Thursday, January 28, 2010

B-Movie Classics

Ever heard of the Roger Corman classic The Saga of the Viking Women? Would you recognize it if I gave you its full title: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent? Not ringing any bells? Well, maybe it will after you've had a chance to view it for free at BMC, a website dedicated to B-movie classics.

That's where you'll find about thirty gems of second-rate cinema, categorized by genre for easy searching (though versatile B-films like Saga show amazing crossover ability, turning up in both the Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Action/Adventure categories).

I owe it to the clever people at the New York Observer's Very Short List for alerting me to BMC. The Observer's List is indeed Very Short: one item every day, sent by email newsletter to subscribers. Sometimes it's a book you'll want to read, sometimes it's a website worth checking out (the guy who speaks Dadaist paragraphs in his sleep; the photographer whose black-and-whites of starling flocks rival anything Hitchcock could do). It's almost always worth taking a look at. Just like BMC's movies. Like Fiend Without a Face. Or The Crawling Eye. Or Wet Asphalt. You get the picture.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Review: A Single Man

Tom Ford’s A Single Man offers up plenty of gorgeousness—in everything from architecture, to automotive design, to the male form—but also a striking problem of visual storytelling. Ford has taken Christopher Isherwood's novel as the basis for his first directing assignment. But while Isherwood knows how to craft a fluid narrative out of even disconnected pieces, Ford, a fashion-shoot veteran, lacks, for now, the ability to put images together into a story.

Ford lets his camera occupy two extremes: it’s either immobile or incessantly mobile. We’re either staring at an eye or a nose in super-tight close-up, or we’re jumping around in quick-cutting shots, skipping seconds here and there in what would otherwise be a straightforward sequence. Or we’re panning across a scene in super slow motion. Or we’re shifting into a quasi-handheld mode as we follow Colin Firth’s George Falconer through his day as he grieves for the loss of his lover of sixteen years. This is all very well, and demonstrates Ford’s willingness to experiment with the many things a moving image can do. But it leaves the viewer with a sense of incoherence. Yes, George Falconer is struggling, and let’s just say (without giving anything away) that time’s passing is important to him. All the same, Ford’s camerawork has the unwanted effect of making the moviegoer frequently check her or his watch.

Really, A Single Man is many movies. It’s a highly saturated 60s reverie. It’s a black-and-white magazine ad for Calvin Klein Eternity (see the movie and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about). It’s yet another entry in the architecture-porn category, this time leading us to marvel at the pay scale of English professors at second-rate Santa Monica colleges. A Single Man is also an expressionistic tone poem, a satire, an homage to Life magazine. You get the picture.

Thankfully, it’s Colin Firth who makes the picture. Not only does he look good in twentieth-century clothes, but he gets a chance to demonstrate an enormous range of emotions all in one performance—without at all making us think he’s showing off. It’s a testament to the power of Firth’s acting that his George does not get lost in Ford’s camera flourishes. Where the camera is often extremely heavy-handed, Firth is subtle and restrained. Ford gives him a slow-motion panning shot of his own at one point. But Firth doesn’t need a camera trick to command our attention.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Guest Blogger Part Two: Tarantino and Peckinpah, Auteurs of Revenge Violence

The following is part 2 of Monday's post. Here inaugural guest blogger Dell Smith discusses violence in Quentin Tarantino's movies.

Pupil Tarantino tweaks Peckinpahís vision of revenge ethics so that dilemmas are never black and white. Tarantinoís rogue characters operate in a contemporized moral gray area. In his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, a band of robbers is hired by a third party to pull a heist.

After the robbery, the band meets in an abandoned L.A. warehouse where each character introduces personal codes that fuel his behavior. For example, Michael Madsonís Mr. Blonde likes to torture cops, and Harvey Keitelís Mr. White is an old-school criminal in it for the money. Mr. White also has a gooey moral center that does him in by the end when he discovers the robber heís been protecting turns out to be an undercover cop.

In Pulp Fiction's moral universe, Butch the fighter (Bruce Willis), through a series of random events, helps his nemesis, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), out of a tight spot. Butch and Marsellus are tied together by double-cross and revenge: Butch was paid to throw a fight which he did not. Marsellus lost big money and wants Butch gone. Saving Marsellusí from the clutches of a couple of L.A. racists will more than square Butch. Butch is generally honorable, so watching him liberate Marsellus is entertaining and satisfying.

In Kill Bill 1 and 2, Tarantino serves revenge as the main course, and turns in over three hours of Uma Thurman's wronged Bride as an ass-kicking samurai warrioress bent on completing the titular task. Itís almost a let down when Bill is finally killed with a low-key martial arts blowótame compared to the mayhem that precedes it.

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino revises WWII for a new generation, this time as a revenge-fueled fantasy pitting American and French Jews against Nazis in German-occupied France. Audiences gave two thumbs up to the movieís hard R-rated violence, perhaps suggesting Americans are collectively tired of fighting unwinnable wars and amorphous foes. Maybe we want to relive Americaís last genuine win.

The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds extends for about 20 minutes. Presented in real-time, the scene sets up many things: weíre in Nazi-occupied France and are in the company of feared Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter. During an extended dialogue scene in a farmhouse where he sweats a farmer for information, Landa determines that the cellar below them is the hiding place of a Jewish family. When German soldiers kill the family, a girl escapes.

This sets up what must be the most outrageous revenge fantasy ever filmed. Tarantino revises history to suit his purposes of conflict, tension, and revenge. Seeing a theater-full of Nazis, including Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, die at the end of the movie was a little bit of heaven on a rainy September afternoon. For decades the Holocaust has been the subject of movies that were sometimes of questionable taste. Finally a filmmaker cuts to the chase and shows us what audiences have wanted all along.

Where does violence in movies go from here? What else is there for these aging outsider anti-heroes and their directors to do? Peckinpah, for his part, tackled oncoming old age by asking the macho old-man question: how do you grow old without getting done in by modern ways? The essence of Peckinpahís aging moral outrage can be reduced to a moment, a sentence, when during The Wild Bunchís opening bank robbery William Holden shouts to one of his Bunch: ìIf they move, kill ëem.î

Tarantino, now in his mid-to-late 40s, shows no sign of changing gears. As he said in the August 2009 GQ, he has already made his character-driven, mature work about getting old, Jackie Brown. ìAnd itís as much of an old-man movie as I ever want to make.î Tarantino will eventually pass the torch to another generation of revenge-violence filmmakers, but it sounds like heís not going quietly out without a cinematic fight.

The opening bank robbery from The Wild Bunch:

Need more? To see an 30-second distillation of Reservoir Dogs performed by animated bunnies, click here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Guest Blogger: Tarantino and Peckinpah, Auteurs of Revenge Violence, Part 1

This is the first of two guest blog posts by Dell Smith, on loan from his blog the Unreliable Narrator. (Note: the following discussion on revenge violence in contemporary cinema contains movie plot spoilers. But that's no reason not to keep reading...)

Watching onscreen violence can be a release, a harmless thrill; we watch murder most vile so we wonít actually perform the acts ourselves. Today, PG-13 movies show blood-soaked bullet holes and hungry vampires/zombies in action. And America loves it.

Quentin Tarantinoís Inglourious Basterds which includes scenes of intense violence was on many criticsí 2009 top ten lists. The January 8th issue of Entertainment Weekly chose the movie as an expected Best Picture Oscar contender. Reviews skewed mostly to the B, B+, A- range. While itís not the best movie of last year, it is certainly one of the most entertaining ones. And itís not just critics who think so: the movie is now Tarantinoís biggest box office hit.

Most of Tarantinoís movies exploit violence, and especially violent revenge, for entertainment. But years before Tarantino watched his first exploitation flick, director Sam Peckinpah released a string of visceral action movies, starting with The Wild Bunch in 1968, which helped usher in a new generation of movies that didnít have to shy away from realistic gunplay. In The Wild Bunch, and later with The Getaway and Strawdogs, Peckinpah staged action scenes as an extended slo-mo catharsis of revenge-fueled violence.

His movies donít just build to a violent ending; they start violently and continue relentlessly until the bloody finale. Peckinpahís anti-heroes live by an ethical code of conduct that ultimately places them in deadly confrontations whose outcomes are certain death. But the protagonists continue in the face of incredible odds because they know they are doing the right thing within the construct of their world view. For Peckinpah, codes are often forged from money, friendship, and revenge, forking into sub-code tributaries like honor, pride, and shared history.

His scenes of violence cultivate a universal feeling of us-against-them. The aging gang at the heart of The Wild Bunch is screwed by a Mexican general when he kills a member of the Bunch after promising to let him go. In turn, they kill the general in his compound and go down in a blaze of guts and glory. The Bunch knew their way of operating was displaced in the new west and would probably get them killed. Why not go on their terms?

Peckinpah was always attracted to outsiders and what happens when theyíre double-crossed. As David Thompson says in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, ìThroughout Peckinpahís work, there is the theme of violently talented men hired for a job that is loaded with compromise, corruption, and double-cross. They strive to perform with honor, before recognizing the inevitable logic of self-destruction.î

The Getaway starts with Steve McQueen as Doc McCoy leading a dangerous a bank heist. When heís double-crossed, the movie continues as a chase movie, ending with a brutal, inevitable shootout in the hallways, stairwells, and elevators of a Mexican border town hotel. We know whatís coming, the movie telegraphs it an hour beforehand.

But this foreshadowing ramps up the conflict and tension leading to McCoyís final retribution. Peckinpah is a master at building tension. Even after a dozen viewings I still get a jolt when I pop in The Wild Bunch. The title sequence alone is textbook Peckinpah: cross-cutting between the interior and exterior of a bank during a daring robbery.

Tune in next time as we discuss Tarantino's films, and how he has updated revenge violence for a contemporary audience.

Meanwhile, check out this trailer for Peckinpah's Strawdogs:

Come back on Thursday for Part 2!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Coming this week: Guest Blogger Dell Smith

Coming this week: a two-part essay on violence in American movies by inaugural guest blogger Dell Smith. Find his posts about books, film, the writing life and the Boston-literary scene at his blog The Unreliable Narrator. Tomorrow, Dell starts the conversation with a post about Sam Peckinpah. Thursday, he wraps it up with a piece about the Peckinpah legacy in Quentin Tarantino's work.

Dell's posts will come hot on the heels of Malcolm Jones' recent Newsweek article about what Hitchcock's Psycho did for violence and horror in American films.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Half-way through Sherlock Holmes comes the question: why is everybody picking on Freemasons these days? First there’s National Treasure—in which merely the presence of Nicholas Cage before a camera lens is worth an apology to the mysterious Order. Then there’s Dan Brown and that gruesome Angels and Demons business. And now even Guy Ritchie, who surely has better fish to fry, has worked the poor Freemasons into his new vision of Conan Doyle’s detective. To paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys, what have they done to deserve this?

I confess ignorance regarding what crimes the Freemasons may have committed against either Ron Howard or John Turtletaub. But for why they turn up in Sherlock Holmes, I may have an answer.

You don’t have to have read “A Study in Scarlet” or “The Sign of Four” to know that Holmes can identify a man’s profession, his physical condition, and what he had for dinner simply by looking at his hands or the hem of his trousers. (Reading Conan Doyle provides a clear and unapologetic window on Victorian culture. Prejudices and stereotypes are vividly drawn in Conan Doyle’s character descriptions.) That’s one of the many fascinations of a Conan Doyle story. The world may be full of mysteries—one per story—but it is eminently solvable. The answers are all there in code, and Holmes has the key.

But for better or for worse, our world offers no such certainties. A man with a thick neck could be a brick-layer or a professor who works out a lot. So if you’re recasting Victorian Holmes for the twenty-first century, you need to find something the audience can recognize as both familiar and mysterious. Voila the Freemasons! They come with pentagrams and triangles and eyeballs and crosses, and we can watch as Holmes draws patterns on a dusty floor and points out how the pieces all fit. Freemasons! An ancient order here to solve your modern-day movie woes!

And if following along with the Masonic symbols doesn’t work, you can always trace the semiotics of Robert Downey Jr.’s hair. Tousled, smooth, beneath a fedora. What does it all mean?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Call Me Curious: the Moby Dick Marathon

There’s something compelling about the coming together of a white whale, sleep deprivation, unappealing food, harpoons, and lots of hoarse voices. At least Ahab thought so. When you put all of that in New Bedford’s Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, along with a roster of two hundred volunteer readers, you’ve got the Tenth Annual Moby Dick Marathon—compelling enough to make me drive an hour each way last Sunday just to catch a few chapters read aloud from that doorstopper of a book.

It’s not that I’m a particular fan of Moby Dick. I neither liked nor understood the book when it was assigned in high school. But the chance to witness such an extreme combination of literature, performance, and endurance was too intriguing to pass up. I imagined it as a literary do-over of They Shoot Horses Don’t They, with readers staggering up to the podium, slurring their words after hours on their feet. I figured the museum’s reading room would look like the sidewalk after a camp-out for Coldplay tickets, littered with food wrappers and sleeping bags and coffee cups.

No such luck. The Whaling Museum is a modern building tucked among the colonial houses of the old city, and the atrium lobby where the reading marathon took place was sleek and full of light from the enormous windows along the back. No one was having trouble staying awake. Three whale skeletons hung from the ceiling above a space divided into two sections: readers to the right, spectators to the left. I found a place on the stairs down to the lobby, on the readers side, but nobody sent me away.

Everyone had a copy of Moby Dick, some loaned by the museum, but most looking like much-loved and much-read volumes pulled from home shelves. Barnes and Noble was there, offering nooks on loan. Here was a fusion of the very old and the very latest: a nineteenth-century classic, available in digital form, read aloud by people from Melville’s very own part of the world. Interestingly, virtually everyone was following the spoken reading along in their books. I didn’t have a copy, so I simply listened, which seemed to me to be the point.

I heard a woman read not as distinctly as I would have liked, a man read with lovely theatrical aplomb, a woman read in Portuguese—in which the few words I understood included “Ahab,” “Pequod,” and “melancolia”—and then just before I had to leave, the actual great-great-grandson of Melville himself. A tall man with glasses and a short gray pony tail, he had the privilege of reciting the moment when Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in two. I’m guessing he gets to pick his favorite part.

Who goes to an event like this? Mostly people with gray hair, mostly people wearing LL Bean-type clothes. But also a young man in skinny jeans and a deerstalker; a kid in a Marblehead Badminton t-shirt; and a handful of grad-student types who must have been there in homage to Melville, the post-structuralist. What I expected to see more of I saw only one of: a man in work pants and Jason Bourne’s red down jacket, with a watch cap and mutton-chops. A sailor.

Maybe Melville isn’t your favorite book. Maybe twenty-five hours of recitation isn’t your idea of fun. But there’s something to be said for sitting in a room beneath the bones of a whale, listening to people say things like “There she blows!”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Curling up With a Good Audiobook

Would I be ruining my reputation as a writer and reader if I revealed that, lately, I’ve been fascinated by audiobooks?  I hope not.  But it has come as a bit of a surprise to me to realize that not only do I emote more when I’m listening to a book, but I feel more engaged in the narrative than I do even when I’m curled up in a comfy chair with a good book on a rainy day.

Listening to the excellent audiobook of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, I found myself gasping, or laughing, and even saying “oh no!” to my empty car.  Occasionally, I’d say something to Aibileen or Skeeter, as if they were sitting in my passenger seat, telling me what had just happened to them.  I finished the book while in the middle of a long row on my rowing ergometer.  When the Audible folks came on to tell me they’d hoped I’d enjoyed the book, I came to a dead stop, aghast that there wasn’t going to be more to the story.  For several days afterwards, I missed hearing the voices I had come to know so well (and they are superb).  Where were Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny who had cast a fascinating and moving parallel world out into mine?

I can imagine your objections.  What I’m describing, you’ll say, is what happens when we read a book.  It’s not about the listening, you’ll say.  But I’m not so sure.  Like many avid readers, I have always felt completely immersed in the writer’s fictional world I’m recreating in my head.  And I’ve often, if not always, had that odd dream-wakened feeling of displacement when I finish a book and have to return to my actual present.  But there is something about listening to a book read to me that is very, very different.  Read well, that is.  There are, as many would agree, few worse things you can do to a book than have it read by someone whose voice or attitude are all wrong.

So what is it about listening that makes it so pleasant?  Listening certainly has nothing to do with the coziness we often associate with reading.  Listening to The Help—and before that to actress Emma Fielding’s wonderful performances of Rebecca and Jane Eyre—I was never particularly comfortable.  I was either exercising or cooking or driving.  And while I do love to drive, New England traffic doesn’t always make for a pleasant experience.  So it wasn’t about the comfort.  But it was about that imagined person, sitting in the passenger seat, telling me a story.  I could no more ignore Aibileen than I could ignore my husband, my kids, or my best friend if they were regaling me with their latest experience.

Of course we are all listeners before we are readers.  Taking in narrative by hearing the words must be hard-wired in our brains.  We have to adapt to the printed word, in a process that neurologists say is not natural.  In a way, in the long history of narrative, the period of the Silent and Solitary Reader is a relatively short one.  It’s only with the late-nineteenth-century advent of cheaper books and better light that readers could take a book to a corner and read it alone.  Even Jane Eyre who takes her book to the curtained-off window-seat would have had the novel of her life read aloud in a gas-lit drawing room.

It’s possible that audiobooks signal a return to a “truer” way of reading, rather than a new departure.  Not that I can imagine the printed (or digitized) word ever being supplanted by the sound file.  Still, it’s a seductive thought, don’t you agree?  Imagine all those drivers soothed by elegant prose, home cooks uplifted by an engaging story.  Commuting could turn into communicating—all from listening to a book.

Which are you: listener, reader, or both?  What are your favorite audiobooks? Which books would you love to hear read aloud?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Z (1969)

[Read below, or listen here]

Z: a perfect place to start the New Year. Why the last letter of the alphabet? Because it’s also the sound (zee) of the Greek word for “he lives”, a cry of new or renewed life. This doubling of meaning is exactly what Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras had in mind when he gave his 1969 political thriller this famous one-letter title.

Z follows the return to an unnamed country of a political leader known only as the Deputy (Yves Montand). As his entourage arranges for him to address his supporters on the topic of peace and freedom, an opposing mob gathers and threatens to kill him. One man clubs the Deputy in the head, sending him into a coma, and sending a range of authorities into action. The doctors analyze his still-living brain; the Magistrate examines the case; the rulers obfuscate; and the crowds riot. Once the Deputy is dead, his supporters insist that he and his cause still live. “Zei”, they cry, speaking the only Greek word in the movie.

Z was filmed in Algeria and acted in French, with Irene Pappas as the Deputy’s wife standing out as the lone and noticeably Greek figure among the cast. (Pappas’s ethnicity is hard to mistake: she has the dark eyebrows and hair and the long straight nose of a classical statue. When she played Clytemnestra in Michael Kakoyannis’ 1977 film Iphigenia, it was like looking at the ancient queen come to life.) Z could never have been made in Greece. Two years into what would be the seven-year rule of a military junta, Costa-Gavras’ overt criticism of the police state would have been extremely dangerous.

Besides that one word cried out by the Deputy’s supporters, the only signs that the film is a thinly veiled reference to the junta are clever glances at Greek lettering here and there. Pappas holds a copy of Ta Nea (The News), the left-leaning newspaper. Medals shown in the beginning of the film are from Greek campaigns. And, most appropriately, a close-up of a reporter’s Selectric typewriter ball shows Greek characters, with the Z popping up front and center. But everything else, from the dark-glasses-wearing leader of the police state, to the murkiness of due process, to the reaction of the mob, rings utterly and explicitly true of Greece.

I saw Z in mid-December, and applauded Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for picking that moment to screen a film about Greece’s struggle between anarchy, independence, and authoritarian rule. Z is full of scenes of police standing by while mobs threaten to take over, and then entering the fray too late and too forcefully. How prescient of the MFA to synchronize Costa-Gavras’ film with riots going on in Athens and other major Greek cities during most of December 2009. Or was it?

The sad truth is that riots in Greece—between a mob that rejects the very notion of authority and a policing force that doesn’t know how to assert authority without oppressing—these riots have become an unremarkable occurrence in Greek life. The MFA’s scheduling was pure luck; they could screen Z any day of the year and it would be timely. Costa-Gavras’ film has had a much longer life than perhaps he could have hoped for—and for, sadly, all the wrong reasons.