Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: The Year of Apocalyptic Texas Cinema & The Death of the Fixed Narrative Perspective

Finally I saw NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN last night, after four frustrated attempts (where I got spooked by the disorganized pandemonium of the 14th St. Union Sq. theater). Even getting there 20 minutes early, my date and I had to sit in separate seats, luckily we grabbed the wheelchair-man-alone ones along the aisle, and passed our smuggled stuffs back and forth as if the aisle between us was some U.S.-Mexico drug border of the mind. I had some vague feeling of pleasure when I saw the outrage and dismay on the faces of those who came in after us when they saw all the empty seats covered, sometimes barely, with coats and hats. I saw them try to refrain from yelling--especially the long term couples--and hissing at each other to maybe just leave and duck into something else and/or see the manager, knowing full well there would be no manager, and no other films about Texas..with Texas and the Coen's million dollar mcguffin a fine but ignored metaphor for picking up the coats left as markers on the best seats and just hurling them into the front row.

This is the state of America: Apocalypse, Texas. Texas has become shorthand for a nice Road Warrior-sense of lawlessness, the "grab land from a Mexican and marry Liz Taylor"-style wildcatting of our most gas-conscious American fantasies. All big empty horizons and harmonicas in the wheezing mouths of skeletons, the Coen's are back on familiar ground, as I'm sure has already been written. They love big empty canvasses and then close-ups of cramped, mercilessly tacky interiors and hands with money and screwdrivers, and most of all they love circles... lots of circles. The thrill left for me this late in the game was in deconstructing the impression the film made on all my fellow audience members. By now we've been innundated with NO COUNTRY's critical praise. No man has escaped bearing witness to NO COUNTRY's late-inning sprint to greatness in the mediated collective consciousness. At any rate, I haven't. So seeing it now in the theater is not like you've latched onto a sleeper. But is NO COUNTRY even a real film? It seems more like a crossroads, a destination at which to wait for Godot, a diner filled with a unique cross-section of America, waiting for the birds or the mist, or the blob to come attack. Only in this case it's not a monster, but the apocalypse itself and there's no defence, no walls, no borders.

The weird ending of NO COUNTRY is like the hand of your soon-to-die or already-dead father or grandfather reaching out of your own heart and pulling you into the screen and letting you know you never really lost it to begin with. There's no place like home, even if home is a movie theater where not even a pretty hipster couple can find seats together in the same time zone. You'd run, but there's no place to run...a sniper's scope or a pop-up ad will find you. America, where you thought yourself so safe from things like buckshot and coat-seat-markers, has become a tomb; worse than being walled up with your decomposinng father or a yowling black cat, you're walled up with a Dodge Ram truck commercial on endless loop.

What makes NO COUNTRY great really, in the end, is that it paves the way for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. The wild west eulogies are open for business and uber alles looms Kubrick (another big circle lover), his SHINING blood will be flowing and mixing with Upton Sinclair's black-sperm vengeance. The way's been paved and it's a half-pipe, so your kids can snowboard you to Valhalla (or hella). Word. Woot. Happy New Year, you old savings and loan, Zodiac watch-wearing scythe swiper of time! The fixed-positioin viewer-narrator is dead, long live the CSI "omnarrator!" The very old and the very new have found each other. Your kids have cobbled together a grandfather out of bits of old microfiche and silent cinema boxes, and they've cut you out of the loop. Where you gonna look now, scarecrow?

Let 2007 stand as the year the Coens showed us how death really works, just as Tarantino showed us how being DEATH-PROOF no longer works, not even for old men who have nothing left to lose but their center aisle seats. Now raise a glass of the bio-diesel and let's ring in the new automorphic new year!

Chrissie Hynde Vs. Dracula

No cinematic version of Dracula has yet bothered to capture the real romance at the heart of Bram Stoker's novel: the platonic love affair between one girl and four admiring men: Van Helsing, Harker, that cowboy dude, and Mina. The affliction of having been victimized by the vampire --who is never portrayed as romantic or sympathetic in the book--has put Mina into a sort of twilit telepathic contact with the creature... she can go into a trance and feel all his sensory perception - the sound of the lapping waves and the smell of sea air for example, lets the hunting party know their vampire quarry is on the boat.

Similarly is the band the Pretenders: before they broke up and lost two of their members they released two great albums, Pretenders and Pretenders 2. All the critics agree the first album is clearly superior and I wont argue on whatever points they make, but I'll say that Pretenders 2 is my favorite. Yeah there's some songs where it's like who cares, like "Jealous Dogs" and "The Adultress" that seems like they're just out of ideas and somewhat cowed by the sudden success of their previous album. But on the songs they clearly took their time with, you got some real great heartbreak with the whole Ray Davies thing, them being in love, having a kid and the gut-wrenching song "Two Birds of Paradise." And then my personal favorite, "The English Roses." Why do I love it? The bass, man. That's a bass player's song. And yet I can't even remember the guy's name.

One of the things that make the band so great is the relation of these debauched fleeting mortal Brits to Ohio ex-pat Chrissie Hynde, who brings a sense of misguided nurturing, the sort of girlfriend that's not girly but plays as rough as the boys and yet is twice the vulnerable girl. The sense you get of them in a song is this girl getting onto her feet after some traumatic experience and still tough as nails, and her band of fellas backing her up with their wooden stakes at the ready and not a trace of fear in their hearts due to their sense of brotherhood and collective love for her. This was the sort of love the lads all felt for Queen Elizabeth or Guinevere in the days of Arthur. The Brits and Jack White and I understand, even if the dumbasses like Xander and Lancelot don't, Chrissie. Not all love is cock and bull; some transcends everything, even the duality of good and evil, of sex and no sex, of absence and presence-- this is the sort of love worth dying for, even if it is in a car crash... and even if that love is connected to the undead Satan himself.


Poppies won't ever blow away

NOTES from Chicago Sheraton, Xmas 2007

Everytime I leave New York I can't believe how "off" my rhythm with the rest of the country is. My image of it now is that you buy a TV and you bring it home and by the time you figure out how to access all the channels, all the channels are telling you need to buy a different TV and new channels. So you do. And when all your money is gone, your family's gone. and your room is so full of technology that all is left is the technology and you, then someone comes and removes you; then all that is left is a device that sees imitation sights about imitation food and hears outtake imitation sound and soon not even that.

The question is, where do they take you when you're trash? What's going on at the dump? That's where the action must be, even without Godfrey Parks.

I'm watching Wizard of Oz on TNT, and Ray Bolger would brave a whole boxful of matches to get some brains, and yet in America we're giving them away half price. We're letting the giant alien vacuum suck 'em on up out of us and peddle 'em off to any scarecrow with a wheelbarrow big enough to hold a ton... because that's the smallest increment we want to bother with.

Now they're already at the Tin Man, and he wants a heart, and what's a heart to these people? It's the half-baked attempt to cater to pro-lifers that is the "other opinion" on Britney's sister's baby on CNN --which I flip to during the commercial.

Let's not forget TNT itself which shows this film and has to constantly announce you're watching TNT and that SHREK is up next. SHREK hiply eschews the archetypal subtext of "original" myths like Wizard of Oz. It also reduces any worrisome "human" element.

Cartoon voices of course can be drained of human elements via their constant relying on satirical imitations of other voices. Jack Black is the best intimation of this. He moves from one "fake voice" to another and if he does get left without a handy option and is forced to assume his own, all that's left is this high register bitch of a whine.

Rachel Ray is a classic example of someone whose "personality" has caught on with a big enough demographic to warrant having it preserved as it is filtered through the dehumanizing machine all the actresses submit to. Most are compelled to strip their individuality away to a dull CGI-bearing make-up layered uniformity, but Rachel's is hurried through under a fire blanket and flanked by bodyguards in sunglasses.

Back to the Wizard. I've been down I'll admit, love troubles, man. But I perk up when I see Bert Lahr and his fey macho lion swagger. Doesn't everyone? Always? Then there's the drugs of the poppy fields, and of course the classic multi-exposure revolution of Dorothy's face when she gets knocked out in the tornado... the alter-dimensional re-imagining of the basic mythic wandering of the hero in the form of the heroine, this time in Dorothy form, Dorothy which is my 97 year-old grandmother's name, Dorothy, whom we're here to visit.

The modern updating of this coolest of all surviving American myths, what would they be needing to make them unique to our time? WILD AT HEART tried to reimagine the Wizard scenario as a run for your money road movie set to Barry Gifford dialogue; SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had Buffalo Bill sure to get a heart (in his fridge); and the scarecrow Lecter and the Jack Crawford the Wizard.

This is your last chance, these Disney classics are going back into the vault. "Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown?"

The fake laughter of "how we laugh the day away in the merry old land of Oz" with its couple of tra-la-las. Capitalism's evil is apparent in the actions of the wizard: pay no attention to man behind the forests, powering up his fleet of tractor tin men. The lion's song is all about scoring the bling; he wants satin, not cotton or14th St. chintz. The sign in front of the witch's forest reads: I'd turn back if I were you. It might read that, but what it says is something different. It's designed to enhance your fear and thus give your overcoming it all the more value.

"All in good time, dearie... all in good time." Has anyone ever said that phrase only once? Repetition is also the key to authenticity. We are so saturated with this film that we live it and speak it and breathe it (and if your brain said "reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it"). If we don't incorporate the film's symbols into our personal dream mythology maybe it is only because we haven't the will to make these things real. We should have an "Initiation of the Dorothy" theme park ride, wherein you pay money for your daughter to get banged on the head and sent to the Oz finishing school of instant-enlightenment. Instead she has to shave her head, join a lesbian youth gang, pop pills and drink vodka, or otherwise seek her own pre-prince's kiss oblivion. (and by prince here I mean, prince of the self, of her own unconscious, you dime-store feminist surface scratcher!)

There's no place like home is Dorothy's mantra. "There's no place like home" "There's no place like Ommmm" - after the search through the capitalist layers of meaning - where bling and long rides with champagne are just ruby slippers and baskets of goodies for grandma what big ass you have... what do we get to take home to NYC?

The smell of pig shit permanently part of the Chi-town landscape and long, long horizons, my dearie. Kansas is the bog of the soul. If you can love the pig shit, you are as close to free as any of us dare. Ride the train on over from the plains to the slaughterhouse, and give your black and white day-to-day the ruby red slip.

(Cue Marlon Brando harmonica music)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Great Old Drunk Writers and their Great Big Black Death

Oh I get it, with the sunglasses and the white shirt and the black tie, he looksh like a skeleton himshelf.

I'm finally getting around to watching the Criterion DVD of UNDER THE VOLCANO. I was waiting for a crisis moment like this post-Christmas pre-New Years ennui. John Huston is clearly doing an ALL THAT JAZZ thing here, only instead of being more or less autobiographical, he taps into the "universal" self he shares with all the great drunken white male writers of America, such as: Malcolm Lowry, Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams (with whom Huston made the similar "Night of the Iguana.") Every great writer has been led by the wicked bottle into a boxing ring too big and byzantine to ever emerge from triumphant... For what is it to be alcoholic and a writer, but to dance 100 proof rounds with middleweight champion Death? Immortality, that's the champion belt for the real artist, the real drunk artist, that is.

On the other hand, there's the pre-chewed immortality of post-70s cinema.. the Spielberg years and beyond. Uh oh, you think, here he goes again, about to get all pouncy on Richard Dreyfuss in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. But no, man. Spielberg has clearly seen the light of his wrongdoing, as the genetically re-masculated subtexts of WAR OF THE WORLDS and PRIVATE RYAN make semi-clear. Instead, I'm talking about Huston, and UNDER THE VOLCANO. And while we're on the subject, where the hell is Huston's FREUD (1961), starring Montgomery Clift? 

Where, indeed, is Freud, not just on DVD but anywhere? Once upon a time our screens were awash in Freudian symbolism and 'perversion.' And Williams was his prophet. Is he really someone we should just "outgrow" like we outgrew the mullet, poodle skirts and Bob Denver? Seeing Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER again recently, I thrilled to Freud's continued relevance in our 21st century nation of hunger artist Britney birds. But then, as if by contrast, I followed it with the Paul Newman/Liz Taylor version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and saw how the claws of that play were removed in a weird deal with some obscene church censor. Yea, lord, I bore witness to how the notions of Sigmund were made dogmatic and treacly through compromise. I saw Liz Taylor being allowed to ooze sex in a white nightgown in exchange for forgiveness and acceptance of "god's natural order." A baby by the pretty couple shall lead them! Goober's monsters to the cellar, mendacity is dead! I sneered in contempt as I'd already seen the 'real' version, which featured a daringly boozy defiance to the bitter end... the one done by Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones for Showtime in 1985. There, happiness is in the cards only if Brick relents and sleeps with Maggie in order to get the keys to the liquor cabinet. The stuff that dreams are made of.

As Bob Dylan once sang, and it's a hard / it's a hard... 

Geoffrey the conshulate (Finney) in UNDER THE VOLCANO takes a shower and shivers in the heat in a St. Vitus-honoring way I can assure from firsthand experience is harrowingly accurate; but the art direction is all so spiffy with every 30s car free of Mexican road dirt, and all the little mythic links are perhaps lost on the kids today. You got to maybe point out Geoffrey's blocky black sunglasses are to make him look like a Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton... and even then, you have to point out why. Even on the commentary track they seem oblivious to the meanings, they can only hint that meanings are there, dimly remembered documents deep in an attic too distant and dusty to bother looking for. Thus even on the Dia de los Muertos Finney's just another Merchant Ivory white elephant, staggering invisibly around America's dysfunctional living room, swollen with un-lanced Meaning.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

LAST TANGO IN PARIS: Brando, Butter, Stockholm Syndrome, and the Hot Ass of Death

"... not until you look death right in the face...go right up into the ass of death... till you find the womb of fear”

Damn, I read Pauline Kael's beyond-glowing, deeply transfixed gush of a review for 1972's LAST TANGO IN PARIS at least five years before I actually was old enough to see it (before VHS was readily available) and I admit I was a bit disappointed when it finally can out. But now, five or six big screen viewings later, I agree with her 100%. Well, maybe 75% but that's still pretty good. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone can have a legitimate opinion about this movie until they’ve seen it at least once in an altered state. Ideally, thrice in altered states, three different kinds.

People also say this about Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but in truth 2001 is boring even if you’re on enough Ativan to drop a rhino (unless you see it on a giant 70mm print on a huge curved Cinerama screen). TANGO, however, moves fast, looks beautiful and is sexy too. And no, I wasn’t on anything this time, I didn't need to be. I been up in fear's womb enough times already I can just check in with a phone call, like to my parole officer/sponsor.

The sex is what everyone seems to remember about TANGO, that and the brooding Brando improvisatory monologues (we can see from this film why Francis Ford Coppola would think that just putting Brando in the jungle as Kurz for APOCALYPSE NOW and letting him ramble about wombs and fear would be enough to create a psychedelic experience, but we can also see why it wouldn’t, ultimately, work.) It’s too bad that the majority of film critics fall under the sway of their readership and are ever simplifying cinema, dumbing it down for the rubes, so to speak, in ways Kael refused to. To these modern types, all beholden to reader-beholden advertiser-beholden editors, TANGO can’t be both sexy and serious (i.e. arty). It can’t have Brando asking a girl to stick her fingers in his ass while he rants about pigfucking and be taken seriously as a major work of art. And if we take it as a major work of art, it can't be funny and sexy and bawdy, both misogynistic and feminist, both self-indulgent and transcendental. Brando can’t be a disgusting old man wallowing in degradation and a sexy antihero at the same time. Pick one and don’t make the bourgeoisie angry; they find ambiguity threatening --it challenges their assumptions way too much. Just hearing Brando speak such good French makes them nervous enough. Is he French or isn't he? Has he forgotten were his bread is... Oleo-ed?

Known forever as a dirty sex film with a major star in it, TANGO's reputation is eaten away by the corrosive saliva of prurient tongues. Kael's praise shocked the elite, frightened the censors and helped usher in “adult” moviemaking (back when X-ratings were given to art films like CLOCKWORK ORANGE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY) but--once the smoke clears and the type has all been set--TANGO lacks the pedigree of Kubrick or the revulsion towards sex--gay or straight--exhibited in MIDNIGHT), because TANGO has dirty talk and rewarding no-frills BDSM sex it cannot be seriously reconsidered as a mythic archetypal exploration of fear, desire and death. Bertolucci’s THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS becomes reductively summed up as “that one where Brando uses butter to bugger young Parisian hottie.” It can not be more. At least, not until its officially canonized via a restored print and Q&A at Lincoln Center, replete with full page re-review in the Sunday Times Arts &Leisure section (excuse me while I go throw up -- in a gold-plated bucket).

The more film criticism I read and the more of these sorts of misunderstood movies I rediscover, the more I realize there are two types of filmgoers – the ones who have been "experienced" and the ones who are scared to try. If you go to see TANGO or SCIENCE OF SLEEP or FIGHT CLUB or I HEART HUCKABEES looking for a conventional narrative with happy endings and bad guys getting punished and everything reduced to comfy cliches, you are going to be frustrated, you might even get angry. At the very least, you "wont get it." If you expect bawdy comedy, guns and explosions, or steamy sex or anything you'll be disappointed too. If you expect lofty art or even edgy new wave street-eye Paris, that too... no.

The key to understanding films like TANGO lies in the concept of unfixed identity, of role-play. You must recapture the imagination you had as a child. You must know how to move from adult to child, from errant knight to punch-drunk boxer to nervous accountant as the game changes with your partner's mood. If you’re in an empty room with Maria Schneider for example, and she lifts her arms up and starts running around making buzzing sounds, you have two paths open to you: One is to assume the voice of an air traffic controller describing her flight pattern around the room: "She soars, she turns!" The other is to say, “Maria, what the hell are you doing?” and make her stop. If you’re more likely to pick the second option, then LAST TANGO is not for you. If you want Maria to just disrobe and have missionary position sex and then go make you dinner, then you're Karl Malden in BABY DOLL and we have no use for you. Orgasms are just the punchline to God's own little joke at your expense, Poppa. When you gonna wake up, turn off the TV, and smell the roses on your own grave? You better believe Brando has (smelled yours, I mean. Why won't you smell his?)

The late 1960s and early 1970s were--forgive the cliche--flash-burned by the psychedelic explosion that was the lotus crown to the bloody bottom chakra of Vietnam. People had “tuned in, dropped out” and were able to step outside their pre-scripted societal roles but didn't know yet how to step back into anything but the same ones they'd stepped out of. It's only natural. And the social order sighed with gratitude. They had a point. When you're too free, unless you're inherently 'good' and already an artist, and 'not an idiot', you're a hazard to yourself and others. When such people arrive too much at once with no destination, things happen: riots, accidents, theft and misplaced objects--why, whole governments can vanish (i.e. Paris in May 1968)--and diseases like AIDS can spread faster than wildfire. It's messy; people wind up in the booby hatch or dead for real. When adults play, they play rough and things get broken. They mix up being dead and playing dead (i.e. sacrificially, the straw dog vs. the wicker man). This is why parents will cite their children as “the reason” they can’t trip on the weekend, can't let go of their adult awareness and let it all hang out the way they used to. What they have effectively done is split themselves, like amoeba. Now they have a piece of them to whom they can say: you be the kid and I'll just worry about you hurting yourself, it's much safer than me not worrying about hurting myself, which takes real courage. Put all the psychedelic art in a museum and bring the kiddies... wait in line, buy the souvenir book and shelve it. We rocked, but now it's over.

It's never okay to rock, for these types. It's only to have rocked.

But real art resists the shelf, sneezes and fart when stuffed with grant money and old lady applause; it's messy yet unfurnished, like where Brando and Schneider get together for their trysts. In order to reach this place of fluidity and freedom the pair re-enact various archetypal roles from their childhoods, going deeper and younger as the film goes on, with Brando always bringing in pig shit and other base expletives... It’s kind of a turn off that he keeps doing that, actually; but I finally understand what he’s going for: he’s removing all conceptions of right and wrong and bringing everything back to the anal stage and then farther still, to the womb. It’s a regression back through to infantile development and further, until at the end, which finds Brando’s dead, coiled up in a womb-form, ready to be reborn, like Bowman the star child in 2001, only --we presume--having shit his pants (and put his chewing gum out under the railing like a schoolboy at church.)

The psychedelic experience--which spread from its customary roost in the world of artists and writers down to the general populace/theater audience during the 1960s-70s era--revolves around just this sort of “de-re-generation.” During various stages in the “trip” one might feel like they are dying, but if they’ve got a friend with the Tibetan Book of the Dead handy, urging them to “just flow with it, man,” if they face this death bravely, then they emerge out into a different consciousness, reborn, or as Brando says in the film: “It’s over and then it begins again.” Maybe they'll get to stand in the room of the self like Bowman in 2001, meeting their child self, their older self, their deathbed self, their embryonic self. This is the resurrection of Christ, the snake shedding its skin, the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. It is our psychic birthright to continually re-experience this symbolic transfiguration of the self, but the social order/ego is scared of it, scared of losing control. It lets us have the fun house mirror reflection, via roller coasters, horror films, skydiving, cage matches, meditation, etc., but it denies us the "real" experience provided by mystery rituals, peyote ceremonies, hazing, fighting (not watching it, doing it), overdosing on PCP and needing to be strapped down and given many Xanax. What society tells us to do instead of chasing this dragon, is to procreate and follow the herd, dig our heels in like a child who doesn’t want to go to his first days of school, tune in to CBS for 60 Minutes, to shut the door on our waiting coffin and hide it from our view, to turn the memento mori to the wall. We shouldn't "have" to die, society tells us. But in robbing us of the awareness of our immediate mortality, society, like the ego's distractive capabilities, makes daily life more bearable, but less interesting.

What we should be doing is having our funerals while we're still alive. As Tyler Durden once said: "It's only after we've lost everything that we can do anything."

But now I'm sermonizing. My point is, to "get" LAST TANGO in its full 3-D effect you don't need to drop acid or join a fight club, but you should try and take your blinders off and be willing to enter into that field of play which I just described. If you see the butter on the floor of your psychic sanctum, don't run out the room; take a deep breath and just go with whatever's gonna happen.

If you have your blinders off, you will see in that butter scene lies a genuine "lesson" that's being played out: Brando wants to try and show the innocent waif Schneider something about her own past – her father’s and by extension France's and by extension all the west’s--evil habit of colonization (accent on the colon). He is literally forcing her forced religion back upon her, making her regurgitate the dogma that is holding her back from full engagement in their womb-space-playpen.

When the blinders are off--when like Neo in the MATRIX you take the "red pill" in whatever form's around-- you realize that while you've been sleepwalking through life all these years, been pinned beneath Death like he's a wrestler kneeling on your arms in gym class, like little Billy Mahoney in FLATLINERS. Death is letting that venomous schoolyard spittle slowly drop down from his mouth down onto yours and there's nothing you can do about it.

When you wiggle free of your sleep mask and behold Death smiling down at you and smell his tombstone breath, you have two options: A) You can close your eyes and pretend you're asleep again, go back to Midge's apartment like Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO and forget you're still hanging on the ledge, or B)You can look death in the eye, sip the spittle and go "hmmm-mmm good" and tap the mat signifying your concession to defeat. If you have the willingness and bravery to look up and acknowledge that old Death has you right where he wants you and hey, that spit don't taste so bad after all, then Death immediately jumps off and helps you stand up and you realize it was YOU, your death and you--facing each other but you're one!

And one of the things you see is that the whip and the carrot are the backbone of the social order you called life for all these years. The mature white “adulthood” you think of as holy and warm and safe is just the opposite, and this is what the butter scene is really about. Brando shows Maria that her reverence for her dead soldier father is nothing less than a Disneyfied version of Stockholm Syndrome, which is another word for nothing left to lose; it's not just for hostages anymore, it's built into human consciousness, a survival mechanism as innate as the ability to recognize mom’s face in a sea of nurses. Stockholm Syndrome, in case you forgot, is the ability to fall in love with your captors, to change sides as befits your situation. If you get over your pride and act like you like it, you can be a conquistador's wife at the banquet instead of a Native American warrior widow dying in a ravine. If you’re a straight male, you might never know this weird surrender once you hit puberty and no longer are forced to eat the spit of your elders; not until you're 40 or so and have had a doctor’s gloved finger up your ass to feel your Idaho potato-sized prostate and then after this brief flash of humiliating pain suddenly feel the urge to follow them around like now you're their bitch.

So what Brando is doing with his scatological obsession here is basically “rubbing” Maria’s nose in the colonialism under which her own false sense of “right” and “family” exists...once she takes a deep whiff of it, stops shrinking away in horror, stops judging its smell as horrible, she can move past her hang-ups and see the strawberry fields forever (which “ain’t gonna fertilize themselves”)

Pauline Kael, a great writer and genuine lover of cinema, was so excited about TANGO when she saw it at Cannes in 1972, she raved about it being the birth of a new cinema and caught flak aplenty. Poor Kael--and poor the rest of us film lovers who have learned through pain and hardship how to free ourselves--every time we get too excited about some new cinema discovery we make the frightened herd of mouth breathers all nervous and upset; they start firing up the crosses and witch-poles. Neither Hollywood nor the rest of America wants to open the view wider, to expand perception and thought, especially not in sexy flicks like TANGO. We can't validate Kael's enthusiasm any more than we can buy Lindsay Lohan CDs for our daughter now that we've seen Lindsay all coked up and half-naked in PEOPLE. To the masses, no thing can be both sacred and profane simultaneously (though most real art is exactly both these things) so rather than engage in the field of play of transcended duality, the masses go the other way, nail things down tighter and tighter, make the black blacker and the white whiter, airbrush and tweeze-out until there’s not a single surprise hair left in the world. Thus we pay homage to “literary adaptations” that flatter the intellect while giving us a little sex, powdered and wrapped in gauzy filters. Then we accidentally see the big, unkempt bush between Schneider’s legs and we recoil in horror: “Jee-whiz, and we’d just made ourselves so proud by coming out as pro-Jenna Jameson; now some uppity Parisian with bad teeth’s going to wave her untrimmed pubes at us?” Oh the humanity.

So, I hope I’m not being too rantish here. There's nothing I'm saying wasn't already said in QUILLS--but underneath the soap box grandstanding my heart is true. I want to help the non-“experienced” reader, the one who has yet to look old Death in the eye, yet to go up into the womb of fear, to read TANGO correctly. It's not a case of Emperor's New clothes in reverse, but a case of "if you turn the book upside down you'll be able to read the print better."

Instead of watching LAST TANGO IN PARIS as a narrative film like PRETTY WOMAN, try to see it as a weird painting in your bohemian friend's house, and to look for personal meaning in your own life. Watch it with your younger (or older) lover and play along, riff off what Brando and Schneider are doing and saying in the film... play as they play. If you do that, the film takes off. If you see the characters not as separate but all as aspects of one psyche (or two... male and female-yin and yang, black and white, whatever) then it coheres not into a "film" but into art in the broadest and most inclusive sense; the kind of art that flows out of the screen and envelopes you, like in THE BLOB! (Steve McQueen, man. He's always right where you need him. )

And you can look at all films this way, as autobiographical (telling the story of YOUR life) allegories of your approaching death and rebirth: from cradle to grave and back again. Keep doing this, and you will suddenly not be so worried if people will judge you for admitting you hated SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.

Or as some tripping idiot at a Phish show might say: “it’s like you... and me... and the music, man, are one... it's beautiful, man... and so simple!"

But wait, maybe you shouldn't. You're not one of those kinky ass of death/womb of fear types. Are you?

Well... are you?

You look it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Great Dads of the 1970s #1: Jon Voight as Luke in COMING HOME

"Ah, the smugness, I can't stand it." -Jane

"I dont belive it will change, but you're beautiful when you're excited." - Jon

I was just a kid when COMING HOME came out but I remember its impact. Along with THE DEER HUNTER, released the same year, there was a whirlwind of controversy and outpourings of support, anger and raw feeling over a war that hadn't been over more than a few years. The media was aflame and Oscars fell like rain and now, thirty years later all we have left are the DVDs, while another war rages and the best we can get are polemics like LIONS FOR LAMBS. But what of 1978? In hindsight, The DEER HUNTER seems to have almost nothing to do with Vietnam, being instead an American Reifenstahl Alpenfilme, but it's still good and gets repackaged and made glossy and classic, but why not COMING HOME?

The red state stigmatization of Fonda and her strong character may have something to do with HOME's lack of corporate support as far as DVD re-marketing, but I would guess the answer really lies in the fact that its genuinely subversive, in a positive almost painfully human way. Leonard Maltin's guide gives it a mere three and a half stars to the DEER's four, citing the film's "lapses into melodrama" as the reason. Of course THE DEER HUNTER (like APOCALYPSE NOW which came out the following year) is really a "guy" movie. (Maltin says it "packs an emotional wallop"), COMING HOME is neither a man's nor a woman's picture. If I wasn't all obsessive and insane at the moment I would probably never use these sorts of words, but: it's a human picture. It's a picture for the non gender-specific lover archetype which we embody only when we are at our best. A lot of us can't stomach that sort of intimacy for long; we'd rather reach for the easy comfort of our threadbare genre straitjackets. I'm as guilty of that as anyone. I can barely watch COMING HOME even now. I'm watching the DVD as I write this and I have to pause every few minutes, for breaks that stretch into hours. I have to write like mad to deal with the pain.

And no, Voight's character, Luke, is not an actual parent--nor shall he ever be one, apparently, thanks to his waist-down paralysis--so his being considered a 1970's dad might seem a bit odd. But hey, man, there are people all over the world needing parenting, not the bossy, browbeating kind but the unconditional nurturing and sense of strong support kind. One need only grace, gravitas and guts, genuine non-gender specific love, and maybe a mustache and fine foxy beard to be the best of 70s dads; kids will come from all over, from all ages and groups.

Luke has those things and as he goes from soul-ruptured angry young paraplegic to nurturing activist/lover, you get to see deep into his wide-open soul--both the actor and his character--and his innate majesty shines out at you; he's the wounded fisher king accepting the fact no Parsifal is coming. As a knight you need to serve a king, and Voight fits my bill in COMING HOME. I watch and I want to help him do whatever it is he needs to do, because you know it's right and just, whatever it is. He becomes the sort of man that James Dean's character was on the road to becoming in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. He becomes a leader that inspires what is best in men.

Contrasting Voight in the film is Bruce Dern's character, a smarmy officer and Jane's husband. He embodies the Beatles' lyric heard in the film: "Living is easy with eyes closed..." and Bruce Dern is so good at portraying this type you fear for his soul. In short, he's odious. His character eventually loses out and goes for "the long swim" (if only he'd hung around awhile of course, he wouldn't have to worry--the Voights of the world lost to the banal conformity of the Derns after all). Too bad, because the pain he was feeling might have made him a better person if he just faced it rather than running. The Derns of the world don't ever face the mirror, they don't need to and so they don't, and then when they need to suddenly they can't - they'd rather off themselves than see how their unexamined life has left a shitty legacy.

Luke certainly has his work cut out for him in facing that mirror, learning to use the wheelchair, etc. all while being utterly reliant on others. There's a feeling of futility and angst surrounding his situation, and it reaches a head when he first crashes into Jane on her first day volunteering at the VA, sending his colostomy bag flying and humiliating him to the breaking point so that he goes on a furious tirade that would not be topped for sheer greatness until he himself topped it seven years later in RUNAWAY TRAIN. It's a rage that is so fierce it reaches alchemical-level heat and from its raging molten crucible comes a humility akin to divine grace.

Luke's humility in this film represents a path for men that was never overtly spelled out and so was lost in the shuffle when we went from subtle to sledgehammer in our cultural cum corporate aesthetic. If you look at old films--like Howard Hawks' in particular--they all depict an unspoken code of "good" behavior that men measure one another by; it's a code that operates free of gender and physical strength and asks only what was asked of Laertes in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true, and thus it follows as night follows day, thou cannot be false to any man." The path up to this heavenly ethical plateau is through things like therapy,  the 12 steps, meditation, volunteer work, helping others --all the shit we'd often rather die than deal with directly. But if we don't deal with it, it deals with us and we're back in the jungle or the desert faster than we can run. 

There's a great moment when Luke first gets asked to dinner by Jane and as she heads off-screen he slowly pulls himself up the hospital's wheelchair ramp, his newly muscled arms rippling as he pulls his wheelchair and bulk. Those muscles represent not just Voight's devotion to getting the details of his part right--and by association doing right by the paraplegics he studied for the role--they represent the triumph of love against the sort of rage and shame that he expressed earlier. Luke begins to grow like a flower in the sun of Jane Fonda; he will become a dad figure to Billy, the shell-shocked neurotic guitarist played by Robert Carradine; and he will become an inspiration even to a whole high school assembly at the film's climax.

What makes the final speech so moving and profound is not just his tears, but his acceptance of responsibility; he doesn't condemn Vietnam with the self-righteousness of a screaming protestor; he doesn't bemoan his loss. Instead he admits he "doesn't feel very good" about having killed people for "not enough reason, man." He doesn't blame the U.S., or the recruitment officer who spoke before him. He admits defeat and admits he made choices that he believes were wrong. In doing so, he begins the possibility for genuine social change. It's such a scary thought I believe the powers that be would just as soon this movie never existed, was forgotten, and overshadowed by the grim fatalism of The Deer Hunter.

Everyone celebrates and remembers Voight in that big final high school speech, so rather than discuss it further I'm going to delve a bit into their first date at Fonda's apartment: She's nervous and he orders her to sit down. He asks if this is "Bring a gimp over to dinner night," and rather than get indignant (a reaction which you see cross her face) she instead looks him directly in the eye and  slowly shakes her head no; the result is nothing short of a true human connection, and he connects back and admits, "I know you didn't."

In today's edit-happy world this scene would probably be cut down to a few seconds. Instead we're allowed to see each of them overcoming fears and prejudices, connecting as real people, and Ashby makes it possible for us to see this in a magnificent natural light that illuminates their eyes. He gives Voight and Fonda all the room they need to make these characters real. Even though we might squirm in embarrassment while it's happening, in the end we're in love with them as much as they are with each other; the kind of love that transcends sex and gender (literally since Luke is effectively sexless) the kind of love that spreads outwards to all who come in contact with it... except for the Bruce Derns, of course, living easy with their eyes closed.

Later in that same first date, Voight says to Fonda: "When people look at me they see something else, they don't see ... who I really am."  In real life, people still don't see Voight or Fonda as who they really are (I'm sure I'm not seeing Dern as he really is either). They see publicity and Angelina and Hanoi Jane and ANACONDA and whatever else. In 1978's COMING HOME we can feel the aperture of spirit close around us, feel our willingness to embrace the gossip rags rather than the unwritten riches, but first we get this wide open view of the human spirit at its most noble and compassionate... and yes, it can be painful to watch, especially for men. We're not comfortable seeing a man so dependent upon a woman (two words: wheelchair accessible) and COMING HOME lingers right on that sensitive spot, like a lover trying to tickle some embarrassing secret out of us while we're tied to the bed.

Is it any wonder then, that cinema fans in media-saturated 21st century prefer the cool macho alienation of THE DEER HUNTER? COMING HOME challenges us to be more open and loving with one another and it does so by practicing what it preaches; it gets all sticky and gooey, it "lapses into melodrama." It asks us to feel deeply. Conversely, THE DEER HUNTER asks us only to pop open another cold one and turn up the game; to drown out that subtle, soft voice that would point us towards the love we'd prefer to think irretrievable. If things get too intimate, just drown that sensitivity in another game of Russian roulette, like a real man.

And so Jon Voight in COMING HOME gets first place in the 1970s dad pantheon, without his character even having any kids... or even any legs...or the ability to ever walk or inseminate again. All he has are the guts to ask for help, and to love without limit, and to administer a cool beard... and he's beautiful. And I almost forgot: he's got such cunnilingual skills he gives Jane her first orgasm. As far as hostility towards this picture by mainstream society, that explains a hell of a lot.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Great Dads of the 70s #14: Roy Scheider in JAWS

Film historians cite JAWS as the film that changed the way movies were distributed and marketed, i.e. more broadly and dumbed down to catch the widest, most generic/international audience. But JAWS itself belongs to the old school 1970s, with character development coming not from a few uninteresting scenes of suburban breakfasts or camaraderie in the office, but from relaxed, improvisational set-ups where parents drink and smoke (gasp!) in front of their kids and relate to them as people in a direct, caring way, free of socialized, pre-approved, “let the lawyers read the script first”-style sanitation.

There’s a great scene that occurs at the Brody dinner table where Roy Schieder’s Sheriff Brody, having allowed the beach to stay open and a kid to die (and maybe also Tippin, the frisbee-catching dog) is lost in wine-soaked regret. His younger son, with cool 1970s haircut looks at him in a direct, wide-eyed way that nowadays would have been cut (it’s too vague), imitates all his dad's expressions and movements;  and Roy says “Give me a kiss,” The kid says “Why?” and Roy says, “because I need it.”

Spielberg’s camera is behind Scheider’s head and we see the boy run up to kiss his dad on the cheek, someone is at the door just then and Roy gives him a good-natured “Get outta here” and sends him running off.

As one of those rare, lucky kids who grew up with a present, loving, hard-drinking/smoking father in that decade, this scene always gets me because it captures the dichotomy of fear and love that a young boy has for his dad; fear and respect because the dad is a “man” - i.e. not hiding his smoking and drinking, not pandering to the kid by talking to him in a high voice like Barney the Dinosaur, etc. The kid is a little afraid of his father, not for any reason of violence or emotional absence but because he is a big, tall, man with mysterious powers. The kid is imitating his dad but his eyes are blank, he's not sure why he's imitating his dad's little facial expressions and movements -there's some unconscious archetypal tug that guides him. He aligns himself with what he perceives as a source of masculine power, and he's a bit afraid of it.

That sort of fear is an essential ingredient in the stew of emotions a boy should have for his dad, along with respect, admiration, and so forth. Without it, the kid feels exposed to the dangers of life outside the parental sphere and even INSIDE the parental sphere, since dad is a "weakling" who can't protect the family. If there were zombies out your window or sharks in the bay, would you want some sensitive guy like Greg Kinnear as a dad? Can't you just see Greg Kinnear as a child psychologist dad, trying to placate the shark with some warm homemade chum and sympathetic understanding?

Brody's kid obviously has some trepidation about his big tall sheriff father, and seeing him in this moment of melancholy weakness could damage his developing psyche... but it doesn't. Though Brody actually needs the validation and support his kid provides, he is able to ask for it in a gruff but loving and offhand manner. He needn't beg or pleas for love like Greg Kinnear in GODSEND, for example. Once he has the kiss, Brody returns to the figure of authority and orders the kid out of his sight, but with an almost mock-macho New York City panache. "Ged outta heah."

We can see how dads in the Spielberg films (which in turn would profoundly and irreversibly influence the way all nuclear families are portrayed in all cinema to come) would become more and more dependent on their son’s love, and the whole reversal of roles where the son has to be the father, which sends kids into rehab at such an early age these days.

No kid likes to see their parents in moments of weakness, least of all dependent on their own kids for psychic assurance and protection (it should be the other way around), this scene in JAWS shows how it can be done right - an acknowledgement of the way a kid proves his value in the family by providing a source of innocent vitality the father can tap into and use to center himself. Compare this scene with the ones in just a few short years in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, where Dreyfuss is a little weasel of a dad, bullying his kids into seeing PINOCCHIO when they want to go to the water slide instead (he's a bigger brat than they are), and getting hysterical over UFOs and running to the government like a scared ninny instead of being the tough paternal signifier his unit needs him to be.

Here, though, with the mighty Scheider in control, the scene is just another little bit of actorly business in a film made in a different time, wherein the family dynamic was just that, dynamic. And neediness never factored in - the love was there but without 'feels', or emotional cues, it was uncut, raw and fierce, and then it was go off and play. That was the 70s dad. Now geddoudda heah.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Great Dads of the 70's

They cursed, they drank, they smoked, they made out with their friend's wives, and they did it all in front of their children, and the children loved every minute of it. Who were they, whose behavior nowadays would likely warrant hushed calls to child services? 

They were the 1970's dads.

I'm sure there are plenty of good 70's-style dads out there who are keeping the faith here in the 00's, but man oh man, I hardly ever see them on the Park Slope Brooklyn streets. When I do, most of them are cool, upscale African-American dads, the types who wear immaculate dreads and walk like lions. Those are rare, though. Mostly it's a lot of Greg Kinnear-style namby pambying, expensive papooses and strollers and beta male schlub pale sober high-voiced wuss-assery, and it's gotta stop.

We need to look to the 70's dads to see what they did that dads today no longer do; what secret ingredient has been lost and needs to be reclaimed?

Now, to qualify for the honor of "great dad of the 1970s" you don't need to actually be a dad, like, say, Bill Bixby in "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." But you need to rule some roost, a band, a filmmaking enclave, a sports team, or a motorcycle gang, or a ward of psychos or war vets. You need to embody the spirit of the lion. Here's the first:


Cigars and cheap beer constantly in hand, Matthau is the sad sack loser from the minor leagues now reduced to coaching the worst of the worst, Little League juvenile delinquents and the otherwise uncoordinated dregs of the local draft picks.

If you were bad at sports as I was, this was your revenge movie. I hated all team sports, being always picked last for teams-- but I loved the movie. I remember seeing it down at the theater in Plymouth Meeting Mall with my parents and brother and we all walking out exhilarated. Matthau cursed, smoked, guzzled, passed out in the dugout and--when the chips were down--cheated by bringing in ringer Jackie Earle Haley and an estranged tomboy daughter (Tatum O'Neal).

And then, when the team was about to win the final victory, Matthau suddenly has an alcoholic moment of clarity: looking at his benchwarmers picking their noses as the game goes on, plus the irrational uptight rage of rival coach Vic Morrow who slaps his own pitcher son in a fit of rage; he decides to send 'em in. It's a beautiful moment and in classic 1970's style it doesn't come heralded by trumpets and hugs and close-ups of moist eyes. It just happens. Most of all we see a lot of great kid reaction shots to the adult's rage and 'anything to win' fever. And in the end, it's the attitude of letting them all play that counts, not the sickening corporate notion of "family" or the American one of "winning." Bottom line: The Bad News Bears and Matthau just don't know how to win, they only know how to lose with style. They'd rather have their shaggy aggression and angst then go be some golden poster boy chumps with corporate sponsorship and parental pressures. Fittingly, the sponsor name on their uniforms is "Chico's Bail Bonds" while Morrow's team is emblazoned with the golden Denny's logo. When the big game is inevitably lost, Matthau doesn't care - he brings out beers for all the kids and they celebrate telling off the rival team and pouring beer on each other's heads in addition to the cool kids like Tanner instantly popping theirs open and chugging it down. 

As kids we came out of the theater with a song in our heart, new curse words in our lexicons, and the immortal last words of the Bears still ringing in our heads (so we could repeat it back to our gathered schoolyard friends): "You can take that trophy and shove it up your ass!" The generations to come would not have this sort of linguistic freedom, their father figures would be soft and cuddly or be nothing more than "old teenagers" ala Adam Sandler and Will Ferell, or else abusive monsters. But we, damn it, we had Matthau in BEARS... a total fuck up most of the time, but able--in his befuddled grousing--to recognize his flaws and change at the last minute. He may be a grizzled loner loser, but goddamn it, as Dietrich said of Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL, he's "some kind of a man."

For other seventies dads of note:

Kim Morgan writes on Paul Newman in SLAPSHOT - here.

And I praise Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE NIGHTS over on Bright Lights After Dark, here.

More to come!

Friday, November 30, 2007

You dirty astro-droid!

I'm home sick and stuff so finally get around to watching "Revenge of the Siths" - and I'm cool with the embarassing little helium voices of the droids and that Lucas seemed to have just taped the cooings of his infants for a script. One guy just sounds like he's holding it in waiting in line for the bathroom. And I dig that Lucas is so insecure that not even a single second can pass without something zooming around on gravity beams in the background. What's a drag is that even for a "family movie" SITH's lame, since all the relationships are seething with hostility and dysfunction.

Lucas claims to love family, but his family dynamics have grown hopelessly dour and ill-humored. Obi Wan goes into battle with Hayden Christensen and rather than be either brave and alert or calm and Zen, they gripe at each other like old Chelsea queens who've been together forever and who probably need to start seeing other people (the evil emperor I guess is to become Hayden's new sugar daddy). Christensen does smolder effectively; he instinctively knows that deadpan solemn is the only way to get through this "space night at Chuck E Cheese" embarrassment, but Ewan MacGregor is unable to find a shred of dignity within himself. Rather than just plunging into the shit pool like Bela the trouper did in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, MacGregor puts a little prance in his voice as if to forge a secret parachute of conscience: "I did TRAINSPOTTING, Mate, remember? If you leave the theater early, please take me with you."

Lucas' dialogue is so poor that for an actor to make it sound natural they would need about four hours to get out one sentence. Lucas gives them exactly .004 of a second, and then he cuts to a blurble, an explosion, or a swoosh of a ship. As an editor myself, I can tell you we call that flop sweat - you don't trust a single shot to stand on its own, so you try to de-claw future film criticism with as much smoke and mirrors as you can cram.  I'm now certain that the original Star Wars would have bombed back in 1977 if not for Harrison Ford and the unsung hero of the hour, producer Gary Kurtz, who worked on the only two good films (Star Wars and Empire) in the franchise, and spent the majority of time talking Lucas out of reams of awful dialogue and kiddie crap. Then he got pissed and left and the result was RETURN OF THE JEDI.

And of course Harrison Ford helped a lot. I remember seeing it in the theater, the original 1977 STAR WARS, at 11 years old, the day it opened and before it became huge. I dug all the monsterness but was too young to understand much of what was going on, I thought it kind of sucked, then Harrison shows up and the Falcon takes off and suddenly it all came into focus. Ford was the big brother who brought the right kind of logic, perspective and humor to the film.

That kind of real man cannot survive for long in the land of the 40 hour work week, minivan, and drive-through Starbucks. Lucases by the dozen can, though. They live for mundanity. That's the wretched part about these last Star Wars films: how so much can be happening to such little effect. John Wayne could show you what it was like to be a real, living grown up man just by walking from the jail to the hotel; Hawks realized he was filming myth in action and letting the guy take his time. In the world of Lucas, the Ned Flanders is in effect - Obi Wan bounces through supposedly life threatening situations like one of the portly old fathers in the post-Mermaid Disney cartoons. He's afraid if he stops spinning his arms and going "whoa whoa look at me!" the kids will forget him and go back to eating paint.

I'm thinking now, of course, of James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, standing in mute horror before his dad... Jim Backus in a girly apron.

I want Harrison Ford to reach his hand through time and take James Dean forward into outer space, let Annakin go back in time and grow up in that sterile Norman Rockwell-hell that Lucas and Backus seem to embrace. Let Dean stand before us again and show us that once man was not split between being sweet/sensitive and strong/certain, that a good father figure should embody a certain mystery and majesty... not since Matthew Broderick finally got some balls in THE LION KING have we seen any of these little adenoidal Dreyfusses do more than call the cops or whine for their moms. Darth Vader was a scary customer with James Earle Jones' voice and a cool helmet, and while Christensen tries hard and I predict in a few years he will have some real gravitas to share (Barbara Stanwyck at 19 years old had more gravitas than Hayden will at 49); his deep rich voice indicates the possibility.

Voice is, ultimately, far more important than Lucas thinks. He knew once that boys do not want to see their dads put on an apron and act all Mister Rogers friendly. And I'm not knocking Fred Rogers, but I don't think he would intend that character to be someone's full-time father. And if Fred Rogers had to go into battle, I bet you he would take the effort to show a little respect and stop grinning like a ninny. Lucas is like that dad you don't want to bring on war maneuvers because he doesn't take it seriously. You shoot him in a fair fight and he refuses to die, saying "no but I ate kryptonite! wooga booga! I'm the mummy!" or some other ignorant, condescending b**lshit.

There's only one director working today who understands the importance of this kind of mythic manhood and that's Tarantino. But then he has to go and act in his own films and so you realize he can't be king either. Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson are Aussies. So I guess it's up to you, JOSH BROLIN!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I aims to scan your big bald head: HITMAN and the new Male Chastity

So I had to review the Luc Besson-produced, video game adaptation HITMAN and it wasn't near as bad as some of them critics said it should be. Of course low expectations will get you through every time. Yeah it's stupid enough, and derivative, but aren't they all? What save its ass is its French n'cest pas...

Naturally the actors all speak English and whatnot but what I mean is the film has a French producer, Luc Besson, who invented the "model with a gun" genre with LA FEMME NIKITA back in 1990. He's riffed on the same sexy mix of perfume ad nonchalance and bloody violence (raw, as zee Americans love eet) ever since, gradually giving up the director reins to focus on producing and--presumably--living the high life.

What's cool with Besson is that his Gallic intellect and compassion are not subsumed by the junk food overkill that flattens most Hollywood action pics. Underneath the polish, NIKITA was genuinely warm and mythic: she starts out as a junkie punk, dies and is reborn as a mature woman. In the Besson films that followed, tough men with bald heads took care of runaway runway girls and often died for their troubles. Bruce and Milla in FIFTH ELEMENT aside, they were platonic relationships. Mon dieu! For a man to just say no, he must be some kind of already sex-saturated Frenchman.

TV-blinded America is presumed to be standing at erect attention whenever Natalie Portman or any other beauty with too much black eye-liner steps onto the killing floor. The super-model as signifier is the glitter-covered cardboard angel atop capitalism's overloaded Xmas tree. Friends, family and the French know the truth: gorgeous looks have their drawbacks and all is balanced in the end on the serpentine scales of karma. For the mules who haul the gravy train however, this is considered too "unsexy" and therefore uninteresting.

The hot model white Russian white slavery victim, then, is the angel on top of the "other" Xmas tree, the sordid shadow of the other, where sex is shown for its ugly criminal bestial truth. Besson's decorated both of these trees and is here to tell you, don't touch a present under either one, they're all booby-trapped. So Besson tears them down as fast he puts them up. He slyly lets you see the barcodes on the products; he may traffic in rehash like his Hollywood peers but the post-modern spirit of Godard darts through his mise-en-scenes, adding little touches of the truth. The best part of HITMAN is when the Russian white slave girl (Olga Kurylenko) has finally learned to trust, or whatever, that our Hitman is not going to molest her or hurt her, etc., so she climbs on top to seduce him in what would normally be a steamy montage of gloves coming off, tattoos, lips, breasts, thighs, and implied trust-bonding. Instead, our hero zaps her with a jet-gun injection knockout drug and gets up and goes about his business (but not before making sure she's comfortable, with blanket).

I imagine that at some point in the original script there was a lengthy DA VINCI CODE-ish explanation for this ungrateful behavior, but it was airbrushed out. I'm glad. Now what his refusal to make love to her deconstructs to is nothing less than a full rejection of modern consumerism. The last time something this big happened in an action movie was in THE WARRIORS when Swan (Michael Beck) said those immortal words to his scavenger hunt gang deb, "you're just like everything else that's been happening tonight... and it's all bad!"

Swan wasn't condemning her of course, but "everything" that's been happening, which is all bad. He is recognizing his and her part in the web of delusion that is "all our turf" and thus he is able to take a stand, as a man instead of a punk to the genetic con job perpetuated on us by the DNA reproductive "system." As long as we think sex will solve all our problems, we're rubes, our biological drive hijacked by consumerism and gussied up so we forget it's not the be-all, end-all. The French, being so much more laid than we in the States, perhaps are in a better position to understand and eschew accordingly.

For another excellent and sadly underseen movie wherein a recovering junky says no to temptation and in doing so heals both himself and a cool young European girl whose been kicked around through the white slave drug mills, please Netflix Neil Jordan's amazing THE GOOD THIEF, starring Nick Nolte. Old Nick don't need a barcode... he's a priceless treasure.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER

After thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, then meeting a friend to watch AMERICAN GANGSTER later that night at the cinema, I come home feeling the need to scrub America off me with a wire brush. Russell Crowe's honest cop is the descendant of SERPICO, Popeye Doyle and Travis in TAXI DRIVER. They're janitors in a sewer with a mop and pail, and they're the only ones clean. They're obsessive-compulsive that way, the rest of the world has to suffer and get saved, grudgingly, by these control freaks. We keep hoping Denzel Washington's gangster will start sass-talking like Harvey Keitel (as Sport, that damned elusive pimp to Nell!), but Denzel prefers to stay emotionless, in a suit with lapels too thin that's way too chalky gray for the era, a representative of 00's corporate culture returned through time to buy up as much cheap pre-Giuliani real estate as the traffic will allow, sneering at the hideous polyester knits around him as he goes. Denzel bitch-slaps his underlings when they try to pimp up their outerwear, but he seldom bothers to correct them when they slip out of time (the film is set between 1968-1973) and use black lingo that didn't exit until Run DMC coined it in the late 1980's. Ridley's writers should've listened close to Lightnin' Rod's Hustler's Convention while writing the dialogue, instead of Eminem.

Another problem is that Ridley Scott and co. don't trust the audience's attention span: so much money is thrown at the screen that you hope they're planning a future extended cut to run about 34 hours. A whole trip to Vietnam and back--replete with massive poppy fields and decadent US-occupied Saigon streets--whisks by in perhaps five minutes. You feel for the hundreds of extras, slaving day after day, topless, over white powder while Ridley stomps around and changes his mind, and then their scene is cut down to a single minute. We don't get to know anything tangible about any of the vast cast of characters, except grandma likes money. They're even worse than blank slates; they're cliches out of time.

Crowe may be a composite of 70's antiheroes and to his credit, actually seems to from and in the decade, but Denzel is a composite only of past Denzel, more at the well-dressed end of the spectrum, which means early 00s. But if he thought he could play his psychological hand close-to-the-vest the way, say, Pacino was allowed to do in THE GODFATHER II and have it work, he was mistaken. Coppola knew when his actors were doing interesting stuff, and he trusted the audience to stay with it (or was that Robert Evans?). But now, instead of the colorful method acting at the Corleone table we get the relentless second-guessing of Ridley, who whittles things down in the editing room until there's nothing left but little actions from different eras, each with a complete new costume change and lens filter. More than anything, what Ridley has wrought is the home shopping network of bling: he throws open the closets of yesterday's rich and infamous, and when it all starts to get tiresome, he takes an expensive fur coat and hurls it on the fire. Did Ridley really burn that expensive ass coat? And does it matter, since that day's catering bill alone was probably more expensive than a dozen such garments?

Many are my maddening questions. Robert Evans is not on the producer's list and too bad, because he would have made Ridley throw on the brakes, and maybe even try for some original touches rather than ratcheting together FRENCH CONNECTION/SERPICO gritty momentum and the sort of insecure crosscutting that worked in the GODFATHERs but showed to be a real bad habit for Coppola in every film since (Gregory Hines tap dancing as gangsters are killed outside in COTTON CLUB? Why?). Like Coppola, Ridley's got the "second-guess" disease, like the sort of nervous mother-in-law that plans every last drop of life out of her daughter's wedding. He can't just have a big sting operation with micro-second cross-cuts between the cops in the hall, the crack factory workers inside, gunsels, and so forth, it has to go down right as the head bad guy is at church, ala GODFATHER II, and there has to be a baby bouncing a ball in the tenement hallway right where the shooting's about to start. Surely Scott could've spliced in a sexy wife tossing and turning in bed, waking up with the premonition something bad's about to happen and trying to talk her man out of going to work? And maybe a scene of hunters about to shoot down a high-flying hawk? And the old lady having a heart attack, and the ambulance coming in slow motion? Come on, Ridley. You're getting lazy!

I wouldn't mind if this was a result of giddy fanboy homage to POTEMKIN and INTOLERANCE as it was once with De Palma, but there's no giddy fanboy joy here, just nervous second-guessing, which I can only guess led to swiping, copying other kids' tests at school rather than trusting those old DUELIST instincts. With so much $$ involved, I can only accuse them all of bowing down to a corporate "memo" mentality. No one wants to stick their neck out, so everything is groupthink, and in the end, no one has any faith in any one single moment in the film. In Ridley's case, that means no faith in the scene as it is, no realization that any further additions is going to overpainting.

Every scene--except maybe big Oscar-bait moments with momma schooling her errant son--is cut away from before its allowed to develop organically, in an original direction. Can't risk it, man. So every shot, has to have been proven in past classics. Ditto for Denzel and his white co-star, now a Thanksgiving tradition - wasn't last year his tangle with Clive Owen in INSIDE MAN? And before that with little Ethan Hawke in TRAINING DAY? Ridley's version is careful to include nearly everything that worked from both those movies: Temptation of a cop with easy bundles of money? Check! Hot Latina babe as the spouse? Check! Dog, leopard, cuckatoo, or other pet? Check, mate!

Washington's interest in this sort of rote-a-role is understandable, as it's a well-respected course around which he can outrace the white man and not piss off the red state box office. As history records, a black actor with excessive pride and intellect as opposed to mere posture and dignity can create big waves unless he's given a sturdy white cliff to bash his rageful tide against;2 Washington is the waviest since Paul Robeson and he knows it. He even invites the spirit of Robeson into him for key moments, but is careful not to overdo it, to not step out of the careful blocking for the shot and go with the mood deeper than originally planned. In that, Ridley Scott is the perfect Thanksgiving director, hurtling through the action like he's racing to catch his plane, making silent eye contact to the rest of his immediate family--all of them as anxious to split as he is as they sit, scattered along the table playing with the remnants of their flavorless pumpkin pie--earning their grateful smile by silently pointing at his watch and mouthing "ten minutes." Keeping an eye on the stove all the while, Ridley lifts Denzel off the burner the second he starts to blacken.

Crowe on the other hand is the opposite to Washington's tailored-out-of-time look; Crowe makes himself all mangy and disrespectful, punchy and greased-up -- and thus he is all the more kingly. He's the legit patriarch, a pitbull's jaw of a man. Denzel's gangster has to keep stockpiling the long green or else he's simply a cipher, but Crowe stays Crowe. He's a man's man actor, a person who in real life you can tell has faced himself in the mirror; he's had drinking contests with his inner demons; he's earned the right to be a stand-up guy who can look the world in the eye. In that he's the closest thing we have to Bogart or John Wayne this decade. In TRAINING DAY, Denzel proved he could access some of that same sort of noble power, but there he was the bad guy so it was okay to loom bigger than life; when strait-jacketed in the "savior of the neighborhood-but-also-a-smack-dealer" double bind, he keeps trying add some well-tempered Poitier and it just seems to stall his development as Denzel the persona, whomever that may be. Poitier could roar when need be. "They call me Mister Pibbs" is justifiably legendary. But it wouldn't be if he shouted his way through the movie like he's teaching a rowdy class of East London mods. He kept the dignity as a bush from which to as a serpent strike when most effective. Denzel on the other hand plays the coiled serpent in the bush so long he forgets the coiled serpent is supposed to rattle and strike occasionally.

It's easy to forget, but Sydney Poitier radiated a sense of the polished intellectual because he was one. Characters were created with him in mind to fill them, but like James Dean, he was forging ground in himself as well as the culture with each role, for the term 'intellectual' was not always the bourgeois throw pillow it is now. That's what one's craft should be for: any field or action is a potential vehicle for self-discovery. Nowadays we assume the actors who dared bring this sense of enlightened entitlement to the screen were merely posturing to set an example, to lift their lottery-addicted brethren out of the ghetto and into a nice dry dark space, and on the other side of town, to show whites that the black people were capable of highbrow sophistication. The Civil Rights struggle made their kids understandably join the Panthers and stop debating Freud with us in our candle-lit bebop cafes. Today it seems unreal that anyone--let alone African Americans--could have had the courage to be classy and live by their own convictions. Bill Cosby is remembered for his sweaters and Godfrey Cambridge is forgotten altogether. Race performers like Willie Best are debated about and set as victims of Hollywood's bigotry, but what about the amazing Clarence Muse? Robeson? Even Poitier, certainly Cicely Tyson on the female side, were able to put big personal statements, vast tomes of depth far beyond merely being a victim or fighting against stereotyping. Washington occasionally seems to forget that it's not enough to not perpetuate black stereotypes: you have to invent something new, that is to say, a self that transcends limitations such as cultural, educational, class, and racially-tinged pre-perceptions.

Labels are what we use as bookmarks in the lifetime reading of our true selves. We inevitably get lazy, stop reading and just focus on the bookmarks. Denzel is an actor who is forever trying to get by on just reading the bookmarks of his heroes and forerunners. In his inner boxing ring, Robeson burns and fumes and punches the air from one corner, Poitier reads the New York Times in the other, and the bell to start the fight is never struck. Denzel just stands there, alert and inert, waiting for the credits to chopper him out of the ring. But his suit -- it's perfect, right?

Like CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, another holiday film about crooks and the cops who love them, AMERICAN GANGSTER presents two main characters who are fearless and therefore somewhat uninvolving; their bravery has no merit as there is nothing to overcome. We don't see the inner fire that makes Denzel's kingpin so calm about carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars into the jungles at the height of the Vietnam war or shooting a rival in broad daylight on the Harlem streets and then going back to his breakfast. Instead of the air of a coiled panther, Denzel has the air only of a man who has already read the script of his own life, already seen the GODFATHERS, twice, not to mention SCARFACE, GOODFELLAS, BLOW and even MASTERS OF WAR. When he first sees the tall Latina hottie in the foyer even he knows that in three brief courtship-spanning edits, she will be drinking champagne with him in the evening sun on some exotic beach, and in another two cuts, married or in bed or both. When life is this certain, why even feign surprise?

There are good things about AMERICAN GANGSTER, mostly what it chooses to leave out: unlike earlier versions of this true story, such as Larry Cohen's blaxploitation-era hit, BLACK CEASER, or the recent rap-centric gangster films too numerous to mention, there are only a handful of cliche'd pop songs used as shorthand to indicate time and place tropes in the film. And until Vin Diesel resurfaces, I'm nominating Josh Brolin as the coolest up and comer tough guy actor around. His sleazy cop on the take is a beam of unprocessed realness: he can stretch out the seconds he's on screen in such a way that he can relax and convey great comfort in the stress he causes others. That's something that comes from him, Josh Brolin, not from a focus group, three rounds of memos, second-guesswork, and a cliche handbook. Brolin just has something unique, something he was allowed to radiate and may not even know consciously he was doing. Lucky Ridley didn't notice it, or he would have probably felt the urge to call attention to it more, until it was as stale as hearing "All Along the Watchtower" over a montage of 60s imagery and a voiceover talking about "a time when anything went.. and often did."

Maybe what these Hollywood types need is to be able to smoke cigarettes in their offices again, smoke pot and take LSD and listen to the rest of Electric Ladyland, not just the focus group-sanctioned hits. Am I the only one who sees the parallel between the bans on smoking and the overall decline in American intelligence? In the 1970s people were still smoking in the doctor's waiting room. There were ashtrays in the grocery stores. Now we have our health, but at what cost? We've lost that loving, intellectual maturity. We've lost faith in our fellow man's ability to perceive the obvious. Instead of learning guitar, we're playing GUITAR HERO. Instead of dancing in the fires of creation and destruction, we're recycling... and recycling... until the slightest expression of originality sounds like the threatening cries of the wasteful heretic.

Monday, November 12, 2007

EYES WIDE SHUT: The blind leading the sighted

As one of the millions confused and put off by EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) when I saw it in its original release, I know I've got some knee-jerk reactions to get over if I'm to appreciate whatever Kubrick had in mind for it, so it was a delight to find the film in the new Kubrick boxed set and have the chance to see it again in a different context. Now, though an intervening almost-decade casts a new glow to the film, it's still a tawdry glow, enhanced (if that is the word) by the waning of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman superstar marriage. We can see their coupledom refracted in the film itself... and their later divorce bears this out. Kidman realizes she's more complex than her husband, burdened with a greater self-awareness, and she has an inner self (which harbors her repressed slutty dimension and academy award-winning range) while Cruise is left ping-ponging through his hall of vanity mirrors.

Much as I detest Cruise as a persona, I can respect him to a point as a movie craftsman, knowing how much effort he throws into his films, which you can feel in pics like LAST SAMURAI and MI3. That said, his persona represents much of what sucks about contemporary masculinity - style over substance, spoiled bratty misogyny (when his characters finally gets their head out their asses, we're supposed to applaud, like an audience of doting potty-trainers) and self-confidence ratcheted up to dangerous heights based on his motor skills and little else.

Kubrick tries to capture this Cruisian narcissist regression in EWS, I think, to comment on marriage as a self-imposed prison protecting one from the dangers of their own misperceptions about reality and sex, but Kubrick himself seems guilty of this myopia as well.

All I could keep thinking is "Man, Kubrick really didn't get out much, did he?"

The world of NYC-17 sexuality Kubrick creates is one where hyper-stylization seems more like a smokescreen for lack of familiarity with the environment than a choice backed by any creative need. One gets the impression of threatened 17 year-old virgin lying about his exploits to sound experienced to his more worldly friends, and the friends then pressing him on details to expose his lack of actual experience. The erotically challenged orgy sequence and Cruise's ridiculous "rescue" of the overdosed prostitute are the most obvious and embarrassing examples.

Of course part of Kubrick's enduring popularity is how open to interpretation his films are: 2001 can be duller than paint drying or a spiritual awakening depending on your state of mind when you see it, and maybe the time of day, so who knows, maybe one day I'll see this film again and love it, but for right now SHUT stands in my mind as the definitive example of when genius becomes paralyzed by its own shadow.

Incidentally, if you want to see a really great Nicole Kidman-Kubrick film, check out BIRTH. Kubrick actually had nothing to do with it, but it seems like the film EYES should have been, and as such it borrows heavily from the master's sense of framing, pacing and tone. It even features Kidman in the same role, that of a pampered upper East Side socialite with a penchant for making bad marriage choices. My review is here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Acting by the Void

I've been deeply reassessing old favorites under the new light of DVD lately. Re-visiting CARNIVAL OF SOULS in the midst of a panic attack/nervous breakdown/hazy lazy Sunday evening, the swanky Criterion DVD version with the benefit of clear focus and brilliant restoration. On a big screen, it's like I am finally melting into the film, the pure Cronenberg-ian mecha-flesh union, where eyes become sex organs embedded deep into the silver screen womb of dream. Steve Shaviro should be proud of me!

If that seems florid, consider the nature of CARNIVAL OF SOULS and its place in the cult canon; left of PERSONA, right of PSYCHO and PSYCHO's British mirror-twin, CITY OF THE DEAD (AKA HORROR HOTEL). From there SOULS branches off near THE BIRDS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and REPULSION. This area of the film family tree  has had initials carved scalpel deep in the Freudian recesses of the American fetish icon bark--the "glacial blonde" wet wood pulp just beneath as portrayed by Janet Leigh, Candace Hilligoss, Tippi Hedren, and Kim Novak. This is where I like to visit, with my copy of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae tucked neatly under my arm, to peer down in through the grates and watch as directors like Hitchcock and Herk Harvey point out the fascinating lobes and regions of my mom's brooding Viking cerebral cortex for my amazement.

In addition to being able to enjoy solid 16mm black and white cinematography to the fullest, which is pretty full, the DVD in hand gives you a sense of ownership over the experience. I have been trying to decipher what it means that I must keep spending way too much $$ as every wish I made as a 14 year old classic monster movie-obsessed child is suddenly, painfully, gratified. Back in the 1970s as a haunted 11 year-old I would fantasize about having all my favorite Bela and Boris movies at my command, being able to project them on the wall at will.

Of course, my trying to decipher the motives behind such reckless spendsmanship is akin to the searches conducted by the attractive blonde female protagonists of these films themselves. In my attempt to "own" a first-rate DVD of PSYCHO, for example, I "become" Norman Bates trying to "own" Janet Leigh, so he can display her as a stuffed trophy. I should mention my own mother is a blonde who, in the era of these films' original release, was a comparable icy beauty, so there you go... we the insane little boys of the audience craved to possess the silver screen mother and now we can, in a way that teens in the 1950s and 60s could only dream of. It's like nailing a bird to the wall in mid-flight, an owl with its wings outstretched, longing to get unspooled through time and air and white light once more.

I think that, by buying PSYCHO and CARNIVAL OF SOULS on DVD and watching them faithfully through the decades, I harbor the forbidden, unconscious notion that I might undo the action of my original birth via the death drive. I feel it pull me northwards, my chakras revolving in accordance with the earth as it goes round the sun like a slow, hypnotized dancer. The blondes seem to sense this first, even within time and screen, like miner birds. They start the wheel a-spinning, betting all the money on red or black or whichever drips out first from between their beautiful alabaster projector thighs.

SPOILER ALERT - Candace Hilligoss's character in CARNIVAL "wakes up" into death, but so do they all, and so do we all. We artists-- whether organist, writer, lover or dreamer--are called there first and we go alone, and our friends and family fade to blurry behind us. We hear them asking us to come back, but the voices are faded and drenched in reverb. This is addiction, the siren's song luring your ship to the horny rocks of salt and delirium tremens and jail sentence suffering. From now on, your movie will exist with a gaping wound. Now there will be a centerpiece narrative shift.

But going back to the family and the friends, calling vainly to your fading speck of light from their safe dull haven behind that veil, seems worse --that life is spent, played, cashed. Any love you found still left there would just be crumb-like and fleeting. You know the only road left is the one to God, but it's so corny and such a total sacrifice of all one's coolness that you refuse to go. And so the priest suggests that you resign, and Norman's mother's chair starts to rock in agreement. But nothing is happening, and you finally know why that is, or do you, Miss-us Jones?

The truth is that you're living in a maze where every dead end's been gone over a hundred times and all the little treats have been eaten and there's nowhere to go but beyond. But instead of shuffling thy mortal coil like a good little organist you just hang around, drifting from town to town, department store to park to boarding house, waiting for the minotaur to set you free. You'll never know if you're even in the right maze until you finally feel his horns against your weeping eyes. Here be those horns! Honk! Awooga! Woman, thou art goosed, gandered at, and never gone again.

Where'd ya lose those eyes?
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