film fatales series #2: american psycho (mary harron, 2000)

In yesterday’s weekly update, I mentioned a “summer film club” suggested by the “Film Fatales”. I was writing about Vagabond, which was in the category “Women-Directed Films That Inspired the Work of Film Fatales”, and said if I continued to watch some of the movies in the lists, perhaps I’d turn it into a series. I noted, “I won’t know if I’ve turned this into a series until I’ve done at least one more”. Then, by happenstance, I watched American Psycho, which is also in the “Inspirational” category. So I guess now it’s a series.

The most important thing I need to say in advance is that I never read Bret Easton Ellis’s novel. I mention this because it was apparently revolting, and I felt that many of the film critics praised Harron’s work because it wasn’t the book. I can’t make that point.

It’s also important to note that American Psycho is a film of its time (2000), and also a representation of an even earlier time (the late 1980s). Watching it for the first time in 2015 adds a level or two of distancing.

Whether or not you’ve read the book, the film American Psycho is playfully complicated. It’s not too hard to read things into the basic scenario. There are a lot of privileged yuppie men turning Manhattan into their playground. It’s easy, maybe too easy, to see these mostly interchangeable men as standing in for all men ... even the men who haven’t reached the peaks of these fellows at least want to reach those peaks. They are creepy, self-absorbed participants in consumer culture, and women are just another item on the shelf, to be bought along with the fancy clothes and the expensive restaurant meals. At this level, American Psycho is a mildly funny look at the inanities of men.

But in Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), we see what happens if the male attitude is taken to an extreme. Bateman one-ups his colleagues in what seems in the film to be a logical fashion: he murders people. He murders them in ways that are increasingly horrific (although apparently this is one of the areas where the book was many times worse). He murders men, but mostly he murders women, and his misogyny seems more virulent than his misanthropy.

Somehow, Harron (and co-writer Guinevere Turner) turn this stew of male rage and self-involvement into what both writers call a feminist movie. They pull this off by bringing satire to the forefront. There is something comical about seeing Bale running around naked with a chainsaw. Our attention is less with his potential victim, and more with his bare butt as he scampers around. He isn’t shown as a hero, or an anti-hero, or anything we would aspire to. He is shown as the personification of male lunacy. He is an American psycho.

I have no idea what’s going on at the end of the film. I got pissed at first, then decided I didn’t care. Did the murders really happen? Call it the film’s MacGuffin. #472 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). Sarah Mirk asked Film Fatales for a list of women-directed films. They offered two lists, one for recent movies, a second for movies that inspired today’s women film makers. “Summer film club, anyone?”, Mirk asked, and I thought that was a good idea. I’ve seen 11 of the “inspirational” movies, none of the more recent ones. I won’t know if I’ve turned this into a series until I’ve done at least one more, so I’ll start with Vagabond. Sandrine Bonnaire is blankly on target as Mona, a teenager on the road who doesn’t seem to have any forward-looking thoughts. She meets various people on her travels, but connects with very few ... she’s mostly just looking for money and weed and food. Varda gives each of the people she encounters a change to talk about her, one-on-one with the camera. Each of them “explains” Mona according to how she fits into their own vision of life; none of them can really explain her. Nor is Mona “explained” by combining the various points of views into a whole, because she is unknowable. Varda doesn’t pass judgment on Mona, but she doesn't shy away from the character, either. The movie opens with Mona’s body in a ditch, dead (Varda says she was inspired by the structure of Citizen Kane), and ends in the same place. Mona gradually gets “worse” ... more estranged, more hungry, more tattered. But because she is presented as unknowable, we never quite understand how she is experiencing her decline. Varda shows us how each individual gets Mona wrong, but she refuses to show us a Mona we can understand. It’s as if such a demonstration would be corrupted by value judgments. Vagabond is stark, and Bonnaire is great, but ultimately we are too distanced from Mona to totally give in to her story. #827 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). I really didn’t like Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse etc., but I didn’t know before watching this one that it had the same director. After the movie was over, I wasn't surprised that I had a negative opinion about the earlier movie. The only thing that makes Killing Them Softly better than Jesse James is that it is an hour shorter. Take a modern mob movie, inevitably influenced by Tarantino, with lots of dialogue and a mix of notable actors (in this case, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, and others), and show off your greatness. Except ... Dominik is uninterested in pop culture references, which some might find admirable but which removes one of the ways Tarantino keeps our attention. Except ... Dominik’s dialogue isn't as good as Tarantino’s (OK, maybe that’s unfair, most movie dialogue isn’t as good as Tarantino’s). Except ... Tarantino loves his “Guy” characters, but he is also capable of a Jackie Brown or Uma Thurman's Bride. Killing Them Softly has one woman in the entire movie ... her character’s name on IMDB is “Hooker”, and that’s on target. She exists solely to suffer verbal abuse from Gandolfini’s character. Two scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini are worth watching ... the two actors pull off what doesn't work anywhere else in the movie. Remarkably, #771 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 4/10.

what i watched last week

Neal Cassady (Noah Buschel, 2007). It would be a very big understatement to say I had a special interest in this film. I first heard of it back in 2007 ... all I knew was the cast was interesting (Frank Sobotka as Kesey! Beadie Russell as Carolyn Cassady!) and that there were some legal issues that might mean the film wouldn’t be released. Obviously it’s out there now ... I didn’t watch a bootleg, it was on Hulu. The Cassady family objected to ... well, here’s an extended quote from Carolyn:

I have also seen the film NEAL CASSADY made by Noah Buschel. Alas, his research only went as far as the hated films Kesey and the Pranksters made of Neal after his soul was dead, and he was desperately trying to destroy his body and mind. ... The film itself is based on false myths, disoriented, with no continuity, development, plot or purpose, as far as we can see. ... I hope no one will see it, but if you do, please don't take it as a portrait of Neal. as the title suggests--or any of us. Or Kerouac, except by then he was drunk all the time. None of what they say could we have said. I wish I could understand why people do this. Noah claimed he loved Neal so much, this is what he had to do. What a travesty, why?

I think her critique is accurate as far as the film itself goes ... it is disoriented, with no continuity, development, or plot. But this is true of lots of movies these days. I disagree that the movie lacks purpose, and in fact, I think what comes across is close to what Neal’s family might like us to see. This is mostly the Neal of Prankster days, but the tone is not celebratory ... this isn’t Tom Wolfe. No, Neal comes across as a person who is dying because people expect him to be Dean Moriarty, and no one treats him seriously as an actual human named Neal Cassady. It’s tragic.

Having said that, I don’t think the movie is successful. Tate Donovan overcomes his miscasting, barely ... he’s not as bad as I feared, and he has a view poignant moments. He makes the most of what he is given. But the lack of context is crushing. There is a brief opening where Jack and Neal spend time on the road, we get hints of how that book affects Neal’s real life, and then the film jumps ahead to the Prankster era. Hardcore fans of Kerouac, Kesey, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Cassady, don’t need context, but without that context, I imagine a viewer would be lost. Nothing in the film feels universal ... a person wouldn’t watch this and think hey, I’ve been where Neal Cassady has been. Without that ability to identify at some level with the protagonist, and without anything to explain why we should care about this guy, there is nothing to grab onto.

(One odd side note. Arguably the best movie I made in my film-major days was a short about Cassady (fictionalized). I based the character on what I knew from books. My Cassady talked nonstop and drove nonstop and died on railroad tracks, counting the ties, which matched an urban legend about his death. Well, spoiler alert, but in Neal Cassady, Neal dies counting ties on a railroad track.)

I’m not sorry I finally saw this. But very little in the film resonates with what I know of Neal and Jack and Kesey and Carolyn, and maybe that just shows the limits of my knowledge of people I never met, and I believe that Buschel wanted to do right by Neal, but ultimately, it fails. 5/10.

7 Women (John Ford, 1966). Some people like this movie. I suspect those people look askance at those of us who are less impressed with the film ... it feels like one of those works where those who like it accuse those who don’t like it of “not getting it”. I’ve read a lot of critical discussion about how representative 7 Women is of Ford’s career ... some say it’s an anomaly, others dig deep to find connections to Ford’s past films. It’s the kind of discussion that doesn’t really interest me. If I don’t like a movie, it doesn’t matter how it connects to the film maker’s past. 7 Women has one excellent performance (Anne Bancroft), and a couple of performances that benefit from the film’s short running time (there isn’t time to give them much screen time). Outside of those few, the movie is full of annoying overacting, and some truly astounding casting ... even if I put myself in 1966, accept that those were different times, the presence of ex-pro football players/rasslers Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode as Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan and his warrior second-in-command is either frightening in its casual racism (take a guy with a Hungarian background and team him with a black actor, let them play Mongols ... I guess if John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, anything is possible) or simply hilarious. It’s especially sad to see Strode, one of the screen’s most captivating actors, stuck in this movie, playing “Lean Warrior” ... why give his character a name? A few times, the actions of the Mongols are remarkably vicious ... it happens off screen, but there are scenes of mass murder and rape by the raging hordes that have quite an impact. Not a complete disaster, but certainly far from a masterwork. #778 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is auteurism run amuck. 5/10. Honor Ford for his greatest film, My Darling Clementine, for Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath and The Searchers ... there are a dozen or more John Ford movies to see before you get around to 7 Women.

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007). This is a feature-length, re-edited version of Tarantino’s contribution to Grindhouse. It’s easily the worst of his movies ... I haven’t seen Four Rooms, and I’m not counting Natural Born Killers, but I gave every other one of his seven features at least an 8/10, which means Death Proof is a major disappointment. You could argue that he’s just goofing here, but he has demonstrated in the past that he is quite capable of turning a goof into something substantial. It’s not completely worthless ... as usual, he provides several women with impressive bad-ass roles, and stuntwoman Zoë Bell is excellent playing herself. But for the most part, what we see is pointless ... even Tarantino’s dependable dialogue is somehow less than good. The only saving grace is a terrific car chase scene to close out the film ... Tarantino’s skills are evident, and Bell gets a chance to shine. #393 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (huh?). 5/10.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). Gibney directed a documentary I liked (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), and co-directed a movie that wasn’t as good but was right up my alley (Magic Trip ... for context, see Neal Cassady above). Since I’m anti-Scientology, I liked Going Clear, which shares my view. But I think it was closer to Magic Trip, which I liked simply because it was something I wanted to see, than to Enron, where I actually learned something. At this point, Going Clear isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know, although it’s useful for putting everything in one place. The movie would be better if we heard from some current Scientologists, but they aren’t talking, so Gibney and crew work with what they have. I don’t think they’re worried ... they wanted to show the darker side of Scientology, and it’s not hard to find examples. 7/10.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). 10/10.

Casualties of War (Brian De Palma, 1989). 8/10.

I Saw the Devil (Jee-woon Kim, 2010). 7/10.

by request/blu-ray series # 22: i saw the devil (jee-woon kim, 2010)

(This was recommended by Kasey, and was a birthday gift from Sue and Paul.)

Another film in my continuing education in recent Korean cinema. It’s my first Jee-woon Kim movie, as well as my first movie with Byung-hun Lee. Min-sik Choi was also in the excellent Oldboy. I’m starting to recognize some of these actors (Choi is hard to miss, and he’s terrific ... Doona Bae is in the new series Sense8, and she looked familiar to me, so I looked her up and saw she was in The Host). When I buried myself in Hong Kong movies back in the day, one of the best parts was seeing the top stars turn up in multiple movies, and I’ve got a lot of Korean films on my to-see list, so perhaps this will happen again.

I tend to question my wife’s love of the TV show Criminal Minds, which deals with serial killers. It seems from my outsider’s perspective to be a sick show that spends a lot of time showing women being tortured. Well, as long as I watch movies like I Saw the Devil, I have no room to talk. It’s like an episode of Criminal Minds, if it was rated X and the heroes became as sick as the villains. It’s even worse than that sounds. An accurate description comes from one of the film’s taglines: “He’s not getting even. He’s just getting started.” When the hero catches the villain, the movie still has an hour or so to go, and you may find yourself wondering what might fill the remaining time. Without giving away too many spoilers, let’s just say the second half of that tagline is a big hint.

There may be some redeeming social commentary here. The old “to defeat a monster, you must become a monster” angle is well-represented. There isn’t a lot of class context ... the victims are women, but the extreme violence is often directed towards men. There’s cannibalism, but I think it’s there for comic relief, believe it or not. The cinematography and editing and acting are all top-notch, which makes it all the more disturbing.

Min-sik Choi is so good as the villain, and his character is so evil, that you can’t help but root for the hero, not only to solve the crimes and stop the bad guy, but to extract some measure of revenge. Which, of course, implicates the audience in actions as evil as those of the bad guy.

You should know now whether you’ll like I Saw the Devil. It goes far enough to discourage many viewers, and I understand this ... there are movies I won’t see, too. If you can stomach it, though, this is very well done. Oldboy remains my favorite Korean film, though, with Mother in second place. 7/10.

by request: casualties of war (brian de palma, 1989)

The “request” comes from the Facebook Fave Fifty three of us did back in 2011. Phil Dellio had this one at #38. He wrote quite a bit about Kael’s review of the film ... she liked it, too. Of course, De Palma was one of her favorites. He also noted that “De Palma’s treatment of the girl is humane and shattering beyond words.” He mentions this in the context of someone who had said this was another “kill the bitch” film from De Palma. I think people’s preconceptions get in the way ... if you’ve decided in advance that De Palma is incapable of the humane treatment of women characters, then there’s nothing that will change your mind. I think this also works against Michael J. Fox in this movie ... too many people couldn’t get past Alex Keaton. Fox was, in fact, perfectly cast: fresh behind the ears kid who barely looks old enough to shave, thrust into the jungles of Vietnam. And he is great in the role.

I don’t know if I can say the same about Sean Penn. Phil tiptoes around the topic: “Penn gives a highly stylized performance that you may recoil from”. (Kael calls it a “theatrical, heated-up performance”.) Penn certainly grabs our attention, but I often felt what grabbed me was Sean Penn, not Sgt. Meserve. As a contrast with Fox’s more restrained performance, it works. It works so well, in fact, that I’m surprised there were no Oscar noms ... it’s the kind of over-acting the Academy often rewards.

As for the rape at the center of the film, De Palma does indeed treat the woman with sympathy. But I can’t escape the feeling that what the most important casualty of that act was Fox’s Eriksson. We can be thankful that De Palma doesn’t rub our faces in the details of the rape ... he gets the point across via actions that are largely off-screen, an example of the respect he gives to the woman. But this means the focus during the rape is on Eriksson, and the woman’s traumas are in part there to emphasize how traumatized Eriksson is.

I may be asking for too much, though, because even if Fox and Penn are the keys to the film, De Palma’s attitude towards the woman matters in a positive sense.

The end of the film is pretty bad. This is not a movie that was asking for a happy ending. In fact, given the failure of the end, I question the need for the framing device at all.

I don’t know where I stand on the continuum of De Palma’s fans and critics. I think Casualties of War is as good as my other De Palma favorites, Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables, and there are plenty of other De Palmas that I like, not just more universally liked movies like Blow Out, but also more disreputable films like The Fury and Femme Fatale. But he has also made some duds (hello, Black Dahlia), and I don’t think he has ever made a great movie. None of which should detract from the achievement that is Casualties of War. 8/10.

a few more thoughts about the third man

A few years ago, when a group of us ran a series on our fifty favorite movies, I had The Third Man at #5. I wrote:

I’d like to say that The Third Man is a perfect movie. While the elements were always there, it wasn’t an easy path towards perfection. American producer David O. Selznick had his own ideas about how the movie should play, and he managed to create a version of the film for the U.S. market that had a revised introduction and ten minutes excised to make Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins a more sympathetic character. Filming on location in Vienna wasn’t easy, so soon after the war. Director Carol Reed created what was essentially a British neo-realism, albeit with baroque camera angles. The film was perfectly cast, from Cotten as the clueless American, forcing his way into every situation, to Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s lover, to Trevor Howard as the stiff, intelligent British major. And Orson Welles, who takes up a large part of our memory of the film, even though he doesn’t make an appearance until the film is more than halfway finished, and even though his screen time is limited.

Graham Greene’s script was up to his usual high standards, and the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Oscar for his contributions to the film’s unique look. Finally, there is the instantly identifiable zither music of Anton Karas, so entwined in the film and in our memories that to this day, when you hear a zither, you think of The Third Man.

Yes, I’d like to say it’s a perfect movie. But then there was the time somebody I follow on Twitter said that he’d finally seen The Third Man for the first time, and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN HIM ABOUT THE ZITHER. Apparently, that was a deal breaker … for him, The Third Man was not perfect.

And so I’ll lower my praise just a touch, in honor of that zither-hating viewer. But near-perfection is a wonderful thing. The British Film Institute named The Third Man the best British film ever; it’s the highest-ranked British film on my own list. Its vision of post-war corruption is unsparing, the film’s style is noteworthy … I want to say that word “perfect” again.

Plus, I can’t quit talking about Orson Welles. Welles plays a character, Harry Lime, as lacking in ethics as any character you’ll come across. Little children die because of Lime’s actions. But Welles’ charisma in the role is such that a radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime, was created. This told the story of Lime in the years before The Third Man, and while Lime is a con artist in the series, he is nowhere close to the evil presence of the film.

When Criterion released The Third Man on Blu-ray, I made it my first-ever Blu-ray purchase. It looked and sounded great. But what we have now is a new 4K restoration, and I don’t know much about technology, but I understand that the resolution is greatly increased. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing ... the better the quality of digital restoration, the less likely it is to look like celluloid. All I can say is that I found the restored version to be quite beautiful on the big screen.

The Third Man is one of those movies where I don’t know what to write, because it feels like it has all been said. Then again, people still write dissertations on Shakespeare, so there must be something new under the sun. I know that when I write about The Third Man, I’m assuming that everyone knows everything that has come before. So there is no trivia I can use to surprise, no angle that hasn’t been considered in depth (pun not intended). I was the big Welles fan in our Fave Fifty group ... as I recall, no one else had any movies Welles directed on their list, while I had two. But I ranked The Third Man higher than either Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil ... does that mean I think The Third Man is Welles’ greatest film? No, because it’s not “his” film. His participation was apparently even less than it might seem ... he spent a week or so on the film, wasn’t involved in most of the things we think of as “The Third Man” (like script or cinematography etc.). He played a memorable character and wrote a small part of Lime’s dialogue. (I was fascinated to find out that one Welles contribution was Harry’s stomach problems.) But ... and here, Welles can thank Carol Reed and the rest of the team ... Harry Lime was indeed memorable. Welles made him more so, but Graham Greene deserves most of the credit for that. Also the construction of the film, which kept Harry off screen for so long, resulted in one of the great first appearances in movie history, and while Welles made the most of it, the reason it is iconic is the setup and payoff ... the kitty cat was almost as important as Welles, and the shots of Lime were brilliant. The scene in the ferris wheel is justly famous ... both Welles and Cotten play if perfectly, the setting, simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, is just as good, and, yes, Harry’s dialogue is perfect, too. And everyone remembers the part about the cuckoo clock, which was written by Welles. Orson Welles is one of the reasons The Third Man is as great as it is. But his contribution is not enough to call this an Orson Welles movie.

But what a performance! There’s a brief moment I love, when Harry and Holly are in the ferris wheel, and as they talk, Harry idly runs his finger on the window, leaving a mark in the built-up moisture. It’s a heart, and the word “Anna”. I want to know who’s idea that was. It doesn’t appear in the book, but that’s not much help ... the book is full of dialogue, it reads like the movie treatment it was. I want to think it was Welles’ idea. Not sure why it matters to me.

I keep going back to that radio show. It’s almost an affront, that it even exists, turning an evil person into a charming rapscallion. But The Third Man leaves you hungry for more Harry, or at least, more Welles-as-Harry. The 52 episodes are trifles, although any radio show with Welles is a pleasure to listen to ... he was a wonderful radio actor. Perhaps The Lives of Harry Lime exists to show us how Holly and Anna felt love for Harry. Because the Harry Lime of the radio series is rather lovable.

One last thing. In Greene’s treatment/novella, Holly and Harry are English. It might have been the smartest move of all to change Holly’s background to American. It adds the subtext of the clueless American, barging around, drinking too much too ostentatiously, never understanding what is right in front of him because what really happens is under the surface. Admittedly, I’m not sure how this applies to Harry Lime.

what i watched last week

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). I saw McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter, and was unimpressed in the 5/10 range. I saw his most recent feature, Seven Psychopaths, and again was inspired to give 5/10. So I wasn’t expecting much from this, his feature directorial debut. But I was pleasantly surprised. It still felt like a less ambitious Tarantino knock-off, but the limited number of main characters helped rein in some of the excess, Brendan Gleeson was quite good, Colin Farrell seemed human, and Ralph Fiennes was effective. The story of hit men hiding out in Bruges was derivative, with the possible exception of the setting. But Gleeson especially made me care, certainly more than I had cared about the other McDonagh characters I’d come across in other films. #583 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974). It’s possible that Mel Brooks is among the first directors of comedies to produce the kind of works I just don’t get. Like so many modern comedies, Blazing Saddles has enough funny jokes to fill a good preview trailer, and a couple of bits that people love to look back on with laughing fondness. But that’s it. The opening credits with Frankie Laine are promising. Gene Wilder is interesting, if not actually funny. Madeline Kahn nails her Marlene Dietrich number, but is otherwise wasted. The bean-eating scene is truly classic, and the grand finale is overdone but fun. But I’ve just described ten, maybe fifteen minutes, which leaves more than an hour of unfunny. There is a way to make a good movie in this style ... Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker did it with Airplane!, the early Police Squad/Naked Guns, and Top Secret!. Partly they flip the ratio ... there are more funny parts than not funny. With Blazing Saddles, you see the preview, you’ve pretty much seen the good stuff. But movies like Top Secret! reward multiple viewings, because so much is stuffed into the film. Much of this involves taste preferences. I am aware of this. Top Secret! is my favorite ZAZ production, because it is so funny and non-stop, but Zucker has said that while Top Secret! is funny, “it really isn’t a good movie.” I am largely unimpressed by comedies that can be reduced to a three-minute trailer and a couple of friends laughing about how good it is. 4/10. For an example of my idea of great comedy (besides just watching Buster Keaton silents), listen to the Firesign Theatre, beginning with How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (featuring the first appearance of Nick Danger) and Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, plus maybe my favorite of the later years, Everything You Know Is Wrong.

Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982). I thought it might be fun to watch this documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, after seeing that movie a couple of weeks ago. I was critical of Fitzcarraldo, partly because it was admittedly “not my cup of tea”, but also because I wondered “what was it like to pretend to be slave labor in the movie, when ‘pretend’ meant to actually do the labor?” As illuminating as Burden of Dreams is about the mind of Werner Herzog, I didn’t see anything that improved my opinion of Herzog’s film. Herzog verbalizes his ideas, his dreams, and his relationship to the jungle is especially interesting. But no matter how Herzog sees it, when I watch either of these movies, I see him exploiting the locals, because he thinks his commitment to his art should be shared by the people who might die for that art. I liked Burden of Dreams more than I liked Fitzcarraldo ... Herzog is ultimately more interesting than the character he created. But I still think a viewer would be better off watching Aguirre: the Wrath of God. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009). Coming-of-age, kitchen-sink, neo-Dogme film about Mia, a 15-year-old lower-class girl in London. She’s a loner, doesn’t get along with her mother or sister, and fashions herself a hip-hop dancer. She is played by Katie Jarvis, who had never acted before, and in this case, her amateurism works for the film. She is completely believable as the outcast. Nothing much happens, although the film has a slightly ominous tone, as if we’re watching the calm before the storm. Eventually, she has sex with her mother’s boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender), a scene that is both as matter-of-fact as most of the movie and the quiet storm that finally breaks the calm. Despite the melodramatic turn, Fish Tank remains “realistic”. But then Mia effectively kidnaps Conor’s daughter, and I guess we’re supposed to see how events have pushed the outcast over the edge, but it plays out of character for the person we’ve come to know ... I didn’t believe for a second that Mia would do this, and the movie fell apart for me. It was good enough before that, and ultimately, I liked it. I also confess that the accents seemed particularly thick to me ... I even turned on subtitles for awhile. #377 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Love & Money (Bill Pohlad, 2014). 8/10.

by request: love & mercy (bill pohlad, 2014)

(Part of the semi-regular movie-and-dinner thing between my wife, sister, brother-in-law, and yours truly. This was my sister’s pick.)

Love & Mercy reminded me of what I loved about The Beach Boys music, which isn’t an easy task. They were all over the part of my life that went from their debut album through “Heroes and Villains” in 1967. (I was 9-14 in those years.) They seemed pretty irrelevant after that, and it became easy to dismiss many of their early hits. They don’t seem to have the cred of a Creedence Clearwater Revival, another hit machine but one whose songs still resonate. It’s not that I decided The Beach Boys sucked ... not as long as “Don’t Worry Baby” was out there. But I forgot about them.

Love & Mercy wants us to know that Brian Wilson was/is a genius, flawed, “crazy”, beaten down by vicious dysfunctional relationships, but still a genius. And you know, I’m willing to accept that on the basis of “Good Vibrations” alone. But his genius reputation comes in large part from the album he never finished. That’s not quite fair ... if anything, the reputation of Pet Sounds has grown even larger over the years. All of the band’s post-Pet Sounds releases were disappointments at best, and the best of Brian’s solo work came in 2004 when he finally released a version of SMiLE. Thus, Love & Mercy gives us Brian the Genius during that time when, genius or not, his released output wasn’t up to snuff. (When Mike Love tells Brian the band needs to get back to making Beach Boys songs, i.e. hits, he seems crass in the face of genius, but you certainly understand his point.)

So, Love & Mercy isn’t about The Beach Boys of Endless Summer, the 1974 best-of that featured pre-Pet Sounds songs and sold a zillion copies. It’s about a troubled musical genius named Brian Wilson confronting his greatest musical frustration. He just happens to also be a Beach Boy.

And it’s pretty good. It’s true that Brian Wilson adds a level of interest, that all of the famous characters are fun to see, but in the end, this is just a standard tale of a troubled genius. I can’t decide, but the movie might have worked just as well if it was a fictional story about Joe Blow.

The two actors who play Wilson, Paul Dano and John Cusack, are both good, and they seem like the same person even though they don’t look much alike. Paul Giamatti probably thinks he’ll get an Oscar nom for Supporting Actor, and he might even deserve it, although the character is written in such a way that Giamatti had little choice but to play it over the top. Elizabeth Banks does what she can with the role of the goddess who saved Brian’s life ... again, she’s very good, but the part is pretty standard.

This sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, and I don’t intend that. It may be standard, but it’s good standard, and, to be honest with myself, it is better because Brian Wilson is the focus. 8/10.

blu-ray series #21: 8 1/2 (federico fellini, 1963)

Ever since grad school (maybe even before that), I’ve struggled with the notion of an artistic canon. The best thing I’ve ever written on this subject came more than 20 years ago (!) with “Curing the Canon”. In that essay, I argued for what I called a “personal canon”, which is something of a contradiction in terms ... a canon usually refers to work that is generally considered the best of the best, with “generally” assuming a community of scholars, which purposely doesn’t leave room for “personal”. A canonical work has inherent value, value that exists outside of opinion. It is self-evident, at least to anyone who spends the time to study the work closely. Adding “personal” to the mix takes a step away from inherent value ... it says that I have a canon, you have a canon, everyone has a canon, which is to say there is no overarching canon. (I make a similar case in a soon-to-be published essay on Pauline Kael, “Expansive Subjectivity”.)

One of the most important things to remember, though, is that one shouldn’t mistake taste preferences for inherent value. We all do it ... it’s usually easier to say “this is great” than to say “I think this is great”. For myself, I hope people assume that “I think” is implied. (When I taught writing, I would tell students who had been directed otherwise in high school that it was fine if they used the word “I” in their essays. I also told them it wasn’t really necessary, since I always assumed the “I” in what they said.) If enough people share a particular taste preference, and they manage to work their way to a position of authority (teacher, critic, whatever), they might argue that their taste preferences reflect inherent value because so many of them agree. They might even establish rules of greatness. But they never get past their own taste preferences, even if they impose them on the rest of us as if they were special.

The irony is that I rely heavily on the film canon, at least when deciding what to watch. I’m always referring to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, which collates critical opinion and creates best-of lists. I like being lifted out of my comfort zone; TSPDT leads me to movies I might have missed. (On the other hand, I love getting requests, because they also lead me to undiscovered places, only from the perspective of an individual rather than a collated list.) The result is that I end up watching things like We Are the Best! (a request/recommendation), Fitzcarraldo (critical fave), and San Andreas (personal what-the-fuck-let’s-watch-The-Rock).

And so, 8 1/2. Federico Fellini is considered one of the great directors in the history of cinema. (He ranks #4 on the TSPDT list of the top directors of all time, behind Hitchcock, Welles, and Kubrick.) 8 1/2 ranks as the 6th-best movie of all time, one place above The Godfather. Personally, I’m not sure I’d place 8 1/2 in my list of the top six Fellini movies I’ve seen.

There are many things to like about 8 1/2. The B&W cinematography is beautiful ... the use of light and shadow is exquisite, and Marcello Mastroianni was made for black-and-white. The imaginative settings and characters, which are what comes to my mind when I think of “Fellini-esque”, are remarkable. Fellini doesn’t do much with the actors not named Marcello ... he uses their faces as part of the Fellini Carnival, and there are some impressive faces, but as characters they are flat. Claudia Cardinale is a dream woman named “Claudia”, Anouk Aimee is “The Wife”, and they do what they can, but they aren’t asked to do much. I can’t complain, though, about the presence of personal fave Barbara Steele. I’m sure Steele is a fine actress, but I’m always so taken with her look that I’m overwhelmed. She’s another one made for black-and-white, with her jet black hair and her eye makeup and cheekbones. I used to think Steele looked like no one else, but then Eva Green came along. In any event, Steele steals every scene she is in, pun not intended, simply by bringing her odd face to the picture ... she’s the one actor in the film who doesn’t seem to need Fellini to get her look right.

But ... I’m unimpressed by the theme (man with “director’s block”), I don’t care much to see Fellini use Mastroianni as his stand-in ... in truth, I find 8 1/2 rather boring. Give Fellini credit, though. He anticipated the responses of people like me, using a film critic as a wet blanket on the greatness of the director:

You see, what stands out at a first reading is the lack of a central issue or a philosophical stance. That makes the film a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism. You wonder, what is the director really trying to do? Make us think? Scare us? That ploy betrays a basic lack of poetic inspiration....

[W]e critics... do what we can. Our true mission is... sweeping away the thousands of miscarriages that everyday... obscenely... try to come to the light. And you would actually dare leave behind you a whole film, like a cripple who leaves behind his crooked footprint. Such a monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalogue of your mistakes! And how do you benefit from stringing together the tattered pieces of your life?

I see a chain of gratuitous episodes, tattered pieces of life. Most others see a brilliant examination of the creative mind. Taste preferences. 6/10.