Monthly Archives: February 2012

Oscars ’11 Post Mortem

Before we all forget about last night and dive head-first into 2012, here are my takeaways from the 84th Academy Awards. First I’ll list off a few tidbits that made me smile, then I’ll bitch to my heart’s content. (If you’re curious, I’ve also reviewed 8/9 of the Best Picture nominees.)

Things I Liked

  • It was quick! Fewer “educational” montages and less pre-award banter meant that this year’s ceremony was just nigh interminable instead of actually interminable.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s win for editing. Not only was it deserved, but it was a rare surprise on a night that had about two of them. I would’ve welcomed more variety like that.
  • Brad Pitt gushing about The War of the Gargantuas. To think: this bedrock of my childhood was also, per Wikipedia, this demigod’s “inspiration to go into acting.” Maybe we’re not so different after all!
  • In fact, all of the “my first movie” interstitials. They were candid and fun—i.e., the polar opposite of a typical Oscar segment. And they showcased folks like Gabourey Sidibe and Werner Herzog, so we all win.
  • The women of Bridesmaids. Maya Rudolph cracking dick jokes! Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy playing some weird Scorsese-themed drinking game! Can we get them to group-host next year?
  • Michel Hazanavicius’s last words of the night: “I want to thank Billy Wilder, and I want to thank Billy Wilder, and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” This flood of gratitude closed the show out on the highest note possible.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Billy Crystal. Maybe I’m just in the wrong demographic. I have no built-in fondness for Crystal and don’t remember his prior hosting gigs. But when his jokes weren’t corny, they were tasteless, and they were all punctuated by a self-satisfied chuckle. Not to mention the blackface. I guess his Sammy Davis, Jr. impression is an old SNL thing, but why bring it back now?
  • That fucking “magic of movies” montage. Bad enough to have a montage with no point beyond “um, movies?”; even worse when the choices are so arbitrary. It had clips from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s (favoring Best Picture winners), plus Twilight and The Hangover, and stretched back no further than 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. The lesson? The Academy’s fine with saluting pre-1970 film history, but only when it’s wrapped up in a cute little pastiche.
  • The Cirque du Soleil, whose performance had something to do with North by Northwest, I guess? Anyway, it ended up being a few more wasted telecast minutes.
  • That goddamn theme from The Artist. I’m already not a huge fan of Ludovic Bource’s Oscar-winning score, but hearing a piece of it repeated—with its implicit message of “Silent movies are kooky!”—every time an Artist team member won became grating. I get it already! They were kooky!
  • Meryl over Viola. I love Meryl. Love her in Death Becomes Her, Adaptation., “Bart’s Girlfriend,” etc. But she’s a one-woman awards dynasty. She isn’t “due” (she already won Best Actress in 1982, for chrissake) and she doesn’t need the career bump. Viola Davis, meanwhile, is a 46-year-old black woman who’s received only a handful of substantial screen parts in her lifetime. Winning would’ve made her the second woman of color to receive the award ever. So basically, fuck the Oscar electorate. Fuck them so hard.

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Link Dump: #59

This week’s kitty comes from the mental illness drama Girl, Interrupted. Its owner hangs herself, but HEY kitty! It’s also my birthday, so it’s especially cool that I get to spend it thinking about kitties, movies, and some great links…

Finally, we have a pair of amusing search terms: “most tasteless house warming present,” which would be what, a swastika doormat? And “is disney making a movie about lesbian princesses,” the answer to which is pretty obvious. (It’s “no.” What, do you think we’re living in the 21st century or something?)

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Hate and Anger

You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive!

Lionel Stander growls these words in the opening minutes of Blast of Silence (1961) as a train barrels through a tunnel. He isn’t onscreen. He isn’t even playing one of the film’s characters. He’s just the voiceover. It’s such a wild formal gambit: wall-to-wall voiceover, directed at “you,” that narrates the film as a sustained, misanthropic rant. But, miracle of miracles, it works. Stander’s snarl is like a scar on the film’s face, its uniquely identifying feature. You may forget a lot of crime movies you see. You don’t forget Blast of Silence.

Even without the voiceover, it’d still be noteworthy. Shot on a shoestring in wintry New York, it’s a minor indie landmark in the fashion of Little Fugitive or Shadows. The no-star cast is led by writer/director Allen Baron, brusquely playing a contract killer cut off from humanity. He’s the kind of taciturn sociopath familiar to noir devotees—forcing a smile when he has to, but more comfortable speaking through a silenced pistol.

In keeping with that minimal performance, Baron and his friend Merrill Brody shoot the city streets with a nasty crispness. The film’s so visually subdued, so scummy yet honest, as if every shot were a crime scene photo. The hit man, Frankie Bono, always looks like a stranger caught unawares, camera-shy and sneering, peeved half to death by Manhattan at Christmastime. And sliding over these visual textures are a tense jazz score and Stander’s choleric croak.

That voiceover has such pungent rage to it. No sooner does Frankie glance at a photo of his mark than Stander declares it “the kind of face you hate.” A character actor in his fifties, Stander chomps into these angry, evil words and spits them into the audience’s face. His performance has a secret history to it: in 1961, Stander was long out of work, having been blacklisted after his disastrous HUAC testimony a decade earlier. His feature-length monologue was written by Waldo Salt, a similarly blacklisted screenwriter (and future Oscar winner).

So this isn’t just an angry voiceover. It’s fueled by the life experiences of two men who’d been witch-hunted and fucked over by the film industry. It’s the howl of the outsider, a voice from hell. Not to mention really well-written—it digs into Frankie’s back story, but doesn’t grow too expository or reductive; it’s always pissed off, but never histrionic. It hypothesizes about pasts and futures, hurls out nihilistic epigrams, and badgers Bono when his mind starts wandering.

Stander’s voice slinks throughout the film, but takes some breaks to let dialogue or ambient noise sink in. It’s the interior counterpart to Baron’s totally exterior performance, cluing us in to how calculated Frankie’s most casual gestures are. How hard it is for him to naturally act like a human being. Thanks to Salt and Stander’s uncredited contribution, Blast of Silence is a psychological study and an infernal travelogue. It raises the movie’s temperature from red hot to white.

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Uphill Battle

We love stories about ambition. About men (always men) who dream and build the impossible. The messianic wonder of Lawrence of Arabia; the phallic hugeness of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument; the anything-for-spectacle expedition of King Kong; even the improbable triumph of the Founding Fathers who stitched a new nation together out of some squabbling British colonies. In that same tradition, Werner Herzog forged the delirious man vs. nature fable Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Here, the man with the plan is industrialist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the Peruvians. He’s played by Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, whose intense blue eyes and shock of blond hair contrast jarringly with the Amazon rainforest. Obsessed with the opera—especially turn-of-the-century tenor Enrico Caruso—he pledges to build an opera house in the city of Iquitos. This unfeasible dream and its financial burden lead him to an untapped grove of rubber trees, accessible only after crossing a steep strip of land with a steamship. It’s a brazenly stupid act, but he does it, and he carries the audience with him.

Like the earlier Herzog/Kinski collaboration Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo is defined by its eccentricity. Herzog maps incongruous aural textures onto one another, layering the dazed Popol Vuh score, the dubbed-in German, the buzz of the rainforest, some Caruso arias, and Kinski’s plaintive yowls. Broadly speaking, too, it’s about incongruity. Through sheer force of will, Fitzcarraldo brings his European clothes, machinery, and music into hostile territory where they do not belong. His faith in opera blinkers him, leading him into a morass of hubris and monomania. For Herzog, manifest destiny is a symptom of mental illness.

In the national myths I mentioned earlier (Lawrence, skyscrapers, Kong, George Washington), we’re absolved of moral responsibility for the sake of adventure. In stark opposition, Fitzcarraldo’s sociopathic self-obsession contaminates all of the film’s thrills and spills. His naked contempt renders the story’s underlying mechanics visible: how racism and genocide are yoked to imperialism; how a lone, self-aggrandizing white man rides on the backs (and land) of non-white laborers. How the whole film, like the actions of missionaries and conquistadors everywhere, is premised on a self-destructive delusion.

And that delusion is suffocating. Even with Amazonian aerial shots galore, Fitzcarraldo feels claustrophobic, since we’re always rooted in its title character’s headspace. During the film’s centerpiece sequence, Herzog shoots the aggregation of pulleys dragging the ship, the army of native “bare-asses” recruited to work them, and the ship’s incremental motion with a mix of fetish and fascination. It’s painful to watch, because it twists traditional audience response: do you recoil or marvel? Does the grandeur justify the futility?

Based loosely on a true story, Fitzcarraldo is infamous for its troubled production. Even if original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger hadn’t left mid-production, Herzog still had the self-assigned, Herculean chore of pulling a steamship over a hill, sans models or visual effects. But as he said during an investors’ meeting when the project was in danger of collapse, “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” In this respect, then, it’s also an autobiographical meta-narrative about the audacity of filmmaking—of squandering millions to physically reproduce nonexistent worlds.

Unlike so many artists, Herzog doesn’t romanticize the act of creation, but rather recognizes its selfishness. Throughout his work, it feels like a fundamental, akin to breathing. He films violently, even destructively. (Just look at Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams, or his hellish relationship with Kinski.) The ethos of Fitzcarraldo reminds me of a quote from William Faulkner: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” For both men, writing or building or filmmaking are anything but benign; they flow from dark, atavistic drives. Werner Herzog would not hesitate to rob his mother.

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Disney Revisited: Dumbo

Some thoughts after rewatching Dumbo (1941)…

  • It resembles Pinocchio much more than Snow White or Fantasia. This is not an overwhelming, ornate work of art; it’s a series of cute vignettes that feels like an hour-long short subject. The modest animation style and slight narrative compound this impression. It’s the same story as Pinocchio, but on a much smaller scale.
  • Nuanced character animation is reserved for the animals. Dumbo, Timothy Q. Mouse, and especially Mrs. Jumbo are all drawn with faces and bodies that convey a full range of emotions. Human beings, meanwhile, are rendered through blur, shadow, or extreme simplication. This disparity results from Dumbo’s low budget, but it also clarifies where the film’s sympathies lie, as human beings become the distant, indistinct Other.
  • Episodes move visually from chaos to order. In one scene after another, frenzied motion plays out onscreen, culminating in an image of relative stillness and composition. Mrs. Jumbo’s outburst, for example, ends with the ringmaster in the center of the frame, standing in a bucket of water, and when Dumbo accidentally triggers the destruction of the circus, the scene ends with him peeking out from under the collapsed tent, still waving his little flag. These are self-contained cycles of tension and resolution.
  • The “Pink Elephants on Parade” musical number transmutes intoxication into nightmare. In keeping with Dumbo’s episodic format, it has only a loose connection to the broader narrative (in that the post-“Elephants” hangover teaches Dumbo that he can fly) and is primarily a chance for the animators to cut loose with champagne-induced hallucinations. Elephants metamorphose, explode, and coalesce in increasingly threatening configurations. It’s the movie’s clear visual high point.
  • The crows are overt racial caricatures. Granted, their depiction isn’t hateful or negative, but they’re still totally rooted in stereotype. In their mannerisms, dress, and dialect, they cater to white audience assumptions about African-American behavior, especially in the South. They’re cartoonish and reductive, traits that are certainly in keeping with the rest of Dumbo’s cast (cf. the human audience or female elephants), but only here applied to a real-life racial category.
  • Dumbo is an inert protagonist, defined by his suffering. Whereas Pinocchio was about its hero’s moral choices, Dumbo—another innocent whose story starts the day he’s born—never makes any choices. His entire life is mapped out by his mother, the other elephants, the ringmaster, and especially Timothy. He never acts of his own volition, but has success or failure visited upon him by fate. The closest he comes to acting on his own is during his (Timothy-guided) climactic flight: with no audible outside input, he spits peanuts onto the elephants who’ve persecuted him. It’s a Carrie-like burst of revenge and his only independent decision.
  • Consequently, Edward Brophy’s uncredited performance as Timothy drives the movie. Dumbo may be the star attraction, but Brophy is the lead voice actor. He propels the story with his Brooklyn-bred cadences, lending it narration and color commentary through his one-sided conversations. His streetwise, bubbly voice sets the film’s tone and attitude. It’s just as fundamental to Dumbo as the animation.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

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Recommended reading #2

I love putting together our Link Dumps. They’re a valuable platform for disseminating high-quality online writing. But sometimes, bulleted lists just aren’t enough. Such is the case with two terrific blog posts from late January, pieces that cut very close to my cinephile heart. They’re “Spirits and Influences” by Jim Emerson (part #13 of the “SLIFR Movie Tree House” roundtable) and “What the Siren Will Be Doing on the Night of Feb. 26” by the Self-Styled Siren herself.

Both posts demand more than a mere hyperlink and an injunction to “go read this!” Emerson’s, for example—arriving midway through an incredibly erudite six-way conversation—reads almost as a moviegoing manifesto. He deftly jumps across myriad topics: the troubled release of Margaret; his distaste for We Need to Talk About Kevin; the death and ethos of his friend Bingham Ray. And all the while, he espouses a desire for greater diversity in the worlds of critical thought and film production. A pair of quotes especially caught my eye. First, this one:

All that matters is what the critic has to say about the movie. Everything else is irrelevant and/or speculation. On the other hand, if a critic can’t articulate why he/she loves or hates or is ambivalent about something, then how can his/her opinion possibly matter? It doesn’t. Opinions are a dime a dozen, but they have to be tested to find out whose carries any weight.

Which pretty much sums up my beliefs about what criticism is and should do. Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one. At the end of the day, a critic’s worth (and the worth of their opinions) comes down to the quality, meaning, and power of their writing.

A couple paragraphs on, Emerson addresses the fact that he and Armond White both listed Kevin as one of their least-favorite movies of 2011. (Emerson explained his decision, but White just answered the film’s title with a glib “Must we?”)

So, do I “agree” with AW? There’s no way of telling. I gave my reasons. He didn’t. We may hold entirely different views about the movie, even though we both, evidently, don’t think very highly of it.

I’m reminded of the legal concept of a “concurring opinion”: when one justice on a court agrees with the majority, but for a different reason. The point being, you can come at a movie from radically different critical mindsets (as Emerson and White certainly do) and still “agree.” Cinema isn’t just a world of thumbs-up, thumbs-down, “yes” or “no.” It’s a thorny world of reasons, aesthetics, context, and personal histories. (Or, to borrow from Renoir in Rules of the Game, the wonderful thing about discussing movies is that “everybody has their reasons.”)

As for the Siren’s post, well, it’s an impassioned plea for a history-centric Oscar ceremony, and you need to read it. It’s an excellent case for why The Artist or Hugo should win all the awards, and why the filmmakers behind them should then turn the ceremony into a soapbox for film preservation. It’s a pipe dream, yeah, but a beautiful and noble one. This isn’t, after all, about two specific movies of mixed quality; it’s about the thousands of movies that no one will ever learn about or see. (In part because they might not exist anymore.) That’s a tragedy, and it’s one that these two backwards-looking films could, possibly, go a little way toward reversing.

So thanks to the Siren and Mr. Emerson for elevating online film discourse and inspiring me with their incisive prose!

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Link Dump: #58

Isn’t this kitty from Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld just the cutest thing ever? Just look at it! It’s such an adorable kitty! And to complement the kitty’s cuteness, we’ve got some truly spectacular links this week:

We had several amusing, pussy-themed search terms in the past week—”.1 like to wonenand womenate pussy,” for example. (Dear lord what does that mean.) Two others added a strange equine theme as well: “poney likes wife pussy” and “horse-like vomen pussy,” the latter of which you should probably read with a Yakov Smirnoff accent. In Soviet Russia, vomen pussy like you!

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