BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (Julian Jarrold, Britain, 2008) — 6
After fearlessly predicting, I now must sheepishly retract: The new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED doesn’t suck pretty hard (thanks, Peter and Jeffrey both, for quoting that precise line). In fact, it doesn’t suck it all, though you do have to go in with low expectations and/or some boundaries set very firmly in your mind.
I went to see it Friday night with a couple of friends from Church. All three of us had low expectations (I would probably not have seen the film if I hadn’t been asked); and all three of us had more or less the same reaction — good or very good until it cops out in the coda; profiting from those low expectations; and not a complete travesty of the novel’s themes and Catholicism.
I wish I could have seen this movie innocent of the trailer and of the statements by the filmmakers, as noted in my previous post, of which I actually don’t take anything back. My expectations, though not borne out, WERE reasonable. The stridency of the score on the trailer, the emphasis given Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain (both the weight within the trailer, and the choice of what she says and does), and the plain words of the film-makers are what they were.
It’s as if the trailer-maker was given the specific task of finding everything a Catholic fan of the novel might object to, and putting that in, to tart up the film to look like an Edwardian version of THE DA VINCI CODE
That the new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED movie will suck pretty hard.
We can already be morally certain that it will be a vulgar reduction of Sebastian in ways designed to pander to contemporary narrowness and sex obsession. Actor Ben Whishaw bluntly says he has played Sebastian as a gay person, in today’s parlance, because he and the others involved in the film needed to give the let’s-pat-him-on-the-head-since-he-can’t-have-been-expected-to-know-better-because-of-the-times treatment to Evelyn Waugh (as in principle any contemporary artiste could have to any other DWEM who needs to be pat on the head since he can’t have been expected to know better because of the times), and so they helpfully filled in the gaps left unfilled by his insufficient enlightenment. The money quotes (oops) from Whishaw:
“Sebastian knows what his nature is and believes he’s going to hell” …
The film … aims to speak to a new generation, in part by portraying Sebastian as unquestionably gay. Waugh left Sebastian’s sexuality somewhat ambiguous, and purists may balk at the inclusion of a kiss between Sebastian and Charles Ryder, his school chum and the story’s narrator (played by Matthew Goode). “The kiss was quite a bone of contention,” says Whishaw of discussions on the set. “But Waugh said as much as he could at the time he was writing [the novel], and it seems fairly clear-cut. He’s a gay character.”
It’s the film criticism equivalent of Tiger Woods hypothetically retiring next week or of the death of Ronald Reagan. Roger Ebert is walking away from the show that made him certainly the most-famous and arguably the most-influential film critic ever.
In its various incarnations, from PBS to syndication, from “Sneak Previews” to “At the Movies” to “Siskel and Ebert,” his show was the show that put film criticism into the popular consciousness and made stars of him and Gene Siskel, to the point they were commenting on the Olympics, appearing on Carson and Arsenio, and speaking to Harvard Law School and Playboy magazine (one of only three issues I ever purchased). His reflected glory was even enough to make a star of Richard Roeper, who also is leaving the show, and the breakdown of whose negotiations with Disney apparently created the occasion for Ebert’s official leave-taking. People who have seen him since his jaw surgery had told me they doubted Ebert would ever appear on TV again, because of what the surgery had to do to his voice and his face. This statement though seems to imply Ebert may be back on TV:
The trademark still belongs to me and Marlene Iglitzen, Gene’s widow, and the thumbs will return.
This is my review of the most-anticipated movie of the summer:
To quote G-Money: “We’ll be seeing a lot more of these.”
Sacha Baron Cohen is working on a BORAT sequel, based on Bruno, a garishly gay Austrian fashionista who is the only one of Cohen’s three principal characters who hasn’t had a movie yet (Ali G had a British-made film ALI G INDAHOUSE that went straight to video in the US). And some MMA fans reportedly were not amused as a supposed fight turned into a gay sex scene. Nor was a Dallas-area audience last month, lured out for a talk-show that turned into public gay passes and a 2-year-old “gay baby.”
This weekend will mark my annual ritual of playing that role, at the Slapsticon Festival which runs Thursday to Sunday in Arlington.
The festival shows silent (with live piano accompaniment) and early-sound comedies, mostly short films (so even if you’re watching something that sucks, you know it’s not gonna suck for too long), and mostly focusing on stuff that’s not easily available on video and on comedians less known than e.g., Chaplin and Keaton. If you’re in the DC area and have any interest in movies, you should definitely come by and give it a whirl ($30 for a whole day of films; $16 for a half-day); and, incentive or disincentive, I’ll be there for all four days and every program.
This year’s program is here, and while I can truthfully say that with one exception all these titles are unknown to me … if the curiosity factor of what a Cecil B. DeMille comedy looks like doesn’t intrigue you … [VJM tries and fails for a sufficient metaphor of hopeless disbelief]. The biggest primetime “name” attraction is the Three Stooges, but it’ll be a program of “rarities,” rather than the oft-repeated episodes.
There are the annual cinematic acquaintanceships I look forward to restarting here since the video store hasn’t been kind to them: Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew (the creator of the family sitcom), Lupino Lane (a great pure athlete), Larry Semon (the most childish and clownish of them all), Lloyd Hamilton (the sickly, prickly stuffed shirt), Harry Langdon’s sound work (much better than its reputation), and 20s Sennett (much better than the better-known primitives from the 10s). And every year, there’s the annual “surprise” discoveries that happen (e.g., Stan Laurel solo, a lost Mabel Normand feature).
And after several years, there’s also the personal acquaintanceships that have started to develop. It’s an intimate enough festival to allow real interaction with programmers, print owners, longtime fans and some of the most eminent scholars in the field. Last year, I shared a couple of beers at the Holiday Inn with Paul Gierucki, the man who compiled the 4-disc Fatty Arbuckle DVD and he said IIRC that the long-thought-lost stuff that’s still turning up in archives around the world suggest that Arbuckle’s run of 1918-1919 work may have been the greatest stretch of work by any comedian on film.
But for now, Arbuckle’s last film, 1933’s TOMALIO will be playing Sunday morning, the last of the six Vitaphone shorts he made for Warner Brothers. Obviously, I can’t judge until I see it, but it’s a matter of historical record that those six shorts were impressive enough to earn him a Warners contract to star in a comedy feature, giving him the shot at both the real comeback he wanted and the vindication he deserved (though he died the day after signing the contract). I. Can’t. Wait.
GONZO (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008) — 6
Former work colleague Stacy and I went to see GONZO together last week, in part so he could review it for the American Spectator. I have long known that Stacy loves Hunter S. Thompson and had written several times for the newspaper on him, so I figured he’d get a kick about at least seeing GONZO.
But it made for an odd experience. Usually, when it comes to movies, I’m the Smartest Guy in the Room. Here, not so. Stacy knows far more about Thompson and his career than I do (most of what I know is filtered through the Doonesbury character Uncle Duke) and so he was uniquely equipped to write the kind of kick-ass review of GONZO that I never could.
The nub of Stacy’s complaint was that the film was too heavily focused on Thompson’s political involvement in “the Sixties,”¹ and thus skrimped heavily on large chunks of material, both from earlier and later.
Gibney … seems determined to force the square peg of Thompson idiosyncrasies into the round hole of contemporary liberal passions. It’s an awkward fit. At times, Gonzo seems more like a celebration of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign than of Thompson’s journalism career. …
These political choices might be more easily forgiven if they did not result in Gonzo giving short shrift to other aspects of Thompson’s career.
KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (Patricia Rozema, USA, 2008) — 8
One measure of the strength of KIT KITTREDGE is that I never once guessed that it was based on a doll and could thus in principle have been as easily dismissed as a marketing exercise a la THE MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS.™ Since I am neither a 10-year-old-girl nor the father of one, the “American Girl” series of dolls was something that I first learned about researching to write this review. I’d have sworn blind this movie was based on some new Young Adult literature series, or the equivalent from the 1930s.
Another measure is that I should not like KIT KITTREDGE at all, given how specific it is in terms of sensibility — not only am I am not one now, but I have never been a 10-year-old girl; when I was a 10-year-old boy, you couldn’t have paid me to read “girl books” in case I catch coodies or something (“Encyclopedia Brown” was my favorite); I have no 10-year-old daughter to share a Daddy’s Movie Day with; I generally despise “chick flicks” (see, SEX AND THE CITY; or rather, I didn’t) or anything that strikes me as sentimental (see, SON OF RAMBOW). But KIT KITTREDGE won me over very quickly because Kit herself is so appealing and lovable as a character and Abigail Breslin perfectly embodies her — plucky without being obnoxious, as matter-of-fact as a child who hasn’t yet learned what a heartbreaker the world can be because she is herself still innocent and gentle-spirited. And since your humble writer is a curmudgeon who sympathizes utterly with Mr. Grant’s hatred of Mary’s character and who once (really and truly) said to a colleague, “everyone’s got a right to be perky, but you abuse the privilege” — that’s saying something.
“When that happens, it will change everything. … You’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama,'” Lee said during the panel.
“Everything’s going to be affected by this seismic change in the universe,” he said.
I’ll say this for the terms “B.O.” and “A.O.” … they refer to a real person and thus easily kick the asses of “b.c.e.” and “c.e.”
(via Dirty Harry)
The cinematic gods took away SILENT LIGHT, but they have given us back METROPOLIS. According to Die Zeit magazine, Fritz Lang’s original 1927 German release cut has been found in Argentina (I am not kidding … maybe it fled there after World War 2).¹
After examining the film the three experts are certain: The find from Buenos Aires is a real treasure, a worldwide sensation. Metropolis, the most important silent film in German history, can from this day on be considered to have been rediscovered. …
Among the footage that has now been discovered, according to the unanimous opinion of the three experts that ZEITmagazin asked to appraise the pictures, there are several scenes which are essential in order to understand the film: The role played by the actor Fritz Rasp in the film for instance, can finally be understood. Other scenes, such as for instance the saving of the children from the worker’s underworld, are considerably more dramatic. In brief: “Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s most famous film, can be seen through new eyes.”, as stated by Rainer Rother, Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum and head of the series of retrospectives at the Berlinale.
(I initially wrote this as part of the post above, but it just became too long for an aside.)
As I noted, METROPOLIS was the first silent film I can really say I saw, in the form of the video version released in the late-1980s with a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack. It’s common, especially among purists, to deride that score but it didn’t bother me for a bunch of reasons.
METROPOLIS was a futuristic sci-fi movie (it still is even now, decades later) and it’s not the remotest bit realistic, so period-music purists, with whom I’m in theoretical sympathy, don’t even have a prima facie case. There is no “period” here.
The use of songs with words was easily Moroder’s most controversial choice, but if memory serves, only about half the running time had vocal accompaniment; Moroder just as often used synthesizer music. And anyway, I don’t think you listen to nondiegetic rock-music lyrics that closely anyway, at least in a non-musical. What you remember, at least while watching a movie this singular, is a few hooks and the singer’s voice as pure sound. I remember as if it were yesterday my neck tingling to Bonnie Tyler’s “Here She Comes” and Tyler’s raspy voice ripping into the chorus as the false Maria enters the frame.
And METROPOLIS, even in its mutilated form that Moroder had, was simply too powerful to be destroyed by this kind of soundtrack. A different sort of silent film, sure. Something as finely honed and delicately emotioned as Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS or Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (to stick with films at the pantheon level) would be overwhelmed by dance-rock music of this sort. Not METROPOLIS. It is a gigantist fantasy, a mad vision of hell, done in high German Expressionist style, with acting and staging as broad as that proverbial side of the barn. It’s “big” enough (“loud” if you like) to take care of itself. Roger Ebert has also described seeing BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, a movie far closer to METROPOLIS than those two titles I mentioned, coming alive thanks to a live rock band.
I knew going in then, and would have figured it out quickly anyway, that the METROPOLIS that was available at the time was a butchered movie and that the narrative wouldn’t be the tightest. So Moroder turning some of the scenes into the functional equivalent of music videos could hardly detract from a headscratching plot. In other words, music in silent films underlines emotions, and a mutilated METROPOLIS was all emotion anyway … the Moroder score did what a silent score should do — pique interest in the movie without absorbing and reducing it.
And one last thing. Has anybody ever actually met a person who saw METROPOLIS with the Moroder soundtrack, had his brain ruined and now turns up his nose at silent films without modern-pop soundtracks? I mean … if there were legions of such people, I could see arguing that Moroder harmed METROPOLIS by doing what he did. But isn’t my sort of case somewhat more common — that this sort of experience might pique or stimulate or plant an interest in silent films more broadly, now that he knows how good they CAN be?
HANCOCK (Peter Berg, USA, 2008) — 8
For about an hour, HANCOCK is one of the best summer popcorn films I’ve ever seen¹ — it’s basically GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, the tale of a giant among small men, only reconceived as a modern superhero movie with a heaping helping of pomo sarcasm. It’s also one of the few movies with an identifiable political subtext (it’s hardly “sub”-text in fact) that is unapologetically pro-war. Or more precisely, unapologetically anti-the-(purported)-reasons-many-claim-to-be-anti-war. The details in this movie — the eagle on bumbling, nasty superhero Will Smith’s cap; complaints about collateral damage; civil lawsuits; carping TV reporters and talking heads ranting about “lawless”; encounter groups and the phrase “conflict resolution”; the Woodstock concert poster in Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron’s bedroom; a bully who (a) is French, and (b) is played by Daeg Faerch, who played the boy Michael Myers in the recent HALLOWEEN remake; a Greenpeace boat — there are just too many signifiers here for it to be a coincidence, or one or two eager-beaver conservatives overinterpreting a detail. And it’s surely relevant that Peter Berg directed last year’s THE KINGDOM, which gave the usual liberal-critic suspects the usual fact-free vapors.
Just read what Kyle Smith had to say … he really did say it all and I have nothing to add on the point except my word that I did catch much of it myself. And the title of his post refers to exactly what came to my mind in this discussion here: TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE²:
Let’s just say there is a speech at the end of TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE … that is … well … MASSIVE WARNING ABOUT … weeeeellllll … keep in mind that it’s by the SOUTH PARK guys, and read the first direct quote. If you can read through the vulgarity (and know the movie’s plot), it’s one of the greatest defenses of Foreign-Policy Hawkishness in movie history. (I am quite serious.)
I was tickled with joy and laughing my butt off for the first hour as Hancock blunders around and is taken in by a liberal-yuppie suburban couple concerned with improving Hancock’s image and making him a more sensitive hero, a la John Kerry, who remembers to say please and thank you, and agrees to submit to international law a prison term. Predictably, Hancock has to be called in in a crisis (and ask permission to lift up a wounded policewoman from fear of traversing sexual harrassment rules). But that scene was obviously the climax of the HANCOCK I’d been expecting, but I looked at my watch and the movie was less than an hour old. “It can’t be over yet … where is this gonna go.” And in a few minutes, I found out and my mouth was literally agape — first in “ohmigawd, where can THIS be leading??? I believe this will be awesomest thing ever if they can pull it off” mode (I was thinking it could go in the direction of a certain TV show — SPOILERS!!! if you click). But then my mouth was agape in “ohmigawd, is THAT where it’s led. I can’t believe they pissed away some much awesomeness” mode.
I will tread vaguely — suffice to say that the last half-hour is just a routine “origins” story that isn’t particularly germane to this mode of representing a superhero; it doesn’t continue, deepen or even (explicitly) take back the satire of the first hour; it goes for warm and fuzzy pathos in a movie that should have a cold, pitch-black heart; and the feeble stab at “explanation” for how Hancock gets his powers are literally insulting in its desultory lameness (“some say gods, some angels, some superheroes”). It just feels tacked on, and curiously Kyle Smith barely mentions it in his formal review of HANCOCK. It’s been reported that the end was being reworked at the very last minute, and boy does it show.
¹ Yes, I don’t see them all or even many because I am a snob, etc.
² Unsurprisingly, TEAM AMERICA occasioned maybe the worst review Roger Ebert ever wrote, admitting that he couldn’t figure out what has been perfectly obvious even to non-critics to the right of Hubert Humphrey.
Orson Welles once said (I can’t find the exact quote very quickly) that anybody who writes or talks about movies without writing or talking about money is a fool. Never has it been more obvious to me than what has happened to a couple of great movies that will probably never see a commercial release in the US because their distributor has financially collapsed.
Tartan Films shuttered its US video division last month and a few days ago it went into receivership itself. My interests have been the artistry and morality of the movies; the business of them not at all. But two of the films that Tartan had the rights to distribute were Carlos Reygadas’s SILENT LIGHT and Roy Andersson’s YOU THE LIVING.
I saw both films, and great ones they are, for the second time at FilmFestDC. SILENT LIGHT got even better and was upgraded to “10”; YOU THE LIVING not so much, but easily stayed a “9.” Both would be cinches for my year-end Top 10; neither are now on it because there is now essentially no chance that either will see the inside of a non-festival American theater. They will probably both go straight to video some time around 2010. That’s cruel to any great movie, but doubly cruel for these two, both of which create whole (very different) worlds and so need the sense of envelopment that being in a theater produces. In fact, SILENT LIGHT’s famous opening shot absolutely depends on being surrounded by the theater’s darkness. I am not a film-only purist and have often butted heads with them, but is any film ever NEEDED to be seen in a theater, it’s SILENT LIGHT. And now it won’t be.
Sitting in my draft folder now is a 80-percent-done lengthy appreciation of SILENT LIGHT that I worked on shortly after seeing it for the second time, at FilmFestDC this spring. And it’s been sitting there because I can’t find the wherewithal to convince myself that anything I have to say can be relevant to a film that can never be seen. And so finish it haunted by the knowledge that I am a fool.
Roger Ebert devoted his Great Movie column last weekend to TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (and I’ll return to that in a day or two), after teasing that fact in his journal. I commented a couple of times on the narrowly vulgar issue of whether she and Hitler were lovers.
But I made another comment that wasn’t posted and I can pretend neither to be pleased nor understand. This is the moderator’s prereogative, of course, but I don’t know what about what follows is objectionable or unpublishable, particularly since a comment about the glories of Soviet Communism did pass the offense test. I flattered myself that perhaps Ebert was gonna make the exact same point in his piece (though I still would have published it; it’s not a blindingly original point that could form the basis of a cribbing charge). But he didn’t.
And here is what I wrote.
The answer is that TRIUMPH OF THE WILL neither is nor isn’t a documentary, but rather, it created its own category in a kind of Hegelian synthesis, and it’s a synthesis that news coverage and politicians since have not been able to do without: The Photo-Op.
That is, “reality” that exists in order for itself to be photographed. When the American president goes for a visit to the flooded parts of Iowa, a significant part of the reason (after all, he can sign aid bills or disaster declarations sitting in DC) is so he can be seen doing it for public consumption, just like all the Nazis marched through Nuremburg in history’s grandest and greatest photo-op. TRIUMPH was something new for politics. And what I said of the Iowa floods is true of any president of any party; I’m not making the childish “Bushitler” arguments of some above.
While TRIUMPH is in no way a “pure” documentary in the way that cinema-verite purists insist, it is just as clearly not fiction — the Nuremberg Rally really did happen as Leni Riefenstahl showed it; and significant events that did not appear in the film happened anyway.
Every time you turn on CNN or Fox News or the BBC, etc., you are watching something that Leni Riefenstahl and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL made possible. Rinse and repeat with ESPN and OLYMPIA (though the details are a bit different), and you have the greatest and most-influential documentarian (and female director) of all time. No doubt about it.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (Jean Luc Godard, Britain, 1968) — 7
Does it count as a good movie if you hate an artist with a passion and he makes a film that so perfectly embodies all his myriad flaws that you find it enjoyable as an exercise in critical chuckling? In the “this is exactly the sort of crap that this fraudulent, pretentious pseudo-intellectual quack and his cult of windbag-enablers thinks is good” sense? Is there a film-criticism equivalent of Schadenfeude?
Honestly, if SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL¹ (aka ONE PLUS ONE) had been directed by (just a “for example”) me, as a parody of Godard’s work, I would consider that film one of the greatest of all time. Everything that I hate about this man’s films is here with a vengeance — the stupid pseudo-puns on the title cards,² the indifference to coherence, the desultory editing, the lengthy takes that mostly fill themselves with their own emptiness, the radical chic, the rambling on-camera preaching, the Maoist politics, the slapdash plotting rhythm.³ But I found myself … not exactly “engaged,” but critically amused in ways not unrelated to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and sometimes even interested in the material in spite of Godard’s best [sic] efforts. Honestly … if you reject Godard and all his works and all his empty promises, this is your film — it could almost be retitled SYMPATHY FOR GODARD.