Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dazed and Confused

“The older you get, the more rules they are going to try and get you to follow. You just gotta keep on livin', man. L-I-V-I-N.” – Wooderson in Dazed and Confused.

Critic Robin Wood, while discussing the history and meaning of teen movies, once let slip the following nugget: “...when I described [Dazed and Confused] in an article as a 'horror' movie, I received a message from its director Richard Linklater congratulating me on being the first to notice his intention!” What the heck might they have meant?

Wood praised The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while discussing the meaning of horror movies (he discussed meaning of movies a lot, my kind of guy). Shot in and around Austin, Texas (same as Dazed) in 1974 (two years before the setting of Dazed); I'll begin with it.

Chainsaw pits its wide-eyed protagonists – five young adults straight out of Scooby Doo – against a terrible family of three generations. Grandpa, Pa, and Sons have always worked at the slaughterhouse, but now the meat packing company has found a more efficient way to kill cattle. Rendered obsolete and out of work, they find new ways to apply their skills.

The protagonists' hopes for the future are killed one by one by a sledgehammer, a meat hook, and the titular chainsaw and the only survivor will forever be a basket case. Chainsaw is about one generation obstinately following the next even though the future once enjoyed by its parents and grandparents is no longer out there. Dazed is also about generation following generation with steadily diminishing promises.

Every character in Dazed is part of a generation – incoming high school freshmen, the new senior class, and adults. The action involves freshmen boys being mercilessly beaten with wood paddles and freshmen girls being humiliated by having food smeared on their bodies, led about on leashes, and ordered to propose to senior boys. The seniors gleefully have at it, the memory of their freshman year still fresh. The adults go along, vaguely remembering their own glory days, even selling concessions.

Many of the seniors look toward their futures with feigned optimism. One doesn't want to go to college, he just wants to dance. Another believes that, since the seventies obviously suck, “maybe the eighties will be like radical or something.” And a stoner simply sees the whole adult world as a huge conspiracy with spooky stuff happening on the dollar bill.

Two characters, Wooderson and O'Bannion refuse to graduate to adulthood altogether. Wooderson lives in some pre-adulthood purgatory saying, “That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” O'Bannion flunked his senior year and gets to continue paddling freshman (for eternity?).

Star quarterback Randall 'Pink' Floyd is the wide-eyed protagonist of Dazed. He opts out of a paddling simply giving a sympathetic tap and despises his coaches that he recognizes as pathetic future versions of his teammates. The coaches demand he sign a form promising he will stay drug and alcohol free all summer. A running gag is that no matter how many times he wads it up and tosses it away someone picks it up and puts it back in his pocket.

I think the root of Wood's horror was the sense that Pink – conflicted about what to do (at one point he says he'll probably sign, at another he declares he never will) – will give in, sign, and continue the tradition, maybe even end up coaching the team one day.

“You just gotta keep on livin', man. L-I-V-I-N.”

(As a footnote, that line by Wooderson would've made a terrifically sardonic tagline for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, describing the terrified young woman caught in its vortex.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

We humans have difficulty seeing beyond our current condition. Events only days ago become fuzzy and we can hardly see past that check to a creditor we agonized over ten minutes ago. The future becomes a question: Will I be able to write that check again next month?

Geographically, we’re fixated on our home town, patriotism, and property boundary lines. We live in our own little worlds and see everything and everyone beyond our white picket fences as ‘other.’ On a global scale, this leads to endless wars.

Turn the telescope around and gaze inward and life can become unbearable. Seeming unsolvable problems turn the picket fence into an insurmountable wall and all hope is lost. As unforgettably documented in an album by Nine Inch Nails, the downward spiral can lead to suicide.

The extraordinary new movie The Tree of Life from director Terrence Malick encompasses all of these ideas, and some. It is a monumental achievement of beauty, intelligence, and mystery. It is Malick’s gift to the world born out of personal pain and loss.

The movie tells two stories of Jack. In the present, he’s a businessman living and working in a sterile, glass-encased world. Played by Sean Penn, he’s drained of life and deeply troubled. He is, as he alludes in the movie’s opening narration, knocking on God’s door. The bulk of the movie consists of his memories growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. He’s played as a child, quite irresistibly by Hunter McCracken.

His childhood is centered on the family home, his parents played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (so good recently in The Help). Or maybe ‘confined by’ is more appropriate. Neighborhood streets surround the home like a moat and his father’s first lesson to him forbids his crossing the property line into the neighbor’s yard.

The world beyond the home is portrayed as offering adventure tainted with peril. A trip to a swimming pool is to watch a boy drown. A trip to town is to witness the handicapped, the destitute, and the criminal, all those ‘others’ that fill a sheltered child’s dreams with fear. His mother points beyond the trees surrounding their home saying, “That’s where God lives.” And his adult mind desperately searches these memories for meaning.

He tries to situate his life within a larger frame. He imagines a history of the world from the Big Bang, to the origins of life on Earth, to the dinosaurs, to the Ice Age, and finally to his own birth. After his family is forced to leave their home, he imagines the inevitable death of life on Earth. These remarkable scenes reminded me of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar where man occupies only the last hour and a half of December 31.

Jack has long struggled with his younger brother’s death (we aren’t told the nature of his passing and first assume he was a soldier in Viet Nam – Malick’s own younger brother committed suicide at the same age) and his reverie is his attempt to climb above the walls surrounding him. An image of trees reflected in the glass of his office building assured me that his climb was successful – though this is wonderfully debatable.

Many have compared this amazing movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mesmerizing creation sequence is certainly reminiscent of the famed star gate sequence. But one thing sets it apart. While I’ve always found Kubrick’s movie cold, distant, and abstract; the evocation of growing up in the 1950s in The Tree of Life is warm, immediate, and overflowing with life.

Can you tell? I really love this movie.

Eat the Rich!

With all the Occupy Wall Street rallies going on, I’ve found it pleasing that some have taken the extra step and walked the streets dressed as zombies and holding signs asserting, “Eat the rich!” I wonder though. How many people get the joke?

George Romero has been making zombie movies since he revolutionized the genre in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead.” And he’s been a man on a mission. You see, for him the zombies aren’t walking blobs of decaying flesh. They are us. Or more specifically they are those of us that have fallen on hard times and tumbled from the middle class into poverty. And from one film in the series to the next, their numbers have steadily, dramatically grown.

In “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), a scientist assesses the political situation saying, “This isn't the Republicans versus the Democrats, where we're in a hole economically or... or we're in another war. This is more crucial than that. This is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!” Another character realizes the zombies – those struggling – kill for one reason: “They kill for food.” They are the hungry.

With “Day of the Dead” (1985), hopes of working with the government had faded. In a throwaway line of dialog discussing the failing phone systems, a character says, “We used to talk to Washington all the time. They could hear us then.” And the beginnings of revolution were forming: “It takes more energy to keep quiet than it does to speak the mind.”

This culminated in “Land of the Dead” (2005). The zombies have overrun the earth and the last CEO (played by Dennis Hopper who notoriously went from “Easy Rider” to one of Ronald Reagan’s biggest supporters) is barricaded in his high tower as countless zombies converge on the city. Beginning their march in a funny scene set in Main Street, USA, these zombies are different than their predecessors. They’ve learned to work together. And the last vestiges of the old way are memorably devoured.

In “Dawn of the Dead,” it was proclaimed “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” I think the true subtext of that quote has become all too familiar: “When there’s no more room in the unemployment lines, the unemployed will walk the earth.” And they’ll be plenty eager to “Eat the rich!”

Friday, October 7, 2011

Moneyball (and a bit of Big Windup)

Baseball gets a bad rap for being dull. There’s no clock. A pitcher can take all the time he wants and can attempt a pick-off at first base 30 times in a row if he feels like it. And the seventh inning stretch sometimes seems so named because it offers the crowd a chance to stand, work out the kinks, and yawn.

I’ve always been fascinated by the game though. While football is akin to gladiators and lions and bloody remains, baseball has always seemed more like a game of chess – or an evening at a poker table. The game is cerebral with pockets of thought lurking beneath every pitch-out, lead-off, and outfield shift.

I recently watched an anime television series with my daughter called Big Windup and we were totally absorbed. It’s about a Japanese middle school baseball team and focuses on the relationship between a pitcher and his catcher and all the mind games they play with each other and with opposing hitters. Entire episodes play out within a single inning which should, one would think, lead to boredom.

But it doesn’t. It reveals just how much thought goes into whether to throw a slider, a curve, or a fastball next. It reveals the heart of the game to be a catcher as Spassky, a hitter as Fischer, and a pitcher as a highly skilled pawn caught in the middle.

The terrific new baseball movie Moneyball is every bit as thoughtfully stimulating, but in a different way. To return to my casino metaphor, it portrays the General Manager Billy Beane of the 2002 Oakland Athletics (played by Brad Pitt) and his new chief assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) – a stats obsessed computer nerd – as crafty card-counters playing the odds in a giant poker game.

The movie opens with an anecdote about how, if nothing changes, the Yankees will always beat the Athletics because they have vastly more money to spend on players. And this sets up the challenge: How can one build an affordable team that can beat the Yankees? Beane knows intuitively that it means thinking outside the box. Brand shows him just how far outside.

The answer is to stop paying for players and start paying for runs, runs being what win games. And you score runs by getting runners on base. The logic, which is almost diabolical and is often presented devilishly by computer printouts scrolling across the screen, is to find damaged, over-the-hill, and otherwise undesirable (and therefore bargain priced) players who possess one magic quality – a high percentage of at-bats that lead to their bodies crossing home plate.

It’s a bold experiment suggested by Brand and embraced by Beane, though not without reservations. He grasps for it like a drowning man and takes the heat from his entire staff of scouts for trying to reduce player analysis with all its human variables to an ice cold spreadsheet. And he must fight tooth and nail with his team manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who refuses to accept the idea that he should be starting a trembling former catcher at first base simply because the numbers say so.

And fight Beane does, but is he rewarded for his commitment? Does the grand experiment work? It is here that the film is at its most teasing and tantalizing. In two of its most beautiful moments, the human element finds a way to sneak back into the works, once to keep a winning streak alive and once to remind him why it is that he so loves the game.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fall 2011 Series

October 6 - Waste Land
October 13 - Local Hero
October 20 - Of Gods and Men
October 27 - The Chorus
November 3 - Ikiru

All shows are at 3:00 and 5:30 at the Grand Theaters.

On Thursday November 10, Cinema 100 will be sponsoring a public forum/discussion on the theme of Community in the films of the series and relate the theme to our experience in the Bismarck and Mandan communities. The forum will take place in RM C of the Bismarck Public Library. Tayo Basquiat and Brian Palecek will moderate.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Uncle Boonmee

I’m not going to claim full understanding of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but it did something for me that went beyond understanding, I think. It made me want to increase my understanding.

Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or (top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s a gentle, deliberately paced, and visually sumptuous work. The Thai director who for quite understandable reasons goes by the nickname “Joe” has a distinctive style. Frequently, his compositions are filled from top to bottom, side to side, and corner to corner with foliage. He is closely in touch with nature and seems to be suggesting that we all exist amidst a never ending jungle, literal and figurative.

Uncle Boonmee shows us Boonmee during his final days as he succumbs to kidney failure. (It is based on the true story of man who appeared to Buddhist monks with claims of being able to see his past lives while dreaming.) He is surrounded by a fascinating assortment of caregivers and comforters including a male nurse who administers his dialysis, his devoted sister-in-law, the ghost of his late wife, and his lost son who returns in a not quite human, ape-like form that resembles Bigfoot with laser-like red eyes.

The film consists of quiet scenes of Boonmee receiving care and slowly slipping away seamlessly overlapping with visions of his dreams. The centerpiece is an extraordinary sequence from a time long ago of an aged princess carried by servants before a waterfall where she has a conversation with and ultimately has sex with a catfish. This occurs after she gazes upon her youthful reflection in the water and she rejects a human suitor. It’s a scene that mesmerizes with its folktale-like qualities, yet managed to escape my grasp due to those tales being outside my experience.

I’m fascinated by folktales, but so far have little exposure to those beyond The West. Uncle Boonmee constantly hints at a whole new folk tradition waiting for my discovery. I also have little knowledge of things spiritual outside of Christianity and detect something imminently worth discovery within the film’s lush, densely green frames.

I’ve never encountered a film that suggested so strongly a sense of the circular nature of things; of all living things living in close relationship; and of past, present, and future co-existing. There is a moment where Boonmee’s sister-in-law narrowly misses stepping on an insect and is warned to be more careful as if what’s once small may one day be large and what’s powerful could easily one day be weak, both in this life and in lives to come. That insect may have already spared her life, or may one day end it out of similar carelessness. (A scene where mosquitos are casually killed with an electrified flyswatter left me asking, “Just what are the boundaries in this belief system?”)

Joe has an affinity with nature, but with Uncle Boonmee that extends more than ever to man’s relationship with animals. The opening scene depicts a water buffalo breaking free of its bonds, wandering into the jungle, and then its owner gently retrieving it. Boonmee’s sister-in-law cavorts happily with her dog. Completely relaxed, Boonmee and his sister-in-law taste honey from a hive, bees buzzing all about them. His son returns with an ape-like appearance. And of course that scene with the catfish was one of last year’s most talked about love scenes, to say the least.

More than anything though, what left me wanting about the beliefs expressed in Uncle Boonmee is how all of the people, regardless of cast in life, treat each other with love and respect. I want to learn more, a lot more.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is an achingly sad affair. It chronicles the final days of a marriage between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), seemingly held together only by a young daughter (hers, not his) and desperation (his, not hers). Don’t let this scare you away though. Sadness is an emotion of many colors and this movie does a magnificent job of showing them all. It’s my favorite American movie in years.

The movie is structured as if from Dean’s point of view as he sorts through the events of their relationship, trying to discover what went wrong. It tells of their final two days separated by a night together in an all blue, futuristic honeymoon suite. This is all aching. It’s punishing. It’s angry and filled with denial that stops just short of acceptance.

These scenes are punctuated by flashbacks to their meeting, dating, her revealing her pregnancy to him, and their quickie wedding. These scenes display the other colors. There’s a scene of his serenading her late at night in front of a closed storefront that’s magical. There’s palpable affection between them. His reaction to her being pregnant is fear laced with determination. Her reaction to his proposal, immediately following a scene in an abortion clinic that sets a new standard for such scenes, is to tell him, “You don’t have to do this,” as she clings to him.

What went wrong? The answer he finds is: pretty much everything. But it’s a very understandable sort of everything, or at least it was for me. In my twenties, I fell in love at first sight and ignored all the signals the pretty young woman was flashing before my eyes until we found ourselves sitting before a roaring fire enacting “the marriage proposal scene.” The woman, hand trembling, gave back the ring, stood up, and walked out of my life.

I was lucky. I was spared what I now know would have been years of sadness. And, if I hadn’t already known this, Dean and Cindy would’ve taught me once and for all. Watching the course of their relationship – meeting, falling into something like love, passionately never quite connecting, and not enough caring – hit me in some very sensitive places. Oh, only a few of the specifics were the same, but the emotions were all familiar.

I wonder what others think of this movie. I’ve heard many people young and old express how deeply it affected them, more than I’ve heard for any other movie. People in their sixties were shattered by it. My 19-year-old niece has proclaimed it her favorite recent movie. Would all of them have a story to tell similar to mine? I read that writer/director Derek Cianfrance spent 12 years developing the script and that his two brilliant stars contributed a great deal of personal pain as well. It really shows.

I came across something very interesting while discussing the movie in between my first and second viewings. I very strongly empathized with Dean. He seemed the White Knight to me and Cindy was the messed up, troubled one. And I found most men felt the same while most women felt just the opposite. I couldn’t understand. I chalked it up to some sort of gender thing.

But, while watching it a second time, I found myself agreeing with my wife and my niece. All of Dean’s jealousies and over-willingness to pass blame rather than share it became painfully apparent. I think I finally saw things from the point of view of that pretty young woman I wanted to marry 25 year ago.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

I’ve always loved Hollywood movies of the 1970s. It has something to do with my wishing I had been part of the student protests that opened the decade – like the burning of the Bank of America in my home town of Isla Vista, California. Wishing I had been at Woodstock to witness a generation’s high point, and the beginning of its end, also plays a role. Mostly though, it’s a reaction to seeing my parents trembling with hushed tones in the kitchen trying to hide these events from me.

American movies during those times of unrest and Richard Nixon were notable for taking their cameras into the real world, away from Hollywood’s sets and stars. Also characteristic were frank and free explorations of sexuality, downbeat, ambiguous endings, and conflicted characters that left audiences grasping and asking: Was I supposed to like that hero?

“America Lost and Found: The BBS Story,” a rich new box set that combines seven movies released from 1968 through 1972, some well-known – Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show – some not so well known – Head (starring The Monkees), Drive, He Said, and The King of Marvin Gardens – and one forgotten – A Safe Place, feels like a primer on 1970s Hollywood.

BBS Productions, named after [B]ob Rafelson, [B]ert Schneider, and [S]teve Blauner, was born out of the success of two productions: the television series The Monkees and the whirlwind known as Easy Rider. Monkees co-creators Rafelson and Schneider filled their bank accounts with enough cash to finance the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper pipe-dream of a biker movie. But first they tried to spin The Monkees into a theatrical movie. They planned to jokingly promote Easy Rider as being “from the producers who gave you Head.”

Now, thanks to this set, we can see Head, a box office disaster that forced one of the greatest taglines in movie history to be abandoned. It’s actually a fun and inventive movie, though far more politically serious than the television show, which explains it failure.

Jack Nicholson was on the verge of hanging up his acting gloves when he was cast as George Hanson in Easy Rider (he also co-wrote Head) and a star was born. He saved Easy Rider which would’ve been deadly dull without him. He owns this set as well, being involved in six out of the seven movies including his fascinating directing debut Drive, He Said. Watching these movies is like watching the birth of a major career that almost never was.

Idiosyncratic director Henry Jaglom seems an odd man out with A Safe Place, his meditation on loving and forgetting, until one notices the threads. Jaglom was the editor who helped simmer Easy Rider down from a four hour mess to a mostly taut 95 minutes. Jaglom and Nicholson made a pact that they would each act in the other’s first movie. Jaglom appears in Drive, He Said, Nicholson in A Safe Place.

Seeming the most out of place though is The Last Picture Show (the one without Nicholson). Its classical storytelling and black and white cinematography harken back to earlier Hollywood times of Howard Hawks and John Ford, but watching it within the context of this set makes it feel perfectly at home at BBS.

Peter Bogdanovich insisted on shooting entirely in the town that inspired Larry McMurtry. The pool party with Jacy stripping on a diving board perfectly captures the era’s freewheeling sexuality, and no ending is bleaker than its encounter between Sonny and Ruth Popper that dissolves into an image of the town’s desolate main street with one forever blinking traffic light.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"I knew two things for sure...

I'd love to include things like this from time to time. It's a reaction to the Cinema 100 experience by first time season ticket holder Kelsey Schable:

Throughout the course of this semester, I have searched for an opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture in order to complete my cultural event project. My efforts had been mostly futile, due to the low number of cultural events located in the Bismarck-Mandan area. It occurred to me that perhaps I was being too simplistic in my cultural views and should look beyond race and ethnicity to find a group of people with completely different interests than my own. To my chagrin, I did not even realize that I had been attending a significant cultural event every Thursday afternoon for months in the form Cinema 100, a club that regularly shows new and remarkable films at the Grand Theatres weekly. Cinema 100 is unique because the people who attend the showings of these films not only have their own culture, but they involve themselves in other cultures with the medium of film.

I was first introduced to Cinema 100 through my fiancé, a local director, movie enthusiast, and board member of Cinema 100. It was his first year working with the organization and every Thursday afternoon he would have to disappear to the Grand Theatres to take tickets and view a different film. The members of Cinema 100 took great pains to find the perfect blend of films in order to expose the people of Bismarck to captivating movies that range from foreign films to classics. On the first week of the Spring 2011 Cinema 100 showing, my fiancé halfheartedly asked me to join him, knowing that it was unlikely that I would give up my Thursday afternoon to sit in a crowded movie theatre. I surprised him and myself by accepting his offer.

The first week I attended Cinema 100, I paid six dollars to watch a documentary about Joan Rivers. Although the documentary was provocative and feisty, the electric atmosphere was more stimulating than the film. Veterans who had attended Cinema 100 showings for years lingered with one another before the movie and were the first ones out of the theatre, bursting with critiques. Newbies, like me, were more reserved. I liked the vibe, but I was cautious about giving my opinion about the film with so many vivacious personalities surrounding me. As I drove away from the Grand Theatres, I knew two things for sure: Joan Rivers was a dynamite comedienne and I was purchasing a season pass to Cinema 100.

In the weeks following, I attended four other films presented by Cinema 100. I enjoyed viewing films that were different than the romantic comedies and explosive action films one usually sees in theatres. As the weeks wore on, my misgivings about expressing my opinions gave way to the fun of debating with other Thursday afternoon film critics. I realized that the Cinema 100 culture is built on the idea that everyone has an inner film critic, and that those who attend have inner critics that cannot be satisfied by the regular blockbusters of the week. This culture is exceptional because the members may not be the same race, age, or religion, but they have the same yearn for education through film and spirited debate.

While my cultural event project may have been atypical, that is fine with me. In fact, it may even be preferable. Cultural diversity is something to be celebrated and explored, especially because the fact that all people belong to the same, human culture can sometimes be forgotten. I have found that not only does it pay off to expose oneself to different cultures, but that every once in a while one may find another culture to which one belongs.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sidney Lumet - RIP

After the recent passing of legendary movie director Sidney Lumet, I decided to go on a voyage of re-discovery. I’ve always admired his movies, been greatly entertained by them, and been impressed by his willingness to disappear inside the different stories he chose to tell, nothing flashy, just honest and earnest serving of the material.

What I didn’t expect to find is a vision that is startlingly relevant today. His career which spanned six decades grew increasingly concerned with the struggles of the little man, the working class, and the steadily weakening middle class to make ends meet. He was especially concerned with what man was capable of doing if pushed down hard enough and the consequences of his desperate actions.

The movies I’ve watched over the past week surprisingly fell neatly into two matched pairs. Dog Day Afternoon and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (his final movie shot when he was 82) are both about men driven to commit robberies to cover unexpected expenses. Daniel and Running on Empty offer two different views of revolutionary parents, focusing on the effects their actions have had on their children.

Every time my wife sees a poster from a family forced to hold a pancake breakfast to pay out of the blue medical expenses, she comes home upset and tells me I just have to write a letter to the editor. There is no way that people should be put through such hardship because fate deals them a card imprinted with a word like leukemia.

Dog Day with its famous “Attica! Attica!” spouting Al Pacino and Before the Devil with its brother attacking brother and father attacking son conflicts that approach Biblical proportions are moral quagmires. Pacino needs money to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. Philip Seymour Hoffman needs money to cope with his drug addiction. But, how unsurprising it would be to open the paper tomorrow and read, “Father Robs Bank to Keep Daughter Alive.”

Lumet was fascinated by radical figures, with clearly mixed feelings. The parents in Daniel – arrested and executed in the 1950s as Soviet spies – and in Running on Empty – on the run from the FBI after bombing a napalm lab – are presented sympathetically. But their children are put through Hell as if asking, “Was it really worth it?”

Daniel (Timothy Hutton) has been struggling to find meaning in his parents’ execution for most of his life and his sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) ends up suicidal. And there is no scene more deeply moving than Danny (River Phoenix) tearfully telling his girlfriend Lorna (Martha Plimpton) that he loves her, knowing that he may have to leave her tomorrow.

Lumet’s masterpiece is Network. I didn’t connect with it when I was in my twenties, but it has grown increasingly powerful with aging, its aging, my aging. It deals with a fourth place out of four television news network and its struggles to improve its ratings. The old guard has been striving to remain ethical even if it loses money and the new, represented most memorably by Faye Dunaway, wants to turn the station into, essentially, Fox News.

The most oft-quoted scene is when news anchor Howard Beale gets out of his chair during the live evening newscast and encourages his listeners to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Things just aren’t done live anymore. The sponsors have grown too concerned with their well-being to allow that and Timberlake and Jackson didn’t help matters. But I can imagine just as much shouting out of windows occurring today as back in 1976.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Film Unfinished

In a tenement building in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews are shown living merrily day to day, their courtyard filled with an ever growing mound of human feces as they toss garbage from their tenth story windows, appearing to enjoy living amongst filth.

This scene from the extraordinary documentary “A Film Unfinished” both reminded me of and trumped what has long been my most indelible portrait of the possibilities of hatred and the powers of propaganda to cloud minds. As a child, my grandfather would sit in his big, puffy easy chair – me on one knee and my sister perched on the other – telling us how the black neighbors didn’t even use the bathroom. They would just “go all over the house.”

He wanted us to think in the most unforgettable way possible to our impressionable young minds that blacks were animals.

“A Film Unfinished” makes a truly unique use of a fortuitous discovery. Ten years after the end of WWII, researchers began to sift through the racks of footage left behind by the Nazi propaganda machine. An odd, hour long film was discovered showing the daily lives of Jews. It’s editing was rough as if something abandoned. It had no titles or credits and the cans bore the simple title “The Ghetto.”

The film’s scenes juxtapose wealthy Jews living a comfortable existence and poor, starving Jews wandering and panhandling and often dying in the streets. The footage was long considered a valuable document of how things really were during those dark times.

Two discoveries in the years since have revealed this footage to be something else entirely. A document was discovered bearing the name of one of the cameramen, Willy Wist, and he was located and interviewed. And a never meant to be seen reel of outtakes was found. These two documents combine to show “The Ghetto” to be a most sinister and carefully constructed lie, the propaganda purposes of which we can only now surmise.

Healthy looking Jews, the few remaining, were costumed and placed in carefully redecorated and plush rooms and ordered to eat extravagant meals. They were ordered to walk down the sidewalks past starving Jews – themselves ordered to extend their hands begging for handouts – and callously place nothing in their hands.

Corpses were arranged on the sidewalks by laughing Nazi soldiers while “rich” Jews were ordered to walk past them carrying packages of food for their evening feasts without so much as glancing downward.

We learn of these filmmaking details from Wist. We learn just as much from viewing the outtakes. In scenes left on the cutting room floor, people are seen looking down at those corpses in horror – one particular little boy in disbelief. A scene of two filthy young boys looking into a shop window as a woman strolls inside to make her purchase is repeated four times until the filmmakers were satisfied with the illusion of authenticity.

The makers of “A Film Unfinished” have added one more layer to their presentation. Survivors, young children at the time, now in their 70s and 80s, are shown watching and commenting on the footage, the light flickering across their faces, fingers often covering their eyes. Watching a funeral scene, one woman says with disgust, “But Jews don’t bury their dead in coffins.”

Those scenes of Jews living amongst feces and garbage are revealed in the outtake footage for what they really are. A filmmaker is shown carefully, aesthetically arranging and rearranging a pile of garbage and toying with the idea of propping up a photograph of an elderly Jewish man atop the refuse, before casually tossing it aside.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Heaven's Gate Re-Re-Opened

James Averill has just completed the long journey to rejoin his lover Ella Watson bearing the gift of a horse drawn carriage. The Wyoming vistas are gorgeous, the music sweeping. He stashes the carriage away in the barn outside her bordello and goes inside. Their reunion is tender, their lovemaking sweet.

He unveils his surprise gift and she can hardly wait to take it for a spin and show it off. And then it gets me every time. The scene as the pair careen about in the carriage is so exuberant and the following scene as they enjoy magic hour on a lake shore is so touching that I begin to cry. I wipe my eyes and keep watching almost holding my breath and always saying out loud, “This is my favorite movie ever.”

You might be thinking I’m describing some acclaimed romantic epic from David Lean like Doctor Zhivago, but, no, I’m writing about a movie with the reputation for being one of the worst disasters in Hollywood history, a movie that almost singlehandedly sank United Artists, a movie filled with the alleged perfectionist indulgences of the director of The Deer Hunter run amok.

Yes, I’m writing about Heaven’s Gate.

I’ve had a long love affair with this movie. My first time was on the huge screen of Seattle’s Egyptian Theater during their international film festival. It is such a magnificently visual movie that I’d urge anyone to see it under those conditions if they get the chance. It’s the most memorable movie I’ve ever been overwhelmed by and I’ve been overwhelmed by the best.

The affair has continued over the years on home video, greatly enhanced by another great love – the writings of film critic Robin Wood. Most critics played leapfrog trying to outdo each other with creatively sarcastic and scathing reviews. Wood watched the movie many times and then wrote one of the most marvelous works of film criticism ever published. His piece “Heaven’s Gate Re-opened” and its equally illuminating companion piece on The Deer Hunter really shook me up. I’ve emailed Roger Ebert several times asking if he read Wood’s essay – and if he ever reconsidered his scathing remarks. He’s never replied.

The movie’s director, Michael Cimino, began his career as an architect. And with the aid of Wood’s insights, I quickly began to see this as the key to understanding the brilliance of Heaven’s Gate’s structure. The movie for many years, hell, even nowadays, has been condemned as being sloppy and unstructured. I watch it – once every few months – and ask, “What are these people smoking?”

The movie opens at Harvard during the graduation of two of its major characters, 20 years before the main action. There is a huge dance set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” with hundreds circling a tree. (This scene is almost tearfully beautiful as well.) Later, a dance set to fiddle music sends roller-skating dancers circling around a wood burning stove. Later still, settlers circle on horseback in a swirl of dust as they attack bounty hunters pinned against a tree.

All three of these scenes, its three great set pieces, play like ecstasies of the moment as if time came to a standstill. All are scenes that gradually build toward cinematic bliss, like the docking scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And all three work hand-in-hand to express in a way that’s beyond words the movie’s themes of sadness and loss and disillusionment.

Wood thought – and I agree – that Heaven’s Gate failed because people at the dawn of the Reagan era simply didn’t want to see a movie that eloquently portrayed the death of a nation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Heaven Allows" and "Fear Eats the Soul"

This Cinema 100 series is making most of a dream come true for me. I’ve wanted to share the experience of watching “All That Heaven Allows” and “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” back to back. They are perhaps the best excuse I’ve come across for having these things called remakes. (Last year’s “Let Me In” was also a pretty darn good remake of the Swedish movie “Let the Right One In.”

German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder experienced an epiphany back in the early ‘70s when he attended a retrospective of the movies of Douglas Sirk, a Hollywood director with German roots. Fassbinder emerged into the daylight a changed man and immediately started typing out a now infamous essay expressing his newfound love for Sirk’s brand of Technicolor melodrama.

Fassbinder also began pouring Sirk all over his own movies like syrup over pancakes. In “Martha,” he had his title character take up residence on “Sirk Street.” Sirk’s distinctive visual style would permeate all of Fassbinder’s subsequent work. This is where his particular uses of color and his fascination with mirrors originated for instance.

Fassbinder’s most overt response to Sirk was “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” a close remake of one of Sirk’s most popular and endearing movies “All That Heaven Allows.” I regard it as one of two or three of Fassbinder’s finest movies and easily the best place to start for the Fassbinder uninitiated. (Many of his other movies are, face it, pretty darn weird. This one is a pure, though sad, joy.)

Both movies center on an upper-middle-aged and recently widowed woman. They both meet and fall in love with a younger man and they – society being an unforgiving creature – both pay dearly for their recklessness. The “forbidden” nature of their loves varies between the two movies.

In “Heaven Allows,” Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her well-muscled gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Her high society friends all immediately shun her for allowing a man, a lowly man, who can only possibly be after her for her money, into her life. Her grown children disown her. She sees no way to go live a happy life in Kirby’s renovated water mill and keep her friends and family.

“Fear Eats the Soul” has Emmi (Brigitte Mira) falling in love at first sight with Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem, Fassbinder’s lover at the time). Ali is an Arabic auto mechanic who offers her a dance in a bar on a rain-soaked night. Her friends and grown children shun her as well. After all, all this “animal” could possibly want from her is money and sex.

The plots follow almost identical trajectories, but re-watching them both recently highlighted one key difference. In Sirk’s movie, Kirby, a man who tries to live a life as portrayed in Thoreau’s “Walden,” fails ironically to apply it to his relationship with Cary. He comes across as selfish. But Ali has none of these qualities and comes across as one of the movie’s most perfectly selfless characters.

This has the effect of shifting the blame from something shared between man and society in the earlier movie to something owned solely by the society, still haunted by the Munich Olympics murders of 1972. Ali is persecuted simply for his race. In these post 9/11 days, the movie is painfully more relevant than ever.

I said this pairing made “most of a dream come true” because my complete fantasy would be to share these two movies along with Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” and the delightfully endearing zombie movie “Fido.” Both are remakes of the Sirk classic as well. But that would take up a third of our series, and that we just can’t allow.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: In the Loop

“In the Loop” is an exhilaratingly fast-talking movie. The only movies that really compare were made over seventy years ago and starred people like Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and Katherine Hepburn. I’m talking dialog that’s not only fast, but also non-stop funny.

I’m not, mind you, whole-heartedly recommending “In the Loop” to all of you fans of “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing up Baby” though – there is a caveat. And I will just come out and say it: This 2009 British comedy is flat out foul-mouthed and raunchy. It’s funny foul-mouthed, but raunchy all the same.

I wanted to pepper this review with tastes of the dialog, not enough to spoil anything, but just enough to either make you giggle or gasp. I wanted to help you decide if it’s likely to be your cup of tea. But, dang it, the funniest lines are also the most outrageously and creatively colorful. I’ll just share this bit:

“…this wall story is playing badly. There's a cartoon of you in here as a walrus.”
“A walrus? I'm not fat, I don't even have a moustache. They've given me tusks.”
“Wall-rus. You get it? Wall-rus, wall-rus.”
“We called some builders. They didn't turn up when they said they would.”
“What did you expect? They're builders! Have you ever seen a film where the hero is a builder? No, no, because they never turn up in the nick of time. Bat-builder? Spider-builder? Huh? That's why you never see a superhero with a hod!”

That exchange communicates both the movie’s pleasures offered and challenges posed. It’s funny, clever stuff. It reminds me of Kevin Smith in its joy of pop culture. But it’s also very British. What’s a “hod?” (Okay, I admit to using the closed captions to even know what the word was.)

The movie focuses on departments of state in London and across the ocean in Washington, D.C. as characters and insults fly back and forth. Simon Foster, the “Wall-rus” of the exchange above is a British Secretary of State and it’s his slip of the tongue that gets his department in diplomatic hot water.

The United States is lining up allies for an invasion of an unnamed Middle-Eastern country and Foster’s over-the-radio comments that a war is “unforeseeable” sends the Prime Minister and his master spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker – the ripe source of most of the profanity – into damage-control overdrive.

What ensues is a manic, crazy, and yet perfectly controlled dark comedy, something like “Dr. Strangelove” meets television’s “The Office.” The tone reminded me of the latter. This of the former: “Twelve thousand troops. But that's not enough. That's the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost.”

At the heart of it all though – for me at least – is what gets ignored as Foster is forced to run about playing war planning games. His people in London have real issues and it’s his job to help solve them. A woman has a real smelly problem with her septic tank and another man is angry that a wall is about to collapse and crush his mother in her garden.

It’s always the “little” things that get neglected by a war effort.

“In the Loop” has not been rated by the MPAA. It’s a witty, fast-talking movie though that is filled with some very colorful and creative profanity. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Rope

A pointedly calm, too calm New York City street is seen from high above. A woman sweeps her front steps. Another pushes her baby along in a stroller. Finally, a police officer leads two naughty boys by the hand, presumably home to their parents.

Then the camera turns to face a window, curtains drawn, and we hear a man scream. Cut to a well-groomed young man being strangled by two well-groomed young men in an upscale apartment. The murder weapon is a piece of rope.

Thus begins Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the first of four collaborations between the “master of suspense” and actor James Stewart. Along with “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” these late 40s and 50s movies form the richest vein in the director’s work. “Rope” is the most unfairly neglected.

The victim’s body is hidden in a chest used as a serving table for a party. The guests include the man’s fiancé, best friend, father, and aunt. The guest of honor is the murderers’ old college mentor, James Stewart. The cat and mouse game will be to enjoy the thrill of avoiding detection – and seeing if their old master will catch on.

Much has been written about “Rope.” The opening scene immediately following the murder is filled with double entendre. Made in 1948, every line of dialog circles around the two attractive young men who share an apartment as if they just did the unspeakable “it” – and wishing they hadn’t had to keep the curtains drawn.

The movie ends with a blunt, urgent speech by Stewart. During college, he had shared twisted theories about how the intellectual elite are above the law and can justifiably commit murder. Unfortunately, his pupils failed to note his facetiousness. The bluntness is forgivable though. The atrocities of Hitler’s own misappropriation of Nietzsche’s Superman were topical in 1948.

Most discussion about the movie though is related to what connects the beginning and ending, a rather unusual filmmaking experiment for Hitchcock. This discussion has also led to a misconception.

Hitchcock wanted the movie to play like a play in real time and he accomplished this by using long, uninterrupted takes as the camera follows the characters throughout the three rooms of the apartment.

This posed a number of problems including putting pressure on the actors to get it right or have to redo as much as eight minutes of work, something that caused Stewart much frustration. It’s amazing that he worked with the director three more times.

Another challenge was the enormous Technicolor camera. Hitchcock had to orchestrate an elaborate ballet of cast and crew and movable furniture and walls. When a character breaks a champagne glass and bloodies his hand, a makeup person had to sneak in – avoiding the camera – and replace the glass in his hand while applying the blood.

The misconception is that it was shot entirely using ten minutes takes – the length of a roll of film – with the necessary cuts clumsily concealed by closing and opening on a character’s back. Actually, the shots range from roughly four to eight minutes and each transition – like a fade-out – signals a new movement in the action.

The most dramatic transition isn’t even disguised. It is a cut to Stewart’s face as he begins to catch on, signaling the game is truly on.

“Rope” has not been rated, but it is filled with the director’s sense of the macabre. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work

One thing I love about a well-made documentary is how it can totally wrap me up in a subject – or in this case a person – that never held my interest before. I remember going into “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” very hesitantly and suspiciously and coming out a huge admirer.

I was never a fan of Joan Rivers – or rather I never really paid much attention to her. And seeing publicity stills had me thinking, “Oh, a movie about another aging celebrity with plastic surgery gone very, very wrong.” It’s a testament to the highly engaging film “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” that I now find her a most fascinating celebrity.

My wife watched – and loved – the movie with me the other night as I prepared for this review and she made a comment that captured the movie as well as any statement could: “She acts like her career is just starting.”

At age 75 and after 40 years of constant work, Rivers still has that feel of a youngster searching for her first big break. She seems a woman who never has to stop proving herself. And maybe she is. She was a trailblazer in the field of foul-mouthed female comedians. She was way ahead of her time and this world of Viagra commercials on prime-time television is only now catching up to her.

She has spent most of her career though playing a man’s game. Lenny Bruce could talk dirty and get immortalized on screen by Dustin Hoffman. Richard Pryor could get away with almost anything. Rivers once got a bit racy and Jack Lemmon walked out of her show in a huff. When she had the nerve to try her own late-night show, her mentor Johnny Carson never spoke to her again.

What also struck me about Rivers is how much she is a walking testament to the value of age and experience. Two scenes in particular stood out:

Early in the movie, Rivers hangs out in her home office rifling through file cabinets filled with index cards containing a life’s worth of jokes. Then she starts flipping through binders and albums containing cocktail napkins and torn sheets of notebook paper with even more jokes quickly jotted down on the run, jokes still awaiting an index card.

The scene reminded me of the recent Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light” where Mick Jagger spends hours sifting through the band’s countless hits trying to assemble the perfect set list. Jagger and Rivers face an enviable problem, too much good material, too little time in a show.

The strongest moment has Rivers on stage in Wisconsin, working an aging casino crowd. She cracks a joke about Helen Keller and is heckled by an angry man who shouts, “That’s not funny. I have a deaf son.” Rivers’ handling of the moment shows the skill and mastery of stand-up craft that can only come from 40 years on the road.

Rivers herself summarizes her career nicely near the end of the film, as well as her amazing “keep on trucking” attitude. “You can’t get hit by lightning without standing in the rain.” And, as I now know, her life has been filled with lightning strikes, both electrifying and devastating. She’s spent a lot of time in the rain.

“Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” is rated R for language. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Jan. 20 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.