Saturday, June 30, 2007

Movies watched, week of June 10-16, 2007

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, Mika Kaurismäki, 1994

In 1956, legendary director Samuel Fuller traveled to Brazil to scout out locations for an upcoming movie that was to star John Wayne and Ava Gardner. As has undoubtedly happened many times, the insurance company refused to back the film, and the project was scrapped, leaving behind nothing but a script and some 16mm footage that Fuller shot of the Karaja Indians.

Forty years later, Finnish filmmaker Kaurismäki created this examination of the lost Tigrero, part fiction (in which the actors play themselves) and part documentary spanning multiple subjects, from Fuller’s films to the Karaja and their struggles to preserve a traditional lifestyle in the modern world.

The film opens with a shot of a crocodile snapping a white bird in its jaws, Fuller’s gravelly voice describing a potential chain of events in which another crocodile comes along and starts to fight it, their blood attracting a school of piranhas that devour the crocodiles until nothing is left but their bones—meanwhile, another white bird then swoops down to eat a piranha: “Human nature! Man eat man!” This sequence was Fuller’s intended opener (and closer) to Tigrero. Thus, it seems an appropriate beginning to this film, though it is inexplicably repeated, complete with Fuller’s entire voiceover, in the middle as well.

In the first few scenes, Fuller “surprises” director Jim Jarmusch with a trip to Mato Grosso to meet the Karaja Indians. Here the dialogue is stiff and unnatural, quite obviously staged. As Jarmusch expresses his skepticism about how much the Karaja can possibly remember this man who came to film them more than 40 years earlier, Fuller, chomping on his signature cigar, wags his finger at Jim and contends that “We gotta take a crack at it!” (To which Jarmusch coolly replies, “I think you’re on crack.”) Though fairly amusing, the film is much more effective and engaging once it abandons these attempts at fiction and settles into its documentary status.

Upon arriving in the village of Santa Isabel Do Morro, Fuller finds that much has changed in forty years. While they have maintained much of their culture, they also now have TVs in their grass huts, and a number of brick buildings in their village. Shaking off his initial disappointment, Fuller arranges a screening of the footage from the 50s, which delights the Karaja, many of whom recognize deceased loved ones, and are happily surprised to see them alive again, if for only a moment.

The Organizer, Mario Monicelli, 1963

In this classic Italian film, actor Marcello Mastroianni plays a political refugee taking cover in a small town who assists a group of textile factory workers in organizing a strike against their greedy, smooth talking bosses. The ragtag yet determined workers are met with struggles they hadn’t even imagined, suffering increasingly impoverished conditions and beset with thoughts of surrender—even if their bosses exploit them, at least they’ll be able to eat. The serious subject matter is interspersed with hints of comedy, depicting various aspects of the human condition, both beautiful and devastating.

You’re Gonna Miss Me, Kevin McAlester, 2005

This film about psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson mercifully resists the usual boring rock documentary template in which a bunch of grizzled has-beens reminisce about the glory days, waxing nostalgic on how great everything used to be. You’re Gonna Miss Me isn’t entirely divorced from this format, however, featuring brief commentary from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Gibby Haynes, and others. But despite my initial reaction ("more Thirteenth Floor Elevators!"), I’m relieved that McAlester instead forms a narrative out of mostly present day footage, chronicling Roky’s struggles with mental illness and his family’s battle over how to care for him.

The film is framed by courtroom scenes presenting the case between the Erickson brothers and their mother, Evelyn, over whether or not Roky should be given psychiatric medication and assigned a guardian. Evelyn harbors a deep-seated mistrust of psychiatrists, and prefers that Roky remain independent, treating his illness with herbal medicines and yoga. Her suspicions aren’t unfounded, as Roky came out of his stint at the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane drastically worse off than when he went in. (The tragedy heightens when you realize he was admitted only because of an ill-advised attempt to beat drug charges by pleading insanity.) But it’s evident from our first encounters with Roky that yoga is not going to be enough—the reclusive musician hasn’t actually played music in about fifteen years, his unkempt hair looks like one giant matted dreadlock, and in order to relax he needs to drown out the voices with a cacophony of sounds, from cartoons to white noise emitted from a Casio keyboard.

Evelyn seems a little nutty herself—eccentric at the very least. (She attempted to write up her own divorce decree in calligraphy to make it look more official, but it more closely resembles the study hall doodlings of a teenage metal fan.) In a poignant opening scene, she presents in court a sculpture she made involving five crying clown heads pressed in clay (representing her five sons), surrounding a larger head. When she checked the clay the following morning, the middle head had cracked—highly symbolic, she explains, of how she felt broken.

There’s been much speculation over what precipitated Roky’s schizophrenia. Was it too much acid, electric shock treatments, or plain old genes? After witnessing the rest of his family’s behavior, none of whom are particularly well-adjusted, I sense that while these first two factors undeniably made matters worse (none of his other family members ever believed they were an alien), even if Roky had never done LSD or received shock therapy, he would still not be completely sane.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Tim Story, 2007

This was playing as the first in a double feature with Bug (see below) at a drive-in theater in Poughkeepsie. Despite the unique viewing experience, I feel like I wasted 90 minutes of my life. Any remotely interesting plot points are glossed over to make room for more bad, campy jokes and excessive action scenes. I initially hadn’t even realized that this was a sequel, but my brother assures me that it’s better than its predecessor, which seems kind of inconceivable.

Bug, William Friedkin, 2007

Critical comparisons to Polanski’s Repulsion and a previous directorial credit that’s often referred to as the scariest movie of all time piqued my interest in Bug, a psychological horror film about Agnes, a coke addict living in a cheap motel, who allows a young drifter named Peter to sleep on her floor—and later in her bed. There is something amiss about the man’s behavior from the start, but it doesn’t become apparent until after they’ve had some hilarious, ridiculous movie sex, highlights of which include sweaty floating nipples juxtaposed with images of a praying mantis. Peter claims to find aphids in the bed (which, of course, no one else can see), eventually claiming that they’re under his skin and the only way to expel them is to cut the egg sacs out of his body. He manages to involve Agnes in his delusions—while it seems that the intension is to maintain an ambiguity concerning the nature of the bugs, I think it’s clear that they’re a hallucination—and they redecorate her motel room in a Warhol’s Factory meets psych ward motif, with aluminum foil covering every surface (to scramble the signal), and bug zappers hanging like creepy buzzing lanterns. I like the premise—escalating paranoia that continues to gain momentum until an explosive (literally) ending—but it’s poorly executed, hysterically over-acted, and somehow kind of boring.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Movies watched, week of June 3-10, 2007

Polyester, John Waters, 1981

The first week of June marked my (brief) return to my one-time home of Austin, Texas, where I was fortunate enough to visit the Alamo Drafthouse in its last month of operation at the current downtown location. On June 27, after the final screening (which includes a ratcheted wrench in the price of admission), patrons are encouraged to take their seats home with them—I’m so jealous.

This screening featured the return of Odorama, John Waters’ ingenious homage to Smell-O-Vision, in the form of a scratch and sniff card that audiences are encouraged to scratch at certain points in the movie, to enhance the viewing experience. The scents, in traditional John Waters fashion, are appropriately repulsive—for instance, farts, dirty sneakers, gasoline, and glue. The use of Odorama in Polyester is particularly fitting, as the protagonist, Francine Fishpaw, has an acute sense of smell, and is constantly sniffing about for evidence of her husband’s affairs, the presence of her wild teenage daughter Lulu’s unsavory boyfriend (played by Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys), and so on (this special skill of hers proves both an asset and a burden). Highlights include Francine’s son Dexter (known by the media as “The Baltimore Footstomper”) and Waters veteran Edith Massey as Cuddles Kovinsky, Francine’s best friend and former cleaning lady who has recently inherited a large sum of money. (She’s absolutely precious in her tennis outfit, complaining about all of the lowly commoners.)

The Odorama card was a tad bit disappointing, as most of the odors were pretty similar—I had intended to keep mine as a souvenir, but once all of its scents were released, it proved a little too stinky and ended up in the trash. Still, the evening was quite enjoyable, despite my soaking wet clothes (I had to dash from my car to the theater through a torrential downpour). 1950s heart throb Tab Hunter, one of the stars of Polyester, was in attendance, signing copies of his book and answering audience questions.

I now look forward to my next visit, when I get to visit the new Alamo downtown at the Ritz Theater, which has in the past been a vaudeville theater, a porn theater, a punk venue, and sports bar—despite the unfortunate 6th Street atmosphere (re: loud, obnoxious, drunk people), I’m excited to see the Ritz return to its movie palace roots.

13 Tzameti, Géla Babluani, 2005

Shot in gorgeous black and white, this recent French thriller directed by newcomer Babluani is suspenseful, mysterious, and satisfyingly bleak. A poor immigrant intercepts a message that isn’t meant for him but follows the instructions anyway, understanding nothing of where it will take him or what it means, only that it potentially could bring him a large sum of money. That’s about all I can divulge about the plot without eliminating any element of surprise.

There appears to be a Hollywood remake in the works, with Brad Pitt attached to the project. Sigh.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Movies watched, week of May 27-June 2, 2007

California Split, Robert Altman, 1974

At once funny and bleak, California Split portrays Charlie and Bill, two compulsive gamblers who meet by chance at a poker game and strike up somewhat of a partnership when they’re mugged by the same disgruntled opponent in an alleyway afterwards. Charlie (played by Altman veteran Elliott Gould) is more of a carefree bachelor type; he lives with a pair of would-be hookers who serve him Froot Loops and beer for breakfast. Bill, on the other hand, is a white collar magazine editor, separated from his wife, in debt to his bookie, and willing to sell everything he owns in order to keep placing bets.

Excepting scenes of a high stakes poker game in Reno, this film avoids glamorous, glitzy Vegas-style imagery in favor of the seedier side of second-rate casinos, race tracks, poker parlors, and so on. Most of the betting depicted here seems more desperate than fun—Altman composes a grim landscape of sleep-deprived, zombie-like characters on obsessive, late-night gambling binges.

Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki, 2003

It’s been several years since I first saw this documentary, and it’s still just as devastating and difficult to watch as the Friedman family disintegrates before the viewer’s eyes, as captured on home video. The truth (which I doubt anyone really knows anyway) is left ambiguous and open-ended; there’s no black and white in this case, because Arnold Friedman admitted to a variety of sexually deviant activities. And yet, he denies that he ever touched any of the students in his computer class—and I believe him. Perhaps there was some inappropriate behavior, an arm around a child’s shoulder that lingered a little too long, a hand on a knee, but that was probably the extent of it. That many of his former pupils deny any abnormal occurrences, saying they were coerced into admitting something just so the FBI agents would leave them alone, is pretty telling (and appalling, for that matter).

Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris, 1982
Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1980

More on these to come.

The Pornographers, Shohei Imamura, 1966

In this black comedy, Subu, a pornographer who believes he’s doing society a service through his work, moves in with his widowed landlord, Haru, and her teenage children. Both his career and home life, however, prove constant sources of stress—his job involves casting a young mother in the role of a virgin, and arranging a Catholic schoolgirl routine for an elderly client (the girl is a little “slow”), and he’s always having to dodge the local mob. Meanwhile, he grapples with his feelings of lust after Haru’s teenage daughter, Keiko, and Haru, who believes her dead husband’s spirit has returned in the form of a carp that jumps whenever Subu is in its presence, slowly descends into madness. Exploring a more sordid and generally atypical aspect of Japanese culture than is usually represented onscreen, The Pornographers is definitely ahead of its time.

The Three Faces of Eve, Nunnally Johnson, 1957

This drama about a woman plagued with multiple personality disorder did not survive the test of time, offering an extremely dated representation of psychiatric practices, from the ridiculous methods of hypnosis (“When I count to three, you’ll be asleep”—he didn’t even dangle a pocket watch in front of her face!) to the descriptions of psychiatric disorders. Despite the serious subject matter, I found myself laughing more than was probably intended, particularly when the wild sexpot personality, Eve Black, emerges—to alert the viewer, a sexy French horn starts playing every time. The true story upon which this is based is much more complicated and interesting, the plot oversimplified for the sake of a two-hour time frame.