what i watched last week
Monday, July 20, 2015
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.
Also thought Going Clear was pretty good but nothing special. I had a hard time looking past a basic point: it took you this long to realize this operation's a fraud?
I have a request: Preminger's Advise and Consent. I've become addicted to it the past couple of years--I watch it every couple of months. I think you'll have major problems with it, and the rating may be as low as 5.
Posted by: Phil | Monday, July 20, 2015 at 03:24 PM
(I'm sending the Advise and Consent request out to Jeff, too--I know he checks in here.)
Posted by: Phil | Monday, July 20, 2015 at 04:00 PM
I think I might have read Advise and Consent when I was a kid. Haven't seen the movie, so it goes on the list. Thanks!
Posted by: Steven Rubio | Monday, July 20, 2015 at 04:18 PM
A&C I discovered a couple years ago, sure Phil I will take that on (in the usual fullness of time).
Steven, great write-ups as usual, I know I should drop a note more often, especially helpful on 7 Women, which puzzled me as John Ford pictures often do. Also agree that My Darling Clementine is his go-to. I do think Death Proof is Tarantino's #3, though a good bit behind his first two. There's something very pure to me about it, similar to my experience with The Road Warrior.
Posted by: JPK | Monday, July 20, 2015 at 07:51 PM
Jeff and Phil, knowing you're out there means a lot. Your comments are welcome, too :-).
I crapped on Death Proof, but he's still got a great track record for me. I wonder if I would like Death Proof more if I'd watched the Grindhouse double-bill instead?
A QT Mad Max would be interesting. You mention pure ... I find the Max movies to be best when no one is talking. But Tarantino is the best dialogue writer we've got.
Advise and Consent is coming to TCM on August 1. Got the DVR set. Of course, it may sit on my DVR for a year before I get around to it.
Posted by: Steven Rubio | Monday, July 20, 2015 at 07:58 PM