Wednesday, April 26, 2006

L'Enfant Haikus

The Dardennes brothers
are amazing. Where do I
find all their other films?

I'm completely blown away.
Might I have just seen the best
film of the new year?

Lots of directors
use long take. But how many
use it in close up?

Panhandling, grift, theft
Grabbing hand bags on mopeds
Sold his kid for cash

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Scene From Ball of Fire (1941)

Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) sits at a table with his peers and roommates, a group of amiable old scientists. It is a bachelor party of sorts. Potts is to marry Sugarpuss (Barbara Stanwyck) over the weekend. They all start yelling banal advice until one shouts them down, one Prof. Oddly (Richard Haydn)- the only one who has been married before. He tells the story of his honeymoon, he took her to the Catskills so she could paint, he was amazed at the bold way in which he kissed the palm of her hand every night. He pulls out a lock of her hair from his pocket. He remembers a tune. One of the friends starts humming it. He tells him to sing. He does. The rest of the group picks it up, with Potts looking on. The song is "Genevieve", about remembering her. It is a lilting melody. She died 24 years earlier. The widow stands up, thanks the group, and leaves, and tells them to continue. He is moved beyond words, happy to simply remember her palm - it is not a mournful scene - but absolutely joyful, which is what makes it extraordinary. A ringing affirmation of life. Of a life long past.

The scene moves organically, motivated by the impending wedding and Potts' uncertainty - due to his lack of experience with women. The widow's experience is tied to Potts' gracefully. As he shows the lock of hair, he remembers how it once shined, chiming with Potts' first encounter with Sugarpuss, as he's stunned by her hair as she poses under a window.

Then Stanwyck's eyes blaze in shadow as Cooper unburdens his feelings of sexlove to whom he thinks is Oddly. This declaration, which modesty would shackle him from doing to her in person seals their fate as she jumps out of shadow for furtive kisses. A series of events spurred by a decades old love revitalized in song.

Which is why we need popular music. And love. And Howard Hawks. And hair. And palms.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Always Read the Ratings Fine Print

All movies rated by the MPAA get a description, detailing for parents exactly why the film got the rating. I mention this because the billboard for Mission Impossible III caught my eye in the subway today, and the precise language of the rating cracked me up. It warned that M:I:III was rated PG-13 for: "intense sequences of frenetic violence & menace, disturbing images & some sensuality."

Such specificity! It's not just violence, it's intense sequences of frentic violence. Frentic violence! Holy crap! That shit is INTENSE!

The MPAA should be lauded for trying to give parents a more complete picture of a film's content than just the letter rating. But, I'm such a prick that I went over to anyway, to see what other amusements could be had from ratings descriptions. Here are some other fascinating ratings descriptions:

Rated R for strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language.

(Why not "pervasive, gruesome violence"? And I love how the language is such an afterthought. "Oh, and we almost forgot — there's dirty words too!")

Rated R for strong language, including sexual dialogue, and for some scenes of sexuality and drug content.

(Note that sexual dialogue is a distinct entity from strong language, and that talking about sex is very different than scenes "of sexuality" whatever that means)

Rated R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence.

(Isn't "stylized" more of a value judgment than a rating comment?)

Rated R for strong sexuality, crude sexual dialogue, language and drinking, all involving teens.

(Strong can mean intense but can't it also mean of high quality? Does that mean the sexuality in PIE is choice?)

That website is good for literally tens of seconds of entertainment. Enjoy.

Friday, April 21, 2006

In honor of Scary Movie 4, Leslie Nielsen farting on a talk show!

Welcome to comedy town. Population: Leslie.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Scary Movie 4: Now with 35% MORE Funny!

Though it opened to slightly smaller box office than its predecessor ($40.2 million to $48.1 million), there can be no disputing that Scary Movie 4 is the best in the series. Well unless Scary Movie 2 — which I never saw — is really awesome. Which I tend to doubt. (Prove me wrong Wayans Brothers fans! Prove! Me! Wrong!)

If the Scary Movie series ever made any attempts at maintaining a coherent plot, those days a long gone. Which is fine. I don't go to a Scary Movie for gripping story or compelling characters. I go to see Charlie Sheen overdose on Viagra and hit himself in the face with his own enormous erection.

By this scale, Scary Movie 4 is a tremendous success.

Granted, Scary Movie 4 is a far cry from director David Zucker's last spoof series, The Naked Gun, which maintained a surprising level of comedy quality throughout, and even had some characters, particularly Leslie Nielsen's Lt. Frank Drebin and Priscilla Presley's Jane Spencer, you came to really care about. They were goofy and vulgar and stupid, but lovable too.

In Scary Movie 4, the characters' complete disposability is part of the joke. Sheen was the male lead of SM 3, and here is dispatched two scenes into the film (and by that point Shaquille O'Neal and Dr. Phil have both bitten the dust as well). Regina Hall, the only actor to appear in all four films along with fearless star Anna Faris, is killed in every film, only to reappear, miraculously alive, in the next sequel.

Perhaps this is Zucker's preference; after all, his first film with longtime collaborators Jim Abrahams and his brother Jerry was Kentucky Fried Movie, which is little more than a collection of film, commercial, and television parodies. ZAZ teams commentaries on Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Top Secret! reveal that the only thing they care about is the joke. They describe how they preview all of their films and listen for the laughs: if things don't work, they get cut. If things move too slowly, they get cut.

All a ZAZ movie need be is funny (and feature writing contributions from Pat Proft) and Scary Movie 4 is funny, funnier than the uneven Scary Movie 3, and certainly funnier than anything the Zucks have made since the last Naked Gun (Sorry, BASEketball fans). The funniest parody isn't even of a horror film, it's a dream sequence that crosses Million Dollar Baby with the Mike Tyson ear-biting incident and builds to a classic ZAZ riff, where one punch leads to a chain reaction whereupon everyone in the entire boxing arena breaks their neck.

The Scary Movie series could conceivably last as long as movies do. At this point they're barely even about horror movies at all, just the stupidest popular culture has to offer in all genres, boiled down into digest form, with Leslie Nielsen as the President of the United States — a frighteningly accurate casting choice, if you ask me.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Biennial Bonanza

I finally heaved myself over to the Whitney Biennial, and was left unimpressed, except, of course, for some films. First, there's a very funny fake trailer for a remake of Caligula by Francesco Vezzoli. It has the gravelly-voiced narrator and is replete with stars appended with banal adjectives - the "charming" Benicio Del Toro, the "amazing" Helen Mirren, the "ravishing" Milla Jovovich etc. One actress who I didn't know was starring in her "first lesbian sequence", and Gore Vidal was on hand to offer the hook at the end. The description tried to weight the thing with political significance, but really it's well done nonsense with scads of nudity.

Then Kenneth Anger had his Mouse Heaven which I'd seen at MoMA some time back and appreciated more this time around. Mostly because it's a ridiculously happy piece amidst the layers of self-conscious depression the made up the rest of the museum. It's a stop-motion animation using the toys and paraphenalia of a Mickey Mouse collector. Anger cues these cute and bizarre nostalgia pieces to old pop tunes, mostly love songs, if I recall collectly, all of them fabulous. The point at which Mickey starts lip-synching is wondrous.

The peak of the exhibition though was Pierre Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't, a travelogue/fairy tale/performance of immense beauty and mystery. Huyghe (whose This Is Not a Time For Dreaming I recently enjoyed), went on a trip to Antarctica, on a mission to discover a creature and an island he cryptically states has never been discovered before. The film cuts between ravishing footage of Antarctica with a recreation of the trip he mounted in Central Park last October, complete with fake mountains and the shadow of an animatronic penguin. So, there's layers to sift through, the constructed narrative of the undiscovered country, the "real" images of Antarctica itself, and the reconstruction of the constructed narrative in Central Park, which was accompanied by a full orchestra. My exposition is complicated, but the film is quite simple, the only dialogue is in a voice-over by Huyghe stating the mission. The rest is image - most of it beautiful, rivaling the the sublime landscape work of Peter Hutton. They are otherworldly images - of an undulating snowy expanse, a glowing orb marking their home base, the abstract ice shapes carved by the wind. When he cuts to the Central Park skyline - it is jarring - its familiarity whisking us back to the everyday world. But. Through a battery of lights and the help of misty weather, it soon turns otherworldly itself, the atonal score rumbling around the steel mountains. Shots of the crowd are cut in - their rapt faces taking in a more modern wonder than the wonders of the Antarctic footage. He doesn't discriminate between natural and man-made wonders, just compares their qualities, reveling in his role as puppeteer. The revelation of the creature at the end, in Central Park, shadowy and small, is the dramatic pay-off, challenging to see whether we can suspend disbelief among all the disbelief he built in, whether the power of myth and storytelling can overcome layers of self-reflexivity. Here it can, for a few brief moments.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

New Yorkers: Honk if You Have Thetans!

Finally a reason to be excited about the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Turns out Tom Cruise has some movie coming out in a few weeks, and — wango tango — there's some publicity to be had. So Tom will travel all over Manhattan "by motorcycle, speedboat, taxicab, helicopter, sports car, and subway," pimping his movie and, in all likelihood, stopping to give commuters E-meter stress tests while in the subway.

Does this mean Cruise is really going to hail a cab? Wear a seatbelt? Use a MetroCard? How utterly...mortal of him. There's got to be a catch. According to Rolling Stone, Cruise, as an "OT-VII," has total control over his environment and can "move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behavior of, both animals and human beings." In other words, if he does take a cab, don't expect him to get stuck in traffic.

According to the press release, "Cruise’s mission – 'should he choose to accept it' – will begin at 3:30 pm at MTV’s “TRL” studios in Times Square." How cool would it be if he did choose not to accept it? I mean if the RS article is true you can't make the dude do thing one without him wanting to.

Assistant: Mr. Cruise, it's time to go to TRL?

Cruise: Um, no.

Assistant: No?

Cruise: Nah screw it. I'm gonna chill here and check out the sonogram.

Assistant: But...

Cruise: [waives his hand] I don't need to go to TRL.

Assistant: You don't need to go to TRL.

Cruise: These aren't the droids you're looking for...

Assistant: These aren't the droids we're looking for...

The press release also notes that the new Mission: Impossible (which, as directed by Alias' J.J. Abrams, could actually be good) is rated PG-13 for "disturbing images and brief sensuality." make...Katie...Holmes...joke!

Good luck on your visit to the Big Apple Tom. Here's hoping it doesn't wind up like this:

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Out-of-Context Screengrab Theater

Grabbed from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz. Check out the two acrobats in the background, just over the dude in the tux's shoulder.

Brings new meaning to the phrase Yankee Doodle. How'd the Production Code miss that one?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Clockers Watching

Inside Man fans should take a second look (or a first look, like me) at Spike Lee's Clockers from 1995. Fans of the remarkable and underrated HBO series The Wire ought to do the same, and not simply because novelist Richard Price had his hand in both projects.

Like The Wire, Clockers tells a crime story from both possible perspectives: the cops' and the criminals'. The two forces are not presented as good and evil but as opposites more closely intertwined than either can see for itself. But besides its sober look at modern crime and punishment, Clockers is something that The Wire isn't: a compelling mystery.

In a traditional crime story with a single perspective, mysteries are easy: we follow the cops as they try to catch the culprit, or we follow the criminal as they try to evade the police. The Wire is the ongoing struggle between the two forces and, in the interest of keeping the audience on an equal plane with both sides, nothing is kept from the viewer.

(Interestingly, the only other American film I know that balances this structure so deftly also structures its crime story around contemporary racial issues, and that's Barry Shear's Across 110th St, which could very well serve as a template for Clockers and The Wire)

Clockers shows us the criminals, but not the crime. A low level drug dealer with a bad stomach named Strike (Mekhi Phifer) is told by his boss (Delroy Lindo) that elimininating a particular individual could improve his pay grade. Strike goes to his brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), and asks for his help in the murder. Strike confronts the guy he needs to kill and Lee cuts to two detectives: Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) and Larry Mazilla (John Turturro). They find the body but the question remains: who exactly killed him? Victor claims he did it, but Klein doesn't buy the story. Is he lying to protect his brother?

Price contributes the film's structure and its deftness with the lingo of the precinct and the street. Lee directs a tremendous ensemble (Keitel, of course, but also Phifer, who captures all his character's contradictions and complexities with an intensity and authenticty I didn't expect from his work on ER or in 8 Mile) and burns half a dozen unforgettable images into your brain. Even the little moments are powerful: look at the simple beauty and clear underlying message of this establishing shot for a scene in which Klein asks some bar patrons if they know Strike.

In this next still, Klein is interrogating Victor and refuses to accept his account of the murder. "I want to see what you see," he says.

Clockers does what Inside Man does: it's a smart drama with messages, that doesn't sacrifice entertainment for preachiness. The critique of violent video games in Inside Man begins here, as does Lee's complex portrait of police work: a profession that invites heroism, pragmatism, and racism in equal doses. The director's cameo is of a ConEd worker who shows up at Klein's crime scenes and watches the proceedings like a spectator sport. He is fascinated, and Lee knows we are too.

Get Drunk and Be Someone

First, a brief recommendation of the musical variety. After Diana Ross starred in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues in 1972, she recorded an album of jazz standards entitled Blue, that was later shelved, perhaps because it ran against her pop image. Anyway, it's being released June 20, and it's a delight. It's use of strings is subdued and never overwhelms the melody, as Ross serves each tune with her sugary sweet voice. No straining melismas here, just some of the best songs ever written sung with professional subtlety.

Then there's Fallen Angel, an Otto Preminger noir from 1945. Oh my. Dana Andrews is stalked by the camera. It tiptoes behind him, embarrassed of the next space he'll latch onto. He's a parasite that jumps from host to host: first the local mentalist, then the local loose woman of morals, lastly the straight-laced daughter of the town patriarch. Expectations overturned. Andrews' smooth-talker unmasked as insecure depressive in astonishing scenes of gender throwdowns - goes from stealing kisses to skulking in corners from one smirk from the loose woman's mouth. Turns out she's not that loose. Plot goes off the rails - the normal naughty pleasures and last minute moralizing disappears for something far Passion differentiated from love, hero becomes self-abnegating fool pulling down shade to block out the Sunday service; love something that is worked on, not materializing magically. But it doesn't skimp on detail: former lover smells dead woman's pantyhose before police interview; cop delicately puts on white gloves before smacking him around; expression on diner owner's face; shadows upon shadows. Revelatory little film. Finest Preminger I have seen - supplants Bonjour Tristesse.

Thing seen and loved that is perfect and speaks for itself: John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln.

Thing seen that is often hilarious but gratingly provocative but I'm glad I saw those old women's tits and that tour-de-force conversation in a bar that builds and layers intricate digressions in the midst of creepingly closer camera set-ups: 4.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A TerMET Art Field Trip to Shea Stadium

Man cannot love on bread and Don Siegel movies alone. That is why last night R.E.S. and I braved the elements and the 7 train, and paid homage to one of the titans of New York sports.

Baseball's opening day was Sunday the 2nd. The Mets first game was Monday the 3rd. But an injury-plagued spring bumped Pedro from an anticipated opening day start to Thursday. So today was Pedro Opening Day, a holiday I will now celebrate every year in whatever fashion Mr. Martinez dictates.

Thursday night's game — an ideal "value" level night, meaning our upper deck seats were just five dollars — was the rubber game of the Mets first series of 2006, against division rivals the Washington Nationals. Even if you happened to miss the signs, even if you were excited to see new Mets like Carlos Delgado or Paul Lo Duca, there was no doubting who everyone was there to see.

Not shockingly, Martinez, in just his third start of the year, was not sharp, but the game was never boring. Struggling with his command, Martinez plunked four Nationals, including the dangerous Jose Guillen twice. After his second beaning, Guillen pointed his bat at Martinez and marched towards the mound, prompting both benches and bullpens to clear. It was awesome.

The game had a little bit of everything: homeruns from Delgado and Carlos Beltran (silencing his critics in a most satisfying fashion); at-the-dish heroics from Cliff Floyd, Xavier Nady, and even Martinez, helping his own cause with a 1 out RBI single past a drawn in infield; a stand-up triple from Jose Reyes; and even a dominant relief performance from submariner Chad Bradford, who dazzled the Nats with physics defying 80mph fastball and a 65mph change.

Still, there were some downsides. April in the upper deck at Shea can be a bitterly cold proposition, as R.E.S. quickly learned.

Nevertheless, the sacrifices were worth such a glorious 10-5 victory. The Metropolitans looked very good, at the cusp of a new era. It was sunset as we approached Shea, but from our vantage point, it looked a bit like a new dawn.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Poster Posting: Kinky Boots

How do you sell a movie about transvestites to middle America? From the looks of the poster for Kinky Boots, you dodge that nugget of information like the draft.

In the film, Joel Edgerton (that's him in the middle) plays Charlie, who finds his family's shoe factory in danger of closing. A chance encounter with a drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gives him inspiration: create lavish boots in the style of the deodorant Secret: strong enough for a man, made for a woman (or a man who wants to be a woman). With Lola's help, Charlie creates a line of boots for the modern cross dresser on the go.

You can see one of the boots in all its glory on the poster. What you cannot see is the gender of the person wearing the boot. Could be a man, I suppose, but it could just as easily be a woman. And indeed, if you knew nothing about Kinky Boots and casually walked past the poster, you might guess it's about women getting all sexed up and going out on the town. You would be incorrect, but that's a very reasonable assumption. One, I'd argue, Miramax is not adverse to you making.

The appearance of Ejiofor on the poster is interesting too. Take a look at him there on the right. Then take a look at how he appears most of the time in the film:

Sensing a difference?

To be fair, Ejiofor does appear in men's clothing in some scenes — I'll be generous and estimate maybe 40% of the time. But even when he's wearing sweaters and slacks instead of frocks and skirts, he's still explicitly feminized, and accessorized with painted nails, earrings, and sparkly lip gloss. He never appears in the film in a suit. He never appears in the film in such a masculine outfit, period.

I'm not saying the poster is ducking the film's themes, but — okay, well, yeah, I am saying that. In the picture I posted here, you can see that it's Ejiofor's character who's wearing those boots. The film teaches us to be proud of who we are, and not to hide the things that make us different from others. Ironically, the film's poster does the exact opposite.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Siegel Film: The Duel At Silver Creek (1952)

The eighth in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.

Everyone over here at Termite Art has been suffering from Don Siegel burnout, but I gave it another go with a matinee of The Duel At Silver Creek, an unpretentious little western that bears a curious resemblance to Rio Bravo, which was made seven years later.

Similarities: There's an overabundance of nicknames (Lightning Tyrone, The Silver Kid, Johnny Sombrero, as opposed to Dude, Stumpy, Colorado), an old sherrif who hires a young sureshot to be a deputy (Audie Murphy and Ricky Nelson), a tiny jail that comes under siege, and an old friend who is shot in the back that initiates the main action in the plot (Griff Barnett's Dan Muzik and Ward Bond's Pat Wheeler). Hawks liked to borrow scenarios (RB's whole intro is lifted from Von Sternberg's Underworld) so it doesn't seem farfetched to suggest he snagged a few plot points from here for his masterpiece.

Perhaps I've just been too immersed in the reprint of Robin Wood's excellent Howard Hawks book that Wayne State University has just put out, but the similarities were quite striking.

Siegel's film lacks the organic unity of Rio Bravo, though, where every action and camera set-up related to its theme of self-respect, whereas here each action exists merely to set up the next action. There is no unity of character, as the sherrif rebukes The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy) merely to advance the plot, while Faith Domergue, who plays the femme fatale "Opal Lacy" (who the sherriff nicknames "Brown Eyes"), goes from a strangling crook to a martyr at the drop of a hammer. But its pleasures aren't negligible. As usual, Siegel keeps things going at a brisk pace, and there are a few exhilarating tracking shots during the numerous chases on horseback. Plus there's a character named Johnny Sombrero, which is entertaining enough in itself, but the sherriff, Lightning Tyrone (Stephen McNally), suspects him for every crime and repeats his name constantly. It's a treat. Plus Lee Marvin plays a character named "Tinhorn Burgess". He gets precious little screentime, but his cigar chomping is unequalled, except maybe by Sam Fuller.

But what names!: the tomboy who hooks up with The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy) is named Dusty, a captured gang member is "Rat Face Blake", and "Johnny Sombrero" indeed wears a sombrero.

But bad news for me, the schedule for Film Forum's B Noir series was available there, although not yet online - and there are gems aplenty, condemning me to many more hours in those musty, rank theaters. I look forward to the Phil Karlson double bill (Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story), the 3D noir Man In the Dark, and various other classics and oddities I've missed over the years, including Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono, Anthony Mann's Border Incident, a variety of Joseph H. Lewis, Joseph Losey, and the list goes on and on.

Gaze upon the highest grossing movies of 2006 thus far and weep

These figures are from the essential Box Office Mojo. Link in the post title takes you directly to the full chart, but here is the top five, as we stand thus far. By next week #5 will almost certainly be #1 but let's live in the present.

1)The Pink Panther - $81.6 million
2)Eight Below - $79.1 million
3)Failure to Launch - $73.0 million
4)Big Momma's House 2 - $69.2 million
5)Ice Age: The Meltdown - $68.0 million

The most popular movies of the year, ladies and gentlemen. A remake, two sequels, a dogs lost in Antarctica movie, and a movie co-starring Terry Bradshaw. We have a lot to answer for, all of us.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Termite (Sequential) Art: Nextwave

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Warren Ellis has written some excellent thoughtful comics in his day (Transmetropolitan, Planetary) but he's also the best scripter of his generation of a certain type of superhero: self-aware, smug, and absolutely hilarious. Ellis pioneered the form (we might call it the superherasshole) with The Authority, but with the Bryan Hitch art and widescreen storytelling and nemeses like God himself, The Authority felt a bit self-important; it felt weighty. Nextwave is just dumb. But good dumb. In an interview with, Ellis described Nextwave as "superhero-team-book as Attention Deficit Disorder Anime.” I'd describe it as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie with much better jokes.

The book itself is its own best hype man; each issue has at least one breathless logline. Issue 3 ends with this text: "You have been reading Nextwave, a comic single about five pirate super heroes twisting the nipple of the military-industrial complex." That's a generous reading of twenty-two pages of dirty mutant cops, exploding cars, and wise-cracking robot armies. (You may notice two more tags on each of the covers I've included: "Nextwave: Healing America by beating people up." and "Nextwave: Gets their lovin' from your mama!")

Nextwave is, quite explicitly, just another group of superheroes. The roster is the dregs of the Marvel Universe: a forgotten female incarnation of Captain Marvel (such a minor character she had to change her name when another Captain Marvel swooped in and stole the monicker from her), a cybernetic hero with the embarassing name Machine Man (who, believe it or not, premiered in the comics adaptation of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), a mutant from the glut of terrible '90s X-Men spinoffs, and a monster hunter who has appeared in maybe a dozen comics total in the last twenty years. They've been drafted together by a cartoonish Nick Fury analogue named Dirk Anger, who leads a cartoonish S.H.I.E.L.D. analogue named H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort). Anger is prone to the sort of brilliant fit of illogical rage that only Ellis can write. In issue one, he's introduced reaming out new recruits with this rant:

"Every day I smoke 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars and drink a bottle of whisky and three bottles of wine with dinner. And dinner is meat. RAW meat. The cook serves me an entire animal and I fight it bare-handed and tear off what I want and eat it and have the rest buried. In NEW JERSEY! For H.A.T.E.!"

Each issue has made me laugh far more times than anything 22 picture-filled pages long should be able to. The sheer density of humor is staggering: this is silly, stupid fun, though, in the mold of Ellis' other current smash, Fell, it should be $1.99 an issue instead of $2.99.

Nextwave: it will make you poop delicious blueberry muffins or your money back. Buy it immediately. Then share it with people you love.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Prague, Kansas

I've never been to Texas. Neither has Wim Wenders, or at least not really. In his Voice review of "Don't Come Knocking", Michael Atkinson succinctly knocks Wim down a rung, describing his work as "besotted with American cliché culture, from trench-coat noir and road-movie outlawry to rockabilly and post-western macho-ness, all of it commonly orchestrated with a whiskeyhead's dreary notion of cool and lousy sense of direction."

The new film, which reunites Wenders with true-west native Sam Shepard, sounds like more hokey drivel from a German armchair cowboy who hasn't created anything worthwhile in about two decades -- so why am I sympathetic? Like I said, I've never been to Texas, but I love "The Searchers" and "Rio Bravo" and "Red River" and Cormac McCarthy with a borderline-obsessive vigor that belies my status as a big-city homebody with a plumber's sense of nature. We're like John Wayne at the end of "The Searchers", Wim Wenders and I, destined to remain outside that door...okay, this analogy doesn't quite work. We're not quite tourists, though. We just know that the idea of Monument Valley -- the image of it -- is a lot more beautiful than the reality of roaming around for five years on a quixotic, dirt-caked, racist odyssey. I would get thirsty.

Which is sort of what "Paris, Texas" is about.

[I rented the movie a few times as a kid, tantalized by the prospect of visiting two foreign cinematic locales for the price of one, but the VHS edition has been out of print for years. Last summer, I found a brand-new $3.99 DVD at Tower Records, and traded my lunch money for some of the prettiest "cliche-culture" cash can buy.]

Wenders' 1984 Palme D'or-winning, Sam Shepard-scripted Sauerkraut Western (also see: Fassbinder's "Whity") is a vision of a polyglot American West that can only exist in the mind of a European outsider. A doctor on the Texas border speaks with a German accent. A lead character's wife is French. The Southern sweetheart that Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) sets off to reclaim is played by the quintessentially-European Nastassja Kinski. Travis calls attention to his mother's Spanish origin, and sings a Spanish-language ditty while washing the dishes. Shot through Robby Muller's lens, the sunsets looks a bit too orange, all the motel-room colors a bit too distinct, breathtaking vistas too omnipresent. Ry Cooder's jagged, plaintive slide-guitar score -- the best movie music ever -- still sounds more "Western" than Western.

Like Wenders, Travis is searching for a paradoxical space both primal and cultivated. A home that exists only on a postcard. As he explains, Paris, Texas is the spot of his conception, and the root of a joke his father told in order give his plain mother a sense of cosmopolitan mystique. "This is the girl I met in Paris--[pause]--Texas." Of course, Paris and Texas cannot coexist, except on a movie screen. "It's close to the Red River," Travis adds, drawing a parallel that's closer to Hollywood than the Rio Grande.

Loosely borrowing the paradigmatic quest of "The Searchers", Wenders' film follows Travis' attempt to reunite with the wife and son he abandoned for four years of walking the earth. Finding his son (played by Hunter Carson, son of L.M. Kit Carson, who co-wrote the movie and once starred in the magnificent "David Holzman's Diary"), living with his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and his wife in Los Angeles, proves simple and sentimental enough. Tracking down his belle involves a road trip to Houston and a den-of-sin confrontation fraught with extra-textual significance.

In the famous scene -- recently retooled for a confession-booth effect in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" -- Travis speaks to his once-idealized, now fallen sweetheart through a two-way screen, as Kinski sits in a decorated room playing a "role", presumably for erotic purposes. The set-up emulates both Wenders' approach to his ideal West, his Paris in Texas, and the detached viewer's passive intake of cowboy mythology. At the precise moment that Travis turns the lamp on himself, allowing her to see his face, he gives up his woman, his son, and all pretense at the idea of a family reunion. It's the final scene of "The Searchers", with a dimming screen instead of a closing door.

Over the course of the film, we watch Travis develop from an idiosyncratic but likeable mute into a damned man capable of extreme violence. John Wayne's got grit, but Harry Dean Stanton's riff on Ethan Edwards is subtler and scarier. We can point to more than a handful of great films that announced the Death of the Western, but maybe the mythology only exists to be quashed, resurrected, and quashed again.

In one beautiful scene, Walt asks a nervous Travis to take a plane back to Los Angeles. Travis' earthy, logical, quizzical, downright cowboy response: "Leaving the ground -- why?"