10 August 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 8-14 Aug

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.

/The General/ (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman): 68

Still mystified as to how this became the canonical Keaton movie, ranking e.g. #28 on They Shoot Pictures' list of the greatest films ever made. (Sherlock, Jr. is next, more than 100 spots further down.) Arguably it has the strongest linear narrative of his key features, but laughs, thrills and madcap invention are in comparatively short supply; the only moment I truly treasure is Buster mock-strangling Marion Mack when she tosses that tiny sliver of wood into the firebox. In all seriousness, I enjoy this just about as much, and on precisely the same level, as Unstoppable—both are energetic, skillfully made entertainments with a needless patina of seriousness, loosely based on actual events involving a train speeding toward imminent disaster. Keaton in particular is pretty locked into what actually happened, as the Great Locomotive Chase is too well-known to fudge; all he can do is find places for gags and stunts within that template, which makes for a challenging constraint but never really pays off explosively apart from the climactic bridge collapse...which is in fact the one thing that didn't actually happen. (In real life, the General ran out of fuel and was abandoned). There's a bit of interesting cognitive dissonance in that we're rooting for the "wrong side," with the Union cast as villains, but that dissipates fairly quickly (and almost certainly wasn't intended in any case—Das Boot this ain't). All in all, good clean quasi-historical fun, but any five minutes of Seven Chances leaves it in the dust.

Senna (2010, Asif Kapadia): 66

Really hope this present-tense documentary style (see also Chicago 10) takes hold, as I've reached the point where I don't want to see another cut to a 3/4 profile of someone sitting in a chair for the rest of my life. Like almost every American critic, it seems, I don't follow Formula One and was totally unfamiliar with Senna, which made the bulk of the film as gripping as a fictional narrative; his rivalry with Prost approaches Valjean-Javert levels of operatic resentment. Odds are I would have preferred a less hagiographic film examining that rivalry from both sides (Prost/Senna?)—Senna's behavior at the 1990 GP Japan was pretty indefensible, for example, even allowing for how he got screwed, yet the movie continues to paint him as a martyr and Prost as a conniving, gladhanding cheese-eater. But even that hypothetical doozy, assuming we're still talking about a doc and not some facile "speculative history" from Peter Morgan, would inevitably smack into the unforgiving wall that is real life and its stubborn refusal to provide satisfying closure. Kapadia and screenwriter Manish Pandey make a game effort to sell Senna's fate as part of his ongoing struggle for pure art in a sport tainted by political maneuvers, concluding with an anecdote about his carefree go-kart days, but the fact is that what happened to him was simply an accident—perhaps a preventable one (though perhaps not; might just have been some failure of the car), but certainly unrelated to any of his previous travails. Which is immensely disappointing from a dramatic perspective, as you can't help but "want" him to have been chewed up by the machine. Stupid facts.

/Fight Club/ (1999, David Fincher): 56

Fascism for Dummies. My objections were originally directed primarily at the big twist, which remains risible insofar as it involves the other members of what becomes Project Mayhem. (Go beat yourself up in a parking lot and see if the bruisers exiting the bar latch onto you as the leader of a movement.) A dozen years later, however—and I admit that having since read some Palahniuk might be a factor here—the whole damn movie seems kinda stupid, really. Fincher keeps everything moving so briskly that the omnipresent spoon-feeding narration never becomes overbearing, but that technical facility is now the only thing preventing me from wondering whether I'm watching Morgan Spurlock's first stab at narrative; Fight Club depicts emotional disaffection in the same smirky, wiseass, superficial way that Super Size Me "critiques" poor eating habits. And while it is "utterly ferocious on the touchy-feely culture of self-improvement" (per Theo), that's like being utterly ferocious on 9/11 Truthers—you might as well walk around a nursery ward knocking newborns unconscious with a mallet. Also, there are precisely two women in this movie, one of whom exists only to misdirect the audience (Helena Bonham Carter does a commendable job of disguising Marla's complete lack of an identity) while the other gets ridiculed for sexual desire. ("I have pornographic magazines at my apartment, and lubricants..." Way to turn a potentially affecting and realistic detail into a cheap gag.) Hate to tar the movie with its own brush but what it mostly is is clever. Seems to have worked out for it.

/Dog Star Man/ (1964, Stan Brakhage): 50

Here's where my policy of not rating/reviewing shorts bites me on the ass, because Dog Star Man is perhaps my least favorite of the 26 films on Volume One of By Brakhage. That it's also the longest is of course not a coincidence. As with Jennifer Reeves' When It Was Blue (upon which I can now see this film's influence writ large), I found a great deal of the superimposed imagery to be frustratingly random, even though for this second viewing I did a fair bit of homework in advance and had a firm grasp on Brakhage's stated intentions. But, then, digging around in general only served to underscore how much my own predilections differ from those of folks who are heavily into the a/g. I enjoy all of the hand-painted films, for example, but the one that truly left me breathless was 2001's "Lovesong," in which the colors are so insanely vivid and the textures so pronounced that it seems as if you're looking at Brakhage's own viscera smeared directly onto celluloid; I then found that Michael Sicinski thinks it's strictly average, [6]/10. Another favorite, "The Stars Are Beautiful," was derided by Fred Camper as the collection's sole stinker...which makes perfect sense, because its power is largely verbal rather than visual. But I can't pretend I don't derive more pleasure from "God, taking pity on those who stopped smoking, made the stars to look like so many cigarettes burning" than from Dog Star Man's repeated (and repeated) slo-mo shots of Brakhage struggling his way up a mountain, which to me just feels like half-assed Sisyphus. The one film in this volume that I'd unhesitatingly call a masterpiece, the very early "Desistfilm," not only leans hard on sound (albeit in a heavily alienating way) rather than unfolding in austere silence, but is also by most accounts as close as Brakhage ever came to making (*cough cough*) a narrative work; most enthusiasts seem to find it of mild interest at best. So I'm clearly just looking for/at the wrong stuff.

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius): 46

Tells you something about me that I didn't bother seeing this in first-run despite being a 14-year-old boy at the time. First hour even bigger and dumber than expected, verging on the precipice of camp without ever really being much fun; the sex scenes in particular make Zalman King look like Jean-Claude Brisseau. (And why invent a Gladiator-style backstory for Conan if you're just gonna condense most of his fights into a single choppy montage?) As it goes along, though, the movie sporadically starts living up to the grandeur of Poledouris' justly acclaimed score. For every 10 or 15 minutes of stentorian idiocy, there's at least one genuinely arresting image: Conan adorned with healing hieroglyphs à la The Pillow Book; James Earl Jones' face slightly elongating to signal his impending transformation (an effect so impressive that I can't fathom how it was accomplished back then); and especially the finale, with KKK-garbed women stepping forward to douse their torches in the reflecting pool. (I can't imagine Milius intended any sociopolitical context—Stone, maybe—but it's surprisingly moving all the same, almost creating the impression that the movie has something to say other than CONAN SMASH!) Not sure I've ever seen a bad film with so many stirring moments, though each one only wound up making me feel bummed that it didn't have a worthier context. Oh, and the animated demons that torment Conan are just flat-out fucking cool. They would have blown my mind at 14.

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