I have some respect for some (but not all) Kevin Smith films when I’m in the right mood. But apparently his latest film includes jokes about donkey sex (I’ll bet it was Randal, thinking it was his mom). It was too much for Joel Siegel, prompting an obscenity-laced counterattack from Smith. Page Six has the scoop. Here’s my favorite Smith excerpt:
“I don’t need Joel Siegel to [bleep] my [bleep] the way he apparently [bleeps] M. Night Shyamalan’s, gushing over his flick ['The Lady in the Water'] before he’s even seen it, but [bleep] man, man – how about a little common [bleeping] courtesy? You never, never disrupt a movie, simply because you don’t like it. Cardinal rule of moviegoing: Shut your [bleeping] mouth while the movie’s playing.
The grades are now up through Day 3 of this 4-day fest. Here’s thoughts on the first day of films.
THAT SPRINGTIME FEELING (F. Richard Jones / Syd Chaplin, USA, 1915) 4
THE MISSING LINK (Chuck Reisner / Syd Chaplin, USA, 1927) 7
These two films — a short and a feature respectively — were 12 years apart in time and light years apart in sensibility and the “character” played by the movies’ 3rd-most-famous Chaplin. In the earlier much-simpler film, Syd plays a character with some strong resemblances to the Little Tramp. Mack Sennett obviously sent the Keystone crew out to a nearby park to film a reel’s worth of pratfalls — broad types jumping up and down, running into each other, knocking each other over the head. It’s not my favorite style of comedy, and frankly my reaction to early Sennetts is based on whether there any sustained sequences, any gags allowed to build and develop. FEELING has one, but it’s very good — involving Syd trying to seduce a young maid on a park bench, while trying to keep modesty in front of the toddler she’s minding. Brilliant timing, especially with the 2-year-old (you do wonder “how are they getting the kid to hit his cue”). LINK came much later as part of a Syd comeback after he retired to look after his brother’s business affairs. Here, he plays someone more indebted to Charley Chase than Charlie Chaplin — a klutzy bourgeois coward who’s terrified of animals. So the plot requires him to go off to Africa posing as a legendary huntsman, trying to capture the missing link. The show is stolen by the animals though — an organgrinder’s monkey at the beginning, and a chimpanzee when they get to Africa — and like with the toddler, you’re amazed at these creatures’ timing. Not that Syd is worthless — he does well overseeing a fight among an African tribe’s warriors as if it were a boxing match (gesturing “no clubbing below the belt,” say), and he’s not bad at some of the pratfall humor. But he never have the amazement factor that Akka the chimpanzee can, who acts one scene, of messing with Syd and love interest Ruth Hiatt, with mechanical precision of gesture and timing that would do a Feydeau farce proud.
STUPID BUT BRAVE (Fatty Arbuckle / Al St. John, USA, 1924) 8
Another of the “finds” for me at Slapsticon is how much more I enjoy Fatty post-scandal, as a director of other actors, than an actor himself (although I’d see my favorite acting work of his to date on Day 3). The plot is a little more complicated than a lot of 10s stuff — it involves poor young lad Al St. John getting his dream job (a funny sequence in itself) and then having to travel to claim it. But the gags are brilliantly and ingeniously set up with both the precision plot logic and an eye for audience anticipation and underplay that I like — as in a lengthy sequence at a barber shop. Fatty also has a good visual sense of where to place the camera and how to fill the frame to set up the joke and make the impossible look possible, as during that barber shop sequence, when I saw for the first time ever, a human head (Al St. John’s) do a 720-degree twist. One bit player — the boss’s secretary — steals the movie despite basically performing just three gestures — holding a door, a yawn, and a line to the camera. The line is not hard to lip-read, and frankly my dear, it came 15 years before Clark Gable
PLAY SAFE (Joseph Henabery / Monty Banks, USA, 1927) 7
Actually released near-simultaneously with Buster Keaton’s famous THE GENERAL, PLAY SAFE ends with a two-reel looks-like-location-shot chase involving a train — and horses and tram cars and a racing car and a man being dragged by a horse, plus running on top of the train and playing with the tracks. The sequence is is often anthologized and is fully the equal of Keaton’s train chase in terms of kinetic energy, sustained suspense, athleticism and inventive gags. My favorite gags involved a water tower and the race car. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a man outrun a dog, unfaked, this movie is your chance. But the rest of the movie is not in THE GENERAL’s class. Monty Banks plays a nebbish who becomes a man — again, rather like Buster, and it invites an impossible standard of comparison. He’s not as sympathetic and he doesn’t have That Stone Face. And in fairness to PLAY SAFE, it was hard to judge the plot because the setup reels got scrambled. But that closing chase scene belongs with the greatest ever.
MANY SCRAPPY RETURNS (James Parrott / Charley Chase, USA, 1927) 8
It was a very good first day, as I think I also saw one of Charley Chase’s best (LIMOUSINE LOVE is the only one I’d rank ahead of it). Charley and his wife are happy, while his brother is unhappy in his quarrelsome marriage (My favorite exchange of the weekend: “Why did you ever get on you knees and propose? … If I was sober enough to stand up, I’d have known better.”) Charley and wife decide to fake a fight to embarrass them back. Of course, things go further than intended and lap over into other relationships — it’s like a merry-go-round that caroms off its supports, leaving Charley increasingly flustered and desperate and inventively scheming. Their initial quarrel has a couple of quick gestures — let’s just say they involve some currency notes — that go far toward demonstrating how even in a hurtling torrent of physical movement and “flow,” one quick moment of “ebb” can be the funniest thing in the movie.
CHICKEN FEATHERS (Walter Graham / Jack Duffy, USA, 1927) 6
Not bad at all for an unscheduled time-filler involving nobody I knew anything about. It’s the simplest of premises — not-all-there old grandpa hides $5,000 in a pillow that someone else in the house gives away to a charity sale, only to have one of the sale organizers salvage it, then give it to someone else, etc., like “THE PILLOW OF MADAME DE …” It wasn’t innovative or the first time I’d seen it at all (and even far more elaborately), but one neat small-things-around-the-edges feature of the Christie Comedies is how their titles cards use chalk stick-figure drawings (think Simon and the Land of Chalk Drawrings) to illustrate and better yet comment on the drama. Coming to my mind from CHICKEN FEATHERS, when we get the title card saying “I gave the pillow to so-and-so,” the drawing has someone throwing a pillow at someone else, as if in frustration (something which does not happen in the film). FEATHERS as a whole is consistently amusing and entertaining (if never exactly brilliant), and in a massive pillow fight near the end so covers one character with feathers that he has to deal with an inamorata from the local ostrich farm. “I’m just an old rooster,” he protests.
BRIDAL BAIL (George Stevens, USA, 1934) 5
Another unscheduled filler, expertly done though trading on a very thin premise. Girl and boy want to elope but then, after a complicated series of machinations, she marries her boy’s best friend as part of a ruse to allow her to marry her boyfriend (don’t ask). BRIDAL BAIL is fine when it sticks to the conventions of boudoir farce, misunderstandings, hair-breadth switcheroos and keeping up appearances. But I kept telling myself after the marriage, “why are they resorting to games THIS elaborate and desperate to keep knowledge of the marriage from the boyfriend.” And then to have him be so understanding sand have everything cleared up so quickly and simply when the script and the reel length requires the movie end. In other words, we have a specimen of the idiot plot.
CALLING ALL TARS (Lloyd French / Bob Hope, USA, 1935) 3
LET’S FACE IT (Sidney Lanfield / Bob Hope, USA, 1943) 4
Can’t say these films turned me into more of a Bob Hope movie fan. (True fact: I have never seen any of the Road pictures.) The short TARS has a couple of cute moments involving Hope and semifore (which is not followed up on) and co-star Johnny Berkes with gunpowder. But it’s completely disposable and is before Hope really shaped his standup persona. LET’S FACE IT is obviously not much better (4-vs.-3), Hope himself used it as fodder for “bad film” jokes and the film is also little-seen because of Copyright Limbo. But FACE at least has a couple of critical points worth making. There is a couple of wonderful Cole Porter songs — Betty Hutton’s performance of the debate-spread song “Let’s Not Talk About Love” is probably the film’s high point. And here, I finally saw what Woody Allen was getting at when saying he modeled his own persona in LOVE AND DEATH and other early films on Hope (something that made no sense to me from Hope’s standup). But I can truly say I will never forget this movie, and not for the best of reasons. The plot involves a scheming Hope as an Army soldier getting into debt and having to dig his way out of it, in order to marry and avoid the brig. So he gets a committment from a local dowager that he and two of his buddies will, for $300 (Hope also plans to bilk his buddies out of their share), “spend some time” with her and two of her elderly friends. Three girlfriends and three husbands with three young babes of their own complicate matters on the rendezvous time. Formally, it’s generally not very well handled; not as lickety-split as it needed to be. But this premise, which drives the movie’s whole second half, just felt so … weird. I’d be willing to bet there never was another studio-era American comic film premised on a basically sympathetic (if rascally) leading character turning himself and his best buds into prostitutes. If another such film exists, I’m unaware of it and frankly can’t even imagine its existence (FACE is also post-Hays-Code, keep in mind). It made the whole experience of the film … ill-fitting.
Jim Emerson at the Chicago Sun Times blog rips Stephen Metcalf a new one for his Slate essay on THE SEARCHERS, which I used a jumping-off point for a post of my own the other day. I link in the interests of fairness, of course. Some observations and reactions of my own, as someone who generally would take Metcalf’s side in the dispute over the merits of THE SEARCHERS.
Emerson does make some good points. Metcalf is a bit too reliant on citing Pauline Kael, and a bit unspecific in his complaints. It IS anti-intellectual for Metcalf to point to Ford’s personal inarticulateness or to imply that the formal academic study of film is a joke.
But I don’t really think Emerson quite grapples with what is most offputting in the playing of THE SEARCHERS. Metcalf made that point (though he didn’t go into much specifics), and every example that Emerson cites in specific rebuttal (the paragraph that begins “Like his model Pauline Kael…” ) comes in the film’s main threads and/or the principal characters. But that’s not where the truly thumpingly awful stuff is. I named about a half-dozen shockingly bad or ham-fisted performances — overripe clowns, offensive stereotypes or empty suits. I don’t think Emerson even alludes to one of them (in fairness, he’s not answering me specifically, but I don’t claim any great originality. I’ve never met a SEARCHERS skeptic who didn’t quickly alight on Hank Worden’s Mose or Beulah Archuletta’s Look).
It’s not persuasive to say of the acting in THE SEARCHERS that “it’s impressionistic or balletic.” But these are descriptive terms not evaluative ones. As Leonard Pith-Garnell would say … it’s jolly bad ballet. Nor does pointing to the influence of silent films mean much — THE SEARCHERS is, after all, a sound film, and in the late-20s and early-30s sound film very quickly developed a different, much-lower-keyed acting style than the silent film for some very good and inherent reasons.
Not that it has anything to do with THE SEARCHERS, as Emerson would say, but he simply gets politics all wrong. Shockingly wrong. And he rattles on about Ford, Wayne and politics for long enough to make me think it does matter. It is not true that “a staunch Roosevelt Democrat” as Emerson (correctly) identifies John Ford is, “what Republicans today would call a radical Hollywood liberal” — unless Emerson is simply using “Roosevelt Democrat” as a synonym for “good” or “on the right side of history” (which is not too far from what some ahistoric born-yesterday types do in fact do). If “Roosevelt” refers to the historical person and not an amorphous ideal that shifts with the passing wind, the claim of Emerson’s is indefensible. No debate possible.
- In a review of CINDERELLA MAN last year, I touched on a big part of what distinguished Roosevelt from today’s liberals — his attitude toward the welfare state, which Hollywood liberals since the 1960s have believed to be a mean-spirited, blame-the-victim stance.
- Roosevelt expanded executive powers during wartime in ways that would make current Hollywood liberals blanche. He authorized military tribunals, and a half-dozen executions took place pursuant to them. He approved and defended a mass ethnic roundup (Michelle Malkin’s calls for racial profiling are nothing compared to what FDR did). Before the US involvement in the war, he subverted and contravened the Neutrality Acts in every way he could and at least one of his orders (a shoot-on-sight order against all German ships) constitutes an act of war under international law. If the Hollywood liberals of today had to deal with Roosevelt, they’d be on their knees in thanksgiving for Dubya.
- Roosevelt also didn’t lift a finger over segregation, and not from ignorance, as he wintered in Warm Springs, Ga., and took political support from the Herman Talmadges and Theodore Bilbos of the world. He was the candidate of the guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks, as Howard Dean tried to say he wanted to be before being shouted down by the racialism of today’s Democrats. FDR did not believe that morality on segregation was worth the destruction of the New Deal coalition, as have the Hollywood liberals of the 60s and since, to their subsequent chagrin.
- Roosevelt signed and acted on the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government. The statute survived almost 20 years and provided the legal basis for much of the anti-Communist witch-hunts [sic] that Emerson so righteously decries.
I could go on — mentioning Roosevelt threat to pack the Supreme Court or his refusal to increase Jewish immigration quotas and turn away the SS St. Louis — but this is more than sufficient for my point, which is that Emerson, like many film critics when they talk politics, is talking out the top of his hat (or the other end, as it were). There is no way that a Roosevelt Democrat is what Republicans today would call a radical Hollywood liberal. None. And what makes Emerson’s political analysis sadder is that Ford is apparently very much the sort of man who serves as an explanatory example of why FDR would be despised by today’s liberals — namely the reaction to the New Left and the student movements of the 60s. Ironically, Emerson himself realizes this, when he (approvingly) cites Joseph McBride’s of Ford as “a longtime progressive, he had turned to the right because of the war and his general unhappiness with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential.” Or as Ronald Reagan put it: “I didn’t leave the Democrats; the Democrats left me.” But instead, we get the (absolutely unsupported) assertion that “today, anyone claiming that America has not lived up to its potential is most likely to be accused of being a radical left-winger” — a claim one is not inclined to believe given how superficial Emerson’s knowledge of actual political spectrums seems to be. And it’s a claim which turns Ford into a man fundamentally insane. Because if the right and “reactionaries” are as Emerson describes, why would the war and the 60s generation have caused a man “unhapp[y] with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential” turn right, meaning toward those who “defend the status quo as evidence of America’s innate greatness, and proof that we do not have to change or become ‘better’.” It’s like deciding your body has not lived up to your vision of its physical potential, and then turning toward the cupcake and potato-chip lobby. (Sorry … a really good analogy escapes me, but hopefully that’ll at least demonstrate how wack Emerson’s theory of Ford’s politics is).
My friend David Morrison (welcome back bud) is a bicyclist and a big fan of Lance Armstrong. He is also guilty of suspicious Francophilia, so these developments should concern him deeply.
While accepting the ESPY last week, Armstrong said of the French soccer team that “all their players tested positive for being assholes.” Prompting the French media to respond in kind. I wonder why Armstrong might have used the particular phrase “tested positive.” Hmmm …
Armstrong has been hounded by charges of doping, and there is an element of French chauvinism-cum-wishful-thinking in trying to deny that the greatest cycler in modern times was … (sniff) … “un americain.” In the Washington Diarist in the latest New Republic (not available online best I can tell), Robert Messenger wrote:
Armstrong’s retirement hasn’t slowed the French press’s relentless effort to prove that his seven victories were tainted by doping. The murky evidence and legal intricacies of the investigations are all but incomprehensible, but L’Equipe, the French sporting daily, runs each vague allegation under a screaming headline like “the Armstrong lie.”
Of course, what is funny (or nauseasting) is that there actually have been “doping convictions” associated with the Tour de France. And guess what … with the exception of one Australian, all the riders were European. And not an American among them.
I think head-shrinkers call this “projection.” Moralists call it “double standards.” I just call it “French.” Nor is it something unknown in the French attitude towards Americans in other fields. Several examples come to my head — the vocal criticism by the French government and the French populace generally of tough US action against Saddam Hussein or Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah (and the Jews against their Arab enemies as well). But how does France act when theirs are threatened — as in, say, the Ivory Coast? Restraint?
STRANGERS WITH CANDY (Paul Dinello, USA, 2006, 7)
In some ways STRANGERS WITH CANDY is criticism-proof. You either share Amy Sedaris and Steven Colbert’s demented sense of gonzo humor and anti-humor (the two co-wrote the script with director Paul Dinelo), or you don’t. As the grade suggests, I do, yet I can also recognize that the film would have been unbearable if I hadn’t. Based on a Comedy Central series of which I hadn’t previously seen more than clips, STRANGERS betrays its television origins. The color is a little heightened and the images a little forced and flattened, but other than that STRANGERS has completely undistinguished in the plastic or cinematic categories. Its plot (basically an “origins” episode of the series, which had a middle-aged woman just out of prison going back to high school to impress her comatose father) is too stupid even to feel offended when it’s ignored. It’s all … and I mean ALL … in the writing. Dinello is no Stanley Kubrick, or even an Ernst Lubitsch.
The small Sedaris deliberately uglies herself up as Jerri Blank, with buck teeth, eccentric hairdo, excessive lipstick, knuckle tattoos, a past-due fasion sense and a high-pitched adolescent voice. The effect is to produce someone so demented, without being threatening that she can basically do whatever she wants and we just chalk it up to her weirdness. Colbert plays a version of the kind of hyper-educated self-regarding smarm that he exudes on “The Colbert Report.” His character is a science teacher who seems like a Manhattanite’s idea of a red-state Xtian Fundie — the periodic table is in the shape of a cross, the crucifix has the atom sign over Our Lord’s head where INRI is usually inscribed, he reads from Galileo’s First Letter to the Corinthians and other deadpan details that are consistently ignored once delivered, as though this were normal.
Very often in this film, the funny moments are funny because they are not funny. (And if that sentence makes any sense to you, STRANGERS is right up your alley; if not, stay the eff away). For example, the “love interest” is from Indonesia. He’s introduced with the exchange “what’s your name” … “Megawati Sukarnoputri” … “oh, are you?” … “no, it’s a very common name.” That joke doesn’t mean anything if you didn’t recognize the name (and the funniest part is that the Indonesian president is a woman; this character a man). And there are a brace of putdowns of Indonesians throughout. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ll hazard a guess that there have never been any Indonesian jokes in Anglo-American humor. The necessary stereotypes just don’t exist to us (insert famous Monty Python sketch “Prejudice” about inventing a slur for the miserable fat Belgian bastards). And that’s why it’s funny to hear all these putdowns and have Sedaris lovingly reassure “Megatwati” that she’s “just having some cruel fun at your expense.”
The humor is basically curdled irony — a mixture of cruelty, Pythonesque non sequiturs, crudeness, smarmy elusiveness and smart-aleck allusiveness. Have I mentioned that I share this movie’s sense of humor? I almost think all I have to do is give a sample of the lines I found funniest — “Just be yourself. Then if things don’t work out, we know where the problem is”; the smarmy and corrupt African-American male principal is named “Blackman” (and don’t think those two syllables aren’t well separated when spoken); “Why does anybody like me … They don’t know you well enough yet”; and my favorite line is “of course I know what a rusty trombone is. I used to be a stewardess.” I can’t defend or describe STRANGERS on any other terms. If all or most of that is funny to you, you’ll have a ball.
● First of all, a couple of items about the infamous Zidane headbutt. Here is the headbutt as viewed from a bunch of national and other perspectives. (Thanks, Christian)
Also, have hours of fun with this Zidane game, though if my (formally nonexistent) Italian is to be trusted, it’s temporarily offline because it exceeded its bandwidth, but should be back by the first of the month. For now, bookmark it. (Thanks, Dan)
UPDATE: Here’s the link to another Zidane headbutt game (Thanks, George)
● In its efforts to keep the neighborhood peaceful from overexcited car racers, an Australian town crossed the line, entered into evil and seized The One Ring. They played Barry Manilow at a volume designed to chase the drivers away. I’m sorry, but if blasting “Weekend in New England” isn’t evil, then nothing is. Whether it’s Palestinian hanging or “The Old Songs” turned up to 11, good ends do not justify evil means, even when Michael Ledeen says they do and even when he pretends that he’s a serious moralist as he preaches it. Learn it. Love it. Live it.
● In the shameless self-promotion department, I’ve started a new blog called “Coalition for Fog” (long story, don’t ask). It’s about foreign policy, diplomacy and the War on Isl … er … Terrorism. I’ve invited some fellow Catholic Neocon Chickenhawks (plus a Papist Marine with HTML skills greater than mine) to make it a group blog. In this post here, I make a point of potential interest to film geeks, comparing Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric to the mise-en-scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s talking pictures. Really. (And I shamelessly steal a moniker.)
● In the comment field there, someone notes self-deprecatingly about how much more cultured I supposedly am than he, that I watch Eisenstein while he watches Napoleon Dynamite. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of Hess’s first film, but I can’t deny that it’s become a bit of a cult classic (all the “Pedro” references and some of John Heder’s easy-to-ape verbal tics are pop-culture lore). And the town of Preston, Idaho, is gonna cash in, dammit. While it can. The longevity of “Napoleon Dynamite” cult is in question. From the article: “About 400 people attended [the "Napoleon Dynamite" festival] this year, down from 6,000 last year, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported.”
● For the Jihad-enablers who made the Marines quake in their boots on “Hadji Girl,” maybe they’d like this song better. After all, it’s in the Koran.
● This may seem like a ridiculous redundancy like proving the sun rises in the East. But some of us have spent time arguing with Marxists, Distributists, Thomists and others religiously attached to the false notion that things have intrinsic worth that is determinable by (some conception of) reason and to the related notion that a thing’s “worth” is anything other than its price (whether that “worth” be calculated according to labor, raw material or something else). For an exercise in an important philosopher completely trapped in his own presuppositions and so chasing his own tail, take a look at Thomas Aquinas asking himself whether it is lawful to sell a thing for more than its worth. (A question to which there is no answer because the question is nonsense.)
Anyhoo, here is the link to a news story — of a man who turned a paper clip into a house through acts of repeated barter and exchange. The broader point I wish to make being that “value” in a commodity sense does not exist in nature, but is something created, with trade being the most efficient way to create value. Every purchase is a trade of one good or service that the buyer wants more than what he is giving up in trade, which is another good or service that the seller wants more than what he is giving up in trade. So each comes away with more “value” after the trade. McDonald proved that, in principle, there is no natural limit upon the value — paper-clip to house — which trade can create. Obviously, this is extraordinary because in some cases, particularly after the stunt gained public momentum, the “good” that McDonald’s barter partners were purchasing was clearly not strictly economic. (Particularly Corbin Bernsen at the end … that was publicity-seeking.) Nevertheless, this is how value is created, apparently ex nihilo, to those who insist on looking for a natural basis.
From Thursday to Sunday, I’ll be at Arlington’s Rosslyn Theater for Slapsticon, a festival of slapstick comedies, mostly from the silent era (with live musical accompaniment), with some films from the early sound era. You don’t have to be a complete dork and plan on spending all four days, and so I encourage anyone in the DC area (or anywhere close enough for a day trip) who has an interest in classic films to come sample at least one of the programs.
The festival is deliberately programmed against the obvious stuff you can get from a good video store or rental service — the canonized classics of Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and the Marx Brothers. Not that OUR HOSPITALITY, THE GENERAL, CITY LIGHTS, THE FRESHMAN, SPEEDY, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, ad infinitum, ad gloriam, aren’t masterpieces. Of course they are. But as the Slapsticon FAQ puts it: “The films being screened were chosen precisely because they can’t (yet) be seen on cable or video.”
But Slapsticon is the festival to really dig deep … to find out what *else* you like, how much there is to love and enjoy beyond the Big Four. To see your first Larry Semon, Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Max Linder, Max Davidson, Garvin and Byron, Our Gang, Fatty Arbuckle. And the real obscurities like Ton of Fun, or Ham and Bud, or Dane and Arthur. And to see highlighted the supporting performers like Snitz Edwards, James Finlayson and others. And to make discoveries.
I wrote a bit about Slapsticon after last year’s fest. Here are some other discoveries:
- Like many film geeks, I had the received notion that Buster Keaton’s career ended with sound. It definitely went into decline, and he never again reached his silent pinnacles. But at the first Slapsticon, there were several of Keaton’s talking shorts, and one in particular, GRAND SLAM OPERA … well, just read the review at the IMDb. At the end of what the reviewer describes (correctly) as the TOP HAT parody, when Buster finished his dance, the audience let out a burst of spontaneous applause, as if everyone was just *happy* with the reassurance that Buster still had “it.”
- I have literally had my breath taken away by the sheer athleticism and grace of Lupino Lane, a British music-hall star whom I had never heard of before Slapsticon became an annual fixture. And the physical durability of Larry Semon. And what a reliably awkward bourgeois everyman Charley Chase was (here’s G-Money on him). I’m looking forward this Slapsticon to seeing more of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, a team who perfected the husband-and-wife domestic sitcom in the 10s, meaning their influence stretches to this very day.
- Being immersed in the material also gives you a real sense of the general run of films. So when I saw CURSES!, a Mack Sennett parody from 1924, at Slapsticon 2 in the context of seeing a bunch of other Sennett slapstick and other stuff from the teens, it went from being an amusing film to being gut-bustingly funny. You also find out that so much of your received notions of film and entertainment history (and just-plain-history) just ain’t so. For example, seeing a large program like this gives the lie to the notion that such supposed pomo curses as parody, self-referentiality and textuality (plus such late-capitalist rentierist practices as product placement) are features of a decadent “late” cultural phase.
- In addition to silents and some sound shorts, last year, the organizers expanded their temporal reach forward last year by showing a rare Danny Kaye feature, and they plan to do the same this year, with a Bob Hope film (other than the familiar ROAD movies) accompanied by one of his rare shorts, and some Ernie Kovacs TV shows. I can’t say I thought THE MAN FROM THE DINERS CLUB was a great film, but I was glad for the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to LET’S FACE IT, CALLING ALL TARS and the Kovacs selection.
- In the something-for-everyone department, families have brought their kids before, and, provided they’re young enough and innocent enough (or been immersed in it), they’ve generally seemed to enjoy Slapsticon to the limits of their time-endurance. Each year the organizers have devoted the Saturday morning slot to cartoons (Max Fleischer, Betty Boop, early Tex Avery, some of the early live-animation mixes, etc.). This year and last they’ve had special programs of kid comedies, following on Slapsticon 2′s having Jean Darling of Our Gang as guest and an appropriate tribute program, which also really went over well. Like, I had no idea Judy Garland was the *second* act of Mickey Rooney’s career … did you? Silent films have a freshness and innocence to them that kids entertainment today generally doesn’t have.
- Another ongoing feature has been been discoveries and new prints — last year a new print of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (even for films that have minimal “plastic values,” there’s no substitute for seeing a good print in a theater) and HEAD OVER HEELS, a Mabel Normand film long thought lost. In that “slot” this year, Slapsticon will show the silent version of WELCOME DANGER, the film Harold Lloyd had nearly finished making when he had to rework it as a sound film. I’ve seen the talkie; I can’t wait to see what Lloyd wanted to make.
That was longer than I intended, but … that’s my plans for the weekend and I intend and expect to have a great time. See you there, I hope.
A SCANNER DARKLY (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006, 5)
I didn’t much care for Linklater’s previous film made in this “rotoscoping” style of animation — an undisciplined (if interesting to look at) mess from 2001 called WAKING LIFE, chalking it up to the content. The particulars are very different here, but basically, I have the same complaint. The script holds neither water nor my interest.
But that animation style. THAT is style. You root for SCANNER to be good because you want this “rotoscoping” technique to succeed, as it doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen. From my memory of interviewing Linklater for WAKING LIFE, it involves shooting the scenes live-action quick-and-dirty, then using computer animation to “trace” around the images to create digital shapes that can be reworked freely and recombined as whole entities into an all-animated framework. It produces images that look kinda real but sketchy, like a painter’s pencil drafts of his work (with the painting taken as the real-life master text). But it can be used much more impressionistically than real live-action. Here’s a page of images that gives you a general sense of the results. It also reminded me some of the more “realistic” non-cartoony boys comics I had as a wee lad — Hotspur and Warlord and Hornet rather than the Beano and Beezer; or, within the Dandy, Black Bob rather than Desperate Dan. But here the computer images are liberated from all space and perspective, and so can float, fade in and out, and otherwise be endlessly manipulated.
Now this is put to an appropriate thematic use in SCANNER — in fact the film resembles nothing so much as one of those Doonesbury strips where Duke (the Hunter S. Thompson character) is all messed up on he-doesn’t-remember-what-all. Told from Duke’s POV though. SCANNER takes place in a world where much of the populace (I think 20 percent) is hooked on this mythical drug Substance D, which produces an addiction that can’t be kicked. There’s a problem, though. However effectively this state is portrayed in SCANNER, being all drugged out is not a state that I particularly enjoy being in or a state that I dislike for a reason I find interesting or insightful — just say no if you don’t like your mind being all mashed-up. I didn’t much care for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM either, which also tried to get inside your head a bit too much; I tend to like my drug movies from a more-detached perspective, even that of someone onscreen — LESS THAN ZERO or JESUS SON say. Like WAKING LIFE, I “got” what the film was trying to do; I just didn’t like either existential state — a college dorm bull-session OR strung-out on mescaline, shrooms or Substance D.
Maybe part of it also is my coldness to most sci-fi — SCANNER being based on a Philip K. Dick dystopia of universal surveillance, set seven years in the future. SCANNER starts out like a meditation on identity, with Keanu Reeves muttering “this is terrible” inside a “scramble” suit while the suit is being boosted at a fraternal lodge-like meeting. The suit makes him anonymous for his anti-drug undercover work by having his appearance perpetually morph in and out of milions of permutations — think the Godley & Creme video of “Cry” only over the whole body rather than just the face. Except wouldn’t this actually BLOW your cover cuz you’d be the one morphing perpetually, rather than having one stable identity? But it isn’t sustained or followed through, unless your “work self” being made to spy on your “nonwork self” counts, which is what the greater part of the plot in the film’s body follows — Keanu-in-the-suit-so-nobody-knows-who-he-is gets assigned to surveil his circle of junkie friends, as part of an investigation of who is producing Substance D. (There are two twists at the end that are pretty jejune IMHO.) We also get a short sequence of bourgeois discontent, that also is dropped, until we get an equally short shard of discontent with the slacker-hippie lifestyle. There’s also a bit of lumpy metaphor in a speech about warring hemispheres of the brain. Obviously rotoscoping allows this state of fragmentation to be represented. But too well, if anything — the potential themes and threads fade in and out like the identities on the scramble suit.
There is quite a bit to like in SCANNER, though, even apart from the bravura style. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. play the “character” roles — Downey as a superficially-brilliant-sounding paranoiac, Harrelson as “recent” Woody (not the “Cheers” bartender) — and they’re both brilliant. They figure in most of the scenes I found entertaining, playing humorously drugged-out clowns. They play like adult versions of Beavis and Butt-head — one short sequence played like a riff off the B&B “Choke” episode. Downey also goes through the most elaborately convoluted suicide plan ever. It’s like a TRISTRAM SHANDY game of perpetual procrastination and aside-dropping before getting “a fine wine — a Merlot” (cue chuckles from everyone who saw SIDEWAYS) and he winds up tied to his bed having a thousand-eyed beast spend eternity reading him his sins (another riff off a classic Beavis & Butthead short, “The Final Judgment of Beavis,” right down to the “and then you discovered masturbation” joke). One scene reminded me of Stephen Wright’s joke that burglars had broken in, stolen everything in his apartment and replaced it with an exact duplicate. Downey and Harrelson come back from a short trip, fear that the place has been burgled and convince themselves into total paralysis. It’s the fun side of the drug lifestyle, I guess, but at least it IS kinda fun. Those two are great stuff, unfortunately, SCANNER leaves them behind for it’s last half-hour without apparent explanation — imagine a hypothetical “King Lear” in which The Fool was the most-interesting character.
Stephen Metcalf has an essay at Slate on John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS with the dead giveaway title “The Worst Best Movie: Why on earth did The Searchers get canonized?” I have to place myself in the same camp as Metcalf, at least in terms of the “all-time greatest” accolades with which THE SEARCHERS is garlanded. I like the film some, but that #8 is for a very weak year, at least in the terms of the films I have seen. Only the Top 4 for that year would I unhesitatingly call “great.” Middle-of-the-pack films by Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (both of whom I much prefer to Ford in general) are ahead of THE SEARCHERS, and of the 10 years surrounding 1956, only in one other would it be in my Top 10.
Now THE SEARCHERS starts out with the flaw that I am not the world’s #1 fan of Westerns and think John Ford had some intrinsic flaws as a filmmaker, from overscoring with hammer-over-the-head music to horribly unfunny “comic relief.” I’ve now seen the film three times (never in a theater, though), and both repeat viewings reinforced my position on it — uneven, with brilliant and unbearable sequences in about equal measure, the brilliance becoming more brilliant with time and the unbearableness becoming more unbearable.
The early Comanche raid on the cabin is brilliantly staged and cut; Ethan’s arrival and all the various subtexts are handled with unFordian nuance and tact (like the way the sister-in-law caresses Ethan’s uniform when they leave on the raid); the family burial is quietly moving; the teepee meeting with Scar a nervy but stoic portrayal of two men who know that honor requires that they kill each other tomorrow. And John Wayne (with one major reservation noted below) gives a brilliant performance as Ethan, easily his best, as a man teetering on the edge of sanity — I don’t agree with Richard Schickel’s complaint in Schickel on Film that Wayne’s performance is not sustained. This very “unevenness” — Wayne shifting in between darkly menacing moments and his more-customary gruff geniality — is what makes the portrayal effective. You don’t know which Wayne you’re gonna get, and when he can keep the mask of sanity on.
But ohmigawd do big chunks of THE SEARCHERS blow big chunks. The scenes with the Indian bride Luke just made me wince, played in a register that makes Butterfly McQueen look like Angela Davis. Lord knows, I am a flaming reactionary with no sympathy for feminist and noble-Indians schools of social/film criticism; but sometimes you gotta give the devil her due. I’ll overlook pretty much anything in the name of excitement or a joke, but these scenes are witless, which makes its patronizing attitudes embarassing. When Jeffrey Hunter kicks Luke out of their “bed” and down a sand dune, while Ethan chuckles along with a jolly air, it just makes you think “maybe Leonard Peltier had a point.”
Nor is this admittedly short sequence the only flaw in this vein. Several of the characters are just as caricatured as Luke: Vera Miles’ suitor, Mose, the cavalry unit’s leader, Mr. Jorgenson. Those who play these cartoons play down to them well enough, I suppose, but I didn’t laugh once, primarily because the film isn’t a spoof. In every scene involving Mose, I think ‘what could Howard Stern’s Stuttering John do with this role?’ Jeffrey Hunter is a callow nonentity; compare Michael Caine and Sean Connery in John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING to see what can be made of a boys’ genre piece about two men on an epic quest, one of whom goes batty, when the casting is strong for both lead parts. The fight between the suitors seemed ritualistic in all the worst senses of the word. Maybe chicks in the 1870s (or 1950s) were different, but that closeup of Vera Miles beaming (in her white wedding dress, no less!!) as her two men fight over her, just seems to me like the worst sort of patronizing macho wish-fulfillment that feminists would like to think defines the male mind (sic).
The last significant plot point, Wayne’s picking up Natalie Wood, is much praised, but to me and Metcalf, it just seems like an arbitrary wuss-out and a way to create a critical puzzle that can never be solved. Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the famous last shot of THE SEARCHERS, though its point — the gap between the civilizer and civilization, and how the man who creates order does so on behalf of an institution toward which he is fundamentally an outsider — was explored much more effectively by Ford in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (here’s G-Money on that film).
But such skepticism is a minority view among hard-core film buffs, as Metcalf notes, making many of the same criticisms I just did. For a quarter-century now, THE SEARCHERS has consistently ranked among the top films of all-time in critics polls. In the decennial Sight & Sound poll (as close to a BCS system as the film-geek world has) THE SEARCHERS first placed in the Top 10 in 1982, when the poll was all critics. Since then a shift and a gradual dropoff has occurred. The 1992 poll had Ford’s film placing fifth among critics, but nowhere in the Top 10 among filmmakers. The 2002 poll showed the same split, though at a somewhat lower level, with THE SEARCHERS finishing tied for 11th among critics but barely in the Top 30 for filmmakers. There’s no doubting THE SEARCHERS’ influence on a handful of American directors, but, as the S&S Poll numbers above show, its cachet among film-makers is slipping and now primarily belongs to critics. Metcalf kind of acknowledges this, referring only to the first generation of film-school-educated directors. I think this hints at an explanation for THE SEARCHERS continuing popularity among critics.
In his very good essay on Ford, Schickel makes the point that many critics of his generation (he compares his reaction to generational cohorts Lindsay Anderson and Andrew Sarris) “had his eyes opened to the notion that movies might be something more than an instrument for fantastic escape from childhood constraints, picked up his first hints of film’s larger possibilities as an expressive form, and made his first inchoate emotional responses to that form … because of John Ford’s pictures.” I wrote a little bit below about the Warner cartoons and myself, noting that one of the first things a critic does is grapple with the (largely, but not totally, pre-critical) opinions of his childhood. Such eminent critics and champions of Ford today include Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, who would also fit Schickel’s description, at least in terms of the raw data of year of birth. Though it doesn’t focus on THE SEARCHERS, Rosenbaum’s 2004 essay in Rouge on Ford’s THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is a perfect example of combining an intensely personal boyhood love, autobiography, and one’s adult sensibility.
But with me, no. Ford made his last fiction film the year I was born and had died before I ever heard of him. My eyes were first opened to cinephilia by Hitchcock and Wilder from the past, Kubrick and Scorsese from the then-present, and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa among the furriners. I don’t think these factors are unrelated. Living my boyhood in another country, I don’t think I ever watched more of any Western than a TV promo clip. The whole genre just seemed bizarre to me. Also John Wayne was not the mythic presence, the very embodiment of “us,” that he was for Americans. While I no longer dismiss the Western tout court, the mythic love that Wayne and Ford could once tap into, and the residues of which remain forever, cannot be assented to, only unconsciously absorbed.
A couple of nights ago at about 230 am, I was driving back from church and listening to JACK-FM on the car radio, when I heard one of the station’s witty promo bumps. The station’s slogan is “playing what we want” and the point of these bumps is to display the station’s (within the universe of hit popular music) democratic and catholic playlist. These were the songs that the piece played a few bars, in every case surrounding the song’s title:
- “Amy” by Pure Prairie League
- “Rosanna” by Toto
- “Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith
- “Oh, Sherrie” by Steve Perry
- “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister
Then came the punch line “Chicks dig JACK” — a reference to a famous Nike ad campaign. And with most of these songs, the point is obvious … there is a female name in the title. Except one. Can you guess which one it is? If you’ve ever been in a liturgical church — or even most non-liturgical ones — you know what “Kyrie” means. And it’s not a mispronunciation of Kylie Minogue (who IS a chick who could, in principle, dig JACK or the long ball).
No … “Kyrie” is the Greek word for the rather non-feminine term “Lord.” It is part of the Catholic Mass (and quite a few others), in the prayer “Kyrie Eleison/Christe Eleison/Kyrie Eleison.” Or in English “Lord have mercy/Christ have mercy/Lord have mercy.” Further the Mr. Mister song itself rather obviously deals in religious imagery. “Kyrie” is NOT a woman’s name, like Rosanna, Sherrie, Amy and Janie.
There’s more here to chew over, I think, than mishearing a simple pop song (like the classic mishearing of the gay Jimi Hendrix: “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”). The Get Religion team has had great fun in the past with the way that media ignorance of religion — the basic facts, the ABCs — has resulted in some embarrassing mistakes that Christians can’t help think results from insularity. Once upon a time, people could assume a certain religious literacy, by default, even among people who are not religious. Even the atheists Camille Paglia and Christopher Hitchens have lamented the decline in Biblical literacy in culturalist terms, pointing out (correctly) that you cannot understand Western literature without at least *some* understanding of its dominant religion. Hitchens even has said he teaches the Bible to his children.
This radio ad is, I think, another example of what happens when education and the social environment becomes totally secular. Was there nobody in the offices of JACK-FM or its ad producer who had ever been a member of the Catholic Church, or any other “high church” religious body?
Another blow to my lifelong ambition to become a US Marine badass. Apparently too much fandom for TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (it made my Top 10 in 2004) will get you in hot water with the leatherneck brassnecks.
Last month, Cpl. Joshua Belile has been hounded by the Jihad enablers and assorted liars for “Hadji Girl,” a song which proves again (years after Salman Rushdie, and shortly after the Danish cartoons: available here) that Muslims have no sense of humor.
The song’s hook “Dirka, Dirka, Muhammad Jihad” is taken from the Trey Parker and Matt Stone film (which all by itself should indicate that this is comical), an unapologetically jingoistic film, with one of the greatest monologs (the first quote here) in movie history, not only a masterpiece of creative obscenity and extended metaphor, but a political philosophy akin to Chapter 17 of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” It’s no surprise that it’s a hit with US troops and bunches the panties of the CAIRs of the world (I wrote it about the song/film here and here). Best excerpt:
It’s also clear to anyone who knows anything about the history of war songs and war stories that soldiers have always engaged in gallows humor and sick jokes, partly from “brutalization” (not a bad thing within limits, BTW; we want warriors to be “harder” than civilians) but also partly as a way of dealing with the constantly-made-imminent fact of the men’s own mortality. At the very start of Western civilization, Homer tells dry jokes about how some soldiers “have the black fog descend upon them,” including one sequence in THE ILIAD where he compares a Trojan being speared through the jaw to a fish trapped on a hook. Nor is this confined to soldiering; all professions have humor, within the stakes of that profession. I have never worked in a newsroom where you couldn’t get at least a knowing smirk with a reference to lines from Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” (“The boys in the newsroom got a running bet: / ‘Get the widow on the set / We need dirty laundry’.”) In a boxing movie called THE SETUP, all the “red corner” fighters share a single dressing room, and one guy who’s just won his fight is telling everyone else in graphic detail about how he worked over his opponent, mercilessly punishing his “soft” stomach and ribs. A green young lad getting ready for his first fight has to flee the room to throw up, causing the victorious fighter to ask in a puzzled manner: “what’s the matter with him.” Sick humor in a life-and-death situation is simply letting off steam; there have never been soldiers in any war who haven’t done exactly the same thing, only outside the glare of scrutiny by the Cambridge-Hollywood Axis.
But I was thinking that maybe Cpl. Belile should sing the song in the presence of Algerian badboy Zidane; I doubt THAT confrontation would end with a headbutt. And if Zidane can’t take trash talk on the pitch without (potentially, at least) costing his national team the frickin World Cup — well, maybe he should take McCloud’s advice and take his penchant for headbutts into the pro wrestling ring (we haven’t had a good French villain since the latter-day Andre the Giant).
Man of the Match honors would go to Trezeguet, but as a parting gesture they must go to zee-DAHN … zee-DAHN!!!
I mean … was that the dumbest action ever by a world-class player at this big of a game? What was he thinking? That the Italian player was some Jew or something?
Some celebratory music … from Vittorio Emanuel, Regi Di Italia.
… food recipes here;
… flags here;
… fan discussion here;
BTW, Dale … yes, the Italians are the New Jersey Devils of world soccer. But the French simply are devils. And the great song for Sunday’s game:
We’re gonna kiss your butt
Because we’re French
And we don’t know what else to do
We’re nothing but limp-wristed wussies
Who won’t fight even for ourselves
We love our wine, women and our song
Ask the German bastards who beat us
Because they had great big guns
With bullets that would really hurt
And we really just couldn’t be bothered
Allez! Vive Petain!
Allez! Vive Laval!
That’s who we are
And we don’t care who knows
No, we don’t.
And get it right this time!!
UPDATE: Joe wrote the following to me and a few other people:
Consider the following regarding Italian soccer: Since 1970, a 12-year pattern has emerged.
1970: Lost to Brazil in finals
1982: Defeated Euro rival (West Germany)
1994: Lost to Brazil in finals
2006: Plays Euro rival in finals (can you guess the pattern yet?)
Of course, this means that in 2018, Italy will lose to Brazil in the finals. But why wait for the inevitable long-range disappointment when we can celebrate the inevitable short-range triumph? The numbers are on our side….
Unfortunately, Joe, there’s another pattern. Italy and France have played in the final of a recent tournament — the 2000 European Championship. In the semis, France defeated Portugal, and Italy defeated the host country. Does that sound familiar? Let’s hope THIS doesn’t complete the pattern.
The rector of Scotland’s one homeland Catholic seminary says it may be a sin to pull against England in the World Cup.
I guess I should drop the plans to get fitted for wings, and try on the red suits instead.
… food recipes here;
… celebratory film-festival programming here;
… flags here;
Apparently, Portuguese fans have expressed some angst about their lack of memorable cheers, quietness in the stadium and general sit-on-hands attitude. Fortunately, fellow soccer fan, France-loather and self-described “red-blooded, anti-Islamic patriot” Joseph D’Hippolito sent me the remedy last week, on the occasion of Spain’s upsetting loss. He rewrote (and much improved) “La Marseillaise.” Sung to the same melody (“or is it malady?” he asked). So here’s a great song for tomorrow’s game:
We’re gonna kiss your butt
Because we’re French
And we don’t know what else to do
We’re nothing but limp-wristed wussies
Who won’t fight even for ourselves
We love our wine, women and our song
Ask the German bastards who beat us
Because they had great big guns
With bullets that would really hurt
And we really just couldn’t be bothered
Allez! Vive Petain!
Allez! Vive Laval!
That’s who we are
And we don’t care who knows
No, we don’t.
UPDATE: Sore losers! England fans boycotting Portugal as a holiday resort because their injury- and foul-prone stars choked again.
UPDATE 2: Shifted a few words (no substantive rewrite, forfend) in Joe’s song to make the rhythm of the words match the music a bit better. Strange: When Rick’s patrons in CASABLANCA break out into “La Marseillaise,” it always produces a lump in my throat (particularly on the closeup of the woman who had been flirting with the Germans, but her eyes well up upon singing “Mugir ces feroces soldats”).
UPDATE 3: I would have been most disappointed had McLush stayed silent on this topic. Still, I wonder why the frogworshippingbud didn’t suggest Jean-Luc Godard, whom I famously despise, for the new retro. I actually do like the little of Jacques Rivette I’ve seen (though probably not enough to do what Matt Prigge did. I put up on my Documents site a few paragraphs I wrote for The Secret Group on Rivette’s THE NUN.
Conservative columnist Mark Steyn has a beautiful essay (preserved here) on Billy Wilder, who would have turned 100 last month. (One of my pieces of film criticism of which I’m most proud is an obituary I wrote of Wilder shortly after his 2002 death for a film buff Webzine.) Some of what I like about Steyn’s essay:
- His analysis of the tone of THE APARTMENT, a film that I’ve been resistant to for a very long time, but which really came together for me when I watched it again a couple of months ago. Steyn notes how the film stays with the “bittersweet” without ever collapsing into “bitter.” And I’m convinced the last line in THE APARTMENT — “shut up and deal” — as good a walk-off line as Wilder ever wrote (and we’re talking the man who wrote, “all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” and “well, nobody’s perfect”). It’s weepy high-romance for the stoic and unromantic.
- His citation of the Jack Lemmon interview at the end, which, as Steyn notes, captures what is missing in today’s comedies without turning either Lemmon or Steyn into the equivalent of some old fart muttering in the corner about the damn-fool younger generation. But Wilder had that craftsmanship. You couldn’t scramble the reels of SOME LIKE IT HOT and have much of it work from the inherent “sketch” funniness. The film is clockwork farce as good as the 20th century produced, and, like other sorts of clocks, can’t be disassembled and still have its “parts” work.
Turner Classic Movies had a mini-retro of Wilder on his birth’s centenary, and I confess I didn’t watch any of the films, as I’d seen them all more than once before, preferring instead to mark the day on TCM by watching BILLY WILDER SPEAKS, the first US presentation of an edited-down interview documentary that German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff made for German TV almost two decades ago. (Schlondorff also wrote a personal memoir on Wilder’s passing for the LA Times last month, which had this priceless gem that explains part of what makes Wilder so congenial to myself and so many other Gen-X cinephiles: “Deflecting every serious moment with a joke, Wilder gained a reputation as a cynic. But for him it was only a question of dignity: The really serious things we should keep to ourselves.”) Wilder comes across as so, no other word for it, lovable in these interviews, like a wise old uncle that you could listen to for hours.
But the specific moment I’ll remember best from BILLY WILDER SPEAKS is a political observation, which I’ll try to quote from memory (for now; will check my DVD-R later)
Here in America, you don’t really worry too much about politics. If the Democrats win, great. But if the Republicans win, that’s not too bad either.
This was a man who lost most of his family in the Holocaust — he knew political extremism from political extremism. He understood, although he might not have been able to put it in the precise terms that this former political-philosophy professor-wannabe will, that America has a political consensus, in which there are two parties that garner 95+ percent of the populace and basically both support the liberal democratic order. Politics operates within the 40-yard lines and isn’t really life-defining. This isn’t to say there are no differences between the two parties or that those differences don’t matter (and Wilder’s sympathies within that order are clear from the quote). But it is to say that revolution or the disruption of the social contract simply is not on the agenda, despite how the Kossacks and Atrioses of the world babble about “Bushitler” and the imminent theocracy. Those idiots have no perspective and deserve no respect (nor do the Birchers et al who claim the Democrats are just closet communists; but they’re not at the center of the “people power” movement that the MSM is telling us is reshaping one of the two major parties). It was good to be reminded of that again.
THE PROPOSITION (John Hillcoat, Australia, 2006) — 3
Maybe seeing this right after such a (mostly) melancholy “late” film as PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION made this 19th-century-set Australian revenge “western” seem more like an continuous act of adolescent brutalism than it really was. But I doubt it. Any movie that starts with a title card apologizing for historical depictions of Aborigines will get my back up, even if I’d just seen THE SEARCHERS.
The plot is simple — one of two arrested Irish outlaw brothers (Guy Pearce) is given his freedom, on condition that he hunt down and kill a third brother (Danny Huston) while the other arrested brother (Richard Wilson) is held hostage. But the point is simpler. What this is is, O my brothers, is a self-hating pretentious pile of revisionist twaddle — I hereby coin the term “hatriotism” to describe this sort of Western obsession with rubbing our face in the bad shit in our history. We are the savages, it turns out.
Guaranteed, everything you ever saw in a Roy Rogers western will be demystified to show how ugly it “really” was. Every man will sweat like a pig and have a four-day growth (imagine Sergio Leone without the directorial chops); all the clothes will be filthy and rumpled; meat will be cut in an open-air butcher’s; the hostage brother will be a small and frail; the killings of people will be really gory; somebody will piss or shit in nature very early on; when “Rule Britannia” is sung, it’ll be sung by bloodstained drunks (in case we miss the point, when we get to the line “Britons never will be slaves,” the director thoughtfully cuts to a pile of dead bodies); the homestead must have a white-picket fence, of course. And a character will be beaten up while having the Union Jack wrapped over his head in (there’s symbolism there, I think). John Hurt gives the second-worst supporting “character” performance by an actor named “Hurt” in the past year — an overacted chunk of menacing giggling and mugging so hammy that kosher Jews probably shouldn’t watch this movie.
Yes, THE PROPOSITION really is this one-dimensional and relentless — the equivalent of a little boy shoving a rat in your face. No, it’s a (chronologically) older boy doing the same with pride and expecting you to consider him a deep critical thinker for it. This is all supposed to stand for how mean the honkies were to the Indigenous People, and how our civilization is built on genocide and conquest and brutality … blah, blah, blah. And it wouldn’t be a hatriotic film without a foppish civil servant who … surprise … turns out the most cruel of all (Victor slaps forehead). Or without a perfumed woman (Emily Watson) who keeps a tea set, a grandfather clock and a Christmas tree with snow (importing England to the Colonies, you understand; and it’s summer too, in December … snicker). The rich colonial bitch, of course, must pay for it by being raped, with the attacker entering right at the moment of the Christmas dinner prayer; and if she’s going to be rescued it has to be while the rapist is on top of her (characters in hatriotic tracts have great dramatic flair and timing, you understand). There’s even a portrait of Queen Victoria’s coronation, for the symbol-dense.
In a movie that’s nothing but lumpy moments, the last is the piece de resistance — someone who’s been shot going outside to sit in the lotus position so he can die while watching the sunset with the man who killed him (rhyming with an earlier scene of watching the sunset; easy parallellism matters more than even life itself to a hatriotism character). Pointedly the last line is “what are you gonna do now.” No answer is forthcoming. I guess that’s deep.
PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman, USA, 2006) — 6
Ten minutes into the movie, I was mentally climbing up the wall, convinced I was watching another Altman snark-fest turkey. Kevin Kline is playing the clueless investigator who isn’t quite there — like Geraldine Chaplin in NASHVILLE and Stephen Fry in GOSFORD PARK. He is named Guy Noir, in case the voiceover of “hard-bitten dialog” like “the show had been running since Jesus was in the third grade,” the Edward Hopper diner and the rainswept night streets weren’t enough to clue you in. You also get the line “Midwesterners think if you ignore bad news, it’ll go away.” (Ick.) And jokes about the call letters WLT. (Groan.) Given my known dislike for Garrison Keillor and “Prairie Home Companion,” I was ready for a miserable experience.
But I began to turn around at a precise moment … when Virginia Madsen entered the screen, very quickly obvious as an angel of death (I was actually kind of annoyed when PRAIRIE made that explicit). As a curvaceous woman clad in a long white coat, Madsen’s iconography was so precisely the opposite of Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL that it could not be coincidental. And, like Bengt Ekerot’s famous icon (or even Satan in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), she mostly (and for a while “only”) interacts with Kline, leaving the players to run through their performance, oblivious to her shadow hanging over everything. In other words, she’s an observer. And even though THE SEVENTH SEAL (which also was about performers) was my entree into PRAIRIE being about something other than sniggering at the rubes, the pretentious European art film I wound up thinking most about was Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE, which is about angels who can’t interact with the world and long to join it (WINGS also has a movie-star presence who can interact with the angels). Only here, the world (i.e., the show) is ending, so the question of the angels becoming men never comes up.
But then there’s the performers within the show. Lindsay Lohan is too pouty-little-emo-girl for my tastes, and Tommy Lee Jones is just playing a caricature of Brutal Texas Billionaire. But Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin proved that their mastery of Altman’s overlapping dialog style went beyond being the highlight of the Oscar night. They play two singing sisters, Ronda and Yolanda, with an ease and familiarity with each other, and their songs, and the stories that they know how to finish for each other. John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson play a couple of crusty cowboys with a flair for bad dirty jokes (if you can’t laugh at “Why do they call it PMS? Because ‘mad cow disease’ was already taken,” you’re a hopeless fuddy-duddy). The coda gets spine-tingling when Madsen returns to the diner and sees Keillor, Streep, Klein, Tomlin in a booth — and the drama ends with them looking into the camera, as if wondering which one the Angel of Death will take next.
So Altman’s PRAIRIE is obviously about death (what was so hard for Stanley Kauffmann to see about that?), but more than that, it’s about seeing God as one is on the brink. Madsen assures us that “every sparrow is remembered”: a very specific allusion to perhaps the most famous Gospel verse on the breadth of God’s Providence, Matthew 10:29. Several of the songs are overtly religious meditations on death –the invocation in “Goodbye to My Mama” of the new Jerusalem and being in Jesus’ arms; “In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye” and “Let Your Light Shine on Me” get sung (and Altman swells the latter up on the soundtrack at one particularly delicate moment). Even the film’s imperfections give it a kind of enfeebled dignity — think of the performance of “Arrayed for the Bridal” of John Huston’s THE DEAD; the whole film of PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is like that. It’s a postmodern version of that ol’-time religion, as if Altman is seeing the other side of the Jordan and accommodating himself to the Almighty in the only way he (tho’ not He) knows how.
Not that Altman sustains this mood; he’s too crass for that. There is a death scene that could only have been made more tasteless by being “in flagrante”; Altman insists on showing a pregnant woman’s belly, just to show how fearless he is; Reilly cries in a way so fake it would disgrace pro wrestling; and don’t think Altman doesn’t give us jokes about bodily functions. It’s Beavis & Butt-head without the ironic distance, i.e., from the boys’ own POV. So I don’t think the film is an unqualified success — Klein, the fart jokes, the inherent unfunniness (to me) of “Prairie Home Companion.” But since I’m generally not the biggest Altman groupie in the world, I liked this film a lot more than I had a right to. In other words, everything that was Keillor, that was “text,” I didn’t like. But everything that was Altman, that was “subtext” (plus the named performers) was fun or interesting or kinda moving in places.