19 July 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 18-24 Jul

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.

/Alice/ (1988, Jan Svankmajer): 71

Kinda wish I'd seen Tim Burton's version so I could use this as a cudgel against it. Svankmajer's uniquely distorted sensibility strips the book of all whimsy, with Alice encountering not so much Wonderland as Detritusville (a.k.a. Eastern Europe); any child unfortunate enough to see this film would surely develop a lifelong morbid fear of fruit jars and scissors. Gets a little self-indulgent at times—much as I love his gallumphing slabs of raw meat, I don't know that they really have a coherent place here—but it's bracing to see such familiar imagery so violently reappropriated, even if that very familiarity does prevent Alice from reaching the disturbingly lunatic heights of his finest shorts. (The White Rabbit in particular makes your skin crawl, what with his fetishistic penchant for removing his pocketwatch from his innards and then licking the sawdust—essentially, his own guts—from its face with a lusty slurp.) As always with stop-motion, but even more so when it comes to Svankmajer, texture is paramount: the Frog Footman catching flies, for example, is a fun anti-anthropomorphism gag made truly vivid by the fact that you can literally count the papillae on its grotesque giant tongue. Fact is, I might have enjoyed this even more had it been completely wordless, even though the repeated close-ups of Alice's mouth reciting the story have a clear incantatory-distancing function; every so often, we get a hint of Carroll's love of verbal nonsense, and the lack of follow-through, however deliberate, feels like a cruel game of keep-away. Why have the Mad Hatter ask the raven/writing desk riddle if you're not even gonna deliver the lack of a punchline? Or is that Svanky doubling down?

Winnie the Pooh (2011, Stephen Anderson & Don Hall): W/O

Scandalous, I know. It's totally fine for what it is, but what it is, unmistakably, is a kid's movie. By which I mean, it's pitched 98% to pre-adolescents. If I had small children, which we should all be supremely thankful is not the case, I'd be thrilled that a gentle, warmly inviting movie like this is out there in theaters for them. But there's really nothing in it for me; unlike Pixar movies, or even like the vast majority of other tot-targeted studio films these days, it's not operating simultaneously on two levels, with plenty of material expressly designed to appeal to folks well past puberty. I felt a little silly watching as much as I did, to be perfectly honest.

Happy, Happy (2010, Anne Sewitsky): W/O

(Pedigree: Sundance '11 World [Jury Prize], ND/NF. Magnolia plans a September release.)

For about 20 minutes I thought "this is what Happy-Go-Lucky might have looked like had it not been so schematically overdetermined." Then the movie went straight into the toilet (seriously, it was like a switch got flipped, if I may mix my metaphors) and I thought "no, this is what Happy-Go-Lucky would look like if it were a pandering, superficial European 'adult comedy'." Sure to win copious praise for Agnes Kittelsen in the showy role of the flibbertigibbet, and she's quite good, but I was far more interested in the other female lead, who seems to vanish from the narrative once the extramarital bonking begins. Not sure where the weird racist stuff involving the adopted kid was heading, but it really didn't seem to be anywhere remotely in the neighborhood of perceptive.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston): 44

Guess I can sorta see why some folks are responding to this, with its unapologetic mock-vintage squareness and attendant absence of irony, but it mostly just reminded me of why Spider-Man immediately took off when Marvel introduced him in the '60s: Captain America is dull. He's just a big neurosis-free slab of scientifically-enhanced beef, lacking even any cool superpowers to distract you from his tiresome rectitude. (In that sense, Chris Evans is ideally cast—you can't help but like him and wish him well, but neither can you help looking around the room to see if you can't find someone a bit more interesting.) Honestly, this may well be the best Captain America movie imaginable; if you asked me what I'd do differently, my answer, however intricately phrased, would amount to: screw Captain America, let's make something else. So I was very excited about skipping this thing, but then enough ostensibly sane critics went Woo-hoo! that I felt obligated to make sure (alas, I didn't see this until I was in my seat), and...well, sure enough, it's Captain America, the most boring superhero in the history of the world. On top of which, the entire movie is essentially just a prolonged setup for The Avengers, which means that it ends on a bizarrely anticlimactic note, including a final line of dialogue that surely can't have been meant to play as callous as it does. I dunno. Maybe Johnston's the problem—now that I check, I've never liked anything he's directed, not even the relatively low-key October Sky. He seems very much the former visual-effects dude he is, hitting his marks proficiently but dispassionately; no wonder they thought of him for Cap. And then of course I do hate freedom and liberty and baseball, so there's that.

Head (1968, Bob Rafelson): 81

Sam Kinison had a funny routine about how Charles Manson was so fucked up he could have found inflammatory secret messages on Monkees albums ("Last train to Clarksville, Whitey"), but one needn't be non compos mentis to see this astonishing exercise in self-abnegation as one of the most gleefully pointed assaults on The Man ever filmed. At the very least, there's enough bitterness coursing through it that the Vietnam footage doesn't seem offensively glib—it's clear that the all-around disgust is sincerely felt, not opportunistic grandstanding. What's even more striking than '60s media darlings trashing their own image, though, is how proto-Python the film's structural absurdism feels. By their own account, Rafelson and Nicholson basically spitballed the movie while stoned, but its surreal lurches from one quasi-skit to the next are by no means random (even if details like Victor Mature's hair are); as in Flying Circus, which debuted a year later, the liberating freedom from convention cannily disguises an underlying rigor that borders on the mathematical. Even the remote-control and vox-pop montages are brilliantly assembled pseudo-chaos. Absence of a narrative throughline does make it feel long at only 85 minutes, but for every brief lull there are several inspired gags, clever juxtapositions and/or startling moments of pop-cultural candor. Basically, if you took all the most savage remarks John Lennon made in interviews around the time the Beatles broke up and somehow made those sentiments the dominant tone of a movie in which the Fab Four cavort around obliviously, you would have Head (which makes Lester's A Hard Day's Night look like the endearing promo reel it essentially is). It's the counterculture countermanded.

Project Nim (2011, James Marsh): 52

A fascinating story largely squandered. Marsh has so little interest in linguistics that he never even bothers to tell you Nim's surname was Chimpsky; the extent to which Terrace was duped into thinking his prize subject had actually acquired sign language is almost completely ignored. (We see archival TV footage of him recanting his conclusions years later, without ever having been told what those conclusions were.) Likewise, numerous heady questions about the nature of intelligence and cognition—about the unbridgeable chasm separating us from a species so genetically similar that it arguably belongs in Homo—are explored in no depth whatsoever. Instead, the film uses the experiment only as setup for a maudlin victim narrative, begging for sympathy via bombastic strings (worst score of the year?) as poor Nim gets shunted from one depressing prison cell to the next. Which is undeniably sad, but his misfortunes have zip to do with his unusual upbringing—it's not as if other chimps reject him, deeming him the simian equivalent of an Oreo or Twinkie. Conditions are terrible for virtually all lab animals (as one scientist candidly admits), and feeling extra sorry for Nim because he once slept in a bed and scored treats by moving his hands as instructed is akin to ignoring millions of the starving and impoverished in order to shed copious tears for the one dude in the slums who used to be wealthy but had his fortune stolen from him. (Speaking of theft, Errol Morris should sue, except I doubt he'd want to be remotely associated with those pretentious tracking shots via which interview subjects exit the narrative.) Maybe I came to the film with too much foreknowledge (see also Zodiac), but everything that's thorny and challenging about Project Nim gets subordinated to easy button-pushing, as if we ourselves are subjects in some sort of Pavlovian-cinema experiment.

People on Sunday (1930, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer): 45

Historical significance + insane roster of future talent (Siodmak, Ulmer, Wilder, Zinnemann) + emphasis on the fleeting and bucolic + retrospective poignancy (little did these carefree Germans know...) = cinephile wet dream, so it's not surprising that I stand alone in finding this late silent effort mundane to the point of tedium. There's no denying the first element in that equation, to be sure—the film's deployment of ordinary citizens as "themselves" within the context of a loosely fictionalized drama was so far ahead of its time that we've arguably only really caught up to it in the last decade or so. But that doesn't automatically turn some mild frolicking at the lake into a proto-Blissfully Yours. (Though I should note that I wasn't too keen on Blissfully Yours, either—need to revisit that one.) By whatever metric I can think of, other movies make it look paltry by comparison: As a city-symphony piece, it's no Man With a Movie Camera (though several reviews valiantly try to file it under "avant-garde"); as a pastoral lark with serious undertones, Renoir's A Day in the Country achieves roughly 1000x more lyrical force; even just in terms of striking compositions, I find it hard to believe anybody would seriously rank this humdrum effort alongside such contemporaries as The Blood of a Poet and The Docks of New York. It's an intriguing experiment that doesn't really work, mostly because it's too uninflected to be dramatically compelling (translation: nothing happens) but also too carefully scripted (by "Billie" Wilder, who evidently required spoken dialogue) to permit the sort of sparkling spontaneity that makes, say, The Little Fugitive so memorable. A must-see for anyone remotely interested in cinema history—I'm not sorry I watched it, by any means—but that doesn't mean we have to pretend it's a neglected masterpiece.

/The Treasure of the Sierra Madre/ (1948, John Huston): 83

Still a great movie, but not at all the great movie I'd remembered. My heart sank a little early on when Walter Huston launched into an extended speech about how lust for gold inevitably corrupts the soul of every man, no matter how fundamentally decent; that's precisely what I recalled the movie being about, but hearing it articulated so bluntly was almost painful. Oh me of little faith, though, because the adventure that follows undermines that overstated thesis repeatedly, suggesting instead that Fred C. Dobbs was always a morally cancerous individual especially susceptible to the Dark Side. And yet the film declines to judge him harshly, either—some men are weaker than others, it concludes, and there's not much you can do about it except shake your head, be grateful for what you still possess, and set out for a life of ease being waited on hand and foot by Mexico's dispossessed. (Oh, right, it's 1925 by way of 1948.) Bogart arguably overplays Dobbs' mercurial nature, but there aren't many actors who can seem both so stand-up and so low-down (it's the transitions that clank a bit); Huston Sr. remains a hammily entertaining force of nature, proto-Herzogian when he breaks into his cackle-and-dance routine. But I gained new appreciation this time for Tim Holt in the ostensibly dull role of the good egg who never cracks—nimbly sidestepping the movie's stated trajectory, he makes simple decency look quietly charismatic. Remarkable, too, how few concessions are made to audiences of the day: Bogart spends the first reel being systematically humiliated (and not in a way that seems unjust or demands revenge—he's just kind of a loser, really); locations are discomfitingly genuine in their squalor; numerous conversations take place in unsubtitled Spanish; and at one point near the end, all three principals disappear and we're watching a movie about some Mexican bandits trying to sell stolen burros. And even that movie demonstrates unusual compassion, pausing to let a thief and murderer who's about to be executed by firing squad retrieve his sombrero.


goran said...

Now I'm confused. What if I personally find People on Sunday gorgeous and entrancing in a Terrence Malicky I-don't-want-this-to-end way and the fact that Man with a Movie Camera is a superior film really doesn't dilute the impact this film has on me? For the sake of street cred, do I now have to pretend I never liked or enjoyed it in the first place?

md'a said...

No, then you can just ignore me. As I said, I found it quite banal from a strictly formal standpoint, not entrancing in the least.

Luis said...

Is there a specific article or book on Project Nim you recommend or did you just look it up on Wikipedia?

md'a said...

My books are mostly in storage right now so I can't look stuff up, but many pop-science linguistics tomes cover the whole thing in depth. I know for sure there's a chapter largely devoted to Nim in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, for example.

Atli Sig said...

"Maybe Johnston's the problem—now that I check, I've never liked anything he's directed..." -Not even HONEY,I SHRUNK THE KIDS?

md'a said...

I don't remember that film very well 22 years later, but I'm pretty sure I was underwhelmed.