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Sunday, January 31, 2016

MIDNIGHT COWBOY

   The rain is coming down pretty hard here in Phoenix tonight. When it does, the homeless scatter like the shards of a shattered light bulb. Welcome nowhere, they are tolerated at overcrowded shelters where green bologna and flat Kool-Aid are coveted items. Bony fingers that once clutched pipes or syringes or even the neck of a bottle of chilled Moet White Star now strain to clutch into the roar of the warning of the downpour. Flash of lightning, crack of thunder, sizzle of rain cooking into their unholy shoes: it will be a long night and those who already have their beds won't be sharing with those who do not. They gather in the park, although not in the romantic way one reads about when a crisis befalls unconnected individuals who somehow work together to get through the malaise. No, these poor bastards do not resemble an army of ants or a platoon of survivalists. They more suggest escapees from a concentration camp where brutality weighed so heavy and constant that even the wardens went mad. Yelling into something that would be dignified by the word "abyss," they stand there, alone together, with everything they have owned for years bundled into large garbage bags over one shoulder and the little they have been given hanging in a backpack over the other. Not a one of them wants to die, despite the words that croak from their throats. Each one wants a break because if he or she had that break, that person could turn around, could get back together what was once had, could even make amends, could become something useful to someone besides a social worker, unless of course that pipe or syringe or bottle of chilled Moet were to come calling, in which case, redemption might have to wait a little longer. But a nice, simple, merciful break is really all that is necessary and that, as you may have guessed, is part of the problem because that rain is not letting up anytime soon and more people arrive at the park every few minutes and the other part of the problem is just how very big the problem itself has become. It is so big that people who do not know the lives of these people avoid them, step over them, close their windows and doors to them, smile with relief at them, cast them aside and turn up the volume on their big screen televisions because tonight it's Christmas Eve and New Years and Valentine's Day and the Fiftieth Super Bowl and the Phoenix Open and Spring Break and who needs a reason anyway when there's so goddamn much much fun to be had?
   The other night Lisa Ann and I were walking the dogs when we saw a cripple in a wheelchair fall backwards off the sidewalk curb. We live in an historic district that has some very nice homes. One of the city's largest homeless shelters is also nearby. Being downtown, one gets a mix of the artistic, the nouveau, the slick, the old, and the obsolete. We rushed the dogs inside and ran back out to help the fellow. He was already leaning against his wheelchair, straining to not fall, to not lose even more of his dignity. We asked if he was okay, if he was alright, if he needed anything, if he was headed somewhere. He shook his head and said, "Thanks for caring." Lisa Ann went back inside and returned with some money and a can of Vienna sausages. "These dropped out of your pocket when you fell," she said. He knew better than that but admitted he liked Vienna sausages. 
   These people lack visibility. Indeed, for most of us, they lack existence. Every small town, so they say, has a bum or an idiot or a wino, and because it is a small town, that person cannot be invisible. He or she may be shunned, but unless social skills are completely off-putting, that person will often be embraced by some part of the community--or at least tolerated. But put that same unfortunate son or daughter in a bubbling metropolis along with thousands more and the bystander effect kicks in fast. 
   How many dreams of redemption will drown out there tonight? 
   Midnight Cowboy (1969) is all about redemption. The message comes through a story of unlikely friendship. But guilt is at the core and redemption is sought in every scene. The movie's construction blends harsh beauty with cartoonish recollections. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman embody their characters Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo. Chances are excellent that you have already seen this movie and nothing I could write in a traditional review would much illuminate the film's majesty. So my advice is to go wait near the park the next time it rains. See if you recognize anyone. 


Saturday, January 23, 2016

DELIVERANCE

  When I first watched the movie Deliverance (1972), I found myself uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. I felt the representation of the backwoods people of Georgia carried with it a weighty load of bigotry and that given what the James Dickey novel and the film made out to be the devastation that awaited their primitive community, it was unnecessary to offer those people up as inbred genetic mutations, one of whom happened to be quite handy with a banjo. The whole idea of the movie bugged me and as I went into the next series of director John Boorman's films I was predisposed to dislike them with some intensity. 
   Well, The Exorcist II and Excalibur were pretty dreadful and while my own prejudice against all things Boorman did not improve my opinions of those movies, it would not have mattered much if I had believed JB to be the cousin of the Second Coming. 
   And that's funny because his first two films, Catch Us If You Can and Point Blank were just fine little pictures, the former being sort of a rip off of A Hard Day's Night (featuring the Dave Clark Five) and the latter being more or less about the decay of Alcatraz and the ascendance of hippie. 
   But back to Deliverance, I will admit that the celebration of machismo as an alternative to mechanistic society irritated me during my first viewing. In short, I considered the whole thing to be a sexist load of pig swill. It didn't matter to me that Burt Reynolds gave the performance of a life time and years later admitted that this was his personal favorite of all the movies in which he had appeared. It made no difference that Jon Voight climbed that ragged cliff himself because the producers didn't want to spend the money on stunt doubles, much less on insurance for their stars, so if he had fallen and broken something, it would have been bad news all around; and that does not even get into the magnificence of his measured performance. After all, it is Voight's eyes through which we witness this terrifying and beautiful narrative and so his reactions and expressions had to be more than convincing--they had to exorcise demons, something they certainly did. I did not care that this was the first film appearance of Ned Beatty, a man who would go on to perform in more than one hundred movies, every time out getting so deep into the character that he went beyond mere acting and into some kind of nether world where one metamorphoses into something bigger than the role itself, hell, bigger than the movie, grander than the studio. I did not care much one way or another that Ronny Cox was in the movie and while everything I have heard in the years since then suggests him to have been a very nice fellow, I never could get the image out of my head of him as the patriarch in the TV show "The Appletons." I cared not at all that the James Dickey novel would be listed by dozens of magazines and journals as one of the best books of the twentieth century. Nope, I just did not give one good old fashioned damn about any of that. 
   I can be quite hard headed at times.
   Yet something about Deliverance kept pulling at me. I kept thinking of Lewis (Burt Reynolds) asking Ed (Jon Voight), "Why do you keep going on these adventures with me?"
   "I wonder about that myself sometimes, Lewis."
   Why did I continue to make myself watch a movie such as this every so often, knowing full well that the story itself represented all the things I believed I had outgrown or abandoned?
   Because my opinion of this movie has changed so dramatically, I now believe that it is a very good thing to be able to claim for oneself a degree of flexibility in one's assessment of an example of a major art form, whereas earlier I might have considered such alterations to be waffling or indecision. 
   It turns out, to my delight, that Deliverance transcends whatever wrongheadedness may be its lot in life, or mine, for that matter. It transcends its own internal logic in the sense that this is not specifically, or perhaps merely, a movie about four guys taking a canoe trip down a river and encountering some adversities they must conquer. So the accouterments about incest and rotten teeth don't matter one bit because they could just as easily have been about anacondas taking over the temples of Tibet. The villains in the movie were forces rather than people. They were obstacles placed in the way of the urban suburban golfers on their way through a survivalist paradise. Everything safe and reassuring in their establishment lives gets distorted, then perverted, then banished from their consciousness. Truth, justice, democracy--it's all irrelevant when you are part of an organism that holds its own survival as the paramount creed. 
   The last thing I want is to come off sounding like some sort of militia type. I have nothing whatsoever good to say about tax-dodging secessionists who believe in the government only when its male, white and local. Industry and government may have come down on our heads, blown a waft of cannabis in our faces to fool us into believing we are free while assassinating our few honest inspirations. In short, the bad guys may  indeed have the good guys surrounded and supplies might just be running out, but my idea of utopia has nothing to do with spearing fish, stockpiling dry goods and taking on multiple wives while the fumes of the apocalypse dance by on a rusty merry-go-round. I like what we have come to call civilization, even its jungle aspects. I like a certain amount of hustle and bustle, a certain opposing stagnation, a degree of bureaucracy. I like even the conflict that comes from cooperation and vice versa. I sure as hell do not want to revert to digging with a stick. But I cannot deny the simultaneous appeal of the harshest elements of nature: be it a monstrous tornado, a blizzard, a rocky river, or an old tin shed that contains who knows what kind of abomination. These, for me, are all things to appreciate from a certain safe perspective, such as the comfort of a movie theatre. 
   That brings us to the fact of the raw beauty of this movie. When I say "raw," I mean that by the time the four men get through the first white rapids, you check your own face to see if you got all the water off. The majesty of the scenery, which, we are reminded, will be under water--"drowning a river" is how they put it--in a few weeks, is not only breathtaking, it is heartbreaking. Nature just does not care about the alpha male and his friends. All it cares about is surviving. Nature's very indifference creates an uncredited silent actor. There is never any doubt about who is in charge. 
   So my initial lack of comfort with this movie turns out to have been ill-advised. And while my disapproval of most films by John Boorman remains valid, if all he had ever done was to direct this one movie, he would have earned whatever accolades one might care to bestow. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

CAPOTE

  The first time I saw him in a movie was while watching The Scent of a Woman (1992), a movie for which I never developed much fondness. Chris O'Donnell didn't quite break through in the picture, and while Al Pacino gave his all for his art, somehow I never believed a blind man could drive a Ferrari. What I did like about the film was the performance of a young man billed as Philip S. Hoffman. He played a complex character named George Willis Jr., a kind of big mouth EverySlob who wants to do the right thing but has too many options before him, none of them especially pleasant. For most other actors--indeed, for most actors who had yet to establish anything close to a personal style--this role would have represented a banal diversion from summer stock. But Hoffman invested such life in his character that I made a point of wondering if he would use his appearance as a springboard.
   Neither When a Man Loves a Woman nor Twister did much for me other than induce yawns and unintended laughter, respectively. Then I watched Boogie Nights (1997), a movie about which I still cannot decide if I think it was brilliant or despicable. Whatever else it was, it certainly was accurate, not that that is an excuse. The most accurate character in the film was Scotty J., a heavyset, timid boom operator who has a crush on Mark Wahlberg's character. His portrayal was so dead on that it physically hurt. This time out he was billed as Philip Seymour Hoffman. 
   Hoffman went on to appear in The Big Lebowski, Patch Adams, Almost Famous (where he completely stole the show as Lester Bangs), Along Came Polly, and Cold Mountain, among other treats. 
   He was almost there. He had carved out a name for himself, perhaps even earned the title bestowed on him by Jon Stewart as "the greatest actor in America." 
   In 2005 United Artists released Capote and there was no longer any doubt that Stewart had been correct. 
  Roger Ebert wrote at the time that Hoffman "channeled" Capote, rather than imitated him, a crucial distinction. Until his death in 1984, writer Truman Capote had been the butt of many idiotic impressionists who felt fine mimicking someone with far more talent than they themselves ever possessed. Watching Hoffman's Capote explain to a grieving survivor about how he had been ridiculed most of his life for the way he looked and spoke, we get a genuine sense as to how those barbs not only hurt, but were used by their target to ingratiate himself with other wannabe misfits. 
   The movie focuses on the period of time when Capote was working on his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, a book which belongs right up there with other masterpieces of the 1960s, punching its way through the crowd alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Philip Roth, William Styron, Saul Bellow and Harper Lee, the latter figuring prominently in this movie. I for one never knew that the author of To Kill a Mockingbird had been tight with Truman Capote, much less that she had based the character Dill on him. 
   From the moment we meet Capote, we get a sense of a man who tries hard to be detached from human feelings, as when he tells the sheriff that he doesn't care one way or another whether they catch the killers of the Clutter family, or when one of the killers asks if it's true that he knows Elizabeth Taylor and he replies "I know a lot of people."
   Yet this is a person who feels. He feels, you should pardon the cliche, too deeply. Every wound he has ever received, every sincere complement in which he has basked, and every lame attempt at flattery he has deflected has implanted itself in his mind and, as he likes to remind us, he has a 94% accuracy rate with recalling conversations. 
  He manipulates the killers, He manipulates the press. He uses people for his art. On some level, all of them recognize this ill-treatment. "What's the name of your book?" one of the murderers keeps asking. If the writer admits the title, the killer will know that he is being used. So Capote lies. And the killer knows he lies.
  While this is Hoffman's movie from the starting gate, he does benefit from a superb support cast, in particular from the always watchable Chris Cooper as the sheriff who is consumed with a need for justice in the case of the four murders, and from Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, the woman who not only acts as Capote's bodyguard but who is the only person we meet who understands the conflux that motivates him. 
   What motivated Philip Hoffman I cannot say. The reports of his death in February 2014 devastated me and, if you have read this far, perhaps they devastated you as well. Dead at forty-six from a mix of drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Well, that was certainly a waste. He had been sober twenty-three years, checked into rehab the previous May, then went about his business. No one with that much talent can be said to be haunted only by demons. The angels had their impact too. But sometimes the ugliness we synthesize in order to get through pockets of time in our lives enlarge the human tragedy to the point where the ugliness is all we can sense. Then we take just a little bit more on our way to the big sleep. 
   We miss you, Philip Seymour Hoffman. We wish you could rejoin us. Things have not been the same.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THE FIRM

  The truth is out: I would not bother to walk across the street to vomit on Samuel P Huntington. As co-author of The Crisis of Democracies: On the Governability of Democracies, Huntington's report to and from the infamous Trilateral Commission in 1976, Samuel P put forth what he considered the necessity of what the more conspiratorially-minded among us refer to as one world government and what those with a more academic orientation speak of as globalization. The Trilateral Commission was and remains one of those nefarious groups that receives monumental criticism from both the right and the left. Barry Goldwater claimed it was a skillful attempt to consolidate political, monetary, intellectual and religious power. Noam Chomsky said that the Commission was a concerted attempt by the liberal elite to moderate democracy, to induce indoctrination, and to foster passivity.
   Both points of view have some merit.
   One need not be a kind of conspiracy buff to suspect that immigration policies, international trade agreements, the blackmailing techniques of the International Monetary Fund, the extortion by the World Bank and the intellectual rationalizations of the Trilateral Commission, all have "coincidentally" worked to bring about a global merging of brain trusts and finance which thrives spiritually, economically and politically by the creation and development of international tensions among components of the developed world and between that world and those agents who claim to represent emerging states and nations. 
   Let me be clear. I do not believe in the existence of an Illuminati (unless one is referring to a group of the Enlightenment, from which the term got its name, formed in 1776, founded by Adam Weishaupt, a society of sorts that stood opposed to most of the things the fictitious Illuminati is always being accused of promoting, such as religious influence and abuses of power). Likewise, I maintain that Alex Jones and the entirety of the Infowars empire are a bunch of turd-lickers who exploit the power of the fears that they themselves propagate. But if both the narrow-minded and the expansive of intellect can agree on the unwarranted influence of globalization, then the subject certainly deserves some consideration from the likes of the rest of us.
   Mitch McDeere, it is safe to say, never read any reports by the Trilateral Commission. Years of law school, among the top five students in his class, hard working son of a gun, snappy dresser--yet he never took the time to consider the sources of real power in American society. Yet he does not bother to invest thirty seconds of his time into looking into the client base of the Memphis law firm that has just hired him. Had he done his homework, he would have learned that the organization that pays the firm's bills is the Chicago branch of the Mafia. Try to leave The Firm (1993) and the merger of legal minds and organized criminality will see to it that you die. Sure, director Sidney Pollack gives us the typical John Grisham twists, but in this film they come off as contrived. The sad fact is that everyone working on this movie behind the camera only wanted one thing: to impress us all with the talent of star Tom Cruise. And because nothing in the movie except the conclusion does anything to convince us that his character, McDeere, could navigate a pay toilet in a diarrhea ward, the ending feels false and we are left with yet another Grisham adaptation that should have been much better than it was. This lack of translation from the written page to the big screen with John Grisham is not unique. Hemingway's novels and short stories never worked on film, Ray Bradbury never once made the leap, and Stephen King only had occasional luck in this regard. And satisfying as his novels may be, Grisham is no Hemingway, Bradbury or King. 
   Ed Harris, as the frustrated FBI agent, does everything he can to breathe some life into this film. Even Wilford Brimley stands out as a convincing sinister head of security. But otherwise, Pollack's motion picture is a masterful misuse of talent at least on a par with that of Cruise. The character played by Gene Hackman: wasted. Hal Holbrook: wasted. David Strathairn: wasted. Gary Busey: well, you get the idea. This movie was supposed to be the literary vehicle for The Star's career, much as Top Gun served as an ideological co-optation of the entertainment industry by the military industrial complex, unless you think all those MTV videos and Pepsi commercials were "coincidence." And to make sure no one watching missed the point, Pollack changed the ending from the one in the novel so that Cruise's character is a hero instead of a coward. 
   And that was one of the typically staid director's worst decisions because, for my money, the best role Tom Cruise ever played was that of Vincent in Collateral. He played a hit man. A bad guy. A killer. A not very nice dude. He played it against good guy Jamie Foxx and the dynamics between those two powerhouse performances was nothing short of engaging. Engaging is not what The Firm was about. It was about 150 minutes of tedium in the guise of harmless entertainment. It was symptomatic of corporate expectations for the producers and directors in their employ. It was no more convincing than a Samuel P Huntington treatise, although it was every bit as manipulative. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

COOL HAND LUKE

    The famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to Sinclair Lewis (who said something similar), goes like this: "If Fascism ever comes to America, it will come wrapped in an American flag."
   Some people hold that the speaker of those words, Huey Long, was himself an American bully. Personally, I think of famous bullies as being on a list that would include Spiro Agnew, George Wallace, Paul LePage, and Donald Trump, among many others too pompous to name. Famous bullies. Now there's an annoying concept for you. Their fans submit that these men are straight shooters who eschew stuffy political correctness for the joys of honest talk, guys who know what's really going on and who want to fix the screwed up nature of society through their own presumed personal charisma. On the other hand, some people believe it would serve the commonweal if men of this ilk were torn apart by fire-winged ravens. It doesn't matter to me whether I happen to disagree with the bully in question. Lording his own uninformed opinions over the rest of us like low clouds of dinosaur feces and calling the stench sweet is all it takes to qualify for inclusion in the bully hall of fame. 
   Sometimes a bully may not even be a person. Occasionally a bully can be a collective impulse to behave in a certain manner. Toe that line, load that barge, puncture that widget, wave that flag. It bores the mind and gives comfort to some. Those who take ease in blind conformity are particularly inclined to suck up to the purveyors of such a system of beliefs. I almost feel stupid saying something that feels so obvious to me, considering the social and political events that formed my own twisted kind of awareness. But while the common law concept of res ipsa loquitor may apply in negligence suits, it has no place in what is after all a review of a major motion picture released just short of fifty years ago. 
   I like to think that Lucas Jackson would agree with that sentiment. When Cool Hand Luke (1967) begins, he is in the process of chopping off the heads of parking meters lined up and down a night time street. For this apparent abomination, he is sentenced to two years on a work farm. As everyone beyond puberty should know, Luke is played by Paul Newman and the movie featured a cast of support actors who would go on to make their own mark on television and motion pictures, including Strother Martin as the Captain, Luke Askew as one of the Bosses (and certainly a contender if not the all-time champion of character actors who embodied the role of Stoic Yet Horribly Wicked Bad Guy), Jo Van Fleet as Luke's dying mother, George Kennedy as suck-up Dragline, plus Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Waite (Papa Walton), the amazing Anthony Zerbe, a young Joe Don Baker (later of Walking Tall fame), Morgan Woodward as the man with no eyes, and about half of Hollywood. 
   Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, this movie features director Stuart Rosenberg who allows Newman's incomparable talent to set the pace as he attempts three escapes from the work crew. That's essentially the plot right there. But this movie is not about plot or car chases or the simplicity of rural living. It is about atheists in foxholes, guys who can eat fifty eggs in one hour, how some people in captivity kiss up to the authorities even when doing so works against their own self interests, and the existentialist commandment to fight only those battles one is assured of losing. While one of the popular quotes from this film remains "What we got here is failure to communicate," I have always favored Luke's line shortly after the third escape: "I never planned a thing in my life." 
   Being a natural born world-shaker invites persecution, betrayal, and the heartbreak of a million faces turning away. I can make no better case for Luke's martyrdom. Shaking up the world is, for some of us, the only reason we are here. Take that away and we will kill to get it back. When Luke takes severe body and head blows from Dragline, the men around him call for him to stay down. Drag himself yells for him to stay in the dirt. But he won't. "You're gonna hafta kill me." And we smile, just as Luke smiles back at us.
   Maybe Edward Yashinsky said it best:
Fear not your enemies, for they can only kill you.
Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you.
Fear only the indifferent, who permit the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.

A SCANNER DARKLY

   Philip K Dick did drugs better than any other writer. If one simply must get messed up for the expressed purpose of using one's personal experiences as a synthesis of process and reaction, then one must be prepared to compete with the masters of the form. I am not necessarily referring to people such as Hunter S Thompson or even F Scott Fitzgerald. What I do mean is that body of writers who, let us say, had a series of prolonged personalized encounters with the darker hues of psychological manifestations emerging from dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals ingested primarily for purposes of expanding one's consciousness, rather than, say, getting off for its own sake. Dick's 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, hits all the highs and lows with a practitioner's expertise. It's also quite disturbing and simultaneously funny as hell.
   That statement applies to Richard Linklater's rotoscopic animation feature of the same name (2006). Staying close to the novel's storyline, director Linklater introduces us to a new world (same as the old world?) where the police state hires out Keany Reeves to infiltrate a group of hardcore druggies inhabited by Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder. The group favors an instantly addictive intoxicant called Substance D. We don't get much of a sense as to the drug's pleasant effects (unless untrammeled paranoia is pleasant, which, in that world, it might just be), but we certainly get our eyes full of the heightened suspicion, the inducement to idiotic violence, the impulsiveness of consumerism, and the devastation of withdrawal. 
   Reeves plays an undercover cop whose interactions with the public require him to wear a special suit that alters his appearance every second or so (one of which appearances is Philip K Dick himself). Ryder plays Donna, the connection Reeves hopes will take him to the next level so he can bust the guy from whom she gets her supplies. Harrelson plays a variation of the characters for which he is best known--quiet, loud, morose, funny, righteous, evil. And Downey runs a manic streak so unsettling that I wanted to shout "Shut up!" at the screen at least three times. 
   If you have not experienced rotoscope technology in your movie-going delights, then you never saw the dance scenes in the Betty Boop cartoons, or watched The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, or Linklater's own Waking Life (2001). Possibly you never saw Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although a subtle reference to Walt appears in the refrigerator scene of A Scanner Darkly. (A lot of subtle references pop up here, including a strange fascination with bear imagery. Hey, getting the jokes is half the fun.) What the process ultimately involves is shooting the movie, which Linklater did in just twenty-three days, and then having the animators trace over it, which took over a year, giving the finished product the magnificent sense of being a graphic novel brought to life. 
   I can think of no better way to summarize the experience of this movie that to recall the oft-quoted observation that "even paranoids have enemies." In the near future of this film, we are the paranoiacs and the enemies have us. In other words, if you have any sense of humor at all or have ever known anyone who did, or if you have ever had an enemy but didn't quite know who it was, you will enjoy this motion picture. The fantastic becomes real.