Monday, July 25, 2005

Movie Vomit

Down With Love (Peyton Reed, 2003)
Who wants to start a Peyton Reed cult with me? The man knows swift energy. But that energy flows with a, dare I say it, Lubitsch touch, esp. when his cuts amount to word plays. And I adored the tangled, convoluted, prolonged climax - yet another indication of the fragility of the heterosexual hegemony. Then there's the extras: "It's like a musical in spots." And yet the slam-bang musical number is thrown in at the end (over the end credits, I believe) just like that Australian rock band film the name of which I can't freakin' remember. We're still closeted about the musical.

The King of Jazz (John Murray Anderson, 1930)
This great revue makes no attempt to mask its theatricality. Not once do you see an angle towards the "audience." Almost avant in its non-teleological taxonomy. Terrific music too.

Summer Storm (Douglas Sirk, 1944)
Fascinating up against All That Heaven Allows as a demonstration of how the middle class (at least in the 1950s) was the new aristocracy with all the vagaries that implies.

A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003)
Just plain awful. You'd think the music angle might rise this above the condescension of Guffman and Best in Show. But now that I think of it, I actually prefer the numbers in Guffman to these. At the very least, I thought I'd have a repertoire of silly songs to sing. But not a single one matches dead-on, genius parodies like (SCTV's? and were any of these people involved with that? if so, shame on them!) "Cliff the Magic Squirrel," "Jimmy Joe" or "Bottle of Wine" in that Peter, Paul and Mary parody. The scenes purporting to show the post-60s decline of these bands were incredibly sloppy and too scant anyway. Thus there was a seriously diminished sense of what was at stake in the reunion concert. For example, the bland, suburban house/life that "Cher" lived in - how did she get there? how did this clash with her folkie past? And why did she end up at a trade show? There was nothing inevitable about this development and thus it seemed not only (again) sloppy but rather mean-spirited as well (and yet given their Guffman track record, why was I surprised at this?). And if you think this is too much to ask of comedy, I got two words for you: Preston Sturges. Hell, I got two more words for you: Legally Blonde. I think the only time I laughed was during the Fred Willard scenes and conceptually, he didn't even have to be in the thing. And no, I didn't watch the extras. If I saw it in the theatre, I would have never got to the DVD in the first place so fuck off!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
For about 3/4 of this, I wanted to put my head through the wall. Movies don't get more arch than this. It was so bad that I'm now afraid to revisit the Tennessee Williams plays and flicks I adored as a pre-teen. Shi', was this really all that realistic even back in the 60s? Taylor's performance was horrendous but I'm not sure it was her fault. As Crawford said of When Ladies Meet, what actress on earth could make these lines come alive? Sandy Dennis was even worse. You wonder if she ever got drunk in her life. The boys fare better but Richard Burton is such a heavy and George Segal such a piece of notebook paper that they couldn't mitigate the essential inhumanity of the proceedings. For a while, I tried to treat it like an absurdist play a la Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. Surely, they all sounded like Martians working through the English language for the first time in a dialogue scheme rife with movie allusions, aphorisms, song snippets, hebephrenic babbling, etc. Everything is so forced and unnatural in this putative temple of realism that it seems a crime against culture that this film is so revered and something like Showgirls gets universally derided (at first). But then as it becomes clear that they've been playing a game all along, I started to think about Higashi's DeMille book and the importance of games in centralizing Hollywood cinema around the white heterosexual middle class. So yet again, you can start to see the seams in heterosexual hegemony here. The evening is one extended forced confession. Forced, quite literally. Sandy and George are forced to play audience to Liz and Dick's game. They must witness their heterosexuality with gets fused with the "real" Liz and Dick off-camera. This may explain the gay fascination with the movie. Still, I couldn't find one bitchy quote for the ages and in this, Tough Guys Don't Dance is a much gayer film. And the mild payoff mentioned above comes so late in the film that I doubt I'd have the stomach to sit through the thing again in order to work through those issues.

Party Monster (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2003)
I went in with a shitty attitude since I've yet to read a positive review. But I wound up liking it a great deal and wonder how much unacknowledged homophobia has to do with its negative reception. Macauly Culkin's performance is severely underrated. Sure, you can tell he is "acting" all the way through and given our impoverished view of acting, we can only accept a "realist" style that effaces any actorly inflections. Which, of course, is a pile of horseshit but doubly so here because what could anyone expect from Michael Alig himself except actorly inflections? I'm not one for realism but clearly, a "realistic" portrayal of a man with a tenuous at best hold on reality (and not just due to rampant drug abuse) simply wouldn't work. I laughed out loud several times. And was quite moved by the scene where James St. James didn't know how to touch Michael. Even flaming creatures like these have intimacy issues just like a strong, silent, truck-driving, bread-winning husband might. But on the downside, I hated what they did with Gitsie. A thankless role for Chloe Sevigny, it served to heterosexualize the dénoument in the most chicken shit way. I mean, why show Alig's capture by the feds while he's sleeping with Gitsie and not his final capture for Angel's murder when he's at a motel with Freeze? Still, I liked how it all ended with the fame wheel still turning in the most disturbing manner. Double feature with The Sniper?

The Fat Spy (Joseph Cates, 1965)
This film had no idea what it wanted to be. Beach movie parody. Robert Downey-style text fuck. Groan-inducing Diller/Hope-style comedy. Awful band showcase. A beach movie in its own right. I couldn't quite recommend this. But I found its disjunctions fascinating.

The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952)
Stunningly shot. Gritty and all. But we're meant to feel sorry for the sad sack sniper and that makes me itchy. His enemy isn't women but modernity. Always getting yelled at by citizens for standing in the wrong place or whatnot. And the constant reprimands start to feel cartoonish thus giving the lie to the grittiness.

Stand-In (Tay Garnett, 1937)
I was quite taken with this. The boarding house scenes were fuckin' riotious: Lincoln answering the door, the stunt man, the admiral penguin. And I dug the faux commie climax. Of course, it can't end until Leslie Howard has been properly sexualized. But alone the way, there's some great slapstick violence. He's got Joan Blondell in his arms and she asks dreamily "Don't you know what to do next?" And he flips her over his shoulder and she crashes into a wall. Quite shocking but nonetheless a quintessential glimpse into the perils of heterosexual socializing.

Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
Yeah, it's pretty static in spots. But a sci-fi musical with naughty double entendres, reversible clothing, vending machine babies, Orwellian pre-arranged marriages, futuristic cityscapes that anticipate Blade Runner and Minority Report, Martians that play like a colonialist concept of primitive Africans and the yummy Frank Albertson (with shirt off in one scene!)? From 1930? Are you tough enough to resist all that?

The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (Frank Tashlin, 1968)
Tashlin wrote this train wreck too. Spent part of the day reading the IMDb on these late Bob Hope horrors. The user comments are fascinating. One dude quoted a Hee Haw-caliber joke typical of this era as something rib-tickling. Must be a nervous sort that giggles at everything. I mean, these jokes are so not funny that they're almost like statements of fact nowhere in the same orbit as jokes. But even the negative comments are way, way out. One chap actually ripped on Boy Did I Get A Wrong Number! because the rooms in the film were too big (the kitchen was downright drafty, he noted). It's like the IMDb has instigated this tradition of wild surreal criticism where films are placed in the nuttiest of taxonomies. I mean, what film showcases the most perfectly sized room of all-time? Would the classical Hollywood system allow us to even notice it? Anyhoo, I should probably have my head examined for making fine distinctions with this shit but the drab cinematography in The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell only served to highlight the pastel percolation of Boy Did I Get A Wrong Number! In the end, I imagine the most offensive thing about it is its extreme dullness. And yet I'm hooked - I can't wait to see Eight on the Lam now. Is it because these films are so reassuring in the best pop kind of sense? Or is it quite the opposite, because they bask in Hope's sick privilege? Maybe my tendency to think of the films from this era as one film speaks to my desire to read Hope's biography into this "film." For sure, his self-referential Bing Crosby dig bears this out. In fact, so does the From Here to Eternity parody, reflecting perhaps a certain sadness or resignation at not being able to insert oneself into serious cinema history the way Burt Lancaster has. The obvious parallels here are Jerry Lewis and Hugo Haas. Their oeuvres are like a perversion of the auteur theory. They're so "there" in their films that one cannot help but read them as biography, even in the capital B A&E sense. For me, though, there's a considerably lesser payoff with Bob Hope. Where Lewis is a genius and Haas is uniquely grotesque, Hope is just plain boring, convictionless. So maybe the focus should be on Phyllis Diller. Anyone have a copy of Did You Hear The One About The Traveling Saleslady?

The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935)
Eh. At first, I thought this would make a nifty female oedipal double feature with The Seventh Victim. But Margaret Sullavan acclimates herself too quickly to big city life and consumer capitalism. That we can blame on screenwriter Preston Sturges, I imagine. But Wyler's direction seems bored. When he glides his camera in to start the climactic shot-reverse shot with Herbert Marshall and Frank Morgan (goddamn - are those two in every movie?), it's like he suddenly woke up or something...too late, of course. Sturges would have lent all that deceit a certain fury. But the movie stuff towards the beginning is ace. Has anyone written on the need for usherettes? What did it mean that one could catch a film in the middle? It says something about the zonked direction that the hilarious film-within-the-film (which Marshall mirrors at the end with his "Don't go") is more dynamic that anything in the film proper. But what's with that final shot? Is Sullavan still freaked about something?

Tough Guys Don't Dance (Norman Mailer, 1987)
A stone-cold classic. Heterosexual camp? So relentlessly self-deconstructive that there's no one left with whom to identify. It's all dizzying surface play - confusing flashbacks, needless repetitions, eternal one-liners ("Get your ass off my pillow!") that seem pinned onto the characters, laughter and pain that play like unrecouperable register shifts. Like the great Showgirls but even more so, everyone seems like primitive monsters trying out the human body for the first time which accounts for the completely unpredictable twists and the cartoonish Southern accents. And that horrifying, ersatz piece of 80s soundtrack played at the coke party and over the final credits (told ya about needless repetitions) was actually written by Angelo Badalamenti and sung by Pam Tillis ("One lovin' man who'll stick around" - sounds like a Stephin Merritt parody)! It's positively making my head spin as I write. No wonder I've been hankering to see Mildred Pierce (or The Fabulous Baker Boys) lately - films as great as this make me feel as if I'll never appreciate the "well-made" film again.

A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)
A chattering, flickering terror train. This film takes the phantasmagoria of Lonesome and Sunrise and extends throughout practically every scene. Very little is naturalistic here. No titles (sub- or inter-) so I imagine it's a lot like how some people adored Les Vampires without titles. As usual, I needed some story help from the IMDb. But I imagine everyone feels exhausted after watching this - there's simply no way to contain it. I note, though, that in an early tracking shot of the cells, the polka dots on the walls perform the same movement as those at the beginning and end of Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother. But since I don't know what it means in Anger's film, I'll leave it for further research if it's significant at all. And what was with the music? Who do it? It doesn't fit sorta in the way the the music on those shitty DVDs of Metropolis don't fit. But whereas in the latter case, pathetic boredom is the result, here it just makes it creepier: all clangy, creepy atmospherics. It sounds as if someone played a record to it and just let it run out. The last two minutes sound like a needle on the groove. Sheesh - I'm getting ooked out just writing this.

Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
To me, this still cuts both Sunrise and L'Atalante. One impulse, though, is to fault it for its simpy story. I wonder if Ferrara's films, e.g. New Rose Hotel, merely carry on in Fejos' ecstatic tradition with a more complex story line. But who cares, really? At the very least, it does without the brutishness of Sunrise and L'Atalante. And so much about the city: distraction, dizziness, chance meetings, losing rings, losing lovers, crowds, on and on. Divine.

The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)
I'm still not quite there with this one. it clearly requires more attention than I gave it, e.g. I thought the funeral was for the lech who was shot in the previous scene and I had no idea that the woman who returned to town was a prostitute. Perhaps I need to read the stories on which it is based. Or see Judge Priest again. And can I just say one thing: the title sucks.

The Man With the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)
Eleanor Parker again and in a shockingly different role. I hated her character in terms of sexual politics (why didn't one of the evil cops get dead at the end instead of her?) but what a performance! And my main man Preminger - very Daisy Kenyon, this. More doors, thresholds and windows to peer/cut through. A door will close in front of the camera and then CUT! we're in the room anyway. Ditto with a shade closing. No private sphere escapes him. And his play with backgrounds is masterful. Several times I had to rewind to see what was always there in front of me. At the beginning, the dancing drunk is in the background and he finally gets his drink as Sinatra crosses over to the bar. Then Sinatra takes his place in the frame for some foreshadowing. The entrance of the peddler is creepy because he doesn't really enter. Sinatra gets his drum, brings it back to the bar with the camera following and as he moves back towards the door, the camera catches the peddler already chillin' in the bar. Twice, Kim Novak is in the background at the bar. Sinatra gives her a look but I didn't even notice. Preminger's refusal to cut almost makes the film like goddamned early 1900s cinema. The Sinatra/Parker apt. was always shot from the left until the peddler barges in and the camera follows him in from the right. So cinematic and yet it felt like a play paradoxically. Maybe because the sets were so (self-consciously?) faux. Oh and the music too where every piece of drug paraphernalia has it own orchestral blat. To top it all off, there's that great scene/shot outside the dept. store window of a perfect het kitchen scene with dummy wife and husband. They discuss what should be going on and then perform a het routine. Why does this scene get replayed again and again in Hollywood cinema? Think of the eerie bear costume scene from Laughter and Higashi's comments on role-playing in the DeMille book. And of course, there's always my beloved Some Call it Loving.

Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourner, 1950)
Talk about genre border disputes. The packaging calls it a Western and plays up the gun-toting preacher angle which is a small part of the film. I suppose it is a Western in a way. I mean, who the hell is the pastor to just come into town and say he's gunna hold church right there in the bar? It's as dubious a claim as any in, say, a Mann Western. Yet whereas in, say, Bend of the River, the land claims are much larger, here the pastor only means to make his mark on a small town. So the locality of it all makes it feel less like a Western. But it's just as much about building a community like a musical. And through song no less - check the title. And while I wouldn't go so far as to call it a melodrama, I find it fascinating that the trailer at the end of the tape took pains to sell the film to both men and women. With the great Ellen Drew (anyone wanna start a cult with me?) Overall, not quite Meet Me in St. Louis but pretty funkin' close.

Scaramouche (George Sidney, 1952)
The climactic sword duel is really quite smashing. It ends, as it has to, on stage and indeed it is shot like a musical number. Here we have just as much bricolage as in the "Good Morning" number from Singin' in the Rain: the sandbags, the set furniture, the scaffolding, the painted backdrops. But if bricolage in the musical is to bear the brunt of film's original sin of separating actor from audience (unlike theatre), then what does the bricolage mean here? The George Sidney obsession continues (anyone have the much-maligned Pepe on video?) although Viva Las Vegas from a few days back was a nightmare. Grotesquely bad which is different from so bad it's good and just plain bad. I stared at it in fascinated horror as I would a plane crash.

Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)
I had problems with it at first but this film continues to haunt me two days after seeing it. I'm still reading Bérénice Reynaud's brilliant piece on it in Senses of Cinema ( Maybe it's male of me but I still wanna ask: if the master's house cannot be destroyed using the master's tools, does that mean you have to end up with a film where a woman gets slapped around?


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