Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Henry Mancini's Sex Panther

There isn't a whole lot to love about the new iteration of The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin, although I will cop to a bizarre and completely inexplicable fascination with the scene where Martin's Inspector Jacques Clouseau struggles to pronounce the word hamburger ("Der bur-guh!"). And I'll always love the film for providing me with the name of my fantasy baseball team for the 2006 season. But otherwise: garbage (pronounced with the soft 'g' sound so it comes out all French and classy).

But despite the overall crapuosity of the film, there is one truly transcendant moment and it is animated opening credits where we get to hear the familiar strings and horns of Henry Mancini's unforgettable theme song. You know the one: finger snaps, sleazy sax, and plenty of da-dum dah-dummmmmms.

That this singular moment of pure movie bliss is swiped wholesale from a movie some forty-years old indicates the level of originality of Shawn Levy's Panther. And in much of the rest of the film, Mancini's magic is diluted with completely unnecessary (and occasionally embarrassing) wakka-cha-wakka razzmatazz. Cause, you know, Martin is totally hip and contemporary and stuff (that's why he's chilling with Beyonce instead of Capucine). But in those opening credits, where Mancini's original composition is presented with faithfully jazzy verve, you get a sense of what a good composer can contribute to a bad movie.

Complainers always say they don't make them like they used to. Well they do and they don't: they used to make Pink Panther movies and, as we can see, they still do (at one point, they used to make them with Roberto Benigni, so some things weren't better back in the day). But they used to make movies with remarkable, unforgettable scores, and that doesn't really happen very much lately. When was the last time a new movie offered a really powerful and memorable musical moment? Titanic's coming to mind, but that was a song, not an instrumental, and that was bad, not good.

So kudos to the long dead Henry Mancini for livening up an otherwise uninspiring little comedy. As for the fantasy baseball team, I expect big things from Dr. Knockers' Big-Time Little All-Stars in the upcoming season.

Monday, February 27, 2006

You Haven't Got the Stugaaaats

While waiting for your long-denied prisonbreak fix, check these out. Perhaps the greatest thing ever.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Be the First to See What you See as you See It

I've just returned from a venture overseas chock full of cinematic thrills, including seeing Anthony Mann's superb The Tall Target at the Cinematheque Francaise. But the most revelatory discovery were the works Runa Islam presented in Venice. OK, so not entirely revelatory, since I saw Be The First to See What You See As You See It this past summer in the Venice Biennial and loved it, but in person she gave a fascinating glimpse behind the gestation of the work. She also showed Scale, a work intended for two screens, but still impressive with its impeccable framing.

Be the First... is a simple film, highly structural. It consists of close-ups of various pieces of china displayed as if for auction on white pedestals in a white industrial space. The performer above inspects and handles them, and then slowly tips them off the pedestals, smashing all of them. The destruction occurs in super slo-mo, their descent sometimes inexplicably against a black background. And that's it.

So, it's simple. But it's simplicity lends it clarity - it intends to show the materiality of objects - materiality we overlook in our everyday life, these objects are white noise in our perceptual field until they have some use for us. Islam conveys this intense physicality of objects first through the performer, then through slow motion. The two inspirations for this work, Islam claimed, were Robert Bresson's Notes on Cinematography and an early slow motion test film she discovered at the Imperial War Library in London. The performer aims to be one Bresson's models, simply being, not acting but relating to the objects instinctually. She handles them delicately, inspecting their texture and shape, until she slowly pushes them off the pedestal. Touch is emphasized, play of fingers on porcelain. Here the film slows, into moments of intense anticipation, as the porcelain cups and saucers rivet our attention. These cheap antiques, restored in value by being displayed as if at auction, now become agents of suspense, their descent slowed to a deliciously tense 100 frames per second. Then, repeat. The suspension of time along with the ascetic, rigorous compositions, recall Resnais, as Martin Herbert writes in a recent Artforum article.

It's a formally beautiful work as well, lovingly photographed on 16mm with a flawless structure, cutting from long to mid to close up with Golden Era Hollywood grace. Video art in general is sloppily filmed and conceptually muddy, ignorant of film style and usually of the world outside their circumscribed art-world boundaries. But here we have something intensively sweated over and deeply concerned with how we interact with the world. It's refreshing. Bill Viola's Five Angels for the Millenium, which I saw at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is another conceptually simple and brilliant work. This one being that nature is beautiful, and we should look at it more often. Five screens of unearthly beauty - four detailing a man falling into water, one of the sun reflecting off it. I could have stayed there for days. Transcendent, I say!

Her other work, Scale, recreates the bar from Mike Hodges' Get Carter in one frame, with invented action concerning two elderly patrons and the meticulous work of two waiters, while in the other a scale model of the building is photographed, and of course we don't know it's a model until a ways into it. Both frames swap images across the work. The way originally installed, these two frames were projected on a large screen, then, on a separate small screen a few feet in front, ran a clip from the original scene from the film. It was set up so it eclipsed the larger frame. You had to choose which one to watch, imitation or original.

I only saw the large-screen portion, but by itself it's an impressive work, again with a remarkable attention to detail concerning objects - the waiters cleaning and ordering glasses, setting up tables, vacuuming the floor. It's banal work made fascinating by the meticulous details. Then there are close up of elderly gents, Caine stand-ins, I suppose, ordering food and engaging in a silent argument of some sort. All the while the architecture is broken down in the other frame. I still haven't grasped the conceptual subtleties of this one, I only saw it once, and not in its intended fashion, but it displays her stylistic facility and brilliant self-reflexivity.

She's also quite pretty and ate a whole bowl of crisps. Oh, and she was born in Bangladesh and lives in London.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The highs and lows of super-heroic imagery

Thanks to our commenter Jesse, I found this little ditty:

Someone Spidey loves is totally dying in that movie. What a great poster. As opposed to this piece of crap:

When did Wolverine join Nickelback? He's been wrong, he's been down, to the bottom of every bottle. And is he taking a dump in a drum of toxic chemicals? Blech. And it's almost too easy making fun of this one.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

I love movies because...

...of shots like these. It starts here:

And then, without a cut goes here:



Then finally:

These sequence of images is taken from a single shot in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings. I'm not a big Hawks nut (like our paisan R. Emmet), I'd rather watch Wilder's The Front Page than his His Girl Friday anyday. But you have to admire the gutsy filmmaking on display in a shot like that. Angels is about a society of South American airplane pilots, who brave harsh elements with bad equipment to run important tasks like delivering mail to remote areas. A lot of the movie's most dangerous flight footage is accomplished with models and rear-projection, but in this sequence, when a new pilot — who we need to know is very, very good — is given an assignment of flying the local doctor to someone in desperate need of his attention, there are no tricks are special effects deployed. The location is situation on top of a cliff, and so the pilot judges the the landing by flying over the cliff, then flying around it back to the other side in order to land as close to the edge as possible. In the shot shown above (and above and above and above) Hawks' camera follows a real plane perform this real task without a single cut. We can see that this looks very brave, very difficult, and very borderline stupid. But no matter how many times during the rest of the movie we see a chincy model or a phony rear-projection screen, we never for a second doubt the bravery of these pilots, or the seriousness of their task.

Those captures, by the way, are taken from the disc included in the awesome new Cary Grant Box Set which also includes His Girl Friday, The Talk of the Town, Holiday, and perhaps best of all, The Awful Truth.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Poster Posting: The Hills Have Eyes

Hopping into the subway over the weekend, this image caught my eye:

The Hills Have Eyes is a remake of the 1977 Wes Craven horror film of the same name. I have not seen it, but according to all descriptions, the film is about a family stranded in the deserted, pitted "against a clan of inbred cannibals." The remake's trailer makes it clear that, inbred and cannibalistic as they may be, they are also horrifically mutated by nuclear fallout.

Great, now that we've got that squared away, let's take a look at that poster. In it, the pasty paw of an unseen assailant — presumably a fallout-laden inbred cannibal — is holding down his victim. Presumably, the mutant cannibal (or "mutannibal," if you prefer) has something weighty and blunt in his unseen hand, and he's planning to use it to beat the ever-loving crap out of her.

It's a tad misogynistic but, whatever, it's a horror movie and that's par for the course. What caught my eye wasn't the pose, it was the girl. Look at her face again: smooth and surprisingly docile for someone whose death is seemingly seconds away. This woman is way too calm for someone face-to-face with a horribly-mutated killer. For purposes of comparison, look at the expression on the face of this woman in a still from the film:

See, now that's proper terror. That's what it looks like to be assailed by mutannibals! And I should know.

So why the placid face in the poster? Call me crazy, but I have to see it as a classic case of having your horror cake and eating your sex too. Horror movies have to be scary, but they have to be sexy too. I would have to guess that this is a marketer's attempt to kill both birds with one poorly-aimed stone. Since you can't very well give a come hither scare to a violent albino psychopath (well, I suppose, certain unseemly people could, but not the types in a major motion picture), the best you can do is to look like you don't care one way or the other; like being held down and made to beg for your life is just another day in the office.

Then again, I'm sure this poster was selected out of dozens of prototypes, and vetted through focus groups in malls around the country, whose opinions are much more important than mine. I'd love to be a fly on the wall of those discussions — "Well we like the man holding the woman down to bludgeon her to death, but does the woman have to look so scared about it?"

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Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 8

Pete L'Official on Eight Below:

Sidekick Jason Biggs—still best known for lustily penetrating a tinful of freshly baked Americana—thankfully leaves the innocence of all welcoming Antarctic snowbanks intact. Alas, it's too wide a credibility crevasse for the audience to leap: from pie-poker to subzero cartographer.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Siskel & Ebert & The Movies & Put Downs

In our continuing series of hilarious Siskel & Ebert promo outtakes brought to our attention by The Voice's Ed Park, here's another good one. This time, they seem to be having more fun; their insults are less mean and more playful, but they also seem to be a lot more concerned with putting each other down than actually advertising their show. And they're not very good at it!

Think back to childhood. Did you ever get insulted by someone and then try to come back with a better insult and fail miserably? Like someone would say (and this is purely hypothetical and in no way reflects from my actual life...maybe...), "Matt Singer, you are a booger flinger!" and you would come back with, "No it is YOU who is the one... who... throws... boogers... you... booger thrower! You're a booger thrower! And you smell. Poop breath."

Siskel and Ebert are like those two bickering children if they were both completely incapable of a really juicy insult (i.e. they were both me). Here's my favorite exchange (though you should still click over and hear the whole thing):

Ebert: You know that for Gene speech is a second language?

Siskel: Roger's...uh...first language is..."Yes I'll have apple pie with my order!"

If I had to take a guess, I'd say the whole argument stems from unspoken hostility over the fact that they both showed up to work wearing the same sweater vest.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

The best Idol ain't on Fox

I can't say enough good things about The Fallen Idol, which is playing through next week at New York's Film Forum. It got great reviews — our man Hoberman, the J-Hoba, called it superior to The Third Man in The Voice — so expectations were high. But they were all met and more so.

If I had my druthers I'd just put up some images from the film and describe for you the sheer, simple genius of Carol Reed's camerawork (coincidentally, if I really had my druthers the phrase "if I had my druthers..." would be used a lot more frequently in casual conversation). But I couldn't find any pictures that would illustrate any of the best sequences. So I will do my best without visual aids.

The film is based on a Graham Greene story, but it may as well be based on a play: it is staged almost entirely on a single, multi-story set, a foreign embassy in London where a precocious young boy named Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) lives with his ambassador father (mother's absence is a point of contention throughout the film). Papa leaves for the weekend, and the boy is left in the care of the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his unimaginably cold wife (Sonia Dresdel, who can give Mrs. Danvers a run for her money) who are having, shall we say, marital difficulties.

It is important to note that The Fallen Idol takes place entirely on one set because the film doesn't feel like it takes place on one set. Reed's camera isn't wildly flashly, but it is uncommonly nimble, gliding over bannisters, hiding beneath tables, following a most important paper airplane on its impossibly slow (and deliciously suspenseful) descent toward the waiting feet of an unsuspecting policeman.

It is rare that the sheer compositional beauty of a basic close-up can bring a smile to my face, but one in The Fallen Idol did. To give a little away, a death has taken place in the embassy over the course of the weekend. The victim slipped and fell after she leaned on a window and it gave way and pushed her off a ledge to the stairs below in a such a way that makes it seem as though she was pushed. One of the main characters is a suspect, but we know he is innocent. We also know how the victim fell and he does not. After trying to give the police a cock and bull story of Tristram Shandyian proportions, he relents and tells them the truth as best he knows it: an argument at the top of the stairs, he left, he heard a scream, he came running, bada bing bada boom, the lady was dead at the foot of the stairs. The police tell him the story does not jive because the forensic evidence indicates that she did not fall, she was pushed. Our innocent but guilty-looking suspect pleads his case, desperately trying to think his way out of suspicion, in a shot that Reed stages at the top of the stairs so that the murderous window sits, silently and almost mockingly, just over the suspect's left shoulder. The audience wants to scream "YOU ARE INNOCENT! LOOK AT THE BLOODY WINDOW! IT'S STILL AJAR YOU BOOB!"

As you can see, much of The Fallen Idol's ample delights come from Reed's careful negotiation of the flow of information between characters and the audience. Primarily, he does so by telling the vast majority of the film from little Phillipe's perspective, which might make the film sound a bit like an artsy British Home Alone, and perhaps it would have taken on such a quality if not for the remarkably honest performance of Henrey in the lead. His coy stares and instinctive answers to police questioning strike such a rich chord of truth (not to mention humor; one of the few things the reviews I read left out was just how dryly funny the movie can be at times) that I was absolutely flabbergasted. As moviegoing adults we are sort of insulated from cuteness, particularly in children and small woodland creatures. We know not to be seduced by their hollow charms. But Henrey is utterly disarming and totally lovable. He doesn't seem like a child actor acting childish, he seems like a child being a child.

I could ramble on and on and on, drunk as I am on movie love, but it would really work much better with the pictures. Then we could explore Reed's motif of vertical bars (the stair railings, the zoo Phillipe visits, even a pattern on a blanket in a key scene), or discuss the scene where a terrified Phillipe runs through the nightime London streets in a sequence that feels, as our own James Crawford astutely observed, "like a dry-run for The Third Man," or show some of the great subjective camera work and canted angles that put the audience completely, helplessly in Reed's control. When the DVD comes out we'll do this all again with some hot screengrab action. But if you are within spitting distance of Film Forum, get your ass in gear.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 7

Matt Singer on Love.

"At moments like those, Love gives you hope for the future of independent movies, particularly because Nikolic is also a professor of film at the New School."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I Loved You In Myra Breckinridge!

As my nose is running like a broken faucet (seriously, instead of all the tissues, I'm thinking of just sitting with a bucket), I've been catching up on my viewing. I watched Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song which, after years of build-up, really disappointed me (so much so that I don't even want to write about it because, frankly, I reeeeeally wanted to like it and didn't). Next it was on to the DVD box set The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends. I'm going to write about the bulk of the content next week for IFC.com, but a brief aside about one particular guest right now.

The box set collects a dozen episodes featuring a slew of great comedians: I've already seen a revelatory sixty minute interview with Groucho Marx, and a fascinating ninety minute (!!) episode with Woody Allen. It's kind of astonishing in the first place, that a talk show might have a single guest on for an entire hour (or hour and a half), but, most excitingly, in the cases where the interview with the spotlit comedian doesn't consume the entire duration of the episode, the DVD still contains the entire episode. So, for instance, in the episode with Mel Brooks, he is just one segment of an absolutely fascinating lineup. He's not even the first guest! The first guest, my friends, is Rex Reed.

Watching this interview, I cringed for my chosen profession. Wearing a jacket you can plainly see was embarrassing even then, Reed comes on to discuss the 1970 Academy Awards, which are just about to air. First, as a prognosticator, Reed frankly sucks. He gives predictions in five categories — Best Picture, Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress — and gets only one right, John Wayne for Best Actor in True Grit. Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture, he predicted Anne of the Thousand Days. Gig Young won Best Supporting Actor for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, he predicted Nicholson for Easy Rider. In the case of Best Actress he makes two guesses and they're both incorrect.

But let's be fair. It's rarely easy to guess the Oscar winners with any consistency (although this year might be a Brokeback exception). What's really disappointing is Reed's attitude, one of complete superiority over the Academy, but even more so, the moviegoing audience. He's cynical, snide, pompous, and totally disinterested in the topic. He seems to be stopping just short of rolling his eyes. If he was a little heavier and he didn't have such a good head of hair, he would be THE stereotype of a bad film critic.

Admirably, Cavett doesn't let his guest get away with it, prompting the audience after a particularly sour Rex Remark, "Isn't this fun folks?!?" Later, when he's had enough of his bullshit, he flat out calls him on it. By this point, Reed has already dismissed the Awards as trivial, yet he continues to harp on the fact that all the important people don't win. So Cavett asks him how it can be a crime not to win an Oscar if the awards are so trivial. A flabbergasted Reed doesn't know what to say; he actually asks him to repeat the question before responding.

It's kind of amazing. Best of all, Cavett doesn't act like a showman. He doesn't get on his high horse and wag a finger. As exciting as it was, this is not like that moment when Jon Stewart was on Crossfire and he called Tucker Carlson a dick. It's not played for shock value. Rather, Cavett, simply and calmly, engages his interview subject in a discussion, poses an intellectual question. Smart discourse on network talk show television; what a shockingly refreshing concept.

And if you think I'm being too hard on old Rex, let me share with you the entire text of what he plans to use as his acceptance speech should he ever win an Academy Award:

""I owe it all to Binaca."

Well said, Rex. Well said. You totally deserved an Oscar for Myra Breckinridge, too. The way you played the pre-op Myra while looking and sounding nothing like the post-op Raquel Welch was such a bold choice.

The episode also contains great stuff from Brooks (my favorite is his impression of Sinatra singing "America, The Beautiful") as well as the strung out cast of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (who recommend the audience save their money rather than go see the film, going so far to call the movie "disappointing"), and a fascinating exchange between Reed, Brooks, Cavett, and a psychiatrist who serves as an advisor to the then-recently invented MPAA ratings system. And that's just 1 episode! This is a great box set.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Until next week, the balcony is closed...you prick

Here's a great video, spotted by The Village Voice's incomparable Ed Park. In it, a young Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert try to make a promo for their show back when it was called "Siskel and Ebert and the Movies," though, as you will see, there is some contentious debate about that point. Though their intentions are ultimately good — they're just trying to improve a mediocre promo to try to bring in more viewers — they are curt with their staff and downright mean to each other. Siskel gets the last laugh when he storms off to the tune of "Siskel...and Ebert...and the asshole!"

It's kind of embarrassing for them, and yet, I can't help feel this sort of bitter, feuding relationship was really what gave the spark to "Siskel and Ebert" back when I was actually a loyal viewer. Today, Ebert's softened a bit and Siskel is, alas, departed, replaced by Roeper, who has better hair (not necessarily a good thing). Anyway, I work on camera for IFC, and the video of Siskel & Ebert serves as a good reminder: never be a dick to anyone when the cameras are rolling. The link to the video is housed in the post title. Get clicking!


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Zero degrees of separation

How weird is this? I'm writing blurbs for the upcoming Spring Preview and not one but TWO of the movies I'm covering feature people I know:

Cheyenne Jackson, who was the big man in the Seattle theatre scene before becoming a Broadway star, is in Flight 93.

Jasika Nicole, whose real last name is the far less melodious Pruitt and who I have known since she was 10, is in Take the Lead with Antonio Banderas.

Does this count as a conflict of interest?

The Constant Valentine

On this day of cupid, chocolates, and that most heartening of sights, mildly desperate guys lining up at Macy's for last minute panic-purchases--like SNL said a couple of weeks ago, nothing says "I love you and totally didn't forget about this day like a teddy bear holding a heart"--my thoughts turn towards The Constant Gardener, a film that is suffused with heartbreak, and finds romance in the most unlikely places. (This is no doubt old news, but I'm still catching up on some 2005 Oscar screenings, and this was perfect for this past weekend's whiteout.) With John Le Carré lending the source material, The Constant Gardener is erected on the scaffolding of a spy novel: Rachel Weisz rightly suspects that drug companies are killing impoverished Africans, under the guise of clinical drug trials that in any developed part of the world would be illegal. Weisz gets too close to the truth, and is offed for her snooping somewhere out in the Sudan. Her husband, a British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) is left to pick up the pieces, and uncover the same information that precipitated his wife's murder.

That quest essentially hews to the conventions of a political thriller, but Mereilles elevates his tale above standard dross by intertwining the espionage intrigue with a love story that's more than mere throwaway. A critical mass of oblique hints--half-heard conversations, cryptic letters, self-serving innuendo, and outwardly compromising situations--are enough to sow doubt in Fiennes mind, who strongly believes that Weisz was cheating on him, even until the very moment of her death. And as Fiennes gets deeper into the multi-billion dollar plot, he encounters something unexpected: every moment of discovery on the government-drug company axis is tied up with an attendant revelation of Weisz's fidelity. Accordingly, the narrative arcs in The Constant Gardener, run in two contradictory trajectories: the beautiful little frissons that come with untangling the conspiracy are muted by Fiennes' mounting despair at his own unfounded distrust. Finnes makes this all palpable without histrionics: fathomless pain is conveyed in solemn silence with the merest deadened glance; despair with the subtlest buckling of his shoulders. Few actors working today are as adept as Ralph Fiennes at acting's great paradox: conveying the workings of a febrile mind under a layer of surface calm, and his pain is even more keenly felt for all that struggling, hard-won veneer of resolve. And though Weisz does a fine job, her Oscar nomination only makes Fiennes' snub that much more evident. I can appreciate Heath Ledger's brooding and Straithairn's and Hoffman's verisimiltude, but because of his layered, textured performance of fathomless pain and love rediscovered far too late, there was no better actor this year than Mr. Finnes. (Not to mention his sneering, serpentine menace in Harry Potter--I'm scrrrrrred just thinking about it.)

So, yes, digressions aside, The Constant Gardener was just about the most romantic film I saw this year--from the awkwardness of a fresh romance put forth in halting, probing camera work; to the surreal instant comfort of finding one's soulmate, rendered through a discreetly observational camera that respects its characters space; and finally an expression of love so penetrating that it bends nature to someone's will. In the final shot, Fiennes' affection is so profound that the mere mention of Weisz's name sends birds starting into the sunburnt sky.

Bruce Campell is my Valentine

In college my roommate and I were perpetually single and weren’t particularly looking forward to Valentine’s Day. The roomie was the bitter type, and suggested that we protest the day by wearing all black. I thought that was a bit melodramatic, and proposed that we think of some alternative to moping around. We decided a horror movie marathon was a good solution, since it was such an un-Valentine’s Day thing to be doing. After some debate we chose The Evil Dead trilogy, mostly because we had all three movies in our possession. Besides, three seemed like a good number for a marathon.

We had such a good time with the marathon that we decided to repeat the tradition the next year, this time inviting friends to watch the movies with us. The event was a success, and by the third year people were clambering for invitations to “Evil Dead Day”.

In early February of my senior year not long after being unceremoniously dumped by my current boyfriend, I happened to come across bruce-campbell.com, Bruce’s personal website. There was a link to send him e-mail, which he said he always read, but couldn’t always respond to. I spontaneously sent him the following e-mail [I’m paraphrasing, it was six years ago]:

Dear Bruce,

I have been a big fan of yours for the past five years, so much so that I actually went to see McHale’s Navy in the theatre, though I don’t hold that against you. I just wanted to drop you a quick note to tell you about a tradition that has developed at my college over the past three years. Every Valentine’s Day becomes Evil Dead Day, and my friends and I watch you kick Deadite ass rather than eat too much chocolate and feel sorry for ourselves. It’s a lot of fun, and I want to thank you for your part in helping us to get through what would otherwise be a truly crappy holiday.


I’m flaky, so I forgot about the e-mail as soon as I sent it, and was therefore shocked to receive the following reply, on Evil Dead Eve, no less [I’m quoting exactly, I remember every word]:

Thanks for the kooky note and Happy Evil Dead Day.


A belated sense of dignity prevents me from describing my response to this e-mail in detail, but sufficed to say I was excited.

I still celebrate Evil Dead Day, lo these many years later. I’ve actually (!) had a boyfriend for the last three V-Days now, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite and also, the holiday is still lame. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be unfaithful to Brucey.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Room For Squares (and Circles)

We began here at Termite Art with various definitions of film criticism. Here are two more :

Criticism is an art, not a science, and a critic who follows rules will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see.

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn't be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?)...The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.

Those definitions come from Pauline Kael's 1963 essay "Circle and Squares," her very famous response to Andrew Sarris' "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962." I found the essay in Kael's collection I Lost It At The Movies, which I purchased after reading several of her pieces over the last year and finding myself quite taken with Kael's writing. This does not mean I necessarily agree with her; rather that, regardless of my opinion, I delight in reading hers.

Sarris' formulation of the auteur theory at this point had three elements (what Kael calls three circles): that a director's technical competence is important to film; that a "distinguishable personality" on the part of said director is also important; and that a film's interior meaning — a.k.a. the tension between the director and his material — creates "the ultimate glory of the cinema." Kael finds all three elements to be bunk, and is not subtle about her distaste. Her piece is littered with words like "nonsense," "pathetic", and "idiocy." She announces that the critical community (i.e. everyone but her) amounts to little more than a bunch of men still consumed with the films of their adolescence, who have crafted a theory not out of intellectual curiosity, but as a means of defending the frivolous action films they adore. She ridicules almost as much as she argues.

Along the way, she makes some good points. Regarding the middle circle, which says that observing a director's distinguishable personality over the course of a career is a criterion of value, Kael notes that just because a director repeats himself does not make him talented. And she's right in that regard: consider, for instance, the case of director Uwe Boll who is building a burgeoning career on the basis of some of the most wretched videogame-to-film adaptations ever perpetrated on unsuspecting audiences. We can discern a clear director's personality from his films, from an obsession with needlessly flashy and inappropriately intricate special effects to a strange urge to clothe all his leading men in wife-beater undershirts. Somewhat counterintuitively, then, Boll may be one of the few directors to come to Hollywood in recent years that fully embodies that middle criterion of the '62 auteur theory (even while he fails terribly regarding the outer circle).

I also appreciate Kael's ideas about criticism, particularly her belief in being flexible and eclectic. I believe that in most cases, a film has a singular author, but I don't necessarily agree that said author is automatically the director. Some stars become so powerful they not only chose their assignments, they get to select their co-stars and directors and collaborate in script revisions (primarily to make characters more in line with the star's image). Such was the case with Arnold Schwarzenegger through much of his two decade career as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Schwarzenegger, it can be argued, fulfills all three of the '62 circles. His very persona of perfect male aggression, of the unstoppable Terminator, is a near personification of technical proficiency. All of his movies exhibit a clear persona; one far more nuanced and complex than the obvious "I'll be back quips." And, of course, a tension between the star and his films exist; for instance, in something like End of Days, the intended appeal of the picture is in watching Schwarzenegger apply himself in a role that contrasts sharply with his image.

Kael dismisses the auteur theory completely out of hand, and thus is not flexible enough to observe that the theory's usefulness in a situation such as the above. She argues for flexibility, yet she herself is equally as rigid as Sarris. Throughout her essay she lists numerous directors whose careers, she argues, merit inclusion in such a evaluation of directors. She adores Preston Sturges, values Carol Reed above Hitchcock, and is completely obsessed with Cocteau. More than once reading "Circles and Squares," I felt the distinct impression that Kael was simply squishing some very sour grapes: not because she doesn't appreciate directors' value, but because she doesn't appreciate the directors Sarris values.

And so it seems to me that the greatest and most public critical debate of the twentieth century largely came down to a matter of taste, less a battle between the auteur theory and circles and squares, than between personal preferences and approaches. Kael dismisses Sarris' favorites as "commercial trash" (although a later essay by Kael, "Trash, Art, and the Movies" will complicate matters) and also belittles his compatriot Jonas Mekas and his ties to the "independent film makers" who "are already convinced about their importance as the creative figures." But there's no denying that her attack on Sarris includes as many substitutions as refutations.

I think time has proven both wrong and both right. The auteur theory is a useful tool, most effective in imagintive, rather than limiting, ways. It was a great way of challening notions of what is good or bad in cinema. Now that it's become part of the vernacular, it is a theoretical tool that could use a new sharpening. And he may not be Hitchcock, but Carol Reed is pretty great too.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 6

Pete L'Official on Curious George

As proverbs and maybe millions of years of evolution tell us, curiosity proves fatal only for meddlesome felines. Thankfully, certain incorrigible monkeys are free to mess around with impunity.

Matt Singer on Film Geek

Just because lonely nerds masturbate constantly doesn't mean I need to see them do it over and over again.

R. Emmet Sweeney on Through the Fire

The kid's got a sick hesitation move. Jumper's still spotty, though.

Singer on When a Stranger Calls

...there is a limit to how many times mundane activities can be rendered spooky by wailing string instruments ("Oh my God, the refrigerator is making ice! Run for your life!").

And, most importantly, The Sweeney with an absolutely stellar essay that was sadly cut from the paper for space. Seriously, this thing will make your Valentine's Day a whole lot sexier.

I expose my vices and vice versa: I love football (real and fantasy), am incapable of cooking a decent meal, and prefer irony to expressing emotion. She exposes occasional insecurities, about her English (it's fabulous), and her future (it's bright).

And how's this for a happy ending: dude's in Paris right now with the lady in question in said essay. I mean that guy is good.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I can't believe I'm the first one to talk about this...

So I'm pretty fucking pissed off about the Oscar nominations. How was Crash nominated for Best Picture? How was A History of Violence NOT? And where the fuck were the nominations for 2046 in, like, every conceivable category?

I could go on. But honestly, I'm not so much angry as I am hurt and embarrassed. I've been a huge, huge Oscar buff for just about as long as I can remember. I remember when Anthony Hopkins won for The Silence of the Lambs and he got a standing ovation from the audience because I was like, "Wait, is this a lifetime achievement award? I thought he won for real." And while there were always one or two bullshit winners (Helen Hunt? The English Patient? What?) for the most part I thought the winners were deserving.

In retrospect, that was clearly untrue, and some of the winners I was okay with at the time are cringingly awful (Forrest Gump and American Beauty leap to mind.) And the Academy's tradition of lunacy dates back to the thirties when something called "Sweet Leilani" by God knows who beat out "They Can't Take That Away From Me" by the Gershwins. So EVER thinking that the Oscars had anything to do with justice was clearly just ignorance/naivete on my part.

Nevertheless, it feels like a delayed betrayal of my youthful ideals. There's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, and the Academy Awards are bullshit. Between this and George Lucas peeing all over my childhood, first by re-cutting the original Star Wars trilogy and inserting nonsense like Greedo shooting first, and then by making a new trilogy that is flat, poorly acted and boring as hell!

All this ranting is to no end, by the way. I'll still watch the Academy Awards telecast and I'll still participate in the pool (and hopefully avenge last year's staggering defeat.) But I watch now knowing that it's all horseshit, and fifty years from now Crash will be as foreign a name to even film buffs as "Sweet Leilani" is to us.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bury Me Not

The other western gracing NYC's theaters this weekend is Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. No nominations for this one, or front page think-pieces, but I predict it will endure as an idosyncratic work of art while Brokeback will be embalmed on the AFI list and air with numbing repetition as a "classic" on TNT. Not to deny it's quality, it's a well-crafted melodrama with impressive performances, but it doesn't seek to transcend it's romance-novel scenario, concerned only in mounting it with a certain amount of intelligence. It succeeds in that, but such success inevitably leads to diminishing returns with each viewing. Ang Lee is no Sirk.

Melquiades aims for the romantic fatalism of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia but skimps on the romanticism. It's an improvement. Tommy Lee Jones plays Pete Perkins, a taciturn ranch-hand crushed by the murder of his pal Melquiades by a nervous border guard (Barry Pepper). It fits the template of a classic Western hero - a loner with a moral imperative to right an individual wrong, it's Scott in Boetticher or Stewart in Mann, except Jones' actions frequently exceed the moral imprimatur. His violence comes partly from pathology, forcing Pepper to siphon antifreeze, dragging him on a rope through the river - the casual nature of the violence is shocking.

Perkins is more lonely than loner - talking and grooming Mel's corpse along the way, Pepper screams that he's mad, and occasionally we believe him. He's also clueless with women - Scott's distanced chivalry turned into muddled incomprehension - his phone call to Melissa Leo is a stunning example of male self-absorption. And yet his mission is noble - returning Mel's body to his tiny Mexican home. The film takes a remarkable shift during the journey - as we view Perkins from Pepper's perspective, he becomes less a hero than a man living out of his time (Jones' casting in the Coen Bros. adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men is spot on). He's to be pitied.

And there are material pleasures: Mel and Pepper's cabin-feverish wife dance in a seedy hotel room; Levon Helm sways to the Mexican radio he can't understand; Pepper sobs at a soap opera in front of bemused vaqueros; men subsumed in landscape.

A great accomplishment: would've made it into the best of 2005, and I'l l make sure to remember it when I make my list for this year.

Rosenbaum has a rave of his own. Great minds housed in chiseled bodies tend to think alike.

Note: this post was eaten once by blogger.com, so a fine comment was destroyed. Such is life.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Disorderly Conduct

If you didn't know Frank Tashlin got his start directing Warner Brothers cartoons before he moved into live-action, you could probably guess by watching The Disorderly Orderly. It's essentially a ninety-minute Daffy Duck adventure (which could have been called "Duck and Recover"), with Jerry Lewis playing the part of Daffy.

Lewis is a legitimate cartoon and Tashlin places him inside a world of cartoon physics and, I suppose, if anyone can give such a world a sense of reality, it's him. It's worth noting that Lewis is one of the few real-world figures to sustain their own long-running comic book. His Adventures of Jerry Lewis lasted over eighty issues and ran for more than a decade (or longer, if you also count The Adventures of Martin & Lewis, which his comic replaced). See for yourself:

Consider this blatant bow to cartoon technique. Early in the film, Lewis chases after a mental patient at the psychiatric hospital where he is employed as an orderly. The mental patient knocks Lewis unconscious, puts him in a strait-jacket and leaves him for dead. Lewis wakes up hours later and realizes he's late for a date with his girlfriend, so he crawls his way, at top-speed, back to the front desk. Just to show how slow he's going, Tashlin puts a snail in the foreground of the shot, and Lewis watches helplessly as it crawls ahead of him. Brilliant.

I'm of two minds about The Disorderly Orderly: I admire Tashlin's carefully refined comic technique (which we might call "Nouveau Goofball") but it's stunted as much as assisted by Lewis' antics. What Lewis does not have that his Looney Tunes brethern always maintained is a sense of reliability of character. Bugs is Bugs, Daffy is Daffy: they act according to a set of carefully maintained guidelines (i.e. Bugs chews carrot, doesn't give a shit about anybody; Daffy is repeatedly felled by Elmer Fudd and his own ego). Lewis, on the other hand, can rarely be predicted. Sometimes he does the whole "HEY LAY-DEE!" schtick, other times he stammers, other times he talks with a boyishly thick Italian accent, other times he talks like a dapper lover. Sometimes he's clutzy, other times he's just unlucky and confused for a clutz, other times he acts like he was dropped on a head as a child and, through sheer will alone, has somehow passed himself off as a contributing member of society. I suppose if one frame of the film has to stand for them all, this one is as good as any:

But even Lewis' outlandish (and frequently outlandishly unfunny) antics sap some of Tashlin's mojo, they can't lessen the impact of Disorderly's grand finale, which must stand as one of the single greatest prolonged bits of physical gag comedy in Hollywood history. Describing it would be a waste of time: you sincerely have to see it to believe it. But it involves several runaway hospital gurneys, two ambulances (one apparently driving of its own free will) bustling city streets, more near-collisions than a game of Grand Theft Auto, and a well-stocked grocery store with more tin cans than any store should reasonably have. The scene also contains little of Lewis, which might explain why it's so good.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The First Best Film of 2006

This is a plot description from IMDb for a movie to be released later this year to wide acclaim and huge box office. I have bolded the most interesting parts:

Jean-Claude (Van Damme) will be playing a Combat Vet who's just spent the last 3 years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, who is hired to be a bodyguard to a former World Heavyweight Boxing champ to protect him and his family against a Rap Music Mogul. He sets up a team called "The Hard Corps", complications arise when the boxer suspects that his sister may be in love with the bodyguard.

Is it too early to declare this the best film of '06? More importantly, is it too early to declare this the greatest photographic image of the last century?

Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 5

R. Emmet Sweeney on Big Momma's House 2

With a freedom the NSA would envy, Big Momma breaks into his home and work offices while still having time to teach the kids how to shake dat ass.

Sweeney on Tamara

Rising from the grave in a fab miniskirt ensemble (death also does wonders for her complexion), revenge is tops on her to-do list...

Pete L'Official on The Tollbooth

Alas, the question of whether Sarabeth will make it as a big-city artist is less fascinating than wondering when she'll discover that her art is terrible.

Toe is me

I can't say whether the whiskey was suggested, though I would not advise against it. Rocks, courtesy of John Boorman's Point Blank.

Re: Whiskey:
Like, Ikea has these great 4-cube ice trays that make huge -- really, huge -- cubes of ice, perfect for a highball glass and whatever else you put in it.

Re: Boorman:
A savage, wielding images like blunt objects swung in a visual beatdown, one given with the knowledge that you -- hey, viewer! -- don't mind getting smacked around a bit, that (well, ok, sometimes) you like it like that. There's violence aplenty on offer, on-screen, but the real roughstuff's more keenly felt in the editing. The clap!-clap!-clap! of Walker's footsteps as he Monte Cristos his way back to his old life in an early montage are, as some have pointed out, unforgettable. Marvin's great -- relentless as Caine in Get Carter, just wivvout da shocking Cockney.

Little did I know that this little anarchic neo-noir dreamscape would prove such a comfy bed of odd connects, nor that lying next to me in that rumpled boudoir, I'd find Dean Wormer. And Doogie Howser's pops. Bedfellows is strange!

Let's two-step together through meandering thought:
  • Lee Marvin plays a character named Walker.
  • I have a friend named Walker [after Percy].
  • I brought the film home partly to show my friend named Walker a film with a protagonist named Walker.
  • Walker [not Lee Marvin, not Percy] first hipped me to John Vernon's brilliance as Dean Wormer in Animal House.
  • I never tired of hearing, "You'll get your chance, Smart Guy!" shouted at opportune times by Walker [again, not LM nor P]. Try it. It's quite enjoyable.
  • At the very same moment I realized that Vernon's traitorous character Reese was the Dean himself -- naturally compelling me to shout "YGYC,SG!" excitedly at the screen -- Vernon's character said "Smart Boy!"

Didn't I just blow your minds? Take a breather, compose yrselves.

So...on this February 1, the sad one-year anniversary of John Vernon's death, we celebrate him, first with Animal House's wry nod to metonymy:

Listen to Dean Wormer put his foot down!

On Point
In Point (teehee), Vernon's FIRST FILM (!), he fashions a matchless sneer that borders on parody, an air immortalized in famously suggesting to one portly collegian that fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life. Point's Reese is perpetually repulsed by his underlings, disgusted with ineptitude in general, and gets what people who betray Lee Marvin deserve: to be thrown mercilessly from the terrace of his own penthouse apartment, naked and whimpering.

A short, no-so-secret JV history: Born Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz on February 24, 1932 in Zehner, Saskatchewan, John Vernon was, yes, a Canadian (Whassup James? Post up on this block already!). After his duplicitous turn in Point, he played the heavy in the western One More Train To Rob (1971) and the John Wayne crime drama Brannigan (1975). Then, Eastwood. In Dirty Harry (1971), Vernon played the preening, pandering, PR-conscious mayor of San Francisco. Vernon then hammed it up as a sadistic Confederate commander in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and in a casting masterstroke, he played warden of a woman’s prison in Chained Heat (1983). You may know the rest -- Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) -- and if you don't, get familiar please.

Right, and Doogie Howser's dad (James B. Sikking) plays an assassin. Really, find this movie. Then toast one to your ole Dean.