Rightwing Film Geek

If these people weren’t genocidal murderers, they would be hilarious

Remember in the SOUTH PARK movie when the Canadian Ambassador to the UN denounces the seizure of his country’s two iconic geniuses, points to a pie chart of Canada’s GDP and says “the entire Canadian economy depends on Terrence & Phillip.” Apparently, Al Qaeda thought that was awesome.

crowe_oscarSo the intrepid Jihadis apparently got an idea and hatched a plan to kidnap Russell Crowe as part of a cultural destabilization plot against American icons, according to an interview in Australian GQ with the New Zealand native Crowe.

Can you imagine Madeleine Albright going to the UN and saying “the entire American economy depends on PROOF OF LIFE and 30 Odd Foot of Grunts”? That would have been so awesome.

The plot was apparently foiled or never got very far or the intelligence was faulty. But in the spirit of negotiating differences with our Muslim brethren and avoiding Eurocentrism by celebrating diversity of thought with and within the great Islamic civilization, I would tender an offer to Mr. bin Laden. Why kidnap a onetime Oscar winner, when you twice as well by kidnapping double-winner Hilary Swank, wreck American culture by depriving us of an AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE sequel, and destabilize the American economy by depriving it of the grosses from another KARATE KID movie. Just a thought osamabud.

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March 12, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Older films seen during the week

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CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (Herman Shumlin, USA, 1945, 6): I was in a Graham Greene mood a few days ago, so I watched this Greene-novel-based film on TCM, and it was effective as long as I could keep a straight face at the basic ludicrousness of the casting. Was there ever a more distinctly *American* star actress than Lauren Bacall? Was there ever a more distinctly *French* actor among Hollywood stars than Charles Boyer? So, why O why, are these two fine actors cast as a British aristocrat’s daughter and a Spanish agent for the Republic during the 30s civil war? Boyer and Bacall weren’t even trying to hide their unmistakable voices. (You also hear Peter Lorre’s rat-fink voice passed off as a Spaniard.) With better casting or even a minor rewrite (it wasn’t as if the Spanish Republic didn’t attract support from leftists in every country in the world), there was a potentially great film here. The plot, involving a republican agent’s attempt to outbid the nationalists for a British coal contract, sound boring, but coal is really just a MacGuffin for a picaresque series of clear, lean and suspenseful set pieces involving characters whom we know only as threats or friends or both or neither. Boyer is more effective than I would have dared imagine at playing a driven, intense and eventually ruthless man. Bacall doesn’t know how not to be alluring. We also see the shards of (what I imagine are) Greene’s novel and his characteristic themes, though smoothed into a straight spy story, in scenes involving some of the supporting characters — the 14-year-old hotel attendant; Mr. Mukerjee, the observer; the pusher of the Universal Language of Brotherhood; the miner whose son was in Spain. In these short scenes and what the actors do with these eccentric characters, you get a sense of what Greene was driving for, while seeing it being watered down for a genre-movie script. CONFIDENTIAL AGENT was the equivalent of an art school student trying to mimic Leonardo or Michelangelo — there’s a great movie among these ingredients; too bad it isn’t what was made.

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THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1928, 9): Sternberg was credited with about six or seven silent films, of which at least three have solid reputations. I’ve now seen two (DOCKS and THE LAST COMMAND; UNDERWORLD remaining). And I’ll commit critical blasphemy by saying that I honestly prefer these two silents to Sternberg’s famous series of films with Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s overheated, overripe fantasies and his stylizations in set design and subject matter and acting style seem kind of ludicrous when exposed to sound and the realism of the talkies (although maybe it’s just English; I think THE BLUE ANGEL is great, but I’ve only ever seen the German version). DOCKS is a triumph of magnificent style over a really thin story — in a 24-hour period over two days, a stoker on a ship saves a drowning woman of questionable virtue on his night ashore and the two kinda maybe fall in love, but do get married definitely. As a lark. Or not. This low-life fairy tale is contained within a typically bizarre Sternbergian universe — an overstuffed mix of the glitter and the gutter that must’ve set a young Fellini’s imagination wandering. But it’s not all smoke and nets and roving camera movements over barroom lines and through chair-tossing fights (the camera really seems to move in all four directions and all three dimensions in a way few films from that era did). In the admittedly very stylized way, you won’t see better acting than the interplay between George Bancroft as the rough-hewn stoker and Betty Compson as his wife/prostitute. The looks on their faces and their gestures make words so painfully redundant that it’s not hard to see why many critics until the mid-1930s thought talkies were the death of film. And you keep reminding yourself as you’re watching this sex-drenched film that could probably get a G-rating that you’re seeing a film made in 1928 showing things that you thought were never shown in American movies until the 1960s.

March 12, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not ‘Recut’ enough, apparently

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THE PASSION RECUT debuted this weekend, although ironically it will play in theaters without having an MPAA rating — a practice usually reserved for independently-made films with subtitles and a small-fry distributor. Well … you know what I mean. On the new film’s Web site, Mel Gibson says in the intro clip that he was responding to people who wanted to take “Aunt Martha, Uncle Harry, or your grandmother or some of your older kids … [but] thought that the intensity of the film was prohibitive to those people.” But Scott Von Doviak of the Fort Worth Star Telegram (can’t find article now) makes a valid point about THE PASSION’s intensity — Gibson’s stated concern.

In any case, there’s no way a few missing minutes can substantially alter the overall tone and intensity. If Aunt Martha couldn’t handle it the first time around, she’ll find that the recut is no church picnic, either.

Yes. Tone and intensity are things that require more than minor tinkering to affect.

But what is funniest about this rerelease is that the film’s phenomenal box-office success came despite the handicap of an R rating (PASSION was the biggest-grossing R-rated film of all time). Gibson was hoping to get a PG-13 for THE PASSION RECUT — “some of your older kids” — but failed. At least the largest Canadian province (Ontario) did not change its rating either. So as a result, for probably the first time ever, a recut version of an R-rated film, one already out on video, is going into theaters unrated. Frankly though, it’s hard for me to see why Newmarket couldn’t accept an R-rating for RECUT. The film’s been retitled; everyone is aware of the new film and its basic rationale (“bring along Aunt Martha”). I really don’t think the same rating is gonna cause much confusion. And perversely, the lack of a rating will hurt the film at the box office, since many theaters (particularly in malls and shopping centers) have codes and policies against showing unrated (or NC-17) films.

So we have a case where in order to get a *less* violent version out, a director refused a rating at all (the reverse has happened a lot with indie and foreign films), and will probably lose money over that decision. Huh? This release is one of the oddest exhibits in the ongoing case of the irrationality of the American ratings system, America’s cultural reactions to “adult material,” and the increasingly extreme content of R-rated films. FWIW, I think THE PASSION (along with the majority of R-rated films today) should have been rated NC-17 and that NC-17 films should be as widely available as R-rated ones. But the big movie distributors and studios are not willing to accept widely a rating that says categorically “you cannot take this person’s money”; a broad section of the public is not willing to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a movie that is flatly inappropriate for children, but not shameful for adults; and another broad section of the public is phobic about “censorship” and “free expression” and takes “pushing the envelope” as a term of praise.

March 12, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bush’s film tastes

george-bush-miss-me-yetSo far this year, according to this New York Times article, Dubya has used the White House movie theater just three times — to see HOTEL RWANDA, THE AVIATOR and PAPER CLIPS. I once had some fun here about Bill Clinton seeing HIGH NOON 30 times. But seeing only three movies once each in two months just doesn’t give one much to chew on, apart from the fact that Bush is obviously not much of a cinephile.

One of the potentially telling details is that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, about the importance of high-school football in West Texas, was Bush’s favorite film from last year. Telling, but hardly surprising. For as casual a filmgoer as Dubya plainly is, seeing “myself” or some part of “my life” or “my world” (or more accurately, seeing some idealization of these things) on the Big Screen is a thrill and a huge part of what makes a movie “good.”

Bush also was sufficiently moved by HOTEL RWANDA to request a White House meeting with hotel chief Paul Rusesabagina, whom Don Cheadle played in the movie. But again, I think that this is essentially a reaction to the film’s subject matter, not the film itself. I had decidedly mixed thoughts about HOTEL RWANDA — which I thought was mostly a thoroughly average movie, though one with a couple of terrific performances (Cheadle) and scenes (the fog lifting on the “blocked” road). When descriptions of movies and their ad campaigns and positive reviews and friends’ recommendations read like Nobel Prize campaigns or Man-of-the-Year testimonials — my alarm bells go off. I think I’m being blackmailed into liking a film, from fear of seeming like a bad person otherwise.

March 8, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Palace intrigue

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GUNNER PALACE (Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker, USA, 2005, 6)

If the film-maker could have just shut his damn trap for the whole movie, GUNNER PALACE, which follows embedded documentarian Michael Tucker (co-director with his wife Petra Epperlein) and the soldiers of a field artillery unit from the 1st Armored Division, might have been about two grades higher (certainly one). Now this is not FAHRENHEIT 9/11/2.0. But Tucker hacked me off right away (never a good rhetorical move) with a classic bit of Michael-Moorishness. There’s about a minute of footage of the unit and the embedded film-maker coming under fire from what looks like a sniper. It looks all panicky and whirly and chaotic (as senseless as war itself, man) because the cameraman reasonably enough is just concerned with running to a safe spot and saving his butt, without regard for angles and compositions. Gripping-enough moment. But at the end of it, we got the title card. “Major combat ended four months ago.” Followed by “This is minor combat.” Cue chuckles. Isn’t it ironic. Like rain on your wedding day. Who would’ve thought … it figures. Perspective check here, people. A sniper is a sniper, and he always looks the same from a camera-eye perspective, whether there’s none or a hundred outside the camera’s range. Somewhere in the United States every day, police exchange gunfire with criminals, or some nutjob holes himself up in a house and the cops engage in siege operations. You could produce footage like this “minor combat (cue chuckles)” by the yard and shrink-wrap it to order, add the sarcastic title “this is a country at peace” and conclude that the United States has been invaded for all the relevance the snarky title cards have. In fact, people should put embedded reporters in the cop car and show the footage. I’ll bet there’d be enough for a whole TV show about such cops.

While those Mooreisms never dominate, Tucker can’t resist using his voice-over or other soundtrack elements for them. The film’s last words of narration are truly barf-inducing in their pseudo-profundity: “unlike a movie, war has no end.” Like wow man. Isn’t that deep. Until … you think about it. Who’s still fighting the (no end) War of the Austrian Succession? There’s also the very-edited contrasts between the words of the boots on the ground and the statements on Armed Forces Radio, mostly bureaucratic-sounding statements from Rumsfeld (cue chuckles). This juxtaposition just made me doubt Tucker’s sense of historical perspective and proportion. To anybody familiar with military history, this contrast is nothing new and has nothing particularly to do with the Iraq war, either in its prosecution or its justice. While the particular shapes and details change with the culture of course, the men in the trenches have always complained about the men in the rear and their political masters (and “nobody likes The Boss” is true of most civilian vocations as well). I alluded to griping Confederate soldiers in a review of COLD MOUNTAIN and there’s the famous Willie and Joe cartoons from the World War II Stars and Stripes. Indeed, one of GUNNER PALACE’s most effective moments, about which more anon, is a short bit of soldier-griping. But hearing it from the narrator on the soundtrack just invites the Moore comparison.

I see I’ve already spent way too much space ranting about what’s wrong with GUNNER PALACE, a film to which I’m giving a 6/10 — a guarded recommendation. But it matters because the film had the potential to be a great piece of verite. The film-makers obviously aren’t “trying” to make lefty agitprop but they can’t help themselves. They’re like some pack-a-day smoker who’s trying to quit and mostly succeeding, but he has to sneak at least one or two every day. But GUNNER PALACE does recover (continually) from its (continuing) missteps. The film takes its title from the nickname for the artillery unit’s soldiers — gunners — and its headquarters, a former palace of Uday Hussein. It spends most of its time at HQ with the soldiers and going out on patrol in trucks — in other words doing exactly what soldiers do. Much of the time hanging at Uday’s palace features soldiers performing (mildly amusing) rap numbers.

Those expecting something exceptionally dramatic will be disappointed by GUNNER PALACE. Every war movie ever made has more “Bang Bang” than this movie (and more “Kiss Kiss” too, for that matter). In fact, what’s particularly strong and revelatory about this picture is its defiant lack of conventional drama. There are several raids — some successful in finding the quarry, some not. But none are especially built up to or particularly lengthy or internally-dramatic (none become a set piece, in other words). Most of what occurs in GUNNER PALACE is routine, and to be perfectly frank — kinda boring. However, that rhythm is (I’m told) true to the life of the combat soldier — days or weeks of boredom or basically-civilian tasks interspersed with a few moments or hours of life-or-death terror. But following the soldiers is still gripping, at least to this lifelong civilian, just because of where you are and what the situation is.

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I realize those two juxtaposed adjectives (“boring” and “gripping”) make no sense, but it’s a testament to GUNNER PALACE’s strength that the film accurately captures both. After a while, we realize that we’re more on edge than the soldiers — they’re more concerned about a rat in their sleeping quarters than the mortar blasts (the GIs can tell they’re not close) and have acquired enough experience to tell the difference between hostile gunfire and celebrations at Arab weddings. And the soldiers sometimes guess wrong — one sequence, which eventually becomes funny, involves what they think is a roadside bomb but turns out to be a plastic bag of trash — “the Iraqis were laughing at us,” one soldier notes, adding that the Americans held up traffic both ways on a main road for 15 minutes. Probably not winning many hearts and minds.

“The routine” also involves some touching and mildly amusing bits — a soldier who’s never seen his son holds an orphaned Iraqi newborn as if it were a surrogate. At the same visit, another tries to get an Iraqi child interested in Spongebob Squarepants. In another scene, a soldier tries to train a female member of the Iraqi provisional government in firearm use (while wearing traditional Muslim garb). “Keep it down,” he keeps having to say, reminding her to aim for the sand. There are various Iraqi translators, who may or may not be trustworthy and the soldiers try to navigate among the various Iraqi factions. None of it constitutes great stand-alone material, but together, the scenes produce a quietly effective mosaic of the days and nights of a soldier in the field.

jamesbowman_portraitI agree with basically everything James Bowman of the American Spectator says in particular about GUNNER PALACE, but with hardly any of the conclusions that he draws. I’ve already mentioned the film’s lifelike and undramatic quality, which Bowman takes as a weakness, as one of GUNNER PALACE’s strengths.

In addition, while I agree it is cheap and stupid liberal grandstanding for the film-makers to put “The Ride of the Valkyries” on the soundtrack as the soldiers prepare for a raid (like in APOCALYPSE NOW … set in Vietnam … a quagmire like Iraq … get it … huh … get it) — I think Bowman missed the point. What’s revealing about the scene where Tucker & Epperlein do exactly that bit of liberal grandstanding is that the choice of music turns out not to be, as the sound mix initially implied, wholly that of the film-makers. Rather the soldiers themselves played “Valkyries” on their stereo on their way there. This is a fascinating choice and not just because, as Bowman does note, that the soldiers got their images of soldiering from Vietnam movies (though that’s true to an extent). But it’s as if the soldiers are consciously recoding the music’s meaning and reclaiming its bellicose grandeur and soaring optimism. In fact, the more Bowman is correct that the use of “Valkyries” implies a parallel with Vietnam, the more it is also the case that the soldiers must not accept the dominant liberal narrative of Vietnam. (After all, no high-schooler so much as strolls onto the wrestling mat or, to pick an even wimpier example, enters a debate tournament, planning to lose. Participating in any contest — and war is a contest, of a sort — implies at least some belief in the possibility of success.)

Bowman’s other criticism is that the soldiers are Unmanly Whiners, Products of the Post-Analytic Society.

It used to be thought honorable for those who had suffered in war to make light of the fact, or else to shut up about it. Now it is apparently more honorable for them to “rap” and complain.

Bowman is correct morally, but he obviously missed (1) the difference in gripitude between younger and older soldiers — meaning part of it is just human maturity, and (2) much of the gallows humor in the conversations among the soldiers. And even the Iraqi civilian translators, who crack jokes about being targeted by the Jihadis: “we’ll keep doing this. Until they kill us.” In fact, the funniest sequence in the film shows several soldiers breaking up with laughter at a fake TV segment one of them narrates about the armor plating they’re putting on their Humvees, trying to improvise a minimal amount of protection from roadside bombs. Just how minimal is the punchline of the soldier’s “narration.” This is exactly the sort of sick joke about war wounds — “to make light of the fact” one might say — that soldiers have been making since Homer compared the death of a Trojan from a spear in the jaw to reeling in a stubborn fish. And while the soldiers might bitch, none of them are ashamed of what they do or think themselves suckers (though there is some “us-vs.-them” dynamic toward civilians, presumably including the film-makers, a point driven home especially hard by the one sequence where the film-maker calls into doubt his own standing). But after expressing doubts about the war, one soldier says with puffed-up pride: “I’m going to go home a combat veteran. 19 years old and I’ve fought in a war.” In the admittedly more-informal and rather-less-rousing language of modern times, this is the point of the end of the St. Crispin’s Day speech:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

March 7, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Another point about lack of perspective

Cleared for release by Joint Staff Public Affairs

I didn’t want to go farther afield in my review of GUNNER PALACE, but it’s a similar point about the general lack of historical perspective in much reporting on Iraq war — the matter of casualties. The Associated Press made a big to-do last week about the fact that the death toll for the US military in the entire Iraq war topped 1,500. But that approximately equals the US death toll on D-Day — and that’s just on June 6 itself, not the entire Normandy invasion and reconquest of France; and it’s Americans only, no Britons, Canadians or others included. (Take a look at the same link for a note of French civilian casualties from Allied bombing. And ponder why the French didn’t resort to a nasty guerrilla war against the Occupiers, but others do.) The Iraq figure is also comparable to the number of US soldier deaths in the single-month Tet Offensive (about 1,100), a high point in a war that over its course killed 50 times that many American soldiers. If the cause of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, removing him as a security threat, and definitively ending his pursuit of WMDs was just, then 1,500 dead soldiers is a worthwhile price, and not an especially high one by historical standards.

But we’ve become so obsessed as a society with personalizing everything that we’ve lost all sense of what are major casualties and where the Iraq war fits. Another AP article a few weeks ago about a shortage of military buglers (link now broken in 2017) had an aside that implicitly exaggerated Iraq deaths by so many orders of magnitude that it’s hard to fathom the historical innocence that such talk both presumes and perpetuates. Here’s the aside:

With an average of 1,800 U.S. veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam now dying every day, along with a steady stream of casualties in Iraq, live renditions of taps at military funerals have become a relative rarity.

Whaaaaa? If there’s not enough buglers exist to provide 1,800 live renditions of taps per day, the problem would not be measurably less if no American had ever given his blood for oil and died for Halliburton profits. Or to slice it another way, more WW2, Korea and Vietnam vets are dying *every day* than have died in *the entire two years of the Iraq war,* so obviously the about-two-per-average-day “steady stream” of deaths from Iraq has zip, zilch, nada, jack to do with why there’s not enough buglers for military funerals. But that aside is there and without the exact stat in his head, the meme that hundreds are dying daily in Iraq burrows its way into the reader’s subconscious, though the thought would never survive a second’s explicit thought (the AP article is otherwise quite good, I hasten to add, which makes the aside even more tendentious).

Maybe Osama bin Laden was right in general, if not the particular case of September 11, about the lesson he drew from the Black Hawk Down incident and how it forced the US out of Somalia. That maybe the therapeutic culture and the personalized media culture have turned America into a paper tiger without the stomach for casualties. You can bet that if we leave Iraq without having crushed the Jihadis, that conclusion will be confirmed.

March 7, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

If Armond White weren’t enough reason to hate NY Press …

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I think I have a publication crossed off my “to read” list for the foreseeable future. The New York Press’s cover article this week is titled “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.” Amy Welborn has the complete list of the 52 rib-tickling, knee-slapping reasons here and a picture of the weekly tabloid’s hi-larious cover. Now if the “writer” Matt Taibbi had just said “I don’t like Catholicism and here’s why … blah, blah, blah,” nobody would bat an eye even if he cracked a joke of dubious taste while doing it. But that’s not what he did (though it is the substance of most of the “humor”) … instead, he publicly gloats over the imminent death of a sick, old man. Father Sibley suggested one of the funny things Taibbi forgot. And some of the commenters at Amy’s site have made the obvious points about blaspheming liberal icons or Muslim religious leaders.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 9.08.47 PMBut there’s two things that separate this article out. The first is that, like early-90s Andrew Dice Clay, it just isn’t funny, and for much of the same reason. Like one of the commenters on Amy’s site said about himself, my sense of humor is sufficiently sick that I could imagine myself, in principle, laughing at an article titled “52 Reasons Person X’s Death is Funny.” And I’ll excuse a LOT if I think it funny. But both Taibbi and Clay have an ugly tone that is magnified by stridency and repetitiveness, particularly out of the gate (I’ll never forget the first lines in the Clay routine I saw, where he mentions as offhandedly as if giving a stage direction: “the other day I was having oral sex with a woman” — that’s the PG version). And the sheer length of Taibbi’s article and Clay’s routine and the incessant quality of the style just makes them — I choose my words carefully — evil. We’re not talking about a wisecracking aside about that old fart in Rome or how hot some chick’s ass is — that’d just be a lapse in judgment, requiring only a quarter-second’s thought (or lack of thought). Taibbi’s article reflects a fundamental corruption of judgment, because it required a long time to write and takes time to read that, as I said, turns the piece into an evil screed because keeping up that attitude for that length requires simple, pure, unvarnished, unredeemed hate.

Second, and Your Humble Blogger knows this because he sometimes does it himself, there is a place for locker-room humor, for sick jokes, even for hate-filled rants. The locker room. The bar. Conversation. An obscure personal blog that four people read. And in a professional publication, perhaps, the humor or advice columns. But putting something on a professionally-produced publication’s cover says something about the kind of publication it is. Placement and packaging provide cues to the reader about the importance he should place on an item. If this had just been a Dan Savage column or Letters to Penthouse or something else to put next to the NY Press’s ads for escort services. But no — the NY Press chose this for the cover. The most important spot in the paper. They were saying the best, most important article they had that week was a list of 52 sophomoric wisecracks (of which even my lowbrow sense of humor found three or four funny). I now know all I need to know about their editorial standards.

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UPDATE: As Vadim pointed out in the comment field, but as I knew yesterday afternoon, NY Press editor Jeff Koyen resigned, although according to this account in Editor and Publisher, publisher Chris Rohland said it had nothing to do with the Pope cover. Instead, the suspension and subsequent resignation was over “insubordination” on an inside-page parody of the New York Post that Rohland refused to approve, but Koyen went ahead and ran. Rohland told E&P; that he “knew about and green-lighted” the Taibbi article.

I don’t know whether to have more contempt for Rohland if he’s lying or telling the truth. Obviously, insubordination is insubordination. But the question of what will draw the publisher’s veto (which the editor then CAN ignore and CAN commit insubordination) is still a reflection of the NY Press’s values, and the inversion here is … interesting: 52 sophomoric wisecracks gloating over the imminent death of a sick old man DOES meet the publisher’s standards for the cover; acknowledging another publication on an inside page does NOT meet said standards.

Still Rohland gets off the best line of the whole affair — funnier than anything Taibbi wrote. You can see what kind of personality the publisher is referring to when you read Koyen’s public “exit interview.” “I wish Jeff luck,” he told E&P.; “And I wish the person who hires him even more luck.”

March 4, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“All the leaves are brown…”

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Starting today, Washington cinema-lovers will have a great opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest film ouevres. Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is having a comprehensive retro of his released films — meaning 2046 is not included — at the AFI theater in Silver Spring. The AFI is a wonderful place to see a picture and hopefully, they’ll put it in one of the bigger theaters (they played THE LEOPARD in the smallest one … grr). One measure of Wong’s importance is that he’s already being cited as an influence by the next generation of film-makers — Sofia Coppola thanked him when she accepted her Best Original Script Oscar for 2003.

A few years ago, I was writing occasional TV reviews (about fortnightly, I’d guess) as a favor to the arts editor at The Washington Times, and one review I did was of a Sundance special on Wong, where I describe some of what is vital and important in the man’s work. As for this retro, ASHES OF TIME and AS TEARS GO BY are the films I *have* to see, meaning they’re the ones I’ve never seen before. My favorites are IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and CHUNGKING EXPRESS, though I love all that I’ve seen with one exception. And if you’re new to Wong, I’d recommend CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS as the places to start (though unfortunately those two are playing at the end of the retro).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.33.25 PMWhile I was quite bored by HAPPY TOGETHER (seeing no point to all the on again-off again quarreling or being in Argentina or the black-and-white), CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS are both great works of romantic longing. In the latter film, the flashbacks of the silly old father and the repeated line “somebody else decides who lives and dies” are pitch-perfect examples of a tactic I love — repeating the same words or images, but in a different context which gives them a wholly new meaning (I could also cite THE END OF THE AFFAIR and BRIEF ENCOUNTER). There’s also a cramped quality to Wong’s framing and sets in these two films with frequent use of long narrow corridors and distorted or eccentric lighting, and most of the action seems to take place at night, as if the world can’t breathe, but it’s cool to look at. The earlier DAYS OF BEING WILD is film in a similar style, but is closer in mood and narrative (lack of) structure to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. As for EXPRESS, I can’t hear The Cranberries sing “Dreams” any more without imagining Faye Wong singing it in Cantonese. And when I hear “California Dreaming,” I get the images of a T-shirted Faye Wong slinking through the film’s titular Hong Kong fast-food joint, listening to this Mamas & Papas song, absolutely oblivious to the world outside her.

Wong is also one of the directors I’d cite — Quentin Tarantino being an obvious other one — as among the high-points of post-modern film-making. They handle pop reference, pastiche and stylistic panache without collapsing into nihilistic decadence. There’s a point to it all, in words — in Wong’s case, his early loosely-structured stylistically playful tales of amour fou cover his character’s deepest romantic longings and heartbreak. DAYS OF BEING WILD, a tone poem centered on a character’s madonna-whore complex and his casual moving from girl to girl (imagine James Dean without the Method for the general sense of Leslie Cheung’s character). This gentleman thinks a single shot from EXPRESS is the single greatest shot in the history of the medium — “expresses more longing and yearning than most films can accomplish in two hours of anguished dialogue.” Take all such superlatives with a grain of salt of course, but this is a very sane opinion that will never be cited on his commitment papers (like his opinion of GERRY will).

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And in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, the theme molds itself into a style that turns the film into a kind of middle-class tragedy — a florid memory piece about a man and a woman whose respective unseen spouses are having an affair with one another and what may or not happen between them. Like bittersweet memory itself, MOOD fixates on iconographic snatches, moments out of time, and a soft, romantic, almost fetishistic memory for detail tinctured with regret — Tony Leung’s hands, Maggie Cheung’s hairdo and dress, Tony’s pants crease, and Maggie’s hips. A lot of Maggie’s hips. In fact, a joke title for the film is IN THE MOOD FOR ASS. The film is a stylistic tour de force, filled with great touches by Wong — the way that when the couple walks down the beige brick street, reconstructing their spouses’ affair, we first see their shadows on the wall; the freezes of first Maggie and then Tony walking down the hotel hall away from us; the slow-motion last touch of hands when they’re “play-acting” the parting greetings; the way “Yumeji’s Theme” changes in meaning from longing to reverie and the way the relationship itself has actually changed from one playing to the next.

But the first time I saw the film, when “Yumeji’s Theme” swelled up for like the eighth time and we saw Maggie’s legs while the flask swayed in time with her movement and the notes weeped away on the soundtrack — there was audible groaning in the TalkCinema audience. Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.37.24 PMOf the films by Wong I’ve seen, MOOD and DAYS OF BEING WILD were the ones that required a second viewing to grow on me. Of the two, MOOD is the more pleasurable as a pure sensual object, lovely to look at, listen to and luxuriate in — but neither is the easiest film to try to make sense of or follow. Both are quite elliptical in terms of exactly what happens — although generally chronological, they follow an emotional structure with few of the usual plot cues. In MOOD, there’s never an instant where were TOLD that Maggie and Tony are no play-acting their respective spouses and are now themselves. On second viewing, basically knowing what happens, MOOD at least became much clearer, especially in terms of the POINT of every scene and what’s really going on. It’s like MEMENTO or 8 1/2 in that once you get the general sense of the film’s architecture that a first viewing gives you, it becomes a piece of cake and most everything makes sense. For example, it became much more obvious how many hints Wong dropped that Tony’s wife and Maggie’s husband were cheating (which gave the early scenes much more point). What I took to be a barrage of too many codas now became a logical progression of plotted scenes. It all ends at Angkor Wat, a monument to permanence that absorbs into itself the hearts of men, breaking over ephemerality.

March 4, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized, Wong Kar-wai | Leave a comment

Another auteur (maybe) knuckles under

According to several news accounts — here are the stories from the Associated Press, from Reuters, and from United Press International — Lars Von Trier has been forced to cut the already-notorious “donkey scene” from his upcoming film MANDERLAY, something that already had cost him the participation of actor John C. Reilly.

I’m suspicious of the possibility that Von Trier may be pulling a fast one. For one thing, something has been rotten in the state of Denmark on this story and the words being put out by the studio and Von Trier for a while. For one thing, in the initial news item, the producer admits the killing, however says it happened off-camera — something I would want to credit because that would be a lie that would get found out real quick). But if the producer was telling the truth then, then what would Von Trier have available to cut now? Scenes of people and a dead animal or of people eating meat are not objectionable, and the UPI story says the scene “showed starving people in a small town carving up the animal” (which also is unremarkable unless it was shown alive earlier in the scene).

There’s Von Trier’s sense of humor to reckon with. He clearly disagrees with the animal-rights crowd — the reference to the donkey as taking “its place in the food chain”; the statement “Animal welfare is important, but the welfare of humans is in my eyes even more important … and that includes freedom of expression”; and his final stand and declaration of opposition, “I acted conscientiously, and I don’t suppose we’ll ever agree on that”; Those are not the words of Kim Basinger or Pamela Anderson. He even made the worst charge an artist can possibly make — ignorance or misunderstanding of his work (“The charge made in many of the letters of killing a donkey ‘for entertainment’ is one that I refute on the grounds that such charges can only originate from ignorance of my films … particularly ‘entertaining’ is something surely nobody would call them!”)

I have not been able to find Von Trier’s actual statement (and I even did what I could with a couple of Danish sites). The news reports are filled with these puckish quotes, but none saying, in Von Trier’s own words, “I am cutting out the scene of a donkey being killed.” Instead we get him saying the completed “perfect” adjective “dead” — “I cut all the scenes showing the dead donkey out of the film” — rather than the progressive “being killed” or “killing.” So I have a sneaking suspicion that Von Trier might be preparing an “opening day surprise” — it’s something I could see his particular sense of humor doing. And there is precedent for great Catholic filmmakers — Mel Gibson with Matthew 27:25, and (sorta) Luis Bunuel with VIRIDIANA. However, I am hesitant to put too much stock in this kind of Clintonian word-parse analysis though, since English is not Von Trier’s native language and the statement probably was originally made in Danish.

There’s an element of wishful thinking in this scenario too. About the last film-maker in the world I would expect to back down from fear of giving offense is the man who made DOGVILLE, THE IDIOTS and BREAKING THE WAVES. The man who ordered Jorgen Leth to eat a sumptuous meal on a street in the red-light district of Bombay. It’s like Roberto Duran saying “no mas.”

And the offense was taken by whom — “animal lovers.” Lars Von Trier, if through some miracle or mechanism you ever read this, please take this advice from your biggest fan in the world: Do-gooding sentimental liberals hate your films anyway. There’s nothing to gain by them, and general scandal always helps films at the box office anyway, as I know you know. Decisions about what goes into a work of art should be made by the artist alone (that’s Von Trier in this case, not “animal lovers”) for reasons related only to the work, and without regard for outside organized pressure groups or the audience’s reaction. PETA has no more right to Lars Von Trier’s final cut than the ADL had to Mel Gibson’s. And if he believes, as his statement says, that “I feel that my conscience is clean in regard to animal welfare,” then he has an affirmative obligation NOT to back down (this is pretty standard Catholic teaching). To change his film acknowledges not only their right over his film but the righteousness of that right. And that’s just wrong.

March 3, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A ‘nice’ PASSION

Thanks, Mel.

Next week, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST gets rereleased, Someone at St. Blogs (I forget who; my apologies if he ever reads this) actually suggested a couple of months ago that every few years, Mel Gibson could rerelease the film into theaters for Lent or for Passion Week/Holy Week specifically. Everyone in the thread agreed this would be a great idea. God answers prayers, but sometimes not always like some of us might want.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.01.39 PMIts official title is THE PASSION RECUT. I’m glad of the title change (so as to avoid confusion) and I’ve no reason to think Gibson will make this the “definitive” or … um … “canonical” version of the film. Still, I disagree with the man from whom I learned of this — Catholic blogger Domenico Bettinelli (there’s a first time for everything). I’m really not thrilled by Gibson’s decision.

It should go without saying that if films should be recut at all, the artist whose work it is should be the one doing it. And there’s nothing unprecedented about directors fiddling with their work after release — all the various versions of APOCALYPSE NOW; Wong Kar-wai will probably still be recutting 2046 in 2046. But while I wouldn’t turn down someone else’s invitation to go, I do not plan to see THE PASSION RECUT, while I definitely will pop in my DVD of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST at some point during Holy Week.

It’s as if Gibson has forgotten all the fuss over the film in the weeks and months prior to release, and the weeks after. Several people, not a few of them ill-disposed toward Gibson and Catholicism to begin with while being curiously unrepulsed by movie violence elsewhere, accused the film of being a fantasy of homosexual masochism. Many of us who defended THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST argued that the film’s violence was necessary and not exploitative. Indeed, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is one of the few films (IRREVERSIBLE, THE WILD BUNCH and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE are the only others to come to mind quickly) where I would say that to tone down the violence or try to make it palatable is to do violence to the film. I specifically argued that a “nice” PASSION would have failed to capture the point of the Atonement — that Jesus was bearing all the sins of the world, and that His stripes *should* make you recoil.

To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world’s sins, dammit. If any event deserves to be portrayed as Big, over-important, it’s this one. We’re seeing, at a certain level, an act of evil beyond comprehension and so cranking up the whipping to the infinitieth degree is the only way to make the scale of the point, given that Gibson is restricted to making a film featuring a mere man. Look at the contrast between Jesus’ body by the time He is crucified and those of the two thieves. If Jesus looks like the two thieves, the brutality is merely equal and thus the uniqueness of this suffering and death, what makes it the Atonement, is not shown.

Now, Gibson has made a liar out of me. And, by recutting the film to make it less violent, has acknowledged that it was too violent in the first place. (second sentence added by VJM after initial publication as the perfect “nut sentence”)

Dom points out (correctly, probably) that more people will see the film if there’s a less-violent cut available. That may be true, but I’m not sure that this would justify undermining the film’s theology to the extent that toning down the violence would. Dom would hoot (and has hooted) at people who argue that the Church should try to get more butts in the pews by making the liturgy more “accessible” or “relevant” or having Bible translations that are more “modern” or otherwise dumbed-down. CAVEAT: I well understand the difference between a movie, which will be ashes and dust someday, on the one hand and on the other hand the inspired Word of God and/or the Holy Mass, the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ. I’m obviously NOT saying the matter is as grave. But still, an analogous point can be made — that all are a form of watering down a thing in a bid to broaden the audience. I’m all for accessibility and popularity — but only to the extent consistent with the thing sought. And at some point, watering down a rite, a book or a film all become inconsistent with the point of the rite, the book, the film — whatever the distance between the gravity of those points might be. I’m not sure you do people much good by making no demands whatever of their “comfort zone.” In fact, to aestheticize the Passion (or to be more precise, to only watch a fictional representation of it if it has been aestheticized) does not seem to me very different from attempts to write off the Gospels as mere myth — both are attempts to duck historicity, that God took on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. And that Jesus was specifically crucified for my sins (every “my” in the world in fact) and this is what crucifixion is. Both aestheticization and mythologizing seem like species of the same type of squeamish reaction to this too, too solid flesh.

March 3, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My not so awesome-O night at the Oscars

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I did badly in every Oscar pool because I let my heart get in the way — predicting an sweep for THE AVIATOR. Not because I thought THE AVIATOR was even a very good film — I believe it to be Scorsese’s weakest (and I’ve seen NEW YORK, NEW YORK). But I thought that 2005 would — finally — be Martin Scorsese’s turn. I was actively rooting against KILL THE CRIPPLES … er … MILLION-DOLLAR BABY, which de facto meant I had to root for THE AVIATOR — the other nag in a disappointing two-horse race. (SIDEWAYS was easily my favorite among the four nominated films I saw, but I knew it had no chance and was actually pleasantly surprised when Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor won for Adapted Script.) So I had good feelings early when THE AVIATOR was sweeping the technical awards, and Cate Blanchett won supporting actress. I didn’t mind Morgan Freeman winning for supporting actor (I picked him in the pools) because it was obviously a career award, and his career is much-deserving.

But then came Hilary Swank’s victory and I was getting ready to hurl things at the TV (and just plain hurl). This woman has basically had a two-role career and now has Oscars for both (the other being BOYS DON’T CRY at the 2000 awards) — and that’s just wrong. Two Oscars automatically invites imputations of pantheon stature with Davis, Hepburn, Bergman, etc., where Swank is so painfully outclassed that it isn’t even funny. Her performances weren’t even all that good — they’re very mannered and overripe, you can see her acting at every moment, and she relies on that jaw structure and big mouth to supply character. They’re also both the kind “stunt” roles that get ridiculously overpraised — in the first case, a cross-dressing lesbian where she tells the world on Oscar night about “celebrating our differences” (hurl); and now, another “gender-barrier-breaking” role, a female boxer. Hopefully, history will repeat itself and she’ll use her Oscar cache to make AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE, PART TWO. It probably didn’t help that the two lead-female performances that I thought were the year’s absolute best, in a walk, (Catalina Sandino Moreno in MARIA FULL OF GRACE and Imelda Staunton in VERA DRAKE) were both up for Oscars. Mark my words. In 2040, people will be shaking their heads over Hilary Swank, laughing at those idiots in the ’00s, just like we wonder today about those dimbulbs in the 30s who gave two Oscars to Luise Rainer and none to Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich.

The final two awards came, director and film, and it was just depressing in its … depressingness.

Kubrick, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, P. Sturges, Welles, F. Lang, Hawks, Scorsese — 0 directing Oscars combined
Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Norman Taurog, Delbert Mann, Frank Lloyd, Anthony Minghella, Sam Mendes, Robert Benton – 1 each

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 7.26.33 PMAs I’ve already said, I don’t care for either film; I know the Oscars are an industry love-in. To some extent, they affect power. As Ryan put it on his sight: “For a cinephile, the putative clout that an Oscar brings is the most important aspect of it all. You want your favorite directors/actors/writers/craftspeople to have some power.” But they also affect legacy. And the increasingly-looks-like-it’ll-be-lifelong snub of Scorsese, the best American director of his era, is no longer funny. If he were making obscure little art films, I’d understand. But he works with A-list stars and has for about 30 years now, and THE AVIATOR is Oscar-bait from Central Casting. The specifics of MILLION-DOLLAR BABY aside, it’s not that Clint Eastwood doesn’t have a legacy worth celebrating (of course he does, and as I said in re Morgan Freeman, I don’t mind “Career Oscars”). But Eastwood had won Picture and Director for 1992’s UNFORGIVEN — the fact that made me pick THE AVIATOR. Mark my words. In 2040, people will be shaking their heads over Martin Scorsese, laughing at those idiots in the 80s, 90s, and 00s who couldn’t give Scorsese one Oscar, while giving two to Hilary Swank.

March 2, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Awesome-O

OngBakOneSecond

ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2005, 10)

This martial arts film from Thailand is awesome. This movie has a fight that last 0.5 seconds and one kick. This movie has a hero who dodges plates as they’re tossed at him and then smash elsewhere in the frame. And who dodges live electric wires as they’re thrown at him. This movie has a hero who KO’s one guy with a blow to the skull that breaks in half the bad guy’s helmet, while he is wearing it, and another by kicking him through the table. Did you get that? “While he is wearing it.” “Through the table.” This movie has flamboyantly evil villains who physically stuff coke up the noses of poor defenseless damsels. In a fight in which this movie’s hero outnumbers the villains 1-to-20, after the first 19 baddies have had their asses thoroughly kicked, No. 20 runs away. The movie has an entourage of bad guys guarding a Buddha that wear matching black ensembles, with knit caps. And a Mr. Big villain with a tracheotomy who says through a talking machine “I decide who lives or dies. Remember: I am God.” Did you get that? “Through a talking machine.” Like the Pope. This movie has another villain who suddenly energizes himself by grabbing 20 syringes full of Villain Power Super Juice. Like Jose Canseco. The movie has a fight in which a whip-like kick misses the bad guy’s legs — on the first revolution and then on the second revolution hits him in the head. Did you get that? “On the second revolution.” This movie prompted dozens of winces and gasps (and laughs) from the gobsmacked patrons at a D.C. art-house on opening weekend. This movie is the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.

Now that’s how one might write a review of ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (what a stupid renaming; as if there’s anybody in the target audience for a martial-arts film that would be put off by the original “MUAY THAI WARRIOR”). In fact I wrote a capsule very much like it a couple of years ago (2nd capsule down). And, as a measure of this film’s awesomeness, without having to reuse one moment when I repeated the Breathless Fanboy Love Letter act in the paragraph above.

However, that is the honest reaction to ONG-BAK, which in some ways is criticism-proof. You’re either wowed by the film’s stunts and the athleticism of star Tony Jaa, all achieved without wires and essentially no special effects, or you’re not. If you are, noting the film’s obvious shortcomings is meaningless caviling. And if you’re not, ONG-BAK doesn’t even arguably have anything else to offer. The film looks cheap and its technical credits, except for the sound effects editing, are utterly generic. The score in particular is hardly better than what one gets on a porn movie or a company orientation tape. In fact, I can’t recall another film where I was so aware of the gap between awesome sound effects and awful score. The plot is too formulaic to be called a cliche (good guy from small town tries to retrieve a Buddha head called Ong-Bak that was stolen and taken to The Big City of Bangkok and deals with gangsters, gamblers, pushers and assorted baddies). A terrific opening scene aside, the film takes longer than necessary to get started, though once the mayhem starts … man, ONG-BAK more than compensates by hardly pausing for a breath afterward.

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Some of the specific criticisms are bone-headed though, I think. Several have complained about the film’s habit of showing the same stunt from two or three angles. But for a film like this, though I noticed right away on first viewing, I stopped being annoyed by it real quick. Usually when an action or athletic scene is edited together, it’s to “cover” for actors or stuntmen who don’t have the chops to do what the characters are being shown doing (see my complaints about BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM here). But in ONG-BAK, it’s almost the opposite. The editing never is constructed into “the stunt,” but always just another angle on the always-completed stunt. It’s more like instant replay, or a form of reassurance — yes, you really did see what you just thought you saw, but didn’t believe you did.

The style obviously invites comparison with Jackie Chan. And the comparisons, like the Washington City paper made in a now-dead link) usually find Tony Jaa wanting. Yes, Jaa personally doesn’t have Chan’s comic gifts and is a bit wooden as a straight actor. But does that really matter? Did anybody ever think Fred Astaire could *act*. And I don’t see how anybody who saw ONG-BAK in a theater with an audience could say the film as a whole is humorless. There’s plenty of comedy, partly from the wit in the ridiculousness of some of the stunts supposedly set up too straight-faced to be funny (the aforementioned one-kick fight) and some occasional use of fast motion. And part of it is The Overplaying Sidekick. To cite only the funniest joke, Mr. Overplaying Sidekick wields a huge cleaver to ward off a gang of bad guys chasing him. Right at that instant … talking vaguely not to step on the joke … an elderly woman walks by … and the chase begins again.

After I wrote that first capsule, it was pointed out to me by some jerk that this film proved the irrationality of my rule about waiting for second viewing to see how a film held up, before grading it a 10. Ryan noted that I would probably never have another experience with ONG-BAK like I had at that Toronto Midnight Madness screening. Citing our mutual idol Pauline Kael, he said not giving it an immediate 10 was being false to my experience of that film that night, when I was on an adrenaline high for hours after and called it “the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.” My Rugby-Grand-Slam-hopeful-Welsh bud Dan made a similar point more recently:

But I never expected [others] to like the final 40+N minutes of the rest of the film as much as I did in the midnight screening … I’m not sure anyone can enjoy it as much as the audience who were there at the Uptown that night.
Indeed, since then, I’ve not enjoyed ONG-BAK quite as much on the couple of times I’ve seen it. I’ve used it as more of a dvd-of-cool-moments when showing it to mates.
But nothing could compare to that first showing.

Second viewing wasn’t quite the “ohmigawd” experience as first, and, yes, it couldn’t be because the specifics of the viewing experience never could be duplicated — the (now-demolished) Uptown 1, an old-style movie palace that seats 1,000 up to the rafters; a midnight show at the end of an exhausting six-movie day; the experience of being snuck up on and gobsmacked by a film you had no idea would be this amazing; a packed audience of fanboys wowing and wincing along with every stunt (Jim, Dan, Erik and I were feeding off each other’s reactions — I specifically remember who I saw ONG-BAK with, and I can’t say that for many other festival films).

But that screening goes into my memory bank as one of the four or five Greatest Filmgoing Experiences of My Life — seeing ALEXANDER NEVSKY with a live symphony orchestra and choir performing Prokofiev’s score; seeing 2001 for the first time at a midnight show at an IMAX theater; seeing TIME OUT at a little shoebox arthouse (now closed) a week after giving up films for Lent. As long as ONG-BAK held up generally, and it does and all those other cited films have, I’ll excuse slightly diminishing returns. We’ll always have Paris, or something. I did have some of the same fun on second viewing, by seeing it with an audience of newbies (a packed-but-small theater, with about 60 gasping and laughing along with it And for once in my life, I didn’t care about loud first-weekend audiences.

March 2, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment