Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Oh my stars and garters.

Late in X-Men: The Last Stand, a character begins quoting Churchill before cutting himself off with "Ah, you get the point" and resuming an action sequence. That's typical with The Last Stand (horrid title), a film that ain't got no time for speechifyin when there's punchin' and clawin' to be had. Like Joel Schumacher's contributions to the Batman franchise, it represents a startling rejection of just about everything that made the earlier films worthwile. In short, it's every bit as stupid, lazy and disposable as you think it is.

The first X-Men was filled with cornball moments (My favorite is Senator Kelley's "Bleech!"), but it also had real audacity and vision - the opening scene, which used Holocaust imagery to stress the urgency of its own persecuted minority story, could have been a disaster but somehow worked under director Bryan Singer's sure hand. In X2, everything came together nicely - the cast had begun to gel as an ensemble, Singer's abilities as an action director had grown considerably, and the ending had me psyched for a sequel. This brings us to The Last Stand, which, after two flashback scenes and an opening credits sequence stolen from Hulk (only louder and less elegant), opens with explosions and incoherence as the principals run around shouting one-liners in a scene that turns out to be completely beside the point - it exists only to be loud, as is true of most of The Last Stand. The film's two plots revolve around a "mutant cure" that divides the mutant population over its ethics and the resurrection (via telepathy bubble) of Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), reborn as the all-powerful id-creature Phoenix. This story is told with a cast of approximately three hundred mutants, none of which are fleshed-out in any specific way. There just here for action figure fodder.

The mutant concept was used nimbly in the first two films as an a metaphor for minority rights, summarized most perfectly in X2 when Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) responded to the question of why she doesn't use her shape-shifting powers to look normal with "Because I shouldn't have to." It's not subtle, but it's a masterpiece of understatement compared with The Last Stand, which uses basically the same shot of protesters outside a "mutant cure" clinic several times in case we didn't get the hamhanded connection to abortion (or Terri Schaivo, or gay marriage, or whatever) in the first place. The X-Men movies were built to sermonize, but topical sermons are just the worst - they never hold up over time, and this sucker is going to fade fast. And worst off all, the film sidesteps saying anything provocative about any of this; its conclusion is more or less "Well, that's just like, your opinion, man." Co-screenwriter Zak Penn, who co-wrote and directed the brilliant Incident at Loch Ness - which satirizes exactly this sort of wrongheaded, homogenizing Hollywood mentality - should know better.

Now we come to the subject of director Brett Ratner. I refer to Truffaut: "A director possesses a style that one will find in all his films, and this is true of the worst filmmakers and their worst films. Differences from one film to the next - a more ingenious script, superior photography, or whatever else - don't matter, because these differences are precisely the product of exterior forces, more or less monney, a greater or shorter shooting schedule." These words could have been written for Ratner, who with Red Dragon had one of the greatest casts of all time and produced a just-okay film, and here is given an army of special effects technicians working at the top of their games and gives them absolutely nothing of interest to do. Favorite characters die in this film; I should have cared, but instead I was insulted at the cheaply manipulative, poorly timed and executed offing of some damn fine X-Men. Other characters, like Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) are wasted to provide more screentime for the worthess Storm (Halle Berry, who must have whined to Fox execs a whole lot). Characters like Angel (Ben Foster) come and go without being given any opportunity to make an impression. The Last Stand fails even as an action movie; it's the most incoherently edited film since the advent of Michael Bay, and fails to create or sustain even a moment's worth of genuine tension at the proceedings. By the time Magneto assembles the cast of Rent for a last stand (the title ain't lyin'!), I felt like I was watching some kind of idiot's Rorschach test, and I was failing.

I could go on an on, but this would just turn into a laundry list of bad decisions, from testicle-centric humor that would have seemed stale in 1991 to the feeble one-liners to Kelsey Grammer as Beast (toss your salad, you worthless hack). Oh, and through in casual misogyny for good measure! I just have this to say: over the years, there have been hundreds of wonderful, escapist movies that told thrilling tales with imagination, humor, and vitality. The Last Stand offers no such pleasures; I defy anyone to explain to me why exactly it is fun. Because it's loud? Because things happen? Because it has special effects? I'm so sick and tired of the "shut your brain off at the door" defense - we deserve more. If you gladly devour overprocessed slurm like this and ask for seconds, than you have no right to complain that movies aren't better. There's just no way around it: this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Monday, May 29, 2006

You're in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down...

Usually, internet memes are totally disposable. But this one, from Sergio Leone and the Infinite Fly Rule, is unusually thought-provoking. After four full-length reviews in a week, I thought this might make for a fun grab bag of opinions. Feel free to add your own answers.

1) What film made you angry, either while watching it or in thinking about it afterward? I know I'm very much in the minority on this one, and I'd love to have my mind changed. But Caché, to me, is the very definition of pretentious, using art-house conventions (extended static shots, no music score, an unresolved mystery) to tell what is essentially a empty, simplistic story. The central conceit is a blatant rip from Lost Highway, where it was used with more wit and style. And while a delibarate pace can be exhilarating, in Cache it adds up to nothing. While others found its message disturbing, I found it banal; worse, it exhibits nothing but resignation towards the prospect that we are all haunted by our sins and doomed to repeat them again. This makes the final, "optimistic" shot just seem crass and insincere, and if art cannot at least hold out the possibility of understanding with a straight face, than it holds no interest for me.
2) Favorite sidekick Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) in Big Trouble in Little China; Dun and the filmmakers manage to subvert the sidekick archetype brilliantly, as Wang is in every way superior to the ineffectual, blowhard hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell).
3) One of your favorite movie lines "Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. I'll catch this bird for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like going down to the pond and chasing bluegills and tommycocks. This shark, swallow you whole. No shakin', no tenderizin', down you go. And we gotta do it quick, that'll bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin' basis. But it's not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, chief. I'll find him for three, but I'll catch him, and kill him, for ten. But you've gotta make up your minds. If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter. I don't want no volunteers, I don't want no mates, there's too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing."
4) William Holden or Burt Lancaster? Holden, no contest, for squeezing more pathos out of the words "Let's go" than I ever thought possible.
5) Describe a perfect moment in a movie I've always been fairly certain that Wes Anderson made The Royal Tenenbaums for the scene where Richie (Luke Wilson) is meets his adoptive sister and unrequited love Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) at a bus stop. The mad cap pace of the film comes to a standstill as Margot steps off a bus, accompanied by the opening strains of Nico's "These Days." In slow motion, Margot approaches Richie, their faces etched in silent longing, and they embrace. Not only is the moment a masterpiece of audiovisual composition, it's unabashedly beautiful and moving.
6) Favorite John Ford movie The Searchers, no contest. If more westerns were this thematically dense, the genre wouldn't carry its unfortunate stigma.
7) The inverse of a question from the last quiz: What film artist (director, actor, screenwriter, whatever) has the least–deserved good reputation, artistically speaking. And who would you replace him/her with on that pedestal? I'm tempted to say Michael Haneke, but I'll reserve final judgement until I see more of his work. So I'll go with Troy Duffy, patron saint of schmoes. It's inexplicable to me how much otherwise intelligent people love The Boondock Saints (its fan base is evenly divided between the Irish and the wannabe-Irish). I assumed that the documentary Overnight, which reveals Duffy not only as a hack but also an unbearable ass, would put a stop to this lunacy; sadly, it hasn't changed a thing. Scary to think that if Boondock Saints 2 were actually made, it would probably gross well over a hundred million dollars.

I'd boot Duffy from the "New England's Own" pedestal and replace him with Brad Anderson, director of the madly underrated Session 9. The film is not only the scariest so far this century; it also makes brilliant, evocative use of its digital cinematography and well-drawn characters, a group of likeable, struggling working-class New Englanders. The backdrop, characters and genre elements intersect to giddily creepy effect. While his previous romantic comedies and his most recent film The Machinist, don't have the same impact, they still show a great deal of promise.

8) Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino? Lupino, both for her work as an auteur and her appearances on radio shows like "Suspense" with actors like Vincent Price; I loaned a bunch of recordings from the local library when I was nine or ten, and spent a wonderful weekend getting the heebie-jeebies in my basement.
9) Showgirls -- yes or no? Yes, while I drink moonshine out of my Showgirls tie-in shot glass.
10) Most exotic or otherwise unusual place in which you ever saw a movie I once watched Jumanji on a video projector in a church. That's about all I've got, unfortunately.
11) Favorite Robert Altman movie Nashville. "You may say that I ain't free/But it don't worry me"
12) Best argument for allowing rock stars to participate in the making of movies David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's not only the greatest rock-star performance, it's one of the great film performances, period. "Get out of my mind!"
13) Describe a transcendent moment in a film (a moment when you realized a film that just seemed routine or merely interesting before had become become something much more) The shower scene in Psycho is the ultimate example of this, recontextualizing the more conventional intrigue of the first forty minutes and upping the stakes immeasurably. Hitchcock kills his own movie; it's an incredibly ballsy moment in cinema.
14) Gina Gershon or Jennifer Tilly? Jennifer Tilly, who despite often appearing in crap is incredibly witty, perceptive and likeable (see her Bride of Chucky diaries).
15) Favorite Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of the best arguments for unabashed idealism around.
16) The scene you most wish you could have witnessed being filmed The stimulation of the enormous mechanical vagina in The Holy Mountain.
17) Robert Ryan or Richard Widmark? Widmark, for the wheelchair scene in Kiss of Death.
18) Name a movie that inspired you to walk out before it was finished Evolution; not the worst movie ever made, but a thudding, medoicre disappointment from the likes of Ivan Reitman and Julianne Moore.
19) Favorite political movie Nashville again. I'm voting Hal Phillip Walker in '08.
20) Your favorite movie poster/one-sheet, or the one you’d most like to own The poster for Alien, as mentioned before here, is one haunting work of art.
21) Jeff Bridges or Jeff Goldblum? With respect to the Dude, I'd have to vote Goldblum, who has been doing stellar, idiosyncratic work for over thirty years, from Nashville (again) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to Jurassic Park to The Life Aquatic. And then, of course, there's his underrated, heartbreaking work as Seth Brundle in The Fly. Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring!
22) Favorite Ken Russell movie Altered States, a film that truly earns the adjective "mind-blowing."
23) Accepting the conventional wisdom that 1970-1975 marked a golden age of American filmmaking in which artistic ambition and popular acceptance were not mutually exclusive, what for you was this golden age’s high point? (Could be a movie, a trend, the emergence of a star, whatever) This is a tough one. Let's go with the emergence of Jack Nicholson as a leading man. 70-75 saw Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and more. It's as good a streak as any actor has ever had. Jack Nicholson is the face of the seventies.
24) Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner? Rear Window makes this a no-brainer.
25) With total disregard for whether it would ever actually be considered, even in this age of movie recycling, what film exists that you feel might actually warrant a sequel, or would produce a sequel you’d actually be interested in seeing? I'd love to see Jodorowsky's long-gestating El Topo sequel.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Trim Bin #25

- Marie Antoinette and Southland Tales both received boos at their Cannes premieres; this makes me want to see Sofia Coppola and Richard Kelley's newest films even more. Films booed at Cannes include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Velvet Goldmine, and even L'Avventura. So in my mind, the divisive (and in the case of Southland Tales, downright hostile) response makes both films as important as the Palme D'Or winner (Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley; never been much of a Ken Loach fan, but it does star Cillian Murphy, so I'll give it a try). This doesn't necessarily mean that either film won't suck - The Brown Bunny was booed too - but at least they're ambitious and divisive.

- News of the halfhearted release of the Star Wars trilogy in its original form (I'm the biggest Lucas advocate around, but non-anamorphic on the eve of HD is a slap in the face) was quickly trumped by the announcement of a Blade Runner megaset coming next year and featuring the theatrical, director's, "ultimate," and international cuts. The new "ultimate" cut will also play in select cities next year. I missed the re-release of Alien because the nearest screening was in Connecticut; I won't make the same mistake twice.

- Major pet peeve: the tendency of midnight and repertory screenings to be shown on DVD unannounced. Max and I first experienced this a few years ago when we drove three hours to see Tron (shut up) at the Coolidge, only to find that the print had never arrived. Forgivable, except we didn't realize this until we'd bought our tickets and sat down. This month alone, the DVD switcheroo has occured at the Pleasant Street Theater, the Spectrum 8, and even our beloved Brattle. First of all, 35mm is the reason to even attend; the Brattle cited a damaged print, but for me, that's just a romantic reminder of the print's journey across various movie houses. Second, I understand when a print cannot be obtained after a schedule has been announced, particularly with a program as Pleasant Street's "31 Days, 30 Movies" marathon. But it seems unethical to charge full ticket price for a subpar, artifact-ridden presentation, particularly as Pleasant Street's screens are extremely small to begin with. In the interest of full disclosure, Images occasionally shows films on DVD, but only for reduced-price or free screenings as far as I know. And we make up for it with the complimentary shoeshine (ask for Chet).

- Last night I watched The Elephant Man, and it was a case of watching just the right movie at just the right moment. Tears ensued. When's the last time you had a case of cinematic/cosmic synchronicity, when it felt like a movie was speaking directly to you?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

You're so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!

Full Metal Jacket opens, as the twangy "Hello Vietnam" plays on the soundtrack, with a montage of Marine Corps recruits getting buzzcuts. We examine one bored, distracted face after another until the sequence ends with a shot of the piles of hair collecting on the linoleum floor. Their individuality has been stripped away, and the first half of the film is concerned with the military's methods of rebuilding these "unorganized, grabastic pieces of amphibian shit" into a powerful, violent collective. Stanley Kubrick exerts a similar control over his most restrained, calculated film; as with any of his films, it's fascinating to consider how the ideas that drive Full Metal Jacket are mirrored in the director's process.

We follow a platoon of recruits during their training at Paris Island under the delightfully profane Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Both the film and Ermey have earned their place in the pop culture firmament, of course, thanks to the character's endlessly quotable dialogue. But to recall Hartman simply as a collection of one-liners is to underestimate Ermey's brilliant performance. A retired Staff Sargeant and Vietnam vet, Ermey lends the film enormous verisimilitude and helps to steer Hartman clear of becoming a cardboard, Strother Martin-like caricature. Ermey was one of the rare actors that Kubrick allowed room to improvise, and his torrents of almost poetic verbal abuse not only lend the film credibility, but also color in shades of ambiguity. On the one hand, we're invited to recoil at Hartman's dehumanizing treatment of the recruits, particularly the dim, sensitive Private Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is dubbed "Private Gomer Pyle." On the other hand, you can sense both Ermey's pride in the role and Kubrick's respect for the character; Hartman is never depicted simply as a sadist, but as a man who is preparing these "maggots" to serve in his beloved Corps. It is a sign of Kubrick's faith in the audience's intelligence that he allows us to answer the question of whether such treatment is necessary for ourselves.

Full Metal Jacket spends a great deal of time establishing the monotonous routines of basic training ("1, 2, 3, 4, United States Marine Corps!"), and it's no wonder that Kubrick, who would put his actors through the paces with dozens of takes, would be drawn to the methodical aspect of the military experience. The man who made Shelley Duvall cry invites us to consider the morality of pushing characters like Private Pyle to the breaking point because they don't fit into a well-oiled machine ("Everything clean"). Our narrator, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), is assigned to whip Pyle into shape, and we share both his compassion for and impatience with poor Pyle. A scene where the recruits give Pyle a brutal beating to teach him a lesson is painful to watch, but rather than going for easy emotional manipulation by allowing us to view the scene from Pyle's perspective, Kubrick shoots the scene from Joker's point of view as he attempts to drown out Pyle's childlike sobs. We share Joker's (and Kubrick's) anger at Pyle's lack of restraint, and so we are partially implicated in Pyle's "major malfunction."

The second half of the film alienates much of the audience, and it is indeed an abrupt tonal shift from Paris Island. Nancy Sinatra announces this shift on the soundtrack; country has given way to rock and roll. Joker (Matthew Modine), now a combat journalist, hooks up with fellow Parris Island graduate Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard) near Hue. These scenes, particulary the "Vietnam: The Movie" sequence, are often dismissed as aimless, but they actually serve as a thorough demythologization of war. John Wayne is frequently name-dropped, but the closest thing we get to John Wayne is Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a dull, racist meathead. These kids are armed only with their rifles and well-worn cliches about camaraderie and valor learned from movies. Animal Mother's idiocy allows him to inadvertently see the war as it is; when he remarks that if he were to die for a word, that word would be "poontang," at least he chooses something tangible. Ever the pragmatist, Kubrick largely sidesteps political philosophy and depicts Vietnam as the place we sent a lot of well-meaning, naive kids to die.

Kubrick's clinical approach turns chilling in the final scenes, as a sniper offs several troops. Each death is accompanied by a hollow blast on the soundtrack that echoes the film's icy electronic score (composed by Kubrick's daughter, Vivian). The director is a master of irony, using it not as a cheap, sarcastic tool but as a microscope that exposes underlying truths; here, the well-oiled military machine is severely crippled by one resorceful individual. It's enough to turn Private Joker, who wears a peace symbol and a helmet reading "BORN TO KILL," from a detached outsider to a "hardcore" killer. The war/sex parallel seen throughout the film and previously in Dr. Strangelove comes into focus here, as Joker is "born again hard." He's a walking erection, and rather than editorializing, Kubrick leaves us to decide whether this is evolution or regression. As the soldiers march into the darkness singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, we reflect on their homecoming, when they will return to Mickey's world, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse, but definitely not the same.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Laugh away, laughing boy!

Any film that has a deliberately unlikeable lead will probably be met with a negative respose. So while Art School Confidential is a letdown in some ways, I still admire writer Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff for inviting such scorn. The film is a scathing attack on the often acolytic, unispired nature of any institution that claims to teach an art, and it's absolutely merciless to those who buy into the idea that they can learn how to be "the greatest artist of the twenty-first century." So while the film is often aimless, I still found myself laughing loudly at its moments of insight.

Jerome (Max Minghella) has just started his first semester at the prestigious Strathmore Art Institute. Jerome quickly falls in love with Audrey (Sophia Myles), a model in one of his classes, and becomes determined to win her affections through his art. But Jerome is soon adrift in a sea of pretension and self-importance, with little guidance coming from his professors, like the pompous Professor Sandford (John Malkovich), who specializes in triangles ("I was one of the first"), or peers like his blowhard roomate Vince (Ethan Suplee) a film student making a hyperbolic movie based on a real-life serial killer prowling the campus. Jerome's only real friend is Jimmy (Jim Broadbent, brilliant), an aging Strathmore graduate who spends his days getting drunk in a tiny apartment and bitterly condemning the rest of humanity.

Zwigoff and Clowes are merciless in their too-true depiction of various art school types - fellow student Bardo (Joel Moore) identifies such familiar characters as the "vegan holy man" and the "beat girl" early on - yet the satire would ring hollow if it weren't for their subtler and more brutal critique on their central character. Jerome repeatedly cites Picasso as his favorite artist, yet he doesn't seem to know much of anything about the artist. He's also quick to emulate others, repeating one of Jimmy's rants in a class, yet he doesn't seem to have many ideas of his own. Much of the film is made up of Jerome looking soulfully at Audrey from across the room, or morosely wandering down streets at night. It's possible that much of the negative response to Art School Confidential is tied into the protagonist's hollowness, but I think that's exactly what Zwigoff and Clowes are going for; Jerome has ambition, but it's vague and passive. The irony is that he's a decent painter, better than most of his fellow students. But while he's right to question their pretensions, he doesn't really have anything to say either. He's a total cipher, and despite his declarations of love for Sophie, his emotional range doesn't really extend beyond horniness and self-pity. He has a lot of growing up to do.

The film enters into shades of Argento and Hitchcock halfway through, and I found that I actually liked this shift quite a bit in terms of what it reveals about the characters. My disappointment with the film derives more from the sense that Zwigoff and Clowes aren't always on the same page. While their humor is wonderfully dry and understated, sometimes the film simply becomes vague and aimless. Many scenes trail off rather than arriving anywhere, and several characters, like Anjelica Huston's compassionate professor Sophie and Steve Buscemi's gallery owner Broadway Bob, could have been explored more fully. The film also has a weird, vagulely condescending attitude towards its gay characters; I'm not really sure what the joke is, and the parts that are evident are sort of familiar and below both the writer and director. When Art School Confidential works, such as the Thanksgiving scene where Jerome receives well-intentioned but terrible advice from his clueless family, it works wonderfully. And both Minghella and Myles are great. But after Ghost World, which worked not only as razor-sharp satire but as a bittersweet exploration of misfit malaise, it is something of a letdown.

Monday, May 22, 2006

I've been tasting roads my whole life.

Here's what I wrote about My Own Private Idaho a year ago in my notebook:

"River Phoenix was so fucking good. Fuck heroin."

These are the sort of earnest declarations, rarely seen after adolescence, that some of the great films can inspire. My Own Private Idaho is one of those films; it's that rare cinematic treasure that speaks to our hearts and minds with equal measure. The film's main character is asleep and adrift, carried through life in the arms of strangers. Anyone who denies relating to him is a robot.

The film opens, as a cheerful title card informs us, in Idaho, on a lonely stretch of road. Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a young street hustler and drifter, is wandering along; we don't know where he's been or where he's headed, and neither does he. Before collapsing with a bout of narcolepsy, Mike remarks that he recognizes this road - it's "like a fucked-up face." Mike squints, and we share his point of view; the camera irises in, and we'd have to agree that it does, indeed, look like a fucked-up face. As we follow Mike on various tricks, from Seattle to Portland to Italy and always back to Idaho, we are always invited to see the world through his eyes. And while Van Sant does not flinch away from the seedier aspects of street life - multicolored porn in a dingy store, stories of violent johns, Udo Kier - the result is never self-consciously gritty or "real." Instead, the film, like Mike, revels in a heightened reality, one that is bittersweet, funny, and romantic.

It's a world where characters like fellow hustler Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), who plans to end his wayward life on his twenty-first birthday and assume control of his father's empire, and their corpulent father figure Bob (William Richert) can unknowingly echo Prince Hal and Falstaff. The riff on Shakespeare could have easily been insufferably arch, but instead it makes for a beautiful gesture, taking something that has been made elitist and giving it back to the groundlings. But Shakespeare is only one of Idaho's densely woven tapestry of allusions. The soundtrack veers between the haunting echo of Marty Robbins' "Cattle Call," the syrupy sweetness of Elton John's "Blue Eyes," and a lone guitar picking "Home on the Range" - these songs are mixed in wind, water, and overheard conversations, as though they were being sounded by the heavens. A brief scene of Mike laughing at a Simpsons episode is weirdly enchanting, and the image lingers reflected in a window, out of focus, ephemeral. And his dreams of his long-lost mother are shot on super-8, like an old home movie; memories and celluloid become one and the same. It's a world that is at once constructed and organic, where there is little to distinguish waking life from dreams.

In the midst of this gleefully chaotic smash-up comes the scene that makes My Own Private Idaho an indisputable masterpiece. Mike and Scott are sitting at a makeshift campfire in the middle of the night, in the midst of a search for Mike's mother. With six words - "I really wanna kiss you, man" - the film immediately and sharply cuts deep into the hearts of anyone who has suffered unrequited longing. After quite an elusive, complex first hour, Van Sant's decision to address the central meaning of the film so directly must have seemed a dangerous proposition. The film, so delicate, could have fallen like a house of cards under the weight of such unabashed romanticism. But it's a credit to Van Sant's vision, and the two leads, that the scene works so wonderfully. The bulk of the credit has to go to Phoenix, who never strikes a false note in the whole film. Look at him laughing in the background at Bob's wild stories, or cradling himself like a child as he tells Scott's new girlfriend that he knows how she feels - he is unabashedly, nakedly human.

Still, I've only begun to scratch the surface. The film is crammed with great characters, from Reichert's pompous, scraggly den mother to Mickey Cottrell's spooky bit as Daddy Carroll. As a piece of filmmaking craft it's perfect - every shot and cut are just as they should be. And yet none of this would matter if the film didn't have an emotional center, and My Own Private Idaho has a heart as big as Boise. When we leave Mike, he's just left on a new journey. We don't know any more about where he's headed then we did at the start, but he's not without love anymore; the miracle of cinema is that we've grown to love him. It'd be easy to read the last words - "Have a nice day" - as sarcastic, but I prefer to take them at face value. Van Sant sees our basic desires so clearly. He never strikes a dishonest note, but manages to tell us a very heartfelt story about a narcoleptic prostitute, motherless and adrift, who wants nothing more than to be held. What a beautiful film.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Oh my God Almighty! Someone has sent me a bowel movement!

The term "cult film" has always seemed vague to me, because it's difficult to draw a line between cult and popular appeal. Can The Rocky Horror Picture Show still be considered a cult item after grossing hundreds of millions of dollars from screenings, video, and related merchandise? Would Napoleon Dynamite, with its massive advertising push on MTV and Nickelodeon, have found its audience if it were released with less fanfare? However, if there is any such thing as a true cult film, that film is Pink Flamingos. Made on 16mm in the Baltimore area in 1971, John Waters' film was propelled to widespread appreciation with only a shoestring budget and a cheerful willingness to defy even the most basic standards of taste.

Divine plays Divine, also known as Babs Johnson, who lives in a trailer with her chicken-loving son Crackers (Danny Mills), their girlfriend Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), and Divine's egg-devouring mother Edie (Edith Massey). Their quiet life of shoplifting, bestiality, and eggs is interrupted by Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stone and David Lochary), who aim to challenge Divine's clan for the title of "the filthiest people alive." The Marbles, incidentally, make a living kidnapping and impregnating young women with the help of their assistant, Channing (Channing Wilroy). This admittedly flimsy plot is an excuse for ninety minutes of scatology, weird sexual fetishes, incest, gore, and genital gymnastics. And I never stopped laughing.

It would have been extremely easy for Pink Flamingos to come off as smug and repugnant, but Waters and the cast invest the film with a charming guilelessness; it's the cinematic equivalent of the look in a golden retreiver's eyes as he humps your leg. The camera is unflinching when presenting us with, for instance, a man with a sausage tied to his penis, and yet the setup in the film is so cheerfully goofy that one can't help but laugh. Pink Flamingos is using filth to challenge mainstream standards about gender and deviance, yet it does so with a wink and a smile. Comedy, particularly gross-out, has rarely been used so effectively as a weapon of subversion.

The filmmaking is admittedly rough. Most scenes are shot from one angle without cuts, flubbed lines remain in the final cut, and the cinematographic technique is mostly "zoom in, zoom out." Yet this doesn't really hurt Pink Flamingos; if anything, the home movie look of the film adds to its charm. And while none of the actors were trained by Stanislavski (or even James Lipton), they manage to create winning, compelling characters. Massey's extended monologues professing her love for eggs and "the egg man" rival Bunuel. Lochary rants about "the fucking jerk-off hippies" with his lisping drawl and exposes himself to young girls with gusto. But the real unheralded star of Pink Flamingos, to me, is Mink Stole; with fireball red hair and cat glasses, the petite, unassuming actress hornily sucks her on-screen husband's toes while proclaiming that she loves him "more than the sound of bones breaking." She's simultaneously the scariest and most intriguing aspect of Pink Flamingos.

And then there's Divine, who completely earns her name. The plus-size transvestite is at once superstar, tramp, and circus geek, and cheerfully embraces every role. Divine is at home acting out Sirk-style melodrama as he is fellating his onscreen son. He approaches every transgressive or degrading act with total commitment and gusto. He manages to eat dog shit with a big grin and walk away with his dignity intact. Divine is a role model.

About the shit-eating: the scene endures because it's unparalleled in its gross-out power, but also because it's a perfect, iconic moment. Tristan Tzara frequently claimed that the greatest compliment to his plays would be for the audience to riot; Waters comes close, working us into a fit of simultaneous repulsion and maniacal laughter. Divine stares directly at us, excrement smeared on his teeth, grinning as he chokes bag his own gag reflex. It's a moment that anticipates the synthesis of exploitation, porn and pop culture that would occur over the next thirty years. It's one of the great moments in cinema.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Coming Attractions

Back from, and in some ways still in the midst of, a whirlwind tour of the region's big screens. Seen on 35mm this month: Fargo, Blue Velvet, Pink Flamingos, My Own Private Idaho, Badlands, and Days of Heaven. Still to come: King Kong and Full Metal Jacket. Expect multiple articles on the experience (any preferences?). To say things have been busy would be an understatement; the past few weeks have brought a graduation (diploma's in the mail), a violent car crash for my parents (who emerged unscathed, thankfully), and the rediscovery of true romance founded on celluloid and dreams. Also, a honkin' tv set. Here's to irresponsibility and adventure. Here's to the future.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Trim Bin #24

- "The State of Cinema" - Tilda Swinton's recent speech at the San Francisco Film Festival. Not much to add, except to say that Tilda Swinton gets it.

- Alida Valli died on April 22 at the age of 84. Valli's film credits include Eyes Without a Face, 1900, and her memorable performance as Mrs. Tanner in Suspiria. But her most enduring character is Anna, Harry Lime's girlfriend, from The Third Man. The final shot of Valli strolling right by a defeated Joseph Cotten is a great image in a film full of great images; it perfectly summarizes the struggle between romance and cynicism that permeates the film.

- Read a New Yorker piece on Werner Herzog recently; it mostly regurgitated thirty-year-old stories about Klaus Kinski, but the bits about tension during the making of Rescue Dawn were fascinating. Before shooting began, one of the production execs showed Herzog The Rundown in the hopes that the director would consider working with the cinematographer from the Dwayne Johnson vehicle. Really think about that.

- Jess and I checked out Albany's Spectrum 8 Theatres on a whim last night; it was worth the trip. The cinema has a gorgeous marquee and a comfortable interior, and straddled the line between multiplex and art-house wonderfully. Plus, they have a great midnight series on Fridays. Dawn of the Dead is this week (I'll actually get to see it on a big screen for the second time), and next week is Grey Gardens (which I'll get to see for the first time this way). Which brings me to a very difficult question regarding June 2nd: Back to the Future or The River's Edge?

- "And then you mix it all together and that's more or less it."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006