Recently I had to re-watch Michael Moore's muckraking sort-of masterpiece Roger & Me (1989) a film that would mark the start of Moore's ascendency to deified portly prince of the Left. Roger & Me was effective as a scathing satire of Reaganomics but also full of fabrications and inaccuracies, which were entirely unnecessary. He had a great story but, much like his lardy lad appetite for tasty sweets, he could not help himself and had to greedily embellish details to make his story that much more shocking. It was a dumb thing to do because it distracted from the important stuff his film addresses.
Still, no one doubts that Moore shined a light on important issues for an audience that could never be reached by The Nation or Mother Jones. He is probably right that professional jealousy accounts for at least some of the sour grapes that his adversaries on the left have been sucking on for some time. But I submit to you that they have a point. (Check out Manufacturing Dissent – a leftist critique of Moore – available illegally, I think, on YouTube.) For all his success it is true that he has dumbed down the discourse surrounding issues of systemic inequality embedded in a classist, white privilege-based society such as ours. He makes his films all about him and like a Leftist Charles Foster Kane he sounds paranoid and overly reactionary about anyone who dares criticize him or his methods.Continue Reading
I'll never forget seeing The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo's seminal overview of LGBT representation in American film. I was 19, a college student in Lawrence, Kansas watching it in a documentary film class. It was like oxygen - for the first time I was seeing a film that confirmed gay stories and a gay sensibility had always been a part of Hollywood Cinema. You just had to know where and how to look.
Vito Russo's work as a film scholar synthesized a whole history of gay images and themes in film. The Celluloid Closet is an ecstatic celebration of such iconic gay images as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo in Morocco and the gut-wrenching ensemble piece about life in New York for a group of gay male friends in The Boys in the Band. The movie also serves as a scathing indictment of Hollywood and its "morals" code, a system that perpetuated the false notion that homosexuals didn't exist and, if they did, they had to die by the film's end. It was sobering, educational, cathartic, and celebratory. And the man responsible was not alive to see it because he had died of AIDS years earlier.Continue Reading
Dig! is a completely unreliable documentary about two rock bands who were around in the late 1990s -the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You do not have to be fans of these bands to find this movie entertaining. I didn’t believe for a second that what I was watching was anything more than some amateur footage of two bands with a clumsy narrative about success, art, commerce and “selling out” (one of the really quaint concepts that shows you how different things are now) grafted on, but it’s worthwhile because it’s a film with some genuine characters – goofballs, sleazy good time Charlies, and actually some really good music. Part of the charm of these bands is how little they had in common with the music scene at the time.
I present a recap:Continue Reading
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
A deeply weird thriller as exotically perverse as they come, The Lady from Shanghai is a solitary entry in the exclusive canon of "maritime noir." Much like The Big Sleep -- in that the plot is so utterly convoluted it becomes impossible to figure out who is double crossing whom -- yet is doesn't matter because the film succeeds as a glamorous nightmare, a proto-Lynchian exercise in atmospheric dread. It is less than a full vision of Welles's inimitable imagination because, as usual, the studio hacked away at the movie, adding corny musical cues, and soft-focus close-ups of Rita Hayworth where they didn't belong. But it mostly works because the images are so original and inspired and because Welles and Hayworth bring a genuine spark of sexual chemistry to their roles. Even when it's painful to notice the studio's inane additions to the film in compromise of Welles's artistry it's hard to regard the intense, dreamy, fragmented bits of brilliance the film is comprised of as a complete tragedy.
Welles plays Mike "Black Irish" O'hara, an "able-bodied seaman" for hire in New York. Mike's a romantic - a tough guy who writes poetry and killed a Franco spy fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He's a brooding, sexy tough guy with depth. He meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), the wealthy wife of a crippled trial lawyer, Arthur Bannister, one night in Central Park. After rescuing her from an attempted gang rape in the park he is later propositioned by her husband to work on their yacht as they sail to Mexico. Mike can't say no to Elsa and soon they're sailing to Mexico. It's here where the film is most memorable as the landscape changes from a back lot version of Manhattan to actual location shooting of the ocean and a Mexican fishing village. As the characters are revealed to be more sinister the cinematography gets more and more darkly beautiful. Welles gets great things out of his cast and crew, and the result is unlike any thriller from the period. It's noir but in Welles's hands it transcends genre trappings.Continue Reading
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.