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.

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