Friday, June 23, 2006

A Few (But By No Means All) Of The Reasons Reasons Why X-Men 3 Is Such A Bad Movie

1. What Bryan Singer understands, and what stunningly few other directors of Hollywood action films have yet gotten wise to, is that onscreen carnage is not, in and of itself, exciting. The fact of an explosion is not what's exciting about an explosion. The best scene in Singer's X-2, as most people who like the movie will agree, is Magneto's escape from his plastic prison, which begins with him sucking the iron out of his guard's body (the force of his magnetism lifting and arcing the guard's body upwards as the iron bursts through his skin), and continues with his choreographing swirling metal discs as he flies out of his chamber. It had the excitement of rising action (helped by the editing, patient for the genre) and the kick of visual grandeur (Singer's crane shots were, if anything, an appropriate reflection of the triumph of his character's ego), despite the fact that only one person died and nothing blew up. Brett Ratner's X-3, like almost every other recent summer blockbuster I can recall, goes about its business in the apparent belief that cinematic excitement is directly proportionate to body count. Action scenes are editing hecticly, the too-fast-to-follow cuts creating the illusion of kineticism, and covering up for Ratner's inability to stage a sustained moment of visual engagement. Action scenes need to convey to the viewer a sense of accomplishment—that the mayhem onscreen is building to a moment of consequence. Singer, who has an adult's eye for composition and set of timing, knows how to do this: action scenes in X-2 were thrilling because each shot seemed to promise a direct relation to the climax of the sequence. This is shockingly rare in movies like this; they mostly try to overwhelm the audience. And so in X-3's myriad action scenes, particularly the clusterfuck climax, there's CGI fireballs, extras getting trampled everywhere, and it's all happening so damn fast... the only thing I remember seeing with any clarity is the pale, sagging flesh of the emperor's ass.

2. Somebody apparently compiled a list of every pseudo-heroic bit of inane clunker dialogue any actor has ever unwilling tried to sell in the service of an insufficiently doctored blockbuster script. And then the screenwriters tried to see how many of the lines on that list they could find ways of giving Halle Berry.

3. There is a scene in which Vinnie Jones, playing Juggernaut, a mutant whose apparent power is his ability to build up an enormous head of steam (as if this movie didn't have enough characters already), has his progress momentarily halted when Kiyy Pryde, who can move through walls, drags his lower body down into the floor and leaves him there. And then he bursts out of the floor, and shouts, "I'm Juggernaut, bitch!" When I saw this movie in a theater after work this week, that line got the biggest laugh. Which I found appalling, because it was obviously so nakedly misogynistic and what kind of person finds it amusing when a big burly man overpowers a little girl and calls her a bitch? It occurred to me a few hours later that it was actually a Chapelle's Show reference. Should this reassure me? I don't think it should. Because apparently this movie was written by people who a) think that simply making reference to a currently popular catchphrase counts as humor, and b) are either unaware of or unconcerned with the corruption of meaning that occurs when a boast originally made by one man (in silly 80s dress-up) to another is crowed by a roided-up Guy Ritchie cast-off to a quavering teenage girl. And apparently this movie was enjoyed by an audience that agreed with them on both counts. It's possible I'm getting too worked up over this, but I hope that someday, in a few years, when "I'm Rick James, bitch!" has gone the way of "Where's the beef?", somebody sits down, cringes at this scene, and realizes that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. (A man can dream.)

4. The gay thing. Specifically, that Singer's first two X-Men movies had a gay subtext that was pretty much, uh, text, very clearly treating the social abnormality of mutancy with the same language used for homosexuality. The mutant characters' difference was met with debates about choice vs. innate nature, and the dueling solutions of repressive "cures" vs. acceptance from society at large. And X-3 continues under that assumption, with the development of a vaccine for mutancy. (Its well-meaning developer is blandly handsome, Ivy League wishy-washy baby boomer Michael Murphy, who's made a career out of embodying everything people hate about Democrats the way Chris Cooper has made a career out of embodying everything people hate about Republicans.) And so we get all the talk about mutancy being natural and them fighting for acceptance from the rest of the country and forming their own supportive, sometimes exclusive subcultures. And then, when Jean Grey returns as Phoenix, it turns out that mutancy is dangerous, and aspects of it, in fact, do need to be suppressed. And so all the "good" mutants join up with the government to help contain the "bad" mutants, even going so far as to forcibly cure some of them. (I. Cannot. Fucking. Believe. That Ian McKellen agreed to do a movie that treats the unwilling stripping-away of his difference as an unambiguous victory.) We even get Rogue having her powers removed because they were getting in the way of her relationship with her boyfriend.

Which is not, remotely, the worst of it. Because somewhere in there, the dominant metaphor becomes terrorism, with all of Magneto's rebels undertaking a violent insurgency against the government, committing acts of domestic disruption. (He even destroys a national monument, the Golden Gate Bridge.) And so it falls to the good mutants to turn on the bad ones, and help the government end the reign of terror. The President says things like "God help us" while flanked by American flags. And Magneto, played by McKellen as the queenly advocate for unashamed enjoyment of his socially marginally deviance, is seen via a (Fox) news broadcast publicly delivering a threatening video message to the administration, a message apparently recorded in a hideout that looked (to me at least) not unlike a cave.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

After Long Silence: The Undercover Man (Joseph H. Lewis) and The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson)

So, no, I haven't exactly been blogging much these past few months. Suffice to say that blogging and writing about movies in a semi-professional capacity really drains one of the desire to see movies in one's spare time, let alone write about them. Yeah, boo hoo. Anyway, today marks the start of a renewed effort to at least jot something down (mostly notes, rather than full reviews; I don't have the discipline necessary to bother with plot summary or organization in my spare time) on every movie I see, starting with Monday's B Noir double feature at Film Forum...

The Undercover Man
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1949)

Unmissable shades of Capone, with the unseen racket-running Big Fellow taken down for undeclared info. The lead T-Man's Glenn Ford, who has a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing, maintaining a lightly ironic off-the-cuff delivery even when he and wife Nina Foch sit down in the shade of an oak tree for the obligatory is-it-all-worth-it? talk. (As for the bucolic interlude: I'll piggyback on what others have said about urban and rural spaces in film noir—most notably On Dangerous Ground—and note that in Undercover Man, the city is overheated, cluttered, violent; the countryside is spread-out, peaceful, and a place of mental clarity. Is it a coincidence that the peace Ford finds in wide open spaces, or that Ryan finds in Dangerous Ground, is also associated with the stabilizing influence of femininity?) Lewis is far less at home with the material: he shoots from low angles with a lot of ceiling over the characters' heads, like he's waiting for them to walk into his trademark looming, juicy closeups, but they rarely do. He doesn't quite connect with the script, which takes a morally uninquisitive procedural route, and doesn't provide him with a chance for any Freudian money shots a la Gun Crazy or Big Combo. When something does happen, he overreaches: Ford's primary adversary is the Big Fellow's mercenary accountant (his opposite), and when he slips an ominous "how's your wife" in at the end of a conversation, Lewis repeats in on the soundtrack, synced with a racing train engine, until the moment is run completely dry. Then there's the part where Ford is convinced to stay the course of his investigation by an Italian grandma's impossibly lengthy "I believe in America" speech, translated by her big-eyed granddaughter for extra sap. There are few things as uncinematic as watching somebody speak through an interpreter; that it's the single worst scene in the movie getting the start-stop treatment doesn't make it go down any easier. At least Lewis's assistants (I'm guessing) did some terrific work on the Little Italy exteriors: the sets are built up with an unusual amount of texture, and the deployment of the extras, in establishing shots and especially in a foot chase, is full-scale and impressively fluid.

The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson, 1957)

Soft-spoken, eerily smooth-faced Richard Conte is wasted as the good guy, a former gangster (he was only the accountant when he was in the racket, so delicate audience sympathies aren't in danger of being compromised) enlisted by his old connections to track down his younger brother, who the Syndicate fears may be about to go straight. It's your standard two-kinds-of-family thing, with Conte's loyalty to the syndicate expressed in terms of kinship—his old boss is "Uncle Sid," and his mother once took a bullet for him—and the morally pure bonds at the polar opposite, to his blood relations, are expressed through domesticity. The younger brother ran out on the syndicate because he wanted his virtuous bride to have their baby away from the sullying taint of the mob life (they run away from New York and set up on a farm in SoCal, I note in light of an observation made above); Conte buys his grandmother a TV and his mother a fridge; he even runs a laundry business that cleans diapers. Conte, meanwhile, is called away from his wife on the day they were to adopt a baby; as written (and as played, with rather off-putting aggressiveness, by Dianne Foster), his wife represents one of the more grating reminders of both his domestic obligation, and the wife's need to stay out of the way while the husband does what needs to be done.

That said, The Brothers Rico at least does something interesting with the standard domestic morality of its genre (cf. Undercover Man in addition to every other movie that posits wifely submission and masculine reliability as the gateway to a worthy existence): it twists it into an almost parodic demonstration of marriage as a dom/sub power dynamic. I knew something was up early, when the husband slips out of bed to answer a secret phone call, the wife comes into the room, is assured that the call is none of her concern, and then drops down to both knees in front of her husband, head at optimal b.j. level, to slip his shoes onto his feet for him. Then there's the part where he jokingly calls her "peasant" and she mock-resists him as she yanks him into the shower with him, ot the way she bites his shoulder (in keeping with Foster's overly voracious performance, perhaps), giggles mischievously, and awaits retribution. I'm not sure if this is better or worse than the standard subservience, but it's definitely something.

It's the first Karlson I've seen, and there's definitely something to him. The location exteriors ("semi-documentary" is a term that's often thrown around with him), picked up in unremarkable corners of the country, are sparse in a way that keeps the material appealingly unpretty. And wow, must it have been done for cheap. Most of the one-on-one dialogue scenes are shot in one take, presumably because Karlson didn't have the time to use multiple camera set-ups. From the looks of it, he didn't even have the wherewithal to do multiple takes: Conte trucks through the line flubs and slipping accents of a series of scene partners (his "ethnic" mother and former boss/father figure—who bears, it should be noted, a distracting resemblance to Bob Hope— are the worst offenders), and the flow of the dialogue misses far too many beats on the way to its emotional highs. But when the timing clicks (especially in the scenes with Harry Bellaver as the small-town bigwig running the show from Conte's hotel room), Karlson has an almost claustrophobia-inducing control over the inexorable plot twists. That this tawdry low-budget number isn't afraid to kill sympathetic characters off also helps.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Yesterday Was a Pretty Good Day

This is going to come off a little like gloating, but I spent most of yesterday out at the Museum of the Moving Image, taking in three genre subversion-by-immersion movies from Robert Altman's most fertile period. Without further ado:

Thieves Like Us I'd seen this once before, in high school, but only remembered it in bits and pieces. It's from Edward Anderson's 1937 novel of the same title (also the basis of Nick Ray's They Live By Night, although Altman's film, or so I gather, is the more faithful). Altman's anti-romantic tendencies are on full display here: he brings down a very Bonnie and Clyde-type Depression piece with a determinedly inarticulate cast, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall's toothy, pipe cleaner-skinny chemistry, and ironic juxtapositions with period radio broadcasts. (Even at his best, Altman has a tendency to traffic in reductive, funny-ha-ha ironies and character-cheapening gags, and there are a couple of times in the first hour when I worried that the movie was going to go sour.) But eventually, his dedication to restoring the plot to naivete becomes a kind of romanticism, too. It's a very plaintive strain of romanticism, one that fits with the pearly, washed-out colors of the movie, and by the time the last two scenes come around (Carrdine's death in a one-sided shootout, left mostly to the imagination in favor of Duvall's excruciating- in the good way- reaction shots; and Duvall's departure on a train to Fort Worth, the camera stopping at the bottom of a staircase as she and the other passengers walk, backs to the camera, up and away), he's managed a nostalgic gut punch that lingers a little while longer than you were expecting it too.

The Long Goodbye I'd never seen it before, though I'd heard a lot about it, especially in the context of the mid-70's neo-noir cycle (c.f. Chinatown, Night Moves). And, surprise surprise, it's great. Starts early with the tongue-halfway-in-cheek transposition: Chandler's hard-boiled narration turns into Elliot Gould's running commentary, mumbled out of the side of his mouth. The plot is, inevitably, much simplified from the book; the changes that were made seem pretty pointed, especially in the engineering of the ending. Having Gould (who's great, and really oddly charismatic) finally say "Nobody cares except me" was crucial, obviously, but also works (as others have noted) to make the movie resemble The Third Man as much as possible: basically, everybody but Marlow is willing to believe that Lennox is dead, and nobody else cares to track him down; in the course of his investigation Marlow discovers such profoundly unpleasant truths about his friend that when he does find him, he shoots him. And then the last shot, on the long, straight road lined by trees, with him walking away from the potential love interest who was really in with his friend all along, puts Gould into the Valli role.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller I was a little nervous for this one, actually, because it'd been a little while since I'd seen it, and returning to a beloved work of art after a long time away is always fairly nerve-wracking. And it wasn't quite the movie I remember it being: every time I watch it, the tone seems more comic and the narrative more structured. (Probably an inevitable result of increased familiarity with the narrative; I also watched it for the first time on an old VHS with terrible picture and sound quality, which probably helped create the sense of elusiveness I value so much about the movie.) But being more concrete doesn't hurt the movie; it locates the film's relationship to the Western more firmly in the interrogatory camp, and makes the last reel (and the isolated moments of fleeting beauty before then) all the more treasurable.

Hey, all these movies end pretty depressingly, don't they? These endings are Altman's most definitive statements on the genres he chose to revisit: he's restoring the sense of melancholy to the love-on-the-run crime movie's live fast, die young ethos of instability, to the private eye's iconoclasm, and the Western hero's outlaw individuality. If anything, despite his reputation as a subversive, Altman's genre movies try and strip away convention for the sake of achieving a greater, more resigned sense of romanticism. Just a thought.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Response to Rich Brooks of White Alert

A year and a day ago, the L Magazine's Film Issue came out, featuring a Critique piece I wrote dealing with the film reviews published on the "White Nationalist" websites the Vanguard News Network and White Alert. It was my first long piece and first cover credit, I worked pretty hard to say some things that I had wanted to say, and I was very excited when it came out. Looking at it now, there are some things I would change about it, but all in all I'm still pretty happy with it.

And this morning, I received an email from Rich Brooks, the man behind White Alert, telling me he had read my piece with interest and written a response to it on his site. He addresses my article in his Daily Alert section (there doesn't appear to be a separate url to link to, but it's accessible through the front page; scroll down for the mention of my article), and in a longer piece here, which features his "Between the Lines" commentary interspersed with my piece.

As Mr. Brooks has responded to my article publicly and line-by-line, and since this seems to be the most open and free-flowing way of doing it, I'd like to offer my response to him here, in the same Between the Lines fashion. The original texts are in the regular font; Brooks's comments are in blue, and mine are in red. First, the Daily Alert Item:

April 27, 2006

White Alert Draws Scorn of JYC Film Critic

It seems my movie reviews have caught the attention of a NYC film critic who writes for something called "The L Magazine," a hip and trendy online rag with an insularly Noo Yawk outlook. [At least somebody believes our press kit. I don't suppose you'd like to buy an ad? And the L is actually a print magazine; the reviews and features published online are all the print edition, which is our primary medium. A minor point, but it will come up later.] Author Mark Asch, presumably a jew, titles his rather condescending piece about White Nationalist movie reviewers "" Here are some quotes:

"Reading a recent review of The Notebook on VNN-affiliate Rich Brooks’s “White Alert” website, it’s difficult to avoid feeling superior to Brooks on intellectual and aesthetic grounds as well as moral . . . But condescension, even putting aside the potential danger of dismissing the movement so glibly, is a response that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the approach employed by the reviewers on VNN and White Alert. In fact, they represent a specific part of the discourse of film criticism even as they pervert almost all of its specific values."

"One might, of course, question the feasibility of sustained dialogue with anyone whose website states, as White Alert does, that the world would be a better place if Germany had won either of the world wars, and indeed, that’s the major shortcoming of Brooks’s rigorous reliance on his own point of view. Implicit in the notion that one’s response is dictated by individual context is the idea that anyone else would have to respond any other way, and so the real failure of the VNN and White Alert reviews is their disinterest in any divergent opinions. It’s not a matter of clumsily didactic recommendations (“So run, don’t walk, to your nearest (preferably non-jewish [sic] owned) video store and rent a copy of [Jackie Brown]”, for instance) so much as their obvious belief in the superiority of their own opinions and the irrelevance of anyone else’s . . . Ultimately, for all their extremism, the reviews on VNN and White Alert fail for pretty conventional reasons. But that’s how I feel about their film criticism. I wonder what they have to say about mine?"

Fair enough, jewboy. [Here's as good a time as any to mention it: I thank you for offering to change the headlines on your website, if in fact I'm not Jewish. Although I was raised Jewish, I think more and more that I don't have a particular connection to any religious faith. That said, there's nothing like a "jewboy" taunt to get you back in touch with your cultural heritage. The headline can stay.] Send me some of your reviews and I'll tell you what I think of them. I'm not a professional film critic but I'm somewhat flattered that you treat me as such. I just wish you had given your readers the link to White Alert so that they could judge for themselves. [Like I said, it's a print magazine; the online content is just a reprint of what's in the magazine, which I hope is a satisfactory explanation for why none of our online reviews or features contain links. And I'd like to think that anyone interested would take the initiative and google your site for the whole picture.] I may respond further to his points at some point, but in the meantime readers can email Mr. Asch at

Before continuing on to the longer essay, I wanted to take issue with how you refer to me, here and in the next piece, as a "professional film critic." Technically, at the time I wrote the piece I was an unpaid editorial assistant (though I've since come aboard at the L in a more full-time, paid capacity, mostly for responsibilities other than film writing). More importantly, though, I don't consider what I do to be any different from you do: there isn't, I don't think, any dichotomy between the professional and the amateur. Especially not now, when there's so much vital film criticism being self-published on the internet (take a look at any of the blogs linked to on the right). An increasing number of employed film critics also maintain their own websites. I don't really see this as an insider/outsider issue; we all write about movies, strive to understand them better, and take our efforts fairly seriously.

That said, here is the longer essay:

Between the Lines with a NYC Movie Critic

April 27, 2006

The following review, rendered below in italics, appeared recently in “The L. Magazine,” a website billing itself as “New York’s Event Guide.” My between-the-lines comments appear in blue.

At the Movies with Online Nazis

By Mark Asch

By Rich Brooks

Unpleasant biographical revelations have long disrupted our appreciation of beloved artists. Ezra Pound was likely a fascist and T.S. Eliot an anti-Semite; James Brown beat women and Chuck Berry videotaped them peeing — so it goes. Holding Semitically Incorrect political views is equated with sexual perversion and wifebeating! Never heard T.S. Eliot called an anti-Semite, but if true, he rises in my estimation. We rationalize this by saying that, after all, the works we admire are created by human beings, with human flaws, and that the shortcomings of the artist do not detract from the art. Still, separating the two is difficult work, so it’s not all that surprising that Vanguard News Network correspondent Mark Rivers has a difficult time No he doesn’t; he’s just giving the jew his due, which I would think you’d applaud. justifying his admiration of The Man Who Wasn’t There:

“Naturally, I’m not going to write them off just because they’re Jews… [T]he Coens are fine storytellers. In this age of Lowest-Common-Denominator crap coming from Hollywood, it’s nice to see a thought-provoking comedy once in a while, even if it is brought to us by more of those filthy Yids.”

[It's evident that Rivers had to reckon with the apparent contradiction of hating Jews and liking a movie made by Jews. He even felt it necessary to offer his readers his rationale for making the decision he came to. Hence, "difficult." It's really just a matter of semantics, but he's basically expressing the same kind of ambivalence I feel while reading this, which deals with Eliot's anti-semitic leanings.]

The Vanguard News Network, a self-described confederation of “disgusted and disaffected writers driven out of academia and journalism by the Semitical correctness that has denatured our culture” operating under the banner “No Jews. Just Right.” and apparently based out of Kirksville, Missouri, is a website of political and social commentary promoting a “White Nationalist” agenda. Recent content includes a wishful address by President Bush, admitting that he was duped into invading Iraq by “the entire Jewish community in America, which so vigorously pushed the idea of waging war against Iraq via their newspapers, magazines and TV shows.”

As the review excerpted above might indicate, the movie reviews on VNN are similarly bound to the supremacist agenda. In a not unrepresentative passage from his review of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Rivers jokes: “The articulate negress in a power suit at the head of the table points out that the real ‘conundrum’ (I wonder how many bananas it took the dialogue coach to get her to pronounce it correctly?) is whether…” etc., etc. Obviously, the first and most sensible reaction to a statement such as this is outrage. My first reaction was laughter. Blacks are constantly being depicted in power positions by Hollywood far out of proportion to such occurrences in real life, and this is Rivers’ clever way of telling us this. But, given time, one’s righteous vigilance gives way to a certain morbid fascination. So you grudgingly admit it’s funny too? [Not grudgingly. It is funny, the way anything so unexpected and uncomfortable inspires laughter.]

The VNN and the movement it represents are, after all, a mustache-twirling, Snidely Whiplash embodiment of evil so far removed from one’s understanding as to be a curiosity. That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that phrase. [Thank you. That's what I was talking about above, when I was explaining why I found what Rivers said funny.] They’re self-made straw men: no one could invent an enemy so easy to despise, or, for that matter, to dismiss. Much of their fuming seems as motivated by a vague suspicion of their own impotence as by anything else; at the conclusion of Rivers’ review to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he works himself into a fury culminating in what appears to be a fantasy of violence exacted by himself upon two fictional characters. We’ve gone from burning crosses to a Burn Book.

It’s also oddly (and perhaps naively?) satisfying to browse through an archive of White Nationalist movie reviews. Thanks, it’s oddly (and perhaps naively?) satisfying to read your condescending remarks about me. Reading a recent review of The Notebook on VNN-affiliate [sic – I can play that game, too. White Alert is not an “affiliate” of anything.] [My mistake. I found White Alert through VNN, where you're credited with a number of movie reviews. I assumed the relationship between the two sites was more formal than it is, and I apologize for the misleading choice of words.] Rich Brooks’s “White Alert” website, it’s difficult to avoid feeling superior to Brooks on intellectual and aesthetic grounds as well as moral. Amid praise for the film’s marginalizing of black performers It isn’t just racists like me who are tired of seeing black performers shoved down their throats (by the jews who run Hollywood and the ad agencies) every time they turn on the TV or watch a movie. All of White America is getting sick of it. [That's a vast demographic. Anecdotally, not a single white person I know—and I know many, many white people—would say that you represent his or her views. So I think that claiming to speak for "all of white America" is a bit of a stretch.], eminently [sic]-able references to actresses Gena “Rolands” and Rachel “McBride,” OK, so I got a couple actors’ names spelled wrong. I’m not a professional movie critic or Hollywood insider nor do I read People Magazine or watch the E! Channel. I try to ignore pop culture as much as possible [I don't buy that "I'm above caring about pop culture" line as an excuse for messing up the names of two lead actresses whose names were in the opening and closing credits. And besides, when was the last time Gena Rowlands was in People? It's just lazy, which is why I mentioned it, and the fact that you don't get paid to write about movies doesn't excuse you from caring about the quality of your work.]. and a description of James Garner as having “matured and ripened like a fine wine or aged cheese,” What’s wrong with that metaphor? [Nothing. It's a perfectly apt metaphor. That's why it's been used so often.] Brooks admits that The Notebook (The Notebook!) made him cry, and concludes: “’Sweet and very tender but not saccharine’ is how I’d sum it up in seven words,” in an apparent sop to those readers that pass along his judgments by telegram and don’t wish to paraphrase.

But condescension, even putting aside the potential danger of dismissing the movement so glibly, is a response that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the approach employed by the reviewers on VNN and White Alert. In fact, they represent a specific part of the discourse of film criticism even as they pervert almost all of its specific values. Huh? What “specific values” do we pervert? You’ve lost me here. Please try to rephrase that in plain English.]

This January, in’s Movie Club, an annual year-in-review critical roundtable, critic Stephanie Zacharek offered a description of the critical process very useful for our purposes: “OK, obviously, we all apply an aesthetic, if that means we have a range of sources — of people and experiences, of other movies we’ve seen or books we’ve read or music we’ve heard — that effect how we look at what’s in front of us.” Any attempt to respond to a film is bound to be largely informed by the personal, subjective context a viewer uses to relate to the film, and a piece of film criticism is the product of a negotiation between the filmmaker, the film, and the audience. The way the reviews on VNN and White Alert engage with films is an extreme example of a subjective approach, positioning them as far out on the critical spectrum as they are on the political spectrum. But radical as it is, though, their approach does warrant discussion as a part of that spectrum. Isn’t all movie criticism subjective? No matter how many esoteric "roundtable" terms you want to toss around, it still boils down to whether or not one likes the film and how it affects him personally. I also choose the films I review with an eye on their relevance to White Nationalism, and of course I talk about them from that perspective, a perspective totally lacking in elite media film criticism. I don’t pretend to be neutral or unbiased. Yes, all movie criticism is necessarily subjective, and I guess this means we sort of agree on this last paragraph? [We absolutely do. I wrote this piece because, once I get past from the initial novelty of movie-reviewing White Supremacists, I think that your reviews demonstrate something absolutely essential about the way people respond to art. I believe it's inherently subjective. Which is why, after first introducing the reader to you and work, and running through the list of initial responses, I try to establish your status as extreme practitioners of the same thing everybody else does when they're thinking about movies. Or anything else, for that matter.]

The reviewers on VNN and White Alert are certainly more transparent about the link between their ideology and their response to a film, as any discussion of a film’s aesthetics is secondary to a parsing of its racial message. Exactly. That’s what White Alert is about, discussing things from a White racial point of view. [Of course: a White Nationalist is going to write movie reviews refracted through that ideological lens. It couldn't be otherwise, any more than a secular humanist, or a neo-Marxist, or a radical feminist, or a devout Christian could watch a movie without interpreting it, however invisibly, through their own particular perspective. This is something I very much believe; really, it's the central premise of the essay and I'm using you to prove it.] The point that the highly politicized nature of their viewpoint obscures is that any reaction to a film’s aesthetic qualities is no less subjective. A consideration of a film’s aesthetic accomplishments is as bound to the artistic sensibility of a viewer as a response to its political content is bound to the viewer’s political context. Some people are predisposed to be suspicious of tear-jerkers while others willingly surrender to them — judging from his response to The Notebook, incidentally, it would appear that Brooks falls squarely into the latter camp. Wrong! I mentioned the tears because it is highly unusual, as I’ve said elsewhere, for me to shed tears about anything. I also mentioned that I don’t normally like tear-jerkers and that I was prepared for a mushy chick flick when I first watched it. Obviously we share a difference of opinion about this film. [I'm just using it an example of a predisposition. Maybe the response was completely out of character. But it still reveals something about the person who responded that particular way to that particular movie, which was the central point.]

An exploration of the film as it relates to one’s own, subjective context is the unavoidable nature of critical expression. A review that lauds the masculine, warlike nationalism the reviewer saw as the dominant thematic element in Troy (as Brooks does) is more similar to a review bemoaning its perceived “meathead’s understanding of sexuality” (as Zacharek does) than would initially appear. Both reactions represent the fusion of the film’s content and the reviewer’s ideological make-up. Laughable or contemptible (or, likely, both) as White Supremacist film criticism may be, it does warrant consideration as film criticism. Thanks. As laughable and contemptible as I find Fatso and his equally fat negress wife, Roger Ebert’s opinions do warrant consideration as film criticism.

In another Movie Club dispatch, Zacharek asks rhetorically, “But mostly isn’t it how a critic thinks, and not necessarily what, that makes you want to read?” The primary value of the reviews on White Alert is as a demonstration of the very personal “how” of the reviewers. On the other hand, the charge most often and most accurately leveled against Roger Ebert is that he willingly and profitably reduces all the nuance of his reaction to a film down to a “what.” Whichever the direction he jerks his thumb, it’s a vulgar and insulting gesture, and represents the assumption that what people want from a critic is didacticism rather than dialogue. Agreed. I said one time that he should take his two thumbs and shove them up his ass.

One might, of course, question the feasibility of sustained dialogue with anyone whose website states, as White Alert does, that the world would be a better place if Germany had won either of the world wars That opinion with regard to WWI is quite mainstream now, and I am always willing to engage in "sustained dialogue" with anyone who wishes to seriously engage me. [You can't possibly believe that. Not about Germany, I mean—you apparently can and obviously do. But as far as your opinion being a "mainstream" one, you're once again overstating your case. I don't know the extent to which you've insulated yourself from what actually constitutes mainstream beliefs, but I refuse to accept that you don't recognize the unpopularity and extremism of your own position. I defy you to offer "mainstream" viewpoints congruent with your feelings about Germany and the wars. And as for why living under a regime that practiced ethnic cleansing, suppressed freedom of expression and religion, and practiced a policy of aggressive military over-expansion wouldn't, in fact, be preferable to the current state of affairs, I suppose I find it fairly self-evident and you don't, and after all that build-up I'm not particularly optimistic about this argument going anywhere. Better to stick to the subject at hand.] and indeed, that’s the major shortcoming of Brooks’s rigorous reliance on his own point of view. Implicit in the notion that one’s response is dictated by individual context is the idea that anyone else would have to respond any other way, and so the real failure of the VNN and White Alert reviews is their disinterest in any divergent opinions. It’s not a matter of clumsily didactic recommendations (“So run, don’t walk, to your nearest (preferably non-jewish [sic] owned) video store and rent a copy of [Jackie Brown]”, for instance), Give me a break, for Chrissakes; I was only trying to close the review with a catchy one-liner. As to your [sic], in White Alert’s style sheet “jew” is never capitalized to subtly denote contempt. [To the first point: I know that's what you're doing; I just found the juxtaposition of canned critical jargon and bile-spewing anti-semitism to be amusing and revealing, and assumed my readers would as well. To the second point: in the L, the word "Jew" is capitalized, as are all other religious and ethnic denotations. Hence the [sic].] so much as their obvious belief in the superiority of their own opinions and the irrelevance of anyone else’s. The truth shall set you free, even from tangled verbiage. [Yeah, this last part isn't exactly a model of clarity. If you'll permit me to give it another try: If I say that I'm is bound to respond subjectively to a movie, I also have to grant that you're going to respond subjectively, too, and that aside from variables like cinematic knowledge and willingness to work with the film's project, both viewpoints are equally valid. And so my objection to your reviews is what I perceive as a dismissal of divergent points of view. First you say that you accept Roger Ebert as a valid critical voice, despite his being overweight and married to a black woman, and then a paragraph later you repeated a wish that he'd just shut up. That kind of stuff, and the general tone of your critical and political writings, makes me suspicious of the extent to which you view anybody else's opinion as valid. Because if we're going to agree that movie criticism is all subjective, we're going to accept that Ebert belongs. That in fact, his opinions might carry more weight than ours, since he's seen so many more movies and has honed his critical abilities over several decades. Perhaps I've underestimated your open-mindedness. Then again, you think my grandmother should have died in the gas chambers.]

Race based upon the number of Jews involved in its production is bizarre, certainly, and morally abhorrent, but mostly it’s damningly unambiguous, convinced of its own unimpeachable finality. What’s that again? [I think you missed a line; this paragraph break is formatted weird on the L website. That sentence should read: "A review bashing Rat Race based upon the number of Jews involved in its production is bizarre, certainly, and morally abhorrent, but mostly it’s damningly unambiguous, convinced of its own unimpeachable finality." Basically, one thing I find distasteful is when a critic declares that he wishes a film that isn't up to his standards had never been made. Armond White, for instance, and the below-mentioned Rex Reed do this quite frequently; so do you, based upon different subjective criteria.] Worse still, the condemnation of the film, in spite of its obvious subjectivity, is less a negative response to the film than a denial of its right to exist, a judgment typically cast by our more arrogant mainstream critics (if Rex Reed is still considered relevant, that’s a list he deserves to head). Ultimately, for all their extremism, the reviews on VNN and White Alert fail for pretty conventional reasons. But that’s how I feel about their film criticism. I wonder what they have to say about mine? I briefly glanced at a couple your reviews online, and can’t really say much about them since they were only a paragraph or two long and didn’t seem to say much of anything. Perhaps you would like to steer me toward one or two that you’re proud of. Clever title, ", At the Movies with Online Nazis," though.

[Yeah, word counts are a bitch. Don't rub it in. Anyway, here are links to my contributions to the current L—coincidentally, this year's Film Issue—with which I'm more or less satisfied, I suppose. This blog, incidentally, is home to longer, more informal writings on film, if you'd care to browse it. As for the title, my editors came up with that. I wanted to call it "Triumph of the URL." I'm fairly certain that this doesn't change anything, but I think it scans better and I didn't have cause to mention it at the time.]

Anyway, I’m flattered that a professional New York movie critic would read my reviews and find it worthy of his time to comment on them as extensively as Mr. Asch has done. I only wish that he had given his readers the links to both VNN and White Alert so that they could read our movie reviews and judge for themselves.

[Just to reiterate, because these are important points, to me at least: First, I don't consider what I do to be categorically different from what you do, and setting us up as New York Media Insider and Voice of Unadorned Reason from the Heart of White America, or however you'd quantify it, is to me disingenuous. And second, that our online content is republished from the print magazine and doesn't contain any links as a rule, so I hope you don't feel that the lack of any links was an intentional slight.]

And that, for Mr. Brooks, and anybody else who might have slogged all the way through this red, white and blue behemoth of a post, is my response to your response. Thank you very much for your courtesy in emailing me; I have tried to make my comments even-handed and hope that you find them to be so. (If not, I promise to do better in the future.) Either way, you've forced me to clarify my views, to you and myself, for which I thank you. I welcome any further response from you.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What Kept Me From Liking Brick As Much As I Wanted/Expected To

I caught up with one of the last press screenings of Rian Johnson's debut high-school-Hammett excercise Brick in advance of its opening on 3/31. And for the most part, I really liked it. Admired the plotting; loved the meta-noir dialogue. Liked its wide-open, California overcast spaces. Enjoyed the fact that I could clearly see elements of its forebearers in its structure. (Making Marlow into a high school loner who eats his lunch by himself is particularly genius.) I could have done without the occasional glitchy jump-cut, flash-cut dream sequence with allegedly portentous soundtrack runbling- that MTV Generation stuff won't date well- but that's a minor complaint. My problem, and this is a particular talking point of mine, has to do with something that Johnson says in the press-kit interview:

Q: Since there's no caricaturing in the movie, the teenaged charaters are very suitable for the elements of crime and passion. There's an emotional intensity; so much seems at stake for them.

RJ: You know, Hammett was once asked if Sam Spade was based on any particular detective. He answered no, it's based on what every detective would like to imagine himself to be. That's sort of analagous to our movie's relationship to real high school; it's not the way high school is, but it's the way high school feels.

When you're in high school, things don't feel- they didn't, for me- flippant and silly. A lot of high school shows and movies seem to me to have a very adult perspective on high school, the perspective of someone who is out of that world and is now seeing it in a slightly condescending manner. Once you get beyond it, it's easy to forget how you once were completely encased in its logic. Whereas when you're actually in it, and your head is completely encased in this microcosm, it's your world and it's a world you have to survive. And things seem, if not life-or-death, very important and mythical. The people you know and the dynamics of your relationships seem hyper-real. We tried to summon that here. The level of intensity that's in Brick equates to the level of intensity that I think a lot of us felt in high school.

I probably didn't need to put in that quote, but I just love it so much. I recently critiqued a story in my fiction workshop about a high school superhero, and wrote in the margins something like, "of course, when you're in high school, you think everything that might go wrong with your life is the end of the world; what I like about this story (and Buffy, for that matter) is that, if something does go wrong for these high school kids, it really is the end of the world."

I'm also writing my thesis on Battle Royale, which I think is pretty clearly (intentionally or otherwise; it's really none of my concern) an allegory for high school graduation. My line of argument is, basically, that it phrases high school in terms of a what's in all respects (contrived circumstances, kids acting like adults, emotionally heightened, ultraviolent) an especially cinematic narrative, and that phrasing it in that way suggests that cinematic narrative forms function in ways really similar to Jung's ideas about archetypes and the collective unconscious.

[What's great, too, is that elsewhere in the production notes Johnson mentions how Miller's Crossing was a key influence on this project in its interaction with classic genre tropes. (He also mentions Man Who Wasn't There, a movie which I find vastly inferior and far more tongue-in-cheek.) That's a great example, I think, because I've always felt that Miller's Crossing was an especially Jungian work, in how it attempts to make an entire cohesive movie out of fragments of cinematic memory.]

All of which is to say, that the idea of a movie which attempts to convey the (at the time) profound emotional content of high school through the device of a classical cinematic narrative form was really, really appealing to me.

Except that: Brick barely has any high school in it at all. It almost seems at times that Johnson goes out of his way to avoid showing his characters interacting in a high school environment. It's a barely visible framework, but there's no interaction between the plot and the day-to-day lives of the characters. By reducing the high school content to a couple scenes involving lockers, a scene in the library and a couple in the parking lot, and a couple moments backstage at the drama club (I' m deliberately leaving out the principle's office scene; we'll get back to that), Johnson cuts off the characters from their surroundings. (Yeah, I know, a lot of the exterior scenes, especially between Brendan and Brain, and all the scenes on the football field, are at school. But they could be anywhere. They aren't tied to any actual high school activity.) In the library, at least, there's some banter about "zero period" and bus routes, but it's not nearly enough. These kids can come and go as they please (and Johnson doesn't concern himself with the particulars of cutting); this isn't a life that kids are leading along with their high school existence, it's a life that they're leading instead of it. (One of my favorite throwaway moments in Buffy is at the beginning of the third season- "Faith, Hope, and Trick," specifically, when the characters eat a picnic off campus because they're seniors and they can do that now; things like that anchored the to its setting. The real reason Buffy never got over leaving high school was that it never found real lives for their characters to lead afterwards.) So, that's what specifically disappointed me about Brick: the high school noir I was salivating in anticipation of turned out to have at best a passing interest in high school.

As for the scenes with the Pin's "comically" oblivious mother, pouring apple juice like her son isn't a drug lord: again, don't make a joke about how little these characters have to do with the lives they're living.

And then there's the music. Maybe this is a licensing thing, but can anyone explain to me why, out of an entire cast of high-school age kids, only one of them ever listens to pop music for any length of time? It just gets back to the major problem with the movie: Johnson being so (justifiably) in love with his plot and dialouge that they become the entire movie. And I wouldn't have minded at all, if he had been making a straight noir. Maybe next time he should.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Johnny To: Consumer's Guide

By way of explanation: I had planned to churn through as much of Johnnie/Johnny (I've seen it spelled both ways; from here on out I'll use the imdb-approved "y" spelling) To's body of work as I could in preparation for a career-spanning post coinciding with the brief pre-DVD theatrical release of Breaking News. This, obviously, did not happen. What I did happen, eventually, was a gradual Netflixing of the movies that pop up most often in discussions of To's work and now, at long last, a series of capsule reviews. The original intent was to cap all this off by tracking down a DVD of Election, and considering it, and To's work, in light of the opinions voiced here, here, and elsewhere, about him as purveyor of brittle flash. A bit of that angle remains, in the decision to structure this post as a "Consumer's Guide," but what inevitably ends up happening when you set out to evaluate a series of supposedly assembly-line products is that the variances within all of them end up thrown into stark relief. Anyway, enough of my blathering; on to the films (in chronological order, as per imdb)...

The Heroic Trio (1993) Weird hybridazation of the classic martial arts film with 90's-era action film technology; the only comparison I can make is Benny Chan's The Magic Crane, but even that was a period piece (and didn't attempt an extended riff on Hard Boiled's rescue-a-baby-from-a-burning-building set piece). The three heroines, incidentally, are Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung- and for those of us who have been fed a steady diet of Maggie Cheung, ethereal object of repressed longing (cf. Wong Kar-wai, and every other movie she's ever been in not directed by Olivier Assayas), her performance comes as a bit of a shock. By which I mean: she makes her entrance on a motorcycle, carrying a sawed-off shotgun, and wearing knee-high fishnets, a black leather bustier, and leather duster (all of which she continues to sport for the rest of the movie), and no matter how prepared you think you are for that sight, you're going to have to pause the movie for at least 45 seconds before you start to believe it.

Running Out of Time (1999) Andy Lau as lone-wolf criminal with terminal illness (some lovely shots of blood-spattered hankerchiefs) playing cat-and-mouse with police officer; he also wears a dress at one point, I seem to recall, which is milked about as much as you'd expect it to be. The whole thing- action sequences, character development, production design, plot- is constructed entirely from gloss; the movie's a Platonic ideal of shallowness, which is a kind of transcendence, I suppose, if you squint hard enough. Most notable stylistic trope, especially here but used extensively elsewhere in To's films (to say nothing of John Woo, from whom he probably stole it): the swooping crane shot from an extreme low or high angle to catch ample chunks of skyline, shot with a super-wide angle lens so that the ultramodern skyscrapers fairly bulge off the screen. Very few directors love their city as much as Hong Kong actioneers.

The Mission (1999) Inexplicably emblematic bodyguard-bonding piece; mismatched team, all with different specialties and from disparate backgrounds, etc. etc. One excellent shopping mall shootout (actually tense, as supposed to outre, which is a change), but otherwise entirely uninspiring. I wonder if this movie is recommended as a key To film simply because it's built on a fairly conventional genre structure; this strikes me as a mistake, since To is invariably so flimsy in his handling of genre conventions. There's no connecting tissue, and while that doesn't spoil a more ludicrous, spit-shined offering like Running Out of Time, it means that a familiar excercise like The Mission comes off as pretty sloppy.

Full Time Killer
(2001) Andy Lau is in a video store, wearing a rubber Bill Clinton mask that covers his entire face. A Point Break poster is clearly visible in the background. The video store clerk, in voice-over: "He always wore a mask. It reminded me of a Hollywood movie I once saw." Cut to Point Break poster; pan all the way down. Just in case you didn't get it, you know. (Also, click on the link, if you haven't.)

Running Out of Time 2
(2001) So, the terminally ill criminal played by Andy Lau in the first movie is set up to die at the end; although we never technically see him kick off, it's established that it's a matter of days. And I suppose that if the sequel had brought him back, we'd all be crying foul, and write the whole thing off as ludicrous. Which, when you think about it, makes no sense: versimiltude should be the last demand we ever make of a movie like this, especially since a great deal of the pleasure here comes from the depths of contrivance to which To will gladly sink in the name of brainless fun. Also, we want our Andy Lau back. Lau Ching Wan, repeating his role as the cop, has his subtle shades of charisma, but Ekin Cheng as a carbon copy of Andy Lau's role is insufferably vacuous; at one point I thought I detected a hint of impishness in his performance, but it turned out to just be the wind running through his goatee.

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002) Movies whose titles function as hilariously succinct and spot-on synopses? Excellent. Movies whose titles function as hilariously succinct and spot-on synopses, and are uttered (shrieked, in this case) by the main character about 20 minutes in? Priceless. So, the title-speaker here is Sammi Cheng (entirely charismatic, with a wardrobe of siezure-inducing vibrancy), wealthy and perhaps not entirely un-merry widow, who is gifted with a half-measure of second sight after a car accident. After a frantically hilarious first half, though, the religious (Buddhist, sort of) implications of the plot migrate to the forefront; it's a film progressively more concerned with cycles, redemption, and destiny, and comes to an interestingly compromised acceptance of the natural order of things. Also of note are some rather weirdly inspired P.O.V. shots: the opening funeral scene makes judicious use of what appears to be a fish-eye Headstone Cam (TM) for a couple of shots looking up at mourners placing flowers onto it; there's a also a later scene in which Sammi Cheng maces the camera three times in fifteen seconds. It's that kind of movie.

PTU (2003) See above re: projects requiring a certain level of structural discipline. It's his Stray Dog riff, only with more converging plot threads and set within a single night; unsurprisingly, the subplots reek of empty gesturing and forced connections. Also, somebody should probably tell Lam Suet that he needn't work so hard to play up his vulgarity: until he gets rid of the hair growing from out of his mole, nobody is likely to mistake him for Mr. Suave. On the plus side, the urban nocturne, as shot by his regular DP Cheng Siu-keung, is his best-looking movie to date.

Running on Karma (2003) Okay, this one's really interesting. Andy Lau is a male stripper named Big outfitted in an enormous rubber Hulk suit. He's also, we soon learn, a martial arts expert and lapsed Buddhist monk. And, after some outlandish action sequences (many involving a shaggy-bearded, pipe-cleaner-thin, CGI-enhanced Indian contortionist), Big's ability to see visions of people's past lives (and looming karmic payback) leads to another completely genuine, and even momentarily startlingly, interrogation of Buddhist principles. Along with My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (another deceptively ridiculous parable of toubled religious inquiry), it's my favorite of these movies. There's also a fine performance by Cecilia Cheung, whose upbeat, occasionally quavering resolve is a primer for How to Be a Waifish, Fashionable, Chirpy Pop Star in Your Early Twenties and Play a Convincing Policewoman. (This is no small accomplishment, as we shall see when we discuss Breaking News.)

Breaking News (2004) Oh, here we are. Actually, I said most of what I wanted to say in my review, so I'll reiterate a couple key points, specifically a) that the opening shoot-out sequence, in a continuous seven-minute crane take that's the first shot of the movie, is frankly miraculous; b) that the balancing of the simultaneous siege set-ups in the sealed-off building is wildly disappointing, and that not nearly enough is done with the "Breaking News" element- as Ed Halter observes, To just seems content to introduce ideas and coast on them; and c) Kelly Chen is really, really bad in this movie. You get, in alternate scenes, either the sense that she's playing dress-up in a cop uniform, or that she knows how far out of her depth she is and is flailing mightily to hold the screen. And Hui Shiu Hung's comic relief, here as in the Running Out of Time movies, is exceptionally grating.

Throwdown (2004) A much more succesful Kurosawa homage, mostly because Sanshito Sugata is a pretty agreeable little mess, too. It's one of the first To's I saw and I wish I remembered it better than I do; I seem to recall it being slightly more low-key than the others, probably as a result of it being about judo, and pretty unapologetic in regards to its sappiness. Neither of which is so bad, really.

And that's it, for now. I'm still interested in seeing more of his pre-Milky Way films, the aforementioned Election, the Andy Lau/Sammi Cheng rom-coms Needing You (2000) and Yesterday Once More (2004) (both of those are near the top of the Netflix cue) and, embarrasingly enough, Shopaholics, because I don't think I'm going to have the willpower to resist.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Why You Should See Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004)

(The first of Hong's films to receive a U.S. theatrical run is playing at Cinema Village for at least another week. Michael Atkinson and Manohla Dargis have written a couple of quite favorable (and perceptive) reviews of it; girish has talked a little about Hong's formal qualities. So, I'm going to use this post to convince my friends, and any other NY-based readers who might accidentally stumble across this page, to see the movie.)

"What really stings about Woman Is the Future of Man, even more than the movie itself, is that this movie isn't going to get nearly the audience it deserves. This is really the kind of movie people our age would love if they only knew about it.

"For one thing, the pension-pulling audience I saw this movie with over the weekend isn't going to respond as emotionally to the movie as we are- we're uniquely equipped to find resonance in a movie about characters too drunk and bloated on munchies to recognize that they're caught up in one of life's key moments.

"It's also a movie about being completely unprepared for a situation. In one scene, too characters are sitting up in bed after sex. 'Your legs are hairy,' the guy tells the girl. She responds that she hasn't shaved in a while. 'I didn't know women shaved their legs,' he says. And I think the movie is full of scenes like this one, presenting as anti-epiphanies the kinds of youthful moments that most movies romanticize.

"I think we're at a time right now when we're ready to instead romanticize disappointment, to find solace in a movie that speaks eloquently on the subject. The movie's eloquent, I mean, not the characters: the characters aren't even aware of how paralyzed they are by nostalgia (another circumstance to which we might be able to relate). But in their rationalizations of their increasingly meager artistic ambitions, we can recognize the disappointment which is, we fear, looming right ahead of us. And in the movie's final scene, when a character stands silently in the snow, finally realizing that he's been standing in the same place for far too long, a piano strikes up, and we can sit through the opening credits, relishing the tenderness with which Hong treats his new understanding. His evocation of two overgrown boys oblivious to the fact that they're getting too old for this shit is painfully dispassionate; the ending is a moment of utter resignation. That fact that this is for the best doesn't mean it cuts any less deep.

"Anyway, that's why I think you'd love this movie. And this movie should be seen, loved, talked up and seen again by a bunch of young people (like us), who both really love the movie and are energetic enough in their love to make it a movie to be reckoned with. It deserves to be one, and won't become one without us. Anyway, that's why you should see Woman Is the Future of Man. If you're around next week, I'll go with you."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Something I Noticed for the First Time While Watching Blue Velvet at Film Forum Tonight

So, Frank Booth is... married?

This is the third time I've seen the movie and the first time I've noticed it. (I picked up on it in his first scene; it's easy to spot against Dorothy's carpet. And of course I'm not sure we're meant to think that it is a wedding ring- but hey, a band on the second finger of the left hand is what it is.) Am I coming late to the party here? Or have I unearthed a heretofore unnoticed layer of fucked-up-itude?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

"He used to be call 'Pudgy' McCabe... Anyway, he's the man that shot Bill Roundtree."

Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz and his enablers for calling the Altman blog-a-thon, first of all, and to everyone else who's chiming in with an appreciation of the old bastard. Anyway, much as I'd like to mark out my own territory in the overlapping chorus going up this weekend, I never really had much of a choice in terms of my topic. Robert Altman made McCabe and Mrs. Miller; McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my favorite movie; I'll be writing about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Couldn't be helped, really.

Thing is, it's hard to write about your favorite movie- that is, to convey what it means to you, what it did to you the first time and what it's done to you since, without walling yourself and your subjectivity off from everyone else. Of course McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my movie in a way that it isn't yours or anybody else's, but simply saying "I love this movie" is a private act no matter how loudly I declaim it, or from how high a mountaintop.

And McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, I flatter myself to think, a uniquely impossible experience to relate to anyone else, even anyone who loves it. That's partly the gift of Altman in general, who's the filmmaking equivalent of Spinoza's God: the creator as noninterventionist. Improvisatory, organic constructions leave too much room for variance to ever pin down entirely. But it's specifically true of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a movie that seeks (calculatedly, to an extent, which makes its success all the more unlikely) to settle in the shadows of a world at the moment of its disappearance.

Because certainly the beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller has quite a bit to do with its elusiveness. Already you see me resorting to abstractions as a way of projecting my response to the movie outwards. So maybe if I talk, specifically, about my experience with this movie, something more concrete will come through.

I first saw it in the fall of my junior year of high school. I had taken over the running of the Film Club that fall, upon the graduation of its founder. After an ill-advised decision to organize the year chronologically (Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis, surprisingly, didn't go over well), I moved into the supposedly more user-friendly genre of Westerns, selecting McCabe & Mrs. Miller as the "revisionist" selection, probably after reading about it in one of the ten books my school's library had about film, Robert Kolker's A Cinema of Loneliness. And on the day we watched it, we were about a half-hour in before the last remaining member walked out. And then I went home after school and watched the rest of it. I just remember sitting in the guest room of my house, where the VCR was, in a rocking armchair with a blanket on my lap, getting to the end of the movie with Warren Beatty expiring in the snow, and even though I knew how it was going to end going in, all I could think, then or since, was that I wanted my death to be just like that.

There's something about a movie like this that requires that level of intimacy, in watching it and in talking about it. (My favorite pieces on the movie is Charles Taylor's appreciation, for this and other reasons.) It's the snow, I think: to survive within it, you have to draw inwards on yourself, like McCabe pulls his coat around him in his dying moments, or how the world for Mrs. Miller ceases to exist outside of her opium pipe. Vilmos Zsigmond finds the barest blue hues for the outdoor scenes, and bathes the interiors in gold.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a movie about two people trying to keep warm.

The great tragedy, and the thing the movie expresses most eloquently, is that they aren't able to find warmth in anybody else. The film's crucial moments all play as failures of communication- I'm thinking of the scene with Keith Carradine's toothy Cowboy, unable to tell the teenage gunslinger wannabe that he just wants to cross the bridge, and ending up dead on the ice below. But mostly it's Warren Beatty (perhaps the actor in the world who most relishes playing a character who can't find the right words), blustering around his fear in the scenes with the lawyer and the guman who's come to town to kill him. And, of course, in his scenes with Julie Christie. His key line, the one most frequently quoted in discussions of the movie, is, "I got poetry in me." He's saying it to her, but he's the only one in the room. The deep and abiding sadness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is that he does have poetry in him, and that it stays there. And so if I can't quite offer an adequate explanation for why this is my favorite movie, maybe it's only appropriate.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays: The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960) At the end of the justifiably famous opening sequence, one of the reporters hovering vulturelike outside a wedding banquet to report on the arrests of some of the guests refers to the even as "the best one-act I've ever seen." To which another reporter replies, "this is just the prelude." The first guy was right. The 150 minutes lay out a vast, emotionally expansive cast of characters (and with Mifine and Shimura supported by the likes of Masayuki Mori, Takeshi Kato, Kunie Tanaka, even Chisu Ryu- to along with a host of other familiar faces) in an ambitious muckraking revenger's drama, complete with electric close-ups (I've never seen a movie make more striking use of the interior of a car as a frame for the actors) and a pulpy East-West noir-pomp score, but... damn. Dave Kehr's right. Five credited screewriters apparently equals five times the exposition. Far too much of the drama comes through proclamations of retroactive character revelations, and neither the uncovering of corruption or the disclosure of family secrets has the sinister abruptness that the movie's going for. I get really frustrated when movies like this topple over themselves.