Saturday, October 01, 2016


Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers, is calling it a career this weekend after 67 years in the booth. If you will indulge me, I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite moments from Scully behind the microphone, and about one night at Dodger Stadium that will make me miss him even more.

But first, a little background. I was never a big baseball guy growing up, even though I played a couple of seasons on a local Little League team. (Our squad was called the Firemen.) During those days, when I wasn’t playing the game, either in Little League or somewhere on my grandma’s farm with my cousins, the presence of a baseball broadcast usually meant that something I’d rather have been watching on TV was unavailable to see because someone else wanted to watch the damn game. (I tried to sit down, watch and spark an interest in it several times, but it never really worked.) That disinterest lasted for a couple of decades, until I moved to Los Angeles during the spring of 1987. A friend of mine made sure that, as part of my cultural acclimation to Southern California, I attended the occasional game, though for me it was still more about the experience of getting to know the vast, magnificent enclosure of Dodger Stadium than what was actually going on down on the field—the notion of stats and standings and averages and the like continued to baffle me.

Then one night I drove myself out to the Winnetka Drive-in, deep in the San Fernando Valley, for a double feature of Whoopi Goldberg in Fatal Beauty and (!!) Robert Altman’s OC and Stiggs, which I’d seen the previous week during its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical “engagement.” No Whoopi Goldberg fan, I was there for the Altman movie and quickly tired of the grim spectacle of the main feature, so I shut down the movie sound and turned to 790 KABC, thinking that, underneath the light rain that had begun to drizzle over Chatsworth, listening to the Dodger game might be an atmospheric diversion. It certainly couldn’t be any less boring than what I’d paid to see at the drive-in.

I heard Vin Scully call the game that night, with occasional insight and input from another Dodger mainstay, Ross Porter, and all thoughts of any and every drab Whoopi Goldberg movie I’d ever seen, past and present, drifted away happily. If I could ever possibly pinpoint precisely when the seeds of my Dodger fandom were planted, it would most likely be that night, pulled into and seated securely in the theater of the mind conjured by Scully’s voice, and by his words which were thoughtful, expressive and would occasionally approach a sportscaster’s poetry. My interest in and understanding of baseball grew stronger over the next few years, and by the time of the strike-shortened season of 1994 I had a coworker, who would become one of my best friends, whose knowledge of the game would inspire my own fascination and teach me immeasurably about how to really see and appreciate and understand it. But Vin Scully was always there to help guide me along and keep my enthusiasm high, even when the team wasn’t able to live up to expectations.

If you listen to Dodger radio broadcasts today, you’ll hear Scully only through the first three innings, after which he is replaced by the team of ex-Yankee broadcaster Charlie Steiner and ex-Dodger/Cub center fielder Rick Monday. But in the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century it was still possible, as it had been ever since Scully and the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles in 1962, to bring a radio to the stadium and hear, without a noticeable delay, the game as it unfolded, with Scully on the entire call. One night, after attending games in person became more of a habit for me, I was in the stands listening to Scully call a game between the Dodgers and their division rival, the Arizona Diamondbacks series, and there was a moment during that game which capsulized the particular quality of joy and insight that has made hearing Scully on the job such a privilege for Dodger fans over the years.

As he does always, this night the Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer had many thoughts and stories at the ready about all the players from both the home and opposing dugouts, and at one point Scully latched onto the compelling story of that night’s opposing pitcher, Livan Hernandez, and how Hernandez had dramatically defected to the U.S. from Cuba. “This’d make a great movie,” Scully exclaimed, and down the rabbit hole he went. He explained how the pitcher, whose desire to leave his homeland was apparently widely known, was throwing in a game in Monterey, Mexico, when he was approached by an apple-cheeked young lady with an autograph book. She extended the book and Hernandez opened it, ready to sign. What he discovered inside, instead of a blank page, was an open-faced note which said somewhat ominously, “El gordo quiere verte (The fat man wants to meet you).” (In the story, El Gordo turned out to be the man who facilitated Hernandez’s escape from Cuba via life raft. Cue dramatic stinger.)

You could almost hear the stars stirring in Scully’s eyes as he began to let the story expand in his head and in our imaginations, all the while never missing a beat as the game kept interrupting the flow of his reverie. But he kept on the mike with both threads and began to speculate as to who could be cast in the great movie he speculated could be made from Hernandez’ dramatic story. His first and only suggestion for the role of the large, none-too-sculpted pitcher—the far-too-old and far-too-dashing dashing Antonio Banderas—betrayed a surprising lack of imagination. I, of course, took Scully’s bait and played along, coming up with a better idea, Luis Guzman, who would have been more interesting but, at only 5’ 7”, hardly any more physically convincing than Banderas.

But when Scully began to think of who would make a great El Gordo, the great announcer took listeners of a certain age on a real trip down memory lane, and left 99.9% of the rest of the radio faithful likely scratching their heads. “The first fella I think of is, of course, Sydney Greenstreet,” clearly assuming the young punk sports fans in the audience would be culturally literate enough to know Casablanca or The Big Sleep without mentioning them by name. “But if you really wanna go back--“ And my ears perked up, anticipating something great— “You have to think of one of the great character actors of all time, who was always filling out the card when it came to rotund, scurvy villainy… Akim Tamiroff!”

Never mind that Tamiroff was actually 20 years younger than Greenstreet. As one of my baseball-loving, movie-literate friends who also heard the broadcast noted, “We know what Vinnie was going for—big and swarthy,” before he himself offered up Alfonso Bedoya or Pedro Armendariz-- 13 years younger than Tamiroff even-- as more ethnically appropo suggestions. What, no William Conrad? But ultimately, no matter: Vin Scully had made a reference to Akim Tamiroff during a Dodgers game. Nobody else then, and certainly nobody else now, would ever dare such a move, and do it with such delight and panache.

Then Casting Director Vinnie, likely jostled out of his Cinema Paradiso daydream by one of two spectacular defensive plays, chuckled with satisfaction and went back to his day/night job, undoubtedly adrift throughout the game on further unspoken memories of Turhan Bey
 or Lionel Atwill or J. Carroll Naish, and leaving it for the Great Unwashed to go to their Internets, Google away and get their Tamiroff on. As if we needed one, it was just another reason why Vin Scully has always been the absolute best at what he does— within that expansive encyclopedia of experience and understanding that is his baseball mind, he’s never more than a pitch away from another expansive story about Adrian Gonzalez or Clayton Kershaw… or maybe, if we were lucky, Peter Lorre.


During the summer of 1997 I won a raffle sponsored by one of my coworkers which snagged me season tickets for left field loge level seats at Dodger Stadium—a beautiful view and a good location for the occasional foul ball. What a gift for a fledgling baseball fan. On top of that, my wife Patty and I were expecting our first child that August, so there was plenty of excitement to spread around—and good thing too, because even if we weren’t pregnant there would be no way the two of us could ever use four seats over 82 games just for ourselves. Naturally, we became very popular in our circle and many of our friends and coworkers managed to benefit from our good fortune— suddenly there were a lot of Dodger fans around our office that summer.

But the good fortune didn’t extend all the way through the summer. Patty and I lost our son, Charlie, who was stillborn to us a week before his scheduled caesarean delivery. A lot of dreams were shattered that summer, including the one I’d allowed to expand in my imagination about what it would be like to play baseball with my own son and, of course, to take him to the game. All the shards of that dream still haven’t been picked up yet, and not for lack of trying, but we learned the hard way that healing, if there was ever truly to be any, would have to take its own time. (Almost 20 years later, I’ve decided that the idea of healing is a myth, and maybe even a dishonor to my boy—I don’t want to forget him, to get over what my hopes for him were, because that pain is all I really have.)

After about two years of thinking it would never happen, Patty became pregnant again and we cautiously eased our way through nine months until we finally welcomed, with a great sigh of relief, our daughter Emma, who was born in March 2000.  I’ll probably have to be retroactively forgiven by Emma at some later date for projecting my waylaid dreams onto her and buying all sorts of baby-sized Dodger gear for her to wear—when she was two years old a friend of mine even gave her a nifty little Dodger cheerleader outfit which she wore to several games. But I could not help it—I wanted going out to the stadium to be a part of her young life, and maybe, if I was really lucky, she’d learn to love the experience of the game the way I had. (She never really did, but that’s not what matters.)

On September 27 of that year, when Emma was six months old, I managed somehow to talk Patty into letting me take Emma to a ball game by myself. I dressed her up in a nifty little red, white and blue shirt-and-short-pants outfit with a Dodgers baseball logo on the front, packed up a bag with all the survival essentials-- diapers, change of clothes, snacks, a juice cup, Handi-Wipes and God knows what else—and prepared to head out to Chavez Ravine. Since I was by myself in the eyes of the box office I decided to splurge a little and grab a field-level seat for a slightly closer view than the one I usually had. (The seat I picked was in left field as well, more or less directly below where we sat during the summer of 1997.) I also knew that the field level was where fans usually ran into the roving Dodger camera crews tasked with supplying all the live footage for the Jumbotron looming above the left field pavilion, so I left the house in the hopes that my little beauty, all decked out in her Dodger finery, might be just the creature to attract their attention.

As I was getting ready to head out the door, another thought occurred to me—being in proximity to the closed-circuit camera crews, if we did manage to get her on the big screen we might also end up attracting the attention of the Fox broadcast cameras. And wouldn’t that be keen to be holding one of the babies that would so often catch the eye of Vin Scully himself and cause him to go into one of his mid-game non-baseball-related reveries! So, on the off chance that such a thing might happen, I tossed a VHS tape into the trusty VCR and set it to record the game against the hated San Francisco Giants in its entirety. At the very least, I might catch a nifty play on the field that would be worth taking another look at, right?

I left early enough before first pitch to have time to stop by for a quick visit with my in-laws, who were excited to see the baby and horrified that I was taking her out to a baseball game all alone. Of course I was not allowed to leave their house without first promising that I would check in with them after I left—I’m sure they were imagining all sorts of awful things happening as a result of my insanity, like me leaving her unattended on the diaper changing table of the men’s room so I could run and catch a big play, or worse, Emma taking a foul ball off of her newly-minted skull. I assured them I would call on my way home so they could dial down the worry to its usual low-level thrum.

We made it to the ball park, settled into our seats and immediately attracted the attention of several folks seated nearby, all of whom were apparently fascinated by the novelty of a dad taking his newborn baby out in public without the protective backup of Mom. But ever since I’d managed to clear the hurdle of changing that first fecally compromised nappy six months earlier I’d never felt uncomfortable being left totally in charge of Emma’s well-being, so to me it was just another night out, albeit with a really special date. We hung out and enjoyed the sights, played together in the cool evening air and got caught up in the company of our new friends and, occasionally, the game itself.

Around the second inning, I spotted the camera crew heading up the aisle a couple of sections over. I took Emma up the steps, managed to choreograph a bump into them as they made their way onto the concourse behind the stands and asked if they’d be interested in sharing the sight of this little Dodger with the rest of the stadium. The lead cameraman got a good look at her and agreed that she’d make a great Jumbotron subject. So I showed them where we were seated, they told us to watch for them in between the top and bottom of the third inning, and we returned to the game, me pretty pleased with myself that I had managed to pull off the appointment, but still doubtful that they would actually show up.

I needn’t have worried. The break in the third inning arrived and here was the camera crew, right on schedule. They zeroed in on the Dodgers logo on the breast of Emma’s little shirt and slowly zoomed out so that her face, which was set right into the gaze of the camera, filled the entirety of the giant stadium video screen. It was such a thrill to hear everyone in our section, and maybe elsewhere in the stands, burst into cheers and applause as Emma’s cheeky mug seemed, for a few seconds anyway, to be the electronic queen of all she surveyed. And it was, for a dad who never got to fulfill the dream of bringing his son to a baseball game, pretty much the definition of a dream come true.

We stayed for a little while longer, but not long after her big-pixeled coming-out presentation Emma fell asleep in my arms. So I decided after a couple more innings that it was time to take her home and get her ready for one last meal before a night’s sleep that would hopefully be quieter than the one she was getting in the company of 46,000 baseball fans. I bid good evening to those folks sitting around and headed back to my car, and I once I got there I thought it would be a good idea to call my mother-in-law and assure her that all was well. I was also still buzzing about Emma’s Jumbotron appearance and looked forward to beginning the bragging process right away.

My mother-in-law was indeed relieved to hear we were still alive and that I still had possession of her precious granddaughter. I then told her the whole story of how I managed to get Emma on the stadium big-screen. Her response, however, was a bit puzzling: “I know! We saw you!”

How is that possible, I thought? Did Fox swing their TV cameras up, take a picture of Emma Big and Tall and put it in the broadcast? If so, I thought, hey, I’ve got the VCR recording at home! I’ll have it on tape! Yippee! But before I could ask her about it, she said, “We saw you. But that guy stood up in front of you and kind of blocked the view.” What the hell is she talking about, I thought? And then I realized that she wasn’t talking about the Jumbotron shot. “Vin Scully was talking about you!” she said, and I could barely register what it was she was saying. But if I was interpreting her correctly, the Jumbotron shot must have caught the attention of the director of the TV broadcast, who then, sometime after Emma had fallen asleep, instructed his guy to get a shot of us so that Vin Scully could talk about us in between pitches. As Slim Pickens once so eloquently put it, holy mother of pearl!

I tried not to race home, and believe me, never has safe driving been such an arduous responsibility. When I got home I calmly described the Jumbotron scene to Patty as we got Emma ready for a late dinner and bed, which, because of all the activity that night, was a relatively easy task. Only after she was asleep did I detail to Patty the rest of what her mother had clued me in about. By then the game had ended, so we rewound the tape to the beginning and began the fast-forward scan…

We spun all the way to the top of the 7th. The Dodgers were losing to the Giants 4-0, with reliever Matt Herges on the mound for the good guys, when we saw it. So we backed up the tape, turned up the sound and listened as Scully interrupted his description of the game:

“Herges gets an out, and now (the batter Marvin) Benard. Dodgers have had one look at the— Oh, wow. Good night, lady. Sweet dreams. On Dad’s shoulder—best pillow in the world.”

The picture Scully was looking at was of Emma crashed out, me holding her in my left arm while reaching for something with my right and talking to someone a few seats away. The visual was interrupted by a guy a couple rows in front of me who chose that inopportune moment to stand up and block the shot. But no matter. It was a clear look to begin with, one certainly good enough to inspire a classic Vin Scully moment of poetry that I will cherish until I can breathe no more. And I got it on tape, so I won’t ever be able to begin to believe that I imagined the whole thing.

Vin Scully is coming to the end of a 67-year-career of vivid play-calling, as well as games full of little side-trip flights of fancy and moments of wonder, like that Livan Hernandez fantasy casting session, and especially like the one he gifted Emma and I with 16 years ago this past Tuesday. I will miss everything he did to enhance the game and impassion his audience during that incredible, historic run. But of all the great calls for which he is justly revered, I think “On Dad’s shoulder-- best pillow in the world” will always be my favorite.

To refashion one of those revered calls to my own purpose, thank you, Vin, from the bottom of my heart, for 67 years, of course, but for also making one improbable dream come true on top of another that I once thought might suddenly be impossible.


Friday, September 23, 2016


When Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain bowed in American theaters during the summer of 1992, it was anticipated by fans of the director as a welcome return to the sort of formalist genre contraption he hadn’t indulged in since the creative blow-out (forgive me) of Body Double eight years earlier. However, when the lights came up, even within the ranks of the De Palma faithful there was polarization. A handful defended it as one of the director’s masterpieces, while a greater number seemed to consider it at best middle-tier De Palma, a fully committed attempt to deal with typical De Palma-esque narrative elasticity and thematic concerns such as time, chronology and dream logic, all in the context of an examination of the morphing perimeters of American masculinity and parental responsibility which somehow, in the end, seemed as out of balance as its psychically fractured protagonist. Meanwhile, the general public largely shrugged and Raising Cain was left behind as a flawed but fascinating artifact, another redheaded stepchild within a directorial career in which the misfits seemed to be beginning to outnumber the prodigies.

Slow, insinuating lap-dissolve to 2012. Enter Peet Gelderblom, a film and television director based in the Netherlands who has, since his earliest experiences with the De Palma remained unrepentant in his admiration for the filmmaker. Here I’ll disclose that Gelderblom, who founded and administered the well-respected (and now shuttered) film site 24 Lies a Second, was the very first person I “met” online, after he wrote to express support for my writing and my fledgling movie blog. Gelderblom offered me a chance to write something for 24 Lies a Second, an experience which deepened my confidence and our friendship, and we spent a lot of time in those early days of the blogosphere enthusing and debating our love for Brian De Palma’s films. (We once had a memorable exchange over the merits of Body Double, Gelderblom for the defense and me serving as the prosecution.) Some 20 years after the release of Raising Cain, Gelderblom, who had always thought the film vastly underrated, found his interest in it piqued once again.

De Palma had mentioned in the press on several occasions over the years his disappointment not only with the audience’s tepid reception of Raising Cain, but also over his experience with the film itself, more precisely his own decision to juggle the original chronology of the story, a bet-hedging move based not in his instincts but entirely on the preview audience testing scores. In the theatrical version of Raising Cain De Palma shows his cards almost immediately, beginning the film with a kidnapping sequence that reveals the twisted nature of his lead character, child psychologist Carter Nix (John Lithgow), right out of the gate, consequently assigning the film’s chronicle of Carter’s wife’s Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) and her extramarital romantic entanglement to subplot status. But an original draft of De Palma’s screenplay demonstrated to Gelderblom that the director had originally intended, before being infected by the influence of those audience test screenings, to begin Cain with Jenny’s story, creating an illusory gossamer of trust and stability on which to project Jenny’s ongoing deception, a scrim which would mask the frightening familial schism yet to be exposed by the revelation of Carter’s dual nature.

So, following his own inquisitive directorial impulses as well as his curiosity as a true believer in De Palma and Cain, Gelderblom uploaded the theatrical cut of the movie from a DVD and, using the digital tools at his disposal, began to rearrange the pieces of De Palma’s elaborately designed but structurally compromised puzzle according to the master’s original plan. The result was made available online for casual cinephiles as well as fellow true believers who would, thanks to Gelderblom’s efforts, now have a chance to see and judge Raising Cain not by the weak tea of the theatrical cut, but instead by a version which would, as intended by its writer-director, seduce the viewer with a sly deconstruction of romantic desire, hint at underlying marital/familial tension, and then lower the boom. The film’s subliminal preparation preserves the impact of the somewhat unexpected explosion of Carter’s violent behavior (if you pay any attention to the film’s advertising, you’ll know going in that Carter’s placid and caring fatherly exterior is not the whole story), but also makes that explosion less inexplicable, more connected to what is going on with the Jenny story—it’s the piece of the puzzle which has finally found its place.

Even De Palma himself noticed, proclaiming that Gelderblom’s cut was “what we didn’t accomplish on the initial release on the film. It’s what I originally wanted the film to be.” That’s a pretty heady reception for what is essentially a fan edit, albeit one much more seriously intended than what one usually associates with such a label. So much so that De Palma insisted Gelderblom’s labor of love and passion, now dubbed Raising Cain Recut, be included on Shout!/Scream Factory’s splashy deluxe Blu-ray release of Raising Cain, which was released last week.

Were the theatrical cut the only element on the Blu-ray, it would still be something for only De Palma’s most ardent fans to get excited over. But with the inclusion of Gelderblom’s recut, the Blu-ray has been elevated to the level of an event that anyone interested in cinema ought to find compelling and fascinating enough to want in on, a rare opportunity to see an alternate cut that speaks to the filmmaker’s actual vision, a cut which isn’t simply an opportunistic marketing tool comprised mostly of gore shots extended by a second or two or filler scenes whose cutting-room-floor destiny is revealed to have been entirely appropriate. (Gelderblom necessarily had no access to deleted scenes and could only work with material in the existing cut.) By reordering Raising Cain in such a way, Gelderblom has not only provided evidence for the elevating of the film within the De Palma filmography, but has also shown how De Palma’s original vision more organically connects the film with other works from the director’s past and, speaking from the perspective of 1992, his future.

The placement of Jenny’s romance-novel story front and center, with its long buildup and apparent lack of concern for anything remotely sinister, immediately recalls the surety with which De Palma teased out the first 45 minutes of his masterpiece Dressed to Kill. (Would that Cain had a moment in store nearly as shocking as the fate of poor Angie Dickinson.) Cain refers back to Dressed to Kill thematically, echoing familiar De Palma concerns and, maybe even more importantly, how we as an audience perceive and process those concerns. In any given moment, Cain, like many a De Palma failure and masterpiece before it, seems to challenge its audience on simultaneously levels of operatic excess, parody, social commentary and self-conscious stylistic analysis.

But it also refers back specifically to Dressed to Kill in more apparently superficial ways, which may stand out a touch more now that the two films seem more structurally akin.  Midway through Cain we’re introduced to Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Waldheim, a psychologist with ties to Cain’s sinister father whose function is largely as the director’s delivery system for his usual boatload of unwieldy exposition. But De Palma signals a wit designed to distract from the character’s obvious purpose. Waldheim is revealed to be a slightly cranky cancer patient in a long, unnatural looking wig which she tugs at and complains about almost immediately: “It makes me look like a transvestite.” (Calling Michael Caine!)

And she delivers that exposition during a beautifully sustained traveling shot during which she constantly has to be prompted by police detectives to stay on the prescribed path, lest she proceed along in one direction while the camera continues to travel another. It’s one of De Palma’s best visual jokes, and it’s enlivened by the new cut’s priming us to connect back to Dressed to Kill, a film whose own parody of Psycho’s conclusion-- Nancy Allen’s meticulously detailed woman-splaining of the intricacies of replacing a penis with a vagina during a transgender medical procedure while a horrified woman eavesdrops from the next table-- was also pretty hilarious.

The entirety of Cain’s nature as having been constructed as a puzzle of slippery perceptions, self-projected identity crises, shifting directorial perspectives and the lies or half-truths those perspectives conceal or reveal, directly connects it to the gleefully contrived, deliberately deceptive raison d’etre of Femme Fatale (2002), perhaps the last De Palma to receive anything resembling critical acclaim. Cain’s constant doubling back on itself, especially as recontextualized by Gelderblom’s cut, is a modus operandi most definitely in harmony with Femme Fatale’s sophisticated visual gamesmanship. (Detractors might also suggest that Cain and Fatale also share a lack of the sort of emotional power which characterizes De Palma’s deepest work.) Even the conclusions of the two films seem similarly composed, twin geographical mappings of the manipulation of vehicles and bodies through man-made and natural obstacles (the blinding sun on city streets in Fatale, thunder and pouring rain in a motel parking lot in Cain) that end on supernaturally distended encounters with heavily foreshadowed and very sharp objects of impalement. And in his own appreciation of Gelderblom’s repositioning of Cain, critic Sean Axmaker describes the conclusion of Cain’s climactic sequence as coming close to an absurdly amplified castration joke, and as such it certainly works as further foreshadowing of the movie’s final gender-flipping zinger.

Of my own objections to Raising Cain, the only serious one that Peet Gelderblom’s otherwise astounding Recut cannot fully address is my occasional aversion to the overt theatricality of John Lithgow’s performance, as Carter Nix, but also as his brother Cain (the part of Carter that does all the dirty work) and especially dear old dad, Dr. Nix—Lithgow in old age makeup that, especially on Blu-ray, reveals just how good Dick Smith’s job on Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist really was. Lithgow is an actor who often seems constitutionally incapable of dialing anything down, and I’m sure he gave De Palma precisely the level of baroque that was asked for, perhaps even a bit more. However, much like Jack Nicholson’s embodiment of Jack Torrance, Lithgow already seems crazy at the outset, when we’re supposed to be relaxing into the honeyed voice and manner of reason and “normalcy” he supplies for Carter in caring-daddy mode. He signals the revelation of Carter’s awful secret just as much as De Palma’s flawed ordering of scenes in the theatrical cut did.

However much we may want to back away from Lithgow in the early running, De Palma’s deep focus and fish-eye lenses shove us ever closer as Carter morphs into Cain, who is admittedly at least more fun to watch. And subtracting that makeup job, Lithgow has the look to make Dr. Nix a terrorizing and intimidating presence. But his thickly applied Norwegian accent as the sinister paterfamilias, several degrees too ripe, put me in mind of Lithgow’s insanely over-the-top Dr. Emilio Lizardo from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. I know Lizardo was supposed to be funny, but I was never sure about Dr. Nix or, if he was, what the joke was.

Lithgow as the Nix boys doesn’t fully undermine De Palma’s vision though—at times you can almost feel De Palma getting off on how far his actor is willing to go, perhaps even being inspired by him, and Lithgow is certainly a vivid contrast to the lovely but slightly bland Lolita Davidovich, who has almost as much screen time as her leading man does. Lithgow’s Carter makes you uncomfortable for the wrong reasons, and even if the actor’s performance reflects Cain’s overly emphatic efforts to maintain the illusion of fatherly concern and normalcy and does start to make sense within the fulfilled schematics of Raising Cain Recut, I couldn’t help but speculate on what a slightly less eager, perhaps more carefully modulated Carter might have been like-- say, if the histrionic elements had been cross-pollinated with the quiet, focused purposefulness of Lithgow’s shadowy assassin in Blow Out so as to stand as a more stark contrast against the mental circus eventually overseen by Cain and company.
Perhaps it’s easy to overstate the unique import of what Gelderblom adds to the legacy of Raising Cain, but I think the most telling observation might be how swiftly the recut version seems to have eclipsed the original in my mind. In preparing to write about the Blu-ray, I had originally intended to watch the two versions of De Palma’s 1992 film back to back. But after finding Raising Cain Recut to be so much more satisfying and well-sustained, I realized that my interest in that compromised theatrical cut was fast dwindling and that further visits to the world of Carter Nix and his demented approach to child psychology would have to come courtesy of this richer, more dramatically complex version.

I don’t suspect that Gelderblom’s efforts will convert anyone who has a serious aversion to Cain’s gleeful mixture of narrative absurdity, flaunting of dramatic convention, fascination for the blurring of the line between conscious and dream states, and unflappable indulgence of its creator’s conspicuous directorial perspective. (Gelderblom, in his video essay on the recut, also included in this wonderful Blu-ray package, correctly describes De Palma as “the polar opposite of an invisible narrator.”) But for those compelled by De Palma’s methods and curious about the relative ease with which a filmmaker’s intentions can be undone or watered down the inclusion of Peet Gelderblom’s Raising Cain Recut will elevate this new Blu-ray package to a standing among the best and most important releases of the year and will certainly provide ample grist for further fascination, focused both on De Palma as a singular cinematic visionary and the passion among his audience that vision can inspire.

And if it proves nothing else, the recut throws into relief just how ahead of its time Raising Cain, even in its jumbled form, really was, seen 20 years on, in the wake of time-shifting classics like Memento and Pulp Fiction. How fortunate then that this controversial director’s vision can now be reintroduced to a new generation and perhaps more thoroughly appreciated on its own terms, all thanks to Peet Gelderblom, who has taken De Palma’s misfit child and, like a good father, ushered it to full maturity, split personality and all.  


Press play to watch Peet Gelderblom's featurette Changing Cain, which is also available as part of Shout!/Scream Factory's new Blu-ray release of Raising Cain.

Monday, September 12, 2016


A couple of weeks ago the BBC, that well-respected bastion of film culture, revealed its list of the 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century, as determined from the submissions of 177 film critics around the globe. Even more apparently random than the BBC of all entities commissioning such a poll is its timing—such grandiose subjectivity is usually reserved for the big anniversaries, like after 25, or 50, or maybe even after a hundred actual years have passed in a new century. But here we are, 16 years into this new one, and forces are already trying to marshal some sort of groundswell consensus of movie greatness.

Well, it all seems a bit early on, if you ask me. But on the other hand, the BBC didn’t ask me, did they? Frankly, I would have been damned surprised if they had, so much so that I probably would have registered my objections/confusion, however briefly, over the whole enterprise before excitedly going about filling out my ballot. And those that were asked were held to a list of 10 movies from which the ultimate list of 100 would be assembled. How restrictive! The BBC’s top 10 alone features two movies (The Tree of Life and There Will be Blood) that wouldn’t even place in my top 100, and the rest of their top 10 features three that certainly would.

And since I like a silly list as much as the next critic who likes to complain about lists and pretend that she/he doesn’t enjoy making them, I decided to make my own variation on the BBC list. I couldn’t bring myself to label it “greatest” or “best” or anything like that—these are the movies released since 2000 that have meant the most to me and my movie-going experience in those 16 years, so the "mostest," I guess. Nor did I feel compelled to stick to just 10. Like the BBC, I can be random too—if suddenly 2016 is the time we start bloviating about the greatest films of the century, then I can make a list as long as I want. I pick, um…. 39! For extra credit, you can even compare my list with the BBC’s and see for yourself just how out of touch I am with critical consensus! Think of the fun you’ll have declaring what a low-brow jackass I am!

Here then is a list of the 39 movies that have meant the most to me since the advent of the 21st century, in alphabetical order (linked quotes are from pieces I wrote here at SLIFR):

Antichrist (2009; Lars von Trier)

"And now once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart." - Mary Shelley

"Grief changes shape, but it never ends." - Keanu Reeves

"Chaos reigns!" -- The Fox

Birth (2004; Jonathan Glazer)

Boyhood (2014; Richard Linklater)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; Joe Johnston)

My favorite Marvel movie, directed by the woefully underappreciated Joe Johnston, who brings wit and feeling to the least of the sort of special effects spectacles he usually directs. Maybe it's simply because of the period setting that this one stands out from all the rest of the Marvel pictures-- it's not beholden to the restrictive mold in which the others are cast. But I think it has more to do with the players-- Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, all great-- and Johnston's sensitivity to them as human beings, not just pawns on the MCU chessboard, that sends this one to the top. (See also Johnston's marvelous epic Hidalgo.)

Chi-raq (2015; Spike Lee)

“We retain his verse to show love for the universe.” - Dolomedes (Samuel L. Jackson)

"Of the strike, Gbowee says, ‘The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.’ On and off for a few months? If you can’t find the humor in this line—in this brilliant, powerful women acknowledging that she and the other women who attempted a sex strike, sometimes caved in to their baser desires (because, in the end, it wasn’t the sex strike that was going to help them succeed anyway, and because they also probably just wanted to have sex), there’s a good chance that the humor of Chi-raq was lost on you. Or perhaps, you just didn’t like the damn movie." 

Shannon Houston, Paste magazine, on Chi-raq 

CSA: Confederate States of America (2005; Kevin Wilmott)

"She chose to disguise President Lincoln in blackface and travel with him along one of the many secret slave routes. When Lincoln scoffed at the plan, Tubman, never one to mince words, reminded him of the huge bounty on his head. She said simply, 'We're both niggers now, Mr. President.'"

-- Talking head interviewed in CSA: The Confederate States of America 

Death Proof (2007; Quentin Tarantino)

Femme Fatale (2002; Brian De Palma)

"The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." - Albert Einstein

"That's what noir feels like to me. It feels like some kind of recurring dream, with very strong archetypes operating. You know, the guilty girl being pursued, falling, all kinds of stuff that we see in our dreams all the time." - Brian De Palma

Gerry (2003; Gus Van Sant)

Lost in America...

I don't think American independent films have ever really been particularly experimental, except for the original guys from the '60s who were huge influences, like Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, and Stan van der Beek. They were the true independents. But the American independent cinema as it has grown up at Sundance... A lot of films play to college audiences and are a lot of fun, like Clerks or Pulp Fiction. Sometimes, when an audience looking for Pulp Fiction comes to see Gerry, I'm not sure it works out so well." - Gus van Sant

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem (2015; Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomo Elkabetz)

You shouldn't be able to look away from that face... and the Elkabetz's harrowing courtroom drama plays like a procedural in which there can be no looking away. It might well be subtitled Scenes from the Death of A Marriage.

"It's easy to blame the one who yells. The one who whispers venom is innocent." - Vivian Amsalem

Gosford Park (2001; Robert Altman)

In the midst of his third act of rejuvenation, the director and screenwriter Julian Fellowes evoke ensemble glories of the past and nod presciently toward future cultural phenomenon Downton Abbey. Altman seems more like Altman here than he ever did in overpraised "comebacks" like The Player or Short Cuts, more free from the pressure of "being Altman." I think Gosford Park is the most purely entertaining picture of the director's late period-- it's an old man's movie that betrays no graying of spirit or energy.  

Grizzly Man (2005; Werner Herzog)

"What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior." - Werner Herzog

Holy Motors (2012; Leos Carax)

Idiocracy (2006; Mike Judge)

In the Mood for Love (2001; Wong Kar-wai)

“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” - Wong Kar-wai

"You notice things if you pay attention." - Su Li-zhen Chan (Maggie Cheung)

Inglourious Basterds (2009; Quentin Tarantino)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013; Joel and Ethan Coen)

Jackass: The Movie (2002; Jeff Tremayne)

I saw J:TM when it was first released, just about two years after my first daughter was born and a few months before my second would arrive-- in other words, just at the point when I was supposed to be putting away childish things in favor of focusing on the responsibilities of parenthood, of being a true grown-up. So of course the Jackass troupe's aesthetic of self-destructive arrested development and barely suppressed homoerotic shenanigans was just the ticket. I can't shake the feeling there's some socially significant madness within this bodily-harm-as-performance-art methodology. But when Johnny Knoxville (made up as a deranged senior citizen) gets kicked out of a mini-mart for relentless shoplifting and shouts indignantly at the shop's owner "I was Lon Chaney's lover!", who cares about significance? I just like to laugh.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006; Clint Eastwood)

"From headquarters. We regret that we are unable to send reinforcements to Iwo at this time. We earnestly hope you will fight honorably and die for your country."

Without ever discounting the lionization of the Greatest Generation, Eastwood offers an enormous and overwhelming act of empathy for the men fighting on the other side. Interestingly, this was a far more convincing and deeply felt film than its companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003; Joe Dante)

"The theatrical cartoons that (Warner Bros.) produced after 1960, which I remember having to suffer through at the movies, were just abominable. They weren’t funny, they were badly animated, they were sub-television level and almost everything they’ve done since is just a pale shadow of what the great cartoons were. I can tell you from experience that the people currently running Warner Bros. have no interest or understanding of that period or those characters. I was making a movie for them with those characters and they did not want to know about those characters. They didn’t want to know why Bugs Bunny shouldn’t do hip-hop. It was a pretty grim experience all around." - Joe Dante

All that said, I think LT:BIA  captures the Termite Terrace spirit remarkably well, flaws and all-- it's exhaustively, and exhaustingly, funny, and it was the first movie my then-three-year-old daughter and I bonded over. (We saw it opening night and three more times together in the theater!) I understand Dante's frustration, but this end-user will always be grateful for the Warners legacy he managed to conjure on screen.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003; Thom Andersen)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015; George Miller)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015; Guy Ritchie)

Maps to the Stars (2015; David Cronenberg)

This might be the scariest Cronenberg movie since The Fly. It's certainly the director's funniest ever. This is an RPG shot straight into the black heart of the Hollywood dream machine, where the resulting explosion splatters nightmares onto every clean surface. The uproariously mean-spirited, vengeful tenor of the director's collaboration with satirist Bruce Wagner is contagious, and by the end I was convinced that if the day of the locust wasn't already nigh, it well should be. What a double bill this would make with Seed of Chucky!

Meek’s Cutoff (2011; Kelly Reichardt)

No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)

O.J.: Made in America (2016; Ezra Edelman)

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014; Jim Jarmusch)

"The possibility of having a historical overview was really interesting to me, because there’s a point where Mia Wasikowska’s character calls them snobs, when they’re throwing her out of their house, which on a certain level they are. It’s important it’s in the film, in a way. But who wouldn’t be considered a snob if you’d been alive for a thousand yeas and had all of this knowledge and accumulated experience? That’s ten, twenty times as much as any normal person. The idea of seeing history in a timeline by having lived through it, but from the margins, from the shadows: observing it half in secret is very interesting to me. I’ve always been drawn to outsider type of characters, so what more perfect shadowy inhabitants of the margins are there, than vampires? Who are not undead monsters, by the way, they’re humans that have been transformed and now have the possibility of immortality, but are reliant, like junkies, on blood." - Jim Jarmusch

Perfect Sense (2011; David Mackenzie)

Premium Rush (2012; David Koepp)

“(The “Wilee Vision” scenes, when the camera freezes and we see Wilee decide which route to take through an intersection) were the one time when we were allowed to use effects — allowed by our own rules, that is. We wanted the movie to be a stunt movie, not a CG movie, and wanted it to be about what well-trained actors and stuntmen can do physically, and to have that joy of watching something like an athletic performance as well as the usual performance. So we didn’t want to use effects, but in those scenes, because we were in his head space and it was a fantasy anyway, we decided to give ourselves some latitude and figure out a cinematic way to show the decision-making process a person goes through in those moments. Obviously there are several different components in those shots, so you shoot bit-by-bit and assemble the shot.” – David Koepp

Room 237 (2013; Rodney Ascher)

Seed of Chucky (2004; Don Mancini)

A Serious Man (2009; Joel and Ethan Coen)

"When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love

Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his
Yeah, but in your head, baby, I'm afraid you don't know where it is
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love"

- Darby R. Slick

"Embrace the mystery." - Clive Park's father

Speed Racer (2008; The Wachowski Brothers)


True Grit (2010; Joel and Ethan Coen)

“Of course, True Grit is a Western, but we never considered our film a classical Western, and honestly never thought about genre at all. We didn’t talk about John Ford or Sergio Leone, even though we like their films. Really, we were driven only by our enthusiasm for Charles Portis’s book. We loved the language in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country, which is really about the region, while in True Grit it’s more about period: people did speak more formally and floridly. But I think that the great thing about the book is this compelling first-person narrative, from a girl so young, and we wanted to put the audience in her mind, so they’d see the story through her eyes. The music was important there, too. Choosing that hymn (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”) was important, because that Protestant attitude is such a part of who Mattie is. The music speaks of faith and certitude, and that she has in spades.” – Ethan Coen 

25th Hour (2002; Spike Lee)

"(I chose not to ignore the reality of 9/11) because I am a New Yorker and a couple of studios had a chance to show stills of the WTC but they chose to punk out. The project was based on the bottom line. I don’t think they should fear the sensitivity of the movie going audience. I don’t think Spider-Man would have made a nickel less if they would have kept those images in, but that’s their decision and on this film I was able to implement my decision and I would like to add that the decision regarding 9/11 was not a big decision. I made that in a millisecond. I knew I was going to do; I just had to think how I was going to do it. That was a much bigger and harder decision because I didn’t want to offend anyone and we still knew there was a way to deal with it in a tasteful way but not run away from what happened. We did not want to do something that looked like it was slapped on.” – Spike Lee

Under the Skin (2014; Jonathan Glazer)

The Witch (2016; Robert Eggers)

Zodiac (2007; David Fincher)

"Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity

'Tis then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love"

- Donovan Leitch