Okay, so this has been going around, and I have a done a fair share of sharing it myself. But after the fourth or fifth somewhat luke warm response (wherein the comments were more along the lines of how funny Jack and Jill looked, rather than how hilarious the mash up was!), I realized, this is only really, truly sidesplitting to cinephiles of a certain ilk.
Why? For one thing, one needs to know, love, or at least sort of admire Hardcore, the George C. Scott contribution to the mash up. It is a grave-serious meditation on parental responsibility, guilt, the nature of evil, you know, the usual from fun-loving reformed Calvinist auteur Paul Schrader.
The juxtaposition of the most intense scene (Scott's father character watches a porno film starring his missing daughter) from that most intense of films with the willfully ridiculous new Sandler high concept mall-rat bait is, well, sidesplitting. And the fact Al Pacino, who probably redefines the word slumming with his appearance in J & J, regarded Scott as the greatest actor of of the generation before him, gives this an additional weird and wonderful meta-cinematic kick.
Male cinephiles tend to get all gaga over Kim Novak because she was in a ton of auteurist movies and...well...look at her.
This is Kim in Pushover, one of those t.v.-style late noirs that have been packaged so perceptively by Columbia and the like. Directed by the solid but rarely inspired Richard Quine, one can sum up the pleasures of Pushover in pretty much two words (Kim and Novak) and a few choice images, including this one, which one wonders how in the world they ever got away with.
Perhaps not SFW
But it is the ambiguity of the look in the car mirror that is the key Novak image. What in the world is being those eyes and that sloping nose? Certainly most of the suspense of Pushover is wondering to what extent Novak's character is controlling the sap played by an rather sad-looking Fred McMurray, long past his leading man days, to do her bidding. If she is really in control at all.
One can close one's eyes and picture smartly-dressed couples and families filtering their breathless selves into these former palaces to enjoy the unique experience of being taken away from their lives in Pinoche, Nevada and Bucyrus, Ohio via the magic carpet of movies.
Remember when the advent of television had the movie industry all in a kvetch about how the idiot box would kill the movies? Well, it didn't happen, entirely, because the movies figured out a way to continue to appeal to its audience's sense of otherness. A big part of that was the building itself, palaces and shoe boxes of a grand or intimate nature which offered an experience more immediate and shared than a 19-inch Zenith could ever hope to achieve.
Now, I see these dead soldiers on the American horizon, and I close my eyes and picture those same couples and families, decked out in matching sweat suits and plopped in front of their home theaters arguing over whether American Idol is just not the same since Simon left, driving each other insane.
The best movie I have seen in the last three months is not The King's Speech, not Black Swan or True Grit or 127 Days, but Irving Lerner's taut, hilarious and disturbingMurder by Contract from 1958. Long unavailable on any format until 2009 and packaged rather inappropriately by Columbia as a Film Noir, Lerner's Termite Opus makes a more pungent and succinct case than The Godfather 14 years later that killing is just another word for good business.
Irving Lerner was probably who Andrew Sarris had in mind when creating the chapter "Oddities, One Shots and Newcomers" for his seminal work of cinephilia The American Cinema. Indeed, the kind of cinephilic excavation pioneered by Sarris and his troops was bound to stumble on Lerner hiding in the weeds of the American movie factory at some point, but not sure that would have happened without this, his masterpiece amongst some rather undistinguished titles (Studs Lonigan likely the most interesting of the bunch).
In a year when Gigi (not Minnelli's finest by any means) took home the big prize, when Stanley Kramer's stolid, artless Defiant Ones was widely believed to have been robbed of the award, Murder by Contract is, in hindsight, aside from Vertigo and Touch of Evil (neither of which was nominated, of course) the best picture of 1958. And a preposterous idea like that is what The American Cinema, and the American Cinema, is all about.
The film concerns Claude (played by Vince Edwards with Elvis pompadour, fresh off seducing Marie Windsor to betray Elisha Cook, Jr. in Kubrick's The Killing), who decides to eighty-six his Squaresville regular job and pursue a position with an unseen Mr. Big as a Hit Man. True to Lerner's lean and mean storytelling, no back story is given why Claude would find this attractive, no pop-Freudian father-hating or sexual repression flashbacks. It seems Claude is attracted to idea because it seems more or less a pretty sweet gig. We know nothing of Claude except he looks and acts cool, and it is this attraction to the banality of this particular kind of evil that makes the audience complicit and, thanks to the whimsical script by Ben Simcoe, delighted in the events. His handlers (Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine), who trail around with Claude seemingly to assure he doesn't flinch from his duty, seem similarly baffled and attracted to Claude. They live vicariously through his amoral, emotionally detached walk through the world. They mockingly refer to Claude throughout as Superman, a nod to both Nietzsche and George Reeves. Claude is no clod. He moves deftly from hit to hit, slowly building credibility with Mr. Big, until, of course, he meets his match with a canny Broad (the little-known but quite wonderful Caprice Toriel) doing time in witness protection, a gig which ultimately pushes Claude to the limits of his resourcefulness. It is to Lerner's credit that as Claude is knocked off his perch it is not for moral reasons. Killing simply gets harder, as if Claude is on some bizarre Peter's Principal path in his chosen career. Success in this sort of business is hard-earned. No hep cat off the turnip truck is going to be Superman without paying his dues. Claude learns this the hard way, then Lerner fades out, careful not to make the point too emphatically. Martin Scorsese, a more famous cinephilic excavator than even Sarris, provides a great, short introduction to the DVD. One can imagine the young Marty, taking in and taking notes on Murder by Contract as the second bill in some Times Square flea bag the year of its release. Scorsese admits to an homage (or is it theft?) to the sequence where Claude prepares for the call from Mr. Big by working out, a lone, solitary, totally committed figure, in a tiny apartment, to similar sequences in his Taxi Driver, and his far more disturbed protagonist, Travis Bickle.
The creepiest image from the most uncomfortable movie of the year. And this was no horror movie. Probably closer to Black Comedy than anything if you are into the whole Genre thing.
Dogtooth (Kyondatis) would have made my list of Top 10 surprises for 2010 had I seen it, but it didn't play at all in Seattle that I know of, and has yet to receive a DVD release. I was only able to watch it through the good graces of Netflix Streaming Video. I was surprised, all right, despite the film getting fantastic word of mouth in the underworld, by the rawness, the intensity, the ingenuity of the playing out of a scenario that could have gone terribly awry in lesser hands. When they remake this in America, with, I dunno, Jennifer Lawrence in the role played by Angeliki Papoulia (above), with all the naughty bits excised and family values restored at the end, the thing will likely be a house of cards.
But fat chance of that remake. WhereasLet the Right OneIn had the vampire hook that was able to seduce a big budget out of Hollywood, Dogtooth lacks what it takes for a mass audience. It doesn't so much critique patriarchy (the Mother is complicit in everything), or anything, really, in the end. But it has real bite.
And I will just come right out and say it: every parent should see Dogtooth. Even if they only see it mostly between the fingers of the hand held in front of the face.
I had an idea about a book that would be a travelogue about cinemas around the world. I had some interest here and there from boutique publishers, but no track record or distinguishing talent as a writer (clearly), and let's face it, the world of publishing is, shall we say, challenged these days. Travelogues sell, but those centered around food were more commercial, for instance, than something tailored to the freak set who would rather visit a tiny cinema in an alleyway than a museum or a four star restaurant.
The idea would be that every year I would release a book about a new city, telling the story of the historical or independent cinema in these cities a cinephile might visit if she was so inclined. Classic case of writing a book one would want to own. As far as I know, nothing of the kind existed. Fame and fortune, therefore, awaited me.
Not so much, of course, so I went the D.I.Y route, with this blog. While I am not not entirely sure the entire vision isn't skakey, I would like to extend an invitation to all of those of you out there who might have something to contribute. Not the least of the challenges in my book idea were the simple logistics of producing a book per year about the cinemas of the cities of the world on a budget best described as making Roger Corman blanch.
But it is more or less free to publish online. And I would love to see your contributions, whether humble or grandiose. The idea would be a site that would be a reference for cinephiles around the world who find themselves in a strange town who are inextricably drawn to the cinema when common practice would indicate they should be moved otherwise.
It was always the intention of this piece that it be personal, rather than strictly informational, in nature, so if you would like to talk about one cinema in some city, your home town or not, where you broke your cherry, so to speak, it is all good and, glory be to the Blogosphere, publishable.
So shoot me a comment or an email if you have something you would like to add.
I love that moment just after leaving the cinema and entering the real world again. It is likely pathetic to say, but it is probably the moment I feel most alive. I love how the two parallel realities, the cinematic and the real, inform and enhance one another for that 10-15 minutes before the latter overcomes the former. I was almost hesitant to write about it because it is so hard to describe, but do you know what I mean?
Okay, rather than yet another Top 10 list lurching narcissistically towards establishing some sort of blogger street cred, I offer instead ten moments with film and t.v. that surprised and, at times, astonished me this year.
The criteria for inclusion is not just theatrical release in 2010 but films that were not readily available in any format prior to this year. While a good deal of time is spent on this blog lamenting the home theater take-over and The Death Of Movie Going, the digital film restoration biz seems to be entering a boom phase, making more and more films available, and that is nothing but good for cinephiles, couch potato or otherwise.
So, here goes, another lurching narcissistic attempt at establishing blogger street cred. With a twist!
(Some of the surprises, below, were unhappy surprises, I am afraid.)
Surprise #1.Catfish. I don’t care about the alleged manipulations with the sacred documentary format. What matters is how well the tale is told. Call it Documentary, DocuDrama or DocuLie, in the case of the Schulman’s Catfish, call it a riveting Human Dramedy which is as much about “the way we live now” as the more lavishly praised Social Network.
Surprise #2.The Prowler, directed by Joseph Losey. At long last caught up with this object of obsession on TCM. A DVD release is scheduled for 02/11, and it should be one of the most sought-after items for Cinephiles five minutes later.
One might wonder why all the fuss about Losey, but twenty minutes or so into The Prowler you realize that instead of the standard Noir involving femme fatales and jaded cops you are confronted with a profound meditation on class jealousy, framed with the astonishing compositions that are consistent with Losey’s entire oeuvre. There was no more subversive film produced by Hollywood in 1951, and it obviously got him into a heap of trouble.
Surprise #3.Greenberg, directed by Noah Baumbach. I know, I know. It is hard to get a film made, and it is harder still if your primary interest is the interrogation of unsympathetic characters. I admire Baumbach and what he has accomplished so far. But Greenberg blows. It manages to waste the talents of both Ben Stiller, giving his most mannered and annoying performance to date, and the great James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, whose score sounds to me like it could have been composed by any random knob twiddler with Pro Tools. The fact this been-there-done-that meditation on the alienated of L.A. has landed on so many Best Of lists is perhaps the greatest unhappy surprise of the year.
Surprise #4. Possession, directed by Andrej Zulawski. Caught up with this batshit crazy cult Whatzits by any means necessary. All I can say is, I get it, sort of. This is the kind of film one is obsessed and possessed by. Alternately awful/awesome, unwatchable/riveting, unintentionally/intentionally funny. What is clear is that director Zulawksi is some kind talent.
What is unequivocal the greatness of Isabelle Adjani. Her freak out scene in the Paris Metro is one of the greatest pieces of character inhabitation ever committed to celluloid, and easily as scary as anything in The Exorcist. This is a completely fearless actress, a great star who didn’t give a fuck about being a great star if she had a great part. Hers is the forbearer performance for Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and any other instances where movie stars throw caution to the wind and give themselves over completely to a completely insane director.
Rumors of a Blu Ray release (finally) have the easily obsessed foaming at the mouth.
Surprise #5. The ineffable Romy Schneider. Serge Romberg’s Henri-Georges Clouzot's L’Enfer is fine, I suppose, especially for Clouzot completists. But what fascinates is the portrait of an actress, Schneider, cast in a dream role never realized. In fact, at a certain point, the otherwise misbegotten project seems to exist for no other reason than for Clouzot to train his gaze unblinkingly on Ms. Schneider while he tries to figure out what his film is about.
Prior to seeing this I had a limited relationship with Schneider. She was great in Tavernier’s Death Watch, an obscure favorite of mine, as a character whose last dying days on earth are captured on camera and telecast to a rapt world audience (this wildly underrated film from 1980 is both prescient of today's reality obsession and also filled with grim irony, as Schneider herself died—too young—not shortly after its release). She was a major star in Germany and in France, and did a bunch of American films, mostly of the wacky comedy variety like What’s New, Pussycat, in which she was generally wasted as the sexy Foreigner. I had not idea she was, in fact, a great actress.
If anyone is wondering what acting for the movies is like (and for those who assume it is easy), watch as Schneider keeps giving it her all, take after take, bringing a nuances to the same material over and over, on and on, while a desperate director searches for….what? And she remains sexy, unapproachable, ineffible all the while.
Surprise #6. The Year of the Woman Director. Superb films by Maren Ade (Everyone Else), Sofia Coppolla (Somewhere), Lisa Cholodenko (TheKidsareAllRight), Jessica Hausner (Lourdes), Debra Granik (Winter’sBone), Lena Dunham (TinyFurniture), Claire Denis (WhiteMaterial), Nicole Holofcener (PleaseGive), Catherine Breillat (Bluebeard), Andrea Arnold (FishTank), among others. There is little doubting the relative ease and lower cost of digital/D.I.Y film making has opened up heretofore unheard of opportunities for film artists previously shunned do to their inconvenient gender.
Surprise #7. Play Dirty, directed by Andre de Toth. Thanks to my new Roku (Merry X-Mas to me!) and streaming Netflix, I caught up with this from de Toth, a working-man’s director from the Golden Age, who seems here, in his final feature, to be making his masterpiece. The late sixties/early seventies were the Golden Age of cynical World War II films, and, and while clearly influenced by the Dirty Dozen formula, this may be the best, and most personal, of the lot. And it is all here. The heroes without any illusions or anything to lose. The disregard for women (the sole woman in the cast, a German nurse played by Vivian Pickles, is saved from rape and murder merely because she is able to care for a gut-wounded member of the gang). The, shall we say, unromantic ending (at least at the end of the Dirty Dozen some of the characters are left to chuckle cynically in the hospital). This is dark as night, but the whole of the scenario is blasted with bright, sand swept light.
There is a sequence, just after the end of the first act, that would never be made today. The ragtag special unit that is charged to blow up a German fuel depot tries to lift their jeeps up a steep hill to a plateau above by jerry rigged pulley. De Toth lets the sequence play out in virtual real time, and we agonize with the men as one after the other vehicle makes it safely then, just as the group is ready to celebrate, the worst possible thing happens. It is a scene that feels fully experienced, and could never be shot in this manner in this day of quick cuts and short attention spans.
I don’t know how the video camera came to my hand, but I know the moment it came into my hand, I couldn’t let her down…ever. It was more than any drugs, to anybody. It was obsession.
Surprise #9. The Model Shop. This late American movie from Jacques Demy got a DVD release this year. Gary Lockwood is the disaffected hero, and Demy utilizes him in much the same manner as Kubrick did in 2001 about the same time. He is a blank slate upon which the viewer can project one’s own…I don’t know. Ennui? Ennui and inertia are certainly among of the film’s subjects, and the fact the character does not progress one iota (no hugs, no learning) is what makes it of its time, and also weirdly moving.
The film offers a great glimpse of late 60s Venice, California, in all its derelict glory. And, for music snobs, a great score by the semi-forgotten band Sprit (I Got a Line on You), whose members also make up part of the cast. I spent many hours obsessively trying to track down the vinyl of the score in greater vintage record stores in the greater Seattle area to, alas, no avail. You got a copy?
(consider for a moment Demy's first choices for both lead role and the band: Harrison Ford and the Doors. Something tells me this would be far from the obscure object it is if Demy had gotten his initial wishes fulfilled)
Surprise #10. Three Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg. Lovely release from the beloved Criterion. Of the three (Underworld, The Last Command and Docks of New York) the latter is the supreme masterpiece, and has long been a kind of Holy Grail for cinephiles due to its unavailability on VHS or DVD.
Sternberg’s reputation is as a woman’s director due to his long collaboration with Dietrich, of course, but Docks is a rough and tumble man’s man picture which nevertheless manages to soften and humanize the brawling longshoreman protagonist (George Bancroft) at the film’s conclusion as he begrudgingly accepts the unconditional love of a hardened woman (the amazing Betty Compson) he saves from drowning. There won’t be a dry eye in your house at the end, but Sternberg never panders, never gives in completely to sentimentality. And there is always, from frame to frame, the remarkable, one-of-a-kind Sternberg talent for composition and lighting. The other two films in the collection are worth watching as well, of course, but Docks is worth the price of the set.
Other surprises, 2010-style:
What an awful, pretentious, self-important howler the much-praised I Am Love was; that multiplex dreck The Expendables and The A-Team are actually pretty good; that I think Casey Affleck and Michal Winterbottom are very talented, but it seems to me the only point of The Killer Inside Me is genre exercise and misogyny, and that ain't enough; that The Leopard restoration was a major event, but the film itself still leaves me a little cold. And I love long, lush, historical epics where not much happens. Not sure I am a Visconti guy; that My Son John (on Netflix Streaming but still not on DVD) is a masterpiece, despite its dubious politics and the compromises born of the tragic death of Robert Walker; that the recently and dearly departed Frank Henenlotter’s Bad Biology is way, way over the top, but filled with great ideas; that when it is all said and done (Oscar!) The Social Network is nothing more than a really solid piece of professional film making; that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (released for the first time on DVD with a beautiful Blu Ray from Blue Underground) is an artfully made and quite scary horror movie that holds up with the best of Romero; that Dexter, on HBO, hit a new high in quality this year, perfecting its formula of mixing biting social criticism with its thrills and chills (in the case of this year, skewering the ridiculous and growing downtrodden-white-middle-class-male-self-help industry); that Mad Men had more so-so episodes this year than great ones, signaling, perhaps, the end is near?