Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Empire Strikes Back

National Film Registry.... I am your blogger.

Okay, considering the reaction that gets in the movie and the fact that the personal pronoun is a totally separate line, maybe it's not the best thing to open up with. But when am I going to have another chance to make that joke?

Happy Star Wars Day, my dearest readers. I have to swallow my chagrin that my April Fool's Day post is the most viewed on my blog, but hopefully the new readers went beyond that. But hey, I'm in time for the only other Star Wars film on the National Film Registry. And, in my opinion, it's the best Star Wars film. A New Hope is incredibly important for reviving that sense of fun sci-fi space opera serial. It gave and continues to give new generations that whole wriggling in your seat anticipation.

So if the entire point of A New Hope is how fun it is, why do so many people consider the much bleaker Empire the superior film? I think that's a particularly relevant question now, when so many movies and series are going dark and ending on downers just for the point of being dark. There's been a kind of Kafka-esque gloom suffusing our fantasy and science fiction entertainment, especially over the last 20 years. Is The Empire Strikes Back where it started? I honestly don't know the answer to that. Maybe it started with Alan Moore and with Tim Burton's Batman. We got to like the darker, more frightening style. And yet, The Empire Strikes Back has a different tone than the current crop of "Life sucks so I brood in a barely lit scene" films. Instead of being dark for the sake of darkness, the darkness and doubt feel purposeful. Life isn't going badly for the Rebel Alliance because life itself is pointless and horrible, but because they are in a horrible situation. The downer ending isn't to make us feel like we're more clever for expecting it - it's raising the stakes.

Of course not every science fiction story prior had a hero who won. After all, the movie was made 15+ years after The Twilight Zone. But there's really the rub in this film - the center of a serial is always supposed to raise the stakes. You aren't supposed to believe the heroes could possibly make it out of this alive. In Flash Gordon and Captain Video, the heroes didn't only escape alive, but relatively unscathed. As Annie Wilkes says in Misery, "That's cheating". I think that's where the success of The Empire Strikes Back as a film really comes into play. You can talk about the Zen Buddhist elements, the deepening of the universe, or the storyline that mimics Greek tragedy... but for me, the strongest feature of the film is the lack of cheating. No one escapes unscathed. Leia finally allows herself to unbend a little from the pillar of strength she always has to be... and instantly her lover is forcibly taken from her. Han really finds the core of altruism and selflessness within himself... and is tortured and experimented on. Lando gives up his honor to protect his people... and loses anyway. And of course, there's Luke. Poor, poor Luke. Even Vader gets his first spark of real humanity in this film, where he proposes that instead of murdering his son, he can turn him to the Dark Side... and he is then rejected by a son who chooses death (even if he wound up surviving the fall) over him. I guess that's why the first half of Return of the Jedi feels like it has lower stakes. The Empire Strikes Back is all about these life-changing, often shattering events happening to the main cast, and then you don't see the recovery. Just a moment of hopefulness (though is anyone else bugged by the fact that Lando is wearing Han's clothes in the final scene?), set against that unforgettable backdrop of stars.

Maybe it's not a perfect film and maybe the next film weakens it a bit, but The Empire Strikes Back is space opera at its best.

And remember: the Fourth will be with you. Always.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Room

O hai, National Film Registry Project! How's your sex life?

What can one say about Tommy Wiseau's The Room? This cinematic masterpiece is truly destined for the National Film Registry. I might as well jump the gun on this one and be truly prepared, so I can be duly praised for my foresight and vision in hailing this as one of the most highly artistic films of all time. What can one say about unforgettable characters like Johnny, Lisa, Denny, Mark, Lisa's Mom, the wormy guy in glasses, Mr. "Me Underwears", Nuclear Bomb Lady, and Who the Hell is This Guy? Each turns in a stellar performance in this tour de force.

This is a movie that best captures the post-modern angst of the big city, combined with the aimlessness of the Gen-Xer's facing full adulthood - complete with a mentor role over a Millenial and conflict with a Baby Boomer, mixed with a masterful use of neo-medieval Christian symbolism. It is not that Johnny has absolutely no idea how to play football: his repeated tossing of a football without ever scoring a goal of any sort is a powerful visual metaphor of his lack of direction. Mark doesn't repeatedly forget that he has already had sex with Lisa because he's an idiot: instead, he is showing a Joyce-like ability to shift between the facets of his experience. What is not acceptable to one side of his personality (helping Johnny's future wife cheat), is acceptable to his baser nature. This then becomes a tragedy of Miltonian proportions, as the figure of Lisa - who can be equated with "Sin" in Paradise Lost or a masterfully crafted Eve figure from medieval drama, causes such severe temptation to the lower instincts of Mark as to cause him to "fall from heaven" (or Johnny's close friendship), while at the same time, making Earth unbearable to the pure soul of the Christ-figure of Johnny, who has no choice but to sacrifice himself rather than continue living in the depravity of this world. Because of this, the whole film culminates in the loss of Denny's innocence, which gives such powerful symbolism of the previous generation moving aside so that a new generation can be completely screwed by the system.

The world of The Room has touched a generation in a way that few films have before. Tommy Wiseau joins such luminaries as Ed Wood and M. Night Shyamalan as a by-word for quality film. Few will ever top the brilliance of this performance. except perhaps the geniuses of RiffTrax.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This Is Spinal Tap

The National Film Registry goes up past 11. Obvious gag is obvious.

So, This Is Spinal Tap. One of the seminal documentaries of our time, though Marty DiBergi suffers from the usual problem of terrible sound editing. Do documentarians go to some sort of class to make sure that the interview sections of their films come out as hard to hear as possible? This being a "rockumentary", most would be grateful that the sound on the songs is pretty decent, but that is to be expected. Down to this day, Spinal Tap maintains their reputation as one of the loudest bands in England. But the story isn't particularly about the music - though that's clearly an important factor. After all, Spinal Tap have long served as a sort of cementing force in music: whatever new genre has become firmly popular, they will probably try it out, at least until their first complete break-up in 1992. Their 2009 album featured forays in reggae, funk, jazz, and Broadway musical, none of which is too much of a departure for the band.

The real story is on the interaction of the band's founding members, David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnell, as well as longterm bassist Derek Smalls. Sadly, Viv Savage only has a small part in the interviews, He's definitely got some talent as a keyboardist, but never seems to think of much to say without the medium of music. There's more interview time with Mick Shrimpton, who tragically died during filming. Derek Smalls may feel overlooked, as the "lukewarm water" of the group, but it's clear throughout the rockumentary that despite his loud, and often lewd, stage presence, the real Derek Smalls is a kind, thoughtful, and truly talented individual. Nigel Tufnell's music also gets many moments to shine, such as his playing of the first part of "Lick My Love Pump", which clearly draws influences from Mozart's immortal "Leck Mich Im Arsch". However, as of his last interview, Nigel Tufnell is still struggling to complete this piece. Which... well, Nigel Tufnell has never been considered one of the big thinkers of our age, despite the fact that he has a high level of musical talent, and a strong interest in experimentation (which may not turn out well, such as some of his more discordant solos, but the idea is there). Meanwhile, David St. Hubbins comes across as rather tactless and thoughtless. While Nigel may be a bit spoiled in the matter of backstage delicacies, David St. Hubbins, as the frontman, never seems to think a set sometimes calls for a change (memorably playing "Sex Farm" for a USAF mixer), or notices the problems members of the group are having personally. This was definitely exacerbated by the presence of his now-ex-wife, Jeannine Pettibone. Neither of them seem to be bad people, but they can be kind of oblivious people.

Varying bands, such as Nirvana, Dokken, The Misfits, and Metallica have all discussed the influence Spinal Tap, especially through the lens of the film, influenced their careers, while Aerosmith and U2 seemed to have members very personally affected by the travails of the band. If it weren't for the disastrous US release of Smell the Glove, Metallica may never have had the idea for the now iconic Black Album. While Spinal Tap can be derivative, they were sometimes ahead of their own time.

This is definitely a documentary to check out, and one that clearly deserves its preservation. While it has many of the problems that plague documentaries (grainy film, bad sound editing), it portrays a fundamentally honest and rather tragic picture of rock music from the 1960's through the 1980's, often recognized as a heyday of the genre. While Spinal Tap hasn't released any new material in 8 years, their dedicated fans can only hope that they still stand as mighty as Stonehenge, and have not broken like the wind.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The African Queen

It can be hard on the nature to review so many films, but Nature is what we were put here to rise above.

And rise above we do with movies like The African Queen (though the film has a rather astonishing lack of Africans – even for the time period). Ostensibly, this is one of those romance/adventures where the totally unlikely couple find acceptance and love in their differences. Though watching tends to form a different reaction than most of the sappy thrown-together plotlines, where you could never for a moment believe they will last a week out of danger. My roommate commented that this was the first movie he saw where Humphrey Bogart wasn't in charge, and I pointed out that Katherine Hepburn is always in charge. You can believe Mr. Allnut would happily bend his will to Miss Rose for the rest of his life, seeing as how he's a useful, but not a particularly determined man without her. You don't usually get the narrative of the woman being the courage and the driving force in the “danger romance” genre, and even though the movie came out in 1951, it's still refreshing. Rose Sayer may be a bit naive on technical matters, but the only thing that makes her shriek in the entire film is a choking swarm of mosquitoes. In most other “danger romances” you spend half the time wondering if the man's turn-ons include helpless whimpering, blood-choking arm holds, and screaming like an infant. Like I said, it's refreshing that Rose Sayer does none of those things, but is instead, always flawlessly polite and level-headed, even as she actually becomes filthy enough for you to believe she's on a river (as opposed to most heroines, who manage to do perfect winged eyeliner and keep their eyebrows on point during the zombie apocalypse).

Really what the story is about is two people learning to deal with each other, and the understanding leading to love. It isn't too different in basic outlines as the basic “Beauty and the Beast” story, although it's subverted by having “Beauty” cast as an unattractive old maid (which must have been tough work for the makeup department, considering they had Katherine Hepburn to work with), and having the castle setting replaced by a dangerous river surrounded by hostile Germans. It seems like it should be absurd, but maybe because the mains are really so likable, you can't help but get invested in what happens to them. Also, a World War One movie? Stop the presses. There's also the admirable decision to not try to force poor Bogie into doing a Cockney accent (how Charlie Allnut was characterized in the novel). Rewriting him as Canadian helped prevent the kind of dignity loss inflicted on Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now if only we would allow actors who can't do accents to retain their original style of speaking and maybe rewrite a little to explain things.

Overall, I really enjoyed this film. It is definitely one I would watch again, and it's a movie I would suggest aspiring filmmakers watch. Your heroine in difficult circumstances does not need to be either brain-rendingly annoying or be unbelievably tough and competent. She doesn't have to know everything to be courageous or admirable, and she doesn't need to shriek and grab the hero to have vulnerability or build up the romantic tension. This is one of the perfect examples of a heroine in danger acting like a capable adult human being, and as such, really deserves the watch.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire

HEY STEEEEELLLLLLAAAAA! The Film Registry Project is back!

So... this is one of my favorite films of all time, as depressing as it is. I got an opportunity to watch with a dear friend who had never seen it before, and the big thing that struck me again on why I love this movie so much was the conversation we were able to have about the film. Sometimes it's great to have a movie you can just watch and enjoy, but the movies that get you talking afterward... though to enlighten our discussion, I had to bring up my reading of the original play. The Hayes Code did make some really peculiar choices about homosexuality in film. You'd think, given the mores of the time, that a woman telling a gay man she is horrified and disgusted, leading to him shooting himself, would actually be allowed in an adult film. Or at least a film shunned by the League of Decency (I have on first-hand information that all good Catholics were told never to watch this film), which is as adult a rating as you could get before the formal codifying of film ratings. But then again, maybe they figured the idea was so poisonous, that even a guy shooting himself for shame wouldn't erase the horror of his "crime". Instead, Blanche just loathed her husband for being "weak", which doesn't really seem enough to cause a person to shoot themselves at a dance.

The character I've always been the most fascinated by, however, is Stella. Even if Stella doesn't leave Stanley in the play, my friend pointed out that they believed that Stella's flight of the film would last maybe a day. Maybe. Probably more like four hours. Because hey, as horrible as it is to have your husband rape your sister while you're having his baby, what are you going to do? Leave a man that handsome?Stella's motivations are largely unexplored, beyond that she's the big motivating factor for the bigger personalities of Blanche and Stanley. But that's precisely why I find her interesting. Blanche could grate on the nerves of a saint, with her melodrama and snobbery, while Stanley is, as Blanche said, a "survivor of the Stone Age". While Kim Hunter was a beautiful woman, she's dressed plainly and has a rather unflattering hairstyle. She's got her delicate, beautiful sister on one side... imagine growing up in that house! Stella seems the type to always be shunted aside in favor of the needier Blanche. Yet Stella's marriage is to an incredibly handsome man who is sexually exciting to her, pays her all kinds of attention, and is possessive of her. She has some standard characteristics of a battered woman, but her sexual need of Stanley and his way of being helpless without her seems to be the biggest thing holding her there. Finally, there's someone who really prefers her to her sister. Finally, she has won and Blanche has lost. No wonder she refuses to believe Blanche about the rape - how could her adored husband do that ultimate act of betrayal?

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but to me, the sibling issues are one of the most fascinating angles. There's the archetypal reading, where one views Blanche as the Old South (courteous and courtly, but frail and overdramatic) and Stanley as the New South (vigorous, but raw and violent). There's the perspective of mental illness, the psychological impact of enforced closeting, the study of PTSD causing acting out in a way besides the typically depicted violence, the study of domestic violence, the portrait of female sexuality... the best movies are the ones that you don't run out of discussion fodder for, and if you're willing to spend two hours being thoroughly depressed, you can also get a ton of things to think about.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

What is the victory of a National Film Registry blogger on a hot tin roof? Just staying on, I guess.

 Well, it's been awhile. In this while, I've had laryngitis twice, which is absolutely unreasonable, and that really put a damper on me wanting to write and review. Hard to think of anything but loathing for all the people out there who don't have sore throats, really. But I did watch this movie twice while I was sick, and it was a very good film. And that opens up a question: is there an artistic problem with enjoying a work that the original artist repudiated? Tennessee Williams hated this adaptation of his work, both for excising most of the homo-erotic subtext (which is a major plot point of the play and the lack of which does create some confusion), and for adding a tacked-on reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. Elizabeth Taylor stars as Maggie the Cat (a joke I didn't get in "The Mighty Ducks" until I saw this movie), with Paul Newman as her bisexual sot of a husband. We get the feeling that something truly awful happened between them, because most men wouldn't reject a 20-something Elizabeth Taylor throwing herself at their heads. The truth is slowly unfolded against the backdrop of a passel of family drama - the impending death of the family patriarch, the scheming of the hateful sister-in-law, and the unwritten laws of the South that prevent anyone from talking about anything openly. You don't wash the dirty laundry in public here. Or in private. The worse things get, the more you're expected to politely ignore it, or dismiss it. It's an odd code of behavior that has relaxed since the 1950's, but still exists.

The truth, such as it is under the Hayes censors, is that Brick has been laboring under the delusion that his adored best friend slept with his wife and then killed himself. Which... does become kind of strange and has the side effect of making Brick seem much more in love with Skipper than the other way around. The plot point in the play is that Skipper confesses his love to Brick over the phone and kills himself when Brick rejects him. I know they had to re-write the play under the restrictions of the Hayes Code, but it makes the whole break and reunion (also tacked on for the movie) seem a lot stranger. Why would a man kill himself after telling his best friend that he was seduced by his friend's wife? Why would the man become convinced in the course of a few hours that the woman he's been blaming for his friend's death is actually not responsible? A Streetcar Named Desire has the excision of the homosexuality plot point as well, which also makes the suicide in that play seem strange and forced. It's still a masterful movie, with amazing performances and excellent cinematography. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor putting on stockings.

My overall answer to enjoying art that the original artist hates is that it depends on what the adapting artist made out of it. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is superior in many ways to Stephen King's The Shining, no matter what King says about it. But I suppose the best reason for this film being considered a masterpiece is the work-arounds and attempts at subverting the strictures of the Hayes Code, which opened up the way for more open and experimental cinema. And that's definitely worth a lot.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Harold and Maude

If you want to review, review.

 So this is an interesting movie to review, since usually when one sees a huge age disparity between the couple in a film, it's a man romancing a woman. And in classic films, that woman was frequently Audrey Hepburn (25 years younger than Cary Grant in Charade, 30 years younger than Fred Astaire in Funny Face - guess Hollywood thought that Audrey looked like the type to go for silver foxes). But Harold and Maude really flips the script by not just having a young man interested in an older woman (well before the advent of the cougar trope), but a baby-faced guy who looks barely 17 having very sexual feelings towards a woman who is obviously elderly. Elderly people aren't supposed to be the subject of love stories, especially not sexual ones. Yet here we are, having a complete script flip, from the elderly person being the fun-loving one to the young person making a sexual pursuit of an elderly person. Maude is a prototype Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only instead of being a big-eyed waif with crazy hair, she's a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor who steals cars, poses nude, and has a giant wooden sculpture of her vulva, which Harold fingers and then licks in a scene that seems more creepy than affirming attraction between the two.

 I don't know why, but while I appreciate all the subversions, I just can't find where I'm supposed to be entertained by this film. It's ranked as a "Best Comedy", but I personally didn't laugh once. Maybe because the young guy obsessed with death has been used in plenty of other things since, or maybe because I don't see inherent humor in the idea that a couple with a 61-year age difference could form. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be the joke, or if the jokes are supposed to be Harold's obsession with death and elaborate suicide attempts. I guess the juxtaposition of Harold's suicides and his mother's exasperation are somewhat humorous. But where does one really go with this? This is by far the best movie I've found for showing that humor is totally subjective. Maude teaching Harold to live every day to the fullest with semi-controlled anarchy, then killing herself because she is convinced that 80 is the proper age to die doesn't really strike me as humorous. Maude's fast talk can be witty, but over all, the movie just seems to be congratulating itself on being so subversive that they forgot to put real characterization into the leads. Harold and Maude are both conglomerate characters of everything but the kitchen sink. Harold is a hodgepodge of neglected rich boy (the most famous of this trope is the preternaturally annoying Holden Caulfield), stereotypes about depression, and what the team seems to think are jokes about sexuality. Maude is given a lot of hints that she would be more interesting in the hands of another script writer, but she's a straight-forward "subversion" of Holocaust survivors (who are presumably all miserable and consumed with the horrors of their life?) and elderly people (who have no sex drives and don't like adventures? Tell that to the exploding STI rate in seniors) who speaks in affirmations and fortune cookies. I'm not saying there's nothing here for anyone. Obviously, there's something for some people. But I just can't appreciate it properly. Maybe the film didn't age well, or maybe the leads just really need more depth. We are overdue for a film that allows a young man to show attraction for an older woman, though. Maybe then it won't be considered ridiculous to cast a 30-year-old woman opposite a 45-year-old man, so a 22-year-old is cast instead. Then again, if we try to pull that subversion, then Hollywood will probably try to pass a woman of 35 as a woman of 50.