Monthly Archives: August 2012

Link Dump: #77

This week’s kitty is from Four Rooms: a failure as an anthology film, but a success as a kitty showcase. And now, links:

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Cops and Robbers

This is it! The third season of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series ends tonight with a bang, not a whimper, courtesy of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). (Thankfully, HMWYBS will return in 2013.) Dog Day Afternoon’s not necessarily what I’d call a “beautiful” movie, but it is a sensational one in every sense of the word. In its efforts to recreate a failed 1972 bank robbery, the film brings a whole city block to life—sweaty, colorful life—and it’s teeming with dense, jagged shots of the bank’s interior. Shots like the one above.

I love the visual zigzagging here, from Sonny (Al Pacino) to his gun-toting accomplice Sal (John Cazale) to the bank manager behind him, and how we’re vaguely aware of background details like the flag and those blinding fluorescent lights, but the focus is squarely on Pacino and his disbelief. He’s supposed to be robbing a bank, for chrissakes, but what are the words coming out of his mouth?

All right, who has—who has to the go to the bathroom here?

It’s that sad, funny clash between efficiently committing a crime and being a basically decent human being.

I’m also a fan of this aerial shot from Sonny’s first showdown with the cops. This is the moment he goes from “bumbling crook” to Brooklyn folk hero, using hostage negotiations as an antiauthoritarian soapbox. He’s switched from shouting “Attica! Attica!” to “Put the fucking guns down!” and now a more general, frothing-at-the-mouth cry of “You got it, man! You got it!” Pacino struts and twitches like a bug-eyed rooster, his gestures so huge and angry that we can read them from the air. The shot reveals a growing ring of cops around the bank, but he’s unafraid. For once, the lone Vietnam vet has all the power.

But this is my favorite shot in Dog Day Afternoon. It’s right after Sonny’s first phone call with Sgt. Moretti, when he learns that cops have him “completely by the balls.” As the movie’s tagline says, “The robbery should have taken ten minutes”; now it’s developing into a stand-off with no obvious end game other than Sonny’s arrest or death. The news overwhelms him. He slumps to the floor. (And Sal, taking a cue from Sonny’s desperation, immediately does the same.)

The rest of the movie gives us shot after shot of a sweaty, exhausted Pacino. But this is his first breaking point, before he has a chance to get up and be re-broken. His first glimpse of how fucked he is, and how long he’s going to be cooped up in this sweltering bank. The shot makes satisfying use the bank’s architecture, too: that ugly gray flooring on either side of Pacino, and the column mercifully propping him up. This is his workplace now—his crime scene, his cage.

Head in hand, Sonny’s a one-man Pietà. And his troubles have only just begun.

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10 Beloved Performances of the ’90s

I love huge blogging events. Like, for example, the “Essential Performances of the ’90s” tournament being run by Andrew over at Encore’s World of Film & TV. Better yet: I was invited to add a few blurbs to it, explaining why certain performances are so essential. So I wrote about Joe Pesci in GoodFellas and Joan Allen in The Crucible, then later Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensiblity and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Please read, enjoy, vote in the ongoing tournament, etc.

But here’s the thing. The tourney’s bracket, fantastic as it is, can only contain 64 performances. Which means that dozens of worthy competitors had to be omitted. Which is my long-winded way of presenting my top 10 performances of the ’90s by actors not represented in that bracket (ordered alphabetically):

Dylan Baker in Happiness (1998): Forcing the audience into sympathy with a pedophile was the biggest gambit of Todd Solondz’s button-pushing career. But thanks to the oh-so-bland Baker, he pulled it off. Awkward and trembling, Baker gives a performance as a suburban dad with a secret that’s terrifying, plausible, and very darkly funny.

Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table (1990): This particular performance is obscenely underrated, perhaps because it’s in a made-for-TV biopic from New Zealand. Fox plays author Janet Frame as an adult, wrestling first with anxiety, then with institutionalization. Hiding under her shock of orange hair, Fox makes Frame’s pain palpable. Her sullen, introspective behavior is so recognizable it hurts.

John Goodman in Barton Fink (1991): Insurance salesman “Charlie Meadows” is such a complex, devilish creation on the part of Goodman and the Coen Bros. He’s friendly, reliable, a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy—but also clingy, self-loathing, a chatterbox, and finally a serial killer. He evokes pity and terror in equal measure, and he will show you the life of the mind.

Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994): Despite only being a teenager herself at the time, Lynskey’s portrayal of Pauline Parker brims with insight into adolescent life. How quickly love for her parents transforms into resentment, for example, or how she succumbs to her best friend’s powerful personality. Her startling authenticity makes the film’s grisly climax cut me to the quick.

Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): As the liquid metal T-1000, Patrick never gets angry. He merely looks a little peeved. A sleek contrast to the original’s hulking Schwarzenegger, his performance set the gold standard for robotic supervillainy. He’s unrelenting, unfeeling, laserlike in his focus and precision, and it all culminates in a single ornamental gesture: that condescending finger wag. Absolutely chilling.

Franka Potente in Run Lola Run (1998): I’ve written about this performance before, describing Potente’s Lola as “all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves… a woman who only exists from moment to moment.” She’s relatable—who hasn’t had to race the clock?—but still pursues the impossible, like a video game character come urgently to life.

Mimi Rogers in The Rapture (1991): Rogers’ transformation from hedonistic swinger to true believer, played out with caustic sincerity, makes Michael Tolkin’s lo-fi eschatological drama unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. As her spiritual intensity rises, the film gets darker and darker, leading up to the bleakest possible twist, yet Rogers fearlessly follows through. Her work here is psychologically layered, disturbing, and alive.

Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Playing widowed trans woman Bernadette, Stamp doesn’t coast on the incongruity between his wigs and erstwhile “tough guy” persona, nor does he treat the role as an awards-baiting showcase. He plays her without condescension as a doyenne of drag, armed with enough biting wit to shut up all of Australia’s transphobic assholes. When she growls “No more fucking ABBA,” you listen.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992): I wrote briefly about this performance last year, asking “Who else but Tilda Swinton?” Indeed, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of performer and role, and one that’s executed with so much grace and mystery. Who else but Tilda could swap genders and survive centuries as the only consistent character in Orlando? Nobody jumps to mind.

Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Valerie Solanas is a lot to play all at once—she was a real-life radfem ideologue, attempted playwright, attempted assassin, and streetwise hustler. But Taylor wraps herself around the whole woman, making her funny and likable even as her dreams turn to delusions, then violence. It’s a scruffy, oddball performance and an ideal introduction to the perennially underrated Lili Taylor.

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Link Dump: #76

This week’s unbelievably cute kitty is Pussyfoot, best friend to the dog Marc Anthony, as created by Chuck Jones. (This particular image is from “Kiss Me Cat.”) Enormous eyes, inexpressive face, loving canine buddy… yeah, every other kitty can just go home. Pussyfoot has to be the cutest. Anyway, here are a ton of links:

Not much in the way of search terms these past couple weeks, but I’m still amused by “look in side girl badey” and “www gose fozen muschi,” which seems like a severely garbled attempt to type in a URL. For what kind of website, I have no idea. “Goose frozen… muschi”?

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Cosmology

Oh, the many joys of Singin’ in the Rain (1952)! All the self-deprecating meta-comedy, the forays into gargantuan spectacle, the violent kineticism of numbers like “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning”—it’s goofy, it’s bold, and as an actress says of the talkies, “It’s vulgar!” It’s also this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience, forcing me to single out one of its luminous Technicolor images as “the best.” I mulled this over for a while, flitting from the guy who shouts “Zelda!” to the trippy Busby Berkeley-ish choreography that lead into “Beautiful Girl” to pictures of Gene Kelly’s perfect ass. (In fact, let’s go ahead and call that last one runner-up.)

Eventually I settled on the one above. Yes, it’s just Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) making a bizarre face in the middle of “Make ‘Em Laugh.” But it gets at everything I love about Singin’ in the Rain. It’s a guy demonstrating his physical prowess for the audience, reveling in his own showmanship while wearing an oversized hat and floppy gray coat. Nothing remotely sophisticated about it, which is exactly the film’s point: consider Don’s “Dignity, always dignity” monologue, the disconnect between Lina’s personality and public image, Kathy’s performance of “All I Do Is Dream of You,” and especially “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

Show biz is not sophisticated. In fact, it’s crude. It’s stupid. But per Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a glorious, outrageous, beautiful kind of stupidity. Donald O’Connor scrunches up his face, jumps off of walls, and has weird mock-sex with a dummy because 1) he can, which is impressive enough, and 2) it’s hilarious. The film industry, as practiced by Monumental Pictures, works more or less the same way. It’s a collection of professionals being paid to evoke pleasure through performance because they have the looks and the talent to pull it off. Cosmo’s wonderful, ridiculous face is Hollywood in microcosm.

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Getting Out Alive

I don’t know if I can overstate how much I love Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924). It’s just, well, so much better than everything else. Its slim 44 minutes lampoon the genre conventions of romance, melodrama, and detective fiction; test the laws of physics with one near-impossible stunt after another; and construct a dazzling, meta-cinematic spectacle within the dreams of one lowly projectionist. It’s also this week’s movie for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, which means I need to pick the one image that best represents it. It’s a tough choice, since Keaton wasn’t just funny and physically daring, but a visually gifted director too.

In Sherlock Jr., he doesn’t just rely on the default humor of his life-endangering pratfalls. Every visual gag is elegantly framed and executed, with nary a single step (often into the path of an oncoming vehicle) out of place. Many of my favorite such jokes involve objects’ motion and momentum in a straight horizontal line, whether across a street, a (discontinuous) bridge, or a moving train. I love the one pictured above, too, for both its box-within-a-box composition and Buster’s sheer surprise at the magic of editing. That’s really the essence of the “Buster Keaton” character, there in those flailing arms: always bemused by the world’s instability, never able to get his feet on solid ground.

Which is a great segue to my favorite shot, because riding past a train on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle is about as far from solid ground as you can get. The camera’s been traveling alongside Buster as he’s careened along a country road, with farmland zooming by and the train tracks coming into view. As soon as he catches sight of the train, Buster performs a beautiful full-body double-take, then does what any sensible person would do so close to death: presses his hands to his head and cowers. Seconds later, after racing past a car as well, he tentatively peeks up like a turtle from its shell. No title card, nor any need for one—just a disbelieving face that says “How am I still alive?”

How indeed? It’s all perfectly timed, leaving us to marvel at his split-second survival. (To spoil the illusion somewhat, TCM’s John H. Miller says “repeated viewing reveals that the shot was safely filmed backwards.”) Even though Keaton himself was a peerless, fearless acrobat, the onscreen Buster is just like you or me. He’s hopelessly inept, a victim of circumstance, and whenever things go right it’s because of pure dumb luck. Like the rest of us, he’s just the oblivious X in a vast, complex equation. Maybe part of the reason I love Sherlock Jr. (and The General, and Our Hospitality, etc.) so much is the profound optimism implicit in Buster’s everyman quality. Because hey, if he can make it out alive, who’s to say I can’t too?

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Seein’ Me

You’ll be seein’ me. You’ll be seein’ me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there, and some night I will be. You’ll be seein’ me.

This is terrifying. This is a man embittered by betrayal who’s turning himself into a weapon of vengeance. This is Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952) with a bloody lip and hellfire blazing in his eyes. He’s spent the whole film thus far repressing his killer instincts, defending a wagon train of ranchers and farmers in order to refashion himself as a good man. But to paraphrase Robin Wood, the repressed will always return. The second he’s double-crossed by a former ally—played with a demonic grin by Arthur Kennedy—his old, violent self rises up like a werewolf against the full moon.

Certainly the film provides warning signs. Stewart and Kennedy first meet up just before a Shoshone attack, where (as usual) the Native Americans are manifested through bird calls and arrows. The new friends quickly slay the attackers, strengthening their white solidarity but tantalizing the audience with a glint of danger: both men are still handy with weapons, too handy. Afterward, Kennedy decides to pan for gold in California, and Stewart gives him a farewell that doubles as foreshadowing: “I’ll be seein’ ya!”

They do see each other again, teaming up later to shepherd supplies from Portland back to the near-starving settlers. But a recent gold rush tightens around their necks like a noose: greedy prospectors are everywhere, alternately bribing and threatening to get their hands on some food. Stewart and Kennedy enlist a few ruffians, then refuse to pay them until they reach the settlement. One protests: “The law won’t let you get away with this!” Stewart’s face curls into a wry half-smile as he retorts, “What law?” So when a Kennedy-led mutiny abandons him on the mountainside, it’s no surprise that he stands there, framed starkly against the Technicolor sky, and transforms into an avatar of revenge.

And after that blood-curdling “You’ll be seein’ me” monologue, he disappears. For nine whole minutes out of Bend of the River’s last twenty, its star and hero is nowhere to be seen. Instead he lurks off-screen, occasionally dispatching stray members of Kennedy’s posse or firing into their camp, rapidly becoming an invisible agent of fear. A guerrilla, a ghost, a myth. He returns for the climax, yeah, and he gets the girl, even convincing her father that bad men can fundamentally change. But we know better. He might settle down with a home and family, but that same old bloodlust will always be lurking just beneath the surface.

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