Thursday, March 29, 2007

Billy Wilder's Tips For Writers

I was cleaning out a closet and I found this list, written on loose leaf paper, and presumably transcribed back in grad school from Cameron Crowe's interview book with writer/director Billy Wilder. Obviously I thought these tips (not rules, mind you) were worth saving and following and therefore they are also worth sharing:

1) The audience is fickle.


3) Develop a clean line of action for your leading character

4) Know where you're going.

5) The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6) If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is the first act.

7) A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.

8 )In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.

9) The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10) The third act must build, build, build in temp and action until the last event and then —

11) — that's it. DON'T HANG AROUND.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Classic Trailer Theater: No Holds Barred Trailer

I'm finding YouTube to be a marvelous source of period trailers and if you know me at all, you know I love period trailers. And if you do know me, you also know I love Hulk Hogan, which sort of makes this the coolest thing ever made, cooler even that a Spider-Man comic book written by George Pelecanos and illustrated by God himself. I give you: HULK!

Man, I miss the days when it was perfectly okay for a movie to just be about two bald, oily men punching each other for 85 minutes. We think we're so advanced now with our computer generated effects and our hybrid catering trucks but tell me this: can any of that get you a dude breaking cinderblocks with his fist just for kicks? I think not!


This is kind of hilarious

I'd been quoted before on a DVD (a movie I hated called Slutty Summer used a quote out of context from my negative review to make it sound like a compliment), but never by name. Look at this:

By the by, in my original review, I said a single shot was "creepy as hell," not the whole movie, which I wouldn't recommend purchasing (stick to a rental). Rob, when do I start receiving royalties on the DVDs?

And, yes, I will sign any copy put in front of me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Number Twenty-(YAWN)

Of the 20 movies Joel Schumacher has made, only two of them were released in the fall months, traditionally the gilded age of cinema in the calendar year. The rest were products of the summer blockbuster season (e.g. Batman and Robin) or "Spring Dumps," a term my housemate coined and that has no actual meaning. Of course, the point is taken: springtime ain't generally a good time for cinema, while the summer is a season of over-production, implausible narratives, and probably a lot of fiery explosions to replace characters that are worth a damn. The fall months, to the contrary are full of delicious Oscar delights--Hollywood high art (or high-er anyway), provocative stories, and classic directors.

Schumacher's flick Flawless, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a drag queen who teaches recent stroke victim Robert DeNiro to sing, was out in November 1999, and Veronica Guerin about an assassinated Irish journalist, was released in October 2003. All the rest were put out in the cinema slump months between January and August. But I am lying. Who could forget D.C. Cab with Mr. T ("Let the wackiest Cab Co. in Town take you for a ride!") released on December 16, 1983? (Was that out before the Academy made their nominations that year?)

My point: Schumacher is not known for great movies, and his release dates are a good measure of that. In his defense, I have a soft spot for Batman Forever (though I haven't seen it since the summer of 1995), and Phone Booth was rather suspenseful considering the whole movie took place in a phone booth on one street scene. His most recent The Number 23, however, clinched a permanent place for him as a mediocre director--and again, it was released just last month, February 23, Hollywood's hibernation period.

There are a lot of problems with this wanna-be B-film, mostly that its noir-ish look is too manufactured to take seriously. It doesn't help when I burst out laughing at the dramatic delivery of some of Jim Carey's lines either. The photography was either under-lit or under-exposed, which gave it a gray complexion, and actually made it difficult to see at some points. It wasn't the low, work-with-what-you've-got budget of old B's, like Edgar G. Ulmer's overhead high-key light that paints his characters with black eyes in Detour (1945). The Number 23 had $32 million to work with, a bit different from Detour's $30,000. Kick up the exposure or wattage on Schumacher's movie in other words, and what you've got is an picture uninspired, and plain homogenous.

Also, The Onion had this to say, and it's way more scathing and hilarious than the wrangling of my words.

I Think I Love My Wife (2007)

Last week on IFC News, Termite Art's own R. Emmet Sweeney wrote an enthusiastic appreciation of Chris Rock's latest effort as writer/director/star, I Think I Love My Wife, proclaiming it "one of the must-see films of the year." As fans of both Chris Rock and R. Emmet Sweeney that's all I need to go pay my money and see the movie. Sadly, I was let down by both of these incredibly talented men. I do agree with Mr. Sweeney that the ending is divine and that I Think's Viagra joke may be the finest ever committed to film. But that's about where our opinions diverge.

To be certain, Rock displays a great deal more filmmaking acumen than he made in his directorial debut, Head of State. I think it shows a great deal of promise from Rock as a filmmaker, particularly if he continues to indulge his experimental side, as in the aforementioned ending. It's also his best performance ever as an actor, in that it's the least Chris Rock-like role he's taken on. His on-stage comedic persona — the ascending voice, the rapid-fire delivery, those signature hand gestures — is almost totally absent in his portrayal of upper middle class investment banker Richard Cooper. I chided Inside the Actors Studio for including Rock on its program recently, because the guy doesn't ever "act," he just plays "Chris Rock" over and over — a fact he even admits on his appearance on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell. I Think I Love My Wife is his first true performance as an actor.

If you've heard Rock's recent appearance on The Treatment (you can download the podcast for free on iTunes) you know he's a canny student of the movies and not just a comedian looking to make movie money. I think he's probably got a very good movie in him, but I still think it's a movie or two away. He pushed himself as a director and as an actor, but he still needs to stretch as a writer.

Based on the Rohmer movie Love in the Afternoon, the film watches Cooper as he scratches the seven year itch in his marriage. Happy, with a lovely wife (Gina Torres) and two young kids, he's nevertheless entranced by the return of an old and very foxy friend, Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington) and flirts with an affair throughout the movie. I Think I Love My Wife is the perfect scenario for a Rock vehicle and that's the problem. It's too perfect. Though he's never made a movie about it, this is already well-worn material for Rock. Without having ever seen Love in the Afternoon (embarrassing admission: I haven't), any Rock fan will be disappointed to learn, over the course of watching the movie, that they know the ultimate outcome and message of the movie because it's essentially an old (and ingenious) Chris Rock bit from the Bring the Pain days.

The material is called "The Only Question that Matters," and if I've done this right, this link will take you to the full text of the joke in something called "Google Books," which apparently has the full text of Rock's awesome stand-up book, Rock This, available to read online (Who knew?). It's a bit racy, but here's an excerpt:

A man may say, "Okay, I guess this is it." He may get married and have kids. But years down the line, none of it really matters unless he's made the most important decision."

Committment...or New Pussy?

On the one hand, there's commitment: You and your woman together, forever. Living, sharing, loving, growing. It's the most beautiful thing in the world, and in his heart of hearts a man knows that.

On the other hand there's New Pussy. This needs no explanation.

That, in a nutshell, is I Think I Love My Wife only in funnier, shorter, more potent form. Nothing in the film is as good as Rock's earlier standup routine, and very little of it, as it pertains to the central thesis, is any more insightful. Why pay eleven dollars to see a watered down retread of a brilliant routine you already know?

The thing I liked best about Rock in I Think I Love My Wife is his relationship with his kids. He's surprisingly touching in his deep affection for them and I think that's where Rock needs to push himself onscreen because he hasn't really tackled this subject yet in a lot of detail. Instead of going out on the road and doing another comedy special centered on fatherhood (which I suspect will probably be his next major creative endeavor), I think, as a legitimiate cinematic artist, he should hone the material, develop a story, and craft a film around it. I think I'd love to see that movie.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 26, 2007

YouTubeArt: Arnold Schwarzenegger Savagely Beats A Guy in a Bear Suit

And now a titanic battle even more ferocious than David O. Russell verbally donkey kicking Lily Tomlin — it's Arnold Schwarzenegger versus a stunt man dressed like a bear:

After watching this monumentally bad scene from 1970's Hercules in New York (a.k.a. Hercules Goes Bananas a.k.a. Box Office Poison), it's hard to believe anyone involved would be permitted to ever work in movies again, let alone become the biggest movie star in the world. From humble beginnings...


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eijanaika (1981)

The Shohei Imamura fest rolls on at BAM, and Friday was graced with an absolutely beautiful print of Eijanaika, an ecstatically raucous film from 1981. It's set in mid-19th century Japan, during the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of its Westernization following Commodore Perry's arrival in 1853. The shogunate is warring with a loose cadre of rebels aiming to restore the imperial throne, which results in the Meiji Restoraion of 1868. But Imamura is no top-down filmmaker, he's a down and further down filmmaker, so the historical upheaval is just a backdrop to the struggle for the survival of Genji, a poor itinerant recently returned from abroad in the US after his boat shipwrecked. He returns to find that his wife has been sold off and is now working in Edo as a sideshow performer in a classy program entitled "Tickle the Goddess" (it is what you think it is).

He rushes off to find her and soon gets embroiled in internecine warfare, hired by the local pimp to play both sides off the other (there's a great scene where he tells him and a couple other thugs to incite a riot but protect the landowners at the same time - he's getting paid by both).

Imamura depicts Edo as a Rabelaisian madhouse - packed to the gills with screaming, braying, clawing, fucking people just trying to scrape by. The impenetrable political web of betrayals and double-crossings just adds to the atmosphere - trying to follow every plot thread would give you an aneurysm.

The choreography of masses of actors in the frame is impressive - such chaos doesn't come about accidentally, and the richness of color in the costuming is overwhelming, especially in the final half-hour - which contains one of the most jubilant scenes of communal protest I've ever seen. It all starts with another sideshow, this time a caricature of the can-can, starring Genji's wife once again. But soon it morphs into a wild free-for-all, as the crowd busts out of the tent and heads across the bridge to the Shogun's army, as they all chant "Eijanaika", or "Why Not?". I won't give anything else away - other than it's an overwhelming bit of pure cinema.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Footsteps in the Dark is just so wonderfully absurd; there's maybe eight minutes in this movie that could exist in the real world: they rest is pure poppycock. It concerns a wealthy married banker (played by Errol Flynn) who moonlights as popular mystery novelist, F.X. Pettijohn, whose latest novel, "Footsteps in the Dark," is a runaway bestseller. Only in the movies could a banker take six to eight hour lunch breaks and not fall behind in his work. Only in the movies would a wife not notice the ladder her husband keeps perched under her window so he can sneak in undetected at night. And only in the movies would the police let a mystery novelist follow them around on real cases, which is what Flynn's Frances Warren (or Pettijohn, as the cops call him) does when an acquaintance of his never shows up for a meeting and winds up dead on a yacht.

The "only in the movies" continue to pile up, right down to the climax, one of the most absurd and hilarious talkative villain endings I have ever seen. (Here's your SPOILER WARNING, should you care. I'm about to make fun of the ending.) Eventually Warren realizes that a dentist he'd recently visited for a cleaning (Ralph Bellamy) is behind everything, and he goes to his office, fakes a toothache and worms his way into the dentist chair. While the dentist preps to yank the tooth, Warren suggests he knows who killed the murder victim, and the dentist, sensing he's in trouble, pulls out the "special" anesthetic. Then while the dentist yammers on, he turns his back on Warren, who has enough time to pour the entire bottle of poison down the drain and refill it with water, so when the dentist injects it, it's totally harmless. Not smart. Attention movie villains: keep your poison within reach at all times. Only in the movies is someone smart enough to poison someone but dumb enough to leave the stuff lying around willy nilly. (Best interaction in the scene: Bellamy: "Well, what's your final conclusion?" Flynn: "That your conduct's been very unprofessional!")

Most of the plot's right out of The Thin Man, but Flynn's as his charming best, and really ideal for the role, even if Robin Hood would have robbed this guy blind. For such an airy movie, the story's awfully complex, with more than its share of dead ends (If there was a payoff to murder victim's manservant's enigmatic scowling I missed it). But I'd almost always rather be behind a movie rather than ahead of it — what's the point of watching a mystery if you know how it's going to turn out?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

YouTubeArt: Jim Carrey, David Caruso

Jim, please, do me and the rest of us long-time fans a favor. Stop making "serious" movies. You can act; you know it, I know it, and everyone who's seen Man on the Moon knows it. And stop working with Joel Schumacher! It's the best for all of us. Just be funny. Look how good you are at it! Studio execs don't want to let you do your big silly movies anymore? Do an HBO Comedy hour. You'll kill.

Oh and one more thing: please cut your hair. Unless your next movie is about a Canadian, hockey-playing hippie, there is absolutely no reason you should be walking around with that thing on top of your head.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

You kind of have to be an obsessive nerd to really love David Fincher's Zodiac. I'm an obessive nerd, hence I loves me some Zodiac.

Being an obsessive nerd means I'm consumed with deciding where it belongs in the Fincher canon with Fight Club, Se7en, and Panic Room (As an obsessive nerd, I also feel obligated to at least name The Game and Alien 3, even though don't belong in the same category). At this point, I feel like it might be the best of all of them but I definitely need to see it a second time, and I definitely want to (say it with me one last time: obsessive...nerd...)

Though reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, most of the people I know personally who saw it were decidedly lukewarm and my trusted chums on the utterly essential podcast Filmspotting weren't a whole lot hotter. But I had two hours and forty minutes to kill and I do enjoy all the genres the movie appeared to be from the trailer: a cop film, a serial killer movie, a horror film, a thriller, a chase movie, and a period piece that doesn't call attention to its period-ness. Zodiac is all of these things — and it is all of these things rather successfully, I think — but it is primarily a story of the rabid pursuit of an illogical goal. Robert Graysmith said so himself in his introduction to the book on the Zodiac Killer that formed the basis for Fincher's film: "If there is one key word for the entire story of the Zodiac mystery, it is obsession." In some ways, I think that makes Zodiac, whatever details Fincher leaves out of the true chronology of events, one of the most faithful adaptations of all times. Obsession is palpable in nearly every frame: from the heroes, from the villains, and, above all, from the director himself.

(And, yes, as further proof of my own wacked out brain, I know this quote is in Graysmith's book because I left the movie theater and promptly walked over to a large, incorporated book seller and purchased the mass market paperback edition of it — a characteristically fantatical and overenthusiastic gesture on my part)

Graysmith was just a cartoonist at The San Francisco Chronicle when a psychopath began writing letters to the media confessing to several murders in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1968 and 1969. He also sent complex code ciphers that he demanded be printed in the paper, or he'd kill more. The case was never officially solved, and to this day its not entire clear who Zodiac was and even what crimes he committed and which he simply took credit for. There's a great deal of confusion surrounding the entire case, right down to what the killer looked like: different witnesses had different physical descriptions, so Fincher even got different actors to play Zodiac, based on the specific incident.

All the performances are dynamite, right down to the little ones, including Brian Cox as a lawyer who gets embroiled with the Zodiac when he demands to speak with him on live television, and Anthony Edwards (sporting an absolutely glorious toupee...Nicholas Cage, you need to work with Edwards' wigist ASAP) as Mark Ruffalo's exhausted partner in the SFPD. The murder scenes are cover-your-eyes terrifying, and the police investigations absolutely riveting. Maybe I'm crazy, and I was the only one laughing in the theater, but I thought the movie was also quite hilarious at times. But you've got to be as much of a nut as you are an obsessive nerd to get Fincher's sense of humor (Remember Fight Club? It's like Fight Club except the actors don't sell the jokes).

On my good friend Mike Anderson's blog, Tativille, someone critiqued James Vanderbilt's screenplay for feeling "incomplete" (in not including enough on Paul Avery's life after he left The Chronicle, for example) and for its shifting narrative focus. They were well-reasoned, and well-argued criticisms, but I disagreed: Avery's life after The Chronicle is also his life after The Zodiac, and thus largely irrelevant to the film, except in the ways it can teach us how the Zodiac investigation impacted and, to varying degrees, destroyed the men who undertook it and, to my mind, Fincher and Vanderbilt address all of these issues adequately. And I dug the multiple perspectives as well, if only because through them I felt Fincher and his own fevered desire for the truth about Zodiac coming through. In essence, he is committed to presenting the most interesting, the most disturbing, the most truthful facts of the Zodiac case at any given moment. At times, that means we must follow Toschi, and other times it means following Avery and, later, Graysmith. Sometimes that means seeing the Zodiac's killings, or seeing acts that could have been committed by the Zodiac.

The ultimate star of Zodiac isn't the killer, or even Gyllenhaal, Downey, or Ruffalo. Instead, it's the weird specter of dread and fixation that hung over San Francisco and many of its citizens like a fog rolling over the Golden Gate Bridge. It's the same specter I felt when I walked out of the theater and over to that bookstore to buy Graysmith's book. I understood the need to know more, loved the way Fincher showed me everything he could, and appreciated the slight hint at the end that there was even more out there for me to discover on my own.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

YouTubeArt: David O. Russell Gets Mad

This is the infamous Lily Tomlin vs. David O. Russell clip that's been circulating on the internet the last few days (and I seemingly couldn't find for just as long). It's totally bananas. And awesome. I get the feeling it won't be up for long, so check it out before it's gone!

(As seen, at least in this version, on Reverse Shot)


Classic Trailer Theater: Gymkata Trailer

A friendly reminder that Gymkata is STILL available on DVD and you STILL need to own it and that "when gymnastics and karate are fused, the combustion becomes an EXPLOSION!"

Labels: ,

Clerks. (1994)

I hadn't watched Clerks, a defining film of my teenage and college years, in at least half a decade, which means that when I caught it on TMC on Friday night, it was the first time I'd watched the (non)adventures of Dante and Randal as their elder.

Being older than the guys in Clerks is a weird and disturbing feeling. I don't know that I looked up to Dante and Randal when I was high school, because for all their charms they're basically losers and I knew that way back then, but I certainly looked up to Kevin Smith, the local boy from a couple towns over than me in Central NJ who turned his love of pop culture, comics, and good conversation into a career as a filmmaker. I was and am a Smith fan, though his recent work in film and comics has been hit or miss: I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through Jersey Girl again even though I've got a teeny tiny cameo as an extra in a crowd scene, and I never even read the last issue of his absurdly delayed Spider-Man comic The Evil That Men Do (another book, Daredevil: Target has been M.I.A. since the fall of 2002!).

To my relief and delight, Clerks holds up. Even better, the significant criticism of the film — that its poorly shot — seems to fall away. There is a difference between something that's poorly shot and something that's crudely shot. Clerks is crudely shot, but there's something about the grainy black and white photography, the dreary gray skies, grungy Quick Stop floors, and lengthy, static two-shots that speak to the reality of day-to-day New Jersey living in a way that none of Smith's subsequent work (except maybe Chasing Amy) approaches. For people who do what Dante and Randal do; that is, work in a store, and sit around and talk (something I did every summer between the years 1998 and 2003 and then for a full year following my alleged "graduation" from college), this is what it looks and feels like, as opposed to, say, the excessively bright and pretty version of New Jersey (actually California) presented in the otherwise-pretty-awesome sequel, Clerks II.

I think because the humor is so strong and so over the top I'd never noticed how inherently depressing the ending of Clerks really is (it's still not as big of a downer as the original ending; where a random thief robs the Quick Stop and murders Dante). Instead of having two women to choose between, Dante winds up with none. By the end of the movie he's been fined, assaulted, ridiculed, and learned his current girlfriend (soon to be ex) is intimiately familiar with almost two score penises. The only bright spot is the fact that the store is closed and thus the day from hell is over and that, perhaps, Dante will move forward from this terrible day with a better understanding of himself and his own ability to shape his own destiny rather than whining about his inability to change things in his life. Of course, the movie ends before we can see if he's going to actively do anything about that and, indeed, as Clerks II begins, he's still a wage slave at the Quick Stop. Even if Smith celebrates the retail worker, he also puts him in his place as well.

When I was 17 ("it was a very good year"), I hoped that my life in my 20s would look like Chasing Amy while I dreaded that it would actually be like Clerks. Now that I'm more than halfway through them its clear that it's a little of both and a lot of neither, but I'm glad to see that it doesn't diminish a movie I spent a great deal of my formative years watching. It always gives me a warm feeling to watch something I loved when I was young and stupid today and realize my taste was right all along. Unlike, say, Transformers: The Movie. Man, that's a piece of crap.

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Intentions of Murder (1964)

Next up at BAM's Shohei Imamura fest is Intentions of Murder, a 2 1/2 hour nightmare ode to female endurance. Sadako lives like a wife with a low-level white-collar worker, Riichi, without being registered as such with the state. He had taken in her and her child, but treats them as maid and unwanted ward. When Sadako is raped by a thief when alone in the house, she attempts suicide, but holds off wanting to see her son one more time. The more she holds off, the clearer it becomes she will do no such thing....and then the rapist returns to declare his love and asks her to run away with him. The murderous intentions swing his way, with the oft delayed suicide pushed further back until this deed is done.

Like the previous year's The Insect Woman, Intentions investigates a female character who is neither martyr, hero, or terribly sympathetic, but simply a survivor (they also both include false teeth as punchlines). It's an animalistic view of humanity, the instinct to survive overwhelming any other operative morality or principle. She is sloppy and overweight, makes decisions based not on reason but on impulse, and then backs down from them when faced with reality. She stumbles her way to independence.

It's the most self-consciously stylish film I've seen from him, with virtuoso following shots into and outside trains, a bird's eye 360 degree twirl, cramped looming close-ups (see photos!) and scads of deep focus setups, the most remarkable when Sadako struggles in bonds in the back room while in the foreground the attacker faces away from us, in front of a light bulb swinging back and forth that intermittently reveals her straining body. A brutalizing and troubling experience.

Profound Desire of the Gods (1968)

There are so many must see retrospectives in NYC right now that I'm falling perilously behind in my new releases. Or so I tell myself. But with Kiarostami at MoMA and Imamura at BAM I've been lost in the past.

Last night proved to be a delicious abyss. Profound Desire of the Gods is a Shohei Imamura epic, a scope color film that tanked so badly he retreated to make documentaries through much of the 70s. But it won the Kinema Jumpo
poll in '68 and is much admired by the likes of Bernard Tavernier and Jonathan Demme. Feel free to add me as well.

It's your basic civilazation vs. wilderness tale, as a small island off Japan, stuck in pre-industrial traditions, finds itself scouted by a mainland engineer for possible development. The island head taps some locals to thwart the emissary at every turn. This is the framework of the plot, as it is, but there's so much meat on it one forgets it's simplicity. It's structured around the story of the island's founding gods, the tale of which a legless minstrel sings to the local children and is repeated throughout. Two gods, a brother and a sister, fuck in order to populate the island. One family on the island, the Futori's, take the gods as a template, and engage in a incestual olympiad, with father-daughter, brother-sister, and sister-brother co-minglings. They are dismissed as outcasts, which is confirmed when a typhoon drops a big red boulder on their property. The town won't forgive them until they dig a hole large enough to drop the boulder in. Acting like the gods is a no-no.

But the engineer soon falls in lust with the half-wit daughter, and goes native, which does little to stop the bulldozing of their land. The film doesn't take a facile stance for development or preservation, but delineates the losses incurred by both. It ends in a stunning boat chase - the culmination of virulent small-town gossip to rival that in The Magnificent Ambersons.

The photography was stunning, with the running visual motif being an animal crawling in foreground as the pitiable humans fuck themselves up. A snake, a donkey, and a crab moving homes perform this essential function of the nature's unconcern.

This is a shame really, because it means I have to lighten my wallet and go see more Imamura. Goddamn it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Termite Art Classic: Caligula (1979)

Note: I wrote a column for three years on a website owned by Kevin Smith called Movie Poop Shoot. It is now defunct and so is the column. But it occurs to me that most of the people who read this blog who aren't my parents have never ready any of that stuff. Until tonight, I hadn't looked at it in years, and assumed all of it was crap. By my current estimates, I was at least 80% right. But some of it holds up, and I will occasionally share it here, in the interest of posterity, and maintaining a healthy flow of content without doing any writing. Please to enjoy, Matt Singer: The Early Years.

Back in olden times, say before 1965, nudity was only permissible on the big screen in the context of education. Bookers travelled the country promoting these pictures, the first true "exploitation" films, in roadshows. Of course the educational value was ignored; the only people who went to see these pictures were those looking to see naked men or women. CALIGULA, made at the end of the 1970s during the efforts by some to make porn legitimate, has the vibe of one of those older hygiene pictures: salacious material for paying audiences and history lessons for conservatives who try to call it obscene.

With the former goal in mind, CALIGULA is packed to the gills with naked people. Nearly everyone in the enormous cast appears at least once in the buff; even star Malcolm McDowell pees on screen at one point (Thankfully, aging co-star Peter O'Toole's wrinkled flesh remains relatively obscured). But despite a few orgy scenes, most of the nudity comes in the form of background characters in ancient Rome who simply go about their daily lives without clothes on. To my eye CALIGULA offers sexy mundaneness in the form of: naked lounging, naked house chores, naked jogging, naked conversation, naked manual labor, naked deliberating, naked courier service, naked drum playing, and naked war. See that's real poverty: being so poor you can't even afford clothes. And we're not talking expensive designer brands; these guys can't even afford a plain white sheet.

Otherwise serious scenes of conspiratorial intrigue are interspersed with jarring crotch shots. No scene in CALIGULA is too asexual that it can't be spiced up with a quick anatomy lesson. One guard caught drunk on the job gets his weiner hung up in a noose, then forced fed wine, then sliced open with a sword so all the blood and wine pour out of him, and we get to watch it all with the poor actor's wang in full view. I think I have an uncle who died like that.

One early dialogue scene between the incestuous Caligula (McDowell) and Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) offers no close-ups of the two as they speak, choosing instead to zoom in on a shot of Ms. Savoy's vagina as she wags her butt in the air. Well the dialogue (by Gore Vidal) is terrible, but at least the view is nice.

Now that I think of it, over and over again, there are few close-ups of anyone speaking; CALIGULA seems presented entirely in long shots and takes, and scenes play out in front of us as if on a stage, on sets that are richly detailed but visually flat. Everything occurs as if recorded from a camera placed in the audience of a Broadway theater (possibly one on 42nd Street). The end result looks sort of like Masterpiece Porno Theater, an idea that would really boost pledge drive revenues if public television every got really desperate.

This ancient lunacy was devised by Bob Guccione, the creator of Penthouse Magazine. According to a recent Vanity Fair article, Guccione put $17.5 million of his own money into the project and directed several of its scenes after director Tinto Brass quit over creative issues (Perhaps Brass felt it was more important to see Miss Savoy's face than her undercarriage when she spoke). His credit reads "Principal Photography by Tinto Brass;" Vidal's reads "Adapted From A Screenplay by Gore Vidal." Those titles dilute their guilt, but don't disperse it entirely, since none of the photography or story is any good and they surely contributed to both.

CALIGULA isn't sexy enough to work as pornography, nor interesting enough to work has costume drama. It's also nefariously long, and eventually a little too confusing to follow; I watched the entire film but I can't recall a single thing that happened after Caligula's sister dies. CALIGULA is sort of a good example of why porn and non-porn didn't end up mixing well; this sort of movie has a strange uncomfortable tone. It's difficult to be aroused by an incestuous relationship surrounded by scenes of violent torture and decadent weirdness. Maybe that's just me.

Still, I sort of liked the scene where McDowell's Caligula, sick with fever, lies in a bed beside his beloved horse while shouting "He's going to kill me!" I suspect he was talking about his agent.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

YouTubeArt: The Two Beats

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano and Kaneko "Beat" Kiyoshi in 1981 on an unnamed talk show. After only seeing Kitano in his nearly wordless gangster films - this is pretty amazing stuff, regardless that I can't understand it. The rhythms they get in their rapid fire back and forth are funny on their own.

Labels: ,

Termite Television: Inside the Actors Studio

(Or: "Put This Pathetic Creature Out of Its Misery")

I couldn't sleep last night, and it wasn't the anticipation of the plane ride home from Austin that was doing it. No, it was a completely ridiculous late night episode of Inside the Actors Studio, a show that has increasingly become the least essential interview show on television. You don't watch ItAS to learn about the craft of acting; you watch to learn just how desperate one man is to hobnob with movie stars, and how desperate movie stars are for compliments.

I think the craft of acting is very interesting. When a good actor has something to say about it, that's worth my time without a doubt. And Inside the Actors Studio has had some incredible guests over the years, including Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, and Clint Eastwood. They replayed a Eastwood episode a few weeks ago — it's a few years old now — and man is it good. They talked about everything from Leone to Unforgiven. Great stuff.

But after almost 200 episodes and now in its 13th (!!!) season, The Actors Studio is starting to strain for guests. I recently saw an episode with Diana Ross: quick name one movie she's been in besides Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz? Trick question; there are none. Ross' episode was particularly pointless, but it's far from an aberration; here's a sample of the people who, however talented, had absolutely no right appearing on Inside the Actors Studio in recent years: Elton John, Barbara Walters, George Carlin, Roseanne, Billy Joel, and Jay Leno. I've never seen Leno's episode but I imagine the exchange about Collision Course was incredibly enlightening.

Whatever else it started out as, Inside the Actors Studio has basically turned into just another talk show, albeit one with lengthier interviews and a more eccentric host (more on him in a bit). The only people who go on it now are the people with something to promote; typically said host, James Lipton, builds up to his discussion of that release, which he has always seen "at a special screening" or "an early, unfinished print" and with an air of awed solemnity, as if he's just seen the Shroud of Turin instead of The Da Vinci Code. And, to be clear, lengthy doesn't mean in depth. The conversation is superficial and heavy on bootlickery. Often Lipton reveres work that even his guests readily admit is flawed or not worth discussing. These aren't softballs; these are beach balls.

The episode that had me completely riveted was a new one involving Chris Rock (promoting his new, Rohmer-remake I Think I Love My Wife). Chris Rock is a remarkably gifted comedian; easily one of the two or three finest and funniest of his generation, and definitely someone who deserves consideration if you're drawing up a list of the best of all time. But he is not a good actor. I've seen him in a lot of movies; at his best he plays a twist on his comedic persona (Dogma, Lethal Weapon 4) and at worst is an unfunny, awkward twist on his comedic persona (Head of State and the truly revolting Bad Company).

In short, no one should be getting acting tips from Chris Rock, but there he is, up on stage, imparting his accumulated wisdom to impressionable youngsters and an absurdly enthused host. Really, you haven't lived, or laughed, until you've heard James Lipton intone, in all sincerity, "Chris, then you made a film of which I am an unapologetic fan of. Who is...Pootie Tang?!?!?"

Man that's good stuff. Lipton, you're crazy. But I feel like you're so sincere in your flattery, or at least so consistent with it, that it's amusing. Worth watching for educational value? Not really. But for unintended laughs? You betcha. I mean just look at this guy:

That guy is bananas.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

You Haven't Seen a Movie Until You've Seen One At the Alamo Drafthouse

I could have sworn I wrote this exact same post last year, but I can't find it in the Termite Art-chives. But even if I had, I really can't stress it enough: no movie fan should go a lifetime without seeing a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. Frankly, I'm not entire sure you can call yourself a movie fan before you've made the pilgrimage -- it's like movie mecca, or something.

The Drafthouse is actually a chain (franchise opportunities are available!) but the experience is the same at each one. Seating is stadium-style, and in front of each row is a lengthy table, with extensive menus, replete with sandwiches, salads, pizzas, dessert, and — wait for it — alcohol. You write your order down, stick it out the end of the table, and one of the Drafthouse's surprisingly quick staff (surprisingly because if you made me wait tables in a movie theater I'd spend most of the time staring at the screen) grabs it and gets your order. You sit in relaxed splendor and have your order served to you while you watch the film. The mood is light, spirits are high, and the atmosphere is warm and positive. It's hard to not enjoy yourself at the Drafthouse.

In other words it is the greatest innovation in movie watching since Technicolor. Not every cinematic experience could be improved via the Drafthouse (I think I'd pass on The Sorrow and the Pity Alamo-style), but most could. Particularly comedies, where the free-flowing booze definitely increasing audience propensity towards vocal response, and horror, because when people are watching really gory disgusting movies while chowing on bacon cheeseburgers, there's a chance somebody could puke everywhere, and that makes it even scarier.

I've seen a couple good movies here at SXSW '07 (Who knew Gregg Araki was so freakin' funny?!?), but the one night we could get over to the Drafthouse, nothing looked good (and by the time we arrived the one potential option was already sold out). Some fools went home, but two of us stayed to watch Reno 911!: Miami. Now, I am not a Reno fan — I'm not morally opposed to it, I've just never really gotten into it. But it looked like a dumb comedy, and that's perfect for the Drafthouse (In one of my two previous Drafthouse experiences I'd seen Talladega Nights which was a perfect meeting of movie and venue).

It's a pretty funny movie, and I would have thought so even if I'd watched it all by myself on my television at home, but in the Drafthouse, it mutates into a transcendant experience. No commercials before the movie begins at the Drafthouse, just cool shorts that relate to the movie you're there to see. In this case, it was Reno 911! trivia. Amongst the well-selected trailers and coming attractions for awesome-sounding Drafthouse events (how about a night of the best commercials of the 1980s?) were some really weird and delightful treats — including a absurd/hilarious trailer for a 20-year-old Judge Reinhold cop movie. I don't know who programs the films and the preshow but their aesthetic is maybe the best blend of cool and geeky in the universe.

As for our menu selections? We'd foolishly eaten dinner elsewhere, so it was dessert: freshly baked cookies and what was, sincerely, one of the best milkshakes I'd ever had in my life. Their secret: fresh whipped cream and mini-M&M's. The massive sugar high only enhanced the laughs. It was a great time.

Bless you Drafthouse. Bless your sticky-floored heart.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The 2007 Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference

I'm a lapsed academic, having forsaken the ivory tower of higher learning for the grungy apartment of film distribution and occassional freelance criticism (and blogging). My enthusiasms run too wide and too shallow to be fulfilled by the rigorous niche-filling of a Ph.D. program (I snagged an M.A. in Cinema Studies in '05). I'm also quite lazy, so I can't envision myself plowing through Deleuze and Bergson without going mad. But I'm grateful for those who manage to put themselves through the wringer and still maintain a love of the movies, who place theories at the service of the films, and not the other way around.

Which is why I was excited to attend the 2007 SCMS conference in Chicago this past weekend, held at the Hilton on Michigan Ave. A massive gathering of film academics from all over the world, it offered an endless number of panels, screenings, and emptied bottles of cheap wine. Some highlights, filmic and otherwise, follow.

Best paper title: "Foreign Women and Toilets" (Katarzyna Marciniak, left, Ohio University/USC)

-This enigmatic title was listed under the "Scales of Abjection" panel, and took place at 10:15AM on Sunday, March 11. I, much to my chagrin, could not attend, as sleep triumphed over porcelain throne philosophizing.

Best paper
: "Fury, Censorship, and the Politics of Lynching" (Amy Wood, University of North Carolina)

-Is it sad that the best presentation was by a historian and not a film scholar? I blame Deleuze. Regardless, this was a lucidly presented and scrupulously researched lecture that placed Fritz Lang's 1936 film in the context of the anti-lynching rhetoric of the time. Essentially her argument is that in eliding the racial aspect of lynching and presenting it as an affront to the general notion of law & order, the film dovetailed with the anti-lynching rhetoric that was gaining traction in the South, giving them a reason to deride the practice without confronting the racial attitudes behind it. It was fascinating to hear how leftist critics like Otis Ferguson took the film to task for this reason, while the NAACP and the black press fully embraced it as a powerful polemic that would boost their cause. Wood notes that the film was a modest box office success, and played well in Southern cities that had brutal lynchings only a few years before.

Professor whose office hours I would visit at every opportunity: Lucy Mazdon (University of Southampton)

-Lucy Mazdon presented a paper entitled "Transnational Cinematic Traffic and the Remake", which tracked how British industry and audiences dealt with French imports, with Clouzot's Wages of Fear as the major case study. She posited these transnational premieres as their own type of remake, as they are marketed and received in remarkably different ways in different countries. She was incredibly engaging and down to earth - and as easily impressionable as I am, I was smitten. The only panel during which I asked a question.

Best University Party: Duke University

-I attended three University parties on Saturday night: NYU, University of Chicago, and Duke. The NYU party blew up at a room at the Hilton, the Chicago party occurred at the department on their campus, and the Duke party layed claim to Andy's Jazz Club, a touristy and rather un-listenable live venue. The NYU-fest held claim to a variety of bald pates and New Balance sneakers, with a smattering of leather shirts and flouncy skirts. There was a brief wine-shortage scare, but I had hidden a small bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, which would hold me through the night. The conversations revolved around everyone's new publications, as this was an alumni reunion more than a party. I secreted myself in a corner with my generous hosts (and NYU chums), Scarlett Cinema's own P.L. Kerpius and her man-friend, Chicago Ph.D. candidate Matt Hauske.

-The Chicago party was a student-oriented affair, with the gray hairs ensconced in various corners bathing in the glow of yearning faces in need of validation. Tom Gunning, right, held court in the back, while I just held back. The talk revolved around upcoming papers, examinations, and what the next destination would be. Apparently the food was top notch (wraps!), but alas, all we saw were limp garnishes of lettuce. I still had Johnnie.

-An unknown party directed us to Andy's, where the Dukies were gathered. I talked to a professor from Greece who claimed her students go on strike every six months, allowing her to attend the conference. This conversation alone launched Duke into the winners circle. Add in drunken tourists, cheap cigars, and furtive arguments about Von Sternberg, and Duke is the clear victor.

There were many more Cinema Studies thrills and chills (Malcom Turvey's Vertov and Bergson paper was hot!), but those will have to be reserved for a later date, if I don't forget first.

In conclusion, when in Chicago, visit the Velvet Lounge.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Slightly More Termite (Sequential) Art: The "Death" Of Captain America

From the partner-in-crime:

The Death of Captain America is on the front page of the NY Times website right now. I need your sage commentary on the significance of this.

I would have loved to write a whole addendum to my original post on this, but this hasn't been the week to do it, I'm just too busy. But briefly...

First of all: either the American news media are total idiots or Wednesday was the slowest news day in the history of the free press. Listen very closely:

Captain America is not dead.

He looks dead. He sounds dead. He probably smells dead. But he is alive. Or he will be. I've got the over/under on his return at eighteen months right now, and I'm feeling very generous. Disco is dead. Captain America is just taking a little nap.

Now, if this sort of event hadn't happened before, you couldn't fault the media for reporting it. It sounds, however superficially, kind of interesting. Captain America, one of the few true patriotic symbols our country has in literary form, dies. Big deal, right? People would probably want to know about this. That makes it sort of news. Fair enough.

But don't these people remember November of 1992, when Superman was "killed" and every newspaper and 24-hour newschannel got up in arms and freaked out? People were legitimately surprised by that, and had a right to, he was freaking Superman for crying out loud. And DC really sold the hell out of that thing, and in the comic itself it seemed pretty conclusive. Superman got his ass just straight-up beat.

He was alive and well less than ten months later, basically the same dude, only now he had a mullet. So his fashion sense died, but Superman did not.

Unfortunately, whatever character it is is irrelevant. It happens all the time. No one in comics stays dead. No one. It was a big deal when Marvel Comics killed Jean Grey a.k.a. The Phoenix, in the pages of 1980's Uncanny X-Men #137, sacrificing herself so that the power that was consuming her wouldn't cause anyone else any harm.

She stayed dead until 1986, when she was discovered by the Avengers in a cocoon at the bottom of the ocean in Avengers #263. Turned out she'd never died at all, an alien had taken her place. She's actually dead right now though, for real, and has been for about two years, but, again, probably not for too much longer.

Her compatriot Colossus died a few years back, and the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Joe Quesada, PROMISED he was dead and staying dead. He had this whole editorial edict: if you're dead, you're dead. Period.

Colossus is currently appearing monthly in Astonishing X-Men.

The DC Comics hero Green Arrow, a character with no super-powers other than really good aim, was blown up by a bomb, died. He was atomized. Poof.

Still, he found a way to come back to life — it involved demons and heaven and some help from his buddy Hal Jordan, who used to be Green Lantern, then died, became another hero called The Spectre, then came back to life and is now Green Lantern again.

In the entire history of super-hero comics, three prominent characters have stayed dead: Bucky (Cap's old teen sidekick from WWII, who died at the end of WWII saving Cap and the world from a deadly rocket), the second Robin, Jason Todd (Killed by a bomb planted by the Joker), and Uncle Ben, the guy whose death inspires Peter Parker to become Spider-Man.

And guess what: in the last two years, two of the three (Bucky and Jason Todd) came back to life, and the third one sort of did too (someone who looks like Uncle Ben is currently running around the pages of the surprisingly decent Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man).

You don't even have to be a hero. Peter Parker's beloved Aunt May died in a very emotional issue of Amazing Spider-Man. Aunt May was just an old lady; really she was frailer than an orphan in a Dickens novel.

And even SHE came back to life! And she just got shot AGAIN! Or dear...I hope she'll pull through! Eek!

I sound really mad, but I'm not. It just cracks me up. Death means nothing in comics. Nothing. Death is like the coffee break room of comics; head in there, smoke a butt, drink a Coke, take a load off for a half hour, and then boom you're back on the clock. Captain America will be back. Sooner than you think.

Oh wait, I just read Civil War: The Initiative #1, released the same week as Captain America#25, the book where Cap bites it. Here's some dialogue (all bolds are theirs):

Spider-Woman: Captain America is dead. Now tell me again what you're doing.
Ms. Marvel: He's not.
Spider-Woman: What?
Ms. Marvel: He's not.
Spider-Woman: You're lying.
Ms. Marvel: He's tucked away safe on the Raft. No one knows. No one. They're trying to save his life even as we speak.

Repeating our top story: CAPTAIN AMERICA IS NOT DEAD. We now return you to our regularly scheduled movie nerd talk.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

YouTubeArt: Peter Tscherkassky's L'Arrivee (1998)

Hey. Here's one of my favorite experimental filmmakers, Peter Tscherkassky, with a short film from 1998. It's about a girl and a train. Not necessarily in that order.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 05, 2007

Termite (Sequential) Art: Civil War 1-7

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

I had the incredible opporunity to write extensively and, I hope, intelligently, about Infinite Crisis, last year's company wide crossover from DC Comics, for The Village Voice. IC, by Geoff Johns, Phil Jimenez and a host of supporting creators, wasn't a particularly entertaining comic, but it was, at least, infinitely fascinating in the ways in which it addressed, dismissed, and validated comics' notoriously vocal audience. Would that things were different there, I'd like to think I'd have gotten a second opportunity to pull a similar trick with Marvel's just completed, even less entertaining, even more fascinating version, entitled Civil War. But hey, this is why God (a.k.a. R. Emmet Sweeney) created Termite Art. To serve as a place to write about crap that others wouldn't pay us to write about.

Civil War, a seven issue mini-series that spun off into companion issues in just about every in-continuity comic Marvel publishes, concerns a battle, as much ideological as physical, between the Marvel Universe's super-heroes. After an accident involving the super-hero group The New Warriors (basically a bunch of young, ill-trained novices) leads to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, the United States passes a law decreeing that all super-powered individuals must reveal their secret identities, register with the government and become licensed agents of the state. Some welcome the idea as a natural evolution of the super-hero's role in society: this group is ultimately led by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (a billionaire playboy industrialist who didn't have a bat handy to inspire him to fight crime, so he built a high-tech suit of armor instead). Others see the Registration Act as an infringement on civil liberties, refuse to conform to it, and head underground to fight it, thus becoming fugitives from the law who must be hunted down and captured. This faction is led by Captain America, a biogenetically engineered perfects soldier from World War II, frozen in ice for decades (whatever, it's a comic) and thawed out in our times.

The idea is sort of a comic book lover's wet dream, in that it takes the notion of super-heroes as seriously as its fans do and it addresses, in ways that were rarely addressed before some very fine books in the last several years, what life would really be like in a universe populated by beings powerful enough to melt steel just by looking at it. Since its explosive growth in popularity during the 1960s (thanks to the creative contributions of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others), Marvel has prided itself on being the comic books that take places in "the real world." DC's Batman lives in Gotham City; Marvel's Spider-Man lives in New York City. DC's Superman protects the underprivileged in Suicide Slum; Marvel's Daredevil watches the rooftops of Hell's Kitchen. Generally this is more a marketing tool than a reality borne out by content; for all the bluster, the Marvel Universe has plenty of its own made-up crap that has no basis in our world, not the least of which is the dude's in red and blue tights flitting about the Manhattan skyline on lines of adhesive string.

Civil War was a legitimate stab at a story with direct correllations to contemporary American society. It weighed issues of privacy versus security, personal freedoms versus mass protections. The series' tagline — "Whose side are you on?" — suggested Marvel brass hoped to instigate a full-on political debate, and, for a few moments at least (most of them before the first issues were released), the inter-web's comic book message boards were abuzz with actual dialogue about rights and ideas, rather than things like "Dude, Spider-Man's costume is LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAME!"

Then it all went horribly, horribly wrong. Like NFL SuperPro wrong.

Rather than portraying both sides equally, writer Mark Millar weighted the deck in the favor of Captain America's forces while basically portraying Iron Man's crew as a bunch of facist thugs with the morals of ill-bred Nazi hookers. When Cap's buddies refuse to register with the government, Iron Man's cronies enlist psychopathic super-villains who are willing to cooperate with the government in exchange for pardons including such upstanding citizens as Venom (vengeful alien symbiote currently in the possession of Mac Gargan, formerly The Scorpion, so it's like two douchebags for the price of one) and Bullseye (Favorite hobbies: murdering Daredevil's girlfriends in brutal, ironic ways, canasta). When they capture fugitives, they skip over the whole "fair trial" thing and send them directly to a super-prison in "The Negative Zone" (a desolate, empty anti-matter universe where no life grows. Sort of like North Dakota.). They invent a clone-slash-cyborg of their dead god-chum Thor, who promptly goes on a brutal killing spree and murders Cap ally Goliath (big dude with can grow real big with his big pills) and then Iron Man's bros don't even give him the dignity of shrinking him down for a proper burial, they just dig up like a football field and bury him as is.

Now if Civil War was intended to make Iron Man and his followers look like a bunch of Big Brother-loving tools, this would be totally appropriate. But, remember, the stated purpose was to provoke a political debate: this isn't the Green Goblin taking on Captain America, this is Iron Man! Scratch that; Iron Man starts working with Green Goblin, who becomes the leader of the Thunderbolts, the team of "reformed" villains that includes Bullseye and Venom and other mighty warriors like Radioactive Man (self-explanatory) and the Swordsman (He will cut you! Stab!). Pretty quickly everyone noticed the imbalance and the fact that Iron Man and formerly sane heroes like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four had turned uncharacteristically dickish. Soon the only people claiming they were pro-registration were guys who worked for Marvel desperate to convince the audience that they hadn't already screwed this up.

Then they screwed it up worse. Rather than building to some sort of ideological battle, the seventh issue of Civil War climaxed with a big-ass imbroglio in the middle of New York City which looked cool and solved nothing. Captain America gets the edge on Iron Man but before he can kill him or beat him up real bad or whatever, a bunch of people, each with a different 9/11-invoking uniform (Firefighters, cops, EMTs, etc.), tackle him to save their beloved Iron Man. Suddenly, Cap realizes how wrong he's been; surveying the destruction the fight's caused he surrenders, and, tears in his eyes, admits he was wrong. "We're not fighting for the people anymore...we're just fighting."

Of course, a month earlier, in Civil War tie in Amazing Spider-Man 537, Cap pulled Spider-Man aside and gave a stirring speech about patriotism, inspired by something he'd read by Mark Twain, that totally contradicts everything he was about to do (storywise) a few hours later. And his basic rationale for surrender — that the people wanted the super-heroes to register and so that's what they should do — is a disturbingly small-minded and borderline bigoted one. Rounding up a bunch of people and sticking them in the army or prison because other people want them to? Consider if Marvel tried to publish a book that showed the denizens of the Marvel universe terrified of mutants and demanded they register themselves and go into forced military camps and portrayed the regular citizens as the heroes and the mutants as the villains. They'd get hammered! In fact, Marvel's probably printed that exact story dozens of times with its X-Men characters with the reverse moral. Mutant is just a Marvelism for a minority — what if instead of 'mutant' I used a real minority? What if the citizens of the Marvel universe wanted all Muslims to register? Or Jews? Or people with pituitary gigantism? What's the difference?

SIDE NOTE: I find it interesting that the X-Men characters barely appeared in Civil War, claiming "neutrality." This, I suspect, means the creators couldn't think of a justification for them to join Iron Man's side and couldn't write their way out of the corner putting them on Cap's side would have created.

Captain America has always served as something of a moral compass and he's lost his way before; in the 1970s, following a very interesting storyline that borrowed heavily from the Watergate affair (I love when things in real life sound like comic book stories), he quit his gig as Captain America and became Steve Rogers: Nomad, tooling around the country trying to find himself. So it's not that the guy should be infalliable, but that he should be a bit tougher than how he's portrayed in Civil War 7, where a couple of angry people and a bunch of broken buildings shatter his self-confidence. He's Captain America for crying out loud.

The idea for Civil War belongs to Millar, and he deserves all the credit in the world for inventing what is easily the most promising concept for an epic super-hero comic in years. But his execution exposed his flaws as a writer. All his best previous work was in books like The Authority (a twisted version of the Justice League of America) and The Ultimates (a twisted version of the Avengers). He's very good at using analogues of existing heroes to tweak their conventions and their flaws. Here he's forced to use the real characters and none of them sound right. He can critique the classics, but he can't seem to convincingly write them himself. Comic fans are always complaining that they know more about the characters than their writers; that so-and-so "would never do that" or "would never act that way" and typically this is sour grapes. Perversely, most comic fans are most happy when they have something to complain about. But in this case they were totally right: Millar uses the characters to his own ends and doesn't particularly concern himself with how his interpretations jive with conventional ones, or even the ones presented in the characters own current books; thus writers of the Civil War tie-in books often present wildly different takes on the characters — Captain America's best speech in all of Civil War was that one that appeared in Amazing Spider-Man, not within the series itself.

For a window into a big reason why so much of the great-sounding but poorly-executed Civil War is exactly that, I recommend you check out a series of interviews with CW editor Tom Brevoort about the book. The questions come from fans and they are often literate and thoughtful, but Brevoort's answers are often dismissive and defensive, particularly when readers point out significant flaws in the book. When people complain about inconsistencies between Civil War and the myriad tie-in books they were convinced they needed to own, Brevoort explains that sometimes things change in the planning, or that it's a matter of perspective, or he sees no inconsistency. In one instance, he prints a portion of the script for a scene that was cut from the series to clear up confusion, which is sort of like claiming to people who pay to see your movie that it'll make a lot more sense if you just buy the DVD too and then watch the deleted scenes. My favorite bit comes when Brevoort explains how the spin-off one-shot The Return, a widely despised three dollar magazine that features the totally unnecessarily, mostly illogical, and hugely unsatisfying return of the long-dead character Captain Marvel and sets up a payoff of an appearance in Civil War proper that consists of exactly one (1) panel, was conceived in a day. He boasts at the incredible speed that Marvel made the comic; seemingly unaware that the obvious reason the book was so crummy was the fact that it was apparently conceived and approved in less than a day and nobody took the time to think its self-evident flaws through!

It seems that Marvel bit off a bit more than it could chew: logistically and ideologically. I want people to respect comics more than anybody, and I wanted to hold up Civil War as a glossy, card-stocked example of what happens when smart people use these disreputable ideas to tell a good story about relevant issues. The result was a well-drawn mess.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Film Comment Selects: Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

"There are no midgets in the military." So says Burt Lancaster in stentorian tones 2/3 of the way through Twilight's Last Gleaming, Robert Aldrich's 1977 political thriller. This after Paul Winfield, who broke out of jail with Lancaster to take over a nuclear missile silo, pesters him with wild theories about how the army is hiding snipers outside. With little people. It's the comic highlight of an otherwise white-knuckled, angry affair.

It's Aldrich's Vietnam protest film - as Lancaster plays a General railroaded into prison for protesting decisions made during the war. The key to his ransom demands in the silo is the release of the minutes from a National Security Council meeting that declares that the war was unwinnable, but that it should be continued anyway in order to send a message to the Soviet Union. Without the release of this document, Lancaster threatens to launch the missiles. Aldrich doesn't shy away from the madness of this action, incinerating an entire city out of outrage because of the unjust death of one's countrymen, but instead throws his indignation behind the forces that would drive a man to such ends.

Those forces are icily played by Joseph Cotten(!) as the cynical Secretary of State and Richard Widmark (!!) as a shoot-first general eager to solve the problem by dropping a small nuke into the silo. President Charles Durning is a bit of a pushover, naturally. Aldrich shows the back and forth of the negotiations with an extensive and expert use of split-screen, especially during the General's attempt to drop the nuke, when Lancaster and Winfield argue about the government's attentions in one frame, the army operatives descend the elevator shaft to drop the nuke in another, and the Joint Chiefs watch the operation on monitors in the third. It's a dizzying and remarkably tense sequence, making up for some of the overwrought speechifying that takes over it's final third.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Breach (2007)

With very little attention and with a good deal of success, writer/director Billy Ray is carving out a respectable niche for himself in the indie film world. Basically if you want to make a movie based on true events about deceit, personal integrity, and slightly sinister, antiseptic workplaces, call Billy Ray. It's good news for all parties; Ray makes enjoyable, intelligent thrillers for selective audiences and doesn't make the terrible, dumb thrillers for doofy audiences he used to write in his salad days (like Color of Night and Volcano, two movies you couldn't get me to watch again without a cash payout of at least four figures).

The similarities between Ray's Shattered Glass and Breach are so numerous and obvious they're not really worth talking about it any detail. Instead, let's consider the ways in which they are different. Both movies have young, pretty boyish protagonists, Hayden Christensen's Stephen Glass, the disgraced journalist who fabricated many of his stories in The New Republic, and Ryan Phillippe's Eric O'Neill, the FBI clerk tasked with uncovering a 'smoking gun' with which to prove agent Robert Hanssen's disloyalty. Though Christensen and Phillippe physically resemble each other so closely they could easily play each other's stunt doubles, there is a crucial difference in their roles: Glass is his movie's villain. O'Neill is his movie's hero.

Both characters have important teacher-student roles; Glass with his boss Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), O'Neill with Hanssen (played with unique precision by Chris Cooper). But where Shattered Glass presents Glass' elders at The New Republic as saints — Kelly is portrayed as the world's greatest boss and, ultimately, a martyr — Breach shows them to be equally treacherous — even the nominally heroic character played by Laura Linney deceives Phillippe when assigning him to Hanssen, claiming he is being monitored for deviant sexual behavior rather than selling secrets to the Russians. The cumulative effect is to suggest that no one, young or old, is trustworthy which I guess makes Ray maybe the most paranoid filmmaker on the planet. Still, give him credit for picking true stories that validate that view; if he were inventing these movies we could call him a nut. But since they're all based in very real, very scary facts, we have to come to at least identify with Ray's position.

The films also employ differing perspectives although, curiously, the end result is basically the same. Though Sarsgaard's character increasingly becomes Shattered Glass' focus through the film's second half, it tells much of the movie from Glass' own perspective; he gives a narration and he describes to a classroom of schoolchildren (and, indirectly, the audience) the nature of good journalism and the process of writing. In contrast, Breach is told from O'Neill's perspective; all we know about Hanssen is what O'Neill is told about him or actually sees him do (initially, he considers him an ideal human being, since all he sees him do is perform his job ably, go to church regularly, and honor his wife and family). But despite the fact that the Shattered Glass technique initially seems intended to give us perspective into the mind of a liar (while Breach's seems geared to keep the mind of the liar remote), SG's final act brings it in line with Breach: his narration is revealed as as much a fabrication as anything else. There was no classroom and whatever insight we thought we were getting was a big load of horseshit. In both cases: don't trust anything or anyone, looks are deceiving, we all have secrets, even from ourselves.

I've read a few complaints about Breach's title, one reviewer even accused it of being the worst title of the year so far, but I think that takes a superficial view. Breach is an ideal title because it's doesn't simply refer to the obvious one in American intelligence security. The movie is full of breaches, between husbands and wives, between people and their religious backgrounds, between who we think people are and who they really are.

I liked Breach but I'd also have liked it more if it had distanced itself even further from Shattered Glass. It does kind of feel like a retread at times. Ray needs to distinguish his pictures more, from the others in their genre as much as from the others he's made. The score is totally nondescript when it isn't improperly sentimental, the editing could be sharper and there isn't a single memorable element of the cinematography beyond its lack of memorable qualities (which probably has to do with Ray's aforementioned love of turning really bland workspaces into worlds of miniaturized terror). It's solid, more solid than glass I guess, but not as unbreakable as, say, a diamond.

Labels: , ,