Monday, March 31, 2008

Movies watched, February 24-29, 2008

Fast Cheap and Out of Control, Errol Morris, 1997

This documentary explores the inspirations and ideas of four specialists whose expertise fall on unusual and idiosyncratic subjects: a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, a robot scientist, and an expert on the social behavior of the naked mole rat. Like all of Morris’ films, this one feels particularly his own, showcasing his unique knack for mixing science and philosophy with a touch of poetry. These interviews with four people who on the surface seem to have nothing in common with one another are weaved together in such a way that Morris expertly conveys his own ideas, the audience beginning to draw connections, to grasp the sheer genius of Morris’ visionary mind.

Auto Focus, Paul Schrader, 2002

I’ve never seen Hogan’s Heroes—though I’m now certain that somewhere, perhaps in an episode of The Simpsons, I’ve seen the show parodied—nor had I ever heard of Bob Crane prior to viewing this film, a biopic of the star of the aforementioned Nazi prison camp sitcom. Crane’s life took a fairly sordid turn after the show left the air in 1971—his career bombed, he was reduced to touring the dinner theater circuit, and was eventually found murdered in an Arizona motel room under mysterious circumstances that to this day have not been determined. At the heart of the story is Crane’s obsession with being filmed—not on the set, but with burgeoning home video technology he was introduced to and supplied with over the years. In particular, he liked to film himself having kinky, orgiastic sex.

At the start of the film, Crane, a Los Angeles DJ, seems to be kind of a square family man who married his high school sweetheart and was never with anyone else (this may or may not be true, of course). His life is transformed when he meets John, a video equipment salesman who not only grants him access to state of the art (at the time, at least) recording devices, but also introduces him to a sleazier side of life—except for a brief, token “but I’m married,” Crane happily takes the plunge into this new uncharted territory.

John is rather creepy, and seems almost unreal. One could imagine him, in another kind of film, as a weird imaginary friend character who convinces Crane to indulge his secret fantasies. The two have an oddly codependent relationship, feeding off one another, and not just for video equipment and celebrity friend status—there’s a deeper, darker basis to their friendship that provides much of the film’s unsettling quality.

It’s interesting to see the evolution of video technology as portrayed in the film—only the beginning of a narcissism-fueled technological movement that’s evolved into phenomena like MySpace and YouTube. People love seeing themselves on camera, even if it provides incriminating evidence for them later.

Cruising, William Friedkin, 1980

A cop goes undercover to investigate a series of murders targeting New York’s gay community by posing as a homosexual and probing into (no pun intended) the world of leather bars. This cop, played by Al Pacino (who I more and more find myself disliking as an actor), immerses himself in this lifestyle, growing increasingly absorbed by and attracted to it, causing him to question his own sexual identity in the process.

As a thriller, the film is pretty mediocre. The man who is caught at the end is clearly not the person we’ve seen committing the murders—but don’t jump to any conclusions about how complex the film must be. I suppose it could be argued that this indicates that the crimes were not all committed by the same person, but then our culprit is depicted remembering the previous murders, not to mention that his fingerprints are found on a coin machine which, in a previous scene, we see the killer handling.

Cruising’s only real point of interest is in its portrayal of gay bars in the late 70s, serving as a time capsule, a snapshot of uninhibited, openly sexual behavior that very nearly vanished in the aftermath of the AIDS virus. The film sparked protest within the gay community, who felt that it cast a negative image of them for the public at large, particularly in its portrayal of a gay serial killer, not to mention the aforementioned Dionysian behavior. While I wasn’t there, and can’t vouch for the degree of accuracy this film possesses, I also can’t say I found anything particularly offensive about it, unless you count the sloppy narrative.

The French Connection, William Friedkin, 1971

The French Connection is a bit of a step up for Friedkin (actually, I guess chronologically, Cruising is a step down from this one). One could consider it a pioneer in the genre of gritty cop movies, though with the countless imitators emerging on both the large and small screen in the years since, it’s hard to imagine a time when audiences were more accustomed to seeing the bland Dragnet-esque style of police work on camera. The film is best known for its legendary chase scene involving a car weaving through city traffic in order to keep up with an elevated subway train—and to be honest, that’s all I can remember about it weeks later.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

So I'm a little behind here. I won't even try to remember which days I watched these movies, but it was some time in mid to late February.

A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson, 1961

Here’s another one of those “kitchen sink” dramas I was talking about the other week, though this one differs slightly in that the focus is on an angry young woman. In this “Victorian melodrama” (as one of the characters refers to it), a teenage girl named Jo is impregnated by a black sailor she’s particularly smitten with. She befriends a gay man who looks after her—she’s pretty incompetent, it seems—after her sailor has left port and her mother has kicked her out so that she and her brand new husband can have the place to themselves. Jo argues constantly with her mother, who calls her a whore—her husband, might I add, is a loser with a glass eye who laughs like Beavis and makes comments like “look who’s got a bun in the oven!” I suppose the viewer should be sympathizing with Jo, but she’s just so obnoxious and shrill, to the point where I really can’t say I like her at all, even beneath her flaws.

While the film’s tone is fairly serious, the ill-fitting soundtrack seems like something repurposed from a wacky comedy of the same period. In unrelated trivia, I managed to catch a line of dialogue (“the dream is gone but the baby is real”) that was used in a Smiths song 20 years later, which is probably knowledge of which I shouldn’t be admitting possession.

Chicken Hawk, Adi Sideman, 1994

This documentary about NAMBLA (the North American Man Boy Love Association, for those unfamiliar) is most notable in its nonjudgmental, objective approach towards an extremely sensitive and taboo subject. This conveyed impartiality is most likely the reason why those interviewed were willing to discuss this controversial issue so openly on camera.

The film explores possible reasons as to why these men are partial to young boys. Many of them profess to have become sexually active as children, experimenting with their male peers, which is where this activity seems to originate. They remember how much fun these early experiences were, their sexual preferences never maturing past that point.

One man seems deluded about the motivations of young boys he comes across—he imagines that they’re flirting with him, that they appreciate that he supposedly understands them. But judging from interviews with the boys, that doesn’t seem to be the case, leading to some uncomfortable scenes in a convenience store parking lot.

Regardless, NAMBLA members assert that they’re not doing any harm (one of them proclaims, “I’m not a child molester, I’m a child lover!”). This statement remains debatable, though the film certainly falls into gray area, with no concrete conclusion achieved. Certainly, these men aren’t merely interested in sex; they become romantically attached, falling in love with little boys, as well as the memories of youth and playfulness and innocence they evoke.

East Side Story, Dana Ranga, 1997

As the film’s narrator states, “This is the odyssey of a filmmaker searching for music, fun and colors in the world of ambiguity and suspicion”—in other words, a documentary about the Iron Curtain musicals popularized in Communist countries in the mid-20th century. These movies mimicked the Hollywood musicals of the day, effecting bizarre scenes depicting comrades driving tractors, harvesting crops, and toiling away in factories, while cheerfully singing the joys of socialism to choreographed dance moves.

I say bizarre, yet I suppose there was nothing bizarre about them to the audiences who loved them. They provided a mode of escape from the grim reality people living in Communist countries faced every day—hope through hit musical numbers. Outsiders like myself, though, were often astounded by these strangely familiar yet utterly foreign films, while central committees condemned them as “the most flagrant offspring of the capitalist pleasure industry.” Stalin, however, was a fan, developing a taste for wacky musical comedies—quite a contrast from his historical legacy. As the film’s often witty narrator says, “Even Jean-Luc Godard once said that the history of film was the history of boys photographing girls. But Stalin had another fantasy: boys photographing tractors.”

Not to over-quote the film, but there’s another great line that sums up its clever, lively tone, both commemorative and analytical: “Who knows how things might have turned out if Socialism could have just been more fun?”

Performance, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970

Chas, a gangster on the run from the mob after fouling up a job, seeks refuge in a vacant room in the home of a reclusive rock star (played by Mick Jagger). His plan is to hide out there until he can get a passport and fly to New York, dyeing his hair with red paint and adopting the ludicrous story that, like Jagger, he’s also a performer: a professional juggler. But Chas is soon sucked into the hedonistic lifestyle of excess that this household observes, ingesting psychedelic mushrooms, and losing his sense of personal identity in the process.

For the most part I found the movie kind of unwatchable—it’s attempting to achieve something profound, but falls short. Or maybe it’s just really dated.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles, 1970
Sympathy for the Devil, Jean-Luc Godard, 1968

The Rolling Stones have provided the subject of nearly a dozen films—some legendary and some falling into obscurity—still captivating filmmakers to this day: in April Martin Scorsese will release Shine a Light, a career-spanning documentary that focuses on their recent Bigger Bang Tour. There’s just something about them that draws people in (even now, in their geriatric stages): their charisma, their sexual energy, some intangible, as-yet-indefinable quality.

Gimme Shelter grew out of the Maysles brothers’ desire to cover the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour, but ended up focusing on that tour’s culmination: the Altamont Free Festival, a concert outside of San Francisco that the band organized, and which has since gone down in infamy as the symbolic end of an era. The documentary is structured as a framed story, moving back and forth in time between footage of the notorious concert and the band’s reactions to witnessing said footage. Also included are the preparations made in setting up the show, such as the difficulty in securing a location, especially one with ample parking—the film contains a scene shot from a helicopter that pans over the miles-long stretch of cars leading up to the raceway.

I’d never realized that Altamont happened in December, which strikes me as an odd time of year to hold an outdoor concert—despite the Bay Area’s slightly milder weather conditions, people can be seen draped in blankets. Perhaps the wintry conditions contributed in part to the hostile atmosphere, although it certainly was not the only factor, not even the most significant.

Organizing a free concert attended by hundreds of thousands of people seems difficult in itself; it becomes even more complicated when you consider that the attendees will for the most part behave...eccentrically. The throngs of concertgoers are fairly representative of the stereotypical picture of “dirty hippies”: they’re drugged out, rolling around in the grass, dancing hypnotically, many of them in various stages of undress. Unofficially hiring the Hell’s Angels to perform security duties was a vastly misguided move, resulting in a series of poorly handled debacles spiraling out of the promoters’ control. In the commentary, Albert Maysles mentions that the London branch of the Hell’s Angels had served as “honor guards” at an outdoor Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park with no incidents, implying that the Stones were unaware that the California Angels were markedly different from their British counterparts. But there must have been someone in California who could have alerted them to this ill-advised decision.

The hostility between the concertgoers and the Angels is palpable at the outset—someone dances a little too close to the stage during the Jefferson Airplane’s set, so the Angels start beating him with sticks. This bears a particularly ominous portent, yet little action is taken to prevent it from escalating, other than Grace Slick’s lukewarmly asking them to stop, predictably to no effect.

The tension, of course, does escalate—in one scene, the crowd parts to make way for a procession of Hells Angels aggressively riding through on motorcycles. By the time the Rolling Stones, the last band of the night, take the stage the energy is frenzied and anxious. The audience stares at the band in disbelief, one girl with tears streaming down her face—Mick Jagger seems to notice this but begins strutting around like a chicken as if nothing is happening. They interrupt their set at several points, bewilderedly asking “who’s fighting and what for?”, but at this point, it’s beyond them—they’re powerless to stop it. When an audience member is fatally stabbed near the front row by a Hell’s Angel, the band inexplicably keeps playing, finishing their set before immediately being whisked off to safety by helicopter. (They claimed later to have not realized the stabbing was fatal, and felt that if they hadn’t finished their set, a riot would have ensued.)

This film illustrates the degree of prescience a great documentary filmmaker possesses—how did the Maysles have the insight to not only film the Altamont Free Festival, but to actually capture the stabbing? It’s as if they were so in tune with this generation—despite the fact that they were not really of it—that they could better predict the significance of this occasion than those involved. I suppose it simply could have been luck that they were there with their cameras, but I’d like to think it was intentional. Regardless, Gimme Shelter transcends the simple rock documentary, marking the downfall of the 60s, the failure of brotherly love—people believed they could peacefully coexist outside conventional laws, but they ended up fighting one another like something out of Lord of the Flies. The footage of concertgoers leaving the field resembles zombies stumbling along in the eerie light of the Stones’ getaway helicopter—strangely symbolic in and of itself.

Sympathy for the Devil*, another namesake of a classic Rolling Stones track, isn’t so much a documentary but a genre-defying exploration of the 60s with the Rolling Stones playing a character, just one component of the story—I would have expected little else from Jean-Luc Godard, one of the pioneers of the French New Wave. The Stones footage is shot in a recording studio amidst colorful squares placed throughout like sculpture, lending the scene an abstract quality. Throughout the film they seem to be more or less writing “Sympathy for the Devil,” picking it apart, breaking it down to its essence and then building it back up until they have the brilliant track we know today. The repetition has kind of a numbingly hypnotic effect—I’m also pretty sure that I had the words memorized by the end of the movie. The awkwardness of recording vocals is illustrated by periodically letting certain tracks drop out of the soundtrack—one of my favorite moments is watching the band stand around in a circle “whoo-whooing” the backing vocals.

These scenes are politically charged in the subtlest of ways, most notably in the deliberate change in lyrics from “who killed Kennedy” to “who killed the Kennedys”—a chilling reference to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which had just occurred that same month. It’s extremely fortunate that Godard showed up in the studio when he did, as the title track’s lyrics possess weightier and more provocative content than some of their other songs. As Mick Jagger recalls in a 2003 interview in Rolling Stone, “[it was] very fortuitous...We just happened to be recording that song. We could have been recording ‘My Obsession.’ But it was ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and it became the track that we used.”

These scenes with the Stones are broken up with scripted, more conceptual threads depicting divisive issues of that era. Black revolutionaries at a riverside junkyard toss rifles to one another, reciting passages from Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, as the camera pans over ruined cars stacked up in majestic, hulking towers. A character named Eve Democracy wanders the city, stealthily spraypainting provocatively combined words, such as “freudemocracy,” “cinemarxism,” and “sovietcong.” Many of these scenes contain a voiceover that dryly reads from a dirty paperback, perhaps a kind of neutralization of its content.

Watching these two films back to back articulates the pronounced differences between them. Each of these directors has a strong, identifiable cinematic voice (there’s no question as to whose is whose), and each tackles more or less the same basic issues in his own distinct way. Godard takes the intellectual, more didactic approach to communicating his ideas, whereas the Maysles choose to allow the events therein speak for themselves. They never address the issues directly but they’re inherently present, acutely felt.

*The film was originally titled One Plus One, with Sympathy for the Devil being the version that the producers changed in an attempt to create more commercial value. The soundtrack was altered to include the final version of the title track at the end, the title changed as well to incorporate a more obvious reference to the band. Godard was furious at these changes, and actually punched the producer responsible, stating in an interview with The Guardian that “they want to make one plus one equal two. I don’t.”