December 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Desssstroy the old and builllld the new,” goes the slur of Ben Foster’s William S. Burroughs, over a furor of activity. Hands, knives, pages, bindings, tacks, and the Beat emerges as a map of some undiscovered continent, occupying an entire wall in this apartment and perhaps more, since the camera never pulls far back enough to glimpse the limits of the zonked-out poets’ vision. In attendance and united in the solidarity of some ill-defined literary revolution are Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, played respectively by Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. The latter arrives onscreen with the lewdest of movie-star introductions, after a flashforward in prologue that sees him pleading with Ginsberg from behind bars; in the library at Columbia University, he recites Miller’s Tropic of Cancer whilst leaping atop a table and reclining, lamp between legs, for maximal erotic effect, not lost on Radcliffe’s decidedly green “Ginzy”.
Nobody ever says “Beat” aloud (all well and good), preferring the “Vision” of Yeats so alluded to in the Times article chronicling Carr’s eventual homicide charge, a choice that retroactively taints a movement with murder – as though the picture didn’t make that clear enough. “Kill your darlings,” says Professor Stevens. Edit out your digressions, your whimsical phrasings? Rip up the old works of canon? Use the same penknife to bleed your stalker out upon the riverside? At his arraignment, Carr clutched the Yeats volume in a detail seized upon by some capricious columnist for a vivid lede, a darling that should have withered sometime between their college days and 2013, when it forms the thesis of a picture too woozy on insight and incident to successfully infuse one with the other.
The first half stumbles along with an invigorating breathlessness; Ginsberg and his father (David Cross, a bearded cartoon cameo of Ginzy in I’m Not There) argue over the correct way to finish the latter’s poem, the moment finding its rhyme only a few scenes later as Carr finds Ginsberg finishing off unread lines of Yeats as well. A philosophy expands within the tiny dorm room, “another lover hits the universe, the circle is broken”, rhyming again with the introduction of Michael C. Hall’s ill-fated David Kammerer, running his finger along the rim of a wine glass as he extolls the virtues of an ethos lifted from Carr, who looks on with a cruel smolder.
He directs that look in so many ways throughout the film, but the real object of admiration, the ideal latched onto by the college boys is Jack Huston’s Kerouac, the Merchant Marine, genuine novelist and football star framed on the walls of pubs in “souvenir histories”. The conversation about these phony memories hangs over the picture like the spectre of its quite-tangible failure; the easy route for such a film to take is to take a beaming snapshot of the historical moment, Kerouac emerging with a rakish grin from a barrel tumbling across the street in one of Darlings’s many recreated anecdotes. Tellingly, he stoops his neck to puke while Ginsberg makes his first unhallucinated move on Carr. The film can’t quite be reduced to this image of a diorama history with a sexual awakening layered in the background, but the threat is there.
It’s more than just an illustration of Radcliffe’s Ginsberg, “[cowering] in unshaven rooms in underwear” as he lunges back and forth for the typewriter or to kick at his bed, the sort of literalist imagery that took down whole passages of I’m Not There. Instead, this film tries sensitively to reach through the fog of mythology that’s formed around these figures, which Carr embodies with all his anachronistic surety that their moment in history is assured and they stand at the brink of a new Renaissance (centuries more will bear him out, I was merely surprised to discover that Carr wasn’t an entirely fictional creation). Instead of finding a dramatic resolution to Ginsberg’s awakening and Carr’s crime, though, it settles for a scene intercutting the homosexual act with a stabbing, a sort of crude climax from which the picture just gradually fades away.
In this film, the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation have to surmount a regrettable mark on their public records, but can still move on to great things, with nothing more to say about the effect this crime has on their work. The killing is actually more of an afterthought and regrettable complement to the true dramatic juncture, of Ginsberg’s total emancipation from the identity wished on him by his insane mother. And if the ending is too quiet, too resolved, it’s perhaps for the best that the filmmakers chose a softer turn for their depiction of inspiration and burgeoning genius, because so many things can go awfully wrong when straining for a howl. Those tend to be more interesting, though. – Brendan
December 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
1. OLD JOY (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)
Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy is the most wistful of road movies. The story concerns two old friends in Portland who reunite for a weekend camping trip to the Bagby Hot Springs, where deadbeat Kurt (Will Oldham) hopes to reconnect with Mark (Daniel London), who has come to embrace adulthood in all its challenges and responsibilities. Rather than hood-mounting her camera so that it looks ahead to a fixed point on the scenic horizon, Reichardt primarily frames the journey through the passenger window, watching silently as Portland’s ramshackle outskirts and the wooded landscapes of the Cascade mountain range stream by. Friendship to Reichardt is an essentially transient thing, life satisfaction in a state of perpetual decay. Arrival at the springs leads to a momentary stasis, Kurt and Mark in zen-like harmony with their surroundings and with each other. But it’s a temporary fix, and soon the emphasis returns to the irrecoverable images that flood by the passenger window as this broken duo returns to the city. Life barrels along into bitterness and adulthood, and old friendships fall by the side of the road.
Available on DVD from Kino and streaming on Netflix.
2. MIKEY AND NICKY (Elaine May, 1976)
Lowlife Nicky is in trouble with the mob and he calls on his childhood pal Mikey, slightly higher up in the same syndicate, to bail him out. Played by John Cassavetes and Peter Falk respectively, the two spend a tense, grueling night revisiting boyhood haunts and working through their compromised friendship, which has been rattled for years by conflicting financial interests. Director Elaine May adopts the raw, roughshod aesthetic of Cassavetes’s films of the same era, but enlists it for her own personal dramatic ends. Encouraging improvisation from her leads and leaving the camera running, May accumulated hours upon hours of footage of Falk and Cassavetes in various stages of interactive play. If the story pivots on Mikey’s dual allegiances—to his mob superiors and to his best friend—then May’s freeform direction and the spontaneous performances she elicits continually highlight the blurry line between genuine and play-acted affection, heightening the suspense in the process. Mikey and Nicky is about the inevitable threats to male friendship in a competitive, unforgiving world, and it’s one of the quintessential American movies of the 1970s.
Available on DVD from Homevision.
3. IT’S ALWAY FAIR WEATHER (Stanley Donen, 1955)
Three years after directing Singin’ in the Rain, the ebullient crown jewel of MGM movie musicals, Stanley Donen made this uncharacteristically melancholic musical about the decaying friendship among three army veterans who struggle to adapt to a postwar America stratified along class lines and drenched in disingenuous commercialism. Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd are the three returning soldiers who celebrate the end of World War II and vow to meet back up ten years later, and Cyd Charisse is the broadcasting coordinator who contrives to make of their bitter reunion the sugarcoated stuff of television uplift. There are some fine song-and-dance numbers—Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates is a particular delight—but they do little to counteract the mordant chill of postwar bleakness and resentment. Something like a musical version of The Best Years of Our Lives (a similarly misleading title), It’s Always Fair Weather is enough to make you rethink whatever rosy ideas you may have of the genre. Donen and Kelly never worked together again.
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video. – Stuart
December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
In some ways I owe my love of film in its current incarnation, nestled comfortably within an open-minded, pluralistic cinephilia, to Manny Farber’s seminal 1962 Film Culture essay, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,’ which hit a key ignition switch inside me when I first happened upon it a few years ago. My interest in movies was only just burgeoning—what was it, only one or two John Ford movies seen?—and my fresh-out-of-high-school-brain was not yet equipped for his sputtering, idiosyncratic prose, but the gist of the thing was apparent. Reject the frigid, official ‘masterpieces,’ and seek out what is disreputable and unpretentious—art that thrives on itself and not on its fore-sought reputation.
Farber’s piece arrives at auteurism slightly modified, and sings the praises of quite a few of the then-marginalized figures in Hollywood that Andrew Sarris would come to canonize only six years later in The American Cinema. Indeed, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art’ functioned for me in much the same way that Sarris’s book did for many of the cinephile critics who would follow in his footsteps, as a polemical call-to-arms that laid the groundwork for a particular way of evaluating movies. For Sarris it was the French la politique des auteurs, the identification of a director’s authorial personality in his movies, detectable on the level of visual style and recurring thematic obsession. For Farber it was something more eccentric but equally concerned with style—how the entering of a room or the tip of a hat takes on a certain gestural dynamism when directed by Howard Hawks, but never in the films of such critically sacrosanct figures as William Wyler or Fred Zinnemann.
It was then that I abandoned the ‘Great Movies’ approach to cinema, in which all that really needs to be seen has already been anointed by some critical consensus or academic canon. When the mind is no longer fixated on the superlative, curiosity is free to take over. Slowly I underwent a metamorphosis from masterpiece myopia into termite cinephila, burrowing in whatever direction I saw fit without heeding the culturally erected guideposts that sought to steer me back on course in the direction of the officially sanctified. Moviegoing, as I now practice it, embraces the lost sheep as well as the chosen few.
But this politics of preference hardly accounts for the vigor of cinephilia, which, insofar as it overlaps with cultism, is also a matter of excess adoration, of triumphantly elevating the unusual, the erratic, the much maligned. Let canons reflect not what is flawless but what is botched, rough-hewn, and personal to an over-indulgent fault. Be not afraid to prop up movies that eschew universal appeal in favor of some niche attraction. Compile lists not as all-encompassing must-sees mathematically organized in descending order but as proudly alinear zigzags through one’s personal, largely idiosyncratic pleasure centers. Never deny perhaps shamelessly nostalgic favorites in deference to some elusive standard of objective greatness.
My cinephilia, I have come to realize, is grounded in something as universal as what David Bordwell has termed ‘the adolescent window,’ the principle that art consumed in one’s youth continues inexorably to color our aesthetic proclivities. Now, there is a tendency among some serious aesthetes to guard against nostalgia, lest rose-tinted remembrance taint their otherwise unbiased, unflappable encounters with the arts. And there is undoubtedly something restrictive in sealing oneself off to a rich media landscape by wallowing in the same tried-and-true pleasures. But insofar as they form a rudimentary foundation for later critical maturation and eternally inform the rough edges, murky chasms, and far-flung miscellany of one’s taste, such formative films, books, television series, etc. can not be emphasized enough.
If in some ways I owe the current incarnation of my cinephilia to Farber, it is largely because he made me realize that my indebtedness actually reaches all the way back to my childhood, and that I owe my love of cinema in toto to Batman: the Animated Series, an early 90s cartoon series that let loose my infant imagination, unlocked the door to art appreciation in my adolescence, and continues to provide for me enjoyment that far transcends solipsistic sentimentality.
This is largely because Batman: the Animated Series is termite art par excellence. The story goes that series developers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, assigned by Warner Bros. to produce a Batman cartoon to tie into the recently released Tim Burton films, were delivered a golden opportunity to make exactly the series they wanted. Timm, who had worked his way up from K-Mart employee to Filmation animator to Tiny Toons story-boarder, had no prior experience in a position of such creative authority. Without much in the way of formal instruction and only minimal industry guidelines, Timm and Radomski were given free reign to build their Batman series from scratch. Modern day Gotham was envisioned as a 1940s period anachronism, sinister gargoyles mounted atop art-deco skyscrapers and everyone fitted in trench coats or double-breasted suits. Backgrounds would be painted on black as opposed to industry-standard white paper, the tone would be thoughtfully but not gratuitously dark, and the series would feature original orchestral music. Working fastidiously from a set of ingrained inspirations—pulp comics, 30s gangster movies, retro pop-art—with little heed paid to marketable franchise tie-ins or other obvious signifiers of ratings success or critical acclaim, Timm and Radomski embodied Farber’s ‘termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss’ artist to a tee.
Batman: the Animated Series, taken as a whole, is a sprawling, experimental, consistently brilliant anthology. Though occasionally marred by bad freelance script contributions and shoddy outsourced animation (and some of the more ambitiously introspective episodes lamentably veer into White Elephant territory), it was more often razor-sharp in its creative intermixing of various old-fashioned sensibilities, in its smart, methodical storytelling, and in its acute evocation of atmospheric gloom. The first episode produced, On Leather Wings, was the big tone-setter for the series. Emphatically cinematic, it’s a rare example of televised entertainment that one recalls largely in terms of shots rather than scenes. The plot, about a giant bat creature terrorizing Gotham, is made in the great tradition of old Hollywood serials. Avoiding origin-story preponderance, it allows Batman’s actions and the rich visual context in which they thrive to stand in for decades of mythological backstory. The plot is slight, but the narration is dense, suggesting fully formed characters through the accumulation of off-hand gestures and subtly sketching a network of institutional relationships (police, press, Wayne Enterprises).
Soon after Alan Burnett and Paul Dini signed on as writers, the series came to develop a recurrent thematic focus, exploring with regularity the tragic undertones of psychological disorder. Many of Batman’s adversaries—Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and the Mad Hatter among them—originate as sympathetic characters defined by all-too-human desires. But when these desires become unattainable, often due to some cruel miscarriage of justice, the characters descend into mania and obsession. Batman rights the nominal wrongs—all evident crimes punished accordingly—but an ethical knottiness remains. When criminals are both victims and victimizers, plagued by rationally assessed conditions that drive them to irrational criminal behavior, justice becomes far more complex than a simple enactment of punitive measures. The edifying but far from reassuring takeaway of Batman: the Animated Series is that Batman wages a losing war against moral and psychological determinism. That he perseveres in the face of the perpetual injustice this entails is what makes him a hero.
Most important to the prefiguration of my current cinematic obsessions, Batman: the Animated Series expertly emulates a wide variety of old movie influences. The film noir and gangster flick borrowings are self-evident—the mob is a pack of tommy-gun wielding, Dan Duryea-like goons, the garbage-strewn streets are low on activity but high on silhouetted menace, and a dreary fatalism looms over Gotham like so many police zeppelins. But countless other genres are appropriated over the course of the series. A ‘machine menace’ two-parter riffs on Blade Runner while absorbing the visual vocabulary of 50s sci-fi. Beloved Paul Dini creation Harley Quinn helms a total of three screwball comedy romps (Harlequinade is a comedy of remarriage to turn The Awful Truth on its head). There’s black comedy (most of the Joker spotlights), some adventure serials (The Demon’s Quest, Avatar), and weird Western pastiche (Showdown). One episode, Mudslide, is even a kind of meta-referential torrent of old Hollywood lore (Psycho, Dark Victory, A Streetcar Named Desire are all obliquely name-dropped) channeled through a ludicrous plot that pays histrionic tribute to the grand movie melodramas of yesteryear.
My favorite episode of the series posits a dialectics of nostalgia and arrives inadvertently at one of the great truths that cinephiles hold to be self-evident. Beware the Gray Ghost is about a string of bomb heists inspired by the plotline of a forgotten TV serial starring Simon Trent (voiced by Adam West, of the old 1966 Batman series) as its eponymous hero, the Gray Ghost. Batman, who cherished the show as a young boy, seeks out Trent for help in apprehending the bomber (Trent has the series’ only surviving videotapes). For Trent, the Gray Ghost was nothing more than a lousy paycheck that has doomed him to a lifetime of typecasting. He’s bitter to the core until he learns of the effect that the series has had on Batman, whose childhood absorption of its simplistic good-and-evil morals played a large role in making him the heroic crime-fighter he is today. The mad bomber is finally revealed as the owner of a nearby toy shop, and he embodies everything wrong with media connoisseurship—the Gray Ghost serial is merely a collector’s item to him, a tawdry leftover from television’s past to be appraised for its retro value. Batman and the Gray Ghost make quick work of him.
For cinephiles, the most cheaply made commercial product churned out of Hollywood’s studio system has the potential for profound personal expression, and the most garish object of universal ridicule the power to captivate. The reduction of certain movies to retrofitted camp experiences, the intentions of their makers implicitly derided, often pains us to think about. Susan Sontag wrote of moviegoing as a pseudo-religious experience, and in bestowing reverence upon the medium we love, cinephiles willingly drop certain intellectual defenses and gleefully suspend our disbelief. And the effect is, every so often, transformative. Beware the Gray Ghost, on its own disreputable superhero cartoon terms, makes the point elegantly. In any montage that would include Gloria Swanson and William Holden sitting in awe of the silent films of Norma Desmond, or the movie counterparts of Terence Davies’ real-life sisters weeping before Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing, I would have to volunteer for consideration the shot of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne hunkered down in front of his TV screen with a bowl of popcorn, reliving his childhood in all its wide-eyed enthusiasm for the valorous exploits of his favorite costumed hero. – Stuart
December 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
To watch a film like Johnnie To’s Drug War with a critical outlook is a foolhardy venture, at least for first-time viewing. The first scenes unravel at a pace that ordinarily would befit the climax of another movie, and indeed we are at the ending of one story. Hong-Lei Sun’s Captain Zhang leads a team of men who finally arrest drugrunner Tin-ming Choi (Louis Koo) after a chase that takes them into a frigid morgue. Meanwhile, Zhang encounters a pair of officers who have been following a drug shipment for almost twenty-four hours, and the phone the drivers keep calling is Choi’s. This ruthless pacing, this structure of setup after setup, everything stripped away but the plot, makes it mighty difficult to dissect the fascinations and diversions of Drug War. You can’t do much analysis when your critical thinking skills have taken a backseat.
But To’s movie is brilliant in its way, subversive for a number of political reasons but also in its relationship to the tropes of Western action filmmaking that make his picture so accessible to English-speaking audiences. Settings like a ferry crowded with fishing boats might be unfamiliar, as will the legally specific detail that sparks the plot: under Chinese law, Choi’s involvement in the manufacture of illegal drugs will earn him the death penalty should he refuse to cooperate with police. The editing, on the other hand, belongs to the school of “intensified continuity” – a contemporary style reliant on brief average shot lengths and densely patterned cutting, identified by David Bordwell and most recognizable in action thrillers like The Bourne Ultimatum – in which Western audiences are now fluent. Intensified continuity has roots in the quick pace of Hong Kong New Wave cinema, but the crane shots and exaggerated reactions which also typify those pictures are largely absent from To’s latest.
For although the film opens with a suspenseful action scene that seems to forespell non-stop chases and gunfire, To’s use of his action setpieces emerges as more strategic than as a model for the film’s structure. Opening with a chase, rather than the character information and background that would normally occupy the opening minutes of a Hollywood film, allows Drug War to obscure specific details about its characters. The first scene that we spend in uninterrupted conversation with Zhang and Choi, then, is one in which both men are engaged in a deception: Zhang pretending to be Li Suchang, a high-level operative in the drug empire, and Choi enabling the deception as a collaborator. This sort of gamesmanship results in the film’s most suspenseful, tension-filled passages, particularly the climax of the second impersonation scene. That moment sees Zhang forced to snort high-grade cocaine to pull off his deception, while in character as the ostentatious wannabe player HaHa, his rising fear and quick thinking obscured by HaHa’s obnoxious mannerisms.
The resulting dilemma is the peak of the film’s tension and a segue into the more subversive elements of its second half, yet what To’s accomplished in these first forty-five minutes is also worth examining. The lack of another major action or suspense setpiece until the last two scenes, two brief, violent gunfights that leave nearly every major character dead, stabs back against the typical Western thriller model that values progressive action. Films often open with a bang, then slow down and parcel out character and plot information before doling out a series of progressively longer, more choreographed and almost certainly more violent action sequences.
A recent film like Homefront exemplifies this approach. Despite the rushed and unfinished qualities of its narrative (potential avenues like the effect of Jason Statham’s narc-in-hiding’s violent behavior on his relationship with his daughter are never explored, and a romantic subplot forgotten altogether in the second half), there’s a clear and classical progression to the presentation of its action scenes. First, an explosive opening scene relates the character’s backstory while ostensibly hooking the audience with the kind of fireworks this film promises to deliver again. Then, things quiet down to establish his life in hiding, leading inevitably to a brief tussle with a local. This brief moment of action punctures the narrative stasis and leads to a scene in which Statham must fend off three men at a gas station, and eventually a full-on siege at his home with a small army before the final confrontation with James Franco’s Gator. While this last confrontation, as with most action films, is a one-on-one encounter, the physical stakes by now have been substituted with the emotional weight of Gator’s involvement in the plot, and the Statham character’s righteous anger at his opponent.
Drug War lacks such a clear antagonist to unite viewers’ antipathy, at least until Choi turns tail again in the finale. His betrayal of Zhang, though, works along with a theme that’s gone understated in the film so far, the moralist thread we recognize in the old adage: no honor among thieves. Why trust a man willing to betray everyone he’s worked alongside for years? It’s a question that To’s patterns of filmmaking – propulsive, cutting out everything not germane to the forward progression of the procedural – haven’t allowed us space to contemplate. The emergence of the human equation in the third act, as Zhang and his force prove ultimately and fatally fallible, is the loose thread that unravels everything else To’s woven together.
To has made films in the past that seemed to be constantly working toward climax, like his 2006 Exiled, which contains no less than three Mexican standoff setpieces composed like the drawn-out finales of Sergio Leone’s most renowned Westerns. Instead, Drug War begins in furor and then tapers off before imploding in the final minutes. Why? He’s working with a different sort of suspense here, one not based on the classical, Hitchcockian model of information provided to the audience but concealed from the characters, but instead working from the expectations that arrive along with viewers sitting down for a cop thriller like Drug War.
David Bordwell has further commented on the picture’s tendency toward a limited strategy of communicating information to the audience, which means that viewers must pay close attention during each shot or miss out on crucial plot details. Without repeated dialogue cues to remind them, Western audiences can easily overlook the significance of the highway pickup scene, in which the undercover Zhang, along with Choi and the other agents, accepts a package which could contain either drugs or a decoy to ascertain whether Choi has betrayed his colleagues. This foreshadows Choi’s eventual double-cross in the finale, as a series of shots wordlessly signifies his realization that only he can save himself from both the law and the vengeance of his associates.
Bordwell identifies this as a storytelling pattern distinct to To’s production company, Milkyway Image. But it is important to recognize the strategy as not simply a different one, or a personal trademark, but as a crucial tool for the impact of Drug War’s finale. Throughout the picture, To’s refusal to clarify or to revisit plot points creates an uncertain effect in the minds of viewers, especially on a first viewing. The sequence which, in a Westernized version of the film, would have the greatest emotional impact, here becomes simply part of Drug War’s relentless procedural progression. The scene in question is Choi’s return to the home of his mute employees, where he reveals to them the death of his wife in the explosion which took place shortly before the beginning of the film.
By this time, however, we have already seen Choi engaged in heavy deception, playing a part with those who seem to value his word most highly. Can audiences believe Choi, even when his associates contribute to an expensive ceremony in his wife’s honor by burning currency outside? To’s certainly not interested in clarifying. Always we are forced to distrust, our sympathy displaced, roving restlessly somewhere on the fringes of the narrative, looking for a character or value to latch onto. Most telling about To’s purpose here is the juxtaposition of police officers counting cash with a video stream of the ceremony; if Choi’s lying, we still know nothing about the values and sympathies of his handlers, particularly Zhang.
It’s only in the finale that To strongly nudges our sympathies in one direction, as Choi’s subterfuge is revealed to both parties and we can easily think of him as a rat. Yet here we’re also aligned with characters on both sides through brief shots that diverge from the plot; in one instance as the wife of a gangster crouches behind a car, bleeding to death, and attempting to fix her shoe; another, as a character climbs into a shot-up car and tries desperately to hotwire it, the camera lingering on his anguished face. Both shots take place (rather deliberately) during a lull in the cross-fire, giving us a rare, almost unprecedented moment to savor these character details before the persons themselves are obliterated.
Choi gets away, but not before a final shootout in which a dying Zhang handcuffs himself to the traitor’s leg, not only acting as a far neater metaphor than anything Drug War’s delivered so far, but ensuring that none of the major players in this scheme get out alive as the sirens close in. The final equation of To’s film, in which the values of drugrunner and cop are kept deliberately obscured throughout, cancels out both sides. The one action necessary to toe the line of censorship – Choi must betray his handlers in order to establish himself as a villain, which in turn ensures his capture and execution – receives a neat visual rejoinder in the final images, as Choi tries desperately to save himself from lethal injection. His pleas go unanswered as a black cloth is draped over his face, a callback to the roleplaying of the first half: all disguises and potential identities are irrelevant once the process of justice has been completed, and the only necessary mask is a death mask. – Brendan
December 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
If more Hollywood movies were like Looney Tunes: Back in Action, American cinema would be a lot better off. Spare me the eye-rolls, the litany of criticisms of the film as mass-marketed children’s fare or as disservice towards the Golden Age of Warner Brothers animation that inspired it. The film is a commercial gimmick, and director Joe Dante and his team of writers and animators both credited and uncredited take no great pains to conceal it. In fact, Back in Action is gimmickry multiplied a hundredfold, a hall-of-mirrors of reflexivity run amok, whose colorful, kaleidoscopic whole is greater than the sum of its many cornball parts.
The plot is a matrix of contrivances borrowed liberally from buddy comedies, James Bond spy thrillers, 50s sci-fi movies, and, of course, many of the old Looney Tunes shorts—most prominently the famous Chuck Jones cycle of Bugs and Daffy pair-ups. No use going into it in any great detail, except to say that it is constructed as something of a riff on the movie’s own shameless franchise-milking raison d’être, suggesting that a Looney Tunes transposed to the modern age of Hollywood filmmaking is a compromised Looney Tunes indeed. It isn’t long after Daffy has been fired by WB executive Kate (Jenna Elfman) and ejected from the lot by security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Frazer) because he commands a small fraction of Bugs’ audience that we see Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzalez lamenting that political correctness has consigned their roles in the film to mere cameos.
As soon as our four protagonists—Kate, DJ, Bugs, and Daffy—have set out for Las Vegas, plot begins to play a diminutive second fiddle to Dante’s characteristic zeal for comedic anarchy. The gags whiz by like machinegun fire—chortle at a bullseye or cringe at a misfire for a split-second too long and you’ll have missed the next volley. Critic Dave Kehr has observed that Joe Dante’s Gremlins (and, I would add, many of his other hits of the eighties and nineties) is “grounded in a fundamental division in American popular culture, between the sweetness and sociability of the Disney feature, and the unbridled id of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes shorts.” Back in Action is all id, a cacophony of manic delights that has no pretense of Spielbergian suburban normalcy against which to pit itself.
An entropic meta-movie, Back in Action puts a great deal of contemporary American filmmaking to shame, if only for its unchecked anything-goes energy. Mise-en-scéne is often redolent of classical Hollywood in its studio-designed vibrancy. An interlude in Paris dazzles with its packed framings, imaginative details, and eye-popping colors—the city hasn’t looked like this much fun since the glory days of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli (note as well the poster for Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain hanging on the wall of an eatery on the Warner Bros. lot). If Dante’s more darkly satirical films owe a great debt to Frank Tashlin, then the more fitting reference point for Back in Action might be Jerry Lewis, to whom Dante pays explicit tribute in a few key scenes (the first-act antics on the Warner Bros. lot brought The Errand Boy to mind). It’s tough to think of any of the film’s countless influences that don’t date back to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action is so uncommonly wonderful because it’s an authentic time-capsule movie, a summation of just about everything that was uniquely great about forties and fifties movie comedy and a reminder that there was once a time when, for all its well-oiled machinery, Hollywood had a few screws loose and was all the richer for it. – Stuart
December 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
An historical curio and time capsule of talent in its prime as much as an effective dramedy; a boarding house populated by Constance Collier, Ann Miller, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn; a staircase leading to discovery and death; a neon sign that keeps you awake and persists into your dreams, remaining there like the imprint of a flashbulb or a lifetime spent staring too long at the sun. Stage Door, which opens onto the familiar show-biz picture setting of a boarding house packed with aspiring actresses, as big-city girl Terry (Hepburn) cruises in to shake up the order established by blonde den mother Jean (Rogers) and the fragile, brilliant Kay (Andrea Leeds), is one of the most underrated pictures of the 1930s. It may be one of the greatest investigations into the confident assumptions of classical genre: whether there’s any business like show business at all, and if not, whether that’s something to be glad of.
The rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of the picture’s editing distinguish it from the dialogue-based stylings of, say, a screwball comedy like those of Howard Hawks which synchronize the placements and movements of the camera to the actor’s expressions. Director Gregory La Cava, who switched from animating cartoon strips with speech bubbles for William Randolph Hearst to a director of comedies like My Man Godfrey, incorporates a frenzied energy to the proceedings by ping-ponging between reaction shots of the surrounding girls as Hepburn and Rogers preen, jab, and circle each other. It’s in their scenes upstairs, isolated from the other tenants, that the two girls reveal softer sides beneath their sparring, and the lack of reaction shots gives way to longer takes in which La Cava’s camera glides serenely about their room.
Not quite the ensemble piece to which its stacked cast pretends, Stage Door early on reminds viewers of the unwritten, unquestioned rules that dictate the flow of a story and the fate of its characters. Every number we spend with Ginger Rogers means time away from the other tenants, who live their lives in the in-between, waiting for a part, a break that might have already come and gone forever. Kay, of course, is the arch symbol of talent wasted, downtrodden by a system too fragile and easily shaped by the whims of producers like the lecherous Powell (Adolphe Menjou); these men respect cunning and deception, as with the choice of the shrewd but untested Terry for the new lead, but overlook artistry in the process.
The relative calm of the upstairs scenes, in which characters can find solace from the mayhem of the floor level and sort out the truth of their situations, reaches its climax in the picture’s most distinctive moment of editing. Having lost her dream role to Terry, the distressed Kay climbs the stairs as the sound of applause slowly builds on the soundtrack, a glow taking over her face as she rises from the frame’s bottom right to a luminous closeup and finally passing out of sight on the left, one unbroken shot that signals the intrusion of a harsh reality onto the light melodrama of Terry’s adventures in show business.
It’s not the fatal, tragic twist of the third act that stings the most so much as the bubbly epilogue that follows, an uncanny mirror of the very first scene that refrains from tying the story off with a bow. A shellshocked performance on opening night, in the wake of Kay’s suicide, solidifies Terry’s credibility as an actress and her tearful curtain-call tribute to the departed forms a lasting bond with Jean. In the final scene, now fully welcomed (or assimilated) into the collective of the boarding house, life appears to go on as usual with two troubling reminders: first, Terry’s unanswered question in her dressing room: “Must someone die to create an actress?”; second, the appearance in the lobby of a new ingenue looking for room and board, bags in hand. A hand to the telephone, the chatter of conversation, and suddenly we’re in the credits. A new chapter has begun in the life of a young artist, but she’s living it behind a curtain. – Brendan
December 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
1. WE OWN THE NIGHT (James Gray, 2007)
Action film enthusiasts bemoan the loss of skilled filmmakers like John Frankenheimer, who could be relied upon for clean, legible chase sequences like the standout scenes in Ronin. Nowadays, big-budget action films go to directors without the necessary experience within the genre to make their scenes really pop. James Gray, no TV-trained specialist in the rhythms of the B-picture, provides an alternative to the Frankenheimer school of car chases in his cop-thriller-cum-family-melodrama, We Own the Night. A couple of key decisions lead to the central chase’s distinctive style: first, the rainy atmosphere makes most of the action more difficult to read; second, Gray shoots the scene entirely from the perspective of Joaquin Phoenix’s Bobby, alternating between tight closeups of his face and first-person shots through the blurry windshield. Cars register only as thick, dark blurs through the glass, gunfire as starry bursts of light, and the sound of Bobby’s panicked breathing dominates the soundtrack. Abandoning the omniscient perspective of the filmmaker for this tight focus on a single character in a multi-car setpiece actually heightens the tension, as the collisions and turns dawn on the viewer almost as Bobby sees them coming, with only a minimal establishment of the physical stakes. It all leads to an inevitably violent conclusion that Gray dwells on as Bobby barely has time to process the events leading up to the film’s most affecting tragedy.
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures and for streaming purchase on Amazon.
2. SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton, 1925)
This one has to be seen to be believed. Unlike the other two entries on this list, the film surrounding the great chase in Seven Chances isn’t necessarily a great one, the odd feature by Keaton that inspires more half-hearted smiles than real chuckles. But the plodding, episodic pace of the first forty-five minutes or so ends up, in hindsight, a clever analogue to the physical consequences of its climax. Keaton’s aggrieved broker must marry by sundown in order to inherit millions, and his partners’ last-ditch gambit of placing a classified ad to rescue their hopeless junior (and their own company) backfires when a mob of furious women show up, believing themselves victims of a hoax. The indirect consequence of his repeated come-ons throughout the picture, Keaton finds himself running full-tilt down Main Street, a basic movement he never failed to mine for belly laughs. The scene reaches a sublime comic crescendo as the women not only follow him to the outskirts of town, but end up party to a natural disaster as his attempt to hide beneath a large rock brings the hillside tumbling down around them.
Available on DVD from Kino Classics and streaming on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime
3. POINT BREAK (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
The foot chase that serves as the centerpiece of Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece has an almost unfair advantage over other scenes of its kind. The chase is actually the third act in a sequence edited with impeccable suspense, humor, and the right amount of ghastly peril. To begin, FBI (F!B!I!) agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) stake out the bank where they have determined the gang of robbers known as the Ex-Presidents will attempt their next big score. Here the scene begins with a twist of irony as Utah goes to get a couple of sandwiches, leaving Pappas alone in the car for a long take in which the Ex-Presidents appear across the street, out of focus, and hold up the bank to which Pappas has turned his back. The second act of this sequence is a brief car chase, as Utah spots the Ex-Presidents on his return and gives chase along with Pappas, eventually sending them crashing into a gas station where their ringleader in a Ronald Reagan mask uses a pump as impromptu flamethrower to destroy their car, and the evidence. The surreal, frightening image of this tuxedoed ghoul wielding a wild torch segues into the muscular filmmaking of the sequence’s final third, as Utah alone pursues the robber who he suspects is surf guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), with whom he has reluctantly formed a brotherly bond. Handheld cameras dominate after the flamethrower has signaled a descent into anarchy, punctuated by humorous touches like the target turning to stall Utah by throwing a dog in his face. But the claustrophobia dissipates for this mini-epic’s climactic moments, in which Utah’s leg gives out on him after a jump into a reservoir where his target makes his escape atop a chain-link fence. Lying on the ground, aiming a gun straight at the rubber mask, their eyes match for the first time, Utah’s failure to shoot giving way to Reeve’s most potent, anguished expression of the script’s operatic overtones. The use of Lori Petty’s Tyler (the film’s only major female character) as a plot point in the climax, and her absence in the dramatic denouement leaves Bodhi and Utah’s as the film’s central relationship, this eyeline match its powerful and ambiguous turning point.
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video and for streaming rental and purchase via Amazon. – Brendan