Rightwing Film Geek

Cristian Mungiu Fan Club continues

4monthsmungiu2.jpgNot really. This is just a simple link … to an interview with 4 MONTHS director Cristian Mungiu that took up a whole hour on NPR’s Fresh Air, and I’ve already listened through it twice.¹

Mungiu talks about a score of interesting topics, besides 4 MONTHS specifically and the artistic choices he made (like never mentioning Communism per se). He talked for a long time about the system of funding movies in Romania, which is still state-run to a significant extent. As he also notes though, domestic private funding is basically nil since the Romanian box office has collapsed to 1/10 of what it had been because the country has so few theaters now. A thriving artistic culture, which includes a domestic movie industry, is part of the national common good and thus a legitimate thing for the state to support if private means do not. Mungiu tells of how he had to take 4 MONTHS on something like an old-style traveling road show, from town to town and village to village, for his film to be seen in much of Romania (a film about that will be an extra on the DVD, he promises).

He also notes that he was born in 1968, two years after abortion was made illegal, and part of the “Baby Boom” that took place in Romania in the first several years of abortion’s illegality. He says matter-of-factly that he was “not a planned child,” and this was something many Romanians of his generational cohort knew since this was something “our parents wouldn’t hide from us.” But most importantly, he says, “it’s not that our parents wouldn’t love us or that my parents wouldn’t love me.” Exactly. The very notion that Parenthood is a thing Planned is a lie or a rationalization. And every unplanned child was once an unplanned pregnancy.

I’m curious also about something Mungiu said at about the 3:20 mark. He’s giving the history of illegal abortion in Romania and noting that it had nothing to do with moral or religious reasons, especially since religion was discouraged under Communism. And then Mungiu says, with the emphasis that this is important, that in Romania “we are Orthodox, we are not Catholic.” Well, I at least knew that much. But its relevance went over my head. I had been pretty confident that the Orthodox Church condemns abortion too (less so, contraception; also outlawed by Ceausescu). So … what, if anything definitive,² does Orthodoxy teach about abortion and contraception? Peter? Rod?
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¹ Don’t let the title “Oppression and Abortion” turn you off. That’s the National Pinko Radio headline-writers. Plus there’s no denying by sane people that the Ceausescu regime was (a) oppressive and (b) did not outlaw abortion for good reason.
² I understand very generally that differences in church structures could make this question, or any similar one, a bit more complicated for the East than the West.

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February 9, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fox … anathema sit

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IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge, USA, 2006, 8 )

Before the festival started, I took the opportunity last night to see IDIOCRACY, since Toronto is one of the few cities where Fox is dumping it. Shame, shame, shame.

The film looks somewhat cheezy and is unquestionably a bit one-note — “these people are stupid” is really the point to 90 percent of the jokes. It breaks no thematic ground that BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD hadn’t already plowed quite well.

But I busted a gut. This film is filled with quotable moments and lines — the hospital title (kind of a theological impossibility), the method of medical diagnosis (which isn’t that far off from cash registers in the era of innumeracy), the evolution of US News & World Report and the anchors at Fox News, always fair and balanced. The trial is like THE TRIAL as rewritten by Beavis & Butthead. And like with B&B, people who complain that, e.g., there’s too much cheap balls-kicking humor, are missing that this isn’t meant to be funny per se. What’s funny (and often hilarious) is that the characters in the film think it’s funny and/or brilliant. It’s a measure of the emptiness of their souls, consumed with consumption and sex (wait till you see what Starbucks is doing in the future; and I swear-to-God, the first time I ever heard someone refer to “Fuddruckers,” I thought this too). Nor is it just a pro-eugenic sneer at Red State hicks — the high-IQ couple are brilliantly skewered as well in their brief appearance at the set-up.

This is a movie made for video admittedly, as it is all throwaway gags and one-liners, and crammed with in-jokes at the edges of the frames (Sam Adams made the comparison to THE SIMPSONS last night over cider and beer). So for dumping this movie, Fox News, always fair and balanced, is … like … really retarded and shit.

This note brought to you by Carl’s Jr. They give me money when I say that.

September 7, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The Idiocrats at Fox

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Mike Judge’s long-awaited second live-action feature, IDIOCRACY, debuted last weekend. What, you didn’t know that? Did you get the memo? You must live in such out-of-the-way hix nix towns as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston … y’know … cities where people wouldn’t “get” Mike Judge and where OFFICE SPACE tanked because his scathing satire on work and bureaucracy was completely alien to them. Remember that moment in SPINAL TAP when the manager tells them the Boston gig fell through because it’s not much of a college town? That was awesome.

My bud Bilge at Nerve.com excoriates the suits at 20th Century Fox (over and over) for dumping IDIOCRACY, and for what sounds like really good reasons like messing with Judge’s cut, and sitting on it for two years before dumping, etc. So, the film came with the aura of failure, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two stats suffice — (1) as I type this about 845pm Monday, the new Mike Judge film on opening weekend still doesn’t have five IMDb votes; (2) if you go to the Fox site, there is no mention of IDIOCRACY. At all. Really.

Now I’m a pretty hard-core realist when it comes to selling movies and I don’t think studios have any obligation to lose money or throw good money after bad. I’m not under any illusion that Judge has made a potential gazillion-dollar blockbuster. And it’s certainly possible that Judge made a stinker (Homer nods; Hitchcock made THE PARADINE CASE, etc.).

But do American studios any longer know how to market a small movie to a niche audience, except through their boutique divisions like … um … Fox Searchlight? “Un Film de Mike Judge,” “from the creator of OFFICE SPACE” [or BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD or KING OF THE HILL] has got to be worth enough tickets to make at least a half-ass push worthwhile. OFFICE SPACE wasn’t a big hit (Fox didn’t do very well by that film either, but I was able to see it in Augusta, Ga., fercryinoutloud), but subsequent word of mouth has turned it into one of the defining cult films of its era.

lumberg.jpgRight now on my IM system at work (and I swear this is a coincidence), the public greeting reads “Remember to put the cover sheet in your TPS reports.” Others on my menu include “Where’s my stapler” and “yeeeeah … welllll … I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.” Another person at work has his public message right now as “sounds like a case of the Mondays” and others on his menu have included “did you get that memo.” There’s at least a half-dozen people in the newsroom with whom I regularly exchange OFFICE SPACE lines. And it’s not a slam at any particular workplace or supervisor — OFFICE SPACE is golden to anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy.

Do the suits at Fox realize what kind of Cult Status all three of Judge’s major works have? All have their own universe of devoted cultists. The rewards come later than opening weekend of course, and they require patience because they depend on word of mouth, so they won’t affect the quarterly balance. But the DVD sales and multiple editions “with flair,” etc. do come and in a veritable torrent by the standards of two, three, or four years later. And it’s not as though Judge’s movies cost $200 million to make. But Fox still can go through the motions for MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND and JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE (info still on the front page at the Fox Movies site) and let’s not forget the upcoming masterpiece THE MARINE starring beefcake model/pro wrestler John Cena. So if THE IDIOCRATS isn’t the absolute indisputable worst movie of the year, or ever, this treatment is absolutely unconscionable.

judge.jpgAnd it’s an insult to the artist who created BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD and OFFICE SPACE and who (most inexplicably of all) has gotten good ratings for Fox TV with his KING OF THE HILL. One wonders why Judge would continue to have a relationship with Fox TV after this shitty treatment. Maybe a key is Judge’s personality, at least as portrayed in this profile in the June issue of Esquire. He doesn’t seem like the intransigent, self-destructive perfectionist, like a Tarkovsky or a Dreyer. I don’t blame him, by any means, and it may very well be that the personality portrayed in Esquire is the beaten-down one of a dog that’s taken one too many whippings. Or at best, he’s triaged THE IDIOCRATS in the hopes that playing ball and not being difficult, things’ll be better next time.

September 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

A Passionate pitch to red-state audiences

Father Sibley posted on his blog the link to a map that lets you see where Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will be playing when it opens Ash Wednesday. A poster in his comment field then noted the lack of theaters in Manhattan booking the film, just one, with some in the other boroughs, but still a surprisingly small number for the nation’s cultural capital, considering that THE PASSION is getting the full 2,000-screen opening nationwide.

So I looked at my own metro area, and found the same pattern in the listings for DC, Virginia and Maryland. THE PASSION will only open in one theater in Washington DC and in one theater in the biggest and closest counties of Northern Virginia (Arlington and Fairfax). Offsetting that some is the fact it will open in 6 theaters in suburban Maryland (Prince George’s and Montgomery counties) and eight in the farther-out NoVa counties like Prince William, Loudon and Stafford. And there’s the possibility of multiple screens obviously — the particular DC theater is a 7-plex; the Arlington facility has 12 screens. But for comparison’s sake, here are some Virginia population sizes: 2 theaters in DC/Arlington/Fairfax — population of 1.7 million; 3 in Richmond — population of 200,000; 2 in Charlottesville — city proper, 45,000.

According to the same map, THE PASSION will open in 5 (five) theaters in Los Angeles (scroll down or use the search box above, on the PASSION site page) and also in 5 (five) theaters in … (drumroll, please) … Alaska. I didn’t search for any of the numerous LA suburbs (Adam?), but Los Angeles proper is still an awfully big city (3.7 million — almost six times the population of Alaska) and somewhat important in the film industry one would think, that the city itself suffices for the point of my comparison. I checked the listing for New York state and found 8 theaters in New York’s five boroughs (though I don’t know the region’s geography well enough to judge the number for NYC suburbs). Or exactly the number of theaters (8) as the Tidewater corner of Southeastern Virginia — Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News, Virginia Beach, Suffolk.

jesusland.jpgThis is an unconventional booking strategy and is a clear indication of how Gibson plans to make a box-office hit — from red-state audiences with minimal reliance on the blue-state metro areas; hence the months of courting Christian preachers and cold-shouldering the ADL and the opinion-leaders in journalism and film criticism.

(Idle thought #1: Does the mass American moviegoing public realize that THE PASSION has subtitles, something they have hated and punished at the box office since the birth of the talkies?)

(Idle thought #2: Have there been any critics screenings yet, less than a month before opening? Enough pro critics read this blog that I know that if my guess that there have been none is wrong, I’ll be corrected).

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN used a not-dissimilar marketing strategy. It opened in late September on a few dozen screens in the South and Midwest, and concentrated on smaller and medium-sized cities for weeks before it played any of the country’s biggest Metro areas (Washington and Los Angeles got the film in mid-November; as far as I can tell, it has still never played New York or Chicago). But GOSPEL is a small film that has never played on more than 113 screens nationwide in any given week, so that was a traditional “rollout” strategy; it just reversed the customary order for the bigger and smaller cities. If GOSPEL were to have become a hit, it would have been in the MY BIG FAT JUDEAN EXECUTION mould. But dissing the biggest cities is just not done by a 2,000-screen-opening-week movie.

This booking strategy also tells me that Gibson’s distributors are preparing for a critical drubbing from the nation’s film-critic establishment, much of which is liberal or radical and based in New York, Los Angeles and a few other big metro areas. Playing THE PASSION relatively little in those cities seems like a way to immunize the film from their expected reaction. Or as making provision with defenses and barriers against fortuna, which I compare to one of those raging rivers …

January 31, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Chagrined promotion of others (or DVD pricing strategies, part 1)

smublackfilms.jpgA selection from the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, consisting of movies made for segregation-era black theaters by black artists, has been preserved and put onto video by Southern Methodist University. Although I recognize both the specific titles cited in the AP article and I know some stuff secondhand about the director of MURDER IN HARLEM (Oscar Micheaux), I’ve never seen any of the “race films” made in the silent and early sound era.

So obviously, it’s great that these films are being preserved, put on disc and distributed to museums and schools. I suspect from what I know of Micheaux that he wouldn’t be to my taste, but I’d love a chance to look.

However, it doesn’t look like SMU really wants me or other members of the general public to buy or rent these discs in the open marketplace. The cost is $250 for a 3-DVD set. Ouch. I agree that the potential market for these films is probably small, but it’s not as though there’s a studio’s need to make a profit from the small number of expected sales, the commonest reason for exorbitant pricing. SMU did the restoration under a grant. Confining these films to institutions is false to the populist nature of the medium, particularly for “race films,” which were not made by the sort of heavily-capitalized major studio that could afford to lose money on some “prestige” or “artistic” films.

ossiedavis.jpgI’m certainly not gonna pay $250 for anything short of the missing nine-hour print of GREED. And I’m not a normal person. I’m the sort of person who’ll watch a film he’s pretty sure he won’t like just because he thinks he “should.” Who’ll watch a film just because he wants to sample a genre or style he’s never seen before (I went to see a 30s Yiddish-theater melodrama at a film festival last year). Who’ll plunk down $20 to buy a film sight unseen just to be a completist for a favorite director (Tsai Ming-liang’s REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, I’m thinking of specifically). If *I’m* not willing to consider such a purchase, how many others would? What’s the point of Ossie Davis saying the films show the “ ‘do-for-self’ spirit of blacks just after the turn of the century. They had to make do with nothing. And look what they did’,” if people are priced out of access to what these artists did?

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Mel to make a misstep?

I have repeatedly backed Mel Gibson against charges of anti-Semitism and theological error over THE PASSION OF CHRIST, to the extent one can from the POV of not having seen the film. Neither Jewish groups nor self-appointed theologians’ circles have either the moral entitlement to final cut or the right to issue moral imprimaturs. But he may be about to make a mistake.

The latest talk in the entertainment industry is that federal authorities are investigating the New York Post over its forum on THE PASSION OF CHRIST, possibly for piracy and copyright violation, and there is other word that Gibson may sue the Post himself over the forum, which I blogged on last week.

There may be a theft issue here — which the Post denies. And I understand that if we’re gonna make a big flap over Academy screeners, studios and distributors have to defend their copyright (after all, that security is what allows more-than-homemade movies to be made at all). There is something a little off about writing about a film based on an unfinished rough cut. Professional critics sometimes do it reluctantly, but almost always with the caveat stated explicitly (and thus implicitly saying: “readers, adjust accordingly.”) The Post did state that caveat in this case, though you had to bring along your magnifying glass.

Further, there are rough cuts and there are rough cuts. There are quickly- and cheaply-made videos used just to check final continuity issues (is a character’s collar buttoned the same way and are the props in the same place throughout a scene — that sort of thing) at one end of the spectrum and the actual work prints sans title credits or subtitles at the other. I would like to think that at least Post critic Lou Lumenick would be sensitive to these matters of print quality and how they affect the aesthetic experience of THE PASSION OF CHRIST or any other film. The Post merely said that “the rough-cut version of the film that we screened – with temporary English subtitles, no credits and further editing changes likely.” And if you read the wording of the Post’s intro carefully with this thought in mind, you realize that never did the paper originally say whether the five viewers saw the movie on videotape or on film.

So all these criticisms of the value of the Post forum are perfectly fair to make, and I added my doubts about what the viewers said last week. But I think Gibson would be making a prudential mistake to pursue legal action against the Post. It would just look too much like he’s suing over a bad review. And that would just be fodder for Leno and Letterman. Yes, there are other issues, but appearances matter and Gibson would just be giving too much and too easy ammo to people eager to interpret his actions in a bad light. Of which there is no shortage.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

More on the screener ban

The MPAA’s screener ban is being challenged in court by smaller distributors, saying among other things that the exemption for members of the Academy (and not, say, members of critics circles or voters in other awards shows like the Golden Globes) violates antitrust laws.

A ruling on the injunction might come next week.

November 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

And now Weekend Update …

Breaking news on several fronts over the last few days (when I was away for a film festival) and on which I have posted here before:

First, Mel Gibson landed a distributor, Newmarket Films, and confirmed the planned release date for the newly titled THE PASSION OF CHRIST as Ash Wednesday. I’ve already made my predictions — a firestorm of anti-Semitism charges (the Lent opening will give another excuse … er … news peg to accuse the Church of anti-Semitism and assorted other bestialities), and a negative critical reception since some critics already have their leads written, and I refuse to believe this is an isolated attitude. Box office, we’ll have to wait and see, but subtitled films just don’t do well in the United States. I think only two, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL and CROUCHING TIGER, have ever even broken $50 million. (And if it’s not two, it’s no more than three.) Any good? I’ll get back to you.

Second, the screener issue was “solved,” with the MPAA agreeing to lift the ban, but only for Academy members. This solves some of the problems, but leaves critics groups, primarily those for critics working in smaller markets, out in the cold.

Third, Michael “Killer” Schiavo is starting his Public Redemption Tour facing the tough, incisive questioning of Larry King. “My girlfriend supports my stance on Terri because the kind of care I want to give her will remove Terri as an obstacle and we’ll be free to marry.” Or something like that. And of course, the Atheist Press is spinning this story as a “right-to-die” case, when curiously, the person who will die never herself asserted that right.

Finally, on the Canadian tolerance beat, theological liberals in the Episcopal Church prove their open-mindedness, Celebrate Diversity and fight the forces of inquisitorial reaction by threatening heresy trials for those who repudiate the One Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Intolerant Of Mine Approved Groups.

October 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Screener update

Daily Variety reports today (link requires registration) that the major studios and the MPAA will reverse their ban on screeners, but only for Academy members. There will still be a ban on sending tapes and discs to critics and members of the various guilds. Daily Variety says that “an announcement is expected this week.”

The continuing ban on critics screeners is only likely to further anger professional critics, fueling their argument that this is really an effort to cut them out of the “Oscar buzz” game. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced at the weekend that it would cancel its year-end awards in protest. The group customarily gives out its awards in mid-December, and last year was the second major critics group to announce its winners, after the National Board of Review. (They later reversed themselves.)

I don’t think this was a wise move — canceling outright rather than announcing in January, though I understand the emotional satisfaction that kicking the studios in the teeth might give. For one thing, canceling tends to suggest that the group’s real agenda is not to honor the best films, but affect the Oscar race. Now, the latter is not a bad thing in itself, and most years I prefer the LA critics circle winners to those of the Academy — so they’re pushing the Academy in a direction I generally approve. But to cancel the awards outright rather than giving them in January is throwing the baby (honoring the best films) out with the bathwater (influencing the Academy).

Further, I’m not so sure that, for pro critics, screeners affect their ability to see the December Oscar bait *that much.* I know pro critics who avoid looking at tapes or discs as much as they can, and still see every film at a critics screening by early or mid-December. Screeners are certainly convenient, especially for repeat viewings and making up a missed screening, but hardly necessary.

October 21, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Gangsters and Nothingness

“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Henry Wilbourne, in the William Faulkner short story “The Wild Palms,” from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”

“Between guilt and nothing, I will take guilt.”
Maxim as reworded to apply to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984)

I saw this film, Leone’s last before he died in 1989, for the first time on the big screen last weekend at the gorgeous American Film Institute theater, where I had already seen two of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns — THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — earlier this fall.

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Though it’s obviously great to see this masterpiece in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was actually one of the earliest case studies in the virtue of home video. After playing at the Cannes Film Festival at 238 minutes, the film’s U.S. distributors chopped it by 100 minutes and completely re-edited the film to ditch its complex 50-year flashback structure (some critics have even suggested that it all takes place in the opium-filled head of the central character) in favor of straight chronology. But at approximately 2:20, it was still too long and remote to appeal to younger audiences, and the savaging it got from American critics as incomprehensible meant that it had no shot at being a succes d’estime.

But when the film was released on tapes in the late 1980s, just as home video was becoming ubiquitous, Leone’s cut was the version released in the United States. What videotapes and discs did was to provide a reliable mass market for films after theatrical release. Thus some movies could get a potential second bite at the box-office cherry, and it made potential sense to go back and revisit bad box-office decisions with specials like Director’s Cuts (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA only grossed 1/6 of what it cost to make). What was done to the film was obviously a crime, but home video enabled the amelioration of some of the damage, giving Leone’s actual film a chance later to succeed or fail, to find its audience, a chance it might not have gotten otherwise. Roger Ebert called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA “a murdered movie, brought back to life on home video.” And now, coming back full circle, some spiffed-up theatrical prints are making their way across the country, often in concert with those spaghetti Westerns that first made Leone’s name. And if you’re in a city where they’re playing — run, do not walk …

leone.jpgThe gangster film put Leone’s talent in a new light. He lost something in having to forgo the grungy pictorialism of his landscape- and face-dominated Westerns, but gained that much back in the kind of ravishing luxury more suited to the kind of movie he was making here — an intimate, elegiac opera.

Unusually, for a film that spans 50 years and looks like an epic on first glance, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an interior psychological film, primarily about the guilt of one gangster (Noodles, played by Robert De Niro) over betraying his boyhood friends (the closest being Max, played by James Woods) to the police and having them die in the resulting shootout. The drama unfolds in three relatively short spans in the teens, early 30s and late 60s. But the chronological juggling is needed, because certain scenes have to take place in the order they do for emotional sense, not chronological sense (including the last, more anon). The film is fundamentally about what time changes and doesn’t change, and a chronological structure is too naturalistic for such a story.

The virtuoso opening sequence tells the basic plot, about Noodles’ betrayal (we don’t know why), the death of his three closest friends, his fleeing town with no money (we don’t learn the source of the money he’s picking up or why or how it disappeared) and as he sinks into a guilt-wracked opium haze, we hear loud telephone rings on the soundtrack. They continue long after we’ve gotten the point and learned that the phone is at a police desk. And that *is* the point. The telephone never stopped ringing in Noodles’ head. We flash to the late 1960s and Noodles getting a call to return to New York (he doesn’t know why), and then we mostly follow the principal characters as they grow from child delinquents into hoodlums and then gangsters (with some flashing forward to the late 1960s). Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the original cut “it takes real concentration to follow … (but) is compulsively and continuously watchable.”

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is full of wonderful moments, touches and grace notes — a young boy debating between flattering the neighborhood tramp with a cream cake and eating it himself, Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” a frisbee coming out of nowhere, the line “Noodles, I slipped,” Ennio Morricone’s mournful theme as played on a pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir (yes … THAT Zamfir), the limo driver rejecting Noodles’ money and leaving him incredibly alone, Deborah closing the window curtain as the train departs, the dissolves between the Jewish neighborhood at various times … it’s all lovely and sad. When it gets to the late 1960s, we reach a revelation (SPOILER WARNING).

Noodles has been invited to New York by a “Secretary Bailey,” a Cabinet member and successful businessman who is on the verge of losing everything in a widening corruption probe (imagine Richard Nixon in June 1974). Only Bailey is actually Max, who really wasn’t killed in the shootout whose memory has consumed Noodles’ life. Instead, Max fooled Noodles into betraying him and their two friends, so Max could make a clean break, take the group’s stash, and start life anew — respectable and able to climb the greasy pole of success. Now, to avoid exposure, Bailey is offering Noodles a chance at revenge by killing him. “I took your money, I took your girl, all I left you was 35 years of grief over having killed me,” “Secretary Bailey” tells Noodles.

noodles.jpgBut Noodles doesn’t bite, refusing to look back at Sodom. Partly, he doesn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, but also because he can’t have the 30 years back. There is no redemption or undoing the past, because the past is what has made you what you are. Throughout the scene, Noodles refers to him as Secretary Bailey, not Max, and pretends not to know any of the back story. It’s as if he would rather live as he has for the past 30 years — a guilt-ridden ex-gangster — than look back. “It’d be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste,” Noodles tells Max. He’s referring on the surface to “Secretary Bailey’s” achievements, but he’s also referring to himself. His last 30 years would have been a waste if he were to acknowledge having been conned by taking vengeance on “Max.” Between guilt and nothing, he’s taking guilt.

In some ways, the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME resembles the last scene reversal in MEMENTO — both have a man prefer the delusion he can live with to an empty, meaningless truth. But it’s also the opposite — in the later film, the last scene turns Guy Pearce’s character Lenny from victim to agent (even if it’s the agent of his own self-delusion); here, Noodles says agency and autonomy isn’t worth it to him. He’s turning his back on the most fundamental of Today’s Virtues — being your own man and leaving the past behind.

As a result, the last shot of the film justifies the complex, jump-around-in-time structure. It’s a full-facial closeup of a young adult Noodles smiling after retreating to an opium den, taking a hit, and rolling over under some netting, and it’s the film’s emotional punctation even though it takes place 30 years before the final dramatic scene. De Niro’s expression and all the ambiguities contained in it *are* what the film is about. In fact, I was kinda mad at Leone for only holding the shot for a few seconds before superimposing the credit crawl. That image needed to be held for an unnaturally long time (30 or 40 seconds at least, whatever is needed to call as much attention to itself as the telephone rings at the start do). And then fade to black.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Actors do good

My friend Mike D’Angelo has an excellent take on the minor brouhaha (likely will need scroll down after Oct. 20) erupting over the Motion Picture Association of America’s ban on the distribution of screener tapes of movies still playing in theaters. The practice, a widespread custom in the Oscar campaigns of recent years, is perceived as giving the smaller films from boutique studios a way to make up for their narrower distribution. It’s a way for the film and its makers to get noticed and make its own case. But the MPAA has banned the practice for its member studios, citing concerns about piracy.Mike’s piece may even become obsolete in the next few days, as the backlash from within Hollywood is growing. Both Reuters and the Associated Press had articles Tuesday about a protest ad being taken out by some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Sean Penn, Keanu Reeves, Sissy Spacek and others in Wednesday’s Daily Variety and the Hollywood Report. A similar ad was taken out last week by some of American film’s most-prestigious directors, including Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. The Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild have also expressed opposition.

All this opposition could be having its effect. Daily Variety (link requires subscription) reports in Wednesday’s editions that the heads of the seven major studios behind the ban have scheduled a conference call with MPAA chief Jack Valenti. Perhaps this cockeyed ban will go down in history as the New Coke of 2003.

Nobody should intrinsically care about whether Academy members can get free tapes or discs. But, as Mike points out (and I have even less of a dog in this fight than does he, a pro critic), movie fans should know about this because Hollywood awards affect what films Hollywood makes. The less chance that small films from boutique studios like Miramax, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight et al have of getting awards, the less chance the filmmakers have of convincing financiers that they could be profitable, and thus the less chance they will be made at all. No FARGO, no THE PIANIST, no FAR FROM HEAVEN, and go on down the line through some of the best American movies of the last ten years. And *that* matters.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Pre-birth post-mortems

An interesting article appeared recently in the Christian Science Monitor about how the Internet has made Hollywood’s job of making a profit from a turkey even tougher than before. Now in the world of Everybody’s A Film Critic And Has A Personal Site To Share His Thoughts (cue Victor looking around innocently), test scores are finding their way into the public domain more easily. The speed of the Internet also means that word-of-mouth basically can now develop even before a film has opened, and by Sunday, a film can have received the kiss of death — “Loser.”

I can certainly can confirm that an attentive civilian could now know *even before the film was released* that HULK had bad word-of-mouth and probably wouldn’t be worth his (my) while, though *my* interest was probably marginal to begin with. Typical of my snobbishness, I haven’t been to see any of the action blockbusters this summer, though comic-book movies like HULK, X2, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN rarely interest me as a noncomic geek. The only summer blockbusters that I haven’t seen but really want to are 28 DAYS LATER and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN.

But compare it to last year, when SPIDER-MAN had good advance word (but not a notably more-prestigious or -interesting director-stars team than HULK — Sam Raimi/Tobey McGuire/Willem Dafoe vs. Ang Lee/Eric Bana/Nick Nolte). I went to see SPIDEY and liked it moderately. I dismissed HULK sight unseen.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about this kind of pre-buzz buzz, however much it might do the Lord’s work against a bad film, because it so traps the film in the self-fulfilling prophecy cycle about its box office (it’s a turkey, therefore nobody goes to see it, so it must *really* be a turkey … etc.).

The film doesn’t get a chance to overcome 1) bad prebuzz or 2) disappointing early-audience response. In the case of (1), it often occurs for reasons having nothing to do with what’s on the screen — need I remind anybody [I probably do] about 1998 and the same “turkey” tag sinking BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, a very good film that deserved better than it got. In the case of (2), most films probably wouldn’t overcome them anyway, but a few do need time to find their audience or shrug off initial marketing mistakes — need I remind anybody [I certainly do] about 1983 and THE RIGHT STUFF, a masterpiece that carved out its popularity via video after flopping in theaters.

August 7, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment