Sunday, December 18, 2011

Downfall post mortem

We're back in different cities but Tracy and I decided the banter format was too good to stop so we chatted today via Google chat. A little more controlled in that we took turns instead of talking over each other but, hopefully, still fun nonetheless.

Tracy:  Ready! Achtung, baby!
Natalie:  Ha!
Super! Merry Christmas, we have Nazis
Tracy:  Hee. It was quite harrowing, I thought.
Natalie:  Me, too. Sort of--this was my second viewing except I didn't pay a lot of attention during the first. J wanted to see it and I was in the room and looked up enough to see what was happening. So I'd seen the really harrowing parts already without paying attention. I don't know that paying attention added much . . .
Tracy:  I learned a lot. I didn't know much about the final days of the war in Berlin. And I liked it. Well, "liked" it, but I think it was another case of this movie coinciding with research interests I have--I'm interested in how communities/countries commemorate really awful things they've done, and I think this move was part of that ongoing project for Germany.
Natalie:  I was interested to see how it all ended for the bad guys--and this was the first film to depict Hitler as a fully-formed character rather than a caricature so that's hugely important--but, once again, I was daunted by the length of the film. Just a tad shorter and I might have been full in.
Tracy:  It was like the movie was trying to replicate AH's schizoid self. It was so strange and jarring to see what was going on in the bunker (the champagne, the suicides) and what was happening on the streets right above their heads. It made it long--I think they should have cut that one boy's story. I could have done without that. I liked the doctor bit, though. Also think it's interesting how they made AH a character--could have gone with Voldemort-esque embodiment of evil, but instead made him a shriveled, sick (body and mind) man. That's better and worse, somehow.
Natalie:  Absolutely. If they'd made AH a sort of stereotypical madman for the whole film, I would have lost interest immediately. That he has weaknesses beyond being absolutely out of his mind made him an actual person in a way I don't think any other piece of art has--I don't know about histories, non-fiction, etc. The bookends with Traudl made me want to watch the documentary the director made first, though. I loved her line about realizing being young wasn't an excuse, that one could have found things out.
Tracy:  Yes! I wasn't on board with that framing device until that moment. I thought we were only going to get this marginalized perspective--what she saw--but then we saw things she didn't witness, and I was like "why did we focus on her at all?" But it was huge payoff at the end.
I also learned that if freaking Goebbels is looking at you like you're out of your mind, you're seriously in trouble.
Natalie:  Ha! If Goebbels is the warning device, I think you're seriously in trouble, anyway. I can't find the name of that documentary which is going to drive me insane. But, do you think making Hitler a person instead of just a wacko made an impact? Because, the only thing that has made the rounds that I've seen from the film is the meme where he's freaking the fuck out; just being a wacko.
So, that seems to be the immediate cultural impact at least.
Tracy:  I agree. I think that's the only thing people have taken away from it. To me, it seems a bit like whistling through the graveyard. It's even scarier, to me, that he was just a person, and that people are capable of this unspeakable evil--anyone is. So if we just look at the wacko, we don't have to think about that part. And also, that people are capable of falling under a charismatic person's sway to the extent that they will EXECUTE THEIR CHILDREN.
Natalie:  Yes! The two scenes with the kids being given drugs are chilling. And to see her swat away her husband as she has to drop to the floor after she's killed them was a glimpse at her maternal instinct but two seconds later, she's straight backed and getting ready to be shot by her husband for the cause. And, I agree, him being a person and having the capacity to be nice to people makes the atrocities that much harder to handle. If he's not a boogie-man, someone else could be just like him. The documentary is Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, not by the same director which is why I couldn't find it. On my queue now . . . so I'll wonder why it's there when I haven't watched it in a year.
Tracy:  Hehehehe. We'll have to do a follow-up post. Two questions that I wanted to hear your thoughts on:
1) This reminded me of the "good Nazi" movie phenomenon, particularly Viggo's "Good." Do you think it was handled well? Thinking of the doctor here.
2) Do you think the U.S. has a movie that similarly confronts our past in a way as unblinking? Where's our slavery movie, in other words?
Natalie:  1. I've not seen "Good" so I don't know about that. I think this movie did a just fine job of presenting "good Nazis" and trying to delve into why they might have been involved with the movement (back to Traudl's comment there) and how they might be good people caught up in a bad situation or good people in other ways but with this one flaw (that is huge). If any more had been done, I don't know that audiences would have swallowed it. It would have been too much a fairy tale. We're already trying to show a monster as a human being who is kind enough to start dictation over when the new secretary can't keep up.
2. No.
We like to blink. A lot. As in, close our eyes and wait until we can just make the bad guy a monster under the bed and be done with it.
Tracy:  Hah! Yeah, I agree. "Good" is more about the birth of the party, so it might not have worked as well anyway. I just find it constantly interesting that Berlin has kept some of its city in rubble so its citizens never forget, and all we've got is "Glory" and "Beloved" and some freaking plaques. So do you think it's 1001 worthy?
Natalie:  Absolutely. Even with more current events, we clean up the mess and make sure to move on in a happy, shiny fashion. Ground Zero for a glaring example. That also ties back to your question--we don't have a film with a "good" terrorist, particularly a "good" Muslim terrorist. We don't have a film with a Muslim terrorist as a main character. DeLillo was slammed for having a 9/11 terrorist as a main character in Falling Man and whosit didn't get far with his terrorist book either--Amis? Can't remember. People get beyond angry when the bad guy might be human here. Is it 1001 worthy? Sure. Because it's important to understand that these aren't Disney villains. We're not dealing with Maleficent who will stay on the celluloid. Some poor woman could birth another Hitler and, for the whole repeat history cliche, we need to face the humanity of evil in our world(s). Would I recommend anyone watch it? Probably not unless that person was really interested in the subject matter. Or I had a captive audience of students.
Tracy:  First of all--you're absolutely right about the way we "commemorate" in this country. Was it Updike who tried to have a terrorist main character? And I think Amis did too, yes. And remember how Maher basically lost his show when he dared parse the word "brave"? And I think it's 1001 worthy for sure. Not only does it tell you stuff, I think it's pretty successful cinematically. I loved how claustrophobic it felt--and I think the book talks about the interesting ways AH is framed. It also seemed to make an argument about how if your cult of personality dude is insane and suicidal, your overall culture becomes insane and suicidal too.
 Tracy:  There were a freaking LOT of suicides.
Natalie:  Yes--Updike was who I was thinking of but Amis did it, too. Maher had a good point. We've talked about the word "hero" before and the problems with how it's used. We could advance quite a bit (in a lot of ways) if we (as a country, not me and you) could complicate our language about good and bad. The soldier is not always a hero and the terrorist is not always evil; both could be called brave in certain ways. We make fighting wars very black and white when they're not at all. And the country does the same thing with any sort of "villain" from terrorists to Michael Jackson's doctor. But, yes yes and yes to your 1001 reasons.
There WERE a lot of suicides. Traudl was one of the only actually brave ones to try to get out.
Tracy:  I've got 1001 reasons and the bitch ain't one.
Natalie:  Ha!
Tracy:  Couldn't resist--so we're on board with Downfall. Next . . . Sombre! More death and doom!
Natalie:  So, Sombre was on the old list so we'll see if we think it should have been axed
Tracy:  So to speak!
Natalie:  J

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sombre (1998)

And . . . . we're back in France. Will we continue the streak started with Va, Vis, et Deviens, in which a French film was compelling, relevant, and entertaining? Or will we return to the world of The Butcher, where a promising plot is rendered excruciatingly dull? Sombre certainly has an intriguing premise, more than a little reminiscent of The Butcher. The film centers on a serial killer (good) who follows the Tour de France (interesting) murdering prostitutes (naturally), and meets up with a girl who falls in love with him (??!!). The movie got some festival attention, but didn't make a splash with any of the big boys (Cannes, Venice, Sundance, etc.). I again, am hopeful. At the very least, we'll get to see some beautiful shots of the French countryside, right? Please?

Downfall (2004)

This nominee for best Foreign Language Film chronicles Hitler's last ten days. You know, when he was in that bunker. The film details the Fuhrer's increasing psychopathology and paranoia, as he refuses to surrender to the Allies even though everyone realizes the war has been lost, and eventually proves willing to sacrifice his own people in order to "win." It got rather bloody in that bunker towards the end, and I'm anticipating this film is going to be pretty intense. Though I have not yet seen it, I have seen the infamous tantrum scene, mainly because it spawned a slew of Internet parodies. The film is notable because it features Hitler as a speaking role and fully formed character--one of the last remaining taboos in German cinema about World War 2. I have to admit, I'm intrigued.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Hurt Locker post morterm

t: Better than Avatar?
N: Yes, better than Avatar. Like leaps and bounds.
t: If it had to be this or Avatar, I'm very happy this won.
N: But we had lots of other options to win that Oscar.
t: I think Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man were better, in terms of being a movie that succeeds as a movie.
N: I have trouble with the ending of A Serious Man, but I have trouble with the endings of lots of movies. I definitely like IB better, it succeeds even as a war movie almost better than this one.
t: But this isn't Oscars, this is movies you should see before you die, and I'm pretty sure Up and A Serious man and IB are all in the new edition anyway. But in terms of this movie, yes, I think it belongs in there, even though I had huge issues with one whole section where for me, the character of Will completely goes off the rails and goes rogue and it is a failure and a betrayal of what they've taught us to know about him. I think that he's supposed to be the perfect soldier, he's a machine that's built for war, and him going AWOL and trying to chase down the people who tried to kill that kid and trying to narrativize that bomb and run wily-nily into the city is ridiculous and almost sinks the movie.
N: And doesn't work with his character and doesn't do anything for the movie . . .
t: Except turn it into a generic action movie, which up to this point, I was its best advocate! I was like it's trying to be an action movie, but it's going to frustrate all our expectations, he's an action hero, he's going to have that cocky, devil-may-care attitude that we like, but it's going to show how that makes him an insulated man in that suit, he's completely shut off from everything and everyone and that's what it costs to be that kind of hero, to be that kind of man. And then it doesn't even let me make that argument because of the stupid middle section where it turns into a shoot-em-up vigilante movie.
N: Yes.
t: For like twenty, twenty-five minutes, and then it goes back to being sort of interesting.
N: Right. And the more interesting parts are actually the most boring parts of the narrative.
t: Yes!
N: It's the quieter, we've-got-to-diffuse-this-bomb and we're actually going to spend two minutes . . .
t: Real time!
N: Real time . . . talking about how we're going to get this done and we only have two minutes to do that. At least the first time I saw it that built up tension and anxiety and the second time . . .
t: I think so too. We know which bombs are going to go off and which aren't.
N: Right. So it's not good for re-watching, I don't think, I wasn't tense at all.
t: No, just because I couldn't remember when that first one went off . . . I couldn't remember when Guy Pearce gets blown up . .
N: Right.
t: I was a little tense there, but other than that, yeah, we know, very methodically, he does what he does. I think there's a certain beauty. . . . I think the movie thinks there's a certain beauty in what he does and the movie tries to figure that out.
N: Yes. And he has to be so precise and the image of wars that we get so often are the average everyday soldiers who aren't dealing with this sort of thing, calling and saying "hey Jeremy Renner, you need to come diffuse this bomb."
t: Right.
N: They don't have to be this methodical; house raids aren't like this.
t: Nooo, nooo.
N: Shoot-outs are not like this. This is a very quiet, almost boring side of war, but the most intense and the most dangerous. He's gotta be on top of a bomb that could blow him to hell at any minute.
t: And he's very, very good at it.
N: Yes.
t: And I think that the other part that's sort of interesting . . . usually whenever they're talking, I'm usually like "Oh God, stop . . ."
N: Yes.
t: Because it's so cliche: "I want a SON."
N: "I want a SON."
t: When they find his box of bombs, which you pointed out is like a serial killer's souvineers, which I'd never thought about.
N: Yes, it is.
t: But that's true, you need to be a bomber to be a bomb diffuser, you have to have that kind of mentality, to know how something goes together in order to know how to take it apart.
N: He has to be able to build one.
t: And I think that's really interesting! I think that's a good point. It's something I hadn't thought about.
N: Yeah.
t: The only other bomb diffuser I've ever seen is in The English Patient. What's-his-name is a bomb diffuser.
N: Yeah.
t: And he also has to . . . and for him I think he's more like an artist. You know, it's a different representation of this kind of character. It's a very different kind of war, too.
N: Yes.
t: Um, but yeah. There are parts of it I like, like I was saying, in theory, very much. When I think back on what we just saw, I love that you have this robot and this man who turns himself into a robot. And what does that do to him, to his capacity to interact with other soldiers, his capacity to have this son, that Mackie wants so badly, and he can't even, "I don't even think about it." You know, all he can think about is getting . . . the problem in front of him.
N: Yes, diffusing the bomb. He takes his ears off a lot during the movie because he can't hear people.  He can't deal with other people.
t: And I think it's kind of genius that they're called ears. He dismantles his body. His body is moving parts. It's an interesting companion to Hugo, the metaphysics of Hugo, that we're all machines and that's beautiful, that makes us human, that connects us? And this is, if you are a machine . . . the more traditional view I would think, you're completely alienated . . .
N: The less human you are.
t: . . . from everything even though you can work really well. I think it's interesting what that argument is. We can actually look to see what this book says about it. If it captures the Iraq War in a way that seemed to be more successful, because all the other Iraq War movies seemed to fail in some way, they couldn't capture an audience. But this one doesn't seem to be really about. . . .
N: Noooo.
t: At least the political implications of the conflict.
N: Right. This one seems pretty apolitical. And I think in a certain way apolitical Iraq War movies have the same problem as 9/11 movies . . . they're either too much, they're not enough, they're not on the right side.
t: Right.
N: And that's a problem of audience, not of art.
t: Yeah, I agree. This is hard.
[tracy cannot work the index to the book. Looooong pause. Natalie explains how the book works. tracy reads the book's essay. It connects it to the "good war" sentiment, which tracy disagrees with.]
t: This is so tight in focus; it couldn't have happened in any other conflict, just because of the nature of the combat.
N: No, not even the first Iraq War. It's very specific to this war, this situation.
t: But I don't think it's trying tap into the sentiment of the "good war." I think it could care less whether it's a good war or a bad war.
N: No, it's about diffusing bombs. It's not about the war as a whole.
[More reading of the essay. Bigelow is first female director to win Best Director.]
N: Which is why I think this is in the book. Not for any . . .
[t reading essay: Bigelow's fascination with violence . . . "steady hand of screenwriter Mark Boal"]
t: I hated the script.
[t resumes reading essay: Film focuses on character, avoids politics, episodic, nature of the warrior rather than nature of the war.]
t: I agree with that paragraph. I think it negates the first paragraph.
N: It's definitely the nature of the warrIOR to the exclusion of the nature of the war in this situation.
t: Exactly.
[t resumes reading essay. Talks about soldiers being better suited to war than peacetime.]
t: I don't agree with the plural. None of the other soldiers seem to be like Renner.
N: No that's the point. He's different. He's shaking things up. The other guy didn't cause problems, he didn't take off his ears, he didn't do reckless things. He didn't go off the reservation, quite literally.
t: Right! One's traumatized to the point of paralysis, and the other one, Mackie, is doing the best he can.
N: Yeah, he's doing the best he can, he's following the rules, he just wants everybody else to follow the rules.
t: Yeah, he's trying to protect people, but Renner is the only one who's this complete addictive compulsive guy, and I don't think he cares about heroics, I just think he cares about doing the job. Anyway.
[t resumes reading the essay. Essay says Renner is ably supported by the other actors, including Guy Pearce. t pauses for snark. The essay concludes with a bullshit line about how "fun" the men of war can really be.]
N: THEY'RE NOT FUN AT ALL. Jeremy Renner is not fun at all.
t: He's a nightmare! He's a disaster.
N: I mean, Sanborn is friggin' stressed out for 99% of the movie because of Jeremy Renner!
t: I know, they don't all love him, there's not all this buddy-buddy camaraderie.
N: I mean, how many times does Sanborn try to talk and say "Where are his ears? Is he wearing his ears? Hey, do you hear me? Hello?"
t: It's funny his name is William James, although I don't think that's thought through at all. William James is at his best when he's in that combat situation with Ralph Fiennes, when he talks the kid though the situation.
N: Yes.
t: And poor Mackie is trying to have an honest conversation at the end, and just be like, I'm scared, I don't want to die, and all he can be like is you're fine, bro, no problem amigo, he talks in absolute cliche.
N: There's no danger, so there is no ability to get him through the situation. James can only operate if he is about to die, if he is in an actual situation where he can be physically blown to bits, then he can operate. That's when his head is straight. When he's not in that situation, he can't operate at all, he comes up with hare-brained schemes, it doesn't work.
t: So I think the book is off, for all sorts of reasons.
N: In terms of talking about the book, too, Up is not in the book, IB is, A Serious Man is not, District 9 is.
t: Well.
N: Up is a serious problem, that it's not in the book, but that's just me, maybe.
[t audibly distraught.]
N: But that's not this discussion.
t: So. Yeah. For me and my personal research interests, it gives me a lot of hay to make because I like stuff about the body. I like stuff about masculinity. I like stuff about trauma. And this makes arguments about those things. As a movie, I think it's got big flaws.
N: Yes.
t: But I do think it tries to be of its moment, I think it's ambitious. So, it's not as good as I remembered, but I still like talking about it, but like we were saying, I think it's a personal thing.
N: It's a personal thing. I may like it less because I dislike war movies and because of my former research interests. It's in essence a 9/11 movie. This movie doesn't exist without 9/11 and talking about 9/11 of course, and there are huge problems with 9/11 movies and Iraq War movies, and I don't know if any are wholly successful. I can't think of one good, I-don't-have-major-problems-with-it 9/11 movie or Iraq War movie, even if you get down into the indie movies that nobody saw or liked.
t: The 9/11 movies I like the best are very tangential. I'm thinking of 25th Hour where there's a scene, they're having this conversation over Ground Zero, his apartment window . . . it's never mentioned but it's a presence.
N: So it's either a post-9/11 thing, where we're not actually going to talk about it, but we're going to show that it happened, but if you have 9/11 as a central pivot point, or the Iraq War, as a central concern, the movies tend to not work. As a whole.
t: Yeah! I think the movie as the book said, and we were talking about is, it needs to be the Iraq War but on the other hand it doesn't. It's about warriors instead of about war. It's about this particular warrior. And violence.
N: It's absolutely about violence.
t: And I guess, I've just seen a couple about Katherine Bigelow movies but she's very interested in violence and the nature of violence and how violence intersects with people.
N: Which is . . . and let me go on a complete different tangent when we were talking about Pearl Harbor movies, and there aren't really that many, there are only a handful of Pearl Harbor movies. And I would say, I haven't seen Tora Tora Tora, but the other one.
t: From Here to Eternity?
N: From Here to Eternity works as a whole but when we get down to other movies we've got WWI and II, we've got tons of movies that work as a whole about those wars. We've got movies about Vietnam. We don't have first Iraq situation movies that work
t: Have you seen Three Kings?
N: No.
t: I like Three Kings. But again, it's not really a war movie, but it's a movie that is saturated in the first Iraq War.
N: But for some reason certain wars don't seem to work as well cinematically, or we're still too . . . we shouldn't still be too close to Pearl Harbor.
t: No, but you know, WWII, follows a
N: narrative
t: You know, it follows a narrative that lends itself well to a traditional kind of war movie. Which is why I think Inglourious Basterds is so interesting.
N: But then we should be able to switch if we're.
t: Where's the successful Korea movie?
N: Where's the successful Korea movie? There should be a point at which film can transition the way literature did and move into postmodernity and move into, okay, we can't work with a war that has a narrative, that's modernist, we can't do that anymore, so how can we consider these wars in a postmodern sense, and actually be able to put them on film in a way that is successful as a whole movie as opposed to "the first part is good, the last part is good, the middle part is kind of a disaster, or the movie's a failure, or we're going to only kind of mention there's a war going on and the whole movie isn't going to be about that."
t: Yeah, I think almost the expectations of the genre and the business of moviemaking is that you try and sell: okay, this is a war movie, people go to the theatre expecting a certain sort of war movie and a postmodern movie isn't going to give them that.
N: Right. But we've had 60 years to transition the genre and it doesn't seem like anybody is doing that. We're still working with very traditional sorts of war movies. I mean, this is, in a sense, a very traditional sort of war movie. We're focusing in on one guy, and his life. The Woody Harrelson movie where he is . . .
t: The Messenger
N: Very traditional where guys are coming home, informing family members  of deaths. Very specific in terms of home, but we're not dealing with the war, but we seem to be stuck in traditional war movies as opposed to moving the genre forward to fit with the type of warfare that we now have.
t: I think Inglourious Basterds does it, but doesn't do it with a modern war.
N: Right.
t: If there's a movie that says war is text, it's Inglourious Basterds. And there are people who I know, who I've discussed IB with, who are very upset by that. Because I guess the idea of it cheapens it somehow.
N: Yeah, and that's the whole argument against any 9/11 texts of any variety and Iraq War texts, that you're not taking it seriously, that you're not making these guys heroes, that yeah, they can't have any problems whatsover because they're saving our asses on a daily basis. They're the ones who give us our freedom despite the fact that we have a Constitution that did that first. So we can't disparage them, or show that they have flaws, or show that they fuck up, or show that they don't know what they're doing at any point because they're over there and we're not.
t: And as much as I hate to admit it, the movies that I think about that do that not structurally but do that in certain instances are movies that I didn't like that much. Like Jarhead. That's what Jarhead does: says these guys are a bunch of fuck-ups, they don't want to be here, they're not heroes, they don't want to be considered heroes, and they sit around jerking off all day. And In the Valley of Elah does the same thing.
N: Whatever. That's a terrible movie.
t: But it ends up saying that look, we did this horrible thing, and he has to put together the video . . .
N: [skeptically] Yeah . . .
t: He wasn't a hero, you know, but I don't think the movies were good in other ways, for other reasons.
N: That's Haggis, right? Yeah.
t: And I didn't like it, but that is what, you know, it ended up saying.
N: Yeah.
t: That these horrible atrocities are happening and people are papering them over because of that hero mythology that is so powerful. So I don't know, I mean. I don't think . . . it seems there are all these gestures toward it . . . there are these moments when we say Renner is an asshole. We hate this guy. But there are other moments where it's kind of cool that he takes out his ears. There's something in me that responds to that, like oh, he's badass. So it's hard to sustain?
N: Yeah, it seems that this is the closest to showing that sometimes soldiers aren't quite you know, just following protocol and doing what they're supposed to be doing. We're not in the Revolutionary War. We're not in lines shooting people. Yeah.
t: I would keep it in. But it has a lot more problems than I ever let myself remember. Because when I was thinking about it, I had completely forgotten about the middle section, and then when it started again I remembered I had this huge problem with it.
N: Yeah.
t: And I had completely forgotten about that part.
N: I think the movie's success is that we remember it as that tension filled moment to moment "is he going to blow up and die at any minute now"? Because at first viewing at least . . . I mean other people might feel the tension at other viewings, but I didn't. But at first viewing I did feel that tension. You didn't know what was going to happen. This seems like the sort of movie where Renner could blow up at minute 20 and we have a new bomb diffuser.
t: Yes, it does.
N: So, it at least accomplishes that and leaves the viewer with tension and a successful feeling. I think that's probably at least what it was trying to do, so we forget about the middle part which was failing. So at least it covers up its failures!
t: A lot of movies don't manage to do that.
N: Yeah, it's like "here's our failure!" I'd keep it in. I like Go, See, Become better. It's a more interesting viewing experience for me. And I think a second viewing would be as interesting as the first. But I'd keep HL in. It's important for a lot of reasons. The subject matter, seeing him diffuse a bomb: I don't think we get many other places, if any, where we talk about these bomb diffusers. And Katherine Bigelow won an Oscar. It's an important moment in film history.
t: Yeah, somebody had to do it. It's interesting we give the first Oscar to the woman for the war movie.
N: For the war movie.
t: And there's one woman in the movie, for five seconds?
N: Five seconds. Well we get the family at the beginning, the one woman he chases with the gun, when he goes off the base.
t: Which is my own problem, right? I completely forgot about the Iraqis. And I think this movie . . .
N: Yeah, it doesn't want you to remember the Iraqis.
t: The Iraqis are wallpaper.
N: That's it. Because the one Iraqi with the bomb . . . you're concerned about the bomb, not the Iraqi.
t: Yeah. But there are those female characters.
N: But they're useless, they don't have to be there. You could see him in the grocery store and never see that woman.
t: Yeah . . . and it would still be . . .
N: They could cut that grocery store scene down to just those cereal boxes.
t: That's all the movie wants you to see: Oooh! Mass consumerism!
N: And that he can't decide. He doesn't know what kind of cereal his kid eats, he can't choose between them. They are not bomb wires, he doesn't know what do with them.
t: It would be like me in front of a bomb wire.
N: Yes! I don't know what to do with this! Except cereal isn't going to blow you up. Okay: consensus! Keep it! Except also keep Go, See, Become and The Big Lebowski.
t: Exactly.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Go, See, and Become / Live and Become / Va, Vis et Deviens post-mortem

Another live chat transcript!

To summarize: This film traces twenty-ish years in the life of a young Ethiopian immigrant to Israel whose mother insists he pose as a Jewish boy in order to escape a Sudanese refugee camp. He is adopted by an Israeli family, and combats racial and religious discrimination as he grows up.

t: So it wasn't boring.
N: No. Two thumbs up for the first French movie we've seen that isn't boring. I'm not asleep.
t: I think it sort of fell apart in the last third.
N: Yes, they tried to cram much too much. We had potential war, potential army service abroad, going abroad, going to school, becoming a husband, becoming a father, coming clean to everyone in his life, going to Ethiopia, and finding his mother. Not that I wanted it to be another hour long . . .
t: So should we recap it a bit? I have to admit, I didn't know anything about "Operation Moses," Ethiopian Jews, any of it.
N: Or the extent of the persecution of Ethiopians who might have been posing as Jews, or not.
t: So for that reason I think it's an important movie.
N: Yes. Especially for American audiences, giving us information we wouldn't have known. And like we said it ended badly, it started slowly . . . giving us information in a voice-over. I thought it would have been better to give that information through the film. We don't get the story of how Schlomo got to the camp until two hours in with his voice . . . and I think it would have been fine to cut the voice-over at the beginning. It works better as he tells his own story to get the information as he reveals it to the other characters rather than in a documentary-style opening.
t: I thought the youngest kid was the most appealing. I like all his rage and shame. I think that as he got older, the film got a lot more story-driven rather than character driven. Like you said, we have to get him to the kibbutz, to medical school, married, a father, etc. It didn't feel as emotionally resonant.
N: Yeah, and the kid was such a good actor. He was screwing up his face and responding to people in the school trying to force-feed him, handle him, etc. As he got older, the trauma is more removed, more subtle. It's purely psychological rather than a physical attack.
t: As he gets older, the abuse oddly gets less racialized. The attack from the prostitute's family is not specific to his race or religion.
N: Yeah, but it mirrors the attack on his brother (from the camp)--which was needed because it acted as a catharsis for him to be truthful, and to face his own truth.
t: And I found it interesting at the beginning that he was trying to tell the truth about his lack of Jewishness, and no one was able to hear him.
N: Yeah, the cop is the best example. Which is reassuring, but at the same time totally frustrating. They're not hearing him that he's not actually Jewish. Which I think is the big question of the whole film. What does it mean to be Jewish?
t: Yeah. Because he does the practice. He learns the language. He learns the Torah. Do you think it has something to do with matrilineal inheritance? That because Jewishness is traced through the mother, accepting a Jewish identity would be to deny his Ethiopian mother? There's a lot going on with mothers in this movie.
N: It's an interesting nature vs. nurture question. He's had three mothers.
t: All fierce, I might add.
N: To respond to what Jonathan said about The Big Lebowski, this movie is good for women, of all religions. We've got the first mother, making the ultimate sacrifice anyone can make, to give up someone in order to save that person. She has no more family. And she's in a place where she would likely die. Even though the film stretched it and made her live.
t: Spoiler alert.
N: Which isn't a huge surprise.
t: Yeah, because to me, the movie got really sentimental towards the end. And we need to talk about the Sarah problem.
N: Sarah needed two to three extra scenes in which she was likable before they got married. Because otherwise before they got married, we saw her ten seconds before he proposes, and then the last scene we get her in, she's saying you went overseas because you were jealous and didn't want to see me fall in love and have someone else's babies. Which is a problem.
t: And I thought until Yael said to marry her that she was just using him because her father disapproved.
N: That part did not work. If they put in a few scenes where we get her actually starting to be honest with him and acting like she likes him as opposed to using him or just dating him because he's black and he's a novelty . . .
t: It almost makes me feel like this was based on some source material that they cut a ton out of.
[We check the Internet for information]
N: According to IMDB, there's no source material. And he spent A LOT of time in Paris in the last third. At least eight years.
t: So do we think it needs to be seen before death?
N: Sure.
t: Why?
N: I didn't know any of that information, and it was a compelling story in spite of the problems. And it seems to be a problem that world citizens should be aware of . . . those concerned with humanitarian acts, and all. Are there still Ethiopian camps going on?
t: Are there still Ethiopian Jews being airlifted to Israel? And for me the question is do we need a movie? What about it is cinematically necessary? Is this information that we couldn't get from any other source? I agree that this is a historical/social event that needs to be known, but why a movie? I'm wondering what this movie gives us that couldn't be accomplished in a 20-30 page profile in the New Yorker.
N: I think that they got in too deep at the end. But I think it humanizes it in a way that a magazine article couldn't. Maybe they should have just told the story of his life as a boy. I don't know how they could have wrapped it up. But maybe a novel could have done it?
t: Yeah. I enjoyed the movie definitely. But . . . it's the last third that fails as a movie if not as a cultural document.
N: Does the last third ruin the entire movie?
t: It doesn't ruin it, but it makes me question its place on this list. Just like the justification for The Big Lebowski's justification is it's a cult movie, my problem with this is that it it's only on this list because it's historical information we nee dto know.
N: Well, let's compare it to Hurt Locker. Is the only thing about Hurt Locker is that it gives us information about this war, these men who disable bombs, that we need to know that this movie helps expose?

And here is where it would be helpful to have recorded our conversation with an audio or video device of some sort . . . we started talking too quickly and being too interested in the conversation to record a transcript. Sorry! Basically, we started debating what a movie needs to do--does a movie need only give us information, does it need to be brilliant the whole way through, etc.--and what makes a movie "good" and worthy of the list. We came to the conclusion that, between Hurt Locker and Go, See, and Become, it may be only a matter of personal preference and what one is able to forgive more easily in terms of cinematic flaws. Natalie tends to dislike war movies and likes coming of age stories whereas Tracy is more apt to like an interesting look at masculinity so Natalie prefers Go, See, and Become whereas Tracy *may* prefer Hurt Locker (Tracy wants to re-watch before making that concrete). Ultimately, we talked about how the movies are doing similar things and both are about diffusing a literal or figurative bomb, and what that constant diffusing does to a person. And, we came to the conclusion that we'd rather take off four-ish Buster Keaton films rather than get rid of any of this little triumvirate; there is a place for all three of these films whereas some of the films that have made it all three versions could be edited out. Perhaps we'll set a thing to record audio after we watch hurt Locker when this conversation is liable to continue.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Big Lebowski post-mortem

We're both in the same place at the same time with movies in hand for a few days so what follows is a transcript of our conversation post-movie-viewing, run-on sentences and all.

t: What did you think?
N: I don't know. . .
t: I mean, it definitely makes me laugh in parts. It's not my favorite Coen Bros--I don't get it as a movie. I don't understand the surrealist parts.
N: I mean the kind of "could be a porn" sections with Julianne Moore sort of make sense to me because he's obviously been drugged or beat over the head at the porn guy's house, I understand the strange red guys with the scissors as a castration. But I don't know which writer's fetish that is.
t: I guess it makes sense . . .
N: But it doesn't fit. There's no surrealist tie to the rest of the movie. There's blah blah blah bowling, kidnapping plot, the SURREALISM. In NEON!
N: I do understand why my dad likes it though, and wanted me to see it.
t: Why?
N: The music. The slacker guy, who's compelling and funny. John Goodman's hilarious.
t: Yeah. My dad likes it too. But when we talk about it, we never talk about the larger Lebowksi plot, we talk about what Goodman says, what the Dude says.
N: That makes sense.
t: We say nice marmot a lot.
N: Was that even a marmot? I think it was a ferret.
t: So this is very much an L.A. movie that tries to tie that mythos in with the Western mythos through Sam Elliot. Do you think that works?
N: I like the idea of Sam Elliot, but if they were going to do it, I wish he were more. I also think they tried to make noir a stoner movie.
t: Yeah, it's a weird hybrid.
N: VERY weird. An L.A. noir/stoner/Western/buddy flick.
t: And yeah. I think if you were going to see it, it would be for that reason: to try to meld an L.A. movie into a Western, since it obviously is the West, but I'm not sure it works.
N: Yeah, and the Western does not work for me. Only Sam Elliot and the weird tumbleweeds at the start, which made me think "there are no fucking tumbleweeds in L.A. . . except maybe this week." And by the time Sam Elliot showed up on screen, I had forgotten about the tumbleweeds at the start.
t: And they seem to be trying to reimagine the hero of both genres--except instead of John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, we have The Dude--big, fat, stoned Jeff Bridges. Though he does seem to make everything right and is the moral compass even though he's passive.
N: Yeah, he tells John Goodman when to calm down, he cares more about Donnie. He cares about the girl.
t: "They're going to kill that poor woman."
N: Yeah . . . though I don't want Jeff Bridges to come save me if I've been kidnapped. Jeff Bridges in True Grit, yes, but not Jeff Bridges in that movie.
N: And I guess, depending on what rules of the book we're playing with . . . we had to watch High Sierra because it was Bogart's first big role, and this seems to be Bridges's comeback. And for that reason it's fine. I like Jeff Bridges a lot.
t: And this is the first role where he really seems to come into himself as an actor and be comfortable in his own skin. They tried to make him a romantic hero in movies like the Fabulous Baker Boys and The Mirror Has Two Faces, but there is no Crazy Heart without this movie.
N: And there is no True Grit without this movie. And this seems to be a grown-up stoner movie. You don't have to be Cheech and Chong. You don't have to be Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused. You can be semi-functional with adult concerns.
t: So so far, without watching the next two, do you think it has a place?
N: I don't dislike it. But . . . I don't know that it needs to be on the list any more than any other stoner movie. Even though they're playing with genres, that's the feel I get from it. Without it, you don't get Pineapple Express.
t: Which I'm fine with.
N: I like PE, but I don't know I need to see it before I die.
t: And if we're doing a Coen Bros auteur thing, I would see A Serious Man instead. If you want to see  hapless losers in over their head, see Raising Arizona. See O Brother. I think all of them are better.
N: And I think we're going to get into the cult argument. We're in the Pink Flamingoes trap. Lots of people have seen this. Now next time my dad brings up The Big Lebowski. I can say "Yes! I've seen it."
t: You're right.
N: Though if we're in the Pink Flamingoes trap, I'd MUCH rather it be taken off. I'm not going to talk about that with my dad.
t: No kidding.
N: So, would you keep it?
t: I find your cult argument persuasive. I mean, there are conferences about it. It's SO in the pop culture lexicon now, I think that's a reason to see it.
N: If we're putting it up against Go See Become (which we haven't seen yet) or Hurt Locker, I'd keep Hurt Locker.
t: Me too.
N: And I'm not super in love with Hurt Locker.
t: Me either.
N: But it's of more value, I think. The commentary is more valuable. Not just because it's more serious, but because in connection with TBL, it talks about war, and TBL makes specific commentary about war.
t: How do you see that working? The hero thing?
N: Specific commentary in who the heroes of war are. Not the 50s version of the guy coming home with the June Cleaver house. We've clearly got some PTSD, some anger issues, some failure to reintegrate into society.
t: And it's interesting that the villains are buffoonish, and they're nihilists. They believe in nothing.
N: Yeah, and they've done nothing. They've kidnapped no one. They've stolen nothing. They've beaten up people here and there, but so did Julianne Moore.
t: But ultimately, I don't think the movie is super interested in making that kind of commentary.
N: No, it just seems to want to show a shell-shocked 'Nam vet going off now and then.
t: Time for soup?
N: I think so.

Stay tuned for Go, See, Become, which is the addition from the 2008 edition!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Hurt Locker (2009)

Film fans everywhere will always be grateful to The Hurt Locker for being released in the same awards season as Avatar, and thereby preventing it and James Cameron from winning Best Director and Best Picture in the 82nd Academy Awards. The twenty-first century already had the Crash debacle on its hands, so we all breathed a sigh of relief when Kathryn Bigelow's name got called. The film also has the distinction of being one of the few cinematic treatments of the Iraq War that seems to work. Though I feel it slipped a bit into melodrama and cliche towards the end, Jeremy Renner's performance is chillingly perfect, and the tension the film achieves with the bomb-defusing scenes is the perfect blend of action and political commentary. Also, the title? Genius.

Va, Vis, et Deviens (2005)

Alternately translated as Live and Become and (the more accurate, at least as it seems to my woeful French) Go, See, and Become, this 2005 film was an award-winning festival darling. But let's focus on what's important here--it's *French.* As Nat and I have often discussed, the French seem to have a knack for making even the most interesting premises (serial killer in small town romances schoolteacher, rich man holds possibly-lesbian girlfriend hostage) stone-cold boring. So let's see if they keep up their streak by taking the story of an Ethiopian Christian kid who poses as an Ethiopian Jewish kid in order to escape his homeland and emigrate to Israel and making it an utter snooze.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

"That rug really tied the room together." And so begins the saga of "The Dude" Lebowski, who happens to share a name with a millionaire who has run afoul of some nihilists. And you know, the plot doesn't matter. It's all about Jeff Bridges, in a role he probably should have won his first Oscar for, bowling, driving around, and having the occasional acid flashback. The eminently quotable Coen Brothers film features a surreal dream-sequence, genius supporting performances by Coen Bros. regulars John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro and one nice marmot. Though sort of a slow burn critically, this film has spawned an annual conference and a resurgence in the popularity of White Russians. Nobody fucks with the Jesus!

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the It's Gonna Get Ugly

Innocently browsing my local bookstore the other week I was smacked in the face with this:

That's right, people, we have a new edition. And it's "updated." Yeah--that's in quotes for a reason. If you take a peek at our Manifesto Fiesta, you'll note that we were expecting a new edition earlier but couldn't find it. But, now, almost 50 movies in to our little project, we've got to change the rules just a tad to accommodate some new films and some deletions.

The basics of the update are:

1. No movie on the list with a release date prior to 1997 was touched. Yep, revision at it's finest. Let's just retouch the conclusion a bit and not, say, delete a redundant Buster Keaton or four. 

2. Thirteen films from the 2005 list were removed--including some that are going to induce some fightin' words when their numbers are called.

3. Ten films were removed from the 2009 list. Fewer fightin' words elicited here but some nonetheless. A few demand cheering for a "what were you thinking adding that one in the first place?"

4. Twenty-three films were added in the 2011 update some of which have already garnered "not watching it again" or "not watching it at all" reactions from us.

So, how to handle a new edition? Basically, the same way we handled the 2009 update. We've added a column to our roll lists.

Using the original list as numbers like we've been doing, we roll. If we roll a movie that's still on the 2011 list, super! (again, that's ALL of them before 1997, or 987 of the 1001 movies)

If we roll a movie that's been removed by the 2008 list, we roll for the 1-29 list of movies added in 2008 just like we have been from the beginning.

The new part is that if the movie was removed by the 2011 list (in other words, it was in both the 2005 and 2008 lists), we roll for a movie of added 2011 movies. Then we watch 2 movies.

The other new part is that is we roll a movie that was removed by the 2008 list, and we roll for the 1-29 list of movies added in 2008 and come up with a movie removed in 2011, we'll have to roll for one added in 2011. And then we watch 3 movies. 

So, for example, we rolled The Big Lebowski but it's off the 2005 list. So we rolled Go, See and Become that was added in 2008. With the new list, we have to roll again for the 2011 list because Go, See, and Become has been removed. If you take a look at the right column, you'll see that we've added The Hurt Locker to that set of movies; it was added in 2011.

There are only 23 new ones in 2011 and 8 of those correspond to films that were on both the 2005 and 2008 films so we'd only have to watch three films 15 out of 1001 times.

And, breathe. It's actually a lot simpler than it sounds thanks to Excel lists. 

In other news, Tracy and I will be in the same place for almost a week so we're planning on watching a few of the movies together and trying to co-blog our reactions.

And, you see that "Docs of Films Special Feature" to the right? We're coming up on our 50th movie--Hooray! we're almost 1/20th of the way there :/  --and we're writing special blog posts.

Otherwise, we're signing off for the Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you eat 'til your hearts' content and watch a  few movies!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

She's a newspaper man!

I bet this was a great play. The exuberance and quickness of the dialog and action left me feeling out of breath watching it on film, and I bet it was an even more rewarding experience live. But the film's decision to make Hildy a girl, and the ex-wife of her editor, is brilliant! That kind of word play and verbal sparring is the best kind of flirty foreplay.

For the most part, I thought the film was pretty progressive, gender-wise. Though there were some moments about "being a real woman" and the slightly-out-of-character "why don't you love me" breakdown at the end, all the other newspapermen take Hildy completely seriously, and respect her skill and drive. Grant's Walter is clearly attracted to her talent as much as her gams, and watching them work together to get the "killer" hiding in the desk out of the press room was pretty awesome. The mismatch with Bruce (who "looks like that Hollywood fellow, Ralph Bellamy" hee) couldn't have been more obvious. With his little umbrella, he could never keep up with Hildy!

The newspaper plot itself I thought was a little underdeveloped--it was clearly just a framework to showcase Hildy and Walter. I still can't quite figure out the whole "production for use" argument. I also think it's interesting that Hildy and Walter were married before--reminded me of The Philadelphia Story. I can't figure out if this is a conservative anti-divorce message? A romantic once-soulmates-always-soulmates argument? If it somehow makes the flirtation more acceptable because they were once together? What do you think, Nat? And also, what did you think when what's-her-face totally just jumped out the window?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"you're wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way"

Perhaps it says more about my personality than it should that I love His Girl Friday but wish there were more Grant/Russel verbal sparing. My favorite part has to be the reunion of Hildy and Walter at the beginning as they talk over, around, through, and, sometimes, *to* each other about their past, present, and future. Who wants to be married to Bruce McBoring Baldwin (who is played by Ralph Bellamy in case you missed that bit of meta-dialogue) when you can have Walter Burns? But, I like to debate everything--what my mother would call "arguing with a brick wall."

I also like this film because it sees no problem with the fact that it might take a woman to get the job done--and not in any exploitative way. As shady a con man as Burns is, he sees that no one is going to get that story like Hildy will and she doesn't have to show any leg to do it. The other male journalists respect her and are far from the "when are you quitting and having babies" train of thought that permeates so much discussion about "career women"; instead they take bets about how long she'll last without the job because it's part of her very biology and they seem to like having her as a colleague, even if she does work for the rival paper.

And, of course, at the film's core is a scathing commentary of journalism starting with the rather snarky opening text:
It all happened in the "Dark Ages" of the newspaper game--when to a reporter "getting that story" justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press today.
Well, once upon a time--
Within the film we find snipes about politicians and the legal system in general. But the film doesn't let that snark get in the way of a fun plot and the snark never gives way to bitter commentary. And a second viewing (as this is mine) didn't blunt the film one bit.

And the oracle says something very useful! This film is an adapted play (that I knew) but in the original and all of the other adaptations, Hildy is a man. Otherwise, the book simply says,
Grant and Russell engage in dizzying verbal play of machine-gun speed in a plot that reaches farcical heights, with a great character ensemble of gum-chewing, smoke-wreathed, poker-playing hacks acting as their cynical chorus, Theatrical and stylish, His Girl Friday is unrivaled for comic timing and snappy repartee.
In a rare occurrence, I'm in complete agreement.

Tracy, what did you think of that first hat?!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

His Girl Friday (1940)

At last! A respite from silent and/or French films! His Girl Friday is a classic screwball comedy noted for the rapid-fire dialogue and sparkling chemistry between stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The film was adapted from a play in which Russell's character Hildy was male--sounds like it could be a touch feminista! Additionally, the gender switch injected a little rom into the com, as Grant's hard-boiled editor tries to sabotage his star reporter's marriage to a bland insurance salesman by convincing her to take "one last story." HGF made the top ten of AFI's 100 Years 100 Laughs countdown, and is preserved by the American Film Registry. That's all well and good, but I'm just thrilled that people are actually going to be talking in this one!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Second [and third] Verse, Same as the First

I'm combining the Our Hospitality and Sherlock, Jr. posts because I'm going to say the exact same thing about both. For the purposes of this list, we only need one Buster Keaton film. So far we've had these two and Steamboat Bill, Jr. and all three have the same basic plot that is too thin to support a film-length narrative (even when that film is only 44 minutes long as with Sherlock, Jr.), all three have the same physical comedy (exact same stunts in some cases), all three serve the same purpose for this list, and none of the three offer anything new to talk about. I posted about  Steamboat Bill, Jr. here and think I was overly generous now that I've seen three Keaton films. Two, any two of the three really, are extraneous. I can only hope that 3 of 1001 is all of the Keaton we're going to get.

How does the book justify making us watch the same thing three times? About Sherlock, Jr., the book argues that this film
is a remarkable achievement, possessing a tightly integrated plot, stunning athleticism (Keaton did all his own stunts, unknowingly breaking his neck during one of them), artistic virtuosity, and an avant-garde exploration of the perennial dichotomy of reality versus illusion
Of course, the book also claims the film moves at a "fever pitch." My response is "eh." I just don't care. If this were the only Keaton film on the list, then fine. And, of the three, I *think* I'd choose this one to keep.

For Our Hospitality, the book stretches to claim that "[m]uch of the humor . . . derives from a darkly ironic situation . . . [and] the result is not only very funny, but also dramatically substantial and suspenseful" and concluding that "[n]ever was Keaton's sense of timing so miraculous, his ability to elicit laughter and excitement and simultaneously so gloriously evident." Mmmmkay. I failed to see the irony, the humor, the substance, and the suspense.

Tracy? Do we need all of these Keaton films?

Unfortunately, we have two more Keaton-directed films on the list (who knows how many more Keaton might star in): Seven Chances (1925) and The General (1927).

Grit your teeth and think of Johnny Depp

That's basically my strategy for getting through Buster Keaton movies. Thinking about Depp's portrayal of a mentally ill man who styles himself after Keaton in Benny and Joon seems to be the only thing that makes these "comedies" tolerable for me. Having said that, I liked both Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr. better than Steamboat Willie. Junior. What's the deal with all the "juniors" in Keaton movies? He plays whoever McKay Jr. in OH. Is it a play on Keaton's diminutive size? He is truly tiny. The closing tableau of OH with teensy Keaton and his teensy wife with the slightly larger pastor and the normal- to tall-sized other actors looked like the scene in Fellowship of the Ring when the hobbits and dwarves were standing with the men, wizard, and elves. Speaking of which, when is effing LOTR going to come up in our rotation?

But back to what we did have to watch. I wish OH had been a half an hour long. And I don't mean condense the action of the film into a half hour--I could lose that interminable train scene and be just fine. I only want the half hour where Keaton discovers that he's safe from his girlfriend's brothers if he doesn't leave the house. I found that mildly amusing. The rest of it was so mundane that, because I was waiting for Walking Dead to come on, I spent most of the film imagining what would happen if all of the sudden silent zombies invaded the screen. Much like High Sierra, the dog(s) were the best part. I couldn't even get engaged enough to be offended that spousal abuse was played for laughs.

As for Sherlock, I thought the jumping in and out of the movie screen was interesting, mainly because it is clearly what inspired Woody Allen to make Purple Rose of Cairo, one of my favorite movies.

I also remembered last night that even if we're done with Keaton, we've still got a slew of Chaplin movies, I'm almost certain. Bring on the Dude! We've earned it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Hospitality (1923) and Sherlock Jr. (1924)

It's two for the price of one this week at Docs on Films. Since these two silent (sigh) Buster Keaton films are relatively short and stream, we decided to knock them both out at once. I have to say, after Steamboat Bill Jr., my expectations are pretty low. The plot descriptions aren't doing much to raise them.

Our Hospitality is a slapstick take on the Hatfield-McCoy feud, with Keaton playing the heir to the McKays, who falls in love with a daughter of the Canfield clan. The daughter, Virginia, is played by Keaton's real-life wife at the time, so maybe that'll be interesting. Will it go Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Gigli?

Sherlock Jr. is about a film projectionist (meta!) who is studying to be a detective. Wonder what that curriculum looks like? The AFI named it the 62nd funniest film of all time. We'll see about that.

Monday, October 31, 2011

If the Zombies don't Kill Ya . . . .

. . . the bandoliered sheriff just might.

Our in-house horror movie master just happens to live with me, so we watched Night of the Living Dead Saturday with our tiny all-black cat (the other cat was not interested) after a half-day packed with Halloween preparations. Halloween is serious business around here. And this movie, like it's progeny 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, takes zombies seriously; nothing is played for laughs.

The basic premise works: zombies trying to eat people and a group of people who more figuratively (and sometimes literally) eat each other trying to avoid that fate. But, the grandfather of zombie lore had a few kinks to work out:

1. Zombies can use tools. Graveyard Zombie Dude smashing Barbara's car window with a rock was a bit of a surprise to me as were the zombies surrounding the house grabbing the extinguished make-shift torch and whatnot. These zombies seem to have a bit of brains left in their undead heads. In this lore, zombies are also afraid of fire instead of attracted to the brightness.

2. Zombies don't so much have the now-trademarked rotting flesh that results from the partial-devouring that makes one a zombie in current lore. The film is purposefully dark (as in without light, not subject matter here) but we don't see flesh hanging anywhere (except the zombie barbeque/picnic featuring Tom and Judy as the main course), we don't see bites, and we don't see flesh rotting from bone. But, these zombies are perhaps created by some sort of mutant radiation from outerspace that brings the dead to life. This film doesn't specify that a bite will turn one into a zombie, just plan 'ol death seems to do that so the lack of flesh rotting doesn't break the rules, it's just not what we're used to.

3. Everyone (but the bandoliered sheriff) forgets about the shooting-in-the-head requirement. Come on people! Shooting at center mass works for the living but when one of the only pieces of information you have about the creatures is that you have to shoot them in the head, aim for the damned head! And, when you decide to freak out and shoot Harry for being an ass, shoot him in the head. There are simple rules: all of the dead come back to life and to kill the undead you have to destroy the head. So, why not just skip that whole coming back to life part and shoot Harry in the head? To bring up The Walking Dead again, we have a pretty direct nod to that scene in "Tell it to the Frogs."

4. You have a kid who has been bitten by a zombie in the basement. Shoot the kid. She's just going to eat you later. Or hack at you with a spade. And neither of those options turn out well for you.

5. Shoot first. Ask no questions. So, the bandoliered sheriff is just traipsing the country shooting everything that moves with no consideration that some of movement might be living people? How many living people has he killed?! Yes, it's a bleak damned-if-you-do ending and I don't particularly care whether Ben lived but there are a lot of logistical questions (and questions about fair war play) in just shooting everything in the head without thought.

All of that said, this was basically the first zombie movie and it turned horror movies into what they are today. And, like the book explains,
Night of the Living Dead, with its matter-of-fact, almost documentary-style approach, touches upon the issues that preoccupied America in the late 1960s: civil unrest, racism, the breakdown of the nuclear family, fear of the mob, and Armageddon itself. Nothing can be taken for granted. Good does not always triumpf. And for the first time, a horror movie reflected the sense of unease that permeated contemporary society with no offer of comfort or reassurance.
When I think of the movie in those contexts, it works much better. This film actually manages to be a cheesy fluff of a horror movie not as well as it manages to be a pretty damning commentary on social injustices. It's not by accident that we only have one Black guy and that he gets shot unceremoniously after surviving an actual hell. In that way, the film is a more specifically direct ancestor of The Walking Dead when we think of the evolving relationship between Darryl and T-Dog. So, this one is more of a glad I watched it after I thought about it for a bit than an immediate gratification film, which is odd for a horror movie but good.

Meanwhile, Stuart Fischoff just published an article, "Why Are Some People More Attracted to Scary Movies than Others Are?" that's timely given the season.

I wasn't scared though. Tracy, were you under a blanket?

Let them eat Barbara

GOD, she was irritating--start to finish. I much prefer Johnny, her bratty brother. Even zombie-fied, he was a more sympathetic character. Their opening conversation was also by far the sharpest bit of writing. "I hardly remember what Dad looks like." Want a reminder?

So, now we've seen Night of the Living Dead. I get why it's influential and important--the tight focus on a small community of people dealing with a worldwide supernatural epidemic, the breakdown of interpersonal relationships, etc. It's clear M. Night Shamalama is a big fan. Some of the shots were truly creepy--the profusion of hands breaking into the house was particularly effective, and I liked the B&W though I'm pretty sure it was a choice driven by budget rather than aesthetics.

But, this being a horror movie, everyone pretty much acts like a moron. You might want to shut all the windows before you board them up, maybe wait until daybreak for your run to get gas plan, and if you're going to waste a bullet executing d-bag Mr. Cooper, for God's sake aim for the head.

These zombies were not fully fleshed out, if you'll forgive the pun. So they can use tools? Why aren't more of the reanimated corpses at least partially devoured? My favorite bits BY FAR were the news clips of government officials trying to deal with the outbreak, and definitely the bandoliered sheriff. He cracked me up.

I get the bitter irony of the ending, but again, dude, maybe shout out "I'm not a ghoul!" once you ascertain the rescue party isn't either? As you yourself pointed out, these walkers don't talk.

So, what sayeth the book? And Nat, did you also find the closing stills with red-necky cops standing over a black man's body a tad bit lynchy?

Friday, October 28, 2011

We interrupt our regularly scheduled viewing for . . .

BRAINS . . . B R A I N S! In honor of Halloween, we here at Docs on Films decided to take matters into our own hands and pick one of the scary movies anointed by The List. With some help from an in-house horror movie master, we decided on Night of the Living Dead from 1968. This little cult zombie flick that could was made on a micro-budget by George Romero and criticized upon release for its gruesome content. However, now it's considered a classic of the genre and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Not too shabby for a film about a group of survivors trying to make it through the night in a rural farmhouse whilst being surrounded by zombies. I'm excited to see to what degree more contemporary undead stories (28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead) borrow from this foundational text. Let the reanimated corpses rise!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

And Your Little Dog, too!

The strange thing about this project is that we see so many movies that are definite "thumbs down" that when we get one that is just ok, I want to praise it to high heaven. The problem is, on a list like this, I think High Sierra should probably be the lowest and the rest should be amazing. But, I didn't write the list (clearly) so this one is firmly in "eh" territory which is dead center for this list. Which, I guess, is its own commentary: we should watch films we both love and hate.

But, anyway, Bogey gets out of jail (again) and no hijinks ensue but there is a lot of angst, botched criminal activity, too-easily broken hearts, general melodrama, and a little dog who seems to be the Grim Reaper in canine form. What's strange to me is that this film was released the same year as The Maltese Falcon (also on the list) which is arguably an excellent film. Having both films on the list really only highlights High Sierra's mediocrity (as does the fact that we've already seen a really effective and engaging wise-guy noir with White Heat). But, I'm guessing High Sierra is on the list because it's Bogey's first leading man role (despite Ida Lupino getting first billing), it was co-written by genius John Huston and Oscar-nominated (not for this film) W.R. Burnett, and was directed by Raoul Walsh who has three other films on the list (The Thief of Bagdad, Me and My Gal, and the aforementioned White Heat).

And the book says: "High Sierra is a landmark of the gangster genre, a career turning point for Humphrey Bogart, and a model of action-film existentialism by Raoul Walsh." The book explains the first and last point by offering that this film was unusual in the era of film Code in that Bogart's character is sympathetic. But then the book argues that Bogart's character "the nobly named hero, towers above the punks and hypocrites he encounters, foolishly pursues a respectable girl . . . , and briefly finds more suitable companionship with a fellow outcast." Here's where I start to have problems with the book's interpretations; again the book seems to be taking more from the film than is there. Who are the "punks and hypocrites" exactly? We have a nervous hotel worker who talks too much but that doesn't make him a punk (just not a good criminal which is expected as this is his first encounter) and he never claims to be a good criminal or quiet so he's not a hypocrite. It seems Roy Earle would be the punk in that situation for relying on a straight guy that talks so much. The "foolishly pursues a respectable girl" part is not explored enough in the film. Yes, Velma seems like a horrid person but Earle sees her a whopping 4 times before he proposes, each time only minutes long, and only once did he talk directly to her. So I don't agree with the book skewering her with "High Sierra's view of straight-and-narrow society is remarkably scathing, reaching a peak in the scene in which Roy is humiliatingly rejected by his vapid middle-class princess in favor of her smug conformist boyfriend." First, she's not middle-class; it's emphasized that she's poor. Second, why the hell shouldn't she reject Earle in favor of a man she was already in love with?! She'd be more vapid to accept Earle and ditch the man she with whom was madly in love--except that would make her like Marie who readily hops gangster beds and who the book likes. And, finally, I really do not see a consistent or arguable "scathing" view of "straight-and-narrow society"; I see Earle really liking Pa and "falling in love" with and helping Velma despite Pa telling him exactly where Velma's heart is. That seems a more scathing view of men who expect love when there was a little hand-holding and a promise of money. Otherwise, the criminals consistently fuck themselves: Earle trusts a copper despite saying repeatedly that coppers are always coppers; Earle signs on to a job with two nimrods he's never met; said nimrods are nimrods and act like nimrods a lot so Earle has enough warning and could bail; Earle takes a dame and a dog on a job; Earle trusts a straight guy with loose lips; Earle does a job for a clearly almost dead man; Earle expects too much from a straight girl; Earle expects too much from a moll; Earle races up a mountain faster than any horror movie dimwit rushes up stairs away from a killer; Marie rushes to the stand-off; Marie lets loose Grim Reaper dog at the stand-off; Earle exposes himself to yell "Marie" a lot. So, yeah, to me that condemns dumbass criminals.

All of that, of course, is arguing with the book rather than the film. I don't hate the film but I didn't need to see it.

14-karat Sap

Calling High Sierra a "noir" is like calling Casablanca a war movie. And even mentioning those two films in the same breath is an insult to Casablanca. And I don't even really like Casablanca all that much. I was hoping for at least some Ocean's 11 cleverness in the scheme for Humphrey Bogart's  "one last job" to knock over a hotel. No. It was the most uneventful heist ever. The waiter didn't even put down his tray of water.

The movie's real interest is in the love life of "Mad Dog" Earle. Did I mention that Mad Dog basically just sort of strolls around during the heist? It's the most inappropriate nickname ever. Anyway, he falls for this farmer's (grand)daughter named Velma who's a "cripple." Once he comes up with the dough to fix her foot, using a crooked snake oil salesman as a contact, she very nicely turns down his marriage proposal, offering the sound reasoning that she doesn't love him. Makes sense--they've known each other for like fifteen minutes. But you see, Mad Dog likes the dependent women, so he moves on to Marie, an emotional cripple.

Marie is a walking, talking, sniveling avatar for co-dependency. The parallels the film draws between her and Pard the dog would be funny if they weren't so blatant and insulting. Example? They both whine and basically lick Mad Dog's hands after he dies. She follows him around, begs for his affection, caters to his every need like, well, like Pard, except Pard has an excuse because he's, you know, a DOG. And this makes Mad Dog fall in love with her, naturally, but only after he finds out Velma has reconnected with her boyfriend from back home.

And I get that it's troubling that Velma's dude only shows up after her foot gets fixed, but is it really such a disaster that she's in love with a guy who likes to drink and dance versus the THIEF AND DOUBLE MURDERER?

Oh, and there's lots of racism, too.
Anyway, I liked the dog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

High Sierra (1941)

From "filth" to film noir. This film is noted for vaulting its star, Humphrey Bogart, from supporting player to lead man status. The story, an old gangster employs the help of a younger one (Bogart) to pull off a heist at a California casino, has some big names attached. John Huston, Bogart buddy, co-wrote the screenplay and its based on a novel by Scarface scribe William R. Burnett. I love a good gangster heist picture, and I'm relatively certain no one will be ingesting dog feces during the course of the film!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Perverted is not a synonym for filthy.

And neither is bitchy. Or boring. In a pre-post chat, my partner-in-crime gave me a heads up that there is a serious failure in imagination re: the filthiness of Divine and her nemeses. And boy was she right. What the two parties do to each other and themselves didn't strike me as filthy so much as what an adolescent boy might think was gross and/or titillating. And you just buy yourself trouble when you have the "filthiest person in the world" in your movie, and then try to illustrate said filthiness. It's always going to fail. It's like making Ryan Gosling the best pick-up artist in the world, and then showing him pick people up. It's better to just let people's imaginations fill in the blanks.

Of course, if John Waters had done that, he wouldn't have had a story to tell. The characters were all cartoons, and there was this semi-disturbing misogynistic undertone which is odd for a movie celebrating drag. As I noted in the blurb, I was really dreading this one, and maybe it's because I looked away during all the parts I thought would trigger my gag reflex, but it wasn't nearly as hard to watch as I thought. Well, it was "hard" to watch something so amateurish and unpolished. It's clear that Divine is a brilliant entertainer, and my favorite parts were her clearly just riffing. But it's so unlike the shiny Waters movies I've seen previously.

I'm guessing that maybe, for its time, Pink Flamingos was shocking or boundary testing? I know it has this cult following, and for that reason I'm glad I watched it, but I rolled my eyes more often than I dropped my jaw.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bet I Can Find Worse

This is one of those films that I was most definitely not looking forward to. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of some of the things that happen in the film--probably one of the three actually disgusting acts. The problems are MANY, of course. In no particular order:

1. A general lack of acting that results in every actor yelling ALL of the lines in a weird monotone. There is no nuance. That seems like it would be important in a film about breaking taboos; otherwise you're just acting like an ape slinging poo just because the poo is there and fling-able.

2. John Waters being high when he wrote the film which resulted in a repetition of just about all of the lines. This comes in two forms: a literal repeat ("Call the police! Call the police!") and a rephrasing ("He's been castrated! His penis is gone!").

3 The strange definition of "filth." So, yeah, a contortionist defecating, Divine eating dog feces, Crackers involving chickens in sex, and Raymond's penchant for indecent exposure seems to fit an idea of "filthy." But, arson? Imprisoning women in order to impregnate them and sell the babies to lesbians? Murder? Those things are illegal and seriously warped but I'd argue they're not "filthy" just by definition.

4. What the "filthiest people in the world" can't take, what crosses the line. Catching the butler in drag? Seriously? It seems the filthiest people in the world would take that as an opportunity for some other fetish. Being sent feces in the mail? You can't stand that but you'll have a guy perform the act at your birthday party? And you can eat dog feces? Having a pre-op transgender woman flash you as you stand in a park with a piece of meat tied to your penis is one step too far?

5. Licking furniture causes it to become possessed?

6. While I appreciated the loooooooooong lead ins to all of the disgusting parts so I could avert my eyes if needed, they kind of kill the impact. I figured out that the blow job was going to happen three or four rooms before they even started talking about it; in fact if the bj didn't happen, THAT would have been more disturbing after all of that build-up. (Meanwhile, to mention the bj--that didn't phase me one bit because it never seemed like those two were actually related and, well, Devine is a big 'ol drag queen so not his mama at all).

7. We have to watch this film but not one of the Jackass films? At least they don't try to act.

Overall, the film feels very amateur. It's obviously low budget but you can do wonderful things with little to no money in film. However, when you add bad acting, a terrible script, and a string of gross (and supposed to be gross but just don't meet the mark) acts to a low budget, not to mention poor editing and poor sets (you can see the Egg Man's breath when he proposes) and you get a disaster. Add in the fact that it's not quite forty years since the film's release and I don't think we need to see this before we die. It doesn't hold up and, save the two feces scenes, I wasn't incredibly shocked by any of it. It was just sad. It felt like a bunch of high school boys got a hold of a video camera. Or, speaking to the age of the film, now that they all have cameras in their phones, they probably already have more disturbing things backlogged. I'd go do a quick Youtube search for something more "filthy" ("Two girls, one cup" comes to mind immediately) but I'd rather retain my pizza, thanks.

Meanwhile, I hope I've met the quota for the use of the word "feces" for this whole project.

And the books says this is "quite possibly the best worst movie ever made--certainly one of the most notorious and beloved pieces of trash cinema to come out of the American underground." At least we're starting off by acknowledging that the movie sucks. But why do we need to watch a bad movie? Apparently just because a LOT of other people have watched it.

So, my question for you Tracy, should we watch a movie just because a lot of other people have watched it? At what point to we consign this to the "not worth it" and "of too little merit to perpetuate" category and move on as a society?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pink Flamingos (1972)

When Nat and I started this little project, I vowed to watch only 1000 films. Why? Pink Flamingos. I had heard about a scene involving a dog, a drag queen, and doo-doo, and I didn't think I could get through it without gagging. Well, maybe it was Performance that did it, but three dozen movies in, I'm willing to try just about anything. Plus, a little co-blogger told me that I'll have plenty of time to look away. This black comedy by sleazy-and-proud cult director John Waters is hailed as one of the most transgressive of its time and type. Time to see if the taboo gross-outs for which its notorious seem as out-of-bounds as they did in the early 70s!

Links to Review Posts for this Film:
Tracy's "Perverted is not a synonym for filthy"
Natalie's "Bet I Can Find Worse"

Friday, October 7, 2011

Annie Hall was a saint.

It took me three days to get through The Sorrow and the Pity. I cannot conceive of seeing it in the theatre like Annie did.

From the title, I thought it would be a lot more sorrowful and pitiful than it was. There were definitely horrendous things described, but I was expecting more Holocaust or POW footage, not the interview heavy style that the director used. I did learn quite a bit, though. I didn't know the degree to which the Vichy government not only enabled, but also actively aided and abetted the German war machine, including the Holocaust. Collaboration is different than straight-up occupation, and I feel I have a better understanding of that part of the war. I thought that the time spent with the Frenchman who joined the SS as a kid was pretty chilling. His warning to passionate young people to avoid being seduced by ideology is particularly important, I would imagine, in France in the late 60s. I was also, of course, monumentally impressed with the Resistance fighters themselves. I doubt I could have been that brave, and like most really brave people, they don't think themselves brave at all. But, that's something I could learn from a book or History Channel doc. What about this movie makes it important as a movie?

I thought the direction/interviewing POV was pretty subtle. Clearly, the film had an aggressive pro-Resistance stance, but that wasn't shoved down the viewer's throat, Michael Moore-style. Usually, the interviewer let the subjects hang themselves by the way they described their failure to oppose the Vichy government, or their failure to have any remorse about their position at all. This was true with the French subjects, but especially so with the fat cigar-chomping, war-medal wearing, "former" Nazi who seems to have been interviewed at his daughter's wedding. The footage of German propaganda was shocking in its overt racism, and I thought the archival footage was well integrated into the larger movie. But that's sort of film school stuff.

I wish the timeline had been clearer--the movie jumps around a lot during the war years, making it hard for me to get a sense of whether it got easier or harder to resist the occupiers, and/or whether more or less people participated as the war dragged on. I also suspect (from what I could overhear of the English-speaking subjects) that the translation was a bit spotty. So, I'm guessing the book includes this because of its subject matter, not its technique?