Monday, November 26, 2012

Slow Viewing

When I lived in Brooklyn, my roommate and I watched The Maltese Falcon over the course of about five evenings, about 20 minutes at a time, mostly because he was so busy. Breaking it up into chapters allowed me to actually understand the story. We would have brief discussions about what we'd seen so far, the major events, a map of the characters, and what was motivating each person and what they'd probably try to do next. Although I'd already seen the film several times, this was the viewing when I mastered it.

Somehow, I forgot how much fun that was until recently. Jamie and I watched The Seven Samurai over three nights. I'd never had trouble with the plot, but I realized something else about parceling a movie: it makes the experience more like reading a book. One of the greatest aspects of the experience of a novel is when you put the book down and go about your day while the characters continue to live and operate in the background of your consciousness. The anticipation of returning keeps you suspended between the book's universe and your own. Television shows have a similar effect, but their indefinite nature can be a diluent; their stories march not to a denouement but to an ever-receding horizon, and instead of the intense anticipation of a great book's climax and the heartbreak of its last page, we are most often simply cajoled until our interest fizzles.

The experience of a movie in chapters, therefore, is a unique thing, with the same opportunities to think and discuss as what a tv show gives you, but with more of a novel's structure. I see now that I haven't done this with nearly enough movies. Some would work much better than others, I suspect. It worked to great effect with Seven Samurai.

P.S. Mifune forever!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Where Art Thou, Indie Rentals?

It's a scattered world these days for the hapless movie renter. Now that I'm in Houston, I realize I've been spoiled these last nine years since I left New York: all the cities I've lived in since then have had good-to-excellent video stores within a short walk from wherever I was living.

Providence had two possibilities: Esta's Too on Thayer Street (is it still holding out?) and the superior Acme Video near Wickenden.

Philadelphia had the motherlode: Beaux Arts Video on Spruce Street, where trundled-away plastic bins on the floor were crammed with dusty, disorganized boxes for movies nobody ever rented (I would often pick something at random out of these bins. "Okay, we're watching 'I Love You, Alice B. Toklas' *cough sneeze gag*); TLA, just like the ones in New York; and Video City on 20th. All great.

Cambridge has just one such video store, Hollywood Express (not to be confused with the "Hollywood Video" chain), but it is truly outstanding.  

But here? I'm still looking, but it's grim here in Houston, a wasteland. No sign of so much as a mildewy basement with a passable "employee's picks" rack.

Oh sure, there's Blockbuster, but that place has changed: 100 copies of some new release, and an odd handful of token "Classics," a rather patronizing way to refer to, I guess, "Good Movies."

What else is there out there? Redbox is like a slot machine. You could hit it big- I rented Terri out of one of those boxes, after all- but it is the most strangely curated little menu of movies you'll find anywhere, and I never have interest in 90% of them. 

You've got the Netflix streaming options, but those remind me of searching through tv guide in the 80's to see what was on HBO (Let's see… InnerspaceOverboardTransylvania 6-5000OverboardTransylvania 6-5000InnerspaceInnerspace…) The mailing service is great, actually, but it's a dance of scheduling, delayed gratification,  and the conflict of what I think I'm going to want to watch three days from now vs. what I'm actually going to want to watch three days from now.

There will be a day when it's easy to see anything you want at home, as soon as you want it, cheaply. And legally. I realize there's this "bit torrent" thing, but the one time I tried to figure out how that works, it just made me feel old, and a little pathetic.

What I'm getting at is, the independent brick-and-mortar video store- a species declared extinct not less than 4 years ago, with much pageantry, in the magnificent Be Kind Rewind- is sorely needed as a bridge to that future date of total instant access. In today's landscape, it is the one legitimate option for someone who takes movies seriously and wants a decent selection at their fingertips- not to mention the opportunity to chat with a clerk who probably has a graduate degree and who also takes movies seriously, very, very seriously, in fact.

So my search for a good place to rent in Houston is a real mission, a personal mission. Cactus Music, a local vinyl institution, once rented movies, but when I visited and asked their staff they said that ended some time ago. They also said that the independent places- all of them- have folded, as far as they knew. Although there was one place- what was it called? A murmur ran through the space behind the counter. Oh yes, it's called… Audio Video Plus. Of course! They're still around, right? Don't they still rent movies?

This is an ad I found for Audio Video Plus. As you watch it, imagine me getting really, really psyched.

Houston comes through after all! A wonderland of half-inch nostalgia!

But I called, and as of just a couple of months ago, they stopped renting videos.

Can you not feel my agony, people?!?


Monday, November 5, 2012

Our Texas Halloween

Thanks for a great Halloween, Houston. The pumpkins we carved at The Orange Show are long since collapsed. I can't let any more days go by without journaling out the rest of our cinema experiences during this, our favorite time of the year.

On Wednesday night we wrapped up our annual marathon diet of horror with a screening of A Bucket of Blood at 14 Pews, a microcinema/community center in a former chapel in the Heights with a beautifully kept interior (rich wood from floor to ceiling). The programming looks really interesting- Q&A sessions here are just as likely to be with neurosurgeons or beekeepers as with filmmakers. Sometimes I think you can keep searching in Houston and never stop finding great places like this.

We loved Bucket of Blood. Something about its design- slasher movie with a beat artist theme- suggests a Tales From the Crypt episode, but it transcends its B-Movie trappings with a startling sophistication. The actor Dick Miller, who plays the lead role here, has had over a hundred bit parts and relatively few roles with substantial screen time. He's one of these lifer character actors who we always yearn to see in bigger parts (I especially love him in Gremlins 2. "What do you mean you heard it too? Of course you heard it too!").

His performance in this film as busboy Walter Paisley (a name that has re-emerged throughout Miller's career) is a knockout. It's big and broad, but there's no room for subtlety if we're going to believe a story this ridiculous, and to my surprise I completely believed it. Miller's pleading, screwed-up face never lets us forget his total enslavement to his most basic emotional needs: he desires friends, validation, and external approval, not to mention female companionship, which he views as the ultimate provision of the former three. The film worms into our psyches by making Walter repellent while asking us the upsetting question of whether we aren't all really just like him- whether he's anything more than an unchecked human being. Artists routinely explain that great art is made to satisfy the soul of its creator, not to gain the approval of others, and professionals across the spectrum of human endeavor often make analogous claims; but we have to wonder at their sincerity when we confront Walter.

Other films we got to this year:
Kaidan- A rather dull samurai ghost story. We bailed on this after about forty minutes. Probably needed to get the original.

The Sentinel- A late seventies supernatural thriller, too hammy to sell the elaborate fantasy it spins. In spite of the effort and imagination, there were no chills here. It's kind of lovable anyway- the supporting cast is full of surprises (Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, Christopher Walken... maybe this guy on the right is an unbilled John Hurt?)

Army of Darkness- Something occurred to me, while watching this film for the first time in at least a decade, about the history of movie special effects- something that I'd forgotten and that this movie illustrates better than any other I can think of.

Army of Darkness came out in 1992, a year after Terminator 2- the first film to make heavy use of CGI- and a year before Jurassic Park, which was the single greatest catalyst for the CGI revolution. Major advances in the art of movie special effects had occurred before, of course, but each new technique and innovation had been an addition to the craft- a contribution to the box of tools and tricks, to the discipline that had kept growing richer from its first days, a field of old pros who could make anything happen through pure engineering. The way that special effects changed in the nineties, suddenly, was different: the computer replaced over half the toolbox, and it was the only time this has ever happened. Veteran technicians, people like Richard Edlund, with his resume full of blockbusters and awards, were suddenly living in a world in which many of their skills were obsolete.

When we watch Army of Darkness today, and we see the rear projection and the animated skeletons, and we see that it was made around the same time as Jurassic Park, we might assume that Sam Raimi was being consciously retro and willfully analog in his choices. We may forget that at the time, these were simply practicalities; that as late as 1992, there really wasn't any kind of special effect you could use that would be considered old fashioned. Low budget, maybe, but not retro. Stop motion animation, a technique that had seen numerous cosmetic improvements but hadn't fundamentally changed in decades, was still good currency in a Hollywood film.

So was this the last gasp of analog special effects? Not really- decent looking CGI was unaffordable for another ten years, so most 90s films had either awful CGI, or some combination of awful CGI and bad analog (see John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.).

The Eye-
American horror films never stray from their primary objective of scaring the audience; the horror itself is always at the center, and everything that happens is shackled to it. That's why I'm so surprised when I see a Hong Kong film like The Eye, in which some pretty effective horror is woven into a story that seems a lot more like a romance or a drama. The love story made the film seem not so menacing or bleak as horror films often are- yet the feeling of being pursued by ghosts certainly stayed with me later.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors-

Speaking of analog effects, it's hard to think of a better showcase than this film. It's already been written that it's full of imagination, amazing sets and brilliantly twisted dream sequences, and I agree- I would add that the chilling music, by Angelo Badalamenti, is first rate. Some of the plotting is a little lazy, but there's still a tremendous amount of love put in here, and there was never a moment when I wasn't invested. It's a tough call this year, but I think Dream Warriors takes the blue ribbon.

P.S. When we were in L.A. we made a point to visit the Elm Street house. The people who live there now probably hate tourists doing this, but our friend took Jamie's picture in front of it. It was a great picture, but later, it vanished from the memory card, and everyone swears they didn't delete it and had nothing to do with it.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abramović- Like an Old Friend

It seems like a lifetime ago that Jamie and I took the bus through Greenpoint and on to PS1 in Queens, where a dozen or more old films of performance art, mostly by Marina Abramović and Ulay, echoed through the nearly empty halls. I couldn't stop talking about what we'd seen, especially this:

I can't think of a constructed situation that is simpler and more jolting. It exhilarates, while making me suppose that old suffering is being exorcized from the performers. It also suggests a deeply intimate relationship between them, which famously was the case, but I had no idea. (You should view it without the soundtrack, which shouldn't be there.)
Nearly a decade later, we trekked to MoMA for Abramović's big retrospective. The show was a success (an understatement) because its audience played such an important role in its realization; the live performances, all but one, had been done before, but never with hordes of Middle America streaming past. For me, the intensity came from the juxtaposition of the naked, frozen performers, vulnerable and seemingly yearning to make contact, and the anonymity of the crush of visitors. This was an event in itself, not just a look back at the work of an artist.

Of course, the new piece, "The Artist Is Present," performed by Abramović herself, involved the audience more directly. The description of the contact she sought to make with each visitor who sat across from her, and the place that experience held in the larger show, was probably the most valuable thing for me in the new documentary Maria Abramović: The Artist is Present. Jamie and I saw this film with out-of-town friends at the theater at the MFA, the Houston version of the Harvard Film Archives, where you can frequently hear a film scholar speak to introduce a film. (I especially liked a presentation I saw there once of Fellini's I Vitelloni that was preceded by a funny speaker whose explications clearly enhanced for us the humor in the film. Fellini can be hilarious, but it takes an informed viewer to translate his humor into English and understand it in its context. For proof of this, see Roma on video. If you're watching the older VHS release, you'll laugh twice as often as if you're watching the newer DVD, which is a different translation that completely misses some of the funniest lines.)

What were we talking about? The Abramović film: it is bittersweet, fascinating, and often distressing, but mostly because its subject is plainly all of those things. My main problem with the film is that it has actually two subjects: the artist and the show, and they are hardly synonymous, as becomes more apparent toward the end, when the show kind of spins out of control and becomes something bigger than Abramović herself. I don't question that getting to know the artist is essential to understanding the phenomenon of the show, but Marina's life and times are not presented as mere background material; she is the apparent subject of the film for most of its running time, and yet as the audience at the MoMA show make the piece their own through their participation, Marina herself recedes like a train, and the only intimacy with her we are afforded is through the sometimes moist eyes of the lucky museum patrons who got to sit across from her in the floodlit square, destined to become an icon in performance art and perhaps in the general history of museums. (My wife finished an art history survey course by showing her students images of the performance, and how the participating audience was affected- the perfect image of art being created in the moment it is beheld, by both artist and beholder.)

The film is an invaluable document, and it does a little bit more than simply bear witness; in particular, I value that it brings the show and all of its emotions back to vivid life, so that we can remember, or see for the first time, just what made people respond to it as they did. But as a whole feature, it might have had the kind of cohesive story that made other recent films about artists such knockout punches.

By the way, if you're going to the MFA and you haven't seen City Glow, Chiho Aoshima's short animation that stretches across several plasma screens, it's mounted permanently outside the cafe. I recommend having a seat and watching the entire film. This kind of experimentation with the experience of cinema is sadly a rare thing in these times.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Horror: It Begins!

The essential Halloween plans are coming together. After this weekend it's going to be time for decorating, carving pumpkins and baking treats. We may be displaced in Texas, and the signs of fall may be sorely lacking around here, but there's no getting around Halloween. It's the most fun thing that happens all year, even here in Houston. This is where all my kid memories of Halloween come from, and if the fact that over 4,000 tickets have now been sold for the zombie walk through downtown is any indication- not to mention that there actually seems to be more than one major zombie walk here- these people know how to get into the spirit of it. 

Notice that there's already someone camped out in line,
two hours before a midnight movie. Does every screening
in L.A. sell out?
We are easing into our horror film series this year. It officially began with friends in Los Angeles, at the Silent Movie Theater, where they're having their own October festival of horror: each night of the month they show a different film, all of which were banned in the U.K. (mostly in the seventies and eighties). The curators have sequenced the films in order of increasingly poor taste; the final selections include I Spit On Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust. Most of the films in the series are the kind of camp that cluttered the horror shelves at the video store 25 years ago; I particularly remember the box for Visiting Hours, with the image of a hospital building at night, in which the lights in the windows make the image of a skull.

The film we ended up seeing was Dario Argento's Inferno. It was as incoherent as any horror film I've ever seen, and I'm not the world's greatest Argento fan, but for a midnight movie packed with merry strangers it was just about perfect. I'm not sure I would have appreciated it outside of that setting (apart from a particularly outrageous scene involving a sack full of cats).  

More recently at home, I enjoyed The Innkeepers, although not as much as Ti West's previous feature, The House Of the Devil. In HOD, West drove the audience halfway to madness with the fear that comes with anticipation (what is fear but the work of the imagination, and what spurs it like a payoff that could happen at any time?). In The Innkeepers, he has intentions that are slightly different but no less interesting: he wishes here to slowly establish a stage and its characters, and even a feeling of safety and a kind of sweetness, before revealing the menace we know is coming. It reminded me of The Haunting and the original Stepford Wives, which work about the same way, and often make me wonder why more films don't try to do this.

The payoff here, however, feels perfunctory. After all the groundwork, I wish there might have been some ending that wasn't so anonymous with respect to who these characters are. Or perhaps it's simply the case that West, wishfully, left too much up to our imaginations. The ending could have been the perfect time to reveal something, not to complete the puzzle but to give us just enough to think about later, just something to rattle in our heads at bedtime.

This year's winner is out there somewhere, I have no doubt! Onward!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives At Home and A.O. Scott

Watching Cyrus, by Jay and Mark Duplass, it bothered me that its concept kind of strangled it and held it back, although I didn't have a clear idea of what it should have been, had that potential been realized. I wanted the pedestrian chaos and loose energy of the first act to keep unspooling, but where that might have led that could be satisfying I had no idea.

Their more recent film, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, answers that question: not only does it recapture that energy, it has a brilliant idea of exactly what to do with it. I really love it- it takes big risks, especially when it asks us to care about its somewhat cartoonish leads, and especially at the end, which somehow managed to sincerely move me.

I say "somehow" because I am not A.O. Scott, who seems to know just how this film works. It frustrates me to no end when I fail to deconstruct my own feelings about a film, then I read an A.O. Scott review, and it turns out that he's practically doing it for me. He often gets to the truth first and best. I can even see his face there on the page, chuckling evilly at me behind bookish glasses.

Of course I'm not lockstep with his opinion. But this amazing review is chilling in how sharply it cuts to my true feelings about this film that I couldn't articulate for myself.

Come to think of it, I enjoy what he writes even when I don't agree with it so much; one of my favorite articles he ever wrote, which was about the Sideways phenomenon, takes not only the film but the general response to it and guts the whole thing like a fish, laying out every piece on the table. It's the forcefulness of the writing that makes me pay attention. I just hope it doesn't occasionally hypontize me into agreeing with him as well.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Memories of the River Oaks Theater (I Mean, Don't Worry, It's Still There)

Our summer travels behind us, we're now braving the humid jungle of Houston, waiting in the blind for our big career opportunities to come flapping by. A couple of weeks ago we made it out to the remarkable midnight movie series at the River Oaks Theater, which rates as essentially my favorite movie theater in the world.

My earliest memory of this theater is when my dad took me and my brother here- I was probably 8 or so- and we saw a matinee of The Modern Times, followed by three or four of Chaplin's short films. I was mesmerized by the feature- it seemed just as intent on dazzling the audience with beauty as it did on making them laugh- but I liked the shorts even better, because the humor was even more obvious. We all cackled like drunk seagulls until we were out of breath.

Later, in my brooding movie-going days of high school, when I'd take off alone at night to see two films back to back, this theater was my favorite haunt. The Greenway Plaza 3 had its good points, too- it was a seriously grim and atmospheric place, a rat warren of garage stairwells and abandoned, flickering hallways, perfect for seeing a Todd Solondz film or S. Ray's The Middleman or the 20th anniversary print of Taxi Driver- but the River Oaks was a good home for just about any movie experience, and the 90's really had a little bit of everything: The Pillow Book, Dead Man, Cemetery Man, Richard III with Ian McKellan, Female Perversions with Tilda Swinton.

Most of the time the best films were cooped up in the screening rooms upstairs, two little boxes where you could hear the projector clattering. I went to a sold-out screening (on the bigger screen) of A Clockwork Orange, my favorite film at the time, and the tired, very dirty old print met with a gooey end right at the moment when Alex is getting ready to leap out the window. The audience threw popcorn and booed and whistled when the poor projectionist came out to explain that the show was over.

I even paid tribute to this theater by giving it a cameo in my own film, Door. The air conditioning vent in the ceiling has a ribbon of paper stuck in it, fluttering away, just like I remember it.

On our most recent adventure to the River Oaks Theater, we saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D. It was every bit the turkey we were hoping for, perfect for making sarcastic comments, except that these drunk, middle-aged suburbanites ruined it- really loud and unfunny people. Eventually the usher came and shushed them, and I give him huge credit for doing that, but then nobody could say anything for the rest of the show. Nobody wants to crack a joke if it risks encouraging that kind of person to get into the act. So we all just sat there watching the movie respectfully, which is not at all how you're supposed to watch that kind of movie.

My advice, if you want to know how to make sarcastic comments at a midnight movie: rent some Mystery Science Theater 3000. Notice Tom Servo's technique. He does not yell drunkenly at the screen about genitalia. His hostility is aimed at the film itself, not at the experience of his fellow movie-goers. His jokes may seem low-brow, but they often require some intelligence to be appreciated. Most people understand that not just anyone is qualified to do this.

In fact, think about what happens when you're in a room with one of those rare people who is actually funny all the time. Nobody tries to compete with that person at all. They just let him or her dominate the situation completely. Yet without that person, many of those same people might try to fill in the empty space with their own awkward attempts to be the life of the party. A situation that calls for humorous commentary works best with a strong leader. This is why Mystery Science Theater 3000 was such a good idea. I saw the feature film of MST3K in the very same theater, and while watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, I became nostalgic for the '96 film and wished that Mike and the bots were in the front row piloting us through the experience. We clearly needed their help.

Nevertheless, I am thrilled to be going to movies at the old places again, and this one especially. I rejoice that this blog now has for its subject the movie scene of Houston, which is indeed rich.

Two nights ago we went to a theater I'd never seen before: the one at the Rice Media Center. We saw a program there entitled "Sonic Slippage," attended by about 60 or 70 people, introduced by a director at the Menil Collection (one of the great small museums of America) and curated by an art professor at UC Berkeley. It included several fascinating pieces of experimental film and video art. The best three:

Lossless #2: A 2008 piece that compresses, distorts, and stirs pixelated images of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon like blobs of oil on the surface of a soup. (This video compression effect is decidedly not "lossless"- the pixel artifacts are like big tumbling legos.) In these three minutes, the effect of the 40's avant-garde classic is not so much played with as amplified. It was already wild and startling, with its knife that blinked in and out of existence and its shrill Japanese flute, but this piece fairly throttles you; faces leap out of nowhere, and the knife and everything else you see is nothing more than grey putty writhing on the screen, taking one nightmare form after another.

Rose Hobart: Jamie and I both liked this piece the best. This is a film collage made by Joseph Cornell in the 30's. We see scenes from the film East of Borneo, and every scene used (and nearly every shot) features the actress Rose Hobart. The film is presented at 16 frames per second (though it was shot at 24), projected through a deep filter of color (it's usually a blue color but the projectionist the other night went with a gorgeous wine purple), and a Brazilian record is played (you hear this music but not the original soundtrack or anything else). That's all it is, for 20 minutes. It's like a lovesick janitor went into an old editing room and taped together all the bits on the floor that had his favorite actress in them, so he could watch it dreamily on the Moviola while he listened to the radio. Of course, the bits of the movie are made incoherent by their re-ordering, but after 12 or 15 minutes I was in some kind of trance, and my brain was trying to make sense of what I was seeing in an involuntary kind of way, the same way as when you're going to sleep while listening to a story and you're struggling to understand and connect the bits you manage to hear as you drift in and out of consciousness.

Lilith: I very nearly decided this was one of my favorite short films I'd ever seen. I backed off from that somewhere toward the end of it. But I still think it's completely astonishing. See what you think (follow the link to watch it, it's worth a few minutes). 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rearview Mirror

It's late June and I'm bumping down interstates to Texas in a jam-packed Civic with my wife and our ever-faithful cat. We are changing our lives. For me it's like Chapter Three; I left my home town after high school, moved east, and stayed there 16 years. Now I'm coming back. My head has been spinning a lot lately, and movies have helped.
Back in Harrisburg we caught Horrible Bosses on the motel tube and I ended up enjoying it very much. This is the kind of movie I normally avoid. First of all, the logo of Horrible Bosses is in a particular font that I hate and that is always used to market comedies, is always all-capitals, and nine times out of ten is cherry red. This movie managed to forgo the red, but still, the font is all over the poster, and the title stinks. There must be a report somewhere concluding that this is the most effective way to sell a comedy, and it always puts me off. I expected Horrible Bosses to be about as funny as Crazy Stupid Love, which I thought was a real turkey, but which I'd imagined would be better because they'd selected a different font for the movie poster. I now have two counterexamples to suggest that I should not be paying so much attention to fonts, but I'm sure I won't stop.

Horrible Bosses actually has no surprises at all, except for the fact that it's funny. Watching it is like eating in a chain restaurant where the food and ambience are good enough that it's almost like you're eating in a real restaurant. Crazy Stupid Love is just a bad chain restaurant experience. Let's say Crazy Stupid Love is TGI Friday's, and Horrible Bosses is the Macaroni Grill. (The fact that I actually ate at the Macaroni Grill right before watching Horrible Bosses has absolutely nothing to do with my decision.)

While we're on this analogy, it occurs to me that another one of these "chain restaurant" comedies is Talladega Nights, and that movie actually contains a scene in an Applebee's. That scene really blew me away. The aspiration there may have been to lampoon corporate packaging, but the movie seems to fall completely within the parameters of that package, of what's already been tested and approved- and in the case of the Applebee's scene, the film actively praises the consistency that a corporate franchise is able to offer. It's an old problem that comedians sell out and are then fettered by their sponsors, but it's spooky in this case, because Will Ferrell used to make jokes specifically about the banality of suburban chain restaurants all the time.

Great movie experiences of late:

Our neighbors treated us to a showing at the Brattle Theater of one of our favorites, Vampire's Kiss. Most people seem to have an opinion about Nicolas Cage's wild man routine and whether it constitutes good acting. I think there's no need for the question, because the filmmakers who use Cage typically use his performance as a kind of prop, a static object that fills a space in a predetermined way, or a blunt instrument, if you like, for achieving a desired effect. They have moved beyond the question of whether the performance is convincing or not, so I am compelled as an audience member to do the same. Face Off and Honeymoon in Vegas were somewhat lame attempts to use Cage in this way. Wild At Heart and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans used him to stunning effect.

Yet his schtick, and the way it's objectified, belie his actual range. If Leaving Las Vegas doesn't convince you of his abilities, nothing will, but it's hardly the only evidence; he has plenty of convincing moments in Matchstick Men, and the fact that he played identical twins in Adaptation that I never had any trouble telling apart is also to his credit. These are actually true and good dramatic performances.

But then there's Vampire's Kiss, which is the most confounding and mind-bending of all his films. How can a movie be driven so completely by a stops-out, thrashing, bellowing Cage performance, and yet give one the feeling that something much more than that has occurred? Cage is so ridiculous here that he seems to caricature himself; how then does he manage to be tragic, and even a little scary, convincing us while at the same time appearing almost flip about the very process of acting? This is one over the top Cage performance that isn't simply a prop, or part of the machinery; it is the machinery. If we're convinced, Cage himself must be doing it. But seriously, how is he doing it? 

We also watched one of my very, very favorites, Joe vs the Volcano. I have no analysis to offer at this time. All I can say is that yet again, it left me with a strange melancholy that I've experienced every time its final credits appeared, and that I've never begun to understand. I was also reminded of who all filled the many small parts: Lloyd Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda, Nathan Lane, Amanda Plummer… seriously, what a cast!

And we had to say goodbye to Cape Cod. Man, we are really going to miss the Northeast. While there, we went to the Cape Cinema, a gorgeous movie house with murals on the ceiling. We saw Russian Ark there several years ago. This time we watched Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place in a dream-like New England in the same way that Wes Anderson's other movies take place in dream versions of India, New York, and Texas. It made me wistful about leaving, of course, but I was happy that movies like this- fantasies that seem to spring full blown from their author's minds- are still being made. I suppose Wes Anderson is just another tested-and-approved brand now- Moonrise Kingdom is lovely, but breaks little new ground in the Wes Anderson universe. But at least everything in it belongs entirely to its author (unlike most of the multiplex "fantasies" of today). Here again, Anderson gives us childhood abandonment, children dealing with emotional trouble by finding hiding places and building fortresses with obsessive hobbying, and a visual style that presents each frame as though the audience were touring a picture gallery, holding us far away from the characters so that we feel safe, yet uncomfortably cold. (Anderson's sense of humor achieves the exact same purpose.) Though his films are thematically repetitive, Anderson has at least found themes that mean something to him, and has managed to adapt them to moods that are indeed different among his different films. Moonrise Kingdom, in a way, feels the most like an escape from reality of any of his films- it comes the closest to achieving the live-action storybook I think he always wanted to make.

By the way- happily, with all the hustle of packing for the move, we still had time for one last delightful Porchlight Cinema event! The movie was a perfect selection: Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Again, no analysis. But, to everyone who came, thanks. It was part of a great send-off for me and Jamie to get everyone on the porch one more time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Wonders of Genre

Every once in a while, a great genre movie gets made. Matchstick Men was a great genre movie. Panic, several years ago now, was a great one. The Departed, hardly unsung, was another. Speaking of which, my favorite Scorsese film is Cape Fear, and I’m not just saying that to be absurd; that is the ultimate transcendent genre film, a movie that fits completely inside a box that already existed as far as plot and character are concerned, but which explodes with an entirely individual energy. These are movies that make me believe and make me care; their heavy outlines are actually invigorating rather than tyrannical. I troll video stores for these experiences.

I am thrilled that Michael Clayton is such a film- not least of all because I’ve been trying to get Jamie to watch it for quite some time, and she only just gave in and really liked it, proving me to be correct. Michael Clayton is a genre film to the bone, and therefore it could have been absolutely mediocre. It would have been entirely possible to take the same actors and the exact same story and deliver it in a boring, unbelievable and loveless way. State of Play with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck is a perfect example of a genre film with a good story and a good cast that felt like a complete waste of my time. Convention is a springboard, not a crutch. The plots of these movies aren’t what matters at all, and I have better things to do than watch pretty people deliver banalities.

The solitary weak line in all of Michael Clayton comes early, when a reporter hisses “Give me something I can print!” through a phone receiver. After that, there is nary a groanable cliche. It has an assurance to it, a coolness, that reminds me of the feeling of Panic. It has a final showdown that you may actually want to rewind and watch again. It even has a private conversation about manhood between the protagonist and his son that is not only unsaccharine but plausible and affecting, and that has to be absolutely one of the rarest things in the movies.
But the best thing about Michael Clayton is that it understands something about the cinema feature form that should hardly be a big secret, but somehow still is. 
Consider: it has dawned on the restaurant industry that the most exciting part of a meal is the appetizer course. The main course is usually more predictable and less intense, because you have to eat a lot of it. The appetizer is the chef’s greatest opportunity to be spontaneous and virtuosic. This is why we’re all eating so-called “tapas” and ordering demi-portions of entrees.

Movies are somewhat like this. (Pardon this analogy, but we just came back from a great restaurant.) During the first act of a film, the viewer understands perfectly well that a great deal of exposition will eventually occur, but there is plenty of time for that. The viewer is not yet trapped in the story. This is an opportunity to do something brilliant. There is time at this point for a scene or two in which the story can do something entirely unexpected that will completely perplex the audience. 

In Michael Clayton, that scene occurs just before the story jumps four days back in time. I don’t want to describe anything about what happens, because that would ruin some of the magic of stumbling on the scene. The universe of the film seems to be spinning a bit out of control, but there’s nothing to fear, because this is the beginning of the film. The viewer doesn’t mind being lost. In fact, the viewer may very well want to be lost. Why should everything be perfectly explicable if it doesn’t need to be yet? This is the best and maybe only chance for real mystery and confusion, and in cinema, this can be sensory as well; what we see and hear can be just as lyrical and surreal as the apparent story.
The viewer is flung into confusion

Once the gears of the plot are set in motion and we’re 30 or 40 minutes into the story, however, a window has closed; it is now going to be much more difficult to introduce anything that seems entirely tangential, because it will either be too hard to eventually explain, or it will annoy the viewer who at this point doesn’t want to be taken out of the story. Basically, it will rupture what has already been established. Many people claim to dislike the Syd Field school of three-act screenwriting, but it happens to be true that the human brain can only comfortably digest a feature length narrative film if its thrust is consistent; it can be unpredictable, but it can’t completely defy the viewer’s expectations. There are, of course, many highly rewarding masterpieces that lay waste to narrative traditions, and I love some of them to bits, but watching them requires an act of forgiveness on the part of the viewer. Watching 8 1/2 is work. I am much more likely to want to watch La Strada.

Tradition is the very thing that allows films to have such powerful openings. Think about the openings of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch Drunk Love. They both have spectacular first acts that hurtle us into deep bewilderment. These are not really genre films, but there is certainly something traditional about both of them; at the very least, they both have heroes fighting for love over three acts. It's the fact that we always feel the story moving forward and can sense a greater structure, even as we are confused, that gives us enough confidence to care, and we are handily rewarded for our faith that we're being guided through some kind of master plan. Without a good solid frame, the early excitement in these stories would have crashed. Think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A whiz-bang opening, and then- meh. So I think our narrative traditions really are essential, and a successful genre film is simply the most dramatic way to remind us of this.