15 June 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 13-19 Jun

Many thanks to everyone who's thrown a few bucks my way (see previous week's intro). Hope you feel like you're getting your money's worth. Rather than a tiny amount from a lot of people—my initial thought was "If each of my followers on Twitter just sent me $1/month, all my financial issues would be solved! Even discounting all the bots!"—I've thus far received more generous sums from a smaller group, so this plan may not prove to be sustainable in the long run (which I fully expected). But it's still a tremendous help right now, and I can't express my gratitude enough.

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

Taps (1981, Harold Becker): 56

Almost painful to see so much excellence expended on such a glaring Idiot Plot. Early scenes deftly establish the Academy as a noble anachronism, indoctrinating us within for nearly two reels before venturing outside to remind us of the world at large, which openly jeers at our heroes' ideals. George C. Scott nearly provides sufficient weary gravitas to justify top billing despite being quickly sidelined, and Hutton, his Oscar statuette still dust-free on the mantel, manages to avoid being upstaged by future superstars Sean Penn (a truly striking debut; wish I'd been old enough to see him go direct from this to Fast Times) and Tom Cruise (always at his best in crazy-hothead mode), plus a babyfaced Giancarlo Esposito. It's all going so well...until the time comes to kickstart the actual story, at which point basic plausibility goes straight into the latrine. You've never seen so many firearms accidentally discharged with tragic consequences, and at some point it apparently became clear to the writers (or the author of the source novel, not sure) that even having General Bache arrested wasn't gonna prevent him from stepping in and ending the movie prematurely, so they give the poor duffer a fatal heart attack. Even amidst all this nonsense, however, the film still manages to locate numerous kernels of truth—particularly involving the younger kids, who are all scared shitless but determined not to look like pussies. I'd much rather have seen a low-key portrait of the contemporary (now as much as then) career soldier, minus the overblown siege aspect, but that would no doubt play like a military version of a Whit Stillman movie, or maybe one of those late elegiac Westerns that made no money whatsoever. In other words, that picture would not have been funded in the first place.

The Double Hour (2009, Giuseppe Capotondi): 66

A rare rug-puller with more on its mind than knocking you on your ass—though it's also skillful enough in that department that I failed to anticipate the first big twist, despite having being prepped for it by reviews festooned with spoiler warnings. (You are hereby warned as well.) Complaints that it doesn't play fair seem fundamentally misguided, since the film's whole point involves the human tendency to make snap assumptions; it's hardly coincidental that the two main characters meet at a speed-dating service, having been allotted three minutes to decide who's sitting across from them. Twist the first primarily recodes the movie not in terms of What Happened? but rather Who Exactly Are We Identifying With? And twist the second is pretty much exactly the same one Lynch uses in Mulholland Dr., except in this case we're truly unsure at the end whether we've been watching Diane dreaming of being Betty or Betty dreaming of being Diane, with the additional downer that it scarcely matters, since both women are equally fucked up anyway. Capotondi, a commercial/video dude directing his first feature, handles this tricky material with a smooth assurance that arguably crosses the line into being overly polite—a sense of real anguish seems notable by its absence, though repeated suicides, real and/or imaginary (and prefaced by the same sad line: "You look better with your hair down") hint at the emotions being repressed, as does Kseniya Rappaport's dynamically muted performance (Best Actress, Venice '09, well deserved). Also, the whole double-hour motif itself strikes me as empty cleverness, just another vaguely metaphysical element tossed into the stew to keep us guessing. But it's to the film's credit that I already find myself thinking back not on its mysteries and reveals, but on its portrait of all-consuming guilt.

/Insignificance/ (1985, Nicolas Roeg): 44

One of the first dozen or so art films I ever saw, if memory serves; all I remembered a quarter-century later was the bit in which Marilyn Monroe uses toy trains and flashlights to demonstrate her understanding of special relativity to Albert Einstein. Turns out that's the only memorable feature of this facile exercise in cutesiness, which preserves for posterity a thoroughly mediocre play that would otherwise be justly forgotten. Roeg does his best to spice things up via jagged shards of memory (his usual trick) but can't disguise the material's essential hey-what-if? banality, as four caricatures of '50s icons trade useless Wiki -morsels; presumably they're meant to serve as pop-cultural totems rather than people (hence their generic identification in both credits and dialogue: "The Professor," "The Actress," etc.), but the tone is lightly playful rather than interrogative, congratulating the audience for knowing a few basic historical facts in much the same way that Midnight in Paris does. Performances are highly variable in this regard, too: Michael Emil, as Einstein, mostly strives for naturalism (and fares best, ironically), while a shaky Theresa Russell does not so much Monroe as Monroe-as-Sugar and Tony Curtis ignores McCarthy's mannerisms altogether. (Gary Busey's off the hook since I don't think I've ever seen footage of DiMaggio doing anything but swinging a bat. The role as written is pretty ridiculous, though, portraying him as a narcissistic boob obsessed with his bubblegum-card legacy.) No idea how the play ended, but Roeg's climactic bid for weight via H-bomb imagery just seems cheap, especially when punctuated by a flip freeze-frame. An odd choice for Criterion, all in all—I barely remember Track 29, either, but that one at least had some maniacal oomph.

The Image (1975, Radley Metzger): 47

For whatever reason, I never really went through the psychotronic phase where you seek out the cultiest and most disreputable pictures, so Metzger had entirely escaped me until now—all I knew was that he made unusually classy softcore porn. Still, I was ill-prepared for a vision of Paris that makes the opening montage of Woody Allen's latest look drab by comparison. (Check out just the very first frame.) What's more, Metzger's unmistakable facility extends to his actors. Granted, line delivery isn't anyone's forte (a problem he solves via extensive, sometimes dryly hilarious voiceover narration taken from Catherine Robbe-Grillet's source novel), but "Mary Mendum"/Rebecca Brooke in particular evinces a truly remarkable self-possession, making her a fantastic camera study in ways that transcend her generic beauty (and willingness to have sex on camera). And yet The Image really is just a porno, in the sense that the film has no apparent purpose other than to titillate; it may be gorgeously mechanical, but it's mechanical all the same, with no interest in its characters except as orifices. Because I happen to find BDSM largely anti-erotic, I can duck the whole can-porn-be-art? question for the time being—you can't honestly deem something like this successful if it never once even made you consider dropping trou—but I can see now that I'll be forced to grapple with it at some point.

/Diabolique/ (1955, H.G. Clouzot): 83

FADE IN: On a pool of filthy, stagnant water. Plot is still crackerjack, of course—I can only imagine how that ending played at the time, when such twists were relatively uncommon (to the point where the movie ends with an anti-spoiler PSA)—but what struck me third time around was how damn hopeless and unforgiving everything seems, even during what Syd Field would term the "rising action." Indeed, there's a constant element of mild horror involved in merely observing our ostensible heroine, whose frailness increasingly seems much more psychological than physical; one could easily read the film as a portrait of battered-wife syndrome, specifically the "learned helplessness" aspect. Interesting what Clouzot (or perhaps Boileau & Narcejac, but I'm skeptical) chose to omit from the narrative—I can understand why the sexual abuse is left implicit, but it's remarkably perverse, in an almost imperceptible way, that the scene in which Nicole approaches Christina with the plan to kill Michel isn't dramatized at all, depicted only via a quick shot of a student peeping through a window as Nicole shows Christina the sedative (which at this point is just a random bottle as far as we know). The casualness with which their scheme is then later introduced only reinforces the sense of a moral vacuum. Still, the movie would work like gangbusters even without that subtext—it's just a superb vise-tightener, the template for pretty much every thriller predicated on spooky inexplicable shit that's been made since. If only its successors wrapped up so succinctly.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965, Norman Jewison): 61

Unexpectedly stylish, to the point where I had to check and make sure it really was directed by Jewison. (Sam Peckinpah started the film, but none of his footage survives, as far as I can determine.) Right from the opening credits, which look amazingly like what Treme would come up with decades later, it has an appealing shagginess, nicely matched by a Ring Lardner Jr./Terry Southern screenplay that somehow tends toward throw-away and understatement ("Let's go out to the car," pants Ann-Margret during the cockfight, hot with bloodlust; McQueen just looks amused and says "Why don't you relax, huh"?) while simultaneously acknowledging the archetypal nature of the characters. Trouble is, all the terrific material in the first half—not least of which is a superb, quietly eccentric turn by the young and still clean-cut Rip Torn—winds up merely serving as longwinded prologue to the second half's big poker showdown, which is not terrible as poker movies go but still inevitably treats luck as if it were skill. (I'd be The Man too if I could miraculously pull one specific card out of the deck whenever I needed it.) In the end, it feels like two different movies, the stronger of which amounts to marking time waiting for the weaker to show up. And while reliable reports suggest that the lame final shot was imposed on Jewison against his will, it's still there, at least in the cut available on DVD/Blu, to end things on a sour note of utterly phony sweetness.

/The Stunt Man/ (1980, Richard Rush): 53

Okay, let's pretend for a moment that Steve Railsback doesn't function as thespian antimatter, annihilating Peter O'Toole's genius upon contact. This is still a movie that ostensibly casts a jaundiced eye on the filmmaking process but seems to know nothing whatsoever about how films are actually made. In one early bit, a huge crowd of spectators observes the shooting of a WWI battle sequence involving soldiers being strafed on a beach, and we're supposed to believe (a) that the actors are somehow dressed with bloody stumps and fake entrails and prosthetic heads at the very end of a single extended shot (under cover of some brief smoke), and (b) that the crowd would then be alarmed and horrified, believing that the planes had actually shot the actors by mistake. Uh, yeah. Subsequent setpieces are equally ridiculous, predicated on the absurd idea that a lengthy single-take action sequence involving falls from great heights and gunfire and explosions and all manner of dangerous stuntwork would be largely improvised, rather than intricately rehearsed in every minute detail for days. Granted, this is all necessary to keep Railsback's wild-eyed idiot confused and paranoid, but it's so completely antithetical to actual filmmaking that it doesn't even really work as metaphor—mostly, it's a cheap means of tricking/goosing the audience. Which I guess one could theoretically argue is the whole idea, with Rush manipulating us the way his Godlike onscreen surrogate manipulates cast and crew (by far the film's finest and most pointed moment is when O'Toole tells Hershey with crocodile regret that her parents saw the rushes of her sex scene, then instantly calls Action on a take in which she must project shame)...but to what ultimate purpose? I can't discern what The Stunt Man is saying about anything beyond itself, apart from "do not under any circumstances hire Steve Railsback."

1 comment:

Mark Asch said...

According to David Weddle's invaluable and very intimately sourced Peckinpah bio, IF THEY MOVIE, KILL 'EM!, Jewison indeed started from scratch; I'm not sure if any of the rewrites Peckinpah did on the screenplay survived, but my impression is not.

It's actually quite a depressing story: Peckinpah wanted to make a raw, grayish account of the cost of ambition and addiction, and the celebrity producer fired him after seeing the first week of rushes, which were very far from the "popsicle" he had in mind; he then told the press that Peckinpah was fired for shooting a gratuitous nude scene (he stayed late on set with Rip Torn and the actress, reworking it; in the telling of everyone involved was the furthest thing from prurient).