Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Back to school

In honor of the annual autumnal return to school and the end of the Big Summer Blockbusters, now is as good a time as any to crack out those pencils and erasers, and put on my thinking cap for Dr. Zachary Smith's End of the Summer Quiz over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. As always, Dennis has come up with some doozies for questions, with topics ranging from reflections on the summer to the failed promise of movie posters. Below are my answers.

Your favorite musical moment in a movie

There are just too many. But if I may show my true colors as a rank sentimentalist, the final sequence in Edward Scissorhands still stands out as one of the finest marriages of image and sound, narrative and music. It's tough to say what a musical moment is, because I'm inclined to think that some movies are more musically inclined than others and can be like pieces of music themselves. For someone like Tim Burton, the breadth of a moving image only takes shape with music, and the finale from Edward Scissorhands, as well as various other sequences of musical punctuation provide shape and scope to the affective climate he has created.

Ray Milland or Dana Andrews

Wish I knew more about both of these gentlemen, but I'd give the edge to Dana Andrews, if only for his memorable detective in Laura.

Favorite Sidney Lumet movie

Maybe this will answer the question...

"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it! You think you've merely stopped a business deal? That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars. It is the international system of currency which determines the vitality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little 21-inch screen and howl about America, and democracy. There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today."

Substitute some of those proper nouns with the corporate juggernauts of today, and this speech is downright prophetic... in a really scary way.

Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season:

How about Brendan Fraser starring in two (nearly) $100 million movies? I'm sure they're both deliciously bad, and I can't wait to see them! Hats off to him.

Since I haven't seen either film in the Fraser double feature, the biggest surprise among films I have seen is that neither Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or The Dark Knight were tops on my list of favorite blockbusters. (That honor goes to Hellboy II: The Golden Army.) Indiana Jones was more of a personal / childhood nostalgia experience than it was a movie, and while I liked it very much I don't think it was among the cream of the summer's crop. The bigger surprise is that The Dark Knight didn't ring true on any level. Unsurprisingly, I loved Wall-E. Finally, if Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World can be considered among the blockbuster crop for its limited run in July, than that would easily take the prize for best film of the summer.

Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth

Remember that head swing in Gilda? Enough said. Hayworth.

What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?

Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Stalag 17 is not among my favorite Billy Wilder pictures, but is worth seeing for William Holden's masterful performance alone. I guess I've seen so many prison break movies to really appreciate the film to which so many owe their existence.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona was the perfect movie to see at summer's end: breezy, gorgeous, tinged with feeling. Like it or not, any critic who wishes to assert that Woody Allen's desire or gift for filmmaking is becoming the broken record that Woody himself is so often called. Allen's observations about people and relationships are resonant (as usual), but what makes this movie special is that it is both painfully tragic but light as a feather. This is movie is about wounded souls, and Allen succeeds at straddling the line between tragedy and comedy.

Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

The Towering Inferno, if only for its massive scope and its great (but little-known) John Williams main theme. Though when it comes to skyscraper disaster movies, I much prefer Joe Dante's Gremlins 2.

What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?

Cutthroat Island. I'll admit I'm a big sucker for Drew Struzan's work, but this one is especially interesting in how it falsely advertises throwback adventure in the vein of The Sea Hawk. I can't blame Struzan for anything other than turning out some of his best work for a movie that simply can't live up to it. That's not to say I disliked Cutthroat Island at all. But it certainly doesn't live up to the promise of the poster, which promises just about the coolest pirate adventure ever. Renny Harlin has said this is his favorite movie poster. It's a shame he didn't live up to his end of the deal and make a movie deserving of such poster greatness.

On a side note: I'll bet that John Debney's magnificent score was inspired more by the poster than the movie.

Most pretentious movie ever

Most pretentious movie I liked: Dances With Wolves.

This movie is still maligned by just about every critic who didn't vote for the Oscars in 1990. Of course, Dances With Wolves not hold up under close ideological scrutiny, but I was staggered by Costner's vision of the American West. Of all the characters, Two Socks the wolf was most endearing. There is something so benevolent about the early sequences in which Costner and Two Socks are familiarized with one another, with John Barry's music echoing over brown plains stretching into the horizon. This may be shallow stuff, but it hits me hard.

Most pretentious movie I didn't like: The Usual Suspects.

I'm with you, Roger Ebert. I still do not understand why this movie is so beloved by many. It's confusing, uninteresting, and painfully overlong. It exists solely for the big twist, making it little more than a parlor trick. And the fact that director Bryan Singer plays it off so suavely (as if to say "Gotcha! Now aren't we cool?") is even more repulsive. Simply put, this movie is carried away with itself.

Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

From the moment I saw Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, I don't think I've ever felt more close to a movie. I likely never will again. It's not that I "relate" to the characters so much that the film captures the feelings (and subsequent implications) of human interaction and relationships so painfully, fleetingly, and delicately. I can't even describe how it does it. No amount of discussion about performances or shot lengths can explain this movie or sum up why it's good. For me, Lost In Translation is the perfect expression of humanity, from introspective explorations of loneliness to the benign and transient feeling of connecting with another person.

Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo


Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?

Nothing beats it a tall, cold Coke. As for the worst, anything I eat too much of and then feel sick while watching the movie.

Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?

Yes! But it's only Herzog's second best jungle movie starring Klaus Kinski. Much like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, this film is a hypnotic fever dream, both a celebration and revulsion of obsession and Man's awkward relationship with technology, nature, and fellow Man.

Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?

Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., Henri Clouzot's Wages of Fear, and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These movies fully showcase the wonderment of cinema in very different capacities, exhibiting the range and the perpetually expanding horizon that one can experience in cinema. The series could be called "Movement, narrative, and affect."

Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.

Ahmad Razvi in Man Push Cart. Of course, you could say that not much was asked of Ahmad Razvi in portraying an emotionally guarded New York city street vendor, but this performance is among my very favorites in recent memory. The movie reminds me of Lost In Translation in how it so pointedly observes its central characters simply existing in the world around them. The performances may be restrained, but Razvi's in particular is deft and mature.

2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated

Iron Man. Conventional wisdom would say The Dark Knight, but at least that film had a small, but vocal crowd of detractors. Very few critics were bold enough to come out against the more harmless and less incisive Iron Man, a film whose politics are curiously irresponsible. Jon Favreau is an excellent craftsman; he lives for this stuff. But he is failed by a pedantic and condescending script. There is very little here.

2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

My Blueberry Nights. Please allow me to quote my favorite piece of criticism this year, Matt Zoller Seitz's review of Wong War-Kai's underrated gem. No words I write could hold a candle to the planes Matt reaches here. Poetic criticism for a poetic film:

"There's no sense pretending that My Blueberry Nights is a towering addition to Wong's filmography. The stakes are quite low throughout, and the movie's pace is as boozy-meandering as the tempo of its soundtrack selections. (Cooder's instrumental tracks recall his work on Wenders' melancholy, Sam Shepard-scripted road movie Paris, Texas.) Jones is a stunning camera subject and never less than likable, but she lacks the technique to suggest a complex interior life. Law is, as usual, gorgeous and charming but not especially exciting. Weisz's performance is a touch shrill, her "southern" accent a botch; she only rallies during Sue Lynn's confession. Portman is livelier here than she's been in some time -- the character's brassiness liberates her -- but the role still doesn't quite seem to fit. (Was it written with an older actress in mind?) Of the major players, only Strathairn makes a deep impression; few actors are better at playing men coming to terms with failure. Yet if you're willing to ease into Wong's mindset -- that of a barfly who's in such a good mood that he doesn't care what he's drinking or what's on the jukebox or how many hours are left till closing time -- none of the aforementioned flaws feel like flaws. My Blueberry Nights seems to be unfolding in a world of perpetual night -- one in which the darkness is illuminating. It's an exploration of interiors, geographical and emotional, and it seems acutely alive -- as if the movie itself is a luminous being that has seen the world and survived heartbreak and resolved to savor each remaining second of its existence, however long or short it may be."

Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

Stylistically, that's tough to say. There are so many filmmakers stretching the capacity of film, from redefining compositional conventions to re-calibrating the notion of "Film as Narrative." Where we still need to make great strides is in overcoming the commercial censorship of cinematic representations of sexuality. Unfortunately, pornography has staked a claim on visualizations of sexuality, which has certain implications for what it means to visually represent sexuality in cinematic terms. Movies have been pushing the envelope for years, challenging the standards and chipping away at the censorship tower. Recently, John Cameron Mitchell made a bold film called Shortbus, which was essentially an attempt at making an artful movie about sex. It succeeded on many symbolic levels -- Mitchell himself has described the film as a statement of rage and protest for having to endure last seven to eight years of the Bush administration. But the tower still remains and is as powerful now as ever, and my hope is that more filmmakers seize on the opportunities presented by the shifting conditions of digital culture.

What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?

Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. No screenwriter in recent memory is as creative as Kaufman. The Spike Jonze two-punch of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation is arguably the most impressive tandem of screenplays in contemporary American movies. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't too far behind, either. I'm really looking forward to what he'll do with a camera.

What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?

Alfred Hitchcock. Call me a traditionalist, but I don't think there is a more impressive filmmaking resume than the one he has put together between the 1930's and 1970's. It's now trendy to like Hitch, but there is a dangerous tendency to reduce his films to a matter of flashy style and surface detail. For me, Hitchcock has always represented much more; even a great deal of his throwaway films took us to some kind of void. Seeing his style develop over time is a real treat, with his images become more sublime and subtle as he aged. He gave us a brief glimpse of what he might do without the bounds of censorship in Frenzy, but not my mind is only left to wonder.

What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?

Rob Reiner. If he hadn't shown so much promise in the 80's (e,g. The Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap, etc.), I wouldn't be so offended by the atrocities against filmmaking he has been committing for the better part of 15 years.


Anderson said...

Reading your blog is always such a delight. Maybe because of the fact that you don't write very often, when there is a new post we know we're in for a treat. I love this questionnaire - perhaps I'll do one myself in my blog.

Your texts are great (your post about Salman Rushdie is still one of the best things I've ever read on the web).

Even disagreeing with you (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) or being amazed at your writing (I loved what you said about INTO THE WILD), there's no denial your blog is unmissable.

Greetings from Brazil.:-)

J. Porath said...

Synecdoche is one of the most heartening films I've seen recently. I thought I had a handle on Kaufman....but this one challenged me more than any of his other films. I found it a bit indecipherable towards the end....but it's one hell of a movie. It hasn't left me since I saw it two months ago. Special kudon to Kaufman for realizing the power of score, and letting Jon Brion have a hugely important role in trying the threads of thought together musically.

I'm totally with you on Fitzcarraldo, Dances With Wolves, Iron Man and Rob Reiner, though I do disagree on The Usual Suspects...I think it's such an elegantly directed, shot, scored and acted film, that I am willing to give it the benefit fo the doubt. One can say the ending nullifies a lot of the film...but I am willing to look at it as a Rashomon-like comment on story-telling, even if it is only in it's tentative and relatively apathetic way(dishonest might also be true, but I think the ending is brilliant cinema, even if it fails on any narrative level).
Thanks for bringing the quiz to our attention! I love testing myself on film-related matters (and lists are so goddamn boring and useless).

Ted Pigeon said...

anderson: Thanks very much for the comments. Forgive me for my late response. I've been busy to say the least, and I hadn't even noticed that there were any comments for this post. It's been a while since I've seen The Usual Suspects; maybe I'll give it another shot.

j.: Ok, now I really want to see Synecdoche. I recently revisited Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (on television), another Kaufmann-scripted film that despite its strangeness is uncharacteristically moving.

I'm also really glad he enlisted Jon Brion for the music for Synecdoche; he seems to "get" Kaufmann's affective sensibilities.