Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Trim Bin #59

- There are two trailers I can't stop thinking about lately. The first, No Country For Old Men, is the Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, looks to be a return to form after the bland, disappointing one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. I can't wait to see what the Coens do with McCarthy's stark prose - the trailer suggests their creepiest film since Blood Simple. The second is for another adaptation, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!). The pronounced similarity to Terrence Malick has been pointed out repeatedly, and the trailer is certainly filled with echoes of Days of Heaven (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, too). I'm intrigued that Anderson, who has always been a wiz with sound (few directors would hire Gary Rydstrom to mix a small-scale romantic comedy), has replaced bombast with silence. It's this stripped-down approach that connects the two trailers in my mind, as both suggest drastically new approaches for their respective makers. If the films are as powerful as their trailers, we're in for a memorable fall.

- The updated AFI list is no better or worse than the last one - it's nice to see Blade Runner and Nashville in there, and it's laughable that The Sixth Sense is apparently the greatest film of 1999 (the best moviegoing year in my lifetime thus far). There's nothing really wrong with the list itself - about a third of the films listed appear on my own top 100 - but it paints an extremely narrow picture of film history and culture. The AFI list is inherently less interesting than the Sight and Sound Top 10 or other lists, mostly because voters must choose from a preliminary list of 400 films that are at least partly chosen for their popularity. Where other lists are meant to provoke discussion, this one is meant to generate nostalgia and boost DVD sales. Add to this the AFI's stupid insistence on an American-only list because the word "American" appears in their name, and you have a list that is purposefully anti-eclectic. It sucked in 1998, it sucks now, and it will suck ten years from now (or nine, as the AFI apparently cannot count to ten). Case closed.

- A while back I was speculating about casting Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones. The parents have been cast, and I'm split. On the one hand, Rachel Weisz is a great choice for Abigail - her ability to be emotionally open without sacrificing subtlety perfectly fits the story's delicate tone. On the other hand, the casting of Ryan Gosling as the patriarch doesn't work for me, and not just because he's far too young to play a father of three. A confession: I just don't get Ryan Gosling. Where others see precocious brilliance, I see a joyless, mannered assembly of self-conscious method tics in search of a performance with soul. I find his tendency towards "important" material contrived. I didn't buy him for a second as a crackhead in Half Nelson. And his pretentiously unpretentious normal guy routine is infuriating, because any normal guy wouldn't be able to say things like "I've always hated the complacency which comes from good looks" with a straight face. I'll give Peter Jackson the benefit of the doubt - I didn't think much of Viggo before The Fellowship of the Ring - but seriously, am I missing something?

- CHUD has an interesting article about the evolution of the 4th of July as a blockbuster weekend/crap depository. I can't wait to see Transformers, even though I'm pretty sure it's going to unleash a plague of snakes and flesh-eating bugs that will kill all of America's children, unleashing an army of Druid cyborgs that not even Tom Atkins can stop from conquering the world. Either way, the robots look cool.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Top 100: Pop Music in Film

For my contribution to the Filmmusic Blog-a-Thon, I've assembled what started as a top ten list before ballooning to a 100 list - there was just no way to whittle it down. This list is ranked not only by the greatness of a song, but how perfectly it is used in a scene or moment from a film. Source music allows directors another form of total control, and directors like Kubrick and Scorsese that helped popularlize the concept of pop soundtracks are notorious perfectionists. In the hands of the right filmmaker, a great song (or even a not-so-great one) can become an extension of a characters' emotions, an ironic comment on a scene, or a distinct shade of meaning.

There are some original songs here, but the emphasis is on source music. Straight musicals and performance aren't on this list (with the borderline exception of, ironically, Performance), as they belong on another list completely. Also, I've limited myself to one cue per film - otherwise, half the list would be Goodfellas. Links to the corresponding scenes are provided when available. I hope you enjoy this more than another recent 100 list.

1. “Sister Christian,” Night Ranger – Boogie Nights
2. “The End,” The Doors – Apocalypse Now
3. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” The Rolling Stones – Mean Streets
4. “In Dreams,” Roy Orbison – Blue Velvet
5. “Singin’ In the Rain,” Gene Kelly – A Clockwork Orange
6. “Memo From Turner,” Mick Jagger – Performance
7. “Stuck In The Middle With You,” Stealer’s Wheel – Reservoir Dogs
8. “I Think I See The Light,” Cat Stevens – Harold and Maude
9. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
10. “In Your Eyes,” Peter Gabriel – Say Anything
11. “These Days,” Nico – The Royal Tenenbaums
12. “Layla,” Derek and the Dominos - Goodfellas
13. “I Put a Spell On You,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Stranger Than Paradise
14. “The Stranger Song,” Leonard Cohen – McCabe and Mrs. Miller
15. “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time,” The Delfonics – Jackie Brown
16. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – The Big Lebowski
17. “Mrs. Robinson,” Simon and Garfunkel – The Graduate
18. “Tiny Dancer,” Elton John – Almost Famous
19. “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” Donovan – Zodiac
20. “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy – Do the Right Thing
21. “Late for the Sky,” Jackson Browne – Taxi Driver
22. “Relax,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Body Double
23. “Theme From Shaft,” Issac Hayes – Shaft
24. “Wise Up,” Aimee Mann - Magnolia
25. “A Quick One While He’s Away,” The Who - Rushmore
26. “Nobody But Me," Human Beinz – Kill Bill vol. 1
27. “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” Chris Issak – Eyes Wide Shut
28. "Everybody's Talkin'," Harry Nilsson - Midnight Cowboy
29. “Moving In Stereo,” The Cars – Fast Times at Ridgemont High
30. “Sussudio,” Phil Collins – American Psycho
31. “An Invitation to the Blues,” Tom Waits – Bad Timing
32. “Amoreena,” Elton John – Dog Day Afternoon
33. "I'm Shipping Up To Boston," Dropkick Murphys - The Departed
34. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke – Malcolm X
35. “The Court of the Crimson King,” King Crimson – Children of Men
36. "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan and The Band - New York Stories
37. “Staggolee,” Pacific Gas & Electric - Grindhouse
38. “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” Beck – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
39. "Careful With That Axe Eugene," Pink Floyd - Zabriskie Point
40. "Goldfinger," Shirley Bassey - Goldfinger
41. “Staying Alive,” The Bee Gees – Saturday Night Fever
42. “Life on Mars,” David Bowie – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
43. “The Killing Moon,” Echo and the Bunnymen – Donnie Darko
44. “Natural’s Not In It,” Gang of Four – Marie Antoinette
45. “This Magic Moment,” Lou Reed – Lost Highway
46. “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” Urge Overkill – Pulp Fiction
47. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," B.J. Thomas - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
48. “Blue Moon,” Sam Cooke – An American Werewolf in London
49. “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds – The Breakfast Club
50. “Hurricane,” Bob Dylan – Dazed and Confused
51. "We'll Meet Again," Vera Lynn - Dr. Strangelove
52. “Janie Jones,” The Clash – Bringing Out the Dead
53. “The Old Main Drag,” The Pogues – My Own Private Idaho
54. “If You Wanna Be a Bird,” The Holy Modal Rounders – Easy Rider
55. "Surfin' Bird," The Trashmen – Full Metal Jacket
56. "Sinnerman," Nina Simone – Inland Empire
57. "From Her To Eternity," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Wings of Desire
58. "Old Time Rock and Roll," Bob Seger - Risky Business
59. “Banana Boat Song,” Harry Belafonte - Beetlejuice
60. “Louie Louie,” The Kingsmen – Animal House
61. "Can We Still Be Friends," Todd Rundgren - Vanilla Sky
62. "Twist and Shout," The Beatles - Ferris Bueller's Day Off
63. “Freebird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd – The Devil’s Rejects
64. “Tequila,” The Champs – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
65. "No One Lives Forever," Oingo Boingo - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
66. “Waterloo,” Abba – Muriel’s Wedding
67. "Let's Misbehave," Irving Aaronson and His Commanders - Pennies From Heaven
68. “I Want You Around,” The Ramones – Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
69. “Numb/Encore” Jay-Z and Linkin Park, Miami Vice
70. “Daniel,” Elton John – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
71. "Magic Man," Heart - The Virgin Suicides
72. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” Bauhaus – The Hunger
73. “All Out of Love,” Air Supply - Happiness
74. “Girls,” Death in Vegas – Lost in Translation
75. "The Seeker," The Who - American Beauty
76. “Goodbye Horses,” Q. Lazzarus – The Silence of the Lambs
77. “I’m Your Man,” Leonard Cohen - Secretary
78. “The Blower’s Daughter,” Damien Rice - Closer
79. “There Is An End,” The Greenhornes with Holly Golightly – Broken Flowers
80. “Who Made Who,” AC/DC – Maximum Overdrive
81. "Philadelphia," Neil Young – Philadelphia
82. "Hey You," Pink Floyd - The Squid and the Whale
83. "Venus in Furs," Velvet Underground - Last Days
84. "Just in Time," Nina Simone - Before Sunset
85. "Bad To The Bone," George Thorogood and The Destroyers – Christine
86. "Without You," Harry Nilsson - The Rules of Attraction
87. "Devil Got My Woman," Skip James - Ghost World
88. "Suzanne," Leonard Cohen - Breaking the Waves
89. "Everybody Wants Some," Van Halen - Better Off Dead
90. "Partyman,” Prince – Batman
91. "Midnight, the Stars and You," Roy Noble Orchestra - The Shining
92. "Young Americans," David Bowie – Dogville
93. "2000 Man," The Rolling Stones - Bottle Rocket
94. "Anthem," Leonard Cohen - Natural Born Killers
95. "Sax and Violins," Talking Heads - Until the End of the World
96. "Rock Around the Clock," Bill Haley and the Comets - Blackboard Jungle
97. "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" - The Return of the Living Dead
98. "Stardust," Louis Armstrong - Stardust Memories
99. "Que Sera Sera," Doris Day - The Man Who Knew Too Much
100. "Eye of the Tiger," Survivor - Rocky III

Monday, June 18, 2007

always a day away

My great-grandmother died this weekend. At 98, she had sidestepped all forms of disease, injury and senility until the only thing she had left to face was biological law. Her name was Mary Elizabeth Jacquard, but to me, she was Nana Baa. Nana Baa used to be called Nana Wolf because she would read me the story of Peter and the Wolf when I was a toddler. When I was a bit older, I overheard someone use the phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing"; thus, Nana Wolf became Nana Baa.

Nana Baa used to read to me all the time; in recent years she would joke about sitting at the kitchen table at six in the morning, drinking coffee, and suddenly hearing small footsteps as I descended the stairs carrying a stack of books. And I must have made the poor woman watch Annie a hundred times. But she was always totally enthusiastic - she was a great listener, and she cared about the things that mattered to me. Nana Baa was a pretty perfect great-grandmother.

Nana Baa and my great-grandfather (who I never met, but who I once mistook for President Reagan) came to America via Canada; she lived in Massachusetts for most of her life, raising eight children, dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and even living to see a few great-great-grandchildren. A faithful Catholic, the walls of her home were covered with images of Christ and a bearded, smiling God watching over the earth. She was what all Christians should be - loving, faithful, and deeply appreciative of her life. Her worst fear was losing her ability to be self-sufficient, and she never did; even in her last years, she was still cooking and cleaning for herself. And in the past few months, as it became clear the end was near, my family was able to arrange for her to spend her last days at home.

I visited her in April, when it looked like she might be gone at any moment. Her eyesight and hearing were fading, but she held me for a long, good time. Too often we don't have the chance to say goodbye to the people we love, so I'll always be greatful that I saw her smile once more. She asked about my filmmaking plans, and I told her about the work I've gotten here and there.

"It's a tough business," she said.

"But there's no pressure," my mom said, to which Nana Baa responded, "Oh yes, there is."

She touched my wife's stomach, feeling the baby still resting inside. Her eyes widened in awe. We talked some more and held hands, then I kissed her and said goodbye. We were going to see her this weekend and bring Luna to meet her, but it wasn't meant to be. Perhaps it's better to die with something to look forward to.
I hope Nana Baa is in the heaven she so strongly believed in. I hope I'll see her again someday.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

She took a midnight train going anywhere

No further proof is needed of David Chase's genius than his ability to turn eight seconds of a silent, black screen into the most talked-about scene of the year. One cannot Google "Sopranos final scene" without being inundated with angry, profane message board posts condemning series creator David Chase with a level of vitriol usually reserved for kiddie rapers and George Lucas. Nobody predicted those final moments, but if someone had, I'd have dismissed the notion as pretentious nonsense. Now, I can't imagine The Sopranos ending any other way. What began as a scabrous black comedy sold on its high concept ("If one family doesn't kill him, the other will" - yuk yuk!) expanded in scale and ambition over the years, becoming an uncompromising lesson in darkness worthy of mention alongside its oft-referenced progenitors. Now that the series is over, we've just begun to fully absorb and process its brilliance, up to and including a final cut that quietly redefines what television is capable of.

Early in "Made in America," Agent Harris (Matt Servitto) warns Tony, "you're reaching." This is Chase's advice to us, as well - the air of impending doom hanging over the entire episode, while suggested by the weirdly off-kilter editing rhythms, is completed by our own simultaneous fear and desire to see Tony Soprano violently offed. It doesn't happen, at least not before the credits roll (we're getting there); nor does Tony join the witness protection program or start a full-scale war. And, frankly, that's for the best - do we really want to see these bloated, middle-aged schlubs gasping for breath as they bloody up the streets of New Jersey? Chase has smartly sated our bloodlust in the previous episode, and in the Pythonesque death of New York boss Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) in this one. The world of The Sopranos is as it has always been; the resolution of the New York/New Jersey conflict plays out quickly, with little pause, in a dingy garage in the middle of nowhere. These guys are dinosaurs, and as Chase repeatedly shows us - with one of Phil's crew accidentally wandering out of a Little Italy growing smaller and smaller, with both Tony and Phil's inability earlier this season to reason with a pouting, indifferent Juggalo - they're on their way out. Say goodbye to Grandpa, indeed.

When AJ lashes out at a table of mourners for their superficial chatter about "jack-off fantasies on television," it's hard not to feel like Chase is chastising us. But the truth is more complicated; as ambivalent as he may be about The Sopranos' popularity among those who get off on the violence and complain about the artsy-fartsy stuff, he isn't out to punish his audience. Agent Harris' exclamation - "We're going to win this one!" - and his investment in Tony's continued survival is meant to mirror our own relationship to the big guy. We care about Tony, his crew and his family for the same reason we care about Tom Powers, Tony Montana and Henry Hill; no matter how many sins they commit, it's encouraging to see the little guy succeed, his problems so managable compared to our world's. Chase goes out of his way to avoid glorifying his characters' actions, but he's not sanctimonious either, allowing each character a fond farewell (Paulie and the cat - perfect). While Dr. Melfi may be able to close the door on Tony, it's hard for us to do the same (this is largely due to James Gandolfini's performance, one for the ages). We may find ourselves wishing, as Steve Perry once did, that the movie will never end.

Which brings us to that final scene. If I had to choose, I think that final cut to black signifies Tony's sudden death at the hands of an unnamed hitman in a Members Only jacket, if for no other reason than last week's flashback to Bobby's line "You never hear it coming." At the same time, there's just as strong an argument to be made that Chase is merely playing with our expectations. I mean, it's not like Bobby Baccalieri is John the Baptist. And Members Only's visit to the bathroom does echo The Godfather, except that there's no reason for him to be hiding his weapon in the john. But this is what the scene is about - Chase gives us a grab bag of signifiers relying not only on our knowledge of The Sopranos but on our collective cultural knowledge (this has always been a big part of the show). Knowing that we're watching the last minutes of the last episode gives every moment mythic significance, with "Don't Stop Believin" elevated to the level of an all-too-ironic Greek chorus. We're conditioned to expect the worst; it's impossible to watch a family, numb but still alive, munch onion rings without anticipating a dramatic twist of fate. And it is here that Chase succeeds in truly putting us inside the mind of his protagonist, who will always be looking over his shoulder.

The question that final cut leaves us to ask is whether things are as bad as we perceive them to be. Are we reaching? It's perhaps the most important question of our age, one that we'll do anything to avoid. So the final scene is radical not just in form but in the questions it leaves us; the rabid discussion isn't just about The Sopranos, it's a confession of our need, more than ever, for resolution. I felt that way too, as every last detail - Carmela's vacant, icy stare (Edie Falco deserves a better award than a frigging Emmy), the small flick of Tony's wrist as he dispatches another onion ring - was invested with unbelievable poignance. The Sopranos is one of the great American stories. I hate to see it end. And then

Monday, June 11, 2007

Doing it Spacey-style

It's sometimes hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that people actually read this blog, so the "Thinking Blogger Award" given to me by John from The Last Visible Blog (along with some very kind words) is extremely encouraging. While I'm not much for memes in general, it seems like it would be extremely bad karma not to pass this along, so below are links to five blogs that are well worth your time. But first, the rules:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.

3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

Please note that any of the blogs linked to the right fully deserve this award, but the rules say five, so there it is.

Film Experience Blog - I've always been dismissive of celeb-obsessed film writing, but Nathaniel at The Film Experience changed that for me. Nathaniel's blog is a witty marriage of serious film discussion and star commentary that reminds of Entertainment Weekly back when it was actually fun to read. Plus, he's made me see Michelle Pfeiffer in a whole new light.
Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule - Dennis Cozzalio's blog is an fun, eclectic appreciation of cinema history and culture high and low (recent posts have covered both Amarcord and Hostel: Part II). Plus, his quarterly movie quizzes are not only thought-provoking, they're a blast to write and share.

Silly Hats Only - The home base for Paul Clark (whose writing can also be found over at Screengrab), a cinephile that is, unbelievably enough, as dedicated to lists, awards, and generally applying arbitrary mathematical formulas to film appreciation as I am. This is encouraging.

Nihon Musings - I know little about anime, so every one of Doug's posts on his favorite subject is extremely educational. He's the rare anime aficionado that can write seriously about the medium without leaving us non-otaku in the dust (he's also a damn good friend).

You Struck Me Dumb Like Radium - Obvious bias here, but I'm not just bragging about Jess because she's my wife; she's my wife because she's so worth bragging about. Her movie reviews are sharper and more insightful than mine could ever be, her poetry is achingly beautiful, and she can push out a baby in record time (not strictly relevant, but it was pretty fucking impressive). She doesn't write nearly enough, so bug her about this fact - the world needs more Jessica.

Re: The Sopranos finale

Thursday, June 07, 2007

I shoot to disappear.

At the heart of El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky's famously mystical and mystifying sort-of-western, is the recurring image of things buried only to be uncovered. As the opening narration explains, el topo (the mole) is an animal that spends its whole life digging tunnels, looking for a sun that will ultimately leave it blinded. This has often been read as a metaphor for the increasing popularity of underground movies, but more simply, it is a version of that most universal symbol of truth - the sun - that takes away one's sight just as it imbues the seer with a deeper inner vision. There are versions of this story in most, if not all mythologies, and Jodorowsky reduces it to a stark fable of the omnipresent light and the unworthy animal. El Topo is the story of one man's gory, kinky journey to enlightenment; it's both profound and profoundly silly, and whole lot of fun.

El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) is a black-clad gunslinger riding across the desert with his young, naked son (Jodorowsky's son, Brontis). During the course of the film, he rescues a woman from a cult, duels with the four master gunmen of the desert, and is betrayed only to be reborn twenty years later as the savior of a colony of deformed and otherwise disabled cave-dwellers, marry a little person and lead the colony to civilization, which ends in bloodshed and a violent epiphany (this is the most fun I've ever had writing plot summary). If this sounds like a hodgepodge of self-consciously odd ideas, El Topo is much more than weird for weird's sake; the ideas and images in the film unfold suddenly and inevitably, as though in a dream. Jodorowsky has a great talent for finding indelible images, and he assembles them together in a way that creates symmetry out of chaos. The film begins like a variation on a spaghetti western, emphasizing the genre's use of vast expanses of desert as a means of alienation (a scene of some bored gunmen waiting for anything to happen recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West). But the film changes with its protagonist, languidly erotic as El Topo indulges in a good deal of group sex, sadistically violent as he duels the four masters, full-blown surreal as he renounces his physical self for a monastic life, and finally apocalyptic. Few films are so bound to their protagonist (and, by extension, Jodorowsky), and if I call El Topo self-indulgent, I mean it in the best possible way.

Jodorowsky straddles the sacred and the profane throughout El Topo. On the surface, the gunslinger's spiritual growth requires him to renounce the self by way of putting aside the pleasures of the flesh, echoing the most stringent aspects of Vedic faiths. At the same time, the filmmaker is clearly getting off on the copious amounts of kinky sex and cartoonish violence, and he wants us to do the same. Interestingly, it's the film's contradictory nature that is its greatest strength; by indulging all aspects of the human experience, the film is able to be philosophical but not pedantic, romantic but not bucolic, horny but not smutty. It's both visceral and meditative, a film that uses bodily harm as a way of understanding spiritual entropy and evolution. That Jodorowsky acknowledges his own weaknesses (his misogyny foremost among them) makes the hero's complicated journey more poignant. As the mother of one of the masters tells El Topo, "The deeper you fall, the higher you will rise."

What ultimately makes El Topo one of my favorite films is its sheer vitality. Jodorowsky imagines spirituality not as an empty religious concept but as a violent, tangible force that compels us to action. The film ends in revolution before arriving at a startling concept, that of death as a renunciation of everything once pure that has been endlessly co-opted and commodified into utter meaninglessness. El Topo is filled with death, but it's an affirmative film, one that in the protagonist's vaudeville act becomes tounge-in-cheek enough to avoid self-importance. Jodorowsky recognizes the story of man as a comedy about a noble animal that struggles, fails and struggles again in the hopes of seeing the light, if only for a moment.