Pazartesi, Eylül 24, 2007

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises (Canada/U.K., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: David Cronenberg

Cronenberg has always been in favor with the critics, it seems, but nevertheless experienced a career re-estimation with the release of his last film, A History of Violence. A tightly-contained thriller with a superb central performance by Viggo Mortensen while containing the cerebral qualities typical of Cronenberg's extremely intellectual body of work, it felt like a breakthrough in the esteemed Canadian director's career. I felt that the film was overly schematized, with the characters often behaving more like elements in Cronenberg's theorem than as human beings; still, the film still haunted me, and I was certainly held in its thrall for its length. To my mind, his follow-up, Eastern Promises (from screenwriter Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things), is a superior effort, a near-perfect thriller that also happens to work on the rigorously philosophical level as Cronenberg's best films. Best of all, the characters behave like humans, and not according to the conventions of thriller plotting, or the diagrams to accompany a Cronenberg thesis.

To give too much of the plot away would be to spoil the extremely high level of tension which Cronenberg sustains throughout the film's relatively brisk running time. Here is the set-up: Russian mobster Kirill (Vincent Cassel) orders a hit--carried out by an old barber and his retarded assistant--which will have bloody consequences later in the film. Meanwhile, a fourteen-year-old Russian girl dies while giving birth, and Anna (Naomi Watts), the nurse who witnesses her death, decides to save the baby from foster care by tracking down her relatives through the girl's diary. First she needs to get the diary translated, so she first tries her uncle--and then, when he proves stubborn, Semyon, the owner of a Russian restaurant (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who also happens to be, though she doesn't know it, the mob boss and the father of Kirill. Kirill's driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), is attracted to Anna, and even fixes her motorcycle, though she keeps a wary distance; Nikolai is also edging out Kirill in the affections of Semyon. Soon the diary proves to contain incriminating information on the Mafia, and Anna realizes the mistake she's made by going to Semyon for help. Her only ally may be the morally ambiguous Nikolai, but neither she--nor we--understand his true intentions.

There are twists and turns, but perhaps less than in a standard Hollywood thriller. Instead, the plot is stripped down to its essentials. Part of what makes Eastern Promises so unique is its structure: although it's a genre film, the plot reveals itself organically, so that not a moment feels contrived; furthermore, the MacGuffin--the diary--emerges only slowly rather than straight away, and one crucial piece of information, which would, in most thrillers, be divulged at the beginning of the film, is here withheld until almost the very end. By withholding that piece of information (which I won't spoil), the film gains an almost unsettling tension because you can't predict exactly where the story is going or what the characters will do. Although there is a bloody, nude knife battle in a spa which has already become the toast of the critics (so that I can't spoil because you already know about it), it is not precisely the climax of the film; that honor belongs to an understated final standoff which has as much to do with the emotional bonds of the characters--and their sublimated motives and feelings--than it does traditional genre tropes. There is very little action in Eastern Promises, although there are sporadic moments of intense violence. This is a thriller that is more concerned with concepts like personal history and destiny--both written literally on the skin--and the radical notion that sometimes home is not a safe and sanitized destination, but a step backward into Hell.

Çarşamba, Eylül 19, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Paul Haggis

A vocal minority of critics hate the films of Clint Eastwood--in particular Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby--because they find them shamelessly manipulative and over-the-top melodramatic. I don't feel this way about Clint Eastwood, but about Paul Haggis. And incidentally, I've made a promise to myself that I would get through this review without saying "Hack-gis," so please keep me in check. Haggis wrote and produced Million Dollar Baby and wrote, produced, and directed Crash; the former was redeemed by superb performances and Eastwood's quiet, somber direction, but the latter was pure, unrestrained Haggis. Let me circle slowly toward the fatal flaw I see in Haggis' writing. If you can recall, in one scene late in Million Dollar Baby, the hospitalized Hillary Swank is visited by her greedy family, whose only concern is in getting their hands on her money. All at once a film which has been delicately establishing a sense of raw realism suddenly plunges into the world of a Dick Tracy comic strip, with the characters just as colorful and just as two-dimensional. This is how Haggis likes to treat his secondary characters: they serve the purposes of the plot, and are not meant to be convincing as real people; if you can't imagine them surviving outside the context of this scene, no matter. But for me, and a lot of people, the scene was a very serious flaw in an otherwise excellent film. (Many others just placed the blame on Eastwood, because that's what they liked to do.) With Crash, Haggis made his writing style perfectly clear. Crash had an ensemble cast to die for, stunning cinematography, and a script saddled with such ridiculous, caricatured racists that those two attributes were undone. In an interview with Newsweek, Haggis scoffed at his critics, saying something to the effect of (I'm paraphrasing by memory), "Sure, like there are no racists in Los Angeles." Yes, Haggis, there are racists in Los Angeles. But not everyone in Los Angeles is racist, which is the portrait that Crash paints. He's also a clumsy storyteller, so that when his plot takes a turn, you can hear the groans of the gears and see the spinning of the wheel. You're removed from the story, watching him take it on a predictable course. To put it another way, he might press your buttons, but you can see his fingers coming.*

So the only reason I saw a sneak preview of In the Valley of Elah was that it was free--and that I suspected, cynically, that it might get nominated for an Oscar, simply because Haggis had a tendency to win a few. I tried not to watch the film with my arms crossed; I wanted to have an open mind. For a while, I admired the film: there are some excellent opening scenes, quiet and reserved, in which Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired cop and the aging father of an American soldier deployed to Iraq, checks his email, answers the phone, learns that his son is back on American soil but has gone AWOL. Jones is an expert at skilfully underplaying, and naturally you're intensely drawn into his quest to determine what's happened to his son Mike. He learns, very early on, that Mike's been murdered: stabbed multiple times, cut into pieces, set on fire, and left by the side of the road not far from the army base. Soon he teams up with a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to solve the crime, which may or may not involve a drug deal gone bad.

Because the plot is that of a police procedural/murder mystery, and therefore outfitted with the structure of a genre, it's easy to lose yourself in the story, applaud whenever Hank sees clues that are bypassing the police, cheer when Theron sticks it to her chauvenist superiors, and gasp when the mystery takes its sudden turns. These are all cliches, but they're appealing cliches. And it's to the story's credit that ultimately the resolution to the mystery is one that defies genre conventions, for reasons I won't spoil here. That's not to say, however, that the resolution is any less predictable than what's come before. The heart of the film's problem is that every single scene contains a microcosm of conventional decisions, played to feel just right: the way the camera moves, or where it looks; the clever line to end the scene, and the moment that the scene cuts to the next. Jones and Theron are very good (Jones especially), but they've played these parts before, more or less, leaving you to seek out the little, fleeting moments when they seem to be trying out something new. I liked when Jones, restraining his grief while his wife unleashes her anguish over the phone to him, says, "I can't sit here and listen to you cry." He's sympathetic, but frustrated and impatient. Just think of what all these actors could've done if the script had given them more lines like this, lines they'd never said before. Instead, we're left with many scenes of Theron standing before a desk, screaming at male authority figures, becoming frustrated, leaving office, end scene.

This film is specifically about the dehumanizing effect the Iraq War is having on American soldiers. That point can't be missed, because there's not one, not two, but three atrocities which the film stews over: the first is the murder of Mike Deerfield, the second is not connected to the plot, but a domestic killing committed by another soldier, and the third I won't reveal, because it is revealed very late in the film. But the film can't sustain that third atrocity--not when you've already got such an appalling murder jockeying to carry so much emotional and thematic baggage. There's also the issue of the portrayal of Iraq War. As Haggis would have it, every soldier is a blank slate who is stamped by Iraq--a brutal hell in which soldiers gleefully torture prisoners--into an inhuman, amoral monster. Obviously war atrocities happen in Iraq all the time (another one is dominating the news today, regarding acts committed by armed guards of Blackwater USA), but Haggis' portrayal is limited in scope and exaggerated in style. The scenes of Iraq are gritty and violent but somehow manage to sacrifice realism. In a time in which "support the troops" has become an empty mantra, he gets points for bravery, making a film that dares suggest that soldiers can act very, very badly. But he goes so far to the other extreme that you get the feeling he'd be better suited to remaking Reefer Madness.

Part of the problem is that he's lacking telling details of the Iraq experience. Watch any documentary of the Iraq War--or listen to NPR coverage for a few minutes--and your head will be filled with little details of life as a soldier in Iraq that had never occurred to you before. I take no pride in feeling that I could write the Iraq scenes (depicted in grainy cell-cam videos and one brief flashback) as well or better than Haggis, but I'd rather he handed this material over to someone like Ridley Scott or maybe Werner Herzog, whose Rescue Dawn, while thematically very different, is filled with specific details that ring true to the viewer, and enlighten. Now, I understand perfectly that ninety percent of the film takes place on American soil, and sticks to the standard police procedural of a CSI drama. But the interviews with the shell-shocked soldiers, which form the framework of the story, could have provided so much more without detracting from the central argument of the film. Just because you're writing a social-issue film doesn't mean you can't reflect the human complexity of the issue you're dealing with.

There's good material in this film, but almost every scene features one over-the-top line written to hammer home Haggis' point, either for that scene or the film as a whole. You can track it, or make a drinking game out of it. Take a drink every time someone says something they'd never say in real life. My biggest compliment is that you won't wind up as completely plastered as if you'd played the same game for Crash.

*Oddly, none of Haggis' weaknesses were on display for his completely unpredictable treatment of James Bond in his screenplay for Casino Royale, a film I really liked.

Pazar, Eylül 16, 2007

Joseph Cornell's "Rose Hobart" (1936)

Joseph Cornell has edited together a version of the film East of Borneo into an alternate reality, in which every shot consists of actress Rose Hobart or contains her gaze--looking at the water as it explodes into ripples, or at a volcano erupting. All other shots have been excised, imperfectly; one can imagine Cornell on his knees with the film spooled around him in knots, while he hastily clips away with scissors. The resulting product is then given a soundtrack of Nestor Amaral's record "Holiday in Brazil." It's suitably exotic, and sometimes fits the rhythm of the editing or the movements of Hobart. Several shots are repeated, so that we frequently find Hobart resuming a wary pose or retreating into a favorite dress. It's a strange reverie, and remarkable that it was made in 1936. The film is 17 minutes.

Maya Deren's "At Land" (1944)

I just recently discovered Ubu.com, a media archive whose film section includes over 200 rare experimental works, many of which are unavailable on DVD. Here's one I've particularly enjoyed so far, a short film (about 15 minutes) from 1944 directed by and starring Maya Deren. John Cage plays a small part.

Maya Deren, playing herself, emerges from the crashing waves of the ocean in a clinging dress, like an amphibian crawling across the sand. She finds a piece of driftwood and begins to climb up it, emerging, at the summit, on a dinner table in the middle of a lavish banquet. Only mildly disturbing the guests, she proceeds to climb across the table. She interrupts a chess match. The pawn falls from the chess board and down a deep hole. She pursues it, in one of many Alice in Wonderland references, until she begins to lap the film itself, catching up with several versions of her past self on the beach of her dreams.

Cuma, Eylül 14, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (U.S., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Seth Gordon

Steve Wiebe (pronounced "wee-bee," as he'll quickly tell you) is really good at Donkey Kong. Really, really good. The game hasn't been popular for about twenty-five years, but Steve, after getting laid off from his job at Boeing on the same day he and his wife sign the papers for their new house, buys one of the stand-up arcade units and installs it in his garage. He plays day and night, despite the pleas of his family, and--without a feeling of control for anything else in his life--begins to master the notoriously challenging game like few others on the planet ever have.

The King of Kong is about those few others, and before it settles into Steve's story--which then becoming the narrative of the film--it first introduces the viewer to the very select, very cultish world of arcade competition. The self-appointed world arcade record-keeper is Walter Day, a congenial, gray-bearded man given to wearing a referee's uniform and insisting upon his abilities as a solo singer-songwriter and guitarist. He runs "Fun World," a Florida-based vintage arcade whose clientele just have an urge to play Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga. About ten minutes away from this gaming Mecca lives Billy Mitchell, a champion arcade player who holds the world record for Donkey Kong, among other games. Mitchell is now a well-to-do hot sauce manufacturer. His good friend is Steve Sanders, a lawyer who, in the early 80's, claimed to have the highest score in Donkey Kong; Mitchell proved to everyone that such a score wasn't possible by trouncing his opponent in a head-to-head competition, at which point Sanders admitted he'd been lying. There's also Mitchell's toady, the longtime #2 record-holder for Donkey Kong, and Mitchell's chief rival, "Mr. Awesome," a bodybuilder who in his arcade-playing heyday made videotapes on how to pick up women.

Amidst this menagerie, Steve Wiebe seems relatively well-adjusted, but director Seth Gordon paints a portrait of a man who's grown accustomed to failure. (He used to be an ace ballplayer, but when the pressure was too high, found that he lacked the confidence to pitch.) After losing his job at Boeing, he reaches something of a midlife crisis, and copes by turning to his arcade game as others might turn to liquor. But he also spends a year of intense study to earn a Master's Degree, which he uses to get a job as a substitute science teacher. It's only after he's become one of the top Donkey Kong players in the history of the game that he realizes his accomplishment, on a whim browsing for high scores online and coming across Day's "Twin Galaxies" scorekeeping organization. Now he sees a goal that he knows he can reach, without anyone to stop him. He has a specific score to beat to become the top Donkey Kong player in the world: a fixed number and all the time in the world to train himself to top it.

Eventually Wiebe melds with the Twin Galaxes crowd--after a fiasco in which he's suspected of receiving illicit help from Mr. Awesome--and he meets Day and the various arcade champions who now reunite at Fun World to relive old rivalries. Wiebe is friendly, humble, and somewhat, I think, perplexed at the subculture into which he's being initiated. Strangest of all is Mitchell, who keeps his distance from Wiebe, tracking his progress through the aid of his friends and attempting to steal his thunder with a submitted high-score tape which may or may not be faked. The film inevitably builds toward a final battle between Wiebe and Mitchell for the title of "King of Kong"--the main event occurs when the Guiness Book of World Records agrees to hold a competition at Fun World with Day as ref--but the wonderful thing is how the action then unfolds, as people act like people (or, at times, like kids).

The King of Kong, Seth Gordon's first film, follows Spellbound and Wordplay as part of the more popular and profitable of new documentary subgenres, the geek-sports movie. Indeed, Gordon confessed on Elvis Mitchell's "The Treatment" program that originally he intended the film to be nothing more than a chronicle of arcade competition, and it is, in a way, a Rocky on a comically miniature scale. But Gordon couldn't predict what would happen, or how his subjects would behave, and he was accidentally served a cracking-good story. While Wiebe increasingly steps out of his bubble and overcomes his fears to put his skills to a public test, Billy Mitchell behaves erratically, clearly uncomfortable when he's asked to do something other than deliver his Chuck Norris-style one-liners and cocky platitudes. Mitchell's obviously used self-confidence and his powers of persuasion to benefit his hot sauce business, and flouts his money to offer "bounties" for high scores through Twin Galaxies, but when he's confronted with Wiebe, a real threat to his title, he becomes increasingly childish, and the film's plot strays from the predictable sports-movie structure. The big question becomes: will the final battle even take place at all, or will Mitchell be the one who chokes?

What I'm not getting across--and what too many of the reviews are failing to get across--is that The King of Kong plays like a pitch-perfect Christopher Guest comedy. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than Guest's last effort, For Your Consideration; sometimes, in Guest's grasping for versimilitude, he just can't live up to the absurdity of reality. For one thing, the dialogue in King of Kong is more funny because it's coming out of real people's mouths. Real, oblivious mouths. When Wiebe and his wife embark on the long drive to the Guiness-sponsored competition at Fun World, his very young daughter, poring over the world records, says, "Some people will ruin their lives to get in this book." To which Wiebe has no response. If that had been a line in Little Miss Sunshine, no one would have believed it. Or there's Mr. Awesome's sincere explanation of why one shouldn't get "chumpatized." Or the moment when, after one of Wiebe's middle-school students is told that he's a Donkey Kong champ, spontaneously exclaims, "All the science teachers here are weird!" Or anything involving Mitchell's wife, surely to be played by Jennifer Coolidge in the Guest remake.

Actually, the film will be remade, but by Gordon himself, who's understandably taking his career where the opportunities lie. It's a bit difficult to see how a version with actors could be any better. Will it star Ben Stiller as Billy Mitchell and Vince Vaughn as Steve Wiebe, but playing duelling pinball wizards (so that you can call it "Pinballz")? I hope not. Thank God audiences are actually going to documentaries these days, so they can see the original.

Perşembe, Eylül 13, 2007

The White Sheik

The White Sheik (Italy, 1952) * * * 1/2
D: Federico Fellini

Why not four stars? The curious thing about rating films under such a strict system is that little invisible rules begin to take effect. When you rate one film by a master such as Fellini, you tend to rate it against his other work, not against ordinary films. Compared to ordinary films, this is four stars. Compared to other Fellinis, well, it falls just short of the heights he would hit within a few years. But it's transporting. Brunello Bovo plays Wanda, a young country girl who has just been married to Ivan Cavalli, who comes from a respected family and has connections to the Vatican. They honeymoon in Rome, but unbeknownst to her husband, Wanda has ambitions to steal away for a few moments to deliver a portrait of the famous film star Fernando Rivoli, the "White Sheik," at the film studio just down the street; she's been writing Fernando letters, and secretly hopes to meet him. She gets that chance when her husband takes a nap, and, leaving the bath running (soon to flood the hotel), she scampers off to the studio with her White Sheik portrait clutched in her nervous hands. As this is a Fellini film, the studio lot is more like a three-ring circus, and soon being swept along into the country with promising hopes of meeting the film star. At first the world of the movies is magical, intoxicating, and better than she could have dreamed; everyone is friendly and eager to have her along (well, except for a few of the harem girls), and she even encounters the famous lothario himself, suspended in the air on a swing held high in the trees. But eventually reality begins to impede on her fantasies, and poor Ivan, going to great lengths to mislead his family as to Wanda's whereabouts, discovers a letter from Wanda to the Sheik, and faces the ruin of his marriage as well as his name.

As with Fellini's films with his wife Giulietta Masini--she appears here, too briefly, as the prostitute Cabiria--the emotional weight of the film, as well as much of its plotting, depends greatly on the wide-eyed expressions of his actors. Bovo, so ravishing here, is introduced as though she's under hypnosis; pulled about by her husband from the train to the hotel, she is buffeted about by him, the crowds, and the bellboys, and eventually carried off prematurely to her hotel room, all while resembling nothing more than a buoy bobbing about in the ocean. The first time she smiles is when she's told that the film studio is just a ten-minute walk from her room. When she's in the studio, she's nothing but fawning adoration, delivered into her storybook fantasies; notice that she never takes her eyes off Fernando, even when she thinks she is. He, of course, recognizes an opportunity when he sees one, and tells her everything she wants to hear, including a ludicrous fairy tale which casts his wife as an evil sorceress, while drinking every inch of the girl with his eyes. Meanwhile, Leopoldo Trieste, as Ivan, carries out the farcical obligations of the comedy expertly, pouncing on his relatives each time they try to visit the room where only he knows Wanda isn't, just like a certain Basil Fawlty might (and has). He's most effective when he encounters Cabiria and her fellow prostitute on an empty street at night, as they listen to his sad tale, looking over pictures of Wanda and encountering, improbably, a fire-eater on the street, whom Cabiria cajols into spitting flames. It's a brilliant scene, and with its particular mixture of melancholy, enchantment, and earthiness, suggests a world and a direction which the film could have gone. Naturally Fellini thought so too, and so he made Nights of Cabiria a few years later.

But The White Sheik is a very different film, a straightforward comedy farce that happens to shine in the details: the hotel manager who fruitlessly tries to pawn his postcards; the self-absorbed harem girl who bellydances behind the cameras; the half-dressed man who, mesmerized by the film production, manages to ruin all the shots; the girl with the White Sheik comic book who begins to observe Wanda and Fernando with all the romantic sighs as though she were just watching another of his films; the way Wanda and Ivan, reunited, finally communicate by merely blubbering at each other. What holds these anecdotal scenes together is Fellini's considerable energy in his editing and the movements of the bodies within the mise-en-scene, particularly in the 8 1/2-style scenes of shooting the film. He would master this over his next couple of films, in particular I Vitelloni. But there is also a moral weight which binds these very Catholic characters to the earth. Wanda struggles with the meaning of her fantasies, while Fernando tries to open her imagination to their erotic possibilities. Ivan, spending the course of the day coming to the realization that his wife has inexplicably left him, accepts the invitation of a prostitute with a weary surrender; he doesn't want her, but feels he ought to lead her back to his hotel anyhow, for this is now his lot in life. When Wanda, crushed by guilt, makes an impotent attempt at suicide, The White Sheik teases at black comedy, because the comic result is so unexpected. The viewer is granted a God-like seat to the action, watching these somewhat witless characters be tossed about by "cruel fate," as Wanda puts it. What's remarkable about the film is that you're still in suspense, and still care very deeply about them.

Salı, Eylül 11, 2007

A Hard Day's Night

Still digging through my old "Primer" film essays to see if there's anything worth sharing. Here's one for a screening of the restoration of A Hard Day's Night, as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival several years ago, and as introduced by Roger Ebert. At long last Help! is being reissued on DVD, in a special edition in late October. It's a fun film, with superior music of course, but the classic will always remain this one...

Here is a film of great joy that I have long loved, and the screening last night at the Orpheum Theater, hosted by Roger Ebert, who included this film in his book The Great Movies, was eye-opening and life affirming. “Life affirming” always seems extreme when applied to films. But it’s true. Here we are, a bitterly and cynically divided nation at war, and I am sitting among a great assortment of folks, a cross-section of all ages, watching a Beatles movie in which the most shocking thing that happens is an explosion of jumping, running, and goofing off in a field while “Can’t Buy Me Love” plays. We were into it, all of us. The laughter erupting through the crowd was contagious, and soon I forgot about everything outside of Richard Lester’s film. I have always been a Beatles fan; today I was a Beatles fan again, in a new way, in a more devoted but wonderful fashion.

It’s hard to write about a film after you’ve heard a critic lecture on it—suddenly nothing seems so original anymore—so I will keep it brief, and refer you to Ebert’s excellent book. A few words on the Beatles, since at least I’m qualified in that regard. The Beatles emerged—or invaded, or conquered—in 1962-1963, establishing themselves with the songs we’ve all heard ad infinitum, “Love Me Do,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “All My Loving,” et cetera. One of the remarkable things about them, in those days as now, is that they wrote much of their own material. The cover songs on Please Please Me and With the Beatles are not obligatory, but exist because of the Beatles’ passion for performing the rockers of their peers (indeed, some of theirs even became definitive because of their raucous enthusiasm, like “Twist and Shout”). The Moptop image of the Beatles, long-haired, wisecracking at the press conferences, Marx Brothers-esque, was established and cemented by Richard Lester’s film, the Beatles’ first. The band was never really like this. They were clever, yes, and developed their own insular and dry sense of humor—but as a survival tactic, bonding together while the rest of the world became mad and chased them through the streets and from hotel to hotel. This collective personality they created impressed. And they wrote their own stuff! Most of today’s popular artists still can’t make that claim, which is amazing. The Beatles’ originals chopped up and reassembled the works of their great influences, like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Smokey Robinson. They were Motown and they were rock and roll. They were safe-looking, thanks to the suits Brian Epstein made them wear, and somewhat androgynous, as Roger Ebert pointed out last night, but they were also overtly sexual in the beckoning and pleading nature of their lyrics. They became a phenomenon on the Ed Sullivan Show, and by 1964 “Beatlemania” was at its height.

Then came Richard Lester’s film. The Beatles loved rock and roll movies, and were anxious to make one, although at the time the genre was a sorry one. They were also anxious to act and become film personalities. The script, by Alun Owen, portrayed the Beatles as cartoon characters (which is why a cartoon series shortly followed). They are not three dimensional beings, but one-liner-delivering Hirschfeld sketches. They were, in fact, the Marx Brothers. The film, very cleverly staged by Lester and full of memorable devices, indulged the public’s perception of the Beatles, and they spent the rest of their lives breaking free of it, as they stopped touring (ostensibly because no one could hear them playing anyway), grew out beards, took LSD, travelled to India to study under the Maharishi, fought and sued each other and finally split apart. In the Beatles legend, which everyone knows, there is not one Beatles, this Hard Day’s Night Beatles, but several, including the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Beatles (an alternate persona actually treated as separate characters in the wonderful animated film Yellow Submarine) and the Bearded Venerable Rock-and-Roller Beatles that played the rooftop concert in Let it Be (1970). So we know this film is an illusion. But it is such an enticing one, and entrancing one, that we can’t help but get drawn in, loving every bit of it. No other rock band was able to pull off this feat with their own movie—in fact, the subgenre of fun-loving rock band’s fictional film was pretty much killed off in the 70’s, thanks to films like, well, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), starring the Bee Gees, and Can’t Stop the Music (1980), starring the Village People. KISS even made one (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, 1978, for television). Too much cheese, not enough taste, and in the 80’s a film with a rock band was typically a concert movie, thanks to the artistic and popular success of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), with Talking Heads. Only in the late 90’s, with bubblegum teen pop acts making a comeback, did the lowest form of the genre threaten to revive itself; mercifully, the Spice Girls’ Spice World (1997), Mariah Carey’s Glitter (2001), and Britney Spears’ Crossroads (2002), all underperformed or flopped. There’s no one like the Beatles, in film and in music.

Of course, the band’s follow-up, Help! (1965), is not considered a masterpiece (although it is very good, and seemed to spawn The Monkees TV series). And their third film, the TV movie Magical Mystery Tour (1967), is rightly regarded as terrible. Yellow Submarine was superb, but barely featured the band, who did not even provide voice-overs for their characters (instead, it went to actors who emphasized the somewhat false Liverpudliness of the Hard Day’s Night personas, indelible as they were). The last Beatles film, to fill out their contract before the break-up, was Let it Be, a documentary that managed to catch that break-up arriving earlier than the band expected. Cinematically, the Beatles were fallible. Musically, they were impeccable. Here, momentarily, in A Hard Day’s Night, everything comes together, like a Kubrickian alignment of celestial bodies.

As you sit in a theater packed full with people staring transfixed at the black and white images, tapping their feet to the songs, you think for a moment of what a powerful and rare thing the Beatles had. You could feel the cynicism wash off everyone, roll down their legs and along the floor, spilling out the exit. We were all children. I think Buddhism aims at this. The Beatles had the magical effect before they even went to Rishikesh.

Midway in the film, John Lennon is in the bathtub, playing with a toy sub and doing a bad German accent, while George is shaving his road manager’s reflection with shaving cream on the mirror. The boy next to me, perhaps eight years old, tugged at his mom’s sleeve and said, “I love this part!” Seconds later he was laughing so hard he started to cough and lose his breath. At that moment, all of us in the theater were no different, save that we had better breath control. If we are going to address the transforming power of the movies, we must start here.

Pazartesi, Eylül 03, 2007

Forgotten Films

Disappointed at the staggering incompleteness of the so-called “Internet Movie Database,” I have made this initial stab at filling in some of its many, many gaps. As we rapidly become a Wiki-World, it is increasingly important that everyone contribute to our collective learning, with a minimum of elitist screening. I can only hope that more people come forward with as much information as they possess about forgotten films such as these:

Cerebus the Aardvark (1980)
D: Ralph Bakshi

The critical and popular failure of his animated epic The Lord of the Rings (1978) caused animation director Ralph Bakshi to reevaluate the direction of his work. On the one hand, he was unwilling to let go of his love of fantasy filmmaking; on the other, his attempt to go "mainstream"--with a great marketing campaign and a tremendous built-in fanbase of Tolkienheads--had not worked as planned. Collaborating with independent comic book artist Dave Sim, Bakshi decided to adapt Cerebus, a relatively young and obscure independent comic book about a barbarian aardvark which, converse to LOTR, had a fanbase cultishly small. There may have been some calculation in the decision. It would be a smaller, more personal fantasy film, like Wizards (1977), and he knew he could produce it cheaply and quickly. On the other hand, it was Sim's work, and he could concentrate his focus on an artistic collaboration similar to the one he would reproduce with Frank Frazetta on Fire and Ice (1983). The stakes would be lower than they were on Lord of the Rings, yet he would be on familiar turf. Cerebus, in fact, has a lot in common with Wizards, from the parodic fantasy tableau (the comic book, in its first issues, strictly satirized Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, as well as Michael Moorcock's Elric) to the cynical, world-weary voice. But undoubtedly Cerebus was lighter material for Bakshi. Ultimately, Wizards was a fable, thinly-veiled, of the Holocaust, right down to its live-action inserts of Nazi propaganda. Cerebus was a brilliantly-drafted comic book filled with elaborate, funny storytelling and witty dialogue: an entertainment.

Initially the project was proposed by ABC as a half-hour-long television special, and Sim, skeptical of the suits and eager to keep the comic's integrity intact, suggested that Bakshi direct. Bakshi was contacted by ABC and Sim almost simultaneously. Bakshi--who got his start doing Terrytoons and Marvel superhero cartoons--admired Cerebus very much, but had no interest in returning to the small screen; the failure of LOTR had not tempered his ambition that much. He suggested a feature, which excited Sim, and after a minor legal scuffle--despite ABC's claims, Sim had never relinquished his rights to his character--the project was turned over to Bakshi's animation studio.

Sim worked directly with Bakshi on the script. The short poem which precedes the film--about the transient nature of civilizations--is Bakshi's, not Sim's (Bakshi composed a piece of poetry to accompany each of his films, although only Cerebus and Coonskin prominently feature them--the latter is sung by Scatman Crothers over the opening credits). In fact, Sim voiced minor objections to the opening scrawl's implication that the story might take place in the far future, after a nuclear apocalypse, a la Wizards; Bakshi asserts this was not the case, and that the poem doesn't address Cerebus or his world directly. The plot of the film is based roughly on various early issues of the comic book: Cerebus, a freelance swordsman and "an earth-pig born," is first seen battling Robert E. Howardian barbarians in snow-covered mountains--the soft, rounded snow that so often permeates Sim's art. He joins with the band after proving his mettle; they encounter a lost city ruled by a mad wizard who transfers his consciousness into a stone statue; in another city, Cerebus encounters the swordswoman Jaka, with whom he becomes infatuated; she betrays him over some bags of gold he's attempting to rob from a lunatic avenger called the "Cockroach"; he joins with another band of outlaws, whose aardvarkian god Cerebus resembles; he is involved in a conspiracy to depose their leader and becomes their god-king; and finally their army is dispersed during a great battle with an evil, ancient god who appears to snort an illicit substance to gain his strength. In the end, Cerebus rides off alone, without a bag of gold to show for his efforts.

The chief criticism of the film was that it was aimless and sometimes incoherent and relentlessly noisy and manic; in retrospect, it's easy to see that Bakshi was attempting to hit upon his favorite moments from the comic books while inserting his own anarchic, occasionally vulgar sensibility. The scenes with the Cockroach (a clueless superhero prototype which foreshadows the Tick) are much more charming in Sim's stories than in Bakshi's world, where he rambles and screams seemingly without end, becoming just another Bakshi grotesque. Jaka, quite different here than in the books, seems to have been partially combined with Sim's Red Sophia, but only to provide the requisite buxom Bakshi female. In one notable scene, she literally rips Cerebus' heart out of his chest and stomps it into a puddle on the ground. The ending is chaotic and, in places, poorly animated. Bakshi could never handle large battles very well, and pausing the action to show the dopey--or doping--enemy warriors engaging in bizarre, quasi-vaudevillian routines harkens back to Wizards and Fritz the Cat, but doesn't serve the story. By the end, one's first impression of Cerebus the Movie is only that a Lot of Stuff happened.

But that's just the first impression. Cerebus warms to repeated viewings, particularly to see how smoothly Bakshi's rotoscoping technique is evolving from LOTR. Cerebus the Aardvark is a fully animated character, but most of the other characters are rotoscoped, with realistic movement and a pleasingly detailed character animation that harkens back to Sim and one of Sim's influences, Barry Windsor-Smith. Jaka in particular is absolutely lovely. As you might expect, the larger crowd and battle scenes suffer from LOTR's tendency to lean more heavily on live action and less on animation; they're hastily animated over, and appear as though viewed through colored cellophane. Nevertheless, on a low budget and a tight schedule, Bakshi knows to lean heavily on style, and for the most part it carries the day. Cerebus is the perfect combination of LOTR and Wizards, and the lighter tone of the film makes it a pleasing parody and one of Bakshi's most unconditionally enjoyable films.

Dune (1978)
D: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Three years in the making, Jodorowsky's Dune is certainly one of the most expensive and lavish midnight-movies ever made, and continues in the direction of sheer surrealistic spectacle he'd begun with The Holy Mountain (1973). Jodorowsky had agreed to make Dune simply by looking at the cover of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel; though many Herbert fans, upon seeing the final product, wondered if he ever got around to seeing it.

Paul Atreides (Brontis Jodorowsky) is the teenage son of Duke Leto Atreides (Alejandro Jodorowsky), the leader of the House Atreides, one of three ruling houses who, over the course of the film, battle over the desert planet of Arrakis/Dune. Duke Leto, in several extended sequences early in the film, teaches his son how the three houses represent three primal powers in the universe: the mind, the body, and the family (or familial connections). He also begins to teach young Paul to explore his innate psychic gifts. In one sequence, Paul’s dog is gored by Feyd (Mick Jagger), servant of the evil Baron Harkonnen (Orson Welles). Duke Leto demonstrates viscerally that each death produces a life, by extracting a white dove from the dog’s entrails. After a power grab by Harkonnen and Duke’s torture and assassination (strapped to a disemboweling machine which resembles a crucifix—-tying his death to both the dog’s and Jesus’, apparently), Paul flees into the desert with his mother, the Lady Jessica (Geraldine Chaplin). There he is raised by the Fremen, desert nomads who see him as a Messiah. He becomes intoxicated with the planet’s spice, has many mystical visions in which his father visits him again and teaches him more lessons, and finally leads the Fremen in a rebellion against Baron Harkonnen and the Emperor (Eddie Constantine, replacing Salvador Dali, who demanded more money than the already-inflated budget could afford).

The soundtrack combines the efforts of Pink Floyd, Popol Vuh, and Jodorowsky himself. The screenplay is by Jodorowsky and Dan O’Bannon, and the art direction is by famed illustrators H.R. Giger and Moebius (Jean Giraud). With such a pedigree, you might expect this to be something of a surrealistic masterpiece. Its reception at the 1978 Cannes festival, however, was decidedly mixed, if not disastrously negative. Perhaps expectations were too high, though Jodorowsky was proclaimed by one prominent Cahiers du Cinema critic to be nothing more than a cinematic charlatan. There were some admiring critics among the wider press, and some favorable notices in America (most vocally Roger Ebert), but fans of the novel saw the film as a travesty, deleting too many important characters, plotlines, and nuances, and substituting long, trippy sequences filled with what was perceived to be a lot of hippie mumbo-jumbo. On the whole “Alexandro Jodorowsky’s Dune” (as goes the full on-screen title) was a financial flop which effectively ended Jodorowsky’s filmmaking career, and sending him fleeing into the world of comic books, where he continued to work with Moebius.

But the look and feel of Dune deserves reevaluation. It certainly follows a more linear model than The Holy Mountain, and is therefore somewhat easier to follow. While it possesses less of that film’s madness, it’s still a spectacle film, with one amazing setpiece after another. Particularly memorable is Paul and Lady Jessica’s exile in the desert of Arrakis, as they face a multitude of temptations--hallucinations and mirages—which threaten to destroy their moral fortitude. Jodorowsky deliberately calls to mind Christ’s temptation in the desert, or Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert, as well as his own El Topo. (These sequences were shot in many of the same Mexican locations as El Topo.) At the end of this long passage, the two pilgrims come face to face with one of the mythic sandworms of Arrakis—the only time we see one in this adaptation—and its gaping, vaginal maw threatens to consume them before Paul is able to psychically tame it, and send it back to the sands. The giant worm is an astonishing visual effect, a mechanical model which vibrates as it breathes, although the white, semen-like goo that leaks from its mouth—and drenches Lady Jessica—is overkill. The rainbow-like interior of the Palace of Arrakis is astonishing and grand, while at times organic and womb-like in its claustrophobic corridors. There’s also quite a bit of nudity for a big-budget 70’s science fiction film, such as three fully nude (and elaborately tattooed) women who accompany the Emperor—one black, one white, one Asian, and all completely shaved. It does seem that Lady Jessica, in particular, is rarely clothed during the film, although she’s usually draped in some fluid or another.

Though occasionally it becomes difficult to believe we’re on another planet—with so much location shooting in Mexico City and Madrid—there is some crude but effectively psychedelic blue-screen work during the space sequences. Nevertheless, due to the extended production time, the film was released three years after its inception, and one year after Star Wars (1977). Audiences weren’t eager for a science fiction film that required thought; and, to be honest, the special effects in Dune seem quaint and handmade in comparison to Lucas’ state-of-the-art FX. But with its gushing juices, gore, sand, and sex, this is probably an adaptation of Dune that’s as earthy as it is spacey, and one that’s purely satisfying on its own terms.

The Odyssey (1972)
D: Nathan Juran & Aristide Massaccesi

Casting about for a new idea after The Valley of Gwangi (1969), stop-motion special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, with producer and frequent collaborator Charles H. Schneer, began to settle on the inevitable idea of doing a “proper” adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. The scope was very grand, by looking at their early outlines and storyboards: an encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, Odysseus’ men being transformed into pigs, the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and a spectacular journey into Hades. Most financiers balked at the scale of the production, despite the worthy job Harryhausen and Schneer had performed on Jason and the Argonauts, and after a few years of failing to raise the needed money, they began to entertain the idea of making The Odyssey an U.S./Italian co-production. Harryhausen had eagerly suggested the director Nathan Juran (First Men on the Moon), with whom he had worked very comfortably. The cast would be largely Italian unknowns, apart from John Phillip Law (Odysseus), an American actor no stranger to working with Italian crews, Claudine Auger (Thunderball) as Penelope, Ernest Borgnine as Poseidon, and Yul Brynner in a brief cameo as Zeus. Filming lasted three months, with Italy’s Cinecitta studios supplying Mount Olympus and a few other key locations. Three-quarters of the way through shooting, Nathan Juran became seriously ill, and was hospitalized. With money almost depleted, threatened with losing their actors to other assignments, and under pressure by their Italian investors, Harryhausen and Schneer agreed to allow an Italian second-unit director to complete the shooting of the film. This was Aristide Massaccesi, who would later became best known under the pseudonym “Joe D’Amato,” and who had already shot a couple of his own low-budget spaghetti westerns. Massaccesi was responsible for the Circe and Sirens sequences as well as the bookending segments in Ithaca. His less-professional style did not meet Harryhausen’s satisfaction, but finding he had little choice, he completed his part of the bargain by delivering some fanastic special effects including Polyphemus (designed to look more subtly human than the cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), a hideous, tentactled Scylla, the half-human, half-bird Sirens, and Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades.

The film, despite its production difficulties, hold up much better than Ulysses, the 1955 Italian adaptation with Kirk Douglas in the title role. Most of this is thanks to Harryhausen, although there are long gaps between his effects sequences, and many slow points (the film runs 135 minutes). The final battle in Ithaca, which should be cathartic and exciting, is instead incoherently handled and abrupt. There’s also some horrible overacting (and unfortunate comic relief) on behalf of Odysseus’ crew.

Harryhausen and Schneer sued the Italian production company when they’d learned that several hardcore pornographic sequences, shot by Mr. Massaccesi himself, had been inserted into the film for a re-release in Italy to adult movie theaters. This version of the film, intended for a completely different audience than the original release, was entitled The Erotic Adventures of Ulysses, and is currently available from Something Weird Video.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1975)
D: Nicholas Roeg

This film does not exist, but should have.