Monthly archives of “April 2009

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The Out of Towners, Arthur Hiller (1970)

Not a great movie to watch a couple days before you’re scheduled to fly to New York. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, decent Ohioans, experience every travel-to-big-city debacle known to humankind. I think Neil Simon wrote this expressly to keep Midwesterners from coming east. It’s working; I’m straining to keep from canceling my trip.

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Traitor, Jeffrey Nachmanoff (2008)

Tricky one, both on its own bizarre terms and in terms of evaluation. This ain’t no Bruckheimer job; it’s got ambitions to be important. Pretty much anything I say will be a spoiler, so I won’t say more than this: The intent here is to use the trope of the double-agent to demonstrate that pretty much any situation in which such shenanigans are possible is also one in which finally both sides are culpable. A very good example of how to coat a straight-up good-for-you seitan polemic with action movie frosting and sell it as a cupcake. Reminds me of the Spire Christian Comics I used to read as a kid.

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The Return of Frank James, Fritz Lang (1940)

What a disaster! I chalk it up to this being Lang’s first western, and his first film in color. A genius of Lang’s intensity was probably obsessed with the nuances and possibilities of each of these new toys; as such it may not be a complete surprise that he was too overly preoccupied to take much interest in actually making a watchable movie. It doesn’t help that Henry Fonda is about as exciting as a piece of whole wheat toast, Gene Tierney seems to think sitting stock still and being beautiful qualifies as acting, and Ernest Whitman’s character is a racist stereotype so banal it’s hard to even to get angry about it. The only bright — well, actually, brightly dark — spot is John Carradine as Bob Ford; you may remember him as the Confederate swashbuckler aboard John Ford’s Stagecoach.

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Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One), Guillaume Canet (2006)

Un peu de Chinatown, un peu de Spoorloos, un peu de Endless Love. Something for everyone!

Wow, I loved typing “Spoorloos” up there.

Everybody whines about cultural homogenization, but ya know what? This here’s a thriller in which a serial killer’s signature move is to bury his gorgeous female victims in gorgeous forest glades alongside gorgeous eviscerated dogs; it is acknowledged that children have erotic lives; doctors smoke; and the hero arrives at the climactic scene in a Volvo station wagon, walks through a meadow dripping in honeyed sunlight, finds the tree in which he and his childhood girlfriend carved their names, drops to his knees, and cries.

There will always be a France.

Nothing spectacular here, but a perfectly respectable night at the movies.

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Fury, Fritz Lang (1936)

A perfect accompaniment to the news this week regarding the smugly self-justified crimes of my government. Spencer Tracy, an innocent man, is mistaken for a criminal and lynched by a small town mob. Almost immediately, the townspeople start professing to each other their regrets about the incident, but they’re not at all interested in getting to the bottom of it and holding the organizers accountable. Such a reckoning would be too destabilizing, they say. Best to just forget it and keep walking.

No accident that this was the first movie Lang made upon safe arrival in Hollywood. The intensity of his need to believe in the possibility of justice burns every frame. I’m glad he’s not here to see that justice remains so difficult to come by.

There are things I don’t want to give away as spoilers, but let me just note: Film itself is in some crucial ways the hero of this movie.

This just in: Spencer Tracy’s dog is played by Terry!

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Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green (2008)

As far as end-of-innocence trips go, this makes Caddyshack look like Wild Strawberries. Lazy, hackneyed, aggressively stupid. David Gordon Green made an enchanting film called George Washington in 2000, and was at one point working on bringing A Confederacy of Dunces to the screen. Don’t go over to the forces of Hollywood darkness, David Gordon Green!

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The Keep, Jennifer Egan (2006)

“Danny had waited two hours in a gloomy little valley town for a bus to this castle that never frigging came before he looked up and saw its black shape against the sky.”

That’s the first sentence of the third paragraph of this novel, and the last one I read. Life’s too short to read crap prose.

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The Eagle Has Landed, John Sturges (1976)

The 1970’s were so weirdly ambivalent, so antic and so self-loathing at the same time. The Eagle Has Landed was the last film Sturges directed, and it has the sort of freewheeling playfulness you might expect from someone who’s already chiseled his name in stone and don’t need to prove nothing to nobody. Let’s get this out of the way up front: The movie’s about a bunch of Nazi paratroopers out to kidnap or murder Winston Churchill in the waning days of the war, and they’re the heroes. Michael Caine, as the leader of this sort of Big Red One-esque band, establishes his bona fides as a good Nazi the very first time we see him, by standing up to some stormtrooper goons and extending the life of a doomed Jewish girl by about thirty seconds. Our hero may be a Nazi, and not a very effective counter to the final solution, but he is also, we’re intended to believe, anti-establishment, and that, in 1976, seems to have been enough to qualify him as a good guy. Indeed there are a lot of Nazis in here who the film portrays as both despising Hitler but also faithful to their comrades, and so sort of perversely moral. Like I said, it’s weird.

The whole thing reminds me a lot of MASH, another movie where everyone seems to hate the war and have no idea how to fight one, but when the shit hits the fan, everyone starts acting like they were born to be soliders. Here Larry Hagman plays a comically hawkish frustrated colonel a lot like Frank Burns, and Donald Sutherland’s here too, playing a rake who believes in nothing but a drink and a shapely ankle until the instant the going gets rough and suddenly he’s the steely eyed crack shot who saves the day and runs up the flag. I’d also suggest that the true believer Jean Marsh is not unlike Margaret Houlihan.

Loping open-ended nonsense, a total mess as a war thriller and as a satire, and pretty fun. If only because of how totally confusing it is as a cultural milestone. Have there been any American movies before or after the 1970’s in which Nazi paratroopers, following orders, have been the protagonists? I would doubt it.

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Paradise, Toni Morrison (1997)

Twenty years ago this spring, as a student at Oberlin, I took a course on the novels of Toni Morrison with Dr. Gloria Watkins. (As an author she’s bell hooks; as a teacher she insisted on Dr. Watkins.) Whether for good or ill I won’t, and perhaps can’t say, but I don’t think any other course I’ve ever taken affected me as strongly. Morrison at that time had written five novels: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), and Beloved (1987). The world was slow to recognize the significance of her work — Oprah picked The Bluest Eye for her book club in 2000, thirty years after its publication — but her rise as an author was both inexorable and perfectly matched with the zeitgeist. By the spring of 1989, an earnest young aspiring writer, with the help of a brilliant and charismatic mentor, could easily use Morrison’s work as a lens to bring literally anything and everything of interest into something like focus: literary style, literary theory, historiography, sexuality, America, gender, race, the politics of authorship and the authorship of politics . . . . Truly anything and everything. Morrison was born in Lorain, down the road from Oberlin. I drove there with a friend, just to see it.

We kept journals for the class, in which we recorded not only our critical responses to the novels, but also accounts of whether or how we understood our personal lives in relationship to the ideas we perceived in the novels. Dr. Watkins, in other words, encouraged us to think not just about how we were reading the novels, but also about how the novels were reading us. I remember a few things I wrote in that journal — things simultaneously outrageously self-flagellating and outrageously self-aggrandizing — and cringe. (It did/not help that I was dating an African American woman at the time.) But I also remember that Dr. Watkins was incredibly, improbably generous and encouraging in her responses to my (literally) sophomoric blather. I think she could tell that my intentions were good, that I really was struggling to understand who and what I was in relationship to the culture that had birthed and determined me. And I suppose my intentions mostly were good, and hopefully not in a paving the road to hell sort of way, or at least not only that.

The experience of taking that class turned Toni Morrison into something other than just another writer for me; she was more like a planet I’d visited. In the years since, I’ve returned to reread the novels I read with Dr. Watkins and my classmates — Tar Baby, believe it or not, was and remains my favorite; I love its cruel simplicity; I’m also someone who thinks Kitty is way more interesting than Anna, though, so caveat emptor — but I’ve resisted reading what I persist in thinking of as the “new” novels: Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008). I didn’t want to read them alone. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I didn’t want them to be the same as the ones I’d read, but I didn’t want them to be different, either.

Then my beloved picked up a copy of Paradise at the Friends of the Library bookstore and I found myself reading it, and, with for me unusual speed, finishing it. A complex operation, since I felt like I was reading two books at once: one in my hands and one the changeling child of my memories. Amazingly, given the circumstances, I found Paradise pretty much pure pleasure. The novel satisfies in myriad ways, by being itself myriad. It’s rooted in a particular historical reality and filled with vibrant living characters but, in that inimitable Morrison manner, it’s also incredibly slippery. Archetypal conflicts (male/female, black/white, community/individual, sacred/secular, inside/outside, city/country, rational/occult) are set up, adumbrated, complicated, exploded, and rewritten, again and again, until it’s absolutely impossible to saddle the novel with summary or force it to generate a lesson. I think it’s terrific, but I’m probably not a very objective judge, but it’s terrific.

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Towelhead (aka Nothing is Private), Alan Ball (2007)

Well, a number of ways to go on this:

Highbrow: Incisive parable re contemporary geopolitics in which a variety of American adults project/insert their fantasies/fears of how the world is/should be upon/into the body of an adolescent Arab-American girl named Jasira. Key line: “I’ll think about you in Iraq,” delivered by redneck Army reservist just after raping Jasira.

Middlebrow: Poignant Breakfast Club/Sixteen Candles/Fast Times at Ridgemont High do-over. Key line: “No! I’m only thirteen!” Delivered by Jasira when prompted by the Glamour Shots guy at the mall to push the strap of her dress off her shoulder.

Bottom line: Enormous albeit ambitious mess which wants to do suburban ennui, child abuse, colonialism, globalism, sisterhood-is-powerful, war, adolescence, racism, family romance, sexual politics, and much more, and succeeds a little at each and not much at any. Key evidence: Any movie that resorts to ending with a childbirth scene is grasping at straws.

Down and dirty line: Alan Ball creeps me out. Here and in American Beauty, he purports to present child pornography as social commentary, but I gotta tell ya, he seems awful excited about presenting child pornography as child pornography, too.

Random observation: I keep thinking that Peter Macdissi is Brent Spiner with a suntan and fake mustache, which makes for a lot of really weird cognitive dissonance.