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Monday, November 30, 2015

COPPOLA

   Frequent visitors to this site will have observed that the writer has what might be charitably called a fondness for New Hollywood movies, which is to say films released between 1967 and 1982 which do not hone their narrative style to a traditional storytelling approach, which borrow cinematic techniques and applications from the French New Wave, and which are often dedicated to non-resolution of various plot elements. It should be noted that I am neither a film school graduate nor a film school drop-out. I do not sleep on a bed of back issues of Cahiers du Cinema or even Cineaste. I do, however, watch a sizable quantity of motion pictures, many of which have informed my opinions of the industry, the art, and the processes of great, awful, and mediocre movies. In my pursuit of pleasurable cinema, I eschew movies which depend for their appeal on highly technical special effects at the expense of character development. To that end I try to avoid what I have long considered to be what was the death-knell for New Hollywood: the blockbuster. What was wrong with The Exorcist, the first Star Trek movie, Star Wars or most of the superhero films of the last twenty years? None of them had any human characters who displayed any reason whatsoever for the audience to care one way or another about whether they lived or died. (Note that the only characters with personality in Star Wars were robots.) 
   Some of the movies which exemplify the New Hollywood motif which may be familiar to you include progenitors such as The Graduate (which I hated) and Bonnie and Clyde (which I loved), as well as inheritors such as Rosemary's Baby, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, MASH, The Landlord, Brewster McCloud, Joe, Two-Lane Blacktop, Deliverance, American Graffiti, Dog Day Afternoon, 3 Women, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, two of the three Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now. And certainly a few post-New Hollywood directors have carried on the efforts of their elder brethren, people such as Oliver Stone, Milos Forman and Brian DePalma have all added their own sensibilities to what they learned from some of the older filmmakers. 
   For me personally, the most difficult director-writer to embrace has always been Francis Coppola. While I liked The Rain People, I loathed Patton, never for one minute accepting what was then the conventional wisdom that it had been carefully made to appeal to both anti-establishment types and conservatives. The Great Gatsby was a pile of nonsense (as have been all attempts at making the Fitzgerald book into a film). The Conversation was a mixed bag. One From The Heart, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish didn't come close to Coppola's magic, while The Rain Maker and Tucker were touching yet obvious. 
   Pardon? What's that sound? Oh, I begin to make out the words. Some of you are braying: "Hey, dick head! When are ya gonna talk about his three major classics, fuck wad?" 
   Many cliched superlatives stagger to mind: Greatest films of the century, Best movies ever made, Heir to D. W. Griffith, etc. Yet I have no idea what "best," "greatest" and "heir" mean in this context. I do know that The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, while telling their stories in compelling and unique ways and while being easy to watch repeatedly for the sake of pure enjoyment, remain extraordinarily safe motion pictures. None of these three movies make a conscientious effort to manipulate the audience, to challenge our preconceptions, to force us to perceive the world in new ways.
   I will grant that Coppola takes us places we have never been and takes us there without mercy. We may identify with hot-headed Sonny or calculating and confused Captain Willard. We may even reel from the exposure to these and other characters' experiences. And even though the filmmaker adheres to the rule of suspense that says that anyone in the movie can die at any time, that rule does not apply to those of us in the audience because we are too busy, in one case, being wowed by the sepia tones and Italian music, and in the other because of the horror of moving up the river as we meet people with about as much verisimilitude to our daily lives as a three-headed bug-eyed monster. 
   To prevent the reader from misunderstanding my point of view, please accept my word when I say that these are three of my all-time favorite movies, despite the fact that they treat women as accessories, despite the willful disregard for contrasting the filmed version of the world with the one in which the rest of us live and thereby at least hinting at possible similarities between us and them, and despite the overwhelming public acknowledgement of these movies as "classics," even though my experience has been that most movies everyone likes are not uncommonly the cinematic equivalent of salamander feces. 
   The significance of these three movies connects with the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, many TV networks and cable outlets will be replaying these three movies ad infinitum, and you may find yourself adhered to your favorite chair, gulping in the 24 frames per second magnificence of these motion pictures without bothering to inquire precisely why these are such hot properties. Maybe the entertainment factor will be enough, but if so, then you might as well watch The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz. But if you are looking for the impact of irresolution, the majesty of applying traditional stories to a madcap methodology, or subordination of narrative style to stylistic innovations that have never been surpassed, you will not be disappointed. You might even want to take a few minutes to think about why. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

V FOR VENDETTA

   This movie proves beyond any doubt that it is both possible and desirable to transform a graphic novel into a motion picture while maintaining the integrity of both forms without turning the movie into little more than a mobius strip of special effects. V For Vendetta (2006) is that rare experience where the comic book ethics of the heroes are not compromised, yet the depth of their complex personalities are not subjugated to the glory of cows flying across the screen in the midst of a tornado. This movie has something to say, says it, then tells you what it said--all amidst some of the best acting in any film so far this century.
   When the film first appeared, everyone I knew who had seen the movie made a point of assuring me how much I would like it. Some even went so far as to insist that the movie had been specifically made "for people like" me. As a result, I resisted seeing it until just the other day. (The surest way to get me to avoid a movie is to tell me that I am somehow the exact person at which the movie was aimed.) It may be good that I waited. Had I watched this during the reign of the Bush Jr Administration, I might have been inclined to go all Guy Fawkes on the White House and therefore would not enjoy the privilege of writing these tender words of admiration. 
   At the risk of getting too autobiographical here, I should tell you that most of my contemporary values and all of my world views come from a childhood immersed in comic book lore. In particular I favored the superhero comics (although there was a short-lived run called "Pep," which came across as a hip version of Archie Andrews and crew; even the name struck me as vaguely illicit and I shuddered when it turned into a Saturday kids show called "Josie and the Pussycats"), such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Submariner (all from DC), as well as Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange and The Incredible Hulk, all courtesy of Marvel. My secret treasure trove even had some old copies of gems from EC, such as "Tales From the Crypt," "Moon Girl," "Weird Science" and "Panic." Along with the jazz excursions of saxophonist Albert Ayler and bassist Charles Mingus, these stories and their musical soundtracks twisted my brain into its present triple-helix condition and no voltage of electro-convulsive therapy is likely to undo the transformation. As a pre-fallen Catholic, I was--even in my single-digit years--fascinated by the complexities and occasional paradoxes of written stories. The Bible in particular I found riddled with mysteries aplenty. For instance, the transition from the Old Testament to the New confounded my developing mind to the edges of my cranium and beyond. I remember well reading about Jesus declaring that one should forgive one's enemies and indeed go so far as to forget their transgressions insomuch as one could not truly forgive lest he forget. For a child of conscience, such as I considered myself way back then, that was a mighty tall order. 
    For instance, in one of his "The Brave and the Bold" comics, Batman tracks down a bad guy who has escaped from prison. But the bad guy is not merely some wild-eyed psychopath looking to blow banks and snort lines of soda. This bad guy had a social conscience. When we meet him, he is languishing in prison, bemoaning the injustices of solitary confinement, lousy nutrition, and brutal corrections officers. By the time he makes his escape, the reader is apt to be pulling for him. "Wait, Batman! Don't hurt him too badly! He's simply misunderstood!" Evidently Batman had not spent as much time as had I in reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 
   That kind of three-dimensionality made some villains semi-heroic.
   "V," the lead character in V for Vendetta, is determined to blow up Parliament because the building represents the hodgepodge of venal corruption and all-out fascism that has overtaken Britain and much of the formerly free world. When we first meet him, he is saving Evey (Natalie Portman) from disaster at the hands of the local police. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and Evey--who is well-educated--inquires of him his name. V is dismayed. Evey wonders why. He replies: "I'm not questioning your powers of observation; I'm merely remarking upon the paradox of asking a masked man who he is." 
   That level of great writing runs two risks. First, it may be too smart for the audience. Second, it may call too much attention to its own cleverness. Hell's bells, says me. In these days when the most common line in movies is "We gotta get outta here," having something approximating Shakespearean wit is downright refreshing, as is V's next rejoinder: "VoilĂ ! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition." And he is just warming up with the single-consonant alliteration. 
   We like him immediately.
   What we do not like, I trust, is the fascist state in which England has found itself as a result of a manufactured disease created by the brain trust that presently rules the Kingdom, a group of men who also developed the cure for the St. Mary's virus. V himself is a bio-metric consequence of this cure and his need for setting things right has turned him into a person who will sacrifice himself in the interests of exposing the fraud perpetrated upon the people and the execution of those wicked perpetrators. 
   The hegemonic fear-mongering and media complicity ring loud and true in this movie, as does the acting of Portman, Hugo Weaving as V, and especially Stephen Rea as Inspector Finch, the latter a sort of Everyman determined to figure out what it is that's wrong with the world. 
   Every element of this movie--acting, writing, direction, editing, music, lighting, costumes--works together to make a comic book story more believable than any conventional drama. In the process, you will smile, sob, sink in your chair, stand on your feet and shout in sympathy with V. Or else you have stumbled onto the wrong website by mistake.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THE CONTENDER

   A strange sense of joy pervades the spirit of The Contender (2000), which I suspect comes from the knowledge--shared by the viewer--that the flawed good guys will gain victory over the perverse bad guys. Jeff Bridges plays the President. His Vice-President has somehow passed away and needs to be replaced, a fact which requires the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Most of his advisers want Jack Hathaway (William Peterson) for the job, but the Prez wants a woman in the position, specifically Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Complicating the situation is Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldham), who objects to Hanson because she is a woman, because she is a liberal, and because he himself is a member of the opposition party. 
   The fact that this movie was made and released prior to the 2000 Presidential election hits the viewer as somewhat amazing considering how the GOP has tried to obstruct the current administration. You could easily believe that the Republican party used the foiled plot of this film as a template for their actions against Clinton and Obama. 
   I had the resolution of this movie figured out within the first five minutes and you probably will too. But that fact does not take away from the joy I mentioned earlier. Jeff Bridges clearly loves being President almost as much as his character enjoys ordering food before every conversation. Joan Allen experiences a nearly rapturous happiness at taking on the accusatory opposition side. Sam Elliott, as the President's Chief of Staff, shows himself to be precisely the person you would want watching your back, no matter what job you have. I don't know what the hell Christian Slater is doing in this film, although he smiles nice for the camera. But the truest of joys emanates from bad guy Gary Oldham. Oldham's character is a deranged, perverse, self-assured, sociopathic, hypocritical and mild-tempered adversary who is mean for the sake of cruelty. And he loves every minute of the battle, right up to the point where he gets his comeuppance. 
   Nothing in The Contender will change your view of American politics. If you're on the left, you'll claim that everything should turn out exactly this way. If you're on the right, you'll see the movie as another example of the liberal media running the world. If you're in the center, you'll lust after the presence Joan Allen brings to her role and wonder if Sam Elliott is really as tough as he seems. What I took away from the experience was a sense of just how sophisticated the clumsiness of contemporary electioneering can be. On some days, it can even be joyous. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

MILK

   Homophobia may be one of the more pathetic symptoms of creeping bigotry exploited by politicians here and abroad. Whether the source comes from propagandists such as Michael Douglas or from presidential candidates such as Ben Carson (with his "orientation is a choice" remarks), the fear of same-sex togetherness has been unfairly linked with everything from animal husbandry to child abuse. That Dan White could walk into the Mayor's office and blow away George Moscone and then stroll down the hall and do the same thing to Harvey Milk, and receive for his offenses a seven year sentence--and serve less than that--in, of all places, San Francisco, says something about how far we have not come in meting out equitable degrees of justice in our society. 
   Harvey Milk understood political power, which is why he tried to recruit everyone he met. 
   It takes guts to address injustice. If it didn't take guts, then the problem would not be injustice. The issue, comedian Mort Sahl once said, is always fascism. I have always translated that word to mean the exploitation of those without power by those with it. That condition leaves the victims of prejudice with few choices. A person being suffocated will tend to resist. A person with attitude being suffocated always resists. 
   Sean Penn (Milk) and Josh Brolin (White) are so authentic in Milk (2008) that knowing the storyline in advance can be somewhat terrifying to relive. 
   This movie has nothing to do with entertainment, nor should it. Milk is about getting an education. I was in college when the story broke about Mr. Dan Law and Order White gunning down Milk and Moscone when neither man would endorse the ex-cop's efforts to be reinstated to his position in city government. My first thought was "I'll bet Dan White is secretly gay and that's what set him off." You know, the old Shakespeare line, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" comes to mind. Apparently the same idea came to the director Gus van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black because the implication of that theory pervades Brolin's characterization. 
   Harvey Milk, we are shown, is a maze of complexities, a lonely man with a heart as big as the sky, full of needs and desires, with imperfections, a man exploding with a need to unite the community he helped build. This movie is as good a presentation of that man as anyone is likely to create.