Monday, April 24, 2017


I don’t think they would fight if they were in the river. If they had room to live.”

No film more perfectly captures what adolescence looks like than Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 “art film for teens” RumbleFish. And when I say that, I don’t mean the fashion or the actors--none of the male leads look all that much like teenagers, honestly, even though some of them technically were--but the surreal photography of Stephen H. Burum and the calculated exaggeration that makes Rumble Fish so distinctive. Shot in black-and-white, and featuring plenty of practical and in-camera tricks, including self-consciously composed shots, time-lapse skies, and lots and lots of smoke, there is something about the off-kilter look of Rumble Fish that echoes the off-kilter point of view of a boy struggling with puberty. Nothing looks right, and no one sees things the way I see them. I don’t understand this world, and it doesn’t understand me.

Matt Dillon (Factotum [review]) heads up the cast here as Rusty James, a restless delinquent in Tulsa. Rusty James is horny and bored, and so he spends most of his time chasing girls (including Diane Lane as his put-upon girlfriend) and causing trouble. He dreams of a recent, idyllic past when gangs ruled the streets, an era that seemingly passed when his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler [review]), took off on his bike and headed to parts unknown.

Except we do know, because The Motorcycle Boy has just returned from California, where he never saw the ocean because, as he says, the rest of  the state got in the way (tell me about it). The Motorcycle Boy is a legend around town. As the graffiti informs us, he “reigns,” and as one character describes him, driving the point home, he is “royalty in exile.” His return will be everyone’s salvation. Or so they think. It’s more going to be the end of the illusion he created. The Motorcycle Boy claims to be insane, and others make the same accusation. At times you may wonder if he is even real, or a mythological creation, the Tyler Durden of Rusty James. Or maybe it’s really his world and everyone else is merely living in it. Because Rumble Fish certainly seems like Motorcycle Boy’s movie a lot of the time. Its aesthetics conform to his senses. He has hearing loss and is color blind, and by his own admission, sees the world “like a black-and-white TV with the sound turned off.” Indeed, there is no color here, except the red and blue of the titular Siamese fighting fish, and though the movie isn’t silent, the audio design is intentionally otherworldly, turned up loud and detached, almost like an intentionally bad overdub. It changes based on The Motorcycle Boy’s ears. The jazzy score by Stewart Copeland (drummer for the Police) and amplified sound effects, like the ticking of the ever-present clocks (there is one in every scene to remind us that time stops for no man, but will also eventually run out) just prove to abstract the audio even further. Coppola is bending reality to suit his purposes.

Rumble Fish is based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola. The director also adapted her novel The Outsiders the same year. As a result, Rumble Fish has always been the cool older brother to The Outsiders. It’s certainly aged better. It has none of the cornball 1950s mawkishness of the other film, even if they share similar plots (teenage boys fighting, gangs replacing a family structure, being misunderstood by authority, being turned on by Diane Lane) and a little bit of the same costume design. In my head, I had always remembered Rumble Fish being set in the 1950s, but really, it’s a movie in no precise time. The only specific pop culture reference is to the Beach Boys, and only the Pac-Man game and the new wave fashion of the rival gang give us any real hint that the movie was made in the 1980s. (Well, ignoring some of Copeland’s incongruous, synthesized orchestration, the worst of the worst signs of a 1980s movie....) Rumble Fish is designed to be like a cinematic Cure record: its adolescent desperation is renewable. All of these details are what I mean when I say Coppola has visually captured the feeling of adolescence: like an all-too-smart teen, he is calling attention to his own awkwardness as if it were a badge of honor. Rusty James is the kind of earnest bad boy many a young man dreams of being--right down to the fights choreographed like outtakes from West Side Story. Our concept of self in our teen years is often authentically inauthentic. Holden Caufield is the only one who isn’t a phony.

Adulthood is the one thing that separates the returning Motorcycle Boy from who he was before he left. Some heavy stuff happened to him in California, and he no longer buys the image everyone has created around him. I like that Coppola portrays The Motorcycle Boy as larger than life, but that Rourke plays him small, buttoned-up, barely articulate. He is elusive, like a cat--and indeed, a cat heralds his return, viewed just before the one big actual rumble in the film, a blown-up shadow, like something out of a Murnau film. Note that The Motorcycle Boy’s nemesis, the mustachioed cop Patterson (William Smith), is at one point similarly preceded by the shadow of a dog, and his brother exists the film not as an animal, but a shadow of the same size. In this flickering opera, the thug and the cop are two great opposing forces, the double-headed Janus flipping on the same coin. Symbolically, The Motorcycle Boy has not been fully reborn--or transformed to the Motorcycle Man--because he never made it to the ocean, he never found his space (water being a renewing element). Thus it is that he has to free the colorful fish and send Rusty James to the sea, it’s the only way either can escape. To stay where they are is to be trapped until you die.

Which, for all we know, is exactly how Rusty James will end up in California will do anyway. If the movie fails in any significant way, it’s that Rusty James has no hidden depth. He’s not Pony Boy, he’s not a sensitive type waiting to tell his story. He doesn’t learn much on screen. Our only hope is that by breaking away from his small town, where everyone has made up their mind about him and who he’ll turn out to be, he’ll make something else out of himself. It’s doubtful, but possible. I mean, what year did Boogie Nights take place again? He’s pretty enough, maybe SoCal can offer Rusty James a new family. He wouldn’t even have to change his name!

The screengrabs here are taken from the standard definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under examination. 

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 23, 2017


What a difference a few years make. Or maybe it was just my mood. Most likely, though, it was expectations. I had heard a lot about Buena Vista Social Club, knew its reputation and its awards pedigree, so I am sure I expected to be wowed. When what I saw turned out to be much more subdued than the musical party I was expecting, I was maybe too quick to shrug it off. Thus, my original review, which was respectful but tepid.

Now seven years on, the Criterion Blu-ray in hand, and Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary about the Cuban music scene is something I found to be absolutely enchanting. I was moved by the music, enthralled by the stories--it’s the same movie, but this time, I get it.

What Wenders had uncovered is not just incredible music, but tje incredible cast of characters that made it. Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Pío Leyva, Rubén   Gonz
ia; mso-hansi-font-family: Cambria;">ález, and the rest were of their time, a product of history, creating a beautiful reflection of the social change that swept across their homeland, but also a victim of the same movement. One gets the sense, particularly as you listen to their wistful anecdotes about the time when their club was all the rage, that Castro and his communism left them behind. They could have been something more, perhaps even international stars, but the doors to the outside world closed, and so eventually did the doors of the Buena Vista Social Club.

I particularly felt this when Ferrer would talk. He had the strange duality of an artist who hasn’t gotten his due--humbled by life, and yet confident in his talents. There is a subtle arrogance in knowing he deserved better.

And this is what makes the concert footage such a celebration. Filmed on trips to Germany and New York, the performances by these old timers have the energy of emotions being unleashed. At last, they are on a stage large enough for the songs; at last, they can sing them as intended.

Criterion’s new release does the film justice with a new transfer and a bevy of extras, including a vintage director’s commentary with Wenders. The image quality is not always up to current standards, but one gets the sense that the transfer is making the best of the source material. Some of the interview footage has the soft edge of early digital. It probably never looked that crisp. Which is fine, since the warm 5.1 surround mix is so good. Buena Vista Social Club is more about the sound than it is the image, and you’ll be pleased with this upgrade when you turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and let the Club work their magic.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Of classic Hollywood couples who simulated their real-life relationships on the silver screen, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are the ones who most successfully created films that put them together as the sort of couple most of us imagined them to be. As much as I love Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, even the most fanciful of fans would find it a stretch to believe their steamy personas from crime dramas translated to the everyday. Whereas Tracy’s lovable grumpiness and Hepburn’s intellectual charm was part and parcel to their image, their personalities turned into brands, both separate and as a team, and it’s easy to see the successful formula take shape in their very first pairing, 1942’s Woman of the Year.

George Stevens (Gunga Din, Shane [review]) directs Woman of the Year, working from a script by Ring Lardner Jr. (M*A*S*H) and Michael Kanin (The Outrage [review]). Hepburn stars as Tess Harding, an influential newspaper columnist and radio commentator with her finger on the pulse of international politics. (“Hitler will lose! says Tess Harding” an advertisement declares.) On one radio appearance, she suggests baseball too frivolous a pursuit in times of war, raising the ire of Sam Craig (Tracy), the sports columnist at her very newspaper. He writes a response in the next day’s edition, to which she fires back the following day. When their boss calls them on the carpet for this feud, the duo meets for the first time, and they are immediately struck with one another. Sam invites Tess to a baseball game, and their seemingly disparate lives become hopelessly intertwined.

In most of the Tracy and Hepburn movies, including Adam’s Rib (my favorite) and State of theUnion, the actors portray a professional couple who both have jobs. Sometimes they are married, sometimes they are on their way to the altar. So it is in Woman of the Year: Tess and Sam will be wed before the halfway mark. More importantly, though, Tess will keep on working. She is not expected to be a doting housewife--not entirely, at least (but more on that in a second).

This is what I like about the Tracy and Hepburn formula: they are, for all intents and purposes, equals. They compete on a level playing field. He respects her, and she respects him. It’s a dynamic I would borrow for one of my romance comics, Ares & Aphrodite; I wanted a couple that had their jobs and did them well and part of navigating their relationship was balancing the two careers. (You’ll note, should you read the book, the main characters have pets named Kate and Spencer.) Inevitably, conflict would arise out of an imbalance within the relationship, of one spouse stepping over the line. In most of these films, including Woman of the Year, it’s that Katharine Hepburn’s character becomes too focused on her career and forgets she has a partner and responsibilities. In this case, she is so busy and has her eyes on so many stories, she tends to ignore her homelife and fails to follow through on certain promises, including the adoption of a Greek refugee. Tracy’s Sam gets fed up with always being second fiddle, particularly once he realizes Tess deflects from any serious discussion of the matter by pitching woo.

Obviously there is a questionable subtext here. It would not be a stretch to decode Woman of the Year as suggesting that Tess would be better off sticking to being a housewife and not concern herself with things that only distract her from that role. When the movie’s famous climax comes around, Tess’ attempt to do “normal” housework that “any idiot” can do, and failing suggests there is something wrong with her that she doesn’t even know how to make toast. This air of judgment is impossiple to totally deny, as it’s always Hepburn who has to get back in her lane in these movies, never Tracy. At the same time, a more gentle interpretation might be that Tess is losing the forest for the trees, and is only criticized for not being engaged with her family life. In the movie’s final scenes, note that she offers to give up her career, but Sam never asks her to. On the contrary, he doesn’t want her to change who she is, he just wants her to be present and give their relationship the attention it deserves.

This explanation would certainly fit more with Katharine Hepburn’s overall image as a rule breaker and a progressive voice for women in cinema. Her version of Tess is never weak, never dumb, just sometimes blind. We could easily swap the roles and have Tracy play the distracted husband, and the plot would work just as well. It’s as much about blue collar vs. white collar as it is a battle of the sexes. And we can also cut Tess some slack by noting the constant interruptions from outsiders who can’t see her as having an emotional life of her own. Is it possible to suggest that the real message of Woman of the Year is that women should be able to have it all, a career and a relationship are not mutually exclusive?

For what is ostensibly a romantic comedy, Woman of the Year does not exaggerate its love story. Sure, the couple falls for each other super quick, but their proclamations are rather subdued and lacking in flowery poetry. Which is not to say that there are not scenes to melt the heart, just that Stevens plays it much more subtle. The intimate scenes between his leads are almost uncomfortably intimate. Conversations spoken in hushed tones, the camera tight on their faces, a sense of being alone together, eavesdropping on their whispered sweet nothings--these are people connecting on a deep level, and Stevens is content to let the moments play out at their own speed.

The filmmaker takes a similar approach to the comedy. There are a plenty of places he could go broad with the gags, but he instead takes his time with them, lets them work naturally, be it William Bendix’s punchy ex-boxer boring a gaggle of drunks and dignitaries with his stories from the ring or the aforementioned attempt by Tess to prove her domestic skills. Despite being the film’s climax, Stevens doesn’t push the jokes in that scene too far beyond the natural. The most exaggerated he gets is with sound effects (the bubbling waffle batter, most noticeably). Rather than give voice to Tess’ panic, Stevens stages the bulk of the scenario with no dialogue. He trusts in Spencer Tracy’s reactions to properly orient the audience to when they can laugh and how. Tracy is masterful at the slow burn and prefers tiny moves to grandstanding. When he scoots away from the overflowing coffee pot, it’s just a touch to the left, he doesn’t make a show of it, and it’s all the funnier for being so undercooked.

It’s that scene, really, that’s the key to the whole thing. It shows how Tracy and Hepburn fit together as not just a romantic duo, but a comedy team. He is her straight man, and the need to repair their love life adds a relatable urgency to her panic. Haven’t we all felt foolish trying to impress someone we care about?

The new restoration of Woman of the Year is quite wonderful, full of rich detail and effectively capturing the black-and-white camerawork of Joseph Ruttenberg (The PhiladelphiaStory, Mrs. Miniver [review]). The disc is rounded out with interviews both new and old, as well as two excellent documentaries from the 1980s previously available on other releases. The charming The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn was previously released as a standalone disc in a Warner Bros. box with three Hepburn and Tracy features, including Woman of the Year. This personal homage, narrated by Hepburn, is a sweet love letter to a man long gone. I know some biographers quibble over the details, preferring to point out the rockier aspects of their union, but that’ a whole other discussion. This portrait is too heartfelt to dismiss.

The exhaustive career profile George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey was most recently available as a second disc alongside the Blu-ray of Stevens’ James Dean-led epic Giant. It’s nice that Criterion has given us the whole thing rather than just excising the pertinent Woman of the Year segments. The documentary is interesting in and of itself, not just for how it establishes the relationship between the director and Hepburn, but also the detours it takes off the studio back lots, including Stevens’ tenure as a war photographer and his part in Director’s Guild in-fighting during the 1950s.

Please note the screengrabs here are from the 2000 standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

This disc provided by the Criterion collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Whenever I watch a political film from the past, I try to adjust my viewing to the present. You have to ask, “How is this relevant? What does this say about us now? What can I learn from history?” Those of you who read this blog on the regular may have noticed that, more often than not, the verdict is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As much as we like to think we have made progress in the last several decades, the issues that matter--class, gender equality, race, economics--feel stuck somewhere in a car park outside an abandoned mall, revving the gas with the parking brake on. I don’t even think we are more self-aware now than we were, say, 57 years ago, when filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin shot their documentary Chronicle of a Summer. That’s maybe the saddest part. We know we’re fucked, we’ve known it for a while, and we’ve not really crawled out of it.

What maybe saddens me more, though, is imaging how social media would dissemble Chronicle of a Summer. For a lot of folks, it may be the very definition of #firstworldproblems. Beginning with the question of “are you happy?”, Rouch and Morin take to the Paris streets in 1960 to talk to random citizens and try to find out what is going on in the collective consciousness. Though some of the subjects embody textbook ennui, and there is a cliché Frenchness to the whole affair, if we stop and listen, as the film intends, we hear how common problems like dissatisfaction with work and making ends meet via the wages we are paid connect just about everybody. Hell, in our current climate, where “debate” only reinforces political lines more than ever, Chronicle of a Summer is exactly the kind of thing we need: a venue for people to talk about what ails them, uninterrupted, so that we all might realize that there is more to connect us than there is to push us apart.

One standout theme emerges quite quickly in Chronicle of a Summer. Granted, this could be a trick of editing and/or the chosen willing subjects, but the #1 problem amongst French men and women of the early 1960s is that money can’t buy happiness, and the average job isn’t a bed of roses, either. As one man notes, you can no longer choose a vocation, you instead end up with what job you can get. While this fellow appears to be a middle-class intellectual (the bookshelves flanking him will cause much envy amongst readers out there), he is not necessarily the common subject in Chronicle of a Summer. Rouch and Morin don’t just talk to scholars and artists, they also spend time with autoworkers, secretaries, and even a pin-up model. Class is not entirely a motivator here, except to note how broad the definitions of lower class and middle class may be--something we should all understand when we consider the economic gaps in current society. The fact that there is a 1% and then the rest of us, that should be distressing all by itself.

Granted, there is one other clear connector through most of the interview subjects in Chronicle of a Summer: they are, for the most part, white. The exceptions are glaring, and not just for the obvious reasons. When one of the aforementioned autoworkers, Angelo, is put together with Landry, a young African immigrant, to share their experiences, the black man’s explanation of how he approaches life by walking through the doors that are open to him and moving on when he sees the door is closed inspires the white man to say, “I think you’re great.” It’s the worst impulse of liberal empathy, treating him as quaint because he somehow overcomes. That’s not great, it’s shitty that he has to think that way! And it actually echoes the  shoddiest of the conservative “you gotta pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” platitudes. Even worse is when Landry is sent to Saint-Tropez along with the others, but is described as the “black explorer of holiday France.” In other words, the token “stranger in a strange land” isolated by the color of his skin. Sure, when we remember when Chronicle of a Summer was made, we can forgive the misguided technique knowing that at the time just doing this was progressive, but it’s still hard to shake the antiquity of it. (Interestingly, it’s Angelo who suffers real consequences here, having his job at Renault threatened for participating in the film.)

Chronicle of a Summer is at its best when it’s the least staged, when it’s the most intimate, such as the solo interview with Mary Lou, the Italian who ponders how her life has grown worse since moving to France, or conversely, the  group lunch where a real dialogue starts between the group. The conversation is frank, touching on subjects like interracial dating (Landry lamenting that white people only notice him for his dancing skills is still an apropos observation, just as sharp as it would be years later when Spike Lee called out similar thinking in Do the Right Thing) and how race does not always unite across borders (African nations band together to stop white invaders, but they still are not united in everyday life). There is even a somewhat painful moment when Landry admits to only having heard of concentration camps through movies (Night and Fog, no less [review]). That this revelation comes because another interviewee, Marceline, shows her identification tattoo from a Nazi camp gives the moment added poignancy, particularly if we consider how much history and experience seems to be ignored by current generations even as information becomes more and more accessible.

Yet, it’s also a perfect moment for Rouch and Morin, who frequently break from their main narrative to discuss the success of the project. There is a veneer to Chronicle of a Summer that is the epitome of French New Wave/cinema verité self-conscious, in that the directors make their movie as much about the making of the movie as they do the subject at hand--complete with self-justification at the start, telling us what other important films also earned the top prize at Cannes. Chronicle of a Summer is a movie influenced by other movies, despite being a true trailblazer. For every tightly framed private confession from Mary Lou, there is a staged “conflict” between Rouch and Morin on the meaning of cinema and the truthfulness of their work. It’s as if we are watching the birth of first-person documentarians like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who consistently run the risk of losing the plot to their own cult of personality. The film even closes with a scene so ironic--the directors saying it’s up to the audience to ascertain the meaning of Chronicle of a Summer, even as they tell us exactly what they intend--that they had to be aware of their own fatuousness. How post-modern can you get?

It’s too bad, because that coda is totally unnecessary. The preceding sequence does all of the heavy lifting for them. Following a private cast screening of an early cut of Chronicle of a Summer, the gathered participants give their reactions to what they saw. Their feelings vary. Some see it as too honest, others as too contrived. Angelo, for one, sticks up for himself, saying he forgot the camera and made a real connection with Landry. Marceline says she was honest with what she shared, but otherwise disconnected from the process. She was playing to the camera, and yet totally being herself.

But if we go back to the point to how Chronicle of a Summer relates to us nearly five decades later, this final discussion is a perfect microcosm of the media age: everyone is having their say, but no one ends up on the same page. It doesn’t mean that no one is listening, because they all are, it might just mean that the best takeaway we can get from the film is that we don’t have to agree to get along. No need to fight, we’re all just looking to survive, and we all deserve a platform in which to outline our plans for doing so.

Saturday, April 8, 2017


This review originally ran on in 2009.

The role of Chance the Gardener in Being There (1979) was one of Peter Sellers' last, as well as the one he struggled the longest to realize. The chameleonic comedian had the rights to Jerzy Kosinski's novel for nearly a decade before cameras rolled under the direction of the great Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude [review], Lookin' to Get Out [review]). Working from a script by Kosinski himself, Sellers' performance left an indelible mark on cinema, providing him with a chance to marry his funnyman skills to material that had real heart.

Chance is an aging manchild who has spent his entire life inside one house, working for its rich owner. He has never learned to read or write, and in fact has never ridden in a car or even gone beyond the property's outer walls. Everything he knows he has learned from television, which Chance watches--and mimics--constantly. If he sees the President of the United States (Jack Warden) on the tube shaking hands, Chance practices shaking hands just like him.

At the start of Being There, Chance's benefactor has passed away, and the lawyers in charge of the estate, not knowing who this strange gardener is, send Chance on his way. Though up until this point we have been lead to believe that Chance is on some spatial southern estate, as soon as he steps through the door, greeted by strains of a 1970s funkified "Also Sprach Zarathustra," we realize that this little house is buried in the heart of urban Washington D.C. Not knowing any better, Chance starts walking, his television remote in hand, in search of new adventures. Or, at the very least, some lunch.

A chance encounter with a limousine--yes, he's named Chance for a reason; many of the names here have outside meanings--leads Chance into the care of the Rands. Benjamin Rand, played by veteran actor Melvyn C. Douglas and perhaps named for Ayn Rand, is a rich capitalist on his death bed, and he and his young wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), adopt Chance, mishearing his introduction as Chauncey Gardener and believing him to be a zen master filled with all kinds of soothing wisdom. The newly dubbed Chauncey actually says very little, often just repeating what the last person said, nodding in agreement, or sharing gardening tips, but his calm demeanor mellows the room, inviting people to listen perhaps more intently than they would otherwise. Chauncey becomes all things to all people, allowing them to replace what he doesn't say with exactly what they want to hear. This gardener soon has the ear of the President, shares his advice on television, and attracts the attention of that temptress Eve (oh, those names!), all the while oblivious to the effect he is having or what is really going on.

Ashby and Sellers create a wonderful, magical comedy with Being There. Its bittersweet tone fits well with the gentle satire, and neither the writing nor the staging ever pushes anything too hard. Part of the charm is the simplicity, the lack of fuss. Like Chance himself, Being There is charming for how unassuming it is, and in that sense, it allows us to find the meaning in what passes in front of us in much the same way the people this humble gardener encounters find meaning in his down-home declarations.

Which isn't to suggest that there is no greater meaning here, because there is plenty that one can walk away with after watching Being There. Kosinski is carefully laying out a little parable to prod the audience into thinking more about the complicated nature of modern culture and reassess our humanity, and the magical effect is elevated further by Ashby's apparently spur-of-the-moment ending (and nearly ruined by the legendary bad decision by the studio to put Peter Sellers outtakes over the closing credits, spoiling the feeling Ashby intended to leave you with). Quite often, Being There is also laugh-out-loud funny. Sellers, unsurprisingly, loses himself in the character, exercising incredible restraint and saving the broad comedy for only the right moments. The result is simply wonderful, and Sellers deserved the Oscar nomination that came his way. (Melvyn Douglas actually took the statue home for best supporting actor in Being There.)

Effectively, Chance's purpose in life is to bring people together and to nurture their souls with his delicate care. Like plants, people don't require a heavy hand, they require a soft touch. He sets the dying rich man at ease, shows the lonely wife she can love again (even self-love!), and reminds movie fans that good old-fashioned optimism still has some sway in a cynical world. The famous tagline for the movie is that "Life is a state of mind," though the real message is, wherever you may find yourself within that state, just being there is enough to keep it all going.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was one of those school-assigned books that resonated with quite a lot of students back when I was in high school, and I’d wager still holds its power with plenty today. The story of a group of boys stranded on an island after a plane crash and left to their own devices was strangely identifiable. Golding didn’t hold back on making the kids real, and he transferred the usual social order into a harsh environment and let it play out, no punches pulled. I would guess just about every kid (or at least every boy) reading it imagined who they might be in such a scenario. Would you be the sensible leader, Ralph? The egomaniac Jack, who lures the other boys down the wrong path toward savagery? Or worse, would you be the put-upon Piggy, or perhaps worst of all, one of the nameless kids who just goes along?

I remember much debate about The Hunger Games when the books became a hit, people fearing Hollywood would never make the movie versions because it was too scared to show young people killing each other. And then when the first one came out [review], some audience members still complained it wasn’t violent enough. (I reviewed part II, as well [here].) My guess is similar equivocations occurred when it came to trying to adapt Lord of the Flies. It took nine years for the 1954 novel to make it to the screen, helmed by theatre-director Peter Brook. That the essential nature of the book survived, even without overly explicit violence, is a pretty impressive thing. Watching it again, and having not read the novel since probably the early 1990s, I was amazed not only by how sharp it still was, but how it also still hits the big moments, the stuff that sticks with you.

The plot remains unchanged: the kids end up on the island, and at first huddle into a single tribe, only to become more fractured as society becomes a distant memory. The levelheaded Ralph (James Aubrey) is the first to organize the group. It’s his blowing on a conch shell, urged on by the nerdy Piggy (Hugh Edwards), that brings the scattered children to the same beach. He is voted chief of the tribe over his immediate rival, Jack (Tom Chapin), the alpha male from the religious school. Jack counters by mobilizing his choir group to be the tribe’s hunters, setting him up as the hawk to Ralph’s dove. In Jack, we catch a glimpse of British colonialism: he believes Brits are the natural rulers of the world and should take what they desire. (Toxic white male prototype.)

This dynamic can only go one way, with Jack moving for power and getting more of it the longer they are marooned. As the kids grow hungrier and more scared, they are ready for a leader that will show a strong arm, no matter how wrong. When a downed fighter pilot in his flight suit is discovered on a rocky peak, he becomes a bogeyman to foment unrest. Jack takes his hunters and splits for higher ground, eventually offering a spot amongst their second tribe--and compelling some by force--to those who initially chose to stay with Ralph. They succumb to primal living, glorifying in the hunt, eventually indulging in murder. Representing the worst of human nature is Roger (Roger Elwin), one of Jack’s fiercest hunters, and the one who eventually embraces killing to such a degree, he murders his own kind.

Brook keeps it simple throughout Lord of the Flies. The natural scenario is a limited one--there is no technology, tool making is rudimental, conversation is limited by age and education--and so the best approach is for Brook to immerse himself in the environment, much like the boys themselves. In the film’s most striking and poetic sequence, Jack’s followers erupt in a bloodthirsty frenzy. Brook makes the camera their target, so that the little savages are consistently rushing the viewer, placing us in the position of prey. The eventual violence is thus not seen directly, but Brook shows the consequences: a body floating out to sea.

The director, who edited the film alongside two others, gets through the most difficult material in a similar manner. It’s all about suggestion. A quick cut, showing the center of the moment, but not the final strike, is evocative for how it inspires the audience to imagine the incident for themselves. A synecdoche of slaps.

This Lord of the Flies also works because of how the filmmakers isolate the experience, creating a world entirely unto itself. The initial plot set-up--the boys being sent away to protect them from war, the plane crash--is shown only during the credits and as a series of stills, a la Chris Marker. The effect is to make the homeland a kind of imagined location, as if that part of Lord of the Flies is the story, the myth, and the island is the only reality. It undercuts our own potential nostalgia for the life the boys might have left behind. In fact, outside of Piggy banging on about his aunt, these castaways don’t talk about home much at all, it might as well have been erased in a nuclear armageddon. It’s become so unreal, the appearance of the pilot, an adult human, is seen as a monster, as death himself. At movie’s end, when more adults arrive-- sailors in pristine white uniforms , seen, never heard--the judgment is instant. Civilization will reclaim the children, and there will be consequences.

It would be a mistake, howerer, to imagine the behavior we see as occurring because the participants are young kids; Golding and Brook are looking to use the school boys as an abstract to demonstrate how men would act if we remove comfort and convenience. Survival is a selfish endeavor, and only the social contract prevents us from grabbing what’s “ours.” Yet, were this to be a movie about adults losing their shit (think The Beach or Apocalypse Now), it would have a totally different effect. We would not indulge the grown men the way we do the boys. Lines between hero and villain would be more clearly drawn. As real as Brook makes it, his carving out this separate reality allows us to give it more credence, to accept Lord of the Flies as a brutal fable, and leave much of our own preconceptions to the side.

Quick note: the package art for the 2013 Criterion edition of Lord of the Flies is by the exceptional Kent Williams. Kent was a pioneer of painted comic books in the late 1980s, including the chilling vampire comic Blood: A Tale. He doesn’t do comics all that much anymore, but he continues to paint, and if you don’t know his work, seek him out and change that.

Note: The screengrabs here were taken from the 1999 Criterion standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Gimme Shelter is a movie in conflict with itself. Intended as a performance film chronicling a celebratory Rolling Stones concert to close out their 1969 tour, Gimme Shelter ends up being at odds with its own reality. Due to the tragic events of the day, the movie can no longer be what it’s supposed to be. Yet, the three directors--Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin--don’t settle for just telling the story of a concert gone wrong, they instead crack the whole thing open and sift through the damage, making it as much about the mechanics of nonfiction and a subject’s relationship with the camera as about the night the Rolling Stones tried to put on a free show.

The Stones gig at Altamont Speedway, just outside San Francisco, is legendary. For some, it is the death knell of the 1960s. Following just a few months after Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, a music documentary that Gimme Shelter has much in common with--both don’t just show what is happening onstage, but the business wheeling and dealing required to put such an event together--except the peace and love vibe of the bigger festival is all but gone, drowned in one long brown acid rain.

The lead-up to the day shows us the Stones out on the road, in the recording studio, and in the boardroom. Altamont almost didn’t happen, as a large enough venue was hard to procure. It’s only in the 11th hour that the racetrack becomes an option, leaving the band and its crew to set the whole thing up overnight. Hindsight shows it would have been better to postpone and put some more time into it. The stage is barely up  before the crowds arrive, and the logistics aren’t completely thought through. From the get-go, the performance spot is overtaken by attendees. They climb lighting towers, swarm the backstage area, and even take up residency on the stage itself. Patience dwindles, communication breaks down, and the event’s security, the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, gets testy. During a performance by Jefferson Airplane, one of the Hell’s Angels even pastes singer Marty Balin in the face when Balin tries to break up a fight. The Grateful Dead arrive and immediately turn around and leave once they hear what has been going on.

By the time the sun has set and the Stones take the stage, there’s no turning back. The band stops and starts, trying to quell the violence. The bikers line the front of the stage. In one fateful moment, one of the cameras even captures a Hell’s Angel, standing mere feet from Mick Jagger, tripping his face off (judging by his appearance, he might think this literally). Mick either doesn’t notice or just phases him out. The Angels eventually chase the dude off into the crowd, as if surrendering one of their own to maintain their appearance of power.

We only see Meredith Hunter twice in Gimme Shelter. The first time, we have no reason to suspect we should know who he is. He just stands out in the crowd: a tall African American man in a bright green suit. The second time we see him, the Stones are playing “Under My Thumb,” and Meredith Hunter is being attacked by the Hell’s Angels, one of whom stabbed him and killed him.

It’s interesting that the filmmakers didn’t sequester this terrible turn for a third-act reveal. I suppose given that it’s a known news event, and essential to why the movie exists, there is no real reason to withhold the information. Instead, at the start, we are told that there were four births and four deaths during Altamont via a radio broadcast playing for Charlie Watts in the directors’ editing suite. Though the full extent of what went down isn’t explained, we do hear from one of the Angels calling in to defend the fatal decision--the murdered man kicked someone’s motorcycle--and it’s the only explanation Gimme Shelter offers. The film is an observation, not an investigation. There are multiple cuts back to the studio throughout the film, to Watts or Jagger watching what we are watching, a post-modern commentary that was far ahead of its time. Watts remains stone-faced, his intense eyes peering back at the camera probing him for a reaction. Jagger, on the other hand, is visibly shaken when they roll the stabbing back and forth for him, like Jim Garrison toggling the kill shot on the Zapruder film, pausing on the moment we can see Hunter’s gun, and then the biker’s knife raised in the air. The singer tries not to show too much, but his poker face isn’t all that sturdy, leading to the infamous shot where he stares into the camera, and they freeze on his ambiguous expression. Is he angry that the lens would expose him like this, or is it the reaction of a little boy caught where he shouldn’t be? It’s an eerily private moment--we are spying on the man spying on himself.

In this, the Maysles brothers and Zwerin are far ahead of their time, laying the groundwork for filmmakers like Errol Morris to dig deeper into their subjects, urging the kind of self-reflection and confession that would ultimately become de rigueur on reality TV. Beyond parsing through the crime, Gimme Shelter also sets the standard for concert films, defining the genre with its mix of performance and business. Shot with multiple cameras, Gimme Shelter captures the Stones at their bluesy peak, having settled into an almost laconic groove, offering more laid-back and countrified versions of even some of their bigger, faster hits like “Jumping Jack Flash.” There are no obvious overdubs, and no added sheen to the cinematography. The concert scenes here are dirty and raw. Whether a Stones fan or not, you’ll understand why they were so popular in 1969 and why they have endured--though Jagger chicken dance remains as confusing to me as ever. (Sexy? Really, ladies?) Music aficionados are also treated to an amazing version of Ike and Tina Turner covering “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” But you also don’t have to care about the music at all to find Gimme Shelter compelling.

The Stones aren’t exactly innocents at the start of Gimme Shelter, nor do the Bay Area hippies in the audience appear to be as peaceful and gentle as their mythology would have us believe. Yet, there is still a feeling of something passing at the close of the film, of a naïveté being put to bed. Perhaps it’s that they can’t maintain the illusion that it’s all good vibes and love any longer, that they have to acknowledge the darkness that lies within the scene and, naturally, the individuals that define it. As the film fades, the directors cut back to the audience first walking into Altamont, an eager and polite group, but they layer a live rendition of the movie’s title track over the top, its lyrics a portent of the inevitable evil to come.