I’m all for being provoked by a film if I think there is a good reason. I’ve steered clear – right or wrong – of legendarily sadistic fare such as Salo, Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s work, to name a few, because whatever important things about modern society they think they’re getting at, I just don’t like watching people horrifically degrade one another for two hours at a time. I don’t really think it’s a necessary punishment we need to go through when we go to the movies in order to learn about life or art. It’s just not something I can easily stomach. Maybe that makes me a dubious critical voice here but I think there’s a fallacious connection between onscreen depravity and important, serious cinema. It’s a weird kind of pretension that suggests that the movie-as-endurance test is the most serious kind of cinematic art. I think that’s dumb. But hey, that’s just me.
That said, Compliance, Craig Zobel’s true crime tale of a sinister phone prank played on a fast food manager in Kentucky, had its fair share of walkouts. A lot of people got angry at this film and were disgusted by what they saw onscreen and exasperated by the idiotic decisions made by the principle characters, but I didn’t mind because the film is an excellent and very timely morality tale. It’s a morality tale in that it’s a story with an actual moral seriousness running through it - something that I don’t think you can say of similarly provocative films of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it depicts a world so familiar to some of us – a fast food restaurant off the highway in rural America where employees are made to feel entirely dispensable and where there is always some omnipotent higher level of authority in charge but never present. That the employees never question the horrific things they are asked to do by a sociopathic prank phone caller is telling because, as service industry workers, they are made to feel so passive to the authority and control of the corporation that owns the franchise that it tragically never occurs to them to say no.Continue Reading
The Women 
I watched The Punk Singer (2013) – Sini Anderson’s adoring biopic of Kathleen Hanna – and, perhaps in a mini-rebellion from her feminist electro orthodoxy, I watched The Women as a follow-up. Of course I mean the original George Cukor-directed The Women and not the roundly panned remake from a few years ago. That big ol’ bomb reportedly tried to assert a more inexplicably positive “sisterhood” sort of tone to this story of caustically ridiculous females - an assortment of Park Avenue trophy wife types scheming, backstabbing, gossiping, and delivering withering putdown after…you get the idea, right? Which is kind of like trying to make the Khmer Rouge camp managers in The Killing Fields a little nicer to their captives.
In Anderson’s documentary and in the writings of chroniclers of Hanna’s work there is a lot of talk of “queerness.” Hanna is a heterosexual woman who has played “feminist electronic music” with her band Le Tigre featuring self-described “gender outlaw” and lesbian J.D. Samson. But “queerness” isn’t maybe entirely best understood through the work of people such as Hanna. For a theoretical perspective of what queerness means in a gay male context it is worth seeking out the work of academic David Halperin and specifically his hefty pink book, How To Be Gay. Halperin seeks to better describe the sensibility of queerness as defined by gay cultural touchstones such as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and yes, in Cukor’s The Women (featuring Joan Crawford). Queerness in this context isn’t always as friendly to women as queers and their allies might wish and that’s an uncomfortable truth that Halperin seeks to wrestle with.Continue Reading
TCM Dark Crimes Film Noir Thrillers
Bless you Robert Osbourne and Ted Turner; you always come through! Thanks to TCM three important films noir have finally gotten a U.S. DVD release. TCM's Dark Crimes collection features Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944), George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key (1942). Though none of these three films really quite stand up on their own as bonafide noir classics each one is an indispensable entry in the classic noir canon. Phantom Lady was adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich. The Blue Dahlia was written by Raymond Chandler while The Glass Key was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammet. And two of the films star the legendary Hollywood thriller pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
For my money Phantom Lady is the best of the trio. Though its first half easily out-classes its second there is enough existential dread and lonely urban ennui to secure its importance as a go-to example of shadowy lighting, paranoia, and romantic fatalism. Then unfortunately things get a bit hokey. Still, that first half really is stellar. Alan Curtis plays Scott Henderson, an unhappily married business man who steps out one night to get away from his daily grind of bickering with his wife by picking up a stranger at a bar and taking her to a show. Unfortunately his wife is murdered while he's gone and the police don't believe his story that he was never home. Scott's secretary Carol (Ella Raines) frantically tries to track down the mysterious "phantom lady" whom Scott took to the show and who would be able to secure Scott's alibi. Along the way there's Elisha Cook Jr. at his sad-sack sleaziest and eventually Franchot Tone as a sensitive artist obsessed with hands (as the wife was strangled, I'm sure you can guess where this is going).Continue Reading
Christmas in July
Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.
Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.Continue Reading
Great Balls of Fire!
Great Balls of Fire!, the sort of tragic but really fun story of Jerry Lee Lewis, is a movie as bonkers as its hellcat hero. Lewis was a first class creep who made enough bad decisions to fill up a whole heap of country records many times over but he has more scorching Lucifer-bestowed talent than you, me, and all of our friends put together, probably. He got the biopic he deserved in this cranked up Southern exploitation romp that manages to both vilify and celebrate “the Killer” at the same time without any useless moral handwringing that would’ve sounded an insufferably false note anyway.
Dennis Quaid is a terribly wonderful, terribly underrated actor and he goes all out with his Killer. Looking like a Deep South doppelganger of Cesar Romero’s the Joker from the 1960’s Batman TV show, he’s a demonic pretty boy in a yellow suit who knows he can steal the show from anyone he’s put onstage with. He charms and infuriates all the people hitched to his star, be it Sam Phillips of Sun Records (played by the late, great Trey Wilson) or his bandmates (including John Doe from X). Alec Baldwin plays his (later to be notorious) cousin, preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jerry Lee, from a groupie who makes off with a lock of his golden hair to his “man of God” cousin who even then was a terrible hypocrite while up there on his bully pulpit.Continue Reading
Behind the Candelabra
Remember when Wilco got a ton of press for having been dropped from their record label, Reprise, just as they were about to release the album that went on to be their most critically acclaimed and popular work, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It was a story often repeated at the time as a shorthand demonstration of how sorry and dysfunctional the music industry had become. How could one of the country’s best, most innovative and respected bands get dropped as a reward for making their finest synthesis of experimental leanings and classic Americana pop song craft? The story became symbolic of how skewed the priorities had gotten within the music industry which increasingly focused on short term profits from lowest common denominator garbage.
Well, I happen to think that Behind the Candelabra has become the filmic equivalent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Every story about the film leading up to its release had to mention how no Hollywood studio would make the movie even though it was to star two of the most famous (Michael Douglas) and bankable (Matt Damon) stars working today and directed by one of the most successful and esteemed filmmakers (Soderbergh). Bankable stars; a respected, dependable filmmaker; a juicy, ridiculous story—what’s not to like? Apparently enough that only HBO would agree to make it, effectively killing the film’s chances of a theatrical release and giving one of the best, most entertaining movies of the year over to television.Continue Reading
Dirty Pretty Things
Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood
– M.I.A. “Galang”
In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.Continue Reading
Duel in the Sun
They don’t really make ‘em like this any more. Dubbed “Lust in the Dust” by clever people of the time Duel in the Sun is a ferociously overheated western with a bad romance novel plot blown up to the scale of grand opera. The combination of terrible acting, epic scope, its goofy depiction of a lustily violent romance, and Technicolor so rich and strange it makes Texas look like Mars all work to achieve a rare kind of purity that the film exudes. Hollywood still produces expensive flops but rarely something this original and insane. It was truly the Showgirls of its day. We have star producer David O. Selznick to thank for this fantastic folly.
Selznick needed to top his previous success with Gone With the Wind. He was also determined to make his questionably talented mistress Jennifer Jones a big star. Selznick’s meddling with Duel in the Sun is legendary. He ran through directors (including Selznick himself and the inimitable Josef von Sternberg who, one would assume, would have been a perfect match for such gilded fakery), fought with his composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, and spent so much money and overstuffed his movie with so much talent – Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Herbert Marshall – that the results were going to be interesting no matter what.Continue Reading
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