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.

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