Saturday, January 22, 2011

What Time Is it There (2001) and Paradise Now (2005)

Another blog first! We have a movie (What Time Is It There) that has been cut from the latest version of 1001. So, keepers of our word as we are, we'll be watching both the winner and the loser. First: the loser. What Time follows a couple who occupy separate continents (the dude in Taipei, the chick in Paris) and only encounter each other randomly. Apparently, this is a case of style vs. substance. Though the characters are literally strangers, the formal elements of the film tie them together. We'll see about that.

And the winner! Paradise Now, which follows two would-be suicide bombers, got major critical lovin' when it came out. This suspenseful and twisty look at what might be the two men's last days together, attempts to humanize the bombers, and introduce complexity to issues that cinematically (and politically) are often presented in black-and-white terms. Sounds intriguing . . .

Friday, January 21, 2011

Performance, or What the Fuck.


Adding in screechy sounds and flashing between scenes does not make a film "experimental." It makes the film annoying to watch.

You have a world class rock star in your film. Your film is being released the same year as a pivotal rock documentary about the band which the rock star fronts. Said band will release Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street within three years--arguably three of their best albums in succession so it seems the rock star is ready to rock. Make the rock star rock. He's not an actor. He's a rock star. That's brought to painful light by the two scenes in which said rock star does rock

But, while you should let the rock star rock, you should not let the rocker's groupie write the film. Or have a supporting role.

And you most certainly not have an interesting storyline to taunt your viewers while you fuck with that interesting storyline to make it "experimental." The movie seems to have something interesting at its core--just the dichotomy of the sex scenes is worth discussion but the nonsense that overlays the whole film destroys the smart it could have been.

So why did we have to watch this? Apparently the author of 1001 Movies watched a different movie and assumed this one was cool.

The author notes, "the utopia of Woodstock had given way to the hell of the Rolling Stone's Altamont debacle--captured in the 1970 concert film Gimmie Shelter. Performance starring Stones singer Mick Jagger as a debauched aging rock star only heightened its cultural impact ('You'll look funny when you're forty,' remarks James Fox's Chas to Jagger's Turner)." First problem is that the line is "You'll look funny when you're fifty." (Yes, I made sure to double check my hunch). Second problem is that we have a non-specific pronoun--"its cultural impact." What is "it" exactly? Woodstock? Altamont? Gimmie Shelter? Performance? Mick Jagger's aging debauchery (even though he was only 24 when the film was made and 27 when it was released)? I can figure out that the author probably means Performance but how? How about an explanation? And how did a film that was and is still obviously heavily edited--because I saw nothing that should make a film executive's wife vomit--have such a cultural impact?

Next nit to pick? This: "Turner [Jagger] and his Sapphic crew." Do two women and a random gender non-specific child a "crew" make?

Ok, so to more substantial concerns. The author states, "By the time the story plays out, nothing (and no one) we've seen is necessarily what we thought it was." Um, yeah it is and they are. The only ambiguity in the film is exactly how absurdly ambiguous the film is going to try to be. But there is never any actual ambiguity other than the gender of that child. Even the pretend gender-bending allusions created by Jagger and his French girl doppleganger are not ambiguous (the French girl is apparently in another "experimental" film is I dislike, Week End).

The author claims the above supposed ambiguity is because, "Cammell's script and Roeg's camera keep everything off kilter, not just through skewed drug logic but also through overtly and intentionally confusing editing, punctuated with startling bursts of violence." The trouble is that, ultimately, that off kilter confusion is just an easily diffused smoke screen. Nothing actually happens and no one is actually hard to figure out. They act like drug addled fools and that is forced on the viewer but it does not keep the viewer off kilter

And, the author concludes, "Frequent drug-fueled hallucinations drive Performance toward it's mind-bending conclusion, when art and identity intersect and the line between fantasy and reality finally blurs into oblivion." No. No. No. The end is not mind-bending. Yes, it is unclear who is in the car at the end. But, in the end, it doesn't actually matter. You have one dead guy in the house and another guy getting in a car to go to his certain death. So, who cares which is which? No one. Even if it is a bigger attempt at a mind-fuck and the dead guy in the house isn't dead but is in fact Chas who is now going to lead Turner/Jagger's "Sapphic crew" of two and the "Chas" getting in the car is actually Turner/Jagger who is going to be reinvented as a performance artist who shoots people in the head, who cares. No one. Not one person.

What I would have rather seen is the movie under the faux-drug smoke screen with just one shot of Keith Richards sitting in the car across the street because his groupie baby mama whom he stole from band mate Brian Jones was apparently not acting in those sex scenes with Jagger.

I Preferred Umberto D

And the only reason I didn't hate this one worse than Gladiator is because no one gave it a best picture Oscar. I'm not sure what about Performance provoked such a visceral revulsion that I had to split the viewing over two days, and was visibly twitching during the last half hour. That it tries so hard to be shocking in both content and style and so isn't? The "unconventional" edits that the movie just sort of drops in the last two thirds? The screeching sounds? The, as my brainmate put it, flashy parts? Don't know, but god, this one hurt. And part of what is so disappointing is that the plot itself--a gangster on the run holes up with a rock star hermit--has so much promise! Here are some genres that I think would have made much better use of the story:

Comedy: This has the potential to be hilarious. The hardened gangster rolling his eyes at the whiny excesses of the rock star? Trying to pretend that he's a European juggler, and everyone believing him?

Horror: Make it a straight-up thriller. The gangster literally cannot leave this bohemian house of horrors, and he is at the mercy of three drugged-out sociopaths with no impulse control or sense of consequences. It would be like a modern-day Dracula!

Porn: Look, it sort of wanted to be pornographic anyway, but managed neither to titillate nor to really push any sexual boundaries. So just let Showtime after Dark have a field day.

As is, I just really couldn't stand it. What do you think it was going for, Nat? At times I thought it was going to try to make some sort of statement about British masculinity, or about post-war economics, but that never really materialized. And what about that chick who looks exactly like Mick Jagger?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Performance (1970)

Groovy, baby, yeah! Apparently, this movie was so weird that the studio waited two years to release it. Another "experimental" film that looks like it has a lot more debauchery than Last Year at Marienbad. Mick Jagger plays an aging rock star (prescient!) with a "Sapphic crew" (of course) who shelters a gangster on the lam. Apparently, identity and reality are all questioned, which is another way of saying there are a lot of drugs involved. Should be, ahem, quite a trip.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Edward Scissorhands, or Let It Snow

As I type, a lot of the Southern East Coast is having a snow day. LA is, of course, sunny and barely cold. Edward Scissorhands makes me wish for a snow day.

I can't say much about this film--even a title was hard--because I do love it and have since I saw it however many years ago. I was amazed at how it basically holds up. The clothes and houses were so hilariously dated and outrageous when the film was released that they don't seem so dated now. My favorite might be the neighbor wearing the Christmas tree dress. There is a wonderful sense of humor in the costuming and set design. Just look at all of the neighbors storming up to the gothic house with intent to lynch or maim or at least scowl at Edward. They look like they've escaped from Whoville.

About the scissors question posed to me: I'd venture that the point is all art needs to be a little dangerous to the person experiencing it to be art but that a lot of art is ultimately not even remotely dangerous. The technicolor cracker box houses with perfectly manicured lawns housing perfectly coifed housewives are ultimately incredibly boring--as are the housewives. Even the housewife trying to be seductive is remarkably milquetoast. The haircuts are thrilling and, ultimately, erotic because they think their heads could be chopped up or off at any moment. Art is meant to cause a stir in the way it contrasts our world or blatantly reflects our world back to us. But Edward's art doesn't hurt anyone--he doesn't cut anyone while cutting hair or shrubs and cutting Kim while carving ice was actually caused by Kim getting in the way and the boyfriend yelling. He hurts people only when trying to save them from a worse fate--being shot or run over by a car--when he's not being "an artist" but is, instead, trying to be a human/social being. The amusing thing about the art is that the new scissorhanded haircuts are not too different than the ones the women had previously--they all had wacky hair to begin with--and Edward's other art is very Disneyland/World. Seems Burton may have read a little Baudrillard.

The ORIGINAL Team Edward

So, Edward Scissorhands hits me where I LIVE. Johnny Depp (!) plays a tortured and sensitive artist (!!!!) who falls in tragic love (!!!!!!) with Winona Ryder (hereafter referred to as "Wino Forever"). Of course, those elements are just my personal crack. Really, I think the movie could be subtitled "The Fantastical Autobiography of Tim Burton." Edward looks like Burton (I did say "fantastical") and is an off-kilter artist in a world in no way equipped to understand or accept him.

I taught this movie at the end of my American Literature and the Gothic class, and the students all picked up on the way that the traditional Gothic elements (the creepy house on the hill, Edward's uncanny body, Vincent effing Price) were not where fear was located--the hyper-saturated suburbia is the real scary thing in this film. Edward, because of his inability to "blend," as his kind foster mother futilely attempts to enable both through make-up and assimilation, is alternately feared and fetishized by the citizenry.

Upon rewatching, I was struck by first, how funny it is, and second, the "you damage everything you touch" element. It doesn't really fit in to my Edward as Artist argument, but is undeniably true. He cuts Wino's brother accidentally, slashes up his own face, and kills Anthony Michael Hall. Any thoughts on this, Nat? Why scissorhands? Does it have something to do with the Romantic notion that artists are always doomed to be alone? Or is it saying something about an inherently destructive capacity that lurks within creativity? And, on a more important note, how about them cheekbones? JESUS.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Freud, Foucault, and Darwin, Oh My!

Finally saw White Heat. Loved it. Totally concur with Nat, re: the excellent marksmanship and the fun "technology." I like the idea of "mapping" in another way as well: seems the film is really interested in figuring out where Cody's pathology originates from and lives. Though there are competing explanations:
Freud: It's Mommy's fault. Jarrett never properly individuated from his mother, and is therefore incapable of forming normal human relationships. According to the good Herr Doktor, all love comes from an attempt to replace the loss of the mother. If he never lost his mother, he wouldn't ever be capable of understanding anyone other than that intense dyad as human.
Darwin: It's Daddy's fault. The madness (represented though debilitating headaches) is hereditary. Cody never had a chance of being anything but criminally insane, and he is "chosen against" due to his inability to adapt to the social world in which he found himself.
Foucault looms over the whole shebang. Institutions (the police, the prison) attempt to reform Cody, but all they are really able to do is locate his transgression and attempt to reinscribe him in the system. His refusal to be disciplined results in his fiery demise.

What I like about all of this is that the explanations require a depth model of identity. Whatever ultimately explains Cody Jarrett, it lives on the inside. To borrow a metaphor from the movie, his criminal body is the Trojan Horse for a diseased mind. Plus, it was a really fun crime caper. Loved it, and think it should remain on the list!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

This movie, in short, is the reason my life has turned out the way it has. A parable about art and conformity that manages to be simultaneously poignant, hilarious, romantic, why-god-why heartbreaking, AND steampunky before there was steampunk? Have mercy, Mr. Burton. Johnny Depp, a hyperevolved exemplar of humanity, was trying to shed his teen heartthrob image and only managed to make an entire generation of women feel certain that beneath the (literally, in this film) dangerous exterior of boys who wear black leather lurk gentle and loving souls who just "aren't finished." Oh, yes. I'm going to cry.