Almodovar's Talk to Her was nice. It was fairly colorful, somewhat touching, and had a pretty sheen to it. I still prefer the earlier, funnier, not-nice Almodovar, however.
Roman Polanski's The Pianist and Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone: A study in contrasts. The Pianist had a lot going for it, and it wasn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. Brody's performance was worthy, but not anything outrageously spectacular or unique. The film didn't shy away from the brutality of the Holocaust, but Polanski chose (purposefully, according to him) a true story of survival from which to make his film. The Grey Zone, on the other hand, focused on a more brutally unforgiving scenario (some Jews were bribed with a few extra months of life to aid the Nazis in their gas chambers and crematoriums; the film is mainly about a group of these) and hence was much more like the actual Holocaust then The Pianist comes close to being. It cuts much straighter to the heart of the very unsettling issues that this historical atrocity (unfortunately, in the long view, not really an aberration) brings up; impotence in the face of mandated, systematic slaughter, the way things like morality and conscience so quickly become luxuries when the inescapable natural law of self-preservation takes hold, issues that other Holocaust films (including The Pianist, fairly honorable though it was) attempt to sidestep or answer. Nelson seems to realize that the most difficult thing is that there was no answer, no explanation that could possibly account for the wholesale waste of so many human lives.
It's interesting that Polanski actually was there during the Holocaust, and Spielberg (Schindler's List, which he originally asked Polanksi, who politely refused, to direct) is Jewish, but, as far as I know, Nelson is neither Jewish nor a Holocaust survivor. It's certainly understandable that the closer one is to such a devastating degradation, the more one wants to find some optimism, some hope, a triumph of the human spirit (and in rare cases, obviously, these things really did exist). I find, however, that the objective view, unentitled by some standards though it may be, is truer and more important, because it's sobering and personally affecting. Unlike Pauline Kael and many of today's best film reviewiers, I think a movie can engage and be sobering simultaneously. For a filmmaker to show us something that makes us see and feel the world around us a little more clearly, or from a different perspective, is not an ignoble pursuit. Though some films are without a doubt preachy and self-righteous (and therefore inferior), not all films that attempt this can be dismissed as such.
On a lighter note (one benefit of watching two Holocaust films in a row: everything feels like a lighter note), Love Liza, starring the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was better than expected. The script, involving a well-employed graphic designer who loses his wife to suicide and proceeds to ruin his life by refusing to read her suicide letter (much to the bitter consternation of his mother-in-law) and huffing gasoline, was actually written by Hoffman's brother and directed by Todd Louiso (who played the very cute shy/retiring record store clerk in High Fidelity. It's a fairly tragic but quite engaging story, more a rather true-feeling observation of human behavior than a narrative that concludes with any sort of resolution. The only actual gaffe was, I felt, the overuse of Jim O'Rourke's music. I know O'Rourke's work with Sonic Youth and was anticipating an odd instrumental score; unfortunately, most of the music had accompanying lyrics and was amplified over scenes that would've done better without them, perhaps even in silence.
I also rented Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity and Moonlight Mile. I was hoping for more from Personal Velocity, an anthology film about the lives of three very different women; a beaten wife (Kyra Sedgwick) who was once the school slut leaves her husband with their children after he beats her; a successful book editor (Parker Posey) finds her perfect marriage of emotional convenience painfully unsuited to her personality; a young waitress (Fairuza Balk) discovers she's pregnant and, on a panicky, turbulent road trip involving a wounded hitchhiker and a visit home to mom and stepdad, discovers her real feelings about the pregnancy. The performances are all wonderful, especially Posey's, and the stories are interesting and subtle. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of the directing, editing, or music choices, which are all a bit too NPR-in-the-negative-sense; I'd be much more interested in reading the original short stories, also by Miller, that these films were based on than in ever seeing them again.
Moonlight Mile was an interesting study in expectations. The fact that it was directed by Brad Silberling, the man upon whom most of the blame for City of Angels can be placed, could mislead one into believing it'll be pure tripe, when in fact it was only maybe 25% tripe. The rest was quite conventional, and I didn't care much for what they gave Dustin Hoffman to do, but Jake Gyllenhaal and Susan Sarandon were quite fine, as usual, and Silberling's script (apparently based on his real-life experience) about a middle-aged couple and their future son-in-law after the senseless murder of their daughter obviously had some investment of thought and feeling. The structure, visual style, editing and many of the "moments" (and if the music was a problem in Love Liza, God save us from the bad, overwhelming bar-band music Silberling chose) were mostly circumscribed by the Hollywood "serious-emotions" cookie cutter, but this one had some tangy frosting and unusual sprinkles, which did help it go down more easily.
The treats of this particular movie marathon were, not entirely unexpectedly, some unwatched Criterion editions from my own collection: Peter Medak's The Ruling Class and Fellini's Amarcord. Amarcord is probably a minor Fellini work, but rapturously watchable. It's virtually plotless; just an episodic, barely veiled autobiographical account of Fellini's own childhood impressions from Fascist Italy (the film, with the exception of one episode involving the father character and some comical and relatively benign torture, is apolitical). Obviously a direct influence on Woody Allen's Radio Days.
The Ruling Class is a major work, however. Starring Peter O'Toole as an English aristocrat who first believes he's Jesus Christ and then, after being "cured," Jack the Ripper, it's a vicious, loony satire (there were actual musical numbers which had me helpless with laughter) of politics and class that stands with such towering films of that ilk as A Clockwork Orange and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Jason and I also caught The Matrix Reloaded at a drive-in, which I found an enjoyably perverse lo-fi venue for such an absurdly overhyped hi-fi film. It wasn't bad. It works as a genre piece and even has a few blessed moments of intellectual and metaphysical heft. The conformity and free-will metaphors aren't exactly smooth, but neither are they so dumb as to be rendered ineffectual.
I spent Saturday morning chore-time revisiting an old favorite on the stereo, The Monochrome Set's Eligible Bachelors. One song on that wonderful album in particular, "The Devil Rides On," really challenges my frequently professed placement of importance on lyrics in the popular song. "A pop song does need a melody to be effective," I say, "but it needs a lyrical hook, too; a stupid lyric can undermine anything." Well, "The Devil Rides On" is sung in a foreign language (it sounds like Middle Eastern) which I don't understand a single word of, but it's one of my favorite songs on the album, and has a really beautiful, quick-tempo vocal melody. I'll just have to chalk it up as a rule-proving exception, I guess.
I've also been trying to get into the new Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief. Attempts beyond song 2 have so far proven unsuccessful. The album has by far the most brilliant cover of their entire catalog, however:
...and I guess I'll just have to live with the fact that any Radiohead worshipper worth their salt will consider this dismissal of the music and undue attention to the album cover very superficial of me.
I continue to read How to Be Alone, which is slow going as I have to stop, on the average of once a page, to take out my notebook and distill a perfect quote from Franzen's marvelous essays, several of which grapple with the the rise of technocracy and the decline of such non-sleek, humanistic acts of introspection and concentration as the reading of novels. I'll leave off here with a particularly choice one:
"That the country's widely decried 'breakdown of civility' began at home, rather than in so-called urban jungles, can be confirmed at any movie theater, where audiences accustomed to watching videos in the bedroom have forgotten how to shut up."
"People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them. They don't take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience." - Flannery O'Connor.
The movie madness marches onward: Another Seijun Suzuki flick (this term seems winkingly appropriate in regard to this), Branded to Kill. Sheer madness; it's absolute, extreme cartoonishness. It reminded me of Godard in the way it skipped lightly over the surface of "plot" to get at the sheer cinema of it all. It's quite sexually graphic and violent, as well, leading me to believe Tarantino must've seen a blurry, badly subtitled videotape of this between renting out copies of Pretty Woman.
Also Japanese but very, very spooky: Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan, a sort of anthology film of Japanese ghost stories. My favorite: "The Woman of the Snow," about an ice princess who wreaks terrible revenge when her secret is betrayed. There's this incredibly artificial set design, which makes it feel as if you're watching a storybook. Bloody good.
Today, I did Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball (a compact, boisterous, sad, somewhat political fable set in small Czechoslavakian town), Salesman, the legendary Maysles brothers documentary (and another sad, somewhat political fable), and Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide, yet another sad... somewhat political... fable. Originally with puppets, according to the wonderful liner notes by the late Claire Johnston. Johnston was a feminist film critic, which is appropriate enough given the film's focus on the wrenching choice a courtesan and her married lover are forced (this is key) to make.
My ears have been ringing recently with the sounds of Morrissey's fave tunes. A cheesy little record company in England called DMC begins their series called "Under the Influence," in which a recording artist compiles their own mix of the tunes that have inspired them, with Morrissey. I've always easily been fascinated enough by Morrissey and in love enough with his own recorded work to follow in embarrassingly minute detail his own personal musical obsessions. That makes this the ultimate, perfect CD for me. Could turn out to be one of the best of the year, in my ever-humble opinion. The track listing:
1. "Saturday Nite Special" - The Sundown Playboys, a zydeco-Cajun gumbo (in Acadian French!) re-issued in 1972.
2. "Trash" - The New York Dolls. From 1973. Since they transformed the face of the earth (and not just in Morrissey's opinion), no explanation is necessary, really. Moz himself covered this one on his '91 tour for Kill Uncle.
3. "Woodpecker Rock" - Nat Couty. Straight, rough, slightly unhinged (no wonder Morrissey also fell in love with The Cramps) rockabilly from 1958. Juvenile delinquent Brando wanna-bes, is what comes to mind with this one.
4. "So Little Time" - Diana Dors. Dors, whom Candy Darling called "England's answer to Jayne Mansfield" in her diary, My Face for the World to See, who appeared in David Lean films as a teenager, and whose visage graces the sleeve of the American release of the Smith's Singles. This song is brassy, sassy, and brazenly sexual in tone (if not in content). The guitars are rough and Velvet Underground-y, too... surprising, given the song was released in 1964, 3 years before the Velvets were to stain the relatively pristine image of pop music forever. A suspicious songwriting credit is given to "Les Reed," further awakening hopeful suspicion...
5. "The Rules" - Ludus. Linder Sterling, the lead singer, has been one of Morrissey's closest friends and confidantes (she published a book of tour photos entitled Morrissey Shot). The group broke up in the mid-eighties, but not before they got off this giddily, happily subversive incitement to infinite sexual treason.
6. "One Hand Loose" - Charlie Feathers. Another Cramps tributary, from 1956. This one bears witness to the odd androgyny rippling through the voice of the male rockabilly singer.
7. "Great Horse" - Tyrannosaurus Rex. From 1970, before they became T. Rex. Which means not quite as electric, no Bolan commanding "rock!" but still possessed of a misty, mythological grandiosity that sounds like sadness even when it expresses happiness.
8. "(There Goes) The Forgotten Man" - Jimmy Radcliff. A Bacharach and David composition released in 1962. A man loses Jenny, his girlfriend, to a stranger one night, and all melodramatic hell breaks loose. The pity is unbearable. My favorite of the compilation.
9. "De Castrow" - Jaybee Wasden. A young man pines for his Cuban girlfriend and considers an assassination attempt. It's a sad, somewhat political fable.
10. "Judy Is a Punk" - The Ramones. 1976, the year of the country's bicentennial. The year of my birth, and the birth of punk. This zippy little number was also used in a highly memorable scene in The Royal Tenenbaums.
11. "Arts and Crafts Spectacular" - Sparks. Apparently a b-side from 1972, this one's an oddity for the Sparks catalog; homespun urbane at its finest and only.
12. "Swan Lake" - The Cats. The Tchaikovsky favorite to a dancehall beat, from '68.
13. "All That Is My Own" - Nico. The Germanic, enigmatic, emblematic chanteuse resided in Manchester, Morrissey's hometown, for a long stretch of her later life. This one is from her 1970 solo album Desert Shore, produced by John Cale. The sound is woozy, a rocking boat; Nico's words and voice are orphic.
14. "Hey Joe" - Patti Smith. A Smith rarity; she combines her poem "60 Days" with Jimi Hendrix's song to form a celebration of Patty Heart's newfound freedom. "I'm nobody's million-dollar baby... I'm nobody's Patt(s)y!" are the words she places in Hearst's mouth. It's exhilarating.
15. "Death" - Klaus Nomi. Nomi, a onetime Bowie backup singer, was a gay, androgynous, decadent artiste of the voice who had a preference for synthetic operatics and was one of the first AIDS victims. This is his own eulogy to himself.
In the sweet fan-crumb liner notes he's bestowed upon this disc, Morrissey writes:
"Will we ever get out of these pop swamps alive?
Will we ever get these songs out of our bloodstream?
Will we ever be allowed to forget?."
Which speaks to exactly what inspires me to drop by and make my pathetically intermittent entries here.
Next up on my watching/listening/reading nightstand: Almodovar's Talk to Her, an attempt to brave the mire that's sure to be the new Radiohead album, and Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone: Essays. Franzen wrote the brilliant, sweeping, overwhelmingly insightful The Corrections, which I think deserved every last scrap of praise and attention it received. I don't know if it's this accomplishment or the sexy author photo featuring a day's stubble and those sensuously full lips, but Franzen is, to me, a prime candidate for erotic fantasy:
Why do the porn creators insist on exploiting the supposed hotness of those who protect and serve us and put our fires out, but never give a thought to the untapped sexual potential of the deservedly acclaimed intellectual author, who is, in his own way, equally powerful? Franzen is a straight male of the New variety, which means he'd likely be less grossed out than bemusedly flattered by my schoolboy tribute.
Jason asks me as I write this, "Whatcha doin' over there? Writing your life story?"
"Yes," I reply. And it's true. All these things which too many people don't take personally, and are meant for nothing but that- that is my life story. It may be perverse, but I'm quite proud of it. It's the story of all our lives, if we would only pay attention. Or try to.
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