Rightwing Film Geek

A godless atonement

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It can very frustrating to read a critic, one you generally admire, get why a movie (or something about a movie) is great, but see it as evidence for why it’s bad. Two critics I really like did it with ATONEMENT, the film whose Golden Globe win makes it an Oscar frontrunner, and one I’d be elated to see win.¹

I said when I saw ATONEMENT at Toronto, that I would later discuss the ending, which had me completely broken. It did it again when I saw it on the opening day of its commercial release last month. Back in September, I partially wanted to finish up ASAP at a Toronto Internet cafe at 3am, and I partially wanted to recommend the movie as heartily as I could without spoiling it for others, since I went in completely tabula-rasa myself and think that a key to why this film hasn’t left my memory in months.

You have been warned.

At the end of the second act, Briony is told what she has to do to atone for her lies that put Robbie in jail and then later on the front lines and that estranged Cecilia from their family. The film flashes forward 50 years, from Briony sitting alone on a train to Briony as a famous elderly novelist. And we learn the truth that turns the movie inside out — everything we’ve been watching is a novel written by Briony, who is now giving a TV interview on it.

atonement3shot.jpgThe reunion that Robbie and Cecilia had that we see, and the promise of the reversal and clearing of Robbie’s name that was promised in that novel’s third act — it didn’t occur in “real life” and couldn’t have because they were both killed in the war (Robbie at Dunkirk, Cecilia in the Blitz). The movie closes on what we assume is the close of Briony’s novel, of Robbie and Cecilia in a beachfront cottage with a view of the White Cliffs of Dover. (I wonder if Americans realize how archetypal that is to a Briton, particularly in a World War II context.) “I gave them in fiction the happy ending they couldn’t have in life. That’s my atonement. It was all I could do,” Briony says (more or less) of what will be her last novel as she will soon slip into irreversible dementia.

So this is the latest “twist” movie, though because ATONEMENT is not a crime or heist movie, I was completely, utterly unprepared for it. It’s a fairly common trick, in fact — the “unreliable narrator” — but it’s made effective by the fact that we don’t even really realize that the film actually HAS a narrator, much less that it’s a character within the story. But this is not an unfair trick, because, on reflection and second viewing, we see that some details of ATONEMENT’s style actually had set up the-film-to-that-point as discourse. It’s not just Briony is shown in the first act to be a precocious writer and in the second act to be writing a novel hinted to be about the first act. It’s also that the first things we see are a typewriter and typing (shades of another of my favorite recent movies, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, which also turns inside out upon the discovery of discourse). And the first things we hear are the familiar clackety-clack of a manual typewriter — a sound that never entirely leaves us because (it seems) scorer Dario Marianelli uses typewriter sounds on the score continuously. It made for a bracing score but, unbeknownest to the inattentive viewer, it also signifies that we are seeing something being typed, i.e., Briony’s novel. Continue reading

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Speaking of sports and movies

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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):

BASKETBALL:
BKN–NBA FINALS
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

The end of sports programming

I thought rock bottom on sports-programming had been reached a few months ago when I saw, when looking at one of the TVs at a sports bar, a football video game contest/tournament being shown as programming on ESPN (making a spectacle of a simulacrum — Baudrillard, where are you).

But my colleague Tim Lemke topped that with a Sign of the Apocalypse on Wednesday’s front page. Madden 07 has become a sports event in its own right. Complete with … get this … a pay-per-view special. $19.95 to watch basically an infomercial on how to play a video game? Yes. I am not making this up.

Tim once came over to my apartment to watch pay-per-view, but of a legitimate athletic contest — the John Ruiz-Roy Jones Jr. fight, if memory serves. I’d be the first to admit that video games left me behind (or maybe I just left them behind) in the late-80s — Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man. But I always thought the point of athletics as a spectacle, as a spectator activity, was to be wowed. To see people do stuff that popped your eyes out, that you couldn’t do, that involved an element of physicality.

But in the era of reality TV, that believes in the name of pig-headed egalitarianism that *anyone* can be a star/athlete — apparently not. Now, more and more of the programming on sports channels (the proliferation of them also undoubtedly accounts for some of this — they need to fill the hours somehow) is taken up by what can at best be called leisure activities. There always had been the fishing and hunting shows that were staples of Saturday mornings on the UHF channels, of course.

But in recent years, and in bigger venues, this has expanded to include card games, spelling bees, Scrabble/crossword and similar intellectual pursuits. So, everyone can be an athlete. Now the ultimate (as far as I can think of) — a computer representation of the game that can be seen at other times on the same channel, as itself.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

My weekend plans

From Thursday to Sunday, I’ll be at Arlington’s Rosslyn Theater for Slapsticon, a festival of slapstick comedies, mostly from the silent era (with live musical accompaniment), with some films from the early sound era. You don’t have to be a complete dork and plan on spending all four days, and so I encourage anyone in the DC area (or anywhere close enough for a day trip) who has an interest in classic films to come sample at least one of the programs.

The festival is deliberately programmed against the obvious stuff you can get from a good video store or rental service — the canonized classics of Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and the Marx Brothers. Not that OUR HOSPITALITY, THE GENERAL, CITY LIGHTS, THE FRESHMAN, SPEEDY, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, ad infinitum, ad gloriam, aren’t masterpieces. Of course they are. But as the Slapsticon FAQ puts it: “The films being screened were chosen precisely because they can’t (yet) be seen on cable or video.”

But Slapsticon is the festival to really dig deep … to find out what *else* you like, how much there is to love and enjoy beyond the Big Four. To see your first Larry Semon, Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Max Linder, Max Davidson, Garvin and Byron, Our Gang, Fatty Arbuckle. And the real obscurities like Ton of Fun, or Ham and Bud, or Dane and Arthur. And to see highlighted the supporting performers like Snitz Edwards, James Finlayson and others. And to make discoveries.

I wrote a bit about Slapsticon after last year’s fest. Here are some other discoveries:

  • Like many film geeks, I had the received notion that Buster Keaton’s career ended with sound. It definitely went into decline, and he never again reached his silent pinnacles. But at the first Slapsticon, there were several of Keaton’s talking shorts, and one in particular, GRAND SLAM OPERA … well, just read the review at the IMDb. At the end of what the reviewer describes (correctly) as the TOP HAT parody, when Buster finished his dance, the audience let out a burst of spontaneous applause, as if everyone was just *happy* with the reassurance that Buster still had “it.”
  • I have literally had my breath taken away by the sheer athleticism and grace of Lupino Lane, a British music-hall star whom I had never heard of before Slapsticon became an annual fixture. And the physical durability of Larry Semon. And what a reliably awkward bourgeois everyman Charley Chase was (here’s G-Money on him). I’m looking forward this Slapsticon to seeing more of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, a team who perfected the husband-and-wife domestic sitcom in the 10s, meaning their influence stretches to this very day.
  • Being immersed in the material also gives you a real sense of the general run of films. So when I saw CURSES!, a Mack Sennett parody from 1924, at Slapsticon 2 in the context of seeing a bunch of other Sennett slapstick and other stuff from the teens, it went from being an amusing film to being gut-bustingly funny. You also find out that so much of your received notions of film and entertainment history (and just-plain-history) just ain’t so. For example, seeing a large program like this gives the lie to the notion that such supposed pomo curses as parody, self-referentiality and textuality (plus such late-capitalist rentierist practices as product placement) are features of a decadent “late” cultural phase.
  • In addition to silents and some sound shorts, last year, the organizers expanded their temporal reach forward last year by showing a rare Danny Kaye feature, and they plan to do the same this year, with a Bob Hope film (other than the familiar ROAD movies) accompanied by one of his rare shorts, and some Ernie Kovacs TV shows. I can’t say I thought THE MAN FROM THE DINERS CLUB was a great film, but I was glad for the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to LET’S FACE IT, CALLING ALL TARS and the Kovacs selection.
  • In the something-for-everyone department, families have brought their kids before, and, provided they’re young enough and innocent enough (or been immersed in it), they’ve generally seemed to enjoy Slapsticon to the limits of their time-endurance. Each year the organizers have devoted the Saturday morning slot to cartoons (Max Fleischer, Betty Boop, early Tex Avery, some of the early live-animation mixes, etc.). This year and last they’ve had special programs of kid comedies, following on Slapsticon 2′s having Jean Darling of Our Gang as guest and an appropriate tribute program, which also really went over well. Like, I had no idea Judy Garland was the *second* act of Mickey Rooney’s career … did you? Silent films have a freshness and innocence to them that kids entertainment today generally doesn’t have.
  • Another ongoing feature has been been discoveries and new prints — last year a new print of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (even for films that have minimal “plastic values,” there’s no substitute for seeing a good print in a theater) and HEAD OVER HEELS, a Mabel Normand film long thought lost. In that “slot” this year, Slapsticon will show the silent version of WELCOME DANGER, the film Harold Lloyd had nearly finished making when he had to rework it as a sound film. I’ve seen the talkie; I can’t wait to see what Lloyd wanted to make.

That was longer than I intended, but … that’s my plans for the weekend and I intend and expect to have a great time. See you there, I hope.

July 17, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A spoiled masterpiece

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LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (Joe Dante, USA, 2003, 7)

That “7” is misleading. This film should have been one of the year’s best. It only stars two of the greatest comic performers of all time, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the top of their game. Isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings? But how can a great movie result from a screenplay that reportedly went through at least 27 revisions and was the subject of constant quarreling between writer, director, animators and front-office suits.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is very much less than what it should have been and sometimes even is — it’s brilliant around the edges and vacuous at the center. A casualty of pomo self-consciousness. And the part that really hacks me off is that it seems to be deliberately made that way. To cite Pauline Kael, this is the kind of film that results when a director contents himself with “express[ing] himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.” It’s a masterpiece in every insignificant, irrelevant detail.

The main plot is just some silly spy intrigue rejected from the Austin Powers assembly line. The result is bland and watered down at the center, but so brilliant, saucy and anarchic at the edges that you’d really rather look at it on DVD, so you can rewind and use the slo-mo to see what you only half-saw in the theater. I can still bring himself to helpless giggles by remembering — the Jerry Lewis posters decorating Paris, Sylvester getting skinned, “that’s not boxing; bite his ear,” “that would send the wrong message to children,” the snatch from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” and the race through the paintings in the Louvre, Daffy’s facial expressions in the reprise of the “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” exchanges, and all the hundred various asides and uninflected jokes at the edge.

wilemartin.jpgUnfortunately, the pomo filmmakers feel the need to “air out” the Looney Tunes characters by putting them in a live-action world to show off the greater technical prowess of animation today, as though animation in that sense was what the Looney Tunes were noted for. As for the human actors … frankly who cares? Joan Cusack and Steve Martin give wonderfully fruity cartoon performances (though I wonder whether Martin is finally a wee bit *much*). But Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman? Who cares? They’re like Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Who would rather watch them than Bugs and Daffy, or maybe more of the other Warner Brothers characters, like Foghorn Leghorn or Sylvester and Tweety?

Now, its not any postmodern premise or the style itself to which I object. Nor were the Warner Brothers cartoons above such techniques as spoof (“Thugs with Dirty Mugs,” “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” the celebrity caricatures in “What’s Up, Doc”), in-joke references (Daffy as “Robin Hood”; the way the ritual line “What’s Up, Doc” spawned jokes riffing off that expectation), self-consciousness (the way Bugs’ antagonists became increasingly bizarre — from Elmer to Daffy to Yosemite Sam to the Tasmanian Devil — and his line to the audience “of course, you realize, *this* means war.”) or even outright deconstructions of textuality (“Duck Amuck”).

So it’s not as though postmodernism isn’t a fertile source of humor. But the pomo comic techniques in the Looney Tunes originals didn’t go “all the way down” and didn’t assume a thoroughly pomo audience. In other words, “Duck Amuck” shows how a cartoon produces meaning, but shows the animator at the end, preserving the illusion of the author-god, so to speak. And Bugs’ “this means war” aside is to an audience that didn’t expect asides every time and accepted the illusionist conceit that the war Bugs was promising existed for its own sake (they knew it was fake, of course. But as pro wrestling shows, there’s a fundamental difference between knowing something is fake and being told by the fakers that it’s fake).

Here, the innocent surface is absent. The filmmakers don’t seem to have the confidence to make a straight cartoon movie, to try to tell a coherent first-level story appropriate to the characters. Instead, textuality gets thrown in right away as Bugs and Daffy “play their characters” as Warner Brothers stars negotiating their contracts, rather than just “be their characters.” There’s even a moment when Fraser “plays himself” in split-screen with his character in the movie, and it’s just showing off and winking at the audience. The result is the decadent selling of the jokes the audience expects.

Now, the original Looney Tunes animators used this sort of “playing themselves” premise freely themselves (remember Daffy pitching “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” or the two competing in “Show Biz Bugs”). And Bugs and Daffy can still “play themselves” brilliantly — isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings?

daffyanger.jpgIn this particular movie, the “pitch” premise produces a great early scene in which Daffy’s sputtering outrage is being deliberately tweaked by the WB suits’ estimate of his worth. But what tarnishes even some of the great stuff going on around the edges is that its hollowness is sometimes underlined or the lines merely references rather than used. For example, Bugs, Daffy, Elfman and Fraser are walking in the desert and we get an offhand reference to “a left turn at Albuquerque.” Except they’re not underground, they don’t wind up anywhere as a result of the mistake or anything else. Or the singing lunchpail frog appears at the table in the background as a deal is being brokered (but unless you’ve seen the original, there’s no joke). They’re just referents to name-drop, an assurance that the filmmakers have seen the originals too, the equivalent of Eric Idle’s “I’m trying, really” nudge in the ribs.

Though this is an infinitely better film than SPACE JAM, the tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. Take a look at “The Simpsons,” which has *both* good stories and lots of jokes at the edge of the frame. Or take a look at “South Park,” self-conscously pomo decadent though the show is, but which uses its characters as themselves in pomo ways, rather than as “playing themselves” fodder for another bit of metacinematic fiddle-faddle.

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

The Death of William, First Act

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KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003, 6)

Fanboy that I am, I rushed out on the first day to see KILL BILL, VOLUME ONE, the comeback film by Quentin Tarantino, just awake from six years in a coma. Tarantino was getting married, but the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad had other ideas, and he was the sole survivor of the massacre at the church.

vivica.jpgOK, not really. But KB-1 feels too much like Tarantino *did* slip into a coma and left behind the talent that made him so exciting in the 1990s. Now don’t get me wrong, much of KB-1 is very good and it’s downright brilliant in flashes. The opening knife fight showdown between Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox is pure QT at his best — the juxtaposition of the candy-colored house, the school bus, the daughter and the serious ass-kicking going on. There is a moment late in the movie involving spanking (I will say no more) that had me rolling in the aisles. And there’s a demented genius to any movie that can make the line “lucky for her, he was a pedophile” work.

Most of the stylistic gambles Tarantino makes also pay off handsomely. There is a sequence entirely in Japanese anime that was quite good in itself, but it both solved the problem of how to present Lucy Liu’s backstory without an X-rating and deepened Uma’s characterization as the typical Tarantino hero — someone who conceives of life entirely in the terms he picked up from lowbrow and outre pop culture.

KB-1 is a revenge film, following Uma’s character The Bride as she hunts down the assassins who ruined her wedding. And she kicks butt. And what else, you ask? Well, frankly, not much. This sounds strange coming from me, but KB-1 is entirely too focused. For the most part, it’s basically just 100 minutes of underdeveloped characters fighting in the name of a revenge scheme of which we learn very little and have little emotional investment. It has a straight-line, mathematical quality that finally gets mechanical and repetitive, and frankly, a bit boring.

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In a late scene, Uma kills or maims about 50 yakuza sidekicks, and then, just as she’s about to get to Mr. Big, a second wave of a hundred more show up. I was groaning — it was pure self-indulgence on QT’s part. The ass-kicking is often brilliantly done, no question, but it’s all just finally too much. We (or at least *I*) want more than that or at least some variance from 40 minutes of a sword-wielding Uma in a yellow cat suit slicing off limbs. And I *know* from his previous three films, and even several moments in this one that QT can give us better than an empty exercise in po-mo gawking.

What KB-1 lacks is what kicked Tarantino’s 90s output into the stratosphere — his goofily discursive comic sequences and humanizing touches. He also left behind most of his distinctive dialogue style — the postmodern-serious mix of big-talking losers, hyperviolence, pop culture banality and accidental wisdom. Take PULP FICTION — Jules and Vincent Vega were hit men, but they do stuff other than kick ass 24/7. They discuss the ethics of foot massages, go out on dates with the Boss’s wife, read (faux) biblical warnings to their victims, compare notes on European fast food. And Jules and Vincent have different fates according to how they react to the hand of God. In other words, though stylized and movie-ish, they were well-rounded creations and plunked in the middle of a universe with a lot of stuff going on.

Revenge movies or vengeance-seeking characters, focused and driven though they are, don’t have to be as one-dimensional as KB-1 or Uma’s Woman With No Name. Off the top of my head, I can think of IRREVERSIBLE and CITY OF GOD from just this year or, going farther back to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (particularly ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — which QT references, not to his credit) or even to KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Some of these movies are made in completely different styles than KB-1, but they give you a sense of how much *else* you can get into a movie driven by a character’s desire for revenge. It needn’t be this one-note.

October 12, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

   

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