Satire and the costume drama in the late '90s

This week led me to two quite different films, both good: the political satire Bulworth (dir. Warren Beatty, 1998) and Taiwanese master Hao Hsiao-Hsien’s elegant period piece Flowers of Shanghai (which was released at the tail end of 1998 but ended up on some critics’ top-ten lists the following year, so I’m counting it as a ’99 film).  The only thing about Bulworth with which I was familiar going in was the song “Ghetto Superstar,” which I vividly remember hearing around the time of the film’s release.  As American comedies go, it’s clearly got way more going for it than, say, Liar Liar (1997) or American Pie (1999), to take two examples from the previous and the following years: it’s a great premise (a sad-sack white politician decides to go off-script, as it were, by speaking the truth and getting in touch with his black constituents), like something out of Preston Sturges, and it’s actually “about something”—the ways in which race structures American politics and legislation, but often does so invisibly, for example.  It’s all very funny; but then things get serious, and some sad Ennio Morricone music begins creeping onto the soundtrack, and the movie starts to feel more like Frank Capra than like Sturges.  The ending of the film calls to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s maxim about satire being a lesson.  Why do films like this feel compelled to ditch the dark humor and sober up at the last minute?  Dark comedy is a powerful and rich form that is too often subordinated to earnestness and sincerity, as if a film can only really be meaningful by being sincere.  By the end, Bulworth feels heavy and obvious.

Hao Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (pictured above) transports us to a totally different world: that of 19th-century Chinese brothels (known as “flower houses”), where private jealousies and rivalries among the women and their male callers are played out among rooms, objects, and clothes that are almost oppressively beautiful.  The mise-en-scene of this film—its exquisite silks and china teacups and ornate furniture, its haze of opium smoke, its glowing oil lamps—contrasts wonderfully with its subject matter; as in a Victorian novel, there is absolutely no sex on display here, but sexual tensions and alliances are constantly being managed and re-negotiated, often in the form of contracts and money.  Hao, who is known for his minimalist directorial style, uses incredibly long takes here; the opening shot of the film is roughly eight minutes long, and very few shots in the film are shorter than two minutes.  (There are also no direct cuts in the film, only fades.)  I’ve been lukewarm about Hao’s films in the past--they can be nearly agonizing in their slowness--but this is definitely one of his most remarkable achievements, if for its gorgeous texture alone; the whole thing has a kind of warm golden glow that feels like a turn-of-the-century photograph.        


Three more short takes

I continue to work my way through ’90s cinema this week and am happy to report that it’s been mostly good stuff.  In three nutshells:

I checked out Werner Herzog’s swift 56-minute documentary Lessons in Darkness—made in 1992, released in 1995—after noticing it on J. Hoberman’s list of the best films of the year, and also out of a general urge to watch more Herzog (this being only the fifth of his films that I’ve seen).  Like most of his other work, Lessons is a visually striking film that is somehow simultaneously horrifying and beautiful: Herzog basically gives us an hour’s worth of images of the Kuwait oil fires, shot with a kind of panoramic magnificence, over a score of deeply haunting classical music.  Though somewhat slight, it’s arresting.

I moved on to Swingers (dir. Doug Liman), probably the best-known film from 1996 that I had never seen before.  I found it much cleverer and more charming than I had thought I would, and I liked its looseness and tossed-off feel.  It’s a movie that’s very much of its time, that time being not only the lounge/swing revival of the late ’90s (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy even makes an appearance) but also the height of Miramax and the American indie scene; 1996 was the so-called “year of the independent film,” of Sling Blade and Fargo and Hard Eight and a whole slew of exciting imports (Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves), and Swingers, with its made-on-a-dime feel and subsequent cult success, is as representative of that particular moment as are any of those other films.  It’s like a lovely memory of Miramax and American independent cinema before it turned into just another soul-dead corporate megalopolis.  (Also: man, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau used to be way skinny.)

Irma Vep (dir. Olivier Assayas, 1997) is just as much of its time as Swingers, but in very different ways: it turns its attention to the state of world cinema, globalization, and the problem of originality at the end of the twentieth century.  A self-referential comedy about the attempt to remake Georges Feuillade’s silent Les Vampires (1915) in 1996, starring Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung (who appears as herself in a wonderfully funny, understated performance), it’s a film about a central postmodern conundrum: the impossibility of making anything new, and the related impossibility of remaking something old.  (In 2011, as Hollywood has become addicted to blithely remaking its own past hits, Irma Vep still feels relevant.)  It’s a strange but lively, thought-provoking film, much different in tone from Assayas’ delicate family drama Summer Hours (2009), and much more controlled than his mess of an Internet-porn thriller demonlover (2002).          


Quick takes

Maybe it’s the 100-degree heat, but I’ve been feeling somewhat logy and disinclined to do much of anything lately; it also may be that my so-called chronological film-viewing project has now been going on for six-ish months, and I’m ready to move on to some new material.  This week I surveyed several films from the early ’90s, none of which I had seen before, as is the general rule governing the chronological project.  But none of them left me anxious to rush off and write something about them.  So here’s my attempt to cover three films in three (somewhat long) sentences.

I decided to watch Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1992) mainly because of its huge, if mostly regrettable, cultural impact on 1990s film and late-night cable TV, it having virtually apotheosized the “erotic thriller” (with which genre Michael Douglas will forever be associated), but while it’s nearly always interesting to look at films like this as cultural artifacts that still wasn’t enough to make me enjoy actually watching it, because this is a really, really dumb film, and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s acting alone is enough to make me want to drive an ice pick autoerotically into my skull.  


Cape Fear and intertextuality

This week I revisited Martin Scorsese’s flawed, often maddening, hugely entertaining Cape Fear (1991) and it occurred to me that it might be one of his most densely intertextual films—barely five minutes pass without a citation of another movie of some kind or another, and that’s notwithstanding its being a remake to begin with.  Cape Fear is almost more fascinating to think about as a movie about Hollywood thrillers than as a Hollywood thriller operating on its own terms.  Some observations:

Psycho (perhaps the most beloved film of the 70s “new Hollywood” auteurs) seems to be the ur-text here; consider the design of the opening titles, with their fractured lettering and staticky visual patterns.  They’re the work of Saul Bass, who also did the titles for Psycho.  The score is also a re-orchestration of the original 1962 film’s score by fellow Psycho alum Bernard Herrmann.  And for good measure we later get a cameo by Psycho’s Detective Arbogast himself, Martin Balsam, who was also in the original Cape Fear.  (Got that?)


Art in real time

The artist Frenhofer (here played by Bernard Dufour; elsewhere in the film played by Michel Piccoli) makes a sketch in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Jacques Rivette’s three-hour-plus meditation on art and fidelity.  It’s an intriguing, mysterious, and very difficult film, in large part due to its formidable length.  But the most fascinating moments are the ones where we simply watch Frenhofer at work, often for ten minutes at a time, scratching away at his sketchbooks and canvases, trying things out, abandoning them, starting again.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film come this close to depicting art in “real time.” 


About town

It’s supremely ironic that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) was released the same year that Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho finally saw publication; the two are basically set in the same “world”—that of wealthy, young, white Manhattan in the late ’80s—but their attitudes toward it could not have been more divergent.  Where Ellis’ novel is relentless in its depiction of that world as soulless and cruel, Stillman’s film is wistful and romantic; it has a soft look, like an illustration done in pencil.  At its most bitter moments (there aren’t many), it suggests that some members of its prep-school social set are pompous and given to self-aggrandizement.  The satire in this film, like its visual style, is soft.  It never gets far away from the side of its characters, and it appears to agree with the notion (voiced by one of them) that the “urban haute-bourgeoisie” (“UHB”) is a dying breed, and that that’s a bad thing. 


A night in Jarmusch-land

Jim Jarmusch’s films are set in many different times and places—the old west, Spain, 1980s New York—but they’re always iterations of his own particular imagined universe, where transient, somewhat lonely people meet by coincidence and have long conversations in diners, in taxicabs, in hotel rooms.  Mystery Train (1989), set over the course of a single night in Memphis, is basically a set of three loosely overlapping vignettes; the characters from each piece end up taking rooms at the same fleabag motel (manned by a suave Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and his put-upon lackey of a bellboy, Cinque Lee).  The guests include a pair of Japanese teenagers, a sad and pretty Italian widow, and three petty criminals.  Although a gunshot rings out in the early hours of the following morning, not much happens.  The teenagers, who happen to be rhythm-and-blues fanatics, argue about whether Elvis was better than Carl Perkins.  The Italian widow agrees to share her room with a chatty New Jersey broad who’s just left her boyfriend.  The three men, whose room is one step up from a crack den, get drunk and talk about the TV show Lost in Space—a conversation that would feel at home in a Tarantino movie. 


Kid stuff

My chronological march through film history continues—I’m currently immersed in late ’80s cinema and starting to feel a bit burned out, but determined to try to finish the project by the end of August.  (It’s providing me with endless hours of procrastination as I attempt to make progress on my dissertation.)  The ’80s have never really been seen as much of a golden age in film history, even if they did see the emergence of the American independent scene, new queer cinema, and the birth of such indie auteurs as Gus van Sant and Jim Jarmusch.  They also, of course, ushered in the age of the mega-blockbuster (see Ghostbusters).  So coming after the gleaming chrome and techno-violence of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and the spare art-house tableaux of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (which I watched but didn’t write about, mainly because I was barely awake by the time I finished it), Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) comes as something of a palate cleanser. 


Screening Robocop

Robocop (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1987) is a remarkably clever action comedy; even if its climactic shoot-out is somewhat protracted and disappointing, its first two-thirds are sharp and funny enough to make up for it.  Like other 80s techno-thrillers (Blade Runner, The Terminator, etc.) it’s also a film that engages directly with postmodernism—particularly in its use of screens, which is sometimes so complex that it borders on the avant-garde.  It’s via screens that characters in this film understand the world, none more so than “Robocop” himself, for whom his field of vision is a digital matrix.  And it’s via a screen that Robocop learns that he is actually Alex Murphy, a Detroit police officer who has become a kind of Frankenstein monster.  It’s a mirror-stage moment in which the mirror is replaced with a computerized image (see below).


The anti-road movie

Julie Hagerty looking grim in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America (1985), a truly dark comedy about the American dream-turned-nightmare, its “upbeat” end title informing us that its central couple are expecting a child notwithstanding.  I’ve always rather enjoyed Brooks’ films, which are usually smarter than your average comedy; Mother (1996) is a particular favorite.  Mother’s somewhat nervy humor, though, is softened by an ultimately benign reaffirmation of love, family, and the ability to “solve” the Oedipal complex (among other psychological problems) for good.  What Lost in America affirms is much more sinister—that the American dream is a hoax, the myth of “finding yourself” on the road is a delusion, and it’s better to content yourself with your miserable (if high-paying) job than to go in search of true happiness.  It’s a wonderfully twisted laying-bare of the ideology of the road movie, one that directly references Easy Rider (1969)—not so much in order to subvert it as to re-affirm that film’s own grim conclusions; as characters in Lost in America remind us, that classic American road movie ends with its badass anti-heroes splattered across the pavement.  (“Isn’t the ending great?”  “I loved it!” Brooks’ characters gush, blind to their own irony.)  And this is perhaps the only movie I can think of that uses Sinatra’s “New York, New York” as a kind of tragic punch-line.               


The nostalgia factor

A confession: until this week I’d never seen Ghostbusters (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman).  I grew up in the late ’80s; I was well acquainted with the theme song and drank “Ecto Cooler” juice boxes with pictures of Slimer on them in elementary school.  But I wasn’t familiar with the film itself.  It’s a strange thing, watching for the first time something that has already become a kind of cultural touchstone for your generation.  And I hate to say that without the nostalgia factor films like Ghostbusters seem a bit underwhelming.  Would those who grew up with this film love it as fondly if they suddenly saw it now, as adults, for the first time?  Perhaps not.  I certainly wouldn’t feel the impact of a film like Return to Oz the same way now that I did watching it on video as a kid, when it fascinated and terrified me. 


"Missing" people

Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon in the extraordinary Missing (dir. Costa-Gavras, 1982), a real “I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this before!” movie.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a trenchant political film that’s so elegantly made; the movie’s politics arise out of its characters and situations as opposed to being imposed on them from above.  And it occurred to me while watching Spacek’s particularly luminous performance here what an incredible run of films she had from 1973-1986: playing the almost pre-natal Holly in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in 1973 (during which she met her husband, production designer Jack Fisk); starring in one of the horror genre’s great roles in Carrie (dir. Brian de Palma, 1976); appearing with Shelley Duvall and Missing co-star Janice Rule in Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977); playing Loretta Lynn—and winning a Best Actress Oscar for it—in Coal Miner’s Daughter (dir. Michael Apted 1980); getting two more Oscar nominations for The River (dir. Mark Rydell, 1984) and Crimes of the Heart (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1986); and holding her own against Anne Bancroft in ’night, Mother (dir. Tom Moore, 1986).  And here, doing a deft pas de deux with the great Jack Lemmon as Beth Holman, the wife of an American writer living in Chile who mysteriously disappeared during the 1973 coup.  It’s a beautifully modulated performance that sounds a wide range of notes—anger, fear, love, desperation, confusion—and it plays off against Lemmon’s own powerhouse turn as Beth’s strait-laced, quietly shaken father-in-law.  Missing is a stunningly humanistic political film in which the people, not the politics, drive the action.   


When bad movies happen to good actors

It’s sad to see truly talented actors wasted on poor material.  A few years ago, I found myself baffled by the film The Dying Gaul (2005, dir. Craig Lucas, based on his play), which was pretty disastrous but featured some stellar acting by Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson.  The phenomenon of a good performance in a bad film is confusing, because it requires a certain teasing out, a disentwining, of the good from the bad; sometimes a good performance can trick you into thinking the film itself is good.  In other cases, the performance is clearly so much better than anything else around it that nothing else—the poor script, the mechanical plot, the flaws in continuity—seems to matter much.  (Mommie Dearest would be a good example.  The film itself is pretty middling and thin, but also so outlandish in parts that it becomes, of course, impossible to look away from it; meanwhile, Faye Dunaway is busy hitting it out of the park.)  And there are some films so bad that not even a good actor can emerge unscathed. 


Hollywood Gothic

I indulged in a viewing of the camp classic Mommie Dearest (dir. Frank Perry, 1981) this week; it’s a film that I’ve seen only three times, but that I greatly enjoy.  (My favorite line?  Joan, to her maid, after discovering a spot of grime on her tile floor: “I’m not mad at you—I’m mad at the dirt.”)  Perhaps it’s that I recently finished re-reading Joyce Carol Oates’ truly horrifying Marilyn Monroe novel Blonde, but on this viewing of Mommie Dearest I was struck by the film as a true Hollywood Gothic tale of the violent, wrenching damage done to a woman in the process of making her into a star.  The film, in its admittedly neat way, pathologizes Joan Crawford by showing that she was ultimately powerless, at the mercy of the all-powerful studio, and that she took out that powerlessness on her children.  It’s a textbook cycle-of-abuse case study, but it’s made grotesquely interesting by virtue of its staging its scenes of abuse as expressionistic horror-movie nightmares.  (John Waters calls it a monster movie—Crawford certainly is one of the scariest movie characters ever.  See above.) 

But perhaps even more pleasurable than the film itself is Waters’ wonderfully sharp commentary track on the DVD.  Some highlights:


Seeing what's been missing

Roughly from ages 12 to 14 I was obsessed with the films of Brian de Palma—in part because of a huge crush at the time on his wife and muse Nancy Allen.  I probably watched Dressed to Kill (1980) half a dozen times on a pan-and-scan VHS manufactured by GoodTimes, which put out mostly public domain titles in el-cheapo editions for sale at places like K-Mart.  It wasn’t until this week that I finally saw it in widescreen on DVD and boy, what a difference.  The film itself is still great, but of course I was staggered by the widescreen compositions that had been butchered by pan-and-scan.  Here are a few examples of shots that made me sit up and say, “I’ve never seen that before!”

Cropped to 1:1.33, the nude female figures in the painting behind Angie Dickinson are lost.  Nearly all of the paintings in this phenomenal museum sequence comment ironically on Dickinson’s character’s predicament as she flirts recklessly with a male stranger, and this one seems especially loaded (the movie opens, after all, with images of the nude Dickinson in the shower). 

This police-interrogation sequence had never really struck me as visually interesting.  Now I realize it’s an ingenious piece of editing and composition.  In this shot: Michael Caine (foreground) talks with Detective Marino (Dennis Franz, off-screen) while Keith Gordon (middle-ground) eavesdrops via wiretap; in the background to the right, Nancy Allen looks through mug-shots.  Caine, Gordon, and Allen’s characters will eventually converge for the climax of the film.

The above visual gag is particularly witty.  As Allen and a subway conductor look down the platform for a group of hoods, the serial killer “Bobbi” hops onto the train behind their backs; when they look the other way, the hoods jump on at the other end of the car.

The above sequence (in which Keith Gordon reacts to Nancy Allen’s description of a MTF sex change operation and Mary Davenport, overhearing the conversation, looks aghast in the background) was particularly mangled on VHS.  I seem to recall that my pan-and-scan copy had the audacity to divide these shots into even shorter ones, actually cutting back and forth between Gordon and Davenport.

In one of de Palma’s trippy dream scenes, Michael Caine murders and undresses a psych ward nurse (left) before an audience of gibbering inmates (right).  Pan-and-scan focused on the nurse and cut out the inmates.  For what it’s worth, my VHS copy did preserve the split-screen shots of Caine and Allen in their separate apartments watching Donahue.