Thursday, December 31, 2009
By Eric Jessen 12/31/09
When I think of my dream job, I think of Pauline Kael describing in her fifth book Reeling, a trip she took to the Broadway area with a young critic to see a hard-core movie. She describes the small theater, the crowd full of men, the live show that accompanied the movie – a young girl, around 17 or 18 doing a strip and then a dance naked. She describes the girl's eyes scaling the audience with a look of hatred, then staring at her. She describes being overcome by a feeling similar to one she got while watching many recent movies, those as she put it with a “mixture of nostalgia and parody” and a nihilistic atmosphere, as if “everything had turned to dung, oneself included.”
There's something about all this that I love. Maybe it's that the critic sees past the popular, the marketing, the stars, and the glittering lights. The critic can point out the excellence in a small or all but forgotten film, and at the same time point out when the movies have turned to dung. And maybe in some small way the critic makes film better.
I used to just watch movies, hundreds and hundreds. But it wasn't until I starting reading great criticism by my favorites, like Kael, Farber and Ferguson, Agee and Sarris, that I came to appreciate movies as trash and art, and directors as auteurists, frauds and hacks. I worry that with the demise of newspapers and magazines, where my favorite critics worked, that my generation won't benefit from great criticism.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Eric Jessen 12/15/09
It's easy to spot a movie with prize-worthy realism by its painstakingly slow pace, one disturbing grunt-filled sex scene, and your almost certain boredom or unbearable discomfort.
Another feature of movies with pure realism is overly mechanical and deliberate acting. So in Bad Lieutenant when Harvey Keitel started weeping uncontrollably every other scene, I knew director Abel Ferrara had executed something particularly extraordinary.
Much of Bad Lieutenant is a worthy crime drama for 1950's Italian cinema (though just as unwatchable as Open City and other neorealism "masterpieces"). But rather than having an easy charm and a poetic quality that pre 8 1/2 Federico Fellini would be proud of, Bad Lieutenant peddles a crude thrown-together, where-have-you-been-God type of meaning-making. After the masturbation scene (which is in-your-face realism), and the constant Catholic-guilt spewing, I'll award Bad Lieutenant "most realistically awful experience of the week."
Sunday, December 6, 2009
By Eric Jessen 12/6/09
A "merry romance," a "screen feast," which movie comes to mind: Frank Capra's It Happened One Night or Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday?
A Hawksian movie is rarely merry, but often a feast. It's hard to resist the easy charm of Capra's It Happened One Night: with Clark Gable, as a boozing recently fired reported Peter Warne and Claudette Colbert as the helpless heiress Ellen Andrews. Capra has a flair for the romantic and merry (It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are great examples). But I have a hard time describing any of his movies as a feast. (I take my cues from Manny Farber, the painter and critic who points out, "the only subtle thing about this conventionalist is that, despite his folksy, emotion-packed fables, Frank Capra is strictly a mechanic, stubbornly unaware of the ambiguities that ride his shallow images.") But as lightly enjoyable as is It Happened One Night, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday is raucous fun. Each scene is layered with gags, no joke goes uninterrupted by another, and as much as I love Gable and Colbert, Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson are just as wonderful. So His Girl Friday definitely deserves such compliments: certainly a feast and merry, I guess.
Both It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday are deserving of praise. So why then was the reaction to the two movies markedly different? It Happened One Night, despite poor early returns in the theaters, went on to become a huge hit, the biggest ever up to that point for Columbia Pictures. Gable feigning street smarts and peevishly nagging Colbert, and Colbert acting like a snobbish prude while flashing half a calf at the most opportune time, glad to let him - this purportedly quintessential screwball comedy melted Great Depression era hearts. It captured all the major Academy awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Writing), a feat unmatched until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It catapulted Frank Capra into the stratosphere of mainstream success (although to the eventual disdain of highbrow critics). On the other hand, His Girl Friday had only moderate success, and was pooh-poohed by the New York Times and the usually reliable Otis Ferguson.
I wonder if in a time of the Hays Code (separate beds and no "excessive or lustful kissing") the vastly different portrayal of women in the two movies had anything to do with their success. Mid 1930's audiences ate up the down and out reporter barking orders at the overly pampered débutante. It Happened One Night tickled their fancies for the underdog, a spontaneous elopement, and a shirtless Clark Gable. The fact that Gable's character loved to hear himself holler and refused to give Colbert's character an ounce of respect never crossed their minds. By 1940 I guess they were still not ready to see Rosalind Russell jostling with Cary Grant as one of the guys.
But to understand fully why His Girl Friday was unsuccessful compared to It Happened One Night, it is important to note that His Girl Friday was a remake of the critics and consumer's darling, The Front Page. Maybe audiences were just annoyed with the regurgitation of a favorite. (I'm dreading the rumored upcoming remake of The Third Man staring Leonardo Dicaprio.) Although, His Girl Friday is not exactly like the original: the Hildy Johnson character was a man in The Front Page, and Walter Burns was trying to prevent him from leaving the paper to get married. In 1940 critics and audiences may have seen His Girl Friday as the tarnishing, or even feminization of a classic. Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times began his review of His Girl Friday by saying, "They've replated The Front Page again, have slapped His Girl Friday on the masthead and are running it off at the Music Hall as a special women's edition." Do you detect a hint of bitterness? Did the sourness in his words stem from some kind of Freudian women-envy or did he just love The Front Page that much? If only Roz's Hildy had left Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) at the altar to run away with Walter. But could you ever see her in a wedding gown?
Sunday, November 8, 2009
By Eric Jessen 11/8/09
Rifle through your collection of movie books, past “A” for Agee, “F” for Farber and Ferguson, and “K” for Kael, all the way down to “S” for Sarris. Thumb past Confessions of a Cultist and pull out Directors and Directions. (Once known as “The Bible,” this quintessential guide famously categorizes directors from the “Pantheon” to “Make Way for the Clowns!”) Flip past, (for now), the “Pantheon,” the “Far Side of Paradise,” “Expressive Esoterica,” “Fringe Benefits,” and “Strained Seriousness.” Flip all the way down to the wasteland of the “Miscellany.” Who of all directors, in such company as Hubert Cornfield, John Brahm and Stuart Heisler, directors with such credits as Plunder Road, Hot Rods from Hell and The Biscuit Eater, would author Andrew Sarris call “the most extreme example of message cinema?” Who else, no matter what company, but Stanley Kramer?
With such gems as The Defiant Ones, which dared to remind us that black people and white people can get along, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which officially married the two races (with permission from their parents of course), Stanley Kramer's movie world became the one to learn from. In a Kramer movie a message was never easier to understand, and even better for the audience, delivered in a more entertaining way. So why then is Kramer in Sarris' doghouse? He deserves at least “Fringe Benefits,” or considering that that group includes Bunuel, Eisenstein, Antonioni, Polanski and Pabst, maybe instead, “Lightly Likable.” I wonder if when Directors and Directions was written, just after Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released, some of the worst of Kramer left a bad taste in Sarris' mouth. Katharine Hepburn's incessant tear-jerking, and Spencer Tracy's bemoaning goodbye speech that seems to never end, is enough to turn your stomach.
But that shouldn't taint Kramer's career. He's made plenty of movies to look back fondly on. Sarris couldn't have forgotten.......Well, now that I think about it, just about every Kramer movie goes overboard. Inherit the Wind may also have been on Sarris' mind. And maybe Judgment at Nuremberg too. Few could handle, (other than the Academy), Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg's bludgeon of history with crude miscasting and sensationalized overacting.
Okay, so Kramer lacked subtlety, but what's a good message movie without a little heavy-handedness? Can you even call it a “message movie” if it lacks overwrought, overblown dramatization of historically or socially relevant events? (Frost/Nixon and Ron Howard's frantic cutting comes to mind.) Can you even call it a “message movie” if it lacks box-office shrewd casting? (Everyone in the business knows an audience doesn't listen to a message unless it comes from a star.) Can it possibly be a good message movie if the audience isn't completely sure where the movie stands, which are the good guys and which are the bad?
(For further reading on Message Cinema, continue to "Message Cinema II.")
By Eric Jessen 11/8/09
So a Kramer movie might be a little overly simplistic, but what's so great about these “Pantheon” directors? What makes them so special? Subtle and nuanced, but boring as hell, I would guess. Let's pull back out Sarris' obviously pretentious Directors and Directions. Who's in this “Pantheon?” Welles, Renoir, Murnau, Ophuls – too artsy. Lang, Keaton, Hitchcock, Hawks – merely genre hacks. Ah, how about John Ford? I know he's made a message movie or two – with prize worthy subtlety and creativity, I bet. There's The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and then later The Searchers. You might call those message movies. Well, Young Mr. Lincoln is more of a “hero movie,” so that's out. And we must avoid holding the now horribly stale Grapes of Wrath against Ford, so that's also out.
That leaves The Searchers and Stagecoach. You could call both genre films. Stagecoach was the western genre's savior while it was in transition from silent to sound. And although it was not highly praised when it was released, many modern movie junkies argue The Searchers is the greatest of all westerns. (I prefer The Wild Bunch, to let you know I'm in the Kael rather than Sarris camp.) It jumped into the Sight and Sound and AFI list mix after directors like Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone, once movie junkies themselves, noted The Searchers as greatly influencing them. But for the sake of this discussion let's consider the two, “message movies.” Under the many message movie categories such as women's rights, drugs, and sex, The Searchers would fall under the race category and Stagecoach, the class category. (Let it be known, I despise categorizing movies, but because I am thoroughly ensconced in a Sarris mode, I can't help but continue.)
As so called race movies go, The Searchers is definitely among the most interesting and unique. As opposed to any of the Kramer movies and Stagecoach, you might find yourself wanting to watch The Searchers a second or even a third time, not because it's particularly entertaining, but because it has an added element of mystery. With The Searchers there are still questions left to ask. But it's important to note, they are questions we're eager to mull over, as opposed to ones that annoy us throughout. While watching “Guess” I was constantly irritated wondering, why if Joey and the Doctor's love is so strong, do they need their parents permission? And why is it so darn important that Joey's parents decide by the end of the night? What comes to mind is that these seemingly arbitrary constraints are necessary not for the sake of clarifying a message, but for the sake of suspense and to perfectly lead into Tracy's monologue. During that final speech, so not to ruin the moment, when Joey learns her fiancé was ready to back out of their marriage if her parents disapproved, her only response is to say, “Well, that's funny.”
As opposed to “Guess,” in The Searchers there is always enough gray area to heighten our interest, but not so much that we are left bewildered. It's never clear until the very end whether John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is good or bad, racist or not. Ethan is a big wild bully, shooting out the eyes of a Comanche corpse, and scalping Scar, but we get the sense as he looks fondly at the horizon, as he lifts Debbie above his head then carries her in his arms, and how he holds on to his Confederate ideals, that Ethan is also a hopeless romantic. All of that considered, The Searchers deserves the probably overused but still much sought after adjectives, “subtle” and “nuanced.”
But what about Stagecoach? Those two adjectives don't immediately come to mind. Stagecoach seems on second, third or however many viewings in the Kramer vein. Ford makes it fairly easy on us. The drunk, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor), and the criminal, Ringo (John Wayne), of the lower class are to be admired. The pregnant wife of a Cavalryman (Louise Platt) and the gambler (John Carradine) are misguided in their snickering at the prostitute. And as always, the banker, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), is a fat, sniveling backstabbing thief. We know from the start it's a class movie, and we know immediately who Ford favors. So it's not a champion of subtle message-making, but it does make significant strides. With the help of its actors who settle into their roles perfectly, and the great stunt work of Yakima Canutt who jumps from horse to horse then lets a row of horses and the coach trample him, Stagecoach is an especially likable and enjoyable movie. And Ford, who I would say is deserving of “Pantheon” status, makes it work naturally.
So I guess the point here is that message movies are not hard to come by, especially ones as bloated as Kramer's. But good message movies are: message movies that make their point without shoving it down our throat. And as much as I would like to put down Andrew Sarris' auteur theory and his rigid categorizing, with Kramer and Ford he was definitely on to something. It's easy for any viewer, even if they watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for two minutes and Stagecoach for one, to tell the difference between a Ford and a Kramer movie, or a Cornfield and a Bergman, or a Brahm and a Lubitsch.
It's a shame that message movies from the directors at the “Pantheon” or “Far Side of Paradise” level seem to take a back seat to those in the Kramer message-mongering mold. It is for that reason, “message movie” remains an insult in my word bank.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
By Eric Jessen 10/28/09
Somewhere in John Wayne's awkward delivery, in Scar's splotchy makeup, in the tumbleweed of Monument Valley, The Searchers gets its enigmatic quality. It's sustained through every fizzle and every crescendo. Each scene is cluttered with failed attempts at humor, the most tiresome being when Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) fights for Laurie (Vera Miles) on her wedding night -- actually just about every scene with Laurie is clutter, and dare I say I found Mose (Hank Warden) and his rocking chair annoying. And how absurd is Natalie Wood's Debbie looking more prim than ever as a scalp scraping Comanche? Really, much of The Searchers is not even all that enjoyable. Yet, when John Wayne as Ethan Edwards is framed in the doorway at the end, leaning to the side like a cowboy cardboard cutout, and then stumbling down the porch steps in front of the ever-expansive valley, The Searchers was destined for legendary status. In that final scene, we wonder what Ethan will possibly do with himself now that he's finished searching for Debbie. We wonder where he will wander to next. Then the door blows shut, and we know we'll never find out. The Searchers had captured the mystery, the wonder possible in movies.
Although The Searchers wasn't nominated for any Academy awards when it was released, by the 1970's it was already a favorite among young directors. By 2007, it was voted the 12th greatest American movie by AFI. Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and others fell in love with The Searchers and particularly Ethan: the obsessive, erratic journeyman and the combustible racist. They loved the ambiguity of Ethan. What made him hate Comanches? And how does he know so much about them? Why doesn't he kill Debbie like he said he would?
(See "The Defiant Ones" review for more on "The Searchers")
By Eric Jessen 10/28/09
Just two years after The Searchers was released, Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's most socially conscious director released The Defiant Ones. As much as it feels weird to see these two titles in the same sentence, they make for an interesting comparison. Considering The Searchers in the most narrow way possible, you could say both of these movies are about race. The Defiant Ones is about race in the most simplistic way: two prisoners chained together, one white and one black, escape their not-so-armored bus -- forced to hitch their way through Lynchdale and Hickville in an attempt to reach the railroads to freedom. Other than the race topic, the two movies are almost completely different. Unlike The Searchers, The Defiant Ones was nominated for numerous Academy awards including Best Picture. On the other hand, it has nearly been forgotten since.
With The Defiant Ones, and most Kramer movies (Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), every inch of frame, every actor and actress looks just a little too slick, too stagy. Watching Tony Curtis pretending to be the racist, “Joker,” I almost broke out laughing: his Hollywood liberalism bursting out his seams, oozing out his smirk. I couldn't help but think Tony Curtis was simply too much of a pretty boy to play a racist. With The Defiant Ones, Curtis, Kramer and company's intentions are too apparent.
The Searchers is a more believable portrayal of race because there will aways be part of me that wonders whether John Ford and John Wayne thought they were making just another western. In The Defiant Ones, it's black vs white – pretty simple. But in The Searchers Ethan (white) is pitted against the common foe of westerns -- Indians. As opposed to Curtis' “Joker,” Wayne's Ethan is a much more believable racist because there will always be part of me that wonders if Ethan's prejudices are Wayne's. Doesn't Wayne seem like the type who might think like Ethan?
The essential difference between The Searchers and The Defiant Ones, and The Searchers and many other mainstream Hollywood movies is that with The Searchers, for many of my questions there is not one clear answer.
Monday, October 12, 2009
By Eric Jessen 10/10/09
Oh, how time heals all wounds. All of a sudden by 1939 D. W. Griffith was a trendy hack and Victor Fleming (with the help of George Cukor, Sam Wood and probably a few others) was the business' greatest artist and craftsman. From the ghastly racism of Griffith's 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, to Fleming and company's so called work of truth and genius, Gone with the Wind, Hollywood had apparently learned its lesson. No longer would black people be portrayed as rabid dogs, foaming at the mouth over white women, or imbecile beasts. They said with GWTW, everything had changed. Black people were finally portrayed honestly. They were finally shown in their true form: the dignified, no-nonsense maid, the obedient, blubber-lipped houseman, and the chirping midwife, all happily whistling Dixie, content with the servant's life. With a bow from the movers and shakers (Selznick, MGM and the Academy) and a loud “Your welcome,” Hollywood expected a pat on the back. And in 1939 they got what wanted. But unfortunately for them, everyone has done some rethinking.
Looking back at both “Birth” and GWTW, it is clear little had changed. No wound had healed. The scar on Hollywood and all of America for that matter, was still evident. From 1915 to 1939, Hollywood had just picked away a big ugly scab and replaced it with another. In some ways, I think the depiction of black people and the Civil War era South is more troubling in GWTW than in “Birth.”
The black characters in GWTW were actually played by black people. That was a start. This cannot be said for “Birth.” And at least with Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), they were dignified. And in the case Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and Pork (Oscar Polk), they were slightly more lovable then laughable. The black characters in “Birth” compared to those in GWTW were, as Globe critic Ty Burr might say, aggressively stupid rather than acceptably dumb. Where GWTW really allies itself with “Birth” is in its message. Both seem to want the same thing for black people: to be forever white people's help. They both strongly advocate for the traditions of the old South, just in different ways. “Birth” puts its interpretation (falsification) of the Civil War and Reconstruction and its opinion of slavery in full view, whereas GWTW dances around the issue. But considering its nostalgic glorification of Tara, and the plantations yearly ball - girls in poofy dresses frolicking around the expansive garden, with all the assistance in the world from Mammy, Pork and Prissy they could ever want - the point is made by omission.
So what's infuriating and most troubling about GWTW is that it was extremely successful. Stupidity and wrongheadedness were slipped right past us more effectively then ever. And how? By turning the schmaltz-o-meter up to eleven. We all got wrapped-up in its first class melodrama. The four million dollars (the biggest budget to date) spent on bright, gleaming Technicolor, thousands of extras playing dead, and one big smoldering set mesmerized us. GWTW features a story for the ages (adapted from the novel): a sweeping tale of lovers crossing paths at simply the wrong time. It still wows today. And who can forget such great performances. The four mil was also well spent on the perfect “damn,” dame and dude. Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara looks most bratty, neurotic, and spunky. Clark Gable appears at home playing the suave drunkard Rhett Butler. And the “damn” is a memorable cherry on top. These three d's seem to hold GWTW together and make it quite enjoyable (though I suggest spreading it out over two nights). And the ensemble directing job is not half bad at all. Characters are knocked off with the utmost precision, each death more unexpected then the last, and each more gut wrenching. When Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Michell) and Bonny Blue Butler (Cammie King) are flung off their horses, I picture them catapulted to the heavens. When Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) passes her spirit rises and sprouts beautiful white feathered wings. When Scarlet wanders off into the mist near the end, it's Melanie's spirit that guides her. GWTW, the overwrought melodrama, will endure. But like “Birth,” it will always have that irremovable blemish: its message.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/26/09
La Chinoise is a wonderful mockery of 60's college educated pop-tweens, featuring director Jean-Luc Godard's trademark zany bits of anti-American, anti-capitalist jest and a rapid-fire pace. But after watching about the first ten minutes, it seemed as though Godard had no intention of letting me catch up, or letting me in on the gag. Allusions to poetry, movies and history clutter the dialogue. My head nearly exploded trying to unscramble Shakespeare, Sade, and Kafka's “Metamorphosis,” Murnau, Eisenstein and Johnny Guitar, and Mao, Che and Stalin. Much of La Chinoise is a string of confusion and frustration. Godard sprints through his script (based loosely on Dostoyevsky's novel “The Possessed”) seemingly leaving ideas hanging in bunches. But what separates La Chinoise from other of Godard's political films, is that it's not mean spirited. And near the end, Godard pauses, allowing me to recollect and gather my senses. In retrospect, La Chinoise has remarkable foresight.
Godard shows a genuine love for and great understanding of 19-20ish college educated kids who fancy themselves new-wave communists, flirting with terrorism over summer break. These prim looking dolls (usually Anna Karina, in this case Anne Wiazemsky, Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Leaude) scamper around planning bombings and assassinations, playing revolutionaries: Juliet Berto crouches behind a wall of Mao's “little red books,” having transformed her radio into a machine gun. In the previous scene, she wears a rice-paddy hat as cardboard toy planes flutter over her head. And when these recreational Marxists talk socialism, philosophy, and the Vietnam War they clearly have absolutely no idea what they're saying. They are only pretending, criticizing LBJ as a sort of hip new jargon.
For one of the five “Marxist Leninist” revolutionaries, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky, the girl with the donkey in Bresson's “Balthazar”), holding a cigarette gently between her fingers, dangling it in front of her mouth, slouching over, looking down, speaking softly and calmly, is her way of convincing everyone she's serious. For Leaude, as Guillaume, it's showing the unbridled enthusiasm and eagerness to scream against capitalism and recite the “little red book.” In the more quiet scenes, a subtle twitch of an eyebrow, a glance at 10 o'clock, a slight curl up of the corner of the mouth and we know for these kids it's all in fun.
When Veronique sits down with one of her professors, Francis Jeanson, a former radical himself from the Algiers days, Jeanson unravels the “Marxist Leninist's” not-so-well-thought-out plans. Veronique tells Jeanson her terrorist group intends to bomb the universities to give the bad educational system in France a chance to start fresh. Jeanson then simply asks, “What next?” and Veronique stutters. By then, I start to understand what Godard is driving at. In the late 60's, having been warped and desensitized by a bombardment of Marvel-comic-color advertising and media coverage of radical political groups, if college tweens are looking for a way to stand out and “express themselves,” what better way than to join a radical terrorist group? If they're looking for a fun activity on a mid-summer afternoon, what's more exciting an outing then a trip to city hall to assassinate a political leader. In Godard's ironically joyous point of view, thus is the psyche of the kids of “Marx and Coca-Cola.”
Sunday, September 20, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/18/09
I thought I'd never watch The Birth of a Nation again. Not because I couldn't or because I didn't want to, but because I thought I wasn't supposed to. When I first watched it, I had read a lot about it beforehand so I was properly prepared. In fact my first reaction was that it didn't live up to its racist lore. My first viewing of “Birth” was just to soak in its lurid stench. I couldn't fully grasp that I had experienced what James Agee called “the beginning of melody, the first eloquence of language, the birth of an art.” So when I slouched into my uncomfortable desk with its wobbly back, forced to watch “Birth” for a second time for my “History through the Hollywood Lens” class, I felt privileged. I was glad to be given the chance to watch it again and really study it. (I wondered if anyone, other than its fans of the early 1900's, has actually seen this movie more than once. Who would dare watch it a second time? The first time you watched merely for “academic purposes.” But a second time must mean you liked it.)
I also felt giddy at the opportunity to gauge the initial reaction of a class of “Birth” virgins. I sized them up immediately: smart kids hiding a slam-bang, CGI, “Princess Bride” temperament, probably considering “Shawshank” their favorite “art film.” I stirred in my desk, eager, as the most vile scenes approached, expecting my classmates to be shocked and appalled. I expected them to cringe at the hokey racism: the ghastly make-up, white actors in blackface, foaming at the mouth with beastly lustfulness over the saintly Lillian Gish. To my surprise they acted quite mature. They swallowed “Birth's” fiery bigotry with chilling composure. I didn't hear a single gasp. Instead they turned their noses up at “Birth,” disapproving of Griffith's execution and film-making as much as his racism. They called the movie “boring,” the acting of Gish and Mae Marsh “awful,” and Griffith's direction and specifically his editing “horrible.” But when the movie ended, the class let out a loud exhale like they had just survived a gauntlet. They then applauded themselves, proud to have not fainted or fallen asleep.
I sat at my crappy desk but felt like I was perched atop a giant pedestal made of thousands of DVD rentals. I certainly considered myself the most qualified navel-gazer in the room for having previously sat through Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, his three hour extravagant mess Intolerance and his film Broken Blossoms. I watched, calm and still, searching for reasons to crown “Birth” an offensive masterpiece, while arrogantly looking down on my classmates for not being experts on the craftsmanship of Griffith. I recited in my head everything I had read about Griffith the auteur, and Birth of a Nation. In Agee on Film, James Agee called the battle charge in “Birth,” “the single most beautiful shot I have seen in any movie.” President Woodrow Wilson said Birth of a Nation is “like writing history with lightning.” Griffith's wife wrote in her book When the Movies Were Young, (written in 1925), that “Birth” shows “the stuff its citizens were made of and the reason why this nation has become such a great and wonderful country.” I also remembered what Pauline Kael wrote about Griffith's style and his two favorite actors: Gish and Marsh. In Kael's book Going Steady (one of my favorite books of criticism) reviewing Intolerance she wrote, “One can trace almost every major tradition and most of the genres, and even many of the metaphors, in movies to their sources in Griffith.” She described Gish as “a frail, floating heroine from romantic novels and poems – a maiden” and Marsh as “our dream not of heavenly beauty, but of earthly beauty.”
I felt like I was watching “Birth” the second time partially through the eyes of Agee, Kael, and Mrs. Griffith. Considering their respect for Griffith's movie making craft, I tried to watch “Birth” as attentively as possible. What I found most striking was his ability to delicately balance huge, marvelous battle scenes with small charming scenes that accentuate the elegance of Gish and the dorky enthusiasm of Marsh. Contrary to what my classmates said, I found Birth of a Nation very watchable. It moves with a sense of purpose (maybe not the most honorable one). Griffith cuts smoothly from the Cameron family in the South to the Stoneman's in the North. And his big production, his thousands of extras, and the giant battle scenes don't bog down his story. He builds suspense masterfully, especially in the scene near the end when the KKK is riding to save the innocent whites from the black Union soldiers (as ridiculous as that sounds).
I didn't find Birth of a Nation boring at all. Dare I say I found it strangely entertaining. But I can't blame my classmates for their point of view. (I reacted about the same way the first time I watched “Birth.”) And though some of the battle scenes are extraordinary and some of the close-ups of Gish and Marsh are beautiful, they are overshadowed by the film's later scenes of racism. The scenes of black legislators cooling their stinky bare feet on their desks and sloppily eating chicken wings during session are obscenely silly. Though the first half of Birth of a Nation is mostly crude-free, the second half is despicable. It's bawdy blackface for the dim-wit-KKK-redneck trade. In watching some of the later scenes, I gathered that D. W. Griffith is either virulently racist and manipulative or oblivious and hopelessly stupid.
Racist and disgusting, unbearably boring or not, Birth of a Nation is an important part of film history. To ban it completely or to chop it up into little bits like once suggested would be to deny cinema its roots. And we can't ignore the fact that D.W. Griffith the auteur and the apparent racist was a pioneer of film making and story telling. “Birth” is also a unique snapshot into the mind of the white southerner of the early 20th century. It was the biggest hit in history until Gone with the Wind, and decades later many people still believed it was the greatest film of all time.
Boring, awful, horrible, offensive, despicable, vile, disgusting, obscene, crude, ugly, lurid.... I think I could watch it again.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/7/09
My Favorite Year is a slice of showbiz nostalgia (and boy is that a cut from a tired mold) with one glaringly bad performance. Sorry Mark Linn-Baker. And unfortunately its genuine enthusiasm is weighed down by the shapeless joke-spewing style of its executive producer, Mel Brooks.
Thank goodness for Peter O'Toole. He saves My Favorite Year. This movie is proof that O'Toole is that good. Brooks, Linn-Baker and director Richard Benjamin should be kissing his feet. He gives an absolutely wonderful performance. His sarcastic grin and restless eyes tell of hidden juicy secrets. His joyful, bustling spirit make the movie worth the price of admission or a rental fee. In My Favorite Year O'Toole is perfectly cast. He plays Alan Swan, a former star of Hollywood and British Technicolor adventure movies whose career is in decline and whose off-screen shenanigans have made him a caricature on the front page of tabloid newspapers. Swan's career has sunk so low that he is forced to make guest appearances on the hammy freak-show that is mid-50's TV.
The movie is narrated by a variety hour junior writer, Benjy Stone (Linn-Baker) who tells us the story of his favorite year, the year he met his hero Alan Swan. When Swan arrives for pre-production of the show plastered and flirtatious, wearing his tear-away “drunk suit,” Benjy has to convince the star of the show “King” Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) not to dump Swan. As a compromise Benjy is assigned to babysit Swan. For the rest of the movie we follow Benjy following Swan. He makes almost no attempt whatsoever to keep Swan under control other than acting hysterical. But all the more fun for us. Swan parades around with a reckless abandonment. O'Toole couldn't have played it any better. It's clear from the start that the Swan character is based on the infamous romantic charlatan Errol Flynn. For those of you familiar with 50's TV shows, the variety hour is based on the Sid Caesar program in which Flynn made a guest appearance. And the Benjy Stone character is likely based on one of the young Jewish writers for Sid Caesar, Woody Allen or Mel Brooks.
(Side note: My Favorite Year reminded me of Truman Capote's charming piece “A Beautiful Child.” Capote, a self-proclaimed master of memorizing dialogue, gives a detailed description of a few hours he spent with Marilyn Monroe including every remark and every anecdote filled with her famous swearing. What came to mind while watching My Favorite Year in particular was a story Marilyn told Capote about Errol Flynn. “Marilyn: Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Errol Flynn whip out his prick and play the piano with it? Oh well, it was a hundred years ago, I'd just got into modeling, and I went to this half-ass party, and Errol Flynn, so pleased with himself, he was there and he took out his prick and played the piano with it. Thumped the keys. He played You Are My Sunshine.”)
It's this flamboyant Flynn along with a lively performance by Peter O'Toole that is the heart and the charm of My Favorite Year. Alan Swan swung from banisters (as Flynn did in The Adventures of Robin Hood) and smooched gorgeous women in his movies. Everyone loved him and let him do whatever he wanted. But the hero-worship got in his head. He began to see the man in the mirror and the characters projected on the big screen as one and the same. As result he is constantly acting. We watch him play the part of the hero and as his career declines the part of the washed-up actor. We watch him play the part of the hopeless drunkard pulling bottles of scotch out of his trench coat, and the unconscionable womanizer stealing tarts from snobs at fancy restaurants. We watch My Favorite Year and afterwards we forget about its downsides and remember Peter O'Toole as Alan Swan and we remember Errol Flynn: the exuberant swashbuckler and adorable lush.
Friday, September 4, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/3/09
In Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood (the director and actor) conjures-up the ghost of dead westerns. He regurgitates hero-worship, Sergio Leone “Man with No Name” mythology: the Shane story with the High Noon walk-of-doom. Eastwood also tries to add an esoteric panache and a religious vein. The scenes with a spiritual air glide with a sense of purpose. But too often they come to a thud, fumbling over clunky cliché chunks: tedious man-on-horse stuff that is better left in past movies.
As always Eastwood (the actor) plays the larger-than-life figure: the no name drifter. He does his same old act although once again rather convincingly: flashing his unmistakable menacing glare, towering over tiny villagers with his statuesque build, staring at a nemesis in a showdown, riding on his white horse with a stone-faced self-assurance.
In Pale Rider Eastwood (the director) adds a little extra artsy flair which caught my eye. His character seems to sift through the cold breeze of Gold Rush era California like a transient spirit: a blur in the distance, appearing in the corner of your eye then suddenly vanishing. This kind of myth-mongering may sound familiar but Eastwood gives it a real religious tone. Obviously feeling quite confident in his on-screen dominant presence, Eastwood gives himself the role of a supernatural mishmash of Jesus, The Grim Reaper and a vengeful reincarnation. His face tightens more then ever. And he becomes all the more predictably unstoppable (even standing up to Richard “Jaws” Kiel). He adds layers to his usual impenetrable shell. But Eastwood really couldn't play it any other way. And part of me loves the stability he brings. I can always count on Eastwood to bludgeon the bad guys while staying untouched and cool. In every scene Eastwood reeks havoc but (maybe to the fault of the movie) everything stays calm and under control.
After a remote, small village of huts and log cabins is devastated by the annoyingly idiotic, barbaric goons (they even gun-down a puppy) who work for a greedy mining boss, Josh LaHood (Chris Penn), Eastwood arrives as “the miracle” in response to the hopeful prayer of a young girl, Megan (Sydney Penny). He finds the girl's father-figure, Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), being beaten by some of the of buck-tooth delinquents. Eastwood immediately makes his presence felt: promptly bashing-in four heads with a stick. Eastwood then slaps on a white collar, joins Hull back at the battered village and becomes the “Preacher.” He brings the few remaining villagers together and gives them courage to fight against the evil LaHood. (By the way, Eastwood couldn't resist giving his spirit character a woman to sleep with.)
When LaHood offers each villager $1,000 to leave, with the guidance of Hull and the Preacher, the villagers decline. As a result they face the wrath of LaHood's seven killers: the ruthless Marshal Stockburn (John Russel) and his six deputies. Just as the final confrontation is about to occur, Eastwood takes off his white collar and straps on his holster. Apparently he's got “some unfinished business” to settle with Marshal Stockburn. Eastwood rides to town and takes the lone walk (as Gary Cooper did) up a deserted street to meet Stockburn and his six deputies. The seven killers step out of LaHood's office and neatly align for a spaghetti-western-esque face-off. Of course, Eastwood drops all six deputies with ease. He disappears from the middle of the street then kills each deputy one-by-one, popping up from a water main (which looked hokey), then out from behind barrels. Eastwood walks up to the marshal. Shockburn shouts “You!” And Eastwood, now channeling Death, shoots Stockburn five times in the same spots Eastwood has mysterious bullet wounds. He then hops on his horse and rides away. Adhering to the Shane formula, the young girl Megan runs after Eastwood, stops at the edge of town and shouts “Preacher! Preacher!...We love you Preacher...I love you!...Goodbye!”
In Pale Rider, Eastwood gives old movie myths new life but unfortunately some of the myths seem as cliché as they always did.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/2/09
Claude Chabrol's This Man Must Die has a mannered propriety. The actors' stiff-neck posture and drab, quiet tone are worthy of a Robert Bresson film. These kinds of films by directors like Chabrol, Bresson and others, which are usually foreign and usually French, are like a fine wine for the movie critics who snicker at the bulbous Hollywood studio productions. But for the average audience this style is an unbearable bore. And although with many of the movies with this style I'd say, “let 'em squirm.” (I absolutely love Bresson's Mouchette and Chabrol's Le Boucher and I don't care that the modern, average audience would think they were boring.) But with This Man Must Die Chabrol has practically committed highway robbery. He uses his style to bog-down an otherwise routine, guaranteed-to-be-entertaining manhunt story. He rips the fun out of shamelessly fun story.
The film begins with an elegantly photographed drive-by killing of an innocent small child. We see a man driving away in his dented car blurt with a vulgar attitude, “Shut up” to a beautiful woman crying next to him. We then see the title, “This Man Must Die,” and the opening credit: “Adapted from the novel 'The Beast Must Die.'” These titles are very self explanatory. We soon meet Charles Thenier (Michael Duchaussoy), the father of the dead child. It's very obvious what Thenier is going to try to do. Despite the fact that tracking down a man he knows nothing about seems impossible, and even after the police do an extensive search and come up with no leads, we know somehow, (through some unbelievable coincidences), Thenier will find his man. And somehow this man will die. But the ride in tracking down the wretched man who would run over a small girl and leave her for dead is a drag. And the eventual death of the drive-by killer is very unsatisfying. (By the way, the drive-by killer is played very well by Jean Yanne.) The movie gets caught in its own ambiguous twist and never fulfills us with a grab-him-at-the-color, let-him-have-it death. We know the drive-by killer dies but we never actually see it. It's a crucial let-down.
With Chabrol's This Man Must Die, the combination of the quiet French style with what is already a conventional, relatively predictable story was destined to be dull. I can only guess that the posturing of a simple manhunt thriller was intended to be ironic and funny. Maybe it was supposed to be a tame version of a Luis Buneul black comedy. But that doesn't show. Instead the movie feels like an awkward mismatch. The suspense of the tracking down and killing of a horrible man falls flat in the uncomfortable pauses, the swallowing of outbursts and the repressed emotions.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/1/09
Rumble Fish looks like an artsy masterpiece: a tactile, grimy and grungy black-and-white wonder. But the visual assault, the relentless style suffocates the characters and the performances. It blurs any glimmer of a story. And an awesome cast which includes some of my favorite actors (Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper) is wasted. They take a back seat to Francis Ford Coppola and the cinematographer Stephen H. Burum's extreme camera angles and Wellesian deep focus.
Rumble Fish is dazzling and it looks original. It has the visual indulgence that reflects the work of a "real artist.” It has the carnival extravagance of a late 60's and 70's Fellini and the photography of street corners and shadowy alleys remind me of 20's and 30's German expressionism. Unfortunately Rumble Fish is a movie without a base. The structure, the story and the characters are flimsy. They seem adrift in the endless fog of an unnamed urban city nightmare. We hold on by a string.
The only coherent character in Rumble Fish is Rusty James, a local biker gang hero played with a naive teenage-jock obliviousness by Matt Dillon. Rusty has taken over as the leader of the biker gang while his brother, a local legend known as “The Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke), is in California. Rusty rounds-up his brethren, Smokey (Nicolas Cage), B.J. (Chris Penn), Midget (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve (Vincent Spano). They skip down to an abandoned garage or prance around under a bridge for fights against rival gangs like the “Jets” or “Sharks” from West Side Story. After Rusty is cut across the chest by his nemesis Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow), the Motorcycle Boy unexpectedly appears and comes to Rusty's rescue. Mickey Rourke does his best to play the slightly crazed biker gang legend. He thickens his throaty whispers, his hair is crumpled and disheveled. Rourke looks dazed and confused in the role. He's stripped of the “suave desperation” that he had in Diner and the calm and sturdy demeanor he had in Body Heat. The jarring low angles and uncomfortable close ups mixed with misty, murky medium shots make Rourke's character seem like a ghost. That was probably the intention, but with Rourke I'm used to having something “real” to grab on to.
Rusty and the Motorcycle Boy's poor, boozing father is played by Dennis Hopper. Considering his part in Apocalypse Now and especially his later performance in Blue Velvet, Hopper seems perfect to play a dirty old, inebriated bum. He's a very entertaining over-actor and his over-the-top showiness usually pops. But in Rumble Fish Hopper simply blends in to the dream world with the cast of quasi-realistic characters.
As Pauline Kael once said about art-conscious movies, they float but never touch the ground. This is definitely true of Rumble Fish. But taking into account Francis Ford Coppola's rough stretch in the 80's, the bankruptcy of his company, the failure of One From the Heart, I'm glad to see that he's once again made something that at least floats in the first place.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
By Eric Jessen 9/1/09
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck deserve a pat on the back for their warm hearted script. Damon, Affleck, Robin Williams, Stellan Skarsgard and the entire cast give a great effort on this nice-try, well intentioned project. But in Gus Van Sant's bleached, TV-lighting and with all around bad timing, the performances, Affleck and Damon's “Southie” talk and the overwrought therapy-blubbering seem forced. And Good Will Hunting plays like nothing more than soft melodrama with good cliché sense.
From the start it's hard to tell the aim of Good Will Hunting. We follow Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a closet genius wearing a janitor's outfit. He has a photographic memory. He knows everything about everything: history, physics, chemistry, art and especially math. Will can scribble down the answer to a problem that has puzzled mathematicians for years on a napkin over lunch. But he chooses to conceal his intelligence. (Although we're allowed an obligatory scene where “wicked smaaht” Will shows-up a Harvard "prick".) He prefers the romanticism of good honest construction work, drinking beer and smoking at the local pup with his buddies over the snobbishness of a well-paid job and a Nobel Prize.
Good Will Hunting seemed to be shaping into a study of unrealized potential. Will's best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) tells him, “I'd do anything to have what you got....You're sitting on a winning lottery ticket and you're too much of a pussy to cash it in.” But midway through it starts to look more like a Freudian mess. We delve into Will's psyche, his childhood of abuse, his orphanage, his fear of commitment and vulnerability and abandonment etc. He sits across from his therapist Sean (Robin Williams), at first he doesn't speak, he twiddles his thumbs and watches the clock as the hour required by his P. O. ticks away. But then, Will and Sean become best friends, they share stories about famous Red Sox games. And eventually they share tears: Sean over his wife who died of cancer and Will over his past.
Good Will Hunting comes to a predictable end but we remember the little cliché moments and the various actors' energy: in particular Chuckie's four-letter “Southie” jive spoken with a comfort level and an understanding of the immature, adolescent bravado by Ben Affleck. And you'll never forget the famous but unbearably corny scene where Sean tells Will over and over, “It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.” He says that three more times before Will starts weeping uncontrollably.
By the end Good Will Hunting had shaped into a sloppy melodrama. Ben and Matt and Gus Van Sant cashed in a big box-office success. Good for them. And thankfully, Good Will Hunting at least catapulted Matt and Gus Van Sant into making much better movies.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/29/09
Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns is covered with annoying clumps of throw-away conventional cinema. But underneath it is a wonderful mock-western. The Arizona 19th century frontier is stripped of its man-on-horse love affairs and macho honor code (Peckinpah-esque) babble. The dusty, hairy and dirty wild west is replaced by a drab, clean-cut town. The cowboys look more like city slickers, as fit to hold a tommy-gun as their Colt-45. The violence isn't overly drawn-out with shifty eyed stare-downs and High-Noon-esque staginess. Instead, it is spontaneous, sometimes anti-climatic and the results (who lives and who dies) of the shootouts and bar-room brawls are unpredictable.
Forty Guns is about U.S. Marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) who is sent to an Arizona town to arrest Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson). When he finds Swain, he learns that Swain is one of the 40 hired guns of local landowner Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck). Drummond and Bonnel eventually cross paths which leads to a romantic relationship.
Taking the aforementioned clumps into consideration, Forty Guns has its peeks and valleys. There are moments of dull conversation, there are some lame set-ups. But there are also moments of crazy, unkempt activity (real movie-fun), the kind of moments you'll always remember (your brain attaches a mental post-it note). They're great attention grabbers. Samuel Fuller is giving a joyful wink to the audience when he shocks or appalls, when he breaks unwritten rules.
In Forty Guns when Griff Bonnell is confronted by a drunk hooligan, Brockie (John Ericson) who has just terrorized and shot-up the town, don't expect them to take 10 steps in opposite directions, turn and fire. Instead Griff simply walks comfortably towards Brockie, as Brockie screams and threatens to shoot, and then abruptly pulls his gun out of his holster and thumps Brockie over the head. In a Samuel Fuller quiet Arizona town, don't expect a peaceful wedding: as the picturesque newlyweds share a first kiss, the husband is shot down. In Forty Guns don't expect a heart-to-heart conversation to reach its tear-jerking climax, that too is liable to be cut short by gun fire. I cherish all of these great little moments of artless violence. They can be silly or ridiculous but they're always entertaining. And my favorite moment in Forty Guns is the ending (ignoring the final two scenes added on top because the producers disapproved). It's a fantastic slap in the face to westerns. Griff's girl, Jessica, is being held up by one of her 40 guns, Brockie (the same hooligan from earlier). Brockie yells at Griff, “I'd like to see you shoot her!” Then, wasting no time, BANG! Jessica is down, then BANG... BANG... BANG......... BANG! Brockie is dead. Griff walks past them with a cold forcefulness, never once looking down at the two bodies.
That scene brings to mind one other interesting thing about Forty Guns: its phallic love for guns. All the characters in the movie talk about guns with a strange passionate attentiveness. Jessica says to Griff, “I'm not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell. It's your trademark,” pointing to his gun, purring. She then says, “May I feel it?” The trigger clicks... BANG....and they get goosebumps all over. One shot after another from their freshly polished pistol is how they get off. They treat each other like strangers and their guns like a loved one, their one and only companion. At the end when Griff shoots Jessica, he has expressed his deepest feelings for her. Griff shooting Jessica at waist level is their way of consummating.
With Forty Guns, despite its final two scenes, despite some boring characters and listless performances, I can think fondly back on the spontaneous violence and the hilarious covertly sexual dialogue. I love Samuel Fuller the fringe, pulp-movie director. And what I love most is his willingness to shock me.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/28/09
The Big Lebowski is a hilariously entertaining film. F-bombs and pot-belly, shaggy-dog laziness only add to its charm. Joel and Ethan Cohen approach a film about a group of slouches and bums with a joyous twinkle in their eye. They pepper the dialogue with everyman cursing. They run the movie to a first class mixed tape. And they also show off a taste for LA flashy style. It's enthusiastic and playful. We welcome The Big Lebowski as a sort of camp fire tale, told by baritone old west Sam Elliot, about a man we all know: “The Dude.” He straddles a dangerous line of unemployed, on and off the streets and indifferent. But “The Dude” never gets too down, he somehow stays afloat. And though we may berate him for not being motivated (which makes us feel superior), part of us wish we were a dude. We wish we had carefree nonchalant swagger and stress-free life of nothing but bowling and avoiding paying rent. And The Big Lebowski is “The Dude's” wild ride. Our dude, Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), sets down the beer in one hand and pulls his fingers out of the bowling ball in the other hand. He tilts down the shades covering his eyes, flicks back his overgrown bangs, scratches his scruffy beard and side burns. He picks himself up off his minor weed high and is ready to roll.
In The Big Lebowski our dude finds himself in a sticky situation. One night after shopping for some milk at Ralph's, “The Dude” comes home and is beat up by two thugs who mistake him for another Lebowski (David Huddleston) who owes them money. During the break-in one of the two thugs urinates on his favorite carpet (which he says “really tied the room together”). So our dude decides to for once go against his pacifist instincts and confront the other Lebowski who is apparently rich and ask him to replace his carpet. “The Dude” saunters into the other Lebowski's mansion but his pleas for a new carpet are to no avail. So, of course, what does “The Dude” do? Well, he steals a carpet, that's what. Now he has a beautiful Persian rug as the centerpiece of his room. Not long after, the other Lebowski calls “The Dude” back to his home with an urgent request. He tells “The Dude” that his trophy wife Bunny a ditsy teen played by Tara Reid, has been kidnapped. And if “The Dude” will be the courier for a 1 million dollar payoff, he'll get paid $20,000. When “The Dude” tells this to his bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), a high-strung Vietnam Vet who pulls his gun on people who violate bowling rules, Walter takes control and concocts a ridiculous plan for the drop off. He packs an Uzi into a paper bag and his dirty undies into a suitcase that will serve as a decoy for the kidnappers, so Walter and Lebowski can grab Bunny and keep the money.
Over the course of his wild ride, “The Dude” finds himself at a gated community police station, watching Walter demolishing a convertible to intimidate a teenager, in a bowling-ball-vs-sword fight with a German leather-pants band, and inadvertently drinking an acid, roofie spiked “White Russian” at a porn Tzar's house. He is thrown around like a ping-pong ball to every corner of LA, to every weird person in town. And it is fun to watch him sigh, irritated that all these shenanigans interrupt his lounging routine. He sits at the bar and orders his favorite drink. He laments to the bartender about a rough day. But he still keeps a small smirk on his face. He gets up, whips back his hair, and slowly and smoothly puts on his shades remembering, I shouldn't be whining, I'm a dude.
Friday, August 28, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/27/09
From Adaptation, a movie about Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) writing the script for Adaptation, to Synecdoche, New York, a movie directed by Kaufman about directing, Kaufman attempted to take a step toward the truth in his creative madness. But unfortunately I think he only found a bigger disaster and more confusion. And the once lovably jittery and quirky writer has shifted and evolved into a foreboding director.
In Synecdoche, New York Kaufman's on-screen persona is Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director whose life is unraveling. For Caden it's one ailment after another, one visit to the hospital after another. He is always deteriorating. His marriage is crumbling. Finally his wife (Catherine Keener), who is an artist of miniature paintings, leaves him and takes his daughter. Caden then starts flirting with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a delicate box-office girl. But after Caden crumbles under carnal pressure one night in Hazel's bedroom, he's left feeling inept and humiliated.
At this point “Synecdoche” is simply keen melodrama: well acted and engaging if maybe a little depressing. But then unexpectedly, Caden receives a MacArthur genius grant which gives him unlimited funding to pursue any artistic whim. This also gives Kaufman unlimited freedom in depicting the “creative process,” (obviously his favorite topic). In Adaptation he was forced to do this with narration because his on-screen persona was a writer. With “Synecdoche,” because his persona is a theater director, his thoughts and ideas can come alive on stage.
Caden decides to make his masterpiece, a huge all encompassing work of art, a brutally honest and realistic depiction of his plight and what he believes is his rapidly approaching death. Caden assembles a large cast, he chooses a gigantic warehouse in the NY theater district to house the project. At first his somber, depressing piece seems focused: It's about “Death!” But as his life becomes more confusing, so does his play. He concludes, “I don't know what I'm doing.”
In the deep and scary abyss that is “writer's block” also known as the “creative process,” Caden does as Kaufman did in Adaptation, except he takes it even further which ends up being a step in the wrong direction. In Adaptation Kaufman dug himself out of a “writer's block” hole and a muddle of conflicting ideas by deciding to write the script about the writing of the script: including all the funny stories, reflecting on his social awkwardness, then finally relating it to it's original aim (Kaufman was supposed to be adapting The Orchid Thief). But with Caden's piece, instead of being retrospective, he only deepens the “writer's block” hole. Instead of making a play about how he was struggling with the “creative process” and a terrible, nerve-racking life, he makes an endless play about how he is continually struggling with the “creative process” and his nerve-racking life. As a result the giant warehouse becomes a stagy replica of Schenectady and NYC. His actors mimic everything happening in his life. He hires a woman to play Hazel and another to play his wife. His actors play their parts non-stop. He creates a copycat world to study, maybe so he can discover what is causing his pain.
Synecdoche, New York is at times a synecdochical, poetic delight: thoughtful and fascinating. But in the end it is a mad spiraling-out-of-control mess. The mass of ideas converge and form a confounding, bewildering blob. I was also exhausted and tired from watching Caden's relentless trepidation and bemoaning. But then again as frustrating as the movie is, it comes to a perfect end, its only logical conclusion. The endless spiral, the blob of ideas surrounding Caden finally vanish. He has a serene “writer's block,” “creative process” death. I guess, it's what he had anticipated all along. He falls into the arms of the actor playing him and says just before he passes, “I know how to do this play now. I have an idea, I think...”
Thursday, August 27, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/26/09
Quentin Tarantino is a unique director. He is the ultimate movie geek film maker. His movies are an endless homage, a slapped-together mash-up of exploitation b-movies and his Fave 5 soundtracks (Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western music and David Bowie's “Putting Out Fire” from the 1982 remake of Cat People). They are whimsically gory and sarcastically serious. They indulge QT's extraordinary movie love. He is lovably hip if somewhat childish, wearing tennis shoes and giving the peace sign on talk shows. And with Inglourious Basterds (speaking of childish, what a title) QT has nearly accomplished something unprecedented. At least for a good portion of the movie Inglourious Basterds is the first funny, entertaining cartoonish slam-bang action spoof of the Nazis and the Holocaust.
The movie is made up of 5 chapters. The first begins at a quiet dairy farm in 1941 occupied France where SS officer Hans Landa, aka “The Jew Hunter” (played by Christoph Waltz who won the best actor award at the Cannes film festival for his performance), is visiting the LaPadite family out of suspicion that they are hiding Jews. In another chapter we meet the “Basterds,” a renegade group of Jewish American soldiers tracking down and killing as many Nazis as possible. Their leader is Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), aka “Aldo the Apache,” a rough and tumble hick from Tennessee. Other note worthy “Basterds” are “The Bear Jew” (Eli Roth) who clubs German skulls like Ted Williams does baseballs and Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) known as a master of slitting throats.
For the most part Inglourious Basterds is a success and the ending a wonderful rewrite of history, the perfect “burn baby burn” Nazi slaying. But unfortunately the movie stumbles over a few attempts at seriousness. As a result the collection of scenes seems uneven. The bursts of raucous comic violence clash with drawn-out scenes of genuine tension. Most of the 5 chapters begin slowly with scenes of interesting subtle dialogue and then end with guns blazing.
Even some of the individual scenes seem off balance. I think this is mainly because of the brilliant performance of Christoph Waltz as the chilling and menacing SS “Jew Hunter.” Waltz brings a seriousness and believability to his roll which is sometimes awkward to watch because he is paired with characters that aren't at all serious (especially Brad Pitt and his silly accent). His performance adds a new more complex dimension to the film, but one I think Tarantino isn't ready to handle.
Watching Inglourious Basterds, we laugh and get excited at the scalpings, Aldo poking and digging his finger in a bullet hole, carving swastika's in German soldier's foreheads. We get all riled up for a Tarantino stylish sadistic blood bath (in a sexy Nazi red) because his lack of seriousness allows us to ignore any of the horrible, sad implications of death. But the second I closely connect to a character or in this case see the true Nazi in Hans Landa, the endless corpses take on meaning (Landa's strangling of Bridget Von Hammersmarck played by Diane Kruger is the first brutal hard-to-watch death I've seen in a Tarantino movie). The nasty implications of Inglourious Basterds rear their ugly head. I remember I'm not supposed to laugh and have fun watching a movie about WWII and the Holocaust. And the somber topic is a total buzz kill of my Tarantino Nazisploitation thrill ride.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/24/09
Point Blank is a routine revenge film made dazzling and mesmerizing by hip sixties style and French New Wave cutting. We find Lee Marvin, his face pockmarked and battered as usual, dazed and confused, lying in a puddle of dirt on the floor of an Alcatraz prison cell with two bullet holes in his chest. The film is cut and slashed, we jump back to a heist gone wrong. Marvin as “Walker” and his friend Reese (John Verner) steal thousands in cash from a helicopter transporting Mob money to the prison, known as the “Alcatraz drop.” But Reese then betrays “Walker” taking his $93,000 share, making off with his wife (Sharon Acker) and leaving Walker for dead at the prison. The background turns to an Andy Warhol-esque swirl of oranges and reds, a color splurge (like a psychedelic finger painting). The opening credits roll. Then for the rest of the movie we follow “Walker” living out his vengeful fantasy, cutting back and forth, flashing back to the cell, back to the heist, back and back again, over and over. Walker hits San Francisco landmarks, patrols under the highway bridges of Los Angeles, and then at the end drifts into a dark shadowy oblivion back at Alcatraz.
Was it all Walker's last dream? Did Walker die at Alcatraz or did he recover? (At one point Angie Dickinson tells Marvin, “You died at Alcatraz.” ) One of the treasures of Point Blank is that these questions are left unanswered. Walker remains an enigma. He sifts through LA and San Francisco like a ghost. Lee Marvin's stiff cold demeanor and statuesque figure, his leathery skin blend in with the silver coated cities, the straight-cut fashion, satin faded pastel colors, (Dickinson's yellow striped dress) prim models, mini-skirts and leopard-skin sheets.
Walker tracks down Reese, his wife, and the mob men responsible for the “Alcatraz drop,” leaving mounds of corpses behind. But strangely enough, Walker never actually kills anyone. Sure, he roughs up a few body guards but only ever in self defense. He instead acts as a kind of evil spirit causing Reese, his wife, and the mob men to either kill each other or themselves.
Point Blank is an exhilarating if sometimes confusing ride of brute bullish action glossed with smooth, sleek style. But it is also a stifling of emotions (except for the brilliant scene where Dickinson slaps Marvin repeatedly to no avail). In this world of jazzy music and stoned faces, violence is inconsequential and sex is trendy.
A dream or not, Point Blank with Marvin's degenerate steamrolling, Dickinson's sexy fleshiness, John Boorman's New Wave showoffish directing, the pulp novel “The Hunter” turned pulp-action 60's vogue movie is a thrill.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/22/09
Sophie's Choice is a heart-melting, tear-jerking guilt trip. Layers of intrigue unfold with an exploitive, manipulative touch blurring our memory of gratuitous posturing.
The first layer has a campy artificial glow. We meet Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a sweet southern writer who has moved to a cute old boardinghouse in Brooklyn, and an odd couple, Sophie (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant and her lover Nathan (Kevin Kline). They are a match made in cliché threesome heaven. Sophie is beautiful but vulnerable and naïve. Nathan is erratic and abusive but exciting. And Stingo is the perfect third wheel, soft-spoken and thin-skinned, standing idly by watching Sophie and Nathan's destructive relationship, worshiping Sophie while subtly loathing Nathan. Scene after dull, predictable scene our threesome play the same game. Sophie and Stingo begin a conversation. They seem to be connecting. Then suddenly in pops Nathan with his strange but fun-at-heart antics, stealing Sophie's attention. The camera focuses on Stingo as Nathan and Sophie kiss and cuddle. We see him look down at his feet, pouting like a sad puppy. Awkwardness sets in.
These opening scenes are kind of boring and much too clean but I think maybe intentionally so. After 30 minutes we are lulled to a near sleep, already tired of the characters. I was thinking, did Streep really win best actress for this? But little did we know that in Sophie's Choice when you chip away the layer of campy fun (?) underneath you'll find a thicker layer of gut-wrenching melodrama and guilt mongering exploitation.
To our surprise both Nathan and Sophie have “ugly” secrets. We learn Nathan's occasional rant or tirade and dressing-up-in-costumes exuberance can be explained by his paranoid schizophrenia and cocaine addiction. (Only in the movies does a short temper, jealousy and enthusiasm indicate mental disorder and a drug habit). This strange revelation coming near the end was an unnecessary jolt. The cocaine piece was too much. I think mental disease would have been more than enough. And Nathan was already forgotten by this point. Our attention was totally wrapped in Sophie.
Early in the movie we saw that Sophie had a number tattoo indicating she was a prisoner of the Holocaust. And in one of the heart-to-heart talks with Stingo she alluded to problems she had with her father in Poland. (I put the Holocaust stuff in my memory banks expecting it to come up later.) Then midway through the movie Sophie once again sat down with Stingo, the camera closed in on Meryl Streep's face (this is when she won her Oscar) leaving us no wiggle room, no way to ignore Sophie's story. She then unveiled her depressing past, her memories of Auschwitz and her fateful “choice.” We see in flashbacks that Sophie was once married with children in Poland and her father was a Nazi supporter. She and her children were taken to Auschwitz for being Polish. There she was forced by a Nazi guard to choose between her two children, who lives and who dies.
My heart was pounding. My first thought was that Sophie's Choice is a great movie and that Streep's performance is unbelievable (she deserved the Oscar). But I remembered a low, awful feeling while watching. I remembered my boredom from watching the early scenes. And I remembered a specific manipulative lurid cut in the flashbacks. (We see Sophie and her two children on a train heading to Auschwitz. The camera zooms in on the two kids. They are trembling, clinging to their mother. Then cut to smoke shooting out of gas chambers.) I realized that the light-hearted early scenes are a device to lure us in or at least warm us up. Feeling we're on even ground, we welcome Sophie, Stingo and Nathan's problems and stories, unaware we've been made an easy knockout for stomach churning guilt and teary-eyed melodrama.
Friday, August 21, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/21/09
Don't be fooled by sharp tongue, sardonic soldier-jive (plucked from Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short-Timers) or the early scenes of Marine Corp S&M. Full Metal Jacket is undoubtedly Stanley Kubrick's least imaginative film and his most disappointing.
The film opens at recruit training camp where heads are shaved to the music of “Hello Vietnam.” In the midst of crotch-grabbing silly chants (“This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting this is for fun”) the first part of “FMJ” has a macho self-punishment nightmarish vivacity. The skin head “maggots” are spit on and berated by drill Sergeant Hartman, played with a cartoonish over animated temper by Lee Ermey. He shouts obscenities and idealizes the marksmanship of Lee Harvey Oswald while praising the Virgin Mary. Hartman in particular verbally abuses and humiliates the incompetent, overweight Leonard who he names “Gomer Pyle,” played by Vincent D'Onofrio. Hartman's tough love slowly turns Gomer into a gun-groping psychopath which finally leads to a confrontation. D'Onofrio tilts back his eyes, half smirks and drools to best mimic the warped, crazed look.
We jump from the neatly folded white sheets, bunk beds and synchronized jogging of the camp base to an only slightly more chaotic, not at all intimidating Vietnam (Kubrick chose to film in England), which pales in comparison to the frightening jungle in Platoon or Apocalypse Now. Oliver Stone's Vietnam makes Kubrick's look welcoming. We follow “Joker,” (not that he's funny), a correspondent for the “Stars and Stripes” military propaganda paper, played by Matthew Modine. Modine has the sarcastic grin of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but none of the devious bite or intelligence. The “Joker” is totally uninteresting. But I'm not sure I should blame Modine. Kubrick gives him nothing to do and no time to shine. Actually, all of the characters in the film are no more human or engaging than “HAL” from “2001.”
In the second half of “FMJ” we don't closely follow any characters and there isn't much of a story. It is more a collection of dull vignettes. Kubrick uses steady-cam to death giving us the illusion of a story moving forward. (I'm having trouble remembering what actually happens.) Oh, “Joker” and his photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Howard) fight off the North Vietnamese Army during the Tet Offensive. They go to Phu Bai and fight, usually in the traditional way: moving slowly forward, hiding behind rocks or walls.
When journalists interview the soldiers and ask what they think about the war, they all give strange, stoned faced answers: some talking about trivial things, others sounding racist. I think Kubrick is trying to convey that the soldiers have become indifferent about killing and desensitized. But the setting is non-threatening. We never felt a connection to the characters (maybe the split second before their hair was shaved in the first scene). As a result the message seems arbitrarily supplanted to make the film anti-war trendy.
I think I would let all of this go if in the second half the film retained its sadistic comedy. But that is also left at training camp with Gomer and the drill Sergeant. There are bits of irony like “Joker's” helmet which has a peace symbol pin attached and “Born to Kill” written on the side. But the humor lacks a character center. It's like a Kubrick movie without an actor to give one menacing stare (which Gomer does in the bathroom scene).
The first part of the movie has a dark irony horror show vigor, the unique audacity of Kubrick giving us a jolt and even living up to hype. But the rest falls flat on its face. It is slogging in war movie clichés and by the end I'd nearly forgotten Gomer and the famous soap socking scene.“FMJ” features some of Kubrick at his worst: suffocating actors until he doesn't have any characters. It also in the end fails to live up to our enormous expectations for a Kubrick movie. And although Kubrick is great at damage control - rousing us with a catchy soundtrack, a few beautiful shots, and fun foul mouthed dialogue - Full Metal Jacket is for Kubrick, shockingly banal.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/19/09
An Orson Welles film destined for failure, a box-office flop, cut to pieces (maybe rightfully so) and turned into a confounding mess, is no doubt destined for legend.
As the story goes, Orson Welles was once again in way over his head on a project. He was attempting to remake Around the World in Eighty Days adding an ironic twist. Of course he needed money, 50,000 dollars, so he made a deal with Columbia producer Harry Cohn: Cohn would lend him the money if Welles would write, direct and act in a film with Columbia star Rita Hayworth (Welles' wife at the time) for no further fee. When Cohn asked Welles what the film would be about, Welles, standing in a hotel lobby, glanced at the book stand and suggested the film be based on If I Die Before I Wake. Which he had never read.
The film was slapped together in less than a year but as with all Welles films, much time was needed for heavy editing. The result is The Lady from Shanghai: chaotic, perplexing, labyrinthine (Cohn famously offered 1000 dollars to anyone who could explain the plot), featuring bits of brilliance, bad dubbing, overlapping dialogue, strange camera angles, awkward gaps that are an indication of cut footage (all Orson Welles trademarks). It's the Welles mystique verbatim. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Butchered, untidy, confusing, whatever, The Lady from Shanghai is an absolute favorite.
Welles plays an Irish drifter, Michael O'Hara, who encounters the beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister, played surprisingly well by Hayworth. (Welles taunted and infuriated Columbia pictures by forcing Hayworth to cut and bleach her famous long auburn hair.) Michael saves Elsa from three attacking ruffians, so Elsa hires Michael to be her body guard. Elsa is enticing, seductive, seething with passion but also bitter over her marriage with handicapped lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael somehow finds himself entangled in conspiracies, winding up the fall guy for a murder. The story spirals out of control into a muddle of who done it? Say what? Then finally coming to the mesmerizing climax in the hall of mirrors. Aurthur Bannister points his gun at Elsa and says “Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of the both of us.”
After watching one of the botched Orson Welles films, I always ask myself, do I really want to see The Lady from Shanghai, or any of the others as Orson truly intended? Do I really want to see the so called “holly grail” of lost film, the original ending to The Magnificent Ambersons? I'll admit, my answer is always an emphatic Yes! But I think the “Ambersons” ending and what Welles truly intended for his other films are better left to the imagination. And there's no doubt in my mind that all the lost footage, crazy horror stories, bombed or unfinished projects have raised Welles' esteem as a director. We watch a Welles film, see bits of brilliance and imagine what could have been, lifting Touch of Evil, “Ambersons,” or Falstaff in our minds to “Kane” level.
The Lady from Shanghai - cut, mangled, thrown together in shambles - is yet another Welles gem.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/18/09
Luis Bunuel's films are a guilty pleasure: indifferent sacrilege and whimsical pornography with a lawless depraved charm. Their utter absurdity keep me in limbo, bewildered and confused but oddly enough, laughing. At first I laugh as a nervous reaction to being completely shocked. I feel a sort of detachment, as if Bunuel's message is always one step ahead of me. But slowly a Bunuel film strips me of my conventions for movie watching (the woman looking out a window is not necessarily watching the man in the following shot, they could be completely unrelated). I'm put in a primitive state of dream logic (the Freudian term for no logic). There is no message. It doesn't make sense and it's not supposed to. I chuckle at the ironic or satirical, shake my head (hiding a smile) at the revolting, feeling as though I understand the gag.
A Bunuel film is an attitude - anti-establishment, leftist, blasphemous but mostly carefree - and a collection of remarkable little zany ideas, put together with a shaggy slap-happy fancy. He mocks seriousness and snobbery by undercutting it with perversion and cruelty (the noble priest or proper bourgeoisie are always closet fetishists, treating each other like "An Andalusian Dog"). He scoffs at the thought of mise en scene, throwing together jagged shots, leaving in abnormalities or goofs, and seeming to cast blindfolded (although having two different actors play one part in That Obscure Object of Desire must have been calculated). Of all Bunuel's hedonist, insane masterpieces (Belle de jour, The Exterminating Angel and “Discreet Charm” among my favorites) Un Chien Andalou, the 16 minute short, is undoubtedly the most maddening and the most purely ridiculous.
One afternoon in Paris Luis Bunuel had lunch with Salvatore Dali, one of many friends from the French surrealist cult. Bunuel remarked to Dali that he dreamed that a thin cloud cut the moon in half like a razor blade. Dali responded by describing a dream in which his hand was crawling with ants. It was from there that Dali and Bunuel conceived Un Chien Andalou.
The movie opens with the card “Once upon a time....” We then see a man (Bunuel himself) sharpening a razor blade on a balcony. He looks up and we see a thin cloud approaching a full moon, cut to “wife” (played by Simone Mareuil who later committed self-immolation) being held down by “husband.” The cloud crosses the moon, then we see the razor blade slice “wife's” eye (actually a calf's eye) in half. From then on, to the music of Wagner and a jaunty tango, taunted by ever changing title cards (“About 3 in the Morning,” “17 Years Before,” “In Spring”) we see a man riding a bike down the street in a nun's outfit. We see Dali's dream of an ant-hill hand, then someone run over by a car, then the “wife” being groped by a man drooling blood. We see the “wife” running from the man, then grabbing a tennis racket to defend herself, and the man abruptly stopping to pick up and pull two ropes attached to two ten commandment tablets, two priests (one played by Salvatore Dali), two pianos and two rotting donkey corpses. Later we see a man's mouth replaced by a patch of armpit hair. (I'm giggling just describing the wacky lewdness.)
Call it obscene, disgusting debauchery, but Bunuel's films are a necessary evil. They are the perfect counterbalance to obedient conventional cinema. With his dry humor and weird antics, I adore Bunuel, the wonderful lecher, cheerful and lovable in his eagerness to offend.
Monday, August 17, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/17/09
Terms of Endearment is the perfect “spiders stratagem.” It's a well refined lie, a remarkable unprecedented achievement in manipulation. Director James L. Brooks weaves a web of enviable humanity and catches the audience blindsided in a puddle of tears, rubbing their eyes and forced to remark, “I can relate to those characters.” To admit that it is a tearjerker, and worthy of winning best picture, is to acknowledge that it was extremely well executed and has many dupes.
Terms of Endearment pokes and prods at our emotions with calculated precision (Micheal Gore's score assaults our tear ducts relentlessly). It tickles our funny bone with a touch of slapstick: when Shirley MacLaine, as the mid-50's mother, slips and falls while ogling Jack Nicholson, her impressionable neighbor, or when Nicholson's hand gets stuck in MacLaine's bra. It also has quick wit that walks a fine line of biting without leaving teeth marks. But Terms of Endearment mostly relies on humor defined by the characters' persona: MacLaine as Aurora is funny in embarrassment when her childish mom-paranoia and dilapidated overly proper libido are exposed. Nicholson plays Garret Breedlove with non-threatening drunkenness and potbelly charm. Debra Winger, as Aurora's daughter Emma, is endearing with her dorky crackle-laugh and a baby producing machine earthiness. The actors, including Jeff Daniels as Emma's innocent, simple-minded husband, and John Lithgow as a understanding adulterer, all rise above the film's pink gloss. Their wonderful performances make the film watchable for anyone, including non-dupes.
But back to the issue at hand. Terms of Endearment masks itself as honorable, honest, genuine benevolent empathy. It pretends to show “real” people in their true form, encountering love and sadness unexpectedly through life's spontaneity. But the film mistakes the natural unpredictable movement of life for over-eager shabby jumping. It starts with Emma's birth, then leaps to marriage, then to disease, then to death. And the characters, though lovable, reflect an ideal, made for TV bunch. They have only virtues and adorable good hearted faults. We'd all like to believe that our worst quality is that we care too much, or that we're too protective of our children.
James L. Brooks panders to the audience by depicting characters that, no matter what, are innocent, living in the world that's sometimes inexplicably harsh. Nicholson as Breedlove drinks but only enough to bang his head once and act funny. Aurora is stern but not enough to turn any men away. And then all of a sudden there's Emma's cancer. It comes so abruptly and in such an uninspired way, as if to say “Gotcha! See how unpredictable life can be?” I guess I'm supposed to think, “Wow, I hope I'm not taking my loved ones for granted.” But instead I'm thinking, is this all they could think of? It's true, cancer does unexpectedly kill in real life. But in Terms of Endearment James L. Brooks' use of that fact is grotesquely exploitive. He intends to start the waterworks and have word get around, sending flocks of semi-masochistic, stressed women in need of a cry, to the theater.
And yet I'll admit, Terms of Endearment is an effective trick, tolerable for a non-dupe because of its great performances. I'm proud to say I sat through the ending and never shed a tear. Maybe I have a heart that's cold as ice, or perhaps I saw through Terms of Endearment's web of masterful manipulation.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
By Eric Jessen 8/15/09
Diner is a lukewarm, humdrum “Happy Days” retread of 1950's nostalgia (a twinkle in the eye, tilted head smile and a depressing sigh included) with cute little bits of the obligatory coffee talk - sports and music, “Sinatra or Mathis?” over a burger and fries and your hot date over apple pie - generic (the eventual sitcom pilot quality) plot devices and reminiscing good old fashioned wholesome guy love.
Diner is set in 1959 Baltimore, where five high school buddies, now in their early twenties, still meet at their favorite diner, sit at their favorite table and eat their favorite dish to forget women, money and adulthood. They bicker and finish each other's thoughts like old married couples, talking about music, movies, and the Colts, recalling the prom and past girlfriends. They cling to their boyishness and boo-hoo their evolving relationships. All five have “growing pains.” Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is on the verge of marriage but getting cold feet. “Shrevie” (Daniel Stern) is already in the sexless arguing stage of marriage, fighting about how to organize his record collection with his wife (Ellen Barkin). “Boogie,” played with a suave desperation by Mickey Rourke is a hair dresser by day, law student by night and knee-deep in gambling debts. Fenwick, played with inebriated tears of despair by Kevin Bacon, is a whiny failure who “rejected the family business” and is now living on his parents allowance. And Billy, played with muted deadpan personality by Timothy Daly, has impregnated a girl he loves but who doesn't love him.
But as the boys say, “At least we have the diner.” It's their safe haven from the frightening outside world (though we see it as basically harmless), and their uncertain futures. They cherish relaxed guy love at the diner and fear conversations with their wives. They cherish Sweet Smell of Success and fear The Seventh Seal.
Barry Levinson in his directing debut immediately regresses to childhood memory-schmaltz, drifting into his adolescence of growing up in Baltimore, playing sophomoric pranks and watching game shows on a black and white TV. Although Levinson captures the sadness of fading teenage innocence - becoming an adult and feeling uncomfortable and inept cruising for girls or married and bored - behind an uninspired story, lacking snap, crackle or pop, the genuinely amusing dialogue falls flat in the lurking mist of homesick melancholy.