Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): December 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.

Contains disturbing images of racism and violence



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