THE REDEFINING OF TARDY: Dennis Sheepishly Submits His Answers to Professor Russell Johnson's Holiday Movie Quiz (PART ONE!)
Well, there's tardy, and then there's tardy, and then there's jaw-dropping, passive-aggressive procrastination of a spectacular fashion. I leave it up to you as to which category belongs this post, in which I submit an only-partial list of responses to Professor Russell Johnson's "My Ancestors Came Over on the Minnow Thanksgiving/Christmas Quiz, to which I initially vowed I would respond by the end of 2009. (Thanksgiving/Christmas! Don't worry, I'm properly embarrassed...) What's worse, I've only made it through about 20 questions, with a little skipping around even. See, I told myself (one of many things I tell myself these days) that I wanted to finish my own answers before posting the new Spring Break quiz. But as the days dragged on, I had a new quiz ready to go yet my process of sitting down to write the answers from the previous one were at a near standstill, and when it was moving it wasn't doing so any too quickly. I sat here this afternoon, taking a day out of my self-applied time off for writing, and it became clear that even with no distractions and an entire day to write I wouldn't finish them. So I decided to just post what I had in the hopes that the 30 or so questions left dangling would provide me their own kind of motivation to eventually finish while not delaying the posting of the new quiz any longer.
I have been berated, and soundly, by Professor Johnson and the entire SLIFR U staff for approaching my academics in such a slovenly manner, and I apologize. I only hope that after reading the answers I do have the general consensus won't be that I should have just stayed away altogether and waited for the Spring Break test. Here then, if anyone still cares, are my 20-or-so answers. (By the way, God, what a looong quiz!) Hope the taste of my blood, sweat and tears isn't too off-putting!
1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.
Thought it seems kind of silly and inexplicable now, I spent the early part of the Coen’s directorial career resisting their considerable charms. Even to this day I find it easy to not love, or even much like, Blood Simple-- though I must admit that I first saw it in its theatrical run and may have only seen it one other time since, and many years ago at that, so this first big splash of theirs may be an excellent candidate for consideration amongst the vast array of films that I initially disliked but are ripe for my own reconsideration. (Another candidate for reconsideration is Barton Fink, a movie I loved the first couple of times out—with extra credit lavished upon Tony Shaloub as the second-tier studio boss, whose oily contempt couldn’t have been conveyed with more sarcastic, top-volume wit—but which has soured for me over the years.) And it took me two, or maybe three tries, and at the insistence of my wife, whose anarchic sense of humor and susceptibility to silliness must be acknowledged and respected, before I saw past the opposition position on Raising Arizona and its ostensible condescension to everyone and everything in sight.
But by the time I found myself walking down the road with Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne after the funeral of Bernie Bernbaum, I knew I’d seen something that fully lived up to the promise of the first two features and the enthusiasm of the Coen heads who loved them. A decade later, after I’d seen Miller’s Crossing at least 15 times—it was and is a movie I often crave seeing, and if I stumble upon it midway through on cable the next hour and 15 minutes or so are lost to any other cause—it had clearly become my favorite Coen Brothers movie, despite the advent of The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou, all movies I love to one degree or another. By the time I found myself digging even a period that most folks would consider minor at best-- The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers-- I had to admit that not only was resistance futile, it was nonexistent. And then came the brilliant chamber of horrors trilogy of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, which in my eyes cemented these two as perhaps the best filmmakers of their generation. Seriously, once you grapple with the age-old complaint of the Coens not “liking” their characters or feeling superior to the worlds they create, where do you go from there? Did Shakespeare “like” Shylock or Richard III? Did he endorse the superstition running rampant in Macbeth or not look upon his lead character as ceaselessly spineless in his ambition and beholden to the whims of his even more power-hungry wife? As with most complaints of this sort, it’s far too reductive—to obsess over whether J.D. Salinger was looking down his nose at Holden Caulfield would be, I think, to miss the bigger picture. Yet the Coens are routinely accused of callousness simply because they often root their subjects in the comedy of despair, and when they leave the comedy out, as in No Country, to some that despair can seem overwhelming, bleak beyond bearing.
So by declaring Miller’s Crossing (a movie, according to legend, apparently named after its editor) as sitting pole position in my personal ranking and spending a few words on the rest of the pack, I have still successfully avoided answering the question. Unfortunately, as it has been for many who have tried to pin this one down, the answer as to favorite, or second-favorite Coen Brothers film is for me remarkably fluid. My head says No Country for Old Men, or perhaps the richness and mystery of A Serious Man. But for this answer I’ve picked a movie which has resisted the erosion of the cult and retained its vibrant, lived-in pleasures despite the insistence of the enthusiastic and the threats of overexposure. I am making my choice by simply relying on the number of times I’ve allowed the movie to float past my eyes, hitch its hooks into my brain, make itself seem like not just a movie but part of who I am. Miller’s Crossing has this effect on me. So does number two: The Big Lebowski.
2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
I didn’t know it initially, but right after I posted this quiz I knew what my answer was. I got hold of the American Cinematheque January calendar and there it was-- January 5, on that gigantic screen, my favorite James Bond movie, which I have seen many times on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, cable TV and DVD, but never on the big screen: You Only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert, written by Roald Dahl, featuring the ultimate Ken Adam production design, that dogfight over the “volcano,” and all those luscious Japanese… locations. Yahoo! Check that one off the list, right? Not so fast. We had family in town, and it would have been unseemly of me to say hi and then bop off to see a movie that, after all, Dennis, you can see anytime you want on DVD. So we all stayed home with the kids and the visiting relatives and played Wii Bowling, which was, seriously, a lot of fun. A different kind of fun, perhaps, than buzzing villains in Little Nellie, but a lot of fun nonetheless. And I’m still waiting on the doorstep for my big-screen dream date with You Only Live Twice.
3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
Not exactly a short list from which to choose. From Once Upon a Time in the West it’s a toss-up between the rightfully famous opening scene, in which Jack Elam and Woody Strode wait patiently at the train station for the arrival of Harmonica, and Claudia Cardinale’s arrival in Sweetwater, with Morricone’s soaring melody lifting us up as she realizes her new husband is not there to greet her—she enters the train station, is seen through another rectangle frame, the window into the station, and the camera swoops over the building, giving us our first look at the bustling community below and eventually her buggy ride through town toward a horrible discovery. From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the last half hour, after Tuco and Blondie blow up the bridge and make their way across into the graveyard, where they meet Angel Eyes and discover, finally, what’s written on the back of Bill Carson’s tombstone. And just for good measure, Arthur Kennedy’s betrayal of Jimmy Stewart on the way back up into the mountains with winter supplies for the settlers in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River.
5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
It would seem that the most obvious answer would be photography. But as soon as I settled on that answer, then sound, or music, or editing suddenly made just as much sense to me, if only to distinguish between silent and sound film aesthetics and the way modern films themselves are structured and composed as set apart from their predecessors. But the one thing that is constant throughout the history of cinema, whether there be sound or silence to accompany the images, is the fact that those images were , for the most part, grounded in the music, rhythm and language of the written word, the script. You only have to put a brilliant actor in front of a large crowd of people, say, accepting an award, to get a quick illustration of how most actors usually depend heavily on memorization and interpretation of a script in order to come off looking as though their shit was halfway together. This isn’t a knock on actors but instead an acknowledgement of the necessity of the organizing principles of words, a foundation for presentation, to help make any of us look as though we know what we’re talking about. Heavily improvised films can be interesting, but they rarely result in the kind of truth that is intended; usually the most profound truth exposed is that there wasn’t a script in place. And when they do work they’re usually guided by someone with a vision of what the camera can do to shape those improvisations (Robert Altman) as opposed to someone who prefers to follow the actors around documenting their every move down a series of relatively blind alleys (say, John Cassavetes in full-on Husbands mode). So for me the most important art the movies draw upon to become what they are, the one I value above all others, must finally be the art of writing, which, just like the others, becomes a lot harder as soon as you try it for yourself-- which is why there are a lot more folks running around (many of them paid handsomely) who think they can do it as opposed to those who actually can and do and do it well.
6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?)
The movie highest on my own personal list of the best of the decade that just seemed to zip right past most critics and certainly paying audiences has to be Speed Racer (2008). It is my firm belief that this movie has already affected (for good and for bad, of course) how certain films have been made and that, like Blade Runner before it, it will continue to make its presence felt, even if those who initially ignored it will give credit to other films (and video games) for pioneering visual ideas that either originated with or were perfected by the Wachowskis. If it’s possible for us to be anticipating a 3D IMAX-ized sequel to, of all things, Tron some 28 years after that movie was unleashed (and make no mistake-- I’m as excited as anyone to experience it after seeing the trailer), then I will never entirely give up hope that someday Speed Racer will be fully appreciated as a masterpiece of poetic commercial filmmaking.
7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
My stock answer to this question might be Ridley Scott if there were ever a point where I held him in high esteem in the first place. The initial promise of The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner began to fizzle so thoroughly by 1983 that I can truly say I’ve never had my senses heightened by the prospect of seeing yet another Ridley Scott film. Actually, I was preparing to hand it over once again to Woody Allen, whose movies in the 1970s, up through Interiors and Manhattan, were actually considered generational must-sees for whippersnappers of my certain age. But even though I don’t think Woody’s made an altogether wonderful, or even good movie since Manhattan Murder Mystery (a statement that must be qualified by the fact that I haven’t been able to bring myself to see all of them he’s made since then), even something as dreadful as Whatever Works doesn’t sour me on the possibility that he might still have another Manhattan Murder Mystery in him. (And at least he doesn’t insist on casting Russell Crowe, or Larry David, in every goddamn movie he makes.) So I think this dishonor has to go to someone whose movies I used to find really enjoyable, who has gone so idle as to redefine “spinning your wheels,” whose own navel-gazing creative cannibalism (I used to think of it as crafting a comic universe) has retroactively spoiled even the films of his that I used to like. Those who routinely complain about how Quentin Tarantino can’t write characters who don’t all sound exactly alike, like him, are not only not paying attention, but should be directing their ire toward this fella, who is perhaps the guiltiest on this count of anyone to come of out the American independent film explosion of the ‘80s and ‘90s. I nominate Kevin Smith as the filmmaker who has most egregiously fallen in my sight.
Back in the day I loved Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, even Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I’ve defended Jersey Girl. I even bought the Mallrats DVD (albeit used) just for the camaraderie of the hilarious commentary track. But Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno were trough-trawling lows, and those “Evening with Kevin Smith” indulgences only shapeless, self-serving and insufferable, not funny or insightful. I’m at the point now where Kevin Smith has invited me to see through Kevin Smith to the degree that I don’t even trust my memory of what was good about those films I’ve mentioned that I once cared about. And I dread revisiting the one-- Dogma-- that I ever connected to on any level other than just as a loose-limbed laugh machine. Moreover, Smith’s strange ability to attract attention around the time one of his new movies is coming out (shouting down movie critics, complaining about the conservative ratings board, getting busted for being too fat) reeks of calculated desperation, as do his increasingly boorish man-or-fan-of-the-people Internet stances, which do nothing to minimize the perception that the man has been more forthright than we ever wanted to believe in insisting that he really never knew what he was doing, that he’s been winging it all along. I actually believe that the best thing for Kevin Smith is to have directed someone else’s script, just to try to get himself out of his own head, out of his own self-inflated mythology. But I’ll be damned if I could be roused to stomp down to the cineplex and see something as apparently tired and cynical as Cop Out, which (who knows) may turn out to be a perfectly fine Netflix rental. The long, strange career of Kevin Smith seems a perfect example to me of a downward trajectory from, despite his being in exactly the right place at the right time, a height that was never too lofty to begin with, one which his fans (myself included) elevated in part because he seemed so unpretentious, so limitlessly unflappable in his profane worldview, so unimpressed by his own success. His recent output, including the full-on embracing of the Kevin Smith cult and his standing as a pop culture oracle of the everyman, hasn’t sent the Smith Express off the rails—he seems to be hurtling ever forward to who knows where—so much as it has forced me to make other travel plans. Or, as one of his characters might colorfully put it, when it comes to “A Kevin Smith Film,” I guess I just don’t give a flying donkey fuck anymore.
8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
Patrick Magee is one of the great over-actors of all time. To see him in just about anything, from Dementia 13 to Die, Monster, Die!, The Masque of the Red Death, Marat/Sade, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, Young Winston, Barry Lyndon, Telefon and most memorably, rolling his eyeballs to the back of their sockets like no man ever had or has since in Clockwork Orange, is to enjoy the consumption of scenery at the highest possible station. Herbert Lom, on the other hand, has degrees of madness, more varied cuts and styles of straitjacket. His exquisitely insane Inspector Dreyfuss, constantly deflated foil to Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, plays almost (and especially in The Pink Panther Strikes Again) like a parody of Magee’s special excess. He had a decade of programmers under his belt by the time he oiled up the screen as Kristo in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, and character turns in films like Henry Hathaway’s The Black Rose and Michael Anderson’s Hell is Sold Out made way for his brilliant bit as one of The Ladykillers alongside Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker and future comrade in destruction Peter Sellers. But for this budding movie fan it was his pre-Dreyfuss performances as Captain Nemo in Cy Endfield’s Mysterious Island (with effects by Ray Harryhausen) and as the titular Phantom of the Opera in Terence Fisher’s lurid remake that sealed Lom for me as a major player in the Famous Monsters Hall of Fame. Despite plenty of other good character parts, Lom always returned to the horror well, even essaying Professor Van Helsing in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, as well as featured roles in Amicus’ anthology chiller Asylum, AIP’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and even an Italian remake of Dorian Gray. He also appeared memorably opposite Christopher Walken in David Cronenberg’s measured and haunting Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. For me, Lom’s career is the one that shows the most range, and certainly the most appeal, deranged or no.
9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
I’m tempted to be a smart-ass and say Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, but I’m perfectly happy to let Herzog take the blame for that one. (Lynch was the executive producer and, for worse and then way worse, the film’s obvious stylistic source of “inspiration.”) So, keeping to films Lynch has actually directed, let’s see… I have an interesting history with Eraserhead, a movie I love and respect now, but not so much then; The Elephant Man has to be one of the great commercial movie debuts ever; I even loved Dune, the poor, truncated, overstuffed thing, as a quite literal embodiment of visually arresting space opera, such as it was pitched and presented by Lynch’s ambitious imagination. (I continue to dimly hope that Lynch will cut together his own long version.) Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive are clearly masterpieces, and the Twin Peaks phenomenon is one I gratefully participated in during its time, right up through Fire Walk With Me, which I did not love, but which I can accept on a certain level as a sincere effort to battle encroaching self-awareness on the part of this most dream-connected and least calculated of filmmakers. (Fire Walk with Me succeeds—barely-- in avoiding this trap through the directness of its emotional hell.) I hated Lost Highway when I saw it some 16-17 years ago, but something tells me there’s more there than I was able to process when I first saw it (yet another nifty candidate for re-evaluation). The one movie that I think fails on precisely the terms in which Lynch carved out for himself, alone on the landscape of American cinema, is Wild at Heart, which though it is based on a novel written by Barry Gifford, seems to afford every opportunity for Lynch to play at being David Lynch, with all the trickery, overarching indulgence, embarrassing self-consciousness and stomach-turning grotesquerie that such play implies—it is, for all intents and purposes, Lynch’s own My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.
10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Conrad Hall is responsible for some of my favorite images from some wonderful films--The Professionals, Cool Hand Luke, Smile, Electra Glide in Blue, The Day of the Locust and Without Limits-- as well as some memorable work in movies that don’t work for me as a whole, including In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, Black Widow, Tequila Sunrise and his Oscar-winning cinematography on The Road to Perdition and the wretched American Beauty. (I think I really love his atmospheric work on Bruce Robinson’s ultimately muddled Jennifer Eight most of all.)
But with all respect to Hall, his memory and his body of work, Gordon Willis, despite the fact that his career as a director is responsible for a movie as reprehensible as Windows (1980), trumps anything and everything with his cinematography on The Godfather trilogy alone. And that’s to say nothing of the imprimatur of a masterpiece he bestowed upon Woody Allen’s Manhattan, perhaps one of the most astoundingly lovely black-and-white films ever shot, or his groundbreaking and astonishing work on Allen’s Zelig, which can be said to have ushered in, for better and for worse, an entirely new range of possibilities for the recreation of found photography—newsreels and home movies processed to visually revise historical events with the inclusion of fictional characters.
But for crying out loud, take a look—really take a look-- at the brilliant choreography of shadows and light he was responsible for in films like Klute, Bad Company, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, The Drowning Pool, Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo (which placed his Zelig techniques in a more fanciful, depressing context) and two personal bests not related to Coppola or Allen—the stunning landscape palette he realized for Alan Pakula’s Comes a Horseman and the brilliantly depressive Edward Hopper-by-way-of-Busby Berkeley wide-screen glories he created for Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven. These are among the most gorgeous and evocative films ever shot, and if Willis had only delivered the two of them he would have a place among the pantheon of great cinematographers. But he shot The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Manhattan and Zelig too. End of story. Slam dunk: Gordon Willis.
11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
Well, there ain’t no doubt in my mind that Charley Varrick rules the roost here. But that ain’t the question, now, is it? The Big Steal, Escape from Alcatraz, Hell is For Heroes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Riot on Cell Block 13-- any one of those five could sit second-place in the company of the Last of the Independents. And though I’ve had the DVD since Christmas, I don’t know yet from personal experience, though I suspect that The Lineup could easily join that rarified company. Second-best Siegel would really beat just about anybody’s first, especially if we’re talking hard-boiled drama, in black-and-white or color. And with that in mind I submit the original, oft imitated, never matched Dirty Harry as my second favorite Don Siegel film-- together with Varrick it comprised an early ‘70s one-two knockout series to the breadbasket the likes of which Siegel himself would never surpass. Dirty Harry remains, 39 years later, one of the great, influential modern policiers, even if it does take a drubbing in the context of David Fincher’s Zodiac, and even if Pauline Kael was horrified by it. This was my introduction to the world of R-rated films back in 1972, when I saw it at the ripe old age of 12 at my local drive-in. Great memories are made of far less heady stuff than this, and Dirty Harry in many ways laid the groundwork for a life of appreciating movies where bruised and battered dreams conjured by the likes of Siegel, Eastwood, Leone and many others were constantly being discovered and made to come alive. Not bad for second-best. (Here’s the opening credits.)
13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
I would love to see Paramount (or whoever it is that owns the rights these days) pull out all the stops and release a nicely, crisp letterboxed DVD of Mandingo with a commentary track featuring the surviving actors. And wouldn’t it be nice if Universal could somehow talk Steven Spielberg into sitting down and creating a remastered version of the director’s cut of 1941 for Blu-ray (and sure, go ahead and include the theatrical version too, for comparison purposes.) The existing DVD is excessively diffuse (even more so that DP William Fraker intended, I suspect) and it isn’t even an anamorphic transfer for wide-screen TVs, a sure sign that the movie has been floating around too long in the home video universe without a necessary second look. But I think ultimately I’d like to be able to toss my TCM-dubbed wide-screen copy of Charley Varrick and replace it with a slick Blu-ray transfer. The Nevada desert will have never seemed dustier and more menacing that on a good Blu-ray version on Don Siegel’s masterpiece. There must be some good promotional material that could be included, not to mention the remembrances of surviving actors like Joe Don Baker, Andrew Robinson and even Felicia Farr, who ought to have one or two stories about Walter Matthau worth sharing. At any rate, disposing of Universal cut-rate full-screen, no-frills DVD from several years ago—the only official stateside digital release of this movie available—would be a cause for celebration in itself, but especially if there was a Blu-ray waiting in the wings.
14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
As much as I love Deezen in 1941 and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Mintz-Plasse is less of a one-note performer—he’s McLovin’, for Christ’s sake, and he might have been even better in Role Models. I even liked him in Year One. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to Kick-Ass. Advantage: Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
Among those whose body of work is signed, sealed and delivered, there can be none higher than Barbara Stanwyck in this regard, and I have yet to see so many of her films, relatively speaking, that she feels just as alive to me as she did when she actually was. (Next up: Stanwyck and MacMurray reunited in There’s Always Tomorrow.) Among the living and breathing, I’ll say Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung.
The men folk would be represented handily by the sublimely menacing and always interesting Bruce McGill. As I wrote in my 2009 roundup: “I will watch (McGill) in literally anything, which is good for him, but not always for me because he’s made his share of bummers… You come away wishing, as you do in so many movies which feature McGill for only a scene or two (I’m thinking of Michael Mann’s The Insider) that this dynamic actor had possession of the lead role instead of being forced to sear his way through the distractions of ungainly plots and other actors in order to make an impression. Those hang-dog eyes… have translated with age into deep pools, reserves of humanity that have more than enough room for anger, humility, affection, arrogance, entitlement, righteousness and the many other tools of the trade of a great character actor. I continue to wish him better parts, but I am always so grateful for those moments when he pops up unexpectedly to save whatever mediocre film he’s in at the moment that I’m almost afraid of getting what I wish for.”
And having just seen Bronson I’d be willing to project that the almost satanically magnetic Tom Hardy might be a candidate for possible installation here in the future.
20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
I’ve been paid to see movies and still felt I would have been better off doing a load of laundry. However, in keeping with the spirit of the question, I once paid 50 cents to see a Saturday matinee of The Shoes of the Fisherman which, even though it happened 40 years ago, still has to rank as one of the most profoundly boring experiences of my life. I know I’m all about going back and revisiting duds of my past these days, but do I have to go back and see this one again?
(To Be Continued, Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel...)