Archive for July, 2012

a fork in the road

July 30, 2012

In Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, just as the extent of the Titanic’s plight is becoming known to the ship at large, a group of young cabin boys are seen milling about, debating their course of action. When a chief steward happens by they pounce on him for advice, but spotting the smokes in their hands he only barks at them, “Put those cigarettes out at once! Don’t you know the rules yet? I’ll have you on the captain’s report!” Even as the boys’ angry faces show that the habit of servitude is nearing its end, they’re still startled enough to drop their smokes.

That scene came to mind a couple nights ago while I was watching—for the fourth or fifth time—Cy Endfield’s Zulu. (It’s still one of the best action pictures I know of.) Just before the warriors launch their first attack on the tiny British compound, the colour sergeant (a magnificent Nigel Green) spots one of his men with an open tunic and matter-of-factly orders him to button up. When the soldier reacts with incredulity—4,000 Zulus are, after all, about to drop into their laps—the sergeant lowers his voice and admonishes him in a whisper: “Do it up! Where do you think you are, man?”

All of the men in these two scenes believe they’re about to die, but where the chief steward is clearly a popinjay in thrall to the company book, Colour Sergeant Bourne’s order, though no less futile on its face, comes across as reassuring. (Indeed, the soldier does his tunic right up.) There’s nothing of the prig about Bourne; if asked why he’d care about a trifle at a time like that, he’d surely have something to offer beyond “I saw it in the manual”. What that thing might be—whether it’s presence of mind, psychological reinforcement or regimental pride—might well be alien to me, but it’s not simply an empty form.

Context. It wins every time.

“Petersen” (1974)

July 26, 2012

It starts out like a goofy sex romp, but it’s really about a footballer who, catching glimmers of a bigger world out there, quits the game and enrolls in university to better himself.  He’s still a magnetic lug, though, so being married with a couple of kids doesn’t stop him from having an affair with one of his lecturers and tucking into other bits on the side. By the end, the Sexual Revolution, people’s fickleness and his own working class roots have all risen up to bite him; he’s left with his tiny electrical business and his optimism. An early entry in the Australian renaissance of the ’70s, it’s not as great as what was to come, but it’s likable and human and very entertaining—kind of an Aussie Five Easy Pieces that doesn’t crap on its characters. With the great Jack Thompson, Wendy Hughes, Jacki Weaver and Arthur Dignam. (The Australian ratings board sure works differently than the MPAA. The movie has 3-4 scenes showing full frontal nudity, a shot of Thompson playing with Weaver’s naked snatch, a nasty rape scene, and a lot of simulated sex that looks pretty damn real, yet it’s rated 18+ for “Medium level violence”. Period.)

“Margaret” (2011)

July 16, 2012

I spent 5½ hours this weekend watching both the theatrical and extended versions of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s emotional epic about a high-school student who’s partly responsible for a fatal street accident, and then innocently—or at least spontaneously—lies to the police about what happened. It’s a detailed, unpredictable work with several brilliant moments, along with a handful of misjudged scenes and a couple of ideas left hanging in midair. Still, Lonergan was talking about something real.

Margaret is mostly about our need for a perspective, or a state of consciousness, that’s viable in today’s world. The task has always been a prickly one, but now, when things sometimes feels like they really are verging on the apocalyptic (and whose perils we’re all, to one degree or another, responsible for creating), dealing with reality while not denying our feelings about it is fast becoming a critical skill. The accident precipitating Lisa’s crisis occurs perhaps 15 minutes into the movie—just enough time to establish her as pampered and headstrong—and the film’s best stretch comes in its immediate aftermath, when she tries to continue her usual routine with the tragedy percolating just behind her eyes. Eventually her guilt and confusion cause her to act out (and lash out) in a number of directions—at her well-meaning but distracted mother, as well as at the cops, her teachers and friends. (Anna Paquin’s eruptions are remarkable for the subtle variations she rings on them based on which party Lisa is dealing with at the time.) As she tries to find the right scale for her distress, her search is mirrored by life around her: a mockingly light play which her mother is starring in, a classmate whose self-righteousness is a match for her own, and ultimately by a  glowing performance of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. The latter may be a register too high for anyone’s sense of humility to stay healthy, but the opera winds up offering Lisa the toehold that she desperately needs.

Margaret’s free-floating anxiety is part of the global, inclusive consciousness that’s relatively new to movies—the cinema of Haneke and Akin and Iñárritu. Though it contains a running argument about the Jews, the Arabs and American meddling in the Middle East, it’s less about 9/11 than the fabric of modern life, particularly in New York City, whose inhabitants have always been peculiarly attuned to what their neighbors were doing, and whose lives really became enmeshed in the wake of the attacks. Margaret’s signature image is the crowd shot—a horde of pedestrians filling the sidewalks, or a line of taxis stretching to the horizon at twilight—that give us some idea of the multiplicity of perspectives and options available both to Lisa and to us. Which road is the right one? What Margaret does well is dramatize how sticky that question has finally become. Finding a path that’s coherent, comfortable and morally righteous, all at the same time…? Well, we should just forget it, for clearly it can’t be done. And yet no other choice is presenting itself—not to Lisa, and certainly not to us.

let all the children boo-geh

July 14, 2012

Bill Ham, the Internet’s Original King of Comedy, posted this on Facebook and, well, it’s irresistible.

“Love is Here to Stay”

July 13, 2012

The smoky little piano intro. The lilting but emphatic beats Sinatra lays on the words “But. Oh. My. Dear.” The sweet, sane heresy of “The radio, and the telephone, and the movies that we know/May just be passing fancies, and in time may go”. The spirit of a bygone New York hovering over the song. Its spot on one of the greatest albums in all Christendom. And because it’s the last melody that George Gershwin ever completed.

That’s why I love this song—

(And in the middle of my little Sinatra wallow this morning, I stumbled across this short memoir by Milt Bernhart, the man whose trombone solo in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” has sent a charge through God knows how many barrooms over the decades. His views of life on the road, 1950 Las Vegas, and Benny Goodman are ones you don’t see every day.)


July 10, 2012

By coincidence I just stumbled across a post that my crazy-ass liberal friend Leonard Pierce wrote for his blog that also mentions the WPA posters, and he fully fleshes out one of the truest (and most touching) points one can make about them:

I recently came across an archive of posters created by and for the Works Progress Administration under FDR, the man I will never stop thinking of as the greatest president America has ever had. I highly recommend it for its incredible aesthetic beauty, but there is more to it than that. Looking through each one, seeing what programs it was intended to support and what goals it was designed to achieve, is like glimpsing an alternate universe where the government actually cares for its people — and does something about it. Each poster reflects the values of a political class who believes that everyone in its sphere of influence — nursing mothers, workers who might want to learn more about current events, unemployed people who have a skill or a trade that might be worthwhile to someone who doesn’t know them, retired people who have mastered a craft in their old age, girls who want to learn magic tricks, musicians whose careers have been shipwrecked by economic turmoil, farmers who need to find about about advancements in agriculture, kids who are interested in science but don’t have proper books, local artists trying to make a living, tourists, writers, tenement dwellers — is valuable. It is this recognition that everyone has potential, worth, and value, and that by supporting a system that valorizes the privileged and ignores the poor, the nation is cheating itself on every level, that helped lift the nation out of a murderous depression. It was this conviction that created the best-educated working class America has ever seen, quelled a century of labor strife, and laid the foundation for the liberal consensus of the post-war world that led to the longest single period of economic prosperity the country had ever seen.

The WPA Does Tom Blog

July 10, 2012

At one point of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Crumb (the man, not the movie) riffles through a handful of Polaroids which he uses as drawing aids. The pictures show a series of street scenes, but instead of people or architecture they’re focused on utility poles, dumpsters, transformers, parking meters, newspaper racks and all the other bits of urban detritus which, as Crumb points out, we unconsciously block from our minds as we move around in the world. Simply swiveling your head from side to side while standing on any city street corner reveals just how much of this suppressed junk there is surrounding us—junk which, along with the acres of ugly advertising signage, does nothing but pollute our view of the places we live in. So it’s nice to imagine walking down the street and finding a well-funded effort to spruce the place up with a little whimsy and positive social feeling, and if it takes up space that would otherwise be filled by ads for Buick and Electrolux (or Lexapro and Apple), so much the better. And if that effort springs from a government agency whose only mission is to promote the health and happiness of its citizenry while incidentally throwing a few bucks at some talented artists on the side—why, then, yes, I can get behind that, too. Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

All Gone

July 8, 2012

hear ye hear ye

July 8, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Janet Jackson Super Bowl Case

Okay, so it’s not in the same league as the ACA ruling, but considering what a chilling effect the fine had at the time, it doesn’t deserve to go under the radar either. When conservatives bitch about the feds telling us what to do (that fine was levied by the FCC when it was being run by some of Dubya’s most primitive apparatchiks), why don’t they care about hysterically prudish actions like this one, or self-censorship imposed by a gun to the head like the MPAA ratings board? Don’t worry, I know the answer: our discomfort about sex gets to trump everything, including common sense. I’m just sick of the double standard.

Stanley Kubrick’s Power Junkies

July 5, 2012

The other night I was watching a chunk of Paths of Glory and savoring the performance by the guy on the left here.

His name is Richard Anderson—yes, he’s with us still—and he was in a lot of schlocky TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s. He never impressed me then but in Paths he held his own amidst a host of big-name stars, and showed what he could do as Major Saint-Auban, aide to the almost metaphysically evil General Mireau. In his scenes with the general he’s in a state of perpetual alert, like a pointer hound on a hunting trip, and when Mireau explodes into a tirade because the regiment hasn’t left the trenches, Saint-Auban simply trains his snout on his master and holds that pose, knowing the right answer is to simply agree with anything the general says, even if it’s an order to shell their own troops.

Leeches like Saint-Auban—the sycophant who enables soulless bureaucracies to flourish—are peppered throughout Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Paths of Glory is infested with these termites—Lieutenant Roget and General Mireau himself belong to their ranks—and the military is such a natural magnet for them that Kubrick would return to that milieu through the rest of his career. But they exist everywhere, and they’re also reflected (or parodied) in the repulsive social worker, prison guard and hospital staff of A Clockwork Orange, the gangsters kowtowing to their ringleader in The Killing, and Clare Quilty’s impersonations of a cop and a school psychologist in Lolita. Thanks to his obsession with food-chains and pecking orders, picking out the biggest prick in Kubrick’s pictures would make a good day’s work for anybody. Any short list, though, really ought to include the government’s point-man on the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just look at this smug bastard.

Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (played to a turn by William Sylvester) is dripping with a sense of entitlement from the second he steps onto the space-station. He absently talks down to a helpful receptionist without ever seeing her; he calls his daughter back on Earth so he can rush through a list of bullet-points, one of which is her birthday; he coldly stiff-arms some Russian scientists who are concerned about (gulp) a lunar epidemic; and he quashes his staff’s discontent by telling everyone to keep their pie-holes shut if they know what’s good for them. He can’t even do a voice ID check without giving the machine a condescending smile.

Dr. Floyd needs a scant few minutes for all of these breaches in civility, but it’s during the moon-bus flight that we see what a putz he really is. Along with a pair of gray-souled subordinates he engages in some frosty bonhomie that’s the verbal equivalent of white noise.

Floyd Minion #1 (opening a cooler of synthetic sandwiches): Anybody hungry?
Dr. Floyd: Great. What do we got?
FM #1: You name it.
Dr. Floyd: What is that—chicken?
FM #1: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway.
The men chuckle.
FM #2: You know, that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
FM #1: It certainly was.
FM #2: I’m sure it beefed up morale a hell of a lot.
Dr. Floyd: Thanks, Ralph. By the way, I want to say to both of you I think you’ve done a wonderful job. I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing.
FM #2: Oh, the way we look at it, it’s our job to do this thing the way you want it done. We’re only too happy to be able to oblige.

On paper this reads like nothing at all; one must hear the faintly snotty inflections, deadpan deliveries, and lifeless chuckles to appreciate the exchange.  The ending of it recalls the moment in Paths of Glory when General Mireau offers Saint-Auban a shot from his flask and the canny major insists that the general take the first drink, causing a thin smile to crease Mireau’s face; here, too, a subordinate being thrown a bone immediately turns it into a boomerang flying back to his master. The rules of the game aren’t merely adhered to in Kubrick’s world. They’re enjoyed.

And a moment later there is this exchange:

Dr. Floyd: I don’t suppose you have any idea what the damn thing is.
FM #2: I wish to hell we did.

The casual condescension in Floyd’s voice, the forced nursery-room profanities, and the hollow collegial laugh that follows them—these are not the sort of things that Kubrick is noted for. He’s normally remembered for grand set-pieces and camera-moves that cry out for attention, but these moments of overgrown boys jockeying for position employ a quieter action that goes on just beneath the surface of our gaze. The constant in all of them is the way they sound, a kind of sub-bureaucratic murmur delivered with only a shadow of human personality. Everybody is oh so nice on the surface, but in truth they’re all busy repressing, repressing, repressing. Listen closely and you can hear the throb of blood under each exchange; it’s no surprise when these people sometimes react like the apes of 2001 and panic over a noise in the night.

In the (increasingly rare) examinations of machismo and power-worship in our cinema, we’re more used to seeing the gristly, often lethal likes of criminals or renegade spies, but Kubrick understood the dangers posed by the Saint-Aubans and Dr. Floyds—the bland, un-extraordinary men who we must deal with every day. The Shining opens with a long job interview in which a rageaholic puts on his best face for an overworked hotel manager and his eagle-eyed security chief, and for perhaps ten minutes the three men sit and exchange banalities while looking like they want to tear each other’s throats out. The next time you’re on an elevator with two coworkers talking over a deadline, just listen to the sound of it and see if it doesn’t ring a bell.

First there was Chaplin. Then there was Keaton. Then there was this fool.

July 4, 2012

the beat generation

July 1, 2012

Back. Back in the city. Pleased to find my pizza place open at 2 a.m. That’s all.

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