You guys know me as a P. Kael freak so you can imagine how honored I am to be able to reprint one of her reviews–of a fun movie too (Damn, I miss Raul Julia):
The movie is a confluence of fantasies, with a crime plot that often seems to be stalled, as if a projector had broken down. A good melodramatic structure should rhyme: we should hold our breath at the pacing as the pieces come together, and maybe smile at how neat the fit is. Here the pieces straggle, and by the end you’re probably ignoring the plot points. Raul Julia, who turns up as the Mexican Comandante Escalante, has a big, likable, rumbling presence; his role recalls the Leo Carrillo parts in movies like The Gay Desperado, with a new aplomb. And for a few seconds here and there Raul Julia takes over; he’s funny, and he detonates. (The character’s lack of moral conflicts gives his scenes a giddy high.) Then the film’s languor settles in again. An elaborate government sting operation waits while Mac and Escalante play Ping-Pong, and waits again while they sit in a boat and Mac talks drivel about bullfighting. (It’s the worst dialogue in the film; for sheer inappropriateness it’s matched only by Dave Grusin’s aggressive, out-to-slay-you score.)
Most of the dialogue is sprightly—it’s easy, everyday talk that actors can breathe to. But Towne’s directing is, surprisingly, better than his construction—maybe because when he plans to direct he leaves things loose. He says, “I make the character fit the actor, I don’t try to make the actor fit the character.” That sounds as if he’s highly variable, a modernist. But he isn’t. He likes bits from old movies, such as having the cops who are planning to surprise Mac be so dumb that they leave peanut shells wherever they’ve been posted. The difference between the way Towne handles the peanut shells and the way a director of the thirties would have (and did) is that he doesn’t sock the joke home; he glides over it. He wants the effect, yet he doesn’t want to be crude about it, so he half does it. Almost everything in the action scenes of the last three-quarters of an hour is half done. Often he gives you the preparation for action and no follow-through; sometimes the reverse.
Huge thanks to Kael’s daughter, Gina James, for giving me permission to share this with you.
Good lookin’ to Pacific Street Films and Cinephilia and Beyond for getting this PBS documentary on Martin Scorsese back out there. I remember when it first aired. I videotaped it and watched it over and over.
I was in high school in 1986 the year Platoon and Hannah and Her Sisters and Something Wild came out. They made big impressions on me. So did David Lynch’s masterpiece.
About four months ago, I screened a beautiful 35mm print of the picture for my daughter and her friends. “Why do we keep watching this?” I suppose it’s [Joseph] Cotten and [Alida] Valli – that’s the emotional core of the picture. For instance, the scene where Holly Martins (Cotten) finally goes to her apartment. He’s a little drunk, and he tells her he loves her and he knows he doesn’t have a chance. That’s when she says, “The cat only liked Harry.” So that leads right into the great revelation of Harry Lime in the doorway with the cat – which is iconic. But it’s more than that – it’s one of the great epiphanies in movies: the cat turning the corner and nestling itself on those wing-tip shoes, and then Harry Lime being revealed when the light is turned on in the doorway and it shines in his face.
Remember Walker Percy’s great novel The Moviegoer? He refers to that moment in such a beautiful, special way. It became a moment internationally, a shared experience for a vast audience seeing that film. It’s not just a dramatic revelation – there’s something about Orson Welles’ smile at that point that shifts everything to another level, and it sustains no matter how many times you see it. Welles comes into the picture about halfway through. That’s the first time you actually see him, after you’ve spent so much time picturing him in your mind because everyone has been talking about him and thinking about him. So that might be the best revelation – or the best reveal, as they say – in all of cinema.
This one goes to eleven.
Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the airplane is plummeting to the earth and we see the numbers on the speedometer getting higher and higher, faster and faster and finally it says: “Silly, isn’t it?”
I kept waiting for a cutaway to that line as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road. There were moments that I laughed out loud because there’s a Looney Tunes quality to the movies’ craziness–I don’t know what other response you can have. I didn’t find the movie thrilling or suspenseful or even tense. There are some scary moments, but nothing that freaked me out. I felt excited in an over-caffeinated way, but it’s so over-the-top, so fantastic, I almost immediately felt detached and after about 15, 20 minutes, bored. It’s magnificent but not for me.
I was talking to a friend recently about appetites and he called himself a pathological maximalist. Forgive the pun, but I kept thinking about that as I watched Fury Road.
The ads boast that the movie was made by “Mastermind” George Miller and that’s no stretch. This isn’t the work of a director. This is a finely tuned, well-realized orchestration from a mastermind. It’s not pure chaos. There is a keen sense of pacing, there are quiet scenes, with breaks in the action, but really I thought the whole thing was akin to watching two-plus hours of slam dunk highlights. It’s an extended guitar solo, an orgy of technical virtuosity, one stunt more improbable than the next. The technique is formidable and some of the images are captivating–though I dare you to recall any specific images after being bombarded by so many. But the story–which at times suggests Thunderdome as much as The Road Warrior–is corny despite its admirable political sensibility. The dialogue is so sparse that it is easy to laugh at–B-movie fromage. The early movies had that quality too but they also had more of a low budget vibe, a punk vibe. This is Cirque du Soliel, this is Vegas, Grand Theft Auto. Miller’s left punk behind. This is rock opera video game for the hyper modern age.
I’ve read Tom Hardy, who plays Max, say that he had no idea what Miller wanted him to do during filming and I think that comes across. Not that it matters–Max is just an action figure who is playing the role of second banana (the lead is played by Charlize Theron). But it’s too bad because I liked Mel Gibson’s tortured hero of the early movies. (And I liked his dog.) There is nothing of the immediacy and realism of the first two movies here. Even if they were cartoons, there was a semblance of credibility, too Here, Max is captured, chained, and when he breaks free, instead of collapsing from fatigue, he springs to life like the Hulk.
I suppose this movie is in step with the times. Maybe that’s why the critics have fallen all over themselves writing about it. How can you ignore not admire such technical brilliance? But this is the kind of roller coaster that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s remarkable and if you like your thrills and spills larger than life you’ll dig it.
The rest of you can spare yourself the pounding.
The Road Warrior is one of my favorite action movies. Mad Max is creepy as hell, too. The thing about the first two Mad Max movies is that for all the unrelenting action, and despite the fantastic premise, it’s all rooted in credibility. I always felt that part of Miller’s achievement was to make you believe you are there–with these guys coming after you. They are a comic book–and the third movie went someplace that didn’t really appeal to me)–but realistic in a strange way; that’s what made them so frightening and effective. (The second movie also has some nice comedic touches).
Plus, I liked Max’s dog.
The new one looks pumped up with the action and pyrotechnics. I hope that same sense of urgency and credibility exist.
Mad Mad: Fury Road is supposed to be dope. Think I’ll have to cart my ass to the theater for this one.
Her career is pure stardust.
She was a teenage model in Italy, came to New York City at eighteen, and left for Los Angeles when her knees gave out for good; there she was discovered by her first manager, who was in line at the bank where she was trying—loudly and without success—to cash her last New York modeling-job check to keep her room at the Farmer’s Daughter, formerly an L. A. fleabag. But Theron came up hard in a hard country, on a hard continent.
“On the street where I was raised—75 percent of the people who lived on that street are not alive anymore. For no reason. For nothing. Life means nothing. In my formative years, I was in an environment that was filled with turmoil—political turmoil—in a world that was incredibly unsafe. And still is. In the early nineties, we were number one in homicide in the world. In HIV/AIDS, we’re still number one. We were number one in carjacking; I think we’re now number three. It became a place where the value of life—there was no value of life.
“You can’t oversimplify it; it comes from a very real place. It’s sad, because the people are good. They’re good people, and they’re resilient people, more than anywhere else in the world that I’ve ever come across. There’s something about South African flesh—we get up and we move forward, and we sometimes don’t take a moment for a little bit of self-awareness or self-pity. We’re such beasts at having to survive—I have the utmost respect for that, but it’s not the healthiest way to go through life. We’ve become a generation in South Africa that is driven by very valid anger, but the cost is coming at such a high level—and that’s a painful thing to watch. A lot of my emotional drive comes purely from the fact that I was born on that continent, and that I was raised there, and that it was different. I have a very strong relationship with Africa, one that’s built on lots of love and massive pain.”
I’m not a Hitchcock fan but I’ve probably seen close to half of his movies. Never saw Rear Window, though, just bits and pieces on TV. Until last week when I was in L.A. and went to see a screening of Rear Window at a revival theater in Santa Monica.
I had a good time; it was fun watching the movie with an audience.
I didn’t realize how erotic it is. I especially like this scene with Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart.
A few days ago I curated the following essay by Charles Simic on Buster Keaton over at the Daily Beast. Check it out, won’t you?
Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.
Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.
The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.
What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.
What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.
Little Boy Blues is Malcolm Jones’ beautiful memoir about growing up with his mother (and sometimes, his father) in North Carolina in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It’s my favorite kind of memoir–understated, succinct, honed. The prose is precise without being delicate: “My father was a quiet man. If he put more than two sentences together, that was a speech. There was nothing forbidding or taciturn about his silence, though. On the contrary, it was somehow companionable, almost comforting. He wore his quietness lightly, like a windbreaker.”
The book’s also funny: “On the one hand, I was an incorrigible optimism. I had no reasons for this, never figured out where this notion that things were bound to get better came from, but nothing could extinguish it. At the same time, I spent a good part of every day being terrified of something–anything from mayonnaise in sandwiches to batting against the older kids in backyard baseball games. I was like the boy who confronts a roomful of manure and becomes convinced that somewhere in that room is a pony. It was just that I was equally convinced the pony would eat me.”
I think you guys would dig it. Here’s a taste for you, reprinted with the author’s permission.
From Little Boy Blues
By Malcolm Jones
It was still hot outside when we left the movie theater. I had expected that. It was the darkness that took me by surprise. We had gone in while it was still broad daylight, and now it was full dark, an impenetrable darkness made even thicker and blacker by the humid heat of a late-summer night and the myriad tiny white-hot lights burning in the ceiling that projected well past the ticket booth, all the way out over the sidewalk, where the lights mapped a bright island on the concrete sidewalk. The ceiling supported an electric sign that spelled out, in a foursquare block-letter style, the word WINSTON, blazing in the night. Time had gotten away while I wasn’t looking.
“What are you waiting for, honey?” my mother said. “Let’s go.”
I was stuck in that island of light. We had crossed the thickly carpeted lobby lined with wall sconces generating just enough illumination to make the small room resemble a cave. We had pushed through the lobby’s heavy metal doors draped in lush velvet curtains, passing out of the twilit dimness of the lobby into the abrupt brilliance of the outside foyer. And there, between the theater and the real world, with my mother marching ahead, already almost to the sidewalk, I stopped to let my eyes adjust to the hot light that seemed to set the night on fire. The first things I saw when my vision returned were the heavy chrome and glass cases set into the walls flanking the foyer. Each case contained half a dozen stills from the film we had just seen, and every image shimmered like a tiny mirage. And there I stopped.
Mother was still speaking, but I barely heard her. I was too busy concentrating on the scenes depicted in those glass cases. My eye moved from one image to the next, dawdling the longest on Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence striding down a sand dune toward a dynamited train lying on its side in the desert. Beside it was one of Lawrence smeared with blood after butchering Turkish soldiers on his way to Damascus. The movie ate up all the space in my head, addling me so thoroughly that I could not find words to express what I felt. I was not the same person who went into that movie theater, and I was having trouble catching up with myself.
Lawrence of Arabia was by far the most complex film I had ever seen, starting with an early scene in British headquarters in Cairo where Lawrence was a mapmaker. A soldier pulls out a cigarette. Lawrence lights it for him and then lets the match burn all the way down to his fingers. When another soldier tries the same thing with a lit match, he drops it, exclaiming, “Ow, it ’urts! What’s the trick?” Lawrence calmly replies, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” A few minutes later, a black-clad Arab guns down Lawrence’s guide in the desert and then threatens to take his compass. “Nice English compass,” the killer says. “How about I take it?” Lawrence says, “Then that would make you a thief.” Impervious to pain, brave, resourceful—Lawrence’s exploits looked like the stuff of Boy Scout training manuals. Then, a bit at a time, it all came undone. He lost his Arab army and then his confidence. The capture of Damascus from the Turks felt hollow, even to me, although I wasn’t ready to give up on Lawrence. I walked out at the end not knowing what to think. Part of me was still mentally charging toward that wrecked train. But another part of me grappled with Lawrence’s uneasiness in his role as hero. I didn’t know quite what to make of him—it would be years before I understood that I wasn’t supposed to—and this disturbed me, had been disturbing me, in fact, since the movie started.
No sooner had the opening credits disappeared off the screen than Lawrence got killed in a motorcycle accident. The death of the hero in the first five minutes of a movie was not something I was used to, and for a while I nursed the hope that perhaps he would come back to life, injured but alive. But no: the rest of the movie, all three hours plus, was a flashback. And in case you forgot how it all started, the filmmakers had inserted a scene at the very end where Lawrence, on his way home to England from Arabia, sees a motorcycle—the very instrument of his death—coming toward the car in which he’s riding.
“Honey, hurry up!” I looked up out of my reverie to see my mother standing fifty feet down the sidewalk, waiting for me to catch up. Reluctantly, I followed her, and as soon as I passed from that pool of light—that enchanted territory—the spell was broken. The vividness—so intense that almost fifty years later I can still remember almost every detail of that movie and every detail of what I felt while watching it, even what I ate and drank while I watched—all that vanished in the split second in which I passed from light to dark and hurried to catch up with my mother.