Monday, January 28, 2008

Movies watched, January 1, 2008 to January 26, 2008

Sins of the Fleshapoids, Mike Kuchar, 1965
The Secret of Wendel Samson, Mike Kuchar, 1966
The Craven Sluck, Mike Kuchar, 1967

Mike Kuchar and his twin brother, George, are often credited as pioneers of underground, low-fi cinema, having created dozens of campy, experimental films from age 12 and on (George seems to have continued making films into the present, whereas Mike’s credits end with 1971’s Tales of the Bronx). Sins of the Fleshapoids is a campy sci-fi film, set a million years into the future, where androids significantly outnumber people, and yet they are employed as slaves to the few humans left on the planet. Like The Tenth Victim (perhaps it was even influenced a little by it, as the two films were released in the same year—scroll down a little for a write-up on that one), the costumes and set design depict a swanky 60s version of the future, here with ancient Greco-Roman overtones, in which the last remaining people on Earth wear ridiculous leaf and flower costumes and sprawl out on leopard print sheets while decadently sucking down grapes from the vine—it’s like a freaky, psychedelic bacchanal.

At the opening of the film, unbeknownst to these hubristic humans, the android slaves have developed senses and emotions—and surprise, surprise, they don’t want to be slaves anymore. Xar (who wears a helmet with chin strap and a leotard) has fallen in love with Melenka, and together they stage an uprising against their cruel masters. One of my favorite lines of the film is uttered by Melenka, in perhaps one of the most bizarre sex scenes portrayed on film: “We are robots…and yet we are in love”—they then have sex by waving their fingers at each other and generating an electrical current (a particularly potent current, I guess, because the final scene depicts Melenka writhing around the floor until a tiny robot toddles out from between her legs).

Sins of the Fleshapoids features crayon drawings (in this case, of demonlike figures) in the opening credits, somewhat reminiscent of something you’d find in a bored, geeky high school student’s notebook (and maybe that’s not so far off the mark, as the Kuchars were in their early 20s when they made this one). The crayon typeface recurs throughout the film in the form of word bubbles popping out of the characters’ mouths. There’s no spoken dialogue otherwise—besides a voiceover that’s kind of hard to listen to—and I love that they resolved this technical dilemma in a manner that was both functional and stylistically interesting.

My favorite of the three films is The Craven Sluck (also the shortest of the three), in which Adele, a bored and unhappy housewife, stages an unsuccessful suicide attempt, then meets a man named Morton (played by George Kuchar) while out walking her dog. (In a brilliant cut that I can only imagine was unplanned, in one moment Adele and Morton are embracing, and the next we see the dog taking a shit on the beach.) Adele plans a secret rendezvous with Morton, but then he meets someone else who’s hotter than her and calls it off. She’s furious but doesn’t have time to tell him off because Earth is suddenly invaded by flying saucers and she’s instantly vaporized (this last part is so sudden and unexpected that it’s totally hilarious). The Craven Sluck employs creative opening credits using a voiceover narrator, which adds in humorous little witticisms like “Marilyn Marmoset, spelled like the South American tree monkey.”

In contrast, my least favorite of the three films is The Secret of Wendel Samson. I’m pretty sure that Wendel’s secret is that he’s gay, hence the large fake spider web they frequently show him stuck to (to illustrate how he’s caught in a “web” of lies, maybe?—either way it’s pretty silly). The soundtrack to this one features some strange robotic noises similar to that of Sins of the Fleshapoids, except this isn’t a sci fi movie, so they seem incongruously placed (although in a way it's oddly appropriate). The film has its comedic moments though, such as when Wendel is picked up by a random stranger off the street, who robotically offers him a cup of coffee—seconds later we see Wendell and the stranger lying in bed with their shirts off, with Wendell, cup in hand, ardently proclaiming “this coffee is great!”

These films remind me a bit of the early work of John Waters (who is said to have been influenced by the Kuchars), particularly in the trashy aesthetic, low budget production style, and recurring cast of actors (who, like Waters’ Dreamlanders, seem like they were probably all friends who hung out in the same circle). They’re ultimately different styles, with the Kuchars leaning towards the science fiction camp, but I like to think they share a kindred spirit, fundamentally of the same nature.

The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri, 1965
This odd, futuristic film reads like a satire of reality television, but clairvoyantly so, as it was released in the 60s. In this world, people can sign up for “The Big Hunt,” in which they are assigned a human target to hunt down and kill. Their prey is notified that they are now a “victim,” but not given the identity of their hunter. Whoever survives ten hunts is awarded a highly coveted prize (only fifteen people in the world have survived all ten). The rarely achieved tenth hunt receives corporate sponsorship, turned into a huge, vulgar spectacle with dancers and round the clock interviews, all televised for the viewers at home. The hunt is also dragged out for the sake of these TV viewers—in this case, the huntress, Caroline (Ursula Andress), could easily have shot her victim (played by Italian film star Marcello Mastroianni, whose previous credits include La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, The Organizer, and so on) on her first attempt, as she finds him carelessly out in the open. But instead, she toys with him, pretending to seduce him, perhaps a little careless herself.

The theory behind “The Big Hunt” seems to be that if people are assigned legalized victims, the crime rate will drop. Moreover, only people who have willingly registered may be killed, with no innocent bystanders allowed—if one kills the wrong person, they will receive a 30-year prison sentence, so participants must be absolutely certain they have correctly identified their hunter. One rather humorous scene occurs in front of a police station, in which a woman is shot to death while walking up the steps. The police officers don’t bat an eye, as it is an authorized killing—however, they do rush to give someone a parking ticket.

Other dystopian, 1984-esque plotlines are thrown in, such as the characters’ having to hide their aging parents because they are supposed to turn them over to the state once they reach a certain age. The film generally has a space-age 60s pop feel to it, with a modern jazz score—kind of bizarre, but entertainingly so.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine, 2006
The answer to the question posed by the title seems obvious before you even see the movie: oil companies (electric cars=no need for their product). Car companies and consumers are also to blame, according to this documentary, although I’d say the car companies are a little more in the wrong, as the electric car, or EV1, was barely promoted (I’d certainly never heard of it). In fact, it almost seems as though the car companies were doing everything within their power to keep people from purchasing these products at all. The film portrays the bizarre manner in which GM refused to allow willing customers to buy this merchandise (who ever heard of such a practice?), and then instead of renewing the leases, they confiscated the cars and crushed every last one of them, so that they disappeared without a trace, as if they’d never existed. Granted, people are also extremely resistant to change, as evidenced by the fact that some still don’t believe in global warming (somehow, scientific research is not valid to them). And thus, many people killed the electric car, whether heads of companies, government officials, or reluctant consumers. The film doesn’t so much mourn the loss of a car, but our refusal to initiate positive change.

The Jerk, Carl Reiner, 1979
I was inspired to re-watch The Jerk after reading Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up. The book isn’t the most compelling read—to me, the most interesting parts occurred when Martin discussed his comedic theories, but this comprised only a few pages—but it did trigger some fond memories of one of my favorite comedic films. All of the jokes have an innocence about them, perhaps stemming from the protagonist’s lack of worldliness. Navin Johnson strikes one as kind of a naïf: trusting, optimistic, and maybe a little stupid, but ultimately endearing.

The best scene by far occurs when a sniper randomly selects Navin’s name out of the phone book (“Navin R. Johnson—sounds like a typical bastard.”) and perches on a hilltop across from the gas station where Navin works, shooting at him but hitting cans of motor oil instead. Navin misinterprets these actions at first: “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!” Just hearing these lines in my head puts a smile on my face.

The first time I saw this movie was at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin; admission included free pizza in a cup, with Twinkies and Tab as the specials on the menu. Man, that was a great night.

A History of Violence, David Cronenberg, 2005
I find it interesting that the opening scene is somewhat of a red herring. We’re made to believe that the film is about the two characters we encounter here, but while they are indeed the impetus for the story, the catalyst, we never see them again after the first ten minutes or so. We don’t even know anything about them (and neither did the writer, it seems—the actors actually made up their own back stories for their characters). Yet they are nonetheless vital to the film.

The film sparks some intriguing questions about dual identity: can a person live two different lives, with two different personalities, and nonetheless be both of those people?

Sick, Kirby Dick, 1997
Performance artist and self-proclaimed “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan lived far longer than most people diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As the film suggests, his penchant for bondage may have assisted him in coping with the pain of his disease—not only did S&M allow him to disassociate himself from his illness, but it strengthened him as well, arming him with the resilience to fight it for 43 years (well, okay, he didn’t exactly participate in S&M for all 43 of those years).
Much of the film is difficult to watch—the nail being driven through Bob’s penis still turns my stomach a little whenever I think of it, and I don’t even have one of those!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Movies watched, December 2007

Control, Anton Corbijn, 2007

There are many myths surrounding the story of Joy Division, particularly in the manner in which their singer, Ian Curtis, killed himself. I’ve heard various stories over the years—that he stood on a block of ice and waited for it to melt, that he carved a smiley face over his own with a pen knife, and so on—but it seems that he simply listened to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, wrote a long, rambling note to his wife, and hung himself from a clothes rack in the kitchen. It would have been interesting to explore these untruths in the film, but I like that Control ignores them entirely, achieving as close to realism as you can get in a film such as this one. (Well, I guess they did include the apparently false legend of Tony Wilson signing their record contract in blood—it does make for a pretty amusing scene though.) Based mainly on Curtis’ ex-wife’s memoir, the film’s perspective might be slightly skewed, but Corbijn also spoke to Curtis’ Belgian girlfriend, Annik, for her own insights into their relationship, which seems to provide a bit of a balance.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is the music. The soundtrack includes some greats, like Bowie, the Buzzcocks, and the Velvet Underground. But more importantly, it actually features Joy Division—there’s nothing worse than seeing a film about a band that doesn’t even have the band’s music in it. The live Joy Division shows appear rather authentic, the actors mimicking the band’s onstage motions near-perfectly. If I’m not mistaken, they were taught to play their instruments and actually performed the songs live—an interesting technique, and a testament to the extent of the actors’ efforts.

Filming in black and white was a smart choice, as it effectively conveys the dreariness of the industrial British town from which the band hails. In many ways, Control follows in the long tradition of films about dreary British industrial towns and the angry young men who are dying to escape them, a la The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger, and so on.

Ian feels trapped in a variety of ways, but often in situations he could remedy, in theory at least. He doesn’t want to be in the band anymore (he could quit), he doesn’t want to be in Macclesfield anymore (he could move), and he doesn’t want to be married anymore (he could get a divorce). The last one might be the most complicated, as he seems emotionally conflicted over leaving Deborah, and yet very much in love with his girlfriend. Perhaps he just wants to be frozen in time, before his band got big, when he was still madly in love with his wife, when he was young and hopeful—and before he was stricken with epilepsy. As for the epilepsy, he is, unfortunately, trapped inside his own mind and body. There’s no escaping the seizures, which most likely were the main driving force that led to his suicide—his life seemed fairly miserable anyway, but that pushed him over the edge, especially since he feared the seizures would intensify over time.

The film’s conclusion is a bit melodramatic, with Deborah discovering Ian’s dead body and running into the street screaming. It’s unnecessary to see this, as it doesn’t shed any light on the situation, doesn’t tell the viewer anything they couldn’t have inferred (I mean, how else would you expect her to react?). The ending could have been made stronger by cutting from the sound of the rope to the wisps of black smoke curling from the chimney as Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” plays into the credits—a rather poetic image to close with, I think.

No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007
This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel remains very close to the source material, in some cases taking dialogue word for word from the pages of the book. Sometimes this approach does not work—I have no qualms about filmmakers implementing changes to the plot as they adapt it to film, which is often necessary—but here the result is extremely successful, especially as the book is rather cinematic (as I was reading it I remember wondering if it would be made into a movie).

At the heart of the story is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), as close to evil in human form as one might ever encounter. Chigurh has a slow, deliberate way of speaking, one that instills goosebumps in its listener, particularly in his nerve-wrackingly cryptic practice of bargaining with another man over his life with the toss of a coin. His cruel, cold, humorless mannerisms are accentuated by his odd choice of weapon, the cattle gun, which propels a metal cylinder into an object (often a person’s skull) and then sucks the cylinder back inside, and his bizarre 1970s porn haircut (apparently modeled after a photo of a 1979 brothel patron), adds the right amount of weirdness to his appearance.

Bardem’s performance is so strong that his character’s presence is palpable even when he’s not there—in certain instances the viewer can almost feel that the camera has just missed him by a few minutes. Llewelyn Moss, the man who had the misfortune of discovering Chigurh’s money (though he probably feels it is good fortune at the time) is clearly making a mistake by trying to outrun Chigurh, for even if Moss manages to flee from him once, it’s never long before he catches up with him—the man is like a machine, unstoppable. Each narrow escape is thrilling and suspenseful—even for me, and I already knew the story’s outcome.

Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach, 2007
Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale is even darker and more depressing than his last film, with not even a redeeming moment at the end for its characters, who spend their time spitefully bickering, preying on each other’s vulnerabilities. I guess this is what's contributed to its "box office flop" status, but I thought it was one of the best films released in 2007 (maybe right after No Country for Old Men).

Margot and her precocious son Claude travel to the Hamptons for her sister Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm, who Margot deems unsuitable (he is unemployed, unstable, and has a hideous mustache that he has grown just to be ironic). One wonders, though, why Margot cares: she hasn’t seen her sister in years (it becomes clear that the only reason she has shown up is because her extramarital lover lives nearby). The source of their squabbling seems not to originate from some singular painful event, but simply because the two sisters are too alike. They have been competing with one another their entire lives, and cannot let the other one win. For instance, Pauline obliquely challenges Margot to climb a tree, and inwardly gloats when the fire department arrives to rescue her from it; later on, Pauline confides in Margot a secret she is hiding from her family, which Margot conveys to Claude, who then spreads the rumor even further (although one wonders why Pauline told Margot in the first place, as she must have known what the outcome would be—perhaps this was her way of telling her family in a roundabout way).

Like The Squid and the Whale, the film is extremely visceral—we see the characters masturbating, examining whether their balls hang lower than their dicks, saving their fingernail clippings, and so on. The characters are human, and all of their disgusting habits, both physical and emotional, are displayed rather nakedly for the viewer.

The Savages, Tamara Jenkins, 2007

I was attracted to The Savages by its title, a bit of a double-entendre referencing the characters’ last name, and even more so by its director, Tamara Jenkins, whose previous credit, Slums of Beverly Hills, is a favorite of mine.

The film opens in Sun City, Arizona, a town that appears to be populated entirely by senior citizens. Golf carts drive down the streets, and old leathery women languorously bob up and down in swimming pools, slowly dying in the sun. This essentially artificial environment is characterized by slow, calm sounds, like that of a tinkling music box, as though the town is a fairyland for the elderly. This is where Ben and Wendy Savage must go to pick up their aging father, after his live-in girlfriend of 20 years dies and her children immediately put the house on the market, to bring him back to Buffalo, New York. The contrast between Buffalo and Sun City is profound: upstate New York is freezing and covered in snow, signifying death for the old man in more ways than one.

The film doesn’t shy away from all the embarrassing and painful experiences that accompany caring for aging parents, providing some squirm-inducing scenes, such as when Wendy’s father’s pants fall around his ankles on the plane, and she has to bend down and lift them back up for him. Ben and Wendy also felt like actual people, rather than characters in a script, dimensionalized with subtle details like Wendy’s flowery thermal shirts that she’s always wearing, and Ben’s perpetually wrinkled, untucked attire (he’s a college professor, and yet he’s not wearing a tweed jacket—incredible!). Their father, however, did not seem fleshed out enough. We know he was once a formidable figure but has since been weakened by old age and dementia—a plotline that we’ve seen countless times in film. We need more specific details about the family dynamic, about their past, because his character is too one-dimensional to pique the viewer’s interest, to indelibly affix itself into our memory.

The film’s momentum dwindles a bit towards the end, which I imagine could have been improved by tightening up the script a bit. In all, I prefer Slums of Beverly Hills to this, but it’s not without its own merits.

Juno, Jason Reitman, 2007
A fairly universal criticism of this movie falls on its first 15 minutes or so, in which the dialogue is way too heavy on the teen slang—do people really say things like “for shizz” these days? Thankfully, the lingo tones down pretty quickly (or maybe I just got used to it—scary). The pop culture references are also a tad excessive, and seem kind of awkward when they occur, maybe even a little unnatural. More importantly, how could someone whose band opened for the Melvins in 1993 not listen to the Stooges? And how can I take such a man seriously?

Speaking of which: the characters of Mark and Vanessa—the childless couple that has agreed to adopt Juno’s unborn child—are not explored nearly enough. How did they end up together, when they seem like such opposites? Their situation is undoubtedly more complicated than is let on, and the film could have provided a few more hints that Mark was unhappy in the relationship. In hindsight, I can see some attempts at doing this via Mark’s awkward initial greeting to Juno and her father, in which he stammers about how he’s excited about one day helping the kid with science projects “and stuff.” But these clues aren’t so much subtle as they are barely there at all; the viewer is so far removed from Mark’s head that his confession to Juno is out of left field, and kind of unbelievable. I found the slow dance scene rather stomach-turning, which is a bit of a disappointment, as up until that point I kind of liked Mark. I could see that Juno reminded him that he wasn’t satisfied, that he sold out with his music, and that his wife kept him on a short leash, but come on, is he really that much of a creep that he’d want to run off with a 16 year old girl?

Despite its flaws, the film was cute and made me wish I were young again (well, except for the whole pregnancy thing—that’s not something I’d like to experience). Some great endearing details include Juno’s and Paul’s matching hamburger phones, Juno’s licorice noose, which she facetiously employs upon discovering that she’s pregnant, and Paulie’s favorite orange tic tacs and car bed with personalized license plate.

I guess my main gripe with the film, which funnily enough occurred to me as more of an afterthought, is this: why does this movie exist in the first place? Why have there been so many “hip” movies popping up lately that seem to advocate carrying unplanned pregnancies to term? It almost feels like some kind of weird way of winning the youth vote on the pro-life issue (almost—I’m not some wacky conspiracy theorist, nor am I a rabid baby killer). But where are the Stacy Hamiltons of today’s teen movies? It would make for a less heartwarming story, but, you know, just sayin…

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movies watched, November 11-30, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet, 2007
While this is certainly no Dog Day Afternoon or Network—but then, what is?—Sidney Lumet’s 49th feature film (by my count, via IMDB) is somewhat of a return to form for the acclaimed director. The botched robbery is a plotline employed in countless films, yet in this case it feels fresh and complex and innovative. While certainly not a pioneering technique—see Reservoir Dogs—the conveyance of multiple points of view is rather effective here, gradually revealing the many facets of earlier scenes. However, the weird scrambling effect used to indicate the change in viewpoint is not only annoying but unnecessary—the viewer should be smart enough to figure out which character is being focused on by simply watching the scene.

American Gangster, Ridley Scott, 2007
From the New York magazine article “The Return of Superfly”: “A couple of days later, eating at a T.G.I. Friday’s, Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. ‘Look at this shit,’ he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn’t have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. ‘What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that’s the way it is now. You can’t find the heart of anything to stick the knife into.’”

This excerpt recalls the opening scene of American Gangster, in which Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson expresses his distaste for a discount electronics store, one aspect of a newly developing variety of shopping experience, the predecessor of the “big box” stores of today. He laments about how these stores buy straight from the manufacturer, cutting out the middle man—an obvious analogy to the operating procedures of drug dealers (the “middle man” who sells directly to the consumer). Frank Lucas, Bumpy’s driver and protégé, is listening, but later ends up doing exactly what Bumpy bemoaned: buying pure uncut heroin straight from the source, deep in the jungle of Vietnam. Frank aspires to be like Bumpy, and while he resembles his mentor in some ways, he differs in many more.

Frank is made out to be an evil man who’s also suave and likable. He talks about entrepreneurship, how he’s starting a business and making profits like any other red-blooded American capitalist. This is supposed to somehow legitimize him for the viewer, but it makes me like him even less. Here’s the archetypal industrialist getting rich off the blood of his people, peddling junk (literally) to susceptible buyers who slowly kill themselves with the product. He rapidly spreads a veritable epidemic, breeding disease and crime and sorrow. I have no sympathy for a man who achieves his wealth from the deaths of others, no matter how ingenious his ways of achieving it might have been. In that sense, the film fails simply because of its protagonist’s nature.

Now that I’m off my soapbox—American Gangster often feels like an episode of the HBO series The Wire, if it were set in 1970s New York. Detective Richie Roberts and The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty are of the same essence: the indefatigable “good cop” who refuses bribes and lives for his job, sacrificing his home life in the process. They’re both divorced and struggling with child support and custody battles (not to mention they’re both fucking their lawyer). The film attempts to blur the lines between good and bad, cop and criminal, but not as successfully as in The Wire. Whereas I often find myself cheering for Omar, I’m far less sympathetic to Lucas and his compatriots. American Gangster is also not nearly as dense and engrossing as The Wire, but it would be pretty difficult to achieve the degree of complexity of an entire TV series in a quarter of the screen time. In the film’s defense, it was highly entertaining—just not masterfully so.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb, 1982-89
In 1982, three 12-year olds from Mississippi fell in love with Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their passion was so great that they were inspired to make films, to essentially become Steven Spielberg (let’s forgive them, they were only 12)—and what better way to achieve this than to recreate the film that they worshipped? The boys naively assumed this could be completed in one summer—seven years later they were finally finished with the editing. The Adaptation then sat collecting dust for years until it somehow ended up in the hands of Eli Roth, who prompted its second screening ever at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. (I unfortunately would not move to this great city for more than a year after that fateful night, thus missing out on the fun.) This screening furnished the film with a rebirth, reports of its existence slowly filtering into the consciousness of many a film fan via blogs (hey, like this one!) and the like, bestowing upon it a cult classic status—which brings us to a packed house at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.

Keeping in mind that this was created by a group of kids operating with few resources (they didn’t even have a copy of the movie, as this was in the pre-VHS dark days), the result is impressive—mind-blowing, even. They performed their own stunts, set their basement on fire, threw themselves from moving trucks, and blew up a variety of things. They got permission to film on an actual plane and ship, secured live snakes from a local pet store, and built a giant fiberglass boulder. The film’s quirks—for instance, its lack of continuity, with characters aging and regressing from scene to scene, due to their hitting puberty over the course of the filming—are endearing rather than distracting. Same with the video quality, which at some points appears pretty blown-out. The appeal of this project is the level of ingenuity and dedication that this group of teenagers possessed, and executed—and it’s just so goshdarn cute to see little kids pretending to slug back shots of whiskey and hatch nefarious plots (see the November/December 2007 issue of The Believer for more on the cuteness of small things).

I eagerly await the feature film about how The Adaptation came to be, which is currently in development (Daniel Clowes is reportedly still working on the script, so I guess I’ll be waiting awhile). It will be interesting to learn the impetus for the project, as well as how they achieved the various effects, which, as crude as they might appear, are pretty remarkable considering what they had to work with.

Being There, Hal Ashby, 1979

While vacationing in San Francisco for a week, I had the good fortune of visiting the historic Castro theater during a series of Hal Ashby films. One of the few 1920s movie palaces still in operation, the theater is gorgeously and ornately decorated, with a huge Wurlitzer organ rising out of the stage before the first feature for a 15-minute pre-movie concert (which certainly beats the advertisements and boring Hollywood trivia they like to show at mainstream theaters while you’re waiting for the movie to start).

Based on the Jerzy Kosinsky novel of the same name, Being There is about a mentally retarded gardener whose employer dies, displacing him from the only home he’s ever known. His name, Chance, is quite appropriate, as not long after his first excursion into the real world, he is, for all intents and purposes, rescued by Shirley MacLaine and whisked off to live in another beautiful mansion, simply because of the misguided assumption that he is a well-to-do businessman. His simpleminded aphorisms about gardening (“In the garden, growth has its seasons”) are perceived to be insightful metaphors regarding the U.S. economy, and he ends up becoming one of the President’s closest confidantes. The film operates on a single gag, gradually escalating—and while perhaps it grows a little farfetched at times, it manages to work, at least on a satirical level.

This is, essentially, a film about a man raised by television. He was mentally slow before television came about, so it didn’t necessarily corrupt his mind, but it is interesting to imagine how TV might have shaped his understanding of the world. He can practice mimicking all the things people do—shaking hands, aerobicizing, whirling the woman you’re madly in love with around the room, and so on—but he has no concept of what they mean. In a particularly revealing scene, Chance points his remote control at some street urchins he encounters, in an attempt to “change the channel.”

The other pervading theme is uttered by Louise, formerly Chance’s employer’s maid, upon seeing Chance on television: “Yes sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.” I might amend this statement a bit by adding “and rich” after “white.” If Chance had been dressed in rags, as opposed to the impeccably tailored suits left to him by his dead boss, he would certainly not have been invited back to the Rand mansion to recuperate. But he exuded the appearance of a wealthy Washington, DC politician, and that was all he needed to be successful.

Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby, 1971

The second of the Hal Ashby double feature and one of my favorites in general, Harold and Maude is way ahead of its time, very much a predecessor of the “quirky” Wes Anderson-style films of today (though exponentially better, if you ask me). It’s a movie that any punk rocker would love, an affirmation of life and individualism over death and conformity.

Harold Chasen is a young man from a wealthy, somewhat suffocating family. His favorite pastimes include attending the funerals of strangers and faking suicide attempts—clearly efforts at acting out against his overbearing mother. He’s looking to torment her, or perhaps he simply wants attention, but either way he’s not succeeding in doing either. For instance, after coming upon Harold hanging from a noose (he’s very convincing-looking, I might add), Mrs. Chasen dryly says, in her exaggeratedly bourgeois tone, “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold,” adding, “Oh, dinner at eight...and do try and be a little more vivacious.” No one asks him what he wants out of life, or if he’s happy. His entire life has been decided for him—his mother thinks that he needs to find a woman, so she tries to set him up with one through a dating service, a process which seems rather excruciating for Harold, though he makes the most of it, in his own way. In a rather telling scene about the dynamic of their relationship, his mother begins to read from a personality questionnaire but fills in the answers herself instead of waiting to hear Harold’s response. Despite his attempts at acting out via the faux suicides, it is assumed that Harold’s life would have continued in this miserable fashion, if Maude had not come along when she did.

Maude is a 79 year old woman who also attends funerals for fun (which is where they meet) though she does it not because of an obsession with death, but because they, too, are a part of life—and Maude’s favorite pastimes involve embracing life: digging up trees and re-planting them in the forest, “borrowing” cars and taking them for a spin, and so on. She explains, in reference to the latter practice, “If some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things, I‘m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.”

In a rather poignant scene, Maude asks Harold what kind of flower he’d like to be, and he answers, rather blandly, that he supposes he’d be a daisy. When further queried about his choice, he answers, “because they’re all alike.” Maude wisely explains that, “Oh, but they’re not. Look. See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this [she points to a daisy], yet allow themselves be treated as that [she gestures to a field of daisies].” This is followed by a rather poetically brilliant cut to a shot of a field of gravestones in a military cemetery.

There is much speculation about Maude’s life prior to the events of the film. She refers to attending protests in her youth, and her childhood in Austria, but many of the film’s nuances take on new meaning when the viewer catches a brief glimpse of a tattoo of a number on her arm, unmistakably that of a concentration camp survivor. At the time the film was made, the Holocaust had ended just 25 years earlier, so it seems that Maude was in her 50s when she was imprisoned. And so one wonders about her past—who was she as a young woman? Was she always so spirited and life-embracing, or did she change her ways after narrowly escaping death?

This film always manages to bring a tear to my eye—I can’t imagine anyone not identifying with Harold in some way. And when it seems that he has transformed, I can’t help feeling a little triumphant as well.