The good professor registers his disdain at Dennis' lack of urgency...
It’s a damn good thing I don’t blow off my real homework like this…
Well, here we are, just about to flip the calendar into Rocktober or Jocktober or Shocktober or whatever bad pun you can come up with, and I am only now finishing off the homework assignment given out by Professor Severus Snape near the middle of July! If I’d let this actually drag into October, with as much as this month usually holds in terms of things to do and talk about and write about, I probably would have ended up letting it slip away like I did my blue book sheet for Professor Peabody’s quiz, which had some questions on it I was really looking forward to answering. And of course going in I promised myself that I would be shorter and to the point this time around, so as to not have to spend what feels like a week writing out 38 fairly simple answers. (No real hard ones this time around, am I right?) Well, look how that turned out-- like these kinds of pledges usually do for me. So be it. As I write less frequently these days, I guess I shouldn’t beat myself for the occasions when I take my time and let the words have a chance to actually flow. So here comes the gusher.
Thanks to everyone who participated in this past summer’s quizzical extravaganza. I apologize for that new comment character limit that Blogger imposed the very day I posted the quiz, which made it annoying for a lot of you who had to post three, even four times to get it all up there. But it was worth it. The answers were, as always, unmatched fun to read, as well as yet another occasion to marvel at the smarts what the readers of this here site done got. The best will be highlighted before the publication of the new quiz, which we’re probably still about another month away from. So work out those pencil-graspers and get ‘em in shape for Thanksgiving.
And now, my answers to Professor Severus Snape’s Sorcerer-tastic, Muggalicious Mid-Summer Film Quiz:
1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
For years the favorite would have been Clockwork Orange. Throughout my university days the movie seemed to strike me differently every time I saw it—one time I would be enthralled by Kubrick’s irreverent and vibrant electrification of Antony Burgess’ futuristic morality play, the next time I would be disturbed by what Pauline Kael I think accurately described as the movie’s pornographic tendencies when it came to the horror-show sex and violence (a dilemma I never experienced the two or three times I read the book). Yet I would see it every time it came around, which was quite often during in the midnight movie days of the late ‘70s in collegiate Eugene, Oregon. Thirty years or so later Kubrick’s filmography is one I respect more than one I feel compelled to return to with regularity, but the one I will watch again now at a moment’s notice, the way I used to consume Clockwork Orange, would be Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. So, number two. I thought about Full Metal Jacket, which is a movie I think gets better over the years, partly because of the weird, detached quality lent to it by the director’s perversity in staging the Vietnam sequences in Britain. I also had to consider 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s a landmark more than it is a personal favorite. Which leads me to Lolita, perhaps not the most faithful adaptation of Nabokov one could ask for, but it’s got that irreverent, satirically inquisitive spirit, channeled by Peter Sellers and James Mason, a smiley face pinned to the blackest of hearts, that makes it irresistible. And Sue Lyons may not lead me to approve, but she sure makes Humbert’s agony easy to understand. All that said, it’s been 34 years, and I cannot wait to see Barry Lyndon again.
2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
The accelerated pace of editing. It does seem to go hand in hand with the more long-term implications of the bloated franchise blockbuster hole Hollywood seems to be digging for itself, which is, I would guess, most likely the bigger and more important problem. (How we gonna get ‘em to come out for Get Low, Harvey, when all they want—we think-- is a bigger G.I. Joe sequel?) But the kind of impatience for the nuances of storytelling and mistrust of what images can do, and how they can enrich our experience by the simple act of being allowed to take the time to seduce us, rather than bombard us, is the kind of concern that can permeate even the films furthest away from the budgetary scale and visual aesthetic of a Michael Bay movie. And for every young filmmaker who respects the power of the image, like David Lowery or Lucas McNelly, there’s a hundred point-and-shooters whose career hopes far outweigh their love of film, and the best way they see to get noticed is to emulate the most obvious traits of the films made by the big boys. (Films like these, usually shot on video, often end up looking and feeling like mediocre TV shows.) It’s heartening for many reasons to see the success of a movie like Inglorious Basterds, one of which is how Tarantino creates a heightened sensual quality while at the same time anchoring his camera to a much more classically composed visual strategy, which allows the subtleties and the richness of the often lurid, tactile and seductive imagery to take hold and work its magic. Of course Tarantino utilizes quick editing too, but judiciously, not relentlessly. You emerge from Inglorious Basterds elated, not pummeled, by the movie’s respect for what the movies can do well, as well as its tacit understanding of how the power of film can be undercut by a director who uses hyperactive editing merely to distract the audience from the deficiencies of the story he’s decided to tell.
3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?
Each passing year seems only to add to the unique charm and poignant moral conviction of Eastwood’s movie, and the character. But for sheer richness of conception, conviction, and the unapologetic pleasure of audacity, it’s hard to beat Newman’s performance, centered as it is in one of Altman’s most undervalued and marvelous creations.
4) Best Film of 1949.
My number one pick from this year, assuming correctly that I haven’t seen anything close to everything that came out in 1949, has to be Kind Hearts and Coronets. Numbers two through five? White Heat, The Third Man, The Set-up and The Heiress.
5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
John Barrymore was, it seems to go without saying, a better actor than Jack Benny. And though he’s not the first person I think of when I think of a “movie actor,” any hand that held titles like Svengali, Topaze, Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel, Twentieth Century, True Confession, Midnight and even The Invisible Woman would have to be said to be a strong one. Benny, on the other hand, was a great comedian who made a minor splash in pictures—titles like The Meanest Man in the World and George Washington Slept Here are funny, if slight, but not too many, I would think, pine for his Charley’s Aunt. However, his one inarguably great, shining moment in movie comedy, as “the great, great actor” Joseph Tura, a ham-fisted hambone who leads his Polish acting troupe under the sniffing noses of invading Nazi forces and into a very special engagement of theatrical espionage, is so great that it dismantles even the comic tornado that is Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. That they both got to play opposite Carole Lombard raises the question of just how much each man took inspiration from the inestimable talents of this great Hollywood comedienne, but that is a poser for another professor’s quiz.
6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
One of my favorite movies of last year was Rachel Getting Married, so I don’t think I can be fairly accused of not understanding how this particular aesthetic can be used purposefully and well. (And obviously that isn’t the only example of a hand-held camera being employed in a way that obviously worked—I think the first time I was consciously aware of the technique, in something other than a quasi-documentary narrative like, say, A Hard Day’s Night, was in Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae.) But I do think the style is used WAY too much in modern filmmaking, and modern television, particularly advertising. It is a cheap and easy way to create the illusion that something is happening, even when the reality of the scene may just be two people sitting around talking—most 21st-century TV shows to date would be lost at sea without the ability to put all their weight on this particular crutch. These days, whenever I see a film or TV show directed with enough audacity and confidence that the camera holds still, even for just a little while, I am much more likely to sit up and notice and get involved. I guess it makes some kind of sense, then, that my favorite TV show is a baseball game, even subject as those are these days to Fox-inspired overreliance on visual tweakery and distractions from the game.
7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
I’d like to say it was Seven Samurai on a Saturday night on PBS back in my high school days, or perhaps The 400 Blows in the presence of a parent who wanted to introduce me to the world outside my tiny hometown. Alas, neither is true. As far as I am aware, my hometown movie theater never showed a movie made entirely on foreign soil that was also entirely in a foreign language-- no Fellini, no Bunuel, no Bergman. The closest we ever got to a French film was Barbarella (Roger Vadim) or Viva Maria! (Louis Malle), or maybe Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut). So, the exotic fruits of world cinema would have to wait until college. On my first day at the University of Oregon I started writing down every movie I saw in a journal (which I still update t this day, 32 years later), so I have a pretty reliable chronicle of what that first foreign-language film was, and it was a doozy. While others around me at the time were having their eyes and ears opened with La Strada or Wild Strawberries or even Aguirre, the Wrath of God, I somehow procured a ticket at the Waco Twin Cinema, just behind my dorm room on the east end of campus, to see In the Realm of the Senses. So, two milestones occurred during that screening! It is a wonder that I am the relatively well-adjusted person I am today, with that kind of cinematic introduction to Japanese culture and hardcore sex.
8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?
As fond as I am of old Hollywood’s fear of The Other in its many forms (usually Black, sometimes Asian or Mexican—oh, and that’s “not very,” by the way), I also have a sort of real fondness for both of these on-the-cheap 20th-Century Fox series because despite their being mired in some of the typical suspicious, fearful and often contemptuous feelings that were prevalent in society at the time they were made, they were also showcases for Asian characters (albeit played by non-Asians) who commanded respect because of their even-handed presence, intellect and, in the case or Mr. Moto, irascibility and physical ability with judo. Of course, you could also argue that the Asian characters should have been played by Asians, which brings Hollywood economics into play with prevalent social prejudices and makes the whole thing a kind of Fantasy Baseball-type discussion. The reality is, Peter Lorre was of Austrian birth and Warner Oland was a Swede. That’s who they were in real life. On screen, I prefer the impatience and cagey intelligence of Lorre’s Mr. Moto over Oland’s placid Charlie Chan. And maybe also because to use the name today “Charlie Chan” is still a recognizable short-cut to a racial slur, whereas Mr. Moto, because it was probably a less popular series, still flies under the radar for most modern audiences and for any knuckle-draggers looking for a derogatory name to shout out in a Japanese restaurant.
9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
To stick with the totally arbitrary time boundaries, I might have chosen Kelly’s Heroes (1970), or The Dirty Dozen (1967). But I think my actual pick would be the vivid, searing imagery and immediacy of Sam Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders (1962). It’s my favorite example of what, in a journeyman’s hands can be a dreary, by-the-numbers genre, but in the hands of a pulp artist like Fuller becomes singularly powerful and heartfelt.
10) Favorite animal movie star.
I couldn’t decide between real animals and fabricated ones in initially thinking about this one. My first thought went to Old Yeller, the next went to Kaa the snake, as voiced by Sterling Holloway in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Conflicted! Eventually I returned to three dimensions, but I couldn’t be any more decisive about real versus fake. So I went for one fabulous fantasy based on a reality of nature, one fantasy made up of equal (?) parts puppetry, computer magic and honest-to-God evolution and came up a tie: Bruce the shark and Babe the gallant pig.
11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
I think I can say, without being even slightly snarky, that you could throw a rock and whatever Oscar-winning film from the ‘80s that you hit, from Ordinary People straight on through to Driving Miss Daisy probably has some degree or irresponsibility in it worth working over with a perforated woodshop paddle. I know this is kind of a snarky answer, but really, I think back on the ‘80s as such a bad period for American films, at least the ones that were available for me to see (of course, there are many exceptions that disprove the rule), that I can barely think of the decade without slipping into bored disinterest. And doesn’t lulling the general public into a deep sleep with the likes of St. Elmo’s Fire and the collected works of the Brat Pack, as well as Footloose, Flashdance and the umpteenth variation on the Animal House/Spring Break formula count as irresponsibility? I also like Daniel L’s answer, that Bruckheimer and Bays decision to recreate the tragedy of Pearl Harbor as a gee-whiz action movie whose most devastating moments were sometimes told from the point of view of airborne munitions as they dropped toward their targets definitely qualifies as irresponsible.
12) Best Film of 1969.
Little doubt here. The Wild Bunch.
13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
Theatrically: I can’t believe my timing is such that I find myself entering the words “A Nora Ephron Film” into the first slot in this category, but enter it I must. Julie & Julia is absolutely half a terrific film, and that half is populated by Meryl Streep’s sublime impersonation of Julia Child which, in swift fashion, becomes a fully fleshed-out portrayal of an earthy woman of intelligence and, yes, appetites that one would have thought had long slipped past the possibility of such a rich parody-free representation. Stanley Tucci as Julia’s husband, who seems as sweetly in awe of her as we do, and Jane Lynch as Julia’s even taller, physically imposing sister, round out a story that deserved its own film. These players are marvelous, but it is Streep who rules here. After her show-stopping turns in The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt and now this, all is almost forgiven for the atrocities committed by that Meryl Streep impersonator in Mamma Mia. Unfortunately, Ephron has conceived the movie as a duet, the other half populated by Julie Powell, a rudderless, self-absorbed cubicle drone who decides to cook her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blog about it as a sort of self-realization exercise. The movie is based on Powell’s book, which was itself adapted from her blog, and let’s just say her adventures cooking in a Queens apartment are not as compelling as Ephron and Streep’s imaginings of Child’s life in postwar France. Just when we begin to settle into the cadences of Streep’s performance anew and get absorbed in her journey toward becoming “Julia Child,” Ephron cuts back to twerpy Julie (Amy Smart), who is supposedly a bitch (ask her husband and friends) but comes off like your average Nora Ephron self-absorbed cutey-pie. The movie builds through her relationship problems with her endlessly understanding husband to Powell’s deboning a duck as her ultimate achievement, then underplays the moment to such a degree that you may not even have noticed that it happened. The height of excitement in the Julie portion of Julie & Julia comes when our blogging heroine gets 23 comments, “none of them from people I know!” I get that. What I don’t get is the tenuous connection between these two women that Ephron tries to sell as some sort of spiritual communion (albeit one-sided) via cooking. The idea never transcends its own flimsiness. Fortunately, whenever we’re stuck in Julie Powell land, we know that we’re only a few minutes away from going back to the real movie, the half of Julie & Julia that stars Meryl Streep.
On DVD: Calle 54, Fernando Trueba’s musical extravaganza consists of a little documentary context here and there on Latin Jazz, a half-hearted sop to Buena Vista Social Club to whet your appetite. But the interstitial documentary stuff sets the table for a series of mind-blowing performances, shot by Trueba on studio sets, that record spectacular performances by the likes of Tito Puente Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri, Eliane Elias and a ton of others, all apparently at the top of their game. It’s a rush of brilliance that will make you feel while you’re watching it, if you don’t already, that Latin Jazz as played by these artists is as good as music gets.
At work: Ernst Lubitsch never completed his fantastical romance That Lady in Ermine-- he died during production, and the movie was finished by that flighty chronicler of the heart Otto Preminger. But I’m not sure if Lubitsch had lived, assuming that he was satisfied with Samuel Raphaelson’s script, that it stood much of a chance of ever being any good. Betty Grable can’t help but be luminous in a dual role—as a ruling countess of the small fiefdom of Bergamo and her great-great-great-great-grandmother, the Lady in Ermine, who pops to life out of her portrait every night, along with the rest of the familial gallery, and haunts the waking and dreaming life of an invading Hungarian general, a rapscallion played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks moons over grandma while trying to seduce granddaughter, whose own newlywed husband (Cesar Romero) fled during the invasion and returns to the castle in the guise of a gypsy in the hopes of getting into the general’s good graces. No matter the wattage your leading lady, a romantic comedy with Fairbanks and Romero as your male leads had better be pretty sharp in the writing department. But That Lady in Ermine is musty where it should be melodic, snoozy where it should be snappy, and frankly confusing from a character motivation standpoint. It’s a shame that the genius who gave us Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, To Be or Not To Be, That Uncertain Feeling and Cluny Brown would end his brilliant career with such a stiff.
14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
King of the hill has always been, ever since I discovered the world beyond M*A*S*H, the incomparable Nashville, one of the rare movies which only seems to gain in my estimation with each passing year. But Altman is, if not my favorite director, then at least in the top two or three. I don’t blindly love everything he came up with in his long career (as this four part overview should attest), but there is a lot of brilliance to choose from, even amidst his more uneven films. At any time the second spot could be occupied by ‘70s masterworks like The Long Goodbye, Three Women and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, less consistent but appealingly bat-shit entertainments like M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, Pret-a-Porter and O.C. & Stiggs, strong work from the ‘80s like Popeye (yes, goddamn it, Popeye), Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Secret Honor, or late-period wonders like Tanner ’88, Gosford Park, The Company and even A Prairie Home Companion. But of all these, at this moment in my long-standing appreciation of Robert Altman’s career, the movie that I think about almost as much as I do Nashville-- my second favorite Altman film, then—would have to be his sublimely critical, acerbic, hilarious and haunted bicentennial show business satire Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. Not for nothing my choice for question #3. Like Nashville this is a movie that just seems to get better and better, smarter and smarter, even though it was never granted a hallowed place in the director’s canon by critics in the first place. Altman always used to claim he loved his most neglected and derided “children,” like Brewster McCloud or Images the best. My love for Buffalo Bill… is kind of like that, but more so because I think it truly is a great film.
15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
For film reviews, I most often refer to Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein, not because I always agree with them, but because I think they’re among the best writers, if not the best writers working on weekly deadlines, at accessing and assessing their feelings about a movie quickly, intelligently, with the kind of circumspection not often afforded a writer who must try to have essays ready for a looming opening weekend. But I also read them every week because they’re damn good writers, never fussy, always sharp, never sealed off from other points of view, and their reviews always feel like a lot of time was spent crafting them—and I mean that in a good way, not a calcified, predetermined way-- when the reality is they probably didn’t, or couldn’t have spent as much time on them as they would have liked to. As for a broader perspective, I like the magazine umbrella style of The House Next Door (always something interesting going on between those walls).
But one of the first blogs to demonstrate to me how broad the canvas for writing about movie could be was Jim Emerson’s Scanners, a site that remains probably my favorite place to go to discuss and think about movies, politics and all the grey area in between. Jim and I share favorites (Miller’s Crossing and Nashville, to name just two) as well as a disdain for the films of Alan Parker, but we often disagree as well-- Speed Racer comes to mind—even though I don’t comment nearly as often as I’d like. But I appreciate the way Jim’s mind operates—not much seems to escape his gaze, and he always has a fresh, comprehensive take on the most interesting movies. (His series on Inglourious Basterds was unimpeachable and sharp-eyed.) Jim has always been supportive and encouraging to me in my writing and blogging, so to some it may seem like log-rolling, but the truth is, Scanners has been the most consistent bookmark punched in my five years of movie blog awareness, and as Jim continues to expand his canvas into other realms of social discourse it will likely stay that away.
16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)
Meijo Kaji is inarguably striking, physically imposing and lovely, but Angela Mao (Deep Thrust, Deadly China Doll and, of course, Enter the Dragon) was my first. She taught me—and oh, how I loved the lessons!—that tough women could be sexy, and that sexy women could be tough. There have been many who have travelled down the path she helped create—Michelle Yeoh seemed to channel her directly in Wing Chun-- but Angela Mao showed me, and maybe you too, the way.
17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
Oh, man. Why do I do this to myself? Okay, speaking strictly in terms of character, even though that knowledge of cars is impressive Mona Lisa Vito seems more of a cartoon, whereas Olive Neal strikes me as more of a real person (and the pathos with which her fate is imbued doesn’t hurt either). So it’s Olive Neal for me. Thank God I didn’t make this a contest between Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Tilly, who have to be two of the most talented actresses working (not nearly enough) right now, as well as the two of the best exhibits of evidence that women over 40 can be sexier than the faceless, curveless strumpets on the CW or reality TV even on their “worst” days.
Sorry. No particular reason to post this. I just wanted to!
18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Go with your first instinct: Strangers on a Train.
19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
I tend to favor the strategy of using high-definition video to replicate the texture and richness of film, so in that light Zodiac and A Prairie Home Companion, a movie I didn’t even know was shot on video until the second time I saw it, remain the high-water marks for me. (Altman’s The Company, one of the first films shot on video I ever saw, was equally spectacular.) I thought Rachel getting Married was one of the few times that the whole whip-the-0camera-around home-video aesthetic worked, given the context of the situation and the freefall experienced by the main character. Michael Mann’s experiments in rich, high-contrast video—video that looks like video—are at times expressive (Collateral) and fascinatingly beautiful (Miami Vice), but Public Enemies, which never seemed to construct a bridge between the received imagery of Depression-era ‘30s as related by Hollywood film and even familiar, low-tech photographs of folks like Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde, and the up-to-the-minute digital video processing through which we were experiencing the story. For video that looks and feels and acts like video, I appreciate that Cloverfield caught me up in its partially observed world without ever making me nauseous or annoyed, and I really like the direction that experimentation has taken in movies like Diary of the Dead and District 9, where the immediacy of video is incorporated into a more logically imagined, consciously crafted visual palette.
20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
Well, I think the gold standard here has got to be the way Leigh Brackett and Robert Altman (and Elliot Gould) transposed Philip Marlowe to early-‘70s Los Angeles, creating a critique of easy living, the mythos of Hollywood, and the perforated nature of personal morality, all rendered with Altman’s beautifully constructed laid-back, tossed-off vibe, which disguises the formal rigor with which the film is actually constructed and resonates richly with the more familiar incarnations of Raymond Chandler‘s world in evidence up to that point. The Long Goodbye is a personal artistic statement, a great, loosey-goosey genre thriller, and a comment on genre thrillers that forces you to look at the model in a completely different way.
21) Best Film of 1979.
I knew going into this that there had to be movies from 1979 that I liked better than Manhattan, Apocalypse Now or All That Jazz, which are all good movies, but not, in my estimation, great ones. But when I started digging I remembered just how good a year 1979 was, and I‘m sure I still haven’t seen an eighth of the good stuff that came out that year. Here are 17 movies from 1979 that I liked better than the three mentioned above (in alphabetical order):
The Black Stallion
Escape from Alcatraz
Going in Style
The Kids are Alright
The Marriage of Maria Braun
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
North Dallas Forty
Richard Pryor Live in Concert
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
Time After Time
And of those I would pick, as the best of 1979, Albert Brooks’ superb media satire Real Life which, in its crazed riff on the Loud family seemed over the top back in the day, much as Howard Beale and the UBS Network once did. But Brooks’ movie, having long since been surpassed by what we now know as the reality of reality TV, has remained brilliant for its droll insights into what drives the American desire for fame, as well as the punishing price of the trampling of privacy. I would fill out my top five, in no particular order with 1941, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Winter Kills and The Brood.
22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
There have been plenty, both romanticized, realistic and horrifying-- To Kill a Mockingbird, It’s a Wonderful Life, Shadow of a Doubt, American Graffiti, Roxanne, Straw Dogs, Local Hero all come to mind. But the one I recognized most clearly, from my own experience and from its depiction of the experiences of others who surrounded me when I was growing up, is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. The movie completely understands how the rhythms of high school are linked to the world of everyday life outside of school, how they inform it, undermine it, make it breathe. It uses the last day of school in 1976 as a perfect distillation of this idea, without setting up the false dramatic sense that these kids had any self-conscious, portentous ideas about meandering through an important stage of change. Dazed and Confused isn’t about the haunting last days of seniors who express trepidation and excitement at what’s just over the horizon—it disarms this notion by focusing on kids at every grade level, their hopes, their dreams, their cynicism, their desire to survive to simply become sophomores. The hell with life—what’s 10th grade, what’s 12th grade gonna be like? And, oh, yeah, no matter what happens, we’re still gonna be living here. The movie’s most touching and eloquent sequence—the kids looking out over their town from the perspective of that water tower high on the hill-- is shot through with enough humor to deflate any high-minded poetics or grandstanding in which Linklater might feel like indulging. It is enough for Dazed and Confused to stay true to the free-floating sense of maintaining one’s perspective in a place that seems so grounded, so tangibly mundane, a constricted world which dictates the way these kids (and the kids where I grew up during the mid ‘70s) so often seemed to look at life—as full of possibilities that seemed just out of reach.
The small town of Dazed and Confused is in no way idealized—it is nothing if not a place from which to escape—yet there is real feeling, unburdened by nostalgia, for what it was really like to be in a place like that, when one had no idea what was next, when any direction away was good enough-- fondness borne of the perspective of the rearview mirror. As one who experienced it too, Linklater never takes time to moralize. He wants us to remember, to feel it, to respond to the tribal rhythms (as realized by Aerosmith and Foghat) that keep us in the small towns of our memory. Dazed and Confused is great because it captures the boredom and well as the silly exuberance of feeling like the whole world was within the city limits—no need to go anywhere else just yet-- and it was time to go cruising.
23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
The most recent A-1 candidate I’ve seen that would qualify in this category is the one I’m going to go with-- Isabelle Fuhrmann as Esther, the 11-year-old hellion with a past deeper and darker and more disturbing than you could ever guess, in this past summer’s neglected Orphan. Esther would give Patty McCormack nightmares. It’s been three months since I’ve seen the movie, and I can still barely stand to look at the poster.
24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
I’m going to indulge the common practice of not making myself choose between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as my favorite Coppola film and choose them both, as if they were one film, which I think they essentially are (The Godfather Part III, not a terrible movie, having been left to the remainder bin of film history). I could say Apocalypse Now, but I have a history as checkered with I as that of Clockwork Orange. And The Conversation is a great movie that I in no way enjoy, so it could never be considered a favorite. Given those caveats, there aren’t many other Coppola films I like, to be honest—not The Rain People, Finian’s Rainbow, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Youth Without Youth, One from the Heart, Tucker, and certainly not Jack or his portion of New York Stories. I do really like Tetro, though not nearly enough time has passed for me to think of it as a favorite. And I thoroughly enjoy The Rainmaker without any guilt or any need to find some way to wedge it into the parameters of Coppola’s auteurist concerns. All of which leaves the one Coppola movie I found to be thrilling on a formal, experimental, and purely cinematic level that no one seems to think much of these days. No matter what you think of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder—and I happen to think I’ve seen less believable actors, as well as ones who don’t take chances on looking foolish with the degrees of sincerity and commitment both show here—and no matter the pretense to some clearer, deeper connection to Bram Stoker (which isn’t exactly true, not that Stoker is all that hot a property anyway), Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains a thrilling pleasure, told by a man who wasn’t, at the time it was made, at all sure of his place in the machinery of American moviemaking mainstream. And this movie feels like it—gaudy, impassioned, bloody, full of visual trickery and arcana, lustful, ornate, absurdly romantic, obsessive and frightfully over the top, shot through with silent movie-derived tropes and stylization, BSD feels like no other movie in the Coppola oeuvre. Gary Oldman embodies Dracula as a freakishly sophisticated descendant of Vlad Tepes, and the movie’s downright bizarre finesse, lifting grandiose and quietly creepy visual motifs from Murnau and Browning and twisting them into shadow puppet-style shapes unique to this film, supports his wildly creative, hammy interpretation of the seminal vampire and sends the movie into gushes of gory romanticism. This movie was my first laserdisc, and I hope to see it flowing red again very soon on Blu-ray.
25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
Near the end of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, dazed and confused gunnery sergeant Dan Aykroyd, standing with the rest of the cast amidst the rubble of Ned Beatty’s seaside property after Beatty’s house has slid off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean, surveys the damage and assesses the situation to Robert Stack’s bemused General Stillwell. Akyroyd says, in a line obviously intended to pave the way for the sequel that would never be, “But, General, 1941 wasn’t the really big year of the war. No, I think the really big year is gonna be 1942!” Thinking about Spielberg amassing another Panavision-sized production from a Zemeckis and Gale script, this one taking on the second year of America’s involvement in World War II, why, it just makes my mouth water. How about one big super comedy for each year straight through 1945? A fella can dream, can’t he?
Also, I’d love to read sometime in the near future that some benevolent lunatic has given W.D. Richter a ton of cash to make Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.
26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.
With all props to the bridge sequence in Blow Out and about the last 45 minutes of Carrie, everything in the final 10 minutes of Dressed to Kill, known by its soundtrack album music cue as “The Asylum/The Nightmare,” is so perfectly imagined, executed and sustained by De Palma, with an utterly essential and inspired contribution from composer Pino Donaggio, that once I start thinking about it, hearing the music, seeing the sinuous, surreal, diffuse Panavision imagery, it takes days for me to stop running it through my head. From the languid, shocking strangulation of the nurse, seen from above as Michael Caine opens her uniform with detached curiosity and framed by a rogue’s gallery of guffawing mental patients, to the strangely unreal, luridly teased-out duration of Nancy Allen’s very own shower sequence and its terrifying denouement, this sequence is an undeniable masterpiece that caps off a masterpiece of a feature.
27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
Hard to argue with anyone who says the moment in which Dorothy emerges from the interior of her black-and-white Kansas home onto the shockingly beautiful Technicolor land of Oz. But I think any random frame from either Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes would have the power, the glorious imagination, the sensate wonder to match anything that Judy and friends encounter on the yellow brick road.
28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)
Probably Death of a Gunfighter (1969), wherein Alan (Allen) Smithee stood in for Don Siegel and Robert Totten. The movie is a solid, if not particularly memorable western, and not at all bad. It’s certainly not a disaster on the order of which the Smithee pseudonym has become associated, like, say, Burn, Hollywood, Burn: An Alan Smithee Film which was, by design or by the blackest of comic coincidences, a movie that really lived down to the talents of its credited director as well as its actual one, the mind-bogglingly mediocre Arthur Hiller. A movie bad enough to inspire Hiller to defer credit is a bad movie indeed.
29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?
I like Crash plenty, but Morris Buttermaker is the worn-out soul of baseball. He’s the schlumpy, beaten-down coach in the best movie ever made about baseball, a movie that debuted in America’s bicentennial year, when everything about this country had a feeling of fatigue and disillusionment about it, when remembering what was great about the game and what it meant was a hard thing to do as we were upended by the disorienting waves created by Vietnam and Watergate that were still crashing onto shore. This is the reality refracted through Walter Matthau’s untouchable comic brilliance, the understanding of what the game could mean, and what it shouldn’t, and why one self-loathing man should even care-- a highlight amongst a career of highlights, courtesy of The Bad News Bears.
30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
I like Bullets Over Broadway, Don’t Drink the Water and Deconstructing Harry just fine—these are the works of an artist engaged in his art. (I reserve the right to go ape over Shadows and Fog someday too, just for perversity’s sake.) But given how embalmed the rest of his career has been since Crimes and Misdemeanors, I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the quality of Manhattan Murder Mystery, his reunion piece with Diane Keaton, in which the spark ignites after years of dormancy and we get to see what Alvy and Annie might have been like in middle age together. Allen never condescends to the genre construct, even as he has Alan Alda and Angelica Huston at the ready to deflate it—he actually allows it to room to expand into not just a construct, but a means by which to explore the way his character and Keaton’s are integrated, how they live together. It’s a movie many have mistakenly dismissed as minor in the rush to bow down before something more obviously autobiographical and pained, like Husbands and Wives. But the charms and joys of Manhattan Murder Mystery have outlived and outshone the exposed tabloid wounds of that other movie, and certainly the noodling time-wasters that have dominated the director’s output over the last 20 years. Watch it again and see.
31) Best Film of 1999.
Without digging any deeper into the archives, the movie from 1999 that I still go back to, the one I think is an obvious classic, has to be South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. David Edelstein was right—it is this generation’s Duck Soup.
32) Favorite movie tag line.
I always loved the ads for biker movies of the early ‘70s, most of which I was too young to actually see, but whose ragged energy was always transmitted just fine by (and probably often surpassed by) the newspaper and TV ad copy that came along with the picture. I remember being terrified seeing ads on TV for the fairly routine and forgettable Chrome and Hot Leather-- there’s no way I could take a movie that intense! But I always loved soaking in the newspaper ads, where my imagination could run free and not be tainted by actual footage from the film itself. And it was the ads for this movie that featured one of my favorite lurid catch phrases: “Don’t mess around with a Green Beret’s mama—He’ll take his chopper and ram it down your throat!” Holy shit! There’s no way I could take a movie that intense!
33) Favorite B-movie western.
Without a doubt, it’s John Wayne and Yakima Canutt in The Sagebrush Trail (1933), in which an on-the-run Wayne infiltrates villain Canutt’s gang of desperadoes. I loved it as a kid, and then rediscovered it about 15 years ago—much to my delight it was maybe even more fun for me as an adult with some sense of the history of westerns, and of these two performers in particular. But I love the whole B-western non-aesthetic aesthetic anyway. Just give me a cowboy, a sidekick, a villain, a girlfriend, a couple of horses and a low budget, and I’m pretty much happy.
34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
Before last weekend I probably would have said Peter Benchley, whose bloated novel was vastly improved upon by the movie version of Jaws-- a sow’s ear becomes an all-time box-office champion silk purse. But after having just seen the wonderful new animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (soon to be a classic, I’d guess), I’m going to say Judy Barrett (writer) and Ron Barrett (illustrator). It’s not that directors/scenarists Phil Lord and Chris Miller are slavishly faithful to the book. How could they be? It’s an elliptical children’s picture volume that runs all of 30 pages and doesn’t ground its fantastic events—the sudden availability of food from the skies-- in anything other than the unbridled imaginings inside a beloved grandpa’s bedtime story. The movie literalizes some of the book’s most incredible whoppers (a pancake big enough to blanket a school, for instance), but it translates Ron Barrett’s texture-rich, etch-style illustrations into the smooth, wide-eyed, exaggerated cartoon renderings that look fairly familiar to CGI 3-D animation. This might register as a disappointment if the movie didn’t match the book’s feats of surreal visual landscaping with its own clever inspiration.
In CWACOM, the filmmakers indulge narrative tropes—there is an explanation for how the rain of burgers begins that is not in the book, courtesy of a well-meaning inventor—as well as both the soaring excitement of food dropping from heaven and the nagging worry about what the physical reality of such an occurrence might be. It’s this nagging feeling—the insistence of the logical that the movie, on its own terms, is more than glad to address—that powers the inevitable turn for the worse, which has its corollary in the book. But where the book remains lyrical and whimsical—the citizens of the overwhelmed town take to the sea on boats made of giant pieces of stale toast—the movie escalates into a parody of disaster films that will have devotees of Irwin Allen, the Food Network and even Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe) weeping with laughter. The book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a deserved classic—it takes the overscaled, the surreal, the slightly nightmarish, and plugs it into a warm, slightly cracked vision that makes the details of the world seem more interesting, more accessible to kids. The movie is perhaps less subtle, but it is completely engaging, an honorable reimagining and expansion of themes that the book glides over with amazing grace, with voice casting (Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Mr. T., Bruce Campbell, et al) that hints at just how sneaky smart it really is..
35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?
Not to be too predictable or anything, but any contest like (Insert Name Here) vs. Carole Lombard is no contest. Irene Bullock is a brilliant, head-spinning creation, a fractured princess from a family that seems to have no end of fissures and splinters and shards of ebullient madness to share. In other words, a role beautifully suited to Lombard’s sparkling talent. I do love Bringing Up Baby (more, perhaps, than I love Katharine Hepburn, or even My Man Godfrey, for that matter), but even so, Lombard wins.
36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
The USO dance number from 1941.
37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
I actually think the movie works best as a satire of the relentless pursuit of even the tiniest sliver of fame. In that regard, the aggressive (and aggressively funny) homosexual farce at the heart of Bruno might almost be superfluous. But as uneven as the end result is (and you have to admit that Cohen’s guerrilla tactics are yielding less provocative results—if I were Paula Abdul or Ron Paul, I’d probably storm off the premises too), any movie that can make straight guys who bill themselves as progressive when it comes to gay rights this uncomfortable probably has something on the ball, even if the prevailing feeling is one of a sermon pitched directly at the choir.
38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)
Now that would be a fabulous dinner party or, even better, a series of one-on-one conversation. That invitation list would pretty much cover the whole of film history, as I would be interested in it, anyway!