Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Boxer (1997)

I am thinking today of the Daniel Day-Lewis Movie “The Boxer” of 1997. I'd rented the video ages ago, thinking it was a movie Dear Wife and I could both watch (she loves Daniel Day-Lewis). I was hoping "The Boxer" would start with the Simon and Garfunkle song of the same name, maybe sung by a group of Irish choir boys--but it didn't. I was disappointed because I used to listen to this song and get all charged up, but I can't really say for certain I understand what it's about, or that I can understand all the lyrics, though emotionally it sure do hit home. I know it's indefensible in this Web Age to admit you don't know something, at least not without first trying an online search for somebody else's facts or opinions. In this case I haven't bothered. Should you stop reading now?

Though “The Boxer” the movie is something I watched once, a few years ago, I nonetheless feel authorized to comment on because . . . well, because in the absence of a steady stream of Daniel Day-Lewis acting gigs, it has become amplified in retrospect.

D.D.L. can't sign a contract and show up for a film without first packing himself in the brine of radical commitment, and his films are always improved for the reek of it, if not in the actual on-screen product, then at least by the proof that somebody once cared about the project deeply, and this compels us to have a closer look.

Of the movie, I remember unbelievably grimy wallpaper featuring prominently in the frame on multiple instances, often with some sort of Irish squabble going on in front of it. Everyone looked alternately padded with soot and washed with warm lard in the interior scenes, or cold lard for the exteriors. I remember a boxing gym that looked like the type that may in fact exist somewhere like old, depressed Belfast, and admired its spacious, grimy glory--not as a cineaste, but as a boxing practitioner (not, I admit, a bona fide "boxer"). As a cineaste, the gym was pure cliché.

DDL was a man out from the joint, a non-rat IRA man, or an IRA man that was good, but ratted, or was assumed to have ratted--scratch that, I think he took the hard time instead of ratting; and there's the girl he left behind, who remained so terrified and hysterical in all the scenes I can remember that she is frequently made (by the film makers) to work against him; and there is the evil boss, the crooked IRA local politico, played with a nostalgic menace by the ubiquitous Brian Cox, (who hopefully gets all this out of his system in his day job, or must be hell to live with). Cox, who was probably at this time just working his way to ubiquity for roles such as this, huffs and rails and dissembles smilingly, then scowlingly, and then cooly orders murders; he gets his ire up at the insult that there exists a man not bent to his will somewhere on this planet, or at least in his parish; he will exploit the pain and confusion of the weak, the patriotism of the passive. In short, he's a wonderfully comforting on-screen omniscience that stopped needing reasoned exposition about 45 years ago. We know he's bad, so we can relax and watch him badding and badding, and will rate the role’s "effectiveness" on how truly bad he can be. This is fine, but seemed to suck vital ambiguities from DDL's mighty struggle to put on a show. His own demons receded as increasing screen-time was devoted to this Bogeyman Boss Tweed et cie.

Such an intelligent actor--films with DDL in the cast seem to go one of two ways: either the movie revolves on his axis (happens even in a role as slight as his Cyril, from “A Room With A View”); the other times you get the feeling that he's something quite apart from the movie, orbiting distantly, and only intermittently exerting any gravity on the main body before us--I don't feel these instances of distant orbit are always his fault, often its the director’s difficulty to hitch his/her movie's wagon properly to this Boxer of a horse, who is selflessly driving forward, toward what he thinks to be the good of the movie (I don’t think the Orwell’s Boxer analogy applies as well to his character in this particular movie, except as a ceaseless moral force that drags everyone forward through his example, or something). Must be hard to discern just what this “good of the movie” really is in all cases, esp. when there are cameras and lights everywhere and a restive crew, and you have to step over countless cables while pacing back and forth, trying to figure how you can replace tomorrow's location with someplace available: who can get a bearing on a film's soul in those conditions?

I once thought DDL directed this, and saw it for that reason. He didn't. Jim Sheridan did.

Is the whole thing a little preachy? Hell yes, and I hate when a movie feels like it's really just an excuse to lecture--I guess there are some people somewhere who are unaware of the invidiousness of Irish division, or of the broader moral implications of rationalizing violence, thanks. But frankly I was more interested in seeing DDL’s form in the ring. He looks quite good, tho’ not always shown to best effect, and there’s not enough of it, and when there is, it’s too much. Sheridan, in a scene set in the ring of a London gentlemen’s fight club, where DDL is pitted against an oddly shaped african opponent that made me think of Ike Quarty, begins painting a convincing picture of the fight game’s true cruelty, but backs away with just a few general forms blocked in. Then he climbs back on the soap box, as if the movie had no reason to exist beyond social significance. This tends to negate DDL’s commitment.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Eleemosynary Option

Let's be charitable, shall we?

Everyone else has piled-on about Hollywood's dismal Summer, and the dismal year they reckon will be when receipts are tallied on Jan. 1, 2006. So let's give an overview that tries to find the silver threads in the movie industry's latest load of drab garments: let's look to the bright moments, and forget the bland, banal, insincere and blatantly greedy.

Well, OK, to make a film in 2005 is to accept greed and banality on some level, if for no other reason than it is such a banal aspiration to want to make a film. Especially now, when films are so banal. And greedy. Films and film making have moved irreversibly into that context. And the audience embraces this. Some of the most exciting aspects of film-going and being a film fan now revolve around the commercial prospects any film faces; much energy goes into speculating about the box-office chances of any new "property" (it's just like property, really: a "For Sale" sign goes up, and neighbors begin tracking foot traffic, open house showings, and the sales possibilities). There's an unnatural engagement with the elaborate marketing campaigns that get designed for the most anticipated "properties." People watch the ad campaigns with attention and real affection.

No, scratch that. I think there was a period when real affection existed for the marketing of movies, but that seems to have passed, doesn't it? People are still very attentive to the way a given movie sells itself, but a lot of the joy's gone out of it: we've been this way so many times before, none but the most naive can get worked up by the hype machine now.

Well, I say this, but I remember sitting in an empty theater this year with only Dear Wife, Pal Brad, and, sittting a few rows behind us, a very non-descript looking middle-aged man and his female companion. We were waiting to see "Elektra" (gad), and the preview for "Fantastic Four" came on (remember all the hype for that?), and shockingly, I hear this guy behind us exclaim emphatically, "I am so all over that!"

Declarations like that, the way they're said--they come out sounding like an invitation to a brawl. The tone, too, is so fully saturated by an identifiction with the subject-matter at hand (the property at hand), that I am going to call it unhealthy.

Is it just enthusiam searching hard for an outlet? Does the modern movie interest thrive best in that space between hype (the sales pitch, the trailers, the anticipation, the sketching in of details--"Oh, that's how they're going to do The Thing"), and the reality ("I thought The Thing was kinda weak")?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Dr. Zhivago

Dr. Zhiv is repugnant, yes? All the film elites (the REAL film elites) think so, n’est pas?

Is that only because it is so adored by the army of faux film elites? See, nearly every movie reviewer in the English language can be placed in one of two camps: the REAL Film Elites (most dead), and the Faux Film Elites (everybody else). The Faux Film Elites are the merely banal and broadly employed, if not broadly read, (does anyone really read film criticism these days? I guess they read "film reviews," anyhow). They approach films scatter-shot, thumbs up or down. Maybe there's a small peninsula jutting off this Antartica that defines itself as "Indie" or "Alternative" criticism, but it looks less and less likely their iceberg will ever break off and drift along its own current, (these guys are nearly all so obviously manipulated by political considerations as to be completely untrustworthy, unless you go to movies for politics--I don't claim to disagree with whatever vague politics they feel they are upholding by supporting "x" film advocating "y" position, I just think aesthetics should be far above that, and film suffers for such considerations).

"Must Love Dogs," a recent movie which I don't even know how to judge, gives Zhivy a high-profile cameo as the filmic source of romantic inspiration and sustenance for the male lead character, John Cusak (whom I like, if only because he looks so damn much like my pal Paul Fix--and no, not thet Paul Fix, the famous cowboy of yore, who never liked me). Why? I mean, why Zhivy?

The Faux Film Elites (which for all intents are publicly, broadly recognized as the deFacto true Film Elites, because the real Film Elites are so marginal, distant, and unknown) are the ones addressed when Zhivy is chosen as the filmic symbol of taste and emotional legitimacy in a contemporary movie such as “Must Love Dogs.” Zhivy is chosen over something more palatable and flattering to the real film elite’s taste, something like “Régle de Jeue,” say, or something by Tarkovsky. This army of prevailing film elites, this mass of the “film elite lite”, marching with thumbs turning up and down in unison, with Roger Ebert, David Edelstein, Kenneth Turan and Joel Seigel at their heard, so vast is this army that the real film elites live in terror of being absorbed by it, and expend great effort crafting sturdy defences of differentiation to keep themselves separated.

Dr. Zhivago is one of the sturdiest bulwarks in the Fortress of Film Superiority.

On that rare occassion a revival showing of some "classic" film makes its way into a box review in a paper's Thursday movie supplement, the rating assigned is always significant: should a flick like Zhivy receive the publicly demanded four stars ("a classic!"), the reviewer places himself in the Faux Film Elites' camp; should the reviewer buck convention and give it anything less than three stars, he/she is making a bold claim to membership in the Real Film Elite. It's a handy shock calling-card to upend the accepted pantheon. And sometimes, it is very welcome.

It is true that there is something repugnant in the self-important grandiosity that mortises together every frame of David Lean/Robert Bolt's production of the Pasternak novel.

But I don'tknow what sort of rating I'd give it. Does it get four or five stars because of its ambition? Or because it "succeeds on such a grand scale?" I don't really know if it succeeds. It feels very remote from today, very safe and unshocking, even for the attempt to depict shocking sexual relationships. What should be a film's true ambition? Ambitiousness? Or honesty? Or newness, uniqueness?

There are a couple moments that make it all worthwhile. Actually, not worthwhile in a way that works in harmony with the obvious intentions of the film—they work because they seem to have nothing to do with the grandiosity of the whole enterprise, and instead offer memorable moments of the powerlessness and smallness of man in a world where his feelings are so unable to bring about their own fulfillment.

I can do without the fantasy of storming a society ball in the worn wool coat and Lenin/Lennon cap of a student armed only with rage. I can do without the passage at the field hospital, where it seems we've suddenly switched channels to a TV soap, circa 1962, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, each trying to out ham the other as the more dedicated, the more long suffering, the more forbearing, the more self-sacrificing, the more in love, the more worthy of love. I can do without much of Rod Steiger (too often relied upon to give context, commentary and scope to everything in the story, on and off screen, and just too damn taken with the idea of his own importance as an actor): or the cardboard devotions to Yuri from his wife, uncle and aunt, the big build to discovering the key and the note behind the brick in Greimyko (?)(or was the note on the table?) (which is a pleasant build, esp. when you know it is coming--and then the stop when Omar sees himself in the mirror, looking so desiccated, and the breakdown--there is a nice rhythm to all this, but the whole scene is just addressing our vanity when we, happy and warm in the audience, are asked "What if YOU looked like this?"), allof this is intolerably sentimental and desperate for our identification and approval.

But then how often do I recall the scene where Rod Steiger refutes Zhivy's dismissal of the danger Julie Christie faces because of her long-absent husband. That interest in the wife he cut loose years before is assumed to be so distant, but here's Steiger telling us, "He was caught a mile outside of Greimyko...." The few stages of this character's life come so vividly to life, and the stages describe such a jagged, but instantly recognizable trajectory of anyman's life path, here dramatized with historical import and dramatic frou-frou, (essentially they are describing an innocent who left his first love for greater glory, and attempta a too-late reunion after crushing disillusion--it could just as well be a man long divorced trying in his last hours to return to the wife he left 20 years before) that I can't help but think of the folly of ambition, or the hollowness of the man of ambition, or whose ambitions were never really in concert with their heart (a cliché).

And the death of Zhivago, the three stage stroke that stops him from realizing his reunion with Julie. It's melodramatic, but the bright street with all those diagonals is so believably distanced from the earlier part of the picture. And Chrisite's propaganda poster contentment as she marches away from the spastic death of her lover: it's so tasteless, that expression on her face. It could only have been put there by the director's bullhorn.

(I must say the whole ending seems less good now that I've written it out like that.)

Part of the appeal is the rhythm of the scene, the bright sky, sidewalk curbs as exact as Rodchenko constructs. The weird seizures Omar concocts.

And there's the music, again so trite (esp. if you know the lyrics), but happily undercutting the hyper-seriousness: it's a little trashy, and the ersatz exoticism of zither trills and sleigh bells helps direct us toward appreciating the pastichey fun of it all.

And lastly there is Sir Alec Guiness, walking around like an androgyne train conductor on a martial Thomas the Communist Tank Engine. He looks like an old lady! He looks like Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously! (When I first saw scenes of her from that 80's movie, half-noticed as promotions on a pay cable network, I thought, "Is that Obi-Wan?" I was probably the only one to think that)

And then that gave us another little scene of resistance, of resisting the easy reunion.

It seems these moments exist for the people skeptical of the pic's overwrought depiction of transcendant love. But it is really this transcendant love that's become the movie's legacy, a sort of stop-gap between Casablanca and Lovestory in the popular imagination, prefiguring Cameron's Titanic in the celebration of love as centered on the self, and worth any price to attain.

Was Alec Guiness a woman?

Sunday, July 03, 2005

War of the Worlds (2005)


I write this part of the review almost a year later, in March of 2006, after the Oscars, which I don't care about, and didn't follow, though I was surprised to see the director Spielberg's Munich nominated (so invasive is Oscar-talk, even living in Paris I hear who's nominated). This all got me to thinking about pictures and boxers—specifically, the combination.

It seems impossible not to conclude Little Swinging Steven did not have in mind, in delivering this '06 one-two, his earlier knockout success of, what, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List? But like all mythic combinations, or just plain knock-out punches, they are cemented into being in one transcendent moment, typically never to be equalled. It was known that Joe Frazier had a devastating left hook; it was made mythic when he flattened Ali with it. So too has it been known that "The Batt'lin' Jew from Da Broken Home" can put together films that alternately tickle flabby intellects and satisfyingly spasm the rictus of the masses.

Under this thesis, War of the Worlds would be what we call the set up.

It is a kind of hobo production, awkwardly raced along the rails of the 9/11 Express, bumming on the sideboards of a flaming boxcar, and pointing back at the the horrific scene behind—the smoke, the dust, the collapse. This becomes embarassing only in rare moments during the ride, such as when one is left to imagine the army of prop-folk who must be in charge of showering the set with those gauzy white garmets, dropped not from heaven, but from overhead catwalks and hydro-electric cranes, in a sound stage, shielding their eyes from the kleig lights and listening for the walky-talky squak that will say, "Stop!"

I continue to be haunted by Tom Cruise, in his waning moments as America's Number One Box Office Draw, bark-honking the name "RA-CHEL!" He did this throughout the movie, dipping that pip-squeak trumpet of his into its most urgent moral register to convey--what? Parental authority? Parental terror? The moral barricade crumbling as it tries to hold back a riot of panic, and the knowledge of death?

I can come up with these explanations of the sound as a mental excercise, (explanations for its genesis, its import, not explanations of its effect, which haunts me in the way of a painful, prolonged annoyance); but at the time of viewing, all I could hear was self-righteous preening—the preacher leaning on his best biblical bit, his favorite soap-box affectation. In the movie theater (or theatre, as it is frequently spelled on the American West Coast) the effect was not harrowing, but distancing. An actor clearly exhausted of invention, exhausted of meaning. I can shout scared/scary when I have to, too; but is it art?

Something so self-conscious about the absolute elocution of every letter, the way he kept shouting, "Rachel": in his phony earnestness, every half-sound is augmented until the little tendons that had silently, translucently swayed between the primitive noises of this old name are made thick and sinewy and—"RE-AH-CH-HELL!!"

(The sound scrambled out by Cruise in a performance con furioso, con problémente, con confusiamento, at the brittle moment of his own public collapse—collapse of innocence, collapse of untainted appeal—he may go on to make more money, but he will do so unmasked.)

I saw this movie three times, (on the third showing I snuck out of the theatre at the moment Tim Robbins is met); mostly this was due to an intermittent work situation where I was commuting between Burbank and La Jolla at the peak hours of after-work Los Angeles traffic, and chose instead to sit said traffic out in a cool theatre; but also because this movie trafficked very effectively in apocalypse imagery, and if not for its inexplicable and astounding blunders, could have been truly great. Even with said flaws, this flick determinedly wiggled its way into a place very near if not exactly in my heart by effecctively proving a long-held theory of mine, or an idea of mine, having to do with bending digital efffects not toward fanciful money-shots, but toward the convincing portrayal of the end of the world. My idea was based on accurate depictions of distance and scale, atmosphere, etc. And the mute incomprehension of an apocalypse, no handy narrator or even narrative. Certainly the first awful appearance of the alien vehicle fulfilled all my intuitions, and added the enormity of sound in a way I could only have dreamed of in a mainstream movie. All this terror stayed with me even after the planting of an unnecessary airplane fuselage (yeah, we get it, "Let's roll"), the ho-hum man's-inhumanity-to-man minivan melee, the "Missing" posters, unbelievable because so obvious amd sophmoric "(it's about 9/11, get it?"); also, my trembling admiration could withstand, just barely, the grafted hokum of father-son man-love, up to the point of the painfully bad (bad taste, bad acting, bad staging) moment where son's skinny frame wiggles out of daddy's releasing grip, all on a fireball slope of damp grass.

Certainly after September 11th, Katrina, and the Tsunami, our visual familiarity with Armageddon has taken on a new sophistication (faces of terror as they run from collapsing World Trade Tower, or even more chillingly, faces of laughing surprise running from a wall of water, an instant before they are engulfed). And the best parts of this movie appropriately and satisfyingly face up to that new familiarity. But the bogus sentiments and unnecesary pandering that underpin these great set pieces knock the film from the perch it should occupy. Dammit.

A major divergence from our interests, from believability, from necessity, occurs at the killing of Tim Robbin's kook; the incredulity and irritation of this is expanded by the non-suicide suicide bomber success of Cruise while dangling in a set of silver 'nads tucked up in the tripartite crotch of the shiny mechanical beast, (that no one died when the cage is dropped onto the naked branches of a serious black oak does not raise an eyebrow, for we are now suddenly, firmly in familiar, superhero fantasyland); but no admiration could survive the stupefying ending, with a self-pitying "hero" remaining aloof from a family waving thankfully under the pristine protection of their natty Boston brownstone, while about the feet of all the windswept leaves of autumn whirl. Gag.


Still, every time I left the theatre, my hands were trembling. I wonder if the Medeval'er felt the same way before the Memling altarpiece? The power of confronting our own doom. Imagining our own death. By alien attack.

from original review


N.Y. Times columnist Frank Rich wrote this week what I'd planned as an opening for this EVENING OUT.


Viewed at The AMC Burbank Town Center 6, (the stepchild of the adjacent AMC 8 in the Burbank Center Mall, and the Behemoth AMC 20 next door to that).
Friday 4:45PM show on the Fourth of July Weekend


N.Y. Times columnist Frank Rich (Mel Gibson wants his intestines on a stick) published what I had hoped would be my opening line in this latest EVENING OUT.


Both Steven Spielberg and President George Bush made emotional pleas for our support and trust this week by invoking the memory of September 11th, 2001.
Both Steven Spielberg and President George Bush invoked the memory of September 11th, 2001 this week, making emotional pleas for our support and trust. Or, shamelessly invoking the memory of September 11th, 2001.


As interesting as the movie itself, the politics of filming an apocalypse specifically designed to employ 9/11 imagery...

....uh that's not very interesting.


Why does every review of a Steven Spielberg movie become NOT a referendum on the man’s career, but a self-conscious homage to a career, written with an extraordinary level of auteurist deference—as though the critic were dealing with a completely unique level of artistic achievement that could only be matched if Alfred Hitchcock or Walt Disney were brought back to life to direct the next Batman. Improbably, every mainstream review has to contractually acknowledge Sp.’s “mastery” or “unmatched” cinematic talent. Really? Like Julia Roberts being told onscreen in every one of her movies she is beautiful. A sort of lazy brainwashing is going on here…

Departing from this practice, or amplifying it, I suppose, one review posited prominent credit was due Spielberg's production team; the producer & cinematog of course, but also Art Director and Costume Designer, (and I thought this was interesting because this movie seemed to miss the mark in those areas, though less grossly than in what ultimately must be the director/writer’s purview), and in its broadmindedness, it hinted at a break from the monolithic view that Sp. is some sort of lone artist laboring in the humid cloud of his own greatness.

How did we get to this point? Is it just nec. that every area of human endeavor have a “greatest” practitioner? A numero uno? The Michael Jordan, the Michael Schumacher (ick—please, J.M.Fangio), the Lance Armstrong, the Muhammed Ali? Typically these assignations are absent a deeper debate about what actually constitutes greatness, or what areas one must excel all competitors in order to prove superiority: or even the usefulness of such a concept as a #1; all these subtlties are tossed in favor or a convienient, least controversial proclamation: "The greatest actor of all-time, Marlon Brando," etc. In movie direction, it is increasingly impossible not to fear that the criteria for greatness has been reduced to who has had the most hits. “Schindler’s List” gave enough White Elephant cover to protect Sp.’s supporters from accusations of pure profiteering. That people claiming to be professional movie critics continue to recite these encomiums is unsettling.

Spielberg's "genius" is simply his ability to make a movie with minimal studio interference, at EVERY stage of the game. The power, or clout, if you will, allows him to take on a project with a strong (in the sense of "clear") original intent, then shepherd (or ram, esp. at the 11 months this movie took from start to finish) this concept through the Hollywood process. "Saving Private Ryan:" vivid violence, circa WWII; "War of the Worlds:" street-level experience of alien armaggedon; "Jaws", "Jurassic Park", etc. There must be lots of filmsters that show up at the start of a project with a plenty clear idea of what they want to do. Then everyone with a little bit of power gets to tweak it. Spielberg's gift is he can stick to his plan, and his best plans contain a clearly focused, do-able concept. When this concept allies the latest advances in cinema sp/fx and a simpleton's intuition of the contemporary zeitgeist, big box office numbers often result. When the concept is weak ("Minority Report" The Raider's sequels, "Goonies"), or the zeitgeist faulty ("Always,") or when both misfire ("The Terminal"), problems may ensue.


I will force myself a moment of empathy: it must be tough to have every film inspected as a barometer of "Who We Are."


Empathy over: he clearly relishes this role, and it buys him a hell of a lot of mileage with nearly every critic out there: these critics often have half-baked or very faulty ideas about what constitutes zeitgeist at any given moment, and seem all-too-happy in their confusion to cede leadership on such important pop-cultural issues to the hip, fingers-on-our-pulse Spiel-man. Perhaps the close association, the auteurian association between S. Berg and his movies ("They're really personal statements, y'know,of a personal vision"), is more appropriate in his case than for any other Hollywood filmaker, because he does have so much control. Movies often get discussed in the context of their cultural significance, but tellingly, the issue of ownership will inevitably overlook the studio/distributor apparatus as the real "author" of the work. True singular control over "vision", etc., is really only the purview of Spiel, (and I guess somebody like Lucas, too, though he stays put on his farm, scared by the big city folk, and continues to raise repetitive crops of convoluted legerdemain).

Sunday, June 12, 2005

That STAR WARS Thing (2005 entry)

An evening OUT

Mira Mesa Edwards 18

It's "Star Wars" time again. The newest (Revenge of the Sith?) is only 3 weeks in the marketplace, and it was high time I join my frequent movie companions Brad and Dear Wife for a looksee. A special guest appearance was made by Brad's brother, and after a quick hello in front of the theater, we went to work.


Dear Wife and I had seen "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" the previous day, and following this up with another EVENING OUT had me a little giddy. But blocking the entry to our “Star Wars” stadium screening room was a line of people awaiting entry to the 7:45PM “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” More evidence nobody’s against a little wife dropping (see "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" review, assuming I've got it up). Many people had been waiting long enough to be sitting on the ground. “Star Wars III or VI” had no line, and we had no problem buying our tix a half hour ahead of showtime, walking into the theater (except that line for “The Smiths” we had to wade through) and finding some perfectly placed seats. There must be a lesson in this. Things filled up before we’d gotten through the absolutely interminable commercials, identical to the package foisted on us in Westminster the day before: car ads, bogus anti-commercialism youths making a bogus documentary to sell Coca-Cola (and yet I’d just downed a brace of refills at the nearby Rubio’s prior to showtime)—was this called “Ambition?”—y’know, the same crap they’re hosing down yr gullet when you go to a movie. Same “Westward, ‘Ho” TV miniseries promo, same Kyra Sedgwick interrogator promo. At my In-Laws’ house, they have a nasty white plastic device, its silhouette spade-shaped, but full-bodied, thick, like a cudgel: a handle on top makes it look like a stubby, blunt-tipped sword. What is it? I asked, examining a few slices and abrasions down on the business end. “It’s for forcing things down the garbage disposal,” they answered.


The same two “Bewitched” promos, again one the real preview, one the behind-the-scenes number I had found so fresh and original the first time around. Now after it was revealed as a fiction of freshness, it just stinks.


These ubiquitous commercials have the unfortunate effect of making the previews far less welcome, far more trying. Watching that “Fantastic Four” trailer again—I was a little boisterous, assuring Brad that no pre-school papier-maché projects were harmed in the creation of The Thing’s costume. I’d already told him that I wished I had a strong enough urine flow to douse the screen from our seats. Each time a new indignity would come on the screen I would feign aiming a firehose and make a whooshing noise. Dear Wife was unimpressed.

We were bludgeoned by “The DaVinci Code”—it physically hurt. But then the preview for “Mr. & Mrs. Smith:” interesting to see how they cut the footage together differently in the scene where they first cross swords as professionals. In the movie they do not know they are being double-crossed by their spouse—but the trailer has them explicitly identifying each other in this scene—and with different footage (the techno-scope close-up of Jolie, doing her best Lara Croft imitation) (much better than in the Tomb Raider movies, anyhow)—exclamation point!



Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Last Waltz (1978)

An evening IN

Tedious work the last two days cleaning my workspace.

So I was happy to come downstairs for dinner, an excellent pasta prepared by Blair, who admitted as I opened the TV cabinet that she was still off-balance every Sunday night without her favorite TV show, Alias, which has moved to Wed. I took the remote and started to scroll through the movie channels. The TV came to life on the Food Channel, Blair's lunchtime companion. I quickly turned it to TCM, and "Patton," which didn't interest me (seen it already lots, yeah, fine, who wouldn't want to be "ol' Blood 'n Guts"--I mean, that's what it's about, isn't it?), moved up to that block of channels from 500 to 514, the Encore to IFC family, which is typically a row of disappointments, (esp. the first 8 channels, which concentrate on recent movies which enjoyed broad release, and very especially the last two channels, the annoying Sundance and IFC (that's Independent Film Channel, natch'), where “indie” films that craved broad release go to brood. Or crow.

IFC was screening “The Last Waltz,” a film I’d never seen. Martin Scorsese directed this documentary of the band The Band's last concert. I remembered Martin Scorsese describing in a book how, as director overseeing the editing, he convinced some old-time editors to create a traveling matte effect to erase the prominent cascade of a coke rock from Neil Young’s crimson nostril. Despite this fascinating image, I was reluctant to watch, as I am not being a big fan of Southern Rock, (dudes with the Confederate flag hanging somewhere in their home studio) (and sure enough they obliged me with just such a shot midway through the pic—yikes!), nor that mid-70's period where rock's self-mythologizing had ballooned so intolerably. But Blair said she loved this music in college, and looked happy as The Band rolled through their first couple of numbers. They sounded good. So we watched.

To my ear, music recorded live is always preferable to studio music, and the sound these guys were making was excellent. But I really got excited by the longish shot that accompanies the opening credits, camera hanging low out the window of a car, tracking and traveling through an impoverished stretch of urban roadway to windup at the concert venue, the Fillmore East (wasn’t that what it said? Was this THE Fillmore East?). The few minutes of spliced together rolling seemed exactly the opposite of that celebrated shot staged in “Goodfellas” ; the throwaway artistry they were excited to enlist in aid of The Band in ’76 (when the flick was shot), bloats to total self-conscious fabrication in the gangster film of, what, '89? Doesn’t Ray Liotta’s chummy stroll thru the kitchen just ache with staginess when compared to the stark beauty of abandoned cars pointed the wrong way along the curb, abandoned or in various states of active repair (or dismantlement) in a cooling sunset. The figures at the side of the road don’t feel like extras coached to “act natural,” or submit to the chummy kidding of a star strolling through a virtuoso take lasting two minutes and costing $300,000 to shoot. I prefer “The Last Waltz” because the artistry is immediate. Everyone knows Welles did it in “Touch of Evil,” (as a throwaway bit), and the self-consciousness that inevitably creeps into almost every “long track” scene that's come since is burdensome. Goodfellas. The Player. Even that nausea-inducer in Silence of the Lambs. I prefer “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” an unnoticed tracking shot of great complexity undertaken only to sustain the emotional mood. And fourteen years BEFORE Welles.

(It was "Miracle," wasn't it, and not "Hail the Conquering Hero"? In my mind I can see Eddie Bracken clearly, strolling along dusty streets, but I can't tell if that's Betty Hutton or Ella Raines strolling next to him...some film buff!)

OK. Las Last Waltz.

We watched, and I kept awaiting the arrival of the Man from Crazy Horse. No sign 30 minutes in, so I jumped up for dessert--I was in the kitchen when Neil Young's voice suddenly wafted out of the TV speakers--CRAP! I had missed the pre-song banter and harmonica prologue. I ran back into the livingroom with my strawberries and kept my eyes peeled for anything suspiscious around his nose. But I missed the great moment (must have, unless they REALLY hid it--I guess that's the magic of Hollywood)!! His nostrils looked consistently rimmed with a kind of irregular crust prominent/emanating/crumbling here and there, but any tumbling particle went unseen. The big screen would probably show what our modest TV couldn’t. Frustrated, I planned to rent the film and take a closer look… Neil Young sang “Helpless“, with backstage backing from a mystery Joni Mitchell? Beautiful, truly moving.

In some ways this concert and movie are a survivor’s raft, at that last moment before the raft finally beaks apart from everyone’s combined weight. Yet another "Last Gasp of the Sixties" moment, again conveniently captured on film (wasn't it Altamont? Kent State? Watergate? Disco?). Everyone on stage seems to be saying their goodbyes as they get swept into the sea and away from each other. To see these last survivors from music's most creative era (surely you'll grant me that, and note that I write this not as a revivalist), is to think of those that didn’t survive. With all this heavy rock-blues and vocal individualism afoot, you think of Joplin; with Clapton, you think of Hendrix; with Van Morrison, you think of Jim Morrison. Some of the lost are mentioned by Robbie Robertson, and I have to wonder again how differently the stage may have looked, if there were more survivors, or if indeed the show would have happened, because really, wasn’t this a creation of the vacuum left by those missing?

But I am being unfair. I continue watching and see these people emerge as giants on their own. As a man forced to skitter to and fro' between the impoverished radio programing on offer in my city, the formats of which offer a panorama of derivates and celebrities who, on the whole, seem totally cowed by the music that has gone before them, and driven only by the will to become famous, I openly admit that I hold the popular rock scene of now, circa 2005, to be uninteresting. To be boring. And over time, I have begun to imagine it was ever thus, that music, rock music, has always been peopled by similarly mediocre players. So I was appalled to see this film, to witness so many singers come out and each share their distinct voice, (including four different members of The Band, all assigned at least one solo turn!); to hear such striking, individual artistry. Even this mid-to-high level gathering of secondary stars from the sixties practically blows away anything we’ve got now. They come across as bracingly original. They come across as THE originals. I am not schooled enough to know if this assertion is historio-musicologically accurate, but the glare of total authenticity was blinding, and threw into relief my assumptions about musicians then and now. This wasn’t even Janis or Jimi or Jim—it’s Joni, Eric and Van; and it’s not Lennon and Richards, either: it's Ringo and Young. But it feels just as big as if it were a consortium of the annointed demi-gods of the era.

Joni Mitchell came on, someone, like almost everyone in this film, who I’d never seen in action before; she seemed like a hippie Katherine HEPBURN to me. But she’s so shy, you say; so retiring and inward compared to Miss Hep. Yes, but I wonder if they weren’t just the same inside; and that being born and raised as she was, when she was, Mitchell manifested the same ambition to set a certain strong, feminine art before the world, but dressed it in a wholly different package, one suitable to the form her art required—namely, hippie, quirky, intense, earthy, poetic girl rejecting female stereotypes while creating a new one. Just as Hep did. Ambition and popular artistry, and a sense of which way the wind was blowing, and which way it should blow.

Neil Diamond appears! I imagined his number, “Dry Your Eyes,” being covered by The Mountain Goats—it would be a natural fit (how's that for contemporary rock citations?).

Clapton, a guy I’ve never been a big fan of from my early days in music (it’s Jimi, dammit!), grows on me. A sense of proportion and pace to his playing that really got the goods across in the plain song he plays here. And his oh-so-laid-back demeanor, the confident, “I’m just the guy playing guitar,” sort of unflappable, above the fray aura—he was like that in “Hail Hail Rock n’ Roll,” when Chuck Berry and Keith Richards are yelling at each other. He comes into the room with two guys that are legends and he seems like the regal one. Perhaps they’ll knight him, too and the Sir-name will be less of a stretch ferr him than any other white rocker I can think of (doesn't "Sir Little Richard" or "Sir Muddy Waters" paint a much more convincing picture?). Instead we get Sir Elton John? I saw Clapton in person once, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, at the mammoth John “Swinger” Sargent Retrospective, where he was anxiously taking in the sights. It has cemented my vision of him as a man on his vast estate, in his manor, contemplating a diminutive still life by Fillipo Lippi.

Why haven't I mentioned Muddy Waters? The profound pleasure of his presence had all the aura of the royal come to grace the bourgeois gathering. Old money among the nouveau riche. He's a MAN. And it comes across. I am without the tools as a writer, the insights or the confidence to examine his appearance and the relationship to those around him in any further detail.

The giant of the whole production is Dylan, and he is saved for the grand finale sequence, deservedly so. Unexpected that his presence should be the most shaky, technically, because weren’t he and The Band a band together for a long time? But that just adds to the myth, Bob turning to Robbie with a confused look on his face, trying to mouth what they should be doing, or shrugging his shoulders to the musician on his left. It makes for damn good theater, their private conversation, the interaction of giants, standing in the clouds and deciding what powerful experience they will provide for the assembled masses before them. Should we make them weep, or scream in ecstasy?

Understand, I own no records by Bob Dylan. I taped "Homesick Subterranean Blues" the song (I think) off the radio while in High School--the one with the lyric, "The pump don't work 'cuz the vandals stole the handle." I am describing his film persona, his film reality, which is what we know of him generically combined with what we see of him on the screen.

Funny to see Bob Dylan, the guy most serious-minded rock scholars point to as a rival to those gods of generations ago, the Great Romantic Poets. This celestial reputation of his, yet here he is, dressed like the squirley kid that pushes dope at 17, in a Panama Hat and wishful moustache. He looks like the tackiest, most insincere, artless sort imaginable. But Dylan looks like this kid at 37, without ever having changed from 17—which kids like that at 17 always do—not for the better, necessarily—they just change. They become the hollow-eyed speedfreak, they become the smarmy but more maturely attired air-conditioning man. I think a 37 year old dressing like that is a poetic tribute to that transitory moment of being the worst dressed, worst deported, shiftiest motherfucker in your high school. A moment and a look unsustainable for the mere mortal, but triumphal on the back of an artiste.

The final concert song enlists every star present, and allowed me to compare the effects of intoxicants on each performer. Clapton seemed like the only straight one, a certain low-key lucidity in his eyes as he walks off stage, past the camera. The hopped-up, the blitzed-out, the fuzzy-eyed, the red-faced and hyperactive all swayed back and forth and kept it together under Ringo’s beat—Ringo, who did great, but unnerves me just the way he moves his arms—it looks hesitant, unsure, as if he’s just taken too many verbal lashings from Lennon and too many snubs from McCartney to ever properly recuperate. Neil Diamond and Neil Young but a scant 10 feet away from each other, Diamond looking like nothing so much as an elderly, Jewish, Elvis impersonator (in shades!). And the music was damn good.

After the bows we fade out of the concert hall, and into a new scene, a pipe organ playing, and Robbertson is holding a strange, electric zither/guitar combo (oh, those guitar artists of the 70’s!), and we’re on a dim stage somewhere else, with an exotic, moody waltz beginning. What a great way to end the film, I think, with this funky instrumental (was it a waltz ?I had a hard time counting 3), and in this poetic, empty sound stage, the camera tracking back, away, away…. the credits begin to roll over this building music and—the music is cut, the image is suddenly compressed to the top half of our TV screen, and the IFC voice-over cuts in announcing how their channel isn’t like all those other Hollywood Mainstream Channels—it’s committed to bringing us artists and their personal visions, visions you can’t find anywhere else. The bottom half of the screen has been divided into two segments—one announces: COMING NEXT: Escape from Hollywood The Slums of Beverly Hills. The other section of the screen is alive with rapidly edited scenes of violence, tits and ass, a girl tied down to a bed, a car exploding, a gun being pointed at us. Half the time the actors are unfamiliar to me, half the time it is someone I recognize. The voice over is continuing to describe how different Independent Cinema is from Hollywood, stay tuned for our Escape from Hollywood feature tonight (a very quick escape, if it is only to Beverly Hills); a car blows up in the corner of the screen, and up on the top the credits for “The Last Waltz” are allowed to roll out mutely, compressed to illegibility, the soundtrack eliminated, silent.

I hate. Fucking IFC. Hypocrites.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Pink Panther (1963)


An Evening IN


I’ve had the soundtrack for the film forever, bought for the song "It Had Better Be Tonight" and bought despite the overfamiliar "Pink Panther Theme." My wife, my mom and my grandmother and I are all on vacation together, and family fare was demanded for an EVENING IN. Father-in-law had loaned us his new 6 DVD set, "Blake Edwards' 'The Pink Panther' Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers," a natty volume with a multi-fold black vinyl enclosure and an original way of arranging six DVDs over just three interior panels.

I didn't know much about these films other than what I'd seen onscreen in previous viewings spread over the last 30 years. But as in all quality DVD experiences these days, esp. these Blue Chip "Film Classics", we were lavished with lots of extra stuff, and since our first viewing I've learned a great deal through those wonders of adjunct film education, the DVD Bonus Material and Commentary Track. (Isn't this really what most people feel "Film Studies" can be reduced to: pottering recollections and trivia, ie., "Sellers' psychic had told him he'd meet someone who'd be very important in his life with the initials 'B.E.' Sellers thought this meant 'Britt Ekland.'"?)

In surveying the five films offered in the collection, we decided on the first. I had hoped to see a later film whose title I didn't remember, but one I saw years ago with my mom (and dad!) at a drive-in (this was "The Return of the Pink Panther," with Christopher Plummer, done by Edwards but absent in this collection--legal problems--a film that feels very much like "The Spy Who Loved Me" in my memory, with its desert settings and double-crossing darkness, though some of my mnemonic conflation must come from watching the Bond at the same drive-in--with the same two parents!).

Everyone got comfy and our screening commenced. We were quickly won over by the well-known DePatie-Freleng title sequence and the Mancini theme music accompanying it. This essential synergy between the title itself, ("The Pink Panther", damn that's a catchy name—and enigmatic!), theme music and animated character must have been as essential to sustaining this "franchise" in the viewer's mind as Seller's performance. The titles promise a lot more invention and mobility than the movie proper delivers, and in retrospect they seem like one of those hoped-for but unplannable “flash-bombs” that sometimes go off in a film: after the detonation, every frame that follows this lucky burst is influenced positively, making the whole seem much more accomplished than it is. Acted out in the protective shadow of this thematic drop-cloth, the movie itself benefits in every way from this intro's intelligent couth—Mancini isn’t Miles Davis, but his lower-case art leaves an opening for some upper-case Animation, bringing us some slightly desperate sprightliness and Mod Colored violence, calling on a Looney Tunes heritage in a way Saul Bass never could. (A few eerie moments must be traversed for the modern cartoon fan, who will wonder if he isn’t watching the title sequence for the old old Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show on CBS [ABC?], even down to the font for the lesser credits—I was waiting for Bugs and crew to stride in from stage right, “Overture! Hit the lights! Here it is, the night of nights!”)

Everything after the title sequence, all the way up to the final scene where Sellers is trundled into a tiny Renault police car between two beefy Gendarmes caked in make-up and exhibiting strangely sexual aggression toward him—everything in this picture smelled slightly stale and phony.

There's nothing disingenuous about the film's desire to succeed.

As we all watched, (Mom, Gran, Dear Wife and I), we soon realized the Pink Panther franchise was planned to center on David Niven's Sir Charles. After filming, and by the time they'd gotten around to designing the titles, they were maybe hedging their bets, including the first appearance of Clouseau's animated self for a brief flash.

The film makers are clearly on the side of the thieves, and expand their circle of guilt to include everyone but Clouseau. They seemed to think the more ridiculous the law-and-order opposition to their favored characters, the thieves, the more likely the audience would be to join them in exalting the smug, the suave, the selfish and jet-set. But damned if they didn't figure it completely backwards: powerful humiliation makes for powerful sympathy, and who the hell like rooting for an overdog, anyways, other than a Yankees fans? While the movie is trying desperately to sell us on everyone’s very continental sense of self-worth, Sellers is quietly eating away at his part, striking the only authentic notes among any cast member. And it’s not his pratfalls that win us over, which are usually over-the-top choreographic concoctions that smack of Edwards’ baton and bullhorn—it is the guile-less desire for his wife, his acceptance of her refusals, and his devotion to duty. Little business like Clouseau’s initial discomfort on the witness stand add a texture to his performance that is comic because it’s specific. Edwards labors (he might prefer 'labours') to show us all the swanky sights of Europe and some of its flashiest cars, kittens, frocks and fellas, but in the end we are compelled by one man’s humiliation. It’s a little too easy to trot out “International Jewel Thief,” “Junior International Jewel Thief,” “International Jewel Thief’s Lover,” or “Princess” and expect us to gape. We like something a little more specific. Like a pink cat.

Somebody’s talking down to me already…


Was Robert Wagner just an unloved seed for a sequel that never sprouted, registering here only when he masticates and gurgles on Capucine, chiefly in the scene where she’s crawled into his bed, mistaking him for her lover, his Uncle Charles?


In this year we also have "Charade," exhibiting many of the same frictions as "The Pink Panther" in a barely less looney continental setting. We have the release of Goddard's "Contempt/Le Mepris," (starring a Bridget Bardot who never looked more like a Cardinale, and vice verse). But most amazingly, within this twelve month period Claudia Cardinale, the sort-of star of "The Pink Panther", could be caught in this film, in Lucchino Visconti's "The Leopard/Il Gatopardo", and Freddy Feline-y's "8 1/2." Fellini, panthers and leopards... ("Panther" must have gotten her last—she looks exhausted). What an unpredictable landscape of new releases for the film spectator that year! (What an unpredictable year, outside of the movie houses, too… ah, social significance!) I will spare you any entry trying to scare up a similarly bright film harvest from 40 years on, the year 2003 (40 years!).


By the time of “The Pink Panther,” Blake Edwards had been working his own auteurist-lite schtick on the west coast for a few years, unburdened by any Cahiers approbation, and motivated by the desire to prove himself an “Artiste” in the mildewy mold of Billy Wilder. Question: Were guys like Edwards, Kubrik and John Frankenheimer the inoculation Hollywood sought against foreign competition? Is this why their producers seemed a little more indulgent than the bottom-line alone would suggest? Were they viewed by studio bigwigs as Hollywood’s in-house New Wave, a contra-New Wave? (this all before the arrival—once the situation got really bad—of the new New Wave, those gay blades like Mazursky, Coppola, Nichols, Altman)

No, I think Hollywood was still a bit vague about La Nouvelle Vague.


YSL did the costumes for the two female principals—is that New Wave? Everyone involved seems mighty preoccupied with creating a veneer of euro-panache, which here is interpreted as draping most extras in tropical colors better suited to a Polynesian picture: hard industrial tourquoises, violets, and chartreuses that pop against snow and sky, white cloaks and brown woods.

Mainly, the New Wave is here interpreted as sex. I guess it went over with American audiences because the sex was among Europeans. But the bitter misogyny that underlies all this frou-frou must have been comforting—still is, I hear.

To counter this New Wave charge, there is a suspicious air of TV-thought seeping into some of the sets and set-ups, clearest in the Meri Welles music video the casts joins mid-flick—an alarming Holiday Variety Special look, with the proscenium staginess implying a studio audience lurking behind the cameraman. (APPLAUSE)


Bland musical number aside, Edwards’ chief concern after making money is choreography. He choreographs bodies as though he’s angling for a job at Mack Sennet’s studio, circa 1926, bursting with ideas for improving the silent product via 1960’s technology—Technirama, Technicolor and sound effects. In a scene too physical for Lubitsch at UFA, just right for Laurel and Hardy on an off day, a protracted dance performed by two gorillas around a double-sided wall safe (a pillar safe? A buttress safe?) is interrupted just long enough for them to wonder at the spectacle of an enormous, ugly, smoking sparkler dragged inexpertly by some propman thru the phoniest second story backdrop seen in a United Artists release since the launch of their TV division.