Monthly Archives: March 2013

March 25, 2013

Not dead yet

After I posted that lullaby I listened to some of my other music on this site. It seemed sad to me that the music I posted here for the first few years was lively and silly whereas the music I’ve posted recently is all sad and soft. So then I wrote this to prove something to myself, which is not a good reason to write anything. The thing I proved to myself was that if I squint my brain I can still hear dumb little tunes going in there. Well, sure.

March 25, 2013

Another lullaby maybe?


I think this is another lullaby except it wouldn’t work as a lullaby. I think it must be a lullaby in quotes. The piece itself isn’t in quotes, just the name. So maybe that’s not the right name.

I’ll tell ya, I play these things no problem while I’m working them out, but then when it comes time to record them I get all nervous and they get worse, they get stiff and start to sound phony to me. My anxiety basically is this: I don’t know whether I’ve been making mistakes all along. Because I don’t really notice or care about mistakes; they make no difference to me because I’m imagining the music first anyway. But suddenly when it comes time to record I think, “well, now it actually has to sound good OUTSIDE of my head, too” and I feel immediately embarrassed that I may have been playing badly all this time and not even been aware. So then I try to become accurately aware of how I sound, which of course just ruins everything.

The present motto of my self-improvement is to put more trust in subjectivity. It might be fallible but it’s what I am, and it’s better company than my self-consciousness any day. What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine. If it sounds good inside my head, it probably sounds good, and if it doesn’t, I’ll let myself notice it later like everyone else, instead of desperately trying to pre-empt it to save face. For better or worse, my face is my face and there’s no saving it.

I say this stuff, sure, but the recording above is definitely self-conscious. The middle is clunky and doesn’t go the way it should. But once those stupid nerves get into me it takes a while (or a mental flush) for them to get out and I’d rather just post this now while I’m still thinking about it. I wanna keep that bar nice and low.

March 20, 2013

28. Blood for Dracula (1974)

written and directed by Paul Morrissey


Criterion #28.

I just read this weekend’s New York Times profile of Anne Carson and I step away from it with a strong feeling of envy. The privilege of being gnomic and still listened to! I have known a few people who hold to that path, artists to the bone — or should I say to the skin — whose every utterance is riddlesome. Who probably aren’t really being understood by anyone but who seize their leisure at its height anyway. They pluck from the root because the fruit is lovelier whole, nevermind that the husk may be impenetrable. I envy the Anne Carsons of the world their impractical dignity.

So why not just (re)claim it? [I wrote some other stuff here but it’s gone now because I can’t actually convince myself that there’s any more to it than this:] Fear of being isolated by incomprehension. I fear that the admirers of the impenetrable are in it for the wrong reasons. The people I tend to enjoy — and thus would most like to reach — are the people who tend not to indulge such stuff. That is a bind. (Perhaps the problem is tied up in “and thus would most like to reach”; perhaps it’s the ideal of symmetry that is stopping me up.) But I am trying to face this fear.

Of course, isolation is the extreme case; less extreme is mere elitism. I think I fear that too. Some things that are incomprehensible to others are comprehensible to me. Over the weekend we saw Roman Polanski’s The Tenant in a theater. When I first saw it a few years ago, I took to be sort of intuitive and fanciful, dreamy, irrational, not to be comprehended fully. This time I found (to my horror) that I understood everything in it quite vividly, like someone was speaking directly to me in a clear voice. Based on their quizzical murmurings I don’t think the other people in the theater experienced it that way. I tend to feel sorry for the movie that it has so few true friends, and likewise for myself. But perhaps that ought to be behind me as well. This is my truth and here’s someone speaking it to me. Isn’t that good enough? If you gotta ask, you ain’t got it, so why fret about those who gotta ask?

I agonize a lot, too much, about where to draw the line in writing on this site. I would love to erase the line entirely, but that’s a big step up for my little legs, and while I’m waiting to get there, a lot of things seem like strong evidence for the prosecution and shake me.

This entry is, in form, my effort to stick to my dignity no matter how far off the menu it orders; and in substance is about that, because that is, not coincidentally, what it is ordering. (It is also what The Tenant is a cautionary tale about, and why I understood it.)

My Flesh for Frankenstein entry read (and wrote) like one of my late-night term papers, the sort I still have to write in my nightmares. It was self-indulgent but only by principle. Here in Blood for Dracula I am hoping to err on the side of actual indulgence.

This is of course all an exercise.

(It’s no shock for that to appear here, on this site, because you all already know it, but it might be an interesting thing to find in the middle of a novel.)

So the substance of the substance, which in my mind ties this all together: these two movies (Flesh and Blood) are themselves both inscrutable utterances, easy to misunderstand and probably impossible to understand, and more than ever I believe them to be that way because Paul Morrissey is an artist of integrity. Which as suggested above has nothing whatsoever to do with quality. Here it is quite at odds with it.

“All bad poetry is sincere,” but most bad movies are not. Movies tend to be bad because they are oblivious, lazy, cynical, evil. Not these. These movies are bad because an artist followed his gut and made them that way. They are folk art, a one-man culture in themselves.

I admire his dignity but not his art.

Or — should I say that I do admire his art, because it and his dignity are one and the same thing? (I did after all kind of enjoy the movie.) Or does it mean that I do not admire his dignity, because it led him astray? (I did after all enjoy the movie only from within the knowledge that it was terrible.) Or does it work another way entirely? These are rapids for me.

Blood for Dracula is a lot better than Flesh for Frankenstein. Understand that I use the word “better” only because it is the closest word in your Earth language for describing a direction in the fourth dimension of taste where these movies live. This one has no spilled intestines, no facelift ladies, and is all filmed on lovely location rather than in a studio set that looks like a toilet. That alone would make it better. It also has a gonzo melancholy atmosphere that makes it almost soothing. Unlike Flesh for Frankenstein its crappiness is immediate and warm. In this respect, it comes closer to satisfying the standard expectations of camp viewing: garbage as comfort food. Like Little Debbie, Blood for Dracula approaches junk edibility, while still remaining fundamentally alien.

Okay, okay … fine, I’ll just do the slightly grudging thing I usually do, since I’ve already typed up most of it. (Maybe the next entry will be more consistently kooky. I always think that.) Here goes.

Generous synopsis: Dracula (Udo Kier again!) is sort of a sad sensitive type. He is dying because he can only drink the blood of virgins and there aren’t enough virgins left in this debauched modern world (= vaguely the 1920s). He goes searching for one good woman whose blood he can safely suck but finds only hypocrisy and amorality, which are poisonous to him. At the last minute he finally identifies a good old-fashioned girl and makes her his blood bride, but then he is staked dead by the angry young laborer (Joe Dallesandro again!), who makes revolutionary talk and hates Dracula because he typifies the old aristocracy, living off the blood of the people. The newly vampired girl, heartbroken, throws herself on the stake (!) and dies with him.

But a summary is misleading. The effect of the movie stands apart. So here are a couple more tidbits instead.

* This movie was made immediately after Frankenstein. They started it one day in the afternoon after they finished Frankenstein in the morning.

* This one has a good deal more sex, graphically (if unconvincingly) simulated. The extremely dubious sexual politics are ripe for analysis, but why should I? It would all come back to speculation about Paul Morrissey again. See previous entry.

* Udo and his sidekick mostly say “wirgins” instead of “virgins.” This comes up not infrequently.

* Like Goldilocks, before Dracula gets to the wirgin who is just right, he first tries the blood of two of her less virtuous sisters. In both cases, when he realizes that he has been deceived about their wirginity, there follows an extensive sequence of him vomiting up blood. On and on, all over everything, making wretching sounds. This is pretty much the only “horror” effect in the movie, most of which has almost no atmosphere of horror at all.

* Except at the end when all four of his limbs are chopped off one by one in the course of a quick ridiculous chase scene. Spoiler alert.

* Vittorio de Sica — you know, the distinguished director of Bicycle Thieves — plays the father of the girls, and gives some extremely strange speeches about the linguistic splendor of the name ‘Dracula.’ Morrissey says that de Sica wrote most of his own dialogue. Having been hired for only three days, he departs suddenly in the middle of the movie, saying that unfortunately his affairs must take him to London… but “not to worry my dear: I didn’t want to tell you but I’m getting the analysis of Count Dracula’s urine made by Professor Benson. The result will be positive, I am sure — more than positive!”

Just in case you still don’t understand what kind of movie this is, let me make clear that this is the first and only reference to urine. Or to Professor Benson. Morrissey, on the commentary, says that he loves this line because he finds it so utterly bizarre and has no idea where it came from. Don’t ask the writer/director, he just works here.

* Hey, speaking of Roman Polanski: Roman Polanski suddenly turns up for a cameo! He proceeds to oversee a little business clearly of his own devising, and such is his charisma that for a moment it seems we might be in a Polanski movie. This is not coincidentally the best scene. Here it is. I assure you this has nothing to do with anything that comes before or after it.

* I was wrong about composer Claudio Gizzi, last time, when I said he didn’t compose for any other movies. He also composed the score for What?, the movie Roman Polanski was making nearby at the time (which is why he was around to make a cameo). I was also wrong about his talent. Blood for Dracula confirms the impression that he is not practiced in film scoring and is making it up as he goes, and also that he is a clumsy composer; but this time some of the things he does clumsily are sort of tender and sweet and give the movie a good deal of its strange sympathy. Here is the main title. Compositionally it’s amateurish, an awkward attempt at sentimentality that isn’t properly worked out. And yet juxtaposed against a movie that is the same, it becomes sort of affecting. The emotions we have no good reason to feel sometimes have a special power, because they are born free.

* What is the real one degree of separation between this movie and The Tenant? They were both produced by Andrew Braunsberg. He’s the guy at the end of the table in the Polanski cameo scene you just watched.

* Criterionity: First of all, let me note with some satisfaction that I am now finally really out of these woods at the beginning of the Criterion list, both in terms of availability and of quality. Of the next 20 movies, only one is out of print and only one is Armageddon.

Blood for Dracula was unavailable from any legitimate source so again I watched a rip (so again no menu image above) and I missed some kind of gallery feature. But I did hear the commentary track, with the same dramatis personae as last time.

The commentary on this one was for me a particular pleasure. Here are Paul Morrissey’s final thoughts at the very end. Imagine a lot of ambivalent pauses and nose-sighing:

Whatever it is, it’s some sort of a vampire movie. And I think it raises more questions than it answers, But horror movies are not really in the business of answering questions. They’re just sort of strange little fables, that are supposed to have certain resonances, perhaps, outside of their own immediate narrative. I think that’s what Blood for Dracula actually is: a kind of strange trip into a horror-movie mentality. And a little bit horrible. In some parts. In other parts, enjoyable. And never exactly one simple thing.

But it’s Udo and his accent that are the real star of the commentary, as of the movie, so I’ll let him have the last word. He sums it all up: click here.

March 9, 2013

27. Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

written and directed by Paul Morrissey


Criterion #27.

Good lord.

In her classic essay on “camp,” Susan Sontag differentiates between two types, “naïve and deliberate,” and says that only naïve camp is satisfying. I agree.

The formulation “so bad it’s good” should properly denote cultural artifacts that are genuine failures but that intrigue because their failure happens to take a spectacular form. They are “bad” judged by their own intra-cultural terms; “good” judged from a broad, curious perspective that doesn’t subscribe to any particular narrow culture (or at least purports not to).

Generally, what makes campy failures compelling is that unlike garden variety failures, they are internally coherent; they have a delectable dream logic. In most cases this coherence is not just a lucky coincidence; it arises from the artist’s actual philosophical outlook and creative priorities. And skewed as these might seem, they’re almost always part of a real culture, even if one shared by only a few people. The artist had to come from somewhere. The supposed “failure on its own terms” is actually a failure on the terms of the beholder’s culture, not the creator’s. Camp is really a form of culture clash.

So the responsible question about any specimen of camp becomes: what kind of legitimacy should we afford the “absurd” culture? The slightly uncomfortable thing about a mass-consumed bit of “camp” like the Double Dream Hands video is that it actually emanates from a robust, well-populated sub-culture. So when we all laugh at it for being campy, we are not really aligning ourselves with some kind of broad and curious anthropological perspective; we are just aligning ourselves with the dominant culture and ridiculing with impunity. Not all that different from ethnic humor, etc.

(Reader A’s preferred example of this sort of thing is JonBenét Ramsey. Here’s another one for you.)

Lest this sound prickly and political, let me clarify that I do think that Double Dream Hands is absurd, and that responding to absurdity with amusement isn’t necessarily a cruel, bigoted response; it can also be a warm, human, admirable one. It can indeed be broad-minded and curious and joyful. But as to what qualifies as absurd, I tend to take a more Camusian attitude: nearly everything about every culture is absurd! The truly open-hearted attitude Sontag describes (“Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature”) should be so all-encompassing as not to need naming. It is a kind of lightness. That’s an attitude to which I aspire.

But that’s not what is generally meant by “camp,” and certainly not by “so bad it’s good.” These encourage us to subscribe to a culturally-validated notion of what is campy (i.e. Double Dream Hands and child beauty pageants but not Facebook or, say, the White House), which converts camp into just another arbitrary cultural charade, no less absurd than what it mocks.

Which is why what Sontag calls “deliberate Camp” always strikes me as sad, or worse. Deliberate camp is the attempt to bring about the pleasures of camp by intentionally trafficking in culturally-validated “campy things.” At its most innocent there is something foolishly fetishistic about it: it’s like a primitive ritual to gain the favor of some god by dressing up like it and dancing around. At its most offensive it is a complete inversion of the significance of the camp attitude. “Oh god campy things are amazing and we love them so of course we want to put on our own show that’s just as amazing as all the truly campy things that we love.” This, far from being a broad-minded and curious, is actually a deeply hypocritical cultural conformity, embodying none of the values it claims to cherish.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re wondering: “Which is he going to say Flesh For Frankenstein is, already?”

Have I got a surprise for you!

I have no idea what this movie is. I really couldn’t tell you what we’re dealing with here. I have watched it twice now, once straight and once with commentary, and I am just befuddled. My gut tells me that despite the obvious it may not be any kind of camp at all. I feel disoriented.

Flesh for Frankenstein has many of the standard camp trappings: very bad acting, very bad writing, constant “exploitative” nudity, sex, gore, etc. If I thought its intention was to be a traditionally effective movie, I would consider it true camp. Alternately, if I thought this movie’s being a dense nexus of outrageous trashola was clearly no accident, I would assume it to be a rather on-the-nose case of deliberate camp (bearing as it does a passing resemblance to The Rocky Horror Picture Show of two years later, all-time standard bearer for deliberate camp).

But I genuinely don’t know what it is.

The strange impression I get is that much of its monumental garbageosity — not all! — is in fact intentional… but that the intentions are not those of deliberate camp; they are far more eccentric. And less hypocritical. Which means I am stymied: it’s not naïve camp because they knew what they were doing, sort of; it’s not deliberate camp because the thing they knew themselves to be doing wasn’t “being campy.” There’s sort of an idiot-savant quality about it. Or maybe I mean savant-idiot.

Let’s watch that clip again.

In the commentary — which is by writer/director Paul Morrissey, star Udo Kier, and an obligatory academic, in this case a guy named Maurice Yacowar — Morrissey and Kier (and maybe Yacowar too; I mostly tuned him out because he was ridiculous) both talk about the movie in terms of “comedy” and “humor.” I would be tempted to accuse them of “outsider” opportunism (“yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket, it was supposed to be funny!”) except the specific things they mention as “jokes” — particularly absurd gore, particularly absurd lines — do indeed seem to be intentional. And yet the overwhelming inadequacy of the movie still requires explanation. Is there anything more confusing than crazy people trying to be funny?

Then there’s the strange issue of sex. The movie goes through standard inane porno scenarios in very slow motion (the sex-obsessed baroness scolds the sullen strapping peasant lad and tells him to report to her bedchamber, which he does, she tells him that he’s to be her private servant, etc. etc.) but then when they eventually take off their clothes, the movie seems immediately bored and disgusted. We get all the idiocy of the buildup with no actual erotic payoff. In fact the ultimate “sex scene” between the baroness and the peasant lad is intentionally made ridiculous and gross: she buries her face in his armpit while we hear outlandish slurping noises.

At one point Baron Frankenstein makes a speech about how disgusted he is by ordinary sex, by “overdeveloped women” with their “filthy movements.” This is part of the portrayal of the Baron as a hopeless pervert, an evil mad scientist obsessed with eugenics, who is only turned on by corpses and internal organs… and yet, oddly, the movie seems to sympathize with his disgust. From the speech, we cut away directly to a dumpy whore rather ridiculously washing her pendulous breasts. The message, essentially, is that the Baron was right, sex is indeed ugly and stupid! I was reminded of the scene from “The Singing Detective” when the psychiatrist reads the writer a sex-phobic passage from one of his books and points out that such a passage sticks out as psychologically revealing because it “doesn’t belong in a detective story.” Here one is similarly caught off guard by the inappropriateness. Believe it or not, you are watching a sexploitation movie made by someone who hates sex.

Here’s what Morrissey says about it on the commentary:

There’s always a sexual element in these stories, I think because I think that sex has become such an absurd thing in modern life that it lends itself to all sorts of comical interpretations or versions… Whatever people’s sexuality is in a story in a movie I make, it’s usually an absurd sexuality; it’s not sincere, it’s not really important. It might drive their lives but it almost is as inconsequential as the breakfast cereal they might have. It’s all reduced in my movies, very intentionally, to something that in effect has no real meaning.

Now, you could write a whole awful thesis on the homosexual “subtext” of this movie (in fact the movie seems to exist solely to provide material for such a thesis) but I’m only going to touch on it briefly. The movie screams “queer!” in a hundred ways (do I really have to defend this impression? don’t make me), and yet oddly enough, for all its tiresome “transgressiveness” (sibling incest; the creepy children of sibling incest voyeuristically watching their parents’ sex lives; evisceration rape, for crying out loud), homosexuality still dare not speak its name. It isn’t mentioned or depicted in the script and it doesn’t play any explicit part in the plot. But here’s the core of the story: there is a beautiful sad-eyed young man who wants to become a monk and isn’t interested in sex with women. Once or twice we see him glance expressionlessly at his friend the strapping farm lad. His head gets cut off and gets put on one of Frankenstein’s monsters, but disappoints the Baron and the Baroness because they each want the monster for sex — the Baron wants it to mate with his female monster; the Baroness wants to have sex with it herself — and he has no sex drive (the Baron got the wrong guy’s head; he really wanted the head of the horny friend). In the end, the boy, in his new monster form, kills the Baron and has a chance to return to the world. But the tragic ending is that he says no: he can’t explain why, but he must die here. Then he tears his own guts open and dies. The only real moral I can take away: even in this incredibly debauched world of absurd garbage, there is still no place for a homosexual, and no place for the sex-positive feelings that the strangely repressed homosexual filmmaker has had to hide far away.

I say strangely repressed because surely in Andy Warhol’s coterie (see below) there was no stigma whatever attached to being gay, and you’d think that being drawn to such a world would be a sign of readiness to open things up a bit. I mean, these are the people who took a walk on the wild side! (Flesh‘s strapping lad is in fact the Little Joe of the song, and Paul Morrissey “discovered and signed The Velvet Underground.”)

But here’s a quote from Andy Warhol that I just found: “The running question was, did he [Paul Morrissey] have a sex life or not? Everyone who’d ever known him insisted that he did absolutely nothing, and all his hours seemed accounted for, but still Paul was an attractive guy, so people constantly asked, ‘What does he do? He must do something…”

So I think I got it right and this movie is a sad document of repression far weirder than the norm. Let’s move on.

Yeah, so if you didn’t know, there is an Andy Warhol connection here. The movie was originally released as “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” because he had some small amount of money in it and consented to the use of his name for promotion. But that’s about it for his involvement. Morrissey had been ghost director for Warhol’s various experimental films, and then was in charge of film production for “The Factory,” Warhol’s half-baked all-purpose culture operation -slash- poser party. This movie, made in Europe, marks the start of Morrissey’s complete artistic independence from Warhol.

Naturally it’s tempting to explain the movie’s disorienting is-it-camp-or-not tone as an extension of Warhol’s brand of faux-naif faux-art, but this turns out not to lead us anywhere because in the commentary Morrissey claims full responsibility for the Warhol films:

I borrowed from those early experiments, that’s for sure, but that aesthetic, it’s just something peculiar to me. There was no other person involved in the making of the films. The producer, Andy, certainly was involved in the sense that he wanted an undirected film, which I would be gradually evolving away from, but certainly for a year or more I did something like an undirected film. But his ideas were so simple that they didn’t have… you had to try to analyze them yourself and figure what they might be. But if you knew Andy, you knew that he didn’t have many ideas.

Here’s what he says about acting:

My objection to so many American movies [is] this dreadful idea that an actor is a good actor if he’s incredibly sincere in front of a camera, if he really lives the part, means the part… all this garbage idea about acting which is really the worst kind of acting. I think the most important thing in acting is it look natural and it be the evidence of a very distinctive personality who is getting the chance to be in front of a movie camera.

This while we’re watching some undeniably distinctive personalities undeniably getting the chance to be in front of a movie camera. To the degree that we are enjoying them – and it’s hard not to enjoy them a little bit – we are basically in agreement with him.

Our stars are Udo Kier, who is terrifically photogenic, has a hilarious cartoon German accent, the acting instincts of a 7-year-old, and a great deal of enthusiasm. All of which is, admittedly, magnetic. (Go watch the clips again and tell me you don’t agree.) As his sister and bride we have a lumpy society facelift named Monique van Vooren, vamping like a pro and exposing her breasts despite looking creepily like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Her accent is also a doozy. And finally we have Joe Dallesandro, who never gave it away, lumping around with dead eyes like a guy in a porno here to fix the TV ma’am. His utter and hopeless New York accent is perhaps the best of all, flopping into every scene like a huge hamburger that crushes everything in sight. He is exactly like one of the cutouts from Our Lady of the Flowers.

Kier’s commentary is just as cheerful, guileless and cartoonish as his performance: “I sink Joe is a very natural actor. Like Andy Warhol told me once — we were talking about acting and Andy said ‘There’s two kind of actors, there’s natural actors like Joe and there’s dramatic actors like you.’ So Joe is Joe. And he’s very good in bofe of the films, I sink he is totally fulfilling the personality he’s playing. But I’m I sink more the dramatic kind.”

Here’s what we said during the movie and this is still about the best I can do to describe its effect: The movie feels like one of those willfully inscrutable high fashion shoots that go beyond deliberate camp into genuine intentionlessness, into an apotheosis of hypocrisy — a transcendent hypocrisy that creates a taste smokescreen behind which the transcendently needy can curl up and hide. Which isn’t a bad description of Andy Warhol’s M.O.

But perhaps it’s just the opposite. Perhaps was made in Sontag’s spirit of true camp appreciation, which is to say with a heart so big it doesn’t fit into any culture. Udo Kier has the ditzy purity of someone who grew up as a sex object, and he seems to have loved working on the movie in a very sincere way that was not unduly concerned with whether the movie was serious or campy or comic or what. He just loved working on it. His passion shows, and that passion is watchable.

And heck, maybe the admirers of this movie — they exist — admire it exactly in that spirit. Who am I to say? It is a true cult movie. If you can hear its voice clearly enough to comfortably understand what you are hearing, it is for you. It is definitely not for me, because it confused me. All I’m saying is that I heard it clearly enough to know that if you think you get this movie because it’s “so bad it’s good,” you’re wrong. Or at least not entirely right.

So that’s that for my attempt at insight. For everyone else: this movie is a huge heap of garbage. There’s a companion movie, exactly like it, that I have to watch next. So that’s more than enough for now.

(The Criterion Edition is out of print, not held at libraries, and used copies are unacceptably expensive. All I could find was a “rip” of the movie and commentary, which is why there’s no menu image above. I apparently also missed out on a “gallery of stills” feature. I’m not concerned.)

Oh right the music. Here’s the main title, your track 27. (If you insist on knowing what those sound effects are, it’s the creepy kids cutting open a doll and then guillotining it. You didn’t need to know that.) This is by Claudio Gizzi, an arranger that Morrissey encountered at Cinecittà who hadn’t scored any other movies and didn’t go on to score any other movies (except for Criterion #28, coming up). Apparently he was intimidated by the assignment (or didn’t know how to get away from a temp track), because he immediately resorted to plagiarism. I seem to be the only person in all of Google to know what this is a rip-off of! Now you all know too. He rips off the third movement later in the movie. And he uses Tannhäuser for every scene having to do with the Baron’s eugenic fantasies. Lame.

Oh and also I forgot to mention: this movie was originally released in 3D. Guts needlessly come right at the camera several times. I would have preferred to see it that way, of course. But now that I’ve settled for flat Frankenstein, I’m done here. This is not my cult.

March 4, 2013

26. The Long Good Friday (1979)

written by Barrie Keeffe
directed by John Mackenzie


Criterion #26.

This isn’t a movie I’ve heard much talked about. But it’s a winner. And you can stream it on Netflix.

There were a number of moments when I thought, “Well! I’ll be sure not to forget about that when it comes time to write it up!” (Which is a needless, distracting thought that I wish I would never have.) But now that the write-up has arrived, I realize that pretty much every one of those things I wanted to mention would be spoilage of one sort or another, and why would I do that to you? Describing things that surprised or entertained me is just a way of stealing them from you, or at least diminishing your pleasure by interposing myself. And I’m skeptical of my motivations — I think at some level I’d be trying to get credit for the things by being the one who saw them first. That’s no way to be. If I’m going to get people to love and admire me for a blog entry on The Long Good Friday, I’m going to need to do it all on my own, and not e.g. by mentioning that OMG you guys this movie has a kind-of-amazing scene where ____ (you know, ____ from ____) and a very young ____ look like they’re about to ____ in a ____. But then ____ ____ ____ instead. (Do you love me yet?)

Here are a few things I can say without getting in your way:

* The music is awesome, and I use the word advisedly. Not literally, of course, but advisedly. Click and be enlightened: the Main Title. (Being your Criterion mixtape track 26, naturally.)

That tune has been running in my head near-continuously since I watched the movie. The score is by Francis Monkman, who has almost no other film credits, which seems to me a real shame. Because while this may just sound like typical cop-show syntherie to you, it is actually very carefully calibrated and serves the movie memorably well. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that the relationship of what the music is selling (drive, glamour and grit, cynicism, knowingness) to the characters and the action is not fixed; it serves in different ways over the course of the movie. It’s really a top-notch score, given the style. By the end you will think so too.

Or not. I just saw someone on Netflix singling out the score as distracting and saying that it ruined the movie. Well, not for me.

* Admittedly, there is one sequence where creepy, icy music seems to denote the ominous underworld of HOMOSEXUALS. Though, well, maybe that’s not what the music turns out to mean after all. But it certainly is meant to play off the viability of that association. The scene would certainly be scored differently today. (Obviously the entire movie would be scored differently today, as the sample above should make clear.)

* The whole thing looks like a liquor ad from a 70s magazine: cold white highlights on warm dark wood, the luxury of everything tending to black. This is a basic appeal, not to be underestimated.

* Criterion Coincidence: Oddly enough, Alphaville star Eddie Constantine is in this one too! He’s not so great.

* The movie is far from perfect by present-day standards. But its imperfections were very comfortable for me. There have been major shifts in filmmaking priorities since 1979. The aspects of writing, directing, acting (yes, and music) that today seem corny or sloppy or unrefined about this movie just don’t seem important to me. Whereas it has a kind of calm purposeful quality, taken for granted in 1979 and now strangely rare, which is to me incredibly valuable. I enjoyed watching this movie because I can benefit from the things that era took for granted. That’s the basest, most indiscriminate form of nostalgia, I know (“I’m totally obsessed with the 19th century”) but who’s to say that isn’t one the primary functions of the cinema? It’s genuinely useful to be exposed to other ways of feeling and being, artifacts of times and places when those ways of being were unconscious and uncontroversial; the better to assume them, if one chooses, in a time when they need be conscious and potentially controversial.

* Not that I want to be like anyone in this movie. But I’d like to walk at the same pace they do; I’d like the shadows in my life to be as black as theirs were. When they pick up a glass to have a drink, I’d like to pick up a glass that way.

* The only extras on the (out of print) DVD were previews. There is however a recent “documentary” on YouTube, perhaps from a more recent DVD edition, and I watched that. It’s not all that great. In it Bob Hoskins confirms what one suspects, watching his performance — that he’s really just playing himself. Except as a crime boss. This is basically why the movie works and why it catapulted him to, well, a Bob Hoskins level of fame: even his exaggeratedly pop-eyed, clench-jawed reactions are watchably natural. This gives him freedom to do some very subtle things as well.

* Helen Mirren’s presence is as (similarly) reassuring and easy as ever, but her performance per se is a little inconsistent, which surprised me. Luckily in this movie’s world it doesn’t matter. Maybe I imagined it. She’s fine. Who doesn’t like Helen Mirren? Maybe I take it back.

* There’s a tiny bit of unpleasant violence. Reader B, there is a scene with exactly the thing you hate the most, but it doesn’t last very long. However the movie does sneak up on you and become surprisingly intense despite how casual it all seems. That’s praise. I’m just giving a parental warning.

* The story is fairly standard gangster fare on the largest structural level and the smallest (i.e. in individual scenes) but at the intervening levels are some interesting ideas that set this movie slightly apart thematically and tonally. I don’t think I’ve seen many other British crime movies so I don’t know how unique it really is, but word on the internet is that this one is at the top of the British heap. The script is from the golden age of sturdy screenwriting and has many nice little touches.

* The movie starts with 6 minutes of stuff that you don’t fully understand and won’t until much later. What’s that money for? Who’s the guy? Where’s he taking it? Who are those guys? What’s going on? This is a once-standard device for movie intrigue, to draw you in and turn on your brain (though not frequently used anymore, it seems to me). It needs to be handled with care, and I think it is, here; it offers just enough thread to follow that we don’t mind not knowing what it’s tied to or what direction we’re following it. But it struck me that while it’s customary for the action in such an opening sequence to be inherently intrigue-worthy (i.e. a briefcase full of money, murder, a coffin, etc.), the technique would work just as well with anything. A man is carrying a carton of milk. Where’s he going with it? What’s the milk for? If you drag that out for six minutes it would feel like you’re watching a fascinating mystery. And then when you suddenly cut away elsewhere to the main action of the movie, it would give just as much spice to what followed. Why did we see that at all? When are we going to find out what the milk was for? Highly intriguing. You could probably make a whole movie consisting only of different sorts of mundane nothing, and create a strong sense of suspense just through editing. If one of you can name an existing such movie please do.

* You’ll just have to accept that you can’t understand all the Cockney. “Grass” means informer. (Grass, grasshopper, copper.)

* I know this is an awfully pedestrian entry but that’s what you get for not wanting spoilers.

* Hey, if you do watch it, come on down to the comments.