Two faces

Passion Fish (dir. John Sayles, 1992) starts out seeming like it will be one of those movies in which a servile Black person (in this case an in-home caregiver played by Alfre Woodard) functions as an accessory to the growth and betterment of a broken white person (in this case a disabled soap opera actress played by Mary McDonnell).  So it’s a relief—but maybe not a surprise, given Sayles’ sensitivity to race and gender issues—when the movie becomes the story of a friendship, one drawn in mellow, warm tones, in which neither of the women is made to be narratively subordinate to the other.  It may be one of the few movies to neither ignore nor metaphorize the racial difference between its two main characters: Passion Fish is not really “about” race, but it acknowledges that it’s always there, because how could it not be?  There are attractive male suitors for each woman, played by Vondie Curtis-Hall and David Strathairn, but by the end of the film it’s become clear that these romantic subplots are less important than the bond that the women have come to share with each other.  It’s this note on which Sayles ends things, Woodard and McDonnell drifting out on the water together.


The radical pleasantness of Ozu

An Autumn Afternoon (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1962).

Dramatic conflict in the traditional sense—characters at odds with each other, jockeying for power or divided by hatred or petty jealousies or whatever—doesn’t really exist in the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu.  Take as a representative example An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Ozu’s last film.  There’s some comic squabbling between a young couple for whom married life has become subsumed by the managing of household expenses.  (She wants a new handbag; he wants new golf clubs; they need a new refrigerator.  They end up borrowing money from his father.)  Otherwise the film’s characters—Ozu’s standard assemblage of office workers, secretaries, bar owners, hostesses, teachers, and housewives—go about daily lives that are largely conflict-free, socializing with each other at sake bars and noodle shops, joking and reminiscing, worrying lightly about their futures, generally behaving according to what might be called a radical pleasantness.       


Riding the wave

Point Break (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) is so cheerfully dumb that it’s difficult to hate even though there’s really nothing about it that can really be praised.  Its direction is competent but unremarkable; the performances by Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze are lifeless.  (Slightly better is Lori Petty as the feisty surfer-girl who, alas, eventually ends up bound and gagged and taken as a hostage to be dueled over.)  Whatever sex appeal Reeves and Swayze hold as leading men is tempered by a hyper-masculine posturing that borders on camp.  (Point Break is arguably as homoerotic as My Own Private Idaho, also released in 1991, both films working to establish Reeves as Gay Heartthrob of the Year.)  Camp is really the only word appropriate to describe the ending, as Swayze surfs himself to death and Reeves disgustedly throws his police badge into the sand (in apparent homage to High Noon!).  And yet there is a certain charm to be found in this movie’s LOL-WTF-ness, and in the comforting familiarity of its clichés, which it wears good-naturedly.


"Rosemary's Baby": A punchline

It’s not wrong, I think, to let out a laugh at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968) when Rosemary (Mia Farrow) not only confirms her suspicion that her husband (John Cassavetes) is in league with a coterie of elderly Satanists but also realizes that she’s given birth to the antichrist himself, in an obscene parody of the Immaculate Conception.  Rosemary’s worst fears aren’t merely confirmed, they’re exceeded: things turn out to be worse than she had ever imagined.  And there is something hilarious about that, in the manner of a sick joke.  Stephen King has called that ending a “punchline”; Pauline Kael called the movie a Gothic black comedy.  It remains of the key modern horror films to emerge in the late 60s, when Halloween skeletons, cobwebbed castles, vampires with green faces were starting to feel like kid stuff.  (Polanski had already spoofed such films a year earlier, in The Fearless Vampire Killers.)  Rosemary’s Baby is closer to the absurdist plays of Albee and Pinter, its domestic scenes laced with menace and spiked with nervous humor, than anything coming out of Hammer Studios, Christopher Lee dragging his cape behind himself.  Its monsters don’t bare fangs; they’re a bunch of squabbling liver-spotted old people you can’t help but laugh at, and they’re all the more scary for it.  When Rosemary screams and drops a kitchen knife onto the hardwood floor of her witch neighbor Minnie Castavet, the latter hobbles over and matter-of-factly tries to rub the scratch away—a perfect detail in a film full of perfect details.  But more than this observational character humor: in a Gothic black comedy the tension is heightened until it blooms into hilarity.  (Stephen King again: “Rosemary’s Baby is a splendid confirmation of the idea that humor and horror lie side by side.”)  Laughing during Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t mean doing so from a position of superiority and distance—isn’t the same as mocking the green-faced vampires and the jangling skeletons, pointing at the zipper on the neck of the monster mask.  Instead the comedy arises out of the film itself, a mounting-dread inevitability; the film is the one telling the joke.  (Is Ari Aster’s Midsommar the best recent example of this?  A devil’s smile curls over its heroine’s mouth, and maybe ours, and probably Aster’s, during its climactic infernal blaze.)  Its cruel irony stems from that delicious satisfied feeling of a perfect nightmare that ends with a rightness, where everything is so horrible that no other response than sputtering laughter feels correct.


Sweet and sour

Chinese food: Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Jeff Bridges, and Amanda Plummer in The Fisher King (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1991).

Some observations on The Fisher King: 1) Mercedes Ruehl is really excellent in this movie, doing a stock “type”—the tough-talking New Yawk broad—but making her into something other than a bimbo.  “Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.  That pisses me off,” she snaps at her recovering-asshole boyfriend (Jeff Bridges, also excellent).  She’s got smarts, and a sweet/funny side that comes out when she paints Amanda Plummer’s nails and the two end up talking about men and rolling around the floor together laughing, and later she gets to play wounded in a big teary argument scene with Bridges.  Watching her effortlessly shift in and out of these different registers you completely get why she won the Oscar (and just about every other major film award) for Best Supporting Actress of 1991.  But it’s weird to think about just how many other actresses won Oscars in the late 80s/early 90s for playing variations on this same NY-broad type: Cher in Moonstruck (1987), Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992), Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995)…        

2) The Fisher King is an odd—and successful—admixture of two very different creative sensibilities: those of director Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese.  Director Terry Gilliam’s trademark madcap expressionism, while not quite so heightened as in, say, Brazil (1985), can be found in his gently surrealist interpretation of New York, and finds its match in the antic disposition of Robin Williams.  As a modern re-working of a medieval Arthurian romance, The Fisher King also fits with Gilliam’s interest in myth, magic, old stories.  When left to his own devices, though, his films get baroque, tangled up in their own design.  The Fisher King needs the screenplay by LaGravenese, who even as a fledgling writer barely out of his twenties already showed a knack for crafting quintessentially “well-made” scripts.  (He’s since enjoyed a long career in Hollywood doing films that would be easy to dismiss if writing solid character-driven dramas had not become a lost art.)  The Fisher King is Gilliam’s most “mainstream,” “conventional” film; it’s also his most purely enjoyable.  That’s because LaGravenese’s writing is the tethering rope that keeps Gilliam from getting lost in the clouds of his own imagination.   


"Freaks": For kids

Before Freaks could be known as a movie it existed as a series of stills in the horror books checked out of the Jervis Public Library—William K. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film and Stephen King’s Danse Macabre—and Dad’s Movies Unlimited video catalog, which contained the grainy image of everybody gathered like a family around the childbed of the Bearded Lady, some with bald heads and wearing pinafores, some with the faces of kids, some with the faces of birdlike old ladies.  When it aired on cable, TNT or TBS at an off-time like 2:45 a.m., late enough that my parents programmed the VCR before we went to bed and I rewound it back the next summer-vacation morning, Freaks didn’t offer thrill scares like the slasher movies I was used to; much of it was talky which meant maybe boring, the dialogue tinny and muffled from being taped off TV, the image noisy, pinched faces behind rolling bands of static like jail-cell bars.  Besides, this was a 30s movie so how could I follow it?  Movies that old needed my parents to explain them to me.  (Who were those black-and-white people who all looked the same, framed fuzzily in medium shots, talking in ways people didn’t talk anymore?)  But its horrors were lurking there in soft black and white, as if beamed via satellite from another time. Seeing Freaks that young you didn’t have conscious thoughts about it; instead there was only a vaguely defined memory of moments glimpsed and deciphered after being hauled out of the degraded soupy VHS-tape image: the Bearded Lady in childbed, Madame Tetrallini and her microcephalic “children” dancing in the forest, the scrabbling of shadowy forms through the mud to swarm over Cleopatra as she screams into the rain.  Turned out this grownup movie was so simple even a child could understand it, no longer than an hour, with a story crude and elemental enough that you didn’t need to hear the inaudible-anyway dialogue, or ask Mom to decipher the Depression-era slang.  You only needed to know that there were people who looked normal but were bad, and that there were other people who looked strange but were good and were also vengeful and scary as they went down on all fours and crawled along the night ground like animals.  Even a six-year-old could make out the story if beaded with July-morning sweat they stood very close to the TV and peered through it like smeary glass like the windows of our barn hung with cobwebs, cloudy-crystal-ball mistracked flickerings to the place where monstrous children gamboled in a black-and-white glade until getting interrupted by a commercial.  



Eddie Murphy: The man of a thousand faces

Things that occurred to me upon watching Coming to America (dir. John Landis, 1988) for the first time: 1. The music video for Lizzo’s “Juice” is, I now realize, a direct reference to this movie's commercial for “Soul Glo.” 2. This would seem to mark the beginning of Eddie Murphy’s multiple-roles shtick.  In addition to starring as Akeem, the lovelorn African prince who travels to Queens in search of a bride, Murphy cameos as a crotchety barber, a flamboyant musician…and a kvetching Jewish septuagenarian.  (Not to be outdone, co-star Arsenio Hall also appears in four complementary roles.)  It’s a gimmick that Murphy would take even further in The Nutty Professor (1996) and subsequently push to its limit in Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps (2000).  By the time he arrived at the travesty that was Norbit (2007) Murphy’s increasingly grotesque use of wigs, fat suits, and drag had become nauseating and icky--a form of latter-day minstrelsy.  (See also 2001's Shallow Hal, a fat-suit rom-com starring Gwyneth Paltrow; 2004's White Chicks, which featured the Wayans Brothers in disguise as white women; and serious dramas like 2002's The Hours and 2003's Monster, for which Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron, rendered unrecognizable as Virginia Woolf and Aileen Wuornos, won Oscars.  The spate of early-2000s prosthetics films would be parodied in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, a reductio ad absurdum of stunt make-up and costume effects.)  One could make the case that in the ’80s and ’90s, before he jumped the shark, Murphy was working in the tradition of such talented screen chameleons as Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness.  I’d argue that an early film like Coming To America already bears the seeds of Murphy’s inevitable degradation.  As Akeem, he’s charming.  As Clarence, he’s amusing.  As Randy and Saul, both of which border (however good-naturedly) on homophobic and racist caricature, he’s already flirting with disaster.