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.

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