The last films of the year will be trickling into Boston theaters in the next two months or so, after which point I’ll be compiling my top ten list (I’m still anxiously waiting to see The Artist, A Dangerous Method, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, among a few others). But I thought I should take a minute to remember—however briefly—three great summer releases that I caught theatrically but didn’t get around to posting about, on the chance that one or two end up making my end-of-the-year cut.
War Horse is pro forma Spielberg: grand-scale, tug-at-the-heartstrings storytelling, fitted out with vigorous action set pieces, majestic landscape shots, and swelling music (courtesy of John Williams, as usual). A WWI saga set in England and France, it’s a more lavish and romantic war film than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan; Spielberg gives us some grim battle scenes near the end of the film, both in the trenches and in the hell of No Man’s Land, but overall the tone here is serenely heroic rather than brutal, and it’s more Rupert Brooke than Wilfred Owen, if you know what I mean. (Gone With The Wind and John Ford also appear to be influences here.)
Like everyone else, I’ve been pre-occupied these past few weeks with holiday-related business, so posting has been less regular. But I wanted to say just a quick word about Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946), which I finally got around to seeing early last week. The middle film in his war trilogy, it only first came to DVD a year or so ago in a box set from (who else) Criterion, who spent countless hours restoring the print to a workable condition. The picture quality and audio still look rough—and maybe that’s appropriate to the film itself, which is a kind of collection of rough-hewn episodes picked out of the rubble, as it were, of war-torn Italy (an American G.I. bonds with an orphaned scamp; a British nurse searches for her lover in Florence, etc.). Paisan is itself a crazy quilt made out of foraged scraps. Its encounters between Americans, Germans, Italians, and Britons are fleeting, driven by chance, made complicated by language barriers and losses in translation. And—true to the neo-realist spirit—it is a film that sees largely through the eyes of children (some of the film’s most expert scavengers and thieves). We need only think about the schoolboys of Rossellini’s Open City (1945), the regazzi of de Sica’s Shoeshine (1945), or wide-eyed Bruno in Bicycle Thieves (1948) to know how central children are to the neo-realist aesthetic. So the somewhat battered look of Criterion’s Paisan is lamentable but appropriate—torn from the rubble, it will never have the polished elegance of, say, The Rules of the Game. More in a week or so, as I finish up this project with three more new-to-me classics.
Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne seem to have switched careers. With Sideways (2004) and this year’s The Descendants, Payne has traded in the bitterness and the snark of his early features for more middlebrow fare; meanwhile, Reitman—whose earlier films Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) offered up sentimental portraits of middle America as quaint and quirky—has decided to show a nastier side of himself with his new film Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody. Set largely in suburban Minnesota and scored by former Payne collaborator Rolfe Kent, it invites comparison to Payne’s dark satire of high school politics Election. Young Adult, too, is about the pettiness and trauma of high school and the persistence with which its memories haunt our adult lives. Its governing conceit is that all of the characters are essentially still playing out their high school roles into their late thirties. Developmentally arrested Mavis (Charlize Theron) relives the popularity of her teen years by writing young adult novels about prep school girls, while self-described “fat nerd” Jeff (Patton Oswalt) still bears the physical scars of a vicious attack by cruel jocks. The film plays like a twisted after-school special about dysfunctional adults instead of awkward teenagers—and unlike the heartaches and squabbles of teens, which we can usually chuckle over warmly or gaze on wistfully, the problems these grown-ups get themselves into make us feel squirmy and sad.
In my attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of cinema history, it’s occurred to me that the work of Howard Hawks constitutes one of my biggest blind spots. I’ve seen three of his screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and I Was a Male War Bride), the first two of which I admit are masterpieces of the genre; one of his noir films (The Big Sleep); and two of his Westerns (Red River and Rio Bravo), both of which are justifiable classics. But it’s not until now that I’ve gotten around to two of his most famous films, the cheerfully lightweight musical-comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and one of the foundational gangster thrillers, Scarface (1932).
Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) presents itself as a cheeky updating of the Hollywood Western, with its knowing references to John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gary Cooper, its male characters going around calling one another “cowboy,” its cocky R-rated whoops (“yippee-ki-ay, motherfuckers!”). In its basic plot and structure, Die Hard follows the generic Western formula: an outsider (in this case NYPD officer John Maclaine) arrives in an unfamiliar town, finds the town under attack, and lays down the law (by paradoxically acting outside of official law-enforcement structures like the FBI and LAPD, which are revealed to be ineffectual—a classic Western trope).
What, exactly, is the matter with Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the object of Steve McQueen’s bleak, hauntingly beautiful character study Shame? “Sex addiction” seems to be the term onto which most critics of the film have seized, but that term—at least in its typical parlance—doesn’t convey the grim depths to which Brandon’s painful and violent relationship with sex drives him. For Brandon, who has been blessed (or cursed) with jaw-dropping good looks, a high-paying corporate job, and a sleekly outfitted Manhattan apartment, sex is not a pleasure or even an empty diversion: it’s a compulsion and a torment. It should be noted, along these lines, that the film doesn’t shake its finger at sex itself, even casual sex or promiscuity. Rather, it shows us a kind of nightmare world known only to a damned few, where sex has become a source of suffering and where everything else is relegated to the blurry sidelines of one’s field of vision. Brandon tells a woman at a bar that he enjoys performing oral sex because “it’s just me and it,” and that phrase tells us much about the topography of Brandon’s mental landscape. A close-up during a rather hellish fuck session with two prostitutes reveals his classically handsome face transformed into an agonized rictus. (In a devastating set of scenes with a co-worker and potential girlfriend [Nicole Beharie], we see that Brandon is tentatively desirous of more meaningful relationships with women but incapable of managing them, for reasons the film only hints at.)
A typically striking and off-putting Antonioni composition from La Notte (1961), the second film in his so-called Italian trilogy. I’d already seen the other two films—the masterpieces L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962)—mainly because Criterion has blessed us with fine editions of both. Despite long-held rumors about Criterion giving La Notte the same treatment, that film has only been released in North America by the dreaded Fox Lorber, and it’s quite a hack job (non-anamorphic, burned-in subtitles, etc.) So even though I’d heard a lot about La Notte I’d never actually bothered to track down the DVD until now.
I went into Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo feeling skeptical, in spite of the glowing notices it’s been receiving—having seen the trailer, I worried that it would be two hours of Sacha Baron Cohen chasing our hero through the Paris Metro station. I was also fearful of what might be a kind of visual-effects assault in the Pirates of the Caribbean/Chronicles of Narnia vein, an adventure story that constantly throws things at the audience in hopes of keeping its attention. I should have had more faith in Scorsese; he’s made his share of disappointing films, but in Hugo his hand is steady and his touch is light. Even with its elaborate visual effects and roving camerawork, it doesn’t feel heavy or spastic in the way that many recent special-effects-packed family films do. Scorsese gives us moments to breathe, to think, to pay attention to characters, objects, and images; he’s not always waving something in our faces. Even while the pace is energetic and upbeat, Scorsese’s tone is serene, relaxed, and confident. It’s the work of a master filmmaker—even if it’s not of the stature of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver.
The Most Famous Films I’ve Never Seen…Until Now (Part 3 of 10): The vulgar charm of Rodney Dangerfield
After seeing Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984) for the first time this summer and now Caddyshack (dir. Harold Ramis, 1980), I’m starting to think that the great Bill Murray spent most of the 1980s stuck in movies that he was too smart for. Caddyshack is less a well-made movie in the proper sense of the word than a string of gags involving very funny people: Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield. For proof of this, one needs only to think about the parts of the film that don’t involve any of those three actors, which is to say its “teenage” plot (in which a vacuous college hopeful takes a summer job as a golf caddy, attempts to win a scholarship, is involved in a pregnancy scare that turns out to be a false alarm, etc.) The movie grinds to a halt in these scenes, only to chug back to life whenever Murray, Chase, or Dangerfield come on, delivering lines that are funny because the actors seem to have improvised or written them themselves.
“You and that Colonel Nicholson are two of a kind—crazy with courage! For what? How to die ‘like a gentleman.’ How to die ‘by the rules.’ The only important thing is how to live like a human being! I don’t care about your bridge and I don’t care about your rules.”
That’s a quote from Shears, the American naval commander played by William Holden in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I just watched for the first time this week. It’s a hugely entertaining film as well as a fascinating cultural product: a Hollywood film made for Columbia Pictures by one of Britain’s most renowned auteurs, co-starring Holden and Alec Guinness. I was struck by the film’s intricate thematization of the very issue of Americanness versus Britishness; the conflict here is not so much that between the English Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) and the Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) as it is between the opposed sensibilities of Nicholson and the American Shears, who has been reluctantly drafted into a plot to blow up the bridge that represents the very code by which the obsessive, perfectionist Nicholson lives. (The bridge is Nicholson, and they both eventually go down together, as it were.) Nicholson—the very embodiment of British decorum—understands himself and the world through a system of codified rules; one of his first acts of rebellion after arriving as a POW in Colonel Saito’s camp is to refuse to condone the subjection of his officers to manual labor. He reads from a copy of the Geneva Convention, only to have Saito throw it aside (see images below)—an act tantamount to a slap in the face, which, not coincidentally, Nicholson also receives.
A couple of years or so ago it became common for critics to swap lists of the most famous films they'd never seen—a kind of movie buffs’ parlor game. My own list is a bit embarrassing: for various reasons, I’ve never gotten around to seeing The Seven-Year Itch, The Bridge on the River Kwai, the original Scarface, or (gasp!) Caddyshack. Until now, that is.
The Seven-Year Itch (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955) was first on my list, because I had always heard it referred to as one of the iconic Marilyn Monroe performances—another being her turn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I’ll be getting to later. Never much interested in her or her films when I was younger, my interest in Monroe has grown steadily since I first read Joyce Carol Oates’ utterly devastating Blonde (part biography, part novel) back in 2005. After learning more about her life and reading Oates’ depiction of her as tragic, doomed genius, it’s impossible for me to not feel sad whenever I see Monroe on-screen, as if a dark shadow is hanging over her aura of bright, glowing sensuality. As funny and charming as she is in films like The Seven-Year Itch, watching her fills me with a sorrowful ache instead of a thrill of titillation.
The Seven-Year Itch—which strikes me as almost a quintessential 1950s Hollywood movie on just about every level: stylistically, formally, ideologically—is also interesting in its own acknowledgement of Monroe’s iconic star quality. As in the new film My Week with Marilyn, The Seven-Year Itch collapses actress and character until we don’t even know if we’re watching Tom Ewell interact with “The Girl Upstairs” (as her character is often credited) or with “Marilyn Monroe” herself. What is the difference, anyway?, the film forces us to ask. Every man in the film responds to “the Girl Upstairs” as if he really is seeing the most famous movie star on the planet. In the film’s broadest moment of reflexivity, Ewell’s character refers jokingly to the Girl—whose name he never learns—as Marilyn Monroe. And then there’s the business of the Girl’s modeling career: we learn that she’s been the subject of a photographic “study” which turns out to have been a cheesecake photo shoot. Monroe herself had done nude modeling before becoming an actress, and the scandal that resulted from the discovery of those photos in the 1950s nearly ruined her career.
The Girl’s appetite for champagne and potato chips also seems to be a kind of synecdoche for Monroe herself—for her singular ability to mix the classy and the kitschy, the elegant and the tawdry. She isn’t even aware of the difference between elegance and tawdriness; she dunks her potato chip into her champagne glass without giving it a second thought. Monroe/The Girl’s appeal lies in her naturalness, her blitheness, her lack of self-consciousness. Her innocently sexy allure, so blinding to everyone else, is invisible to her. It makes perfect sense that Oates calls this one of the quintessential Monroe performances; watching “The Girl,” we feel that we’re getting the essence of Monroe’s star persona.
I’m about to begin rolling out a new series of posts in which I sit down with ten of the most famous films I’ve never seen before—but first I had to say a few words about a fantastic new release from the folks over at Code Red. They’re responsible for having put out three of the films I screened earlier this fall as part of my education in psychotronia; now they’ve unearthed a gem of a prison exploitation film called Caged Men, a.k.a. Caged Men Plus One Woman, a.k.a. I’m Gonna Get You, Elliott Boy… (dir. Paul J. Forsyth, 1971). It’s part of their new “Maria’s B-Movie Mayhem” line, in which WWE babe Maria Kanellis provides an intro and outro to the feature film. She’s kind of like a modern-day Rhonda Shear, but (with all due respect to Ms. Kanellis) she doesn’t have that slightly crazed charm that made Shear’s gig at USA Up All Night so funny, nor do her sequences have the same zany, sleazy, late-night TV appeal. But such, alas, is the experience of watching films like this on DVD instead of catching them on cable at 2 a.m. (A movie like Caged Men would likely never have aired on USA, anyway—at least not with its nude scenes intact. So there’s that.)