Monthly Archives: May 2008

May 27, 2008

Bunch of movies I’ve seen in the past few months

High Plains Drifter (1973)
directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Ernest Tidyman

Thanks, TCM.

This movie simply does not make sense, morally or otherwise. I’m not going to enumerate the problems. It has only two things going for it to distinguish it from other bleak westerns, and they’re the two reasons I watched it through to the end.

One is that Clint, in the role of false idol, makes the wicked people of Wickedville undertake a series of absurd tasks (painting the town red to look like hell, preparing a picnic welcome for their enemies) purely for grim ironic value. Awfully theatrical, would-be-literary stuff for the genre, especially dissonant when the rest of the movie has such a cheap, exploitative flavor. That kept me watching, just to see if they were really going to paint it red. Yup, they did.

Two is that the Clint character is so unbelievably steely that the movie ultimately has to suggest that he is not a real person but rather some kind of avenging ghost – that is, the character follows its Clint Eastwood-ness into a cul-de-sac of impossibility, from which the only escape is a supernatural explanation. Those mannerisms turn out not to be any real cowboy dude – his character is officially explained as having been no more and no less than the essence of his mannerisms.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy myself watching it. But only because “it was on.” I’m glad I didn’t rent it and set aside time to watch it; I would have enjoyed it much less. I am surprised to note that this is #546 of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which series of lists I’ve taken an interest in lately. I don’t think you must see this.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)
directed by David Silverman
written by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, and others

The lack of any consistent attitude toward its own characters has rendered The Simpsons far less interesting than it once was, years ago. Where once the show was about a family, now the show is about The Simpsons, and the writers are keen to let us know that they think the whole idea of The Simpsons is ridiculous. The only way they can redeem the tedious task of coming up with more shit for The Simpsons to do, they want us to know, is by heckling themselves and getting to be class clown in their own classroom. This is then immediately followed by the shit they dutifully came up with, which claims to be of actual interest as a plot, or as an emotional situation. But after being repeatedly reminded that The Simpsons is just another damn franchise and can you believe you’re watching a damn movie of it, and can you believe how ridiculous this plot is – in fact, we intentionally made it the most ridiculous thing we could think of! – you can’t help but feel detached. Thin soup compared to the days where the Simpsons were handled like characters and not just action figures. The only possible metric now is whether each discrete joke is good. Check plus! Check minus! Check! Check minus! An hour and a half of that.

If that’s going to be your game, Airplane at least is both giddy and deadpan; The Simpsons is neither.

A reasonable number of the jokes were reasonably good.

Final grade: check.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
written by Maya Deren
directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid

18 minutes, avant-garde classic. I swear I made this movie on video, starring my sister, when I was 12. I’m not sure how I was aware that films like this existed, but I was absolutely making fun of them / indulging in their tropes with our video camera as a kid. And then again in high school, I put a good deal of time into making a silly surreal short that takes place in a dream, very much in the spirit of this movie. I must have been imitating something I had seen, but it couldn’t have been this, because I only saw this for the first time a month ago. So at some level, somewhere in our culture, clearly this has been influential.

It looks cheap and loose, but I don’t think that can possibly have been avant-garde chic; it was just made on the cheap. Ms. Deren is apparently supposed to be playing that tried and true character “A Woman,” but her appearance reveals her immediately not to be a generic person at all, but in fact some sort of artsy eccentric, the kind of person who might make this movie but would never have been cast in it if it had been made by anyone else. This gives the movie the feeling of being an amateur, backyard affair. That too, is no chic – it’s just the truth. Nonetheless the vibe is right for the material – dreams and visions are themselves a loose, backyard business.

The dreamily cyclical construction is strong and artful and the most interesting thing here. The images are of various qualities – some of them you have to do the work on their behalf. The mirror-face creature was neat. But, unlike my teenage parody-homage efforts in this genre, this seemed have a specific intended meaning, and it seemed to be a very rudimentary and melodramatic feminism, and I didn’t care for that. An evocation of dreams is all well and good, but if you have something to say, say it. Ms. Deren, do you have something you want to share with the class?

Avant-garde techniques are obviously legitimate. It’s when the avant-garde purports to be addressing social wrongs that it becomes deserving of ridicule. An experience that is esoterically refined is unlikely to be an experience with enough direct force to create social change, and vice versa. The only thing that social responsibility and esoteric refinement have in common is that they are both ways artists can justify their work – when an artist grabs at both rings at once, it’s time to call them out as pretentious – or, what’s more generous (and more common), as having insufficient clarity of purpose.

Meshes of the Afternoon was a little pretentious but I’m glad I saw it. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die #157.

Juno (2007)
written by Diablo Cody
directed by Jason Reitman

In the end, a cute enough movie, but Diablo Cody should not have won an Oscar for this. The script is larded with her personal knickknacks, a barrage of affectations apparently meant to charm us but too scattershot in execution to even gather any coherent force of personality. Which is to say her dialogue is like a MySpace page. Luckily, about halfway through, her zeal for making every sentence sassy starts to wane as she gets bogged down by the plot that she has to make work out, and she finally steps aside to let us just see the movie. That’s a good move because the movie itself has been made by pros.

The most interesting thing about the movie for me, for which I suppose Diablo Cody deserves credit, is that after establishing that in the movie’s worldview, Jennifer Garner’s character is a joke and not to be approved of, the movie slowly and quietly goes about approving of her. Even though she represents the sort of square person who would think that the dialogue in this movie is sophomorically self-indulgent. Maybe, the movie says by the end, that’s a more grown-up thing to think. Of course that doesn’t redeem the script entirely. But it did help me leave with a more pleasant taste in my mouth than when I had begun.

I don’t know if this is a socially irresponsible movie or what but it didn’t bother me. While I was watching it, anyway. I guess kids probably shouldn’t see a movie that makes teen pregnancy look like hip, cozy fun.

Now that I think about it, maybe this was a bad movie. But in the moment, I felt otherwise, so I’m going to go with that.

Breaking Away (1979)
written by Steve Tesich
directed by Peter Yates

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die #647. That’s three down right here!

Mom’s been telling me to see this for and years years, but I think I might have waited too long. Right before I finally saw it, she actually said, “well, we liked it when we saw it 30 years ago; I don’t know what it will seem like now.” Yeah. It seemed dated. I could recognize that it was warm-hearted and unassuming, and could imagine what it might have been like when it wasn’t dated. But now it is. It plays like an after-school special, somehow both too earnest to take seriously and too silly to take seriously. There is the slight impression that it is all being read to us by a school librarian. It’s all about spending time with the characters, but the characterizations are RL4. Everything in the plot is standard fare, so it’s gotta be all about the particular atmosphere, and I think I just came too late to this party to develop any attachment to it; my childhood warm 70s atmosphere movies were other movies, and I seem to have outgrown the ability to instantly experience atmosphere emanating from everything – the saddest part of leaving childhood, frankly. I don’t have any problem with this movie or its fans; I just don’t know what it can be worth to me at this point; the goods themselves seemed to me very obviously unexceptional in every respect. I would be interested to hear an argument as to why this is an enduring classic rather than just a movie that felt heartwarming to people in 1979.

So, I just now googled around to find people saying why they love it, and the gist seems to be that it perfectly captures the feeling of being adrift in life after high school. To me it all felt rather blunt. Hanging out at the quarry and talking about whether or not to get a job is pretty on the nose, no? I think the bar for average mimetic subtlety in films, which has been steadily on the rise since the Great Train Robbery days, has gone up significantly even since 1979. Even the dumbest piece of Hollywood crapola these days has a fairly refined sense of how to polish a filmic moment; and on the other hand an artsy contemporary film that eschews polish is, you can be sure, going to offer a more sophisticated model of human experience than did Breaking Away.

So maybe, I’m hearing in what I’m saying, the answer was, I needed to watch this as a period piece, just as I would watch a Mary Pickford movie or something similarly stage-icated. Whereas I just watched it looking for a cute movie that might look like the 70s but would otherwise speak to me “directly.” It’s a little upsetting to think that a movie made more or less within my lifespan – a good movie, one that you must see before you die – is now so dated as to require historico-aesthetic distance to appreciate. Well, I guess all movies do, a little, once they’re more than a couple years old. But usually I just find myself latching on intuitively and playing my mental part with no difficulty, without conscious effort. Maybe the problem here was that Breaking Away now lies just on the cusp between movies that are “on average, contemporary in style” and movies that are “on average, dated in style” and so my instincts got confused and failed me.

Or maybe it just hasn’t aged so well, plain and simple. I don’t know; you tell me. It may also be that I don’t care that much about cycling. But I thought nobody did!

May 15, 2008

Disney Canon #6: Saludos Amigos (1942)


ADAM That was totally meta. That was crazy. People paid money to see that in a theater?

BETH That’s what I was thinking.

ADAM I found it really entertaining, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be entertaining as anything other than a curiosity.

BROOM It was like something to show to schools. It was a promotional travelogue.

ADAM Do you feel more warmly disposed toward South America, having seen that?

BROOM Honestly, I would say yes.

ADAM Okay.

BROOM I especially found the last sequence very inviting. When they were walking in a watercolor world, I thought, “that does seem like a nice fantasy – and maybe it would be like that, if I were in Brazil. A little bit.” It made me think about how I like to be outside when the weather is nice. When it painted that cafe for them, I thought, “it would be nice to be there.”

BETH Yes, the cafe was nice.

BROOM Yes, I think it did its job on me. Also, it was about specific South American things that I hadn’t been overexposed to. It wasn’t tired material. Lake Titicaca, and gauchos – I’ve never had this particular stuff shoved down my throat before, so I’m perfectly happy for Disney to show me some cartoons about it.

ADAM I imagine most people don’t have a very differentiated sense of the countries in South America. Maybe they know that Brazil is Carmen Miranda, but before seeing this they probably didn’t have a sense of Bolivia versus Argentina.

BETH I’m not sure they’re going to after seeing this.

ADAM I don’t know. Well, Chile we didn’t get a very clear sense of. That one was the least successful.

BROOM Why, because it was just about airplanes? You at least got a sense that Chile was a narrow strip bordered by very tall mountains. If I had seen this movie as a kid, I think that I would attach many more associations to those countries than I do. Even if they were mostly inaccurate. You have to start somewhere! But what do we think about the fact that this is what Disney did next? That it appears in this canonical list?

BETH If they were commissioned to do it, then I don’t understand why it’s in their canon. I thought it was going to be a feature, not a bunch of shorts.

BROOM They seem to consider it their sixth feature.

ADAM What did the State Department think they were getting?

BROOM I might be wrong about it being commissioned by the State Department. It was some kind of government thing.

ADAM There should probably be an editor’s note here. (Ed.: how’s this?) Were Donald Duck and those guys popular in South America at this point?

BROOM I don’t know but José seemed pretty happy to see him.

ADAM Presumably yes. I’ve heard the term “Pato Donald” before. That’s what José Carioca says to Donald when he presents his card. It would be funny if they screened this in South America as a way of showing South Americans that Americans were thinking about them. I was at a conference of Latin American law professors, in Peru, where the dean of my law school spoke and terribly offended everyone when he told them that the secret of understanding Washington’s attitude toward Latin America is that Washington only has room to think about two countries in Latin America at any given time, and one of them is Cuba.

BETH Wow. That’s really offensive.

ADAM Dean Koh told them that there was Cuba and one other, and right now it’s Venezuela. So Washington thinks about Hugo Chávez, and they think about Castro, and that’s it. And that’s probably true, but everyone there was profoundly offended. But this movie sort of says the opposite; it suggests that Americans take many countries in South America seriously.

BROOM I appreciated that it knew all along that it was just a tourist movie, made by tourists, about the tourist’s attitude toward things. Donald was just a tourist, obsessed with taking pictures and getting superficial experiences of things, and that’s what the movie offered.

ADAM Well, he mostly has mishaps. He didn’t really make going to Lake Titicaca seem that appealing.

BROOM Yes, I know, he got a ringing in his ears. I found the movie pretty charming. But it’s totally not in the category of “feature film.” For obvious reasons.

BETH I thought it was really great, actually.

ADAM Which segment did you like most and least?

BROOM My favorite thing in the whole movie was when Goofy got caught on the wipe. That was really funny to me.

BETH I also liked the transitions in that. I think that might be my favorite one.

ADAM And what was your least favorite?

BETH What was the first one again?

BROOM Donald at Lake Titicaca. It was the least well-conceived of them.

BETH It was the least memorable.

BROOM We were all chuckling at the cutesy airplane one. We all had a good time watching that. Stupid as it was.

BETH Yeah, I did enjoy that.

BROOM But they knew it was stupid too; that narrator knew.

ADAM None of the planes had any dialogue, it was just that voice. That’s the narrative voice that often fucks with the characters.

BROOM I think it’s the same guy who narrates all the Goofy shorts. “There, that wasn’t so bad!”

ADAM Yeah, he provides ironic contrast to whatever Goofy’s doing by saying something like “Behold the majestic athlete!” while Goofy’s doing some idiot thing.

BETH What was your favorite?

ADAM I liked the José Carioca one, because it was the catchiest, the most rousing.

BROOM That was my favorite segment too, and I feel like the movie knew it too. When I said what my favorite “thing” was, a minute ago, I just meant that one moment, but the Brazil segment was the best overall.

BETH That’s true. I did like the watercolor stuff.

BROOM All that stuff with the watercolor and the paintbrush – I liked when Donald used a little bit of ink to do his own drawing. Everyone’s in a joyful mood. And that’s such a catchy song, as you were saying before we started recording.

ADAM Right, I was saying that I recognized the tune immediately but didn’t realize it was from this – or from Brazil, for that matter.

BROOM I had been aware that the song “Aquarela do Brasil” was from Saludos Amigos – but then they said that it had been the hit of Carnaval that year. So it wasn’t “from” this movie.

ADAM But rather popularized by this movie.

BROOM I guess so.

ADAM Was it a novelty to U.S. audiences in 1942 to see color travel footage?

BROOM I don’t know. It had that Technicolor-y look.

ADAM It looked like early National Geographic photos.

BROOM It looked like postcards.

BETH Would other things with footage like this have existed in theaters at the time?

BROOM Well, there would have been newsreel segments about all kinds of stuff, but they would be black and white.

BETH But would they be about tourism?

BROOM Yeah, you know, like, “Let’s take a look at the Eskimo!”

BETH But wasn’t this wartime?

BROOM I’m pretty sure it was 1942.

ADAM I actually don’t know anything about the geopolitical attitude of South America to World War II, except that Argentina sheltered Nazis.

BROOM Afterward.

ADAM Afterward, but presumably implying that there was some sympathy there.

BROOM I don’t know what the political motivation was such that they thought Disney, or anyone else, should be a goodwill ambassador to South America.

ADAM I think of goodwill toward South America as being a late-50s, early-60s thing. Like, when did they rename 6th Avenue?

BROOM You mean “Avenue of the Americas?”

ADAM Right, and you’ve seen the placards up and down Avenue of the Americas, right? They have flags of every Latin American country on the lampposts. And where Avenue of the Americas dead-ends into Central Park, there are statues of Simón Bolivar and people like that.

BROOM Well, on this DVD, there’s a documentary about “Disney South of the Border” that surely answers all our questions, but we’re not going to watch it now.

ADAM Is this movie a thing that we would tell people to watch?

BETH I would tell them to watch it if they see it on television.

ADAM You would not tell them to buy the DVD.

BETH I would not.

BROOM I gotta say, I am delighted to own this. I was watching it and thinking, “if I have kids, they’ll watch this.” I may watch it again some day, when I’m feeling like I want to curl up and watch something.

BETH Yeah, sure, it’s a good rainy day movie.

BROOM It’s very comforting, light fare.

BETH Very low-commitment.

ADAM Yes. You knew that the plane was going to live.

BROOM But you guys both seemed truly dismayed when the plane fell. That plane thing was so stupid and yet very effective.

ADAM Beth, for the record, was also stressed out when Donald and the llama were hanging from the suspension bridge.

BETH It did really stress me out.

BROOM I have something to say about that sequence. In 2000, Disney made The Emperor’s New Groove with a long, elaborate sequence of comically crossing a suspension bridge with a llama and falling into the gap. They do exactly the stuff Donald was doing – but I didn’t realize until now that there was a Disney precedent for that scene.

ADAM There are only so many Inca memes, you know.

BROOM I didn’t realize they’d gone Inca before. Not that that’s interesting.

ADAM I’m trying to think if I’d seen any clips of this before.

BROOM The only clip of this that I recognized at all was when Donald and José were walking down the stairs and the brush was painting each stair in front of them. The rest I had absolutely never seen before.

ADAM I was also under the impression that José Carioca was the same character that appears in the Tiki Room.

BROOM That is not correct. But José Carioca will reappear in The Three Caballeros. The third caballero represents Mexico.

ADAM Who is the second?

BROOM Donald Duck.

ADAM Oh, I see. I was interested in the way that all the stories in this movie were told before they were told. They made it very clear that these were just filmed anecdotes. They show the artists thinking up the plane before they show you the plane. Which was weird.

BETH That was neat.

BROOM I thought those “meta” aspects were cool. I liked when they showed the first moments of the script, so that, in fact, instead of seeing what they had scripted, you were seeing a picture of the script.

ADAM Well, it did make it easier to take, because there was no real suspense about what would happen to the plane. It was just whimsical storytelling on the flight to Santiago.

BROOM I’m looking at Wikipedia where it says “According to Jack Haley Jr.’s documentary Life Goes To War, the United States Department of State commissioned this movie during World War II to be shown in Central and South America to build up relations with the Latin American populace. Several governments (e.g. Argentina) had close ties with Nazi Germany and the most popular US figure there was Mickey Mouse.” Or so Wikipedia says.

ADAM Wikipedia’s probably right.

BETH Okay, I’m going to bed now.

BROOM Just a comment about what I just read, in relation to the “meta” thing: it makes sense to show the people behind the film and make them an important aspect of the film, if the real purpose of the film is to show that the sentiment should represent relations with the actual populace of the U.S., rather than just with Mickey Mouse.

ADAM Yes, it certainly showed Disney artists loving South America and feeling warmly received and warmly sent off.

BROOM And the movie was called “Saludos, Amigos!”

ADAM Last question: do we think that there is a place for such blatant propaganda in our current propaganda battles? Should the U.S. Government be doing this today? Was this a diplomatic success, do you think?

BETH I doubt it could have hurt anything.

ADAM Should Dora the Explorer visit Saudi Arabia?

BETH Well, “Deal or No Deal” went to the Philippines. As we saw earlier tonight.

BROOM Do you think if Thomas the Tank Engine had a tour of Iran, and then we showed it to Iranians, they would find it reassuring?

ADAM I don’t know. It’s a funny concept when you put it that way. Iran’s not a good example, but what if it was touring our allies, like Turkey or Jordan?

BROOM Right. I would watch it!

ADAM It seems like the bigger problem in the world today is Americans’ ignorance of other places, not other places’ ignorance of our goodwill towards them.

BROOM I like the concept behind this, that benign superficial tourism and just the beauty of a country can be sold as a reason that we should have good relations with that country.

ADAM I think if Americans knew how beautiful China was, if there was a way of widely popularizing the gorges, or something…

BROOM I have not outgrown my positive impression of China from “Big Bird in China.” That worked!

ADAM I don’t know if I ever saw that.

BROOM It’s good.

BETH So these things do work.

BROOM They work on me! If you showed me beautiful pictures of Iran, I would feel much more like we need to find common ground with them. I’m sure there are great beauties there.

ADAM I’m sure there are. Okay, I agree it’s time for bed.

BROOM Okay. This was an interesting thing to watch in the middle of the night. Thanks for watching it, guys.

ADAM Mary, you should watch it.

BROOM Mary, you would like it but I’m sure you’ve seen it. You probably watched this movie over and over when you were a kid. It’s right up your alley. Hope you’re doing well! Bye.