Rightwing Film Geek

Speaking of knee-jerk

At least Blockbuster and the Blog-rating have the excuse of being dumb (in every sense) mechanical programs. But what is the American Spectator’s excuse for this bit of unfocused spite, against the AFI Top 100 list.

It’s fine to take down a consensus masterpiece (I was one of the cinephiles who saw the first efforts of Vlad the Impaler). But reading through this dreck by Larry Thornberry, it’s hard to see what he has exactly against KANE.

He makes exactly one serious, sane point made against the film, an observation that counts as criticism. Slathering negative adjectives and sneering at “film majors and various other humbugs” doesn’t count. Nor do also potentially-serious points that are actually factually wrong, such as “it’s long” (it’s 1 minute short of two hours, which is the “standard” feature-length), or that betray fundamental misunderstandings such as “Welles is pompous” (Kane the character often is; Welles the man is completely self-effacing, here at least).

In addition, all his criticisms against KANE also apply to the other films on the list that he explicitly approves of. BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (not “over”) and THE GODFATHER are far longer than KANE and THE SEARCHERS is exactly the same length. CASABLANCA and DUCK SOUP (Harpo aside) are talkier films. And no movie that screeches to a halt for the BJ Thomas “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” interlude can even pretend to be about Butch Cassidy or anything other than the 60s Summer of Love.

Thornberry’s one serious well-taken point against KANE is that “it’s talky.” Which is to some extent true. But apart from the already-noted double standard, and the fact that lots of great movies are “talky” if the “talk” is great (including those of former American Spectator editor Whit Stillman), he also completely ignores the fact that by far the larger part of the standard pro-KANE panegyric is about how VISUAL the film is. KANE is a stylistically dense masterpiece, of light and shadow, of true blacks, of German expressionist lighting, of deep focus, of visual metaphor, etc. Here’s a quick, cheap primer.

I’m no fan of formal credentialism in the field of film criticism, but it’s hard to imagine why someone would be qualified to dismiss KANE if he thinks he can get off doing so without mentioning the film’s extremely distinctive visual style. How out of touch with the field of film criticism — populist, highbrow or otherwise — can he be?

The rest of his article is just a bunch of cheap shots that are even less developed than his attack on KANE — GONE WITH THE WIND is long; 2001 is obscure; RAGING BULL is boring; TITANIC is long and expensive; SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and BONNIE AND CLYDE celebrates criminals (THE GODFATHER and BUTCH CASSIDY don’t?); Benjamin in THE GRADUATE is stupid; THE DEER HUNTER wasn’t made by a Vietnam vet … and much more.

I wish Bob Tyrrell gave his raspberry-filled J. Gordon Coogler Award to magazine articles. The 2007 winner wouldn’t have had far to travel for the presentation.

June 25, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Speaking of idiotic mechanical computers

My friend Mark Adams sent me the screen capture below. He was interested in the 1940 THIEF OF BAGHDAD (as he should; it’s one of the most magical fairy tales ever made, and gorgeous to look at). The Blockbuster Web site said he might be interested in other movies. And boy, did he get a recommendation!!! (You will need to click on the picture to see the details.)

I hope, for the sake of not giving Mary grounds for divorce, that he ignored the recommendation. I’d have a hard time trusting any program that recommends Shaq’s KAZAAM on any grounds. But especially not because one is interested in a movie that actually is a masterpiece.

Though I still wonder why Mark, a Mavericks fan, had the NBA playoffs as one of his bookmarks.

June 25, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The Disney cartoon not for kids


The Derelict at Stuff O Dreams has an interesting piece about FANTASIA, which she admits disliking on first viewing. I agree that 9 is too young to really enjoy FANTASIA — I didn’t see it at all until its 1990 50th anniversary rerelease, when I was 24. But still, I would readily subject a 9-year-old to “The Nutcracker Suite” or “Dance of the Hours” (plus all the dancing hippos and alligators in the latter).

While the images of Mickey can appeal to children, I don’t know that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” *as music* really does. And I’m quite certain that “The Rite of Spring” and Bach fugues do not. But the strength of Derelict’s copiously-illustrated piece is to note the connections between the images used in the various sections — the treatment of nature and ultimately, of creation itself.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

What matters most

chaplin.jpgG-Money unwittingly comments on film fandom and levels of knowledge in his three latest posts. His piece on THE CIRCUS (by far the meatiest of the three) could only have been written by a Chaplin fanboy, a man for whom coming to grips with each Chaplin film means putting it in the context of his whole career and the movies at the time:

Unlike the rest of the clowns, the Tramp does not seem to be playing for laughs–he isn’t in on the joke with the audience and lacks the sort of immediate emotional connection a clown might have. This is what set the movie comics apart from their vaudeville counterparts.

Could this be the fear that was gnawing at Chaplin and his contemporaries [in 1928], that we were moving away from the visual lyricism of silent comedy, and returning toward the wink-wink nod-nod relationship with the audience that characterized humor in the theater? Certainly, the most successful early sound-era comics, especially the Marx Brothers, thrived on a new style that was far more self-aware, that played to the audience in a more overtly comic way. Perhaps, looking forward to a largely uncertain future, Chaplin was writing the story of his own end as an artist.

Yes, he was. Obviously, Chaplin was so huge himself that he was able to continue through the 30s with two basically-silent movies — his masterpiece CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES. But talkies were his death.

But on the other hand, Michael notes that while he liked Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST only some, apart from *the* famous sequence, his 8-year-old brother was completely taken by it. I’ve heard a lot of silent-film fans myself say that Lloyd really appeals to their children. “We forget, sometimes, how magical the cinema can be, unencumbered by critical airs,” Michael writes. “Critical airs” though, are exactly what THE CIRCUS piece was all about. And FWIW bud, Roger Ebert had a similar reaction to SAFETY LAST when he saw it, his first Lloyd … in 2005 (and he got taken to task over it).

tracyhepburn.jpgAnd in his short piece on ADAM’S RIB, Michael noted that his mother (I am closer to her age than to his) told him as if for granted that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had a real-life years-long affair, which accounts in part for how easy and free their chemistry is. This was something I happened to know before I ever saw the two act together — in WOMAN OF THE YEAR. But he didn’t, and my reaction was “wow bud.”

I cannot imagine watching the Tracy-Hepburn comedies without knowing that the two were lovers offscreen. It was for me (and critics of Kael’s generation) always part of the fun of the pairing, that these films were light-comedy larks, but also substitutes for the relationship they could not have because Tracy was already married. Try PAT AND MIKE, by the same writers-director team, armed with this knowledge (your named problem with ADAM’S RIB will not occur).

June 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the blogosphere

While I was struggling with this site, I got a note from Martin Harold, an adjunct film professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University (vjm cheers) and a self-described “big fan of [my] work” (vjm gulps), telling me had started a blog. When I restarted, I added him to my blogroll at the right, and here is his site. Some recent items of interest:

— We have different takes with respect to morally dubious acts in movies — I think anything is, in principle, legitimate subject matter. Mr. Harold not so much. I think our disagreement is in his statement: “a sensual aesthetic never reaches its audience on an intellectual level,” which I would amend to “a sensual aesthetic never reaches a sensualist audience on an intellectual level.”

The latter statement is obvious but it underlines that it really matters who your audience is (though in current times, this leads me “practically” to a cultural-political stance probably indistinguishable from his). But I’ve seen unfaked sex in “legitimate” movies and never once been tempted by it — almost always I’ve been repulsed by it, and rarely that I recall to good effect in the context of the work.

— He mentions finding out late about the Fox Faith¹ division and going to the site and being … underwhelmed. His grounds are similar, as noted in his Combox, to Barbara Nicolosi’s glorious rant against not just Fox Faith but also FACING THE GIANTS (“Adult Evangelical Christians watching Facing the Giants is like sex addicts watching the Spice Channel”). Mr. Harold sez:

Apparently the label’s definition of “faith” encompasses anything considered bland and inoffensive like Garfield cartoons and Strawberry Shortcake: Adventures on Ice Cream; there was nothing advertised on its website that seemed worth seeing. Fox wants to cash in on the Christian market, yet still does not have enough respect for Christian consumers to really break the piggy bank open.

decalogue.jpg— He mentions recently having been a bit disappointed by DECALOGUE 4, and mentions that he still has the DVD of 5-7. Oh. My. God. See them soon, Mr. Harold. Soon. I think 5 and 6 are the two best episodes — actually 6 and 5, but what the hey. In fact, DECALOGUE 6 has the distinction of being the only film I have ever watched twice in a single day, seeing it as part of seeing the whole DECALOGUE, all for the first time, in a theater on a single Saturday. I rushed home to pop my DVD into the player for a second viewing and having the same tear-filled reaction to the whole second half reversal as the non-couple meets and hearts and roles change.


¹ Petty personal aside … I hate, hate, hate, HATE the growing practice of using the word “faith” as a substitute for “religion” or a specific religion. Its blandly ecumenical character manages to be both offensive in its calculated inoffensiveness and imperialistic bad labeling with respect to several major religions.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No inexcusable sentimentality here

landon2.jpgIn some similar veins, Christianity Today a few weeks ago did an interview with Michael Landon Jr., who directed one of the Fox Faith films (and I wouldn’t touch the Love Comes Softly series with a 10-foot crucifix and a year of anti-estrogen pills). But that aside, he had the following to say about making Christian movies, with hosannas from the CT Film editor:

Christians can be a tough audience. They want “truth,” but not necessarily the depiction of hard reality.
Yes. And I’ll say this about the Christian audience: Sometimes there is something like hypocrisy that is taking place. The same people who will patronize a secular PG-13 or R-rated movie will have a different standard if there is violence or sexuality or language content in a Christian film. I don’t get that.
There’s a huge audience that claims to be Christian, and a certain amount of hypocrisy that germinates our culture. They go and see some R-rated film that has much more explicit stuff than a Christian-based film where you can’t. How in the world is anybody going to tell a really good urban story if these kids from the streets are saying, “Oh, gosh darn!”? You’re definitely not going to speak to the ones you’re hoping to speak to—kids living in the urban city. They’re going to turn it off in a nanosecond.

CT Film reader responses are here, and it tilted in favor of agreement with Landon. I can understand (though I can’t really say I respect) refusing to see R- or PG-13 rated movies. But to have one content standard for secular art and another for Christian art (and this is not an attitude a Christian will never see, though I wouldn’t exactly call it “common”) is nothing but self-infantilization. As Flannery O’Connor almost put it: “sentimentality for Christians is inexcusable.”

June 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The bad “choice”

Peter Chattaway makes some good and valuable points about the role abortion plays (or rather, mostly doesn’t play) in a few recent films about pregnancies, reacting to this (subscriber-only) piece in Canada’s National Post. To speak only of WAITRESS (I have not seen KNOCKED UP, but probably will — I do not go to blockbusters on opening weekend), as Peter puts it:

I think there may be a little more “discussion” in the American films than Knight allows for — and what’s more, I think the films derive some of their power from the fact that they raise the issue and then point beyond it, claiming the thematic high ground as it were. …

[C]onsider Jenna’s declaration that “I respect this little baby’s right to thrive.” If one believes that preborn children have a “right to thrive”, then what is there to discuss? And consider the powerful, transformative effect that the birth of this child has on Jenna — giving her the courage to ditch her abusive husband and the strength to put certain other aspects of her life in order.

I didn’t buy this last plot point at all — it was far too sudden, far too quick and far too total, and thus came off as a twee affectation, i.e., exactly what I didn’t care for in WAITRESS overall. But it was still a very pleasant surprise in an Indiewood film (and one that has found a wide audience, no less¹) that the a-word was raised immediately, only to be dropped instantly and never seriously noted afterward.
¹ At the other end, I find it amusing that so many see ZOO as some great landmark in cultural degradation, when it hasn’t played on but five screens nationwide, to audiences that are already “degraded,” and grossed about the annual income of a middle-class household.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Going through a silent star’s work

A couple of years ago, I bought a 4-DVD set at Slapsticon (coming soon in 2007!!), a major restored-print collection of the work of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, under the leadership of Paul Gierucki and others whom I meet most years at Slapsticon (coming soon in 2007!!).

One thing I plan to do for the next few weeks (and I will deliberately not put this post at the top of my site) is go through the Arbuckle DVDs, almost all shorts, an item or two per day, and update this post with short reactions accordingly as I go through the discs. The films themselves are in chronological order, so this is a good way to see how a film-maker/star develops over the years. And it will get better as it goes on, because Arbuckle’s career spans the period when the movie-medium learned its own craft and its very self.¹

I can’t say I have no preconceptions. There is no silent-film comic of or near Arbuckle’s importance whose work has turned me on less. This is in part no doubt, I acknowledge, because so much of his work is lost or very difficult to see, in large part as a consequence of the scandal that he’s now better known for. The very first words from Gierucki in the DVD set’s booklet are “The films of Roscoe Arbuckle are in a horrible state of preservation.” Much of what I have seen is his films from the late-10s with Buster Keaton as second banana, but which I watched for Keaton. Early Mack Sennett doesn’t generally float my boat. And “big fat guy jumps around, trying to be funny” didn’t even interest me when Chris Farley was doing it contemporaneously.

Still, if you’re a driven obsessive, you’re a driven obsessive. There’s no way a comedian of Arbuckle’s prominence doesn’t deserve my best shot. I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of Arbuckle’s post-scandal work as a pseudonymous director. I think CURSES! one of the greatest shorts of the late silents — look at what tops it in the 1925 list. And at last year’s Slapsticon (have I mentioned that it’s coming soon in 2007!!), I saw HIS WIFE’S MISTAKE, which was the first Fatty-as-star film that really made me laugh often (the elevator, the barber shop … mmmm … ice cream) and was fully satisfactory as entertainment.

So here we go …


FATTY JOINS THE FORCE (George Nichols / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1913, 4)
A FLIRT’S MISTAKE (George Nichols / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 3)

I can’t hate these films because they are clearly so primitive that you adjust your critical lenses, like watching 4-year-old children play T-ball versus a major-league game. But I can’t pretend to find them of much entertainment value while watching them, though their historical interest (in several senses) and critical-intellectual worth are beyond dispute.

I actually spent most of these two films, thinking mostly about why I resist these and other early Mack Sennett shorts. Several things I noticed, some related to the general state of the art at the time. First of all, they have very few title cards, which makes it hard to develop a situation. FLIRT involves Fatty mistaking a long-bearded raja with a sword and a temper for a woman he can flirt with. Chase ensues (that’s it, more or less). Second, Sennett had a tendency to piece together his physical humor between shots — in other words have a character throw a bucket of water offscreen stage right and then cut to a shot of people being splashed from offscreen stage left. It’s not funny, particularly when so broadly acted. Third, the closeup exists (see the still above from FORCE and there’s an even bigger one in the middle of the film, where Fatty’s face, surrounded by bushes, practically fills the screen) but its use for comic framing, emotional flow or comic timing really doesn’t, this still being the pre-BIRTH OF A NATION era.

As for Arbuckle, both these shorts surprised me some in that in neither of him does he either play a particularly sympathetic character, nor do they end “happily” for him — in the first he’s in jail, the second ends with him being beaten on by his wife.


THE KNOCKOUT (Charles Avery / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 5)

It gets a bit better here, partly because it’s a two-reel-long film versus the one-reelers above, which gives more time to develop a situation — Fatty defends his girl’s honor from unwanted attention from mashers and does it so brilliantly that he decides to take on the champ at an old-time boxing booth.

The second half of the film features a famous scene of the boxing match, with four of the silent screen’s biggest stars sharing the screen. There was Charlie Chaplin as the referee, the two fighters played by Fatty and Edgar Kennedy (“King of the Slow Burn” character actor and a real-life ex-boxer), and Mack Swain as a spectator (one of the great silent-comic heavies, particularly in THE GOLD RUSH and other Chaplins). It’s amusing but it’s all chaos because it basically all takes place in the framing that’s above. (There are some cutaways to the audience, with Minta Durfee, the real-life Mrs. Arbuckle, in male drag.) Swain is off to the side, distractingly mugging up a storm, Fatty and Charlie are each trying to steal the show (Charlie mostly wins that one, seemingly doing three things at one time) while Edgar and Fatty are trying to choreograph a believable comic fight.

There is one moment I will never forget because it was so unexpected in the midst of the usual Sennettic frenetics in stage-proscenium framing. Fatty is gonna take off his pants to change into boxing trunks. His eye catches the camera, he smiles at it, gestures with his hands, then the camera tilts up until Fatty is cut off at the shoulder. Change gear. Tilt back down. We see breaking the fourth-wall and an onscreen character “direct” the frame to do something then-unusual. This is in 1914. Before Griffith had finished BIRTH OF A NATION, the movies had pomo foregrounding of the text — self-referentiality when the medium hardly had a self to refer to.


THE ROUNDERS (Charles Chaplin / Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 8)

Now we’re cooking. First film on the disc I’d unhesitatingly recommend to anyone, it’s a very simple premise that indicate that Fatty and Charlie could have made a great Laurel & Hardy team (not that they didn’t do rather well anyway). The two are clearly well off, in top hats and tails; this is just before Charlie becomes “the Little Tramp” and his character has a rougher, meaner edge — striking matches on bald man’s head, say.

The two men go home drunk, to opposite sides of a hotel hallway. Charlie is dominated by his battleax wife (incredibly funny as he tries to maintain his dignity while having the crap kicked out of him). Fatty is more indulgent toward his petite flower, but each couple hears the other quarreling, and the pratfalls begin. But the thing present here that’s absent from most Keystones is a few touches (only a few, but they go a long way) of character chemistry, strong image framing and believable reactions to all the hijinks. There’s a quick moment where Fatty and Charlie, having stolen some money from the ladies (a subtler gag than usual) go off to drink, walk around each other, lock arms and gallivant off. Chaplin’s grace and Fatty’s athleticism play off against each other well. And the basic situation is believable — the two want one thing, to get drunk and pass out, and spend the movie pursuing it.

There is a great scene where the two go to a swanky restaurant and decide that those tablecloths look … yawn … inviting. ROUNDERS also is that Sennett rarity that doesn’t end in a chase (not really, not when you think about it). Instead it ends on a boat, as shown above in the first image of Arbuckle I ever saw as a little boy,² with another of those surprising and rather ambiguous endings.

LEADING LIZZIE ASTRAY (Fatty Arbuckle, USA, 1914, 4)

In this short, Fatty plays an early version of his Country Boy Bumpkin character whose girl Lizzie gets fascinated by the city slicker who drives through the village. She runs off with a young Charley Chase, gets appalled by the vice there (dancing and drinking, y’know) and Fatty goes to the city to take her back and gets in a bar brawl.

Contrary to the commentary track, someone picking up a piano and throwing it into a wall or picking up a car by the bumper is not funny per se. But one of the magical things about silent films, and which rewards immersion in them, is that even when they’re aesthetically trivial, they can often retain interest as historical documents: in this case, of the values of the time.

First of all, you see America on the eve of Prohibition and the appalled reaction of Lizzie to the saloon, unremarked upon and taken as normal, tells you the psychology of how this social-policy mistake could have happened. There’s a similar “moment of non-recognition” in THE KNOCKOUT where, as I noted above, “Fatty’s girl” has to don male clothes to attend a fight, as if she were an Iranian soccer fan. Second, Fatty and Lizzie are engaged at the start, but you can piece together that they are living in the same home, though with the girl’s parents. LEADING LIZZIE ASTRAY doesn’t construct this “shack up” arrangement as leading Lizzie astray, in fact considers it completely unremarkable. Was this in fact a common arrangement at the time, I’m curious to know, from anybody with the requisite knowledge who may read this?

Also, in the Things You Knew About Film History That Aren’t True Department: Arbuckle the director cross-cuts between two simultaneous events to generate a kind of suspense, and to raise the moral stakes of the film — Fatty finding and reading the “I have run away to the city” note and assuring the in-laws-to-be that he’ll rescue her, while Lizzie and her new beau explore the fleshpots. He does this, again, before Griffith made BIRTH OF A NATION, usually credited with introducing this technique.

Next: Fatty and Mabel Normand team up
¹ I consider the late-silent period, once the new medium had been fully developed, (1924-28 with some bleedover) to be maybe the greatest “wave” in film history.
² It was in a “true crime” magazine, an odd passion I had at age 9, to illustrate an article about the Arbuckle scandal and trial.

June 8, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Costco, I love you


I watched IDIOCRACY again the other night, and it stayed where I had it the first time — uneven, repetitive, but often brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny. And one of the best “guy movies” of recent years — the perfect flick to watch with a fellow reactionary intellectual-wannabe over pizza and beer. (I an not unaware of the irony of consuming the film on those terms. Is there a text in this house, etc.?)

I repeated to this fellow-reactionary Sicinski’s comparison of the film to Allan Bloom and he agreed (Waz must love have so many starboarder fans). And then he made a slightly less highbrow comparison to National Review’s John Derbyshire, aka “The Derb,” a curmudgeonly natalist and pusher of “demographics as destiny.” (UPDATE: The Derb saw the film and didn’t think it did much with the premise, which he acknowledged thinking was great, but done better in a novel.)

One thing that struck me harder than it did before was the ending (SPOILER warning) … Private Joe and Rita marry and have “the three smartest children in the world” and he becomes president. The family is playing in the Oval Office. Then Judge pans the camera and the dumbass Frito has multiple wives and a gaggle of children.

In other words, nothing changes. The cinematic language on display is of the happy ending — swelling score, happy characters, plot threads all tied up to the main characters’ satisfaction, etc. But the actual content of the image is not. The scene specifically mirrors the intro segment about the two couples’ child-whelping practices, and it makes it clear as day that the dysgenic collapse of society will continue.

Nor is this an atypically grim ending for Judge, who may be one of the most astringent moralists making films. The ending of OFFICE SPACE follows the same template, a happy-looking ending that collapses the minute you think about it — Michael and Samir are back in the rat race. Peter is smiling, but only because he has radically lowered his expectations and is now in manual labor (always historically considered a stepdown from a white-collar job). The key speech is given to him late in the film by Joanna, about how people in general just try to carve out some space to be happy despite having jobs and lives that suck (sorry, can’t find the exact wording online).

womens-history.jpgBEAVIS & BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA ends with the boys sunk back into TV, having completed their quest for the only thing that matters to them as they walk off into the sunset. About half the episodes of the B&B series end with the boys happy or contended, but the viewer has one of several fundamentally different reactions, from pity to contempt, from bemusement to bewilderment. For example, when they’re caught out in the rain outside the movie theater after the two chicks (“I’m Lolita and this here’s Tanqueray”) con them of their money, they resolve to come back with twice as much money the next night — “then we’ll score” as the growling guitar riffs of the closing theme well up. The more Todd beats them up and treats them like shit, the more they admire how cool he is. They waste $499 to get a mower, so they can buy $1 of gasoline. They don’t realize how badly they lost their campaign for school treasurer (“is that like, the money dude?”). Whether it’s learning Women’s History, Positive Acting Teens or the Christian Businessman’s Group, it all flows over them. Beavis even learns he’s destined for hell, and all he and Butt-head are doing is laughing about St. “Peter.” Huh-huh … Peter.

Mike Judge’s theme: the world is incorrigible. Live with it.

June 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Speaking of sports and movies


From USA Today:

A roll of the drums, please. LeBron James is ready for his close-up.

From the AP Sports Digest (I don’t know whether this is online to the general public. It’s the nation’s leading wire service’s listing of “what we will have today,” varyingly also known as a “budget” or a “tout.” I have access to it in the ordinary course of working at a daily paper):

SAN ANTONIO – LeBron James is ready for his close-up. The superstar drawing comparisons with Michael Jordan leads his Cleveland Cavaliers into their first NBA finals against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, who are going for their third title in five years. By Tom Withers. Game starts 9 p.m. AP Photos.

My point isn’t plagiarism, but one of the annoyances of being a film geek and pop-culture omnivore that I see this stuff all the time and sputter … um, but, uh …

(Spoilers for SUNSET BOULEVARD. But if you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Get thee to a video store.)

My reaction when I read both these items was the same. This line is said by a woman who thinks she is about to shoot a closeup in her great comeback film with DeMille. But she is not because she has gone insane after committing a murder. The line both ends and sums up the greatest tragic delusionary in cinema, a once-grand heroine who is no more. But because life can be strangely merciful, the dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.

But it is NOT a complimentary line. And it’s still less so to apply it to someone like LeBron James — young and with his best years ahead of him.

I had the same reaction when Bill, Hillary, Al and Tipper, mounted the Democratic Convention dais in 1992, while Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” a uncomfortably-autobiographical song about the singer’s past relationship hurts against the addressee. And when Rush Limbaugh plays the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone,” a wail of union-Democrat rust-belt distress (though Limbaugh is smart enough to use the opening licks, before the lyrics begin). And, professionally, when I edited a meant-to-be-complementary feature that referred to its subject as “a modern major-general.”

Is it ignorance or is there really no text in this house?

June 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Too bad there’s no Latin word for “Spurs”


… cuz then it would be a lock-down cinch.

The NBA Finals start tonight, and its due compensation to me for my not getting an Ann Coulter book release on my birthday THIS year. And the Spurs have got a whole team of nuns praying for them and cheering them.

“We pray for them to win, but we also pray for them to continue their sportsmanship,” said Sister Sandra Neaves, head of the [Salesian Sisters] in the Western U.S.
“We make a lot of noise in that room,” laughed Sister Angelina Gomez.
The Spurs have embraced the nuns, hoping to harness the power of prayer during their attempt at a fourth NBA title. …
On Thursday, four of the nuns will attend the opening game of the championship series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The tickets were a gift from the NBA.

The nun in the middle of the picture is a Hispanic lady, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s wearing a Manu Ginobili shirt. I think the Spurs are the only team in the NBA with two foreign players from the same country. With two players from the gold-medal country (none on the Cavs), how can you lose? And the Spurs will have the intercessionary prayer of the dead too.

Sister Filomena Conte, 86, was the most avid fan among them. She watched or listened to every game, praying for the team and corresponding with Coach Gregg Popovich.
Even as Conte suffered from a congestive heart condition and was ordered to bed during the regular season, she lay listening to the games on the radio. When she was ordered to a hospital, she had one question as she waited with another sister: “Am I going to have a room before the game starts?”
Conte died March 8, but the sisters have taken up her cause in cheering and praying for the Spurs.
If the Spurs win the championship, “I won’t be surprised if she had something to do with it,” Neaves said.

What do you mean “if”? I would be stunned if the Spurs lose more than one game. The Cavs Web site is playing regular-season highlights from November, as if that counts at all — remember when Dallas was gonna win 70 games and sweep through the playoffs? They were awesome.

The Spurs have got more than one reliable offensive option, a top-flight point guard to the Cavs none, and an unguardable center (unless Anderson Varejao’s hair gets in the way). Bruce Bowen’s obviously not gonna shut down LeBron totally, but the Spurs play good enough overall team defense that he’ll work for everything and the Cavs second and third options are not gonna be there (Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson are streaky enough as it is, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can’t create for himself). You obviously can’t bet against LeBron doing what he did in Game 5 against the Pistons, maybe the greatest single-player performance I’ve ever seen, made greater by the total lack of output from the rest of the team. But you can bet against it happening more than once.

Also, the particular matchup will do wonders for the ratings and the NBA’s profile, at least through the first three games — or longer, if the series is more competitive than it should be. I think another Spurs-Pistons matchup would have been a disaster, seen as the boring rerun of a bad show (great as games 5-7 were; 1-4 were snoozers). Rooting interest aside, I’d have loved to see Phoenix play Cleveland, and I’m enough of an Avery Johnson fan from way back to overlook that his winning a title would also mean Mark Cuban winning a title. But as it is …

I don’t know that I know any Cavaliers fans to win any bets off of, even among the Ohio residents I know (Stults? Father Fox? Rich?). But comments are welcomed from fans of loser teams like the Pistons, the Lakers (even erstwhile ones; no explaining some people), the Mavericks. Even from SoCal sports fans who dislike the Lakers (CQ on that one, Joe?) but who can at least celebrate a title in the other spring playoff sport. As long as these fans acknowledge that Tony Parker is only half-French.

June 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Short news bytes

lenin2.jpgSpeaking of GOOD BYE, LENIN … here’s a real-life example of the situation that the German film mined for comedy gold. A Polish men fell into a coma in 1988 and just now woke up. Instructive comments from him:

“When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere,” Mr Grzebski, sitting in a wheelchair while his wife held his hand, told Polish television. “There are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin.” …
“What amazes me today is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning,” Mr. Grzebski said. “I’ve got nothing to complain about.”

That doesn’t stop the Reality-Based Community’s Bright Young Things at Democratic Underground from complaining.
Sometimes the toughest critic is yourself. At the first stop on their reunion concert, the Police sucked big time.

They quickly recovered, but then Sting got his footwork wrong as he leapt into the air to signal the end to a shambolic version of their rat-race rant “Synchronicity II.”
“The mighty Sting momentarily looks like a petulant pansy instead of the god of rock.”

Sez their drummer.

June 4, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Seen at the weekend, Part 3


THE NAMESAKE (Mira Nair, USA, 2007, 3)

The problem here is in the very conception of making a theatrical movie. This two-generation Indian immigrant saga tries to hew to the orthodoxy of the 2-hour running-time while, I presume, trying to be faithful to the sweep and scope of the best-selling novel. It’s not director Nair’s fault, or that of the actors, who are all passable and some very good — Bollywood devi Tabu as the mother, particularly. But I just don’t see how this script could possibly have turned into a good movie. Frequent Nair scriptwriter Sooni Taraporevala either needed to chop out big chunks of the book or tell Nair or the money men that this novel was only filmable as a 6-hour miniseries for HBO.

As it is, THE NAMESAKE tries to pick up every stick and drops them all, careening about from event to event, from subplot to subplot, from character to character, trying to cram everything in and leaving nothing with any chance to build or resonate. Central character Gogol’s marriage takes up four quick scenes, from meeting to seduction to marriage to doubt to cheating to a past-tense reference to divorce. The mother suddenly decides to move back to India, exactly after she’s become Americanized, but without reference to what might have seemed like the reason three plot points ago. She has a librarian friend who appears in three scenes, once to hint that the son might be gay (not followed up on, or funny in itself). The big revelation about Gogol’s name falls flat because we already know it from earlier in the movie. Every plot is like Cecil B. DeMille’s Crusades — one quick, decisive battle, rather than decades upon centuries of attrition and intermittent war.

The whole movie feels so rushed that it fails to create characters or situations we care about. And unlike KILLER OF SHEEP, which also fails to do that but pretty clearly isn’t trying too hard on that front and at least takes the time to develop individual moments, THE NAMESAKE is filled with plot and events. It’s like reading the Cliffs Notes plot section and thinking it’s “War & Peace.” Or watching two-hours’ worth of trailers for some epic serial. And maddeningly, THE NAMESAKE seems to be being well-received. Steve Greydanus said the following at Christianity Today:

At the end of its 122 minutes, perhaps, few if any of the story’s various partial threads have really been resolved. Open-ended and somewhat scattered, the film is generally engaging but feels elusively incomplete. …
A more disciplined approach to the screenplay might have distilled Lahiri’s 300-page novel into something more satisfyingly focused. Instead, frequent Nair collaborator Sooni Taraporevala chooses to sketch in and gesture at as much of the book as possible, trusting viewers to supply the rest. …
The Namesake may be best enjoyed by viewers most able to connect the dots and fill in the gaps wherever Lahiri’s creation hasn’t quite made it to the screen.

Exactly. And the remarkable thing is that having described exactly why this is a pretty bad movie, Nair’s worst in my opinion (and I’ve seen KAMA SUTRA), Greydanus insists on telling us how good it is.

(Victor shrugs.)

June 4, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Seen at the weekend, Part 2


WAITRESS (Adrienne Shelley, USA, 2007, 3)

On the 70s sitcom “Alice,” centered on three waitresses, the writers once contrived an episode that followed the plot of O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi.” WAITRESS is like a lengthy episode of “Alice,” with the writers taking the plot of “Madame Bovary,” and adding some surrealistic and impressionistic touches — particularly, fantasy of pie recipes. Which description probably makes WAITRESS sound better than it is, but I got rather annoyed imagining Linda Lavin as the sane one stuck in characterless Yonville Hickville, Polly Holliday as the mouthy elder with the big hair, Beth Howland as the mousy quiet ditz, and Vic Tayback as the gruff paterfamilias (a much smaller role here than in “Alice”).

The more fundamental problem with this film is its tone, which annoyed me as a mix of garish exaggeration, tweeness and blue-state snobbery. Sample line: “you should try your pies in Europe or New Jersey and places like that.” Then there’s the character of “Vera’s” suitor … who … just belongs in a time capsule for overplayed idiot: “if I had a penny for everything I like about you. I’d have many pennies.” “Alice’s” husband is … a creature of the Women’s Studies Faculty Collective Writing Project. With a comedy, getting the tone wrong is fatal, because once the film gets cooking, the audience starts laughing (the woman sitting right behind me was yukking it up), and you’re going “why’s that funny” or “I don’t like the thought that this is funny or the people who think this is funny.” You get pushed into emotional rebellion against the movie.

Still, while I didn’t care for WAITRESS, comic tone is such a difficult matter and can turn on the smallest things, that I’d be more inclined to say about WAITRESS that “that’s just me, you might like it,” than I would for THE NAMESAKE.

June 4, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Seen at the weekend, Part 1


KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett, USA, 1977, 7)

The reputation of this hand-to-mouth film, shot on the streets of Watts during weekends with nonprofessional actors, has traversed from legendary little-seen film-maudit (because Burnett could not afford the music rights, it could neither get a real theatrical run nor ever be released on video) to part of the consensual American canon (declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress in 1990 and rapturously reviewed now, in its commercial release) without ever managing to pass through “great.”

Don’t get me wrong — everybody who imagines himself as having a serious interest in American movies, in black movies, in independent movies, in non-narrative movies, or movies, period, should see KILLER OF SHEEP, both for its intrinsic value (it is a strong film, and superb in some ways) and for its historical value. The director leaves you no doubt he is capable of masterpieces. But this film isn’t it; it feels more like a rough draft for a masterpiece than a masterpiece.

Burnett grabs you by the throat right away, with a short scene of a father yelling at his son for not sticking up for his brother during a fight. The camera stays on the boy’s face, trying to fight back tears, but the father looms at edge of the frame, hemming the boy in, entrapping him in the composition, in the immediate situation. Burnett’s style declares itself right away. KILLER OF SHEEP, though often compared to Italian neorealism, will not borrow that school’s loosely-framed “documentary-verite” look. Burnett’s compositions are tight and cramped, often overcrowded and spilling off the edge of the frame. His angles are precise, dramatic and controlled, as his characters are trapped in the world of his film and the world his film depicts. The black-and-white images are stark, usually with a very shallow focal depth, giving Burnett’s image a 2-dimensional feel that picks out the subject and encases it like a bug in amber (look here at a selection of stills for a sense of what I’m talking about — this film is brilliantly and beautifully photographed).

Scene after scene plays like tiny little jewels of revelation, with moments of recognition pouring out. The still at the top of this review is one of several of children playing in the urban wasteland, jumping from rooftop to rooftop and doing things that kids did for play at the pre-video era, but some of which would get Burnett and/or their parents tarred and feathered today by child-safety watchdogs. Playing on railroads, throwing stones, picking through rubble of demolished buildings, scuffling, name-calling, handstands — (at least that’s how *I* remember a 70s urban working-class neighborhood 6,000 miles from Watts).

One scene involves an attempt to buy an automobile motor for $15 to retool a car, and the two men load it onto their truck. Remember the truck Lamont drove during the opening credits of “Sanford & Son” — that kind of truck, only without a back hatch on the truck’s bed, and parked on an up incline. They struggle to just get it onto the bed, smooshing one of the men’s finger. Don’t worry, he assures his partner, it’ll stay in place. The camera sits at Ozu’s eye-level behind the truck, looking up at the bed as the vehicle gets ready to drive off. It’s funny physical comedy, it’s harrowing (you fear for the camera lens), it’s disheartening to the characters (“nothing we can do, the block is broken” one resignedly mutters as the image fades to black). And it serves as a kind of metaphor for how poor black families are in such a bad circumstance that they can only grasp at straws that mostly don’t turn out well (there’s a flat tire later that hits the same theme) and would require a personal-effectiveness perfection to do so, and these characters always already don’t have that. Everybody’s trapped by themselves and their circumstances, both racial and economic, and both know it and don’t know it. KILLER OF SHEEP is the rare film that shows the urban poor trapped in a deterministic framework, with little to no overt commentary upon it, even from the characters themselves.


This still comes from one of the strongest scenes in KILLER OF SHEEP. The central family’s husband and wife, played by Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore, do a slow embrace-dance while Dinah Washington sings “This Bitter Earth” on the soundtrack. The lyrics, and we hear the whole song more than once during the course of the film, say what the characters do not, about trying to love while sending up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. The otherwise-silent vignette is one of the most convincing, touching, quietly erotic (and ultimately heartbreaking) scenes of marital love I can recall seeing on film, and I strongly resist would-be sexy scenes as a rule. It’s as if Sanders, back from a day working at a slaughterhouse (that’s the meaning of the film’s title), has been too beaten down for eros to bring him back.

There’s another, equally fine scene in this vein in which the daughter mumbles along to the “Earth, Wind and Fire” song playing on her little child’s turnable and plays with her doll while her mother watches and dolls herself up for her husband’s arrival from work.

But affecting as these scenes are, they also hint at part of what is wrong with KILLER OF SHEEP, what keeps it from masterpiece status. The moments out of time are brilliant, but do they ever really add up? I don’t think they do. They’re more like a string of pearls that just happen to be on the same necklace than a whole that ever manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Many of the scenes also depend very much on the music for resonance (I well understand why Burnett had to have THESE songs on his score; the movie doesn’t exist without them). Which would be fine, and there’s the intrinsic value of hearing Paul Robeson’s voice on a couple of songs. Except that it underlines KILLER OF SHEEP’s arbitrary, aimless feel by giving it the quality more of a series of music videos — a succession of mood images to illustrate American blues classics, than really the feel of a coherently structured and realized feature film. The second-last scene in particular is wtf territory — we’re supposed to, I think, give a tinker’s about a character announcing she’s pregnant to her girlfriends. If she had appeared earlier at all in the film, I missed her.

As I’ve said, when Burnett orchestrates faces, images and music, KILLER OF SHEEP is masterful. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, it falls flat. I’m amazed how few of those hosanna-in-excelsis Rotten Tomatoes reviews note what I think is the most obvious thing about this movie. That the acting is very poor. And in some cases, outright terrible, particularly in the supporting roles. Sanders and Moore as the central couple have presence in their excellent faces — Sanders’s eyes in particular convey a lifetime of disappointment that’s now gone beyond anger. But the rest of the nonprofessional cast show their nonprofessionalism in every way, particularly in the line-readings — flat, obviously-trying and rehearsed. And, even restored, the live sound in KILLER OF SHEEP is often so poorly recorded that the dialog cannot be followed anyway. I mentioned above the scene with the engine motor. If there was an antecedent conversation, I didn’t hear it. The scene comes out of nowhere. There’s a scene of a job offer from a randy white liquor-store owner that also comes out of nowhere and also isn’t followed up on. It contributes to the film’s arbitrary, spliced-together feeling (an inevitable risk in such circumstances of production as occurred here, but ultimately not relevant).

I watched DeSica’s UMBERTO D again a few weeks ago and was surprised by how taut and well-structured it really was, whatever nonsense Zavattini might have said about 90 minutes of unfiltered reality. The Gestapo hunt in OPEN CITY, the bicycle in BICYCLE THIEF, the dog in UMBERTO D … the Italian neorealists knew the importance of a throughline, a MacGuffin. Though often compared to neorealism, KILLER OF SHEEP simply doesn’t have that, and I realized about half-an-hour in that the film wasn’t going to go anywhere, that it would stop rather than end and the only thing to do was enjoy (or not) the individual moments. This “succession of music videos/string of pearls” feel I mentioned is exactly what makes KILLER OF SHEEP feel more like the rough draft of a masterpiece than the masterpiece it clearly had the potential to be.

June 3, 2007 Posted by | Charles Burnett | | Leave a comment