Yearly Archives: 2010

December 3, 2010


A problem with CGI (I’m tempted to say the problem, because it’s a problem I think a lot of people have been tacitly aware of for a long time – but there are always more problems…) is that it uses technology to relieve artists of responsibilities that are, in fact, essential to art. Traditional animation has generally been pretty reductive and simplistic about representing three-dimensional space not because it was impossible to represent it dynamically and more accurately, but because it wasn’t deemed important. That assessment was an artistic judgment – the degree to which (and way in which) three dimensions are represented in art is, and has always been, an artistic decision.

The underlying rendering processes used in CGI are, effectively, artistic choices. And yet, though artists may well be choosing levels of lighting and blur and atmosphere and reflectivity and so forth and so forth, the fundamental programming behind the 3D data structures and the processes used to render them have been devised not by those artists, but by technicians, programmers – essentially scientific minds occupied with geometries and algorithms, the rational quantification of optics. Some poetry and inspiration is certainly involved in that process, and has been injected into it, and we do feel it in CGI, where the sense of space itself is often grippingly intense. But the conception of space in CGI is and has always been limited to the conception of space in the minds of the self-selected few who write the software. Their assumptions are then taken on by the animators and special-effectsers and game-designers etc. etc. as though they are facts of reality, when in fact they are merely artistic choices that, having been stated as axioms, drastically limit the range of expression.

Disney announced some years ago that their new Rapunzel movie, just now released, was going to be inspired by the look of Fragonard’s The Swing. By limiting the realm of that inspiration to, essentially, the forms, textures and lighting, the artists ensured that the movie would not, in fact, look like Fragonard – it would look like more CGI. Because the real choices had been made for them by programmers long ago.

Might it be possible to program a computer to think about “space” – not just surfaces, but space itself – in thousands of different poetic ways, which is what artists do? I don’t see why not. The problem is only that quantifying such a model would be very difficult and require profound inspiration crossing technical and artistic borders, of a kind that I think few people have. But perhaps there are more such people in this generation than in the previous one that wrote the rules about 3D years and years ago.

Maybe a place to start – baby steps! – would be to leave 3D modeling as it currently stands, but then construct a second programmatic layer of poetic interpretation before rendering. Not just optical, camera’s-eye interpretation, but actual global re-thinking, based on color values, or object significance, or psychological factors, or whatever an artist deems important to his/her view of reality. Only then do you bring in the camera.

Until we have at least that, all CGI is going to feel to me like just another work by that same geeky guy with no taste who fancies himself an artist, which has then been desperately polished by other hands with more or less skill. Which is how it feels now.

November 19, 2010

21. Dead Ringers (1988)

directed by David Cronenberg
written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider
based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland

Criterion #21.

Jeremy Irons as identical twins played as queasy nightmare: I was really, really enthused about this premise. But the execution is pulpy, and that dampened the effect that I had hoped for.

It’s pulpy in that there is nothing here other than the ideas. The characters speak only about the premises and the plot; every peripheral detail (e.g. the images on a TV, the objects on a desk) feels very much placed and curated rather than genuinely incidental. There is no full reality here, just a complex of concepts. This all creates the impression of a pornographic motivation rather than a dramatic one.

A reductively focused script can work well in a movie that functions as a dreamy sensory experience. But for all its stylized production design, this movie wasn’t visually rich enough for me to see it as a heady unreality instead of as a rather insufficient reality. It was, at best, in a sort of uncanny valley between the two. I suppose it’s possible that David Cronenberg relishes exactly that double-insufficiency. Such an impression of thinness can enhance the sense of horror — pornographic impulses feel unsafe and suggest the monstrous (fetishes being essentially social mutations) — but to my mind, there’s no getting around the fact that it diminishes the work.

In the middle third, the concepts get their full exposition and we are drawn into them — and for a while there I thought maybe my diagnosis had been wrong, and that the ideas alone were in fact enough to sustain the whole undertaking. But in the final section, the pacing felt clearly wrong — once we can see that our trajectory is downward into darkness, we are ready to skip to the end, but the movie prolongs the descent, seemingly in the interest of savoring the “story,” which is an impossibility because there is nothing there. Had we developed a richer sense of this world, the slow burn would be fascinating rather than annoying.

However, having carped, I will now return to my initial enthusiasm, which was based on a quote from Cronenberg that I read before watching: “Dead Ringers is conceptual science fiction, the concept being: ‘What if there could be identical twins?'” Even now, it still excites me to read that. Yes! The movie equivalent of saying a common word until it sounds weird and wrong! There should be a whole genre of horror based on defamiliarization.

An eerie pair of cold, brilliant twins who think of themselves a little too much as being the same person is a fantastic idea. And their scenes together really are very effective in the matter-of-fact way they blur the line between being the inner monologue of a single character and an encounter between two opposing individuals. That aspect of the movie I can wholeheartedly endorse. The rest — gynecology and horrific surgical tools and drug addiction and all that — is less markedly inspired. If these aren’t your hangups (and they aren’t mine), the relationships among the elements can seem pretty arbitrary — just a few items chosen off the long list of “icky” stuff David likes to think about.

When he and others talk about the serious issues inherent in the icky fascinations of his movies, there’s no doubt that they’re right — there is potential substance behind the ick. But the pertinent question is whether the movies themselves are actually delving into that substance, or are just indulging themselves. The stuff in this movie all felt like the indulgence of nerdy fetishes — wherein intellectual associations are an equally superficial part of the overall superficial appeal. (Not unlike, say, steampunk.) The opening credit images, in the style of Renaissance medical illustrations (see title screen above), set the tone: cool as design because of the aura of learnedness.

The movie’s emphasis on gynecology (and the pointless plot element that Geneviève Bujold has an unheard-of mutation in her anatomy) seems particularly puerile to me. I gather that the movie is particularly horrific for women to watch because of the gynecological associations. But I’d venture to guess that the gynecological content is here solely for how it might strike men as creepy, and that ultimately this movie is fairly indifferent to the perspective of actual women, for whom the female genitalia do not have any particularly alien connotations (or shouldn’t, anyway). And I’m all for defamiliarization horror, but come on! — basing it on vaginas is way too easy to be interesting, says Dr. Freud.

(I was about to type “like shooting fish in a barrel” but after running it through my unintended-meanings alert system I got “proceed with caution” so decided against it. Here it is in parentheses instead.)

On the commentary track, Jeremy Irons points out that though playing twins might seem like a demanding trick, the feat of acting is not all that unusual — managing two different characters at once is a skill from doing theater in repertory, and playing to an imagined partner is what happens in all reverse angles, in film. True enough. What’s most impressive about his performance is how very very similar he allows the two portrayals to be: it gives a sense of close-up magic to the endeavor. He says at one point on the commentary that he thought of the more confident alpha twin as being centered in his forehead, and the beta twin as being centered in his Adam’s apple. I think hearing that nifty little tidbit of technique may have been my favorite part of this whole viewing experience.

Geneviève Bujold seems undertrained for this sort of thing — too naturalistic to seem at ease in this very un-naturalistic movie — and there is the sense that this sort of woman would never, ever, ever, ever actually be interested in prissy icebox Jeremy Irons… but the presence of a person just sort of walking around onscreen being herself in the middle of all this clinical weirdness is itself interesting to watch.

The other girlfriend is no good.

Music. Here’s the main title. This is pretty good work on Howard Shore’s part; definitely superior to his prior showing here. I actually liked it much more before I listened with headphones and realized that each of the four notes in the main figure is repeated, and that the harp articulates absolutely every beat. I had thought I was hearing something extremely still and simple, which was more compelling to me.

It sounds like there’s terrible hiss, but I believe it’s an intentional effect created by the synths in the instrumentation — the soundtrack of the movie was very clear, as you’ll hear at the very end of this cue when a door clicks open to start the movie. (There was an uninterrupted version of the same theme at the end of the movie, but somehow it wasn’t mixed as well, and tacked on to it was a long, long dull vamp to run out the credits, so I picked this opening version instead).

October 29, 2010

As I Lay Dying (1930)

William Faulkner (1897–1962)
As I Lay Dying (1930)

[Boy, this has been sitting here forever! I read this book something like a year ago, and I wrote most of this six months ago. But it has very much needed editing so I have delayed posting it. And now you’re about to find out just how badly it’s needed editing, because I’m finally fed up and am posting it after all, more or less as it’s been.]

After hot-dog-eating-contest-ing my way through Chernyshevsky, reading Faulkner was like sipping tea. (That was an attempt to use “hot-dog-eating-contest” as a verb. Your cooperation is appreciated.) I know Faulkner isn’t supposed to be like sipping tea; he’s supposed to be a heavy duty guy, one of the classic “difficult” writers. But people tend to overemphasize the challenge posed by “difficult” writing, and underemphasize the challenge posed by old writing, or bad writing. Compared to the messy, many-dimensional problems posed by the passage of centuries and huge shifts in cultural standards, difficulties in figuring out which character is talking (or whatever) are just like slight clouds in your tea. As I Lay Dying was pie — pie, I say — compared to a trudge like What is to be Done, because it was a book by a more-or-less modern American writer for more-or-less modern American readers like myself. He’s at home and I’m at home; neither of us is squinting at a phrasebook.

Which is more difficult: doing the crossword puzzle in today’s paper, or understanding any part of a paper from 1780?

Okay, obviously I’m exaggerating; this book was harder than cloudy tea. In fact, halfway through, feeling quite confused, I thought perhaps I’d better delete the above, which was jotted down in my early post-Chernyshevsky enthusiasm. But having reached the end and reflected on my experience, I’m comfortable letting it stand. The book might have been a three-star crossword puzzle, but it was still just a crossword puzzle.

And, puzzle-lover though I may be, I’m not sure that’s to its credit.

This being my first Faulkner novel — a momentous occasion, after all these years of hype! — I felt it prudent to ask around and see what a few Faulkner-lovers of my acquaintance had to say about As I Lay Dying. The average response was, I daresay, rather cool. Some admiration was tentatively expressed, but no actual affection. Generally they wanted to tell me which other Faulkner novel they actually recommended (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, Light in August). The most enthusiastic comment about As I Lay Dying that I was able to get out of any of the approximately three people to whom I spoke was: “it’s astonishing, isn’t it?” Which under the circumstances sounds a tad evasive. A snake eating a mouse is astonishing.

When these Faulknerians asked me what I had thought of it, I said the same thing to each of them, and now I say it to you, the infinite readership: I know what experience it gave, but I don’t know why that experience was on offer.

Just now I was watching the original ballet of Appalachian Spring — another stylized, modernist crunch on the spiritual concept of “America.” The ballet’s image of twitchy, angular purity and grace has an obvious appeal and an obvious purpose. It delivers something that feels useful to the soul, something worth carrying around. Something for the heart to take into account when choosing the palette for its own, inward American landscape. As I Lay Dying seemed to want to deliver something similar but for me it did not. What sort of inward use could its particular vision possibly serve? Wherefore this gnarled, driftwood gargoyle?

It wasn’t false enough to relish like a haunted house — it was nobody’s nightmare — but neither was it true enough to appreciate as a slice of any real world. It was an “expressionist” skew on the rural south, but I was never sufficiently convinced that it had been skewed in a good faith effort to express anything felt, rather than just as a device to superficially art-ify. Where, in this world he was describing, were Mr. Faulkner’s sympathies?, I wanted to know. With his own skill, seemed rather obviously to be the answer. But that was an unproductive answer, so I made great effort to set it aside and wait for another one to present itself. And others did, eventually, but in retrospect none half as convincing as that first one.

Does passion for technique and dispassion for characters necessarily mean that an artist is a jerk, or that he has his priorities wrong? I say “definitely not” — it annoys me when people level this complaint against, say, the Coen Brothers. But that’s because in Coen Brothers movies I always have a clear sense that the dispassionate storytelling has an emotional objective. Being at a dispassionate distance is itself a real and rather melancholy human experience; generally I think they’re interested in that melancholy, rather than disinterested in their characters. It is with the camera’s own godlike externality that we are meant to identify.

The text of As I Lay Dying, on the other hand, is entirely in the mouths and brains of its characters — the device is that it jumps from character to character at each new chapter. Scattered thus among its various characters, the book averages to having an external point of view, but it’s a point of view we are never actually offered, an unvoiced perspective. So the melancholy of externality cannot be a part of the equation. But that underlying lack of sympathy is there nonetheless, and we smell it, and we know it’s Faulkner behind it. He’s a lurker in his own book, and as such he feels insufficiently committed. So when he veers toward the grotesque, it seems divorced from any emotional impulse — modernist stylings for their own sake.

While we’re on the subject: is American Gothic making fun of those two people, or what? I tend to think that one’s more Coen brothers style; our sympathies are meant to be with the frame. I think Grant Wood is probably asking his audience “you know how sometimes you see something that’s not supposed to be strange, but it’s actually very strange, both unsettling and comical?” Faulkner showed me similar stuff but he never winked and never asked me anything.

Let me make clear that I did understand what I was reading! The “point” of the book, to some degree, is that all life and all meaning is subjective. Thus the idiosyncratic form. And thus also Faulkner’s refusal to declare any boundary between deadpan and sincere, grotesque and noble. I can see that he probably wanted each first-person narrative to strike an untippable balance between foreign otherness and some kind of essential truth-for-that-person, the glowing inner reality that is the ultimate object of sympathy because we all share it: the mystery of being existent. I feel like the strangeness came off, but the glowing innerness didn’t, because it’s dependent on the poetry, and, ultimately — and this is really the bottom line of my response — I wasn’t convinced by the poetry. It all comes down to the text.

Faulkner’s prose style here is highly conspicuous, constructed, idiosyncratic, fanciful, thorny. To these one might add affected, ostentatious, pretentious, self-indulgent and so on. One might add these words. Then again one might rather add poetic, rich, evocative, spectacular, virtuoso and the like. While reading, I spent a lot of mental energy on steering toward the latter sort of thing. Fighting against rather strong currents, I’m afraid.

I see that the work was an effort to transcend, but my experience wasn’t of transcendence, so I was left with the solid part only, which made the book feel unkind, false. And I’m not so sure that what he was attempting is even possible. Ulysses achieves exactly this kind of “sympathy-beyond-mere-sympathy” for Bloom, but that’s because Joyce, for all his artificing, realizes that poetry is the least of it; the real thing is to show that Bloom is more than merely fodder for Joyce’s pen. It’s in his very ordinariness that Bloom is allowed to transcend Joyce. Faulkner’s people are too busy being American Gothic hieroglyphs to possibly transcend Faulkner himself, so there’s nothing there to believe in.

In fact, the more I talk about it, the more embarrassingly overreaching the whole project seems. And the effort to leaven it by actually putting philosophical windings into the brains of each character is also embarrassing, for its shamelessness. (Though those were the most interesting passages to read, because they were the most communicative of the author’s actual intentions. If only he’d been able to write a book about those things instead of just “about” them… )

The book, I think, is one of those “great works of art” that is admired for what it indicates its intention to be, rather than for what it is.

And yes, the difficulty. I suppose his formal technique is archetypically modernist, in that it intends to reduce the materials to a scientific array, scatter the particles of the narrative, stack and arrange the sentences like blocks, like some kind of Gertrude Stein objects. In such works the “point of view” is that of the God of science, which is to say no God (unlike the film camera, mentioned earlier, which is a real and omnipotent god). But when Joyce has that chapter at the end of Ulysses all in questions and answers, he uses it to revel in the infinite possibilities of raw information, the endless glories of truth. The truth goes into a desk drawer, under the table, out into distant space, down to a microscopic detail, back and forth through time, into the mind, the body — everything. That chapter is a joyous, whimsical celebration of the modern potential to explode a moment, a story, art. Faulkner’s book, on the other hand, is “exploded” and yet its worldview remains provincial; it seems to be explosion as obfuscation rather than illumination.

As-yet-unrevealed things were referred to obliquely in earlier chapters only to be retroactively explained in later chapters. In Ulysses this device also occurs, but there it’s in keeping with the concept of the city as four-dimensional microcosm; that the book contains more stories than just the one that reads from front to back is part of the aesthetic point. Here it just felt like puzzles and confusion thrown in the reader’s path for complexity’s sake.

I guess I’ve worked my way around to my problem with much of post-WWI art — the techniques of modernism are so easily misunderstood, and were, and were converted into mere fashions rather than ideas. This was like secondhand cubism.

I felt like his descriptive language was perpetually dense and rich simply because he had resolved to keep his descriptive language dense and rich, rather than because some greater vision necessitated it. He would give me a heavily-worked morsel of prose-poetry about the ripples on a river, and I would think, “I see that you obviously strove to pour the full force of your art into this phrase… but why are you telling me about these ripples at all? They really don’t have anything to do with the substance of the scene, so the phrase doesn’t belong here, no matter how original and chewy.”

(Ding ding, train of thought is about to switch tracks, ding ding. Keep arms and legs inside.)

During the time I was reading this book, I happened also to be thinking about how my baseline experience of perceiving the world has changed over the years; how the flavor of it fluctuates and transforms over time. Things seem to me sometimes to be duller or more distant than they once were; or rather the sense that things are dull or distant settles over me more frequently and with greater inertia. My sense of the present, in space and time, has become less acute, softened by habit — the habit of being. I don’t know whether this is the nature of aging or a kind of depression, but it is of course something I would like to resist and improve; perceiving the world is pretty much my raison d’etre as a conscious being, after all, so it seems like a pretty high priority.

Earlier today on the street in Manhattan, I saw a very little boy in a stroller and could see in his eyes that his attention to the sidewalk passing under him was full and intense. I felt shamed by it. What do I think I know about sidewalks already, that I needn’t look? Why is my attention so withered and weak? You must change your life.

Once last year when I was in the shower, I happened to look at the wall tiles from only inches away, and saw them in their voluminous detail, and felt suddenly aware of the acute reality of the present, and was overjoyed. Of course the sensation was unreproducible, and here I am talking about it a year later because it has become so rare. For that boy in the stroller — and for me too once, I think — it was the only way of being.

The point of this extremely personal digression is this: perhaps an abundance of detail needs no justification to a reader whose mind perceives the abundance of the world. Detail is a first principle, not a stylistic choice. Why describe the ripples on the water? The question would not even occur to someone for whom the ripples were already and necessarily present; they would ask, “what is art but to describe ripples?”

Perhaps the better I understand art — the more I see the layers of its createdness, its intentionality, its personness — the further I fall from being able to see reality, the unpeopled truth. Sometimes I have the distressing feeling that I am surrounded by art in the world, swallowed up by the wills and minds of men rather than things as they are.

Medieval monks believed that reality was correspondences and symbols, that there was mind and message burning in everything, a world aflame. We tend to think of them as being the victims of chronological misfortune, doomed to live before the era of real knowledge and real comfort, doomed to make everything up from scratch while rats gnawed them in their beds. We imply that they saw art in place of reality as a way to alleviate their suffering, like the end of Brazil.

But I think that’s presumptuous. We need no such excuse to be seduced into believing that meaning is the underlying principle in the world; the impulse to see meaning is inborn.

Perhaps my problem is that I see the poetry so much more clearly than I see the ripples. The ripples, I think numbly, can take care of themselves; I just need to concern myself with the book. It seems likely to me that I read the book in this worthless, sterile spirit. Perhaps it was full of life and heart that I missed.

Ah well. Maybe some day I’ll pass this way again, but not right now.

Honestly, I prefer to write them this way. What really was I going to say about William Faulkner when there are so many Faulkner scholars, Faulkner journals, Faulkner societies and Faulkner conferences, all hard at work at the expansive task of finally getting Faulkner’s work good and responded to? Even as I read, I felt distressingly aware that not only had millions trampled this ground before me, but that they might be quite nearby still — that if I dared do an internet search to read up on the book, I would be thrust into a world with its own traditions and expectations and protocol, where all the good picnic spots had been claimed bright and early by the locals.

(The very concept of the “newbie” is a rather hateful one, isn’t it?)

Anyway, with this thoroughly kvetchy, self-pitying posting I’ve certainly shown them, haven’t I! Take that, Faulkner establishment. And take that, literary establishment at large that fairly unanimously considers this one of the great works of the 20th century.

And take that, people who read my site. And take that, me.

Next time I promise I will try to post quickly, before they fester, as this one so obviously has.

[A recap of the above:

First I say that the book was easy. Then I say that it actually was hard. Then I say that I don’t know why he wrote it because it seemed pointless to me. Then I say that the author must have been full of himself to write such a fancy-boy type book. Then I swear that I totally understood it, but that it just was a failure. Then out of nowhere I start making a big stink about how ooh, I’ve read Ulysses, ooh, look at me. Then I randomly start saying that I’m sad and lost in life or some shit like that, and then say that maybe that’s why, okay fine, maybe I didn’t understand the book, but that I don’t care. Then basically I say that people who like this guy’s books are stuck-up snobs. Then I immediately kind of disclaim the whole essay. And then this, which goes and pisses all over the whole thing.

All in all, not a proud performance.]

But, you know, the show must go on.

Oh, oops! I’m supposed to include a passage for you to sample and consider. Here you go.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.

Pretty in its way, and artful in its way, and somewhere near to the profound, in its way… and yet at the same time, irritatingly contrived, and transparent, and condescending, and pretentious, no? Well, that’s my take.

October 10, 2010

Disney Canon #31: Aladdin (1992)


BETH Where to start?

BROOM You should start, because your reaction is the freshest.

BETH It seemed very of its time. They had no shame about making very timely cultural references.

ADAM You groaned at Jack Nicholson; that was what killed it for you.

BETH But right before that he was doing somebody else.

BROOM I’ll bet Arsenio Hall is what got you. When he went “woop woop woop.”

ADAM I didn’t even get that.

BETH There was a Schwarzenegger reference, too. There were so many. And they were also very self-referential — Disney-referential — all over the place. I felt like they were trying to stick in as many references as they could. They had the crab from The Little Mermaid briefly. And he was wearing the Goofy hat at the end. There are so many that I can’t even remember specific examples.

ADAM Well, did you enjoy that, or did you resent it?

BROOM How relevant is this all to what you thought of the movie?

BETH The movie was not boring, and kept me interested the entire time. And I thought those jokes were amusing, but in a long-term way, unsuccessful. Although, well…it reminded me of Looney Tunes, how they would always reference things of the era, and now it seems charming. So maybe in twenty years… But it has been twenty years, right?

BROOM Fifteen or so.

ADAM Eighteen.

BETH So I guess it’s charming. But I know those references; kids of the 2040s aren’t going to get any of those weird jokes.

BROOM There are still some that I don’t know. Who is he doing when he says that there are a few quid pro quos? [ed.: William F. Buckley]

BETH When he was being the Macy’s parade float commentators, who were they supposed to be?

BROOM I don’t know if they were specific people.

ADAM When he says “aren’t they lovely, June?”

BETH And “Harry.” [ed.: apparently nobody in particular]

ADAM Some of them were already gone, you’re right. But those jokes in Looney Tunes were actually much of what I enjoyed as a kid. The old vaudeville stuff that I didn’t get. I enjoyed the sense that there was a joke that I didn’t get, and some day I’d get it.

BROOM When someone would look like Mae West for a second?

ADAM You mean, like, Bugs Bunny? Yes, right. I’d strain to get jokes that were over my head, which made me feel included in something really funny.

BETH So maybe it works. Maybe it was fine.

BROOM Well, you watched it now; what did you think?

BETH I thought I was going to be annoyed by Robin Williams, but he was at his Robin-Williamsy best.

ADAM It’s kind of an understated Robin Williams. For Robin Williams.

BETH He was doing the full thing that he does, but not in an over-the-top way.

BROOM Because the directors chose where to use it. Carefully.

ADAM There’s not that much shtick — there’s probably only seven solid minutes of shtick.

BROOM But they’re so fast-paced.

BETH Very. The songs were shitty.

ADAM And yet so magical.

BETH The first song was, I thought, so bad.

BROOM “One Jump Ahead of the bad guys,” or whatever that’s called?


ADAM “Street rat!”

BROOM “Still I think he’s rather tasty!”

BETH He can’t sing!

BROOM He sounds real gay.

BETH But also just nasally and annoying.

BROOM “Gotta eat to live, gotta live to eat! Otherwise we’d get alooong!”


ADAM All right, but “A Whole New World,” I can attest, is a song all my friends know.

BETH I didn’t realize that it was that until the refrain. Then I was like, “Oh, this is the movie where ‘A Whole New World’ comes from!” Even though you had been singing it.

ADAM There’s at least one other song that I think is pretty good. I think “Prince Ali” is a pretty funny song.

BROOM No. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

BETH I don’t even remember it.

ADAM “Prince Ali, mighty is he, Ali Ababwa.”

BROOM I don’t mind “Friend Like Me” and I don’t mind “Whole New World.” The other two are nothin’.

ADAM I like the “Arabian Nights” song at the beginning.

BETH My favorite part was the most Dumbo-y part.

BROOM “Friend Like Me.”

BETH Yeah. That was cool.

ADAM The parade in Prince Ali is funny.

BROOM So as a whole… you said it was interesting the whole time…

BETH It kept my attention. I was getting very tired, but it had nothing to do with the movie, and I didn’t fall asleep.

ADAM I think the Robin Williams sort of cuts the Broadway schmaltz. They have both themes, and they’re both oppressive in and of themselves, but together they’re sort of…

BETH Bearable.

BROOM Well, I thought the whole attitude — not just the Robin Williams but the whole thing — was of very shticky business.

ADAM I mean, Gilbert Gottfried is your parrot?

BETH I thought he was writing his own lines. He was just being Gilbert Gottfried.

ADAM So was Robin Williams. Right.

BROOM But I felt like the use of shtick was all in the same spirit as the Robin Williams. I didn’t think it was like Broadway. Well, I guess it was like “Spamalot.” But I didn’t think there was a treacly Broadway quality. I feel like there’s hardly any emotion in it whatsoever. How did you feel about the story?

ADAM Did you like either of them? Did you root for their love interest?

BETH I didn’t care about the characters.

ADAM He’s so handsome.

BROOM I think the character design is fine, but his eyes and nose wobble around inconsistently.

ADAM No, the way his eyes bulge out — he’s so handsome.

BETH Her eyes drove me nuts. I thought her eyes were the biggest ever that any Disney character has ever had. They were like anime eyes. There was white all the way around her pupils.

ADAM Yes! Right! Because her eyes were so bulgy! His were the same way. I find that extremely endearing.

BROOM I felt like their character animation, their acting, was lacking — they were just shtick figures.

ADAM Here’s a serious question: do you think the Orpheus-slash-Lot’s wife plot device of “don’t touch don’t touch don’t touch — oh, you touched it!” is effective? Ever? Is it ever effective? Because every time it happens in a movie, my heart stops. Did you see … it’s set in Spain during the civil war, and she’s a little girl…

BROOM Pan’s Labyrinth; I didn’t see it.

ADAM There’s the same thing.

BETH But it works on you.

ADAM It always works on me.

BROOM It works as a bit, it works fine. When someone pulls a book out of a bookcase and it spins around, that works for me too. I don’t care. But the actual story of this movie… So Aladdin was “the diamond in the rough” — he was the only person in the world who could enter that cave? Why? Because of what?

BETH Yeah. They cut out the part that explains why.

ADAM Because he’s a good guy!

BROOM It was his destiny.

BETH Because he’s clever.

ADAM Does this actually bother you?

BROOM Does it bother you that the guy who started telling us the story never reappears? That bothered me even when I was a kid.


BETH I didn’t even notice that.

ADAM It’s Robin Williams again, so it doesn’t matter! But no, it never bothered me that, like — why is Frodo the one? It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.

BROOM I mean, I understand. The plot is just to keep each scene going; it’s just there to get this show on the road.

ADAM I think her dad was effectively a buffoon.

BETH I liked the dad.

ADAM He had more than one personality trait, and he was funny.

BETH That actor — who is that guy? He plays the bumbly old man in other things.

BROOM Oh, really? I don’t know who it is. [ed. Douglas Seale (?)]

ADAM Although Jafar is offensively gay, even moreso than Ursula…

BROOM But then at the end he’s supposed to be lusting for Jasmine; he has no other motivation than that he actually has the hots for her.

ADAM I understand that.

BETH It doesn’t matter. He’s super-gay.

ADAM It doesn’t matter; he’s the gayest… well, until Uncle Scar.

BROOM That’s right. This was like, “if only we could have had Jeremy Irons!” Then they get him. But he’s good — I like watching Jafar. He certainly has the most interesting designs. He and the genie have cool features.

BETH Is Robin Williams gay?

BROOM I don’t believe so. I believe he’s been married for a long time. [ed.: was until divorce in 2008]

ADAM I think that’s cocaine that you’re thinking of.

BROOM I think that’s chest hair that you’re thinking of.

BETH I mean, he slips into that persona sometimes.

ADAM I saw Mrs. Doubtfire!

BROOM I saw Bicentennial Man! Anyway, at the end — just to finish my plot questions — when he’s like, “you’re free! you’re free!” And then he’s sad because now he can’t marry her, because of that law, and the stupid deus ex machina turns out to be that the sultan could have changed the law at any time. But aren’t you also at that moment thinking, “well, now that the genie is free, he can do favors, right?” He can do whatever he wants for anyone he wants!

BETH I was thinking maybe he’d say, “you get twenty-hundred wishes now.”

ADAM But the genie doesn’t operate by normal human rules.

BROOM He’s not bound by any rules at the end.

BETH I thought maybe he wouldn’t be a genie after he was freed.

ADAM You thought he was going to turn into, like, The Beast.

BETH I thought he would just be a blue man.

BROOM It’s true. He shouldn’t really have those powers. They’re dangerous powers to have.

ADAM And certainly if Jafar is ever set free…

BROOM Ten thousand years in the future — but that could be soon, now!

ADAM Right.

BROOM And also: you’re not allowed to wish for more wishes, but you’re allowed to wish to be a sorcerer capable of doing anything that you want?

BETH Right, that’s not fair. And also, why can’t you wish for more wishes?

ADAM The sorcerer can’t do everything.

BROOM I know they say that, but what could the sorcerer not do that the genie could do?

ADAM Make her fall in love with him?

BROOM The genie couldn’t do that.

ADAM The genie could probably do that, he just won’t do that.

BETH When he was a sorcerer he couldn’t do that.

ADAM The sorcerer can just do conjuring, and sending people places, but he couldn’t transform things.

BROOM He turned himself into a giant snake!

ADAM Yeah, that’s conjuring.

BROOM He encased her in a giant hourglass. All right: I like about this movie that it is visually stylish in a way that hearkens back to the old ones and is also totally garish in a new, 90s way, and is just exuberant about its garishness.

ADAM I love the gardens of the palace.

BETH I do too! That was one of my favorite set pieces.

BROOM I thought this movie had the best backgrounds in years.

BETH It did have really good backgrounds.

ADAM And I like when they’re sitting on the roof of the Forbidden Palace. And I like… … different things.

BETH It seemed kind of stupid, but I enjoyed it.

BROOM It was right on the line for me. Because when I first saw it, I loved it, and now part of me was thinking, “this is so cheesy.”

BETH You know what’s good about it? It’s not preachy, like most of the Disney movies have been.

BROOM It’s just like pixy stix.

ADAM Well, there is a moral, but the moral is, like, “free yourself!”

BETH Yeah, it’s like “be yourself! and free yourself!” but…

BROOM The moral is the least important thing in the script. They don’t care.

ADAM But it is a perfect message for the 90s. It’s this vapid sort of “do whatever you want!” There’s no actual content to it. I suppose he has a sense of duty in that he frees the genie, but afterward he gets everything he wants, basically.

BROOM It is vapid, and that is what was troubling to me about it now. It was flashy in a really obnoxious way, to sell vapidity. I was thinking about that thing that John Kricfalusi said about ‘tude — this is the movie he shows, because every expression Aladdin makes is like [face-scrunch with smirk].

ADAM That’s why he’s so cute!

BETH So he’s your favorite?

ADAM Tarzan is my favorite. But he’s pretty cute. He has those big neotenous eyes that make you just wanna hug him.

BETH But he’s not manly at all. He’s like a boy. He looks like your brother, kind of.

ADAM Oh no!

BROOM Way to poison the well!

ADAM You don’t think [my boyfriend] looks anything like that? With the wide eyes and the mischievous expression?

BETH I see sort of a puppy dog thing going on with both people, but no.

ADAM I mean, he doesn’t have a thieving monkey, but…

BROOM Or does he? It’s funny you say Aladdin is like a boy, because I was going to say, this movie had less of an element of “what am I going to be when I grow up” than almost any other before it.

BETH Okay, but he’s like a seventeen-year-old.

ADAM It has a strong element of that — he wants to be rich. He wants to be consequential.

BETH He wants to be comfortable.

BROOM He wants not to be running from the law all the time, but that’s just wanting to change his life, it’s not wanting to grow up into something new.

BETH There was no mention of growing up.

ADAM Did Belle really want to grow up?

BROOM Yeah, she wanted to leave that town.

ADAM She wanted to go to cool parties. She wanted to go to NYU.

BROOM Yes, exactly, which I think is a metaphor we brought up before. She wanted to go away into her future.

BETH Aladdin wanted to go away to the palace.

ADAM Just because it meant he’d be rich.

BROOM Jasmine’s situation is more the traditional situation.

ADAM And she does leave, she climbs over the wall. I like that she slips back into “but I’m the princess!” as soon as it’s convenient. She actually does mature a little bit over the course of the movie, and so does he. Convincingly so. I believe their character arcs.

BROOM Yeah, it works. Their minor character arcs. But just like we were saying about Home Alone a minute ago — they are very rich. They have everything they want. And all the diversions of the movie take place within the narrow realm of utter luxury.

ADAM He doesn’t, necessarily.

BROOM Yes. He is very poor. She is very rich. Okay, wait, another plot point: his first wish is to be a prince. Then later it turns out he might need another wish to be a real prince. He needs to wish to actually be a prince.

BETH I don’t understand that one.

BROOM If his first wish were to look like a prince, then that would be different.

ADAM I think he got turned into a prince but then the sorcerer turned him back into a street rat, so then he needs to toggle back into “prince.”


BETH Why, once he got hold of the lamp, didn’t it go back?

ADAM Like it should reset?

BETH Yeah, it should reset.

ADAM But then you could just hand it back and forth between you and your friend, forever.

BROOM It’s per person.

BETH Yeah, and why couldn’t he just give it to, like, her?

BROOM Because he promised he would let the genie free. He promised to be the last person to get the benefit of the lamp. Okay, now the greater cultural thing. So we said that the vapidity suited the 90s… Don’t you feel a little bit like you’re looking at….

ADAM The story of Bill and Hillary Clinton?

BETH The economic climate of the day?

BROOM The cultural climate of now. When I first saw it, I remember thinking that “Friend Like Me” was painfully fast. I didn’t understand what half the things I was seeing were.

BETH But now, didn’t you feel like you got them all?

BROOM I’ve seen it enough times. But you, for the first time, you understood everything he was saying and every visual that went with it?

BETH Yeah. But that’s part of being my age. If I were eleven or whatever, I wouldn’t have gotten it all.

BROOM I just felt like it was overloaded and in-your-face in a way that was a little bit beyond reasonable. Even at the beginning, when the shopkeeper is talking, it was already very fast; every half-line has its own visual shtick.

ADAM You just hadn’t seen enough rap music at that point.

BROOM It felt like…

BETH An onslaught.

BROOM Like an overstuffed way of thinking about movie time. At the expense of content.

BETH It’s vaudevillian.

BROOM Well, they think it’s vaudevillian, but it’s such a rat-a-tat machine gun kind of vaudeville. And then Hercules is that, times a few. It’s the same thing cranked even further up.

ADAM Really, this is like Shrek.

BROOM I know a lot of people hate Shrek, but I actually thought it had a sense of pacing.

ADAM I like Shrek, and I like this.

BROOM I enjoyed this, but I feel like this is like enjoying something somewhat distasteful. I feel like if you had showed this to the 1945 audience, or whenever, they would have thought, “that was offensive! and abrasive!”

BETH I think you’re right. It is abrasive.

ADAM But you probably think Christina Aguilera is abrasive. Actually I should really say: you probably think Katy Perry is abrasive.

[digression on this subject ensues]

ADAM I mean, it’s candy-colored and, you know…

BROOM And Jasmine’s waist is tiny, and there’s absolutely no reason to do that other than reflexive sexualizing of everything.

ADAM She’s pretty, and he’s super-hot. And it’s hot to imagine them together. It’s like it’s hot to imagine Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake making out. It’s hot.

BROOM Doesn’t it make you feel that something is distasteful when the culture asks, “what should we show our eight-year-olds? How about Bratz?” Maybe not! So maybe not this either.

BETH I don’t think it was necessary for her proportions to be that extreme. She was also wearing a bikini and had gigantic breasts. Not gigantic, but.

BROOM Not by cartoon standards.

BETH By my standards, those were very large breasts.

BROOM They were just modest 34Ds. Standard cartoon size.

BETH And then her off-the-shoulder whatever.

BROOM That’s how things are in ye olden times. I like that she’s wearing basically a nakedness suit the whole time, and then at the end when he’s slutted up the place, she’s wearing a red suit that is exactly as revealing. Which means “oh, he dirtied her innocence.”

BETH I think somehow the high ponytail equals “slut.”

BROOM She was lugging around a lot of hair.

ADAM I liked that at the end, Aladdin does not get to have a prince hat, but he has a stripey hat that’s sort of rich-colored in its own way. I don’t know where he got it.

BROOM How, when Jafar disguises himself as an old man…

BETH … does he do the teeth??

BROOM Yes! Impossible!!

ADAM It doesn’t matter! He’s a vizier!

BROOM I know, he has all kinds of powers even before he has powers. Bits that I thought were cool, then, and I still like: when he stands inside the window, like a Buster Keaton thing, when the tower is rolling over him.

ADAM I love that. And I love the design of the cave mouth.

BROOM Good use of CGI! You said “oh, CGI-tastic,” but I thought it was well-used throughout. Like, the magic carpet is a good use of CGI.

BETH I really liked the magic carpet a lot. I thought that was well done.

ADAM Albeit, animated exactly like the rug in Beauty and the Beast.

BROOM What rug?

ADAM The rug that turns into the dog.

BROOM That’s a footstool.

ADAM Oh, it is a footstool, but it has similar tassels.

BROOM But they did more interesting things here. Like when he walked away dejected, folded over. I thought all the CGI had aged well because it had been used with taste, with an eye for its otherworldliness. The lion head, and the tower, all that stuff was smart. But yes, the movie is just bit after bit after bit. The Star Wars part when he flies out of the collapsing cave? Okay, sure, we’ll take some of that for two seconds. Now what?

BETH I felt like the people who made this were challenging themselves to do that, to see how much they could pile on. It didn’t have the soul of The Little Mermaid or even Beauty and the Beast. Which is fine.

ADAM Fine guys, go watch The Sorrow and the Pity.

BETH What year is this? 93? Totally Clinton. It feels like it’s of that time.

BROOM Say more about what the characteristic of that time is.

ADAM Vapid. Ahistorical.

BETH Yes, ahistorical.

BROOM That’s my favorite way for things to be!

ADAM Well, it turns out it’s a lot nicer.

BROOM “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

BETH This is the movie that is made during a time of general well-being.

BROOM Yeah, not like Home on the Range.

BETH We’ll see.

[the New York Times review is read as always]


September 6, 2010

Deep thought, or sleep thought?

Between the true natures of things and the meanings that we impart to them, there is a discrepancy. And that discrepancy can be painful to contemplate, to say the least.

Perhaps it would be better, though, to see it as an exciting tension; a savorable dissonance. The juxtaposition of human ideas, warm and small, onto reality — that endless cold soup of matter and energy — is sort of a fascinating tragicomic conceit in itself. Humanity is a bit of a Don Quixote, crusading insanely through a benighted La Mancha it cannot see. And while the human race may never resolve the question of whether our sympathies lie with Señor Quixote or with his embarrassed neighbors, perhaps there is some lasting comfort to be found in the fact that the story of his delusion is a good one — a thing of beauty.

The interval between human affairs and the truth is not a resonant, reassuring one like a perfect fifth — it’s more like a seventh; it beats. But maybe in those beats is a beguiling rhythm.

And… POST.

[This is a sequel to this one from 4 years ago, along similar lines]

August 19, 2010

20. Sid and Nancy (1986)

directed by Alex Cox
written by Alex Cox and Abbe Wool

Criterion #20.

As this one approached, Beth warned me repeatedly that I wouldn’t like it. Turns out she was wrong! But I can’t blame her. In fact it surprises even me, to think that I enjoyed this. Nothing about it would seem to be much to my taste. Either this movie has some uniquely transcendent quality hiding below the surface, or else this was just one of those fluke experiences where circumstances conspire to trick me into having a good time that I should never have had.

Doing something arbitrary like watching the Criterion collection in order encourages a certain kind of wide-open-mindedness, particularly given the extreme eclecticism of this particular list — and having an open mind is, unfortunately, more or less the same thing as exorcising oneself of one’s personal tastes. For better and for worse, that’s part of what drives me to do stupid things like this. And I don’t want to understate the simple satisfaction of seeing the next movie on the list after having invested it with several months of anticipation. I have perused the first several pages of the list many times, at this point, so all the titles start to seem like they will be special treats of one kind or another.

So that’s probably the why of it. But in any case, I found this compelling viewing despite having no interest in the subject matter nor any affinity for the implicit worldview (of the characters or of the type of people who would be moved to make a movie about them). The crucial saving grace was that the movie felt to me like it had absolutely no agenda, nothing to sell — not even the idea that this was a story worth telling. There was plenty of room left for me to have any thoughts I wanted about these people, up to and including that they were people of no significance and that their story was of no significance. And under the circumstances I felt tremendously grateful for that space.

Even the more poetic, romantic filmmaking gestures were presented quite coolly; I never felt that my experience was being prescribed. Of course, maybe I never felt that because some hormone or other was low in my brain that day, and not because of the movie, but that’s the way it went down.

I’m gonna put the music selection up here so I can talk about it as it relates to this thought. This little cue, track 20 for your imaginary album, kicks in behind the movie’s signature shot, where the two leads kiss in an alley while garbage falls from above in slow motion. (The music is by Dan Wool, the screenwriter’s brother, credited here as “Dan Wül” of “Pray for Rain.”) There’s not a lot of score in the movie, but what there is is in a similar vein.

On the one hand, this sort of music has a clear, strong emotional impact. But to me, the characteristically 80s aesthetic out of which this music comes is actually sort of pre-emotional, or sub-emotional — the feeling it creates is not of a particular kind of meaning, just of the impression of meaning itself, of lines that extend forever in a space that precedes reality. The Romantic message behind such music might have been meant as “their love was tragic and their story is forever,” but to me at least, it says, rather, “this story, like all stories, is just a kind of a pattern, to which we might try to apply meaning, but in truth it is something geometric and alien.” That depersonalizing tendency of the 80s vibe, intentional or not, put this movie into a relatively pure place, for me. I can’t think of any positive claim that could have been made about these two wretched people that wouldn’t have turned me off the movie. But in the absence of any explicit claims, I was able to feel my own heart, and let it touch down on what I was being shown, however tentatively or ambivalently. And that makes for a positive movie-watching experience, even when all you’re watching is some people being incredibly pathetic.

At first I thought the point of the movie was to depict “punk” — its culture and its ideals — and that these two characters were just convenient historical hooks. My sense was that people probably didn’t live exactly like this, but that they lived somewhat like this and toward the same ideal, and that this movie was giving us a sort of ideally streamlined “punk” milieu, where (as Greil Marcus points out in the commentary track) the historical context is left completely unexplained and the mindset is depicted in itself, without any external cause or purpose.

That mindset, as portrayed in this movie, seemed to be something like that of the Underground Man — these people are offended by the obligation to do just about anything other than exist. They smash things not out of any kind of political protest but simply as a way of acting out against the responsibility not to smash things — the responsibility to protest would be just as much of an imposition.

Generally, the offensive thing about youth cultural movements like these is not their nihilism or irresponsibility so much as their their implicit arrogance. These people invented nothing, discovered nothing — Dostoevsky lived 100 years earlier, after all — so their stridency is undeserved. Yet, at least in this cinematically perfected punk world, they do not in fact want attention or fame or respect; they want nothing other than freedom. Not even the implicit obligation to seize that freedom if they can. And so there is no arrogance, just pure, filthy being. Their stridency is only a part of their disdain for anything other than their momentary impulses — if the disdain includes themselves, it can’t count as pride.

But if the ethos is some kind of inverted Buddhism — the transcendence of earthly cares through an all-encompassing bitterness and anger — then why did these people form bands, dress up, do anything? They too had ambitions. The fact is, there is no such thing as the unchecked id — the pursuit of that kind of purity is a recipe for becoming a hypocrite. Someone’s slogan seen lipsticked on a mirror in one scene: “NO FEELINGS.” By falling in love the characters betray the cause and are doomed. I don’t feel like the characters are hypocrites but I feel like the writers might be.

Ah, but these thoughts mostly refer to the first half of the movie. In the second half, the movie more or less reveals the impossibility of the ideal, as it shows Johnny Rotten moving toward normal society and Sid Vicious dropping below any kind of willful punk insolence into pure heroin-addled degradation. Good.

The movie doesn’t seem to care all that much about the Sex Pistols as a band, and the performance scenes feel dutiful and a little drab, which is unfortunate because there are quite a few of them. But had they been truly charismatic, they would have been harder to think about. Of course, maybe I just don’t get how charisma works in this world — Greil Marcus specifically says that the performances are surprisingly effective as performances, moreso than in most rock and roll movies. More on my probable incomprehension below.

The young Courtney Love, we are reminded all over the internet (when we google Sid and Nancy), was very seriously considered for the role of Nancy, and was given a bit part when the producers insisted on casting an established actor. When she appears, there’s the clear sense that there are two viable Nancys onscreen. I couldn’t help but think, “oh, Courtney Love would have been so much more appropriate.” She has the actual vampy drugged-out quality that would seem to be in order, whereas Chloe Webb is all whining and screaming and seems like the most annoying crazy person in the room. But I’m not necessarily saying the movie would be better. Having watched the clip of the real Sid and Nancy that is included on the DVD, I can see that what Webb does is conscientious and, perhaps, a more interesting distillation of the real Nancy than something less grating would have been. Her performance is absurd and unpleasant but she pushes through to the point of being sort of engaging as such. If the characters were any less transparently pathetic, the focus wouldn’t be as clear.

For the first time in a while, we have a full-featured DVD, with various extras and a good solid commentary track, which I enjoyed. Gary Oldman seems a little reserved and above it all but is game to say a few words; Chloe Webb is loosely, extrovertedly thoughtful in an actor-y way that, in my dealings with actual actors, I have come to find sympathetic. There are a couple other people on there, but the most memorable, as evidenced by my references above, is historian Greil Marcus. Yes, his tone is a little bit pretentious, but most of what he says is pretty compelling, right or wrong. Basically, he talks about his thoughts as an audience member as he tries to work out what this movie conveys, which means that he is speaking directly to my experience. His need to tie everything to historical precedent feels a little like a tic developed during a career of trying to give weight to denigrated popular art, but his cultural-critic attitude serves him well in making his comments relevant to the viewer. Unlike the guys on Amarcord who seemed like victims of the delusion that “analysis” means “puzzle-solving” and that academically legitimate criticism consists of extracting symbols and archetypes until you can say something that seems “socio-political” enough. Ugh.

However: Marcus’s perspective is very much a fan’s perspective: it takes for granted that this material is of great mythic weight of one kind or another. At one point he praises the movie for showing that these characters were not making grand generational statements but were simply motivated by normal desires to have the money or drugs that they wanted. But that’s only an interesting point to people who are pre-inclined to read a grand story in rock & roll doings. Otherwise it’s kind of a duh.

It’s possible, in fact, that the reasons I found the movie approachable and interesting — because, essentially, it eschews any kind of muddled rock pantheon mythology — are also why I actually don’t get what this movie really is, because it’s a movie by and for people who love the Sex Pistols. The real point of the movie, I suspect, is in its exact balance of myth-making and demythologizing, and since I come to it with no preconceived myths whatsoever, I may not be seeing what I am supposed to see. I think that in this case, since I enjoyed it anyway, I can live with that.

The filmmakers are apparently people who were such fans of the band, the music, the rock-and-roll-ness of it, that to them these characters were satisfying, meaningful, beloved characters… and in making this movie they felt they were making a fully rock-and-roll movie, because Sid and Nancy are a part of rock-and-roll. They’re like action figures from a set. But if you only have one G.I. Joe, is he just an anonymous soldier, or is he still fighting Cobra? This is like a movie about a Lando Calrissian figurine, and I’m someone who’s never seen Star Wars. If Lando Calrissian falls in the forest, does he make a sound? I’m here saying I appreciated the quiet, but maybe that’s just because I’m deaf.

See, I didn’t even know that the surreal scene where Sid sings “My Way” was based on a real video until I listened to the commentary and they referred to it as though it were common knowledge. Well, maybe it is, but it wasn’t to me. I just watched the original on YouTube. It made clearer to me the exact nature of what Gary Oldman is and isn’t doing in this movie. The real Sid Vicious comes off as pretty straightforward — a jerky, fucked-up kid being as much of an asshole as he can, on cue. Gary Oldman’s character is much less clearly motivated; he seems more pure and more unearthly, which basically entirely misses the point of punk. He acts like an asshole because that’s his part, but he never feels like he relishes being an asshole, the way a real asshole does. Sid Vicious’s real video makes him seem like a real asshole. Gary Oldman seems more like Edward Scissorhands — a visitor.

August 17, 2010

Disney Canon #30: Beauty and the Beast (1991)


BETH I think that what we just heard — Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson singing the radio version of “Beauty and the Beast” — is the kind of thing that, at the time, made me think that Disney movies were not for me anymore. There was nothing in that song for me to connect with. I was too cool for it by the time that this came out.

BROOM You probably were too cool for the movie, too.

BETH Yeah, I guess I was.

BROOM How do you feel about it now, when ‘cool’ is not as much of an issue?

BETH I was very entertained by it.

ADAM It’s so shamelessly and unapologetically enthusiastic about what it is that it’s extremely infectious. It’s like Glee fifteen years earlier.

BROOM Yeah, it isn’t trying to moderate itself in any way. But I don’t think that it was aiming for camp appeal in the way that something like Glee is. Nowadays, if Disney did a big-Broadway-number-type movie…

BETH They’d sort of do it with a wink.

BROOM They’d have to do it with a wink because they know that the wink has become part of it, now. I don’t think it was then at all. “Bonjour! Good day!” — it’s just being presented as “we think this is a great opening number!”

BETH I think they were really proud of that. Which is fine!

ADAM It will turn into a wink in about five years, when we get to Hercules and Emperor’s New Groove. But for now it’s just like… [imitates power chords] BOM!!! BOM!!! BOM!!!

BETH And then that BOM leads into a whole other number. There’s no breath between these lavish things.

BROOM Yes, well, that’s why I wanted to make sure you understood that the redundant second castle production number was added for the re-release and wasn’t part of the original movie.

ADAM Her face looked a little weird. It looked a little bit lippy, up close. I remember thinking that the animation in this was breathtaking, because of the stained glass and the chandelier twirl shot from above.

BROOM The CGI felt foreign to the rest of it, and some of the choices — like that shot where the cups and plates multiply to infinity — still represent a primitive kind of thinking about how to use the computer.

ADAM As a kid I wouldn’t have understood the Busby Berkeley-ish reference when they’re all diving.

BROOM There sure are a lot of spoons floating in that fruit punch.

ADAM Or some of the other references — like I said at one point that it’s so Sound of Music when she’s spiraling on the hilltop.

BETH She was even sort of dressed like Maria. And she was dressed like Snow White, too, I thought.

BROOM Dorothy, I thought.

ADAM Whereas in earlier movies you got the impression that the animators were dorky straight dudes who were quivering over the female heroines, here I got the impression that the animators were dorky gay dudes who were, like, total Broadway fags.

BROOM I read a couple of blog posts recently that I’m reminded of. One, which is not totally related to this, was on John Kricfalusi’s blog, which I think I may have mentioned previously, where he talks often about ‘tude and how vacuous displays of “attitude” have taken over so much of mainstream cartooning and animation. And somewhere I think he says that the Disney style of the past 30 years was invented by gay artists at CalArts — that it’s a very particularly southern California gay invention.

ADAM This seemed awfully gay.

BROOM And on another animation blog I read recently, by a guy who’s very much a fan of the Disney features, he said that he doesn’t like this one so much because the animation is really inconsistent character to character. That the Beast is glorious whereas some of the secondary characters are really simplistic.

ADAM I thought the same thing. They didn’t really bother with anyone except for Gaston and the Beast and her.

BROOM But my response to that comment is that since the movie operated on this pulling-out-all-the-stops-Broadway-crowd-pleaser level — first this kind of number, now this kind of number, now comic relief, now romance! everything for everyone! — I didn’t mind the stylistic inconsistency in the visuals because the overall attitude was stylistic heterogeneity. There’s really no reason why the “Gaston” number and the “Beauty and the Beast” number should be in the same visual style at all; they’re not in the same dramatic style either. … Well, I don’t know, that’s obviously a little bit of a rationalization. But I didn’t mind it when I was a kid and I’m not sure that I minded it now. But I do ultimately mind that the movie is such a production. I actually prefer Little Mermaid because it’s simpler.

ADAM Oh, I don’t know.

BROOM I think that the impact of Little Mermaid is actually stronger, to me. And I know that this was, like, “believe it or not, you’ll cry at an animated movie!” — but it feels so obviously stage-managed and constructed.

ADAM It feels like drag. But glorious, pretty, lush drag. It felt like a Judy Garland Christmas special.

BROOM After the first number you guys were saying that “they’re not even disguising that it’s all Broadway — it’s like it was actually written for Broadway”… and I think that there is some truth to that, that they were thinking forward to the idea of a stage show even as they were developing the movie.

BETH I thought that later it sort of lost that feeling.

BROOM But to me, a stage show is always going to be weak in comparison to a cartoon. I feel like the cartoon actually makes real what theater lovers are picturing in their minds. When the strings are rising up and she runs to the cliffside and the camera pulls up over the trees, and the clouds go by and the wind blows — that doesn’t really happen on stage, but that’s what’s supposed to be going on in your head. Whereas it can happen in an animated movie. So I feel like what’s the point, after this?

ADAM Backup dancers are like a trick to make you think that there’s a glorious upsurge of life, out of the corners of your eye, but in a movie the camera can just do that itself.

BROOM And this also gets at why this movie isn’t totally satisfying to me — it is so stage-y. In “Be Our Guest,” they’re like, “let’s line them up like dancers in a show!” instead of creating something more genuinely cinematic.

ADAM Is that so different from “Kiss the Girl” or “Under the Sea”?

BROOM Well, “Under the Sea” is pretty similar, but in “Kiss the Girl,” they’re in a boat in a lagoon under a tree, and fish are jumping over them — it’s a sight, certainly, but it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting with a stage in front of you.

ADAM But the “Be Our Guest” number is the “Under the Sea” number; just like “There must be more than this provincial life” is the “Part of Your World.”

BROOM The “I Want song,” as it’s called by Alan Menken theater geeks.

ADAM That’s a good concept.

BROOM It’s a concept that’s taught in terrible music theater programs.

ADAM Because it’s so derivative?

BROOM Well, I’m saying “terrible” because that’s just the formula. You know you’re at a certain kind of show when it starts with “Where is My Turn? When is it gonna be My Turn?”

ADAM That’ll be the next ten movies. They’re all like that. Wait ’til we get to the Mulan one.

BROOM I don’t remember what that song is. But I know what she wants.

ADAM She wants to be a warrior.

BROOM Beth and I were talking about how the mothers are always absent, and I came up with a theory, which probably isn’t original to me: that the ur-story of all of these movies is growing up and finding your adult self, becoming a person… and if the parent of the same sex as the child were present, it would be too clear what the child would grow up to be like, what model of adulthood they were either aiming at or specifically rejecting. If Belle had a mother, we would instantly think “Oh, Belle’s kind of like her mother,” or “Oh, Belle’s nothing like her mother,” and that would become the story. By not having a mother it’s more about “What is Belle like? Who is she going to be?” Do you buy that?

ADAM Does that apply in movies where there’s a boy hero?

BROOM There aren’t very many with a boy hero, but it applies to The Jungle Book, where there are no parents. And it applies to The Sword in the Stone where he has no parents.

ADAM Tarzan.

BROOM As Beth pointed out, The Rescuers Down Under is about a boy who has a mother but no father, though it’s not very much about the boy. There aren’t a lot of great examples about boys because most of them really are about girls. And my theory about that is that if a girl goes on adventures, that appeals to both sexes, whereas if a boy does girlish things, that appeals to nobody.

BETH It’s hard for me to believe that girls going on adventures really does appeal to boys.

ADAM Traditionally, boy heroes are thought to be better crossovers than girl heroes.

BROOM Then why are all these movies about girls?

ADAM They’re not about girls, they’re about love. If you’re going to have a familiar character and a distant character, the familiar character has to be the girl and the distant character has to be the boy. Except in The Jungle Book.

BROOM This one was a straight-up romance, and it seems like they must have just abandoned hope of the boy market. The upcoming Rapunzel movie they’re calling Tangled so that they can try to get boys in there. Whereas this title screen was like red ribbon and marble.

BETH Kind of ugly, actually.

ADAM But this was hugely successful, right?


ADAM So: I feel like the Gaston character is like an indictment of my whole value system. He’s unlike all other Disney villains, which I think is cool. He’s not like a typical lisping uncle — it’s a little more creative.

BROOM Well, I’m gonna do a deep callback here: he is like Brom Bones from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

ADAM That’s true. But he is unlike Uncle Scar, or Ursula, or Jafar.

BROOM That’s right. He’s a parody of masculinity, rather than unmasculine.

ADAM I think the great success of the animation in this is that they make Gaston look sort of ugly-hot, whereas the Beast is sort of convincingly, like… cute.

BROOM Hot-ugly.

BETH I don’t know. The Beast…

ADAM You didn’t want to kiss the Beast?

BETH No, I didn’t.

BROOM I was thinking that, during this movie: “I know that Beth likes doggies, but I don’t think she’s a lion mane type. I don’t think she goes for Fabios.”

ADAM I kind of wanted to kiss the Beast, as a child.

BROOM [to the tune of ‘The Mob Song’]: “Kiss the Beast! Kiss the Beast!!”

ADAM I was disappointed when he turned into a person.

BETH Yeah. He looked really bad as a person.

BROOM Well, he’s just the person version of Fabio.

BETH He’s not, though. He’s just a mushy, lippy guy.

ADAM It was also disappointing to me that all of our friends turn into these alien human forms. Do you really want to see Chip as a tow-headed little boy?

BETH No. He’s much cuter as a cup.

BROOM I think the French maid looked better as a maid than as a duster. I feel like she’s not sexy enough as a duster.

BETH That was the one actual sexy woman in the whole movie.

BROOM No, that’s not true. There are three identical sexy women.

BETH Oh, the three blondes.

ADAM But they’re jokes. And they don’t linger on her boobs, whereas they totally linger on Gaston’s biceps. And the Beast’s implied biceps.

BROOM They lingered on the boobs of Gaston’s admirers. When they’re at the water pump, the weight of the boobs presses the pump — you didn’t notice that?


BROOM I was highly attuned to these things as a kid because they were embarrassing to me.

ADAM We were critical of the last movie because Ariel turns into a silent eye-batting thing.

BROOM I was — you guys were kind of annoyed at me for saying that.

ADAM Do we think that Belle’s gesture towards personhood is more convincing here?


ADAM Do you want your daughter to grow up like Belle?

BETH Yes. She’s a decent person who likes to read. And she’s pretty. It’s interesting to me that both of her suitors set up these “choose your dad or choose me” scenarios.

ADAM But the winner allowed her to have both.

BROOM That’s right. If you love it, let it go free — or whatever — that’s his moral. Do we feel that the “there most be more than this provincial life” setup is really answered by the rest of the movie?

ADAM Sure. She’s rich, she has a library and a castle.

BROOM By dating a foreigner, by cross-racially dating, does she fulfill her potential as a bright young woman?

BETH What exactly did she want to do with herself?

ADAM All of the movies are about marrying a rich man as the answer to your provincial life.

BETH I got the sense that she just wanted someone to talk to, and in the Beast she found that.

BROOM She wanted to feel that her mind was like other people’s minds. But the Beast is not like her at all. It seems like she’s distracted by this really weird situation, but is that really what she wanted? Didn’t she want to be an inventor herself, somehow?

ADAM She’s got that library like Magneto’s chamber. It has Shakespeare in it.

BROOM There’s no way she’ll ever get the books from the top shelves. It would be too scary to go up there.

BETH The servants would get them.

ADAM The Beast would get them!

BROOM He’s no longer a Beast. And there was no Shakespeare in the original release of the movie.

ADAM I understand that.

BROOM Does it work for you that the Beast is stabbed to death, and then when he’s transformed back, is no longer stabbed to death?

ADAM Didn’t care.

BROOM Does it feel necessary to you that Gaston dies? His evilness ratchets up several notches at the end to earn him a death.

ADAM Yeah. Especially since it’s by his own hand. As it must be.

BETH It felt right and satisfying.

BROOM To me, the moment when he turns to the townspeople and says “we must kill this Beast!” doesn’t feel particularly motivated other than by the sense that we’re reaching endgame.

ADAM Well, he senses that the Beast loves her and that she loves him in return. But I agree that’s a thin reed.

BROOM And why isn’t he interested in the blondes?

ADAM Because they’re too easy.

BROOM He’s a hunter.

ADAM That’s the real message here, girls. And Belle doesn’t have to kiss the Beast to make the spell work. Because the sight of her pressing her lips up against those fangs is too beastly to contemplate. You’ll see, when we get to the adaptation of Hunchback, that they don’t like to have pretty women kissing ugly things, even in the service of literature.

BROOM But I also think that there’s a defensible, substantive reason to change it from “the kiss of true love” to actual love.

ADAM It’s a better message.

BROOM And it’s really about him having to learn to love, to the point where someone can love him. He’s not on a quest to find, like, an emerald.

ADAM I feel like she totally could have kissed him before he released her to get her father, and it would have been fine.

BROOM Yeah, at that point, the viewer is thinking, “why doesn’t she love him yet?”

BETH I felt like, she obviously does love him — why does she have to say it?

ADAM Right. Can’t it tell? I had this kind of dissatisfaction with Groundhog Day. How perfect does that day have to be?

BROOM Any technical comments?

ADAM The first musical cue is haunting to me, and I can’t decide if that’s because it reminds me of the Symphonie Fantastique, or if it’s because it reminds me of Babe.

BROOM Of the Saint-Saëns. It reminds me of another Saint-Saëns, the Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals, which I think you’d recognize if you heard it.

BETH I think that has been ripped off for other movies.

ADAM It sounds like a preview selection.

BROOM I think that opening sequence is one of the best inspirations here. Because that gets used all the time now. There was no storybook opening, but the stained glass serves even better. But then you have to wonder: how many versions of the same stained glass window are there? She’s the same but he’s in a different pose, so is that a whole different window, or what?

ADAM It’s a really economical setup to get across this ridiculous setup about the rose and the witch. The witch who doesn’t come back.

BROOM You think you might see the good fairy at the end, but then it would be like maybe he should go out with her instead.

ADAM I think this is totally satisfying. As a kid I was enthralled by its wide-eyed itselfness.

BETH How old were we?

BROOM Twelve or thirteen.

ADAM I was a dork.

BETH I’m not being judgmental, I’m just surprised.

BROOM It was a big event! “There’s a big new animated movie that everyone says is great! Let’s go see it and find out! Hey, that was really good!”

ADAM And it has no knowingness. That’s why the moment when Chip says “You gotta try this!” stands out, because it’s the only glimmer of ‘tude, if you will, in the entire movie. There will be varying degrees of that, and varying degrees of wholesomeness of that, but that’s all we will find in the most recent ones. I guarantee that when we watch Home on the Range, there will be a lot of that. Seriously, Bart Simpson was not good for American culture.

BROOM Bart Simpson was like that on T-shirts, but not on the show.

ADAM Fine: Al Bundy.

BROOM There was definitely some kind of new vulgarity at that point, but I’m not sure where it came from. As you said, there was a faint glimmer of it in this movie. I think everyone conspired together; I don’t think Bart Simpson or anyone else led the way.

ADAM Well, something happened. There was not a fart joke in this movie. The horse didn’t fart, none of the little kids farted in the tub…

BROOM Le Fou gets stabbed in the ass with scissors!

ADAM And I suppose that guy gets inadvertently converted into drag and runs away.

BROOM He gets turned into a clown.

ADAM But I don’t think that 1992 was materially more wholesome than before or since.

BROOM I think this is definitely more wholesome than the preceding years. This is more wholesome than The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron, where they seemed like they didn’t give a crap about kids. You can complain about the PC-ization and the slickifying of mass culture that we’re seeing here, but I think that at least most of the thinking about “what should the message to girls be? what’s a responsible way to portray love?” pays off! By making this genuinely a more wholesome movie. I think it absolutely was.

ADAM I think that kids’ culture has gotten more “wholesome” in the sense that it’s safer, but it’s also coarser in a certain way. The Black Cauldron was frightening because it didn’t seem to have a thought as to what children should be watching. Movies today are clean and slick but they’ve got harmless vulgarity in them which is depressing in a different way; it’s not frightening, it’s just stupid.

BROOM I think the main difference between this and the early Disney movies of a similar wholesomeness was that those movies were somehow “open” whereas this felt very constructed, very directed, like a Broadway show. It’s more clearly just a series of displays of stagecraft. It feels a little phony. Just like when you go see musical theater and you hear someone sing one of these stupid songs, and you think, “yeah, but what do you know about anything in life?”

ADAM Do these songs get sung at auditions ever? Would someone sing “Be Our Guest” at an audition, or would that be a little much?

BROOM I think not. It would be too campy. I think these songs are seen as being in a particular camp category.

ADAM But people sing other Disney songs at auditions.

BROOM I think it’s seen as very, very gauche to sing “Part of Your World.” Anyway, my fifteen-years-later feeling was that it holds up pretty well, and is good for kids, and I still like Little Mermaid better.

ADAM Little Mermaid was funnier. This has very little actual humor in it.

BETH Because I’d never seen this before, right now I think I like it better, because it was all new to me.

BROOM Well, I’m glad you liked it, because if you didn’t, the rest of this project would be really rough on you.

[we read the New York Times review]

BROOM I forgot to talk about how now, having seen Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, I see that this movie is very particularly like that one in many ways. Oh well.


August 4, 2010

19. Shock Corridor (1963)

written and directed by Samuel Fuller


Criterion #19.

Fine, Criterion Collection, you win. This one made me grin.

This movie popped out of the same can of mixed nuts as The Naked Kiss, but it had a little more punch to it. It wanders even farther into deep left field, and though it may not have been “kind of amazing,” it was certainly a wide-eyed head-shaker. And I can go for one of those every now and then.

I try not to do plot summaries but in this case I think it will double as an aesthetic summary.

In order to solve a murder at a mental hospital, an overambitious reporter goes undercover: he pretends to be insane and intentionally gets himself committed. His ultimate goal is to win the Pulitzer Prize, which is mentioned frequently as the inevitable outcome of this adventure. He first spends a year being coached on how to impersonate a madman, and then puts the plan into action by having his girlfriend — a stripper — pretend that she’s his sister and turn in her “brother” for threatening her with his violent, incestuous impulses. The girlfriend does this but only under pressure; she hates the whole scheme and fears for the reporter, as well she should. Once inside, he turns his attention to the only three witnesses to the murder, each of whom is a delusional schizophrenic. Each has been driven mad by being the victim of a contemporary American problem — communism, racism, and the nuclear arms race, respectively — and is now in a bizarre state of denial that inverts the problem (for example: a young black man who couldn’t handle the pressure and abuse of attending a newly desegregated school now believes he is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan). But each of the three is eventually coaxed into delivering a looking-into-the-distance soliloquy that reveals his underlying true story, after which our hero spits out the unrelated question “who killed Sloan in the kitchen?” and gets some fragment of information just before the witness lapses back into his insanity. After a series of tribulations — which include receiving electric shock treatment (= montage treatment) and being brutally attacked by the inhabitants of the “nympho” ward — the reporter solves the crime, battles the killer in a prolonged pots-and-pans-everywhere brawl, and finally maybe wins the Pulitzer Prize… BUT AT WHAT COST? For, you see, in the process, he himself has gone mad. Ironic enough for ya?

It’s not? Really? Tough crowd.

The cockamamie concept and undisguisedly clonky three-bears structure wouldn’t be out of place in a comic book, or a radio play of 15 years earlier. Almost every element here feels like it was plucked from the mainstream of kitschy sensationalist hackwork. So once again, the absurd effect — and this one really does feel absurd — is mostly due to the heightened expectations that a feature film brings.

But notice I said almost every element. When Constance Towers (yes, it’s her again) begins her striptease by singing a sexy tune through the feathers of a boa that completely encircles and obscures her head, looking like something from Mummenschanz, there is no getting around the fact that this movie and this director have, of their own volition, strayed from the road well-traveled. And a few touches like that go a long way; once you’ve seen a thing like that, it becomes harder to remember whether, say, a coven of haggard nymphomaniacs murmuring “he’s mine! he’s mine!” is a cliché, or whether it’s a brand new experience. The impression that this movie was a brand new experience hung in the air longer than it did with The Naked Kiss, and that was good enough for me. If the movie you are watching on TV with no expectations turns out to be Shock Corridor, you are in luck! (I offer this sentence as a clean press quote for the marketing people to put on the poster if they so choose.)

Once again, Fuller incorporates what seem to be his own 16mm tourist movies, inserting them whenever a character remembers having been to a foreign country. Economical and self-involved. The hero’s climactic fight with insanity is portrayed with the full force of Fuller’s art: first the reporter is seen flopping around in the hospital corridor set, as it fills symbolically with the rain in his mind. He shrieks and bangs helplessly on the doors; then he is zapped by animated lightning like Luke Skywalker and falls into a crazed Vertigo-style montage…. revolving principally around color home movies of Niagara falls.

That’s right, I forgot to mention: the home movies are in color, in the middle of a black-and-white film. To no particular effect. Apparently these had been separated from the rest of Shock Corridor until Criterion came along, so good for them. One character introduces his flashback by saying that he can see it now, “in color,” and another says that he dreams about it every night, “in color.” As usual, the choice itself might be weird and arty (and/or folk-arty), but the handling is pulp 101: everything must be stated and complete with exclamation points. These movies feel like the work of a very proud man.

So I’m supposed to talk about the themes? Like, “is modern America, what with all its problems and such, kind of like an insane asylum?” or “who’s to say who’s really sane?” No, sorry, not going to do that. I have my dignity.

People who make claims for the deep artistic quality of this movie because of the serious intent and serious issues at its heart: what’s wrong with you??? If I put on a 5-foot stovepipe hat with a sign on it, it doesn’t matter whether the sign says “the soul of the American nation is tormented by its own hypocrisies” or “eat at Joe’s”: no matter what it says, it’s still ridiculous. This movie is wearing a 5-foot stovepipe hat. I am not going to discuss the damn sign. Not in this company!

I will discuss this instead: just before administering shock therapy, a doctor grimly pronounces “puberty” as “pooberty,” which of course prompted me to look up the legitimacy of that pronunciation. OED and Merriam-Webster both say no way, never. But I did find plenty of people reminiscing about their embarrassing high school teachers — and Johnny Carson — pronouncing it that way. Sounds like it was a moderately widespread mistake in middle America 50 years ago. Considering the time and place, I imagine it was the sort of word for which many people had to guess the pronunciation, and then go for years with no opportunity to have an error be heard or corrected… at least not by anyone with more authoritative knowledge. And for the uptight, “pooberty” probably does seem like a more dignified reading. The y-glide in “pyube” seems vulgar in some vague Nabokovian way, whereas the Latinate syllable “poob” has ancient Roman associations.

Peter Breck looks sort of like Alec Baldwin in deadpan mode, and somehow he has just the right manner and magnetism for this impossible material. As with Alec Baldwin there’s the sense of a well-suppressed smirk, which, under the circumstances, is highly sympathetic. And he’s willing to shriek like a melting witch in nearly every scene, which is a plus. (Also he has a slight Han Solo quality, yes?)

I also want to single out the opera singer lunatic as having been engagingly naturalistic. I think my favorite moment in the movie was the color scene where he feeds our hero a lot of chewing gum in bed, telling him that chewing it will make his jaw tired and help him fall asleep. That guy’s performance is the closest in the movie to the style of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to which I was tempted to make comparisons for a while until it became clear that none were called for.

Once again it seems likely that for most people, the trailer will be just about the right amount of Shock Corridor. Though be warned that this is one of those trailers that shamelessly misrepresents the movie. Luckily you’ve got my handy summary to set you straight.

Your track 19: Main title. Another middle-of-the-road mushfest from Paul Dunlap.

July 28, 2010

18. The Naked Kiss (1964)

written and directed by Samuel Fuller


Criterion #18.

This is a very dated, very B movie from 1964. Criterion doesn’t quite say so outright, but it seems clear that this movie is being offered up to present-day audiences so that we might say, “Whoa! This is crazy and wild and surreal in some weird 60s way!” I think this movie has been kept in the public eye by people who think it’s an “it’s kind of amazing!” type of artifact, if you know what I mean.

I don’t deny that it’s a strange movie. It’s erratic in terms of tone and content and technique, and it freely wanders beyond the bounds of taste in many different directions. It is basically riddled from top to bottom with stylistic “errors” — so densely that it begins to feel mysterious and foreign, like maybe it’s actually a forceful and cohesive work by an alien. The lack of good judgment is so thoroughgoing that one’s mind goes seeking for some deeper, weirder guiding principle. And yeah, if you let yourself get lost like that, you can have an “it’s kind of amazing!” experience with this movie.

My problem with it is that I didn’t get very lost. Its weirdness wasn’t quite mysterious enough to revel in; I basically knew where it came from and what each of its pieces was, and why. Its misjudgments are specific to a certain time and place and culture; in their proper milieu they may still have been misjudgments but they probably weren’t particularly striking.

It’s sort of like a piece of folk art. I’ve never been all that affected by folk art, for this same reason. Generally, whatever peculiar aesthetic power it has is too obviously unintentional; I can’t help but be aware that the most interesting juxtapositions are inadvertent symptoms of the artist’s environment (and personal shortcomings). I suppose in a really exceptional piece of folk art, the force of the aesthetic effect would be so great that it is indistinguishable from an intentional effect. That’s a very rare thing. Maybe Henri Rousseau qualifies, but that’s exactly why he’s not thought of as a folk artist. Anyway, I didn’t think The Naked Kiss rose to that level.

I read a guy’s essay online where he was essentially saying that for him, The Naked Kiss does rise to that level, that its peculiarities form a mysterious and transcendent whole that enraptures him with inscrutable dream emotions. I absolutely sympathize with the phenomenon and I can see how this movie might offer it, for some people. But not for me. I just didn’t think it was quite idiot or quite savant enough to escape being merely a dated pulp confusion. I get who this filmmaker was and what was on his cluttered 1964 mind.

Apparently some French filmmakers of the era thought Samuel Fuller was a fascinating auteur because his movies felt so archetypically American. I think that’s probably because work that doesn’t make sense on its own terms is more purely the sum of its received terms; an artist who is only a muddle-headed product of the prevailing culture feels like the distilled essence of that culture. Bad jazz often sounds more like the concept of “jazz” than good jazz, because good jazz always sounds specific; mediocrity offers fewer distractions. I recognize that this movie, in its primitivism, does offer that kind of raw cultural transparency. But I feel like it’s important not to confuse a cipher with a visionary. Samuel Fuller may have made confused movies, but unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have been the least bit nuts.

That’s all my justification for why I don’t think this is a work of lasting value. But as something to watch once, was it divertingly unpredictable? Absolutely. And in the moments when I was caught off guard by aesthetic whiplash, I did have glimpses of the “it’s kind of amazing!” experience. Then they would fade, as soon as I steadied my head and figured out what sort of garden-variety foolishness I was really dealing with.

I guess you wanna know what the movie is about. Ugh, fine. It’s about a hardened prostitute who, after looking in a mirror and touching her face, decides to go straight and become a nurse in a small town, at a hospital for handicapped children. She fights prejudice and the forces of immorality, and finally finds love with the richest, biggest-hearted, weirdest-looking man in town… but then (spoiler? alert?) walks in on him molesting a child, and, while in shock, kills him with a single whack of a telephone receiver. The police don’t believe her when she explains that he was a child molester, because she was a prostitute, but then the child in question is finally located and cheerfully says oh yes, yes he was. Thus exonerating her in the eyes of the town.

So you see it’s a combination of pulp morality, like an afterschool special, and pulp sordidness, like a paperback with a painting of a woman in a slip and the shadow of a gun on the cover. There are other elements in the mix too — including pulp “class,” in the form of gratuitous references to Beethoven and Goethe and a faraway-look talk about the wonders of Venice — but they all have in common that they would have been second nature to an enthusiastic, unselfconscious middlebrow hack circa 1964. The visual style follows directly.

As is typical of pulp, the title is mostly a lurid non-sequitur — but the film does eventually attempt a sort of explanation. Just after our heroine has fallen into her first kiss with the creepy man of her dreams, she briefly pushes him away with a troubled look in her eye, as though sorting something out for herself… before smiling again and letting passion take them where it will, pan to her curling toes. In watching the scene I assumed that she had to realign herself inwardly to actually enjoy a man’s touch for the first time in many many years — she had to think first and melt her inner ice. But no, that wasn’t what was going on, and I guess I should have known better, because that would have been too psychologically interesting for this movie. After the man turns out to be a child molester and she kills him, she explains to the police:

Once before a man’s kiss tasted like that. He was put away in a psycho ward. I got the same taste the first time Grant kissed me. It was a … what we call a naked kiss. It was the sign of a pervert.

If that kind of dialogue gets you going, this movie has what you’re looking for. But I think for most people, watching the trailer is probably a better choice than watching the movie. It’ll get you there and back in 2 minutes.

Incidentally, our next selection is Samuel Fuller’s previous movie, Shock Corridor (seen all too obviously on a marquee in The Naked Kiss), which I think might be about that very psycho ward she mentioned.

It’s hard to judge the acting as such, but Constance Towers certainly acquits herself well enough, and given the broad range of nonsense that is asked of her, that’s a real achievement. Look, she’s still going strong!

I didn’t know about Samuel Fuller before this. Having read up on him, it’s still hard for me to tell just how obscure he and his movies are. A problem with the internet is that if you look anything up, you’ll find out plenty about it, be it Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Dufelmeier. Sometimes all you really want to know is whether it’s worth knowing. The internet can’t help with that.

Music is by Paul Dunlap, who just died a few months ago. A prolific composer of scores for undistinguished movies. Here as your compilation track 18 is the rather dull main title. This is that soupy post-war branch of The Hollywood Style that I find very difficult to process with my analytical mind. How many times would you have to listen to this to be able to hum the melody? How many times would you have to listen to this to be able to recognize that it has a “melody”? Or a “rhythm”? For me, in this style, somehow all the basic concepts of music get lost in the mental wash. Without pressing down hard on my attention, I feel like I am failing the musical equivalent of a colorblindness test. All I can hear is what I was meant to hear: drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama!

Hm. I just listened again now and this time it seemed pretty straightforward. The mind can be a funny thing.

I was actually torn in choosing this as the music selection, because by far the most memorable and prominent musical cue is not this bland title theme but an icky, painfully sentimental 4-minute song sequence in the middle, sung by a group of kids on crutches who are all wearing pirate hats. I couldn’t bring myself to make it the selection because it’s just too long and unpleasant to listen to, but part of me feels like choosing anything else is a lie: that is the tune from The Naked Kiss if anything is.

So I am relieved now to have learned that the song in question is not original to this movie — it’s “Little Child” by Wayne Shanklin, 1953. So it obviously wouldn’t have been right to choose it over something from the original score. That’s another rationalization, anyway. The bottom line is, I didn’t want to hear those kids singing ever again.

July 24, 2010

17. Salò, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975)

written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
screenplay collaboration by Sergio Citti
based on the novel Les 120 journées de Sodome by Donatien Alphonse François, marquis de Sade (1785) [uncredited]


Criterion #17.

I did not watch it. I will not be watching it.

That doesn’t mean I can’t engage with it and respond to it. Herewith, some words on why I will not watch Salò.

First a quick explanation of what the deal is with this movie, offered as a public service so that you don’t have to go investigating.

It is an adaptation of the “most notorious” work of the Marquis de Sade. I am no expert on the subject but my personal impression is that the Marquis de Sade was a more or less insane person whose circumstances (being born an aristocrat and living in revolutionary times) happened to allow his obsessive writings to be published, and whose obsession (taboo behavior, mostly a conflation of sex and torture) happened to provide convenient fodder for later philosophers, who found that “taking Sade seriously” was an expediently provocative stance. He’s now a household name because his psychosis and literary bent made him a useful point of reference to sane people, but that doesn’t mean his output is anything other than raving insanity.

His 120 Days of Sodom is the epitome of the “insane work” — it is basically a long list, rigorously organized and out of all proportion to any possible reader’s interest or attention, of every torturous depravity Monsieur de Sade could think of, in ascending order, up to (and well beyond) murder. The “story” is: four incredibly powerful and wealthy evil men organize a huge orgy of perversion in a castle, and this is how it goes… Sade’s writing principle seems to have been “think of the worst possible thing you can think of. Now top it.” When I described it to Adam, he said, “so it’s like The Aristocrats,” and that’s exactly right, down to the specifics. Everything The Aristocrats do in passing, Sade catalogues in ten different combinations. For him, it is important to distinguish between the case where the mother is raped while pooping on the dead body of the daughter, and the other way around. Or whatever.

As with The Aristocrats, these “flights” of “fancy” are not actually meaningful as anything other than an indulgence of the inward experience of the broken taboo. Which obviously can have a strong grip on people. (I am reminded of Maria Bamford’s bit about “unwanted thoughts” wherein she “kills her family and chops them into bits and then has sex with the bits and then eats the bits.”) But these are not symbols of other things and they are not artistic creations. They are just one madman’s compulsive dips into his inner vault of “complete awfulness.”

Here is my anecdote about The 120 Days of Sodom, and god help me that I even have one. One summer during college I stayed at school to do theater, for which on-campus housing was provided, all of us in the same little building. The atmosphere there was, as you might imagine, even more goofy and carefree than the ordinary dorm environment, which is saying something. One day a bunch of us were sitting in the common area and being exuberant, and someone noticed that an old library volume of the “works of Sade” was sitting out on one of the tables — how collegiate is that? — and picked it up and started looking for dirty passages to read aloud. Even in those pre-Wikipedian days, I somehow had heard that 120 Days of Sodom was supposed to be the dirtiest, most outrageous one, so I flipped through to find it for him. The guy took it out of my hands and read us a couple of Aristocrats-worthy scenarios, involving people being farted on while being poked with hot irons or something, and we laughed at the ridiculousness of it. Then he flipped forward a few pages… and suddenly sort of went quiet, and then put it down and said, “I’m not reading this anymore. That stuff’s not funny.” And that was the end of that.

Of course later I had to pick it up and see what he had just read! And yes, it wasn’t funny. The point is this: if you really and truly want to think of the worst thing you can think of, you will think of things too awful even for The Aristocrats, too awful even for laughing at their own overcooked absurdity. Too awful for you, but not for an actual torturer, and not for the actual Marquis de Sade.

So that brings us to this movie. Pasolini took Sade’s text, set the action in 1945 in the waning days of the Italian Fascist state (headquartered in the town of Salò), reduced the 120 days to about three, and then, well, filmed it, and apparently filmed it pretty well. The transposition to the fascist context and to the relative realism of film is intended to give the proceedings political and philosophical resonance. I imagine that it probably does.

The resulting film, as has been widely reported, is extremely extremely extremely unpleasant. I have read quite a few reviews and responses to this film, and not one of them fails to warn the prospective viewer that the film is perhaps the most disturbing ever made, is likely to induce actual vomiting, should absolutely not be viewed if the viewer is at all squeamish. In short, that the film is not just about horrors but that to watch it is itself a horror, a genuinely traumatic experience that will never be forgotten, and one that you may well regret.

Noted! Many people apparently find it difficult to actually take such advice. Not I. I believe that this advice has been offered with the sincere intent to help others, and I choose to benefit by it. I’m a person who frequently can’t fall asleep at night because I’m unable to prevent my mind from obsessively replaying mildly frightening imagery, over and over, until I am completely consumed by senseless terror. So I really can’t afford to let in the most poisonous imagery of all time.

Furthermore, though, even if I could trust my stomach and my mind to handle it, I have an ideological objection, one that goes to the heart of what movies are worth. I believe that this film was made in good faith; which is to say, not in contempt of its audience. Nor as a cheap exploitation wrapped in ideological hoo-hah. I think Pasolini meant what he said about it, and that his tongue was not particularly in cheek when he included a highbrow philosophical “recommended reading” list in the opening credits. I believe while he no doubt enjoyed being provocative, the impetus to make the film really did stem from a genuine horror at man’s inhumanity to man/fascism/political power/consumer culture/whatever — i.e. real social-philosophical issues. But there is no getting around the fact that the film is an expression of cold rage, and in my experience, rage is an illegitimate subject for expression. It devours communication and renders itself worthless.

When I was growing up, my father would sometimes become infuriated by something on the TV news — who knows what — and would say something along the lines of “people like that should be shot!” to which my mother would then object for the kids’ sake, i.e., “That’s a terrible thing to say. Nobody should be shot,” and my father would then generally agree, for the kids’ sake, “you’re right, I shouldn’t say that. Of course nobody should be shot” — unless he was really too angry to acknowledge it, in which case we’d have to take the retraction as implied. (Don’t worry, dad — and mom — we did.) The important thing is that my mother was right: since he obviously didn’t think anybody should really be shot, my father’s outbursts were utterly worthless as communication. They were symptoms of his anger that thus revealed his emotion to us, but they expressed nothing in themselves. They would have been better unsaid.

But I know the impulse. When I get really, really furious at someone, I have the reflexive desire to confront him, and if possible shock him, with the severity of my emotion — to force him to see what he has engendered through his unkindness. And then, after I have realized with acute frustration that in most cases, a truly unsympathetic person will be able to shrug off the fact of my pain, I want him to be aware of an equivalent pain that cannot be shrugged off. When some asshole would be cruel to me for no reason in middle school, my mind would go wildly searching for a way to get through to him how wrong that was, and upon reaching the impasse that it was impossible to get it through to him, I would become agitated with the sense that I was confronting a paradox, a thing that should not be.

Pain thinks it must be transferable, translatable — because otherwise how will I ever be rid of it? This is why aggrieved people want murderers to go to the electric chair, right? “You apparently can’t experience how awful the thing you did was for me, but I’ll bet no matter how callous you are, you think being zapped to death with electric current is just as awful for you, so that’s how we’re going to make ourselves known.”

So Sean Hannity, for whatever twisted reason, only smiles smarmily when he finds out how angry and upset he made me. Positively inhuman, right? But being shot – ha-HA, Mr. Hannity, I’ve got your number now!

The problem is, what do we do in our fantasy when it turns out that, say, “the abuse of power” doesn’t even experience pain upon being shot? What??? But I hate it so!!! Or that, say, “human cruelty” will keep on chattering away cheerily even after being forced to eat shit and then raped? ARE YOU KIDDING ME???? Goddammit, there must be a reciprocal to my rage.

But just as you cannot divide by zero, there is no amount of atrocity you can put in a movie that will really sock it to the concept of atrocity. No matter how merciless a death my father dared imagined for the hateful people on TV, the only people hearing him were his own children. No matter how much shit-eating Pasolini puts in his movie, the only people seeing it are his audience, and once again, the real villain sneaks away smirking like Hannity. GODDAMMIT! Meanwhile we and the Criterion Collection end up sitting here having a really thoughtful conversation about art, which is ultimately beside the point.

I am skeptical of any work of art where the motivating sentiment seems to be the same as Charlton Heston shouting at the Statue of Liberty: “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Can you imagine how much eye-gouging and scalping and so forth he would have to put in his Salò to express that level of outrage? Too bad it’ll still only be apes seeing it.

It would be another thing if Salò were meant as a realist kick-in-the-imagination to pampered audiences. “Take a good look, pansies, because this is what goes on behind locked doors in torture chambers around the world.” Yes, that would be the “contempt of audience” form of bad faith I mentioned earlier, but it would at least serve a quasi-documentary sort of purpose — a call to action. But, though surely just about every horrible thing imaginable and more has actually happened to some poor soul somewhere (well, except for the kind of stuff that happens in the Saw movies), the reenacted atrocities in Salò are totally literary, a dreamlike pageant of ritual awfulness of no documentary value. For all the essays I’ve read about it, I haven’t seen a one that described it as a call to action. What action?

I don’t need a kick-in-the-imagination — please, please trust me on this one, art world! — but what I really don’t need is a manifestation of evil made vile so as to spite evil itself. What?

Pasolini apparently said his intent was to make an “indigestible” film. But such a film, like unwearable clothes or a pitcher with holes in it, is not a film per se but rather a piece of conceptual art, best displayed under glass at a museum, in a canister. By viewing it we err.

And if Pasolini would agree with me… well then, I pass the test! Hooray, I nailed it!

Funny Games is even more misbegotten and I promise never to watch that either. I resent having been made to even see the trailer while out in the world, innocently going to see a real movie. At least Salò is well tucked away in its lovely packaging, where only the willing will see it or even need to think about it.

The Criterion edition seems to be extremely well curated, with tons of bonus material that people say is fascinating. I seriously considered getting the second disc and just watching that, but then I thought better of it. All I ended up doing was watching the first 10 minutes or so on youtube, the pre-atrocity part where the victims are rounded up, about which one paragraph:

An obscure movie, a movie that you’ve only heard of around the fringes of things — something like this — part of the horror is always that when you see it, it’s not just some vague thing that you read about in some footnote somewhere, but is fully existent, and every moment recorded on it represents a moment that really occurred somewhere in space and time. Digging into the bottom of the basket of movies is like digging into the bottom of the basket of moments, and I get a sort of vertigo about the infinite nooks and crannies of time — this movie didn’t originate in obscurity, it originated in reality. This is the essence of the horror of the “snuff film” type — somewhere, at some point in time, this was, as much as I am now. Even just having watched the first few innocent minutes of this movie… it’s shocking how utterly existent it is. The sky in it is blue, the flesh is real, the images hiss with prosaic actuality. All that stuff I read about is going to happen in this space? Okay, I don’t need to see any more.

I don’t think I need to write any more either. I feel that I have honorably discharged my duty toward this Criterion Collection title without actually touching the disc.

So, without further ado: the track for your album. Main titles.

This deserves a little comment. I gather that nearly all of the music in Salò is borrowed and unattributed, but the esteemed Ennio Morricone is credited as music supervisor. This track seems to be his own very slight variant (to evade copyright?) on the standard These Foolish Things. Though some writers have investigated the thematic relation between the lyrics and the film, I think mostly this is just a straight romantic song and the point is that it’s a straight romantic song. Get it? Just like “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of Dr. Strangelove, this sardonically pleasant bourgeois smoothness has been put here out of pure, giddy fury.

It’s pretty darn catchy!