Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Dancing Image in 2008

[update 1/3: see the "Fellow Travelers" section for an entry from Like Anna Karina's Sweater. I've also updated The Cooler with a post I originally intended to mention.]

As promised, this is the last post of the year. As the title indicates, I'm taking a look back at the past year of blogging, at least since July 16, when The Dancing Image began. But I also want to give a nod to my "fellow travelers" - so I've included favorite posts from all those on my blogroll. Take your time & keep coming back to explore the links, as this post should be atop my blog for a while.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

December Overlook

Thanks to all the readers who made December a great month for The Dancing Image - I received astute and enthusiastic comments on almost every post, but two especially (The Way We Weren't: Art Under Bush and Shine on You Crazy Diamonds...). I've also installed a Blog Patrol to keep track of my numbers and the two aforementioned articles were by far the two most popular. However, in keeping with tradition, I'm going to offer up my monthly "overlook" - five posts which did not receive any comments and/or little traffic. Thanks again for keeping it interesting here - your comments are greatly appreciated - and I hope you will enjoy the following "pieces": a stand-alone You Tube clip, two retrospectives stuffed with clips, and two brief reviews of interesting films. In the next few days, I will put up my final post of the year, a colossal bevy of links - to what I consider my own best writing, to great entries from friends and heroes in the blogsophere, and to my own original series, entries in memes and blog-a-thons, and other miscellany. Until then, enjoy these posts:

1. Apropos of Nothing
A simple clip of one of my favorite endings in cinema history, from Michelangelo Antonioni's deeply flawed but finally mesmerizing Zabriskie Point.

2. THE AUTEURS - D.W. Griffith
The capstone to my first completed Auteur series, this features links to all the Griffith films I reviewed, an unconventional analysis of the director's career, and various video clips of his work.

3. A Quick One - 1969
My thoughts on an odd but mostly enjoyable little movie - a 60s flashback starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey, Jr.

4. A Quick One - The Mortal Storm
My thoughts on message movies, Margaret Sullavan, and the one glaring flaw in the movie's conception of Nazi Germany.

5. Astaire and Rogers
Check this out especially if you haven't seen any of Fred and Ginger's movies, because it's a great introduction - it features all thirty-five of their onscreen dances.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Astaire and Rogers

Many months in the making, this post is actually relatively simple: it chronicles every Astaire-Rogers dance in every Astaire-Rogers movie. If you had asked me as recently as this summer, "Whom do you prefer - Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?" I would have positively responded, "Kelly." Though I still admire him, my new reaction to Astaire, whose appeal I didn't really "get" (connecting more with Kelly's athletic hoofing than Astaire's more genteel, seemingly effortless tapping), has shifted completely. Actually, it was Ginger Rogers who gave me my entry into the world of Astaire-Rogers, or Fred and Ginger, as we think of their characters. Taken with her in Stage Door, and then in Carefree, I was soon making my way through all ten of the duo's musicals, many of which were aired on TCM this fall, the others of which I caught up with on Netflix. So much has been written about them, and I have so little to offer in the technical department, that my own thoughts are kept to a minimum, a few observations followed by the videos. None of Fred's solos are included; often they are wonderful, even highlights of the films in question, but I decided just to focus on the pairings (with a few exceptions, all of which feature both of them acting if not dancing). The clips (a few of which contain multiple dances) appear after the jump. [update 5/1: originally this post featured You Tube clips, but they were deleted so quickly that, frustrated repeatedly, I gave up trying to be comprehensive...for the time being. Now I have replaced the original clips with selections ripped, cut, and posted by me. Enjoy.]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Came Running & Kiss Me Deadly

"You get on the merry-go-round and think you can get off any old time, but then it starts going too fast."

-Gabrielle, Kiss Me Deadly

The image of the merry-go-round is appropriate. Although there is no carousel in Kiss Me Deadly, the finale of Some Came Running features the full carnival assortment - merry-go-round, ferris wheel, various other whirligigs - as a backdrop for sudden violence. And both films feature impatient, restless characters who suddenly find themselves spinning out of control - it's all they can do to hang on for dear life as the machinery of modern life becomes too overwhelming. Some Came Running is a widescreen color melodrama, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Frank Sinatra as an ex-G.I. inadvertently returned to his old hometown, where he decides to stick around (partly out of spite for his respectable, anxiety-ridden older brother). Kiss Me Deadly is a black-and-white late-stage noir, which positions itself on the sleazy streets of L.A. and sends the brutish private dick Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) on a rendezvous with the apocalypse. Both films, quintessential fifties movies in their own unique ways, recall the forties and anticipate the sixties. Both climax with acts of destruction which the respective films have been quietly building towards, but which nonetheless shock with their all-out assault on the viewer's senses. And both films use bodies of water, a vast river in Some Came Running, and the waves of an angry seashore in Kiss Me Deadly, to hint at the wider world which exists beyond their own claustrophobic borders.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Quick One - Fire in the Sky

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

I was intrigued enough by this film to want to write a full-length review. But time is short, so a quick one, my last quick one of the day/weekend/month/year, will have to do. Fire in the Sky came out in 1993 and became one of those films/TV shows (like "The X-Files") that I was obsessed with as a kid, without actually seeing. I think I wasn't allowed. Now, having finally caught up with, I have to admit I can see why. It's the ostensibly true story of a logger abducted by aliens - or so his friends say. Actually, most of the film deals with the abductee's buddies facing increasingly skeptical law officers and suspicious townsfolk. This could seem a drag of you're expecting two hours of whiz-bang sci-fi spectacle, but actually it adds an interesting human element to the story, as well as some suspense (admittedly artificial, if you know anything about this story going in). When Travis Walton finally returns, naked and barely able to speak, stranded at a gas station, we still don't know what happened. Only in the final minutes do we get a flashback - about twenty minutes of gruesome, compulsively watchable footage. The aliens look great (the first stereotypical look we get turns out to be their innocuous space suits; the real guys are, um, not pretty). And the ensuing torment Walton endures will disabuse anyone of warm and fuzzy views on interplanetary contact. However, the scene does end abruptly and one wonders if it was trimmed to avoid an R rating - regardless, it pushes the boundaries. Whether or not you believe in this sort of thing, Fire in the Sky will make you decide you never want to be abducted by aliens; it's the anti-Close Encounters and the anti-E.T. Which makes it quite the delectable irony that Henry Thomas was cast as one of the loggers though, unfortunately, not the abductee. Now that would have been the casting coup of the century.

A Quick One - The Wicker Man

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

I don't want to say too much to spoil this movie for those of you who haven't seen it. It finds that shifting border between what makes you laugh and what makes you scared shitless, and then dances back and forth over it to an upbeat folksy pagan tune, dressed like Christopher Lee in drag. Certain sequences, like the "Landlord's Daughter" song-and-dance in the pub, are borderline Monty Python. Other sequences cultivate a more foreboding air of dread than any slasher film you could care to name from the past three decades. I understand they remade this a couple years ago. I can't imagine it captures the original's near-deadpan exploration of primal horror with a smiling face. Supposedly this film was originally intended to be much longer. To this day, the creators rue the fact that much of their footage was lost in a freak accident. I feel sorry we don't have outtakes available, but I think the film is perfect in its short form - retaining the quality of a warped little parable. Is The Wicker Man a nihilistic assault on Christian values? Or does it uphold these values and christen a modern-day saint in its final moments? You should see this movie and decide for yourself.

A Quick One - The Country Girl

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

Although it's Grace Kelly who won the Oscar (for improbably - yet somewhat successfully - playing down her beauty to appear dowdy), Bing Crosby dominates The Country Girl. The Clifford Odets script (based on his own play) is often overbearing in its histrionics and the behavior of Kelly and William Holden, playing his trademark vulnerable cynic, whose blistering misogyny may mask more conflicted feelings about Kelly, often feels forced. They seem to be struggling against the material, whose convolution and cerebral, belabored misery grows exhausting. Whereas Bing floats buoyantly on the surface of his characters' pathos - as a wretched, self-loathing alcoholic actor (given a second chance by Holden's producer), he's nonetheless smooth and clever while being pathetic and self-pitying at the same time. Director George Seaton must deserve some credit (unless you believe, with Tom Stempel, that only screenwriters and actors need create a performance) - he's tapped into the troubled waters beneath Bing's placid surface, while managing to expose the malicious manipulation inherent in the old crooner's smooth demeanor. One of the best scenes finds Crosby in a bar, drowning himself in another shot of whiskey, only to perk up and turn around in his seat when the bar singer wanders in his direction, singing along and effortlessly stealing her thunder with cocky good cheer and false humility. There's pain in those eyes, but there's also a ruthlessness, and they're inseparable, and he knows it, and he relishes and deplores the fact at the same time. The character is always performing and that hint of desperation in his face, coupled with a devilish delight, is there because he doesn't know how to stop, or where performance ends and reality begins.

A Quick One - The Mortal Storm

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

"Message" movies are usually looked down upon, and often with some justification. But there are different sorts of movies, which deliver different sorts of messages. There are some which are cloaked in an overbearing sense of self-righteousness, a complacency borne of "being in the right." And then there are others, like The Mortal Storm, which may be somewhat naive in their good-heartedness, but which move you, in part because of that very naivitee. Fashioned with quietly poetic grace by Frank Borzage in 1940, but set in 1933, The Mortal Storm is anti-Nazi at a time when many elements in America were flirting with unscrupulous neutrality. More importantly, it does not show the rise of Nazism in the halls of power, or amongst diverse groups in an urban environment, but in a small mountain town, within a single family. It allows us to soak in this warm domestic environment, slowly, before the pall of fascism has fallen over this town and this way of life. The film exudes a quiet, noble desperation rather than a florid, chest-thumping heroism and it ends up exhibiting a painful sorrow. Its primary flaw is that it does not identify its protagonists as Jewish - though this fact is so apparent, perhaps one could argue that the dialogue's denial only adds an extra shade of poignancy. Although I didn't notice it, the country in the movie is never once referred to as Germany. The conceit is completely absurd, as the country in the movie is demonstrably Germany.* The film cannot be pegged as an allegory when the swastika is featured prominently, and the name "Hitler" is unmistakably invoked. James Stewart is good in what could potentially be a one-dimensional, thankless role (the good farm boy who never buys into Nazism). But the real star of the picture is Margaret Sullavan. Before seeing this film, I didn't really "get" her appeal. That's now changed. Her wounded, luminous expressiveness adds another shade of poignancy to that already invoked by the sweetly, sadly good-hearted screenplay and a tragedy-tinged performance by Frank Morgan as her befuddled father, a kind of tragic twin to his beloved Professor Marvell.

*This is incorrect - the country is referred to as Germany several times.

A Quick One - 1969

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

An offbeat, overlooked movie from the late eighties - at which point the baby boomers were on the cusp of middle age and the sixties were just recent enough to seem familiar, long enough ago to foster warm nostalgia. This was the time of "The Wonder Years," Field of Dreams, and the Beatles catalogue hitting CD. To my pleasant surprise, 1969 (directed by the writer of the widely-considered-sentimental-hogwash On Golden Pond, unseen by me) is initially a kind of anti-myth. Much as I love the nostalgic wallowing of boomers (and I do, kind of - my parents were of that generation, and their photo albums provide endless fascination), it's refreshing to be reminded that not everyone was tripping on Haight-Ashbury. At first glance, 1969 has all the generational touchstones. There's pot-smoking, LSD-dropping, passionate student speeches against the war, riots on campus, hitchhiking through the countryside, older brothers going off to Vietnam, the moon landing on TV. But each of these touchstones is gently subverted and we're surprised to discover that Scott (Kiefer Sutherland), who looks like a hippie, is sex-shy and nervous about drugs, while Ralph (Robert Downey, Jr.), who freaks out on acid and is the more openly rebellious of the two friends, wears the letterman jacket of a jock, and is, homesick, the first to bail out of Scott's free-spirited cross-country jaunt. When Neil Armstrong steps onto the lunar surface, only the uptight father (Bruce Dern, much more at home in this context than as an acid trip guide/guru) is in front of the TV to shout an unconvincing, "Yeah!" However, despite its charm, plot is not 1969's strong point and we wind up with embarrassing speechifying and a pathetically trite denouement: old'uns & young'uns joining forces to oppose the war (though there's never any discussion of the issues at stake; it's just taken for granted that Vietnam is "wrong"). Just stop the film at the point when Winona Ryder, cute as hell, flashes a peace sign at a passing convoy of soldiers. Did I mention she was in this? Actually, this scene exhibits a mixture of romanticism, ambivalence, and ambiguity which the remainder of the picture sadly eschews. Would have been a good closer.

A Quick One - Behind the scenes of Reflections in a Golden Eye

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

My thoughts on Reflections in a Golden Eye, a very bizarre film which could either be a surreal gem or a grotesque disaster - I'm not sure yet - will have to wait for another occasion. Perhaps after I read the Carson McCullers book and discover the original context for what comes off as, by and large, wilful obscurity on the screen. Or perhaps if/when I reach John Huston in the Auteurs series (was he an auteur? consider the series' title more a question than a statement). Anyway, when the movie was over, I perused the special features. There was only one to speak of, "behind-the-scenes" footage from the Reflections set in 1966. It lasted 25 minutes, accompanied by some plangent music, essentially a drawn-out home movie of all the tedium that takes place on a film set. And I loved every minute of it - truth be told, I found it far more compelling than the feature attraction. Elizabeth Taylor bundles up against the cold, Huston rushes in to show her just how he wants her to lean against a post. She disappears into a trailer which reads "Elizabeth Taylor Burton." Brando paces around, occasionally laughing in a show of humor that is altogether absent from his performance. A stand-in for Taylor, hair done up with the same headband, nervously watches crew members at work, seeming to hope that someone will speak to her and ask what they can do to help her career along. Morning mist shrouds the horse farm, Huston reads a newspaper with headlines about a Viet Cong attack, grips yank a car by ropes so that the sound of the engine won't disrupt dialogue recording. The music and the lack of sound accomplish a poignant distancing effect, and overall we seem to be peering into a vanished, yet briefly reborn, moment. Much as I love fiction films and structured documentaries, sometimes I wonder if film's greatest, most moving potential isn't fulfilled within the realm of the home movie. Call it "reflections in a camera eye."

A Quick One - Australia

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

Standing at the box office, I hesitated. Milk wasn't playing until 10:00, too late, as I was expecting an early morning. Meanwhile, there was Australia, ready to start in a few minutes. And yet...reviews and my own inclinations had led me to believe I would not like it. But I had to see something; as with many other New Englanders, I'd lost power (it would be out for several days, by the end of which, unable to prepare food, freezing with lack of heat, I was forced to eat my cat...just kidding. Though sometimes I suspect if he was big enough, he'd eat me. So I don't feel so bad making jokes like this.) Anyway, Australia. My suspicions were proven correct. Though the opening minutes promised a colorful, magically-tinged adventure, I was in for a disappointment. Australia was turgid, tedious, and silly, with cuts accumulating so fast that you couldn't get a bead on the action. Too much CGI too, but that's a given these days. Anyhow, the kid was all right, and I liked the idea of tying his hopes and dreams in to The Wizard of Oz - though clips from that movie only made me long for the classical clarity of a Victor Fleming. And now I hear that Baz Luhrman wants to direct The Great Gatsby...to which I can only say, may my boat bear me back ceaselessly into the past, because I don't think I can deal with this future...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Way We Weren't: Art Under Bush


"A cloying cliché presented as profundity" - so Peter Plagens, Newsweek art critic, describes Jeff Koons' Hanging Heart and, by turn, the Bush era in Newsweek's recent article, "The Way We Were: Art and Culture In the Bush Era." One could add that it's also a particularly apt description of what passes for socio-cultural criticism these days, with the contents of Newsweek's run-down providing the latest example. The article's opening reads, "If artists depend on angst and unrest to fuel their creative fire, then at least in one sense the 43rd presidency has been a blessing." The implication is that somehow the Zeros have been a bonanza of cultural expression, angry fist-waving at our social conditions, a constant artistic outcry at the folly of our times. This is, of course, absurd, and to be fair, many of Newsweek's critics take a different tack, highlighting - as Plagens does with Koons' Heart - the ways in which glib, narcissistic, or tacky art has inadvertently reflected the ethos of the epoch. Yet even here their critique is problematic, for if the arts are thrown in the lion's den with our much-maligned president, the castigators largely refrain from applying the same vitriol towards themselves, the cultural (and mostly liberal) establishment, or us, the American people. Reading this article stirred up a variety of thoughts and feelings, criticisms which both reflected the writing and responded to it. The rest of my reaction follows after the jump.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE AUTEURS - D.W. Griffith

Was D.W. Griffith a surprisingly modern auteur at times, even a proto-neorealist in the end? Was his true stroke of genius a powerful control of the intimate, rather than majestic command of spectacle? Did his career effectively end in the teens; what do his later works have to say to us? I'm concluding my first Auteurs series with links to my other entries, my own analysis of Griffith's career and aesthetic development, and several clips to illustrate the master at work.

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)
Biograph shorts, Part One & Part Two (1908-1913)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Intolerance (1916)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
True Heart Susie (1919)
Way Down East (1920)
Orphans of the Storm (1921)
America (1924)
Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
The Battle of the Sexes (1928)
Abraham Lincoln (1930)
The Struggle (1931)

Proceed through the jump for more...

Walt Disney On the Front Lines

(Follow the links to see the shorts themselves.)

A few years ago, Disney finally released wartime propaganda cartoons that had been tied up in its vaults for decades. As part of the Walt Disney Treasures series, the "Walt Disney On the Front Lines" DVD collects several entertainment and educational cartoon shorts (some of which have been available) and the largely unseen feature Victory Through Air Power, introduced in maudlin, overlit fashion by a perpetually cheery Leonard Maltin (some of these introductions are, maddeningly, unskippable). The collection fascinates because it represents a studio -and a country- at the crossroads.

Milk

A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining biopic, Milk is a minor success - not a great film, but a very good one. When it opened with Sean Penn, as the trailblazing gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, at a cluttered kitchen table, theatrically clearing his throat and speaking with mannered precision into a small tape recorder, I winced. Penn is obviously an extremely skilled actor, but one who often slips out of the director's grasp. He's prone to grandstanding, mannerisms, and overinflated intensity, so that even when his performance is superficially nuanced and subtle, he's still overbearing. Perhaps this scene was shot first, or perhaps Penn overburdened it with pathos because it's a framing device; either way, it's not at all indicative of the rest of his performance, in which the requisite emotions and style and intelligence of the portrayal belong to the character, not the actor.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shine On You Crazy Diamonds...



Originally this piece contained video clips. They may be restored in the future, but for now the list consists of pictures only.

Suppose I come across an unseen film on the television schedule (this scenario is not so hypothetical). Assuming that I don't recognize the title, I may hit the information button, to call up a plot summary. If the story sounds interesting, I may set a recording. Likewise if the director's name (too seldom listed) places the sight unseen within the auteurist pantheon. But a better barometer than either of these criteria is the appeal of the leading lady...the luminescence of the movie star who presides over the proceedings. Rita, Marilyn, Lana, Audrey...any of these names will certainly trigger a not entirely intellectual excitement and anticipation. Pronto, the movie is selected. Likewise with Netflix, the video store, and even the movie theater on occasion, though sadly few - actually, none - of the faces gracing this entry can be found on the not-so-silver screen of the twenty-first century.

Invited by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder and Ibetolis at Film for the Soul to participate in the 20 Actresses meme (originated by Nathaniel R. at Film Experience), I humbly submit my own very subjective listing, in rough ascending order, accompanied by a picture and the name of a representative film.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Enemy of the State

Enemy of the State, an entertaining 1998 thriller, retains interest today for two reasons: the way it points forward and the way it points back. Chronicling, with breakneck turn-of-the-millennium pacing, a burgeoning surveillance society, the film was connected to the Ken Star investigation by relevancy-seeking critics. Within a few years, the context would change completely and now Enemy of the State seems incredibly prophetic. Between its proto-Patriot Act legislation (for whose sake congressmen are murdered) and its talk of a database that flags any caller who uses the word "Allah", viewers tuning in on a 2008 TV would be forgiven for thinking the movie came out several years ago. Or at least for a moment, anyway; the movie does feature a very 90s cast, from a young Will Smith to a pre-fame Jack Black in a small role to a pre-prison Tom Sizemore (speaking of pre-prison, A Bronx Tale star Lillo Brancato gets practice for his own day in court as one of Smith's clients) to a post-"Cosby" Lisa Bonet and ubiquitous 90s brats like Seth Green thrown in for good measure (so ubiquitous he goes uncredited). While we're at it, the film's cast is almost absurdly populated by recognizable faces. Besides the aforementioned, Jason Robards and Philip Baker Hall make uncredited cameos, and supporting roles are snatched up by Jon Voight, Regina King, Barry Pepper, Jason Lee, Gabriel Byrne, Jamie Kennedy, an inquisitive Larry King, and even James Caan's and Gary Busey's kids (what, did they come in a package deal?). But besides Smith, the biggest star in the movie receives second billing and doesn't show up for the first hour and a half. He's the reason that the movie looks back as well as forward, and though his character's name is not Harry Caul, it's obvious that Gene Hackman (or else Tony Scott's casting director) is winking at those who remember The Conversation.

The Conversation

In a way, The Conversation is an ironic title. Oh sure, the plot of the film centers around a private conversation recorded by professional surveillance man Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, here old enough to look middle-aged, but young enough to retain some baby fat around his perpetually dumbfounded visage). Yet so many of the film's striking moments occur during long patches of silence. Well, not silence exactly, given the film's acute soundtrack (cinema's finest ever? It's up there). But dialogue-less, to be sure. And even when there is dialogue, as at the wiretappers' convention or post-convention party, or in the hedging verbal jousts between Harry and a young executive assistant (Harrison Ford, looking remarkably pampered and smug), or even in the poignant pleading Harry delivers to a divorcee at his party and later to the object of his spying in a dream (both exchanges are very one-sided), there is hardly enough back-and-forth or connection between the speakers to call any of these dialogues a "conversation." Perhaps, then, the title is not so ironic - given the paucity of real contact in Harry's world, the importance of that brief, cryptic exchange (recorded in the first scene and re-played throughout) only grows in Harry's mind, until it dominates every waking thought and action. That the conversation may contain potentially fatal information is merely the excuse for Harry's deeper fascination with material which could potentially pull him out of his own self-imposed isolation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Parallax View

Many years ago, when AMC was the province of actual movie classics I stumbled across an unexpected, disturbing surprise. Keep in mind this was well before the channel began playing Commando and Legend in endless, commercial-ridden loops; I was used to seeing movies like For Whom the Bell Tolls or old 40s serials when I flipped by. But on this night - and I remember that it was night and I was watching TV alone - the image on AMC had an eerie unknowability. A light dimmed, a voice instructed the viewer to sit back, and a montage began. Still images of a baby, of a warm family, of the flag, of trees with shafts of light flowing through - accompanied by simple one-word titles, white lettering on black background: "Me," "family," "country," "God." The music is happy but with a slightly ethereal edge, a suggestion of pain lingering in the restrained but lush orchestration and even the deep voice humming along. This tinge of sadness is highlighted as we see brief snatches of Hitler accompanied by the word, "Enemy." OK, evil is out there, but it's elsewhere. We're safe. Right? New images, black-and-white now, of wrinkled faces - an old man at the plow. Fallow ground. A beleaguered mother with wanton children gathering in a broken doorway. The music darkens - begins to acknowledge the pain that was lingering beneath. Now "me" is not a pink baby, basking in the shaft of light filtered through a protective window, but a naked body huddled on a broken-down bed in the fetal position, lonely, alone, broken. These are darker images, but they are not all dark in the same way - some suggest physical or economic hardship, some emotional or psychological weakness, others an outside evil - confusingly intercut with what was once good, until all distinctions become harder and harder to parse. Our security and comfort has been stripped, a raw nerve touched, chaos comes pouring into the void. Anger, sadness, fear, alienation, isolation, insanity vie for our attention. How do we make sense of this madness? Sexuality is introduced - blurred naked bodies, both erotic and cold, in another of those black-and-white photographs which seem to denote a harsher, more raw reality. A father chases his naked son down a hallway - a comic image? An abusive one? There's too much information, coming too fast, hitting our senses from all different angles, leaving us battered and defenseless. Comic-book heroes and villains jut in amongst the Klansmen and fallen leaders - King, Kennedy - Thor and a red demon, intercut with speeding bullets which thrust into the frame with phallic power. Power - a myth of self-empowerment, the only way out of this shiftless, directionless zone of consciousness, where good is evil is good and sick thoughts come marauding through good, clean, wholesome, upright values, leaving everything upturned. Power in the thrust of a gun, the bigness and simplicity of a comic book, the congealed chaos of the music, growing and swelling with discordant notes and a rising theme. Power! Me! The lights come up.

What the hell did I just see???

Twin Peaks: Beyond Life and Death


SEASON 2, EPISODE 22 - THE FINALE
-Episode 29 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels


"!wow, boB, woW"

As I sit here, wondering how to begin my final entry on "Twin Peaks," I'm reminded of the power of beginnings. This may seem ironic, since I'm here to close the curtain, not open it, on the brief but glorious TV series I've documented over seventeen episodes (and four months). But nothing satiates our anticipation like a good beginning. I recall several examples of this from my own viewing past. One derives from my immersion into Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales - as I popped Claire's Knee into the DVD player, aware of its marvelous premise but uncertain as to how it would extend this novel idea into a feature my curiosity was crystallized in an eager anticipation of the film's first scene. After the briefest of titles, Rohmer opened the film on a beautiful lake, with a figure in a motorboat speeding under a bridge, the camera following in admiring pursuit. Somehow this seemed thrilling, liberating - the journey had begun, and we, like the character onscreen, were the obverse of Fitzgerald's famous boater, borne ceaselessly into the future, rather than the past.

Another occasion which springs to mind occurred in a theater, surrounded by like-minded film lovers to worship at one of cinema's great Holy Grails: the 13-hour Out 1, unseen by all but a (self-?)chosen few in the history of film. How, I wondered, will Jacques Rivette pull us into the movie? What will we see first? How will he commandeer our attention, and initiate our descent into a world which exists partially onscreen, partially in our own imaginations? The thrill of cinema, and perhaps all art but maybe especially cinema, is that it unequivocally provides this answer; it is a mystery to which there is a certain, tangible solution, which we await with bated breath. And Rivette began with a jolt, a group of people bending over backwards to a clanging drumbeat, stretching their bodies in anticipation of a wild, spontaneous dance.

A similar anticipation gripped me when I launched the final disc of "Twin Peaks." This was the last time an episode would ever be able to surprise me, and knowing it was the series finale, I was almost certain that David Lynch would be directing. Recalling previous outings only heightened the suspense. The premiere with its eerie lakefront cabin and those mini-monolithic black dogs (never to be seen again; but for what it's worth, the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack informs us that they run at night). The "dream" episode which begins with a long (long, long, long) silent dinner, awkward but mostly ordinary except for the man in an Indian headdress perched atop a chair in the corner. The season two premiere with its painfully unproductive encounter between a wounded Cooper and an oblivious old waiter. The series climax, in which Laura's killer is revealed, and we open on an early morning line-up of our oddball good guys (from Hawk to Coop to the one-armed man) sipping coffee and munching silently on doughnuts.

All these first scenes featured certain commonalities: they were long, often extending for several minutes in one take; they were usually silent, allowing the credits to roll out before a character spoke; and they were distanced - wide shots, sometimes with several characters, sometimes with one character or object, but always held at a remove even (as with the premiere) when they were in close-up. So what's in store now? After the theme unfolds for the last time, over bobbing bird and spinning saw and flowing river, we fade up on...an establishing shot. It's the sheriff's office. Hmmm, a rather conventional choice for David Lynch, no? Actually, watching the episode a second time, I was surprised to see this, because all I had remembered was what came next.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Strike

The title of this post does not refer to my (unintentional) absence from this blog - though 5 days is by far the longest sabbatical I've taken since starting up in July. It's not that I don't have anything to write about it - indeed, I've pretty much got the rest of December mapped out: a "paranoia" series featuring The Parallax View, The Conversation, and the 90s Will Smith movie Enemy of the State (which is bizarrely a semi-spin off of The Conversation); the conclusions to the Auteurs and "Twin Peaks" series; a few write-ups on recent DVDs I've purchased or received as gifts (my 25th birthday passed not so long ago) - Some Came Running, Kiss Me Deadly, and the long-promised Disney World War II cartoons; and perhaps a series of shorter-than-usual reviews on films I've seen in the past few weeks but didn't take the time to write up: the weirdly enjoyable buddy flick Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the amazing Bing Crosby alcoholic performance in The Country Girl, and maybe even the intriguing but as-yet-unseen Notes from Underground, a modern update of one of my favorite novels, starring Sheryl Lee whom I've yet to see in anything other than a David Lynch project (she of course is the reason I discovered and Netflix'd the movie, way back in August). So anyway, as you can see, there's plenty on the back burner which will be tackled before I take an even longer break for Christmas and New Years, returning in 2009 for all kinds of fun & games which I'll avoid previewing now. Why the avoidance of blogging if I have all this raw material? Blame it on the aftereffects of whatever that chemical is in the Thanksgiving turkey - I was too tired to engage. Or something. At any rate, if my absence was a "strike," it's now coming to an end with - appropriately enough - Strike, the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein debut.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Apropos of Something

Namely, a forthcoming review. I first saw this scene on AMC years ago and was blown away - I didn't know what movie I was watching. If you don't either, watch the embedded clip rather than clicking to the YouTube link...it's more interesting that way. And skip to 0:58 for the full surprise effect.



Monday, December 1, 2008

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story


"My God, what have I done?!"
--David Byrne

He bares his teeth like a rodent, stinks up the political discourse like a skunk, and attacks opponents with the ferocity of a wolverine (Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman's physical and temperamental analogy). So why is Lee Atwater so charismatic? I'd heard plenty about Atwater before seeing this documentary. I knew he masterminded George Bush's cleverly nasty '88 campaign, trivialized the political process by focusing on cultural non-issues, and was an eminent master of the art of (just barely) plausible deniability. I knew that he recanted his dirty tricks from his death bed, before succumbing to a brain tumor. I didn't know many of the details presented in this film, which I saw as an episode of "Frontline" (though it was created independently of the PBS series), but I knew the general contours. Yet I'd never seen Lee Atwater himself; oddly enough, despite my fascination with and knowledge of politics, I didn't even know what Atwater looked like. More importantly, I had never seen Lee Atwater in action, and the man's personality is as magnetic as his actions are infuriating. This is the fascinating story about a fascinating man. And the structure of his life is almost too neat, too diagrammatically perfect, so that when it's over it leaves us wondering if we've been had yet again.

Apropos of Nothing

Sunday, November 30, 2008

November Overlook

What are you looking at?

Well, in this case, my monthly round-up of (somewhat) overlooked posts. Actually November was a very good month for this blog; a number of posts spurred interesting discussions - from a variety of readers - and almost all got at least a comment or two. Nonetheless, allow me to highlight a few of my reflections one last time. Feel free to revisit these entries and leave a fresh comment - your thoughts are always appreciated. Here they are, starting with the piece of writing I'm most proud of (while conveniently leaving out the ones I'm least proud of...):

1. The Magnificent Ambersons
"The shots which open Ambersons fire off in a soft volley of delicate yet robust missiles - a hail of half-remembered trinkets and hazy memories, softened at the edges like some 19th century daguerreotype."

2. Free-form Fairy Tales: A Tex Avery Trio
"I've got a few things to say about each, but the cartoons speak loudly and proudly for themselves, so I'll follow my comments with You Tube feeds of each. Ahem...Once upon a time..."

3. The Choice (with an election-night follow-up in my final comment)
"It is, among other things, a tale of two cities. Or at least, that's how it starts."

4. Twin Peaks: Lonely Souls (needless to say, avoid this review like the plague if you've yet to watch "Twin Peaks")
"In this way, Lynch pulls the rug out from under the lurid bloodlust of his audience: you want murder and evil and terror? I'll give you murder and evil and terror. And we get it."

5. The Struggle
"As the mother runs down the street, racing towards her degraded husband's flop house, her daughter's note flapping her hands, and real homeless and poor men and women scowling on the bustling sidewalks behind her, it's an old Griffith 'race to the finish' with a twist, Intolerance by way of De Sica."

The month can be roughly divided into three sections. First, the days leading up to and including November 4, when I culminated my election series (summed up in the Election Overlook). Then came a breather, in which - after a long series of political docs - I watched and reviewed whatever I felt like, including the infectious Disney version of Three Little Pigs, the strange yet charming Dear Brigitte, in which James Stewart and Brigitte Bardot share screentime with a child prodigy, the compelling rough early Kubrick gem The Killing (which sparked lots of great commentary), my first Anthony Mann Western - The Naked Spur, and the fascinating Trip, which sparked an enthusiastic rumination on the sixties. I also found time to delve into my random thoughts on Quantum of Solace (though my own reflections on Bond are scattershot, I linked up to some incredibly cogent and/or provocative writing on the subject - here, here, here, and here). Oh, yes, I also took a shot at the ubiquitous Alphabet Meme and wrote up a few silent movie stars (including Lloyd, Keaton, and a certain ancient Jewish prince).

Finally, the last few weeks were spent finishing up two ongoing series: the Auteurs investigation of D.W. Griffith (including his work with W.C. Fields, his first "modern" movie, and his first talkie) and the continuing episode-by-episode analysis of "Twin Peaks" (from the season two opener to the closing of the Laura Palmer case). Both series await one final entry each in early December - a collection of Griffith You Tube clips & ephemera and a visit to the Black Lodge with Agent Cooper - but in anticipation, feel free to peruse the archives.

Well, I seem to have worked in links to nearly every post I've written, so I'll stop there. Keep on commenting - in the Thanksgiving spirit, your readership is appreciated.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Struggle

The Struggle (1931) was D.W. Griffith's last feature film. He was fifty-six years old when it was released and it had only been sixteen years since he stood astride the film world with the breakthrough Birth of a Nation. Griffith would live another seventeen years, occasionally working on the margins of the industry, under pseudonyms, but that proud opening title, "personally directed by D.W. Griffith" was never to be seen again. And by reputation, The Struggle seems an ignominious end to an illustrious career. The film flopped so badly that some newspaper accounts have it disappearing from theaters within a week. Critics savaged it, and the movie was simultaneously decried as too old-fashioned and too "Soviet" (the latter argument, apparently based on the title yet unfathomable given the film's content, only offers further proof that no one went to see it). The Struggle ended Griffith's career not with a bang, but a whimper.

So imagine my surprise upon discovering the film today. Tacked onto the Abraham Lincoln disc as an addendum (and together, these films were only released two weeks ago), it arrived unheralded and I wasn't expecting much. But The Struggle is not only Griffith's best available film since Way Down East, it's one of his best, period. The movie has its flaws, but is far superior to the more widely acknowledged Abraham Lincoln, which was Griffith's first talkie. Lincoln feels like a silent film with dialogue superimposed, whereas The Struggle is surprisingly modern - in everything from its use of sound to its performances to its photography. This is an astonishing and impressive work of art, all the more so for being unusual in Griffith's canon.

Twin Peaks: Arbitrary Law


SEASON 2, EPISODE 9
-Episode 16 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Tim Hunter
written by Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels


"So now the sadness comes. The revelation. There is a depression after an answer is given. It was almost fun not knowing. Yes, now we know. At least we know what we sought in the beginning. But there is still the question, why? And this question will go on and on until the final answer comes. Then the knowing is so full, there is no room for questions."

Since this is effectively the end of "Twin Peaks" as we know it, I've decided to break one of my rules. The above quote is not derived from the show proper, but rather from the Log Lady's introductions, which accompany each episode on the DVD. Usually these intros are so shrouded in obscurity as to be senseless. This one's fairly clear, but the "final answer" it promises doesn't quite arrive. Nonetheless, this is a decent conclusion to a story which has already reached its climax, a relatively satisfying denouement for the characters we've come to know and love. It is definitely flawed - its attempts to tie everything together are forced and a bit too pat, and the style is sometimes too far over-the-top. But it closes the book, and there's only so much it can to do to alleviate the definite truth of the Log Lady's third and fourth sentences.

Twin Peaks: Drive With a Dead Girl


SEASON 2, EPISODE 8
-Episode 15 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Caleb Deschanel
written by Scott Frost


"Diane, it's 11:05 pm. I'm in my room at the Great Northern Hotel. There's not a star in the sky tonight. Ben Horne is in custody. The trail narrows, Diane. I'm very close. But the last two steps are always the darkest and most difficult."

Episode 15 finds us roughly where we left off last time - or actually a little earlier. We are outside the Palmer home; it's the middle of the night. Despite the surrounding darkness, the windows are brightly lit - yet we cannot see inside. The foreboding music barely conceals muffled screams, which are extinguished with a loud thud. And then, silence. Something's happened here, but we're on the outside, held back. Of course, anyone who saw the previous episode knows about Maddy's murder - in full, violent detail - but it's telling that this time we're restrained from seeing it all. Episode 15 returns us to the show's more usual air, one of playful allusions to mayhem and murder, all from a tasteful distance and with a sense of humor, when necessary.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Seven Chances

Some of the greatest and most distinctive screen talents were often given rather flimsy material - since their qualities were so strong, a dance team like Astaire and Rogers or comedic geniuses like the Marx Brothers usually didn't require the highest concepts nor the most artful constructions within which to do their thing. Indeed, in vehicles like these the plot's primary purpose is not to get in the stars' way. Yet with Buster Keaton, almost every picture is not only a vehicle for his unique talents, but a clever high concept idea as well (not to mention the usually quite impressive formal qualities). Would anyone remake Top Hat without Fred and Ginger or A Night at the Opera without Groucho, Chico, and Harpo? Yet not so long ago, someone did remake Seven Chances, whose brilliant premise (a bachelor must marry by 7:00 or else lose his inheritance) promises to be a comedic gold mine. Now, I'm not saying it was wise of modern producers and screenwriters to invite comparisons between Chris O'Donnell and Buster Keaton. Nonetheless, it speaks to Buster's taste in ideas that, even without the comedic genius running in front of that army of brides-to-be, the story is worth retelling.

The Freshman & The Kid Brother

These two films, which arrived together on the same DVD, were my first introductions to Harold Lloyd, other than the famous clips I'd seen before (running down the field with the football in The Freshman, and of course hanging from the clock in Safety Last!). In the great debate between Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd is the also-ran, though in this at least he's doing better than someone like Harry Langdon, who's been more or less forgotten. If nothing else, that shot of Lloyd barely grasping the hand of a giant city clock, hanging perilously above the busy street below, is one of the indelible images of the silent era, ensuring Lloyd's place in screen history. But his persona was unique - not a knock-off of the Tramp or the Deadpan One, it was probably closer to that of your average (slightly dopey) American man, and certainly bares more than a passing resemblance to Woody Allen (at least as he presented himself in the early, funny ones).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Twin Peaks: Lonely Souls


SEASON 2, EPISODE 7
-Episode 14 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost


"We don't know what will happen, or when, but there are owls in the roadhouse."

"It is happening, again. It is happening, again."

The eye of the storm is calm, just as the ground of all being may be the void. Which is another way of saying that as it reaches the apex of its mystery, "Twin Peaks" achieves a discomforting Zen, an almost cold coolness within which violence is enacted and, hence, demystified. Even before we reach the climactic murder, by which the show's violent genesis finds its twin in a new and illuminating killing, there is a quavering depth to the proceedings. Oddly enough, the film version of "Twin Peaks," Fire Walk With Me, is raw with nervy intensity and acute pain, but in episode 14 of the series, as in Blue Velvet, director David Lynch finds a terrifyingly brutal emptiness at his story's center. The romance of the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer's death does not have a correspondence at the source, at least if this episode's follow-up murder is any indication. In this way, Lynch pulls the rug out from under the lurid bloodlust of his audience: you want murder and evil and terror? I'll give you murder and evil and terror. And we get it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is certainly an interesting film, but unfortunately most of the interest lies in its historical and auteurist connotations rather than in the film itself. It's a curiosity rather than a success. Still, it shows D.W. Griffith grappling with a fundamentally altered medium - this is his first sound film - and if it's often creaky and dated, it's really not all that bad for an early talkie. Actually its problems lie not so much in the technique - though it's a bit stilted, Griffith seems to have taken to sound rather easily - but in structure. Its problems haven't changed much in 80 years: the biopic is still a risky and haphazard genre. By relaying a pile-on of incidents in Lincoln's life and career, this movie (like many which followed in its wake) feels less like a cohesive album than a Greatest Hits collection, and one in which the recordings are often muddy and indistinct. Still, Walter Huston offers one of the best Lincolns ever to grace the screen and Griffith crafts some effective sequences in his penultimate feature.

Twin Peaks: Demons


SEASON 2, EPISODE 6
-Episode 13 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
written by Harley Peyton & Robert Engels


"He is Bob, eager for fun. He wears a smile, everybody run! Do you understand the parasite? It attaches itself to a life form and feeds. Bob requires a human host. He feeds on fear and the pleasures. They are his children. I am similar to Bob. We once were partners...Oh, but then I saw the face of God and was purified. Took off the arm but remained close to this vessel, inhabiting from time to time for one single purpose...To stop him! This is his true face but few can see it. The gifted...and the DAMNED!"

The air is charged in Twin Peaks, and you can sense a pent-up energy in everything onscreen, from the opening close-up of a luminous orchid to the closing words of a demonically-possessed one-armed man, reprinted above (their spine-tingling magnificence is greatly enhanced by the rising timbre of Al Strobel's illustrious baritone). You just know something's in the works - it's there in the way Donna and James rekindle their love as Maddy watches, saddened but dignified. Or the involuntary recoiling of Audrey Horne from her father's touch, now that she's back in the safety of the Great Northern with her guardian angel/special agent watching over her. Or in the chords of the "Twin Peaks" theme, rarely heard outside the opening credits, as Maddy tells James she enjoyed being seen as Laura, but now it's time for her to go home. Or even in the supposedly lighter moments, as Bobby and Shelly party with a comatose Leo (they seem more like the kids they really are than at any time since last season), or when the mysteriously waxen Japanese financier Tojamura encounters a drunken Pete and they're weirdly simpatico (even as Tojamura admonishes Pete, "I find adherence to fantasy troubling...and unreasonable."). It's in small gestures, as when Leland Palmer absentmindedly pulls tufts of white fur off the stuffed fox in Benjamin Horne's office, before depositing them in his shirt pocket. It's in David Lynch's cameo as FBI boss Gordon Cole, the weird black-and-white flowing river imagery that appears under the opening credit, and that sharp cut to the Great Northern, looking for all the world like an evil jack-o-lantern, windows lit up, cloaked in the evening mist and, as one-armed Mike has just told us, home to Bob in his present form.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Twin Peaks: The Orchid's Curse


SEASON 2, EPISODE 5
-Episode 12 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Graeme Clifford
written by Barry Pullman


"Are you looking for secrets? Is that what this is all about?"

This episode is simple, economical, and ultimately quite satisfying. It begins with an establishing shot of the Great Northern but not the same old same old we usually get (the waterfall, pan up to the hotel, yawn). This time it's dawn and our wide-lensed eagle eye overlooks the parking lot. Then we're inside Cooper's room for the oldest trick in the book: start the film/TV episode with an alarm clock ring. Yet it's strangely satisfying and as Cooper stands up, tape recorder in hand, and begins to recite his reflections to Diane we feel as if we're watching one of the early episodes. I forgot to mention that Cooper (who, as I've established, is bipolar - perky with certain directors, glum with others) seemed constipated in the last episode; this time, he's chipper as can be - we even get to see him whistle through his little wooden flute at one point.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Battle of the Sexes

Just this morning I read "Echoes of the Jazz Age," F. Scott Fitzgerald's marvelous elegy for the Roaring Twenties. In it he writes, "Contrary to popular opinion, the movies of the Jazz Age had no effect upon its morals. The social attitude of the producers was timid, behind the times and banal - for example, no picture mirrored even faintly the younger generation until 1923, when magazines had already been started to celebrate it and it had long ceased to be news." The Battle of the Sexes, which appeared in 1928 (five years after the date Fitzgerald set, a year before the Crash) is the first Griffith film I've seen that makes any attempt to capture the zeitgeist. It would be unfair to call it Griffith's first Jazz Age film - there were too many of his 20s films unavailable on Netflix for me to make that judgement, and at least one of them (The Sorrows of Satan) seems to have a contemporary setting. However, it's safe to say this is a departure for Griffith and in some ways a welcome one, though I would not call The Battle of the Sexes a rousing success.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Sally of the Sawdust

When I looked up this film I was surprised to see who it starred. Oh, I thought, a Griffith movie with W.C. Fields! Not long into viewing, I realized that the reverse was probably true: this was a W.C. Fields movie that happened to be directed by D.W. Griffith. Now I don't really think this is the case - Sally was Fields' debut so it's hard to say there was any such thing as a Fields movie at this point - and I would hardly be the one to determine such a thing. A shameful admission: until now, I'd never seen a W.C. Fields movie. That sordid detail aside, this is not exactly typical Griffith. True, it is sentimental and melodramatic (though also by and large a comedy), with some subpar Victorian plot developments, and what J. Hoberman astutely calls Griffith's "opposition to Americans even more puritanical than he." But its flavor is largely determined by Fields' brusque, buffoonish, yet charming rogue, a carnival con man who has adopted young Sally (Caroline Dempster) and is now taking her to the town where her rich grandparents - whom she's never met - reside.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twin Peaks: Laura's Secret Diary


SEASON 2, EPISODE 4
-Episode 11 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Todd Holland
written by Jerry Stahl, with Mark Frost, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engels


"Have you ever experienced absolute loss? No, more than grief. It's deep down inside. Every cell screams. You can hear nothing else."

These are Leland Palmer's words as he sits in an interrogation room, encircled by Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman (and a weirdly cloaked-in-shadow Dr. Hayward), ready to confess to the smothering of Jacques Renault, the man he suspected of killing his daughter. To underscore this statement, first-time "Peaks" director Todd Holland (whom Keith Phipps informs us directed that Fred Savage-plays-Nintendo 80s opus The Wizard) opens by twisting through a brown, fuzzy tunnel, accompanied by warped female screams and a blaring flatline on the soundtrack. Though actually an extreme close-up of an air hole in a ceiling tile, we do get the sense we're travelling through Leland's veins, with every corpuscular entity vibrating with the pain of Laura's death. The moment is so surreal, like something out of Eraserhead, that it initially fooled me into thinking I was watching a Lynch episode. Sadly, the rest of the 45 minutes does not exhibit Lynch's bizarre elegance, though it's often lightly enjoyable.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Twin Peaks: The Man Behind Glass


SEASON 2, EPISODE 3
-Episode 10 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
written by Robert Engels


"You're dead, Laura, but your problems keep hanging around. It's almost like they didn't bury you deep enough."

"Twin Peaks" is at its best when it focuses on Laura Palmer's absence. This episode reminds us that the second season probably did this even better than the first, and that the decision to reveal Laura's killer was a mixed curse. It's usually pointed to as the demise of the show's drama, but what a build-up before that demise! Also, considering where some of the other subplots go (we get the intro to "Super Nadine" and while it's not so bad here, it will get much worse) the writers could make bigger mistakes than to dwell on the show's foundation. In terms of focusing on the mysterious legacy of Laura's life and death, this is one of the strongest episodes. We see the emotional fallout amongst her friends and families, witness how a physical resemblance confuses both cousin Maddy and boyfriend James, and end with an unexpected reveal: a hidden diary in the house of a recluse who seems to cling to Laura's memory (and apparently her memoirs) as if it was a carefully-preserved artifact of some lost, delicate epoch. And, as Laura's ghost hovers in the ether, we are also drawn closer to the mysterious vortex of long-haired Bob.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quantum of Solace

I like to do a write-up every time I see a new movie in theaters, which these days is a very rare occurrence indeed. I don't have a cohesive, overarching take on Quantum, just a series of impressions which will follow after the jump. I'd also recommend Alexander Coleman and Tony Dayoub for wildly divergent, yet both very well-written, takes on the movie. For me, Quantum was an enjoyable (if at times underwhelming) popcorn flick and I can't work up too much of a sweat about it either way. Nonetheless, a series of reactions and impressions registered with me. Among them:

The Trip

Ah, to be caught in the crosshairs of history, to exist at that moment where one set of cultural values, aesthetics, and sensibilities, snapped into another. By virtue of its period (1967), its pedigree (Roger Corman, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper), and its subject (lysergic acid diethylamide), The Trip is that hoariest of artifacts: a time capsule. Time capsules are highly misunderstood and unappreciated. They are often approached as if their "period" nature imprisoned them, rendered them immobile and irrelevant: come look at the mosquito trapped in amber! Yet as Jurassic Park reminded us, a mosquito trapped in amber can unleash infinite possibilities. The true value of a time capsule is not that it allows us to indulge in condescending nostalgia or kitschy camp but that it offers us that rare window into a time and place which, by simultaneously connecting us to something real and exciting but keeping enough of a distance so that we're hyperaware, opens up into the universe at large. Appropriately enough, then, this particular time capsule is actually about the expansion of consciousness. Form, meet content, under the aegis of history.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Naked Spur

I don't have too much to say about The Naked Spur, given that a good deal of my reflections have already been summed up quite succinctly by Jonathan Rosenbaum - even to the point of quoting, as I had planned to, the prospector 's line (confusedly turning his shotgun from person to person: "It's gettin' so I don't know which way to point this no more!") as an appropriate summation of the film's morally ambiguous ethos. Ah, the ignominy of being scooped by a published critic (years in advance, no less!) However, I really wanted an excuse to use this picture on my blog, a picture which I found in a google search, saved with reservations (thinking well, I guess it'll work), and now somehow can't get enough of it. Something about the surprising richness of a primarily brown palette, I suppose. Though the print I saw televised was poorly maintained - discolored, faded, and wildly unbalanced from frame to frame - Anthony Mann's vision still came across.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Twin Peaks: Coma


SEASON 2, EPISODE 2
-Episode 9 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Harley Peyton


"Deliver the message."

Though I found the season premiere disappointing in retrospect, this episode still maintains its punch when revisited. It starts off well, sags somewhat in the middle, and regains its power near the end, in one of the best scenes of any "Twin Peaks" episode. It's a little surprising to see Lynch listed as director, since much of the episode is routine and anyway he usually avoided two in a row (plus, the episode rolls credits over Laura's portrait, a no-no for any other Lynch venture). But there are a few scenes here which are vintage Lynch and they highlight a good episode, promising that season two - for a while anyway - will not lose sight of what makes "Twin Peaks" so memorable; it's funny, mysterious, creepy, and at the climactic moment, absolutely terrifying.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Free-form Fairy Tales - A Tex Avery Trio

If Three Little Pigs contains some elements of subversion, then Tex Avery is around-the-clock, nonstop subversion, without relief. First at Warner Brothers, then MGM, Avery brilliantly demolished all the cliches of fairy tales and animated shorts with anarchic, randy panache. You can find a very thorough analysis of all Avery's fractured fairy tales at Bright Lights Film Journal, but I want to take a look at three in particular: his sublimely clever The Bear's Tale, the propagandistic bombast of Blitz Wolf, and of course the infamous Red Hot Riding Hood, a distillation and perfection of Avery's manic energy and subversive touch. I've got a few things to say about each, but the cartoons speak loudly and proudly for themselves, so I'll follow my comments with You Tube feeds of each. Ahem...

Once upon a time...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Killing

Kubrick's name looms large over the landscape of modern cinema. Though I'm sure the point has been raised before, his masterpieces are like those monoliths in 2001 - cool, dark, imposing, impeccable. No other director came closer to perfection in terms of control - these are generally the grounds on which even his critics defer to meet him. Even the name rings of ancient marble - the man is bigger than life. As such, it's tempting to see him as arriving out of the blue one day, fully formed, like those monoliths, or else birthed on grand scale in the heart of the cosmos like the Star Child. But no, Stanley was a college dropout from the Bronx who liked to play chess with the street hustlers in Washington Square, and who had to shoot his first three pictures on shoestrings. The Killing, despite the presence of some excellent actors and an immaculate style, was still low-budget and both Kubricks are on display here - the godlike and the scrappy man too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur, 1925 incarnation, is an enjoyable adventure film, somewhat overburdened by a sense of dutiful religiosity and a letdown after its climactic chariot race. That race, however, is still exciting 80 years later and many of its moments equal those of the more famous remake. One shot in particular, of the horses' hooves pounding into the camera from a low angle, is as dynamic as anything I can recall from the 1959 Ben-Hur. Indeed, given the limitations (read, frequent strengths) of silent cinema, this Ben-Hur is more visually spry and inventive than the later film, unburdened as it is by stirringly grandiose but also intimately inappropriate widescreen and Technicolor.

If I find it hard to speak of 1925's Ben-Hur in isolation, that's not just because the Charlton Heston version is more famous, but because I've always had a special regard for it. Yes, despite my sniping at '59 Ben-Hur's pretensions, my feelings towards it are generally warm. I can't quite defend the film objectively, and can understand how some would find it wooden, overbearing, and pretentious. But it reminds me of a boyish sort of Catholicism, one as taken with the desert vistas and adventure stories and architectural grandeur as with any more subtle spiritual or ethical elements of the Christian story. I've always had a weakness for epics, for films you can get lost in; the experience is something like losing your way in cavernous museum, wandering from room to room calling out your friends' names but half-hoping you don't find them. (The sense of adventure within comfortable bounds is the same - while you can get lost in epics, they're peculiarly nonthreatening.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

X does not mark the spot

And this list is brought to you by the letter...

Well, all of them actually. This is an entry in the Alphabet Meme started by Fletch at Blog Cabins (click on the link for all the rules). Yes, there was only one spot between the first two Godfather films, Goodfellas, and Gimme Shelter; meanwhile I had to scour the Internet to discover a forgotten favorite that began with "X" (no such luck). It came down to a contest between an African comedy Xala, which has all the right film snob cred, and X-Men, a perfectly decent superhero movie stunted by an anticlimax. The only problem with the first film was that after the genuinely amusing first half, the rest of it dragged interminably. So I went with the latter movie (though it would have cheered me far more to pick the TV series, if only for that theme music; sadly I don't think that was an option). All in all, I wish I could have moved Gimme Shelter to the "X" spot and killed two birds with one stone (or rather one bird with two).

The list begins and ends with a Woody Allen film; make of that what you will. List resides after the jump (let me know what you think).

Dear Brigitte

One thing I never understood about Little Miss Sunshine was its supposed freshness. To me, it seemed a slight variation on every quirky what-random-personality-twist-can-we-think-up-next indie comedy that had come before. Indeed, forty years earlier, the venerable James Stewart appeared in an early entry into this genre. You think Little Miss Sunshine is precious and eccentric? Dear Brigitte features Stewart as a scatter-brained professor and poet who lives on a houseboat with his his wife, teenage daughter, and 8-year-old son (they spend evenings performing for each other in an impromptu classical quartet). Their neighbors include an artist who's constantly painting his nude wife and a dotty old man who likes to speak directly to the camera as a narrator (he does this even when other characters are around and they look on, confused).

Despite his father's artistic pedigree, the little boy turns out to be a mathematical genius with a secret affinity for Brigitte Bardot. The family decides to use the little boy's accurate race-track predictions (shades of Biff Tanner) to start a family foundation, and soon the money is rolling in. Late in the movie, apropos of nothing, the already confused narrative comes to a halt, and Stewart takes his son to France, so that he can cuddle and pose for pictures with Bardot herself. This is one of those movies that seems like it was assembled from a bunch of wacky ideas (Brigitte Bardot, child geniuses, artists painting nudes, gold-digging teenagers, overzealous psychoanalysts, degenerate gamblers, scenic San Francisco) thrown into a hat, drawn out at random and strung together to form a screenplay. That said, its inherent charm eventually compensates for its fecklessness.