Sunday, October 31, 2010

Grizzly Mad

By Eric Jessen 10/29/2010

Some sick personality trait of mine and film director Werner Herzog had us instantly drawn to the story of Timothy Treadwell, particularly the circumstances of his death. If you're not familiar with the story; Treadwell is the man who lived with bears over the course of thirteen summers in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve, filmed himself for the last five, until he was eaten by a bear in 2003. Grizzly Man is the documentary put together by Werner Herzog using Treadwell's surviving footage.
Perhaps out of a common cynicism and overall surliness, I think both Herzog and I looked to the story of Treadwell to affirm personal beliefs about man's relationship to nature. As opposed to Herzog, the notion I looked to affirm was somewhat petty. Having grown up with little or no connection to animals I've always found people who feel an emotional bond with their pet unbearably annoying, especially when they speak to them like they would an infant. I always believed people and their pets are as true a bond as children and their imaginary friends. So for me Treadwell was an example of someone whose emotional bond with animals was ultimately proven to be a lie.
Herzog on the other hand looked to affirm his belief that the world is a cruel and violent place. Herzog says on the soundtrack for Grizzly Man, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” And despite the hours of footage of Treadwell living amongst bears, sometimes even touching them, Herzog says he sees in the bears not the love and connection Treadwell believed he and the bears had, but a “blank stare and a half bored interest in food.”
Herzog was also fascinated by the madness of Treadwell: why he seemed to have a death wish. Treadwell himself admits on camera, “My life is on the precipice of death...If I show weakness, I'm dead. They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces – I'm dead.” (Of course this is exactly what ends up happening. When Treadwell appeared on Late Show with David Letterman even Letterman asks, “Is it going to happen that we a read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?”) And despite this Treadwell idealizes the bears, almost deifies them. He gives each of them names and speaks of their wisdom. In one strange sequence in Grizzly Man when he finds a pile of excrement of one of his favorite bears, “Wendy's poop,” he exults, “It was inside her.”
But could it be that Treadwell was simply showing off for the camera. Many friends of Treadwell say in Herzog's documentary that Treadwell just wanted to be a star. Treadwell is visibly aware of the camera at all times. In the almost one-hundred hours of footage Treadwell took while in Alaska he's constantly putting himself in the foreground and the bears in the background. He seemingly becomes more the subject than the bears.
Creating an image for himself seems foremost on Treadwells mind. We learn in Herzog's documentary that this has long been an obsession of Treadwell's. Once an aspiring actor, he turned to drugs and alcohol when he lost the part of the bartender on Cheers to Woody Harrelson. And when he was in California looking for work he claimed to be an orphan from Australia, even doing a Down Under accent, for some reason hiding the truth that he grew up in a seemingly normal home in Long Island.
While in Alaska Treadwell is always trying to portray himself as the lone savior of the bears, risking his life for their protection. Yet Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve is a protected land with few reported cases of poaching. It appears Treadwell's idea of himself as the protector of the bears was as much a delusion as that he was an orphan from Australia. He desperately tries to maintain his image even when he's not alone. On a few occasions Treadwell is seen telling Amie Huguenard, who stayed with him the last few summers, to “get out of the shot,” saying he's supposed to be alone. He constantly reminded us on camera how daring it is of him to be alone with the bears. Yet until Treadwell and Huguenard's death, no one had been killed by bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve. He also seems on camera infatuated with his physical appearance; his so called Prince Valiant haircut, and looking fit and athletic despite being in his mid 40's.
So what was Treadwell doing in Alaska? It's clear that he was there more for himself than for the bears, both to gain stardom and to soothe some inner pain. Treadwell admitted that living in Alaska with the bears saved him from alcohol and drug addiction. Perhaps toeing the line with bears, risking his life every day was the vice Treadwell needed as a replacement. But I think he also wanted to give his life some purpose and make something of himself. So he had to create a purpose. He had to create a persona – the protector of the bears.
Herzog says, “I have seen this madness on a movie set before,” speaking of Treadwell as he would one of his actors. Herzog also says, “I have seen human ecstasies and darkest human turmoil.” One is immediately reminded of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (and the subsequent documentary about the film, Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, which shows how obsessive Herzog became making the film) where Klaus Kinski's character becomes obsessed with dragging a gigantic boat across land from one river to another. In fact madness has been the subject of many of Herzog's films. I was also reminded of perhaps Herzog's most famous film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which the main character Aguirre (again played by Klaus Kinski) becomes addicted to his own power and is convinced he is the wrath of god saying, “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees...then the birds will drop from the trees... I am the wrath of god. The earth I pass will see me and tremble.” Also in the making of Aguirre Herzog showed his obsessive nature. He insisted on shooting the film on location in the Amazon despite terrible weather conditions.
One might watch Grizzly Man and think Werner Herzog is making a fool of Treadwell, yet I think he actually took a very objective approach. Herzog often comments on the soundtrack of the brilliance of Treadwell as a filmmaker in his ability to capture spontaneous moments of nature, particularly Treadwell's interactions with foxes. Herzog seems to think this is where Treadwell makes a true connection with nature. Here is a point where I may disagree with Herzog. Just because Treadwell can interact with the foxes like anyone would their pet dog or cat, doesn't mean there's any difference between that and the blank stare Herzog saw in the eyes of the bears. I think we just naturally see a connection and project warmth in a cute, cuddly and nonthreatening animal like a fox and cruel indifference in a large, intimidating animal like a grizzly bear.
I don't think Herzog was out to make Treadwell the fool in an attempt to show the madness and cruelty of the world. Treadwell became the mad fool when he was finally eaten. Treadwell couldn't just be the man you may have heard about who lived with bears. He had to prove how daring he was by videotaping himself. Finally he had to up the ante one last time. The summer Treadwell was killed, he stayed in the park longer than normal. With most of the bears in hibernation by this point, Treadwell was living amongst starving and therefore much more dangerous bears. Perhaps Treadwell did have a death wish and staying longer the final summer was a type of suicide. I think in death we got the final verdict on Treadwell's sanity. Yet in death Treadwell finally got what he always really wanted – some notoriety. With Herzog's Grizzly Man he became a star.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Malcolm Lowry and "Volcano"

By Eric Jessen August 9, 2010

The London Times said of Malcolm Lowry's first book Ultramarine (1933) that “if the art of writing is imitation, then the author has mastered it.”
Since his death in 1957 countless theses have been written on Lowry's life: some claim he was a homosexual, others claim he was impotent, all search for an explanation for his drinking, his masterpiece Under the Volcano (1947), and his subsequent failures as an author. Though not an authority on Lowry's life – having only read Under the Volcano and seen the award nominated biographical documentary “Volcano” by Donald Brittain - I would hypothesize that perhaps his true sorrow came from knowing he was an impostor.
It seems from an early age Lowry had already decided he was a failure. According to the documentary, his childhood could be summed up by a series of complaints: his mother was not loving enough, he was constantly ill, and despite his father being a body builder he was considered a sissy in school. (The Hollywood depiction of his life would immediately cut to a flashback in black and white of an overweight woman threateningly wielding a frying pan around the kitchen as little Malcolm cowered in the corner, then a shot of several kids pointing their fingers at Malcolm laughing deprecatingly.)
It seems his pain and suffering became his obsession. He drank continuously until he convinced himself he was an alcoholic. He brooded and sulked until he convinced himself he was depressed. At one point he wandered endlessly outside Bellevue Hospital, drunk and spouting gibberish, until he convinced himself and the doctors he was insane. He desperately sought his own suffering. His actions indicate not as much a cry for help but a cry for attention.
By the time Lowry was writing Under the Volcano in Mexico his obsession with his own suffering had reached a type of arrogance. He saw a sort of divine significance in his own drunken misery. When at first his novel had trouble finding a publisher, he could cope. But once Under the Volcano became a huge success, hailed worldwide as a masterpiece and a work of a genius, his life truly started to fall apart.
Afterword he drank in between struggling to come up with new ideas for novels. Not another was finished the rest of his life. He once again visited therapists and mental hospitals. After years of disappointing fans and publishers he became somewhat of a disgrace. His misery became a reality. Finally, and sadly fittingly, he died in a pool of his own vomit having downed a half bottle of gin. Too bad it wasn't Mescal.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inception (2010)

By Eric Jessen August 2, 2010

Not since Christmas Eve when I was ten years old have I been so eager to call it a night. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's Inception, I don't think I've ever been so excited about dreaming since I first learned about Freud.
Inception may be the first movie in a long time deserving of its place atop the box office. It's like a cross between Mission: Impossible and The Matrix cut together with as much boldness and flashiness as Nolan's Memento. (You can already give Lee Smith the Oscar for Best aka “Most” Editing.) Although I was a little disappointed the movie was easier to follow than I was led to believe. The pieces of the puzzle, the dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams actually fit together quite nicely. With the help of some rather lame explanations, of course. I would suggest instead of having these explanation scenes a word bank be printed on the back of our ticket defining "inception," "extraction," "kick," "limbo," "totem," "forger" etc. That would just about cover it – then straight into dreamland. Which leads me to my even bigger gripe. Why does every character in the end have to prefer reality when the dream world is so clearly more interesting?
But really I can't criticize Inception. It was a lot of fun. Some may say it's too literal minded, the characters are shallow, the dialogue is weak. It's not very witty, a little too dower like it doesn't know it's supposed to be fun. (And then again, it's fun anyway.) And all of those things may be true. But show me a movie with as complicated a structure, as many layers of story that also has well developed characters and great dialogue, all while sparing time to dazzle us with special effects. Maybe, in our dreams.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

By Eric Jessen July 6, 2010

With Robert Benton's Kramer vs Kramer divorce has never seemed more adorable and less messy – no adultery, no prenups, just love. And learning; Kramer husband (Dustin Hoffman) how to be a better parent to their son Billy (Justin Henry); Kramer wife (Meryl Streep) how to be a more “complete” person.
One night he comes home late, for reasons of the “bringin'-home-the-bacon” variety, and she runs out on him – to California “to find myself.” “It's not you it's me,” she tells him. Now Kramer husband has to raise Billy by himself. Much bonding occurs, so when Kramer wife returns Kramer husband won't give up Billy without a fight. Lawyers and judges get involved and Kramer wife is awarded custody of Billy despite all the heart-strings being pulled in the husband's favor.
It's all very civilized and upper-middle class. (Did I mention both Kramers are advertising executives in Manhattan and wife went to Smith.) Meryl Streep seems to be in about 15 minutes, of which she spends about 13 crying, and somehow she won Best Actress. Hoffman runs a lot with briefcases and portfolios under his arm and shares many warm looks with cute little Justin Henry which won him Best Actor.
In the end Kramer wife comes to her senses and decides to let husband keep Billy because she thinks it's best for their son. How nice. I'd say divorce has never seemed more sensible – even desirable. Maybe when Kramer vs Kramer was awarded Best Picture a few directors and producers had other things in mind. After seeing what it did for the Kramers I'd sign on the dotted line.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Duel in the Sun (1946)

By Eric Jessen July 2, 2010

After ten minutes of Dimitri Tiomkin Prelude and Overture the movie starts. The opening credits say King Vidor's Duel in the Sun with Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey and on and on. With so many names in big bold letters how could it go wrong? The only more amazing list was of the uncredited directors: William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg. Another was David O. Selznick who also produced and wrote the script.
Then again I asked myself, how could it not go wrong? And so so wrong it did. Duel in the Sun, which was more accurately known at the time as “Lust in the Dust,” is so bad it's impressive.
Jennifer Jones plays the ravishing “half-breed” who puckers her lips and puffs up her chest. She makes them cowboys go wild. Gregory Peck keeps his hair wet and his hands dirty and does his best impression of a hunk. (Southern drawl has never sounded so articulate.) From the moment they make eye contact they look like they want to take a bite out of one another. (I think I saw Jones lick her lips.) All that's missing is a mating cry. Finally they kiss and it brings the house down. Jones resists at first – then again she aspires to be a lady. But eventually Peck's manly charms overcome her to the point she decides to loathe him for it. The passion boils over resulting in the two trying to kill each other. Fantastic! They both shoot each other then ask, “Are you okay, darling?” Outstanding! One of the great endings I can remember – two people dying in their killers/lovers arms. They didn't realize how much they loved each other until they'd killed each other. Did I mention this was a love story?
Joseph Cotton plays Peck's brother, the good guy, who Jones loves until she realizes how boring he is, and presumably sterile. Just before Peck shoots Cotton he delivers this line, “Don't give me your high and mighty noble talk, Big Words.” Brilliant! Lionel Barrymore plays the same part he played in It's a Wonderful Life except on a horse. Lillian Gish plays Mr. Potter's wife and she really is never bad enough for this movie, although she has her one overwrought dying seen. And how could I forget Butterfly MacQueen, who didn't get her name in bold, again playing the mousy maid from Gone with the Wind.
Duel in the Sun is so bad it's great. And hilarious. And irresistibly entertaining. Some would even say it's good. Maybe it is? Don't see no reason why not.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

By Eric Jessen June 27, 2010

When Paul Muni in full Emile Zola beard screams about truth in William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola I couldn't help but chuckle. Or was it that I gagged but the sewage that spewed from my mouth was thought too lurid to survive any retelling?
Hollywood has always told its own version of history, but why does it always have to be at the expense of facts? In the case of The Life of Emile Zola the lack of truth is not particularly egregious but it is particularly ironic – and perhaps an opportunity for a teaching moment.
Emile Zola was a man about truth. The Life of Emile Zola agrees. He was tried and found guilty of defamation for accusing in a newspaper article members of the French army of convicting Alfred Dreyfus of treason knowing he was innocent, and trying to cover up their mistake by acquitting Major Esterhazy of treason knowing he was guilty. Zola fled to England. Dreyfus was let out of prison after the French government collapsed. And Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning soon after. Thankfully fact and the film are still on the same page.
Here's where fact meets Hollywood. Emile Zola was famous in France long before writing Nana as the film portrays. (Although a small foot note, every detail counts where fact is concerned.) Alfred Dreyfus' wife never met with Emile Zola and begged him to help her husband, showing him evidence her husband was innocent. And in the category of Hollywood by omission, there was no mention whatsoever in the film of Emile Zola accusing in his article members of the military of antisemitism against Dreyfus.
I say, Why? Do these fabrications not make the movie less substantive? Do they not make the story more dull? Why must Hollywood always take liberties with the truth? Why must it mold history to fit its cliches? I say, stop the over-fictionalizing and fantasizing! I say, stop making every trip to the movies an unlearning of history! J'Accuse! J'Accuse!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Seven Chances (1925)

By Eric Jessen June 24, 2010

In this wonderful Buster Keaton comedy the set-up is perfect. Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) is down on his luck – some trouble with his girlfriend and desperately in need of money. He has just found out he's set to inherit seven million dollars from his grandfather as long as he gets married by 7:00 PM on his 27th birthday. Well it just so happens that his 27th birthday … is today!
Of course his girlfriend – a sentimentalist – doesn't so much care for the idea of getting married just so he can inherit seven million dollars. Now Shannon's really up against it. A series of embarrassing proposals, including one to a mannequin, prove futile. So his friend gives him a hand by placing an ad in the newspaper looking for all women interested in a husband and seven million dollars. No need to go into detail – one thing leads to another, a little misunderstanding – but before he knows it Shannon is being chased by thousands of disgruntled brides in gowns that look more like togas stolen from the set Cecil B. DeMille's Ben-Hur (made the same year). It's a classic sequence in Keaton films. (And it's another chance for him to show off his athleticism.)
Seven Chances is hilarious, great fun. It was a fresh take on marriage in 1925 and hasn't dated a bit. In the end Shannon gets hitched just as time expires. And to his girlfriend – the sentimentalist. (So love sort of prevails.) How could she resist – Shannon, I mean.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Autumn Sonata (1978)

By Eric Jessen June 23, 2010

One of Ingmar Bergman's last films tells the story of a mother (Ingrid Bergman) and her daughter (Liv Ullmann). When Mom is an intelligent, worldly concert pianist and daughter is a dull housewife and an emotional wreck, of course it's all Mom's fault – “You didn't love me,” “You were never there for me,” “I cried myself to sleep” etc. When mother comes to visit daughter it's all smiles at first, then one night (and for nearly the rest of the film) daughter lets mother have it. It's all sorrow and tears to the end. This is one of those films where the character you're led to hate the most – the mother – is the only one you like because she is the only one not whining about her life – or whines the least. When it's not painfully tiresome in its ideas about parent child relationships it's just boring.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Sound of Crumpling Trash

Eric Jessen 6/5/2010

(Email advice to my brother John on the contents of his external hard drive)

If you still have The Sound of Music delete it immediately and never watch it in your entire life. It was one of the worst, most revolting pieces of trash I've ever sat through. I've never hated mom (a hopeless sucker for sappy musicals) and dad (a hopeless sucker for anything popular from the 1960's) more when they tried to convince me it's a classic.

After surviving three hours of Julie Andrews and her seven dwarfs spewing candy coated excrement while skipping in unison, I immediately deleted it from my desktop then put it back on my desktop just to be able to delete it again.
A computer generated crumple of trash has never sounded sweeter.

Friday, June 4, 2010


By Eric Jessen 6/4/2010

(Photograph By Weegee)

Confessions of a Killer from "The Naked City"

I guess I was ready. I guess I was as ready as I'd ever be. I'd have run if I could. If I'd have gotten the chance I'd have run. What else is there? There's always something else. So of course I would've run. I was as ready as I'd ever be, and still I would've run. It's not so bad, but I guess I understand. I understand what they were afraid of. There should've been fear. I should've been scared. There should've been fear, and anger and hate, but there wasn't. I shouldn't have been ready but I was. When there's no fear or anger or hate, that's when you're ready. When you're ready to die, you're as good as dead. When there's no fear or anger or hate you're as good as dead.
Then it was a long time. I've been dead ever since I knew I was going to die. I guess that was a long time. But that can't be true. You never really believe you're ever going to die. No one really does. You never really believe you're going to die until you're dead.

The Men I Kill

By Eric Jessen 8/4/2010

(Photograph By Weegee)

Confessions of a Killer from "The Naked City"

I wish I hated them, every one of them. I wish I wanted them dead. Right before I blew their brains out I wish I wanted to kill them. Maybe then I could live with myself. But I just didn't mind them, they didn't bother me, they didn't mean anything to me. Shouldn't they mean something? But I just didn't care. I should care. About them, I should care. I should hate them. There should be anger. It must have been there sometime or I wouldn't have gotten this far. I needed them, and there was still no anger or hate. Where would I be without the men I kill?
You never know when it's your time. No one ever tells you. No one tells you when you're about to die. You should know, it's only fair. It's only fair to know when you're about to die. So you can prepare, so you can be ready. It's the biggest moment of your life and you're never ready. You should get a chance to prepare. Someone should tell you so you can prepare, so you can be ready.
No one ever told them. The men I kill, they're never ready. But if they were ready? Where would I be if they were ready?

They Were Apocalypsed

By Eric Jessen 6/4/2010

Florida Keys and the Philippines: They Were Expendable (1945) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

Emotions run high during war time, and so too does sentimentality. So it's no surprise that apart from admitting John Ford's They Were Expendable offered “nothing much new, with no particular depth of feeling, much less idea” and was “otherwise uninteresting,” James Agee called it “beautiful” several times, “Ford's finest movie” and Robert Montgomery's performance as the dependable Lieutenant Brickley, “unimprovable” and “the one perfection to turn up in movies during the year.”
“Evidently [Ford and Montgomery] learned a tremendous amount through the war” was Agee's only explanation for They Were Expendable being such a revelation and for the rush of feeling he got watching as he described, “nothing but men getting on or off PT boats and other men watching them.” But then again it was 1945. So Agee's reaction was understandable if inherently contradictory. And Ford's movie was understandable too for war time. Although he was always one to mythologize the soldier.
It was another one in the bag for John Wayne playing Lieutenant “Rusty” Ryan. Donna Reed played the nurse who falls in love with “Rusty” and very charmingly. And as for Robert Montgomery, he fit well too. (He just looks like a swell guy.)
MGM supplied the money for some very impressive battle scenes shot in Florida, and the Navy supplied the PT boats. One could really mistake it for the South Pacific and that was crucial to stirring up Agee's emotions. Ford really knew how it should look having spent time overseas. (And Robert Montgomery had served as well as none other than a PT boat commander.)
It all went over really nice and easy in 1945 but in fact making They Were Expendable was in the early stages touch and go. Ford thought it was really hot and sticky in the Florida Keys. And too buggy.
But what Ford and his crew experienced in Florida on the set of They Were Expendable is nothing compared to what Francis Ford Coppola and company experienced in the Philippines making Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now certainly didn't go over nice and easy. It was a hell according to Coppola and it nearly destroyed his career. It was a complete disaster from the very beginning. Horrible weather destroyed sets. Marlon Brando arrived on set fat and unprepared. Production was delayed months and the budget soared. Word got out early that Apocalypse Now wouldn't be Coppola's next masterpiece. Upon its release the reaction was mixed. Although it did share the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes film festival with The Tin Drum.
Today it remains a puzzling, if still very interesting, mess. One wonders if the jungle was ever meant for the screen. At least the debacle that was the production of Apocalypse Now made for a good warning.
Maybe for that reason Coppola's film is the essential Vietnam War movie. Brando's enormous belly and incoherent rambling dialogue and those numerous horror stories of production give the film a nightmarish aura that does the jungle justice.
There's no doubt Coppola could have made an adequate war movie off the coast of Florida – nice and easy. But it would have never been fitting of the Vietnam war. The war that was destined to be a disaster deserved a disaster of a movie.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Casablanca (1942)

By Eric Jessen

Classic lines are mostly schlock, almost ninety percent corn syrup. An initial cringe always comes first upon hearing one of these gems, then a chuckle – what were they thinking? I'd say about half of these lines are only famous for being so unspeakably bad. They're like a screenwriters' blooper reel.
In the movie sporting easily the most memorable lines, with Gone with the Wind a close second, a doozy lurks around every corner. It's a wonder Ingrid Bergman telling Humphrey Bogart, “From now on you'll have to do the thinking for the both of us, dear,” didn't make AFI's 100 quotes list. That one always brought tears to my eyes.
So Casablanca is one part cheap melodrama, and sometimes a bland one at that. Thankfully that isn't all it has going for it. It is also a Bogart and Bergman picture, and they're always a pleasure. In this case Ingrid Bergman is especially sweet as Ilsa, although Bogart as Rick is still who I first remember. And there's also a great supporting cast, one of the best I've been told. I was told right: Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson as Sam, Peter Lorre (from M), Marcel Dalio (from The Rules of the Game) and many others.
The love triangle of Rick, Ilsa and Victor is Academy stamped and approved: Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. She showed up at his gin joint uninvited, and with a husband of all things. Sam played they're song, “As Time Goes By.” They cried and drank, Rick for the first time in a long time, and finally they made up. Just in time for him to let her go. Michael Curtiz milked the flashbacks, and good for him. Without them Ilsa is nothing but Rick's floozy.
So Casablanca is a classic, an American classic. And yet in many ways it is starkly European, with Bergman, Henreid, Rains, Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, Lorre and Dalio contributing to a French café visual spunk.
Humphrey Bogart is the one American, and still the center of the film. He's our hero, and to some extent our reflection, a symbol of our country. At first he's a stubborn rogue with a my-way-or-the-curb mentality. And then, when it suits him, a noble savior. Casablanca peddles this kind of patriotic sentimentality with enthusiasm. And sure as the Academy ate it up, so did we, either with a handkerchief or a popcorn box at our side.
So above all Casablanca is a movie for 1942 and war time, especially when the war is just - when we as Americans can all stop, at least for the moment, acting like stubborn rogues and play the noble savior. And Rick is our embodiment. He's our hero. In fact, we're our hero. Casablanca is for us and about us and it's just like us to think so.
So get your popcorn or your handkerchiefs ready, “Round up the usual suspects,” “We'll always have Paris,” and why not, play it again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Color Noir

By Eric Jessen 3/24/2010

Watching the end of Roman Polanski's new movie The Ghost Writer this past weekend, seeing a car abruptly accelerate as our ghost crosses the street carrying a 600 page manuscript, suddenly hearing screeching brakes, seeing nothing but an empty street then a flurry of papers scattering in the wind, I was immediately reminded of Chinatown. In particular its ending, seeing the two police detectives fire at Mrs. Mulwray's car then hearing the sound of the car horn.
It kept beeping and beeping. Finally we were told it was all just Chinatown. But what do I ask is it today? Is it Cape Cod, Tony Blair and George Bush, the American government and the CIA, all of which seemed to play a part in killing our ghost?
Maybe Polanski is living in the past. With Chinatown was it really Nixon, the Vietnam war, the assassination of JFK...? Is he living in our country's past? The ending to Chinatown could be seen as a reflection of the times - like Bonnie and Clyde bouncing about to the dozens of bullets piercing their skin, Michael Corleone closing the door on his wife, and Howard Beale being killed for having lousy ratings all rolled-up into one.
Or is it instead that Polanski is still dragging around his own checkered past? And his movies are a reflection of his tainted view of the world. With the personal tragedies he's suffered can we even blame him?
Whether it be Polanski's inner demons or a sign of overall disillusionment with government in America during the late 1960's and early 70's, it is important to note that Chinatown wasn't always supposed to have such a bleak ending. Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay, originally intended to end the movie with Jake killing the sadistic Noah Cross then helping Mrs. Mulwray escape to Mexico with her daughter. It was in fact Roman Polanski who suggested the change in ending – as with The Ghost Writer, Rosemary's Baby, or any other he had to add his ghoulish macabre touch.
Then again that's crucial to its charm – its tawny varnished, morbid, mythic lyricism. Chinatown will always be an essential film noir of the color age.
Times sure change fast. At one point not long before Chinatown was released morbid film noirs were black and white, and blood a dark gray. They usually ended with the good guys and bad guys aligned, fitting the “crime doesn't pay” message. Another classic The Big Sleep might be an example of this. However can you even dare to say Howard Hawks' film is about good guys and bad guys? Is there really anything important on the screen but Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's steaming chemistry? The Big Sleep is just an extension of To Have and Have Not spiced up by Raymond Chandlers' feel for the burlesque and salacious and biting dialogue by an all-star cast of writers – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Who among even Chandler himself can shuffle the plot enough to differentiate the good from the bad – as long as Bogart and Bacall are the last ones left standing, as Hawks probably thought to himself when he made the film.
Can you imagine Bogart as Philip Marlowe tussling with Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray or Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes with Lauren Bacall and the thumb sucking Carmen (Martha Vickers)? I'm sure they could both hold their own. Who knows, maybe Bogey could have given Polanski his first film with a happy ending.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Notes on Up (2009)

By Eric Jessen 3/5/2010

I watched Up and I must say I was a little disappointed. Sure it had some nice effects, the flying house makes for a nice visual. But overall it seemed bogged down by kid-movie cliches. The characters, the voices, the plot devices and even much of the humor felt more in the DreamWorks variety - I mean talking dog jokes, please. And the opening montage about the old guys life, which probably got a lot praise from critics, stole its view of marriage from a hallmark card. I think any series of colorful "wondrous" images cut together and put to classical music by Pixar will automatically be called brilliant by critics.

Dreams of Death

By Eric Jessen 3/5/2010 (Photograph by Weegee)

Confessions of a Killer from "The Naked City"

The streets were rough in those days, but aren't they always. That's just one of those things people say. Only until you've licked the pavement do you know it's true.
I never thought it would end this way: lying in a pool of my own blood, eating cement, gunned down by a cop. Death, sure I saw it coming, and not of natural causes. I wasn't that thick. I wasn't one of those hot-shit hit-men, reckless punks who think they're in the wild west. But not by a cop, never aced by a dirty pig. What a horrible way to go. I always wished a boss ordered my death. That's more dignified.
I had it all mapped-out in my head, like a teenage girl planning her wedding. I would start out committing a few petty crimes: hold up a liquor store, a drug store. Maybe I'd meet a few hoods along the way. I knew the right places to hang out. Eventually I might drive for a bank job. I'd do some time, sure. The pen's where you meet the big shots. To earn the mob's respect I'd have to bump off some middle-ranking hood – just enough to get their attention. Then I'd take one in the back.
Everyone remembers you if you're killed by the mob. I tried my best, made it pretty far. Blackmail, that's where I went wrong – pinned the wrong people in a corner, the wrong cops. The DA always told me I'd end up a stain on the asphalt – called me “scum.” I hate that I proved him right. He's probably standing over my body right now, shaking his head. It makes me sick. He's one of those high-and-mighty pricks who talks about “cleaning-up the streets.”
Standing over my body, I bet he thinks the streets are cleaner now that I'm dead. He doesn't know the half of it. I've tasted them, they're filthy.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

By Eric Jessen 3/1/2010

Martin Scorsese's new film Shutter Island is like a great jumble or crossword from the newspaper: fun to twiddle over while waiting for your flight at the airport. And for at least the first hour-and-a-half to two hours it was hard to put down. But as with all puzzles the solution pales in comparison to the fun of unscrambling. Although the solution is quite tantalizing. (When it's finally time to board I always peak at the up-side-down fine print on the jumble.) Reading the Dennis Lehane novel that inspired the movie it must be almost impossible to resist flipping to the final chapter.
Shutter Island certainly has all the elements of a great spellbinder. Scribbled notes, misnomers and anagrams turn our brain to mush. The story twists and turns with seemingly no regard for retracing its steps. And what better setting for a mind-bender than an asylum for the criminally insane. Ghostly crazies creep around ward A, whispering to themselves. In ward C scarred and battered faced maniacs, some with body parts held together by what look like zippers, dangle their arms through cell bars, grasping at air. Muffled screams and the thumps and screeches of the soundtrack underline the tension.
To open we see two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), investigating the disappearance of a convicted killer riding a ferry. From the thick fog that covers the strangely 2D looking Boston Harbor we know there's something odd in the works on Shutter Island.
Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carrol Lynch) greets the marshals at the shore with few words and a skeptical look in his eyes. At the gate when McPherson asks for the marshals' firearms Chuck has trouble getting his gun out of his holster – the first little piece of the puzzle to put in our memory bank. The marshals meet the head Doc John Cawley (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) who shows them to the escaped “patient” Rachel Solando's room. Under a broken floor board Teddy finds a note that says “Who is 67” - another puzzle piece, this one a corner.
A white haired German doctor played by Max Von Sydow gives us chills. A hurricane hits Shutter Island leaving the marshals stranded in a cemetery. From there as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Teddy has fallen into an elaborate trap. We learn Daniels has his own agenda aside from finding Rachel Solando. He suspects Shutter Island is not just an asylum for the criminally insane but a secret government laboratory for gruesome psychological experimentation, and he's determined to prove it. But it seems the doctors and the warden are always one step ahead of him.
Questions in our mind mount. Although the movie is almost half finished our puzzle seems barely started, as if we had a mix of pieces from two different puzzles. What are we to make of Teddy's flashbacks of storming Dachau – numerous close-ups of frozen emaciated corpses seem gratuitous – as well as dreams of his late wife smoldering into ash? Were these flashbacks and dreams along with strange conversations actually hallucinations caused by a spiked aspirin or cigarette? Is Teddy in fact slowly going insane?
A vital document Teddy refuses to acknowledge and a cigarette delicately placed at the edge of a cliff – two more pieces to the puzzle which only add to our confusion. The most compelling question becomes how is this possibly going to end? Only in hindsight did it seem possible. Surprisingly almost all loose ends are tied. I can say at least the end is logically satisfying. Unfortunately the fun of the whirlwind dissipates. Teddy finds himself blabbing on and on through fire in a cave, wasting a dozen matches to light a conversation in a prison cell, then finally storming ward B, the infamous lighthouse, and learning the truth from Dr. Cawley. I guess the game has to end somehow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pickup on South Street (1953)

By Eric Jessen 2/11/10

The train rocks and Skip McCoy moves closer. He's picked his target: a young woman with a surprise waiting for him. A sea of people force his body up against hers. As the train starts to move again he slips his hands down by her waist, pretending to hold open a newspaper. One sway of the train and he's unfastened her purse. Two government agents stand maybe ten feet away, their eyes fixed on his every move. His fingers delicately sift through a handkerchief, some makeup, then pluck out her wallet. As the train comes to a stop he bumps her closing her purse then rushes off to find out how big he's scored.
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) must be dim. He's definitely backward. Why if he's a “three time loser” would he risk getting caught a fourth time with his hand down a woman's purse and by state law guarantee himself life behind bars?
The simple answer given by Pickup on South Street and most film noir, crime genre movies is that he just doesn't know any better. Once a “two-bit canon,” always a two-bit canon as Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) would say. In the world of gangs, hoods, mugs and stoolies there's no turning back. And as much as that may sound like a hell for the criminals who find themselves down the wrong path, the same movies routinely finish them off with a moral tongue lashing.
Perfect for director Samuel Fuller that such a routine exists. Fuller is an iconoclast, a maverick, a cynic if there ever was one. I must admit he is a favorite. His willingness to shock and appall is refreshing. Fuller is a master of the underground, a quintessential termite-filmmaker. And during the 50's the former tabloid journalist made a series of no-fluff B-classics.
His filmography could only have been made in pulp heaven: a murder mystery at a mental hospital (Shock Corridor); a prostitute fleeing the big city to the suburbs and finding herself handcuffed by a kind of man much worse than a pimp, a child molester (The Naked Kiss); a landowner (played by Barbara Stanwyck) with her forty body guards at her back and a U.S. Marshal finding they love the click of the trigger, and BANG of their pistol more than they care for each other (Forty Guns). And on top of that, no description of Fuller's pulp legend is complete without mentioning one simply nutty opening voice over - as a man in pajamas chases a toddler and a puppy through a destroyed city we hear, “In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one” (China Gate). Writing these descriptions I can't help but giggle.
It's true, any thought of sensitivity has never stood in Samuel Fuller's way. To call him “heavy-handed,” “over-the-top,” “primitive” or merely “fast, flashy, and essential empty minded” (as Pauline Kael did) would be an understatement. Fuller's movies can get downright absurd, and their violence bludgeoning. I prefer Manny Farber's description of Fuller: the first director to attempt “poetic purity” through “unlimited sadism, done candidly and close up.”
A convention commonly disregarded in Fuller movies is that the good eventually defeats the bad. Or, that the bad sooner or later get their comeuppance. In a Fuller movie like Pickup on South Street the bad don't necessarily defeat the good. Instead the bad – McCoy, a pickpocket, Candy (Jean Peters), a prostitute, and Moe (played fantastically by Thelma Ritter), a police informant – defeat those even worse – Commies.
Fuller prefers the “alternate path” not as a success story, where turning to crime is rewarded, but as a vehicle for a thrill ride and occasionally a message. No matter if that message is sometimes simple-minded or heavy-handed. Along with his best B-movies that sport hilarious tag lines, every so often Fuller delivers a gem, Pickup on South Street certainly being one.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Adam's Rib (1949)

By Eric Jessen January 17, 2010

It was convenient for director George Cukor and particularly for writing duo Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, that they had a sweet couple in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to play with. No amount of marital chirp would annoy us with these two. They're perfect leads for a light and wonderful comedy: warm, lovable, and also intelligent enough to convey a serious message. But I still wonder if Adam's Rib is a statement first and a comedy second or vice versa.
Gordon and Kanin certainly came up with the most logical set up to prove women are equal to men. Hepburn as Amanda Bonner and Tracy as Adam Bonner are a marriage made in courtroom heaven. She's a defense attorney and he's a prosecuting attorney. He believes in justice. She believes in equality. With those values, no matter what happens, they're both winners. And is there a setting more reasonable, more civilized, or more American then a courtroom? Perfect that women's equality would be decided by a judge and jury.
At first Amanda seems to be a stereotypical wife. In her silk nightgown, very dutifully, she serves Adam breakfast in bed. But just as she begins to smooch-up to her husband, his grumpy reaction gets her blood boiling. Terrific that a case came along Amanda thought perfect to prove a point. The very innocent and desperate looking Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) shot her cheating husband Warren (Tom Ewell) after catching him in the act, but the fact that she trembled with fear, closed her eyes and turned away just as she pulled the trigger proves she didn't mean it. And she says she was just trying to scare him. Even more terrific that this very case fell into Adam's lap.
But who would make the better argument? I was very interested to see. Given the circumstances it seemed to be an open and shut case. I wondered how Amanda would possibly create suspense leading to the verdict. So when Adam and Amanda's daily arguments finally made the courtroom I was thoroughly disappointed.
Screwball comedy or not, Adam proves himself an absurdly incompetent attorney. And really Amanda isn't any better. Her argument for why Doris should be acquitted assumes men frequently get away with shooting their cheating wives. Do they? She claims they were only trying to protect their home, and so was Doris when she shot her spouse. Picture the defendant as a man, she pleaded to the jury, then what would your verdict be? I did and wasn't convinced.
However Adam's Rib still has its moments. Hepburn and Tracy are funny here. Certainly Judy Holliday and even Tom Ewell and Jean Hagen as Ewell's mistress in supporting roles are exceptional. It's unfortunate they're rarely given anything but easy gags. Gordon and Kanin write a pretty good comedy but a weak, at best, statement.
So they fought, they bickered, they patted each other on the bum and a few times it got raucous. A few times it got personal. But really, it never went that far. It was always all in fun. And in the end the man, Spencer Tracy, won the battle. But for a while, the woman, Katherine Hepburn, got the better of him. Long enough, I guess, for 1949 to earn Adam's Rib a brief mention for being “ahead of its time.” Some went as far as to call it “pioneering.”
It seems all that matters is that they had a battle, Hepburn even put up a fight. She wasn't a doll, she was a woman, a woman that deserved as much respect as Spencer Tracy. So she didn't win and didn't even really pack much of a profound or though-provoking punch, but for once a woman had made her way into the ring. I hope you're satisfied.