Thursday, July 20, 2017

Capsule Reviews: Capitalist Pig-Dog Edition

What’s that you ask? Have I seen two movies? Have I written a few paragraphs about each??? Well actually yes I have!!
Stormy Monday (d. Mike Figgis) – Like Don Siegel’s The Killers and George Romero’s Creepshow, this film, just out from Arrow Video, features one of those casts the true looniness of which can only really be appreciated in retrospect. In this case, Mike Figgis’s debut feature (which is about gangsters and nightclubs and jazz and whatnot) we get a main cast comprised of Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sting. For a moody 80s crime film, that bodes well, right? Or at least it bodes interesting. Right?
The guts of the plot are typical: Sting plays Finney, the strong-willed owner of a jazz club who, as the wearily satirical “America Week” gears up to begin in the English city of Newcastle, is soon being threatened and otherwise pressured to sell his business because of some criminal real estate something-or-other. Finney is tipped off that this is going to happen by Brendan (Bean), who overhears two guys talking about it while he’s out on a date with Kate (Griffith). She’s a waitress at another club, but also reluctantly uses her feminine wiles for mercenary purposes, at the behest of Cosmo(!), an American businessman who is really a gangster when you think about it, played by Jones. Finney fights back against physical threats, Brendan falls in love with Kate and finds himself caught in the middle of all this, Kate wants her freedom from Cosmo, and Cosmo wants to destroy all that is good in the name of America or whatever. Together, they rush towards a breathful anticlimax.
The film looks good. Roger Deakins shot it. All the performances are, you know, fine. Jones is full of the blank-faced tics that made so much of his early work hard for me to get behind, and Melanie Griffith still hadn’t quite learned how human beings speak. But Sting and Bean are good. The main problem for me, in addition to the fact that as a  crime thriller, which Stormy Monday seems to think it is, I was never once compelled by anything that happened on screen or by the people doing them, which admittedly is hardly a frivolous complaint, is Figgis’s lame, limp-dick satire of America and capitalism. I’ve said before that I have many, many problems with satire as a comedic form, at least as its been practiced in my lifetime, because in satire all you have to do is plant a giant Pepsi bottle somewhere it doesn’t belong and suddenly you’ve make a “joke” which is not only “funny” but which also “says something.” Satire is revered, satirists are holy figures, yet somehow it takes no effort at all to make it or be one. No one expects more out of satire than a giant Pepsi bottle.
Terror in a Texas Town (d. Joseph H. Lewis) – This 1958 Western, also just released by Arrow Video, has a few things in common with Stormy Monday. Here, a crooked businessman and extortionist named McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) pressures a Swedish immigrant (Ted Stanhope) to sell his farm, because McNeil knows there’s oil bubbling underneath the land. When the farmer refuses, McNeil’s hired gun Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) murders him. Before McNeil can swoop in and buy up the rights, though, the farmer’s son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town, learns his father has been murdered, and begins a quest to find out why he was killed and who is responsible. His mission is somewhat hampered by the fact that the other farmers in town are frightened of McNeil, and so at times it seems as though, with the exception of Mirada (Victor Millan), his dad’s loyal friend, George is going it alone.
This obviously also calls to mind High Noon, which came out six years earlier and bore the same political subtext. Terror in a Texas Town was written by Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted and using the credited Ben Perry as his front, and so capitalism is condemned, and immigrants working the land are the victims as well as the heroes (here it parts ways with Stormy Monday, since in that film the foreigners (the Americans), are the whole problem). In other words, the politics are as up front here as they are in Stormy Monday. The difference is that the writing here is good, the draw of the story is primal, and his while Figgis wanted his individual shots to look good and hired the right guy to give him that, Joseph H. Lewis and his cinematographer Russell Harlan are concerned with their film looking good as shots and scenes move and flow into each other.
Even better, Lewis and Trumbo weren’t interested in stock heroes and villains. Or least, not exclusively. George and Mirada don’t have a lot of guilt to work through, apparently, and McNeil isn’t about to see the error of his ways. Johnny Crale, though, is another matter. Nedrick Young’s performance is top-notch, the best in a very well-acted film, and he has the most to work with. Early in the film, Young subtly lets on that his Crale, a prolific killer, has something going on inside him, related to how he’s chosen to earn his living. And it’s always there, manifesting in different ways. The moral and existential crisis that is roiling around inside Crale’s head and guts might bring out in him a sense of pity one day, and fuel his brutality the next. If he’s the Angel of Death, and his black clothes suggest that he might be, then he’s one who, if he’s not stopped, will soon suffer a complete psychotic breakdown, and bring everything and everyone down on his head.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Universal Happiness

In a 1983 interview for Positif, which can be found in the booklet accompanying the new Criterion release of L’Argent, Michel Ciment mentions to Robert Bresson that “According to you, an image should not be matched with a powerful sound. Bresson’s answer is as complicated as you might expect, and eventually deviates somewhat from the main point, eventually stating that as a cinematic artist what he’s seeking is “impression.” He goes on:
Let me give you an example from L’Argent. When I’m on the major boulevards of Paris, I immediately ask myself: What impression do they make on me? Well, the impression is of a mishmash of legs making a sharp sound on the sidewalk. I tried to convey this impression through sound and image. So then I’m criticized for framing the bottoms of people’s pants. How intelligent! I received similar criticisms regarding the horses’ legs in Lancelot du lac. I showed the horses’ legs without showing their riders, in order to draw attention to the muscular power of their hindquarters when they brace themselves to launch into the tournament. I’m not going to show the rider, because then everything would be scrambled, something entirely different would come into play, people would look at him, they would wonder what he was going to do.
Beyond making me wonder about the kind of film critic who would, or indeed could, be so put off by the way pant legs are photographed – a matter I wish this interview could have found the time to explore further – beyond that, as I say, what Bresson’s answer brings to mind is not the shot of pant legs described, but rather another one later in L’Argent, near the end. The main character, Yvon (Christian Patey) has just been released from prison, and has after some time made his way into the countryside where he’s taken in by an old woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), who lives on a farm with her father (Michel Brigue). She has done this secretly, but is discovered by her father. One morning, the old woman pours coffee into a bowl, to take it to Yvon who is staying in the barn. As she leaves the house and is walking through the grass to the barn, her father confronts her. He reaches out to slap her, and just as his hand strikes her face, Bresson cuts to her hands, holding the bowl of coffee. The impact jars her, and jostles the bowl, which sloshes coffee onto her hands. Then the encounter ends, and she continues on to the barn.
This cut to her hands effectively shows the violence of the slap – it conveys the impression of violence through the motion of an inanimate object. It even conveys the pain of the slap, because that coffee that splashes her hands is hot. As with the decision to show horses rather than the knights in Lancelot du lac, the viewer is not robbed of any knowledge or appreciation of what he or she might deem more relevant at the moment by not showing that thing; they are told about that thing by showing what Bresson calls “fragments of reality” which combine to depict an event, and eventually a progression of events.
Up to that point, the hot coffee splashing bare skin is the most violent image in L’Argent, a film that has previously included a bank robbery and a car accident. The bank robbery and its aftermath aren’t shown, but we do hear a long volley of gunfire – a powerful sound that Bresson does not match with a notable image: it rumbles over a simple image of Yvon, the would-be getaway driver, behind the wheel of a car he’s about to crash. (We do see the crash, but that’s just the violence of metal on metal. There’s nothing about wounded flesh, either shown or implied.) All this in a film, were it not for the occasional spurting blood of Lancelot du lac, that would easily be Bresson’s most physically savage.

Yvon is not a born criminal. An oil deliveryman, he one, while cashing an invoice at a camera shop, finds himself set on a path to destruction when the shop owner (Didier Baussy), to avoid taking the hit himself, purposely passes off three counterfeit bills that he’d recently been saddled with (and was able to pick out on his own after the fact, so no official is aware he has them) to Yvon, who is caught later when he innocently tries to spend them. He’s caught in a restaurant, in a scene that sets up much that is to come. The restaurant employee who notices the counterfeit bills and confronts Yvon is not willing to give Yvon much leeway. Frustrated and angry, Yvon assaults the man, but what we see is a close-up of Yvon’s hand grabbing the man’s jacket and pushing, then quickly letting go, so that the frame is filled with Yvon’s wide open hand while we hear what sounds like the man falling into a table or cart of dishes and falling to the ground. Another hand giving the impression of violence, which is heard off-camera, and a propensity for violence is established, though with that shot of Yvon’s hand Bresson somehow conveys that the character’s inclination in this direction is something he’s trying to curb. In any event, Yvon is doomed starting at that very moment – you might as well stop watching now. Or more likely he was doomed when he accepted into that same hand the money that was owed to him.

L’Argent ends in a slaughter, none of which we see straight-on. But after losing his job because of the counterfeiting charge, Yvon’s life falls apart. When he’s in prison for taking part in the bank robbery, his family, his wife and daughter, evaporates, for reasons understandable and tragic. There is nothing, so that when he’s released he’s willing to let the violence inside come out as he cruelly seeks money where his blood-stained hands can grab it. Which sounds very dramatic, and which is not even wrong. Yet L’Argent proceeds in small moments. Even the murders are shown in small moments, and of course the people playing the characters – I do not say “actors” and I probably shouldn’t have said “playing” – engage in none of what Bresson called the “voice modulation” or “useless gestures” or traditional film actors. His “models,” as he called them, indeed were not actors. With few exceptions (most notably Dominique Sanda, who started with Bresson), the screen credits of the stars of Bresson’s films begin and end with whatever Bresson film they appeared in. And indeed, as Bresson himself admitted, they’re not acting. They are part of the many visual and an audio components that comprise his shots, scenes, sequences, films. This sounds almost mercenary, but isn’t. As Bresson says in the Ciment interview, it’s all part of his precision, which I’d also call his sort of streamlined otherworldliness (Bresson often claimed to be depicting reality; how exactly he was defining “reality” gave him a lot of room to move, but sometimes he seemed to think he was achieving something close to a kitchen-sink reality; with L’Argent he certainly wasn’t doing that, which is something I do not care about). His very complex films, and they don’t come much more complex in Bresson’s filmography than L’Argent, are simplified by these non-performances – they’re not even lean, they’re not even stripped down – in that none of the fat of film acting is there to be dealt with, but it also deepens the strange intricacies of Bresson’s aesthetic. It’s strange and intricate, of course, because we’ve been trained to see films and film acting in a way that is anathema to Bresson, but Bresson is virtually alone in the history of more-or-less traditional narrative filmmaking to whom it is anathema. And this is all at its most interesting and absorbing in L’Argent for a variety of reasons, chief among them the presence of a little girl and a dog. Neither of them are actors, but neither of them are Bresson’s models, either. The little girl, who is maybe four years old, plays Yvon’s daughter. She’s not in it much, only two scenes I think, but in both she greets the stone-faced Christian Patey with a wide-open grin, that is utterly, unfakeably sincere. She is the only human being who gives the audience a shot of real movie emotion, but it’s not performative. She’s not a child actor. Bresson instructed his models not to act; I imagine he didn’t even bother telling the little girl.
And not to sound glib, but the same goes for the dog. It’s one of the wildest images I’ve seen in a Bresson film: during Yvon’s violent climactic rampage (during which I feel, I remember, only seeing two human faces, though I don’t know if I’m right about this), the dog that belongs to Yvon’s victims is running madly through the house where it’s all taking place, whining and crying and in a complete panic. It’s chilling and heartbreaking, and it stops your breath. That this dog is not attacking Yvon is surely lost on him – even the dog doesn’t have Yvon’s kind of violence in it. Then again, the dog is about to find itself cast out of its comfort, as Yvon was, and then what’ll it do? The poor thing won’t even know that it doesn’t have any money.
Robert Bresson must be among the most perplexing directors in history. There is certainly no one else like him (though some, like Steven Soderbergh with Bubble, have tried to get at what Bresson got at), and to walk into one of his films from, say, the 1950s, and increasingly so as he went along, ending with L’Argent, his last film, without any sort of guide is to more than likely find yourself lost. Narratively, he’s not particularly hard to handle, but in pretty much every other respect the question the uninitiated must ask is “What is he doing, and why is he doing it like this?” Bresson’s book, Notes on the Cinematograph, is a series of aphoristic statements the ultimate goal of which is to create a guide to filmmaking (this is, admittedly, merely one way of putting it). What it achieves instead is an explanation of Bresson. A complicated and enigmatic explanation, but nonetheless a solid one, one that can be held in our hands.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Welcome to the Internet

Every so often, a cinematic or literary genre or subgenre that usually consists in the realms of cult appreciation will find itself, usually after a particular entry into their ranks hits it big, enjoying what we call a “boom.” Audiences and publishers and studios are suddenly hungry beyond reason for more of this stuff that six minutes ago they barely even knew existed. As you might expect, this consequence has its ups and downs. The worst of the downs is that the world is suddenly awash in, say, ironic heist and hitman movies following the release of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, or teenage angst horror after Stephen King’s Carrie was published in 1974. Which would obviously be fine if all of this stuff was good, but of course it never is. So eventually it all crashes down and people get sick of heist films. On the plus side, while the boom is in full swing, really good, interesting stuff that couldn’t get a look in yesterday suddenly finds a gap in the fence and slips through. Would we have One False Move without Pulp Fiction? It’s possible we wouldn’t. And I feel certain that without Stephen King and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and The Other, there’s no way writers like T.E.D. Klein and Karl Edward Wagner would have received the kind of mass market publication they did. It’s a fair trade, in my view.
Back in the early 2000s, one of these booms occurred in the film world when – and as near as I can tell this was the locus, but it’s possible I wasn’t paying attention to other factors – The Ring, Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998 became a huge success. And so now, everybody wanted to see more Asian horror, specifically Japanese horror, so much so that amongst nerds it was even given the stupid nickname “J-horror.” In America, this wave of Asian horror more often than not, it seems to me, took the form of Hollywood remakes, because, hell, that’s what got us here in the first place. Hence your Dark Waters starring your Jennifers Connelly and your The Grudges starring your Sarahs Michelle Gellar and whatnot. It did also create a market in the US for the real thing, however, and whatever expected downside that went along with it, there were also some really terrific movies that were suddenly readily available. Including that which has brought us here today, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, from 2001, one of the great horror films of the new century. I’m sure Pulse would exist with or without The Ring. I’m just not sure when we would have been able to see it.
Pulse, which has just been released in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from Arrow Films, has a structure that is not unheard of in traditional narrative filmmaking, but is definitely unusual in the horror genre: two sets of characters, unknown to each other, have similar strange, terrifying experiences and one or more members of each group try to find out what’s going on, until their investigations bring them into contact with each other. Whether or not, ultimately, this contact does anybody any good.
In one group, three employees at a greenhouse/nursery notice that another co-worker, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) hasn’t been seen in a while, nor has he contacted them about an important project he’s working on. One co-worker, Michi (Kumiko Aso), goes to Taguchi’s apartment. He’s there, but during Michi’s visit he commits suicide. The computer disk containing the project he’d been working on is pored over by Michi and her friends Junko (Kurume Arisaka) and Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo). On the disc, they find ghostly images in photographs of Taguchi’s apartment, and when Michi returns their she finds a weird black stain on the wall against which Taguchi hanged himself.
Meanwhile, a young man named Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) takes his first tentative steps towards exploring the then-new Internet. After signing up with a provider, a website opens automatically, on its own. The site shows various people, their faces obscured, in dark rooms. The people are unmoving, or they move with eerie repetitiousness. Unnerved, Ryosuke seeks help at a computer lab at the university he attends. A computer science graduate student named Haure (Koyuki) takes interest in his problem and agrees to help. As the film progresses, characters will find a slip of paper on which is written “The Forbidden Room,” they will encounter ghosts in rooms whose doors are bordered by red tape, and they will hear, and entertain, theories about ghosts pushing their way into the physical world. And these characters will become depressed, and they will begin to feel hopeless. Michi will witness another suicide.

Kurosawa’s ghosts are hazy, slow, terrifying entities. Some are seen more clearly than others, and some perhaps can’t be seen more clearly – one is a walking shadow whose limbs move in loping arcs, another is a black outline seen from a distance in a library, who flees, or disappears, when Ryosuke approaches. This is quite a scene, not just for the imagery, but because it leads Ryosuke to meet a university student who explains his theory that spirits are using technology (specifically the internet, it should be clear by now) to enter the world of the living. The scene isn’t fascinating because of the theory, necessarily, but because the student is moved to tell it when he notices that Ryosuke has seen the ghost. He, the student, has been seeing them around campus, which led him to the theory. But it’s the matter-of-fact way the topic is broached, both visually and through dialogue, that makes it obvious, if it wasn’t already, that Pulse is a ghost story like no other. The ghost Ryosuke is simply among the stacks in the library. It’s notable as a presence not because of what it’s doing, but because a pitch-black thing in the shape of a human shouldn’t be there.
The table has been set for this kind of off-hand way (and all the more chilling because of that) Kurosawa introduces his supernatural elements by showing Michi, Yabe, and Junko react to Taguchi’s suicide as something that not only should be put behind them instantly, but can be. Michi has to work harder to shake off what she saw, and what, when you get right down to it, must be a loss to her personally (the implication is that she was friends with Taguchi, that they all were) than Junko does, and maybe, finally she doesn’t. Maybe she only acts like she does. If that’s the case, the path she walks, as opposed to those down which Junko and Yabe go, is different for a reason. She’s more aware. She’s more awake as a human being.
This is perhaps what plagues everyone in Pulse: that they are human beings. I’ve seen the argument made, and made recently, that Kurosawa really blows the lid off the internet with this film, that he had its dangers pinned down while the rest of us were still marveling at its limitless newness, but not only am I not convinced that he makes his case, I’m not convinced his primary concern was to make one in the first place. The danger of Pulse, the weapon that is used against us, is loneliness, that most human and effortlessly acquired of diseases. This is not the worst thing that the internet has afflicted on the world by any means, at least as I see it in 2017. What the internet achieves as a device in Pulse is a representation of and a portal into the unknown (and a portal out of the unknown). As one character after another faces the unknown directly – not death exactly, or not merely death, but whatever death is prologue to – the realization of their aloneness begins to metastasize. Not so glib about death now, are you, Junko? So the internet isn’t the internet: the internet is death. Which, okay Kiyoshi Kurosawa, that’s a fair point.
Gradually, Pulse turns apocalyptic. It seems to be, at once literally and metaphorically, an apocalypse of suicides. As the film moves along towards its end, it begins to depopulate. By which I don’t mean that the characters we know begin to die off, though that happens as well. Rather, even in a film that has never been teeming with background extras, the spaces through which Kurosawa’s people and camera move become undeniably emptier. And then any doubt about this is removed, but it’s remarkable how Kurosawa gets this across before being blatant about it. Pulse is a movie whose narrative momentum is built around a process of slow removal. Unavoidably, the film gets lonelier and lonelier. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When You Come to a Strange Land

Historically, when the American Movie Business gets it into its head to explore or at least depict a culture far removed from any found within the fifty states, or even some of the ones that do exist within them, at any rate, a culture that is not Los Angeles and is not New York, the results tend to be a film that stands, as if itself a person, benevolently above the actual people it's depicting, lowering itself down to them (perhaps in a bucket) as a gift; or warmly crouches down, to their level, handing itself to them like a father handing his son, or maybe the neighbor’s son, a football. Hence things like “white savior” films, wherein, in essence, a white person tells the story of a non-white person because somebody has to, goddamnit. Which, if you want me to lay all my cards on the table, would bother me somewhat less than it does if more of these films could justify themselves by being any good. Most of them can’t, so the defense is unable to mount a case. And so you have to wonder about the makers of these films, and of the wider world of the American Movie Business, when it comes to these sorts of films, what stories do they actually think they’re telling? Because it looks like it’s the story about how nice it is that they even thought to do this in the first place.
That specific problem, the “white savior” one, is not what plagues Nicholas Ray’s 1960 film The Savage Innocents, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films. Based on a novel by Swiss novelist Hans Ruesch, co-written with Ray by the Italian writer Franco Solinas, and financed with Italian, French, and British money, the only American help Ray got on this film was the distribution it received from Paramount. This may explain why its problems are somewhat different than those that you could have expected from a similar Hollywood production, but when all is said and done, you still have a bunch of Americans, French, British, and Italian folks making a movie about Eskimos. Eskimos played by Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican-Irish actors, at that.
None of which, again, especially bothers me in theory. Had I been fortunate enough to like The Savage Innocents, I wouldn’t be here now sputtering things like “Well, but France.” But I did not like The Savage Innocents (in fact, it’s the first Nicholas Ray film I’ve seen that I haven’t at least enjoyed), and more than that, the flaws are inextricable from the situation I’ve just described.
The story is simple: Anthony Quinn plays Inuk, an unmarried hunter whose loneliness is exacerbated by his pride. Though it’s traditional for other men to offer their wives to friends for carnal satisfaction now and again, Inuk has begun refusing such offers, which is seen as rude. Eventually, a matchmaking scheme is set in motion by others in Inuk’s community and after a while he marries Asiak (Yoko Tani). During all this, we see various hunting expeditions, and other rituals and daily chores that might seem unusual to us, the viewers, often narrated by Nicholas Stuart. Along the way, Inuk and his wife encounter something akin to Western culture and its specific ways of life when they go to a trading post to trade furs for a gun, which Inuk has only recently learned existed. Inuk and Asiak are also involved in the accidental death of a white man, which ultimately brings all of the film’s concerns and arguments and preoccupations to a head, as Inuk encounters a Canadian police officer (a pre-Lawrence Peter O’Toole, inexplicably dubbed).
And I didn’t buy a second of it. The film looks as stupendous as you’d expect from Ray – some images, such as those showing Inuk and a friend rowing through the sea, between and alongside mountainous glaciers, are breathtaking; on a giant movie screen, those moments might literally take away one’s breath (the cinematography was a team affair involving the English DP Peter Hennessy, who worked on many documentaries, which fits as some of the film was made by having a crew shadow actual Eskimo hunting expeditions, and the great Aldo Tonti, of Nights of Cabiria and Europe ’51 fame). But the depiction of the Eskimos is frankly appalling, and hard to sit through. Quinn (whose makeup and wig make him look like a Vulcan), and everyone else cast as an Eskimo, is made to caper and constantly giggle, like little children, so innocent are these savages (though who really is the savage). The Savage Innocents may have the decency to be actually about its Eskimo characters, but it betrays no desire to imagine them as adult human beings. Inuk and the others may, in the first half of the film, have never had any contact with what we call the civilized world, but I refuse to believe that this sort of natural isolation leaves anyone so isolated in a state of perpetual childhood. Everything makes Inuk laugh: talk of sex, actual sex, the appearance of food, eating food, hunting, snow, other people. And his laugh isn’t the laugh of a grown person, but the silly, somewhat abashed titter of, not even a real kid, but a nauseatingly sweet movie kid. And this is Quinn’s performance for most of the film.
It should maybe go without saying that authentic or not when it comes to its depiction of Eskimo life and customs and attitudes, given the condescending approach, I was less than convinced that much of what I was seeing corresponded to reality. Again, this might not matter, but when you consider all this in relation to the use of Nicholas Stuart’s narration, it must be assumed that at least part of the ambition of The Savage Innocents is anthropological. Yet am I really expected to believe that when Inuk and Asiak have a baby, neither of them are aware that babies don’t have teeth (the mother and father believe that the toothlessness of their child means their family is cursed)? If they were literally Adam and Eve, okay fine, but both of them exist in a larger Eskimo community. Not a massive community, but big enough to have at various times included a baby here and there. Inuk, for all his childishness is shown as knowing exactly what one needs to do to survive in this cold wasteland (which makes that childishness even harder to swallow, but anyway), but what babies look like is beyond him. And his wife, though both manage to care for the baby, without having to ask around. It’s just that “no teeth” thing that throws them.
Where The Savage Innocents finally goes is interesting, potentially so anyway, but the situation that leads to the film’s end is such a stacked-deck affair that I can’t accept the questions as being fully asked, let alone answered. A film can’t provide insight if it doesn’t seem to possess any. This is somewhat shocking, coming from Nicholas Ray, whose career began with a masterpiece, They Live By Night, and would go on to be one of the strongest (however short it sadly was) and most unique in Hollywood history. They can’t all be knock outs, I guess.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hopelessly Insane

One of these days, I’m going to come to some sort of conclusion about the films of Dario Argento. I tend to be either thrilled by them, or completely unmoved. I suppose this uncertainty does make each film an exciting adventure, but as adventures go, they’re often frustrating. I may have done this to myself by approaching Argento’s filmography from, if you’ll pardon the expression, the ass-end; I’ve seen Mother of Tears and Dario Argento’s Dracula and The Card Player, but I haven’t seen Deep Red or Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet. We needn’t concern ourselves with the whys of any of this. If it helps my case at all, I am trying to correct this imbalance by catching up with the big titles.
Such as, just to take a random example, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, his first film as a director. Released in 1970 (and just out now on a snazzy new Blu-ray from Arrow Video), it’s a pretty classic example of a gialli, in that there’s a black-gloved killer, a hunt for same, numerous stabbing deaths, and a cloud of nonsense hanging over the whole thing. It’s a proto-slasher film, or so some would and have and continue to argue, except that, as distinct from most if not all other Argento films I’ve seen, it’s not especially bloody – it’s certainly no Tenebrae, Argento’s film from 1982, made when the slasher genre was really ramping up, and a very nasty piece of work it indeed is.
The plot is simple: a blocked American writer named Sam (Tony Musante) is staying in Rome with his English girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) when, one night, Sam is walking through downtown at night when he happens to look in the window of an art gallery that is closed for the night, and sees and man and woman struggling. The man is wearing a black coat and hat, his features difficult to make out. The woman, who we eventually learn is named Monica (Eva Renzi) and is married to the gallery owner (Umberto Raho), ends up being stabbed in the abdomen. After a very striking sequence involving Sam trying to make his way past locked glass doors (one is unlocked by a mysterious black-gloved hand) to, hopefully, get to her, or anyway have his cry for help heard by a passer-by.
Eventually the cops arrive, Monica survives, and Sam is relentlessly questioned by the police, led by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno). It’s not that Sam is a suspect – he very clearly didn’t do it. But this stabbing is only the latest of many that have left several women dead across the city, Sam is the only eyewitness the police have. And as the questioning continues and repeats itself and days go by, Musante does a good job of showing the weary, almost angry frustration at being asked the same questions over and over again. The trouble is, by the third scene of Morosini asking him what the man in black looked like, I myself probably could have stepped in for Musante, should he have fallen ill at any point. A simple time jump would have achieved what Argento was going for – showing it the way he does is just tedious.
In fact, while the plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage could not be simpler, Argento seems to be constantly searching for ways to drag things out. As you’d expect, Sam becomes obsessed with the case, and begins conducting his own investigation, with which the cops have no beef. At one point, Sam’s detective work takes him to a remote Italian village so that he can question the loony artist behind an absolutely bonkers painting the purchase of which from a store in Rome seems to have been connected to an earlier murder. Anyway, so Sam meets the guy, and this whole bit of the film ultimately has no bearing on anything. It exists only so that Sam can accidentally eat cat meat. Many of the various parts that make up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage have little to no bearing on the proceedings, including the title. Which is a great title, but the meaning is ultimately so arbitrary that I wish Argento had called this movie The Crazy Painting Murders and saved The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for a film that could have put it to better use.
Of course, that stuff is all part of the cloud of nonsense I referred to earlier, which is a kind of cloud I do not object to in principle, or as a general artistic or storytelling philosophy, and which, in any case, is par for the course not only with Argento, but with giallo as a whole. My favorite Argento film, 1985’s Phenomena, a film I love nearly beyond reason, is nothing but a cloud of nonsense. It is a nonsense cloud made flesh. But if a mystery film, which is what The Bird with the Crystal Plumage essentially is, is going to sacrifice, or never consider to begin with, narrative coherence, one expects certain compensations – the sort of compensations that Phenomena and Suspiria have pouring out of their noses, but which this film does not. Other than the wonderful early scene with Sam trying to get to a wounded Monica in the gallery, with its eerie silence, monstrous sculptures lurking around the living figures, as a piece of direction The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels almost indifferent. So, too, did another famous Argento film (one that is rather more divisive than this one, in fairness) called The Stendhal Syndrome, which largely bored me until, in this case, the ending, which is, I’ll just say, interesting. What those two movies have in common, it occurs to me, is that they’re non-supernatural thrillers, whereas my favorite Argento films, Suspiria and Phenomena, have darkly fantastical stories that allow Argento to unleash his imagination. Not that I think Argento is a guy who feels particularly leashed most of the time, but his greatest strengths lay with otherworldly material. This seems undeniable to me.
It’s interesting that a major aspect of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage turns up to much better effect in one of the most highly-regarded films of the 1970s, four years after Argento got there (in his own way). I’ll let those who haven’t seen the The Bird with the Crystal Plumage figure out which movie I’m referring to. Beyond that, I’d say stick with Suspiria. Or watch Phenomena forty-three times in a row.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 4: L - N

Hi! Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted a section of my List of Movies I Think are Just Terrific. But you know, sometimes things happen. And one of the things that can happen in these situations is that you realize that you made a terrible mistake the last time you put together one of these things. Such a mistake that you can get kind of depressed about it and wonder why you’re even bothering. These things happen every day, the whole world over. I guess it’s time for another edition of…
Beep-Ups, Biffs, and Oopses

Flags of Our Fathers (d. Clint Eastwood) – This one’s an honest mistake. I regret not including it in the last post, but oh well. I think it’s better than Letters from Iwo Jima.

The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola) - …

Joe vs. the Volcano (d. John Patrick Shanley) – Shut up and leave me alone.

L’Enfer (d. Claude Chabrol) – I guess this should have been in the Es. Well anyway. Wrote about it here.

The Last Detail (d. Hal Ashby) – The one Ashby film (all right, there’s a couple I still haven’t seen) that I completely love. As perfect an execution, in style and especially performance, of its story and ideas as anyone could have brought off. Though of course not just anyone could have done it. Otis Young is the secret weapon.

The Last Hurrah (d. John Ford) – The last half hour is devastating. Ford gives everyone their moment.

The Last of the Mohicans (d. Michael Mann) – Speaking of last half hours…

The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese) – A gloriously, idiosyncratically artful work of passion. Peter Gabriel’s score is a spectacular.

The Last Waltz (d. Martin Scorsese) – Would make the list for “Caravan” alone.

The Last Wave (d. Peter Weir) – Wrote about it here.

The Late Show (d. Robert Benton) – I liked watching Art Carney punch that guy.

Late Spring (d. Yasujiro Ozu) – It’s all building to that last quiet slump.

Le Bonheur (d. Agnes Varda) – And this is building to its final chilling shrug.

A Legend or Was It? (d. Keisuke Kinoshita) – A great, brutal reckoning with Japan’s war crimes.

The Life of Oharu (d. Kenji Mizoguchi) – Wrote about it here.

Like Someone in Love (d. Abbas Kiarostami) – Wrote about it here.

Limelight (d. Charles Chaplin) – Sentimentality is good. Wrote about it here.

Lincoln (d. Steven Spielberg) – Wrote about it here.

Lips of Blood (d. Jean Rollin) – Wrote about it here. Say, this part of the list is pretty easy!

Listen to Me Marlon (d. Stevan Riley) – Brando, well beyond stardom and in the realm of Legend on Earth, trying to hypnotize himself into not eating so much apple pie is one of the most heartbreaking and humanizing things I’ve ever seen (well, heard).

Little Shop of Horrors (d. Frank Oz) – The studio edit of this would have made the list, too, but Oz’s cut that finally appeared on the Blu-ray release is pretty jaw-dropping.

Living Dead Girl (d. Jean Rollin) – Wrote about it here.

Logan (d. James Mangold) – I just saw this recently but you know what, I’m gonna go ahead and add it to the list. I enjoyed it that much.

The Loneliest Planet (d. Julia Loktev) – Before seeing this, I’d heard that the film hinged on a single moment. I didn’t know what it was, and when it happened I was all “Oh shit…”

The Long Day Closes (d. Terence Davies) – The sequence set to Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy” is almost overwhelming.

The Long Good Friday (d. John Mackenzie) – Possibly the single greatest performance Bob Hoskins ever gave. That last shot is monumental.

The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman) – Altman was one of America’s greatest genre directors. He’d probably hate that description, but oh well.

Long Weekend (d. Colin Eggleston) – A brilliant horror film, full of slow, quiet, creeping dread and mystery. Check it out.

Lost in America (d. Albert Brooks) – The Desert Inn has heart. The Desert Inn has heart.

Love and Death (d. Woody Allen) – The best of Woody Allen’s early absurd comedies. Allen arguing with a ghost about how much a watch is worth makes me laugh every time.

Mad Love (d. Karl Freund) – Wrote about it here.

Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller) – I found the action scenes to be pretty exciting.

Magnolia (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Pretty ballsy for a third film, in my opinion.

Make Way for Tomorrow (d. Leo McCarey) – Wrote about it here.

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (d. Christopher Speeth) – Wrote about it here.

Malcolm X (d. Spike Lee) – In the genre of “birth to death” biopics, a subgenre of the biopic which excludes almost all the good ones, this is the great one. It’s immense.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – The 1956 one. As others have pointed out before me, one of the fascinations of this movie is the prickly nature of Stewart and Day’s marriage. They seem like real people, which therefore serves the suspense, and so on. Hitchcock knew what was up, is what I’m getting at.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (d. John Ford) – Possibly my favorite Ford movie, though it’s getting harder to pick these days. In any case, goddamn is John Wayne superb in this.

Manhunter (d. Michael Mann) – It’s just you and me now, sport.

Maniac (d. William Lustig) – Wrote about it here.

The Manson Family (d. Jim Van Bebber) – Don’t take this film’s presence on this list as a recommendation, necessarily. And Van Bebber seems like a real asshole. Wrote about it here.

Marathon Man (d. John Schlesinger) – This would be immeasurably better had they kept the original ending from William Goldman’s novel, but even so, pretty great stuff.

Margaret (d. Kenneth Lonergan) – An epic film set in the present day, with almost everything that happens occurring within maybe a few square miles. That’s one of the things that makes it seem so rare.

Martin (d. George A. Romero) – Wrote about it here, a little bit, sort of. Romero’s masterpiece.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (d. Peter Weir) – It’s a perfect film. There is nothing wrong with it. No mistakes were made.

The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Wrote about it here.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (d. Robert Altman) – See my entry for The Long Goodbye. And it’s interesting how a guy like Altman couple publicly disdain things like plot, even story, yet still construct one of the Western genre’s most suspenseful sequences.

Mean Streets (d. Martin Scorsese) – Wrote about it here.

Melancholia (d. Lars Von Trier) – Pretty ingenious in conception, and gorgeous in execution. I apologize to Kirsten Dunst for not realizing how good she is.

Memories of Murder (d. Bong Joon-Ho) – South Korea’s Zodiac. Weirdly funny, somewhat terrifying.

Messiah of Evil (d. Ward Huyck) – Supposedly, Huyck had no interest in horror movies, but it was easy to get them funded and he wanted to make a movie. It should humble contemporary horror filmmakers to see how many chances, Huyck took.

Miami Blues (d. George Armitage) – Fred Ward was born to play Hoke Mosley.

Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – It’s not going too far to say that in 1990, cinematically speaking, this movie changed my life. And twenty-seven years later, it’s just as great.

Million Dollar Baby (d. Clint Eastwood) – I was down on this when I saw it in the theater. I rewatched it not long ago, and holy shit, I am sorry for my earlier opinions.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (d. Paul Schrader) – The most visually inventive Paul Schrader has ever been, and the most complex film he’s made. It’s unbelievable that a studio distributed this.

Modern Romance (d. Albert Brooks) – Packed with some of the greatest comic sequences in any film, almost like stand-alone sketches, but which hang together as part of the larger film. Unimpeachable. “Try the box, you’ll like it.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) – Their funniest film.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones) – Their best film.

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (d. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) – Still a pretty terrific film.

The Most Dangerous Game (d. Irvin Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack) – Fun as hell.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (d. Errol Morris) – My favorite Morris film. Bizarre and disturbing.

Mr. Turner (d. Mike Leigh) – Not the film I was expecting, nor the performance I was expecting from Timothy Spall. It’s wonderful to be surprised by biopics that are weird and unsettling.

Mulholland Dr. (d. David Lynch) – The film that keeps on giving.

Munich (d. Steven Spielberg) – Some of the best direction of Spielberg’s career. His eye for violence, his sense of its power, meaning, horror, and occasional necessity is unlike any other filmmaker at his level.

Naked (d. Mike Leigh) – With just a nudge, this could have turned into an arthouse horror film.

Naked Lunch (d. David Cronenberg) – Wrote about it here.
Network (d. Sidney Lumet) – Seems kind of sarcastic to me.

The Nice Guys (d. Shane Black) – “I don’t think I can die!”

Night Moves (d. Arthur Penn) – Possibly my favorite ending to any 70s thriller.

Nightmare Alley (d. Edmund Goulding) – I will admit to wishing this had ended maybe one minute earlier. The line it should have closed on is still a punch in the face, though.

Nil by Mouth (d. Gary Oldman) – Ray Winstone. Goddamn.

The Ninth Configuration (d. William Peter Blatty) – The spiritual flip of The Exorcist. But same investigation, and same conclusion.

No Country for Old Men (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – The aesthetic thrill is still there, but this film now depresses me so much that the last time I tried watching it, I couldn’t make it through. This is a compliment.

No Home Movie (d. Chantal Akerman) – I think I’ve been doomed to think about this film once a day for the rest of my life. And the guy who says this doesn’t count as a movie can fuck off.

Nosferatu (d. F. W. Murnau) – Wrote about it here (sort of).

Nosferatu – Phantom der Nacht (d. Werner Herzog) Wrote about it there (sort of).

Nostalghia (d. Andrei Tarkovsky) – Wrote about it here.

Notorious (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – Of Hitchcock’s truly great films, this seems like the most underappreciated. Watch it again, it’s stupendous.

Nymphomaniac (d. Lars Von Trier) – Yeah, you heard me.