Monday, July 27, 2009
We're still a few weeks away from Season 3, but in the mean time, I Mad Menned myself! Which you can do, too, over at AMC. This Brandon is taller and smokes, but you can choose among several options of body parts, dress, accessories, and settings thanks to the glorious illustrations of Dyna Moe. Now I'm off to try out the fedora!
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Sunday, July 26, 2009
Last night I took in my fiftieth western, and that's cowboys and saloons, not beat-up trucks and oil rigs. So in honor of this momentous occasion, I thought I'd share my vast reams of knowledge on the subject with--what else?--another list: my top 10 westerns so far.
But first, the honorable mentions in chronological order. These are not necessarily my next favorite westerns but rather five of note.
Stagecoach by John Ford - 1939:
I'm sure it's some kind of crime against cinema that I'm not a huge fan of the John Ford/John Wayne team-ups. My easy favorite is Stagecoach, a thrilling B-movie of archetypes executing a stock plot. As you can see, Ford's awe-inducing black-and-white photography helps launch Stagecoach to the hall of fame.
The Big Gundown by Sergio Sollima - 1968:
I love how this mystery is played as a chase film, punctuated with gripping shootouts and threaded with a social conscience. It's strange to see Lee Van Cleef as the hero, but his familiar gruffness is easy to root for, and the ending is stirring.
Django, Kill . . . If You Live, Shoot! by Giulio Questi - 1967:
By no means better than Corbucci's Django, the Questi false sequel is nevertheless one of the most imaginative spaghetti westerns I've seen. The above toy soldiers, a parrot drinking wine, a whack-a-mole gunfight, and death by boiling gold are among the eclectic highlights of the film, which begins with the Stranger looking for his stolen gold and becomes something much grander. And living up to its progenitor, Django, Kill . . . If You Live, Shoot! is filled with graphic, creative violence.
Greaser's Palace by Robert Downey, Sr. - 1972:
Underappreciated, if you ask me, my fiftieth cowboy picture almost doesn't feature a horse. That's because it's a hysterical absurdist take on Christian mythology, featuring a guy who walks on water and has a healing touch, an eternally dying woman who keeps getting mortally wounded, and a man who is killed and reborn several times. Also, this ghost character. There are a couple of tremendous musical numbers, and the opening is completely entrancing, making Greaser's Palace immediately captivating in its surrealism.
3:10 to Yuma by James Mangold - 2007:
Every time I see it, I try to remain objective, but then I get sucked back in and succumb to the adventure. While I love the original, the new one gradually builds an entire universe, including desert stopovers, snowy canyons, and military forts, that extends to Apaches, Mexicans, and Asian immigrant labor. The relationships are the focus though, and the skilled cast shine.
And now, my ten favorite westerns so far! By way of preparations, I apparently prefer postmodern westerns to any traditional stories, and while I've seen most of Ford's most famous films, I've only seen one Boetticher and none of the Mann-Stewart collaborations. There's always my next fifty westerns. Here we go:
10. The Proposition by John Hillcoat - 2005
I have no idea if there are other stellar Australian westerns, but The Proposition is one of the best films of the decade, thanks mostly to Nick Cave's dark, intricate characterization and John Hillcoat's masterful control of mood. Let's not forget the all-star cast (including my favorite John Hurt performance) or the luscious outback cinematography either.
9. The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah - 1969
This was, I believe, the first revisionist western I saw, shortly after I discovered the Old West filled a hole in my heart. The violent opening is the perfect entrance to the dynamic world of Sam Peckinpah, where men are hardened and live by a code. As with many latter day westerns, the heroes aren't especially heroic, but William Holden is a strong, cunning, and, it turns out, nigh supernatural leader. The grand finale is a work of beauty.
8. McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman - 1971
The movie that taught me the term "anti-western," Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller was like nothing I'd seen at the time. Somewhat surprisingly, I still haven't seen anything like it--although Deadwood covers some of the same territory. Because the film devotes most of its running time to the carefully explored portraits of its leads--it's almost a chamber drama--the ending is all the more unexpected and intense.
7. High Noon by Fred Zinnemann - 1952
The biggest American title on my list, High Noon is thrilling without being riddled with shootouts. This, thanks mostly to its real-time countdown structure, not to mention regular updates with the three scoundrels waiting for a train and the slowly thinning band of support for Gary Cooper's upstanding sheriff. It's the final act of 3:10 to Yuma; High Noon is an allegory focused on real characters in a desperate situation.
6. The Great Silence by Sergio Corbucci - 1968
The running theme of this list is westerns that have carved out their own distinct corners of the genre. Once again, I've never seen anything quite like The Great Silence, set in a snow-besieged frontier town (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller) where Klaus Kinski's villain sadistically tortures outlaws and the hired gun is a mute named Silence. The film is brimming with compelling sequences including one twilight memory that is enchantingly shot by Corbucci. And of course there's the unspeakable ending. I'm sensing another running theme: the great westerns tend to have inevitable yet surprising climaxes.
5. The Shooting by Monte Hellman - 1968
At first, I wasn't so sure about this B-picture. The dialogue was corny, the acting wasn't especially believable, and the colors were, well, weird. But after a few minutes, I was entirely absorbed by the film. Hellman's cartoony style is a provocative contrast to the film's nightmarish mood. The existential conflict at the film's core provides a Lynchian gut-punch, and by the end, I was mesmerized. Hellman's companion film, Ride in the Whirlwind, also starring Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins, doesn't quite live up to the enormous expectations set by The Shooting, but according to the director, both films are slated for DVD release by Criterion.
4. Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch - 1995
Revisionist westerns, anti-westerns, and now another acid western. What can I say? I prefer westerns that exemplify the genre while subverting expectation, offering an experience we didn't know we wanted. Dead Man is delightfully twisted, the story of a man on the run for murder joined by a native named Nobody ending the only way it can. Every scene has a sinister undercurrent, accentuated by the lush black-and-white cinematography and Jarmusch's gothic script, and the performances are uniformly interesting. It's a weird, wild trip unlike any other.
3. El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky - 1970
Speaking of weird westerns, El Topo is certainly the weirdest I've seen, and that's part of its charm. I've raved plenty elsewhere, so I'll be brief: The first shot of Jodorowsky riding across the desert, his silhouette holding an umbrella is a striking image initiating you into this macabre world of graphic violence, disfigurement, abuse, and gunfights that are more psychological than physical. Broken record here, but it's a shame El Topo is like nothing else.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone - 1968
Not Leone's most accessible work, but all the more powerful for it, Once Upon a Time in the West would be tied for first if I weren't so personally attached to the top film. So second place is no consolation prize. I'm always surprised to rediscover that this story was developed by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci, masters of three unique subgenres, but when you look, you can see the intermingling of Argento's grotesques and Bertolucci's psychosexual relationships with Leone's mythic west. The climactic shootout, while exciting, fails to top Leone's prior effort, but the opening is one of cinema's greatest film beginnings.
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Sergio Leone - 1966
Anticlimax alert! As you know, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of the milestone films for me, a movie that woke me up and enthralled me. The only word is transcendent. Leone's Old West is a source of endless fascination for me, from the out-of-the-way desert towns to the little Mexican pueblos to the mission for the infirm to the Civil War battleground to the cemetery at Sad Hill. Every character and setting has me dying to learn more. I've said it before, but the best compliment I can give is, when I first beheld its three-hour majesty, I wanted it to be longer. Still true.
Lists are fun to compile, but it's difficult to write the content, because it's all been said, and it's been said better and by more studied scholars than I. But I'm excited to share these fifteen films with you, and see which westerns I should have included. I have plenty ahead--The Magnificent Seven is probably the biggest, followed by the Eastwood westerns that aren't Unforgiven, and tonight I may watch White Sun of the Desert.
Now, what are your favorite westerns?
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Thursday, July 23, 2009
Having yesterday completed a refreshing—to say the least!—double feature by Godard, Criterion’s just-released Made in USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, I find myself succumbing to the intended effect, which is to say I am bursting with thoughts that have no order. But there is something of a unity in that they presently revolve around the subject of pulp.
Remember when I said I would have liked to have seen a film adaptation of Watchmen by someone who would relentlessly inundate us with information from all sides? I was wrong to suggest Charlie Kaufman, although who wouldn’t want to see his take on the material? No, Jean-Luc Godard is the perfect man for the job. At least, his 1967 self is—I can’t vouch for his contemporary output. 2 or 3 Things features, on top of its ostensible plot, hushed narration by Godard himself, philosophical digressions, text closeups, and still inserts (used even more effectively in Made in USA), all somehow tied together by the film's questions.
Made in USA is my favorite of Godard’s blatant crime pulp stories, and at one point early in, the film becomes a graphic novel with the use of starbursts with the onomatopoeia “Bing!” scrawled across. But 2 or 3 Things is a breathtaking experiment. Then, "experiment" isn’t quite the right word, because no matter how much the film purports to be an ongoing investigation—into life, the universe, and everything—it is ultimately a meticulously organized strip of film. There is no test, nothing to be observed. It is experimental, but no experiment.
I’m rambling because I’m at once taken with and dismissive of certain of Godard’s ideas, but I’m also out of my element. I have trouble speaking with authority on Godard because he’s such a daunting figure in cinema, I’ve only seen nine of his films, and I’ve only loved two or three on first viewing. So for now, let’s stick with something I have more experience in: comics.
Actually, I recently took in another viewing of the year’s best film, Pixar’s Up, which incidentally was even better the second time around. But what struck me this time, despite having previously observed the pulp adventure roots, is the strength of its relationship to classic pulp. For one thing, the entire plot unfolds like a series of comic issues—there’s the episode in the storm, the ill-fated escape from Charles Muntz’s (is it linguistically kosher to write Muntz’?) canyon-berthed dirigible, the visit to Kevin’s home. Up could be a paperback series, a radio serial, or even a film serial like the one that a young Carl devours to open the film, or, obviously, a comic book.
The open-ended nature of most television programs has nourished pulp. I’ve previously discussed the episodic cliffhanger nature of The Shield and Breaking Bad, both also exceptional as existential drama, and the less well-developed pulp archetypes at play on Lost. Veronica Mars is another significant example of a television series incorporating pulpy serialization techniques, not to mention all the trappings of detective fiction. Other series like Battlestar Galactica and to a lesser extent early Weeds draw from pulp imagery or techniques without explicitly depending on the format. Nowadays, Weeds has dropped its cliffhanger-per-day structure, and while Nancy keeps falling into deeper holes, its strained attempts at shock-comedy and abandonment of satire have transformed Weeds into pure soap opera.
Actually, I feel there is a tacit relationship between soap and pulp. Both are unconcerned with theme; tone is what matters here. Perhaps more tellingly, both soap and pulp are driven by plot, a story driving breathlessly into the next inevitable obstacle or revelation. This is explicit in the easy disposal of characters in both pulp and soap. Death is not meaningful as anything but a complication for the surviving characters.
One significant difference is the subject matter. Soaps tend to follow large, wealthy families, and plot twists involve Dickensian mystery relatives, corporate intrigue, or sexual politics. Where soaps are interested in watching characters react to emotional conflict, pulp prefers physical obstacles. Whether it’s detective, adventure, space, western, superhero, or otherwise, pulp likes its exotic settings, ranging from ancient temple ruins to dark, diagonal alleys. A soap villain dabbles in betrayal, but a pulp villain sets traps and deploys lackeys.
I don’t know about you, but I love adventure pulp, and I can’t imagine anyone not lapping up such imagery as Up’s snipe labyrinth. This is probably why I prefer spaghetti westerns with their mythic characters and cool places to many classic American westerns. What’s especially weird is my knowledge of these pulp archetypes derives from Looney Tunes or derivative films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The only radio serial I’m familiar with is The Lives of Harry Lime, three episodes of which have been released on Criterion DVDs I own. But pulp stories were not the first to use such conventions anyway, and I suppose the archetypes of, say, the tropical island or the western are ingrained by all sorts of children’s media, whether the Great Illustrated Classics series, video games, or Lego sets.
In fact, Lego thrives on pulp. I used to own several of the moon base sets and some of the jungle adventures, but I always coveted the more expensive pirate ships and castles. When I saw and unabashedly loved Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in 2003, I thought it was a film adaptation of the Lego sets I owned as a child. Half right, seeing as both derived from the same source conventions. I wonder what I’d think of it now. For every Godard film I’ve loved, there’s a Pirates of the Caribbean film I will watch again and again (literally: two of each).
Wikipedia tells me there is such a thing as gay pulp, and I highly recommend taking a jaunt over that link just to see the article’s accompanying image. It’s hilarious for both the obvious reason and the (unintentional) zombie man in the background that I assume the illustrator found reasonably attractive, if lifeless and bloodthirsty.
As we’re all aware, it’s Moon Week until tomorrow, and having just enjoyed Moon for, among other reasons, its space pulp imagery, I’m hungry for a true space pulp, something like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but without such well-known source material. I sat through all of the Flaming Lips' Christmas on Mars hoping to quench that thirst, but no-go. I’m thinking about the Captain Proton sequences in Star Trek: Voyager, or the Astronaut Jones SNL sketches starring Tracy Morgan, or Cory McAbee's oeuvre (I need Stingray Sam!). I want retro rockets, laser pistols, Art Deco sets, boxy robots, humanoid aliens, physics-less planetary excursions. How would that not be awesome?
As a closing, I've asserted that great pulp can be better than good highbrow, because while pulp isn't often interested in examining the human condition, the good stuff is a monument to imagination. I fear we too often condemn the "deep-shallow" middlebrow, when something like 3:10 to Yuma has been so personally pleasurable and stimulating. I hesitate to assert any limitations on art, but my favorite works might fuse the two, decorating arty thematic meditation with thrilling pulp dressing. Now where's my Godard Watchmen?
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
Tonight, for my decennial Fete de la Lune (it’s French, bitch), I’ll be tuning into Al Reinert’s Apollo documentary For All Mankind on Turner Classics. But I started my day with a more offbeat tribute to the triumph of Apollo 11: Duncan Jones’ Sundance indie Moon, starring Sam Rockwell as Sam the sole astronaut operating a mining facility on the far side of the moon.
Moon is a space film, and it deftly mines the genre: there’s a procedural aspect to it, as Moon spends twenty minutes or so just following Rockwell on the job; then we get into the well-worn psychological horror of loneliness in space, previously seen in Solyaris and Sunshine; finally there are other elements not worth ruining that recall classic space films from Forbidden Planet to Alien.
Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say Moon is not exactly what you think it is, even once you’re safely enveloped in its folds. This is largely thanks to its elusiveness, the utter unclassifiability of the thing; Moon is so difficult to pin down to any one genre or archetypal plot that it’s almost surprising when it gracefully concludes and you realize nothing is left hanging.
I must also praise Moon’s writer Nathan Parker, working from a story by Duncan Jones, for addressing some perennial sci-fi philosophical questions, like what it means to be human and what’s ultimately real. The mysteries happened upon by the plot are mere dressing; the conflict here is existential. The pace is plodding, which truthfully does wear after a while, because Moon is so preoccupied with its big ideas. In the final account, I’m not sure any of this hasn’t been done before, but as a piece, Moon is an assured contribution to the genre.
Still, I wanted to see Moon today of all days not for any intellectual curiosities but for magnificent, wondrous shots of our gorgeous gray satellite. In this, Moon is quite an achievement. The first landscape shot is transcendent; if only I could lie on the surface and behold that majestic blanket of stars. Blinding sunlight and long shadows decorate the dusty, cratered terrain of the moon, and we are treated to multiple vehicles navigating the desert, a few moonwalks with curiously Earth-like gravity, and the occasional overhead shot from a satellite camera. Jones manages to capture some exciting angles, including lunar ridge silhouettes and sumptuous earthrises. Rockwell does get to moonbounce once, but I wish his other walks were as zippy.
As our protagonist, Sam Rockwell is impressive. It’s difficult to discuss without spoilers, but Rockwell delivers a multi-faceted performance that feels natural and real. Knowledge of the filmmaking provides an extra, meta thrill when you watch Rockwell in his spoilery scenes. There are times when the script calls for him to act in ways the average person wouldn’t, but that may jibe with some readings of the film. He’s joined throughout by a robot named Gerdy who is voiced by Kevin Spacey. It’s fair to say that Gerdy is a huge asset to the film and something of an iconoclast for psychological sci-fi robots.
Throughout, Moon is draped in the passionate, pensive score by Clint Mansell, the pulse of the film, augmenting some scenes, overwhelming others. The script never falls into summer movie hysterics—in retrospect, it’s fittingly quiet—but you can always count on Mansell to give Moon some life.
I wouldn’t say Moon was absorbing, but it was interesting, and as a feature film directorial debut, Duncan Jones is a filmmaker to keep your eye on. It wasn’t perfect, but at the moment, my imagination wistfully cast back to the past and out toward the stars, I wish there were more space movies like Moon.
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Sunday, July 19, 2009
Handing the reins of the Harry Potter franchise to David Yates for the final four installments is the kind of safe choice that worries me. Yates certainly has a flair for camerawork, and those double-exposure memories in Order of the Phoenix were excitingly unexpected. But with the end so near, the source material published, and two films under Yates' belt, I fear there's not much room for surprise. The magic is becoming old hat.
Speaking of the end, early in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there’s a chilling moment that anticipates a thread from Harry’s final adventure next summer, a fable that will teach him and remind us that our role models are fallible. In a quiet scene atop the astronomy tower, Harry asks his headmaster, the simultaneously calculating and seemingly carefree Dumbledore, about the new potions teacher.
“You said that Professor Slughorn would try to collect me.”
“I did.” Dumbledore narrows his eyes, no doubt aware of what’s coming.
“Do you want me to let him?”
For all the good intentions and lip service paid to the enormity of the burden, Dumbledore forges ahead with his plan, and for the first time in the film series, we taste Dumbledore’s questionable ethics. It’s not just that he has enlisted a student to play spy for him—tremendous stakes aside. It’s that he’s still withholding knowledge from Harry and either lying about it or blind to his arrogance. He claims to be less important to the cause than Harry, but he doesn’t believe it. Dumbledore knows about horcruxes before Harry does his master’s bidding*. This is Dumbledore’s universe, and Harry is his pawn in his war against his enemy. So it is that Dumbledore, as played with wry authority by Michael Gambon, is one of the series’ most fascinating characters.
(*If I were more skilled, I'd have found room for this in the narrative thread, but here we are, in some sort of magical offshoot from the "normal" universe. Anyway, I find much of the plot motivations of these last two outings disappointingly unnecessary. Consider: Voldemort manipulates Harry into retrieving the prophecy himself when it turns out any of his Death Eaters could have zapped it off the shelf and recorded the prophecy for him? Draco spends an entire year trying to get the vanishing cabinet to work, even though he successfully transported a bird months before the end? Dumbledore doesn't even let the word "horcrux" leave his mouth, even though he's quite aware of its significance to Voldemort, until Harry retrieves Slughorn's memory? Sure, Dumbledore didn't know that there would be seven horcruxes, and Draco tried other methods of killing Dumbledore before acquiescing to the vanishing cabinet attack, but these are weak contrivances. Everything should feel inevitable.)
All through the teen romance interludes—not that I don’t appreciate the brief respite from the A-plot’s doom and gloom—I found myself wishing for more time with the more interesting characters, who tend to be played by, let’s say, more practiced actors. Besides, Lavender Brown, Cormac McClaggan, and Romilda Vane offer almost nothing to the central plot, and unfortunately, in Steve Kloves’ script, which does away with Rowling's climactic Death Eater battle, neither do Ron or Hermione. Half-Blood Prince boils down to Harry, Dumbledore, and Snape, with strong support from Professor Slughorn and Draco Malfoy (who is impressively played by Tom Felton as a wearying parallel to the Dumbledore and Snape arcs), and backup in the form of young Tom Riddle.
In fact, my primary artistic concern for Half-Blood Prince is the tonal and plot dissonance. Over here on the left we have a frail Dumbledore, Draco pushed to his limits, and slithery Snape. You might notice they’re all dressed in ill omens and they talk about things like the draught of living death. Dumbledore wields a spectacular stream of fire that will leave you awestruck. Oh, and there’s a new spell that is the magical equivalent of a vicious knife fight, as well as poisoned bottles and cursed jewels. On the right, however, are Harry’s hormonal schoolchums, all unrequited angst and lovey-dovey haze. They play games like quidditch and enjoy a luck potion. There’s a Christmas Ball with halitosis-related antics. Do you see what I’m getting at? The elegant gothic melodrama has almost no connection to the Judy Blume novel in between, and furthermore, there is no arc to the protagonist's romantic subplot with Ginny. I suppose you could argue the discord reflects the moods of adolescence, but I’m not buying. The Prisoner of Azkaban married fluffy hijinks to its ominous mystery enchantingly.
I’m also not convinced the title is appropriate to the story as it plays in the movie. The book devotes much more time to the eponymous prince. By the same token, while I’m pleased that almost every pertinent character appears at least once, the screentime for stars like Maggie Smith and David Thewlis is unfortunately scarce. It’s a wonder they convinced Timothy Spall and Robbie Coltrane to show up, considering Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson had a year off. Further, I’m not sure why they introduced Fenrir Greyback if he did nothing other than play Scary Death Eater #3 in the film; maybe he’ll bite Bill Weasley next summer. It’s an old complaint, but if I’m more interested in what Molly Weasley’s up to than whichever green teenager I’m watching, it stands.
Then again, my complaint stems from my deep enjoyment of the vast universe of characters in these films. I would gladly watch David Thewlis’ Lupin run errands. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is intensely complicated, and his scenes with the magnetic Alan Rickman steal the show. Every film since Azkaban has that moment of electricity that overwhelms you: when Harry rushes out from the thicket yelling, “Expecto Patronum!” at the crowd of dementors around Sirius, when Harry brings Cedric back to the Triwizard Tournament and the unaware crowd roars, when Harry draws on his friends to expel Voldemort from his body. Well, Snape killing Dumbledore tops them all. There's a twitch in Gambon's eyes during the terrible pause between, “Severus, please,” and it kills you to watch the fearless leader beg. Then Rickman does his worst, barely concealing the anguish. As divergences from the novels go, Snape arriving next to Harry as a beacon of hope just before the dastardly climax is the kind of shock I'd like to see more. Not only does it compound Snape's ostensible blame, but it makes Harry a willing participant in the grand finale.
The magic isn't as dead as I may have hinted in the introduction as long as writer Steve Kloves and director Yates have such tricks up their sleeves. The fresh opening—Harry and Dumbledore facing a mob of flashbulbs followed by an encounter between Harry and a pretty, young waitress—establishes the episode beautifully. Half-Blood Prince amounts to a horrible prelude to Harry's final chapter, easily among the better half of the film series. Here's hoping the final adventure is even more transportive, ambitious, spectacular—in a word, magical.
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Saturday, July 18, 2009
At last: a best films list where I've seen them all! This, thanks to the list's truncation and fierce conventionality. Oh, right, I'm talking about The One-Line Review's 2009 poll of the 50 Greatest Films.
As these things go, my current favorite Best Of (outside of the ridiculously vast 1000 films lists by They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?) is the relatively recent list by Cahiers du Cinema of the 100 Most Beautiful Films. Slap Last Year at Marienbad on top, and I'm good to go. Notably, the Cahiers appreciate Mulholland Dr., but the AFI, not so much.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, not that Pride and Prejudice quotes ought to have something to do with the source text, but that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time. Nothing will ever surpass it, and nothing has been made that is better. Just ask any list since the second Sight/Sound poll. Far be it for me to suggest that we topple this most sacred of cows, particularly since I'm not especially confident that Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made, but since the word "great" is so generous with meaning, is it that absurd to branch out every now and then?
Of course, if it weren't Citizen Kane at the top every time, I'd grow frustrated with The Rules of the Game or Seven Samurai or The Godfather or, apparently, Vertigo instead. I guess I'm just bored with the status quo, the infinitely agreed upon greatest hits, cinema's old guard. I wonder how canons are amended. Army of Shadows lay dormant for decades, generations of cinephiles unaware of its simmering power--so, too, Killer of Sheep, Made in U.S.A., and any number of heretofore undiscovered gems. Stumbling upon and adoring Diamonds of the Night--information about which is scarce, at least on the internet--I'm curious if people just don't know about it, or if they took the Czech experiment into account when compiling their lists. I'm only beginning my relationship with foreign film, but Diamonds would certainly earn its place among my top 100.
But back to the One-Line Review Top 50, which, like all canons, is a valuable jumping-off point. The consensus ranks Once Upon a Time in the West over The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. While I don't much care which film wins the eternal struggle of ranking Leone, I often feel like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly gets short shrift in academic circles. Where film scholars are keen to explore the layers of homage in Once Upon a Time in the West, they tend to write off its predecessor as sheer action-adventure pulp, albeit an excellent example. It certainly is enchanting pulp--and far more interesting and mesmerizing than the higher ranked Pulp Fiction--but like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly operates as a study in western archetypes and mythology. The good ain't all that good, see?
Perhaps I need to revisit City Lights, but at the moment, I much prefer The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. Then again, I can't really tell you what happens in City Lights, so my problem may have more to do with me than the film.
Seeing The Third Man outrank Sunset Boulevard helps settle my own opinion on the classic noirs. In this, I must agree with the polled. But it's close.
Anyway, check out the list on your own. I find worth in all the films, even if a handful aren't my cup of tea, and on the whole, it's a treasure trove. Still, let's try to come up with some more idiosyncratic favorites lists. I can't wait to find a greatest films collection that finds room for Mr. Arkadin.
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Roman Polanski has always struck me as a director fascinated by the forced and willing submission of women--look no further than Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby. But sandwiched in between these two brilliant studies is Cul-de-sac, a broader exploration of gender and power dynamics, and one whose focus is two men.
Sure, there's a story, something about a mobster taking a couple hostage at their home while he awaits rescue. But for Polanski, the inciting incident--Dickie meeting George and Teresa with his gun--has less to do with story than psychology. George is dressed in his wife Teresa's nightgown, his face smothered in lipstick and eyeliner. Dickie takes him for a "queer," and as soon as George gets a moment with Teresa, he chastises her for embarrassing him. George isn't used to standing up for himself, which is why Teresa's stepping out on him with neighbor Christopher. And thus, we have the setup for a complicated look at what makes a man: power.
To me, this shot encapsulates the food chain early in the picture, with Dickie on top, structurally lifted off the ground, Teresa sitting quietly atop it, and George hard at work inside it. There's a dead man in the frame, yet George is the one in the grave. He's completely emasculated, and his wife chooses to spend time with Dickie rather than him. Of course, Dickie has a gun, that old Freudian symbol of power, but it's not just about sexual dominance. Violence is perceived as a fitting response for challenged men. Yet, even when George gains a weapon--a straight razor he's using to shave Dickie--the mobster is still the one in control. Of course George lives in isolation. He is incapable of aggression.
Dickie also outranks George in coolness, a significant contributor to power, especially in structured male relationships where overaffection is a faux pas. At one point, Dickie deems George "too square" for his revelation, and while George is drunk, there is at least a suggestion that George spills his guts to Dickie out of a desire to be more like this new, cool man in his life.
Even if Dickie had no gun, George would not have challenged his authority--he won't even accept responsibility for his art--and this is clearly the primary source of conflict in his marriage. It's the beginning of Straw Dogs, only Polanski cleverly turns the tables to delve into the question of why anyone would willingly don a submissive role.
When George's friends arrive, Dickie relatively quickly assumes the role of gardener, an opportunity Teresa takes to deem him her servant. He bucks a bit, but soon enough he's making omelets and waiting on the lunch guests. Considering who has the potential power (in the form of the life-ending weapon in Dickie's pocket), it's an asexual look at domination and submission. It's not an accident that Polanski keeps returning to Teresa's dissatisfied face as she orders Dickie around, forcing him to take it.
Things grow more complicated when George finally asserts himself after the kid shoots the stained glass window. Money enters the power fray here. George has already confessed to his abuser that he abhors living at his castle, but he complains about the irreplaceability of the broken windows that he has no real affection for. In short, George resorts to using his socioeconomic power to force the unwanted visitors from his estate.
Christopher, Teresa's lover, adds a new dimension to the prisoner/guard relationships among the central trio. First, when guest Jacqueline tells him that her girlfriend owns the sweater he's wearing, he defensively remarks, "This is a men's sweater!" and stomps away, bringing us back to gender roles--expected, perceived, and actual. Interestingly, when Christopher urges Teresa to collect shrimp with him, Dickie stands up for her, effectively defending George's honor. He's just using George and Teresa, but he won't have anyone take advantage of them in the mean time.
Given its sexual overtones, Cul-de-sac features its fair share of punishment. Dickie spanks George to wake him up, he whips Teresa with his belt--whipping being a relatively common sadomasochistic sexual activity--and George keeps threatening them with his gun. In her latest attempt to goad her husband, Teresa lies to George that Dickie tried to kiss her and said she needed a real man. Unsurprisingly, this has no effect on George other than to make him perhaps more terrified of his captor. It's Teresa that has the audacity and finesse to steal Dickie's gun, which she naturally hands over to George. On one hand, I understand anyone being afraid of genuinely defending themselves with a gun, but handing her only weapon to a man so completely afraid of interacting with the world suggests that, on some level, she's counting on him not to shoot. Teresa is giving herself another chance to shame her husband for not defending her, a means of prolonging this interesting episode with a virile man. Danger-hound that she is, she's probably enjoying the thrill.
And in the end, violence is the gateway to power. Teresa never reckoned George would respond to his newfound assertiveness with such madness, but overthrown repression tends to beget overindulgence. I won't pretend to fully understand the final ten minutes or so of Cul-de-sac, and only partially because I could barely make out its dialogue. But I am confident that each of our central characters meet their inevitable fates. Dickie the wounded mobster lets his guard down after bonding with, playing servant to, and failing to see the subtext between his hostages. Teresa leaves her husband once and for all, finding more pleasure as the dominant spouse. And George--well, I'm not sure what is going on there, but he lets her go, which suggests to me, noting Polanski's use of psychology, that he wants her to leave.
I have barely scratched the surface, and I'm sure much of this is common knowledge among cinephiles, but I'm so impressed at the thematic unity of Polanski's oeuvre, not to mention the staggering depth of the material inside his expressionist compositions. Knife in the Water was my first clue, but Cul-de-sac's broader, revolving cast confirms Polanski's interest in gender roles for both women and men. I suddenly feel the urge to return to Chinatown, this time with a thematic starting point.
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Thursday, July 16, 2009
It's Emmy morning. You know the drill--nominees followed by reactions, which I should warn you are improbably gleeful. The only difference is we now have six nominees per category, which expectedly allowed for some surprises. Also, I managed to use several new Mad Men screencaps, so enjoy the view.
Flight of the Conchords
How I Met Your Mother
Wow. Seven nods. Entourage, like a cockroach, remains, but Two and a Half Men is finally gone! On top of which, though I don't much care for Family Guy, the Emmys branched out to an animated feature for only the second time in this category (after The Flintstones), and even better, cult favorite Flight of the Conchords broke through! And best of all, the campaign for How I Met Your Mother and rising celebrity of Neil Patrick Harris paid off. I'd like to think 30 Rock is unbeatable, but we actually have a really nice nominations slate this year.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy:
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock
Steve Carell - The Office
Jemaine Clement - Flight of the Conchords
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory
Tony Shalhoub - Monk
Charlie Sheen - Two and a Half Men
See what I mean about the surprises this year? Jemaine Clement and Jim Parsons joined the club, and while Shalhoub and Sheen are still around, I'm not sure they really have a chance in an age where Emmy voters are slowly voting out their shows and replacing them with fresh blood. Besides, we're all committed to Alec Baldwin and Steve Carell, right?
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy:
Christina Applegate - Samantha Who?
Toni Collette - United States of Tara
Tina Fey - 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - The New Adventures of Old Christine
Mary-Louise Parker - Weeds
Sarah Silverman - The Sarah Silverman Project
The big surprise here is Sarah Silverman, and while I don't think the nomination is deserved over some of the snubs, I much prefer Emmy moving in this edgy (Flight of the Conchords and Family Guy aren't the easiest shows to like) direction over the safe old guard. It's Tina Fey's to lose, and if not, Toni Collette's, so I'm cool either way. (But seriously, please give it to Tina Fey.)
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy:
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men
Kevin Dillon - Entourage
Neil Patrick Harris - How I Met Your Mother
Jack McBrayer - 30 Rock
Tracy Morgan - 30 Rock
Rainn Wilson - The Office
Jeremy Piven's out! Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer are in! I love the new Emmys! No John Krasinski--how are they still under the impression Rainn Wilson's turning in better performances than Krasinski?--or longshots like Donald Faison, but not bad. While Morgan's probably my favorite, I really hope Neil Patrick Harris wins this award while hosting.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy:
Kristin Chenoweth - Pushing Daisies
Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock
Elizabeth Perkins - Weeds
Amy Poehler - SNL
Kristen Wiig - SNL
Vanessa Williams - Ugly Betty
Many, many snubs in the forms of Jenna Fischer, Lizzy Caplan, Cobie Smulders, and especially Portia de Rossi. But! Jane Krakowski! I can't help but smile. Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig too? And Kristin Chenoweth! As long as this one doesn't go to Vanessa Williams, I'll be pleased as punch.
Seven nods in this category, too. I'm less happy here, because great shows like Battlestar Galactica and The Shield were snubbed, and I like less than half of these. But there's a big upside. Remember how I said the Emmy voters were finally waking up? Well, Boston Legal has been ousted, and for its swan song, no less! This was our last chance to hate the Emmy voters for picking Boston Legal over something worthy, but alas, the Emmy voters decided to bring Big Love to the party instead!
Outstanding Actor in a Drama:
Simon Baker - The Mentalist
Gabriel Byrne - In Treatment
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall - Dexter
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Hugh Laurie - House
Byrne, Hamm, and Cranston have my blessing. Even though I don't watch or care about The Mentalist, I always applaud fresh blood, and Simon Baker has been good elsewhere. Hugh Laurie, on the other hand, leads a dying show with worse writing unable to transcend its contrivances. Oh well.
Outstanding Actress in a Drama:
Glenn Close - Damages
Sally Field - Brothers and Sisters
Mariska Hargitay - Law and Order: SVU
Holly Hunter - Saving Grace
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer
Okay, I love Elisabeth Moss. But January Jones, as I've repeated ad nauseam to anyone who will listen and many who won't, unequivocally dominated this season of Mad Men. So I'm more than a little disappointed to see us finding room for, say, Holly Hunter, but not Jones. And still no Mary McDonnell. Nobody in this category even approaches her glory, so she and The Wire will ride off untainted by Emmy.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama:
Christian Clemenson - Boston Legal
Michael Emerson - Lost
William Hurt - Damages
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad
William Shatner - Boston Legal
John Slattery - Mad Men
Ah, so here's where the Boston Legal love swelled. At least my man Slattery's still in the race, though he has no chance. My supremely uneducated guess is that it's Shatner's to lose. Any takers?
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama:
Rose Byrne - Damages
Hope Davis - In Treatment
Cherry Jones - 24
Sandra Oh - Grey's Anatomy
Dianne Wiest - In Treatment
Chandra Wilson - Grey's Anatomy
Unquestionably my least favorite lineup. I haven't watched this season, but based on her performance last year, the nomination for Rose Byrne is laughable. It still chaps my hide that Grey's steals regular nominations here when Christina Hendricks is out in the cold. But at least we have the In Treatment ladies, who, along with the snubbed Allison Pill, showed the rest of these womenfolk how it's done.
Generation Kill is up for and must therefore win Outstanding Miniseries, up against only one competitor. Stupidly, Alexander Skarsgard was not, however, nominated for Oustanding Lead Actor, and none of his costars were nominated in the supporting category. As with The Wire, Emmy voters think if you ain't showy, you ain't acting.
30 Rock, by the way, beat its record of 17 from last year for the most nominations for a comedy series with 22 nominations this year. Three of those are for direction ("Apollo, Apollo," "Generalissimo," "Reunion"), four are for writing ("Reunion," "Apollo, Apollo," "Mamma Mia," "Kidney Now!"), three are for guest actor (Steve Martin, Jon Hamm, Alan Alda), and two are for guest actress (Jennifer Aniston, Elaine Stritch). The guest actresses are up against Tina Fey from SNL as Sarah Palin, so, good luck to Esmeralda Fitzmonster. Also, "Alec in Huluwood" is up for Outstanding Commercial (I assume this is that Hulu commercial starring Alec Baldwin as an alien).
On the drama side, Mad Men set no records, but leads with 16 nominations, four of which are for writing ("A Night to Remember," "Six Month Leave," "The Jet Set," "Meditations in an Emergency"). Battlestar Galactica earned a directing nod for its finale, as well as nominations for visual effects, sound editing, sound mixing, and something called "single-camera picture editing."
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is nominated for Outstanding Special Class, which refers to webisodes and whatnot.
We're finally in a year where 30 Rock could conceivably win the awards for comedy series, directing, writing, lead, supporting, and guest acting. As Emmy nominations go--knowing that Mary McDonnell, the best television actress of the decade, was snubbed for her final time as Laura Roslin--I'm kind of totally thrilled with this year's lineup. What about you?
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