Archive for March, 2010

“Elvis” (1979)

March 29, 2010

The 1979 TV movie Elvis offers the most commonly held take on Elvis Aron Presley: the poor son of Tupelo who, bereft of an inner life beyond mother worship, a love for performing, and a taste for success—each boundless and unquenchable—succeeded so completely that he lost his soul in the process. It has all the drawbacks common to the made-for-TV format, especially in its second half: rushed action, inert staging (scenes involving a toy airplane and Priscilla hitting a punching bag are so hopeless that their retention is inexplicable), characters popping in and out like restless genii, undeveloped plot points, and a sucker’s fall-back on formula: after an angry Elvis smashes a bedroom lamp, he clutches his head in his hands and wails “What’s happening to me?” That’s precisely the kind of thing that makes me want to grab the sides of my hair and run screaming out of the room, but other flaws run even deeper. Budgetary restrictions limited the concert audiences to a couple of hundred people, so that we never really see the fullest blossoming of the world that terrified and depressed the man. Key chunks of his output are omitted or glossed over, so that hit after major hit—including “Hound Dog”, for God’s sake—goes completely unmentioned. (From a purely entertainment viewpoint, there’s not nearly enough music.) The contractual stranglehold that enabled Colonel Parker to snuff out Elvis’ attempts to widen his musical and acting horizons is shifted into the hands of a few unseen, unnamed producers and, but for one quick reference, Elvis’ absorption of black music is wholly ignored. This is all by way of saying that all the things that actually made Elvis a phenomenon—something bigger and more different than most of us can even imagine—are largely ignored in favor of the ways that he was only like us.

It could have been worse. At least Elvis was made by people—most prominently John Carpenter, working on his first film after Halloween—who were clear Presley fans. In places—a simple shot of Elvis and his parents singing a gospel song on their ramshackle porch one summer night, or the scene in which Presley addresses his dead twin brother by talking to his own shadow on the wall—it’s a surprisingly evocative work. But Carpenter really captured lightning in a bottle when he cast Kurt Russell as his lead.

I first encountered Russell when I was 10 or 12 in the old Disney movie Follow Me, Boys, and in one scene the very young Russell, embarrassed by his drunken father, unleashed a blistering tirade against Fred MacMurray that absolutely gutted me. I’d never consciously gotten it before that a kid could have such strong feelings, or that those feelings could be put into words, or that those words could be pure enough, and angry enough, to spellbind and wound an adult. Most of all it was Russell’s fraught delivery that made me want to look away—it was searing, a bigger jolt of emotion than anything I’d ever feel from a James Dean performance.*

Beginning with the opening shot of Elvis sitting in a hotel room just before the first of his “comeback” concerts at a Vegas hotel in 1969, Russell’s impersonation of Presley is so exact that at times—especially when he’s wearing Elvis’ Army haircut—it’s hard to get your head around the idea that you’re not watching The King. He doesn’t settle for a mere impression, though. When Gladys Presley (Shelley Winters, in yet another of her grisly Oedipal mama roles) dies, Elvis bends over her bed sobbing, and after holding that pose a moment, Russell crashes to one knee in a way that looks not just unplanned but wholly out of control; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a physical movement by an actor that seemed more alive the first time I saw it. Russell’s taken for a lightweight in some circles because of his square ingénue features, his marriage to Goldie Hawn, or his not always stellar choices of projects, and even people who do like him are more likely to think of Snake Plissken or of Rudy Russo in Used Cars—roles which depend at least partly on a parodic appreciation of his looks. I like him plenty in those movies, too—hell, I even like him in Tombstone—but forget all that. Elvis, for all its problems, makes one thing clear: the man has chops, whenever he wants to call on them.

*After writing this I watched that scene on YouTube for the first time since I was a kid. It was like going back to a childhood home and being surprised by how small it is—the scene’s barely a minute long and what I remembered as a tirade is just a short sentence or two. Russell’s tears and quivering anger are still there, though, and still feel real.

“Outlaw life’s hard, ain’t it?”

March 25, 2010

I finally got caught up on Breaking Bad, the surrealistically tinged drama about a high-school chemistry teacher who contracts lung cancer and, wanting to put a quick little something by for his family, begins manufacturing methamphetamine—a decision that brings out sides of himself which have never seen the light of day. The show’s first season was riddled with flaws but I never could quite shake its vibe from my cranial caverns; the second season is largely a huge pleasure, with a storyline that’s turned into a sinuous and extremely dark journey. My complaints about the show are large ones, though, and none of them have gone away:

  • Lifts from other shows are too obvious (“Four Days Out” is a reworking of The Sopranos’  “Pine Barrens” with nothing like its depth) while other scenes, such as the one featuring the little bicycle assassin (who looks inspired by a particular moment in The Wire), are so predictable as to be painful.
  • Its attempts at humor, rare to begin with, are usually forced and only fitfully successful. The scene where a narc busts one of Jesse’s dealers (in a very Wire-esque pre-credit sequence) is telegraphed from the get-go, yet it goes on and on, milking a myth—that cops have to identify themselves as officers if asked—that was old hat 40 years ago, and which nobody believed even then.
  • Far too many scenes between the central characters Walt and Jesse repeat each other, with Jesse doing something unaccountably stupid and Walt chewing him out using the same tone and language he used the last time Jesse did something stupid.
  • The dialogue is often just TV-clever, with the characters jerking off for the audience rather than talking to each other. If Walt is going to twitch and tweak and flop around every time someone asks him a simple question, that’s fine; what’s not fine is for the other characters to never notice these St. Vitus’ Meltdowns (or to be put off too easily by his rote assurances). The trend continues in the opener of Season 3, with the mute cartel hitmen who do everything in unison (why?) and a high-school principal who hands an open mike to the last person a real principal in that situation would give it to.
  • The notion that every moment of the show should work to create tension is cheap and, in the end, counterproductive. Breaking Bad is so intent on not having any relaxed or normal moments, moments where the characters are just sitting around and feeling okay about things, even for a second, that it can be fatiguing to watch it. Even a nothing little driveway scene has to be jazzed up with a remote-controlled car which keeps whizzing around Walt’s feet; the scene ends with a real car crushing the toy car, a bah-duh-bum of pseudo-snappiness which plays like the toast popping up in The Graduate. Nor does it help when Walt reacts to it with his patented doleful expression, as if “in the death of that little plastic car he foresees his own death,” or…something. All I know is, it’s icky.
  • The show’s surrealistic bent sometimes makes it trip into troughs of mistypoo self-importance, with things like the mid-air jet-crash and (in Season 3) the villagers who approach a cartel shrine by crawling to it, even over great distances, on their bellies. What Vince Gilligan is trying for with these outtakes from The X-Files is a mystery; one hopes there’s more to it than “It feels weird.” In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what he has left to top himself with by the end of the show’s run.

That’s a pretty serious list of complaints, yet I still enjoyed Breaking Bad’s second season, and in spots I was in awe of it. Flourishes like the narcocorrido video or the lyrical little out-of-body sequence when Jesse tries junk for the first time all work like gangbusters, additions such as the junkie with a Bettie Page haircut and the nebbishy restaurateur who turns out to be a drug kingpin improved the show’s population, and the introduction of another major character—Bob Odenkirk’s interestingly principled shyster—was elegantly parlayed into a great little sequence involving a professional convict. There’s also the consistently mind-boggling cinematography of Mike Slovis, whose surface brattiness and atomic attention to detail does a better job of illustrating the stresses and quandaries of Walt’s existence than anything in the show’s scripts. (The show’s mixture of thuds and successes, and the near wildness in Gilligan’s willingness to try anything on, mostly reminds me of the Paul Thomas Anderson who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia.)

Breaking Bad may be the more ambitious show, but on first blush, at least, I felt a lot more at home after just two episodes of Justified. Timothy Olyphant stars as Raylan Givens, a droll, no-bullshit U.S. marshal who, after a messy little shooting in Miami, is transferred back to the Kentucky coal country where he grew up. Givens is an Elmore Leonard creation, and the show conveys intact most of Leonard’s many fine qualities: constantly fudged moral boundaries,  ingenious plotting, off-color dialogue with an extremely high smart-ass quotient, and a passel of funny, flavorful characters who often provide the heart of the story. (One boundary is less happily fudged: Justified’s talented cast looks capable of many things, but passing as children of the people we saw in Harlan County U.S.A. is not one of them.) The last line of Justified’s pilot episode hints that things will soon take a more serious turn, but until they do, watching Seth Bullock pop neo-Nazis in the chops with their own scatterguns makes for some wonderful entertainment.

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz…

March 22, 2010

It’s pretty damn far from perfect but, as Johnny Burns would say, “It’s somethin’ anyway.” Obama, Pelosi and Reid hung in there when the pooch looked totally screwed, which was impressive enough, and the Democrats finally stood together on an important issue, scoring common sense’s most tangible victory in America since the Panama Canal Treaty. The media’s buzzing now about what this’ll do to the Dems’ chances in the midterms, but it seems to me the outcome for the nutjobs is just as precipitous. The big thing they’ve always feared is a Democratic success story, something that would puncture Reagan’s myths about the horrors of big government. And with the vote passed, the teabaggers may get out of our faces for a day or two: their job now—to go home and work to defeat the congressmen who supported the bill—is a lot less fun than dressing up in Let’s Make a Deal costumes and staging a Fellini circus for the TV cameras. It doesn’t do anything to help how ugly this country’s gotten, of course, and the Republicans have already announced that they’re going to fight the bill through the reconciliation process and make it their central issue in the midterms. The fuckers are indefatigable, I gotta give ’em that…

but of course

March 19, 2010

A madeleine cake

March 19, 2010

It’s a certifiably beautiful day out there today. The air’s got that seasonal feeling of promise, with moms pushing their kids in strollers and the secretaries coming up the hill with their yoga mats strung over their shoulders like quivers—all welcome sights after a wet and crappy winter that left me feeling 70 years old.  It’s walking weather for sure, and if it didn’t mean chewing up vacation time I’d just split, head up Second Street towards the ballpark and head from there over to North Beach or somewhere. Anyways…

Alex Chilton’s death was a fucking blow. It called up a few memories, the happiest one being a solo concert he gave at the Noe Valley Ministry, where he disarmed the crowd by singing a bunch of children’s songs. There was also a night in the late ’80s where I was recovering from a breakup, and sat up drinking and listening to “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” over and over—probably not the best cure for a heartbreak, but it felt right at the time. It also reminded me of some stuff that happened around ’77 or ’78.  I was taking some classes at UH, basically for shits and giggles, and part of the crowd I wound up running around with included a few guys who had a punk band called AK-47. (Trust me, the name was at least a tad less obvious at the time, and besides, their main rivals were called fucking Legionnaire’s Disease.) AK-47 didn’t have a lot of songs in their repertoire but they did achieve a certain notoriety with one of their numbers.

The Houston Police Department was in the news a lot at the time because it had a bad habit of giving a home to every psychotic redneck who could fill out a job application. These guys hadn’t been any fun in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when they’d pull longhairs over for bullshit infractions and then tear their cars apart looking for dope (even simple possession was still a felony, so it was no damn joke when the cherries popped up in your rearview mirror), and naturally they had an even bigger hard-on for minorities, a handful of whom they more or less blatantly murdered in about an 18-month span. It took a while for the stray brutality complaints and lawsuits to come together in a pattern, and the case that opened a lot of eyes was Joe Campos Torres. Torres was a troublemaker who’d been making a scene in a bar when the cops took him away; by the time they got to the lockup, he’d been beaten so badly that the desk sergeant ordered the arresting officers to take him to the hospital; instead, they took him to a dark corner of Buffalo Bayou and pushed him into the water with his hands cuffed behind his back—the body was found there two days later. (In another case a cop killed a young black man for turning towards him with the ever-popular “dark object” in his hand; but the object turned out to be a Bible and the kid turned out to be retarded.) The HPD didn’t even have an internal affairs division at the time, but it did dream up a spiffy new slogan to change the dynamics of things and pull the Silent Majority into the fray. And it worked: the slogan—“The Badge Means You Care”—found an immediate home in the hearts and minds of yahoos everywhere.

I’m telling you, you couldn’t go anywhere in Houston then without seeing those words, either on TV, a poster, a billboard or (the most popular venue) a bumper sticker, to the point where the crimes they were meant to gloss over nearly became less offensive than the slogan’s stomach-turning ubiquity, and it was at this point that AK-47 conjured up an angry little ditty entitled “The Badge Means You Suck”. It was a pretty good song, and the band cut it as a single which got some airplay on the college stations. Mostly, though, they used it to cap off their sets at the Paradise Lounge, a cavernous hall on South Main which served as a Filipino restaurant by day and then, inexplicably, was converted into a punk club at night. (The Mabuhay made me do a double-take once I moved out here.) The owners were a middle-aged and very straight Filipino couple, nice people, and how in the world they decided to open a punk club, or even knew that Houston had a punk scene, I’ll never know.

I was never a real punk, of course. I liked plenty of the music and the vibe, and some of the most interesting people I knew at the time were being pulled into its circle, but I’ve always had this thing where I was never cool enough to be fully accepted by cool people while I never looked straight enough to be accepted in the straight world. (When I flew back from Austin last time, I had to share a tiny three-seat row with two MBA types who took one look at me, then looked at each other, and immediately fell into a gregarious and utterly exclusive two-man conversation that stretched from Denver to SF.) So I kind of stood out from the rest of the Paradise crowd, and this woman, the bartender, who was a little afraid of her own patrons, turned to me to ease her mind, and asked me to work as the club bouncer in return for free drinks. Big Mistake. First, I wasn’t solid enough back then to bounce a rabbit. Second, I was going through a breakup then, too, and I was trying to smother the pain with my tried-and-sometimes-true blend of booze and smart-ass quips, a combination which effectively made me the one true asshole in the entire place, to the point where the single best way I could’ve done my job would’ve been to throw myself onto the street. Instead I just drank the Filipinos’ booze, practically by the gallon, while hitting futilely on the women and doling out drunken hostility to everybody else. I still remember the alarmed look that Mrs. What’s-her-name gave me over the bar one night, while I was shooting my mouth off with a glass of her rum in my hand.

Agh, it was fun while it lasted. AK-47 played there practically every weekend, and they always finished their set with “The Badge Means You Suck”. For a few days there was a kerfuffle over it in the Houston media (which replaced the “uck” in “Suck” with hyphens), with everyone pulling their longest faces because such a noble sentiment had been so badly trampled by such godless uncouth so-and-so’s. The cops caught wind of it quickly enough, and one night they came crashing in during the song and shooed everyone home early. They only did that once, though, so between their gigs at the Paradise and hanging out at the warehouse where they held their rehearsals, I got way too familiar with AK-47’s set list. The band’s leader was their bass player, a skinny, sharp-eyed guy named Harry who, like most of the people I knew at the time, had come out of UH’s English department. Harry was an okay guy, a little stuck on himself maybe, and maybe a little pretentious (sometime I’ll tell you about his other band), and maybe he was a complete horn-dog who I envied and hated because he was brimming with confidence and successful with women—he used to twitch his narrow black moustache at them—whereas I only had my nervous drunken writer routine to fall back on.

Anyway…Now I’m back to hearing the guitars from “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” in my head. I swear, that little fucker…

“The Well” (1951)

March 17, 2010

The Well is a quirky little number, a plea for brotherhood along the lines of Pabst’s Kameradschaft but with the action transferred from Alsatian coal country to the American boonies. It’s flush with postwar idealism, but like Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story and Albert Band’s Face of Fire it assays the purity of America’s civic values by focusing on the trauma of a single small town. Wisely avoiding an accusatory look, it’s located in a place so anonymous that we can’t even be sure which part of America we’re in. The townspeople’s clothes may scream “Hattiesburg ’51”, but there are no telltale drawls, no root cellars, catfish or cotton crops, no whittling or eating of “vittles”. The sheriff is a well-spoken man leading a team of mostly professional deputies while a handful of educated young blacks, probably students at a nearby university, have the most clued-in perspective in town. Despite some festering resentments the town’s racial problems are under control—people are getting along.

Then, one morning, a young black girl, dawdling on her way to school, falls into an abandoned well. The sheriff barely notices her disappearance until a couple of witnesses recall seeing a man speaking to her—a white man. (“Twist!”, as Liz Lemon would say.) The girl’s parents grow more upset, more vocal in their demands. The whites make quiet jokes among themselves; the blacks trade quiet rumors. The man is found—he is a young civil engineer, new to town. (It’s Harry Morgan, aka “Colonel Potter” from MASH. He’s terrific here.) He admits talking to the girl and buying her a snack, but that’s all he did—he swears. His answers don’t add up, though, plus he’s a bit of a smart-ass. The blacks, monitoring the situation and not expecting justice, grow angrier. The suspect’s overfed employer doesn’t help anything when he shows up—he’s gentry, and acts like it. The flash-point comes: a shoving incident outside the jail. Now gangs of blacks and whites, captured in Dutch angles, race through the streets gathering axe-poles and handguns, and begin laying into one another. Tit for tat beatings spread like plague, and it’s only because the girl’s belongings are discovered at the wellhead that open warfare is averted. The townspeople, all of them, rush to the field. The civil engineer—a suspect just minutes ago—and his pig-eyed boss coolly supervise the sinking of a parallel shaft. This intensely rushed effort to save the child is cut to the rhythms of the machinery’s percussive booms; the drilling spans an entire night, with the workers spotlighted by the glare of circled cars.

The Well was respected enough at the time to rack up writing and editing Oscar nominations, but after that it fell into its own black hole: it was no gimme finding even a semi-decent still for this post,  the cover for its DVD carries the poster from another movie altogether, and its director, Russell Rouse, is remembered (if at all) as the man responsible for that Mount Everest of bad taste called The Oscar. But Rouse and The Well’s producer, Leo Popkin, collaborated again a year later on The Thief, a Cold War spy drama that takes as its hero a Communist agent,  and which aside from its sound effects is entirely silent—not a word of dialogue is spoken. The Well appeared in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education and four years before Emmitt Till and Rosa Parks became known to the wider world, which is only to say that it was that much ahead of its time, and that it was made only because somebody thought that a picture of two troubled peoples coming together for a higher good couldn’t do the world any harm. Based on events that inspired Billy Wilder’s exercise in exaggerated cynicism Ace in the Hole, The Well settles for exaggerated optimism instead, and suffers from shaky production values to boot. None of that matters a damn to me—I’ll take it just the same.

A little chronocide…

March 12, 2010

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”

March 9, 2010

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger…

The tempered, almost lawyerly voice that recounts Carroll’s history; the unforced off-rhymes that would look at home in a Dickinson poem; the unconventional, doom-laden repetition of the same word at the end of three consecutive lines; the surprising appearance in a 1963 song of the phrase “a whole other level”, here given a slight mystical nudge even as it’s yoked to the image of some dirty ashtrays; the harmonious coexistence of assonance, internal rhyme, alliteration, and Biblical echo all in the single line “Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane”; the way all of this builds to a description of the murder that’s journalistically precise yet, when heard sung, comes at you in sections like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; and finally, all of this taken together yet never detracting from the obscenity of the actual deed…Even for a young Dylan it’s impressive.

Hattie Carroll headline -- Free to Share and Use via MS Edge -- 4-4-16

The Morning After

March 8, 2010

Who’d a-thunk that when the heat’s turned on, Kathryn Bigelow would look like roadkill on legs while Sandra Bullock would turn into Lincoln at Gettysburg? Anyway, I’m basically happy for Bigelow, if only because I’ll forever prefer the scale of films like The Hurt Locker to that of Avatar, and without a real dog in the race I was glad to see another bugaboo knocked down if only to make people stop talking about it.

But the fact that a woman has finally won the director’s Oscar is mostly a statistical nugget, even if it was shamefully late in coming. Bigelow’s chances weren’t hurt by her film’s choppy, ADD-inflected camerawork and editing, a style that’s basically interchangeable with that of its fellow Best Picture nominee District 9, not to mention most of NBC’s Thursday night lineup. Mostly, though, she was given a leg up by her approach and subject matter: an apolitical, shallowly existential look at what’s probably the most hair-raising job in our armed forces. To put it as lightly as possible, it’s not a subject requiring a woman’s touch per se, and in no case is The Hurt Locker what you’d call a “personal” film unless you’re talking about the personality of a drum machine. (I don’t see how even Bigelow’s biggest fans could detect her hand in the proceedings without being clued in beforehand.) Unless you’re really that glad that the human who won happens to come with a pair of ovaries, it’s a breakthrough in name only. The day the Academy gives the nod to a film that feels like it really came from a woman—like some of Varda’s films, or even certain parts of Fast Times at Ridgemont High—and picks it over the CGI blockbuster and the relevant action flick which might’ve come from any of a hundred male directors—well, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

That isn’t to say the night was without its pleasures…

Graphic Material

March 4, 2010

Scorsese picks his “10 Essential Movie Posters”. (No, I have no idea what’s  “essential” about them—these are the ones he’d eat on a desert island?—but he did pick a couple beauts worth preservifying. They don’t make ’em like this anymore either.)

“Pitfall” (1948)

March 3, 2010

André De Toth’s Pitfall takes such a dismal, septic view of suburban life that it might’ve been written by Henry Miller. Dick Powell plays John Forbes, an insurance claims investigator and prime example of Bill Clinton’s citizen “who plays by the rules”. But his happy-face marriage to pert-titted Jane Wyatt is imperiled by his feeling of being trapped, and when a case brings him into contact with Venus man-trap Lizabeth Scott, he’s only one rear-projected speedboat ride away from hitting the sheets with her. But somebody else has a yen for Scott: the silky, hulking, unbalanced private investigator named MacDonald, who begins fucking around something fierce with the couple. It was impossible to tell from Perry Mason that Raymond Burr could be as good as he is here, especially when “Mac” drops in on Scott after wrecking her life to lightly ask how things are going. (In Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, Burr—a gay man who remained successfully closeted throughout his long career—was just as good playing the marvelously named Harry Prebble, a natty Lothario who wasn’t above committing a little date-rape whenever the situation shook out that way.)

Pitfall came out in ’48, fairly hot on the heels of World War II, yet American audiences were already expected to comprehend, and maybe approve of, its trenchant take on middle-class life. Whether it’s Powell playing the emotionally absent mini-king at the breakfast table, his small son suffering from nightmares, or the no-contest mismatch between the wholesome Wyatt and the party-girl Scott, the recognition that a wrinkle-free existence can generate malaise instead of security cuts against the grain of its time as that’s been handed down to us—it’s a side of The Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw neglected to tell us much about. In 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives ended with Dana Andrews on the brink of suicide because he couldn’t find a toehold amongst America’s postwar bounty; in Pitfall, just two short years later, even that toehold looked like a bear-trap.

“And my feeling that everything was dead…”

March 2, 2010

Forty years ago thinking people had to pick sides with Kael or Sarris in the great auteur debate; today we get to pick between Richard Schickel and Harry Knowles, a pair of vainglorious empire-builders who manage to be repulsive in totally different ways. The Schickel quotes in that article are pretty staggering for someone who does nothing to discourage the popular perception that he’s a film authority, and even in the one instance where he’s right, he’s right for the wrong reasons: Harry Knowles is, indeed, “a gross human being,” but it has fuck-all to do with his appearance. If you’re ever looking for a vivid contrast in critical styles, just listen to the DVD commentaries for the three spaghetti westerns that Clint Eastwood made with Sergio Leone. The terse, insightful commentaries by Leone scholar Christopher Frayling on the first two movies are those of someone who loves certain films and has spent some time thinking about them, while Schickel on The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—certainly the plum assignment of the trilogy—is content to provide a lazy recap of what your eyes are already relaying to your brain, which is about what you’d expect from someone who mistakes Clint Eastwood for a great filmmaker.

I have to admit being tickled to hear that Paul Schrader also had to realize that he was living through a “historical aberration.” I eventually reached the same conclusion but with the handicaps of being almost a decade younger than Schrader, knowing next to nothing about Hollywood history, and never spending so much as a day of my life in show business. I turned 18 in 1972, and, as Ray Liotta put it in GoodFellas, “It was a glorious time.” The years 1970 to 1974 saw a bumper crop of films that were “great” in the canonical sense, but which worked even better as cinematic off-road vehicles: when the lights went down you couldn’t be sure where you’d come out. (Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange were released as Christmas movies, for crying out loud.) 

The thing is, I didn’t realize it was glorious. When you’re 18 and just coming out of the Sixties, it’s easy to misconstrue situations like that as the natural order of things, and it’s only as the space once taken up by movies like Mean Streets and Badlands is consumed by Kramer vs. Kramer and Rocky sequels that you notice something funny, but not ha-ha funny, is going on. People like to blame Star Wars for dropping the curtain on the renaissance, but the truth is things weren’t ever going to stay that way, with Robert Altman literally getting his dreams greenlighted, and Coppola and Cimino breaking entire studios (or themselves) on the wheel of their follies.

What didn’t have to happen, though, were all the ugly things that did happen…

Good to Go

March 1, 2010

Val Guest’s 1959 satire on the music industry Expresso Bongo is sort of a mashup between Sweet Smell of Success and Peter Watkins’ Privilege, only it’s a lot sunnier than Sweet Smell and one helluva lot better than Privilege. Laurence Harvey plays Johnny Jackson, a hustler/agent in the Sidney Falco-Harry Fabian tradition, who finds a sweet young singer named “Bongo” Herbert (the real-life pop star Cliff Richard) in a Soho coffee-shop, and builds him into a national idol. The movie’s humor isn’t razor sharp so much as endlessly ticklish—a seedy striptease number called “Historical London” put me on the floor—and Harvey’s never been more free-spirited. (His muffled, reserved quality, which sometimes reads like a wish to be someplace else, is utterly absent here.) It’s an unexpected tour of the nascent swinging London scene, and Wolf Mankowitz (who also wrote the great adaptation of Gogol’s The Bespoke Overcoat for Jack Clayton’s splendid 1956 short film) sprinkled in bits of Jewish humor that jet through the movie’s system like shots of B12.

I also liked the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, probably as much as anything I’ve seen in a while. The Coens are having just the damndest career—they could’ve gone on alternating pop confections with darker mood pieces forever without anyone batting an eye, but their range and concerns just keep ripening, while films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man have a generosity and—there’s no other word for it—love flowing out of them which is hard to find anywhere else in American movies. That they’ve grown into serious, first-rate artists is so obvious by now that one feels put out when critics still talk dismissively of “the usual Coen caricature”; it’s especially aggravating when people write them off as immature misanthropists, when soulfulness has largely become their defining quality.  A Serious Man also has one of my all-time favorite closing shots, a thing of such inspiration and beauty I can just barely get my head around it.

Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow is shot in a tweedy black and white that’s as dazzling in its own way as his color stuff; similarly  its story is toned down from Sirk’s usual dramatic nitroglycerine without losing any of its impact. Fred MacMurray plays a toy manufacturer who feels stifled by his family—not by his job or his house in the suburbs, but specifically by his family—and whose feelings come to a head during a visit from ex-employee and old flame Barbara Stanwyck. Even for Sirk the frontal assault on middle-class stability is a daring one, and the characters’ normalcy makes it that much more potent. You don’t have to do any mental translations to empathize with MacMurray the way you do with Stack or Turner in Written on the Wind, and the casting doesn’t require the leap of faith that Rock Hudson’s does in All That Heaven Allows. The ending—in the name of survival, the parties basically agree that MacMurray is simply having a midlife crisis, leaving him stuck in his trap forever—is so bitter it’s chilling.

Jorge Gaggero’s Live-in Maid is an amazing feature debut. A self-involved upper-class widow named Beba (the great Argentine actress Norma Aleandro) loses her money in the financial crisis that swamped Argentina in the early ’00’s; when we meet her, she’s getting down to essentials so quickly that her lights will be turned off by the end of the movie. Her bigger crisis is letting go of her beetle-backed maid Dora, who’s been her steadiest friend for 30 years without either of them realizing it. The women’s last few days together are marked by spitefulness, desperate attempts by each of them to land on their feet, and finally—in the classiest way possible—a realization of what they mean to each other. Gaggero found Norma Argentina, a real-life maid in her fifties, in an open audition, and cast her as Dora opposite her idol Aleandro; in return, Ms. Argentina held her own against Aleandro, won a couple of festival awards for her work in the movie, and has had a successful film career ever since. For a more awesome story than that you have to go back to the Book of Exodus.

%d bloggers like this: