Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pencil Down! My Answers to the SLIFR Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio's quizzes over at "Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule" are far and away the film blogosphere's premier parlor game, so I couldn't resist answering the most recent one, dished out by none other than Miss Jean Brodie herself.
  1. The classic movie moment everyone loves except me is:
  2. None I can think of, honestly. Until someone starts talking about it, I rarely think of aspects of movies I dislike.

  3. Favorite line of dialogue from a film noir
  4.  photo tumblr_mbqqci3ylN1re4erso1_500_zpsc1aa77a8.jpg
    "All that Cain did to Abel was murder him." - Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez), Force of Evil.

  5. Second favorite Hal Ashby film
  6. Bound for Glory, one of his more subdued ones.

  7. Describe the moment when you first realized movies were directed as opposed to simply pieced together anonymously.
  8. Probably the pitch-perfect use of "The Blue Danube" in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  9. Favorite film book
  10. I did a Next Projection list on this topic, and I'm sticking by The Material Ghost by Gilberto Perez.

  11. Diana Sands or Vonetta McGee?
  12.  photo zips8z_zps0eeeb7ee.png
    Incidentally, my third favorite Hal Ashby film is The Landlord, so I'll pick Diana Sands.

  13. Most egregious gap in your viewing of films made in the past 10 years
  14. Even after all the #Team hoopla, I still haven't caught up with Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret.

  15. Favorite line of dialogue from a comedy
  16. A tie between Groucho's "Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail out of it" from Duck Soup, and Bill Murray's "Yes it's true, this man has no dick" from Ghostbusters.

  17. Second favorite Lloyd Bacon film
  18. It Happens Every Spring, one of my dad's favorites.

  19. Richard Burton or Roger Livesey?
  20. The Archers cannot be denied, so Roger.

  21. Is there a movie you staunchly refuse to consider seeing? If so, why?
  22. Nope, and that stance has caused many a worthless viewing.

  23. Favorite filmmaker collaboration
  24.  photo powellpressburger-1_zps8a73b4cd.jpg
    If it's a directing duo we're talking about, then the Archers, a.k.a. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; if it's some other duo, I also did a list on this topic and ended up with Kurosawa and Mifune.

  25. Most recently viewed movie on DVD/Blu-ray/theatrical?
  26. In the theater, Soderbergh's Side Effects; otherwise, Bergman's Summer Interlude via Criterion's DVD.

  27. Favorite line of dialogue from a horror movie
  28. "He has his father's eyes." - Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer), Rosemary's Baby.

  29. Second favorite Oliver Stone film
  30. Talk Radio, I suppose.

  31. Eva Mendes or Raquel Welch?
  32. At the risk of offending the star of Bedazzled, Myra Breckenridge, and Mother, Jugs, & Speed I have to say the Eva Mendes of We Own the Night, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and Holy Motors.

  33. Favorite religious satire
  34.  photo viridiana-lastsupper_zpseea4b4c2.jpg
    The entire oeuvre of Luis Buñuel.

  35. Best Internet movie argument?
  36. For someone whose main hobby appears to be arguing movies over the Internet, you'd think I'd have a ready answer for this, but I don't.

  37. Most pointless Internet movie argument?
  38. Art vs. entertainment; as with most of these questions, the answer is both.

  39. Charles McGraw or Robert Ryan?
  40. Robert Ryan is an axiom of the cinema, while Charles McGraw is merely a really good part of an equation.

  41. Favorite line of dialogue from a western
  42. "We'll find 'em, just as sure as the turnin' of the earth." - Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), The Searchers.

  43. Second favorite Roy Del Ruth film
  44. Lady Killer, after Blonde Crazy.

  45. Relatively unknown film or filmmaker you’d most eagerly proselytize for
  46.  photo e0067990_13251920_zpse446dc96.jpg
    Juzo Itami was once well-known and now isn't; likewise his mentor Yasuzo Masumura. Recently, Krzysztof Zanussi's Illumination (1973) just blew me away for its philosophical depth and emotional scope in less than 90 minutes.

  47. Ewan McGregor or Gerard Butler?
  48. Is this even a question? Ewan.

  49. Is there such a thing as a perfect movie?
  50. No matter what the local Filmically Perfect hosts think, I don't believe so.

  51. Favorite movie location you’ve most recently had the occasion to actually visit
  52. I don't get to travel too much, so N/A on this one.

  53. Second favorite Delmer Daves film
  54. 3:10 to Yuma, after Dark Passage.

  55. Name the one DVD commentary you wish you could hear that, for whatever reason, doesn't actually exist
  56. Chaplin and Keaton talking over each other and over Limelight.

  57. Gloria Grahame or Marie Windsor?
  58.  photo gloria_grahame-431_zps9fd3e71d.jpg
    A very tough call, but Gloria Grahame is Gloria Grahame.

  59. Name a filmmaker who never really lived up to the potential suggested by their early acclaim or success
  60. Most recently David Gordon Green, but there's still time; otherwise, I haven't seen the George Lucas of THX-1138 or American Graffiti in a long time.

  61. Is there a movie-based disagreement serious enough that it might cause you to reevaluate the basis of a romantic relationship or a friendship?
  62. I don't like to think so (it hasn't happened yet); as long as there is any other topic we can agree on, I can live with a disconnect in taste.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Opening Shot: Tampopo (1985)

The opening shot can tell us a lot about how to interpret what follows.
It can even be the whole movie in miniature.

In the very opening image of Jûzô Itami's 1985 film Tampopo, we the film's audience are presented with another film audience, a sparse one in a contemporary movie theater. Feet are up, newspapers are being read, chips are being crunched as the loudspeakers pipe in Franz Liszt's "Les préludes" to bring a classical undertone to an otherwise bland suburban scene. It's characteristic of writer/director Itami, son of prewar satiric filmmaker Mansaku Itami and former translator, essayist, TV show host, and actor, to mix such differing modes of high and low culture.
Like out of a projector, light streams in through an opened back door, admitting a company of smartly-dressed white-clad men and one woman. Thus "movieness" has intruded into this banal universe, refugees from a gangster film only the first in a line of genre-inflected characters and situations that will gradually make up Tampopo's freewheeling cast of types. The title of Jonathan Rosenbaum's contemporaneous appreciation in the Chicago Reader, "Food, Sex, and Death", encapsulates the major thematic strands that intertwine to form the film's uniquely playful structure, but just as important is cinema itself. In fact, it's the first of these four interacting elements to be introduced, and, after this bravura opening scene, the one that informs the movie most reflexively.
Taking their apparently rightful places in the front row, the boss and his moll are treated to an ritual of food and drink preparation by their three henchmen. Itami intensifies our focus on this increasingly ornate moment by gradually zooming into the empty space atop the table that will soon fill with meats and wine while framing the seated couple within all of this activity.
The camera thus far has tracked and zoomed but stayed otherwise facing resolutely frontward. In a comic detail worthy of Jacques Tati, the tallest, sunglasses-adorned henchman puts his now-empty wicker basket onto the table, revealing the hidden be-striped snoozer in the seat behind it in case we might have missed him as the gangster and his girl originally sat down.
The gangster has apparently noticed us, prompting the question of who is watching whom in what movie (has he sat down to view the same film we are, or is this some kind of two-way movie screen?). He and his lover reappear throughout Tampopo in their own little side-narrative, with frequently only an eyeline match to connect them to what will become the main thrust of the movie. This dandyish yakuza who can apparently see us is played by Kôji Yakusho, later to break out internationally in Shall We Dance?, The Eel, and the thrillers of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of Itami's protégés.
In the beginnings of an offhand soliloquy, we learn that he's as particular about his movie theater ambiance as he is about what he gets to enjoy and imbibe while viewing. Up to this point, propriety in dress and demeanor appears to be the name of this man's game, and throughout Tampopo the "correct" ways to do things will be discussed and hilariously tested. The film is chiefly concerned with food's role to play in every facet of life, and it builds its many poignant and comic vignettes out of the intersection of gastronomy and the dramas of daily existence.
Right on cue, the gangster's most hated noise becomes comically deafening. The shift from close-up to wide shot has opened up the right side of the frame and of the theater to show our mild-mannered potato chip chomper. Heads swivel to shoot daggers in his direction, and the henchmen rise to fill more space and to even further unbalance the composition at the expense of the unwitting noise-maker. If not already, David Bordwell (who has blogged about the virtues of Tampopo's framing) is surely giddy about the movie's staging.
With eerily deceptive niceness, the gangster inquires at the pleasure of the hapless theatergoer then explodes at the answer. Note a curry-flavored potato chip's mix of Eastern and Western flavors, another core theme of Tampopo being the Westernization of Japanese habits. This outburst is only the first of many; the movie will begin later scenes and sequences with apparently normal setups only to detonate conventionality and conformity with subversive or anarchic humor.
Our etiquette-obsessed gangster, hatless now in his abrupt break from formality, tells us more of his pet peeves in another close-up, this time from the opposite side.
His next few lines are uncharacteristically philosophical and introduce another major strand of the film's thematic and aesthetic tapestry: death. He characterizes the end as a "last movie," turning life itself into a series of films to be savored, importing the care and concern he expresses for not interrupting his final vision onto his viewing habits for every movie he watches. Whether this "movie" is the traditionally-understood "life flashing before one's eyes" or not is unclear, although the yakuza's climactic scene near the end of the film reveals his "last movie" to consist of a gory but bittersweet memory of, you guessed it, food preparation. Itami's debut The Funeral is almost wholly concerned with the meaning and rituals of death for modern Japanese society, and Tampopo itself includes several sketches where food and death mix in unexpected ways.
So sex is the final ingredient in the film's mélange of flavors. We've already seen some playfulness between the gangster and his moll, cuddling and swapping hats. As the lights finally go down and the gangster is absently looking up, his cheeky embrace turns into something momentarily more titillating as his finger meets her mouth. It's a casual gesture, perhaps improvised by the actors but completely in line with the characters' amorous oral fixations. This suggestive bit of sucking can hardly prepare us for the culinary eroticism to come, but its neat coupling of food and sex hints at where Tampopo plans to go.
Everyone's awake but you get the feeling that only the couple up front will truly be enjoying what they see. Cinema, sex, death, and food might adequately sum up life itself for the inhabitants of Tampopo's universally recognizable but skewed comic Japan; each theme has been touched on in this opening scene's remarkable single shot (long takes and strong ensembles being two of Itami's specialties). All that's left is to hear the whirr of the projector and watch while life plays out.
Thanks to YouTube you can view this opening shot in all of its glory:

Post-script: Mike D'Angelo did a great entry in his Scenic Routes column for The AV Club on this scene, emphasizing some different aspects than I did here.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Viewing Log: 27 March - 2 April 2011

Exte: Hair Extensions [2007]
Schizophrenic J-horror outing from generally underground artist Sion Sono (I've also seen his messily operatic Love Exposure and Suicide Circle). It isolates a signature element of that stereotypical look of the vengeful Japanese ghost child and imbues those face-shrouding black locks with absurd menace, ever-growing and threatening to violate one's body through any orifice they can find. But the concept's over-the-topness belies a pretty serious bent underneath: an attempt to link illegal organ harvesting, hair fetishism (trichophilia), and child abuse as examples of the commodification of human beings. An organ harvest victim's grudge travels after death through her hair, enabled by a skeevy morgue attendant (Ren Osugi) who lops off bits of corpse hair and sells them to unknowing local salons; meanwhile, a hairstyling apprentice (Chiaki Kuriyama, the schoolgirl assassin in Kill Bill) at one of those salons becomes the reluctant caregiver for her party-girl sister's bruised, neglected daughter. Harrowing family dynamics and the original victim's rapidly-cut (both violence- and editing-wise) demise rub uneasily against Osugi's broad comedy as the goofy, creepy trichophile; he's prone to belting out a joyous hymn to hair in pseudo-music video sequences that only intensify the more naturalistic flavor of Chiaki's plotline. From what I've seen, Sono's SOP is to viciously mix genres and ask questions later, so this slightly satirical take on J-horror (playing up the supernatural absurdity to highlight the real wickedness under the domestic surface) is de rigueur but fun for its practical effects and Osugi's madcap, committed performance. Plus, wasn't there an Amazing Stories episode, subsequently parodied by The Simpsons, natch, that did this same thing but with a toupee?

Looks like Christianne Benedict did a very recent review of this for the White Elephant Blog-a-thon.

Elevator to the Gallows [1958] - rewatch
For an upcoming podcast on movie scores. The movie's still good, taut, and wholly dependent on the score for effect, since Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as the putative lovers never get to interact. So all tragedy registers through Moreau's glacially beautiful features or Miles Davis's plaintive, wailing trumpet. The pseudo-documentary style of Jeanne wandering the streets, male and female passers-by equally glancing at her swaying, wandering gait, is like a different movie from the vaguely political, proto-Breathless spree by the young thieves/lovers (accompanied by the more frenzied bebop-leaning tangents of Miles's improvised score). Everything is filtered through the music; it lends poetic weight when it's there and through its absence emphasized the uncertainty of fate. The dumb-kids-on-the-run counterpoint still deflates when compared to Moreau's moody nocturnal questing and Ronet's A Man Escapes-esque elevator quandary, but imagining the movie as an elaborate music video for the score seems to better make the pieces fit together.

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein [2009]
Without wading in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which the film doesn't really either; the point is more how Finkelstein's personality and history drive his politics than whether his politics reflect reality), the documentary is surprisingly evenhanded, delving into and celebrating Finkelstein's impassioned advocacy without shying away from his rudeness and tendency to overreach. The filmmakers in the end side with him, if only evidenced by documenting the constant looming threat of unfair academic discipline, forcing the proud but vulnerable scholar to relocate every time he publishes a book. An interesting, non-political bookend with my recent TCM viewing of Martin Scorsese's documentary interview with his parents, Italianamerican; both films emphasize an immigrant mother's overriding influence on the son's future career.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence [1983]
Chuck Stephens's Criterion essay nails most of what I found intriguing about the film (the casting coups of dueling pop music heartthrobs Sakamoto and Bowie and comedy star Takeshi; its multinational flavor; parallels with the later Oshima film Taboo), but I'm surprised there was no mention of the mystical execution, echoing the entire conceit of Death by Hanging. Bowie was never better at evoking an alien British physical perfection, even when he was actually playing an alien. An excellent starting point for non-Oshimaphiles wary of In the Realm of the Senses' reputation of explicitness; Oshima here twists the David Lean, stiff-upper-lip template out of shape to examine the homoerotic undertones and intermingled contempt and admiration men in war have for each other, especially when the ostensibly defeated refuse to act defeated. Tom Conti is perfect in the crucial but least flashy part of the titular Lawrence, stoic bridge between cultures but frequently baffled by both.

Three Comrades [1938]
Except to build to an amazingly tense street chase sequence, the historic and political background of director Frank Borzage's romantic weepie seem, like much of the scenery and the ethnicities of the leading players, wholly artificial and beside the point. For the record, three close-knit German veterans of World War I try to continue life after the Great War, befriending, romantically and otherwise, Margaret Sullavan in a vague but extremely sensitively portrayed part, and struggling against economic depression. The three protags nearly always function as a unit, refreshingly without much squabbling or romantic entanglements. Sullavan's beau is ardent, amiable lunkhead Robert Taylor; idealistic Robert Young, after some soul-searching, falls headlong into anti-nationalist fervor; and wry Franchot Tone makes the strongest impression by counseling and knowing everyone better than they know themselves. Borzage, master romanticist of American cinema, gives the beleaguered lovers a brief respite from political and emotional turmoil before deploying the Hollywood Syndrome and staging some exquisite deathbed scenes. Better to have loved and lost...and all that. Things culminate in the still above and a literally haunting final shot that I morbidly posted alongside an altogether less sentimental and passionate ending. Swooning and never less than watchable. Also, some up-and-comer named F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently co-wrote the screenplay.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Rhyming Shots, 3 April 2011

Three Comrades (1938, director Frank Borzage)

The Beyond (1981, director Lucio Fulci)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Icepicks to the Groin

In my never-ending quest to watch Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1000 Favorite Films, I embarked upon two largely misunderstood psychosexual thrillers from 1992, directed with chilly precision by European filmmakers in America. Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct successfully wallowed in controversy upon its release for Sharon Stone's infamous "twat seen 'round the world"; today though, it only seems like only one winking provocation amongst many. Like a gender transposition of the director's hilariously symbolic The Fourth Man, the movie punishes its protagonist for straying into sexual abandon and for missing all of the obvious warning signs. In the place of blasphemed Catholic imagery, rambunctious screenwriter Joe Eszterhas dumps Hitchcock blondes, DePalmaesque camera acrobatics, and over-the-top noir tropes into a sleazy, post-genre stew, with Stone's icy star-making turn as the main ingredient and George Dzundza's over-boiled sarcasm ("She got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!", "He got off before he got offed") as the prime seasoning. Stone's blank, sculpted visage has since launched a thousand Skinemax knock-offs, invariably mingling sex, death, and even abnormal psychology without an ounce of Verhoeven's visual wit, a perfect counterpoint to Eszterhas's fun but overheated script.

The differences between the aggressive Basic Instinct and Polanski's more ruminative Bitter Moon are clear from the opening images: Verhoeven shatters perception with a kaleidoscopic mirrored reflection of a copulating couple, while Polanski opens on a gently rolling sea only to pull back and reveal that we were looking from a stateroom on a cruise liner through a circular porthole, obscuring vision but anticipating the story-within-a-story to come. Like an even scurvier Ancient Mariner, wild-eyed, wheelchaired former novelist Oscar (Peter Coyote) is compelled to weave his novelistic tale of kinky desire for and disillusion with the increasingly disturbed and desensitized Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, who goes from perkily innocent plaything to blank, Sharon Stone-esque erotic avenger as the film continues). The audience for Oscar's unreliable narration is Nigel, maybe the most stereotypically repressed, British role Hugh Grant will ever play, along with those sexually-inhibited souls watching at home. He's on a trip to spice up his seven-year marriage to Kristin Scott-Thomas's outwardly placid Fiona, so his secret-sharer relationship with Oscar bodes ill for the future. The price of employing exoticism and experimentation to jumpstart a floundering relationship has rarely been more acutely presented on film.

Although the immediate parallels would seem to be between ice queens Mimi and Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammell (along with the uncanny confluence of nursemaid/dominatrix motifs if Jeanne Tripplehorn's Trammell-double counselor is thrown into the equation), the real twins are Catherine and Oscar, pleasure-seeking Americans through and through. Sexual instigators used to getting what they want, the pair are also writers, attempting to conflate their lives and their arts into a workable whole. Catherine, with what one imagines as functional, workmanlike prose, writes lurid crime novels that ambiguously come true, probably by her own hand. Oscar, on the other hand, is the classic failed novelist, purplish and high-falutin' in a way that's no longer popular. If Oscar's life story is anything to trust (and there are indications that it may not be), his Parisian downward spiral into sexual malaise and cruelty parallels his thwarted ambitions (although he seems at his most devilishly happy recounting his yarn to Nigel). So perhaps the most interesting contrast to be made between Catherine and Oscar involves their relative commercial successes: Catherine gets away with murder and indulging her psychosexual obsessions in real life because she caters to her audience's bloodlust safely through prose; art imitates life and vice versa until no one can tell the difference. But Oscar's failings as a novelist, his inability to reconcile his idea of a higher order of art with the erotic restlessness he feels with Mimi, haunt and degrade him as time goes on. Life refuses to conform to art, and both suffer. Similarly, Basic Instinct became a huge hit because of its wry sensationalism, and Bitter Moon, the altogether more challenging and less titillating movie, did not.

The two films dance with these notions of art versus life, storyteller versus audience, in a more playful mode than I may be conveying or the original audiences may have cared to admit. Polanski's mordant wit is in evidence throughout Bitter Moon, especially through Peter Coyote's flowery narration and in the early scenes of Oscar's and Mimi's budding kinkiness. Both he and Verhoeven frequently match formal mastery with a drolly ironic eye towards chosen genres and characters, and these mid-period works are exemplars of keen, feisty art-entertainment ripe for reevaluation.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

That Particular Shade of Blue in "Two Lovers"

This is possibly my favorite new movie out there right now, and I plan to do some more with it soon, but for now here's some images with an especially nifty shade of neon blue that James Gray seems to be fond of.