Sunday, March 30, 2008


The actor Richard Widmark passed away this week at the age of 93. It's a hell of an age to reach, and a hell of a life to live. He appeared in his first film in 1947, and his last in 1991 (not counting voiceover work a year later), racking up 75 on-screen credits. No small accomplishment.

His debut role as sadistic sociopath Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death is probably still his most remembered performance, and one of the most influential and indelible screen villains of all time. No one can ever recreate that rat-a-tat laugh, sounding like a machine gun stuck in one place and carrying the same murderous intent. Widmark was so believable as the twisted killer that he could have easily been typecast as the heavy in cheap gangster movies, but it wasn't long before the actor started to earn a name for himself as a steel-jawed hero dedicated to pursuing what he knew was right, be it the health inspector in Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets or the submarine commander in Samuel Fuller's Hell and High Water. Even in his more ambiguous characters, like the prowling hotel guest he played in Don't Bother to Knock, Widmark always made the audience accept that he was following a personal set of ethics that he would never stray from.

This sense of completeness was something Widmark was also able to take to roles that deviated slightly from the good guy/bad guy norm.

The actor teamed with writer/director Samuel Fuller for the first time in 1953 for the pickpocket broiler Pickup on South Street. In the film, Widmark plays Skip McCoy, a "cannon" with the lightest fingers in the city. Having been released from his third extended prison stay just the week before, Skip is back on the subways digging through ladies' purses, risking a dreaded fourth conviction that could send him up the river for life.

On the particular morning when the film begins (and the whole story plays out over 24 hours), Skip picks the wrong mark on the commuter train. Candy (Jean Peters) doesn't see him lift her wallet, but the federal agents trailing her do. The girl is a patsy for some communist hoods, and she is unwittingly delivering microfilm exposing U.S. secrets. Skip doesn't realize what he has is so valuable until he becomes the most popular guy in town. The police are ready to make him an incredible deal for fessing up and handing it over, and Candy comes around offering cash, still clueless herself about whom she is working for. Putting the pieces together, Skip sees a big payday on his horizon.

Skip McCoy is the quintessential iconoclast, and probably as much representative of Fuller's own disregard for some of the go-along-get-along aspects of the Hollywood system as anything else. The petty thief stands for nothing or no one, just for himself. The law wants him to hand over the film in the name of patriotism ("Are you waving the flag at me?" he laughs), and though he doesn't like commies, he doesn't see why they can't do business ("So you're a Red, who cares? Your money's as good as anybody else's."). Neither system of beliefs is his. Capitalism hasn't done him any favors, and he has no reason to believe communism will either. If the cops could make him a counter offer he could trust, Skip would forego the $25K he's asking from the crooks, but money is at least something he can count on, not the fickle promises of lawmen on the make.

The best scene for showing what kind of a guy Skip is, actually, is when he finds Candy searching his riverside shack for her goods. He hasn't yet realized that she's a woman when he clocks her in the jaw, but once the lights are on and consciousness regained, he massages her bruised cheek with the same hand that turned it black and blue, loosening her lips and getting her to talk. He then only admits he knows she is lying after she kisses him. Skip sees the angles, and he's going to play then, and such nonchalant braggadocio is everything a classic Fuller rogue is about. Pickup on South Street is as rough hewn as any of Fuller's pictures. The climactic subway brawl is brutal and dangerous, and it should make you flinch more than once.

Yet, the movie also has some of Fuller's most tender writing. The deathbed speech Thelma Ritter's Moe gives when the dirty red bastard Joey (Richard Kiley) is threatening her is full of wonderful proclamations about what it means to stand by your principles, and the fact that Fuller turns the camera away when Moe gets it tells you how much affection he must have had for her. Ritter was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for this role, and it is one of those supporting parts that is so important to the film, you can't imagine anyone else having fulfilled the duties. It's not just Moe's murder that convinces Skip to take action, but her words, as well. "Even in our crummy line of business," she tells him, "you gotta draw the line somewhere."

For Skip, that line is just like everything else: personal. Messing with Moe, putting Candy in the hospital when she stuck her neck out for him, that's messing with things that actually matter, with people Skip has come to count on. Thus, the resolution remains personal, too, with Skip taking care of business his own way. No cops, no money, just retribution.

While Skip may have all the answers covered, three years earlier in Jules Dassin's 1950 noir Night & the City, Richard Widmark plays a character so close to the end of the rope, he's run out of questions, much less the answers. Harry Fabian is the kind of guy who can't see the breaks coming, so he tries to make them and blames others when they don't land in the right spot.

An American transplanted in London, Harry is a small-time hustler conning his visiting countrymen into going to the Silver Fox nightclub, where pretty girls shake them down for overpriced drinks, chocolates, and cigarettes. Harry's significant other, Mary (Gene Tierney), is also employed there as a singer. She's a loyal lover, accepting Harry's constant schemes with a heavy heart that results in a barren wallet. The owners of the Silver Fox offer a kind of warped mirror image to this couple: the husband, Philip (Francis L. Sullivan), is a successful--though sleazy--business man, but his wife Helen (Googie Withers) has no love for him. Phil and Mary are both being taken advantage of, except Phil sees his predicament well ahead of the coup de grace and he intends to turn the tables rather than be a cuckold.

Dassin and screenwriter Jo Eisenger's vision of the London underworld is reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera, with an intricate social structure that even includes a Beggar's Union. Harry is a walking joke in this world. He has the gift of the gab, but most of the regulars have long since tired of hearing his endless schilling. Like a film noir Fred Flinstone, he's had a million million-dollar ideas, none of which have panned out. His sales pitch is soaked through with flop sweat, and when he's not being brushed off, he's being laughed at. Widmark rides through the part as if he is on a roller coaster, confidence giving way to fear and anxiety, and then back to bravado again. He chews on every word, barely pausing to breathe, racing through Eisenger's lowlife poetry.

Eventually, Harry loads his hand with more cards than he can play. Convinced he can muscle into becoming a sports promoter, he tries to block the city's wrestling godfather, Kristo (Herbert Lom), by using the gangster's champion father (Stanislaus Zbyszko) against him. To fund this operation, Harry takes money from Helen that she wants him to parlay into her own nightclub using matching funds from her husband. Not knowing that Philip is wise to him, Harry isn't even aware of his own failure to shore up the foundation of this house of cards. Once a loser, always a loser, the odds are never in his favor.

Max Greene's moody photography serves to express Harry's doom. The encroaching shadows signal the death that approaches, and Widmark gets more frenzied and feverish, trying to help Harry weasel out of the darkness. There is nowhere for him to turn, the world he has insisted has been against him all along finally gives in to the base impulses he would foist upon it. Through much of the film, Dassin and Greene take their camera on the London streets, shooting Piccadilly Circus the same way Dassin shot New York for The Naked City. In the climax, we see Harry running across construction sites that look like ruins, disappearing in the mist, trapped on the streets where he earned his living.

Nowhere does this shooting style serve Night & the City better, though, than Harry's inglorious end. As morning approaches, Harry is calm for the first time, having accepted his fate and deciding to stop scrounging. Down at the water, Dassin shows a bridge in the distance, criminal assassins gathering, running back and forth like ants digging out a new farm. Seeing a chance to do right by Mary, Harry commits his first unselfish act by running into his undoing. It's a powerful scene, with Widmark sprinting at the camera, screaming, arms flailing, simultaneously possessed by the fear of death and running bravely into it. Forget any cool screen persona, that's true acting.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Well, I have to say, I was thrilled yesterday when this arrived in my inbox via the DVD Talk website.

I read your review of 'Blast of Silence - Criterion Collection' and...I am deeply pleased with your critique and am gratified by your keen observation of things I worked to expressed when making the film. My sincerest thanks.

Allen Baron

You can't ask for better than that, no?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I was fortunate enough to see Blast of Silence sometime back in the mid-1990s when it was part of one of the then-regular film noir festivals at Cinema 21 in Portland. I would buy a book of tickets the week before the shows and try to catch every film in the line-up I had not seen before, sitting in the front row until my butt was numb and my eyes bleary. Blast of Silence was an oddity, as I had not even heard of it, nor seen in mentioned in any noir books, and its 1961 release date placed it much later on the historical timeline than most of the other fare. This unrefined gem was a real surprise, a quick shock to the system that didn't hold back, like a point-blank meeting with a snub-nosed revolver.

Made on the cheap by writer/director/star Allen Baron, there is no other film like Blast of Silence, an independently made hardboiled crime picture. You can tell right away that it's not going to be the same old production. Opening on an almost entirely black screen, it's hard to tell if the pinprick of light at the center is supposed to be there or if it's some kind of problem with the print. As the white circle shakes and begins to come closer, the gravelly voice of B-movie perennial Lionel Stander seems to address the viewer directly, speaking in a second-person "you." He speaks of your birth, how it hurt, how your mother screamed, and even how the doctor slapped your bare bottom as the camera finally breaks through and shows the inside of Penn Station. New York has been rushing toward you the whole time. Most Hollywood directors used train tunnels as a metaphor for sex, Baron births himself out of that underground canal, stepping onto the platform as a cold-hearted killer.

Coming in from Cleveland for a yuletide killing, Frank Bono is a solitary hitman who finds solace in the work he does. The voiceover continues, acting as a kind of taunting conscience, egging Frank on while also exposing his Freudian hang-ups. He grew up in an orphanage, he has painful memories of Christmas, he doesn't particularly care for women and he definitely hates his father. What he likes is being alone and the peace when the voice in his head goes quiet.

Blast of Silence follows Frank as he plans his hit. He cases the target (Peter H. Clune), buys a gun from a repugnant former colleague (Larry Tucker), and searches for the best possible angle to do his job. Baron shoots on the streets of Manhattan, using real nightclubs and apartment buildings to capture the quirky details of life in the city, on the outside (who is on the streets, where they go) or the inside (where someone hides his money, the gifts we bring a lover). (There is at least one constructed set, an apartment used for a party.) Cinematographer and producer Merrill Brody has a few rough stylistic edges, but even they serve to add to the from-the-ground feeling of the production. He makes the most of cramped spaces, using natural shadows for improvised composition. Given the documentary style and the warped voiceover, Blast of Silence is a bit like the less-sophisticated, knob-kneed cousin of Jules Dassin's The Naked City and the TV show that spun off from it.

I wondered at one point what the movie might be like without the narration. Written by Waldo Salt separately from Baron's screenplay and penned under the name Mel Davenport, it's ever-present, even moreso than the jazzy Meyer Kupferman score. Take it away, and Blast of Silence would be more like one of Jean-Pierre Melville's Eastern philosophy crime pictures. Yet, without it, Baron would not be able to convey the sense that something is dogging Frank. This job is the assassin's unraveling. Running into a guy who used to bully him at the orphanage (Danny Meehan) and his sister (Molly McCarthy), Frank lets his guard slip. He begins to make mistakes, to yearn for things that only get in the way for a man in his profession. The hard edges get soft, he feels loneliness at the holidays and regrets for the past just like the rest of us. There are only two options left for Frank to get the silence he craves: get the job done or get out altogether. Not for nothing does Baron play Frank as stony and stiff, looking almost unprofessional next to the other actors; they are more mannered and lively, real characters played by real people, while Frank is just a shell.

There are films with more polish than Blast of Silence, but that's okay. In some ways, the unsanded corners of this film put the boot into old film noir and how the bad guys were prettied up. Inside Frank Bono's head, we hear about hate and pain and the things a man can't escape, film noir concepts that weren't always given those blunt terms. Shot as it was, Allen Baron's movie brings the struggle to life, illustrating the need to get ahead and to get the filthy jobs done. The fact that Baron and Merrill and the rest got theirs done, putting together a one-two punch of a film, is illustration enough of what that means.

Blast of Silence - Criterion Collection is packaged in a clear plastic case with printing on all sides of the cover. The front image, menu design, and all of the interior images were done by comics artist Sean Phillips, whose own Criminal series with Ed Brubaker tells tough-minded crime tales in the tradition of Blast of Silence. Having Phillips' art throughout gives the packaging a wonderful design unity. In addition to the regular Criterion booklet, which has an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an extra four-page insert by Phillips adapts some of the Waldo Salt voiceover from the film into a brand-new promotional comic. It's a very cool extra.

Was the image of the children Frank sees leaving an orphanage intentionally put together so the streams of kids formed a swastika, underlining Frank's loathing of the system in which he grew up? I noticed it when I was watching the movie, and was happy then to hear in the documentary in the disc's extras that he did put it in there on purpose, though its capturing was an accident. It was a natural occurrence Baron's painterly eye could not let pass.


For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


I suppose it is fitting that my memory of when I first saw Naked Lunch is hazy, as the movie itself is hazy and drug-addled and gleefully confused. I thought it came out when I was in high school, and that I had snuck down to Los Angeles from my home in the Antelope Valley to see it. My friends and I often saw arty movies that way, the stuff that didn't make it to our mall. It was less expensive than rock concerts, plus we could also get back before anyone noticed we were gone.

It turns out Cronenberg's movie came out my sophomore year in college. A limited release just after Christmas in 1991. A winter release also then makes it questionable that I thought I had seen it with a girl--the same girl who I talked about in the My Life as a Dog review. It always comes down to a girl, and quite often that girl. It would make sense that she and I would see it together as she had a fascination with the Beats, particularly Kerouac, that I didn't understand but faked a shared interest in because that's often the kind of rotten thing you do when you are desperate to get someone to love you. Other guys do it to get a girl's shirt off, but I've never been good at being a cad.

I made some noble efforts to read various works by the Beat writers, including her favorite The Dharma Bums, which I liked all right. I thought an easier route would be the poetry and even Kerouac's dream journal, which turned out to be more punishment than had I delved into the more complex prose works. I'm still fairly nonplussed by that particular literary movement. It seems to me it was a bunch of self-hating gay men sitting around with even more loathsome closet cases getting drunk and inventing a secret code to convince themselves they were clever. A college professor of mine, I think from that same year, said it succinctly when he said the problem with the Beats is that they assumed that just because it happened to them, it was interesting.

I'm not trying to be needlessly provocative here. There are a lot who will see these assessments as heresy, and if you're feeling apoplectic, brace yourself, because it's only going to get worse.

For my money, William S. Burroughs is one of the emptiest literary figureheads of all time.

There. I said it.

I've tried to understand the fascination with his work, tried to see why he has garnered so much attention from the likes of Kurt Cobain and Gus Van Sant. Maybe it's because I've never done drugs, I am not impressed by his alleged outlaw antics; then again, I've never been a bootlegger, but I love me a good movie about prohibition, so who knows? I just find his work impenetrable and needlessly obtuse. It's one of those cases where the artist hasn't given us the decoder ring, and so it seems mysterious and rebellious, so ipso facto it must be good. When I read Naked Lunch, I found it to be a ridiculous struggle to finish. I would read pages and pages of lunatic ravings about boys crapping themselves for both purposes of sex and drugs, and I would often just let the words pass, just muscle through and turn the page so that I could eventually turn the last one and put the damned thing down. In my senior year of high school, one of the members of our smarty-farty misfit group picked Naked Lunch as his subject for the multimedia report we had to do for 12th Grade AP English. He did a presentation that required volunteers to submit to series of hand-slapping exercises designed as a test geared to record a human being's tendency to adapt to pain. I found it annoying at the time that he could get away with doing something on the fly, while I spent several days adapting and filming and starring in a twenty-minute adaptation of the phone conversation from Salinger's Franny & Zooey. When I was reading the Burroughs novel some time later, my friend's report finally made sense to me. He was demonstrating what it was like to read the book, and as someone who rarely gives up on a book or film, what I would do to myself in order to see the words "The End."

Given the classic mess that is the book Naked Lunch, it's all the more impressive that David Cronenberg managed to pull a semblance of a narrative out of it in order to make his movie. Even more impressive is the fact that I actually like it.

Part of Cronenberg's successful strategy is looking beyond the single book at the whole of Burroughs' work and also his biography. He drapes the entire film in literary fabric, with the reference to Kafka in regards to the narcotic high the film's characters get from bug powder dust being a fairly telling allusion. The plot of the movie is Kafakesque with interwoven lines of paranoia, labyrinthine bureaucracies, and the self-replicating puzzle that the film's hero finds himself in.

Peter Weller plays William "Bill" Lee, an obvious Burroughs stand-in, with his monotone speaking voice, raincoat, and fedora. Bill works for an extermination company, and it turns out that his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), is stealing his roach powder and shooting it into her bloodstream with his book-writin' buddies (analogues to Kerouac and Ginsberg). A drunken accident leads to Bill shooting his wife, and he has to go on the lam, becoming a strung-out version of Hitchcock's wrong man, only this time he's pretty much the right man, he really did it.

The catch being that Bill is unwittingly locked in a plot larger than that of his regular life. He has been visited by a large insect-like creature who has informed him that Joan is really a secret agent for Interzone, a middle eastern nation somewhere in the middle of, well, not quite sure. North Africa, maybe, but also possibly reachable by bus. After the shooting, Bill meets a creature named Mugwump--it looks like a demonic alien--who instructs him to buy a typewriter for writing reports of his activities and gives him a ticket to Interzone. He can go there to hide from the law and work to take down the corporation that was controlling his wife. There is never really any indication of who this opposing force is, whose side Bill is actually working on, but that isn't really important.

Naked Lunch is a movie about doubles. Everything in the movie has a natural opposite. Even Kerouac (Nicholas Campbell), with his rough exterior and his insistence that rewriting is censorship, is mirrored by Ginsberg (Michael Zelniker), more fey and dogmatically committed to revising his poetry at least a hundred times. In Cronenberg's world, everything could be something else, nothing should be assumed to be as it seems. (Even the old-style puppetry fosters the sensation of "What do you choose to believe?" by sitting somewhere between convincing and false.) Typewriters turn into grotesque creatures with pulsing sexual organs, meaning that the act of creation is a far more intimate, sensual experience than simply banging out some words, and to use another man's typewriter could be the greatest of indiscretions. Being an undercover agent not only means you have multiple identities, but it is also perhaps a game crafted merely to mask the agents' homosexuality--or vice versa, as Bill's typewriter tells him that being queer is one of the best covers a spy could have. Seemingly struggling with his own sexuality, are Bill's hallucinations his own sexual repression breaking down? It's a less pedestrian explanation than if they are merely drug-induced fantasies. Then again, maybe it all really is happening. Even if it's imagined, it's real to Bill.

Once he is in Interzone, Bill gets wrapped up in a bug drug trade, as well as a pansexual party crowd run by enemy agents Joan and Tom Frost. Tom is played by Ian Holm, but Joan is Judy Davis again, and Bill is obviously drawn to her because she is a doppelganger for his deceased spouse. Tom telepathically informs Bill that he has been slowly killing off his Joan, as well, suggesting that they are one in the same, doubles of each other, two murderers.

My favorite joke on dual nature, however, is the tres gauche dandy Yves Clouquet (Julian Sands). Pronounced the first time we hear it as "Eve Cloaky," the name has many obvious double meanings. Eve evokes original sin, and Cloaky not only conjures the image of a cloak--something to hide behind, possibly while wielding a dagger--but of the Norse god of lies, Loki. Another great play on words comes when Bill types a sentence beginning with the phrase "I am very" and accidentally mistypes it as "I am vary." Yes, indeed, you are!

The story eventually doubles back on itself. The cure proves to be the sickness, and Bill must redress his actions against Joan, and the unconventional plot must have a conventional resolution, the hero rescuing the girl.

Or so it would seem. The journey of Naked Lunch is really Bill Lee seeking the most direct path to the subconscious. It’s that debate between Kerouac and Ginsberg (whom I should note are called Hank and Martin in the movie, I just refuse to pretend). "Exterminate all rational thought." What is the fastest way to get into the uncensored part of your imagination, the inner (Inter)zone. Bill has found that path, even if he is not fully aware of it. His reports have turned into the novel Naked Lunch, which he doesn't remember writing. Losing his drugs, losing his typewriter, accepting the illusion and no longer questioning, Bill needs to keep his grip on his dreamscape. His rescue of Joan from Benway (Roy Scheider) is not a magnanimous act. To stay on his writerly path, he must be in exile from others. Leaving Interzone for Annexia, a Soviet bloc with a name that indicates separateness, he must repeat again the heinous act that caused his initial banishment.

If then we are to accept that a big problem of Beat writing is the notion that just because it happened to the writer, he felt it was interesting enough to share, Cronenberg wouldn't necessarily disagree. For many, there is still an impenetrable veneer over the Naked Lunch movie, with the unexplained remaining unexplained presumably because it is inexplicable. Like hearing another person relate his or her dreams, even if the dreamer is Jack Kerouac, they are only of sufficient interest to the listener if they have some inside track that allows them to understand the dreamer's code. What Cronenberg is saying is that that this level of otherness is required in order for a writer like Burroughs to unleash his visions on the world, and while it may not all be clear, it doesn’t have to be. This makes his movie less of an adaptation than it is a translation, peeling back the layers of the typewriter to bury his hands in the meat, realigning the symbols to make a more accessible language.

Thus, through Cronenberg's eyes to mine, I understand it a bit more, I get what Burroughs was going for, even if I still don't like it. I'll keep the movie, the rest of you can have the book.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


From Ang Lee's urbane but serious-minded portrait of the 1970s, The Ice Storm, to Richard Linklater's openly comic and lovingly mocking take on the same, Dazed & Confused. Linklater trades the chilly climes of Connecticut for the warmer skies of Texas, and he keeps the movie almost entirely focused on teenagers, but the theme is essentially the same: small towns confine us in roles we feel we can't escape whether we want the part they offer or not, and true freedom comes from shirking the expected for the desired.

Interestingly enough, both films take place over a life-changing holiday weekend. This time, rather than Thanksgiving, it's a kegger to celebrate the start of summer and the changing of the guard from one senior class to another. Intruding on the situation are the youngsters leaving junior high for the hallowed halls of high school. It's a less stringent young/old dynamic, but it still works. Plus, given the lowered ages of all involved, on top of the fact that this is a comedy, the hopeful, carefree tone that would likely come in The Ice Storm only after the final credits is ever-present in Dazed & Confused. Some of the teenagers are already pod people, they just don't know it yet.

I posited at the end of my Ang Lee review that there was something of all of us in his characters, and that is doubly true for Dazed & Confused. High school is society in microcosm, with the same pecking order and the same personalities that we find in all walks of life. For myself, I like to think I was a cross between the Wiley Wiggins character and one of the kids in Adam Goldberg's crew. I was precocious and funny and able to get away with a lot that my peers couldn't (and often hung with an older crowd), but I was also too smart for my own good. Where I went to high school in the Mojave Desert, we had DPs, a.k.a. Desert Parties. They were no more organized than the big to-do in the movie. Someone would pick a location in the desert, bring a keg, maybe start a bonfire, and then everyone would drive out and park their cars and wait for the cops to chase them away. I maybe lasted five minutes at one DP in my entire high school career. I wasn't willing to jump in and engage. The people were stupid, the party was stupid, I was so out of there!

Once the cops broke up the party, a lot of driving around looking for something else to do followed. Cruising is its own American tradition, also celebrated in George Lucas' American Graffiti, which actually adds some credence to the theory of smart girl Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) in Dazed & Confused. She suggests there is an alternating decade pendulum: one decade sucks, the next rules. Though Lucas' film was set in 1962, it was a period of transition. The kids riding up and down those streets didn't know what they were in for, they were still trying to shake off the post-war oppression that had settled in America's streets in the 1950s. (The British streets, as well. Listen sometime to the Who's Pete Townshend talk about the lingering aftershocks of WWII that he was rebelling against, and you'll find one of the most cogent explanations of where the Kitchen Sink filmmaking movement came from.) Coincidentally, American Graffiti was made in 1973, the year Rick Moody was wrestling with in The Ice Storm. Linklater places Dazed & Confused in 1976, when the U.S. was celebrating its birthday, an empty moment in time for many, with Nixon being traded for Ford and Vietnam still a fresh sting. Even with the "let's get drunk and party" throughline in the movie, there are still hints of politics in Dazed & Confused (and even more on the cutting room floor, as the deleted scenes reveal). The character Kaye (Christine Harnos), the one who sees "Gilligan's Island" as a fascist male pornographic fantasy and who seems to carry a dark cloud with her wherever she goes, is Christina Ricci's Ice Storm character all grown up. Not to mention that the teacher's reminder that the Bicentennial is as much a glorification of a blood-stained history of greed as it is a patriotic marker sounds like an echo of Ricci's Thanksgiving prayer in Ang Lee's picture.

Really, what we see here in the hazing of younger students and the search for substance-induced oblivion is a trade-off for the parlor games of the older generation. If in The Ice Storm the adults are trying to act like kids, it appears that they've punted the dysfunction down to the younger folks. As the sun rises on empty kegs, a few find themselves in the arms of another and at least one character (Randy "Pink" Floyd, as played by then It-kid Jason London) finds the opportunity to stand up for himself, but most just wake up hungover, still waiting for that something to happen that will make the 1970s and their own lives have some kind of meaning.

I know, I know. This is all making rather serious work out of what is essentially supposed to be light and fun. It's the nature of this kind of story, it inspires this sort of maudlin, po-faced nostalgia in writers. I think most creative types recycle their adolescence even on into their later years. The mid-life crisis is just a chance to buy those old tales a brand new set of clothes to try to make them look young, and being a senior citizen means you can make the beleaguered anecdotes more wistful and far, far dirtier than they ever were. My guess is we have to make it mean something greater as an excuse to keep the whole charade going, and a lot of these theories about Dazed & Confused are really just confined to the four walls of my head. It wouldn't surprise me if Richard Linklater laughed and cried "Bullshit!" if he ever had an opportunity to read this.

Once you drop all the palaver, Dazed & Confused is an insanely funny movie. Its plotless nature makes it endlessly watchable. You could put it on repeat and just let the disc run, and I doubt you'd grow tired of it. It's not necessarily one scene after another of nonstop guffaws, but it's a comedy of behavior, and you're just watching these teens go about their business. What people do in their everyday lives can be pretty amusing. The few times that there is an actual punchline, such as Adam Goldberg insisting he only wants to dance, those are the only moments where Dazed & Confused loses some of its humor alongside some of its truth.

Like The Ice Storm, Dazed & Confused was a flashpoint of talent. Though a lot of folks we expected to be stars from this faded, Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Cole Hauser, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Nicky Katt, and Ben Affleck went on to enjoy longer careers. Rory Cochran surfaced again years later on television as part of the CSI blight, and I only realized today that Christine Harnos was Anthony Edwards' ex-wife on ER, the one I always thought he was crazy to let get away. And, of course, Parker Posey. When she cried out, "Lick me! All of you!" I responded with a yearning "Yes, please." The best choice Linklater made for the movie was letting these young actors loose to be themselves. While there was obviously a plan and overall scheme to how the pieces would fit together, there is an atmosphere of freedom that makes me suspect that within the delineated points, the director let the actors move however they felt comfortable. Though the movie wasn't shot in a cinema verite style, it has the natural happenstance of an on-the-street production.

It's funny that Dazed & Confused has become a cable perennial. You can see it on E! and I think Comedy Central quite often. The language has been toned down, made safe for the bullshit pact that television networks allegedly have with the public at large. It doesn't have the same resonance when the movie is altered so as not to offend. They should also change the ending so that Pink signs the morality contract for his football coach. Just as the kids in both Dazed & Confused and The Ice Storm have been let down by an older generation that has sold the ideals of the 1960s down the river, so too do these versions feel like Linklater has defanged his own rebellion. I don't really think that's true or feel betrayed or anything like that, I just stumbled upon the observation as I struggled for an ending to this essay. Call it my last stand, my own standing up to the coach, even though I know I will go on and next time I happen by Ben Affleck winding up with his wooden paddle on basic cable, I'll probably stop and watch until at least the next commercial break.

Sometimes that's the nature of things, and you have to just keep livin'. L-I-V-I-N.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


When most storytellers want to use a natural occurrence as a metaphor for a great cleansing, they usually turn to something Biblical, like a massive fire or flood. Leave it to Ang Lee, the master of restrained emotions, to instead gravitate to Rick Moody's novel of suburban ennui in the 1970s, The Ice Storm. In Moody's story, the storm of the title comes and brings everything to a standstill, covering everything it touches in a sheet of subzero glass. With the thaw comes a great emotional awakening.

The movie opens at the ending, with Tobey Maguire at his gawky adolescent best playing 16-year-old Paul Hood, riding a train back from New York after a failed attempt at a night of debauchery. He's reading a Fantastic Four comic book and pondering the central concept of the series: the superhero team as a stand-in for the nuclear family, the curse of outrageous power being analogous of the emotional power that tears apart a regular family unit. It's Thanksgiving weekend, a manufactured excuse for people to gather, take time off from work, and get up to trouble, and Paul is visiting his Connecticut home after spending the rest of the autumn at boarding school.

The citizens of New Canaan--a modern Biblical name if there ever was one--are at an interesting point in history. The hopefulness of the '60s is about to give way to the cynicism and wayward morality of the '70s. Nixon is on his way to impeachment, and the morning after for the party of the previous decade is dawning. For the affluent denizens of this town, they are also at the cusp of new innovation in technology, both large and small. The Hoods' neighbor, Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan), is on the groundfloor of silicon chip development, but he's also the mastermind behind the Styrofoam peanut. It's hard to say which feels more exciting or important.

Ma and Pa Hood, as played by Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, aren't so much in a loveless marriage as they aren't sure where the love has run off to hide. Both feel trapped in their situation. Ben Hood is a nice guy with a good job, but he doesn't see the point of this endless charade and yearns for someone to talk to. Thus, he turns his affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) into a gabfest that she has to shut down in order to remind him that he's in her bed to have fun.

For her part, Elena Hood is also seeking some kind of outside thrill, some kind of freedom or meaningful experience that will remind her that there is more to life than can be contained in her house. Her blossoming young daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) reminds her what it was like to be young, to ride a bike and shoplift. Ironically, Wendy mistakes her parents' malaise for a lack of awareness, for a failure to see that a country run by Dick Nixon is a country run on lies. They see it, they are just stuck in the middle of those and many other lies, and it's easier to keep the covers on than lay bare the truth.

The storm hits the day after Thanksgiving, and it serves to put a halt on the sexual turmoil that is heating up all around New Canaan. Screenwriter James Schamus sees the disparity between the fumbling of the young and the old. While young Paul heads back to the city to try to cop off with the oddly named Libbets (Katie Holmes), his sister is making clumsy attempts at physical connections with the Carver boys, the spacey Mike (Elijah Wood) and the younger, black-humored Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Talk about uncomfortable, imagine your dad stumbling out of his mistress' bedroom to find you on the couch with her son! On the grown-up side of things, group therapy has given over to group experimentation, and one of the neighbors (Allison Janey) is throwing a key party. This is where attending couples throw their keys into a big bowl, and at the end of the night, the ladies randomly choose that night's partner by fishing them out. Here Elena will test Ben, and all the adults will test themselves. For all of their supposed experience, they are just as clumsy at connecting with the turmoil inside their own bodies as their children.

Once the freeze hits, The Ice Storm moves away from its sardonic tone and gets real, slipping ever so calmly into the realm of Greek tragedy. Lee has pulled a cunning sleight of hand trick, having lead us to believe his film is little more than a satire of the banal concerns of middle-class America. The director has a lot of fun with the snappy veneer of the 1970s--the hideous fashion, the obsession with pointy angles, and even the glass fruit. Ben Hood brags about his new cologne, brand name of Musk, while Wendy watches "Divorce Court" and "Green Hornet" on TV. The movie almost looks over designed, like we've landed on an alien planet where butterfly collars and brown paisley is the norm.

It's an intentional culture shock, however, with the materialism of the '70s being an all-encompassing symptom of the greater problem. Again, the more ridiculous the cover, the better chance people will believe you're as shallow as you want to be. This is the thaw that is the key to Moody's metaphor: the façade has to drop, real emotion has to return, if these people are going to survive.

The Ice Storm is as close as anyone can get to a note-perfect film. There is nothing out of place here, not a single misstep. Released in 1997, it's a tremendous convergence of talent. Just look at that cast! Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney, Elijah Wood--how do you put together such an ensemble? There is hardly anyone in this movie that didn't go on to do plenty more. It's difficult to convey the enormity of talent at work here, and the subtlety with which they pull off this job. As heavy as it sounds, The Ice Storm is light as air, passing by with a quick and comfortable ease, brimming with a self-belief that wraps the viewer in the experience, erasing any sense of time or separation of audience and screen. Ang Lee moves the camera through the picture with an unobtrusive grace so that the filmmaking never shows through, something only a rare master can do. It's very hard making it look so easy.

Yet, it's that confidence that makes The Ice Storm timeless. A film about the 1970s made in the 1990s still reverberates as contemporary and new. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met these Americans, and they are us.

For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

LA STRADA - #219

I've always had a thing for dualities. Though I don't subscribe to Randian objectivism, I do believe that there are blacks and whites in this world, building blocks of either/or that the universe is constructed with. I think part of it is that I envy the assuredness of the opposing sides. The fallacy of the duality is that in reality for every two there is a sore-thumb third, the one who walks in gray and who usually threatens the duo. I tend to be that guy. I can't choose a side, I stay in ambiguity.

Duos in movies are as old as movies themselves. Particularly in comedy, the double team has always been popular (Laurel & Hardy, Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis). The guy with the punchlines needs a straight man to bounce them off of, just as comedy needs tragedy to fill the balloon that will inevitably pop. In this sense, Federico Fellini's circus act in his 1954 film La Strada represents a classic idea. The strong man Zampano (Anthony Quinn) is the straight man, and his gentle clown Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is the comic foil. In their partnership, they embody both sides of the human coin. They are the profane and the sacred, earth and water, selfishness and empathy. Even their hair and size shows the split: he is dark and tall, she is blonde and short.

They are also art and commodity, though like most art, the distinction flips. She starts off as commodity, with Zampano purchasing her for a paltry amount from her poverty-stricken family. Zampano had previously taken Gelsomina's older sister from her mother, but she has since died in an unexplained manner, and the brute needs a replacement. He goes from town to town performing his feats of strength for coins, and his female sidekick builds him up and collects the lucre. Zampano is often branded as an animal throughout La Strada, and it's probably the only insult that can touch him. At one point, blanching at the tag, he counters that it doesn't take a team of oxen to do what he does. His main trick is tying a chain around his chest and bursting out of it, breaking the 1/4" hook that binds the links with his lungs of steel. It's a mythic image brought low by the unsophisticated presentation.

Zampano fails to see that the true artist in his midst is his new servant. A natural born mimic and a genial joker, Gelsomina adds new life to his rough routine. Her dances, animal impressions, and pantomime endear her to the crowds, particularly the children. She has a saintly quality, her wide eyes taking in the world they travel ("La Strada" means "the road") and welcoming all she sees. She is also an innocent incapable of processing the harsh realities that come her way. As a writer, I've often found it hard to put such characters through the dark patches they will inevitably encounter. My mind boggles at how Fellini could not only write the role (along with Tullio Pinelli), but also then have the strength to bring it to life for the camera using Masina, his real-life wife. The actress strikes such a lovable figure, and like Chaplin's Tramp, she seems incapable of hurting a fly despite also being capable of putting herself through any dangerous pratfall. There is very little dialogue for the part, so Masina communicates all of this through her face, giving us little hint of the motor-mouth title role she'd play for her husband in Nights of Cabiria four years later.

The relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is not a loving one, but it works in its own fashion. Though the setting is unique, with the pair moving from solo performers to joining a circus and back to solo again, the "marriage" is not all that special. Sadly, the abusive husband and the docile wife is an all too-common occurrence. Perhaps this is how Fellini gets so much relatable emotion out of a circus couple, much in the same way Ingmar Bergman managed to say something about relationships in his circus production, Sawdust & Tinsel, the year before.

Like Bergman's traveling troupe, much of the social dramaturgy in La Strada comes out of who is sleeping in what wagon on the train, and though the catalytic relationship is not adulterous, the struggle between the two men involved might as well have sex and/or affection at its root--though it gives Fellini's scenario a greater moral gravitas that it does not.

The inevitable third is known only as the Fool, and he is played by American actor Richard Baseheart. It's fitting that the Fool is introduced during a convergence of religious ceremony and popular entertainment. As a Catholic festival spills out of the church and into a party in the streets, the Fool performs a daring high-wire act over spectators' heads, impressing Gelsomina, who has just abandoned Zampano. He is acrobatic and witty, and everything as a performer that Zampano is not. In high school terms, the Fool is the class clown and Zampano is the jock.

Except the Fool is not a good guy. He first appears wearing angel's wings, but by his next appearance, he is no longer floating on air and he no longer has the wings, he has fallen to Earth. Like Lucifer in Eden, he is there to tempt God's primitive creatures. He taunts Zampano into violent tantrums and toys with Gelsomina's mind. His greatest feat is not getting her to betray her man, but to betray herself by staying with Zampano. The ironic twist, however, is when he takes it too far, he makes the schism between the giant and the child too obvious, and they no longer have any choice but to part. Neither can survive without the other. We don't see Gelsomina again, but Zampano's fate is shown to us in a referential moment worthy of Godard or Scorsese, the giant flanked by a poster for the ultimate expression of film-noir doom, D.O.A.

A final duality is in the nature of Fellini's cinema as a whole. Though in his canon La Strada was film #3 1/2, its two main characters could be argued to represent the opposing directions of the pull of Italian Neorealism and the lure of Fellini's own muse. If Zampano is the earth and the soil, then he could be representative of the movement amongst Fellini's peers to portray the reality of their surroundings, while the more fanciful Gelsomina, beyond having roots in whimsical Hollywood and theatrical expressions, is also signaling the break from reality that would define the director's best work, such as La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. It wouldn't be the first or the last time an artist pulled something out of the warring factions of inspiration, the battle between what is expected and what is desired. Again, it's art and commerce, love and practicality, the central concerns of La Strada and often of life itself.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Given that I write more reviews than what you see here, below is a list of non-Criterion films I covered in the past month that may be of interest to Criterion fans.


* 101 One Dalmatians - 2-Disc Platinum Edition, the Disney classic returning to DVD should have you seeing spots!

* The Aristocats: Special Edition, wherein everybody gets to be a cat, and oh, what fun we had.

* Diva Dolorosa, a collage of Italian silent cinema created as tribute to the operatic woman.

* Elizabeth: The Golden Age, an overlooked sequel to the 1998 Cate Blanchett vehicle that offers a lot of what fans expect--plus a little more.

* Lyrical Nitrate/The Forbidden Quest, Delpeut's found footage films don't live up to their reputation.

* Margot at the Wedding, featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman as sisters with issues in Noah Baumbach's darkly comic family drama.

* Michael Clayton, a gripping puzzler that gets more interesting the more you look at it.

* Stanley Kramer Film Collection, a five-movie set celebrating the pioneering independent producer and director known for his crusading spirit.

* You've Got Mail: Deluxe Edition, a not-as-bad-as-you-think Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks vehicle remaking a classic Ernst Lubitsch motion picture.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


I first saw the 1985 Swedish film My Life as a Dog when I was in high school. It was a bad VHS copy, dubbed into English. One of the characters--I think Saga, actually--was voiced by the guy who was also Lance on Robotech, which was supremely distracting. The colors were also way off, and Manne's hair wasn't so much green as it was a sickly yellow. Oh, those were the days.

We watched the movie at the house of a girl with whom I was having a long-term one-sided love affair. It was the sort of painful relationship that nice guys often find themselves in at that age. Rather than move on only to have yet another girl say they'd rather be "just friends," I guess I had settled where I was in the hope that maybe if I waited around, she'd see what she was missing and finally realize she loved me, too. Of course, what no one tells you at the time is that these girls always know that's what you're doing, and in this case, I became the patsy that was easy to take advantage of.

Except, to say I didn't know is probably a lie. There is a point in My Life as a Dog when little Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) has just learned the fate of his much beloved canine, and he has locked himself in the shed his uncle calls a summer home to have a cathartic, transitional cry. The uncle (Thomas von Brömssen) comforts him, but also asks, "You really did know, didn't you?"

I'd say yes, he did, but Ingemar didn't want to grow up, so he was pretending. About all of it. About his dog, about his sick mother (Anki Liden), and even about the cute tomboy, Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), who loved him enough to share her secrets with him. To return her affection would mean to share his own secrets and thus be ushered into adult life. Better to stick around with his false maladies, like not being able to raise his glass to his mouth, and throw tantrums where he can bark like a dog rather than deal with the matter at hand. If only he knew how lucky he had it. What I wouldn't give for the simplicity of a lover who could express herself with an honest and unassuming right hook!

At 12 years old, Ingemar is in the last stage of life where everything can still be black-and-white. His mother is not sick enough to die because he says she isn't, simple enough. Stick your fingers in your ears and talk louder than the noise around you, and it will go away. Shades of gray are only intrusions, and Earth-shattering ones at that. Though, unlike a lot of coming-of-age stories, in My Life as a Dog, director Lasse Hallström shows us that Ingemar's response to his crazy world isn't so nuts after all. Au contraire! It's right in step with everyone else.

The small Swedish village that Ingemar is sent to when his mother can no longer care for him is full of fakers of the first order. The whole place has a case of arrested development. (Arguably, this is a psychosis of the 1950s, when the film is set.) The men are sexually immature. The old Mr. Arvidsson (Didrik Gustavsson) hides an underwear catalogue under his mattress when his wife isn't looking, and Ingemar's uncle spends hours reminiscing about the temperature of the breasts he's fondled in his past. (It's he, too, that teaches Ingmar to bark as a seduction technique, though the young boy uses it as a sexual dodge.) No wonder that the town's Aphrodite, the blonde and curvy Berti (Ing-Marie Carlsson), has to take the child Ingemar along to protect her honor when a pervy sculptor (Lennart Hjuström) wants to capture her naked form as the "Ur-Goddess." He's the same sculptor who has been adding breasts to the milk jugs in the town's glass factory. When the men all play at being 12-year-olds, only a real 12-year-old can hold the standard for chivalry.

Saga is responsible for the most important pretense, however, and also responsible for pushing Ingemar out of his. When Ingemar first sees her on the soccer field, he doesn't realize she's not a boy, and he's warned never to bring that up. When her breasts begin to develop, she enlists him to help her strap them down so that they won't be obvious on the playing field, so that she'll still get to play. Eventually, they grow bigger and she fears they can't be bound any longer; so, she tries to put them to use and engage in a game of touching with Ingemar. His refusal sparks her anger, and so when he refuses to be a man, she forces him to by telling him the truth about his dog. It could be seen as a selfish act, but she pays her own price for it: we only see her in her androgynous uniform one more time. By film's end, Saga is wearing a dress.

For a whacky kid, Ingemar has his head on straighter than he gets credit for. He's already embraced a moral relativism, believing that one can only really judge his pain by relating it to someone else's. Then, you'll find there is always someone who is worse off than you. Hallström, who would go on to American success with What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and Chocolat, illustrates Ingemar's philosophical musings with shots of the vast and speeding universe, a visual metaphor of all of the possibilities that lay before his hero. Space travel is a recurring theme, with the summer house having a pointed roof like the nose of a rocket, and Ingemar's totem for the creature that has had it worse than anyone, the Russian cosmonaut dog Laika. The boy sees himself as the space-faring mongrel, jettisoned by people he trusted into an orbit he doesn't understand, left to die out on his own.

Yet, the most hopeful and least obvious of these space images is the fake UFO built by Manne's grandfather (Arnold Alfredson). Little more than a giant tin can attached to a wire, its maiden voyage gets stuck in mid-flight, hanging over the street, suspended in the air. Its second voyage, which Ingemar lets Saga join, makes it all the way to the ground, even though the kids end up crashing in a manure-filled cow pasture. Eh, such is life. You can't fly without risking catastrophe, and the thrill of success is walking away unscathed.

Eventually, I wised up, too. I realized I was in a mutually parasitic relationship that I had to get out of. I had been using this girl as an excuse not to take care of my own business just as much as she was taking advantage of me. Like Saga's revelation of the dishonesty surrounding Ingemar's dog, so too did this girl bust the spell by revealing her own dishonesty. It wasn't nice, it wasn't pretty, but it had to be done. I've been floating out here in the cosmos ever since.

Elsewhere on the disc is one of Lasse Hallström's early short films made for television, and it also wrestles with the theme of honesty and how one presents oneself. In Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone? (1973), three friends go out to a nightclub for an evening of drinking and carousing. Each presents himself as a certain person when he is on the prowl, and when they get to their destination with the ladies they meet, they all have to then figure out how to close the deal once the façade has started to fade. It's no surprise, then, that the one couple who behaved with absolute honesty makes the only real connection; the other guys only pretended to be interested in what their dates had to say, and so have no real way to communicate with them when the lights have come on and the music has died. One of them manages to get laid, but then has to figure out an exit strategy; the other sleeps on his own floor, exiled in his own home.

Of course, given the elliptical and repetitive nature of most lives, Shall We Go ends where it all began.

In this younger effort, Hallström uses a much looser style, with improvisational acting and a more intimate camera. His shots are mostly tight, as closed in on the faces of his actors as the small apartments they inhabit also box them in. It makes their disconnected way of living seem claustrophobic. There is no way out as long as they cling to these unhealthy constructs. This is modern ennui.