Tuesday, October 28, 2008

King of California

I once had a dentist with a huge map of Santa Barbara, California on the wall. Not from the present day, but from the days of Spanish missionaries. The only evidence now of life in those days is the town’s gorgeous mission with its twin bell towers. I spent many visits under the drill day-dreaming about what used to exist in Santa Barbara where my house, my school, and the grocery store then stood.

This memory came back to me while watching King of California starring Michael Douglas as Charlie and Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter Miranda. Charlie is fresh out of a mental institution and returns home to regain his place in Miranda’s life. In his absence, she has dropped out of school and is supporting herself by working at McDonalds. She prizes her independence and sees his return as an annoyance.

And that feeling is understandable. Douglas’ Charlie is a humorously nutty man with long scraggly beard, no visible means of support, and still tenuous grasp of reality. His failure to make payments on a third mortgage – she didn’t even know he had a second – even costs her the Volvo she earned by dealing with thousands of thankless customers. She wakes up one morning to find Charlie has hawked it to finance his latest venture.

And it is that venture that caused memories to flood back to me about that fascinating map on my dentist’s wall. Charlie is obsessed with the notion that a long lost treasure, once belonging to a Spanish explorer, is buried somewhere in their suburban California neighborhood. The money from her car was necessary to purchase such essential treasure hunting items as a top-of-the-line metal detector and a stack of treasure hunting books.

Out of love for him, Miranda goes along with his quest. Together, they wander about strip malls and get ejected from private golf courses that are snooty as only California golf courses can be – trust me, I worked at one. And it is during these wacky stops along their search and the accompanying puzzled stares from onlookers – stares that bother Miranda but leave Charlie undaunted – that King of California best secures its goofy comic footing.

Things turn serious when Charlie feels he has finally, fully deciphered his treasure map and realizes that his ancient Spanish fortune lies six – or maybe seven – feet beneath the floor of Costco. They must turn their, until then, relatively harmless adventure into breaking and entering and destruction of a concrete floor, first dragging several pallets of merchandise out of the way, of course.

How it unfolds from there takes twists and turns that are sometimes expected, such as a real re-connection between father and daughter, and other times surreally unexpected, involving much daring-do, Miranda being bound with rope, and some SCUBA gear.

The movie has a wonderful sense of two time periods overlapping. It even has a nice animated sequence where one of Charlie’s aging Spanish maps comes to life and he enters it like a time-traveling cartoon explorer. It’s a perfect way of depicting his frame of mind.

Of course, all of this is really just a light-hearted and entertaining way of looking at a subject that’s not so light, a subject we’ll all have to deal with, perhaps with the help of our own daughters. As we age, it’s the recent memories that are first to go, essentially leaving us walking about in the present while living in the past.

Cool Hand Luke

My wife and I often talk about writing a book about the films you need to see to get the jokes. When I actually start work on it, the first subject will likely be Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman. The famous line, “What we have here is… failure to communicate,” has permeated all aspects of pop culture from the song “Civil War” by Guns ‘n’ Roses to CSI’s “what we’ve got here is… failure to coagulate” to Internet commentary on a recent vice presidential debate.

That famous line also articulates the major theme of Cool Hand Luke. Like James Dean’s rebel without a cause, Newman’s Luke is a man struggling to express himself. And he never does quite find the words, although he comes close during a moment of despair while strumming a guitar and singing, “Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I have my plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car…”

Cool Hand Luke opens with Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters. He doesn’t seem to be after the measly pocket change they hold though. They just topple off their posts and clank to the sidewalk. And when the police inevitably appear, he simply welcomes them with a smile. It’s his first of many attempts to communicate. What he is trying to communicate is wisely left to our imaginations.

There is only one character in the film that succeeds in the art of communication. The bulk of the film takes place with Luke behind bars by night and on work detail by day. During one particularly hot day, the inmates are sweating and sweltering by a roadway when a very attractive blond woman emerges from her house and starts washing her car. One of the inmates complains, “Doesn’t she know she’s driving us crazy?” Luke replies, “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”

From there, Cool Hand follows Luke through three similar but escalating failures to communicate. Made in 1967, writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson and director Stuart Rosenberg were likely using the film and the inarticulate Luke to express the frustration felt by many after the assassination of JFK and during the Vietnam War. And Luke suffers greatly for their cause.

Luke and a big, burly leader of the inmates called Dragline have a fist fight. Luke gets in his licks, but he’s no match. Every time Dragline knocks him down and every time another inmate pleads with him to stay down, he just wordlessly gets back up and keeps swinging. He’s filled with resigned desperation as if trying to express something inexpressible.

Urgency mounts during the famous scene where Luke boasts he can eat 50 eggs, the gastronomic suffering feeling unbearable. And then the final escalation follows his repeated attempts at prison escape, and the ensuing punishments. More than anything, Luke seems like a child as he gradually presses closer and closer to his parents’ limits, as many young people in America were similarly questioning authority.

Being saddened by Newman’s recent passing, there is a montage near film’s end that had me in tears. All of the moments from the film where Luke is caught smiling – and there are many – are spliced together. It’s a beautiful series of moments. As if Newman through Luke was communicating directly to me from the beyond. It is a fitting farewell to a great American icon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Paths of Glory

Watching a bug scamper past his last meal, a soldier laments, “Tomorrow I’ll be gone and that cockroach will have more contact with my wife and kids than I will.” Another soldier reaches over and squishes it saying, “Now you have the upper hand.” This scene neatly encapsulates the absurdity and dark humor that is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.

Kubrick entered new territory with Paths. He’d dealt with war before in his little seen first feature Fear and Desire and he’d already started exploring man’s dark alleys in the films noir Killer’s Kiss and The Killing. But here, he had a new challenge – working with a major star. I’ve seen Paths many times, but watching it the other day was like seeing it anew, as is always the case with Kubrick’s films. They seem to morph to match each new age.

This time, Paths felt like a game between Kubrick and Kirk Douglas just as the generals (chess masters) and colonels (knights) and soldiers (pawns) of the film are engaged in a great game of chess. (Kubrick was a chess master and used this metaphor often.) Douglas is determined to be “the movie star” and he gets his glamour shot moments and big speeches. But Kubrick effectively counters his every move. It’s as if Kubrick is saying, “It’s a dirty world, Kirk. Stop trying to redeem it.”

The story centers on a mad general who orders Douglas’s Col. Dax to lead soldiers in a suicidal attack on a German position known as the “Ant Hill.” (That’s short, of course, for “worthless objective.”) When the men fail to make it beyond the wire – their wire, not the enemy’s – the mad general ponders the scar bisecting his cheek and then orders three men to be made an example. They are to be court-martialed and executed for cowardice.

Col. Dax is appointed their council and the trial offers Douglas what would ordinarily be his star moments to shine. But he is clearly out-classed. Who are three soldiers or even a righteous colonel next to a general? And who are any of them next to the powerful and faceless people who waltz around the edges of Paths? Douglas sputters his defense while the mad general sits idly rolling his eyes and checking the time.

Paths struck me as a great first chapter in the richest vein in Kubrick’s oeuvre. During Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, the words “all the best people” can be heard, referring to the type of people who can get away with murder. The social elite of Paths are their prototype. Barry Lyndon asks: “What is a common Irish man next to the rich and powerful?” Eyes Wide Shut repeats the class hierarchy of Paths only with hookers in place of soldiers, Doctor Bill in place of Col. Dax, the rich Mr. Ziegler in place of the general, and the masked party-goers in place of faceless, waltzing party guests.

I remember asking, “Why are so many scenes in Paths set in rooms adorned like the 18th century?” (I would later ask the same question about the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) And why does Paths take a time-out to show us rich people waltzing at a party? Then Barry Lyndon showed us the 18th century as a lair for “all the best people” and Eyes Wide Shut opened with all those best people dancing the waltz at a decadent party and my questions were answered.

Paths of Glory plays like Kubrick’s entire oeuvre rolled into one film. Maybe Douglas slipped one in on Kubrick though. Paths has an emotionally powerful ending unlike anything else Kubrick ever touched. You won’t soon forget it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Blind Shaft

I’m often asked to recommend foreign films that aren’t so, well, foreign. These people have bravely dipped their toes into the cinematic waters of France or Germany or Japan and have found them a bit too cold. Plus, they’ve been faced with just too darn much subtitle reading to justify the work of figuring things out. I can name a few foreign films that will have me scratching my head to my grave. Then again, I’ll never figure out something like Transformers from the United States either.

I have a great track record for setting people down a more enjoyable path with selections like Italy’s The Bicycle Thieves and Iran’s Children of Heaven, both deeply moving films especially in these recessionary times. I can now whole-heartedly recommend China’s Blind Shaft which is also deeply relevant today.

The story centers on two men who have hit upon a perfectly lucrative occupation in times of great economic hardship. They meet some sad-sack in the streets, convince him to pretend to be a relative, and get employed together in a coal mine. Then, when opportunity strikes, they kill the sad-sack, make it look like an accident, and extort money from the mine owners to keep it quiet.

The film opens in the middle of things. We are watching some characters that we know about as well as the hundreds of people we pass in a mall during our travels to a distant city. They are starting a day’s work in a mine and head down the shaft together, into the dark. The camera settles on three men as they spend time digging and scraping away at the rock and joking about the quality of one man’s love life back home, just another day at the office. Then, with merciless speed and precision, two of the men kill the third, drag his body deeper into the darkness, and fake a mine shaft collapse.

The suddenness of the event leaves us momentarily in shock. It feels like the rug has been pulled out before we even had a chance to stand upon it. The rest of the film fills in the blanks. Who are these two men and why has the film privileged such a vicious act as our introduction to their behavior?

After the murder, we observe them as they con the management, flush their dead “relative’s” ashes down the toilet, fill their bellies with stew, and wander about streets strewn with the unemployed, eventually passing some time with a couple prostitutes. They seem sadly, pathetically aimless. They are trapped in a never-ending cycle of entrepreneurial ingenuity gone sour and distractedly pass the time between scores like junkies lounging about between fixes.

All of the other faces in the streets seem just as sad, just as desperate. They’re like Oklahoma migrants begging for work – any work at all – in The Grapes of Wrath and turning the other cheek repeatedly as one employer after another takes advantage of them. And out of this sea of the desolate emerges a naïve young man, the innocent player in the next round of the mine shaft con game.

The bulk of the film follows our two entrepreneurs as they draw this young man into their plot and set the stage for a repeat of the film’s opening scene. Only this time, after who knows how many times their plan has gone right, things instead go left and one of the men finally sees light at the end of what has always been a blind shaft, at least for a moment.

Days of Heaven

Imagine traveling across the Texas Panhandle and eyeing a farmhouse, vacant, decaying, and leaning precariously after being howled by winds for nearly a century. Filled with curiosity, you pull your car over, trudge across what used to be a wheat field, and take a closer look. The door is ajar so you enter. The floor is scattered with dust, tumbleweeds, dead locusts, and a trunk.

Inside the trunk, you find old photographs strewn every which way and, intrigued, you start pulling them out one-by-one for a closer look. Gradually, pictures of the newly built farmhouse; freight trains stacked with human cargo; horses grazing; a man, a woman, and a young girl sharing a picnic (are they husband, wife, and daughter?); farm workers harvesting wheat; a congregation with heads bowed in prayer; and locusts, very much alive, crawling over a kitchen table all start to coalesce into a story.

Then you see a picture of that same woman in a lover’s embrace with a different man and the beginnings of melodrama take hold. Hurriedly, you start laying the pictures out on the dusty floor, arranging them one way, and then another. The story’s fragmented with huge gaps, gaps you try to fill in with pictures of nature, pictures often startlingly beautiful like a storm slowly rolling across a plain. You lie down on the floor, face almost touching each image in succession as if trying to erase time itself and you begin to hear the voice of that young girl precociously telling a tragic story from long ago...

This is the effect that Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven has on the viewer, one of hauntingly beautiful images that ever so casually and sometimes even unexpectedly find a story to tell. (It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and it is one of a small handful of the most gorgeous movies ever made.)

The story follows a young man (a very young Richard Gere), his lover who pretends to be his sister, and his actual young sister, the story’s narrator. They are on the run. Did he actually murder that man? We can’t be sure. They find work as hired hands on a harvest. The farm owner is young and handsome (Sam Shepard) and dying. Seeing an opportunity to gain riches, the young woman marries the farm owner. But, marriage has a rejuvenating effect on him. He stops dying. Will he die? Or will she fall in love with him for real?

Talking about Days of Heaven in terms of plot is almost to misrepresent it. Malick spent many long days waiting until magic hour working with cinematographer Néstor Almendros to craft one stunning light painting after another. The rest of each day was spent with macro lenses capturing the minutiae of farm existence in screen-filling extreme close-ups. He then spent a legendary two years in the editing room stitching the countless pictures together, first one way, and then many others, until an eye-pleasing perfection was achieved. Haunting music and Linda Manz’s offhand, highly influential narration, full of unfinished thoughts and stray tangents are the glue that finally binds this most remarkably singular work of art together.

I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I came across the reclusive Malick’s unpublished memoirs, possibly in a trunk in an old abandoned farm house, and he admitted to editing Days of Heaven by stretching out on the floor with his footage and squinting and rearranging the strips until the many voices started to whisper to him from distant days when Heaven was so close and yet so far.