Monday, November 27, 2006

Quote of the Week

"Today, studios don't exist anymore. Sure, you can go in and shoot there, but you move in like you move into the Ramada Inn. You finish shooting, you finish cutting, and it's 'Goodbye Charlie.' It's no fun anymore. Not the real fun which we had. Paramount made fifty pictures a year, and even if a picture failed, you went on and on, because to the bosses you were as good as the best thing you had ever done."

Billy Wilder

I am a horrible person

I haven't written about Robert Altman's death and I feel like my cinephile membership card should be taken away or something. But the reason I haven't written anything is because I've never actually seen any of his films. I guess that, in itself, should be enough to get me kicked out of the club, but the truth is that I've never really been interested in anything he's directed. I know I should watch his masterpieces because it's hard to be a part of the larger film conversation when you haven't seen the "big ones" but none of the stories he's chosen to tell sound all that interesting to me. I'm very sorry to hear of his death, of course, because even though I was never a fan, I can certainly recognize his place in film history. That alone is enough to make one sad, that one of the great figures in American cinema is gone. But I haven't written any sort of reflection or commentary because I have nothing to go on, having not seen any of his movies. Hopefully one day I can get past my hesitation and watch an Altman film or two and find out what I've been missing all these years.

You Know What Really Grinds My Gears?

I've noticed over the past couple of years (I dunno, maybe it's been happening longer and I just never noticed) is that mainstream critics -- newspaper critics, magazine critics, TV critics, many online critics -- all tend to adopt a "script" about certain movies and then proceed to view these movies only through that script. For The Passion of the Christ it was the possible anti-Semitism of the film; for Brokeback Mountain it was the gay romance angle and how the film was breaking down prejudices against Gay and Lesbian people in America; now for Borat it's the angle that the movie is some great social commentary revealing the "hidden prejudices in America." The angle, in such cases, takes over the conversation about the movie to the point that nearly every major review or commentary approaches the film from that angle and the film gets defined as being "about" that before the audience has even seen the film. This, of course, isn't limited to film criticism and movie reviews -- the media has a tendency to approach a story in only one way and that one way is the one that dominates our national conversation about the story. But I'm getting kind of annoyed by this in film criticism since film is what I'm most interested in and I hate how the conversation gets defined before the audience has even had a chance to see the film and decide for itself.

Borat is the latest example of this, where everyone has been told for months that the film is all about exposing the prejudices of "average" Americans so people go into the movie expecting it to be about this, and since the movie does have a few scenes where Americans act like bigoted, disgusting jerks, people think they've seen some ground-breaking work of social satire.

Am I being too condescending toward the audience? Am I giving critics too much credit and the audience not enough? Maybe. I would hope that people are able to see films for what they are and not have their opinions dictated to them by the media or so-called experts. Maybe I'm getting hot and bothered for nothing and most people in the audiences for Borat recognize that they aren't laughing at the frat boys' stupid remarks because, frankly, their gross remarks aren't funny, but that they're laughing at Borat and his silly, over-the-top comments, and his zany slapstick. For the most part, the comedy in Borat doesn't come from the awful remarks made by a few frat boys and rednecks; the comedy comes from Borat himself. But the way the media hype surrounding the movie would have it, you'd think you were watching a two-hour masterpiece of groundbreaking social satire. I hate the way the conversation gets started about a film and everyone just echoes and parrots the same few things that the mainstream critics have all glommed onto.

I am encouraged by the Internet, of course, and the fact that more people have a voice now and can enter the conversation instead of just being suffocated by the conversations of others (i.e.: "professionals"). To take Borat as an example again, there's the commentary by Christopher Hitchens which I think makes some good points (and of course, some points I happen to agree with, see my review below), and then there's Jim Emerson's response, which also makes some excellent points, and analyzes the film in its relation to traditional cinematic comedy (as opposed to its status as social commentary), something I'm afraid I've found very little of in the mainstream reviews that welcomed the movie into theaters. Hitchens and Emerson are, of course, both part of the mainstream themselves, in a way that I, the humble nobody blogger, am not. But they're engaging the film in a way that is based on actually thinking about it as individuals and not just parroting a lot of movie reviewer groupthink. That's what's refreshing, and I hope the more I explore this whole film blogger thing the more I'll encounter this kind of individualism in criticism. At this point, I'm pretty much sick to death of the professional reviewer scene, because it seems like there's always a specific "line" on a movie -- it's this, it's that, it's got this controversy surrounding it, it's got that scandal accompanying it -- and whatever the line is the reviewer can't help but reduce the film to that one thing. I suspect what people like Hitchens and Jonah Goldberg are reacting to (I can't comment on David Brooks, whom Emerson mentions, because I don't subscribe to the New York Times online) is not so much the movie Borat itself, but the national conversation that seems to have arisen around it. The "line" on a film has already been written, and so that's what the movie "is," whether we like it or not.

Sorry for the rant, but I say not.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Quote of the Week

"I don't think the film has a grammar. I don't think film has but one form. If a good film results, then that film has created its own grammar."

Yasujiro Ozu

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006

This one's for you LeaJo

What's with all the evil bunny suits?

Quote of the Week

"I have always felt that visual literacy is just as important as verbal literacy. What the film pioneers were exploring was the medium's specific techniques. In the process, they invented a new language based on images rather than on words, a visual grammar you might say: close-ups, irises, dissolves, masking part of the frame for emphasis, dolly shots, tracking shots. These are the basic tools that directors have at their disposal to create and heighten the illusion of reality."

Martin Scorsese

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970, B+)

I didn't really get anything out of this film thematically; all of the stuff about sex and fascism and wanting to conform and appear normal left me cold. Frankly, I'm just not interested in sex as a subject matter unless it's about how sex isn't as crazy-fun and non-committal as modern Western culture would have it. So right there Bertolucci loses me.

But, hoo boy, is this film beautiful! I mean, gorgeous. Probably one of the top five most beautifully photographed films I've ever seen. The use of color for one thing, right off the bat with the contrasting redish-browns of the first scene to the somber blues of the next scene, to the stark, clean whites and blacks of several of the scenes at fascist headquarters. I especially loved the softness of the lighting used on the female leads. Bertolucci was able to make their faces look as luminous and flawless (in color) as the beautiful black and white faces of Hollywood's glamour heydays of the 30s and 40s. For me this film was all about the aesthetic pleasures of gazing at these dream-like images, with narrative reduced to a secondary, or even tertiary position. I really wasn't invested in whether Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) would let his former professor be killed, or whether he'd save Anna (Dominique Sanda) from a similar fate. All I cared about was the haunting image of Professor Quandri surrounded by assasins and trees in the yellow light of the dawn. The whole film was just a pleasure (and a nightmare) to look at. In a way, this movie is an example of how cinema is not as strongly tied to narrative and storytelling as we so often would like to think. Even a movie that doesn't have a strong story or a compelling theme can be a powerful, moving, important experience. Like our experience with dreams, the images from The Conformist will linger indefinitely, while its meaning will most likely be forgotten.

Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1933, B-)

Not as scary as I hoped, mostly due to the fact that the male lead, Richard Arlen, hardly seemed bothered by the freakish experiments of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). His performance throughout the film was one of mild irritation, as if the men-beasts and panther woman weren't frightening monsters and twisted perversions of nature but unwelcome dinner guests or something. Not good.

But Laughton's performance makes up for it, as he's so deliciously cool, and evil, and crazy, and charming. He's hamming it up, sure, but it's one of those hammy performances that's actually menacing (take note Brando, whose own Dr. Moreau was just ridiculous). Moreau, of course, isn't bothered by such petty things as morality, being one of those Dr. Frankenstein types who believes he can conquer nature, and Laughton is just that right mix of charisma and arrogance and intelligence that can make even the cruelest and sickest of scientific experiments seem "important" and "revolutionary" and "good." Of course, they're not, and Moreau soon finds out what really happens when you turn beasts into men.

The make-up work on the men-beasts is fantastic, and though Lota the panther woman looks human for the most part, the reveal of her beastly claws was creepy as hell. Definitely the scariest stuff in the film comes from the grotesque faces of the men-beasts lurking in the shadows of Moreau's tropical island. When their true deformities are revealed in close-ups at the end, it's pretty cool, and I was definitely disturbed by Moreau's demise.

Watch (or I should say, listen, as it's hard to tell it's him from appearances) for Bela Lugosi's supporting role, and marvel as well at some pretty graphic pre-Code violence.

The Fastest Gun Alive (Russell Rouse, 1956, B-)

Great black and white cinematography and a solid performance from Glenn Ford. Unfortunately, Jeanne Crain, whom I usually like, overacts. She reads every line with this sort of tragic voice of weariness and disappointment and it gets a little tiresome after awhile. But it was nice to see Glenn Ford in the genre he's most known for, the western. Confession, I've never actually seen any Glenn Ford movies before, this was my first, and I was struck by his naturalistic performance and his almost James Dean-like line delivery, sometimes speaking in an under-the-breath sort of way, sometimes talking too fast or talking over someone else's lines, or just talking in an off-hand sort of way, as if he were just talking and not reading lines from a script. I liked it and I hope to see more Glenn Ford pictures in the future.

I also enjoyed the shoot-out at the end of the movie. For a film called "Fastest Gun Alive" one expects some fast gun work, and the first gun shot of the final duel doesn't disappoint. Using misdirection through dialogue and camera work, the shot really does "feel" fast, as it took me by surprise. At first, Ford and Broderick Crawford's bad guy get the typical shoot-out-at-high-noon treatment, with a sequence of shots showing the two men slowly approaching the middle of the street, overhead shots that emphasize the distance still between them, their figures positioned at the edges of the frame as they gradually close in on one another, etc. But when the first shot is fired, the characters aren't being filmed in that typical "here comes the first shot" kind of way; the camera is just resting easily as if this were another typical dialogue scene before the shooting starts. And then suddenly the shooting starts. It's pretty effective and one of the better shoot-out scenes I've seen (not that I've seen very many, admitedly).

Russ Tamblyn also co-stars and has a high-spirited dance number that seems out-of-place in this otherwise gloomy sort of western. Music is, to my surprise, by Andre Previn.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Regarding upcoming features on the blog, I forgot to mention that one of my areas of interest in film studies is Central and Eastern European cinema, specifically Czech cinema, and that I'll be doing a Czech cinema retrospective over the next few months, focusing especially on the Czech New Wave. All of this is thanks to the wonderful Professor Eagle, whose film course on Central and Eastern European cinema was a highlight of my undergraduate years. I'll keep everyone in suspense as to which films I'll cover, but it should be a good mix.

Quote of the Week

"He gave us the grammar of filmmaking. He understood the psychic strength of the lens."

Lillian Gish (on D.W. Griffith)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Random stuff

Jim Emerson has a post up taking Anthony Lane and Armond White to task for their lame reviews of Borat, but I was actually more fascinated by the reader comments, many of which make some great observations about the movie. Check it out.

Also, one of the commentors links to a piece by Noel Murray at the A.V. Club blog which makes almost the exact same point I made in my review of Borat, namely, that it's not really the crackerjack social commentary it's being billed as.

Finally, I'm starting to get into a groove here with my blogging, like, actually posting on a semi-regular basis. Careful readers will have noticed that LeaJo's presence has been slight these past two months, but this is due to the fact that she actually takes her higher education seriously and doesn't goof around on the blog wasting time like I do. Despite its continuing damage to my grades, my blogging will not be abated. The future of the blog (hopefully) will include the following:

* A series of posts analyzing adaptations of British lit classics (these will not be the usual suspects, however, instead I'll be focusing on made-for-tv BBC versions and lesser-known, less-canonical works such as Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby)

* A series on my favorites from childhood, many of them considered "bad" by mainstream critics (Troop Beverly Hills, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Howard the Duck, The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking); some I will be watching for the first time since seeing them as a child, so it'll be interesting to see how they hold up

* Detailed analysis of several of my favorites including: Gone with the Wind, Libeled Lady, Gypsy, Ball of Fire, Stage Door, Waterloo Bridge, Dazed and Confused, and t.v. shows Freaks and Geeks, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, The Venture Bros., and Aqua Teen Hunger Force (no links for these, 'cause I'm tired of looking up titles on IMDB)

* A year-long (at least) retrospective of fantasy films (fantasy here being restricted to fairy tale or High fantasy or magical-world fantasy, not It's a Wonderful Life fantasy); I've long been a fan of fantasy as a genre, but fantasy films haven't really gotten the attention other genres of the fantastic like horror and sci-fi have gotten and I'd like to see if I could remedy that; I plan on looking at everything from silents to sword and sorcery stuff from the 80s, from live action to animation, from American to Japanese, from French to German, everything -- it's going to be a huge undertaking, and it'll take a long time, but I'd like to think it will be one of the defining features of this blog

And one last note: I've been totally digging Squish's Hitchcock series, mostly because he doesn't treat Hitch like some untouchable god of filmmaking, never to be criticized -- his views are fresh, unique, and funny. What's great is that Squish doesn't just parrot the accepted views on these films or on Hitchcock, and even while I don't agree with every rating (Suspicion is one of my all-time favorites, Squish gives it a 70%), I appreciate the critical eye he applies to these "canonical" movies.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

American Niceness and Borat

John Derbyshire of NRO has seen Borat (Larry Charles, 2006), and though I generally don't agree with him on ANYTHING, I think he's got a great point about Americans as seen in the movie:

I think native Americans might be more at ease with this movie than I am. Imbedded in it is a critique of American niceness. Coming from the Old World, where people are much less nice, I am a bit of a fan of American niceness, and perhaps can't laugh at it as easily as someone who grew up with it.

Niceness is of course a matter of balance. Niceness can hypertrophy into the horrors of Political Correctness—speech codes, hate crimes, litigation over mild insults or compliments, etc. The opposite danger, the one SBC's style of humor points to, is that too much deconstructing of niceness might lead to a state of affairs where niceness vanishes. What's that Nadezhda Mandelshtam quote? Something like: "Once there were kind people, and even people who weren't kind, pretended to be, because that was the way to be. Then people began to scoff at this hypocrisy, to make fun of it, to expose it. The result we now see: there are no more kind people now." She was writing from the depths of Stalin's USSR. No, SBC isn't going to drag us down into totalitarianism, of course not. I do hope, though, very much, that he won't make Americans ashamed of their niceness.

Full post here

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America etc. (Larry Charles, 2006, B+)

*minor spoilers ahead*

Laughed hard and had a great time. Probably the funniest movie I’ve seen since Team America: World Police. Not the funniest movie ever (get over the hyperbole Entertainment Weekly, seriously), but definitely one of the funniest movies of the last ten or fifteen years. Baron Cohen’s performance is hysterical, and the Borat character is both revolting and pitiable. My favorite part of the Borat shtick is the over-the-top anti-Semitism that completely sends up the ridiculous, illogical, ignorant, and disgusting views of real anti-Semites. I’m reminded of the great comedic masters like Lubitsch and Chaplin who used their films to send up the Nazis and their hateful ideology. Baron Cohen exposes anti-Semitism for the evil it is, all in the guise of gross-out humor.

I’m less impressed with the film’s so-called expose on America’s dark underbelly. Mostly I learned three (not-very-shocking) things about America: 1.) There are old hicks out there who hate gay people; 2.) Frat boys are idiots; and 3.) Americans are nice to a fault, afraid of confrontation in almost all circumstances (except New Yorkers, who can *shockingly* be angry and rude). Frankly, none of this is surprising or really all that insightful. I’m more surprised by how well Americans in general come off in the film. The driving instructor and the etiquette lady both have a lot of patience with Borat, the politicians don’t say anything even remotely controversial, and the dinner party people put up with a lot of crazy shit that I probably would have been a lot less patient about. Yeah, the one lady was pretty condescending, but she fricking went into the bathroom with Borat and should him how to wipe himself! Talk about being a gracious host. I also noticed that when Borat told the crowd at the rodeo that he hoped George Bush would drink the blood of the Iraqis, most of the people in the crowd behind him were standing there motionless, obviously not cheering, though the soundtrack had the crowd yelping and cheering enthusiastically. Deceptive sound editing on the part of the production? In my opinion, quite possibly, because the crowd grows less and less enthusiastic as Borat’s rant continues. By the end they appear suitably appalled, and I have to say, not at all like the ignorant, bloodthirsty, warmongers that seem to be the typical stereotype of conservative Southerners. From the way the previews showed it, I expected the crowd to cheer all of Borat’s speech, but they eventually caught on to the nature of his comments and were not supportive. I also have a theory that guys like the gun shop owner and the car dealer ignored Borat’s questions about killing Jews and Gypsies probably because Borat was foreign and they chalked up his questions to some form of misunderstanding (many people have difficulty understanding people with accents, and instead of asking for clarification and possibly risking embarrassment, they just ignore the comment as if they understood it). Am I making excuses for these guys? Maybe, but even if they understood Borat completely and had no problem with it, I’m not exactly shocked to find out that one car salesman and one gun dealer aren’t exactly upstanding moral citizens. Maybe if the film had a montage of gun dealers not batting an eye at Borat’s query for a Jew-killin gun I’d be more impressed. As it is, not so much. All this talk about the great social commentary of this movie just seems like a lot of wishful thinking to me.

But, dang, is it funny. This movie is really, really, ridiculously funny. People next to me in the theater almost literally started rolling on the floor with laughter. I’m ashamed to say it (my good taste cred is at this point seriously nil), but I couldn’t stop laughing at the naked wrestling of two ugly, hairy men. It was the most absurd moment in comedy this year, or maybe ever. It was gross. I loved it.

I also loved the simple, old-fashioned jokes, like the moment when Borat, in frustration, throws his bag onto the ground and we hear the annoyed cluck of his chicken, which has been residing in Borat’s bag throughout the trip. Or the little throwaway moment when Borat’s producer, Azamat, dressed as Oliver Hardy, tells Borat: “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many people in my theater caught this joke. Both are indications that Baron Cohen is a real comedy writer, not just a guy who throws gross stuff up at the screen in the hopes that people will laugh. He’s that too, but he’s smarter than the average gross-out writer, willing to get laughs that are both low-key and clever, as well as disgusting and ridiculous.