Saturday, October 27, 2007

Movies watched, September 25-October 6, 2007
The Landlord, Hal Ashby, 1970

Hal Ashby’s debut film is a social—and somewhat clairvoyant—comedy about gentrification, in which a spoiled rich kid buys a row house in Park Slope before it was chic (one of his neighbors correctly predicts how hip the neighborhood is destined to become). While he does assert that “everyone wants a home of his own” as he suns himself in the family pool, Elgar Enders never quite makes it clear as to why he’s chosen this particular place as his home. He seems to be feigning a personal rebellion against his stereotypically rich and brainless family, and while I suppose that having their son living in the ghetto could be a blemish on their name, he can’t seem to pull it off, can’t handle the consequences. He falls short of accomplishing any real defiance.

Elgar admits to the building’s tenants—who include a palm reader, Miss Sepia of 1957, and a Black Nationalist who’s married to Miss Sepia—that he eventually intends to oust them so he can knock out all the floors and install a “great big psychedelic spectacular son-of-a-bitchin’ chandelier.” However, he manages to establish a bond with them, albeit a brief one.

The film’s premise could easily have floundered near the surface of the subject, remaining predictably zany and sitcom-ish. But instead, it pushes the barriers of what a comedy can do, ever so subtly beginning to address the underlying implications of Elgar’s purchase—and our ways of thinking about race and social class.

Much of the film is rather surreal: in my mind, one of the most memorable scenes is the rent party that Elgar’s tenants throw for him (they gladly charge him a door fee). As the scene intensifies, the characters momentarily step out of their roles and begin speaking to the camera, describing to Elgar what it feels like to be black: imagine that you have a mole in the middle of your forehead that everyone is disgusted by, but then one day moles become fashionable and you’re suddenly the envy of everyone.

The Landlord is just as, if not more, relevant today, as developers are looking further and further into the outer boroughs of New York City, changing the faces of many neighborhoods and displacing lifelong residents due to skyrocketing rents. In one scene, Elgar, wearing a white suit and carrying a large potted plant, is chased down the street by his tenants. In a New York Times article, actor Beau Bridges, who played Elgar, recalls that “I looked up on the rooftops, and the locals were cheering and yelling ‘get that white.’”

Though Elgar seems to grow up a little throughout the course of the film, he’s bought the tenement as more of an experiment than anything else—and one that fails. He’s not prepared for the sociopolitical baggage, coming across as more of a vacationer than a permanent resident. Park Slope, for the time being, is not really his home.

Requiem, Hans-Christian Schmid, 2006

Not a straight-up horror film (as the cover would have you believe), but more of a psychological study of the effects of religion, social pressure, and illness on a college student. A strict Catholic, Michaela’s mother prevents her from blossoming into a modern, independent woman by constantly reminding her of her epilepsy (and thus her difference, her stigmatism). She disapproves of her going to college in a city, throws her fashionable clothes into the trash, and generally instills in her an immense feeling of Catholic guilt over her burgeoning sexuality, so that the girl eventually believes she is possessed by the devil. The film feels very naturalistic, with hand-held camera work and gorgeous, softly muted colors.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow, 2004

It had its moments, but Superbad was funnier.

Gummo, Harmony Korine, 1997

I’d seen this movie about eight or nine years ago and felt kind of indifferent towards it, but this time around I’m a little more open to its singular, grotesque vision. While there’s no coherent narrative arc, per se, this portrayal of a strange, dark region of America—the parts we like to forget exist—is bizarre, engaging, and, like a gruesome accident scene, commands one’s attention.

At the film’s opening, we learn that Xenia, Ohio was destroyed by a tornado in recent years—which immediately sets the mood and tone of the film. I love to think that the town and its inhabitants were once normal, and that everything went to hell, everyone went a little crazy, after this natural disaster—as though something else, like a curse, were swept through with the storm. The grainier segments scattered throughout come from actual documentary footage of people living in the town where Gummo was filmed. These people blend in with the fictional characters, speaking and acting just as they do—frightening, yes, but evidence of the film’s authenticity. And yet, much of it feels so surreal—for instance, the scene in which Solomon’s mother shampoos his hair while he eats spaghetti in the bathtub, a piece of fried bacon affixed to the tile wall, with severed doll parts decorating the soap holders.

People tend to react strongly to the scenes of cat torture, but while they’re extremely troubling and hard to watch, I take comfort in knowing that they weren’t using real cats. More importantly, these images capture the cruelty and ugliness that exist in the world, and particularly in the world of Gummo.

Wild Style, Charles Ahearn, 1983
This film is not so much about the story—which is somewhat nonexistent anyway—as it is about its footage of breakdancing, graffiti, and rapping, a document of a particular place and time. Like The Landlord, it also tackles issues of gentrification, depicting attempts by hipsters and rich (white) people at infiltrating hip hop culture. Most obvious is the bleached-blond reporter, portrayed by FUN gallery founder Patti Astor, who is seen throughout the movie attempting to interview people and generally act “down” with the New York hip hop scene. The rich woman supporting Zoro as he begins to produce work for a gallery instead of the side of a subway car (which kind of defeats the purpose anyway; public space as canvas is inherent to graffiti) echoes what was actually happening in the downtown art scene at the time (see Basquiat for another cinematic example).

Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog, 1970

In this film cast entirely from midgets and dwarfs (along with a few malformed barnyard animals), the inmates of a prison—which is strangely and rather cruelly designed to hold normal-sized people—wage a revolt, locking the director inside and taunting him as they gleefully set fire to their surroundings.

This rebellion, while extremely liberating for the inmates, eventually compels them towards annihiliation; by the end, they’re destroying for the sake of destruction, with no thought to their actions. Even the animals succumb to these cruel urges, as the chickens torment a one-legged peer.

Most memorable is the truck that seems to move by itself on an endless circular track—the dwarfs take joy in crowding inside of it, riding on the roof, and tumbling from the open back.

Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg, 2007

This started out as more of a conventional thriller—compelling yet somewhat unremarkable. I’m much more interested in the character of Nikolai than I am in Anna, and wish the plot had focused more on him. Instead of waiting until nearly the end of the film to bring in the unpredictable plot twists, they should have come in the middle, producing somewhat of a Psycho effect, with the female lead dropping out of the story midway through. But alas, that’s not how it's structured, and thus, what could potentially have been a great, noteworthy film is instead merely good, if forgettable.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson, 1998

I decided to watch this old favorite in preparation for The Darjeeling Limited. While it doesn’t necessarily produce the same excitement I felt when I first saw it, the film holds up with time. I still find myself saying “O, R they?” every now and again, even if it doesn’t really make any sense in context with what I’m responding to.

Jackass: The Movie and Jackass Number Two, Jeff Tremaine, 2002 and 2006

This brought me back to fond memories of my high school days, when my friends and I would gather around in someone’s parents’ basement to watch the new CKY video. I imagine those stunts pale in comparison with some of the footage in Jackass (especially now that they’re working with a bigger budget) but it’s all carried out in the same spirit. Some of the scenes are downright gnarly—I was actually left feeling a little queasy at the end of Number Two, having witnessed the (censored) consumption of cow semen, the placement of a leech on Steve-O’s eyeball, and so on. Some general highlights include off-road tattoo with Henry Rollins, and, of course, any segment with the raunchy old people (I’ll be forever haunted by the sight of “old man balls”).

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