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

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.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Twin Peaks: May the Giant Be With You


SEASON 2, EPISODE 1
-Episode 8 of the series-
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost (teleplay), Mark Frost & David Lynch (story)


"This leaves only the third man..."

And who is that third man, the one Agent Cooper says waited outside the cabin to kill Laura Palmer several nights earlier? (Hint: it's not Harry Lime.) After taking the summer off, "Twin Peaks"' second season emerged in a hail of hype as the fall of '90 rolled around. The show had been such an unexpected breakaway success in the spring, and its first season was so brief (starting in March and ending in May) that the media hadn't really been able to jump on the bandwagon yet. But by now the stars had aligned and as season two kicked off, the positive press was in full swing. Kyle MacLachlan appeared on "Saturday Night Live," in a skit that isn't very funny, maybe because "Twin Peaks" is so knowingly absurd to begin with. Meanwhile magazines and talk shows featured interviews with the actors, and Time put David Lynch on its cover. He was just releasing Wild at Heart, a hit at Cannes, in American theaters and it seemed that the decidedly offbeat auteur had crossed over into mainstream appeal without sacrificing his avant-garde bona fides. In its inimitable fashion, Time designated Lynch the "Czar of Bizarre" and proclaimed, "He has proved that an eccentric artist can toil in American TV without compromising his vision," and "The quirky outsider is close to becoming David Lynch Inc."

A scant three months later, Time wrote, in a passing blurb planted amongst capsule reviews, "Cut the hype, lower the expectations: Twin Peaks is not the second coming," and grumbled, "This season's inert, slowly paced premiere (directed with an uncharacteristic lack of flair by creator David Lynch) almost sank the ship before it left port." (Don't follow this link unless you already know who killed Laura.) Apparently "Twin Peaks"' moment had passed, and with it David Lynch's 15 minutes as a mainstream celebrity. Within another four months, the show - having entered a pitiful artistic decline after revealing Laura's killer - would be ignominiously cancelled. A prequel movie, released in the dregs of summer, received some of the worst reviews of the year, left theaters in a flash, and was quickly forgotten. What happened? In part it had to do with Lynch's, and co-creator Mark Frost's, network-induced haste to reveal just who that "third man" was, a fact which Lynch remains bitter about to this day. Yet though this "killed the goose" in Lynch's phrase, it also made for gripping television, and the first half of season two offers up some of the best "Twin Peaks" has to offer.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - America

America was one of D.W. Griffith's most massive undertakings, on par with The Birth of a Nation almost a decade earlier. Like that film, America - with its grand, all-encompassing title - is an attempt to view a grand historical event (in this case the American Revolution) through individual and family melodrama. Griffith shows a continued talent for staging battle scenes, and the cinematography in America is excellent, whether dotting distant landscapes with puffs of cannon smoke, staging massacres amidst sun-dappled trees, or zipping along country roads alongside Paul Revere in blue-tinted tracking shots. Yet somehow America didn't quite work with 1924 audiences; it was a flop for Griffith and (ironically) meant the end of his own independence. (You can read a good summary of America's history at Greenbriar Picture Shows, along with a more favorable perspective on the film.) Individual moments are strong, there was obviously a good deal of care put into the production, and yet somehow America seems to be striving after past glories and its debt to Griffith's earlier masterpiece hamstrings it in fundamental ways.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Three Little Pigs

Blessed with one of the catchiest songs ever sung, Disney's Three Little Pigs asks, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" a message that resonated with Depression-era audiences. Perhaps it will resonate again with our own. In fact, Three Little Pigs has elements even more relevant to our financial conditions than those of 1933, when it first came out. For one thing, it's a movie about a housing crisis. Those homes of straw and stick, like the homes paid for through bad mortgages, prove flimsy in the face of Big Bad Mortgage Collectors who come looking for the bill. Actually, Three Little Pigs proves a very Republican reading of economic hard times, appropriate since Walt Disney was an anti-New Dealer, but its "lazy and fun-loving people get what they deserve" message is undercut by various elements of subversion.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Magnificent Ambersons


"The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the 'girl' what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare."
One of the most remarkable facets of The Magnificent Ambersons is how closely the movie's flaws reflect those of its subject. Seldom has disastrous studio interference (which in this case destroyed the film's final act) yielded such unintentionally and poignantly metatextual fruit. Today, the story of The Magnificent Ambersons' butchery is well-known. Orson Welles completed his second film, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's elegaic novel, on the eve of World War II; he would later ruefully call it "a much better picture than Kane—if they'd just left it as it was." But of course, RKO did not leave it as it was. With Welles out of town, shooting a wartime propaganda film in South America, the studio stepped in and massacred his boy, and the resultant film makes an unfortunate corpse. Yet in that wreckage lies a bizarre sort of virtue, since the movie itself is about a lost golden age, a past that slips out of one's hands until all that remains are shallow, paltry reminders of former glory. Hence it is weirdly appropriate that the bulk of the lost movie must lie in our imagination, and also that the film itself undergoes a dramatic decline over the course of its ninety minutes, mirroring the decline of its antihero and his bygone era. Magnificent Ambersons is a film which fails while one's watching it, yet endures afterward in the imagination, wrapped in a kind of reborn glory.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Overlook


In lieu of an October Overlook, this is a survey of the twenty-five posts I fired off in response to election season. Get out the door and vote if you haven't already, but if you have, kick back and check out my election series. Feel free to jump in and comment; these issues will still be with us after today, and I'll respond to anyone who's just catching up with my blog now.

1. Countdown to the Election
"For the moment, politics will be our focus: the good, the bad, the ugly, and yes, on occasion, the idealistic too."

2. W.
"By the end of the movie, we still don't quite understand what's going on in that head, why things came to this point - but the man at the center doesn't really seem to understand either, and we're brothers in confusion."

3. Primary & 4 Days in November
"Ironically, it was the cameramen who captured Kennedy at the dawn of his presidential career who would have been most suitable to record its poignant sunset - along with the intimations of a dark, uncertain night to come."

4. The Candidate
"At any rate, it's difficult to imagine Obama pinning David Axelrod in a corner at an election-night victory party and pleading, almost plaintively (as McKay does in the film): 'What do we do now?'"

5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
"Jefferson Smith, for all his initial naivete and incompetence, couches his idealism in American history, in the Constitution, America as an ideal, a set of principles, not a geographic land blessed by God out of some arbitrary favoritism. Though admittedly, he has been known to pal around with terrorists."

6. Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?
"Smith, though 30, looks about 5-10 years younger. He's short, slightly awkward, and speaks with a high-pitched lisp. As he drives around in his little car...the candidate admits that even his parents and brother won't donate money to his quixotic campaign."

7. The Contender
"And, given the [Palin pregnancy], it was conservative Republicans who shrugged at a youngster's fornication, slapping a 'Shit Happens' bumper sticker next to the Jesus fish on their SUV."

8. The Weather Underground
"They declare a desire to 'bring the war home' but while Asian hamlets are being napalmed, they hold orgies in order to 'smash monogamy' and destroy any last semblance of bourgeois conservatism."

9. Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater
"McCain could definitely use Goldwater's clarity of purpose and conviction. Say what you will about Barry, he lost by sticking to his convictions rather than abandoning them."

10. Fahrenheit 9/11
"The film stokes paranoia in more subtle ways than mere verbal insinuation. Its electric editing, pervasive musical score, and lingering slo-mo close-ups build a feeling of dread."

11. So Goes the Nation
"[John Kerry's] verbal contusions offered ample ammo for a glib Republican catch-phrase: audiences eagerly chant 'flip-flop, flip-flop' and even dress as man-size sandals to prove their point."

12. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
"In other words, despite his fierce anger and defiant attitude, there's an underlying longing for community and understanding that characterizes this film, and indeed all of [Spike] Lee's work."

13. Sicko
"[Michael Moore's] usual impulse is to storm the citadels of power with his camera and poke it into the faces of those who have devastated average lives...but he holds back. And cathartic as it would be to see him make the insurance company sweat, it would be easy and, in a sense, miss the point."

14. Maxed Out
"Maxed Out saw the storm on the horizon. Watching it today, about a year and a half after it was released, in the wake of the meltdown of the debt-based U.S. and world economy, is an eerie experience."

15. A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash
"One by one, alternative energy sources are considered and brusquely dismissed by the talking heads, especially by one young fellow who seems to delight in throwing cold water on every prospect for hope and a way out of our overreliance on oil."

16. An Inconvenient Truth
"Gone were the turtle suits of Seattle and Davos, replaced by a well-groomed (if slightly stocky) man in a dark suit, travelling around the world, one hand on his laptop like a post-Information Age, nonviolent, Tennessee-accented James Bond."

17. The Devil Came on Horseback
"As hundreds of thousands were killed and millions displaced, it dawned on the world that systematic genocide was taking place in Darfur. And Steadle was there to observe."

18. Inside North Korea
"On the North Korean side of the divide, two guards face one another, ready to shoot the other if he tries to jump over, while another guard stands further back, evenly between them, facing the other way in case someone tries to escape from that direction."

19. Iran: The Next Iraq?
"We see boy soldiers (some as young as 13, though they look even younger) primed for war and a Tehran fountain commissioned with red-colored water - it's supposed to flow with the 'blood of martyrs.'"

20. Frontline: The War Briefing
"Its title frames the issue as something the next president must focus on, and indeed after years of flirting with Iranian strikes, and dealing with the distracting mess in Iraq, we're back to square one: Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Pakistan."

21. Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files
"The image of bin Laden, with the long beard and robes, hidden deep in a cave somewhere on the outskirts of civilization, may frighten many Americans, but it seems supremely calculated to do so: it's an image bin Laden has created himself, not one he was born into."

22. Taxi to the Dark Side
"From a simple, almost thoughtless action, the jotting down of some comments, the typing of a memo from behind a comfortable Washington desk, thousands of people can suffer - and the depth of their experience has no correspondence at its root."

23. No End in Sight
"For Iraq, a war of choice in which we had all the time in the world to think ahead, postwar planning did not begin in earnest until two months before the invasion began. This boggles the mind, but it's only the beginning."

24. Iraq in Fragments
"Now that I better comprehend the big picture, Iraq in Fragments seems more vital, more important, than ever. It is important as an experiment with the documentary form, it is important as a document of Iraq, and it is important as a work of art in its own regard."

25. The Choice
"Both John McCain and Barack Obama have been lifelong tight-rope walkers. Now, at the hour of utmost need, McCain has fallen from his perch and Obama remains, teetering on razor's edge."

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Choice

It is, among other things, a tale of two cities. Or at least, that's how it starts. Not Chicago, not Phoenix, not Hanoi, nor even Washington. "Frontline: The Choice 2008" begins with the party conventions in the late summer of 2004. The Democrats gathered in Boston, one of the birthplaces of America, to reinvent their party and, they hoped, the nation. They would fail, but in that failure, they may have planted the seeds of their eventual success. How much of Obama's famous convention speech was hype, created after the fact by a media looking for The Next Big Thing? All I know is that I missed it, but upon arriving at my family's house to catch some convention coverage, my mother turned to me and said, "I just heard the future president speak." Obama evocatively, and shrewdly, stepped outside the partisan framework of recent elections to declare, "there is not a liberal America, or a conservative America, there is the United States of America!"

Meanwhile, the Republican gathering in New York City - wounded city, site of 9/11, but also big, bellicose, haughty - contained the seeds of division. Republicans lit into their opponent, cast the other side as unpatriotic and weak, and cultivated a sense of Red America rising up to crush Blue America (ironically, this was in the heart of Blue America itself). But though the party seemed united and boisterous in its quest to re-elect President Bush, there were seeds of division in the GOP as well. These were best represented by John McCain, a figure immensely popular with the public, but doubted and disliked by other Republicans. McCain strode onstage to deliver a martial, impassioned defense of his president focused on national security, but one can see in the tepid, strained faces of the audience that there's a disconnect. Nonetheless, McCain is present for a reason. Despite his dislike of Bush, despite his differences with the Republican Party, he has decided he wants to become the party's nominee for president the next time around. This is the first step in that direction.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Iraq in Fragments

Mid-decade, filmmaker James Longley took his small camera to Iraq, where he shot, directed, and sound-recorded, and later composed music for and co-edited, a truly fascinating movie. Insinuating himself into various Iraqi populations, he formulated a graceful, poetic film which feels as different from other Iraq docs as a verse feels from a newspaper article. Iraq in Fragments presents the documentary as art film, in an unusual but captivating approach. Much of the film has the feel of narrative fiction, but by sidestepping continuity - the cutting is impressionistic, the sound design musical, the photography close-quartered and graceful - the movie avoids most of the compromises inherent in documentary form. This is a good movie with which to draw my election series to a close, because it's a reminder of the humanistic and individualistic elements underpinning politics and world affairs...the soul in the body politic.

Iraq in Fragments exists in three fragments of its own. The first fragment follows a little Sunni boy in Baghdad - he has difficulty in school and works for a machinist who is alternatively tough-loving and physically rough. The second fragment does not focus on one individual but rather the collective passion of the Shiites in Iraq's South as they coalesce around Moqtada al-Sadr to discover their post-Saddam identity.The third and final fragment travels to the north, visiting with Kurdish peasants who bake bricks, herd goats, and rush to polling places when they get the chance to vote, hoping to stake a claim on their own land. Each fragment is poetic in texture, ranging from the distracted sadness of the little boy to the fierce, frenetic violence of the militias to the cozy pastoral lives of the Kurds. Form scrupulously echoes content and the free flow of impressions and experiences and images and sounds is liberating and indeed startling after experiencing so many informationally-focused documentaries.

No End in Sight

No End in Sight is one of the best Iraq documentaries because it is isn't powered by justifiable rage but rather sheer disbelief and frustration. Its director, Charles Ferguson, ostensibly pro-war in 2003, does not focus too extensively on the reasons for going to war or even on the subterfuge involved in the preparations. This it leaves to other documentaries (whatever the motives, this plays as effectively as Michael Moore introducing the uninsured in Sicko and then announcing that the movie would not be about them). Instead, No End in Sight chronicles the unbelievably incompetent and damaging way that the arrogant Bush administration, and especially the Department of Defense, conducted the postwar reconstruction. Or lack thereof. Complete lack thereof. In World War II, the plans for postwar Japan and Germany were drawn up two years in advance. For Iraq, a war of choice in which we had all the time in the world to think ahead, postwar planning did not begin in earnest until two months before the invasion began. This boggles the mind, but it's only the beginning.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Taxi to the Dark Side

On December 5, 2002, an Afghan taxi driver picked up several passengers in the small city of Khost. The driver's name was Dilawar and he was a slight man (though 5'9," he supposedly weighed only 122 lbs). He was young, only 22 years old, and had a family in Yakubi, a small village, where he agreed to take the three men. Passing an American base which had earlier been rocketed, Dilawar's car was stopped by Afghan guerrillas guarding the base. Finding an electric stabilizer in the trunk of his car - which Dilawar claimed not to know about - he was turned over to the Americans and held in Bagram Collection Point, where he was interrogated as a suspected terrorist. On December 10, 2002, he was declared dead. He was the second prisoner to die at Bagram within a few weeks.

Frontline: The Al Qaeda Files

With the bogeyman spectre of Osama bin Laden lingering over the Western world's head, the threat posed by terrorism and Al Qaeda specifically - and Osama bin Laden even more specifically - sometimes seems almost metaphysical. John McCain likes to call it "an existential threat," which may be true in its own way, but also implies something unfathomable, almost abstract in its evil. What "Frontline" does, in this series of episodes aired between 1999 and 2005, is lift the curtain a bit and show us what lies behind the organization of Al Qaeda, the events of 9/11, and the terrorist attacks since then. It's a riveting, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing look at a culture often alien to Americans, and also sometimes weirdly familiar.