Archive for October, 2012

You’re All Right, Jack

October 28, 2012

Excerpts from Nicholson’s commentary during that long shot near the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger, delivered in his flattest-sounding About Schmidt voice:

“Still one shot…Still one shot…The girl goes out…Still one shot…The police…Was that a gunshot?…Still one shot…Still one shot…[long silence]…Still one shot…[about three minutes after the camera has floated through the bars] How’d thecamera get through the bars?…Still one shot…Still one shot…There’s the window again…No, wait…That’s the other window…”

It fits the movie, though.

“A Hen in the Wind” (1948)

October 22, 2012

Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind isn’t as famous as some of his other stuff, but taken as poetry it’s one of his most perfect ones. The story’s a simple one: an impoverished young woman is waiting for her husband to come home from the war. She lives in a slum with their young son, and when the kid gets sick, her only way of raising money for his hospital bill is by working as a prostitute for a night. The kid recovers, the husband eventually comes home, and one day the occasion of his asking a simple question brings out the truth. The rest of the movie is about him reaching a place where he—and she, too, for that matter—can forgive her for what happened that night. A dark but mostly unstated masochism chews at both characters in the last half of the movie, and one of the things which makes A Hen in the Wind feel so real is the husband’s intellectual impulse to forgive his wife before his emotions are ready to let him do so. It’s just the kind of insight into human nature I wish today’s movies had more of.

There are three or four passages that are just mind-blowing. When Tokiko is coming to terms with the fact that she’s got to sell herself to get the money, Ozu expresses her mental journey by cross-cutting between close-ups of her looking into a mirror and then her reflection staring back at her/us, her face deepening with emotion on every cut. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a character’s reflecting on a matter be literalized this way or, for that matter, a scene knitted together from a single face reacting to itself.

In another scene the heartbroken husband spills his guts out to a friend. The two men are sitting in a bar, and across the street, just out of focus, is a dancehall whose windows are filled with couples slow-dancing. As the husband talks about his inability to let go of what his wife did, the blurry dancers—a vision of the licentiousness that he’s projecting onto her—seem to envelope his head like a swarm of slow-moving gnats. When he does finally come back down to earth, the couple comes together in a tight conciliatory clinch, and the camera closes in on the husband’s back as Tokiko’s hands wrap around it, her fingers meshing and then tilting ever so slightly upward, as if in prayer. (It brought to mind Fredo’s white-knuckled fingers digging into Michael’s back in The Godfather Part II.) And on a simpler, gut-punch level, Tokiko at one point takes such a hellacious head-first spill down a flight of stairs that it’s a wonder it didn’t kill the actress Kinuyo Tanaka.

All of this action is relieved by some of Ozu’s mesmerizing montages, this time of daily life in Tokyo’s industrial slums. A fleet 84 minutes, it’s up there with Passing Fancy, The Only Son, and my other favorites of his work.

Dreaming in Ozu

October 15, 2012

Clotheslines. Smokestacks. Sake bars. Alleyways. Parked bicycles. Movie posters. Embankments. Teakettles. Gas storage tanks. Coca-Cola signs. Folded legs. Farting. The color red. “Peace” cigarettes. Children marching off to school. Parents marching off to work. Clocks. Hallways. Drinking to excess. Western skirts. Bare lightbulbs.

But, most of all, trains. Lots and lots of trains.

a thing you think about when you don’t even have an ugly kid

October 13, 2012

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people who have beautiful daughters. Do they feel more paranoid for their offspring than parents of plainer looking girls do? Are there mother/daughter chats where Mom goes “Look, kid, you aren’t going to understand this just yet, but you need to be extra special careful out there”? Is there a moment, maybe over the breakfast table, when Dad looks up from his paper and suddenly really sees his kid for the first time, and thinks “Mother of God, what have I created here”? And what exactly do you do if you’re Marlene Dietrich’s father, other than try not to get run over?

All the Blues That’s Fit to Print

October 11, 2012

I’m at the point where, if the Republicans had a moderate candidate left in their ranks, I wouldn’t have that big a problem with Obama losing the election. A moderate Republican is less than a pipe-dream, of course, which leaves me with five reasons to hope for an Obama win—none of which are about the man per se.

1) As always, keeping the Supreme Court sane—or, more accurately, no more than 5/9ths insane.

2) Romney’s bullshit about being a businessman is perfect for Rotary meetings, less perfect for a country full of hurting people. Jack Donaghy is not the answer here.

3) Protecting Obamacare. Incomplete as it is, it’s a step in the right direction and, just as importantly, a step away from the wrong direction—i.e., doing nothing while people suffer. The one thing the right-wing has always feared, even more than a big Bill Clinton speech, is a massive government program which works so well that Americans come to expect it. With Romney in the White House, the GOP can de-nut Obamacare by 2014, but if they have to wait until 2016 to get at it, they’re going to have the dickens of a time explaining why millions of people are getting thrown off the rolls with nothing to take its place.

4) Not rewarding the racists, Birthers, Creationists, Randroids and other butt-picking Neanderthals on the one hand or the fingers-crossed lie-spewers (both amateur and professional) on the other for their open and utterly slimy efforts to derail a presidential administration amidst an epochal recession and a pair of wars. If the Democrats did something like that, it’d be easy to guess the exact names which these same sterling citizens would be hurling at them, and rightly so.

5) Not setting the bar for the presidency at so low a level that a man can say—literally—anything that comes to mind, and be elected. If Romney thought he could get votes by promising to wash every American’s dog next Saturday, he’d do that, and if it were expedient for him on Friday night to backtrack and insist that his promise was to wash our cats last Sunday, he’d do that, too. Obama tells his own whoppers, and I hate it just as much when that happens, but he does it rarely compared to Romney, who exhales lies like halitosis. You can’t even call Romney, who lacks both the flair and appeal of Father Coughlin, a demagogue. He’s just a salesman who jammed one foot in the door, and if Obama hadn’t brain-farted his way through the first debate we wouldn’t be having this chat. It’s only a matter of time before some bred-to-the-bone liar does win the White House, but can we please save that one until after I’m dead? I’d like to go to my grave not completely disillusioned with America.

Like I say, these are all Big Picture items that have zilch to do with Obama the man. If Don Knotts was president, I’d still be rooting for Fifecare.

The Incredible Shrinking Umberto D.

October 4, 2012

On January 20, 1952, Vittorio De Sica released his masterpiece Umberto D., and God saw that it was good. It still is. Something more than just another “great film”, it’s one of the loftiest peaks in Italian neorealism, the postwar film movement that tried to draw the shortest possible line between movies and everyday life. To this day, watching Umberto D. remains a full-body experience: what’s at stake for its unlikely protagonist is communicated in such clear and concrete terms that we come to register the minutest adjustments in his emotional coloring. But it’s the film’s conclusion, which manages to be both definitively devastating and hypnotically sphinx-like, that concerns me here.

For those who never saw the film, it’s about the retired civil servant Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a rented room in Rome not long after World War II—a terrible time and place to be alone in the world. Umberto’s station in life has been drifting downwards for some time, we are made to understand. When we meet him, his only friend is a naïve young housemaid who’s saddled with her own problems; he lags so far behind on his rent that his landlady allows hookers to turn tricks in his bed; and the one thing standing between him and a self-administered mercy killing is his constant companion, a personable but utterly dependent terrier named Flike, who’d be doomed without his master.

The film takes place over the handful of days in which Umberto loses his last toehold on life, and his final descent from have-not to have-nothing takes us into situations that we normally see only in nightmares. De Sica spells out in exacting detail just how much work it takes to be poor: whether he’s trying to sell an old watch that nobody wants to buy or scamming a bowlful of food from a soup kitchen for Flike, Umberto is constantly fighting just to reach the next moment in his existence. When at last he’s reduced to pauper status, he has to force himself to extend his hand for alms, making Umberto D. perhaps the only movie to notice how unnatural the act of begging is.

For the most part De Sica and the great Marxist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini successfully avoid sentimentalizing their baggage-laden hero. For starters, they present Umberto as something of an asshole: it’s implied that he’s partly responsible for his predicament, and he’s much better at asking for favors than he is at performing them. (Carlo Battisti, the linguistics professor whom De Sica chose for the part, projects the dour and hissy personality of an unlovable grandparent.) Likewise, De Sica doesn’t overplay the Flike card, mainly by refusing to acknowledge the canine point of view. In the one instance that he slips up—Flike flinches as a human would at the sight of another mutt being abused—we get a glimpse of the different, more ordinary movie that Umberto D. might have been.

Umberto D. observes the daily life of its characters with the intensity of a jeweler’s loupe. A famous scene, played out in something close to real time, merely watches the housemaid go through her morning routine; in one fragrant shot, still in bed and only half-awake, she watches a cat picking its way across the skylight above her head, in one of those mysterious, ineffably right moments of cinema. De Sica pulls so many of these details together that by the end we seem to be inside Umberto’s world; the critic André Bazin put it best when he said that Umberto D. “makes us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)”

Near the end of the film Umberto, now out of options, leaves his house for the last time, intent on finding a home for Flike—in effect, clearing the decks for his own suicide—but the world thwarts both this humble effort and, even more appallingly, his subsequent attempt to kill himself.

Now, anyone who’s sat through the film has to concede that man and dog will soon be dead—in a week perhaps, or perhaps in an hour—and yet if you didn’t know better, you’d think that master and pet don’t have a care in the world as they frolic along that pathway. Even the impact of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the most celebrated downers in the history of art, is cushioned by our knowledge that at the movie’s end Antonio Ricci still has a home, a wife, and his son’s undying love. Umberto, though, is left facing the abyss, and yet in that final shot he displays a vitality, even a joy, that’s visible in no other part of the movie. How can this be? Acceptance is a virtue, God knows, but when you’re on the bricks like Umberto is, acceptance and two-bits won’t even buy you bubble-gum. Umberto and Flike disappear from view, some rowdy schoolboys sail past the camera, and suddenly it’s time to get on with our lives again. But what exactly did we just see? I’ve discussed the subject with friends and read what wise men have to say on the matter, but the most satisfactory answer came from an entirely different movie.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man appeared in 1957, and to this day it remains my favorite ’50s sci-fi flick, largely because of its graceful, enlightened ending. Richard Matheson’s story stars another abrasive hero, Scott Carey, who is enveloped in a radioactive mist that causes his body to begin shrinking—first to laughably childish, and finally atomic, proportions. A lot of Shrinking Man’s entertainment value springs from its parade of Brobdingnagian props: straight-pins that double as spears, a mousetrap the size of a minivan, kitchen matches that look like saguaro cactuses. (One of the movie’s biggest jolts comes in a shot of Carey unexpectedly sitting in a chair that fits him, topped by our realization that he’s moved into a dollhouse.)

The earliest threats to Carey come from such common domestic sources—a sour-faced tabby cat, a burst water heater—that it’s like being terrorized by a ficus tree. The scenes in which he’s reduced to the size of a Ken doll and juxtaposed against his strapping, buxom wife discreetly pick at the male dread of impotence, but like Umberto D. it’s ultimately about what happens to a person when lonesomeness becomes a way of life, and Carey’s description of his existence as “a gray friendless area of space and time” could serve as a tagline for De Sica’s movie. It’s only after he’s vanquished a towering tarantula (it straddles the camera in repulsive close-up) that Carey recognizes a deeper enemy, and realizes that he’s already licked it.

“The infinitesimal and the infinite…this vast majesty of creation…to God there is no zero….” As Jack Benny would put it: Well. But while that language may be a little bit gamey, the typical 1950s sci-fi flick was so intent on easing the age’s anxieties that it felt it had done its job once it dropped an A-bomb on its mole men or leech women and blown them back to kingdom come. For Richard Matheson to actually think through the implications of his original idea was an act of artistic largesse, and the image of Carey stepping off into the cosmos with this micro/macro Möbius strip swirling around inside his head only made it that much more generous. Under a title bad enough to make us wither from sight, Matheson would later concoct a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man. In it Scott Carey’s wife begins to shrink, too, and joins him in his tiny adventures until, thanks to exactly the type of miracle which the first movie so forcibly rejected, both Careys return to their normal height and retake their place in the world. It’s as if Matheson had set out to prove that the best endings are the ones which open themselves outward to the largest possibilities.

The Incredible Shrinking Man came into the world five years after Umberto D., and in the decades since the two movies’ fortunes have done a dosey-do. Shrinking Man, an instant hit in ’57, was still playing in crowded theaters when I saw it three or four years later, whereas De Sica’s movie, coming at the tail-end of the neorealist cycle, was a notorious flop in Italy. The Minister of Culture, with one eye glued firmly to the wrong end of the telescope, accused it of national slander while the Italian Communist party rejected its pessimism. Today, of course, Umberto D. is one of cinema’s most hallowed titles while Shrinking Man barely rates as a cult movie.

Say what you will about The Incredible Shrinking Man, it helped me to appreciate Umberto D. on a level beyond trite miracles or easy despair. Once he’s regained Flike’s trust with that pinecone, Umberto has done everything that he needs to do in this world. His bags are packed. And like Scott Carey, he recedes into “the infinitesimal”, an invisible world in which the ties that bind man and beast can never be erased—a place where dogs and men bear the same sized souls, and there are no zeroes.

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