THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT


Certain Hollywood comedies from the 60s seem to have been designed to work as sedatives.  Nothing much happens in them, the plot complications are so trivial that one never really worries about their resolution, and everyone involved in the production seems to be half-awake.

There’s something pleasant about the phenomenon, in a mindless sort of way — like watching golf on television while under the influence of a mild pain-killer.

The Glass Bottom Boat is such a film.  Doris Day and Rod Taylor have some minor misunderstandings on the road to romance.  A crowd of fine character actors involve themselves in the proceedings to one degree or another, with nothing much to do except display their amusing personae in the absence of any scripted wit.

The film was directed by Frank Tashlin, who had one of the wackiest imaginations in Hollywood at the time — but he confines his energy to a few tepid bits of slapstick.  Dom DeLuise puts his foot in a pie, then gets it stuck in a trashcan — then Doris gets her foot stuck in it, too, trying to help him out of the jam.  When they both jerk free, Dom falls into a fish pond.

Everyone seems to be going through the motions, waiting for lunch, or recovering from it.  Yet the tone of distance is so consistent, so assured, that you have to think it was deliberate — offering an anesthetic for anxiety duly indicated and professionally administered.  Arthur Godfey, the personification of the entertainer as somnambulist, makes his film debut here — his practiced nullity anchors the film in its odd nether world, its sleepiness.

I don’t know why it’s all so delightful, so soothing — but I don’t really know how codeine works, either.

Perhaps these films did for audiences of the 60s what Jared Hess’s films do for us today — tell us not to worry so much, tell us that everything, as improbable as it might sound, is going to be o. k.

Vote for Pedro.

THE SILENT KONG



Peter Jackson’s King Kong has one of the most extended and impressive silent (non-dialogue) passages I’ve ever seen in a sound film — the love story between Anne Darrow and Kong. It’s a real love story, too, complex and moving — sort of like a little silent film nestled inside what is otherwise a bloated andself-indulgent mess.

I thought the overall script, and the dialogue especially, was dreadful
— veering between clumsy thought-balloon character exposition and
failed wit. The long build-up to the arrival at the island in the
original film is masterful by comparison — breezy, suspenseful, funny
and entertaining. The build-up in the new film is just tiresome. About
twenty minutes into it I seriously considered walking out and waiting
to see the rest of the film on DVD someday — but that would have been
a mistake. The film really takes off with the brontosaurus stampede —
and when Darrow and the ape hook up, the film elevates itself to a
higher plane (as it were.)

Naomi Watts and the CG ape give star performances, particularly when they interact, and the battle with the T-Rexes is not only thrilling visually but exciting emotionally, because it drives the relationship between Darrow and Kong.

Finally, in the stunning, breathtaking — almost nauseating — vertigo of the
climax on the Empire State Building, the Darrow character is given a
chance to repay Kong in kind for his earlier heroics in her behalf.
It’s a genuine dramatic climax to this wondrous silent film within a
film.

It’s too much, I guess, to hope for an “audience cut” of the film on DVD
some day — one that eliminates most of the pre-island stuff and
concentrates on the real magical heart of the film, a brilliant new
take on an old theme . . . beauty and the beast.

APOCALYPTO

There’s something exhilarating about Mel Gibson’s total repudiation of
the conventional wisdom of Hollywood these days — which is to say, the
conventional wisdom of large corporations slowly and inexorably losing
touch with their audiences.


To make a 40-50 million-dollar film with your own money, in the Mayan language, with an
all-unknown and mostly inexperienced cast, is downright heroic — and someday Gibson is going to be numbered among the rebels and mavericks who finally brought the tottering empire of Hollywood to its knees.



Apocalypto isn’t going to be a mega-hit, the way The Passion Of the Christ
was.  Though it opened well, its word-of-mouth was terrible and it
will be lucky to earn back its cost, but it’s a fine film — not just
admirable from a conceptual point of view, but very well made, moving
and entertaining.

Gibson gets remarkable performances from his neophyte cast who, like
silent film actors, need to communicate with us primarily with their
bodies, faces and eyes.  Gibson has cast extraordinarily striking,
charismatic people in the main roles, but he’s also given them the
creative space and the confidence to wholly inhabit their characters,
to convey their essence to us.

I really don’t see how anyone could call the film racist, though some have — Gibson is an
easy mark for that kind of criticism these days.  But to set a whole movie inside a lost and alien culture demonstrates a kind of respect Hollywood, for all its political correctness, would never have the guts to back up with cold hard cash.  Gibson’s film is violent, and the tale he chooses to tell might be fairly accused of over-emphasizing the violence of a very violent society — but at the same time we’re not asked to condemn it in a patronizing sort of way, and we’re encouraged to sympathize deeply with many of its characters, without moral qualifications.



There are many bold and powerful images in the film, but there’s also a lot of quick
cutting of blurred shots that create a kind of synthetic excitement, quickening the pulse but taking us out of the environment of the story and into an editing room.


Still, it seems churlish to complain that the film isn’t a masterpiece, since it re-animates and throws us into the middle of a world we could never imagine as clearly through any other medium.  What we should complain about is that movies don’t do this sort of thing more often —
that it takes an eccentric filmmaker, working outside of all conventions, to make a film as ambitious as
Apocalypto.

THE BRIDE

“Some women possess an artificial nobility which is associated with a movement of the eye, a tilt of the head, a manner of deportment, and which goes no further.”

– La Bruyère

This surely is the nobility of Elsa Lanchester’s “bride” of
Frankenstein — a cinematic vision which lasts just a few minutes on
screen but instantly becomes iconic, unforgettable.  But is her
nobility truly artificial?  Is she truly artificial?  Pieced
together out of corpses she may be, but how can we be sure she doesn’t
have a new and authentic identity of her own?  How much further
might her nobility go — or have gone if Frankensten’s monster hadn’t
destroyed her moments after she was born?


There is a world of mystery hidden in these questions.

THE GREAT K & A TRAIN ROBBERY


I
caught “The Great K & A Train Robbery” with Tom Mix on the Western
Channel once in the wee hours of the morning. It was a pretty good
print, from the Killiam collection, with a piano score by William
Perry. It was the first Tom Mix feature I'd ever seen.



The film knocked me off my feet. It's a mad, delirious juggernaut of a movie — preposterous, breathtaking and brilliant.



It
has the sort of silliness of set-up and incident that one associates
with serials. Mix makes his entrance dangling from a rope sling up
under a sheer rock overhang a couple hundred feet in the air. He's
wearing a Lone Ranger mask — since he's working undercover as a
railroad detective. When the train robbers he's eavesdropping on
discover his presence he slides down the rope directly into the saddle
of his horse Tony and gallops away.



From
that moment on the pace rarely slackens — it's as though all the
action climaxes of a twelve-part serial have been strung together into
an hour-long feature, with just enough space in between to tell a very
simple story. And what action climaxes they are. Gasp-inducing stunts
on horses and moving trains, some of the most exciting and beautiful
running inserts in the history of Westerns — most of it shot in the
awesome landscape of Royal Gorge, Colorado and vicinity.

The
tone is lighthearted but never campy — the impeccable photography, the
rigor and daring of the stunts, and the frank virility of Mix himself
lend it all a kind of muscular gravity. Yet its speed and the
virtuosity of its photography and action staging give it a lyrical
quality, too — a lilt that is intoxicating.



We're a long way from the grit and grim morality of William S. Hart's Westerns. The tone is in fact closer to that of
a Buster Keaton silent feature, and very nearly as sublime.



There
are some disappointing lapses — a few cheesy-looking moving cycloramas
outside the train windows and behind Mix and leading lady Dorothy Dwan
as they ride double on Mix's horse . . . some lame ethnic humor
involving a black servant . . . an anti-climactic final round-up of the
bad guys in a cave with an underwater entrance (!), which is a real
let-down visually after the earlier confrontations on the hurtling
train.

But Mix and Tony make a lovely screen couple, Dwan is charming and energetic, the intertitles are witty — and the film
is filled with exquisite, unforgettable images.



It's superlative entertainment — one of the genuine miracles of silent cinema.



[The first two images above are from the
Silents Are Golden web site -- one of the great Internet resources for silent film.  Check it out!]

SENSACIONAL!


The
explosive color and conventional grotesquerie of pre-Columbian art in
Central America mixed with the mordant wit, violence and melancholy of
Spanish art gave Mexico a unique and vibrant visual culture which keeps
manifesting itself in ever-shifting forms — in the playful morbidity
of Jose Posada's 19th-Century popular prints, in posters from the
golden age of Mexican cinema (the 1940s and 50s), in the work of the
great 20th-Century Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, and now in the
bold visuals of Mexican filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso
Cuaron.

This
visual culture also hums along, sometimes magically, in the vernacular
art of Mexican street signs, posters, packaging labels and handbills. 
Unmitigated as these are by the academy or by corporate standards of
slickness and “good taste”, they offer on one level the best insights
into the essence of the Mexican visual imagination.

A
wonderful collection of Mexican street graphics has been published in
book form, called Sensacional!, and it's a real delight.  The arty
and/or academic texts included in the book cannot diminish the charm
and power of its images, which resist traditional (and even
post-modern) critical analysis.  You can find the book here:

Sensacional!

A
nice pendant to this book is
Cine Mexicano, a terrific collection of
vintage Mexican movie posters — similar in some ways to Hollywood
movie posters from the same era but inflected with a purely Mexican
sense of color, style and drama.  You can find it here:




Cine Mexicano

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

Vile, perverse, depraved, this film is nevertheless a 70s noir masterpiece.  In it, Sam Peckinpah indulges his nihilism and misogyny freely — and isn’t misogyny the ultimate form of nihilism? — and through the medium of his protagonist, brilliantly played by Warren Oates, feels sorry for himself in the bargain.  It’s like the later works of Hemingway — a study of alcoholic despair seen from the inside through the eyes of genius. It’s unsettling, fascinating, moving and infuriating all at the same time. The film is also partly a love song to the real Mexico, as it is in between the tourist destinations, and a riff on the romantic theme of Mexico as locus of the dark side of the American unconscious — a theme also found in the works of B. Traven and Malcom Lowry and Tennessee Williams, all of whom are referenced here.  It’s Peckinpah’s most personal film and maybe his best, too — a sick work of art but a work of art all the same, with an absolutely stunning performance by Isela Vega as the earthy whore-madonna and voice of reason the Oates character will not heed . . . until it’s too late to matter.

THE CHAPLIN ESSANAYS


Check out the three volumes of the Image DVD edition of the
Chaplin Essanays. It's really quite overwhelming. The presentation is
stunning, probably definitive, and the work, it goes without saying, is
beyond stunning.




Obviously
Chaplin was not working at his peak here, either as director or
performer. The images are rarely elegant, the continuity is often clunky
— but in a way these faults only serve to set off Chaplin's genius.
His person alone, his capacity to transform space seemingly by moving
the smallest muscle of his face or body, create riveting cinema by the
second. Even in the same frame with Ben Turpin, a physical comic of
great skill, Chaplin seems to inhabit a different universe of plastic
possibility. (And in the boxing match sequence of
The Champion, just
try and watch the other boxer — I mean just try.)




Perhaps
only Fred Astaire has demonstrated the possibilities of performer as
auteur in quite the same way, and Astaire relied on the formal
discipline of dance, lacking the range and depth and particularity of
Chaplin's inspired alter ego, the Little Fellow.




This
character is fully conceptualized in the Essanays, if not fully
developed. There is never a moment when Chaplin the artist leaves the
self-involved, primal, eccentric persona of his creation . . . with one
exception, of course — his extraordinary female impersonation in
A
Woman
. (Chaplin could have been one of the great leading ladies of the
screen, if he'd been so inclined.)




The
persona of the tramp is, as has often been said, a clown of
Shakespearean proportions, with what Harold Bloom would call an
inwardness that makes him as real as anyone we have ever met in the
flesh, and as unknowable, as unencompassable.




In
this creation alone the whole medium of movies is defined and justified
in a stroke. Chaplin embodies and crystallizes everything that movies,
and movies alone, can do — the aspect of it we can hardly talk about,
only marvel at. When the Little Fellow is onscreen, pure cinema
happens.




I would suggest that this set belongs in every civilized home — and certainly in the collection of anyone who cares about
the movies.




(Is it redundant to add that the stuff is really, really funny?)

THE LADIES MAN (1961)


Back
in the Sixties, during his most radical phase, Jean-Luc Godard said
that Jerry Lewis was the only director making progressive movies in
America. Lewis's work was so strange and subversive that even now it's
hard to assess it — though one can trace its influence clearly in the
work of Godard, Coppola, Scorsese, Wes Anderson and (perhaps
indirectly) Charlie Kauffman.
The Ladies Man, the second film he
directed, from 1961, is vintage Lewis — a discombobulating blend of
brilliant sight gags, hilarious vaudeville routines, dumb mugging,
cartoonish action and deeply surreal deconstructions of the Hollywood
studio style. Lewis doesn't make me laugh very often, but when he does,
I laugh really hard. What's important about his work, though, is its
radical assault on cinematic convention — which still seems brazen
and/or lunatic, depending on your point of view. You might not like his
work — you might even hate it — but if you love movies you need to
come to grips with it.

THE SILENT TITANIC


For intellectuals, the best way to appreciate James Cameron’s Titanic might be to imagine it as a silent film. In other words, start with its images and work backwards towards its literary structure, seeing how the latter serves the former, instead of the other way around.

Instead of criticizing Cameron’s screenplay for its clunky dialogue and melodramatic excess, try to think more clearly about what a screenplay is, or ought to be — a framework around which images can coalesce to tell a story quite beyond the range of words on a page.  It would be silly to try and appreciate Don Giovanni by analyzing Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto for the opera as a work of literary art. Better to start with what it served — the music of Mozart, and what that music achieved . . . a sublime evocation of transient sexual love, and one of the supreme masterpieces of lyrical theater.

All of Cameron’s primary effects reside in his images. The real climax of his story lies in old Rose’s eyes — the gaiety and adventure and peace they convey, Jack’s gift, earned by her faithfulness to him and to her promise. Cameron uses digital effects as eloquently as camera tricks have ever been used in a film to link old Rose to the period tale we think we’re watching — morphing from the young Rose’s eye to the old Rose’s eye, from Jack and Rose “flying” on the bow during the ship’s voyage to their ghosts lingering on the encrusted wreck at the bottom of the ocean.


Cameron has a gift for orchestrating movement on screen to create an almost hallucinatory sense of space within the individual frame, and an ability to preconceive digitally composited shots as though he were photographing the real thing from a seemingly inevitable perspective.

The vehicle for Cameron’s imagery in Titanic is, as it was so often in the silent era, unapologetic melodrama, a simple structure pitting irreconcilable forces against each other and creating suspense about the outcome of the collision — and less about the nature of the outcome than about its how and when. That is the source of the film’s narrative momentum, and of that alone — no one has ever experienced the plot of a melodrama as anything more than a ride. It’s the inflections of the tale delivered in the images that give the film its depth — that make us experience the crude conflict as interior emotion . . . just as we do with the crude conflicts summoned up in dreams to express complex psychic states.

Melodrama remains a potent artistic strategy, but it’s one lost on a modernist who has been trained to reject as “phony” anything that smacks too closely of the Victorian. Fourteen year-old girls, who don’t know what 19th-Century melodrama is, and thus don’t know that it is intellectually discredited, experience its power and expressiveness as forcefully as intellectuals of the Fifties experienced Brecht.

The good news for all intellectuals is that, with a little thought and study — and perhaps a little humility in the face of what you don’t know about the history of film, about melodrama, about antique but still wholly viable dramatic forms — it is possible to enjoy Titanic with your brain as well as your heart.

As artists of the Renaissance discovered, a backward glance at forgotten masters — like Griffith and Vidor, in this case — can sometimes revivify an art, and take it more surely into the future than an avant garde that has lost its way.

CARTOON MODERN

Above is a beautiful concept painting by an unidentified artist for the Disney cartoon Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom from 1953.  It’s done in a style now called “cartoon modern” that will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 50s, from animated cartoons, children’s book illustration and advertising art.

It’s hip again, and Amid Amidi has published a book on the subject
Cartoon Modern, from Chronicle Books.  Here’s a link to his blog
dedicated to the book, where the the image above was posted:


Cartoon Modern

The style is influencing contemporary gallery artists like Amanda
Visell — that’s her work below.  You can see more of it, and buy some,
on her web site:


Amanda Visell

TWO QUOTES ABOUT MOVIES


At the end of his life, Leo Tolstoy saw a moving picture show, and wrote this about the new medium:



“It
is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We writers shall
have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine.
A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I
can feel what is coming. But I rather like it. This swift change of
scene, this blending of emotion and experience — it is much better than
the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed.
It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by
before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The
camera has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.”

 

From Masculin Feminin, by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:



“It wasn't the film we dreamed; the film we carried in our hearts; the film we wanted to make and secretly wanted
to live.”

LOVING YOU



This film, has nothing — whatsoever — to recommend
it . . . except Elvis Presley in his prime and a bunch of decent early
Elvis songs.  Of course, that's enough.

The story, which riffs superficially on Elvis early
career, is contrived, the dialogue thuds along without even a whiff of
wit or believability, the photography is dull and the directing is
ham-handed.  But the young Elvis prowls through this wasteland of
mediocrity with an almost feral grace — as innocent as a panther, and almost as beautiful.

He
doesn't seem to realize himself the power his
combination of virility and sweetness projects, and that naivete is
part of his charm.  Unless you were there, and of a certain age, it's
probably impossible even to imagine the effect his persona had when it
appeared as if from nowhere in the middle of the Eisenhower years. 
America still hasn't gotten over it, and probably never will.  He's
become part of what it means to be American.

When you watch this film — Elvis's third, and first in
color — just sit back, endure the exposition, and wait for the miracle
to manifest itself . . . every time Elvis shows up on screen.

DEAD CHRISTMAS TREES

Las Vegas these days has a wretched air, like a
whipped cur, as it begins its pitiful capitulation to the neo-Puritan
culture
of Orange County.  The ghosts of the outlaw princes who founded the
place, who somehow kept its rebellious spirit alive well into the new
corporate era, recede on every hand, become more insubstantial, as
though unwilling to stick around and watch the glittering Granada they
conjured up out of nothing become exactly like the dreary places they
came
here to get away from.

In this mournful atmosphere I dragged my dried-out
Christmas tree down to the car and took it to the Christmas tree
recycling station at Sunset Park.  Hank Williams sang on the car's CD
player, mournfully.

But then on the drive home Rubber Soul kicked
in and
things looked more cheerful.  The tree will be ground up for mulch,
something new will grow out of it.

Not
here, where the soil is being
sterilized into a state less fertile than the surface of the desert
itself — but somewhere . . .