Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde, Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, and the Stooges

At the end of a positive review of the Stooges written for Creem in November of 1970, Lester Bangs summarizes his argument with:

"Yet somehow I still hear a horde of sluggards out there whining "Are you putting me on?" Or, more fundamentally, haven't the Stooges been putting us all on from Yelp One? And the answer, of course is Yes. Because, as beautiful Pauline Kael put it in her characteristically epigrammatic way: 'To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they're not stooges--that they appreciate the joke--when they catch the first bullet right in the face.'

Some of the most powerful esthetic experiences of our time, from Naked Lunch to Bonnie and Clyde, set their audiences up just this way, externalizing and magnifying their secret core of sickness which is reflected in the geeks they mock and the lurid fantasies they consume, just as our deepest fears and prejudices script the jokes we tell each other. This is where the Stooges work. They mean to put you on that stage, which is why they are super-modern, though nothing near to Art. In Desolation Row and Woodstock-Altamont Nation the switchblade is mightier and speaks more eloquently than the penknife. But this threat is cathartic, a real cool time is had by all, and the end is liberation."

I wonder what movies and rock bands, if any, put the audience on the spot in this way today?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Notable Film Links--October 25, 2008

---What are the "fifteen key ingredients of a grim art movie"? Feral children, wretched elderly, ill animals, naturally, but unattractive nudity? Writing for The Guardian, Catherine Shoard lists them all in "For Your Displeasure."

---Parallax View reprints Richard T. Jameson's excellent analysis entitled "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

---Writing for Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozallio, celebrates a late '70s trio of comedies that serve up a "classically framed, goosed-up examination of American obsession, desire and panic." I especially like his discussion of Used Cars (1980).

---Jason Bellamy of The Cooler debates "How long should you sit through a bad movie?" Last night, I found myself unavoidably compelled to fry some bratwurst while kind of watching the sadly forgettable and predictably farcical Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but I don't know if that answers his question.

---Katina of Cut, Print, Review considers the contemporary relevancy of Wall Street.

---Jessica Barnes of Cinematical lists the seven "worst crimes of chick flicks." Having sat through 27 Dresses, I fully see what she means about wedding porn.

---Check out Dan North's shot-by-shot dissection of Melies' A Trip to the Moon in his entertaining new blog Spectacular Attractions.

---I have taught Hitchcock's superb Notorious (1946) for years, and have yet to get anywhere near exhausting its nuanced use of mise en scene. Writing for Screen Savour, T. S. notes how "[Notorious] well may be considered [Hitchcock's] crowning achievement in terms of sheer synthesis." For those of your most interested in Hitchcock's later, more dubious fixations, Ann Thompson considers Donald Spoto's new book Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies.

Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment located a Ron Howard video endorsing Barack Obama. Regardless of the politics, I found the whole idea of Mr. Howard revisiting his earlier selves as Opie and Richie oddly moving, especially in the way he acknowledges the passing of time.

---Lastly, for those in love with Don Draper of Mad Men, and for those who would like to emulate him, a special treat.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Arguably Newman’s best film: notes on The Hustler (1961)

Note: these comments contain spoilers.

1) Can everyone now agree that the early sixties were the best years in terms of fashion? The thin black ties, the pre-Beatles hair cuts just beginning to lengthen, the tweed coats, those classically tailored Jackie Kennedy dresses, the period of Breathless and Mad Men?

2) Adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen, The Hustler takes on alcoholism, existential meaninglessness, suicide, and the antihero conman in the form of Paul Newman, but it is also a gorgeous film with lush black and white cinematography by Eugen Shufftan. Made in New York City, The Hustler tends to favor angled shots that partially look down a street, the length of a bus station, or a pool table. Its opening credits sequence uses a montage with a jazz soundtrack so that each shot freezes before cutting to the next one. How many 1970s TV shows used the same semi-nostalgic technique in their opening credits sequence? It is fun to hunt around Youtube to verify this point. Check out Hawaii Five O and The Mod Squad.

3) By today’s standards, The Hustler’s bleak blend of Albert Camus’ The Stranger with On the Waterfront and The Lost Weekend seems almost quaint. Fast Eddie (Newman) no sooner gets beaten by Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in a 36 hour game of pool than he decides to dump his manager/partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) and find a girl. You would think with his movie star good looks, Eddie wouldn’t have difficulty finding someone as cute as he is, but he goes for the alcoholic and lame, but otherwise attractive Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), whom he finds in a bus station. She likes to hang out in the station café, reading a book, until the local bars open. Later, they share a comical parody of domestic bliss that she characterizes as a “contract of depravity,” where all they do is get drunk and sleep together. And yet, the film is so skillfully lit, their bleak acts are almost endearing.

4) What matters in the world of The Hustler? That you maintain your composure and don’t become someone’s supplicant. Eddie loses his cool during his first pool game with Minnesota Fats. Looking relaxed and graceful on his feet, Jackie Gleason periodically freshens himself up, washes his face, fixes his tie, and then holds out his hands to have one of his lackeys sprinkle white powder on them for the next game. As Eddie gradually gets drunk and sloppy in the opening match, Minnesota stays collected throughout. What matters is “character,” as Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) points out, and character is a matter of maintaining proper sangfroid no matter what con is going down. Later, when Eddie begs Bert to give him money to try to beat a man (curiously, Murray Findley, Mr. Robinson of The Graduate) at billiards, Sarah notes what Bert has reduced Eddie to—someone pleading for one more try.

5) How is Eddie an antihero? Well, aside from being a hustler, he does tell his former partner Charlie to “Lie down and die by yourself. Don’t take me with you,” when Charlie arrives at Sarah’s flat to beg for him to return to their former ways. When Sarah drunkenly types out their “contract of depravity” in their grim little flat, Eddie slaps her when she calls him a “bum” (a hint of On the Waterfront). She looks at him dry-eyed and says, “Do you expect me to cry?” Somehow, all of Eddie’s dastardly behavior does not fully register given Newman’s charm.

5) How can you tell Sarah will commit suicide? She often likes to face away from Eddie in the midst of their discussions. Later you realize that her characteristic gesture is a form of facing the wall. What does she write with lipstick on the mirror before slashing her wrists? “Perverted, Twisted, and Crippled.” She’s mostly referring to Bert and the world of hustlers all being dead inside due to their falsified emotions. Again, in spite of the fact that she’s right, I find George C. Scott enormously compelling as Bert Gordon, the man who knows all the angles, the operator who can tell a winner from a loser at pool. So he’s soulless and dead inside; he’s also being played by Scott at the peak of his career.

6) After Sarah’s suicide, does Fast Eddie find redemption? Kind of. He does return to Ames Billiard Hall to beat Minnesota Fats soundly. After much discussion, Bert Gordon does let him keep the money, but he forbids Eddie from ever entering a major pool hall again. This movie would never give him that kind of unqualified happy ending, and besides, he has lost Sarah’s love, so that makes hustling something of a moot point.

7) So what is The Hustler really about? Walter Tevis described Eddie as an artist figure. In the DVD commentary, Robert Rossen’s daughter describes the hustle as a metaphor for “winning and making it in America.” Paul Newman shows how hustling suits the charm of his acting ability, but mainly The Hustler concerns the pleasures of gambling, smoking, drinking whisky, and playing high-level pool in a zone serenely free of the duties and cares of the outside world. In this way, Rossen suggests how pool serves as a metaphor for excellent filmmaking. As Fast Eddie says to Minnesota, “Fat man, you play a great game of pool.” Even though he just lost untold thousands of dollars, Minnesota nods graciously, holds up his drink in salute, and replies “So do you, Fast Eddie.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Notable film links--October 9, 2008

---The best of forty years of interviews in Time Out: "I’ve always felt violence was part of the aesthetic equipment of film. We’re dealing with motion pictures, with movement, chases, fights. Those things lend themselves to cinema very well. To take a moral position on them is ludicrous." (Brian De Palma, 1984)

---Universal's new DVD edition of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil sounds good according to Doug Cummings of Film Journey. Also, in Parallax View, Sean Axmaker found an illuminating 1998 interview with Walter Murch, who helped re-edit the film.

---Vanity Fair profiles Amy Adams:
"Not long before Junebug opened—and before the Oscar nomination that would pull her out of the pack—Adams went on a cattle-call audition for a role that involved singing and dancing as well as acting. It seemed no different from all the cattle calls she’d been on before. Three hundred actors auditioned for the role. Adams was just another virtual unknown in the crowd: No. 275.

With sheer talent, she won the role.

The movie was Enchanted."

---Ibetolis of Film for the Soul continues to celebrate the best of British cinema with his discussion of Withnail and I (1987): "Amongst the vast copious amounts of alcohol, the most quotable lines of dialogue this side of The Big Lebowski and general hilarity, Withnail and I is full of pathos, remorse and longing."

---Ann Thompson of Variety decries Hollywood's tendency to not hire back experienced directors.

---Jason Bellamy of the distinguished Cooler seeks contributions to his Politics and Movies Blog-a-thon.

---How can you tell a film is a classic? When Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye has a little sister whose favorite film is The 39 Steps, directed by the young Alfred Hitchcock. Check out T. S.'s take on the movie in Screen Savour.

---Film bloggers still search for the right voice for critiquing today's comic action flick. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw has found the answer--sound like the Incredible Hulk: "`Hulk. Smash!' Yes. Hulk. Smash. Yes. Smash. Big Hulk smash. Smash cars. Buildings. Army tanks. Hulk not just smash. Hulk also go rarrr! Then smash again. Smash important, obviously."

---Lastly, I'm a fan of Johnny Rotten's, I mean Lydon's work. As much as anyone, he invented punk rock, so somehow it makes a kind of sense that now he's selling butter.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Complicating our responses: 11 notes on the DVD version of A Streetcar Named Desire

Full disclosure: I gleaned much of this information from the documentaries that accompany the two-disc special edition of Warner Brothers’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

1. From Pauline Kael’s review of Hud : “when I saw the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire, I was shocked and outraged at those who expressed their delight when Brando as Stanley jeered at Blanche. At the time, I didn’t understand it when they laughed their agreement as Stanley exploded in rage and smashed things. It was only later, away from the spell of Vivien Leigh’s performance, that I could reflect that Stanley was clinging to his brute’s bit of truth, his sense that her gentility and coquetry were intolerably fake. And it seemed to me that this was one of the reasons why Streetcar was a great play—that Blanche and Stanley upset us, and complicated our responses.”--from For Keeps, Dutton, 1994.

2. Why watch James Dean’s entire oeuvre when you can watch it all encapsulated by Brando’s performance as Stanley in Streetcar? With quicksilver speed, Brando shifts from swaggering abusive machismo to motherly concern to weeping vulnerability to childlike joy. Best example: in scene three, Brando’s Stanley moves from his drunken abuse of Stella, to remorseful weeping over her loss, to playing a kind of buff Romeo kneeling before Stella on the steps, and his version is all the more moving because he’s relatively inarticulate.

3. Paul Newman once said that Brando was able to effortlessly act out what took him (Paul) much labor to produce.

4. As the original Blanche in the Broadway production, Jessica Tandy was trained in the British style of acting that relied upon gesture and consistent blocking. With his Method techniques, Brando grew bored with performing each scene the same way every night, so he would make small changes and therefore throw Tandy off-balance. One night, in the midst of the play but behind the scenes, he managed to have someone punch him in the nose, breaking it. Then he had to end the play with a bloody towel over his face.

5. When Warner brothers studio brought in Vivien Leigh to replace Tandy in the film version of Streetcar, Tandy was likely hurt by the decision, but Karl Malden justified the change as necessary. They needed to bring in a bankable star to offset the rest of the relatively unknown cast. Both Malden and Brando would argue about who was better for the role of Blanche. They agreed that Leigh performed it in a sexier way, with hints of Scarlet O’Hara in her flirtations.

6. Kazan was initially reluctant to direct the film version of Streetcar, but he accepted in part so that he could shift the balance of the play back towards Blanche after Brando clearly dominated the Broadway production. As a director, Kazan scorned story boards (take that, Hitchcock) in favor of allowing his actors to help create the arrangement of each shot. For this reason, Kazan relied on a lot of close ups and compositions that emphasized the actors instead of the mise en scene. This tight focus combined with the dark cinematography and New Orleans grunge made for a peculiarly claustrophobic film. Kazan will later widen his focus considerably to take in the New York skyline in On the Waterfront.

7. Who is Blanche? A fallen aristocrat perhaps, a sensitive soul, an artist, just an artiste, a supremely useless person, or a “tender and trusting” figure who represents what happens to sensitive souls when brutalized by the Stanleys of the world? She’s also manipulative, an acknowledged liar who tries to turn her sister against Stanley. Stanley characterizes the thought of Mitch marrying her as jumping into “a tank with a school of sharks.” One wonders how Mitch and Blanche would have fared as a married couple.

8. Brando managed to get Tennessee Williams’ support for the role after he fixed the electricity and the plumbing in a house that Williams was visiting at the time. Someone on the DVD claimed that Williams was in love with Brando but not physically.

9. Williams inserts the theme of homosexuality obliquely into the play. In the original script, Blanche mentions how she found her husband in bed with another man. Then, when she confronts him about it by saying “I saw! I know! You disgust me,” he shoots himself in the mouth with a revolver. Meanwhile, Williams characterized himself as having much in common with Blanche, thus making Stanley a kind of ultra-butch fantasy of macho domination?

10. Meanwhile, the Hays office and the Catholic League of Decency censored the film to the point where Blanche seems to scorn her husband because he’s a poet.

11. Nowadays, as one watches the changes between versions in the DVD documentary, the censors just end up looking silly. So they cut the look of lust in Kim Hunter’s eyes as she walked down the steps to Stanley in his wet t-shirt. Also they managed to get Stella to leave with the baby at the end (to punish Stanley), but it seems unlikely she will stay away for long. Even in its butchered original release form, as Richard Schickel points out on the DVD, the film’s message still comes through.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The never-ending search for hipster authenticity: notes on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

1. What does the title mean? Nick and Nora Charles were two famous alcoholics who starred in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man, which spawned a hit series of films. In this movie, Nick and Norah do not drink, but they are clever and witty, and they do hang out in several New York nightclubs.

2. Why Infinite? Because they never run out of songs to play for each other? Or because hipster aesthetics demand that they endlessly form the soundtrack for their lives? In the film, Nick obsessively sends mix cds to his lost girlfriend. We learn that one of them is called “Road to Closure: Vol. 12,” which implies the hopelessness of his love.

3. The opening crayon-like credits of Nick and Norah’s are creepily reminiscent of Juno. Both films seek homemade punk authenticity by featuring the Ramones in their mise en scene and Michael Cera as one of the leads. While Juno eventually gets weighed down by the responsibilities that come with childbearing, Infinite Playlist remains playful throughout, since the principals only need to worry about getting through one evening in New York, making the film a kind of After Hours for the Converse/Ipod generation.

4. Some have complained that Michael Cera’s recycling his schtick by now, but after the success of Superbad and Juno, who can blame him? His situation reminds me of John Cusack’s doubts of playing yet another teen heartthrob in Say Anything. Cera’s persona remains largely the same in all three of his films—innocent, watchful, intelligent, and endearingly incompetent with women. As I watched him act, the phrase “freshly-born chick” came to mind (the expression that Elvis used when he first saw Goldie Hawn). He’s the ultimate unthreatening sensitive male, and the doubt that registers on his face about the scene, the movie, his character, movie stardom, etc., gives him all the requisite authenticity he needs.

5. In comparison to Nick, Kat Dennings (Norah) looks embittered by experience, as well she should be after starring in that egregious rip-off of Rushmore that is Charlie Bartlett. Both Nick and Norah share a second-rate status, since Norah finds herself accepting the responsibility for her drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) during their evenings out and Nick still hasn’t gotten over Tris (Alexis Dziena). In effect, both Nick and Norah begin as minor characters and then gradually assume the lead. Their modesty gives Infinite Playlist much of its charm in spite of the predictable trajectory of its romantic comedy plot.

6. I liked the scene where Caroline drunkenly locks herself in Nick's Yugo, and looks out the windows as various people try to get her to open the doors. She seems tickled by all of the attention. Even though later she gets lost in New York, one never feels particular concern for her plight except when she drops her gum in her vomit and she needs it back.

7. When Nick uses Febreze to clean up after a drunken couple who mistook his Yugo for a taxi, did director Peter Sollett intend for us to think of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver?

8. As the former girlfriend, Tris, Alexis Dziena skillfully conveys a mixture of jealousy and contempt towards Nick. She has never loved him, but when he appears to succeed with Norah, Tris resents this, and thereby seeks to win him back. She likes to play the object of attention, and it’s fun to see Nick waver between the real relationship with Norah and the fake one with Tris.

9. When Norah says “I’m not pretty like that,” Nick replies “No, you’re beautiful.” At that point, a large number of people in the theater went “Awwwww….” As a couple, Nick and Norah are mostly just awkward. Nick's best dance is the "blow dryer," when he simply messes up Norah's hair, yet their fumbling attempts at gaining affection define whatever authenticity that Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist attains.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Notable Film Links--October 3, 2008

The House Next Door continues to reissue excellent essays. Check out Robert Cumbow's "Altman and Coppola in the Seventies: Power and the People."

David Bordwell considers film titles in his Observations on film art blog. As he writes, "Titles can be explicit, but they’re often metaphorical, associative, and oblique. Sometimes they’re downright obscure. But as Drew Goddard says, they can be cool."

For City Journal, Stegan Kanfer celebrates black and white cinematography, especially for younger viewers who may not know any better:

"Screenwriter Daniel Fuchs wrote of the B&W era: `An excitement filled the theater, a thralldom. People forgot they were sitting on the seats; they forgot themselves, their bodies. They lived only for the film.' Gregg Toland, the greatest cinematographer of his generation, never shot in color. He and his A-picture directors, including John Ford, Orson Welles, and William Wyler, preferred to give audiences the sense that they were watching a suite of etchings. Who needed color when the haunting landscapes of Wuthering Heights materialized on screen, as if photographed in Emily Brontë’s nineteenth century? Or when Citizen Kane’s deep-focus montages breathed life into the story of a fatally ambitious press lord? Or when The Best Years of Our Lives made an American epic out of the interrupted lives of three World War II vets?"

Meanwhile, the ever-insightful Movieman0283 of The Dancing Image finds that 3:10 to Yuma "is not black-and-white morally. It belongs to that breed of postwar westerns, not as explicitly revisionist as The Wild Bunch but poking and prodding the genre's conventions and bringing to the fore its fundamental themes."

In Offscreen's special issue about French cinema, Daniel Garett claims that
"Catherine Deneuve helps to make up for a world that is not balanced or beautiful enough, pleasing or profound enough, a world in which we are not brilliant or kind enough, perceptive or joyous enough."

Lastly, the prolific T. S. of Screen Savour is in the midst of his month-long retrospective of Hitchcock's career. Given that Dead Pan has also written about several films by the master, Alfred should be pleased.