Monday, October 30, 2006

Picked Flick #34: Bram Stoker's Dracula

Normally, I would avoid stacking so many entries so swiftly atop one another, especially since Illusions, the previous Picked Flick, is an underseen gem that I'm eager to call attention to. Still, today is the happy day of Nathaniel's long-incubating Vampire Blog-a-thon, marking an ideal showcase for the next film on my countdown. I hope you enjoy this post, as well as all the others in the Blog-a-thon ... but at the risk of sounding self-serving, don't forget to scroll down for Julie Dash!

Bram Stoker's Dracula portrays two ardent, flamboyant, and perpetually haunted love affairs, one of which begins in the 1400s and spans more than 500 years until the 1890s, the other of which begins in the 1890s and spans more than a century, through 1992 when the film was released, and through 2006, and after. The first of these loves, exquisite but also inhuman and adrift in its timelessness, is the erotic, spiritual, and finally organic bond between Count Vlad Dracula of Romania (Gary Oldman) and his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder). Dracula fights with fervid conviction in a holy war in distant lands, impaling his enemies in an intended tribute to his God and to his wife; already we may sense some confusion between the two, a confusion which Francis Ford Coppola's absintheate mise-en-scène of lurid colors and superimpositions works hard to amplify. Returning home to find Elisabeta tricked into despair and excommunicated as a suicide, Dracula perjures his soul with such grandiloquent acts of blasphemy that he is doomed to live forever, no longer a man yet marooned among mortals, alienated from his love but tortured by her reincarnations (which torture all the more because Ryder inhabits them with such prissy and dumb discomfort). Meanwhile, as the shape-shifting Count chases Mina Harker, his wife's uncanny duplicate, to her home in Victorian England, a new sideshow technology of shadows and silhouettes, of cranks and flickers and distractions, has bemused the urban populace. Dracula's London is a London of kinetoscopes and zoetropes, and Coppola is witty, risky, and besotted enough to saturate his movie with the ghosts of the cinema's own beginnings, to plumb the antique past of the medium as an adventurous artery into a new and heady present.

The movie is proudly, almost over-emphatically vampiric, toying with its own shape, purloining liberally from all of the arts, confusing its chronologies and sometimes confounding its own plot, reflective of and awestruck by the mercurial methods of lead actor Gary Oldman, and almost cruelly willing to lay bare the limitations and vulnerabilities of an unlikely supporting cast. Bram Stoker's Dracula is made of equal parts folly and terror; its very definition of love amounts to a fusion of these two elements, each drinking liberally from the other, interfused so that we are less and less prepared to observe any difference between the two. The film is both a strange and a logical one for Coppola to have made, merging the generational torments of the Godfather series with the hallucinogenic anti-dramaturgy of Apocalypse Now and the curious, occasionally abject self-ridicule of Peggy Sue Got Married. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a movie that slides outlandishly between an extraordinary belief in itself, writ large as a belief in the cinema, and an equally extraordinary drive to flout and undermine its own ambitions. How else to account for the scrupulous production design and exacting star performance that we behold in Dracula's castle, while Keanu Reeves stumbles and falls, resolutely unsaved from himself, through every moment of the very same scenes? How else to receive a movie that can locate and even sublimate a persuasive romanticism within the guise of wild expressionism, culminating in scenes as beautiful as Mina's candlelit seduction by the forlorn and raven-haired count, but also trash itself out with shock-cuts from a kitschy beheading to a bleeding, fatty slab of English roast beef? When I first saw the movie, I marveled only at the beauty in Michael Ballhaus' cinematography, so rich in its colors and proud in its artifice, but now I can detect something of Ballhaus' history with Fassbinder, the way the images shuck us unpredictably between immersion and bafflement, sometimes flattering the actors and sometimes catching them off-guard, ironizing their presence in the movie as well as our own.

For me, Bram Stoker's Dracula distills and sacralizes a form of aestheticized passion, the kind that insists on both the virtuosity and the foolishness in artistic experiment and self-exhibition. The film finds its director living on the outward edge of his mind's eye and inviting a plethora of fellow artists to join him there, all of them enraptured with the arts that constitute the cinema if also a bit skeptical, maybe even a bit cynical, as regards the final product. This peculiar, prevailing attitude both for and against art, both for and against camp, deliriously carnivalesque, is a mighty challenging climate for a movie to grow up in, but then again, it fosters the kind of creative highs that a more serious movie or, in some ways, a less serious movie would never be able to touch. I'm thinking here of Eiko Ishioka's costumes, a nonpareil panoply of wacko but prepossessing conceits: an external armor of internal musculature, Victorian gowns in saccharine shades of mint and pink, a funeral shroud topped with a reptilian headdress. I'm thinking, too, of Wojciech Kilar's churning and thunderous score, which would be too overfull and insistent for almost any other movie but which sees right into the brutish, beating heart of this one, running up and down the scale of ardor and violence. I'm thinking, too, of the expansive and sometimes incongruous sound design, which gets away with inserting some whirring, chirping electronics into a scene where Dracula's brides encroach upon Mina and Van Helsing inside a Wagnerian ring of fire; and of Greg Cannom and Michèle Burke's hair and makeup designs, skewering Victorian masculinity, recycling but also satirizing stereotypes of feminine delicacy and Slavic swarthiness, ushering Oldman's Dracula through not just an array of wild guises but entire phyla of bestial existence. In many ways, Bram Stoker's Dracula is just too, too much, but its fusion of literary and cultural archetypes with avant-garde novelties of vision and sound makes so many films look thin, frightened, and underfelt. It's as though Coppola, his own career all but scuttled and his chosen medium increasingly eulogized, is throwing every new and old inspiration he can find at the screen, and saying, baying, crying, laughing, joking, fuming, declaiming, "Here, for better and for worse, is a movie that's alive." (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1992 Columbia Pictures/American Zoetrope

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Picked Flick #35: Illusions

If Boyz N the Hood, one notch down on this list, represents a high-water mark but also a truncated possibility within the black commercial cinema, Julie Dash's Illusions survives as a gleaming nugget of underexplored, almost esoteric potential in the black art cinema, and the feminist cinema, and the formalist cinema, and the cinema of satire, and all of the other cinemas that Illusions embodies, upbraids, and smartly reassesses. Dash would eventually achieve greater notoriety as the director of Daughters of the Dust, a shimmering and polyvocal fable about the non-asssimilated Geechee cultures off the Carolina coast, and a complex and idiosyncratic miracle of markedly independent, culturally embedded filmmaking. A major foundation of Daughters' enduring mystique, not to mention a doleful fact about American movie culture, is that no feature film directed by an African-American woman had ever circulated in stateside commercial release until Daughters—a full year after causing a stir and winning an award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival—finally bowed in select American cities in 1992. Even without its consequent status as a cultural benchmark, the syncretic and oracular view of history in Daughters, simultaneously anthropological and mythological, as well as the detailed mise-en-scène and the ravishing manipulations of light and montage are the cornerstones of the film's success.

Illusions, though it lacks any trace of Daughters' dazzling visual palette, and though it concentrates on a smaller and simpler cast of characters, clearly prefigures the pliable and critical perspectives on history that would characterize the director's justly famous feature. Indeed, part of what makes Illusions so cogent and transfixing, despite a muddy sound mix and the other technical vicissitudes of a film-school project, is that its deceptively straightforward scenario is so rife with contradictions and diverse implications that a half-hour film about a handful of people can reverberate in so many directions. Illusions' central figure is Mignon Duprée (Lonette McKee), a mid-level producer and project supervisor on a fictional Hollywood lot called National Studios in 1942. Few if any women of that time would have occupied a position like Mignon's, but her intelligence, diplomacy, and stern persistence quickly impress, and the wartime context—we see rows and rows of female telephone operators and office workers, many of them charmed by the military officers who are "advising" the studio's output—furnishes its own alibi for Mignon's unlikely post. The present day's task requires Mignon to oversee the re-looping of a musical whose soundtrack was poorly synchronized, and whose female lead isn't much of a singer anyway. Mignon, brusquely managing the technicians in the soundbooth, is calmed and then engrossed by Ester Jeeter (Rosanne Katon), the young, gregarious, and unsophisticated session singer whom the studio has hired to salvage the number. Ester sings beautifully, utterly unconcerned with the political frissons surrounding her recruitment as an invisible black vocalist to redeem an all-white film. Meanwhile, Mignon's behavior grows erratic and her comportment unsettled in response to Ester's singing, leading to the revelation that Mignon herself is passing as white in her professional life. Her intuitive connection to Ester and their logical alliance within the ideological hierarchies of America's dream factory are nonetheless dangerous to Mignon's own security, not just in her job but in her very skin.

Illusions proceeds through some deft and subtle sleights of hand, building toward an emotional climax that may or may not qualify as "empowering," and demonstrating considerable resolve in leaving so many of its key questions unanswered. What is the nature or future of Mignon's acquaintance with Ester? How long has Mignon been working at National Studios, and how long will she remain there? Has she actively dissembled about her racial identity or has she simply (if "simply" is the right word) allowed her colleagues to naturalize or ignore the signs of her own otherness? These are all examples of the narrative riddles that Illusions elects not to resolve, but even more fascinating to me is the complexity, if not the inscrutability, of the film's politics. Is Mignon's labor, even her very presence in the flowchart of power at National Studios, a progressive achievement in itself, or must she use her position on someone else's behalf—and how or for whom is she to do this? What to make of the fact that the film's discourses on gender and race grow both richer and narrower as it continues, and Mignon's personal traits and circumstances subsume our earlier perspectives on other women, other races, other battlegrounds, literal and political? What to make of Dash's technical gamesmanship, using a vocal track of Ella Fitzgerald to dub Rosanne Katon in the role of Ester, such that the "real" singer isn't "really" singing, and thus refusing a clichéd linkage of blackness to authenticity? Illusions has been considered and critiqued from a multitude of positions in the decades since Dash made it, but rarely among more than academic audiences, and seldom with a full account of the movie's countless and enigmatic significations. Like Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, another monument within black women's moviemaking, Illusions resists the diminishment of black women within documented history and within Hollywood scenography, not by excavating a true-life tale of improbable heroism but by fabulating a scenario that never exactly happened, tugging at our gullibility while nonetheless stating a powerful case for the necessity of invented archives, origin myths, interbraided politics, and historical revisionism. Illusions might speak most powerfully to and from the standpoints of black women's experience, but in one way or another, as we make our way through this nifty hall of mirrors, we're all liable to catch some wisp of our own reflections. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1983 American Film Institute

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Supporting Actress Sundays: 1982

Yes, it's that time of the month again, if you know what I mean. Yet another roundelay of Supporting Actress Sundays has been convened chez StinkyLulu, this time with Nathaniel, Ken, and myself as Stinky's proudly actressexual coffee-klatschers. This month we review the ballot from 1982, when Hollywood collective frrrrrreaked out about gender and its discontents. Not in that rigorous and politicized 1991 way, as in Poison or Paris Is Burning or High Heels or My Own Private Idaho or Naked Lunch; dontcha know by now, these aren't the Independent Spirit Awards. Instead, Oscar flirted with gender parody in a spirit that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, critic laureate of queer theory, famously dubbed "kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic." Jessica Lange and Teri Garr orbited and elevated the zippy, zingy man-as-woman drag in Tootsie; Lesley Ann Warren outcamped all comers in the draggy woman-as-man-as-woman drag of Victor/Victoria; Glenn Close bravely dignified and thereby ballasted the coy, cutesy-poo misogyny of The World According to Garp; and Kim Stanley paid her once-per-decade visit from the weird planet of Being Kim Stanley in Frances, a corrosive true-Hollywood story about a woman who could have stood a little more camp and a little less misogyny in her life. (Also a lot less gin, more reliable parents, a slightly less shit-heel boyfriend than Clifford Odets, and fewer tenures in a medieval asylum.)

As in all the best months, Nathaniel has bestowed upon us his own bit of frankincense and myrrh, in the form of one of his trademark Oscar clipreels. These movies all scored with the public, they haunt the hallways of Netflix, and they pop up on cable all the time, so here's hoping you've seen at least a few of them and feel like throwing a Comment our way. There's plenty of flying fur to go around when the SAS debates begin!

(Image © 1982 Columbia Pictures, reproduced from the Movie Screenshots blog)

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Picked Flick #36: Boyz N the Hood

I remember like it was yesterday the televised moment when Kathleen Turner and Karl Malden strode onstage to announce the 1991 Oscar nominations, transcending the usual levels of obligatory hype by unveiling two Academy "firsts" that surged with real excitement. And what different breakthroughs they were: Disney's tuneful and resplendent rendering of Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to earn a nomination as Best Picture, and in a double-barreled achievement, 24-year-old John Singleton became the first African-American and the youngest filmmaker to be nominated as Best Director, for his severe and proudly didactic debut Boyz N the Hood. The times truly seemed to be a-changin', even if Singleton's rallying cry, born equally of anger and despondency, was still jockeying for space with the avatars of white middlebrow liberalism; in the category of Best Original Screenplay, Boyz stood side-by-side with Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, another hit film about race relations in contemporary Los Angeles that nonetheless appeared to spring from an entirely different cosmos. Bear in mind, too, that 1991 was also the year of New Jack City and Jungle Fever, with Ernest Dickerson's Juice and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust lurking just around the corner in January 1992. In the same twelve months that witnessed the public proclamation and the first, pathbreaking successes of the "New Queer Cinema," a New Black Cinema seemed equally viable and just as culturally urgent, furnishing common cause to established (mostly white) critics, urban (stereotypically black) audiences, and a rising and complicated tide of suburban (white youth) enthusiasm. Boyz was, in every way, the biggest hit of the bunch, and despite the grim despair that permeates its climactic cycle of violence, it augured most brightly for the future.

Is it possible now to watch Boyz and feel no pangs about Singleton's subsequent trajectory? Despite their generic diversity and ambitious premises, neither the distaff road-movie rumination Poetic Justice nor the inflammatory campus drama Higher Learning nor the historical commemoration Rosewood nor the sexually cautious but adventurously acted Shaft remake nor even Baby Boy, styled as a sort of post-date to the Oedipal tensions and turbulent maturations in Boyz N the Hood, generated much heat; by the time of his relative commercial successes, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Four Brothers, Singleton seemed to have capitulated to strict studio mandates, starting over at a lowly rung of an industry he was once so keen to crack open. Perhaps it is a convenient, retrospective fallacy to see in Boyz an allegory for the cruelly limited ecosystem of black Hollywood, where even the brightest talents have a hard time breaching the stern perimeters of ideology and corporate subservience. Or maybe Boyz—scripted, shot, acted, and edited with a clenched and gathering force that excuses its occasional gracelessness—derives its very potency from Singleton's first-timer energy, and the proper response is therefore not to mourn the disappointments that followed but to preserve our marvel at the might and the moment that Boyz so definitively embodied. As obedient as the film is to Hollywood grammar, conceived and rendered through utterly conventional and occasionally overstated techniques (dramatic close-ups, portentous inserts, dated and trivializing music), it sits almost wholly at odds with mass-manufacturable Hollywood sentiment. The passion behind the story, the hotheaded political outpourings, the relentless dichotomies of hope and danger, lucidity and impulse that fuel the montage bespeak the kind of personal signature that no one much expects from Hollywood movies anymore. Singleton strips his art of almost all ambiguity in the service of thematic and emotional and political transparency. Whether he was or is capable of greater formal sophistication than this seems beside the point; Boyz finds the boldness, the directness, the persuasive power in Hollywood style, rousing its audience toward renewed belief not only in the script's Afrocentric memes of economic and educational self-determination but in the modes of Hollywood storytelling, marshalling every beginner's trick in the book toward a tragic purgation of pity, anger, and fear.

The annihilation of Ricky Baker, harrowingly realized as both a repulsive coincidence and a graven inevitability, remains one of the most shocking and affecting deaths in modern movies. It occasions a test of virtually every character and relationship in the movie—the patient pacifism of Tre Styles, the flinty and precautionary wisdom of his father Furious Styles, the frightened but solicitous empathy of Tre's girlfriend Brandi, the unappealing but ferociously optimistic favoritism of Ricky's mother Brenda, and most of all, the loyalty and heavy-browed pessimism of Ricky's brother Doughboy, whose unexpected inheritance of the movie's moral weight is one of Singleton's most audacious moves as both writer and director. Through Doughboy, and through Ice Cube's superb inhabiting of the character, Boyz articulates the very logic and credence behind retaliatory, intramural violence that so much of the movie—particularly Furious Styles' various sermons on various local mounts—has worked hard to denounce. The impossibility of Tre's choice at the end of Boyz, whether to help avenge his closest comrade or to honor his family and his own beckoning future by recusing himself, strikes equally at our heads and our hearts, positing an ethical dilemma that is all the more gruesome for its very rootedness in everything Boyz has recounted and reflected up to that point (as opposed to abstracting a moral paradox and erecting a thin, beatific scaffolding of Movie around it, as in Sophie's Choice or The Green Mile). However forthrightly the film implores us to "Increase the Peace," Boyz conveys a rigorous sense of how difficult and self-alienating this seemingly faultless imperative can be, and Ice Cube, without glamorizing or glorifying Doughboy in the slightest, invests the character with his own critical, introspective grasp of this predicament. The choices these characters must make, so thickly in the midst of their youth, their frustrations, and their desires, present a crucible that no one really escapes; even when some closing captions inform us that Tre and Brandi succeeded in their quest for an all-black college education, the film never actually leaves their neighborhood. I suspect that Singleton believes that part of Tre and Brandi will always be stuck on these small lots and gridded streets of South Central L.A. No one, Singleton included, makes it out of this film unscathed, but instead of simply hectoring us with the hypothesis of cruel cultural determinism, Boyz enables us to feel this tragedy. We grasp the paucity of choices that present themselves in a world like this (the racial ghetto, the working class, the abandoned city) while the film nonetheless exhorts us, as well as its own characters, to choose—to change, quite simply, the world. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1991 Columbia Pictures.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Beatrix Kiddo Moment

In this superb example of shallow focus, you can see Uma looking fierce and resilient in the foreground while the background is crowded by a blurry horde of ungraded papers, unfinished course proposals and internal paperwork, mounting inboxes, missed trains, delayed film reviews, and friendly phone calls still waiting to be returned. Don't worry; you can still place all your bets on Uma for the win. But if I come to work tomorrow in a pinstriped yellow track suit, y'all will know why. </vent>

(Image © 2003 Miramax Films)


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Picked Flicks #37: Hud & Cool Hand Luke

Exactly five minutes and thirty seconds of Hud transpire before Paul Newman enters. The time is hardly wasted, resplendent as it is with James Wong Howe's widescreen black-and-white photography, marrying pristine formal composition and sublime light and contrast to the parched desolation of a fossilized Texas; shimmering as it also is with a quiet Elmer Bernstein score that both shares and fosters the brimming-heart melancholy of the images. Long, flattened horizons; long, flattened cars; grass and scrub flattened by wind; long, wide roads; wide brims on tall hats atop tall men and boys with long gazes and flat voices; longing; ways of life, long but now flat. Hud evokes all of these things, quickly and fully, and if the tone and camerawork sometimes tilt into self-mythologizing, the myth exerts a strong claim, a persuasive allure. And then, speaking of allure, Brandon de Wilde's awkward, proud, lonely, and sentimental adolescent Lonnie Bannon goes looking for his roustabout uncle Hud, tracking his pink Cadillac (inevitably) to the curbside of some under-attended housewife, pipping and then blaring the horn on Hud's own steering wheel to call his uncle forth from some lithe, clammy iniquity. The screen door pops open: Hud. "Honcho," he calls to his nephew, leaning against a porch railing, insolent, the cock of every walk, "I just hope for your sake that this house is on fire."

Child, the house is definitely on fire. In a crossword puzzle, Hud, in or out of italics, would serve well as a three-letter synonym for sex. And yet, for an actor so universally and deservedly associated with the quality of decency—with bounteous charity, compassionate politics, a legendary marriage, faultless generosity toward his co-stars—Newman's haughty indecency in Hud is a perennial shock, feeding risk and danger into the movie but also into Newman's own performance, because it doesn't come naturally. Newman shapes Hud's libido into something elemental to the character and the story but also, from an actorly standpoint, far from effortless. Where Brando's Stanley Kowalski melds virility with vulgarity at the character's core and mantle, Newman's prowess but also his limits as an actor open up an interesting chasm between his essential, irrefragable manliness, inhabited as casually as a flannel shirt through a five-decade career, and his technical, occasionally studious projection of sexuality. Among the actors to whom he was initially most compared—Brando, Clift, and Dean—Newman is simultaneously, for me, the least gifted and the most interesting. Brando's acting, practiced and deliberate though it is, feels buried down in his marrow, Clift's and Dean's wound and tangled around their nerve endings. Newman's the only one whom one can imagine spending his life another way (in business, in public service, in friendship, in good health), and though the urge to act seems to run deep, allowing him a physical spontaneity and a palpable conviction on screen, what he delivers as acting comes across as a very conscious, careful process, self-reflective and scrupulous. His casting in Hud is therefore even more inspired than it looks. Everyone on screen, especially Melvyn Douglas' humiliated patriarch and Patricia Neal's tart housekeeper (disillusioned and saddened by her own self-protective wisdom), wrestle with those id-level responses to Hud that are a grounding conceit of the script, but they also, because of Newman, engage mentally with Hud. Their questions hum in the air: how could a son so insistently disappoint and rebuke a father? How could a man so degrade himself before a woman, seizing what he might have gotten by asking? How could Hud be so careless with a brother's memory, so inadequate to his shadow? These questions are richer than they might have been in Hud because Newman—tactfully and artfully, but also because this is the sort of actor he is—creates Hud as a sum of conscious choices, not an animal or an icon. His vicissitudes, shames, affronts, and inadequacies are the evolving products of a human life, not the contours of an allegorical figure. He seems like he could change, but he doesn't, or won't. He retains a core of decency which he rarely allows to breathe, for reasons which are his own, though Newman invites us to guess at them.

Four years later, in Cool Hand Luke, Newman stepped into another leading role that the screenwriters and the director can't help but position in the realm of the parable. They haven't fully agreed, with each other or with themselves, about what kind of parable, so Christic imagery dukes it out with midcentury rebel chic and also, amid the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with a vision of lean, able masculinity Taylorized beyond belief and slung between the alternatives of compliance and execution. Conrad Hall, as gifted a cinematographer as Howe but temperamentally dissimilar, dapples the cast in natural light and allows the camera to draw energy from their exertions, their impudence, their bonhomie. Interior scenes are less visually interesting, though one of Luke's best scenes is one of its quietest and most static: the hero's covert interview with his dying mother, Arletta (the incomparable Jo Van Fleet). Through it all, Stuart Rosenberg's movie toggles back and forth between a portrait of community and an ode to the individual, but somewhere along the way, its thematic ambivalence and episodic structure start to feel like major virtues: Cool Hand Luke is one of our most lived-in and pleasurably paced odes to nonconformity, magnifying the athletic, good-natured gratuitousness of the hog-wrestling scene in Hud to full feature length. Newman looks and acts much more at home in Lucas Jackson's skin than in Hud Bannon's eroticized armor, basing this performance not on productive paradox but on flexibility, charisma, alertness in the moment. He trims the more florid gestures and supporting performances to human size—adding a further dimension to Luke's eventual plea that his comrades start living for and through themselves, not vicariously through him. Those interesting moments of crisis notwithstanding, Newman's utter confidence as an actor steadies the movie through its shakier passages, and he thus lifts the curtain on the second, long stage of his career. By this bifurcating arithmetic, Hud is the best example of Newman as Student, adapting himself to a difficult movie, deepening the film through his own hard work and contradictory traits; Cool Hand Luke is the best example of Newman as Teacher, of a movie adapting itself to Newman, surviving its most dated effects and questionable story choices by dint of the actor's contagious aura of integrity, versatility, credibility, and good sense. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

(Images © 1963 Paramount Pictures and © 1967 Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Friday, October 13, 2006

The Midwestern Croisette

The 42nd annual Chicago International Film Festival reaches its halfway point today, and glory be, I finally got to participate. I must say, I'm impressed at the range of films and countries represented. Even though a few high-visibility English-language tentpoles like Shortbus, Babel, and The Fountain are holding the festival together, the menu offers generous fictional and non-fictional courses from Latin America, East Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the South Pacific (read: nearly everywhere except Africa, though I'd also have loved a shot at Inuit breakout Zacharias Kunuk's Journals of Knut Rasmussen). I've actually never attended a film festival before, so yesterday marked my introduction to more than the films themselves: for example, to the way a city's immigrant or second-generation population will turn out in droves for a national export, which will barely cause a blip on the eventual commercial market; or to the exquisite pride that derives from finally deciphering the processes of ticket-buying, schedule coordination, and navigation between theaters. Had I been a little more on top of things, I would have bought a ticket to last night's 11:00pm showing of The Host before it sold out, but now that I've secured my merit badge in demystifying festival bureaucracy, I'll do better next year.

As for the two films I saw—actually one-and-a-half films—I urge you to keep an eye peeled for Syndromes and a Century. Thai sensation Apichatpong Weerasethakul once again weaves an intricate, entrancing enigma out of rhythms, scenes, and techniques so quotidian that many filmmakers would find nothing to observe in them. The opening shot is of tall, thin trees swaying in the wind while the soundtrack hums with the distant echoes of electronic apparatus and media emissions. Gradually these sounds—analogous to Cliff Martinez's minimalist score for Soderbergh's Solaris but even more muffled—give way to a soundtrack of breezes, chirping birds, and buzzing insects, but just as the image finds this more "natural" sonic referent, Syndromes cuts to a close-up of a downcast man, head tilted forward before an antiseptically white background, which instantly undermines the lingering pastoral soundscape. These sorts of editing tricks, subtle discontinuities, and creative mixing and matching with noises, images, subplots, and characters is exactly what Apichatpong excels at, especially because he bends them so deftly in service of character and narrative. The movie, following a typically playful Apichatpong structure, goes on to trace two different stories that begin with the same incident (reprised in slightly altered form halfway through Syndromes' runtime). The first iteration privileges a self-possessed female doctor in a rural hospital, managing a forlorn suitor and a memory of near-love while efficiently dispatching her medical duties to a cantankerous clutch of Buddhist monks and a crop of newly hired doctors. The second iteration aligns itself with one of those new hires, though the hospital is now an austere military facility in a modern city, and hospital business plays out largely in subterranean corridors, supply closets, and blinding white enclosures. Though Syndromes is Apichatpong's most stylistically subdued film to date, it's still an unusually patient and good-natured portrait of rural/urban crossover, of spatial and musical dislocations, of clinical, spiritual, and popular perspectives, of romance and absurdity and barely voiced grief. B+

By contrast, the Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan seems impervious to the pleasures of understatement or quiet implication. I thought that Distant, Ceylan's big festival hit of a few years ago, was an elegantly framed rumination on awfully familiar ideas (estrangement as worldview, familial imposition), enlivened only by rare bursts of humor that the palette, mise-en-scène, and self-serious direction nonetheless worked hard to oppress. Climates, Ceylan's latest effort, which nabbed the FIPRESCI laurel at this year's Cannes festival, struck me as an even more laborious mounting of dismally old saws. The obvious, meticulous deliberation with which Ceylan has framed his images and timed his edits does not conceal the banality of what he produces—marked foreground/background gulfs between alienated lovers, ostentatious and tinny sound elements, protracted close-ups that climax with inexpressive tears. Particularly hard to take was a psychologically complicated scene in which a distraught Bahar (played by Ceylan's own wife, Ebru) seems to attempt a spontaneous murder-suicide while riding a motorbike with her atrabilious lover Isa (Ceylan himself). As the two of them crash on the roadside, the camera captures every untrained, agitated whinge of these non-professional actors, relegating the whole incident into a turgid bout of queasy, inarticulate exhibitionism and eroding every glint of potential in the script. Soon to follow is an endless shot of erotic/violent aggression between Isa and an old flame; again, the performers and the film surely want to be lauded for their "courage" and rigor in realizing such a tempestuous, illegible encounter, but again, the physical vocabulary of both actors radiates a nervous, under-rehearsed improvisation, and the formal presentation offers no needed assist. The unsettling narcissism with which Ceylan films himself and his intimates working hard to render themselves unlikeable and impenetrable feels as pointless and arid as the affective fallacies of heat, chill, snow, shade, and rain imparted by the title and dully realized in the photographic and location choices. About an hour into this thing, sensing no prospect of Ceylan's Climates growing any more hospitable or sustainable, I decided to check the weather outside. Walked out

(Images © 2006 Chicago International Film Festival; © 2006 Kick the Machine/Fortissimo Films; and © 2006 Pyramide Films/Zeitgeist Films)

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

An Evening with Adrienne Rich

In the same week that Queering the Apparatus wrote so eloquently about the invaluable cultural and liberatory power of feminism(s), I'd like to relay what a glorious, very nearly numinous experience I had last night meeting the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. A half-century into her writing career, Rich remains one of the most indispensable literary figures in contemporary America, not to mention one of the precious few souls in our age who have unflaggingly achieved that tremendous trifecta which so many people in my line of work pursue, or simply fantasize, despite the enormous difficulty of each individual task. Against all of the heavy American odds that weigh against the circulation and persistence of poetry, the perceived value of intellectual labor, and the possibility of stalwart principles in public life, Adrienne Rich has remained a top-level creative artist, an articulate and perpetually relevant academic writer, and a courageous and effective political activist.

I first encountered Rich's poetic voice in high school, when her poem "Living in Sin" was assigned as part of an AP English course. Over the years I read more of her poems, as well as her bold and groundbreaking essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (read a précis here if you can't access the full-text Project Muse version), her inspiring convocation speech "Claiming an Education", and several other writings—all of them eloquent, many of them angry, each of them gorgeously humane and passionately alive. She has by now assumed a sidebar career as one of our most principled artists as regards the complex matter of award recognition. In 1974, she won the National Book Award for her poetry collection Diving into the Wreck, but she only accepted the prize on the condition that fellow nominees Audre Lorde (for From a Land Where Other People Live) and Alice Walker (for Revolutionary Petunias, and indeed, what a trio!) receive it alongside her as a testament to the collective integrity of women's diversity over the exceptionalist privileging of solitary voices. More recently, in 1997, she flatly refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts, a federal badge of distinction for our greatest and most influential artists, conferred by the NEA in conjuction with the U.S. Presidency. The full text of her widely disseminated rationale for refusing can be found here (scroll down the page a little), but I'd like to reiterate one of the most famous passages in this letter, also invoked by my colleague Christine Froula last night in her stirring and generous introduction to the reading:

      Anyone familiar with my work from the early sixties on knows that I believe in art's social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
      There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

The flint and steel in those words—privileging the sharp moral authority well above the palpable bystander's dismay that are nonetheless blended in the act of "witnessing"—was itself deeply felt in the auditorium where Rich read last night, to an excitingly and importantly diverse audience of students, academics, and local citizens of several generations and hues. Despite the ubiquitous alertness and occasional severity in the political consciousness of Rich's poetry, most overtly evinced last night in her recent, lyric responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War, her creative writing avoids partisanship or simple, self-exonerating didacticism, just as her essays and public proclamations have avoided these same seductive foes. Her voice is one of reason preserved amidst its own outrage, lucidity maintained against the skews and tints of contemporary rhetoric, of joy and community and erotic pleasure and intellectual thrill despite the taxes of social cruelty, the shade of loneliness, and the necessity of moral vigilance. She opened with a recitation of "Letters: March 1969", which you can listen to here along with several other audio recordings of Rich reading her poetry. The first two sections of this evocative, macabre, and expansive poem go like this:


Foreknown. The victor
sees the disaster through and through.
His soles grind rocksalt
from roads of the resistance.
He shoulders through rows
of armored faces
he might have loved and lived among.
The victory carried like a corpse
from town to town
begins to crawl in the casket.
The summer swindled on
from town to town, our train
stopping and broiling on the rails
long enough to let on who we were.
The disaster sat up with us all night
drinking bottled water, eating fruit,
talking of the conditions that prevailed.
Outside along the railroad cut
they were singing for our death.


Hopes sparkle like water in the clean carafe.
How little it takes
to restore composure.
White napkins, a tray
of napoleons and cherry tarts
compliments of the airline
which has flown us out of danger.
They are torturing the journalist we drank with
last night in the lounge
but we can't be sure of that
here overlooking the runway
three hours and twenty minutes into another life.
If this is done for us
(and this is done for us)
if we are well men wearing bandages
for disguise
if we can choose our scene
stay out of earshot
break the roll and pour
from the clean carafe
if we can desert like soldiers
abjure like thieves
we may well purchase new virtues at the gate
of the other world.

As in Emily Dickinson, Rich's poetic imagination of war's outrage and victory's grisliness is conveyed crucially through figures of incongruous, unnourishing food (the "disaster" drinks and eats more nutritiously than the "we" do), and the imminence of judgment implied by the "gate" bears a complex, darkly ironic cast. That second stanza reads over-quickly as a maverick, righteous uprising against the might of the disaster, with "new virtues" imagined as the reward for refusing an indefensible duty. But what does it mean when "deserting" and "abjuring" offer our best chances of just defiance, or when our "hopes" are "pour[ed] from the clean carafe" as if dissipated in their very moment of realization? Or when new virtues themselves must be "purchased" rather than more beatifically assumed?

Rich gave a stirring, strong reading of this poem and all the others she selected, reaching from the late 1960s through her most recent compositions. In her eighth decade of life, she is bowed a bit by arthritis and was uncomfortably cognizant, as were we all, of the heat of a packed lecture hall. Still, her composure and charisma reigned, and she effortlessly directed our focus toward her words in each moment, never to any patina of celebrity or to the blanket fact of a well-appointed, well-attended, and gracefully organized ceremony. Drawn in, perhaps, by her fame and reputation, what we in the audience finally experienced was her truth, her empathy, and her perspicacity. As much as I admire her, I still wasn't prepared for how honored I would feel to join her before the reading at a small, honorary dinner (an invitation for which I hardly qualified, and which arose only at the very last minute), and then to hear her read, and finally, at the end of the evening, to speak briefly with her in person—sharing with her that "The School Among the Ruins," the title poem from her most recent and prizewinning collection, was a last, great favorite of my late friend and colleague Fred Pfeil, at whose memorial service this poem about a devastated school in a war-ravaged country—almost certainly Iraq, though sadly paradigmatic of many other places—was read. Not just a personal hero then, but a hero of other heroes, Adrienne Rich earned and rewarded every one of those compliments and honorifics that seemed vaguely to embarrass her throughout the evening. She reminded us all, in both her words and her example, to claim even more than our educations—to claim, in fact, our seat at the table where a new world, full of homes as well as faraway places, could be righted, expanded, redeemed.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

You're Not Rid of Us

Today is my birthday, so «clink» here's to 29 terrific years and, with any luck, at least that many more to come. Still, as readers might remember, my own birthday is totally the B-side event on October 9, since it's also the birthday of the single living artist who most inspires me. PJ Harvey turns 37 today, marking another apt occasion for me to ponder, How has this woman become more important to me than any single personality in the medium I love, and how has she done it within another medium that I only casually enjoy? Music, in my life, is what movies are in many other people's: what I want and expect from music is a good time, an interesting surface, an appealing or suggestive lyric, a catchy hook, a danceable beat, a repeatable pleasure. Already, this feels like plenty to ask, but I don't press into any of it, or crave the history or the minutiae, or desire any higher-brow education. I'm just fundamentally uncurious about things like chord progressions and time signatures, and live performances hold no magic for me; I'd rather see a bad movie or read a mediocre book than see an excellent band or check out a new performer. Unless it's PJ. She's the apex, the omega, the godhead. I parse her lyrics and her instrumentations, follow her musical quotations, seek out her influences and recommendations. The dozens of personas, the confounding of genres, the unclassifiable erotics, the widely spanning moods from aggression to semi-consciousness... all of it amazes and rewards me, at the level of the best movies. PJ's albums even feel like great movies, or certain kinds of great literature. If you don't believe me, buy yourself a present for our birthday and find out. Until PJ's Peel Sessions debuts in two weeks (a heavenly notion, but only in the UK???), you have eight primary options:

Dry (1992)
Standout Tracks: "O Stella" and "Victory" are energetic blues-rock, but "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig" are wittier and more unique, and the harsh, complicated strings on "Plants and Rags" give the best sense of where Polly Jean will head as a solo artist. "Water" is fine here but will be considerbly improved by slower, more patient performances in future concerts and "live" bootlegs.
Movie Analogy: Spanking the Monkey, for its brazen rookie irreverence, zesty writing, flagrant provocations, and palpable melancholy.

Rid of Me (1993)
Standout Tracks: The gathering menace of "Rid of Me," coiling up to its final crazy plea; the stuttering rhythms and heavy guitar of "Missed"; the braggadoccio of "50ft. Queenie" and "Man-Size Sextet"; the priceless indictments of inadequate partners on "Me-Jane" and "Dry"; giving good Dylan on "Highway '61 Revisited."
Movie Analogy: Requiem for a Dream, because her emotional force, savvy writing, and musical nuance get a little pummeled, honestly, by the oppressive production. An unforgettable experience that's nonetheless a bit over-the-top.

4-Track Demos (1993)
Standout Tracks: The bare-bones takes on "Rid of Me," "50ft. Queenie," and "Yuri-G" reveal more of the humor, irony, and ambiguity that were sacrificed to pure power on Rid of Me; the same scaling back improves "Hook" and "Legs" immeasurably, recasting each song as a bold assemblage of unlikely parts. Tracks like "Reeling," the comically annoyed "M-Bike," and the evocative "Driving" are so bracingly spare that one is glad she never took them into a real studio.
Movie Analogy: Persona, because PJ opts for solitude, self-determination, and relative quiet. In this envelope of privacy, she strips her art down to what feels like a raw essence—though of course this "essence" is also an effect of fierce, calibrated artifice. A nervy self-deconstruction that also offers a generous window into a great artist's creative process.

To Bring You My Love (1995)
Standout Tracks: The high-octane arousal of "Meet Ze Monsta" straight into the lip-licking nocturnal prowl of "Working for the Man" is the greatest song juxtaposition in the PJ canon; the songs are so taut, sure, and hot with feeling, carrying her from guitar-rock to soundboard experiments literally without missing a beat. On the flip side of the album is the bizarre and bottomless "I Think I'm a Mother," conveying a major psychic break through uncomfortably inscrutable lyrics, deep and distant percussion, and a lowest-possible-register croak. Those are my favorites, but with the possible exception of "Teclo" (a little long) and "Send His Love to Me" (a little on-the-nose), this is kind of a peerless song-set. When "C'Mon Billy" and "Long Snake Moan" are only the sixth or seventh or eighth best songs on your album, you've got a major work on your hands.
Movie Analogy: The Piano, because PJ pumps the blood and the force back into elemental images of water, bush, trek, and wilderness; because the darkly married instruments are indispensable to the narratives she tells and personas she adopts; because she withholds and expresses in tantalizing balance; because the parodic exaggeration of sex, gender, and desire actually serve to denaturalize them and to re-plot their courses, within these songs as well as on future albums.

Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)
Standout Tracks: After a long instrumental lead-in, "Rope Bridge Crossing" offers a simple, unshowy lyric and a gently forlorn vocal track. "Civil War Correspondent" is a great character piece and an astonishing snapshot of disillusionment, and "That Was My Veil" is one of PJ's most purely beautiful songs, no matter how bruised the emotions it describes.
Movie Analogy: The Mystery of Picasso, because by relieving herself of songwriting duties, PJ calls new attention to her increasingly varied, resonant, and confident vocals. A direct view of a well-established artist at work, though her chameleonic changes of perspective and style still serve to keep her at an elusive remove.

Is This Desire? (1998)
Standout Tracks: The sad, broody, electronically filtered landscape of this album inheres most powerfully in "Angelene," "The Garden," "Is This Desire?" and the haunting "Catherine," though the eruptions of energy in "The Sky Lit Up," "Joy," and "No Girl So Sweet" impart a helpful urgency to the set, and "The Wind" and "Electric Light" are interesting flirts with electronica.
Movie Analogy: Maybe Morvern Callar, because of the menagerie of solitary, sphinxlike women and the odd adjacency of neon textures and rustic scene descriptions—but this is actually the wrong question.
Literary Analogy: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, not just because of the restive blend of archetypal landscapes, upset psychologies, and quasi-religious images, but because PJ actually lifts characters and lyrical quotations straight out of "The River," "Good Country People," and other tales.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
Standout Tracks: After all that electro burbling on the last album, Stories re-discovers PJ's bristling guitar roots in the opening duo of "Big Exit" and "Good Fortune" and the late-breaking gale of "This Is Love," but quieter, chamber-scale songs like "Beautiful Feeling" and "This Mess We're In" (with Thom Yorke) also show themselves to terrific advantage, and "You Said Something" is top-flight songwriting, matching Dylan at his own tricksy and rueful best.
Movie Analogy: New York, New York, because the album's shimmering surfaces impersonate elation and florid abundance, despite all the thrumming loneliness and wounded wisdom unifying the project. Top-volume set-pieces alternate with arresting solos, and big-city energy courses through all of it.

Uh Huh Her (2004)
Standout Tracks: "Who the Fuck?" resembles a perfect, razor-edged relic from the Rid of Me era of abrasive backtalk. "Shame" builds on the writ-large emotions of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea; "It's You" and "The Letter" on the narrative aspirations and reverberating yearns of Is This Desire?; "Cat on a Wall" on the grungy pluck of Dry; and "The Slow Drug" on the vocal distortions and piano-wire tensions of 4-Track Demos.
Movie Analogy: Bad Education, because the overall effect is curiously circular, recycling previous idioms with more technically consummate execution but less sense of discovery and surprise. Plus, the whole thing peters out a bit at the end...though there's no denying PJ's emotional commitment to the project, and perhaps with the vantage of several years, Uh Huh Her will look less like a summary statement and more like an important pivot into new terrain. Exemplary B-sides like "97°," "The Falling," and "The Phone Song," many of them startling in a way that album-closers like "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" aren't, show that PJ is still sitting atop an imposing stock of brave, live, challenging, and sui generis material.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Framing the Margins

Just a short note about format, while I prepare a longer post for tomorrow, and also start hammering out a long review for Martin Scorsese's best film since at least Bringing Out the Dead, and maybe since The Age of Innocence.

As you'll see, I've changed the link destinations for recently screened movies so that they convey you to the IMDb pages for those films, rather than those comparatively unhelpful, bare-bones pages that are all I have time to provide for movies I don't fully review. I've also decided to indicate more straightforwardly which movies I have reviewed, with links offered right alongside the titles.

Further down the sidebar, and in a bigger departure, I'm offering bite-sized write-ups of the books I am finishing. One major lifestyle change that assistant professorship has occasioned is that I am reading more quickly and more widely than I ever did in graduate school, and I'd like to share quick impressions from those readings (if only to remind myself of what I've just absorbed!). Pay particular attention—if I may so goad you—to the "Cream of the Crop" selections, since these are the "best"s among my recent reading. It's my own great fortune that two of these absolute feats—John Keene's breathtaking, poetic memoir Annotations and Patrick Somerville's laugh-out-loud funny and dexterously crafted story collection Trouble—are written by two men I'm fortunate enough to know. What I mean is: friendly acquaintance is not at all the reason for my enthusiastic response to their books, but it does make me even more excited to point you toward them and encourage you to buy them. Go ahead! Take my word for it!

(Image © Vintage International, cover design by Christopher Silas Neal)

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Unlucky Stars

Watching miscast actors give poor performances is just miserable, because there's nothing you can do for them except watch them wriggle. The experience is particularly dolorous when the performers are estimably better than the current script or picture is allowing them to be, and it's worst of all when they are the kind of honest, committed joes who don't just sleepwalk through a bad movie or an ill-fitting vehicle or a poorly written part, but who instead keep trying to redeem the experience. If they're lucky, like Jodie Foster was in Inside Man, the rest of the film hums along with such confidence and panache, making such roomy allowances for experiment and unexpected silliness, that the failure to bring a character into focus doesn't register all that much. (Plus, having beheld Foster's embattled, nostril-flaring resolve one too many times on screen, I found her loose, daring miscalculations in Inside Man almost a pleasure in themselves.) The early fall, however, has brimmed with less fortunate actors, wrangling in vain with major roles in movies that aren't good enough to compensate for them or to distract our attention. You might have thought that the miscasting and careless directing of actors couldn't get any worse than it did in The Black Dahlia, and—well, maybe you're still right. But these three movies, all of them worse than the addled but unnerving Dahlia, give Brian De Palma and casting directors Lucy Boulting and Johanna Ray a dismal run for their money:

Director: Allen Coulter
(Mis)Casting Director: Joanna Colbert
This flat-footed procedural offers a marginal Hollywood malfeasance as some kind of plangently tragic conundrum. The question of who killed George Reeves (Ben Affleck), the star of TV's Superman, gets sieved and re-sieved through the dully interlocking stories of his failure to score better parts, his affair with a studio boss' wife (Diane Lane), and his later relationship with a piranha who doesn't care about him (Robin Tunney). Plus, he has the bad luck to be posthumously investigated by a swaggering, irritating, hotheaded detective, instead of by someone that a movie audience might actually want to spend two hours with. Sadly, there is no ironic resonance in the fact that Adrien Brody has barely less contempt for his part as the detective than Reeves had for his padded-suit Man of Steel. Brody constantly winks that he's way too cool for this shoddily written role, perhaps too cool for the industry as a whole—though he sure looks awfully sincere whenever he spouts one of the script's limping banalities about the loneliness of fame or the distorting power of the newsmedia. Presumably, Brody is only too happy to let Affleck hoard all the big press, which reached a sort of dadaist climax when he won the Best Actor award at Venice in September. I can only assume that Catherine Deneuve and her fellow jurors were bribed (money? gelato? weed?) into seeing something remarkable in Affleck's sad spectacle. The "takes one to know one" thesis behind this casting might sound nervy on paper, but however well the sullied inadequacy of Affleck's career and abilities are meant to rhyme with those of Reeves, we still have his minuscule range, stolid physicality, and inveterate self-regard to contend with. Hollywoodland never makes a case that Reeves' death is worth probing, or even mourning; as on Superman, his humanity is utterly stifled by lousy production values and unrewarding stunts. D–

The Science of Sleep
Director: Michel Gondry
(Mis)Casting Director: Julie Navarro
This antic, inventively disheveled, but egregiously overconceptualized movie wins some points for ultimately defying the goopy winsomeness that keeps threatening to take it over. For a long, long time, the mismatch between the giddy, colorful, through-the-looking-glass romanticism of Gondry's visuals and the flat, ashy mundanity of the central love story feels like a galling error. Ultimately, the film justifies our skepticism in a scene of wormy, exhausted anger that's unlike almost anything else in the movie, but the backloading of the film's intelligence isn't sufficient reward for having made it through 100 minutes of capricious indulgence. Gondry, who also wrote the script, has immersed us too heavily, too often, and with such mismanaged abruptness in the arrested-adolescent projections of his protagonist that I, for one, was too exhausted to make the leap into the film's climactic revelations. Plus, to fill the role of a restive, pouting, sexually repressed manchild, Gondry and Navarro have tapped, of all people, Gael García Bernal, whose handsome charisma, confident comportment, and lithe accessibility to both the audience and his fellow actors all make him woefully wrong for this Pee Wee Herman/Chuck & Buck type. Granted, The Science of Sleep would lack much force of irony or discovery had it typecast the part with more overt maladjustment, but García Bernal looks itchy and effortful throughout. Neither he nor Charlotte Gainsbourg looks remotely at peace inside the clamorous, surrealist set-design. In fact, everyone looks uncertain as to how their writer-director is going to pull all of this chaos and whimsy and distant, thrumming sadness into something architecturally sound and emotionally lucid. Few people could or would make a film like this, but the question remains open whether anyone should—especially with a reigning global sex-symbol toiling so far afield from any of his tonal, psychological, technical, or linguistic comfort zones. C

All the King's Men
Director: Steven Zaillian
(Mis)Casting Director: Avy Kaufman
By its very example, All the King's Men formulates an even more stinging indictment of Hollywood than Hollywoodland does in two hours of direct address. King's Men plays as a veritable autopsy of itself; to watch the movie is to watch it go wrong, to observe the tempting gleam of the film that might have been grow ever dimmer. James Horner's score is so hammering and colossal from the outset that you can foresee how overstated and mechanical the whole damned beast is going to be. One is tempted, retroactively, to cede even more of the success of Zaillian's previous features—Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action—to the subtle, rookie-friendly wisdom of the late Conrad Hall. Sadly, in his stead, cinematographer Pawel Edelman inappropriately mimics the same palette of deep black, burnished golds, and scattered patches of white that made The Pianist both elegant and harrowing, but this look is all wrong for New Orleans, and not nearly complex enough to keep pace with the dense, multi-character plot. Not that Zaillian's script has preserved the plot all that well, either—entire subplots, like the fate of Willie Stark's son, are telegraphed and semaphored without ever reaching their destinations. But the real tragedy of All the King's Men is that its entire cast of luminaries, splashed all over the most self-canonizing preview trailer since Cinderella Man, fall so collectively and humiliatingly on their faces. Jude Law trots out his rendition of the cynical bystander as long as he possibly can; James Gandolfini is amateurish and flat, failing despite his physical heft to plausibly intimidate Sean Penn; Penn himself gives great, deranged stump speeches but falls back repeatedly on old tics in all his other scenes; Mark Ruffalo is milky and hesitant; Patricia Clarkson mines her role for bitter comedy as a way to stand apart from Mercedes McCambridge's long shadow, which fully eclipses her anyway. Worst in show, I'm sorry to say, is Kate Winslet, who doesn't seem to know this admittedly unknowable woman at all, who squats under a succession of terrible wigs, who loses a whole monologue beneath a needlessly overlaid voiceover by Jude Law, and who is lensed again and again through butter-colored scrims and in pools of french vanilla. Having failed to learn her David Gale lesson about staying well away from Southern political dramas, Winslet has only this as a silver lining: Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Hush, Halle Berry in Swordfish, Charlize Theron in The Italian Job, and Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven in the same years they all won their Oscars. The Little Children camp may as well start crossing their fingers. C–

(Image © 2006 Columbia Pictures)

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Picked Flick #38: Home for the Holidays

One of my favorite costume-props in modern American movies, right up there with Margo Tenenbaum's Izod dresses, is Claudia Larson's ribbed and massive magenta coat in Home for the Holidays. As Claudia (Holly Hunter) is quick to observe, especially when cornered by an enminked high-school classmate from a lifetime ago, this isn't her enormous coat: "I, of course, lost the stylish one that fits me in the airport." Upon arriving to her parents' crammed and gewgawed home for an inevitably awkward Thanksgiving, Claudia is coerced into this mulberry nightmare by her huskily antic mother Adele (Anne Bancroft), who foists it upon her before Claudia has even claimed her baggage. This means, yes, that Adele brought the coat along before she could possibly know that her daughter needed one: an early sign that the impossible yet possible family in Home for the Holidays is both perceptive and preposterous, knowingly and even uncannily predictive of each other's needs and hurts even though they are unable to salve them, for themselves or for each other, which state of affairs the film regards as merry, sad, and a little bit grotesque.

Home for the Holidays is a tottering but strangely durable object, just like the Larson family it chronicles. The Time Out Film Guide dismisses Home as "a modest film (in every sense)," but I take exception on two grounds: that the film's modesty is just as much a credit as a demerit, and that the structural detours, lopsided gags, and vastly disparate tones in this film are often quite immodest. Nothing in the movie asks you not to notice these asymmetries, and the resulting chaos of moods and performance styles illuminates something in the script, and in holiday rituals themselves, and maybe even in middle-class American families, that a firmer directorial hand and a more balanced film would never be able to access. So, skimming away the elements that plainly don't work—Steve Guttenberg, the farting grandmother (Geraldine Chaplin being less to blame than her silly part), the deliberate spilling of a stuffed turkey carcass over the head of a fuming sibling—a good deal of Home for the Holidays feels nervy, adventurous, and unapologetically disillusioned. The script, for one, is full of broken syntax, non sequiturs, lines that are interrupted or else just trail off, and distended sentences that cry out for loopy, riffy enactment. Here is Bancroft's Adele admonishing her grown daughter for abandoning her love of painting: "All I know is, whenever anybody comes in here, they make a beeline for your brother Tommy's picture. 'Who did that?' they say. 'My oldest, my smartest daughter,' I answer, but she's busy squandering her God-given talent filling in the holes in some dead people's pictures in Chicago, the Windy City." What makes the whole line, the whole speech, is "the Windy City." Aside from the gratuitousness with which a mother reminds a daughter of her own brother's name; from the rude way she actually reminds herself, mid-sentence, to name favorites among her brood; from the implication throughout the movie that few (if any) outsiders ever do pass through this room; from the indictment of the portrait itself, which bespeaks no talent whatever; from the bruising obliviousness with which Adele gets the nature of Claudia's job totally wrong; there's the standing fact that Adele doesn't end her thought anywhere near where she began it. In fact, she dead-ends herself in a little cul-de-sac of empty, accumulated knowledge. The film teems with off-rhythms like this: lighting and makeup are insistently unflattering, despite several scenes of dressing, bathing, and primping; Claudia always loses the words of the songs she sings; the whole cast, stunningly well-matched for physical resemblance, are vocally all over the place; speeches and toasts digress into outright opacity; everyone in the film drives poorly, and too quickly. Like one of Adele's rattling speeches, the film doesn't end anywhere near where it began, charting an arc from comically embittered candor to wild romantic mythmaking. But then, there are deep structural rhymes, too, as in the twinned prologue and epilogue. At the outset, the hermetically closed serenity of a Renaissance painting that Claudia restores in extreme close-up, breaking the whole of the artwork into isolated vignettes. At the end, more vignettes: a montage of faux home-movies depicting islands of ecstatic happiness in the life of every character, though we have already learned by now that the surrounding context for these moments is something less than happiness. Surely, we must apply this pattern to the optimistic mirage of new love that almost concluded the movie. Of course, we hope we're wrong, and I don't think the film faults us too heavily for hoping.

Home for the Holidays has a spirit and an ostensible shapelessness that are pure Cassavetes, enveloping a script that only seems to reach for the precise calculations of 1930s screwball comedy. Gene-splice Cukor's Holiday with Cassavetes' Love Streams, deny the mise-en-scène either beauty or the defensive affectation of obvious unbeauty, and assign as director one of our most controlled, businesslike, coolly mannered actresses, who had helmed only one movie before this one and none since, but who is clearly jazzed by the vandalish act of producing an id-driven, deeply felt, but sloppy-at-the-edges movie that rewards all the impulses and admits all the angers that she tends to suppress as an actress, and you get a movie as weird as this one. An off-kilter prose poem of run-on sentences. And sentence fragments. A raucous comedy tuned to the chords of middle-age, and thus closed off, almost by definition, to the typical (young, male) audience for raucous comedy. A cast of top-flight actors, united only in having been so underutilized in bright but vaguely disappointing careers, and pushed in this instance well away from their comfort zones. Note, though, that Foster's embrace of cacophony at the level of acting, to include her heroic patience with Robert Downey Jr.'s exhilarating overplaying, has been firmly prevented from afflicting either the soundtrack (prim, predictable, Polygram-stamped) or the stabilized color palette (chestnut browns, burgundy, gold, black, and winter white, plus those offending yet scrupulously managed splashes of hot pink).

I know what you're thinking: much of the above reads like reasons to dislike the movie. My partner, aghast at this film's inclusion on this list (and at such a high rung!) gently exhorted me to reiterate that this is a list of favorites, not a list of "bests." Home for the Holidays is indeed a favorite, but also, for me, something of a best: a dramedy about the funny-harsh messiness of families that truly doesn't blanch at being funny-harsh and messy. A middle-brow entertainment, a holiday picture of all things, that preserves the spiky energies of a rehearsal and the dubious, even iconoclastic instincts of a passive-aggressive analysand. And a movie that halts, three or four times, for moments of truth between characters—the final antipathy between two sisters, the gorgeous love between a sister and a brother—that differ entirely from almost anything the movies ever show us, and that carry the rest of this shaggy-dog film to glory. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1995 Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Paramount Pictures.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1936

The boys in the Best Supporting Actress band have collected for another monthly cocktail party over at StinkyLulu's pad. The year in question is 1936, the ninth year of the Academy Awards, but the first year of the Supporting awards. Previously, supporting performances had been just as eligible as leads for the Best Actress and Best Actor races, though of course they never had a fair shake. Only three non-lead performances eked out nominations during those first eight years of Oscar, all of them by men: Lewis Stone playing second fiddle to Emil Jannings' insane czar in Ernst Lubitsch's lost silent film The Patriot; Frank Morgan, aka The Wizard of Oz, camping it up as the Duke of Florence in 1934's The Affairs of Cellini, starring Fredric March as the scandalous sculptor; and Franchot Tone, offering a very nimble turn as the green midshipman Roger Byam in 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty, for which he was nominated right alongside his own leading men, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable.

Though you'd never know it these days, when above-the-title stars like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger win "supporting" Oscars for heavily showcased star turns—and attention-hungry studios shill out obvious leads like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (unsuccessfully) and Jamie Foxx in Collateral (successfully) as "supporting" players—the Supporting Actress and Actor trophies were primarily invented to recognize character actors and even some borderline bit-players for their crucial contributions to the movies. The recipe never worked perfectly; Stuart Erwin, very much the lead in 20th Century Fox's 1936 football-themed musical Pigskin Parade, was mysteriously nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Still, the 1936 races skew much more heavily to second- and even third-tier roles than today's Oscars tend to do, and watching this month's Smackdown performances puts one nicely into the mindset of early-Hollywood voters, who happily poked around movies with very large casts in order to find a performance they liked, rather than having ravenous publicists and ubiquitous pundits tell them where to look.

Granted, for my money, these industrious 1936 voters only uncovered one certified gem: that's 13-year-old Bonita Granville as the ruinously nasty schoolgirl in William Wyler's These Three. You'd never know from this startling performance that the same actress would soon farm a career as Hollywood's most famous, virtuous, and heroic Nancy Drew. Still, the Actors Branch earns points for effort, and the movies toward which the voters gravitated are often better than the nominated turns themselves. Easily the best of the lot is Wyler's magnificent Dodsworth, a drama about divorce, middle-aged sexuality, and rejuvenating love that still feels incredibly contemporary. Visually, the movie is sophisticated and precise, with brilliantly coded costumes and sets. The editing pushes us briskly and clearly through an emotional multi-character storyline, helping us feel the implacable momentum of aging and the poignant, possibly delusional longing for the past; it's not quite The Magnificent Ambersons, but it's getting there. And the acting simply can't be beat. Walter Huston earned a richly deserved Best Actor nomination as the titular patriarch, but the unnominated Ruth Chatterton should have won the Best Actress prize as Dodsworth's pathetic, adolescent, but affectingly desperate and compellingly real wife. Dodsworth also houses superlative turns from David Niven, Spring Byington, and especially The Maltese Falcon's saucer-faced Mary Astor. Queue it up this. second. and pop it in your player the moment it arrives in the mail.

Since the nominated work by Alice Brady and Beulah Bondi was good without being great, and the winning turn by Gale Sondergaard is a simple, vamping villain in an increasingly tedious globetrotting epic, I dug around 1936 a little bit in search of a lost, unnominated treasure, like I found last month in Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side. Turns out I didn't look in the right places, or at least nothing grabbed me on the level of Astor's yearning maturity or Granville's malefic intensity. Still, I can report that Richard Boleslawski's The Garden of Allah, with early and Oscar-winning Technicolor photography, is a stitled but weirdly compelling slice of North African exoticism, starring Marlene Dietrich as a walking vale of unwept tears and a very good Charles Boyer as a lapsed monk. My other underdog foray was, unfortunately, William Dieterle's Satan Met a Lady. This attempt to play The Maltese Falcon as a semi-screwball detective story is a virtually unmitigated disaster, not because it pales alongside John Huston's later and more earnest version (perhaps too earnest, that one), but because Satan itself simply isn't funny, it's hell to follow the desultory plot, and a young Bette Davis as the central woman of mystery looks as understandably exasperated as we are.

If there's any other female performance worth trumpeting in 1936, it's the complex and charismatic work by Frances Farmer in a double-role in Come and Get It, a boisterous but serious Edna Ferber adaptation that William Wyler finished up after initial director Howard Hawks left in a huff. If you've been keeping up, that's three estimable films from William Wyler in a single year, yielding pristine work from female actors in all three (though Joel McCrea and Oscar winner Walter Brennan are also very fine in Come and Get It). I think Farmer is rightfully a lead in Come and Get It, and anyway, it's the movie on which her entire on-camera Hollywood legacy is pinned. Then, of course, there's her howling and horrible off-screen legacy to consider, but you'll have to return chez StinkyLulu at the end of October to hear more about that...

(Photos © 1936 United Artists, reproduced in the Bright Lights Film Journal review of These Three; and © 1936 Selznick International Pictures.)

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