Saturday, August 28, 2010

Giant (1956) Directed by George Stevens

I think I should discuss Elizabeth Taylor now because she is amazing. She has acted in many movies that we have reviewed here, but I have failed to mention her in any meaningful way. Possibly her presence leaves such an impression on me that I dare not go there. Whether she is playing Cleopatra, the mad girl in Suddenly Last Summer or the rebellious rich wife in Giant, she is always mostly Elizabeth Taylor – and that's the attraction.

There is something importantly different about Taylor's on-screen presence compared to Marilyn Monroe's sensuality (I am making this comparison because to me, there is also something similar). My feeling is it's in the consciousness of the actor. Taylor has a perfectly beautiful face with glittering eyes, a curvy sensual body surrounded by an air of playful but intelligent emotion. Everything about her seems intentional, her emotions easily available to her expression, her sensuality in her conscious use. The impact and power are striking. Taylor looks divine, but her characters usually also seem like people with dirt in their hands, opinions in their heads – they live.

In other words, Elizabeth Taylor is an actress with scope. In Giant she plays Leslie. We see her from the moment she falls in love with her husband Bick (a rich Texas landowner) and follow her through her life until her children have grown up (and there is nothing more to say?). The film attempts to cover such a long period of time that somewhere along the line we lose the focus on character development, but in the first half of the film Taylor is truly in the center of the story. She questions gender roles and the racist traditions of her new home state, she loves her husband but is not afraid to disagree and disobey him. But Leslie is a confusing character, her rebellion seems to lead to nowhere specific during the course of the film. I think that her weakness comes from an unsatisfying script.

I guess I should mention James Dean too. There, I just did. He was there – or was he?


I've always found it fascinating that for many years the upper classes or the rich would often be the main protagonists in the movies. And of course, often in this scenario, you'll find a poor character who makes it rich and becomes the bad guy. What is that feeling in us that wants to root for or be remotely interested in the privileged? Is it to gaze on what we can't have, or is it to dream? Royalty at one stage seemed to be the role models of the day. Giant was one of the last pictures of this type.

Giant is the story of a filthy rich Texan family, covering many years and generations. The Benedict family come across as spoiled, racist, ignorant and yes, stupid, stupid stupid. Rock Hudson plays 'Bick' Benedict (not as good as his roles for Douglas Sirk) who is a rancher who owns half a million acres. Bick goes to buy a horse in Washington and comes back with the stallion and Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie) as his wife. She's smart and independent (and impossibly rich), he's a big Texan Dumbo. We then follow their relationship and their growing  family over many years. Bick and Leslie are forever at loggerheads but still in love despite their differences. The imperialist arrogance simply drips of the screen. So, this film's attitudes and portrayal of racism is pretty dated. But despite the obnoxious vulgarity, Giant is a lumbering classic.

Nowadays the picture is probably remembered for being James Dean's last film (he died on the day he finished shooting his last scene). Dean plays Jett Rink, a poor cowhand who strikes it rich with oil and becomes a notorious playboy, and Bick's greatest enemy. Dean is pretty rubbish as Rink, especially when portraying him as an old washed up alcoholic. But his screen presence alone and his scenes with Taylor add the energy that dispels some of the lethargy elsewhere. He also looks incredible in the early scenes, pure sexual magnetism. Mind you, his Texan drawl is terrible (you might need the sub titles for his lines!)

So Giant despite its many faults, is one of the last credible American epic Westerns.  Stevens' picture looks amazing, Taylor is up to the task, great cameos from a young Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo insert quality. It's a forerunner of Dallas, a neighbor to Gone With The Wind. Even recent pictures like There Will Be Blood owe something to Giant. This hulk of a dinosaur picture can still hold you in its grasp. As to why? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Requiem for a Dream (2000) Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The year 2000 seems far away. I turned 18, sat in a bar drinking the one glass of something I could afford for hours on end. I had bought my first pair of jeans in the States just before the new Millenium. Figure hugging spaghetti-shoulder tops were in, black leather pants were in, as well as tiaras and boots with square toes. The roof of the twin towers were something you could visit. I was dreaming a lot.

How innocent. Requiem for a Dream seems dated now in the same way as me being 18 does. Who wants to go back to that? Aronofsky must have been older than me then, but he certainly seemed to share my teenage perspective on the seriousness of life. The absolute pretentious grimness of very average people.

Requeim for a Dream drags you down for no apparent reason. It sits somewhere between Sid & Nancy and the blasé attitude that pervades party-drug culture today. It is as if Aronofsky is endlessly worried for the lonely mother and the sinking son, so much so that he forgot to portray multi-faceted characters and ended up with cardboard cut-outs for some educational purpose. Kinda like when a police man came to visit my class in 1995 and he told us that drugs are dangerous.

I've decided to never watch this film again. Since the year 2000 the world's gotten more complicated and yet, I can see some humor in it too.


It's one of those fascinating things, but drug users in Hollywood pictures are always tremendously handsome, pretty and have very good skin. I have come across a few junkies in my time. They always look rough. After repeated drug use they look really ill. Not in this film. I say Hollywood because Requiem for a Dream is far more a Hollywood picture, rather than some indie obscurity dealing with any sense of reality. I mean this in an aesthetic way, the look of this film is purposely doctored. Aronofsky was young, and the juvenile nature of his drug picture seems not only dated, but 10 years on,  suffers from that deadly concoction of the 90's and the post-Fight Club picture variety.

Yes, this film deals with addiction. On many levels. It's not just street drug addiction, but prescribed drugs, consumerism, TV excess, prostitution,  you name it, Aronofsky has a go. Requiem for a Dream is based on Hubert Selby Jr's novel. Selby Jr co-writes the script with Aronofsky. Selby Jr has the NY street notoriety thanks to Last Exit To Brooklyn, but one always feels he's a second rate William Burroughs. I just cant get over Selby Jr dealing with a script that now seems so contrived and cliched.

Fast picture editing and split screen is how Aronofsky tries to create a rhythm for this picture, but it only makes the picture more disjointed. The biggest problem is characterization. Again, these people are hard to feel anything for. Even Ellen Burstyn as Sara the mum addicted to diet pills and quiz shows, is shallow and cliched. As for Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly as the drug addicted couple always looking for a fix,  it's endless 1000 yard stares and slack jawed expressions for the camera. One can't help watching Requiem for a Dream and think Leto is just auditioning for his crappy rock band videos. The thought of  30 Seconds To Mars (the name is a big clue) hangs over this picture in 2010.

So, time can be cruel. Watching this 10 years ago, it seemed powerful and deep. Its message, hey, modern life is rubbish and drugs are bad for you, comes from a very naive perspective. Aronofsky tries to conceal the lack of any real insight with camera tricks and effects which nowadays seem trite and cheap. Aronofsky followed this with the ridiculous The Fountain and the much liked The Wrestler. Is he a flash in the pan? Right now,  Requiem for a Dream feels like overrated twaddle masquerading as profound cinema.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Peeping Tom (1960) Directed by Michael Powell

There is a stark lesson to be learned from Peeping Tom. In 2010, stark conservatism is prevalent, it's in the air, especially in the arts. You have to dig deeper to find statements that cause you to think, that question the way we look at things or feel. Peeping Tom is a psychological horror film on one level. It deals with voyeurism and child abuse. It looks at our relationship with sexual imagery. It's also a film about cinema. It's very dark and nasty in attitude, it mixes innocence with dreamlike imagery and crudeness with cruelty. In 1960 (and maybe even in 2010),  its themes were too much for public and critics alike. The film disappeared. The picture became a cult of seediness, one you must see. A myth surrounded the picture. Peeping Tom ruined Powell's career. This is a shame in itself, Powell, along with Emeric Pressburger made some of the greatest films I've ever seen : The Red Shoes, The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, A Matter Of Life & Death, Black Narcissus.

Powell's world was always luridly colorful, and this is especially the case with Peeping Tom. This is not some realistic world, although the film deals with adult themes, Powell is presenting us with something that looks artificial. Mark (Carl Boehm) is addicted to filming everything he sees. This obsession with the camera (and with cinema itself?) is combined with a need for Mark to gauge how people react to fear. The obsession turns to murder as Mark captures the fear on his victims face on camera before he murders them. The plot is rudimentary. Hitchcock lurks in the shadows of Peeping Tom, even though his own later picture,  Frenzy owes a lot to this film.

Eventually Peeping Tom was rediscovered in the late 70's (mainly down to Martin Scorsese's enthusiasm for the picture). It's now heralded as one of the greatest British films ever. Too late for Powell, his career remained in limbo. It's too simplistic to call this a horror picture, there is so much more on offer. In our safe, self satisfied lives, we need to be shaken, woken up. Peeping Tom is an alarm clock going off in the head. It's not a comfortable awakening, but it is essential.

Peeping Tom was much better than Blow-Up.
Even though it is perfectly stylized, Peeping Tom has a juicy story to tell and enough rounded characters who come alive. This is cinema transforming reality, whereas Blow-Up was so wanting to capture a reality it seemed frozen.

Something happens to me when I  am photographed or captured on film. If I am aware of it happening my relationship to that moment changes. I know that something of me will be frozen forever to that situation. It is a loss of control, a shedding of me, a surrendering to never actually seeing me. If the person 'shooting' me wants to, it is very easy to make me feel awful, even frightened. The power is in the eyes behind the camera lens.

Much of the mundane everyday human life constitutes of actions that require privacy. Or at least they necessitate a sense of being unwatched. City life could be defined by the close proximity to others accompanied by a contract of ignoring this continual closeness.

A peeping tom breaks these unannounced contracts and intrudes into every room, moment and movement of people. In the movie, Mark has inherited his illness from his father (who used to film his son's life every moment as a scientific study). A victim who has never known privacy and therefore has not had a chance to own and construct himself, has no other option than to objectify others through his camera lens.

I wonder if the upcoming Facebook movie will ponder on any of these themes. In my opinion Facebook works in two ways: it provides the illusion that we are defining our image and what we give out (thus gaining control back to the object), while at the same time it makes us all peeping toms.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Taboos. This picture deals with a few. Mental illness and permissive sex. Even in 2010 we struggle with the concept of insanity, the crumbling of the mind. It's as if it couldn't happen to you, yet we all do irrational things that in certain circumstances could be deemed insane. We still don't discuss the concept of insanity, is it fear for our own?  Of course, Suddenly, Last Summer is Tennessee Williams material, so secret homosexuality and incest between a mother and son are also up for examination. What's so interesting about Mankiewicz's film is how it tackles these issues head on, yet in subtle ways as to avoid the glare of the then strict US sensor.

Elizabeth Taylor plays the sexually charged Catherine Holly who witnessed the death of cousin Sebastian whilst on vacation last summer. Catherine went seemingly insane due to Sebastian's demise, yet can't really recall what happened. Eccentric socialite mother to Sebastian, Violet (Katharine Hepburn) wants Catherine lobotomized by the good Doctor Cukrowicz (played by an obviously struggling Montgomery Clift). Catherine is spreading indecent suggestions about Sebastian's sudden death, Violet wants to stop the rumors.

Hepburn and Taylor rip into the delicious script by Williams (co-written for the screen by the trusted Gore Vidal). It's terrific watching Hepburn and Taylor at the top of their respective games. Despite Clift's obvious frailty, he delivers the requisite sympathy as the Doctor who pieces together what really happened last summer. Mankiewicz uses long takes, and lets the acting and the script work its magic. At times, Suddenly, Last Summer seems too stilted, yet when the story unfolds of rough trade in far off places, cannibalistic savagery and a mothers over bearing, unnatural love, Suddenly, Last Summer comes alive through its storytelling. This is an intelligent film which requires some patience but offers ample reward for sticking with it. And Taylor's white swimsuit has become a thing of legend.

The script for Suddenly Last Summer is filled with such wonderful sentences that we have to stop watching a couple of times so I can write notes down in my black book. It's Tennessee Williams again.
Madness and homosexuality with ample animal metaphors – certainly lots of inspiration to write a song about.

Katharine Hepburn plays a rich mother, Violet, who has lost her son Sebastian a summer ago and is now convinced that her niece is to blame on the death. The mother lives in a dream-like house with a garden full of Amazonian plants, carnivorous flowers and vultures on the branches of ancient trees. When she introduces the garden to a visitor she says: "My son's garden is very unusual: like the dawn of creation." (imagine the Hepburn accent, the dramatic pronunciation)

Violet associates Sebastian with a god-like creativity and control. She is clearly in love with her son in a completely possessive, stifling manner. The odd surroundings and Violet's overly passionate monologue about her son suggest that madness actually lives under her roof instead of the accused niece's.

Elizabeth Taylor plays the niece, Catherine. Her role is less imaginative because we see immediately that she is not crazy but traumatized. Her main function is to be bate, outside and inside the film. The lobotomy doctor, Montgomery Clift, falls for her in their first scene and his job is to prove her sanity by getting her to remember what really happened on the day that Sebastian died in Spain.

In the end Catherine (why is the 'mad girl' in the attic always Cathy?) is put in front of her relatives and doctors drugged and hypnotized by the serious doctor (Clift) and she can finally remember the truth.
It is an exhilarating scene to watch: the wrongly accused and misunderstood woman unburdening her perspective while the others can only listen. Her story changes the position of the women; now Violet is mad as she ascends back upstairs in her elevator talking to the doctor as if he was her son, Catherine is sane and she goes home with the doc.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Five Easy Pieces (1970) Directed by Bob Rafelson

Even after a third viewing of Five Easy Pieces I am left with such a strong emotional impact that I feel uncertain about the sense of dissecting the film in words. A song might be a more appropriate review.
But I haven't written that song just yet. Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man became the walking-on-stage song for my last tour because of its significance in the movie.

Now that I think of it, there was some of Robert (Jack Nicholson) on Better Than Wages (my latest album). And there is some of Robert still lingering in my life. The refusal to settle for anything. To use the verb is too much of a compromise. Now I am talking in an entirely internal way. But it is important anyhow.

No, I have not disappeared, left my relatives, my love, my home, my class. I have not moved on in that rootless nameless manner. I do not have it in me to wear the turtle neck, pass out on the peer, fuck my brother's lover, while always looking down on people and institutions. I am too nice and conventional for that stuff. In the end it is not creative (productive?) to be like Robert, although it may be so to feel like him sometimes.

This time around the pivotal scene for me was when Catherine (Susan Anspach) and Robert sit by the ocean after their short affair is over and Robert is about to leave his home again. He is still asking her to leave with him, but she has no interest to because she can see through him. She asks: If you do not love yourself, anyone or anything, how could you ask for love?

One day in Alaska he probably asked for love. But that would have not made for such a poetic film. It may be a song though.

What do we want? Ultimately, we can think we know what we want, but how well do we know ourselves? Is what we want distorted by outside pressures? Get a job, start a band, have kids, get married, find God, travel and so on. What do these things actually add up to if you don't know yourself or are not honest with yourself? Everything we are taught, every scrap of information we receive is handed down. What individual feeling are our actions based on? What makes Jack Nicholson's Bobby in Five Easy Pieces so appealing after all these years is his searching for some kind of meaning to existence, not knowing any answers and lashing out at everything and everybody. It's an honest reaction, and it gives Rafelson's picture a genuine questioning rebellion.

When I first saw Five Easy Pieces sometime in the mid 80's it was a forgotten picture. Born out of the impact of the New Hollywood and made in the wake of the influential yet overrated Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces still stands up because it avoids sentimentality, offers no answers, ignores the obvious hippy references which blight so many pictures from this era and at it's heart has probably the greatest Nicholson performance. If Jack had not become such a big star in the 70's due to sterling work in films like One Flew Over The Cukoos Nest, Chinatown and The Shining, we might have got some more interesting characters like his Robert Dupea. This is one of the great anti-establishment performances. The fact that his character is such a shit  makes his Dupea even more appealing.

Five Easy Pieces improves with every viewing, and nowadays is rightly heralded as a major film. It's one of my favorites. Rafelson collaborated a few more times with Nicholson, with The King Of Marvin Gardens from 1972 almost equaling Five Easy Pieces, a picture which maybe gives us an idea of what happened to Dupea a couple of years down the road. He gave up fighting against everything and got depressed. He got worn down. He settled for emptiness.

Five Easy Pieces is being celebrated this year for being 40 years old. If you have not seen this, search it out. It's not life affirming, but the questions it asks are worth considering.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Looking for Eric (2009) Directed by Ken Loach

I thought that Looking for Eric would be a football film with existential tendencies. It turned out to be a feel-good movie about a depressed man and how he finds his joie de vivre again. Eric Cantona plays himself; in the film he exists in the main character Eric's imagination giving him courage and advice at difficult times.

Cantona is everything that Eric is not: he is suave, handsome, French, famous, courageous, in tune with his emotions and he is a hero in England. Eric is a depressive postman. He has failed in two marriages, his step-sons are involved in dangerous criminal circles, he is still in love with his first wife whom he left with a baby some twenty years earlier.

Yet, life turns out to be good in this comforting film. I am grateful to the English movie making tradition which combines a realistic portrayl of the mundane everyday struggles (that come with the class system) and the belief that happiness is still around the corner. Mike Leigh is another director with this perspective.

Cantona. It's easy to suggest that the French genius made Manchester United remotely likeable during the mid 90's. Man U had never been that loveable since their 60's heyday. Eric Cantona was the reason. The arrogance, the skill and the poetry, Eric was a footballer we'd never encountered before. Yes, he did his talking on the pitch, but with upturned color and chest out this bear of a man did a lot for English football. For bad or worse the current popularity of the so called "best league in the world" was kick started by the Frenchman's time at United.

Loach's film cleverly uses the mythology surrounding Cantona to create a feel good picture which, in typical Loach manner, still focuses on the working class. Yes, this is funny at times, attempts some social comment at others, but don't let that sidetrack you. It's about Cantona and his power through football to elevate us. Who knows if Eric is a good actor, his main occupation since he hung up his boots? The thing here is that Looking For Eric comes alive when Cantona is on the screen. He's not on the screen enough here, which is a shame.

You don't need to understand football per se. to get a grip on Looking For Eric. But you do have to understand something about the thrill of the game, why it's the only sport that really matters. It's not an overstatement to suggest forget war, forget the arts, forget politics, forget everything. There is only Football. Loach's film understands this. If you don't understand this, then you know nothing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Duellists (1977) Direceted by Ridley Scott

I once got into a fight at school. I was 13 or 14 years old, and a kid in the year above me kept picking on me, so one day we just started fighting. It was one of those crowd forming fights. The other guy was bigger than me and had obviously done this kind of fighting thing before. He kept landing punches on my head and I seem to remember not throwing any but just standing with my guard up. It seemed to last forever but I thought it important not to back down. Some prehistoric instinct told me if I stood up to this pummeling I would acquire some standing as someone who didn't go down easily. Eventually a teacher came and broke it up. The crowd dispersed and I was made to shake hands with my aggressor. The bully never picked on me again and I was deemed someone who doesn't go down easily and was never picked on again. Amongst the hard boys I'd crossed some weird line of idiotic honor because I'd stood my ground.

It's this weird sense of macho honor that is the focus of Scotts' first film The Duellists. Set during Napoleon's era, two French army officers begin a duelling contest over many years and different countries. Neither man really remembers the cause of the duel. The mysterious Feraud (Harvey Keitel) persists with the duel against D'Hubert as if it's his life long mission. His character is kept thin, his weird insistence on honor  his only trait. D'Hubert, played by the excellent Keith Carradine is the focus of the picture and the protagonist whose view of the various duels we are presented with. For D'Hubert it is insanity to keep having these life threatening duels, yet that weird concept of honor keeps forcing him to go through with it.

The Duellists is an eccentric film. It shows that from the off Scott had an eye and the film is breathtaking in its beauty. The narrative is bare. Carradine has been an underused presence in pictures. Keitel just flexes his mustache.The likes of Robert Stephens, Edward Fox, Albert Finney and Diana Quick have small supporting roles. There is not much point to this film, yet it's strangely entertaining, these soldiers being the Rock Stars of their day. They strut their stuff in Scott's film. The Duellists is a  slight but rewarding pleasure.

The question of honor appears to be a question of identity. Nick did not look like the same person I have gotten to know when I went to pick him up from surgery yesterday. He was dressed in hospital clothes and he couldn't walk properly. He said he had been stripped from honor. I think he may have been stripped bare from the markers of his identity. But then he made a joke. The same old stuff. I remembered who I was sitting with.

To Feraud (Keitel) duelling was all he had to identify himself with. His honor came from winning. At the end of The Duellists Feraud stands gazing into a sunrise over a flooding river. His life has been spared by the noble D'Hubert (Carradine) who chose to not shoot him in a pistol fight. D'Hubert's condition on saving his life was that from then on Feraud would respect D'Hubert's notion of honor. This ended the duel and rendered Feraud without a token to identify himself by.

Maybe he walked down from the cliff towards the sunrise and began to live life with new defining characteristics; that's what D'Hubert did when he married his raven haired wife and gave up being a soldier. Or maybe he disappeared.

For Nick it has been a pretty rapid return to his old defining characteristics: once he could urinate, the nurse gave him the OK to get dressed in his own green shirt and gray courduroy pants, then a ciggie outside the hospital. Today we are going to walk around our apartment building. BTW: The whole duelling business I found moronic.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Margot at the Wedding (2007) Directed by Noah Baumbach

I've never got the attraction of Botox. It seems that women (and men) of any age indulge in a little exaggeration of facial and body parts. The results to me usually looks like someone's gone 10 rounds with Muhammad Ali. Puffy eyes and cheeks, cartoonist lips often out of proportion to the face. It seems the preserve of Hollywood actresses who turn 40 that someone persuades them that a bit of Botox will make them look younger and sexier. This is my unending feeling towards Nicole Kidman nowadays. It seems in the last couple of years she's fallen under the Botox spell. She certainly was pumped full of the stuff in Nine. Is my disappointment in Kidman down to the fact that she has been forging a career as a serious actress, obviously talented, yet now she falls into the vain business of just looking great for the camera? Is Kidman not above such vanities?

Baumbach is in awe of Kidman in Margot At The Wedding, possibly in her last pre-Botox movie, she looks beautiful. Unfortunately Baumbach gives Kidman's Margot such an unpleasant air we never care for her uptight character. She's also outshone in the picture by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black who's characters seem far more interesting and ultimately dysfunctional. I'm a fan of Baumbach and enjoyed his The Squid And The Whale picture a lot. Margot At The Wedding has similar themes of family strains yet this time round he can't decide weather this walks the type-rope of comedy or serious drama. It's a picture that doesn't add up to much and doesn't convince in either genre of comedy or drama.

Kidman's Margot is the center of the picture but my preconceptions of Kidman the person dominates my view of her Margot. I often feel a certain contrived feeling from her which I cant shake. Is she in Margot At The Wedding to show us she can do indie movies? Baumbach should have given Kidman more, instead he just gives us (and her) an unsympathetic bumble of nerves. Margot At The Wedding never gets over this. There are some great scenes in this film and good performances, but overall it's hard to care for this picture. All you can say at the end is "So What?"

Writing about and depicting ordinary lives of women is still an undertaking with large risks, as The Guardian reminds us today.  The threat comes from reality here, because when women tell the truth we call it confessionalism. Neat.

Margot At The Wedding escapes this little feminine problem because it was written and directed by a man. Noah Baumbach. (Nick said that he probably fucked all his leading ladies. I said: for that he would be too shy.) Maybe it is because this film really should work like a lived and experienced confession that Noah's view into Margot and Pauline isn't entirely deep. We can see that these girls were fucked up from the start, that they are almost cool, lefty, creative and hurt, but we see this all from the outside as if from the perspective of a little admiring brother.

In the end the women in this film appear so distant, unfair, selfish and nondescript that the only sympathetic characters are the men. Jack Black plays an endlessly cynical yet loving Malcolm and the son of Margot (Nicole Kidman) is also a more rounded character than the women.

But I know this was supposed to be a movie about Margot and her sister.

Margot writes fiction, but she uses her family's life as a source for her stories. To people around her this seems unfair. Pauline thinks it is stealing. A better version of this dilemma is presented by Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).