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!


  1. God, I hope Chris doesn’t read that last sentence.

    Posted by Adam on |
  2. If you don’t care about bikes and/or a young and frustrated Dennis Quaid doesn’t do it for you, there’s no reason to watch this movie. I’ve seen it several times. And I have a CUTTERS shirt. OK I don’t, but I should. It’s one of 2 movies ever created where bikes are important to the plot! You should see Quicksilver – at least there are a few bike/ballet/break dance scenes to keep you awake between the young and frustrated Kevin Bacon and Jamie Gertz scenes. It feels like Flashdance with bikes. I know that’s not much of a selling point to you, but it’s a step up from after-school special in my opinion. PS You think nobody cares about cycling? The numbers of are low, but the passion is HIGH!

    Posted by Chika on |
  3. I just wrote a big gushy paragraph about young Dennis Quaid and cycling, and I think it got lost, or is somewhere waiting for your approval?

    Anyway, I’m not surprised that someone who thinks that nobody cares about cycling didn’t have much affection for this movie.

    See Quicksilver, you’ll have even less affection, but perhaps more laughs at the bike/dance/wallstreet scenes. It’s a blended smoothie of your favorite 80’s themes!

    Posted by Chika on |
  4. The line about nobody caring about bikes was 90% joke. Beth’s brother, with whom we watched the movie, is a supermaniac about bikes. Supermaniac I repeat. Whatever amount you are imagining – no, he thinks about bikes more than that. So that was at his expense I guess. The 10% serious is that I’m surprised that one of the most beloved sports formula movies of all time is about cycling of all things, given its fringe status in this country. This movie can’t be as beloved as it is just because of the advocacy of cycling fans, can it?

    You should have hit refresh at some point between 10:03 and 10:09, is the answer to your question.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  5. Oh how embarrassing – a double post, and in front of all your readers!

    To address the 10% nonjoke – I know it to be beloved by nostalgia and cycling fans above 25, but I wouldn’t call it “one of the most” – aren’t there at least 100 football, baseball, hockey, and horse movies above this in the “movies to see before you die” list? The only reason it comes up at all is that everyone has at least 1 bike freak friend who makes you see it. And the guy who played Moocher was just in Little Children, and is going to be in The Watchmen. Oh yeah, and Dennis Quaid.

    As for the 90% joke – That didn’t come through. Ask Chris if he thinks it’s funny when they dub in freewheel noises over the scenes where K.Bacon is supposed to be riding a fixie. In Quicksilver, have I mentioned Quicksilver?

    Triple post!

    Posted by Anonymous on |

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