Lost in the Movies: August 2008

August Overlook

Someday this blog will have a sidebar which alphabetizes my posts, rescuing them from the tyranny of chronology. But until that day, some entries will continue to get lost in the shuffle. Now that August is coming to an end, and with it the summer, I'll take a moment for reflection. I present you the first of what promise to be monthly Overlooks: five posts which didn't seem to get much attention, but which I trust you will find interesting on this late occasion, hopefully enough so to comment and get the ball rolling. Consider yourself invited to the as-yet-nonexistent discussion; dates have no meaning around these parts and I'll be happy to respond no matter how many weeks have passed. And don't stop with what I've suggested - explore the whole blog and drop a line here, there, and everywhere. Because, really, you've got nothing better to do, right?

1. Silent Ozu: "...So I'm not knocking Ozu or cinematic transcendence by saying that the two really don't have anything to do with each other."

2. Twin Peaks in Context: "Oh, and as an aside, what's your favorite Twin Peaks moment? Mine...is probably Donna sitting in the Roadhouse, softly mouthing the words to Julee Cruise's ethereal song."

3. 2046: "Wong's films weave a web of seductive grace, leaving you too bedazzled to resist the narcotic bite of the director. He has us at hello, or rather, at the moment Nat King Cole beckons in his honeyed voice and Zhang Ziyi casts a fleeting, teasing glance in our direction."

4. Blue Velvet: "It does have the appearance of a nightmare, but a kind of sickly, feverish nightmare, not one that taps into the collective unconscious. Put another way, the movie is far more Freud than Jung."

5. Farewell, termite: "I'd say that the most fascinating termitic activity is when the bugs are swarming all over elephant dung that a lumbering white pachaderm left behind (there's an image for you). Perhaps film is at its finest as a scavenger's art, eating away at the detritus of its own pomposity."

As for the detritus of my own pomposity, pretty popular were A dirty dozen and its follow-up Another dirty dozen (see the Holy Grail for a round-up of those who participated); also well-attended was my review of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. This was definitely the month of "Twin Peaks" - and a couple days ago I noted the impact on the series whenever Lynch sits down in the director's chair. Politics, which is popping up again in the national consciousness right about now, reared its lovely head in discussions of Iraq in The War Tapes and Why We Fight, a revisiting of The Dark Knight (favorably contrasting its viewpoint and approach to Iron Man & The Matrix), and even The Incredibles. At one point not so long ago, I noted some similarities between a few masked vigilantes; T.S. was intrigued at the prospect of understanding Batman through the KKK, but few others seemed to take the bait. Here's a hint: it's never too late...

(And don't forget Brian Dennehy as a sheriff square dancing with prostitutes, the tube's very own take on Buford Pusser...)

Ignore the "Read More" link as for once, there's nothing after the jump. Enjoy your Labor Day.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Broken Blossoms

After the grand folly of Intolerance, D.W. Griffith turned out a number of features in succession, many about the Great War that America had just joined. His most notable picture was Hearts of the World, a very pro-French testament to German barbarism, albeit with some of Griffith's antiwar sentiments stirred into the mix. Supposedly, that is. Hearts of the World is not available on Netflix, nor are the half-dozen other films that followed Intolerance. Since I'm using the online service as my guide, that brings us to 1919, three years later, and to the great director's most acclaimed work, following Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation.

Broken Blossoms couldn't be much more different from those lavish, ambitious epics. It is a quiet, poetic film, focusing on the plight of two individuals. It's about half the length of those earlier features, and does not contain an ambitious structure or massive themes or dozens of innovations. Broken Blossoms presents a director firmly in control of his craft, yet unwilling to show off. Much of the movie, especially the first half, unfolds in rather long shots, taking in the grimy surroundings of its two protagonists as they drift within its bounds (the film's one ambitious touch is its detailed sets, recreating London's poverty-stricken Limehouse district). The crosscutting is toned down here; it's used to heighten suspense but we're seldom as conscious of its effects as in Birth or Intolerance. If the latter film was the explosive work of a precocious but childlike sensibility, full of broad strokes and massive scale, Broken Blossoms exhibits a melancholy maturity.

Twin Peaks: Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer

("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

"Through the darkness of future past,
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds:
Fire, walk with me."

When David Lynch directs an episode of "Twin Peaks," idiosyncrasy rules. The show is certainly quirky to begin with, but that quirkiness occasionally takes on a familiar tone, as if we could understand and even be wryly amused by the town's eccentricities. With Lynch at the helm, that comprehension drops away. On the first official episode of "Twin Peaks," series editor Duwayne Dunham delivered a crisp, efficient, polished 45 minutes of television, which veered deftly from tone to tone, balancing the comedic with the ironically maudlin and the genuinely tragic. It also contained one masterful moment of shock which exposed an irrational, dreamlike realm beneath the show's mystery. Lynch's episodes tend to revisit that realm and stretch that moment out until it encompasses most of what we see onscreen.

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: The Bad and the Beautiful

[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 Bad and the Beautiful, released the same year as Singin' in the Rain, steps that film's good-natured satire up a notch. Where the sunny musical pokes and prods the stars - the easiest and safest target of public ridicule - Vincente Minnelli's melodrama dares to criticize a big-shot producer for his hubris and ruthlessness. Singin' in the Rain punishes its protagonists with bruised egos, while The Bad and the Beautiful doesn't stop short of personal betrayal, sexual manipulation, and even death. One film heaps its ridicule on the absurdities of silent cinema, a period safely in Hollywood's past, while the other takes the action right up to the world of 1952, basing its characters on figures still prominent in "the biz." All in all, it would appear that The Bad and the Beautiful launches a serious attack on Hollywood's mores and myths, that it is a scathing indictment, while Singin' in the Rain is a good-natured roast. Yet in truth, The Bad and the Beautiful - in its own unusual way - is just as much a celebration of the Hollywood system as Singin' in the Rain - perhaps more so.

Silent Ozu

Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu - Three Family Comedies

I Was Born But... (click on the title to see my review)
Passing Fancy
Tokyo Chorus

Though this isn't necessarily the best place to note it - an analysis of the director's later work might be more fitting - Yasujiro Ozu has been somewhat misclassified. Namely, he has been grouped with Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson under the heading "transcendentalist cinema," by Paul Schrader and others following in his wake. Truth is, Ozu has probably authored some of the least transcendent films of all time. Don't get me wrong; he was one of the masters of the art form, even in his youth. And, on the other hand, I love transcendent film experiences - it's why I became a movie lover in the first place. So I'm not knocking Ozu or cinematic transcendence by saying that the two really don't have anything to do with each other.

Not having read Schrader's book, perhaps I'm misunderstanding its thesis; but as I see it Ozu does not offer transcendence in his studies of family life (whether in a comedic or tragic context). He offers stoicism, often through good humor, occasionally through sacrifice and repression - but always a sense of human beings, aware of their futility, coping with their situations. They savor the moments of happiness and often lash out in frustration when things don't go their way, but Ozu's conclusions usually find them making their peace with the realities of their lives. Call this philosophy what you will, but transcendence it ain't.

Perhaps where Ozu comes closest to transcendence is in the indelible, uncanny naturalism of his early style. These three films demonstrate that quality with remarkable aplomb.

The Holy Grail

Yes, I know it seems like a cop-out, but I've been hoping for a few days now to do a follow-up post to Another dirty dozen. Besides, there are a number of entries in gestation. I could write up Ozu's Passing Fancy, but I want to include it in a review of the whole Silent Ozu series along with I Was Born But... and Tokyo Chorus, which I'll watch tomorrow. Also forthcoming is an analysis of the most daring and provocative "Twin Peaks" episode yet, along with new additions to the ongoing series The Auteurs and Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood.

So, defensiveness out of the way, I'd like to give a hat tip to all those who participated in my (still continuing) list-making venture. After the jump are all the blogs who've offered up their take on the "Holy Grail" meme (12 unavailable-on-Netflix movies you'd like to catch for the first time on the big screen). This will be continually updated so keep 'em coming. If I left anyone out, please include your blog and its link in the comments section. Though it's all a bit of a tease, many of these films do play in retro screenings and it's my hope that these lists can be used as a reference by any of us lucky enough to reside in (or visit) one of the big cities. Or, if the movie sounds compelling enough, perhaps we'll try to track it down in whatever other-region/VHS/ bootleg version we can find. (Also, believe it or not TCM has been known to screen some of these from time to time - I'm looking at you, Abel Gance.)

Without further ado, the brave crusaders in their quest for the holy grail...

Pineapple Express

Though I keep up a pretty steady pace on this blog, I'm not actually writing about every movie I see. Some get lost in the shuffle, often because I'm not sure what to say or else there just happen to be other things I want to discuss at the time. Last Friday, I went to see Pineapple Express on the big screen (my first such venture to the multiplexes since The Dark Knight a month ago). I laughed, enjoyed it, but never got around to doing an entry on it. Instead, I did another Twin Peaks episode, a reflection on Buster Keaton, and a last-minute entry in a blog-a-thon/kick-off for my own series. But I did respond to the Mad Hatter's review of Pineapple Express and, intrigued by my comment, he came to this site looking for my full-length write-up. Well, a few days later, here it is.

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: Singin' in the Rain (MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES BLOG-A-THON)

(The is the first entry in Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood)

In the spirit of killing two birds with one stone, Singin' in the Rain will be both my last-minute entry in goatdogblog's Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon and the inaugural film in my Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series. A couple recent reviews of In a Lonely Place (on Movies et al and MovieZeal) got me thinking. In the early 50s, something caused Hollywood to turn a spiteful gaze upon itself. Maybe it was HUAC and the blacklist, destroying careers and relationships across town. Or perhaps the breakup of the studio monopoly, heralding the eventual demise of the system. It could've just been part of the Cold War/Atomic Age national malaise, a self-doubt and weariness consuming the public once they no longer had a Depression or World War to distract them from their existential crises.

Whatever the reason, a number of screenwriters and directors spat out self-loathing classic after self-loathing classic in the years between 1950 and 1954: Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Barefoot Contessa, A Star is Born. And smack in the middle of them all came the breeziest and sunniest of the narcissistic, self-critical fare (which makes it a good picture to start with): the comic musical masterpiece, Singin' in the Rain. This movie is often considered the pinnacle of the musical genre, and like many pinnacles it's actually something of an aberration.

Our Hospitality

Ever deadpan, Buster Keaton shakes the hand of the imposing figure who, moments earlier, was ready to kill him. Most Keaton films focus on the plucky, athletic little man's battles with his environment and in a sense, Our Hospitality is no different: Keaton's increasingly dangerous and often death-defying stunts include straddling train cars, riding rapids without a boat, falling from a cliff face into the water far below (while tied by rope to another man), and hanging from a log which is halfway over a giant waterfall. Yet at its heart, this 1923 classic pits Keaton not against the elements, but against society, or at least a bizarre offshoot which heightens society's propensity for both violence and manners to an absurd degree. Keaton plays a Southern boy come home, the last of his clan marked for death in a family feud of which he had no prior knowledge. To make matters worse, he's fallen in love with the daughter of his enemy brood. Only the hospitality of her kin, who refuse to shoot a guest in their own home, keeps him alive...as long as he doesn't walk out their front door.

Twin Peaks: Traces to Nowhere

("Twin Peaks" reviews start here)

directed by Duwayne Dunham
written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

"It's like I'm having the most beautiful dream and the most terrifying nightmare all at once."

Actually, I could have chosen several memorable quotes to lead this entry. There's Cooper delicately sipping his morning cup of Joe and declaring with characteristic brio, "You know, this is - excuse me - a DAMN fine cup of coffee." Or grinning as he advises a fellow FBI agent (shortly after discussing the autopsy of a brutally murdered teen) to check out a local diner because "they've got a cherry pie that'll kill ya!" And who could forget Pete Martell barging in on his guests (as they sip freshly poured coffee) to warn them that, "It's the damnedest thing...there's a fish in the percolator!" Sliding further into camp, we have a dreamy flashback of Laura with James as she asks him why she's so happy, and he speculates: "Because your skin is so soft and you smell so good?" If it's the creepy-yet-campy mood you're going for, why not that bizarre freeze-frame of Laura's face in the home movie, as a voice on the soundtrack moans, "Help...me!" And for unmitigated creepiness and terror, we could go with Laura's mother's incantation, "I miss her so much!" repeated five times before her eyes widen in terror and she sees...wait and we'll get to that. Anyway, it's Donna's line to her mother which I chose, because it best sums up the hard-to-pin-down mood and tone of "Twin Peaks," a quality that only makes the show more fascinating.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Intolerance

As I noted last week, D.W. Griffith professed astonishment at the controversy surrounding Birth of a Nation, his 1915 epic. He followed it with another epic, even more lavish, this one devoted to the theme of intolerance in order to prove what a swell ol' guy D.W. was. This film had enormous sets, a cast of hundreds (thousands?), and a ludicrously ambitious structure and concept - the telling of four separate stories, in four different historical periods, cutting between them all so that they unfolded simultaneously. The movie came out in 1916. Think about that. This Herculean follow-up to his masterpiece was executed and delivered a mere year later; that should tell you something. Griffith directs Intolerance with the bravado of a drunken genius, as if he couldn't take the time to sort everything out neatly and just tackled the material on the wit of his whim. Consequently, his sheer enthusiasm makes the unwieldly, potentially overstuffed picture work. As someone who often has several books sitting by my bedside because I can't settle on just one, I have to say I dig the ambition.

Another dirty dozen

It's time for another annoying list - this one occurred to me during Piper's 12 Movies Meme. Over at Out 1, James Hansen selected L'Amour fou and admitted he was doing so because he hadn't seen it and would love the opportunity to do so. My own list included many of my all-time favorites, but this different approach started the wheels turning. So now I propose a new list-making venture for all of you reading this: imagine that you can screen 12 hard-to-see movies that you've personally never viewed before. And since all memes need a catchy name, call this the "Holy Grail" list.

Here are the rules:

Twin Peaks


directed by David Lynch
written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

"She's dead, wrapped in plastic!"

And so she is, her hair spilling over the plastic wrapping like a bouquet of dead flowers. That's how poor Pete Martell finds her, fishing rod in hand. His last words to his wife, before he walks outside (where he'll discover the girl's body, washed ashore)? "Gone fishin'," - which are also the first words we'll ever hear in the town of Twin Peaks; and indeed director David Lynch, in his first stab at televisual filmmaking, effortlessly hooks us with this early scene. Yet even before the first lines have been spoken, or even before the show proper has begun, the bait has been set.

"Twin Peaks," the feature-length 1990 pilot for the show of the same name, begins with one of the eeriest title themes and visual montages ever to open a series. In later episodes, this title sequence will be shortened slightly, with the name of the show emerging over a shot of the town's "Welcome" sign with those titular mountains in the background. But this time "Twin Peaks" appears onscreen over footage of the lumber mill machinery at work, spinning saws rising, cutting, setting off sparks in a kind of synchronized dance. Like much of the industrial imagery in Lynch's debut Eraserhead, the visuals are unsettling and right away there's a suggestion of inhuman brutality. Once we move outside, to more natural locales like the town's waterfall, there's still something creepy in the way every location is so empty. The slow, dreamy quality of the transitions from static shot to static shot (until we reach the rolling waters which will deliver a corpse onto a rocky beach) pulls us deeper into the mystery.

Farewell, termite

Manny Farber died yesterday and everyone's trotting out the forced analogies. Here's mine: his prose was like hard, tacky gum. I think that sounds kind of cool, but in case you're wondering, it's a compliment. Sadly I can't really expand on what others are saying. Not only did I not know Farber personally but I had only just begun to become acquainted with his work. A year or two ago I finally stumbled upon his famed celebration of "termite art," and that essay has been crawling through my brain and eating at my consciousness ever since, kind of like a...well, you get the picture.

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been embroiled in controversy because of its extravagant claims to documentary realism. Supposedly it presents, without any frills, the hardscrabble life of noble Eskimo hunter Nanook, as he hunts animals spear in hand, beds down in insulated igloos with his family, and ekes out a survival in the isolated wilderness, where he and his kin are constantly on the verge of starvation. Of course, the presence of a camera crew ensures that no one is lost in the isolated wilderness, and that food is accessible, and even that those igloos aren't so insulated: they have three walls and are open to the air so that director Robert Flaherty's camera can capture the images "inside." Furthermore, Nanook and other Inuit hunters use guns, not spears, to hunt, Nanook's family isn't actually his family (they were selected by Flaherty for their roles) and to top it all off Nanook isn't actually Nanook. His real name was Allakariallak - not quite as catchy.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet is a strange, strange movie. Well, of course...this is David Lynch, right? But no, it isn't strange like his other movies. Those are unique and uncanny and surreal, but they connect on a dream level, appealing to subconscious tics you didn't even know you had. Not Blue Velvet, at least not for me. I first saw it five years ago, shortly after Mulholland Drive and I couldn't figure out why it was considered the superior film. Its dark-side-of-suburbia theme seemed trite and old-hat, and its surrealism paled in comparison to Mulholland Drive's ethereal atmosphere, which you could sink into and lose yourself. What redeemed its classic status was Dennis Hopper's madcap performance, lurching out of the screen and shocking in ways timeless and indestructible. Other than that, why was Blue Velvet David Lynch's masterpiece?

Now, on my second viewing, new thoughts emerge. One: this is Lynch's Breathless; it's the film for people who don't like the rest of the director's oeuvre. Blue Velvet is what you'll find on critics' top 100 lists; it's the token Lynch, or the token surrealism, or even the token avant-garde (just as Breathless frequently appears on the same lists, in lieu of stronger Godard works like Masculin Feminin, Alphaville, or Week End). Yet I think that Blue Velvet, like Breathless, may be a great film after all - you just have to leave the accumulated baggage at the door. Breathless is constantly praised for its "groundbreaking" qualities (if I have to read about those stupid jump cuts one more time, I'll throw my computer out the window) when in fact those very elements were improved and developed in later Godard films. But if you throw out all the "influential" garbage talk (a film is primarily "influential" when there's nothing else interesting to say about it), what remains is a uniquely charming, idiosyncratic, and enjoyable film. Go with the flow instead of trying to take it apart, or seeing it as part of some great pantheon, standing for something. Only then will it yield its charms. So with Blue Velvet, though "charms" hardly seems the appropriate word.

A Real American Hero: The Buford Pusser Story (SIGHT UNSEEN BLOG-A-THON)

"The film that inspired WALKING TALL." And, on the back, "the true story that inspired the WALKING TALL films." So proclaims the shabby DVD case for A Real American Hero: The Buford Pusser Story. Of course this is a load of BS; not only did this "film" arrive years after Walking Tall, but I suspect this TV movie wasn't even a film at all: it looks like a TV pilot with a tacked-on ending, most likely filmed just in case the TV series wasn't picked up (which it eventually was, 3 or 4 years later, and with a different lead actor). Personally, I've never even seen Walking Tall (the original or the one with the Rock - sorry, Dwayne Whateverhisnameis). So why did I watch this movie - or for that matter, why did I buy it? Well, because it was $1 at Wal-Mart and this review is a last-minute entry in the "Unseen DVD Blog-a-Thon" instigated over at cinexcellence, which I've been meaning to participate in for a while.

Besides, it stars Brian Dennehy, whom I've enjoyed since his turn as a perpetually bemused alien in the old-codgers-get-horny-with-the-help-of-extraterrestrials movie Cocoon. (Trivia: did you know Dennehy was only 3 years younger than Wilford Brimley? Or that Brimley was barely 50 in that film? But I digress.) Actually, he's got a twinkle in his eye here too, which is not to be expected from the source material. But then not much is. Remember those taglines on the DVD? They're complemented by the disclaimer at the end of the movie: "This motion picture was inspired by the life of Buford Pusser. However, all of the events...depicted in this motion picture are fictional."

Dark Knights for Different Eras

Our hero, a masked vigilante, concocts a disguise which will instill a sense of primal fear in the perceived enemies of his community. Opposed by a garishly made-up villain, fueled by anger at the death of a beloved woman, the hero strikes blows in the name of order. But the hero's crusade for extralegal justice is instigated by outside forces, as they introduce an element of chaos and anarchy into the community, and the hero must break the law in order to uphold it. "Welcome to a world without rules," indeed.

I of course don't mean to suggest that The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's epic 1915 ode to the Ku Klux Klan, and The Dark Knight, this summer's critically-acclaimed, crowd-pleasing blockbuster hit, are somehow identical. There are numerous differences, large and small (most importantly, the Batman movie isn't virulently, or even nominally, racist). Yet the other night I wrote about the Batman film's mythological overtones, and re-watching The Birth of a Nation for my D.W. Griffith series, I was taken aback by how Griffith's film also works on the level of myth, and in much the same fashion (both generally and specifically) as The Dark Knight.

Twin Peaks in context

Atop my first post on "Twin Peaks," I quoted the show: "That gum you like is going to come back in style." Little did I know how right I was. Lately, the show has been materializing all over the blogosphere; both series and movie prequel Fire Walk With Me have popped up on Moon in the Gutter, Cinema Fist, and The Kinetoscope Parlor, among others. A quick google blog search for "Twin Peaks" turns up even more results; not bad for an 18-year-old show that was cancelled after one year, nor for a film which was booed at Cannes, panned by critics and ignored by audiences (I discuss Fire Walk With Me here and here). True, a new Gold Edition Box Set was released last fall, but why the sudden resurgence of interest this summer? Perhaps the Man From Another Place could tell us...

Anyway, my fascination with the series has only grown since I watched the final episodes and the prequel. So I'm going to do something slightly ridiculous - I am revisiting the series just weeks after I first discovered it, at a slower pace, analyzing it episode by episode.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Birth of a Nation

In 1915, D.W. Griffith released a masterwork, a full-length feature film with historical sweep, intimate detail, and a nimbleness unseen in cinema till then. Watching Griffith's short films at the beginning of this series, I was starting to find them tedious after a few minutes. Yet The Birth of a Nation, at over three hours, is never boring. It moves - hopping, skipping, and jumping across years and locations, yet keeping its focus on its central characters and themes, and taking its time when it needs to. There isn't a wasted moment in the whole film, and while some jump cuts may be the result of damaged film, there are certainly places where Griffith elides what is unnecessary and cuts in to punch up his point. The Birth of a Nation is a extremely tactile film, living and breathing in every frame. As we watch casual conversations unfold, sound would be superfluous; we're completely immersed in the moment without hearing what's being said. The actors give sensitive performances without wallowing in melodrama and Griffith uses space, camera movement, and cross-cutting expertly to play with our emotions and engage us in the action. In short, it's a tour-de-force.

It also tumbles into a terrifying darkness halfway through. Imagine taking a ride with someone who's a great driver, knowing all the shortcuts and making great time. Suddenly he turns demonic, careening off the road and taking you down a dirt path to God-knows-where: who is this psychopath and where did he come from? That's Griffith in this film. Not that the first half of the film isn't racist, but it's mostly too busy establishing its characters, building up the historical detail, and fighting the Civil War to bother itself one way or another about the black characters. However, once part two unrolls, we're thrust into the most primitive and chilling sort of reactionary paranoia. Suddenly, our reactions to the rest of the film are re-colored and Griffith's continuing expertise only leads us to question the brilliant fluidity of his technique; is it somehow tied in to the dark-age views he's espousing? Leftists who decry "bourgeois" filmmaking must love this movie; it makes their case for them.

The War Tapes

"I'll take out some pictures and I'll start to show them, they'll yeah yeah yeah yeah...You asked me to look at them, give me the goddamn respect of looking at my pictures. You have any idea what I've done? If I gave them ten minutes to feel that fear, that loneliness, and that sacrifice they might pay a little bit more attention." - Mike Moriarty

There has not yet been a definitive Iraq documentary, at least not one that I've seen. Why We Fight (which I reviewed here) tries and fails, but most other docs (perhaps wisely) focus on one aspect of the conflict. So you get No End in Sight, a masterful if dispiriting look at how horribly the occupation was run, full of talking heads, detailed and illustrative anecdotes, and an extreme focus on a specific period, described in precise chronology. Or Gunner Palace, the self-consciously stylish work of an embedded filmmaker, attempting to show daily life for the grunt. Or Iraq in Fragments, whose extraordinarily impressionistic vision of Iraqi life leaves American soldiers and tanks as foreboding spectres in the background, focusing on the lives of a Sunni orphan, a Shiite religious fanatic, and a Kurdish farmer. Iraq in Fragments may be a masterpiece of sorts, but it certainly does not offer a totalistic vision, nor does it attempt to illuminate life for an American in that country.

The War Tapes shares Gunner Palace's grunt-eye view, but with a notable difference: here we don't have a filmmaker trying to understand and portray the soldier's perspective - the soldiers themselves share and often dominate filmmaking duties.

The Dark Knight (revisited)

I've already reviewed The Dark Knight so I don't want to get into plot points, or the film as a whole, or initial reactions or anything like that. But I saw it again tonight, solidifying some of my early thoughts, and the whole phenomenon still fascinates. Why, and on what levels, does The Dark Knight work for me? There are a number of reasons it shouldn't.

As I discussed in my reaction to Jim Emerson's blog, I have fundamental problems with the way comic books tend to be translated from one medium to another. On the page, the symbolism and shorthand - the way characters and events stand for ideas and a kind of focused economy occurs, by which unnecessary details are left out of the frame - often packs a powerful punch. But in films, it usually feels like something is missing. This is especially true when the comic-book movie in question makes some gestures towards "realism" or "darkness" or "depth" which it then can't sustain because it has grounded itself in a shallow, surface-oriented kind of storytelling.

Critical idiocy vis a vis Fire Walk With Me

This will be my final post on "Twin Peaks," I promise (at least for a few days). Last night I reviewed Fire Walk With Me, acknowledging my ambivalence about the way the film mixed its highly disturbing subject matter with the supernatural elements. Since then, the film and especially Laura Palmer, have continued to haunt me. I must concede that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of those films whose raw power overwhelms any troublesome elements, ensuring the film, flaws and all, a place in the pantheon of unforgettable classics. Which makes it all the more astonishing how thoroughly critics missed the boat.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

If you don't want to know anything about Twin Peaks, particularly the big secret, stop reading now.

For weeks I've been absorbed in "Twin Peaks," the 1990 television series, masterminded by David Lynch, which kept viewers tuning in week after week to find out "who killed Laura Palmer?" "Twin Peaks" was many things. It was often funny, but not in any one, easily identifiable way. It could be goofy, knowingly ironic, sweetly silly, absurd. It was also suspenseful, with new twists and turns leading us down a convoluted path to discover who the murderer was. It was frightening, in fact genuinely terrifying, though always just for moments, with comic relief usually coming to the rescue before long. And, of course, it was bizarre. Dancing dwarfs in red rooms, a psychic FBI agent, a woman who carried a log around with her at all times, a black lodge, a white lodge - all cryptic messages alluding to some hidden mystery, a mystery much deeper than the question of who stabbed the teenage beauty queen and threw her body in the river.

And, also, "Twin Peaks" was sad. Seldom acutely sad, the way it could be acutely frightening, although the scene in which Laura's parents find out she's been murdered dwells on their grief. Rather, there was an undertone of sadness, often so diluted it just seemed part of the pulpy overtones of the show, a mock-emotion that Lynch used to get at that eerie, ethereal flavor he was seeking. But every now and then the sadness seemed genuine, and when each episode closed with the picture of Laura Palmer, so perfect, so beautiful, and now so dead, that sadness lingered.

The movie, a prequel which details the last days of Laura, knows that it doesn't have any new secrets to reveal. Laura's murderer was exposed halfway through the second season and though the show tried to move on, it never recovered. Pauline Kael wrote that Marlon Brando's unseen presence pervaded and gave weight to the second Godfather film, even though he wasn't in it. The same is true of Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks" and so what the film offers, far more valuable than the facts or the "secrets" of her last days, is their texture. We're drawn into the film to see Laura as she really was. I was immensely excited to see Fire Walk With Me and about halfway through I was convinced that it was a movie of rare power and accomplishment. Now that I've seen all of it, I still think so and yet I can't say for certain how I feel about it.

First things first, Fire Walk With Me is a movie drenched in pain. The jokiness of the series, the purposefully saccharine emotions, the overplayed performances and score are, after the possibly unnecessary first act, out. Laura Palmer's story is not a movie-of-the-week; it doesn't tease and then soothe our emotions, titillating us with the promise of catharsis and keeping us far enough away to avoid getting hurt. It's actually one of the most upsetting works of art I've ever seen.

That gum you like is going to come back in style...

Well, I finally finished "Twin Peaks." There's so much to say about it, but I'm not going to do so right now. First I want some time to digest, to watch the special features on the DVD, and also to read everything about the show that I can get my hands on (not literally get my hands on, I'm talking about the Internet here). The prequel film Fire Walk With Me arrives tomorrow, and I'll watch that too. A review of the movie will probably be up before my reaction to the show.

Still, some words are in order. I was always under the impression that the series was cancelled when audiences realized it wasn't going to "solve" Laura Palmer's murder, that Lynch was just using that incident as a springboard for his infamous...well, surrealism seems like too easy a word so I'll skip defining it for now. In other words, audiences just weren't with it enough to appreciate what was going on and they chickened out, and television lost one of its great shows. A wonderful little elitist tale of noble martyrdom, but in fact the series DOES solve Laura Palmer's murder, in a not-altogether satisfying way (not so much the solution, but the abrupt way it's handled in the middle of season 2). Then the series tries to become something else: an extremely quirky, occasionally violent Andy Griffith-type venture. At first this is a huge disappointment, eventually the show sort of finds a new groove, but it is never really successful. Never, that is, until the last episode, which closes the series with a bang. It, like all the best episodes, is directed by David Lynch and takes the uncanny into unforeseen dimensions. It also left me wondering if Lynch knew the show was going to be cancelled. Not only the final shot, but certain developments along the way, leave you with the feeling that there was supposed to be more, yet it also holds up as a finale.

I have to stop here because there's so much that I want to save for a full, in-depth entry, in which I'll take the time to write carefully and flesh out my conclusions and speculations. There's nothing more to say, but the blog demands a "Read More" link, so after the jump I've included a brief clip from the show, maybe its most terrifying moment. Rest assured that if you aren't familiar with the series it won't spoil anything, but it could very well give you nightmares.


Writing about Wong Kar-Wai can feel like dancing about architecture, or more accurately, trying to draw a blueprint based on an inexplicably moving dance. Through slow-motion, gorgeous color, music for which the word "evocative" doesn't begin to do justice, exquisite sound design, rhythmic editing, and the sympathetic and often beautiful faces of his actors, Wong's films weave a web of seductive grace, leaving you too bedazzled to resist the narcotic bite of the director. He has us at hello, or rather, at the moment Nat King Cole beckons in his honeyed voice and Zhang Ziyi casts a fleeting, teasing glance in our direction.

Actually, 2046 (2004) is only the third Wong Kar-Wai film I've seen, but there were moments which proved more dreamily overpowering than anything else I'd witnessed in his work (or that of most other filmmakers'). Ultimately, though, I find In the Mood for Love (2000) his richest and most satisfying work overall, and at times 2046 lurks in its shadow. This is appropriate enough given that the latter film is in fact a sequel, or "sequel" as my Netflix sleeve describes it, to Mood. The quotation marks are actually appropriate, as 2046 is often entirely tangential to the earlier film, though more often it is not. Dancing through several lovers, across different genres, and over concurrent late-sixties Christmases, but sticking closely to Mood's protagonist Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and the hotel in which he stays, the film has its ups and downs, but oh, those ups...

The problem with comic books (and movies)

Over at scanners, Jim Emerson has posed a series of questions about superheroes, comic books, and movies. To answer the title of his post, "Do critics hate comic-book movies?" he surveys the collective critical reaction to movies like X-Men, 300, and The Dark Knight and resolutely answers, "No." He follows up by asking, "where did this idea that critics dislike them come from?" As I wrote in his comment section, it's a fact that most critics are condescending towards the genre, although the more rabid fanboys also fuel the perception of immaturity when they overreact to criticism.

But it's a third question, unasked yet hinted, which most intrigued me and carried over onto this blog:

Is there something fundamentally wrong with comic-book movies?

To which I respond resolutely, confidently, and without trepidation: yes, no, and maybe.

Why We Fight

Why did we fight after 9/11? Why did we fight in Iraq? Why have we fought since World War II? Why do we fight at all? What does Gore Vidal have to say about all this? Perhaps if Why We Fight had tackled any of these questions individually (well, maybe not the last one), it would be a more focused and satisfying documentary. Then again, given the paucity of answers Eugene Jaracki's award-winning 2005 documentary provides despite all the questions, we might still have come up empty-handed. Anyway, great documentaries like Hearts and Minds can juggle numerous topics and questions, so Why We Fight's big muddle is ultimately the result of a formal failure and not over-ambition.

If any war required a documentary explaining its motives, it's this one. But like the Iraq invasion itself, Why We Fight is constantly employing sleight-of-hand, moving us from one topic to another without settling down, until we feel like we're in a restaurant examining an endless array of appetizers but no entrees. No explanation is compelling enough in and of itself, nor are enough connections drawn between the various threads to give us a composite answer. It's as if Jaracki was handed a Rubik's cube, furrowed his brow, set to work, and triumphantly returned it to our hands two hours later in a new and even more confusing jumble.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Biograph shorts, Part Two

See Part One here.

The second Biograph disc finally arrived after much delay, so tonight I picked up where I left off. I started with the bonus shorts, which were made earlier than most of the other works on disc two. Including The Last Drop of Water (1911), Friends (1912), The Lesser Evil (1912), and The Massacre (1912), they were variations on the standard Griffith melodrama, composed mostly in medium shots, and all but one favoring historical American subjects. It's hard not to see these works as dress rehearsals for The Birth of a Nation. Indeed, The Massacre features wide-angle battle scenes in which Griffith starts to exercise his interest in a large-scale spectacle. However, lacking the human drama of his later work, it's not quite as compelling. Notable with each of these works is his tendency to start strong, with characters strolling onscreen or appearing in repose as if we've just caught them in the middle of their daily routine. Right away we're drawn in, but with the short form to work with, Griffith quickly falls back on melodramatic cliches and shorthand characterizations. These four works suggest that Griffith could have worne out the possibilities of narrative shorts and is ready to move on to a larger canvas. As for the rest of the collection...

The Incredibles

For some reason, I never end up seeing Pixar films until well after their release, often on video. Maybe it just feels weird going to an animated film when you neither are nor have a kid? Although, given the enormous success of these movies, I doubt I'd be the only non-prepubescent/parent in the theater. I'm always entertained when I finally see them, and The Incredibles is no exception. This 2004 feature may be the most acclaimed Pixar picture, with a great deal of credit going to animation auteur Brad Bird. He departs from the usual formula of anthropomorphizing animals, toys, robots, or cars, but his protagonists here aren't exactly normal humans, either...

Actually, the target of The Incredibles' ire is normalcy itself, in a fashion some have read as conservative (more on that later). The clever and often ironic, but also warm-hearted, tale follows the union of superheroes Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. On the job, they flirt and exchange one-liners while fighting burglars, but as soon as the masks are off, they bicker and barter like any other married couple. And after a while, those masks stay off - a series of lawsuits causes the government to crack down on superheroes, placing them in a sort of witness protection program and banning them from donning cape and tights ever again. Fifteen years and several pounds later, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible have three kids, a suburban home, and the usual family fights and domestic discomforts to deal with (though invisibility and superhuman strength tend to jazz things up a bit). All is comfy, cozy, and somewhat boring. That is, until... well, you get the idea.

The Man You Loved to Hate/Foolish Wives

I'm sorry to see that great image from Daisies disappear from the top of my blog, but the time has come for a new entry. Nonetheless, if any face could replace that memorable one, it's the slightly demonic, curiously hypnotic visage of the man early film audiences (and later, studio producers) would love to hate. I'll eventually be dealing with Erich von Stroheim in my AUTEURS series, so this may seem like jumping the gun, but between D.W. Griffith and him is Cecil B. DeMille, who has something like 3,921 movies on Netflix. By the time I get to von Stroheim in that project, I'm sure I'll have a fresh perspective.

On a side note, my egregious blog-pimping seems to have worked; thanks & welcome to those who commented on A dirty dozen. I hope you'll stick around - if you want to check out some of the older posts, I'd recommend The Virgin Suicides, The Brave Little Toaster, The Dark Knight, and I'm Not There among others. Let me know what you think.

A dirty dozen

My 12 films: Some Came Running, God's Country, Paris Belongs to Us, Rosemary's Baby, Pandora's Box, Daisies, Scarface, Baby Face, Air Force, Yellow Submarine, Last of the Mohicans, Easy Rider

Do memes last more than a week? It's been eight days since Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre challenged bloggers to program 12 films at the New Beverly Cinema. Eight days in the blogosphere seems like an eternity but I'll go ahead and bite (not that anyone asked me to). The idea is to create a rep program of twelve films, in themed couplets (for example, Piper sticks High Fidelity with Punch Drunk Love as romantic comedies, and Song of the South with Coonskin as half-animated, racially controversial adaptations of Uncle Remus' tales). Some have chosen to give the entire program an overarching theme; hats off to them, but I found it hard enough deciding what to include and what to leave out.

My pairs are themed, but the overall program is not, save that they are all among my favorite films, ones I would love to share with an audience. I tried for diversity, and there are some classics, some more recent films (nothing from the past 15 years, though), all in different styles and genres. There are silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, animated and live-action, even documentary. Admittedly, all but three or four are American. And one persistent consistency proved impossible to overcome: fully half the films are from the 60s, my favorite cinematic decade. It's a testament to that era's richness that the list still feels diverse. Anyway, on to the explanations...



1998 was a good year for movies. True, Affliction's official year of release was 1997, when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and I didn't see it until 1999, when it finally opened in wide release across the U.S. But I'll always associate it with the year between these two, a year that feels now like the final hurrah of 20th century cinema. When works like Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings and Being John Malkovich were released the following year, giving an early kickstart to 21st century filmmaking, '98 began to seem like the swan song of classicism. These newer works were often dark, hip, witty in one way or another, and highly self-conscious in their play with structure and expectation. Call them "surface" works, expressed through a slick style which often bypassed the human element en route to big themes and grand ideas. These films weren't especially my cup of tea and still aren't, though their influence is stronger than ever.

Saving Private Ryan, Gods and Monsters, The Thin Red Line, the often-maligned Life is Beautiful, even Rushmore, the breakthrough work of the becoming-unfashionable hipster godhead Wes Anderson, were films that had people at their center. Even Babe: Pig in the City, Gene Siskel's final pick for best-of-the-year, and a film staffed by animals, had a warm, human heart. Of course, to a certain extent, my memory is arbitrary and selective. To be fair, '98 wasn't and still isn't generally seen as a high-water mark for either classicism or humanism in film. The classical era had supposedly been over for something like thirty years, and critics were already - indeed, had long been - decrying trends towards special effects and away from character. But can we really doubt that a great change occurred around this time, setting the tone for our current epoch? Not that many of these new films aren't good. Indeed, formally, they are often an improvement on well-intentioned but aesthetically unadventurous dramas. Yet something has been critically wounded in our transition into a faster-paced, slicker, more cerebral and clever art cinema...and the end product, even at its best, can seem to lack a soul.

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