Thursday, August 16, 2007

Movies watched, week of July 22 to August 4, 2007

Last Chants For a Slow Dance, Jon Jost, 1977

Underground filmmaker Jon Jost’s second film—and the first of Jost’s films that I’ve seen—follows a thoroughly unlikable character named Tom as he aimlessly wanders the country in his pickup truck, having abandoned his family. He meets various people along the way—a hitchhiker, a man in a diner, a woman at a bar—carrying on long, banal conversations. This series of meaningless exchanges lends the film a sense of alienation; Tom is trying to make connections with people, but not succeeding. The long takes and general lack of action contribute to the slow, crawling pace and muted feeling—one extended scene shot from the window of a moving vehicle depicts the road passing beneath, accompanied by silence. Moreover, much of the action occurs off-screen, just barely hinted at. The film’s only sex scene is performed with the TV on throughout, legs moving in the corner and faint moaning sounds serving as our only clues to what’s taking place. The film culminates in an act of violence that’s just as random as the rest of the plot, yet it doesn’t seem unexpected.

Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone, 1984

When Sergio Leone was given the opportunity to direct The Godfather, he declined the offer, as he was already at work on an epic mob drama of his own, about Prohibitian-era Jewish gangsters. But while The Godfather is often referred to as one of the greatest films ever made, Once Upon a Time in America is far less widely renowned. Perhaps this owes to the fact that the studio significantly reduced the five-hour original cut to a more commercial running time of just over two hours (even now, the circulating DVD version has only been restored to not quite four hours)—the American public never had the chance to experience its full cinematic breadth. Or perhaps The Godfather simply has more memorable catch phrases (“I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” and so on). I’d have to watch The Godfather again in order to offer my own take on which one is more deserving of praise—but then, this is kind of a silly argument to be perpetuating anyway.

One thing Leone’s film has going for it is the artistry employed in its transitions between eras; the film seamlessly moves through time (both forward and backward), from the 1920s, as adolescent Noodles, Max, and the rest of their gang form the relationships that will irrevocably forge the course of the rest of their lives, to the 1930s, to the 1960s. As an old man, Noodles peers into a peephole and sees his sepia-toned childhood; he steps through a doorway at a train station in the 30s, coming out the other side thirty years later—it’s as if there are time portals peppered throughout the world, and one has only to find one in order to visit another time in his life. (Not that Noodles experiences it this way, but it does evoke a sense of time as nonlinear for the viewer.) The film also boasts beautiful imagery—a man in a pillow factory wading through falling feathers as if in a snowstorm, and a child taunted by whipped desserts in the same way he is by the opposite sex.

The film opens and closes in a 1930s opium den. (A phone starts to ring incessantly, and continues to ring even through Noodles’ flashback, creating an unnerving sense of tension.) Many theorize that the entire film is the product of an opium-induced dream, as Noodles remembers his past and envisions his future. I can only hope this is not the case—the “it was all a dream” cop out might be one of the most disappointing resolutions to a film that I can think of. Otherwise, my only gripe is the soundtrack, which is borderline easy listening. The only appropriate forum for a string instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is in a dentist’s office.

Fuck, Steve Anderson, 2005

This documentary dedicated to the mother of all curse words feels more like a VH1 special than a movie made for the big screen—well, maybe an HBO special, due to the rampant use of expletives. Featuring many talking heads, including Drew Carey, Hunter S. Thompson, Janeane Garafolo, and Pat Boone, Fuck has its high points, but quickly starts to repeat itself, restating the same basic sentiments in slightly different phrasings. I was under the impression that the film chronicled the history of the word and its origins, but it’s actually more of a comment on free speech and censorship—all well and good, but perhaps not quite enough content to fill a feature-length documentary.

The film includes some commentary from advocates of squeaky-clean language, but the general consensus is overwhelmingly pro-fuck—or, I should say, anti-censorship. Moreover, the naysayers seem unable to come up with effectively persuasive arguments, other than “years ago only sailors talked like that” and “we must protect the children!” (I am so sick of hearing about “the children.”) Pat Boone suggests that people start shouting “Boone!” instead of cursing, which Ice-T makes great use of later in the film.

The highlight, for me, was the inclusion of one of the most incredible quotes uttered by an American president that I’ve ever encountered. I’ll never think of Lyndon Johnson the same way again.

This Is England, Shane Meadows, 2006

While I was never a British skinhead in the 1980s (and so I can’t really say for sure, although I did hang out with a few American ones in the late 90s), this is the most authentic cinematic portrayal of skinhead culture to date. Based largely on Meadows’ own experiences, This Is England depicts the ordeals of a troubled 12 year-old who finds a sense of camaraderie within a gang of skinheads, just as the National Front is beginning to infiltrate the culture. What begins as a harmless group of friends performing minor acts of mischief quickly darkens when an old friend, Combo, returns from prison, hard-edged and eager to recruit his peers to join the National Front political party. It’s particularly telling that those who are most easily persuaded are also the most misguided and impressionable, the ones who lack confidence in themselves. Combo also seems to have some deeper psychological issues—he’s obsessed with a girl with whom he shared a drunken one night stand three years ago, and beats the hell out of someone he’s just professed immense friendship toward (and then freaks out immediately after doing so).

The soundtrack features a decent selection of oi and reggae tracks, such as Toots & the Maytals’ “54 46 Was My Number” and the UK Subs’ “Warhead,” but I would have liked to have heard more along these lines, as opposed to the melodramatic piano/string instrumentals that dominate many scenes.

Scarface, Howard Hawks, 1932
Scarface, Brian De Palma, 1983

A small-time crook with a scar on his face rises to the top, estranged from his disapproving mother and murderously jealous of anyone his sister, who wants in on his criminal lifestyle, attempts to date—these are about the only similarities between the original Scarface and its remake. The 1930s film takes place in Prohibition-era Chicago, closely following the story of Al Capone, while the 80s version is about a Cuban drug lord who flees to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift, when Castro emptied Cuba’s jails and sent the prisoners to Miami. The latter film has me seriously questioning Al Pacino’s acting abilities (first Scent of a Woman, and now this?)—I hope I’m not the only person who finds the fake Cuban accent to be ridiculously overacted. The gold chain-wearing, cocaine-snorting, cash flaunting, disco dancing atmosphere lends the film a cheesiness, and not in a fun, nostalgic way. You could say that it’s just reflecting its era, but that doesn’t make it any more stomachable.

I disliked both of these films, but I suppose if I had to pick one I’d go with the original. (At least it doesn’t have the godawful soundtrack of the De Palma film.) In its defense, while by today’s standards pretty tame, Hawks’s film was rather brutal for its time. I did have to laugh at some of the silly, gut-clutching, death scenes, almost expecting to hear Tony cry, “They got me!” as he staggered to his knees. It’s not the first film I’ve seen with a disclaimer at the beginning: “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty.” Etcetera. Thankfully, there’s no longer a censor board that requires such inane statements to validate any kind of unpopular social commentary.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog, 1998

The basis for Herzog’s recent feature film, Rescue Dawn, this documentary tells the story of a German named Dieter Dengler, who fulfilled his lifelong dream to be a pilot by joining the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. Shot down over enemy lines, Dieter was captured, tortured and imprisoned, weighing a mere 85 pounds when he escaped. Incredibly, Dieter recalls these harrowing events with a calm detachment, matter-of-factly describing what took place, offering no political context or opinion. Even as he somewhat perversely reenacts these events, having his hands tied and led through the jungle by Vietnamese villagers, he appears composed, although he does admit that his heart is beating a little faster. The villagers actually look more spooked, and Dieter has to remind them that it’s only a movie.

The film presents a number of parallels between Vietnam and World War II—Dieter grew up in ravaged post-war Germany, which had been “transformed into a dreamscape of the surreal.” In the same frank tone, he recalls how he would hunt among the rubble, tearing wallpaper from the remains of decimated buildings, which his mother would cook into a stew. Similarly, Herzog’s narration, concerning Dieter’s view from the plane, asserts that “even though it was all very real, everything down there seemed to be so alien and so abstract. It all looked strange, like a distant barbaric dream.” As in all of his films, Herzog provides remarkably insightful commentary regarding humanity, spirituality, and life itself.

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