Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September Overlook

If you don't visit Finding the Holy Grail (which has been updated to include Out 1) before midnight on September 30, these girls would like to have a word with you...

In all seriousness, it's time for my monthly Overlook, a fit of self-indulgence, um, I mean a round-up in which I highlight posts that didn't get many comments or links, and hence may have been overlooked. I can't tell for sure because my only reference point is the commentary and linkage (Screen Savour has been rather generous in the latter regard - and amidst all the self-promotion let me point you to his upcomings "31 Days of Hitchcock" series). So, if you missed these the first time around, jump in and please, start a discussion. This encouragement didn't work in August, but trust me, I don't care how old the posts are - they have no expiration date in terms of starting a conversation.

So here, without further fanfare, the top five overlooked entries of September 2008:

1. Another Take on the Holy Grail: Apocryphal ephemera or, Mouse Guts
"[W]as there ever a movie that you thought existed, or that actors, producers, or directors planned, which fell through? Or a legendary film which may or may not exist? What's your own apocryphal ephemera?"

2. Carefree (check out the great You Tube clip at the bottom of the page)
"That kiss may be the death of the Astaire-Rogers mystique but it's a rapturous death, sending forth shock waves that reverberated throughout the filmgoing consciousness. One can almost see the fertile cinematic sensualism of Godard, Bertolucci, Scorsese...sprouting up like radioactive mushrooms in its wake. "

3. I Married a Witch
"Only he could get away with a shot reverse shot involving empty and immobile glass bottles. Clair's films are delicate yet robust, light and frothy but bursting at the seams with creativity and verve."

4. 9/11
"The impression of '9/11' lingers, not because it's great art, but because it's something else just as valuable - invaluable historical documentation...the Naudets' bravery in service of their craft is commendable. But what '9/11' does most valuably is to put us there, on the street, inside that building, amongst the people who were in the thick of it that day."

5. Jubilee & Radio On
"Earlier in the film, one punk tells another (echoing Richard Hell's epitaph) that they belong to a blank generation. [Queen] Elizabeth not only eschews this nihilism but finds it impossible to understand, a kind of hellish mystery from which she retreats in haste."

One of these posts got a comment, and one got a link, but otherwise nary a peep. Also worth a final shout-out: Powell & Pressburgers' The Small Back Room, Nicholas Ray does Cortizone in Bigger Than Life, and Vincent Price goes fuedo-mystical in Dragonwyck. Of course, lots of posts were not overlooked. David Lynch proved very popular in the comments section with impassioned, insightful commentary on both Lost Highway and Inland Empire. The commentary for the last one in particular was a highpoint for this blog...thanks to everyone for making it interesting. I also did an in-depth analysis of the in-depth War and Peace, looked into the context of Kiss of Death, and explored the conjunction of Nicholas Ray and (hating) Hollywood with In a Lonely Place. I discussed Woody Allen twice (new and old), explored the Communist undertones of Force of Evil, and tipped my hat to a seaworthy Buster.

And, of course, if you haven't seen it already please visit the master megalist of movies and blogs that resulted from The Holy Grail. It will introduce you to a lot of great films and blogs and I'm thankful to everyone who participated. That said, the focus on lists and memes rather than movies was rare for this month.

September saw me dealing more with specific movies every day; in August a third of the posts were on general topics, and another third were entries in blog-a-thons or my ongoing series: Twin Peaks, THE AUTEURS, Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood. September was purer in this regard: more than half of my entries were responses to movies I had just seen, not as part of a series but because I had the DVD or TV screening on hand. Indeed, once my new DVR arrived, I binged on classic movies for a week, a nice change of pace since the content on this blog had been trending towards more recent cinema. These two developments were refreshing to me; hopefully you enjoyed them as well.

Where do I go in the next month? Early October will see some more classic movies, as well as three films by Paul Newman in honor of the late actor's long career (I paid tribute to him here). Then, on October 14, with three weeks to go until the election, I will go into political/historical mode: most, if not all, my reviews, will focus on political and/or presidential films, documentaries dealing with the crises of our time, and of course Oliver Stone's wacky W. which crashes into theaters around this time. See you there - and by the way, the Read More link is just a tease. This is all there is.

Twin Peaks: The Last Evening


SEASON 1, EPISODE 7
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

written & directed by Mark Frost


"We're in sync now, Jacques, can you feel it? Can you?"

The first season of "Twin Peaks" was pretty brief: seven episodes airing between April 8 and May 24, 1990. Much was packed into that short run, and much was packed into the final episode itself. Writing before the show became a success, author/co-creator of the show Mark Frost wanted to ensure that "Twin Peaks" would be picked up for another season. Hence we get a series of cliffhangers, which is probably the most noted aspect of the season finale. But perhaps most truly notable is the fact that this is the only episode of "Twin Peaks" written and directed by the same person. "Twin Peaks" is, of course, most often associated with David Lynch, but Mark Frost was the co-creator and on this episode, he's given free hand to do what he will. The differences between his approach, Lynch's, and the other directors' and writers' is fascinating.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Another take on the Holy Grail: Apocryphal ephemera or, Mouse Guts

[The Holy Grail list has been expanded to include blog names. This is worth checking out not only because it allows you to read more about the particular films, but because it will lead you to discover some great blogs that you were completely unaware of before; at least I found that to be the case. Enjoy.]
"We'd often go to the movies. We'd shiver as the screen lit up. But more often, Madeline and I would be disappointed. More often we'd be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn't the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make... and secretly wanted to live."
-Masculin Feminin
While updating the Holy Grail list, I was reminded of another sort of cinematic holy grail, one far close to the actual holy grail in that it doesn't actually exist. As I've previously discussed, I was obsessed with horror movies in the first grade. I hadn't actually seen any of them, but the school library had a series of orange, cardboard-bound books which discussed the plots of every Universal horror film (along with other horror classics like King Kong and Godzilla), along with a detailed history of the film's making and historical context (all illustrated by old stills).

Farewell, Newman

Looking over his shoulder, riding into the frontier twilight (literally and figuratively), Butch and Sundance see the posse kicking up a dust cloud in the near distance: still hot in pursuit, unflappable. In disbelief the outlaws look at each other and ask, Who are these guys? Today we ask ourselves the same question about Butch Cassidy himself, Paul Newman, who passed away two days ago at the age of 83. And we ask it for the same reason: just like those pursuers, Newman was unflappable, cool without being hysterical or morose, completely self-possessed but seemingly not arrogant.

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: The Barefoot Contessa

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

Joseph Mankiewicz's 1954 The Barefoot Contessa bookends the series with Nicholas Ray's 1950 In a Lonely Place. Unlike that film, it's in color - shot by master DP Jack Cardiff in the kind of rich shadows usually found in black-and-white. The results, especially in the background of the frame, often pop like a slide photo on a light table (which is bound to remind my generation of those "3-D" viewfinders from the 80s). In a Lonely Place carries over the postwar noir style, while The Barefoot Contessa - like A Star is Born, also released in '54, opens up into that colorful mid-50s palette (Star goes even further, by embracing widescreen).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

After spending much of today expanding on yesterday's unexpectedly complicated uber-Holy Grail post (which still needs some tweaking), I had a brief window - before the big debate - to go to the movies. Though I believe the proper and most deserving place to see a film is on the big screen, I've had little opportunity to demonstrate this on my blog. Indeed, during the two-month run of The Dancing Image, I've been to just three movies in the theaters - only two of them new releases (I also saw a retro screening of War and Peace). In both cases, I knew what I was going to see ahead of time, but tonight I was able to engage in that most enjoyable of activities, picking the movie on the spot with a minute or two to spare.

Finding The Holy Grail


(Also see "The Holy Grail" for the full, updated list of participating blogs.)

Wow, that took a long time! Last night, too tired to write an entire fresh post, I put up this picture as a placeholder and promised that I'd be back soon with a master list of all the "Holy Grail" films. Well, here I am but there was a lot of hunting and gathering to do. For those of you just joining in, here's the chronology.

Two months ago, just over a week after I joined the blogosphere, Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre introduced a new "meme" into circulation: The 12 Movies Meme. Diablo Cody, then still undergoing a Juno backlash (a counter-backlash has just started to emerge), had been invited to program a dozen movies at a revered retro theater and Piper essentially said, "hey, if she's got the right, why not us?" What followed were countless responses, as each blogger took on the adventure, choosing 12 films that they would program at a retro theater if given the chance.

I was just a fresh-faced blogger then, with maybe a couple readers (who had yet to comment), a lonely voice in the wilderness. This list appealed to me and so on the first of August I unveiled my own "dirty dozen." The list proved popular and introduced me to a lot of my current readers and readees, including James Hansen at Out 1. One of his picks for the 12 Movies Meme was a film he hadn't yet seen and the light bulb - usually dim - which I carry over my head at all times was illuminated. Why not a new list, another "dirty dozen" which would be made up entirely of films the blogger had not seen, and which were not available on Netflix? And so "The Holy Grail" was born. I unveiled "Another dirty dozen" a little over a month ago.

Progress was slow at first - a few people responded with their own lists, other promised to put up a list when they had the chance. Ten days later, I started recording the blogs who had participated, and continued to update it as new entries emerged. I've been pretty busy the past few weeks and didn't have a chance to update my information. This morning I finally pursued all the threads and discovered that the meme had really taken off. After the jump you will find a complete list of all the movies constituting "the Holy Grail." Some bloggers cheated, including movies available on Netflix, but I've included each and every film blogged about. Next to the title appears the blog(s) which suggested it: click on the link to read more.

Enjoy the fulfillment of your quest for the Holy Grail, but don't drink too greedily. By my count, 30 blogs have participated, resulting in 352 movies on the list. [updated 10/12] [updated again 1/3; click on the asterisk next to the film's name for a link to the Dancing Image review.]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Twin Peaks: Realization Time


SEASON 1, EPISODE 6
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Caleb Deschanel
written by Harley Peyton


"I feel like I'm in a dream tonight."

When it comes to "Twin Peaks," David Lynch is the master dreamer and the question becomes, which aspect of his style do the other directors explore? Tim Hunter proved himself adept - perhaps even Lynch's equal - when it came to stoking the tone of mystery and cultivating the weirdness of the atmosphere. Duwayne Dunham seemed to understand the characters best, and even while speeding up the pace and making the style more conventional, his Cooper feels the closest to what the agent should be (next to Lynch's take on our hero). As for first-time Peaker Caleb Deschanel, he seems to have the spooky slowness down pat; though he doesn't always utilize it, the early scenes of episode 6 are suffused with an ethereal, quiet calm that effectively echoes Lynch's penchant for methodically slowing down the performances and allowing shots to linger.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - True Heart Susie

By no intention of my own, but through the malfeasance of Netflix delays and mishaps and the distraction of a new DVR, the Auteurs series was put on hold for almost a month. Now I'm back - with the first Griffith feature in the series that I had not seen before. In 1919, close on the heels of Broken Blossoms, Griffith released another melodrama starring Lillian Gish. However, this one is much simpler - and in fact comes as a bit of a surprise after Griffith's epic earlier work.

Road House

Soon after his scene-stealing turn in Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark played a seemingly very different role in Road House. (Spoilers ahead!) Jefty owns a road house and appears to be a solid citizen, if something of a loner, boozer, and womanizer. He runs a business, wants to get married to new entertainer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), and has a long-standing friendship with Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). But Widmark still ends up as the villain, a character trying to seperate the two long-suffering characters who just want a simple life together. And he still has a mad (meaning angry and/or slightly crazy) streak, lashing out with violence and losing his temper in ways that get him into hot water.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Kiss of Death

As American film language grew in the late forties, the term "film noir" came into fashion. Much noted was the "darkening" of theme and lighting palette, and the way they want hand-in-hand. But there was a "deepening" going on at the same time. Thirties films are gloriously kinetic and economical and I've grown to appreciate their direct, exquisitely chiseled charms in recent years. However, it was forties and fifties Hollywood that initially hooked me into the classics as a precocious film buff, and I think it was the depth that did it. Like the darkness, depth took on formal and thematic connotations: there's depth of field, so that backgrounds become less abstract and enrich the overall picture; depth of texture, a result of logistical as well as textual factors, as film shoots increasingly took place on location; depth of performance, with "the Method" creeping into and than exploding on the scene; and depth of the story, so that suddenly we aren't just seeing the "most important" element of a movie but a whole variety of elements, whether presented front and center or suggested peripherally.

I think postwar American cinema, and I think On the Waterfront with the gritty, lived-in Hoboken rooftops; the gestures and expressive allusions to a past life - thrown boxing matches, childhood bonds forged by poverty; or little details along the way like Brando playing with Eva Marie Saint's glove (something that apparently every viewer notices on their own, considering it their own private, cherished discovery). Or I think Vertigo with abstract but potent ideas like its sense of history's chasm yawning underneath our unsettled present, ready to swallow us up in its mad chaos - alongside evocations of lust and anxiety and painful but passionate frustrations which lurk in the character's eyes and suffuse the looming romanticism of San Francisco. And Kiss of Death fits nicely into this postwar depth, taking the crime genre and fleshing it out in several directions at once.

Carefree

At its finest, Carefree walks on air, and this is due in no small part to Ginger Rogers. Her collaboration with Fred Astaire is of course legendary, and they have some outstanding numbers on display here. But the film is a musical comedy with a surprising emphasis on the latter. In addition to being a captivating dancer and the perfect partner for Fred, Ginger was what they like to call "a deft comedienne" and she carries most of the film's comedic elements on her own. She's hypnotized, anesthetized, arrested, swept off her feet, and punched in the face. She is a master of the wheeling, leering, google-eyed grin, in a form that reminded me of her Stage Door co-star Lucille Ball. Watching this movie tonight confirmed what Stage Door had led me to suspect: I really, really like Ginger Rogers.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bigger Than Life

The first dragon blocking the path to my personal Holy Grail has been slain. Nearly a month ago, I made a list. Featuring the dozen films unvailable on Netflix that I most wanted to see, I encouraged others to follow suit (and so they did). Eventually I'm hoping to post the collected master list, compiled of all the unseen and hard-to-find movies that people picked. Anyway, one of the titles on my list was Nicholas Ray's 1956 widescreen classic Bigger Than Life; now, thanks to the wonders of cable and TV recording, I'm finally able to catch it.

By this point I've seen the majority of Ray's acknowledged classics: They Live By Night, On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and of course Rebel Without a Cause. In The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci's tribute to cinephilia, one character - the naive American - says he really likes Nick Ray. Louis Garrel (the only one of the trio who looks and acts like he actually stepped out of the sixties), playing the French revolutionary dilettante, levels a penetrating gaze in his new friend's direction and sallies forth with a joust. "They Live By Night?" "No-o," the American answers, hesitatingly, defensively. "More like Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause." Though Garrel nods approvingly (if somewhat condescendingly), I agree with his natural instinct to highlight the earlier work. Not so much They Live By Night, but On Dangerous Ground and In a Lonely Place won me over to Ray more than Rebel. Where does Bigger Than Life fit into this spectrum?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stage Door

Not only are Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn cast side-by-side in Stage Door, the two superstars play competing actresses. However, the thespians onscreen are not movie goddesses but hard-working, long-suffering actors sharing a room in a noisy boarding house, stocked heavily with sniping and struggling female performers - both the actors themselves and the characters they play (among the ensemble are Lucille Ball and Ann Miller). Rogers is Jean Maitland, a sassy working-class gal who struggles with whether or not to sleep her way to the top (though even then there are no guarantees). Hepburn is the rich girl who's decided she'd like to try acting; she's self-confident and no-nonsense, at least until the first-night jitters arrive.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Force of Evil

What exactly is the "evil" in Force of Evil? Is it the Combine, a numbers racket modeled on a corporation, which is now eating up the competition in a form that puts the term "hostile takeover" in a new light? Or is it the likes of Ficco, an old-school thug who angles in on the big bank the old-fashioned way: with a gun in hand? Perhaps it's the protagonist of the film, Combine lawyer Joe Morris (John Garfield), who is - for the most part - only indirectly involved with a clients' illegal activities but tolerates and perpetuates their crimes. He only displays a sense of morality when his middle-aged brother, Sammy (who runs a small-time numbers bank and is stubbornly ethical about his criminal enterprise) is threatened by the Combine. He arranges to have Sammy and all his employees rounded up by the cops, hoping to force him out of the business before a fixed number decimates his operation. On the way back from the jail with Sammy's secretary, a "kinda innocent, kinda corrupt" young woman, Joe turns on the charm, coyly asking her if he's evil (she isn't sure).

Joe thinks that the greatest evil is knowing what you want and perversely declining to go after it - but ultimately he (and we) will see this mentality as a wrongheaded trap. Because at the end of the film, the greatest force of evil is not any one individual but the whole rotten system. Sure, it's a racket; sure it's a criminal enterprise. But writer/director Abraham Polonsky goes out of his way to establish the Combine as not so different from major banks and corporations - characters continually repeat, "it's business!" when confronted with the charge of gangsterism. When - tune out if you don't want to know how the movie ends - Joe's brother is tossed like a sack of potatoes onto the rocks by the river, Joe has a crisis of conscience. Like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he wakes up to the brutality of what he's involved with and is compelled to inform on the Combine and bring it down.

I Married a Witch

I Married a Witch could easily have been a novelty item, a slight trifle which was forgotten with time, but the serendipitous involvement of two major personalities guarantees its legacy as a comedy classic. First, there's French director Rene Clair -- this is the first of his American films I've seen, and if its tonic whimsy and imagination is any indication, then his Hollywood period may be seriously underrated. In making the trans-Atlantic jump, Lang, Renoir, and some guy named Hitchcock all earned praise - eventually, if not initially - from intellectuals but Clair is rarely discussed following his early talkies. Yet his tinkling sense of magic and erotic energy feel as present in I Married a Witch as in A nous la liberte. Perhaps this was a rare high point, but at any rate, it crackles with invention.

Oh, and then there's Veronica Lake. Ah, Veronica Lake. Now that I have a DVR again, there are a few factors which overwhelmingly determine which movies I'll be recording and prioritizing. Ranking somewhere between "this is supposed to be a masterpiece, and I haven't seen it" and "hey, this sounds kind of wacky and interesting, why not?" is "ok, she's in it..." As far as forties films go, if I see Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, or Veronica Lake in the cast listing, I'm in. Lake has a warbling, pulsating charisma that's hard to pin down. Yes, she's gorgeous (in a surprisingly offbeat way when you look closely) but it's also that voice, not exactly coy in its open flirtation yet somehow wholesome and erotic at the same time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Twin Peaks: Cooper's Dreams


SEASON 1, EPISODE 5
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
written by Mark Frost


"They move so slowly when they're not afraid."

The good news is that Cooper's back on track. He's not quite the infectiously weird oddball that David Lynch coaxes out of Kyle MacLachlan, but he does appear more self-assured and delightfully spacey than the previous two episodes, in which the FBI agent seemed to be suffering from depression. No more morose Cooper, at least for the time being. However, if fellow AFI alum Lesli Linka Glatter improves on the last episode's director, Tim Hunter, in terms of Cooper, she does not approach his grasp of the show's unique mood. Sadly, the sense of mystery and the offbeat flavor of episode 4 is gone in episode 5.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: In a Lonely Place

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

And here we reach a turning point in the series. No longer will our films concoct excuses for Hollywood's abuse, no longer will the cynicism be paired with an aw-shucks wonder at the glitz of it all. Yet at the same time, Nicholas Ray's 1950 film In a Lonely Place exists on the periphery of Hollywood, just as Hollywood itself exists on the periphery of its story. After nearly decking a fellow driver, Humphrey Bogart's Dixon Steele arrives at a nightclub and is confronted by junior autograph hounds. "Know who I am?" he asks, bemused, as the kid shakes his head. Steele is a screenwriter who hasn't had a hit in years, and if being in Hollywood rubs off a little glamor on him (the kid still wants him to sign the book) it also casts a shadow on his existence. Steele's director pal, when confronted with the fact of his hackery, merely shrugs and tells the so-noble-he's-broke screenwriter that he doesn't try to fight it. In a Lonely Place may not be a film "about" Hollywood, but that only makes it a more stinging film about Hollywood.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Love and Death

Love and Death ends the period of "the early funny ones," (as Woody Allen referred to his first hit films in Stardust Memories). I think it's generally considered a disappointment, and it's not as good as Sleeper - or as inventive as Everything you always wanted to know about sex (*but were afraid to ask). But it is often very funny, especially when Woody's onscreen. Appropriately for the last of his zany, simpler parodies, the star still has his semi-youthful early 70s long-haired look. When next we see him in Annie Hall, the thinning red hair will be trimmed and he'll be complaining about turning forty.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Small Back Room

Appropriately enough, given its title, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room is one of their quieter and less celebrated films. Following the Technicolor extravagance of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the directing/producing/writing duo adapted a well-known novel, shot in black-and-white and kept the scale down. It's the story of Sammy Rice, a wartime munitions expert with a game leg; he can't actually fight in the war, though he certainly does his part (working for a government agency which markets and analyzes weapons systems, emphasis on the former). He's a pro on the job, but a self-doubting, neurotic alcoholic on his own time.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was 17 years old, a high school senior in New England. In my morning science class, the teacher was discussing global warming when a voice came over the intercom. It was the principal, who had a deep voice that only popped up when tragedy struck (that spring, he'd announced the death of a student who'd been ill). At this point it was already about 10:15 am, and he stated, as flatly (and terrifyingly) as possible that terrorists had hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know a lot of my friends heard the news sooner, with the details building bit by bit, but for me it was like being hit with a ton of bricks. We all stared at each other, jaws dropped...was this real, or just a movie? One kid, a bit of an oddball who later joined the military to do psych ops proclaimed, "this is going to wipe Chandra Levy out of the news!" My science teacher, without missing a beat, pivoted in his anti-Bush argument vis a vis global warming, to attack the idea of a missile defense shield: "how the hell would a missile shield block airplanes?"

We just remained in our seats, stunned, until the bell rang. En masse, everybody moved downstairs into a lobby where there were TVs hanging from the ceiling. On them, one of the Twin Towers was collapsing, over and over again. A teacher nearby suddenly started babbling, hysterically: "They're gone? They're really GONE? They're not there?" One of my friends, a die-hard Democrat who later joined the Navy (I believe he's still serving) told us, "this is when I'm glad Bush is president, because he won't let them get away with this." I told my classmates it was probably that guy Omar Laden or something...I'd heard his name mentioned in the past few months. We sat in my history classroom and stared at the television. John McCain appeared on the commentary to say that we were at war. At the time this struck me as a strange notion. My initial thought that morning had not been, "We're at war and must defend ourselves," but rather "My God, the world is coming to an end."

I generally like to avoid personal stories on this blog; the Internet is fun for the way it confers anonymity and anyway, it all gets in the way of what I'm really doing here. Lest you think I'm departing from the blog's mission, this entry is not a recollection of what happened 7 years ago, but a review/reaction to the television film "9/11" aired, I believe, one year later (it may have premiered on the six-month anniversary but I saw it for the first time on 9/11/02, by which time I was living in New York). I open with my own memory, at once mundane and shocking in the way that everyone's memories of that day will always be shocking, as a reminder of how personally 9/11 struck everyone and how, with so much water under the bridge (yet so little accomplished) the emotions and sensations of the day can come rolling back instantly. And that's what "9/11" is about.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Navigator

It must be difficult for Buster Keaton to play "ineffective" - given how precisely he stages and executes his comedy - but he pulls it off in the first part of The Navigator. As a spoiled dilettante (every family tree has its sap, as an opening title card tells us), Buster is as deadpan as ever but twice as feckless. After proposing to his sweetheart on a whim, he's turned down and, dejected, he exits her house to find his car waiting for him. Morose, he informs the chauffeur that he would rather walk home. Cut to a wide shot of the car outside the house doing a U-turn while Buster walks...about ten feet to his own house, which is across the street. Apparently this is quite an exertion for the young man.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dragonwyck


"Some dreams are very real, I guess. So real that they get confused with reality. And then when you wake up and look around, you find yourself saying, what am I doing here? How did I get here? What has this to do with what I am and what I want? Then I guess you make up your mind you've had a nightmare and you go crawling to Ma and Pa."
Usually in film and literature, the naive American must go abroad to find old world decadence and aristocratic disdain for God, democracy, and simplicity. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) need only travel down the Hudson, from her comfortable but boring Connecticut farm to Dragonwyck, the grand estate of a 19th century feudal lord, the grand patroon Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). He has procured Wells, a dreamy farmgirl too restless for chores, as a governess for his neglected daughter - but she will become far more than that before her nightmare's over.

Inland Empire

Near the end of Inland Empire - or rather, near the end of one of its many endings - Laura Dern hurls, puking blood all over the sidewalk. Permit me to do the same. I could let the movie sit for several days, digesting it, thinking it over, perhaps reading up on it. Instead I'm going to sort through all my initial thoughts and reactions here in real time, for your entertainment. Anyway, I think the movie deserves that sort of response.

Inland Empire takes the promise of David Lynch's other films, the hidden secrets, and vomits them out. The shaky frameworks of his stories, which have grown shakier over the years, here seems but the flimsiest pretense and at times the structure dissolves altogether. The effect is often frustrating because the director's greatest gift is the gift of suggestion. This is the closest he's come to making an experimental feature - well, this and Eraserhead but that was so much more contained. He has a sensibility which reacts off of conventions and narrative structures and without that safety net his thread can get lost.

Of course to talk about Lynch at all is misleading - during the film the director is only fleetingly on your mind, as the mad world he has conveyed puts up a wall between him and you. David Lynch is the most roundabout of auteurs: his universe is utterly distinctive yet his traces are like God's: without knowing the process behind filmmaking, if we just discovered his films as objects, we might assume they created themselves and that no one intelligence is behind them. You can't catch Lynch at work - it's as if he was just in the room before you came in. What do I mean by this? It's partly Lynch's public persona, the aw-shucks "Boy Scout From Mars" who is often comically at odds with the darkness of his works. But also how the work seems to escapes the hold of any dominant mindframe, especially here in this film, jumping into the subconscious as if from the ether, with the filmmaker as a mere conduit.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: A Star is Born

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

The films in this series are being viewed in a spectrum, stretching from the joyful ribbing of Singin' in the Rain to the lethal if still humorous darkness of Sunset Boulevard. Though useful, this method is hardly foolproof; and it's difficult to judge how one film "hates" Hollywood more than than the other. For example, The Bad and the Beautiful is cynical but not tragic, while A Star is Born seems to me a tragedy without real cynicism. But A Star is Born does escalate the questioning of Hollywood, both purposefully and inadvertently. Like the two previous films, it ultimately celebrates Hollywood, though it does go about as far as possible in the other direction without tearing down the institutions of the movie business.

Twin Peaks: The One-Armed Man


SEASON 1, EPISODE 4
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Tim Hunter
written by Robert Engels


"Maybe you should run away and join the circus."

This episode, directed by David Lynch's AFI classmate Tim Hunter, throws the previous outing's flaws into perspective. It is the most technically sophisticated of the non-Lynch shows and pulls us furthest into the mystery. In a weird way it's this episode more than any other that best crystallizes the impression people had of "Twin Peaks." Right away, Hunter and writer Robert Engels cut to the chase. Though Laura was buried last week, she didn't really seem to be the focus of the episode, which wandered all over the place. This time we start with a spooky shot of the Palmer house (similar to the one before our first sighting of Bob), followed quickly by Laura's portrait and a pan over to Andy drawing a picture of Bob. Now that Laura's in the ground, the atmosphere thickens and the plot loosens a bit, finding room to grow. The mystery aspect, as opposed to the mysticism and melodrama, will rise to the forefront again over the next 45 minutes.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Twin Peaks: Rest in Pain


SEASON 1, EPISODE 3
("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Tina Rathborne
written by Harley Peyton


"Oh yeah? Well, I've had just about enough of morons and half-wits, dolts, dunces, dullards and dumbbells. And you, chowderhead yokel, you blithering hayseed, you've had enough of me?"

In a 1990 cover story on David Lynch, Time Magazine references "Tina Rathborne, who directed the finest non-Lynch episode last season (Laura's funeral)." I find Lynch editor Duwayne Dunham's episode to be much better, and if memory serves, co-creator Mark Frost's finale is also strong. It doesn't help that this is the first episode not written by Lynch & Frost. Those duties are taken by Harley Peyton, who wrote the popular 80s film Less Than Zero (unseen by me, but understood to be very witty and sharp). The dialogue takes on a more absurd but artful edge, especially in the character of Albert Rosenfield, the cynical FBI agent who gets in some zingers at the expense of Twin Peaks' earnest townsfolk. See the above quote, to which Sheriff Truman responds with a (flagrantly telegraphed) punch to the face. Even chowderhead yokels have their limits.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

War and Peace

Opening on barren, empty battlefields, whizzing past telephoto close-ups of grass and dirt with a bizarre, avant-garde audio collage enveloping the soundtrack, then soaring into the sky through clouds to reveal a breathtaking panorama, War and Peace immediately confounds expectations that it will be pedantic, stuffy, and overly solemn. Which is appropriate because the book it is adapting is similarly light on pretension and nimble in style, a fact often overlooked when regarding the tome's massive length, all-inclusive title, and daunting literary reputation. Like Tolstoy, Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk delves into his material with gusto. War and Peace stutters and missteps more than the book it adapts - though it is often smoother as well - but Tolstoy's masterpiece also has an uneven quality - which is ironically one of its major strengths.

Warning Shadows

In Warning Shadows, a German silent film, a travelling entertainer shows up at a mansion to put on a show. The owner of the estate is married to a beautiful woman, and he jealously watches as she flirts with several other men. Then the entertainer puts on a shadow play with puppets, mesmerizing - even hypnotizing - his audience. What ensues is an increasingly violent exhibition of the rich man's jealousy and his wife's treachery. Reflections and shadows abound, sometimes illuminating hidden realities (the husband sees a suitor leaving his wife's bedroom in a mirror), at other times creating illusions (in the picture above the men are actually not caressing the woman - it's a trick of the lighting inside the house). The spectators' worst fantasies are played out as the husband forces the suitors to stab his wife and is then himself thrown out a window. But it turns out this was all a vision conjured by the entertainer and as the audience awakens from their disturbing collective hallucination, they take heed of these "warning shadows" and back off their decadent game-playing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jubilee & Radio On

British punk and post-punk have been popping up on the big screen 30 years after their musical heyday (see 24 Hour Party People and Control). But what about the first round of films? In 1977, Derek Jarman released Jubilee, his take on the then-peaking punk scene. Featuring a time-travelling Queen Elizabeth (the first) who is shocked by the lawlessness and lewdness of post-apocalyptic London, the movie presents a series of disconnected, seemingly improvised vignettes. Decadent punkers and anarchists cavort in their sparsely-decorated flats, brothers make out, a cartoonishly freakish record exec chortles and eats goldfish, et cetera. According to the documentary on the Criterion disc, the punks didn't take kindly Jarman's vision and fashion designer/wife of Malcolm McLaren even printed an open-letter T-shirt criticizing the director.

But if many found Jarman's film a too dystopian and decadent take on the vibrant new scene, within a few years a more bleak outlook had taken hold. 1979's Radio On unfolds in long, long (long) sequences with little to no dialogue, its main character travelling by car past post-industrial wastelands to his recently deceased brother's flat. Though scored by music that was already popping up in '77 (David Bowie & Brian Eno, Kraftwerk) it feels more characteristic of Thatcher's post-punk England than the already-past glory days of the Sex Pistols and the Queen's Jubilee.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lost Highway

Several minutes into Lost Highway, I had to get up for a drink of water. I fidgeted. I decided I'd rather watch the disc on my TV than on my computer, where the chair is somewhat uncomfortable; but then I moved back to the computer so I could sit closer to the screen. I took off my glasses and put my contacts back in. With all I'd heard about Lost Highway's difficulty I didn't want to shortchange the film. Perhaps I should watch it another night, when I'm less restless, more in the mood? Instead, I cued it up to the beginning and started over. Funny - I had no clue that my stops, starts, and restarts would eventually be mirrored in the movie itself. Which, incidentally, I ended up really, really liking.