Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Prayer for the Departed...

313. Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage pretty much sets the tempo for the giallo thrillers of the 1970s. I won't go into details beyond a short mention of Fredric Brown's source novel, The Screaming Mimi, but there are a couple of things I really picked up on during this viewing. First, Argento's complete obsession with art objects and art spaces as weapons and places of menace was fully formed from the get go. Second, I can almost see the director laughing to himself as he leaves clues in plain sight that give away the whole thing. Like in this shot:

I just about blew my drink through my nose when I saw that shot. I didn't remember it, but I know the movie pretty well, so it means everything.

The opening suspense sequence in between the glass doors is still a corker.


Reprinted from my web site (and my old blog).

314. and 315. So I saw Marty Scorsese's The Departed (2006) again a couple of weeks ago. It's an okay film, but something about it has been gnawing on me since it was released.

A little background: The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong cop thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002, directed by Wai-keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak). Both films follow the intersecting paths of two undercover agents. One agent is a cop placed in the confidence of a mob boss. One agent is a mobster planted in the police by that same mob boss. Neither man knows the other, though both are aware of the other's existence. A cat and mouse game follows. Both films have the equivalent of an all-star cast. I prefer the cast of the original, stocked as it is with some of my favorite actors anywhere in the world (Tony Leung and Anthony Wong in particular). I'm less sanguine about the cast of the remake. I've never warmed to Jack Nicholson or Matt Damon, and Leo Di Caprio is laboring in the shadow of Tony Leung's astonishing performance in the original item. But that's neither here nor there. If you haven't seen the original, you'll love the remake. If you have seen it, you'll probably like the remake. Maybe.

If you have an interest in seeing either film, but haven't yet, stop reading now.

Still with me? Okay.

Infernal Affairs is a terrific film. The Departed isn't as good, but it's not bad. It follows the original's story pretty faithfully until the end. The end. That's where I get hung up. At the end of Infernal Affairs, the Andy Lau character betrays his mob boss and goes over to the cops. To do this, it's necessary to wipe his opposite number off the ledger and turn his back on his murder. He gets away with everything (well, not quite, but enough). Andy Lau's saturnine face is inscrutable through all of this, and there is a remarkable ambiguity built into this ending. That's the ending that most of the world saw. There is an alternate ending made for the mainland Chinese market. The censorship standards in the mainland market require that corrupt government officials be brought to justice in their movies--a convenient fantasy, one must admit, given the rampant corruption known to exist in China's ruling Communist party. In that version, Lau's character is arrested at the end of the film and hauled off to jail. This is in opposition to the spiritual thematic concerns of the movie, but try telling that to a censor. Irony is just one of many virtues lost on censors.

Apparently, Americans are subject to the same rigid censorship requirments. The Departed changes the ending even more thoroughly than the ending intended for the mainland Chinese. The remake sets up a situation where someone else in the police department knows the identity of Leo Di Caprio's character, and once Leo's character is dead and Matt Damon's character is seemingly scott free, he shows up and puts a bullet in the brain of Damon's character. Evil, then, has been punished. To underline this ending, the camera pans up to the balcony where a rat scuttles across the railing, as if to say: "Get it?" This would be disappointing in any film, but for it to occur in a Scorsese movie is a travesty. There is the suggestion in this turn of plot that not only do the big multinational companies that keep Americans--and by proxy most of the rest of the world--sucking like infants at the teat of bourgeois media hold their audience in even lower regard than the Communist Chinese. And they do it in even more brutal fashion. Let me give you two other examples:

A decade ago, someone got the bright idea of remaking Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder. This film, retitled A Perfect Murder, actually manages to improve on the original item in several important ways and largely sidesteps the shadow of Hitchcock until the ending. In the original, Ray Milland is trapped by his own web of lies and when he realizes that he's screwed, the expression on his face is priceless. He's hauled away in disgrace to await trial by a jury of his peers. It's very satisfying, actually. The remake eschews this kind of "complexity" in favor of a gunfight at the end, during which Michael Douglas is killed off and not made to suffer due process or any further humiliation for trying to murder his wife. Justice, in the contemporary, parlance, has been served, but it's a hollow kind of vigilante justice. It's NOT satisfying. Or at least, not to me. It's far too tidy. For a real-life analogue, I offer you the case of Ken Lay and Enron. Not only did Lay's untimely death deprive the victims of Enron's collapse the redress of justice, it prompted Lay's conviction to be set aside.

The living end of this was the end of Troy, a retelling of the Trojan War. The movie paints Agamemnon, played by Brian Cox, as the film's rat-bastard villain. But I'll get to that in a moment. The ostensible source for Troy is The Illiad. If you ever read the poem in high school, you would likely have been annoyed at the changes made to the text, but for the most part, it gets things right. You get the wrath of Achilles ("Sing to me, o' Muse of the wrath of Achilles, the man-killer") and you get the ultimate tragic scene from the end of the poem where Hector's father, Priam, comes to Achilles tent to beg for the body of his mutilated son, Hector). If the filmmakers had had the genius of Homer, they would have ended it there, where Homer himself ended it. Then the film would have been a tragic epic worthy of milennia of stories about the Trojan War. But American audiences demand more. They demand "resolution" to even the most meaningless of plot threads. So we get the Trojan Horse. We get Achilles's death from an arrow in his heel. And we get Agamemnon's death...wait...Agamemnon didn't die at Troy. He sailed home with the prophetess, Cassandra, only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover. Not in this version, though. Here he gets killed for the audience's sense of "justice," in which villains are slain at the end of the last reel. Villains can never be seen to prosper. Oh no.


Are American audiences such uncomprehending sheep? Is the only satisfying end for a villain his death, whether from a gunshot, a fall from a high place, or a sword through his chest? How far has drama fallen? And what does this do to our cultural mores? American studio movies are largely junk anymore and it troubles me, not just because I love the artform, but also because I hate the underlying ethical assumptions behind them. But mostly, I hate the idea that audiences are in the grip of a media that has no more regard for their individual judgement than that held by the Communist Chinese. That disturbs me, actually.

Edit: Oddly enough, I'm not the only one to notice these things. Critic/Film Scholar David Bordwell notices some of the same things. So I'm not crazy after all...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Femme Fatales

306. After the election, I felt a certain obligation to watch Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which used to be one of my favorite movies when I was a teenager. It hasn't aged well for me as an adult. I still like it a lot, though some of that is residual affection from my youth, but I see the glaring flaws in it today, thrown into stark contrast by an adult life engaged with the political process (I've been an activist for the last eight years, in one capacity or another). In that light, the sheer naivete of Jefferson Smith and his national boy's camp seems ridiculous on the face of it. Oh, the film slants the dam project that Claude Rains's corrupt senator wants to ram through by telling us at the outset that it's a boondoggle for the benefit of the political machine pulling his strings, but, hell, a hydro-electric dam sounds to me to be a lot more useful than a boy's camp, even if it does enrich the bosses. I mean, we're talking about a country that was still only barely electrified at this point in time. Of course, I'm well aware of the fact that the details are beside the point, that the boys camp and the dam and all are McGuffins of the highest order, and that the point of the film is the injection of integrity into the political process, but the sentimentality tends to undo this for me anymore. Sentiment, as anyone who makes serious art can tell you, is pure poison.

307. I'm much more in love with Capra's It Happened One Night (1933), which not only put Capra on the map of "great" directors, it also put Columbia Pictures on the map after years of a marginal existence on poverty row. Studio boss Harry Cohn was fabled as the cheapest man in Hollywood, after all, but he gave Capra his head, and Capra made stars of the first magnitude out of his actors: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Colbert set the standard for spoiled heiresses that persists in one degree or another to this very day, and Gable suddenly ruled the 1930s as the King of Hollywood. Although there isn't anything as salacious in this movie as one finds in other pre-code movies, there's a sexual friskiness in this movie that vanishes from the screwball comedies that use it as a template. This is especially manifest in the "walls of Jericho" scene. This adds seasoning to a film that could wind up too sweet. As it is, it's just right.

308. Chinese director Jin Xie died last month, so in his honor, I watched Stage Sisters (1965). A story of two actresses caught up in the revolution, this is one of the most cunning bits of misdirection in the history of movies. On the surface, it seems to be a stock piece of upright communist propaganda--and Jin Xie knew that it had better damned well pass that particular test if he didn't want to end up in a re-education camp--but what the movie REALLY is is a bittersweet lesbian love story. I mean, it's hard to miss it these days, after years of decoding queer subtexts in films, but I presume that the Red Chinese censors of the day were as literal-minded as censors always are and they couldn't see what's right in front of their faces. Some of the dialogue near the end, with its whiff of sloganeering, is hard to take, but on the whole it's a beautiful film to watch.

309. As childhood nightmare fuel goes, it would be hard to beat the late Paul Berry's deranged short film, "The Sandman" (1991). Very much in the Tim Burton mold (Berry made models for Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas), this is a horror story through and through, one that delves deep into childhood fears, and which features a gruesome denouement. Then it caps it with a haunting final image after the credits. Highly recommended. You can see it here:

310. My partner wanted to watch a comedy this weekend, so we got Get Smart (2008, directed by Peter Segal), which I gave a pass when it was in theaters. I liked Anne Hathaway as Agent 99. Steve Carrell doesn't erase memories of Don Adams, unfortunately. The dastardly plot is pretty transparent from the get-go. I was happy to see Patrick Warburton show up at the end, but I'm always happy to see him in a movie. It's mostly harmless and intermittently amusing. I'm glad I rented, though, because I doubt I'll ever watch it again. 311. There are two sequences in Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 (1981) that show the director's hand. While there are tons of elements in the movie that suggest that it's a pure exploitation film (the old "head in the freezer trick," anyone?), Ferrara's ambitions towards art manifest themselves. The first: Thana, our mute heroine, out on her first real rampage, is surrounded by gang bangers who circle her like sharks. Ferrara shoots this from above, and the movies is temporarily transformed into the equivalent of a Busby Berkely musical. This sequence is pure choreography, violence in the abstract. The second: Thana picks up a prospective victim in a bar and they make their way to the waterfront, where her victim recounts how he found himself cuckolded by his wife. Thana's gun misfires and he takes it away. Then points it at his own head and pulls the trigger. This sequence seems like a predecessor to Ferrara's later "Madmen in New Yawk" films like Bad Lieutenant and delves more deeply into an existential abyss than any Death Wish knock-off has any right. Also, it's interesting how Ferrara resists the urge to turn Thana into a gun-toting fetish figure. Oh, sure, she winds up decked out as such, but Ferrara intercuts these depictions with the fate of Thana's first "victim," which acts as a kind of subversion. We can't entirely embrace Thana as an angel of vengeance, because Ferrara shows us how profoundly damaged she really is. This movie is still waters. There are hidden depths. 312. Our local art house has been showing films from Weimar Germany this fall, and this weekend, they got to a doozie. G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929) is a portrait of the decadence one thinks of when one thinks of Weimar Germany, but it goes deeper than that. The arc of this film is a downward spiral into degradation, ending with the knife of Jack the Ripper (or, at least, his nearest cousin). At the center of it all is Louise Brooks as Lulu, who is part femme fatale, part naive innocent, and who is the walking, talking incarnation of the Golden Apple of Discord. She destroys everyone she touches. When I first saw Pandora's Box (mumble, mumble) years ago, I was awed by Brooks, and deeply impressed by the queer subtexts presented by the Alice Roberts character, one of the screen's first overtly lesbian characters, two elements I fixated on at the expense of every other element of the film. This is understandable, I guess, given that the image of Louise Brooks has left an indelible mark on everyone who's seen the film. Beyond these two elements, though, is a bitches brew of subtexts. It's easy to enter the film from a feminist point of view. Brooks is a free spirit, whose freedom is an affront. The film must destroy her, and it does. But a contrary viewpoint is that the film is an indictment of forces that destroy her, and the film must destroy them. And it does. It's possible to see the film as deeply cynical about the motivations of human beings: every relationship in the film is defined by a transaction. Relationships are commodities in this film. And when, at the end, Lulu forgoes a transaction and extends the hand of kindness, there's a knife waiting for her.

And in spite of all of that, there is still the image of Lulu, with her short bob and her impossibly lustrous bangs. However brutal the film becomes, it comes dazzlingly alive whenever Louise Brooks smiles at the camera. Frankly, the film would not work without her. With her, it's a stunner.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The October Horror Challenge: The Bitter Taste of Failure.

The stragglers from the October Challenge:

October 26:

300. Wicked Little Things (2006, directed by J. S. Cardone), in which a woman and her daughter are haunted by the children killed in a mining accident. Zombies. Cliches. This was supposed to have been directed by Tobe Hooper, which makes this a bitter pill, because I can totally see him going to town with this material. It's not awful as it is, but I'll be damned if I can remember much about it a week later.

The Thing (1982, directed by John Carpenter), for the second time in the last two months. My SO wanted to watch this for a date night. Who am I to argue? The family that watches horror movies together, slays together, I say.

October 27:

301. Arang (2006, directed by Sang-hoon Ahn), in which are conflated the Asian ghost story (complete with ghost girls with long black hair and bloody eyes), and the serial killer procedural. This is a mash-up. It's slick, but it's nothing you haven't seen before, only collected in one economy package.

302. Bloody Reunion (2006, directed by Dae-wung Lim) is like a Korean version of a giallo. It seems more like a giallo than a slasher movie, but that's splitting hairs, I guess. What this IS is violent. It's relatively elegant about it, too. Unfortunately, it pulls the rug out from under itself in the last act. It's a head-scratcher.

October 28:

303. The Mummy (1959, directed by Terence Fisher), which I think I've seen in fragments in the past. I've never watched it start to finish before, though. It's an energetic reworking of Universal's second wave of mummy movies, with Prince Kharis rather than the sinister Imhotep. Christopher Lee is largely wasted in the title role--he seems altogether too athletic for the part, actually--but Peter Cushing is always good.

304. I'm in the same boat with The Gorgon (1963, directed by Terence Fisher): I've seen fragments. I may even have seen the entire thing before, but never all at once. The Boys at Bray get the most out of Lee and Cushing here by having them both on the same side, rather than as opponents. The monster, however, is disappointing. Alas.

October 29:

305. Cinderella (2006, directed by Man-dae Bong) is a plastic surgery horror movie, rather than a dark fairy tale, and it really wants to be a drama rather than a horror movie. I don't usually mind dramas hiding behind the genre signifiers, but this is a movie where the two impulses work at cross purposes. The first part of the movie isn't bad, but it degenerates rapidly after the half-way point.

Final tally: 22 films, 19 new to me.

So this is a partial success. I beat my previous best new films by two movies. But I failed to get to 31. Suck.