The Films of 2016: Swiss Army Man

As far as dick-and-fart-joke movies go, you’re unlikely to find another one this year that’s as funny—or as surprisingly heartfelt—as Swiss Army Man, directed by Daniel Schienerts and Daniel Kwan (known collectively as “The Daniels”), in which Paul Dano plays Hank, a suicidal castaway who finds a new best friend in a reanimated corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe).  The film was a succès de scandale at Sundance earlier this year, where it was met with walkouts but went on to win the festival’s Best Director prize.  It now promises to become the cult hit of the summer. 


Reassessing "Klute" (1971)

“Bree (Jane Fonda) attempts to seduce John Klute (Donald Sutherland) by unzipping her evening dress.  ‘Would you mind not doing that?’ begs the detective, who has spent the movie trying to track Bree’s would-be killer and sublimate his own attraction to her.  There is something about her back, and her willingness to display it, that cannot be explained rationally.  Let’s just say I don’t share Klute’s seeming reluctance to see it.” – Desson Thomson

It is a remarkable moment, the unzipping of the back of that dress: Fonda looks great, the dress is fabulous, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography is (of course) superb.  It’s one of two scenes that Thomson singles out in his 2005 reappraisal of Klute (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1971), the other being the climactic scene in which Bree’s stalker forces her to listen to the audio recording of her friend being murdered, and she sits there, trembling, silent, with tears running down her cheeks.  Klute really ought to have been called Bree; she’s so clearly the lead character, and so much more compellingly written and acted than the part of the detective, that the film belongs to her alone. 


Studies in tortured masculinity

Dark shadows: Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford, 1962).

I re-watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) earlier this week for the first time in seven years or so, and I’m happy to report that it’s still a masterpiece—one of the most complex and cynical films that Ford ever made.  It’s a film that insists, brutally but casually, that the United States was founded on necessary fictions and transactional deceptions.  Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) knows that the fate of the territory and the nation depend upon the leadership of well-heeled men like Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart), not on the street smarts of tough but unschooled men like himself.  And so he gifts Stoddard the phallic power that the latter needs to win the respect and admiration of the community, knowing even as he does that it will end up costing him the woman he loves (Vera Miles).  More so than in any of his other films, Ford shows that he is deeply aware of the constructedness of the mythology behind America’s heroes at the same time that he insists on the importance of that mythology in building a nation.  (This film would make a superb double bill with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.) 

The film also remains a portrait of failed masculinity that is almost relentlessly painful to witness.  By this point in his career (especially as a result of his collaborations with Hitchcock) Jimmy Stewart had basically become a specialist in playing impotent men, and Stoddard is perhaps the most painfully impotent of them all—deeply principled and immensely likable in the typical aw-shucks Jimmy-Stewart way, but tortured by the humiliation of not being able to fight back against sadistic bullies like the titular Valance (Lee Marvin).  As a liberal, an academic, and a pacifist, I identify with Stoddard in ways that are themselves torturous.  Tripping up the feminized Stoddard at the local eatery, sending plates of food flying, Valance is the lunchroom bully of every wimpy kid’s nightmares.  In a conservative move typical of Ford, he insists that non-violent men like Stoddard ultimately need to be saved by real men like Wayne’s Tom Doniphon.  But one of the (many) things that saves Liberty Valance from being a vaguely fascistic piece of Cold-War-era gender politics is Ford’s gradual acknowledgement that Stoddard possesses a form of phallic power all his own—intellectual, social, public—to which Doniphon, lacking such power himself, ultimately helps contribute in the only way that he knows how.  All of that said, the first two-thirds of the film, as Stoddard suffers one humiliation after another (at the hands of both Valance and Doniphon, who inflicts upon him a series of taunts, teases, and practical jokes) are quietly agonizing.                   

Stewart and Vera Miles at the end of the film.

The haunted nature of this film is sustained right up to the very final scene with Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Miles) on the train.  Stoddard winces when a steward hails him as “the man who shot Liberty Valance”; we realize that he is doomed to carry the knowledge of his fraudulence to the grave.  (Even when he tries to confess, no one wants to hear it.)  This moment immediately follows his wife’s admission that she placed a cactus rose on Doniphon’s coffin—a reminder that even in matters of love Stoddard has never gotten out of Doniphon’s shadow.  Stewart and Miles, of course, were supposed to have played opposite each other in Vertigo (1957) until Miles got pregnant and had to be replaced by Kim Novak.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is, in its own way, a variation on that film’s tragic crises of masculinity.  Liberty Valance’s ending is not quite so devastating as Vertigo’s; the Stoddards’ marriage appears to be more or less secure, loving and genuine.  But Jimmy Stewart’s face at the end of Liberty Valance is that of a man forever plagued by the feeling that he will never be John Wayne.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon.


The awkward sex of "Ryan's Daughter" (1970)

Christopher Jones, Sarah Miles, and tree branch in Ryan's Daughter.

David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) recently squeaked onto the list of the 1,000 greatest films ever made as compiled by Bill Georgaris of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?—albeit at #912.  As I had never seen the film, I tracked it down at Amazon OnDemand.  It’s an interesting failure, a bloated, middling, overlong melodrama that feels like it was adapted from a best-selling novel but was in fact an original story written by screenwriter Robert “A Man for All Seasons” Bolt, cribbing from both D. H. Lawrence and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  The film sports some beautiful cinematography by the great Freddie Young (see below), and features John Mills in a supporting role as a village idiot that’s ham-fisted and grotesque but also kind of clever, narrative-device-wise.  (Both Young and Mills won Oscars for their work.)  But the whole thing never really comes together, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the central love affair between Rosy Shaughnessy, neé Ryan (Sarah Miles), and the shell-shocked Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) never doesn’t feel weird. 


From the archives: "A new darkness"

When I was an undergrad at SUNY Geneseo in the early 2000s, I enjoyed a brief stint as the resident film critic for the campus radio station’s short-lived news-and-arts show, something called The Weekly Review, which was spearheaded by the then-boyfriend of one my best friends.  The show aired live on Sunday mornings and was trying to be something like NPR’s Weekend Edition, though we usually had no more than three contributors and barely enough material to fill an hour's worth of airtime.  It premiered in the late fall of 2004 and ended the following spring when the boyfriend/show-runner graduated.  Nevertheless, it gave me the opportunity to write about a handful of new films as I saw them, and I was grateful for the experience.  In one of my last pieces, aired in the winter of 2005, I wrote favorably about Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which struck me as a film of “world-weary grace”:  


Contenders: Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby.  They both went on to win Oscars for the film in February 2005. 

Million Dollar Baby soon proves itself to be something much bigger than a simple rags-to-riches story; a wholly unexpected twist at the end of the second act sends the film, and the audience, spinning into dangerous uncharted waters.  Only as the film nears its emotionally devastating conclusion does the careful precision of its structure become apparent.  The film’s first ninety minutes feel more or less predictable, until the plot, with a few sharp turns, sheds on them a new light.  Or, more appropriately, a new darkness.  Million Dollar Baby ends more powerfully than anticipated; the film’s trailers have marketed it as Rocky meets Cinderella, but in fact it transcends the conventions of a genre film and ends by creeping into the shadowy corners of the soul.


The Films of 2016: De Palma

In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new documentary, the filmmaker Brian de Palma sits before the camera and discusses each one of his twenty-nine features—from Murder a la Mod (1968) to Passion (2012)—in chronological order.  De Palma, which appears to have been modeled on Francois Truffaut’s famous book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, brims with anecdotes and observations not just about de Palma’s career (highlights of which include Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, and The Untouchables) but also about camerawork and CGI, Robert de Niro and Bernard Herrmann, politics and film criticism, Hitchcock and Kubrick.  If as a piece of documentary filmmaking it feels slight, one would be hard pressed to name another film currently in theaters that’s as juicily satisfying to cinephiles.  It may not be pure cinema, but it’s about pure cinema, and that in itself becomes more than enough to recommend it.     


The princes of darkness

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974).

Carmela: Tony watches Godfather II [on laserdisc] all the time.  He says the camerawork looks just as good as in the movie theater.

Father Phil: Gordon Willis!  Tony prefers II, not I?

Carmela: Yeah, he likes the part where Vito goes back to Sicily.  III was like, what happened?
--The Sopranos, pilot episode  

I’m of the opinion that The Godfather, Part II (1974) is on par with rather than superior to its predecessor, and that if anything the original film might have a slight edge on the sequel; it also has the advantage of being able to function as a stand-alone work, where “II” can only really exist in relation to “I.”  But really the two films are so intricately related to each other that they should be thought of a single epic story, with the dual strands of the sequel’s plot enclosing that of the first film like parentheses.  (I’m also of the opinion that “III” is, at its best moments, an interesting failure.  What happened, indeed.)


Notes on "The Godfather Waltz"

Having re-watched The Godfather last weekend I’ve been going around humming snippets of Nino Rota’s score ever since—the Sicilian love theme, of course, which Francis Ford Coppola has joked he is doomed to hear every time he enters an Italian restaurant, but also the waltz, which is arguably just as well-known (even to those few people who have never seen the film).  At the time that he wrote the score for The Godfather Rota was probably the most prominent living Italian film composer, having written scores for every one of Fellini’s films as well as for others by Rossellini, Visconti and Zeffirelli.  His music for The Godfather is both more romantic and darker than his scores for the Fellini films, with their bumptious jazz rhythms, or for sweeping historical epics like Visconti’s The Leopard (1963).  Rota would go on to win an Oscar for scoring The Godfather Part II after being completely ignored by the Academy for his work on the first Godfather film—a somewhat shocking statistic, given that it now stands as one of the all-time classic film scores.

Father and daughter: Don Corleone and Connie perform the "Godfather Waltz."

The waltz theme is introduced innocently enough at the conclusion of the wedding sequence.  Through with his business for the day, Don Corleone joins the wedding party to dance with his daughter Connie.  The waltz theme is thus associated with tradition—with the religious and familial rituals that punctuate the film.  At this early point we see the waltz from the perspective of outsiders; even though we have already been allowed a glimpse at the family’s inner sanctum, we believe, much like the still-innocent Michael, that whatever dirty business the family conducts is kept at a safe distance from the “sunlight world” outside.


At home with the Corleones

The Godfather: Pacino and Brando in the garden.

I’ve been craving 1970s American cinema lately; it may have been jumpstarted by my viewing of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) a couple of weeks ago, but it probably also has something to do with the dismal state of American cinema as it stands currently.  Re-watching The Godfather (1972) this weekend, I was amazed by how perfectly made a film it is, and how grown up, in addition to being almost compulsively watchable.  As with so many of the great American films from this period, watching it is something akin to slipping into a warm bath.  The Godfather’s impeccable craftsmanship, which is to say its status as a great work of cinema, is almost inseparable from its value as entertainment.  Pauline Kael was right to have called it one of the most perfect marriages of “commerce and art” ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system.  And the years from 1969 to 1980 were flush with such films: consider, in addition to Shampoo and the Godfather films, the embarrassment of riches that is Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Klute, Deliverance, Cabaret, Chinatown, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Barry Lyndon, Nashville, Jaws, Carrie, Network, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Raging Bull, and Dressed to Kill, to name only some of the most prominent titles. In addition to being enormously entertaining, they’re smart and stylish, and were made for adults as opposed to adolescent boys.


From the archives: "Weird and snide"

The candy man: Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka.

After seeing Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the summer of 2005 I described the first half hour as “simply marvelous […] the ramshackle house which Charlie shares with his family contains as many odd angles as a German Expressionist painting.  When Charlie finally peels open the wrapper of a Wonka chocolate bar to reveal the shiny foil of the Golden Ticket—the much-prized day pass inside the famous chocolate factory of Willy Wonka himself—the moment is so grand you want to weep.”  I hailed Charlie’s discovery of the Golden Ticket as “one of the great, magical scenes in children’s literature, as satisfying to some primal, childlike corner of our brains as the sliding of Cinderella’s slipper onto her foot.”  For me, the scene tapped into “our childhood dreams of making a wish—a wildly improbable one—and having it come true, against all odds.”


The spinning top

"I am the Cine-Eye.  I am a mechanical eye.  I, a machine, show you the world only as I can see it."  -- Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1928)—one of the foundational works of Soviet silent cinema—is now almost ninety years old.  It’s a film whose accepted status as a masterpiece has generally worked to obscure rather than illuminate its greatness; much like its cousin Battleship Potemkin, The Man with the Movie Camera has become one of those movies that students in Intro to Film Studies classes “have to” sit through.  (My own first exposure to it was as a new Film Production student at RIT.)  And that’s a shame, because Vertov’s film (like Eisenstein’s) was never designed to circulate exclusively within the rarefied world of academics and intellectuals. But the question of who, if not scholars and intellectuals, The Man with the Movie Camera is “for” is a complicated one.