Tuesday, September 30, 2008


This past weekend when I heard of the passing of Paul Newman, who died of cancer at the age of 83 on Saturday, I felt a definite sadness, of course, but also the sense of a life well spent, a life as easy to celebrate in the living as to mourn in the dying. Newman was, in addition to being a certified movie star and a well-respected actor, a philanthropist whose line of Newman’s Own products, including spaghetti sauce, popcorn, lemonade and salad dressing, all benefited multiple charities to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. His was also a life of celebrity lived below what might now be thought of as the TMZ line—he maintained an East Coast lifestyle that mostly eschewed the spotlight (he wasn’t even in the building when he finally won an Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Hustler sequel, The Color of Money), and the marriage he shared with Joanne Woodward lasted 50 years, a gold standard for enduring Hollywood relationships. Newman was also active in many liberal political causes and political candidacies—his support of presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy in 1968 even snared him a high-profile spot on Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list.

But when I think of Newman the actor I don’t gravitate to the performances that have been mentioned most often in this past week of remembrances and tributes. I think it’s wonderful and all too appropriate that this man, whose passion for racing was well documented, should have made his terrific voice work in Pixar’s Cars his final screen role, and the force of his turn as the titular antihero of Cool Hand Luke is undeniable. But movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Color of Money, Absence of Malice, even The Hustler, have never ranked high on my list of great movies, and they would rank about as high on my list of great Newman performances as well. Especially in the ‘80s, when he began gravitating toward the kind of roles that mixed sleazy morality with righteous indignation (I’m thinking less here of The Verdict, a solid film, than Absence of Malice, somewhat less solid) I began to lose interest in him as an actor and a screen persona. His Oscar win for revisiting the role of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money was a career-achievement award given after he’d won an actual career achievement award. The role, as written, seemed less an investigation of a man at the later stage in a misspent life than a chance for an actor to cruise on his star power in a role uncomfortably similar in range and effect to Absence and The Verdict and even his conflicted cop in Fort Apache the Bronx. (And in a way Newman’s win mirrors the Best Director award Scorsese himself would score nearly 20 years later for The Departed.) Yet his adventurous late-career work in movies like the two he did for Robert Benton, Nobody’s Fool and Twilight, proved that he had more left in the tank besides the desire to coast off into the sunset.

The Newman performances that honestly made the greatest impression on me all came in movies that, to one degree or another, challenged my perceptions of Newman the star (unflappable, virile, righteous, self-righteous) and what those perceptions meant. They all depended greatly on the actor’s considerable charm, of course, but they were almost always also willing to make it harder for audiences to accept that charismatic quality blindly—they didn’t mask the characters’ amorality behind those blue eyes but instead used them to investigate it. And each of the roles on my list made either overt or covert connections to that beer-drinking, blue-collar bravado that seemed, to some of us in the audience who never knew him personally, closest to Newman himself.

Hud (1963; Martin Ritt) Newman exposed the seductive center of gravity of an alienated youth pitched in battle with his moralistic father (Melvyn Douglas) with chilling humor and the cumulative effect of very few punches pulled. But rather than making an argument for the wounded vulnerability of a generation a la James Dean, Newman (and the movie) trafficked in uncomfortable character truths that threw both youthful narcissism and the supposed wisdom of the aged into stark relief against a beautiful, brittle background of modern-day cowboy iconography.

Sometimes a Great Notion (1970; Paul Newman) As Hank Stamper, owner with his father Henry (Henry Fonda) of a renegade Oregon logging business, Newman brings surprising empathy to a role that could have boiled down to simple stubborn pride. But he finds an interior through line that connects Hank’s desire to live up to the standards of his bullheaded father with his own desire to keep the Stamper logging business thriving through a hard-fought coastal lumber strike. Newman the actor, and the director, find common ground with Ken Kesey’s mythic perspective without ever tipping the movie into grandiose bombast and overarching sentiment.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976; Robert Altman) Newman ended up batting .500 for Robert Altman. His glazed-over work for the director’s glacially confused sci-fi chamber piece Quintet was as frosty and interior as the director’s work was obtuse. But these two cinematic icons inaugurated their two-film collaboration by serving up a deliciously satiric treat for the American Bicentennial—a sharp-eyed, hilarious, and hugely underrated critique of American celebrity served up through the smoky glass of historical revisionism. Newman’s Buffalo Bill is a fool haunted by the demons of his own insecurity, his own knowledge of his inability to even come close, as a man, to the epic shadow he has already begun to cast over the nation’s view of itself. The actor’s piercing blue eyes have never seemed as haunted as they do peering out from the bewigged leonine visage of Bill Cody in full performance regalia, as he simultaneously embodies the full bluster of American manifest destiny and cocks an ear toward the voices echoing in his head that will constantly remind him, in the night, of the bitter truth behind that bluster.

Slap Shot (1977; George Roy Hill) The actor drank deep of the nasty knockabout comedy in Nancy Dowd’s famously foul-mouthed script-- about a once-great hockey coach who resorts to lowdown tactics on the ice to help save a minor-league team from extinction-- as if it were a tall glass of water, or an ice-cold beer, set down in front of a man dying of thirst. He seemed to get a charge out of showing off the uncensored side of his personality in Hill’s uncharacteristically ragged, rough-edged movie, as if modeling a corrective to the safe movie star aura he had solidified with Butch Cassidy and The Sting. This raucous movie features Newman at his loosest and funniest.

Blaze (1988; Ron Shelton) Having about as much fun as he did in Slap Shot, Newman brought salty, crackling life to Earl Long, the aging, still flamboyant governor of Louisiana who struck up a torrid, plenty public affair in the 1950s with stripper Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich), despite the difficulties it raised for implementing the politician’s relatively progressive racial policies. Newman elevated a potentially cantankerous cartoon to the level of emotional truth even when the tone of Shelton’s film faltered, and in the process created a vivid portrait of political wisdom coexisting with sexual appetite (and love) that anticipated the Clinton era with the kind of sympathy and good humor that was in short supply on talk radio during much of that president’s second term in office. Of all the actor’s late-period performances, it’s this one that is seemingly least remembered and most direly in need of rediscovery.

Make no mistake: Paul Newman was also great in The Left-handed Gun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Harper, Hombre, the aforementioned Cool Hand Luke, WUSA, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Drowning Pool, The Verdict, Nobody’s Fool, Twilight, Cars and, of course, The Hudsucker Proxy.

Rest in peace, Mr. Newman, and many condolences to your family and friends.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The Coen Brothers opened last year’s No Country for Old Men, a movie on whose landscape evidence of God was in short supply, with an arid montage of darkened desert Texas tableau that obliquely suggested the spiritless, harshly beautiful surroundings that characterized Kubrick’s Dawn of Man. Their new movie, Burn After Reading, opens with a different perspective on that same landscape, one at an even further remove from any specific beauty through which its characters might stumble, ignorant of said beauty, toward their randomly absurd fates. Burn, a typically riotous take on high-tech spy movie conventions scored to the Coens’ uniquely syncopated inner beats, takes the wryly clinical God’s-eye-view of Hitchcock’s The Birds and attaches it to the wonders of technology. The grand overview of humanity with which the movie commences is that provided by satellite surveillance—the point of view of Kubrick’s bone after it transforms into a spaceship—and quickly zeroes down from the heavens to the surface of the Earth where the characters have been rendered so miniscule and microscopic—they don’t become more significant the closer we get to them-- as to have had their meaning as anything other than self-important 1’s and 0’s compressed right out of them. The heavens may be vastly indifferent, but it turns out they have a taste for existential slapstick—they think it’s funny as hell to watch as we fragile and foolish humans slip and fall on banana peel after banana peel on our way to our great rewards-- which may include the means to a long-sought-after pursuit of happiness via plastic surgery, a one-way ticket to a life riddled with unwarranted and excessive paranoia (delusions of grandeur manifest themselves in amusing ways in this picture), or perhaps an early and unexpected death while wearing a stupid grin on one’s face.

The joke of Burn After Reading is a nasty variation on the old bromide about things not being what they seem— in this movie, nothing—personal remembrances, faux government secrets, loveless marriages-- is worth the effort put into the scramble undertaken to procure or preserve them. It’s a movie populated by demoted C.I.A. analysts and philandering federal marshals and clueless health club employees who end up chasing each other's tails over a bunch of notes for a memoir no one will ever read; notes which themselves are mistaken for encrypted high-clearance government secrets that, strangely enough, no one who would recognize such secrets when they saw them seem to be interested in. The Coens maintain the bemused aerial detachment of their movie's opening image by making sure that the only folks who have the whole picture, confusing and absurd though it may be, are those of us in the audience, who heartlessly laugh like hell as everyday Joes squint their eyes knowingly, play-acting like Richard Burton having just come out of the cold, and government nabobs implode over everyday heart-breakers like divorce attorney surveillance and overdrawn checking accounts. And of course their every encounter is fraught with head-scratching misunderstanding and the aforementioned delusions of grandeur. Everyone in the cast plays dumb brilliantly; the volcanic and alcoholic spook (John Malkovich) whose humiliating demotion kicks the action off; his icy, manipulative wife (Tilda Swinton); the lonely and desperate gym employee (Frances McDormand) who decides that funding the elective rhinoplasty and liposuction her H.M.O. won’t pay for is justification for what she assumes is a betrayal of her country; the mechanically inclined ladies man (George Clooney) who trolls the Internet for sexual encounters to counterbalance the lies he tells himself about his marriage to a successful children’s book author (he’s sleeping with both Swinton and McDormand); and the hyperactive musclehead (Brad Pitt) who goads McDormand into ill-fated blackmail without the necessary leverage— during a clumsy payoff attempt he’s effortlessly pegged as a rube by Malkovich, whose angry rants don’t hit as hard as an unexpected blow to the nose or a profound insult to Pitt’s preferred mode of transportation. (“You think that’s a Schwinn?” the gym-bot asks incredulously.)

The movie carries through on its wheel-spinning scenario with a running commentary by a pair of Washington pencil-pushers (David Raschke and J.K. Simmons) who poke curiously at the moves of all the major players and with increasing impatience wait for it all to make sense. That it never does is, of course, the movie’s crowning joke, one whose ultimate comic value will correlate precisely to how much you enjoy indulging in the perspective of that indifferent, omniscient, technological god whose orbiting point of view is restored as the closing credits commence. Were it not so consistently hilarious, full of oddball character moments (Richard Jenkins’ gym manager is revealed to have a past as an Orthodox Greek priest, a back story which goes uncommented upon) and, for such a brutal farce, unexpected levels of empathy for its parade of fools. The characters in Burn After Reading have no depths and resonances to be plumbed a la The Big Lebowski, but its bitterness, while certainly less than humanist, doesn’t leave the metallic after-taste of a relatively empty noir exercise like Blood Simple or a sterile Boschian puzzle box like Barton Fink. (Then again, I liked Intolerable Cruelty.) The pleasures of Burn After Reading, nasty (and cineasty) though they may be, are all right there on the surface, just like the self-important ants scurrying around on that big globe that bookends the movie itself. The vast indifference of heaven proves to be a proper attitude after all.

I mentioned the “cineasty” pleasures of Burn After Reading (which extend to the faux-Saul Bass design of its one-sheet) and, as in nearly every Coen Brothers movie, there are many of those to be relished. In the beginning, after dropping down from space and through the roof of C.I.A. Headquarters, we get the title card at the lower left of frame informing us that we are indeed roaming the corridors at C.I.A., Langley, Virginia, accompanied by the familiar beeping and clicking as each letter appears-- a deadpan joke in this age of excessive 24-Bourne style geographical (dis)orientation. The chyron is superimposed over another spy-movie staple, the low-to-the-ground angle on a pair of patent leather shoes purposefully pounding their way down a carpeted hall to a destination of what is sure to be, given the graphic weight of the image and speed at which they are traveling, a very important destination. And later in the movie, just after a particularly surprising turn of events, the Coens return to this swift-step tracking for a series of shots leading from the halls of the Pentagon to some inner chamber that might be the single funniest (and deadest-panned) joke in the entire movie—certainly deadpan enough that I think I was the only one in the opening-night audience who laughed. The montage consists of only about five shots in toto, and what makes it hilarious is what the brothers, in collaboration with genius sound editor Skip Lievsay (who somehow avoided an Oscar for No Country for Old Men), create on the soundtrack-- a patchwork of ambient, air-conditioning-inflected ambient sound that alters slightly, in tone, pitch and intensity, and increases in hilarity with each shot. It’s there if you hear it and gone in a flash if you don’t, a throwaway gag, a juicy riff on the vacuum-packed visual language of these kinds of films, another one for the Coen Brothers peanut gallery. It's also quite easy to imagine Joel and Ethan racked with laughter in the editing room, not giving a damn if anyone else thinks the joke is funny.

The moment made me think of other great movie jokes about or created by the inventive use of sound. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that go far beyond the scope and time frame of the ones I could think of, but in the aftermath of seeing Burn After Reading a second time this past week I came up with four other great uses of sound in movies that either make us laugh, or comment upon the action (or our expectations and dread), or make a point about how sound in movies can manipulate us just as easily as the image can. You will undoubtedly be able to think of other instances, and I’d love to hear about ones that demonstrate the medium’s self-awareness and creative use of sound in the early days of the movies’ marriage to audio. As always, I look forward to what you will have thought of that will have inevitably passed me by.

In chronological order:

Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) begins with a great joke on generations who have come to expect a certain something when confronted with Leo the Lion and the famous MGM studio logo. Instead of a loud roar asserting the potency of the studio and its far-reaching vision of entertainment, Altman fittingly frames the days of turmoil and bankruptcy that would characterize MGM in the early ‘70s with a declaration of puzzlement and disorientation. The first words heard on the soundtrack are from Rene Auberjoinois’ avian-looking professor, who will himself morph into a strange stork-like creature over the course of the movie, who is heard muttering, “I’ve forgotten the opening line,” a bizarre admission revealed as an on-set blooper by the attendant laughter of the crew that immediately follows. The opening credits themselves are another typically Altmanesque jamboree of sound-and-image manipulation that really must be seen to be believed. (That’s Margaret Hamilton “singing” the National Anthem…)

Taste went out the window in a rather ostentatious way in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) when the director orchestrated what is surely the rudest tribute to the musical fruit ever committed to film. The bean-inspired burps and farts are funny in an of themselves, without a doubt, but what’s really funny about the sequence is how the toots escalate and vary in pitch and shape, from an inaugural honking blast into a virtual symphony of whiffs and explosions and uncontrolled methane production. That and the look on Slim Pickens’ face as he comes out of the tent…

In a great horror movie, anticipation and dread can be as potent as any revelation of the face behind the mask (or the masked face behind the heavy sliding metal door). Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) efficiently plays on its audience’s dread for what they know, courtesy of the none-too-subtle (and now iconographic) advertising campaign, will be coming soon enough. The movie, startlingly inventive on a scale of suggestive use of sound, knows we know what’s coming too. Our protagonists, a bunch of kids on a van tour across Texas, make their way, in broad daylight, through a field toward an old house, probably abandoned, and as they get closer we become aware of a faint sound in the distance, something that sounds like an engine. A revving engine. The sound gets louder as they (and we) get closer to the house, and we know that moving forward is not going to be a good idea—there is mention in the title of the movie of chainsaws, after all. The sound becomes louder, droning, nearly deafening as the kids approach the dilapidated yard, slowly making their way through mangled fences and around a beat-up shack, rounding a corner to reveal… a gas-powered electric generator running at full speed, a completely innocuous sound source. We laugh with relief, even as we wonder who started the generator and where they might be. A few moments later we find out when the engine sound is replaced by the one we guessed to begin with…

Before becoming ensnared in a series of shadowy political machinations that are, in all likelihood, more profound and disquieting in their depth and sphere of influence than even his paranoia will allow, the sound editor played by John Travolta in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Blow Out (1981) is seen with his sleazy producer watching a naked screamer in the cheap horror movie they are creating let loose a spectacularly insufficient shriek on the event of being stabbed in the shower. The dissatisfaction of these filmmakers, born of that hollow space between the effective visual terror of the actress and the ineffectual moans on the soundtrack, will send Travolta on a search, among the movie’s many other concerns, for a really good scream. In one of De Palma’s many brilliant textual commentaries on how sound is manipulated by the movies, we later see a recording session in which auditions are being held for female screamers whose vocal performances are to be laid over the limp mewling emanating from the original actress. The scene is played for broad comedy—none of the actresses hired for their voice-over abilities are much more talented than the woman whose voice is being replaced, and neither Travolta nor we can quite believe what we’re hearing.

The tragedy at the center of Blow Out, a movie about the gulf between what we see and what we hear, is that Travolta finally finds the ultimate scream, a howl of despair that will likely haunt the inside of his head forever. The bitterest of jokes is how the scream is memorialized, and of course trivialized, by being put into the service of that routine exploitation shocker. We unknowingly hear the same scream, decontextualized, as Blow Out starts, and there it works as simple ear candy, suspense movie decoration. By the movie’s end it has its own horrific reverberation.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


I have never thought of the long-running series of SLIFR quizzes that have become a fixture of this blog as memes in the strictest sense. They have always resided here on this page and those who have participated have had to come and get it—oftentimes the quiz-takers have opted to post their answers on their own blogs, but that was never a requirement or suggestion, just a happy outcome which provides further linkage to a lot of other blogs well worth reading. As I understand it, memes are questions or a series of questions sent to a specific person or group of people, who then answer the questions, either at the host’s site or on their own, and then “tag” five or six or ten other people to answer the same questions, presumably people whose answers they would find most interesting/fascinating/curiosity-inspiring. I don’t get tagged with many of these, but when I do it’s usually a pretty challenging question, one that I like to take my time answering. Well, a couple of weeks ago SLIFR reader Joseph B., himself the proprietor of It’saMadMadBlog2, honored me with a tag and the challenge of a good question indeed:

What are 12 Movies I’ve Never Seen and Desperately Want to See?

Well, as happens with memes of this type, the original intent of the question tends to get warped to the participant’s own special purposes, and so it is here. Joseph’s original question included the qualifier that the movies on your list should be ones that are virtually impossible to find. Whether through confessional compulsion or sheer masochism, I bristled at that part of the question because it seemed like an easy out to me—if the important films for me that I haven’t seen are virtually impossible to find, well, then it can hardly be my fault if I haven’t seen them, can it? As it turns out, with maybe one exception, the movies I came up with—off the top of my head and with no reference to lists of any kind—are all movies that are easily (or less easily) available on DVD, either at Best Buy, through Netflix or one of many outré video outlets on the Internet. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I have not yet found time or opportunity to see them, because the desire is definitely there. These are all movies that most people who know me or my taste in films would be surprised, perplexed or out-and-out confused to find out haven’t yet managed time in my DVD player, as they all (with, again, perhaps one notable exception) are of genres or areas of interest that occupy large chunks of real estate in my cinema wheelhouse.

All right, to the movies.

Ben-Hur (1959; William Wyler)
I’ve never felt an urgent need to see Wyler’s Oscar-winning epic, even though I’ve always wanted to. (What are you scribbling on that pad, Doctor?) I once borrowed the DVD from a friend, kept it for over two years, then returned it to him unwatched. I fear I would do the same if I ever rented it from Netflix. Can anyone convince me to pick up this movie and watch it right now?

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965; Russ Meyer)
I’ve already confessed having never seen this one in my Dr. Smith Answers, but it’s so iconic that I’m feeling guiltier about this hole in my cinematic education (pneumatic division) as each year passes. No less an authority than Russ Meyer himself recommended it—he was serving popcorn at the old Vagabond Theater off of Macarthur Park in Downtown L.A. when I took my soon-to-be-wife to a double bill of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Cherry, Harry and Raquel, and I asked him which one of his movies I should see right away. He responded with FPKK. Any right-thinking person would have gone out and rented it that very next night. Some 16 years later, I am still delinquent in my responsibility.

God’s Angry Man (1980; Werner Herzog)
This documentary nugget about the oddball televangelist/curmudgeon Dr. Gene Scott, from the oeuvre of the German New Wave’s most durable icon, has been on my must-see list for years. Incredibly, one of my other favorite film directors e-mailed me one day a couple of years ago with a web address where I could find it. I ordered it as soon as I finished this post, and you can too!)

Hickey and Boggs (1972; Robert Culp)
I remember seeing part of this well-regarded thriller, a reteaming of the Culp/Cosby I Spy team in a much different, hard-boiled, sun-scorched noir context (with a script by Walter Hill), on Cinemax in a motel room one night. But as badly as I wanted to stay awake, I simply could not. I’ve never run into it since, and the DVD that’s available looks, to be generous, like it would not be of optimum quality.

High School (1968; Fredrick Wiseman)
I’ll never forget reading Pauline Kael’s review of this movie 30 or so years ago, in her Deeper into Movies collection, if I’m not mistaken, and thinking I’d probably never get a chance to see it. In the intervening years my interest in documentaries has only increased, and now would seem to be the perfect time to seek out High School and all the other important films made by this pioneering verite filmmaker, many of which are available from Zipporah Films.

I Vitelloni (1953; Federico Fellini)
Of all the films on this list, it’s this one that I’m most embarrassed to admit having never seen. What else can I say?

Mad Love (1935; Karl Freund)
All Karl Freund did before fleeing Germany in the early ‘30s was shoot 70-some movies, including The Golem, The Last Laugh and Metropolis before coming to Hollywood and doing the same for Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and countless other features (before ending up as the cinematographer on I Love Lucy). His career as a cinematographer was punctuated by a brief run as a director—he made the unfathomably creepy Boris Karloff version of The Mummy (1932) for Universal, and ended in 1935 with this Peter Lorre movie, made famous to me and most of my generation through the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Masculin Feminin (1966; Jean-Luc Godard)
There are many Godard films I haven’t seen. Of the ones I haven’t, it pains me most to have this one still gone missing.

Putney Swope (1969; Robert Downey, Sr.)
I was fascinated by the ads for this movie that ran in the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian, partly because it was rated X, and partly because I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what it might be about. Though I know now what the subject matter is, there’s still an air of mystery for me about this movie and what it might feel like. I look forward to solving that mystery soon.

Ulzana’s Raid (1971; Robert Aldrich)
During the heady days of the Robert Aldrich Blog-a-Thon I had hoped Matt Zoller Seitz was going to write about Ulzana’s Raid, a preamble to my finally getting hold of the film and seeing it. Matt ended up writing about Kiss Me Deadly, and I still haven’t seen Ulzana’s Raid. Coincidence? You make the call…

The Way We Were (1973; Sydney Pollack)
One of those ’70s movies that has always eluded me—I figured the Mad movie satire would be good enough, thank you very much, and never wrung my hands much over this particular oversight. But then Sydney Pollack went and died last year and got me thinking about the scads of movies of his I hadn’t seen-- The Scalphunters, Castle Keep, Jeremiah Johnson-- and I realized that I really did want to see The Way We Were someday. I mean, I saw Havana (and I liked it), but I hadn’t seen this one?

White Heat (1949; Raoul Walsh)
Okay, maybe I’m just as embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen this one as I am about not having seen the Fellini movie. And I can’t possibly hold nearly 70 years of Cagney parodies against this picture—it just looks too damned raw, too damned nasty, too damned good. There really are no more excuses.


And now the tagging. I would love to see a list from anyone who would care to deposit it in the comments column, to be sure, but since it is the rule of the game I must tag five people to come up with 12 titles too. So here I go, tagging away. I wanna see what kinds of unseen movies would make the list of the following 10 (so sue me) film folks, whose viewing habits and backlog of cinematic experience are so rich and varied and scholarly as to make the exposure of the little blots and shadows on their viewing records even more fascinating:

Larry Aydlette Welcome to L.A.

Campaspe Self-Styled Siren

Brian Doan Bubblegum Aesthetics

Jim Emerson Scanners

Jonathan Lapper Cinema Styles

Kimberly Lindbergs Cinebeats

Paul Matwychuk The Moviegoer

Kim Morgan Sunset Gun

Peter Nellhaus Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee

Bill R. The Kind of Face You Hate


My daughter has worn lots of different costumes for Halloween in her eight years. She's been a moo-cow, Mulan (Disney version), Belle (Disney version), Pocahontas (Disney version), Violet Incredible (Disney version), and last year she garnered rave reviews as a Queen (of All She Surveys). But this year, sensing that she'd already sipped a bit too deeply from the Disney princess well, and royalty in general, she has decided to tread paths unknown and try out lots of different ideas. The one she came up with tonight really moved me...

I hoping she goes with this one. It's a safe bet no one on our block will be trick-or-treating houses dressed as Martin Balsam from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3...

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

DANGER! DANGER! Dennis Submits to Dr. Zachary Smith's End of Summer Quiz

My apologies for missing the last two exams-- I was neck deep in actual schoolwork! I got a note! But I was determined to not let four months go by this time before deciding it was too late to put myself on the SLIFR grill. For without further hesitation, I give you my answers to Dr. Smith's Lost in the Space at the End of Summer Movie Quiz. And please, if you have any inclination toward submitting your own answers and have not yet done so, please don't consider this post the closing of the classroom door on Dr. Smith's little venture. Your answers are still more than welcome!

1) Your favorite musical moment(s) in a movie

Musical sequence: The literally kaleidoscopic “Polka Dot Polka” finale from Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (O, those floating heads!); The climactic concerto in which Laird Cregar slides forever into madness in Hangover Square; “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut; “The Ballad of Rock Ridge” from Blazing Saddles; “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain; “Happy Endings” from New York, New York; and last but in no way least, “Since You’ve Gone” and “200 Years” from Nashville

Musical score: Claudia Cardinale gets off the train in the bustling town of Flagstone, her happiness slowly muting as she looks at the station clock and realizes that her husband, McBain, is not there to meet her as promised. The train now unloaded, the station silent, in a tracking shot she makes her way to the station house as Ennio Morricone’s mournful, majestic theme begins quietly (is it some form of harpsichord?) and is then joined by that lilting, haunted soprano. The tracking shot continues as we see Cardinale through the window of the station—she is speaking silently to the station keeper and is eventually guided through the front door. The camera begins to rise, the music building along with it, ascending above the roof of the station to reveal the bustling entirety of Flagstone, Cardinale and the station keeper now two of a throng walking down its main street. The beautiful, aching melody continues to soar, accompanying the scene with a caress as Cardinale begins a carriage ride through town, observing every detail of this new western world at Leone’s fingertips, and out toward the homestead where her future, very different from the one with her new husband that she has imagined, is about to unfold--one of many mysterious and unforgettable musical moments from Once Upon a Time in the West. Speaking of majesty and mystery, I love the way the two are combined in John Williams’ score for Jaws; and Williams will always be my hero for the way he orchestrates those flights of flutes accompanying each puff from the mangled cigar of Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) when he offers to give Corporal Sitarski (Treat Williams) and Maxine (Wendie Jo Sperber) a ride in his motorcycle sidecar near the end of 1941.

Favorite use of an existing song: It is forever tied to the movie for me, the first place I ever heard it—Curtis Mayfield’s exuberant Move On Up, which is heard in its glorious eight-and-a-half-minute entirety over the opening of The Groove Tube, accompanying a hilarious 2001 parody AND my very first glimpse of full frontal male and female nudity in a movie. (Thankfully, even during the brief running time of The Groove Tube itself, it would not be the last!)

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews

Dana Andrews has Laura and Curse of the Demon going for him, as well as one of my earliest movie memories, Hot Rods to Hell, and as Dave S. so memorably put it “Airport 1975 couldn’t have happened without him—BAM!” But Milland has Easy Living and The Lost Weekend and The Major and the Minor, plus he’s such a key figure for me from the A.I.P. days, starting with the unforgettable X- The Man with X-Ray Eyes, Panic in the Year Zero (which he directed), and The Premature Burial, all the way through Frogs and the hilarious racial comedy of The Thing with Two Heads. Plus, Milland always looks like he’s caught whiff of something vaguely offensive, particularly in his riper years. Advantage: Milland.

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie

Well, it’s not The Wiz! I will put in a good word for Q&A, the kind of policier Lumet seems to have always excelled at, a better movie than Serpico, certainly. I also liked Equus a lot when it came out, though I haven’t seen it in many a moon, and The Anderson Tapes, which seemed to be on the NBC Sunday/Monday/Tuesday… Night Movie every other week. I will also say that Guilty as Sin, the trashy Disney potboiler he directed with Don Johnson and Rebecca De Mornay (from a script by Larry Cohen), is a ton of fun and way better than the run-of-the-mill early 90s sex thriller. But at the top of the heap, above Network, above The Verdict, above Prince of the City, yes, even above The Wiz, is Dog Day Afternoon, the movie where it all came together as never before for the director and everyone involved (and for some never again since).

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season

Without a doubt, there was no bigger surprise during the summer, or the year so far, than Speed Racer. Nor could I have been more taken unaware by the laughs to be had from the smart-dumb/dumb-smart, big-hearted You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Similarly, The House Bunny didn’t even break a sweat winning my heart.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth

First of all, I apologize to long-time quiz-takers for being so fuzzy as to repeat a actor comparison question—the EXACT same comparison—without so much as a flicker of memory that I’d posed the same query during last year’s Christmastime quiz. That said, I managed to miss turning in my own answers to the last two quizzes, so at least I’ll not be repeating the registering of my lust for lovely Rita. Gene Tierney is a vision, to be sure, and she’s probably a better actress (Laura, Heaven Can Wait, Leave Her to Heaven). But this particular comparison, like no other, is for me primarily about the magnetic allure of the movie star, and in that regard I see this picture and there is no contest. Advantage: Hayworth.

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?

IN THEATERS: I celebrated completing a Saturday of housework (and a Saturday without homework!) by taking in the honeyed sights of Spain with Woody Allen as a tour guide. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is inconsequential, but it's the first Allen movie I’ve liked since Deconstructing Harry, and the first one I’ve liked that didn’t actually star Allen himself since, well, ever-- I don’t much care for Bullets Over Broadway; I think the kitchen-sink pessimism of The Purple Rose of Cairo fatally dampens its whimsy; and Allen’s old-school spirit so imbues Radio Days that you’d swear he was in it (He does narrate that wonderful movie, however.) After VCB I treated myself to a sneak-in screening of Hamlet 2, which starts off strong—Steve Coogan has a grand old time good-naturedly harpooning the various eccentricities and egocentrism that inform the spirit of actors, particularly frustrated ones. But the movie goes limp in its second half—the staging of the eponymous high school musical is flat, and the play itself is bad, but never transcendently so.

ON DVD: The gorgeous, surprisingly emotional My Blueberry Nights from Wong Kar-wai (a good candidate for #24), followed by The Simpsons Movie. (“That crazy old man from church was right!”)

AT WORK: My Dinner with Andre (Go, Wally!)

AWAITING ON THE SHELF AT HOME FROM NETFLIX: Shotgun Stories, Bertrand Blier’s How Much Do You Love Me starring Gerard Depardieu and Monica Bellucci, Ousmane Sembene’s Moolade and a documentary on Phyllis Diller entitled Goodnight, We Love You.

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

I grew up in the 1960s thinking that Irwin Allen could do no wrong, that Irwin Allen held the keys to the universe, that Irwin Allen was, in fact, The Shit. But revisiting childhood favorites like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants was not a occasion, like taking another look at the 1966 Batman TV series, to discover that the shows were as good as memory would suggest. In fact, the four Allen series are monuments to a chintzy sci-fi vision in which ambition is almost always outstripped by the limits of budget and imagination. However, the definitive Allen disaster movies of the ‘70s, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, still pack a punch. The Towering Inferno has the scale (and the chintziness) that most epitomize Allen, but it’s a much shorter hop from the flaming excess of that burning skyscraper to the dregs of The Swarm andWhen Time Ran Out… than we might like to admit. The Poseidon Adventure, on the other hand, is now, as it was then, a completely satisfying entertainment, and there were probably no better characters in any Allen venture than the ones played by Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters in that original capsized ocean liner thriller.

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?

It’s hard to argue with the answer that has come up often here—the three Star Wars prequels. But truth be told, I never held out much hope of high expectations for those movies (I’m not, in general, a fan of Star Wars), so the disappointment was, on some level, anticipated. Instead, I was profoundly disappointed that the aforementioned A.I.P. shocker Frogs did not, in fact, feature an amphibian large enough to consume an entire human being whose desperate hand could be seen jutting out of the creature’s mouth. However, when Night of the Lepus actually did come through on the promise of showing oversized beasts terrorizing the landscape, I learned the truism of being careful about getting what you want. Lepus’s poker-faced absurdism, and those endlessly recycled slow-motion shots of horse-sized bunnies rampaging across the desert, made me appreciate the huckster spirit of the Frogs one-sheet, and the relative realism of Frogs’ eco-horror scenario, with its life-sized killer toads and snakes and crocs, for what it was.

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung (Chui-wai is who I was referring to, by the way—sorry for being incomplete.)

This is a much harder choice for me to make than I would have guessed. Tony Leung Chui-wai grounded the heartbreak of In the Mood for Love and 2046 in a way that would seem to be beyond Chow Yun-Fat as an actor. But I appreciate the physical presence of John Woo’s alter ego far more, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of seeing Hard-Boiled (with John Woo present) for the first time, a sensation that, I suppose, must be credited to both actors. (Slight) Advantage: Chow Yun-Fat.

10) Most pretentious movie ever

In the hopes that I never see enough movies to provide a definitive answer here, the winner must be Last Year at Marienbad, although I will say that I’ve only seen it through the eyes of a very green college freshman to whom the world of international film was only just opening up. I would be more than happy to give it a second chance. An answer based on a more recent encounter would probably be somewhere in the vicinity of Blow-Up.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie

The actual answer is probably Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but I think I’m gonna tip my hat to the first Meyer extravaganza I ever saw, which was Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. And this is as good a time as any to admit publicly that I have yet to see Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, though I think its trailer is one of the best ever. Also, I hope that Fox eventually gets around to putting The Seven Minutes on DVD—I’d love to see what a movie that Russ Meyer thought was mainstream looks like.

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

I’m not entirely sure that such a movie exists, and in some way I think a look at the SLIFR Top 100 is as much a reflection of me through movies that all have bits and pieces of me in them, whether they reflect something that was already there or that the movie itself helped form. I tend to think the high and low brows in my personality are best reflected by the comedies I love-- Blazing Saddles, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Borat, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Horsefeathers. But I know there’s a lot of me in Nashville as well, however it got there. Of recent films in which I sensed a kindred spirit, the first one that comes to mind is Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo

For Morocco and Destry Rides Again and Rancho Notorious (and Lily Von Shtupp), it’s Marlene. And it’s some kind of monument to perversity that in her final years her will was still so iron and immovable she could insist Maximilian Schell use only interview audio and refuse to ever appear on camera for his documentary Marlene-- Schell was so fascinated by her that he made the film anyway.

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?

Popcorn, no question, with real butter if possible-- I love the way real butter occasionally pools in the kernels, but I’m fairly disgusted when the same phenomenon occurs with that “butter-flavored” monkey grease most theaters peddle. A diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes earlier this year has somewhat altered my snacking habits, movie-related or otherwise, but I’ve always been a big fan of Milk Duds and SweetTarts. And if only my endocrinologist would allow it, I could easily make those little salty black licorice morsels from Holland, the Dubbel Zout, a nasty new habit. Most vile? The virtually tasteless Twizzlers. (No substitute for Red Vines, those.)

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system

In terms of talent and presence, George Clooney is as good an answer as any, though those who suspect he might bristle at the cattle-prod mentality of the studio system are probably right. I think Scott Foundas of the L.A. Weekly was also correct when, in his review of The House Bunny, he suggested that Anna Faris has it in her to be a new-era Carole Lombard and that it’s a shame there’s no Howard Hawks around to tailor projects for her. I also suspect folks like Matt Damon and Eva Mendes would have shined as studio-honed talent, as would John Goodman.

16) Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?

As a Herzog admirer, I remain unimpressed with Fitzcarraldo-- it is no Aguirre the Wrath of God. Despite the touch of divinity provided by Claudia Cardinale, the movie is tedious and self-involved, and the image of that boat sitting on top of that hill is eeriely beautiful but just not as resonant as Herzog thinks it is. (Nor is it worth the hell he put everyone through, including himself, to get it.) It’s become a cliché to say so, but no less true for that: Burden of Dreams is by far the more fascinating movie. That said, but for the suffering it took to make it, I’m not sorry it exists.

17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?

I think I’d have to go with three widescreen films that absolutely must be seen on the big screen—not even Blu-ray on the greatest HDTV system available could possibly serve as a replacement. There may be more obvious choices even within this nebulous criterion than these, but when I think of movies I need to see on the big screen every couple of years or so (not that I actually get to), the following titles come to mind: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Nashville (1975), Dressed to Kill (1980).

Each of these movies uses wide-screen imagery to specific and unique effect—Leone’s deliriously lush revisionism could never be mistaken for Altman’s multilayered tapestry of stumbling, searching humanity and muted emotion, or De Palma’s masterful comedy of sexual panic and subliminal dread set within a wide-screen frame often divided and subdivided into planes of formal cinematic ecstasy. I think any real fan of the movies would find something to dig into during this triple bill, and I’d stand a decent chance of making enough money to open the doors for a second night.

18) What’s the name of your theater? (The all-time greatest answer to this question was once provided by Larry Aydlette, whose repertory cinema, the Demarest, is, I hope, still packing them in…)

In the hopes that Larry will take my plagiarism in the spirit in which it is intended, I could do no better than the Demarest West. But in case that answer is too annoying, how about the St. Claudia?

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie

I am sorely tempted to say Ruggles of Red Gap (the beginning of my infatuation with Charles Laughton), and I think The Awful Truth is just about perfect. But, dammit, whether creative influence or mere pandemonium wrangler, his name is on Duck Soup, and Duck Soup is perfect. So there.

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress

There’s no way to be as definitive as this question seems to suggest we should be, so I’m going first instincts again and picking Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. She may not have had a great career in movies, and perhaps she didn’t want one, but she was as perfect a fit for Malick’s vision as anyone alive could have been. Marvelously natural on screen, it’s her narration that really gets under my skin… “I was hoping things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.” And though she did, according to IMDb, have a couple of minor roles previous, Q’oriana Kilcher is equally transcendent in yet another transcendent Terence Malick movie, The New World. But if I can’t have those two performances, I’ll choose Earl Hofert in Cabin Boy-- “Don’t go for any of that flank steak bullshit. Try the London Broil!” Pure genius, and Hofert was never heard from again.

Chewbacca was pretty good back in the summer of 1977 too.

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season

It’s not really surprise, but I have to admit much more of a sense of exhaustion than I remember ever having before over the preponderance of superheroes, good and bad (Iron Man, The Dark Knight and even the trailer for Watchmen, which I’m told I’m supposed to be really excited about); fashionably faux-nihilistic violence served up in a vaguely futuristic setting (Doomsday, Death Race, Babylon A.D.); and, with all due respect to the late Mr. LaFontaine, the deafening trailers for the same. (And yes, I realize how curious this all seems in light of my running pick for the best movie of the year so far.) I’m trying not to let it all get me too depressed and concerned over the State of American Cinema, and it does help to think about the answers to #30 as possible correctives; let’s just say I occasionally feel overwhelmed, and not in the way that I’m necessarily supposed to.

But when I’m thinking disappointment, nothing registers as strongly for me as the violent reaction from a certain fan base to early criticism of a certain movie that more than a few people saw and enjoyed wildly this past summer. For some reason, anything less than total appreciation for The Dark Knight was taken, in some quarters, as an offense punishable by death, or at the very least a barrage of disparaging and hateful remarks, some of which were offered up by rabid fans in the days before the movie was released, which means that some of the nastiest words were written by people who hadn’t even seen the movie yet. Thankfully, the people I know who love this movie are generally respectful of those (like me) who don’t. But I have to admit, I felt really bad for writers like David Edelstein, Keith Uhlich and Stephanie Zacharek, all of whom were bombarded by a tidal wave of abuse for expressing their minority reaction with intelligence, reason and the very seriousness of purpose which fans of TDK, given a superhero movie which was being discussed in terms of its greatness and status as a masterpiece, ought to have applauded. Were they so threatened by a dissenting point of view? Why so serious, indeed?

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung

I just saw Irma Vep again, and Maggie Cheung as a version of herself floating through the misconceived shooting of a French remake of Les Vampires is the essence of sublimity. The same could be said of her work in In the Mood for Love, Hero and The Soong Sisters. And I still have yet to see Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, Actress and Clean. But as highly as I regard Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh can never be replaced in my heart or my head. She had me at Supercop: Police Story III. Advantage: Yeoh.

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated

Well, The Dark Knight is the obvious answer, but perhaps a mite too obvious. For all my distaste for Christopher Nolan’s bombast, there was, in the midst of it all, Heath Ledger and that blissful ride through Gotham, head sticking out of a police cruiser and tasting freedom like a blissful junkyard dog momentarily forgetting the rabies ripping through his brain, a moment of true, twisted beauty. My candidate is the addled and unfunny (but for Bill Hader and then a bit of mid-movie leapfrog) Pineapple Express. I had as much fun watching this fuzzy-headed mess as I would have being the only straight person at a Cheech and Chong film festival. Afterward, I thought a lot about how much I liked Nice Dreams and Things are Tough All Over, and how much I suddenly just wanted Seth Rogen to go away.

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

2008 has been My Contrarian Year, for sure. Many of the movies I liked (and loved) most-- Speed Racer, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, My Blueberry Nights, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan-- were roundly dissed, dismissed or outright ignored in favor of iron-poor hits like The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Pineapple Express. Why, it’s enough to make me start sympathizing with Armond White (almost). So I would faithfully submit the five movies cited above into the Academy for 2008. And I think I’d also like to mention specifically Gillian Anderson, who in a sane world would be looking at year-end awards and Oscar consideration for her likely swansong as Dana Scully; Lainie Kazan, who made me giggle a lot as the unlikely object of the Zohan’s affections; Paulie Litt, who displayed the crack comic timing of a seasoned vet as one half of the Spritle and Chim-Chim show; and Mila Kunis, who effortlessly exposed the absurdity at the heart of Forgetting Sarah Marshall-- what idiot would even remember Sarah Marshall’s name after spending an evening drinking beers with this sharp and sassy knockout?

25) Fritz the Cat—yes or no?

I’m not a Ralph Bakshi fan, and I can recognize the validity of R. Crumb’s fundamental objections to this adaptation of his underground comic. That said, the movie has a headlong vitality that was leached from Bakshi’s work movie by movie over his career. It’s hard for me to even believe the same man that made this picture, with its acid takedown of the counterculture and its boorishly funny excesses, went on to make god-awful messes like Cool World and American Pop. So my answer is a yes, if not a resounding one. And I still love that poster.

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd

On the strength of Dam Busters alone, which I just saw, Richard Todd gets my vote. Regardless of the context of the time in which the movie was made, any actor who plays a character who gives his black lab retriever the name this dog has in Dam Busters (it starts with “N”) and still manages to maintain our sympathies, well, I think that says something about his fundamental appeal. And Todd was in the nifty Amicus anthology horror pictue Asylum (1972). Besides, Trevor Howard was always just a bit aloof and uninteresting to me. Advantage: Todd.

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

Breaking the rules in 2008 could be just as easily construed as another way of playing by them. Formal iconoclasm and disregard for accepted ideas of filmic space and time are pretty easy to come by in the work of mainstream filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Tony Scott and other less celebrated hacks—and for every David Lynch, who really does march to his own arrhythmic drumbeat, there’s some kid with style to burn and not a clue what to do with it. So if Antonioni is (was) right that the rupture of the norm has become the norm, then the long-take classicism of directors as dissimilar as Clint Eastwood and Hou Hsiao-hsien begins to feel more like the kind of swimming against the stream that appeals to me.

28) Favorite William Castle movie

Well, it’d have to be Rosemary’s Baby, I suppose, but for real Castlemania I’d have to go for House on Haunted Hill or I Saw What you Did and I Know Who You Are! And did get to see The Tingler at the Alex Theater a few years ago, which was rigged was “Percepto” joy buzzers in some of the seats. Alas, my buttocks were not among those chosen to vibrate when the audience erupted in screams.

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie

Tabu. Or maybe Deliverance.

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?

A cursory glance through the Los Angeles Times Fall Sneaks section this past Sunday reveals a pretty long list of titles that I’m suddenly dying to see. The first comes out this Friday, Burn After Reading, which I can only hope will be in relation to No Country for Old Men the way The Big Lebowski was to Fargo. (It’s certainly getting the kind of mixed reviews the saga of the Dude got back in 1998.) And then there’s Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time Redux (A first encounter for me, but that’s nitpicking), Laurent Cantet’s The Class (hopefully a worthy movie about teaching to go alongside To Be and To Have), Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s Religulous, Ed Harris’s Appaloosa, Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Chuck Palanhiuk’s Choke, Oliver Stone’s W and Kevin Smith’s Zak and Miri Make a Porno, which, like W, features Elizabeth Banks and, if its red band trailer is any true indicator, looks like a distinct upgrade over Clerks II.

I'm also really looking forward to taking my daughters to see Joe Dante's Explorers and a Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott double bill (Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone), all three at the New Beverly Cinema this month, and the original King Kong at the majestic Alex Theater this coming Halloween.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?

There’s only one answer: Robert Altman.

32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?

Anybody can make anything they like, even Ron Howard, just as long as I have the right to think and respond to it the way I will. Why, I’m even looking forward to Frost/Nixon. That said, I don’t care if I ever see another movie directed by Ridley Scott.

33) Your first movie star crush

Movie star: Hayley Mills (The Parent Trap, The Trouble with Angels)

TV star (tie): Anne Francis (Honey West), Julie Newmar (Batman).

Hayley Mills was innocent puppy love. Anne was mysterious—that beauty mark still transfixes me. But Julie was the stuff of, um… very interesting dreams, filled with fear and many stirrings of what would later be classified as lust that were shiny and new to this six-year-old…