Rightwing Film Geek

Virginia Film Festival — part 2

These are the other films that I saw last weekend at the Charlottesville fest:

bigbusiness.jpgBIG BUSINESS (James W. Horne/Laurel & Hardy, USA, 1929, 7)

It’s marvelous just how simple and elemental some of the great silent comedies are. This short has Stan and Ollie as salesmen trying to sell Christmas trees door-to-door. It starts out as Simple Stan vs. Know-It-All Ollie and their not quite being on the same page, particularly vis-a-vis what went wrong last time. But then things change when they try to sell to an aggressively uninterested James Finlayson … now it’s Stan-and-Ollie united against Finlayson in a destructive game of one-upmanship. BIG BUSINESS quickly becomes very funny for two reasons: 1) the totally civilized nature of the destruction for a very long time — each party waits his turn to destroy something of the other’s; and then 2) the thorough, obsessive nature of the destruction when it becomes simultaneous — it’s not enough for Finlayson to put a dent in the boys’ car, no … he has to rip it apart piece by piece until it’s just a hunk of scrap. And he does. While Stan & Ollie are destroying his home. One thing though — a commercial DVD projected onto a big, auditorium-size screen looks like crap.


SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton, USA, 1925, 9)

I saw this silent masterpiece, about Buster’s efforts to get married by 7 pm lest he lose a million-dollar inheritance, for the first time in a theater. But, like with FOOLISH WIVES, it had a musical accompaniment about which I wasn’t crazy going in. The “avant-cabaret band” Anne Watts and Boister played some very anachronistic music (e.g. a rearrangement of the main hook from Pink Floyd’s “Money” when the will is discussed) and did quite a bit of sound effects. But again, like with FOOLISH WIVES, I found myself increasingly not caring as the film progressed. If a silent film is great, and SEVEN CHANCES is, it absorbs and recodes the score rather than being absorbed and recoded by it. I stopped hearing the anachronisms and heard only the band’s jaunty, lilting beat, underlining the film. Which is wonderful as ever. Keaton’s creative visual sense (the framing of the opening sequence of shots; the automobile dissolves); the way he shades gags as the plot moves along, like a musician developing variations on a theme (we get nearly every variation possible on the ‘impossible proposal’ theme); there’s the great chase scene (one of the most images in silent-film history is the Great Stoneface avoiding the boulders), but just as good is … uh, a football field; plus, there’s Snitz Edwards, one of the great silent-film supporting characters. Simply one of the greats.

reconstruction.jpgRECONSTRUCTION (Irene Lusztig, USA/Romania, 2003, 5)

A terrific premise squandered by self-indulgence. The director’s grandmother was one of a gang of about a half-dozen who committed the only bank robbery in Communist Romanian history. After catching the robbers, the dictatorship made a 1961 police procedural film called RECONSTRUCTION that forced the robbers to re-enact their crime for the benefit of the film. After the film was over, all the men were executed and the grandmother’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Now, Lusztig has the 1961 film, which begins this current movie of the same title, and returns to present-day Romania to discover all about the crime and her grandmother — an unspeakable subject in her Jewish family while she was being raised in the West. It’s a terrific premise, full of historical, personal, political and cinematic-critical places to go, but Lusztig concentrates on the least interesting angle — the relationship between her, her mother and her grandmother and other family issues. It’s not that the resulting film is actively or aggressively bad (it’s sometimes affecting, particularly involving the resentments the mother had toward the grandmother); it’s just so personal and hermetic that it’s hard to see why anyone outside Lusztig’s family should care about it. That’s what’s self-indulgent about RECONSTRUCTION — it’s not arty or rambling or bombastic (though there is way too much lumpy metaphor early on in the voiceover — try “our family was like Japan, an island fallen in upon itself” or “I must start this story from somewhere. But that ‘somewhere’ would have a background too” as a bar pickup line sometime). It’s like somebody inviting you over to see his home movies from his Paris trip and it’s all pictures of himself and his friends, and imprints of the Sylvia Plath poems he wrote in his journal. With subject matter this good, that’s not good enough.


THE KILLING (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1956, 8 )

First time I saw this film, the earliest film Stanley Kubrick owned up to (his third overall), on a big screen. Compared to the kind of visual wonders that Kubrick made late in his career — 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or EYES WIDE SHUT — THE KILLING doesn’t really gains very much on a theater screen over TV and video. It’s a clever heist film, set at a racetrack and shot cheaply with lots of voiceover, and works mostly as an intellectual puzzle (note: hint of later tendencies). Kubrick juggles the time sequence around, and used the same shots of the start of the seventh race in about five different places and shows the same scene (e.g. the fight at the bar) shot from a different character’s POV to enhance the film’s fated, ritualistic, incantatory quality (note: hint of later tendencies) and to comment on perspective (note: hint of later tendencies). Contributing to the terrible overlay of fate, the omniscient narrator explains or shows at several points how things might have worked out a difference of one minute here or a few steps there (note: hint of later tendencies). But things of course don’t work out because of a fluke (note: hint of later tendencies). The finest moment in THE KILLING though is all its own — the shot of the loot from the heist being blown to the wind, to the noise, as the camera holds obsessively on the money stack until the last bill blows away. Every. Last. One.


HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1953, 6)

Pleasurable comedy once it gets started after an unforgivably long orchestral overture, with shots of the orchestra filling up every damn inch of the “V i s t a V i s i o N” screen. I’ll leave it to the feminists to actively complain about a film about three models (Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall) setting themselves up in a fancy Manhattan pad they can’t afford in order to nab a millionaire for marriage, and soon. (Though when you think about it, it does play like a comic version of the radical feminist argument that marriage is a form of prostitution.) But this flaming reactionary will admit that he found the premise of blatant Material Girl-ism and men as prey to be kinda dumb and discomforting, like a distaff MAN SHOW. And the filmmakers know it; the plot plays out as if already rebutting charges of being an apologia for gold-digging — the only one to marry a millionaire does so unintentionally. Don’t even think about what Lubitsch could have done with this cast and story — you’ll only drive yourself to tears. Still the film has Marilyn’s face, Bacall’s legs and Grable’s voice. And Grable, rather than Marilyn plays the dumb role. And you see Marilyn wearing glasses. And you see Bacall flaunt her calves. And you get the 1950s-movie version of the maxim about what men don’t do to girls who wear glasses (and no … that’s NOT it).

tycoon.jpgTYCOON: A NEW RUSSIAN (Pavel Lounguine, Russia, 2003, 8 )

Before I actually say anything about this movie proper, let me to rant about the title the English-language distributors have given it. The film’s title in Russian is “OLIGARKH” according to both the IMDb and my viewing notes (I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, though I know the language not at all). So why translate that title into English as “TYCOON,” since the cognate “Oligarch” is a perfectly good English word that would have fitted this movie just fine? Plainly … to give Western art-house audiences a socialist warm fuzzy (“this is what a ‘tycoon’ is … boooooo”), despite the events in this movie having nothing to do with capitalism as practiced in the West (though it’s clearly how Russians see the system they have that goes by the name “capitalism”). And that is precisely what makes OLIGARKH interesting as a film. It invites comparison to CITIZEN KANE in terms of its structure (an investigator tries to learn about a newly dead man through his friends, which become flashbacks in the movie), and that’s not a good comparison to invite … Newsflash: This movie is *not* as good as CITIZEN KANE. OLIGARKH, a roman a clef supposedly based on the life of Kremlin power broker Boris Berezovsky, covers a lot of ground in 130 minutes, which is both its strength and its weakness. Its strength in the sense that it takes up the insane ambition of telling The Russian Story, trying to be the film that sums up its era, and OLIGARKH would be an important and interesting film almost for that reason alone. But it has some very funny scenes, my favorite being Viktor taking an economics oral in the days of Scientific Socialism, and Lounguine also has a knack for the iconic image (the yachting party and the Navy veterans being reduced to being a backing band for these Bright Young Things). However, the vice of this virtue is that the film feels rushed at times, as though it wants to tell us *everything,* and some of the Kremlin machinations late in the film left me a little confused. Maybe that was the point too.

November 3, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Virginia Film Festival — part 1

These are some of the films I saw last weekend at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, with the theme this year of Money.


THE COOLER (Wayne Kramer, USA, 2003, 6)

Interesting for a while and often very enjoyable (Alec Baldwin gives his best performance since GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), but the premise ultimately leaves the film with nowhere to go. William H. Macy plays a “cooler,” a jinx hired by a casino to go to tables where someone is on a winning streak and “cool” his luck. But then his losing streak and thus his livelihood is threatened by a woman, his long-lost son and fate (the best scene is the funny montage of people winning and Macy’s puppylike distress, it’s like a not-quite-so-brilliant version of his being interrogated by Francis McDormand in FARGO). So as a result, the film thinks it can get away with any ending — if luck is so pervasive, how can one complain? Well, I can. The ending was arbitrary. Period. And there’s something just *wrong* with the notion, to which the film’s themes inevitably push you, of seeing the Rat Pack as “old money.”


FOOLISH WIVES (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1922, 9)

In his odd way, though Stroheim was widely considered at the time pornographic, vile and obsessed with the low, he really was a great Victorian. A conflicted one, sure, but he saw virtue and purity in the gutter like a Dickens did. He was intolerantly insistent on honor, even (especially) among thieves or the aristocrats fallen so low that they have to team up with them. But who are still aristocrats with honor. There’s also pomo jokes on textuality (in 1922?!?!), involving a book called “Foolish Wives,” written by Erich Von Stroheim, introduced into the action twice. I saw this “Europeans swindle innocent Americans abroad” story, with the musical accompaniment including a live vocalist and words, in addition to live sound effects (one of them being someone getting paged and having their named yelled out loud). I’d only seen a silent film with a word-inclusive score twice before, with the Vision of Light PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and the Giorgio Moroder METROPOLIS. I theoretically resist the notion, but frankly a great silent film really can’t be damaged by a score done in good faith, especially when the words are used as sparingly as here.

SCARFACE (Brian De Palma, USA, 1983, 8)


Finally saw this modern classic all the way through, and it’s a bit obvious in wearing its cinematic antecedents on its sleeves (De Palma, really?). Michelle Pfeiffer was wasted (in several senses), but Al Pacino gives one of the great operatic ham performances in recent film — “Say hello to my lee-tul friend” and all that. Though the plot as a whole, in typical De Palma fashion, is a bit obviously stitched together and episodic in a predictable way, SCARFACE overflows with great set pieces, again in typical De Palma fashion — the first meeting with the Miami crime boss, the low-key first meeting with the mother and sister, the nightclub assassination attempt on Pacino and all the buildup, the assassination bid on the Bolivian activist, sitting in the jacuzzi, immigration interrogation, and … well, practically everything in the movie.

THE ITALIAN JOB (Peter Collinson, Britain, 1969, 7)
THE ITALIAN JOB (F. Gary Gray, USA, 2003, 7)

Which film you prefer will depend entirely on what you’re looking for. If you want a suspenseful heist movie, the American film is far superior. There are two very well set-up and walked-through heist sequences at the beginning and end. Marky Mark’s inability to act for anyone but PT Anderson doesn’t destroy the film and his heist team mates are all give flavorful performances (Ed Norton and Charlize Theron in particular). But if you want a comic shaggy-dog time-capsule movie, go for the British film. I have no idea how the original could play to Americans or anyone else who didn’t live in Britain in the late 60s and early 70s (personally: born in Glasgow, 1966), but I just having a high old time listening to football supporters songs, reliving the “up your arse, ya weedy Continentals” attitude, and seeing Michael Caine and Noel Coward basically play themselves (and Benny Hill the same; though there wasn’t enough of him).


Interesting enough as a historical intro to the topic (I’d never read Nat Turner’s Confessions), but quickly turns into leaden pomo nonsense. If you think it’s some mighty insight on textuality and the “universe” that people who disagree with each other disagree about a text that bears on the matters about they disagree, you will lap this up. Otherwise, another good reason not to watch PBS.
WHEN IT RAINS (Charles Burnett, USA, 1995, 4)
As a 20-minute short with a plot (“community leader” tries to help eviction-threatened woman raise the money for her rent by asking for it on the streets) it’s less ambitious than Burnett’s feature-length film, with which it played. It’s an enjoyable 20 minutes on Community when it isn’t being an obvious, schematic 20 minues on Money.


SOLDIER’S GIRL (Frank Pierson, USA, 2003, 3)

Scheduled to run on Showtime as a docudrama about the murder of a homosexual soldier, this film, which should have been titled SOLDIER BOYS DON’T CRY, was shown to the festival because Pierson was presenting DOG DAY AFTERNOON (on which he was the scriptwriter). You see the similarities here to one of the threads in AFTERNOON — the secret crossdressing gay lover. Not exactly terrible — as usual in this kind of film, the actors are quite good when not delivering Significant Speeches, which is unfortunately all Andre Braugher gets to do. It’s just entirely what you’d expect — a transparent bid for An Issue Emmy. Pvt. Barry Winchell is despised upon his arrival at his unit, for no discernible reason, and the drill sergeant is mean to him until I thought I was watching St. Sebastian in cammies. His death at the hands of a fellow soldier whom he’d bested in a fight was intercut with his boyfriend’s Annie Lennox song at a transvestite beauty pageant (maybe the two events did occur simultaneously; but it *feels* like Scriptwriter Coincidence.) One funny moment in the Q-and-A: Pierson was describing the first sex scene between the two men and said he told Troy Garity (playing Winchell) that “you’ve forgotten this person is not a woman; you’ve fallen in love with the person, and then with the body.” Take it away, David.

October 30, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment