Monthly Archives: August 2015

Shocker (1989)

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*. It seems at first like a movie that’s trying to do something a little different, but then you realize it’s just Wes Craven trying to launch a Nightmare on Elm Street clone franchise. Apparently he thought he didn’t make enough money out of Freddy so he came up with Horace Pinker.
*. Horace is a TV repairman. There’s a job you don’t see advertised very much any more. These days, if your set is under warranty they just give you a new one. If not, it’s junk. TVs are so cheap to produce nobody bothers fixing them.
*. As usual, Craven has come up with a relatively interesting plot (relative to ’80s horror films, that is). It’s full of ideas that were picked up by other, better movies. The body-hopping serial killer (Fallen), the evil spirit coming out of the TV set (Ringu), even the crazy stalker-TV repairman (Cable Guy). I don’t think Shocker invented any of these tropes, but it came to them early.

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*. The movie falls flat in nearly every department though. The writing is abysmal, the special effects anything but, and the performances laughable (except for Mitch Peleggi as Pinker, who has a wonderful lolling tongue). Over ten minutes of gore were cut to give it an R rating, but from what I’ve heard nothing that was cut would have made it a better movie.
*. There seems to have been some idea of making it into a critique of media violence, especially given the newsreel footage that rolls with the credits and the battlefields Jon and Pinker fight their way through at the end, but this isn’t developed at all. Instead the only message we get is an angry pro-death penalty one (that bleeding-heart lady doctor gets what’s coming to her!), which doesn’t even work out that well because the violence is so comic-book anyway.
*. I mean, is that a real prison uniform? Pinker looks like he’s a member of a Legoland pit crew.
*. And are we to assume that Pinker really is Jon’s father? Or is he just blowing smoke? If it is a legitimate back story, does it make any difference? Craven doesn’t appear very interested in their relation, and the audience is left hanging after Pinker’s final words.

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*. Jon’s dead girlfriend Alison is an insufferable Disney princess, even covered in blood. The lines she is forced to deliver are painful. And why on earth is Jon so terrified of her when he sees her in the lake (in his dream)? She’s been trying to help him all along, and has already saved his life twice!
*. Why would waving the remote around have the effect of tossing Pinker across the room? Or by that point should I even be asking questions like that?

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*. The final battle between Jon and Pinker on TV is pure slapstick, and really forces you to reconsider where the movie is coming from. It’s obviously meant to be comic, but it’s not a satire of anything in particular. The sense I have is that Craven just lost his head. It happens. Kubrick was originally going to end Dr. Strangelove with a pie fight. Wenders really did film an end for Wings of Desire with a pie fight, but left it out. In this case Craven either didn’t have anyone telling him just how silly his ending was going to be or didn’t care.
*. I really don’t have any idea what happens to Pinker. I don’t think he has been “killed” only because, like Freddy, I don’t think he can be. He was meant to be a franchise villain who would just keep popping up every time someone turned on a light switch or picked up a remote. But to the best of my knowledge he hasn’t been heard from since.

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Modern Times (1936)

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*. At one point, before Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin could have been considered the most famous person in the world, and his character of the Little Tramp “the most beloved film character of all time” (I’m quoting Saul Austerlitz, but it’s a conventional judgment). Since then his star has slipped somewhat. You’ll find plenty of cinephiles who think Buster Keaton had more talent, and others who will say that much of what made Chaplin popular hasn’t worn well. Tastes are fickle.
*. I incline toward the negative view. I think Keaton is funnier. I rarely laugh at Chaplin, and find his beloved Little Tramp annoying. I think mainly because he seems to be trying so hard to be liked. Especially in this film, when Chaplin must have known his act was wearing thin.
*. Silent comedy could be subtle and understated, but rarely was. (The only bit of understated humour here, and it’s a scene I really enjoy, is when Chaplin and the Mechanic stare at each other after their tool box is eaten by the machine. It may be my favourite shot in the entire movie.) But the problem with overstated, physical slapstick is that it gives the impression of working too much, At least that’s the sense I have here. There’s really nothing funny going on, which gives the proceedings an air of desperation. Chaplin’s Little Tramp (or Factory Worker, to give him his proper title in this film), is almost manic in his attempts to ingratiate himself.
*. Compounding this sense of a star and a film that’s trying too hard is the grotesque feminine parody of the Tramp’s fluttering eyelids and mincing gestures. In the finale his nonsense song is played out like a burlesque strip-tease, something that should be performed in drag.

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*. David Thomson: “The delicacy of Chaplin’s own features, the Italianate daintiness of his gestures, and above all, the mooning after misty emotional contentment are feminine characteristics as conceived by an exquisite man. . . . The history of bisexuality in the movies begins with Chaplin.”
*. And it gets worse. Note how Paulette Goddard is introduced as such a masculine figure, with her blade clenched between her teeth pirate-style while stealing bananas (!) at the dockyard. Even while her father was alive she was clearly the man of the household, just as later she will be the one who goes out and gets a good job (and a house) while Charlie is incarcerated, then sets him up as a waiter and singer/dancer in the same establishment she works in. Even her title, “A gamin,” is masculine (the feminine would be “gamine”).

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*. You may miss a point of etiquette when Goddard greets Chaplin after being released from jail the second time and they walk off down the street. They start with him walking next to the wall and her closer to the street. This was not considered appropriate at the time (and in some circles still isn’t today). The man is supposed to walk next to the street. It may be significant to their confusion of gender roles that she adopts the male position. He corrects her . . . and promptly walks into a lamppost.
*. Goddard is terrific here, and practically steals the show from her co-star in every scene they’re together. But again I’m put off by bad vibes. Chaplin would become Goddard’s second husband (both of them twice her age). She’s 24 here and Chaplin 47.
*. Perhaps we’re just more sensitive to this today, when we keep hearing stories about how women are regularly cast as romantically attached to actors twenty years or more older than they are. But I still get a Woody Allen feeling seeing Chaplin and Goddard together. And I also think there’s something dishonest about the presentation of the relationship between the factory worker and the gamin. On the one hand it’s innocent and asexual (they don’t just sleep in different beds but different buildings, and they both like playing with toys in the department store), but on the other it’s clearly meant as a romantic coupling, what with his imagination of their life of domestic bliss together (where the automatic cow actually works, unlike in The Tramp) and her “sleeping beauty in furs” moment. This is having it both ways, and it adds another level of creepiness.
*. Why is the factory foreman the only guy who doesn’t wear a shirt? He seems shockingly underdressed.

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*. Nothing dates like sentimentality. We look back upon the sentiments of earlier days with disbelief, and sometimes even disgust. Chaplin’s sentimentality was extreme I think even for the time. It’s hard not to compare him to Dickens, both for his status as a popular entertainer with a social conscience, and in psychobiographical terms. Peter Ackroyd, who has written biographies of both men, suggests “that Chaplin was Dickens’s true successor” and makes a good case. In brief: They shared the experience of their family’s fall from respectability and the effective loss of their parents, leading both to construct idealized (that is, sentimental) versions of respectable, bourgeois home life, which is something they both felt exiled from, or that had been stolen from them.

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*. The structure is episodic, built around a series of short set-piece sequences of the kind Chaplin started off in. There are some leitmotifs and themes, but there’s little in the way of story at work.
*. I’m not even sure this movie is really “about” anything. It sets up an already trite critique of industrialization in the factory sequences, has the usual little guy vs. the authorities material, some innocent socialism, and then an ending where our heroes pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and head down the road again. Toward what will surely be more of the same.
*. Is it political? David Denby: “It is impossible, of course, to find anything more than a very coy flirtation with radical politics in Modern Times. The film derives its power from its rejection of twentieth-century urban life, but that rejection is largely aesthetic and moral, and we are hard put to deduce any specific political line from it.”
*. This is worth unpacking just a bit. In the first place there is Chaplin, again, as the coy flirt, only this time in a context where we might not expect it and probably don’t look upon it as charitably. I think the word most often used of such flirts is “incorrigible.” They just can’t stop themselves.
*. But then there is the rejection of twentieth-century urban life. Perhaps in 1936 this was still a viable option, and one that could find some philosophical or even practical justification. Since then, however, the masses have embraced that life, despite its irrationality and even inhumanity. And basing his rejection on moral and aesthetic grounds points to the essentially nostalgic character of Chaplin’s thought. This is a movie that looks backward.

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*. Is the title then ironic? Perhaps more so than it seems. We think of that final shot of Chaplin and Goddard walking together down the road and it seems as though they are riding off into the sunset, leaving a world that has passed them by. But this sequence is supposed to be taking place at dawn, so they are really walking toward a rising sun. One senses a disconnection between what is literally happening on screen and the tone it is presented in.
*. It’s certainly not a bad film. The balletic routines are as polished as any ever filmed, and a number of scenes have gone on to become iconic. But it was already dated in 1936, and not just for being a rather queer sound-silent hybrid. Chaplin had a real interest in major issues of the day, but he saw them from a nineteenth-century point of view. He was older than he looked, and much, much older than he wanted to be seen as being.

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Drag Me to Hell (2009)

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*. Drag Me to Hell. Is that a terrible title for a movie, or does is it work because it’s so bad it sticks in your head?
*. I’m not sure. I do know that there’s almost no chance I would have bothered with this one but for my hearing that it was a re-working of the 1957 Jacques Tourneur classic Night of the Demon. I signed up for that.
*. It’s 2009, so the subprime mortgage crisis has just hit. This makes the incident that gets the plot rolling seem timely (the gypsy being evicted from her home by the bank). But despite this the economy must be doing fine. Our heroes are a pair of twenty-somethings: he’s a professor of psychology and she’s just made assistant bank manger. Despite her poor rural roots, she lives, alone, in a hilltop mansion. Uh-huh.
*. It’s 2009, so things are speeding up. In the M. R. James story “Casting the Runes” the curse would take effect in three months. In Night of the Demon it was down to two weeks. Here, Christine is given three days.
*. Sam Raimi must have seemed a good fit for the material. He’s known for his turns at comic horror, and the humour of Night of the Demon is often underappreciated. Here, however, the laughs are quite a bit broader. There’s a talking goat, and even some Bugs Bunny stuff that makes use of rope, a pulley, and an anvil suspended from the ceiling.
*. There also seems to be a running gag revolving around the film’s oral fixation. Throughout the movie we see things either spewing out of people mouths or being jammed into them. I honestly lost track out of how many times this occurs, and I’m not sure if it had any larger point.
*. So now the psychiatrist who doesn’t believe all this occult mumbo-jumbo isn’t the target of the demon but is instead the boyfriend. Boo! Another threatened cutie with an otherwise perfect boyfriend who can only try to understand her. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, like Dana Andrews, he’d been the one being hunted? Alas, Justin Long is no Dana Andrews.
*. You never see CPR being done properly in a movie, but here it’s laughable when Rham Jas tries to revive Shaun San Dina. He just sort of leans on her shoulder. I don’t know what good that’s supposed to do.

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*. I get the sense of a movie made in haste. Some of the effects are poor, and there are huge continuity errors throughout. Perhaps the worst is when the gypsy’s corpse vomits (CGI) embalming fluid all over Christine, only to have her pop back up a second later without any sign of it on her.
*. The ending bothers people because the moral calculus doesn’t balance. Christine is a decent person and she doesn’t “deserve” her sticky end. It’s nice that we still carry such beliefs into a film like this, but to be honest by the time things got to the train station I didn’t care any more.
*. I was more upset that the ending didn’t make sense. Shouldn’t Christina have been dead before then? Didn’t everyone at the train station see her being dragged to hell? Why didn’t the train fall into hell?
*. That said, I did like how they took seriously the question we’re left with at the end of Ringu/The Ring: who do you pass the curse along to? Is it right to pick on the old man who doesn’t look like he has much time left? Isn’t the point here that you’re damning the victim to an eternity in hell? Why would it matter then if they’re at death’s door?
*. I wonder what the point of the introduction is. We never find out what happens to the boy, and Shaun San Dina’s lifelong mission to get him back is snuffed out later.
*. The Evil Dead came out nearly thirty years earlier, but how much has Sam Raimi developed since then? He still seems stuck in comic book mode, and the séance scene here is almost like a replay of something from that cabin in the woods. Shouldn’t Raimi have moved on? A Simple Plan is seeming more and more like a one off.
*. You can’t argue with success though. For some reason this did good box office, and, even more inexplicably, scored well with critics. I find it sloppy, repetitive, and unoriginal, but that’s just one vote.

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Night of the Demon (1957)

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*. I’ll start with The Question: should they have shown the demon or not?
*. There were arguments over this right from the beginning. Director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett didn’t want to show it (in Tourneur’s case I don’t know if he got this reticence from Val Lewton, or if it was the other way around). Producer Hal E. Chester, however, had other ideas, and planned on showing the demon right from the start.
*. Here’s my opinion: they definitely should not have shown it right away, killing Professor Harrington. That was tipping their hand far too early in the film, erasing any seed of doubt in the audience and giving us too concrete a picture of what our heroes would be up against. Just the sinister lit smoke effects in the woods and then some reaction shots from Harrington would have been more effective.
*. At the end? That’s harder to say. I think it depends on what you think of the demon. If you think he’s scary, then sure. If you think he looks like a crazy muppet on the rampage, then no. I fall somewhere in between. From a distance I think he looks pretty good, especially with the way he moves coming out of the cloud of smoke. I would have left those shots in — and, let’s face it, they were going to have to show something. But the close-ups of his face make him look silly and I would have avoided those.
*. Dana “All scientists don’t wear thick glasses” Andrews was pretty bold casting as a professor of parapsychology. But the gamble pays off: he looks the part of a no-nonsense mythbuster, and we can be sure that if he’s starting to feel a bit of doubt then we really do need to be worried.

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*. The movie is all but stolen though by Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Karswell. What makes a great villain? Personality. An articulate, eccentric ego. Karswell wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie: a man of wealth and taste, arrogant and voluble, but not without some odd idiosyncrasies, in particular his relationship with this mother. Is he gay? Or Gacy? I think it’s a fair question to ask only because of the Hitchcock connection.

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*. The screenplay took its premise (and little else) from the M. R. James story “Casting the Runes.” It was a project dear to the heart of long-time Hitchcock writer Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, etc.). Danny Peary catalogued the similar themes and motifs to those found in Hitchock’s oeuvre, but doesn’t emphasize what stands out the most for me: the juxtaposition of suspense and horror with macabre and incongruous humour.
*. There’s a lot of funny stuff in this movie, both of the ha-ha and funny-weird variety. In the latter category I’d put the appearance of Karswell as a magician-clown complete with big nose and the seance with Mr. Meek speaking in the little girl’s voice. That whole seance sequence is a masterpiece of shifting tones, especially with the invocation of the spirits with a silly sing-along. In the category of just plain funny I have to put the ending, which also brilliantly adjusts its tone as Andrews tries to palm the runes off on Karswell, who isn’t having any of it. To end such a suspenseful film with this hilarious bit of delicate social pantomime was genius. Then Karswell’s pursuit of the runes as they’re blown down the track is another bit of comic business with wonderfully threatening overtones.
*. I wonder if that game of rune tag had any influence on Ringu. Probably not, though it’s not a common premise: the curse that has to be passed along in order to save the original victim, and the countdown to the day when the demon will appear and the curse will be enacted.

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*. There are a few scratchings, but I don’t believe there are any actual runes carved into the rocks at Stonehenge. What’s interesting is the way Holden can just walk up to them. You could do that in 1957. And indeed you could still do that in the 1970s, when I visited them. Now the site is overgrown with tourist administration and you can’t get too close to the stones. When I was a kid you could climb all over them if you wanted to.
*. Hats off to whoever came up with the creaking sound effect that suggests the presence of the demon, building a sense of creeping dread that foreshadows its arrival. Even the hallway in Holden’s hotel seems a threatening place when we hear it, especially combined with that deep-focus emptiness.

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*. This movie was released in the U.S. under the title Curse of the Demon, but with some ten minutes cut out (mainly the trip to Hobart’s farm). The reason they changed the title, according to Bennett, was that they didn’t want it to be confused with The Night of the Iguana. Which is truly incredible.
*. Bennett really wanted to direct the film too, but Tourneur was a good choice, as this is very much a Lewtonesque project. Like Lewton’s horror films from the ’40s it’s a bit sui generis, which fits the source material. M. R. James is one of the most famous horror authors of the twentieth century, but few of his works have been made into films aside from this one, which was (sort of) picked up again by Sam Raimi in Drag Me to Hell (2009). This is odd given how adaptable James would seem to be. In any event, I can think of few other horror film that so successfully juggle different moods while capturing a slowly growing sense of otherworldly dread.

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Horrible Bosses (2011)

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*. Timing is everything in comedy. That’s true not just when it comes to delivering lines but for movies hitting audiences at the right cultural moment.
*. The script for this one had been passed over in 2005, though it had sold for six figures. That’s Hollywood. But it kept kicking around, waiting for an opening. That opening came with the rise of the “bro comedy” in the TV series Entourage (2004-2011) and films like The Hangover (2009), and the subprime mortgage meltdown making everyone feel a bit more anxious. The financial crisis gives us Kenny Sommerfeld here, a fellow who used to work at Lehman Brothers but who now sells handjobs.
*. As Roger Ebert observed: “The movie causes particularly painful twinges at this moment in American history when employees are in a weak position and their bosses know it.” So . . . the time was right.
*. The “weak position” employees feel themselves in is underscored by that ultimate representation of authority, the private desk. This is used to mark the status of all the bosses, as well as Motherfucker Jones and the police. Our loser heroes are sequentially and collectively arrayed and humiliated before them, as though being arraigned at some adult tribunal. Meanwhile, we never see them at desks of their own.

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*. The “bro comedy” became its own genre during these years. Our heroes are a grown-up gang of highschool pals, except they haven’t really grown up. Only Dale here is contemplating marriage, and they all share a sense of threatened sexuality. Nick and Kurt argue over who would be most “rapeable” in prison. Dale is upset when Jennifer Aniston suggests that he sounds a little bit “faggot” (despite the fact that he’s engaged). Kurt is embarassed on the shopping expedition when he finds himself staring at a man’s ass.
*. The humour arises from the way these child-men are so useless at anything that is not their job. Nick seems to have done well in the highly competitive world of finance. Kurt is a responsible and presumably competent accountant. Dale is a qualified dental assistant. But outside the office they’re pretty much clueless. They don’t belong in the real world. Or the adult world. They still need supervision, or someone taking care of them.
*. Jason Bateman’s Nick come closest to filling this role, though he’s still out of his depth when it comes to the murder plot. This also fits in with his other role in the film, which is to be the straight man in a world where everyone around him is either insane or incredibly stupid. He had the same duty in the TV series Arrested Development, so he has the part down.
*. This is the basic set-up for a lot of the comedy of this period. It works well with improvisation because all the actors have to do is stay in character, keep a straight face, and absurdity will naturally result.
*. The three horrible bosses are the real stars of the show, since they are the most extreme types, with Colin Farrell being the most interesting because he’s cast against his more familiar image (I almost didn’t recognize him at first).
*. Sexual harassment by a female boss. It’s a tricky place to go, not because of any politically correct taboo being broken (hey! would we be laughing at this if it were a guy?) but because it’s so hard to find the right note of humour in the situation. Would it be funnier if Aniston’s character was less attractive? A cougar? Obese? Or would that be sexist? It’s an awkward part, and unfortunately Aniston, who sells it well, doesn’t have a lot of good lines to work with.
*. But then this isn’t a well written movie. It works, when it does, just by giving familiar situations that extra comic turn of the screw. The end credits are interspersed with bloopers and outtakes. They’re just as funny as the rest of the movie, and not out of place.

The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

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*. This is often considered to be the first surrealist film. It’s a fair claim as the imagery has that flavour, it’s based on a scenario by Antonin Artaud (though he was apparently upset or disapproved at what Germaine Dulac did with it), and came out a year ahead of Un Chien Andalou. So then . . . what is a surrealist film?
*. Surrealism speaks in the language of dreams. People always want to interpret dreams because they seem as being full of personal significance. But the science on dreams is still cloudy and we’re still not sure what they’re for or what they mean. Is there a collective unconscious filled with universal archetypes corresponding to something in a common human nature? Or are the images totally random and individual?
*. Some surrealists insisted that their images had no meaning, but I think they were kidding themselves. Nevertheless, they were honestly sceptical of the whole project of interpretation.

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*. And so a door opens and the Clergyman is revealed sitting at a table pouring fluid from a giant seashell into beakers. He then breaks the beakers. This action is repeated. It’s not even clear if it is a consecutive action, filling one beaker after another, or if we’re seeing the same action repeated in an endless loop. The number of beakers on the table in front of him always seems to remain the same, and the pile of smashed glass on the ground beside him isn’t growing.
*. This is how I read the passage: We are driven to interpret our experience of reality, just like that man doing his bizarre experiment. But it’s an absurd activity that doesn’t really take us anywhere: what we get out of our perceptions is what we put into them. Like the Clergyman, we’re only pouring old wine into new bottles. Then the bottles (the experiences) are gone and we do it again. I’ve heard it suggested that this is all our dreaming amounts to: a way of keeping our brains busy at some basic level while our bodies rest.
*. Put another way: Some seashells seem to make a sound like the ocean when you hold them up to your ear. It’s not the ocean, but amplified background noise, including the sound of your own blood flowing. That’s the Clergyman’s blood he’s pouring, or that he’s dreaming of pouring, into those beakers, in an act symbolic of circulation. Then the General comes in and breaks his heart.

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*. There’s usually some sexual, possibly Freudian, angle thrown onto this film. I’m not sure it’s that important. What makes the Clergyman mad at the General doesn’t seem to be anything sexual. The General smashes, or symbolically executes, his seashell, and then usurps his function at the confessional. The Clergyman has to lash out, and does so physically in the long strangulation attempt.
*. Enter the General’s Woman. The Clergyman seems angry at her more than aroused. Even her partial disrobing is violent more than erotic. Later he will imagine strangling her in much the same way as he tried to throttle the General. Is she an object of desire? We’re used to thinking of priests as being tortured cases of repression, but that’s not a necessary reading of what’s going on here.
*. I will confess I find something very sexual about the room full of fetish maids fluffing the Clergyman when he is turned into an objet d’art. But perhaps that’s just projection again.

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*. Along with sex, another constant with surrealism is its antagonism toward authority and its desire to tear down systems and symbols of order and hierarchy. Breaking things is a leitmotif here and if you want to see that as political I don’t think you’d be off course. The British Board of Film Censors famously reported that while the film was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” I don’t think they were referring to the bare breasts. Instead, the presentation of a violent, unhinged clergyman, and the lack of respect shown toward a military figure were probably more upsetting.
*. Throw in the maids and you have a lot of uniforms in this short film. This, along with their movement, makes the characters seem almost puppet-like. The Clergyman is the only one who doesn’t act like an automaton, even though his stiff, upright running style suggests strings being pulled.

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*. The less clear the meaning, the more work the score has to do. I think I’ve seen this film with three different accompaniments and it seemed quite a different picture each time. I like the film a lot more or a lot less depending on the score, and the music definitely has a role in interpreting the images and supplying a kind of narrative.
*. Indeed, the entire emotional register of the film is set by the score. Is the scene of the Clergyman crawling in the street comic, or creepy? What about the room full of maids? Or the General floating like a balloon? You can read each of these as sinister, threatening, or slapstick.
*. This, in turn, is another indication of how fluid the game of interpretation is. A simple musical cue can change it from horror to comedy.
*. I’d also add that it’s a silent film that’s worth watching with no sound. This leads to yet another kind of experience. One of the first things you’ll note is how much rhythm the images have in their juxtaposition and transitioning. Look at how the smoke billows over the pile of broken glass like a pulse.
*. In general, I think the special visual effects are poor, even for this period. Dulac had an eye, but you can tell she wasn’t always getting what she wanted on screen. Though I’ll admit there are also moments when you wonder if some of the shortfalls are deliberate, a way of drawing attention to their own artifice.

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*. It has the abrupt, fragmented rhythm that is characteristic of surrealism (since dreams don’t follow any kind of logical continuity), but there are at least two moments that last: the fracturing face of the General and the Clergyman crawling through the streets. Once seen, they are hard to forget.
*. But again, if you try and ask what either of those scenes “means” you’re not going to come up with much. Surrealism was the most liberating of artistic movements, and the most limited. Like therapy, it’s something you have to work at. And it doesn’t always produce results.

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A Simple Plan (1998)

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*. It’s actually very hard to represent stupid characters convincingly. The people we meet in A Simple Plan are all of limited intelligence. But — and this is the important point — nobody is stupid all the time, or stupid in every way.
*. It looks cold out. Where are we? Wisconsin? Minnesota? Anywhere near Fargo? And is that William Macy following up on his crazy kidnapping plan with an even more ridiculous and ultimately futile scheme to impersonate an FBI agent in order to get his stolen money back?
*. I feel like I should like this movie more, but then I feel the same way about Fargo, which seems to have been its inspiration. Maybe Bill Paxton just can’t carry the lead role of Hank. Maybe, despite a fine performance, I just don’t buy Thornton’s Jacob. Maybe the screenplay is too obvious and slow, building up to a forced conclusion with a stilted moral pronouncement.
*. The real moral of the story: learn to keep a secret. Everyone in this movie is undone because they talk too much. Silence would have been golden.
*. Bridget Fonda’s beautiful and rodent-faced Sarah steals the show. She is blank, evil, scheming and dopey. She’s so good, I wish the movie had given her more to do. She’s an icon here of the poison of dissatisfaction: the real American nightmare.
*. The plot lost me when it lost its simplicity and introduced the incredible plot twist involving Baxter. That part made no sense at all.
*. I like the photography, but do they go to the well too often with the shots of the wintry farm and the crows in the trees? I think so. But simplicity and understatement have always been a hard sell at the movies. The money complicates things.

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Fargo (1996)

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*. Twenty years ago it was hailed as an instant American classic, a status achieved only by a handful of contemporary films (Blue Velvet, Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction). It’s hard to overstate the critical response. Roger Ebert immediately announced it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen,” and that was not much of a deviation from the norm.
*. I liked it when it came out too, but it has slipped a bit on subsequent re-viewings. The local-yokel humour in particular is way overdrawn, and the plot improbable. Indeed, the Coens added the bogus “based on a true story” disclaimer just so people would have an easier time believing the otherwise unlikely events.

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*. But is the plot that unlikely? Stupid, yes. Incredibly stupid. But most criminals are stupid people. It’s not that surprising that a loser like Jerry doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Even his legitimate business schemes are baffling. It’s no wonder his father-in-law and Stan Grossman can’t understand what he’s going on about when he tries to explain them. I couldn’t either.
*. On the DVD commentary, director of photography Roger Deakins talks about how insistent the Coens were that there be traffic in the window behind Jerry in his office. The joke, I take it, is that we see vehicles seeming to pass back and forth through Jerry’s empty head.

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*. Where the improbability, and other difficulties I have with the movie, come in is with the stupidity of everyone else. Let’s face it, Marge isn’t that sharp either. She starts off drawing some good deductions from the footprints in the snow at the crime scene, but no mention is made of the fact that her traipsing through them wrecks the evidence.
*. Aside from that, and despite being the brains of the Brainerd P.D., she does almost nothing to crack the case. Her one pertinent insight is to recognize that DLR on a license plate refers to a dealer. Meanwhile, Officer Olson is the one who providentially hears the report of a strange guy living by Moose Lake, and Jerry simply disintegrates in the face of Marge’s non-threatening (and apparently unsuspicious) questioning, essentially giving himself up.
*. Marge’s niceness and innocence makes her good at handling people, but she’s not very good at reading them. She can deal with Mike Yanagita, but is surprised to later find out that he was a bullshitter. And while she can get upset at Jerry being “snippy” with her, she seems never to twig to all the lies he’s telling her until he finally pulls a runner (which takes her by surprise).

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*. Ebert has another way of looking at Marge. He sees her as “very smart,” and that she “uses folksy small-town cheerfulness as a tool for prying criminals loose from their secrets.” I don’t think it’s as conscious a process as that, and even if it were, it doesn’t work. She gets nowhere with Shep Proudfoot, and Jerry falls apart due to circumstances she’s totally unaware of. I also don’t agree with Ebert that the meeting with Mike Yamagita and the subsequent revelation that he was lying to her is “the wake-up call that leads back to Jerry’s desk.” When she returns to see Jerry she’s still just trying to track down the missing car.
*. I don’t want to run Marge down too much, but this is a comedy and isn’t her analogue closer to Inspector Clouseau than a more cerebral detective? Even her interviews with Jerry, which are the best part of the movie, play like a moronic parody of similar scenes from other movies.

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*. And why is no one aside from Marge much interested in a triple homicide involving a police officer in Brainerd? You never see or hear of anyone else looking into it. When she arrives at the crime scene and asks where everybody is the only explanation she’s given is that “it’s cold.” Oh.

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*. Fargo? None of the film was shot in Fargo, and I think only the opening scene was actually supposed to take place there. The title was packaging. The Coens knew that a movie titled Brainerd wasn’t going to work.

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*. What still holds up after twenty years? William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard. There’s something pathetic and infantile about Jerry. His voice cracks, his strongest ejaculation is “darn tootin’!”, and he has a thing for breaking into impotent dances of fury. His button-eyed hang-dog is the face of American failure, the child-man risen to the level of his inadequacy.
*. Most of all, however, I still delight in the script. All those catch phrases and words aren’t just filler but take on different shades of meaning in context. When someone says “yah” it’s not even clear if they’re agreeing with you.
*. It fits that Jerry is a car salesman because so much of the dialogue is business-speak. What people say to each other has to be read and strained over like the lines on a contract. Jerry’s father-in-law says that his daughter and grandson will be financially provided for. He says nothing about Jerry, and his look carries the point. Jerry really isn’t family, at least in his book. He’s been left out of the deal.
*. If it isn’t in writing, it’s not a guarantee. Shep Proudfoot operates, and talks, the same way, underlining that he does not “vouch” for Grimsrud’s accomplice. In the exchange between Jerry and GMAC financing he keeps trying to substitute “fax” for “send,” but they are having none of it. When Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter ups the stakes because “blood has been shed” he invokes “force majeure” and “acts of God.”
*. I don’t like the ending much at all. Marge can’t understand Grimsrud’s actions since she assumes it was all for the money. But she’s mistaken: Grimsrud is a psychopath. He didn’t kill Mrs. Lundegaard for money but because she was making too much noise, and interfering with his TV watching.
*. It’s a very real world in this respect. People don’t behave rationally, even when they think they are. They act the way they do out of routine, because they are too stupid to understand what’s in their own best interests, or because they’re crazy or desperate.

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*. My other problem with the ending is the nagging sense I have that the movie doesn’t really believe in its pat little moral lesson, with Marge and Norm snuggling together in the glow of their television set, affirming the ultimate victory of their homespun domestic virtues. Are these Hollywood values triumphing over the world’s evil? Are they values that the Coen brothers care about? I don’t get that impression, which is something that colours how I see the film.

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*. Yes, the Coens are natives of Minnesota. But not, I think, this Minnesota (they were raised in the ‘burbs of Minneapolis and their parents were university professors). I think this is why the locals seem so much like aliens, the icy landscapes like another planet. A planet we’re looking down on.
*. Is it a great movie? Maybe the label “American classic” is better applied. It’s lasted for twenty years now, seemingly frozen in time as well as place since there is little that dates it. And yet distance does make it all seem smaller.

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