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Monday, August 31, 2009

Taking Woodstock

There was quite a bit of media coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, New York, better known as Woodstock. So much so that I'm sure many were driven crazy by it, especially those who were born long after the concert took place. Now, a few weeks after the anniversary, comes Ang Lee's film Taking Woodstock, and once again your enjoyment of the film will probably be directly proportional with your level of nostalgia for the sixties.

I was only eight when the concert took place, and completely oblivious. In fact, at that tender age I probably wouldn't have heard of one of the acts that played there (I'd heard of the Beatles, but was sadly lacking in my appreciation of Sweetwater and Quill). But, as regular readers of this blog know, I am now firmly stuck in the sixties, as if making up for the fact that I spent the decade watching Captain Kangaroo. Hanging on my living room wall is a framed original poster of the event that I bought many years ago for a not inconsiderable sum.

Lee's film is just okay, even to frustrated hippies such as myself, especially because of the pedestrian script by James Schamus. It concerns the behind the scenes events of how the festival ended up where it did. Originally scheduled to be in Saugerties, New York, which was just a few miles from Woodstock, it was moved to Walkill, but then townspeople withdrew their approval. Enter Elliott Tiber (called Teichsberg in the movie), whose parents owned a dilapidated motel in pastoral White Lake, where there were more cows than people. Elliott (played by Demetri Martin) is also the president of the local chamber of commerce, and has a permit for his arts festival, which normally consists of him playing records over a loudspeaker.

He contacts the backers of the festival, including Michael Lang, who is played with Zen serenity by Jonathan Groff (who is specializing in recreating classic hippiedom, after playing Claude in the Broadway production of Hair). After having seen Lang give a talk, Groff nails him perfectly, as Lang still appears to have that inner peace, as well as an abundant head of hair. A local dairy farmer (Max Yasgur, played amusingly by Eugene Levy) agrees to let them use his farm as the concert site, almost relishing how it will annoy his neighbors.

Elliot's parents are old world Jews who are resistant to the idea of being overrun by hippies, until the cash stars flowing in. This is especially true of his mother, played cartoonishly by Imelda Staunton, who appears to not have one laudable character trait. The spine of the film involves Elliott learning to have the courage to leave his parents to fend for themselves (as well as come to grips with his homosexuality), and it's all very conventional stuff. So is a subplot involving a friend, Emile Hirsch, who was a Nam vet and suffers flashbacks.

What gives Taking Woodstock its occasional power is what happens around the edges, as the film really seems authentic in expressing just what it was like to be there for those three days. There's a terrific scene in which a state trooper (wearing a flower in his helmet) gives Elliott a ride on the back of his motorcycle to the festival field. They weave through the jam of traffic and people, young people in the full flush of individual expression (and drug-induced euphoria) while the music can be faintly heard in the distance. Elliott is urged to visit the show by his father, while they stand by a lake, watching people skinny-dip, in a scene that isn't salacious but instead celebratory of a certain time and place.

Elliott then is invited into a VW bus by a hippie couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner). I had heard about this scene and was dreading it, because in movies about the sixties there's always a scene in which a person takes their first acid trip, and the director and cinematographer try to recreate an experience that is probably unreproducible. But this one comes closer to others. As he listens to Ultimate Spinach, Elliott starts to see colors bleed and images shimmer. When they leave the van and look out at the sea of humanity, the hills undulate. Great stuff.

The music itself is only on the periphery. We don't see any of the bands, either in stock footage or as played by modern actors. Lee does give a nod of homage to Michael Wadleigh's concert film by frequently utilizing split-screen photography, but we only hear the music on the soundtrack (including Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash--it must have been a rights nightmare). In this way Taking Woodstock would be an ideal companion to the original film.

Schamus' script, though without much insight into the characters, is not completely idealistic. At the end of the show, as Boy Scouts are picking up the garbage, Lang rides into view on a horse, like some sort of hippie knight. He mentions that he's next going to put on a Rolling Stones show in California. This would of course be Altamount, which was the tragic counterpoint to Woodstock. He also speculates that everyone involved would probably end up suing each other. The end was in sight--3 Days of Peace and Music would seen be owned by corporate conglomerates and would later be packaged as "classic rock." But it was something while it lasted.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peeping Tom

My mini Brit noir festival ends with 1960's Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell. Upon release, the reaction to the film by critics was so vehement that for all intents and purposes it ended Powell's career. Today it is regarded as something of a masterpiece, misunderstood in its day. After watching it last night, though, I'm with the original view.

A very modern picture for its day, Peeping Tom deals frankly with sex and violence, certainly part of the problem with the reaction. However I have no problem with sex or violence (certainly not sex), but I was bothered by the way Peeping Tom was put together. It has all the appearances of a schlocky part of a double-bill at the drive-in, a psychological thriller in Z-picture clothing.

The story concerns a young man, played by Carl Boehm, who works at a London film studio as a focus puller. He's creepy from the outset, with social problems and always wearing his raincoat, even indoors. As a boy he was subject to his father's cruel psychological experiments in fear, which warped him to the point where he has become a murderer--he kills women while filming them.

Boehm's downstairs neighbor, Anna Massey, gets a crush on him, and here is a big flaw in the film. Why any woman, who appears outwardly sensible, would spend any time alone with this guy is beyond comprehension. During her first visit Boehm shows her into his private screening room, where he shows her films his father made of his experiments, such as throwing a live lizard into the boy's bed and filming his reaction. If this isn't a sure sign for a woman to pass on by I don't know what is. It's the same thing with one of Boehm's victims, a stand-in at the film studio played by Moria Shearer, who agrees to go out on a date with him. When he gets her alone on a soundstage and wants to film a scene with her acting frightened, I would expect most women would say they have to go home and clean their oven.

The film is rich in gaudy color and with a disjointed music score that underlines its tawdry style. I did admire some of the frankness of the material--one of Boehm's sidelines is as a photographer of nudie pics, and we see a funny scene in which a respectable older gent comes into a newsstand to buy some behind-the-counter material. But this is the kind of film that makes you want to take a shower after it's over. In the supplemental material (this is a Criterion DVD) there are many critics who bring up some valid points, such as how the film is really about the art of filmmaking (especially when pointing out that Powell himself played Boehm's father) but this is all more interesting in the abstract. It's a movie that's better when discussing than actually watching.

Interestingly, this is the same year that Hitchcock's Psycho was released, and the two films are often compared to each other. Hitchcock, noting the bruising that Powell received, withheld Psycho from screenings for critics. The voiced reason was because the studio didn't want anyone giving away the ending, but Hitchcock privately revealed that he didn't want to suffer Powell's fate.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ted Kennedy

From the minute I started watching the memorial service to Senator Edward Kennedy last night, I knew I would have to shift around my plans for today, because I didn't want to miss a minute of any of the ceremonies. For some reason I'm a sucker for funerals of American leaders. Maybe it's because the sight of an honor guard carrying a flag-draped casket is incredibly moving, as is the sight of ex-presidents from both parties gathered for a common purpose. This fascination isn't partisan--I was equally transfixed by the funerals for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.

When I saw the news of his death on Wednesday morning I of course wasn't shocked, given his diagnosis of brain cancer. What I thought of first was my grandmother. She and her sister, and their parents before them, were Kennedy worshippers. Like many of their generation, those from the middle-class of small towns, who admired Franklin Roosevelt and were life-long Democrats, the Kennedys were dazzling, our de facto royal family, both extremely charismatic and dedicated to championing the causes of the underdog. I remember my grandmother telling me that she liked them because "they look out for the poor man."

Of course Ted Kennedy was a complicated figure in American life, and was hated as much as he was loved. His behavior forty years ago after the accident at Chappiquiddick was a significant stain on him. His appetites were large and at times excessively so. But in the final analysis, I can only come to the conclusion that he was a great man, and can not be defined by his mistakes, but rather his accomplishments. He did look out for the poor man, with a zeal that will resound through American history.

The memorial service was intriguing, with speakers from his family and colleagues in politics. I thought the best speakers were John Culver, a former senator and college buddy of Kennedy's, who hilariously recounted his baptism as Ted's sailing crew, and Vice-President Biden, who movingly recounted how Kennedy comforted him after the death of Biden's wife and daughter. He also frankly acknowledged that he wouldn't have been a senator, let alone Vice President, without Kennedy. Over and over we heard how Kennedy was in constant contact with colleagues who were undergoing ordeals. I was amazed to learn that after the attacks on 9/11, he personally called the families of all of those Massachusetts citizens who were killed, and he kept in contact with them over the years.

Then, at the funeral this morning in Boston, couched in the grand traditions of the Catholic church, I was most moved by Ted Kennedy, Jr. It would take an awfully hard heart not to be moved to tears by his sharing the memory of a winter day when he was 12, when he was adjusting to a prosthetic limb after losing a leg to cancer, of trying to climb a snowy hill to go sledding. He was ready to give up in tears, saying he couldn't do it. His father, exhibiting the ideal attributes of fatherhood, insisted that his son could do it, that he could do anything, and he would help him climb that hill if it took them all day.

President Obama's eulogy was respectful and not as personal--he didn't know the Senator all that long, so relied on the stories of others. But I liked the part where he mentioned that he keeps a painting of Kennedy's (how did he find time to paint?) in his study off the oval office. He had admired it on first seeing it in Kennedy's senate office, so the generous man gave it to him as a gift.

Eventually the ceremonies ended at Arlington National Cemetery, shrouded in darkness, an ironic end to a public life. He will be buried a few hundred feet from his brothers, one resting under an eternal flame, the other under a simple white cross, similar to the one that will mark Ted's grave. I've been to that place, many years ago when I was a kid. When you stand at John Kennedy's grave it lines up perfectly with the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol. It's a breathtaking view.

Recalling Ted Kennedy's place in history is a bit awe-inspiring. When he took his senate seat he was thirty years old and clearly unqualified for the position. But oh, how he grew into it. He is certainly one of the greatest senators in American history (Obama recalled that when someone mentioned to Kennedy that the two greatest were he and Daniel Webster, Ted joked, "What did Webster do?"). Many mentioned that he was an even greater legislator when he gave up his pursuit for the presidency (he pointedly said, declining to run in 1984, that "pursuing the presidency is not my life; public service is"), a position that I think he never really wanted. I think it's very interesting that the one time he tried it was against an incumbent from his own party, the longest kind of odds. I should add, though, that I voted for him that year in the New Jersey primary. It was the first time I ever voted.

After an August full of thuggish libertarianism, with people carrying firearms to presidential events, a man identifies himself as a "right-wing terrorist" and is congratulated by his congressman, and a candidate for governor of Idaho jokes about a license for hunting Obama, it is heartening to see the public outpouring for this man. From media coverage, I had thought liberals had once again retreated into their shell. But the response to the death of a man, more than any other, who believed that government was an effective instrument to enact social justice gladdens my heart. As Kennedy said, "The dream will never die."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

Book nine of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2008 is Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. All of the stories deal with the sometimes precarious straddling of cultures, as the children of Bengali immigrants become Americanized and drift away from the traditions of their parents.

There are eight stories in the book. The first part contains five stories that have different characters, but return to the same theme. The title story, which opens the collection, is a touching depiction of a young Indian woman, married to a white man, who has relocated in Seattle. Her father, a widower, comes to visit. He busies himself tending to her neglected garden and bonding with his young grandson, all the while harboring a secret. "A Choice of Accommodations" is about another mixed marriage, as an Indian man returns to his boarding school to attend a wedding with his wife. "Only Goodness" chronicles the relationship between an older sister, the responsible one, and her younger brother, who struggles with alcoholism. The best of this part may be "Nobody's Business," which deals less with Indo-Americans than the others. A young woman moves into a house of grad students in Boston and her housemate, who has a crush on her, gets involved in her love life. It's the kind of story than sneaks up on you.

The second half is three inter-connected stories about Hema and Kaushik, two children of immigrants who meet as children and then reconnect for a brief love affair in Rome. I liked the second story, "Year's End," which has Kausik dealing with his widowed father's remarriage.

Lahiri's style is very precise and careful. There isn't a spare word in her prose; no flourishes or frills. I can't find fault with that, but when reading these stories in sequence, pretty much one a day, one can long for a little showing off. Also, each of these stories is roughly a different way of expressing the same frustrations of the assimilating, the tension between the generations. I almost longed for a story that broke the mold and took place on Mars or something. This is very good stuff, though.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Fallen Idol

The collaboration of Carol Reed and Graham Greene on The Third Man created a masterpiece, and it was foreshadowed by the fine The Fallen Idol, made in 1948. Reed directed Greene's script, based on his short story. It's a deceptively simple story involving only a few characters, but the psychological factors are still nagging at me twenty-four hours later.

The setting is the French embassy in London. The ambassador leaves for the weekend to pick up his wife, who has been ill for several months. He leaves behind his son, who is about ten years old (Bobby Henrey), in the care of the butler (Ralph Richardson) and his wife (Sonia Dresdel). The boy idolizes Richardson, who is a good friend to the boy, more likely to forgive his youthful transgressions, especially when compared to Dresdel, who is quietly sinister in her discipline.

Richardson, it turns out, is in love with a young typist from the embassy, Michele Morgan. Henrey catches them having tea together, but Richardson lets him think that Morgan is his niece, and tells Henrey that he must keep it all a secret. Richardson wants to tell his wife that the marriage is over, but when Dresdel figures things out she traps the two together. This leads to tragedy, and during a police investigation Henrey is determined to lie to save his friend, but he may be hurting him more than he can know.

One of the themes of this film is how easy it is to lie. At one point, early in the film, Henrey lies to Dresdel to keep her from snapping at Richardson. She tells the boy to stop lying, but Richardson intercedes, saying, "There are lies and there are lies," the point being that some lies are out of kindness. The other is the nature of secrets, and when they are entrusted to small child they can take on unanticipated, unpleasant properties.

Reed's direction shares much with The Third Man, including tilted cameras and bold chiaroscuro effects with light and shadow (the film was photographed by Georges Perinal). The centerpiece is a game of hide-and-seek that Richardson and Morgan play with Henrey, none of them realizing that Dresdel is in the house with them. The scene in the tea shop, in which Richardson and Morgan have to discuss their relationship in front of Henrey is also quite effective.

In the long run, I think the most brilliant thing about the film is the performance that Reed milked out of Henrey. The interviews in the supplementary material tells us that Henrey was no actor--"he couldn't act his way out of a paper bag," says the assistant director. Instead, Reed took the child, who had practically no attention span, and managed to get a completely natural performance out of him. He is like a buzzing gnat, always where he shouldn't be, playing a character who can sit still. Watching him during the tense police interrogation at the end of the film (led by Denis O'Dea, who gives a great performance) is a white-knuckler, wondering if the child will unwittingly say something that dooms his friend. At one point he is actually telling the truth and giving evidence that would hang Richardson, but the detectives treat it as the yammering of a child.

Reed and Greene were both Oscar-nominated, and well deserved they were.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wanted For Murder

This film is a moderately entertaining suspense film from 1946, directed by Lawrence Huntington. It concerns a serial killer in London who has been strangling young woman. Early on we learn that the killer is a respectable businessman, Eric Portman, who is haunted by his ancestor, a hangman from Victorian times, who has a wax statue in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors.

As long as the plot focuses on Portman and his increasing madness, Wanted for Murder is intriguing, but alas it frequently slips into melodrama, particularly with a subplot involving a woman Portman has fallen for (Dulcie Gray), who has thrown him over for a stolid bus conductor (Derek Farr). They share a scene in a restaurant where they declare their love for each other, even though they've only known each other for a few days, that could have been lifted from a Harlequin romance.

Better stuff comes from the actors who play the Scotland Yard detectives. Roland Culver is the sharp-minded inspector who gets on to Portman after the latter's handkerchief is found near a victim. Stanley Holloway, who would later be indelible as Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, provides comic relief as a dogged sergeant.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Upturned Glass

More Brit noir...

The Upturned Glass is an example of a Hitchcockian thriller than doesn't have the benefit of being directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It's engaging enough, with some interesting moments of suspense, but it lacks the snap of the master's touch.

The film starts with a doctor (James Mason) giving a college lecture on the "psychology of murder." He tells the class about the sane criminal, and illustrates his point by telling them a story about a brain surgeon, who is also played by James Mason. This cuts out some suspense right away, as we know the lecturer is referring to himself, something that could be withheld in prose. Anyway, Mason, unhappily married (we never see his wife) operates on a young girl to save her eyesight. He and her mother end up falling in love, but because they are both married decide to end the relationship. He is shocked to learn that his beloved has died, falling out of a window.

When he attends the inquest, he suspects the dead woman's sister-in-law (Pamela Kellino, Mason's real-life wife and also the co-author of the script). Mason, investigating the death on his own, seduces Kellino, and decides to take revenge, but not before he details the plans of his plot in his lecture. He kills Kellino, and ends up driving around the foggy countryside of England with her body in his backseat. He is stopped by a country doctor needing assistance, and ends up being faced with the dilemma of whether or not to perform an emergency operation on a young girl to save her life.

There are some nice moments in the film. When we realize that Mason's lecture is not after the murder, but before it, makes for some interesting tension, and then the scenes immediately after the murder, when things start to wrong for him, are malevolently humorous. In Hitchcock fashion a key becomes important, but only for a moment, which makes its inclusion somewhat superfluous. Mason plays the upper-crust Brit all the way through, and at times seemed as if he were asleep, while Kellino plays her character as nasty and shrill from the get-go.

Monday, August 24, 2009

District 9

I'm a guy who is often disappointed with science fiction. The trappings of it are appealing to me--I love the covers of sci-fi paperback novels, or the plot summaries of sci-fi movies, but I often end up let down by the results. I think sci-fi is written by people who have very vivid imaginations but end up being not very disciplined writers, and the high-minded ideas end up unraveling the story.

District 9, to me, is perfect science fiction. It uses a fantastic scenario to illustrate something that is true to human nature without getting hung up on the philosophy of the issue. It's also very suspenseful and at times moving.

Directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp, a South African, it is set entirely in that country, and that's an important aspect of the story. A spaceship has parked itself above Johannesburg. Earthlings fly up to it and discover starving, disoriented aliens, who are then housed in a refugee camp of sorts, which is called District 9. The camp, which grows to be over a million aliens, is rife with crime, and the native citizens grow to hate the newcomers, who are derisively called prawns because of their insectoid appearance.

Given the location, this is quite redolent of apartheid (the camp resembles places like Soweto), but I thought it was even more acutely similar to countries that have problems of unwanted immigration. The prawns, as the film begins, are to be evicted from the shantytown and moved away from the city into something like a concentration camp. This is handled by a huge and evil company, overseen by a bumbling bureaucrat, played by Sharlto Copley.

The first half of the movie is told entirely in faux-documentary style. We're given exposition by talking heads, as if it were a piece of investigative journalism, and also through surveillance camera footage and live news broadcasts. This has the effect of making the film feel current, but it also has a distancing effect that I found a little off-putting. Copley is such a buffoon that he seems to come straight from a South African version of The Office. When he comes across one shack during the eviction he finds a mysterious canister, and ends up getting sprayed with a viscous black liquid. After that, he has some serious medical problems.

I don't want to go to far with the plot after that, suffice it to say Copley ends up on the run from authorities, and heads back to District 9. There he forms an unlikely bond with one of the prawns, Christopher, who needs that canister to get back to his ship. At this point the film settles into a more conventional albeit exciting action/buddie film, with the two shooting their way into a top-secret lab (the aliens have some pretty awesome weapons that only they can use).

I should add that Christopher is played by no one--he, as well as all the prawns, are CGI creations. In the spotty history of this sort of thing, bottoming out with Jar Jar Binks, I believe I can say that this special effect work is the best I've seen. These creatures look absolutely real, moving among humans seamlessly. It's also a testament to Blomkamp and his team that they don't only look real, but solicit a great deal of pathos. Christopher and his son (a miniature creature who is some sort of scientific prodigy) are more real than almost any character in Inglourious Basterds. They aren't cuddly--these fellows look like overgrown crickets--but this may be the first film I've seen where you end up rooting for an alien species to kill all the Earthlings.

There are some flaws in the film. In addition to the excessive gimmickry of the documentary-style framework, I found the treatment of Nigerian characters, who are crime overlords of the District, to be insensitive, especially for a film about prejudice. The script also glides over some scientific questions--how does a liquid used for fuel also end up altering a man's DNA? If the ship is disabled, how does it manage to defy gravity and hover over the city?

Of course, science fiction is just that--fiction--and sometimes you have to just let it go. I'm perfectly willing to do that for this fine film, which is a rip-roaring adventure with just enough to make you think.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Under the Volcano

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Malcolm Lowry, a writer who really only wrote one book of note, but it was a doozy: Under the Volcano, considered by many to be one of the great works of twentieth-century literature. I recently read the book, as well as watched the John Huston film version from 1984, which I hadn't seen since it first came out. It was a Criterion Collection DVD, so it had a multitude of extras, including a feature-length documentary on Lowry.

The novel concerns the last twenty-four hours of the life of Geoffrey Firmin, referred to in the book as "the Consul." He's a British diplomat, the ex-consul to the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, Lowry's stand-in for Cuernavaca (in the film there is no obfuscation, and the town is called by its actual name). The town sits in the shadow of two looming volcanoes, and we are told "possesses eighteen churches and fifty-seven cantinas." The action takes place on the Day of the Dead--November 2, 1938. Of course this holiday holds special meaning in Mexico, and is celebrated with much fanfare, with lots of skeleton imagery.

Firmin is a stand-in for the author, a man from England who has found himself in Mexico and is a hopeless alcoholic. He is rarely sober, but still a vigorous man, with a sharp wit and a sense of himself. He has recently been divorced from his wife, Yvonne, but she arrives unexpectedly, because despite herself she is still in love with him. The third character in the triad is Hugh, the Consul's half-brother, a journalist who has recently been in Spain and seems to have once been intimate with Yvonne.

There is a hell of a lot going on in this book. It really requires at least two reads to get all of it. It's told in something of a stream of consciousness, and is somewhat Joycean. At times my mind wandered and I had to go back and reread a few paragraphs to establish what was going on. After finishing it I read a summary and found, to my surprise, that one of the characters had died. I went back and reread that portion, feeling stupid. Some of his sentences contain multiple clauses that go on for pages, with a virtuosic use of punctuation.

I can see why it's a big hit in academia as it is a gold mine of metaphor and allusion. Let me just elucidate a few. Of course it deals with politics--Hugh feels guilty about being unable to do more to help the Loyalist cause in Spain, and the lurking shadow of World War II hovers over everything (Lowry wrote the book during the War, and it was published in 1947). The Consul refers to an incident in World War I when he captured a German U-Boat, but was tried for court martial, accused of incinerating German officers. Surely Lowry knew what he was doing in describing Germans being thrown into furnaces. In the last chapter of the book, when the Consul is faced down by bureaucratic Mexican thugs, he is accused of being a Jew.

The central chapter of the book, and the basis of the short story which prefigures it, is when the Consul, Yvonne, and Hugh are on a bus headed to a bullfight. They stop when they see a wounded man lying by the road. He is an Indian, and it appears he has fallen from his horse. Hugh is told not to help him, as Mexican law forbids such interference, lest he be seen as an accessory to whatever happened, but a Spaniard, whom Hugh has identified as a fascist, steals the Indian's money.

Then there's the animal imagery. A whole dissertation could be written on this. Several animals are mentioned, including a dog (the Consul calls him a "pariah") which follows him around, a little girl playing with an armadillo, a rabbit eating an ear of corn, a cat which holds a butterfly in its mouth, an eagle that Yvonne frees from its cage, and the horse that belonged to the dead Indian, which will reappear at the end of the book as a harbinger of doom. The most poignant is the eagle, which perhaps represents Yvonne's feelings about the Consul--she has to let him go. I liked this interpretation of the armadillo, from the New Yorker Book Club's Ligaya Mishan, who equates the armadillo to Firmin--Yvonne sees him as a pet, something to play with and control, but if let loose will drag her down below ground. The last line, after the Consul has been murdered, again rings with zoology: "Somebody threw a dead dog after him down a ravine."

And what are we to make of the cinematic imagery? Throughout the book we are told that the film playing in town is The Hands of Orlac, starring Peter Lorre (it was released in the U.S. under the name Mad Love). It is about a pianist whose hands are amputated after an accident, and grafted onto his arms are the hands of a murderer. Of course he is compelled by these hands to murder. Once again we see a metaphor for the Consul--a man who can only do what nature, however cruel it is, dictates. Also, Yvonne's character was a movie actress as a child, so we hear Lowry's take on evils of Hollywood, something that was evermore becoming common in literature.

Though the writing is often just too much, it is also frequently brilliant. The book is often funny, even about the Consul's alcoholism. He drinks almost everything: beer, whiskey, tequila, even strychnine, which at the time was considered a curative for dipsomania (in small doses, of course). At the end he is drinking mescal, the drink of the desperate, with its worm at the bottom of the bottle. This of course leads to his doom. But there are many instances of a winking nature about funny drunks. Consider this passage about him taking a stroll (to a cantina in the morning, of course): "But suddenly the Calle Nicaragua rose up to meet him. The Consul lay face downward in the deserted street." Or the conversation he has with an American who lives next door, and is disgusted by the Consul's boozing. The Consul says he's on the wagon, but his neighbor says, "The funeral wagon, I'd say." Yvonne's take on drink is different, as she describes mescal as "like ten yards of barbed wire fence. It nearly took the top of my head off." Even as he lay dying, the Consul maintains his drollery: "this is a dingy way to die."

Lowry was also an alcoholic--it would be hard to imagine a teetotaler writing this book. He died of his illness in 1957 at the age of 48. Knowing this some of the passages go down hard, like this one: "The Consul dropped his eyes at last. How many bottles since then? In how many glasses, how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anis, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses—towering, like the smoke from the train that day—built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill from the Generalife Gardens, the bottles breaking, bottles of Oporto, tinto, blanco, bottles of Pernod, Oxygénée, absinthe, bottles smashing, bottles cast aside, falling with a thud on the ground in parks, under benches, beds, cinema seats, hidden in drawers at Consulates, bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean, bottles floating in the ocean, dead Scotchmen on the Atlantic highlands—and now he saw them, smelt them, all, from the very beginning—bottles, bottles, bottles, and glasses, glasses, glasses, of bitter, of Dubonnet, of Falstaff, Rye, Johnny Walker, Vieux Whiskey blanc Canadien, the aperitifs, the digestifs, the dobles, the noch ein Herr Obers, the et glas Araks, the tusen taks, the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal…The Consul sat very still. His conscience sounded muffled with the roar of water. It whacked and whined round the wooden frame house with the spasmodic breeze, massed, with the thunderclouds over the trees, seen through the windows, its factions. How indeed could he hope to find himself, to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, forever, the solitary clue to his identity? How could he go back and look now, scrabble among the broken glass, under the eternal bars, under the oceans?"

John Huston made a film version in 1984. He had hoped to use Richard Burton as the Consul, but he was shortly to die and was perhaps too sick to play the character. Albert Finney was a more than capable replacement, and received an Academy Award nomination (as did Alex North for his fine music score). Jacqueline Bisset played Yvonne and Anthony Andrews was Hugh.

The screenplay by Guy Gallo is faithful but a distillation, as there is just too much to cram into one film (the book takes multiple points of view, ranging from the Consul to Yvonne to Hugh to a French film director, LaRuelle, who is cut out of the movie). I saw the film when it first came out but remembered almost none of it. I then read the book and watched the film. Had I done it the other way around I might have understood more what I was reading, but I don't like to do that, because it makes things too easy (and I don't like picturing famous actors as the characters, despite how they may be described).

The film is very good, primarily resting on the back of Finney and the magic of the Mexican location, which is also vividly rendered in Lowry's prose--you can practically smell the bougainvillea. It was interesting to learn, however, in an interview Huston gave, that he didn't the book was a great one, though. He thought it seemed as if Lowry were putting everything he had ever experienced in this one book, which turned out, tragically, to be correct.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

As with all of his films, Inglourious Basterds doesn't take place in any world we would recognize, but in the head of Quentin Tarantino, where a fevered imagination dreams of countless films, from the highbrow to the lowest of the low. In a sense, he doesn't create new works but mash-ups, regurgitations of everything he has seen in altered ways. In some cases, such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, he took the memes and tropes of crime noir and reinvented them, making him the most audacious American filmmaker in action.

I stand behind no one in my admiration for Pulp Fiction (it's where I get my nom de blog), but like many, I've found his post-PF work--Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof, to be a squandering of his talent. Instead of continuing the exciting work of his first two pictures, he's become hermetically sealed in his own world of hack cinema, reproducing what he loved as a child, like Miss Havisham preserving her wedding cake. To be sure, each of these pictures had a lot to admire, particularly Kill Bill, but it was akin to Picasso spray-painting a subway car.

I regret to say that Inglourious Basterds is another film in this decline. I did like it overall, and if this were a film made by someone completely unknown I'd say "the kid's got something," but nothing exists in a vacuum and there's no mistaking that it was made by Tarantino. I give it a thumbs up on its amusement park thrills, but a thumbs down when considering what it could have been.

Of course Tarantino can't make a straight World War II film. Instead he has crafted a spaghetti Western as war film, with a touch of the grindhouse he so loves. We know that right away with the Ennio Morricone music and a title card reading "Once upon a time..." a sure allusion to Sergio Leone. The prologue takes us to the French countryside, which if you squint could double for Nebraska, and a family who happens to be hiding a family of Jews. A contingent of German soldiers arrive, led by Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, a sure Best Supporting Actor nominee), who is known as the "Jew Hunter." It is here that Tarantino, somewhat ham-fistedly, begins his tale of revenge of Jews against Nazis.

The film is told in chapters, which make abrupt leaps in the story. We go from that French countryside, where one Jew escapes, to the Basterds themselves, a guerilla unit of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine, played amusingly by Brad Pitt. The character's name is a reference to 1950's character actor Aldo Ray, and Tarantino gives Pitt a scar around his neck (Eastwood in Hang 'em High?) and a Li'l Abner accent. That the character comes from Tennessee, Tarantino's birthplace, is certainly no accident, as Raine is a foxy fellow who never fails to spin a clever aphorism or get the better of his enemy. Pitt certainly seems to enjoy himself, taking special delight in pronouncing Nazi as if it rhymes with "patsy."

The Basterds are a gang of vicious thugs, including a psychopathic German and a Red Sox fan with the moniker of "the Bear Jew" (played by Eli Roth, who should stick to making vile horror films--he's no actor). Roth's method of execution is to use a baseball bat to the melon of his victim (Robert DeNiro's Al Capone in The Untouchables?). Pitt has charged his Semitic squad with collecting as many Nazi scalps as they can (Raine is part "injun," and the Germans know him as "Aldo the Apache"). I'm not Jewish, so I have no cultural response to seeing Jews portrayed as sadistic brutes, but I suppose if Spielberg could do it in Munich Tarantino has a right to.

All too soon we leave the Basterds (the film seems to flag whenever Pitt is away) to meet the girl who escaped in the first scene, her identity changed and running a cinema in occupied Paris. Played by the excellent Melanie Laurent, she's reminiscent of a Hitchcock blonde--icily sexy. A young German war hero (Daniel Brühl) takes a shine to her, and since he's the star of a new propaganda film (he's the German Sgt. York) he arranges for her theater to host the premiere of the film. Revenge immediately pops into her head.

But, as the commercials says, that's still not all! We then meet some British (including a heavily made up Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill and a what-the-fuck? cameo by Mike Myers) planning to blow up the theater the night of the premiere. They enlist a suave film critic, Martin Fassbender, (Tarantino sucking up to the scribblers who will pass judgment on him?) to join up with the Basterds and a German movie star (Diane Kruger, another Hitchcock blonde) to infiltrate the German high command. So we essentially have Tarantino laying plot upon plot, an extreme case of overkill that bloats the film to two-and-a-half hours.

And it is a long film. There are several times during the film I got the fidgets. Tarantino has a difficult time with all the languages being spoken. There's a restaurant scene that has German being translated into French with English subtitles. Aside from being a cinematic Rosetta Stone for future linguists, this was stultifyingly inept. When Kruger and Fassbinder meet up in a tavern, a scene that must last half an hour, he has the characters playing twenty questions far longer than anyone can tolerate. Tarantino has never been one to follow the rules set down by Robert McKee--the scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta and Jackson actually stop the plot to debate whether a foot massage is cheating is famous for this--but in Pulp Fiction it was funny and entertaining, not so in Inglourious Basterds.

But toward the last third of the film I got into it, and enjoyed the ending, which rewrites history and has Pitt delivering a coup de grace that will rank among the great ending scenes in film history. All of the classic Tarantino quirks are on display: foot fetishism, the Mexican standoff (including two characters debating just what exactly constitutes a Mexican standoff), the idiosynchratic score (this will be the first and presumably last World War II film to contain a David Bowie song), brief voice roles by Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel, and winking at the audience stuff like identifying the Nazi bigwigs with a kind of telestrator. Tarantino, like the blowhard at the bar who knows everything, also makes sure to include as many film references as he can, whether it's dropping names like G.W. Pabst and Emil Jannings or having his British character refer to "Jerry" like they were right out of some forties war flick.

I've been kind of long-winded, so let me sum up by saying Inglorious Basterds gets a solid grade of B from me. It's a lot of fun, but there are plenty of places you can get up to go to the bathroom. I'm still waiting for Tarantino to fulfill his early promise, but perhaps he's not interested in doing that, and instead is satisfied in these well-wrought doodles.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bitte Orca

How does one keep up with new music these days? It used to be simple, back when I was a kid--I listened to top 40 radio. In those days, top 40 stations played everything. You could hear Elton John, James Brown, or the Captain and Tenille with ten minutes. There wasn't the great sorting that there is now, with everything in its own cubbyhole. Today terrestrial music radio is practically unlistenable, unless you have extremely narrow interests in oldies, country, hip-hop or what have you.

I have a satellite radio, and there are new music stations, such as XMU, which mimics a college radio station. When I listen to it I enjoy it, but I don't find it a good way to discover new bands, mostly because I only have it in the car. It would require listening for hours on end to get a sense of what I like.

Of course MTV is no use to me anymore. I have fond memories of the early 90s when I taped 120 Minutes, which was on Sunday nights at midnight, and played it back when I was awake. I found out about a lot of great bands that way, such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, etc.

So today I rely on reading about music, which is problematic when you can't actually hear the songs. I subscribed to CMJ for a while, which had the benefit of including a CD in each issue, but they were kind of bad about sending out the magazine on a regular basis (do they even have a print edition anymore?) This tends to lead me to wallow in the music of my youth, which is familiar and comfortable, but I have a desperate urge to keep current, and not be one of those people who have no idea who the great new bands are.

Just a few weeks ago I was itching to get some new music, so I decided to drive into Princeton and visit the Princeton Record Exchange, a glorious throwback to record shops of old. They have a wide selection, including vinyl, and you'd have to spend a couple of hours going through their wall of used CDs. They are staffed by the kind of people you want to see in record stores: goth girls with tattoos, and scruffy guys of indeterminate age who wear t-shirts from obscure bands, like Mission of Burma. Right near the checkout counter is a rack devoted to new releases. So I walked in the store and was determined to leave with something new. I saw a CD by Dirty Projectors, and I recalled reading good things about them somewhere, so I made the leap.

The name of the album is Bitte Orca, and after several listens I've come to like it very much. Dirty Projectors are one of those bands that are category-defying, but I think it's instructive to learn that they have collaborated with David Byrne and Bjork, because there music shares the same of sense of experimentation and adventure as those two artists. They are in the vast province of rock and roll, but on the fringes, where the avant-garde kids hang out.

Dirty Projectors are fronted by David Longstreth, who wrote all of the songs (one of them was co-written with Amber Coffman) and sings lead vocal on seven of the nine tracks. The songs have a sunny joie de vivre, though I'm not sure what they're about, as there is no lyric sheet and I have trouble making words out as my hearing diminishes. The song titles are enigmatic, like "Cannibal Resource" and "Fluorescent Half Dome."

The music ranges through many styles, with some acoustic with string accompaniment, and some electronica that sounds as if they came from another planet. Some times these songs are brilliantly juxtaposed: the beautiful "Two Doves," which just may be the most gorgeous new song I've heard this year, is immediately followed by the other-wordly "Useful Chamber."

"Two Doves" is not sung by Longstreth and neither is my other favorite song on the disc, "Stillness Is the Move." Both are sung by one of the females in the group (not sure which one, as they have two). Longstreth has a high vibrato that is kind of annoying. "Stillness Is the Move" is a gas, with some Afro-Caribbean influences (it could have had a home on Talking Heads' Remain in Light, to tie it back to David Byrne) and gets me boppin' my head along with the rhythm.

So I think I'll try the Princeton Record Exchange experiment again in a week or two, and see what other new stuff I can discover.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The English Major

The English Major, by Jim Harrison is a delight from beginning to end. It's like a cold beer on a hot summer day, refreshing and slightly intoxicating.

Taking the template of the road novel, Harrison gives it a different spin--this is On the Road for the geriatric set. Our narrator is Cliff, a former teacher (and of course English major) and farmer from northern Michigan. At sixty his wife, who has become rich as a real estate agent, divorces him. He is forced to sell his farm and while sorting through his things he finds an old wooden jigsaw puzzle of the United States he had as a child. He is inspired to hit the road and visit all fifty states.

Cliff's motivation is to see if he can create a new life at an advanced age. A friend tells him that he is a "raccoon treed by the hounds of life," but Cliff disagrees, and sets out with a pioneer spirit. He decides he will work on a project of renaming all the states as well as the birds of North America. Along the way he recollects his past, good times and bad.

Of course there are complications. In Minnesota he meets up with an old student of his, now a slightly unhinged woman in her forties. They have great sex--Harrison isn't too proud to use language that usually appears in a Penthouse letter: "I was so hard you could have hung a pail on my dick." But Marybelle, his new flame, wears his pecker out, and though he enjoys the sex she drives him nuts, especially when she insists on him having a cell phone, which he looks at as a horror of modern life.
Cliff is a great creation, a pleasure to travel with as he makes his way through the West. He sticks mostly to the back roads, staying out of big cities, stopping to take nature hikes and snap photos of various types of cattle. He is overwhelmed by the Pacific Ocean. He visits his son in San Francisco and an old high school friend on a rattlesnake farm in Arizona. He sneaks across the border into Mexico and goes fishing in Montana. He goes trout fishing in Montana. He listens to NPR. There is a lot of drinking.

Harrison provides a lot of charming detail and peers into the soul of this man. Cliff describes many of his meals, and frequently has a soft spot for the waitress. In Montana he befriends a twenty-two-year-old waitress who is also an artists' model. Cliff, though embarrassed, pays her $300 to model naked for him, though she has a strict ten-foot buffer zone.

Though Cliff's days as a teacher are long behind him (he says he'd rather take a bullet to the brain rather than teach again) he always remembers the days when he thought books were important. He recalls Thoreau and Emerson, Emily Dickinson (who he loved) and Hart Crane (who he did not). In essence, it becomes apparent that once an English major, always an English major.

Harrison's writing is spare and fluid, tinged with the sentimental: "I was up at first light with a trace of dawn visible through the east kitchen window. I drank half of my coffee on the rickety back porch most of the floorboards of which I'd have to replace. I set off for a stroll with an imaginary dog at my side, my trousers soon wet to the knees with dew. I saw an indigo bunting flitting around a dogwood bush, possibly a bird not to be changed. I seem to be with the mute Indian inspecting a fox burrow in the southwest corner of the pasture. A Jersey milk cow is following us. I look back at the bungalow which is catching the light of the orange rising sun. Grandpa is drinking coffee with a splash of Four Roses whiskey for his heart. Teddy sits in a puddle in the driveway. Dad is digging earthworms in the corner of the yard so we can catch bluegills to fry up for lunch. And here I am fifty years later, an old body bent on a new life."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


This 1940 film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, is the original version of a story (adapted from a play) that was remade a few years later with Ingrid Bergman. I haven't seen that Hollywood version, so can't tell whether it's better than the original. I can tell that the original has its moments, but suffers from the ravages of time.

The film, set in Victorian London, begins with a prologue, in which an old lady is strangled. Her house is ransacked. We don't see the intruder, only his hands. According to a newspaper story she has valuable rubies that are presumed stolen. Her house goes up for sale, but because of the notoriety is stands abandoned.

Years later a young couple move in. He's a suave continental type (Anton Walbrook) and she's a demure hothouse flower (Diana Wynyard) who has recently experienced some sort of nervous breakdown. It becomes apparent almost immediately that the husband is up to no good--he hides things and then accuses her of stealing them.

A local man, an ex-policeman (Frank Pettingill), recognizes Walbrook as a criminal, and thinks he's hidden his identity. He endeavors to get to the bottom of things before Walbrook can have Wynyard institutionalized.

Gaslight has some moments of quiet suspense, especially when the worm turns and Wynyward advances on her husband with a knife and you're not sure whether she's going to use it. It's also a brisk 84 minutes, so there's not much fat on it. But it's also well-larded with melodrama, and a bit much for modern sensibility. I'm sure it's true to the time--a husband certainly did have complete dominion over his wife, but at seems at some point she would have turned to him and told him to take a flying leap. Also, if one ex-cop could have recognized him and spoiled the plan, it seems to me Walbrook didn't think things out very clearly.

One cast member, who played Wynyward's sympathetic cousin, looked very familiar to me. Turns out it was Robert Newton, who is best known for playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Never Let Go

More Brit Noir, this time a film from 1960, Never Let Go, directed by John Guillermin and probably most notable for starring Peter Sellers in a dramatic role. Not only is he not comedic in this film, he's downright menacing.

Richard Todd also stars as a cosmetic salesman who has just purchased a car to help him in his business. He's horrified to find one night that it has been stolen, and somewhat as in The Bicycle Thief, the loss of the car has dire economic results. Turns out that Sellers, who operates a garage, heads a racket that employs youths to steal cars, which he then alters to match totaled cars, which he can then resell. Todd, who did not purchase theft insurance, is desperate to get it back, and despite being cautioned by the police and his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), doggedly pursues getting it back.

This is a fine, gritty suspenseful picture, well photographed, and with a typical-for-the-era jazzy soundtrack (lots of brush on spare drums). But it's really the pleasure of watching Sellers in full villain mode that makes this interesting. He's a real nasty fellow, even going so far as to squashing a pet turtle with his shoe heel. Though he is villainous, there is a certain humor in watching this criminal mastermind come undone through the interference of a wishy-washy "lipstick peddler."

Also in the cast are Adam Faith, as the young car thief, and Carol White, as his Marilyn Monroe/Diana Dors-type girlfriend, who is exploited by Sellers (for 1960 the sexual implications are pretty frank). I read up on White, who died at the age of 50 in 1991 of alcoholism. As an old newspaperman-stand operator is Mervyn Johns, who is best known as playing Bob Cratchit in the Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Back to the "Brit Noir" festival with Victim, from 1961, a rather bold look at homosexuality. In fact, it was the first English-language film to use the word homosexual, which made it quite controversial at the time (and got it banned in America for a while).

Directed by Basil Dearden, Victim stars Dirk Bogarde as a well-off barrister. At the beginning of the film we are plunged right into the story, and have to try to sort things out. A young man is in some sort of trouble, and keeps calling Bogarde, who will not take his calls. Eventually we realize the young man is gay--he thanks one of his friends for helping him, considering what he is, and the friend says, "it used to be witches. At least they don't burn you." The young man gets arrested, and has a scrapbook full of clippings about Bogarde.

What I liked most about the film is that it defies expectations. Instead of the young man trying to blackmail Bogarde, it turns out that he was himself being blackmailed, which Bogarde realizes, too late. And then, instead of Bogarde desperately trying to cover his tracks, he heroically takes a stand and tries to expose the blackmailers, at the risk to his own career. When his wife (Sylvia Syms) gets wind of it all, we are again surprised to learn that she knew all about Bogarde's proclivities, and he honestly tells her that though he loves her, he loved the young man he knew in college more.

The film does take a definite political stand, but in light of social changes over the last fifty years it can be seen as taking half measures. Several characters mention the law that outlawed homosexuality--men were being blackmailed because they feared prison--but at the same time homosexuality is also seen as some kind of quirk of fate. This is before any notion of gay pride--one characters refers to nature having played a trick on him. I think it must have been pretty daring for its time, though, especially having a police detective display sympathies for gay men.

Victim is beautifully shot in black and white by Otto Heller, but marred only by an overly dramatic music score by Philip Green.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Oscar Preview: The Power of Ten

I just got my issue of Twilight, er, Entertainment Weekly, and it’s their fall preview issue, so that can only mean one thing—it’s time to start thinking about what movies will be up for the Oscar. This year there is a new wrinkle that will change the landscape of prognostication: there will be ten Best Picture nominations, doubling the field. Oscar hasn’t done this since 1943, too long ago to be relevant to how it will affect this year’s nominations. As Grace Slick said forty years ago this weekend at Woodstock, “It’s a new dawn, people.”

There is two ways this could go. Sid Ganis, president of the Academy, opined that it might mean that more different kinds of pictures would be nominated: comedies, foreign films, documentaries. Fat chance. I think it may allow more boffo box office adventure films in (surely a ten-picture field last year would have included The Dark Knight), but I don’t envision voters creating in their minds a comedy slot, a documentary slot, a foreign film slot. Instead, I’m guessing what we’ll get is more of the same—instead of five films of a certain prestige released late in the year, we’ll get ten.

So on to my annual wild-ass guesses. In past years I came up with ten possibilities for five nominations. I’m going to stick with ten guesses, but of course I’ll probably only hit about five on the head. If I do more than that I’ll be pleased with myself. In alphabetical order:

Avatar (Dec. 18, James Cameron) The Academy has given a cold-shoulder to sci-fi/fantasy, but opening it up to ten may help here. If this film is as visually dazzling as everyone thinks it is, that could be the ticket into the top category. It certainly should earn lots of tech nominations.

An Education (Oct. 9, Lone Scherfig) Lots of good buzz about this one, about a British teenager in the early 1960s who is courted by an older man. Certainly a lock for a Best Actress nomination for newcomer Carey Mulligan. Could be the critical sleeper of the year.

The Hurt Locker (July, Kathryn Bigelow) This may be wishful thinking on my part, since the film has been disappointing at the box office and will be hurt by a summer release. But damn it’s a good movie.

Invictus (Dec. 11, Clint Eastwood) A no-brainer: Clint Eastwood directs Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Don’t know if it’s any good, but it certainly will give the Academy a huge boner. The only downfall will be that it’s too earnest (see Cry Freedom).

The Lovely Bones (Dec. 11, Peter Jackson) Got pushed back specifically to be awards bait, this could be dreadful but Jackson is certainly an Academy favorite. Adapted from a novel by Alice Sebold, it’s about a girl who is murdered and then watches over her family from a heaven-like place. If the movie takes the weird sexual turn the novel does, it could be too disquieting for Oscar.

Nine (Nov. 25, Rob Marshall) Ever since Chicago won Best Picture every year another musical comes along and it’s touted as the presumptive Oscar favorite. But more and more it’s looking as if Chicago was an aberration, not the start of a trend. Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Rent, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd—zero Best Picture nominations among them. Nine, based on a Broadway musical that was in turn based on Fellini’s 8 ½, certainly has a good pedigree—there are six Oscar-winners in the cast. I’m putting it on the list, but wouldn’t be shocked if it underwhelms. And what’s with all the movies with that particular numeral in the title? We’ve got Nine, 9, and District 9.

Shutter Island (Oct. 2, Martin Scorsese) Scorsese’s been on an Oscar roll—he’s had three Best Picture nominations in the seven years. This one is a genre picture, reminiscent of Cape Fear, but you can’t count Marty out.

The Tree of Life (Dec. 25, Terrence Malick) Sean Penn and Brad Pitt bring the star power, and the mystical Malick directs. Don’t know much about it, but it must be remembered that the difficult Thin Red Line got a Best Pic nod (of course The New World was ignored).

Up (May 28, Pete Docter) This is problematic. No way Up is nominated if there are only five nominees, and it may still get overlooked because animated films are ghettoized in their own category. What could happen is that if it does get nominated, and the Academy sticks with ten nominees, it may be the end of the Best Animated Film category, as it may be deemed unnecessary.

Up in the Air (Dec., Jason Reitman) George Clooney as a businessman who practically lives in the air. Clooney has a knack for picking good projects, and Reitman comes off the big success of Juno. Smells like a hit and Oscar-friendly to me.

There are a lot of films that I’ve left off that are ripe for nomination, including films by Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, Jane Campion, Pedro Almodovar, and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. There’s even one, The Road, which I had on my list last year that got bumped to this year. I guess the thing I’m most hoping for is that many of these films are good.

Julie & Julia

I'm joining the consensus of critical opinion about Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia by stating that it is half a good movie. The half about Julia Child discovering her talent for cooking and co-writing a cookbook that changed the ways Americans thought about food is well done, with yet another smashing performance by Meryl Streep. The other half, about a plucky office drone who decides to make all 524 recipes in Child's book, is a warmed over Lifetime film and a drag on the whole enterprise.

Child was the wife of a career diplomat who, as the film begins, takes a post in Paris in 1949. She is looking for something to do (she was always a woman who worked, the couple met while they worked for the O.S.S., which has led to rumors that she was a spy) and finally lands on taking cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu. Despite some sexist reaction, she flourishes, and eventually meets two French women who are trying to write a French cookbook in English (which apparently didn't exist at the time). With her husband's support, Child works for years to get the book published.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) has a thankless job fielding the sometimes heartbreaking problems of those affected by the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. She wants to be a writer, but has a problem sticking with things. She too has a patient husband (Chris Messina) and eventually comes with the idea to write a blog about making all the recipes in Child's book.

This sounds like a good concept, but I'm afraid Ephron isn't a talented enough writer or director to make it work. The sequences involving Powell seem to have been written with a chisel, they are so unsubtle. For example there's a very poorly written scene with Powell having lunch with her much more successful friends (they're always on their cell phones!) and then the obligatory scene in which Adams and Messina have a bad fight and he stalks off. I have no idea how true this is, but even if it were it's too tidy and seems jerry-built.

The Child scenes, though, are much more palatable, but it's not so much for the writing and directing as it is because it's just a better story, and it has the incredible talent of Meryl Streep going for it. I feel bad for Amy Adams, who in review after review is being found wanting when it comes to Streep, which is kind of like being the second-best golfer to Tiger Woods. I will say this, though, Adams is definitely in danger of being typecast as a chirpy, perky woman. In some of her scenes she seems to still be playing the fairy princess in Enchanted. Even when she's having an emotional breakdown she comes across as absurdly adorable. This woman needs to play Lady MacBeth, stat.

Now for Streep. How many more superlatives can be tossed her way? It's only August, but I have a gut feeling this performance will be the one to beat for Best Actress come Oscar time, as the Academy is about due to award her a third Oscar (I think they wanted to last year for Doubt, but had to give one to Kate Winslet first). Only four other actors have won three or more Oscars (not counting honorary awards): Katharine Hepburn with four, and Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, and Jack Nicholson with three. Streep is an actor who works from the outside in, as she starts with Child's distinctive fluty voice but moves beyond impersonation into transformation. She even acts tall (Child was six-two). Other actors have done this (Laurence Olivier started by figuring out his character's walk) but Streep, who has played women from all sorts of places, has made a name as the greatest chameleon in film history.

Credit is also due to Stanley Tucci, who plays Paul Child. Julia Child was not what anyone would consider sexy, but the relationship between Streep and Tucci is a pleasure to watch (and they even get a little frisky in the sheets). There's also a great moment when Child makes a vulgar simile that brings the house down.

I'd like to add that I saw this in a matinee on a beautiful summer day and the theater was more than half full, which is unusual (I almost always see matinees with only a handful of other patrons), and there wasn't a face under twenty-five. It's nice to see adults at the movies, even if they should have gotten a better movie. They all seemed to enjoy it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

I figured I would enjoy a literary novel about werewolves, but almost from the start Victor Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf was a disappointment. Not because it isn't a horror novel, although I'm sure many who pick up the book will be let down that not one throat is ripped out by incisors, but that it reads like a grad student's thesis on a jumble of philosophy and religion that in the end doesn't add to up to anything.

Our narrator is A Hu-Li, who is a Chinese werefox over two-thousand years old. She is currently taking the form of a teenage prostitute in Moscow, although she doesn't have sex with her clients--instead she is able to hypnotize them into thinking they do. How does she do this? With her tail, of course. She meets her match when she whips out her tail for Alexander, an officer in the Russian secret police, who not only doesn't get hypnotized but displays that he can turn into a wolf. A romance is born.

Much of the problem I had with this book may be with the translation by Andrew Bromfield, although he may have had a Herculean task, as much of the writing is a mixture of languages. To start with, A Hu-Li tells us that her name in Russian is a swear word, but I'm sure that works much better with someone who actually speaks Russian. The syntax of the book sometimes doesn't feel right (at one point Alexander says, getting out of a car, "Out we get.") I was never quite sure what was going on, and there is no real plot to the book.

Much of the book is dialogue, with A Hu-Li showing off her intellect, which is supposed to be considerable but instead comes off as someone trying to pass for wise. She mentions things like Kant's categorical imperative and the films of Wong Kar-Wai, but then will make allusions to such low-culture detritus as Moonraker (probably the worst James Bond film) and the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I just can't believe a two-thousand-year-old shapeshifter would waste their time with bad movies.

Still, Pelevin displays some creativity. A Hu-Li and Alexander have sex by joining their tails while watching movies, which has the effect of inserting them into the movie, I guess kind of like Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Junior, but with erotica. Human beings, which are referred to in the book as "tailless monkeys," will never be able to experience that sort of thing. Pity, it sounds like fun.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Small Back Room

I'm continuing my mini- "Brit Noir" festival with 1949's The Small Back Room, directed by the acclaimed pair Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was the follow-up to The Red Shoes, one of the gaudiest exhibitions of color in cinema history, but this one is steeped in chiaroscuro.

Lit like a noir film, The Small Back Room is instead a character study set against the backdrop of World War II. It is 1943, and the British are observing blackouts and prepared for bombing raids by the Germans. We instantly get the feel of Brittania by little language things, such as the Germans being referred to as "Jerry" and a sign reading "All Passes Must Be Shewn."

The back room of the title is an office tucked away where diligent scientists develop new weapons systems. A stalwart young captain (Michael Gough, who would play Alfred the butler of Wayne Manor many years later) needs expert assistance with some booby-trapped canisters the Germans are dropping on the British countryside. He's put onto David Farrar, a brilliant but troubled expert on demolition. He has an artificial leg which causes him constant pain. He takes pills for it, but would rather drink whisky. He has a long-suffering girlfriend, Kathleen Byron, who finally has enough of his self-pitying.

This is a somewhat intriguing picture that is heavy on style, which covers a somewhat weak and trite story. Powell and Pressburger pull out all the stops, using the camera brilliantly in composition and form. Every scene has something going on--whether it's the use of sound (a meeting involving the decision whether to go forward with a new gun is interrupted by jackhammering from the street outside) or the use of deep focus. When Farrar is at home, a bottle of whisky he's saving for V-Day looms in the foreground like a monolith. In the middle of the picture we get a highly expressionistic scene in which Farrar, waiting for a late Byron, stares at the bottle, the ticking of a clock getting louder and louder. Eventually he hallucinates that the bottle is about ten feet tall. It's like the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound.

The film ends excellently, with a white-knuckle scene in which Farrar attempts to defuse one of those pesky German booby-traps while it's nestled in the pebbles of Chesil Beach. The photography, editing, and acting all make this scene as suspenseful as possible.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In the Court of the Crimson King

One of my musical weaknesses is so-called "progressive rock," which is typified by Pink Floyd, early Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (I draw the line at Yes). The forerunner of this kind of music was King Crimson, and their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, which was released forty years ago this October, was seen as the first of its kind. I picked up the CD this week and have been listening to it in the car continuously.

In retrospect, there are a lot of aspects to this record that have come to be the elements of parody of the genre. For one thing, the album is called "An Observation by King Crimson." There are only five tracks on the record, and they have titles that bear more than a whiff of pretension, along with subtitles: "Epitaph, including March For No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow." The lyrics are the stuff of renaissance fairs, with kings and queens and echoes of Tolkien. It's hard to believe anybody ever took this stuff seriously.

But it's still a great record. It kicks off with "21st Century Schizoid Man," a hard-rocking fusion number. But that's the last song of that type. The second track is "I Talk to the Wind," which recalls the English folk-rock movement, typified by Fairport Convention (indeed, one of King Crimson's members, Ian McDonald, was in Fairport Convention). Then comes the aforementioned "Epitaph," which has some terrific vocals by Greg Lake (who would go on to be a founding member of ELP). If there are cogent lyrics on the album, they are found here: "Confusion will be my epitaph/As I crawl a cracked and broken path/If we make it we can all sit back and laugh/But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying."

Then comes "Moonchild," which is a pleasant enough song in the new-age category, until it goes on for about ten minutes with some experimental noodling with electronic instruments. This is one of those classic "skip ahead" moments in music history (kind of like "Revolution #9" on the Beatles' White Album).

The album closes with King Crimson's most famous and enduring song, "The Court of the Crimson King," which still gets air-play on classic rock stations. It's almost impossible not to groove to, with its pomp and majesty, mellotron (one of the first uses of that instrument on a rock record), Lake's ethereal vocals, and Micheal Giles' powerful drumming. The lyrics are the kind that might mean something after some cannabis. The name King Crimson is supposedly a euphemism for Satan, and so being in his court would mean Hell. The song doesn't sound Satanic, though, but maybe that's the point: "The black queen chants the funeral march/The cracked brass bells will ring/To summon back the fire witch/To the court of the crimson king." I'll bet that blew the minds of many a teen in '69. It still kinds of blows my mind today.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Third Man

This month at New York City's Film Forum there is a huge series called "Brit Noir," a retrospective of British films, mostly from the post-war period, that feature the seamier side of life. There are a total of 44 films being screened, and I would love to see every one of them. In one of my alternative lives, the one where I'm an independent man of means who lives in a fab Greenwich Village apartment and dates intellectual European girls who wear a lot of black and look like Audrey Hepburn, I would see each and every one. Instead I'll have to settle for renting the films that are available on DVD and writing about them here.

Of the 44 films I've only seen two previously. One of them is Night and the City, and the other is The Third Man, which opens the Film Forum series. I hadn't seen The Third Man in quite a while, though, so I purchased the Criterion Collection's DVD version and spent an enjoyable Sunday afternoon watching the film and the many extras.

The Third Man, which was named in a poll as the best British film of all time, is described as a "non-auteur film." This is because the idea germinated from the writer, Graham Greene, who was sent to Vienna by the producer Alexander Korda and asked to come up with a script. Greene had the kernel of an idea about a man who comes to a city to visit a friend, but hears that he is dead. Later, he is shocked when he sees the man alive. Greene researched Vienna, and learned about the ubiquitous black market, specifically the horrific practice of stealing penicillin and then diluting it for sale, which wreaked medical havoc on children and others.

The film was directed by Carol Reed, who has a somewhat unsung film legacy. He is certainly best known for The Third Man among the cognoscenti, but earned an Oscar for the lavish musical Oliver! Now I happen to think Oliver! is a terrific film, but that view is not universal, especially among those who feel that Reed's work in the forties and fifties is largely forgotten.

The Third Man, like Casablanca, is called a happy accident, as many things fell into place (hence the "non-auteur" tag). Consider the music, which is one of the aspects that it's best known for. Reed was in a wine bar in Vienna when he heard a man playing a strange instrument that he later learned was a zither. Reed got the bright idea to use it for the film, jettisoning a score played by the London Symphony Orchestra and using nothing but the zither playing of Anton Karas. The main theme would become a smash hit, making Karas a millionaire.

Then there's the cast. Originally it was conceived for Cary Grant as Holly Martins and Noel Coward as Harry Lime. This would have made the film much more British in tone, as the roles ended up going to Americans: Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. It was Welles who would provide the film with a speech that would give The Third Man it's most lasting legacy.

The story concerns Cotten as Martins, a hack writer of pulp Westerns who arrives in post-war Vienna, which is reeling from the bombings and shortages of every kind. The city is divided into zones controlled by the Allies: Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. Martins has been promised a job by his old school chum, Lime, but shortly after arriving he learns that Lime is dead, and arrives at the cemetery just in time for his friend's funeral. There he meets a British military policeman, Trevor Howard, who tells Martins that Lime was a ruthless racketeer. Martins doesn't believe him, and begins to dig into the circumstances of Lime's death. When he gets conflicting witness reports involving a third man at the scene, he gets very suspicious, and teams up with Lime's girl, played by Alida Valli, to get to the bottom of things.

The film has the essential form of classic noir, with the amateur sleuth, the mysterious beauty, and several suspicious characters (a Baron who carries around a miniature Pinscher, a pinch-faced doctor, and a jocular Romanian). Greene, who despised much of American culture, scores several points by making his leading man a bumbler. In one of Cotten's early scenes he is seen walking under a ladder, and Howard describes him as "born to be murdered." He haplessly tries to seduce Valli, and gets bitten on the hand by a parrot. Sam Spade he's not.

In contrast, Harry Lime is viciously competent (yes, I am revealing Harry Lime is alive, it's not a well-kept secret among film buffs). Welles was wooed to play the part, though the American producer David O. Selznick objected, saying Welles was box office poison. He was convinced to play the part by Reed, who told him that his part was small but that he would steal the picture. In many ways Welles involvement in the film was like Marlon Brando's in Apocalypse Now--he earned a truckload of money for a few days work and exhibited diva-like behavior (he refused to film the climactic scene in Vienna's sewer, necessitating it be rebuilt in England's Shepperton Studios). The difference is that Welles elevated The Third Man to classic status while Brando almost sunk Apocalypse Now.

Harry Lime was said to be modeled after Kim Philby, a British double-agent, whom Greene remained friendly with even after Philby was disgraced. Indeed, Lime, with Welles as his voice, has a somewhat British demeanor, and is clearly Martins' better. The first appearance of Welles, hiding in a doorway, a cat at his feet, with a light exposing his smirking face, is one of the most striking in film history. The conversation that Welles and Cotton share on a Ferris wheel at the end of the picture is one of the most famous. In some respects it is to film what Hamlet's soliloquy is to drama, posing the moral question that hung in the air following the atrocities of World War II--how much is a human life worth? Welles asks Cotten to look down at the people below and wonders, "Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"

Of course Cotten is appalled, but doesn't have the words to express a counter-argument. Welles then improvises the film's most famous passage: "Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Because Welles wrote this bit, it is erroneously thought that he wrote all of his part, or even directed his scenes or the entire film, and in some interviews he didn't deny it (later in life he did). He was good-humored enough to relate that the Swiss pointed out to him that they have never manufactured cuckoo clocks.

Welles did later give Carol Reed all the credit, and a lot of credit is due him. Greene's script is magnificent, but Reed gave the film a look that has entranced audiences for sixty years. For one thing it is one of the best examples of a film that makes a city a character. They filmed this thing on the streets of Vienna, with all the Old World charm and rubble intact. Reed utilized the narrow passageways brilliantly, using light and shadow to an astonishing effect (credit here also to Robert Krasker, who won an Oscar for cinematography) and used an old noir trick of wetting the streets before shooting, making the cobblestones glisten. No matter how many times I see the film, I can't help but go slack-jawed at certain moments, such as when the old balloon salesman enters the square, or the way the shadow of a small boy makes him look like a giant, or the breath-taking final chase sequence in the sewer. To make the film even more expressionistic, the scenes are frequently filmed at an askew angle, which annoyed some critics but will remind others of the shots of the villain's lair in the old Batman TV series.

Then there's the very ending, a long shot of Valli walking toward the camera out of a cemetery, passing Cotten as he stands to the side, a perfect summation of the film. Ironically it wasn't the ending Greene wrote--he crafted a happy ending, with Cotten and Valli going off arm in arm. Reed argued against it, and Greene later fessed up that Reed was right.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cry Wolf

As I did last year, I am taking a look at the winner of Best Film at the Adult Video News Awards, presented annually in January in Las Vegas. As with last year it went to a Paul Thomas film from Vivid, the Miramax of the porno business. They are one of the few companies that continue to produce plot-driven porn, and chase the awards.

The winner this year is Cry Wolf, and as with last year's winner, Layout, it's a decent film, relatively speaking. The script could be reworked into that for an actual movie (albeit a movie for late night on basic cable), and the acting is competent to good. But there are elements of it instantly categorize it as a porn flick (besides the hard-core sex, I mean). It isn't particularly well-directed. In an attempt to be artistic, Thomas has flash-forwards and flashbacks that just muddle things more than necessary, and there's some continuity problems that crop up in a lot of adult films--one second a girl is having sex barefoot, then she has shoes, then she's barefoot again--that sort of thing.

The story begins with Marcos Leon as an former child pop star who has hit hard times. He's brought home a girl, Monique Alexander, and with faint echoes of the Phil Spector case things go wrong. He calls his friend, Mr. Marcus, to help him out of a jam, but it turns out that Alexander and Mr. Marcus are in a relationship, and are running a con on Leon.

The secondary plot involves a drug dealer, Steven St. Croix, who has a stable of coke whores at his command. In one scene he plays a salacious game of Simon Says with a trio of girls. The misogyny in this film is pretty thick, as St. Croix's lifestyle is clearly something we are to admire (especially when Alexander leaves the decent Mr. Marcus for St. Croix at the end of the picture). If that weren't enough, there's a scene of anal rape, which is certainly edgy for an adult picture, because the nature of pornography is that it's created for titillation purposes, so those who are getting off to a scene of rape have some issues.

The main difference between plot-driven porn and porn without plot seems to be that the movies with plot have scenes that depict sex as unpleasant, while "gonzo" porn tends to portray sex as the most fun a human being can have. I prefer the latter interpretation.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Part of the reason I found (500) Days of Summer to be ninety-five minutes of uninterrupted bliss is that I feel like I could have written it. In fact, I did some years ago write a screenplay that is very similar to it in plot and style, so much so that if my script were ever produced people would think I was influenced by this film. In baseball terms, this movie was right in my wheelhouse.

While I enjoyed the dickens out of it, a smile plastered on my face throughout, I recognize that the film is a delicate high-wire act, with a script that teeters on the overly precious. But it always stays on the wire due mostly to the capable hands of its leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I'll say it right now: Gordon-Levitt is the best actor under thirty in Hollywood films today.

In (500) Days of Summer (those parentheses are annoying to type) he plays Tom Hansen, a greeting-card designer and alround decent guy. When a new girl, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) starts work at his office he's instantly smitten, but insecurity keeps him at bay. Finally, after a drunken night of karaoke, they start dating, even though they have a fundamental disagreement about the nature or even existence of love: he thinks it's essential part of a person's happiness, and is tied up with destiny, while she thinks it's all a fantasy. This difference in philosophy will ultimately take its toll.

The film is told in non-linear fashion, with each scene identified by one of the five-hundred days between Tom meeting Summer and his getting over her. This keeps the story from bogging down, and we get the pleasure of watching Gordon-Levitt veer from giddy puppy love to post-breakup despair. The direction by Mark Webb also keeps things interesting, as he utilizes all sorts of tricks to keep it varied, from effective use of split-screen at a party (one side shows Gordon-Levitt's expectations, the other reality) or when Gordon-Levitt wanders into one of his character's sketches.

But this film really belongs to the writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. It percolates with terrific lines and forays into Tom's psyche. I especially liked when he, in full self-pitying mode, goes to an art cinema and sees himself in a French film (complete with mime and balloon) and then a Bergman film, that ends with a funny take on the chess on the beach scene from The Seventh Seal. There are all sorts of small details that make the film enjoyable, such as Tom taking counsel from his much younger sister.

That is not to say that there aren't a few problems with the film. At times it does edge into gooey preciousness, such as when Tom and Summer play house in an Ikea. Tom's best buddies are kind of stock characters, even if they do have a lot of funny lines, while Summer isn't a completely rounded character. I get the feeling (especially from an opening title card) that she's based on someone who broke the heart of one of the writers, so perhaps that's why she seems alternately charming and cold. She's supposed to be quirky (Ringo's her favorite Beatle) but I found the characterization wanting. No fault of Deschanel, though, who is luminous.

But those are small potatoes in what is otherwise a pleasure. The film bears a huge debt to a couple of other films, most notably The Graduate, which is spoken (Tom's over-romantic nature is chalked up to a misreading of the film as a child, and then when Summer sees it she breaks into sobs and breaks up with Tom shortly thereafter). There's even a key moment set to a Simon and Garfunkel tune. The unspoken is Woody Allen's Annie Hall, another biography of a relationship that doesn't work told in non-linear form. Instead of romanticizing New York, this film does the same for Los Angeles, as Tom loves its architecture. The film is set in L.A. but has only one scene which is set in a car, and Tom is even able to walk to work. I wouldn't have thought that possible.