ISSUE 13   FALL 2002
page 13



Movies I've Seen Lately
by Matt Silcock

Rembetika: Blues of Greece (Philippe de Montignie, 1983) This satisfying little documentary about some great music moves between performance and history in a rapid montage that can easily be lost track of, especially given Anthony Quinn's congenial but bleary narration. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the information unfolds like it's coming from a laid-back dream. Perhaps this can be explained by how the film focuses, as does the music itself, on hashish. An impressive last bit depicts the present-day Athens, with a memorable shot of a tourist group being shown the delapidated but still astonishing Akropolis, followed by a nightlife montage that clearly demonstrates the difference between rembetika for the tourists and rembetika for the locals. The movie gives you no choice but to agree that the stuff for the locals is the saltier of the two, and I didn't mind being manipulated one bit. (I also learned from this movie that Melbourne, Australia is the third-largest Greek city in the world!)

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974) John Cassavetes makes movies about characters who shout at each other, slap each other around, burst out laughing, break down screaming, and generally live life cranked up to 10, and then he turns everything up to 11, just to make absolutely sure that viewers will be startled out of whatever assumptions they may have brought to the viewing. Then, he films all this madness with an eye for low-key, no-frills realism. The result are movies that are constantly, thrillingly darting back and forth between affectation and harsh reality. Whenever the actors lapse into affectation, you can feel them using it to rekindle their energies for the scenes of harsh reality that are going to immediately follow. As we all know, the final effect is like nothing else in the movies. This is another Gena Rowlands tour de force, still filled with affectation and shouting and strange choices, but also with truly deep drama that had me thinking about my own household and all my friends and my family and all kinds of things. Certain scenes and even just gestures, like Ms. Rowland blowing raspberries and Peter Falk's comeback of "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba" to his domineering mother, are still playing over and over in my head over and over like an Andrew W.K. song or something.

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953) Fans of Snatch and The Usual Suspects who are feeling adventurous might want to check this one out next time it's on Turner Movie Classics. This quite odd Humphrey Bogart caper picture reminds me of both, with a bunch of rapid-fire quasi-comic caper-picture dialogue delivered in various incomprehensible patois by a motley quartet of villians, all of which would be bracingly odd in any decade. Peter Lorre himself plays one of the villians, and he has a show-stopping filibuster somewhere in the middle that had me very, very confused. All the lead actors are stunning; Bogart, naturally, and Gina Lollobrigida and Jennifer Jones as the leading ladies are both knockouts.

Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990) Once again Kiarostami has floored me, devastated me, and kicked my ass with his movie-making. This incredibly ambitious project is a retelling/restaging/
documentary of a real event, in which an out-of-work down-and-out film aficionado, living in Tehran, was mistaken for well-known Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalmaf by a middle class housewife sitting next to him on the bus. Following an artistic whim born out of loneliness and insecurity, he played along, was invited into the family's home as a friend, and told them that he wanted, Cassavetes-like, to use them as actors in 'his' next film with their house as the main set. He even supervised an actual rehearsal or two with the family members. After a few days, however, suspicion took over, and the family had him arrested. The stunning thing about the movie is that Kiarostami has all the actual people involved with the hoax play themselves, as well as using bold footage of the trial. I'm actually not sure if this footage is the actual trial, or a restaging of the actual trial, and the magic of Kiarostami's movie is that it doesn't at all matter which. This is storytelling like nothing I've ever seen before. As for the story, like Opening Night (Cassavetes again), this seems to me be the ultimately quite touching story of a person finding himself suddenly in the throes of deep artistic expression in order to save his soul. Hazzian, the impersonator, quickly begins to thrive on being someone else who is more important. It gives his life meaning and enables him to focus his intelligence and gifts for poetry, and while he can, he plays the role to the hilt, with a strange sensitivity that even gets to the judge.

Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, 1971) Cassavetes again. I'm catching up with all of his stuff right now. This is still early Cassavetes, right after Faces and Husbands. It was described as a 'lighter' movie at the time, but anything would seem light compared to Husbands. Now it seems pretty dark and mean in its own right. The story is of Seymour Moskowitz, a kooky hippie parking attendant played by Seymour Cassel, and Minnie Moore, an attractive but kooky young L.A. woman on the rebound played by Gena Rowlands, and how they meet and marry after a stormy four-day relationship. A lot of the exchanges between characters seem like workshop exercises ('breakup in a parked car," "woman won't introduce boyfriend to her more upper-class acquaintance,' 'man freaks out and punches bathroom wall') that haven't quite evolved into actual stories about actual characters. I think this is mainly due to Cassel's bizarre acting -- while he has his powerful moments, usually when his character is over-excited, his performance seems to me only successful if we're to believe that he's portraying a psychotic. With his flamboyant moustache and barking deadpan gruffness, he's an archetype for the urban grotesques that we see today in the Coen Brothers oeuvre and in Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66. (Brief and fairly monstrous turns by Tim Carey and Val Avery are as well.) But it's still a Cassavetes movie, and even when I dislike his characters (which is often), the Cassavetes approach is always brimming with arrythmic but powerful mise-en-scènes that suddenly feel exactly like real life. And Ms. Rowlands, as usual, floats high and radiant over all proceedings, evoking both Ball and Bacall (the script actually compares her to the latter), while easily holding her own with her contemporaries like Jane Fonda. In most of her scenes with Cassel, you can almost literally see her acting circles around him.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001) Any two minutes of this movie are better than the entirety of Kids, and as a columnist in Nerve Magazine pointed out, better than American Pie too. It says a lot of the same things as both movies about wild youth, but it tempers the contrived misery of Kids with a lot of unbridled joie de vivre, and it tempers the contrived hijinks of American Pie with a lot of good old-fashioned realism and emotion. Add a bracingly Godardian sound mix/voiceover scheme, a mesmerizing eye for the Mexican countryside and people, a willingness to believe in magic, an up-to-the-minute feel for youthful dialogue and customs, and even the lovely use of Frank Zappa's "Watermelon in Easter Hay" over the closing credits. I also liked the director anyway, not because I'd seen anything else by him, but because I heard him interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air, and he said that Charlton Heston as a Mexican in Touch of Evil was "kind of funny." Hostess Terry Gross, responding to his Mexican accent, said, "Did you say kind of phony?" and he responded, "That too!"

Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946) I finally get to see a King Vidor picture! Actually, I rented this one after being rather enamored with Jennifer Jones in Beat the Devil. This came earlier, and was her first (and really last) big role, as a beautiful young half-breed from the wrong side of the Texas frontier. She gets a chance to overcome her past when she is adopted by a genteel Texas household, but she just can't help but throw a sexual monkey wrench into whatever scene she wanders into. It's quite reminiscent of Bunuel's earlier Susana, but unfortunately Jones (even though she was nominated for an Oscar) just doesn't have the gusto that Rosita Quintana brought to the table in that one, and the film itself, while watchably campy and colorful, is devoid of that dry Bunuelian magic. I stopped after 45 minutes or so, although I wouldn't mind seeing it all sometime. After all, some apparently steamy turns of events did nab this movie the original nickname "Lust in the Dust," and I was enjoying Gregory Peck's villianous turn as a libidinous ranch-hand (a la Victor Manuel Mendoza as "Jesus, the ranchero" in Susana).

Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930) Funny, the same day I watched this movie I read a long poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko called "Zima Junction." The movie was from 1930 and the poem from 1956, but my take on both was very similar. In each case, I found the craft and the imagery to be beautiful, but I really didn't know what was going on as far as narrative. I have almost no feel for Russian history, and this shortcoming affected my interpretation of both works. Earth begins with some beautiful shots of, well, the earth, featuring some lingering takes of apples hanging from a tree. An old man dies with a smile on his face while eating an apple, and to give you an idea of Dovzhenko's heavy powerful pacing, this turn of events takes about ten minutes of screen time. Still, even at this measured pace, I had trouble following the familial/agricultural issues of the storyline, until a striking montage in which the poor farmers celebrate the purchase and arrival of a tractor that promises to relieve their long history of struggle and back-breaking work. The leader of the tractor-buyers is shot by someone while dancing triumphantly down a path (a beautiful physical sequence that should be surreptitiously edited into all extant prints of Footloose right now), and this turn of events leads to another montage (this time extremely intense) that cuts between the march for his funeral and a naked woman's near-religious paroxysms in her room. The thing is, I really had no idea who the naked woman was, or why she was prostrating herself. Does this mean I don't pay enough attention when I watch movies at home by myself? Or does Dovshenko's talent for displaying timeless powerful imagery simply outweigh his talent for exposition?

Spider Man (Sam Raimi, 2002) Even with Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe turning in excellent performances as the superhero and the supervillian, this still doesn't quite transcend mere CIG-driven blockbusterness. For a while it feels like it could, especially during the sequences where mild-mannered Peter Parker discovers his superpowers, very nicely bringing the self-actualization fantasies of classic Marvel Comics into live action. And, sure, the battle scenes are pretty intense, thanks in no small part to Dafoe going way over the top and creating an actual sense of danger with his completely bonkers Green Goblin characterization. Props also go to the special effects for Spiderman's web-swinging city-travel technique, which actually make the whole process seem plausible while making dazzling use of New York City locations. Eventually, however, like every other CIG-driven blockbuster, it's just too long and too loud. Whatever happened to the 89 minute roller coaster ride? I prefer the Sam Raimi of Army of Darkness. (81 minutes.) Besides, before Spider Man, I had to sit through a good 10 minutes of advertisements just to get to 20 minutes of previews for other movies with explosions in them just to get to the damn feature presentation. There really oughta be a law....

Coming Apart (Maxwell Moses Ginsberg, 1969) Interesting for a few reasons. First off, during the couple weeks before watching this, I had been reading Cookie Mueller's memoirs (great, by the way), in which she describes some guy who has a way of getting off that involves a live duck and a dresser drawer. I found her story disturbing without quite getting what she was talking about. Well, the same guy is talked about in this movie; it must have been an urban legend floating around at the time, or an actual person that both Maxwell Moses Ginsberg and Cookie Mueller knew. I still don't really get the story. Second point of interest: early work by Rip Torn. I really just know him as Artie on The Larry Sanders Show, but early in his career he was doing an odd angry young man routine, kind of a proto-Harrison Ford, but more moody, surly, and sociopathic. Third point of interest: the concept, which is that Rip Torn's character, who is sort of a psychiatrist/photographer/
hedonist, has a hidden movie camera in his apartment, and we are watching all of his footage unedited, as he's filming it, with every sequence of the film a single take shot from this single camera. Torn's character uses the camera mainly to film all the women he gets up there to have sex with, or, at least, that's what Ginsberg the auteur chose to make his movie about. Torn's character is so taciturn, moody, and mumbling that the non-sexual scenes really don't hold a lot of interest, and the viewer may feel compelled to fast-forward to the next scene, as if he or she is watching a porn vid. There are some erotic moments and striking imagery, but besides looking broodingly handsome, Torn just deadens the movie. Last point of interest: good garage-y psychedelic rock music on the soundtrack. The song that plays at 16RPM over the final sequence sounds surprisingly like the Butthole Surfers. Unless I'm reading the credits wrong, Ginsberg was involved in making the music. (Never mind, just found out it was all by the Jefferson Airplane!)

Life and Nothing More (Abbas Kiarostami, 1992) Another one of Kiarostami's beautiful blends of documentary and fictionalization. This is a sequel to Where Is The Friend's Home?, and has slightly fictionalized versions of Kiarostami and his son travel by car to the region where they filmed the first movie. The area has been devastated by an earthquake, and the Kiarostami character wants to find out if the young child actors in that film are still alive. The results, as you might expect from this cinematic master, are visually beautiful and philosophically rich. One character, after describing the earthquake's devastation, says "I don't know what crime this nation has committed, to be punished by God." I wish lots of American could see this scene and think about it, considering that George W. Bush would probably be willing to bomb the fuck out of Iran in order to merely make more money for his estate, and his barely-informed supporters throughout America would like for him to bomb the fuck out of Iran because a) they won't get hurt and b) it'll make for cool footage on CNN.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) I believe that the people of my generation (aged 18-34) have too many choices. Freedom's great and all, but there's something to be said for focus, which a lot of our best and brightest seem to have lost. We go from guilty-pleasure TV to plans for going to Europe, from Wendy's Value Menu to Italian dinners with red wine, from girlfriend to boyfriend to artsy stances at family reunions. I feel that Wes Anderson is a sort of poet of this illusion of infinite freedom of choice, and it's hard to imagine him making a more elaborate statement about it than The Royal Tenenbaums. It's a dizzying movie that's on a par with another of this generation's big statements, David Foster Wallace's 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest. (In fact, both works are about an eccentric East Coast family and involve professional tennis... Coincidence?) Tenenbaums depicts characters trying to find satisfaction as they move through options like tennis stardom, literary stardom, tables full of drugs, chain smoking, living on picturesque streets in Manhattan, appearing on reggae album covers, rummaging through closets full of more hipster board games than the coolest thrift store in the world would have, falconeering, cruising solo on ocean liners, starting corporations, growing long hair, cutting hair short, dressing in cowboy chic, owning freaky paintings.... and that's literally just a small fraction. The cast list itself is like a dream: Hackman, Huston, Paltrow, Stiller, Wilson and Wilson, Glover, Cassel. Anderson's emergence as a filmmaker even seems to mirror his generation's malaise; he has endless options, and can use them to make dizzy, intricate, fascinating, colorful films, but in the end, like a well-off college dropout who can't decide whether he should move to Brooklyn, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, or Europe, he isn't quite sure how to bring the dazzling strands of his movie to a sharp point. Which might be his point all along, and either way, though it is kind of melancholy, this movie put a huge smile on my face for at least an hour straight of its running time.

The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson, 1977) For Bresson's second to last film, his subject was post-war alienation among the rebellious youth of the day. The first half is rather confusing and disjointed, and seemingly given over largely to powerful but non-narrative environmentalist propaganda. (A deforestation montage is actually painful to watch.) This section reminds me of Godard with all the politics, especially during a very stylized scene where students in a classroom recite, without a moderator, various slogans in deadpan voices. Bresson's legendary use of non-actors helps to drive home his point; no matter how sensitized these youth become to social woes, modern society is set up to keep their knowledge ineffectual. The enigmatic title is the answer a man on the bus gives when asked in whose direction modern mankind is following. I think it also refers to the main character, an absolutely sullen youth named Charles, unforgettably played by Antoine Monnier. The last half of the film gains stunning force as it focuses on his miserable attitude. Even though we never hear him listening to music, people who are curious about the whole Norwegian black metal phenomenon might find this movie enlightening. Bresson knew his shit; 20 years before Euronymous was murdered by Count Grishknach, this flick had already pegged nihilistic tendencies among long-haired European youth.



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