Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't Hate the Cute

Scanning the quotations on Rotten Tomatoes can be a fascinating exercise, especially when there are many fair opinions that differ from your own. A quote filed under Paper Heart, the movie about Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera, calls them "...a pair of mumbling, inarticulate boobs who have no discernible personalities apart from a shared taste in hoodies" (Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress). To better understand Mr. Hanke's meaning, I googled "boob," which led to not the correct type of website, but I eventually found Merriam-Webster, in which "simpleton," "boor," and "philistine" were used as synonyms. Proceeding, I did not personally find Yi and Cera to be boobish, nor did I fail to discern qualities of their personalities that distinguished them from other hoodie enthusiasts, such as Theodore Kaczynski, pictured here in a forensic sketch.

Yet, I consider this a fair opinion- I believe that it reflects the true feelings of its author. (And I often enjoy Mr. Hanke's flights of language, like his description of
Bad Boys II: "...(erupts) every few minutes with overblown action set pieces as if they were some kind of cinematic flatulence.")

A good example of an unfair opinion (pertaining to
Paper Heart) can be found further along: "...twee animated segments featuring paper dolls, which should fill any right-thinking person with disgust" (Jake Wilson, The Age). I must object, sir. You cannot tell me that my failure to be put off, nay, disgusted by Charlyne Yi's puppetry is a summary indication of my general incorrectness. It is quite possible that we may disagree and both be sensible and delightful people. (And even both be correct.) I am reminded of John Hurt's quote about The Elephant Man, in which he played the lead role: "If you can get through this film without being moved, I don't think you're a person that I would want to know." That's borderline. It just feels hostile, like he's warning me not to disagree with him. Here's an older and much more egregious example, from the Chicago Post, about Kahlil Gibran's book The Prophet: "… If there is a man or woman who can read this book without a quiet acceptance of a great man’s philosophy and a singing in the heart as of music born within, that man or woman is indeed dead to life and truth." Thank you, Chicago Post. Now I have to read it thinking how if I don't like it, you think I'm an asshole.

Paper Heart was okay. It was a whole lot of wide-eyed sweetness. The only moments that make a true impression are the several interviews of non-actors, each of whom has something important, and not banal, to say about love. Many of their statements are hauntingly simple truths that are not articulated often enough. It is never explained how these people were located, but the filmmakers were happily welcomed into their homes and workplaces. It seems to me that either the footage represents the best of many hundreds of people who were approached on the streets of the heartland towns Yi visited, or that maybe it's easier than you think to find people whose brains you can pick for this kind of excellent material, and it's just that nobody ever does it.

PS: Come to think of it, this movie may have actually achieved its goal completely. Watching this with Jamie was indeed romantic. If I were on a second or third date with someone, I would want a movie like this- dreamy and naïve, and not too intense.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Taste of the Old Underground

George Kuchar, the fabled amateur filmmaker, appeared at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday night. Dressed down and with an old Bronx whine as thick as Bugs Bunny’s, he introduced a series of his early underground classics in 8 and 16mm. These were mostly incoherent, but their sense of humor was wonderfully individual, and they incorporated dark themes, as though Kuchar had sought an outlet for his own feelings in all of that melodrama and silliness.

The funniest part of the program was “I, an Actress.” As Kuchar explained, a young woman in one of his classes at the San Francisco Art Institute once told him of her acting aspirations, and he encouraged her to do a screen test for him. He wrote a scene for her to read and set another student up with a camera. The film is simply the 400 feet from that camera.

The screen test begins with the young actress pacing around and shouting like an early Diane Keaton (but far less assured, and perhaps nervous). Just when she seems to find a bit of focus, Kuchar begins a series of director’s interruptions. In each of these, he enters the frame and demonstrates what he wants. What he wants is so ridiculous that the actress, who makes every effort not to laugh, is transformed from a shaky but determined starlet into a raving lunatic.

The rest of the evening was short narrative subjects, and as inescapably amateur as they were, it became difficult to ignore the many moments of clearly deliberate, Warhol-like subversion of the language of film. During the often-praised Hold Me While I’m Naked, these moments are particularly strong, as is the final line. At some point, it seems not so naïve anymore: self-aware, and maybe even greater than its parts.

Because the program included pieces in widely different formats, there were dead spots for equipment changes. Kuchar, whom the audience was surprised to find was lurking around the gangway of the theater, filled these silences by volunteering more information about the films from wherever he happened to be standing. These stories usually ended with a punchline that set us all roaring just as the next film was beginning. In reference to a scene of a raging inferno we had just seen at the end of one of the films, he recalled how for some reason, he had been denied permission to use his original fire footage. “So I needed another fire, and then one day, the house across the street went up in flames, and so I ran out with my camera and got my fire.”

Kuchar, as became increasing clear, is an unstoppable storytelling machine. His filmography is famously long, and includes not only films but untold hours of video documentary. During the Q and A session, which was the best I have ever been a part of, he explained how a neighbor might ask him to make a documentary film of a dying pet, in commemoration, or any number of other requests he’s had (and has happily granted). There was no question the audience could ask that would make things uncomfortable (which is not usually the case at Q and A sessions). Kuchar was so sweet and generous, and used each question as a springboard for a slew of stories and memories from his wide-ranging life. Someone asked if his film The Naked and the Nude had ever been seen by Norman Mailer, whose work it appears to parody. “No, I don’t think so, but I met him once. He was like a baked apple. Hard of hearing, too.”

Another astonishing thing about him- perhaps astonishing only to my generation- is the way he refers to pornography as just another part of cinema and of daily life (including his own life, and his own cinema). Part of what makes his films like Hold Me While I’m Naked so enigmatic is the way they incorporate sex (is it there to challenge convention, to tittilate, to shock, some combination of these?), and his casualness in discussing it only deepens the mystery. He told numerous stories of amateur porn filmmakers and actors he’s been connected to over the years, and they seem to have been his friends and neighbors. “There wasn’t any shame in it. Porno was the way to break into the movies back then. And back in the 70’s, everybody was good looking.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

Building Universes

I was at a well-attended screening of In a Lonely Place on Friday night, part of a Nicolas Ray series that's now closed at the Harvard Film Archive. Bogart plays a screenwriter who falls in love, but he's so screwed up that it might not work out. There's other stuff, but that's basically it. One favorite moment of mine was the "grapefruit" scene, in which the characters seem to acknowledge the fact that they are part of a love scene in a movie. While stopping short of breaking the fourth wall, the writing here has guts for making such suggestions; self-referential moments are usually absurd or even played for laughs, but this scene is small and stealthy, and it's warm too- it deepens the leads' relationship and helps us root for them. The other great sequence is the reckless car ride, which is low tech, except for a brief moment of good stunt driving, but played artfully enough to actually make me grab the armrest. The real function of this part, of course, is to show you how things are getting out of control, and it packs quite a punch to move the plot in that direction.

I don't know Ray's work very well, and I supposed that the various flourishes I noticed in this film were his signature. Yet in spite of the many personal touches, Ray was making a film that lived happily and entirely within an alternate universe that the Hollywood studios had already established. (Example of Ray falling in with the canon: Gloria Grahame is never shown in close-up or even medium shot without a filter, which makes no sense, because she was already smoking hot.) When I watch a Hollywood film from the 40's (give or take a few years), I may not know all that will happen in the story, but I have an excellent idea of how it will make me feel, what the mood will be like. Certain conventions of this period- and of the genre of "noir" in particular- are so reliable that they define a universe, and to watch a film of this period is to return to that familiar and comfortable place. This is particularly exciting if you haven't seen the film before- you get a cocktail of the familiar and the not, kind of like a dream in which you discover a room in your own home you simply failed to notice all these years.

I enjoy movies like this, but their function is to comfort, not to challenge. Yes, it's easy to swoon at the elegance and clean storytelling of those cl
assics. But the era had to end, for the health of the medium. When Charles Laughton made Night of the Hunter, he wasn't trying to give people a comfortable evening out at the pictures. His work wasn't that of a craftsman working within the limits of a universe, as Ray's had been. He was out to dismantle the basic notions that were making the movie house such a cozy and dependable place to visit. That's the kind of film I actually love.

Following the feature was a television episode- I think it was GE Theater- directed by Ray, and starring Joseph Cotten. The plot was about a Dr. Moreau type in the Amazon, whose
hut is discovered by an explorer separated from his party (Cotten). The armed resident, attended to by natives, forces Cotten at gunpoint to read Charles Dickens out loud to him for years, never allowing him to leave his compound. It occurred to me that the television drama represented a somewhat weaker, yet more greatly restricted, example of a universe- as a medium, its needs and restrictions were even more tyrannical, and the episode might as well have been directed by anyone. Ray's hand was all but invisible.

But building a universe is often an excellent idea. This occurred to me later still, while watching Ashes of Time, a film by Wong Kar Wai. Who else is excited just to be alive at the same time that Kar Wai is making these movies? The disorienting editing, the playing around with speed and frame rate, the unreliable narrators, the dreaminess, and not a little bit of noir revival- you always know when you're watching one of his films, even when it's Ashes of Time and it's about ancient China. His films could be about anything, but they all live in his universe, and it's full of alienation, energetic individualism, joyful and painful solitude, and boozy sexual longing, and that's what you're going to get. What is consistent is the feeling he evokes, and he does it with the whole environment of the films, much like what Warner Bros and Columbia once achieved with their brand. Kar Wai has in a sense boxed himself in, and the weaker My Blueberry Nights suggests that he may yet need to dismantle his own vision in order to progress. But the last 20 years of his work (if you haven't seen Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, get your act together) are a reminder that knowing what you're going to get isn't necessarily a bad thing, that the same universe can be visited any number of times, and that such a ritual has as much potential as it ever did to deeply satisfy us.

By the way, Ashes of Time is incredible, even though the fans of the original version, which I never saw, are lamenting the changes made for the redux edition. The battle scenes are ferocious. A good overview can be found here:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jamie's Favorite Movie (on her birthday)

I haven't actually seen this since one of our first dates, so it's hardly fresh enough for me to write anything about it- but I at least remember that it is one of the most spiritual films ever, and that Jamie is deeply in love with it... Happy birthday, Jamie... we really are keeping the cute little puppy alive...

The Name of the Rose (or: Christian Slater Looks Like This Throughout)

I can't read Umberto Eco. I am lured in, curiosity piqued by the volume of his research and preparation, but once I realize, a few hundred pages in, that he will never actually take an interest in his characters, I parole myself from the book. Characters are the only reason why a story may be interesting to me. Plot can only be effective to serve a story that is really about characters. This is why I dislike mysteries, most of the time. I particularly dislike the phrase "whodunit," because there is no reason to act like you can't speak properly.

Even if Eco didn't breathe much life into these characters, the film version shows that at least a really great cast can do it. When I write "great cast," I don't mean they're all big names or even particularly gifted actors. They're just amazing to watch because they're all so physically startling. Apart from the two familiar principals Connery and Slater, every face in the cast is singular and grotesque, and I loved looking at the bunch of them crowded together. The atmosphere and design are also, joyfully, perfect. So as an escape to a different reality, it truly succeeds.

Yet it reaches nowhere beyond that. Eco said he suspected the director Jean-Jacques Annaud wasn't making a Hollywood version of his book. It may not be off the Hollywood assembly line, but by the end, it has indulged in its own set of evasions and bits of melodrama, including one particularly unnecessary crowd-pleasing bit of violence (involving F. Murray Abraham). Yeah, I liked that part too, but it would have been more at home in, say, a Child's Play or a Maniac Cop. The book and film are both frustrating: both have impressive openings th
at hint at greatness, but it never quite happens.

I must add: Ron Perlman is so much like Tom Waits in this movie that you have to suspect Perlman was called at the last minute to replace him, after he went missing because he... (fill in a story about Tom Waits going on an adventure; include at least 2 of the following: a) a Filipino floor show, b) a Caribbean-Chinese loan shark, c) a blind dog companion, d) an empty fifth of Ballantine's in a snowy wheat field, e) a rusting pile of tools.)