Monthly Archives: January 2015

Tropic Thunder (2008)

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*. The shelf date for comedy can be given in months. That’s how long it takes for the year’s most hilarious hit to turn into a movie that nobody in their right mind would laugh at.
*. I don’t mean this observation as a way of introducing a pan of Tropic Thunder. I do think it’s (still) a funny movie. But it’s a way of introducing a corollary point: that comedy is always of its time. In approaching a comedy you always have to keep in mind what that time was, what its defining features and characteristics were.
*. What was comedy in 2008? In a word, satire. The mockumentary was the preferred form (think Borat, or the television series The Office), presenting absurd situations that people played absolutely straight.
*. Tropic Thunder is very close to being a mockumentary, taking the form of a movie about the making of a movie. The characters are caricatures (the dense action star, the self-important method actor, the drugged-out, overweight comedian), and the humour comes from how seriously they take themselves.

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*. Robert Downey Jr. gets to steal the show because his Kirk Lazarus is both the most ridiculous cast member and the one who expresses the most wide-eyed sense of self-importance. Nothing is going to take him out of his part. There’s even a line where he tells Tuggman that he doesn’t break character until after the DVD commentary. And sure enough Downey does do the DVD commentary in character, making it almost as entertaining as the film itself.
*. Helping things along is the fact that the world of entertainment naturally lends itself to the comedy of juxtaposing its madness with the “real” world outside the bubble. It always has.
*. Basically this strikes me as a remake of Three Amigos with a Vietnam setting instead of Mexico, finding lots of laughs in blurring the line between illusion and reality as Hollywood action heroes find themselves deep in the shit. I thought it was interesting, by the way, that no one on the commentary mentions Three Amigos, though they mention all of the Vietnam movies that they are taking off.
*. I’m not sure what to think of the beautiful Hawaiian setting. It seems a little too pretty. Even when the team wanders off the beaten track they still seem like they’re on a set.

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*. It’s a film that did attract controversy, some of which should have been anticipated. Going after “retards” was bound to get some blowback. I’m surprised, however, that people objected to Downey’s turn in blackface. That was the joke, I don’t see how anyone could take it as being racist.
*. I will confess I did not recognize Tom Cruise. I was immediately wondering who Les Grossman was because I was sure I’d seen him somewhere before, but I couldn’t place him. Score one for the makeup team.

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*. That said, I don’t think Grossman is very funny. He has no good lines except for the colourful insults he bellows at people, and even these aren’t all that imaginative. I don’t blame Cruise; it’s just not a well-written part. Aside from that, his timing was good.
*. And so in 2008 this was what we thought was funny. Very funny, even (though there are whole bits that don’t work at all for me). And to some extent it still is. Will it still be funny ten years from now? Perhaps, but certainly much less so. And anything beyond that would be a hazardous bet indeed. I think we’ll have moved on.

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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*. It wasn’t the birth of film, but it was close. Earlier filmmakers tended to be engineers, inventors, or photographers. D. W. Griffith was a motion picture pioneer. With Birth of a Nation you are finally watching something that a modern audience would recognize as a movie, one laid down in a familiar visual grammar.
*. It’s hard to overstate Griffith’s place in film history. James Agee wrote that “He [Griffith] achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” As Roger Ebert puts it, these words “are almost by definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great film critic.”
*. Don’t believe Agee? In his standard textbook A History of Narrative Film, David A. Cook begins his chapter on Griffith with this stunning sentence: “The achievement of David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948) is unprecedented in the history of Western art, much less Western film.” Wow.
*. I could go on quoting more like this, but the point is clear. And what’s more, it was a point Griffith himself was both aware of and promoted. When he left Biograph in 1913 he even took out an advertisement declaring himself to be the founder of “the modern technique of the art.”

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*. If Griffith was the first director (or at least the first auteur), and the father of narrative film, The Birth of a Nation was something else: the birth of cinema. It’s an important film in the history of the art, but even more so in the history of the industry. Dave Kehr’s summary: “The Birth of a Nation put an end to a certain kind of popular theater and elevated in its place a medium that had, until then, been largely a novelty attraction headed from vaudeville theaters to sideshows. An industry grounded in one- and two-reelers was transformed within a couple of years into an industry of feature films; storefront nickelodeons grew into lavish movie palaces, and movies became the preferred entertainment to the emerging American middle class — all because of Griffith’s film.”
*. Enough of that. This movie was a landmark achievement, everyone agrees. What else is there to say?

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*. Is it racist? Hell yeah. You have to acknowledge this, but I think it’s unnecessary to say much more than point out the obvious. I mean, you don’t have to read between the lines here to find a racist subtext. It’s a movie that’s unabashedly, in-your-face, over-the-top racist.
*. Contemporary audiences understood this perfectly well, and went to see it regardless. Griffith himself professed surprise at the charges of racism, but he was a child of the South (his father had been a Confederate officer) and so was born to it.
*. Still, he did make gestures toward covering his ass. As the title card at the beginning of the second part reads: “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” Ho-ho. That has to be one of the most dishonest disclaimers ever.

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*. When the blacks aren’t just ignorant layabouts eating watermelon and fried chicken while swigging moonshine, or sex-crazed rapists lecherously ogling white women, then they’re scheming, treacherous manipulators. There are many shades of black here, and all of them evil but for the handful of “faithful souls” who stand by their masters.
*. Having white actors play blacks by putting burnt cork on their faces may be offensive to modern tastes, but it’s something that was routine at the time. My problem with it is that it looks ridiculous.
*. Here Roger Ebert makes an interesting point: “His [Griffith’s] blackface actors tell us more about his attitude toward those characters than black actors ever could have. Consider the fact that the blackface is obvious; the makeup is not as good as it could have been. That makes its own point: Black actors could not have been used in such sexually charged scenes, even if Griffith had wanted to, because white audiences would not have accepted them. Griffith wanted his audience to notice the blackface.”
*. Expanding on this a bit, I find one of the most disturbing shots, perhaps the most disturbing shot, in the entire film to be the one in South Carolina’s State House of Representatives where the black actors (and some of them are black actors) silently stare up at the pair of white women who are visiting in the gallery just as it is being announced that interracial marriages have become legal. In a moment the uppity cotton-pickers have turned from being an assembly of clowns to a pack of threatening predators.

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*. And it isn’t just the black men presented this way. The mulatto servant (Lydia Brown) is sexed up too, raping herself in order to condemn Senator Sumner and seduce Austin Stoneman, and seeming to go into orgasms at hearing of the plans for Reconstruction.
*. Obviously miscegenation was an obsession for Griffith, but we make great art out of our obsessions. The whole sequence where Gus chases Flora through the woods and eventually off a cliff is brilliant in its pacing and use of effective cross-cutting between three different characters in pursuit of one another.

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*. It’s offensive, sure, but that’s the double-edged nature of this film’s achievement. I take exception to Cook’s finding a paradox between Griffith’s “staggering cinematic genius” and “intellectual shallowness.” That shallowness was every bit as important, and indeed as necessary to his success as his technical achievement. Most blockbusters are intellectually shallow. This is great art, but even more than that, it’s great trash.

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*. It’s humbug. Pretty much all humbug. As noted above, it says it’s not racist but it is. It also purports to show the full tragedy and horror of war (“war claims its bitter, useless, sacrifice“!), but it celebrates violence and militarism. Poor Flora finds “the opal gates of death” sweeter than dishonour. But in fairness, it was 1915. It was only the First World War and Modernism that finally demolished this pious claptrap. Looking back on the Civil War, Americans could still think of war as heroic.

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*. Griffith also had an exquisite sense of pacing. It’s often been noted how effortlessly he moves from the domestic to the historical, something which has always been the nature of epic. Also very good is his ability to change gears from frantic action to static tableaux and “historical facsimiles.” Indeed you never feel the adjustment being made.
*. David Thomson: “the film now seems slow, methodical, and merciless, like Scott dragging sledges across the South Polar plateau.” Not at all (I think Thomson just wanted to work that image in there somehow). For such a long, baggy narrative it’s surprisingly light on its feet. I mean, it is just over three hours long and doesn’t move at the pace a contemporary film by Scorsese moves at, but it’s still quite compelling. Yes, it mines melodramatic stage conventions shamelessly, but they became conventions because they worked. This movie has narrative wheels.
*. Put another way, I’d rather watch three hours of this movie than an hour of Intolerance any day. You can say all you want about how Intolerance is a better movie, but it’s not as effective an entertainment.

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*. The real innovation that would make feature films possible was Griffith’s sure, and mainly intuitive, sense of narrative. You don’t watch a three-hour film that isn’t going anywhere.
*. I say intuitive because Griffith apparently didn’t use a shooting script but rather kept the story in his head. This meant the story had to be both very simple and built mainly around images.
*. I don’t find Lilian Gish all that attractive, but the way she works that bedpost is certainly erotic.

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*. I can’t help thinking of the house in Night of the Living Dead being surrounded by zombies when I see the cabin out in the middle of the field at the end of this picture. Only the undead here are crazed blacks, breaking down the doors and trying to come in through the windows while North and South are finally united “in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”
*. So it’s a landmark. It’s racist. It’s humbug. It’s a great film. It’s a travesty of history and morally disgusting, but those are charges that can be levelled against a lot of popular entertainment, even in our own time. That it endures is testament both to Griffith’s achievement and something bad, or perhaps just weak and “intellectually shallow” in all of us.

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Swords and Hearts (1911)

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*. D. W. Griffith was a pioneer when it came to film technique, but what drove his creativity and inventiveness? Not a mad desire to innovate and be original but rather a populist and sentimental mind.
*. People often point to his breakthroughs in editing, for example, but what end did these serve? More than anything else, they went to making up a great chase scene. Griffith loved chase scenes. You can find one in many if not most of his movies, even these Biograph shorts.
*. But think about how you’re going to present a chase scene without a lot of editing. It’s people running or riding a horse into and out of the frame. Then repeat. Then repeat again (depending on how long the chase is). That’s not how we experience chasing someone or being chased, where our point of view is constantly changing (distances changing, looking around us, behind us, or straight ahead). As long as movies were just filmed stage plays they didn’t need much in the way of editing. But when the action really began to move, so did the pictures.
*. Swords and Hearts is another creaky Griffith melodrama, interesting mainly for how it anticipates The Birth of a Nation, but without the racial angle. The angry mob breaking down the door into the estate house are white “bushwackers.” The conniving siren isn’t a mulatto but a high-station Southern belle.
*. Of course there are racist conventions, with the faithful servant Old Ben hiding the family fortune and looking out for the young master. But these are sentimental conventions, with none of Birth of a Nation‘s bile and fear of miscegeny. That would be unleashed on an epic scale just a few years later.

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The House with Closed Shutters (1910)

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*. The Civil War was America’s epic, in the words of art critic Robert Hughes, its Iliad and its Holocaust. As such, I think it’s been mined in a superficial and even cynical manner over the years, but for a lot of great artists, especially from the South, it remains a part of the cultural mythology with incredible resonance. D. W. Griffith being one such individual.
*. This story here takes the form of a short gothic tale of horror, and Griffith tells it with great economy. The set up has three musketeer chums heading off to war only for one of them to turn into a “drink-mad coward” and run away. His place is taken by his sister who is then killed in battle. Back home, his mother shutters him inside the family homestead to hide the family shame while a pair of faithful suitors continue to pay visits, thinking that it is the sister who has become a recluse. In the final moments the brother dies and his mother reveals the horrible truth to the suitors.
*. Like I say, it’s a gothic tale of horror. Or at least the final part is (the movie has a fairly rigid three-part structure, with a rousing bit of Civil War action stuck in the middle).
*. I couldn’t help thinking of Misery, what with the trapped young man growing old in his mother’s house, slowly drinking himself to death and going dotty with cabin fever. That’s pretty morbid stuff.
*. Griffith was frustrated by the constraints of one-reelers running ten to fifteen minutes long. Even in a film like this you can sense the different angles to the story he’s not exploring.
*. The sister’s dressing room has the American Biograph studio logo (a stylized AB) prominently displayed on the wall. You’ll notice it appearing in a lot of the Biograph shorts. I wonder how intentional it was. These movies were shot quickly, but it’s hard to miss something like that and the studios were very keen on branding their product with company logos. After he left Biograph, Griffiths would insist on presenting his own “DG” logo as a sign of quality.

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Basket Case (1982)

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*. One of the most remarkable things about this film is that it’s an extreme low-budget production that works (and enjoyed considerable cult success) despite the transparent lack of talent involved.
*. This is surprising. Night of the Living Dead, for example, works because George Romero was actually a very smart and effective filmmaker and he got some well-suited performances. You can still watch Equinox today because Dennis Muren was obviously someone capable of better things. But with Basket Case you are watching a movie put together by amateurs who weren’t going anywhere.

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*. Even the gore is basically just the same mutilated face effect being repeated, with scalpels thrown in for Dr. Kutter. Speaking of which, just how does she get all those scalpels stuck in her face when all Belial does is stick her head in the scalpel drawer?
*. I don’t know what the right way to pronounce “Belial” is. I know I didn’t pronounce it the way it is here when I was a schoolkid reading Milton. But I guess people are free to pronounce their own names however they want, and if that’s the way this particular Belial wants it then fine.
*. I remember the first time I saw this movie thinking that the basement of the Bradley house in Grand Falls was huge — far too big for the basement of a normal house. In fact it was shot in a sex-club dungeon in New York.

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*. Is this an example of “reproductive horror,” a sub-genre David J. Skal describes in his book The Monster Show? I think so. It belongs alongside better-known examples like Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, It’s Alive, and even Alien. Belial is the product of a monstrous birth that kills his mother, and never seems to grow out of being a baby: carried around in a reed basket and unable to speak aside from making screaming noises. Even his iconography (the claw of a hand sticking out of his basket) recalls It’s Alive, at least to my eyes.

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*. Belial’s rape and possible murder of Sharon was controversial from the day it was filmed, with some of the crew being so upset they walked out on director Frank Henenlotter. In his essay on the film in Cult Movies 2, Danny Peary takes extreme exception to this part of the film. I’m not sure I agree. Yes, it seems unfair since Sharon is an innocent and excessively nice person, but I think it fits in with Belial’s issues over sexuality generally, and reinforces his shared bond with Duane (it’s natural they’d both like the same girl).
*. While that scene is thematically consistent, I think people find it objectionable because it breaks with the predominant black-comedy tone of the rest of the movie. Up to this point we’ve been able to laugh at Belial’s slaughter of the sleazy doctors and greedy low-lifes. Sharon’s death takes us outside of all that.
*. But should this upset us? This is an unapologetically sleazy, borderline exploitation film. It’s dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis (which is something you have to wait until the end of the partially fictional credits to find out). And Lewis often mixed up sex and violence in grotesque ways for shock value.

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*. Two of the four lights in the fixture over the operating table are burned out. Do you think they might have wanted to fix those? But maybe they didn’t need them, as the extra lights they’ve set up aren’t even turned on.
*. How great is Diana Browne’s Dr. Kutter? She’s such a lusty, amoral bitch. I love her first appearance as a zaftig cougar with a toy-boy that she likes to see drool. Even when Duane reveals who he is she remains completely unintimidated and even tells him to get packing. The other doctors are just types, but Kutter is an original.

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*. While I don’t think Belial is that impressive in terms of the puppet effects (often just a hand in a glove), he is at least something different. Henenlotter wanted a “malignant jack-in-the-box” and got it. What confuses me is trying to figure out how intelligent he is supposed to be. At times he seems like Duane’s dog: they share an empathic connection, but he can’t speak or do much except fetch and attack. At other times he comes across as quite intelligent and independent.
*. Of course since he can’t speak, and since we can’t hear his telepathic communications with Duane, it’s hard for us to gauge what mental level he’s at, or even what sort of moral compass he has. Indeed, I’m not even clear who’s calling the shots. Is the whole revenge plot his idea, or Duane’s? Or are they co-conspirators all the way?
*. This was a cult movie back in the day of “midnight movies,” and it’s very much set in that same milieu. We don’t have midnight movies any more, and I suspect there aren’t many people who miss these older, run-down repertory cinemas that stayed open all night showing fringe films. But do we miss the films? Because they were a product of that cultural environment, and with that environment gone the “cult film” is something that looks very different.

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Borat (2006)

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*. A satire? Of what, exactly?
*. Not America. Because Borat (the movie and the character) isn’t really interested in making observations on America: its culture, values, or mores. What it’s interested in is Borat and his crazy opinions and shenanigans.
*. I think this is an important point, because the typical way such “stranger in a strange land” stories work is to reveal something about the host society by seeing it through the eyes of a naïve visitor. That’s what you’d expect here, but it’s not really what you get, with a couple of exceptions.
*. Borat’s political incorrectness, for example, has nothing to say about political correctness in general because it’s too extreme. His opinions (on women and Jews, primarily) are offensive, not representative. His aim is to get a rise out of people, make them uncomfortable, shock them out of their complacency, but not for anything they’ve said or done. Inevitably, he is the butt of his own joke.

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*. This isn’t to say the movie isn’t funny. It is. And set pieces like the anthem at the rodeo and the naked wrestling match remain so even ten years later (which isn’t often the case with comedy). My point is only that it’s a far less political movie than it was taken for when it first came out.
*. The big reservation I have with it lies in the question of how scripted it is and how much of it is “real.” I think most of it was in fact scripted. Pamela Anderson, for example, was in on the joke. It seems obvious to me that the Jewish couple who run the bed-and-breakfast were too. The couple who run the antique store? All the owner had to do was hold on to Borat to stop him from breaking more stuff, and he takes the destruction of his shop with surprising equanimity.
*. Given the presence of cameras filming everything, it’s hard to see how anyone could have been oblivious to it all being a prank. Even the frat boys in the RV appear to be going along with the joke, and putting on a performance of their own.
*. Why was Sacha Baron Cohen unable to follow it up? I think because his other avatars of insanity (Brüno, Admiral General Aladeen) weren’t as likeable. Borat snuck under everyone’s defences (both in the movie and among audiences) because he is so open, so insistent on getting up close and personal (with kisses to both cheeks or high fives). He also occupies the heroic role in that most archetypal of comic plots: the young man overcoming the difficulties placed in the way of his marrying his true love. We’re cheering for him even as we’re shaking our heads. We’re sure that if it wasn’t for his being from Kazakhstan — and that’s not his fault — he’d be just fine.

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Bad Lieutenant (1992)

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*. Is he really that bad a lieutenant? The poster says “Gambler. Thief. Killer. Cop.” but does he kill anyone? He’s an addict (drugs, booze, gambling, to some extent sex) so he steals to feed his habits. Hey, we all have our weaknesses.
*. It’s a character study, but we don’t learn much about the lieutenant’s character. Even his name is left out (he appears in the credits only as “LT”). What is his background? Tough, to be sure — he mentions dodging bullets since he was 14 — but that’s all we know.
*. He seems to have few personal connections. Who is Zoe Lund’s character to him? A prostitute? Just another junky? Who are all those women in the house? Family, one assumes, but there is no explanation for their presence. On the commentary Ferrara identifies the old lady as his mother-in-law, but I don’t recall any point in the movie where this is indicated. Indeed none of the women of the house even say anything.
*. Roger Ebert had a way of describing films in fictional ways. Here: “He [the lieutenant] still lives in a comfortable middle-class home, with a wife and three children who have long since made their adjustment to his madness.” Actually there are four children (the two boys, a little girl and a toddler). And how they’ve all adjusted to his madness isn’t clear since they’re not characters we know much about.

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*. Not knowing who the lieutenant is makes a difference. How can we relate to his calling out Jesus at the end? How did Jesus let him down? It seems like he’s just blaming God for how he’s screwed up his own life. I like how he admits he’s weak and needs help, but that’s something we might all say on a bad day.
*. Ferrara likes building movies around these large central performances: Zoe Lund as Ms. 45, Christopher Walken as the King of New York. Note I said “performances,” not “characters.” Characters are developed through a story. Ferrara is more of an observer than a storyteller.
*. I guess you have to respect Ferrara for being such a doggedly independent spirit, but that independence hasn’t always been put to use developing terribly original ideas.
*. The National League Championship Series that’s always playing in the background is invented, but the players are real. I thought it worked quite well until the very end when the announcer has no excitement in his voice at all as he calls the final out.
*. I love the crazy editing in the scene where Keitel is listening to the final game of the series as he drives around. The play-by-play is continuous but there are huge jump cuts in the action. Director of photography Ken Kelsch says on the commentary that he doesn’t know whose idea this was, but it works.
*. It was shot so cheaply and quickly, it’s hard to tell what all about it was planned and deliberate. In the communion scene at the church where Keitel is telling his bookie he wants to go double or nothing on his bet and his bookie warns him that the guy who’s taking his bets will blow up his house and everyone in it if he loses, is it only coincidence that the stained glass window behind Keitel’s head says “memory of wife and child”? I don’t think it can be a coincidence, but I guess it’s possible.

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*. As another example, Kelsch says on the commentary track that the lighting in the scene between Keitel and the nun, with the two cones of light framing her own cone-like shape, was serendipity. I don’t see how that could have not been planned.
*. The Catholic stuff is overdone, but that’s part of the weird attraction of Catholicism, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell what’s kitsch and what’s representative of genuine religious feeling. That prominent cross the girl driving the car has on her ring? That Jesus blanket on the couch at the drug dealer’s house? The gem-encrusted cigar box/reliquary they keep the drug loot in?

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*. Credit Keitel for selling a very difficult part. I think he’s a limited actor, but in the one kind of role he’s really good in (something by Scorsese or Tarantino) he’s terrific.
*. I was wondering why Keitel wasn’t getting wet in the car scene. On the commentary Kelsch explains they had an umbrella over him. Which is considerate, but of course makes no sense.

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*. Keitel was ripped for this film wasn’t he? I guess if you know you’re doing a nude scene you’re going to want to spend some time in the gym.
*. As he’s about to release, Keitel tells the girl in the car to open her mouth “and take that scum.” I don’t remember ejaculate being referred to as “scum” in the ’90s. But since Keitel was improvising all of this, maybe it was a usage he was familiar with.

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*. The (improbably sexy) nun’s confession is a bit much. Kelsch: “I think it becomes a little pompous, the dialogue here.” And how.

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*. Co-writer Zoe Lund gets to deliver a great monologue: “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We got to eat away at ourselves. We got to eat our legs to get the energy to walk. We got to come so we can go. We got to suck ourselves off. We got to eat away at ourselves until there’s nothing left but appetite. We give and give and get crazy.” Ferrara calls this “Zoe at her best,” while Kelsch says “this is her entire philosophy . . . poetic despair.” It’s like a dark epiphany, but you wouldn’t want any more of it.

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The Driller Killer (1979)

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*. An initial advisement tells us “THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.” As if anyone in the theatre would have had a vote in the matter. And besides, what would be the point? Does the music of Tony Coca-Cola and the Roosters sound better played loud? Does the muddy and mostly pointless dialogue improve?
*. There are lots of bad reasons for liking a movie. It might be the early work of an actor or director who went on to do something you really like, so it gains something in hindsight. It might have achieved a reputation due to some scandal not really relating to the film itself. It might represent a point of view or sensibility that has since gained in cultural cachet.
*. Or, in the case of The Driller Killer, all of the above. This is a terrible movie, but (following the above order): (1) it’s a very early film from indie hero Abel Ferrara (who went on to do King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, and The Funeral); (2) it’s often credited with being one of the original “video nasties,” meaning a videocasette release prosecuted for obscenity in Britain in the 1980s; and (3) it provides a glimpse into the underground alternative music scene in New York City in the 1970s.
*. Kim Newman calls this “the only gore movie to genuinely approach Art.” I’m not sure what he’s talking about. It’s an exploitation film made by someone who looks like they were directing under the influence (and I don’t mean of other filmmakers). One does get the sense, however, that Ferrara’s thoughts are elsewhere, which is the only indication I would have seen that he might go on to do something good. Talent-wise, he shows us nothing here.
*. It’s hard to tell if the low quality of what you are seeing is due to a lack of money or just incompetence. Probably both. Ferrara had no money, but I don’t think he knew what he was doing either.
*. Why do we not see any blood on the drill bit after it’s done its job?
*. Another iteration of the mad artist, that down-on-his-luck sibling of the mad scientist. The scientist dreams of destroying or conquering the world but the artist only wants the Freudian goals of fame and beautiful lovers. Alas, even in these departments Reno is shit out of luck. When his painting is rejected by the gallery his girlfriend packs her suitcase and leaves for a man who will bring her a cup of tea in bed. Oh Reno. It’s just not going to happen for you, man.
*. Reno blames his environment for his failings as an artist, but the truth seems to be that he’s just not very good.
*. There’s a lot of visual heavy breathing around and about Reno’s psychotic states, but it’s never clear to me what his problem is. What has he got against derelicts? They aren’t hurting anyone and for the most part seem pretty inoffensive. Is there something in Reno’s past that makes him enter these dissociative states?
*. The usual explanation for Reno’s war of extermination against bums is that his father (who may be the old guy in the church at the beginning) is a derelict. But I don’t know. The dialogue is hard to make out and I’m not sure the script was clear on this point in the first place.
*. I thought for a moment there might be some political point in play, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Reno is down and out, but he’s not a class avenger. If anything, it’s because he’s afraid of falling into the gutter that those are the people he kills. He doesn’t want to become like them (or become his father).
*. Yes, I know. It’s a stretch. But that’s the best attempt I can make at explaining this film’s incoherence.

La Notte (1961)

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*. Michelangelo Antonioni, like most directors, had his ups and downs. But on my personal list of favourite directors he would be near the top. At least in the top five.
*. And yet I’m not sure I’ve ever loved an Antonioni film on first viewing, aside from L’Avventura. His movies grow on me.
*. One of the questions posed by L’Avventura is whether it’s “about” anything. It’s a question that’s even more pressing here, as even less happens: there’s no trip to an island, no missing person (though Lidia goes AWOL for an afternoon), and no mystery driving anything that could be called a plot forward.
*. So what’s it about? Love. And by love I mean a bunch of conventions that developed in the middle ages, the stuff of courtly romance and Giovanni’s (now forgotten) aubade to his wife, which she recites to him at the end. This is the art of love: not its physical expression (you can read books and consult videos on that), but as an aesthetic performance and ritual.

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*. It’s love as artifice, as culture, as presentation, like that dance we watch in the night club. There’s no point to the dancer balancing that wine glass the way she does, it’s just a symbolically sexual display. She is also progressively undressed as she dances: the setting may be elegant but it’s still a strip joint.
*. This is the kind of upper-class game that our two leads — Lidia and Giovanni — have supped full of. They are bored with beauty, and receive no pleasure from pleasure. “Sometimes beauty can really be depressing.” “Life would be tolerable if not for its pleasures.” These people have had too much of a good thing.
*. The idea that eroticism is born of boredom is something I find few people want to consider, but nevertheless I think it’s true. We find the effect of love most often in idleness.

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*. Perhaps living in Milan will do that to you. Or starring in an Antonioni movie.
*. Because once you’re in the bubble, beauty is a drug, a trap. We can’t trust it. Snare-like frames are sprung on us everywhere: doorways, windows, pictures hanging on walls. Every frame of this film is composed like something you could blow up and sell as a print.
*. Windows in particular are constantly introduced as both frames and mirrors, reality and reflection. It’s a motif that’s introduced with the opening credit scroll as we descend the (then very new) Pirelli Tower, with the windows reflecting the city below. As Giuliana Bruno observes, it’s like the windows are being transformed into a strip of celluloid.
*. A window is a facade, a face that’s presented to the street. And we’re always trying to look through it, to see what’s behind it, but only seeing ourselves.

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*. I am in awe of the scene where Giovanni interrupts Valentina’s game of solitaire shuffleboard by seeming to come out of his own reflection in the window. Adriano Aprà sees this as Giovanni being a ghost of himself, but I don’t know if ghost is the right word. He’s just an image of himself that can occasionally take physical form, but not for long. He’s only a reflection, or perhaps a publicity photo for the dustjacket of his book that can appear in the flesh at parties and then disappear again.
*. I think this insubstantiality and lack of real identity is the point of his not recognizing his own letter to his wife when it’s read back to him. Who wrote that? Him? Not really. Just some person he used to be, for a while.

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*. To her credit, Lidia finally does come to understand that her husband is not just worthless but a kind of black hole. And she has the self-awareness to admit that this is what originally attracted her to him. Few people go so far in admitting their mistakes.
*. La Dolce Vita had come out the previous year, and it’s hard not to see this movie as a kind of remake or reinterpretation. The author (played by the same actor) experiencing a night of upper class ennui and decadence, lusting after an unattainable woman, and then experiencing (or not) a sort of epiphany the next morning.
*. Antonioni only worked with Marcello Mastroianni once again, over thirty years later. Apparently Mastroianni didn’t enjoy doing this movie (and neither did Jeanne Moreau). Does he not belong in an Antonioni film? Was he more of a Fellini man? Is there a difference? What is the difference?
*. One false step. I don’t like the scene with the fight that Lidia breaks up. It seems overly choreographed and I’m not sure what its purpose is. Are the tough boys meant to represent a more authentic masculinity or virility? It’s a scene that seems echoed by the one in Zabriskie Point where Daria is surrounded by horny, threatening urchins, or when Monica Vitti is circled in the street in L’Avventura. The bourgeoisie may be boring, but the unrefined, proletarian male is savagely inarticulate and dangerous.

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*. How heelish is it of Giovanni to tell Valentina that his wife has sent him after her? Or does he really believe this? I take it this is what Antonioni meant when he said he wanted the film to illustrate “the weight of masculine egotism implied by such a total abstraction of his wife’s personality to his own benefit.”
*. When does Lidia realize that Giovanni isn’t really there? She says it’s when she sees him bored at the night club, so perhaps it’s when she reaches out for his hand (or it is only his cufflinks?). There are earlier hints at their apartment though. When she stands up in the tub and he doesn’t respond to her body. And look at the way her face falls when he doesn’t recognize how good she looks in her new dress. God, what a sad woman. If you don’t feel a pain in your heart at that moment then you don’t have one.

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*. That shot of her reaching for his hand is an echo of an earlier one that really took me out of myself. It’s in the hospital room, When Tommaso holds on to Lidia’s hand with both of his and kisses it. How is it that this gesture meant so much to me? Because it’s unexpected? Because it immediately makes us think of something else? But I think we all recognize immediately what it means: the dying man in the blank and sterile institutional setting reaching out for human contact, for warmth, to hold on to life.
*. I think Lidia recognizes this. The only thing she asks the hospital when she finds out that he’s died is if his mother was with him at the end. Because that’s important.
*. Lidia is a rare human figure in Antonioni. She’s full of life: laughs with strangers in the street, doesn’t mind men checking her out, is upset by Tommaso’s dying, and steps in to break up the street fight. Such a passionate figure is out of place here.

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*. And she’s that saddest of all the people we meet: someone who wants to have a good time, to engage more with life, but can’t. She has a very quick smile for everyone. She’s at her husband’s book launch party but nobody talks to her. She’s a wallflower. In the street it seems like she almost wants to dance with the people she meets, but instead keeps walking. When she’s invited to dance by the guy who tries to pick her up, it turns out he can’t. She even wants to dance with the band, but that goes nowhere. She’s the girl who just wants to have fun, but she’s all grown up now and there is no more fun to be had.

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*. Pauline Kael: “[Antonioni’s] conception is distasteful: his characters seem to find glamour in their own desolation and emptiness. They are cardboard intellectuals — a sort of international café society — and their lassitude seems an empty pose.” I don’t think she tried very hard on this one. I don’t think the people we meet are finding glamour in their empty lives, but rather finding a contempt within themselves for that very glamour. They don’t enjoy the empty pose, but it’s all they feel they have left, and they’re not even sure they still have that any more.
*. All is calm. No one ever raises their voice. Because the people we meet don’t feel any great passions? Because they can’t communicate? Or because nothing they have to say to each other is all that important? Note that scene shot outside the car where we can’t hear what Lidia is saying to the pick-up artist Roberto. Is it important? Are we missing anything? Probably not.
*. We are totally out of nature in this film. Even the final scene plays out on a golf course and sand trap, an artificial, manufactured landscape. You can’t get outside the frame. Is that what draws Lidia to the rockets? They seem to be breaking free.

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*. I mentioned Werner Herzog’s ability to paint in white in my notes on Nosferatu. Antonioni could do this as well (and impressed Hitchcock immensely in this regard, as he stood up straight during one Antonioni film and exclaimed “White on white! There, you see! It can be done!”). And he does the equally difficult job of painting in black here. Black on black on black, but it’s all variations on shadow and depth.

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*. In L’Avventura Antonioni liked to set two faces looking at the camera side-by-side. He still does that a bit here, mostly when he wants to get Monica Vitti’s face in the shot, but he’s more into the backs of people’s heads, or backs in general. We are frequently positioned behind people, looking out past them. This isn’t the standard over-the-shoulder shot but one where the point-of-view character is fully foregrounded, where their heads or bodies are the primary active elements in the frame.

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*. How much time do we spend looking at Jeanne Moreau’s and Monica Vitti’s backs? I felt I got to know them quite well. Moreau has an odd spine. I think Kael is wrong to say the camera is “fixated on her rear.” It’s fixated more on the back of her head and shoulders.
*. As an example of the effect this can have, it isn’t even clear that it’s Monica Vitti reading the book when we see a woman sitting at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t tell. You don’t see the woman’s face. Later we see Vitti holding a book but we’re not sure what book it is.
*. I love the moment when Giovanni realizes that Valentina is his host’s daughter. She gives her dad a kiss and then looks straight at Giovanni and says “That’s right.” Zing! But she delivers the line with no emotion at all.
*. Is Lidia raped at the end? She certainly says No, and just because they’re married doesn’t provide Giovanni any defence. I think the way the camera slides away only highlights the cruel inversion of romantic love that Giovanni is miming. He’s just going through the motions, again. Dancing in a sand trap.
*. I found it odd that in a very appreciative retrospective essay on Antonioni that appeared in the New York Times, Stephen Holden describes this final scene as one where “the unhappy couple futilely attempt to reconnect.” That may be what Giovanni is attempting, but it’s certainly not what Lidia is after.
*. It may not be a great movie, but it perfectly captures what Antonioni set out to do: dramatize a quiet, critical moment in a relationship. Falling out of love takes time, but there is a tipping point where you’ve lost everything and you’re not getting it back. At that point even the smallest things, trivial looks and gestures, open up giant distances. Two people are no longer inhabiting the same place or time. Should we be put off by how Antonioni says all of this so elegantly? I’m not. As Giovanni says at one point, he’s telling a fairy tale but his real life is much worse.

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La Dolce Vita (1960)

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*. The helicopters come in low, flying over the ancient ruins of an aqueduct, with Christ suspended somewhere in between. And we’re sure this must mean something. It’s hard not to think of Antonioni’s La Notte (which came out the next year), with that first shot juxtaposing the ancient and the modern.
*. Is Fellini being paradoxical? I don’t think so. The Renaissance kicked off in Italy precisely because of the presence of all those ancient ruins and models. This is a country where style has never gone out of style, because it’s always been right there in front of you, or under foot.
*. The beautiful photography by Otello Martelli, and clothes by Piero Gherardi are just part of it. Even the cars are both modern and classic. We’ll never be that way again.

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*. But now that style faces its most terrible threat: Hollywood. Here come the new barbarians with their big tits, quick fisticuffs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Look out or they’ll wreck the place.
*. Let’s go back to La Notte. There’s Marcello Mastroianni again, a writer again, and falling out of (and in) love again. He has a dying mentor (Steiner here, Tommaso in La Notte) who can’t save him. There’s a sudden rainstorm. There’s a semi-decadent party, and an emotional hangover the next morning. And both movies end with Mastroianni stuck in the sand.
*. Something else it shares with La Notte is an antagonistic attitude toward nature. The great outdoors at the end of La Notte is a manicured golf course. Nature here is a tape recording of nature sounds that Steiner plays in his drawing room, or a tree that gets ripped to pieces by a crowd of fanatics, or the transvestite’s “Oh, nature!” as he walks out to the sea, which is an ironic ejaculation to be sure.

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*. But the big difference between the two films lies in their view of women. Monica Vitti has style, and depth. Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia is at best a sculpture, an icon. At worst she’s an airheaded bit of luggage. The one is glamorous, the other sexual. Fellini may be more realistic (and that’s a term I use only in a relative way), but Antonioni’s women are more interesting.
*. It’s a movie about the media: writers, journalists, photographers, television crews, filmmakers. And with all those layers of mediation it asks what reality is. In particular, what is a real woman?
*. That’s a question you don’t want to ask a romantic or a poet. You’re likely to get an earful about how “You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.” Or the almost equally over-the-top speech about “oriental woman” we hear at Steiner’s place.

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*. It’s all very romantic, but it’s also condescending. Because “woman” is so elevated, individual women become interchangeable. The actresses here are all beautiful, but after a while I had trouble telling them apart. The girl at the nightclub looked too much like Marcello’s fiancé Emma. And Nadia . . . who the hell is Nadia? Where did she come from?

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*. The movie’s poetry, its romanticism, is always being called into question, I think. The scene in the Trevi Fountain has become a romantic touchstone, with so many people climbing into it after the success of La Dolce Vita that guards had to be posted around it to prevent them. And it was even turned off and draped in black in honour of Mastroianni when he died in 1996. But when you think about it, just how romantic is that scene? Sylvia seems high, as though she might not even know where she is. And by this point Marcello appears to have figured out that she’s not all he’s built her up to be.

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*. Negative critics call the orgy scene boring. But (I imagine) any orgy is boring if you’re just watching. Sex is too. And this isn’t an “orgy” anyway. In fact, it’s kind of hard to figure out just what this group of people is up to. Did Fellini attend parties like this? Who does? Or did?
*. It’s a very structured film, built around a series of night/dawn transitions, but I don’t think the individual episodes work that well together. The paparazzi (to use the name this film gave them) are what hold it together. No matter what the subject matter is, they’re snapping pics.

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*. Another part of the structure that’s pretty obvious is the way the first and final scenes show Marcello unable to communicate with someone — the women sunbathers on the roof and then the young girl at the end. This is yet another link to one of Antonioni’s abiding concerns.
*. David Thomson hates it: “Nothing happens, except for flatulent set pieces, epic reaches of symbolism, and teary-eyed larger metaphors.” But why does he say the opening sequence has helicopters lifting an upside-down statue of Christ? The statue isn’t upside-down. David!
*. Thomson isn’t alone in considering it overrated. Indeed, he’s probably in the majority opinion today. The tide turned against La Dolce Vita fairly quickly. As Gary Giddins remarks in his liner essay for the Criterion DVD: “The phenomenon of La dolce vita was surprisingly short-lived.” It was a succès de scandale when it came out, but only ten years later people were wondering what the fuss was all about.
*. Nothing about it seems very shocking now. As the transvestite prophesies: “By 1965 there’ll be total depravity.” Compare the wild party here with the way we see the kids (mis)behaving in Spring Breakers!

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*. But I don’t think it’s the loss of that original shock value that bothers people the most. I think it more likely that we just find it a bit dull. It seems far too long for a movie, one that suggests a lot but that doesn’t really go anywhere.
*. In fact, it seems to go into reverse. It’s unclear how big a gap there is between the scene with Steiner’s wife at the bus depot and the house party. Given the structure of the rest of the film you expect it to be the night of the same day, but Marcello seems to have aged.
*. But he hasn’t just aged. He’s regressed into a second childhood. His coiffure may have streaks of grey, but this only makes him appear more foppish. And he behaves in a manner that’s surprisingly out of control and juvenile in comparison with everything that’s come before. Whatever chance he had at redemption has been lost.
*. I think that’s the “meaning” of the girl (Paola) he sees on the beach. They’ve drifted apart because she’s outgrown him and can no longer function as any kind of angelic muse. And so it’s back to the trashy whores with Marcello. His time is up.

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