For a downbeat noir as pessimistic as they come look no further than Andre De Toth's Pitfall (1948). It's a film that depicts a time often thought of as a golden age of American prosperity and nuclear family bliss and then tears our warm and fuzzy notions to pieces. After the end of WW2 the G.I. Bill changed America for the better. For the first time many more Americans would get a chance to go to college while also being able to own their own homes. People had tons of kids. Suburbia and the good life soon followed and we never really looked back. But all this peace and prosperity left some feeling trapped. Life for some became bland and predictable and if noir has taught us anything it's that a husky-voiced blonde can be as lethal as dynamite.
Dick Powell plays John Forbes, a man who seemingly has it all: an adorable son, a loving wife, a nice middle-class house, and a decent job working in insurance. But John is sullen and not terribly appreciative of how good he has it. He goes out on a call about a woman in possession of stolen goods that her incarcerated husband had given her. Lizabeth Scott, best known for her noir vixen roles, plays Mona Stevens, the girl with the loot. Forbes expects to find the kind of girl he thinks would take up with a criminal but instead sees that Mona is a victim of circumstance and never asked for the things her husband stole for her. She's also beautiful and Forbes takes the opportunity to spend the rest of the day with her, conveniently forgetting to mention to her that he's married.Continue Reading
Paris is Burning
If, at some point, the world burns to a pulp and only one film can be loaded onto an escape pod for future generations to glean some insight into all that was remotely worthwhile about human beings and society in general, you could do worse than nominating Paris is Burning for such posthumous preservation. At the very least it might make some of us look better than if some turgid superhero epic ostensibly depicting epic struggles of great societal importance was chosen in its place. Forgive me for mentioning but after just sitting through The Dark Knight Rises and subsequently observing all manner of literate and engaged humanities majors discuss the Dickensian implications of such a stupid, stupid movie in painfully earnest detail that completely ignored the fact that it was a goddamn movie for children I am ready for California and its most famous culture industry to sink to the bottom of the Pacific. Like now. We don’t even get good trash any more. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a more relevant film to understand American psychology than anything Christopher Nolan, with his cheesy conceptualization of urban politics as an “us” vs. “them” struggle, has come up with. But I digress; this is an opportunity to talk about a truly epic film: the ferocious extravaganza spectacle-cum-urban-
As is always the case in the United States, a small marginalized group—in this case, black, gay folks—creates a subculture of such magnificent vitality and militantly glamorous urgency—in this case, the Harlem Drag Ball scene of the late-‘80s and early ‘90s—that the only end result can be its utter annihilation as collateral damage in the larger story of poverty and racism that is the dominant narrative of AmeriKKKa and for the opportunistic capitalist sex mercenaries (in this case, Madonna) to cannily co-opt their electric pleasure art into a 1990 pop hit cassingle called “Vogue.” Now, “Vogue” was a great song and a noble tribute to this Harlem Drag Ball culture that Paris is Burning depicts but it’s still a subcultural Occupation that created a revenue stream that went directly into the granny panties Madonna wore under her Victorian costume from that one MTV Video Awards performance she did of the song whilst bypassing the originators completely. So forget her for a moment and let’s go back to this black-flesh-ensconced-in-crushed-red-velvet-counter-narrative-protest-to-the-World-of- White-and-Straight that Paris is Burning represents.
The Music Man
When I was a kid I looked to movie characters for whom to emulate. There really wasn’t a common thread between them except some magnetic quality my impressionable 6-to- 12-year-old self was able to discern. It also really helped if they wore good clothes. It didn’t even matter whether they were the heroes or the villains of their stories. I really liked Corey Haim's incredibly gay wardrobe in The Lost Boys just as much as I liked Kiefer Sutherland’s menacing hair metal vampire look in the movie. I started playing racquetball, as well as slicking my hair back, and wearing suspenders to be more like Gordon Gekko after I saw Wall Street. I began pretending to be sick to get out of going to school (and thinking I was really, really clever) while also becoming obsessed with owning argyle socks (which I had never heard of) after seeing Matthew Broderick wear them in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I was certainly impressionable, also maybe kind of weird. Still, the character that made, maybe, the biggest impression on me was that of Robert Preston’s Professor Harold Hill in the movie adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. He was a dapper con artist, a larcenous gent selling dreams to gullible townsfolk and making them feel like a million bucks as he fleeced their Edwardian era pockets. If you haven’t seen the film he probably sounds like a terrible person but the genius of The Music Man is that, though he is thoroughly dubious, he’s also the greatest thing to ever happen to the Iowa town that he storms right in to in order to swindle. Also, his red and white marching band uniforms are fantastic.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt was a groundbreaking documentary made in 1989 about the AIDS crisis at the peak of its destruction. It’s a film that sheds light on the U.S. government’s bigoted and, for all intents and purposes, criminally negligent non-response to the epidemic when it was a disease disproportionately affecting gay men. More importantly it’s a film about the misery the disease caused for a cross-section of Americans either living with the disease or caring for people who were.
In the illustrious tradition of American documentaries giving voice to marginalized social classes such as Harlan County U.S.A., Common Threads is both a profile in ordinary human courage, featuring several people detailing their stories for the filmmakers as they struggled to face life head-on, knowing they didn’t have much time left. It’s also a profile in cowardice and how the Reagan Administration failed to respond to a health crisis that ultimately took more American lives than the Vietnam War. The filmmakers didn’t limit the scope of their film to just the gay community, though, and it’s to their credit. We also hear from an African American heterosexual woman who was infected by her male partner as well as the mother of a little boy who got the disease from a blood transfusion.
The Magnificent Ambersons
Aside from the missing, approximately 9 hour cut of Erich Von Stroheim’s silent epic Greed, Orson Welles’sThe Magnificent Ambersons is easily the most mythologized lost American film ever made. To recap the essential narrative of how this tragic loss for American film history occurred, unlike with Citizen Kane, Welles did not have final cut on his second film for RKO, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s turn of the century American family saga The Magnificent Ambersons. Because the studio brass at RKO didn’t like or trust Welles they were happy to wrest his opus from his chubby little fingers and—since he was in Brazil at the time filming the festivities of Carnival as an emissary of the federal government as part of a North American goodwill gesture towards South America—there wasn’t much he could do about it. His absence from Hollywood during the editing stage of the film and his lack of artistic control over the end result cost him dearly. After the Ambersons debacle Welles would never regain his wunderkind status that preceded his arrival in Hollywood. He was unjustly portrayed as unprofessional, someone who couldn’t bring a project in on time. After all, he might run off to Brazil.
The original running time of Ambersons was just over two hours but it did not test well with a preview audience and, by the time RKO dumped it onto the market, it had been butchered to 88 minutes. So what was cut? Robert Carringer’s essential chronology The Magnificent Ambersons: a Reconstruction goes a long way towards explaining what we are missing. Using the original screenplay and stills from the scenes that were cut Carringer pieces together a “reconstruction” to give us a semblance of what watching the original Welles cut would have been like. Some of Welles’s amazingly complicated tracking shots had been junked in favor of artless insertions done by studio hacks. Scenes that went a long way towards explaining how the Amberson fortune dwindled to nothing were also cut. Scenes dealing with the rise of the automobile and how it led to a lowering of property values in the oldest and grandest section of the Midwestern city where the story takes place were taken out. These cuts hinder the cohesion of the story while a chopping up of what Welles maintained to his death was the single greatest shot he had ever pulled off—a breathtaking single-take, multi-level tracking shot through the Amberson Christmas ball—is surely the worst thing to ever happen anywhere to anyone or anything ever.
24 Hour Party People
Along with Julien Temple’s posthumous Sex Pistols doc The Filth & the Fury, 24 Party People is the greatest movie ever made about British music from the punk and post-punk era. The film is based around the recollections of Factory label boss Tony Wilson and his visionary posse of Mancunian fuck ups, geniuses, and all manner of eccentrics who helped to create the Manchester music scene of the early 1980s. With the noticeable absence of any musical contribution from the Smiths the film is a brilliantly edited survey of a northern British cultural explosion that epitomized the despair, and later, the boundless hedonism of a fervently creative moment in the darkest days of Thatcher’s Britain.
Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) is the most entertaining phony you could possibly imagine. He is so good at talking up his city (Manchester), his bands (the Factory roster including Joy Division and later New Order and the Happy Mondays), and his artfully ridiculous way of running a label, that it’s almost impossible not to like him even if it’s never clear whether his conviction is really in his artists or in his ability to sell them. Coogan is the natural fit to reinterpret Wilson’s art of the blag as his Alan Partridge character is a similar creation but without Wilson's charm.
2011 was something of a banner year for movies about at least superficially complicated women who happen to be hilarious. Whether in Bridesmaids, the obvious winner here, or in Bad Teacher (at least they tried) there was something refreshing about female characters who managed to stand out from the shrew/slut/"manic pixie dream girl" trifecta of acceptable female archetypes. The best of these and my favorite film of the year incidentally, is Jason Reitman's Young Adult. It's a dark comedy that explores the realities of life for people who have run out of identity options not based around their high school years.
Charlize Theron creates a fantastically entertaining mess of a character to follow in Mavis, a woman whom everyone can see is losing it except her. Mavis ghost writes young adult fiction and lives in a sad apartment in a Minneapolis high rise where she is alternately drunk or hungover, ignoring her beleaguered pooch, and staring expressionless at her TV which is tuned exclusively to the E Network. She is a woman of no discernible trace of self awareness. She is empty and she doesn’t have the slightest understanding of how to fix her life. Her insane lack of regard for anyone who isn't her compels her to head back to her home town, Mercury, and stalk an ex-boyfriend from high school that has recently had a kid with his wife. She’s going to win him back and they’ll live happily ever after, wife and kid be damned. Along the way she meets Matt, a guy from her high school infamous around town for having been subjected to a brutal “gay bashing” while in high school though he isn’t gay, just an outsider, pretty much the total opposite of whatever it is Mavis represents. But both are pretty bitter people and they find a weird solace in each other’s company.
As frustrating as it is exciting, not to mention gorgeous to look at, The Untouchables succeeds in spite of its narrative inconsistencies and gaudy, oversaturated, and weirdly anachronistic film score. It shouldn’t work as well as it does but, for whatever reason, the story is compelling, the violence has a darkly operatic majesty, and, most amazing, we thrill to the actions of a bunch of prohibition enforcers. The combination of Brian De Palma’s “hard R” approach to classic Hollywood genre filmmaking and writer David Mamet’s nervy, sucker-punch dialogue are a beautiful match. The movie succeeds best as a series of excellent set pieces—the infamous baseball bat dinner party execution scene, a western-style Canadian border shootout, the ill-conceived-but-still-really-tense Battleship Potemkin-quoting Union Station scene— strung together without a true sense of narrative and thematic cohesion. Quibbles aside, though, it’s a highly entertaining gangster saga and, along with Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, one of the very best Chicago movies.
In the thick of Depression-era Chicago during the days of prohibition a federal agent named Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is appointed to head up a group to take on the Al Capone mob and its bootlegging operations. As he is in Chicago it’s immediately understood that the city was, is now, and probably always will be synonymous with civic corruption at every level. And heading a squad devoted to making it harder for people to get a drink doesn’t exactly endear him to his new colleagues. Suffice to say Ness has his work cut out for him. He sets about assembling a crew built to withstand the withering influence of institutionalized corruption. Soon Ness’s “Untouchables” are formed consisting of Sean Connery, playing a cynical Irish beat cop, Andy Garcia, as a rookie Italian cop, and Charles Martin Smith as a nerdy federal agent trying to take Capone down for income tax evasion. As they take the fight to Capone and his underlings the bodies pile up and Ness finds himself in an increasingly lonely position trying to finish what his group started.
Some movies merit a second viewing to get a better sense of what’s going on. There aren’t a lot of films I’d lump into this category but Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is one of them. When I saw it during its original theatrical release I thought it fell flat. I was expecting a sharp-as-a-blade deconstruction of the kind of guy who, in Baumbach’s own words, seems to perpetually get in his own way. Ben Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a hyper-critical, excruciatingly self-centered guy aimless and adrift in a Los Angeles completely familiar to anyone who lives here—a place that seems to always have the lonely haze of a Sunday afternoon. Greenberg is a quintessential 21st century miserablist. None of his problems should chart on a list of the biggest issues facing society but in his own way he epitomizes the neurotic, existential crisis surrounding a particular stratum of our white western culture of insane privilege. Greenberg is paralyzed by how his actions make him seem to the outside world. He is obsessed with what people say about him. He is so busy avoiding the things he doesn’t want to do that he ends up not really doing anything with his life. He takes out his anger on justifiable targets—Starbucks, rude drivers—but lacks the self-awareness to see where all this self-obsessive behavior has gotten him. If this sounds unpleasant I assure you it’s actually pretty hilarious but the subtlety of Stiller’s performance caught me off guard the first time.
Roger Greenberg is a New Yorker in his 40s who has just gotten over some kind of vaguely alluded to nervous breakdown. He is offered his brother Phillip’s palatial house in L.A. to recuperate in while Phillip and his family are off in Vietnam on a work-related trip. Greenberg (as Stiller’s character is known) shows up after they leave and meets their personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who agrees to get a drink with him. Their banter is suitably awkward. Greenberg often wears the expression of a trapped animal; his eyes dart around and he doesn’t so much engage in conversation as let you in on what one assumes is his constant, torturous inner monologue: a litany of complaints and contrarian opinions on every subject conceivable. Somehow this charms Florence or at least piques her curiosity. She’s a girl just out of college who is sleepwalking through young adulthood, a nice kid who doesn’t have her shit together and for whatever reason likes Greenberg. Greenberg, though, has a habit of letting people who care about him down. Whether it’s Florence or his former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), he can’t seem to move beyond his own baggage and he inevitably hurts the people closest to him. Misery, after all, loves company.
God Bless the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, for he has single-handedly rescued America’s noir heritage from the dustbin of history. Eddie is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit that raises money to preserve old noir films whose surviving negatives are on the verge of being lost forever all so that future generations can enjoy these seedy little tales of B-movie heaven. One recent rescue was of Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, a sweaty, kinky thriller that also serves as a vituperative denunciation of capitalism and its effects on people. Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a pervy cop with a chip on his shoulder and a peeping tom fetish. He snoops around the outside of a stately home after dark while on his beat “perving on the woman” as James Ellroy suitably and salaciously puts it on one of the DVD’s extras. The woman is housewife Susan, a trapped trophy wife stuck pacing the halls of her mansion, in limbo while her husband works nights as a radio DJ. Her husband’s voice fills the house from the radio and gives off an ominous echo to Webb’s creepy spying as Susan never really seems to be alone.
Webb likes what he sees from his pervy perch in the front yard. He wants the life of a well-to-do loafer with an easy job and easier money. He fetishizes Susan’s good looks but also the wealth she has acquired by marrying her absentee husband. Webb and his partner are the cops called when Susan spots the prowler so you know this isn’t going to turn out well. Soon, though, Webb and Susan are spending their nights together and the illicit romance is their escape from their mutual dissatisfaction with life. The murder of the inconvenient husband and its cover-up briefly solves Webb’s problems but eventually his crime catches up with him culminating in a beautifully stark desert showdown between Webb and the police. A pregnant Susan is left behind in a dinky shack, forced to accept that her two timing with a guy like Webb led to her husband's murder.