All posts filed under “1980s

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Get Out, Jordan Peele (2016) & Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986)

Warning for minor spoiler alerts below.

There’s a particular type of scene that often appears in movies, where the protagonist, who has witnessed or suspects something absolutely unbelievable, goes to “the authorities” in one form or another, to tell her/his story, seeking assistance or solace. It would be fun to put together a montage of these scenes. Having seen what the protagonist has seen, we know she’s telling the truth. But usually, the jaded cop/teacher/counselor/parent/adult on the other side of the desk is deeply skeptical.

The tension in such scenes arises from the question of whether the powers that be (a.k.a. the system, the man, the patriarchy, the hegemony, the superstructure, political society, what have you) are going to help or hinder the protagonist’s struggle toward life, liberty, happiness, success, etc. Or will this particular movie instead propose a world where the detective says, that’s ridiculous, get out of my office, and the protagonist gets no help from the very institutions that supposedly exist precisely to help citizens in need.

Jordan Peele sets up a scene like this in the marvelously disorienting Get Out. The protagonist is in grave danger. His best friend has come to an outrageous, ridiculous, and entirely correct theory concerning the nature of that danger. He goes to the police, and relates his story: He believes liberal upper-middle-class white people in the suburbs are kidnapping and brainwashing black people from the city to take control of their bodies. The black female detective listens intently. There’s a pause. She goes and gets some colleagues and has the guy tell the story again. All three cops, all black, stare at the guy for another beat. Then, predictably, they burst out laughing and throw him out. But for just a second, I thought they were going to say, “Yes, that seems entirely plausible. Let’s go investigate.” That would have been funnier, and also way grimmer. Because Get Out’s power and pleasure derive from its constant flirtations with opposites and inversions: what’s unbelievable is probable, what’s absurd is reasonable, what’s comic is tragic. And black people are always ready to entertain the possibility that white people are up to insane stuff.

I’ve enjoyed Key and Peele’s TV show, but this movie is on another level altogether. Watching it, I kept thinking of Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” Not only do characters in this movie wear the mask, and in a sense find themselves forced to wear other masks; the movie itself keeps changing its masks so rapidly, we can never really feel sure of the expression or tone that lies beneath what we’re seeing and hearing. Many scenes seem both funny and horrifying, and in the theater, I many times heard laughter at moments that seemed to me heartbreaking. I’ve never really seen anything like this before. I would describe it as a work of social commentary, but the commentary is so ironic, complex, and self-reflexive, figuring out its “message” is like making your way through a hall of mirrors.

I just so happened last week to catch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on TV, after not seeing it in decades, and it’s maybe an interesting double-feature with Get Out, actually. Here too a guileless and handsome young male protagonist. Here too he has some set ideas about iniquity, but little substantive experience with it. Here too he discovers that the world he thought he had a reasonable understanding of, the world he thought was not necessarily fair but was at least reasonably stable and predictable, is in fact a thin veneer beneath which teems extraordinary chaos, violence, hatred, greed, perversion, and fear. The Get Out protagonist leaves the safety of downtown and almost dies in the suburbs; the Blue Velvet protagonist leaves the safety of the suburbs and almost dies downtown. Indeed if I was going to write a full comparison and contrast essay for EN 101, I’d probably start with how the two films end, with the Get Out survivors hightailing it back downtown, and the Blue Velvet survivors doubling down in the suburbs with sandwiches and lemonade. “Now it’s dark,” says Dennis Hopper, and truer words were never spoken. But which darkness is darkest? Hard to know for sure, but I think we usually believe it to be other one.

Wow, there’s so much more to say about both these movies; no time to do it.

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American Honey, Andrea Arnold (2016) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling (1982)

American Honey: Two hours and forty-three minutes of Ryan McGinley‘s Instagram feed, if he still has one. Or two hours and forty-three minutes of Larry Clark’s Tulsa updated for the century of Fetty Wap and fracking. Well anyway it’s definitely two hours and forty-three minutes. It is way too long and self-indulgent; I really wonder how Arnold got away without having to edit more. I’m thrilled when she cuts away to a dog wearing a superman cape in the parking lot of a crap motel. Pow! Super memorable image. But then a minute later she cuts to the dog again. And after another minute she cuts to it again, and stays on it for a good thirty seconds, while it has a pee. The movie’s full of this kind of overkill. No bee, butterfly, beetle, or grasshopper on Arnold’s set failed to get filmed, and not one of them wound up on the cutting room floor. The first bug crawling up a weed in the hazy honey light of a Kansas sunset adds to the atmosphere. The tenth makes you want to call Orkin.

The star of this movie is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who we get to know very intimately, as he draws a great deal of attention to himself. His story is deeply tragic. He can’t hold the camera steady, never learned to focus, and has a pathological obsession with lens flare. I sentence him to watch a week’s worth of Peckinpah — no, better, Cassavetes –to learn that you don’t have to jitter the camera constantly to infuse your mise with unease and spontaneity.

The movie’s formal failures are real and dispiriting, but what depresses me most is its content. Initial appearances suggest that Arnold’s primary goal is to celebrate the joys of American youth culture — getting high, getting laid, singing along to pop songs with your friends, eating junk food, falling in love, spoofing grownups, above all driving around — but that she also wants to expose some peculiarly American strains of loneliness, danger, and fear, through her depictions of poverty, abuse, and waste. I approve of both these messages! But unfortunately, Arnold drastically underrealizes both. The joy parts don’t seem very joyful at all, mostly because the kids on the mag crew whose adventures make up the plot of this movie don’t really seem to give much of a damn about each other. Their solidarity of purpose consists mainly of sharing joints and hooking up, and further we come to understand that they are explicitly in a zero-sum competition with one another, because if you don’t generate profit, you get dumped. So much for sticking it to the man; these kids are near-perfect little capitalists. Meanwhile, Arnold’s depiction of the dark side of these characters’ situation is so misguided it falls off a cliff into a chasm of irresponsibility. We do see children living in poverty and under threat of abuse, but the mag crew, our footloose heroes, never suffer any of the very real tragedies that their nonfictional counterparts do. If you live like these kids, bad things happen, such as rape, human trafficking, assault, drug overdoses, hunger, untreated illness, unintended pregnancies, police harassment, etc. We see none of that in American Honey. Arnold’s is a world where a teenager in a bikini can get into a car with three strange men, or a lonely truck driver, and not only have nothing go wrong, but make money and have fun. It’s absolutely insane.

It was late when I finished this, but I stayed up a little longer to watch some of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie, thirty four years old, does such a better job of conveying both the joy and the terror of being a teenager in America it’s not even funny. Literally, it’s not funny. Sure, there’s a lot of dated, goofy stuff in there. But you’re remembering the wrong stuff. Sean Penn is fun, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s story is the real one here. Her highs are transcendent, and her sorrows are crushing. I think the main reason the emotional contours of Heckerling’s story are so much more satisfying is that the relationships between the kids — whether healthy or unhealthy — seem real, rather than simulated.

 

 

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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The Loser, Thomas Bernhard (1983)

tumblr_mjhy1h8PM71qbrvi3o1_500I am not usually given to artist-groupie activities. I spent a year in Paris and felt no need to seek out Baudelaire’s grave; I took the tour of Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and found it nearly as boring as church. But when I went to Vienna some years ago, I did visit the Bräunerhof cafe frequented by Thomas Bernhard, and I did sit there for an hour with a coffee and Linzer torte, thinking about him, and about the European culture that made him possible and disgusted him for having done so. There was a time when I would have called him my favorite writer.

I read The Loser once before, a long time ago, but all the recent news from Europe made me curious to look back into him, or through him. I can’t quite say why. He functioned for me, in my yoot, as an emblem of  of a type of European-ness, unfathomably cultured and decadently cynical, or the other way around, which I both envied and deplored. (Like almost all young people, I was ignorant of history and scattershot in my education; only years later would I discover Robert Musil, and realize that Bernhard hadn’t come from nowhere, as I’d imagined.) Since I last read The Loser, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Eurozone came into being, and a Moroccan-born Muslim was appointed mayor of Rotterdam. My imaginary Europe has changed. The experiment was to re-read The Loser while thinking about Syria.

It was either a useless experiment or one whose value has yet to reveal itself. Bernhard’s masochistic attack on mediocrity (his own, and everyone else’s) is even more relentless and tuneless than I remembered. I once found the relentlessness exciting and the tunelessness edifying; this month the book’s seemed to me absurd and dull. I can feel that it’s too soon to be writing this note, that my thoughts haven’t jelled, but I’m doing it anyway, because I want to be done with it.

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C. D. Wright (1949-2016)

There’s no contemporary poet I’ve read as deeply or written about as much as much as C. D. Wright, who died this week, unexpectedly, at her home in Rhode Island. I admired her so much, for so many reasons. Most of all I admired her faith. She had as much faith in poetry as I’ve always wanted to have but have never quite been able to muster.

Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self are the major works for me. Partially, no doubt, because those were the ones I came across first, and at a time when my sense of what poetry was, and what it’s for, was changing rapidly. I remember reading Deepstep for the first time and just laughing out loud at the audacity of it. You can just riff like that, just drive around and say what you see, love what you say, say what you love, and see what you say? My deeply internalized belief in poetry as first and foremost a form of rhetoric dissolved in the acids and syrups of those lines, which seemed genial and occult at the same time.

And then One Big Self. Here was the same technique — notice, speak, circle back, connect, repeat — but deployed in public rather than private, in a real prison occupied by others rather than the self-occupied imagination of the poet. I didn’t think you could do that. I’m actually still not sure you can, or should. (See elsewhere in today’s Times for an analogy.) But she just did it. That’s the faith I’m talking about. Doing it anyway, not because you trust yourself, but because you trust poetry.

I’ll never trust it as much as she did, but she helped me begin to persuade myself that believing in the stuff didn’t necessarily make me a sucker. I’ve never been the same, and I’ll always be grateful.

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Lola, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1981)

lola-une-femme-allemande-3-gI’ve been dragging my feet on this one; it’s a sad and complex movie. I think of the three films in the BRD trilogy this is the most dispiriting, the most enervated, the most torn. It’s shot in Sirk-esque Technicolor, which seems to point simultaneously forward to a bright future and back to a melodramatic swamp in the past. It draws its storyline from von Sternberg’s Blue Angel, which again seems to suggest both evolution/transformation and the idea that nothing is new under the sun. An optimistic and aboveboard building inspector moves to town, prepared to take on corruption and get the city’s fathers to conduct business honestly. But there’s no hope; everyone is who they are. Whores are whores and crooks are crooks. We might enjoy the ideas of progress and enlightenment, but they’re really just fantasies, fan dancers in the nightclub of history. A beautiful tragedy on par with Fassbinder’s best.

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Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1982)

5DkE7GfUr6OMtT74A9sRcY7BruQThis is Fassbinder’s next-to-last film and the middle piece of the BRD Trilogy focusing on the years immediately following WWII in Germany. Veronika Voss is a washed-up film star, and Fassbinder obliges her much as Billy Wilder obliged Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, shooting in high-contrast black and white to make her feel at home, despite the fact that by 1955, when the film is set, we were well into the color era. 

In Maria Braun, Fassbinder offered a model for survival, but asserted that in order for the model to work, his countrymen would have to reorient their moral compasses a bit, giving up on the kind of rigid ideals of purity that had led to disaster. In Veronika Voss, he’s in an even less merciful frame of mind. Veronika — in some ways standing in, I can’t help but think, for the German people — shows herself desperate to live in a world of illusions, completely averse to facing reality, and thus makes herself completely vulnerable to the heartless and self-interested machinations of others. You know from the get-go that it’s not going to end well for her; I’m not giving anything away. 

That would have been enough, right there, for a richly metaphorical and allusive story, but Fassbinder, as usual, has layers upon layers to add. To me the most fascinating character here is the average-joe lunkhead sportswriter Robert — a sort of Oscar Madison type, it occurs to me; was Fassbinder aware of Simon’s play? — who inexplicably falls for the faded rose Veronika, throwing over his very nice girlfriend and almost losing his job in the course of trying to help and protect her. 

What explains Robert’s behavior? It’s a kind of fantasy-within-a-fantasy: In order for Veronika to believe she’s on top of the world, she needs someone else to believe it. But what does Robert need? I think that’s the question worth pursuing. Once you start counting up the master-slave dialectics in here — doctor/patient, suitor/pursued, director/actor, cop/criminal, pusher/addict, USA/Germany, editor/writer — you start to feel you’ve entered a hall of mirrors.

Sad, and sometimes (probably intentionally) cliche in its melodramatic gestures, completely engaging. 

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Ketchup

These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

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The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé (1984)

Wrapping up “journalist as hero/antihero” week. Joffé’s achievement here is easy to underestimate; there are so many ways this could have turned into a disaster, and he avoids them all. The journalist is a hero, and we get that, but he’s also a dangerously narcissistic asshole, and we get that too. His colleague Dith Pran is also a complex character, both ambitious and naive, and his character here is also fully three-dimensional. On top of all that, we get here a very detailed and comprehensive history lesson without ever feeling like we’re in a classroom — also a remarkable achievement. Real questions about journalistic ethics, taken seriously, plus a lively and accurate dramatization of one of the 20th century’s most despicable crimes. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours.