare in every sense—uncommon, exquisite, and served up all but raw. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Thursday, November 10, 2005

    Tell Me Lies!

    Nathaniel will be here all weekend; he arrives in just about an hour. Y'all know what this means. If any woman has lied to herself on celluloid and you think we've missed it, don't hold back with the Comments section. Extra points if she does so in a long fifth-act monologue, or in close-ups where she cries, or in a porcelain-lined igloo.


    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    Picked Flick #73: Pennies from Heaven

    Musicals are even more of a rarity on this list than on my Top 100, not because I dislike the form but because the ones that engage me tend to engage me at about the same level and in much the same way. Meanwhile, those few that I truly love tend to involve an overt and self-reflexive consideration of the form, often at a significant ironic distance—I'll take Singin' in the Rain, New York, New York, or Dancer in the Dark any day over Swing Time, On the Town, or My Fair Lady. Same holds for theatrical musicals, where the handful that truly excite me include Floyd Collins and Caroline, or Change. With the exception, then, of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's masterpiece, one of the great consensus favorites of the American cinema, you can see how my appetites often land me in square support of exactly those musicals that more fervent fans tend to dislike, and which can even imply a certain rebuke to the genre's most famous pleasures, which I dare not call "simple."

    Such is again the case with Herbert Ross' Pennies from Heaven, his opulent but abrasive adaptation of Dennis Potter's BBC miniseries, which I have never seen. A major money loser for MGM, once so synonymous with tuneful crowd-pleasers, the film possesses a royal flush of attributes almost certain to alienate popular audiences. Steve Martin cast as a basically unsympathetic character. An entire cast that lip-synchs instead of singing, and to scratchy standards and thrift-store arcana to boot. Trajectories into squalor and unhappiness instead of out of it. Fiddle-dee-dee! Little in the movie even implies that it will formally stray from a miserabilist Depression-era drama with wry, almost mocking undertows until Martin suddenly opens his mouth and moves his lips in semi-tandem with a 1930s radio hit that comes from nowhere. Not long after, these incongruous moments of song flower into fully-blown, toe-tapping, Art Deco extravaganzas, like the gleaming sequence where a colonnade of tuxedoed chaps rain money and romance on a debonair Martin and his floating, platinum goddess—even as, in the forlornly designated "real world," he's being turned down for a bank loan. The pixie dust keeps sifting and the songs keep coming as a sad schoolmistress (Bernadette Peters) is impregnated out of wedlock or even lovelock, as the local pimp softshoes and splitses his way into coercive ownership of this broken dame, as our dissatisfied and disloyal protagonist extends his record of abandonments and assaults, and as the whole glittering kaboodle builds to a climactic execution.

    The unexpected alignments of the movie's core elements and their dissonant cultural connotations were, I suppose, doomed to win the film a reputation as an act of vandalism—either by undermining the nostalgic appeal of the music and the choreography, all of which is utterly stellar, or by trivializing the incidents of the narrative, which speaks with real earnestness to problems of restlessness, misogyny, and the plexiglas ceiling of social class. What interests me in the movie is the idea that neither of its faces, the sweet or the sour, necessarily comes at the expense of the other. In fact, at a level so far above Ross' other movies that you can't even see them from here, Pennies from Heaven presents a dazzling and thought-provoking worldview where pop dreams and common predicaments are interfused every day, often to deleterious effect, but would we have it any other way? Even in our starkest moments, do we ever wish to go without our dreams or romantic fancies, any more than we would wish this film to go without its sleek art direction, its marvelously controlled performances (especially from a remarkable Jessica Harper as Martin's wife), its exciting range of dance styles and tones, its charming, attic-scented hopechest of songs, its breathtaking and allusive images shot by the legendary D.P. of Manhattan and The Godfather? You often cannot know where Pennies from Heaven is going, unless perhaps you've seen Dancer in the Dark and are starting to ask how Lars von Trier got away with quite so much pilfering. Stretched between these two poles, a story of inexorable decline and a bouquet of formal surprises, Pennies from Heaven is as taut and cutting as piano wire, but it's also a dream on a cloud. Who's to say these things can't go together? (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Picked Flick #74: Vanya on 42nd Street

    As though synthesizing my last two choices, here is another filmed play that filters the antiquarian through the lens of the contemporary, or else vice versa, and it stars the modern American cinema's pre-eminent Woman Who Lies to Herself in one of her most exquisite performances.

    Nonetheless, even a Julianne Moore disciple can't start a write-up of Vanya on 42nd Street with a nod to Julianne, or even to Louis Malle, whose movie this is, or even to André Gregory, whose minimalist workshop production of Uncle Vanya is the subject of this loving, sublimely attentive film. If you're talking Vanya on 42nd Street you have to start with Chekhov, a playwright so very resistant to screen treatment and so very easy to misconstrue in areas of tone, delivery, and intent. The infamous question of how Chekhov could possibly have considered plays like Uncle Vanya to be comedies is the task of a talented troupe to unravel, a rare feat to which this film makes us so thrillingly privy. Translated by David Mamet with economic brilliance, Chekhov's play achieves such concise pscyhological insight with so sure and light a hand that it can almost make you blush, and yet for all of the characters' many endowments—Dr. Astrov's charisma and his ethical grasp of nature, Sonya's work ethic and sad-eyed resilience, Yelena's exquisite beauty and stunning indolence, Vanya's sour wit and impatience with pretense—they are none of them much armed with a capacity for change. As the script transcribes an arc from one domestic arrangement to a different and notably smaller one, nearly all of the characters' hopes and plans continue to exceed their grasp, almost by definition. "Comedy" thus appears to name their steady commitment to ideals they can't well afford or attain, and their rueful awareness of this very dilemma, to which, in private moments and with the right ears to bend, almost all of them confess.

    Capturing such a delicate lacework of feeling and compromise is difficult enough, but Malle does more than document a stirring production. He subtly tailors a form of Chekhovian direction that alights just as softly but lucidly on its subjects. From the piquant prologue of the actors' arrivals and chitchats, Vanya gorgeously idles into its own opening lines with a simple cut and a gliding camera move; the effect is similar to how Bergman introduces his Magic Flute, and the emotional rewards that follow are comparably rich. Cinematographer Declan Quinn, refining his own techniques in line with the scrupulous actors, adduces the angles and auras of each face with total perfection, carrying Astrov from hardy to dissipated or Sonya from plain to luminous in no time at all. The seeds of his smart, observational cinematography in Leaving Las Vegas, Monsoon Wedding, and In America are already flourishing here, not least in how he incorporates the darkened theater itself into his compositions, choosing exactly when and to what extent each character emerges from absolute shadow. These camera regimens indicate just how cinematic this Vanya is despite its unfussy, unfurnished groundedness in theatrical art. Close-ups, gingerly inserts, and other privileged views of the actors do as much to convey the characters as their trained vocal precision and consummate faith in their material. "No, one would not describe this family as happy," confesses Moore's Yelena, but has this actress ever laughed so much and with such fine degrees of implication in any other film? Her chuckling, abrupt admission that she would have enjoyed marrying a younger man is a sublime Chekhovian moment, as is Larry Pine's garrulous, principled, but self-absorbed defense of the Russian forest. Another glory is Wallace Shawn's deft application of his unique, adenoidal delivery to a killjoy character who nonetheless requires our sympathy, even though he has no obvious claim on it. Shawn finds and defends those claims, working as seamlessly as everything else in the film—except, of course, when Malle or Gregory wants us to notice and consider the seams, the determinate environment, the historical and cultural distance that suddenly feels so much less distant. In a year whose other breakout movies (Pulp Fiction, Heavenly Creatures, Natural Born Killers) were such virtuosic plunges into wild aesthetic surfaces, Vanya on 42nd Street is, in the words of Pablo Neruda, as bright as a lamp, as simple as a ring, remote and candid. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Picked Flick #75: Birth

    A breathless, typical, and totally verbatim excerpt of a recent conversation I had with Nathaniel when he was my houseguest for a weekend: "Let's stay in, make some food, and watch movies where women lie to themselves!" Were Blockbuster or Hollywood Video ever under our jurisdiction, to say nothing of Hollywood itself, this is the kind of genre that would get major play. Maybe even the most play. Those under-employed actresses over 40 you keep hearing about? No more worries. Safes and Vera Drakes and Under the Sands and Autumn Sonatas for everyone!

    Nicole Kidman isn't even 40 yet but she has already offered a peculiarly fascinating entry in this delicious tradition. One of many astonishing passages in Birth, preceding a coda as fragile and clear as a bell jar, involves her pleading monologue to a spurned lover, a thrumming fugue of stuttering self-delusion of a breed seldom heard since Safe's Carol White soliloquized about diseases and reading labels and going into buildings. Still, Kidman's Anna Morgan is a mess well before this. When we meet her, she is standing at the graveside of a husband already dead ten years, her breath visible as she stands shivering in a minidress, winter coat, and heavy boots. With her short, Rosemary's Baby haircut, Jonathan Glazer's procession of intimate close-ups, and Harris Savides' opalescent cinematography, there is no visual or cosmetic barrier between us and Kidman's tremulousness. Where so many of the actress' recent roles have disclosed her surprising steeliness—as Virginia Woolf, as Isabel Archer, as the mother in The Others and the sometime martyr in DogvilleBirth draws near to her cool lladro skin, her darting eyes, her trademark tic of blowing air through her nose in smiling agitation. Even as Anna makes heavy choices and adopts iron stances, daring to believe that a spooky 10-year-old interloper is the reincarnation of her immortal beloved, the probing camerawork won't corroborate her resolve. In an ice-cream parlor, under a bridge in Central Park, amid the sickly lime of the living-room wallpaper, in that exquisite, tumultuous, minute-long close-up at the Metropolitan Opera, we hover so close to Kidman that we're practically in her pores. From this vantage, the movie reverberates with foreshocks of her heart's collapse.

    So how does a movie like Birth still get made? The auteurist formal control of the movie, awash with directorial signatures at every level and in every nook, feels anachronistic in itself, redolent of an emotional drift that hasn't much been felt much in American movies since Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens. The film's absorption in Anna recalls Mabel Longhetti slipping under the influence, Evelyn Mulwray battening down the demons of patriarchy, both of them listing away inside the diametrically different styles of their films. (In the Mood for Love plumbs and lingers on Maggie Cheung in a very similar way, which goes far in explaining Kidman's recent, passionate courtship of Wong Kar-wai.) Alexandre Desplat's roiling, sonorous score, the most beautiful thing heard in years of movies, ebbs and rolls with a confidence to match its beauty, as if movies have been scored this way forever. Anne Heche, slicing through the imposture and helplessness of the other characters, is as sharp and forceful as Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus. And the script, which came to such grief among so many critics, resembles nothing so much as those gorgeously stuck, impacted stories of Henry James, like "The Beast in the Jungle" or "The Altar of the Dead." Does the film take itself too seriously? Does it admit too little about too much? Maybe, but such bold and gorgeous reticence is a rare gift. Birth is the most recent movie on this list, but it has already staked a fierce claim on my imagination, and it doesn't feel like the kind of movie that lets go very easily. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Picked Flick #76: The Lion in Winter

    I am tempted to say that The Lion in Winter works better than it should. Its dual lineage in royal history and soap operatics doesn't seem like the recipe for anything but a feathered fish, remote to popular audiences and unrecognizable to more studious ones. The apoplectic performance style of Peter O'Toole whenever he's sprung from the Arabian desert seems like an odd match with Katharine Hepburn's Connecticut vowels and her dry-gin flirts with the camera. For purposes of drama, but also for those of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine themsleves, there are too many sons running about. As in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, released the same year, the sets and costumes are pretty but also too...clean. The palace is aspoil with mongrels, hens, and fugitive vegetables, but not a thing has streaked Hepburn's ivory caftan or O'Toole's clabber-colored face, still as white as empire beneath that well-tended beard. Past the edge of every frame, around every palatial corner, you can sense the playhouse audience so clearly intended by these barbs and bon mots.

    The Lion in Winter shouldn't work, but then, adding up all of its giddy affronts to seriousness and proper concert, the movie shouldn't do anything but work, and that's exactly my experience of the movie: it works and keeps on working, so succulent that it's no longer absurd, pumping so much pure voltage into its bickery version of history made at night that there's no means of resisting, and no reason to. The Lion in Winter practically reels with its own sense of fun, even as John Barry's timpani and trumpets keep fastening the movie to some form of gravitas, even as Douglas Slocombe's photography, much more interesting than I remembered, casts a fine, sooty dust over these transparently modern personalities. James Goldman's adaptation of his own play is a robust and roustabout chronicle, Holinshed in the age of Peyton Place. Better, having devised this unique blend of annal and sitcom, dotted here and there with unsheathed daggers, he keeps it going ingeniously. I've never been much sold on the work of his more famous brothers. Oldest brother Bo farmed thin conceits in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Melvin and Howard, winning Oscars for both that were more rightly due the directors who placed so much trust in them. Superstar screenwriter and raconteur William, well-seasoned with experience but annoyingly arch all the same, has even more overrated titles to his credit, like the thin wisp of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the preening whimsy of The Princess Bride. The Lion in Winter has what none of these films have—though, giving credit where it's due, William's ace distillation of All the President's Men has it, too: a braced and solid structure, a gallery of finely etched characters, a huckster's gift for streamlining and popularizing the arcane, a beating heart of popcorn appeal that still allows the film to go about its business, aggressively selling its strengths but never just shilling them.

    Certainly I've never liked O'Toole nearly so much in his other films as I do here. His Henry is livelier as well as more serious than his counterpart performance in Becket, though it helps that Anthony Harvey is a much better judge of camera distance and emotional beats than Becket's Peter Glenville was. Katharine Hepburn bursts forth with by far the best performance of her life after Spence. The standard meme in biographies, including her own, is that she tore into the role with the admittedly displaced energy of massive grief, but it's worth noting that it's as sexy a turn as the one in The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn writhes on her bed, tinders an incestuous spark in the eyes of all her boys, contemplates her own image in a mirror shaped like a dragon's tear, and lures a leading man 25 years her junior into a vivacious, erotic battle of wills that goes off like a charm. Maybe she was just turned on by all those great lines she gets to recite and react to. "She smiled to excess but she chewed with real distinction," Eleanor offers in perfect dismissal of a rival who, let's not forget, is already long dead.

    "I marvel at you after all these years," mutters her nonplussed husband, "still like a democratic drawbridge going down for everybody."

    Shooting back at Henry's autumnal dreams of having more and different children, Eleanor asks, "What kind of spindly, rickety, milky, wizened, dim-eyed, gammy-handed, limpy line of things will you beget? And when you die, which is regrettable but necessary, what will happen to fair Alais and her pruny prince?" Give Katharine Hepburn that many consonants to bite down on, sit back, and luxuriate. That Eleanor of Aquitaine can hardly be entertained to have said any such thing hardly matters; that Pauline Kael spat vituperatively on the whole ship matters just as little. A slim skiff, maybe. Its last act is utterly at sixes and sevens, and the actual finale slips right off the screen. But it's a proud pageant up to that point, punchy and uproarious, a royal flag unfurled for the cause of popular delight. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Tuesday, November 08, 2005

    Picked Flick #77: The Brood

    David Cronenberg's The Brood debuted in 1979, the same year as Robert Benton's box-office smash and Oscar darling Kramer vs. Kramer. Though his film beat Benton's into theaters by several months, Cronenberg has often cited The Brood as his own horrified rebuke at the domesticated middle-class gauziness of Kramer, having himself recently emerged from a caustic divorce and custody battle. The Brood/Kramer showdown, forever rooted in their own irreconcilable differences, offers as stark a dichotomy as the more infamous Do the Right Thing/Driving Miss Daisy square-off at the end of the following decade: same issue, same medium, different galaxies. And though such is not always the way, the indie films sure come out smelling like roses in these comparisons.

    The throbbing knot of angry frustration that so thrillingly crystallizes The Brood—it is by several degrees the most focused and accomplished entry in Cronenberg's pre-Videodrome filmography—is also the explicit subject of the movie, where it is nonetheless aligned with monstrosity and the will to murder. On the one hand, divorced dad Frank Carveth is comfily outfitted with a placid demeanor as well as primary custody of his young daughter Candace. Frank tells Candy's teacher that his wife Nola "married me for my sanity, hoping it would rub off on her," and everything about the film implicitly defends his claim, from Art Hindle's collected performance to the preponderance of screen time afforded him by Cronenberg's script. By contrast, Samantha Eggar's Nola is a raving harpy, an absent mama, and a slave to psycho-clinical trends, having given herself over to the experimental regimen of "Psychoplasmics" founded by Dr. Hal Raglan, an unsettling figure who impersonates his own clients' most bitter antagonists in long role-playing sessions, until the patient's unleashed fury is literalized as nodes, rashes, or pustules on the surface of his or her skin. The Brood doesn't delve deeply into the internal operations or even the grounding logic of the Psychoplasmics enterprise; like the Cathode Ray Mission or the Black Meat factory in later Cronenberg films, this posthuman phenomenon titillates with the idea rather than the mechanics of somatic transformation. It is, however, the conceptual heart of the picture, however shrouded in mystery—a state of affairs that is underlined by The Brood's taut, pervasive emphasis on oblique framings and offscreen space. Cronenberg's contempt for Nola is as clear as his fellow-feeling with her cooler, calmer husband, and yet her operatic rage and her willingness to push her body and mind to new limits of being are what animate the picture, literally yielding its prime agents of horror, and conferring narrative possibility onto the static canvas of the director's own palpable anger. You can't watch The Brood without sensing its exorcising function in the life of its maker. The emotional strata of the film, no less than its tense images and grisly set-pieces, no less than Dr. Raglan's dissertation or Nola Carveth's otherworldly and abject progeny, embody "The Shape of Rage."

    So I love The Brood for flaunting its metaphorical referents, yet still complicating the presumed roles of hero and villain with its undisguisable awe at the potency and intricacy of what Nola's ferocity brings into being. Guaranteeing that the movie isn't just Cronenberg's triumph, The Brood is also his first important collaboration with deft cinematographer Mark Irwin, who subtended his career throughout the formative period leading up to and including The Fly. Composer Howard Shore and art director Carol Spier, each holding those jobs for only the second time in their careers, also begin their auspicious and still-evolving teamwork with Cronenberg on this picture. The work of these artists, together with Samantha Eggar's ferocious conviction as Nola and the generally capable performances all around, impart unto The Brood that singular air of a terrific genre exercise that also foreshadows stranger, deeper, and more complicated triumphs lying over the horizon—several of them further up on this list, in fact. It's an exciting film, as regards both aesthetic merit and entertainment value, and it holds up beautifully even in retrospect. Three years after The Brood, Alan Parker's white-hot and perfectly judged drama Shoot the Moon did at least prove that a commercial film with a prestige cast (Albert Finney, Diane Keaton) could peel the skin off the question of divorce, but Cronenberg's foray into the terrain remains seminal. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Monday, November 07, 2005

    Picked Flick #78: Babe

    The Daily Telegraph recently published a list of the 20 best films for children, and it's an interesting list, culling surprising titles from the Disney catalogue and encompassing both well-known and underseen titles—even if, in this reader's opinion, its belief in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit runs prematurely excessive. Conspicuously missing from the list, if I may pose only one corrective, is Babe, the box-office sleeper of 1995, unexpected Academy favorite, and apparently unreproducible miracle, since the sequel struck precious few, give or take Gene Siskel, as rivaling the original.

    Babe is magic. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, blessing the film with early, colorful hints of the Antipodean fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings, works within a stable and pitch-perfect palette that nonetheless glides easily among the emerald pastures of Hoggett farm, the calico colors inside the house, the sepia frights and silhouettes of a killing shed, and the blue-filtered nightmare flashback to the drowning sheep. Whatever wizardry allowed the animals not just to "speak" but do so in a way that is terrifically un-creepy has yet to be revealed, at least to me, but these and other special effects in Babe are perennial joys, even after six or seven viewings spread over ten years. The voicework, headed by Christine Cavanaugh's dear articulation of Babe's lines, is just impeccable, and then there's the physical acting by the animals: the uproarious bobs and weaves of Ferdinand the Duck's long neck, the malicious envy of Duchess the Cat, the nervous energy of the dogs Rex and Fly as they attempt to extract key information from a flock of seen-it-all sheep. Why is it that most popular films can't cobble together a decent pen of human actors but Babe can wrest a menagerie of real and animatronic animals into a taut, funny, even witty ensemble? The answer to that question probably lies somewhere in the province of why most child-targeted movies are so clogged with puerile, dizzying set-pieces while Babe exemplifies the virtues of coherent action, picture-perfect art direction, a gentle and melodic score, and a gallery of bonafide characters—both the creatures and their keepers—who negotiate issues of aspiration, prejudice, politeness, jealousy, non-conformity, belonging, and surprise that, in their basic topography, are just as keen for children as for adults.

    At the center of Babe, though, is a love affair between farmer and animal that for me handily eclipses its analogue in Wallace and Gromit. Lesnie, as we know from the Rings films, is a whiz at camera movement, and one of the supplest and sweetest in Babe is the high-angle POV shot when Farmer Hoggett first spies Babe in his little plywood box at the county fair. Seguing into a ridiculously affecting shot/reverse shot between Hoggett and hog, this poignant moment finds its obvious, perfect complement in the final shots of the same duo, which end the movie on the same introspective note of deep, intimate, friendly togetherness that we appreciate when Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, at the finis of The House at Pooh Corner, "Come to an Enchanted Place and We Leave Them There." That Babe's central human character is not a winsome child but a laconic adult, moved and stirred even to spontaneous dancing by this able and good-hearted animal, is another of its lovely, unexpected departures from formula. Embellished in a gleaming white light that we somehow don't resent, Farmer Hoggett and Babe are one of the best and soundest teams in recent movies. Point me to even ten other movies in the last decade that combine unbashful sentiment, top-of-the-line visual effects, rounded-out characters, fully functional subplots for almost all of them, piquant mise-en-scène conceived in this much doting detail, and one-liners as good as "I suppose the life of an anorexic duck doesn't amount to much in the scheme of things, but Pig, I'm all I've got!" That'll do, indeed. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Picked Flick #79: Executive Suite

    Among the great, semi-forgotten American films of the 1950s is Robert Wise's Executive Suite, my favorite among his many directorial outings and still an incisive, attentive character drama about the high, hallowed halls of corporate intrigue. "Because it is high in the sky," an anonymous narrator intones over the opening shots of then-modern skyscrapers, "you may think those who work there are somehow above the tensions and temptations of those who work on the lower floors. This is to say, it isn't so." And how. The names of the film's dynamite lead cast are heralded onto the screen by the low chimes of a public clock, and with a lineup this sterling—William Holden, Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters, a surprisingly tough and never-better June Allyson—the gesture hardly feels grandiose. As the movie begins, it demonstrates an affinity for formal stunts like the stark absence of any musical score and the long, tracking POV sequence shot in which the unseen Avery Bullard, president and redeemer of the Treadway Furniture Company, concludes a business meeting in Calhern's office, sends a telegram to his home office, and dies of a sudden stroke on the sidewalk while hailing a cab. From this point forward, however, the movie coils its springs and employs much more modest means in achieving its magnificence: the actors, equipped with great roles and fellows and a drastically under-explored American theme, light into their parts with heroic, muscular conviction. Ingeniously plotted, the film delays each character's awareness of Bullard's death in clever ways, digging into their reactions in some cases—Pidgeon's sorrow, Calhern's duplicity—and cleverly excising these reactions in others, so that we are all the more surprised by their battle strategies for filling the vacuum at the top of the ladder.

    Wise, famously, was an editor before he was a director, and as with all of his films, the cutting expertly serves the tone and theme of the film, hastening the ends of key scenes by beats and half-beats, just enough to aggravate the tension. In concert with Ernest Lehman's typically shrewd script, Wise also makes time for unexpected accents and cul-de-sacs in the narrative. When Holden's earnest factory supervisor, now a coalition candidate to take over the company, is called away from a backyard game of catch to keep up with the latest machinations, wife Allyson dons his mitt and takes their son back out to the yard. Throwing and catching some mean fastballs in deep, unedited shots, Allyson keeps up a smart dialogue scene at the same time, which not only constitutes a small and unexpected moment but prudently keeps us guessing about what Holden and his cronies are up to. We know the basic idea; he's collaborating with Calhern, at least, to ensure that crafty, officious fussbudget March doesn't become the top banana, even if March himself capably and unshowily takes top honors in a cast of expert rivals. His prime competition, if we allow the film to teach us that everything is a competition, comes from the unexpected quarter of Nina Foch, Gene Kelly's haughty patron in An American in Paris. Cast here as the late CEO's loyal, proficient, and keenly alert secretary, Foch has one of those roles like Kelly MacDonald's in Gosford Park, watchfully slinking among more obviously dramatic characters, but all the while managing the tough double-trick of clearly delineating a specific character while also serving as the audience's general window into what's happening.

    The climax of Executive Suite's script preserves all the slippery power and impressive dexterity of the earlier chapters, and continues to stoke our sense that all of the characters must be closely watched. The closing soliloquy is perhaps the one truly predictable element of the film, but its lucid optimism and core values are still quite rousing. Its grasp of corporate psychology, much less human psychology, seem much richer than in Billy Wilder's glib and opportunistic The Apartment, and the tough, simple confidence of its formal choices register much better with me than the more elaborate noir stylistics of Alexander Mackendrick's celebrated Sweet Smell of Success, which Lehman helped to write. Too, it's one of those movies that you're most likely to see if you pop onto cable TV and find that it happens to be playing, so for most of us, the film is brightly tinged with a genuine sense of discovery. 'Tis pity, though, that this is so.Why we hardly recognize a film this relevant and top-drawer, replete with such famous names ticking off some of their best work, is beyond me, but unlike capitalist profiteering and white-collar backstabbing, it's an easy enough habit to kick. Rent it. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Three Strikes

    After a solid September and October, things just weren't going right at the movies this first weekend in November...

    Saw II D
    In this case, I had no one but myself to blame, and I doubt there is much need for commentary. The shocks on sale in Saw II are mostly of the "What is the world coming to?" variety, both because the grisliness of the scenario and the images is so unremitting and because it turns out that somehow, someway, cowriter-director Darren Lynn Bousman and Saw impresario Leigh Whannell watched Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and, alone among the world's citizens, thought it a great flick. Saw II, proudly opting for Roman numerals, similarly throws a bunch of disposable people into a dank and creepy house and mostly disposes of them. Except for a truly stomach-turning interlude inside a vat full of hypodermics and a gleeful auto-homage to the risible "chase" scene in Saw the Elder, Saw II's putridity takes utter leave of all standing definitions of taste and coherence. The strenuous feints at moralizing—both films' conceit is that the killer is trying to make his victims kick their addictions and value their lives—is unmistakably thin and opportunistic, designed for those audiences who like to relish in sin, voyeurism, and depravity while pretending their own moral elevation. Or for viewers like me who quite insensibly toss money at ventures like this, suspecting full well what I'm asking for and getting exactly that, two- or threefold.

    Jarhead C–
    Jarhead, meanwhile, appropriates a perfectly viable premise and humiliates audience expectations by staunchly refusing all available avenues. Neither a film of ideas nor a howling screed nor a populist entertainment nor a beefcake calendar nor an oil-black comedy nor a coming-of-age drama nor an action thriller nor a grounded character study, Jarhead emerges only as a pure study in avoidance, bubble-wrapping the themes and emotions at its core in multiple layers of plastic vacuity. For almost an hour, the context of war is a sagging pretext for an irksomely endless series of riffs on alpha-male infantilism. As in Sam Mendes' other films, Jarhead shares the obsessions of its characters—in this case, with masturbation, with women as distant and probably faithless objects, with young men's jockish unease around each other's jockish bodies—and yet stands away from them, making stained-glass images about its themes instead of more fully credible or even audible artistic statements, to say nothing of cogent political statements.

    Since American Beauty was itself about a spiritual and intellectual emptiness at the heart of cosmetic pretense, Mendes' slicksterisms worked just fine; in context, they even fascinated. Jarhead, though, verges much closer to Road to Perdition levels of total irrelevance, ultimately afraid of the last theme standing, which is the possibility that the Gulf War amounted to nothing, a stalled engine both in the global-political domain and in the minds of the soldiers who fought there. This strikes me as a uselessly glib way of conceiving world events or human character, and the film isn't serious about it anyway: Jamie Foxx, giving the most charismatic performance in a terminally underwritten part, has a late-breaking monologue about loving his job that comes from absolutely nowhere in the script except a compulsory instinct to "deepen" itself, and Jake Gyllenhaal has to mumble some last-minute tautologies about being in the desert even when he isn't, and not being there even when he was, and about being the desert, and how we are all still in the desert.

    In the literal senses that this is true, Jarhead offers nothing by way of insight. In the historical sense, speaking as the son of a U.S. Army colonel who earned a master's in Middle Eastern history before commanding an artillery batallion in the first Gulf War, this is just as much an inanity. One of the earliest passages in Jarhead the book, reproduced at length here, holds that even the most artistically complex war movies, whatever their ingrained politics, are re-gristed as jingoistic, hormonal fuel for Army recruits, who watch something as jagged as Apocalypse Now and get off on the explosions and ammunitions. Mendes' response to Swofford's anecdote has been to evacuate meaning, message, and care, presuming that they will be lost or peripheral to this audience, and probably to all the audiences who stand to fill Jarhead's coffers. The film is technically proficient, at least in its cinematography, but the cynical and cowardly disservice it does to its own genre and themes eat away at everything passable in it.

    Shopgirl F
    I would love to report that the old adage about "three times lucky" reversed my moviegoing fortunes, but in fact things came screeching to a truly dispiriting halt with this limp noodle of a film, in which every single thing either goes wrong on its own terms or else is wholly undermined by a framework of truly idiotic page-one decisions. The biggest challenge to making a great movie of Shopgirl would be navigating the tension between the mercenary cynicism of Ray Porter (Steve Martin), who essentially rents a sales girl at Saks Fifth Avenue as a convenient accessory-receptacle whenever he's in LA, and the plangent romanticism with which Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) misconstrues her effect on Ray, and which causes even Ray to wonder whether he's selling this relationship short. Both characters seem to have internally divided views about what they're up to, but they opt for the paths of least resistance—in his case deception, in hers self-deception, with a thick mortar of sex and materialist reward sealing it all together.

    Again, not a bad premise, but director Anand Tucker and over-proud papa Steve Martin, who also wrote the book and adapted the script, deface the script's potential in truly moronic ways. Martin narrates, though the narrating voice doesn't seem to quite be Ray's, since it not only describes itself as "objective" but comments attentively on scenes and entire plotlines that Ray knows nothing about. This structural conceit therefore warps our sense both of Ray and of the narration beyond any recognition: the twee and paternalistic attitude it assumes toward Mirabelle don't match Ray's conduct at all, but nor does it seem like a credible vantage for the film itself to adopt toward her, since it never probes her life or her mind in anything like the promised depth. An elementary ingredient of Shopgirl is a scalpel-sharp demystification of Ray Porter, but the film can't commit to it, implying in such precious, fluffy ways that his is the guiding point-of-view. The ending of the movie, a veritable coloratura of these God's-eye pronouncements from Ray/Martin, is as woefully over-extended as the beginning, where Mirabelle is awkwardly courted by a dull and desperate Jason Schwartzman—stuck in the Giovanni Ribisi role of making the old guy look debonair by comparison. Meanwhile, the camera coddles, flatters, and leers at Claire Danes just as Ray does, positioning her as yet another exquisite delicacy on offer at Saks, and the movie invites all manner of projection onto her wide smiles without really putting anything behind them. Who is this girl? For one scene exactly, this lonelyheart singleton goes to lunch with a pair of inquisitive friends, and you ask, she has friends? Where on earth did they come from? Doesn't the movie kind of belabor the implication that her only companion in life is her cat? Why can't the movie make a decision about how small or not small her social circle really is?

    Shots of the Space Needle, of the façade of Danes' apartment, of Martin on his private plane, and of the Los Angeles skyline repeat themselves ad nauseum, "establishing" locations and transitions that are perfectly evident and, perhaps, straining for a kind of environmental poetry that the flat, ill-lit images and the outrageously thick musical score shoot dead at every turn. Words like "Vietnam" stand in for entire, wasted characters like that of Mirabelle's father. Basic matte shots of characters dining against an evening backdrop are jaw-droppingly artificial. Martin proves time and again in close-up that he isn't the kind of actor who survives well outside of dialogue or carefully framed scenarios. Unlike, say, Bill Murray—Lost in Translation really is the imagined Holy Grail for this film's failed efforts—Martin's face gives almost nothing, and for all his handsomeness at 60, the contours of his face aren't inherently interesting at all. He can't act in silence, which this film repeatedly asks him to do. The bouts of sex that account for the lion's share of Ray's interest in Mirabelle and at least some fraction of her involvement with him are coyly elided, cementing the impression that we are never really watching the story that the film insists we are watching, and despite spending two hours with three people, we never really meet anybody. Shopgirl is a story by a man in late middle-age about a twentysomething girl that the film can't understand or even portray without the gauzy, invasive prisms of orchidaceous male fantasy. The end result can only imply more about the creators and their own dreams about this girl-figure than about the girl-figure herself, making the film both embarrassing and frustrating to behold.

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    Picked Flick #80: Blow-Up

    A tempting but terrible habit for film critics is to pronounce with presumed authority on things we know nothing about, except via the movies we watch. Whether Blow-Up, then, offers an apt characterization of the swinging London '60s, either in literal or purposefully exaggerated terms, or whether the "swinging London '60s" are anything but a cultural mirage, cultivated at the time and cited and spoofed ever since... none of this is for me to say, though Blow-Up sure makes it all feel true. The concerts, the floating parties, the licentious verve of the fashion photo-shoots, the sexual exhibitionism and its surrounding cocoon of scopophiliac looking. Whether or not this strain of youth culture ever existed, it exists quite convincingly and entertainingly within the terms of the movie. The construction of this atmosphere is the connective tissue that binds the movie together, even as so many of its scenes feel loose, offhand, breathing easily.

    Whether or not Antonioni's protagonist unwittingly takes a snapshot of a dead body in a public park is only one of the questions at the nucleus of the film. Another is what it would mean if this body, this stranger's body, this body that doesn't look sufficiently like a body and doesn't have the habit of staying put, really did turn out to be a body. What would change? What would it mean? But there is yet a further question, equally central, and it virtually neutralizes all the others: what if these narrative riddles and cryptic implications are shadows of some greater enigma, some secret life of objects that keeps emerging, deliciously but somehow troublingly, in all of Antonioni's shots and scenes? Unlike, say, L'Avventura or L'Éclisse, Blow-Up is not about spaces but about forms and hard surfaces: the photographic equipment, the images themselves, the parti-colored fashion ensembles over which Carlo Di Palma's camera pans and glides so silkily, the rustling backdrop paper in the photo studio, the mottled floor on which Sarah Miles and her husband make love, the plane propeller purchased from the antique store, the Yardbirds' hilariously absconded guitar. Even the objects that go missing from the frame—the body, the tennis ball—continue to define their surrounding spaces rather than the other way around, except perhaps in the final shot, where the photographer himself evaporates into the grass. The seductive aesthetics of the movie, Antonioni's way of photographing everything so that all of it looks fascinating as well as concealing, mark a direct prelude to movies like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, which prompt a constant stream of questions quite apart from the putative concerns of the plot. And yet the movie also feels remarkably self-contained, an exceptional case within Antonioni's own filmography, and within the mid-'60s "swinger" cinema that I have otherwise found so enervating (Lester, Schlesinger). As in the movie's entrancing, impeccably shot and edited sequence tracing the photographic enlargements, the images in Blow-Up itself keep suggesting larger scales, darker ramifications, and its sublimity of beauty and terror is of course the greater for leaving these questions unresolved. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Sunday, November 06, 2005


    Not me, my computer. In shop till at least Tuesday. Am stuck with miserable dial-up connection. Did not know could become such high-speed princess in three months' time after six years of dial-up, but feel helpless, suffocated. More content updates to come ASAP once lovely broadband restored, including write-ups of lurid Saw II, huge letdown of Jarhead, and utter catastrophe of Shopgirl (speaking of "ailing").

    Friday, November 04, 2005

    Picked Flick #81: A Streetcar Named Desire

    Is there a more poignant character arc in American drama, in American literature, than the disintegration of Blanche DuBois? Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, her wounds and anxieties, even her dreams, are those of Gothic fiction: frittered estates, fabled suicides, eleventh-hour suitors, secret histories. Meanwhile, Stella and Stanley Kowalski, her sister and brother-in-law, united by consonance, alliteration, and carnality, have more tangible concerns, like a pregnancy Stella doesn't mention, a ritual poker night Stanley means to safeguard, and, bien sur, the Napoleonic Code. Tennessee Williams' play, among its multiple and ingenious geometries, positions Blanche and Stanley as nearly parallel vectors, moving nonetheless in opposite directions. It is somehow heroic that Blanche, with Williams' help, sustains her romanticism, her "enchantment," as long as she does—even with a paramour as stolid as Karl Malden's Mitch, a walking sack of flour. It is similarly heroic, for quite a long time, that Stanley manages to insist on the proud vulgarity of his petty fiefdom, even as his cohorts offer to stand for the ladies and dance to their radio, as the sisters DuBois share a laugh and later a derogatory confidence at his expense, as prospective parenthood dares to soften him into a stabler companion-provider. Williams is brave to venture these two as complementary egos, each creating worlds within worlds, as Blanche's steamy baths and Stanley's stinking shirt carve a two-room apartment into separate universes.

    But A Streetcar Named Desire is not, finally, a relativist play. It stands fully behind Blanche when she names deliberate cruelty as the one truly unforgivable thing, and as her inventions and self-insulations grow more threadbare—who but a desperate woman could even imagine a figure like Shep Huntleigh?—her cold fate is sealed. Elia Kazan films her lowest moment so that we hover over Blanche, her face and body upside down in the shot, rolling back her eyes in high-angle so as to acquire some sense of whom she's talking to. Blanche, as she herself might put it, is utterly boulversée, her blazing imagination finally bereft of all billows. With more severe lighting, it would be a Bergman shot, but it is better for being a Harry Stradling shot: as in the rest of the movie, the low-contrast grayscale here is the color of cobwebs while still assessing incredible visual detail in every frame.

    Streetcar is to me what The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments or It's a Wonderful Life or Top Gun are to others: a movie and a story that have always been there, past which it's difficult to remember. I read the play in 7th grade and simply never stopped, and Kazan's version has become such an iconic counterpart to the play that it's hard to separate the two, despite their overt differences. In fact, these disparities are interesting: something as simple as following Blanche immediately to the bowling alley to find Stella, instead of letting her nip her liquor and calm her nerves alone for a few beats in the Kowalskis' tenement, changes the whole energy of the character. She doesn't even have her little spat with the upstairs neighbor Eunice, which is especially surprising because Kazan is noticeably preoccupied with Eunice and her husband Sam as an implied parallel narrative. We even cut upstairs to their apartment a few times, once when Eunice is alone, and she is the last character we see in the movie. That I had forgotten these and other variations entirely speaks, I'm sure, to the memory-filling power of the headline performances and the uncanny perfection of the play. Vivien Leigh gives probably the best performance to ever win the Best Actress Oscar, somehow making Blanche "work" even within Kazan's aggressively realist screen poetics. It doesn't hurt her work at all, and in fact it probably helps, that we do have a sense of watching Leigh construct the performance as she goes—the odd accent, the stiff turns of the neck, the ingenious acting she does with all of her outfits and props. Watching Blanche create herself for such a long span is an ideal lead-in to watching Stanley, Mitch, New Orleans, modernity, the world take her apart. Brando only improves as I get older, reacting no longer to the notoriety of the performance but to its exorbitantly confident, lived-in quality, the hyperfamiliarity with the part that allows him to muffle key lines with no loss to Stanley or to the piece. Hunter and Malden never entirely win me, but the production is so grounded in its superior qualities that what's merely good in it becomes elevated by extension. There's nothing rattle-trap about this Streetcar. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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    Thursday, November 03, 2005

    Denis, the Menace?

    Denis O'Hare is a name that movie fans should care about, even though in terms of Denis' career, the play is really the thing. A Tony winner for Take Me Out and a standout in revivals of Cabaret, Assassins, and Sweet Charity, Denis was most prominently featured on screen as one of the annoyed neighbors in Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming's wonderful ensemble dramedy The Anniversary Party and as the guy at the bottom of the ravine in Garden State. (He also played the doctor studying Sean Penn's heart in 21 Grams, so imagine how much secret knowledge he has about me!)

    Anyway, you may have read about Denis and his boyfriend Hugo getting arrested and detained this week as terrorist suspects at a Virginia airport. And, reading the article, even setting aside the implied inanity of the charges, you may have wondered how come boyfriend Hugo is the one who got handcuffed and dragged around even though Denis is saying that he's the big-mouth, and how come Hugo is still the one being hauled into court. Perhaps looking at this picture of the happy, longtime couple clarifies something about their pairing, and something about Hugo in particular, that goes unmentioned in the newsbyte but somehow makes all the details cohere in a sad, infuriating, but recurringly American way. <SIGH>

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