2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.
Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.Continue Reading
8: The Mormon Proposition
I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry about a political issue in my lifetime as the issue of how Proposition 8 came to be law in the state of California. I’ve been mildly politically engaged for most of my life. I grew up in a house full of good liberals and I marched in a couple of Iraq war protests, but I’ve never really put anything on the line for a cause I believe in. Prop 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage in California as solely between a man and a woman, made me really mad and I got involved in the fight against it. It confirmed my mostly cynical take on politics because everything about the way it played out seemed so frustratingly predictable.
I absolutely knew it was going to pass when I was listening to NPR one day in my car and heard a Yes On 8 spokeswoman say that if gay marriage was legal than kindergartners would be forced to learn how to gay marry one another. The NPR host, the comically awful and journalistically toothless Larry Mantle, had no follow up question and there was no one from No On 8 or any informed listener who bothered to call in and state that that particular allegation was completely made up. But listener after listener called in to instead say that while they had nothing against gay people it just wasn’t right to teach that in schools. It couldn’t have been planned any better for Yes On 8 if they had scripted it. It was a classic bait-and-switch strategy by the architects of their campaign and it worked like a charm.Continue Reading
It bugs me when I go to see an old film on the big screen and people laugh at what they find to be anachronistic or hokey. Aside from it being disrespectful it also strikes me as an incredibly pretentious thing to do. I remember having a screening of Night of the Hunter completely ruined when a trio of teenage dorks insisted on laughing at every other line of dialogue in the film as if they were so much cooler than everyone on screen. Who in their right mind could think they were cooler than Robert Mitchum?! We assume that we must be somehow more evolved than generations before us but, with few exceptions, evidence to the contrary abounds. It can be amusing to note how filmmakers had to contort their films to fit the narrow confines of acceptability as defined by the Production Code, but to insistently laugh with smug satisfaction at every little thing in an old film that strikes our ears as the least bit foreign is to loudly and desperately proclaim one’s own insecurities. The laughing-at-old-films-to-make-yourself-look-smart phenomenon is so all prevailing that I barely notice it anymore except by its absence. This happened when I saw Brighton Rock at the New Beverly here in L.A. this past weekend. It is one of the funniest, blackest noirs ever and the audience laughed at what was meant to be funny and that was enough. It was revelatory to experience a film from 1947 as it was meant to be seen—at a theater with an audience that was completely seduced into unselfconscious enjoyment by the film’s dark, spiky humor. Brighton Rock was a novel before it was a movie and it remains probably my favorite novel of all time. Graham Greene stuck to a completely English milieu for this early gangster story set in the seaside town of Brighton with its pleasure piers and seedy amusements. A teenage boy with an acne problem and a very bad temper named Pinkie is the leader of a low rent gang of hoods. Pinkie and his middle aged cohorts kill a newspaper man from London who is working in Brighton for the day because of unfinished business related to his nefarious extracurricular activities. The murder scene is different from how it plays out in the book but it’s the rare example of a movie adaptation with inventive visuals that manage to artfully elaborate on the themes of the book even when straying from the book’s plot. Pinkie is evil incarnate. He wears a cheap suit and carries a razor blade as a weapon and only seems happy when terrifying other people. He is a virgin and is repulsed by sex but plagued by self doubt over his lack of life experience. When a young waitress named Rose becomes a potential liability for Pinkie’s gang he sets out to court her with the plan of marrying her so that she can’t testify against him. He seems relieved when he sees a rosary in her purse and his eyes light up as he talks about the certainty of eternal damnation and torment even as he seems more skeptical about the possibility of any alternative.
As previously mentioned, Brighton Rock is one of the great film noir dark comedies and in Pinkie it has one of the great villains of cinema and in Ida Arnold, one of the most absurd protagonists. Ida is a classic British creation—a soft-around-the-edges kind of gal with a hearty laugh. When she’s not working on her "entertainment" career she’s usually found at the pub drinking port and singing sentimental old music hall songs with her randomly assembled group of male friends. Ida met Fred just before he died and she is obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Soon Ida is causing problems for Pinkie as her rambling investigation threatens to ensnare him.Continue Reading
I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick of late and I’m not sure what prompted it. In the twilight of his career he remains a polarizing figure mostly reviled for personal indiscretions or ignored for his supposed cultural irrelevancy. He doesn’t always make it easy to defend his work. The things people used to find amusing about his movies now just elicit a kind of widespread yawning contempt—the gross age difference between him and his latest ingÃ©nue, the aloof quality of the writing, and the way his characters don’t seem to bear even the slightest relation to actual people in New York City or anywhere else. His last few international productions have been, by all accounts, hit-or-miss and the early fans who adopted Annie Hall and Manhattan as the films of their generation have deserted him. I don’t necessarily disagree that his films aren’t what they used to be, but I think his good films are still some of the best American films ever made. The period of his work I generally romanticize is the mid-1980s period and the film of his that I like best is, in some ways, the least representative of his work, Radio Days. It’s light, unabashedly sentimental, and probably the least cynical movie he ever made.
Radio Days is more-or-less a series of vignettes related to Allen’s childhood that revolve around the radio and the central role it played in everyone’s life. The scenes are breezy and comical with a wry knowing melancholy hovering over them because this is, after all, a lost world that Allen is eulogizing. The film shows Allen’s childhood in a nostalgic light. He lives in Brooklyn in a cramped house where various assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived too. Their banter is typically neurotic for an Allen film but there’s a familial ease and a gentleness to it. It’s very funny but it’s not abrasive. Seth Green plays Allen as a kid who is obsessed with the Masked Avenger, a radio show about a super hero of sorts whom Green’s character imagines as a dashing crime fighter but in actuality is played by Wallace Shawn, the impish character actor. A lot of the fun to be had from the stories Allen tells about the golden age of radio is how the actuality of who the performers are bears little resemblance to the identities they assume on the radio for a rapt audience living vicariously through their glamorous exploits. None is funnier than Mia Farrow, a painfully ditzy supper club cigarette girl who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time but who eventually gets (mostly) rid of her Brooklyn squawk and becomes the host of a sophisticated Hollywood gossip radio program.Continue Reading
Meet the Feebles
One summer night in 1996 I was out with a group of friends who ended up at Chicago’s Brew & View movie theater/bar in the Lakeview neighborhood to see something called Meet the Feebles. All I knew about it was from my friend Joe who said that it was supposed to be crazy and involved puppets. I’m not big into degenerate spectacles involving puppets, in theory, but what I saw that night changed my life. It was so incredibly disgusting, yet so powerful, that it took my breath away. A backstage melodrama like nothing I had ever witnessed, I finally had to lie down on the sticky floor of the theater because passions writ so large and impossible on the screen were overwhelming me to the point of exhaustion and I had never been subjected to something so simultaneously powerful and gross in my life.
Meet the Feebles is a film with so many illustrious qualities I’m not sure I’ve even discovered them all. It’s a movie about the corruption of show biz life as embodied by the Feebles, a British Muppets-esque variety show troupe with some really horrific and yet remarkably relatable problems. The film manages to address drug abuse, sexually transmitted disease, the parasitic nature of the entertainment press, the naiveté of young performers just aching to be given a chance, and a lot of incredibly depraved stuff that should probably never have been filmed. And all with a cast of puppets!Continue Reading
Make Way for Tomorrow
One of the things I love about discovering old movies is finding something that seems well ahead of its time. It’s always revelatory to find cinematic evidence that not every film can be easily placed into an obvious time frame. Sometimes the writing or acting can just seem more modern than one would have thought for the era in which the film was released. Citizen Kane changed everything about what one could do with a movie and it looks even more incredible when viewed in comparison with the other films that were released at the same time.
Make Way for Tomorrow, in a modest kind of way, is such a film. It’s a family centered drama about a rather unremarkable situation and that alone is rather unique when compared with the kinds of historical epics and glamorous escapist fare that was the norm for what people expected when they went to the movies in 1937. It’s a film that has more in common with the films of, say, James L. Brooks than anything that was contemporary with the film. An elderly couple loses their home and each must move in with one of their adult children. Their separation and the agony it causes them are barely understood by their children with their own families who live in different parts of the country and seem entirely oblivious to the sadness the situation has caused their parents.Continue Reading
A great rock n’ roll film doesn’t have to get everything right. There really isn’t a way around the clichÃ©s of telling the classic rock biopic tale. It’s always the same. Scrappy young kids create sparks playing together in the garage. They play shows in divey little clubs and then a sleazy impresario comes along to whip them into shape and acts as Svengali, enabler, and all around brow beater. After several go nowhere sessions in the studio they get that one song right and then cue the montage of their steady climb up the charts followed by too much partying, band feuds, solo albums, and then the inevitable implosion. Whether it’s a documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth & The Fury, or the fictional Ladies & Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains the classic rock n roll narrative rarely veers off course. The Runaways is a great rock film, which is not to say it works on every level. It’s a disjointed film of mostly excellent individual scenes and adrenaline pumping performances. Don’t expect real insight into the collaborative nature of a band or really any aspect of the Runaways’ story that isn’t directly associated with Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. The other girls in the band might as well not even exist. But do expect tough girls in tight jeans and leather jackets, 1970s Sunset Strip sleaze, and a deeply romantic portrait of teenage girls making rock n’ roll records and taking on a music industry that didn’t know what to do with them.
The Runaways doesn’t shy away from what made the band unique. Some reacted to the raw sexuality in The Runaways as if it was exploitive and that makes zero sense to me. As the scarily good Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley says, “This isn’t about women’s liberation! It’s about women’s libido!” Calling the honest depiction of teenage sexuality exploitive is condescending and misguided. The director, Floria Sigismondi, never loses sight of the fact that these are young women discovering the world and themselves together. It’s not cynical at all and is in fact much less offensive than the virgin/whore pop star thing that caters only to men.Continue Reading
Fast Food Nation
It stands to reason that if you can get people to eat s*** and like it you can pretty much get away with anything. This is the sentiment I took away from Eric Schlosser's devastating expose of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001). The book was compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for its gritty glimpse into an industry that has a stranglehold over our agriculture, our declining health, and our government. (And he really does point out that because of the American beef industry's dedication to doing things as cheaply as possible sometimes feces make their way into hamburger patties. Seriously.) Eric Schlosser connected the dots as to why fast food is so cheap and omnipresent and what he discovered was a vast system of interrelated factors that have been set up to dominate and degrade almost every aspect of our society - from the disgusting ways in which cattle are treated, to the exploitation of undocumented workers, to the disease and obesity epidemics currently plaguing this country. Schlosser wrote the definitive account of why American ideals are so compromised by the dominance of fast food culture. Making a documentary based on the book seemed to be the most logical way to visually depict Schlosser's investigative findings but director Richard Linklater had a different approach. Instead of filming Fast Food Nation as a muckraking documentary he uses the general narrative structure of Steven Soderbergh's ensemble film about the international drug trade, Traffic, as a device for exploring the business of fast food and its negative effects on all of us from multiple viewpoints.
The film follows lots of different characters caught up within their own troubling relationship to fast food production. Greg Kinnear plays an executive for a fast food chain called Mickey's. We follow him as he meets different people affiliated with the hamburger chain. He's shocked when he's told by his superior that they have worries about public outcry over their product. "There's shit in the meat," he says. He talks to scientists paid by Mickey's to craft the taste of liquid smoke in test tubes. He meets the kids who work at a Mickey's in Colorado. A young idealist named Amber (Ashley Johnson) working at Mickey's after school starts to realize that she doesn't want to be a part of what Mickey's is selling. Bruce Willis has a cameo as a cynical meat processing plant owner who warns Kinnear's character about sticking his nose in their business when he hears rumors about mistreatment of workers at the plant. We follow the experiences of Mexicans who crossed the border illegally into Colorado and work in the factory who are taken advantage of at every turn. Some turn to drugs to cope with the long hours and brutal work. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and even Avril Lavigne pop up in different roles. Amber meets up with a group of college students determined to raise public consciousness about fast food's toll on the environment but have their illusions shattered when they see it's more complicated than they realized.Continue Reading
Patton Oswalt: My Weakness Is Strong
I love Patton Oswalt. He is the rare comedian whose grasp of language is as rich as his jokes are funny. That such exquisite verbiage is so often used in the service of detailing the most appalling and grotesque aspects of life as he sees it makes him just as much a public intellectual for my generation as a hilarious fatty joke teller. My Weakness Is Strong is his second stand-up DVD preceded by No Reason to Complain a few years ago. He is still as impishly caustic as ever but, with his latest, he goes a little deeper than he has in the past. Whereas before he has obsessed over how awesome it would be to die in the apocalypse, the theoretical conversations among employees of a Dutch porn magazine called Piss Drinkers, and perhaps most famously, the 21st century horror that is KFC's "food bowl" menu, now there is a new poignancy to his material.
I had avoided this DVD for a while because Patton got married and had a kid not too long ago and, as he pointed out so astutely once, nothing kills comedy like being happy. I was resigned to the fact that My Weakness Is Strong was going to epitomize the niche suckiness of parenting humor and didn't want to witness a once brilliant comedian wasting his prodigious talents on such boring garbage. I was totally wrong in two ways. First of all, yeah, he talks a little about being a father, but all his observations are refreshingly unsentimental and kind of demented. And with his new material he casts himself in a pretty vulnerable light, adding a new layer of depth to his comedy. He talks about his struggle with depression and his attempts to wean himself off Prozac, as well as the toll his outsized well of negativity that is the source for so much of his creative inspiration has taken on his life. Everybody knows that comedians are miserable people but I don't think I've ever heard someone get to the heart of it as artfully as Patton does in My Weakness Is Strong.Continue Reading
Word Is Out
You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. This is never more true than in how we think about Civil Rights issues. A documentary recently restored and released onto DVD through a joint effort of Outfest and UCLA's Film & Television Archive, Word Is Out, is an enormously moving survey of the lives of ordinary Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian. It was made in 1977 and it features a variety of people from many different walks of life. It manages to be riveting for most of its running time and this is especially noteworthy considering it features nothing more than people talking about growing up gay and how their sexual identity has enriched their lives and simultaneously made their lives more difficult. This is fairly benign stuff, the kind of thing you might hear on This American Life week after week, but its cultural and historical importance as a record of gay life in America in the post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS era is priceless.
In 1977, the gay rights movement was just getting under way in the U.S. before AIDS would ravage the community a few years later. The interviews with gay and lesbians in Word Is Out don't feature any talk of AIDS because it hadn't devastated the community yet, but it was hard not to wonder whether anyone interviewed in the film had their lives destroyed by the disease in the years since the interviews took place. Still the interviewees had plenty to contend with. Some of them were sent to mental institutions by their families when they came out to them. One woman was discharged dishonorably from the army. One woman lost custody of her kids when she left her husband for a woman. And yet, through these interviews, one gets the impression that these regular folks have an incredible sense of perspective and peace of mind that they earned the hard way. Their friendliness, optimism, and bravery shine through in these interviews and it's hard not to wonder whether gay equality would have been on the radar sooner if a plague wasn't about to derail the movement.Continue Reading