Monthly Archives: August 2010

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.