Monthly archives of “July 2009



All blogging energy still going to Harriet at the Poetry Foundation, but here’s what’s up on the home front.

Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosowa (1948). Beautifully shot but plodding story of an alcoholic doctor (not unlike Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory) determined to treat a self-destructive mobster with TB in postwar Tokyo. A kind of allegory of Japan trying to muck out its stalls. There’s a bubbling miasma right in the middle of the neighborhood just to remind us of where and when we are.

I Live in Fear, Akira Kurosowa (1955). Patriarch of a large family in the smelting business becomes so obsessed with his fear of nuclear weapons he insists on selling everything and moving to Brazil. The family doesn’t want to go, also doesn’t want to disrespect papa. A lot of long anguished silences ensue. Still, it got to me; Mifune’s absolutely terrific as the terrified and terrifying protagonist.

The Making of a Chef, Mark Ruhlman (1999). Ruhlman goes to the CIA and writes about what it takes to make it. Lively and engaged journalism, great fun if you’re the kind of person who enjoys debates over how dark a roux should be used in the making of brown sauce, which I am.

House of Games, David Mamet (1987). I’ve probably seen this ten times and it’s still really. really. good. It seemed kind of antique when it first came out, and has aged beautifully. The big red convertible seemed Twin Peaksish before there even was a Twin Peaks.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst (2008). One of my many guilty pleasures. Read more than half of this on a day of LGA delays while listening to Radian on the iPod. Was almost happy!

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer (2008). Probably the most significant and comprehensive account of Richard Cheney’s efforts to secure unlimited and incontrovertible power for the executive branch, and the inevitable results. The accounts of Jack Goldsmith, Dexter Filkins, Seymour Hersh, Phillipe Sands, and others are certainly also worth reading, but this one is the one to read if you’re only going to read one, in my opinion.

Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise (2009). Yuck! Way too noisy. Sounds like high school students covering Can songs. Had to listen to Millions Now Living ten times before I was able to forgive the lads for this betrayal of my love.

Dying City, Christopher Shinn (2008). This rather lightweight play, which uses the device of identical twins to investigate certain dualities to be found in human nature, was, amazingly, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Weak.

A lot of drama in current rotation. Bert Brecht (esp. Galileo). Georg B├╝chner (I hesitate to mention this name, since I am loving this book so much I don’t even want anyone else to know about it. Do you ever get that way about a book? It’s a weird feeling.) Mark Ravenhill (wildly overrated). Suzan-Lori Parks (fantastic, esp. Venus, but all of it is terrific). Genet, Lorca, Peter Weiss. On deck: Edna Walsh, von Kleist, Wolfgang Borchert.

TV worth watching: Smith. You can only watch this if you have DirecTV, and there are only seven episodes. CBS produced and then killed it in 2006-2007. It’s very good; Ray Liotta’s character has a lot in common with DeNiro’s in Mann’s Heat.

TV which might be worth watching; I can’t really tell: Weeds. I find this show very disconcerting, but completely addictive. It’s so weird. What does it even mean? Cheech & Chong + Three’s Company + Good Fellas. Or something like that. I suspect if I lived in California, it would just seem like a reality show. As it is, I’m bewildered but fascinated.


The Big Heat, Fritz Lang (1953)

Lang’s three best Hollywood pictures are Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat. Of these, the first and last have a great deal in common. In both, an honest, hardworking guy of no particular mettle is transformed into a veritable avenging angel after he’s screwed over by what we used to call “the system.” (Do we still call it “the system”? It’s probably got a fancier name now.) Fury, though, is about the impenetrable and inscrutable systems of small towns; The Big Heat is about the big city, Chinatown-style.

The great Gloria Grahame gets some of the best lines here–surveying a cheap motel room: “Say, I like this. Early nothing!”–but lord almighty, does she pay for her gaudy patter. A scarface to rival Scarface. She gets to die on a mink, though.

Funny how the sinister mobster who runs the world in this picture seems like an adolescent shoplifter compared to Dr. Mabuse.


3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold (2007)

Very nicely done! I think the great Mann would have appreciated this nifty little western, given its moral ambiguities, suggestions of homoerotic obsession, neurotic masculinity, and copious gunfire, but no way would he have let this completely stupid ending go out the door with his name on it.

Nice to think of how Jimmy Stewart would have rocked the Christian Bale, role, too. It’s kind of hard to buy the gorgeous and self-possessed Bale as anything anywhere near ineffectual, so when the movie requires him to come into his own, you’re sort of like, dude, when weren’t you already totally revoltingly awesome?


Broken Arrow, John Woo (1996)

I remember Anthony Lane pointing out, when this was released, that of course the bad guy steals not one but two nuclear bombs, because this is a John Woo movie, and while the director fully intends one of those bombs to be disarmed with seconds to spare at the film’s climax, he also fully intends to first blow that other sucker up.

This isn’t as awesome as Woo’s breakthrough The Killer or the Persona-meets-Peckinpah Face/Off, but it’s still pure Woo pleasure: explosions, cheesy shopping mall music, hamfisted psychoanalysis, explosions, and innumerable unlikely coincidences. Perfection, of a kind, is what he was after.


The Blue Gardenia, Fritz Lang (1953)

One of the great Lang noirs. As in The Woman in the Window, a good egg (in this case Anne Baxter, best known, probably, as the Eve of All About Eve) is accidentally drawn into a murder case. And also as in The Woman in the Window, the female lead is half real, and half imaginary. In the earlier film, the imaginary aspect was the product of a dream; here it’s the result of newspaperman Richard Conte’s desire to sell papers. Conte conjures a sensational story about “the Blue Gardenia Murderer” where none existed, but ironically, his representations begin to reify as the picture goes on. (Tell everyone your kids were abducted by a nonexistent black guy, and pretty soon he’ll exist.)

Lang’s been in Hollywood for nearly twenty years when he makes this, but it’s the first of his films that seems utterly of Los Angeles. Note the background of the title card: freeways. (Then consider the vapid promise of the word “freeway.”) Nearly all the characters are either vain, predatory, needy, self-deceiving, or some combination of these, and all are marked by a tendency to overvalue appearances and despise the real. I know these are all hallmarks of film noir in general, but there is no moralizing in Lang’s noir, as there in in Preminger’s; no relish, either, as there is in Fuller’s and Mann’s; no charm, as there is in Hitchcock’s and Huston’s; no joy, as there is in Wilder’s. Lang’s noir is analytical. He watches and takes note. This is why his two greatest noirs–The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat–are so dispiriting to watch. There’s no one to love or hate or fear, there are only people being people: mean, grubby, and small. Don’t see it with someone you love.


Broadway Danny Rose, Woody Allen (1984)

Terrific! I’d forgotten the extent and incisiveness of the Fellini homages throughout! Actually, I think Woody may well have written this script, in which Italian-American culture looms so large, just so that he could “do” Fellini.

There was a time for Woody, there was a time, after the early comedies and before the malaise, and this was right in the shank of it. Funny, smart, nostalgic, affecting, neurotic, genuine, beautifully shot and acted.

Hey, a poll! What was the last Woody Allen movie that didn’t suck? I vote Celebrity (1998), which I remember liking when it came out. I wonder if I’d still like it. Here’s a list for you; let me know your vote.