#0064 - PROJECTION (#2) - Another nightmare movie screening experience from Chris, a reader:
"After living in Los Angeles for five years (where at least they would grudgingly grant that something was wrong with the projection and eventually fix it), I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania. It doesn't necessarily fit in with your post, but the first thing I noticed when I went to a local multiplex in a mall was that the ushers didn't even make an effort to hide their distaste at my efforts to watch the credits at the end of the movie. I didn't feel like explaining to them that I always liked to look for names of people that I know, or that I felt it offered a small measure of respect to the craftsmen involved with the film. I thought I might get attacked by broom-wielding teenagers. The next time I went to the theatre, they simply shut the projector off the instant the film cut out of its last shot. Talk about killing the afterglow (even though it was an awful movie).
"More appropriate to your complaints, at another, slightly more cosmopolitan theatre, I took it upon myself to let an attendant know that the film needed to be re-framed. He walked inside the theatre, looked at the screen, and promptly said, "It's supposed to look like that." I then told him that I shouldn't see people's heads being projected on the curtain above the screen and tried to point out to him where there was a black bar on the bottom of the screen. I was foolish to expect gratitude for pointing it out, but I never expected to be given a dirty look and told that "I don't think there's anything wrong, but I'll run it by a manager and see what he thinks." Oh, great. A manager. Needless to say, the problem was never fixed. I didn't stick around for the credits. I was worried that the anti-credit posse might have come looking for me."
(posted 08:18pm EST | 08.16.02)
#0063 - TILTING AT WINDMILLS - Terry Gilliam has apparently been forced to abandon his attempt at a movie version of Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp as Sancho Panza, leaving behind little else for his efforts but a "making of" (perhaps it should be called an "unmaking of") documentary shot on digital video by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. The Guardian article that recounts Gilliam's trials is depressing, reminding us that you can have hits and a solid critical reputation and still end up failing as miserably as a film student who ends up with nothing to show for your work but maxed-out credit cards and a few cans of uncut, unfinished film. No doubt there are studio execs everywhere from L.A. to New York to London with the deluxe Criterion DVD sets of Brazil and Time Bandits on their shelves; why won't they help Gilliam make his film? It's a depressing thought.
(posted 10:08pm EST | 08.14.02)
#0062 - TRIUMPH OF THE WON'T - Leni Riefenstahl might have been the only real creative genius the Nazi regime ever embraced, but that doesn't come close to mitigating the fact of her participation in the regime's monstrosities. The old witch will be a hundred years old next week, and she's celebrating the occasion with the release of a new movie, a 45-minute documentary shot beneath the Indian Ocean. To quote Thomas Doherty in this piece about Riefenstahl's centenary: "Whores and old buildings may gain respectability over time, but the almost defiant longevity of the Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl has yet to improve her bad reputation."
The power of Riefenstahl's work is undeniable, even today. When put in charge of the American propaganda film effort, Frank Capra looked at his competition - Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will - and confessed that it "scared the hell out of me". Pauline Kael pronounced Olympia one of the "greatest films ever directed by a woman". The eagerness with which Hitler encouraged her work, and his loyalty to her when members of his inner circle like Goebbels tried to blackball her, have formed a pillar of the theory that aims to understand Nazism as an aesthetic as well as political movement - perhaps even more aesthetic than political.
It's always amazed me that movies were still made in Europe during the war, often within cannon range of the front, but you only have to remember Rossellini's Open City, literally made while Rome changed hands from German to Allied control, or Carne's Children of Paradise, made under the Vichy administration. Josef von Baky's rarely seen masterpiece, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (which Terry Gilliam used hugely as a blueprint for his own film) was truly impressive - a fantasy epic made in part in the rear echelon of the Wehrmacht as it retreated up the Italian peninsula from the advancing Allies.
For her part, Riefenstahl spent most of the war working on Tiefland, a rural melodrama that owed a lot to the overblown "mountain films" that made her a star in the Twenties. It was, for many years, her alibi against inquiries about her contributions to the war effort, but allegations that she imported gypsies from the concentration camps to fill in scenes as "mediterranean types" have slowly evolved into still-pending lawsuits by roma and sinti groups. The Doherty article details how a now-famous essay by Susan Sontag stalled Riefenstahl's budding rehabilitation - by film academics and feminists - seemingly forever. And so her work remains in a kind of "archival quarantine", ill-served by lavish retrospectives or Criterion-quality DVD reissues. (Synapse, the company that issues Triumph of the Will on DVD, claims that, like Houghton Mifflin, the company that reprints Mein Kampf, they donate a portion of their sales to a Jewish charity, in this case the U.S. Holocaust Museum, though no one at the museum will apparently admit to receiving the gift.)
I've always been piqued by Riefenstahl's story, if only as a textbook example of the moral blindness artists will embrace when presented with any kind of support for their work. I sent the link to the Doherty essay to my friend Robin, a film academic living in Berlin, and asked for her take on Riefenstahl's reputation in Germany these days. It seems that the academic quarantine is becoming a bit porous:
"The pending court case pertains to the film Tiefland. Unfortunately there is much effort put into a Riefenstahl rehabilitation in Germany: there have been several retrospectives lately - one of the more recent at the Potsdam Film Museum and I believe one is planned for the film museum in Berlin (run by a very suspicious lot indeed - the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek now named simply the Deutsche Kinemathek.) The policy of the Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek (Ulrich and Erika Gregor, who used to be the heads of the Forum section of the Berlin Film festival and ran Kino Arsenal) is that her films are interesting and she will have to die before there is any retrospective of her work - she must not have the honour as a living person. Triumph des Willens belongs to the group of films called Verbotsfilme in Germany, which may not be shown without an academic lecture preceeding the screening in order to avoid misuse of them for political purposes. The approach to Riefenstahl in the US seems far more critical. Appropriately so! The Wonderful Terrible Life Of film by the way is viewed in Germany as not critical enough by critical souls such as my friends."
And yet, as Doherty recalls, Riefenstahl could be seen not long ago at a Time magazine millenium party chatting with Henry Kissinger, prompting a New Yorker writer to say that "There is no God." (I could only have wished for a judicious lightning strike at precisely that spot. The result: God: 2; Horrorshow gargoyles: 0.) And a Riefenstahl biopic has been kicked around Hollywood for years, with either Jodie Foster or Madonna likely candidates for the lead. My intuition would be the latter; only Madonna could probably understand such virulent, unkillable ambition.
(posted 09:03pm EST | 08.14.02)
#0061 - STAR SYSTEM - Local film reviewer colleague and pal Jason Anderson sent me this e-mail in response to my musings on the ratings systems (stars, letters, numbers, thumbs, sliding scales, traffic lights - you name it) critics often use and abuse when they try to sum up their feelings about a film with a neat, easy-to-interpret shorthand. It's never simple, Jay says, and I tend to agree:
"I often wonder what the hell I do with star ratings. I find that if anything, they tend to represent my emotional response to a film, more than any particular desire to emulate the writers at Consumer Reports. So sometimes I'll find myself tempering a relatively harsh review with a kinder rating. Jan Dara was indeed a "soft three," which to me - if not to the reader - means it has enough virtues (e.g., all the nubile ripe flesh on display) and, yes, value as a curio from somewhere other than the American West Coast to deserve a rating beyond two-and-a-half stars (which means "only if you've all the good movies and can't be arsed to rent something you've been meaning to see for years but haven't bothered to yet") or two stars ("dire but still appears to have been made by sentient human beings and not vicious automatons who want to distract you with flickering lights while your brain is pounded into a thin paste and your disposable income is converted into a new boat house at a Paramount executive's summer retreat"). This system, like all that I have devised for myself, is arcane and highly imperfect. But as was noted in a recent column by Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose rating system is incredibly kind, with only one out of the available four grades connoting "don't see this, please"), I'm not very interested in actually recommending movies to readers - after all, it's not like I know them."
(posted 05:48pm EST | 08.14.02)
#0060 - EVERYBODY LOVES A LIST - Sight and Sound magazine published its "top ten films of all time" list last week, and it's pretty predictable; if I were a betting man, I'd probably have enjoyed good odds on picking all ten. For anyone too lazy to hit the link, here it is:
1. Citizen Kane
2. The Godfather pts. 1 & 2
3. 8 1/2
4. Lawrence of Arabia
5. Dr. Strangelove
6. The Bicycle Thief (tie)
6. Raging Bull (tie)
9. Vertigo (tie)
9. Rashomon (tie)
9. Rules of the Game (tie)
9. Seven Samurai (tie)
Ebert has a nice analysis of the voting, noting that only 39% of the directors and 32% of the movie critics who voted in the poll put Kane on their list. Almost nine hundred films were nominated, forcing Ebert to the conclusion that "somewhere in the world there are serious cineastes who believe William Castle's The Tingler, Radley Metzger's The Opening of Misty Beethoven and Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! belong on the list."
He also notes - with reasonable alarm - that if you believe the consensus that the voters suggest, good movies stopped being made in 1980, with Raging Bull. Comparing the list to one made by Sight and Sound ten years ago, he finds that the Scorsese film, The Godfather and 2001 were the newest films on that list: "...it's as if time didn't stand still, exactly, but moved sideways." Peter Bradshaw, film critic at The Guardian, published his response to the list - for which he was a voter - making the point straightaway that he didn't put Citizen Kane in his top ten; in fact, only Raging Bull made his top ten, in favor of an eclectic mix that replaces the Kurosawa films with Ozu's Tokyo Story. (Japanese films seem to be an article of faith with film connoiseurs, perhaps the only national cinema that rates highly outside of the USA/UK/European axis. I wonder precisely when Satyajit Ray's films fell from the canon? They were certainly well-ensconced there at some point earlier in my lifetime.)
I'm sure there are other comments on the list out there on the web, but I can only answer with the list I'd have made - had I been asked to vote. Ask me in a week and I'd probably change it. Ask me in a year and it might be entirely different ... but I doubt it. There are films here that I've loved for years, and I doubt if much can make me change my estimation of them after all this time.
1. Once Upon A Time In The West
2. Lawrence of Arabia
4. The Conformist
5. The Maltese Falcon
6. Dr. Strangelove
7. His Girl Friday
8. A Canterbury Tale
10. Sexy Beast
Three of my ten would have made the Sight and Sound top ten, which pretty much runs par with the results of every critics' list I've ever participated in, better if it comes to that. The Leone film is an issue with me - a film I consider so uncontrovertibly great that I can't understand why anyone wouldn't put it on their list, unless that list started with a Douglas Sirk film and ended with one by John Waters. It is, as my wife would be the first to point out, a pretty macho list - guy films almost without exception (that exception being His Girl Friday, I suppose, though anyone will remember that Rosalind Russell is considered a guy's guy kind of gal in the all-male newsroom world of that film.)
Patton is my Tingler, I guess - a film that no one but me would consider a classic, but I can't deny its resilience for me, over twenty years since I first saw it in the library at Catholic boys' school. The Conformist is my 8 1/2 and Godfather rolled into one, I suppose, and Kwaidan my obligatory Japanese entry, which would, I suppose be replaced by Throne of Blood or Ran or Portrait of Hell depending on my mood. Right now, a lush adaption of Lafcadio Hearn's stories is something like perfection. I think The Maltese Falcon is just about the most perfect film I've ever seen, but perfection doesn't mean resonance, so it sits in the honoured middle. I've been haunted by Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale since I saw it at a Powell/Pressberger retrospective years ago, if only because it was the first film I'd ever seen that gave me a tangible sense of life in wartime England. And Sexy Beast is there because, well, I think there have been some great films made in the last decade or two, and this is just about my favorite right at the moment. Feel free to disagree, or send me your own list. I'll publish a few of the more interesting ones, with a few comments.
And yes, I love Citizen Kane, too, but I just couldn't find a place for it on my list. But I think a world without it would be an immeasurably poorer place.
(posted 11:11pm EST | 08.13.02)
#0059 - RISKY BUSINESS - A small item in the Guardian today about a Bombay police probe into gangster financing of Devdas, the most expensive movie ever made in Bollywood. I printed it out and brought it over to the desk of the paper's world and business editor, Fermin, whose family is Goan though most of them still live in India. He glanced at it and chuckled. "All Bollywood films are funded by gangsters. There are four gangs in Bombay and they launder their money by investing in films." A quick Google search pulls up more than enough to confirm that he's right.
I feel like a bit of a rube contemplating the Indian film industry, which I've only just discovered in the last year or so. It's daunting - almost a century of work, the output seemingly increasing every year, and no definitive resource to tell me where to start. For lack of a anything else, my entrée was Devdas, the path further inward provided by the video store that opened around the corner from our place just this month. I went in last weekend, intent on buying a DVD of Devdas, advertised on their website as "just in", for only twenty bucks. The place was a mess, with VHS boxes in piles everywhere, displays still half-built, signs of the haste with which the young owners had opened their shop. I picked a DVD from the top of a huge pile, and wandered around the store with my wife in a kind of daze.
It was a bit disconcerting; I'm a lifelong cultural consumer, used to knowing my way around a record, book, magazine or video shop. It's disturbing to be faced with evidence of a whole cultural movement of which I know almost nothing. Nothing that is, except for lavish, over-the-top musicals and a gangland subculture that both funds and threatens a whole industry. I'm definitely intrigued, but utterly at a loss on where to start. My head reeling, I walk up to the counter to pay for my movie. "I wouldn't buy this," says the young man behind the cash. I'm taken aback - a merchant who doesn't want to sell me something. It's most peculiar. "Come back in a week when I've got the real thing in. This is a handheld camera copy," he says, with a wry smile, "for those who cannot wait." I thank him and tell him I'll be back. K. and I leave, and I express my amazement - the DVD package looked absolutely legit, with embossed, metallized graphics and the proper ratings and import markings, no cheap colour-xerox bootleg. "He might have thought you were a cop, honey," my wife says sweetly. Perhaps. I'm still intrigued, though.
(posted 06:58pm EST | 08.13.02)
#0058 - NO, MR. BOND, I EXPECT YOU TO DIE - There's a think-piece feature about coincidence in the latest Sunday New York Times Magazine that would be a promising set-up for a James Bond film: Nearly a dozen biologists and researchers in fields adjacent to biotech and germ warfare died in the weeks and months following 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed. Some of the deaths were spy-movie readymades: suffocated in an air-locked lab; killed in a private plane crash; shot by an assasin while a pizza delivery served as a decoy. It happens that XXX, the new Vin Diesel extreme-spy-action-thriller uses the bioterror threat as its villainous menace, and finishes off the team of mercenary scientists who build the nifty weapon of mass destruction in an air-locked underground lab. Coincidence? According to the Times article, almost everything is a coincidence - except, of course, in the world of spy films.
007's demise has been postponed for years by the (to some critics, unaccountable) appeal of each new entry in the series, and replacements for Pierce Brosnan are mooted every time a new episode is imminent. Clive Owen is the current front runner, though British lad superstar Robbie Williams has been campaigning for the part relentlessly for years. Williams would be an interesting Bond, a step down the ladder class-wise, but the England of Ian Fleming has changed, and when East Enders, Essex lads and suburban strivers fill the trading desks in the City of London's financial offices, and even make it into the House of Lords, it might be about time to consider a Bond who doesn't speak BBC proper pronunciation, a Bond who's more into Ibiza than Monaco. After all, "M" is a woman now - surely Bond can be seen in a Ben Sherman shirt or an Oswald Boateng suit?
What's no coincidence is the conspicuously tuxedoed operative who gets offed in an early scene of XXX, easily tracked and killed by the crop-headed, tattooed baddies at an industrial metal concert. James Bond is dead, the film hopefully states at the beginning, and proceeds to produce his replacement: Diesel, more bouncer than Bond, with "the personality of a golem and a knack for dialogue delivery that suggests recent oral surgery", according to Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice. XXX was, with a US$46 million take, the number one box office film this weekend, but not by any vast, record-breaking lead. The reviews have been mixed, to say the least, and offer glancing insights into the hopes and baggage that critics bring to movies.
Not surprisingly, Roger Ebert has the most conventional approach, as the leading light of a generation of critics raised on Bond films, and he doesn't find XXX lacking: "In its own punk way, XXX is as good as a good Bond movie, and that's saying something." His is also the most programmatic review, running through a plot summary and a point-by-point comparison of XXX to the Bond formula, written with an approving tone. It's a very Boomer take on things, smiling benignly at the kids' respect for tradition, such as it is.
Ebert's only qualm seems to be with the technical impossibility of the film's final, world-saving stunt, which sadly he doesn't explore further, into what might have been an original critique: By tapping into the whole extreme-sports angle for its "new Bond", then blithely executing a massive stunt with casual disregard for quotidian reality (lamp posts and telephone poles) that extreme sports stunts - such as the car-theft/bridge jump that opens the film - so carefully plan around, the filmmakers try to have the best of both worlds. There are never any lamp posts in Bond films, and pedestrians always manage to balletically leap out of the way of Bond's Aston Martin, no matter how crowded the third world market through which he rockets, baddies in pursuit.
Extreme sports, however, are almost always practiced in isolated spaces, on mountainsides, off bridges over deep gorges, or high in the air. Diesel's character, constantly being reminded of how little he resembles a conventional secret agent, might have had even more to play with if he was constantly, anxiously aware of how wildly dangerous it really is to parasail through a dense, ancient city like Prague. It's the kind of extra thrill that informs every stunt in a Jackie Chan film. (Wasn't it just a few years ago that Chan was being touted as a possible Bond replacement? Something to keep in mind; the Bond franchise won't be as easily toppled as the people behind XXX might think.)
David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor doesn't share Ebert's charitable take on the film: "Is the time really ripe for a warmed-over James Bond adventure, with a village idiot as the 007 clone?" His review is brief, in the manner of someone who doesn't want to waste another precious moment on an experience he viscerally resents. "The infuriating thing about XXX isn't that it delivers thrills and spills to moviegoers who don't know any better, but that Hollywood hype reinforces the notion that brain-dead entertainment is what movies are all about." Sterritt was clearly the wrong man to send to XXX - any movie publicist will tell you as much - but his clear aversion to the film might account for a touch of, shall we say, crassness in the marketing, a whiff too much of "product" that might have kept audiences away?
Stephanie Zacharek of Salon was clearly the right person, a reviewer with a stated passion for spy movies, no matter how tacky or campy, and a definite attraction to the Vin Diesel type, which her review makes clear, and quickly: "The tattoos crawling up his meaty arms are like a nobleman's vestments. And when he sets that water goblet down, the better to talk to his lady love, he places it on the table with the delicacy of a seasoned gourmand."
The praise continues, as Zacharek moves on to director Rob Cohen, and the action sequences, "each ... more magnificent than the last." If any single scene in XXX deserves praise, it's the showboard/avalanche scene, which is miles better than similar sequences delivered in recent Bonds. Although he's in his fifties, Cohen is part of the Playstation generation of action directors, and with videogames plainly referenced throughout the film and in the character's dialogue (Diesel's character credits "first-person shooters" for his skill with a gun), the link is more than explicit. Movies like XXX and Cohen's previous, The Fast and the Furious, are basically pacesetters, running challenges to the videogame industry to keep up with the movies, a race that's become an almost even match in the last few years.
Finally, Zacharek gets back to the subject she loves the most: Diesel. (Salon this week is HQ for fans of XXX's stars; in addition to Zacharek's review, there are additional paeans to Diesel and his co-star, Asia Argento.) "Diesel is special," she writes. "Particularly in this role, he's the kind of actor who invites moviegoers to make excuses for liking him: I imagine that many conversations about him begin with mutterings like 'Normally I don't go in for that type of acting, but ...' But how could anyone not like such a good-natured cue ball?" Just when you thought that mash note movie magazine love letters to matinee idols were as dead as the dodo, Zacharek and Salon singlehandedly revive the form.
(posted 01:46am EST | 08.13.02)
#0057 - THE PARALLAX VIEW - Sometimes you read a review by another critic that makes you wonder whether you saw the same film. The overwhelming praise for Spy Kids 2 from almost every hometown critic and most of them elsewhere (this is a rare exception, and the best review I've come across), compared to my own, frankly sour take on the film, made me speculate that there might have been some kind of botched outtake reel in circulation that somehow made it into the same theatre where I saw the critics' preview, before being destroyed. I cannot believe that the frankly crass mess I saw could be seen by someone else as "hyperactive, slightly out of control and full of kinetic, mischievous charm." Most of the time, though, I just chalk it up to taste - a cop-out, I deeply suspect, but I'd rather not lose sleep about the whole thing.
Roger Ebert's review of Zhang Yimou's Happy Times, though, really took me aback. It wasn't merely a difference of opinion, or an exercise of critical judgement, but his frankly personal reaction to the film - "I found it creepy beyond all reason" - that prompted the reader's equivalent of a double take.
My own review of the film was, as my reviews of Chinese films tend to be, more explicitly political. It's not a unique one. Ebert's was, as far as I can tell, quite unique. He seems utterly taken aback by the fact that the film's scenario isn't more explicity sexual inasmuch as the same film, made in Hollywood, would be hard to imagine as anything but. A pretty young blind girl is deceived by a group of older men who build a fake massage parlour, line up for regular massages, and pay her with fake money, all the while observing her from a catwalk overhead, and "nod approvingly at 'Little Wu's' happiness." And he's right - the same film made by, say, Neil LaBute or Todd Solondz or even Ron Howard, with (as Ebert imagines) Christina Ricci cast as the blind girl and Steve Martin, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi and other benign gargoyles as the older men, would be unavoidably perverse. "There must be something cultural here," Ebert opines, while implicitly rejecting the notion as frankly unbelievable. "There is never a hint of sex in it, for one thing," he wonders with amazement. "Apparently, the men never, ever, look down into the room while Little Wu undresses."
Ebert is somewhat famous for making minor mistakes - in recounting plot points, mostly, understandable for a man who sees as many films as he does. In this case, he seems to assume that Little Wu would have a reason to undress at her place of work, which Zhang's film at no point suggests. He also overlooks the fact that one of the group of older men who maintain the deception is actually a woman (she'd be played by Teri Garr or Gena Rowlands in Ebert's Hollywood remake). He also doesn't recall an early scene in the film where Zhao, the film's hero (played by the Chinese comic actor Zhao Benshan) is revealed to be a complete prude, unwilling to let the lovers who rent out his ramshackle "love hotel" in a derelict bus close the door behind them.
There's something cultural happening, and Ebert is so discombobulated by it that he appeals to readers in China to enlighten him or, more preferably, confirm his suspicion that the film is "odd in the extreme". His sense of prurient titillation - a common enough component of the moviegoing experience, if all the "celebrity skin" sites are anything to go by - has been thwarted, and he's desperate for reassurance. It has to be kept in mind that Ebert is the same man who wrote the screenplays for Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up!, and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. His take on films is a sexualized one, but that's not uncommon among film reviewers. David Thomson, a veteran critic and Salon reviewer, has an explicitly sexual perspective on films, but it usually enhances his reviews. Even the sainted Pauline Kael wasn't beyond frank appraisals of the appeals of leading men and women. Ebert, on the other hand, has a perverse, damp-palmed manner that, in the case of his review of a film like Happy Times, which assumes a belief in the possibility of innocence, renders him as unable to relate as a chronic self-abuser having an out-of-body experience. In this case it's Ebert who I find "creepy beyond reason".
(posted 09:16pm EST | 08.12.02)