Wednesday, May 07, 2008


In the absence of any actual writing of my own to peddle and promote at the moment, I do want to point your way to a few things that I’ve really enjoyed in the rare moments I seem to have these days when I can read someone else’s blog. I don’t flit around quite as promiscuously as I used to, but some places, well, some places I just can’t not go.

Jim Emerson’s Scanners is one of those places. And right now Jim is engaged ina really fascinating two-part discussion about the movie on my list to see right now, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which dissects the Abu Ghraib photographs and examines the implications and suggestions behind the photographs, becoming a consideration of the hidden meaning of even the most seemingly clear-cut imagery. Here’s Jim:

“The image is the world's only remaining superpower. Understanding their power of images -- not just what's in the pictures themselves, but what they signify -- is the key to understanding the world and our place within it. It's also, recently, the source of the most deadly and dismal failures in American history. From the attacks of 9/11 through the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Americans' inability to comprehend what they were seeing -- or even to recognize the primacy of the image itself as the representation of events -- has had catastrophic consequences.”

A friend and I were discussing just today Pasolini’s Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, and we began thinking about how relevant that movie might be today, especially in the light of Abu Ghraib and Morris’ documentary. What can we deduce from the way Pasolini immerses us in his graphic metaphor for the effects of enduring the grim existence under Fascism? Do the images he conjures suggest, as Morris contends the images of Abu Ghraib seem to suggest, only part of the story captured in any individual frame? Can we draw parallels between what Pasolini was doing in Salo in depicting these dramatized horrors and what Morris is trying to do in SOP? I can’t answer the question because I haven’t seen Morris’ movie yet. I wonder what Jim would think.

Also: check out Jim’s fascinating discussion of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, surely Schrader’s finest hour and one of the best films of the ‘80s.

Then there’s Dave Fear’s deliberately, delightfully provocative list of unclassics, movies that should be kicked out of the good graces of any respectable pantheon of genuine classics. Or so says Fear. You’ll enjoy nodding your head in approval and shaking your head in disgust as you make your way down his list. And keep some choices of your own reserved for the next SLIFR quiz; I have it on good authority that one question will shamelessly lift Dave’s premise and ask for further additions (or subtractions, I suppose) from the limelight of movie nostalgia.

Old friend Kim Morgan has been chin deep in film noir lately. Last month she took the stage at the American Cinematheque to interview Eddie Muller and Marsha Hunt, and on any given day it’s likely she’s seen at least one great film noir to get her excited. Right now Kim’s taking on six great Barbara Stanwyck performances, and as anyone who knows her stuff is already aware, Kim on Barbara or any subject related to film noir is to be savored. So get to savorin’! Also, Kim reissues her superbad piece on great car movies, with a tip on the latest mag to feature her red-line writing (plus some neat pics!) If we’re lucky, it’s still on a well-stocked newsstand near us.

Finally, speaking of cars, for those of you who have a stake in such matters (and in this I include myself), the reviews on the Wachowski Brothers’ upcoming Speed Racer have been pretty devastating—Rotten Tomatoes reports, at this writing, a wilting 30% rating. But if you’ve taken your Dramamine, you may want to consider the movie based on the intriguing review posted a few days ago by Glenn Kenny. Here’s a taste:

“One of the most genuinely confounding films to come along in years, the Wachowski Brothers' follow-up to The Matrix trilogy is, if viewed from one angle, the most headache inducing kid's movie of them all; if viewed from another, it's the most expensive avant-garde film ever made…

The bright, candy-colored universe the Wachowskis fashion out of digital and green screen wizardry is often psychedelic in the extreme. I've read some internet effects mavens complaining about the cheez-whizziness of the look, pointing out repetitions of figures in digital crowd renderings. I think all of that is precisely the point. The picture opens by attempting to digitally radicalize cinematic language, with multiple storylines — young Speed Racer's car obsession, relationship with older brother Rex Racer, Rex's tragic fall from grace, and death, and a "here and now" race in which Speed has the opportunity to break a record set by his older brother, and doesn't take it — coming at you in a big bright space-time ball, with no cuts but rather central figures from each story horizontally "wiping" the screen to create transition. Alas, this radicalization of film language, while certainly impressive to behold, yields heretofore un-dreamed of levels of narrative incoherence, but hey, not every experiment succeeds...

The various characters strike, and freeze, in heroic poses. The camera revolves around them, and they look totally, like, awesome and iconic and, well, heroic. Then there's a sound effect, or a bunch of sound effects, and maybe a depiction of a single blow or shot… To have a series of poses effectively substitute for battle in a live-action summer blockbuster film in this way is to... well, it's to take Godardian notions to places where even Godard might never have dreamed of taking them.”

I was riding a train back home from downtown Los Angeles last night, and as we entered full-speed into a tunnel just before my stop, I heard several audible gasps. I looked up from my book and glanced outside the window, where I saw brilliant flashing animation from video screens (possibly hundreds of them) mounted on the tunnel wall and timed to flash out a sequence from Speed Racer that would maintain visual coherence-- that was most likely only granted visual coherence—by our seeing it while high-speed traveling on the train and the acceptance of it through our accelerated eye-to-brain coordination. It was a weird moment, a perfect modern form of advertising that took advantage of the recipient’s environment of forward motion and capitalized on it in a form that would be impossible to recreate in a stationary situation. If there’s anything as surprising, as momentarily eye-boggling and mind-warping, as the sudden appearance of that animated ad in a train tunnel in the actual movie, there may be something yet to write about this weekend.


Robert Fiore said...

I have to agree up and down the line with the Unclassics list. I would go so far as to say that any American film that tried to adopt the style of Antonioni, Bergman or the nouvelle vague was an Unclassic waiting to happen. I've never been able to sit through more than a half hour of The Seven Year Itch, and I'm a huge admirer of not only Billy Wilder but The Girl Can't Help It. It's a hell of a note when Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe could be outdone by Frank Tashlin and Jayne Mansfield in the Tom-Ewell-and-a-blonde theme. (I disagree on Ewell though; his Everyman has a dry wit that is at least a complement to Jack Lemmon's Age of Anxiety Everyman, though of course he was no Jack Lemmon.)

Arsenic and Old Lace suggests another category: The filmmaker-with-subject pairing which seems perfect in theory but doesn't work in practice. (Arsenic was of course karmically doomed when it fails to recreate the best gag in the Broadway version, The Man Who Looks Like Karloff played by Karloff. A missed opportunity like that is a crime and a disgrace.) Actually this isn't even the only time it happened to Capra, with a Broadway hit: You Can't Take It With You never finds the right note either, though it won an Oscar. Capracorn needed to be tailor made. Anyway, getting back to the mismatch theme, the one that sticks out in my mind is Royal Flash directed by Richard Lester, with a script by George MacDonald Fraser himself no less, and after the Three Musketeer movies, too. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Holmes and Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles has to be one of the all time great disappointments. The only funny thing in that movie was a puppy who wouldn't stop pissing. Really.

Robert Fiore said...

And how could I forget that Tashlin even did Wilder one better in adapting a George Axelrod play, in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, starring that other poor man's Jack Lemmon who nevertheless is not chopped liver, Tony Randall. These two pictures were head and shoulders above anything else Tashlin ever did, and of course not a patch on the best of Wilder.

Anonymous said...

They have those subway ads here in Boston too--I don't think they're animated, just a few hundred static images that seem animated (like a flipbook) when you pass by them on at 30 miles an hour or however fast a subway goes.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hi, Robert. Yeah, I think Fear's list is pretty much right on the money too. I've always thought of The Seven Year Itch as the low point of Wilder's career (well, maybe that and Fedora). And though I'm probably between you and Fear on Tom Ewell, even as a kid he always seemed to me a tad too desperate for my taste, though that desperation worked in The Girl Can't Help It (perhaps because the movie itself, unlike Itch, wasn't.) He and Dick York always seemed like two peas in a pod to me, and to be honest I preferred Dick York.

And amen to the inclusion of Gone With the Wind, a movie I think never quite transcends its melodramatic foundations, and especially Easy Rider, the very definition, in a limited, negative sense, of "of it's time." It's hard to disparage it in terms of what it meant for film culture when it was released, and as Fear points out there were a lot of great movies that were made possible because of its acceptance as a popular hit. But as a movie, it's largely a wash, and that New Orleans acid trip scene was an ominous preview of the wretched excess that would mark most of the bald-faced attempts by other studios to recreate the success of Easy Rider by appealing to the same demographic.

Where I take issue with Fear is with #10: Is there anyone who really still thinks Love Story is a classic?!

Headquarters 10 said...

Similar ads have been available on the PATH trains that run from Hoboken and Jersey City, NJ to NYC for a couple of years now, though I've never seen a movie ad. SPEED RACER seems a perfect fit for such an ad and probably does look pretty impressive splattered on a subway wall. Still those ads depress me. What piece of space isn't for sale these days?

As for SPEED RACER itself, I was surprised by how much I liked it (full review on HQ10 - plug, plug). I don't think it re-invents cinema, but it's got a hell of a lot more going on than most of the dismissive critics are giving it. Kenny seems to understand it better than most and while it's certainly not going to be for everyone, it's more adventurous (and more heartfelt - the Warkowskis really seem to want to make a real family film) than most would believe. Go into it with an open mind and it's easy to get into.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Speed Racer yet, but what Glenn Kenny describes as a "series of poses effectively substituting for battle" is actually a pretty common aesthetic in anime. And then there's the influence of comics, of course; the Wachowskis are known for building their action sequences around key frames, resembling the panels in a Frank Miller comic.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peet, you've pinned exactly what's going on in Speed Racer. The Wachowskis not only build their action around comic book frames, they obilterate the frame, liquidate it, to arresting effect. Kenny seems to get it, but Carina Cochano in the L.A. Times reviewed it as if she'd never heard of anime, complaining simultaneously about the movie's "confusing, hard to follow action" and its "vast swaths of dialogue" that she claim weighs the film down to the point that it will surely try the patience of even the eight-year-old boys to whom it is supposedly exclusively pitched. I just got back from seeing it with my girls, and we're all three ready to go back and see it tomorrow. I think you'll love it, and I know Luka and Rasmus will. I'll try to write some more on it this weekend. Meanwhile, I'm off to read Matthew's review at Headquarters 10.